The ODS is supposedly the last of the old school spies. That’s the party line, at any rate, and Michael’s more than happy to keep it. He likes the way it sounds, and he likes the notion of a special unit that picks and develops their own mission from beginning to end -- the way spywork is supposed to be.
That’s not exactly the way it works, though. The ODS has more discretion than most when it comes to picking missions -- and even when they don’t, Michael tends to bend the rules until he gets to do what he wants anyway. But really, that’s just because the ODS doesn’t pick the missions at all. The missions pick them, based on contacts, capabilities, and general demand.
The nation’s first line of defense. Designed to go where others can’t and do what others won’t.
So the fact that this mission isn’t easy -- the fact that South Africa is a place where Michael has more enemies than friends -- isn’t as important as most people might think. Sure, they don’t have much lead time. And yes, Michael’s burned more than his share of bridges in the area.
But someone has to do this job; Michael knows it’s the ODS.
He’ll have to figure out the rest later.
“We have intel that one of the major crime bosses is expanding his operation,” Michael explains, pointing to a section of the country. “This is his current area, but he’s starting to make sales over here.”
Rick flips through the information packet. “Who is this guy again?”
“Kopano Viljoen,” Michael supplies. “He’s been on our radar since the 90s. I ran into him about seven years ago when I was working another op in the area. He’s expanded his operation a lot since then.”
Viljoen had been small potatoes, then. Michael had had his sights set higher, and had more or less given Viljoen a pass. He wouldn’t admit it, but this is a bit of unfinished business.
“You mean, he started hocking illegal drugs laced with poison to American tourists, asking ridiculously high prices before getting them killed,” Casey reports. “Bastard ran pretty quick; we never had enough to go after him.”
“Until now,” Michael clarifies. “With this latest expansion, he’s made contact with one of our established assets in the area. We’ve already got scores of evidence coming in.”
Billy grins. “So we just need to swoop in, tie it together, and present Viljoen as a gift to the South African authorities.”
“That’s the plan, anyway,” Michael says. “It’ll be tricky, though. If we show up and start poking around, Viljoen will be suspicious.”
“Do we have a cover?” Rick asks.
“Still working on it, but Thomas thinks two of us can get into his operation as suppliers,” Michael explains.
Rick makes a face. “And the other two?”
“Running surveillance and maintaining communications between the field and Langley,” Michael says.
“Also known as backup,” Casey reiterates.
Rick looks a little disappointed. “Do we know who’s doing what yet?”
“Hard to say for sure,” Michael says. “But they’re going to want people who look established.”
“Meaning, no brown-nosing do gooders,” Casey clarifies. “You’ll be sitting this one out.”
Michael shrugs, only vaguely apologetic. “Our asset works with Americans, so Billy’s out, too.”
Rick looks like he’s ready to sulk. “So we’ll just be where? In the hotel?”
Michael looks to Casey, then to Billy. Casey smirks.
Billy sits up straighter. “Ah,” he says. “Well, we do have a lovely safe house nearby. It’s quite posh, actually.” He nods earnestly. “You’ll love it!”
Posh is perhaps the worst example of exaggeration Billy has used in years. True, he is prone to embellishment, but attributing any positive characteristics to their South African safehouse is a bit ridiculous.
Even for him.
Still, he thinks there’s perhaps a certain charm. The building is old and there is a bit of architectural character. The black iron fence might have been quaint once, and he imagines the stoop to the building was once quite stylish when it was built.
In the 1960s.
The rooms are small, the plaster is cracked. The windows are coated with gunk and the air conditioner no longer functions. There’s something dead behind the fridge, and the door on the bathroom doesn’t close. A few mice scurry across the floor, and there’s fresh water damage that has leaked all over the bed, leaving it moldy and generally unusable.
In all, it’s probably one of the worst places he’s stayed.
It takes Martinez approximately five minutes before he realizes this. To the lad’s credit, it takes him another three hours, when Michael and Casey have gone to make their first contact, before he finally broaches the subject.
“Posh?” he asks, sitting at the laptop he’s set up by stringing an extension cord from the lone outlet to the empty table in the middle of the living space.
Billy shrugs sheepishly. “I admit, that was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration,” he ventures.
