|Man Plans, God Laughs
Author: Faye Dartmouth PM
Michael can't plan on miracles.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Hurt/Comfort - Michael D. & Billy C. - Words: 9,647 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 5 - Published: 09-13-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8521489
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: Man Plans, God Laughs
Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.
A/N: lena7142 started a whump alphabet and one of the options under z was zippered. This is what my brain came up with. Thanks to penless for the beta.
Summary: Michael can't plan on miracles.
Afghanistan wasn't Michael's favorite country, and he'd made that determination years ago when he went on his first CIA mission and seen his local guide get blown to shreds by a roadside bomb.
Michael had missed the brunt of the blast, but it still knocked him roundly and he'd woken up a day later with an IV and only a vague recollection that he hadn't finished his mission.
Ray Bishop was sitting by his side, and he just shook his head when Michael asked.
"Kid, you just survived a bomb that was meant to kill you," he said. "Take that miracle and call this mission good enough, okay?"
Michael blinked, still numb but confused. "But I can't plan on miracles,"
Ray sat up, shrugging. "Nope," he said. "You just thank any God you can think of that you got one this time around."
Michael didn't believe in God, though. Not really. And he didn't even like miracles. Too much ambiguity, the prerequisite of faith. Michael didn't need miracles.
Which is why he signed out AMA and finished the mission.
Just planning, careful execution.
No chance; no luck.
And certainly no divine intervention.
Michael still remembered that, even years later. Ray Bishop had retired, and taken his glib talk of miracles with him. Michael ran the ODS his way, with cultivated paranoia and unrelenting tactical genius.
It wasn't perfect, but it was good.
Good enough, at any rate.
It was usually good enough.
Michael still didn't like Afghanistan, and no one cared. Michael also didn't like Bolivia or North Africa or a lot of places, but this was the nature of the job.
He just planned better, came up with more contingencies.
In their motel, Michael laid out the map of the city. "It's mostly business, and pretty busy, so it's probably safe since it has limited military presence," Michael explained, pointing to the street corner with the designated cafe.
"That doesn't exactly guarantee us anything," Casey said, eyeing him reproachfully.
"It's Afghanistan at war," Michael said. "What guarantees do you want?"
"I would just prefer not to send an unarmed CIA operative into a blind meet with an untested asset on their turf," Casey said.
"We've had extensive remote contact," Rick reminded them.
"Yeah, and there's been a string of insider attacks on anyone who looks like they're from the U.S.," Casey harped.
"I'm Scottish," Billy said. "Though I do appreciate the concern."
Casey glowered. "It's just common sense," Casey said. "We're pinning too much on chance."
Michael inclined his head. The outright questions might bother some operatives, but Michael was different. He was prepared. "We've run background and conducted surveillance for two weeks," he said. "We'll be just around the corner and Billy will be wired for the meet."
"And none of that will mean anything if he walks in there packing," Casey said flatly. "Or worse: if he comes strapped to a bomb."
"He's not a zealot," Rick said. "I've read his work; he's respected and he's a moderate who has always been for working with any authority available to achieve the best results."
"Yeah, meaning he might work with the Taliban if it suits him," Casey said.
Michael knew this. Better than Casey. Better than Rick. Better than Billy, who was going to walk in, unarmed. He'd calculated the risks, set up contingencies. Cost and reward; necessary precautions.
"This is an asset years in the making," Michael said, clearly and definitely. Casey fell silent, sullen and stiff. Rick blinked at him earnestly while Billy nodded along with a sort of vibrant enthusiasm. "And there's no better place for a meet. If this goes wrong, then there really is no way to control the universe."
Michael double checked the plan. He triple checked the contingencies. He didn't like to admit it, but he was nervous. He could still remember the roadside bomb, how it'd come out of nowhere. How he'd been walking along one second, and the next there had been blood splatting in his face and an arm hurling at his head.
As he set up the surveillance equipment from their conveniently chosen location, Billy suited up with his wire, watching Michael curiously.
After a few moments, Michael asked, "What?"
Billy shrugged. "Just admiring all the ways in which you are a truly terrifying and spectacular paranoid bastard," he said.
Michael didn't look up, still working. "It's a matter of safety," he said, glancing at Billy. "Your safety, this time."
"Aye, no complaints here, mate," Billy said. "I just wonder if you realize that you really can't control the universe."
"No," Michael agreed. "But I can control this mission."
"You were a bit harsh on Casey," he said. "He has a point. About chance, that is."
"Chance is still a predictable, controllable variable," Michael replied. "You just have to play the odds."
"Ah, the never failing logic," Billy mused.
Michael stopped, looking at him. "I know you better than that," he said. "You're not a man who believes in chance and fortune."
"Certainly not," Billy said. "Most of life is what we make it."
"See," Michael said, inclining his head.
Billy made a face, curious. "But not all of life is that way. I think we have to reserve some space for the possibility of chance and luck. Even a miracle or two."
Michael scoffed. "Miracles are for people who don't plan well enough."
"I reckon," Billy said. Then he smiled. "The Lord have mercy on the man who thinks that can't be them."
Michael didn't let it bother him. Casey's doubts, Billy's insistence. It was part of the way they operated. Part of what worked. They all had roles to play. Casey hurt people. Rick translated. Billy charmed people.
Standing in his perch in the abandoned office space up the street, Michael zoomed in with his binoculars, watching as Billy settled into a chair, ordering a drink.
Just like he'd planned.
And none of it bothered him at all.
The asset was on time. Casey was in position with a sniper rifle. Rick was holding the monitoring equipment to his ear. Michael stared so hard that he didn't blink.
