Title: The Shadow Proves the Sunshine
Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.
A/N: This fic is for the wonderful sockie1000 who fell in love with Chaos through fic alone. It's her birthday today, and she deserves so mcuh more than this, but this is sadly all I have to offer :)
A/N 2: Much thanks to penless for the helpful beta. And with credit to lena7142 who tolerates me day after day and makes me feel good enough to keep writing.
Summary: They should have been careful, they should have been thorough. Instead, here they were. Trapped and alone and hurt. As if Casey needed more reasons to loathe this mission.
This mission was a waste of time.
Casey had come to expect such things. He did, unfortunately, work for a government agency. Wasting time was inevitably part of the job.
But that didn't mean Casey had to like it.
And Casey really didn't like it.
Because he had better things to do. Things like catching real bad guys, stopping real international threats. Training, meditating, finding personal fulfillment through food, sex and exercise.
Yet, here he was. With Billy. In a car in the middle of nowhere.
Billy had driven them out of the city with ease, and Casey's mood had deteriorated the farther along they went. Because he hadn't slept and he'd been forced to eat only marginally edible slop and this mission was a waste of time.
When Billy brought the car to a rolling stop, Casey was sore and cranky. The Scot killed the engine, even as Casey peered through the window into the darkened night outside.
"You sure this is the place?" Casey asked dubiously, squinting to see down the deserted lane.
Billy flipped open his phone. "Coordinates match," he confirmed. "Michael wants us to sweep it and secure it before he arrives with Martinez."
Casey made a face, eyeing the dilapidated front stoop, the crooked front door. The windows were boarded up, some of the siding hanging precariously. There was a hole in the roof, and the gothic-style ironwork teetered haphazardly along the walkway.
It was in total disrepair. It also looked potentially hazardous and totally abandoned. In short, it looked like a waste of his too precious time. "It doesn't look like a KGB black site," he muttered.
Billy huffed. "Maybe that's the point, aye?" he asked, leaning closer and looking out Casey's window. "Seems fitting, though. A joyless safehouse for a joyless group of people. Besides, it's been vacant for years."
It was impossible to tell sometimes when Billy was being serious and actually saying things for the benefit of the mission and when Billy was just being Billy. Annoyingly, frustratingly, inanely Billy.
Most of the time, it was some combination of the two.
"Which means that if the KGB was stupid enough to leave something behind, it would have been ransacked by now," Casey said crossly.
"Oi, Casey," Billy said, sitting back and looking at him crossly. "You are unduly negative, even for you. A chance to best Russian spies; I can't imagine anything that would please you more."
Casey sat back and glared at his teammate. "We're chasing the trail of a KGB thug who couldn't keep up with the times and resorted to illegal arms trade instead," he said. "The man isn't even bright enough to avoid using US arms that are still tagged. He lost entire first shipment before he even had a chance to get his operation off the ground."
And that was only the start of Casey's complete and total dislike of the mission. Not only were they facing a woefully unprepared and unprofessional opponent, but the total intelligence gain was going to be minimal. They had hoped their mark would have connections they could exploit, but after chasing the moron through the city, Casey had quickly concluded that the man was too stupid to actually have made any criminal friends of note.
In addition to this, the tip had come from an asset that Casey had never particularly liked or trusted. Plus, the entire mission had received Higgins' unmitigated approval, which generally was a sign that it wasn't a mission that Casey was especially pleased about. Because that meant it had a bureaucratic leaning, and he'd had to endure hours of sorting through surveillance footage with Blanke, no less, before being forced to fly commercial.
Then the airline had confiscated his hair gel. Now his hair looked as ridiculous and unkempt as Billy's.
"So he had a few operational mishaps," Billy said, shrugging with a total indifference that indicated either a lack of intelligence or a lack of common sense. Perhaps both, in Billy's case. "But he did get away."
"Because this mission is a disaster, ruled by bureaucratic oversights that have left us completely compromised," Casey snapped.
Billy lifted his eyebrows. "Cranky, cranky," he said. "Someone is starting to get crotchety in their old age."
"I'm not old," Casey snapped.
"But you are crotchety," Billy persisted.
Casey blew out a breath and collected another one with due diligence. He needed to retain his calm. Killing Billy would only create more operational messes that he didn't want to deal with. "I'm just saying," Casey said, slowly and carefully. "That I'm not entirely sure that this lead is worthwhile. This mission is a waste of time as it is. We are expending pointless energy."
"Ah, perhaps," Billy said. "But we are on orders from Higgins."
"Who probably just wants confirmation of a KGB safehouse," Casey added.
"It's entirely possible that he's holed up here," Billy returned diplomatically.
"We really think he's holed up in some abandoned house in the middle of nowhere? In Belarus?" Casey asked bitingly, because this perhaps wasn't Billy's fault, but there was no one else there, so Billy was close enough.
Besides, if Casey thought hard enough, everything could be Billy's fault.
"He's been here before," Billy said. He sighed, his pretenses dropping. "He's spooked. It's our only lead."
It was Casey's turn to sigh, undoing his seatbelt and getting out of his car with more show than needed. If this was an unavoidable and tedious annoyance, he would do it, but not without voicing his discontent. He was almost looking forward to his mission report for once, where he could thoroughly criticize the operational idiocy that had led them to a purported KGB black site, chasing the more irrelevant criminal known to the CIA.
He wasn't getting too old for this job, but he was getting too old for this nonsense. He didn't want to spend his precarious twilight years letting his health and vitality dwindle running errands for the Director and chasing stupid criminals across Eastern Europe.
Yet. Here he was.
"Fine," he muttered, facing the house as Billy came alongside him. "But if we find him, I reserve the right to beat him into submission."
Billy held up his hands. "For you, anything," he said grandly. He gestured down the lane. "Besides, age before beauty."
Casey glared, grumbling as he approached, Billy right behind him.
With no other houses and little other cover, approaching the house was a cautious sort of thing. If this was a KGB safehouse, then proceeding with care was really their best bet at staying alive. And Casey was annoyed enough already at this mission. He didn't need to add serious injury or death to the picture, because that would really piss him off.
"Looks quiet," Billy mused, easing forward. They were making their way along a row of overgrown bushes, keeping low even as the moonlight illuminated their path.
Casey scowled. "Looks can be deceiving."
"And you, my friend, are living proof," Billy said, darting back toward a tree, away from view of the main windows in the front.
"You, however, are not," Casey griped. "You look as stupid as you are."
Billy paused, looking back at Casey and cocking his head. "Is it just me, or are you even more sour than usual this fine evening?"
Casey pulled up short and gave Billy a withering stare. "We're traipsing around a rumored KGB black site looking for a wannabe terrorist. A bad one at that. This is hardly a good use of my time. There are real problems out there. This is something that should be handled by an annoyed competitor, not the CIA's best."
Billy nodded in commiseration. "There's just that nasty point about protecting American interests that we have to be concerned about," he said. "An annoying detail sometimes, I'll grant you that, but generally noble."
"Higgins could have sent Blanke on this one," Casey muttered. "Even he couldn't screw it up."
Billy craned his head around, examining the house carefully. "Oh, I don't know. This case has its unique challenges," he said. He glanced back, waggling his eyebrows. "All in all, it feels rather spy-ish, don't you think? Covert ops, wielding our way through the dark of night?"
Casey grunted. "That is about the only consolation," he said. "This way, it's dark enough that no one has to see that I was even affiliated with such an amateurish mission."
Billy chortled lightly, the sound hushed in the still night. "Well, then, after you," he said, gesturing grandly. "I'll stay close behind and make sure that your light stays firmly under a bushel."
Casey glared, eyes narrowed with annoyance. But the night wasn't going to last forever, and if he had to waste his time looking for a bad excuse for a terrorist, then he needed to waste as little time as possible.
Lips pressed together, he ducked back down and started out again into the night.
As they approached, all conversation stopped. Stupid though the mission was, they were professionals. There seemed to be no active surveillance that they could see with all the windows darkened and smeared with what appeared to be a genuine layer of dust. There was no hint of movement from inside, and when Billy peeked in one of the main floor windows on the side, he shook his head.
"We still think he's here?" Casey hissed. "He's probably long gone."
Billy didn't deny it, but hunched low, moving around an overgrown patch of weeds. "Better safe than sorry, I reckon," he murmured. "Besides, it's so dark, we can't get a visual confirmation at all."
Casey followed close, though his frustration was growing. "We should be sweeping the airports," he said.
"Interpol has an APB out," Billy reminded him. "And besides, isn't this the sort of thing you'd rather do yourself?"
"No," Casey said curtly. "I'm a Shadow Warrior. This mission is beneath me and is a total waste of my training and skill."
Billy scoffed as they made their way around to the front porch. "And you can now safely add psychic ability to your ever-growing list of skills?" he asked, turning back to Casey with a wry look. "Because last I checked, we hadn't swept the house. Our good friend and degenerate terrorist may be in there, kipping off."
Casey sighed, pursing his lips. It was just like Billy. To be contrary and still so upbeat. He had the most annoying knack for framing Casey's discomforts and dislikes with an unwarranted positive spin.
This would be one thing if it were just a genuine feeling. Casey would tolerate it from Martinez because the kid was still too young and stupid to know better. Billy liked to pretend to be an optimist, but Casey knew better. He was an opportunistic sort, who played positive emotions against him just because he could.
In this, Casey was glad again for the dark. This way, there was less evidence of how successfully Billy was getting under his skin.
Still, he glowered. "You know, if I accidentally killed you way out here in the dark, there'd be no evidence against me."
Billy's grin widened. Dark or not, Billy could still see through him. "Fun as that sounds, I say we finish the job and skip the killing," he said, far too jovially. "I'd hate for you to have my blood on your hands when the daylight comes."
"Don't be so sure," Casey returned.
Billy eased his way up the steps, the first one creaking. They both paused, but nothing in the house flickered, and he made his way up the rest as Casey followed.
"But I know you," Billy continued, one foot cautiously on the floorboards of the rickety porch. "I know that somewhere, deep inside that black soul of yours, there is a light burning bright." He gave Casey a reaffirming nod. "It shines brighter than the rest of us, no matter how hard you try to hide it."
Casey edged past Billy, moving to the door with soft footfalls. He paused, listening. Then he looked at Billy tersely. "Don't count on it."
He didn't wait for Billy's reply, instead moved his hand to the door, testing it. It moved easily, the metal squeaking but sliding open easily. Casey pushed it, and the hinges protested but the door slipped open with a faint whoosh of air.
Casey glanced back, and Billy shrugged.
