“Look on the bright side,” says Michael’s boss—his former boss, he corrects himself for the thousandth time—proving that he maybe doesn’t know Michael all that well, despite how long they’ve worked together. “It’s a new start. Even setting recent events aside, there are lots of downsides to working at the agency, and moving into the private sector lets you leave all that behind.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Michael replies after a moment, keeping his eyes fixed downward at the stone paving of the plaza outside Langley.
“Cheer up, Jones,” Assistant Director Croft says, lightly bumping Michael’s shoulder with his as they walk toward the parking lot. “It’s a career shift, not a death sentence. You look like somebody just told you Fido is going to go live on a nice farm where he can chase rabbits.”
Michael cracks a smile at that and glances up at the man he used to work for. “Sorry, sir. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it; you didn’t have to do this for me, and I don’t—”
Croft waves him off. “No offense taken, Jones. I get it. Lots of ex-agents go into private security at some point, but I won’t act like you’re not making the switch earlier than you’d like to. And it was no trouble. Burnie’s a friend, and I put in a good word, but your resumé speaks for itself. You’re a great new hire for them.” He grins wolfishly. “If anything, Burnie owes me, now. Nothing selfless about it.”
They reach Michael’s car, which is parked in the guest lot instead of the employee one today. He’d cleaned out his desk earlier in the week; coming back in for the final debriefing had really only been a formality. He holds out a hand for the Assistant Director to shake. “Still, sir. Thanks for everything.”
Croft returns his handshake firmly, but doesn’t let go, holding Michael’s gaze. “It was a pleasure, son. You’ve got a lot of talent, no matter what happened. Everyone’s instincts are wrong sometimes.” He gets a thoughtful look on his face and lets Michael’s hand drop, fishing for something in his jacket pocket. “I didn’t think to get you a real goodbye gift, but you know what? This might actually be better.” He pulls a heavy silver lighter out of his pocket and holds it out.
Michael shifts his weight uncomfortably. “Uh, thank you, sir, but I don’t actually smoke,” he says. And I shouldn’t be getting a goodbye gift anyway, he thinks.
“Neither do I,” Croft says, smiling. “But I’ve carried it for years, and it’s always brought me luck.” He holds it out more insistently. “I think maybe it’s your turn for some.”
Can’t argue with that, Michael thinks, and reaches out to take it. “Thank you, sir,” he says again, slipping it into his own pocket. The weight of it makes him feel grounded. He immediately decides to keep it with him at all times; a physical reminder that maybe not everyone thinks he’s a fuck-up.
“Alright, I won’t hold you up any longer,” Croft says, slapping Michael on the shoulder. “Let me know if Burnie gives you any trouble! When do you start?”
“A week from today, sir,” Michael says, trying not to dread the idea of starting over from the bottom somewhere new.
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” Croft smiles. “Better than fine.”
“Appreciate it,” Michael says, and watches as Croft walks back towards the building. He takes one last look at Langley before he gets into his car; he doubts he’ll ever see the headquarters of the CIA again.
“Michael, what the hell are you doing?”
He wants to believe him, but he’s sure—he knows—something isn’t right here, so he doesn’t take his finger off the trigger.
“Michael, please, please don’t do th—” and then the world explodes in blue smoke.
He shoots upright in bed, right hand reaching towards the bedside table for his sidearm on instinct before he remembers where he is. Wiping a sweaty hand down his face, he looks over at his clock. First day of work starts in three hours.
Fuck you, brain, he thinks, and collapses back onto his pillow.
Fiddling with his tie, Michael scans the office that the receptionist had shown him to. It’s his first day, and he’s supposed to be meeting with his new boss, but he’s not entirely sure whether or not there’s actually anybody else in the room. Every flat surface of the surprisingly-small office is covered with computer monitors, precariously-tall stacks of dossiers, and cans of soda; Michael is still hovering in the doorway when a somewhat scruffy-looking head pokes out from underneath the desk.
“Ah, you must be Michael!” says the man who must be Burnie Burns. “Come on in and have a seat! Don’t be shy. I was just fixing some cables under here, lost track of time.”
No one on the planet has ever called Michael Jones shy before. This job is bringing him new experiences, at least. Michael settles down into the chair opposite Burnie’s and does his best to look like someone who knows what he’s doing.
Burnie drops his elbows heavily onto the desk, nearly dislodging a small tower of file folders, and fixes Michael with a considering look as he rests his chin on his folded hands. “I gotta tell you, Michael,” he says, “I am super thrilled to have you working here.” Michael starts to say something self-effacing and gracious, but Burnie holds up a hand to silence him. “None of that. You’re going to be a great asset for us, no question. When it comes to you, the only thing I’m concerned about is whether or not you are thrilled to be joining us.” He waits for Michael to answer, all sincere expectation.
Michael flounders, unsure of what Burnie wants to hear. “I’m very grateful for the job, sir,” he says. Burnie huffs out a small laugh and takes off his glasses, cleaning them as he looks at Michael amusedly.
“That’s what I thought. Listen, Michael, I know that this place probably seems like a step down from what you were doing at the agency. Maybe you think that we aren’t going to be able to offer you challenging work, or that you’re going to feel out of place here.”
When Michael opens his mouth to protest, Burnie shushes him again. “I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way,” he continues. “Not at all. But I want to reassure you that our personnel come from all over the map. Some folks have been in private security their whole careers, but that’s not universally the case. We’ve got ex-military, ex-FBI, ex-police,” he says, counting off on his fingers, “And yes, ex-agency folks like yourself. Hell, we even have a guy who used to box for a living. And you don’t even want to know what some of our intel and communications people used to do,” he grins. “You’re going to fit in just fine, and you’re going to like your work. All right?”
All Michael can do is nod. “Yes, sir,” he says. “Thank you,” he tacks on after a moment.
Burnie smiles at him. “Awesome. Now, even though you’ve obviously had a lot of agency training, we’re not going to send you into the field with any of our clients right away. You’re going to spend some time with our head of personnel, Joel Heyman. Over the next day or two he’ll assess where you’re at, and then from there he’ll make sure you’re ready for anything. Trust me,” he says, raising his eyebrows, “With the stuff Joel comes up with, nothing in the field will ever throw you for a loop.”
“Sounds fun, sir,” Michael says. It’s true. He can’t think of anything that’d be better for him right now than driving his body and his brain to exhaustion. Might help him sleep better. He’s been having a few too many dreams lately.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Burnie laughs. “Once training is over, which could take from six weeks to a few months, depending on how you do, Joel will hand you over to Matt Hullum, our mission coordinator. Matt decides which jobs we take, and who works them. He’s also the supervisor for field agents in general, so if you have any issues with your co-workers or anything like that, he’s the person to talk to.” Burnie steeples his fingers, studiously ignoring the heap of documents that’s sliding quietly to the floor. Michael does the same. “Obviously there are a lot more people that you need to be introduced to, but we’ll deal with that later. Are you ready to get started?”
I’m ready to prove myself again, Michael thinks. “Yes, sir,” he says forcefully, and smiles when Burnie reaches out to shake his hand.
They really were not kidding about Joel, Michael thinks for the tenth time that day and the millionth time that month as he gasps for air, his body half out of the training pool and his dummy “client” safely out of the water. His thoughts after that consist primarily of motherfucker repeated several dozen times.
“Your fastest time yet, Jones, but still could be better,” Joel says from the lifeguard stand. “We’re running it one more time, everyone,” he shouts to the other new hires. “Reset!” As he blows a hard blast on his whistle, Michael hauls himself out of the pool and does his best not to audibly groan. “You’ll thank me when you’re trapped on a yacht in shark-infested waters!” Joel shouts at the group.
At lunch, he sits down gingerly at his usual table, wincing. His thinks he might have ascended beyond a physical body and reached pure bruisehood this time. Training at the agency had been worse, of course, but he can’t pretend Joel’s geniusly paranoid exercises aren’t kicking his shit in. Between the physical beating he’s taking every day and the mental exhaustion from being tested on intelligence briefings, Michael has been sleeping just fine since he started two weeks ago.
He’s also been too tired to focus on making many friends, which is why he’s surprised when one of the intel and communication guys—InComm, they called themselves—he’d met at a mock briefing the other day sits down across from him. He’s a young guy, around Michael’s same age, and definitely rocking the “I-work-with-computers-all-day-so-I-don’t-have-to-care-what-I-look-like-to-other-humans” dress code.
“Mind if I sit here?” the dude asks, looking at Michael over the top of his glasses, and Michael shakes his head as he swallows his mouthful of sandwich.
“Ray, right?” he asks, and the dude nods. That’s the end of conversation for a bit, and they sit there chewing in silence for a while until Michael can’t stand it anymore. Clearing his throat, he makes his best effort at small talk. “So...why are you sitting here?” It doesn’t come out great, but Michael isn’t really used to strangers making overtures of friendship, if that’s what this is. Most people see him more as vinegar than honey, and he can’t blame them.
To his credit, Ray doesn’t look offended. “Eh,” he shrugs, “always nice to see a new guy who doesn’t look like Michael Chiklis’ stunt double, you know?” Michael snickers and nods. “Plus, you had that whole brooding, mysterious thing going on when I met you the other day,” Ray continues. “Wanted to find out what was up with that. I mean, it’s very sexy, don’t get me wrong.”
This time it’s Michael’s turn to shrug. “The less you talk, the longer it takes for people to figure out you’re an asshole,” he says, figuring he might as well tell the truth. “Trust me, I’m a mouthy piece of shit when you get me started.”
Ray grins. “Guess that means I’m sitting here from now on.”
He’s as good as his word. Sometimes they sit in silence, sometimes they complain about their respective bosses—apparently the head of InComm, Sorola, has the shortest fuse of any living human—and sometimes they just shoot the shit. Three days into their new routine, Ray finally asks the question that Michael’s been anticipating since they met.
“So what were you doing before this?” he asks through a mouthful of french fries.
Michael takes a sip of his Coke and tries to keep a poker face. “Used to be a field agent at the CIA,” he says carefully.
“Cool,” Ray says, and his lack of surprise reminds Michael that he’s not exactly working with total civilians. “Didn’t work out, or what?”
“Yeah, didn’t work out,” Michael says, and Ray doesn’t push it. Michael likes Ray. “What about you?” Michael asks. “You one of those crazy hacker kids that gets pulled into security stuff so they don’t end up turning off power grids for the lulz?”
Ray laughs out loud at that. “Come on, man, just ‘cause I wear cargo shorts and drink a lot of Red Bull doesn’t make me fuckin’ Neo. I applied for this job out of college, been working here for a few years.” He leans in closer, though, and drops his voice to his whisper. “Now Ryan, over there, you remember him?” He jerks his head towards another table, and Michael sees an older, sweet-looking guy he remembers from Joel’s fake briefings. “Ryan got locked up when the feds caught him fucking around with the Pentagon’s firewalls for fun. FBI offered him major time off his sentence if he’d work for them, and after his contract with them ended he wound up here.”
“Why’d he leave the bureau?” Michael asks, examining Ryan carefully. He doesn’t look like a potential cyber-terrorist, but then again most people don’t think Michael looks like he knows how to snap people’s necks, so who is he to judge?
“‘Cause private security companies typically don’t force their employees to disclose all of their online activity. Or wear ankle monitors,” Ray says before raising his voice. “Hey, Ryan! Tell the new guy about your time inside the joint! Scare him straight, bro!” His voice carries across the cafeteria.
Ryan turns and raises an eyebrow at Michael. “I’ve seen some shit, kid,” he says solemnly, and then turns back to his conversation without missing a beat.
Michael looks back and forth between Ray and Ryan a few times. “I have no idea if you’re fucking with me or not,” he says finally.
Ray just shrugs. “Part of my charm,” he says, and stuffs three more french fries into his mouth.
Sometimes other InComm people will come sit with them—including Ryan, who Michael still can’t get a read on—or other new hires who are going through training with Michael. Michael wouldn’t say any of them are friends, really, except for maybe Ray. It’s not like they see each other outside of work, and Michael’s learned that getting too attached to one’s coworkers doesn’t pay off in this kind of work. Still, it’s nice to get to know new people; it’s been a while since he’s dusted off his social skills.
The days blend into each other, an endless stream of endurance training and weapons practice and recon exercises that’s broken up only by meals and sleep. Michael’s a little obsessive even at the best of times, and throwing himself full-bore into his training is the only thing that seems able to hold his attention. He hadn’t lied to Burnie; he was and is thankful for this job. It’s just not where he wants to be. But if he has to be here, then he’ll be damned if he isn’t the goddamn best. So he comes in on weekends and he works out on his off days and he cooks seven days’ worth of meals on Sundays so when he comes home on weekdays, completely wrung out, he just has to heat something up, eat it, and collapse into bed. His mom is worried about him, but Michael knows himself well enough to know that doing this is healthier than whatever he’d be doing if he weren’t working. He’s like a border collie; left too long with nothing to do, he starts tearing apart the furniture.
It’s still not quite enough, though, and two months into training Michael thinks he might actually scream if he has to set up one more fake tripwire or fire on one more fake assailant or protect one more fake client. He feels ready, all of his instincts telling him he can do this job—But your instincts aren’t worth shit, remember? he thinks, and stifles his frustration. He’s taking it out on a punching bag during free workout hours when he feels a hand on his shoulder. When he whirls around, ready to tear into whatever meathead thinks he can intimidate him into giving up his equipment, he sees a sandy-haired man he remembers having met during his first few days at the firm.
“Michael Jones?” Matt Hullum asks, and Michael can only nod as he tries to regain his breath. “I’m Matt Hullum, we met a few weeks ago. I just wanted to let you know that you should report to briefing room C tomorrow morning instead of the training gym.” He smiles. “Congrats, you’ve got your first assignment. I’d shake your hand, but, uh...” he gestures toward the boxing gloves Michael is still wearing. “See you tomorrow!”
Michael manages to keep his cool until Matt’s out of sight before punching the air victoriously.
He calls his mom when he gets home, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling as he tells her the news. “I’m happy for you, kiddo,” she says. “Though you know I still wish you were in a different line of work.”
“Hey, at least now you can stop fuckin’ whining about me not being able to tell you about the missions. No more security clearance,” he reminds her.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You wouldn’t have to have missions at all if you had just taken that job Don offered you.”
It’s an old argument, and Michael rolls over so his face is half smashed in the pillow. “I don’t want to be an goddamn electrician, Denise,” he says, and she sighs.
“I know, I know, this is your dream and I’m glad you get to do it,” she says. “Just don’t get yourself killed, alright?”
“I’ll do my best,” he says. I already lost out on my dream, Ma, but this is the next best thing, he thinks. He doubts that’d make her feel any better.
Michael gets to the office forty-five minutes early the next day. He paces around the empty briefing room until he thinks he’s going to lose his mind with anticipation, which takes all of five minutes. He decides to walk to the Starbucks down the road to kill time; plus, if he’s being honest, he doesn’t want to seem like super eager newbie. He’s done missions before. He’s cool. Totally fine. Not nervous at all.
He turns back twice on his walk to Starbucks, deciding that bringing coffee to the briefing would seem unprofessional and then deciding that decision was bullshit twice over. When he’s in line, he bounces on the balls of his feet, trying to decide if he should get the frothy drink he likes best or a more serious and adult-seeming beverage. And what if he spills it on his suit on the way to the meeting? When he’s finally next in line, he looks at his watch, sees he has ten minutes to spare, and runs out of the building empty-handed. He gets back to the briefing room two minutes before the meeting is meant to start, only slightly out of breath.
He’s totally cool. Nothing to worry about.
“Coffee?” one of the other agents in the room offers, gesturing behind her to where a machine and paper cups are set up on a table.
“Nah, I’m good,” Michael says, and goes to take his seat. He recognizes the female agent, Barbara; she’d been in training with him and gotten lunch with him and Ray a few times. Apparently the two of them were the first to be moved up to active status.
As he sits, Matt steps up to the front of the room and flicks on a projector. “Everybody awake?” he asks, and gets a collective mumble from the room. “Works for me. Before we start, I’d just like to recognize our newest field agents, Michael Jones and Barbara Dunkelman, who will be joining us on this assignment.” There’s polite applause throughout the room, and Michael smiles despite himself.
“Now, on to the clients,” Matt continues, switching to a slide of a couple who look to be in their mid-thirties. “I imagine some of you will have heard of Geoff and Griffon Ramsey. For those of you who haven’t, you might still be familiar with some of their documentary and journalistic work.”
He clicks through a few slides of headlines, some of which Michael remembers breaking. “They focus on investigatory photojournalism, and have a habit of uncovering scandals and pissing some pretty powerful people off. You may remember that they were instrumental in revealing Congressman Dawkin’s connections to the clinic bombings in ‘09, for example.” The slide switches to a photo of the couple receiving some sort of award, and Michael notes with appreciation their full sleeve tattoos. “They have a lot of friends, but they also have a lot of enemies,” Matt says. “There have been death threats made against them recently, and the feds say they’ve picked up enough relevant chatter to think that those threats could be serious. That’s where we come in.”
An assistant starts passing out dossiers to each of the agents in the room. Michael resists the urge to tear into his immediately, instead keeping his eyes front and on Matt. “The Ramseys are hiring us for full-time personal security for a minimum of a month, unless the threat is eliminated before then,” he says. “That means 24/7 duty for some of you, so if you had vacation plans lined up, cancel them.”
Michael can feel the slow, clean burn of adrenaline rising in him. This is what he’s good at, getting pointed at a problem and destroying it. This is what he’s for.
“Thankfully, the Ramseys have been living full-time at their DC home for a while now, so most of you will be staying close to HQ. Zuelch,” he says, looking at the senior female agent in the room, “You’re taking lead among the agents in DC, and you’ll be responsible for Griffon Ramsey. You go where she goes, and if an incident occurs, she is your primary responsibility. Everyone else, if contact with HQ is ever lost, Zuelch is in charge. Clear?” Everyone nods, and Michael figures that if even half of what Ray’s told him about Kathleen Zuelch is true he’d be more than willing to take orders from her.
“Good. Pattillo, you’re responsible for Geoff Ramsey. Same deal as Zuelch and Griffon. Tuggey, you’re in charge of surveillance and security at their home. You stay on site at all times unless there’s an emergency or there are at least two other agents present, and you make sure that house is airtight.” A young woman gives Matt a grin and a mock salute. She looks like the sort of person Michael would get along well with, and he feels a mix of excitement and apprehension at the thought of working with a team again.
“The Ramseys also have a young daughter who’s in school. Dunkelman, you’ll be providing security to the daughter during school hours. We’ve worked with the principal there before; the contact information is in the file you’ve been given. When she’s not in school, you don’t have to remain at the house, but you are on-call at all times. You’ll also be the liaison between the other agents and HQ; you’ll check in regularly with the other team members and report back to me daily.” Barbara nods, and Michael sees the same eagerness that he feels burning in her eyes. He also feels growing anxiety, though; there are no other agents left in the room, and Matt hasn’t yet given any indication of what his assignment will be.
“Now, those are all the members of the Ramsey family covered,” Matt says. “However, since the threats are likely related to Geoff and Griffon’s work, the Ramseys have also requested that we provide security to the other member of their documentary team.” The slide changes again to a picture that looks to have been taken at the same award ceremony as the last one. This time, however, there is a young man in the picture with his arms around both the Ramseys. “Gavin Free has been the Ramseys’ videographer on a large number of their projects, and is also a close family friend. While he was not involved in their most recent work and wasn’t specifically mentioned in the threats, the close nature of both their personal and working relationships means that it’s not entirely impossible that he could be targeted as well.”
The slide changes again to display an image of a large ranch house, with all three Ramseys stood on the porch along with Free. “Gavin Free is currently living at the Ramseys’ home in Austin, Texas. While normally we would be hesitant to work this far from the primary targets when the likelihood of incident is so low, the Ramseys insisted, and have spared no expense to make it worthwhile. We’re all about customer service, so Jones, we’ll be flying you to Austin to provide security to Gavin Free for the duration of the assignment.”
The projector turns off, and the room lights come back up. “All the other basic information you’ll need should be in your dossiers. The FBI isn’t willing to tell a non-governmental organization where they picked up the chatter, so we can’t be sure where the threats are coming from. There are briefs in your files about the Ramseys’ recent projects and who might have the means and motive to cause trouble. Study up, and talk to InComm and Operations about the equipment you’ll need. Wheels go up on this in thirty-six hours.”
It’s like a switch has been flipped, and everyone stands up and scatters. Michael feels frozen for a moment, and then grabs his dossier and leaves the room. His mind is racing as he steps into the elevator and hits the button for the first floor. He needs air. He needs a lot of air.
They’re putting you on babysitting duty, he hears in his head as he walks through the lobby. They don’t trust you with the main mission. They know you’re a fuck-up but they took you on as a favor to Croft. They’re going to keep you as many miles away from the action as they possibly can. He sits down on the sidewalk outside the building and puts his head in his hands, taking deep breaths. You’ve been wasting your time.
After a few minutes he hears footsteps behind him, and before he can pull himself together and leave, the young female agent from the briefing sits down next to him. “You doing alright, new guy?” she asks.
“My name’s Michael,” he mutters. The last thing he needs is a witness to this.
“Yeah, I know, new guy,” she says. “I’m Lindsay Tuggey. So what’s your problem?”
He breathes out through his nose. “I don’t have a problem.”
“Bullshit,” she says, “I saw you book it to the elevators. So which is it: you getting stage fright, or are you pissed about your assignment?”
“I don’t get stage fright,” he says, which is a blatant lie but true enough as an answer to her question. She just stares at him, and he gets the feeling that she isn’t the sort of person who lets go of things once she’s got her teeth in them. “I just—” he starts, trying to collect his thoughts without losing his temper. “I busted my ass to get out of training, and now for my first assignment I’m getting sidelined about a thousand miles or so from the actual threat.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “Feels like they think I can’t handle an actual mission.” And I’m worried they’re right, he doesn’t add.
Lindsay is silent for a moment, and then snorts. “You’re a shithead,” she says.
Michael slants her a look. “Excuse me?”
“I said you’re a shithead,” she shoots back. “First off, I’m not sure what you were expecting, but no part of this job is glamorous. I don’t know if you were paying attention, but I’ve been working here for two years, and my assignment basically puts me under house arrest for the next month. Most jobs don’t involve any serious incidents at all, and even those that do are ninety percent drudgery and protocol and constantly being on the lookout for something that probably won’t happen. Our job is to keep things as boring as possible; if shit gets exciting, it means somebody fucked up.”
Michael opens his mouth to respond, but Lindsay talks right over him. “Second off, you’re also a shithead because the assignment you got is a hell of a lot of responsibility. You’re basically doing as much work as two people, because you’re covering the home security as well as being the guy’s bodyguard. Plus, being far from HQ means you’re going to be relying solely on yourself. And yeah, they gave you the assignment with the low threat level because you’re new. So what? Fucking deal with it, Jones, you are new, but you just got one of the most complicated assignments a new agent could ever be given. So stop feeling sorry for yourself.” She slaps him on the back and stands up. “They like you. They think you can handle it. Prove them right, and stop being a gigantic baby.”
She walks back into the building, and Michael stares into space, feeling a little bit like he’s been hit by a truck. After a moment, he reaches into his suit pocket and fishes out Croft’s lighter, feeling the weight of it in his palm and trying to settle his thoughts.
Prove them right, Lindsay’s voice says in his head again, and he grabs the dossier up off the ground. He’s got work to do.
Thirty-six hours later finds him on a plane somewhere over Tennessee, sitting in first class with a very compact briefcase in the overhead compartment and several suitcases of surveillance equipment and advanced weaponry in the cargo hold. There’s a car waiting for him at the Austin airport, and he’s already memorized the directions from the rental place to the Ramsey’s house. He’s got two earpieces turned off in his pocket, waiting to be turned on when he lands. Michael had received them at his meeting with InComm, where he’d been secretly relieved to find out that the two people handling his communications would be Ryan and Ray.
“You should be wearing one of these at all times, and charging whichever one you aren’t wearing,” Ryan had said, handing over the two earpieces that looked exactly like the ones Joel had trained him with. “The microphone is attached to this wristband, so hold it up to your mouth when you’re talking to us,” he’d added, strapping a black band around Michael’s forearm. He’d also handed over what looked like a black USB drive with a red button on it. “This is a panic button. Give it to your client. It’s set to the same signal as the earpieces, so if you’re ever separated from him and he gets into trouble, all he has to do is press this button and an alarm will go off in your ear. We’ll also get a notification here at HQ.”
“But that won’t happen, ‘cause Michael’s a champ and won’t get separated from his mark,” Ray had said, giving Michael a double thumbs-up and a smile that was so enthusiastic it bordered on sarcasm.
“Alright, you’re all set,” Ryan had said. “Anytime you need us, we’ll be available. Now head down to Operations and give them the equipment receipt in your assignment file. They should have everything you need packed up and ready to go.”
“Shit, it’s almost like we know what we’re doing,” Michael had replied.
Looking out the airplane window, he tries to summon up that same feeling of confidence. It’s one thing to feel ready when he’s surrounded by everyone at HQ; up here, all alone, he’s suddenly massively grateful to have been given an assignment that he won’t be able to mess up.
Michael checks to make sure his suit isn’t too rumpled, straightens his tie, grabs his briefcase, and gets out of the car. Walking up the long pathway to the Ramsey’s front door, he starts making mental notes about the property’s terrain, which seems to match the information in his file. There are some forested hills about fifty yards back from the house, and a few scattered trees, but other than that the property is fairly flat and open. Good. That will make surveillance easier.
He takes a deep breath, exhales, and knocks on the screen door. After a few moments, he hears the padding of bare feet on hardwood. “Hold on, Mr. Secret Agent Man!” comes a voice from inside, and the accent reminds Michael that the man is English. He’s even farther from home than Michael is.
There’s a clunk of a deadbolt sliding free, and the inner door swings open to reveal Gavin Free. Gavin Free looks, by and large, like the pictures of him in his file, albeit a bit sleepier. He’s wearing pajama pants and a threadbare t-shirt, and his hair is disheveled in a way that could either be intentional or legitimate bedhead. He’s tall and thin and, to be honest, pretty goofy-looking. Michael takes in his careless smile and can imagine why someone would think he needed looking after.
“Well you’re not at all what I was expecting,” Free says, but he doesn’t seem upset about it.
Michael doesn’t really know how to respond to that, but he does know protocol, so he goes with that. “Sir, I’m Michael Jones, with BB Private Security. I have identification—” he says, hoisting his briefcase, but Free ignores him and opens the screen door.
“Oh, I can’t be bothered with all that, just come in,” he says. Michael pauses, unsure, but the man appears to be serious.
“What, you’re just going to let me in without knowing who I am?” Michael says without thinking. The customer is always right, but come on.
Free flaps one of his hands at him. “Eh, it’s fine.”
Michael waits a beat, still standing on the porch. “Sir—you do understand why I’m here?” Free nods. “Because there have been threats made on people’s lives,” Michael says slowly.
“So I could be here to murder you!” Michael says, and maybe he’s being rude, but this is ridiculous.
“What, with a briefcase?” Free says, laughing.
“No, not with a—well first off, there could be a weapon inside the briefcase, and I’m actually carrying a firearm right now anyway, but that’s not the point. You should confirm that I am who I say I am before you let me in the house.”
“Look, the company called ahead, they said you were on your way, and now you’re here, right when they said you would be!” Free says, ignoring him. “So it’s clearly you. Also, I don’t think a murderer would be so bloody difficult about it.”
“I could have tapped your phones and gotten here when I knew you would have your guard down!” Michael practically shouts, throwing his hands up in the air, and alright, this could have gotten off to a better start.
