Author: Lena 7142
A/N: Huge thanks as always to Faye Dartmouth for being a lovely beta and an unwavering cheerleader for this fic.
Summary: Spies were often buried in unmarked graves. But those that were had usually died first...
Spies were often buried in unmarked graves.
It was a bitter truth, but one most operatives came to grips with early in their careers – that some field agents didn't live to see retirement, and that the only memorial they'd see would be an anonymous star engraved upon a marble wall. Their remains would be left to rot unceremoniously in foreign cemeteries, in windblown deserts, in pits or gulleys where they'd fallen in the line of duty; their bones abandoned to turn to dust; their corpses left to chill in morgues, unclaimed. The spy game often meant life or death, and in the case of the latter, not much was spared for sentimentality.
So agents learned the truth, accepted it, and moved on.
Spies were often buried in unmarked graves.
But those that were had usually died first…
It was dark.
Dark enough that it took a few seconds for Billy to realize his eyes were already open. For a fleeting moment, he felt gripped by the fear that he had suddenly gone blind. But the fact that he was simply immersed in inky blackness seemed more likely, and so he took a deep breath of oddly musty air and sat up–
–smacking his head against something hard with a wooden thud before he'd moved more than half a foot. Cursing, he laid back down, then, tentatively, reached out with his hands.
Something flat was above him, a few inches from his face, covering him. Reaching to the sides, his fingers once more found wood. He knocked on it, but the sound was muffled instead of hollow, indicating that there was something beyond the wood insulating it. Stretching his legs out, he found the panel with his feet, and working his arms up, above his head.
He was in a box. A dark and narrow wooden box, the length of his body, surrounded by something and smelling of earth.
Billy's breath caught in his chest and he squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that this time when he opened them there would be light, and he would have just woken from a dreadful nightmare.
But when he opened them, there was still darkness, and the nightmare was reality.
Billy was in a coffin.
"No," Billy breathed. "No no no no no…" This wasn't happening. This was a bad dream. It had to be a dream. Because if it were real, if it was truly happening to him…
He scrabbled at the roof of the coffin. He raked it with his fingers and nails, clawing at it in growing desperation, then beating at it until his knuckles were raw and his hands ached. He shouted in frustration, heart in his throat, gasping in growing panic and rage.
Then fell back. Because his efforts hadn't yielded a thing. There was no give. There was no way out. Short of anyone else digging him up…
Billy blinked, then reached for his earwig. Pressing a finger to the bud in his ear, he took a moment to pray before speaking. "Lads? Any of you hear me?"
Awful, deafening silence; a match to the devastating darkness, enveloping him in constricting arms. He fought to urge to cry, forcing himself to breathe through his nose instead. He couldn't let himself give in to panic any more than he already had. He wanted to scream and rail. To shout until his throat was hoarse and work himself into a frenzy – because really, if any situation had ever truly warranted such a reaction, this was arguably it.
But instead he struggled to keep his head and take stock of his grim state. He was buried alive. His earwig was dead or out of range. He probably had a couple hours' worth of air, maybe less depending on how long he'd been out for. He swallowed at the thought and tried not to dwell on it. If he could get his mobile out, the screen might provide enough light to take in the exact dimensions of his predicament, even if the odds of getting a signal were nil. But when he reached for it, he only found the fabric of his jacket pocket, and a distinct void where his phone ought to have been. He grimaced. Alright then, no mobile. His current assets were – he felt his pockets – the clothes on his back (a rather dirty suit), the change in his pocket (local currency), a false passport (useless here), a slim pocketknife/combination corkscrew (could he cut his way out? It seemed unlikely but it might be his only option) and –
His hand brushed against something which fell over with a clatter. He frowned, then reached out and grasped it. It was boxy, made of metal and plastic, and had buttons on the front. It was a bit clunky, and there was a bit that felt like an antenna, and the horizontal ridges were reminiscent of a speaker…
He inhaled, almost daring to hope. A radio. They'd buried him with a radio.
Why, he didn't know. It made no sense. But then, sane and rational men didn't go burying other people alive. He swallowed hard, hitting the button and nearly weeping as hissing static broke the silence he'd hitherto only shattered with the sound of his own voice.
He tried to find a knob, but there didn't seem to be one. The technology was crude, rudimentary, and seemingly locked to a single channel. Still, it was something. If there was any chance anyone could hear him…
He lifted the radio awkwardly up to his face, struggling to bend him arms in the cramped confines, trying not to think about what a tiny space he was trapped in. "Hello?" he said.
Static was the only reply. Billy's heart began to sink again. Was this just a continued act of sadism? To not only bury him alive, but then taunt him with false hope? This was cruelty to the utmost degree if so. Though considering who he and his team had been dealing with, he reckoned it shouldn't have been surprising.
The voice was tinny and a bit distorted, but recognizable nonetheless. Billy's hope soared. "Michael?"
A pause. "Collins, is that you?"
"Aye," he answered, giddy with relief. "Michael, you've got to come and find me, I think Karzai's goons jumped me and buried me somewhere." If he could talk to Michael, then that meant the ODS would have him out of here in no time.
But Michael's next words took Billy's soaring hope and crashed it down into the rocks: "Yeah. Me too."
Billy blinked. "You're… you're buried too?"
Michael sounded grim. "Yup. Near as I can tell. I heard dirt falling a few minutes ago but it seems to have stopped now."
A few minutes ago. At least that meant Michael and probably Billy hadn't been under too long. It was a small solace, though, since they were still buried alive with little hope of escape. The radio suddenly made sense now; it wasn't meant as a tool of rescue.
They were simply being offered the chance to hear each other die.
"My earwig's dead," Billy said.
Michael swore on the other end of the radio. "Forgot all about mine."
Billy frowned. That wasn't like Michael, though he supposed that the sudden realization that he'd been prematurely entombed had scrambled his wits a fair amount as well. He waited as Michael tried his own earwig.
"It's mostly static," he finally reported. "I think I got a little connection, but not enough for words. It's probably all the earth making for interference."
Billy tried not to think about all the earth above him. The crushing weight of it, surrounding him, hovering over him like an axe waiting to fall, closing in around him –
His breathing began to quicken until Michael's voice cut through the haze of nascent panic. "Hey, Collins. You okay?"
"No," Billy answered tightly. "Given the circumstance I'd say I'm definitely not okay."
Michael voice sounded concerned. "Are you hurt?"
He hadn't considered that. Pausing for a moment, he took stock of his discomfort. His hands were torn up a bit form beating at the coffin, but nothing else seemed terribly out of order. "No," he breathed. "Just claustrophobic."
Michael snorted. "You're claustrophobic andafraid of blood?"
Billy scowled. "They're both common and fairly rational afflictions."
Billy pouted in irritation, before he realized what Michael was doing. Keeping him distracted. Keeping him calm. "Are you hurt?" he asked in turn, realizing that just because he'd been interred unharmed didn't mean the same was true for Michael.
"Nah. Got a bump on the head, but I'm otherwise fine."
"You mean apart from the whole live burial bit?"
"Well, yeah. Apart from that."
Silence returned for several moments.
"You falling asleep on me there, mate?" Billy asked.
Michael chuckled thinly. "It would give new meaning to the phrase 'dirt nap.'"
Billy rolled his eyes. "How the bloody hell are you this calm?"
"Years of listening to Malick extoll the virtues of meditation in the breakroom," Michael answered. "Being calm will slow our heart rates and make our oxygen last longer."
Billy considered this. "And talking?"
Michael hesitated. "If it keeps us calm, it's at least not making things significantly worse. We just need to keep breathing until Casey and Rick find us. And they will find us."
"You sound terribly certain," Billy replied. Because while he had faith in his team, they were on a bit of a truncated time table here and there was a yawning chasm of doubt that his faith in ODS didn't seem quite capable of breaching.
"I don't think accepting the alternative is going to do either of us any good," Michael answered pragmatically. "Come on, where's that Billy Collins optimism?"
