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Chaos fic: A Simple Thing 2a/3

November 22nd, 2011 (09:11 am)
depressed

feeling: depressed

Part One.
Part Two-A
Part Two-B.
Epilogue.




PART TWO

The minute Michael steps outside, he knows something is wrong.

He’s not entirely sure what it is, but he has a sense about these things. He always has; it’s why he’s so good at what he does, why he’s still alive after pulling some of the missions that he’s pulled.

There’s just something off. The street is busy. There’s business people going to work; youths going to school. It’s the same as it has been for the entire week that they’ve been holed up here. And yet, something’s just not quite right. He can’t put a finger on it, but just outside the door he stops and stares.

Casey stops next to him, sighing a little. “After a week, now you decide to take in the scenery?” he asks.

Michael just frowns, scanning the scene again. He notes the woman pushing a stroller across the street, but she’s talking on her phone and ignoring the child. He sees the businessman loitering outside the deli across the way, looking like he’s waiting, but the sign clearly says closed.

A bus chugs down the street; a dog barks.

Nothing concrete, but thousands of little things scream at him.

He knows it.

Of course, as Fay would remind him, his paranoia is wrong more than it is right, but still. He’s alive. His team’s alive. Sure, he’s got a failed marriage behind him but really, something had to give in the name of national security and international espionage.

So he can’t ignore it.

He shakes his head. “Let’s take a walk,” he says.

Casey lifts an eyebrow. “And ignore the fact that we have a perfectly acceptable car at our disposal?”

“Especially that,” Michael says, as he starts walking again. Because when something is off, then it’s the easy things he can’t take for granted.

Still uncertain but confident in his doubts, Michael takes off. He doesn’t have to look back to know that Casey is following, or even that his teammate is rolling his eyes while he falls into step.

Michael keeps his eyes roaming. The policeman strolling down the street. The woman juggling a cup of coffee and her phone. The obvious tourist looking at a bus map.

Michael sees everything, but he almost doesn’t see the spark from the car. As it is, he doesn’t have time to react when the spark ignites into a blast and he’s already flying through the air when he finally hears the boom and then nothing at all.

-o-

Michael breathes smoke and hears the sound of sirens. There are people crying; someone is yelling.

Michael blinks once, then twice, before he realizes that his eyes are already open. He sucks in a breath and pain flares in his chest, enough to bring him to full awareness.

Launching himself up, he inhales and exhales rapidly as the details come back to him. They’re in Guatemala, on a mission. He and Casey were supposed to meet with the asset. There had been something off.

The car--

Michael turns, his body throbbing in protest, but he forgets the pain when he sees the burned hulk of what’s left of their car.

Which is to say, not much. If they had gotten in, this would be a story with an entirely different ending, one Michael wouldn’t be around to witness, at the very least.

As it is, his body aches, and he quickly realizes why. Though he escaped the worst of the blast, he’d still been close enough to ride its shock wave. It had hurled him through the air -- nearly ten feet, as best Michael can gauge -- all the way into the street beyond. There are other bodies sprawled -- some moving, some not -- and the crowd is scattering as it tries to make sense of things.

Then Michael remembers another salient point. He wasn’t alone.

Turning his head, he looks, just shy of frantic. Then, a few feet beyond him, he sees Casey on his back, not moving in the street.

Ignoring the protests of his body and a steady throb in his arm, Michael scrambles across the distance, landing heavily on his knees.

“Casey,” he says, breathes it really. The smoke is still thick and cloying in his lungs.

Casey blinks at him. There’s blood streaking down his face and there are patches of it down his arm as well. “The car exploded,” he says plainly.

Michael wants to laugh, but manages to simply nod. “I figured that,” he says.

Casey blinks again, almost curious. “That’s a less than pleasant experience,” he says.

Michael nods. “Are you okay? Can you--?”

He doesn’t get to finish when Casey levers himself up, his face set into a scowl. “I can,” he says shortly. “And now I’d like to know who the hell tried to kill us.”

Part of Michael wonders if he should make Casey sit still, get assessed first, but he knows Casey won’t listen. More than that, Michael’s pretty sure if he pushes the point, Casey will push right back, and neither of them can afford to be sidelined after what seems to be a clear assassination attempt.

He’s still ruling that option out, however, when Casey gets to his feet.

Michael has no choice but to follow, and he feels compelled to make it seem like it’s been his idea all along. “We’ll have to regroup,” he says, fingering a cut on his head absently. His hands comes away bloody and he makes a face. “Hook back up with Billy and Rick--”

He stops speaking when he sees Casey’s face.

