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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Love Is An Open Door (2/2)

December 19th, 2016 (12:11 pm)
anxious

feeling: anxious

Continued from PART ONE.



-o-

When the slot opens next, Billy doesn’t look. He doesn’t get up. He hears the water, the paper bag and he turns away, curling himself up tight and squeezing his eyes shut.

He can’t do it anymore.

He can’t see a sliver of freedom and pretend like it doesn’t bother him.

Like it doesn’t break him.

Billy can’t.

-o-

He spends about five days, lying there, withering away. Maybe he’s already dead, he consoles himself. Maybe he died and there was no one here to tell him. Maybe he missed it.

The truth is, Billy almost believes it.

But when he stands on shaky legs and goes to the door, he runs his hands along the hinges and sobs.

The despair turns to rage and he flies at the door, flinging himself at it with whatever strength he has left. He pounds until his fists are bruised and bloody; he screams until his ears ring with the sound of his own voice.

It’s one door, he tells himself. It’s one door.

Billy’s found too many ways to open doors in his life.

He’s not about to stop at this one.

-o-

In one day, he eats all the food from the last week. It makes him sick, he’s so full, but he forces it all down and doesn’t let himself vomit. He needs his strength.

Pacing the cell, he goes over it all again. He goes over the weaknesses, the points of entry. He’s memorized every centimeter, and all that does is remind him that there’s no way out that doesn’t involve the door.

The hinges -- are a no go.

The metal cage -- is a dead end.

The drain -- is too difficult.

The slot, though.

Billy might be able to work with that.

-o-

“I’m sorry, I really am,” Billy says to George. “If there was any other way, I’d do it.”

George stares back at him plaintively. It’s the sort of look that only George can master with so much diffidence.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “Once I get out of here, I’ll take you with me. This is...just a temporary setback in our relationship.”

George is wholly unconvinced.

“It’s not even about you,” Billy says, a bit sullenly. “Honestly, sometimes you’re so self-centered I could scream.”

It’s pretty clear that George is okay with that.

Billy sighs, exasperated. “This will affect you less than you think it will,” he explains. “I know you think of the pen like an extension of you, but really, you’re more than that. I promise you.”

Pausing, he holds the pen up and gives it another look. It’s reinforced now with more plastic strips. It took the better part of two days, but it’s not like Billy has much else to do with his time. With the extra girding, it holds its shape much better, and the point has been whittled sharp and wide.

“This isn’t the end of us,” Billy promises, turning the pen over in his hand again. “Once we get out of here, I’ll get other pens. Better pens. Pens in blue, red -- and bloody color you want.”

He’s talking this up to George, but he knows the notebook isn’t the only one who’s skeptical. He’s taken diligent care of George, adding in new pages, and making sure each page is dry before writing on another. He and George, they’ve been the best of friends, and the thought of sacrificing the pen, the only tangible connection between the two of them -- it isn’t easy.

But there’s a greater good in all of this. Maybe not for the world. Maybe not for Bob. Maybe not even for George.

But for Billy?

He nods to himself. “This pen has a bigger purpose, now.”

Turning to George, he garners as much confidence as he can.

“Because this may not look like a key,” Billy muses, starting to let himself smile. “But I wager it’ll still open that door.”

He collects a breath, eyes on the door. With a breath, he lets oxygen settle through his lungs as his heart rate starts to quicken in his chest.

“One way or another.”

-o-

Billy has his doubts.

But he’s had two months all by himself to think about it.

If he’s come to the wrong conclusion, there’s no one here to tell him he’s wrong.

-o-

It’s the morning meal when he tries it, just over two months into his indefinite captivity.

He’s anxious, more than usual, poised at the side of the door, staring at the slot and waiting for it to open.

It feels like he’s been waiting a full two months.

It feels like he’s been waiting a lifetime.

He hears the footsteps, right on time. He counts them, holding his breath as they come to a stop outside his cell. There is a clatter of keys, and Billy hears the metal locking mechanism start to move.

Now or never, he tells himself.

Now.

-o-

(Or never.)

-o-

He reaches out in a flash, seizing the hand as it slips the water through. The bottle tumbles to the floor, but Billy ignores it, grabbing onto the coarse fingers on the other side before the guard has a chance to realize what’s happening.

Bob’s fingers are rough and dry -- he’s not nervous, why should he be nervous -- and Billy wonders if these are the hands that tuck a child in a night, caress a wife, fire a gun.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. These are the hands that keep a door locked, and that’s the only reality that matters.

Tightening his grip, he secures his fist around Bob’s open palm, almost like a handshake.

Hello, Bob.

I’m Billy.

Let me introduce you to another friend of mine, the door.