"On the surface," Billy mumbled.
"They'll come," Michael reassured him. "You'll see. Just gotta keep breathing."
Rick wiped the sweat from his eyes.
It was only spring in Afghanistan, but already the weather was hot. And sitting in the back of a surveillance van parked in the sun only made it hotter. He could feel perspiration running down him in rivulets as he sat in the cramped confines and watched, fighting to focus through the boredom and drowsiness and heat.
Casey flipped a page in the book he was reading. The periodic rustling of paper, the hum of the equipment, and the buzzing of a lone and highly-irritating fly were the only noises inside the van. Michael and Billy had switched off their earwigs and gone radio dark as soon as they'd gone in undercover, and Casey had decided that conversation was overrated. Which let Rick sweaty, bored, and about to go a little crazy.
He checked the clock for the fourth time in as many minutes. "They should have checked in by now," he said.
Casey sighed. "It's a changeable mission, Martinez. If they're gathering good intel, they won't compromise it by giving us a phone call in the middle of the operation. No news is probably good news."
Rick shook his head. "They haven't showed up on any of the camera feeds."
Casey shrugged. "They're probably indoors. What do you expect? We have limited surveillance."
Rick slouched in his chair, frowning. "I still don't like it."
The mark, Amjal Karzai, was a warlord with ties to the Taliban, suspected of supporting terror groups. He was also notoriously nasty and rumored to be somewhat psychotic. Rick had balked when Michael had put the mission forward, but Billy had clapped him on the shoulder and gave some speech about how Karzai was too picture-perfect a villain for them to pass up, heroes that they were.
Recently-recovered satellite images depicted ground-breaking at Karzai's luxurious compound. The DOD suspected Karzai of building a bunker to house weaponry for anti-American extremists. The ODS had volunteered to go in, with Michael and Billy posing as surveyors and contractors. Rick and Casey were to hang back and run surveillance with as many satellite feeds and hacked live security cameras as they could get, and then provide backup if called.
But Michael and Billy hadn't called. There had been no word at all for hours, and Rick was beginning to get nervous.
"I can hear you fretting."
"I'm not fretting."
"Yes, you are," Casey said, not looking up from his book. "You're breathing loudly, giving periodic nervous sighs, and wringing your hands. You keep shifting your weight and it's distracting me from my book."
Rick ground his teeth together, seeking a comeback, but was cut off by the ringing of the phone.
"See?" Casey said, a hint of smugness.
Rick looked down and felt relief as he recognized the number associated with Michael's most recent burner phone. He snatched it up from beside the keyboard and picked up. "Hello? Where've you guys been?"
"Hello, Mister Spy."
… Rick's blood ran cold. Because it was Michael's number, but not Michael. The voice on the other end of the line was low and smooth and accented. "Who is this?" he demanded, noticing as Casey dropped his book and sat immediately upright.
"How many more of you are there, Mister Spy? I know when there are spies in my house. I do not like it."
Rick swallowed. "I don't know what you're talking about. Who is this?" The hair on the back of his neck was prickling. Casey had lurched over to the equipment and seemed to be working on setting up a trace. Though Rick already had a sneaking suspicion who he was talking to. Karzai had a reputation for being a sick sonofabitch, but he was also paranoid and damned clever to have survived this long in a country as turbulent as this.
The man laughed. "I think you know. You are watching me already, yes? You are spying on me… but perhaps I am not who you ought to be looking for, Mister Spy. I recommend you stop looking at me and start looking for your friends, before they run out of time."
"What do you mean run out of–?"
The line went dead and Rick nearly screamed in frustration. He looked over at Casey, who shook his head. "Didn't have time for a trace."
"Doesn't matter," Rick spat, putting the phone in his pocket. "It was Karzai. Michael and Billy are blown."
"You don't know that," Casey replied, though there was uncertainty in his voice now.
"Then call Billy," Rick said. "He called us from Michael's phone, dammit…"
Casey nodded, taking the phone from Rick and dialing. He frowned. "Voicemail."
"Dammit," Rick swore, though he'd been expecting as much. If Michael and Billy had been captured, had been identified as spies –
And what had Karzai meant by running out of time?
"It could be a bluff," Casey supplied, though he didn't sound very sure at all.
Rick shook his head vehemently. "They're in trouble."
Casey pursed his lips together. "Okay. What did he say, exactly? If he's given us any clues–"
"He said they're going to run out of time," Rick answered, stomach clenching as he repeated the words.
Casey turned a shade paler, despite the heat. "Okay. Then we need to—"
A burst of sound cut Casey off once again. Not the phone this time, but the radio receiver they'd set up at the start of the mission to pick up Michael and Billy's earwigs in the van.
Rick's heart leapt in sudden hope. If Michael and Billy still had the earwigs – if they'd turned them back on – then there was a chance they could communicate, could give backup. He moved swiftly to the radio, kneeling beside it. "Hello? Hello, can you guys hear me?"
The radio popped and hissed, and for a second Rick through he heard snatches of a voice, but it devolved quickly into static. He twisted the knobs in futile desperation, trying to calibrate it enough to catch the weak fragments of sound. "Hello? Michael? Billy? You guys?"
And then there was only dead air. Rick made a sound of exasperation, then grabbed the radio and headed for the back door of the van.
"Where are you going?" Casey demanded.
"Somewhere that I can boost the signal," Rick answered, reaching for the door.
Casey caught him by the arm. "Stay in the van."
"They're in trouble! They could be hurt!" Rick protested.
"I know," Casey answered, letting go and moving toward the front of the van, squeezing past computer monitors to get to the driver's seat. "But wherever you need to go to boost that signal, we'll get there faster if I drive."
It took Rick a moment to comprehend, but then he nodded, worming his way up to the passenger seat and buckling in, radio on his lap, as Casey started the engine up.
Michael Dorset took a deep breath.
Then he remembered that air was precious and limited in his case, and proceeded to take a shallower one.
When he'd woken up in the dark with the sound of earth pouring over him and the sickening realization that he was being buried alive, he'd panicked. The fear had been visceral; he'd shouted and protested and slammed at the wood, snarling in rage and terror. But the dirt had continued to pour down, increasingly muffling the sound of shovels, and then there had been silence.
When the radio he hadn't known was there had crackled and popped, the sound of Billy's voice coming through, he'd nearly jumped out of his skin. Then he'd nearly laughed in relief – relief which proved ephemeral, as Billy revealed he was in the same circumstance Michael had found himself in.
Their covers had been blown, somehow. He didn't know, still, what had gone wrong –– he'd been careful, and Billy's acting had been flawless. The papers were all high-quality forgeries, no sloppy second-rate jobs, and the mission had been going smoothly.
Or so he'd thought. Because Michael believed in the quality of his own plans and liked to think that his own schemes were bulletproof. He'd been prideful. Overconfident. He'd stupidly underestimated Karzai's paranoia and had failed to see this kind of disaster coming.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
He wanted to bang his head repeatedly against the panel above him. Wanted to scream and rage and vent his frustration and self-disgust.
But instead, he struggled to keep it together. For Billy's sake more than anything, as the Scottish operative was sounding more panicked than Michael had ever heard him before. When he spoke over the radio, he kept his voice even and calm, forcing himself to sound unruffled and unpanicked. The mask of calm hid his anger. And his anger provided a further buffer between him and his primal, base fear.
"They'll come," Michael reassured Billy. "You'll see. Just gotta keep breathing."
Billy's voice was small and weak over the radio. "I'll do my best, but I reckon I've a limited amount of time left in which I'll be able."
"Hey, it's not gonna come– Son of a bitch!" Michael yelped as shrill and screaming pain lanced through his ear, making him recoil and inadvertently slam his head against the coffin. "Jesus…" For a second he couldn't think, couldn't even get his mind to stop reeling as the echoes of the piercing noise reverberated in his skull and Billy's worried voice called to him over the radio.
