Title: Crossing a Line
Author: Ice Cube
Rating: T for language, some violence
Spoilers: Tag to the 5th season episode Depth Perception. Also for basic background on Michael and his family, shouldn't be anything that wasn't revealed in the first couple episodes of season 1.
Disclaimer: Right, if I owned them anywhere outside of my dreams, the characters that are forthwith mentioned in this story would be making me a lot of money and very happy…so no, they aren't mine, and I'm a just out of school with no money, so if you're going to sue, feel free, you won't get anything.
Archives: Feel free; just let me know where so I can find it again.
Summary: Tag to 5x16. What Michael couldn't handle, what he had never learned how to cope with, was being broken down from the inside out.
Warnings: To those who think that I am capable of writing a fic that is torture free…I can't, and thus, if you don't want to see h/c, various possible emotional and/or physical tortures, and other forms of angst, find another story.
I don't always have my stories beta'd, I'm too impatient to wait for someone to proof it after I've written it, so I apologize for any mistakes, and if you email me to tell me that they're there, I'll fix them later.
Reviews are always a plus; it's great to know that people are reading my stories and that they evoke some strong reactions, but as I'm a horrible reviewer, I won't hold my breath for them. Constructive criticism will be taken under advisement. Flames, however, will be treated with the utmost respect they deserve…they will be ignored completely or poked fun at with friends.
That said, on with the tale…
When it comes to being a spy, compartmentalization is the key. You do what you do and you are who you are, and never the two shall meet. When you're working under a government contract and have any number of agencies unofficially backing your missions, it isn't too hard to believe that you can keep that separation. Whatever your justification is for living the life of a spy, it doesn't come to light if you can help it – it's usually never a pleasant reason and it isn't something you want to think about. Half-truths and blatant lies are so commonplace that they become the norm. Honesty is a commodity that should only be used in the presence of someone you trust unconditionally, and assets, handlers, and marks just don't fit the bill.
So you wear cover identities like a favorite pair of jeans – all worn in and fitting at just the right spots. When the mission is over, you fill out the endless reports and put those jeans back into the drawers they came from before pulling out another pair. Those drawers are full of back-stories and characterizations for when you need them, and they're a defense against the skeletons in your padlocked closet. Breaking the boundaries of each compartment down and being forced to open that closet is something that covert operatives avoid like the plague. It's often a violent process and the results are distracting to the point of dangerous. In the middle of a job, that vulnerability can get you and everyone around you killed.
You want to know the best way to debilitate a spy? You want to know how to make him so desperate to get to the end that he'll do whatever it takes, even when that plays right into your hands or gets him killed? Force him to bring those skeletons out into the light during a job. Blur the line between who a spy is and what he does, and he'll incapacitate himself while you sit back and watch. It's a far more effective strategy than torture, burn notices, or blackmail, or even all of these combined.
Being greeted by the sound of flesh meeting canvas wasn't all that unusual of a welcome home to the loft. Michael's old punching bag had taken more than its fair share of abuse during his forced sojourn in Miami. Finding him pounding out his frustrations had become even more commonplace since Anson had barged his way into their lives and squirmed his greasy way under Michael's skin. Fiona's trigger finger was starting to get undeniably itchy and she was sure there was some extra C4 lying around that had the weasel's name on it – if only Michael would agree. Her distaste for Anson had only deepened since Sam had asked Michael to bring the bastard into the fold to help Beatriz. Fiona had held her tongue for the sake of their client, but that old twinge of annoyance with Sam had flared when she'd found out what he'd asked of Michael. Yes, it was important to find out who was hunting Beatriz ASAP, and yes, it had helped keep the young woman safe and relatively unscathed; but allowing their enemy a seat at the table had almost been too much.
