"It's necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live."
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
At home, there was still no fanfare. The ODS didn't get parades or commendations. They didn't get plaques or medals. But this time they got off the plane, walking together.
Even then, Michael knew it would be tempting to believe that it could be that easy. That they'd go home and everything would be the same as it would be. The fact was, however, that nothing would ever be the same again. Not for any of them.
Morovia had its first free elections. Liberals won in a landslide victory and, though violence lingered, there were positive signs for freedom and vitality. Vereychek was found by unification forces and given over to the world courts. He was eventually found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. The people of Morovia rejoiced.
Rezin copped a plea deal, just like they had all known he would. He was the star witness against Vereychek, and in return he was given a life sentence in a comfortable jail, complete with his books and his violin. Michael imagined him playing in there, composing melodies that he could never quite perfect with his ruined hand. It wasn't the best punishment there was, but for Michael, it was something.
He didn't know what happened to Illyich. When he went by the man's shop a few months afterward on a return visit to the stricken country, it was boarded up and closed, the interior dark and stripped bare. When Michael asked around, no one could remember him. Or no one would say. For someone like Illyich, Michael thought anonymity might be worse than death.
Michael had accepted years ago that justice was rarely just. Good people suffered for no reason. Bad people never got all they deserved. In all, hope was a tall order in their line of work.
Then again, the ODS had always set about doing the impossible.
The day to day routine returned more or less to how it had been before Michael and Casey and Rick had gone to Morovia. There were meetings and paperwork and occasional briefings. Life at the CIA was... well, normal. Or as normal as Clandestine Operations ever was.
But not everything returned to normal. The whole team had undergone something harrowing, and it left its mark on each and every one of them. They'd been changed, in small but definite ways.
Rick became more vigilant in the aftermath. He didn't take things for granted. He checked and double checked. In short, he was well on his way to becoming a paranoid bastard in his own right. Michael wasn't sure if he was proud or pitied the man.
Casey never wavered again. He had once accepted Billy as dead, and now he accepted Billy as alive and an immutable force in his life. It was as close to 100 percent as Michael had ever seen him, and he knew it was good as he'd ever see the human weapon - unless Billy ever joined them in the field again.
As for Billy, that was still the hardest part. He was better in so many ways - awake, alert and joking - but he was still a little more withdrawn than he used to be. He spent a little too much time in his motel room and he drank a bit more than he used to. Sometimes Michael still caught him looking off into nothing, a vacant look on his face, before he got himself back together and focused on the present.
Which was all any of them could do.
One day, a month or so after their return, Michael met up with Billy for dinner after leaving the office, going to pick him up from his motel. Billy hadn't answered his phone when Michael called, so he walked up the stairs to Billy's room. Out in the hall, he paused at the familiar sound of someone idly strumming a guitar. He let himself in, noting that Billy didn't even look up from where he sat, cross-legged on the couch, slowly working his way through the chords of a song Michael was pretty sure was Bruce Springsteen.
Michael looked around. The room had returned to its former squalid state, books and half-eaten plates of room-service scattered on every available surface. It was a mess. It was lived-in. Lived in by Billy.
The thought made Michael smile.
Billy hit a dissonant chord and cursed, prompting Michael to snort. Billy immediately tensed, whirling around – then relaxed, slowly, and smiled. "Didn't see you there, mate."
"I didn't want to interrupt the serenade," Michael replied with a grin. "You ready to go?"
And Billy was.
There were still the little things.
One day, when they were on their way to the diner Adele had recommended for lunch, they had trouble finding parking in the city and decided to drop Michael's Taurus off in a garage and walk the rest of the way. The sidewalk in downtown Washington was busy and a few times Michael saw Billy's eyes widen in panic. At one point a car backfired and for a second, Billy froze and looked ready to bolt. But then, in increments, the muscles in his shoulder loosened and he turned to Michael with a shaky grin.
He still flinched and cringed.
But he also smiled.
And as Michael held the door to the restaurant open in a show of mock chivalry for Billy, who jokingly affected a curtsy, he chalked that one up in the 'win' column.
After two and a half months, Billy surprised them all when he walked into the office wearing a three-piece suit.
Casey's eyes widened slightly in surprise. Rick's mouth dropped open. Michael raised both eyebrows. "You finally done with your year of slacking off, Collins?"
Billy smirked. "Turns out, HR gets a bit cross when all your days are used as vacation days."
"So you're back?" Rick queried, the excitement and hope in his voice making him sound like an eager puppy once again.
Billy's smile remained, though it shrank somewhat. "Sort of. I'll be leading the leisurely life of a desk-jockey for the forseeable future. I'm being retained for some low-level analyst work while the powers-that-be mull over whether or not I ought to be allowed to retake my field test."
