Title: God Complex

Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.

A/N: This fic is for penless, who may have discovered Chaos love late, but some things are better late than never :) However, somehow her three word prompt made me write 90k. Therefore, I'm posting this in parts just so I can maintain my sanity while posting. The plot may be sketchy because I don't know anything about real CIA missions, but that's the way it is when I write :) Also, this has 13 chapters that vary in length and this one ended up being really long because apparently I needed to write exposition! Chapters should be up twice a week, Thursdays and Mondays, assuming I don't forget!

A/N 2: Beta kindly provided by penless. Who deserves serious props for cleaning up my mess! I'm still glad this didn't disappoint!

Summary: Someday Michael was going to realize that this wasn't his little universe to control. Someday something would throw him for a loop and he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. But not this mission.

-o-

Michael was a creature of habit.

He considered this to be a matter of self-discipline, which was a critical element to success. More than that, it was essential to stay alive. Michael had learned early on that to get the job done he needed to control the elements. A successful mission was one that was thoroughly prepped, planned, and performed. He'd seen too many of his colleagues suffer in the aftermath.

It had only taken one of his own missions to run afoul before he learned that his best wasn't good enough.

So Michael was better. He had always been vigilant – even as a child he'd been prone to organizational fits, carefully putting his schoolwork in order to ensure the maximum efficiency.

Needless to say, he didn't have a lot of friends. But given his academic prowess he hadn't figured he needed them. Now that he was in the CIA he saw even less need for casual friends, which had always been something that bothered Fay. Still, Michael had found acquaintances to be more trouble than they were worth, ends he couldn't tie off in his big picture.

Now that he was divorced he didn't even pretend. He kept his home simple and comfortable, sorting his things to create an efficient lifestyle, both personally and professionally. There wasn't much differentiation now. Sure, he watched some sports on TV and had been known to read the latest best seller when he had the time, but the intelligence community didn't live by any kind of normal business hours. When he got tips, when he took calls, when information came in, Michael was ready to deal with it. At home or at work, and his home was even more comfortable to work in than his desk.

Routines just made things easier. Getting up at the same time was practical. Maintaining the same order simply made sense. He had perfected by this point and he saw no need to impose change outside of the varying demands of his job.

That was the point, after all. If he created the right structure, he could easily accommodate whatever his job threw at him. Considering the myriad of dangerous and top secret missions he'd organized that was more important than most people probably realized. He didn't want to be facing down terrorists while worrying about whether or not he had left the kitchen stove on.

As a creature of habit, such concerns were superfluous. He always turned the stove off because it was just another part of his routine.

Casey admired the efficiency but questioned the lack of personal indulgence. Billy mused that he probably had enough obsessive-compulsive tendencies to make a psychiatrist salivate. Rick had not been invited into that part of his life just yet because, well, Michael was a creature of habit and Rick was still the new guy. It had only been after Simms had disappeared that Billy had gotten the first invitation, and that had been less an invitation than a drunken escapade, the details of which Billy fortunately didn't remember and Casey was inclined to keep more guarded that national secrets.

Yet, that ultimately was the beauty of a good routine. It made space for uncontrollable deviations without the entire system collapsing.

At least, that was Michael's theory. And since he didn't feel inclined to explain himself to anyone, there was no one to question him on it, especially since Billy and Casey most certainly did not count in this case. If they tried, Michael could more than easily point out that Casey's suppressed anger and grief made him a walking time bomb and that Billy's effusive facades were a classic case of well-entrenched denial.

And there was no need to worry about Martinez. Not yet, anyway. Michael was fairly confident that he could still leverage fear to keep the younger operative in line; if not, then the supposedly inestimable weight of team brotherhood would do its job. He had a few more years before the kid recognized that with such trust came no boundaries, even if Michael pretended otherwise.

None of this was actually the point, though. The point was that Michael got up at the same time, went on the same jog, ate the same breakfast and did his job. When he got home he took off his shoes and put on a pair of white socks, shuffling around the house while he checked all his bases: the mail, his phones, his email accounts, his news feed. If nothing piqued his concern he'd nuke something for dinner, read a book and call it a night.

But tonight something piqued his interest.

It was in his email, sent to one of his front accounts that he used for his network of correspondents in eastern Africa. It was one of his more active accounts, accordingly; Nigeria had been a hotbed of activity. Most of it wasn't exactly relevant to Agency concerns, but Michael still preferred to be apprised of all terrorist activities and sectarian clashes, especially when innocent people were dying. Ignorance was not bliss for him, and even if there was nothing directly he could do he still liked to know.

Only this time, reading the email, it occurred to him there was something he could do.

The note was from a contact. The man had fed them some intel over the years, but nothing much, in exchange for a pittance of monetary compensation. The intel had been good but minimal, but this time Michael gave the note a second look.

The violence he reported was much the same – similar targets and death counts – but the exact method was of interest because the victims weren't just killed with regular guns. These were high-grade military guns, the kind usually only seen by the army.

But the Nigerian army wasn't involved, which meant the guns had been purchased elsewhere.

Which meant that one of the factions had a new buyer.

Which meant that something had shifted.

The effectiveness of the new weaponry was a marked improvement, because Michael knew the makes and models well. More than that, if someone had access to these guns they had access to a whole lot more. This indicated a likely escalation of violence with more damage and casualties than ever before.

All things considered, this still wasn't necessarily an Agency concern, but something to pass along, no doubt. To be put in the coffer with the rest of the intelligence on the status of terrorist organizations around the world. But without a direct American tie…

Except Michael knew these guns. American guns.

Someone from America was supplying these weapons.

Weapons shipments got knocked off from time to time and theft was a real problem around the world, especially in high tension, remote bases. But something to this scale suggested something more sinister. It suggested that someone was siphoning off weaponry, someone on the inside. It meant there was a leak in the American military's supply lines.

Of course, this was all just speculation based on a few notes from an old and somewhat uninteresting asset.

Michael would have to look into it.

Sighing, he pushed his glasses up his nose. So much for Tom Clancy; it was going to be all research for the night.

-o-

In the morning, Michael still woke up at the same time. He still took his morning jog. He still ate his breakfast and he still picked up Billy.

Carpooling with Billy had been something of a concession when it came to his routine. After all, the Scot was not exactly reliable in the day-to-day details. He had a tendency to be late and didn't seem to notice when he dropped crumbs from his to-go pastry all over the front of Michael's car.

But Michael liked saving on gas money, so he was inclined to tolerate it. Plus, before he'd insisted on driving together Billy had sometimes failed to show up until noon and had had this annoying tendency to get lost on the way to work, waylaid at coffee shops, grocery stores, and other places that Michael couldn't quite fathom.