After seeing Michael utterly dazed at Carlito's earlier – completely unaware of his surroundings while they waited for the call about Sam's meeting – Fiona was sure that the price had been too steep. In the time it had taken to get his attention, a full tactical team could have come in and kidnapped her in front of Michael's nose and he wouldn't have known it. He'd tried to feed her some half-truth about working with Anson being "draining", and Fiona knew that trying to get Michael to tell her what was actually wrong was harder than getting Madeline to stop chain-smoking during a crisis. He might be meticulous about details when it came to planning operations and about the intelligence concerning his burn notice, but when it came to his own well-being, Michael was just as compulsive about how vague he could be. Trying to discern his true feelings about something was not unlike trying to decipher a toddler's finger-paint drawing.
Lately, it seemed, that punching bag was the only relief Michael got from worrying about cops showing up to drag her off to jail, from Anson's meddling, and from the nightmares that plagued him almost nightly. Fiona tried to help as much as she was able – living at the loft went a long way to showing her the inner workings of Michael's unique coping skills. It wasn't usually too hard to distract him with a simple touch, a lingering kiss, or an invitation to go to bed early. Those nights, it felt like she'd won some major battle, and often spent hours watching Michael sleep peacefully. Sometimes, though, nothing Fiona said, did, or hinted at could erase the lines of tension from his face. Not even tearing Michael away from the work and exhausting him could keep him from waking up in a cold sweat – his nightmares nipping on his heels all the way back to reality. They never spoke of those incidents in the light of day, but it didn't take an advanced degree in psychology to see the toll written across Michael's face.
Truth be told, Fiona was glad to see Michael showing any kind of honest reaction to being hogtied over a barrel because of her. She'd lost count of the number of times she'd tried to make him understand – if she disappeared, he could take down Anson and save his own sanity. He'd left her back in Ireland without as much as a note to save her life – and his – when his cover had been blown. His steadfast refusal to let her do the same thing was both frightening and comforting. Gone were the days where his job came before her, but at this rate Anson was going to own Michael's soul – if the slimy worm decided to let Michael live at the end of all this. Fiona wasn't sure it was worth it – she wasn't really sure she was worth it.
Fiona expected Michael to at least acknowledge her entry into their home as usual – a grunt, a nod, occasionally even a 'hello' depending on his mood – but even after she had slammed the door and checked the lock twice, kicked off her heels, and threw her keys on the workbench, the cadence of his workout didn't falter. It was like he didn't even realize someone had entered his space. Worry shot through Fiona, but she was willing to let it be for the moment. God knows he needed the release after the last few days, and she was sure that somewhere in his subconscious, Michael knew she was there. Better that he take out his anger on the inanimate object in front of him in his waking hours. Maybe tonight would be one of those times where he actually managed to make it through the night without trying to put a full clip of bullets into her shelves of snow globes.
Leaving him to his corner, Fiona headed for the refrigerator to pull out a yogurt and headed for the balcony. One of the things she definitely didn't miss about Ireland was how dreary it could get on a fairly regular basis. Summer in Miami may bring thunderstorms frequently, but they were usually short-lived and left just as quickly as they came in. The sun on her face was a welcome feeling, and between the warmth and the even tempo of Michael's imagined fight drumming in her ears, she was lulled into a daze.
Fiona had no idea how long she had been standing there, but enough time had gone by that when she lifted a spoon of blueberry yogurt to her lips, it was distastefully warm. Spitting the mouthful back into her cup, a jolt went through her stomach that had nothing to do with the now unpalatable snack. Instinct had her reaching for her silver H&K USP before she even realized what had wrenched her from her stupor. When she'd wandered outside, the sounds from inside the loft had been steady and militaristic in their rhythm, just the way she expected Michael to act – just the way he had been trained over too many years of government experience.
Now, it was clear that the bag was taking a pummeling. There was no semblance of control. There was no rhyme or reason to Michael's workout. There was, however, a sense of anxiety and panic that accompanied the pounding. It sounded as if Michael was in a fight for his life – as if the old heavy bag was a fearsome enemy trying to break through the trenches and the only thing stopping it from succeeding was the burned spy.
