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Chaos fic: The Way the World Ends 1/1

July 15th, 2011 (11:41 am)
Tags: ,

Title:  The Way the World Ends

Disclaimer:  Not mine.

A/N:  eviinsanemonkey   asked for team peril; this is the way the world ends. While I managed to keep this from being too dark, it did decide it wanted a plot.  Therefore, thanks to moogsthewriter   for the very helpful beta since apparently when I type too quickly I lose the ability to conjugate verbs.  Also, while it has a plot, don't expect the plot to actual hold up under any kind of analysis.  Just saying :)

Summary:  It’s such a unexpected thing that Rick barely has time to register it before the entire mission just caves in.

-o-

It starts with a bang.

Until that point, the mission has been boring and predictable, so the sudden change comes as more of a surprise than normal.  After all, this mission is a non-issue.  It’s a babysitting check on an abandoned satellite that crashed in the Canadian arctic years ago.  There’s been a little chatter about it being compromised, and a team needs to check it out as a precaution.

It’s important, of course, because all potential threats to national security are important.  But a three day hike into the Canadian wilderness to check on a rusting piece of metal is not the high stakes that Rick’s used to.  After all he’s survived and accomplished, he can’t deny that it feels a little below his pay grade.

“It’s our mission,” Michael had said simply.

“You can never trust Canada,” Casey told him.

“Even right heroes like ourselves need to tackle the easy stuff every now and then,” Billy said, smiling.

From there, the mission has been nothing if not smooth and easy, like unbroken fields of Canadian ice, until suddenly, it’s not.

The bang comes from nowhere, resounding loudly in Rick’s ears until he thinks he might go deaf.  It’s such a unexpected thing that he barely has time to register it before the entire mission just caves in.

There’s a rush of air and the wind whistles in his ears, and when Rick hits the ground, he can still hear the bang echoing in his head as the entire world blinks out.

-o-

It’s dark.

Rick blinks his eyes, once then twice, and tries to catch his breath.  It’s harder than it should be, and harder still to see.  He can hear his own breathing, ragged in his chest, heart pounding in his ears.

He shifts, and his body hurts.  There’s a stabbing pain in his leg and another working its ways through his arm.  He winces and tries not to cry, but it’s harder than it should be.

“What happened?” he asks, trusting implicitly that there’s someone there to answer him.  His voice echoes hollowly in the dark space.

“Mine shaft,” comes Michael’s reply.  His voice sounds pinched, but a second later there’s a flicker of light and a flashlight beam hits Rick in the eyes.

Rick flinches away.  The beam points downward and Rick looks back up at Michael.  “A mine shaft?” he asks.

Michael’s expression is stiff, just like his posture.  He’s got a cut on his head and his other arm is poised loosely in front of his chest.  “They’re all over this region,” he says.  “During early exploration, people thought there might be something hiding beneath the snow.”

To Michael’s right, someone stirs.  Casey sits up abruptly, inhaling sharply.  His face creases with pain for a moment.  “That was one hell of a drop,” he mutters, slightly breathless.

Michael is getting to his feet, eyeing their confines as he sweeps the beam around its perimeter.  “With all the snow up top, there was no way we could have seen it coming,” he says, starting to walk off the narrow walls of their space.  “You two okay?”

Casey takes another breath and grunts.  “Some broken ribs,” he reports.  “Probable sprained ankle.  Uncomfortable but workable.”

Rick nods, wincing at the fresh movement.  “I think my arm and my leg,” he says haltingly, hoping the pain in his voice says enough. 

“And Billy?” Michael prompts, shining his light up the walls.

Rick follows the beam upward, sees it disappear into a small, bleak opening, 20 feet up.

Another flashlight switches on, and Rick looks back down to see that Casey has moved.  He’s on his knees, flashlight pointed down to the prone form in front of him.  “Billy’s bad,” he says.

Michael’s flashlight bounces back, the garish light showing the fresh bruises on Casey’s grim features.  “Bad how?”

“Possible spinal injuries and definite concussion,” Casey reports.  “And his breathing is already compromised.  Ribs are crunchy, so I’d say internal damage is likely.  Since he’s not gargling on blood already, I would guess he’s probably missed a total lung perforation for now, but it’s definitely not ideal.”

Rick hears the diagnosis and doesn’t know what to think.  The words make sense in theory, but the practical application is harder to grasp.  He looks back at Michael, expecting some kind of miracle.

Michael stands ramrod straight for a moment, jaw working.  “Then I guess we need a plan.”

-o-

Huddled together, Michael keeps his flashlight on but Casey has his put away.  Billy is still on the ground, rolled onto his side.  Casey sits just next to him, as if to feel the stunted rhythm of his breathing.

“So, what are our options,” Michael asks.

“Cell phone reception is going to be nonexistent,” Casey says.  “Even up top, we didn’t have anything.”

“What about our emergency beacon?” Rick asks.

“Possible,” Casey accedes.  “But we’re talking remote Canada here.  Even if they can triangulate our position from Langley, it would take time to work out a rescue operation.”

“Especially since the Canadians aren’t going to be thrilled about the idea of American spies on their soil,” Michael contends.

“It’s our only hope,” Rick says.  He nods toward the shaft.  “It’s too wide to climb.  And our car is parked three days back.  In our conditions, there’s no way we can walk it.”

It’s a dire predicament and Rick feels his stomach go cold just saying it.  He hates being the voice of reason sometimes, but there’s nothing else he can say.

Michael takes it in.  He takes a breath and nods.  “We set the beacon,” he says.  “And then we set up for a long wait.”

It sounds reasonable.  Practical.  Rick thinks, maybe this won’t be so bad.

-o-

Once Michael sets the emergency beacon, he has them all take stock of supplies. 