Casey leaned forward. "You're retaking it, then?" Michael raised a brow at the rather uncharacteristic interest; Casey noticed, and immediately leaned back in his chair, putting back up his mask of indifference.
Billy shrugged. "Mayhaps. Agent Blanke has offered to help me get back into shape by coaching me through his hallway aerobics routine." This was greeted with a chorus of snorts and chuckles. "It's a long shot, the psychiatric department says. But I'm not about to count it out just yet."
"They have to pass you!" Rick exclaimed. "We need you!"
Billy paused, something odd in his expression.
Michael offered a gentle smile. "I think what Rick means to say is, we won't be filling that fourth desk any time soon. If you want back in the field, we'll be behind you all the way. But it's up to you."
And Billy nodded. "Good to know, mates. Good to know."
Most days, Michael didn't even have to think about how things had changed. Most days, things were just fine. That wouldn't have seemed like high praise once, but now, Michael found that it was often all he needed.
Until Rick showed him the paperwork.
Michael glanced at it, a little disdainful. "You've been on this job long enough, Martinez," he said. "You don't need me checking your paperwork."
Rick didn't move. "It's not my paperwork."
"Then I'm really not sure-"
"It's Billy's," Rick continued, unflinchingly.
Michael looked up at him in earnest this time. Rick's brown eyes were wide; concerned. This time, Michael took the papers.
"He's filing a motion to fight his deportation notice," Rick explained, his voice hinging and his body tense.
Michael read now, eyes skimming the paperwork curiously. Rick was right, though. Billy had filled out the paperwork with uncharacteristic attention to detail, all that remained was his signature and the date at the bottom.
It was something of a surprise, and Michael didn't surprise easily. He saw most things coming - he made sure of that. But in all the time Billy had been a part of the ODS, he'd never once considering filling out this paperwork. He'd never even talked about going back to the UK as an option at all. He waxed poetic about his homeland, sure. Sometimes, he even admitted to things he missed. Michael had never doubted that Billy regretted his deportation.
"So what does it mean?" Rick prompted. "Does he want to go back? Is he unhappy here?"
Michael wished he knew. He had to shrug. "Honestly, I don't know."
"You mean it's never come up before?" Rick pushed. "He's never talked about going home?"
Michael's eyes lingered on the application, the personal account, the letters of recommendation. He shook his head. "He talks about going home all the time, you know that," he said.
"But why not file earlier?"
Michael's gut twisted. "He never really said," he admitted. Then he shrugged. "But I always sort of assumed he thought he deserved to be punished for whatever happened."
There was a noise behind them, and Rick startled. Michael looked up to see Billy standing there.
"I'm impressed with your sleuthing skills," Billy said, nodding to Rick. "The Rick I used to know wouldn't have dared go through another man's desk. You're learning."
Rick's embarrassment at being caught hardened quickly. "You want to go home?"
Billy sighed, moving around toward his desk and settling in his chair. "Doesn't everyone?"
"You're not happy here?" Rick said. "I thought you wanted to take your field test? I'm sure we could get you some more interesting work-"
Billy chuckled. "Wanting to go home doesn't mean that I want to give all this glory up," he said. He shrugged. "I've seen a lot of closed doors in the last year or so. I'd like to see which ones can finally open."
Rick seemed to accept that, a little reluctant, but it was hard for any of them to begrudge Billy something like that.
Still, Michael glanced at the paperwork, then looked at Billy. "What's changed?" he asked. "All these years, and you're just filing now."
Billy's mouth quirked into a small, wry smile. "Well," he said. "I reckon I've been punished enough for one lifetime."
Six months after they'd gotten off the plane in BWI, Michael found himself back in Europe in Billy's company.
They'd rented a car outside the Charles deGaulle airport, and Billy had conceded to let Michael drive for a change. They turned through the twisting little Parisian streets, pausing often to let pedestrians by as Michael cursed at the traffic.
"You didn't have to come with me, you know," Billy remarked as they crossed a bridge into the Latin quarter.
"What, and let you go in without backup? Not a chance," Michael replied, taking a left. Ahead they could see the dome of the Sorbonne just over the tops of the buildings.
Billy snorted. "I don't need backup for this, Michael."
"If you say so. But hey, you know me – any excuse to go to Paris."
"Heh. So long as Luc doesn't find out we're here."
"Yes, well, he does have a knack for making our working vacations awkward, doesn't he?" Michael glanced down at the map that was unfolded over the dash. "I think it's just up here to the right..."
Billy's eyes widened ever so slightly, and Michael saw his grip on the door handle tighten as the car pulled up against the curb. "You gonna be ok?"
