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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Mike comes awake with a gasp, cold sweat coating his skin and his wound throbbing with pain. The nightmare still has its claws in him, prickly and vicious, and Mike can't quite tell if that's what woke him up or the agony in his side.

He stumbles into the bathroom, splashing cool water on his face. His reflection in the mirror looks back at him with bloodshot eyes, underneath them dark circles on pale skin. Would his friends back at Quantico recognize him anymore? Sometimes, he has trouble recognizing himself, wonders if he came back wrong and the real him died that day in the hospital.

Fuck. He'd kill for some painkillers.

When he leaves his room, he spots a faint light coming from downstairs. Mike pads down the stairs, the wood flooring creaking under his naked feet. He finds Charlie crouching next to the fridge, rummaging inside. He wasn't being particularly stealthy; she turns when he approaches and wraps her robe around herself like a cocoon.

"Can't sleep either?" she asks, fishing out a couple of tuna sandwiches Jakes saved himself for next morning. When the fridge door falls shut, the kitchen is plunged into darkness.

Mike feels his way towards the table and sits down. "Nightmares. It was getting better, but now they're back." It's easier to admit when he doesn't see who he's talking to, when he can imagine he's alone.

He hears Charlie pull up a chair and settling down next to him. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I don't think so." Even if he wanted to, he couldn't. His dreams are a mess. Sid and Jangles and Lena and Juan and Paige and Briggs, and Charlie doesn't know half of it. He has no interest in tearing the house apart any further. Sometimes, he's so tired he can't keep track of who knows what secret and whom they told which lie under the pretext of protecting them, so he ends up just keeping everything from everyone. It's easier than to try and keep his lies straight. "But thanks for the offer."

Charlie makes a noncommittal sound that could be judgmental, or maybe she's just too busy munching her late-night snack.

"You want one?" Her mouth is full when she speaks, garbling the words. He assumes she means a sandwich, but as long as he can't see, he can pretend that she means anything. That she might mean painkillers rather than Jakes' stolen breakfast.

Mike smiles a brittle smile that, like so many other things, is cloaked by the dark. "Sure."

*

When Mike told Briggs about what he saw in those six minutes when he was dead, he wasn't lying. But he knew how to spin it in a way that could – and likely would – be misinterpreted.

"Then I saw you," Mike said, and he knew that Briggs would think Mike meant at the hospital, that Mike opened his eyes and saw Briggs standing over him, frantic worry written all over his face.

That's not what he meant at all.

He can't shake it. It's hard enough to make sense of the numbers and the birds without his mind constantly racing trying to figure out what Briggs' presence might have meant.

*

It all comes to a head when they arrest Ari. They got Sarkissian on murder and drug trafficking and a bunch of other charges, and Logan decided that it was time to finally get Ari off the streets as well. Of course, it doesn't go smoothly. When does it ever?

"I go down, you go down too," Ari tells Briggs, spitting in his face and clearly not at all intimidated by the fact that there are two guns trained at him. "Don't think you can walk away from this, guy."

Briggs says something, but Mike can't hear him over the roaring in his ears, loud as the sea on a stormy day. Mike sees him reaching for the handcuffs and somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that once Briggs actually makes the arrest, he's finished. Ari will go to trial and Briggs will take the heat for what he's done while he was undercover. What Logan sent him to do.

There's no hesitation.

Mike lifts the gun and pulls the trigger. The sound echoes through the night, deafening. Ari goes down like a puppet whose strings have been cut. It takes a moment until the blood starts pooling around him.

The shock written all over Briggs' face is almost comical. "Jesus, Mike."

Funny, because Briggs was the one who had the idea in the first place, right at the beginning of the assignment, when things had already gone sideways but not catastrophically so. Back then, Mike tried to talk him out of it when he should really have asked, How can I help?

"What the hell did you do that for?"

Mike shrugs. "He shouldn't have resisted arrest."

There's something in the way Briggs looks at him that makes his hackles rise. "Don't start," he says, and the anger is adding to the pounding headache he can't shake. Briggs is the last person who has the right to pass judgement, even if it wasn't for the fact that Mike did it to protect him.

Briggs raises his hands in a placatory gesture. "I wasn't saying anything." Doesn't mean he's not thinking it.

Mike clenches his teeth and calls it in. Another arrest gone wrong, another body bag. Same old, same old. Moving on.