Sure, Billy had still always gotten the job done – better than he had any right to, considering – but knowing where the Scot was during work hours had been one less thing for Michael to worry about in the grander scheme of things.

Still, that didn't mean Michael had to like it.

Billy, true to form, made him wait a few minutes before he came out, nursing a cup of coffee while he tried to finagle his suit jacket on one-handed. He sat down heavily in the seat, some of the hot liquid splashing onto his pants and the seats of Michael's car.

"You're staining the upholstery again," Michael chided.

Billy took a greedy sip and put the cup in the center console as he pulled on his seatbelt. "You drive a ten year old Taurus, not exactly a luxury car by your own very wise admission," Billy reminded him.

Michael glowered as he pulled the car out into traffic. "That doesn't give you free license to abuse it," he said contrarily.

Billy was thoroughly nonplussed as he picked up the cup again. "Do I detect an unusually foul mood from you this morning?" he asked. "Not problems with the neighbors again, I hope."

Michael shot him a glare. "No, because they moved out ever since you and Casey stopped by to visit," he said.

Billy took a sip, unable to hide his grin. "It is not our fault that they built their hot tub within full view of your bathroom window," he said. "Besides, I've been told that what they witnessed of my fine physique would be worth money in some parts of the world."

"I think it was Casey's performance," Michael said.

Billy shuddered. "Yes, I do believe that would be enough to make me move, too," he said. He took a drink. "So if not your neighbors, then to what do I owe your less than savory mood?"

"My mood is fine," Michael said, far too aware of how terse he sounded. He could probably hide it better, but with Billy it didn't matter much anyway.

"You're a right bastard and a horrible liar when it comes to this morning commute," Billy gauged knowingly. He sat back in his seat, brow furrowed thoughtfully. "No, if I didn't know better, I'd wager that you managed to find yourself a mission."

It wasn't a surprising deduction. Despite his obvious efforts to appear oblivious, Billy had one of the sharpest minds Michael had ever known. He was quick with conclusions and easily cut through pretenses to understand the heart of things. This was what allowed him to charm people so easily: he could sense what they wanted even when they didn't know they wanted it. His ability to discern the unconscious whims of others was a powerful asset in the field.

It was slightly less convenient when it came to a friend. But since Michael's friends were few and far between, he figured beggars really couldn't be choosers in this case.

Still, that didn't mean that Michael was about to admit to anything. He'd been working for the CIA long enough to know the power of a staunch denial.

Settling back easily in the seat, Michael shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "Maybe," he said.

Billy turned on him, eyes bright. He lifted one hand, pointing at Michael knowingly. "No, no," he said. "I know that look. That look of unadulterated contentment at the notion of putting a plan in motion." He nodded in satisfaction. "You, Michael Dorset, have found us a mission."

Michael was good under pressure, but he found the Scot's enthusiasm difficult to resist. "I might have a case," Michael relented, "assuming I can get approval."

That was the caveat, and although Michael said it like it mattered the ODS had never been exactly strict on doing this by the book. Approval, in Michael's mind, was a nice safety net but by no means his top priority.

But things were harder than they used to be at the Agency. Higgins was on them; getting a mission, especially one that had the potential to go belly up real fast, approved under these circumstances was probably smart.

"Ah," Billy said, nodding while looking out the windshield. "From the lovely Fay, no doubt. Now your reticence makes perfect sense."

Michael sighed, eyes on the road as he navigated through the morning traffic. "So that's why I only might have a case," he confirmed.

"Ah," Billy said, taking a long drink and making a face. "You know, this was far easier before your paranoid ways drove her to divorce."

Michael glared, giving the Scot a deadly look. "No, this was easier when you were still a respected member of the British Secret Service but we know how well that turned out."

Billy feigned hurt, his blue eyes radiating in an all too effective hangdog expression. "That hurts, Michael."

Smirking, Michael kept his eyes on the road. "The truth often does."

It wasn't an uncommon repartee. Billy's deportation was a touchy topic; so was Michael's divorce. But they shared a common bond that went deeper than that, and they had bled and cried together, so a few rough jokes at each other's expense was all par for the course. After all, they didn't have to use sentimentality to show each other they cared; sometimes, a well timed joked said it all the same.

The act was comfortable, familiar. And incredibly well honed.

Billy was almost pouting. "You really are insufferable in the early stages of mission formation, aren't you?"

Michael assumed an air of indifference. "Maybe I'm just insufferable around you," he suggested pointedly.

Billy scoffed. "Now I know that to be entirely false," he said, turning wide, earnest blue eyes to Michael with undue affectation. "You love me."

Lesser men and nearly all women would have caved. Many had, and Michael had seen it more than once. Billy had this way about him that Michael only resisted from years of over exposure and a detailed look at his MI6 file. "You're delusional," he said with confidence.

Billy's grin was impish. "You're not nearly as good at lying as you think you are," he said. "That's why you leave the finesse in the field for more talented operatives."

Michael took a turn carefully but scowled at Billy out of the corner of his eye. "You better watch it or I'll send you in to pitch this to Fay," he threatened.

It was an apt threat. Billy held up his hands, coffee sloshing dangerously. "I relent quite readily," he said. "I'd rather take a verbal trouncing than have to face down the cynical wrath of your ex-wife."

This was, of course, the point of Michael's threat. Somehow, it still made him feel defensive. "It's not so bad," he said.

Billy shifted, jiggling his knees restlessly as Michael stopped at a red light. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but do we need to relive the details of your failed marriage?" he asked, and this time the incredulity was reasonable by Michael's estimation.

Still, Michael had to smirk because Billy had a lot on him – this was true – but Michael had more in return. Trust could be earned at the Agency, but a little blackmail was usually pretty handy, too. "Only if you want to relive the details of your failed MI6 career," he offered with not-so-gentle openness.

Below the belt? Possibly.

Effective? Definitely.

After all, it would never be said that Michael hadn't earned his place as fearless leader of the right bastards. Because he most certainly had and, this morning, even Billy would agree.

-o-

When they finally got to work, Michael was in a good mood. Frustrating as it was, Billy was actually right about him. He was insufferable in the early stages of planning a mission. He was obsessed and focused, unnaturally attuned to details. This made him difficult to be around, and he'd been known to ignore people and snap at commonplace distractions. He barely stopped to eat until the planning was complete; he was simply too focused to be hungry.

This made Casey weary. The older operative appreciated focus but he believed in a certain amount of indulgence in his daily routine. Billy found it altogether unworkable, his carefree attitude completely at odds with Michael's intensity. Rick was still too new to get in the way, which was fine with Michael.