“How long do you think we’ll be here?” Rick finds himself asking as they lay out the contents of their packs on the cold ground.

Michael looks at him for a long moment.  “A few days,” he says finally.

Casey scoffs.  “Minimum,” he says.  “It took us three days to hike to this location.  There are no usable roads.  We’re nothing but warm needles in a very cold and desolate haystack.”

Michael’s expression doesn’t shift.  “Maybe a week,” he concedes.

Rick’s eyes dart to Casey, who looks dubious, but doesn’t argue.

Rick tries to take comfort in this. 

-o-

The contents of their backpacks are splayed before them.  There’s enough food for four days per person and they each have a flashlight with a few sets of extra batteries.  They have guns and ammo, though that doesn’t seem particularly helpful, and there’s basic survival gear, including matches and thermal blankets.

It’s not a bad supply set and Michael seems to review it contently.  “Good,” he says.  “We still need to ration the food and be sparing with the batteries, just in case.  Our main goal is to stay warm and healthy.”

“Billy’s going to need first aid,” Casey reminds them, nodding back to the Scottish operative who has still showed no signs of waking.

“We’ll watch him closely then,” Michael says.  “And I want to assess each of you to make sure we don’t have any other unexpected medical surprises.”

Rick nods readily.  “And we should search the cavern,” he suggests.  “I know in the American southwest, these kinds of mines were often created in a network.  We might be able to find another access point.”

“As long as we’re careful,” Casey says with due restraint.  “Given the age of these things, one wrong move could have the entire thing caving in.”

“It’s still a good thought,” Michael says.  “Once I take a look at you, we’ll see what we can find.”

-o-

Michael is efficient in his examination.  He feels Rick’s arm and his leg, running one hand along Rick’s torso and pressing on his ribs.  He watches Rick’s face carefully as he winces with each touch.

“Leg is broken,” he confirms when he pulls away.  “But I think your wrist is only sprained.  You got lucky with your ribs--only fractures.  Keep your movements slow and steady and I think you’ll be fine.”

Rick tries to smile.

Michael moves to Casey, who glowers at him.  “I told you already,” he says curtly.

Michael inclines his head.  “Humor me,” he says.

Casey scowls but submits as Michael gives him the same once over, taking the time to shine a light in Casey’s eyes before it’s over.  Sitting back, Michael nods.  “Watch the ribs,” he says. 

Casey rolls his eyes.  “Since I was planning on doing jumping jacks,” he mutters.

Michael’s smile is faint as he moves from Casey to Billy.

Rick can’t help it if he leans closer, trying to get a better look at the Scottish man under Michael’s direct beam of light.  It strikes him as odd to see him so still and so silent.  Billy’s never one to take peril in silence, and Rick realizes now why this mission feels so much more tense than before.  Without Billy’s friendly commentary, Rick has time to realize just how dire things might be.

And getting his first real look at Billy, Rick realizes that dire may not be a strong enough word.

Billy’s face is swathed with blood.  Under the bare light, his features are pale and slack.  As Michael feels down his body, Billy seems to flinch, face contorting in pain.  Michael carefully undoes his jacket, pulling up Billy’s shirts and shining his flashlight against the pale skin on Billy’s stomach and chest.  Even in the dimness, the vivid formation of bruises is evident.

With a sigh, Michael pulls the shirt back down, repositioning Billy’s coat.

He pulls away without a word.

Rick stares after him.  “Well?”

Michael glances at Rick.  “Well?”

“How is he?”

Michael’s face is stony.  “We may be able to eek out two weeks down here with our supplies,” he says.  “You, Casey, and I will be fine.”

Rick feels his stomach churn, his throat suddenly tight.  “And Billy?”

“Casey’s right,” Michael says, his voice perfunctory, as though he’s stating the weather report and not the medical prognosis of a friend and teammate.  “He probably has a punctured lung and I can’t rule out other internal bleeds.  Billy won’t make it three days.”

-o-

It’s awkward after that.  Michael and Casey go about business as usual.  Michael paces off the confines of the space, running his hands along the walls.  Casey sets about organizing their supplies, leaving Rick to sit idly next to Billy.

“Is there something I should be doing?” he asks.

Michael doesn’t look at him.  Casey offers him something of a glare.  “You are doing it,” he says tersely.

“I’m sitting here,” Rick says.  Moving with a broken leg is hard, even after Michael put a splint on, and now that the pain has abated to a manageable level, he feels useless leaned against the wall, Billy’s head next to his bundled leg.

“Exactly,” Casey replies. 

“But shouldn’t I be helping?” Rick asks. 

“You’ve got a broken leg, Martinez,” Michael reminds him with a look over his shoulder.  “Your priority right now is to not exacerbate your injuries.”

Rick frowns, and can’t help his protests.  He’s a trained operative.  He feels useless here like this.  “But--”

Casey sighs and Rick stops.

Rick’s shoulders fall and for a moment, he just sits there, listening to the harsh ebb and flow of Billy’s breathing.  He looks at the taller operative, feeling suddenly cold.  “I just want to do something useful.”

“You are doing something useful,” Casey tells him plainly.  “We need someone there to make sure that Billy keeps on breathing.”

The statement is terse, but Rick can hear the notes of fear and worry underneath it.

Working his jaw, Rick looks back at Billy and watches him for a moment.  It’s a surreal sort of thing, to see one of his teammates wounded.  They’ve been banged up before, but Michael’s ominous words are still echoing in his head.  Three days.

It seems like a lifetime.

But looking at Billy, Rick has to wonder for the first time if it’ll be long enough.

Unconsciously, Rick edges closer to Billy, resting his hand on the ground next to him so he can feel Billy’s hot breath in the growing chill of Canadian air.