Gritting his teeth, Billy yanks, harder than he thinks he can, harder than seems natural. He might actually yank Bob’s arm right out of its socket, but that’s neither here nor there. Billy’s not trying to rip Bob’s arm out.

He’s trying to incapacitate him with nothing more than a good grip and a hard, stone door.

Bob grunts, faltering. He’s scrambling to get away, and Billy has to brace himself against the door in order to keep his grip. There’s only seconds here, before Bob retaliates and gets away. Seconds before Billy’s bid for freedom is nothing more than a flight of fancy conceived by a marginally sane man in a prison cell.

That’s not going to happen, though. That may be how Jacob Sellers’ story end, but Billy Collins?

Hell, no.

He pulls again, leverage himself just enough to pull Bob’s hand inside the slot. He sees a flash of exposed brown skin on Bob’s wrist, and he takes the pen and drives it down.

Blood starts to flow, and Bob screams. Billy has the advantage now, momentary as it may be. Bob’s been non-combative throughout this captivity, but Billy can’t delude himself. No matter why Bob’s doing this, he’ll fight back.

That’s why Billy’s not going to let him.

Bob is squirming and Billy drops the pen, using both hands to grab onto the blood-slicked hand. He takes a breath, and steadies himself. For two months, this door has been the only obstacle between Billy and freedom.

Now, it’s the only thing he has left to get him out.

He leans forward, giving Bob some slack. He gets his foot, clamping down his hands and yanking.

Harder than before. Harder than he has strength left to give. Hard enough that the force pulls at his own shoulders, shuddering down his spine with the exertion. He falls back with all his weight, pulling Bob with him with a mighty pull. With a scream, he lets his balance go, never letting go until the force of gravity makes him.

He hears a thump outside against the door, but he’s falling too fast to consider it fully. He lands hard on his back side, his head flopping back and connecting heavily with the stone behind him. For a moment, he’s dazed, staring up at the ceiling, wondering if anything has changed.

It’s a dull, suspended moment when he realizes that nothing is happening.

Dazed, he props himself up and looks at the door.

It’s still closed, to be sure.

But the slot is open.

-o-

It’s stupid as hell, but for a moment, Billy can’t move. Sure, he’s probably physically able to move -- he’s slightly emaciated and high on adrenaline, but he wasn’t injured in the fight -- but he can’t. When you’ve waited two months for a small opening, it’s almost impossible to force your mind to acknowledge that it’s there.

If the door were actually open, Billy might have a heart attack, right then and there.

As it is, he’s dumbfounded, amazed, numb, hopeful, ready.

He’s ready.

The thought is galvanizing, and he scrambles to his feet, half crawling across the floor to the slot. Face nearly pressed against it, he gets a good glimpse outside. It’s mostly nondescript -- more stone walls, floor, a long line of locked doors -- but there’s Bob, sprawled out in the walkway.

Funny, he doesn’t look anything like Billy pictured. He’s got a well kept beard and a trim military-style haircut. His nose is pointed, and he has a surprisingly rugged jawline, which is only accented by the generic fatigues he’s wearing. The gun at his waist is still strapped down, as is the knife. He never saw it coming.

Billy almost wants to gloat, but he reminds himself that he’s not actually out of the cell yet. The slot is open, but if he doesn’t take advantage of that now -- right now -- then all of this is for not.

Frantic, he looks Bob over. Not for weapons or visual cues to his actual identity. No, something far more valuable, something strapped to his belt, next to the gun and knife.

Keys.

Eagerly, Billy makes a grab for them, but he comes up short. Frustrated, he maneuvers himself so more of his arm can get out the slot, and he has to contort his body to give himself more leeway. Even so, he can’t quite get a grip on them.

“Bugger,” he mutters, pulling back and rethinking his approach. If he can’t reach farther…

Then Bob has to be closer.

With renewed vigor, he thrusts his arm out again, this time grasping onto the closest part of Bob’s body. His leg is too thick to pull one-handed so he grabs a fistful of Bob’s pants and starts to pull. It’s slow and a little tedious -- Bob clearly works out, which is just oh-so-convenient -- but he finally manages to drag Bob’s limp form closer.

When he’s close enough, Billy seizes upon the keys, yanking them unceremoniously from Bob’s belt and hauling them back through the opening on the door. There are several on there, most of which Billy quickly identifies as a house and office key. There’s one that looks like it’s a vault; another for a car; and the last one is different, smaller, more complex.

Billy dares to smile. “Gotcha.”

-o-

The keys, he decides rather impetuously, are named Harry. They’re entirely new to him, but still somehow the best friend he’s ever had. Sure, George gives him companionship, and Billy would have lost his mind without that. Even Bob, for all the terrible things he’d done, is a grounding force in Billy’s solitary existence.

