|Run for Your Life
Author: Faye Dartmouth PM
Billy had made a career of running, until he met the ODS.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Hurt/Comfort - Billy C. & Michael D. - Chapters: 3 - Words: 28,050 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 4 - Published: 11-08-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8684143
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: Run For You Life (If You Can)
Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.
A/N: So, once upon a time, serenity_pen wondered why there wasn't more Michael fic. I offered to help her out and took on a Michael prompt. Then I sat down to write said prompt. And this happened. It's still sort of the fic she asked for…just not quite like I think she probably wanted. And definitely not like I intended. Still, I hope it helps fulfill the need for more Michael whump in fandom because I tried hard to deliver on that front.
A/N 2: I couldn't have written this without lena7142. She basically was there every step of the way and listened to me whine about this fic more than anyone ever should. Then, she beta'ed it. Because yes, she really is amazing like that.
Spoilers: None, except vaguely for Proof of Life because of Carson Simms. This is set preseries. Divided into three parts but all posted today!
Summary: Billy had made a career of running, until he met the ODS.
When Billy was fourteen, he ran away from home
The reasons why were vague to him now, but he could still remember his indignant thoughts, about how limited he was, about how no one treated him right; about how he could do so much better on his own.
Of course, failing his maths test was another compelling reason. His father had never much tolerated his fanciful notions of how studying was a wasted act for a young boy's ever-evolving psyche.
Whatever the reasons, when things got tough, Billy ran.
For a few days, it had been a lovely thing. Wet and hungry though he was, he figured suffering on his own terms was better than enduring uncreative punitive action from others.
Or so he'd thought until the police had picked him up out of an alleyway, shivering with fever and nearly curled up with hunger.
They bundled him in a blanket, gave him something to eat, and told Billy to just sit tight, they'd have him home in no time.
"You're calling my mum?" he asked, a little pathetic.
"That is the idea, son," the cop replied. "You look like a drowned rat, and much longer out there and you'd be catching pneumonia for your troubles."
Billy sunk wearily down. "But I ran away," he mumbled, chewing lazily over the soggy fish and chips he'd been given.
The cop tutted, laughing a little. "Boys always do," he said, starting the car. "When you learn how to tough it out, then we can talk, man to man, yeah?"
Man to man, Billy thought he could tolerate. Hand to ass when he got back home, however, made him think maybe running was still the better option.
Over the years, Billy had made a career of running.
It was rather important in being a spy, he found. Sure, subterfuge and deception were still the preferred methods of going about the job, but sometimes, when things got difficult, running was the only option left that offered any chance of survival.
And besides, he'd literally made a career of running. When his antics got him drawn up on disciplinary measures in the UK, he'd been offered the chance to go to trial and defend himself. Or he could accept a plea deal that ousted him, disgraced and rejected.
It was perhaps no surprise that Billy had chosen to run.
Running meant he could rely on himself. If he just went fast enough, far enough, he wouldn't have to face up to the unsavory alternatives that possibly awaited him.
So Billy ran.
This time, it was cocaine dealers in Venezuela. Nasty bunch, though not overly bright. Billy had nabbed the intel and had seen no need in finessing an exit that could have led to excessive bloodshed. Not when running was a perfectly viable choice.
And especially when Michael had promptly seen their odds and yelled, "Run!"
Billy wasn't great with orders – no one who ended up deported from their homeland was particularly good with orders, he reckoned – but he did appreciate that Michael Dorset gave practical orders. Ones that generally made sense and tended to be for his survival and overall wellbeing.
Which was why Michael Dorset was a relatively easy man to follow, all things considered.
Though, the man was a mite slow, if Billy was honest, because when he told Billy to run, Billy took that quite seriously. By the time they'd got outside the perimeter of the camp, he'd started to out distance the man easily, his longer stride and youth pushing him forward even while Michael's footfalls started to lag behind.
But Billy ran. For the mission, sure. Because it was an order, yes. Because it was his life.
Farther back, he could still hear the sounds of men yelling, their Spanish punctuated by gunfire.
As if Billy needed more inspiration to go faster.
He pushed on, finding endurance he kept saved for just such occasions, pushing himself onward. Because he needed to survive. He needed to make it out of here alive. He needed to run.
He hadn't left his career in the UK to die in Venezuela. He hadn't sacrificed everything to fold up and give in over cocaine. Billy was more than happy to serve the greater good, but he'd learned the hard way that if he didn't look out for himself, then no one else would do it for him.
And Michael couldn't complain about that. He'd been the one to teach him that lesson, nearly getting Billy killed on his first day with the CIA. He'd been duped, tricked and blackmailed, and if trust had to be owned in the Agency, that meant it could be sold out just as fast.
True, Billy was grateful for the second chance and all, to actually attempt making something of his life, but his new teammates had hardly been the welcoming sort. They'd subjected Billy to every possible ridicule, subjecting him to the worst possible jobs, often without warning him what to expect. He'd been their lackey, the butt of their not-so-funny jokes, and none of his ideas were ever welcomed with anything but disdain and mockery.
Simms had been better than the rest, which was probably why Michael never let Billy work with Carson. This was why he was assigned to Malick, who treated him like a dog, or why he was kept close to Michael, as though he wasn't to be trusted on his own.
Not that he couldn't entirely see their point, really. Spies didn't trust by default, and Billy was an MI6 reject, so the basis for distrust was clearly there, but still.
Billy lived in a tiny rented flat and had three suits to his name. He could barely afford his daily needs and drove an unreliable car with seatbelts that didn't even work any more. He missed his mum, his girlfriend had dumped him in a bloody email, and he'd been sitting on a milk crate using a computer from 1989.
So when Michael said to run, Billy ran and didn't look back. Because it was an order. Because it was better than staying and dying. Because he didn't doubt that his teammates would run on without him, if given the chance.
Only Billy wasn't about to give them the chance.
Because he could run better than the rest of them.
Moving faster, he gritted his teeth, jumping over the fauna and skirting trees. He made his way over a fallen log, darting forward and veering away, trying to give his pursuers a less visible line to follow.
He couldn't hear Michael now, but trusted that they were both heading due east, toward the drop point with Carson and Malick. Michael was a paranoid bastard; he could take care of himself.
So Billy ran.
Harder, faster, careening through the jungle, heedless of anything. He would survive; he would run.
He saw the sharp decline, and made a move to avoid it, but his momentum was stronger than he'd expected. He veered abruptly, changing his direction, but as he moved to even out his pace, his foot caught on a rock.
He teetered, trying to right himself, but with his forward motion it was just too much—
And Billy saw the ground coming up to meet him before everything went dark.
Billy was supposed to be running.
True, he wasn't much for orders, but running was less an order and more of a biological imperative that promoted his long term survival.