The asset sat down and shook Billy's hand. They ordered drinks.
"So far so good," Rick reported. "He sounds nervous, but nothing you wouldn't expect."
"He looks clean, too," Michael observed. "Maybe a gun, but I think most people in the country wouldn't find that unusual."
"I have a clear shot, if we need it," Casey reported.
Michael shook his head. "I think it's going fine," he said. "According to plan."
And then Michael saw the man on the motorcycle darting in his peripheral vision. He was driving fast and erratic.
A horn honked.
Michael's heart skipped a beat and his stomach went cold. "Get them out," he said, then turned to Rick, frantic. "Tell him to get-"
His words were lost in a resounding boom that shook the building. Then there was a second blast, stronger than the first and closer, too, rocking the building so hard that the glass shattered and the structure wavered. Michael lost his balance, flying backward. He heard Casey swear and Rick yelped and then his head hit the floor and everything went black.
Michael woke up to silence.
Not the comfortable silence of his apartment before the alarm went off. Not the amiable quiet of the team in the morning, sipping coffee and going over daily intel. Not the peaceful stillness of his evening meal, poring over his notes at his small dining table, just him and a frozen dinner.
But resounding silence, ringing in his ears.
His ears were ringing.
Then he realized, it wasn't silent at all. He just couldn't hear.
Eyes popping open, he was staring at the ceiling. He took a breath, then another. When he realized that he was okay, he swallowed and his ears popped.
And the world came back into focus.
Outside, he could hear sirens, voices, crying.
Michael scrambled to his feet, moving back to the window. It was blown out, broken glass scattered all across the floor. He could see the blackened crater in the street below him, the building across from them clearly incurring significant damage from a blast.
On the ground, there were already police on the scene, barely controlling the chaos as the wounded were tended and bodies were covered with sheets.
A suicide bomber.
Then Michael remembered the other blast, his eyes turning down the street. There was another crater, even bigger than the first. It seemed to swallow the corner, and cars were thrown clear, overturned and burning in the street while people wailed.
Michael tried to get his bearings, tried to find the familiar markers. The cafe, Billy's table-
Then Michael realized the problem.
There was no table. Because there was no cafe. The first blast had decimated it, leaving nothing behind.
For a moment, Michael could only stare.
His plans, his contingencies...
All of it for nothing.
Next to him, Rick sucked in a breath. Casey went rigid.
Michael didn't know how to move.
Except he did.
There was no chance. There was no luck. But there were people still alive. There were people walking away. That meant the mission was in play.
That meant this wasn't over.
Resolved, Michael gritted his teeth. "Come on," he said.
Rick gaped. "But-"
"But nothing," Michael said. "Billy's down there somewhere. And if we're up here, then we're not really much use to him."
Casey gathered a breath. "Michael, the epicenter of that blast..."
"He's down there," Michael snapped. "And we're wasting time. So if you want to sit here and do nothing..."
Michael didn't finish his sentence. Didn't wait to see if they'd follow. Because he already knew what was going to happen. Because he'd planned for everything.
Michael had been in explosions before, and he knew they were messy affairs. Literally and figuratively. The second blast had been directed at the building across the street, and the damage had been significant. Debris blocked the doorway and as Michael tried to circumvent it, the local police stopped them.
Michael tried to push through anyway, but the men became more forceful. When Rick tried to interject in the local dialect it got them nowhere.
Frustrated, Michael glanced around. He hadn't been out long from the blast, but his disorientation had slowed his response enough to give the police a chance to set up a secure perimeter. People milled about inside, bloody and shocked, while others worked on going through the rubble. He watched as they drew out a body, tagging it and sending it off.
He swallowed, looking back to Rick. "Tell them we know someone in the blast," he said. "Tell them we want to find them."
Michael dealt with lies, but sometimes the truth had its merits. Casey stood tense at his side, almost not breathing while Rick translated his plea.
The officer shook his head, pointing off down the road.
Rick turned back, a little apologetic. "He says no one is allowed in, but they're sending the wounded to a local hospital," he explained. "Walking wounded are being rounded up with the witnesses to try to get a full picture. No one goes in, no one leaves."
Michael nodded, considering this. "So at least we know where Billy's going to be."
Rick stared at him; Casey looked dubious.
Michael nodded again, finding his sense of control again. "We split up," he said. "Billy might have seen it coming and gotten a head start, but chances are he was still caught up in the blast to some degree. My bet is that we'll find him with the walking wounded or in the hospital."
"If he didn't get a head start..." Casey said.
Michael ignored him. "Martinez, you go to the hospital," he said. "You speak the dialect and if Billy's unconscious, we'll need a translator to find him. Malick, you go over to the walking wounded and see if he's there."
Rick nodded, but Casey pressed his lips into a line. "And what about you?" he asked.
"I'll go back to the motel," he said. "I know they said no one in and out, but this is Billy. He's probably going to do his best to break out if he can, and I want to make sure we cover all our bases."
Casey's jaw worked, but he didn't disagree. Rick took a shaky breath.
"Phones on at all times," Michael said. "When we find him, I want to reconnect immediately to see what we can salvage."
Rick blinked rapidly, wetting his lips. "Okay," he said. He looked around the scene. "It might take a while..."
"Just do the job thoroughly," Michael said, looking Rick in the eyes. "That'll be enough. You'll see."
With that, Rick jogged off, moving down past the growing throng of people, trying to get closer, to see. Some were crying; others were yelling. People wandered, police directing them as they held bloody gauze to their heads.
Casey hovered. "Do I need to remind you of the odds?" he asked.