But Harry.

Harry’s the limitless potential.

Finally, finally realized.

-o-

For as much as he’s been looking forward to this moment, it’s a lot more complicated than it should be. In fact, after dropping the keys a few times and finagling his arm as far as it will go, he’s starting to wonder if he can even capitalize on this moment. No matter how he stretches or turns, he can’t seem to wiggle himself in the right position, leaving the keys woefully short of the lock he can’t even see.

He’s close -- he’s so damn close.

But it might all be for nothing.

All his work, all his planning, all his desperation, all his hope.

For nothing.

Harry feels heavy in his hands, and he’s actually shaking when he pulls his hand back inside. He blinks rapidly, trying to recover his wits, but his nerves and adrenaline have them so scattered that his vision is actually tunneling. Harry, Bob, George. They’re not real; not in the way Billy needs them to be. His team may be out there, but they’re not coming, not now. Not in time.

Billy’s alone.

The weight of that realization is almost more than he can bear.

Billy’s alone.

The blood drains from his face, and he thinks he might be sick.

“You were right,” he says, hiccuping a little. He sniffles, unable to stop a wave of tears. “You were right, George.”

Nearby, George stares at him.

For a second, Billy hates him.

Then, keenly, Billy reminds himself that Billy’s a handmade notebook scrawled with mold.

He doesn’t need George.

Hell, he hardly needs Bob. Even Harry, for all that he represents is just a means to an end. This is about Billy and a cell and a lock on a door.

Inhaling deeply, Billy girds himself. He takes the keys again, flipping himself almost on his back and looking up at the slot as he maneuvers his hand through the opening. He pauses, taking a minute to gauge the lock as best as he can through his obscured position. Making a quick estimate, Billy adjusts his position, giving himself a better trajectory to reach the lock.

The first adjustment isn’t enough, and the entire position is uncomfortable. His arm is starting to ache, but Billy can deal with that later.

When he’s not locked on this side of the door.

Wetting his lips, he narrows his eyes in concentration, pressing himself as much as he can against the door. He can see it now, the lock. And he’s close. Close, close…

He grunts, pushing up with his feet to give himself just a little more leverage.

Just enough.

He has to work at it, scraping the key around its hole, looking for it to connect. He’s sweating with exertion now, his entire body awash with it.

He’s got to do this, him. All by himself. He’ll be alone this one moment more.

So he never has to be alone again.

The key slips into place, Billy can feel it. It’s not easy turning it, and he feels resistance as the key tries to turn the lock. He can feel it, he can hear it, the familiar sound he’s memorized all these months, finally within his control.

It clicks into place, and for a long second, Billy’s frozen.

He’s learned, through careful attention to detail and two long months to ponder nothing else, that the lock is really all there is. There’s no handle or knob -- Billy knows because Bob never pauses to turn -- which means…

Billy swallows hard, his entire arm going numb with his fingers still wrapped tight around the keys.

Which means all he needs to do is let go.

Billy opens his hand, pulling his arm back through. He rolls away from the door, sitting up on his elbows as the door starts to give a little.

Then a little more as the latch comes free and the hinges scrape.

The door slips open to the world outside.

-o-

On the ground, all Billy can do is stare.

The door is open.

The door is open.

The door is open.

He considers, momentarily, that it’s been open all this time, and he’s just been unable to see. He wonders if this is a mirage, if he’s dreaming, if he’s already dead. At the very least, he could have finally completely lost his mind. All this talking to journals and fantasizing about his captor; he probably can’t trust this now.

Still, he figures, what has he really got to lose?

Staggering to his feet, Billy gives the notebook one more look. He looks at the ledge, the drain, the light in the cage.

The open door.

With a shuffling step, Billy moves forward. Hesitating, he rests his hand against the door and feels it move beneath his touch. He closes his eyes, drawing a breath.

This is it, then.

He exhales, open his eyes and pushes the door until it’s swung wide.

With his own two feet and no looks back, Billy walks out.

-o-

Two months is a long time to spend in a cell. This is why he’s always dreamed it would be more dramatic.

It’s nothing of the sort, though.

The door lets out into a long hallway, filled with other doors. They’re noticeably all open, though, set open on their hinges with nothing but darkness on the inside. The hallway itself is better lit, with a line of lights down the middle, exposed and bare. The walls are stone, just like the floor, and it stretches down toward another door at the end.

The guard is on the ground; he’s still breathing. Hastily, Billy disarms him -- there’s a gun, no knife -- and he takes the man’s ID just to be thorough. He considers throwing him in the cell -- it’s a safe way to make sure Billy doesn’t get himself followed -- but he knows what two months alone in a cell are like.

