The ODS had always been a resilient bunch. Bad things happened on missions, and they returned back to Langley much the same as they were before they left. There was a simple understanding of how things worked in the spy game. The hardest had been after losing Carson, of course. The grief and guilt had affected them each differently, and it had taken actual months before things started to feel right again.
But even during that time, when Casey was angry and Michael was overzealous and Billy drank himself to sleep every night, they had functioned as an operational team. They’d gone on missions, traced intel. They’d done their job, no matter what had happened.
So it was no surprise to Billy that life went on as normal after their inauspicious return from Ecuador. Granted, the welcome back party had been a nice and truly unexpected touch, but before they’d even finished half the snacks Casey had been clicking at his computer, Michael had opened a file, and even young Rick -- wee, inexperienced lad that he was -- had hesitatingly gravitated back to his desk, tapping his pen on a stack of paperwork so forlornly that Billy finally found a project for himself to do just to let Rick get back to work without feeling guilty.
There was nothing else to do, after all. They were home; Ecuador was behind them. Billy’s scars were fading, even if the damage was still visible. He had taken to buttoning the last button and cinching his tie just slightly higher. True, tying a piece of fabric around his neck still made him squirm, but a little personal anxiety was the lesser of two evils.
So life fell back into its rhythm. They came to work; they worked cases. They attended briefings, caused havoc in the breakroom. Rick flirted with Adele; Michael bothered Fay. Casey worked out, and Billy made the rounds to get the skinny on other departments. Life as normal.
Except when it was different.
Because when Billy tried to interject at lunch, to start a tangential story better than the original, sometimes no one heard him and the raucous talking just kept on without him. Though he often tuned out meetings when they were superfluous and irrelevant, he found that being bored and purposefully silent lost its appeal when it was forced upon him. Besides, even the duller briefings used to benefit from Billy’s pointed comic relief. But now, all he could do was doodle in the corner of his paper while the droning persisted.
At home, it wasn’t much better. He couldn’t let the maid know when to come in and when not to, and the poor woman had walked in on him more than once before he had the chance to get to the door to tell her otherwise. He reckoned it was a bit of a boon that his ability to text had increased, but he found that his mobile plan with ample minutes was no longer needed. He could play guitar, but when he tried to break out singing on the choruses the gravelly squeaks made him opt for the telly instead.
His mates tried to keep things as normal as possible, to their credit. During team meetings, they still asked for his opinion, getting extra quiet when he tried to whisper his answers. They included him in all things, even when he was nothing more than an extra warm body. The problem was, as far as Billy could figure, was that now that his voice didn’t carry any actual weight it seemed like his words didn’t either.
Maybe he didn’t either.
No one said that, of course, and no one would. And it wasn’t like any of them had given up -- especially Billy. He still showed up, day after day, offering devilish smiles and impish winks. He flirted; he played pranks. His nonverbal comedic skills were growing, and he’d mastered a wider range of facial expressions to perfectly tailor his reactions. He could now pick a fight with Casey with one look alone. He could get Rick to second guess himself by tweaking his eyebrow.
And his stealth skills vastly improved -- he was able to sneak up on people, eavesdrop more effectively. He could disappear into the background with frightening ease. He’d never realized just how much he chattered before.
There was still hope, too. Billy still attended therapy, and the latest scans of his throat were, according to his doctor, promising. He did his exercises -- and then some. He started to make noises, strange and uncontrolled as they were, and he tried to tell himself every day that he could beat this. That he could get his voice back.
Then things could really get back to normal. With banter and rapid-fire dialogue. Singing and reading poetry and charming people. The silence wouldn’t last. Michael and Rick had cut him down from the rafters in Ecuador, but he would do it himself this time. He could overcome this. It was possible. It had to be.
Until then, Billy still woke up at night, feeling the noose tightening around his neck, his feet leaving the floor, and the pain exploding. He struggled and fought, and when he opened his eyes, his mouth still fell open to scream--
But no one heard him. This time, no one rescued him.
Because he hadn’t made a sound.
As the dream faded Billy was left alone, silent and sweating in the dark.
Michael hadn’t exactly put it off, but he also hadn’t actively sought it out. But they were CIA operatives: sooner or later they would go on another mission, no matter what had happened before.
To his credit, he was always picky about his missions. Sometimes he waited stretches that drove his team crazy, looking for just the right mission with just the right variables. He wasn’t afraid of danger but he was particular. He also knew his team’s assets. They were best geared for a certain kind of high risk mission, and Michael was careful to pick those that played to their unique strengths.