“What, do you think they’ve tapped our phones?” Free asks, looking perplexed.
“Fuckin’ doubt it,” Michael mutters under his breath.
“Well, that settles it, then. Now come inside, you donut.” Free holds the door open wider and keeps grinning at Michael like he didn’t just swear at him. That will come in handy, at least.
“I’m not a donut,” Michael mumbles as he walks inside the house. That might have been the shortest time elapsed between meeting someone and wanting to strangle them he’s ever experienced in his life.
“You’ve got more stuff than just that, right?” Free says, giving his briefcase a critical eye.
“The bags are in the car still,” Michael says curtly, and walks into the kitchen, glancing over the house’s floor plan as he goes. Foyer opening onto a large living room on the right, with what looks to be at least three bedrooms beyond that: master, guest, and child’s. An adjoining bathroom, too, if he remembers the blueprints right. Kitchen and small bathroom to the left. A few assorted closets here and there, and a door from the kitchen opening onto a large patio in the back. No surprises there, at least.
He opens his briefcase and pulls out his BB Security ID and his watermarked orders to present himself at this address as Free peers over his shoulder. “Ooh, good, glad you aren’t going to kill me after all,” Free singsongs in his ear, and Michael tries not to consider the extent to which the accuracy of that statement is dropping. He’s a professional.
Speaking of which, he does actually have a job to do. He pulls the panic button Ryan gave him out of the briefcase next. “Alright, first things first,” he says, holding it out to Free. “This is a panic button. It connects to this,” he taps his earpiece, “and will sound an alarm if you press it. It is for emergency use only, Mr. Free—”
“Gavin,” Free interrupts, turning the button over in his hands with a gleam in his eye that Michael doesn’t like the look of at all. “No use standing on ceremony, I’ve come up with about seven nicknames for you already.”
Michael closes his eyes for a second and then continues. “Gavin. The panic button is for emergency use only. I cannot stress that enough. It’s also important that you have it with you at all times. It’s not going to be any use sitting on your bedside table.”
“Understood, Michael Jones!” he says cheerfully, pocketing the button. “What next? This is fun.”
Heaving a sigh, Michael drags a hand down his face and attempts to maintain his composure. “Mr—Gavin. I have been hired to make sure that you are protected from potential threats. While I appreciate that you’re not freaking out, I also need you to focus on the seriousness of what’s happening. My job is to protect you, and I take that job very seriously. I’m not here for fun.” He says the last part as slowly as he possibly can.
Gavin looks at him for a moment, and then smiles wider. “Oh, this is going to be brilliant.”
Michael understands the universe, now. It’s not that this assignment will be challenging on a technical level. It’s that he’s going to have to become a goddamn Vulcan to get through it without strangling his client. After this, nothing will be difficult ever again.
The rest of the day is taken up with Michael starting to establish a base at the house. Gavin has been sleeping in the guest room, apparently (“Cheeky, Michael Jones!” Gavin had said when Michael asked), so Michael decides that he’ll be sleeping on the pull-out in the living room. He’s not entirely comfortable sleeping in the master bedroom, and sleeping in the living room means he’s more likely to be between Gavin and any potential intruders anyway. There aren’t going to be any intruders, he thinks, but hell, it’s a useful exercise.
He does a cursory examination of the basement and decides it’s relatively secure, though he makes a note to install a motion detector by the one small window. He also sits Gavin down and explains that if there’s an emergency at the house, Gavin should run down to the closet next to the water heater in the basement and lock himself in. Michael also makes a note to buy a serious lock for the closet. Maybe he’ll buy one for the outside of the closet door, too.
Gavin trails after Michael as he goes about his work, asking questions that range from “irrelevant” to “potential grounds for a civil suit.” By the end of the night Michael has set up five security cameras around the house and has been quizzed as to his favorite ice cream flavor, mother’s maiden name, and preferred method of masturbating. He rebuffs all of them until the last.
“I am sure,” he says slowly as he turns around on the ladder, “That many smarter people than me have told you in extreme detail how and where you should go fuck yourself.”
Instead of having the decency to at least look insulted, Gavin giggles and claps his hands as he rocks back and forth on the porch swing. “Ooh, Michael, I am going to send Geoff and Griffon flowers. This is the most fun I’ve had in months. This is Christmas.”
Michael hopes that Gavin knows better than to think of the threats as a game, but he’s definitely treating Michael as one. Most people suss out Michael’s temper inside half an hour of talking to him and take the hint to back off, but Gavin seems to be treating Michael’s anger as a reward. It’s a change of pace, at least.
After it gets dark, Michael packs up and moves the operation inside to hook up the cameras to one of the monitors Operations packed up in a suitcase for him. While he fiddles with the wiring in the living room, Gavin putters around in the kitchen. “D’you want a bev?” he calls out, his head half inside the fridge.
“A wha’?” Michael calls back around the three cords he’s currently holding in his teeth.
“You know,” Gavin says. “A bev. Brew. Booze. Other words beginning with ‘b.’”
“Not much point to me being here to protect you if I’m drunk,” Michael says, smacking the monitor in a futile attempt to get it to show anything but static.
Gavin lets the fridge door fall closed slowly. “What, so you can’t drink at all?” he says, sounding a bit as if those words have never come out of his mouth in that order. “The whole time? Michael, you’re here for a month, that’s inhuman. That’s cruel and unusual. I’m not sure my life is worth that much.”
“I can already promise you,” Michael says, switching two cables around and fist-pumping quietly when all five camera feeds come through. “I will be crawling inside a bottle of tequila as soon as this assignment is over. But yeah, until then, no bodyguarding under the influence.” He glances up at Gavin, who’s come into the living room to stand over him with four beers in his hands and a mournful look on his face. “More for you?” he offers. Maybe if the guy is passed out drunk all the time he’ll be easier to handle.
Gavin brightens a bit. “Fair point, that. Clever clogs.” He collapses down into the armchair next to the couch that will soon become Michael’s bed. “So you’re basically getting paid to have an awkward sober slumber party for two with me for the next month, then?” he says, uncapping one of the bottles and taking a long pull.
“That is... not inaccurate,” Michael admits, looking longingly at the beer.
“Your life is dead weird, mate,” Gavin says. “Lucky you’ve got me to keep things interesting.”
Michael has about fifteen different responses to that, but before he can actually get any of them out of his mouth, his earpiece beeps. “Jones, this is HQ, Narvaez speaking,” Ray’s voice crackles in his ear. Michael could cry with how good it feels to hear someone else’s voice.
He lifts his wristband to his mouth and answers. “HQ, this is Jones, I’ve made contact and am just about done setting up some basic surveillance.” He pauses for a moment. “Also, hi, Ray.”
“Hi, Michael!” Ray responds. “Glad to hear everything’s good. When do you think you’ll be able to patch through the video feeds to us up here?”
“Ooh, who is that?” Gavin asks. “Can I talk to them? Are they outside in an unmarked white van?”
“For the love of God, not now,” Michael says.
“Uh, okay, but the sooner the better, dude,” Ray says.
“Oh, shit, not you, Ray,” Michael says into the microphone. “I should have the feeds ready to go inside the hour. Should I just comm you when I’m ready?” Gavin is making grabby hands at the wristband, and Michael flips him off.
“Yeah, that’s fine. The shift might have switched by then so you might get Ryan, but either way we’ll be able to get the connection going,” Ray says. “You sure everything’s all good down there, dude?”
Michael glares at Gavin. “Nothing I can’t handle,” he says. “Do I need to talk to anybody else tonight?
“Nah,” Ray says. “Tomorrow Barbara will probably start checking in, but they’ll have their hands full setting up tonight.”
“Sounds good,” Michael says. “Will get back to you about the surveillance ASAP.”
“Copy that,” Ray says. “HQ out.” The line goes silent, and Michael already misses him.
“Was that your secret agent partner?” Gavin asks. “Were they in a satellite? Was it a hot Russian woman named Natascha with a terrible secret? On the moon?”
“Yeah, Gavin, she’s a time-travelling Cold War alien. We bang on the regular,” Michael says. “You watch too much goddamn television, you know that?” He wonders if setting up a countdown calendar on the refrigerator would be crossing a line.
The next day Michael wakes up at six in the morning, takes a shower, and folds up his bed back into a couch, because he’s not an asshole and there needs to be a couch in the living room. He checks over the video footage from the night before while he makes himself coffee, fast-forwarding through everything and keeping an eye out for any odd movement. The whole point of having the feeds connected to InComm at HQ is for the people on staff to keep an eye on them while he sleeps, but he still feels better knowing he’s looked at them himself. After he finishes his coffee, he puts his sidearm in his leg holster, writes a note for Gavin telling him to call him when he wakes up, grabs a particular duffle bag from the equipment that Operations packed for him, and sets out to explore the Ramsey property.
In the yellow-gray light of early morning, the land looks beautiful and a little bit alien. Michael grew up in New Jersey and then spent his time shuttling between various East Coast cities; being able to turn three hundred and sixty degrees without seeing another living human feels a little bit unnatural. Plus, he’s never been much of an outdoorsy type. Michael, in general, likes “outside” best when it’s been domesticated over generations for the purpose of making it suitable for “inside.” He can’t say he doesn’t mind the solitude, though. It’s nice to have nothing on his mind but the task at hand.
First he walks the perimeter of the property, finding any places that would provide cover or strategic advantage to someone approaching the house. There aren’t too many, though those wooded hills worry him a little bit. Once the first scan is done, he goes back and starts digging a small trench around the perimeter for the specialized underground fence Operations gave him.
The sun’s come up and he’s half sweated through his t-shirt when a gleeful “Helloooo, Michael!” comes from behind him. He whirls around, hand on his sidearm, and is filled with both relief and rage when he sees that it’s just Gavin walking up the hill towards him, waving madly. He’s still in his pajamas, though it’s a different pair of pants this time. Who owns multiple pairs of pajama pants? Maybe it’s a British thing.
“Michael, I’m not trying to be rude,” Gavin says as he walks up, “but I’m worried that a trained assassin might not be stopped by a moat that’s ten centimeters deep.”
“Did you see the note I left?” Michael asks, ignoring him.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Fancied a walk, thought I’d just come say hello instead of calling. Seriously, am I being murder-stalked by ants?”
Michael is beginning to suspect that his job might be better done by a team of highly-trained sheepdogs with a specialty in herding manchildren. “Goddammit, Gavin, you can’t just start wandering around without telling me!” he says. “Even if nobody’s out here but me, if I’d come back to the house and you’d been gone I’d have called in the goddamn cavalry for no reason. Also, it’s an underground fence, dipshit. Motion-sensing. When it’s done I’ll get an alert on the monitor if someone crosses it.”
“Aww, Michael, you’re sweet,” Gavin says. “‘Calling in the cavalry,’ indeed. Also, if you’re so fussed you shouldn’t have left while I was still asleep. What if I’d been carried off while you were out here digging holes?”
“It’s not sweet, it’s my job,” Michael says, turning back to his shovel. “And I wanted to get started before it got too hot. Took a calculated risk.”
“Oh, so you’re allowed to calculate risks, but I’m not? Rubbish,” Gavin says, leaning over Michael’s shoulder to watch him work.
“The difference,” Michael says, tossing a shovelful of dirt over his shoulder and grinning when Gavin squawks as it hits him in the face, “Is that I have spent a very long time being trained how to take those risks. In fact, that is what your friends are paying me for.” He pauses, wiping off his forehead. “Well, they’re paying my boss, and my boss is paying me. Same difference.”
Gavin’s too busy shaking dirt out of his bangs to reply, and Michael basks briefly in the feeling of success. “D’you want me to run get you some water?” Gavin finally pipes up again. “You’re looking—well, looking a little bit overheated, mate, if I’m being honest.”
Michael glares at him. “I’m sorry, does the sweat of my brow offend your delicate sensibilities? Should I keep you alive in a less gross way?” Gavin just giggles again and heads back towards the house.
“Be back in a tick, Michael Jones!” he says.
“Hey!” Michael yells after him. “Do you have your panic button?” Wordlessly, Gavin pulls it out of the back pocket of his pajama pants and holds it in the air as he continues walking. Michael is honestly surprised. “Bring ice!” he yells after a moment.
Michael is not keeping track of things he learns about Gavin Free over the next few days, because that is not his job. If he were to make such a list, however, it would read something like this:
regularly falls asleep in patches of sun
refuses to keep track of the names of television characters
constantly starts to make tea but then forgets, letting the kettle boil dry
bad at any movement more complicated than walking, and also walking
useless cook, but useful cooking assistant
surprisingly good at Peggle
actually pretty smart about camera stuff, despite being dumb about everything else
makes up ridiculous words and claims they are British slang, clearly lying
terrified of any and all women, including Barbara
He learns the last one after signing off his daily video call with Barbara, which usually consists of them passing along the sentiment “nothing happened” in a lot more words. The Ramseys are apparently doing fine. Geoff had even leaned into frame briefly to say hello, which had prompted Gavin to vault over the back of the couch and half into Michael’s lap in order to see him.
“Jesus, Gavin,” Michael had shouted, “You nearly took out my balls with your elbow, fucking watch it!”
“Geoffrey!” Gavin had crowed, completely ignoring Michael. “Geoffrey, I miss you!”
“He texted you fifteen minutes ago,” Michael had muttered, resigning himself to having his briefing hijacked.
Now, as he hangs up the call, he turns to see Gavin curled up on the other end of the couch, staring at the screen. “Can I help you with something?” he asks pointedly.
“That blonde girl...Barbara,” Gavin says, before trailing off and going a bit red.
“Use your words, Gavin,” Michael prompts, though he knows where this is going.
“It’s just, you know, she’s well fit, isn’t she?” Gavin lets out in a rush.
Michael can’t help but laugh long and loud. “Yeah, and she’d eat you alive, champ,” he says.
“Michael!” Gavin says. “That’s not nice.”
“Don’t worry,” Michael says, leaning over to ruffle Gavin’s hair with perhaps more force than necessary before getting up to get ready for his nightly check of the outdoor cameras. “She’s out of my league too, buddy.”
“Aw, Michael,” Gavin says, getting up to follow him like he has for the past three nights. “You’re a handsome bloke, don’t be down on yourself. You’re a catch.” He reaches out and attempts to pinch Michael’s cheek.
“Don’t touch me,” Michael snaps, swatting his hand away, and Gavin snickers.
“So is there somebody else, then?” Gavin asks as Michael sets up the ladder and climbs up to check each camera in turn, making sure they haven’t been tampered with or bugged. “Another office romance? Natascha on the moon? That Ray bloke you whisper sweet nothings to every night?”
“What do you care?” Michael asks, making a mental note to try to initiate phone sex with Ray next time he comms him. He’s pretty sure Ray will run with it, and he’s pretty sure Sorola will have an aneurysm.
“We’re going to be living together for at least three and a half more weeks, Michael!” Gavin says, holding the ladder as Michael climbs back down and following him to the next side of the house. Michael thinks about that at least and shudders at the thought of this assignment continuing indefinitely. “These things are going to come up! It’s not an unreasonable question.”
Michael sighs heavily as he climbs up to examine the next camera. “No, there’s nobody else.”
“Really?” Gavin asks. “Nobody being swept off their feet by the dashing secret agent?”
“First off, I’m not a secret agent,” Michael says, “and secondly, this kind of job makes it kinda hard to do the whole ‘dating’ thing.”
Gavin makes a sad little noise, and Michael reaches a foot out off the ladder to kick at him. “Lonely little Michael,” he says.
“I don’t mind. Never figured that’d be in the cards for me, anyway,” Michael says, climbing down again and moving on. “You?” He doesn’t particularly want to encourage whatever weird bonding ritual Gavin is trying to have, but he’d also rather talk about Gavin than talk about himself.
“Nah, haven’t really had time for it since I’ve been back in Austin,” he shrugs. “Don’t actually know that many people here, especially when Geoff and Griffon aren’t around.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Michael asks, climbing up one last time. “Without them, I mean. It’s not like you’re working.”
“You know,” Gavin says. “Just, er. Hanging out.” He doesn’t elaborate, suddenly very interested in the condition of the grass, and Michael of all people recognizes a conversational brick wall when he sees one. He finds himself surprised and a little miffed to be getting it from Gavin, though, who’s spent the past three days attempting to pry information out of Michael.
Michael leans the ladder against the side of the house and heads back inside, satisfied that all the cameras are working fine. Of course, if anyone had tampered with them, it would have shown up on the feeds from those same cameras, but still. It’s nice to have something to do so he can at least pretend this assignment isn’t a massive waste of time and resources.
Back in the living room, Gavin sprawls sideways across the armchair. “So what’s your story anyway, Michael Jones?” he asks, his head hanging upside down off the arm rest. “Where did you come from?”
“Jersey,” Michael says, sitting down on the couch and looking at his phone. When he looks up and sees Gavin’s upside-down face still staring at him expectantly, he groans. “What is this, twenty questions?” he asks.
“That’s not how that game works,” Gavin says.
“Shut up,” Michael says quickly, rubbing his eyes. “Okay. Born and raised in Jersey. Family’s still there. Started college at Rutgers, then transferred to American University so I could be in DC. Graduated with a degree in criminology, did some law enforcement training, then managed to get a spot in a CIA training program. Did that for a while, and then when it didn’t work out, got a job with BB Security, and voila, here we are,” he says, gesturing grandly to the couch and monitor.
“Bloody hell, CIA?” Gavin says, twisting inelegantly to get right-side-up. “Are you serious? So you were a secret agent, you absolute liar. Why did you leave?”
“I told you,” Michael says carefully. “It didn’t work out.”
“Bollocks, there’s more of a story than that!”
“Hey Gavin, remind me why it is you’re here in Austin? I don’t think I caught it before,” Michael says sharply, turning to glare at him.
To his surprise, it actually works, and Gavin retreats into himself a little. “Fair enough,” he says in a quiet voice.
After a moment or two of silence, Gavin stands up suddenly, swaying on his feet a bit. “I think I’m going to go to bed now,” he says. “Goodnight, Michael.” He walks off towards his bedroom, and Michael feels a surge of what could almost be called remorse, which is fucking ridiculous.
“Gavin!” he calls after him, because he’s a goddamn idiot. Gavin pokes his head back around the corner looking like a puppy that’s pissed the good carpet. “I was thinking—I mean, if you wanted,” Michael says, “We’ve just been here at the house these past few days, but if you want to go somewhere else we can. Tomorrow, if you want. I mean, I have a car for a reason.”
The nice thing about dealing with a complete shithead, Michael thinks, is the short memory span. Gavin grins so wide Michael gets a little bit concerned for his face. “Ooh, Michael,” he says. “I’ll show you downtown Austin tomorrow, you’ll love it. It’s too bad you can’t have any bevs or we could do a pub crawl, but I’ll figure out something else to do,” he says. “Goodnight, Michael!” he says happily, and toddles off to bed.
“Goodnight, Gavin,” Michael says with a small smile, and goes back to watching his monitors.
“Eat your ice cream, Michael, it’s melting!”
Michael does his best to look as intimidating as possible while taking a resentful lick of soft-serve. After movie theater popcorn and candy and half a pizza, the last thing he’d wanted was more food, but when they’d passed the truck in the park, Gavin had insisted. “Happy?” Michael asks, swallowing, and Gavin grins.
“Absolutely blissful,” he says, taking a bite out of his own cone. Michael snorts when chocolate ice cream drips down his chin and onto his shirt.
As they walk in silence, Michael has to admit to himself that it has been a pretty good day, if exhausting. Keeping the house safe is one thing, but keeping track of Gavin in a public place surrounded by people requires a completely different set of mental tools. More than once he’d thought wistfully of those child leashes he’d seen on late-night infomercials; at least one of those would cut out the variable of Gavin going haring off after some new object of interest every five minutes. It was bad enough trying to keep an eye on the crowd—in goddamn Texas, too, where he’s pretty sure half of the people are packing at any given time—without losing track of his client because Gavin saw somebody juggling two blocks away.
Still, he can’t pretend he hadn’t been going stir-crazy inside the house, and Gavin has at least shown good taste in terms of all the Austin spots that Michael’s been dragged between. The pizzeria in particular had been an excellent choice, though Michael had been completely unable to tell if Gavin actually understood the Italian that the guys behind the counter had greeted him in.
“Can I ask you something?” Gavin says suddenly, looking surprisingly serious for a grown man with a chocolate ice cream moustache.
“I’m sure I can’t stop you,” Michael says, bracing himself for whatever invasion of privacy is coming next.
“The people who are with Geoff and Griffon,” Gavin says, sounding more hesitant than Michael’s ever heard him before. “They’re... they’re good, right? I mean, of course they are, they’re, uh, professionals and all that, but—I mean, if something happens, your people will be able to handle it, right?”
Michael can’t help but soften. “Yeah, Gavin, they’ll be able to handle it,” he says, nudging their shoulders together as they walk. “Two of our best agents are with them. Kathleen Zuelch has never lost a client, I don’t think, and Jack Pattillo is a legend. They’re with the Ramseys twenty-four hours a day.”
“Okay,” Gavin says, nodding, but he doesn’t look particularly convinced. “I just—nothing’s going to happen to me, you know? Nobody’s coming for the cameraman, I’ve got nothing to be afraid of,” he says with a half-hearted grin. “But Geoff and Griffon...” he trails off.
“Nothing’s going to happen to them, either,” Michael says, and he’s not normally one for making promises he can’t guarantee, but suddenly all he wants is for Gavin to go back to annoying the shit out of him. “Gavin, I’m pretty badass, right?”
“You’re alright,” Gavin says, and then snickers when Michael punches him in the arm.
“Ungrateful shit. Anyway, the point is, Geoff and Griffon and their daughter have four people with them, and all of those people are way more badass than me, okay? Unless an entire paramilitary organization goes after the Ramseys, they’re gonna be fine.”
Gavin lets out a long exhale, and then grins at Michael. “I guess I should count myself lucky that I only have to deal with one trigger-happy arsehole, then?” he says, and then screeches happily when Michael puts him in a one-armed headlock and hauls him down the street.
As the sun goes down, Gavin tries to convince Michael to go to a bar with him, but Michael shakes his head, grabbing Gavin by the back of the neck and steering him back toward the car. “No way,” he says, opening up the passenger side door and pushing Gavin inside. “I’m exhausted, and you can get drunk at home.”
“You’re no fun,” Gavin says, flailing the remains of his ice cream at Michael but accepting his fate.
“Fuck you, I’m the most fun,” Michael says as he gets in the driver’s side. “See? This is fun.” He pulls out of the parking lot and heads toward the freeway. “Driving quietly and not making any sudden movements or noises. Fun.”
Gavin snorts but doesn’t protest, and within a few minutes he’s dozing against the car window. Michael glances over several times, and does absolutely nothing to stop the mostly-eaten ice cream cone from dropping from Gavin’s hand into his lap, where a chocolate-brown stain starts to spread.
Taking advantage of the moment of quiet, Michael quickly comms HQ. “Haywood here,” says Ryan’s voice.
Taking one hand off the wheel, Michael lifts his wristband to his mouth. “Hey HQ, this is Jones. Just checking in to say we’re headed back to base after the outing. No incidents to report.”
“Copy that, Michael,” Ryan says. “I’ll let Barbara know you’re on your way back. She’ll want to video call you in a bit.”
“Sounds good,” Michael says. He’s about to sign off when he has an idea, “Actually, Ryan, could you tell her—just let her know that if the Ramseys wanted to get on the video call too, I think it’d be nice. For a bit.”
Ryan pauses for a moment, and when he speaks again Michael can hear a smile in his voice. “I’ll do that,” he says.
“Thanks, Ryan. Jones out,” Michael says, and glances over at Gavin again, who hasn’t stirred. The brown stain on his pants continues to spread. Michael turns back to the road and grins. It’s the little things.
“Alright, what about this one,” Michael says, flipping to the next page in his dossier as Gavin keeps his eyes fixed on the XBox. “What do you know about ‘The Poison Ivy Initiative’?”
Gavin snickers next to him on the couch, while onscreen his character skewers a necromorph with one of its own amputated limbs. “What, the ecoterrorist wannabes? Yeah, that was a year or two ago. We figured out they were using undocumented workers and taking major advantage. Dicks. Why, could they be the source of the threats?”
“They’re one of the groups we’re looking at, yeah,” Michael says.
“Unless someone’s figured out how to weaponize kale, I doubt it’s them,” Gavin says, before letting out several yodels of fear as an enemy nearly drains him of his health. “They were corrupt to shit, but I don’t think they were actually competent enough to hire out a hit on anyone.”
“Fair enough,” Michael says, wincing silently as he sees Gavin walk right past a health pack without picking it up. “Okay, moving on,” he says, trying not to let his face betray what he feels when he turns to the next page. “The weapons smugglers in West Virginia.”
Gavin’s eyes turn stormy. “Oh, those bastards.”
MIchael snorts. “Ah, so you’ve met them.”
“Haven’t, actually, but Geoff and Griffon told me enough,” Gavin says. He looks away from the screen to give Michael a quizzical look, nearly getting himself killed in the process. “Why, have you?”
Michael grunts noncommittally. “Let’s just say there’s no love lost there.”
“Mysterious Michael,” Gavin says, turning back to the screen. “Yeah, that lot were mean and mad enough to still be trying something. I wasn’t involved with that project, though, so I don’t really know much about it.”
“I’ll ask Barbara to bring it up with the Ramseys,” Michael says, trying not to get distracted as he watches Gavin get killed at the same spot over and over again. Finally, he can’t take it anymore “You shouldn’t be using your force gun in that area, it does fuck-all in zero G,” he says finally.
Gavin’s head whips around. “What?”
“Don’t use the force gun, dude, use the plasma cutter instead.” When Gavin just keeps staring at him, Michael rolls his eyes and holds out his hand, putting the dossier to the side. “Just give me the fucking controller.”
Gavin hands it over wordlessly, and Michael gets to work. “Jesus, you haven’t upgraded this for shit,” he mutters, going after the mini-boss who’d taken Gavin out three or four times already. “Plasma cutter is always going to be better when the gravity’s turned off,” he says as he deals out the last few killing blows. He gets to the save point, then hands the controller back to Gavin, who looks a bit like he’s been slapped across the face with a trout.
He stares down at the controller, then at the screen, and then back at Michael before finally sorting out his thoughts. “That. Is. Bollocks,” he says finally.
Michael raises an eyebrow. “You’re welcome.”
“You’ve played Dead Space before?”
“I’ve perfected it,” Michael says with a smirk. “Dead Space 2, too.”
“This is complete rubbish!” Gavin says, tossing the controller into the middle of the room. “Okay, you’re more of a badass in real life than I am, that’s fine. I can accept that. But how is it fair,” he continues, his voice cracking, “For you to be better at video games than me, too? Leave me my fantasy world at least!”
“I probably shouldn’t tell you my gamerscore, huh?”
“How do you even have time? Shouldn’t you be killing baddies for real? Shouldn’t you be crawling around through actual vents?”
Michael shrugs. “I told you, dude, the job doesn’t allow for much of a social life. Also, the vents thing is total bullshit. You’ll pretty much never find a building with a HVAC system big enough to be useful.”
Gavin narrows his eyes at him. “This is bollocks.”
“Sorry to ruin the movie magic for you, dude,” Michael says, laughing. “I won’t play anymore if you can’t deal with it.”
“What, are you joking? Fuck that, Dead Space 3 has co-op. Get a controller from under the TV. You can guard my body in-game.”
“I’m gonna let you die so many fucking times,” Michael grins as he grabs an XBox controller.
“Well that’s going in your Yelp review for sure.”
“Yo, dipshit,” Michael says, leaning into the living room from the kitchen and startling Gavin into looking up from his laptop, “Does that grill outside work?”