Fiona dropped the cup of yogurt, forgotten, to the floor of the balcony and raced inside. The furious striking of the bag was matched by her own pounding footsteps. It was painfully clear that something was wrong.
The first thing – beyond the frantic pace Michael was setting – that Fiona noticed when she finally made it through the maze of intelligence reports, mismatched furniture, and various stores of her arsenal, was that Michael was still in his suit pants and jacket. His feet were still clad in dress shoes – now scuffed and looking decidedly worse for wear. His hair was sweat-slicked and flat against his head. The usually even pace of his breathing was just as turbulent as his punches. He still seemed to have no inkling of her presence, or that of anything beyond his quest to beat the bag out of existence. It was this above all else that slowed her footsteps. Sneaking up on Michael had always been one of her specialties. She remained one of the few people in the world that could pull it off, one of fewer still who could do it more than once and live. Occasionally, she liked to remind him of that fact – but with that power came the knowledge that he needed to be in the right mindset. Otherwise, it wouldn't end well – for either of them.
"Michael?" Fiona kept her voice soft as she paused by the door. She was almost surprised when the frenzy didn't abate. Another step forward brought the canvas bag into her line of sight.
Blood was dripping down the duct tape that protected the meat of the bag.
"Michael!" Caution was thrown to the wind and Fiona rushed forward to stop him.
"Oh God, your hands!" She had just enough time to realize that in Michael's haste to take out his anger with fists to canvas, he had not only ignored the need to change, but also to tape his knuckles. The skin had long ago split, and Fiona got just a glimpse of the damage before she reached for his shoulder. She was so intent on stopping Michael from hurting himself further that she forgot that he didn't seem to recognize that she was there.
It only took a millisecond, and if Fiona hadn't reacted, Michael likely would have realized what he was doing. The second she touched his shoulder, however, it was like lighting off fireworks. Three decades of karate spiraled down to reaction and instinct. Before she could blink, Fiona's hand was wrenched from Michael's shoulder and used as leverage to spin her into an arm bar. All she had to do was submit, give him time to come to his senses, but Fiona was wound too tightly, herself, around this whole Anson mess. Her own base instincts took over and refused to give in. She was far too proud a woman to back down when confronted; and somewhere deep down she needed this as much as Michael did.
Fiona spun into the arm bar, turning Michael's own momentum back around on him. The wild look in his eyes proved to her that he wasn't entirely aware of what he was doing, but the adrenaline was already coursing through her veins and common sense – one of Michael's specialties, not always hers – was left far behind. It wasn't like they had never sparred before. The tradition reached back as far as Michael McBride and operations in Germany and Dublin. It was like some kind of macabre dance between the two of them, often taking the form of foreplay when he indulged her. They had known each other for long enough that most of their impromptu sparring sessions could have been choreographed for the bizarre symmetry. His strength complemented her flexibility, her reckless passion foiled his careful control, their skill and creativity matched each other.
The two of them danced through the loft, silently fighting for dominance and the ability to lead. Where Fiona led with kicks and punches, Michael retaliated with holds and locks. She hadn't realized in the past how often Michael spent the majority of their bouts on the defensive, allowing her to run out her energy as his patience won out. More often than not, it left her breathless and sated. She found she missed that play now as Michael wasn't letting up on the offensive. His volleys were getting harder and harder to counter, and it was apparent that he was in it to win.
Kicks and punches were blocked on both sides, but Michael had been warring with his own demons and expending his energy long before she'd gotten back to the loft, and his control was slipping even further. An uppercut to his jaw sent him reeling, and Fiona took the moment to catch her own breath. She should put an end to this, but the release was therapeutic and she was actually enjoying herself a bit. Another shot to his ribs and a roundhouse kick to his outer thigh had Michael pulling his reserves and showing Fiona a side to his fighting that she had never before seen focused at her. This was Michael fighting to win. This was Michael fighting for his life; his sanity; his character. This was Michael with no inhibitions.
This was the Michael Westen that other people feared.