Rolling his eyes, Casey pushed the door open and made his way into the pitch black.
Inside, the air was dank and musty. There was a faint smell of rotting and the distinctive scent of mold. The floors creaked louder here, the entire house seeming to shift precarious as they ventured inward. Moonlight barely filtered through the caked over windows, but the swirling dust was hard to miss, even in the cloying darkness.
It was ominous, to some degree. The remaining furniture was ramshackle, standing out darkly like disfigured shadows looming in the night.
Casey was sure of it no more than two feet in the door. There was too much dust, too much fermentation. The air was too stale. No one had been here in years.
Behind him, Billy's posture had eased, and he straightened up, squinting through the black.
Casey cast him a sideways glance. "Is it too early to say I told you so?"
Billy drew his mouth closed, but this time he had no flippant reply. "Let's just clear it and get the job done, eh?"
The reticence might have actually been a breath of fresh air, were it not so indicative that something was wrong. Billy didn't do quiet and reserved. In fact, he'd been entirely too chipper this entire mission. As if catching criminals that were more likely to get themselves killed than anything else was something to enjoy.
But that was the way Billy was. Most of the time, Casey had come to tacitly accept that about the Scot. Billy had his coping mechanisms, Casey had his. Casey's were far superior, of course, but Billy was an acceptable operative most of the time.
Most of the time, however, Casey didn't feel as though his talents were being sincerely wasted and his time completely devalued. Normally he could expend some energy accepting Billy's brand of idiocy, but the mission had used up all that – and more.
"Don't tell me," Casey snerked disparagingly. "You're scared of the dark?"
Billy's eyes searched the black. "I can't say it's my first choice, actually," he said. Then he shook his head. "Something just feels…off. Don't you think?"
Casey didn't have to think. He knew. Everything felt off about the entire damn mission since they never should have wasted their time on it in the first place.
But that was neither here nor there. He cleared his throat, shaking his head. "No," he said flatly. "Because the dark is the best part of what we do. It's so much better when we don't have to actually see the results. All action; no regret."
Billy smiled faintly, moving off into the living area. "If you say so," he murmured.
That was enough.
Shrugging, he followed Billy.
The place was empty.
This was, of course, entirely expected.
By the time Billy got back from his half of the main floor, Casey was leaning expectantly on the front door, totally bored.
"Now can I say I told you so?" Casey asked.
Billy's face was drawn, eyebrows knitted toward each other. "First floor is clear," he said, ignoring Casey's gloating. His eyes lingered on the stairs leading to a sagging upper floor. "Ready to go up?"
Casey didn't blink, didn't flinch. "So you want to look foolishly stupid when I finally get to say that I'm right."
Billy inclined his head. "I just don't want to have any second guesses in the morning, is all."
This time, Casey sighed, pushing up off the wall. "Oh, all right," he said, moving to the stairs. "But for the record, I still think this whole thing is a waste of time."
Then, his foot hit the bottom step.
Then, he cocked his head.
KGB black site, he thought. Abandoned, all these years.
No one had been here, the place had been swept, but a good spy would never leave it open, vulnerable.
A good spy would know to look carefully.
A good spy would have known that the entire place was probably rigged.
Casey didn't move, holding his breath. Because this mission was beneath him, this mission was pointless. This mission didn't deserve the darkness, because the night was limited. There was only so much time before the sun rose.
And shadow warriors were ineffective in the light.
How much time could Casey spend, chasing pointless leads when there were other things that demanded his attention? How much time could he waste before the dawn broke and Casey was exposed for what he really was?
An aging operative with more bark than bite? Looks could be deceiving.
Or they could be right.
Casey had made a career in the dark, and when the light finally found him…
Billy paused behind him. "Something I should know?" he asked.
Casey gritted his teeth. "Never mind," he said. "This is a KGB safehouse after all."
Billy frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Because the entire thing is going to blow right now," he said.
Billy's eyes widened in shock as Casey leaped toward him, shoving them both backward as the explosive detonated and split the dark with light.
In all of Casey's life, he had never liked being unconscious. In fact, the mere act of sleeping used to leave him unsettled and restless, which was why he learned deep forms of meditation to provide a restorative effect and nearly eliminated REM sleep altogether. Unconsciousness brought on by physical ailments was so much worse, though, because Casey had no control over it. The only thing worse was medical sedation, which he vehemently abhorred and took great pains to avoid.
The thing was, it wasn't always possible to avoid unconsciousness, and he was never more keenly aware of it as when he was unconscious.
Such as now.
Though, if he were aware of his unconsciousness that meant that he wasn't too deep under. Which meant he could wake up.
Just like that, Casey opened his eyes.
He blinked once, then twice, and realized that there was nothing wrong with his vision but that the scene around him was simply pitch black. Which made sense, he reminded himself, as it had been nighttime last he knew.
Nighttime at a KGB safehouse.
Nighttime at a KGB safehouse that had exploded.
This fact was marginally disconcerting; it was mostly just annoying. Because explosions could be useful and even somewhat entertaining, but only when he wasn't actually inside the explosion. He much preferred setting up the explosive and sitting back to watch things go boom.
Not only did being inside the explosion lead to things like injury, impairment and unconsciousness, but it meant that he had been stupid enough to walk into the blast. Sometimes it was inevitable, he supposed, but he still prided himself on managing to circumvent these situations by his care, dedication and overall self awareness.
He'd missed this, though. Even now, lying there in the dark, he was trying to think if he'd missed any obvious signs. The entire first floor had been vacant, devoid of anything threatening or suggestive. There had been no sign that he could remember that the stairs were rigged, and if Billy had seen something—
Casey cocked his head, remembering.
Of course, then pain exploded between his ears and throbbed behind his eyes.
For a moment, he had to squeeze his eyes shut, swallowing ruthlessly against an onslaught of nausea. His body was well trained, and he hated that it still wanted to respond to trauma in such pedestrian manners. Nausea was a superfluous feeling. He either needed to throw up or just quash the sensation.
Steadier, he opened his eyes again, this time squinting out into the black. He'd spent hours in the dark, learning how to block the light in his apartment to improve his awareness in just these types of situations. It took a long moment – and the head injury only made things harder – but finally his eyes adjusted, and he made out his predicament a bit more clearly.
It was actually better than he might have expected. He had an unobstructed view, looking straight up at a gaping hole in the floor above him. The explosives had most likely been rigged in the stairs themselves, which made it likely that the hole was on the first floor.
Which meant he had fallen through to the basement.
Funny, he hadn't even been aware there was a basement. He'd just assumed…
This wasn't the time for recriminations, though. He had just fallen through the floor, so further assessing his condition and the condition of the structure was of paramount concern. The debris field was relatively small, with a plentiful mess of small boards and charred plaster. The basement appeared to have been mostly vacant, though it was even ranker than the main floor.
The house hadn't been in great condition to begin with, but there was no clear indication that it was in any imminent danger of collapse. The blast had taken out the stairs – he could see pieces of the railing and the crumpled structure – but the walls looked otherwise intact.
As for himself, he seemed to have fared just as well. His head did hurt – and the back felt sticky with blood – but his thinking processes were not too badly impaired. In fact, except for the initial bout of nausea, there weren't even any signs of a concussion – at least, not a serious one. He had landed flat on his back, which was actually quite fortunate. Yes, it did mean that there was a generalized pain in his body, but it also ensured that his limbs had not been compromised. He could wiggle his toes and lift his hands. Save for a few bruises and scratches – including one particularly deep gouge in his side – he seemed to be relatively okay.
In no risk of dying, at any rate. Which meant that it was time to move.
He was cautious, but he didn't hesitate. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he started to move—
Just to find himself stuck.
Glowering, he looked down and saw a large support beam from the stairs. It was lying across the debris that covered his leg. The pressure was diffuse, however, which was why he hadn't noticed it before.
Focusing now, he kicked with his legs, putting a surge of energy into pushing up and pulling out. The beam groaned, the debris shifting, but when it all settled, the pressure was more pronounced and Casey was forced to acknowledge that this was actually somewhat problematic.
Still. He was Casey Malick. He trained every day and had honed his body to near perfection. There was no enemy he couldn't defeat; there was no physical feat that he considered too hard for him to surmount. He could move a piece of wood.
Determined, he channeled his frustration and fostered it into strength. This time, when he moved, he let that strength seep through every pore, effusing and coalescing, until he pushed and pushed and—
The beam lifted—
And the beam fell.
Spent, Casey collapsed back against the ground, winded. His weakness was embarrassing, but he had to acknowledge there was nothing to be done for it. His position on his back gave him no leverage. His head injury was minor, but still significant, and the ache in his side was growing more pronounced, warm blood slick up and down his back. These weren't huge limitations, but they were, unfortunately, enough.
Enough that he would have to lie here. Pathetic. Injured. To wait for rescue. Michael and Rick would be along soon enough, and maybe Billy—
His mind caught.
He'd forgotten about Billy. It was one of the problems he had when working with a team. Sometimes his sense of self preservation was so well refined that, in situations where his own peril had to be assessed, he literally forgot about his teammates. It wasn't malicious or cowardice; it was mere survival of the fittest.
But he was more than his evolutionary parameters. He was a teammate, and he did give his all to his team. Which was why he craned his neck, looking through the blackness as best he could. At first, all he could see was more debris, scattered and broken across the concrete basement floor.
"Billy?" he called.
Because Billy would be nearby. He hadn't been too far away. Given the size of the hole in the ceiling, he should have fallen through, too. It wasn't that long of a drop, but it was long enough. If he'd landed differently…
He would not give in to idle speculation.
"Billy," he called again, louder, more sure this time. "Usually I can't get you to shut up, so by all means, now is no time to start believing that silence is golden."
There was no reply. The house still creaked, dust still swirled lazily above him. He could see shapes looming, but nothing definitive, nothing that looked human, that looked like Billy.
Grunting, he tried to move, tried to get a better vantage point, but he was still stuck – maybe worse than before – and even with his honed eyesight, seeing anything appeared to be mostly a lost cause.
"Come on, Collins," he said, almost seething now. "Give me something."
He liked to think it was an order. Or even a simple, plaintive request. He would have to be reduced to conversation and/or begging if this persisted, but he didn't think his head wound had made him that desperate just yet.
"Billy!" he snarled, entire body tensing in futility.
Then, somewhere to his left, there was a small noise. Then another.
Casey went still, listening. "Billy?"
There was a rush of air, then a lengthy exhalation. "Casey?"