“Yeah, deffo,” Gavin says. “Ooh, are we having a cookout, Michael?”
“I’m gonna grill some fuckin’ chicken,” Michael says excitedly, turning back to get the meat out of the refrigerator. “Can you go get a fire started outside without killing yourself?” Nearly two weeks in they’ve established a dinner routine: Gavin does as much of the set-up as he can manage, Michael does the actual cooking, and then they fight over who has to do the dishes.
“I will have you know that I am absolutely top when it comes to fire-building,” Gavin says, getting a bag of charcoal out from a closet and nearly toppling over under its weight.
“Yeah, toppity tip-toes, whatever,” Michael says, pulling a bottle of ketchup out of the fridge as well. “Just don’t burn anything down.”
He sets about making barbecue sauce, studiously ignoring the various sounds of disaster coming from outside. Whatever Gavin is fucking up, he can deal with later. He succeeds for the most part, though one surprised yelp from the patio startles him enough that he spills sauce down the front of his t-shirt.
“Fuck you, Gavin!” he shouts.
“Nothing to worry about, Michael!” Gavin yells back cheerfully.
When he’s finished, he leaves the chicken marinating in the sauce and heads to the bathroom, grabbing another shirt from his suitcase in the living room as he goes.
In the bathroom, he tears off the stained shirt and pulls on the new one, smoothing it out and taking a moment to look himself over in the mirror. His hair is growing out. He runs a hand through where it’s starting to curl at the front and makes a mental note to get himself a haircut as soon as he gets back to DC.
That’s when a piercing alarm goes off in his earpiece.
He’s halfway back to the kitchen with his pistol drawn before what’s happening fully registers. All he can focus on is the harsh sound of his breath as he sprints through the house, somehow still audible over the screech of his earpiece. Fuck no fuck no fuck no is on repeat in his head as he barrels out onto the patio, kicking the door open with his gun raised.
“I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m fine!” Gavin shouts, and when Michael looks down he sees him sprawled out on the brick. Michael keeps his gun raised and scans back and forth, searching for anything that seems out of place. He crosses the patio and clears both the left and right sides of the house, stalking carefully around the perimeter and then making sure there are no strange vehicles in sight of the front porch. His blood pounds in his ears, drowning out everything but the urge to defend.
When he’s finally satisfied himself that there’s nothing out of place and no one on the property, he walks back to the patio. Gavin is sitting in a lawn chair with a hangdog face. Hyped up on adrenaline, Michael wants to drag him by the neck into the house and lock him in a panic room for the next twenty years.
“I’m so sorry, Michael, the button was in my jeans pocket and I tripped and when I fell I landed on it,” he says in a rush. “It was an accident, I wasn’t taking the piss, I swear.”
Before Michael can answer, Ray’s voice interrupts the alarm that’s still going off in his ear. “Jones, this is HQ, what is your status?” he says, sounding tense. “We got notification of a panic button activation.”
Michael raises his wristband to his mouth. “HQ, this is Jones, we’re fine here. False alarm.”
“You sure?” Ray says. Michael knows he’s giving him a chance to use the codeword he’d been assigned to use in case he were ever forced to talk to InComm while held at gunpoint. Michael’s word is copasetic. There had been a quiz.
“Yeah, Ray, we’re fine here. The mark is secure. Could you make my earpiece stop going off, though?” Gavin winces, mouthing sorry again.
“Oh, just tell him to press the button again,” Ray says, and Michael can’t help but be a little pleased by the note of relief in his voice.
“Gotcha. Thanks, Ray. Jones out.” He looks down at Gavin and lets out a long breath, finally holstering his gun. “Give me the button,” he snaps, and turns the alarm off when Gavin hands it over. “Get the hell inside,” he says. Gavin opens his mouth, but Michael cuts him off. “Inside, Gavin.”
Gavin slinks into the kitchen, and Michael stays outside, massaging his forehead and trying to calm down. He spots the grill and seizes on an opportunity to distract himself. He starts repairing Gavin’s pathetic attempt at fire-building, methodically piling up the charcoal and adding lighter fluid. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out Croft’s lighter, carefully setting the pile aflame. By the time most of the coals are glowing orange, his heartbeat has returned to normal.
When he walks back into the kitchen, Gavin is pacing nervously. His head snaps up when Michael enters, and he starts in again immediately on the apologies before Michael stops him.
“It’s alright, it was an accident,” he says, walking over to the marinating chicken and picking up the plate. “You didn’t mean to. It’s fine.”
“I swear I didn’t mean to scare you,” Gavin says, coming up behind him and hooking his chin over his shoulder. Michael would usually shake off the contact, but it’s actually a little grounding. It reassures the fight-or-flight chemicals still running through him in a concrete way.
“You didn’t scare me,” Michael says, not realizing it’s a lie until after he’s already said it. “I just—it’s hard to go from low-key mode to threat mode and then back again that fast. Fucks with my head. I’m not used to dialing it back down again right away. I’ll be fine in a minute.” He walks back out to the patio and Gavin follows behind, watching as he places the chicken on the grill. When he turns around and Gavin is still watching him hesitantly, he rolls his eyes. “Gavin. What.”
“I just feel bad!”
“What, for this? That time you fucking tripped me down the basement stairs with a remote-controlled car, no remorse at all, but this makes you feel bad?” Michael says, gesturing wildly with a barbecue fork. The idea that Gavin is worried about him makes him feel a hot rush of shame. “Shut the hell up, you make no sense.”
“I sent you into Terminator mode for no reason!” Gavin says. “That’s totally different from messing with you for a laugh. Which I still do not apologize for, for the record.”
“Christ,” Michael says, flipping over the chicken and settling into the comforting rhythm of telling Gavin what a shithead he is. “Gavin. Going into Terminator mode when I think you’re in danger is my job. I get paid to do exactly what I just did. I’m not actually here for a goddamn sleepover, remember?”
“Sure, but...” Gavin trails off, sounding crestfallen. “We have fun, though, don’t we?”
Michael makes himself relax a little more, his shoulders dropping. “Yeah, Gavin, we have fun,” he says, turning the chicken over again. “But that’s not the reason I’m here. And it’s not the priority.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Gavin says after a moment. “I’m gonna go get a bev.” He starts to head back inside, but Michael reaches out and grabs him by the shoulder.
“Wait,” he says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the button. “Here.” He places it in Gavin’s palm. “No point in me having it.”
Gavin’s fingers curl around it. “Thanks, Michael,” he says quietly, slipping it back into his pocket. “Not just for this, for, you know. Terminator mode.” He grins a little, the corner of his mouth quirking up. “I was cackin’ my pants, mate. You’re bloody terrifying.”
“I’ve heard,” Michael says. “All right, go get drunk, you fucking lush.” Gavin salutes and heads toward the kitchen. “And you’re definitely washing the dishes tonight,” he yells after him, smiling when Gavin curses quietly to himself.
“I’m not sure,” Gavin says, stretching his legs out on the couch so his feet are in Michael’s lap. “But I’m pretty sure this film is a massive bag of wank.”
“I mean, I was playing Angry Birds through the first half of it,” Michael says, trying to remember what any of the characters on the screen are called. “I finished three-starring all the levels, though. Why are we watching this, anyway? You have the remote, fucking change the channel.”
“Eh, can’t be bothered.” Gavin crosses his arms behind his head.
“You’re a piece of shit,” Michael says matter-of-factly, and the way Gavin smiles back at him gives Michael the uneasy feeling that he’s replacing the movie as Gavin’s source of entertainment.
“So,” Gavin says a few moments later. Michael hates being right. “Does that sort of stuff happen often? Earlier tonight, I mean?”
“What, like a false alarm?”
“Yeah. Like, have your other clients done the same thing by accident?” Gavin waits expectantly for an answer, now completely ignoring the television.
“Uh,” Michael says. He’d kind of hoped to avoid this particular revelation. “You’re actually my first client.”
“What, no one’s ever set it off like that before?”
“No, uh, I mean...” He’s still trying to figure out how to finish that sentence when Gavin figures it out.
“What?” he says, sitting bolt upright on the couch. “You’re a rookie? Bloody hell, no wonder you’re so uptight—wait a second, am I a shitting test drive?”
“I’m not uptight!” Michael says, turning sharply to look down the couch. “I gave you a goddamn piggy-back ride on my perimeter walk yesterday, how the hell am I uptight?”
“When you first got here you nearly had a coronary because I didn’t check your ID right away!” Gavin shouts back.
“That’s because it was fucking stupid, you stupid idiot!” Michael yells. “Sorry, I forgot that in Gavin-world ‘even vaguely rational’ counts as ‘uptight.’”
“Well, you know what they say,” Gavin says, taking a sip of his beer. “When in Gavin-world, do as Gav does.”
Michael snorts. “I’d rather shove a pencil up my dickhole. You are absolutely not in charge here.”
“Oi, I’m pretty sure I’m the client!”
“Uh, technically the Ramseys are paying for this,” Michael reminds him gleefully. “And I’ve only talked to Geoff a few times, but from what I’ve seen I’m pretty sure he’d fully support me keeping you in a goddamn dog kennel for the next two weeks as long as I gave you kibble and took you for walkies.”
“You’re both awful,” Gavin sulks, kicking lightly at Michael’s leg. There are a few moments of silence, but Michael knows better than to hope that it’ll last. “So if you only just started doing this job,” Gavin says, “When did you leave your last job? Crawling through vents after terrorists and all that?”
Michael tries not to noticeably tense. “There are never vents. And it was about three months ago,” he says, and doesn’t elaborate.
“Hmmm,” Gavin says, giving Michael a look, and then pointedly doesn’t ask for elaboration. Instead, he makes a show of returning his attention to the movie, ignoring Michael as aggressively as he can except for a few poorly-disguised glances back at him to make sure Michael’s noticed his fake indifference.
“Go fuck yourself,” Michael says, breaking after thirty seconds. “There was a mission, it went wrong, and it was my fault, okay? So I left. Nothing else to say.”
“What, they fired you for messing up once?” Gavin says, immediately abandoning any pretence of disinterest.
“Not exactly,” Michael says. “I mean, they would have. Or should have. But my boss pulled some strings for me, let me resign with no marks against me and no investigation.” He shouldn’t be talking about this, definitely shouldn’t be telling a client about it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to see Gavin as anyone he has to impress. Not that he doesn’t care what Gavin thinks; he just isn’t worried about it.
“Christ, Michael,” Gavin says. “What happened?”
Michael hasn’t told anyone the story since the immediate aftermath, and it’s a little strange to actually put it into his own words without the residual panic and pressure still there. “Uh, well, I was working with another agent,” he starts, his mouth suddenly dry. “It was supposed to be super fast, just planting a few bugs on some vehicles we thought were going to be transporting weapons. Actually, it was that same group Geoff and Griffon had a run-in with in West Virginia.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Michael says. “Like I said, should’ve been easy, but the fuckers seemed to know we were coming. They were ready for us, and every time we made a move it was like they already knew what we were going to do. I mean, okay, the bastards are smart, but—” Michael rubs at the back of his neck, that familiar insecurity coming back. “All my instincts were telling me that they had inside help.” He swallows. “So I pulled my gun on the other agent.”
There’s a moment of silence. “Shit,” Gavin says finally.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Michael says. “While I was having a stand-off with my own goddamn partner, they got the drop on us. Hit us hard with these fucking asshole blue flashbangs they always use and took off. Last I heard the agency was still trying to track them down.” Because of my fuck-up, he thinks, but he figures it goes without saying.
“Jesus,” Gavin says. “And that dude wasn’t the mole?”
“There was no mole,” Michael says, laughing angrily at himself. “I got caught up in the moment, fixated on some dumbshit idea. Maybe we were too predictable, or they were tapping into our communications remotely or something. But I fucked up, bad, and I figured it would be better to leave than to get kicked out on my ass.”
“I guess.” Gavin seems unconvinced. “Just seems—I mean, you must’ve done a lot to get there. Sucks that one mistake in the heat of the moment—”
“One mistake in the heat of the moment could get a lot of people killed in that line of work,” Michael says. “It’s not about who deserves what. It’s about who can get the job done, and I started worrying about my gut feeling instead of focusing on the job.” He pauses. “I’m lucky it didn’t end worse.”
“Not sure ‘lucky’ is the word I would use for you,” Gavin mutters. There’s a beat of silence, and then an abrupt subject change. “I dropped a thirty-thousand-dollar camera the last time I worked with Geoff and Griffon.”
Michael takes a moment to process the non sequitur. “Are you serious?”
“Yup,” Gavin says, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “I always—I’ve never been brave, really. I mean, Griffon, she doesn’t give a shit who you are or where she is, she’ll get in anybody’s face.” He smiles despite himself. “But I’m not—I’ve never been like that. I get scared, and it gets to me. I can’t just power through.”
“Dude, you being scared of the shit Geoff and Griffon do is the probably the smartest thing you’ve told me this entire time,” Michael says. “No shame in that.”
“No, I know,” Gavin says. “I’m not a coward, I just—I don’t have a Terminator mode, I don’t think. Not so far, anyway. And it affects my work. My hands are shaky, my film’s out of focus, I drop equipment. I’ve had panic attacks before, though I’ve got meds that help with that now. And all that’s fine, but—” He takes a deep breath, and Michael finds that his hand has curled around one of Gavin’s ankles of its own volition. “Geoff and Griffon should have someone who can handle what they do. They deserve that. But they’ll never fire me, because they love me. So I’ve just been hiding out here, saying I’m taking time off or working on my own stuff, because I don’t know how to tell them that I’m quitting.” He makes a face. “So maybe I take back that ‘not a coward’ thing.”
“If they love you, they’ll get it,” Michael says. He’s never been that good at these kinds of conversations, but even just watching Gavin interact with the Ramseys over video call has him convinced they’d let Gavin live in their spare room for the rest of his life if he wanted. “I mean, Gavin, they’re paying for me to be here because they want you to be safe.”
“Yeah, I know,” Gavin sighs. “I just know they’re going to try to talk me out of it, tell me I’m secretly some sort of action hero when I’m really not.”
“For what it’s worth,” Michael says, looking down at the feet that are still in his lap. “I’m pretty sure you’re less scared of me than anybody else in the world. Though I think that just means you’re bad at risk assessment.”
Gavin snorts and lifts one of his feet up to shove it in Michael’s face, ignoring his splutters. “What’s there to be scared of about ickle Michael? Hard outside but a squishy nougat center like a human Mars bar—oi, no, no tickling please! Aahh, Michael!”
At eight AM the next day, Michael is out back repairing part of the underground fence. Well, re-burying part of it, anyway; overnight some animal had scratched part of the wiring up from underground. Michael digs the trench down deeper, replacing the wiring and packing the dirt down overtop of it.
He’s almost grateful to whatever animal felt the need to do some mild vandalism last night. It’s nice to have something useful to do that isn’t either the monotony of his daily camera and perimeter checks or the pointless rush of the panic button fiasco. Despite what he’d told Gavin, it’s been getting difficult to think of what he’s doing here as real work when he spends three-quarters of his day killing time. He doubts most of his future jobs will be like this, worrying more about whether they have enough milk in the fridge than whether or not they’ll be attacked; what if he’s getting bad habits? That’s a downside he hadn’t thought of when he first got the assignment; for all he knows, playing house for a month is going to make him sloppy. Maybe he can convince Gavin to let him set up a firing range back here.
Thinking about Gavin makes him think about the night before, and Michael is unsettled by how not-unsettled he feels. His mother had tried for weeks to get him to talk to a professional about what had happened on his last mission, but he’d been adamant that he was never going to tell that story to anybody he didn’t have to, fuck you very much. And he’d stood by that, until last night.
Maybe that should make him nervous, or happy, or at least surprised, but mostly it just feels natural. Maybe it’s that Gavin is so aggressively unaware of the consequences of most things that adding him to any equation makes it seem a little less scary. Michael’s pretty sure Gavin formed an opinion of him inside fifteen seconds of meeting him, and he doubts there’s much he can do to change it, no matter what secrets he reveals. That’s kind of a nice feeling, even if that opinion’s probably something like “shouty but climbable” or “durable chewtoy.” There are worse things to be.
As he stands up and surveys his work, his cell phone goes off in his pocket. The personalized ringtone—”London Calling” by The Clash—lets him know in advance who it is on the other end, not that there are lots of other people calling him these days.
“I assume you’re awake,” he says in lieu of greeting. One point in Gavin’s favor: he has started actually adhering to the notes Michael sometimes leaves him in the morning.
“Michael, I have a plan,” Gavin says excitedly. Michael is doomed. “A plan that requires you to drive me to Walmart.”
Michael sighs and starts walking back toward the house. “Is this plan going to get anybody arrested? Or banned for life from anywhere? Because shit’s gonna get a lot more expensive if I can’t go to Walmart.”
“The plan is a surprise,” Gavin says in a near-whisper.
“So you want me to drive you to Walmart to get supplies for a plan that you aren’t going to tell me anything about?” Michael says, nearing the patio.
“Yes, Michael!” Gavin says, and Michael can hear it through both his phone speaker and his own ears as he enters the house.
He hangs up the phone. “You’re paying for gas.”
It ends up with Michael trailing after Gavin through the store, being forced to turn his back whenever Gavin finds something he needs. Gavin tells him to close his eyes the entire time they go through check-out, and Michael retaliates by continuously pawing at his face and saying “Gavin? Is that you, Gavin?” as he tries to pay the cashier.
Gavin makes him carry the bags back to the car, and Michael does his best to kick Gavin in the shins all the way across the parking lot.
When they get back home, Michael sits in the living room and checks in with InComm, telling them they’re back at base, while Gavin squirrels around with his purchases outside.
“Walmart, huh?” Ryan says. “Sounds like you’re having a whale of a time down there.”
“Eh, it’s not so bad,” Michael says. “I’m keeping myself entertained.”
Ryan hums distractedly in response. “Just so you know, HQ let us know earlier today that they might have a lead on finding whoever it was who made the original threats. It’s still pretty vague, and there’s nothing going on down where you are as far as they can tell, but still. Barbara’s being briefed, so if there’s anything you need to know she’ll pass it along.”
“Copy that,” Michael says. “Anything I need to tell the client about?”
“Nah,” Ryan says. “There’s nothing concrete yet. No reason to get his hopes up. Or worry him, either.”
“Gotcha,” Michael says, remembering the fear in Gavin’s face when he’d asked Michael about the people working with Geoff and Griffon. “Anything else?”
“Nothing from me. Thanks for checking in, Michael. HQ out.” Michael’s earpiece goes silent, and he wanders into the kitchen.
“Can I come out yet?” he shouts, averting his eyes from the screen door.
“Wait for it...” Gavin calls back. “Wait for it...okay!”
Michael lifts his eyes and walks out onto the patio, where he’s greeted with the sight of Gavin standing in the biggest kiddie pool he’s ever seen in his life. There’s a cooler of beer and soda next to him in the grass, and he’s got a pool noodle in each hand. “Surprise!” he says, flapping the pool noodles in the air with a dopey grin on his face.
Michael stops dead in the doorway. “Holy shit.”
“I was thinking last night,” Gavin says, “I was thinking, hmm, what do I want to do tomorrow? And I thought, well, I’m always a fan of getting some bevs by the pool, or going tubing, also with bevs. But then,” he says, punctuating it with a thrust of the noodle, “I thought, what about Michael? Because Michael always has to be all strapped up,” he waves a noodle at Michael’s thigh holster, “and can never have any proper fun.” He takes a deep breath, and throws his arms out wide. “So I went and brought the fun stuff back here! Though I did forget to buy the little drink umbrellas I wanted.”
Trying to restrain his grin, Michael takes in the scene. Gavin looks as happy as he’s ever seen him, shirtless and in violently green swim trunks. Michael’s oddly touched that Gavin’s reaction to wanting to do something Michael couldn’t do was to go to Walmart and pull together a knock-off version they could share. “Thanks, Gavvers,” he says. “This is fucking tippers.”
“My pleasure, Michael. Also,” Gavin adds, dropping the noodles, “I got you floaties.” He tosses the package to Michael and grins at him, sticking his tongue out. Michael can only laugh. Yeah, he’s touched, but Gavin’s still a dick, and that’s a comfort in and of itself.
Three hours, two pitched noodle battles, and half a cooler of beer later—the last being taken care of entirely by Gavin—they’re both stretched out on the verge of sleep, Michael on a lawn chair with his feet in the pool and Gavin almost entirely in the water, only his head propped up against the rim of the pool. Michael’s been napping on and off for an hour, making half-hearted attempts at regaining consciousness. What he really wants is to get in the pool, to take off his earpiece and sidearm and t-shirt and wrestle Gavin under the water. Since he’s denying himself that, he figures he can slack off a little in terms of wakefulness.
Eventually he’s pulled back to the real world by a hand in his hair, Gavin looming above him and shaking his head from side to side. “Wake up, Michael,” he says, slurring his words a little. “Michael, did you know you’ve got curly hair?” he asks, cocking his head to the side and tugging on one of the curls that’s been forming at Michael’s hairline.
“I’ve heard,” Michael says, still half-asleep and leaning into the touch. “Gotta get a haircut soon.”
Gavin tugs again before letting go. “No, don’t. S’nice.”
“Yeah?” Michael squints up into the sun and smirks at the way Gavin is swaying on his feet. “Alright, drunky. You hungry? I think there’s some leftover chicken from last night in the fridge.” Gavin makes a pleased noise, heading inside, but Michael forces himself to get up anyway. “Hold up, let me get it,” he says. “God knows you’ll find a way to kill yourself with the fuckin’ microwave or something.”
“Michael,” Gavin says, going inside and propping himself up against a wall. “Rude.”
“Rooood,” Michael repeats in a high-pitched imitation. “Shut up and let me make you a goddamn sandwich.”
He goes to get a plate out of the cabinet, but when he moves to the counter Gavin comes up behind him, hooking his chin over his shoulder the same way he had the night before. This time, though, he also wraps his hands around Michael’s waist, holding him tightly. Michael should shrug him off, send him back to the other side of the kitchen with an elbow to the ribs and an insult, but he can’t bring himself to. He’s still warm and loose from sitting in the sun, and he has that same strange feeling of calm that he did when Gavin had crowded in close the night before, like Michael’s body is glad to know that Gavin’s body exists.
There in the kitchen, with sunlight pooling in through the windows and picking out every mote of dust, there’s a split second that, looking back on it later, Michael will only be able to compare to watching a car crash. Not from the outside, though; Michael’s been in a few accidents in his life, and in every one there has been a brief moment where he’d realized something was about to happen (that truck’s coming too fast, fuck that was a red light, where did that motorcycle come from) but had been too late to do anything to stop the inevitable. Or maybe it’s more like the moment of weightlessness at the top of a swing, where everything is completely still for half a heartbeat before crashing back to earth.
Michael has that moment of perfect, pointless awareness, and a thousand little things of the past two and a half weeks click into place like the tumblers of a picked lock right before Gavin’s lips brush gently against his neck.
“Shit,” Michael says, freezing with his hands white-knuckled on the counter so he doesn’t shiver. “Gavin,” he starts, but goes silent when Gavin does it again, a little surer this time. “Gavin—” he tries again, turning around to face him, but this time he’s silenced when Gavin leans in, his off-target kiss catching Michael on the corner on the mouth before he stills, waiting for Michael to respond. They stay like that for a beat, Gavin’s arms bracketing Michael against the counter, until Michael draws in a shaky breath.
“Gavin,” he says again, this time leaning up to press a kiss to Gavin’s cheek. “I can’t.”
There’s a moment where Gavin seems rooted to the spot, and then he pushes back suddenly, looking everywhere but at Michael as he backs away. “No, no, no,” Michael scrambles, reaching out and reeling Gavin back in with two hands on his bare shoulders. His skin is still a little damp from the pool. “Gavin, fuck, don’t—” Michael says, still backed up against the counter. “You’re drunk, I don’t even know if you really want—”
“Oh, come on,” Gavin interrupts. It’s the first thing he’s said since this started, and the harshest Michael’s ever heard him sound. He finally makes eye contact as well, giving Michael a disbelieving look. “You know.”
“I just...I’m not saying that I’m not—that I don’t want what you’re offering—”
—because I do, Jesus Christ, I do, and since fucking when did you figure shit out before me? I want to get my hands on you and I want to hold you down and I want to make sure you never give anyone that fucking awful dopey grin but me ever again. I want you soft and pliable in the mornings and sun-hot and desperate in the afternoons and I want to be the only person you make go along with your shithead plans and the only person you touch and it turns out I actually am the dumbest person on the planet because I didn’t figure out until right now that I want you but I want you I want you—
“—but I can’t, Gavin, no matter...” he trails off, knowing that sentence doesn’t lead anywhere helpful. “You’re a client. This is a job, and I can’t...I can’t.” He feels a surge of frustration at the pained look on Gavin’s face, but can’t escape the fact that all the things he’d do to get rid of it would only make things worse.
“The job,” Gavin says flatly. “Yeah, no, I get it.” He steps backwards, letting Michael’s hands fall between them. “It was stupid of me, sorry.” He keeps backing up until he can turn the corner and walk out of the kitchen, one more “Sorry,” falling from his lips as he goes.
Michael forces himself not to follow him, and winces when he hears Gavin’s bedroom door close with a final-sounding click. He takes in three deep breaths—in, out, in, out, in, out—and then sweeps the still-empty plate off the counter. The smash of it against the tile floor does absolutely nothing to make him feel better.
After he cleans up the plate, he goes outside, meaning to keep busy by cleaning up the pool, but when he sees it he can’t bring himself to touch it. He looks at the near-empty cooler, remembering Gavin steadily working his way through it, and thinks about liquid courage. He thinks about being something Gavin would be afraid of. He wants to put his fist through a wall.
Studiously avoiding looking at Gavin’s closed bedroom door, Michael walks back into the living room and sits down on the couch, his head in his hands. Everything in his life just became more complicated, but parts of it also started making more sense. He supposes that having a thing for Gavin at least explains why he finds all the annoying shit he does amusing; or maybe the fact that he finds him amusing is why he has a thing for him. Either way, the fact remains that the blissful ignorance Michael had been somehow living in has been fucked right to hell. Michael tries to think of anything other than the way Gavin’s breath had felt against his mouth and fails miserably.
“Fucking balls,” he says under his breath, and then nearly jumps out of his skin when a ringing starts coming from the computer monitor. It’s the video call tone, and Michael remembers that Barbara was going to be calling to update him. He sighs, sits up straight, and tries to scrub all residue of the past half-hour from his expression.
He answers the call, and Barbara’s face comes up on screen. She looks a lot like she hasn’t had her understanding of her own life drastically up-ended so far today. Michael hates her, briefly.
“Hey, Michael, glad I caught you!” she says. “I know I’m calling earlier than usual, but I wanted to update you on some stuff HQ told me today.”
“Yeah, I was talking to Ryan earlier and he mentioned you might have something,” Michael says. He thinks he might have aged ten years since that conversation, but he does remember it. “Anything serious happening?”
“It’s nothing you and Free have to worry about,” Barbara says, leafing through a legal pad where she’s taken notes. “But apparently the feds are tracking someone down in Baltimore who might be connected to the threats. We’re upping the security here in DC a little bit, since that’s so close by.” She grins. “If they actually find the guy, you might be able to come home early!”
Michael’s stomach drops, which makes him furious at himself in turn. “Great, that’s great,” he says. “That’s awesome. Keep me updated.”
Barbara nods. “For sure. Anything happening on your end?”
“Here? Oh, no, nope,” Michael says. “Normal day, you know. Nothing exciting. Nothing of, uh, of note. To report.”
