faye_dartmouth: (stephen cutter distance)
[personal profile] faye_dartmouth
A/N: In which Cutter and Stephen are really, really stubborn. And Billy finally gets some good news :)

Previous parts in the MASTER POST .



PART FOURTEEN

-o-

As a lower level MI5 employee, Billy had learned quite a bit about being patient and subjecting himself to mind-numbing tasks for the greater good. However, after a week in hospital, he had discovered that said mind-numbing tasks were not, in fact, mind-numbing at all. They were boring, this was true, but they were nothing compared to being confined to a hospital bed while over 100 stitches healed throughout various regions of his body.

Not only was this boring, but it was also massively uncomfortable. There was no comfortable position and now the damn things itched. A lot.

And worse, now that he was weaned off the best of the painkillers, the pain was a constant companion. It didn’t even leave him in his sleep, which had suffered greatly since then. Not just because of the pain, but also because of the nightmares.

He was apparently a prime candidate for PTSD and any other host of anxiety disorders common to people who had undergone a traumatic event. Billy didn’t doubt the validity of the diagnosis; he just wasn’t sure what the psychologist hoped to gain from making Billy rehash said trauma out loud.

He didn’t need to say it out loud. Not because he was too macho or above such things. But because he relived the nightmares every time he closed his eyes, and he rather appreciated the reprieve proffered by consciousness against such unrelenting images of terror.

Still, he told the psychologist all the proper things. Before this mission, he might have worried about telling lies to his colleagues and/or superiors, but he was beginning to see that the best spies were the ones that learned to just never turn the duplicity off. It made him a bastard, to be sure, but it also made him a good spy, well on his way to being cleared for active duty.

And that was what it was all about. He hadn’t survived in a room filled with nasty predators to check out and waste his life back in Scotland, if for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to hear his mum lecture him about losing his job. That would be the real nightmare.

The dreams of gnashing teeth and bloody fangs were child’s play in comparison.

Maybe not child’s play.

He had to give his imagination credit. Whereas the reality had been a straightforward mauling, his mind made it an extended and unending event. No matter how much skin was stripped off his bones, he was always awake in his dreams and he could scream and scream, all while not going hoarse. All the predators took a turn in the neverland as well, picking him apart, piece by piece by piece—

It wasn’t real.

That jarring realisation was his only grace, and he came to with a shock. The scream was caught in his throat, but he’d learned a few days ago how best to hide it into a grimacing laugh.

For good reason, too. People had a funny habit of keeping bedside vigils. It was as if watching someone sleep was somehow encouraging for either party involved, but Billy wasn’t about to deprive others of their comfort, especially when he was far too weary to bother explaining the awkward vulnerability of it all.

And he did have his share of visitors. This was perhaps more surprising to Billy than anything else. During his tenure at MI5, he had made many acquaintances but he had hardly mattered to any of them. However, almost all his colleagues visited, and almost all the other departments sent someone round to offer best wishes and flowers and the occasional balloons. The flowers seemed superfluous, but Billy rather liked the balloons.

Some visitors were more frequent. Mara, who had so helpfully created his persona as Stephen, visited several times, criticising the way he’d managed to mar her work. She offered her personal assistance in his rehabilitation, and somehow Billy knew that such measures were not likely to have been approved by MI5 protocol.

Fredericks came, too, sans the snark. Things were different now with Fredericks. There was something of respect, and Billy suspected, something of regret. After everything, he couldn’t blame the other man. Trust, it seemed, really had to be earned, and if the healing injuries on Billy’s body were good for anything, they were good for that.

Stephen was the most constant companion, and Billy had been pleasantly surprised to discover that his would-be twin had a subtle but dry sense of humour. Billy suspected his visits were as much about Stephen as Billy, so he happily subjected himself to them, often imploring Stephen to smuggle him in some food, just to give the man something to make him feel useful.

In short, waking to company was not an unusual thing. But he had to admit, today it caught him by surprise.

It was Cutter. His blond hair was better kempt than before, and the gash on his head seemed to be healing properly. He was hunched in the chair, staring hard at Billy. “Funny dream?” he asked.

Surprised though Billy was to see the floppy-haired professor, he was able to hide it well. “Hilarious,” he said, without missing a beat.

