Chapter 5

When Olivia reports on her visit to St. Louis, she is curtly told that all three of them will be debriefed at the organization's earliest convenience, details to follow later. Olivia holes up in her room, except for occasional excursions to the kitchen to scavenge for food. Nick periodically braves her to poke at her wounds—Nick tells Peter they're healing well, which is as expected—but leaves her alone otherwise. Nick's mood slowly spirals darker after each visit, until he's irritably snapping at Peter.

Peter figures he fucking deserves it, given what he's considering doing. Planning to do. He stays away from both of them as much as possible, wandering Chicago by day, hitting the bars at night, and keeping his feelings wrapped as close to him as possible. He's only at the house to sleep, and his dreams are uneasy mishmashes of darkness and betrayal.

As the days pass Olivia gets more and more tetchy, Nick starts to slide more firmly into depression, and Peter wonders when the shit is going to hit the fan.

It's a Tuesday night, as Peter slips into the house only hours before dawn, when Nick initiates the confrontation that's been prickling between Peter's shoulder blades for days. Nick melts out of the shadows as Peter steps into the dark hallway, and asks, without preamble, "So what are you going to tell them?"

Peter shrugs off his jacket and tosses it at the coat rack as he ambles into the living room. "Nick? What the fuck are you talking about?"

"The organization. Our superiors. When they debrief us about Olivia's mission, they're sure as fucking hell going to ask you what happened. So I repeat: what do you intend to tell them?"

"Don't know. Depends on what they ask."

Peter doesn't expect the gun, not from Nick, not even when he's angry. Nick's the amiable one: moody, yeah, but for the most part easy going and eager to please. Except now, on the other end of the gun, eyes cold and dead.

Peter stares down the barrel and wonders if he's going to make it out of this alive. He'd missed the paranoia that curled around the edges of Nick's depression, but now it's unmistakable, a dark roil that weighs down the air. He's seen it too many times from too many people to underestimate it, not even from someone he almost considers a friend.

Friends could kill him just as dead as enemies, and more easily because they're the ones that have snuck under his guard.

He forgets Olivia's not the only stone cold killer in the house. Both she and Nick trained as soldiers. Partners. Let off the chain for missions, separately or in pairs. Stupid to forget, when he's seen Nick in action. It may be Olivia who usually does the dirty work, but it doesn't mean Nick can't or won't. They protect each other, and a threat to one is a threat to both. No matter what, they have each other's backs.

The right words are important; careful manipulation of them is Peter's only hope at extracting himself from this mess. Hell, both of them. If Nick fires the gun, there's a chance he might regret it when he comes to his senses. Unless Nick has figured out that Peter is thinking about selling them out, in which case Peter might as well kiss his ass goodbye right now.

Maybe that's why Nick was waiting in the dark with a gun.

Peter has to believe whatever he says. While Nick primarily projects emotions, sucks at sensing them from anyone but Olivia unless actively trying to manipulate his target or touching their skin, he's sure as fuck good enough to pick up on a blatant lie. Taking a deep breath, Peter says, as nonchalantly as possible, "Do you really think I want to tell those assholes anything they could use against us?"

Nick doesn't move, and, if anything, his expression grows colder. "If you think it might get you off the hook? Yeah."

Well fuck.

After a moment of hesitation Peter drops his mental walls, which tops the scale of monumentally bad gambles, but he's not going to think on the stupidity too closely because he needs to sell this. He needs to be able to read Nick's reactions and he's just as fucking dead if Nick doesn't believe him as if Nick picks up anything from Peter's unprotected mind. Besides, unshielded reads as honest and Peter's pretty fucking sure Nick can tell whether or not someone's trying to block him. Every little bit of edge helps. "Not even for that."

It's the truth. Fuck him, but unlooked for, unasked for, it's the truth. That more than anything makes Peter want to bolt, leave all this behind and fuck the consequences. He clings to the fact that he doesn't want to rat them out, puts it firmly in front of the uneasy knowledge that he might still do it, and holds Nick's gaze without a trace of guilt.

Nick stares at him. Peter stares back.