“Cool, cool,” Barbara says, apparently not noticing that Michael is having a minor coronary. “Try not to get too bored. If anything new develops, either InComm or I will be in touch. See you tomorrow!”
“Bye,” Michael says, and when her picture blinks away he falls back onto the couch with a groan, covering his face with his hands. After a minute of attempting to recover his dignity, he looks over at Gavin’s door. What he wants more than anything is to go knock on it, to go into the room and make Gavin understand—but Gavin is probably still drunk, and definitely in no mood to hear Michael turn him down again, just this time with better words.
Instead, Michael pulls some cushions off the couch, grabs a blanket, and settles down on the ground next to Gavin’s door. It’s only barely starting to get dark out, but he doubts Gavin is leaving the room tonight. Michael has no idea what he’s going to do when Gavin eventually comes out, but he knows he wants to be there. It feels silly and a little bit teenaged to park himself outside Gavin’s bedroom door, but he figures if all he’s allowed to be to Gavin is a glorified guard dog, then he’ll be the best damn guard dog the world has ever seen.
He falls asleep there eventually, ignoring his normal camera checks and perimeter walk to lie curled up on the floor, and dreams of blue smoke.
He jerks awake a few hours later, and opens his eyes to see Gavin frozen above him, mid-way through stepping carefully over him. Michael rubs his eyes. “Were you trying to sneak by me?” he says groggily.
“Thought it was worth a shot,” Gavin says, voice quiet.
Michael digests this information. “Gavin, I was a trained CIA operative,” he says, finally.
“Yeah, well, shut up, you snore,” Gavin says. “I’ve gotta take a piss, ‘scuse me.” He finishes stepping over Michael and pads into the bathroom connected to the kitchen. Michael lies back against the pillows and stares at the ceiling, thoughtful.
When Gavin comes back, Michael turns to look at him. “There’s a bathroom adjoining your bedroom,” he points out.
He can’t quite see in the dark, but he thinks Gavin goes a bit red. “You know, wanted to make sure you hadn’t thrown some kind of secret agent strop, filled the house with lasers or something.”
“Nah, figured I’d get a good night’s sleep before I took my revenge,” Michael says from the floor. He watches Gavin shift his weight from one foot or another. He’s in yet another pair of pajama pants, threadbare and worn where they skim the tops of his feet. “Sit down, Gavin, for the love of God.”
Gavin folds himself down until he’s sitting on the other side of the doorframe, his back to the wall and his arms wrapped around his knees. Normally Michael would kick him or poke him or smack him upside the head, but now that he knows where that urge to touch is coming from he feels paralyzed.
“I feel like a right tit,” Gavin says after a moment.
“Don’t,” Michael says quickly. “I mean, not that you aren’t, you are, you’re like a prodigy at being a dumbass.” Gavin smiles a little at the familiar shit-talking. “But. Not about this.”
It’s as much of a confession as he knows how to make for something he wasn’t aware of until a few hours ago, but Gavin seems to accept it, nodding a little and resting his head on his knees. “But it doesn’t matter,” he says.
“Gavin, if anybody found out, they’d fire me,” Michael says. “And even if they didn’t—” his voice breaks a little, and he takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “Gav, it’s my first job back after everything. I need—I need to do this one right. For me.”
“I get it,” Gavin says quietly, and Michael has a flash of recognition that he’s probably one of two or three people in the world who could get it. Isn’t that a kick to the gut.
They sit without speaking for a beat, and Michael occupies himself with watching the steady rise and fall of Gavin’s chest. “I don’t want things to be weird,” Gavin says suddenly, turning to look at Michael. “I mean, it can’t not be different, but—you know, you’re only here for what, a week and a half more?” Michael nods. “I don’t want to spend half of that being like, oh, if I do that is he going to think I want his dick?” Michael can’t help but crack up, and Gavin continues as he laughs. “Like, whatever, I do, but it’s not an option, so. I don’t really give a toss if you don’t.”
“I don’t,” Michael says. “And I don’t want things to be weird, either.” He can’t imagine he’s not going to act different, but he’s pretty sure that has more to do with the realization that he wants Gavin’s dick than the other way around.
“Top,” Gavin says, stretching and slowly getting to his feet. “Now, since last I checked it was two in the bloody morning, I am going to go back to sleep. G’night, Michael.”
“Goodnight, Gavin,” Michael says. Before Gavin can quite get through the doorway, though, he reaches out a hand and snags him around the ankle. “Gavin,” he says, his mouth suddenly dry. “I’m...I am sorry. Really.”
Gavin swallows and looks down at him. His hair is a mess and Michael’s fingers itch to fix it. “Thanks. That doesn’t really, um, help much, though.”
“Yeah,” Michael says, letting go of him. “Yeah, I figured it wouldn’t.” He lies back down and closes his eyes on the sight of Gavin slipping back into his room.
When Michael wakes up, the crick in his back from a night on the floor making it very clear that none of it was a dream, he does his daily review of the security footage and then sets about making breakfast. He leaves a plate out for Gavin in the kitchen and takes his own into the living room with a cup of coffee, firing up the XBox while he eats.
When Gavin totters out of the bedroom, Michael directs him toward the kitchen. “There’s coffee, too, if you’re hungover,” he adds.
Gavin wanders into the next room, and then shouts back, “You made breakfast?” There’s a pause, and then, “That’s weird, I don’t remember us having sex.”
“Don’t be a dick,” Michael says through a mouthful of food. “Eat it and then tell me what you want to play.”
Gavin comes back into the living room, shoveling eggs into his mouth, and makes a pleased sound when he sees the XBox is on. “Ooh, can we play Halo?” he asks around a piece of bacon as he settles down on the couch next to Michael.
“Yeah, if you don’t mind me massacring you,” Michael says. He waits until Gavin has finished inhaling his food, and then hands him his own empty plate. “Go wash these.” Gavin gives him a betrayed look, but to no avail. “I made the food, you wash the dishes.”
“I hate washing up,” Gavin says bitterly, but he gets up and does it anyway. When he comes back, he socks Michael in the arm. “Wanker.”
Even that little bit of contact is a rush, that surge of he exists you exist do something about it burning through Michael involuntarily, but he pushes it down and hands Gavin a controller instead. If he notices the way Gavin’s eyes flicker when their fingers touch, he doesn’t say a word about it.
“So are we having a gaming marathon, then?” Gavin asks, turning to look at the screen.
“Thought it would be fun,” Michael says, entering the Halo menu and scrolling through maps. “I didn’t, uh, didn’t really feel like going anywhere today.”
“Yeah,” Gavin says softly. “Yeah, me neither.” Then his character shoots Michael’s with a railgun.
They spend the day like that, trading insults and deathblows and looks that Michael pretends don’t matter as much as they do. He was serious about wanting to stay in; he needs Gavin close by right now, needs to reassure himself that they’re okay. It feels ridiculous, caring so much about his relationship with someone he’d never heard of a month ago, but Michael honestly doesn’t know how he’d deal with spending a week and a half in a house with a version of Gavin who didn’t regularly call him a knobhead with a smile on his face.
Then again, he’s not entirely sure how he’s going to handle spending a week and a half in a house with a version of Gavin he can’t touch the way he apparently wants to, but it’s not like he’s never wanted someone he can’t have before. That, at least, is a known quantity.
“You absolute piece of piss,” Gavin shouts as Michael kills him with an energy sword. “Piss, tits, and bollocks.” Michael is reminded that Gavin, too, is a known quantity.
They spend a few hours on Halo, and then switch to Assassin’s Creed III, at which Gavin is annoyingly good. Gavin makes an impassioned plea for Portal 2 coop next, but Michael vetoes it. He can’t think of a game in which Gavin’s taste for sabotage would be more aggravating, which he assumes is why Gavin wants to play it. They opt for Left 4 Dead 2 instead, which pretty quickly devolves into Gavin Screaming: The Game. Michael doesn’t mind. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that sitting on a couch yelling at Gavin in the dim light of late afternoon makes Michael feel more at ease than almost anything else.
“You motherfucker how are you down again?!” Michael shouts. “Fuck this. No. I’m leaving you.”
“Michael, no!” Gavin whines. “Come save me! You have to save me, you’re my Michael!”
“I’m not your jack shit right now, buddy,” Michael says, trying to keep the smile off his face and doing a piss-poor job of it.
“Michael,” Gavin draws out, and Michael can tell by the smug tone in his voice that he hasn’t fooled him. “My Michael. You have to save me.”
“Shut the fuck up, Gavin,” Michael says, feeling himself grinning. “Just so you know, I was actually gonna save you, but now I’m not as punishment for trying to manipulate me. I see through your tricks, you fucking minx.”
Gavin squawks angrily, and Michael laughs out loud when the GavinoFree has been killed notification pops up onscreen.
For dinner, Michael makes stir-fry while Gavin sits on the counter and watches, occasionally snatching an onion from the pan and eating it even though he burns his mouth every time. He’s never really given up on prying into Michael’s life, and he keeps up his traditional inquisition as Michael cooks.
“Would you rather...lose your legs or your arms?” he asks, feet swinging back and forth.
Michael adds some extra sesame oil and thinks about it. “It has to be both, right? Like both legs or both arms?” Gavin nods. “Then legs, I guess. I’d rather be in a wheelchair or have prosthetics than not have hands.”
“Yeah, then who’d cook for me? Actually, no, Geoff’s a better cook than you, doesn’t matter,” Gavin asks, and Michael elbows him hard. “Alright, would you rather...fight a human-sized ant, or a massive amount of normal-sized ants in the shape of a human?”
“Jesus, run that by me again?” Michael says, poking at the meat with a spatula.
“Like, do you want to fight a terrifying thing, but there’s only one of it, or a whole bunch of less terrifying things?”
“I guess the huge amount of normal ants,” Michael says thoughtfully. “Like, that’d be creepy as shit if they can take human shape or whatever, but I’m pretty sure a human-sized ant would bite my head off before I could do anything about it.”
“Makes sense,” Gavin says. “Though I’d be scared that the normal ants would, like, swarm up into my brain through my nose and make me an ant-zombie or something.”
Michael shudders. “Jesus, Gav. Can we make the questions a little bit less nightmare-fuel for a bit?”
“Okay, suit yourself,” Gavin says, snatching another onion. “What...is your favorite film?”
Michael takes a moment to think about it. “This might be a weird answer, but I saw a movie a year or two ago called Attack the Block that was really awesome,” he says as he turns off the burner. “It wasn’t, like, super deep or anything, but it was just a really good movie.”
“Haven’t seen it,” Gavin says, dropping down from the counter and grabbing two plates.
“Well, that’s tonight’s entertainment decided, then,” Michael says.
They eat dinner while talking to Barbara, with cameo appearances from both Geoff and Griffon, both of whom express appreciation that Michael is making sure Gavin eats actual food. Barbara doesn’t have anything new for Michael, and the Ramseys have to put their daughter to bed, so it’s a short call; before long the opening titles of the movie are onscreen.
The next 88 minutes are spent watching London teenagers fight off an alien invasion and police officers alike. A few of the jump scares have Gavin nearly leaping into Michael’s lap, which Michael pretends to mind. It’s probably for the best that he’s already seen the movie three or four times; it’s hard to focus when Gavin is grabbing at his leg in a panic every other scene. Gavin coos over the slow motion in one of the final scenes, and when the movie finally ends he looks over at Michael with a look of pure glee on his face.
“That was top, Michael,” he says, bouncing in his seat. “I, like, I want to watch it again? That was brilliant.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” Michael says, picking their plates up off the coffee table. He holds them out toward Gavin, who looks down at them with a confused expression that turns stormy.
“You’re a prick,” he says, taking the plates and going to the kitchen. Michael snickers and follows after. While Gavin grudgingly washes the dishes, Michael dries them and puts them back in the cabinet where they belong. When he finishes, Gavin is leaning against the fridge, looking at him.
Michael throws the dishtowel over his shoulder. “What?”
“Last night,” Gavin says, and Michael can’t help but tense a little. “You said you were sorry.” Michael nods, and Gavin tilts his head to the side before continuing. “I’m not, I don’t think. For what happened. I mean, could have been smoother about it for sure, no surprise there. But I’d rather have it be how it is than have you not know. Which is kind of new for me, if I’m being honest.”
I could fall in love with you inside an hour, probably, Michael thinks. “Me too,” he says. “Fuck, we’re being all, like, adult about this.”
“Yeah, it’s weird as hell,” Gavin says. “Kinda cool, though. Otherwise I’d have to get blackout drunk and run the other direction every time I saw you, and that’d probably get me killed.”
“I might still drunk dial you once I get back to DC,” Michael says with a lopsided smile. “No promises.”
“I guess I can deal with that,” Gavin grins, and Michael struggles with the balance between being helplessly grateful for what he has and hopelessly resentful of what he doesn’t.
There’s no real reason for Michael to do a perimeter check in the morning the next day, but he feels antsy. He knows part of it is how sedentary he’s suddenly become; he’s gone from heavy exercise every day to almost none. The Ramsey house doesn’t seem to have any work-out equipment, and the odds of him getting Gavin to go on a run with him are slim. He’s going soft. When he gets back to DC he’s going to have to put in some extra hours at the gym. At least he won’t be subjected to Joel’s exercises anymore. Small mercies.
As he tries to shake off the memories, his phone goes off in his pocket. His first thought is that Gavin’s up earlier than usual; then, he realizes that it’s the default ringtone. The number that flashes on the screen isn’t one he recognizes, though it’s a DC area code.
He answers the call and brings the phone to his ear, frowning. “Michael Jones, speaking,” he says, squinting up at the sky.
“Michael,” a somewhat familiar voice says in his ear. “It’s Matt Hullum. How are you doing?”
Even though no one can see him, Michael still stands up a little straighter. “I’m doing fine, sir. Is everything alright?” Michael hadn’t heard a word from the mission coordinator since the briefing, though he assumes Matt has been being updated on everything they’ve been doing.
“Everything’s great, Michael. I actually just wanted to call to give you the news myself,” Matt says. “Around midnight last night, the FBI made a bust in Baltimore, and in the process they picked up a man who’s confessed to making the threats against the Ramseys. Some environmentalist guy, I can’t remember the name of the group he’s with.”
“Poison Ivy something,” Michael says in a monotone, his mind racing.
“That’s the one!” Matt says. “Glad to hear you studied your file. Anyway, he and his collaborators are all in custody right now, and from what the feds can tell the threats never had much bite behind them to begin with. Bunch of crackpots, mostly. Still, it’s good to know for sure that nothing’s coming.”
“That’s great to hear, sir,” Michael says. “Do the people in DC know?”
Matt hums an affirmative. “Yup, I just got off the phone with Barbara. I wanted to speak to you both personally, since this was your first mission. Neither of you had particularly easy jobs to start off with, and I wanted you to know that you both were absolutely exemplary.”
“Thank you, sir,” Michael says, staring at his shoes and trying not to form a list in his head of all the things that could have gone better. He still feels good, though, that familiar reluctant warmth of caring about someone else’s opinion of him.
“Obviously there will be a formal debriefing after you get back, but still. Congratulations, Michael,” Matt says warmly. “Your first assignment is complete. You can stand down. Do you think you’ll be able to pack everything up in time to catch a flight back up here tomorrow?”
Michael does a few calculations as quickly as possible as he can in a head that’s suddenly filled with white noise. “The property here is pretty large sir, and I was kind of, uh, enthusiastic with the surveillance equipment. I might need another day.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine. I’ll have Operations book you a flight for Friday, instead. You should get the itinerary in your email by the end of the day. Looking forward to seeing you first thing Monday.”
“See you then, sir,” Michael says, and then he’s left with a dial tone. The job is over. He’s surprised by how affected he is, both triumphantly relieved and strangely lost. Michael has always liked things going according to plan; this isn’t how he’d planned on leaving.
When he gets back to the house, the first thing he does is go to Gavin’s room. He knocks a few times, and then walks in, crouching by Gavin’s bed and shaking him awake. He’s drooling a little, and he must kick in his sleep if the tangle of sheets by his feet is any indication. Michael wants to touch him, so he does. “Gav,” he says, fingers curling around his bicep, “Gav, wake up.”
“Hrrgurk,” Gavin says, his head jerking off the pillow. “Wha’s goin’ on?”
“My boss just called me,” Michael says softly, trying not to laugh as Gavin wipes drool from his mouth. “They caught the guy who made the threats. In Baltimore. They got him, it’s over.” He reaches over to the nightstand and grabs Gavin’s phone. “Figured you’d want to know, maybe want to talk to Geoff and Griffon.”
“Are you serious?” Gavin says, sitting up in bed. “Bloody hell, Michael, that’s amazing.” He throws his arms around Michael, holding tightly. Michael can feel him grinning into his neck, and allows himself a moment of weakness in pressing his hand to the small of Gavin’s back. Gavin pulls away, beaming, and grabs the phone from Michael’s other hand. “I’ll call them right now, thank you so much.”
He’s dialing before Michael leaves the room, and Michael can hear his high-pitched “Geoffrey!” from the kitchen. Smiling, Michael steps out onto the patio. The remains of their makeshift pool party are still there, and Michael sets about emptying and deflating the kiddie pool as he waits for Gavin to finish up his call. When that’s done, he brings the cooler inside, pouring the melted ice down the sink, and puts the noodles in the kitchen closet. He’s folding up the fully-deflated pool when Gavin comes outside, still holding the phone.
“Michael, Griffon wants to talk to you,” he says, and passes him the phone.
Michael lifts it to his ear. “Griffon?”
“Hello, Michael,” she says, her voice as melodic as he remembers from her occasional appearances during the video calls. “I just wanted to give you my congratulations in person. Or, well, as close to in person as I could swing.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Michael says. “Congratulations to you, as well. It’s gotta be a load off your mind.”
“Yes, I’ll definitely sleep better tonight,” she laughs. “But really, Michael, I want to thank you for looking after Gavin. I know he can be a bit of a handful.”
Michael snorts. “I feel like we’re talking about your Jack Russell I dogsat or something,” he says, watching through the screen door as Gavin tries to wash a spoon for his cereal and sprays water down the front of his shirt. “He’s not so bad.”
“Still, thanks,” Griffon says. She pauses, and Michael can hear her intake of breath before she continues. “You really made an impression on him, you know.”
Michael runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, he, uh, he made a bit of an impression on me, too,” he says.
“Figured he might have,” Griffon says, and there’s a note of sympathy in her voice that makes Michael want to spend the next hour on the phone with her, spilling his guts. “If we’re ever in DC at the same time, you feel free to come say hi, okay?” she says. “Gavin can give you our numbers.”
“I might just do that,” Michael says, and thinks about life in DC with friends like the Ramseys. It’s not a bad thought.
“Great,” Griffon says with a smile that’s audible. “All right, I’ll let you go. Give my love to Gavin, would you?”
“I will,” he says. “Goodbye, Griffon.”
“Goodbye, Michael,” she says, and Michael hangs up the phone.
He wanders back into the kitchen, where Gavin is sitting on the countertop and eating cereal. “So how are we celebrating, Michael?” Gavin says through a mouthful of Cheerios.
“Uh,” Michael says, “I mean, you can celebrate however you want, but I’m planning on starting to pack up my shit.”
“Oh,” Gavin says, his face falling. “Right. Hadn’t even thought. When do you leave?” He puts his bowl down on the counter next to him and scratches nervously at the back of his neck.
“Friday,” Michael says. “Boss wanted me to head back tomorrow but I told him it would take more time than that to pack up all the equipment.”
“Gotcha,” Gavin says. He hops down off the counter, landing lightly on his bare feet. “Where do we start?”
“You don’t have to stay,” Michael points out. “I mean, I’m staying here, so I can’t drive you anywhere, but you could still, like, call a cab or something, I don’t know. Get some time to yourself if you want.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Gavin says, putting his bowl in the sink. He turns around. “Unless, I mean, if you want to—”
“No, no,” Michael interrupts. “I don’t—no. Stay. If you want.” There’s a moment of silence, broken only by the sound of water still running in the sink behind Gavin. “I was going to start taking the cameras down first,” Michael says finally.
“Cool. Give me a minute to get some shoes on and I’ll come help,” Gavin says.
They do the circuit of the outside of the house one last time, Gavin holding the ladder and handing Michael the various drillbits he needs to uninstall the cameras.
“Would you rather,” he says, passing Michael a Phillip’s head, “Drink a cup of pureed human brain or eat five live mice?”
“You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” Michael says, unscrewing the camera from the wall. “Where do you come up with this shit?”
“Just answer the question, Michael!” Gavin demands, taking the screws and the camera when Michael passes it down.
“Jesus, I don’t fucking know.” Michael climbs down and shifts the ladder to the next corner of the house. “Is drinking the brain gonna give me, like, mad cow disease? Like, is it gonna fuck me up, or is it just gonna be gross?”
“Hmmm,” Gavin says, leaning against the ladder as Michael climbs it again. “Just gross. Plus, like, the moral implications of cannibalism.”
“Fuck that,” Michael says. “Who gives a shit? I’d rather do that then, like, feel little mice feet going down my throat. Or the tails, ugh.” There’s a retching sound from below him, and Michael looks down to see Gavin doubled over with a hand over his mouth. “Yeah, that’s right,” he yells down triumphantly. “Hoisted on your own petard, jackass!”
They finish taking down the cameras by noon, bringing them back into the house and re-packing them into their original suitcases. Gavin tries his hand at making omelets for lunch, and Michael has to admit that they aren’t half-bad if you drown them in hot sauce. Gavin steals a bite of Michael’s, but ends up chugging half a quart of milk and crying into the sink. Michael has no qualms about pointing and laughing.
After lunch they start unhooking the monitor in the living room. Eventually, Michael figures out that Gavin actually can handle electronic equipment pretty well, and starts taking care of the stuff that Gavin can’t handle: weaponry. Michael had put a few small weapons caches around the house and surrounding property when he’d arrived, just in case. The pistol under the sink, the shotgun under the bed in the master bedroom, the Bowie knife taped inside the toilet tank: Michael rounds all of them up, unloads the ones that need unloading, cleans them, and packs them away. Gavin watches this process, his eyes going wider and wider.
“Jesus, Michael, what were you expecting? Do you have stakes in the freezer in case of vampire attack?”
“Always be prepared,” Michael says, taking the shells out of the shotgun.
“Is this what the scouts are like in America? Christ,” Gavin says.
Before long nearly everything is put away, neatly packed back into the suitcases Operations had given Michael three weeks before. After he’s rolled up the last of the cables for the monitor, Gavin nods at a full duffle bag that’s next to the front door.
“Did you just never unpack that one, or what?” he says.
Michael looks up. “Oh, that? That’s a go-bag, you’re not supposed to unpack it,” he says. “It’s in case we had to leave the house while under attack and didn’t have time to get stuff. It’s got all the basics: small arms, rifle, some grenades, first aid kit, that sort of stuff.”
“Bloody hell, I’m surprised you didn’t murder the daylights out of a squirrel for trespassing or something,” Gavin says. “Just to break the monotony.”
“I found other stuff to do,” Michael shrugs, and tries not to dwell too much on the way Gavin’s eyes crinkle in response.
“All right,” Gavin says, dusting off the front of his jeans. “What’s left?”
“Digging up the fence out back,” Michael says, and Gavin groans but follows him outside.
It takes them almost two hours, but they make the circuit of the property. Michael handles the shovel, digging up the packed dirt over the wires. Gavin trails behind, winding up the wire like yarn in his hands as Michael uncovers it. Michael thinks that maybe he should be filling the small trench back in as they go, but he finds he kind of likes the idea of leaving it there as a marker. I was here. This was, for a little while, mine.
He expects Gavin to spend the whole time talking at him like usual, but after five minutes outside they both fall silent, letting the air be filled with the sounds of Michael digging. It’s so quiet that Michael could almost imagine he’s alone; every once in a while he glances behind him, reassuring himself that Gavin is still there, waiting on him to take the next step.
It’s nice to get to do one last walk around the property; it deserves a goodbye. Before now, Michael’s always made his home at institutions, finding places to validate him that are far from where he sleeps. It’s been nice to be here, for a while, even if it doesn’t really belong to him. It’s been nice to have a place to make safe.
They come all the way around, Michael holding a shovel and a few fence poles and Gavin with a massive coil of wire over his shoulder. They stagger inside, leaving the equipment on the porch, and Gavin goes to the fridge to get a beer. He’s been sweating, and Michael can see the way his t-shirt sticks to his shoulder blades as he moves. For some reason, it’s in that moment vague wheels that have been turning in Michael’s head since that morning click firmly into place. It feels a little bit like the entire day has been another car-crash-swingset moment, peace and stillness before a fall.
“Bugger me, that got heavy toward the end there,” Gavin says, pulling out a bottle of beer. “Please tell me we’re nearly done.”
“Yeah, we can stop,” Michael says. Most of the packing is done, though there’s more important work left to do tonight. “We’ve just gotta get the stuff outside into suitcases tomorrow. And I’ve got to pack my clothes.”
Gavin frowns as he pops the cap off the bottle. “I thought you told your boss you needed until Friday?” he says. “We could get that done tonight if you needed to.”
Michael watches the way Gavin’s throat works as he takes a sip. “Yeah,” he says, pulling his earpiece out of his ear and reaching down to undo the velcro of his wristband. He sets them both down on the counter, and feels a weight lift. “About that.”
Gavin’s got a confused look on his face, and Michael can’t wait to get rid of it. He walks across the kitchen and takes the beer out of Gavin’s hands, setting it in the sink. “Oi!” Gavin says, but goes abruptly silent, when Michael puts his hands on Gavin’s hips and pushes him back against the counter.
“I lied,” Michael says, and leans up to press his lips to Gavin’s.
Gavin makes a surprised squeak that has Michael smiling against his mouth, but he doesn’t kiss back. Michael pulls back after a moment, raising an eyebrow.
“Look, dude, if you’ve moved on, you can tell me, but I’m gonna be pretty surprised considering you haven’t seen another human in the past two days,” he says, and grins at the way Gavin splutters.
“What—” Gavin starts, but he seems completely thrown. “Michael.” Michael squeezes tighter on Gavin’s hips at the sound of his name. “I thought—you said you couldn’t!”
“I couldn’t while I was here for a job,” Michael says. “The job’s over. I did my job—and pretty damn well, now that I mention it. And I’m still here.” He doesn’t feel as glib as he sounds, but Christ—they’re adults and they want each other and nobody’s dying tonight. Michael, for the first time in a while, feels like he can cut himself a little slack.
Something seems to occur to Gavin, and he slants Michael a look. “Did you lie to your boss solely for the purpose of getting 24 hours to shag me?” he asks, starting to giggle.
“I may have factored that in,” Michael says, leaning in to nose under Gavin’s jaw. He smells like sweat and sun and the same detergent Michael’s been using for the past three weeks.
“I just—” Gavin says, his hands coming up to rest on Michael’s shoulders. Even through cotton, the contact has Michael on fire. “You’re not—this isn’t because you feel like you have to, right?”
Michael pulls back and gives Gavin the most withering look he can muster under the circumstances. “Gavin,” he says flatly, “do you actually think you could make me do anything I didn’t want to do?”
“Fair point,” Gavin says, starting to grin, and Michael doesn’t think he can be blamed for pushing up to catch his mouth in another kiss.
This time, Gavin is more than happy to respond. Gavin kisses inexpertly but enthusiastically, and Michael has never felt more sincerely wanted in his life. He slips his hands up Gavin’s shirt as he opens his mouth to Gavin’s tongue, and the way Gavin’s hands slide up into his hair makes sparks run up his spine. He pushes full-body against Gavin, connecting them from thigh to chest, and when his tongue catches lightly against Gavin’s he can feel every bit of him shiver.
