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Chaos fic: Burned (2/2)

November 12th, 2014 (08:43 pm)

feeling: mischievous

Post split for LJ. Part one is here.


Casey didn’t rouse, and Billy couldn’t stop. He hoisted the other man over his shoulders, trembling under the weight but one discomfort more seemed no matter. Billy was no longer certain of anything resembling time. In fact, he was fairly confident that all his common sense had left him. He felt vaguely irrational, and the fact that he was aware of that was his only tie to sanity whatsoever. It meant that he wasn’t out of this yet.

Fate could abuse him as it saw fit, but he wasn’t dead yet.

More importantly, neither was Casey. If it had just been Billy, it might have been a mite easier to just let go. What would have been the point anyway? Billy had gone and made a mess again; no one would be surprised.

But Casey--

It wasn’t fair to Casey.

Billy couldn’t fancy himself as much of a hero these days, but he wouldn’t quit this time. Loyalty, he had called it.


Outdated, pointless ideals. Silly things coming from a disgraced man. But then, what choice did he have?

Lay here and condemn them both to death?

Or get up and give them a fighting chance?

He knew what Casey would pick, and it was Billy’s fault that he wasn’t able to at the moment.

Most people wouldn’t die for a lost cause.

But Billy Collins had already proved that he wasn’t most people.


The weight was heavy.

Casey. The sun.

All the years of failures, all the missions he didn’t finish as well as he could have. The people he’d disappointed, the lives he should have saved.

Billy didn’t know which.

He stumbled forward; it didn’t matter which.

It didn’t matter.


It was hard to see, the light glinting off the sand. His feet seemed to sink farther in with every step and lifting himself back out to keep going was a perilous and draining task.

He was slipping, bit by bit. His brow was dry, and his skin was starting to crack. There was no moisture left on his tongue, and he felt desperate enough that he entertained the notion of eating the sand.

That was too much effort, though.

He had to keep walking.

He had to keep going.

He had to.


He didn’t realize he was on his knees until Casey’s weight was tipping him forward. He blinked rapidly, trying to get his bearings before he flopped forward onto the sand. The hot sand burned his face and he thrashed with sudden awareness, scrambling to get out from under Casey before rolling on his back and staring at the sky.

How much time had passed? Was he even going in the right direction? Where was he going again?

Confused, he looked to the side where Casey was crumpled and unconscious.


If the rest was hazy, that much was clear. Shaking his head, he groped for his pack, managing to find the bottle.

It was a monumental effort to cross the sand to Casey, and the mere task of rolling the man onto his back left Billy in want of tears -- not that he had any he could cry. As he propped the other man up, the sight of water sloshing in the bottle looked so appealing that he nearly stopped.

Billy was tired; he was thirsty. He needed a drink. He wanted a drink. He was going to die.

But so was Casey, and Casey didn’t have any choice in the matter. Casey would never know if BIlly drank all the water and left him to die.

Billy would, though.

Grinding his teeth, he put the bottle to Casey’s lips, seeping the liquid inside. Casey swallowed even in unconsciousness, for the body surely knew how dire this was. Casey’s unconsciousness knew what Billy’s fledgling sanity was telling him: this was the end. This was the last chance.

Billy emptied the rest of the bottle into Casey’s mouth, helping him to swallow.

This was the only chance.


The sun was dancing lower in the sky, so large now that it was all Billy could see. It lingered in front of him, taunting him with the promise of darkness.

Yet, the heat did not abate. It assaulted him, draining the last of the moisture from his cells and leaving him sunken and dry.

There would be nothing left soon.

Billy was mostly surprised he’d lasted this long.


On the horizon, Billy saw images shimmer. The visions of water were easy enough to dismiss, but the first person he saw made him break into a run.

Hands clenched around Casey, he stumbled forward.

“Hey!” he called, even as his tongue stuck to the top of his mouth. “Hey!”

But the closer he got, the image faded.

Billy stopped short, panting.

A hallucination.

Billy had been alone the entire time.

He thought that might always be the way it was.


The next image made him stop, because it was clearer this time. A man in a neat trimmed suit, shaking his head.

“Billy, Billy, Billy,” his MI6 boss lectured. “I told you, and you never listen. You should quit. There’s nothing left for you.”

The asset he failed to save on that last mission stood there, bleeding from a hole in the head. “I counted on you. I counted on you and you let me down. What makes you think this is any different?”

Olivia stood behind him, pursing her lips and turning up her nose. “You should have known, Billy,” she said. “I did. That’s why I couldn’t stay. I wasn’t going to let you drag me down.”

