Michael woke up with a start, discovering immediately that he had been tied to a chair. Every move he made pulled against restraints that rubbed painfully on his wrists and ankles. He jerked his head and the rush of pain that hit him had reminded him that he had been clocked and clocked with authority. He squinted with the pain and with the stream of light coming through a dingy window in the room he was in. He tried to orient himself; starting the inventory of his surroundings and situation that was a part of his training.
What was the last thing he remembered? A sniper was shooting into a crowd, everyone was ducking and running.
Michael's eyes then became wide with realization. Billy had been shot and was bleeding out, maybe dying. He'd been taken to the hospital with Casey. Michael had stayed behind to wait for the cleanup crew.
Valdez had escaped; had been lost in the scurrying crowd or so Michael had thought.
He then realized something else. He scanned the room he was in and he spotted his answer.
Valdez on the floor; his unseeing eyes glaring up at the ceiling.
"Yes, poor fellow. He had completed his part in the mission. Isn't that the vernacular you blokes use?"
Michael followed the voice. He didn't recognize it or the face staring at him.
"And what mission was that exactly?" Michael asked with contempt laced in his voice.
"Why bringing you here to me, of course."
"Do I know you?" Michael said, continuing to question.
"No, but I know you and your little band of merry men, especially Billy Collins," Rhys taunted.
Michael detected the accent so it didn't take a mastermind to reach the conclusion that the guy was probably from Billy's past.
"I don't know what -"
"No need to pretend with me, mate. I know everything and that's all you need to know."
"What do you want with Billy?" Michael queried, accepting that this guy knew all about him and the ODS. Now, he needed to glean more information about his plan for Billy.
"You really should be asking what do I want with you, yeh?" Rhys corrected with a sinister edge to his voice.
Michael threw him a puzzled expression, but it was etched with trepidation.
"Whatever it is, it won't do you any good because Billy's in a coma," Michael revealed, trying to get a reaction off of the man; hoping that giving him some truths might produce truths in return.
Michael felt the man's imbalance as if it were throwing him off balance in the process. He knew he was risking a violent response if the man didn't know that Billy was in a coma.
Instead, the man laughed, not the reaction that Michael was expecting, but it made his blood run cold with the confirmation that his man was unhinged.
"You don't know what you have in Billy, do you?" Rhys said. "Of course not. He would never tell you. He's frustratingly noble that way. But make no mistake, he is hiding a secret from you."
"We all have secrets," Michael said casually, trying to act unfazed by whatever threat the man wanted to imply in whatever secret Billy was hiding.
"Oh, no, not the kind that Billy holds oh so close to the tailored vests he wears."
"What are you talking about?"
"Billy is not in a coma. In fact, I happen to know that he's on his way here to rescue you. Did I not mention that he's noble? Well, he has a heroic streak in him as well," Rhys said bitterly.
Michael could no longer hide his disdain and his conviction that the man was a garden variety nutbag. It didn't make his situation any less perilous, but half the battle was targeting your opponent's or your asset's vulnerabilities. He may not possess Billy's quick-witted talent for it, but he had learned the manipulative tools.
"Really? How do you know that?" Michael humored.
"That would ruin the surprise awaiting the both of you, now wouldn't it?" Rhys taunted. "You'll see soon enough. I best be off to welcome him then."
Rhys then left the room. Michael could only helplessly struggle in the chair and wait. Crazy was unpredictable and he had to hope that the man was delusional, that Billy wasn't really heading their way, but something inside of him, call it instinct, call it a gut feeling, despite all the illogical statements the man made, told him that he believed him and that gave him fear as nothing else in his "storied" career ever had.
Everything that Rhys had said was true.
Billy's kryptonite was his concern for others. It was a quality that he had always possessed even before his transformation and one that he wouldn't trade for any other power. It wasn't a weakness, to his mind, but he knew it would be used against him and effectively. Rhys had been successful back in the day and he could manipulate it again today.
Michael's vulnerability would be enticing bait to waggle at Billy and he knew that it would take all the willpower he had in him to resist acting rashly as he had done in the past. Another harsh lesson learned in adjusting to his new life.
