Michael was good under pressure -- the entire ODS was good under pressure. They had to be, in their line of work, and though Michael was no thespian he could pull off a cover with the best of them. He hadn’t survived this many years in the game with a piss poor poker face.
Still, after about fifteen minutes of having their photos taken and their personal effects stripped from their person, it was apparently time to move things along. And when the men they’d been helping secure the perimeter took them by their arms, hauling them toward the secure and impenetrable back office, Michael found himself getting nervous. Understandably so. The so-called smooth sailing mission had just hit stormy seas.
Scratch that, Michael thought as the guard jabbed a machine gun roughly into his back before forcing him to his knees; it hit a damn hurricane.
Keeping his face composed, Michael offered a terse smile up, even as Rick crashed to his knees next to Michael with a grunt. It was all Michael could do to keep his guilt from overwhelming him. He’d missed this. He was the planner of the group, and this operational oversight was his. He hadn’t done his job.
As the guard brought Casey over, the older operative stiffened abruptly and turned a deadly eye on his guard. “Shove me, and I will kill you,” he said sharply. “And I don’t even care if I end up bullet riddled for my trouble, so I would think twice.”
The guard’s face wavered, his gun still up even as he hesitated.
There was a long, perilous moment.
Then the guard shoved Casey.
It wasn’t the first shove, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. Their captors had not been gentle, and their condescending airs were more than a little grating, even for Michael. Casey had endured the injustice of being moved like chattel with a white-faced grimace, and Michael knew that if he didn’t do something soon, Casey wouldn’t keep himself in check much longer.
He needed to stall.
He needed to say something stupid, something witty -- something. Billy would quip, crack a joke, say something snide. Just enough to bring their focus away from what was really going on.
But Michael wasn’t quite as quick with his words. He was just a little too slow -- and the fact was, his words would never be enough.
Still, as Casey launched himself back, Michael yelled, “No!”
That split second, everything stopped for Michael. The entire mission, which had been hurtling forward, came to a screeching halt, and Michael realized he was on the tipping point. Success or disaster; everything was about to be decided one way or another. Not on his terms, anymore. Michael had lost control.
It was almost unforgivable, for a team leader to lose control. It had only happened a few times in Michael’s life. In North Africa. In Ecuador.
There was no way to stop it now -- things had reached the cusp, and Michael could only do damage control. They were going to make a break sooner or later, but Michael had hoped to delay it until backup had arrived.
But that could be hours from now, if Billy had called for emergency backup. He’d given Billy an implicit order, but the fact was he wasn’t sure how the Scottish operative would react anymore. Everything was an unknown. Michael didn’t know his team; they didn’t know each other. All the reactions were just slightly off, and now Michael was realizing why this was bad.
Because Billy might not take the chance and come after them himself. Rick might be a bit too gun shy. Michael might miss the obvious; Casey might fly off the handle when every other sign told them to bide their time.
Casey was the best fighter, and he was also the most impulsive. He took risks because he didn’t think they were actual risks to him. He could be reckless and scary -- especially without the team dynamic the way it had been. They were slower that way, but they were also better. Rick made them think about the heroics; Casey made them remember not to get soft. Michael remembered the details, and Billy...
Billy knew how to keep them grounded. Billy tempered them -- especially Casey. Billy’s joviality did more than keep Casey from dwelling darkly on the finer details of life. Billy’s chatter kept him just distracted enough to think twice about doing something stupid.
Like lashing back when they were unarmed, outgunned, and possibly without backup.
But Billy wasn’t here.
The second passed, and Michael came back to himself again, eschewing the thoughts as best he could and rallying what little he had to make this right again. If Casey had chosen to fight, Michael had no choice but to follow -- and no choice but to hope Rick fell in line.
As it was, it was out of Michael’s hands. Casey had disarmed his attacker, flying into a rage. Michael saw his own guard moving to assist and lashed out, tripping the man hard so his chin smacked into the floor. Casey was moving on, taking on another series of guards, and Michael was on his feet, taking on the next man who approached him. Michael couldn’t pause to look, but the sound of Rick fighting at his flank was more reassuring than not. The kid hadn’t cried out, and the sound of flesh on flesh continued, relentless from all sides.
But this was too fast, too frenetic. There were too many guards, too many risks, and not enough backup.
They were good...but Michael wasn’t sure they were good enough anymore. This was a fight they shouldn’t have picked, maybe a mission they shouldn’t have gone on, because they were incomplete.
Michael laid out another man -- they were less than they had been.
He lashed out again, moving toward the leader only to realize he was gone.
Cursing, Michael turned quickly, taking out another man with a punch and a few good kicks. The leader was the key. He had to compromise the leader, break the chain of command. That was the way to promote dysfunction.
As if Michael’s own team wasn’t living proof.
He fought as he turned, charging into a man who was coming at him with his gun raised. He ploughed him over, then looked up and finally got his eyes back on the leader.