Casey’s good at sardonic expressions, and Michael’s learned to read the degrees of exasperation and sarcasm for the nuances they represent.

But this--

This is different.

Casey’s face is blank. Devoid of anything.

Michael frowns, he’s about to ask what’s wrong, if Casey needs a medic after all, when he turns his head to follow Casey’s line of sight.

Beyond the smoke still billowing out of the car, things are a little hard to see. There are more police on the scene, and ambulances, too. Even fire trucks, but they’re not spraying water at the burned out car.

They’re spraying it at the diner.

Rather, what’s left of it. Because flames lick the structure, which is bad enough. What’s worse is the caved in floors, pancaking downward, leaving the ground level obliterated.

Michael thinks, there’s no way anyone survived.

And for the first time since he joined the CIA, Michael not sure what to do.

-o-

Michael’s not sure how long he stands there.

He just knows that he can’t move. Doesn’t know how to move. He feels like his feet are planted in the ground, frozen there indefinitely while his mind scrambles to come up with some kind of alternative.

Except there isn’t really an alternative. Michael and Casey were nearly killed by a car bomb and Rick and Billy were inside a now-flattened cafe. This isn’t random, Michael knows. Even if he were inclined to believe in coincidence for one, the dual blasts signify something more sinister. Something like murder.

No, not like murder. Actual murder. Because there are people dead on the street and there are people dead in the cafe and Michael’s still making sense of that when Casey speaks.

“We’ve been compromised,” he says, and the statement is so simple that Michael wonders for a moment if he’s imagining it. Still, Casey shakes his head, eyes still trained on the smoking building. “How the hell were we compromised?”

Michael swallows hard and his throat hurts from the smoke. “We can worry about that later,” he says.

At this, Casey looks at him. “You mean after they succeed in killing us?”

“After we get Billy and Rick,” Michael says. The words come out easily, like they’re expected, but in the acrid smell of smoke and blood, they sound wrong, even to Michael.

Casey stares a moment longer before scoffing. “We’ve seen explosions like this before,” he says. “They’re dead.”

The cold simplicity of the words make Michael want to shudder. Still, he shakes his head. “They’re not,” he says.

“The place is flattened,” Casey says, and there’s a strange pitch of emotion in his voice, something cracking just slightly. “They have to be dead.”

“They’re not, ” Michael says again, insisting this time.

“But--”

“But nothing,” Michael says, turning to look at Casey sternly.

The other operative is pale, his face whitewashed with what Michael knows isn’t just blood loss or shock. It’s the emotion reality, something Casey has never been skilled at handling. He can face any amount of peril, undergo any physical trial, but Casey almost always falls apart when someone he cares about is in jeopardy, when someone he cares about is--

In this, the cold, stark statements are a desperate attempt to verify a truth he’s terrified of. His only means of combating the fear that threatens to overwhelm him is to put it out there plainly. After all, Casey can be scared of losing two friends who are already dead in his mind.

Michael understands this. He understands, but can’t abide by it.

He meets Casey’s eyes and forces the other operative to hold his gaze. “They’re not dead,” he says.

Something in Casey’s expression flickers. There’s doubt and there’s fear.

Michael is resolute. “We’ve pinned our hopes on less.”

This is true, but Michael knows it’s not by much. As a team, they’ve defied death often, but rarely have the odds looked so badly against. Which is why it’s more important than ever that Casey believes him now.

Casey doesn’t look away, but the doubt is evident in his eyes.

“Not much less,” Michael amends. “But still.”

Part of Casey clearly doesn’t want to agree, that much is obvious. But the rest of Casey wants to disagree less. Casey prides himself on his realism, but he’s hopelessly in need of optimism more than the rest of them, especially when their backs are up against the wall.

Or when their teammates are buried in a pile of smoking rubble.

Still, Casey finally bows his head, sighing as he nods his assent.

When he looks up, his face is set again, and the fresh determination is what Michael needs to see. Casey takes a step forward.

Michael puts a hand out to stop him, suddenly concerned. “Where are you going?”

Casey pauses, tilting his head. “Well, if they’re not dead, then I don’t intend on leaving them there.”

With that, Casey doesn’t wait for an okay, but he doesn’t have to. Because Michael’s there, step by step as they head back toward the rubble.