“A bit?” Rick asks. “This place is downright depressing. I mean, I know it’s safe, but does I’ve seen pictures of prisons that are less bleak.”
He’s right. Billy’s been in prisons that were less bleak than this, although he has to mentally note that the prisons in Scandinavia are actually nicer than his flat so that is perhaps not the best example.
Yet, Rick looks so forlorn that Billy can’t resort to jokes at his expense. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, he sighs. “I know how you feel, lad,” he says, nodding around at the barren space. “Spywork brings in the best and brightest with promises of excitement and intrigue. It doesn’t take long to realize that’s rarely the case.”
Rick still looks sulky. “I just thought seeing the world would be more...exciting.”
Billy nods in commiseration. “Imagine my surprise when I joined MI6. I spent the whole first year in an office in the basement. There was no window and I shared it with a radiator that put out heat all year round. Once, during a cold streak in London, I nearly died of heat exhaustion. And it was the middle of the winter!”
Rick’s shoulders fall. “And you didn’t quit?”
“No,” Billy says. “Because I knew there were brighter -- and less hot times ahead.”
“I’ve been here for almost a year and I’m still stuck in a crappy safehouse playing backup,” Rick says miserably.
Billy tilts his head, nodding. “You know, I have just the thing for this,” he says.
Rick looks hopeful as Billy gets up. “Yeah?”
“Yes,” Billy says, going over to his bags. He has to scat a mouse away as he unzips it, riffling through the balled up clothes until he finds it. “I was afraid our conditions here would be less than satisfactory, so I brought a little piece of home that has helped me through the worst of times.”
Rick is watching him intently as Billy pulls the item out. He removes the rubber band, unrolling the aged paper and holding it aloft. He pauses, digging in his pocket to find three safety pins before holding the poster against the wall and hastily tacking it into place.
Stepping back, he nods, grinning in satisfaction at his work.
Rick, however, is less impressed. “What’s that?”
Billy is appalled. “That,” he says gesturing to the poster. “Is the one souvenir I managed to take with me from my office at MI6. This poster has been with me through every trial in my professional life and it has never let me down.”
Rick looks at Billy, then looks at the poster. “It’s a poster of a kitten in a tree,” he says blankly, looking at Billy again.
“A very cute kitten hanging precariously from a tree!” Billy says, jabbing with passion at the image. “And you’re missing the very important message!”
“Hang in there?” Rick reads.
“Damn right!” Billy says. “When things are difficult, when things are bad, when things are downright bleak, you just have to hang in there.”
Rick hesitates. “For what?”
Billy is incredulous. “For brighter times! For rescue! For change!”
Rick’s nose scrunches up. “It’s a stupid poster.”
“It’s an inspirational poster!”
Rick shakes his head, looking back at the computer.
Billy clucks his tongue. “That poster changes lives,” he says, looking at the furry kitten and its determined expression. “Just wait; you’ll see.”
There are many reasons Michael is divorced, including the fact that he is paranoid, dishonest, emotionally inept and generally controlling. But if all that weren’t enough, Fay would have had grounds to kick him to the curb because he never left a mission unfinished.
This seems like a good thing -- in general, commitment is viewed positively -- but for Michael, it’s often an obsessive thing. And in the CIA, sometimes he’s just one part of the puzzle. Sometimes he’s gathering intel; sometimes he’s developing assets. It’s only very rarely, actually, that he’s the one bringing the mission to a close. Missions take years to come to fruition most of the time, and the chances that Michael will be the one to orchestrate every step of the process is slim to none.
Michael knows this. He’s accepted it.
But that doesn’t mean he lets it happen without a little help. Sure, he’ll hand off jurisdiction. Yes, he’ll read in other teams as necessary. But even when the mission isn’t his to control, he keeps tabs on it. He spent countless nights during his marriage with Fay tracking mission he had nothing to do with just to make sure that someone else didn’t screw his mission up. When the DOJ had failed to prosecute LaRouche, Michael had decided to ensure that someone else did.
Because Michael doesn’t leave missions with loose ends. It’s bad business; it’s bad security; it’s unprofessional.
And it makes him sort of nuts.
So he knows he’s going to see this one through. Better still, he’ll be there to see Viljoen arrested, which means that he’ll get to put this one to rest sooner rather than later. But...
“Something’s wrong,” Casey mutters to him.