“Yeah?” Cutter asked, sounding doubtful.

Billy nodded, the tendrils of resentment taking hold. There was a lot he’d come to respect about the other man. He was smart and selfless and damned good at what he did. When things had got rough, Cutter had been willing to die for Stephen, and when Billy was fading, Cutter had been the one to offer comfort.

But Cutter was also the one who had cut Stephen off. He was the one who had Stephen hanging around pathetically, looking desperately for something to do and someone to connect to. Stephen was not completely innocent in all of this, but Billy knew better than anyone why Stephen had made the choices he did. Whatever had happened in the past, Stephen had proved himself worthy with everything he had.

And Cutter, who had all but confessed his regrets and apologies when he thought Stephen was dying, would have none of it.

How someone so smart could be so stupid was astonishing to Billy. Perhaps the other man deserved some compassion for it all, but seeing as Billy was the one who had nearly died for the impasse between those two, he was hard-pressed to show it. “Yeah,” he said, voice light but pointed. “I dreamed two men let eight years go to waste over a woman who wasn’t worth it. A woman neither of them cared for any more.”

Cutter’s face went blank.

Billy shrugged. “At least, not like they care for each other.”

“That’s not fair,” Cutter replied, his words quiet.

Billy held his ground. “Probably not,” he said. “But neither is holding a student mistake against a man when he’s shown himself to be more than that.”

“He slept with my wife,” Cutter said.

“Who abused and manipulated him every step of the way,” Billy pointed out. “Come on. You’re a smart man. You know Helen better than any of us. I read the files and it doesn’t take a genius to sort out that Stephen was her victim, even more than you.”

For a moment, Cutter didn’t say anything. His face remained carefully composed. Then, he drew a breath, nodding. “I know,” he said. “In many ways, Helen was always easy to fall in love with. She knew how to inspire people.”

“No, she knew how to use people,” Billy said. “There’s a difference.”

Cutter sighed. “Looking back, I know how guilty he felt,” he said. “I can see it. He apologised in a thousand ways. Little things I took for granted. Teaching my classes. Sorting out my grants. Checking my citations. I thought he did it because he liked that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s true any more.”

“It wasn’t all regret, mate,” Billy said, softer now.

“No,” Cutter mused. “I don’t suppose it was. Sometimes I wish it was easier, though. I don’t blame him for Helen. I did, for a while. And I was so angry at him. I thought he was dying and there he was. I didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t even think straight. But now that I can, and I want things to be the way they were, it just seems too hard.”

Billy shrugged. “That sounds pretty easy to me.”

“Except it’s not,” Cutter said. “I thought I knew him, but then I didn’t know him at all. Everything that happened over the last week. That was all you.”

“Maybe in person,” Billy agreed. “But he would have done the same – and more.”

“But he lied to me,” Cutter said. “He lied about Helen for eight years and right when I thought I had him back, that I could trust him, he’d lied to me about the rest, too.”

Trust could be earned. Trust could also be lost. It was one thing in the world of spying. It was another thing between two people who cared so much about each other. More than life itself.

“We’re all liars,” Billy said. “Every last one of us, and we always lie about the things that matter most. Some of us lie with words. Some of us by omission. Some of us just get angry and throw punches instead of saying what we mean.”

Cutter’s face went white, his posture rigid. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” Billy said. “I seem to remember pushing you for the truth and getting a punch for my troubles instead.”

“You baited me,” Cutter replied, starting to seethe.

“Aye,” Billy agreed. “I also seem to recall forgiveness and acceptance before I passed out back there, only to find that you then offered Stephen the door instead of compassion.”

“That’s because he lied to me again!” Cutter retaliated.

“And you didn’t?” Billy shot back. “He did this for you. All of it. He was willing to give up all his control and his entire life just to help you and the cause you believed in. When he saw how we were doing it, he fought us every step of the way. When the mammoth was loose, they almost had to restrain him because he was fighting so hard to get out. He actually knocked me out when the scorpion was loose. That’s Stephen. That’s the Stephen you’ve known all along. You’re lying to yourself if you pretend that it isn’t. And you’re lying to him when you say you want him to leave.”

