Title: The Illusion of Control
Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.
A/N: I wrote this fic quite some time ago, but just recently penless was nice enough to give it a beta for me. This is mostly gratuitous Billy h/c of the most schmoopy variety. So if that's your thing, I hope you enjoy :) Any remaining mistakes are because I seriously cannot type.
Summary: Michael had planned too many successful missions, had brought his operatives through so much worse to lose one in a hospital to a run of the mill illness.
It started with a sneeze.
Michael was honed and trained, fully committed to tracing every detail. He considered this a necessity to his job, to ensure his own survival and the well being of his team. Everything was a clue and every element existed to be understood and therefore controlled. Knowledge was power, and without complete intelligence on any given situation he was vulnerable to a multitude of weaknesses and dangers.
Billy called it being a paranoid bastard; Fay cited it as part of their irreconcilable differences.
For Michael, though, there didn't seem to be any other feasible way to live.
A sneeze was nothing entirely unusual, of course. Working in a controlled space did lend itself to certain allergies, and with so many people in one building colds and other ailments frequently made the rounds. Still, Michael was keenly aware of such things, especially when they occurred within the safe confines of the ODS office.
From his station at his desk, Michael could see Billy wiping absently at his nose before shifting in his seat and getting back to work without missing more than a beat.
Michael watched him a minute more, watched him make a few marks on a piece of paper before pulling a fresh page from the mess on his desk.
His eyes traveled to Rick, who was astutely typing, and then to Casey, who seemed to be reading a briefing.
The sneeze notwithstanding, the status quo was still maintained and achieved, with nothing suggesting any deviation from the normal that required his immediate or delayed attentions.
Satisfied, he went back to his work.
Then, Billy sneezed again.
Not right away, but less than an hour later, according to Michael's internal clock. This time, everyone looked. Rick in vague concern; Casey in critical assessment.
Billy snuffled, wiping his nose sloppily on the back of his hand, but didn't look up at the team.
Rick got back to work. Casey glanced at Michael. Michael's gaze lingered on Billy a moment more, considering the possibilities.
Several seconds passed, however, and sometimes a sneeze was just a sneeze.
Sometimes, though, a sneeze was more than a sneeze.
When the third sneeze came less than twenty minutes later, Michael had to take note. Because two sneezes could be written off as coincidence or chance. A stray particle in the air, an errant tickle.
But three sneezes were beginning to seem more than a little suspicious.
Billy still didn't seem fazed, wiping his nose without discretion, but Casey stared at him in earnest.
"If you're going to continue with such behavior, I'm going to have to ask you to keep yourself pointed in the opposite direction," Casey snarked. "Because I do not wish to be infected by your wayward germs."
Billy looked up, his brow creased. "What?"
"The sneeze," Casey said purposefully. "You need to control your sneezing."
Billy frowned. "I hardly even noticed."
"Well, we did," Casey said. "So get it together or face expulsion from this office."
Billy rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Casey, your concern is very touching, but it's just a sneeze."
Casey glowered but got back to work, and Michael watched Billy a minute longer, wishing that much were true.
"Still," Michael said. "If you're getting sick—"
Billy sighed in exasperation. "I'm fine," he said.
Michael continued to look at him, dubious.
"Really," Billy said, holding up a hand earnestly. "On my honor."
"You're a spy," Casey said. "You don't really have much honor."
"Eh, close enough," Billy said, and he smiled broadly, inclining his head. "A few sneezes never hurt anyone."
A few sneezes may not have hurt anyone, but a few more sneezes coupled with a growing number of coughs were beginning to paint a picture that Michael didn't really care for.
Because sneezing and coughing, especially with the growing sounds of congestion associated with both, highly indicated that Billy was getting sick.
It wasn't that Michael begrudged his team from illness – it happened to the best of them, regardless of precautions. It was an invariable field risk, and though Michael tended to ward his off with an excessive use of hand sanitizer, he knew that Billy showed no such compunction to his overall health. That was to be expected, Michael supposed, because the man could complete any undercover mission but he couldn't manage to pick up after himself, so expecting him to maintain the utmost in health standards was probably expecting too much.
And with all the traveling and all the people and all the close contact the ODS had in any given day, germs were invariably going to spread.
Still, that didn't mean that Michael had to like it.
Because a sick teammate was a compromised teammate. A cold was innocuous in most situations, but it still created momentary hesitations and split second distractions that could be perilous in the field.
This increased the risk of failure, which not only compromised the mission, but the well being of everyone involved.
In short, being sick was a common weakness, but even common weaknesses were hard to endure in a line of work where life and death teetered on the brink alongside national security.
More than that, if Billy was sick that made it more likely for Michael to get sick. And Michael hated being sick.
So when Billy sneezed again, followed by a series of hacking coughs, all he could do was wince and pull himself closer to his desk, trying to figure out the best way to deal with this developing problem.
Michael was wary of Billy's now-certain illness.
Rick showed a bit more compassion, offering him the box of tissues from his desk.
Casey, however, seemed to take certain pleasure in it.
Despite his earlier concerns, Casey seemed to embrace the sniffling and hacking as an opportunity for jest. This was to be expected, of course; Casey and Billy rarely passed up opportunities to poke fun at one another, regardless of circumstance or peril involved. It was part of their working relationship, and often a means of diffusing otherwise tense situations. This was why Michael tolerated it as well as he did. He understood the implicit need operatives had to cope with situations in which their lives were at stake.
But sometimes, they just really enjoyed it.
And Casey seemed to be enjoying it now.
"You know," Casey said, while Billy mopped up his snot after another sneeze. "You should save that type of offense for the field. You'd probably have better success by sneezing on your opponents than engaging them in hand to hand combat."
Billy sniffled hard before wadding up the tissue and throwing it in his trashcan. "Just because you are afraid of natural bodily functions doesn't mean that the rest of the world shares your irrational fear," Billy quipped back. The words were spirited, but thoroughly hindered by the nasally sound of Billy's voice, which had gotten increasingly worse throughout the day.
"Many experts believe that germ warfare is the next major advancement in military combat," Rick offered, a small twinkle in his eye.
Billy looked at Rick in disappointment. "You're going to ally yourself with him?" he asked. "After all I've done for you?"
Rick looked sheepish.
"He's a bright kid," Casey said with an easy shrug. "He understands Darwinism. If only the fit survive, then relying on a sniveling Scotsman certainly isn't going to do him much good."
Billy glowers. "A runny nose does not impede my usefulness to the team," he said with such vigor that Michael might have been inclined to believe him.
At least, until Billy followed it up with a series of sneezes that had them all turning away in disgust as he grappled desperately for the nearest tissue to contain the deluge.
By the time Michael got into Billy's car that night, the Scot looked decidedly worse for wear. His pallor was slightly pale, the circles under his eyes making him look somewhat haggard. And even as he put the car into gear to take them back home, his attempts at conversation were strained, muted by his intermittent coughs and sneezes.
Billy even drove with more reserve than usual. He didn't speed and not one traffic law was violated.
Which meant that all joking aside, Billy really didn't feel very well.
When Billy pulled up to Michael's place, Michael found himself lingering in the car. "You know, you have sick days for a reason," Michael said by way of suggestion.
Billy rolled his eyes. "Oh, come now," he returned in exasperation. "You, too?"
"I'm just saying," Michael returned with a shrug.
Billy looked at him plainly. "In my many years of service for the Brits and the CIA, I have not indulged such things unless absolutely necessary," he said. "Besides, our scrape in Tunisia used up a great many of them."
It was true, mostly. But it was also a facade. Because spies didn't like to show weakness, not even to each other.
Especially to each other.
But Billy's pride could only be humored so far as his health was in order. "You're no good to anyone if you're sick," Michael said.
"I promise to take proper care of myself tonight," Billy said quite seriously. "Some vitamin C and some rest, and I'm sure things will be looking up in the morning."
Michael was doubtful but Billy managed to hold his gaze without sneezing, so he inclined his head and opened the door. "Okay," he said, climbing out. He leaned down to give Billy one last look. "But make sure you feel better."
Billy flashed a smile. "It's good to know you care."
Michael snorted. "I just can't have you infecting my entire team."
Billy rolled his eyes as Michael shut the door. Michael watched as Billy backed out, steering the car expertly even while sneezing once again.
Sighing, Michael made his way inside, reminding himself that there was only so much he could control. Billy was a grown man and Michael had to trust that.
The next day, Billy did seem better. He coughed less and his sneezes were more controlled. Casey still treated him as if he was harboring the plague, but Billy hardly seemed to notice.
In fact, Billy was strangely productive. With the lack of sneezing, there were also no jokes and stories. Just work.
Michael could attribute this to Billy being tired – because the Scot did look duly exhausted. His face was paler today, lines drawn a bit more deeply than normal. He had told Michael that he'd slept fine the prior night, but there was little evidence to support such a fact.