He doesn’t wish that on anyone.

Not even this guy.

Instead, Billy takes the man’s handcuffs, snaking one around the exposed pipes of the heating unit just two doors down.

He leaves the empty bottles in his cell. He leaves the notebook. Someone else can find Jacob Sellers’ experiences and come to their own conclusions. He even leaves the keys in the door. Stepping over the guard, Billy makes his way to the door.

-o-

The gun at the ready, Billy moves lightly throughout the building. He’s not surprised to find that he’s in a basement, but he is surprised how exposed the upper portion of the building actually is. It’s almost entirely abandoned except for a small security room, which has live footage of the hallway and front door, but nothing else. There’s a half eaten sandwich and a lukewarm cup of coffee, and a single chair is in the room with a book written in Arabic spread open on the table.

The security system looks big and scary, but there’s not even a damn alarm. It’s nothing more than a small office building with a closed sign on the front door.

It’s something to consider, how small this operation is. Maybe it’s flattering that he was the only one at the center of this mess.

Maybe it’s more frustrating than he could imagine.

To languish in a cell, and for what? Sure, it’s not like a noble cause makes it any easier, but it gives it purpose. It makes the whole damn thing parse.

Nothing about this, though, makes sense.

Nothing.

Billy walks out the front door a few minutes later.

After he’s used up all his ammo destroying the security room, he leaves the gun on the table and leaves.

Sure, he leaves without answers. He leaves without retribution or justice.

None of that matters, though.

What matters is that he does, in fact, finally leave.

-o-

Outside the street is busy. The people walking by have no idea. It’s weird to think how alone he felt when there were people above him the whole damn time.

More tellingly, he knows exactly where he is. This area of Baghdad is familiar to him; he can see the location where he met his informant that fateful day from where he’s standing. During his abduction, they’d taken him no more than one city block.

This means the safehouse, where Michael, Casey and Rick had last been, is no more than a mile away.

Irony is a son of a bitch.

-o-

Two months of isolation, Billy can’t help but feel skittish. He keeps his distance from the crowds, shying away from people as they walk down the street. He doesn’t make eye contact, and he goes out of his way to use less populated streets. Once, when a young man almost runs into him, Billy thinks he might have a heart attack.

The safehouse is exactly where Billy remembers, and it’s still dim and dingy like it was when he walked out to meet the asset two months ago. He goes into the front vestibule and pauses at the security checkpoint. All of his intel is two months out of date, but it’s all he has.

He tells himself, walking up the stairs, that the team is probably gone. That they’ve been relocated, that they’ve taken the search back home to appease Higgins. He tells himself this to make it seem more palatable. He tells himself this so he doesn’t feel like he’s still alone.

He tells himself this because it’s the only way he can get his fingers to grip the doorknob and turn it open.

-o-

When he walks through the door, he thinks he’s probably imagining things. After all, he did spend two months talking to a notebook.

There’s no way that Michael, Casey and Rick are really still there.

Michael’s not hunched over his laptop; Rick’s not scouring a file on the couch. Casey’s not making dinner at the stove.

Except, Billy blinks.

Rick stares at him, mouth open. The color drains from Michael’s face. Casey is holding a steaming pan of something.

Except they are.

Billy wants to ask what the hell they’re doing; he wants to run to them and give them all hugs. He wants to ask if they’re okay, tell them he’s okay, ask what the hell happened back there?

He wants to cry; he wants to laugh.

He wants to do a lot of things, not that any of it matters, though.

Because Billy’s too busy passing out to do much of anything at all.

-o-

It’s a moment, it’s a lifetime when Billy dreams. All in all, it’s not much of a surprise. He huddles close inside his own mind, tugging George closer. He’s squeezing so tightly that he almost forgets he’s holding Harry. Not that it matters; Bob’s at the door smiling.

“Ready to come out, Mr. Sellers?”

None of this is real, though.

None of it has ever, ever been real.

-o-

Billy opens his eyes.

Michael, Casey, Rick: they all stare back at him.

Their proximity is rivaled only by their obvious concern, and Billy is suddenly overwhelmed with it all. Michael has a hand on his shoulder; Casey pats his arm. Martinez gives him a reassuring squeeze on the ankle.

Adrenaline floods his system, and he scrambles off the ground, crab walking backward in a rush to pull away. He’s too fast and too clumsy, and he’s completely misjudged the space he’s in. Sure, it’s bigger than he’s used to, but there are pesky things like furniture.

Hastily, Billy rams into the coffee table with enough force to tip over the stack of files on the end. It lands with a thump that makes Billy startle, flailing in the other direction as he tries to get to his feet. He succeeds in that order, just soon enough to trip over the dingy chair.