This time, he was just picky in a different way. The skill set had changed. One tiny variable, and the whole dynamic had shifted. None of them talked about it, mostly because there wasn’t much talking going on. With Billy’s voice out of commission, anyway...
Which was why this was a perfect mission.
Important: stopping a shipment of Uranium set to be hijacked from its rightful buyers to a third party with intentions against the US.
High risk: said third party was armed, dangerous, and generally without remorse when it came to indiscriminately killing people, even people they worked with.
Cover: security contractors. The group had started to hire three-men security teams of western backgrounds to help them interact with western buyers without tipping them off that they were about to be robbed blind. Casey was an ideal choice for a security contractor, and Michael was no slouch either. They’d have to help Martinez roughen up a bit, but the kid could pull it off.
Backup: With three men in the field, they needed one man to stay back on point. Since this was a dangerous, deep cover situation, they’d only be able to use one-way mics in their watches. This meant that Billy could stay back in the van, be safe and comfortable, perform an important job and not stress about the quality of his voice.
Hell, the whole thing was even sanctioned. All things considered, Michael had planned the perfect mission.
But now he just had to tell his team.
In this, Michael wasn’t one for procrastination. As soon as they were all present he handed out the files and sat on his desk. “So, we’ve got a live one.”
Casey regarded the file cautiously, flipping through it with a general disdain. It wasn’t that the older operative didn’t want a mission -- he was probably more anxious about this than the rest, Michael knew -- but Casey wasn’t exactly a fan of monotonous mission reports. Plus, he generally didn’t like to show emotion. The more anxious he was, the more dour he appeared, and if the cross look on his face was any indication, Casey was about ready to burst.
Rick devoured his file, sitting up and flipping through the pages with a surreal intensity. The kid was still a little green from time to time, but he had the makings of one of the best operatives Michael had seen -- ever. He was smart and quick and brave and passionate. Which was why Michael continued to haze him when he could. Not just because the kid deserved it, but to keep him sharp.
Plus, some days were slow. Seeing Rick scramble was always sort of fun.
Billy sat up as well, interest sparking in his eyes. Not just the faked version that Michael had gotten used to seeing since they’d been back from Ecuador, but the real thing. Michael could respect that; after being compromised, even if it wasn’t your own fault, there was a sense of dread and anxiety. About if you were good enough, about if you still had it. About if it could happen again.
All you could do was get back on the proverbial horse, and no matter what lingering uncertainties and angst Billy had, the idea of a mission was clearly going to do him good.
That was all the good news about this.
“How did you manage to get us on the inside with the company they contract with?” Rick asked.
“Wasn’t easy, but we paid off one of the local branches,” Michael said.
Casey raised his eyebrows skeptically. “And we’re trusting them not to double cross us?” he asked. “Security contractors aren’t exactly the most trustworthy people on the planet.”
“No,” Michael agreed. “Which is why we didn’t pay them in money.”
Casey looked vaguely intrigued.
Michael shrugged. “Seems like the guy who runs the local branch is looking for a career change. We’ve got him set up for a new identity and total relocation if we pull this off.”
“Nice,” Rick said. “And we have a solid extraction plan?”
“Well, technically we shouldn’t interfere with the actual shipment,” Michael said. “It is a legal buyer.”
“Yeah, in the Middle East,” Casey pointed out. “Legalities don’t mean a lot there.”
“Which is why we’re planning on working with the bad guys to break up the meet and in the chaos, take the Uranium ourselves,” Michael explained.
“So extraction?” Rick prompted.
“We’ll be on our own until we get back to town,” Michael said. “We’ll have a private vehicle we can use and then we’ll meet up with the local CIA annex, hand off the Uranium, switch out our passports, and be on our way home.”
It was simple, mostly. And it was good. Everything was covered, except one last thing...
Billy cleared his throat, and Michael braced himself as he looked at the Scot to watch him whisper. “I see the roles for Casey, Rick, and you, but I’m failing to see where I come in.”
Michael kept himself composed -- he’d been preparing for this part of the briefing even more than the rest -- but it was still hard. Watching the anticipation on Billy’s face, hinging just slightly on fear.
Michael took a breath. “You’ll be back in the city with the van for transfer,” he said. “We’ll want to ditch the security truck as soon as we can.”
“Right,” Billy whispered. “But what will I be doing while you three are risking your lives for your country?”
Michael’s stomach churned, but he refused to squirm in front of his team. “You’ll be monitoring our progress.”
“You can’t wear a traditional wire,” Billy pointed out.
“We’ll have one way communication,” Michael replied.