More than that, Billy was not inclined to get more serious when tired. To the contrary, Billy had always shown a penchant toward silliness when sleep deprivation set in. The longer the stakeout, the more verbose Billy became.
This made Michael conclude that Billy was not feeling as well as he claimed he was. The decline in sneezing and coughing was something of a plus, Michael supposed, but he was also getting the sneaking suspicions that Billy was just hiding it better. The occasional grimaces could be a stifled sneeze and the methodical trips to the bathroom could easily accommodate a coughing fit as needed.
In reality, this was probably to be expected. After the ribbing and concern from yesterday, it would be in Billy's nature to deflect. He could take jokes as readily as anyone on the team, but Michael was certain that Billy didn't want to sit on the sidelines while the team worked on their next case. Because an illness would understandably sideline Billy, and it wasn't the jokes Billy would struggle to endure; it was the possibility that the team might be in the field and he might not be with them to provide the support they needed.
That was the way they all thought, really, and Michael had never been able to discourage it, mostly because it was his own personal philosophy as well. Protecting his team was forefront in his mind, and the greatest risk he could leave them exposed to was not being there at all. Because if he wasn't there he couldn't control anything else, and such feelings of helplessness were not things Michael relished.
So Michael understood Billy's efforts.
It still made him wary. Because while having Billy around would provide them with an extra man, having a man sick in the field provided a whole new host of uncertainties that Michael had to account for.
Still, Billy wasn't making it easy. Without any solid indication that Billy was getting worse, Michael had no way of forcing his operative into submission.
And Michael couldn't deny that it was possible he was overreacting. Fay did have cause to divorce him and Billy had certainly never been wrong to call him a paranoid bastard.
But when Billy passed on lunch, Michael knew his uncertainties were more than somewhat justified.
In fact, it stopped everyone cold.
"You're passing on lunch?" Casey asked in pure incredulity.
Billy shrugged innocently. "Is that so hard to believe?"
"Frankly, yes," Casey said. "I have never seen you willingly pass on an opportunity to engage both in pointless conversation and empty calories."
Billy shook his head. "The concern is quite touching," he said. "But I brought everything I need today."
They all stared.
"You brought a thermos," Rick said finally.
"Indeed," Billy said. "Filled to the brim with my mother's recipe for chicken soup, which I do believe you Americans believe is the cure to all ailments."
There was actually something practical about that, which was why Michael immediately felt his concern heighten.
Sighing, Billy said, "Really, mates, I'm just fine. The clogging of my nose has just seriously impeded my taste buds and watching others engaged in the festivities of joyful eating is more cruel than not today."
It was a rationale that Casey and Rick seemed ready to accept. Even Michael couldn't find grounds to fault it.
"Fine," Casey said, sulking a little. "But if you breathe near my desk—"
Billy waved his hand in the air. "I know, I know," he said. "I can expect due peril upon your immediate return."
Rick chuckled and followed Casey as he left. Michael gave Billy one last look, trying to look for anything in his disposition to make him stay. But Billy stayed at his desk, busily opening his thermos while Michael left the room.
The conversation in the break room was especially lively. Casey engaged in a debate with Rick about the best ways to break someone's arm and Blanke stopped by to share the latest gossip and all things considered, it was about as good as a lunch could get.
Which was why Michael's inability to enjoy it was so perplexing.
But he couldn't. No matter how hard he tried, he kept thinking about Billy. He was going over it in his head, trying to figure out what he was missing. Billy was under the weather – no one had or would deny that – but it was more. Billy was skipping lunch and no matter what excuses he gave, that just wasn't normal.
Billy just wasn't normal. What had happened to the cough and the runny nose? Why did he look worse today than yesterday?
Michael was missing something. Or rather, he was looking something right in the face but not quite able to put a name to it. But what was certain was that Michael couldn't sit in the break room and enjoy his lunch while Billy's mysterious illness and so-called rapid recovery were still issues to contend with.
They had too much going on for that. Their latest mission was almost a go, once final approval came in from Higgins. Michael needed to be checking things off his list, not adding new things to worry about. He needed to be finding good aliases and milking his contacts, not worrying about Billy's cold.
Which mean he couldn't put this off. For him, for Billy, for the team.
Excusing himself, Michael left his lunch unfinished and made his way back to the office.
He didn't even have to open the door to know something was wrong. Everything was off. It was the quiet in the room, the way nothing moved. It was too still, too peaceful. The silence hit Michael before anything else, so when he opened the door, it shouldn't have been a surprise.
Somehow, it was anyway.
Because Billy was at his desk, just where they left him. The lid to the thermos was open, steam still rising from the container. Nothing else had changed; nothing was different, except Billy.
Billy was slumped over, long arms resting over the cluttered paperwork. His head was laid down, lolling on his arm. His closed eyes were something of a concern, but the audible wheezing through his open mouth was even more pressing.
It took all of Michael's self control not to show his panic, but that couldn't control the spike of fear that roiled through his gut. Instead, he took fast but measured steps to Billy's side, placing an arm on the Scot's shoulder as he kneeled down in front of him.
"Billy?" he asked, squeezing gently. "Billy."
The Scotsman stirred slightly, his harsh breathing stuttering as his eyelids fluttered.
"Billy," Michael said again, both coaxing and demanding.
This time, Billy's eyes opened just enough for Michael to see them clearly. The normal radiant blue was cloudy somehow, and Billy seemed to be having trouble focusing.
Frowning, Michael reached his hand up, pressing it against Billy's forehead. "You have a fever," he murmured, too aware of the heat coming from the other operative. "Why didn't you tell us?"
To Michael's surprise, Billy actually smiled although he didn't try to move. "The Tylenol had been doing the trick," he said, voice breathy as he spoke.
Michael frowned. "How long have you been taking it?"
Billy seemed to shrug, his head twitching slightly in uncertainty. "On and off for a bit now," he said. He let his eyes drift closed again. "Thought I was getting better."
At that, Michael snorted. "Yeah, well, it certainly doesn't seem that way," he said, getting to his feet and bringing Billy with him.
It took some maneuvering to ease his way under Billy's arm and as he bought the Scot to his feet, Billy's brow furrowed. "Where are we going?" he mumbled, and his accent was almost too thick to make out the words.
Michael still understood. "Home," he said curtly as he tried to steady Billy. "Looks like you earned yourself a sick day after all."
Billy's expression fell further as he tried to prop himself up better and find his legs. "You really think that's necessary?" he asked, before promptly sneezing. The sneeze led to a cough, which seemed to rip deep through Billy's chest in painful, rattling hacks.
Michael made a face. "Yes," he said, as a matter of fact. "I do."
Coughing controlled, Billy straightened slightly but his expression was one of defeat. "Well," he said, still taking gasping, labored breaths. "Who I am to argue with our fearless leader?"
Laughing slightly, Michael shook his head as he started to lead Billy toward the door.
On the way out, Billy seemed to rally his strength. By the time they were in the corridor he was walking upright, smiling and nodding at people as they passed. Michael thought this might be a good sign until Billy practically collapsed into the passenger's seat of Michael's rundown Taurus.
As Michael sat down in the driver's seat, he eyed his teammate skeptically. Billy was visibly sweating now, slumped back against the seat and heaving breaths that still came with noticeable effort. But his eyes were open and looking at Michael wearily. "It's not polite to stare," he quipped lightly.
"It's also not polite to sweat your germs all over my car," Michael sniped back, hoping that his grating tone belied his concern.
Billy smiled. "I'll try to control my breathing," he said, and then his body was rattled with a cough, which he seemed to reign in as best he can.
The effort still left him pale and shaky.
Michael frowned and started the car. "You do that," he said, trying to look annoyed as he pulled out of his parking spot, a wary eye on Billy the entire time.
At Billy's place, the Scot was already dozing lightly. When Michael cut the engine, Billy blinked blearily before trying to sit up in his seat nonchalantly.
"Smooth driving today," Billy said, ghosting a smile as he undid his seat belt.
Michael was usually a pretty decent driver, but Michael was pretty certain that he could have been speeding around every corner and Billy wouldn't have been roused, given how miserable he looked.
Opening the door, Billy nodded at Michael. "Thank you for the ride," he said. "I will try to improve my health by tomorrow."
Michael rolled his eyes, opening his own door and climbing out. He made it around to the other side before Billy could even stand up.
Billy squinted up at him. "Valet service?" he asked.
Michael sighed, extending his hand. "I just don't want you collapsing before you even get inside."
Snorting, Billy pushed to his feet but didn't object when Michael put a steadying hand on his arm. Moving stiffly, Billy stepped away from the door and met Michael's eyes knowingly. "That would appear to speak poorly of my CIA training, I suppose."
Michael lifted his chin. The falsities were comforting, even if they didn't fool either of them.
