faye_dartmouth: (stephen skeptical)
[personal profile] faye_dartmouth
A/N: Thank you so much for your continued readership! It means a lot :) More familiar things happening in this part, and we start to see just how far Billy will go for the cause...

Notes and previous parts in the MASTER POST .



PART SIX

-o-

In reality, that was how Stephen had always expected it to go. He’d played out that conversation for years in his head and, though he’d had hope that maybe Cutter would understand, he’d always suspected that the first betrayal would be too much. It wouldn’t matter that Stephen had been so young. It wouldn’t matter that he’d been infatuated with Helen from the beginning. It wouldn’t matter that he’d hardly met Cutter, that Helen had told him – belaboured the point in great detail – that their marriage was over.

None of it would matter and Stephen would lose his best friend in the entire world because of a mistake he’d made before they’d ever properly met.

This had been his greatest fear, and when Cutter punched Billy, Stephen still felt the weight of the blow heavily on his face.

Even Fredericks seemed to understand the impact, and he was mercifully silent. As Billy stalked out of the ARC, alone and rejected, Fredericks turned his attention to his notes, passing some instructions over to the tech people, who set about tweaking the equipment. Ten minutes ago, Stephen might have been inclined to ask what they were doing. Now, he didn’t quite see the point.

It was entirely out of his hands, after all. The idea that he could come here, that he could still exert some say in how it played out – it had been a foolish fantasy. He’d waived his rights to determine how the mole was discovered, just like he’d forfeited his ability to have any sway with Cutter when he’d slept with his wife eight years ago.

The numbness of it all was encompassing. It was all gone. Everything. When this so-called mission was over, it wouldn’t even matter. He had nothing left to go back to.

This thought was so disconcerting that he barely noticed when the feed cut out. Frowning, he focused his attention. Fredericks did not seem concerned or particularly surprised and Stephen was going to voice his concerns when the door opened and Billy came inside.

The shock of seeing his double was still a contentious emotion. Billy looked exhausted, face drawn, the bruise vivid on his cheek. The events of the morning had taken their toll on him, that much was clear, and the man actually looked remorseful.

Which was why Stephen nearly killed him.

He was moving before he thought about it, lunging out of his chair and scrambling around the table. Billy made no attempt to escape, and Fredericks barely managed to grab him by the shirt, pulling him back with such force that nearly knocked Stephen on his backside.

“You bastard,” Stephen yelled, struggling uselessly against Fredericks’ grip. “You went back and bloody ruined my life.”

Billy didn’t deny it. He swallowed, face sombre and when he spoke, his own Scottish tones were back. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “It had to be done.”

Stephen struggled with fresh vigour. “Why?” he demanded. “Just to prove how good a spy you are?”

“I made a promise to you,” Billy said evenly, eyes not leaving Stephen.

“And how does destroying every relationship I have keep that promise?” Stephen demanded, straining vainly as Fredericks kept his grip strong.

“Because it’s obvious that Helen is the better lead,” Fredericks interjected. “Collins tried to work with Cutter but at this point, that’s not going to happen. The best way to keep him and other innocent employees out of the crossfire, so to speak, is to work outside the ARC altogether.”

“But now we don’t even have access to the ARC!” Stephen argued.

“Except the listening devices I planted on my way in this morning,” Billy said coolly.

Stephen strained, but had no response.

“And if Helen’s lead proves to be false, there are still ample reasons to send Billy back to the ARC,” Fredericks said. “If we believed that being inside the ARC was the best route, we would pursue it. The fact is that the intelligence doesn’t support that; it points to Helen and dealing with her on neutral ground is far less risky and minimises the chance that the mole will suspect Billy’s cover.”

Stephen’s chest heaved, but he stopped struggling, easing back against the grip. He glanced toward Fredericks, who gave him a neutral look.