The thing was that Michael liked it that way. It was invigorating, enlivening. He didn't consider himself an adrenaline junkie, but there was no way he could deny the rush of making a plan come together.

Hell, it even made him okay with quoting 80s TV icons without irony in application to his own life.

Not even his team could begrudge him that.

Of course, not even his team could sit idly by while he attacked his research, which was why he was not surprised to look up for the first time in the mid morning and find himself alone.

Vaguely, he remembered an incident with paper airplanes, a few threats of violence, and something about coffee. Beyond that, though, things were a bit hazy and, he decided, really pretty irrelevant. There was always an inherent risk when Billy and Casey were let out in the halls of the CIA with nothing much to preoccupy them, but he had to hope that Rick's status as a nervous newbie would help keep them in check.

Knowing Billy and Casey, though, it was likely to have the opposite effect, especially if Casey believed that baptism by fire was a good means of further acclimating Martinez to their less than conventional ways. And Billy – well, Billy would be as good as Billy could be until his muse came up with something.

Which meant Michael was better off not thinking about his team for the moment and focusing on the problem at hand.

It wasn't exactly a problem, though. He didn't like to conceive missions based on problems. He preferred to gauge them as possibilities, opportunities even. They all had the potential to divert disaster and peril, strengthening national security and otherwise promoting world accord.

In this case, arms dealing.

Not an uncommon target for the CIA, because sure, guns didn't kill people, people do, but the fact was that weapons made it a whole lot easier. Noting the uptick in violence and weaponry suggested a few notable things. First, it was a sign of increased organization; an inherent upping of the stakes that was worth taking stock of. Sectarian violence throughout the world was something of an inevitability but the more power any single cell amassed, the greater the risk that their ambitions would extend beyond their small scale foes.

The cell in question hadn't seemed likely for this kind of upgrade. After scrolling through some chatter in a few documents he'd rounded up, Michael came to see that there had been a shifting of leadership following an assassination within the organization. The newest leader, Mueng Sunday, had the typical backstory from what Michael could glean from Agency records. His file was no more or less impressive than most people in his station.

Except, he had a sister. And the sister was married. To a former Marine.

Wendell Vaughan had served a stint in Iraq after being stationed in Africa, where he met his wife. He was honorably discharged a short time later, marrying and settling in his wife's hometown in Nigeria.

Coincidence, perhaps.

Except Michael didn't really believe in coincidence.

Some digging on Vaughan hadn't been overly informative. He was adept at what he did and there had never been much else to note. He'd seen some combat but there was no notation of problems. There also was no note of any exceptional commitment either.

What was noted, however, was that he was a munitions expert. He had extensive knowledge of the weaponry, especially the ones used in the recent attacks in Nigeria.

Again, possibly a coincidence, but the more coincidental it seemed, the less likely Michael was to believe it.

No, in his mind he was painting a different story.

Wendell Vaughan was an average guy with average goals and average temptations. Maybe he fell in love with his wife first; maybe he fell in love with an opportunity. Michael wasn't sure, but it didn't actually matter a lot. The fact was he married a woman with ties to violence and then his wife's family started moving up in the ranks, thanks largely to weaponry Vaughan had extensive knowledge of and likely access to.

Except he'd been discharged. Which meant that Vaughan wasn't working alone.

This was harder to pinpoint and Michael had to make more than a few calls before he found someone who remembered Vaughan enough to comment. Seemed like Vaughan had kept to himself, just having a few close friends. Mostly a guy named Gregory Jenkins.

Jenkins, Michael discovered, was still active in the Marines. Mostly in charge of munitions, handling shipments for one of the units based in North Africa. Unlike Vaughan, Jenkins had a few reports against him. Nothing too serious but enough to show him to be a guy with questionable morals. He wasn't serving his country for the honor in it, but for the stability. The big guns and the lack of other opportunities in life probably had something to do with it, too.

The strange thing was that Jenkins' CO suggested the man had had a recent improvement in attitude and behavior. He was surprisingly dedicated.

This made sense, Michael figured, if he was starting to funnel off part of the shipments. He was bound to be happier making money on the side and he was bound to be vigilant if he was doing something illegal.

This was all speculation, but pretty good speculation. All he needed was an in. To this end, Michael really had three options. He could start at the most accessible point, which was with the newly armed terrorists. It would be the easiest place to start, especially if the implications regarding Vaughan were faulty.

However, getting involved that far down the line would ensure that the mission would only be reconnaissance in nature, and worse, it could possibly tip off Vaughan and Jenkins, therefore proving irrelevant.

Going to Jenkins, on the other hand, wouldn't exactly be easy or even possible. That fell under a different jurisdiction entirely and Michael wasn't opposed to crossing a few jurisdictional lines, but messing with the American military was low on his list of things to do. Besides, while going to Jenkins would plug the proverbial hole in the dam it would have limited impact on the terrorist organizations he was supplying. He probably didn't even know all the ins and outs of where the munitions he siphoned went, making him the top of the food chain but not the best link at dismantling worldwide terrorism.

Which meant that Vaughan was their best best. The middle man had access to supply and distribution. Nabbing him would be the maximum benefit.

Sitting back, Michael took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He rolled his neck and took a few deep breaths. He had a goal in sight, but now he needed a way to get there. He could sit there and plan it out himself, but he'd found that the best execution came from joint cooperation. Which meant that it was time to bring in the team.

-o-

It wasn't hard to find them. Rick was reading files in the break room; Casey was in the gym. Billy was in a supply closet, rearranging the paper clips and staplers.

It was harder to get them to come back. Rick seemed wary. He was an excitable operative with good intentions to save the world, but after six months on the ODS he had perhaps learned that missions borne from Michael's so-called fevered brain were somewhat less than normal.

Casey was exasperated at the notion, but it was more affectation than genuine feeling. Casey was exasperated with life overall, but he liked missions. He especially liked Michael's missions for the unique challenges they often presented.

Billy acknowledged the value of missions but he was hard pressed to leave his office supplies. He agreed to come but bartered with Michael to let him bring two staplers and a paper cutter back for his troubles.

By the time he had them corralled around the table in their office Michael had to remind himself that, contrary to appearances, his team was really the best the CIA had to offer. If not, they were still the best Michael had so beggars couldn't be choosers. Especially in times of economic uncertainty and worldwide instability.

Still, their response was less than encouraging.

"So you want to take us to Africa and make friends with a likely US traitor supplying illegal arms to combatant groups?" Casey asked.

Rick looked back through the makeshift pile Michael had xeroxed. "He looks like he's pretty well established," Rick said. "Getting an in will be hard."