He’s pinwheeling, teetering precariously and he sees Rick and Michael reach out to grab him. Casey’s already on his feet, most of the way to him.

It’s too much.

In an attempt to avoid the touch, Billy crashes all the way into the chair, tipping it over as he tumbles headlong after it, landing on the ground with a painful and unceremonious crash.

“Billy!” Rick cries out.

“Damn it,” Casey grinds out.

They’re both moving to help him up, but Michael intervenes. He stands between the others, right in front of Billy. He’s close enough to touch, but he noticeably doesn’t make that move. He does, however, watch Billy intently.

“You doing okay, Collins?” Michael asks.

It’s plain to see, somewhere deep in Michael’s eyes, that he’s worried. But his posture, his tone, his expression: it’s all business. One might be tempted to think that’s the part that matters to Michael, but Billy knows which front is for his sake.

Shakily, he swallows and smiles. “Yes, of course,” he says, slowly extricating himself from the mess of furniture. He wobbles when he finds his feet, but Michael doesn’t reach out. Casey doesn’t either, and it looks like it pains Rick to avoid it, too. Billy is so stupid grateful that he almost wants to cry. “Just sort of a lot, is all. I might need a minute.”

Michael gives him a nonplussed look. “Might need more than a minute,” he observes. “Try two months.”

It’s not harsh, at least not in a way that’s directed at him. But they’re going to talk about this.

Billy closes his eyes for a long second and remembers how to breathe. Eyes open again, he tries to collect himself once more. “Yes, well,” he says with a self deprecating chuckle. “You know how you all say that I’m not particularly good company?”

No one bites.

“Turns out you’re all right,” Billy quips, and he tries to laugh but it sounds garbled in his throat. His eyes are burning, and he suddenly feels cold. “Two months, though. Hell of a long time to prove your point.”

Martinez actually looks bereft. “Billy, you know we wouldn’t--”

Casey all but growls. “If you were playing hooky--”

Michael shakes his head, cutting them both off again. “Seems like we all have a story to tell,” he says. “Do you want to start or should we?”

-o-

He lets them start.

It’s actually not too complicated of a story, when they get right down to it. They’d tracked him as soon as they found out -- within minutes of the abduction -- but the car they followed led straight out of the city. Upon a confrontation, all they found were two dimwit guards and their terrified asset in the trunk.

Once they realized that Billy and the asset had been split up, they redoubled their efforts at the abduction site, quickly tracking the guards back to a local government official with ties to corruption. He hadn’t been in their mission docket, but he’d been under surveillance for a while, but no one could get anything to put him away.

The ODS took about a week to fix that.

While the CIA was thrilled to take another enemy off the map, the capture didn’t quite have the effect the ODS was hoping for. Instead of rolling over and revealing all, the mark killed himself and his top lieutenants all followed suit. After that, the entire organization was in disarray, and it would be up to the ODS to trace down every wayward lead if they were ever going to find Billy.

That was what they’d been doing for the last six weeks, then. Chasing down every employee, every known affiliation, every property with a connection to the mark.

“I’m not sure if it was intentional or just bad organizational prowess,” Michael admits finally. “But it looks like he truly managed everything on his own. He was the only one who knew the names and locations of every employee and safehouse.”

“It’s not a bad security measure on some levels,” Casey says.

“It’s not very efficient, though,” Rick points out. “I think we’ve been to some warehouses that the mark himself forgot about. They’ve been abandoned for years, manned by a single, lonely guard still drawing a paycheck from unmarked accounts.”

It sounds a lot like Bob, if Billy’s honest. Toiling away with his duty, oblivious to the fact that he’s serving a plan that no longer has an impetus for success.

“We’ve been through nearly one hundred sites,” Michael tells him.

“Martinez has interviewed more witnesses than that,” Casey says.

“We never gave up, Billy,” Rick says, his brown eyes almost pleading. “We were coming for you.”

They’re trying to reassure him, and rightly so. Billy has, after all, been isolated in a cell for two months, and for what? For nothing? Less than a mile from his mates?

What would have happened if the ODS didn’t come in time? What if the guard realized his pay was no longer coming and just up and left? What if Billy had been nothing but bones when the ODS showed up?

Michael inclines his head, trying to get a better look at Billy. “Billy?” he asks. “You okay?”

Billy blinks up at him, a little bit dumbfounded. “I...yeah,” he says, almost surprised by it. He laughs, both tired and self deprecating. “I’ve been locked in a cell for two months, so I think anything other than that is probably okay right about now.”

“Did they ask you anything?” Michael wants to know.

Casey’s expression darkens. “If they touched you…”

Billy shakes his head. “No, nothing like that,” he says. “They just...left me there. Two meals, no conversation. For two months.”