“Collins is trying to spare your friends any further difficulties in this process,” he said. “I am not one to laud him without reason, but he made the smartest and safest tactical move by getting himself fired and ensuring that Cutter no longer considers him a viable member of the team.”

“But what if he knows more?” Stephen asked.

Billy spoke this time. “If he knew enough to make a difference, he would have shared those details already,” he said. “He has suspicions; Helen has facts.”

“Or she’s the source of it all, given her file,” Fredericks said.

The tension left Stephen’s body and his posture slouched further; he was out of denials.

Billy moved closer, movements almost gentle as he talked directly to Stephen. “I’m heading to Stephen’s flat, and I’m hopeful that once she finds out what happened with Cutter, she’ll be even more amenable to sharing information,” he said.

“She is a bit power hungry, isn’t she?” Fredericks mused from beside Stephen.

“She clearly wants to be in control,” Billy said. “That’s another benefit of a fallout with Cutter. She’ll fancy herself the one who orchestrated it. The more sway she has with Stephen, the more likely she is to trust him completely.”

The analysis was to the point and right. A day ago, Stephen might have defended her; now he wasn’t so sure.

Then again, he wasn’t sure of anything.

“It sounds reasonable,” Fredericks agreed. “Anything you need?”

“Just wanted face to face confirmation that we’re a go for this tactic,” Billy said.

Fredericks smirked. “Never thought I’d say it, but I think you’ve got it under control for now,” he said. “Now that Stephen’s not technically employed by the ARC, we won’t have any more calls to worry about. Just let her have her way and she’ll lead us to the answers.”

“Do we have more support in place in case this thing goes hot?” Billy asked.

“We have a special forces contingency on call,” Fredericks confirmed, to Stephen’s surprise. “With a call, they can be dispatched anywhere in the vicinity.”

The hint of a smile returned to Billy’s face, lighting up his eyes with a renewed spirit. “Then I do believe we’re ready to go,” he said, rubbing his hands together. His gaze turned to Stephen, lingering. “Unless there are other concerns we’d like to discuss.”

It was an opening for him, that much was clear, but Stephen found himself uncertain what to do with it. What else could he possibly ask for? What more could he possibly hope to happen? Approval to continue stamping on the fleeting remains of his so-called life?

He just wanted this to be over.

Stephen let his gaze wander toward the ground, ignoring the vague disappointment on Billy’s face. Fredericks intervened for all their sakes. “Best get back to it,” he said to Billy. “She’s likely to get suspicious.”

“I suspect you’re right,” Billy said, finally looking away from Stephen. “Okay, then.”

And with that, he left.

It was anticlimactic. All of Stephen’s anger, his self-righteous rage was for nothing. It wasn’t Billy’s fault. Not really. It would be convenient if that were the case, but this was the end result Stephen was destined to suffer, had been condemned to since all this had begun. In many ways, it was probably a blessing that he only had to watch it, not live it.

He just hated that so many other people had to suffer for his mistakes. Cutter, Abby, Connor…

Even Billy.

Guilt turned Stephen’s stomach. Billy had kept his promise, and he was going back to live out lies on Stephen’s behalf. That was a sacrifice, and Stephen had tried to hit him.

Just that fast, Stephen moved toward the door, opening it. Fredericks called to him, but Stephen didn’t stop. In the hall, Billy was down the way and Stephen called, “Wait!”

Billy stopped, turning in genuine surprise.

Stephen jogged closer, dimly aware of Fredericks standing in the doorway behind him. He approached Billy regardless, intently meeting the other man’s gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Billy’s smile was small. “Nothing to be sorry for, mate,” he said, his Scottish accent drawling just like Cutter’s.

Gathering a breath, Stephen shook his head. “It’s not you I’m angry at.”

“You should be,” Billy said. “I went in and made a mess. Good intentions or not, I still regret that it had to be done.”

“I made a big enough mess all on my own,” he said, hesitating. He pressed his lips together, looking for the words. For someone who extolled the virtues of truth, simple declarations were difficult for him. “I know you’re doing what you can. And I appreciate that.”