Michael blinked. Because now that the feedback had died down, there was not one but two voices calling his name…
The earwig. "Michael? Billy? Can either of you read me?"
And Michael threw his head back and laughed, nearly shaking with relief. "I can read you, Rick," he said, touching the earwig. "Billy, you'll never guess who just called. Gimme a minute and I'll radio you back," he then explained before reaching down and lowering the volume on the radio connecting him to Billy.
"Oh thank God," Rick said over the earpiece. "I thought... when Karzai called us on your phone... are you guys okay?"
"Yeah, we're okay," Michael answered, then frowned as he realized that assessment might not be entirely accurate. "I mean, we're alive and we're not too hurt. For now."
"What do you mean 'for now'?" Rick demanded, sounding almost frantic. "Where are you guys?"
Michael hesitated. "Underground. Beyond that, I have no idea."
"Are you still at Karzai's compound? Did they take you out somewhere else? Are–"
"I really don't know," Michael repeated. "We're..." he swallowed. "We're in coffins. They're underground. That's really all I have to go on at the moment."
There was silence. For a moment, Michael feared that the weak connection had cut out, but then he heard a curse. "The bastard buried you alive?" Casey's voice abruptly interjected, low and dangerously quiet.
"Looks like it from what I can see. Which, for the record, isn't very much. Kinda dark down here. And musty, so we'd appreciate getting dug up and rescued," Michael said, trying to keep his voice even and nonchalant. Billy was panicking. Rick was frantic. Casey was seething. And Michael had to keep it all from crumbling apart, even when it took all his concentration just to hold himself together.
"Is Billy with you?" That was Rick. "What happened with the mission?"
"No and no idea," Michael answered. "We're in radio contact with each other, but we could be meters apart or miles for all I know."
Casey's voice again: "We're going to need every detail that you remember. Anything at all, and anything you can tell us about your surroundings."
Michael chewed on his lip, trying to think. "I don't think we're at Karzai's. We got drugged while we were there. Something in the water. His guys jumped us..." He didn't remember much after that, apart from the feeling of anger at his own idiocy as he'd hit the ground. "I woke up for a minute in a truck, anyway. So I think we were moved." He winced, wishing he had mobility enough to rub the egg on the back of his head where one of Karzai's goons had hit him when he'd started to rouse in the back of the truck.
Panic. He remembered panic and fear and rage and horror and–
"A car. I heard something drive by when they were burying me," he recalled. "Only one, though. Probably on the side of a rural highway outside the city."
"That doesn't narrow it down a heckuva lot," Casey replied grimly. "But it's a start. If we're lucky, we can run a trace on your earwig."
"What about Billy?" Rick said.
"Lemme ask..." Michael reached down and turned the radio back up, wincing at the slight feedback in the earwig. "Billy, you still there?"
"Not much elsewhere to go," Billy replied breathily, voice strained.
"Point taken. Do you remember anything or notice anything that might narrow down where you're buried?"
"Somewhere... underground," Billy replied darkly. "It's pitch black, Michael, I've got nothing."
"Come on, you've got to give me something," Michael cajoled.
Billy paused. "There was a bit of a rumble a while ago. I felt it more'n heard it, and it was faint, but..."
Michael was already touching the earpiece again. "Billy says he heard and or felt a rumble a little while ago. I'm guessing he's also at a roadside location."
"Got it," Rick answered. "I'm gonna try to start that earwig trace, but it'll take ten or fifteen minutes..."
"Okay, but try to hurry the rest as much as you can. The air in here's a bit stale, if you get me," Michael told him.
He heard Rick inhale sharply. "We'll be there as fast as we can. Just hang tight. I'm gonna shut off the radio signal so we can home in on the device with the computer equipment–"
And then there was silence in Michael's ear again. He took a ragged breath. Rescue was coming. Casey and Rick just had to find them first. They could hopefully home in on their earwigs, though, if all went well...
Or Michael's earwig, at any rate. He felt a chill at the realization. If Billy's earwig was broken or lost...
He nearly slammed his head against the wood in frustration. How had he managed to overlook that crippling detail? How could–
"So, the cavalry is on the way?" Billy ventured tremulously over the radio.
Michael swallowed. "Yeah. They'll find us."
Both of us.
Because earwig or no, they'd find a way to track Billy down and get the two of them both out, signal or lack thereof be damned.
The cavalry was on the way. Casey and Rick were coming. His situation, since waking up and realizing he'd been buried alive, had incrementally improved, first by having contact with Michael, then by Michael getting the ODS' signal and arranging for rescue.
Things were getting better.
Which was good, because Billy wasn't sure if they could possibly have gotten worse. Even with the knowledge that the rest of their team were searching for them, Billy couldn't help but feel an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. His awareness of the limited confines of the coffin had become excruciatingly acute. His arms twitched with the desire to stretch. His legs were tingling and beginning to cramp a bit. His neck was stiff and the mustiness in the air was suffocating.
Suffocating. He didn't mean to think the word, but now it hung in his mind, inescapable. Because even with Casey and Rick on their way, it remained a painfully real threat. The only air he had was in this box with him, and he was depleting it one breath at a time.
Just keep breathing, Michael had said. If only it were that easy.
"You okay over there?" Michael asked.
Billy swallowed. His mouth was dry and his tongue was feeling cottony. He'd do anything for a drink of water. He'd do even worse for a drink of whisky, he reflected. "Yeah," he answered, wincing at the strained quality of his own voice. "Just... the sooner I'm not in this box, the better."
"You and me both," Michael replied with a sigh.
Precious seconds ticked by.
"So, what I'm wondering is, how come after seven years I know about your stupid fear of chins, but I didn't know you were claustrophobic?"
"Reckon you knew, just didn't realize it," Billy answered, trying to ignore the tickle in his throat. "Remember that crawlspace in Paraguay? Or the air duct system in Singapore?"
"Right..." Michael answered. Unable to see him, Billy wasn't quite sure what that meant. He tried to picture Michael's expression, but there was only inky darkness.
"I just thought you didn't wanna mess your suit up from the dust in the air duct," Michael finally added.
"My regular dry cleaning service is likely to throw a wobbler when they see the mud stains on this one," Billy tried to joke.
"Send Karzai the bill," Michael said.
"So you've been scared of small spaces this whole time?" Michael asked.
Billy licked his lips. "Since I was a lad. Hasn't been much of a problem until now. I can handle moderately small spaces such as elevators and the like, and tight fits for short periods," he explained. It had never been so crippling as to come up during his psych evaluations. But then, it had never been as bad as this before. It had mainly been a very strong aversion, to his mind, more than a phobia. And he'd run into few problems over the years, relegating his anxiety to barely an inconvenience. "Malick has no problem shutting himself up in tiny compartments for undue periods of time; I've always been sure to allow him any opportunity in lieu of claiming it myself."
"That's true," Michael agreed. "Since you were a kid? Really?"
Billy sighed in moderate frustration. "Aye. My Da wasn't too keen on my boyish antics, particularly once he'd gotten into his cups, so anytime I was overly rambunctious I got to reacquaint myself with the inside of the cupboard for a few hours." He grimaced as he said it. But if it would make Michael shut up about the subject...
"Sorry," Michael mumbled.
Billy shrugged in the dark. "Like I said. Dinnae pose much of a problem 'til now."
"Yeah. I just, look I–"
Michael stopped short. Billy heard him murmuring, and found himself straining to hear. "Michael?"
"Hang on, I've got Rick and Casey on the earwig. Gimme just a minute..."
"...Tell me you have good news."
Rick grimaced, looking at the display. "Er..."
"'Er' doesn't sounds good, Martinez. You're making me worried here," Michael said.
Rick swallowed. "The earwig trace failed. I tried yours and Billy's both, just in case his was in but only the audio was malfunctioning. I'm already going to crazy lengths to boost the radio signals, but I can't seem to latch on to the trackers." He looked down, trying not to picture Michael's expression of disappointment. "I'm sorry. There's just too much interference with you being underground–"
"Okay," Michael said, voice still surprisingly even. "So plan A is out. How about you and Casey–"
"Casey's on the phone with Langley already; he's on the line with Higgins," Rick supplied.