Michael turned his gaze to him. "You're not superstitious, Casey," he said.
"No, but I'm a realist," Casey replied. His expression wavered. "Michael, you saw the source of the blast. It's going to take a miracle for him to be alive. We need to accept that."
Michael shook his head, defiantly now. "No," he said. "We stick to our plans. Do the search pattern. We'll find him, Casey. I know we will."
Casey sighed a little. "I know," he said. "I just hope we find him in one piece."
Michael stood up straighter. "I'm not big on hope," he said. "But I'm pretty damn good at getting things to go the way I want. So call me if you find him."
Casey's shoulders slumped, but he nodded. "Yeah," he said in resignation. "You, too."
Michael made his way beyond the crowd, beyond the scope of the police. Once in the clear, he picked up his pace, his brisk walk turning into a jog as he wove through the city streets. Traffic was backed up, and people walked by in confusion as the flow of morning traffic was diverted.
It wasn't relevant, though. Michael navigated it with ease, making his way back to the motel. Billy might already be there, he knew. If he'd gotten the heads up on the bomber, he could have cut out. Could even have the asset with him.
It could all be over. They'd laugh about it, make jokes, finish the job.
It could happen.
But when Michael opened the door, there was only silence. He checked the bathroom, just in case, but it was untouched.
He went to the window, looked for signs of tampering, then peeked out into the street. People came and went, but there was no sign of Billy.
In the distance, he could still see the smoke rising and the sound of sirens permeated the thin walls.
Billy would show up, Michael knew.
And Michael sat down to wait.
He waited for a few seconds before he got out his phone.
Billy's number was programmed into it, and he dialled it, listening to it ring.
Michael chewed his lip. That didn't mean anything, he told himself, staring out at the street.
It didn't mean anything at all.
Minutes passed. Michael checked his watch, watching the second hand tick by.
Michael tried the phone again.
He checked his reception.
He checked his missed calls.
He waited. Not for a miracle, though. Because there were no such things as miracles.
And Michael didn't need a miracle.
He just needed to be patient.
When the phone rang, Michael answered it immediately. Casey was on the other end of the line.
"He's not here," he reported. "They've got people herded into an office space like cattle, and he's not among them. They've even got an emergency field center set up to treat minor abrasions and he's not there either."
"He could have snuck out," Michael said.
"Which means he'd show up there," Casey replied. "I take it he hasn't, yet?"
Michael took a breath and held it. "Come back this way," he said. "I'll wait for a call from Martinez, and then we'll probably head that way together."
Casey didn't say anything.
"It's Billy," Michael said, as lightly as he could. "He's never on time. And he's lucky."
"I thought we didn't believe in lucky," Casey replied.
Michael shrugged, swallowing hard. "Billy's got his own way about these things."
At least, Michael had to hope.
When Casey showed up, they waited together. They didn't talk, took turns pacing the floor. Michael dialled Billy's number, and listened to his voicemail before hanging up.
Casey watched him but didn't say anything.
Michael pretended like he didn't notice.
When Rick finally called Michael was almost desperate. "Martinez, tell me you found him."
There was a small inhalation. "You mean he hasn't shown up there, yet?"
Michael's stomach fell.
Because he knew.
There was no chance; there was no luck.
There were no miracles.
Still, Michael waited. He watched the street; he called Billy's phone. When Rick showed up, he was almost numb.
"So," Casey said, sitting on the bed and staring at Michael. "Now what?"
Rick blinked earnest eyes up at him, and Michael looked back. Looked at Casey, looked at Rick.
If Billy were coming, he would have been there by now. If he wasn't with the walking wounded, if he wasn't in the hospital. If he wasn't answering his phone...
"There's one more place," he said.
Michael had been to a lot of places in Afghanistan. For as much as he disliked the place he was pretty familiar with it. He knew the streets; he knew the countryside. He knew the military outposts.
He knew the makeshift morgues.
Neither Rick nor Casey said anything when Michael paid off the guards at the front of the temporary area where they were holding the dead. The blast had been stronger than most; the body count was significant. It would take a while for the bodies to be properly moved and identified. Until then, they were being stored and guarded.
A few hundred dollars, though, and they could have all the time they needed.
Standing inside, Michael would need a whole lot more than this.
Still, there was a job to be done. He'd told the truth when he'd said they'd find him.
He just hadn't been right on where.
"Okay," he said, taking a breath and trying not to breathe in the fresh stench of death. "We've got the ones who are identified over there."
He nodded toward a small collection of bodies. Then he looked to the the other side, where the bodies were lined up in rows, pressing against each other in the too-small space.
"So we start over there," he announced grimly. "We'll need to unzip each bag and do a visual identification. Any doubts, ask. Understood?"
Rick looked like he was ready to throw up. Casey was just grim.
"You don't really expect me to answer that, do you?" Casey asked.
Michael wet his lips, looking at the body bags again. "We start at opposite ends," he said. "Martinez, you start in the middle and we'll meet up in the end."
As if Michael could plan for everything.
Even identifying the body of a teammate.
It was slow, tedious work. Some of the bodies were in good condition. Some weren't. Michael tried not to look too closely, didn't look at the burned scalps or the missing limbs. He paused when the faces were badly marred, trying to sort through the blood and gore, weighing the color of the skin and hair against Billy's.
He unzipped each bag carefully, zipping it back up with equal precision. One body to the next to the next.
Part of the mission.
Part of the plan.
Maybe Billy wouldn't be here. Maybe they'd missed him. Maybe he was somewhere else. Maybe the asset had taken him somewhere.
Body after body, Michael felt the tendrils of hope.