So he wanted to be running.
But he wasn't running. He was…falling?
No, because he wasn't moving anymore. He was…still?
Which mean that he was a sitting duck, an easy target, which meant he had to run.
That thought galvanized him and he jolted, coming back to consciousness with a horrifying moment of disorientation. He didn't know how long he'd been out or what exactly had happened. He'd fallen down the hill, he vaguely recalled, he'd missed his step and—
He needed to keep running.
He was so intent on this notion that he fumbled, trying to push himself up—
But Billy didn't wait. Couldn't wait. And he was halfway up, putting pressure on his leg when—
Pain exploded, ripping through him, lighting his leg on fire,burning up the length of his body and paralyzing him. He flopped back to the ground with a scream, sucking in hard as he choked on a sob, hot tears freely down his face.
Someone swore close to him, shuffling closer and putting a hand on his shoulder while he flailed helplessly in the underbrush. "Quiet, quiet, quiet," Michael hissed. "Just…hold still."
Billy whimpered, squeezing his eyes shut as tears continued to fall. The pain was buzzing now, ringing in his ears and throbbing between his temples. He could feel everything, every beat of his heart, the rough brush against the back of his neck, the encompassing agony from somewhere below his right knee.
The hand squeezed again, the voice gentler now. "Just breathe, okay?" he said. "Just clear your head, in and out, in and out…"
Billy was too weak to disobey, pushing out harsh breaths through his nose and doing his best to stop crying as he breathed in again, each one helping to calm him – a little, anyway.
He laid like that, just breathing while Michael coached him, letting himself drift for a long moment in the pain before his head cleared enough for him to think straight and he opened his eyes.
And there was Michael, hovering right above him. He was still holding onto Billy's shoulder and offered him a small, lopsided grin. "You back with me now?"
Billy took a shuddering breath, and fought to regain his sense of composure. He swallowed tremulously and managed a small nod. "What happened?"
Michael gave him a funny look, uncertain and guarded. "You fell."
Billy gritted his teeth and nodded again. "I figured that. How long was I out?"
"A few minutes," Michael said. "You may have a slight concussion but it doesn't look bad."
Billy took a few more breaths. "So we should be running again, yeah?"
Michael's look turned quizzical. "I don't think you're up to it."
Billy frowned, but Michael's gaze flickered downward toward the pulsing pain that was Billy's leg. Billy considered that, and followed the gaze, straining to lift his head enough to see down the length of his body.
At first, he didn't see much. There was no blood – just a few scraps and a nasty rip on his left sleeve – but something was wrong. Something in the dead weight below his waist, in the intense pain that he was just barely keeping at bay.
And then, he understood. Understood the blinding pain, understood the uncontrolled tears. Understood why running, his best form of defense, was no longer a viable option.
Because his leg was twisted, the foot grotesquely askew in the wrong direction, clearly and very badly broken.
Billy's first instinct was to run.
He was hurt; he was in pain; he was scared. Because there were still people with guns out there, and he needed to get out. He needed to go. And he needed to go now.
But he couldn't.
He couldn't run. He couldn't even move.
Panic rose in his throat, threatening to suffocate him and he shook his head in desperate denial. "No," he said, pushing himself awkwardly on his elbows. He tried to scoot back frantically. "No, no, no."
Michael sat back a little, hand falling away, but he still hovered. "You're going to want to be still—"
But Billy didn't want to be still. He wanted to run. He wanted to get away from this and get away from this now. His leg couldn't be broken because if his leg was broken, then he couldn't run. Then he was stuck here. He was stuck here to die.
And Billy didn't want to die. So he couldn't have a broken leg. It wasn't that bad. He could make it work, he could—
His backward movement jarred his leg against a rock and the world whited out. When he came to, he was being propped up against Michael, one arm steadying him around his heaving chest, the other pressed across his mouth.
"Seriously," Michael said, voice close to his ear. "You need to be still."
There was a quiet urgency in Michael's voice; this wasn't an order of contrivance or whim. It was an order of necessity.
Billy tensed, his entire body trembling as fresh tears flowed down his face. He wanted to fight, but Michael's grip was too secure and his leg ached—
Farther away. Footfalls and calls and—
Billy's breath hitched, heart skipping a beat. Their pursuers were coming.
"We're going to lie back now," Michael told him, voice low and almost soundless. "The brush is thick here and the best route is at the top of the ridge, so they're not going to come this way unless we give them a reason. If you move, you'll give them a reason. Do you understand?"
Billy blinked rapidly, but finally nodded.
Carefully, Michael shifted, releasing his hold on Billy's mouth as he moved slightly, lowering Billy down. This time, Billy didn't resist as Michael placed him on the ground. Quickly, Michael moved, lying next to Billy, his back facing up the ridge, partially obscuring Billy's exposed form from the view above. Their jackets were neutral, easily blending into the surroundings. With the thicket, they might have a chance.
Or they might not.
Panic threatened to choke him again and Billy closed his eyes, grinding his teeth together so hard that his jaw hurt. Michael was pressed closed to him, and Billy could feel his even breaths, hot against his face.
But Billy didn't move. He didn't dare move.
The voices above got closer, the scuffling almost on top of them. Billy flinched despite his best efforts, a low whimper in the back of his throat. Michael's breathing caught just slightly in response, as if to remind Billy that he wasn't alone.
As if Billy believed that.
Still, Michael didn't waver, and after a moment, the voices started to fade, the footfalls dissipating.
Moving on, moving out.
Until the only sound was Michael's breathing and Billy's own pounding heart.
It was hard to say how much time had passed, but the minutes had slipped by in the tense stillness. When Michael finally sat up, Billy was lightheaded and nauseous, leg feeling wooden with the unrelenting pain.
On his knees, Michael gave Billy a quick once over. "You okay?"
Billy swallowed shakily, eyes blinking rapidly. "My leg," he croaked.
Michael nodded grimly. "Yeah," he said. "You did a number on it."
Tentative, Billy lifted his head, looking down again. Calmer this time, the sight was no less unsettling. The bottom of his pant leg seemed to be taught, the hot, swollen flesh underneath making it tight. His foot was askew, and despite the fiery pain in his shin, the foot itself felt as though it wasn't there at all.
Whimpering, Billy dropped his head back, working to keep his breathing in check with only marginal success. "I broke my bloody leg," he repeated, his hands curling into fists on the jungle floor, pounding lightly in frustration. The implications became suddenly clear to him. A broken leg could just as well be a death sentence. He was like a lame horse, no good for anyone. Only there was likely no one around who would kindly put a gun to his head and finish the job.
Billy paled, glancing over at Michael. Or maybe there was.