-o-

Rick has to work to stop his lower half from going numb.  It’s hard to say if it’s his injuries or the growing cold or just the mere fact that he’s been sitting for hours, but it’s something of a chore as he shifts from one position to another, feeling pins and needles give way to buzzing before he starts the process again.

Casey and Michael seem to practice the same repetitive movements.  They take turns walking the walls, feeling and looking, while the other stations at the supplies, sorting and resorting.

They’re all just looking for something to do, trying not to accept the fact that they’re stuck down a hole with no means to save themselves.  Without Billy, small talk is hard to come by and while they exchange short pleasantries and inquiries, it’s mostly quiet.

Still, they have to do something.  So Rick shifts, Casey checks, and Michael walks.

And next to them, Billy keeps breathing, one grating breath after the next.

-o-

At nightfall, Michael gives up his search.  He settles down heavily and sighs.  “We’ll look again in the morning,” he says.

“The morning light might give us better sight anyway,” Casey says.

Michael nods.  “We need to prepare for tonight.”

“We have matches,” Casey says.  “And decent ventilation.”

“But nothing to burn,” Rick says, because he’s already thought about this.  The hours of sitting have been long and tiresome, and he’s gone over the logical next steps in his mind. 

“So we keep close and use the blankets,” Michael says decisively as he pulls out his thermal blanket from the pile of supplies.  Billy’s already been wrapped in his and Rick has one draped over his lap.  “Since we’re underground, we should be out of risk of immediate hypothermia.”

“And for this one night,” Casey says, gathering his own blanket and scooting closer to Rick, “it’s time not to be shy about personal space.”

Rick doesn’t even have time to protest before Casey’s pressed up next to him and Michael sidles in around Billy, mindful of the injured man’s position.

It is an awkward sort of thing, but as the night settles and the cold grips them, Rick doesn’t stop himself from slumping into Casey as his eyes close and the night stretches on into interminable darkness.

-o-

Rick wakes to a whimper.

It’s a small noise, and Rick ignores it the first time.

When he hears it again, he shifts position and his head rolls off Casey’s shoulder and he remembers where he is.  He comes to and pain assaults him.  Gritting his teeth, Rick bites back a scream.

By the time he’s finally coherent, the pain has abated in his leg, but it’s still hard to catch his breath.  The cold is making his chest feel tight and his head feel fuzzy.  He has to work through it, and when he does, the whimpering has stopped.  With effort, Rick looks down to find Billy’s blue eyes, large and blinking in the shaft of morning sunlight pouring in from up above.

It’s such a surprise that Rick startles.  “Billy?” he asks.

Billy blinks and his eyes seem to take a moment before they fix on Rick.  “Are we dead?” he asks, and he’s so sincere in the question that Rick has to laugh.

“Not exactly,” he says.

“Oh,” Billy replies, somewhat thoughtfully.  “So we’re just stuck, injured and abandoned in the cold Canadian wasteland.”  He nods, closing his eyes for another moment before looking wearily again at Rick.  “That’s certainly reassuring to know.”

-o-

It only takes a moment for the rest of the team to come to total awareness.  They all seem to have an innate sense about those kind of things.

Of course, when Billy starts in with a whooping cough, Rick’s pretty sure that every living creature within ten miles is probably shaken awake.

Which, coincidentally, is probably just the four of them.

Casey sets about the space, presumably performing a fresh search.  The early morning light shines in at a different angle, and it’s much lighter than before.  But Michael seems intent on Billy for the time being, propping him up slightly to assess his condition better.

Billy endures the examination with good humor.  When Michael’s hand run under his shirt, he winces but hides it with a smile.  “I didn’t realize we were taking things to the next level,” he quips, his body tense as Michael presses against what Rick can only assume is tender skin.  “Had I known, I would have prepared for the occasion more thoroughly.”

Michael barely offers him a smile back.  “Your chest is a mess,” he says bluntly.

“Aw, that’s nothing,” Billy says lightly as Michael puts his shirt back in place.  “I’ve had worse.”

Somehow this doesn’t seem reassuring to Rick.

Michael lifts his eyebrows.  “I know,” he says.  “But still, you need to be careful.  You may be bleeding in places we can’t treat this far out.”

“No excessive movements,” Billy says with a knowing nod as he takes an unsteady breath.  “Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

Michael tries to smile, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.  “You have feeling in your legs?”

“If a constant throb constitutes a feeling, then yes,” Billy says tightly.  He swallows hard against the pain.  “I think so.”

Michael sits back on his heels, nodding.  “That’s something, then,” he says.  “Martinez here managed to bust his leg in the fall.”

Billy looks up at Rick with something of a smile.  “Another war wound,” he muses.  “Sadly, a broken leg rarely earns you a commendation, but it certainly proves your mettle with us, lad.”

“I thought I already had your trust,” Rick says, trying to sniffle discreetly.

“Trust and respect,” Billy agrees with a nod.  “But now you’re earning your reputation for prowess and bravery in the field.”

“I fell down a mineshaft,” Rick says, turning his head away to cough slightly.

Billy shrugs.  “It’s all in how you spin it,” he says.  “You held firm, testing your spirits and your body, even when the bottom literally dropped out of a mission.”

Rick laughs, wiping at his nose.  “I suppose that does sound better.”

Billy nods, coughing.  It’s a powerful cough and he curls over for a moment while it pulses throughout his body.  When he’s done, he looks back at Rick, eyes glistening and sweat on his forehead.  “Aye,” he says and his mouth stretches back into the semblance of a smile.  “That it does.”

Rick’s smile falls and he glances at Michael.  Michael’s expression is mostly impassive but there’s a fresh gleam of worry in his eyes. 