He walked through the doorway of the warehouse and scanned his surroundings. There were abandoned machines, of what purpose they had served Billy had no idea, but clearly they had been left behind to rot and rust in place. Plenty of things to be used as weapons, plenty of places to hide, but he knew that Rhys would never hide. He was too arrogant, too much in need to show Billy how much stronger he was both physically and intellectually. Mentally and emotionally was another matter. Billy knew that in Rhys's case, the transformation had revealed the well-hidden darkness from within. Rhys's true self-suppressed by the banalities of rules and regulations had been unleashed. Billy could only hope that he could reach whatever vestige of the good man who had influenced him into the kind of agent he had become to save Michael.
As his eyes continued to reconnoiter, they finally landed on a dingy windowed room. Through the dusty and dirty glass, he saw Michael, a bit battered and bruised from the look of him at a distance, but all in all, he seemed fine. They locked gazes. Michael shook his head and mouthed, "don't do it". Billy knew what he was telling him, but he knew just as certainly Michael would have to put him up on charges of insubordination because he was not going to leave him in the insane hands of someone from his sullied past who wanted to kill Billy, while in the meantime getting his jollies at making Michael suffer. He smiled, winked and nodded. Michael's frustration was evident on his face, understanding Billy's intentions. Billy found himself quite pleased at the idea that he would frustrate Michael by disobeying his orders. He was touched by the concern because it proved to him how lucky he was to have found a leader who would ask him to leave him behind, order him to do so if he could; to save himself at the expense of his own life because that's what true leaders did. The one from his past whom he was facing now, knew no such courage so for Billy it was a non-choice. Michael was worth dying for.
In his peripheral vision, Billy spied movement and turned quickly toward it.
"Ah, I see that the reflexes haven't suffered," Rhys taunted.
"Spare me the small talk, Rhys, let Michael go. This is between us."
"Why, yes, you're quite right about that, but you're sorely mistaken if you think that it's going to end with just us."
Rhys swaggered towards Billy.
Billy's spine both straightened and remained rigid with suspicion and alertness. All his senses were alive and honed to a razor's edge sensitivity.
"Cut to the chase," he said, a touch of disdain in his voice.
"I think you know that your guvner's not going to leave here alive. In fact, I rather believe that he will watch you die before I do him in as well. It's rather fitting really that he sees the truth about you and that his high regard for the kind of man he believes you to be will be disillusioned today. You also must know what that means for you, don't you?"
Billy stood ever vigilant of his surroundings as well as keeping his emotions in check. He had to devise a way to get Michael out of there safely. That was priority one. At the very least, he had to stall long enough for Blanke, Casey and Rick to get there. He could then engage Rhys fully and not be concerned about Michael's safety.
"Why don't you enlighten me as you seem itching to tell me yourself?"
"I know you, Billy boy. You were never very good at controlling that pathetic empathy of yours. With these powers of ours, I'm sure, for you, they've only amplified it. As for me, I have managed to excise it so you'll not see me wilt under any words of persuasion."
"I wouldn't bother wasting my breath trying, but I find it hard to believe that you don't remember nurturing those instincts when we were partners; when I was your fledging. You possessed them as well, I know it."
Rhys's eyes flashed with anger and he raised his arm, his hand clenching into a fist. Billy felt a crushing pressure in his chest and despite trying to hide it, he couldn't keep from grunting.
"Ah, you see, still there, that empathy, even for me. Your sentimentality for me still lingers. Even after betraying you to those scientists, you still harbor fondness for our time together. Well, I'm here to remind you that those days are gone, that Rhys is dead. Nothing of that man exists anymore and that's because of you."
"How...do...you figure that?" Billy choked out.
Rhys then relaxed his fingers and Billy gasped for breath.
"I won't bore you with the details as you already know why I took you there."
"To make me their lab rat so that you can have these powers."
"Quite. Only there was something they didn't anticipate," Rhys said menacingly. "That I didn't anticipate."
"And what was that, exactly?" Billy asked as the pain in his chest dissipated.
"That the concoction preys on one's...how shall I say...inner character, as it were; the true soul of a man. Call it a side effect, if you like. For you, it magnified the goodness in you and made you even more nauseatingly heroic than you already were," Rhys spit out in contempt. "I, on the other hand, it found a deeper darkness that was hiding behind a facade of good intentions. I guess I knew it was there, but I managed to push it down. The cocktail, however, rooted it out and removed all the barriers, inhibitions and filters keeping it walled. So, this is the true me, you see, but you already knew that."
Billy actually almost felt sympathy for the man. Aren't all humans an amalgam of good and evil, after all? Each warring for dominance over the other and that free will determined which side you took? It was a choice a person made.