It took a moment for that to sink in. Billy’s face went blank. “So I’ll be able to hear you?”
“Yes,” Michael said with a nod. “But we won’t be able to hear you.”
At that, Billy scoffed. “That’s not a big deal, though,” he said. “Given that I can’t talk anyhow.”
“Well, they do have a history of a three-man crew,” Rick pointed out, clearly trying to be helpful.
“So offer them a fourth for free!” Billy said, his indignation evident on his face, making up for the lack of inflection in his whisper.
“Right,” Casey said. “And give them a reason to suspect us from the start.”
“These guys have a pretty scary history,” Michael agreed.
“Which is why you need the backup in person,” Billy insisted.
“And so if all four of us are compromised?” Michael said, shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous.”
Billy looked positively vexed. “But what am I supposed to do in the bloody van all by myself with a one-way feed?”
Michael didn’t miss a beat. “Make sure everything’s okay.”
Billy was expectant. “And if it’s not?”
They were obvious questions, and Michael was providing the obvious answers, because none of them wanted to say the things that they were all thinking -- that they all knew. Because they knew why Billy was going to be in the van; they knew.
Still, Michael couldn’t say it. “Call for help,” he said instead. “We’ve got support in the area. Higgins won’t like it, but he’ll pull the trigger if we need it.”
At this, Billy blinked. “Right,” he said. “So I’m basically a highly trained panic button.”
“It’s sort of important--” Rick started.
Billy glared at him. “It’s superfluous.”
“You’d be superfluous with us, too,” Casey pointed out. “Three men are needed. Not four.”
“And so why am I suddenly relegated to the background?” Billy asked.
Michael sighed. He couldn’t avoid it. “Billy,” he said, shaking his head. “You can’t be in the field.”
Billy flinched, even though he surely had suspected the reason from the start. “Oh?” he asked. “Because I’m superfluous, too?”
The words were a whisper, but they still carried weight. The meaning seemed to echo, reverberating through each of them until there was no way to deny it any longer.
Billy couldn’t be in the field without his voice. Not on this mission, anyway. It was too dangerous; it was too risky. An operative needed full control of his faculties, and with Billy’s voice the way it was...
Playing a part would be too much. Not just for Billy -- because Michael knew the Scot would give everything he had and probably pull it off -- but for the rest of them. For Michael.
Michael had planned the mission to Ecuador. He’d had them stay behind. Billy had been compromised for his failings and was now damaged in the aftermath. This was Michael’s fault. Billy had lost too much because of Michael; Michael wasn’t about to subject him to further loss until he was fully recovered.
Until he could open his mouth and tell Michael in no uncertain terms, until he could badger Michael with his words, annoying Michael with his poems, and frustrate Michael with his songs.
He was doing this for Billy. That didn’t make it easy, though.
Steeling himself, Michael held Billy’s gaze. “We’re not saying that,” he said. “We need you in the van. You’re going to be the only link we have to the outside world. We need you.”
The tension drained from Billy’s face, his shoulders drooping. He smiled ruefully. “And I may not be enough, it seems.”
The words tore at Michael’s heart, and he shook his head. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “We’ll all be fine. We just need to stick to the plan, understood?”
The room settled into an awkward silence, Rick shifting uncomfortable while Casey watched with vague apprehension. Billy slumped back further, putting the file down and nodding.
Michael waited, but Billy didn’t look up again. He made no further attempts to speak.
Swallowing, Michael pressed his lips together. “Okay,” he said, his own voice faltering just slightly. “So read up on this because we’re going over it with Higgins at midday.” He paused, watching his team, eyes lingering on Billy. “Any other questions?”
Somehow, Michael wasn’t surprised when silence was his only reply.
The breakroom was quiet.
Billy reckoned that was fitting. It was, after all, 9:45 in the morning, well after the morning coffee rush and just before the mid-morning snackers hit up the vending machines in desperation. Quirky and bureaucratic as the CIA was at times, most employees always had something to do, what with rooting out threats to American interests abroad and such. In this, Billy took some comfort most of the time. Even deported and decommissioned as he was, he could count on America’s turbulent international relations to ensure that his skill would alway be in high demand.
Rather, that his skills had been in high demand. He no longer had quite so many of them, he reflected, shifting in his seat. Which was another reason the breakroom was quiet. When another employee entered, Billy could smile cheerily or offer a friendly wave, but he could do little to break the silence before the person nodded, did their business, and promptly left.