Billy's voice was quieter than normal, strained and pitchy, but still, it made Casey relax. "About time you woke up," he chided.
Billy huffed, in what Casey supposed was laughter. "Aye," he said. "You know how I like to take my time with things."
"You mean waste time," Casey snapped back. He paused, wetting his lips. "I don't suppose you can move, can you?"
There was a silence in return, then a shifting. Billy breathed harshly, and another long silence followed. When Billy spoke, his voice sounded pinched. "I'm afraid not," he said. "I seem to be stuck."
Casey sighed. "Me, too."
There they were. Both stuck, hurt, in the dark. Humiliation at its finest. He was getting old.
Across the room, Billy took another audible breath. "Though I do reckon there is some good news."
"I'm all ears," Casey snarked.
"Well," Billy quipped, "at least this time I get to say I told you so."
Scowling, Casey was glad for the dark to hide his reddening cheeks. Because Billy was right. The house had been rigged; it had been a viable lead, if not to their mark, then to old Soviet ties. They should have been careful, they should have been thorough.
Instead, here they were. Trapped and alone and hurt.
As if Casey needed more reasons to loathe this mission.
Being stuck and miserable was one thing. Being entirely idle was completely unacceptable.
Shifting, Casey tried to find a position that took some of the pressure of his back, working his legs to a moderately comfortable angle that maintained blood flow as well as could be expected when they were being half crushed by a pile of debris. Once he was duly situated for what was sure to be a long, mortifying wait, he set his focus on the other tasks at hand.
First, the mission. "You know, technically I was still right," Casey ventured into the darkness.
Across the way, Billy snuffled. "How do you reckon?"
"If our idiot suspect had been here at some point, he would have triggered the explosive himself and we'd be scraping him off this basement floor instead of lying here ourselves," Casey mused, a little regretful, if not for the idea of avoiding this embarrassing situation, then for the loss of tying up such a ridiculous mission in such a simple fashion.
Billy inhaled, a little unevenly. "You may have a point," he murmured, more quietly than usual. "Though maybe he knew the layout, knew that the stairs were rigged."
"Possibly," Casey conceded. "But unlikely given his complete failure to have a brain until this point."
That should have at least warranted a chuckle, but apparently Billy was in no mood to be amused. Instead, he seemed to hum in agreement before taking a long moment to speak. "He could have set the trap," he finally continued.
Casey scoffed. "That explosive was positively archaic," he said. "Any blast worth setting would have killed us instantly. The fact that we're still alive means that it's old and poorly designed."
This time, Billy did laugh, a quiet, breathy noise in the blackness. "Not so poorly designed that we didn't fall for it, eh?"
Cross, Casey gritted his teeth together. "If it hadn't been so dark…"
"Oh, come now," Billy interjected, with a flash of vigor that suggested he was still annoyingly Billy despite their circumstances. "What happened to the Shadow Warrior and his preference for the night?"
Of course, Billy would remember that. Billy could barely remember to shave in the morning or to file a report properly, but he knew every word of Casey's that could be used conveniently against him. "You're lucky that I'm trapped," Casey said. "Because if not, I would walk over there and shut you up."
"I am, then, very lucky indeed," Billy mused.
The irony was too obvious; it was also unsettling.
Which made Casey even angrier. He sighed forcefully, staring up at the hole in the ceiling.
"This is humiliating," he muttered.
Billy tutted. "Well, there's another good thing about the dark, then."
Casey turned his head toward the Scot, looking into the blackness fruitlessly. "I'm not sure I want to know."
"Well," Billy said, a hint of humor in his voice, "at least this way no one will see it when you're blushing."
Casey had never been prone to boredom. He was explicitly capable of extreme self control. Boredom was for people who wanted to decay and die prematurely. Since Casey had no such desires, he devoted every spare moment to some sort of meaningful pursuit. Training, education, general tactical edification, pleasure: these were all integrated into his daily routine with the utmost efficiency.
He had no time to be bored.
And yet, here he was. Bored out of his mind with absolutely no recourse. For a few minutes, he'd tried to find his phone, but with the debris sitting the way it was, he'd been unable to unearth it. He'd tried again to maneuver his way out of the rubble, but it had proved futile. He could go over the operational failures that had led to his situation, but that just made things worse. Instead, he decided to lay there and be bored.
He was almost grateful when Billy started talking again.
"You know, in some ways, this is rather fortunate," he said, his conversational tone lilting in the stillness.
Casey let out a breath. Almost grateful. Except that Billy was a moron sometimes. "How could anything about this be fortunate?"
"We did thoroughly identify a KGB safehouse," Billy pointed out.
"Bully for us," Casey snapped. "And we just nearly killed ourselves doing it."
"Nearly, being the operative word," Billy returned. Then he hesitated. "You are alright, though, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm alright!" Casey seethed; the implication was insulting. He was still a capable operative. He was still the best operative the Agency had to offer and was far better suited for any kind of physical challenge than any of his teammates. And he didn't mean that in a necessarily derogatory way, but he trained. He worked hard. He fought against the odds and his body's own degrading faculties. "It was nothing but bad luck, and if it weren't for this support beam, I'd be up and have you out of here and we'd already be securing the site, waiting expectantly for Michael and Martinez."
There was no quick quip in return. Instead, a small silence lingered before Billy seemed to take a lazy breath. "No doubt," he said, a little distant.
Casey frowned, trying to turn his head further and search for Billy in the darkness. He was struck with the sudden realization that he hadn't asked Billy the same. "Are you alright?" he ventured.
"Is that concern?" Billy joked, but the punch line lackluster, even given the circumstances.
Huffing, Casey looked back at the ceiling. "You must be having trouble picking up on my mood without my normal facial cues," he said. "You need to work on fine tuning your ability to detect vocal variances."
"I think I do a fair job," Billy said. He paused, clearing his throat a bit. "Right now, for example, I'm sensing extreme frustration. Probably brought about by your inability to move and your failure to predict this situation. Were we mobile, no doubt you'd be displaying this feeling with displays of overt aggression."
"Ha!" Casey said sharply. "Wrong. I am frustrated, but more at the fact that we were sent on this ridiculous goose chase to begin with. If I failed at anything, it was not nipping this idiocy in the bud when I had the chance."
"Ah," Billy said, sighing, sounding spent. There was a lull. "My mistake, then."
Settling back down on the ground, Casey nodded smugly. "You bet your ass."
Billy was annoying, but he wasn't boring.
Casey, however, was not certain if that was actually a good or bad thing.
It was something, however, that Casey was counting on. So when the silence extended beyond a few seconds, he found himself growing inexplicably restless.
"You're being quiet," he said finally, ignoring a growing by gnawing ache in his lower back.
"Hmm?" Billy asked.
"You're being quiet," Casey repeated, more vehemently this time. "You're never quiet."
"You always want me to be quiet," Billy replied.
"Yeah, and you never listen," Casey said. He tilted his head toward Billy. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
Billy laughed. "We want full disclosure now?"
"I want to be fully apprised of the situation," Casey said. "Since we're both trapped and in the dark, we need to be communicating in order to maintain maximum effectiveness."
"Well, what did you want to talk about?" Billy asked.
Casey pursed his lips. "I thought that was your territory."
"You have heard most of my best stories," Billy said. "I mean—" He broke off, coughing for a second, his voice wavering just slightly as it picked up again. "I had been saving the wild dogs for years, and Martinez's unfortunate incident in South America has rendered it obsolete now."
Grimacing, Casey shook his head. "We don't have to be pointless in our conversation," he said. "There are ways to be constructive. Tell me about how you're trapped and maybe we can work out a solution to free you."
"The ever-practical Casey Malick."
"Tell me," Casey said.
"Mate, it's dark—"
Casey glowered. "Tell me," he ordered this time.
Billy sighed, and when he spoke, there was resignation in his voice. "It's a…section of the wall."
Casey considered that. "From upstairs."
"Not that I can tell," he said. "Unless they used concrete for insulation."
At that, Casey turned his head again, forgetting that it was pointless. "You're trapped under concrete?" he asked. "Part of the basement collapsed?"
"Best I can gather, yes," Billy said. "Though it doesn't seem to be sagging much. I'm wondering if it's a bomb shelter…"
That made sense, actually. In fact, it should have been something Casey had been looking for when they first identified this as a possible safehouse.
Of course, Casey hadn't thought it was a safehouse…
But that wasn't the point for now. The point was—
Well, for now, the point was Billy. Who was trapped under concrete. "Is it in pieces?" Casey asked.
Billy chortled, the soft noise tapering off into a cough. After a tight breath, he seemed to be speaking more carefully. "Parts," he said. "One of the bigger slabs got me, I'm afraid."
Casey's face set grimly. So much for talking Billy out of his predicament. He was likely worse off than Casey. Which—
"How badly are you injured?" he demanded.
Billy sighed wearily. "I told you—"
"No, you deflected," Casey said shortly. "You're trapped under concrete. What kind of damage has been done? Can you feel your legs?"
Billy groaned. "Aye, every inch of them and every bruise and contusion as an added bonus. It's all in working order."
"Is the concrete pinning your legs? Or your stomach or chest?" Casey pushed.
"Why, Casey, this is concern."
"Answer the question, Collins," Casey snapped.
"My chest and abdomen are clear," he said. "I reckon I have more movement than you. I can see you there, flailing about in the dark."
At this, Casey's frown deepened. "You can see me?"
"I'm assuming it's you, anyway," Billy said. "Bit hard to tell in the dark, but the movements correspond with your sparkling conversation."
Casey looked back to the ceiling. "I hate you."
"I'm getting mixed signals here," Billy said. "You love me, you love me not…make up your mind, man."
And Casey suddenly pined for boredom once again.
Casey had an infallible sense of time. Though he was aware that he had lost an undetermined amount of time due to unconsciousness, he was keenly aware that no more than thirty minutes had passed since he'd come to.
In reality, twenty minutes wasn't so long. Michael and Rick would be making good time to this location, and if they'd tried to call and received no reply that would only increase their haste. This worked inexorably in Casey's favor, and he took some solace in knowing that he would not be pinned miserably for an indefinite amount of time.
But thirty minutes, trapped and humiliated and with Billy – it might as well have been torture.
"I need to move," Casey announced, fidgeting uselessly.
"Mmm," Billy mused in the dark. "I'd prefer that myself, too."
Casey flared his nostrils, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head. It had picked up over the last ten minutes, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Casey had no other viable outlets for his growing energy and aggression. "Being idle makes me mad."