Maybe he wasn't here at all. Maybe Michael was wrong. Maybe he was wrong.
And then, he unzipped the next bag.
At first, all he saw was blood. It covered everything, coating the features and pooling in the bag. It came from a garish wound along the hairline, a deep gash in the skin where Michael could easily see bone. He winced, ready to zip the bag back up when he stopped.
Because beneath the blood were familiar features. Full lips, thick stubble. A long, lanky body and spiky hair.
Michael froze, heart thudding painfully in his chest.
He'd been right. It wasn't about chance. It wasn't about miracles.
But he'd also been wrong.
He couldn't control everything. He couldn't...
He couldn't think, though. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't acknowledge it. He couldn't think.
That this was Billy. That this was Billy.
Bloodied and lifeless, zipped up in a body bag and tossed into an anonymous pile of the dead.
"Hey," Rick's voice came as he approached. "Did you..."
The words trailed off. Rick's breath caught and then broke on a sob. Casey edged nearer, but said nothing, going very, very still.
And no one spoke. No one dared speak.
But that didn't change anything. It didn't change the fact that the mission was a waste, that everything had fallen apart. It didn't change the fact that Michael had been wrong and he'd been right.
And it didn't change the fact that Billy was dead.
Michael unzipped the bag further, leaving the flap open as he revealed the rest of Billy's torso. He'd been pushed in the bag hastily, it seemed, one arm bloody and torn at his side while the other was draped across his stomach. His body was in remarkably good shape. Portions of his clothing was torn and stained red, but all his limbs were intact and there appeared to be only minor burns to his shoulder. Both of his legs were there, filling out the bottom of the bag with no apparent aberrations. The blood on his face was mostly from the single, deep wound at his hairline.
He saw Rick turn away, moving to the corner and retching. Casey stepped forward, kneeling next to Michael and reaching a careful hand out to tilt Billy's head to the side, getting a clearer look of the wound. "Head trauma," he observed, voice unsettlingly even and devoid of emotion. "Probably caught a piece of debris."
Michael sighed, but he nodded. "He probably didn't even know what hit him," he said grimly, sitting back on his heels, trying to convince himself that that was some kind of consolation as he looked at Billy's corpse. "Didn't feel it."
Casey turned his attention, scanning the rest of Billy's body. He lifted an arm, pulling at the blood-stained clothes on Billy's abdomen before lifting the bottom half of the flap and eyeing the Scotsman's legs. "No other significant damage," he murmured, brow furrowed just slightly. He let the flap drop, taking a deep breath. "I always thought his head was the safest part of him."
Michael's gut twisted painfully. He could still remember Billy's first day on the job, how nervous and wide-eyed he'd been. So eager to please, so haunted by the past. Michael hadn't trusted him, then. He wasn't sure when he started, but in the seven years they'd been together, he'd come to count on him for just about everything. "I never thought it'd be a damn suicide bomber," he admitted, choking a little.
Casey grimaced. "I never let myself think it'd be anything," he said. There was something distant in his expression now. Casey didn't do sad, he didn't do grief, but the rawness of loss was still palpable in his guarded countenance. "I guess his luck finally ran out."
Michael's throat was too tight to speak; it wasn't Billy's luck. It was Michael's. It was the team's. It was North Africa all over again, only so much worse. Because this time there was a body. Limp and pale and indisputable.
Rick came back, standing over them shakily. "I just...I didn't think he'd be here," he said haltingly, swallowing with obvious difficulty. Michael glanced up at him, seeing his pale, tear-streaked face. "I mean, I guess I knew, but..."
But they had all thought they could beat the odds. They had just assumed.
Rick offered a smile, visibly trembling. "He doesn't even look dead," he said. "I mean, I've seen pictures of bodies, and the other ones we unzipped - and he just doesn't look dead."
Michael's gaze went back to Billy. The blood had been all he could see at first, but Rick was right. Billy's body was in much better shape with no other obvious deformations. Even the head wound, while bloody, wasn't half as gruesome as most of the injuries they'd seen. And his skin, while pale beneath the blood, wasn't discolored yet.
The other bodies had been gory and gruesome, faces blue and purple. Hours had passed since the explosion, so Michael had known what to expect.
But Billy did look better. He still looked horrible, with the blood and the stillness and the body bag and the corpses lined up on either side, but his face didn't carry the gruesome hallmarks of death. It was ironic, perhaps. Classic Billy Collins, even in death. His face had always been his greatest asset in life, and it hadn't left him yet in death.
Casey leaned forward, picking up the stray arm across Billy's stomach, putting it gently by his side. "It hasn't been that long," he noted, brow furrowing just slightly. "But it is remarkable; he's still warm."
Michael frown, looking at Billy again. Looking at his still body, his unmoving figure. The slack features, the blood still glistening on his face, coating his eye, his check, and pooling beneath him.
It had been a few hours; the bleeding would have stopped. It would have dried. Afghanistan was hot, but it wasn't humid...
Michael's frown deepened, the doubt niggling at the back of his mind. It was a fantasy, maybe; a hope born of desperate denial. Because Billy was dead. He had been checked in the field, put in a body bag and carted off with the rest of the victims of tragedy. Someone would have checked him, would have confirmed him to be dead.
And there was no sign of breathing, no hint of movement.
Michael reached out cautiously, two shaking fingers at the pulse point on Billy's throat.
"Wait, you don't think-" Rick started.
Casey shook his head. "It's impossible-"
Michael shook his head, tuning them out, struggling to feel. But his own heart was throbbing, his mind racing, his fingers sweating. There was something, but there wasn't and he pressed his fingers deeper before giving up in a fit of frustration and bending over. It was awkward, and he almost had to sit on top of the body next to Billy, but Michael didn't care. Couldn't care as he pressed his ear to Billy's chest to listen...