They’re in no rush, and for a long time Michael is happy to do nothing but catalogue Gavin’s reactions. Running fingernails up his side makes him shudder; biting at his neck makes his head loll back; sucking hard on his bottom lip makes his hips push forward against Michael’s every time. Gavin gives as good as he gets, though, and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that pulling on Michael’s hair makes him moan into Gavin’s mouth, or that running his tongue behind Michael’s teeth turns him to jelly.
Finally, Michael’s had enough, and pulls back long enough to pull at Gavin’s shirt. “Fucking—off,” he says, not quite as in control of his words as he’d been a few minutes ago. Gavin complies, ripping his shirt over his head head before reeling Michael back in with both hands on his face.
The heat of his skin has Michael wondering, kiss-drunk, if Gavin charges up on sunlight like a goddamn solar battery. He’s warm and smooth and, in some places, pretty goddamn fuzzy; Michael wants to mark up every inch of him. Gavin seems to have similar ideas, bending his head to bite at the line of Michael’s jaw. When Michael tips his head back, Gavin bites his chin, too, and Michael can’t help but laugh.
“What are you doing,” he says, giggling, and Gavin just laughs back as he kisses him again. Michael gets lost for a moment in the heat of Gavin’s mouth, but then has a much better idea.
He pulls back again, breathing fast, and drops his hands to Gavin’s fly. “Can I...” he says, trailing off as he takes in Gavin’s blown pupils, his swollen mouth, the flush that spreads down his chest. Gavin nods, swallowing, and pushes his hips helplessly against Michael’s hands.
Michael drops to his knees, and smugly notes the curse that Gavin tries to muffle. He makes quick work of Gavin’s jeans, unbuttoning them and pulling them down his thighs. The boxers, visibly tented, are next, and Michael slides his thumbs under the waistband before pulling them down, keeping his eyes on Gavin’s as he tries not to smirk. Gavin bites down on his lip as his cock springs free.
Dropping his eyes, Michael examines what he has to work with. Uncircumcised, which is different but not a problem. A little longer than average. Overall, not bad. Not bad at all.
“In your own time,” Gavin says in a strangled voice. Michael snickers, but takes pity on him, wrapping a hand around the base of Gavin’s cock and leaning in to suck the head into his mouth. It’s been a long time since he’s had a dick in his mouth, and he’s surprised by how quickly it comes back to him, how familiar the long weight of Gavin feels on his tongue.
Gavin hisses and mindlessly snaps his hips forward, and Michael uses his free hand to pin him more firmly back against the counter. He pulls off, and reaches up to grab one of Gavin’s hands, which he slides into his hair. “Pull, but don’t push,” he says, and Gavin nods, threading his fingers through the hair at the back of Michael’s skull.
Michael goes back to work, the slight pleasure-pain of his hair being pulled in counterpoint to the sensory overload of taking Gavin’s cock back into his mouth. He finds a rhythm soon enough, focusing on the head and using his hand on the rest. Michael may not be a complete first-timer at this, but he’s under no impression that he can deepthroat either, and he’d rather focus on what he’s good at, like that flutter thing he can do with his tongue.
Gavin’s surprisingly quiet, considering how much he runs his mouth every other hour of the day, but Michael is more than able to suss out his reactions. His thigh twitches helplessly against Michael’s hand, and when Michael starts moving faster Gavin’s hand fists in his hair so hard that Michael groans around his cock. It’s been a long time since Michael’s been with anybody at all, and he’d forgotten how much fun it is to make somebody else feel good. He’d forgotten how much it got him off.
“Bloody hell,” Gavin says, slamming his free hand down on the countertop. Michael lifts his eyes to look up at him, and if he had any doubts about how this was going they’re taken care of by the shattered expression on Gavin’s face. “Michael, I’m not—” he chokes out, tugging as if to pull Michael off him.
Michael just keeps his rhythm up, digging bruises into Gavin’s hip as he loses control. When Gavin comes, gasping, Michael wrinkles his nose and swallows it down, stroking him through it until he collapses boneless against the counter.
Michael sits back on his heels, and Gavin slides slowly down the cabinet until he’s sitting on the kitchen floor. His chest is still heaving; when he finally catches his breath the most he can get out is an emphatic, “Mother of Christ, Michael.”
Less concerned with Mother Mary than the fact that his hard-on is about to burn a hole through his jeans, Michael gets into Gavin’s space, straddling him and taking back his mouth. Gavin kisses back lazily, tasting himself on Michael’s tongue and sliding his hands around to grab at Michael’s ass. Michael can’t help but grind against him, the crotch of his jeans pushing against Gavin’s stomach.
Gavin pulls back and looks pointedly at Michael’s groin before looking back up at him and waggling his eyebrows. “Shall I do you, then?” he says lightly, one hand coming back around to pop the button on Michael’s jeans.
“Feel free,” Michael says, but the shake in his voice betrays him. He helps Gavin get his jeans undone and pushed out of the way, taking his boxers with them. He should probably feel weirdly exposed, his t-shirt still on and his dick out, but he’s way past the point of caring.
Instead of leaning forward, Gavin leans back until his head is resting against the cabinet and slides down a little. His hands go back to Michael’s ass and lift a little, guiding him until he’s up on his knees. “Come here, then,” he says, looking up through his eyelashes, and Michael finally understands what he wants. He knee-walks forward, shuffling up Gavin’s body until the tip of his cock is nudging at Gavin’s lower lip.
“You sure?” Michael asks, reaching one hand up to cling white-knuckled to the edge of the countertop.
“Oh, absolutely,” Gavin says, eyes mischievous. He drags his lip back and forth, and Michael has to squeeze his eyes shut for a second. “Just go slow, I trust you. Oh, and don’t come in my mouth, it’ll make me gag,” he adds, and then lets his mouth fall open.
“Okay. Okay. Yeah,” Michael says, and slowly pushes forward into plush heat. Gavin’s eyes close, eyelashes fanning out, and Michael can’t help but drop a hand to cup his face as he draws back and pushes in again. Gavin’s mouth is obscene, pink lips stretched around Michael’s cock and shining with spit. He takes it beautifully.
“Anybody ever tell you how pretty you are like this?” Michael says breathlessly, running his thumb back and forth along Gavin’s cheekbone. Gavin opens his eyes and raises one eyebrow. “What? It’s a compliment.” Michael says, pulling out until Gavin’s lips are barely wrapped around the very tip. “Figures you’d give a fucking cranky blowjob,” he says, grinning, as he slides back in a smooth stroke. Gavin just digs his fingernails into Michael’s ass as a response.
Michael thinks he could stay there forever, watching Gavin relaxed and indolent and perfectly happy to let Michael fuck his mouth. Staying quiet during sex has never been Michael’s forte, and before long he’s talking completely involuntarily, telling Gavin how good he feels, how good it is. It’s probably the longest Gavin’s ever gone without interrupting him, though he’s still plenty distracting, cheeks red and eyelids fluttering. There’s only so long Michael can last, though, and before long he can feel that tension rising in him, higher and higher every time his cock glides against Gavin’s tongue.
“Fuck, I’m gonna come,” he says, pulling all the way out. He sits back, taking a hand off the countertop and stroking his dick fast.
“You can do the face if you want,” Gavin says, and the way his voice is wrecked is nearly enough to send Michael over the edge.
“Are you—are you serious?” Michael grinds out, one hand still cupping Gavin’s cheek.
“Yeah, yeah, fucking do it,” Gavin says, and that’s enough. Stars burst behind Michael’s eyes when he squeezes them shut, and when he opens them again Gavin’s chin and cheek are striped with white.
“Fuck,” he gasps out when he’s caught his breath.
“Something like, yeah,” Gavin says, sounding winded and self-satisfied. Michael thumbs a little of the mess off Gavin’s mouth, then leans in to suck his bottom lip into his mouth. Gavin hums happily, twining a hand back into Michael’s hair, and when he licks into Michael’s mouth Michael gets a taste of himself back.
Michael leans back after a moment, and heaves himself upright with a hand on the counter to grab a paper towel and run it under the sink for a minute. He collapses back down next to Gavin and sets about cleaning him off. Gavin purrs under his ministrations, and by the time Michael’s cleaned both of them off he’s half asleep.
“Come on, Gav, bedtime,” Michael says, staggering upright and throwing out the paper towel before tucking himself back into his boxers and pulling his jeans up to hang loosely off his hips. He holds out a hand to Gavin, and after he hauls him upright he leads them both back to the bedroom he’d slept outside of two nights before.
They strip down wordlessly and crawl into bed together, Gavin plastered along Michael’s side like a starfish. Michael’s used to sleeping alone, but he finds he doesn’t mind drifting off with Gavin’s hot breath against his neck.
“I just want to point out,” Gavin says, moments before Michael slips into sleep, “that this was originally my idea.”
Michael is pulled out of sleep by an insistent and annoying tickle on his nose. When he blinks awake, stretching, he’s confronted with the sight of a very impatient-looking Gavin Free, about two inches away from him, blowing his bangs into Michael’s face.
“What is wrong with you,” Michael groans, rolling away. He does his best to quell the giddiness he feels as he remembers the night before and focus on how much he fucking hates being woken up. He mostly fails.
The strategy of turning his back ends up being useless anyway, as Gavin is apparently a very aggressive spooner. An arm wraps around Michael’s waist, pulling him back against Gavin, and it becomes suddenly apparent why Gavin is so eager to have him awake.
“Michael,” he says, nosing against the back of Michael’s neck, “I have been awake for half a bloody hour with what is, if I do say so myself, a ludicrously persistent erection. Tried to wait it out. Got up, had a wee—which was incredibly difficult, by the way—brushed my teeth, came back to bed. Thought about having a wank, but didn’t want to waste perfectly good morning wood on that. I have been practically saintlike. Now if you would get off your lazy arse and shag me, I would really appreciate it.”
“Could you say that again,” Michael says, rolling over, “But rephrase it so it sounds more like you’re begging for my dick and less like I forgot to take the trash out?” His body is way ahead of him, though, more than aware that he’s naked in bed with someone ready and willing to do something about the semi he’s sporting.
Gavin leans in to kiss him, and Michael has about half a second to relax into it before he’s suddenly shoved away and Gavin has scurried to the other side of the bed, scrubbing the back of his hand furiously over his mouth.
“Shitting Christ, your morning breath is awful,” he says, and Michael tries not to actually allow steam to escape from his ears as he untangles himself from the sheets. “Go use my mouthwash, you monster.”
“It’s your own goddamn fault for brushing your teeth,” Michael says as he stumbles into the bathroom. “If you’d left it alone you wouldn’t even have noticed.” He makes eye contact with his own reflection as he stands, naked, gargling mouthwash for the benefit of the most annoying prick he knows. You’re fucking doomed, a small voice in his brain pipes up.
He turns around, walking back into the bedroom, and is confronted by the sight of Gavin spread out on the bed stroking himself, all miles of tan skin on white sheets and a look of fake boredom on his face. “Take your time,” he says, squeezing tight around his own cock, and then shrieks when Michael tackles him.
The momentum rolls them over until Gavin settles on top of Michael, straddled across his lap and grinning down at him with his tongue poking out from between his teeth. Fucking doomed, that voice says again. Gavin reaches down to pin Michael’s wrists back against the pillow, and Michael is content to let him win for now, especially since it brings Gavin down low enough for Michael to lunge up and kiss him messily.
“Am I fucking minty fresh enough for you, your highness?” he mumbles against Gavin’s mouth, pushing his hips up so their cocks slide together.
“You’ll do,” Gavin says, nipping at his lips and rolling his hips back in turn.
They pass a few minutes like that, unhurried in the soft and body-warm universe of the bed, but it’s not long before it turns more urgent, Gavin letting go of Michael’s wrists to scratch lines down his chest and Michael kissing him deeply with a hand firm on the back of his neck.
Gavin pulls back, panting, his cock leaving shiny streaks against Michael’s stomach where he’s rutting against him. “You wanna fuck me, yeah?” he says, aiming for nonchalant but hitting closer to “desperate.”
“Yeah, I do,” Michael says, voice breaking, “I am all about that.” Gavin scrambles forward, clumsily opening a drawer in his nightstand to pull out a small bottle and a strip of condoms. He sits up on his knees as he opens the bottle, slicking up a few fingers, and then throws it to the side on the bed as he reaches behind himself to start opening himself up.
“Fuck, look at you,” Michael says, reaching out to stroke Gavin’s cock slowly. Gavin lets out a little gasp, torn between thrusting forward into Michael’s hand and sinking back down onto his own fingers. “You do this a lot?”
Gavin looks down at him through hooded eyes. “When the mood strikes,” he says, quirking a smile before Michael’s tightening hand makes his eyes roll back in his head. “Did it—fuck—a few times thinking about you being asleep in the next room,” he says, and Michael has never needed to be inside somebody so bad.
“Jesus,” he says, grabbing the bottle from the side of the bed and slicking up a few of his own fingers. “Can I—” he starts, sliding his right hand back to join Gavin’s as his left hand takes over stroking Gavin’s dick. Gavin nods, and Michael pushes a finger in to join the two Gavin already has inside himself. Gavin sighs and rocks back against them, mouth falling open and eyes squeezing shut. Michael is overwhelmed by the way he feels inside, wet and tight and fluttering muscle.
“Okay,” Gavin says after a few hushed minutes. “Okay, I want, I want—” and Michael is way ahead of him, pulling his finger out carefully and reaching to tear a condom off the strip. His slick fingers fumble on the wrapper, and even that momentary delay feels unacceptable. It’s like three weeks’ worth of accumulated tension have snuck up on him all at once, and every part of him wants to be touching Gavin now now now. Finally, he rolls the condom on, and Gavin shuffles forward to position himself with one hand braced on Michael’s chest.
He sinks down slowly with a long exhale, and Michael’s head drops back against the pillow as his world narrows to that tight heat. Gavin rocks himself down gradually until he’s fully seated, and then moves both hands to grab at Michael’s shoulders. “You are lovely,” he says, and rolls his hips.
Michael lets out a groan at the way Gavin’s movement makes Michael’s cock drag heavily inside him, and reaches to hold tightly to Gavin’s hipbones. He thrusts up into him, his hips snapping up off the bed, and soon enough they develop a steady rhythm that fills the room with the sound of skin on skin. Gavin, for the most part, is silent; apart from the occasional hitching breath, he barely makes a sound. Michael can still tell when he starts making contact with Gavin’s prostate by the way his stomach muscles spasm, the way his fingernails dig into Michael’s shoulders, but he bites down on his lower lip and is noiseless.
“You always this quiet?” Michael says, lifting a hand to thumb at Gavin’s bitten lip. Gavin doesn’t ease up on the rhythm, flicking his tongue out to lick at the pad of Michael’s thumb. Michael drops his hand back down, wrapping it around Gavin’s cock and rubbing his thumb, still wet, against the underside of the head.
“F-force of habit,” Gavin says, letting his head hang down as he focuses on working his hips. “Never—never that noisy,” he pants.
“Yeah?” Michael says. As much as he likes Gavin like this, stunned into silence and focused, it’s not quite what he wants. “I always like a challenge,” he says, fucking up into Gavin especially hard.
Gavin’s pupils go a little wider, and Michael can feel his cock twitch in his hand. “Go for it,” he says, moving one of his hands to pinch one of Michael’s nipples and draw a slightly undignified moan from him. It’s the smirk that Gavin gives him then that makes Michael decide to ruin him.
Michael sits up a little and drags Gavin down into a filthy kiss. When Gavin pulls back for air, Michael puts his mouth to his ear. “Hands and knees, then,” he says firmly, and when he leans back Gavin is flushed.
“Yeah,” he says breathlessly, “fuck yeah.”
They ease apart carefully, Gavin wincing only a little at the emptiness. Michael can’t keep his hands off him as Gavin turns over, palming over his ribs and his shoulders and the planes of his back. It seems impossible that one person should have so much skin, that Michael should be allowed to touch all of it. Gavin settles down, propped up on his hands and knees facing the foot of the bed, and Michael looms over him, pressing biting kisses to his shoulder blades and down his spine.
“Tell me if it’s too much,” he says, sliding his hands down to Gavin’s ass.
“Someone has an awfully high opinion of hims—” Gavin starts, but the sentence devolves into a surprised hiss when Michael’s tongue flicks over his rim.
Michael spreads him wider with both hands before lapping his tongue inside teasingly. The synthetic tastes of lube and latex aren’t particularly pleasant, but Michael doesn’t care about that; he cares about the way that Gavin has dropped from his hands to prop himself up on his forearms. He cares about the way the muscles in Gavin’s back are taut with the effort of keeping himself quiet, the way both his hands fist in the sheets when Michael slides a finger in along with his tongue. Michael cares about all the tension he’s going to fuck out of him. That’s enough motive to keep him down here all day.
“How’s it going, Gavvers?” Michael asks as innocently as possible, pulling back after a minute and sliding in a second finger to replace his mouth. Gavin stays completely silent, and Michael is momentarily disappointed in himself before he leans forward and sees that Gavin is biting down hard on the sheets. “Oh, fuck no, that’s cheating,” Michael says, twisting in a third finger, and Gavin spits out the fabric with a gasp.
“You are a bastard,” he says, even as he fucks himself back against Michael’s hand.
“Ooh, tell me more,” Michael says, reaching around to find Gavin’s cock with his other hand. “Fuck, Gavin, you’re so hard,” he says when he finds it, leaking against his palm. “You want me to touch you?”
Gavin nods wordlessly, his face pressed to the sheets and his eyes squeezed closed. “Uh-uh, use your words,” Michael says, enjoying every second of this.
“I want you to wank me off, you fucking wanker,” Gavin spits out, drawing a shuddering breath.
“Hmm,” Michael says consideringly. “Too bad.” He removes his hand and dips his head again, laving his tongue against where Gavin is stretched around his fingers.
“Shit,” Gavin bursts out. “I hate you so much, Christ.”
Michael looks up, raising his eyebrows at the back of Gavin’s head. “Is that a request for me to stop?”
“Don’t you dare,” Gavin snaps, but it turns into the tiniest moan when Michael goes back to eating him out, and Michael knows he has him.
After a few minutes, every one of Gavin’s exhales are turning into tiny involuntary mewls, and Michael decides to take pity on him. In a matter of speaking. He leans forward, licking at a bruise he left on Gavin’s shoulder earlier. “I’m gonna fuck you again, okay?” he says softly, and Gavin whines softly and shifts back against him.
Michael’s been trying to ignore his own dick this whole time, but goddamn if it isn’t still interested in the proceedings, especially with Gavin spread out with his ass in the air. Michael repositions himself, the head of his dick nudging against where Gavin is slick and open, and what little blood was still directed towards his brain immediately rushes southward when he sees the way Gavin squirms back toward him, making unhappy noises when the tip slides against him but doesn’t push inside.
“Easy, easy,” Michael says, one hand on the small of Gavin’s back and one on the base of his dick as he eases the head inside. “You can have it, it’s okay.”
Gavin pushes back, ignoring the pace Michael had planned on setting, and lets out his first honest-to-God groan of the morning as it slides in all the way. Michael thinks that maybe he should be gloating, or trying to regain his control of the situation, but he finds he likes this view better: perfectly still, hands on Gavin’s waist, watching him fuck himself on Michael’s cock. Michael’s always enjoyed feeling useful.
“Fuck, Gavin,” he says between gritted teeth. “You’re so good, you’re so good.” And he is, he’s so good, back arched and taking dick like he was built for it. He’s loud now, too, letting out these helpless little ahs every time he pushes back just right.
“Michael—fuck,” Gavin says after a few minutes, his voice tight and his thighs shaking. “Michael, please, please,” he says, and Michael might enjoy being a jackass but he’s never been one to deny a direct request.
“Yeah, Gav, yeah,” he says, reaching down to slide an arm under Gavin’s chest. “I got you,” he says, mouth pressed against the side of Gavin’s neck, and lifts, pulling Gavin up on his knees with his back against Michael’s chest. When Michael wraps his other hand around Gavin’s cock and starts stroking, Gavin’s head drops back to lean on Michael’s shoulder as he thrusts into Michaels hand.
“Fuck, fuck, Michael,” he says, one hand flying back to grip at Michael’s hair. Michael scrapes his teeth against Gavin’s neck, and that’s enough. Gavin comes with a wordless shout, coating Michael’s hand as he strokes him through it. He goes ragdoll in Michael’s arms, like a puppet with cut strings, and Michael can only hold on for a few more thrusts until he’s following Gavin over the edge with his teeth in his shoulder.
With the aftershocks still shuddering through them, Michael eases Gavin down onto his stomach before collapsing half next to him, half on top of him. Slowly but surely, every one of his muscles starts to feel well-used and lax, and it’s all he can manage to pull out of Gavin, tie off the condom, and throw it into the trash can next to the bed.
“I am lying in spunk,” Gavin says after a moment, his face still pancaked against the foot of the bed, “and I don’t even care.”
“We’ll shower,” Michael says, lying on his side next to him and sleepily examining the way the strange feathers of Gavin’s hair are picked out by the morning light. “We’ll sleep some more, we’ll shower, you’ll make food, we’ll go into town, we’ll actually get bevs somewhere together, then we’ll come back here and I’ll fuck you through the mattress. Then you can return the favor,” he says, reaching out to run a hand through Gavin’s sex hair.
“Top,” Gavin says, humming happily and leaning into the touch. “You have a plan,” he says after a moment, sounding smug.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been told I’m pretty uptight,” Michael says, quelling all the things he could say about making the most of limited time. Gavin smiles groggily, and they fall back asleep like that, wrong-way-’round on the bed with Michael’s hand on the back of Gavin’s neck.
When Michael wakes up for the second time that day, the clock on the nightstand tells him it’s almost noon. Gavin’s still asleep, drooling a little, and Michael moves slowly as he gets out of bed so as not to wake him. He walks into the bathroom, stretching out the soreness in his back, and turns on the shower with a squeak.
Stepping under the cool spray feels amazing, but it also leaves him alone with his thoughts. With nothing to focus on besides the tile walls and the slightly concerning fact that Gavin seems to have shampoo but no soap, Michael’s having a harder time not dwelling on some unfortunate realities. He’s leaving tomorrow. He’s become involved with a client, which is less than professional no matter what the timing. Michael thinks he’s putting up a pretty good front, but both of those facts are fucking with his head more than he’d like to admit. Not that he’d take any of it back, but—fuck, it’d be easier if the situation were anything but what it is. If Gavin were in DC or hadn’t been a client. If Michael were in a different line of work. If—and this Michael admits quietly to himself—whatever was going on wasn’t anything more than sex.
It’s shitty, because it’s been a long time since Michael just...wanted something. It feels plain and simple and easy, being with Gavin, and Michael’s never been the kind of guy to waste time when he feels like that. He’d spent most of his life trusting his gut instincts until recently, and it’s a hard habit to break. Gut instinct tells him that walking away from someone when you can live together and you make each other laugh and you have awesome sex makes you a dumbass. So yeah, it’s just...it’s shitty, and he can’t shake the feeling that no matter what he does, he’s going to find a way to turn it into a gigantic fucking mistake.
He’s pulled out of his thoughts when the shower curtain is pulled open and Gavin clambers in beside him. “Move, I’ve got to wash my own goddamn jizz out of my chest hair,” he says, jostling Michael aside to get under the spray. Ah, yes, here is the object of Michael’s concern.
“Well excuse the fuck out of me,” Michael says, moving to stand at the far end of the tub. He takes a moment to admire the various bruises blossoming all over Gavin’s body. Yeah, he’s still got it. “Question,” he says after a moment, watching as Gavin shampoos his chest. “Is there a reason there’s no soap or body wash or whatever in here?”
“Hrrm?” Gavin says before spitting out the mouthful of water he’d collected. “Oh, yeah, don’t use it. Just use shampoo. Can’t be bothered with two different kinds of soap. S’bollocks.”
Michael blinks at him for a second. “That’s fucking disgusting,” he says finally.
“What? Why? It’s still soap, and I’m mostly hair anyway,” Gavin says with a toothy grin.
“That’s not the point!” Michael says, moving to crowd into Gavin’s space.
“Sure it is,” Gavin says, rinsing shampoo out of his hair. “I certainly didn’t hear you complaining earlier.”
Michael grabs him around the bicep, liking the way the wet skin feels under his hand. “If I didn’t think one of us would slip and die I’d beat the shit out of you right now,” he says with a smile.
Gavin just hooks his other arm around Michael’s neck and draws him into a kiss under the spray. Hearing nothing but the water and feeling nothing but the man in front of him, Michael tries to turn off his thoughts. It’s not like they’re getting him anywhere.
It works for a few minutes, Michael losing himself in the temperature difference between Gavin’s warm mouth and the cool tile, but before long his mind is racing again. “Fuck,” he says, breaking the kiss and leaning his head back against the wall.
“What?” Gavin says, looking alarmed. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I just,” Michael says, frowning and trying to figure out what he wants. He wants to be reassured, for someone to tell him what the right call is. It’s not a feeling he’s used to. He hates it. “Could you—this is weird, but humor me, okay?” Gavin nods, still pressing Michael against the tile wall. “Could you just tell me what you see in me?”
There’s a pause. “What?” Gavin says again. “Really?”
“Forget it, it’s stupid—” Michael starts, face flushing, but Gavin cuts him off.
“You’ve got nice arms,” he blurts out, sounding surprised at himself, and Michael can’t help but smile at the way his ears redden. “You’ve got nice arms, and you make me dinner, and I could tell that you liked me even though I think you didn’t really want to,” he continues, steadily avoiding eye contact. “And I like the way you touch me?” he says, looking at his feet. “You touch me like, Christ, I don’t know. Like you don’t think I’m going to break. I don’t know, Michael, I’m shit at this sort of thing, give me some warning next time.”
He looks so embarrassed that Michael has to put his hands all over him, running them over his shoulders and then up into his hair so he can pull Gavin’s forehead down to rest against his. He said that for me, he thinks wonderingly. It’s been a while since somebody liked the same things about Michael that he likes about himself. “I like you,” Michael says. “Even though I really, really didn’t want to.”
Gavin’s careful smile up this close is something else. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Michael says, and kisses him softly with eyes open. He still doesn’t know precisely what they’re going to do, but it closes up the pit in his stomach to realize that he’s not going to have to figure it out alone.
“Brilliant,” Gavin says after a moment. “Blowjobs, then?”
Michael snorts. “No way, if we fuck again we’ll fall back asleep and never get out of the house,” he says, reaching around Gavin to turn the water off. “Dry off, put on some clothes, and make us some food while I finish packing.”
“Has anybody ever told you you’re bossy?” Gavin says, getting out of the shower and toweling off
“Uh, I think you mean I have leadership skills,” Michael says, snapping his own towel at Gavin’s bare ass and snickering when he yelps.
Gavin slips on jeans and a polo and goes to the kitchen to start work on brunch while Michael picks up his discarded clothes from around the room, including the leg holster for his sidearm. He walks back out into the living room, still naked, and picks new clothes out from one of his suitcases. Once he’s dressed, sidearm still strapped around his thigh out of habit, he makes one last circuit of the house, picking up and packing all of his belongings except the few things he’ll need over the next twenty-four hours. It’s not much; Michael plans on having most of that time occupied.
By the time Gavin slides omelets out of the skillet and onto two plates, shouting across the house for Michael, everything is packed and piled by the doorway. “Smells good, Gav,” Michael says, bounding into the kitchen and snagging Gavin around the waist.