Then his best mate from University, smirking. “You’re all show, Collins. It was only a matter of time before everyone figures it out.”

And his mother stood, fretting with her apron. “I should have done better by you. Maybe you could have been better. Maybe.”

Then his teachers, each more stern than the last. “Wasted potential. Such a shame. Such a damn shame.”

Last on the line, his father stood in the center of the sun. “There’s my boy,” he said, giving Billy a wide smile. “Can’t say I’m surprised, though. Failure was always your destiny. Like father, like son.”

Billy didn’t stop for any of them.

Billy just didn’t stop.


Swallowing hurt, and his eyes burned. This was what it was like to die, he thought. This was failure, played out in spectacular slowness. It seemed inevitable, now. Looming like the sun on the horizon. The end of the day.

The end of everything.

He couldn’t feel Casey now. The weight was numbing, and the pressure across his shoulders seemed to evaporate into the heat. Casey had trusted him, somehow. When it had counted, Casey had come back for Billy.

And Billy had failed.

He listed to the side, landing on the sand on his knees.

And Billy had failed.

Like he had so many times before.

But like he might never fail again.


He crawled, desperate and pathetic. It was a paralyzing effort to drag Casey with him, leaving long tracks in the endless sea of sand.

He no longer had the strength to lift his head. It didn’t matter much anyhow; he no longer trusted his eyes.

When he finally heard the noise, he’d thought it was the growing roar of death, but when he craned his neck upward, the sight of the car on the horizon was unexpected.

An imagined hope, he thought. Like a job offer from the CIA and a team of trained operatives that called him one of their own. He thought it would disappear, just like the rest, but it got closer.

And closer.

Billy hadn’t realized he was stopped until the car came to a halt on the sand and the doors open.

Someone swore.

“It’s them.”

Someone swore again.

“We’re going to need a hospital.”

“We’re going to need a hell of a lot more than that. Michael, are they--”

The taller figure dropped down in front of Billy, looking worriedly into Billy’s face. “Collins?”

Someone came around, taking the weight from Billy’s shoulders. The loss of it was disoriented and Billy started to fight.

“Whoa. We’re going to help him, Collins,” the figure said, grabbing Billy’s arms and holding them steady. “We’re going to help both of you.”

Billy started, the clarity of the touch more than he’d expected. Hallucinations, he’d come to expect. But this…

He looked up in wonder. “Is it over, then?” he asked, wondering if Heaven could be so hot or if Hell could be such a relief.

The worried face spread into a smile. “Yeah, Collins,” he said. “It’s over now.”

And Billy let go.


Spies lived in the shadows. A spy in the sunlight was a spy that got burned.

Billy knew this.

Billy was the cautionary tale against this.

He’d not just been burned, he’d been scorched. The sun had baked him, peeled away the layers of his skin, leaving him red and vulnerable. Billy could talk a big game, and he could charm a lot of people into thinking a lot of things, but the simple truth remained.

Maybe this had always been inevitable. Maybe this was just a slow burn at its end. Maybe ideals like loyalty and determination didn’t mean what Billy wanted them to. Maybe a man who failed enough was just someone who needed to learn how to quit.

It still hurt, though. The heat pounded in his head, shriveling his brain. His eyes felt like sand, stuck in the sockets. His mouth was fused shut, tongue swollen and parched. And all the energy had been sapped from his body, until he was left like an empty, brittle sponge.

He could break like this, he knew. He would.



The coldness hit his lips, slithering between his teeth and wetting his tongue. It tickled the back of his throat, slipping down into his small, dried stomach.

When more water flowed, his tongue loosened and his throat constricted. He choked, convulsing as it clogged in his throat, the welcome touch so foreign that his body didn’t even know how to respond to it.

“Easy,” someone soothed, spreading a cool cloth across his brow. “We’ve got you.”

This time, Billy managed to swallow, straining greedily for more.

“Easy,” the voice said again, dribbling something cool and wet across his cheeks and down his arms. “Easy.”

That was ironic, Billy thought. His life had always been anything but easy.

But as the cooling motions continued, Billy’s awareness dimmed, and he couldn’t help but think maybe that could change.


It was one thing to drown.

It was another to freeze to death.

To burn alive, though. To be consumed slowly but certainly until there was nothing left.

Billy was afraid.

But, in the haze, he realized he wasn’t alone.


The next time he woke up, things were clearer. Things were still fuzzy about the edges and it tasted like something had died in his mouth, but he had a vague sense of clarity that he hadn’t had since before this started.

He frowned, immediately regretting it. His skin was pulled taught, and he could feel it break. His lips were chapped badly and the merest movement reminded him that none of it had been a dream.