Cutter’s eyes were bright, but he shook his head vehemently. “You don’t know.”

“Maybe not,” Billy conceded. “But you do. And you know what you’ll be losing if you let Stephen go. And he will go, I promise you, and you’ll have no one but yourself to blame for that.”

Cutter’s countenance wavered, just slightly, but Billy saw it nonetheless. Cutter’s breathing went ragged. “So much has happened,” he said. “So much hurt. It’s easier this way.”

“No arguments here, mate,” Billy agreed. “Easier, no doubt. But not better.”

The statement left Cutter at something of a loss. “But I fired him,” he said meagrely.

“And I’m fairly certain it’s not the job that he’s worried about,” Billy replied.

“It’s too late, though,” Cutter said. “They told me I’m free to go. They told me that I can’t tell anyone Stephen’s still alive. The official story is that he’s dead.”

This came as something of a shock. Billy had suspected that would be Stephen’s choice, but the finality of it was still hard to hear. “Then we may be too late to save Stephen after all,” he said.

The loss was evident on Cutter’s face.

Billy narrowed his eyes, considering the other man. “But you knew that,” he concluded. “So why are you here?”

“I wanted to talk to you,” Cutter said. “To see that you were all right. You pretended to be Stephen. You still put your life on the line for me.”

“Not that I don’t see value in your life, but it wasn’t for you,” Billy said. “I made a promise to Stephen. He would have saved you.”

Cutter’s shoulders drooped and he ducked his head. He seemed to muffle a sob before looking up, clearly distraught. “I’ve lost him, haven’t I?”

In this, Billy was honest. “I believe there’s always hope.”

It wasn’t enough for Cutter. He sighed. “If you see him, tell Stephen—“ His voice cracked. He swallowed, attempting to steady himself. “Tell Stephen I’m sorry. For everything.”

Two self-sacrificing idiots. As noble as they were hard-headed. The perfect pair, indeed. “Cutter—“

“Please,” Cutter said. “I know I have no right to ask favours of you, but please. Tell him for me.”

“You can tell him yourself,” Billy insisted.

“He’s made his choice,” Cutter said. “I can’t even talk about him, much less see him. I can’t undo these things, not even if I want to.”

Billy wanted to protest. He wanted to force Cutter to tell Stephen himself. But there were some things he couldn’t do, super spy or not.

Finally, he sighed. Carefully, he reached his hand out, controlling his grimace as he picked up his wallet. It took some work but he managed to wriggle a business card out without incurring too much pain. He held it out to Cutter. “Here,” he said.

Cutter stared at the card blankly.

“It’s my number,” he said.

Cutter shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “My promise to Stephen still stands,” he said. “I told him I’d look after you until he could do it himself. Since you two are dead set on making that difficult, I want you to have my number. It’s permanent and untraceable. If you need anything, you can call it, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

Cutter still seemed reluctant.

“Come on, man,” Billy said. “Help an injured soul out and take the bloody card.”

Cowed, Cutter took it. Tucking it in his pocket, he offered up a small smile. “It seems silly to say thank you.”

“But not so silly to say you’re welcome,” Billy replied. “I just wish I could have done more.”

“You’re done enough,” Cutter said, his face falling. “You’ve done more than enough.”

As Billy watched him go, he only wished that were true.

-o-

Ultimately, Stephen had only one thing left to do. MI5 had offered to retrieve any items from his flat that he deemed essential, but there were only a few things there that he wanted. The memories were only ones that hurt – dreams and possibilities of a life Stephen had forfeited.

MI5 had taken another few days to arrange things, and in that time, Stephen had slowly acclimatised himself to the idea of leaving. He thought about the things he would miss – Abby’s way with animals and Connor’s geeky commentaries – and he thought about the things he wouldn’t, with nearly dying on a regular basis being at the top of that list. The rush of adrenaline was something he’d probably never replicate, to say the very least, for better or for worse.

Generally, though, Stephen had made his peace as best he could. He had resigned himself to whatever came next. Fredericks talked about it like it was an opportunity. Stephen understood it as the punishment that it was.

Which meant, it was time to say goodbye. Not to Abby or Connor or anyone else at the ARC. They already thought he was dead. Fredericks had told him about his memorial service.