Michael’s asset -- Thomas -- has graciously worked them into his work crew, which Michael knows is a slam dunk. Thomas is established and he’s reputable, which means he’s got the credibility to pull it off.
That always sounds better in theory, though. In application, he and Casey are both sitting in the truck, dressed as delivery men, doing nothing. It’s not actually nothing -- they’re watching as the asset makes a transfer, taking discreet shots with a hidden camera in Michael’s pen to send to South African authorities when they’re done -- but it still feels like nothing.
“It’s going perfectly,” Michael replies, tilting his pen to get a clearer shot of Viljoen’s face. The man turns, looking back toward them, eyes scanning the surroundings suspiciously.
“I know,” Casey says.
Michael moves his pen casually, lifting it to tap on the dash while he clicks some shots of the men helping Viljoen transfer the product. “So we should be finished here in no time,” he says. “We’ll stop back at the safehouse, have Martinez upload the photos to the Agency, and then we can all sit back and watch the news while this thing wraps up. It’s all what we planned.”
“Exactly,” Casey tells him. “When has anything ever gone the way we planned?”
The answer: never. In truth, Michael’s senses are in overload, and while he’s snapping photos, he’s scouting everything. He knows how many exits there are; he knows how many goons Viljoen brought with him. He knows the number of cars, the probable number of guns, and in his mind, he has a strong sense of the best strategic positions in case a firefight should break out. He knows their delivery truck is strong but not bullet proof and it is less than ideal for a getaway.
Everything tells him that things are perfect.
Which is why his gut wants to get the hell out.
But Michael never leaves a mission unfinished -- not when he has any choice in the matter.
He shakes his head. “I can’t pull the plug on the perfect op,” he says. “We’ll hang tight.”
Casey sighs. “Fine,” he says. “But not only do I think we’re taking a risk, it’s also boring.”
Michael turns the camera, smirking as he clicked a picture of Casey’s annoyed face. “You make so many sacrifices,” he jibes. “You’re a true patriot.”
Casey sits back against the seat, sulking. “You’re starting to make me think that Collins and Martinez are the lucky ones,” he mutters.
Michael just grins, turning the pen back to keep taking photos.
All talk of unflagging optimism aside, Billy has to admit, this isn’t the most thrilling of missions. Sure, there is intrigue and danger -- for Michael and Casey. And really, after so many years in the spy game it takes a bit more action to get Billy’s heart pumping.
That is not, however, necessarily a bad thing. He’s had more than enough action for one lifetime, and there are times he still thinks he could be happier away from the spy game, settled down and getting married, writing bad poetry and playing his guitar.
Such things are not in the cards for him, however. So if there’s something nice about busy missions, it’s that he’s too busy trying not to die to think about what might have been. Otherwise he’s faced with the daunting reminder that he’s been exiled from his homeland, labeled a traitor by people who used to be his friends, and currently lives a life of solitude and anonymity at the benevolence of another government. He lives in a motel room, after all, and spends most of his nights reading on his couch until he falls asleep.
Still, when he looks at the poster, aged and faded as it is, he still finds it reassuring. Hang in there, because it gets better. Hang in there, because there are still things worth fighting for. Hang in there, because falling is so much worse -- and Billy would know.
He grins, winking at the kitten. “Thanks for the reminder, mate.”
“Did you say something?” Rick’s voice comes from the other room. The lad has just retired there after his latest shift on watch. It’s Billy’s turn to man the main room, to watch the window and listen for signs of possible danger about their current residence.
So far, however, the greatest danger seems to be the possibility of lead poisoning from the peeling paint or horrible diseases from the mice.
“Nothing of importance,” Billy calls back, moving the curtain aside to check the street fully again. “Get your rest, laddie. You’re going to need it -- you have the first shift tonight!”
There’s no response, which is to be expected. Despite Billy’s best effort, Rick has been dour. He actually glared at Billy’s poster, which Billy thinks is a sign of an impending apocalypse. No one, especially not good-hearted youths such as Martinez, should glare at a kitten. Attached cliches aside.
A moment lapses, then another. Billy watches the street, gauging the cars that park and the people that come and go. There’s a rather comical scene involving two teenage boys who seem to be trying to impress one of the shopgirls, and he has the desire to thrash the young man picking pockets on the street corner. That’s neither here nor there, though. It’s not his problem, even if it is something he could fix.