Billy hesitated. "I'm not entirely sure, to be honest."
It was an unexpectedly honest answer. Michael looked at him, then nodded. "Fair enough. You don't have to do this, you know."
Billy looked down, then back up, and this time his jaw settled determinedly. "No. No, I really do."
Michael shrugged. "Ok. Well, I'm your backup. If you need me to go with you..."
"No. I reckon this is one of those things a man's got to do on his own, aye?" He smiled tentatively, then opened the door and got out of the car, winking at Michael through the window. "If things get too awful, I'll run out screaming and we can gun it all the way back to the airport, yeah?"
Michael snorted. "Sounds like a plan."
He watched as Billy squared his shoulders, then walked up the steps to the front door of a simple old apartment building and rang the buzzer. Several moments passed before the door opened, revealing a slim young woman with flyaway golden-brown hair and features that, if somewhat severe, weren't entirely unpretty, though there was a sadness about her that made her look older than the 25 years listed in her file.
With the window rolled down, Michael listened.
Billy swallowed. "Mademoiselle Sofia?"
The young woman looked at him warily, an expression of paranoia on her face that Michael instantly recognized, having seen it in the mirror for years. "Oui?"
Her eyes darkened. "Qui êtes-vous?" Who are you?
Billy looked nervous. More nervous than Michael had ever seen him while talking to the fairer sex. "I... I'm a friend of your father."
Sofia's expression went flat. "My father is dead," she answered in accented English.
Billy dropped his head, and Michael barely heard the next bit: "I know... I was there."
He couldn't see Billy's face from his angle, but he had a clear view of Sofia Tsykalova. He saw the surprise; the confusion; the mistrust; and the faint, soft, sad desperation that gave way to indecision and finally, resignation. "Perhaps... perhaps you should be coming inside."
The door swung open and Billy cast a look back at Michael before ducking inside with Sofia.
Michael leaned back in the driver's seat and took a deep breath. Billy hadn't told him why this trip was so important, or much of who Sofia Tsykalova was or what she meant. But he'd seen the look in Billy's eyes when he said that he needed to go to Paris, and that was enough to stop even Michael from asking questions.
There were some things a man had to do on his own.
Billy was the one taking the test, but Michael was pretty sure that he wasn't as nervous as the rest of the ODS. They hadn't planned it, but when they all ended up outside the room where Billy was taking his field test, it seemed like the only natural thing.
"It's taking too long," Casey complained.
"It takes a long time, though, right?" Rick asked. "I remember it taking a long time."
"That's because you overthink," Casey replied harshly. "Things take you twice as long as the rest of us."
Rick didn't rise to the bait. He just shook his head. "Billy's been preparing for this for a long time," he said. "He's going to want to be thorough."
Rick was right: Billy had been preparing for this. Casey was also right: it was taking too long.
Not for Billy, probably. But for them. Sometimes it seemed like all they'd been doing was waiting. Waiting for a lead, waiting for improvement, waiting for closure. It had taken longer than Michael could have imagined.
But he'd made it this far.
He leaned back and tried to relax. "He'll be done when he's ready," Michael said.
Because this was Billy's choice. They hadn't pushed him into this; he'd chosen it. That counted. That counted for a lot.
"What if he doesn't pass?" Rick asked, fidgeting.
"What if he does?" Casey returned.
Michael laughed. "One of you will be right," he said. "But that will be Billy's choice, too. He may not want to come back."
"You think he'll want to do paperwork for the rest of his career?" Rick asked.
"Well, I did have an interesting talk with your girlfriend," Michael said. "She apparently thinks Billy might make good management material."
Casey snorted. "Billy with power," he said. "And I thought I'd already faced my worst fears as a result of this mission."
"He has potential," Michael said. "Fay thinks it'd be a good fit, too."
Rick was a bit awestruck. "I never even thought..."
"None of us would," Casey said.
"But isn't that the point?" Michael pointed out. "I mean, who would have thought we'd be here at all?"
Just then, the door opened. Rick was on his feet immediately, Casey not far behind. Michael stood next to them, and they all watched as Billy came out.
He hesitated in the doorway, face slightly pale. Then, he smiled. "Look at you all," he said. "Just like a trio of nervous fathers in a proverbial waiting room."
"Did it go okay?" Rick asked.
Billy waved his hand. "I've faced far worse."
"So you think you passed?" Rick pushed, and even Casey seemed to lean in expectantly, waiting for an answer.
"I think I gave it all I had to offer," Billy answered. "And I have to believe that's good enough, no matter what the outcome will be."
Michael moved forward, clapping Billy on the shoulder. "Of course it is," he said. "You know, I think this calls for a celebration. Drinks? I'm buying."