Keeping a hand on Billy's arm, Michael inclined his head toward the door. "So you think you can move, or am I going to have to carry you?"
Billy smirked, but didn't argue as they made their way inside.
Inside, Michael watched as Billy deposited himself on the couch. He sank into it, his body going limp almost immediately as he breathed heavily from their short trek.
Michael hesitated, eyeing the place uncertainly. He had been in Billy's place before, though he never made a point to be a frequent guest. It wasn't that the ODS members weren't friends in their off hours, but spies were inherently private people and none of them seemed overly eager to invite each other back into their personal spaces.
Besides, Billy's housekeeping skills were less than stellar. In fact, as Michael stood there he had to wonder how Billy tolerated it at all. Laundry was strewn everywhere – steeped in corners and lying haphazardly over furniture. There was no way to tell what was clean or what was dirty, and there was no indication that the difference mattered to Billy at all.
The dirty dishes weren't much better. Chip bags and candy wrappers were scattered at random. The kitchenette was hardly recognizable, with stacks of paper plates and wadded up napkins obscuring any possible cooking equipment that might lurk underneath. It wasn't clear if Billy had cooked for himself any time in the last two years, something Michael might contend wasn't helping Billy stay healthy.
All things considered, it wasn't exactly a hospitable place, much less a home. If he let himself think about it, it might bother him that Billy lived this way – so alone and isolated – in a place half the size of Michael's. It was no kind of life, really. And it certainly wasn't a good place for rest and recovery.
In fact, Michael wasn't sure he could trust Billy here at all. He somewhat doubted he'd find anything healthy in the fridge and though Billy had claimed to be controlling the fever with Tylenol, Michael was increasingly skeptical that Billy had any adequate supplies to get him through the worst of this.
More than that, if Billy got up in his exhausted condition, there was a high probability he'd break his neck tripping on something while walking to the bathroom to relieve himself.
Which meant that there was just one logical conclusion: he had to stay.
It could have been viewed as overly sentimental, but Michael was a practical man. Billy needed someone to at least make sure he got settled and taken care of, just for the afternoon. Michael could clean up a bit, make sure Billy was properly stocked, then leave the other man to fend for himself.
Mind made up, he walked around to the front of the couch, shaking his head. "No wonder you're sick," he said sarcastically. "This place should be condemned."
He expected a witty reply, but the only sound was Billy's labored breathing as it evened out. Billy, still seated on the couch, was already asleep, eyes closed and jaw slack even as his cheeks were starting to show signs of the fever.
Sighing, Michael sat down heavily in one of the armchairs. "Well," he said, settling himself in. "At least this way I know you won't argue with me for once."
Billy slept. His breathing was somewhat easier in oblivion but it was still harsh and strained. He snuffled a little on the couch periodically, but he didn't open his eyes.
Michael made himself useful. After making a quick run to the grocery store to supplement Billy's pathetic supply of food and drink, he settled in to organize. The entire place was too much of a mess to really do a lot about, but he cleared a path to the bathroom and emptied off the couch as best he could.
He cleaned the bathroom for his own benefit – just being in there made him feel scurvy – and he spent some time going through the things on Billy's counters just so he could put the fresh groceries away.
In the bedroom, he held his nose while he pushed the piles of junk off of Billy's bed and he managed to find an extra pair of sheets that looked cleaner than the set already on the bed. It was monotonous work, but nothing Michael hadn't been doing for himself for years. He didn't mind housework overall – life was in the details and sometimes that meant getting his hands dirty with the trivial tasks of laundry and housekeeping.
It was a lesson that Michael had learned, especially after Fay.
It was also a lesson that Billy had apparently yet to master. Though the Scotsman was a jack of all trades in the field, he was clearly a novice at all things homebound.
But if Michael wanted Billy to get back on his feet, he needed to help clean up just a little bit. With all the filth, Billy was just as prone to succumb to a secondary infection and Michael had no desire to find a replacement for Billy any time soon.
All that took the better part of the afternoon, and he spent the rest of it on the phone with Casey, who was less than thrilled about being ditched and left alone with Rick. Still, Casey could cover for him with Higgins and, more importantly, he could continue to organize the case file on their latest mission.
Which, if Michael's mother henning was even remotely successful, they might still all be able to go on.
When he was finished, Michael made himself comfortable on the chair and watched Billy anew. The Scottish operative was still asleep. Michael glanced at his watch and frowned. No wonder Billy had almost passed out at the office.
Even now, Billy didn't exactly look rested. His features were a bit waxen with the sweat, the flush of a fever more evident than before. His arms were slack at his sides, head leaned back while he slept. It actually looked more than a little uncomfortable, and no matter how much Billy probably needed the rest, Michael didn't think such a position would ultimately do Billy much good.
Besides, Billy hadn't eaten lunch and, while he knew Billy enjoyed a hearty breakfast, somehow he doubted that this morning he'd indulged in anything more than the cup of coffee he'd sipped meagerly on the commute in.
Which meant it was time for Billy to eat. After that, he could get Billy settled someplace more comfortable after plying him with liquids and the full range of over the counter drugs Michael had bought.
Leaning forward, Michael sighed. He looked steadily at the Scot and called, "Billy."
Billy twitched in his sleep but didn't stir.
"Billy," Michael called again, louder this time. "I know you're enjoying your beauty sleep, but it's time to wake up."
At that, Billy's head rolled, brow creasing. He seemed ready to settle back into sleep, but Michael shook his head.
"I don't think so," he said. "I'm not here for my own edification, so you better wake up."
The order in his voice was gentle but still noticeable. At least, it was enough to make Billy's eyes flutter, his head turning toward Michael as he looked blearily around the room. "Michael," he said, and his voice sounded worse than before, garbled with congestion. "Am I safe in assuming that this is real and not some strange nightmare that I do not wish to see progress?"
Michael's face twisted at the notion. "I certainly hope not," he said. "Trust me when I say the reality is bad enough."
Billy seemed to process that, his eyes roaming around the room again, this time with more clarity. "You've cleaned," he said, clearly surprised even though his voice was still weak.
Michael snorted. "Not that it did much good."
Billy blinked a few times, as if to clear his head. "Funny," he murmured. "I'd forgotten the carpet was green."
It was hard to tell if it was a joke or an actual realization because Billy followed it up promptly by hacking harshly, the effort bending his body so he nearly fell off the couch. Michael sat primed, ready to move if that were the case, but Billy pulled himself together, curling up miserably on the couch before turning sleepy eyes back to Michael.
"As much as I'd love to play host for a bit, I think sleep might be more beneficial," he said, his eyes already drooping.
Michael shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "Sleep is important, yes, but if you don't eat something, you're not going to get better."
Billy looked at him through heavy lids, appearing truly miserable even as he tried to smile. "I really can't say I'm hungry."
"Doesn't matter," Michael said, getting to his feet and moving toward the kitchen.
Billy tracked him with his eyes, head rolling a little to follow his progress. "I assure you, I'll eat next time I wake up."
How Billy actually managed to sound so sincere while breathing so heavily was beyond Michael, but he had learned years ago never to question the Scot's prowess when it came to charming to get his way. Usually Michael condoned such behaviors – they proved invaluable in the field – but when they were tried on him it simply made him roll his eyes.
"Better yet," Michael said, pulling out one of the soup cans he'd bought and rustling around for one of the pots he'd cleaned earlier. "You can eat now, then go back to sleep, and then eat again when you wake up, like a normal person."
Billy looked at him quizzically. "Since when do we do normal?"
Michael grunted, popping the lid off the can with a shake of his head. "Since you succumbed to the common cold, just like any schmuck off the street."
"All the more reason for me to fend for myself," Billy countered, pausing briefly to sneeze. He wiped at his nose and swallowed with difficulty. "That is what normal people do."
Dumping the contents of the can into the pot, Michael finagled the control on the stove to start the burner. "Yes, well, normal people also don't have a mission overseas slated for next week," he said. "It's a four man job and while Blanke would volunteer to go, I'd really prefer you."
"I do have decidedly better stories for stakeouts," Billy agreed.
Turning around, Michael gave Billy a look. "But somewhat less savory personal hygiene habits."
"I've never had any complaints," Billy mumbled a bit, looking around at his offended apartment forlornly.
"That's because you never invite anyone in."
Billy sneezed again, following it up with a round of coughing. When he was done, he squinted over at Michael with a grimace on his face. "You may have a point there," he said as he propped himself back up. "But really, Michael, I'm fine."
Michael laughed outright. "Have you seen yourself today?"
Billy gave him a sheepish look. "I haven't much had the energy."
"Because you look like death warmed over," Michael said with finality. "So I'm staying until you are properly cared for and I can trust you not to drown in your own fluids or starve to death on that couch."
Normally, Billy would probably try to fight it even further. Michael was known as the stubborn one of the group, but Billy could be just as staunch in his efforts to get his way, even if he was usually more subtle and diplomatic about it.
