faye_dartmouth: (stephen cutter sit)
[personal profile] faye_dartmouth
A/N: So begins the aftermath when things are about to change for Billy and for Stephen…

Previous parts in the MASTER POST .



PART THIRTEEN

-o-

Stephen didn’t ask where the soldiers were taking him, so when he arrived at a hospital, he was surprised. One soldier stayed with him and escorted him inside through the winding corridors. Stephen was too numb to chart their route; he was too tired to care.

When they finally stopped, Stephen realised they were in an intensive care unit. He was just getting his bearings when Fredericks appeared, carrying a file and closely followed by another guard. Fredericks gave Stephen a once-over but apparently decided to say nothing about his red-rimmed eyes. Instead, he jerked his head in the direction of a nearby corridor and glanced at the guard accompanying him. “We have a secured room?” he asked.

“Swept and cleared,” the guard confirmed.

“Good,” Fredericks said. “Stay on guard. No one is allowed in except authorised medical personnel. Check all ID. Twice.”

The soldier nodded, and moved off to what Stephen could only assume was his post. Fredericks paid him no further heed and instead levelled his attention at Stephen. “I think we should talk.”

If Stephen had any fight left in him, he didn’t think Fredericks was worth it at this point. Though Stephen wasn’t sure anything was worth it. Not with things as they were with Cutter.

He followed the agent, who led him down a deserted corridor. Fredericks flashed his badge to a man in plain clothes posted at a doorway, and held the door open for Stephen to go inside.

It was a simple room, with a long table and a handful of chairs. Fredericks ducked inside after him, letting the door close as he settled into one of the chairs, throwing a file on the table.

Uncertain, Stephen sat down nearby, making no attempt to look at the file, even though it was positioned easily within his reach.

Fredericks sighed heavily, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Well,” he said. “Needless to say that wasn’t the mission we were expecting to have.”

“So much for intelligence,” Stephen mused, not to be cruel, but because it was true.

“Yes, it seems Helen Cutter has a way of fooling everyone,” he said. “Even the first line of British defence.”

“We stopped it, though?” Stephen asked, because somehow that mattered. When everything else had fallen apart, he needed to know it was still worth something.

Fredericks gave him a weary smirk. “The building has been contained. Data from the computers is being sorted through in a joint effort between ARC and MI5 staff. As far as we can tell, no creatures survived except Ms Maitland’s so-called pet, and all evidence has been thoroughly contained. There is the issue of the scorpion you took care of on the beach, but MI5 is very adept at running interference with these things. And your Jenny Lewis has some excellent tips, it seems.”

“That sounds like Jenny,” Stephen said.

“Your entire team was impressive. They all managed to survive and thwart the worst of Leek’s attack,” Fredericks said. “Especially Cutter. But they’re all akin to national heroes.”

It was true, and Stephen had known that since the beginning. That was the part he’d forgotten at some point. Or the part that Helen had made it easy to overlook. Whether or not the anomalies should be made public knowledge, his work with the ARC had mattered. What they did mattered. Maybe the truth didn’t matter as much as he thought it did. Maybe it was always just the people.

“And no one else was hurt?” Stephen asked. He’d seen them all, but he still needed to be sure that no one else had suffered for Helen’s misdeeds and Stephen’s failure to determine her duplicity.

“There were several people killed in the ARC,” Fredericks admitted. “Mostly scientific support staff; we’re working on confirming their identities.”

Stephen felt nausea twist his stomach. “Anyone else?”

Fredericks shrugged. “Professor Cutter experienced minor injuries, but his personality is proving more difficult than his injuries. Lester was attacked by a Future Predator, but he seems rather pleased about the war wound,” he said.

It was hard to imagine. And Stephen had been so sure. Really, he’d just been so wrong.

Fredericks continued. “A few soldiers were wounded while containing the creatures, but the worst was a ricocheted bullet in the leg.” Then he faltered. “That just leaves Collins.”

Stephen felt a chill run through him. The memory of Billy, pale and bloody on the stretcher was still vivid. But the impact had been numbed along with everything else. After Cutter had fired him, nothing had made much sense.