Billy's breath caught, eyes wide. "Michael Dorset? Buying?" he asked. "This is a good omen indeed! Because apparently miracles are still possible."
As if they had any doubts by this point.
Days became weeks became months. Time passed. Time had meaning. Sometimes it seemed to race and sometimes it slowed to a crawl, but all around him, Billy could note the passage of time and its effect on the world. Its effect on him.
The saying went that time healed all wounds. There was a point when Billy would have scoffed at that, but now he was beginning to concede that there might be something to the cliché. It had taken him a long time; well over a year. But he was putting the pieces of himself back together, and even if there were still cracks and scars, it didn't mean that he had to live the rest of his life a broken man.
There were still times when he felt his heart pound at tiny noises – when his pulse raced at the sound of a creaking door, or when he cringed at being touched. But those occasions were fewer and farther between, and he regained control more quickly than he once had. He still had nightmares, and woke in a cold sweat at least once a week. But he woke from the nightmares; he didn't live in them. And by the time he'd showered and shaved and gotten dressed, ready to meet Michael down in the lot, he'd generally forgotten whatever it was that had haunted him in the night as he instead prepared for a new day.
He was out in the courtyard feeding the pigeons bread from a sandwich he'd stolen from the breakroom when Michael found him.
"Thought you were having a coffee break?" Michael raised an eyebrow, hands in his pockets as he looked down at Billy, who sat on the edge of the fountain.
Billy shrugged. "Drank coffee. Then felt like feeding the pigeons."
"You've been out here for half an hour. Has the novelty of being back at work worn off so soon?"
Billy smirked. "You've been working on the same paperwork as I have for the last two hours. What do you think?"
Michael paused, then grinned. "I think hunting you down was a pretty good excuse to pass the report off to Martinez," he replied, taking a seat on the fountain with Billy.
Billy tossed a crust to the pigeons, who flapped and chased after it with the singular stupid focus that only pigeons could manage. "You're welcome."
"So have you heard back about your field test?" Michael asked, his voice casual but the question loaded.
Billy shrugged. "Not yet. You know how much bureaucracy is involved in that sort of thing. And before you ask the next question I know you're simply dying to voice, Michael, no, I haven't heard back from my old employers either, and given the amount of red tape involved there, I'm not holding my breath either."
Michael pulled a piece of bread off Billy's stolen sandwich and tossed it to the birds. "But it could happen?"
Billy shrugged. "Might. Might not. Either way. I have options."
"Yeah." He absentmindedly took a bite of the sandwich, chewing it thoughtfully. "Rumor mill has it Higgins is looking at retiring, and our beguiling Ms. Ferrer indicated to me that as she is likely to succeed him, there will be an opening in the office of the deputy director that might not be outside the realm of possibility." He shrugged again. "It'd be a pretty tall order to fill her shoes, especially given the height of her heels–" he paused for a grin, "but it's not something I'm counting as being out of the cards just yet."
Michael took a deep breath. "You're right. You do have options. Any idea what you'll do with them?"
It was a simple enough question. But one that didn't really have a simple answer. Billy chewed his lip for a moment before replying. "If I pass my test, I might go back into the field with you lads. Haven't decided honestly. And in the unlikely event I get my citizenship restored, well... not even sure what I'd do then to be honest. Deputy Director Collins has a ring to it, but to tell the truth, I just don't know."
Michael gave him a gentle smile. "Well, when you figure it out, you let us know."
Billy smiled back. "Aye, I'll do that."
Michael hesitated, then: "It's good to have you back."
He stood and walked back toward the office doors, leaving Billy to sit by the fountain and contemplate the birds.
He had options. He had time. After so long spent curled up behind locked doors, he now found himself surrounded by open ones, unsure of which to take. He'd been utterly honest with Michael when he'd confessed to not knowing what he wanted to do with his life now.
Except live it.
Because he was alive and he had his life back, and perhaps it was a bit of a mess here and there, but it was his to live as a free man. As a whole person. Billy had been wretched, had been broken, had nearly died and even wished for death. But he'd lived. And he would keep doing so.
The past was full of pain.
The present was full of indecision.
But the future, however uncertain, was full of possibility.
And as Billy took one last bite of the sandwich before tossing the remainder to the birds, he stood, smiled, and followed Michael back toward the Agency.
A/N: And so ends "Rack and Ruin" - it's been a great ride, folks! Thank you to all our readers, and to everyone who stuck out this incredibly long and emotionally-tumultuous fic with us! It was an adventure to write, and we're so happy some of you enjoyed it and that we could share it with you. Thank you once again to sockie1000 for beta-ing, and to everyone who kindly reviewed! Our appreciation knows no bounds. Until next time,
- Faye and Lena