He squeezed his eyes closed at the thought, fresh tears slipping out. He'd fallen, broken his leg, fumbled the mission. Maybe MI6 had been right to boot him; he was a screw up, and this proved it. A second chance and no more than six months in and he'd broken his leg. It was pathetic; it was probably typical.
Michael was scuffling about in the brush next to him, and Billy opened his eyes, suddenly afraid. Michael was checking his supplies, zipping up his pack.
Getting ready to leave.
Billy couldn't blame him for that. After all, when Billy had been running, he hadn't looked back. Hadn't bothered. If Michael had gone down, Billy probably wouldn't have even noticed. Billy was a part of the team, but he was still the new guy. He was pretty sure Casey didn't even know his first name yet, and Michael seemed to watch every move he made, waiting for a chance to exploit his errors or simply tell him how wrong he was.
And Carson was just happy for someone else to be the butt of jokes for once.
And Billy deserved it. Because he'd been running so fast to save his life that he'd effectively killed himself with one misstep.
Billy swallowed. "You'll come back?" he asked, daring to hope.
Michael paused, frowning at him. "I wasn't aware I was going."
Surprised, Billy stared at him for a moment. "But when they realize they've lost the trail, they'll double back," he said. "We won't be lucky twice."
Michael smiled wryly. "I didn't realize we'd been lucky yet," he mused.
Billy kept staring. "But…"
"But I was just seeing if I had anything for you to bite down on," Michael explained, putting his pack aside. He shrugged, undoing his belt. "I know this isn't perfect, but it's the best I have."
Dumbly, Billy blinked, entirely confounded. "You're going to strangle me with your belt?" he asked. "Wouldn't shooting me be easier? Or just leave me the gun and I can do it myself."
Michael gave him a funny look. "That seems a little drastic."
Drastic, perhaps. But Billy had a broken leg in a remote region of Venezuela. If the angry drug dealers didn't come back and behead him, he'd be found by a military sweep and disappeared into a prison system or flaunted as a political pawn. Billy wasn't walking out of here; he wasn't running out of here. To his mind, there was no other way out, least not one that wasn't a bit more permanent.
"I'm as good as dead out here," he said, breath hitching as the starkness of the reality gripped him. It was oddly settling, numbing the burning pain receptors with cold understanding. "We're miles from the drop point, and there's no way Casey and Simms will get here in time before our friends double back. Leaving me here alive just means I'll be captured. So there's not really any option left."
At that, Michael smiled. He moved forward, belt in hand. Billy flinched despite himself. He liked to think he was braver than that, but time had proven otherwise. Michael paused but kept moving, holding it out. "You'll need something to bite on."
Billy frowned. "Why?"
"Because when I set your leg, it's going to hurt," he said. "A lot."
Billy's brow furrowed. "But…"
"Your desire to die for the CIA is very noble," Michael told him. "But I think it may be a little premature."
"But I can't walk," Billy reminded him. "I'm literally dead weight. You have to leave me."
Michael shook his head. "We'll talk about that later," he said, still holding out the belt. "After I set your leg."
Billy didn't know what to say. Didn't know what to do. But it wasn't like he had any other options. Crippled as he was, he was at Michael Dorset's mercy – for better or for worse. If he had the perverted notion to torture Billy before leaving him to his own devices, that was the man's business. Maybe he thought he'd give Billy a fighting chance. Spy agencies were funny like that; they screwed you over while giving you so-called tools to survive. MI6 threatened to put him in prison for the rest of the life or gave him the chance to start again.
Michael would set his leg, maybe in the insane hope that he could carry his own feeble weight out.
Choices that weren't, it seemed, and yet, Billy could only comply. He'd taken the plea deal; he'd joined the CIA. And reluctantly, he opened his mouth, letting Michael place the worn leather between his teeth.
When it was positioned, Michael sat back, seemingly satisfied, before he turned his attention to Billy's misshapen leg. Wincing, the older operative ran his fingers gently down the leg, and Billy hissed protectively, starting to tremble again as Michael carefully palpated the clearly broken bone.
Frowning, Michael gripped the bottom of Billy's pant leg, ripping it quick and clean. It jostled Billy, not much, but enough to make him yelp, biting down instinctively on the hot leather in his mouth. The exposed skin seemed to prickle, pain receptors objecting to the fresh onslaught.
His breathing got heavy as Michael's fingers trailed on the skin where the bone was clearly jutting awkwardly, pulling it unnaturally taut.
Michael studied it for a moment longer, nodding to himself. "Okay," he said, moving around to Billy's foot. He looked up at Billy. "You know, I was premed for a while."
"Oh?" Billy asked around the belt, feeling vaguely hopeful suddenly. "So you know what you're doing?"
"Not really," Michael said, brow furrowed. "I liked the theory, but not so much the application."
Billy felt his heart stutter, his brow crinkling in a sudden cold fear. "But—"
There was no time to finish his statement. There was no time for anything. Because Michael gripped his ankle, pulling hard and steady. The first yank made Billy's world explode, his entire body seizing, teeth grinding hopelessly into the leather until the taste of the warm fibers filled his mouth. The intensity usurped his control and he was crying and screaming, flailing desperately, begging around the belt for reprieve, for anything—
Instead, Michael pulled again, and Billy could feel the bones grating, the sound clicking into his consciousness and pulsating hotly through his body like a roaring, uncontrolled flash fire of agony that stole his breath. When the wave reached his head, the blood pounded in his ears until the darkness overtook him.
This time, Billy remembered. On his back, he had a vague sense that time had passed, but when he opened his eyes, nothing had changed. The jungle was dense and hot around him, and Billy was still helpless on his back, his leg broken.
And Michael was still there, sitting next to him, watching him with a curious expression.
Billy swallowed, finding his throat painfully dry. The small movement made his head ache, his consciousness still tenuous as he took uncertain breaths.
"Hey," Michael said. "Welcome back."
Billy winced but made no further effort to move. "If this is a welcome party, mate, you Americans need to work on your hospitality."
Michael grinned. "Good to see your injury hasn't impaired your total lack of gratitude."
Billy closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing with difficulty. He let himself breathe for a few long seconds, before opening his eyes again. "How long?"
Michael shrugged. "You've been out for about twenty minutes," he said. "Gave me time to finish with your leg."
At the mention, pain flared again. Billy lifted his head, squinting as he looked down. The pant leg was entirely tattered now, strips being used to tie a large stick into place, serving as a makeshift splint. The tight knots put pressure on the leg, but with the overwhelming pain, it was hard to differentiate one infliction from another.
He dropped his head back again, sighing as he looked toward Michael. "I reckon thanks are in order," he said.
"Well, we're not out of here yet," Michael said.
Billy nodded, suddenly aware of the jungle around the again. "We probably don't have long before they come back," he said. He sucked in a shuddering breath, trying to control the pain even as his chest ached with the effort. "You probably need to get moving."