Right as he turned his gun on Rick.
The younger operative was currently preoccupied, grappling with a guard, while the leader approached.
Michael opened his mouth to yell, to say something, to do something--
But he hadn’t planned for this. Casey couldn’t fight his way out of it. Billy wasn’t here to talk them through it.
And the only thing Rick was translating was horror as he looked up to see the gun--
Right as it went off.
The drive was too far.
Granted, they hadn’t picked the location with easy extraction in mind. It had been a safe, half-way distance, far enough for the rest of the team to lose a tail without being so far as to be a risk. But the plan had been to call for emergency backup. To let the big boys do the heavy lifting, so to speak.
Billy didn’t have a voice, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a trained, highly skilled operative. He could help. He would.
But the bloody drive was too long.
Fortunately, Billy was a good driver. In fact, he was the best driver of the lot, knowing how to finesse a car to go just fast enough without losing control (most of the time). He had innate direction, a strong sense of traffic patterns, and Michael generally preferred that driving tended to keep his chatter just slightly reduced for the added concentration of steering.
So Billy drove. Sneaking through the streets, he used alleyways and side streets, sneaking through any traffic he found and easily circumventing pedestrians until he made it to open country. Then he bore down, pushing the gas pedal all the way down and narrowing his focus to keep the van on a straight trajectory through the African backcountry.
He glanced at the clock. It was taking too long. He couldn’t hear the feed from in the front, but he knew the situation could turn dire at the drop of a hat. Michael was counting on him.
His team was counting on him. Voice or no voice, this was Billy’s job.
Freshly determined, Billy did a mental recall of the area, recreating the highway system in his mind. The main road was a straight shot, but even in the mostly unpoliced countryside, his reckless flight would be impaired by other drivers.
He saw the road up ahead, and he couldn’t quite place it in his head -- there was a chance it went entirely the wrong direction to nowhere -- but his instincts screamed otherwise. It was a risk, a calculated chance--
And Billy took it. He trusted himself, just like his team trusted him. The tires squealed as they took the corner, kicking up dust and debris as he floored it down the deserted open stretch. He followed the road until it hit another cross road, this one winding due east, the exact direction of the compound.
Still, he needed something to peg him to the landscape -- a landmark from the map to tell him just how close he was.
Then there, in the distance -- a large facility, fenced off. Not the mark’s base. Military.
Billy’s mind worked. The mark had set up shop disturbing close to a military installation, either in a show of foolishness or bold proclamation of fearlessness. This meant the mark’s location was just a bit farther -- there would be another road in here...
Billy saw it coming up fast and turned sharply to make it. The van rocked precariously, and when he hit the straightaway again he started mentally tallying the distance. After three miles, he found a grove of trees, pulling off and parking the van.
In the back, he loitered, listening to the feed just for a moment. He’d traversed the 30 minute trip in about a third of that, and he could only hope it wasn’t too late. He could hear the conversation -- tense and strained -- and no significant change. There would be no expectation of a rescue this early. If at all.
Billy had surprise going for him.
Really, even without his voice, Billy had a lot going for him. He was able bodied and fully trained, and when he set out on foot the rest of the distance, he did so with a growing sense of certainty. Not fearless, of course -- that would be asking for trouble -- but just the secure knowledge that what he was doing was right.
The sun was hot as he ran quickly over the terrain. As he approached the building, he slowed. It looked much as he expected -- the surveillance photos had been detailed and accurate -- and it was decently fortified and sufficiently staffed.
It still had its weaknesses, and Billy took a long moment to evaluate them in person.
There were guards, obviously stationed at key checkpoints around the facility. Some were in plain view of each other, and all were heavily armed with machine guns and other sundry weaponry.
However, they weren’t exactly keenly observant. If Billy had to wager, these blokes were well trained in theory but had less experience with actual execution. If Billy could get close enough, he suspected that hand to hand would break in his favor.
The trick, however, was not to tip them off. He had to take them out one at a time. If there was any hint of commotion -- or heaven forbid, gunfire -- it could be quite bad for his teammates.
Under some circumstances, Billy could envision talking his way in. It would be tricky, to be sure, but he was quite adept at making people believe even in the most impossible things. If he’d had full control over his vocal cords, that might have been his initial approach.
It would have been flawed, though.
No, this time, Billy needed stealth.
Fortunately, without his voice, Billy had honed his sense of stealth. He’d even managed to sneak up on Casey once in the breakroom, the ultimate coup. He had been underwhelmed with the feat, but here, in the field, he was starting to see its ample advantages.
Assessing the guards again from his secure location, he noted the sharp angle of the fence line along the eastern edge. The corner was turned, obscured just enough by sharply jutting out further than the rest. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was surely his best bet.