"And Africa's so hot this time of year," Billy said contrarily.

Michael eyed them each with something just shy of disdain. He didn't really hate them - this was part of their process - but sometimes Michael understood why Higgins sometimes vied to cut their jobs. They were pains in the ass.

"It'll get hotter if we don't cut the supply line," Michael said.

"And generally subverting terrorism is in our job description," Casey relented.

Billy sighed. "Fine," he muttered. He lifted a finger in warning. "But when you all pit out your clothing don't come crying to me, because my only sympathy will be a staunch I-told-you-so."

"But we still need an in," Rick pointed out.

"Which is where our meeting really starts," Michael said. "Ideas?"

"We could pose as buyers," Casey said. "I think the best covers are the simplest ones."

"But it could tip him off," Rick said. "I mean, he's new to this, right?"

"And newly minted criminals do tend to be a bit more jumpy about their illicit ways," Billy agreed.

"That leaves supplying," Casey said.

"You think we could try to tempt him away from Jenkins?" Rick asked.

"Not likely," Michael said.

"No," Billy said in due agreement. "To be properly engendered we need to partner with him in his criminal pursuits." Billy gestured widely. "Offer him a service to ease his burden."

Michael's mind lighted on this possibility immediately. "He has secured shipment from the source to his location," he remembered.

"So what if we can provide improved movement from his location to the various other outlets?" Casey said.

Michael nodded, the loose ends starting to tie together in his mind. "Chances are he's using local carriers, which makes him nervous," he said. "If we can come in as Americans – brothers in arms, of sorts – we may have our in."

He went over it again, hashing out the details. There were risks involved, of course, and they'd need to forge ironclad covers, probably with military backgrounds, which wouldn't be easy. They'd have to get some military backing for the go ahead, which meant more red tape that Michael disliked, but if they could pull a few favors they wouldn't need to read the military in necessarily.

Michael could retain control, and they could still determine the extent of Vaughan's operation and just how Jenkins was managing to steal from the United States military.

His team was watching him. Looking at them, Michael nodded. "So do you think we have a mission?"

Rick looked at Casey, who shrugged. Billy sighed. "You already bloody knew you had one when you picked me up for work this morning," he said. He held his hand out to the door. "Now all that's left is Fay."

Michael grimaced a little.

"She'll say yes," Rick said. "It's too important a mission."

"Spoken like a truly naïve operative," Casey snorted. He pushed up and moved back to his desk. "Let us know how badly she flays you when you come back."

Billy shrugged. "Or just keep your face with that unyielding expression of tortured hope you always have after talking to her so we know that things went pretty much as suspected," he said.

Michael glared but didn't disagree as he gathered his files back up. "Thank you all for that vote of confidence," he said.

Rick blinked at him. Casey smirked. Billy lifted his fingers to salute as he spun in his chair.

Michael rolled his eyes and figured it was time to jump out of the frying pan and right into the fire.

-o-

Fire was an apt metaphor for his relationship with Fay but he still always found her office cold. Probably because she made a clear effort to shut him out of her life. She liked to think he just didn't understand how divorce worked, but the contrary was true. Michael was too aware of how it worked; he just refused to accept it.

He loved Fay, and he didn't make his commitments lightly. When they said until death do they part Michael had taken it seriously, even if it meant enduring her cold shoulders. He simply counted his so-called blessings that he got to be close to her at all.

Plus, she liked it. She would never admit to it but it was true, and Michael took more than some pleasure in that.

More than that, it often worked in his favor. Not that he used her soft spot for him to his own benefit. That would just be proving Fay's statement of divorce as justified, which wasn't even remotely possible.

Still, facts were facts.

So when he sat down across from Fay, smiling broadly at her, he simply leveraged the facts to his advantage and attempted to look as much like an over-eager puppy as it was possible for a grown man.

She returned his enthusiasm with a dubious look. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Seeing you isn't enough?" he asked coyly.

She lifted her eyebrows. "It may be enough for a restraining order," she mused.

"Ah," Michael said. "I love it when you talk rough with me."

She sighed. "Did you have a point, Michael?" she asked. "Or are you just here to remind me why marrying you was a mistake?"

That one stung a little, so Michael tossed the file on her desk. It was rough but it was better than most of the files he threw her way. "I need approval."

Cautiously, she eyed it. "Is this one that I'm going to have to stick my neck out for you?"

He shook his head. "It's entirely legitimate," he said. "A bit high risk but I think you'll find it well worthwhile."

Curiosity colored her expression as she picked up the file and opened it. "Sectarian violence in Africa," she said. "And here I thought you'd mellow in your old age."

He smiled back at her. "Keep reading; it gets better."

She flipped through, inclining her head. "Gun smugglers," she said, a bit surprised. "From the military."

"To supply possible terrorist acts against citizens," Michael concluded, more than somewhat proud. "It's a complete trifecta – a slam dunk."

Fay closed the file and looked at him. "Definitely sounds like a case," she agreed.

Michael dared to let his heart skip a beat.

Her smile turned wry. "For the United States Military."

Michael's heart crashed to his stomach. Sinking back in his chair, he groaned, shaking his head.

"But you knew that," she concluded. "That's why you're here with your tail between your legs, like you want something from me."

Michael didn't bother denying it. "If you send us in, we can take down the operation at the source and the network."

"Jurisdictional lines are pretty clear," Fay said.

Michael shook his head, sitting up again and scooting closer to her desk. "And if you give this one to the military they'll clamp it down too quickly and we'll lose the leads on the network that's being supplied."

"Cut off the head of the snake," Fay said with a shrug.

"Normally, I'd agree with you," he said. "But not in this case."

Her look in return was withering.

He opted to try the sincere approach. "We can save more lives doing it our way," he said. "And you know I have friends in high places; you know I can get the backing for this."

She shook her head, clearly reluctant. "Michael…"

"Please," he said, doing his best to implore her now.

Her eyes narrowed. "You just don't like the idea of someone else taking your mission," she said.

Truth was sometimes indisputable but he also knew that it also wasn't always relevant. "Just read the file," he said. "And let me know."

She didn't want to say yes. The ex-wife in her wanted to send him packing. But he was right, and Fay hadn't trusted him in their marriage vows but she'd always trusted him in the field.

She held out for a long moment before she sighed. "Fine," she said, shaking her head in frustration.

Michael brightened. "Thank you."

Pursing her lips, she squared her shoulders. "It's not for you," she reminded him.

"Whatever you say," he said.

She rolled her eyes in exasperation and Michael left with a smile on his face before she could change her mind.