Billy relaxed, grinning in return. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” he said, winking slightly as he clapped Stephen on the shoulder. “Once we out this mole, we can work on getting you back to normal.”

“You shouldn’t underestimate things,” Stephen warned, unnerved by Billy’s cockiness.

“People find this secret agent stuff inspiring,” Billy said. “They’ll understand why you went this route.”

“No, I mean Helen,” Stephen said. “You can’t underestimate her.”

Billy sobered somewhat. “She is something of a force of nature, isn’t she?”

Stephen snorted. “What Helen wants, Helen gets,” he said. “And always on her terms.”

It was true; breaking off their affair after just one night together had been his idea. It was also the only time he’d ever stood up to her and managed to walk away.

“You’re right to fear for your integrity with a woman like that,” Billy consoled, “but it’s a different story for me. My integrity is already a fleeting thing. Helen can take what she wants from me and it won’t make a difference.”

There he went again with the flippant overconfidence. Stephen saw nothing wrong in being certain in one’s abilities, but Helen was more dangerous than a predator, and Billy had barely scratched the surface where she was concerned.

Sighing, Stephen knew that all he could do was trust that Billy would play it safe.

And hope.

He nodded, weary. “Just be careful.”

Billy’s grin returned and he slapped Stephen on the shoulder. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Watching Billy walk away, Stephen somehow doubted that was true.

-o-

The stop at MI5 had been the right choice, if only for the validation alone. Fredericks’ approval was surprisingly gratifying – as though he had finally arrived. Fredericks hadn’t mocked him, hadn’t coddled him. They’d talked like equals.

Like Billy was an actual spy.

The thrill of that was more than he had ever expected. To think that he’d found paperwork exciting. Actual spy work made him want to bubble over with total and unadulterated delight.

It was all he could do not to bounce in the seat of Stephen’s car as he drove to the flat. He also had the urge to turn on the radio and bop to some tunes, but he reckoned that might be operationally inappropriate. Plus, it’d probably wreak havoc with his comm link. Besides, he had to be in character. He wasn’t Billy Collins outside of the bleak halls of MI5. He was Stephen Hart.

And he suspected that Stephen Hart wouldn’t be doing much singing on a day like today. Possibly ever, though it was hard to gauge what a happy Stephen might be capable of given the deep hole he’d met the other man in. It’d be interesting to know, and Billy fancied the idea of finding out some day. Because mission or no mission, two people with such remarkable DNA would surely be forever intertwined.

With the extensive last-minute preparation for this mission, Billy had had no time to get himself acclimated with Stephen’s flat. He knew it from pictures and a basic map, but no matter how hard he tried to feel comfortable going up the stairs, he felt vague trepidation. Going into the proverbial fray was like that, he supposed, and he had to work to conquer the surge of adrenaline, melding it into the proper energy he needed to maintain his cover.

The door was unlocked, which meant that Billy was not alone. He was ready for anything but unsurprised when he found Helen lounging on a chair.

She was the first thing he saw, eyes trained on him and her chest unsubtly positioned toward the doorway. She was a woman who knew her assets, to say the least, and under other circumstances, Billy might find that invigorating. Apart from her possibly evil wiles, anyway. But no one was perfect.

Helen tilted her head, and although she made every effort to be nonchalant, Billy could detect a hint of anxiety. “Took you longer than I thought,” she mused. She was sipping from a glass – scotch, perhaps – and it was plain to see that she’d poured a glass for him on the coffee table.

Her statement was casual, but Billy noted the uncertainty in it. Despite her efforts, she clearly thought it possible for Stephen to surprise her. Or maybe she saw the connection between Stephen and Cutter as plainly as Billy did. Truth be told, if Stephen had been the one to go back in, amends very well could have been made.

None of that was to be, though. Helen needed to have her illusions of control if Billy was going to get the intelligence he needed.