"Good. Get him to ask Higgins if his military contacts–"
"Already ahead of you there, boss," Rick said with a weak smile. "Higgins has a favor to call in with the DOD and they're going to get us the access codes to a satellite that's orbiting over the Middle East. We'll see if we can get anything that way."
There was a pause. "Well, sounds like plan B is fully underway then," Michael said, sounding oddly deflated.
"We're on it and we're working as fast as we can," Rick assured him. "I mean, if we could have gotten an exact trace on the earwigs..." he trailed off. If they'd been able to get an exact location on the trackers in the earwigs, they'd be on their way to Michael and Billy right now, with exact coordinates. Even with satellite imaging, the best they'd get would be a few potential locations, resulting in a guessing game. And Michael and Billy didn't have time for incorrect guesses.
Not that Michael needed Rick to say it.
"You're doing good, kid," Michael reassured him.
"We're doing everything we can, and so's everyone at Langley. All hands are on deck, so we'll be there soon," Rick promised.
"Well, I'm not exactly going anywhere," Michael replied with cheer that didn't sound wholly genuine.
Rick pressed his lips together and took a breath through his nose. "Okay. I'm gonna go check in with Casey, I'll contact you again in a few."
He switched off the radio and glanced over to where Casey was speaking rather animatedly into his burner phone.
They were doing everything they could. They'd be there soon.
Rick just hoped it was soon enough.
Michael waited until the earwig signal cut out and there was nothing but silence before he snarled in frustration and slammed his fist against the wood of the coffin, pain lancing through his knuckles and the bones of his hand. His eyes felt hot and wet and he squeezed them shut, drawing a ragged breath.
Control. Michael needed control. He tried to keep control over himself and he felt he was doing an alright job for the most part, modulating his voice and affect to exude calm and confidence. He had to be in control for Billy. And for Martinez.
But it wasn't enough. Michael could control the sound of his voice and that was more or less the end of the control he had. He couldn't control his situation, he couldn't control the rescue effort and he couldn't even seem to lead as Malick and Martinez were already a step ahead of every order he tried to give.
Useless. He was useless and helpless and trapped like a rat in a cage. Only rats in cages at least had air.
Michael had a rapidly approaching point of expiration.
He drew another ragged breath in the silence. Control. He needed to get control. Rubbing his bruised knuckles, he breathed and calmed himself until his frustration was back in check. Then he reached for the radio.
There was strained breathing on the other end. Then: "Michael?"
"Were you expecting another call?" Michael joked weakly.
"I tried... to signal you... You didn't answer."
"Yeah, sorry, I switched the radio off to cut down on the interference on the earwig. Martinez and Malick are still looking," Michael explained, feeling a pang of guilt for keeping the channel closed for so long. But he couldn't afford to let Billy hear him lose it, however briefly.
A pause. "I thought you said they were on their way?"
Michael chewed his lip. "They will be. As soon as they find us. The first trace failed but they're working on getting a satellite."
"So they have no idea where we are?" Billy asked, voice hitching.
"I think they're narrowing it down," Michael offered, though he knew how small a consolation it was.
Knew how long of a shot it was.
And so, apparently, did Billy. "Bollocks," the Scottish operative whispered, breathing beginning to wheeze.
Michael frowned. "Billy? Billy, are you okay?"
"We're needles in a proverbial sandy haystack, Michael!" Billy snapped, voice rising in pitch. "All we know is that we're buried in dirt, and last I checked, Afghanistan was 99.99% dirt! That's an awful lot of dirt to go looking... in..." Billy broke off, the rapid wheezing of his breath more pronounced.
"Billy..." Michael licked his lips. "Billy, I need to slow your breathing and calm down."
"Calm down!" Billy exclaimed with a hysterical laugh. "'Calm down' he says, like we haven't been buried bloody well alive-"
Michael could hear Billy's breathing ramping up into hyperventilation, the small, shallow gasps a sign of his unbridled panic. "Billy, listen to me. If you don't slow your breathing, you'll die faster-"
As soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong word to use. Billy responded with a sound that made the radio pop and crackle, somewhere between a laugh and sob. "Faster, slower, what does it matter if I'm still damn well going to die?"
"You're not going to die," Michael amended with as much certainty as he could muster. "Neither of us will. We always make it out alive."
"First time... for everything..." Billy panted. "Oh God."
"Billy?" Michael demanded. "Billy!"
Billy gasped for breath, suddenly finding each inhalation a greater challenge than the last. His chest felt tight, crushed beneath the weight of everything, the weight of tons of earth above him inexorably pushing down and seeping into his casket. It was as if a giant fist had taken hold of him and started to squeeze...
"Billy, Billy, just breathe..." Michael's voice came over the radio, strangely muffled and far away. Probably miles away, Billy realized. He was alone... alone in the dark, dying and running out of air-
"I can't," he wheezed.
If he'd been able to see he was sure the edges of his vision would have been graying out. Suddenly there was no up or down; his head reeled and the only direction was inward, as everything pressed and constricted ever tighter, the world collapsing in on him even as it faded away and all he was left with was the rush of blood in his ears and the staccato beat of his racing heart.
"Yes, you can," Michael returned, though Billy could barely make him out anymore. He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling tears spill hot against his cheeks.
"I can't," he gasped back. "Oh God, I'm out of air-"
"You're not out of air. Listen to me, Billy, you're having a panic attack. It feels like you're dying, but you're not. Just listen to me and breathe, dammit."
Billy gasped, trembling, his chest heaving painfully as he tried to draw frantic breaths through the sobs that now shook him. "I can't..." he whispered. He was going to die, here in the dark. He was going to die in an unmarked grave in the desert, and become nothing more than a star on a wall, nameless and forgotten. He was going to die in a tiny box in the dark, slowly asphyxiating, the way he had in his nightmares as a child.
He was going to die.
He didn't want to die.
"You can," Michael insisted. "Now breathe in. And out. In. Out."
Billy tried to inhale, sucking air shakily into his lungs as he concentrated on the sound of Michael's voice.
"... And out. In..."
Breathing. Keep breathing, for as long as he could. But he wouldn't be able to for much longer.
Then again, neither would Michael.
And as Billy let a quivering breath go, he felt an overwhelming sense of shame take root in the place where panic had been, ousting it. Because Michael was also running out of time and running out of air, and Michael was being a proper spy and not going to bloody pieces.
"You with me?" Michael asked after a few moments.
Billy just wanted to whimper. His dignity was already in shreds. He'd lost every ounce of pride and self-control, breaking down like a gibbering child.
But instead he took another breath, and said, "Yeah."
For a few moments, the only sound was Billy's shaky breathing.
"I'm sorry," he finally choked.
"You got nothing to be sorry for, Collins."
Billy snorted. "I'm a g-grown bloody man and a trained operative crying because he can't h-handle being cooped up in the sodding dark, Michael. 'Sorry' is about the only word that I think describes me," he stuttered, his chest convulsing involuntarily in the aftermath of his hysterical breathing. "Though 'pathetic' might also ring true."
"Bullshit," Michael's voice crackled over the radio. "You had a moment. I'll be honest, I'm freaking out a little bit here too. But we're going to get out of this and then laugh about it all over drinks, okay? I'll even pay."
"Heh," Billy breathed. "Michael Dorset buying?"
"Yeah, well... just don't get used to it."
Billy drew in another, slightly easier breath. He was still in the dark and he was still slowly running out of air and probably going to die. But he wasn't alone.
It was a small comfort, but it was the only one he had, so he clung to it. "So, Martinez and Malick are on their way?"
"Any second now," Michael replied. "They're coming. For both of us."
Rick mopped the sweat from his brow with a kerchief that was nearly drenched already. He was sweating even harder than before, and tried telling himself it was the heat, and not the ticking clock. But the clock was ticking, and the pressure was on him and Casey to find Michael and Billy in time.