Michael gave him a funny look again, but he didn't disagree. "We'll get to that point," he said. "First, let's take care of you."
He said it simply, matter of fact, as though time wasn't of the essence. As if angry drug dealers wouldn't be doubling back with every intention to kill them – and sitting there, at the bottom of the hill, they were still defenseless.
Still, Michael seemed intently oblivious to such danger. This was perhaps not entirely unexpected. The ODS had a habit of being nonsensical and illogical, though usually they made such choices with their own self preservation in mind. After all, Billy's second mission had had him playing bait, unarmed and unconscious, giving the bad guys enough pause to see if he was still alive before the rest of the ODS had disarmed and arrested them.
This might have seemed heroic, except for the small fact that Casey had choked Billy out and left him in said state to begin with.
Billy's well being was a tenuous, expendable thing. MI6 thought so; the ODS was no different.
So why was Michael still there?
Playing doctor, nursemaid…
Michael unscrewed a bottle of water, holding it out.
And now playing mother hen, too.
Billy eyed it, skeptical.
"It's not poisoned," Michael said.
Billy still looked at it.
Michael rolled his eyes, taking a quick drink and making a point of swallowing before holding out the bottle again.
So it wasn't likely to be poison. Unless Michael had somehow built up an immunity to whatever he might use to dose Billy, but that seemed unlikely, even for the ODS.
Well, for Michael anyway. Billy had his doubts regarding Casey.
But that was entirely to be expected considering the fact that the man was probably the closest thing to a genuine psychopath that Billy had ever met – on either side of the law.
Besides, Billy was thirsty. In fact, he was almost parched. So risking a sip might be well worth it.
Defeated, he reached out, taking the bottle from Michael. As he brought it close, he found his hands shaking, and when he looked down, his vision blurred uncomfortably as he attempted to unscrew the cap.
Working his jaw, he did his best not to show his troubles. It was agonizing work, and he still managed to splash some of the water down his chin, but when he was done, he screwed the cap back on and held the bottle back out.
"Thanks," he said, hoping that he didn't sound as breathless as he felt.
Taking the bottle, Michael gave him a wary look. This might be bothersome if Michael wasn't habitually fixing him with such looks, as though he was always assessing Billy's status – on missions, during briefings, when Billy first walked in to the moment he walked out each night. That was what Michael did. He assessed.
And Billy had yet to pass muster.
Still, Billy was an MI6 reject so he wasn't sure what he expected, though he was fairly certain daily flagellation at the hands of his so-called teammates had not been part of the plea bargain he'd agreed to. Beggars couldn't be choosers, and Billy knew that, but there he was, broken leg in the Venezuelan jungle with angry dealers set to return, and Billy wasn't begging or choosing. He was simply at the mercy of Michael Dorset.
None of this boded well.
He swallowed, feeling conspicuous. And horribly vulnerable. If there was anything worse than falling down and smashing his leg, it was falling down, smashing his leg and enduring a strange sort of analytic sympathy before being duly left behind to die.
With a shuddering breath, Billy sought to regain some composure. If humiliation and death were inevitable, some self-respect was all he had left. Swallowing again, he nodded, wetting his lips. "Right, then," he said, matter of fact. "So I reckon that's about all you can do. I might be able to hobble along…"
Michael shook his head. "That's a bad break," he said. "You'll never get very far."
The simple pronouncement made Billy's stomach roil and he felt his composure waver. His jaw trembled and he resisted the inexplicable urge to cry. This was his own fault; his own mess: he couldn't play the victim. He wouldn't.
He gave a shaky laugh instead. "Seems like it may be worth the try, I think," he said. "I mean, I could stay here, but a rescue mission would be too dangerous – no sense in risking any more operatives when we have the intel we need. Granted, the odds aren't good either way, but seems wrong to lay down and die."
"I agree," Michael said. "But you're forgetting a third option."
Billy blinked, fumbling for an answer but coming up with nothing. The pain was making him weak, slowing his mental processes as most of his energy was diverted into the simple act of staying conscious.
"You can't walk on your own," he said. "But I can help you."
"You've already splinted it—"
"No, I mean, you can lean on me," Michael said. He shrugged. "A human crutch. It'll be a little awkward but it should work out okay."
Billy stared at him, wondering if in his pain he had become delusional without realizing it. The world had taken on a surreal tint, this was true, but there was something staunchly realistic that he couldn't shake. As if Michael had actually just made such an offer.
Billy snorted. "I'll slow you down," he said. "Chances are, they'll catch us both and we'll have got nowhere for the trouble."
Michael eased a shoulder up. "Or we might both make it out of here alive," he said. "Seems like it's worth a try."
In theory, there was something appealing about that. Brothers in arms, and all such things. After all, they were teammates, and the whole point of teammates was to work together to achieve the preferable end.
But they were spies. Bloody spooks. They weren't soldiers in the battlefield where blood was tested and the bonds were strengthened. The world of espionage was backstabbing and subterfuge; you lied to your enemies, you lied to your friends. You used anyone who was useful, no matter who they were or who they worked for. Loyalty was a strange concept, too tenuous to matter. Spies burned each other; spies used any means to achieve their ends.
This was how Billy had ended up here in the first place. This was why he'd been unceremoniously fired by MI6 and why he hadn't taken the high road to clear his name. This was why his team had used and abused him, and why Billy had been running without a thought to Michael's safety.
Because spies were the epitome of lone wolves. They could work together for as long as it was convenient.
It was no longer convenient. Billy would slow Michael down; he could get Michael killed.
For a moment, Billy kept his eyes on Michael, who showed no signs of wavering. "You're kidding."
Michael didn't even blink. "That'd be kind of cruel, wouldn't it?"
Cruel would be drugging and ditching him. Cruel would be leaving him on the need to know so he almost got his head blown off. Cruel would be sending him into briefings with no background and expecting him to work miracles with the director, who could barely stomach his presence.
His team had been nothing but cruel to him.
So maybe it was a joke. And that was the ultimate cruelty. Let Billy believe there was a chance, that he wouldn't be abandoned and left, just to make it even more horrendous when he found himself injured, delirious and alone.
"You're really serious?" Billy asked.
Michael rolled his eyes, getting to his feet. Billy watched, still waiting for him to leave as he crossed in front of Billy.
But then he stopped, offering down his hand.
Billy gaped at it.
Michael held his gaze, hand still out. "I'm ready when you are."
Billy wasn't sure he was ready, but he knew he wasn't ready to die. Selfish to the end, Billy would let himself be a hypocrite and an undeserving bastard as he took the proffered hand and let himself be hoisted up.