Peter feels the moment when the tide turns even before Nick slowly lowers the gun. "Okay," Nick says. "That much I'll buy." He settles on the couch, propping his feet on the coffee table as casual as can be. The gun disappears—under one of the pillows, Peter thinks, which is probably where it came from in the first place, since both Olivia and Nick have picked up the habit of squirreling weapons away in the damnedest places all over the house.

Peter can't tell if Nick really believes him or is just letting it go for the moment. Nick is back to looking like Peter's video games buddy of the last few months, but Peter doesn't forget the cold stranger, the male mirror to Olivia. Won't forget it, not if he values his skin remaining intact. He watches Nick warily, senses extended to catch any twitch of emotion. Probably pretty fucking stupid, because Nick or Olivia could reach in and pull out any damned thing from his head, but if Nick's about to change his mind Peter wants as much of a warning as he can get.

Nick just clicks on the television and starts flipping through channels. Doesn't say another word, which is perfectly fine to Peter, who doesn't have a fucking clue what to say. Or why the whole issue has suddenly been dropped, no more questions asked. After a moment, Peter slips upstairs to stare up at the ceiling and wonder what the fuck he's going to do.

~***~

Peter's in a run-down bar in the middle of Chicago when an uneasy feeling prickles the back of his skull, distracting him from the drink at hand—not a loss—and resolves into Olivia. He feels her reach out to him with urgency and concern, and picks up wavering images of Jones. He's not there now, but soon.

Fucking hell. He projects back reassurance, hopes his determination to get back there as soon as fucking possible makes it through. He can all but feel her nod, and she fades.

Even sprinting, he barely catches the train, dodging through the doors just as they're closing. He stands and pants, out of breath, and tries not to think for the rest of the ride. Masking unease with insolence, he strides through the front door of the house ten minutes after Olivia's spiking tension warns that Jones has arrived.

Jones sits at the dining room table, cup of tea held in his hands with the same faux-casual studied bullshit as before. A quick sweep reveals his muscle, tense with anticipation: two in the house, one lurking in the backyard and one in the van.

Whatever's going on, Jones is prepared for more than just a debriefing. Peter doesn't like any of it one fucking bit.

Olivia and Nick stand ramrod straight, expressions blank. On the surface they're no more than Olivia and Nick shaped statues, devoid of personality, showing themselves off as the good little soldiers Peter first thought them. It fucking pisses him off even more.

"To what do we owe the honor?" he tosses out, coming to rest next to them. He bares his teeth in almost a grin, doesn't bother to inject it with either charm or sincerity.

Jones doesn't look at Peter, just continues to study Olivia and Nick like a cat with a mouse trapped under his paw. Or a scientist studying the not entirely unwelcome results of a particularly interesting experiment. "I was just asking Miss Dunham to explain the unmitigated fiasco that the Branson mission became."

Peter folds his arms across his chest. "What about it?"

Jones taps his fingers against the cups—irritably, Peter thinks, and he's fucking delighted to have gotten under Jones' skin. Other than the movement, Peter reads nothing from the man, just like before, but not for want of trying.

"He thinks I displayed serious errors in judgment. And he's questioning my—" Olivia glances at Nick, "—our ability to work as a team."

Nick's voice whispers in Peter's memory: So what are you going to tell them? Prime opportunity here to take control of the room and spin any story he wants, manipulate any ending to this confrontation. Jones's guards are poised to take Olivia and Nick down if need be, and Peter can stroll away scot-free. He takes a deep breath, blows it out, realizes there's no decision to make.

"There was a problem," he says with a careless shrug. "She took care of it. Looks pretty fucking open and shut to me. How the fuck was she to know they'd wired the place to explode? We're lucky she got out." Possible. Fuck, even plausible. Made even more sense than the fire Olivia started hitting a gas main, which is still the story the newspapers are selling. What better way to kill a highly trained super soldier than trapping her in an explosion and dropping a building on her? Of course now he'll have to obtain a copy of the arson reports to see if there's evidence to back up his theory.