But there was nothing he could do about that. What was done with Cutter was done. Stephen had always been one to focus on what he could do. If his relationship with Cutter was a lost cause, he couldn’t write Billy off quite so quickly. “How is he?” he asked.

Fredericks sighed again. “Considering he was just mauled by a pack of vicious predators, he’s doing pretty well,” he said, the positive prognosis offset by his evident exhaustion. “He has a punctured lung, but they’ve managed to treat that effectively. The blood loss was actually the most serious complication. Apparently the Future Predators who took an interest in him wanted to savour him. Their dalliance is the only reason he’s still alive.”

It was a grotesque blessing. Stephen had seen most of those creatures in action. He’d almost been eviscerated by a raptor. He’d watched Valerie get mauled by a sabre tooth cat. He’d been tracked by a Future Predator and had heard from Cutter what it was capable of after it had killed Ryan and his team. The fact that Billy had faced them all and was still breathing was nothing short of a miracle.

“Given the number of contusions, though, I’d say he probably wanted to die long before they would have been finished with him,” Fredericks continued, looking vaguely ill. “They’ve had to put in a lot of stitches, but the most serious injury was to his lung, which collapsed in the field. He’s got a chest tube, though, and as long as they can fight off the infection, the doctors are cautiously optimistic.”

Cautiously optimistic. Stephen had been cautiously optimistic once. When he’d broken things off with Helen that first time, when she’d disappeared, he’d thought maybe everything would be all right.

It took a while, but cautious optimism hadn’t exactly got Stephen anywhere.

“The mission may be over, but we still have some messes to sort out,” Fredericks continued, more back to business than before. He pushed the file across, closer to Stephen. “We were hoping you could help us get some insight into Helen’s next move?”

Stephen looked at the file then back at Fredericks. “She got away?”

Fredericks’ expression was a little grim. “I’m afraid so.”

Stephen blinked, looking back at the file. “I have no idea,” he said. “She didn’t actually tell me anything. At least, not anything true.”

“I understand,” he said. “But if you could look and just give us some feedback, we’d be most grateful. We will have Professor Cutter doing the same after he’s been officially released by medical personnel. Given his less than helpful personality, though, that may be a while.”

Cutter’s name had Stephen looking back up. “You have Cutter?”

Fredericks gave a small, rueful smile. “Considering how you told him about the MI5 mission in detail, taking him into custody was really the only option,” he said. “Besides Lester, he’s the only member of ARC staff besides yourself with an intimate knowledge of just how complex this situation was. Plus, his information regarding Leek and Helen is considered top-secret intelligence. I imagine we would have had to debrief him even without your little…show.”

Stephen felt his cheeks flush and he looked back down at the table, slinking lower in his seat.

There was an awkward pause. Fredericks seemed to start but stopped short. Then, after a few more moments of silence, he continued. “We are grateful for your help,” he said. “Without you, this mission would have ended up much worse.”

Without Stephen, things would have been much better from the beginning, but this hardly seemed like the time to point that out. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway.

“I’ll tell you anything I know,” Stephen finally replied, looking back up with a new-found steadiness.

Fredericks smiled. “That’s wonderful,” he said, flipping open the file. “Maybe we can get started—“

Stephen shook his head. “But I’d like to see Billy first.”

At that, Fredericks hesitated.

Stephen gave him a look. “Billy did the hard work in this mission, and we both know it,” he said. “Besides, you’re worried about him, too.”

Fredericks didn’t confirm that, but he conspicuously didn’t deny it. Instead, he looked thoughtful. “And afterwards you’ll submit to a full debriefing?”

“Afterwards, I’ll do anything and everything you ask,” he said. “Without a single complaint or quip.”

Fredericks smiled. “Well, that sounds rather boring,” he said.

Stephen couldn’t help it. His mouth twitched upwards toward a smile.

Fredericks sighed, pushing his chair back. “Let’s go, then,” he said. “But if anyone asks, this was your idea.”

Stephen stood, following suit. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your secret is safe with me.”

