faye_dartmouth: (stephen shocked)
[personal profile] faye_dartmouth
A/N: This continues on in the ep, so more dialogue has been snatched from the actual episode. Things are just going to get more complicated for everyone involved. Thank you so much for those reading and reviewing!

Notes and previous parts are in the MASTER POST .



PART FIVE

-o-

Every step he took with Helen felt wrong, even if Billy knew it was technically the right thing to do. For the mission.

But that woman was toxic. He’d only met her for five minutes, and her manipulative wiles were already triggering every spy sense he had. But there was nothing to be done for it, not if he was going to get the intel they needed.

So he followed along, like a good little puppy. She led them away from the building, toward the trees around the perimeter. Slinking up to a larger one, she turned, leaning on it as she smiled at Billy. “It feels good to get some time alone,” she said. “Just you and me.”

The attempt at charm didn’t work. It wouldn’t even have worked on Stephen. Billy had humoured her so far, but now that they were alone, he intended to be all business. “So are we ready?” he asked, mentally going over the last conversation Stephen reported with Helen.

She seemed almost disappointed but she didn’t miss a beat. “Just about,” she replied vaguely.

Clearly, she didn’t intend on making Billy’s job easier. “We’ll need proof,” he said, trying to wrap his mind around the notion. In his mind, he checked off the intel they needed. “Files, photographs, video footage.” He came close to her again, imploringly with an earnestness that seemed to be Stephen’s fallback. “A complete record of the anomaly operation.”

And a complete trail to the source of the leak. If he could get Helen to provide such items, MI5 could trace where it came from, find their mole and roll this mission up nice and neat. Rampaging mammoths aside.

“You know, Lester will kill you if he has to,” she said.

The response was meant to unnerve him, Billy was certain of that much. Helen wanted to further cement Stephen’s trust, and pinning Lester as an all-powerful common enemy was an effective reminder of the stakes, real or imagined.

But she was avoiding the point.

Billy pressed harder. “We’ll have to tell the press everything,” he said, almost emphatic now, hoping that his passion alone would still carry some weight with her. When there was no response, Billy tried a different tactic. “That’s not all. We have to give Cutter another chance.”

The words surprised her, and they surprised Fredericks, too. Helen’s “What?” resounded with Fredericks’ in his ear.

Billy didn’t waver, though. It was something of a risk, he knew, but at this point he needed to up the ante. Helen was either toying with him regarding her intentions or she was just holding out. Either way, she knew more than she was letting on but as long as the current power dynamic was what it was, she had no pressing need to tell him. His acquiescence made him valuable and it was plain that she hadn’t needed anything concrete to get him to follow her so far.

Bringing Cutter into the equation would do one of two things. First, it might force her to open up. To stop him from bringing in the third party, she might be willing to divulge more of what she knew. Second, if she had good intentions, bringing Cutter in might help the investigation go faster. By sharing the facts, the truth might be all the more present.

Plus, this was what Stephen would do.

Well, almost. Stephen would have gone with his team and met up with Helen later. Billy had ruined that for him, and this was a chance to help make it better.

He came closer to her still. “We’re going to tell him what we’re doing and give him a chance,” Billy said, because that was what Stephen was about. Giving chances even when he hadn’t been given any in return.

Helen was good, but not good enough to hide her outright surprise. “You can’t tell him, Stephen,” she said, and it was probably the most honest thing she’d said to him yet.

“I’m not going to,” Billy said. It was either a move of brilliance or stupidity, time would tell. “You are.”

She looked hesitant, but inclined her head. “All right.”

And that was that.

Billy’s stomach twisted as he walked away.

“If you think Nick will listen to reason, you’re wrong,” she called out.

Billy turned, shrugging just a little. “He’ll listen,” he said, dredging up optimism for Stephen’s sake. “It’s not personal. Come on.”

Because if Billy was going to go headlong into disaster, he’d rather not drag his feet about it.