Then he sees the man at the cafe. He’s seen him before, watched him since he arrived nearly twenty minutes ago. Only he has nothing more than a cup of coffee -- which hasn’t been touched at all. He’s not looking at the menu; he doesn’t check his watch.
Instead he’s staring.
At first, Billy thinks it’s just general staring, of the mindless variety.
But then his skin prickles.
Because he’s staring at Billy.
Heart skipping a beat, Billy avoids any sudden movements. Michael is the paranoid bastard of the bunch, but spies don’t stay alive without a healthy dose of skepticism. Sometimes assuming the worst is the difference between life and death.
Maybe the man is just staring by coincidence. Maybe he’s as perplexed by Billy as Billy is of him.
Or maybe he’s looking to break into a CIA safehouse.
Mentally, Billy goes over the safety protocol. There’s an alarm in place on all entrances; if anyone is close, Billy would know. He needs to wake Martinez, do a more complete sweep of the street, ascertain other possible threats, and then respond accordingly.
Moving, Billy lets the curtain fall back into place, moving past the poster toward the bedroom. “I’m afraid we may have to cut the nap short--”
And then there’s a crash. Loud and violent, coming from the bedroom.
Billy’s running, and he makes it to the door to the bedroom in time to hear the resounding bang of a gunshot. There’s a flash of movement at the window and a dark figure disappears, and Billy comes to a stop as Rick crumples to the floor, blood welling up from a wound in his chest.
Billy’s instincts are all over the place. His teammate is hurt and bleeding -- first aid is a priority -- but if there’s a gunshot, that means they’ve been compromised, that the safehouse has been breached. He turns, ready to launch a full-on offensive when he’s hit from behind.
The force of the blow catches him in the back of his shoulders and it’s enough to send him to his knees. Everything goes dim for a moment, and he doesn’t have time to defend himself before he’s kicked in the kidneys.
He hits the ground with an oof, face scraping hard against the floor as his ears ring. Someone reaches down, presumably to turn him over, and Billy stops thinking and reacts.
Springing up, he charges into the figure, sending them both sprawling to the floor. He gets to his feet quickly, catching the other man with two quick punches before he has a chance to fully regain his footing. He’s about to land a third punch when someone approaches him from behind.
Billy spins, throwing a desperate haymaker that connects viciously. There’s a crack, and the man goes down bonelessly, gun skittering away. There’s no time to celebrate because the first attacker is on him, tackling him to the floor again. This time, the air leaves Billy’s lungs as the man lands on top of him, and he gets off a few good hits before Billy manages to buck enough to dislodge him.
Scrambling, he makes it to his feet, deflecting a kick before using his attacker’s momentum to send him crashing through the pathetic table. He moves forward to take advantage, so set on his goal that he doesn’t see the new figure behind him until it’s too late.
He braces for an impact, and when the thick rope wraps around his neck he’s taken by surprise. He flails, elbowing the new attacker. There’s give in the noose and Billy turns, ready to strike when the first man kicks out his knees.
They’re not hard kicks, and fighting from his knees is something Billy’s done successfully before But the downward motion is cut off abruptly when the noose tightens, and Billy realizes in horror what’s happening.
The pain is instantaneous, and the loss of oxygen is unexpected. His body’s autonomatic defense system kicks in, and he scrabbles at his throat, feeling the thick rope as it cuts viciously into his skin. He tries to find purchase, to buy himself a little extra breathing room, and he almost has it when he sees the other end of the rope thrown high. It catches on the exposed pipe along the ceiling, and Billy’s eyes widen the second before one of the men catches the rope and pulls.
It yanks him up, straining his neck and leaving him grappling in futility at his neck. He tries to find his footing, and almost has something when the rope is pulled again, dimming Billy’s vision with an overwhelming spike of pain.
It’s all getting away from him. He’s not even sure what happened -- how they managed to get back the trip wire -- if Rick’s still alive -- if Michael and Casey...
If he could just breathe...
The world tunnels; his fingers are wooden and his limbs are like lead. His lungs are burning and his mind is racing even as everything dims. He can’t help himself; he can’t help Rick. All he can do is hang there and die, looking at that stupid poster.