-o-

As consciousness returned, Billy wasn’t sure what to expect. He knew he was alive – the intermittent pain and bothersome poking had solidified that truth – but he was not entirely sure by how much. Time had ceased to have meaning for him. A second was an eternity, and Billy could still smell the blood, still feel the hot air prickling his skin.

He was alive, but he didn’t know how. Couldn’t remember how. The bits were vague, and he saw snippets that made sense. Fredericks rolling his eyes. Stephen sulking. Cutter holding him close.

And predators. Vile and angry and hungry.

That thought was enough to push him back into oblivion, but this time, the notion wasn’t enough. Something was nagging, something more. His heart picked up a faster beat and a slow build of pain started to drum through him with growing inevitability as he surfaced back toward awareness.

He half expected to see an angry predator trying to eviscerate him with its teeth. Either that, or his mum, who never seemed to be far when he was feeling like death warmed up.

Truthfully, he wasn’t sure which he preferred. The predators were trying to kill him, most certainly, but his mother simply tried to brow-beat him into submission regarding everything from his failure to clean his room to his inability to find a nice girl to marry.

Death by mauling or badgering: that wasn’t much choice at all. He hadn’t become a spy for praise or honour, but sometimes, he had to admit, it might be nice.

Though, really, at that given moment, it would be nice to just not wake up at all.

Unfortunately, no one ever seemed to care what Billy thought. Including his own body. He rode a wave of pain against his will, buoying him upward toward consciousness with a jolt that made him gasp with pain, breath catching in his throat.

“You’ll want to keep still,” a voice advised.

Curiosity got the better of him. It was an unfortunate side effect of being in covert operations. He had the innate desire to know. Before he could remind himself that consciousness was not necessarily a boon, his eyes were open.

The good news was that he wasn’t surrounded by predators any more. Even better, his mum was nowhere in sight.

On the down-side, he seemed to be in a hospital. And if his impression of an Egyptian mummy was any indication, things had gone less than swimmingly during the mission.

The mission.

Billy blinked, and the pain faded a little as he regained more of his bearings. “It’s over,” he realised. Of course, when he’d been getting torn apart by predators, that much had probably been obvious, but it hadn’t been overly clear to him what amount of success had been achieved.

Or maybe he’d just been too distracted by dying.

Not dying. He was alive. In a hospital, but clearly still breathing and no more or less sane than before.

Then he looked up and saw himself.

Tired and exhausted and downtrodden. “I look like hell,” he said.

His mirror image smiled weakly. “You have no idea.”

Billy frowned. “I think I’ve had dreams like this,” he said, finding his chest tight. He tried to take a deep breath, but it was harder than it should have been. Still, he persisted with a smile. “But two of me always seemed more entertaining than this rather bleak reality.”

Stephen shook his head. “You’ve had five blood transfusions and you’ve got a tube draining blood from your chest,” he said. “And still joking. Impressive. Even for MI5.”

Billy tried to shrug, but regretted it. Apparently movement after being attacked by a gaggle of aggressive predators was not a good idea.

Maybe a horde. Flock?

A flock would have been worse. At least they hadn’t been able to fly around while trying to kill him.

Still, his critical thinking skills were annoyingly compromised if gaggle was his go-to description. It could have been the pain or even the painkillers.

He shifted, fresh pain flaring. He made a face as he struggled to take another deep breath. Definitely the pain, then.

“You okay?” Stephen asked.

Billy tried to remember how to breathe, finding marginal success. He managed to squint, offering the best semblance as he could. “No, I’m fine.”

“You want a nurse?” Stephen asked. He gestured to the call button. “I can—“

Billy shook his head. “No, no,” he said. With a few more breaths, he found a sense of control. He swallowed forcibly and smiled. “Just give it a tick.”

Stephen seemed to settle back, a little awkwardly into his seat.

Billy continued breathing, focusing his effort and doing his best to relax. “The mission?” he finally asked.

Stephen nodded readily. “The facility is contained,” he said.

“Helen?” Billy asked.

At that, Stephen hesitated.

Billy deflated a little. That had been an unintended consequence of his heroics. By locking himself inside, he had saved Cutter but let Helen go.