No big deal.

*

He doesn't lose any sleep over it. Maybe he should. He shot an unarmed man point-blank for no other reason than to cover up Briggs' part in several other people's deaths.

He remembers when he first came to Graceland, fresh out of the academy, with a firm set of morals and a clear idea where to draw the line between right and wrong. The line has been blurred so much that it's become all but invisible, stained with the blood of those whose lives they took a gamble on and lost.

The Mike who came to California – the one who was adamant to bring down Briggs for being Odin Rossi – would have been horrified, but there's virtually nothing left of that man.

The world's not going to miss Ari Adamian. A lot of better people have died in those two years since Mike's been here. Juan. Lena. Colby. Mike's accepted his responsibility in their deaths and managed to move on. Compared to them, Ari isn't even a blip on the fucking radar.

*

He visits Bello in prison.

It surprises him that Bello is willing to see him, after everything. He didn't think Bello had anything left to say to him. Then again, maybe Bello isn't quite done telling him that he's the worst.

An officer leads Bello into the room in handcuffs and sits him down at the small table opposite Mike. He seems fine, so whatever threat the Kaza cartel posed to him seems to have been neutralized. Mike makes a mental note to ask Briggs about it.

Bello looks him up and down. "You look like shit, Michael."

It's one hell of a conversation opener. Mike laughs quietly and runs a tired hand over his face. "Trust me, I look better than I feel."

Bello's lip curls. "I would say something about karma, but something tells me it is nothing you're not thinking yourself." It's a little scary how well he's still able to read Mike. "I also assume you know better than to come here fishing for information because I will not tell you a thing. Which makes me wonder why you wanted to see me."

Why did he, exactly? Perhaps he didn't entirely think this through. Perhaps this has been a terrible idea. Then again, what's one more in the long string of terrible choices he's made since he left Quantico.

He forces himself not to avert his eyes and presses on. "Did you ever tell yourself you were a good guy? I know you have no illusions about yourself now, but was there ever a time when you did?"

"Of course I did. Don't we all start that way?" From the amusement swinging in Bello's voice and the use of the plural pronoun, suggesting they're alike, it's obvious that he's figured out where Mike's questions were going to lead "You tell yourself that as long as you have good reasons for what you do, it justifies your actions. It is a slippery slope." His accent curves around vowels, almost but not quite taking the harshness out of his words.

It feels strangely safe talking about this with Bello here, behind plexiglass fronts and steel bars. He's under no illusion that, if Bello ever gets out, he's going to come after Mike. Judging from the way he's handled disloyalty among his people before, Mike could call himself lucky if he dies quickly. But now, here, he can almost believe that Bello is something like a friend, someone to confide his darkest secrets in and ask for advice.

"How do you live with yourself? How can you look in the mirror knowing how many innocent people died because of something you did?" It sounds more accusing than he meant it to. He didn't come here to pass judgement, or to tell Bello that however much he liked him personally, he finds what he did despicable.

Bello leans back, folding his hands. The handcuffs rattle. "You could say that it all comes down to loyalty, in the end. As long as I believe that what I do helps the people I care for, I can accept whatever bad consequences my actions have. That's why I was prepared to give up Odin Rossi to protect you. Of course, that was before I found out that you were the last person deserving of my loyalty. Who are you loyal to, Michael? Your precious Bureau? Your superiors, those men in ill-fitting suits who sit in fancy offices and give you orders?"

Mike snorts, both at the idea of being loyal to the Bureau and at the reminder that a huge part of his assignment with Bello had been about chasing a phantom. Odin fucking Rossi. It all comes down to Briggs, every damn time. He wonders how Bello would react if he knew that the man he'd been protecting was FBI. He'd be at equal parts furious and amused, most likely. Mike's fury has burnt itself out by now, muddled by the tangled mess of emotions Briggs keeps leaving in his wake.

The line of thought brings a certain clarity along, because the mere fact that the knowledge of who Odin really was is confined to a bunch of people in Graceland speaks volumes about where Mike's loyalties lie.

"Loyalty is what lead me down this path in the first place," Mike admits. "So maybe, like you, I've placed my loyalty in the wrong people." He isn't entirely sure if he means Briggs or the FBI, or both, nor does he know at which point exactly the two became altogether different – if not opposing – forces.