But today it was clear Billy simply didn't have the energy.
Instead, he sighed. "Right, then," he said, letting his head drop back against the couch. "I suppose it won't kill me to sit back and witness Michael Dorset, the happy homemaker."
Michael snorted at that. "If living in this mess hasn't killed you," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm, "then I'm pretty sure nothing will."
Billy stayed awake long enough to eat and Michael was pleased that the small amount of food he managed to stomach seemed to do him some good. After dinner, he cleaned himself up a bit, changing into a pair of sweats before moving tiredly toward the bedroom.
Michael watched him carefully from his seat at what appeared to be Billy's dining set. Billy was still pale with a flush of red in his cheeks, but being upright made him somewhat chipper again, even if his sunny attempts at conversations were interrupted by occasional bouts of vicious coughing and sneezing.
Still, Michael was hoping that it was a corner being turned.
Lingering in the doorway, Billy looked back. "Well, as much fun as it's been, I think I'm about ready for more sleep," he said. Then he inclined his head. "If that meets with your approval of course."
"Did you take your medicine?"
Billy nodded. "Right down the gullet, as instructed."
"Good," Michael said, nodding his approval. "Then sleep is definitely in order."
Billy seemed relieved. "Wonderful," he said. "I would say I'd see you in the morning, but—"
"But you have sick days for a reason," Michael reminded him. "I need you 100 percent next week. No questions asked."
Again, Billy nodded seriously. "100 percent," he agreed. "I will do my best not to let you down."
Michael grinned a little, because Billy's buoyancy, even while sounding like he was talking through sandpaper, was downright infectious.
At least, Michael hoped that was the only thing that was infectious.
"So I trust you can see yourself out?" Billy asked.
Michael lifted his eyebrows. "Are you sure you'll be okay here alone?"
Billy gave him a look. "I'm a grown man," he began. "I can—"
His defense was cut short, lost in a garbled cough that nearly had him keeling over at the waist. Michael was about to go help him when the Scot finally got it under control, standing back up warily with red, wet eyes.
Michael quirked his lips into a sardonic smile. "You were saying."
Billy smiled meagerly. "The couch is quite comfortable."
Michael rolled his eyes. "Get some rest," he said.
Billy nodded vaguely, moving his way cautiously into the bedroom. "The same to you," he called back.
As Billy disappeared inside, Michael sighed, eyeing the small room again. Shaking his head, he listened to Billy falling heavily on the bed, waiting only a few seconds before the labor breathing became snores.
Settling back in his chair for a long night ahead, somehow Michael doubted whether he'd get much rest at all.
Michael watched TV for a bit. What Billy's place lacked in charm and other amenities, it seemed to make up for with ample television choices. While it did provide satisfactory entertainment for the evening, Michael had to admit that it made him feel a little sad thinking of how this actually could be Billy's life.
He probably should have planned ahead and brought his laptop, but he managed to check a few emails on his phone. His own evenings weren't exactly exciting times, but usually they were more productive. He always took his work home with him – which was easier now that Fay wasn't there to complain about it – kand when he wasn't organizing a current case he was pulling intel from internet and email sources to make something new.
The best spies seemed to live the dreariest lives. It ran counter to the common misconceptions and over-glorifications of the job. Yes, there was exotic travel and unique locales, but mostly when a spy was off duty they had a crappy home to go home to, and usually very few people to share off hours with. There had been a time when Michael had believed that his fate might prove otherwise, but Fay's unceremonious divorcing of him had been a harsh reminder to the contrary.
That could be depressing, or it could be a source of strength. Off hours didn't have to be off hours, and he knew that Casey spent his training harder and priming his senses. Even Billy, who had all the appearances of a slob, spent ample time in his off hours going over his cases and working his assets to get the job done. Rick hadn't figured that out yet – at least, he hadn't been forced to. And maybe he would be lucky and would never have to.
Sighing, Michael looked around Billy's place and knew that luck for spies was usually reserved for the field. In real life, they had to take the punches just like everyone else.
Still, sometime after the nightly news, Michael drifted off to sleep, propped up in one of the easy chairs with his stocking feet on the coffee table. When he woke, his watch read 2:33.
Sitting up, Michael grimaced as his neck protested. He was too old to sleep in chairs; it was remarkable that Billy could tolerate it at all. More than that, he had a funny taste in his mouth from failing to brush his teeth and his bladder was uncomfortably full from the beer he nabbed from Billy's fridge. The Scot hadn't had anything resembling milk or juice, but there had been alcohol aplenty to choose from.
With a sigh, he forced himself up, ignoring the popping of his knees as he made his way toward the bathroom. The harsh glow of fluorescent lights brought him more to his senses, and when he was done relieving himself and washing up, he made his way back out to the main room.
It still wasn't a very encouraging sight. And not just for the livelihood of Billy's off hours. Michael wasn't sure how much rest he was going to get. The couch might have been comfortable, but it was also covered with Billy's germs and, as a paranoid bastard, Michael knew that just being in this cesspool was enough of a risk.
Which left the armchair again.
The thought of it made his neck hurt and he sighed again. Billy owed him. A lot.
Speaking of Billy, he hadn't heard a twitch from the man since he'd gone to bed hours ago. Glancing again at his watch, it was well past time for another dose of medicine for Billy. Yes, Michael could let him sleep it off, but only if the fever was still in check.
Which meant he would have to check on Billy.
It wasn't at the top of his list of exciting things to do, but spies often had to do unsavory things. And more than that, Billy was his friend. If Billy was too ill to take care of himself, then it was in Michael's best interest to make sure it still got done somehow.
Curious, he edged closer to Billy's room. The door was still partially open, unmoved from when Billy had entered there after their dinner. Pushing it open, he stepped inside slightly, straining to see in the darkness.
At first, he couldn't make out much in the dark. But he could definitely hear something.
The rough, grating sound was punctuated with an occasional whistle. Michael frowned, wondering if Billy's HVAC system was acting up.
But it was different from that. It was labored and inconsistent but still somehow rhythmic. Like breathing. Breathing under duress, but still breathing.
Then Michael realized it was breathing.
With that knowledge, Michael's eyes finally focused in the dimness. He could just make out Billy's form on the bed, turned face up as the Scot's chest rose and fell in dramatic turns.
At first, it didn't make sense. Michael had pieces of the puzzle but he couldn't figure out how they went together. The sound seemed disconnected from the image, because if Michael put them together, then it wasn't a good picture.
In fact, it was a pretty damn scary picture. Because anyone breathing like that was in trouble. A lot of trouble. Michael knew because he'd seen it before. He'd heard that kind of breathing out of people before they died. He'd heard it as life faded and death set in. He recognized it as death throes. He knew.
And for a second, Michael forgot who he was. He forgot that he was a spy, that he was trained, that he was prepared. All he could think was that his teammate, his friend was lying on that bed, struggling to breathe. All he could feel was fear that each labored breath might be the last.
But Michael was a spy. He was trained and he was prepared. The fact that Billy was his teammate, his friend – only made those facts more important.
More important than ever, because this wasn't an asset or a mark. This wasn't a bad guy or a fellow spy. This was Billy, and Michael had to do something to fix it.
Flicking on the light, Michael moved forward, scaling the distance to Billy's bed in two short steps. Billy didn't seem to notice the sudden flood of light, and as Michael approached, it was clear why. Billy was covered partially with a sheet, and his cheeks were flushed bright red, sweat breaking out on his forehead and over his lips. His shirt was visibly damp, his hair stuck to his head in awkward clumps. His entire body was tense, bucking slightly with each breath. The strained sounds sounded worse close up – desperate and dwindling – and Billy's open lips were shaded slightly blue.
A hand to Billy's head confirmed what Michael already knew: Billy's fever was getting worse. Much worse. Probably pushing 104 or more, if Michael had to guess. Frowning, Michael put his ear to Billy's chest, listening carefully as Billy's congested lungs struggled to keep working as his heart pounded ferociously to compensate for the extra effort.
Sitting back up, Michael felt numb. This was more than a quick fix of Tylenol and vitamin C. At this rate, Billy would be lucky to make the night.
It didn't seem possible. It had started as a sneeze, something totally innocuous. And now, here they were not even two days later, with Billy slowly suffocating in his own bed.
Unless Michael did something about it.
And Michael had to do something about it. Because Michael was a spy and Billy was his friend. In the field, Michael would hatch a plan, negotiate for what he needed. He would break laws and smuggle in medication and doctors. He'd use aliases and break covers and do what he needed to do.
Here, though, at home, there was nothing to do. Nothing but accept the inevitable loss of control and call 9-1-1.
It felt like failure and hope all at once when he pulled a phone out of his pocket, dialing the numbers with one hand, keeping the other hand steady on Billy's shoulder as the call went through.