For a heartbeat.
For a second, Michael thought he'd imagined it. Conjured the fantasy to promote the delusion of the impossible. But he listened long, holding his breath as it thrummed, light and fast, barely audible even at this proximity.
Tears sprang to his eyes and he sat back with a laugh. "He's alive," he said. He blinked, looking up at his other teammates. "He's alive."
Rick stared, shell shocked. Even Casey just looked at him, too stunned to move.
Michael looked from them back to Billy. "The head injury must have knocked him out so deeply that it suppressed his vitals and he didn't wake," he continued, feeling almost overwhelmed. "With this many victims, maybe they didn't have time, maybe they missed it-"
"You mean maybe they put Billy, alive and in need of medical attention, in a body bag where he probably would have died for their negligence?" Casey asked incredulously.
"Yes," Michael said. He shrugged, looking at Billy again, his stomach fluttering. "I mean, maybe. I mean, who cares? He's still alive, and it's up to us to make sure he stays that way."
Casey actually gaped but Rick blinked at him. "I'll go get a paramedic," he said, darting off before Michael could confirm the plan.
Michael nodded, eyes turning to Casey. "We need to get him out of here."
Casey looked down to Billy, still pale and bloody but alive in the body bag. "With pleasure."
Miracle or luck or neither, Michael would take it. Stepping over the line of corpses to pick Billy up, Michael would definitely take it.
It was awkward work, made even more cumbersome by the frenetic pace of Michael's heart. He was sweating in earnest, trying to move in calm, even movements as they prepared to move Billy from the room.
The truth was, it was probably a moot point. Billy, though alive, was unconscious and totally unaware. He didn't know he was surrounded by the dead; he wasn't even aware of the fact that he'd been shoved in a body bag and assumed killed.
But Michael knew. He knew how wrong it was, how much it hurt, how it tore through the lining of his stomach with an intensity he could barely control. Billy was alive,and Michael would be damned if he let his teammate stay as an unidentified casualty any longer than he'd already been there.
Still, it was easier said than done. The room with the bodies was decently large, but the number of dead had filled it easily. The rows of the unidentified were shoved together, body bags almost overlapping, and Michael had to do his best to step around the other corpses as he maneuvered his way around to pick up Billy's shoulders.
Casey didn't need to be instructed; he merely acted, working in tandem with Michael. He quickly unzipped the rest of the bag, revealing Billy's legs, stepping carefully to find a position where he could hoist him up.
"Easy now," Michael coached, lifting Billy gently, doing his best to support the Scotsman's head and shoulders. The real damage was clearly from the head wound - probably a fractured skull, if the shiny white sliver of bone was any indication - but it was possible that he'd sustained some type of spinal injury as well.
To Michael, though, moving him was worth the risk. Because the thought of Billy staying here...
Well, it was no thought at all.
"Okay," Michael said, once his grip was secure. "Let's move slowly..."
Casey moved backward, stepping over some of the bodies, and Michael followed, almost tripping but managing to keep his footing as he eased his way forward, Billy still draped between them.
Once they had gotten past the rows of bodies it was easier to navigate, and they picked up their pace. At the door, Casey paused only briefly, shifting Billy's weight to one hand as he turned the handle. It only took a few seconds, but they felt long and tedious to Michael, and he found himself muttering in haste as Casey propped the door open and led them through.
The makeshift morgue was in an unused office space in the same building where Michael had set his team up earlier in the day. It was dim and hazy, the air hot and unfiltered but noticeably fresher away from the stench of death. Michael needed to move them farther away, because they'd been there long enough already. Michael didn't need more reminders of how close they'd come, of how Billy had almost ended up.
He glanced down at the Scotsman, head tipped back and features unmoving.
It had been close, and there was still no guarantee.
Michael could try to plan, to calculate, to work, but he was starting just to hope.
At the checkpoint where Michael had bribed the guard, he heard the commotion before he saw it. His Arabic was limited, but he could make out the sounds of protesting, Rick's hinging voice rising above the rest.
When Casey rounded the corner, he pulled up abruptly and Michael almost folded Billy in half at the sudden stop. But when he saw the guards waving guns at them, he understood why.
The guards were yelling at them now, something about dead bodies and protocol and Michael shook his head.
"He's not dead!" he said, trying to sound reasonable. "He's not dead-"
The guns waved and someone tried to force him physically out of the way. He yelped, almost losing his grip on Billy, struggling to compensate as one of the guards pulled Casey away and Billy's feet fell to the ground. Casey responded with a surge of violence, which had guards priming their guns, ready to shoot.
"Hey!" Michael yelled. "Check him!" He turned his look at Martinez. "Tell them to check him!"
Michael barely had time to put Billy down carefully as he was forced away, hands up as he was pushed to the wall, Casey not far behind, looking even angrier than Michael felt. Rick was being herded in their direction when he looked to the medics loitering in the doorway and said something pleadingly in Arabic.
One of them looked unimpressed - or too daunted by the guns - but the other was frowning, eyes on Billy as he stepped forward cautiously. He went down to his knees, placing a steady palm against Billy's neck before his eyes widened.
He looked up, shocked and horrified, at the guards and started speaking frantically. The guards stared for a moment, dumbfounded before they dropped their aim and the other medic swooped in next to Billy, laying out his supplies as the first medic positioned Billy's body carefully and started treatment.