There's a speculative expression in the way Bello looks at him that makes Mike want to squirm in his seat and he has to force himself to sit still. "Maybe so. But once you have passed a certain point, there is no turning back. You should know that."

Mike did, he does, but there's a certain finality in hearing it from Bello. It's unsettling and liberating at once.

*

Briggs' eyes are following him around the house. The weight of his stare is heavy, unsettling, and omnipresent, from when he walks into the kitchen in the morning to late nights at the beach, sitting around the bonfire with the others. It's like an itch Mike can't scratch away.

"What's going on with you two?" Johnny asks one morning, after breakfast.

Mike is glad it's not Charlie, who knows Mike and Briggs and their secrets a bit too well to be pacified with a shrug and a casual, "Nothing, man. Just itching for a new case."

As soon as Johnny's out of earshot, Mike confronts Briggs.

"If you have something to say, why don't you say it?" It's frustration, not anger that makes his voice shake. Sometimes Briggs acts like he has a monopoly on blurring the lines and he forgets that they're all capable of terrible things. Mike, Paige, Johnny, Jakes... even Charlie.

Briggs shuts the door to Mike's room between himself and the others. "I'm just trying to figure out why you did it."

And really, Briggs can't be that clueless. Mike knows he isn't. "Come on, you know why I did it."

Briggs sits down on the bed, frowning up at him. "Yeah, I know, I just don't get why. You were sent to Graceland to investigate me. But whenever you actually have some shit on me, you don't use it and you're doing your damnest to protect me. Charlie kept sitting on that tape because she was having my baby, but you? I don't get why you weren't handing in that fucking thing first chance you got. And Ari... You shot the guy to keep me out of prison. I brought this on myself, Mikey, and I know I'm going to go down for it eventually. I don't want to pull you under with me."

One of the reasons Briggs is such a good undercover agent is because he buys into his own lies. Doesn't mean Mike has to. "The self-sacrificing act would be more believable if your first course of action when you thought I had the tape hadn't been to have me killed during that bank job."

It's clear from the look of Briggs' face that he didn't think Mike knew about that. Mike rolls his eyes. "What? I'm not stupid, okay?"

Briggs' frown deepens. "How can you forgive me for that? How can you live in a house where two people tried to have you killed, and joke around with us at dinner, and fucking trust us with your life out there?"

"You forget the part where you saved my life, what, three times so far?" He shrugs. It's deflection. He doesn't really believe that it balances each other out, saving someone's life and trying to kill them. If he did, he would feel a hell of a lot less guilty about Bello, because then the tally would be firmly in his favor.

The truth is, the two people who tried to have him killed also happen to be the ones he cares most about – and not just within the house. Bello is only half-right. It's not just about loyalty, it's also about love.

"And that makes it alright?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know, man. You act like I have all the answers, but I don't, okay? I didn't exactly sit down and calmly think about how to handle the situation with Ari, make a list of pros and cons and sleep on it. He said he was going to bring you down, and I know he could, and I just reacted. I didn't have a plan, it was just instincts." Mike can't quite stand the way Briggs looks at him, like he blames himself for corrupting Mike, turning him into a person whose first instinct is to pull a gun and shoot a guy. He quickly changes the subject. "What happened during debriefing? Did Logan give you any trouble?"

Briggs shrugs. "He didn't say anything. Maybe they bought it. Or maybe they'll send some green hotshot into the house to investigate all of us."

"Because that worked so well the last time they tried it?"

Mike means it as a joke, but Briggs grows serious. "I'm sorry, man. I know this wasn't how you envisioned your career to go. Fast-track to Washington and all."

What's a cushy job when you can trade it in for getting shot, a drug addiction and friends who set you up to be killed? Mike's smile hurts his face. "Don't worry about it."

*

Sometimes the pain still cuts through Mike like a white-hot knife, hitting him in the middle of the night until all he can do is clutch his side and squeeze his eyes shut and pray it'll pass. Sometimes he wants nothing more than to pop some oxy and ride that high out until the end, wherever it takes him. Sometimes he locks himself in the bathroom and holds his head underwater until his lungs feel as if they're going to burst. Sometimes he takes a drink too many, floors the gas a fraction too long when he goes into a curve, takes stupid risks on an assignment, and he wonders if he looks into the abyss for long enough, will something look back at him?