Which did beg the question, perhaps, why was Billy sitting there at all. His coffee was only half-drunk and he’d eaten part of a leftover doughnut, but really, there was no good reason to stay. But 9:30-10:15 were part of his morning rounds, a little routine he’d developed to pass the time and keep up good interoffice relations. He found that flirting up the tech staff and making small talk with the acquisitions department generally helped facilitate future missions when favors were in order.
Michael tacitly sanctioned such apparent frivolities because he often found people to be too suspicious to bother with. Rick would never be able to steer the conversations effectively without getting emotionally involved, and Casey -- well, Casey would be too prone to hitting someone the minute they started talking about their personal life. Billy’s conversational prowess had made him a natural.
Until, of course, he couldn’t speak.
Sure, he could whisper, but people were too busy asking if he was okay and how his recovery was going to get much chance to direct the conversation to other, more pertinent topics. Which was why Billy was sitting there, alone in the quiet breakroom staring at his coffee. Because he couldn’t make small talk.
His mates would understand -- which was entirely the problem. They’d be completely accommodating, tell Billy it was okay and work out something else for him to do. Like organizing the bloody paper clips. Granted, Billy usually liked that task, but only when he was able to do it in defiance of other orders. When they let him do it like this...
It felt like pity.
Billy was tired of pity. He wanted to be an actual member of the team, not just some leftover that everyone feels too guilty about to let go. Even the quiet was better than the pity. So he’d sit in the breakroom and bide his time, before going back with a glowing report and all smiles.
He’d always earned his spot in the ODS. It was no easy thing, being rejected from one country and finding safe harbor in another. Harder still was winning over the likes of Casey Malick and Michael Dorset. He had done that of his own accord, his merit and his skill. He couldn’t lose it.
That said, he wasn’t sure how much longer he could endure the ruse.
Or the silence.
When the door opened, it was only his highly trained self control that kept him from jerking his head up anxiously. The key to any persona was persistence. He had to be nonchalant; no one would believe him to be unchanged by his injury if he acted, well, changed.
“Operative Collins!” a friendly voice boomed.
Billy suppressed the urge to sigh. Instead, he looked up with a tired smile. “Ah, Operative Blanke,” he whispered, greeting the newcomer with as much pleasantry as he could muster. The good news was that with Blanke, not much finesse was required. “How are you this fine day?”
Blanke strolled over. “Oh, good, good,” he said with too much enthusiasm. Then, he shrugged, making a face. “A little sore, I guess, what with this weather. My knees just don’t take to the damp like they used to. Makes me feel a little off my game. But I guess you know how that can be.”
It took some effort not to wince. “I reckon we’ve all been infirmed from time to time,” he said by way of agreement.
“Oh, yes,” Blanke said. “Comes in our line of work, it seems.” He paused, seemed to actually look at Billy. “How is your recovery coming?”
Billy cleared his throat, keeping himself from reaching up to tease the neck of his shirt higher. “Steady progress,” he said. “Not quite ready to debut my vocal cords just yet, though. I want to be pitch perfect lest everyone suffer from the occasional off notes.”
It was true. Mostly. He was making progress, though the uncertain sounds that emitted from his throat were more than occasional, and more than a little off.
“Wonderful!” Blanke explained. Then he glanced around before pulling out the chair across from Billy and sitting down. “You know, I am very impressed with your tenacity. Most operatives wouldn’t be trying to bounce back nearly so quickly.”
Billy smiled. “Aye, well I reckon I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself.”
“Oh, I understand that,” Blanke said. “I felt the same way when I was sidelined.”
Billy gave the other man a quizzical look. In his years at the Agency, Operative Blanke had been a constant and generally benign presence. While he had certain uses from time to time, Billy had not seen him in situations that warranted more peril than a paper cut or strained ankle. “I didn’t realized you’d been injured in the line of duty,” he said diplomatically.
“Oh, it was before your time,” Blanke said, waving a hand. “Well before your time, really. About fifteen years ago, right when I was at the height of my game.”
It was an odd idea, really. Blanke, in his prime. Going about actual missions.
Blanke smiled fondly. “I’d just gotten myself placed in Beirut, working out of the field office there.”
Billy’s eyebrows went up in surprise. Beirut was no easy assignment; it was reserved for the best of the best -- the most brave, the most capable.
Blanke looked at him and grinned. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “A man like me -- a place like that. But I was quite the operative in my day. Hand picked for the post by the White House.”
“Well,” Billy said, “that sounds like quite an exciting proposition.”
“Oh, it was!” Blanke enthused. “We did some of the most invigorating spy work you could imagine. Routing Hezbollah. Protecting American interests.” Blanke sighed happily. “Those were good days.”