Running low to the ground, Billy skirted far around the building. If they were looking the guards might see him, but Billy didn’t intend on slowing down long enough for that to be an issue as he used the shrubbery to his advantage. As he crossed the main access road, he moved even faster, sneaking his way through the afternoon shadows as best he could. As he rounded toward the east side, there was less to hide behind. Pausing behind a rock, pressed low, he gave himself one last minute to consider his options.
Really, though, there was only one option. This was dangerous and uncertain, but his mates would do the same. They already had when they stormed Castillo’s compound and cut him down from the bloody rafters. If they’d hesitated then, Billy would have lost more than his voice.
Billy wasn’t going to hesitate now.
Pulling out, he broke into a soundless run, amazed that the guard couldn’t hear him while facing the other direction. In fact, his approach was so fast that the other man barely had time to turn before Billy leveled him with a single punch and he crumpled to the ground.
A lot more to go.
Billy kept moving around the exterior, systematically taking out the guards. It was easier than he would have expected. A single punch, well placed and perfectly executed. With the quiet on his side, his surprise never failed, and the string of downed guards brought him more than a little grim satisfaction. None of them had even fired a shot, much less had time to yell. He’d never much understood Casey’s pride in fighting prowess, but he thought maybe he was starting to.
That just left the main building. He was a little surprised he hadn’t been spotted by now, but it was entirely possible that the guard system was not well developed. If the inner building relied on the exterior guards, he may have more surprise on his side than he could have anticipated. As it was, he would have to approach carefully--
He didn’t hesitate, breaking out into a jog. At the doorway, he paused, pressing his back against it. Without his voice, he’d been training his ears to listen. Not just to the expected things, to the little things. Not just the sound of voices -- foreign and American -- and not just stray words he recognized.
But the slight turn of a handle, the squeak of a hinge almost opening.
Billy tensed, readying himself.
As the guard came out, Billy decked him, reaching to disarm him when he realized his first oversight. Because one set of footsteps had obscured another -- right in the wake of the first.
Billy managed to duck the punch, and he plowed forward instead, sending them both sprawling to the ground. It was too much clatter, but there wasn’t much to be done for it as the guard’s gun skittered away.
Billy rolled on top but the guard bucked, sending him flying. Billy hit the ground hard and got back up--
But not fast enough. The man behind him beat him to it, grabbing Billy from behind--
And wrapped his arm around Billy’s throat.
The sudden shock was so overwhelming that at first Billy could only gape. It was eerily familiar, hauntingly reminiscent. He’d been here before, throat constricted, tongue thick, mouth open--
Needing to breathe.
The arm tightened and Billy’s eyes went horribly wide and his heart hammered in his chest. It was happening again -- the pressure cut painfully at his throat, aggravating the scars, reminding him of waking up in the hospital with a hole in his throat--
And oh, God, he needed to breathe. Desperation pushed him to panic and he flailed his arms, bucking aimlessly.
He couldn’t die like this, he couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t--
No one was going to save him this time.
Which meant Billy was going to die...
Or he was going to save himself--
And save his mates as well. This was his rescue, and he’d be damned if some lucky guard with a hairy arm was going to end it for him.
Angry now, Billy snarled inarticulately, combating the dimming of his vision and harnessing his strength. He let himself relax just for a moment, and felt the arm jerk.
The need for air was pressing, but Billy just needed a little leverage. Face burning, he trusted his instincts and just let go.
His body went limp and his eyes closed, body going slack. Behind him, the man seemed surprised, his grip loosening just enough--
For Billy to push up. He rammed his head hard into the man’s chin, knocking him clean away. On his feet now, Billy turned, kicking the flailing attacker once in the head before he went limp.
Greedily, Billy sucked in air, one heaving breath at a time. It felt good. Really, it felt amazing. To breathe, to live, to be victorious. He wasn’t a victim. He’d lost his voice in Ecuador, but he hadn’t lost the things that mattered most.
Then, before Billy could move, he heard a gunshot inside.
Then he heard Michael yell.
And he could only hope that he hadn’t just lost something after all.
Stormy seas were one thing; hurricanes were another. This was the storm of the century.
Scratch that...this was...
Hell, this was so bad that Michael was out of metaphors. He was really out of everything. Out of willpower, out of ideas, out of control. Because they might have been holding their own in the fight, but theirs was a war where casualties were not acceptable.
Were not acceptable.
Rick was on the ground, on his back, legs twisted beneath him and arms splayed wide, bright red blood slicking the front of his shirt from a bullet wound--
A bullet wound.
Michael’s jaw tensed.
He liked to plan. He lived to plot the details and shape the big picture to his preferences. That was his job.
Though, it wasn’t like he’d exactly been doing great at that to begin with so far. Ever since Ecuador...
It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was somehow getting out of this. And if Michael couldn’t plan, he damn well wasn’t going to stand there stupidly while his teammates died for his screw up.
With a scream of inarticulate rage, he hurled himself forward. It wasn’t a graceful move, and it certainly wasn’t anything Casey would have approved of, but it had its advantages.