Failure wasn't an option. It couldn't be an option.
Casey had badgered, bullied, and threatened half a dozen different people on the phone, and then had opened the door to leave the van. Rick asked where he was going and he'd grumbled something about 'shopping.'
He came back shortly thereafter with a pair of shovels.
Then the sat-phone rang and Rick was on the line with Higgins and getting a data transfer from Fay that would install the software packages on the surveillance computers that would allow them remote control of the DOD satellite.
Which meant they had eyes in the sky, but unfortunately, still an entire city to search in.
"So, we're looking for areas where there's dirt instead of asphalt, possibly near a road, maybe outside the more densely populated areas," Rick said, more for his own benefit than Casey's.
Casey made a face. "That doesn't narrow it down a lot. It's still too much ground to cover in the next..." he looked down at his watch and then fell silent, expression even more somber.
Rick swallowed. "We need more information."
Casey sniffed. "Well then let's call Karzai up on Michael's number, and if we ask really nice, maybe he'll just tellus!" he snapped.
Rick took a deep breath. He'd been working with Casey long enough to recognize when the other man was stressed, and not to take it personally. "Here, you take over the satellite stuff. I'm gonna contact Michael, see if there's anything else..."
He fiddled with the radio until he was back on the earwig frequency. "Michael?"
"Good news - we've got the DOD satellite up and running!" he said with forced optimism. "Just... to narrow it down, is there anythingelse you can tell us–"
"–I've told you all I know. I'm in a box underground, Martinez, I haven't got much of a view," Michael replied sharply. Rick blinked in surprise at the abrupt harshness in Michael's tone, before reminding himself that in Michael's position, he'd probably be in downright hysterics. That he was as calm as he'd been was frankly astounding–
There was a sigh. "Sorry," Michael added. "I've got nothing. But – hang on a sec –"
"Billy?" Michael asked through the radio.
"Earlier, you said something about the dry cleaners–"
Billy laughed, but the sound was a bit shrill. "I don't think this is really the time, Michael–"
"You said there were mud stains," Michael pressed. "Why did you say mud?"
"Well, I'm fairly sure it isn't ketchup."
"Billy, is there dirt in your coffin?" Michael demanded, his patience and his calm beginning to fray.
Billy paused. "Aye, there's some seeping in. Layer of it across most of the bottom now."
"Is it sandy? Or muddy?"
Silence for a moment. "It's soil and not sand. It's a bit damp, I reckon. Not mud, but not dry. Smells a bit metallic."
"Great!" Michael said, relieved to hear Billy calm enough to assess the soil and specific enough that there might just be a chance for them. "Okay, just a minute now..."
"My box is pretty airtight, but Billy's is leaking a little and he says the dirt is damp and smells metallic," Michael said over the radio.
Rick exchanged looks with Casey. "That narrows things down, at least," Casey said grudgingly.
Rick grinned. "That's good! We'll focus our search on areas near springs and water bodies." If Billy was somewhere with moisture, in a country that was mostly desert, then the size of the haystack they were digging through had just been significantly reduced. "We'll keep you posted."
"Sounds good," Michael replied.
It was hard to think of much in this scenario as being good. Good was, after all, fairly relative. It was good that he and Billy weren't dead.
But less good that they were six feet under nonetheless.
Michael's head hurt. He wasn't sure how much of this to attribute to the mild concussion he'd probably sustained and how much to blame on the fact that his oxygen was probably getting a bit thinner. His mask of calm, deliberate resolve was cracking; he was having a hard time thinking, and thinking was what Michael did best. All he could do was lie in the dark, trapped, and wait. And the waiting was killing him.
"Michael?" Billy's voice was oddly small over the radio, anxiety elevating the pitch.
Billy's breath began to quicken again. "Michael, I think it's caving in."
Michael frowned. God, his head hurt. "Caving in?"
"The walls are buckling, I think there's too much pressure," Billy continued, voice speeding up. And then he was starting to hyperventilate again, causing Michael to suppress a groan.
"The walls aren't caving in, Billy," he said as placidly and patiently as he could. If he and Billy were together, he'd have reached over and slapped the man to snap him back into reality. But all he had at this distance were words. All he'd had this whole time were words, and they were proving staggeringly insufficient. "You're just having another panic attack. It's all in your head."
"Michael, I don't think it's going to hold–"
"Just take a deep breath," Michael ordered, wishing Billy would just calm down. He didn't blame the Scot for his panic, but every fear Billy expressed resonated with Michael's own.
"Billy, it's not caving–"
And then there was a sharp, splintering crack followed by a muffled scream, and Michael felt his stomach drop.
The world was imploding.
At least, Billy's world was.
His heart had begun to race when he'd heard the creaking of the wood over him, and had leapt into his throat when it had begun to buckle. But when the plank finally gave –
– Billy thought his heart would burst from terror.
Dirt poured in. It rushed to fill the gaps, no longer held at bay by the boards; his legs were pinned. Gritty particles fell into his eyes, his nose, his mouth. The soil was everywhere, smothering him, suffocating him, crushing him...
But then there was dirt in his mouth, choking him. Gasping and coughing, he felt tears run from his eyes, forming muddy tracks down his cheeks. He twisted and kicked, flailing as much as he could within the tiny and rapidly-shrinking confines in mindless fear.
Billy didn't want to die. Not here. Not like this.
Any way but this.
"No!" he howled, sobbing and clawing through the dirt, even as the landslide slowed, the rush of dirt slowing to a whispering trickle as the earth above him restabilized temporarily. But the damage was done. Where there had been air – breathable, life-sustaining air – there was only soil. His time had been frightfully limited.
And now, he had even less.
Pinned in a broken coffin, covered in the weight of the earth, smothered and frightened and trapped, alone in the dark, unable to move, to flee, to act...
Billy felt his chest constrict as a broken sob tore through it. This was it. He was going to die. Here.
Already in the grave.
Billy yelped. Then there was a roar, a thump, a crackle of static –
– and silence.
Michael held his breath. "Billy?"
"Billy?" he repeated, louder. Then shouting: "Billy!"
And there was nothing. Just dead air.
Michael felt his own breathing quicken. His spine went cold and he shouted in inarticulate frustration. Billy wasn't answering. Billy's coffin had caved in. Billy...
Billy could be gone. Smothered under the ground, buried and crushed in an unmarked tomb. And the last words he would have heard were Michael's exasperated dismissals.
He should have known. He should have suspected, when Billy revealed his casket was leaking, that there had been a failing in the structural integrity. That there was a chance the wood wouldn't hold. He ought to have seen it coming. He ought to have seen all of this coming. If Michael were a little smarter, a little cleverer, a little better at his job, at foresight, at thinking, none of this would be happening.
And Billy would be answering.
But Michael was a stubborn bastard and he wasn't going to give up just yet. He grabbed the radio and continued to shout Billy's name into the receiver, until he heard a burst of static. For a moment, his heart leapt, until he realized it was the earwig and not the radio.
"Hey," Martinez said. "Okay, we're running a thermal scan on areas that match the likely parameters and we have a couple–"
"You need to get to Billy," Michael said, cutting him off, not even caring that his voice was strained.
"Well, yeah, we're working on getting to both–"
"Make. Billy. Priority," Michael hissed. "I'm fine, but you need to get to him now!"
He heard Martinez breathe in sharply. "What happened?"
Michael squeezed his eyes closed, though in the dark it made little difference. "His coffin caved in."
There was a fraught pause. "Is... is he...?"
"Just find him!" Michael snapped, not even wanting to think of the worst-case scenario. "The coffin giving out will give him less air to breathe, so he'll be running out of time first."
There was a murmur on the other end of the earwig. "Okay," Rick confirmed. "We think we've found him. Satellite imaging is giving us a real likely spot and we're on our way."
Michael took a shaky breath. "Okay." He resisted the urge to tell Rick to hurry, knowing Martinez and Malick would be going as fast as they could.