The weight of that is heavy on Billy, and it only takes a second for the reality of it to hit the others, too. That for all their good intentions, they hadn’t been enough. Billy’s been on the other side of this equation; he knows what it’s like to be the ones who get away. He’s also starting to appreciate Carson a little more, because this kind of trauma can’t be covered with a quip and a hug.

Still, it doesn’t have to be, not yet. Two months can break a man, but it didn’t break Billy. It didn’t break them.

At least, that’s what Billy has to hope.

He’s spent too many days being friends with a notebook and an imaginary guard. He knows what it’s like to have the real thing, and he’s not about to throw that away just yet.

“Well,” Rick says, clearing his throat with an awkward smile. “It’s over now. We can finish off our files, and turn this over to local agents. Before you know it, the four of us will be back home.”

Billy’s thought about home, about the trash on his coffee table and the strings on his guitar being out of tune. He thinks about the milk that’s gone sour in his fridge, and the half finished book buried on his couch.

He’s thought about a warm bed with a pillow and sheets. He’s thought about a hot shower and a clean shave.

Blinking again, he looks at his team.

He’s thought of them most.

“No rush on my account,” Billy says, and it only sounds like a joke. “I’m doing quite well right here, thank you very much.”

Michael’s face breaks into a grin. “Us, too, buddy,” he says. “Us, too.”

-o-

Naturally, there’s a lot of paperwork to do.

Billy has never been particularly reliable when it comes to paperwork, but he figures at least this time he has an excuse. While he knows he can’t avoid the extensive debriefing and evaluation he’ll be subjected to back at Langley, he’s more than content to forego any formalities for the time being.

He has, after all, just freed himself from two months of incarceration.

Besides, he can only imagine that the team is as ready for him to take a shower as he is.

The safehouse doesn’t have much in the way of amenities, but the supply of hot water is mercifully long. He starts by scrubbing himself furiously, going through an entire bar of soap just to clean away the layers of filth from his skin. Washing his hair is even more intensive, and he can only hope that the debris he rinses cleaned don’t clog up the drain.

When all that is done, he stands in the hot water a little longer just because.

He’s not sure anything has ever felt this good.

-o-

When he gets out, he towels himself dry and puts on some clean clothes. The outfit he’d been wearing during the abduction are in tatters now, and he has every intention of throwing them in the trash so he never has to see -- much less wear -- them again. It’s a little strange when the guys had him his bag of things. All the clothes are rumpled and disheveled, and quite honestly, only marginally clean. He supposes it’s a matter of respect and optimism that they didn’t bother to clean up for him. They always believed he was coming back.

Even if they are his clothes, they scarcely fit. Billy has to cinch his belt several notches tighter, and they still sag about his hips. He’s not exactly emaciated, but he’s lost a significant amount of weight, and Billy does not make a compelling beanpole.

Moreover, his beard is atrocious. He’d always toyed with the idea of having one -- freedom to express his manhood, he’d ventured -- but he can’t stand the sight of it. He takes time to cut it off, shaving away the rest with the closest shave he’s given himself since he was 16.

As for his hair, he’ll have to cut it when they get back home. He wants to get things back to normal, but he’s not so hasty as to butcher himself in the process. Besides, he reasons, it gives credence to his ordeal. He looks rugged; like a survivor.

Why he feels compelled to prove this, he doesn’t know. But he fancies the narrative, if he does say so himself.

He can’t control what happened to him.

But he can control how he feels about it.

At least, he decides as he finishes his self grooming, that’s what he’s going to tell himself.

-o-

When he gets out of the bathroom, he finds that lunch is already on the table.

It’s sort of a novel idea. Not just real food at a real table with real utensils.

But lunch.

They’ve gone out of their way, it’s pretty clear, to get him his favorites.

Honestly, it’s a tossup right now what Billy loves more.

Indian takeout or his team.

-o-

After that, there’s strangely not a lot to do. The team is preoccupied on mission related things, but Billy can’t quite bring himself to think about it. He answers a few questions and reminds them that there’s a guard locked up at the prison he left. Michael’s already plotting a recon team, though he’s trying not to make a big deal out of it.

It’s just not something Billy can really think about right now. He’s worked hard to stay sane for two months, the idea of going back to work?

Actually just doesn’t make much sense to him.

That said, nothing makes sense to him. He goes through his bag and marvels at his own belongings, sparse as they may be. As grateful as he is for the team, he scarcely knows what to say to them, and after being alone for two months, it’s unsettling to feel like every breath he’s taking is being analyzed.

After several hours of uncomfortable chitchat, Michael suggests that maybe he’d liked to get some sleep.