Standing idle, Michael felt helpless. There was nothing he could do as they checked Billy's vitals, shining a light into his eyes before bracing his neck and transferring him to a backboard. Billy didn't flicker - didn't flinch through the ministrations - and it was easy to fear the worst.
But Michael had seen the worst; he'd found Billy in a body bag and here they were. The worst hadn't happened. It couldn't happen.
Michael had to believe.
When the medics set up an IV, the guards seemed to realize that this wasn't some ploy or some trick. In fact, they even seemed to realize the implications of accidentally putting a live body with the dead. It was hard to say whether it was compassion or fear that motivated them to clear a path through the street as the medics loaded Billy up, transferring him to a gurney.
That was fine with Michael. He didn't necessarily believe in luck, but he wasn't so proud as to turn his nose up at a favorable turn of events. And when the guards brought them to a pair of American soldiers Michael was almost ready to change his mind about the whole miracle situation after all.
The soldiers were clearly part of a contingent brought in to help control the situation and clear up debris. When they got a good look at Michael and his team, though, they stopped what they were doing.
"You guys contractors?" one of them asked, even as the other leaned over and gave Billy a once-over.
"Something like that," Michael said. "Our buddy here got caught up in the blast..."
Casey was sticking close to Billy, keeping pace and glowering at the apparent delay. Rick paused, resting his hand on Billy's arm, even as the medics seemed to be checking Billy's vitals in the stop.
The other American soldier looked up and nodded, making a face. "If you can clear it with our CO, we can transfer him to the Army hospital not far from here."
Michael almost smirked. Because he'd been helpless; he'd been wrong. And now, he could do what he did best: plan, execute, succeed.
"Just put me on with him," he said. "And get us a damn ambulance."
Michael had made a career out of knowing the details. He'd spent years crafting the big picture. He was intimately aware of how pieces fit together, how to manipulate the situation to yield the best possible results.
Sometimes it was just saying the magic word.
"Clearance code Foxtrot," Michael said, not flinching, even as the others watched. He nodded. "Yes, sir. That is what I said."
He held out the radio to one of the soldiers, who was staring at him with wide-eyes.
Michael shrugged. "He wants to talk to you."
Surprised, the soldier took the radio back. "Yes, sir," he said. Then he straightened, looking at Michael again, eyes lingering on Billy, who still hadn't moved despite the attention of the medics. "Yes, sir. Understood."
When he ended the call, he inclined his head. "You've got some kind of clout," he said, clearly impressed.
"And you just better have that ambulance," Michael replied.
Michael had found Billy. He'd found him alive, gotten him medical help, secured transfer to an American field hospital.
He'd done everything he could - and then some.
But as he rode with Billy, an army medic at his side, tending to Billy's prone body, he had to wonder if it was enough. If everything he could offer could make a difference in the end.
Because Billy was still and pale; his pulse was too slow and when the medic tested his reflexes, he didn't twitch. He flicked a light in Billy's eyes, sitting back grim-faced as they continued their journey.
Michael dropped his head to his hands, feeling older than he ever had before.
This was all he had.
And it might not be enough.
It wasn't a long ride to the field hospital, but it felt painfully slow to Michael. Billy hadn't moved during the journey, and even though he wasn't in a body bag anymore, Michael was unsettled by how dead he still looked.
At the hospital, when Michael loaded out of the back, he tried to keep pace with the stretcher, but a gruff soldier at the door directed him elsewhere. "Medical personnel only, sir."
"But I have clearance-"
The man shook his head. "Medical personnel only," he repeated, gruffer than before as he physically manhandled him to a separate entrance. "Whatever clearance you think you have, you can bring it up with the sergeant here."
Michael's credentials had gotten him this far, but he knew that it was about as much leverage as he could expect. It went against his instincts to trust other people with important elements of any mission, but Michael wasn't a doctor. All he had was a psychology degree and pre-med training. He couldn't do anything more for Billy.
The sergeant he'd been directed to had asked a few questions and made him a few calls. After the calls, he was decidedly more polite and far less inquisitive, giving Michael the space and distance he wanted but not yielding in the restriction that he had to stay put.
Casey and Rick arrived not long after, having hitched a ride with another transport, and Casey looked angry when he arrived, which probably wasn't so surprising. Michael could only hope that Casey had managed to get a hold of his rage without diverting it to any of the unsuspecting army personnel he'd crossed paths with. Even Casey Malick wouldn't be much match against men with guns in a war zone.
Rick, on the other hand, just looked scared. His youth and inexperience showed in this; he had a shell shocked look, a slight vacancy in his eyes. This was the kind of experience Michael wished no agent ever had to have, but part of him thought it was inevitable.
Still, handling peril in the field was one thing. Finding a teammate zipped into a body bag only to find that he wasn't quite so dead after all?
That was the kind of thing that would mess with even the most experienced operative.
And Michael would know.
"How is he?" Rick asked immediately, no preamble, no heed paid to anything.
Michael sighed. "The same, as far as I know," he said. "No one's told me anything."
"That's because they've undoubtedly left us with the bottom of the food chain here," Casey grumbled, eliciting a sideways glance from the sergeant. Casey stared at him hard, unapologetic. "This entire ordeal has been one of unending incompetence."
Michael didn't rise to the vitriol in Casey's voice; he was too tired. He shrugged instead. "He's gotten this far."
Rick nodded eagerly. "And this is the best place for him."
Casey snorted and sat down next to Michael. "Forgive me for being unimpressed," he said. "But having trained medical personnel assume Billy is dead is enough to make me question the entire system."