"Just hold on," Michael said to Billy quietly, squeezing slightly. "I'll take care of this if you just hold on."
Michael's only response was a grating breath before the 9-1-1 operator answered.
If calling 9-1-1 was Michael's loss of control, waiting for help to arrive was nothing short of torture. And that wasn't an allusion Michael made lightly. He'd been tortured before in a whole host of ways. Physical impairment and psychological trauma – and sitting idly next to Billy's bed while he waited for help to arrive ranked right up there with the worst experiences of his life. Because torture wasn't so much about the devices being used for the purposes of infliction. It was about a loss of control, about being deprived of self determination until it threatens to break the very soul.
In all other instances of torture, Michael had never been tempted to give in.
Tonight, on the other hand – it was all Michael could do to hold on.
He rolled Billy on his side, trying to position Billy's head to open the airway as best he could. If the harsh breathing eased it was only slightly, and Michael was left with no other recourse than to wipe away the sweat dripping into Billy's eyes and watch as the other man trembled slightly.
It still didn't make sense. A cold didn't progress this quickly. Even the flu wasn't prone to developing from a simple runny nose into full-fledged breathing impairment on this time scale. Because Billy wasn't just sick – he was practically drowning in his own fluids, and Michael tried to think of all the ways that could have happened.
Of course, it might not be illness. Sitting there, keeping a hand on Billy's head, Michael knew such a dramatic drop off in health could be directly related to their job. Mentally, Michael went over the options. An unknown illness, maybe some kind of parasite, picked up from some of their travels. It was also possible that it was a foreign contaminate, something he'd been exposed to while in the field.
Or poison for that matter. Maybe delivered overseas, maybe right here in the United States.
It was impossible to say – not without some research. He'd have to check their travel logs, go over what contacts Billy had had there and in the States. He'd have to check mail and deliveries, see if anyone out of the normal had had contact with Billy. They all had enemies – so that was possible – though Michael wasn't aware of any recent threats directly against Billy's life that could be playing out this way.
There were almost more options than Michael wanted to admit, but it was still something to consider. Something to pursue. They would figure this out.
Michael kept his eyes trained on Billy, whose ashen face was looking worse by the second.
They had to.
It happened quickly after that. The paramedics were efficient, and Michael made himself useful enough to secure a ride with them to the hospital. From there, he told the doctors what he knew while Billy was rolled into the bright examination room and promptly stripped. As the nurses set up monitors and checked his IVs, Michael was politely but firmly shown to the waiting room.
Michael wanted to protest, but he couldn't. He had no leverage here. He didn't even have a cover. He was just Michael Dorset, and Billy Collins was his friend. Michael would have to wait, just like everyone else.
Sitting slumped in the waiting room, Michael went over it again. He went over the sneeze and the cough, the sleepiness and the lack of appetite. He thought about Billy's weary face and the labored sounds of his breathing.
Michael was missing something in all of this – missing something big.
What, he wasn't sure, but he was sure that he would figure it out.
For Billy's sake – for his own – he would figure it out.
It was the middle of the night, but Michael called Casey anyway. The other operative didn't particularly sound surprised to hear from him, but when Michael said it was about Billy, his tone changed.
"You mean, he's actually sick?" Casey asked, and his voice was tinged with an annoyance. Michael knew Casey well enough to know the uncomfortable fear it was hiding.
"Pretty bad," Michael confirmed. "I'm still waiting to hear what the doctors say."
Casey grunted. "Which is why you're calling me," he presumed.
"Something about this doesn't feel right," Michael said. "It came on too quickly."
"So you're thinking there's something besides the common cold behind this," Casey said knowingly.
"I want you to pull our recent case files, go over anything that may indicate an outside contaminate," Michael instructed. "If that doesn't flag anything, turn your eyes to Billy's contacts within the last week, see if there was anything out of the normal."
"I'll tap Rick on this, too," Casey said. "But it would help to know what kind of illness or toxin we're dealing with."
"I'll call when I hear something new," Michael promised.
Then, Casey hesitated. "How bad was he?"
The question was quiet, more vulnerable than the rest. Michael sighed, rubbing his hand over his forehead. "Not great," he admitted, remembering the sound of Billy's breathing, the colorless hue of the Scot's face.
There was another small moment of silence before Casey seemed to pull himself together. "Well, Billy does like to make things extra dramatic for us," he said with a levity that was entirely forced.
At that, Michael laughs. "Yeah," he said. "He does."
"And he always pulls through," Casey added. "Sometimes at the last minute, but he always pulls through."
Without any other formalities, Casey hung up. Michael closed his eyes, phone still pressed to his ear. "I hope so," he whispered into the disconnected call. "I really hope so."
In the waiting room, Michael looked idle, but he kept his mind going. He had mentally recounted the last few weeks for his own anxiety, so when the doctor came out, he was actually surprised.
And not just because he had been so lost in thought, but because it had only been a few hours. He had expected an update, maybe, but any kind of diagnosis would probably take longer. The doctors would have to rule out the traditional illnesses and normal factors before coming to alternative conclusions.
Still, when the man asked him to come aside, Michael was more than ready to comply. The man was about his age, maybe a little younger, and he offered Michael a tired smile. "Well, for now Mr. Collins has been stabilized," he explained after the introductions were done. "We've transferred him up to a room for further treatment and monitoring."
Michael nodded patiently. "Have you figured out what's wrong with him?"
The man collected a breath. "We still have some lab work we're waiting on, but the chest x-ray was pretty clear," he said. "Mr. Collins is suffering from the onset of pneumonia."
Michael stared, trying to process this. The words were simple – and Michael had been pre-med, so he knew better than most what they meant – but it still didn't come close to making sense. Because pneumonia was a naturally occurring illness. It wasn't contrived by terrorists and transmitted by way of revenge. It wasn't contracted in obscure destinations and it certainly wasn't something they could uncover in any covert research.
It was just pneumonia. Not quite a run of the mill illness, but one that commonly afflicted people all around the world.
It was normal.
Michael was still having trouble coping with that when the doctor continued. "It looks like he's been fending off the effects of a cold for weeks now," he said. "It's pretty common, especially in people that are normally healthy. They can downplay the effects of the cold, but without treatment, sometimes the infection just gets worse and develops into a much more severe case."
Which meant that it hadn't started with a sneeze. Michael wasn't sure when it had started, but it had been long before that. Days, maybe weeks.
Michael tried to deal with that, tried to understand it. He reconsidered the missions, all the hours of airtime they'd log. He thought about Billy being tired, propping himself with extra coffee and a few clever quips. It hadn't seemed that unusual...
Michael hadn't thought.
Therein was the problem. Michael hadn't thought, and he should have.
The doctor was nodding. "We've got him on an aggressive round of antibiotics, which he seems to be responding to at the moment," he continued. "Time will tell, of course. He seems to be young and in overall good health, which are points in his favor, but I do wish we'd seen him before he got to this point."
The doctor's smile was apologetic, and Michael forced himself to swallow hard.
"I can have a nurse show you up to the room," he offered.
And Michael nodded absently, even if he'd really stopped listening. Because the diagnosis was simple, but the realization it brought was cold and stark.
Billy had been fighting off illness for weeks, and Michael hadn't noticed until two days ago.
It was a hard fact to swallow – not just that Billy let it go on so long, because they were spies and while they weren't so stupid to think themselves invincible they were still proud enough to think they could handle a cold – that Michael hadn't seen it his planning and all his plotting, all his keen observations and critical calculations – and Michael hadn't seen this coming.
In all of Michael's failures – and he'd seen many in his career – none of them had hurt quite like this.
In Billy's room, Michael felt out of place. He had sat with Billy at his apartment, and he had done bedside vigils more often than he cared to remember, but somehow, this one was different.
Billy seemed to know it, too. He roused slightly when Michael came in, smiling up at him wearily as Michael approached the bed.
"I certainly managed to muddle things up this time, didn't I?" he quipped softly.
Michael forced a smile, but it felt hollow. Because this was more than a muddle. While Billy's breathing seemed to be marginally improved thanks to the nasal cannula, his face was still pale, the fever still burning clearly in his cheeks and eyes. The IVs and monitors were there to help Billy, and Michael understood that, but it was still unsettling to think that Billy needed that kind of assistance.
It made Billy seem weak, vulnerable. And if someone in his team was vulnerable, Michael was more so.
"You should have told us sooner you didn't feel well," Michael chastised lightly.
Billy shrugged a little, his eyelids still at half mast. "In my defense, after handling international criminals and terrorists, I thought I could tackle the effects of a lingering cold."
There was truth to that, which was why Michael's criticism didn't have any bite to begin with. "You don't have to hide things from us," he told Billy gently, holding the other man's gaze. "We're there for each other, in the field and out."
Billy nodded, swallowing with decided effort. "I know, I—"
His voice cut off, strangled by a round of coughing that didn't seem ready to stop. Michael moved closer, a supporting hand on Billy's shoulder, until it passed.