-o-

Walking back into the ODS office was never as reassuring as Michael figured it should be. He knew they were the best and brightest the CIA had to offer – and he was quite fond of that first line of defense phrase in their mission statement – but still, seeing his team hardly instilled much confidence.

Casey looked the part well enough, he supposed, sitting there primly at his computer clicking away. He always had a grave expression; some would even call it focused. Too many wayward visitors had mistakenly thought Casey might be open to discussion, but one undesired word in the older man's direction had always elicited such ire that few people ever chose to return. Michael might object, but he didn't really care for visitors either. Still, all of this would be more impressive if Michael didn't know for a fact Casey was chasing endless links around the internet which probably had no relevance to, well, anything.

Billy made it harder, still. The only way the Scot managed to keep his desk in some state of order was to effectively do no work. Michael would never admit that, of course, not with Higgins still gunning for their jobs, but it was true. Billy talked his way out of most paperwork and foisted the rest off on others. What little he retained for himself was covered with doodles and lines from poems Michael didn't recognize. But considering that any paper on Billy's desk is destined to become lost or otherwise destroyed, Michael tended to believe that minimizing the amount of paperwork that went his way was preferable.

Rick, for his part, actually worked, which was, of course, the most disconcerting fact of them all. He sat there at his desk, diligently going over his paperwork, scrutinizing online sources and print materials in equal turns. He would pause to straighten the memorabilia on his desk, looking every bit the part of a trained and true CIA operative. Which made him by far the weakest link.

And yet, this was his team. He trusted them with his life. The fact that they didn't look the part was really their best defense, although really, sometimes Michael wondered.

Casey looked up at him dolefully. "Back so soon?"

Billy spun in his chair, tossing his newspaper crossword on his desk. "Good news, then?"

Rick looked up from his work with curious eyes.

Michael snorted and made his way back to his desk. "She's looking into it."

Casey rolled his eyes and went back to his computer.

Billy grinned. "So we will see if the Dorset brand of paranoid charm still works its wonders," he crooned.

"She'll say yes," Michael said with as much confidence as he could muster.

Rick looked doubtful. "And why are you so sure?"

"He's not," Casey said without looking away from his computer.

"Because Michael has the strange and alluring quality of quintessential certitude, which is mysteriously impossible to resist regardless of age, race, sex or would-be marital status," Billy rejoined.

Michael smiled. "She'll say yes," he said again with even more certainty than before.

-o-

Confidence was not to be confused with immediacy, and Michael's key to success at the Agency was patience.

That, and good walking shoes.

And a healthy sense of paranoia.

But patience really did play a role, especially when a mission was still being conceived. He passed the morning going over his mission plan again, tweaking a few things in anticipation, but by lunch he was out of things to do and read the latest best seller from the library instead.

Rick went to a meeting at some point. Casey got out of a meeting at another point. Billy disbanded three meetings by his presence alone. Then, late in the day, Fay called him in.

On the way over he picked up two things of coffee. Inside her office, he placed one gallantly on her desk. "Two sugars and creamer," he announced. "Just how you like it."

Fay eyed it, clearly suspicious. "What is this for?"

He sat back, smiling grandly as he took a sip of his own. "Consider it a preemptive thank you for getting me mission approval."

She hesitated, wetting her lips slightly. "I wouldn't give it to me just yet, then."

Michael refused to show weakness. "Oh, come on," he said. "It's a slam dunk."

Fay lifted up the file and pushed it back to him. "I know," she said. "It's definitely a case the government is interested in pursuing but there's a few catches."

Michael reached out and snagged the file. "What kind of catches?"

She took a breath. "Mostly what you expected," she said. "The military wants some control in how this goes down. I talked them out of handling it internally but they wouldn't budge on retaining overall mission clearance."

Michael shook his head. "You know we don't work this way," he said.

"Well, this time you have to," she said. "And it's not as bad as you think. They'll allow you to be in the field but you'll report directly at the commander at the closest military base."

Michael was sitting up now, and glancing over the amended file Fay had given him. "No," he said, insistently. "I'll call them in for transport when we make arrests, but the mission is mine."

Fay sighed wearily. She had anticipated this conversation and had her answers ready. "They just want to know what you're doing and where," she explained. "You've relied on military support countless times in the past. I know for a fact you've done missions in conjunction with them before."

"Not on this level," Michael said. "If we start making military contact, people are going to get nervous and the entire thing will be compromised."

Lips pursed, Fay set her jaw. "That's not what this is about."

Michael made a face. "That's exactly what this is about."

"Oh," she said with raised eyebrows. "So you're not just throwing a hissy fit because you don't get to play God all by yourself this time?"

Michael's chest puffed up. "It's my mission."

Her expression was rueful. "No, it's the CIA's mission."

"And you're letting things get bogged down in the name of inter-agency cooperation."

Her eyes sparked. "And you're letting yourself be blinded by misplaced pride and overzealous ownership."

Michael didn't get ruffled often; it was against his nature and usually didn't serve much purpose. But Fay had an effect on him that no one else had, and when she challenged him, he always felt the need to rise to the occasion. He stiffened defiantly and didn't back down. "This is my mission," he said again, more forcefully now. "I can do it best. My team can do it best. And we work alone."

She deflated a little, but didn't relent. "All you have to do is play nice with others, open a few lines of communication," she said in conciliation. "Though I do know how hard that is for you."

Michael scoffed. "Don't bring your personal feelings into this."

"Oh, you mean like you didn't bring your personal feelings into this by asking me for this favor?"

"This has nothing to do with us," Michael snapped.

"Maybe not," she returned without missing a beat. "But this is what it is. End of story."

She spoke with certainty and finality. It was as much of an order as Michael had ever been given.

Too bad Michael never listened to orders.

Gathering the file, he got to his feet, lifting his chin. "We'll see," he said before stalking out.

-o-

His team had this annoying perceptive habit of knowing exactly what happened without being told. It was useful most of the time, although it did defy logic and most natural laws of the universe. It could also make things pretty awkward since the idea of a personal life was no longer very personal. At times like this, he sort of wished there were still some mysteries between them.

There wasn't, though. They all knew Billy drank scotch when he was lonely and composed songs when he was drunk. They all knew that Casey had the busiest social calendar of them all and woke up at 5 AM to meditate. Rick was the easiest of them all to read, and they were readily aware of his inherent gullibility and that he was, in fact, a mama's boy.

Michael didn't mind if they knew about his strict personal schedule or the route he ran every morning. But having them privy to the ins and outs of his relationship with Fay was somewhat less kosher.

But no less avoidable.

"So, bad news," Casey surmised when Michael walked back in.

Michael glared.

Billy lifted his eyebrows. "Very bad news, eh? She's getting feistier the longer the ink dries on those settlement papers."