“I’d lay still, if I were you.”

Billy rolled his head to the side, surprised to see Carson sitting there. It was only then he realized that not all of it had been a dream. “You found us?” he asked, his voice raw and his throat dry like parchment when he croaked.

Carson winced sympathetically. “Yeah, we’d been tracking you ever since your cover got blown,” he said. “I’m just sorry it took us so damn long. It’s a pretty big desert.”

Billy remembers the ocean of sand and had to suppress a shudder.

Carson sat forward, patting Billy gently on the arm. “You did most of the hard work, though,” he said. “If you hadn’t kept walking as long as you did--”

Billy cocked his head uncertainly.

Carson nodded, matter of fact. “You wouldn’t have made it if you’d just laid down and taken it. You suffered pretty bad heat stroke as it was, and those knocks to the head certainly didn’t do you any favors.”

There was too much there to sort through now, and truthfully, that wasn’t even the first of Billy’s concerns. Because he hadn’t walked for his own benefit. Sure, Billy had some survival instincts, but after all that had gone wrong in his life, the idea of taking a dive no longer sounded quite as bad as it once had.

No, he’d walked for Casey. He’d walked because Casey came back for him. He’d walked because there had been one person left in the world counting on him and Billy had already disappointed too many people for one lifetime.

“Casey?” he asked, finding himself still too weak to say much more than that.

Carson hesitated.

That was all he needed.

“It’s hard to say, kid,” Carson said, almost sounding upbeat. “I mean, we got him here alive. That’s something.”

Billy sank back into the pillow, closing his eyes for a moment.

“Hey,” Carson said, nudging him a little. “You did everything you could.”

Billy nodded faintly, too tired to argue.

Too tired to explain how that had never been enough.


The next time he woke, Billy was alone. A nurse came in and out, and he was visited by a doctor. He was trying to feed himself for the first time when the door opened and Michael finally came in.

Billy stopped, mid-bite. He found he wasn’t very hungry -- perhaps his stomach truly had shriveled -- and he hadn’t let himself think too much about what it meant to be alone. That either Casey needed his teammates more than Billy did.

Or his teammates didn’t want to be with Billy.

He wasn’t sure which option he truly preferred.

Michael’s face betrayed no emotion as he came closer to the bed. He looked Billy over for a moment before smiling slightly. “Finally caught you awake.”

Billy forced a smile in return. “Been in and out for a bit now,” he said. “Though I was pretty knackered after this whole thing.”

Michael quirked an eyebrow. “You almost died from heat exhaustion.”

The flatness of the reminder was something Billy didn’t know what to do with. Was it concern? A condemnation. Billy offered a flippant shrug. “I wanted to keep things exciting,” he said. “You CIA spooks don’t play it to the wire like we did back at MI6.”

“Playing it to the wire got you kicked out,” Michael reminded him.

“It does keep you guessing,” Billy said, a bit irrationally because he had the nagging sense that he might lose his cool if it he didn’t keep it so blithely. “At any rate, I am sorry for putting you blokes out. I don’t reckon we salvaged much from the mission?”

He was being too nonchalant, of course, and he certainly didn’t feel that way, but he didn’t know quite what else to say.

“We retained our original intel and were able to identify a few more leads,” Michael said. “But yeah, we got burned pretty good. We can pass on what we learned to another team -- or another agency -- but we won’t be back here any time soon.”

Billy chuckled. “I can’t say I think that’s all bad.”

“Well, I can’t say that it’s good,” Michael said pointedly.

On the bed, Billy shifted uncomfortably but did his best not to let it show. “Again, my apologies--”

Michael’s face darkened. “You think that’s what I want? An apology?” he asked sharply. “This entire mission was blown to hell. I nearly lost two operatives. And you think I want an apology?”

Billy’s stomach flipped, and for the first time since waking up he realized that dying wasn’t the worst possible outcome. No, the worst possibility was surviving and getting kicked out of another spy agency. Spies didn’t often get second chances, and the fact that the CIA had taken him in was a feat in and of itself. They didn’t have any reason to keep Billy around, especially if he couldn’t prove himself.

He swallowed, sobering a little. He felt sweat start to collect on his forehead again, his palms getting slick. The glaring sunlight wasn’t the only heat that could leave him scorched. “Look, I know I buggered it up,” Billy said plaintively, hoping that earnestness could get him what the facts couldn’t. “I followed the protocols, and then the whole bottom fell out.”

Michael gave an incredulous snort.

Billy’s throat constricted, his heart skipping a beat as his face flushed. “I’m just getting my feet wet, so to speak,” he said. “The CIA -- it’s different than MI6. There’s a learning curve--”

“You still don’t get it, do you?” Michael asked.