-o-

Stephen was surprised, although he was running out of the ability for such emotion. The last few months had been enough of a roller coaster, and since coming to MI5, that had been ramped up exponentially. There was lying and betrayal and possible death and mission objectives – it was only the first morning of this so-called operation and Stephen was already exhausted.

And he hadn’t even left the room.

Next to him, Fredericks was not handling this newest twist in the plan overly well. He bent over the microphone. “The mission, Collins,” he said insistently. “How does this forward our mission?”

Stephen glared at him. “Cutter can be an important part of the mission,” he said. “He knows something.”

Fredericks turned the microphone off, giving Stephen a withering look. “And Helen knows more,” he said. “You wanted this mission done quickly, and all this detour will do is slow us down.”

“Not everything has to be done by rushing through it,” Stephen said.

Fredericks cocked his head. “Seems ironic, coming from you,” he commented with a hint of sarcasm.

Stephen’s chest puffed out, a little indignant. “I’m just saying,” he said. “We shouldn’t neglect any source of information. If we give Cutter a chance, we might be able to work with him and Helen—“

“That’s adorably idealistic of you,” Fredericks said. He glanced back at the screen where Billy was moving back toward the car. He pressed down on the microphone. “We can still get out of this. I highly recommend we do not approach Cutter at this time—“

Stephen shook his head, leaning closer to have his voice heard. “Cutter is a reasonable man,” he said. “He’ll listen to a straightforward argument. I know it.”

Fredericks frowned at him. “You might be underestimating your position with him,” he said.

“I don’t care,” Stephen shot back, because he was tired of being quiet. He’d held his tongue and minded his manners and it hadn’t got him anywhere. Not with Cutter, not with MI5, not with anyone. “It’s not like we’ve given Cutter a chance. With all the lies he’s had to deal with, a little truth will be telling.”

“Don’t confuse your personal situation with the mission,” Fredericks said. “Really, ignorance might be Cutter’s best bet in this mission.”

“Ignorance never helps anyone,” Stephen argued. “This might be the break we need.”

“Or it might be a colossal waste of time,” Fredericks snapped.

There was a garbled noise and the view on the screen shifted as Billy seemed to scratch the back of his head purposefully during his long trek back to the car. He cleared his throat again before his feed went back to normal.

Stephen sat back, tense.

Fredericks lifted the microphone again, this time talking slowly and clearly. “Proceed with caution,” he ordered. “Just remember our primary objective.”

With that, he carefully released the talk button and looked at Stephen. “Your motives are suspect, Mr Hart,” he said. “Remember that this isn’t just your life any more. The more complicated we make the mission, the more likely it is to fail. Do you understand what failure will mean? Not just for you, but for Collins? For the public?”

The candour unsettled him. He hadn’t thought it through that far; there just hadn’t been time. He’d been so focused on trying to get everything to work out the right way that he hadn’t let himself think about if they went wrong.

He resettled in his seat, pulling himself back together. “I suppose, to my mind, failure just isn’t possible.”

Fredericks turned back to the screen, making a note on his paperwork. “For your sake, I certainly hope you’re correct.”

-o-

The buzzing in Billy’s ear finally came to a merciful end. It was quite enough to be in this predicament without enduring the back and forth of the two opposing viewpoints Billy was trying to balance. They were both right, of course. Fredericks had the mission in mind; Stephen had natural concerns about his life. Billy was still operating under the notion that he could appease both.

The entire thing did make him skittish, though. James Bond never had to deal with bickering in his ear while he tried to keep his cool.

It was tempting to fancy himself as a longsuffering hero, but Helen had sidled around to the passenger’s seat and was eyeing him not so subtly. “Nervous?” she asked.

Billy looked at her and did his best not to glare. He could only theorise that flitting through time had made her more animalistic, which was why her sexual instincts were so strong that she managed to even ask such a simple question with a provocative bent.

Fortunately, a glare was a good response, both for him and Stephen. He made a face and then sat heavily into the driver’s seat. “Just a lot on my mind,” he said.