The leader turned as Michael lunged, bringing the gun to bear, but it was too late -- Michael had already bowled into him, using his momentum to take them both to the ground. The body beneath him hit harder, a meaty thud audible, and Michael rained his fists down, striking anything and everything until--
“Michael!” Casey’s voice cut through the din.
Michael looked up, almost surprised. Casey was over by Rick, hefting the younger operative up awkwardly and trying to retreat.
“Cover us!” Casey ordered.
Michael blinked, realizing the reason why. Casey would be mostly defenseless carrying Rick, and with so many men carrying guns still milling about, it was time to think exit -- or at the very least, cover.
Glancing back, he saw the leader, dazed and bloody on the front. It was a secondary concern now. Instead, Michael looked up, scanning the floor for what he needed--
The handgun that had shot Rick wasn’t that far away. Getting off the other man, Michael scrambled on all fours over to the gun, scooping it up. As he brought it up, aiming it at the first man who approached him, he didn’t hesitate to shoot. His split knuckles protested, but he fired again until the man approaching fell.
There was fresh gunfire -- close. Michael winced, ducking down and turning sharply, taking out another man as he ran with a gun toward him.
Heart pounding, he looked behind him, seeing Casey as he dragged Rick’s all-too-limp body behind a bank of large metal canisters. It was always a tossup finding good cover in these situations, but Michael could trust these. Mostly because they’d brought them for the job to store their weapons.
It wasn’t a sure exit, but it would do for now. Until what, Michael wasn’t sure, but he’d sort of given up on thinking ahead at this point.
Instead, he got to his feet, running half-blind through the room, too aware of the gunfire now being readily pointed in his direction. The concrete splintered behind him, and Michael skidded across the last of the distance, almost falling on top of Casey as he found himself behind their cover.
Casey hissed. “Careful!”
Sitting up gingerly, Michael grunted. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
Casey pursed his lips. “Not for my sake,” he said, words thick and voice gravelly.
Michael’s stomach churned violently as he moved in more carefully now, watching over Casey’s shoulder as he pulled away the fabric of Rick’s ruined shirt.
The younger operative grunted, lifting his head, face pale with tears in his eyes. “How bad is it?” he asked, breathy and strained.
Casey’s jaw was tight, and Michael fought against the urge to punch a wall. The wound was high in the abdomen, but to the side -- and bloody. Michael’s anatomy was a little rusty, but if he had to guess, he’d wager it actually hadn’t hit anything vital.
“Nothing life threatening,” Michael said, the words sounding oddly flat. It was mostly true.
Casey turned his head a little. “Through and through,” he reported.
Rick strained to see. “It feels bad,” he said. “Worse than Bolivia.”
Gunfire pinged around them, and Michael poked his head out, firing off a shot before ducking back in. He shook his head. “Nah,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant while Casey fashioned a bandage, wrapping it tightly around Rick with some urgency.
Rick winced, paling even further.
Michael forced a smile, trying to think of the right thing to say. Billy would know...
He took a sharp breath, and shrugged. “The bullet’s not even in there,” he said. “They’ll stitch you up, good as new.”
Casey tied it tight, glancing back at Michael bleakly.
Stitching him up would be easy.
Keeping the kid from bleeding out...
Would not be so easy.
Michael listened to the gunfire, and wondered if backup was on the way. He wished he knew; he wished he’d planned better. He wished he could say what was coming next.
The fact was, however, that he didn’t know much at all. Just that the mission was screwed, they were mostly unarmed, they had no sure exit, and Martinez was bleeding out.
Michael’s team was falling apart.
Worse, he was starting to worry that it could never be put back together.
Billy had been outside when he heard the shot, but he knew. By the strain of Michael’s voice, by the sudden break in the gunfire, by the newfound furor that was born in its wake.
He would always know. It was a sixth sense of sort, though not supernatural in nature. It was inevitable for men who worked as closely as the ODS. No matter what had gone wrong between them, no matter what variables were amiss, they were still a team. Close knit and forever bound and they were in trouble.
And it was up to Billy.
His throat was tight, but it wasn’t the scars or even the lingering memory of the man’s hands (or that bloody ever-present noose in his mind). It was fear. Not for his life -- but for theirs.
Moving with new purpose, Billy leaned down, snagging the discarded gun and stepping over his assailant and moving toward the door. He paused, peeking in as best he could. He could hear the sounds of intermittent gunfire, punctuated by voices yelling in the local dialect.
Billy listened, translating the words he could recognize.
They were reorganizing, shifting position. This was mostly good news, Billy gathered. Because if they were regrouping, then the ODS was still at large -- which meant that there was still something to save.
It made Billy’s task more pressing.
In a split second, he planned. He saw the variables; he pulled them together. Stealth had been his greatest ally so far, but this time he needed to use the element of surprise and learn a lesson from the Human Weapon.
He had to fight.