For once, Billy didn’t doubt that. “So what happened?”
Blanke’s smile fell and he shrugged. “The usual,” he said. “Got caught up in a blast from a suicide bomber. I wasn’t the target, so it was really just dumb luck. Nearly ripped my gut clear out. Almost died from sepsis before they could even get me to a hospital back home.”
The seriousness of it took Billy off guard. “I’m sorry,” he said, offering as much genuine inflection as his strained voice could afford.
“Yeah,” Blanke said, sounding somewhat regretful. “It wasn’t pretty. Or easy. But I was determined. After I fought the first infection -- and then the subsequent infection and the close call with pneumonia -- I rallied. Put everything I had into recovery. Sit ups, stretches, biking -- that’s when I discovered the power of walking. Low impact, high results. Literally turned my life around.”
Billy was duly impressed.
Then Blanke tilted his head. “Took me the better part of a year before I was field worthy again,” he said. “But I was ready. Raring to go.”
The sheer enthusiasm made Billy smile. “So when you speak of tenacity, you truly know what of which you speak.”
Blanke beamed. “Truly, truly,” he said. “Of course, by the time I was cleared for duty my post had been reassigned. All my assets had new handlers. I got bounced from department to department for awhile, looking for a new place to call home, but then it just got too long...” He trailed off, shrugging.
Suddenly the implication wasn’t amusing. It was vaguely horrifying.
Blanke swatted the air again. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” he said. “I like to think of it as not being tied down. True, my skills often go to waste and I’m continually demeaned and overlooked and degraded, but still!”
Billy swallowed, then let out a slow, restrained breath. The idea of how quickly it could change, how one day he could be a capable, viable operative and the next he could be wandering the halls, begging for scraps...
It was almost too much.
Blanke leaned forward again, patting his arm reassuringly. “Don’t worry, though,” he said. “Even if everyone else forgets, I’ll never forget your true worth. If not as an operative, then as a person.”
Billy locked his jaw and forced a smile. In the past, he might have joked. Might have enthusiastically gone along with the man. It was ridiculous after all: bonding with Blanke. More than that, finding common ground in the man. Finding a kindred spirit.
Billy almost couldn’t bear to think it. That someone who was capable and strong could end up with nothing. That in a few short years, Billy could be wandering the halls, trying to find some place where he belonged because he sure as hell didn’t belong with the ODS.
Except that wasn’t the case. The ODS hadn’t given up on him. It hadn’t been so long. Billy was making progress...
Blanke looked down at his watch, pulling back abruptly. “Oh, look at the time!” he exclaimed. He looked up at Billy, eyes bright. “Got to make another pass around the tech department. I found a friend who agreed to give me a little brush up on the latest technologies. I’m thinking about getting a Smart Phone. Got to stay up on the latest devices if I’m going to stay relevant!”
Billy nodded feebly, not sure what to say. For once, it seemed convenient to blame his damaged throat for the uncomfortable lapse.
Blanke stood up, pressing a finger to his nose. “Keep working strong, operative!”
Billy returned his exuberance with a halfhearted smile. Keep working strong. Except Billy wasn’t working at all. His team hadn’t replaced him, but they had relegated him to the background. Sure, they had reasons. Sure, things could change...
But what if it wasn’t fast enough? What if the ODS needed to move on? What if all of Billy’s work was for nothing? What if he got his voice back when everyone had finally stopped listening?
He couldn’t lose his place on the team, but part of him was beginning to wonder, though, if he already had.
Things went faster.
At one point, Michael might have thought this was a good thing. After all, the ODS could be somewhat inefficient sometimes. Generally, Michael understood this as part of their process, but there were times when he wanted to shake his operatives and remind them that not everything had to be quite so difficult. His team was so good at causing havoc that they even caused it for him just by being his team.
But when he pined for a little more silence, a little less wasting time, this wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind.
Everything was going perfectly on this mission. They were on time and on schedule, not a single hitch. They made record time getting situated; they breezed through surveillance. Getting inroads with their marks was uncharacteristically easy. Everything was streamlined and efficient.
Because Billy couldn’t talk. He could whisper, still, but he’d stopped doing other than when it was absolutely necessary. If Billy couldn’t talk, then he couldn’t coach Martinez. He couldn’t rib Casey. He couldn’t throw stones at Michael’s more foolhardy plans. He just did his part, and shut up about it.