Fiona faltered for just a moment, and it was long enough for Michael's bloody knuckles to impact her cheek. It was the first solid blow he'd landed. The force of the jab snapped her head back and left her seeing stars as she stumbled back against the kitchen counter. Fiona figured that the moment would cost her. He had the opportunity to make her pay for continuing this fight when she knew he wasn't in the right frame of mind. With the fury that had coiled in his gut and exploded throughout the fight, Fiona fully expected Michael to push the advantage and finish her off. He'd never backed down from a fight in his life. He had the ability to end the fight decisively and take out the threat that was facing him. She'd seen him do it countless times over the years with others. It had always fascinated her. Now it scared her.
What she didn't anticipate was for reality to come crashing down on Michael in that exact moment. Fiona didn't think the wild look in his eyes could disappear that fast as his gaze locked on her cheek. She couldn't have pictured the lost look that replaced the fire that had sustained him. She didn't predict that he would start shaking the second after his fist caught her cheek. Fiona never would have imagined that Michael would collapse to his knees calling her name in a broken whimper.
Blinking past the stars, Fiona caught sight of Michael sitting back on his heels, his head bowed as his chest heaved and he tried to catch his breath. Dejection screamed out its existence in his very posture, and the inferno that had fueled the both of them fizzled out like one of the distant summer thunderstorms that Fiona had been musing on earlier. He had gone from looking the part of feared operative to looking like a lost little boy in a heartbeat. The change was so startling that it froze her for a moment – she could do nothing more than watch the change with rapt fascination. Silence reigned through the loft, punctuated by quiet gasps as they both came down off the adrenaline high.
She wasn't sure how long the two of them were frozen in this moment of…she wasn't even sure how to classify what this was. Fiona realized that the jolt of unease that had propelled her back into the loft in the first place was still coursing through her – almost to the point of making her sick. Fear. Stark and plain and crippling in its intensity, the emotion rolling off her was becoming further intensified as Michael didn't move. It was as if he'd simply shut down. Nothing else was clear to her in that moment except the blinding need to make sure he was okay. Not the dizziness that accompanied the blow to her head, not the stinging pain as his blood mixed with the abrasion on her cheek. None of that mattered at that instant.
All that mattered was the man nearly slumped over between the workbench and the kitchen counter. Fiona fell to her knees a hand's-breadth away from Michael and reached out hesitantly.
"Michael?" The whisper was so soft that the breeze outside the balcony doors could have spirited it away. The last thing she wanted to do now was spook him.
When Michael still didn't react, Fiona closed the distance between them with her fingers and lifted his chin to try and catch his gaze.
Making eye contact finally seemed to break the spell. "Fi?"
"I'm here, Michael. I'm here." She inched closer and carded her fingers through the sweat-soaked hair at his temple. Now that he was aware of his surroundings again, Fiona dropped her other arm around the back of his shoulders. She could feel him trembling beneath the damp suit jacket.
Michael took a shuddering breath and let her guide his head down to her shoulder. Fiona's gut seemed to settle at the small victory and she whispered reassurances softly into his ear until he reached out to encircle her with his arms. Even at this awkward angle, the two of them seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. Fiona had half expected him to draw back from the emotional display instead of curling into her, but it was clear that Michael's nerves were already fried and Fiona wasn't sure he could find the strength at the moment.
She pressed the advantage while she had it. Michael's defenses were clearly down and if Fiona was ever going to figure out what just happened, she had to do it now. The tiny inkling of guilt that kicked at her conscience had to be ignored, and she pressed a kiss to his hair before drumming up the courage to start down this path.
"Michael, talk to me." She canted the words as if talking to a frightened child, half wondering who she was more afraid of spooking – him or her.
The man in her arms shivered, but had no fight left in him. He looked down at the blood congealing on his hands and let out something between a sigh and a sob. Fiona pulled him closer.
When he finally spoke, Michael sounded just as broken as the skin on his knuckles. "You probably should have left Miami after that first time we had dinner."