Hang in there.
His arms go limp, his body sagging. The horror starts to dissipate as he surrenders to the inevitable. He looks at the kitten, sees its plaintive expression. It’s not trying very hard; Billy knows how it feels.
Hang in there.
Billy’s last thought, as the world goes horribly black, is that it is such an unfortunate and far too ironic turn of phrase.
The safehouse isn’t much, but after a day out in the field, Michael has to admit, it feels good to drop his defenses. Being a paranoid bastard isn’t as easy as it looks, no matter what Fay might think.
So when he sees the crappy apartment building, Michael’s nothing short of relieved -- until he gets inside.
There’s nothing wrong necessarily -- there’s still the same level of background noise, a baby crying, a couple screaming, a dog barking -- but something still sets his senses off. His paranoia is exhausting, but it’s pretty hard to turn off, even when he wants to.
Next to him, Casey stiffens no more than a second later. He glances at Michael. “You feel it, too?”
Michael nods his head, his heart rate starting to pick up and his stomach twisting with an uncertain tilt. Unconsciously, he feels for the gun he has tucked in the back of his pants. “Might be nothing.”
Casey grimaces, starting his way up the stairs. “Two spies, the same bad feeling,” he mutters, fanning out at the top of the second story landing. “Seems like something.”
Michael doesn’t disagree, but there’s no point in saying it. Casey’s gone left; Michael will go right and they both pause, glancing down the hallway, looking for signs of movement or activity.
The safehouse is a single apartment -- 2A, to be exact -- but the CIA owns both units down this second story hall. They’d swept the second just as much as the first, and there’d been no sign of squatters.
Across the way, Casey kneels, his face settling grimly. “Sensor is down.”
Swallowing, Michael looks down by his own feet and sees that the second sensor -- the one he’d placed no more than a week ago, had been visibly ripped apart and was left useless on the ground.
And Michael’s heart sinks. Casey’s already got his hands up and Michael pulls his gun. They don’t need to talk; they already know. This many years in the field together, Casey knows what Michael’s plan is and Michael knows what Casey’s assets are.
The floor beneath them creaks, but there’s no other noise as they approach. The silence feels like a vacuum, and it steals Michael’s breath even as his blood starts rushing in his ears. His palms are sweaty as he adjusts his grip on the gun, and Casey moves to the far side of the door while Michael positions himself next to the handle.
He listens -- silence -- then looks at Casey, who just nods.
Tentative, Michael shifts his gun to one hand, using his left to reach out and try the knob.
He moves easily, and Michael feels his stomach drop and his fingers go cold. This is bad.
Across from him, Casey tenses.
This is very bad.
For a moment, Michael thinks he could stay here forever. Maybe he doesn’t have to open the door; maybe he doesn’t have to know for once. Because none of the options are good. The safehouse has clearly been compromised, and if the door’s still unlocked that means that Billy and Rick left it open -- either when they left...
Or because they couldn’t.
Michael takes another breath, and eschews the doubt. The fear is growing in his stomach, but Michael’s made a career of knowing. He can’t stop now.
For the sake of his men, he won’t.
Resolved, he turns the knob, pushing the door open. The hinges squeak and Michael holds his gun aloft as he turns sharply and moves in.
He leads with his gun, using it to scan the room. Kitchen -- clear. Behind the door -- clear.
Michael’s heart stops.
Because there’s no sign of movement.
There’s just Billy, lying half on the ground. The rest of his body is held partially aloft by the rope tied around his neck, anchored to one of the heating ducts along the ceiling. His body is limp; his face is purple.
The safehouse isn’t just compromised, it’s been hit. Billy’s been hit. Rick’s been--
His heart stutters again, rushing forward. He shoves the gun back into his pants, pulling out his pocketknife instead. “I’ve got him,” he says hastily, pulse hammering as he scoops Billy’s inert form closer, taking the pressure off his neck while he saws through the rope with his other hand. “Check for Rick.”
Casey doesn’t say anything, and Michael doesn’t have time to gauge how he’s feeling. They just walked in to see Billy strung up and purple, and the impression on Michael is palpable -- he can only imagine how it’s affecting Casey. But he knows Casey; he knows whatever fear or anger he’s feeling will be channeled to rage, will be used to fix this.