Not Nick, because Nick didn’t want to see him. Fredericks had offered to arrange a meeting, but Stephen wasn’t going to force Nick into anything he didn’t want.

Then there was Billy.

Theirs had been an unusual relationship. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d call the spy his friend, but Billy had kept his word to Stephen in the most important ways. He’d nearly given up his life for Stephen’s sake, and that was a debt Stephen knew he couldn’t repay but felt obligated to honour.

Fredericks had promised to come and brief him on his new life by the end of the day. Stephen had made no requests regarding the nature of his placement, but he had asked to see Billy one last time. Fredericks had said it was the least he could do.

Billy had been moved out of the intensive care ward a few days ago. He was still weak and sore, but after battling a low grade infection, he seemed to be generally on the mend. His chest tube had been removed, and he was sitting up and starting to chase after the female hospital staff in earnest.

Really, Stephen half-wondered if the full-time guard next to Billy’s door was to ensure Stephen’s soon to be cover was uncompromised or to protect hospital staff from Billy’s increasingly playful advances.

Still, Stephen had to admit it was good to see. If nothing positive could come of this mission, seeing Billy Collins get the credit he deserved was still worth something.

Today was apparently no exception. Stephen arrived in time just to see a giggling nurse scuttle down the corridor. Shaking his head, Stephen went inside, his escort taking up a post next to the guard.

“You know, some people might want a real relationship,” Stephen chided as he moved closer to the bed.

“Aye,” Billy agreed. “Fortunately, I am not one of those people. And it’s not my fault. The nurses – they love the mystery! I tell them that the nature of my injuries must be sealed by order of Queen and Country and they all swoon, no wooing required.”

Stephen rolled his eyes, settling into a chair. “So how’s the recovery?” he asked. “Or are you too busy flirting to get much done?”

“Your humour is enlivening,” Billy said. “You manage to make sarcasm a charming feature. Impressive.”

Stephen gave him a knowing look. The more Billy talked, the less he often said. These tendencies usually annoyed Stephen, but for Billy, he would tolerate it. “Your recovery,” he said again, more straightforwardly.

Billy sighed with a melodramatic flair. “You’re getting as bad as Fredericks,” he said.

“Well, if you fancy yourself a James Bond, you need to do more than woo women,” Stephen reminded him. “You actually have to be able to go about daily activities. If you don’t do your physiotherapy, then how are you going to go on to slay predators in the future?”

“I don’t seem to recall slaying all that many of them in the past,” Billy said. “Unless you count playing bait while MI5 forces raided the room.”

Stephen glared at him.

Mercifully, Billy relented. “Oh, fine,” he muttered. “My recovery is going well. It isn’t particularly pleasant, but I managed to walk to the bathroom by myself. I think the physio – sweet Tabitha – was actually a bit disappointed, but I’m starting a more intensive round of exercises tomorrow. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, though.”

“That’s good,” Stephen said, ignoring the extra words and zooming in on the salient facts. “Have they given you a timeline?”

Billy cocked his head. “Your concern is sweet,” he said. “But I should warn you, Mara has already got first dibs on driving me home.”

Stephen did not try to hide his exasperation. Especially not from Billy, who had an annoying habit of seeing it anyway. “You flatter yourself, and it’s not becoming,” he said.

Billy gave him a hurt look. “I had thought you were more fond of me than that.”

“Maybe,” Stephen relented. “But it’s not relevant. Fredericks tells me that by this time tomorrow I’ll be off in my new life.”

Billy’s humour faded slightly. Stephen had watched him closely enough over the last week or so to pinpoint some of the finer nuances of his expressions. Billy was good at hiding things in general, but the drugs had put a damper on him just enough to give Stephen some real insight from time to time. “Well, that is exciting, then,” he said, trying to sound upbeat.

“Why don’t you just say it,” Stephen said, pushing the issue. Billy had been hinting around his disapproval all week, and since Stephen was leaving, he knew it was time to be out with it. No more secrets for Stephen Hart, for as long as he could claim that identity.

“Say what?” Billy asked innocently.

“What you’ve been not saying all week,” Stephen said. “You think I’m making a mistake, is that it?”