"No, I didn't know that, Rhys. Everything I know, everything I am, I credit you for creating. How can I be the way that I am if you weren't a prime example of who I should aspire to be?" Billy asked, honestly wondering; honestly puzzled at the dichotomy.
Rhys saw the sincerity and his anger broke for a second, his expression softened, regret etched across his features, his eyes glossed over.
"Perhaps it was the other way around, lad. Perhaps it was you who'd kept me on the straight and narrow all those years, aye?" Rhys speculated, his voice reflecting that slight bit of remorse and it almost sounded like the Rhys Billy had known so long ago. "And when I gave you over, no matter the rationale, I allowed the full gravity of what I had done to you undo me completely."
Billy watched the shifting of emotions play across Rhys's face and the memories of his mentor brought back the empathy he had for him. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
"Rhys, you have my full forgiveness, mate. Of that there is no falsehood. Yes, I will admit that I was angry at first, but in more ways than I can express, I'm grateful to ya. I know you can overcome this. You can choose your destiny as I did mine. We all have free will. The nature of a man's soul is not engraved so permanently that it can't seek change, redemption. Nothing would please me more than to make you see that this isn't a foregone conclusion," Billy pleaded earnestly. There wasn't a lie among his words. "I am who I am because of you. Let me return the favor. Let me pull you from the brink as you did for me so many times. Don't you remember that? I haven't forgotten. My hand is outstretched and ready. All you need do is take it."
But the anger then bubbled back. Rhys's expression hardened again and that momentary bit of reflection disappeared as quickly as it came.
"When you escaped and I made them inject the serum into me, there was suffering like you went through, but I knew with crystal clear clarity that I wasn't the same, that I wasn't that man anymore. It brought out a rage in me that I couldn't control. They hadn't realized what their little experiment had done to me; what it had brought out in me. I killed everyone and I enjoyed it. I got a taste for killing now, mate and no amount of psychology will change that. And most of all, I don't want a reminder of who I was because I don't want to be that man anymore. You're the only one left standing in my way of that."
Rhys turned towards where Michael was then back to Billy as he smiled widely with a clownish glee.
"And I aim to make sure that your guvner knows what I'm capable of and that he sees your death at my hands. I've read him, you know. He considers you a right valuable addition to his team. He believes that you're holding all of you together. That's quite a bit of admiration there, that is. So wouldn't it be a lovely thing if by ending you, I end him and your team in one full stroke? I would delight in that."
Billy saw the madness in Rhys's eyes and understood that he was lost to him, at least as long as the inner Rhys, the man that he had known before all this, tempted him towards the path of evil.
Rhys flicked his hand and Billy felt the rumble in the room. He looked around, placing his mind and body into a defensive posture. He had to be ready for whatever Rhys threw at him. He had to survive long enough for the others to save Michael. Anything that happened after that would be left up to the fates. Lab experiment against lab experiment: A battle not only for self-preservation, but for which soul would prevail.
All that was on Billy's mind was saving four particular souls, four glorious souls who had already saved his. He would gladly forfeit his for theirs and so for him, the battle would be won for them and them alone.
Rick and Casey rolled up in their car. Blanke was standing beside his, nervously waiting for them. Though he didn't possess any of Billy's skills and powers, having worked with him for the last several years, there was not only knowledge from familiarity, but a bond of friendship that had built a foundation of trust and psychic connection.
Billy had revealed to him that the connection was something that was created through the abilities given to him, but that it wasn't just a one-way communication and that it was something he controlled. Over time, it would not only be Billy being able to connect with him, but that Blanke would sense Billy as well, if not truly read him. He would sense Billy's emotions. Billy had assured him that there would never be a violation of privacy, that he would never pry into Blanke's mind without permission. The declaration of trust and privacy seemed antithetical to the line of work they were in so it was all the more meaningful. Blanke didn't need that assurance. He knew Billy's conscience was trustworthy and above reproach.
While waiting for Rick and Casey to arrive, Blanke was feeling a mix of anxiety and calm. He could tell which had belonged to him and which belonged to Billy.
Billy was a man of remarkable qualities; qualities Blanke knew weren't just sourced through the experiment that had altered him. Billy had already possessed an immeasurable lightness of being that characteristically manifested itself in humor, but he also radiated an inner peace that made any crisis manageable for those around him. It was how Blanke knew that the calm he was feeling at that moment was not only coming from Billy's innate disposition, but from a decision he had made; a decision that Blanke had heard in his voice before he had exited the car to face Rhys. The feeling didn't give Blanke the usual comfort. It gave him a shiver of fear.