Hardening his face, he moved stiffly through the living room on his way to the kitchen, purposefully ignoring the drink. Without looking back, he opened the fridge, doing a quick survey of its contents. Apparently Stephen was a bit health conscious, which would make this portion of the undercover work a bit wanting. While the beer certainly looked inviting – and the glass on the table did look appropriate for the occasion – Billy settled quickly on a glass of water.

It wasn’t much of a power play to refuse her drink, but he reckoned Stephen might appreciate the effort.

She didn’t move from the couch, but Billy could feel her watching him. “I was starting to get worried,” she said, throwing a touch of softness to her words. It was a gentler form of seduction, obviously intended to appeal to Stephen’s rejected psyche. When the rest of the world had presumably turned their back on him, she offered herself with open arms.

Of course, that conveniently overlooked the fact that she was mostly responsible for Stephen’s alienation, but such were the tactics of most skilled manipulators.

He finished the water in a single swallow, and then channeled his adrenaline into the act. Suitably disgruntled, he looked at her with hard eyes. “Maybe you should have thought about that before you told Cutter we slept together,” he said.

Her mouth twitched slightly but she didn’t quite smile. “Secrets are never a good idea, Stephen,” she said. She hesitated, hedging just slightly. “I take it you did more than pick up your things.”

Billy pursed his lips. “I thought maybe someone would listen.”

Her look of sympathy was almost comically, given the circumstances. “Your innate belief in people would be noble were it not so misguided,” she said.

It took some willpower not to comment on the irony. Instead, he set the glass down hard on the worktop and walked toward the couch. “Cutter’s not the enemy,” he said, certain in this. He sat down, careful not to get comfortable, not with just him and Helen.

“He may as well be,” Helen said. “He’s Lester’s go-to man. I don’t like it any better than you do—“

“Are you sure it’s Lester?” Billy pushed.

“Do you think Nick would tell you if it was?” she returned.

She had an answer for everything; this time, his sulking wasn’t just an act. “Then we should have tried harder to talk to him,” Billy said.

“Nick is blind and stubborn sometimes,” she said. “He’s not open to new ideas unless he comes up with them himself. It never did help him, in science or in love.”

“Oh, I think, I’m aware of that,” Billy said with a snort.

“I don’t want to say I told you so,” she said.

“Then don’t,” Billy snapped. “My throbbing cheek says it well enough anyway.”

Her eyes flitted back to the bruise, which she had clearly already noticed. “An accident on the way out?” she asked.

“Sure,” Billy said sharply, “I accidentally ran into Cutter’s fist in front of the whole bloody ARC staff.”

It was a bit cheeky, but Stephen’s dry humour had its merits. Billy usually opted for less sarcasm, but he was nothing if not adaptable.

Helen’s eyes lit up at the admission. It was a slip in her façade, a hint of what she was really feeling. No matter what she said, this wasn’t really about Stephen. Her plotting was near perfection unless Nick Cutter was involved.

Not that he could call her on it. The power play she was making had to be indulged. He slouched, a little petulant. “I tried to convince him,” he explained. “I thought maybe with just the two of us…”

“He’s not the forgiving sort,” Helen commented.

Billy let his eyes narrow. “A lot has changed since you disappeared,” he said. It was an assumption given his brief overview of the history Stephen had provided, but one look at Nick Cutter had been enough to tell Billy that the Scottish professor had come a long way from his marital bliss.

“Not that much,” she said, studying him intently. The look of half-awe was still there. “He actually hit you.”

The fact that she was amused was enough to irk Billy, in character and out. “And you find that funny,” he commented.

“Don’t you?” she asked. “After everything he said about not caring any more, my husband is actually jealous.”

She was giving herself away in leaps and bounds now. It wasn’t just that Stephen was in love with her or that he wanted to believe her. It was that Stephen could bring out Cutter’s jealousy, something Helen had probably been trying and failing to procure since she’d been back.