Michael eased Billy back, and the Scot looked up at him, his face red and spent.
"We can talk about it later," Michael said. "When you're feeling a little better."
Billy nodded in weary agreement, his eyes already fluttering closed as he gave back in to sleep. It wasn't much of an escape, Michael knew, because even if the tremors had subsided somewhat since his admission to the hospital, Billy's labored breathing persisted even in sleep. But it was all Billy would get, and Michael would not begrudge him that.
Sitting down next to the bed, Michael tried to settle in with the cold knowledge that he wouldn't even have that much of an escape, not until all of this was over.
When Casey showed up with Rick in the morning, Michael had fallen asleep. He eased his way out of Billy's room to avoid waking him before turning to his other two teammates.
Casey was managing to control his worry, but it was evident on Rick's face. "How is he?"
Michael rubbed a hand over his face, trying to shake the lingering effects of his nap. "Stable but serious," he reported.
"Any word on what's causing it?" Casey asked next.
Michael's stomach twisted. Although falling asleep was a convenient excuse for not calling, Michael couldn't deny that he had just wanted to avoid this conversation all together. While he had to accept his own shortcomings in gauging Billy's well being, it was not so easy to admit that, not even to people he trusted like Casey and Rick.
Rick's face went white. "Just how bad is it? A toxin?"
Michael just shook his head. "Pneumonia."
Both Casey and Rick stared at him. "That's a common secondary condition," Casey said slowly, as if trying to build a new case. "Brought on by—"
"A cold," Michael supplied for him. "The doctor said that Billy has probably been fighting the symptoms for weeks and it finally caught up with him. With all the traveling we've done, it's more than somewhat plausible."
Rick frowned, shaking his head. "But we would have seen it coming."
"We didn't," Michael said simply.
Casey grimaced. "Despite appearances, Billy can be a very effective covert operative when he puts his mind to it," he said.
"But how do you hide pneumonia?" Rick asked.
Casey looked at him, plaintively. "After six years, I still only have a working knowledge of what happened to Billy before he got deported," he said. "Billy's prowess at subterfuge only escalates the more personal it is."
"We still should have seen something," Rick continued to protest.
They were both right, which was the main problem. Billy was good at hiding things, which was why Michael should have not taken everything for granted. As team leader, it was his responsibility to know, even when his teammates were less than willing to expose themselves. He had to know because ignorance could cost them everything.
It could cost them Billy.
He shook his head. "And we still didn't," Michael said flatly. "We can't change that now. We can only resolve to be better in the future and provide Billy the support he needs now. Is that understood?"
Michael hadn't intended it to be an order, but Rick and Casey received the instruction with all due severity.
Sighing, Michael looked over his shoulder. "He's resting now," he continued before looking back at the rest of his team. "And it'll take a little creative finagling with Higgins—"
"But we'll be here for him," Casey interjected, his bland voice brokering no room for argument.
Rick nodded resolutely. "As long as it takes."
Their attitude was encouraging. Billy would need that as his body fought of the infection.
Michael just didn't want to admit how much he needed it, too.
Spies were good at spinning lies, at creating deceptions so thorough that no one usually dared to question them. They lied to everyone – from friends and relatives to terrorists and criminals.
Over the years, Michael had gotten used to it, even found some comfort in it. Creating a false identity was often easier than having to deal with his own when in public situations.
But no amount of time had made it easier to lie to himself. The harsh truth was something Michael couldn't run from, no matter what cheap cliches he traded with Casey and Rick, no matter what constant encouragement he joked about with Billy.
The simple fact was that Billy wasn't getting better. Michael could see the hints of it now, clearly laid out as if he should have seen them all along. Though the Scot spent most of his time sleeping, his waking periods were punctuated with gentle rounds of banter. But the familiar repartee was couched in reservation because Billy was trying to avoid exacerbating his congested lungs. When the whooping coughs couldn't be contained, he finished them with a meager smile and a simple drink of water.
The fever was holding steady, as well. Michael watched carefully as the doctors continued their rounds of antibiotics, but Billy's fever refused to fall. The slow burn was moderately controlled, Michael knew, but the subtle taxing on Billy's body was noticeable when Michael watched for the signs. The way he didn't move in bed, even when talking. The way he slept just a few minutes longer each time.
And his breathing wasn't getting better. The thick congestion was easily heard and though Billy seemed to suppress it when he was awake, the drowning push and pull was hard to ignore when he was sleeping.
The doctors said that Billy was fighting, that he was holding his own. That he wasn't getting worse.
It was a truth perhaps, but the flip side was just as salient: Billy wasn't getting better.
Medication and companionship and positive encouragement, and Billy wasn't getting better.
It was a helplessness Michael didn't know how to deal with, one that he barely could bring himself to acknowledge. They were too good to let this happen. Billy had battled too many things and too many people to go down like this. Michael had planned too many successful missions, had brought his operatives through so much worse to lose one in a hospital to a run of the mill illness.
Except that wasn't true. Michael pretended like it was, but it wasn't. Billy was mortal – his body fragile and breakable. Michael was human – prone to missing the things right in front of his face.
Michael could see it now. Could see it in Billy's haggard face in the bed, could hear it in the steady beeping of his heart monitor.
After two days, Michael lost track of how much time he'd spent there. Casey and Rick took their turns, but Michael couldn't leave. Not until this was over.
"You look horrible, you know," Billy said.
Startled, Michael broke from his reverie, focusing on the Scot. "What?"
Billy nodded, lifting his chin just slightly. "You look horrible."
Michael scoffed. "Clearly you haven't seen a mirror lately."
Billy managed a small smile as he sucked in a strained gulp of air. "Common deflection tool," he replied. "A truth for another truth. Still doesn't change the fact."
Michael lifted his eyebrows. "Spoken by someone who knows."
"Self-flagellation is something I understand," Billy continued with a slow nod. His fever bright eyes stayed resolved on Michael. "But sometimes there's only so much you can question."
It wasn't surprising that Billy could see it in him, no more than it was surprising that this was a topic Billy knew a lot about. Billy's past was something he didn't talk about freely, something he avoided and downplayed as best he could. But it still defined Billy, more than anything, and it was his own failures – both perceived and real – that made him adopt the persona he did.
Still, it was stark advice at a time like this. Its comfort was lost because Michael understood that the timing was wrong. Billy was comforting him for something he had no say in. Billy didn't talk like that unless things were dire.
Michael felt his stomach churn and he leaned forward. "Sometimes the questions are important," he told Billy. "Sometimes they keep us fighting."
Billy's smile was barely there, his breathing reaching a new pitch. Still, he kept his eyes open, refusing to break eye contact with Michael. "Sometimes—" he began, but his breathing hitched again. His back arched as he worked harder for air. "Sometimes—"
This time his voice was cut off with a strangled mess and Billy's whole body began to tremble in earnest with the exertion. Michael was on his feet, next to Billy, trying to figure out something, anything—
And then Billy's eyes rolled back—
And the monitor wailed.
Michael looked up, shocked. He knew what that meant – he knew—
Suddenly there was a nurse, and then another. Their voices were urgent, controlled. Pushing Michael back, they dropped Billy's bed flat.
A doctor came in, and another. The sheet on Billy's bed was stripped away, his gown cut open. One doctor pressed on Billy's chest while the other threaded a tube down his throat.
The action stilled and paddles were applied.
Billy arched off the table, then went limp again.
Michael stared, tried to understand, tried to—
The paddles were applied again, but this time when Billy's body jerked on the gurney, the beeping started again.
The doctors pulled back, continuing their work as a nurse squeezed air into Billy's lungs.
Michael just stood there, just stood watching, listening for each beep, watching for each movement of Billy's chest until he could convince himself that Billy was still alive.
In the hallway, Michael could barely think.
The doctor was explaining the situation, telling him that Billy was alive – for now. "The strain on his body is getting to be too much," he said. "We're doing everything we can."
Michael had no reason to doubt him. But a doctor was limited. No amount of knowledge or skill or equipment could control every outcome. Nothing could save every patient.
This doctor had surely made his peace with that. After years in health services, that much was a given.
But after years in the CIA, such acceptance was something Michael had never allowed for himself.
He hated to think it might be forced on him now.
When Casey and Rick showed up a short time later, Michael could hardly find his voice. Billy had been transferred to the ICU for more critical care and for Michael it was one failure too many. Casey and Rick had questions and concern, but all Michael could feel was the weight of blame resting heavily on his shoulders.
He had to leave.
He couldn't stay, sitting idly by Billy's bedside, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. He wasn't doing any good here. There was nothing he could do; he was useless.
With Billy now sedated, he couldn't even offer a friendly smile or a round of encouragement.
It wasn't in Michael's nature to quit. But it also wasn't in his nature to be so helpless.