Billy’s body shifts limply in his grasp and he nearly drops the man, cursing as his knife slips, looking to gain traction as he starts sawing again.
Assuming this is fixable.
Because the safehouse is compromised, which means the mission is compromised. Maybe it was the asset; maybe it was the mark; maybe it was some other tail they picked up. Whatever the case, they’re screwed. Michael doesn’t even know what to do next, he just knows he needs to fix what he can--
Starting with Billy.
The rope starts to fray and Michael grits his teeth, moving his hand faster, harder, watching the fibers give way.
“Rick’s down!” Casey yells from the other room.
Michael grunts, stifling another curse. “How bad?”
“Shot to the chest, looks to be fairly close range,” Casey’s voice comes back. “He’s still got a pulse, though.”
Michael’s chest tightens and his head feels light. “Can you--”
“Already starting first aid,” Casey replies. “Back window is busted.”
Michael is sweating, his shirt drenched with the exertion when the rope finally gives way. It’s such a shock that he nearly drops Billy again, and they both flop to the ground, Billy’s head connecting hard with the floor. Michael winces, hurriedly loosening the noose and pulling it off over Billy’s discolored face.
“How’s Martinez?” Michael asks, throwing the rope aside.
“We’re going to need help,” Casey reports back. He hesitates. “Billy?”
Grimacing, Michael looks at Billy. His face is still a mottled mess of dark hues and the Scot’s throat is covered with red scrapes and abrasions. Clenching his jaw, he reaches for Billy’s wrist instead, preparing himself for the worst.
He’s almost surprised when he feels the thready heartbeat. “Alive,” he says, almost croaking the words.
“This is a pretty sloppy hit, Michael,” Casey reports back. “You think we can risk a hospital?”
“No choice,” Michael replies, ripping open Billy’s shirt and splaying a hand over his chest, trying to feel for any respirations. “Besides, this wasn’t a hit.”
Casey grunts. “What would you call it then?”
“You said it yourself, this is a pretty damn sloppy hit. Even if they didn’t get Billy and Rick on the first try, there’d be no reason not to finish the job,” Michael replies, bending over and putting his ear to Billy’s chest. Billy’s lungs seem to be working -- but only just. He sits back up, sitting back on his heels as he looks at Billy’s distorted features again. “No, they wanted us to come back to this. They wanted us to see what they were capable of.”
He closes his eyes, refusing to acknowledge the sting of tears desperate to be assuaged. He can still see Billy, half pulled off the ground; he thinks of Rick, shot almost at point blank in a bedroom.
He opens his eyes and looks up, Billy’s stupid poster with the stupid kitten: hang in there. It’s the same poster Billy has brought on their particularly bleak missions, the one he has hanging up on his refrigerator. Of course Billy would bring it here.
Of all the stupid and ironic things.
He wets his lips. “It’s a message.”
“Oh?” Casey calls back. It’s a question, but he doesn’t sound curious. He sounds like he’s ready to kill someone, and if Michael knew who to blame, he’d let Casey go, no questions asked.
Michael sets his face grimly, looking at the furball still holding on with all his might. “One we’re going to answer,” he says, looking down at Billy again. “You think you can get Rick to the hospital?”
“Sure,” Casey says, his voice tight. “At the rate he’s losing blood, that’s probably the better option. But what about Billy?”
“Leave that to me,” he says, getting to his feet and moving around to Billy’s shoulders. “Just leave that to me.”
When Billy was seven, he fell out of a tree and broke his arm. His mother had been distraught, coddling him as he wailed, and his father had thrown him in the back seat and shook his head as they drove to the hospital.
“What happened this time?” his father growled, glancing at him through the mirror.
Billy was curled up miserably on the seat, clutching his broken arm to his chest with tears running down his face. “I fell,” he managed to explain.
His father grunted, looking back out at the road. “Next time, hang in there a bit longer, lad,” he said. “Because I don’t intend to spend my life picking you up.”
His father was a son of a bitch, but he hadn’t lied about that. No one picked him up when he crashed his bike the next year; no one was there to help him when he got beaten up a few years following. And when his father died shortly thereafter, Billy stopped turning around to hope that anyone might be there, watching him at all.
He hung in there through school, eeking out the grades to get to university. He made it through college, through MI6 training, through his early years of paperwork and lost offices where no one even knew his name.