And really, maybe before. It wasn’t so hard to imagine, Helen reaching out to a young, attractive student not just to make herself feel alive but also to draw some kind of response out of Cutter. Nick was undoubtedly a good man – his file suggested as much – but he did seem rather single-minded. This was good for his work, but his personal life probably suffered.

It was hard to fight back the sympathy. Stephen had loved her, and she had used him.

Cover or not, it was hard to hold back his disgust. “And that’s what’s important to you.”

Just like that, she realised her mistake. “No,” she said, quickly now. Her voice dropped and her face went soft as she put her drink down. “Nick doesn’t matter now.”

She was good, that much was certain, and to further prove her point, she got up, crossing the distance between them and going to her knees in front of him. Not quite in deference, not with her chest pushed out and her head held high, but the effect was still alluring.

“You and I matter,” she purred, inching closer. Billy flinched but didn’t pull away. “Our project.”

Billy’s body was humming with adrenaline now, heart starting to pound and mouth going dry. He had to keep it together, he had to stay calm, but that was harder as she neared, the warmth of her skin so close to his own. “Yes,” he managed to say, feeling his precarious hold on his cover start to waver.

She was right there now, breasts at eye level but Billy endeavoured not to look. “He shouldn’t have hurt you,” she said, her hand lifting, caressing his cheek and trailing in his hair.

His nerves tingled and he fought a visceral reaction to pull away. She was toxic, almost a parasite, and she’d been leeching off Stephen for so long that it was nothing short of a miracle he’d managed to doubt her. Stephen had been right about her – about a lot of things. Billy owed him an apology or two for making light of it.

That was good on Stephen, but did nothing for Billy. The mission was critical, he knew, and Helen’s trust was imperative. Fredericks’ voice was still resounding in his memory: just let her have her way.

The directive had made so much sense then, when it was lies and punches and getting fired.

But here, there were soft touches and seductive looks. Helen was not subtle, and Billy knew that spies couldn’t be bothered with moral quandaries. He lied and cheated and stole for a living; being used for a woman’s pleasure, though…

Be careful.

Stephen’s advice had been more pertinent than he thought.

“My poor Stephen,” she cooed, even closer now. Her eyes beckoned him, her mouth open and ready.

This was what she wanted. She wanted to seduce him. She wanted him to give in. She wanted this power over him. She wanted to know she could worm her way into his life, into every part of him.

Stephen wouldn’t. Not any more, Billy was certain of it. And Helen was an attractive woman, but Billy had no desire to bed a dominatrix, mission or not.

But the mission.

He’d promised Fredericks. He’d promised Stephen.

He’d promised himself.

As an MI5 agent, he’d given up a lot in his life. This was part of that.

This

Billy closed his eyes and gave in. He reached up, hands in her hair and pulled her near, closing the distance between them as he crushed her lips with his. The kiss was hard and passionate, and he poured every last bit of himself into it, surrendering everything else.

It was the only incentive she needed. Helen didn’t love Stephen, but she certainly didn’t find him repulsive. She had his shirt off in a few swift movements, her fingers fiddling with the button on his trousers as they kissed, open-mouthed and desperate.

“Oh, Stephen,” she moaned as Billy’s body responded to hers. Her fingers trailed down his chest, moving up his arms. She stopped at the watch, fiddling with the strap.

Billy didn’t fight it as she took it off, tossing it on the coffee table. Instead, he lifted her, pulling her onto his lap. Her smile widened. “So you haven’t forgotten,” she said, leaning down to kiss him again.

It was happening, and too fast. Billy’s body flushed hot, the adrenaline surging with embarrassment. “Not here,” he breathed.

Her tongue traced his neck. “But—“

“The bed,” Billy said, barely able to control himself. “The bed.