Hard, brutal, relentless. The voices were close to him, which meant the guards were regrouping on the side closest to him. The ODS, then, would be presumably located toward the back of the facility. If Billy could take out the guards from this direction, he could count on his team to take them out from the other side. Outmanned and outgunned they may have been, but teamwork would always save the day.
Certainly, there were risks in the plan. Billy had no way of knowing for sure if his mates would follow through the way he expected them to, if they were even capable of it.
Except, he did. Because if he couldn’t know, he’d believe.
And now, he’d fight.
Bursting through, Billy didn’t hesitate, blasting the air with gunfire. There was yelling, and the men were scrambling, some falling, some trying to find cover of their own. He made it several feet inside before one of the guards fired back, clipping him in the shoulder--
A flesh wound. He could feel the skin torn up, a trickle of blood leaking down, but he didn’t pause to consider it. Instead, he fired back, taking out the man and several others before he dove behind a tipped over table. It was metal, at least, but as a bullet pinged off it, Billy knew it wouldn’t do much good for long.
Still, he lifted up enough to fire, getting a rough count of the remaining men. Much less than before -- but almost ten.
More gunfire dented the table and Billy huddled down, gritting his teeth together and breathing heavily through his nose. He’d got this far, but he had to admit he was in a bit of a bind now. He needed--
Fresh gunfire start up, but further away -- and not at him.
Billy grinned. “Thanks, lads,” he whispered.
When the volley from across the room faded, he reared up, firing off several more rounds. One of the men yelled, and a bullet whizzed over his head.
Enough was enough. Billy had spent too much time with his feet just barely scraping the ground. Either he was going to die here--
Or he was going to get himself down.
Either way, it was time to move again.
Billy waited for the latest round of supporting fire to die away, but this time when he got up he charged again. He aimed for center mass, taking out as many as he could. The men -- clearly startled -- started to scatter. That wasn’t unexpected. They were trained; they were probably quite capable -- but they weren’t a team in the way the ODS was. When things got tough--
They fell apart.
That wasn’t going to happen to the ODS. Not as long as Billy was breathing.
Then, his gun clicked empty.
Billy made a face, growling as he came face to face with another man, whipping the gun hard through the air. The man fell without a sound, and Billy just barely had time to bring up his gun to knock away the weapon from his next attacker. The gunshot petered away from him, and Billy followed up with a kick so vicious that the man fell to the ground, curled into himself. Billy kicked again -- once, to the head -- and was rewarded when his attacker didn’t move.
In the melee, Billy wasn’t sure why he looked up. But this time, when he did he saw something he’d missed before. Something he probably would have missed every other mission. A dark figure, lurking in the shadows. Stealthy enough to be Casey; practiced enough to be Michael; ready enough to be Rick.
But none of them.
Because cover fire still echoed from their stronghold. And this man wasn’t moving away, he was moving toward.
Gun in hand.
Billy’s stomach flipped.
A man lunged at him, and he fumbled. They went to the ground together, and Billy found himself flat on his back before he managed to lever the other man clear. The both grappled, reaching for a gun, fingers reaching, grabbing--
Billy’s fingers locked and he fired--
But it wasn’t the victory he wanted. Heart in his throat, he struggled to his feet, seeing the figure close in, gun raised.
Billy would never get there in time. There was no way.
Billy could listen and he could plan and he could fight--
But sometimes he needed to talk.
Desperation roiled in his gut, panic tingling throughout every synapse of his body. The words were there, tight in his throat, and he opened his mouth out of instinct and put every ounce of strength and energy he had left into yelling.
In the past, with his speech therapist, such tactics had had mostly negative results. The sounds were vague and animalistic, nothing coherent enough to matter.
But this time, the words formed not only from his vocal cords, but from the very depths of his soul.
“Flank!” Billy screamed, the words rubbing his throat raw, leaving it sore and on fire. The pitch was uneven, the sound breaking as he yelled, and it wasn’t his most articulate message but...
From behind the stronghold, Casey was up in a flash, attacking the man before he had a chance to fire. A few hits, and it was over.
Billy let out a trembling breath.
It was finally over.
Some missions went wrong. Sometimes their cover didn’t hold; sometimes they got in over their heads. Sometimes every damn thing went wrong, and this mission was a pretty classic example of that. They’d been tricked and compromised, they’d gotten in a firefight they couldn’t win and Rick had been shot.
And then Billy had showed up.
Because sometimes missions went wrong, but it didn’t matter. Not when the ODS was still the ODS, not when they could count on each other.
Truth be told, Michael had thought they were screwed. Hunkered down behind the metal crates, he’d been preparing for some kind of suicidal last stand to give Casey a chance to get out with Martinez. But before he’d had to act, the friendly crossfire had started.
At first, Michael had been confused, but when he ducked up to lay down some returning cover fire of his own, he’d caught a glimpse of a tall, lanky form, moving deftly through the fray. Billy fancied himself more of a lover than a fighter, but the Scot had always been adept in combat--
But not like this.