“Still a win, though,” Stephen said, clearly trying to reassure him.

It wasn’t, though. Not really. Helen had been part of the mission, especially since she had been at the heart of everything.

And he’d failed.

Failed.

That hurt worse than the injuries. More than almost everything.

“And you’re actually doing really well,” Stephen added, clearly trying to be upbeat. Optimism wasn’t a natural thing for him, though, but Billy appreciated the effort.

Billy considered this for the first time. He knew what had happened to him back in the cage room – he could still feel the heat of the predators, their hot breath on his skin as they ripped and pulled and ate – but really, he wasn’t overly set on dwelling on it.

So he’d nearly got eaten alive. Things could be worse.

Of course, Billy wasn’t quite sure how. Moreover, he didn’t want to find out.

Suppressing a shudder, he chose to smile instead – for Stephen’s sake. If Billy had taken a literal thrashing, the other man seemed to have taken a metaphorical one. “A few stitches, no doubt,” Billy said. “Hopefully not on my face. I do have a career to worry about.”

“I think your career is safe,” Stephen said. “But they cut you up pretty bad in the stomach and legs. You’ll have to work to get back into shape, but the doctors say you’re a miracle.”

Billy forced a scoff. “The miracle is still you and I,” he said. He had to clench his jaw to hide the growing pain. He was trembling a little when he continued. “We really should ask them to run—“ He had to break off to control the pain. Still, he pressed on. “—to run a few tests. See to what stroke of fate we owe this shared blessing.”

Stephen barely managed a smile. Either Billy was slipping, or the other man was in a worse state emotionally than Billy had counted on. “You really do need to take it easy,” Stephen advised. “What happened was a close thing.”

Billy fought back the memories. If he remembered too clearly, he’d be entirely useless. “I meant it, you know,” he said instead. “You really don’t look so good.”

Stephen sighed but apparently saw no point in denying it. “It’s been a rough few days. Even though it’s over, it’s just not.

A few days, then. Billy had lost more than a bit of time. Such things did not likely bode well for him, but that was another matter. “MI5 debriefings,” he reckoned. “Welcome to the glorious world of espionage.”

Stephen’s smile in return was pathetic. “It’s better than what I have to go home to,” he said. “Which is to say, nothing.”

Billy frowned. “The ARC is safe,” he said. “Your friends are safe.”

Stephen’s jaw worked carefully, and he seemed to be fighting tears. “Yes. But seeing as I don’t have a job…”

Billy scoffed. “That was part of the cover,” he said. “Surely Fredericks can explain—“

Stephen shook his head. “Cutter sacked me for real,” he said. “After he knew the truth.” He hesitated, clearly trying his best not to break. “He never wants to see me again.”

Billy had taken the predators in his stride. He’d taken news of his condition in his stride. He’d taken it all step by step, as no big deal, because that was what spies did. He hadn’t survived this much to let a little knowledge knock him on his backside.

But this. Cutter had fired Stephen? After everything? After what he’d said to Billy in the cage room?

He shook his head, ignoring the pain as it continued to build. “But that doesn’t make sense.”

“I lied to him about a lot of things,” Stephen said. “Including this mission.”

Billy had to swallow as nausea swelled. The pain ratcheted up and the room began to spin lazily. “But—“

“But I deserve it,” Stephen said. “He has every right to hate me.”

But Billy knew better. He had heard the affection in Cutter’s voice. He’d felt the steadiness of Cutter’s embrace. It was the furthest thing from hate.

He wanted to explain. He wanted to tell Stephen there was hope.

Unfortunately, not everything was what Billy wanted. After nearly being eaten alive, perhaps this point should have been obvious, but Billy liked his unassailable beliefs. It was damned hard to do this sort of job as a cynic. Granted, doing it with unabashed hope was turning out to be no walk in the park, but still.

Still, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the growing pain and his heart in his ears and Stephen sliding closer saying, “It’s your turn to relax. You’ve earned it.”

Billy doubted that, but ultimately he had no choice. That seemed to be a recurring theme for him: choices that weren’t.