Billy opened his mouth, feeling it all slipping away. It was like being blinded by the sun, knowing what was right in front of him but not being able to see it. “I know I don’t have much standing--”

“Collins,” Michael said abruptly, pursing his lips. “The mission failed. You didn’t.”

Billy blinked, not daring himself to speak.

Michael sighed, running a hand through his hair. “You know, this is why I didn’t want you on the team at first.”

Billy shut his mouth, grinding his teeth together. He felt faint suddenly, his vision tunneling as the world threatened to dim.

“Burned spies are spies that have screwed up. They’ve got a track record of failure. That makes them reckless, brash and usually in denial.”

The litany was nothing Billy could deny. He blinked rapidly, finding his eyes still to dry to water.

“Burned spies think they have something to prove,” Michael continued, unabated. “They forget that they’re just like the rest of us -- only with a hell of a lot worse luck.”

Surprised, Billy’s eyes widened. He tilted his head, wondering if this was another hallucination. “I don’t understand,” he said finally.

Michael looked annoyed, as if spelling it out so plainly were a burden. “Spies take on the hardest cases; they do the impossible things. They make a career out of failing and making the most of it,” he explained. “Spies are more than any given mission, and a hell of a lot more than any given file.”

Billy twitched nervously, guarding his breathing for fear of losing his self control and betraying himself. “We’re not just talking about failure,” he reminded Michael tautly. “MI6--”

“I’ve seen your file,” Michael interrupted. “I know what it says, and I have a pretty good idea all the things it doesn’t say. But we wouldn’t have let you on this team, let alone in the field, if we thought that was all you were.”

Billy had to work to keep his head up. “Maybe you don’t know as much as you think.”

Michael didn’t flinch. “Maybe you don’t either.”

That was a point that, after everything, Billy certainly couldn’t argue.


Michael didn’t stay long, which was fine with Billy. Normally, he liked to put up a friendly guise, but he found he didn’t have the energy. It would be easy to fault the heat exhaustion, but Billy knew it was more than that.

Billy knew a lot of things. It wasn’t until the sun had burned away all the outer layers of his self defense that he realized he may have to acknowledge that fact.

The emotional scars could wait, though. Billy’s physical recovery was steady but painful as the sun burn started to peel, leaving him raw and sore. Carson stayed with him on and off, making small talk and cracking jokes Billy laughed at hollowly. He came with updates about Casey, who was recovery, too.

Just not as well. His heat stroke was just as bad as Billy’s, but it was the blood loss that had made it so complicated. Without the extra water, the man likely wouldn’t have made it.

Even now, the doctors were cautious.

“Nah, man, Malick’s a son of a bitch,” Carson assured him. “He’s survived worse than this.”

Billy didn’t doubt that, but somehow that didn’t make it better. In fact, it just made it worse. Because if anyone should be on the critical list, it should be Billy. That was one of the worst truths of being a spy: failure wasn’t just personal. It often had consequences that affected everyone else around you, often in the worst ways possible.

Second chances, it seemed, weren’t just to succeed.

Sometimes they were just a chance to repeat the same mistakes, over and over again.


Billy tried to sleep, but found it hard. His cracked skin made getting comfortable difficult, and the drugs weren’t enough to take the nagging edge off the concussion. He went over the mission in his mind, wondering when it had all exactly gone to hell. Each time, he came up blank, as though the failure was just meant to be.

As though, he was simply destined to fail.

And Billy didn’t know why he bothered. He didn’t know what the point was. Why had he come to the United States? Why had he joined the CIA? Why had he become a spy in the first place?

In the desert, things had seemed so clear, but back among the sane and rational, everything looked like a damn mirage on the horizon. All his hopes and dreams; all his efforts and good intentions -- they vanished like illusions the second he got close enough.

There was a great irony in all of it. Life had been so clear to him in the desert. He only knew what was right or wrong when he was dying. The rest of the time, he didn’t have a clue.

When he finally dozed off, he jerked awake in a hot sweat, trying to remind himself that it was okay.

He was in a hospital.

He was safe.

He was okay.

It wasn’t until morning that he wondered if that much was a lie.


When Michael came back, Billy was surprised. He feared the worse when Michael produced a wheelchair.

“Are we leaving?” Billy asked.

“They still want you another night for observation,” Michael replied.

“So, the chair--?”

“Well, they wouldn’t let you out of the room any other way.”

Billy frowned. “But why do I want to leave the room?”