“Michael, I’ll drop them, Michael,” Gavin yells when Michael lifts him up off the ground. Michael laughs into the back of Gavin’s t-shirt and sets him down, moving around him to hold open the door as Gavin walks outside to the patio. Michael ducks back into the kitchen to grab silverware, and then joins Gavin outside, sitting down at the picnic table by the kitchen table and passing him a fork. “Thank you kindly, Michael,” Gavin says. They sit in the sun, taking their first bites of food and chewing quietly.
“Lovely day,” Gavin says idly, right before the sniper’s first bullet shatters the window behind them.
Michael’s brain doesn’t catch up to his body until he’s already vaulted over the table, knocking Gavin to the ground. Another fast, fluid movement, and he’s flipped the table over onto its side to give them a bit of cover. A small portion of the rational part of his brain is screaming at him that this isn’t happening, can’t be happening, but the rest of it is focused on trying to calculate where the shots are coming from as the second and third bullets whiz over their heads.
He can’t tell much, but if he has to guess he’d say they’re coming from the wooded hills toward the edge of the property. Bleeding through the wall of noise that’s filling his head is a sick sense of satisfaction that at least he’d been right about those being a problem.
Finding out how the problem got there is a lot lower down on his list of priorities than getting rid of it, though, and both of those are lower than keeping his mark safe. Speaking of his mark, Michael’s still half on top of Gavin, pinning him down, and when Michael looks down at him his eyes are glazed and wild. His breath is coming shallow and fast.
“Gavin!” Michael says sharply, relieved when his eyes refocus on Michael’s face. A fourth bullet pings over the top of the picnic table. As far as Michael can tell, there’s only one person shooting at them, and from a distance, but they can’t stay here for much longer. The sniper could shift his nest to a spot where they don’t have cover; hell, for all Michael knows, he might have back-up on its way. They need to move. “We’re being attacked. Do you remember where you’re supposed to go in the basement?”
Gavin blinks a few times, then swallows and nods. Good enough. Michael checks and makes sure the door into the kitchen is still standing open. “Okay, I need you to listen to me,” he says, pulling his sidearm out of its holster. “There’s a sniper in the hills. I’m going to provide you with cover fire, and when I give the signal, you get in the house. Stay low, and go to the basement. Don’t try to find a weapon. Don’t try to help me. Go to the basement, and hit your panic button as soon as you’re safe. When I don’t answer InComm, they’ll figure out something’s wrong and notify Austin PD. You don’t make a sound, and you don’t leave the basement until I come down to get you. Do you remember the knock we decided on?”
Gavin nods again, skin blanched under his tan, and that’s as much as Michael can hope for. To be honest, if Michael were on his own he would be half afraid that he’d finally snapped, that this sudden appearance of danger was some kind of hallucination, but when he looks at Gavin a protective urge settles in his chest that he could never invent. This is happening.
Taking the safety off his handgun, Michael thinks futilely of his earpiece, left stranded on the kitchen counter the night before. At least the panic button will help them figure out that something is going on; then again, if Gavin’s being targeted then the people in DC probably have their hands full with whoever’s going after the Ramseys.
He eases off of Gavin, letting him slip out from under him. “When I tell you to go, you go, okay?” Michael says, trying to slow his own breathing. Another bullet smashes into the outer wall of the Ramsey’s house. They’re both about to put themselves in the sniper’s eyeline; Michael just hopes the sniper focuses on the one of them with the gun long enough for Gavin to get inside.
“On my count,” he says, turning away from Gavin to face toward the hills. “Three,” he glances back to see Gavin on all fours, ready to spring into the house; “two,” he sends a silent thank-you to Joel, wherever he is, for training him not to lose his head; “one,” he brushes blue smoke out of his mind’s eye. Terminator mode, he thinks, and shouts, “Go!”
Michael pops up over the top of the picnic table and fires three steady shots, spotting the shooter in one of the trees between the second and third. He drops back down before he can tell if the third shot made contact or not; he has twelve more rounds in the magazine to bring him down.
He turns to look behind him and feels a flood of relief when he sees that Gavin’s nowhere in sight, safely inside the house. No matter what happens to Michael, now Gavin has at least a little time for InComm to send back-up now. The set of Michael’s shoulders relaxes as his list of priorities gets even shorter.
The sniper is steadily peppering shots over the top of the picnic table now, waiting for Michael to make another move. Could be worse; at least this way Michael knows he’s in the same position. Michael takes a moment to remind himself which tree he was in, and then leans around the side of the table, squeezing off two shots in quick succession before ducking back around.
This time, a human yell lets him know that one of his bullets hit home. The suppressing fire keeps coming, though; wherever Michael hit him, he didn’t take him down. Blood rushes in his ears; popping around the side of the table isn’t going to surprise the guy the next time. Michael just has to hope he’s faster on the draw. Or if he isn’t, he has to hope injuring the guy has bought Gavin enough time.
He’s about to launch himself over the top when he notices the two plates still lying on the ground next to him. One is already smashed, but the other is mostly whole. Not thinking before he acts, he throws the whole one hard to his right, smashing against the wall of the house as he dives to his left and shoots three times.
Maybe the sudden movement of the plate was enough to shift the sniper’s attention for just half a second, or maybe Michael was just a quicker shot; either way, when Michael lowers his gun he sees a figure slump and fall from the tree on the hill.
Michael stands slowly as he scans the landscape with his gun raised, ready to dive back behind cover if he sees any more movement, but there’s nothing. He jogs across the property, slowing and lifting his gun again when he nears the treeline. Just because someone falls doesn’t mean they’re dead.
He finds the body half concealed by shrubs surrounding a hickory tree. Once he’s sure the man is dead—and it doesn’t take long—Michael doubles over, leaning on the tree, and retches at the sight of his ruined face. It’s not the first time Michael has killed someone, but it’s the first time he’s been up close and personal with the results, and his head swims for a minute before he can pull himself together. He tries to ignore the other feeling surging in his chest, that cruel rush of triumph that someone tried to hurt what was his and he stopped them. Now’s not the time.
There’s no ID in the man’s pockets, but Michael spots a black duffle in the weeds with him. He grabs the bag and starts running back to the house. Hopefully someone will be able to figure out who the hell this guy is—was—from what’s inside, but his job right now is to get Gavin the hell out of here. Just because one threat is down doesn’t mean more aren’t coming, and Michael can feel his heartbeat in his ears as he runs back into the kitchen.
A quick sweep of the house reveals no one inside, and Michael tosses the dead man’s duffle next to his go-bag by the front door before opening the basement door and taking the steps two at a time. He goes straight to the door by the water heater, the one he’d given a sturdy inner lock to, and quickly does the coded knock he and Gavin had decided on.
“Doo, doo, doo-doo-doo-doodoo,” he says, humming the beginning of the Mario Bros. theme song as he knocks in time. There are immediately fumbling noises from inside, and the door falls open to reveal Gavin, standing but shaken.
He pushes forward into Michael immediately, wrapping his arms around him and burying his face in his neck. “Michael,” he says, taking a rattling breath. “Jesus Christ, I—” he starts before falling silent.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Michael says, rubbing a hand up and down Gavin’s back for a moment before pulling away and scanning his face. “Look at me,” he says, and Gavin does. His pupils look like they’re dilating normally, at least. “You having chest pains? Headaches?”
“Um, I, my head hurts a bit?” Gavin says. “Michael, I don’t, what’s going on? Who was that? Why is—what’s happening?”
“I don’t know who he was, but he’s dead,” Michael says. “And the headache means you’re probably having an acute stress response. It’s normal and I don’t want you to worry about it, okay?” He keeps his tone even and measured and doesn’t break eye contact. He has ten minutes tops to get Gavin calmed down and ready to leave.
Gavin just nods. “Okay,” he says, and Michael gets the feeling he could talk him into anything right now.
“All right. Like I said, the shooter is no longer a problem, but it’s not safe to stay here. We’re going to go upstairs so I can get some equipment, and then we’re going to get in the car and leave, okay?” Michael says slowly. He makes sure Gavin is following, running his hands up and down Gavin’s arms as he talks. “When we get up there, you’re going to stay low and away from any windows while I take care of stuff, including the car. When I get the car, you’re going to get in the back and lie down as low as you can in the footwell, alright?” Another nod.
“Are Geoff and Griffon okay?” Gavin say suddenly, and Michael knows he’s had the same thought that Michael did about what must be happening in DC.
“I don’t know, Gavin. I haven’t checked in with InComm yet,” Michael says, which reminds him. “Did you use your panic button?”
“Yeah, s’been going since I got down here,” Gavin says, pulling it out of his pocket.
“Good,” Michael says. “You did a good job, Gavin,” he says, cupping the back of his skull. He means it, too; Gavin hasn’t had any of the training Michael has, and he’s managed to keep himself relatively together. Michael intends to keep it that way, in more ways than one. “Gavin, I need you to listen to something, okay?” he says, and Gavin is still with him. “Right now, I’m not your friend, alright? And I’m not the guy you’re sleeping with.” Gavin’s eyes flicker, but he doesn’t protest. “Right now, I am the guy whose job it is to keep you safe, and that means that you can’t argue, okay? If I tell you to do something, I need you to do it, no matter what. You did that great just now, and I need you to keep doing it.”
It’s a sign of how scared Gavin is that he just nods once again with no protest. Michael never wants to see him like this again.
“You can go back to giving me shit once this is over, okay?” Michael says gently, squeezing Gavin’s shoulders. “All right, we’re gonna go upstairs now. Stay behind me.”
They go up the stairs carefully, Michael ahead of Gavin with both hands on his gun. The house is still clear, and Michael has Gavin sit with his back to the wall behind the couch in the living room. The first thing Michael does is go to the kitchen and grab his earpiece and microphone off the counter. Once he’s reconnected, he has Gavin turn off the panic alarm and comms HQ.
“Jones, this is HQ, what the hell is your status?” Hearing Ray’s voice feels so good Michael could cry. “We’ve got Austin PD sending a uniform to your location right now.”
“That’s good, but we won’t be here,” Michael says. “We were attacked by a sniper on the Ramsey property about twenty minutes ago. The client and I are fine,” he says when he hears Ray’s sharp intake of breath. “The shooter is down. Can you tell APD that the body is in the woods behind the house? They’re gonna need a coroner.”
“Roger that,” Ray says, and his voice is shaken but he stays all business. Michael could kiss him. “I’m notifying the rest of HQ that this case is live again and putting everyone on high alert.” Even through the communicator, Michael can hear the background noise skyrocket as the rest of InComm becomes aware of what’s going on.
Michael furrows his brow as he starts rummaging through his go-bag. He pulls out a separate thigh holster, this one for ammunition, and straps it onto the other leg before filling it with magazines for his handgun. “Are you saying nothing is going down in DC?” he says.
“Nothing,” Ray says. “Been dead quiet all day. Ryan’s telling Zuelch right now that she needs to get the Ramseys under lockdown.”
Glancing over to make sure Gavin is still where he left him, Michael walks back into the kitchen and grabs an apple from the fridge. He frowns and responds to Ray, “That doesn’t make as much sense. We’re not the primary target, why would they hit here first?” Back in the living room, Michael squats down in front of Gavin and hands him the apple. “The Ramseys are okay. Eat this,” he says, covering his microphone with one hand. Gavin takes it wordlessly, hands shaking, and bites into it as Michael goes back to the go-bag.
“I’ve got no idea, man,” Ray says, “but at least now we can give them warning. You said you’re leaving the base?”
“Yeah, there’s no way of knowing if more are coming,” Michael says. “I’m maybe five minutes from getting us on the road. Can you find a place for us to hole up?”
“We should have a safehouse nearby. I’ll comm you in seven minutes with an address,” Ray says.
“Works for me,” Michael says, pulling a few choice items out of one of his other suitcases. “Signing off for now, I’ll update you at least every ten minutes.”
“Copy that, Michael,” Ray says. “We’ve got your six, dude. HQ out.”
The earpiece goes silent, and Michael and Gavin are alone again. “Here,” Michael says, tossing Gavin something from one of his suitcases. “Put that on.” He reaches out and takes the mostly-eaten apple in return, tossing it into the kitchen trash can.
Gavin holds up the bulletproof vest. “Bloody hell,” he says, but starts pulling it on. Once he has, Michael strips off his sweatshirt and hands it to him in turn. “Why do I need this?” Gavin asks, looking at the Captain America logo.
“To hide the vest,” Michael says. “If nobody can see it, they’re less likely to try to shoot around it.” Gavin looks terrified, but Michael can’t afford to do anything about that just yet, no matter how it makes him feel. “I’m going to go get the car, okay? I’m gonna drive it right up to the front steps, and then come get you in the bags. Don’t move until I get back.”
Michael steps carefully out of the door and onto the front steps, his entire nervous system back on high alert as he becomes increasingly exposed. There’s no one in sight, and no one shooting at him, but Michael still has the feeling that this isn’t over. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, shithead, he chides himself, but the feeling remains as he walks down the driveway, head and gun swiveling constantly.
When he reaches the car, he opens the driver’s-side door but doesn’t get in, instead reaching inside to turn the ignition with his head and most of the left side of his body still outside the car. When the engine starts without any bombs going off, Michael gets inside and drives back up to the house, taking a sharp turn so the passenger side is directly up against the stoop. He moves a little faster than he should, but even having Gavin out of his sight is making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
Jumping out, Michael heads back inside, clearing all the front steps in one leap. When he bursts inside, Gavin jumps, still sitting where Michael left him. You have to stay calm for him, Michael reminds himself. “Okay, Gav, I’m gonna take these two bags,” he says, pointing at his go-bag and the sniper’s duffle, “and I’m gonna put them in the passenger seat. You’re gonna be right behind me, and you’re gonna get in the backseat like we said, okay?”
“Got it,” Gavin says, unfolding himself off the floor. Letting him leave the house without an entire platoon of people guarding him makes Michael’s stomach roil, but he knows they’ll be safer on the road than they are staying still. When they get in the car, Gavin curls himself up in the footwell behind the driver’s seat, as hidden as he can be without getting in the trunk.
Before they leave the driveway, Michael reaches into the go-bag one more time and pulls out a red canister. “Take this,” he says, passing it blindly behind him. Gavin’s fingers close over his.
“What is it?” he asks as Michael lets go.
Michael starts the car again and turns onto the road. “Pepper spray,” he says. “Weapons grade, packs a fucking kick. Just because you can’t shoot anybody doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself.”
“Thanks, Michael,” Gavin says softly. Michael wishes he could see his face, check in on more than just the tone of his voice and the temperature of his hands. Instead, he reaches up to his earpiece to comm Ray.
“HQ, this is Jones,” he says. “We’re on the road, heading north toward the city. What’ve you got for me?”
“Talked to Austin PD,” Ray says, sounding harried. “They’re short-staffed today, because of course they are, fuck me, right, but they’ve got a coroner and a pick-up team headed over to base now, so that’s covered. As soon as you get to the safehouse they’ll send a few uniforms over there to help you out until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”
“Got an address for that safehouse?” Michael asks, sticking tight to the speed limit and constantly checking his mirrors. So far it doesn’t seem like anybody’s following them.
“Yeah, it’s 94 on, and I’m not making this up, Shady Lane,” Ray says. “Somebody’s got a sense of humor. Anyway, it’s right off Airport Boulevard, so get on Highway 183, keep heading north, and you’ll be there in about twenty minutes or so.”
“Works for me,” Michael says, following signs for 183 North. “Anybody waiting for us there?”
“Nope, comm me when you get there and I’ll tell you where to find the key,” Ray says. “You see anybody tailing you?”
“Not so far,” Michael says, glancing in the rearview again. “You’ve got a GPS on this car, right? If you see me go way off-course and I don’t give you a heads-up, assume shit has hit the fan and send in whatever cavalry you’ve got, alright?”
“Will do,” Ray says. “Just so you know, still nothing here. Zuelch moved the Ramseys to a different location, but Tuggey’s still got surveillance on the original house. No disturbances.”
“Maybe we spooked ‘em by living,” Michael says. “Alright, I’m gonna keep driving. I’ll comm you when we get there.”
“Sounds good. HQ out.”
After Ray hangs up, Michael takes one hand off the wheel and reaches behind his seat. When he finds Gavin’s shoulder, he pats it, his wrist twisting at an odd angle. “The people in DC moved Geoff and Griffon to somewhere secure,” he says. “They’re totally safe. Nothing’s gonna happen to them.”
Gavin’s hand covers Michael’s, and despite the pain in his wrist Michael laces their fingers together. “That’s good,” Gavin says. “That’s...that’s brilliant.”
They stay like that, holding hands in the quiet car, until Michael needs both hands to steer through the steadily increasing traffic. “Fuck,” he says as it comes to a standstill. “It’s fucking one in the afternoon on a weekday, this is bullshit.” He comms Ray quickly to tell him they’re running late, and then sits in deadlocked traffic for another five minutes.
Gavin finally breaks the silence, piping up from the back. “I spy, with my little eye,” he says, and Michael is already laughing, “something...grey.”
Michael snorts. “You’re a jackass,” he says, then looks around the car. “The entire interior of this goddamn car is grey, Gavin.”
“So?” Gavin asks, and Michael heaves a sigh.
“Is it...the ceiling?”
There’s a long pause. “Bollocks,” Gavin says finally.
“Fuckin’ deal with it,” Michael says happily. The traffic has inched forward about a foot in the past five minutes, so he takes his eyes off the road long enough to take the duffle bag off the passenger seat and toss it through the backseat. “Yo, make yourself useful and look through that, would you? See if there’s anything that can tell us who this dude was.”
“I mean, he’s gotta be with the people who were making the threats, right?” Gavin says, and Michael can hear the soft sound of him unzipping the bag. “They just must not have gotten all of them.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Michael says. “That could explain why they’re only hitting us. Feds might’ve picked up all their people on the East Coast.”
“Makes sense,” Gavin says. “All right, let’s have a little looky-loo, shall we?” He starts rummaging around in the bag, and Michael winces at the sound of metallic things clanking together.
“Try not to blow us up. Or anybody else,” Michael says, easing the car forward another foot.
“Duly noted, Michael,” Gavin says, and even if Michael is starting to regret giving him the bag he can’t be upset about the slow return of life to Gavin’s voice. “Hmm, let’s see. Absolute pissloads of bullets, no surprise there. Um, uh, a few pictures of both of us, which is. You know. Terrifying. But I guess that means he wasn’t just some rogue maniac with a gun.” He rattles around a little more. “We’ve also got a few things that look sort of like grenades, but more, er, cylindrical, maybe?”
Michael frowns. “Pass one of those up here?” he says. “Fucking carefully, though, just hold it by the base.” A large grey cylinder appears in Michael’s peripheral vision, and he takes it gingerly from Gavin’s hand. “Yeah, this isn’t a grenade, it’s a flashbang. I mean, you still have to pull the pin and everything, but it mostly just stuns people. Loud noise, bright light, sometimes some smoke.” He passes it back as the traffic starts to open up more. “Hold on to one of those. I want to take a closer look when we get to the safehouse.”
The traffic jam finally clears up, and before long Michael is turning left off Airport Boulevard. “Almost there, Gav,” he says, and comms Ray. “Jones here, we’re about to reach the safehouse.” As he says it, a large black SUV turns onto the street a few blocks down, heading the opposite direction. It looks out of place on the somewhat run-down residential street, and the hair on the back of Michael’s neck stands up.
“Alright, sweet, when you get there you should find the key taped to the underside of the second step up to the back porch,” Ray says, but Michael isn’t listening.
The black SUV is slowing to a crawl as it approaches. “Ray, nobody is supposed to be meeting us here, right?” Michael says.
“Nobody we sent,” Ray says.
“Fuck,” Michael says, and he slams his foot on the gas. As they tear past the SUV, the back windows roll down, and Michael gets a glimpse of the muzzles of guns. A few bullets shatter the back windshield of their car as they tear past, but Michael screeches them around a corner before they can get off more than a few shots.
“Shit, shit, Gavin, are you alright? Are you hit?” Michael yells, tearing through another residential intersection. He can see the SUV turning onto their street, and hauls ass to the right.
“I—fuck, Michael, I’m alright, I just—” Gavin sounds absolutely shattered, and Michael feels murderous. “How did they find us? How many of them are there?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Michael says, weaving in and out of traffic as he gets back onto Airport. He comms HQ, trying to keep enough attention on the road to keep from rear-ending anyone. “Ray, they fucking found us, tell me how the fuck they found us.”
“Shit, fuck, I don’t fucking know,” Ray says, and the panic in his voice does nothing to calm Michael down. He can still see the SUV in the rearview, four or five cars back. He wishes there were a way to disable them that wouldn’t create a ten-car pile-up of bystanders. “There’s no way they tailed you?” Ray asks.
“They came from the opposite goddamn direction!” Michael yells. He swerves around an 18-wheeler and puts it between them and the SUV. “They knew where we were fucking going, how the fuck—” he cuts himself off as he sees his chance. There’s an off-ramp to the right, and he speeds down it with the 18-wheeler still blocking the SUV’s line of sight. “Fuck, I think I got off the highway without them seeing, okay, okay, shit,” he says. “Ray, where do I go, where do I go?”
“I don’t fucking know,” Ray says. “Just keep moving, keep moving, we’ll figure something out.”
“Fuck,” Michael spits, and ends the comm. “Gavin, talk to me.”
“Michael, I—shit, shit, what are we going to do?” If Ray had sounded panicked, Gavin sounds like he’s coming apart at the seams, and that’s enough for Michael’s spine to straighten. It’s easy to be the confident one when no one else is going to do it.
“We’re gonna ditch this car,” Michael says, sounding sure of himself even though he didn’t figure that out until just now. They’ve almost reached downtown Austin, territory he knows a little better. “We’re gonna ditch this car, get a new one, and find a safe place, and nothing’s gonna happen to you, okay?”
Gavin doesn’t say anything, but his breathing evens out a little, at least.
Michael turns the car into a small side street that has a battered-looking sedan parked halfway down it. “That’s our ride,” he says, figuring a car that looks at least ten years old isn’t going to have a particularly updated alarm system. He parks right behind it and gets out of their car, moving back to open the door closest to Gavin in the backseat.
He crouches down and lays eyes on Gavin for the first time since they left the house. He’s pale and wide-eyed but alert, and Michael makes himself focus on keeping him alive instead of making him smile. “Lemme help you,” he says, holding out his hands and letting Gavin lean on him as he steps out of the car, wobbling on cramped legs.
Gavin steadies himself, then looks over at the other car. “Riding in style, are we?” he says with an attempt at a grin, and Michael wants to kiss him all over his big idiot face.
“You know it. Go wait over there while I commit some felonies,” Michael says, going to the passenger side of their own car and rifling through his go-bag. He comms Ray as he searches for a particular item, lodged all the way at the bottom.
“Ray, we’re ditching our car,” he says. “I shook them for a bit, but they’ll figure it out and come looking for us. My guess is we’ve got about ten minutes for them to get off the highway and start circling back. I’m getting another car now, don’t ask me how. Leaving the old one in an alley off State Street, so if you can find us somewhere near downtown that’d be fucking stellar.”
“Got it,” Ray says. “I’m still working on it. Ryan’s talking to Austin PD, filling them in. What did their vehicle look like?”
“Big black fuck-off SUV,” Michael says, finding what he was looking for. “At least two dudes in there, probably three.” He closes the car door. “I’ve gotta move, Ray, but I’ll comm you again when I can.”
“Copy that. HQ out.”
“Are clothes hangers standard in those bags?” Gavin says when he sees what Michael’s brought over. Michael unbends it and slides it under the rubber of the driver’s-side window.
“Nope, personal addition,” Michael says, wiggling the wire around and waiting for it to catch on the door’s lock. “Too much free time as a teenager, picked up some extracurricular skills.”
“Never thought I’d be so thankful for someone’s adolescent hijinks,” Gavin says, dropping so that his head thumps against the car’s front tire. “Anything I should be doing?”
“Sitting there works for me,” Michael says distractedly. He swears this shit was easier when he was fifteen.
“Brilliant, I’m a fucking genius at that,” Gavin says, his foot tapping nervously. Michael kicks him in a way that he hopes is reassuring.
“Almost got it,” Michael says when he nearly has the door unlocked a minute later. Suddenly there’s movement at the corner of his eye. His stomach drops as he looks down the alleyway.
“Gavin, run,” he says when he recognizes the big black fuck-off SUV prowling down a perpendicular street a few blocks away. “Run, run now, go go go,” he says, his voice quiet but firm, and he hears the scramble of Gavin’s sneakers on pavement. Michael doesn’t move.
For a second he thinks they won’t see them, that they’ll just keep driving past, but then the SUV jerks into reverse and turns down their side street, coming fast. Bearing through the wave of hopelessness that hits him, Michael steps into the middle of the street, sidearm raised, and fires four times: twice through the windshield, and twice at the front left tire. The SUV stops abruptly, the back doors flying open, and Michael turns and takes off running, zig-zagging back and forth to avoid the few pot shots they take at him before he rounds the corner. He reaches up to his earpiece. “Ray, they found us, they’re here,” he says, and then mutes it. He can’t afford distractions right now.
He’s on a pedestrian street; one he recognizes, even. He doesn’t have time to slow or put away his handgun, and he hears a few people gasp as he barrels down the street. He can see Gavin down the block, the red of the Captain America logo on his sweatshirt visible; when Gavin sees Michael, he waves and then ducks inside whatever building he’s standing in front of. Michael reaches it a few seconds later and checks behind them to make sure their pursuers haven’t rounded the corner yet before he opens the door.
It takes a moment for him to realize where they are, adrenaline clouding his vision, but when he sees Gavin leaning across the counter and fumbling his way through Italian with the man behind the register, Michael recognizes the empty pizzeria from their first Austin day trip. He can’t understand what Gavin is saying, but he knows pleading when he hears it. The man, who Michael is pretty sure owns the place, takes a look at both of them. Save him, please save him, because so far I can’t, Michael thinks blindly. The man searches Michael’s face and seems to come to a decision, lifting up the hatch of the counter and pointing to his right.
“Mille grazie, mille grazie, Jesus Christ, thank you so much,” Gavin says, grabbing Michael by the arm and hauling him behind the counter. The rest of the staff gives them strange looks, but don’t protest when Gavin throws open the door of the storage closet off to the side of the register and drags Michael inside.
Michael can’t quite believe their luck, that they might have managed to hide before being seen, but he also knows that the men chasing them won’t be far behind. Even if they didn’t see Gavin, they saw Michael turn the corner onto this street, and Michael knows that if the positions were switched he’d start searching the stores. They’ll be here inside a few minutes, which means that Gavin’s life—and the lives of the pizzeria’s staff, shit—might depend on whether or not the man behind the counter is a good liar or not. Michael really hopes Gavin’s been a loyal customer.
Pressing a finger to his lips, Michael turns Gavin so he’s leaning against the back wall of the closet. Michael then puts himself between Gavin and the door, holding his handgun loosely in front of him, and waits.
The closet is near pitch black and cramped, Michael’s back pressed up against Gavin’s chest. He can feel Gavin’s shallow breathing, can hear him trying to stifle himself. Michael thinks Gavin might have his foot in a bucket, which would be funny under any other circumstances. It’s still kind of funny under these circumstances, but he thinks that might just be hysteria.
It can’t be more than ten minutes before the bells on the pizzeria door jangle. Michael tenses up, listening as intently as he can through the door. He slips a hand into his jeans pocket and holds tightly to Croft’s lighter. Could use some good luck now, he thinks. The owner calls out a friendly greeting, and for a moment Michael hopes that it’s just a customer.
“Hey, I’ve got kind of a weird question to ask,” a man’s voice says, and Michael’s stomach drops. Ah, yes, there’s that sick sense of being right about something he really wanted to be wrong about. “I was supposed to meet my friend outside here a few minutes ago, but I was running late and I think I might have missed him.” The voice is pleasant, even charming, and Michael knows what a professional sounds like when he hears one. “Have you seen a guy about this tall, grey t-shirt, reddish-brown hair? He might have been with somebody else, we’re meeting up with another friend too.”