“You said it, mate,” Billy replied.

Stephen shook his head. “Don’t be passive/aggressive,” he said. “You, of all people, know why I’m doing this.”

“I know why you think you’re doing this.”

Stephen groaned. “I’m walking away. Starting again. You lived my life. You know why.”

Billy shrugged nonchalantly. “I understand the appeal of starting again and walking away,” he said. “But only when there’s actually nothing left to stay for.”

Stephen sighed. “I betrayed my friends and now they think I’m dead,” he said. “Cutter fired me. Twice. I’m pretty sure that’s everything.”

“So you really don’t know?” Billy asked.

Stephen shook his head. “Know what?”

“How Cutter feels,” he said.

“He told me he never wanted to see me again,” Stephen clarified.

“He was in shock, at the time,” Billy said. “He thought you were dying, and then suddenly, there you were, unhurt.”

“Yeah, so he felt betrayed—“

Billy didn’t let him finish. “While I was in that state, he had no words of condemnation,” he continued. “Only comfort and regret. The thought of you dying was almost too much for him. He needs you.”

The revelation was unsettling. Then Stephen reminded himself that while well-intentioned, Billy was still a liar. He shook his head. “He doesn’t want me here.”

Billy groaned. “You’re both such stupid, stubborn gits,” he muttered. “He came here, you know that?”

Stephen frowned.

Billy nodded. “After I woke up, he came here to talk to me,” he said.

“But – why?”

“Because he was too self-absorbed to go and see you himself,” he said. “And he reckoned I was the next best thing.”

Stephen sat uneasily, not sure what to say.

“And do you know what he said?” Billy asked.

Stephen didn’t trust himself to speak.

“He said all the same things you said, about regret and too many mistakes and trust,” he said. “He knew all the right party lines you two think have to be said.”

“That’s what I mean—“

“And he didn’t mean any of it,” Billy cut him off. “He asked me to tell you he was sorry. For everything.”

Stephen’s breath caught in his throat, tears springing to his eyes. He shook his head in denial. “He shouldn’t be sorry.”

Billy’s eyebrows shot up. “Don’t be such a self-sacrificial idiot that you can’t see that it takes two,” he said. “You screwed up. You slept with Helen. You lied about it. But it was in the past, and Cutter was too busy being offended to realise that he was madder at Helen than at you. He was too shocked to realise that it was relief, not anger, when he found out you were okay. And now he’s too daft to go and apologise to you himself.”

Stephen listened, but barely understood. The idea of absolution, of making peace with Cutter – it was the only thing he wanted. With difficulty, he swallowed. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I keep hoping you two will get your heads screwed on straight and work it out yourselves,” he said. “You both care about each other, so you would think such things wouldn’t be such a trial for you. But instead you’re both trying to nobly hold your heads high as you walk away. Which is fine, I suppose, except it’s not noble. It’s just stupid, and I can’t abide watching you two throw away everything you have and everything you could have on some warped notion of what’s best for each other.”

The outburst seemed to leave Billy winded, his chest heaving on the bed. Stephen tried to keep his own breathing even, hoping to control the trembling in his shoulders. The knowledge changed everything – and yet, still changed nothing.

He took another breath, forcing himself to stay calm. “Cutter goes with his gut instinct,” he said. “He trusts his instincts. His instincts told him to fire me. His gut told him to walk away even when he wasn’t angry. I have to respect that.”

“Instincts can be wrong,” Billy told him emphatically.

Stephen smiled ruefully. That was a lesson he’d learned the hard way. A lesson he wouldn’t forget. “Not Cutter’s.”

Billy’s eyes were keen on him, probing and unapologetic. “And if you’re wrong?”

Stephen didn’t wilt away. He’d been through too much, and he had to be certain about this, even if he doubted so much else. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Billy stared, incredulous. “So that’s it?” he asked. He gestured one hand out in futility. “You’re just going to walk away?”

Stephen could feel the indignation, and couldn’t even blame the other man. But he’d heard Cutter’s words. He knew what he’d done to the other man, time and again. He knew the truth was cruel, no matter how much they all wanted to deny it. “There’s nothing left,” he said.

Billy’s blue eyes blazed. “There’s one thing.”