He was scary good.
Almost Casey good.
With Billy’s newfound prowess and Michael’s aim and Casey’s determination and Rick’s staunch will -- Michael knew they could do this.
They did do this.
Every last guard was down, and the last, sneaking up behind them--
Funny that it was Billy’s voice that saved them.
On his feet, Michael grinned. “Wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Billy grunted, taking a step and grimacing, moving more gingerly as he limped closer. There was blood trickling down the side of his face, his sleeve ripped and stained red at the shoulder. “Wasn’t sure--” he started, voice garbled but the words still distinguishable. He cleared his throat with obvious effort. “--you’d want me, but then I stopped feeling sorry for myself and got off my ass.”
The words cut in and out strangely, sometimes Billy’s inflection scraping a little or disappearing into a whisper all together. But Michael still knew what he was saying.
He’d always known.
They all just needed to remember how to listen.
“Well, we’re glad you did,” Michael said.
“Yeah, real glad,” Casey said with a grunt. “Do you think we want to move along the happy little reunion and deal with the fact that Martinez has already lost a few pints of blood?”
Michael’s humor faded, and Billy’s face went hard as he scaled the rest of the distance with a limping jog. By the time he rounded around the back of the crates, Michael was already on his knees again, kneeling next to Casey who had returned his attention in earnest to their youngest teammate.
Rick looked worse than before, his skin nearly translucent and slicked with sweat. He was trembling now, blinking a little lethargically as he looked up at them.
“How bad?” Billy asked.
Rick’s face lit up. “You’re talking!”
“Aye, laddie,” Billy said, still straining a bit with effort. “I’m afraid it’s not quite as melodic as you’re used to, but I reckon the last thing you need is something soothing to put you to sleep.”
Rick’s grin vanished, replaced by a grimace as Casey adjusted the bandage and tied it tighter.
“In and out, through the side,” Michael reported. “I don’t think it hit anything vital.”
“Yeah, but with the rate he’s losing blood...” Casey said.
Rick shook his head. “M fine,” he said, words slurring now. “Though do we have any morphine pops?” His eyes blinked closed. “I really liked those.”
“Hey,” Casey said gruffly, reaching down to shake the kid. “No candy unless you can stay awake.”
“And it’s not that far to go,” Michael said. He glanced toward Billy. “How long did this drive take you?”
“No more than fifteen minutes,” Billy reported.
Michael looked to Casey. “You think you can keep him alive that long?”
“You think Billy can drive that fast?” Casey returned.
“Do any of you think we should stop talking and start moving?” Billy asked.
Casey raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Billy wants to stop talking?”
Rick panted weakly on the ground, eyes opening blearily. “But he just started again!” he protested lazily.
Michael inclined his head, looking back at Billy steadily. “Okay,” he said, no more hesitations, no more doubts. Just focus, certainty, trust. They weren’t impenetrable, but they were pretty damn close. “Let’s go.”
They worked together flawlessly. Casey hoisted Rick up, cradling him in his arms. It was awkward with their similar statures, but Casey’s core strength was not to be trifled with. Billy followed close by, hovering near just in case, while Michael led them back out the front. For his part, Rick did his part by hanging on doggedly, eyes barely open, face pale and pinched.
But no hesitation. No regret.
When Michael stopped at a car, Billy almost forgot to stop. Still, he managed to open the back door and climb inside, helping Casey pull Rick’s trembling form onto the backbench.
“Easy now, easy,” Billy coached, voice like gravel as he positioned Rick as carefully as he could.
Rick flinched, wincing at each small movement, but he didn’t protest. Instead, he blinked several times, eyes wet and glassy as he stared at the roof.
Casey climbed in after him, position himself on the ground, kneeling next to Rick, immediately checking the bandage and frowning as he applied fresh pressure of the still-leaking wound.
Moving back, Billy went to open the door but was surprised when the front door closed and Michael turned around from the driver’s seat.
“We good to go back there?” he asked.
“We’ll be better when we’ve left,” Casey said.
“Which is why I think I should be driving,” Billy said. “I know this route.”
“I have the map memorized,” Michael assured him, getting the stolen car into gear.
“But it’s my job,” Billy balked.
Michael turned sharply, putting the car into driver, and glancing back. “You do drive,” he conceded. “But you’re the charmer, remember?”
“I’m not sure that’s really relevant here, Michael,” Billy protested.
The car lurched as it sped forward, toward the exit without slowing. “I think it’s entirely relevant,” Michael said, voice straining as he turned the wheel hard and the tires squealed. “You’re the talker. So talk.”
The order was curt and to the point. It might have even been harsh. But suddenly Billy realized the weight. So talk. Because he could talk. Because he could, and they needed that, and Billy was more than the talker, but that didn’t mean that such a skill would ever be easily replaced.
But this wasn’t just about Billy, though. It was about Rick.