“Well, I guess you’ll have to do all the talking on this one when we get back,” Rick says, forcing the levity into his voice.

Billy nods, taking shallow, harsh breaths.

Michael intervenes, a hand heavy on Billy’s shoulder.  “The bad news is, we probably won’t be getting out of here soon,” he says.  “So I need you to take it easy.”

It’s said as a suggestion, but it’s just as much an order and a plea.

Billy smiles weakly in return.  “I just do that,” he says.  “Let you fine gents do the hard work for once.”

Michael’s hand stays on his shoulder a moment longer, and Rick shivers when the morning seems inexplicably colder.

-o-

Casey comes back up to the group.  He’s breathing slightly heavy, listing a bit to one side.  But his look is matter of fact as he says, “I may have some good news.”

Michael straightens and Billy’s eyes flicker to him.  Rick manages to rotate slightly to look at him fully. 

“I think I found a way out,” Casey continues, and his voice is so even that Rick thinks for a minute he misheard him.

But as his eyes look behind Casey, he can quickly see what they’d missed in the setting sun last night.  The makings of a small tunnel, dug into the frozen ground.  It’s low and small but seems more than slightly established.

“Do we know how far it goes?” Michael asks.

“Another cavern, not more than fifteen feet,” Casey reports.  “It’ll be a tight fit--”

“But doable,” Michael concludes getting to his feet and walking closer.  He kneels down gingerly, shining flashlight through.  Then he sits back, shaking his head.  “That is definitely good news.”

-o-

It’s good news, but the bad news is still relevant.  As they sit together and share a breakfast, Billy’s still not able to sit up straight and his appetite is meager.  Rick’s chest feels tight in a way that never goes away and his leg is starting to go numb.

“We’ll have to split up,” Michael says, giving voice to the inevitable they’ve all thought of.

“It’s still a three-day hike,” Rick reminds him.

“But only a day from cell phone coverage,” Casey counters.  “And it’s easier to spot people walking on the ground rather than in a hole.”

“Then it’s a must,” Billy says.  He draws a breath, coughing slightly.  “I don’t even see much point in the discussion.”

“It’s still a dangerous choice,” Michael cautions.

“You can both make the walk,” Billy says.

Michael’s jaw tenses and he looks away.

Rick feels his stomach shift.   He stifles a cough and holds back a sneeze.

Billy’s face falls.  “Bloody hell,” he says, realization dawning on his face.  “You don’t think I’ll last.”

Michael takes a breath and looks up, shaking his head.  “If your lung is punctured--”

“Then I’m a dead man whether you stay or go,” Billy replies.  “I know you and Casey have excellent skills as field medics, but somehow I doubt your piecemeal training includes a chest tube.”

“We’d do it if we had to,” Casey says plainly.

Billy meets his eyes.  “What, and sacrifice all of us?” he says.

“Help is on the way,” Michael points out.

“We don’t know their ETA,” Billy says, more vehemently.  “The signal could be lost, for all we know.”

“It’s not,” Michael says.

“It’ll still take them too long,” he says.  “We have the rations but with this cold, there’s no telling how well you’ll fare.  And we all know that Rick’s coming down with something.”

Rick blinks, surprised.  “I’m fine,” he protests.

Billy looks at him plainly.  “Laddie, I can hear your lungs crackling even over my own.”

Michael sighs.  “It’s a no win situation,” he admits.

Rick finds himself gaping.  “I feel fine--”  But even as he says it, he realizes it’s a lie.  He’s been attributing it to the cold and the fall, but the pressure in his nose and chest is more than that.

“And you will be fine once we get out of here,” Billy says and he turns a pointed look at Michael.  “It’s the smart choice.  For all of us.”

Michael sighs, looking at Casey, who nods.  Michael looks at his hands.  He nods then looks up with new resolve.  “I know,” he says, his eyes turning from one team member to the next.  “I know.”

-o-

The decision is made.  Michael and Casey will take the bare minimum supplies.  “We can’t be slowed down,” Michael explains at Rick’s look.

“And we won’t fit through that passage way with much more than that,” Casey adds.

Rick and Billy will stay behind, with orders to stay fed and warm.  Resting is good; movement is ill advised.  “For both of you,” Michael stresses, looking purposefully at Rick.

“I’m fine,” Rick says, puffing his chest out despite the fact that it feels so poorly.  He can’t insist on going with his leg, but he doesn’t want to be babied, not when Billy is clearly so much worse.

Michael is not impressed.  “So you’re not having trouble breathing and starting to come down with a fever?”

Rick opens his mouth to protest.

Michael shakes his head.  “You are becoming one of us,” he says. 

Billy grins feebly from his spot on the floor.  “And that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

-o-

When things are ready, it’s barely mid-morning.  Rick feels exhausted, even though he hasn’t done much but sit.  Billy is still propped next to him on his side, and his eyes are open but seem dull with pain.

With their gear together, Michael kneels back down in front of them.  He runs a hand over Billy’s brow before resting it on his chest.  “Don’t try anything heroic,” he orders.

“If I’m going to make the effort for a rescue operation, I expect you to be alive when I get back,” Casey adds.

Billy offers them a half-smile.  “Even if it is in my nature, I think my current physical limitations are persuasive in this instance.”

Michael squeezes his shoulder before looking at Rick.  He presses a quick hand to Rick’s forehead, and the heat makes Rick flinch.  “Stay warm and fed,” he says to Rick.  “Even something as silly as a cold can be a problem in these conditions.”

Rick blinks and tries to figure out how everyone saw this coming except him.  “I’m fine,” he says.

Michael manages a smile.  “Of course you are,” he says.  “And you’re going to have to be.  You’re in charge until we get back.”

Rick’s eyes goes to Billy, who is looking at him tiredly.  He looks back at Michael and swallows hard.  “I can do that,” he says.