Things got hazy as the pain encompassed him. There was a growing buzz as his body gave up and the dark sleep claimed him yet again.

-o-

Stephen had always thought the ARC was fond of its paperwork and procedures.

If that were the case, then MI5 wasn’t just fond of such things. It was obsessed with them.

He had thought that he’d completed all necessary forms upon his entry into MI5. However, in the aftermath, there were more forms, more reports, more interviews. For two days, he was dragged through a series of meetings, being asked the same questions so many times that Stephen had memorised the answers.

Yes, he had told Cutter that Billy was MI5. No, he didn’t know where Helen was. Yes, he knew the Future Predators had come from an undisclosed point in the future. No, he didn’t know what that particular point was. Hence why it was undisclosed.

Really, by the time they shoved the paperwork in his face that said he promised never to speak of these events again, he was more than happy to sign. He’d talked about them more in the last few days than he wanted to in the rest of his life.

To MI5’s credit, they had been polite about it. They’d brought him anything he wanted to eat, and always made sure he had his favourite bottled water. How they knew his preference for coffee was a bit unnerving, but Stephen was generally too tired to be paranoid about it. They offered to put him up in a nearby hotel – under 24 hour surveillance, of course – but Stephen hadn’t really seen the point.

He didn’t care if he went home anyway. There was nothing for him there. The bed at MI5 was comfortable enough, and they’d given him access to a gym in the MI5 facility. Fredericks had even authorised him daily trips to the hospital to sit with Billy. MI5 apologised that they couldn’t let him talk to anyone else, not until all mission information had been obtained and the situation was totally secured.

That was all well and good but Stephen wasn’t sure if he wanted to see anyone. His last confrontation with Cutter had been enough of a harsh reminder that some mistakes were ones he just couldn’t come back from.

As it was, Stephen found it rather ironic that now he looked forward to the daily visits from Fredericks. There were other agents who did the rounds and a smattering of them had been given access to him for questioning, but Fredericks seemed to stick close to him, offering cheeky banter that Stephen was beginning to find comforting.

So, after a week of this, Stephen was looking forward to the familiar knock on his door. He had showered and dressed, and was towelling his hair dry when Fredericks came inside.

“I’ll just be a second,” Stephen said. “Then we can start the daily grind.”

Fredericks came in, closing the door. This caught Stephen’s attention, and that was when he noticed the hesitancy on Fredericks’ face.

“Something’s wrong,” Stephen concluded. His time at MI5 hadn’t been that long, but he’d learned to pick up a multitude of cues from the agents. He knew when their sympathy was genuine and when they were just trying to get the intelligence they needed. He could sort the difference between affectation and emotion, and Fredericks was displaying emotion. Mentally, he went over the possibilities. “Is it Billy? Has the infection flared up?”

Fredericks shook his head. “No, Collins is fine,” he said. “Still improving steadily.”

Stephen let himself breathe a little, but the niggling sense of something bad couldn’t be shaken. “So, what then?”

Fredericks took a breath. “I thought we could talk in here today,” he said.

Stephen glanced around. It was the same room they’d put him up in from the beginning. It had a bed and a small table. He had amassed a small collection of books and magazines to pass the time, though there wasn’t anything else to signify it as his own. “Seems a bit informal for a briefing,” he said cautiously.

Fredericks didn’t deny it. “We have asked you that all we need to,” he said.

Stephen stared, the towel damp in his hands. “You mean it’s over?”

Fredericks inclined his head. “It’s over.”

At that, Stephen didn’t know what to say. Didn’t even know how to make sense of it all. Finally, he said, “Oh.”

The other man smiled. “I’m supposed to inform you that, as of today, you will be free to leave.”

It seemed too simple. After everything, just leaving was too easy. Except that it wasn’t easy at all. It was hard. The hardest thing Stephen could imagine. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked.

Sighing, Fredericks moved to the table, pulling out a chair and sitting down heavily. “That’s what I’ve come to talk about.”

Stephen hesitated.

Fredericks nodded to the other chair. “Please,” he said. “You should really sit.”