"It was bad luck," Rick said, a little feebly as he sank into another chair. "I mean, the odds of getting struck by that suicide bomber-"
The odds. Bad luck. Michael should have known; should have seen it coming. But he'd been so worried about an insider attack, about the asset betraying them, that he'd failed to looked for an outside threat.
He was supposed to be better than odds, than luck.
Maybe Casey was right. This was an ordeal fraught with unending incompetence. Starting with him.
The doctor came out not long later. He was about Michael's age, unimposing and tired-looking.
"The good news is that he's alive," the man began, offering them a smile. "And he's actually fairly stable."
Michael was on his feet, Rick and Casey not far behind. "So he's okay?" he asked.
The doctor pursed his lips, looking a little thoughtful. "That's hard to say," he said. "The head injury was pretty severe - fractured his skull - which caused some pretty significant swelling in the brain. When he got here, he was totally unresponsive, but with treatment, we're seeing pupillary response, which is a positive sign."
Michael tried to take that to heart. Somehow, he found it underwhelming. "So when will we know?"
"Once the swelling goes down, we'll have a better idea of the damage," the doctor explained. "We've placed a shunt to relieve the pressure, which has managed to lower his ICP significantly, but it was still far too high for an extended period of time. The longer the swelling goes unchecked, the higher the risk is for long term complications. The delay in his treatment is working against him, but we're pretty pleased with how well he's responded so far. We've already seen a significant drop in his ICP and we're starting to see some response to deep pain stimuli."
Michael was usually pretty good with medical jargon, but he was tired and he was stressed and he'd found Billy in a damn body bag, so he really wanted the bottom line. "So?"
The doctor shrugged, almost apologetic. "So we wait," he said. "He's still listed as critical, but if you want to see him-"
"Yes," Michael said, without waiting for him to finish. "We'd like to see him now."
Since this was an army field hospital there were no private rooms, but Billy was in a secluded ward. There were a few other soldiers there, mostly sleeping or unconscious, and the doctor asked them to be quiet when he left them with the duty nurse.
As Michael looked at Billy, he wondered what noise the doctor thought they'd be making.
Because Billy was unmoving on the bed, mostly covered by a thin sheet, turned on his side with an oxygen mask pressed over his mouth and nose. His head was bandaged, the bulkiest part over the skull fracture on his hairline but another bandage toward the back where a small tube protruded. It was unsettling to see and even more disturbing to think about, how drilling a hole in Billy's head was the only way to correct the possible damage to his brain.
But Billy was alive. He was breathing. His heart was beating. Someone had taken the time to clean him up a bit, wiping the blood away from his face, exposing the pale features. He didn't look dead anymore, not with the copious medical interventions, but he still hardly looked like Billy.
It should have been reassuring, Michael knew. When he'd first unzipped the bag and saw Billy there, when he'd thought Billy was dead,all thought and reason had stopped. There had been no options, no possible solutions. Michael had been lost.
Yet, even now, Michael had no options, no possible solutions. He was still helpless and impotent, and it was still his fault.
Because he picked the spot for the meet; he'd sent Billy in unarmed. He hadn't told them to watch for a suicide bomber.
More than that, he'd been the one to search methodically for Billy. He'd told Rick to go to the local hospital; he'd told Casey to look among the walking wounded. He'd camped out in a motel room in the desperate hope that Billy would come back on his own.
All the while, Billy had been unburied and unceremoniously dumped with the dead, abandoned in a nameless body bag and left as just another victim. Each second Michael had spent playing against the odds, Billy had spent with his brain compromised without medical treatment.
If Billy didn't wake up, if Billy woke up not the man he was - that was Michael's fault.
This was Michael's fault.
"He looks better," Rick said suddenly, voice wavering in the quiet.
"Considering he's not in a body bag surrounded by corpses, then yes," Casey said. "But considering that he's got another hole in his head..."
Rick shrugged. "Still looks better."
Michael gathered a breath, then let it out. He couldn't take his eyes off Billy. "He shouldn't be here at all."
"It was bad luck..."
"I can't plan on luck," Michael snapped, harsher than he intended. Across the room, the nurse eyed them purposefully. Michael licked his lips, and set his jaw, eyes still trained on Billy.
"You also can't plan on everything," Rick said softly.
Michael didn't reply.
Casey shifted slightly. "The kid's right, you know," he added. "Really, it's a miracle Billy's even alive."
Surprised, Michael looked at Casey.
Casey gave him a nonplussed look. "He survived the blast. He survived being thrown into a body bag. What else would you call it?"
Michael looked back at Billy, and he didn't know.
He wasn't sure he knew anything at all.
The hospital staff put up Michael and the others in an adjacent ward, offering them clean clothes and hot food. Michael accepted these conveniences mostly for the sake of his team, and for his own lack of inability to do anything else. Sitting and staring at Billy gave him a marginal sense of control, but hours of watching Billy's heart rate and vitals was making him even more paranoid than usual, and he knew he was dangerously close to losing his sense of self entirely if he didn't get some perspective.
Of course, getting that perspective just made him even more aware of how bad this was. How close they'd come...how close they'd still come. The odds had been against them from the beginning, but Michael had been too proud to even acknowledge that.
If he'd been too proud to accept the worst case scenario, he was currently too downtrodden to entertain anything resembling hope, so when they returned to Billy's ward to find the Scot missing, Michael's stomach dropped.
Because Billy was gone.
The image of Billy in the makeshift morgue was still too fresh, too palpable. If he'd gone through all this just to lose Billy again...
He wasn't sure if he was going to panic, if he was going to cry or yell, scream or curl up in a ball and just give up, so when the doctor came up smiling, Michael was truly at a loss.