The younger operative was lying on the sheet, legs crumpled awkwardly against the door. One of his hands was draped over the edge of the seat, fingers loose and uncurled, while the other gripped meagerly as his tattered shirt front. His coloring was wan in the inside of the car, eyes open but starting to dull.
He was slipping away. They’d got their team back together, and Billy wasn’t going to let that fall apart. Not now. Not ever, if he had the choice. And if he didn’t...
Well, Billy wasn’t about to admit it.
Focused, he shifted back in the seat, pressing himself back and looking down so he was more clearly in Rick’s line of sight. The younger man blinked wearily, and Billy smiled.
“How you doing there, lad?” Billy asked, using one hand to brace himself against the door while the car swerved, the other gently on Rick’s shoulder, both to reassure him and hold him steady while Casey maintained pressure.
Rick exhaled heavily, the fine tremors racking his body with even more force now. “Little hard to...focus,” he said, voice lilting softly even as his eyes started to drift shut.
Casey’s face tightened, but Billy didn’t flinch. Instead, he squeezed Rick’s shoulder. “Well, then, you seem to forget that you are riding with the best storyteller the CIA has to offer.”
Casey grunted. “You mean the one guy who doesn’t know when to shut up,” he said. “The kid’s bad enough off as it is, do you really think he needs to hear you prattling?”
Billy scrunched his nose. “I think Casey here is just afraid that I might choose from our repertoire of missions together,” he said. He leaned forward a touch, winking. “There is a particularly colorful mission to Uganda that I know he would rather forget but it does make for a delightful tale.”
Rick’s brow furrowed just a little, his comprehension clearly slowed by the escalating blood loss despite Casey’s best efforts. “Uganda?”
“A hell hole,” Casey interjected.
“No arguments about that,” Billy said. “But it does make an apt backdrop for our little tale.”
Rick held his gaze, waiting -- holding on for Billy’s next words.
And Billy didn’t disappoint.
He told the story, complete with background and embellished details. He let his voice rise and fall, punctuating the key moments and using voices where appropriate to bring the tale to life. His voice wasn’t perfect -- it still cut out and sounded garbled from time to time -- but Billy talked through it, talked through the worst of Michael’s driving, Casey’s clenched jaw, Rick’s drooping eyes.
But when they got to the hospital, Rick was still awake. Michael tore out of the driver’s seat, and Casey’s hands were stained red, but Billy didn’t stop talking until Rick was under the care of the doctors, until there was just nothing left to say.
Rick had needed surgery to repair the damage to his side, but after transfusing the kid, the doctors were pretty optimistic. Michael tried to believe them -- and really, Rick did look better when they finally saw him in recovery -- but it was hard to shake the image of Martinez pale, limp, and bloody in the rearview mirror while Casey held on tight and Billy talked.
Those were the kind of things Michael never forgot, no matter how much time went by. He could still feel the heat of the flames in North Africa; he could still feel his rubbery legs giving out after running fifteen miles in Bolivia.
He could still see Billy’s slack body, hanging from the end of a rope in Castillo’s compound.
These were the moments that made Michael question what he did, made him question his team altogether. Because maybe working together was too big of a risk; maybe Michael would be better served working alone.
But ultimately, these were the moments that made him realize what it was that made his job so important. Sometimes they succeeded; sometimes they failed; but they always gave everything they had to get each other out. If it was hard to pin down the ideals of greater good and justice, it was much easier to fight for the men he served with.
Much harder, too. Because the idea of losing them scared Michael, and he didn’t like to be scared. But it wasn’t really about an explosion in North Africa or a gunshot wound in Bolivia. It wasn’t even about a hanging in Ecuador or a through and through in Africa.
It was about all the moments after. About making new plans, about fighting new fights, about telling new and better stories. But really, Michael’s job wasn’t to plan missions. His job was to play his team’s assets in the best way possible to achieve the greatest outcome. He had to know his team; he had to protect his team. He needed his team.
And he still had them.
Maybe against all odds, but in the hospital, he had them more than ever before.
Casey was grumpy, slouching in chairs and muttering the choruses to songs under his breath. He always volunteered for coffee runs, and seemed to take perverse satisfaction on bringing them the most inedible items from the cafeteria possible.
Rick rebounded pretty quickly after surgery, and within a few days he was starting to get the itch to leave. He was still running a small fever, but there seemed to be no signs of serious infection or other complication. The kid was proving himself to be a hero, even if Michael would never admit it.
Billy talked. Ever since yelling his warning during the rescue mission, the Scot hadn’t really shut up. His voice was still pretty bad -- hoarse and hard to understand, especially with his accent -- but that didn’t seem to stop him anymore. Billy seemed to be making up for the stretch of nonverbal interaction with a vengeance, regaling them with stories and lectures whenever he was awake.
He made jokes with Casey, ribbing the other operative for flying off the handle. He commiserated with Michael, talking about the unfortunate amount of paperwork that awaited them back home, and he passed the hours with Martinez, talking when the kid was still unconscious and not stopping when he was awake either.