It just needed to be enough. If it wasn't too late already.
And as the earwig went quiet, Michael picked up the radio and resumed shouting Billy's name into the void...
Rick strapped in, laptop balanced on the dashboard, as Casey hit the ignition and put the van into gear.
"We're going to want to head north out of the city, then take this road heading north-east for about 5 klicks," Rick said, indicating the map on the screen.
Casey nodded, pulling out into the street. "You think that's him?"
Rick chewed his lip. "Fits the parameters. Heat signature consistent with a human body on the side of a rural highway within forty minutes of Karzai's compound. There's a square mile or so that's got a lot of small streams coming from the runoff on these hills to the west, so the soil's damper. It's our best bet."
"It's still a bet though," Casey said, looking at him pointedly. "We aren't sure?"
Rick looked down. "No." There had been nearly a dozen potential matches. Any of them could be Michael or Billy. And any of them could have just been flukes. If they had more manpower, they could spread out and track each.
But they didn't. There was only Rick and Casey in the lone van, and only enough time for them to have one shot. So Rick had picked the most likely spot and prayed that it was right.
It would all come down to luck. At this point, he could only hope.
The roar of the earth crashing in on him had died away, save for the occasional silken hiss when small rivulets of soil trickled down.
But the roar of blood rushing in Billy's ears had become deafening in the silence.
His head ached. His legs were numb. His lungs burned. And with every frantic beat of his heart, he knew time was running out. He was quietly expiring, here, in the dark and the silence–
He wanted to weep. To scream and to rail, but he had no energy left. There was only chilling fear that left him paralyzed. He wished that he were braver; Casey wouldn't have flinched this whole time, and would have treated the whole scenario as an inconvenience, regulating his breathing to preserve his oxygen and remaining collected and unfazed until help arrived. Hell, even Michael had held himself together, talking him down as Billy went to pieces.
Billy's breath hitched. He hadn't heard from Michael since the plank had given out. There was only silence. He ground his teeth together until his jaw ached, trying to concentrate. His head hurt and he felt sluggish, tired... confused...
But somewhere in here was the radio. The radio connected him to Michael.
And Billy didn't want to die alone.
He forced himself to run a hand through the dirt around him, wincing at the whisper of dislodged pebbles. He groped through the debris until his hand found a familiar, metallic object. His fingers felt oddly thick and uncoordinated, but he managed to pull it free and up toward his face, breathing heavily. Silently pleading with the universe for the device to still be functional, he shook the dirt free and braced himself as he hit the switch–
Billy pressed his lips together for a moment, thankful for the sound of Michael's voice. It was all he had right now.
"Michael," he croaked, barely recognizing the sound of his own voice...
Michael was beginning to lose his voice. He felt vaguely lightheaded, and he'd said Billy's name so many times now that the syllables were beginning to sound alien and meaningless. Still, he kept repeating it, robotically, unwilling to give up.
Then, finally: "Michael."
Michael let his head thunk back against the plank beneath him in relief. "Oh thank God. Are you okay?"
"Not... really..." Billy wheezed. "Starting... to think... cremation has a certain... appeal..."
"Yeah, well, when you're eighty years old and die of liver failure from all that damn scotch, I'll be sure your wishes get carried out," Michael told him, wincing a bit at the thought.
Billy laughed, or at least, Michael thought it was a laugh – it could just as well have been a sob, distorted over the radio. "Forty-three more years might be... wee bit... optimistic... Don't reckon I've got... forty-three minutes..."
"Yeah, well don't sweat it," Michael answered, despite the anxiety he felt ratcheting up in response to Billy's labored breathing. "The guys have a signal and they're on their way, okay? Malick and Martinez will be there to dig you up real soon, so hang in there."
For a moment, the line went quiet. Then, Billy spoke so quietly Michael had to pull the radio closer to his head to hear:
"I always sort of thought it'd... be a bullet. Or a chase... Not this." Billy coughed and swallowed. "I'd be alright... with anything else... but not this."
Michael felt something deep inside him twinge painfully. "Hey. Hey, listen to me, okay? It's not ending like this. So quit the melodrama, because you're gonna feel really stupid when they haul your ass out of there," he insisted. "You're gonna be fine. This isn't it."
There was a pause. "Just… keep talking, yeah?" Billy asked.
Michael swallowed hard. At one point, he might have cracked some joke about this being the first time Billy shut up long enough to let him get a word in edgewise. How it was a big change for Billy not to be the one doing the majority of the talking. But Michael had run out of snark; had run out of jokes and levity. So he simply answered, "Okay."
And Michael talked. He talked through the headache and the dizziness and the fear. He fed Billy platitudes and reassurances over the radio, breaking off only when Rick came on over the earwig.
"We're on the highway!" Rick shouted into the radio, wincing as the shoddy and deteriorated signal crackled and spat through the speaker. "Ran into traffic coming out of the city–" At which point he'd been fairly certain that Casey was going to commit vehicular manslaughter, or possibly have an aneurysm, "–but we're on the open stretch now. Casey's flooring the gas."
The van rattled and protested from the speeds it was being pushed to, but Rick wasn't about to tell Casey to slow down. If anything, he wished they were capable to coaxing a little more out of the bucket of bolts…
"They're on the highway now," Michael said. "Out of the city, heading our way. It's a straight shot and Casey's flooring it."
"There's… a frightening… thought…." Billy gasped.
Michael grimaced. Billy was struggling to breathe. Whether the pressure from the cave in was pressing down on his chest, or his oxygenated air was simply running out, Michael wasn't sure. But Casey and Rick needed to get there soon.
"Hey," Michael said, when Billy's wheezing grew quieter. "Hey, Billy, you with me?"
"For now…" Billy answered, then coughed. "Head hurts… Don't feel good…"
That was the oxygen deprivation. Michael was feeling the effects already, and where Billy had lost so much of his air… "You're doing great. Just keep talking, okay?"
Billy laughed breathily. "Never thought… I'd hear you… say that."
"Yeah well," Michael smiled weakly. "Don't get too used to it."
The desert all looked the same. Rocks. Sand. Dirt. More rocks. More road.
The only thing Rick had to guide them by was the little blip on the screen; the weak signal from the satellite image that he had to pray was Billy.
"Another half mile," he said, stealing a sideways glance at Casey. The other operative was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, his face pale despite the heat. "We're close," Rick added gently.
Casey said nothing, but coaxed the van a little faster.
And when they were nearly on top of the little blip, Rick made one last silent prayer up into the vast blue sky above them before radioing Michael.
"They've just pulled over," Michael announced, almost giddy. "Billy, they've pulled over, it'll be any minute now."
"Tha's... good..." Billy slurred. His speech had gone downhill rapidly since the cave-in, accent thickening as it was wont to do when he was tired or drunk or injured, words slurring together and becoming fewer and farther between. It was worrying to Michael. But he felt some relief that he wouldn't have to worry much longer. At least, not for Billy's sake. His own air was thin, he knew from the pounding in his head, but Billy was priority. And if Casey and Rick could find him, then they could find Michael too.
The earwig popped and crackled. "We found loose dirt! Looks like a grave. I gotta put the radio down now to help Casey dig, but we found it!" Rick cried in excitement.
Michael couldn't help but smile. It had been a long shot, he knew – looking for heat signatures in the desert with such meager information was terribly unlikely, but if they'd found a grave, then the universe had to be smiling on the ODS today. "Billy, good news. They've got you. They're digging right now, okay? So just keep breathing and you'll be out of there in no time."
"Will... do..." Billy wheezed faintly.
Rick had dropped the radio but hadn't switched it off, so in his ear Michael could still hear the scrape of shovels and the whump of falling soil, accompanied by the occasional grunt as Rick and Casey dug.
"Just a few more minutes," he cajoled, worrying, despite the imminence of rescue, about how the sound of Billy's ragged panting was growing quieter against the scrape and rumble of the digging.