-o-

By the time they get there, it’s clear that no one is really quite in charge. There are emergency personnel on the scene, but the orders are chaotic and in Spanish, and there seems to be groups of firemen not quite working in tandem as hoses are levied toward the blaze.

Still, it doesn’t take Michael long to realize that with the smoke and flames, the best that can be said of the efforts is that there is a poorly secured perimeter. No one is going inside.

At least, no one seems inclined to try just yet. But then, no one has a vested interest like Michael and Casey.

Yet, while Casey seems intent on going into the building -- flames, smoke, and questionable stability aside -- Michael understands that he can’t let that happen just yet. Not that he doesn’t want to save his teammates -- who are alive, who have to be alive -- but because he can’t sacrifice the only one left that he knows for sure will still walk out of this in one piece.

Besides, Michael has to admit, the entire scene doesn’t look good.

The building is burning in spots, but it’s hard to tell how widespread the flames may be. Smoke is still billowing freely out the shattered remains of the diner's windows, and Michael guesses that the firemen are hoping to control the blaze from the exterior before venturing inward. After all, fire on an already questionable structure isn’t something to mess around with.

The fire is problematic, of course, but it’s not Michael’s primary concern. People can survive in pockets of air; there could be other ways in and out that aren’t blocked by smoke or flame.

The real problem is, of course, that the building is supposed to be five stories high.

Now, it looks about three and a half in the back. Maybe three in the front.

Up close, it’s clear to see that the brunt of the damage was incurred on the first floor. In fact, there is no first floor. The entire thing is gone, collapsed in, and the rest of the building seems to be teetering on that new, unstable foundation.

This is hard to make sense of but easy to understand. The blast was clearly set on the first floor, probably blowing out all four walls when it went off. Given that the building is bowed toward the street, the bomb was probably placed toward the front, maybe right outside the building.

It’s the implications, though. The implications Michael doesn’t know how to deal with. Doesn’t want to deal with.

Casey, for his part, seems to refuse that such implications exist. Once Casey is committed to an idea, he refuses to hold back, and now that Michael’s talked him into believing that Rick and Billy might have survived, he’s not going to stop at anything until he finds them. Risk to himself be damned.

And Michael would be afraid to try stopping him anyway, because for one, Casey could probably incapacitate him if he tried. And two, he’s not sure how he’ll hold himself together if he admits anything less.

So when Casey charges across the tentative lines of firemen and rescue personnel, Michael’s not even a step behind. They don’t need to talk about their approach; they both know how the other will respond and act together accordingly.

More than that, it’s not like it takes a lot of thought. Go in, find Billy and Rick, get out.

End of story.

At least, that’s the end Michael wants.

No one stops them. This isn’t unexpected to Michael. The scene is still chaotic, and, more than that, Michael has learned that while deception is a powerful tool, often the most effective approach is just looking like you know what you’re doing. Few people think to ask questions, especially in crisis.

But as they cross the threshold, Casey nearly charges over a fireman coming out. Casey is so intent that he tries to duck around but the man holds his hands out, stopping him.

Casey growls, and Michael senses the fight that’s about to happen. Not that Michael doesn’t understand, but he’d rather not get arrested right now, especially since that would seriously impede their own rescue efforts.

Instead, Michael steps forward, between the two, saying, “Lo siento, lo siento.”

He hopes it’ll be enough to placate the man, but he still shakes his head, lifting his mask to look at them.

Michael is surprised to see he’s earnest; his face is smudged with smoke and he’s breathing heavily. “No pueden entrar,” he says, his Spanish hard to understand through the smoke-garbled inflection.

“Si, tenemos autoridad,” Michael tries to explain, lying easily even in a foreign tongue. Rick’s the linguist, but Michael knows enough to pass.

The man shakes his head. “No, no,” he says. “No hay posibilidad. Todos estan muertos.”

For a second, Michael hopes the meaning is lost in translation, but Casey goes stiff next to him.

The man continues, still shaking his head, obvious sadness in his features. “Todos,” he reiterates again. “Tratamos de salvarlos, pero no podemos. Dios mio, estan muertos.”

With that, the fireman crosses his chest with the sign of the cross before ducking back toward the crowded perimeter and turning his back on them. It's not much, but it's the opening they need.

Michael can’t move at first; Casey stares at him for a long, hard moment before he grits his teeth and charges inside.

-o-

It’s not a hard choice to follow Casey inside, but the minute he enters the space, Michael realizes why they were advised to stay away.