"Everything—" Billy paused, clearing his throat, "makes you mad." He paused again, seeming to take a heavy breath. "And besides, I wouldn't call being trapped idle."
"We're lying here uselessly," Casey retorted. "What else do you call it?"
"Ensuring that we don't aggravate our wounds any further?"
"I'm fine," Casey said.
"We got blown up," Billy said. "Somehow I doubt that."
Casey turned his head, glaring as best he could into the dark. "I'm fine," he repeated vigorously. "And so are you. It's pathetic – lying here like we need to be rescued."
"Ah," Billy said softly. "Reckon it doesn't bother me as much." He coughed lightly, audibly swallowing. "Nice to…mix things up a bit. Rick would make a noble knight in shining armor."
"I'm not going to lie here and talk about your warped fairy tale fantasies," Casey said. He made a face at the thought. "Especially when it involves Martinez rescuing us. Or anyone."
"You're human, Casey," Billy said, a bit resigned. "You may as well…accept that."
"I acknowledge it with disdain," he said. "Though I do everything in my power to counteract that."
"And you are impressive," Billy said, then he stopped with a wheezy breath. "None of us will hold this against you, yeah?"
There was something oddly somber in Billy's voice. In fact, the Scot wasn't acting normal at all. Too serious; too cooperative; too quiet.
Still annoying, though.
"Just because you have lower standards, doesn't mean that I do," Casey replied.
"This is true," Billy said fondly. "I'm glad to – to have had the opportunity to serve with such greatness."
"Are you mocking me?"
Casey's brow furrowed in the dark.
"Well," Billy relented. "Not now, anyway."
Casey worked his jaw, wriggling his toes just to retain some sense of control. His eyes flitted to the hole in the ceiling and thought.
Because Billy was telling the truth. He meant it. He respected Casey; he joked and ribbed and he respected him anyway. He didn't think this was Casey's fault, and maybe it wasn't. But it sure felt that way.
Lying useless on his back, the human weapon had been rendered pointless. He was a gun without bullets, and unsharpened sword. The fact that Billy was telling the truth…
Made all of this so much worse.
Casey had memorized the entirety of his vantage point. He'd mentally sketched out the remaining space, giving himself a strong visual with which to work for when he did manage to get out of this mess.
That took him approximately ten minutes.
"So weary," Billy said lightly. He'd been mercifully silent on and off, which had given Casey the chance to think. "Funny how the bottom just falls out, and here we are."
Casey rolled his eyes. "I don't have time for bad puns and supposedly quaint comparisons."
"I think we have all the time for exactly that," Billy said. He broke off, a cough rattling the distance between them. "I mean – what else are we going to do?"
That was an appropriate question.
Which was probably why it just pissed Casey off even more. This was a waste of time, and it was such a waste of time that he had to waste more time to get through it.
"We should be searching this basement," Casey said. "I mean, if they left explosives, they may have left other traces behind. I mean, can you see inside the safe room?"
There was a faint rustling, then a sharp intake of air. "If I turned far enough, perhaps," Billy said. "But I – I think it's probably best if I stay still."
Casey frowned. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I didn't think you considered…my general disposition to ever be…okay," Billy replied, a little strained this time.
Casey rolled his eyes. Billy was joking; Billy was being ridiculous.
That was about as normal as things got.
"I was speaking relatively," Casey said.
Billy seemed to exhale, long and slow. "Then, relatively, I'm fine."
"You're being purposefully obtuse," Casey observed. "You could consider that I'm trying to help you for once."
"A noble gesture," Billy said, voice dropping in cadence in tone.
In the blackness, Casey waited for a reply. For more. Finally, he asked, "That's it? No witty comeback? Just a noble gesture?"
"Ah, well," Billy said. "You've had a rough night."
Casey's face contorted. "Now you're taking pity on me?" he asked in disgust. "Insult to injury."
"Not my intention, I assure you," Billy murmured.
Somehow, Casey was not assured.
At fifty minutes, Casey was ready to kill someone. True, this wasn't actually a very unusual impulse for Casey; he found that people, in general, were tedious and superfluous. But this time, the urge was stronger than normal, at least harder to control.
So he wanted to kill someone. Preferably an active terrorist, but a convicted felon would do acceptably as well.
Casey just needed to do something.
And Billy wasn't helping.
Overall, Billy was usually unhelpful. That was just in his nature, and Casey had learned that the Scot took great pride in generally being problematic for Casey. He'd come to realize that the more Casey let Billy annoy him, the more Billy seemed to invest in the effort, so forced indifference and demeaning condescension had become his patented response to Billy's useless overtures.
But Billy did have some merits, and Casey was aware of that even if he only acknowledge that fact on excessively rare occasions. The fact was, however, that the Scot was good at talking his way in and out of trouble. The ODS had charmed their way through more checkpoints than Casey could keep track of, and Billy's flair for using people to get the job done without causing problems was actually pretty impressive, if Casey was going to be honest.
Not that he was going to be honest. Because for every helpful moment, Billy had five in which he was the most difficult person on the face of the earth.
Such as now.
Instead of supplying colorful - if vaguely stupid - chit chat, maintaining a conversation with the Scot was a bit like pulling teeth.
In a bad way. Casey had pulled a few teeth in what he considered were positive experiences, but that wasn't overly relevant to the situation at hand.
Besides, why the hell was Billy being quiet now?
"You're being stupid," Casey said finally, breaking the silence. The darkness had fallen deeper somehow, settling with the dust as the house seemed to meld into the night.
"Sorry?" Billy said, sounding more confused than he should have.
"You're being stupid," Casey repeated, more sullen this time. "Of all the times for you to pick to be quiet…"
"Ah," Billy said, musing softly. He made a small noise in the back of his throat. "I would have thought – night like tonight – you'd have, ah, preferred the quiet."
"And I'm to believe that you're being silent for my benefit?" Casey snapped, the pure ridiculousness of it almost too much to articulate.
Airily, Billy chuckled, a wet, grating sound in the black. "Aye, you have a point," he said.
"So, why?" Casey pressed.
"Well, it is past my bedtime," Billy returned.
"As if I'd deny that," Billy said. "Though I am somewhat – lost in thought."
Casey snorted. "Now that's a scary prospect," he joked. His eyes flickered across the ceiling. He hesitated, but ultimately decided that motivating pointless conversation in his given situation was understandable, if not forgivable. "Anything you care to share?"
"Just contemplating – our—" He broke off with a choking noise, but recovered quickly. "—our imminent rescue."
Casey set his lips, chagrined. "It better be imminent," he muttered, moving a little and relishing the pain in his side. He could use pain – he would use pain – it would keep him grounded and angry long enough to get out of this with his dignity. "Though Michael and I will have words over the complete lack of organization on this mission. I know he has his own unique mission style, but this is ridiculous."
"Oh, I don't know," Billy said. "We have to be – to be thorough." He paused, silence lilting for a brief second. "Saves lives."
"I beg to differ," Casey said pointedly.
Billy chuffed. "Point taken."
"And besides, the fact that our mark got away is simply unacceptable. We shouldn't have needed to be thorough if we'd done the job right to begin with."
"In retrospect," Billy started, seeming to heave for air, "I may – agree with you."
Casey turned his head in futility. "You agree with me?"
"Stranger things," Billy said, voice drifting a little. "You know, our situation will help – prove our point. Not even – Michael Dorset – can argue with – dying men."
"I'm not dying," Casey snapped.
"Right," Billy said, air moving thickly between them. "My mistake."
Casey wasn't dying.
He was injured – annoyingly and stupidly – but he would survive his own weakness and his team's incompetence. There would unfortunately be hospital time involved – a sign of helplessness he usually avoided at all costs – but nothing he could feel seemed to indicate any lasting damage. He was hurt, embarrassed, bored, miserable and more – but he wasn't dying.
But he was beginning to wonder about Billy.
There were the small tells – the wheezing, the coughing fits, the odd pauses – but it was the more dramatic things that Casey could no longer ignore.
Silences. Too long, too plentiful.
"You're hurt," Casey announced finally, having come to the conclusion with ample certainty.
"Aye," Billy said. "As are you."
"No," Casey said, watching stray particles of dust dance in and out of the lone moonbeam that he could still see. "You're really hurt."
"Well, we fell through the floor—"
"No," Casey snapped, jerking his head in Billy's general direction. "You're hurt and you're not telling me the whole story."
There was a prolonged silence, then Billy sighed again, like air from a bellows. "Everything generally hurts," he acknowledged.
"So why are you breathing heavy?" Casey demanded. "The coughing – that's more than bumps and bruises."
"Well, I did inhale a generous amount of the dust when the wall here fell on me," Billy said. "And I admit, I'm feeling a bit slower than normal – took a knock to my head, I'm afraid."
"So no real damage there," Casey concluded.
Billy chuckled. "No, I reckon not."
"I'm saying that doesn't explain it," Casey persisted. "There are other significant injuries impairing you, and I demand to know what they are."
"Well, seeing as I'm trapped in the dark, I'm afraid I can't provide much more specific," Billy said, a little short now. "There are sundry ailments I'm sure, and I am regretful to think of a hospital stay overseas, but it does seem inevitable, does it not?"
"You're deflecting," Casey said, refusing to be distracted, eyes piercing the darkness.
"You doubt me?" Billy returned. "I'm wounded. Literally."
"You're not funny," Casey said.
"But right," Billy said.
Casey took a breath, holding it in his lungs, letting the pressure build up until he had a control over his roiling emotions once again. Billy knew what buttons to push, and he pushed them with a relish. He couldn't let the Scot get one up on him, and not only for Casey's already wounded pride. But because he needed to know.
For the mission.
And maybe because he cared.
But mostly for the mission, if anyone was asking.
Jaw locked, he let the breath out and sought for calm. "I need a full picture to know what we're dealing with. Your usual deflection and creative truths are no longer appropriate or helpful."
This time, when Billy sighed, it was weary, tired. "There's nothing you can do anyway," Billy said, drawing a ragged breath. "Last I checked, you were trapped, too."
"I still need to be fully armed with all the information," Casey said, his tone entirely no nonsense now. With this focus firmly in place, it was easier to forget his own pain. He needed purpose; he needed something to do. "So tell me about your injuries."
"It's a lovely sentiment, but that's all I know," Billy said. He coughed, gagging slightly.
Casey was not going to be dissuaded. "Tell me."
"You're welcome to come check for yourself," Billy offered.
Casey glowered. "That's stupid."
"Indeed," Billy agreed, voice tapering off a bit now. "But that's also our situation right now, whether we like it or not."