Sometimes he goes to AA meetings and talks about his childhood. Sometimes he sits in the kitchen with the others, sauce night for once uninterrupted, Johnny's jokes making him smile, and Briggs is a warm, steadying presence next to him.

Sometimes he's almost alright.

*

The night after Charlie gives birth, when the nurses have chased them from the hospital so the happy but exhausted new mom can get some rest, Mike finds Briggs down at the beach. He's sitting propped up against a piece of rock next to the fire with his back to the shore, facing the ocean. Even from a distance, Mike spots the bottle in Briggs' hands, and how tightly he's clutching it, as if it was the only thing holding him up.

When Mike gets closer, he turns his head. "Careful, Mikey. I shot the last guy who approached me when I was on the beach getting drunk."

Mike's step falters. The flames are throwing strange shadows on Briggs' face, making it impossible to read him. It's hard to gauge his mood when he's like this, and Mike's not sure if he's bring threatened or joked around with.

"'course, he was also wearing a mask and pretending to be a sociopathic Mexican hitman, so I guess you're safe."

When Briggs offers him a sharp grin and hands him the bottle, Mike relaxes. So that's what happened with Juan. Listening to the tape, Mike had guessed that what got Badillo killed had been a volatile situation of his own making. Briggs' explanation makes him wonder how the man could have been so monumentally stupid, especially if he already thought that Briggs was dangerous.

"I promise I come in peace." Mike brings the bottle to his lips, the rim of the glass still warm and slick from Briggs' mouth.

The alcohol burns down his throat. He winces. Tequila. Not his drink of choice. It tends to make him sick before the buzz really hits, so if Briggs is planning to get them drunk, he'd better be prepared to get puke on his shoes.

Next to him, Briggs is staring into the fire, eyes clouded. "I have a kid, Mikey. I have a little baby boy."

Mike smiles. "I know. I was there today at the hospital, remember?"

"I'm not fit to be a dad." He takes the tequila back from Mike, their hands brushing on the bottle. "I'm a mess. Everything I touch turns to shit. I keep getting people killed. Before you met me, you were a righteous, innocent guy with a bright future. Now you don't even blink when you kill people, you can't look at an oxy delivery without starting to shake, and you'll never make AD in your lifetime."

Briggs isn't completely off in his harsh assessment of Mike's situation, but it still hurts to hear it being laid out so plainly. Mike swallows the lump in his throat, fighting down the rush of self-pity and anger. "I don't think you can take full credit for what a mess I made of my life, Briggs."

"Can't I? Are you saying I didn't corrupt you? Because it sure looks that way from where I'm standing."

He's about to take another swig of tequila and Mike thinks maybe he's had enough, so he reaches over to snatch the bottle from Briggs' hands. It's almost empty; it doesn't take much to finish it off. Wiping his mouth, Mike drops it, and it hits the sand next to the fire without a sound.

"Look, man. It's not the same thing," he says. "You'll love your kid. You'll do whatever it takes to protect him."

Briggs laughs, but there's no mirth in it; it's a terrible, harsh sound that clutches Mike's heart tight like a fist and threatens to rip it out. "Fuck, Mike. If you think loving someone stops me from dragging them down with me, think again."

He comes at Mike so violently that Mike expects a punch. In the flickering orange light of the fire, he looks angry, and Mike wonders what brought it on, can't remember having said or done anything to deserve it. Mike flinches back when Briggs reaches for him, but the alcohol in his system has slowed his reflexes down too much to evade him. Briggs' hand tangles in his hair, pulling him closer, and Mike only realizes how much he misjudged the situation when Briggs' mouth is on his.

Briggs kisses like he does everything else: all in, no holds barred, sink or swim.

His fingers are rough in Mike's hair, his stubble burns Mike's skin and his teeth are drawing blood. Mike lets him wash over him like the tide, stunned into motionlessness by the force of the kiss.

It's over too soon.

Briggs steps back. He looks more scared than Mike has ever seen him, all wide-eyed shock like he can't believe he's done this, like it's the worst kind of mistake. Mike can already see Briggs' mind spinning, twisting this into yet another way he corrupted Mike, giving himself once again a hell of a lot more credit than he deserves for all the bad choices the people around him make.

Fuck it, Mike thinks.

He moves in until he's crowding Briggs against the rock, close enough that he can see the fight-or-flight reflex flashing in Briggs' eyes. The air smells of smoke and the ocean, and he hasn't felt this high since he's been off oxy.