“Sorry, buddy,” comes a gruff and slightly-accented voice that must belong to the owner. “You’re the first guy we’ve had in here since the lunch rush. Haven’t seen your friend. You want to eat something, wait for him here?”
“Hmm. That’s funny. You’re sure you haven’t seen him?” the man asks again with a new edge in his voice. Michael firms up his stance, staring at the door in front of him and preparing to take down whatever comes through.
He feels a soft touch at his side, and glances down to see Gavin’s hand curling carefully around his left hip as his heartbeat pounds against Michael’s back. When Michael looks to his right, he sees Gavin’s other hand is holding the can of pepper spray, finger on the trigger; the sight fills him with a fierce and involuntary love. Michael is not going to let this man die with his foot in a bucket.
“That’s what I said, friend,” the owner says, his voice unchanged. “Last people in here were buying a pizza. That’s what people do here most of the time.” There’s a long silence. “So do you want to buy something? It’s Friday, so we got a special going on stromboli.”
“No thanks,” the man says, all false cheerfulness again. “But you know what? If I don’t find him, I might come back.” A pause in which Michael’s heart stops, and then the bells of the door jangle again.
Gavin lets out a massive exhale, sagging against the back of the closet. Michael takes one of his cramping hands off from the butt of his gun and cracks all the knuckles, trying to will his shoulders down from where they’ve tensed up practically around his ears.
After a moment the closet door opens, and Michael blinks against the flood of bright light. The owner says something in Italian over Michael’s shoulder, raising an eyebrow, and Gavin laughs. “Yeah, what an arsehole,” he responds in English.
“Sir, I can’t thank you enough,” Michael interjects. “Is there a back way for us to get out of here?” Being able to put their backs to a wall had been good, but the longer they stay in this place the quicker it becomes a deathtrap.
“Out through the kitchen,” the owner says. “You’ll come out on Fourth Street.”
“Okay,” Michael says, glancing to the side to check and make sure no one is looking into the restaurant through the plate glass windows before taking Gavin by the elbow and pulling him past the owner and toward the back of the building. “When we’re gone, you and your guys need to get out of here,” he says as they move, the owner following behind. “Go home, don’t come back until tomorrow at least.” Once they’re in the kitchens and out of sight of the front, he turns around and looks at the owner again. “I’m really, really sorry, but it’s not safe here right now.”
“You need the cops?” the man asks, looking supremely unconcerned for his own well-being. He reminds Michael a little bit of one of his own uncles, short and wrinkled and with a permanent expression like he still remembers that dumbshit thing you did ten years ago, no matter how tough you act now. It’s weirdly comforting.
“If you want to talk to them, just describe what you remember about the guy,” Michael says. “They already know about the situation. What did the guy look like, anyway?”
He shrugs. “Tall. White guy. Dark hair. Black shirt. Nothing special.” Michael nods, loosening his grip when he realizes he’s still got his hand wrapped tightly around Gavin’s elbow.
Gavin chooses that moment to speak up again, asking the owner a question in Italian that Michael can’t understand. The owner raises his eyebrows, then bursts out laughing and nods.
“What’d you ask?” Michael says. The owner reaches into his pocket and pulls out a keyring, twisting one key off and handing it to Gavin with a few more words Michael doesn’t follow.
“Michael,” Gavin says with a slow smile, holding up the key, “I just got us a ride.”
“I just want to point out,” Michael says as he starts the pizza delivery van, “that you were giving me shit about the car I was going to jack for us.”
“Uh, yeah, and this is infinitely cooler,” Gavin says, curled up in the footwell of the passenger seat. “Plus it’s a brilliant disguise. Should have gotten you a uniform too,” he adds, waggling his eyebrows.
Michael snorts, pulling the van out from where it’s parked behind the pizzeria and turning onto one of Austin’s main drags. His eyes flick constantly from the road to the rearview, on the lookout for black SUVs. “How the hell did you get him to give us this, anyway?” he asks as he stops at a red light.
“Eh, I’ve known Paolo forever,” Gavin says. “I eat there all the time, and one time we figured out that he’s from the same town as my grandfather. He likes me, I don’t know.”
“What a fucking sucker, huh,” Michael says with a quiet smile, his eyes still on the road, and Gavin just smirks.
When the red light turns green, Gavin speaks again, this time his voice serious. “Michael, how the piss did they find us again that fast?”
Michael sighs heavily, taking a wide left turn. He’s not sure where he’s going, but the freeway seems safer than staying in town if the men after them are on foot. “They shouldn’t have. We should have had more time when we ditched the car.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Michael says, trying to ignore the familiar thoughts running through his head. “I got no goddamn ideas that aren’t bad news.” I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but this isn’t right.
He reaches down and unmutes his earpiece before comming Ray. “Jones here, we lost them again,” he says. “Back on the move in a vehicle.”
“Fucking Christ, Michael,” Ray says. “The mark’s okay? No injuries? You scared the shit out of me, dude.”
“No, he’s fine,” Michael says. “I had to ditch the go-bag, though, they came out of nowhere and we had to run. I’ve got my sidearm and a few extra magazines, but that’s it.”
Ray sucks his teeth. “Okay. Okay. Shit, how the hell did they track you down so fast?”
“No clue,” Michael says, merging onto the freeway. “But we’ve got a head start on them now, probably. Maybe. You wanna tell me where I’m going?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a rendezvous point for you with the APD,” Ray says, reeling off an address that Michael repeats to Gavin for him to look up on his phone. “They’re scrambling a SWAT team, and as soon as you get there they’re gonna take you to the airport and get you on a plane to DC. Ryan’s talking to a few people he knows in the Air Marshals; we’re gonna try to put a couple of their guys on the plane with you.”
“As many scary dudes with guns as you can get, I’m fine with,” Michael says. He covers the mic and looks down at Gavin. “How far away is the rendezvous point?”
“Half an hour, maybe?” Gavin says, looking at his phone.
“Gotcha,” Michael says. “Ray, I’m gonna check in every ten minutes, okay?”
“Okay. Watch your back, alright? You’re taking years off my life with this shit.” It’s as close to admitting he’s worried as Ray is gonna get, and Michael takes it as a compliment.
“I’ll try,” Michael says. “Oh, shit, before I go, has anybody figured out where the hell these dudes are coming from?”
“No, people are freaking out,” Ray says. “There still hasn’t been jack shit happening in DC, and the feds aren’t letting any of our people talk to the guys they have in custody. Hullum has been losing his shit, and Sorola says Burnie’s been calling everybody he knows in the business in the Southwest to see if he can call in a favor and get you back-up.”
“You guys really know how to make a girl feel special,” Michael says. He really does appreciate knowing that everyone he works with is trying to help; then again, the fact that so far none of it has made much of a difference is pants-shittingly terrifying. It’s a mixed bag.
Ray huffs a laugh. “Yeah, we’re planning one hell of a welcome-back party.”
“I’ll bet,” Michael says. “All right, HQ, I’ll check in again in ten.”
“Roger that. HQ out.”
Michael leans back in his seat, exhaling heavily. There’s still nobody suspicious in the rearview when he checks, which is almost surprising at this point. “All right, we’re gonna meet up with a SWAT team at the address I gave you, and they’re gonna get us the fuck out of here, alright?” he says, glancing down at Gavin. “You have GPS on your phone, right? Can you give me directions? I got no idea where I’m going.”
“Yeah, sure,” Gavin says, sounding subdued. “Keep straight for five more miles, then take exit 21b.”
When Michael looks down at him a few more times, he’s tensed up, hugging his own knees and staring into the middle distance. “We’re gonna be alright, okay? We’ve got people helping us, we’ve got a lead, and they don’t know where we are,” he says.
“Yeah, I know,” Gavin says slowly. “It’s just...every time I’ve thought we were in the clear before, right, every time one of your people has told us that we’re almost done, somebody’s popped up out of bloody nowhere and started shooting.” He looks up at Michael, half sheepish and half anxious. “I guess I—it’s dumb, but this feels like every other time we thought we were safe and then had to leg it.”
“Gavin, no one—” Michael starts, but then the rest of his brain catches up with him. The SUV finding them in the alleyway right after he’d told Ray where they were. The same guys showing up by the safehouse after they’d been given the address. Fuck, even the sniper attack the day after Hullum had called him and told him to take down the security equipment. “Shit,” he says out loud. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“What?” Gavin says, shrinking down in the footwell. “Oh, God, did they find us?”
“No, not yet,” Michael says, switching into the left lane. “But you’re right, they will. Shit.” He pulls up to a break in the freeway’s meridian and hauls the van around in an unwieldy U-turn. “They’re tapping our communications somehow, goddammit, I’m so fucking stupid.” He slams on the gas.
“Bollocks,” Gavin says quietly. “Bollocks, how are they doing it?”
“No idea,” Michael says tightly. “God fucking dammit.” Of all the things for him to have missed. He hesitates a moment before lifting a hand to his earpiece. You better be fucking right this time, a voice says in his head.
“HQ here, everything okay?” Ray’s voice says down the line.
“HQ, this is Jones,” Michael says, his voice steely so it doesn’t shake. “I’ve got reason to believe our communications are compromised. The rendezvous is off.”
“Wait, what?” Ray says. “Michael, no, you can’t—”
“If communications are compromised, then they’ll already have the address and they’ll hit us before we can get there,” Michael interrupts, barrelling through Ray’s doubts and his own. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.” Ray doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Please, Ray,” Michael says quietly.
He can hear Ray take a deep breath, then two. “Yeah, okay,” he says finally. “Okay, then what’s our move?” Michael can hear Sorola yelling in the background, but Ray doesn’t respond.
“Hold on,” Michael says, and looks at Gavin again. “Gavin, we need somewhere to go that SWAT can come find us, but that’s big enough for us to hide out in if those assholes join the party. Is there anywhere like that that you know of?”
“Er, shit, Christ, I don’t know, let me think,” Gavin says, putting his head in his hands.
“Big building, somewhere with lots of different rooms or floors, something that’ll take a while to search,” Michael says, swerving around a minivan and ignoring the blare of horns. He wonders if Paolo is going to get angry calls about his delivery boy’s bad driving. If they get out of this alive, he’s going to eat stromboli every Friday for the rest of his life. “Gavin, come on, help me out.”
“Okay, okay, give me a sodding minute,” Gavin yells.
“Kind of under a time crunch here, Gav,” Michael snaps, and he fucking hates pushing Gavin like this when he’s already passed most of his limits, but he also hates the thought of him dead, so.
“Okay, okay, um, there’s an old school building on the other side of town?” Gavin says like it’s a question. “Been empty for ages, I think it used to be a high school? People from around here ought to be able to find it.”
“Can you get me there?” Michael asks, and Gavin nods. “Good enough for me.” He lifts his wristband back to his mouth. “Ray, talk to SWAT, tell them we’re heading to an abandoned high school across town.”
“Got it,” Ray says. “You want me to keep radio silence as much as I can?”
“I’d appreciate it, yeah,” Michael says. Thank you for trusting me, he thinks. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Okay. I’ll get your guys there as soon as I can, and I’ll give everybody here an update on what’s going on.” Michael doesn’t want to know what Sorola is going to say to an InComm liaison who’s let his agent go completely off-script.
“Thanks, Ray,” Michael says, and then mutes the earpiece and turns off the mic.
There’s a beat of silence, and then Gavin speaks. “Take the next exit,” he says, looking at his phone.
Michael doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything, just shifts lanes and takes the ramp off the highway. Gavin directs him through the next few intersections until they hit a straightaway.
“Keep straight for the next three miles,” he says, then leans back, his head against the inside of the van’s passenger door. “So we’re on our own, then?” he says, trying to keep his voice steady.
“No,” Michael says quickly, hands tightening on the steering wheel. “I mean, HQ can’t tell us where to go, because it’d give away our position, but they’re still trying to help.”
“But we told them we were going to the school over the radio,” Gavin says. “So they know where we’re going anyway.”
“I doubt these guys are from around here,” Michael points out. “They have to figure out where the hell the school is, at least. That’s better than going to an address they already have. Hopefully SWAT will be able to get a head start.” He exhales. “Best I could do.”
“No, no,” Gavin says hurriedly. “It’s...s’good. You’re doing good, Michael, bloody amazing.”
Michael snorts. “You’re the one who figured out something was up with them finding us,” he says. “And the fucking pizza hide-out too, Jesus.” He gives Gavin a look. “You gunning for my job, asshole? Tryna be the big hero?” Gavin shrugs, runs a hand through his hair, and gives a little smile. Michael will take it. Best he can do.
“Turn left up here,” Gavin says, and Michael does as he’s told. “All right, straight ahead for ten more miles.” They settle into silence, but it’s not comfortable. Silence and the monotony of driving let the events of the past two hours catch up to him; with the danger right in front of him it’s easy enough to shut down any brain process that isn’t going to keep Gavin alive, but even a little distance lets the rest of it come rushing back. The sound of shattering windows; the hiss of bullets; the face of the man he’d killed.
Michael tries to think back further, to that morning. He remembers being in bed with Gavin like it’s something he’d seen in a movie once; it’s hard to connect it to the moment he’s in right now. It’s hard to connect it to the images of Gavin he has swimming in his head: Gavin running, Gavin frightened, Gavin dead. Gavin dead because Michael fucked up, Gavin hurt because Michael wasn’t there. Michael can put those thoughts away when there’s something to shoot at, but right now he’s drowning in panic that they’ve kissed for the last time. He can’t even remember when it was.
This is probably why developing relationships with clients isn’t allowed. This shit right here.
Michael is dragged headfirst out of his own thoughts by Gavin snickering quietly. Michael looks down at him incredulously. “What’s funny?” he asks.
“Sorry, I was just thinking,” Gavin starts, then dissolves into giggles again. “Michael,” he says, doing his best to deadpan, “did you ever know that you’re my hero?”
Michael stares at him for a moment, then looks back the road sharply, trying to bite down on his smile. “Shut the hell up.”
“Michael,” Gavin says, “Michael, you’re everything I would like to be.”
“Cut it out,” Michael says, but his voice is already breaking.
“I can fly higher than an eagle, Michael,” Gavin continues, “do you know why?”
“Go to hell.” Michael is about to laugh, and he thinks Gavin might be a miracle.
“Because you are the wind beneath my wings, Michael,” Gavin says in a whisper. “The wind beneath my wings.” He gives Michael a self-satisfied grin from the footwell, his tongue poking out from between his teeth, and Michael finally cracks up.
“Okay, wait, fuck that, though,” he says. “If you’re gonna go musical, you’ve gotta commit. Don’t even bother if you’re gonna half-ass it.”
“Oh yeah?” Gavin says, raising his eyebrows challengingly. They come to a stop at a red light, and Michael does a quick scan to make sure no black SUVs are in sight.
“Yeah,” he says when he’s sure they’re safe. “For example,” he takes a deep breath and summons up his best Enrique impression. “I CAN BE YOUR HERO BABY.”
Gavin squawks in surprise. “Michael!” he shouts, sounding thrilled.
“I CAN KISS AWAY THE PAIN, OH YEAH,” Michael continues, tipping his head back and aiming for maximum volume. He’s pretty sure the cars around them at the light can hear him, but who cares? He’s killing it. “I WILL STAND BY YOU FOREVER.” He fixes Gavin with his best “sensitive crooner” expression. “YOU. CAN. TAKE,” he pauses dramatically and reaches out to touch Gavin’s face, “MY BREATH AWAY.”
The light turns green just as he finishes, and Michael guns it with his face split in half with a smile. “And that’s how it’s done,” he says.
“Michael,” Gavin says solemnly, “that was beautiful.”
“Thanks, Gavin,” Michael says cheerfully.
“I take your breath away, huh?” Gavin tips his head to the side and gives Michael a lopsided smile.
“Eh,” Michael says, looking at the road. “You’re alright.” He does his best to keep a poker face.
“Hey,” Gavin says after a moment. “Hey, Michael.” Michael looks down, expecting to see Gavin sulking or whining or fishing for compliments, but instead he just has his hand stretched out, palm-up by the emergency brake.
On instinct, Michael takes his right hand off the wheel and puts it over Gavin’s. They drive the rest of the way like that, and the steady contact grounds Michael in the present, the part of his brain that flies off in search of the worst case scenario tethered firmly by the pressure of Gavin’s hand.
Yeah, there are definitely downsides to being emotionally involved. But Michael glances down at Gavin, shadows moving across his face in the afternoon sun, and thinks all of them are worth it to have the person you’re protecting offer to hold your hand while you do it.
Michael spots the abandoned school down the street. “Gav, we’re here,” he says. As they approach, he notes the chainlink gates blocking the entrance. “You’re gonna want to hold on to something,” Michael says, and Gavin finally lets go of his hand to brace himself.
The van crashes through easily, the gates swinging open with a clang. “Well, if SWAT isn’t already on their way, I’m sure that set an alarm off somewhere,” Michael says, bringing the van to a screeching halt outside what was the building’s main entrance. “Stay here,” he says as he throws the van into park and hops out. Gavin, to his credit, doesn’t argue.
The double doors at the front are padlocked shut, so Michael ducks back to the van. “Hey, give me your sweatshirt, well, it’s mine, but—” he says, and Gavin is already pulling it over his head to reveal the body armor underneath. “Thanks, Gav,” Michael says, and heads to find a first-floor window.
There’s one that seems to lead to what used to be the principal’s office; smashing the glass with the butt of his gun feels like a victory for his adolescent self. He wraps the sweatshirt around his hand and forearm and punches out the remaining shards of glass until the frame is completely clear, then drapes the sweatshirt over the sill just to be sure. He waves to Gavin, who’s sitting up in the passenger seat watching him, and keeps his sidearm out and at the ready as he lopes over. They’re still alone so far, cars driving by the parking lot without turning in, but he doubts it’ll last.
Michael jerks his head at the open window. “Careful, there’s gonna be broken glass everywhere inside,” he says. Gavin nods and heaves himself through, the sweatshirt protecting his hands. Michael vaults through afterwards, grabbing the sweatshirt off the sill after he’s inside.
“Can I have that back?” Gavin says, dusting himself off.
Michael shakes it out and eyes it skeptically. “Might have glass in it.”
“Eh, I’ll be fine,” Gavin says, taking it from him and pulling it back on. It’s not quite the right size, sleeves a little too short. His skinny wrists hang out, and it makes Michael tongue-tied.
“Come on,” he says gruffly, making his way through the dilapidated office. It’s clear as they move through the school that plenty of people have broken in before; there’s graffiti everywhere, and half the classroom doors are missing or hanging half off their hinges. Michael leads the way down a hallway of dented and broken lockers, Gavin following behind silently, the only sound coming from their footfalls on the linoleum floor.
Half the ceiling tiles are broken or missing, and dust falls from some of them gently. “Why did this place close down, again?” Michael asks, eyeing the ceiling warily.
“Um, asbestos, I think?” Gavin says.
They reach a stairwell at the end of the hallway and climb up to the second floor. There’s a window overlooking the parking lot at the top of the stairwell, and Michael makes a decision. “Alright, this is it,” he says, holstering his gun.
“This is what?” Gavin says.
“This hallway, it’s gonna be our base,” Michael replies, moving to see what’s inside the nearest classrooms. “We can see who gets here through that window, and anybody who comes inside is gonna be bottlenecked in the stairwell, so that’s easy to defend against.” He finds an open classroom that still has a large wooden teacher’s desk inside. “Gav, come help me with this!” he yells back into the hallway.
They go from room to room, scavenging old furniture until they’ve built up a barricade about waist-high a few yards back from the stairwell. Michael looks at the wall of desks and blackboards and doesn’t feel particularly confident; then again, a picnic table and plate saved his ass a few hours ago. Maybe he should get a pile of chalky erasers to bang together in case they get attacked by asthmatic assassins.
“Okay, I think we’re done,” he says, dragging one last desk into place a ways behind the others in case they somehow get attacked from behind. “Now we play the waiting game.” He hops up to sit on one of the desks, pulling a magazine out of his left holster and starting to reload his sidearm. He has a total of fifty-two bullets to put into anything that comes up those stairs looking for trouble. He hopes it’s enough.
Gavin sits down next to him and watches him reload. “I still just—I don’t get it,” he says after a moment. “Why they’re going to all this trouble to, to kill me.” He leans forward, his elbows on his knees. “I’m just the cameraman, why bother?”
Michael puts the safety on for the time being. “Makes sense. If they want to hurt Geoff and Griffon, but can’t get at them, I can see why they’d go after you next.” He stands up and walks over to the window, checking to make sure no cars have pulled into the parking lot. “Killing you...it’d be a huge loss for the Ramseys.” He swallows. “They’d feel guilty. Like it was their fault. Might even be enough to make them stop working.” He turns around and looks at Gavin, shrugging. “Makes sense to me. You’re important.”
Gavin looks right back at him, head tilting to the side, and for a moment looks terribly sad.
“What are you looking at?” Michael asks, moving back to sit down on the desk again.
“Nothing,” Gavin says, shaking his head. “So! If people get here, like, not-good people, what’s the plan? What are we gonna do?”
Michael snorts. “We aren’t going to do anything. You, however, are going to go find the tiniest hidey-hole in this building and stay there, silent as the fucking grave, until it’s safe. You’re not even going to tell me where you’re going.”
“What?” Gavin says, turning to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that if something happens to me, you’ll be safest if I don’t know where you are,” Michael says, keeping his voice steady and staring into space. “If shit goes down, you book it away from here and let me take care of it.”
“Alone? Piss off,” Gavin says, and Michael has never actually heard him get angry before. “I’ve been running all goddamn day, I’m not going to leave you—”
“What are you going to do, Gavin?” Michael yells. “When they come, what the fuck are you going to do if you stay here? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we only have one goddamn gun.”
“I don’t know, I, I’ll hand you bullets, or I’ll just chuck bits of wood at them, or I’ll be here for goddamn moral support, Michael, I don’t care!”
Michael laughs, loud and angry. “Not a chance in hell. I’ll lock you in a janitor’s closet first. I’m trained to do this shit, Gavin, let me do it.”
Gavin pushes away from the desk, coming to stand in front of Michael. “And what happens if I’m locked in a closet while you die, Michael?” he shouts, face red.
“Then I’ll have bought you time and done my goddamn job,” Michael shouts back, cold and furious and suddenly standing.
“I don’t care about the job, Michael,” Gavin says, running his hands through his hair. “I know that’s what you care about, but I—you can’t expect me to do that, to just bugger off and do nothing. Not with you. No matter what your sodding job is.”
He’s pacing back and forth as he fumes, and Michael feels a surge of affection that has him grabbing Gavin by the front of his sweatshirt and hauling him in close. “Gavin, listen to me.” he says carefully, looking him dead in the eyes. “If you’re here—if you’re with me—half of my attention is always gonna be on you, okay? I’m always gonna be worrying about if you’re okay. That’s just how it is with me and you.” He searches Gavin’s face to make sure he’s following. “I can’t afford that if I’m in a firefight. You need to be gone because I need to be able to focus, and I need to be able to focus because I need to protect you, okay, I need to, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the job, Gavin, nothing.”
Gavin has him pushed back against the desk before the last sentence is finished, and the last word is nearly swallowed by Gavin’s mouth on his. It’s not an elegant kiss, more teeth than tongue and all desperation. Gavin’s fingers wind into Michael’s hair, holding him in place as he sinks a bite into his lower lip. Michael drops his sidearm on the desk so he can dig his hands into the small of Gavin’s back, dragging him in as close as he can for a moment before he forces himself to let go and pull away.
He kisses one corner of Gavin’s mouth, then carefully shifts to kiss the other. Gavin’s gone still and shaking, eyes closed when Michael presses one last closed-mouth kiss to his lips.
“Do you get it?” Michael says quietly, and Gavin nods quickly, his eyes still downcast. He leans in to brush his lips against Michael’s neck one more time, and then pushes away, giving him space.
“I get it,” he says softly. “I bloody hate it, but I get it.” He paces a bit more, then kicks a desk, hard. “Fuck,” he spits out.
“I’m not happy about it either,” Michael says.
“How do you find me?” Gavin says, finally looking at him again. “After it’s over, I mean?”
Michael snorts. “I’ll just walk around yelling until you come out. I’ve been told I’m pretty loud.” He stops to think for a second. “I’ll shout something Mario-related so you know I’m not doing it with a gun to my head or anything.”
Gavin nods, looking defeated. “All right.” He turns around, pacing some more, but when he reaches the window he stops abruptly. “Shit,” he says.
“We got company?” Michael says, picking his gun back up and thumbing off the safety.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Gavin says, and when Michael approaches the window he sucks in a breath. Two SUVs are in the parking lot with men scrambling out of them. Hot on their heels, though, are two cop cars and a SWAT van, barreling into the parking lot behind them with sirens blaring. Some of the guys from the SUVs stay behind and start firing at the cops from behind their vehicles; three others head toward the building, and Michael sees one point at the broken window.
“Well, shit, looks like they brought back-up of their own,” he says, pulling both him and Gavin away from the window and out of sight. “Ready to go?” he looks up at Gavin and tries to keep his face from wavering.
“No,” Gavin says, but starts backing down the hallway anyway. “Michael,” he says, watching as Michael crouches down behind the barricade. Michael looks back at him questioningly, and Gavin shakes his head. “I just—oh, hell, you know,” he says, and then turns and runs.
Michael turns away, making himself not watch where Gavin runs to. Instead, he focuses on picking a spot behind the barricade that gives him the best cover and vantage point to fire on the stairwell. If life wanted to do him a favor, the police would take care of everyone before they got up here, so Michael’s assuming the exact opposite is going to happen. He picks a spot and squats down, balancing on the balls of his feet as Gavin’s footfalls fade away.
A few minutes pass, the only sound coming from shots being fired outside. Michael shifts his weight back in forth, trying to keep his legs from falling asleep. He doesn’t know how snipers do it; five minutes of waiting in one spot and he’s about to go looking for someone to shoot at out of sheer boredom. Well, boredom and nerves; waiting makes him antsy. Gives him too much time to think.
He snaps back to full attention when he hears the soft sound of feet on the stairs. There’s at least one guy, probably two from what Michael can hear, and they’re coming up slowly. Michael takes a few deep breaths, centering himself, and raises his gun.
He drops the first one with two shots to the chest before he’s even fully in view. The man falls back from the doorway with a surprised look on his face that Michael will probably have nightmares about later; right now, though, his mind moves automatically to the next problem.
The second man, seeing his partner fall, drops back to take cover behind the stairwell’s door frame. Michael waits for him to poke his head around the frame to fire again, but instead an arm appears, throwing something metallic and gray at the barricade. Michael recognizes the flashbang halfway through its graceful arc.
He has just enough time to dive down and cover his ears before there’s a loud bang and a flash of light. When he opens his eyes and looks up, the hallway is filling with opaque blue smoke, and the barricade is engulfed within seconds.
For a moment Michael is sure he’s having a flashback. There’s no way this can be happening; this is his past, this is his brain fucking with him. Then a figure appears in the smoke and vaults over the desks, and Michael doesn’t have time to worry if it’s real or not.
Michael springs off the floor and tackles the man around the waist, propelling them both back through the desks and onto the floor by the stairwell. The guy certainly feels solid enough to be real. The impact knocks Michael’s sidearm from his hand, and it goes sliding across the floor and out of sight. The smoke is thick and blinding, but Michael can still breathe, and he punches the man twice in the solar plexus before he gets a knee hard in his stomach. Winded, he can’t stop the man from rolling them over, and a bright flare of pain erupts behind his left eye when the man hits him hard in the face.