Helen settled easily in beside him, somehow producing her bag. She must have stowed it in the car when she ambushed him earlier. That would at least explain the power of her impeccable timing – less a question of instinct and more a matter of persistence on her part.

She blinked at him demurely. “I think it’s quite noble,” she said. “Trying to include everyone as best you can.”

It was a play to his vanity, and a damn good one. Stephen wasn’t one to preen over appearances or even skill, but appealing to his struggle to do the right thing would have undoubted appeal. After all, it was Cutter’s lack of affirmation that had got him to MI5 in the first place.

Billy wanted to tell her off, but his cover demanded otherwise. Stephen was not wholly fooled by her but he also wasn’t ready to write off her advances as mere flattery either. He started the car, feeling overly conspicuous under her stare. “It’s not been easy on any of us,” he said.

“You’re too kind,” she said, somehow producing an apple from her sack. She fiddled with it as Billy put the car into gear and pulled out. “Always so thoughtful.”

Helen was not subtle in her approach, but she was good. It was a nuance Billy had appreciated many times in his colleagues: the ability to be what people wanted. Helen would be a good spy, in all actuality, if not for her dubious intentions.

Really, it hardly seemed fair, foisting herself on the poor sod who’d called her his first love and defended her still, despite all evidence to the contrary. Stephen Hart had probably been young and wide-eyed when he’d met Helen Cutter and she’d played him from the very start and he’d never got over it.

She turned the apple in her hand, smiling at it before glancing at him. “It’s a pity Nick makes it so hard for you.”

At that, he returned her look. “Oh, and you make it so easy?” he asked flatly.

Coy, she controlled her reaction, offering him a look of mock hurt. “We can work on it,” she promised. “I’m here to help, after all.”

Like hell she was here to help. He still wasn’t sure why she was here, but helping Stephen was last on her list. Helping herself to Stephen, on the other hand, might be on her mind, but it was hard to tell with the height of her boobs so glaringly in his face.

Whatever she’d had with Stephen eight years ago was looking less and less an affair of mutual attraction and more like outright coercion.

Stephen deserved better – a lot better – but as much as he wanted to help the bloke, priorities did have to be in order.

Mouth flattened, he looked back at the road. “Then just sit there and don’t antagonise him when we get there,” he said. “We’re going to have a hard enough time as it is.”

She sat back, inclining her head. “I’ll follow your lead.”

Billy held back a snort as he tightened his grip on the wheel and drove on.

-o-

The picture from Billy’s feed bobbed, weaving awkwardly as he drove the car. Still, Stephen didn’t need to see Helen to know what was happening.

And he really did see it. Maybe for the first time.

When face to face with Helen, things were always less clear. His emotions got in the way and he was never really sure what he thought. She made everything difficult. Because she was Helen and he could still feel her hands on his skin, in his hair, her lips on his telling him he mattered…

It was like Stephen was still 22 and in love, no matter how hard he tried not to be.

Here, though, with MI5 agents around him and his entire life on display to be analysed and assessed, it was different. Because where he normally saw affection, now he heard manipulation. Where there had been passion, there was calculation.

She really could be a bitch.

And Stephen was such a tool.

It was embarrassing to say the least. Enlightening, maybe, but his manhood was suffering as a consequence. Liberation wasn’t always a glorious thing, even if necessary.

Next to him, though, Fredericks did not seem concerned with Stephen’s discomfort. He apparently thought the fate of the mission was a larger concern. Not that Stephen disagreed, but this was clearly going to be more of a trial sitting passively watching other people muck up his life than he’d anticipated.

Still, at least Fredericks’ focus saved him some humiliation. At this point, Stephen would have to take what he could get, meagre as it was.

And it was meagre, if Fredericks’ expression was any indication. “This is a waste of time,” he muttered, sighing as he looked at the screen before noting something on his papers.

“We’ve already got Helen in the mix,” Stephen said. “I’d say the timing’s all been rather fortunate.”