Michael would have thought that would hinder their operational capabilities more, but they were so well honed together, that most of the time the words were superfluous, even if Michael was loathe to use that term. They knew what each team member was doing; they knew what was needed. Simply put, the conversation and back and forth that usually filled their missions was just fluff.
Rick should have appreciated the focus. Casey should have appreciated the lack of distractions. Michael should have appreciated that all the variables were perfectly controlled within his grasp.
Which was what put Michael on edge more than anything else.
“You sure we’re good?” Michael asked, checking over the stowed packs for tomorrow.
“I’m sure,” Rick said, resolute.
Michael narrowed his eyes. “Can’t be too safe,” he said.
“That’s what you said the last time,” Rick protested.
“And the five times before that,” Casey snarked from his place on the floor where he was stretching.
Michael sighed, and drew his lips together in a scowl. “If you’d rather walk in unprepared--”
Rick rolled his eyes. “We’re not unprepared,” Rick said. “And usually I think we’re always unprepared. But we got this.”
Michael shifted on his feet slightly, trying to contain his nerves. He glanced from Rick to Casey, who was ignoring him. Billy was watching them wordlessly from the corner of the room.
Chest tight, Michael bucked himself up. He wasn’t prone to superstition, but he trusted his gut. He didn’t let his instincts dictate everything, but he knew enough to listen to them for a general direction. Right now, he needed to slow down.
He needed to talk it out.
“Let’s go over it one more time,” he said.
Rick groaned, flopping a little melodramatically on the bed.
“One more time,” Michael reiterated, both as a threat and as a promise.
“Fine,” Rick said. “We go in with the terrorists tomorrow, just like we’ve set up. We’ve already got our working orders, so we just have to follow them and set up the perimeter as per our orders.”
“Right,” Michael said. “We need to be tense and on our game for the cover to stick.”
“So they won’t kill us on the spot, you mean,” Casey interjected unhelpfully from the floor.
Michael ignored him. “Then what?”
“We wait for the buyers,” Rick continued. “When they show up, we pull the fire system in the place and douse everything with water. Since we are part of the main security, it shouldn’t be hard to get the Uranium and make a run for it.”
“Oh, and to clarify,” Casey said, pausing in his stretching. “We should run fast. Really fast. Because they’re going to probably shoot at us with machine guns until we’re out of range.”
Michael nodded. “So what are we missing?”
“Nothing,” Rick said. “The covers are solid; we know the best weaknesses and refuges in the building. I mean, for a high stakes mission, this one is pretty ready made with our cover.”
“Low hanging fruit,” Casey mused. “I’m not opposed to picking it.”
Michael worked his jaw. “If we get made--”
“We follow the same extraction plan but on an accelerated schedule,” Rick supplied.
“If we don’t have that option?” Michael prompted.
“Well, isn’t that why Billy’s in the van?” Rick asked.
Michael glanced toward the Scot. Billy smiled lazily, lifting one hand in a wave.
Chewing his lip, Michael nodded. The team dynamic was off, but the operational procedures were still perfectly aligned.
It would be okay.
Michael still needed to hear it.
“So we’re all good?” he asked. His eyes locked on Rick. “You?”
Rick inclined his head. “More than good,” he said. “I’m great.”
Michael glanced to Casey. “Casey?”
Casey paused, sighing. “This one is a no-brainer, Michael,” he said. “I’m slightly offended you even have to ask.”
Finally, Michael turned his gaze to the corner. “Billy?” he asked.
Billy smiled, raising both his thumbs up in silent approval.
They’d planned; they’d double checked; they’d confirmed.
Michael would finish this mission. Then, somehow, he’d figure out how to fix his team.
Spywork wasn’t always about high-speed chases and near death experiences. Billy knew that. He’d lived it. For every time he’d nearly got himself killed, he’d spent at least twice as much time doing mundane paperwork and sitting through mind-numbing briefings.
And really, given how poorly his last mission had gone, he wasn’t opposed to a little of the routine and run-of-the-mill. Being strung up and having his throat crushed was really enough excitement for one year. Contrary to what some believed, Billy did not willingly seek out peril. He would face it if needed, but he did prefer to orchestrate situations where nearly dying was not necessary.
He also knew that, realistically, someone had to be sitting in this van. He would have gladly lectured Martinez about how important his supporting role would be just months earlier, and if it were Casey stuck in the van he would have teased the older operative mercilessly.
Because sometimes they all drew the short straw. Sometimes they all had to take their turn in the backseat. It wasn’t so much being left out of the action -- it was not being able to be there if something went wrong. It never felt good, leaving his mates vulnerable while he stayed back in relatively safety.