Olivia's surprise and Nick's relief surge through Peter. Jones just stares at him, eyes narrowed, and Peter glares back. Jones fucking wanted Peter as part of the team? Well he's fucking got it. For better or worse, Peter stands with Olivia and Nick.

His old life's in the same ruin as those buildings Olivia torched and there's no way he can go back to what he was before, not if selling out Olivia and Nick is part of the bargain. Peter doesn't pretend to much of a conscience but betraying them has somehow become one of the few lines he can't cross. Not if he's going to live with himself.

"An interesting hypothesis, Mr. Bishop," Jones says finally. "So you support the theory that someone in the organization tried to kill Miss Dunham?"

"I don't think it was the first time they tried to come after us." Peter pauses. Fuck, did Olivia and Nick report the unanticipated twist to their time in Boston? They had to have, hadn't they? Doesn't matter, he can spin it to their advantage if they didn't. He opens himself to Olivia and pushes emotions and images towards her that he hopes convey the direction he's about to take. "I think they made their first attempt in Boston. Tipped off one of my old associates and tried to set up Olivia and Nick using me as bait." Peter wouldn't have lived through the night either, but the focus needs to be on the others.

Jones places his cup on the table and steeples his fingers. "The Boston... situation? I was unaware there was more to it than your allowing your past to catch up with you."

Peter shrugs. "Big Eddie was too prepared. If he didn't know Olivia and Nick would come after me and had no clue what they were capable of, he wouldn't have had that many guys guarding the place."

"The snipers," Olivia murmurs. "He shouldn't have had snipers waiting. The rest were cannon fodder to distract us." She glances at Peter, brow wrinkled. "That's why they left you alive but injured. They wanted to make sure our attention was on getting you out while they funneled us to where their snipers could get off a good shot." Her tone sells cool disdain, but amusement and solidarity thrum through the link. She's following his lead, and Nick, who Peter feels through Olivia, is doing the same.

"Makes sense," says Nick. "Sorry, sir, that we didn't put it together earlier. We just assumed the guy was really pissed at Peter. File said he would have reason to be."

"Besides," Olivia says, tone chilling into arctic anger, "Bishop didn't bother sharing his assessment of their forces. For all we knew, that much resistance was to be expected." Olivia gives Peter a none-too-gentle mental poke to underscore that she's actually serious if not actually angry.

"A compelling theory." Jones watches all of them, eyes flicking from one to another. "I take it all of you are together in this?"

Olivia glances at Peter before she answers. "Yes sir." Nick nods. Peter just stares at Jones, arms folded across his chest.

Jones nods slowly. "Very well, then. I'll look into these allegations. In the future, be more prompt in sharing your concerns."

"Yes, sir," Olivia repeats quietly.

Voice grim, Jones adds, "This isn't the first incident that has suggested dissidents within our ranks, and I find the possibility most distressing. Rest assured, if it does prove to be true I will call upon you to deal with the problem. If the fire didn't already take care of it, that is."

He rises to his feet, lips curled into the slightest of smiles. "It seems I have all I need. I trust there will not be a repeat of this unfortunate incident?"

"No, sir," Olivia murmurs, eyes dropping.

Peter meets his gaze squarely. "Root out the traitors in your organization to make sure we don't get put in that position again."

"Oh, trust me, Mr. Bishop, they will answer for this. Loyalty to those we work with is of the utmost importance to us. See that you remember that."

As Jones passes by, Peter catches a flicker of sharp satisfaction, of pleasure that everything has fallen together as hoped. Olivia's still linked deeply enough to catch it, too, as does Nick. Peter wonders if he'd been played. If they'd all been played.

Too late for regrets, now. Time to start planning for the future.

It's the last thought shared between them before Peter eases out of the link.

Nick breathes out when Jones and his minions leave, his relief projecting strongly enough to make Peter giddy. "Fuck," he mutters, staring out the window at the black Lincoln pulling out of the driveway. "Barely sidestepped that one."

Olivia nods, glances at Peter. "You stood up for us," she says, expression neutral.

At the last fucking moment. After being so fucking sure that he didn't care, that he wanted to—that he could—barter them away for his freedom.