Stephen’s stomach churned uncomfortably, the regret bitter in his mouth. “Not any more,” he said. “I saw the truth in his eyes. He can’t trust me.”

“But he’s sorry,” Billy returned. “You’re sorry.”

More than Billy would ever know, Stephen was sorry. And part of him knew that Cutter was sorry, too. But that didn’t change anything. “Sometimes sorry’s not enough.”

“Then what is?” Billy asked.

The answer was cold, certain on his tongue. This was the truth he had probably known all along, probably known since he had let Helen talk him into bed all those years ago. “Nothing.”

Billy looked ready to fight, but the moment passed, and his expression softened. “Then I’m the one who’s really sorry,” he said.

It wasn’t the response Stephen had been expecting. Although, considering how poorly he’d gauged most things in his life, this lack of foresight probably shouldn’t have been surprising. “And how do you work that out?”

Billy shrugged. “I promised to help you,” he said. “And not just with the ARC and Helen. But with Cutter.”

“And you saved him,” Stephen said. “You got torn up alive because of that promise.”

“I promised you’d have a chance to make things right.”

That had been a hope Stephen had clung to, but he knew now it had been foolish. “There was never any chance,” he said. “You still saved Cutter, and that’s more than I had any right to ask for. I owe you for that.”

Billy made a small noise. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“I do,” Stephen said, and this was what he had come to say, more than anything. “I have a second chance because of you. Maybe it’s not the one I want, but it’s more than what I deserve.”

Billy seemed to process that, his jaw working. “You know, he cares about you still,” he said. “The same way you care about him. You two could be happy. It’s not too late.”

It was a fantasy that Stephen had barely dared to let himself consider. The idea of him and Cutter, having a second chance. No more lies, not about Helen, not about them. “I think it finally is,” he admitted.

Billy’s expression was crestfallen. Stephen realised that Billy had truly believed Stephen might have another chance, that things could be fixed. He couldn’t see that some things couldn’t be mended, that even if Stephen wasn’t better off this way, maybe Cutter was. Billy was a proven spy, but apparently he was still a bit of the naïve rookie Fredericks had thought him to be. Though, really, Stephen wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.

Stephen cleared his throat, getting to his feet to fill the lingering awkward silence. “Anyway,” he said. “I just wanted to see you before I was off.”

“I’ll rather miss our little visits,” Billy said, a small smile returning to his face.

“Yes,” Stephen agreed. “And if you ever need a doppelganger for a top-secret mission…”

Billy snorted. “I won’t call you,” he finished with a grin.

The humour was sincere, and this time, smiling back was natural. “So,” Stephen said, trying his best to round off his farewell. “Good luck to you.”

Billy swatted at the air. “After a mission like this, I hardly need luck.”

Stephen shrugged. “All the same.”

“Thank you,” Billy said. “And good luck to you, too.”

This time Stephen’s smile faltered as he tried not to think about how much he’d need it.

But that was that. The goodbyes were made. The farewells were finished. There was nothing left to stay for.

Nothing left for Stephen at all.

-o-

This had been a difficult mission. From the nuances of his cover to being subjected to Helen Cutter to almost getting eaten alive by vicious predators, this mission had been more than difficult. It had been very possibly the worst first mission ever.

When they finally released him from the hospital, Billy was sore but healing. The scars were laced spectacularly around his body, but he found that very few were visible when he was dressed in proper clothing and not barely there hospital gowns. Still, he moved slowly and he did his best not to show that simple tasks still left him winded.

Moreover, he was adamantly denying the fact that he still woke with nightmares. Such details were neither here nor there, especially not when faced with the impending reality of his career.

The mission had been a success – sort of. They’d stopped Leek’s plans and put a stop to the intended mass destruction, but not without cost. Helen was gone – probably off plotting and seducing – and that was entirely Billy’s fault. No one had said as much, and Billy wasn’t about to bring it up, but he had a feeling he couldn’t avoid those consequences forever.

Plus, he wasn’t even sure if or when he’d be deemed field-worthy. The doctors offered him glowing praise, but the psychologist was much harder to read. Billy had studied enough textbooks to know the proper things to say. He expressed his grief and doubts and fears just enough to show that he had them, but not too much as to suggest that they were compromising.