"The mission is a go," Michael told them.

"So what's the problem?" Rick asked.

Casey regarded him coolly. "A caveat, no doubt."

"Of the most fantastic ex-wife variety," Billy added. "She didn't recommend another team, did she?"

Michael sighed. "No, she wants us to have it."

"Are you going to tell us the but or do we have to guess it?" Casey asked.

Michael pursed his lips. "She wants it in conjunction with the military."

"A babysitter?" Casey scoffed.

"That would probably compromise our cover if we're not careful," Rick said thoughtfully, brow creased with concern.

"It's not happening," Michael said, his defiance swelling.

"Somehow I take it Fay disagreed," Billy said.

"She thinks I'm making too big a deal out of this," Michael explained with a small huff.

"Did she play the God card?" Billy asked in commiseration.

Michael sulked.

"People always play that one like it's a bad thing," Casey said with a shake of his head. "As if omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence is somehow a bad thing."

Rick frowned, cocking his head. "So what are we going to do?"

Michael's eyes narrowed. The plan was lurking in the back of his mind, had been since Fay pulled out her stops. He didn't like it necessarily, but the ends justified the means. Even in a case like this.

He looked at his team carefully. "There is one option left to salvage this," he said slowly, carefully.

Billy made a face. "Come now, that can't really be an option."

Casey shrugged. "It would work."

"Yes, but at what cost?" Billy said. "I've give away a great deal of my soul in this job, and I'm not sure I'm ready to sacrifice the last bit just yet."

"Would you rather have a drill sergeant mucking up our field mission?" Casey shot back.

Rick shook his head. "What's the option?"

Billy and Casey fell silent, eyes darting to Michael.

Michael kept himself carefully composed. It went against his better judgment and his natural inclinations, not to mention his well-honed sense of survival. But this was his team, his mission. And Michael would do anything to protect that.

Anything.

Grimly, he swung around, tweaking his shoulders slightly. Billy and Casey were tense, ready to flinch while Rick watched, still wonderfully oblivious.

"Higgins," Michael said, simple and matter of fact. "We take it straight to Higgins."

"Out of the frying pan—" Casey said.

"And straight into the mouth of hell," Billy concluded.

For once, Michael found the hyperbole to be painfully accurate.

-o-

He didn't go alone.

Rick was still gun-shy around the director, which made sense considering how easily the man had duped the young agent during his first day on the job. Casey found the entire thing to be a monotonous annoyance but agreed to attend for the sheer force of his presence alone. Billy perked up at the notion of bringing undue frustration to the man until Michael reminded him that they needed to procure his favor, not alienate him.

But they were a team. Where one went, they all went.

Plus, Michael ordered them. And since the ODS has never exactly been great at following orders he also threatened them with a mountain of paperwork if they didn't come.

Together, they were a formidable force. They'd taken down terrorists and righted international wrongs. So going head to head with the director of clandestine affairs really wasn't so bad.

Although, it was just as nerve wracking with an opponent as determined as any criminal or international fugitive. Technically, Higgins was on their side and they had worked successfully on more than one occasion. The ODS had done the jobs Higgins couldn't ask anyone else to do and, in return, Higgins had bailed them out of a few situations.

It was still a tenuous relationship, though. Higgins resented his lack of control over the ODS; he didn't like having to make deals to ensure things got done correctly. He respected their work but hated their methods and Michael didn't doubt that if given the chance, he'd cut the ODS loose in a minute.

Michael couldn't exactly blame him. The ODS took some pleasure in causing headaches, and they had never gone out of their way to make Higgins' job easier.

Still, when the time for uneasy alliances came Higgins was a viable option.

The trick, of course, was getting him to say yes.

"Let me get this straight," Higgins said, reclined in his chair and eyeing them carefully. He'd listened to their pitch in its entirety without much comment, and Michael knew the older man was guarding his options. "You want me to defy the wishes of the military, which has a legitimate claim to jurisdiction in this case, so you and your team can gallivant off to Africa with no supervision or restrictions in place?"

That was essentially true, but it was all in how the details were spun. Michael knew that; so did Higgins. So Michael, bolstered by his argument and his record and his team, held his head high. "No, sir," he said. "I want you to defy the wishes of the military and let my team go in and get the job done right."

Higgins looked bemused, a smile quirking his lips. "I think you're forgetting how much I abhor your methods," he said.

Michael inclined his head but didn't back down. At his side, his team didn't waver either. "I'm remembering how much you love our results," Michael countered.

"Besides," Casey added with a smirk. "It can't hurt to scratch our backs every now and then."

"Especially since we are, in return, excellent back scratchers," Billy rejoined.

Casey frowned. "You're taking the metaphor too far."

"It makes perfect sense," Billy argued.

"But it's weird," Casey said.

Rick cleared his throat and they all fell silent.

Michael didn't even flinch.

Higgins sighed, sitting forward and putting the file back together. "Fine," he said, holding the file back out. "But I want all your t's crossed and I's dotted on this one. Any lapse in protocol and I will personally pack your personal belongings for you and put you all on the unemployment line."

This was, of course, the result that Michael had wanted and planned for. But he had to admit he was a little surprised to get it so easily. Not that he doubted his own plotting abilities or his team's more persuasive qualities, but usually Higgins made them work a little harder for things.

Michael took the file, and paused. "That's it?" he asked.

Higgins tilted his head. "That's it."

"No additional hoops?" Michael asked.

"Not even a few more threats?" Casey added.

"Or perhaps a not so subtly veiled insinuation of impending disaster?" Billy echoed.

Higgins regarded them coolly. "Your team is annoying, reckless, and mostly more trouble than its worth," he said. "But I still have control, however slight, over you. If I sign off to the military then this thing is entirely out of my hands. When I'm about to risk an international incident I prefer to have some say in the outcome, however minor."

Michael had to smile because he understood. "For once, I think you and I agree on something," he said.

Higgins leaned back in his chair. "Yes, well, don't make me regret that now," he said.

"We'll do our best," Michael said, feeling the adrenaline start to swell in him once again.

Higgins shook his head. "That's what I'm afraid of."

-o-

The rest of the day was busy. While his team could wile away most afternoons waiting for a mission, they were all business during prep work. With this mission, there was plenty to be done. Cover documents needed to be developed: passports, travel information, background stories. The works. They needed to arrange travel, map out a plan, memorize safe havens, and procure the necessary cash.

Michael assigned the tasks and sent his men to divide and conquer. He sat down at the table in their office and laid out their materials, fine tuning the step-by-step process to prepare for all possible contingencies.