Except, it wasn't growing quieter. Michael frowned as the feedback in the earwig seemed to develop an odd echo. The digging was growing louder, and it wasn't just in his earwig anymore.
It was above him.
And the pit fell out of Michael's stomach. "No. No no no... God DAMMIT!" he shouted, even as he heard the thunk of metal striking wood–
"They've just pulled over," Michael reported.
Billy almost dared to hope. He wanted out. Good God he wanted out of here. And now there was a chance that rescue could be at hand – that he'd survived to see it. His head was pounding, but he made himself respond, smiling weakly. "Tha's... good..."
Michael had kept him calm. Michael had talked to him. Michael had kept him from being alone, and Michael was getting him rescued. If Billy got out of here – when he got out of here – he was buying Michael Dorset a drink.
"Billy, good news. They've got you. They're digging right now, okay? So just keep breathing and you'll be out of there in no time."
Billy drew a ragged breath of relief. Keep breathing. He could do that. Though the air he filled his lungs with didn't seem to be doing any good; he suspected that if he wasn't immersed in darkness, his vision would be swimming and possibly going spotty at the edges. But he'd keep inhaling whatever oxygen was left, buoyed by the knowledge that it was almost over.
"Will... do..." he managed. Rescue was coming. Rescue had arrived. He was getting out, he was going to live–
Then Michael swore and started shouting. Billy frowned, then felt his heart skip a beat at the sudden noise on the other end of the connection. There was a thud and a rumble and a creak and a familiar, muted voice saying, "Michael?"
Then more rumbling. Then static.
Billy let out a shuddering, painful breath as realization took hold. The team had found one of the graves. They'd been digging. Rescue had arrived.
Just not for him.
They'd found the wrong grave.
That was all Michael could think, feeling despair even as his own salvation arrived. They'd found the wrong grave and Billy was out of time. He'd told Billy they'd come for him. He'd promised...
He shouted in frustration, swearing violently as his tenuous composure cracked and shattered. It had been a long shot, they'd all knew; a matter of luck. Michael had gotten lucky, being found before the clock ran out, a single patch of dirt in an entire country of desert. Michael had gotten lucky, and Billy hadn't, and Billy didn't have any air left.
Michael's curses were cut short, however, when the roof of his coffin shifted and dirt spilled in, making him spit and choke as a shower of grime fell across his face. When he blinked away the particles, eyes tearing up against the sudden onslaught of light, he was treated to the sight of Casey standing over him, straddling the coffin with a crowbar in hand, and Rick leaning over the edge with a shovel in hand.
"Michael?" Rick said, expression a torn mix of joy and dismay.
Michael wanted to weep. Wanted to shout and wanted to hug his team and smack them all at once. Instead, he simply took deep breaths of fresh air, his head spinning as Casey grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to his feet.
"Martinez, haul him out," Casey instructed, but before Rick could grab Michael's shoulders and pull him from the grave, Michael tore away.
"The radio!" he cried, falling to his knees and scrabbling frantically through the dirt in the coffin until he pulled the small radio free. "Billy!" he shouted into it, though he had no idea what he could even say, how he could even begin to explain...
He didn't want to die.
He didn't want to die.
He didn't want to die.
But, Billy realized, almost numbly, he was going to anyway. Alone and in the dark.
Michael had been rescued. He knew he ought to take solace in that, and perhaps it was some small comfort. Michael would live. Michael deserved to live. That was good, at least.
But Billy was out of time. And even as Michael's voice broke through the static on the radio, Billy found himself hitting the switch on his end. If nothing else, Michael wouldn't have to listen to his dying gasps. Enough of his dignity had been lost already.
He could hardly hear anything over the roar of blood in his ears anyhow. His lungs burned, desperate for oxygen, and he couldn't feel his extremities anymore. His head throbbed and his senses were all slipping away as his body began to just shut down.
It was too late, he knew. He wondered if they'd find and dig his body up anyhow. He liked to think they would, though there was a certain tidiness about leaving him interred...
Dead men belonged in graves anyhow.
And Billy knew now that he'd been foolish to hope. He'd known from the beginning, he realized, when he'd first given in to his terror and his panic, that this was the only outcome. He'd tried to convince himself otherwise, but the truth had been lingering all this time. That he was going to die.
That he was already dead.
"Billy!" Michael shouted into the radio, voice filled with pain and fear, tears running unchecked down his cheeks and leaving tracks in the layer of dirt. "Billy!"
Rick looked to Casey helplessly. Against all odds, they'd found and saved one of their teammates. But in doing so, it looked like they might have condemned the other. Michael was finally going to pieces and Billy...
But Casey didn't meet Rick's gaze. Instead, he was staring fixedly at Michael's radio. "Michael. Give me that."
Michael looked up, an expression of confusion on his face. He looked lost, and Rick felt suddenly embarrassed, casting his gaze down and away.
Casey sighed. "Michael, I need to see that radio."
Michael swallowed, glancing down at the radio that hadn't made a sound since they'd dug him up, then handed it to Casey. Malick inspected it for a few seconds, then looked up at Rick. "This is a short-range radio."
It took a moment to sink in. Rick blinked. "How short?"
"Buried underground? Pretty damn short," Casey replied, climbing out of the grave then turning to grab Michael by the arm, pulling him out after.
Rick didn't need prompting. He had the computer back in his hands and was pulling up the screen with the potential locations they'd isolated. "Hang on, almost got – there's another blip a few hundred yards from here!"
"Then let's go!" Casey snapped, grabbing the shovel and the crowbar and heading back to the van.
"We're going to need to hurry," Michael said, recovering somewhat from the daze of grief and panic, to Rick's immense relief.
"Believe me," Casey shouted as he climbed into the driver's seat. "I plan to."
Billy couldn't breathe. There was no air left. Nothing left at all.
It was almost over.
He didn't want to die.
But as the radio slipped from his numb fingers, Billy finally surrendered.
Michael had thought it had been a struggle to breathe in the coffin. But now, in the open, with all the air in the world, he found himself holding his breath.
The van ride was short. After less than a minute of rumbling over the desert terrain, Rick had called for a halt. Climbing out, they'd spread and separated, each searching the ground for signs of disturbances; for newly overturned earth. Casey had given the shout that brought Rick and Michael running to where he stood.
Over a fresh grave.
They only had the two shovels, but Michael fell to his knees and began digging with his hands, clawing away the loose soil by the handful. His chest was painfully tight, filled with the fear that they might not have made it soon enough - that too much time might have elapsed -
They dug quickly, but it felt like an eon to work their way down into a deep hole. His torn and bloody hands smarted and his eyes stung and his chest ached. His whole body was strung tight as a wire with desperation.
When Martinez' shovel finally struck something with a hollow sound, Michael's heart leapt into his mouth even as the bottom of his stomach plummeted.
They dug with renewed fervor, excavating the edges of the coffin, then fell to their knees and pulled away the rest of the soil with their hands, clearing the split and broken casket. Casey took the crowbar and pried away one of the splintered pieces with a cracking sound, and then another.
Michael cried out his name, but there was no response. Billy's face was ashen underneath the dark layer of dirt that covered him and surrounded him; his eyes were closed and his features were unmoving.
It couldn't be too late. Michael wouldn't accept that they were too late.
"Help me pull him out," he ordered. They tugged Billy free from the wreckage of the coffin, hauling his limp body up out of the grave and laying it out on the sand.
Casey looked over at Michael, eyes wide and somber. "He isn't breathing."
Billy's lips were blue, his chest still.
It couldn't be too late...
"No," Michael said, shaking his head. He'd promised. "No. Billy. Billy, come on..."
He reached out and shook Billy, but the other operative remained limp. Michael made a noise of frustration, then pulled Billy's ruined jacket away and pressed his ear to Billy's chest, hoping with all his heart that there was something left to prove him not to be a liar.
And there was a beat. Weak and almost inaudible, but then followed by another.