Fredericks cast him a disparaging look. “Yes, we do have Helen,” he said. “And now we’re wasting our time, dallying after Cutter.”

Stephen stiffened. If Helen confused him, the mention of Cutter just made him defensive. “Cutter’s better than you give him credit for,” he said. “He could help us.”

“Yes, he could,” Fredericks said. “Were he not still grappling with the fact that you slept with his wife.”

“That was eight years ago,” Stephen said, feeling the flush rise in his cheek.

“I’m not sure that sort of thing has a statute of limitations, as it were,” he replied cheekily. “He’ll just be angry, and will probably tell Billy to piss off.”

It was true, and Stephen knew it. He wanted to believe, like Billy said, that Cutter would listen, that even though their friendship had been strained, their working relationship could stay intact. After all, they’d survived in the Silurian together. Cutter had even saved his life with Taylor’s help. They trusted each other when things were dire, no questions asked.

But everything about this was personal between them now. Helen had ensured that. It was probably the only reason she’d agreed to go and see Cutter, because she knew he’d rebuke Billy – rebuke Stephen – and break that bond more than it already was.

Stephen had been fooling himself. Until they fixed the personal stuff, the professional things would fall apart, slowly but surely. Cutter hadn’t forgiven him because Stephen hadn’t even known how to apologise. He’d wanted to – he’d tried – but the words never came. He had hoped that Cutter meant it when he said it was okay, but that had been as foolish as everything else. It was very likely that Cutter would cut Stephen out of his life when he discovered Helen’s role in all of this.

Really, though, it had been falling apart since Helen came back, since she revealed the affair. A fast break or a slow one, the end result would be the same.

Soberly, Stephen nodded. “I know,” he said.

Fredericks’ face screwed up in frustration. “Then why are we wasting time with this and risking Billy’s cover on a fool’s errand? It’s a lost cause.”

“Because,” Stephen said, certain now, “we still need to try. Cutter still deserves a choice.” In life and in work, Stephen owed him that. He smiled ruefully. “Because sometimes lost causes are still worth fighting for.”

Especially now that Stephen had nothing left to lose.

-o-

If Billy was nervous before, he had an undeniable sense of dread when he pulled up to the cordoned-off portion of the motorway. It only took him a moment to determine that the threat had passed – which was a relief in many ways since Billy’s training had somehow managed to gloss over the mammoth taming portion – but that just left room for the impending conflict to percolate.

And the minute he stepped out of the car, he knew that the battle lines were already drawn. Cutter with the team on one side; him and Helen on the other.

Helen appeared nonchalant about the entire thing. She had managed to produce a knife to cut the apple up with, though her intimidation tactics were really not so subtle. Neither was her choice of fruit; forbidden and fraught with temptation. A temptation that it looked like Stephen had fallen for by showing up with her at the anomaly site when the danger was already over.

For his part, Cutter stood frozen down the road, staring. His eyes went from Helen to Stephen, before narrowing.

In short, this was not going to go well. Helen was right; Cutter wasn’t going to listen. Stephen was overly idealistic if he thought things would ever be fixed without a long, drawn out discussion and a due amount of contrition. There was a woman between them – and not just a woman, Helen – and that was the way most things ended between mates.

But this wasn’t just about Helen. This was about trust, and the loss of it. This was about eight years based on the one lie that could undo the good. It was betrayal. It was jealousy. It was everything.

Billy did all he could to stand his ground, even though it was increasingly clear to him that he’d underestimated his timing. The simple fact was, he had no ground left to stand on. MI5 agents were trained to do the impossible, but suddenly this task – mending fences between Cutter and Stephen – seemed well beyond the call of duty.

Not that he could turn back now. Stephen harboured guilt, but he wasn’t the type to go running with his tail between his legs. He believed in things and fought for them. Billy would do the same – for Cutter and the mission.

“So where the hell have you been?” Cutter asked, eyes solely on Stephen now, voice hard and accusing. “We could have been killed.”