He started talking and made like he might never stop again.
And after everything that had happened -- on this mission, in Ecuador, and everything in between -- Michael was pretty much okay with that.
This time, coming home was easy.
There was much to do with Rick’s injury. Adele fussed, and Higgins begrudgingly thanked them all for the exemplary service and sacrifice in the field.
Beyond, it didn’t take long for Billy to get his feet back under him for real this time. He started chatting up people in the break room again; he rekindled dormant friendships and established new connections wherever he wandered. Even with winter approaching, he found himself unbuttoning the top button of his shirt, loosening his tie so he could breathe a little deeper. If anyone asked about the scars, Billy had plenty of stories to tell.
And still, he’d yet to say the thing that mattered most. He had never needed much reason to talk, but finding the opportune moment seemed to be impossible. So finally he took a deep breath, and spoke.
“I never said thank you,” he announced during a quiet stretch of work one afternoon.
Rick blinked up, a little surprised. Casey cast him a skeptical look, and Michael peered at him over the top of his glasses.
Billy took a deep breath, letting it out with a sigh. “For Ecuador,” he clarified. “I never thanked you all properly for all you did to save my life.”
Rick glanced uncertainly toward Michael; Casey did the same. Michael took off his glasses. “Well, to be fair, you weren’t saying much at all.”
Billy blushed. “No, I don’t reckon I was.”
“And you don’t need to thank us,” Rick said. “We should have gotten there faster. If we hadn’t been so slow, you wouldn’t have...well, things would have been different.”
He wouldn’t have been hanged. He wouldn’t have had his voice crushed and a hole cut in his throat. He wouldn’t have spent weeks and months struggling to breathe, to find the words, always feeling the noose cinching tighter around his neck.
Billy waved a hand in the air. “Fate has us all dangling by strings,” he said. “And you didn’t just cut me down, you stayed with me throughout the rest.”
“You were rather...sullen,” Casey said darkly.
“It was a bit weird,” Michael conceded. “In your seven years on my team, I’ve never seen you so quiet.”
“I think sometimes I use so many words, I forget who I am at all,” Billy confessed, feeling suddenly awkward. “I think I was more than a bit afraid that I’d lost my usefulness.”
Rick laughed. “Says the man who single-handedly saved our butts back in Africa.”
“It was...impressive,” Casey said.
Billy found himself beaming. “Well, high praise indeed,” he said. He swallowed, clearing his throat after his voice wavered. “I do regret that my singing voice is no longer what it used to be, though.”
“I think it sounds good,” Rick said helpfully.
“It does give you a certain presence,” Casey said. Then he shrugged. “It can help you sound moderately less stupid.”
Michael grinned. “And it will help your Connery impression.”
At that, Billy smiled. He hadn’t considered that. Then again, he hadn’t considered a lot of things. That was why he needed his team, to be more than he was alone. To be better. To be whole. To be happy.
“Look, we know it was hard on you,” Michael said.
“But you really do bring a lot more to the team than just your voice,” Rick said helpfully. “We just...didn’t know how to tell you.”
“You are the talker of the group, after all,” Michael said.
“So let’s not forget this the next time you get hanged or otherwise suffer from a throat injury,” Casey said crossly, but there was a dark twinkle in his eyes.
Billy chuckled. “You have my word,” he pledged. “In fact, I am so remiss for my behavior over the last few months, that I resolve to make it up to you by telling you all how much I value you as often as I possibly can. These last two missions have reminded me just how precious every moment we have is. We can’t let these things get away from us. We have to express ourselves every day.”
“Well, I don’t know about every day,” Rick said.
“Pshaw!” Billy said. “I have wasted too many days in silence already!”
“Really,” Michael said. “I wouldn’t call them wasted.”
“But they were!” Billy said. “And now it is my duty -- nay, my privilege, to tell you my gratitude and affection as often and as creatively as possible.”
Casey’s face darkened and he hunched over to go back to work. “Don’t make me regret performing lifesaving field surgery on you.”
But Billy wasn’t going to stop now. He grinned. “In fact, I can start by reciting my latest poem. An ode to the many virtues of this team,” he said grandly, on his feet now because the chair couldn’t contain him. He gestured to Michael. “Our fearless leader, with uncompromising plans.” He eyed Casey. “The fighter, tried and true, staunch and stalwart.” Then he looked at Rick. “And the rookie. Young and able, virtuous and brave.” Then he straightened, clearing his throat. “And of course, myself. The humble mouthpiece of this hodgepodge group.”
Casey was steadfastly ignoring him, focused on his computer. Rick looked wide eyed and a little afraid. Michael just sat back and sighed, which was all the invitation Billy needed to talk.
This was how it was, how it was best. Maybe it wouldn’t always be this way, but they were four equal parts forming one brilliant whole. A working unit. Friends, possibly even brothers.
In the silence and in the noise.