“Good,” Michael says, getting to his feet.  “Because we will be back.”

The words are sure and resolute.  Rick believes him.

Even as he and Casey smuggle their way through the opening, Rick believes him because Michael is true to his word and steadfast in his commitment to his team.  He will come back.

But, as the sound of Casey’s and Michael’s voices fade away into silence, Rick realizes no promise or resolution can ensure that there will still be two people left to rescue by the time they get back.

-o-

Rick isn’t sure how much time has passed.  Seconds are slow; time is long.

After a while, Billy coughs.  When he settles, he groans.  “This certainly isn’t one of the more glorious injuries I’ve managed to suffer,” he says.

Rick turns his head toward Billy.  “I thought you said it’s all in the presentation.”

“After the fact,” Billy amends.  “When you’re going through it, the details certainly do make a profound difference.”

Rick can’t disagree with that.  “So what was your worst?” he asks finally, both curious and bored.

“Oh, you want me to pick one?” Billy asks.  He shakes his head.  “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Better or worse than getting shot in South America?” Rick asks.

A smile spreads over Billy’s face.  “Oh, come now, mate,” he says.  “Six years with the CIA and several before that with the Brits, and you think I can’t top a gunshot to the leg?”

Rick shrugs.  “Try me.”

Something sparkles in Billy’s eyes, and for a moment, Rick forgets where they are.  It feels like it’s supposed to, dangers they can face with style and a smile.  “There was an incident in Russia,” Billy begins.  “It’s sort of a long story, but it involves a pitchfork and ends with a veterinarian performing surgery with nothing but local anesthetic.”

Rick frowns.  “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Billy’s smile widens and his mouth opens to continue when he coughs instead.  At first, the cough seems to taper, but then it builds instead, until Billy has tears running down his face and he’s gasping for air.

Rick wants to do something, but there’s nothing he can do.  Even if he could move, there’s nothing he can do except sit there and watch, helpless while Billy struggles to regain control.

It takes almost a minute before Billy stops, and even then, his breaths are so short and grating that his eyes are squeezed shut as his mouth hangs open.

“Maybe I can tell you another time,” Billy says finally, his eyes still closed.  His voice is weak and wispy.  “Another time.”

It’s nothing more than a murmur and all Rick can do is watch as Billy’s breathing evens slightly and he succumbs to sleep once again.

-o-

Rick doesn’t expect peril to be like this.  He expects a hail of gunfire, a flurry of hand to hand combat. 

He’s never considered a slow death, creeping in on all sides while he is helpless against it.  Even as he sees it, Rick can’t stop it.

Billy sleeps, and Rick lets him.  There’s nothing to be gained from consciousness, and Rick knows it.  Billy is still breathing, and as long as he’s sleeping, he’s not trying to talk.  Rick actually misses the conversation, but watching Billy nearly choke on his own coughs is even worse than the impenetrable stretches of silence.

Not that it’s entirely silent.  Rick can hear Billy’s lungs working.  And he can even hear his own, the uncomfortable stiffness of illness, slowly settling into his chest and working its way through his sinuses.

Up on the outside, the wind echoes from time to time, and his own coughs punctuate the stillness.

But the silence still feels pervasive.  Encompassing them both until Rick feels their isolation like a cold fist in his gut.

And it’s hard not to think of the worst.  It’s hard not to think of Billy dying next to him or succumbing to illness himself.  It’s hard not to think of Michael and Casey getting lost or coming back just to find that it’s all been too little, too late.

It’s actually sort of surreal.  In South America, he’d been high on morphine and drifting in pain.  Now, though his sense feel numb, he’s still aware of what’s happening, feeling the slow ebb of life from the cavern as the cold seems to leech them both a little more.

And somehow, Rick thinks about how a frog will jump out of boiling water to save its own life, but when heated in a boiling pan, it never notices the small changes as it is slowly cooked alive.

He wonders if freezing is like this.  If it’s a slow death, piece by piece, and if he’ll even see it coming until it’s just too late.

It’s hard to say because as Rick’s head lolls against the frozen dirt wall and Billy continues to struggle for air, it sort of feels too late already.

-o-

Rick doesn’t realize he’s been asleep until he startles awake.

The pain intensifies for a second as he gets his bearings.  Above, the sun has shifted and Rick’s stomach growls.  It’s sometime after midday and Rick’s entire backside is numb.

Looking around, he’s surprised to see Billy watching him.

The Scottish operative attempts to smile, but it’s a far cry from his normal cheer.  The majority of his effort seems to be on breathing now, long and grating inhales, each one sounding worse than the last.

“Hey,” Rick says finally, for the lack of something better to say.

Billy blinks and he opens his mouth as if to speak but ends up coughing instead.  The episode seems to last forever and when it’s done, Billy is gasping for air and his eyelids are drooping. 

Still, he makes the effort to wet his lips.  “Hey,” he says back with noticeable effort.

Rick’s chest hurts--from illness or cold or emotion, he can’t tell--and he smiles even though he sort of feels like crying.  “So,” Rick says, taking an experimental breath and feeling the pull deep in his lungs.  “On your list of top missions, where does this one rank?”

Billy almost laughs, but catches himself and makes a breathless wheeze instead.  “Not even in the top ten,” he say roughly, but there’s still a glint of humor in his eyes.  “You?”

“Well,” Rick says, thinking about it as best he can.  “Considering I’ve only been on about twenty missions, I’d say this one ranks about 19.”

Billy frowns.  “What’s 20?”

“Prague,” Rick replies.

Billy’s mind works slowly but understanding lights in his eyes.  “But you made such a lovely woman,” he says with as much enthusiasm as he can muster.