Billy didn’t let himself think about that. He couldn’t. “You weren’t.”

It wasn’t the right answer – it wasn’t even a good answer – but it was all Billy had. He didn’t know how to say how thankful he was for it, even if he was.

“Not this time,” Cutter retorted bitterly.

There was a long silence, resounding and hard.

Helen was focused on her apple, but her voice was seductive when she spoke. “Are you just going to ignore me, Nick?”

Cutter didn’t pay her any heed. He kept his gaze zeroed in on Billy. “Is she with you?”

The question was laden with resentment. Billy swallowed. “Not in the way you think,” he said even though at this point, it didn’t matter.

“You’ve been seeing her?” Cutter asked anyway.

Cutter was easy to read, even in his hardness. The look of a man scorned, of a man betrayed, of a man so hurt that he didn’t even know how to sort the source of the pain. Now he was asking the questions, though. The questions he’d had since he’d found out about the affair. The questions that he’d probably had rattling around back there every time he looked at Stephen.

This was the talk they should have had a long time ago. Eight years ago, really, and maybe things would be different now. A lot different.

Either way, Billy wished he didn’t have to be doing this for Stephen now.

But he was. Fumbling and in over his head, but he was. “Yeah, a couple of times,” he said.

A voice crackled in his ear: “You’re here for information, Collins.

Billy gathered a breath and focused, making one last attempt to redirect. “But, look, this is important.”

The rest was important, too, Billy knew, but…priorities.

Cutter’s face was blank, mouth tight. “You’re fired,” he said brushing past Billy on his way back to the Hilux.

The suddenness of the declaration was surprising. Simple and straightforward and final. Billy had known this would go poorly, but apparently he’d underestimated. Wildly.

Billy turned, feeling desperate. It was getting away from him; the mission, the relationship. All of it. “She can help us!” he said, hoping Cutter would listen.

Cutter kept walking. “If you think Helen’s here to help then you’re madder than she is.”

Billy trailed over him. “Just listen to me—“

Cutter turned, stopping short. The gap between them was vast, almost impenetrable. “Are you still in love with her?” Cutter asked. “Is that why you trust her?”

The question was so plain that Billy wasn’t sure what to do with it. He didn’t even know the truth of it. From all he could gather, Stephen did have feelings for Helen, but it was hard to call it love. Not when it was so one-sided, so uncertain, so hurt.

But maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe he needed to tell Cutter what the man wanted to hear. For the mission.

How would he salvage any of this?

James Bond was lucky; he only had to conquer international criminals, not solve age-old love triangles.

But before he could muster a reply, it became clear that Cutter didn’t need an answer. “You know what,” he said, “I don’t care. Do what you want.”

Anger gave way to indifference; neither was the whole story. Cutter turned and walked away again, this time not looking back.

And Billy had no way of combating either. He’d tried to reach Cutter – for Stephen’s sake.

He’d failed.

“I told you,” Helen said, lingering behind him suggestively.

She had. And Billy had known. Fredericks had known. But he’d had to try.

Just like now he had to walk away. For himself, for Stephen. For everything.

Gathering a breath, he turned his back on Cutter’s retreating form, brushed by Helen and went back to the car.

-o-

Apparently Stephen did have something left to lose.

Apparently he had a whole lot left to lose.

The respect of his team, his working relationship with Cutter, his job.

He had known the confrontation would probably go badly, but he hadn’t suspected that Cutter would flat out fire him. No explanations, no second chances, just a simple sacking to end Stephen’s less than illustrious stay at the ARC.

Of course, to be fair, Stephen had had a second chance the minute Helen came back. Hell, he’d had countless chances over the years. It would never have been an easy conversation, but there were times he could have said it.

When they were half drunk, laid out at Cutter’s house with research notes spread all across the furniture. When they were tucked up in a tent in the wilderness, just the two of them while the wind howled outside and Cutter was more worried about his equipment than basic survival. When they were driving in the Hilux, Cutter at the wheel and Stephen at his side, moving over rolling countryside with nothing but miles and silence to go.