“A real bed,” Rick says with a suggestive wag of his eyebrows.

“And nothing to worry about,” Casey assures him.

Michael smiles warmly. “After all this,” he says, “you’ve earned it.”

-o-

The sight of the bed is overwhelmingly beautiful, and it feels like he’s lying in pure downy feather on silk sheets. It’s a spectacular moment.

But it doesn’t lead to sleep.

Billy’s worn out and exhausted and weak. He wants to sleep for an entire day, two days.

Try as he may, however, he can’t.

Everything smells clean, and he’s almost overheated with the blankets. It feels wrong, finishing his day without a reflection with George, and no matter how much he tells himself that he doesn’t need that stupid notebook, he still pines for it anyway.

It doesn’t help that every time he comes close to sleep, he jolts himself awake in a panic. What if this is a dream; what if he closes his eyes and wakes up to find everything gone?

Billy’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to handle that.

Of course, Billy’s not sure he can handle this right now. A comfortable bed? Warm blankets? A pillow?

He tosses and turns and rolls over, looking at the door.

A shudder passes over him, and he’s out of bed in an instant. He stands at the door, fingers on the knob, closing his eyes.

He knows this door opens. He knows it, he knows it, he knows it.

Still.

He opens his eyes, feeling shaky.

It wouldn’t hurt to be sure.

-o-

It feels so damn good to open the door. In fact, Billy might open and close it just for kicks.

Except for that fact that his team is still on the other side, and they all look up, completely expectant, the second he opens it.

Billy forces himself to smile, and he saunters through like that had been his intention all along.

“I’m afraid I’m not sleepy yet,” Billy says, trying to make it sound casual. Not like he’s probably suffering from the early symptoms of PTSD. He stretches and makes his way to the couch. “Feeling restless, is all.”

He’s usually a pretty good liar, but to be fair, he’s a bit out of practice.

The others don’t call him on it. They’re probably suffering from their own psychological maladies after this affair.

“What are you working on?” Billy ventures, looking at them each again and realizing that they’re all immersed into CIA work.

“Just trying to get some paperwork done,” Casey says with a sigh. “This whole mission has been a mess from the start.”

“And I’m trying to get our intel to be coherent enough to hand off,” Rick says, nodding to the stack on his lap with a glance to the other stack on the table. “We’ve been over a lot of it in the last two months.”

It’s flattering, maybe, seeing all they’ve done. It’s strange, though, how life goes on. How they can accumulate mountains of intelligence, and Billy’s amassed nothing more than a heap of rubbish and a likely medical furlow.

“We just want to get things ready to take you home,” Michael tells him gently.

Billy makes a show of yawning. “All this work, and I’m lying in bed,” he says. “Surely after a two month absence, I have to do something to earn my keep.”

Rick exchanges a look with Casey. Michael sits forward, putting his own paperwork down. “You need to sleep,” he says. “Besides, we figured you’d probably want some privacy.”

He means the best; they all do. They know that these months were hard on him, and it’s plain they can see the toll it’s taken. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. And they know for all of Billy’s talk, he’s hurts just like the rest of them. They’ll get him help, if and when he needs it. They’ll give him the space he needs in the meantime to figure that out.

That’s a lovely thought, truly. Billy appreciates it.

He laughs lightly, rubbing at the long hair on the back of his neck. “Truth be told, gents, I’m a bit done with privacy.”

“Well,” Casey says. “I could use someone to double check my dates before we file this.”

“And I really need help organizing these files into some usable format,” Rick says.

Michael smiles, nodding. “We could definitely use you on this one,” he says. “If you’re ready.”

Billy rubs his hands together. “Oh, I’m ready, believe you me,” he said, reaching for a pile of paperwork. “I’ve been ready for two months.”

-o-

They work until it’s late, and Billy falls asleep on the couch, listening to the rustle of Rick’s papers and the swish of Casey’s pen. Michael’s voice drones on the phone while he talks long distance to Langley, and Billy doesn’t dream of anything but bureaucracy and paperwork.

In short, it’s the best sleep he’s had in two months.

-o-

They fall into a sort of routine. Billy takes it easy during the day, taking long showers and eating whenever he damn well pleases. At night, he helps the others until sleep takes over, and he wakes refreshed and ready for another day.

He opens doors because he can.

It’s supposed to be a two-day prep, but it stretches out to a week. Rick insists they have more intelligence to sort, and Casey scraps his paperwork and starts over for the sake of being thorough. Michael shrugs at the delay, and says he just wants to get it right.

They’re all liars, though. The lot of them.

They stayed two months for him.

Billy knows they’ll stay as long as it takes for him to be ready to go home.

Two months, two days, two years.

It’s all the same for teammates.