“I spent the entire day in high heels and pantyhose,” Rick reminds him.  “And you took pictures.”

Billy’s lips quirk into a smile.  “I recall,” he murmurs.  “That’s why it’s in my top five.”

And somehow, they both laugh until it dwindles into coughs and silence stretches on.

-o-

At night, Rick makes supper.  The rations are cold and tasteless and Rick has to cajole Billy to eat anything.  There mere act of chewing is almost more than Billy can take, and afterward, he coughs so hard that he nearly throws up.

When it’s over, Rick does his best to pull the blanket up higher on Billy’s shivering frame, tucking in the edges like his mother used to when he was a boy.  Billy’s already half asleep, shifting closer to Rick as he flirts with unconsciousness.

Rick allows it and eases himself closer, hiking his own blanket up around his shoulders.

As darkness settles, Rick doesn’t sleep.  He stares into the nothingness and wonders about Casey and Michael.  Wonders about Adele back home.  Wonders about his mother and his family.  Wonders if Billy will still be alive in the morning.

He wonders as Billy’s breathing fills the night, both reassuring and terrifying as twilight thickens and the odds thin.

-o-

When morning comes, Rick feels a fresh stiffness in his body.  Movement aches and he sneezes violently before hacking on phlegm he can’t dislodge.

After he’s done, he leans against the wall, clearly spent.  He’s surprised when Billy is watching him.  “Not so much fun, eh?” he asks.

Rick winces and fights the tears pricking his eyes.  “No,” he agrees.  “Not really.”

-o-

If Rick is bad, Billy is worse.  By mid-morning, he’s having coughing fits more than twice an hour, and the latest one lasts for almost three minutes.

When it’s done, Billy doesn’t move, just lays limp like a rag doll as his entire body heaves with the efforts to keep breathing.  But Rick can see the blood flecking on his open lips, small globules on the dirt floor in front of him.

They don’t say it--they don’t have the energy--but it starts to feel like the end.

-o-

It gets worse.  By mid-afternoon, Rick is breathing like an asthmatic.  Billy hardly has the ability to smile.  Worse, Billy’s coughing up blood frequently now, and Rick coughs and coughs to no avail.

“Pneumonia,” Billy muses through grating rasps.  “You’ve got all the symptoms.”

Rick scowls, feeling petulant.  “Well, you’ve got a punctured lung,” he shoots back with a scowl.

True to form, Billy actually manages a hollow laugh.  “Touche,” he says.

For a moment, they both focus on breathing.

Billy finally shakes his head with a small exhale that Rick recognizes as a muted sigh.  “Aren’t we quite a pair?”

In the stillness, Rick doesn’t disagree.  Just smiles, shakes his head, and closes his eyes before he coughs again.

-o-

By dark, their conversation is almost done.  Breathing is too much work and the cold is too pervasive.  The mere act of opening his mouth leaves Rick exhausted, so he can’t imagine what it does to Billy.

Still, between the coughs, Rick has to try.  “One more night,” he tells Billy as the blackness takes hold.

The other man shudders next to him.

Rick nods, resolute.  “You can hold on one more night.”

It takes a moment for Billy to reply and when he speaks, his voice is strangled and weak.  “That’s a promise I can’t make, mate.”

“Then it’s my promise to you,” he says, and he musters his conviction.  He thinks of Michael making that last promise, Casey giving his last look.  He finds it within himself to believe.  “You’ll be here in the morning.”


“How can you be so sure?” Billy asks, and he sounds strangely vulnerable.  It’s unnerving and unfamiliar.

Rick rallies against it.  “Because this is no way to die,” he says with sudden vigor, forcing through the pain.  “I mean, going down on a non-mission in the middle of Canada?  That’s not how the story ends.  Not by a long shot.”

Billy smiles, a little dreamily.  “And how do you see it ending?”

“Blaze of glory,” Rick says.  “Insurmountable odds and taking as many bad guys out as we can.  We die heroes on the battlefield, one last stand.  Butch and Sundance.”

“Funny,” Billy says, eyes fluttering closed. 

Rick strains to breathe.  “What?” he asks.

Billy shrugs slightly but doesn’t open his eyes.  “I never much thought about the ending at all.”

-o-

Rick is up before dawn, watching as the light breaks over the open shaft.  It creep in by degrees, offering meager warmth to his chilled body.

Daylight is usually a promise, a hope.

Today, day breaks like a death sentence.

Because it’s the third day.  Rick knows it was a three-day hike back to any kind of civilization.  And he knows Michael’s prognosis before he left. 

Billy won’t last three days.

Rick would almost dare to hope against it, but as the sun fills the cavern, Billy looks more dead than alive.  The planes of his face are sunken, milky skin turning almost blue with frost, standing out starkly from the growing stubble on his face. 

He’s still breathing, though, thick and wheezing breaths.  Each one is clearly an effort, hindered and hampered as if Billy’s sucking through wool.

Medically, Rick knows what’s happening.  The coughing up blood is a sure giveaway.  The tear in Billy’s lung is letting it fill with blood.  It’s a small tear, or Billy would be dead already.  As it is, the effects are accumulating quickly now, and Billy is basically drowning on dry land.

In short, Billy’s dying, and Rick’s right next to him and he can’t do anything about it.

He can’t do anything at all.

Rick closes his eyes and doesn’t sleep but wishes he could.

-o-

Billy’s cough wakes him.

By the time he comes to awareness, Billy is curled over in pain, hacking so hard that Rick’s honesty afraid he might actually cough up a lung.

As it is, there’s blood everywhere, on the ground, on Billy’s mouth as he continues to cough desperately.

There’s nothing Rick can do, of course, but he straightens, holding Billy as steadily as he can until the railing coughs subside.