She's still staring at him, so he manages a nod and keeps his thoughts as locked down as he can. Which may or may not be fucking much, not anymore. His mind had been walled off from hers in Chicago and she still pushed through to him. She's in his skin and he's now made it fucking permanent by giving up his only chance at getting away, but the thought of losing her—fuck it, losing both of them—makes him feel more sick than the thought of being tied to her this tightly.

"No more solo missions." He turns, watches Olivia's eyes go dark. "That's what got you in trouble. We all go, watch each other's backs, or none of us."

"That's not—"

"I'm not fucking kidding, Olivia. That was the second time someone tried to kill you. What happens if you miscalculate again and die out there? If Nick dies because you sent him out alone? You really think they're going to let another fuck-up slide?"

"A single miscalculation doesn't mean there's a pattern—"

"If someone's out gunning for you, you put people you trust at your back." The word 'trust' tastes sour, because who the fuck is he to imply they should trust him? He nearly sold them out.

"And you know so much about trusting people at your back." This time the disdain is back for real, as if she's the voice of his little-used conscience snapping at him, and it's more than he can take.

"How would you know? You don't know a fucking thing about me," he snarls. "Nick does, maybe. I talk to Nick. Most times? If you don't avoid me, you order me around. Not really conducive to getting to know a person." He knows even as he's saying the words that it's a gross misrepresentation of their relationship as it stands. And he'd been perfectly happy keeping his distance because he didn't intend to stick around long enough for it to matter.

Didn't do a fucking bit of good.

Olivia backs up a step and turns her face away, her hurt pulsing through him. Nick glowers at Peter, arms crossed and eyes narrowed.

Peter can't fucking win this. Doesn't want to, doesn't have the right to. He shakes his head and escapes. Not far—he can't bring himself to leave—but out of the confines of four walls and the presence of the two people—fuck it, two friends—he almost betrayed.

Despite the fact that it's early evening, the day is sticky and hot, a Midwestern summer at its worst, but he'd rather be out in it than inside the house. He refuses to call it running or hiding. He goes no farther than the driveway, and he's in plain view of the house. Hell, he doesn't even bother to shield his mind from hers, not really; she knows where the fuck he is, clear as day. The engine of the Cherokee has been sounding rough for the last couple of weeks, and he's been meaning to muck around under the hood. This is as good a time as any.

Tinkering soothes him. He forgot how much, the last months, had set it aside in favor of plotting how to abandon his new life. Now all he has to do is figure out how to live the life he chose.

He's deep in the guts of the engine, well on the way to rooting out the problem, when he feels her settle on the grass, watching him. He doesn't acknowledge her.

"You're good at this," she murmurs, breaking the silence about fifteen minutes in.

"You sound surprised," he snaps back, not bothering to play nice.

She's skirts at the edges of his mind, not trying to delve in, just hovering at the outer edges and combing through the stray bits he hasn't bothered to hide. Her eyes flick back and forth across his face as she reads his expression, sinks into his emotions. He locks down the things he really doesn't want her to know, lets her do whatever the fuck she wants with the rest.

"You enjoy it," she says at last. "Putting things back together the way they should be, making new things."

"Is there a point to this somewhere?"

She withdraws back into herself and takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

He straightens, hits his head on the hood, and fuck does it hurt. Rubs the back of his head as he stares down at her. She sits cross-legged and skims a hand over the grass in front of her, back and forth, head tilted as she watches the movement. With hair cascading down her back and gleaming in the sun, legs long and bare, and toes painted red, she looks like a teenager. Then she meets his eyes, and she's seen too many things to pull off wide-eyed innocence without an effort she's not bothering to make.

"You were right," she says, her gaze staying steady on his. "I should have known you were good at this. I should have known you enjoyed it. I shouldn't underestimate you. And I should have listened."

He's still deep enough in her mind—or she's deep enough in his—that he knows without question that she means it. Every word is the truth, backed by regret. He leans back against the SUV and folds his arms across his chest. "Is there an apocalypse no one told me about? Hell freezing over, maybe?"