Over the last few days, he’d come to accept that Fredericks did occasionally have good ideas. Numbly, Stephen sat.

Fredericks moistened his lips, seeming to work up his courage. Finally he said, “You have two options. First, you could walk out of here and return to your life.”

The simplicity of it was a bit surreal. “Just like that?” he said.

“Well, not exactly just like that,” Fredericks clarified. “This entire thing has been a mess to undo, and Lester’s been keeping the ARC staff on a need to know basis while things are organised there and all team members are properly debriefed and accounted for. As far as they’re concerned, MI5 has had no role in this. It was handled internally.” He hesitated again. “They have been told that both Professor Cutter and yourself sustained injuries in the attack and are being treated. It took some convincing, but Lester has corroborated the story that Helen called you in and, once you discovered the truth, you attempted to sacrifice yourself for the cause.”

Stephen swallowed hard. “But what about Cutter?”

Cutter had been on his mind ever since this started, but during the last week, he hadn’t let himself think too much about what the other man was doing. Cutter had severed all ties with him, and none of Stephen’s regret would change that. It was too late – Cutter had told him that – and Stephen was going to accept the consequences of his choices, no matter what.

But he had to know that Cutter was going to be okay.

Fredericks was clearly expecting that question, although he didn’t seem thrilled to have to answer it. “We have been keeping Cutter in a secure location as well while we finished the debriefing process. It took some time, but we managed to convince him that perpetuating that version of events is in the best interests of everyone.”

“And he agreed?” Stephen asked, a bit incredulous.

“As I said, it took some time,” Fredericks said. “Professor Cutter is stubborn, but he can ultimately be swayed by logic after a time.”

“So he’ll be okay, then,” Stephen clarified. “His job and his life and everything?”

“His standing has in no way been compromised,” Fredericks said. “We only kept him so long in order to ascertain that he wasn’t an intelligence risk.”

“But he’s free to go?”

Fredericks’ smile was small and gentle. “Very soon. Free to go with our greatest thanks for his assistance,” he said. Then he added, “And our greatest relief. That man can be more than somewhat difficult; I can honestly say debriefing him has been one of the hardest parts of the mission.”

This was a relief. A bittersweet relief, but Stephen had to believe that the sacrifice was worth it.

Frederick paused before continuing. “That leads to the next complication, though,” he said. “I’m afraid he stands by his earlier decision to fire you. I’ve talked to him personally, tried to explain the situation, but he has been uncompromising in this. I could talk to Lester, if you like. I’m sure he could find another position for you at the ARC—“

Stephen shook his head. Cutter’s words had been final. Stephen hadn’t been the one to lock himself in the cage room, but he would still forfeit his life for Cutter’s. “No,” he said. “It’s Cutter’s decision. I’ll abide by it.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fredericks said. “He’s being unfair. You’re a hero in this; you deserve—“

Stephen shook his head, more adamantly now. “No,” he said. “What Cutter says, goes.”

Fredericks seemed to wilt a bit, shrinking back in his seat regretfully. “Well, that brings me to your situation,” he said. “As I said, you are free to resume your life, but I feel compelled to inform you that that is not your only option.”

Stephen frowned. “What other options are there?”

“Well, there’s been some talk of recruiting you to MI5,” Fredericks said. “You and Collins make an impressive pair. Having identical agents has some tactical advantages.”

The notion actually made Stephen laugh. He shook his head. “I’ve had enough of jobs that require lying in the name of national security.”

Fredericks was not surprised. “There is one other option,” he said. “Witness protection.”

Stephen had learned to stop making assumptions when this mission started, but this option still came as something as a shock. “But I’m not a witness in need of protection.”

“On the contrary,” Fredericks said. “You have been a key witness for MI5, providing intelligence on Helen Cutter. There is reason to believe she will be an ongoing risk for you if you resume your normal life. Given how dangerous this has been for you, we have every reason to offer you protection from such circumstances in the future, and witness protection would afford you such safety.”

There was logic to it, and in truth, Stephen wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to handle seeing Helen again. She’d cost him so much. He was half-afraid he would try to murder her on sight.