Michael sighed, exasperated. “I thought you’d want to see Malick,” he said. “But if you’d rather stay here and mope--”

Billy’s eyes widened. “I can see him?”

A small smile tugged at Michael’s lips. “Better still,” he said. “He’s awake.”

Billy lit up hopefully. “That’s good news!”

“And he’s asking to see you.”

Billy faltered, swallowing awkwardly. He could only imagine the wrath he could incur for his numerous missteps. Billy was the one who had got him shot; this was Billy’s fault. Casey Malick was many things, but forgiving didn’t seem to be one of them. “Well, that’s less good.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Come on, kid.”

“Maybe we should wait?” Billy suggested. “Until he’s better?”

“You mean until you’re better,” Michael surmised. He snickered. “You’ve got nothing to be scared of. Really.”

Somehow Billy doubted that.


Casey was awake and alert when they got there. In fact, despite the monitors, he looked more with it than Billy felt even a day after being rescued. Michael left the wheelchair next to Casey’s bed, and Billy only realized that he’d left as he heard the door snick shut behind him.

Startled, he looked back at Casey, who was staring at him intently.

“So,” Billy said, smiling awkwardly. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“No,” Casey said.

Billy raised his eyebrows, ignoring the way his burnt skin crinkled. “Excuse me?”

“We will not make polite small talk after surviving a near death situation together,” Casey said blandly.

Billy’s mouth closed, his still-chapped lips pressed together uncertainly. “Were you looking for an apology?”

Casey looked even more perturbed at that. “You’re sorry for saving my life?”

Billy blinked. “No, that’s not--”

“Then why would you apologize?”

“Because I was the one who got caught,” he said. “Because you came back for me and nearly died for it.”

“You did everything you were supposed to do,” Casey said. “And I told you, you are my teammate. That’s not a choice I made, but it’s a reality I respect. Leaving you to die would have been inhuman.”

That wasn’t what Billy had been expecting. In fact, Billy didn’t know what to do with it at all.

Casey sighed, sounding genuinely put out now. “Look,” he said. “I don’t do sentimental bonding. I don’t have conversations about our feelings or what a relationship means. But clearly you need this spelled out for you, so I’ll do it just this once. Bad things happen. What matters is how we respond to them. Things went wrong, but you did enough right to save your life and my own. I don’t like owing debts, which is why I’m glad you’re my teammate and we can merely call that expected behavior.”

Billy stared. “Wait,” he said, after a long moment. “You’re thanking me?”

“Of course not,” Casey snapped. “That would be the sentiment I told you I don’t do. But I am telling you that what you did out there, dragging us both back through the desert with a concussion -- it was impressive.”

“But you got shot coming back for me,” Billy reminded him. “Why did you come back at all?”

“The same reason you kept walking,” Casey replied.

Billy shook his head. “It’s not that simple.”

“It’s not?” Casey asked.

Nothing’s that simple,” Billy argued, feeling his emotions start to rise, a heat creeping across his cheeks. The fire was inside him this time, burning and simmering down deep where he could never put it out.

“Of course it is,” Casey said with a scowl. “We have complicated jobs. We have intricate missions, which is why things go wrong so often. But with all the details we can miss, the heart of what we do is very, very simple. We do what’s right, whether that’s stopping a terrorist or pulling a teammate out of harm’s way. We’re not going to succeed at all the big things, so we take the little things every single time.”

Billy’s blinked rapidly. “Your life isn’t so little.”

Casey smirked. “Now you’re starting to get the point.”

Was it actually that simple? Was everything so relative? Was Billy too busy trying to walk on the sun that he failed to see that he could take leaps and bounds on the moon?

It didn’t even seem real. After all he’d lost at MI6, that he’d be on another team, still fighting the good fight, along men who would die for him. And be proud doing so.

All this time over the past year, he’d been afraid to believe it. He’d been living like everything good was nothing more than a mirage, too afraid to embrace it for fear of finding that it wasn’t real after all.

That was the thing, though. It was real.

And Billy was ready to take hold of it and never let go.

He ducked his head with a small chuckle. “You know, for a lack of sentiment, this heart to heart is very endearing.”

Casey glared at him. “Don’t make me regret it.”

“I will have to put us in position of peril more often, if this is the only way to get you to express your true feelings,” Billy continued.

“I swear to God, next time I will let you die,” Casey warned.

“But we’re a team,” Billy said, feigning a look of earnestness. “Until the very end.”

Casey huffed, rolling his eyes as he settled back on his pillows. “As if this could get any worse.”

Billy grinned, though. Because he knew better.

Hot or cold, rain or shine. Heat stroke or hypothermia or just another day in the office. Billy wasn’t alone anymore.