They do subside after several minutes, tapering off until Billy is shivering and sweating on the cold ground.  For a while, they sit like that, Billy trembling, tears on his cheeks, and Rick sitting hunched over, trying not to cry as the fight seems to edge closer and closer to its conclusion.

It’s almost more than Rick can take, thinking about how it’s coming down to this.  If the end is coming, he always expected to rage against it, but as the light is dying, Rick is more helpless and impotent than ever.  His training can’t save him.  His willpower won’t make a difference.  There’s a futility that’s almost more overwhelming that the growing shortness of his breath and the filling ache of his body.

After several minutes, Billy breaks the silence.  “Sorry,” he says.

Rick frowns, stifling a cough of his own as his thoughts drift away.  “For what?” he asks.

Billy eyes are open, head turns slightly to look up at Rick.  “For this,” he says.  “This is no trial for a rookie agent to endure.”

Rick manages the pretense of a scoff, but Billy has already seen through him.  “I told you,” he says, but his determination feels empty now.  Hollow.  “It doesn’t end like that.”

“Ah,” Billy says, still gasping in shallow breaths.  “So you cling to your fantasies.”

“It’s not a fantasy,” Rick insists, because he has to.  He can’t function otherwise.  “It just...can’t.  Not here.  Not like this.”

“Heroes,” Billy says, his breath grating as he almost convulses to speak.  “aren’t made by their deaths.  It’s their lives that blaze.”

Rick shakes his head.  “Then you’re already a hero.”

Billy smiles vaguely, his eyes cloudy.  “Depending on who you ask,” he concedes.  He blinks lazily, eyes drifting shut.

Rick squeezes his shoulder.  “Hey,” he says.  “Stay awake.”

At this, Billy’s look is bemused.  “Ever the taskmaster,” he says, his chest heaving for air.  His eyes stay doggedly open.

“Until Michael gets back,” Rick orders.

Billy nods his agreement.  “Until this is over.”

-o-

It’s fading.  Rick can barely breathe himself and his consciousness is faltering.  He can feel the chill of fever taking hold even as Billy seems to stop shivering all together.

And yet, Rick can’t let go.  “It can’t be over,” he says, almost to no one.

But Billy still hears him, looking up through slitted eyes.  “It’s still a hero’s death,” he says, voice barely audible.  “Stars on the wall.”

Rick shakes his head, adamant.  “This isn’t how it ends,” he says, chest tight and voice breathless.  “I mean--it’s not--”

Billy’s smile is sympathetic.  “But this is the way the world ends,” he says, eyes sleepy and voice weak.  “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Billy breathes out and his eyes close.  He seems to settle, face scrunched for a moment before it evens out.  “Nothing but a whimper,” he says, voice just barely audible before he slips into unconsciousness.

Rick closes his eyes, because maybe this time he’s wrong.  Maybe it’s finally over and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.  Nothing he can do at all as it all slips away.

-o-

There’s a bang. 

Rick whimpers.

Somewhere above, there’s voice and action.  The ground is almost shaking, a rhythmic, deafening rhythm that Rick feels deep inside.

He knows he should open his eyes, but he doesn’t have the energy.  He curls up tighter, pressing against Billy’s cold form next to him.

He whimpers again and waits for the world to end.

But there’s another bang and light breaks and the world starts again.

-o-

Out in the open land again, Rick squints against the sun.  He can see the helicopter now, landed not far away.  The rotors are still pounding in a rhythm he recognizes.

Billy is to his left, already on a stretcher.  Casey is at his head holding an oxygen mask and pumping air in even turns.  There’s a medic at his side and even from a distance, Rick can see Billy’s exposed chest when the scalpel goes in, fresh blood dripping to the white snow as Billy’s chest expands.

Above him, he sees Michael, who smiles at him.  “I told you I’d be back,” he says.

Rick’s brow furrows and he tries to speak.  It takes an effort but the second time he finds his voice.  “I thought the world ended with a whimper,” he says.

Michael tilts his head.  “Not a bang?”

Rick blinks slowly.  “I thought I was going to find out.”

Michael leans closer, his voice clear in Rick’s ear over the noise of their rescue.  “The world can try to end any way it wants to,” he says.  “But it has to try harder than that to end on my watch.”

With that, Rick’s stretcher is lifted.  When he’s hoisted into the chopper, he sees Billy’s stretcher already positioned.  Casey is still squeezing the oxygen in steady increments but he looks at Rick with a hint of satisfaction.

Michael climbs in besides him and another medic follows after him.  Someone yells from the cockpit, “We ready?”

Michael glances at Casey, then at Rick and finally to Billy.  He nods, turning his head to call back, “We’re ready!”

And Rick feels new warmth through his veins and this time he sleeps without fear.

-o-

When he wakes, it’s morning.  His body still aches and with a single breath, Rick is coughing again, but it feels different this time.  Like it’s actually making a difference.

“Welcome back,” Michael says.

Rick looks up, surprised to find Michael in the chair by his bed.

At the foot of the bed, Casey looks bemused.  “About time.”

Rick blinks at them, then looks around the room again.  “Hospital?” he asks.

“Canada’s finest,” Michael says with a small shrug.

“And Billy?” Rick asks.

Casey looks to Rick’s left and Michael nods in that direction.  Rick turns his head.  In the next bed, Billy is stretched out.  He’s still pale and hooked up to a myriad of machines, a series of tubes running from underneath the blankets.  But he’s awake and smiling.  “Right as rain,” the Scotsman quips, and if his voice is weak, it’s regained its humor.  He coughs for a moment then winces apologetically.  “At least, I’m getting there.”

Rick grins. 

“And you’re going to be fine, by the way,” Michael tells him.  “Nasty bout with pneumonia but with sleep and antibiotics, you’re already on the mend.”