He held on; he didn’t let go.
Even when his country kicked him out, Billy still held fast until he found his footing again in a new land, on a new time.
Hang in there.
Words to live by.
In the black, pain rising on all sides, Billy wonders if they’re words to die by. Gravity seems to be pulling him downward, deeper into nothingness, and it’s tempting to let go.
But he’s still in the backseat of the car, breathing through snot and whimpering as they hit potholes at full speed.
Next time, hang in there a bit longer, lad.
And Billy does.
When they’d been married, Fay had liked to rail about his priorities. She often accused Michael of putting his job above her, of putting his team above her, of putting everything above her.
On the one hand, she had a point. Michael did tend to do his job even at the expense of their marriage. But she’s also been wrong. Fay had thought Michael didn’t love her enough. Michael loved her more than any of those things -- but Michael had to give deference to things in their proper order. He couldn’t have a happy marriage if his team was in danger or if national secrets were at risk. He couldn’t go to bed each night and love his wife properly if he knew there were terrorists, drug dealers and other sundry criminals plotting against American interests.
It was a question of priorities, not based on inherent value but pressing need.
And that didn’t just apply to Fay. It applied to everything. It applies right now.
Michael wants to just call an ambulance and get Billy and Rick the help they need. While that is in actuality his highest priority, he can’t do it yet. Not until everything is perfectly aligned. If he indulges that priority, he’ll sacrifice the mission and probably their covers, which could just lead to another attack -- which could lead to more costs for his team. Too much has been compromised already in this mission; he has to make sure everything else is done right.
No matter how hard it is.
Garnering his resolve, he rolls Billy on his side, checking the Scot’s shallow and irregular breathing one more time. The purple in his face is starting to fade a little, but his lips are still noticeably blue. He squeezes Billy shoulder, and with every ounce of strength he has, gets up and leaves his side.
Jogging, he makes his way to the bedroom where he finds Casey tightening another bandage over Rick’s prone body -- the one under it already stained red. It’s an unsettling tableau -- Rick’s complexion is too pale and there’s blood everywhere -- but Michael refuses to acknowledge it.
“I’m going to bring the car around to the back entrance by the fire escape,” he says.
Casey ties of the bandage, yanking it down for extra pressure while gritting his teeth. “I’ll meet you out back, then,” he says.
Michael nods, skirting Rick as he makes his way to the window.
“You sure about this?” Casey asks after him.
Michael glances back as he ducks through the damage glass. “No choice.”
Casey’s face is pinched as he looks back down at Rick, splayed on the floor.
Michael doesn’t have time to dwell, though, and he takes the rungs of the fire escape as fast as he can, jumping down the last distance and landing heavily on his feet. They parked on the main street, down a ways, so he starts in a brisk jog until he gets to the street. He abruptly slows, eyes darting around, looking for any sign of suspicious behavior as he moves innocuously through the street.
Everyone looks ominous, but there’s nothing Michael can pinpoint. Still, by the time he gets to the nondescript rental, the hair on the back of his neck is raised and his heart is thumping. There’s no time to indulge it, though. Priorities, he reminds himself.
Rick’s bleeding; Billy’s still blue. The mission.
The drive is short, and when Michael pulls up alongside the fire escape Casey is already there, Rick hoisted over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Leaving the engine on, Michael puts it in park, hurrying out to open the back door as Casey gently lowers Rick down. Michael helps, catching the kid’s head and guiding him carefully into the back. Together, they lay Rick across the seat before closing the door.
Casey looks Michael in the eyes. “You sure about this?”
“Ditch Rick’s wallet before you get there and use your own backup ID. I’ll bring Rick’s with me when I get there with Billy,” Michael says.
“You think that’s going to help stop whoever did this?” Casey asks.
“No,” Michael says, already reaching to climb back up the fire escape. “But I think it’ll keep the authorities off our asses, which is something anyway.”
Casey’s expression is grim. “It’s not much.”
Michael grunts, reaching the first platform. “What do you want me to say, Malick?” Michael huffs, staring up the second section. “Hang in there?”
Casey makes a face and shakes his head, getting in the car. “Since that’s worked so well for us so far.”