Usually Billy was good at telling people what they wanted to hear, but the psychologist seemed intent on making that difficult for him. She nodded and made lots of notes and provided little feedback for Billy to gauge properly how he was doing.

He did realise that his attempt to rig his sessions was disingenuous, but he was a spy. This was what he did. No matter what he’d lost or how close he’d come to death, this was what he did, and if they took that from him…

Well, at least he knew what total resignation looked like after talking to Cutter and Stephen. He wasn’t that badly off – yet.

Packing up his things, he tried to keep his spirits light. He couldn’t fix things for Stephen and Cutter any more, but maybe all was not lost for him. Mara was bringing a car around, and he was cleared to start desk duty soon, and he had managed to convince himself that it would be okay.

Until Fredericks showed up.

The other man had shown up a lot lately, but Billy noticed the difference immediately. Fredericks was reserved, lingering in the doorway. He was downright nervous, clutching awkwardly at a file in his hand.

Billy stuffed the rest of his clothes into his bag and made a face. “Bad news?”

Fredericks looked mildly surprised. “What happened to the eternal optimist?”

Putting down the bag, Billy returned his gaze curiously. “He spent some time in the field and nearly got torn apart for his trouble.”

Fredericks winced. “Ah,” he said. “Well, then maybe this time you don’t need optimism.” He held out the file.

Billy eyed it sceptically.

Fredericks waved it just a little. “Go on,” he said. “Take it.”

Uncertainly, Billy took the file. Flipping it open, he scanned. Then he scanned again, mind working over the information in shock. He looked up, wide-eyed. “They cleared me.”

Fredericks was smiling and trying unsuccessfully to hide it. “Just came down today,” he said. “I thought I’d come and tell you myself as part of your going home present.”

Billy looked at the file again, laughing. “They actually cleared me!”

This time, Fredericks managed to raise his eyebrows in an approximation of concern. “You were really that worried?”

Billy’s cheeks flushed and he shrugged. “It didn’t exactly go off without a hitch.”

“And no mission ever does,” Fredericks replied.

Billy was beaming now, reading over the paper again. Then he remembered something. “You said this was part of my present,” he said. “What’s the rest?”

Fredericks’ smile widened. “So you were paying attention,” he said. “I’m also here to give you some intel on a few missions.”

Billy flipped past the first page, curious. “You need some more background? I should be able to dig some things up and start a more comprehensive file—“

Fredericks shook his head. “Missions for you to go on,” he clarified. “They’re all still in the works, so you should have time to finish recovering before they get hot.”

Billy glanced back up.

Fredericks nodded readily. “You get first pick of anything you see there,” he said.

Billy looked through them again, noting the details. They were high profile. High risk. The ones they gave to the best operatives. “But…”

“But nothing,” Fredericks said, sounding proud. “York himself has asked to move you to a more active role. Your work on this one has impressed everyone.”

“But—“

“Oh, come on, Collins,” Fredericks chided. “Let it go. If being in the field should teach you anything, it’s that you can’t plan for all the contingencies. You just have to make the best of things. And that’s what you did. That’s what makes you a spy – and a damn good one, too. Don’t spend your time second-guessing it all; just accept it. Embrace it.” He shrugged, smiling a little again. “Enjoy it.”

Enjoy it. Billy had always loved being a spy, even when sitting at his desk lost in his paperwork. But he loved the field. He loved living his life knowing he made a difference.

True, things had gone wrong. But things had gone right, too. He may have failed Stephen and Cutter, but not necessarily through any fault of his own. They could make their choices, blind as they may be, and Billy could not control that.

Moreover, if Stephen and Cutter had taught him anything, it was that holding onto recriminations and doubts was an unnecessary punishment. They were choosing to live half lives, hiding their feelings and denying themselves what they really wanted.

Billy couldn’t make that mistake.

He wouldn’t.

Eyes on Fredericks, he grinned. “I think I can do that.”

Because yes, this was quite possibly the worst mission ever. People had died. He’d had to sleep with Helen Cutter. Stephen and Cutter had walked away from each other. And Billy had nearly been killed. So, yes, definitely worst mission ever.

And, consequently, the best one, too.

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