Everything is a mess. Smoke is heavy, clouding the space, but even through the haze, Michael can see that the rubble is more extensive than even the exterior showed. There are blocks of broken cement; felled beams crisscross the space and live wires continue to spark. There is a strange amalgamation of furniture -- a cafe chair and an office desk, both twisted and bent amidst the scene.

Moving is hard with the smoke, harder still with the uneven flooring. It’s hard to tell what’s the first floor and what’s the second, and Michael has to sidestep a body as he trails after Casey.

Casey pushes onward, and Michael stays close. He has his arm over his mouth, breathing into it carefully, and his lungs protest even as the heat seems to singe his skin through his clothes. He knows what Casey is looking for, but he’s not sure how Casey hopes to find it, because there’s nothing left to find.

The fireman was right; Casey was right: no one survived.

They’re all dead.

If they weren’t killed by the force of the blast, Billy and Casey were crushed by the falling building. If the rubble wasn’t on top of them, the smoke would have done them in. Michael’s stomach turns at the thought that they could be walking over their bodies right now, trying to get them out.

It’s too much.

Because Billy and Rick are dead -- they’re dead -- and Michael’s walking on their remains while letting Casey die in the pursuit of a hopeless cause.

And it is hopeless. Michael can see that now. Through the smoke, through the rubble, it’s the only thing that’s clear.

And he can’t let them all die. He can’t let the entire thing end up as ash.

He can’t.

Michael’s a leader. Leaders make hard decisions. Leaders make impossible decisions.

It’s with this that Michael puts his hand on Casey’s shoulder, turning him until their face to face.

Casey glare at him, his own arm still pressed over his face. “We have to find an opening in the rubble,” he says, voice raised over the din of the fires still burning. “If we can find a spot to look lower, then we might have a chance.”

Michael shakes his head. “Casey, we can’t.”

“It might take some work, but--”

“No,” Michael says, dropping his arm and looking at his last teammate plainly. “We can’t.

Casey blinks, half disbelieving. “But--”

“They’re already gone,” Michael says bluntly, because that’s how Casey would want it. That’s how Casey will understand it.

But Casey doesn’t understand. His arm drops and his face twists up. “No,” he says. “You said--”

“I was wrong,” Michael says flatly. “I was wrong.”

Casey’s face contorts. There’s rage and there’s desperation. There’s pain and there’s disbelief. He reaches up and grabs Michael by his shirt and shakes him, sneering. “You don’t get to say that,” he says. “You don’t get to say that now.”

Michael doesn’t try to defend himself; doesn’t want to. He just holds himself still and doesn’t let his gaze waver. “They’re dead,” he says. And he doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t say anything else. Just the truth they both know. “They’re dead.”

And Casey looks like he wants to fight it. Looks like he might punch Michael and keep on going. The expression intensifies briefly and then folds just as fast. Casey's shoulders sag and his grip loosens.

Casey knows it. Michael just has to wait for him to accept it, too.

And Michael will stand there to let him, as long as it takes.

As long as it takes.

The fires burn. The rubble stays where it is. And when Casey’s hand falls away, his head drops, Michael takes that as his cue to lead his remaining teammate out of the building and into the safety of the street beyond.

-o-

Outside, neither of them talk. This time, it’s Michael who leads, pushing them through the growing perimeter of rescue personnel. Someone asks him a question, but Michael ignores them. He hears the sounds of more sirens approaching, and a hose is turned on, blasted toward the smoldering blazes with fresh vigor.

Michael keeps walking, Casey a half step behind him. They walk by the bleeding victims lined up on the sidewalks, the bodies covered with jackets and blankets and anything people can find.

He keeps walking down the street, away from the melee. Walks and walks until he reaches a quieter street, where the people have all gone -- either home or to work or to the scene. Here, Michael turns sharply down an alley and pauses at the first car he sees.

Glancing back down the alleyway, Michael confirms that they’re alone. A quick sweep of the alley confirms that there’s no surveillance, though Michael suspects he might not care even if there were cameras in place. He’s always been one to commit to a mission, regardless of the risks.

And at this point, Michael’s not sure he cares about his own personal safety. This mission is now the most important thing.

It doesn’t take much to finagle the lock on the car, and as he climbs inside the driver’s seat, Casey slides into the passenger side. When they’re seated, Michael bends over to give the car a hotwired start, when Casey says, “I assume you have a plan.”

His voice is dead.

Michael knows how he feels. Without looking up, he tenses his jaw and works for the wires under the wheel. “Someone compromised us,” he says, equally flat. “We need to figure out who.”