"What?" Fiona's incredulity leaked into her voice. Since she'd moved into the loft, she'd had to wonder whether or not Michael actually wanted her there, but to think that he wanted her gone from the start was too much.
"Everyone I…" Michael paused and tried to straighten up, but didn't seem to be able to convince himself the separation was really what he wanted. Fiona knew it definitely wasn't what she wanted.
"I break everything I touch." The heartbreak was raw in his voice.
Michael continued before Fiona could interrupt. "You'd have been better off leaving me behind. I just screw up everyone's life – even better than they could manage on their own."
"Michael…" Fiona didn't even know where to begin. When she finally got her hands on Anson, she was going to make sure that he died slowly.
But Michael wasn't finished. "You can't go back to Ireland because I needed my job back badly enough to work with Strickler. Nate was turning his life around and I got him shot. Sam is being investigated as a Russian agent. My mother thought she found her soul mate, only to get her heart ripped out. My father…"
Fiona picked up on this. She already knew enough about Frank Westen to want to dig up his bones and wrap detcord around each and every one of them. The only thing that man was good for was damaging his son enough so that he turned into an amazing spy. They'd likely never have met, otherwise.
"What could you possibly have done to screw up his life, Michael?" The disdain was clear in her tone.
"Anson…" Michael stopped and shook his head violently.
When it was apparent he wasn't going to continue, Fiona shifted the two of them so that she sat back against the workbench, taking the pressure off her knees and allowing her to tuck Michael's head under her chin as she pulled him close against her chest. His arms never left her waist.
"What did Anson do to you yesterday?" Visions of explosions danced in her head.
Michael tightened his grip on her waist. It didn't take a genius to know he was trying to bottle this all back up inside, but Fiona had always gotten what she wanted when it came to talking to him.
"I can't remember a time when I didn't want him out of our lives. I never understood why my mother stayed with him, why she pretended that we had all these happy memories. But because of her, as a kid, I was never sure if I wanted him dead or not. She loved him, for whatever reason. His death would have hurt her, and I never wanted that. I just didn't want him to hurt Nate or my mother anymore." The shudder that coursed through him was strong enough to rock through Fiona. She ran her fingers through his hair, trying to soothe him.
"You were just looking out for your mom and your brother. You didn't screw anything up, Michael. Not for him. He did that all on his own." Fiona had seen the scars that Frank Westen left on his son. Both the visible and the hidden ones. She wouldn't have blamed Michael if he had plotted the man's death while daydreaming in elementary school.
"Maybe." Michael didn't sound convinced, and Fiona wanted to know why.
"This isn't like you," she whispered as she kissed the back of his head.
"After I enlisted, I thought about him dying. I knew what he was like, and I knew that I wasn't there to stop him. Nate never really…he couldn't stay out of trouble if his life depended on it. And with me gone, he and my mother were at the mercy of my father's drinking habits. I wondered what it would be like if something were to happen to him. I'm sure I thought about killing him more than once. I was young and angry, and I was…I'm sure I wished for it, but I don't think I really meant it." Fiona nodded. Young and angry was never a good combination, and it always led to at least some regrets. Her last argument with Claire was proof of that.
"I don't even remember where I was when Dan finally got a message through to me that my father had died. I just remember feeling relieved that I wouldn't have to wonder anymore. I know I was in deep cover somewhere, so it wasn't like I could spare the time to think about it much. He never cared about me when I was at home unless he needed something, so why should I care about him on the job when I didn't need the grief?" Michael laughed ruefully and finally shifted so that he was sitting next to her, still wrapped up in her embrace.
"It probably would have gotten your cover blown. You couldn't have changed anything, anyway." Fiona's tone was conciliatory, not really knowing how to explain things to him that were usually second nature.
"I know. I just…I never really stopped to think about it. And now…" Michael unclasped his hands from around her to flex his knuckles. They both fixated on how the dried blood cracked with the movement.