It felt even worse now. Because he hadn’t drawn the short straw. He’d been left back as a strategic necessity, because without his voice he was much less useful in the field.
He was, in fact, mostly useless.
Useless and bored.
Listening to people prepping for a sale was about as interesting as watching paint dry. There were checklists and confirmations, and it might all be more impressive if he could see something, but the meager communications were only verbal and only one way.
So he was mute and blind. As if he needed his total lack of purpose solidified in any more certain terms.
It was all going so well, too. This was, most certainly, a good thing. But Billy had to admit he felt a twinge of jealousy when Michael joked around with the terrorists. He felt downright envious when Rick managed to cajole the bad guys into keeping the schedule as planned.
Those were his jobs. Such things were his area of expertise.
And there hadn’t even been a hiccup. No sign of hesitation or discord. By the time Billy did get his voice back, maybe Blanke was right -- it would be entirely too late.
Billy wasn’t sure what was more disconcerting: that it might be too late or that Blanke might be right.
The thought of it made him sad. It made him angry. Angry that this had happened to him, that one mission went wrong and that it wasn’t his fault but he still had to bear the consequences. That he still had scars on his neck and a voice that wouldn’t work and that his team didn’t need him.
They would never say it -- they wouldn’t even want to admit it -- but it was true. If Billy couldn’t get his voice back, they might never kick him out -- they were too dogged and loyal for such a turn -- but Billy would whittle away his years, wholly dependent on them.
His fate was literally hanging by a thread, and the ODS was there making sure it didn’t strangle him for good.
The problem was, they would have to cut him loose sooner if not later. And if they wouldn’t, Billy would have to.
Of course, such things were dangerous. Billy wasn’t sure if he could free himself or if he’d simply hang himself worse.
All in all, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that everything he’d worked for had been taken from him -- that everything he had wasn’t near as much as he’d thought it’d been in the first place.
Sitting in that van, biding the hours, he was bored. And he was upset. And he was angry.
And he couldn’t tell a bloody soul because when he opened his mouth, he still couldn’t form a single word.
So he’d listen. He’d wait. He’d feel that noose tightening around his neck and hope against hope that it wasn’t too late to be saved.
In a lot of ways, Michael thought Billy would have been the logical choice to stay back even if his voice had been functioning at full capacity. This mission required them to be stoic and gruff. There was lots of glaring and no-nonsense posturing. Billy would have been bored out of his mind, keeping his mouth shut.
That was suddenly ironic to Michael. Billy being bored without his ability to speak. Billy had been more than bored since Ecuador. He’d been frustrated and isolated and withdrawn and probably angry. His team wasn’t good with emotions. Rick wore his on his sleeve; Casey tended to punch things. Billy deflected.
If he couldn’t deflect, Michael wasn’t sure what he did. Well, in the short term he did. He got frustrated and isolated and withdrawn and probably angry. But where they would lead…
They’d find out.
After this mission.
Michael didn’t handle emotions well, either. It made him think. A lot. When he wasn’t supposed to.
Like on missions with Uranium and terrorists.
Finish the damn mission, Dorset, he scolded himself, drawing himself together and scowling for good measure as he reassessed the situation on the ground.
Things were going well – that much was still true. So far, they’d arrived at the meet point without a hitch and had set up the perimeter. Now they were just waiting for the buyers. These terrorists weren’t ones for chatter, either, which was why Michael was so sure that Billy would have been bored.
Not that it mattered since Michael was so distracted. He wondered if he’d been this distracted in Ecuador, if this was how things had gone awry in the first place. Because it was easy to take things for granted – things like airtight mission plans and impeccable improvisational capabilities. It was easy to trust that he could plan and Casey could hurt people and Rick could translate…
And Billy could charm people.
Until one thing went wrong, and maybe none of it was true. Without Billy, they were less somehow.
But Billy was just in the van, Michael reminded himself, watching as the garage door opened, right on time.
He straightened, glancing toward Rick, who shifted uncertainly on his feet, fingers tensing on his gun. Across the way, Casey’s eyes narrowed just a little, and Michael felt his own hackles start to rise in anticipation.
This was it.
It had all built to this.
He eased himself back just a touch, watching as Rick did the same. The buyers were inside now, the garage still open, two of the terrorists flanking the vehicle, guns up as the buyers unloaded.
Michael glanced from the buyers over to the leader, where he stood with the suitcase.
He glanced at Rick, then Casey.