Excusing himself, he got in his car, which Casey had dropped off for him a few days earlier. He got in and held the wheel tight. He started the engine, pulled out of the hospital's lot and just kept going.
When he ended up at Fay's, he was surprised. While he had made a point to keep an eye on her – no matter what she thought, she was vulnerable living alone – he had not exactly been a welcomed guest of hers. But really, it wasn't as much of a surprise as he probably let it be. Michael's circle of friends didn't expand beyond the people he trusted with his life back at the Agency, and family was a difficult to broach subject for someone who spent most of his life obtaining and perpetuating lies and aliases. Fay had been his one shot at normal, his one chance at being real.
He'd blown it with her – all the reasons were things he couldn't even count anymore – but she was still that perfect connection he wished he had. It was love and it was need, and she could divorce him and take him for everything he had, and he would always be drawn back because she was the only one who had seen through him and loved him anyway.
At least, for a while. She had made it perfectly clear that she had no interest in a relationship, and Michael had never been able to talk her into anything she didn't want to give in to anyway.
She would be mad to see him here. She might even make a scene, something that she couldn't do at work but Michael knew from experience she was quite skilled at. It wasn't like he had any right to her. She'd loved him and he hadn't known how to show it back. For his absences, for his priorities, for his paranoia, he should have seen it coming, but the divorce papers had been the biggest shock of his life.
Funny, how that seemed to be the painfully new and recurring theme of his life.
Still, parked outside, it was increasingly clear to him that he didn't have much left to lose. His pride was something he was pretty sure he'd forsake, and what he had left of his team and leadership skills was languishing back that the hospital, where he'd fled it all like a coward.
And really, that was what he needed to get out of the car. Not his strength or his pride, but his humility and desperation.
When Fay answered the door, her surprise turned quickly to annoyance. "Do we need to redefine the parameters of divorce?" she said coolly.
Michael didn't budge. He had no comeback, no witty reply. It was harder than he'd thought it'd be to stand there, to stand anywhere. Billy could be dying and Michael was a coward and there was nothing he could do.
Fay's expression faltered somewhat, though she clearly was trying not to let it show. "Is something wrong or are you just going to stand there?"
Collecting a breath, Michael tried to smile, tried to find his voice. "I didn't know where else to go."
At that, Fay frowned. "Michael—"
"I know I shouldn't bother you, but..." His voice trailed off. He didn't have anywhere else to go. He didn't have anyone else to talk to.
She sighed, a little wary, but stepped back, opening the door farther. She offered no other invitation, but she didn't need to. After all this time, they still understood each other, even when they didn't want to admit it.
Michael followed her inside, almost relieved for once not to lead.
She poured him a glass of wine and settled on the armchair. Once inside, Michael had sat heavily on her couch and hadn't figured out how to move. The conversation was sparse, but his monosyllabic answers were still enough for her to understand.
"I didn't realize it was that bad," she said, curling up a bit in her seat. She was in her pajamas, a pair Michael didn't recognize, and he tried not to add that to the tally of things he'd neglected to notice.
He nodded stiffly. "That antibiotics aren't doing enough," he said, remembering the banal sympathy in the doctor's eyes as he'd explained it. To him, Billy was just another patient. To Michael, it was so much more.
Fay nodded, her concern evident. The divorce still left her bitter about some things, but Michael had always loved her for her smart compassion. "He's getting the best care he could," she told him.
"He would be better off if we'd caught it early," Michael replied, shaking his head. The glass in his hand was still mostly full, and he couldn't even look at Fay.
Fay swallowed a sip and smiled lightly. "Yes, well, over the years I've come to know that members of the ODS to purposefully ignore personal safety at all costs," she said. "Billy's no different from the rest of you."
"I know," Michael said, because that wasn't the sticking point. "But I should have seen it, even if he didn't want me to."
Scoffing, she shook her head. "You're not a superhero, Michael," she told him simply. "Even if you think you are."
"But I'm in charge," Michael said, his eyes turning to Fay with determination now. "It's my job to know. It's my job to watch out for them."
At that, she snorted a small laugh of incredulity. "Only you would think it's your responsibility to prevent someone else from getting pneumonia," she said.
"Their safety is my job," Michael insisted.
"And Billy's a grown man, fully capable of making his own decisions," she said back with equal force. "More than that, he's a spy. After six years on your team, you don't think he's learned a thing or two about deception? He didn't want you to know."
Michael's brow furrowed. "So it's his fault?"
She sighed, rolling her eyes. "It's no one fault. It's pneumonia. It happens," she explained. She paused shaking her head. "You can't control everything, Michael. I've told you that before, but you haven't listened to me yet. Maybe it's about time you started to."
She made sense. Fay always made sense. That was why he'd accepted her divorce papers and all the terms she put on them. Because she'd been right about the majority of their marriage, and Michael had taken comfort in knowing that he could at least see that much even if he couldn't talk her out of it.
And part of him knew she was right now. He didn't want to admit it – it almost hurt to think about it – but it wasn't his fault. Casey and Rick didn't blame him, and Billy would never even think it.
But admitting that he wasn't at fault meant admitting he couldn't change the outcome. It meant accepting that Billy's fate wasn't up to him, that Billy could live or die and all Michael could do was sit back and watch.
It was as freeing as it was condemning.
Fay settled back deeper into her chair with a small toss of her hair. "I don't know why you're so worried anyway," she said, looking at him knowingly. "Billy's just as stubborn as you are, so that has to be working in his favor."
And even though it hurt, Michael laughed, ducking his head and hoping it was true.
Michael went back to the hospital. It was probably inevitable – Michael wasn't a quitter – but he still had to swallow hard against the uncertainty in his throat as he approached.
He could face danger as a team leader. He could enter peril as a national hero.
But as nothing more than a friend, a mere human – his courage faltered.
Faltered, but didn't break. Because he couldn't give in to that. Not now. Not when his team needed him most – not when Billy needed him most. Not to be the team leader, not to be the hero.
To be the friend.
He couldn't control the outcome, but he still had to face it, no matter what.
Rick looked positively relieved to see him. He and Casey had taken turns in Michael's absence. Only a few hours had passed, but the abrupt departure had clearly bothered the younger operative.
Michael smiled at him, a hand on his shoulder. "You need to relax," he said. "Get something to eat. You look like you haven't taken care of yourself very well."
Rick frowned. "I was researching leads, and then when I found out he'd taken a turn for the worse—"
Michael nodded. "You forgot," he said. "It's perfectly natural. And I respect the concern you have for your teammate, but we all need to be at peak capacity."
Rick's expression was pinched and grim.
Michael smiled. "I already have one agent down," he reminded Rick. "Let's not make it two. Especially since Billy would bemoan the lost opportunity to mother hen you properly. Once he's recovered, you can have your turn, I promise."
It was forced humor, but Rick still laughed. Finally, he breathed deeply and nodded. "Okay," he said. "The cafeteria couldn't hurt. Casey's—"
Michael inclined his head. "I'll take care of Casey," he promised.
Rick nodded again, hesitating only once before walking away. He watched Rick go, watched him disappear into the halls. He gathered another breath of his own and muttered, "I'll do whatever I can to take care of all of you."
Rick was easy to convince; Casey proved himself more cantankerous. The seasoned operative liked to project a gruff exterior, but situations of peril amongst his teammates struck at Casey deeper than anyone might expect. Michael had seen the fear in Casey's eyes before – a look of helpless panic, barely held at bay – and when he entered Billy's ICU room, he saw it again.
Casey shifted in his seat, trying to regard Michael with cool indifference. From the doorway, Michael narrowed his eyes and jerked his head back in silent command.
For a moment, Casey scowled, shaking his head.
Michael repeated his motion, more insistently this time.
Casey sighed audibly before getting up. He cast one look at Billy before following Michael into the hall.
When the door was safely shut behind them, Michael nodded. "Why don't you go take a break?" he suggested.
Casey snorted. "You mean like your little unexpected departure not too long ago?"
Michael couldn't deny it. Casey had been on his team long enough that they could read each other flawlessly. Usually that worked in their favor.
Sometimes, however, it made things uncomfortable. Michael lifted his chin. "I had some personal business to attend to."
"Personal business that was more important than Billy's well being?" Casey asked dubiously.
Michael worked not to flinch, but the accusation had merit. Casey wouldn't resent giving Michael some space most of the time, but with one of their own in such a state Michael's departure was nearly unforgivable for someone like Casey. Casey believed in persistence and dedication, no matter what obstacle; bailing out when things got tough, leaving without a plan – they were unthinkables.
So Casey was right to doubt him.
But Michael was right to stand firm. "My men always come first," he said, meeting Casey's critical glare with defiance.
"So you left because?" Casey prompted.
"Because I needed to," Michael replied. "I'm not proud of it, but I'm back now. I'm back and I'm not leaving."