“And you think our asset may have some information,” Casey concludes.

Michael finds the wires, starts sorting through them for the ones he needs. “He’s our best lead,” he confirms, and he doesn’t have to say that right now he’s their only lead.

“And we think this matters because?” Casey asks, and there’s a bite to his voice, a hint of despair that's just barely being restrained.

Michael looks up sharply, feeling the cut of Casey’s words. He meets the other operative’s eyes. “Because someone killed Rick and Billy,” he says, the words so harsh that he almost flinches himself. “And I’m going to find out who.”

Casey’s countenance falters just for a minute before he draws himself together bitterly. “And I hope, then, that there are no limitations of force on this new mission,” he says.

Michael laughs humorlessly. “When we find the son of a bitch,” he says. “You’ll have to fight me to take the first shot.”

With that, Michael looks back down, presses the wires together. The engine sputters to life. He looks back at Casey.

Casey’s look is set and ready. “You can have the first shot,” he concedes. “But I’m taking the last one.”

Michael’s mouth turns into a bitter smile. “That sounds like a plan,” he says, putting the car into gear and pulling out of the alley.

-o-

Michael knows they’ve missed their schedule meet, so he doesn’t bother with the predetermined site. Besides, he half suspects that this is one meeting their asset may have skipped anyway, since Michael’s location had been so conveniently compromised at the same time.

That might have seemed problematic, but only if Michael is still putting the asset’s safety as his primary concern. Since that is no longer the case, Michael has no compunction waltzing in to the man’s place of business, threat of his exposure or their own be absolutely damned.

It’s not like much worse can happen to them. And if the asset knows at least some of the information Michael suspects he does, then the risk of exposure is actually the least of their assets worries, too.

He and Casey don’t have to talk about their approach, here. There’s really not much nuance to it. Michael parks the stolen car outside and doesn’t much care about who sees it. He and Casey walk in the shop through the front door, and they make no secret of their approach as they go straight up to the counter.

There’s a woman buying fruit, and there’s an old man perusing the grocery shelves. Michael ignores their stares as he approaches the register and says, “We need to talk.”

Their mark -- Carlos -- is behind the counter. He seems to be making change when he looks up, eyes widening, first in surprise, then in fear. “No, no--” he starts to say, just barely without panicking.

Casey steps forward and stares him down relentlessly. “Yes,” he says. “Otherwise we can explain to your paying customers why exactly it is you’re so surprised to see is.”

Carlos goes slightly pale, and he swallows, nodding readily. Hurriedly, he hands the woman her money. “Not here,” he says, moving around the counter as he ushers the woman outside. He calls to the man, having him leave despite his protests, and he locks the front door behind him, flipping the sign in front to cerrado.

Michael watches him ceaselessly, looking for signs of guilt, for signs of running. The first is a given, but the second seems less likely. Although, Michael gets the impression that Carlos is simply too aware of what the consequences of that move would be.

As it is, Carlos is almost shaking by the time he gets Michael and Casey back into his office. He gives his store a once over, nervously shutting the door behind him. When he turns to face Michael and Casey, his face is deathly pale and he’s already sweating.

Michael about to ask a question, but he doesn’t have to. Carlos is looking at him, eyes pleading, and says, “I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know?” Michael asks, letting his skepticism darken his voice.

“You didn’t know that we were still alive or you didn’t know that we were going to be blown to hell this morning?” Casey clarifies starkly.

Carlos shakes his head again. “The men, they come in this morning out of nowhere, but this time they have someone else with them. Someone from the government.”

Michael’s eyes narrow. “Who?”

Carlos shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know,” he says. “But he wore a good suit, a nice suit. He was local, but spoke American, yes? Very clean, talked about the embassy.”

Michael glances at Casey, who frowns back at him. “A mole?”

Looking back to Carlos, he presses the point. “What did they say?”

“They were not happy,” Carlos explains. “They talked about how the CIA was onto them, and wanted to know how such a thing occurred.” His eyes are huge, desperate. “I was almost ready to run, right there.”

“So why didn’t you?” Michael asks.

Carlos’ face flickers, a new wave of guilt sweeping over him. His eye line skitters away. “They said it was taken care of,” he says. “They said they rigged the car, the basement. Said it would all be over within a matter of minutes.”

There’s a lot to process there. From the obvious compromise at the US Embassy to the fact that the hit had been formulate so quickly and executed so effectively--

To the fact that the bomb was planted in the basement.