Still, witness protection. A new life. A new identity. He shook his head. “But what about the others?” he said. “What will you tell them? That I just disappeared?”

“No, that would leave far too many loose ends,” he said. “They would be told you succumbed to your injuries.”

Stephen blinked, almost laughing. “You’d tell them I’m dead?”

Fredericks was nonplussed. “They have not been made aware of the extent of the injuries Collins sustained in the cage room,” he said. “So although Collins is on his way to a full recovery, it is very possible that Stephen Hart takes a turn from the worst and simply cannot be saved. He was in a room with vicious predators, after all.”

“But—“ Stephen tried to say but the protest lodged in his throat. “But Cutter—“

“We’re holding Cutter just a bit longer until we know your final decision,” he said. “Once we determine the route you would like to take, we will finish debriefing Cutter and let him go home.”

It was suddenly hard to breathe. Hard to think. It was just hard. “So they’ll think I’m dead?”

“Everyone except Cutter and Lester, who are both sworn to secrecy regarding all the details of this mission,” Fredericks confirmed.

Stephen swallowed, letting that sink in. Abby and Connor – they would think he was dead. He’d never get to tell Abby he was sorry for the things he’d said while delusional. He’d never get to help Connor actually make things work with Abby. They’d think he died, stupid and deceived. Maybe they’d forgive him – they probably would. They’d grieve for him when he wasn’t dead. When he wasn’t actually worth it.

It was a cruel lie, but maybe for the best. Stephen was as good as dead to them, considering the mistakes he’d made.

“You’ll be buried as a hero with the ARC,” Fredericks went on. “Since your parents are already deceased, this would be decidedly easier. Though I should tell you, it’s never easy. You’d still be living a lie.”

Another lie. Another life built on lies.

But this time, he’d be doing it for Cutter.

Cutter didn’t want to see him, and no matter how much distance Stephen kept, as long as Stephen Hart was alive, the possibility would be there. The doubt would exist. And if Helen did come back, if she did try to use him again, he might be thrown in Cutter’s path again, and Cutter didn’t want that. He didn’t deserve it.

Ultimately, Fredericks was giving him a choice. But to Stephen, the choice had always been Nick’s. And he’d already made it.

“It’s okay,” Stephen said, nodding at the growing resolution. His eyes met Fredericks’ gaze. “I’ll take the witness protection.”

Fredericks blanched slightly, hesitating. “It’s an extreme option,” he said. “There’s no turning back from it. You won’t be allowed to contact anyone from your past. You should consider that, no matter how things seem now, in time, your friends could come around. You may want another chance.”

What he wanted didn’t matter.

Cutter mattered. Stephen would do anything for Cutter even if it meant giving everything else away.

His lips twisted into a bitter smile. “I may want one,” he agreed. “But I don’t deserve one.”

Fredericks sighed. “Stephen, let me talk to Cutter again—“

Stephen shook his head. “No.”

“Stephen—“

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Stephen said. “And I appreciate it. But it’s over now, just like you say. I’ll take the witness protection.”

Fredericks looked like he wanted to argue. His entire body was tense, ready to do so, but as he kept his eyes on Stephen’s, the fight slowly drained away. Finally, he sighed. “For what it’s worth, I think Professor Cutter’s wrong.” He got to his feet. “And really, it’s been an honour.”

Stephen found himself grinning. “Likewise,” he said. “Though I never thought I’d admit that.”

“You and me both,” Fredericks said. There was a small, awkward pause. Fredericks nodded. “I suppose that’s it, then.”

Stephen inclined his head. “I suppose it is.”

Fredericks loitered one last moment, his face pinched. “Take care, Stephen,” he said

Stephen offered a small smile back. “You, too,” he said.

With that, Fredericks left. Stephen watched him until the door closed and he was alone again.

That was it, then.

All the years, all the effort, everything, and that was that. Stephen Hart was going to die.

That felt like it should mean more. Hurt more, maybe. But then Stephen realised why it didn’t. Because Stephen Hart had died a long time ago. Really, it was time they made it official.

Then everyone could finally move on.

NEXT

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