He could have said it any of those times, and more. He almost had. The words had formed in the back of his throat, settled bitterly on his tongue. He could have said, I slept with Helen, and let the pieces fall where they may. He’d always envisioned Cutter would be surprised, but somehow Stephen suspected he would have forgiven him after a while, said it was in the past, said it was another life.

Stephen didn’t deserve a second chance. He’d taken the coward’s way out and this was the consequence of it, playing out in living colour, recorded and fully documented in the name of national security.

Fredericks gave him a lazy look. “That went well.”

Stephen glared back. “Shut up.”

Sulking, Stephen slumped, watching the screen with a numb detachment. Billy had driven himself and Helen back to the ARC, and Fredericks sat up straighter as fresh audio filtered in.

“We have nothing more we can do here,” Helen was saying.

The image was tilted, but she was half in the frame.

“He might not have meant it,” Billy said, but it sounded weak.

Helen’s expression of sympathy was almost laughably condescending. “Stephen—“

Billy inhaled sharply. “Just let me pick up my things,” he said curtly.

She hesitated, but seemed to sense the breaking point that Billy was feigning approaching. She pressed her lips together, and nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Meet at your place?”

“You don’t have a key—“

Helen’s smile was sickeningly sweet. “I’ll manage,” she said, leaning across, flashing her cleavage unwittingly for the camera as she pecked Billy on the cheek. Billy showed no sign of reciprocation, and Helen lingered just a moment more before getting out of the car.

There was the sound of a door closing then a long pause. Billy rustled in the seat, then said, “So any advice for the next phase?”

It took Stephen a moment to register the question as directed at them. But Fredericks seemed to be expecting it. He pressed down on the comm link. “It’s clear Helen’s our best bet,” Fredericks said. “Clear out of the ARC – make it look legitimate that Stephen’s going – and get back to Stephen’s flat to see what she has planned.”

“But Cutter—“ Stephen tried to interject.

Fredericks glared at him.

Stephen glared back. “If we talk to him without Helen—“

“He’ll still never trust you,” Fredericks said, a bit harsh now. “Our best bet is to cut ties with Cutter and the ARC and work the angle with Helen. She can lead us to her source, which gives us the mole without any fuss. If she thinks she can trust you, then maybe she’ll open up even faster.”

“You don’t know Helen—“ Stephen said, trying to explain.

“Son, I know this is your life, and I’m trying to respect that,” Fredericks said. “But I think you’ve made a mess enough of it as it is. We’d like to conduct this mission without foregone disaster.”

Stephen stared, this time in shock.

Billy’s voice came through the audio feed. “I’m going to have to go with Fredericks on this one, mate,” he said. “My apologies for getting you sacked, but right now is no time to play fix-it with Cutter. When this is over, you can explain all of it and work it out. But he’s not going to listen until we have the evidence, and right now, Helen’s our best bet.”

“Fine,” Stephen said. “Then why do we need to go back in at all? Can’t we just leave it as it is? I mean, the damage has been done.”

Billy’s voice was apologetic. “Not all of it, I’m afraid,” he said. “Before this thing kicks off, I just want you to know that I’m sorry for it.”

“We had to give Cutter the choice,” Stephen said.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Billy said, undoing his seatbelt.

Stephen frowned. “Then, what—“

“Just know I’m sorry,” he said, cutting off abruptly as he opened the door. “And I’ll make it up to you when I can.”

It was meant to be reassuring. Somehow, Stephen didn’t find that very reassuring at all.

-o-

This time, Billy didn’t let himself be nervous. After all, things had gone about as badly as they could go and he was still standing. Things were in motion now; there was no use worrying about them. It was all he could do to grab hold of the situation and try to steer it as best he could.

No matter what.