His grin is probably a little on the maniac side, but he doesn't care. He's been wanting this for so long. He'll be damned if he lets Briggs kill his buzz.

"We doing this or what?" He swallows whatever protest Briggs is about to give with a kiss, every bit as vicious and brutal and relentless as the first one, giving himself a chance to savor the sharp metallic tang of tequila and blood.

*

Morning hits him like a fright train.

His head feels too sizes too big and the cotton-wool sensation in his mouth makes him scrunch up his face. It's half past six. Sunshine filters through the window. Out on the shore, the seagulls are crying. From outside his door, he can hear Jakes and Johnny bickering.

Next to him, Briggs is snoring softly. In his sleep, he looks more relaxed than Mike has seen him in months, like the demons raging inside of him are quiet for once. Mike feels almost guilty for disturbing him, but it's only a matter of time before one of the others comes knocking at the door.

His touches Briggs' shoulder and give him a gentle shake. "Hey."

Briggs groans and sits up. Mike doesn't particularly care to see the moment when realization hits Briggs, so he allows himself to be distracted by the way the sheets slip down, revealing tanned skin and toned muscles and pale scars. He can't stop himself from reaching out and letting his fingers trail down the path of soft hair below Briggs' belly button.

Briggs catches his hand, his hold on Mike's wrist a little too tight. The pain should be a kill the arousal, not make it sky-rocket, but Mike has long since made peace with the way Briggs got all his wires crossed.

"Mike." Briggs' voice is firm. "If we do this, we can't blame it on the tequila anymore."

Mike offers a wry half-smile. "Wasn't really planning to."

There's a long moment when Briggs just looks at him, searching his face for... something. Mike holds his gaze, trying to telegraph that this isn't something he's unsure about. Finally, Briggs loosens his grip, not letting go but giving Mike a little tug instead, pulling him in. Still, he's not quite run out of protests yet, even if the unforgiving edge in his tone is wavering. "This is a bad idea," he say.

Mike laughs because, really, what else is new?

"Of all the bad ideas we've had, this is probably one of the least terrible ones. We're gonna be okay." For the first time since he woke up in the hospital to the sight of frantic doctors and Briggs' worried face and the beeping sound of machines, he says those words and means them.

*

"So." Jakes slides onto the couch next to him. "You and Briggs, huh?"

Mike turns around and looks at him sharply. When he realizes that Jakes isn't fishing, that he actually knows, he offers a resigned shrug. Yeah, well, what can you do?

Jakes snorts. "Wish I could say I'm surprised, man."

Even though he's curious, Mike isn't sure if he wants to ask how Jakes figured it out, why he's not more surprised when not even Mike really saw it coming. Then again, perhaps Mike wasted so much time obsessing over whether he could trust Briggs and if he could trust himself around Briggs that he was blind to the obvious.

"This house already has too many secrets. I mean, I get it, they're part of the job. The lies are your life, and all that bullshit. But as soon as we keep stuff from each other, things go to shit. There's a reason we fucked up pretty much every single case since the whole mess with Jangles and Odin Rossi."

Mike tries not to give anything away. He's an undercover agent – his life depends on his ability to mask his tells. But when Jakes mentions Odin, he can't help it; he twitches. Jakes zeroes in on it like a hawk.

"He told you?" This time at least, Jakes seems surprised. "Good for you. Maybe there's hope for you two after all."

"Yeah. Maybe."

He looks away. He wonders what Jakes would say if he knew that Briggs didn't exactly tell him, and what Briggs' knee-jerk reaction had been when he found out Mike knew. If Jakes would still say there was hope for them, or if he'd think they should both be locked away for their own good.

Mike is saved from fixating any more on the matter, or from any further rants from Jakes about the dangers of keeping secrets when they're interrupted.

"What are you two whispering about?"

Johnny comes skipping down the stairs, Briggs and Paige in his wake. He squeezes himself between Mike and Jakes on the couch and flops down, the cushions bouncing.

"Nothing, man," Mike says, aware of three pairs of curious eyes on him. On the other end of the couch, Jakes chuckles under his breath. The irony isn't lost on Mike. That's the thing about lying: it becomes a habit you can't shake.

His eyes meet Briggs' across the coffee table. Briggs raises an eyebrow at him inquisitively, but Mike only shakes his head and smiles. "Nothing at all."

End.