Helen protested, but Billy pushed to his feet, lifting her as he did and setting her back on her feet. She looked at him, hair mussed and shirt half open, a little awed. “Why, Stephen,” she said with genuine surprise. “You’ve grown up since the last time. I like a man who knows what he wants.”

Billy’s body was thrumming too hard to be playful. “Then go,” he said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

His obviously ploy for time should have been plainly obvious, but apparently Helen had her distractions, too. She smiled, quirking an eyebrow and turning. She walked, slow and seductive to the bedroom. When she disappeared inside, her shirt and bra reappeared, landing neatly on the floor outside the room, and Billy swallowed bile.

With shaking fingers, he reached up into his ear and pulled out the earwig. It wasn’t easy because it was so small and deeply placed, but if he was going to do this, he needed to do this much alone.

“Sorry,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll be needing back-up for this portion.”

Then he slipped the bug between the couch cushions, took a deep breath, and headed after Helen.

-o-

The view onscreen hadn’t changed, but Stephen couldn’t look away. The skewed picture of his flat had stayed that way since Helen took off Billy’s watch, and nothing had disturbed the scene.

Stephen blinked.

At his side, Fredericks was making more notes; the two techs were chatting.

Stephen shook his head. “Are we really just going to sit here?”

Fredericks didn’t look up. “And what would you have me do?” he asked benignly.

Gaping, Stephen looked back at the screen. “We can’t just let him—“ he stopped, looking for the words. “I mean, you know what he’s doing.”

Fredericks cast him a banal look. “You mean, sexing up your former lover?” he asked without hesitation.

Stephen paled.

Fredericks shrugged. “Not much to be done,” he said. “Unless you think we should call in special ops and raid the place.”

That obviously wasn’t an option, but still, Stephen was a man of action. It was hard enough sitting back and watching his life unravel, but seeing Helen seduce someone? A version of himself? Stephen wasn’t actually sure who he felt more sympathy for: himself or Billy.

And what was Billy thinking? The plan was obviously to give Helen power and control, but surely there were lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

Not that anyone else seemed to care. Stephen looked indignantly at the screen, gesturing. “This can’t be an acceptable part of the mission protocol.”

Fredericks smirked just a little. “Jealous?”

A deep flush rose up Stephen’s cheeks. “This is about Billy,” he said.

The humour shifted and Fredericks’ face went serious again. “No, actually, that’s what you’re missing now,” he said. “This isn’t about Billy. This is about you and your position within the ARC and your relationship with Helen. We have to use your assets in order to identify the mole before there is a serious breech. This is what we do. It’s rarely pretty or fair. Quite often it’s morally gray. But we are trained to do whatever needs to be done.” He looked at the screen. “Whatever.”

Stephen followed the gaze, the weight of the words numbing him. It hadn’t occurred to him just what a strain this was on other people. He’d had a lot to think about in the last few days, most of which was about how it was affecting him and his friends. But he wasn’t the only one suffering.

A sudden noise registered on the feed, and he swallowed hard. Suffering, by any other name, he reminded himself bitterly. Although by the sound of it, Helen wasn’t suffering at all.

Fredericks sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair and it became clear to Stephen that the other man was weary, too. “I would never ask Collins to compromise himself in this way,” he said. “It was never discussed as part of the acceptable measures in the mission. But Collins is a good agent, as much as I normally don’t admit that. He wants to do the right thing, at any cost. And sometimes we have to make compromises for ourselves in order to protect the greater good. It’s why we do what we do.”

Stephen looked back at the screen. It put things in perspective, to say the least. Not just Helen’s obvious seduction tactics, but that it wasn’t just about him any more. He’d made his sacrifices, and now Billy was making his, and it would be worth it in the end, when the mole was caught and the situation was handled appropriately.

Even if Stephen lost his job. Even if Stephen lost his friends. Even if Stephen lost Cutter and his pride and his life. Even if the anomalies stayed secret.

He had to hope it would be worth it. For his sake – and now for Billy’s too.

NEXT

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