At the second floor, Michael hears the car speed away, and he ducks back in the window, pulling his phone from his pocket as he runs back to the living room.
Billy’s still there, rolled on his side where Michael left him, and when emergency services finally picks up on the other end of the line, Michael is just going to his knees. “Yeah,” he says. “English?”
“Yes, sir, what is your emergency?”
Michael looks down at Billy, putting his fingers on the Scot’s wrist to feel the thready pulse. “I went to check on my friend and, well--”
He hesitates, looking at Billy’s damaged throat, his still dusky features.
Taking a breath, Michael reminds himself of his priorities. “--and I found him hanging.”
“From a rope, sir?”
“Yeah,” Michael says, swallowing as he silently apologizes to Billy. “He’s been sort of depressed lately...I think it was a suicide attempt.”
Because suicide attempts don’t warrant police investigations. Because suicide attempts don’t attract official government intervention.
“What is your address, sir?”
Michael swallows guiltily as he relays the number. “Second floor. Apartment 2B.”
Even if he pulls this off as a suicide, he doesn’t want to give any reason for police to look at an official CIA safehouse. There’s still CIA equipment in there, and Michael doesn’t have time to clean that up -- Billy doesn’t have time.
The dispatcher says something else, but Michael closes his phone and shoves it in his pocket. He only has minutes to pull this off, so he has to do it right. Hastily, he pulls Billy’s wallet out, tucking it in his own back pocket. Next, he collects the noose, quickly undoing the anchor for the part still strung up over the ceiling.
When he has those items, he goes back to Billy, gently rolling the Scot onto his back and lifting him under the armpits. It’s not graceful, but it’s efficient as Michael turns them around, starting to pull Billy back toward the front door.
Billy’s weight is ungainly, his feet dragging across the floor. At the door, Michael has to pause, shifting so he can hold Billy and turn the knob. He pushes the door open with his back, looking down the length of hallway as he pulls Billy’s feet clear of the threshold, quickly using one hand to shut the door behind him. He should lock it, but at this point, Michael doesn’t see how that’ll do much good or harm.
It’s a short distance across the hall, but Michael’s drenched with sweat. He has to lay Billy on the ground to find his keys, half kicking the door open as he reaches down to scoop Billy up again. The Scot makes no sound except a faint whine each time he takes a stunted breath.
He doesn’t bother to close the door, and he only drags Billy far enough inside to make it look believable. Laying Billy down on his side, he quickly throws the noose and the rope to the side before turning back to his friend.
It’s a relief; it’s not a perfect setup, but it should work. Rick should be on his way to the hospital; the ambulance will be here soon. Michael has enough cover IDs and the safehouse should be safe from government oversight. He can salvage this. He will.
But when he checks Billy’s breathing, there’s nothing.
His heart skips a beat, and his stomach feels queasy. Swallowing, he forces himself to remain calm, putting a hand on Billy’s chest while lowering his head to Billy’s mouth. Under his chest, he can still feel the faint thump of Billy’s heart. But there’s no movement in his lungs.
Michael sits up and looks down. Billy’s color is still off -- he’s cyanotic -- and it’s not getting better.
He curses, rearranging Billy so he’s on his back. Billy’s neck may be damaged, but without oxygen, that doesn’t matter so Michael tilts his head back anyway, pinching his nose before blowing in two breaths.
He watches as Billy’s chest rises, but it doesn’t escape his notice that it doesn’t rise very far. Michael’s studied CPR; he’s even had the misfortune of using it a time or two. There’s supposed to be better airflow than that.
Muscles taut, Michael tries again, blowing harder this time -- but the movement is the same.
It makes sense, probably. Billy was hanged. A rope around the neck with that amount of force could cause all sorts of problems -- to the trachea or the vocal cords, not to mention the vessels and arteries. And even if there was a fracture or deviation, the swelling alone could close off the airway.
He blows in another two breaths. “Come on, Billy,” he mutters, finding Billy’s pulse point again. “Hang in there.”
Beneath him, Billy’s face is still dark and unmoving. Michael’s eyesight blurs unexpectedly and he leans back down, breathing for Billy again.
“Hang in there,” he says, even as he hears sirens in the distance. He’s not sure if he’s talking to Billy or himself anymore; he’s pretty sure it doesn’t matter. “Just hang in there.”