Billy wasn't breathing. But Michael wasn't giving up on him yet.
"Come on you Scottish sonofabitch, don't do this to me now!" Michael snarled, tilting Billy's head back to clear his airway, then leaning over him and pinching Billy's nose shut, blowing two breaths into Billy's mouth.
Casey and Rick had stepped back, giving him space; their postures tentative; expressions agonized.
"Come on, Billy," Michael pleaded, checking Billy's erratic and shallow pulse again. "Just breathe, okay? You're gonna be fine..."
He delivered two more breaths. And two more.
"Just breathe," he begged, barely more than a whisper.
And then, finally Billy twitched. And coughed. And took a breath.
Michael fell back, trembling with exhaustion and relief. "That's it," he murmured. "Just keep breathing..."
And Billy did.
It was dark.
But not pitch dark. There was a soft, dim light filtering in, enough to illuminate the room once Billy blinked the grit away from his gummed-up eyes.
A room. With light. Not a coffin. Not a box in the dark where he'd been left to die, gasping as the earth poured in and the air ran out-
Billy sat up, his nerves suddenly on end, heart hammering against his chest in memory of the terror.
"Easy, Collins. Just take a breath..." A hand on his shoulder gently pushed him back on to the pillow. Billy knew that voice, no longer distorted by static; he recognized it. Trusted it.
So Billy took a breath. And another. Because he could breathe; there was air aplenty and light and space and he wasn't pinned beneath the ground and he wasn't dying.
He wasn't dead.
Billy blinked, looking over at Michael, who was fussing with a bit of thin rubber tubing attached to a battered canister – the kind they kept compressed air in. "You almost ripped your oxygen out," Michael mumbled, prompting Billy to notice the nasal cannula strung across his face and promptly pull it away, unhooking it from his ears and disrupting the oxygen feed.
They were in what looked like a motel room; cheap, judging from the scratchy, starchy quality of the sheets and the insufficient cooling provided by the lazily-spinning ceiling fan. But still in Afghanistan, if the heat was any indicator.
"I'm not dead," Billy heard himself say, though his voice was hoarse and strange sounding.
Michael looked up from the tubing, meeting Billy's gaze. Then, he smiled. "Told you so."
Billy flinched. "I know. I'm... sorry. I just thought..."
Michael's smile faded. "Yeah, well. For a minute there I did too. You scared the crap out of us."
Billy looked down. Scared. He'd been so scared. His terror had left him nearly out of his mind, panicked and pathetic. He'd fallen apart; a gibbering mess where he ought to have been a rational, capable operative. "I reckon after... I reckon I just sort of gave up," he confessed, unable to meet Michael's gaze. Shame. That's what this was. Billy was ashamed of himself.
"That's okay," Michael replied quietly. "Because I didn't."
And that was the crux of it. Michael had kept calm and had held on to hope, even when Billy hadn't. Michael had been strong. "Proof that you're a far better operative than I," Billy murmured ruefully.
Michael snorted. "Bullshit."
Billy looked up.
Michael sighed. "I've seen you talk down Martinez when the kid's been a mess. I've seen you defuse a situation when everyone was trigger-happy as hell and you didn't have a gun. You're good under pressure," he insisted.
"Just not under ground," Billy remarked.
Michael shrugged. "Everyone has their weakness."
Billy shook his head. "It was more than that. I was just so bloody..." he balled his hands into fists, leaning back into the cushions and staring at the stained ceiling. "I was so bloody scared, damnit. I was a mess. I was..." he searched for the words. Words had always been Billy's ally, his best weapon. But words had abandoned him as he'd been reduced to a gasping wreck in the dark, and his eloquence had yet to return to him here in the motel room. "I was helpless," he finally concluded. "I couldn't talk my way out of it. I couldn't fight my way out of it. I couldn't do a sodding thing. I had no control. Over any of it," he seethed, tensing as he relived echoes of the frustration and the anguish...
"Yeah," Michael said quietly. "I think I know how that is."
And when Billy turned his head and looked back at his teammate, he realized that Michael wasn't talking about being buried.
"You weren't the only one scared. I was half out of my mind by the time we hauled you out, if it's any consolation," Michael added, wincing slightly at the confession. "But the fact is, we both got out. And all things considered, I don't think anyone's gonna blame you for wigging out a bit given the circumstances."
Billy considered this. "They were pretty unpleasant circumstances," he finally said lamely.
Michael snorted, then grinned. "Unpleasant? It was like one of those bad horror movies. Everyone at Langley's gonna think we're making it up."
The corner of Billy's mouth twitched. "It does give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'in grave danger.'"
At that, Michael groaned. "Puns? Really? You have no shame, do you?"
Billy couldn't help but smile a bit. "Must've left it underground." He pressed his lips together, taking a deep breath. "Thanks. For not giving up on me."
Michael leaned back in his chair and smiled back. "Hey, no problem. That's why we work in a team."
And the ODS was a team. A team that refused to give up on one another; a team that trusted each other to pull through; a team that kept one another grounded, and balanced out each other's fears. And as it turned out, a team that would dig its members up when they got buried alive in the desert by psychotic warlords.
They were also team that apparently had a sixth sense built in for knowing when someone had finally woken up. Billy sat up as the door clicked and saw Michael reach for his gun in the corner of his vision. They both relaxed, however, as Martinez and Malick entered the room. "Hey, you're awake!" Rick exclaimed joyfully.
"About time," Casey grumbled, shutting the door behind him and sliding the lock into place. "We were worrying you were brain damaged. Not that I personally imagined there'd be much of a difference."
Billy was still working on a witty retort when Michael interrupted. "How did it go?" he asked, expression serious.
Billy frowned. "How did what go?"
"It, uh, went well," Rick answered, looking from Michael to Billy. "We were, ah, at Karzai's compound."
"You what? Are you out of your bleeding minds?" Billy exclaimed, anxiety pitting in his stomach once more at the recollection of where this all started.
"Remember how we got to play with a DOD satellite to find your sorry ass?" Casey drawled. "Well, Martinez here had the bright idea to hang on to the codes for a little while after we dug you up."
"It wasn't exactly sanctioned, but..." Rick trailed off and grinned sheepishly. "We got a lead. Casey and I just got back from scouting through some of the tunnels we uncovered beneath the compound."
"Should be enough for the military to justify sending a SEAL team in after Karzai. Guy's sitting on a veritable arsenal," Casey added, handing a small camera over to Michael. "Sonofabitch is going down."
"Good," Michael seethed with dark satisfaction.
"Only wish it was us and not the military," Billy grumbled. "I'd like to put him in a pine box and see how he likes it."
Casey raised an eyebrow. "Feeling a bit vengeful, are we?"
Billy stopped. Yes, he was glad Karzai was going to face justice. But in the dark, in the ground... even if the warlord had put him there, he hadn't been the enemy. The dark had been the enemy. Billy's own fear had been the enemy.
And if Billy wanted vengeance, then he would simply have to conquer that fear.
"Bugger ruined a perfectly good suit," he finally answered with a sniff. "And I'll have you know, that one was tailored. Not to mention I now have dirt in unmentionable places," he added, making a face and looking down at his still-filthy body.
Michael threw his hands in the air defensively. "Hey, rescue breathing I will do for you, but even that's pushing it. I draw the damn line at sponge baths, so if you want a shower, the bathroom is that way."
Rick chuckled and Casey rolled his eyes, failing to fully suppress a grin. Billy smiled, looking at his team and realizing that despite his fears, trapped underground in the blackness, he'd never truly been alone.
And above ground or below it, he never would be.
Spies were often buried in unmarked graves.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was a fact of being an operative. Sometimes, you couldn't plan for everything. Sometimes, you weren't in control. Sometimes, nightmares came true and the weight of the world came crashing down to smother you. You were left out in the cold to rot, and all trace of your existence would be wiped from the record.
Some spies were buried in unmarked graves.
But some spies, if they were lucky, found their way out of the dark.
And some spies came home.