Even with the hand up, getting to his feet was a difficult task. The instant he moved his leg, pain erupted with renewed intensity, and Billy blacked out for a moment, jaw clenched and eyes squeezed shut as he desperately sought to control it.
But he did control it, if only because he had to. Michael was helping him, but Billy couldn't be so foolish as to think that was an infinite extension of grace. Billy would have to carry most of his own weight, as it were, or he'd find himself back on the ground. And Michael was right – he wouldn't make it far on his own. Staying awake and staying upright was his only chance of survival.
It wasn't easy, though. Even after the pain had abated to levels he could control, he still felt shaky and weak, his stomach churning uncomfortably and his head swimming. He was upright, but listing heavily despite his best efforts, putting more weight than he wanted to on Michael's apparently willing shoulders.
"Just give yourself a moment," Michael coached, voice soft even as his fingers tightened under Billy's arm. "When you think you're good, let me know."
Billy didn't think he'd ever be good. Not with his leg busted, his pride damaged and his survival pinned so tenuously on the benevolence of the ODS. Not with a deportation notice and a job dependent on results and angry drug dealers trying to kill him. Not with his mum still crying every time he called, with his friends not taking his calls, and his girlfriend dating his sniveling roommate and telling the world that Billy was a pathetic dolt who had never been worth her time.
Nothing was good.
Maybe this was part of Michael's next phase of torture. Kill him with kindness.
The pain still coursing through him, it seemed plausible enough.
But only if Billy let himself die. Broken leg, damaged pride, sadistic team leader all aside, he was alive. If he could move, then he had a chance.
Pain, humiliation, utter misery: it was a chance he'd take.
That resolution firmly in mind, he sucked in another breath, opening his eyes and putting the pain to the back of his consciousness. The jungle was a little blurry around the edges and his head was buzzing, but he felt mostly coherent.
Or as ready as he could be.
Bracing himself, he ground his teeth together, nodding in short, curt movements. "Okay," he said. "I think I'm ready."
Michael craned his head, looking at Billy. "You sure?"
Billy was nauseated and in blinding pain while using a man he hardly trusted as a crutch while on the run from drug dealers in the Venezuelan jungle. Billy was sure of nothing, except that he needed to move.
Even if he couldn't run, he needed to move.
"As much as I can be," Billy confirmed, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.
Michael seemed vaguely impressed. "Okay, then," he said. "Let's go."
And Billy hoped it was that easy.
It was a slow, staggering walk. Billy took each step tentatively, breathing in hard with every movement in a futile attempt to control the pain. He managed not to whimper, but every step was agony, igniting renewed pain through his leg, sending shafts of misery up his body and turning his stomach. The nausea made him want to fold over; the constant motion made him want to cry.
He kept going. It went against his instincts, but he needed Michael. At first, he tried to minimize the amount of weight he shifted toward the team leader, but after a few paces, it had become painfully evident that such restraint would not be possible. His leg felt wooden and too large, moving awkwardly, bumping on the ground at unexpected times. There was nothing to be done for it, and he was forced to concede that without Michael, he'd be curled up on the ground and helpless.
Though sometimes, that sounded appealing to Billy. Helplessness, not so much, but curling up on the ground. Because moving hurt and his entire body felt like it was fraying at the seams, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could do this.
Or if he should bother at all. What was he fighting for? Was his life even worth the effort? Would anyone even miss him if he were gone? Maybe he was just prolonging the inevitable. Torturing himself needlessly. Maybe he should have eaten a bullet before the bloody review board could sack him and spare himself the trouble.
"You know, this reminds me of my first mission," Michael said suddenly, his voice oddly conversational and light.
Billy blinked, feeling sluggish as he attempted to hoist his leg over a branch. "Breaking your leg while being chased by angry drug dealers?" Billy huffed out, too tired to be incredulous.
Michael chuckled softly, unconsciously hefting Billy closer to help him clear it. "No," he said. "I mean, Venezuela. My first mission was in Venezuela."
Breathing, Billy squinted, trying to clear his vision as they made their way along the bottom of the incline. It felt like they had been moving for hours, in a state of endless drudgery. Billy was sweating profusely, his stomach still threatening to rebel.
He swallowed. "And how did it turn out?"
Michael hesitated. "Honestly? Not the best," he said. "My team leader told me it was something of a learning experience."
Billy snorted. "Somehow, that's not very encouraging," he said, chest heaving.
"I'm still alive, aren't I?" Michael mused. "That counts for something."
"It depends what you learned, though," Billy said, sucking in harshly as his leg clipped the ground. "I mean, was that the first mission that taught you how to be a paranoid, sadistic bastard?"
"Oh, sadistic," Michael said. "That's a new one. I admit, I get paranoid a lot. And bastard more than I should. But just don't throw the sadistic one to my wife. She'd love to use that one against me."
"You sound like you're enjoying this," Billy said, breathing heavily as he labored across the ground.
"Hey, I've been on worse missions," Michael told him, shrugging.
"Well that's easy for you to say, mate," Billy snapped. "You're not the one with the bloody broken leg walking through the jungle with no painkillers."
"No," Michael said. "But I'm the hauling your ass and leaving myself totally exposed to angry drug dealers. So I'm not so sure it's easy at all."
Billy frowned, but didn't reply, because Michael had a point. This was Billy's fault; Billy needed Michael and Michael had no reason to stay…
"Why are you doing this anyway?" Billy asked. "If you're so keen on leaving me behind, then why don't you just stop postponing the inevitable?"
"Because I've already had one learning experience in Venezuela," Michael grunted. "I don't need another."
Billy's frown deepened. He was about to ask what lesson he might learn – perhaps the best way to create dependency in new operatives or the most innovative techniques for stripping other people of their sense of worth – but he never got the chance.
Because his foot slipped, giving out. Michael tried to catch him, but Billy's bad leg hit the ground hard. The sharp, driving pain doubled him over and he went down – the impact enough to blind him. Everything went dark, pain eclipsing his consciousness, the fire spread and burning—
His stomach couldn't take it anymore. It rebelled, violently turning, twisting inside out until he was heaving, pulling up the contents of his stomach in hot, acrid bile—
Someone caught him, a hand on his shoulder an arm across his chest, but Billy was almost senseless to it as his stomach churned again, bringing up more acid. It burned his lips and he spit, retching again until he was reduced to dry heaves.
When it was over, Billy's body ached and he fell back unresistingly into the arms around him. His eyes were open, but he couldn't see. The lights and colors didn't make sense. His ears were ringing and his senses were delayed; Michael's voice was slow and distorted, words incomprehensible even as Billy recognized the cadence by his head.
He wanted to answer; he wanted to stay awake; he wanted to keep his control. If he gave up, he didn't know what would happen. If he surrendered, then he had no guarantees.