It’s Casey who speaks next. “They put it in the basement?”

Carlos blinks. This clearly isn’t the point he expected any follow up on. Confused, he nods hesitantly. “Yes, but--”

But Michael’s not listening, and Casey’s not either. They look at each other, and it’s clear what the other is thinking.

“The bomb was in the basement,” Michael says, matter of fact.

“Indeed,” Casey says.

Carlos is visibly trembling now. “I tried to call,” he says. “But it was too late, there was no answer.”

The man is clearly fumbling to apologize, to explain, but what Carlos doesn’t get is that Michael doesn’t care. This isn’t Carlos’ fault, and even though there are still details that Michael probably should know, he remembers the new mission.

The one about Rick and Billy.

Michael moves to the door. “Don’t go anywhere,” he orders Carlos. “And keep your cover. We may need you later.”

Carlos is clearly confused. “But--”

“But nothing,” Casey says. “Just do as we say and we may be willing to continue working on an immunity deal out of Guatemala.”

“But--” Carlos starts to say.

But Michael doesn’t listen. He just opens the door and heads back out, the fresh determination burning like a fire in his gut.

-o-

Back inside the stolen car, Michael’s hands are tight on the wheel. His knuckles are white as he drives back toward the scene. This time, he’s speeding; it doesn’t seem likely that a cop will stop him for a traffic violation when half the police force is probably containing the situation at the cafe.

More than that, Michael’s pretty sure that he wouldn’t let a traffic cop stop him at this time.

Next to him, Casey sits stiffly, one hand gripping the door as Michael takes the turns precariously. He says, “It’s still not likely they survived.”

Michael doesn’t even look at him as he navigates another street, this time bypassing a turning car and narrowly missing a pedestrian. “The bomb was in the basement,” he says.

“And the first floor was still demolished,” Casey points out.

“And we never considered that someone could have fallen through to the basement,” Michael tells him, refusing to be swayed as he lays on the horn and runs through a red light.

“Even if someone happened to be positioned in the right spot to fall through a hole in the floor,” Casey continues, “the odds of a clean fall are slim. More than that, we don’t know what kind of debris field fell or if there are fires down there as well.”

These are things Michael knows. But he knows something else that's more important.

He stops the car abruptly on the side of the road, turning to look at Casey squarely. “But they could be alive,” Michael says, says it because it’s the only thing that matters now. “And if there’s a chance -- any chance -- we can’t just walk away.”

Casey’s expression is vaguely stricken, but he’s holding it together well. “It will take hours for rescue personnel to reach the basement.”

Michael inclines his head. “Which is why we’re not waiting for rescue personnel.”

“Just as long as you know it’s a long shot,” Casey says.

“Just so long as you know that it doesn’t matter,” Michael returns.

The plaintive look on Casey’s face shifts, and Michael sees the lingering denials for what they are. Casey’s speaking the truth, of course, but the truth is just a facade for Casey. A convenient way to avoid hope -- even a hope he wants and he needs.

And ultimately, a hope he can’t deny.

Even if he tries not to show it.

For just a second, Casey’s composure wavers, but once he’s accepted that Michael’s accepted this new reality, he acquiesces to it as well. “Just so long as we’re on the same page.”

Michael can’t stop from grinning. “We better be.”

Casey nods toward the road, gesturing impatiently. “Then what are we waiting for?”

Michael doesn’t need to be told again as he puts the car back in gear and heads back to the scene.

-o-

They ditch the car closer to the scene, leaving it unlocked and abandoned, fingerprints and DNA evidence be damned. They can worry about the details later, when they rescue Billy and Rick. And if they fail on that front, then a little evidence is really the least of their concerns.

On foot, it’s all Michael can do to keep from running. As it is, Casey maintains a ferocious speed-walking clip, and it’s only because everyone is still rubbernecking the tragedy that they slip through the throng unnoticed.

The perimeter is more secured now. Smoke is still billowing, but it’s clear that the fires are under control by now. It’s hard to tell what progress has been made beyond that, though. The wounded are being treated on the street, and there seem to be a few more bodies lined up, covered now with sheets.

Easing their way in, Michael finds the first firefighter he can and asks in his best Spanish, “How’s it going?”

The man is so distracted with the obvious task at hand that he doesn’t really give Michael a second look. “Estamos buscando pero es dificil. El edificio -- esta peligroso.”