The thing was, Billy was right. Casey hated when the Scot was right under any circumstances, but this was even more bothersome than usual. Because this was Casey's powerlessness. It was Casey, being entirely human. Casey, being incapable. Not enough.
Casey was getting old.
Casey was getting obsolete.
And that hurt more than anything else. More than his back, more than his head. More than his wounded pride. Casey lived his life at 100 percent, with the belief that he was good enough to overcome anything.
The problem was, that wasn't true.
"It's not your fault," Billy added after several moments of silence. He inhaled and seemed to waver for a moment.
Trapped in the dark, Casey didn't know what to say.
So instead he stared up, blinking in the darkness, and this time said nothing at all.
Casey could have laid in silence for some time. Indefinitely, really. Casey had no inherent issue with silence; in general, he preferred it. And now that his boredom and embarrassment had been overtaken by his general sulkiness, he no longer felt the need to pointlessly expend energy in idle chit chat. That was a coping device for the weak willed and overzealous.
Casey was pathetic enough as it was. He was done relying on hurt and overly verbose Scotsman to distract himself from his glaring shortcomings.
He had been sloppy. He had been distracted. He had screwed up, and now the mission was in shambles and it was time for him to own up to that fact and take full responsibility for his failings.
Normally, such self reflection prompted a change to his daily routine. Extra training, a shift in training. Additional study or meditation; extended educational advancement to compensate for the gaps.
This time, there was too much to even pinpoint. It was his attitude, his distraction, his general disposition. He was just sloppy and made oversights and Billy had said it in the beginning: Casey was getting old.
There was only so much he could do to compensate for the inevitable failings of his body. There was only so much he could do before 100 percent just wouldn't be enough. His percentages were relative, after all. What happened when his 100 didn't meet someone else's 90? Their 75? 50?
When would it be too much? When would Casey finally admit that he just wasn't good enough? How many floors did he have to fall through before the point was made for him?
He had thought himself to be too good to stay past his prime.
He had thought a lot of things, though. And been wrong about many of them.
Still, he wasn't going to cry. He wasn't going to pout or sulk. He would accept it, learn from it, move on. Whatever that meant…
Across the room, Billy was breathing heavily, the stillness disrupted by a cough that seemed to rattle Casey even from a distance. When it was over, Casey could hear the increased pace of Billy's inhalations, a marginal shift, but accented with a growing wheeze, Casey reminded himself that contrary to what he felt about his career, this mission wasn't over yet.
The more Billy diverted, the more Casey was certain the Scot was in bad shape. He'd failed the team so far, he would give Billy what little he had left to offer: conversation.
"They'll be here any minute," he said, trying to sound vaguely reassuring, or at least not woefully pessimistic.
Billy inhaled heavily and exhaled in turn. "Mmmmm," was his only reply.
"I mean, Rick's new but he's actually sort of quick," Casey said, doing his best to be pointless and almost nonsensical. He had to give Billy some credit; it was harder than it seemed. "Did you see him that first day? Chasing down the Russian in traffic? Not bad."
Billy coughed again, racking and wet, and when he was done he seemed to moan.
Casey knit his brows together, wetting his lips, trying to think of something, anything…
It was hard, though, and not just because it wasn't in his nature. Because he was tired and hurting. He had lost some blood, he was sure of that now, and it was slick and hot down his back. His head was pounding, and it was harder to fight back now, harder to focus, harder to think—
"Doesn't this remind you of Oslo?" he asked, blurting the first thing he could think of.
Billy took a stuttering breath and made a low sound. "Montevideo," he replied.
Casey considered that. "You may have a point," he conceded. His eyes darted to the side idly. "Don't let it get to your head, though."
"Wouldn't…dream of it."
Casey worked his jaw, grinding his teeth together. He flexed his toes, wriggled his fingers and felt fresh blood seep out of the wound in his side. He wanted to bleed; he wanted to hurt; he wanted this to matter.
Mentally, he cursed, face twisting in disgust. He was getting sentimental on top of everything else. What had happened to him? How long had he been slipping and he just hadn't realized it until the whole damn bottom fell out?
He couldn't let Billy down, though. Not more than he already had.
Ruthlessly, he shook his head, drawing his composure from the last of his dwindling reserves. "Though at least this isn't as bad as Tripoli," he said. "I hate that city."
He waited for a reply. Billy breathed, wet and ever slower, moving the air above them by degrees.
"Billy?" he asked, craning his neck to the side, trying to rotate his shoulders. "Billy!"
There was a stirring and a wheeze. "You're a good spy, Casey," Billy finally replied, words tumbling out, fast and slurred. "Better than you realize."
"You're getting delirious," Casey retorted, his gut twisting painfully.
Billy continued, as if he hadn't heard Casey at all – and at this point, Casey wasn't sure he had. "Good spies aren't perfect. They're all just human messes, like the rest of us. But what makes them great is that they know their limits—" He broke off, inhaling desperately. "Know their limits and compensate."
Casey closed his eyes, and worked to control his emotions. He was better than this. He was better than this. He owned the night; it didn't own him. He wasn't going to sit and cower and cry. He wasn't.
"That's almost coherent," he said in reply, tone sharp.
Billy exhaled, long and deflating. "Should be," he murmured, voice trailing off, accent so thick that the words were almost impossible to understand. "Learned it from you…"
All training aside, the words hit Casey like a punch to the gut. He was still human, despite his best efforts, and things still affected him. He still had pride; he still had fears. He still had affection, though he was sparse in showing it.
The problem was, though, that Billy was wrong. That wasn't Casey anymore. He'd missed his critical weaknesses and let them get the better of him. He'd been too slow to see this threat, too set in his ways to anticipate this outcome before it occurred. They shouldn't be here, and Casey's failure was plainly seen and felt.
It was perhaps unreasonable to think he could foresee everything. But Casey had spent a career making unreasonable demands of himself and succeeding. Who was he without that?
Who was he at all?
He was nothing. Obsolete. Certainly no spy worth his mettle.
He would finish this mission, go home, and find a job better suited for his talents – or lack thereof.
He would finish the mission.
"Your sentimentality is better saved for Michael and Rick," he said, ignoring how tight his throat felt as he forced the words out. "They'll appreciate it more. Or at least not want to throttle you for it."
This time, silence was the only reply. He could still hear the jagged inhalations and wheezing exhalations, but they were slower still, quieter.
"Billy?" he called again. "Come on, Collins. I'm tired of this back and forth."
But this time, Casey's persistence elicited nothing.
This really wasn't so surprising. Just one more failure.
And now the darkness loomed.
Time passed, but Casey started to lose track of the seconds. The minutes blurred together. It had been an hour, maybe two. Maybe more. Maybe a lifetime; Casey wasn't sure anymore.
Casey wasn't sure of anything now.
He seemed to float, effusing into the darkness. He didn't know where he began and where it ended. He was one with it, lost in it now, as if it had finally swallowed him whole. Maybe this had been inevitable; maybe he should have held on longer, waited for daybreak, but it was too late now.
It was too late.
Casey was injured and impotent, mere feet from Billy and unable to do anything to help him. He screamed and raged, throwing himself against the debris to no avail.
Helpless. Worthless. Nothing.
Shadow Warriors craved the dark, but they had to be stronger than it. Maybe this time, the night had finally won.
Maybe this time…
Casey blinked. Stared. Inky blackness all around. Deep and constant, never changing, never ebbing. It would hide him from the world, but never from himself. It would take him until there was nothing left.
Until everything was gone.
His eyes opened and he breathed in. Then out. Then in again.
His remained still, transfixed and frozen, eyes skimming the darkness, trying to…
He turned his head sharply, and pain immediately flared up. Grimacing, he fought a wave of nausea and shut his eyes for a long moment until he had a handle on it.
"Back…with me?" Billy asked, in halting, weak words.
Surprised, Casey opened his eyes. "I could say the same to you."
"Sorry 'bout that," Billy said, each word carefully pronounced with extreme effort. "Don't know…how long…"
Casey shook his head. He didn't know either. "I'm the one who should be apologizing," he said curtly. "Given the extent of my injuries, I had no business passing out."
Billy's labors seemed to be increasing. "You're human…no shame…in that."
Casey's brow furrowed. "There's plenty of shame in that," he said. "What value am I if I'm just as easily broken down as the rest of you? What role do I serve if I'm just another average spy?"
"What?" Billy asked, the word turning a bit sharp. "You mean…like me?"
Casey's shoulders slumped, the obvious implication not one he had necessarily intended. "That's not what I meant—"
"But it is," Billy continued, his breathing picking up in pace now. "You think…we're all so…useless?"
"I didn't say that!"
"You're not…blaming me…for being trapped…"
"That's because it's not your fault!"
"And it's not…yours!"
Casey's body went taut, his frustration spiking. "But it is."
"Know your limits, Malick," Billy said, the words forced out by sheer exertion now. "Accept them like…like the rest of us."
"I have to be at 100 percent!"
"Then you wouldn't…need us…at all," Billy wheezed.
Casey's face screwed up, and he shook his head. "You're being purposefully obtuse."
"You're being…an ass."
Casey snorted. "Glad to see you're not so injured that you've impeded your sense of being completely annoying."
There was a hesitation, a pregnant pause in the darkness. "Did you…hear that?" Billy's voice had gone quiet again.
"What?" Casey asked. "Your completely illogical attempts at reason?"
"No," Billy said, sucking in air greedily. "Listen."
Despite himself, Casey stopped. At first, there was nothing, just the sound of Billy's labored breathing and the occasional shifting of the house. But then, over the darkness, he heard it. Faint sounds, like voices. Like footsteps.
Casey's heart skipped a beat, and he went tense, trying to prop himself up again, anxious and ready. His head protested and his side hurt, but he didn't care. It didn't matter, not as he strained to see in the darkness…
Light. Two small beams bouncing across the gap in the floor.
"Hey!" Casey yelled, fixating on the light, as small as it was. "We're here!"
The sounds grew and the patches of lights danced as they got bigger and bigger. And then, the beams were pointed down, one blinding Casey as he threw his hands in front of his face and squinted around it to make out Michael's concerned face.
"You two okay?" Michael asked.
"What do you think?" Casey snarled.
Michael chuckled. "Just give us a minute," he said. "We'll get you out of here in no time."
No time was good, but for Casey, no time was soon enough.
Casey didn't mean to, but when he blinked, everything disappeared. There was a long, vacuous moment, and when he opened his eyes, the light was closer, brighter, burning into his retinas as Michael asked, "You okay there, Malick?"