A cover of criminal background was almost harder to fabricate than a legitimate one. Criminals had their own credos and trust was not as easily won by a few fake documents. A lot of their success on this mission would hinge on making effective first contact, being effectively believable as nefarious types.

Michael could pull off nefarious if he needed to, Casey and Billy more so. Rick would be a bit trickier, but if they told him to keep his head down and translate he'd do fine. The problem would be not making it too convenient. Criminals were inherently suspicious of people coming in and offering to make life easier. So it had to seem natural; better yet, it had to be the mark's idea to forge the alliance.

This meant it had to be a matter of convenience. They had a good trace on Vaughan's activity. They knew where he frequented, which meant they knew where to hang out. If they could use a local asset to get them involved peripherally with the local gangs they'd have automatic street cred.

That should all be doable, and if Billy could sweet-talk them into getting military backgrounds it'd be even easier. Men in uniform always shared a bond, even when they were betraying their country.

Michael was plotting out the different lower level operations they could use to prove their worth to Vaughan when the door opened.

Michael didn't look up. "If it's not good news, Martinez, then you should just keep walking," he said. "I want the satellite images from Vaughan's neighborhood and from Sunday's home base. No excuses."

"No excuses?" a feminine voice asked.

Michael looked up, surprised to see Fay. She had her hands on her hips and she looked amazing.

And angry.

"Like you have no excuse for why you went behind my back and got the mission approved?" she charged.

Michael was not often cowed – not even now – but Fay always did give him reason to pause. First, because she was pretty much the most alluring woman he'd ever seen.

And second, because she was one of the few who didn't buy into his crap.

He held up a hand in placation. "I told you I'd do what I had to do," he said.

"By circumventing me and going to my boss?" she asked. "I was doing you a favor by looking into this and you do this to me?"

"I—"

She didn't let him finish. "You couldn't even trust me to do what I do best," she said. "I mean, I always knew you were a control freak, but I thought you might mellow with age. Silly me, you're just getting worse."

"Fay—"

She held up her hand and shook her head sharply. "No, I don't want to hear it," she said. "I've heard your excuses and they all boil down to the fact that you're a selfish, paranoid bastard who doesn't know when to just let someone else take responsibility."

Michael flinched at that because she had hit his soft spot. He didn't have many and he certainly never advertised them, but Fay knew him better than most. And she wasn't afraid to say the things his teammates had the courtesy to keep silent. "You know why," he said.

She shook her head. "You're delusional," she said. "You're actually delusional. Because you think you can do this better than anyone else, that if you're in control, nothing can possibly go wrong because you can plan for everything."

"I have a pretty good track record," Michael said, a bit defensively.

She scoffed. The anger gave way to incredulity. "Someday you're going to realize that this isn't your little universe to control," she said. "Someday something will throw you for a loop and you won't be able to do anything about it. And because you can't trust people, there'll be no one else there to help you pull it back together when you need it most."

It was a threat as much as it was a warning.

Michael drew himself together, keeping himself steady. "Maybe," he said. "But not this mission."

Her smile was bitter and rueful. "Let's hope not," she said. "Because two men with Marine backgrounds? An entire faction of militants in Nigeria? If this goes wrong, Michael, you'll be alone, without backup, with people who will kill you as soon as they will give you a second look."

"That's why it has to be me," he said, resolute in this.

She wet her lips. "Just keep telling yourself that," she muttered as she turned and walked away.

Alone in the office, Michael watched the empty doorway for a moment before looking back at his plans. It was all there – the asset they'd leverage, the hotel they'd stay at, the setup and the execution. Michael had covers and backgrounds and contingencies all in place to tempt Vaughan into contacting Jenkins, setting up a three way meet and one massive shipment to catch both of them and Sunday in one major coup.

It was carefully scripted, as purposefully composed as a symphony, as artfully crafted as a sculpture. It would work, Michael assured himself. It would work and Fay was wrong.

Resolved, he set back to planning because Fay had to be wrong.

-o-

To the uninformed observer, Michael's routine didn't change before a mission. He still got up at the same time, still ran the same number of miles, still ate the same frozen dinners and pored over his paperwork until bed.

That was the problem with being an uninformed observer, though. They usually got it wrong.

While the actual events in Michael's routine never wavered, the intensity was entirely different. He reread the same files fifteen times, making layers of notations and adding sticky notes for things needing amending. He studied maps and double-checked everything until he had every cover detail memorized – for himself and for his team – and all pertinent details on the mark thoroughly committed to memory. He didn't want any hesitations; not when they could make or break a mission. Not when they could be the difference between life and death.

He also took the geography of the mission to heart. He knew the city where Vaughan lived, the supply routes from there to Jenkins. He gathered as much intel as he could regarding the tribal regions, sketching out a likely layout of Sunday's compound based on satellite photos and the schematics of comparable structures.

At night, he dreamed of the mission. During his runs, he recited the details to himself. At work, he made revisions, got feedback. When he got back home, the process started all over again.

To some, this might seem obsessive. To Michael, it was necessary. If he didn't have this perfect, if he didn't know everything, if he missed something – things could go wrong. Very wrong. For national security. For his team.

Such things were simply not acceptable. Michael had endured loss before; he would not suffer it again. Not on this mission, not ever.

Fay told him he was controlling; Casey said he had a God complex. Both were true, and even if he wouldn't admit it to Fay he understood the importance of such things. Michael had to be in control of the details, because the idea of walking into a mission without a firm handle on the possible outcome was more than he could take. It was terrifying.

So Michael would study. He would plan. He would perfect.

And everything would turn out okay.

Michael would make sure of it.

-o-

They only spent a week prepping, but it felt like months. It was an odd mix of anxiety and anticipation, adrenaline from the thrill or the fear, Michael was never sure, but the end result was always the same. By the day of their departure Michael was practically vibrating.

He'd done everything he could. It was time to see this through.

"Now," he said, looking purposefully at each of his teammates. "Do we have any last questions?"

"No," Casey said. "Because you answered all our questions the last five times you asked for last questions."

"Plus, you did include an exhaustive FAQ section in the mission report," Billy said, lifting it with a look of mild disdain. "I think I've suffered from strain carrying this thing home and back."

"It is pretty thorough," Rick agreed.

"Thorough is the difference between life and death," Michael said, a little firmer than he intended.

"You're preaching to the proverbial choir," Billy said, hands up. "Though, if it must be said, young Rick here doesn't really fit that bill. Proverbially speaking, anyway."

Rick frowned.

"Sorry, lad, I've heard you sing," he said. "It's not pretty."

"It's not so bad," Rick insisted.

"For once, I have to go with Collins on this one," Casey chimed in. "I've heard dying cows sound more melodic."