He didn't know.
And he couldn't hold on.
The grip around him tightened and Billy slipped into darkness.
This time, Billy knew time had passed. His senses were muted, dulled by the cloying grip of unconsciousness. The pain was still there, ever-present and persistent, but the sharpness had effused into a general misery that permeated his entire being.
Mostly, he wanted to go back to sleep. He wanted to just close his eyes, drift away and let what come whatever the worst might be. He was hurt and scared and humiliated and alone—
Something shifted near him, a small sound for a small movement.
Not alone then.
"You think you're ready to stop sleeping on the job?" Michael asked. The tone was light, but still somehow pointed.
Squinting his eyes open, Billy glared. "I don't recall asking you to stay," he muttered, tongue thick in his dry mouth.
Sitting nearby, pack next to him, Michael lifted his eyebrows. "I took your passing out as an implicit request for help."
Billy had no defense against that, so he didn't bother. Instead, he sucked in a breath and closed his eyes, trying to clear his head. When he opened his eyes again, his consciousness was firmer, if only because the pain was more acute. "I didn't realize spies were in the habit of giving charity outside the boundaries of a mission. What was it you told me my first day on the job? Trust isn't earned within the Agency? It's owned."
The funny look returned to Michael's face.
Billy hummed a little, shifting slightly, his jaw working against the pain. "Is that what this is? A little additional emotional leverage to make me stay in line? Since all you've done to me so far isn't enough? Are you taking photos on the side? Documenting things for it all? Because I have to tell you, posting them won't get you much. Most people about the Agency already have a low opinion of me. A little extra fodder can hardly worsen my standing."
"You know, a simple thank you would be sufficient," Michael said. "Monologuing isn't necessary."
Billy grunted. "Necessary? Like bugging my flat?"
Michael didn't flinch. "We're spies," he said. "That's what we do."
"But then you posted the live feed to the CIA breakroom!" Billy exclaimed, his frustration peaking. His body tensed and he bit back a cry, settling back down meagerly.
This time, Michael had the decency to look chagrined. "Okay, you may have a point there," he said. "But I'll have you know, most people were entertained by your full-on cover of 'Hey Jude.'"
It was probably supposed to be a joke. It sounded like a joke. But it wasn't funny. Nothing was funny. It hadn't been funny when it had happened, and it wasn't funny now. Not when Billy was barely getting by, not when Billy didn't know where he fit in with this so-called team, not when he couldn't go home, not when he had broken his bloody leg in the middle of the jungle.
It just wasn't funny.
Gritting his teeth, Billy turned his eyes to the canopy of leaves, refusing to acknowledge the sting of tears. It was the pain, he told himself. It was thepain.
He blew out a breath, hot and bitter. "Take your bloody pictures then and just go," he said.
"You think it's that simple?" Michael asked.
Billy turned his eyes, eyes narrowing with distrust. "And how's it so complicated?" he said, with heaving breaths now. The pain was mounting again, and with his growing exhaustion, he didn't know how to fully contain the burgeoning emotions. "I screwed up. I fell down the hill. I broke my leg. You've done more than required by getting me this far, so just go."
He seethed the order, almost spitting the words, desperate.
Michael watched him. Calculating, but not quite cold. "We'll go when you're ready," he said evenly. He paused, eyes not wavering. "Together."
Billy groaned. "My leg is broken."
"I know," Michael replied. "I set it."
"Then you also know that I can't walk on it," Billy said. "They're going to come back. Sooner rather than later. You're going to get yourself killed if you hang around here with me."
"And you'll probably get killed if I leave you," Michael countered.
"And somehow this matters to you now?" Billy asked. "You've left me in harm's way more times than I can count and I've hardly been at the CIA for three months. If my well being has been a concern of yours, then I'm afraid you have a funny way of showing it."
The speech left him spent, the entire exchange wearing away at Billy's increasingly tenuous control. The pain was getting difficult to hold back now, and his emotions were fraying with the exertion. Normally he could keep his confusion in check – and that was important, given the sundry confusions he faced on a daily basis with the ODS – but with his energy leeching out of his body, all that was left were his pathetic vulnerabilities.
And Michael sat there, pack at his side, just staring. Watching. There was no malice, no glee. If Billy didn't know better, he might attribute it all to concern.
Except Billy did know better.
Michael shrugged. "You're right," he said.
Billy's forehead scrunched up. His ability to think was slowly being compromised, but he hadn't thought he was so far gone yet. "What?"
"We do have a funny way of showing most things," he said. He offered a small, half smile. "I might call it part of our charm, but I have a feeling you'd disagree."
Billy could only stare back, mouth hanging open as he tried to understand. With the ongoing pain, Billy might have thought himself numb, impervious to further shocks, but he would have been wrong.
Because Michael Dorset was surprising him yet.
It figured, though; Billy was wrong about a lot of things in life.
"But I'm not leaving you," Michael said flatly. "So we go together."
It was apparently Michael Dorset's new mantra. After weeks of tormenting Billy, of reducing him to humiliation, of teasing him with the possibility of being fired and deported again, now the paranoid bastard was a firm believer in the leave no man behind mentality.
It might be encouraging – hell, it might be funny – if it made any damn sense whatsoever.
To be fair, Billy wasn't exactly functioning at full capacity. The gnawing pain was taking a toll on his ability to think clearly, and it seemed to take more effort than he had to expend just to keep moving forward, pace after limping pace. Even then, he had to lean heavily on Michael, half squashing the man with his listing, but there was nothing to be done for it. If Michael was intent on dragging Billy along, this was the way it had to be.
Painful. Miserable. Confusing. Exhausting.
Each step was a monumental task that Billy dreaded. Throwing his weight to one side, he had to pull his broken leg up just enough to try to keep it from scraping on the ground. The effort was excessively tiring, and he was dripping with sweat, half blind from the pain as he had no choice but to trust Michael to lead them.
And then when his leg did hit the ground – which was agonizingly often – Billy was almost reduced to tears, breathing through a tight chest and constricted throat. His pride was probably a lost cause, and he could no longer tell if the wetness on his face was sweat, tears or both.
Yet, Michael didn't mention it. He didn't flinch when Billy bore down on him, didn't snort derisively when Billy buried his head at Michael's shoulder, sobbing against the pain he couldn't control or avoid.
He wanted to stop. He wanted to curl up on the ground and just sleep. If he died, that might be preferable.
But that apparently wasn't an option. Not with Michael, still there. Not with the idea of survival still too glaringly close to reject. It was pathetic, he supposed, being half dragged by the man who had dedicated himself to destroying Billy's already tattered reputation and grinding the remains of his fledgling career into dust. Just like it was pathetic to take a plea deal and leave with his tail tucked between his legs, with everyone back home thinking he was nothing but a coward and a traitor.