Rick and Casey exited the car, Casey's glower not lost on Blanke. It would be the hardest sell that he would ever have to make, to convince them both, but Casey especially, that Billy was in danger and needed help.
"This had better not be one of your attempts at proving that you can handle a mission because we already know the answer to that," Casey accused.
Rick was quiet, willing to listen and reserve judgment, but Blanke saw the skepticism. How he already missed Billy's unconditional belief.
"It's not, but I didn't bring you here to prove myself," Blanke said.
"Then what are we doing here?" Casey said rising agitation in his voice.
Blanke then heard something in his head. A voice. Billy's voice.
"Go to the northwest corner. Michael is there. Dispatch him safely away. I will distract."
"To save Michael," Blanke said, opting for a more reasonable explanation that would bring them on board to the rescue.
"What about what you said about Billy?" Rick asked, finally speaking up.
It was clear to Blanke that though he knew Casey and Rick both cared about Michael and Billy, Rick had a particularly focused concern for Billy.
Billy had confided in Blanke that he had felt an affinity for Rick, that his idealism reminded him of better days, of simpler days. Billy felt it his responsibility to tutor Rick in the art of maintaining that idealism when darker forces prevailed. It made Blanke wish that someone had been there for him in the same way. He saw the result of that tutelage in RIck's open concern at that moment.
"Billy's in there too," Blanke said without elaborating. He knew that once they got into the building, they would see everything with their own eyes.
"What?" Casey said, ready to blow Blanke off at that moment. "Billy is in the hospital. In a coma, you idiot -"
Rick, on the other hand, knew the truth.
"No, he isn't. Blanke's telling the truth. I called the hospital. Billy's not there."
Casey turned towards Rick.
"What? That isn't possible. I saw Billy, he almost bled out, there is no way that he walked out of that hospital."
"I thought that too so I checked. It's true," Rick declared, looking at Blanke as if he still didn't believe him, feeling like he had no choice, but to believe him.
"I don't have much time. Billy and Michael don't have much time. We have to get to the northwest corner of the warehouse. Michael is being held there. We need to get him to safety so that…" Blanke trailed off.
"So that what?" Rick asked.
"So that Billy can face the person who kidnapped Michael," Blanke said, feeling exhausted fighting them for their cooperation.
"What?" Casey asked.
"Please believe me, when we get to Michael, you'll get to see everything with your own eyes. You can judge the situation and me for yourself."
Rick and Casey gave each other looks then they looked back at Blanke. Casey was preternaturally skeptical, he believed in nothing and only believed in three other people, but at that moment, he realized that Blanke was not acting like the Blanke he had known for years. Gone was the pandering to be included in a case, to be a part of any mission. In its place was someone he didn't know, but was suddenly willing to trust because it involved Michael and Billy. Casey knew that even Blanke wouldn't jeopardize them just to be accepted.
"Okay, let's go," was all he said.
Blanke then did something they both had never seen; he pulled out his sidearm from his holster, cocked it deftly and moved stealthily along the side of the warehouse. Rick and Casey followed suit with their own weapons and accompanied him, tabling their shock and amazement until after their mission was completed. A synchronicity of thoughts ran through their minds, the most glaring of which was "were we wrong about him all this time?"
They had dodged windows so as to avoid being detected, but once they reached the northwest corner, there was one window that Blanke peered through and true to Billy's direction, he spotted Michael in a room, tied to a chair.
"What? What is it?" Rick whispered as he noticed Blanke's reaction.
Blanke cocked his head as a way to tell both Rick and Casey to take a look for themselves. When they did, for Casey, it enraged the simmering need for revenge for both Billy and Michael. He felt the intensity to exact some punishment grow exponentially. Though Rick didn't quite feel the same rage, seeing Michael tied up was just as motivating. It was only when he shifted his gaze to where he heard a loud commotion did he feel something entirely different, disbelief. There, he witnessed Billy standing as if nothing had happened to him, as if just hours ago, he had been bleeding out, almost dying if it hadn't been for Casey's field transfusion. The conflicting images warred in his mind, but with the shock came a relief, Billy was alive and seemingly well. It was at that moment that the rest of the scene played as if from a science fiction movie. Billy was fighting with someone they didn't know, but the siege that was being played out in front of them was nothing they had ever seen.
TBC. Thanks for reading and for your patience. This is taking a little longer than expected.