It’s vague but still enough for Michael to deduce a few things. First, they haven’t had much luck in finding people. Chances are, they’ve found mostly bodies. Second, the search isn’t yielding much because they’re not letting a full contingent of people in.

Glancing around, Michael soon identifies several engineers, pointing out structural issues to firemen as the operation unfolds. The fireman next to him is called away, and he leaves without a goodbye.

In his absence, Casey moves closer. “They’re not among the dead,” he says.

Michael glances back toward the row of bodies, refusing to let the idea of so many people dying on their account bother him -- at least, not yet. “How can you be sure?”

“There are only a handful that match either body build,” Casey reports. “And of those, I checked their shoes. Definitely no matches there either, unless you think Billy has taken to wearing penny loafers without our notice.”

Most people might doubt such an assertion based on rough guesstimates and shoe comparisons, but Michael knows better to question Casey on this kind of thing. If Casey’s sure, then Casey’s sure, and somehow Michael knows he has to be right. Because he’s already decided: Billy and Rick are alive. They will find their teammates and they will bring them out. And then, in a few days or weeks or months or however long it takes, they’ll all go home together.

This is the only option that is acceptable. The only one worth considering, at any rate.

There is certainty in this, and he and Casey have a solidarity that matters, that helps. But as Michael turns back to the scene, he really can’t help but doubt. Because the building looks like a burned out shell, and Michael is certain that the vast majority of people in there died horrible and painful deaths. Crushed or burned alive or both, and Michael doesn’t wish that on anyone.

Doesn’t want to think about it for his team.

This is a mass casualty event, and in some way, Michael knows how audacious it is for him to think that Billy and Rick are still alive. How selfish and egotistical it is to think that they would survive and the others -- the corpses lined up on the street, the bodies still trapped inside -- didn’t.

But Michael needs this. He needs this.

“You ready?” Michael asks, looking at Casey.

Casey doesn’t look back. There’s a sickly hue on his face, but he nods, face set and determined. “Unequivocally,” he replies.

Casey voice is strong, even among the chaos. Michael knows there’s a lot more to it all than that, but nothing else that matters.

And that’s enough to push down his own panic and lead Casey back into the scene.

-o-

With the perimeter better established, Michael has to be more careful about how they get back inside. They stand out in their street clothes, which are a stark contrast to the full emergency rescue gear of the firemen. That makes it difficult, but certainly not impossible, and if Michael knows anything, it’s that the impossible is pretty much standard for the ODS.

Looking like he knows what he’s doing is only going to go so far this time; proper timing and location are much more important.

Carefully, he guides Casey swiftly around the exterior of the perimeter. It’s easy to hide behind the crowds, ducking between people as Michael looks for his opening.

It becomes clear to Michael that the majority of the rescue efforts are going on from the back door. This make sense, of course, because if the bomb had been toward the front of the building, the majority of the damage is focused upfront. This means that the most secure part of the building is in the back. It’s the most logical place to start securing the interior and assessing the situation from within. It’s also the most likely place to find any survivors.

This logic is nearly foolproof, which is why Michael leads Casey all the way around and back toward the front. The front door is still an option, but it’s being watched carefully despite the fact that there’s not much accessibility through there. Michael needs another alternative--

The broken side windows. They’re entirely blown out and the jagged edges certainly don’t make them an attractive entrance, which is pretty much the point. Everyone is watching for the efforts from front and back, and so the windows are mostly unattended and unnoticed.

Michael doesn’t stop to confer with Casey. Instead, he slips forwards wordlessly, trusting Casey to follow him as they spirit through the crowd. Hopping over the broken glass is less simple, but Michael doesn’t pay attention as it catches on his pants as he hurries inside.

On the darkened inside, Michael finally remembers to breathe, not that it does him much good. The fires are controlled now, but the smoke still lingers thickly. The clearance is low, and Michael has to duck his head slightly in order to avoid wreckage crisscrossed above his head. For a second, he questions how stable it is, but as he takes another step forward over debris, he figures it’s really too late to turn back.

Casey is stepping next to him, squinting through the fogginess. “We should be looking closer toward the point of origin,” he says. “Which, my guess, is to the front.”

“That’s where the majority of the cave in occurred,” Michael agrees.

“Which means that’s where any holes in the flooring may be,” Casey adds.

It makes a lot of sense, but that doesn’t make it much easier. The place is a mess inside, and Michael looks away more than once from the site of blood or bodies amid the rubble. It’s another harsh reminder of the odds in what they’re doing, but Michael’s too good at what he does to base all his decisions on odds.