He took a breath. The first move would be the hardest – a surprise attack to disarm the closest guards while Rick made a mad dash to the Uranium. It was going to get loud and possibly bloody, but the havoc would work in their favor. They had to get the case and get out, Rick running first with Michael and Casey laying down cover fire as they hightailed it out right behind him.
Michael readied himself. Another breath, a small nod—
And then every gun in the room turned on him.
Michael blinked, surprised. He’d been careful; he’d been certain.
The leader walked up to him, smirking. “I’m afraid our buyers have another purchase in mind today,” he said.
Michael felt his stomach roil, cold terror spreading through his veins. He didn’t know when they’d been compromised; he didn’t know why. It could have been a set up from the beginning; there could have been a tell he missed.
Or it could be suspicion.
Michael could possibly salvage this.
He had to hold his cover. He had to keep talking, convince them they were wrong.
He had to charm them.
But then Michael realized, he had a translator, a fighter, and a planner…
And not a charmer in sight.
Even as a talker, Billy had been keenly observant. At least, he’d never thought himself to be obtuse or oblivious when he wasn’t intending on appearing that way. But without his voice, he’d found himself even more aware of things than before, picking up on the smallest differences and understanding the shifts in atmosphere before they became readily available to everyone else.
In the office, this didn’t mean much. He knew when Rick was about to say something ridiculous; he knew when Michael was worried about a plan. And he could predict, such a tick faster, when Casey was going to check out of a conversation entirely.
He found he could hear people coming a few paces earlier in the halls; he’d learned to guess which items was being proffered from the vending machine without even looking with an impressive 94 percent accuracy. Billy had learned to leverage the silence, his only form of entertainment and self defense.
So when he heard the shift on the radio frequency, he knew better than to ignore it. It was subtle at first; the foreign dialogue faded just slightly, noting an increased distance. The dialect got clearer, more pronounced.
Billy inclined his head, curious. They could just be preparing for the meet, made nervous by meeting the buyers.
But then he realized something else. No one had mentioned the buyers. Even with Billy’s rudimentary grasp of the local tongue, he still knew enough to know that the conversation had not mentioned the buyers -- or the Uranium.
Which was odd.
Billy’s brow furrowed. His teammates were acting totally normal, going about their business as planned. Then he heard the garage door open--
There was no chatter, though. No movement of guns. No nerves, no anticipation.
The engine shut off, and Billy’s heart fluttered inexplicably.
Then, his heart sank as the grainy voice came through the reception: “I’m afraid our buyers have another purchase in mind today.”
And everything made sense. This was a sale, but not for Uranium -- at least not exclusively. It was the sale of western operatives.
Only not quite. Billy had read the file on their source in the security company; all he’d been able to do was read -- he was legitimate. He hadn’t double crossed them.
This wasn’t a sale of an operative; this was the simple sale of a westerner. A clean and simple abduction, putting the likely wealthy families of security contractors on the hook and trying to raid the deep pocket of rich security companies.
As for the previous requests for western security personnel, if the families and companies had paid the ransom, all would have been made well. The companies wouldn’t want to tarnish their reputation with a breach of such magnitude, so no official report might be made.
This was good in that the mission was salvageable. Michael had to keep talking, and if the last while had proved anything, it was that Billy’s team was fully capable of that.
Billy shifted uncertainly in his seat, glancing over at the emergency button. The team was knee deep in a mess, but calling in reinforcements now was a vote of no-confidence. Things were bad, but maybe not impossible just yet.
Chewing his lip, Billy listened.
“Hey, man, you hired us to do a job,” Michael said, his voice just slightly strained over the radio. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Yes, yes,” the man said, with an air of bemusement. “And you are doing a fine job. All we need is for you to stay still and allow us to conduct our negotiations.”
“Negotiations, my ass,” Casey muttered.
“You never wanted extra security at all, did you?” Rick asked.
“We wanted security persons,” the man said. “Do not worry. When my associates here are through, you will be quite free to leave, and we will thank you profusely for your services. Although, I am afraid that the terms of payment may be irrevocably altered.”
Billy sucked in a breath and held it. The next response was critical, the difference between salvaging the mission and certain death.
If it were Billy he’d be disarming, drawing things out as long as he could, putting them off until an opening arrived -- until backup...
Billy’s stomach went cold, and he looked at the emergency button again. If this went wrong, though, backup would be too late. More than that, it would be too noisy.
Jaw working, Billy listened anxiously.
“Well,” Michael said, slowly, clear and steady. “Do what you have to do, then.”
And Michael wasn’t talking to the bad guys -- no, that message was for Billy.
He looked at the emergency beacon.
He thought about his team.
And he did what he had to do.