-o-

He’s the one who decides, and that’s only when he finally can’t take the sight of the front door latched and sealed anymore.

It’s taunting him; that closed door he hasn’t breached. Inside this room, it’s safe and comfortable. But so was George and Bob.

Billy has to leave.

Billy has to go.

Because doors are made to be open.

So that’s sure as hell what Billy’s going to do.

-o-

Billy doesn’t tell them, not until everything is in place. It’s weird, talking on the phone and writing emails. But he’s actually quite good at these things, and two months is a long time, but Billy’s learning that it’s not always as long as he thinks it is.

He gets up early that day, and makes them breakfast. He lays the paperwork on the table, with the printed tickets on top.

“You’ve been busy,” Michael observes cautiously as he sits down.

“Really busy,” Casey says, eyeing the food skeptically. “Since when do you cook?”

“I’ve had a spot of free time lately,” Billy says with a shrug.

Rick takes a tentative bite and nods. “It’s not bad actually.”

Michael looks at the pile of papers. “And all that?”

“Ah,” Billy says, letting his eyes twinkle just a little. “Those are our tickets home, literally and figuratively.”

They regard him uncertainly.

Billy nods at the pile again. “I filed the paperwork with Langley last night, and I cleared our return with Higgins himself. I purchased four tickets for a flight out of the country this evening. If all goes according to plan, we should be back in the United States sometime tomorrow.”

There’s a silence, stunned and stilted. They’re happy, on the one level. And they’re also not sure if happiness is the right way to respond.

Michael wets his lips, sitting back in his chair. “And you’re...ready for this?”

“This is one of the few times the Agency is giving us what amounts to an extended holiday with no strings attached,” Casey says.

“And we totally understand,” Rick adds.

Billy shakes his head. “No, I’m quite sure.”

“What happened to you -- what you experienced -- it’s nothing to take lightly,” Michael says.

“There’s no shame in taking time,” Casey tells him.

“And we’re here with you,” Rick vows. “All the way.”

They’re saying all the right things, because they truly are the best teammates an agent could have. Billy loves them for it, but he’s not sure they’ll ever truly grasp that not all cells have four walls and a lock on the door. Not all isolation involves being alone.

“Mates, I know it’s not going to be all smooth sailing,” he says. “And trust me, I know I may not be ready for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. Besides.”

He shrugs with a smile.

“I don’t exactly have to do it alone,” he concludes. “Do I?”

Michael reaches across, patting him on the arm. “No,” he agrees. “You never do.”

Billy bobs his head with a resounding affirmation. “There we go, then,” he says, picking up his fork to start in on his breakfast. “I think we’re all ready.”

-o-

After nearly three months, they have a lot to pack up. Billy’s never been particularly careful in these manners, and he has even less reason now than ever before. There’s nothing in this flat that he can’t live without, and while he respects state secrets, he knows that’s not the most important thing in the world.

In fact, you can be incarcerated for far less.

He’s done before the others, and he waits restless by the door. He checks his watch, even though he doesn’t need to know the time, and he fidgets despite himself while he chews his lip in anticipation.

He knows it will be easier and harder than he thinks, all at the same time. He knows that the crowds will overwhelm him as much as they comfort him, and he knows that he’ll second guess every passerby on the street for quite some time to come.

And he’ll wonder, even when he doesn’t want to, about the secrets people are harboring. He’ll see them, more than he ever has before, these lost souls that move around him. They are the reason he does this job, and they’re the ones he’s never got to know. He wonders what they’re thinking about, going about their days. Birthday parties; friends at the pub; making love in the early morning before the kids are up.

That’s the point, in some ways. Who we are when everything else is stripped away is a telling and scary thing. It’s surprisingly easy to surround yourself with people and still be all alone. That’s why he lives in a disgusting flat; that’s why he has no friends outside the ODS; that’s why he’s never challenges a deportation notice for over a decade away from.

It’s also why, in the end, he’s really going to be okay. Because, for all that he went through, for as crazy as he felt, he was never really alone.

If he can survive that, then he’s pretty sure he can survive anything after all.

“Okay, okay,” Michael says, dragging his suitcase behind him. “I think we’re good.”

“Everything’s secure here,” Casey confirms.

“Car should be waiting downstairs,” Rick says.

Michael nods his approval and looks at Billy. He shrugs, tilting his head toward the door. “After you.”

Billy swallows hard and looks at the door. His heart skips a beat as he reaches out and takes the handle. He hesitates, because there is reason to doubt and there’s always reason to be afraid.

But there’s never a reason to stop.

He turns the handle and the door opens. Billy feels something loosen in his chest.

“All right, gents,” he announces, swinging the door wide. “Let’s go home.”