Casey remained skeptical. "That's a nice sentiment—"
Michael didn't waver. "I'm here now," he said, firmly now because he believed it himself. "For better or for worse, I'm here and will be until we all leave this hospital."
Casey watched him carefully, his caution still evident. "That's good," he said finally with a slow appraising nod.
"Good," Michael returned. "So now maybe you'd like to go make sure Rick's doing okay. I sent him to the cafeteria, but he seemed pretty shaky."
"It's new territory for him," Casey said.
"New territory for all of us," Michael added.
Casey tilted his head in tacit agreement. He looked ready to move but then he hesitated. This time, when he looked at Michael, the anger and accusation were gone. There was only hollow uncertainty. "If anything happens—"
Michael nodded back. "I'll call you, right away," he promised.
It wasn't much of a promise, but it was the one Casey needed. He nodded one last time before moving down the hallway.
Michael watched him go and then sighed, looking back at Billy's room. Two down, one to go. And this would be the hardest of them all.
Back inside Billy's room, Michael took a breath and looked at Billy. In truth, he didn't look all that different. His face was still whitewashed and drawn, the fever in his cheeks burning bright. This time, however, the ventilator is taped in place, the strips pressed down over his upper lip to hold the tube as it strung from Billy's mouth to the machine on his left.
Billy looked smaller somehow, a lesser version of himself. On a normal day, Billy's personality was larger than life, effervescent and effusive. But with his buoyant cheerfulness stripped away, Michael could see Billy at his core. Lost and hurting, isolated and lonely.
But not alone. Billy had been forced from his country, had been humiliated and demeaned, but he was stronger than that. He had taken that failure and turned it into a second chance here at the Agency. He couldn't go home to see his family, but he had forged new bonds here. And even if Billy didn't know how to admit that, the rest of them knew it. They would prove it to him by standing firm here for Billy, no matter what.
So Michael couldn't protect Billy from everything, but he could support Billy to help him get through it. No matter what.
Sighing, he chewed his lips, working to keep the emotions at bay. It was still a hard fact to accept – that this was all he had to offer.
But he wanted Billy to understand; he needed Billy to understand.
"I'm sorry," he said finally, his voice wavering just slightly. He took another breath, jaw tight as he continued. "I wish I had seen this coming."
Billy didn't stir, the ventilator swooshing as the heart monitor beeped.
Michael wet his lips, frowning. "But I didn't," he said. "I didn't see it, and I'm sorry."
The admission was hard to make, the words almost sticking in his throat. But Billy showed no sign of movement, his long, still body unmoving under the sheet.
This time, Michael's breath was ragged. "The fact is, I want to control this, but I can't," he said flatly, his own failure feeling heavy on his shoulders. "And the really unsettling part is that maybe you can't either."
The room remained silent, the stillness lingering.
Michael made himself go on. "But you'll keep fighting," he said, and he stated it as fact, because he knew it to be true. "You'll keep fighting until the end, and my promise to you is that I will be here, every step of the way. We all will. I can't promise to protect you or anyone else all the time, but I will never leave you behind."
The words resonated, dissipating in the hum of machinery.
Michael swallowed, looking intently at Billy, hoping that the Scot could hear him. "That's the only thing I can control," he said, shrugging his shoulders a little. "I just hope it's enough."
Billy didn't move, pale face slack, fever still holding high.
But Michael didn't move; didn't dare. Because if this was all he had to offer, then he had to offer it steadfastly and resolutely. Not wavering.
It had to be enough.
Michael didn't keep track of the time. Minutes were hours; hours were days. Ultimately, it didn't matter. Michael kept his post, staying by Billy's side, watching and waiting, no matter what outcome there might be.
He talked to Billy. He patted Rick on the shoulder. He held Casey's eyes. He did what he needed to do and took control over the only things he could.
Billy's struggles continued. His fever raged and his lungs fought hard. When his fever finally broke, they were all exhausted with the effort.
When Billy finally opened his eyes, it was a victory for all of them.
Michael leaned over him, one hand steady on his arm, eyes looking steadily down. At first, Billy's eyes were clouded, dulled with sedation and the lingering effects of the illness. But when they locked on Michael, recognition flashed.
Michael smiled. "Welcome back."
Billy's eyes widened a little, his chest hitching in panic. Weak as he was, it was clear that Billy was still aware of the ventilator, but not well enough to know it was there to save his life.
Tightening his grip on Billy's arm, Michael kept his gaze focused. "You're okay," he said. "You can't fight the ventilator until you're just a little stronger, okay?"
It took a moment, but Billy's franticness eased. His eyes were still wide, his body trembling slightly, as he visibly tried to relax.
Michael didn't dare waver, but instead smiled again. "We'll be here until it's over," he promised.
Slowly, Billy nodded. There was still a hint of fear in his eyes, but no more questioning. And even without speaking, Billy's look alone communicated how grateful he was.
Michael would have liked to have heard Billy's voice, would have liked to make sure that everything was really okay, but Michael knew that Billy still had some recovery time ahead of him. Besides, if Billy couldn't talk, he couldn't ask questions.
If no one asked any questions about the last few days, then none of them had to lie about it. None of them had to skirt around how scared they'd been, or how close this had come. Sometimes the greatest truths – the ones that actually matter – come in nothing more than the solidarity of their silences. It was how they were strongest; it was their last resource when everything else had failed.
Just being there.
Michael would not forget that – not now, not ever. He would never falter in that, never let himself hesitate. Sometimes it was all they had. The rest of the time it was still their greatest asset.
Michael squeezed Billy's arm anew, even as Billy's eyes began to drift closed again. It wasn't clear to Michael what would happen next, but he knew that no matter what, he'd be there to see it through.
The ending was no more dramatic than the beginning. However, if Michael missed out on the slow build to this crisis, he was ever more attuned to the uneventful denouement.
Billy's vitals bounced back; the doctors reduced his medication and removed the breathing tube. His latest chest x-rays confirmed what everyone knew: Billy was beating the pneumonia.
Rick beamed steadily at the news, seeming to glow with every visit he made. Casey tried hard not to show any change in emotion, but there was a relaxed slouch to his posture as he chatted with Billy during his recovery.
Billy acted as if nothing had happened; smirked and joked as though his recovery had never been anything but certain. To be sure, none of them talked about how close it had come or what the other outcomes might have been. But Billy knew better than the rest of them just how difficult it had been, and Michael could see the struggles the Scot refused to acknowledge as he stifled coughs and fought sleep to enjoy visiting hours with his team.
Michael sat back and watched, enjoying it for what it is. Sometimes, in all his plotting and planning, he was pretty sure that he missed the thing that mattered most.
He didn't miss it now, and he would never let himself neglect it. This team – was his family. Michael couldn't make a marriage work, but he knew how to be loyal to his friends. Part of him didn't like that such a commitment came with restrictions and limitations – that he couldn't control everything about them.
But the benefits...
Michael was pretty certain the benefits were worth it.
The light in Rick's eyes. The amused smirk on Casey's face. And the ever-jovial lilt of Billy's accent.
"I'm flattered, really," Billy explained. "But I can fend for myself quite well here without you. They do have an entire medical staff on call at all times should I feel as though I'm suffering."
Casey snorted. "Maybe we're trying to protect the staff from you."
Billy feigned hurt. "The staff loves me," he contended.
"Yeah, and maybe that's the problem," Rick said. "You haven't exactly been telling them about any lingering issues you're having."
Indignant, Billy shook his head. "I have no lingering issues," he said. "I feel entirely healthy and fit."
Michael had to admit, Billy was pretty convincing. The staunch turn of his shoulders, the lift in his chin.
At least, it would have been convincing if he hadn't followed up his bold proclamation with a volley of sneezes.
They were strong, but not like before. When he was done, he wiped his nose, looking up sheepishly at the group.
"You were saying?" Michael asked with a smirk.
Properly chagrined, Billy ducked his head, smiling in embarrassment. "Well, I feel entirely healthier," he amended. "And I am quite confident that I will be right as rain in no time."
Billy had a penchant for exaggeration – especially on things like this – but this time, Michael knew he was right. Because if this started with a sneeze, then maybe it could end with one, too. After all, with all that had happened, that was really all there was left. A lingering case of the sniffles and a productive cough – the only signs of the near-peril they'd barely escaped.
But they had escaped, and that mattered. Billy's color was returning, and even if he looked somewhat worse for wear, there was a fresh vibrancy in his voice, and when he spoke, his inflection was colorful, increasingly punctuated with polished hand motions.
Michael couldn't control that, but he certainly could appreciate it.
Leaning back, Michael stretched his legs in front of him. In the chairs next to him, Rick smiled broadly and Casey crossed his arms contently across his chest. Billy was smiling at them from the hospital bed, hair in disarray but eyes bright and clear.
"I'm sure you will," Michael agreed. Just like they all would be.