"We were just coming to find you," he said, sounding genuinely pleased. "His pressure had dropped dramatically over the night, as you saw, and we were conducting morning rounds when he woke up."
Michael blinked, and the world went dangerously white around the edges.
"We've taken him back to remove the shunt, but it's a relatively simple procedure and we should have him settled back into a bed in an hour or so-"
Michael tried to blink again, but found even such a small movement more than he could handle. Because what was being said didn't compute. Couldn't compute. Billy was dead, then he was alive. Then he was unconscious and then he was...
But Billy had a skull fracture and a hole in the head and Michael hadn't seen it coming and he'd almost left Billy to die needlessly and-
The doctor was looking at Michael now, curious and concerned, only Michael couldn't do anything about it. "Are you okay?"
And Michael didn't know. Just like he didn't know how to plan on miracles, how to play the odds, how to account for luck.
Or even how to stay on his feet while the world whited out entirely and he fell back into nothingness.
When Michael woke up, he immediately knew something was wrong. Because he knew he was in a hospital, and while he had resigned himself to keeping a vigil, he couldn't remember why he was the one lying in the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
"Hey," Rick said, his face floating into view. "You okay?"
Michael frowned, which made his head start to ache. He felt fuzzy, his limbs weighted. "Um. No?"
From somewhere to his side, Casey grunted. "That's because you passed out," he said.
Michael turned his head slowly. He caught a sight of the IV in his arm before his eyes settled on Casey on a chair next to him.
Rick settled back into the chair next to him, smiling apologetically. "Dehydration," he said. "The doctor said it's not too uncommon, given the climate here."
"It's also not uncommon when you go to breakfast and don't eat anything," Casey said, with a diffident, knowing look.
Michael thought about that. He remembered putting food on his plate and picking up a glass of juice, but he couldn't recall if he'd eaten it or not.
He couldn't recall much of anything really, except: "Billy."
Rick's face broke into a smile and even Casey's expression seemed to relax. "He should be joining us here soon," Rick said, sounding positively relieved. "They're still removing the shunt. You weren't out too long."
"Just long enough to humiliate yourself," Casey amended. "But no permanent physical damage."
"We might just luck out after all," Rick said with a grin.
And for once, Michael had no argument for that.
By the time Billy came back, Michael was awake, alert and mostly embarrassed. The IV had done wonders, and he'd willingly downed a glass of water. So when the nurses rolled Billy's gurney inside, Michael was upright, almost pulling out his IV to get a better look.
It seemed to take too long, and the nurses took their time transferring Billy over to the bed, but when they left, Michael finally saw the Scot.
Awake, alert and embarrassed himself. "Fancy meeting you gents here," he said.
Rick was beaming as he stood, moving next to Billy and squeezing his arm before taking the seat between him and Michael. "Welcome back."
"I'm told it was a close thing," Billy said. He still looked bad, the bruising extending beyond the bulky bandage on his face and the back of his head partially shaved. "Though truth be told, I don't remember much."
"A suicide bomber," Casey informed him. "There's no sign it was related to the meet, though."
Billy's brow furrowed slightly. "The asset?"
"Dead," Rick supplied. "We just got confirmation on his identity this morning."
Michael had missed that part. Though, from the way this mission had gone, he'd missed a lot.
The news made Billy's shoulders fall. "All that work..."
"And we're still walking away alive," Rick finished for him. "That says something."
Billy shrugged. "Not as much as I'd like, I'm afraid."
"But more than you know," Casey said. "We thought you were dead."
"Given the tube they just removed from my skull and the effect of the generous painkillers in my system, I suppose I can see how one might think that," Billy said.
"No, literally," Casey corrected him. "You were in a body bag."
Billy stopped, face scrunched in confusion.
Rick wet his lips and mercifully intervened. "Apparently the first responders didn't catch your vital signs and sorted you among the dead. We found you there and got you out."
Rick wasn't explicit and Michael could see Billy's mind working through the implications. Finally, he nodded slowly. "Oh."
"Yeah," Casey said gruffly, shifting in his chair. "So this can officially go down on my list of worst missions ever."
Billy nodded. "I reckon I can't argue with you on that one," he said. Then his eyes settled on Michael, fixing him with concern. "You've been unduly quiet. That must have been some blast to have knocked you on your backside, too."
"He's fine," Casey snerked.
Rick grinned shyly. "He passed out from dehydration not long ago."
Billy's eyebrows went up - or they seemed to. With the bandages and the stitches, it looked more painful than anything else.
Michael just stared back. "I had other things to think about."
"Oh?" Billy asked. "I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't really appreciate people suffering on my account."
"Well, I guess that makes us even, then," Michael said, his nerves starting to settle, because Billy was alive. The memory was still hard to shake, and Michael imagined he might never forget that feeling when he'd found Billy in the morgue, when he'd thought the worst had come to pass.
But that wasn't where this ended. Because Billy was awake. He was okay.
Michael's team was okay.
Michael was okay.
The mission had gone wrong; hell, it'd basically gone belly up and he had nothing to show for any of it. That mattered, and Michael would analyze all the things that had gone wrong, all the things he should have seen and didn't.
Because there was no doubt about it. This was Michael's fault. The buck stopped with him, and he wasn't about to allow himself some sentimental out. His plans had failed. His plans had made things worse. He couldn't plan on miracles.
And yet, maybe he should.
Maybe he had. Maybe that was why he'd assumed Billy was alive. Because when it came to his team, he planned and he plotted and he still took Ray Bishop's advice from his first mission in Afghanistan and took the miracles when they came.
Because with his team alive and well, that definitely was good enough.