Besides, odds are for wagers, and Michael’s not a man who gambles. He’s a man who knows and who plans and who works to get what he wants. He’s relentless and he’s paranoid and he doesn’t fail because he doesn’t let himself fail.

This is Michael’s mantra now, all that there is to keep him going. It’s what puts one foot in front of the other, even when the floor gives way and rocks skitter dangerously below him.

He’s slipping, but Casey’s hand grabs him immediately. As he lets himself be steadied and pulled back to solid ground, he looks where his foot had been and sees the makings of a hole.

It’s mostly obscured, which is why Michael didn’t see it in the smoke and darkness. There’s more than a little debris across the opening, but Michael can see for a fact that there is an opening now -- a deep yawning void of black that indicates an open space below.

For a moment, all Michael can do is stare.

“Well,” Casey says. “Looks like we found it.”

Michael stares at it a moment longer. It’s what they’ve been looking for. Their one chance in a million that it’s a portal to salvation -- for him and Casey, Billy and Rick. For the ODS at large.

That’s what Michael reminds himself of, not the other 99.9 million chances that it’s a gateway to hell.

-o-

Finding the hole is one thing; trying to navigate around it to see down is another issue entirely.

The problem is compounded by a variety of factors. The cave in of the upper floors is very problematic. The uneasy creaks and groans leave Michael with some trepidation, but the area is flat out impassable in most directions. There debris is piled thickly -- and worse, precariously. It’s virtually impossible to see down below in the darkness, harder still to gauge if the basement is filled with an equal amount of debris or if there are pockets of open area. This makes their work difficult, but the more difficult it is, the harder Michael feels compelled to work to overcome it.

Besides, in the back of his mind, he keeps thinking that this could be it. Once they find their opening, they could find Rick and Billy. They could give this case a happy ending after all.

But they still have to find their opening.

Casey ducks low and circles around toward the left, watching his footing carefully as he circumvents the weak spots in the floor. Michael goes right, where the clearance is slightly higher but the debris field is heavier. It’s a silent choice they both make, and even as Michael moves out of visual range, he knows he can trust Casey in this.

And not because Casey’s the human weapon. Because he’s a member of the ODS. And they watch out for their own. No matter what.

This isn’t written into their mission statement, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s the glue that keeps them together. It’s the part of their partnership that keeps them strong, even when they’re going against order and off grid. It’s what makes them strong.

It’s what could make them weak.

Because Michael’s heart is racing, his pulse so loud that he can hardly hear. Michael has lost men in the field before; he’s had to leave them behind once or twice. It happens, and Michael knows that.

Knows that because he still carries it with him. Know that because he still hasn’t gotten over it. He still remembers the last time he saw Simms before the explosion leveled the compound and they had to assume him dead. He still remembers walking away and finding out years later he was wrong.

He still remembers.

Just like he can remember Billy’s jokes at breakfast. The way he can remember Rick’s skepticism before they left.

That can’t be the last thing Michael remembers of them. It can’t.

Because Michael can plan every contingency except one: how to accept his own failures.

And yet, all Michael has now is a hole in the ground and an impossible belief, and he’s holding himself together with nothing but dogged rejection of probable facts, and it could be too much.

It might really be too much.

His eyes burn as he pulls through the debris. His body hurts as he kicks stones and lifts slabs of drywall. His throat is tight as he loops around and sees the opening.

It’s not big -- no more than five feet by five feet. There are a few slabs of broken concrete, covered with a beam. The positioning is precarious, but the opening is still there.

Inching closer, Michael doesn’t even dare breathe as he looks down, squinting through the murkiness for any sign of life.

Down below, it’s hard to make out the pale gray of cement. It’s piled in heaps, but it hasn’t filled the space. Michael edges around further, trying to get some better vantage point. The lighting is nonexistent, but as he moves around, there’s a pale patch of sunlight beaming through the haze and filtering into the space below.

It’s not much, but it’s enough.

Enough to see the beams leveled precariously below. Enough to see the debris, heavy enough to hurt and maim. Enough to see the open void where possibility has to lurk.

Enough to see a flicker of movement -- a white shirt in the darkness -- before the pale flesh of a face looks up and meets his eyes.

It’s hard to make out the details of the face, but the eyes that shine brightly to meet his own are clearer than anything else. They’re darkened with pain and fear, desperation and loss, but all Michael can see is hope.

NEXT