“Not for a lack of effort to the contrary on your part,” Casey gripes.  “I thought I told both of you to keep it together.”

“Aw, Casey,” Billy says in a singsong voice.  “You really do care, don’t you?”

“I don’t like my efforts to be in vain,” he snaps.

Billy nods with satisfaction.  He looks at Rick.  “Complete softy,” he says.

“If you want to keep talking, I can always puncture your other lung,” Casey threatens.

Billy just smiles.

Michael shakes his head.  “Let’s wait before we get back to Langley before we inflict more harm on one another,” he suggests.

“So we get to go home?” Rick asks.

Michael nods.  “Once Billy’s chest tube is removed, we’ll be cleared for launch.”

“But what about the mission?” Rick asks.

“Somehow I think the satellite can wait,” Casey muses.

“At the very least, it sounds like a lovely romp for the multi-talented Operative Blank,” Billy suggests.

“As for us, we’ve earned our ticket home,” he says. 

And Casey manages a smirk while Billy grins and Rick settles back against the pillows, feeling warm and content for the first time in a while.  Because he still doesn’t know how the world ends but he thinks maybe he knows now, with his team around him, how it truly begins.

Comments

Posted by: Lym (lymricks)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 06:10 pm (UTC)

I was so worried this wasn't going to have a happy ending. Rick and Billy's conversations were heartbreaking and fun at the same time, and the last line was great. "There's a bang/Rick whimpers" was really well done, I loved the way you worked that theme into the whole story. This was brilliant!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
billy watches

When I first got the prompt, my mind went deathfic, but somehow in the plotting process, I came out with a happier ending. I can only kill characters so often--usually I prefer happier conclusions :)

Thanks!

Posted by: Evil Insane Monkey (eviinsanemonkey)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 06:31 pm (UTC)
Chaos: Casey

Oh, this is amazing.
Intense, terrifying, wonderful...
Great work!

And no, I wasn't waiting for an arctic wolf named Diefenbaker to show up and save them

(You're turn!)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
chaos group

My muse clearly had fun with it. Of course, I adore the Eliot poem so that helped get me in the mood.

And LOL, my beta has been watching too much Transformers recently and her comment was about finding a giant robot buried beneath the snow. Me, I think I had the first part of National Treasure in mind for some reason.

(I keep telling myself I'm going to think about this and come up with something super creative. Umm...how about team centric: doing paperwork.)

Posted by: Evil Insane Monkey (eviinsanemonkey)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
DS: Fraser/Ray V

a robot arctic wolf, perhaps?

(heehee! this shall be fun!)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
happy james

LOL, it could be one big happy crossover :) Though, seriously, I need to rewatch and ep of Due South at some point. I used to have a bunch recorded on VHS tapes but have since I no longer have a functioning VHS player, that's sort of a moot point!

(I'm glad!)

Posted by: Evil Insane Monkey (eviinsanemonkey)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 08:03 pm (UTC)
DS: Ray K

(here you go! I feel bad about it being so short after your long one...so if you wanted to request another prompt instead of having it be my turn next, that'd be fine)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 08:07 pm (UTC)
billy earnest

(LOL, it's not your fault that my muse is wordy.)

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)

Am total speechless. Awesome fic. Team hurt and Billy whump, packed together and written wonderfully. Thank you :)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
billy likes

I am such a fan of Billy!whump that it's not even funny. So I'm glad to write it for others to enjoy as well :)

Thanks!

Posted by: lukadreaming (lukadreaming)
Posted at: July 15th, 2011 08:30 pm (UTC)
Billy

I got to the end and realised I'd been holding my breath for most of the fic! Very stark and intense, with a great last line.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 16th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
billy likes

I'm glad it kept your attention! Thanks :)

Posted by: Flute (sgflutegirl)
Posted at: July 16th, 2011 01:52 am (UTC)

Loved this!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 16th, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC)
billy likes

Thank you!

Posted by: nietie (nietie)
Posted at: July 16th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
Hurt/comfort

Ooh, I loved the intensity and the hopelessness of their situation, but I'm glad the boys made it!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 16th, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC)
chaos team 2

As much as I enjoy putting these guys in harms way, I still do prefer to bring them out alive :)

Thanks!

Posted by: Ala (ohioala19)
Posted at: July 17th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC)

This was so fantastic, i love the Billy & Rick interactions, so good

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 18th, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC)
billy earnest

I really do have a soft spot for the Billy/Rick dynamic. Thank you!

Posted by: Average Girl Extraordinaire (legsi003)
Posted at: July 19th, 2011 01:32 am (UTC)

Ahh team!peril! And Billy!Whump! Such a great fic, your stories are always amazing! Loved this <3

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 19th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
chaos team moves

Peril and whump are two of my favorite things. Thank you!

Posted by: altpointofview (altpointofview)
Posted at: July 22nd, 2011 02:41 am (UTC)
quote

EEEP!!!! You weren't kidding .... you are totally holding good fic hostage here!!!
OMG!!! This fic was beyond the beyond... I get both Rick and Billy excess damage... and you know how the lack of oxygenation gets to me girl!!!!
Such angst!!! I have no nails left girl!!!! The entire bang/whimper theme was perfectly done.
This is officially one of my all time favorite Faye fics!!!
You have this show nailed!!!! I am speechless.... just freakin' speechless... I can't even think of appropriate praise to fling at your feet. You are just too freakin' much!!!! YOU RAWK!!!!!!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 22nd, 2011 07:42 pm (UTC)
billy watches

Cross posting can get sort of laborious :) And I like that LJ lets me play with graphics.

And if this is one of your faves, that's saying something. I have a ridiculous amount of fic!!

Thanks!

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