Fresh blood welled up in the abrasions and Michael sighed. "And now…"
He shook his head, and Fiona squeezed the back of his neck. Whatever this was, it was eating Michael up inside more than any other time she'd seen him lost.
"I think Anson expected me to be grateful. 'All those years, how many times did you wish he were dead?' That's what he asked. He didn't give me time to answer, but…" he trailed off uncertainly.
The disjointed ramblings were hard to follow, but Fiona was starting to get a horrifying picture in her mind. C4 was too good for the bastard. She'd have to think of something far more painful.
"He said 'you're welcome'. He knows exactly what buttons to push, and there's nothing I can do to shut him out." Michael tried to sit up, and this time managed to get as far as moving his head to rest at her temple.
"How do I tell my mother? She already hates me for what happened with Benny. How do I tell her that the man I've hated for so many years died because of me? That doing my damned job put me on Anson's radar and put my father in his line of sight?" The sound of flesh striking the floor startled Fiona, but she still couldn't speak. What could she say to him?
"Fi, he had my father killed." Michael's voice broke, but he pressed on. "He killed my father and I'm so screwed up that I don't know if I should hate him or thank him."
"Oh, Michael." It suddenly all seemed so clear. The man she loved could keep a clear head in the worst of times. Pinned down when plans 'A', 'B', and 'C' had already gone to hell in a hand basket, Michael never faltered because it was what was expected of him. He could make last minute changes and last ditch efforts work to his advantage, and did it all with the smile that had made her fall for him in the first place. Years of government training and on the job experience had taught him how to make something from nothing and how to handle the unimaginable being thrown at him from the outside. But what Michael couldn't handle, what he had never learned how to cope with, was being broken down from the inside out. Broken bones, bruises, and hateful words had assaulted the fortress that protected his character since he was old enough to understand. But that had all been thrown at him by enemies he could hate. How do you fight an enemy when that enemy is you? Anson had found a way to make Michael hate himself, and Fiona knew that the spy had no protection against that.
It was time for her to be his line of defense.
Michael was unaware of her epiphany, and continued revealing Anson's devious ploy. "He told me my father wanted to apologize. That he wanted to…"
Fiona interrupted him. "Michael, stop. We don't know that any of this is true. You said yourself he knows exactly what buttons to press. He's trying to get to you any way he can. He knows you, and he knows that you're too good to beat straight up. So he's going to try everything he can to cut at you. Whatever happened to your father, it's in the past and that's where you've got to leave it. If the bastard did kill him, if Frank wanted to apologize – it doesn't change anything. You're Michael Westen and you're going to beat this son of a bitch, because of everything that happened."
When Fiona looked up, she could see the fire returning to his eyes. The haunted soul that had always peeked out at her from behind the strength of his character was still there, but the cracks in the armor that protected it were starting to heal. She knew she hadn't fixed the problem – she wasn't sure anyone really could after all this time, but Fiona had given Michael the ability to box up the damage once more and shove it back behind whatever walls protected his psyche.
She stood to her feet before dragging Michael up with her. He was too exhausted to do much to help, and swayed until Fiona dipped under his arm and took charge.
"Come lay down for awhile, Michael. You can go talk to your mother in the morning." Fiona kissed him gently before leading him to their bed. They could figure everything else out after he got some rest.
Fiona watched from the window until she could see the Charger pull away from the loft before picking up her cell phone. The number she dialed had been committed to memory shortly after she decided that Michael taking her to dinner wasn't suitable reason to leave Miami again. Back then, Fiona hadn't decided if she was going to fight him for leaving her behind in Ireland or fight to keep him. It hadn't taken long to make that decision, and now it was time to make sure the tentative truce Michael had made with himself didn't take another pounding. She took a deep breath to calm herself before the ringing stopped.
"Madeline Westen, you listen to me right now. Your son is coming over to talk to you and I swear to God you'd better remember before he gets there that the man you raised has been protecting you since he still had all his baby teeth. If you treat him like you did the other day, I promise you'll find out just how explosive I can get."