"Anyway," Michael interjected harshly, waiting until they each looked back at him. "We'll be flying in two groups, so any last minute changes need to be cleared here."

Casey rolled his eyes, clearly bored. "Billy and I will be on the flight tonight, setting up as tourists."

"I'm actually quite looking forward to the tour group we booked," Billy said. "I've looked at the schedule and I think we should be able to squeeze in the jaunt in the savanna before things get too hairy."

"Naturally," Casey said. "I find that observing predators in their natural habitat encourages my stalking skills."

"It also will give you both ample opportunity to travel throughout the city without suspicion," Michael reminded them. "We need to keep tabs on Vaughan and Sunday as much as possible."

"So no to the savanna?" Billy asked.

Michael ignored him; he was kidding anyway. At least, in all the ways that mattered. Billy feigned levity but he knew his role. Even if Michael had to ask and remind and pester, he trusted Billy and Casey.

"Rick?" Michael asked, turning his attention to the youngest member of his team. He didn't doubt Rick's loyalties, but someone without as much field experience was naturally a bit more of a liability.

Rick nodded readily. "We'll be on the morning flight," he said without hesitation. "Our first order of business will be to make contact with our asset and start getting our names out there to build up our credentials. Then we'll wait for the best time make first contact and build the rest of the mission from there."

"And your cover?"

Casey sighed before Rick could answer.

Billy groaned. "We know our covers," he said, rubbing a hand through his hair. "We know the mission. We're ready, Michael. Even a paranoid bastard needs to know when to let go. Just a little."

Michael wanted to protest, but Billy's blue eyes were piercing. Casey's deadpan stare was hard to argue with. Even Rick's plaintive gaze said enough.

He sighed. "I just can't have any screw ups on the ground," he explained.

"Never fear," Billy cajoled. "This is an ODS mission."

Casey snorted. "A little screwing up is simply par for the course."

This was the truth; it was also Michael's comfort.

If it was also his curse, he wasn't about to admit it.

-o-

Michael didn't actually care very much about traveling. To some, seeing the world might be one of the most alluring reasons to become a covert operative for the CIA. After all, it looked pretty glamorous in spy novels and thriller movies. Attractive people jetting the globe, fending off evil and having hot sex with equally attractive foreigners.

Michael knew he didn't have movie star looks and while Fay had agreed to have sex with him in Paris on their honeymoon, that was about as much action as he'd managed to have overseas. He did fend off evil, but it was far less movie worthy than the entertainment industry often wanted to have people believe.

The fact was that it rarely mattered what country he was in. The sights, be they spectacular or mundane, were really an afterthought when a mission was actually going down. After all, when he was fighting for his life and trying to not get killed he wasn't exactly stopping to take pictures.

Of course, that didn't mean that he was without preferences. He liked Paris for all the obvious reasons and one might correctly suspect that missions to inner city Nigeria were not exactly high on Michael's list of favorites. It wasn't just the heat or the mosquitoes; it was the uncanny sense that everyone was packing and just looking for a reason to blow his head off.

That wasn't true, and Michael knew it on some level. But he was a paranoid bastard. The only reason he didn't suspect the same thing in France was because he figured the French had their noses too far up in the air to even consider him as a potential threat at all.

Still, a mission was a mission and Nigeria was perhaps not Michael's favorite spot, but it ultimately didn't matter. The sights and sounds of foreign cultures had ceased to amaze him after all these years. Now he could hardly remember a time when they did.

Martinez was another story entirely.

There was still something of wide-eyed wonder in the younger operative, which was as refreshing as it was frustrating. Sure, it was good to have someone around to remind him why he got into this game, to remind him that not everything in life had to be a dark and twisted mess, but really. Michael had never been like that.

"It's amazing," Rick mused.

Michael shook his head, hoisting his luggage out of the taxi and settling it on the curb. "No, it's not," he said.

Rick frowned, standing next to his own luggage, already on the street. "You don't even know what I'm talking about."

Michael paid the driver, who nodded politely and slammed the trunk, scurrying back toward the driver's seat. "I don't have to know," he said decidedly. "I just know it can't be amazing because there's nothing here to be amazed about."

Rick's look turned from question to frustration. "You are readily dismissing an entire culture," he said, nodding out toward the street. "It's not your stereotypical beauty but it's vibrant, real. It is amazing."

"It's life," Michael concluded, barely affording the busy street a glance. It looked like he expected it to, comparable to other African cities and fairly well depicted from his time on Google Maps. "And our mission is to blend in, not gawk like a tourist."

Rick scowled, looking noticeably nonchalant as an actual tour group convened up the street, lining up outside a charter bus. It took a moment, but Billy and Casey were easy to spot, especially since Michael knew to look for the Scot's tall, spiky hair and Casey's stout build. Casey was holding a map, saying with conviction, "No, I remember it very specifically, complimentary lunch on group tour days is very explicit."

Billy was snapping photos of nothing and everything.

Rick grew sullen.

Michael ignored him, pulling his luggage past him toward the hotel entrance. "Wonder and awe have their place," he said, quiet and discreet. "It's not on a mission. Not with covers at stake, not with lives at stake. Awe and wonder are distractions. Awe and wonder can get you killed."

For a moment, Rick looked something like a kicked puppy, hurt deep in his brown eyes. Then, Rick looked like he might hate Michael.

Michael didn't linger to see it. Instead, he kept walking, because he knew that Martinez would hate him for a second, and then he'd fall in line. Because wide-eyed wonder or not, Martinez had the makings of a good operative. Necessary detachment wasn't always his natural inclination, but he was smart enough to recognize its place.

Michael was counting on that, anyway. Just like he was counting on Casey and Billy to keep an eye on things. Like he was counting on their local asset to play his part. Michael had arranged all the pieces; now, it was time for them to come alive and play the parts Michael had scripted.

There was always a little fear in that, always a bit of hesitation. What if it didn't work out? What if something went wrong? What if there was an uncontrollable element Michael hadn't planned on? What if the asset wasn't convincing? What if Billy wasn't sufficiently charming to get close enough without being caught? What if Casey wasn't dolefully abrasive enough to fit in like a western tourist and get a glimpse of what was really going on?

What if Martinez didn't follow him?

The doubt vanished, though. Billy and Casey had set out on their own, map and camera in hand. Michael's phone had the asset on speed dial and Martinez started following him, the sound of his suitcase being rolled across the pavement behind him.

All according to plan.

Michael didn't smirk, but his chest puffed up slightly as he pulled inside, Rick right behind him. At the desk, he smiled. "Hi, I've got a reservation for Thomas Vance."

And the mission began.