She shrugs a shoulder and drops her eyes, plucking up a dandelion and studying the petals. He can feel the echo of her count, although he's not sure she even knows she's doing it. Nerves. Being out here apologizing to him makes her nervous, but she's determined to make things right and if this is what it takes she's game.

And he can't take it, not when he's the one at fault. "Your people brought me in to spy on you," he says abruptly, and braces for the worst.

"I know." She's not angry. Doesn't even seem concerned. "Nick guessed that they made some sort of deal to get you to stay." Her lips curve up slightly. "I was too pissed to look at it rationally, or I'd have made the same connection. Even before your intentions started leaking to where I could pick them up."

His breath huffs out. He opens his mouth, shuts it, and settles for, "And I'm not dead?"

"Nick recommended I give you a chance. Eventually I gave in and agreed." Her smile broadens a little more. "I do listen to him occasionally."

"Once every blue moon?"

"A little more often than that." She tilts her head and sighs, her amusement fading into irritation. "Not really unexpected, anyway. They keep trying to bug us, like they think we won't notice. It was only logical that they'd get as many different uses out of you as possible."

He studies her with narrowed eyes. "You could have arranged an accident, easy. Why take the risk of leaving me alive?"

"The boy you were wouldn't betray us. I gambled that the man he's become wouldn't, either."

"Fuck it, you gambled on me?" He shoves away from the SUV, runs both hands through his hair as he stares at her. Lunatic. She's a fucking lunatic. "You gambled that I'd come through on your side? Hell, Olivia, I nearly sold you out. Why the fuck are you trusting me?"

"But you didn't sell us out, even though you had no reason not to." She flicks her hair back behind her ears and, despite her recent injury, pushes to her feet in one smooth movement. She stalks close enough that he can feel her body heat against his skin. "You could have told Jones I was unstable, just like you planned to. You didn't. You even confessed, fully expecting to take whatever punishment I would dish out in retaliation. Like it or not, Peter, you're one of us."

He doesn't have an answer for that, so just shakes his head in disbelief. "I'm trusting my hide to a crazy person."

"Takes one to know one," she says promptly. "Besides, if I'm wrong and you betray us I'll hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands, just so you won't be disappointed." Her amusement warms the words, flutters against his skin.

He snickers and runs a hand along his ear. "Um, yeah. Thanks. Truly."

She fidgets for a moment, then takes a deep breath. "So, here's the question: do you want to stay?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"You do." Her voice is neutral, but her eyes are hopeful. She doesn't veil her mind, wants him to see what's under the words, and it takes him a moment to work out the meaning behind what he's picking up.

She's offering the freedom to choose his own path, no strings. If he leaves now, she won't stop him. She'll cover his ass with Jones, no matter how much flack she'll get for it. Nick's lurking in her head, too, and feels the same way. They'll unquestioningly support him, no matter which option he takes.

He's never had that, not from anyone. Not that he remembers.

He can take off, travel the world. Do whatever he wants, as long as he keeps under the radar. Or he can stay, be forced to work for their bosses at whatever missions get thrown their way, with Olivia and Nick by his side.

He touches her shoulder and says, firmly, "I'm not going anywhere."

She smiles, a little shy and a lot glad, and her happiness warms him. "I'm glad you're here." She doesn't say it, but he hears unspoken: finally home.

Propping himself up against the sun-warmed metal of the SUV, he watches her amble back into the house and realizes she's right. For the first time in years, he is home.

And he's smart enough to realize he doesn't want to lose it again.

THE END

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Author's Note 2: To everyone who's been reading, thank you. This story is over double the length of anything I've attempted before, so it has been an interesting challenge to try to assemble this many words into some sort of coherent form.

If anyone is interested, I have a bit of a side story posted on my Livejournal. "Off Balance and Falling Deeper" takes place during Chapter 2, and is an expansion of the scene where Peter interrupts Olivia and Nick arguing; I found I needed to write Olivia's take on how the argument started before I wrote Peter's reaction. Other Choke Chain 'verse stories will probably pop up in the future, because this universe still won't get out of my head.