Even if this wasn’t what he’d envisioned for his first solo outing in the field, he could still meet the challenge with class, flair and total fearlessness.

This resolve lasted until he came back into the atrium and saw the mammoth. No matter what his intentions, his cover couldn’t hold much weight against a gigantic prehistoric beast.

“Wow,” he said, looking up in total awe at the creature herded behind the doors. “That’s not something you see everyday.”

Though the room was busy with people, Abby seemed to be the only one within listening distance. “Too bad you missed him in action,” she said, closing the door in front of Billy, as if to hide the mammoth from his view.

Billy looked at her, remembering what he was here for. It didn’t take his spy skills to see that she was mad at him – not mad, though, he realised. Disappointed. She hadn’t been friendly his morning, but she clearly hadn’t thought Stephen would leave them to capture the mammoth alone.

Which was fair, because Stephen wouldn’t.

Billy’s stomach churned guiltily, even though he knew it couldn’t have been helped. “I’m sorry about that,” he said with as much veracity as he could muster.

Billy knew the power of his looks, and he knew he was fully capable of earnestness when the situation called for it. In general, he had good results.

Abby was not won over.

Billy took a breath and steeled himself. If he was going to set about drawing lines in the sand, he might as well start here. “What about you, Abby?” he asked carefully. “Do you think what we’re doing here is right? Keeping all this a secret?”

It was a valid question, really, even if Billy knew he didn’t have a lot of credibility at the moment. Just seeing the mammoth had cemented the need to control this situation more than ever. Billy knew that the public had to be protected, often for its own good, and that sometimes this involved lies and deception.

But this wasn’t terrorism. This wasn’t just national security. This was the existence of time and space. This was the past and the present and the future. All feebly controlled by one bureaucratic project covered by the Official Secrets Act.

The moral quandary of being a spy had prepared him for subterfuge, but standing with a mammoth just beyond the doors, Billy had to wonder if maybe this crossed the boundaries of what was acceptable. If some things did need to be known. Maybe Stephen was right.

“Yeah,” Abby said, and she sounded tired. No, she sounded exhausted. “I do. Look at the way we treat animals now, Stephen. Every day, a new species disappears. What would people do to creatures they don’t understand?”

That was Abby’s heart, in a nutshell. Noble, but the narrow focus did not necessarily serve the greater good. “This isn’t just about the creatures,” he said, knowing Stephen would believe that. His file had noted his conservations efforts; Stephen cared about nature and wildlife, too. But he’d clearly come to understand the precarious balance of managing rifts in time. “This is about our future.”

He had a point, and a good one. But Abby just looked at him, unyielding. “Bottom line,” she said, voice flat, “whatever Cutter decides, I’m with him.”

And there it was. The first line in the sand that Billy had made and couldn’t cross.

Now there was no turning back.

-o-

Stephen could only gape at the screen. “Why is he doing this?” he asked, gesturing helplessly. “I mean, what good is it serving?”

Fredericks was watching carefully. “Maybe he’s trying to show you how not to live your life when this is over,” he offered.

Stephen was too indignant to be actually offended. “I just don’t see the point,” he said.

“Oh, I think the point will be made soon enough,” Fredericks said.

Stephen’s brow furrowed as he watched. “He’s making a mess of things!”

“No,” Fredericks said. “For once, Collins is proving his mettle.” He paused, looking at Stephen with a doleful sympathy. “Just keep telling yourself that as this plays out.”

Uncomprehending, Stephen shook his head. “But—“

“Trust me,” Fredericks said. “This time you really want to trust me.”

Defeated, Stephen looked back at the screen and wasn’t sure whether he hoped the other man was right or not.

-o-

Alienating Abby hadn’t been part of the plan, but it had a certain closure to it. At the very least, the subdued confrontation bolstered Billy’s resolve for what he had to do next.

Finding Cutter was easy. The man’s aura was strong, and Billy felt himself pulled inextricably toward him without even trying. Maybe it was his innate sense of self as a spy; maybe it was something different. Something he couldn’t quite place between the Scottish professor and the self-exiled lab technician.