The man sits back to reach for the handgun in his holster, and Michael takes his chance to strike out. He feels the man’s nose break under the heel of his hand, then pulls his knee back and kicks at his groin. The man yells and curls in on himself, and Michael scrambles back from underneath him, aiming one last kick at his face as he goes.
He flips over onto his hands and knees and gropes over to where he thinks his gun went. All he can hear is the sound of his own blood rushing in his ears, his heart beating a constant rhythm of stop him stop him stop him at the back of his head.
His fingers brush what he thinks might be the butt of his gun when a hand closes around his ankle, dragging him back along the floor. He turns over just as the man sits on his chest, wrapping both his hands around Michael’s throat and squeezing hard.
All the training in the world can’t shut off the instinctive terror of a stranger’s hands around your neck. Michael’s hands immediately fly up to try to pry off the fingers around his throat, but the man’s grip won’t break. He starts to feel dizzy and desperate for air almost immediately, and tries not to panic. He’s using both hands, he thinks, and doesn’t understand the significance of his own thought until he remembers the man’s holstered gun.
Moving on instinct, Michael reaches out with his left hand as his vision clouds and fumbles the man’s gun out of the holster. He figures out what’s going on, face going slack with fear, right as Michael fires three shots into the side of his ribcage.
His grip on Michael’s throat loosens immediately, and Michael pushes the man off of him as he draws in gasping breaths. The man collapses onto his side, and as Michael scrabbles backwards away from him he can hear him speak.
“Shit,” the man says, sounding frightened. Blood bubbles out of his mouth as he clutches at his side. “Shit,” he says one more time, and then he dies.
Michael wipes sweat out of his eyes, wincing as he hits the tender skin around his left eye, and pushes himself upright wearily. “Sorry,” he says quietly, looking into the man’s sightless eyes, and then goes in search of his gun.
The smoke has mostly cleared, and it only takes a moment to find his sidearm a few yards away. He drops the other man’s gun and picks up his own. There are still a few shots being fired outside, but they’ve slowed down a little. Michael might not have to kill anybody else today.
Suddenly, he hears the sound of someone else coming up the stairs. He whirls around wearily, gun raised, trying to make out the person in the remnants of the smoke.
“Michael?” they say tentatively, and the familiar voice makes Michael immediately relax, lowering his gun.
“Sir?” he says. Thank God it’s over. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Assistant Director Croft says as he steps out of the smoke and shoots Michael in the right kneecap.
Michael is first aware of being on the floor, and then the sound of his own screams as he clutches at his leg. For a moment nothing matters but that, the violent blinding pain that burns through and shuts down everything else.
The first few thoughts that break through the pain are that there’s been a mistake, that Croft was shooting at the body behind him and missed, or that the gun went off by accident, or that he’s really and truly lost his mind, but when he looks up all he sees is Croft looking down at him, pistol in his hands and a cold expression on his face.
“Christ, that took long enough,” he says, walking over towards Michael. Michael tries to grab his handgun off the floor, but Croft steps on his wrist and kicks the gun out of reach. “I would be proud of how good you are at your job if it weren’t such a pain in my ass.”
Michael hisses at the crunch of bone under Croft’s heel, but it barely registers against the white-hot agony that’s swamped his entire right leg. “Fuck, you...fuck,” he says, trying to pull his scattered brain together and make sense of what’s happening.
“Yes, yes, it’s all very distressing,” Croft says, walking away from Michael and slinging a small bag off his shoulder. “For what it’s worth, if my associates here had done their job properly, all of this would have been over a lot quicker for you. I take no pleasure in this.” He pulls a small grey rectangular block out of the bag, and places it near the stairwell. Even through the screeching pain in his knee, Michael still recognizes plastic explosives when he sees them.
He takes deep breaths and tries to focus, tries to piece together what could have brought Croft here. The last of the blue smoke is fading away, dispersing down the hallway, and Michael’s mind races as he looks at it. He’d thought it had been coincidence, that the same group he’d gone after with the agency had had a run-in with the Ramseys and were working with the people who’d made the threats, or that the ecoterrorists just used the same equipment, but—
“It was you,” he grinds out, watching as Croft puts a detonator in the explosives. “You were the mole. On the weapons trafficking mission.”
Croft sits back on his heels and fixes him with an appreciative look. “It really is a shame,” he says, and he almost sounds sincere. He stands up and moves to the barricade, dropping down to set another charge. “You were very promising. It’s unfortunate that your skill led you to become an inconvenience.”
Michael runs through the events of the past few months as fast as he can, leaning back against a desk. The speed with which he left the agency, the willingness Croft showed to pull strings. “You—” he cuts himself off with a grimace as he presses down above his knee, trying to slow the blood loss. “You didn’t want an investigation,” he says. “I was wrong, but you still thought they might find you if they looked into it.”
Croft hums thoughtfully. “Oh, Michael, you’re too hard on yourself. You weren’t wrong; there was a mole. You just didn’t dream big enough, that’s all.” He finishes the charge on one side of the barricade and moves to place one nearer to Michael. “They had been forewarned of your movements. They just weren’t getting the information from anybody on-site.”
He’s only a few feet away. Michael thinks about lunging for him, but even the slightest shift makes him yelp in pain. “How did you do it this time?” Michael asks instead, trying to buy time. “Tap into the communications.”
Cocking his head, Croft looks at him. “Tap into—oh, no, no,” he says, laughing. “No, nothing that complicated. Though I will say that Burnie was very helpful after I asked him to update me on the progress of my favorite ex-employee. I got a very enthusiastic email about you getting your first assignment, and another one when it was ending. Nice guy, Burnie.” Croft sits back on his heels. “Michael, do you still have that gift I gave you?”
For a second Michael doesn’t know what he means, but then he remembers the heavy silver lighter still in his pocket. It must show on his face, because Croft gives an apologetic smile.
“Clever little bug, right? Got a microphone in there I can access remotely if I need too, plus a little tracking device,” Croft says, going back to the explosives. “Not the best quality, I’ll say. We could never keep track of you when you were around a lot of cell phones. Always lost you when you went into the city. Still, very useful for making sure you didn’t manage to escape.”
Michael’s head is swimming, whether from shock or blood loss he doesn’t know. “You’re a fucking asshole,” he manages, grimacing.
Croft laughs again. “A fighter until the end. I really will be sad to see you go, Michael,” he says. “Still, couldn’t risk you using that brain of yours to put the pieces together. I thought getting you a job where a violent death wouldn’t be suspicious would make this simpler, but that of course would have required competent associates.” Croft casts a disdainful look at the dead men around them. “Thank God I flew down here to supervise.” He stands up, brushing dust off his suit trousers. “Now, down to business. Where’s your little friend?”
Fuck. Michael needs to stall for more time. There are still shots being fired outside; he needs to keep Croft here long enough for the cops to finally get inside. He needs to keep him here long enough so that they stop him from finding Gavin. “What?”
“Free, your client. If I want it to look like he was the target, I can’t very well let him live, now can I?” he says, all mock condescension. “If you tell me where he is, I’ll shoot you both before I set these off.” He gestures to the plastic explosives. “Let you die clean. You’ve earned it, I think.”
“Why blow us up at all?” Michael says. The blood loss has him woozy, head lolling back against the desk. He feels cold.
Croft shrugs. “Destroy physical evidence. Provide a nice distraction for my escape. Make a pretty fireball,” he says. “Now tell me where your boy is.”
“I don’t know,” Michael grinds out. Croft sighs, looking disappointed, and shoots him in his other kneecap.
Michael’s world explodes a second time. He screams, voice torn apart, and the little bit of him that’s left hopes Gavin’s far enough away that he can’t hear.
“You’re smarter than this, Michael,” Croft says, voice barely registering in Michael’s head. “Why make this more difficult for yourself? Hell, if you just tell me where he is, I’ll kill you first so you don’t have to watch him die.”
He’s got it wrong, Michael thinks. I’d rather be there with him. He stares up at the ceiling, trying to think of anything but his shattered knees. Lots of the ceiling tiles are broken, and those that aren’t look like they’re cracking as he watches, a fine mist of dust showering slowly down on them. Like snow, he thinks. I’m cold. “Go fuck yourself,” he manages, lifting an arm just enough to give Croft the finger.
Croft sighs again. “You disappoint me,” he says, reloading his gun. “Maybe killing you won’t be as difficult as I—”
He’s cut off when several tiles fall from the ceiling, shattering at his feet. Croft jumps back, cursing. “What the hell—” he says, aiming his gun at the ceiling, but his words are lost in an overwhelming blast of noise and light when a grey metallic cylinder drops to hit him in the head.
Michael throws his hands to his ears and closes his eyes, but he’s still disoriented after the flashbang goes off. He opens his eyes to a new cloud of blue smoke, and shakes his head madly trying to clear the ringing from his ears. He hears a gunshot from the smoke, and then a shrieking voice pierces through the ringing.
“EAT PEPPER, YOU PRICK,” it shouts gleefully, and then there are screams that Michael recognizes as Croft’s. You’re not supposed to be here, Michael thinks, but he’d know that voice anywhere. The screaming continues, and then there’s a final gunshot followed by a few dull thumps.
There’s a moment of stillness that is possibly the worst moment of Michael’s life. Then Gavin emerges from the smoke.
“Hi,” he says, the walking miracle, smiling to try to cover up his panic as he takes in Michael’s state. He drops an empty red canister next to them. “I couldn’t find a vent, you were right,” he says as he drops down to kneel next to him, “but these old ceilings are almost as good, so I still think I win.”
“Are you—” Michael says, voice almost completely gone as he pats desperately at Gavin’s chest, checking for wounds. “Did he—”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Gavin says, stripping off the Captain America sweatshirt to reveal the body armor. “Cheers for the vest, came in handy just now. This is gonna hurt, sorry.” He says the last bit in a rush as he presses the sweatshirt material to Michael’s knees, trying to stem the blood loss. “Sorry, sorry, can’t have you dying now, that’s just sloppy, isn’t it,” he babbles, trying to distract Michael.
Michael shouts at the pressure, hand clutching at Gavin’s shoulder. He exists and you exist, that voice in his voice says, a little incredulous. “I thought I told you to stay away,” Michael says through gritted teeth. Gavin looks up at him, and even through clouded vision Michael’s heart leaps at his expression.
“Michael,” Gavin says carefully, dropping his forehead to Michael’s, “do you actually think you could make me do anything I didn’t want to do?”
The end of his sentence is nearly drowned out by the sound of boots tramping up the stairs. “Over here!” Gavin yells. “Here, please, he needs to go to hospital now!”
A uniformed police officer breaks through the smoke and sees them. “Is there anyone else here?” he says before radioing in a call for a medical helicopter.
“The man in the suit is still alive,” Gavin says, pointing. “That one there,” and Michael can barely make out Croft slumped on the floor through the disappearing smoke. “He tried to kill us both, and he hired all the rest, I think. I don’t know, he’s definitely a baddie.”
A few more uniforms come over while SWAT starts clearing the hallway. “Gavin,” Michael says as EMTs arrive and pull out a stretcher. “Gavin, ask for ID,” he say weakly. “Make sure they’re...who they say they are.”
Gavin grabs his hand where it’s still resting on his shoulder. “Christ, I love you so much,” he says, half-laughing with tears in his eyes, and it’s the last thing Michael hears before he slips into unconsciousness.
Michael is so woozy when he wakes up that, before he opens his eyes, he’s pretty sure he’s nineteen years old and waking up hungover in someone else’s dorm room. His eyelashes are crusted together, and forcing his eyelids open is a fucking heroic task; when he finally manages it, blinking against the light, he realizes he’s not in a dorm room. He’s in the hospital.
“Shit,” he says quietly, trying to run through everything that’s happened without overloading his brain. His body itself is a record: the black eye, the bruising around his throat, the scraped knuckles. He gingerly lifts the blanket covering him to look down at his legs. They’re both still there, thank God, and both heavily bandaged and splinted. There’s no pain. Michael looks down at the IV in his left arm and sends up thanks for the wonders of modern medicine. He’s definitely getting the good shit, though that’s probably what also has his head feeling like it’s full of cotton.
Once he’s done taking inventory of his bodily injuries—none of which involve being dead, so he’s pretty goddamn pleased with himself—he takes stock of the room. There’s the IV stand and a couple of beeping machines, a TV with no remote in sight, a potted plant, two empty chairs, and one chair containing a passed-out Geoff Ramsey.
He’s snoring heavily with a “Get Well Soon!” balloon tied around his wrist. There’s a knocked-over latte spilled all over the tiles at his feet. It’s all very charming.
“Geoff,” Michael says, the hoarseness of his own voice catching him by surprise. “Geoff!” he tries again, a little louder this time.
Geoff snorts and jerks awake, his head flying up. “Wha’s that?” he says groggily before his eyes land on Michael. “Oh, fuck.” His eyes fly wide open and he jumps up out of his chair, only slipping a little on the coffee. “Oh, Jesus dicks, hold on, don’t move,” he says, bolting across the room and leaning out of the door to call for a nurse.
Michael lifts his arms wide and gestures to his entire body. “Well I was gonna make a run for it, but you fucking swayed me,” he says to the back of Geoff’s head.
Geoff ignores him, turning around and scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Fuck, Gav is gonna be pissed, I sent him home to sleep, like, an hour ago.”
“He good?” Michael asks, assuming Geoff wouldn’t be here if he weren’t. He’s pretty surprised that Geoff is here at all, if he’s honest.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s fine—thanks for that, by the way, I’m gonna buy you a fucking pony or a house or something—but he needed to sleep, so I put him in a cab and told him I’d watch you,” Geoff says, stepping out of the way as two nurses come into the room.
“And then you fell asleep,” Michael dead-pans, leaning to keep sight of Geoff as the nurses swarm his bed, checking readings on the machines and shining lights in his eyes.
“Uh, yeah, and clearly it helped you wake up, so you’re welcome,” Geoff says with a grin.
“Sir,” one of the nurses says, turning away from Michael to look at Geoff. “If you’re not family I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“What, can’t you see the resemblance? I’m his dad,” Geoff says, grinning.
“Shut up, Geoff,” Michael says, following a pen light with his eyes at a nurse’s instruction. He catches her eye when she’s done. “Is it alright for me to give him a message to give to someone else?” he asks.
“Sure,” she says, grabbing a prescription pad and pen and handing them over. Geoff lingers in the doorway as Michael cracks his sore knuckles and then starts to write.
I’m fine. Sleep, idiot. I love you too.
He tears it off the pad, folds it once, and hands it to the nurse, who hands it to Geoff. Without hesitating, Geoff unfolds it and reads it.
“That’s fucking adorable,” he says before re-folding it and slipping it in his pocket.
“You’re a piece of shit,” Michael says without much heat, leaning back against his pillow. He doubts it’s anything Geoff didn’t already know anyway. “I broke a bunch of your plates.”
“Oh, well, nevermind about the pony, then,” Geoff says sarcastically as he’s hustled out the door by one of the nurses.
The next few hours are spent first with the nurses, and then with his doctor. Michael has a lot of things explained to him: the extent of his injuries, the operations that had been done on his knees, the amount of physical therapy he would need to regain full use of them.
“Metal knees, huh?” Michael says, looking down the bed at his legs. “Airport security is gonna be a bitch.” It’s weird to think that part of his body is gone forever.
“We’re going to keep you here for observation for the rest of the week,” the doctor says, ignoring Michael’s concerns about the TSA. “Then we can send you home. I wouldn’t advise that you travel for at least six weeks, though. Do you have a place you can stay in Austin?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Michael says. Hopefully having fucked-up legs means he won’t have to sleep on the couch this time. Though to be fair, he’d be hoping not to be sleeping alone no matter what.
“All right, in that case we can set you up with a physical therapist here. If you plan on getting full mobility back—”
“I do,” Michael interrupts.
“—if you plan on that, then PT is going to be crucial for you,” the doctor continues. “Are you thinking about staying in the same line of work?” she asks.
Michael hadn’t even thought about it. “Yeah, I am,” he says after a moment. He can’t say he’s a huge fan of getting shot, but he also can’t imagine doing anything else knowing he could be protecting people.
“It’s going to take you a few months at least to get back to that level,” she says, examining his chart before she closes it with a smile. “But I think we can get you there.”
“Glad to hear it,” Michael says, grinning back. He likes her, likes her no-nonsense bedside manner. She kind of reminds him of his mom, actually, which gives him a flood of guilt. “Is there a phone here I can use?” he asks. “If we’re done, I mean.”
“Yeah, we’re done for now,” she says, standing up and rolling over a wheeled table with a landline on it. “Dial 9 to leave the hospital system. Also, one of the nurses mentioned that you have a few people in the lobby who’d like to visit you. Are you going to be up for that?”
Michael nods. “Yeah, after I call someone,” he says.
His doctor leaves, and Michael calls his mother.
He gets lucky on the timing and catches her while she’s waiting at her gate in Newark Airport. Apparently the police had notified her when they’d picked him up; she’d bought the first ticket she could afford. He’s glad she doesn’t have to sit through the flight not knowing if he’s okay or not, but he does feel kind of guilty about making her cry in public.
“Denise, relax,” he says. “I’ve got bionic knees now, it’s a fucking upgrade. I’m like your most technologically-advanced son. You’re Robocop’s mom.”
She doesn’t seem to appreciate that much. Oh well. He tells her he loves her and that he’ll see her tomorrow once she’s driven down from Dallas, and then her flight is boarding and he can hang up. He really does love his mom, but he’s always been a coward when it comes to dealing with fallout from stuff like this. If he had his way, throwing himself at danger wouldn’t hurt anybody but him; listening to her cry reminds him that the world doesn’t work that way.
Maybe feeling like people care about him shouldn’t make him feel guilty and angry. Maybe he should talk to somebody about that. Maybe he should think about this when there aren’t opiates in his system.
He hits the nurse call button and tells her that he’s ready for non-family visitors. He’s not entirely sure who to expect besides Geoff, since Gavin’s gone home, but he leans back against the pillow and waits to see who shows up.
Considering his recent experiences with bosses, Michael thinks he can be excused for the way he bolts upright when Burnie Burns walks into his hospital room.
“Sir,” he says, fumbling for what else to say.
“Michael,” Burnie says, walking over and clasping one of his hands before grabbing a chair and pulling it up to his bed. “How’re you feeling?”
“Uh,” Michael says, scratching the back of his neck. “Well, pretty good for having been shot, I guess. Though I haven’t been shot before, so I don’t really have a point of comparison.” He should probably dial back the dickishness considering the circumstances, but he can’t summon up the energy.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Burnie says. “We’re all really happy you’re pulling through, dude. Wait, shit, that reminds me,” he says, digging into the briefcase he brought with him. Michael figures that gives him free license to swear from here on out.
Burnie pulls out a large “Get Well Soon” card from his briefcase. “Passed this around the office before I left,” he says. Michael opens it up and starts scanning through the signatures. “Everyone sends their best.”
Get well soon, shithead, says Lindsay’s message. “I can see that,” Michael says, smiling.
“Also, I hope you weren’t worried about this, but the health insurance we provide is going to cover everything, including PT,” Burnie says. “Mental health counseling, too,” he adds lightly.
Michael glances up from Ray’s message of DOUCHEBAG USES BULLETS! It’s not very effective... to look Burnie in the eye. “I’ll think about that,” he says seriously, and means it.
Burnie nods and then changes the subject. “So you’re gonna be down here for a while, huh?”
“Looks like it,” Michael says. Ryan’s message reads We await your glorious return, o warrior most fearsome.
“Well, your job will be waiting for you as long as you want it,” Burnie says. Christ, Michael hadn’t even thought about that. “And when you come back, we can talk about the kinds of assignments you want. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It’ll be up to you.”
Michael’s first instinct is to protest that he’ll be up for anything once he’s back on his feet, but he stops himself. He flashes back to his mom’s voice on the phone, and can’t help but think that the list of people who worry about him might be growing, not shrinking. He doesn’t know quite what to say, so he just nods, setting the card aside for now. He’ll read the rest of the messages later.
Burnie heaves a sigh before taking his glasses off and running a hand down his face. “Christ, Michael, I hope you know how sorry about all of this I am,” he says, and the slump of his shoulders helps Michael understand why he flew across the country for a conversation that could have been had over Skype. “We never would have sent you here if we’d known what was going to happen. And God knows I wouldn’t have told Croft—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Michael interrupts. “I didn’t figure it the fuck out until after he’d blown one of my knees out. You weren’t psychic, no biggie.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Burnie says, sounding supremely unconvinced. “The point is, Michael, you did an amazing job—no, seriously, you were stellar,” he says when Michael raises his eyebrows, “but you shouldn’t have had to, and I’m sorry you did. We don’t make a habit of getting caught off-guard like that, or leaving our agents without back-up, and I don’t want you to think that’s how we do business, or what we expect from you.”
Huh. He actually cares. “I don’t, but, uh, thanks for saying it,” Michael says. “Apology accepted, I guess?” he adds.
Burnie nods to himself. “I’m flying back the day after tomorrow. You gonna be okay out here? You’re staying at the Ramseys’, I assume?” Michael nods in return, though he supposes he hasn’t technically asked yet. “Yeah, Geoff’s out there, and I saw Gavin earlier,” Burnie says, his voice taking on a different tone. “Gavin seemed pretty adamant about not leaving.” Michael just shrugs, keeping his face immobile. “Yeah, I’m not gonna ask any questions about that,” Burnie says after a moment.
“Appreciate it,” Michael says, his stare unwavering. Recent events have made adhering to company policy fall pretty far down his list of concerns.
“Figure you’ve earned that much,” Burnie says. He slides his glasses back on and leans back in his chair. “I wish I could tell you this whole saga was over, but—”
“I killed three people and accidentally uncovered a leak in the CIA,” Michael says. “I’m assuming somebody’s gonna want to talk to me about that.”
Burnie grins ruefully. “There are two suits in the waiting room. I got here first, but they’re gonna want to talk to you sooner rather than later.”
“Fuck it, send ‘em in,” Michael says, reaching for a button a nurse had pointed out to him and re-dosing himself with painkillers. “I got nowhere else to be.”
When they come in, the FBI agents are buttoned-up and tired and all business; Michael guesses that they probably got off the plane from DC and came straight to the hospital and feels a pang of sympathy. Clean-up shit like this is never fun, especially since they’re probably dealing with jurisdiction fights with the CIA. He does his best to answer their questions, even when going over and over the same events starts to wear him thin. Yes, the sniper had fired first, multiple times. Yes, the men pursuing them seemed to have advance knowledge of their movements. No, he did not communicate with anyone during the pursuit besides his organization, Gavin, and Paolo. No, he did not believe that Paolo was involved. No, he had not borne ill will against Croft for the way he’d left the CIA. No, he had not had contact with Croft since then. Yes, he had been acting in self-defense when he killed Croft’s men. Yes, he would have been killed if Gavin had not intervened.
They show him pictures of the men he’d killed and ask if he recognizes them from his CIA missions. He does not. They show him pictures of other men and ask the same thing. He gives the same answer. He doesn’t know if those men are dead or not.
The agents stay there for hours, recording his answers. His painkillers start to wear off a little at a time, but he doesn’t give himself another dose. Not yet.
They finally finish up, packing up their files and pictures and microphones. “We’ll be back in two days, probably,” says the female agent. Michael can’t remember her name. “Just in case we have any last-minute questions. That’ll be the end of it for a while, though you’ll certainly be called as a witness when Croft goes to trial. Thanks for your time, Mr. Jones.”
“My pleasure,” Michael says flatly, and waves goodbye as they leave.
One of the nurses ducks in to shut the door as they leave, but Michael flags her down. “Is there anyone else?” he asks.
“You should rest, they were in here a long time,” she says, which isn’t a no.
“Is anybody else waiting?” he asks again.
“One guy just got here, I think, but—”
“Send him in,” Michael says, cutting her off. “Please,” he adds.
She sighs and moves from the doorway. “If you’re still awake in half an hour I’m kicking him out,” she calls back as she leaves. Good enough.
He nearly falls asleep in the time it takes for Gavin to get there, eyes blinking closed of their own accord. He hears him before he sees him, loping footsteps coming down the hallway. Watching the empty doorway, knowing who’s coming, Michael is the most at peace as he’s been in a long time.
Gavin careens into sight, flushed and wearing one of Michael’s t-shirts. He grabs onto the door frame, and Michael can see the way his shoulders sag with relief when he sees him. He knows the feeling.
For a moment, they just look at each other. “All right, Michael?” Gavin says finally.
“Gavin,” Michael says, grinning at him from the hospital bed, “I am fucking tippers.”
A smile spreads across Gavin’s face like sunshine. “Yeah you are,” he says, crossing the room in a few strides. He pauses at the edge of Michael’s bed, just beaming down at him, and Michael rolls his eyes at him.
“Stop fucking smiling and come here, asshole,” he says, reaching up and fisting his hand in Gavin’s—his—shirt. Gavin doesn’t quit smiling, but he does take orders, leaning over the bed to kiss Michael carefully. It’s not a shy kiss, but it is delicate, and Michael’s never had someone touch him like he could break before.
“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he says, pulling away and tugging on a piece of Gavin’s bangs.
Gavin snorts. “Haven’t seen yourself, have you? Your face looks a bit like hamburger that’s gone off on one side. I mean, I’d still do you, but I have shite taste—” he jumps back, squealing, as Michael swats at him and misses.
“Shut up,” Michael mumbles happily as Gavin pulls a chair up as close to the bed as he can. He reaches out and scratches a hand through Michael’s hair, and Michael leans into it. The familiar feeling is almost enough to drown out the pain that’s creeping back into his legs. “Thanks for saving my ass,” Michael says softly.
“What, that? S’nothing,” Gavin says. “I dunno if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of a superhero.” He makes a goofy face, and Michael is filled with overwhelming fondness.
“Superhero my ass,” he says.
“Ooh, I will absolutely be the superhero of your arse,” Gavin shoots back, and Michael honest-to-God laughs. Gavin looks pleased with himself, and keeps playing with Michael’s hair. “You’re coming home with me, right?” he asks, and Michael nods.
“Should be out in about a week,” he says, yawning. “Doc says I shouldn’t travel much for at least six weeks, maybe longer. Won’t be able to go back to work for six months.”
“You’re gonna go back to DC?” Gavin says. Michael nods again, and Gavin looks thoughtful. “Works for me. Geoff and Griffon have a place out there.” He looks suddenly horrified by what’s come out of his mouth. “I mean, if, that is—”
“Shut the hell up, I was thinking the same thing,” Michael says. “If we get there. No promises that I won’t kill you back home. I don’t need knees to destroy you, and I don’t have a contract saying I won’t anymore.” Gavin just bounces happily in his seat.
“Brilliant,” he says. “Brilliant.” He smirks down at Michael. “Congratulations blowjob, then?”
Michael cracks up again, then winces as the movement sends pain through him. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I think I’d rather just sleep, honestly.”
“Fair enough,” Gavin says, then frowns. “Are you hurting? Do you not have enough meds?”
Shaking his head, Michael holds up the button he’d used a few hours ago. “Haven’t dosed myself again,” he says. “Didn’t want to be passed out when you got here.”
Gavin’s face softens into a look of warm exasperation. “Take the drugs, you dope. Then you can sleep.”
Michael hits the button, and the medication hits him almost immediately, washing the pain away. Gavin scoots even closer to the bed and leans forward onto it, his chin resting on his crossed forearms.
“Night, Michael,” he says softly. “I’ll be here in the morning.” Too tired to respond, Michael just lets a hand rest on the back of Gavin’s neck and lets himself fall at last into a dreamless sleep.