He was a coward and a traitor, though. Not in the way his country thought, but by taking the deal, he'd proven it. Just like he was proving it now, limping along, dependent, pathetic and—
"We're making good time," Michael said, thoughts cutting through Billy's bitter ruminations.
"Have we missed the drop yet?" Billy managed to ask, breathing raggedly.
"Not yet," Michael said. "We're still a few miles out, though."
Billy winced. "So we have a few miles, the drug dealers are likely to return, and Carson and Casey don't even know to look for us yet?"
Michael seemed to shrug, an infinitesimal movement as he shouldered Billy's weight. "The farther we get, the better."
Billy had learned the art of reticence when it came to the ODS, where everything he said could and was used against him for no other reason than it seemed like fun to pick on the Scottish reject. But his normal self-control was gone – along with his pride and dignity –so he laughed outright.
"Something funny, Collins?"
Almost wheezing now, Billy laughed again. "As if it could get any worse!"
Michael was silent for a moment, face darkening even as he pulled Billy another step. "Our angry friends haven't come back yet, at least."
"You almost sound disappointed," Billy mused, feeling almost hysterical now. "I mean, is that it? That's why I'm still here? You want me as bait? Maybe throw me to the wolves when they show up so you have a fighting chance of making it out alive?"
"You really think I'm dragging your ass along for that?" he asked. "That's the stupidest way to get us both killed."
"I never said it was a good plan!" Billy exclaimed, lurching unsteadily. "I merely fail to see how you think pulling me along is any advantage at all? What, is there an Agency-wide bet about how long I'll last and your date isn't up yet?"
"You really think that?" Michael asked, as if there was reason to doubt.
But there wasn't any reason to doubt. Billy wasn't wanted in this team, and so Michael's sudden benevolence wasn't just strange, it was confounding. Maybe being a spy had made Billy paranoid too, but the possibilities were endless, and now that he had started, Billy was finding it hard to stop. It was all tumbling out: every emotion, every doubt, every frustration.
What was the point of holding it back, anyway? What was the likelihood of him even surviving? Did he even want to go back? To an Agency that didn't trust him, to a flat that didn't feel like home, to a life that would never make him happy?
He was lonely. He was scared. He was ashamed. And now he was hurt.
And for what?
Breath hitching, Billy shook his head.
He took another grating breath, and kept talking, too worked up to stop now. "Or maybe it's just the bloody paperwork if I die overseas? Or do you just not want to give up your convenient Agency lackey just yet? Or—"
"Hey—" Michael interjected. "Quiet—"
Billy grunted, almost drunkenly now. "Why? Because what? I'm hurting your bloody feelings? Because—"
The words were smothered, cut short when Michael pressed a sweaty hand over Billy's mouth.
Shocked, Billy flailed, breathing sharply through his noise and squawking in protest.
"Because I think they're back," Michael hissed, voice low in Billy's ear.
His train of thought was cut short, and suddenly he was acutely aware of the sounds around him. The sudden stillness, the faint rustling of leaves. Then, voices in Spanish, Michael's breath hot on his ear, his own heart thudding in his chest.
"They're coming," Michael said.
Billy blinked, the anger giving way to fear. It was easy to talk about, but he didn't want to die. If he had, he would have been dead already. Billy survived, even when he shouldn't, and he wanted to survive now. For another chance, for anything.
Louder voices, moving closer.
Billy's heart quickened, and he found himself breathing hard around Michael's hand as they stood stock still in the jungle.
"Do you trust me?" Michael asked.
He blinked furiously, and there were fresh tears again. Billy shook his head.
Michael sighed. "Well," he said. "Now's the time to start."
Billy frowned, confused, but there was no time to indulge it. Not when Michael flung him to the ground. Pain erupted and he couldn't help but cry out, cursing at the overwhelming intensity as he writhed helplessly.
It was too much. And as the blackness came, he heard shouts in the distance, and the sounds of gunfire dissipating into his unconsciousness.
This time, consciousness was slow in coming. He hovered just below it, fighting doggedly, although it occurred to him that he wasn't sure if he wanted to pass out again or finally ascend.
It turned out, however, that the choice wasn't his to make. That shouldn't have been surprising, even if it was ever so unpleasant.
"Come on, Collins," Michael said, sounding gruff and tired. "I know you like to be difficult, but it really is okay to wake up now."
Billy opened his eyes so he could glare. "That's easy for you to say," he muttered.
Michael stared back at him, nonplussed from his seat on the edge of the slope. "You would think so."
Billy blinked, his eyes clearing, and he realized that maybe he'd spoken prematurely. Because Michael certainly looked worse than Billy remembered, hair a complete mess and face freshly bruised. There was a cut on his cheek weeping blood and his hair was matted behind his ear. There was a tear in his shirt and a small bloody streak at his side, his fist bloody and torn in front of him.
Swallowing tentatively, Billy realized he was on his back now, propped up by a pack. He didn't know how long he'd been out, but the sun seemed lower; the jungle settled back into its normal rhythm.
The sounds of footfalls were gone; there were no more voices. The gunfire…
Wetting his lips, he asked, "What happened?"
Michael shrugged. "I took care of it."
Billy was foggy with pain, plainly disoriented by exhaustion, and simply too overworked to be certain of his own point of view, but Michael's plain answer didn't make sense. "You took care of it?" he asked.
"You took care of a group of bloodthirsty, vengeful drug dealers, intent on killing us?" Billy clarified.
"You don't have to sound so surprised," Michael quipped.
Billy gaped. "But…how?"
Michael's expression softened just slightly. "It was your idea, actually."
Billy was still too slow on the uptake.
Michael looked a little chagrined. "I figured if they heard you yelling, I could circle around and pick them off," he said.
Brow furrowed, Billy's stomach dropped. "You used me as bait!"
"Well, I knew you'd be pretty out of it," Michael said. "And they're a pretty amoral group but they're not going to shoot an unarmed man writhing in pain. You played your part very well."
Billy stared. He was suddenly glad he'd been unconscious, though less glad that he'd bothered to wake up. "So you…killed them?"
Michael snorted. "Does that bother you?"
"No," Billy said. "I just…" He frowned. "You really used me as bait?"
"I only went up the ridge and hid," Michael said. "I knocked off as many as I could before they even got down the hill and took the rest out before they got to you. They were never close."
Billy tried to process that. Tried to understand.
"And they're not dead," Michael said, as if that was some kind of assurance. "But they are disarmed and tied to trees until we can call a tip in to the local police. Rule of law may be hit or miss here sometimes, but drug dealers aren't good for the local economy, so I think they'll know what to do with our friends."