So while finding Cutter was easy, finding the strength was hard. He knew what he’d promised Stephen. Moreover, he knew what he’d promised himself. Which was why this mattered so much. He had to protect Cutter, and if they couldn’t work together in this part of the mission, they would have to work apart.

Completely.

Trailing the other man, Billy rallied his strength and did his best to think like Stephen. Beyond the emotion, to the cold hard facts that brought him to MI5.

He took a breath and began. “We don’t have the right to decide what people should know.”

The irony was not lost on him. For Billy to say such things was damn near laughable. Here he was, lying about his very identity while simultaneously extolling the virtues of truth. Yet, he couldn’t say that he didn’t wonder if it was true.

Cutter was stiff, refusing to look at him. “Whatever argument you might have had lost any credibility when you hooked up with Helen.”

It was a flat rebuttal, not of the facts but of Stephen himself. There was no way this would end well, which was what Billy was counting on at this point. “She said you would do this,” he continued, pushing and pushing hard. Cutter might be swayed on facts, but this was still all about Helen. “She said that you wouldn’t listen.” He rounded closer. This couldn’t linger. “That you were too arrogant to face reality.”

The words were well chosen. Billy knew what made people tick; he knew how to push buttons, both to assuage their nerves and to raise their hackles.

In his defence, Cutter was working hard to resist the obvious provocation. He may have fired Stephen, but breaking ties after eight years wasn’t as easy as he might want everyone to believe. No, he’d need a little extra push.

Cutter looked at him, hard and steady. “Reality,” he said, almost scoffing the word. “You have no idea what that even means any more. The world changed. We can’t protect anyone until we know why the anomalies appear and what they mean.”

There was a sadness there that Stephen hadn’t expected. Cutter’s position wasn’t as indefinable as he might of thought – it was the last defence of a man who had lost too much already.

The part Billy hated was that Cutter and Stephen wanted the same things. They were on the same side. But they didn’t know how to talk to each other. Stephen needed to apologise; Cutter needed to acknowledge his own feelings. They could work through this. They could salvage what was left.

Except for the fact that Billy needed a clean break for this mission to work. If he was going to win Helen’s trust and also keep Cutter safe, Stephen’s relationship with Cutter had to end. That was what he had promised Stephen – to keep Cutter safe.

By any means possible.

Billy steeled himself. “But it’s always your way or nothing.”

Cutter didn’t hesitate. “That works for me.”

Of course it did. Cutter would push his way until he was alone and lonely with nothing left to fight. His only solace would be that he was right in principle, even if he’d been wrong about so much else. Cutter and Stephen were a pair, both too stubborn to meet halfway. It was going to be their downfall.

Unless Billy could prevent it.

Still, his stomach roiled and he had to spit the words. “No wonder she turned to me.”

There was truth to it. Helen had never had quite the same doting from Cutter as she did Stephen. Cutter had always been her equal and Stephen would always be the over-eager student who fell in love.

And two friends would sacrifice everything for a woman who just wasn’t worth the effort.

Cutter’s eyes flashed. The hurt conflated into rage.

Billy saw the tension start in his shoulders, moving down his arms. The hands formed into fists and Billy saw the punch coming but he didn’t avoid it.

The impact still rocked him back, the hot pain blinding him as he stumbled, slamming into the work surface behind him. He had to blink, hand going to his cheek. His vision cleared just in time to see Cutter walk out.

He didn’t look back.

Billy gathered a breath, pushing himself to his feet as his vision continued to sway. “That’s made everything simple,” he muttered, trying to adjust his shirt.

His cheek was still stinging, and he gathered himself, too aware of the people watching him. The visible rift was cemented now. Billy had done it, finally followed through. Cutter wouldn’t be a part of Helen’s machinations. It was the best Billy could do.

As he walked out, head held high and cheek throbbing, it didn’t feel like enough.

NEXT

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