Casey grimaced, turning his head away and narrowing his eyes. "I'd be better if you stopped blinding me," he muttered crossly.
The light shifted, moving away from his face, deflecting across his body enough so his eyes could adjust to the new brightness. In the light, he could see the scene more clearly. His mental picture had been fairly accurate. The field of debris was perhaps wider than he'd imagined, and he had to admit, it looked moderately daunting with the beam tipped precariously over him. But the rest – the wood and the broken plaster – was exactly as he'd imagined it.
Michael shifted back, the beam dancing slightly as he moved. "Well, I'd be better if you'd stop passing out every few seconds," he said. His face went sober. "We'll have you out of here in no time."
Casey grunted. "Not like there's anything worth staying awake for," he said. "And all due expedience would be appreciated at this point. With Collins, no less."
Michael's eyes flickered across the room, and Casey turned his head, just making out Rick's form as he eased his way over the debris and past Casey's field of vision. A muscle twitched in Michael's jaw, and when he looked back at Casey, he forced a thin smile. "Not much longer," he said. He looked down the length of Casey's body, nodding toward the beam. "If I shift this thing, are you in any risk of bleeding out?"
Casey had lost some sense of his injuries, but wiggling his toes again, he was reminded that they seemed intact. "My legs are fine," he said. "I'm fine. You're wasting time."
Michael raised his eyebrows. "Fine is a generous description just given the look of your head wound," he commented. "And I just want to be sure that we can move you without an ambulance on hand. If you're bad enough—"
"Move the beam," Casey ordered tersely.
"We have good enough covers—"
Casey glared, his frustration and anger and embarrassment all coming to a head and directing solely at Michael. It wasn't fair perhaps, but if anyone would understand, it was Michael Dorset. "Move the beam," Casey said again, with dangerous inflection.
Michael pressed his lips together and shook his head, but got to his feet, walking carefully over the debris to look for a place to stand. When he found moderately stable ground, he put his flashlight between his teeth and bent over. "You ready?" he asked around the flashlight, words a little garbled but still clear enough to understand.
Casey braced himself, nodding readily. "You lift, I'll get out," he said. "Quickly."
The beam of light bobbed as Michael took a few deep breaths. Casey held his own breath, stilled his mind, closed his eyes and—
The movement was expected, but the sudden change in weight was still a jolt, the air escaping from his lungs in surprise. His eyes snapped open, blood flowing with new vigor down his thighs, and it took him a mere split second to remember that he needed to move.
Energy entirely focused again, he used his hands to push himself backward, relying on sheer core strength to propel his damaged limbs back and clear of the beam. He was half sitting up, trying to rein in a new swell of nausea, when Michael grunted, letting the beam fall back down to the ground with a resounding crash.
Just like that, Casey was free.
The miserable helplessness, the pervasive self-pity – all of it seemed to evaporate now that his agency was restored. Not that he didn't have failings to contend with for this mission, and not that this wasn't the worst mission ever, but he could do something about it.
He could do something.
Even with the nausea and the headache and the pain in his side and—
The light was on his again, and Casey turned his head away in frustration as Michael leaned close, on the ground next to him again. "You look like hell," he mused.
Casey locked his jaw and sought for the inner strength he knew he had. He was functioning at less than 100 percent, but he was still in control of his faculties. He breathed hard, finding his center, and shook his head. "This mission is hell," he said. "I strongly recommend leaving before something else utterly pointless occurs."
Michael's mouth quirked into a smile. "Once we have Billy clear," he said, then glanced over across the room. "How's it going, Martinez?"
"Got most of the debris off him, but there's some heavy pieces here," came Rick's reply.
Free now, Casey followed Michael's gaze and saw the youngest member of their team working over a pile of concrete, shifting the pieces, one by one.
Face pinched, Martinez moved one more, standing back and looking down. "There, I think—"
His voice cut off. In the pale beam of Michael's light, Casey saw the kid blanch.
"Martinez, is everything okay?" Michael asked, getting to his feet.
Casey shakily tried to push himself up, to see, but the pain in his side hobbled him, the ache in his head blacking out the edges of his vision.
"We may want that ambulance," Rick said, standing still and erect, not moving, not blinking.
Michael approached and stopped short.
"What?" Casey asked, finding his feet beneath him as he took an uncertain step. "He was talking until you got here, arguing like a pain in the ass, so what—"
Then he stepped close enough and saw Billy for the first time.
In the glow of Michael's flashlight and the one Martinez had laid out on the floor, Billy was deathly pale, face almost colorless in the dimness. There was a long smear of blood that stood out lividly against his ghastly complexion, coloring the side of his face and staining his dress shirt.
His eyes were closed, mouth open. Mostly uncovered now, his body was limp, chest clearly rising and falling.
This was somewhat disconcerting, even Casey would admit that as he listed awkwardly to one side, but that wasn't the problem.
No. The problem was what none of them had seen until the debris had been shifted and Billy was plainly visible in the light.
And Casey understood, then. The wheezing breaths, the strained talking, the faltering consciousness.
Because Billy was impaled on a piece of metal, through his upper chest, glinting with blood as it snaked up into the darkness above.
Time had been slow before. Infinite stretches filled with nothing but self doubt and recrimination, all lost in the unending darkness that saturated everything.
Time was fast now. Casey blinked, and time was gone, evaporated in the light as Michael and Rick set up their flashlights around Billy and set to work. Michael called an ambulance and Rick was taking Billy's vitals, while Billy didn't move.
Casey blinked again, and found himself on the floor. He was propped up against the debris, something digging into his back as blood ran down his back and pooled at his ass. He was outside the light now, separated, but he could still see—
He blinked, and Michael was in front of him. "Stay with me, Malick, come on." Casey glared and tried to look around him, to see—
Billy. Pale. Unmoving. His breathing was grating and too fast, face gray as he struggled to live.
Casey's eyes closed. They were all capable of failure. Even Casey. Especially Casey.
He opened his eyes. There were paramedics now, and firemen. They had equipment and tools and spotlights, shining down, igniting whiteness on all sides. Voices rose and filtered through his hazy mind. Someone had a hold of him, laying him back—
And Casey shook his head.
He wasn't helpless. He couldn't be helpless. He needed to see, he needed to make sure Billy was okay, he needed to do this, he needed—
Hands held him, tried to strap him down—
And Casey refused.
He'd been idle too long; he'd accepted too much. He could fight this, and he would. He would rage and fight. With every ounce of strength he had left, he flailed, kicking and waving his arms and bucking and pushing up—
Someone was yelling, more hands tried to grab him, and Casey fought harder. His head hurt and his side was numb and he just needed to see—
But something pricked his arm, and his energy left him. Against his will, he sank back, not catching a sight of Billy as the darkness descended and took Casey once again.
Then Casey woke to light.
Even more intense than before, naked and glaring, unrelenting, straight at him.
Casey flinched and tried to lift his hand, but found his limbs deadened. Sluggishly, he turned his head, catching a glimpse of two people in scrubs.
Which meant this was a hospital.
His eyes adjusted to the light, and sound started filtering through his woolen brain. There were monitors and voices, talking in a language he couldn't understand, didn't care to make out. Doctors were important, Casey had to concede, but he didn't like them. The only person who was justified in having a God complex was him – maybe Michael – everyone else just shouldn't try.
They were too fond of lingo and trust and Casey liked sharp pointy things as much as the next guy, but cutting into his own skin seemed counterproductive—
Pain lanced suddenly, and a monitor sounded wildly. The voices picked up and Casey ground his teeth together viciously to control the new onslaught of agony. Maybe he'd been hurt worse than he thought.
He blinked, making out the lamp positioned above him. A gloved hand reached up and adjusted it, shining it down Casey's torso.
He followed it and saw red. His clothing had been unfortunately removed, and he could see the ragged tear in his side, leaking blood while someone tried to cover it with a bandage.
That looked unfortunate.
And completely beyond his control.
Helpless, all over again. Like he was still trapped in the rubble while Billy—
Casey startled, his alertness sharpening dramatically. Billy had been trapped, Billy had been impaled—
He turned his head again, looking into the light, trying to make eye contact with someone who could give him answers. But the masked faces didn't look at his face, and when Casey tried to speak, he realized he had an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.
They weren't going to help him. Sure, they might save his life, but that wasn't Casey's primary concern at the moment. If he wanted to know about Billy, he'd have to do it himself.
But his body was humming, his vision spotty and something warm spread through his veins as he turned away from the garish light once more.
For a moment, he could only lie there as the doctors worked. But one of the nurses shifted, stepping away, giving Casey a clear view across the room.
There was another area, swathed in light. A curtain was half drawn, but Casey could still see around it. There, illuminated in the brilliant glow, was Billy.
His skin was white, half coated with blood now that his clothing had been cut away. The wound in his chest was unsettling, the skin broken and twisted where the now-truncated rod poked through. His face was discolored, a tube taped around his slack mouth as a nurse squeezed a bag next to his head.
And a doctor stood tall next to the bed, pushing down on Billy's chest in even intervals. The force was evident, the doctor's face strained with the effort, his arms locked as Billy's chest depressed roughly, fresh blood spilling out as a nurse tried to stabilize the wound with a pile of gauze in futility.
Billy didn't have a pulse.
Billy was dead.
The odds of survival were slim where CPR was involved. In the medical setting, it was a stopgap while the doctors tried to see if other measures could renew a shockable rhythm. Most people died.
Casey had never believed in the impossible, but he'd counted on the ODS' ability to defy the odds. His own ability to defy the odds.
But there Billy was, more dead than alive.
And here Casey was, laid out and impotent.
The nurse stepped back into place again and Casey had no energy to tell her to move. Instead, he couldn't resist as a doctor turned his head, shining a penlight into his pupils. He was talking to Casey, he was vaguely aware, but the words were impossible to make out.
Then the overhead light was pulled closer, flaring across his fracturing vision, threatening to take him once and for all.
But it was the darkness that won, coming back from nowhere to swallow him whole.
Casey didn't fight anymore.
Casey just let go.
Casey had always preferred the dark.
He liked the anonymity. He liked the seclusion. He liked that he could do what needed to be done with no questions asked. There were no rules, no regulation, no red tape. The dark offered a freedom that no light ever could.
But it came with a price. The dark consumed and controlled; it offered no escape and threatened to hold you forever. Casey had always counted on his skills and prowess to overcome such threats, but he was starting to wonder.
This time, he was really starting to wonder.
It was stupid, and it was weak, and it was below him, but Casey had doubts. He had regrets and hopes and maybe – just maybe – he wanted to see enough to make his decision with all the facts, laid bare in front of him.