Billy blinked. It sounded good. It sounded great, actually. It sounded damn near perfect. Michael had taken a blown mission and turned it into an unprecedented success. He'd saved Billy's life, he'd nabbed the intel, and he'd subdued the threat for the benefit of the local population and the stability of the world.
Michael Dorset wasn't just a team leader or paranoid bastard.
He was an honest to God hero.
As if Billy needed more reasons to hate him.
"Anyway," Michael said, getting to his feet and coming closer. "I was just waiting for you to wake up—"
His voice cut off as he approached. Kneeling next to Billy, he frowned, pressing a cold hand to Billy's forehead. "You've picked up a fever."
Billy huffed, shuddering. That explained why things felt so funny, why his limbs tingled and his vision kept going dim around the edges.
Michael shifted, producing a bottle of water. He unscrewed it, holding it out.
It took Billy a moment to focus on it, a moment longer to realize that Michael was offering it to him.
Mind still foggy, Billy did his best to reach out, but he found his movements uncoordinated. He missed once, brow furrowed, and tried again. When he fumbled, Michael eased closer, moving the bottle to Billy's mouth. "Here," he said. "Just drink slow."
Disoriented as he was, Billy still frowned. But before he could protest, the bottle was pressed to his lips, tipped back, tepid water trickling over his mouth. Just like that, he realized his thirst, opening his lips and drinking.
It was a messy, awkward process, but when Michael finally took the bottle and recapped it, Billy felt marginally improved. His senses were less dull; his mind was more clear.
Which meant he could feel the aching pain in his leg again.
Which reminded him of their situation.
Which was suddenly greatly improved.
"So," Billy said, pushing himself up a little. He paused, gritting his teeth in pain as he sat up, easing himself back against a tree. "It looks like things are squared away."
"They should be, once we hook up with Casey and Carson again," Michael said. He glanced at his watch. "Speaking of which, we should start out again. That is, if you're up to it."
Billy shook his head. "You've subdued the enemy," he said. "Why would you bother dragging me along?"
Michael laughed. "Because you've got a badly broken leg and the start of an infection," he said wryly. "Our friends may be tied up, but that's no guarantee. Plus, if anyone else comes around, they're not likely to be real friendly with a banged up American. You wouldn't be safe."
Billy grunted. "I'm still a little confused as to when my personal safety became an actual concern to the team."
Michael rolled his eyes. "I hadn't realized you were taking everything so personally."
"Well," Billy said. "It's a mite hard not to, all things considered."
"But we're a team," Michael said. "We can be asses to one another, but if anyone else messes with us, all bets are off."
Billy chuffed bitterly. "But I thought trust was owned in the Agency," he reminded Michael. "As I recall, you still have photos of me kissing a known terrorist sympathizer."
Michael smirked, clearly amused. "Yeah, I still can't believe you actually kissed her."
"You told me it was part of the contact protocol!" Billy exclaimed. "I didn't know that you and yours would set me up and keep me in perpetual fear of losing my life and liberty on the first day."
"Well, you are a MI6 washout," Michael reminded him. "We had reason to doubt."
Billy gaped in incredulity. "And you wonder why I'm perplexed as to your sudden kindness on this mission!"
Michael sighed. "That's a fair point, maybe," he conceded. "And trust is owned within the Agency, but sometimes it's also earned. And I think by now you've probably earned it from us, though I'm beginning to wonder if we've earned it from you."
Billy shook his head. "This is a set up again," he said, defenses flaring. "Because you're talking rubbish. Absolute rubbish. You've got this recorded? Maybe you're going to break my other leg now just to see what happens?"
"Oh, come on," Michael protested. "I just want to get us both out of here—"
But Billy shook his head again, more adamant. "No," he said. "I'm not going to be indebted to you anymore."
"But you can't walk—"
Struggling, Billy pushed himself up. His arms shook and tears sprung to his eyes, but he didn't give in. It was hard, but he found a way to balance precariously on one leg, leaning heavily against his tree, even as Michael stood with him, reaching out to steady him.
Billy pulled away. He'd relied on Michael too much already; he'd put his life in the hands of a man who had tormented and maligned him. The nicer Michael was, the less Billy could trust him.
Billy couldn't trust anyone.
Billy just needed to run.
Instincts were instincts, and trained and educated as Billy was, sometimes he was still fourteen, afraid to face the truth, afraid to face his failures, justafraid.
And he was afraid now. Of Michael, of Venezuela, of his broken leg.
He just needed to run.
It was a horrible, awkward gait but he lurched ahead, moving from one tree to the next, his leg bouncing and tears springing to his eyes. He swallowed and pushed through.
"Come on," Michael said. "This is stupid."
"Then it's par for the course, yeah?" Billy asked, throwing himself forward and barely catching the next tree. He was crying now, in earnest. "And what do you care?"
"Collins," Michael tried again. "Billy—"
Billy shook his head. "No," he said. "This entire thing is rubbish, and I just want to – I just need¬—"
He landed hard against the next tree, teetering. The pain was building again, but he didn't slow. His vision blurred – from the tears, from the pain, from his waning consciousness – Billy didn't know.
"Wait, Collins," Michael said, a hint of urgency now. A hand locked around Billy's arm. "Just stop—"
Billy thrashed, hissing angrily. "Why?" he spat, seething now. He tried to pull away, but then he saw the movement. Not Michael. Not the leaves.
It flicked, small amongst the brush. Dark scales, coiled body, beady eyes and—
Billy blinked, dumbly, head going light. A snake. It was a snake.
It hissed, body tensing, ready to strike.
And Billy, for all his fight or flight, just stood there and watched.
The snake leaped, lunging through the air, straight at Billy.
For a killing blow.
And Billy didn't fight it. Couldn't fight it. Accepted it. Welcomed it.
Until Michael's arms wrapped around him and pulled him down. They hit the ground hard, and Billy's leg exploded with pain again. It stole his breath, and he found his nose pressed into the foliage as he cried helplessly.
It was a long moment, lingering and tight, but he didn't pass out. This time, consciousness refused to leave him, even as his awareness ebbed and the pain took over. As it cleared, Billy found himself cognizant again, still face first on the ground. Still breathing. Still alive.
He blinked, looking back.
Michael had pulled him out of the way.
He'd probably saved Billy's life. Again.
Face red, Billy swallowed back his humiliation. "That was close," he murmured, his heart still thundering. "No way of knowing it if was poisonous, I reckon—"
Then his eyes settled on Michael.
Who was looking at something else.
Something on his leg.
Billy cocked his head, trying to see as Michael reached down, gritting his teeth as he ripped at the cuff of his pants, revealing his leg underneath.
And the neat puncture marks, weeping blood.
"Well, seems like there's one way," Michael said, shrugging. He looked up, meeting Billy's eyes grimly. "We wait and find out."