At this point, he didn't know.
And if he kept drifting in this darkness he may never find out.
In all, he couldn't decide if that was a good thing.
It really went to figure that it ultimately wasn't his choice to make. When he woke up, it was his body's natural inclination and the slow decline of drugs in his system following whatever so-called treatment the doctors had deemed fit to subject him to.
This time, when he opened his eyes at least the light wasn't blinding.
In fact, it was a little soft, warm rays brightening the room through the slitted shades. Everything seemed to be glowing, sunlight glinting off the rails of his hospital bed and reflecting off the face of the bank of machines just to his left.
Some people would probably call it pleasant.
Casey found it acceptable.
Besides, since he had no control over it at the moment, there was no need to dwell on it. Rather, he could use the light to better ascertain his condition and how much time had passed.
As to the first, his senses were somewhat deadened, his mind slower than normal and his acuity greatly diminished. This was a sure sign that he had been significantly drugged. Pain killers, in general, were options he eschewed, preferring to leave pain management to his self control techniques. However, in this case, he was fairly certain that he not only had had no say in the matter but that it might have been a wise choice on the part of the medical team.
His head was wrapped, the bandage precariously tilted so that the gauze slightly impeded the vision in his right eye. He could feel a row of stitches on his scalp, which he could only characterize as unpleasant but ultimately meaningless.
His ankle was in an aircast, but after moving his toes decisively, he concluded readily that it was nothing but a sprain and knew that he would be able to ditch the cast as soon as he had better control of all his faculties.
One of his fingers was splinted, which seemed stupid, but the biggest area of concern was the bulky bandage wrapped around his middle. It was too large to get a good look at, and from the general placement, he could only assume that it was from the wound in his side.
And, given how it felt, he thought perhaps he had underestimated it more than a little. He could feel stitches there, too, and more than he would have expected. Which meant that it hadn't been a simple laceration. It was possible that there had been internal damage and that he'd undergone some sort of surgery to correct vascular damage.
That was unexpected.
Though given Casey's total lack of foresight on this mission, perhaps not so much.
Then, the door opened.
Casey hadn't had time to fully assess the room in its entirety, but when he looked up, he was pleased to see that it appeared to be private and not too full of interventions. Which meant he was doing okay.
Rick came through, balancing a cup of coffee in one hand with a paper in the other. When he looked up and saw Casey awake, he stopped, face going blank with surprise.
"You're awake!" he said, pulling the paper out with his other hand.
"Brilliant deduction," Casey said. "How many days have passed? One or more?"
Rick's brow furrowed as the door shut behind him and he came into the room. "Erm, two," he said. "You were out for a bit—"
Casey nodded. "So it was surgical," he concluded. "No organs missing, though."
Rick sat down, frowning. "Um—"
"Placement doesn't make sense," Casey continued, mentally mapping out his abdominal cavity. "And I would have likely been sedated longer and been in a more intensive ward. And if you're here and not Michael, how bad can it be?"
Rick was almost gaping, eyes wide as he watched Casey talk.
Then Casey paused, sorting through his memories. There was his injuries, of course; the mission, unfortunately, and—
His stomach went cold and his jaw locked.
"You're doing great," Rick said, nodding readily as he tried to relax. "Doctors are really optimistic."
Casey heard him, but didn't know how to acknowledge him. Because before the darkness, he could still see the light. Glaring and inescapable, showing truths Casey didn't want to see. About failure and shortcomings and Billy—
Billy, gray and bloody.
Billy, laid out on an examination table.
Billy, heart not beating while some doctor flailed about.
"You'll be here for a few more days, of course," Martinez continued, oblivious, "but they don't think—"
Casey stared at him hard and interjected forcefully. "Billy's dead."
Rick stopped short, mouth still open. He blinked. "What?"
"Billy's dead, isn't he?" Casey asked – demanded.
Rick stuttered. "I, um – what?"
Casey's expression hardened. "Last I saw him, he was receiving a rather vigorous round of CPR from what I can only hope was a qualified emergency room doctor or whatever the hell they're called here," he all but snarled. "And given the low success rate of CPR and other resuscitation efforts, I can only assume that Billy is dead."
He practically spit the words, something twinging painfully in his gut. Because Billy was dead, and Casey had laid idly and did nothing.It was his fault.
"No," Rick said, sounding almost surprised.
Casey blinked, focusing on the younger man again.
Rick shook his head, seeming to gather his wits. "I didn't realize…" He swallowed, composing himself. "It was a close thing there, for a bit, and it was a difficult surgery, but, um, he's improved a lot. Still in ICU, but stable. They think he's going to pull through."
Casey stared at him as the words tumbled through his slightly addled brain. There was another thing about the darkness. If Casey could lie and cheat and sneak around, then the truth could, too. He'd thought he'd been confident back in safehouse; he'd thought he'd understood the situation while unconscious in the hospital. But the dark could hide everything – especially the truth.
Lying there, healing in a hospital bed, Casey had to think that maybe the light had its advantages after all.
The light had its advantages.
And its disadvantages.
Because the light could reveal the truth – but sometimes the truth was ugly and garish, better left hidden,
Really, sometimes the truth was something Casey just didn't want to face.
That was his darkest secret, he knew. That he clove to the dark not just to his tactical advantage or to avoid dealing with the pesky emotions of others, but that he opted for the shadows because his emotions were better hidden there. There were truths Casey didn't want to face.
It had taken some demanding, but Rick had been easier to convince. Michael was harder, but since he was spending most of his time with Billy, Casey had an easy time guilt-tripping Rick into doing his bidding. Whether or not the kid got permission from the doctors and nurses, Casey didn't know, nor did he care, but he'd been so focused on achieving his ends that when he was faced with the truth it was actually somewhat daunting.
Rick loitered by the door. Michael was in the chair by Billy's bed. And Billy…
Billy was a mess. His hair was flattened awkwardly, still a bit caked with blood. There was a bandage on his head, obscuring some of the damage, but the colorful bruising down the side of his unshaven face was plain enough.
His complexion was milky, and his face was gaunt and sickly. A tube snaked from his slightly parted lips, taped down hastily into place.
The hospital gown covered the rest, but the tubes and wires said enough. One seemed to be draining blood from Billy's chest – no doubt a chest tube from a punctured lung – and there was an IV attached on the back of his hand, which was placed carefully on top of the sheets.
The overhead light was unrelenting, washing out Billy's face even more and making him look more dead than alive.
Casey didn't want to think whether or not that were true.
Casey didn't want to think at all.
That was all he'd been doing – thinking. He'd been thinking since the beginning and what good had it done him?
The fact was, the dark had been no kind of refuge. It had hidden the truth, weakened him further.
But the light wasn't much better. With its glaring obviousness, overstating already brutal truths with undue viciousness.
The dark hid; the light manipulated. All Casey could do was sit there and watch. As Michael worried; as Rick fretted; as Billy breathed.
And Casey watched.
If only because he could.
Recovery was always nothing short of awkward.
This was part of the reason Casey preferred not to get injured. Yes, he hated the helplessness and the embarrassment, but the aftermath was cumbersome and unsettling. He had to sit in a bed and rely on people to do things for him. People he didn't know served him meals he couldn't identify and he had to submit to being poked and prodded and questioned until he very nearly wanted to kill someone.
Worse still, a lot of recovery was a waste of time. All the procedures and tests – they were irrelevant. Casey knew his body; Casey knew his limitations. He could set his own pace and he didn't need quacks with letters after their name to prove their so-called knowledge by throwing around big words and ordering superfluous tests.
Casey was better than this.
He was weak. He was hurt. His head still throbbed and sometimes he still found himself on the verge of blacking out for no reason. He was easily winded and the pain in his side left him tacitly consenting to the heavy narcotics they continued to offer him a few days post-op.
Because Casey was, unfortunately, human. The starkness of that revelation had left him ashamed and angry back in the safehouse. Now he accepted it with a certain numbness. This was his own fault; this was his own weakness; this was on him.
Was it all a waste of time? Yes. But Casey was a waste of time and space, so perhaps that was fitting.
If Rick noticed his foul mood, he was smart enough not to comment. Casey had no such luck with Michael.
His team leader had known him too long; he knew him too well, and he was too much of an egotistical bastard to keep his mouth shut.
"You're planning something," Michael said finally, when the silences between them were too pointed. Neither of them had ever had the need for pointless chatter – that was Billy's coping mechanism, not theirs – but they knew when the silences were amiable and when they weren't.
That didn't mean that Casey would own to it, though. He shrugged diffidently, trying to make the remote work to change the channel on the archaic TV in his room. "You say that like you're the only person on this team allowed to plan."
Michael showed no sign of being bothered by the accusation, false or not. He'd been there for only about twenty minutes, relieving Martinez early for some reason. "I just know that there's never a good plan to be made from a hospital bed," he said. "I've learned a few things from experience."
Casey snorted, but said nothing, hoping they could leave it at that.
But Michael was almost as bad as Billy about not leaving well enough alone. When he wanted to, the other operative could pick and prod and prattle until Casey broke. "So I figure you're planning how to get out of here early," Michael said. "I know you're restless. I can tell, so that wouldn't surprise me, except with Billy still in the hospital, there's no place you can go that's better than here. You already get daily visits to his room, and you don't like bedside vigils."
Casey managed to change the channel, but the news program was in a foreign language with closed captioning that looked like gibberish. "Yeah," Casey said. "So?"
"So," Michael continued. "That means you're probably planning your recovery. I've talked to your doctors, though—"
"Isn't that against doctor-patient confidentiality?" Casey asked, perturbed.
"The doctors like me," Michael said.
"You stole the charts," Casey said crossly.
Michael didn't deny it. "The point is that I know you're doing fine. You're going to be up and at 100 percent in no time, so I don't think that's it either."
"So then by your own logic, it's nothing," Casey said, settling for some demented looking game show with contestants jumping wildly in the audience.
"Unless that's not the kind of recovery we're talking about," Michael said, a little thoughtful. He cocked his head, eyes narrowed. "You're going to quit."
The plainness of the revelation was so stark that Casey almost dropped the remote. The fact that it was true made his stomach roil.
Still. He didn't. He held the remote, fingers locking down hard as he stared at the TV and refused to look away. "If you're so sure, then why are you even bothering with this conversation," he said.
"Because I want to know why," Michael replied.
Casey took a breath slowly, held it for a moment, then let it out. He'd been over this in his mind. He'd been over it more than once, countless times, and he always came to the same conclusion. His growing certainty had been one thing, but the idea of telling his team was still something he'd been avoiding. Not for the discomfort of it – Casey knew emotions were best dealt with like a Band Aid, fast and in one sweep – but because it would be counterproductive to their situation.
Billy was doing better, but he was still unconscious. No doubt, he had a longer recovery than Casey ahead of him. Rick was still young and inexperienced. The weight of Casey's resignation would weigh heavily on both of them, especially if they weren't allowed to transfer back to the US soon. It would be easier to wait until they were back home, until they were well on their way to recovery, and then Casey could turn in his forms and end things quietly. No fuss.
It was a good plan.
But Michael apparently had no desire to make this easy on him.
Sighing, he put down the remote and looked at Michael squarely. "It was my fault."
Michael didn't even blink. "How do you figure?"
"I was the one who tripped the bomb," he said flatly. "We've been over this in my report. I walked into the booby trap because I was careless and sloppy. I let my preconceived notions and general disposition hinder my attentiveness and the result was nearly catastrophic."
"We all miss things," Michael returned. Despite the many hours Casey had spent making his case, he was suddenly with no doubt that Michael had spent more preparing his dissent. "I knew that house was probably rigged and I also knew that our mark probably wasn't there. I sent you on a dangerous wild goose chase just to satisfy my own eccentricities."
"That's a moot point," Casey argued. "I missed the trigger. I missed the signs. I set off the bomb and nearly killed Billy. There's no excuse that can be made for my negligence. My 100 percent is not good enough anymore. I'm not going to be a lame duck, leeching off of the system when I'm past my usefulness. Resignation is the only viable option after my pathetic performance in the field."
Because he really hadn't seen it coming. At all. He'd been so sure. He'd been too tired. It wasn't that he hadn't just ignored the possibility, it was that he'd weighed the concern and dismissed it as irrelevant not based on the mission at hand but because of his own flawed thinking and emotional flaws.
Old and crotchety, in Billy's terms.
Not good enough for spywork, in Casey's.
Michael seemed to ponder for a moment before he chewed his lip and nodded.
Casey stared at him. Waiting.
Michael said nothing.
After another few painful moments stretched between them, Casey narrowed his eyes. "What? You're not going to talk me out of it?"
Michael smirked. "You want me to?"
The turnaround was almost unsettling. "No," he snapped, a little too quickly. "I just – I've never known you to willfully let me win an argument."
Michael tilted his head. "And if I agree with you?"
The ease of the implicit accusation was unexpected; it stung.
Casey worked his jaw, frustrated that his own emotions were getting the better of him again. Because Michael was right; some part of Caseyhad expected Michael to talk him out of it.
More signs that Casey was too weak for this job. That he needed to walk away.
This way, he could still resign with a shred of dignity, head held high. It would be a clean, fast break—
"Besides," Michael said, getting to his feet. "I'm not the one you'd listen to anyway."
Casey shook his head. "If you think you can use Martinez with his puppy dog eyes—"
Michael laughed. "No," he said, grinning slyly, like he knew something Casey didn't. Which, the smug bastard – he probably did. "I can do better than that."
Casey should have known. All the signs had been rather obvious. But still, when Michael wheeled him into Billy's room, he still hadn't figured it out until he saw the Scot sitting up in bed.
He looked bedraggled and groggy, but awake.
And grinning. "Ah!" he croaked, brightening as Michael settled Casey next to Billy's bed, "Seeing you two is like a ray of sunshine, breaking through the dreariness of my strained existence in this grim hospital room."
On the other side of the bed, Rick cleared his throat, getting to his feet. "I think the drugs are hitting him pretty hard still," he said. "He's pretty coherent, though."
Billy turned his head, nodding seriously at Rick. "More coherent than I'd like after that exam they gave me," he said.
Michael smirked a bit. "You think you have energy for this last visitor before you go back to sleep?"
"For Casey?" Billy asked. "I'd stave off more than sleep for this man. This unparalleled brother in arms. Dark and stoic and—" He cut off, brow furrowed, a little confused. "So awesome, I can't even think of bloody words to do him justice."
Rick scratched the back of his neck. "Mostly coherent, anyway," he said.
Michael jerked his head toward the door, eyes on Rick. "I think Casey needs to talk to Billy," he said.
"I have nothing of importance to say," Casey snapped, positively sulking in the chair. He hated using the chair to begin with, and Michael had brought him here under false pretenses. He'd been duped and set up and now he was being left with a drugged up, overly peppy Billy.
Who he needed to apologize to.
It was cruel.
Though not very unusual.
Michael shrugged. "Then, Billy has something to say to Casey," he amended, heading out, Martinez not even a step behind.
And just like that, Casey was alone with Billy.
He'd been alone with Billy on and off during their hospital tenure, but it was the first time they'd been awake since they'd been trapped in the dark.
Now, they could look each other, eye to eye. That was how it was supposed to be.
And damn it, it was so hard.
"Well," Billy said, still too cheerful, "I am quite glad to see that you are doing better. Truth be told, I was rather worried about you back at the safehouse. You looked ghastly."
Yet, it had been Billy who had been dying. "You should have told me how bad you were," Casey said instead.
Billy's smile faded a little, the buzz of the drugs not enough to hide the flicker of regret on his features. "There was nothing you could do," he said. "I didn't see the point."
"I need to be fully informed," Casey snapped. "What you did was irresponsible and reckless. If we're going to function properly as a team, then we need to be entirely honest with one another. Gaps in communication are no acceptable if we are going to survive. You can't be so selfish and irresponsible and—"
Casey cut short. Billy was watching him, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, looking far too earnest and still too pale. This wasn't about Billy, and Casey knew it. It wasn't about what Billy had failed to tell him, it was about what Casey had failed to see. He was blaming Billy for his own weakness because it was easier than admitting the truth.
He took a breath.
"I'm sorry," he said, shoulders falling, his emotions coming back under control as he refocused on what he'd decided before this point. This was of course why Michael had brought him here, to use Billy's injury to throw him off his game and make him slip into accidental submission. It wouldn't work, though. Casey wouldn't let it. Steeling himself, he straightened, looking Billy in the eyes. "This is my fault, and I am taking measures to rectify it."
Billy blinked at him. "Okay, then," he said. "I reckon we can work on that together—"
Casey shook his head brusquely. "No," he said. "This is everything to do with me. My weaknesses are the problem that need to be dealt with and I will deal with that – away from this team where I don't pose a risk to you, the others, and national security."
Billy seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake. "Pardon?"
Casey pursed his lips. "I'm quitting," he said. "I wasn't going to tell you until we got back, but I suppose this is just as good a time as any. I'm going to leave the Agency."
"Because a mission went tits up?" Billy asked in genuine confusion.
Casey sighed. "Because I thought I had it under control and I didn't," he said. "Because my overconfidence led to a lapse in judgment that nearly cost you your life."
For a long moment, Billy merely looked at him. The machines beeped about them, and the air conditioner kicked on. Finally Billy nodded his head slowly. "You do know that having this conversation after I've just woke up from major surgery and am happily on a heavy narcotic isn't exactly fair, yes?"
Casey shrugged. "I didn't mean for this to happen now," he said.
"Oh, I have no doubt," Billy said. "Michael is a manipulative bastard, isn't he?"
Casey grunted. "The worst. I'd respect him for it if I didn't have to hate him so much."
"And if he weren't so right."
Casey stopped, cautious.
Billy gestured. "He knew if you came here, despite your better judgment, you'd see reason."
"You're not that persuasive, no matter what you think," Casey said gruffly.
"Perhaps you are immune to my many charms, but that's not why he brought you here."
Casey shook his head. "I don't follow."
"I think it's quite obvious," Billy said. "He brought you here because he knew that once you saw the facts in the cold light of day you'd have no choice but to acquiesce."
Casey rolled his eyes.
But Billy ignored him. "Because he knew that you'd eventually see that even though you think that you think this is your fault, you really don't."
"That's surprisingly incoherent, even for you."
Billy pressed on. "That's why you started out the way you did," he said. "We both had operational failures in this mission, Casey. You and me and Rick and Michael. All of us. Whoever had the last one may feel more responsible than the last, but we all make our choices in the dark and hope to hell that when the sun rises all is well. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, and the fact is, all we can do is learn from that and keep going."
"I should have seen it—"
"And I should have, too," Billy said. "You said it yourself, I should have told you the truth. We're all so busy falling on our swords sometimes that we don't even think. Michael sent us after a stupid lead to satisfy his own neurosis and this is where we are."
"I can't change any thing but myself," Casey said. "And that's what I plan to do."
"Well, that's bloody unfair," Billy said sourly, pouting a little now.
"It's for the good of everyone."
"Rubbish!" Billy said. "It's for the good of you."
"I don't want to fail you again."
"So you'll leave me instead?" Billy asked, indignant.
"You're being sentimental."
"And you're being stupid!"
Casey's agitation peaked, and he found his temper flaring. "You were the one who lied to me!"
"And you're the one who's quitting!" Billy spat back.
"Maybe I'm doing it because I can't stand people who lie to me!"
"Good," Billy retorted. "And maybe I'm asking you to stay so you won't stay!"
"Then maybe I will stay," Casey shot at him.
"Then maybe you should!"
"Fine," Casey snapped.
"Good," Billy returned crossly.
There was terse silence, Billy slumping a little in the bed, Casey's heart pounding in his ears. What had happened…
What had happened?
Back at the safehouse? In his hospital room? Just now with Billy?
Things were easy to sort through in the dark. He could take and leave what he wanted. In the light, it was harder. Because he could see what he was losing.
And what he was gaining.
He would quit for himself.
But he'd stay for his team.
The day would come when those two things would have to shift, when the scales would tilt, and Casey would have to slough off into the darkness once and for all, but today, the fresh daylight coming through the windows, it wasn't time for that yet.
Sitting back, he felt strangely mollified. Annoyed but…content.
Still, he glowered. "This entire conversation was a waste of time," he muttered.
Billy nodded, clearly sleepy. "Mmmm," he agreed. "Then next time, let's not have it, okay? No more throwing yourself on your sword. It's not what we want, yeah?"
"And if I think it needs to happen?" Casey prompted.
Billy smiled. "Well, I think this mission has proved one thing," he said. "Your logic is not infallible. So you're going to have to trust me."
"But this mission has also proved that you're a rotten liar."
Billy chuckled. "Aye, I reckon that's true," he murmured. "The two cancel out, though, don't you think?"
And even if they didn't, Casey had to think that for now, it was close enough.