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Chaos fic: O Heavy Lightness (1/1)

December 18th, 2012 (09:17 pm)
sleepy

feeling: sleepy

Title: O Heavy Lightness

Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.

A/N: For postfallen, whose enthusiasm always brightens my day. With thanks to lena7142 for her beta’ing skills.

Summary: And sitting there, alone in a waiting room, Rick doesn’t even know if his teammate is alive.



-o-

Rick doesn’t remember how he got there, but when he blinks, there he is. The hard plastic is making his backside numb and his entire body is so tense that he feels like a strung wire. There are people about, milling absently, and some of them look at him.

Lots of them.

Rick blinks again and looks down, and he sees why. There’s blood. It’s smudged across his shirt, soaked into the knees of his pants. It coats his hands, starting to dry and flake around the knuckles, deep seated around his nail beds.

It’s not his, though. If it was, Rick wouldn’t be sitting in a waiting room. No, it’s not his blood…

Rick blinks again, his breath staggering in his chest. The world seems to tilt, and he finds himself wavering, the world hinging – surreal and disjointed – as his consciousness narrows and his memory flares.

He wishes it were his blood. He’s bled on this job before, after all. In Bolivia, he’d nearly bled out and Rick can still remember the lightheaded certainty that he was going to die. He hadn’t been scared, though. Ironically, he’s terrified now. Because this blood isn’t his.

It’s Billy’s.

And sitting there, alone in a waiting room, Rick doesn’t even know if his teammate is still alive.

-o-

Rick’s breath quickens, his chest tightening, as he hoists Billy higher. They’re in an awkward heap – Billy’s long body splayed out, Rick’s legs tucked under him uncomfortably – but Rick doesn’t move. He doesn’t dare move, except to cradle Billy closer.

The Scot flops lifelessly, head rolling toward Rick. His skin is pale with beads of sweat glistening on his hairline. There’s blood on his lips, and it’s coating his chin, pooling in a watery pile on the floor that Rick feels more than he sees even with the bright red smeared over everything in sight.

“Billy?” he asks – he begs. He jostles the other man, trying his best not to cry. “Billy?”

There’s no response. Billy is still, and Rick can still feel the frantic throb of Billy’s heart with his hot breath coming in short bursts against Rick’s chest.

“Come on, come on,” Rick mutters, shifting Billy slightly and digging around in his pocket for his phone. The mission – Rick knows there’s a mission, but it’s a wash now – with Billy... Rick’s stomach churns painfully. “Wake up, wake up.”

But Billy doesn’t move. Rick’s fingers are numb when he dials, and his voice is shaky even if his request is clear: “Michael,” he says, looking at Billy again. “Operative down.”

-o-

When Michael arrives with Casey just a step behind, they’re wide-eyed and just barely not frantic. Still, Michael bypasses the reception desk and goes straight for Rick.

“Are you okay?” Michael demands, half hauling Rick to his feet.

Rick stammers. “Yeah, I…”

Michael is nodding, looking down Rick’s front with a critical expression. “Who found you?”

Rick’s mind is still slow to catch up, and he’s shaking his head before he realizes what Michael’s asking. He wants to know what happened to Billy – who happened to Billy. “I—“

He doesn’t get a chance to finish. Casey makes a terse sound. “Roget probably talked, the bastard,” he mutters. “I never trust the French.”

“No,” Rick says, trying to find his voice now. “It wasn’t—“

“I thought we were clean,” Michael continues, the wheels turning in his head. “We had this one—“

“I know,” Rick interjects. “And everything’s still good. I mean, the room is still secure and I think it’s recording—“

Because Rick hadn’t had the time to turn it off. He hadn’t had the time for anything. All the elements of the mission are still perfectly in play, all the surveillance and assets – just not the operatives.

Michael stops and looks at Rick again, not lingering on the blood this time. “So what happened then? What’s wrong with Billy?”

Rick’s entire body goes cold as the blood drains from his head. His vision threatens to tunnel and his heart flutters against his ribcage. “I don’t know,” he admits, searching for his resolve and finding little. “I don’t know.”

-o-

Rick’s trying to get comfortable – they have a long haul. Extended surveillance isn’t exciting, but it’s necessary.

And uncomfortable. The motel room feels like it’s caving in on him, the four walls pushing in from the week he’s spent in here.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Rick complains. “Only at least we’d have something to do with the needle. Now we’re just listening for a cue that may never come.”

Billy’s standing near the wall, pressed awkwardly against it next to a crooked piece of bad art. He swallows with a wince. “You know what the asset said,” he reminds Rick. “If we show up too soon, we’ll spook the buyer and then we’ll have to spend another eight years waiting for the Russian mob to make a deal with al-Qaeda. That’s two very big birds with one pending stone.”

Rick sighs, feeling melodramatic as he fiddles with the controls on the surveillance equipment. “I’m just bored.” The Russian mob is strangely not interesting to listen to, and their asset, who is wearing the wire, isn’t much for conversation. “You know?”

He glances at Billy again, who has shifted somehow. He’s leaned forward, hunched a bit. His face is pale and taut, sweat collecting visibly at his hairline.

“Hey, you sure you’re okay?” Rick asks. “Maybe that was more than a 48-hour bug—“

But Billy doesn’t hear him, because Billy’s face contorts and his body convulses. He starts to move toward the bathroom – it’s a well worn path, by this point – but he doesn’t get there. Instead, he heaves, braces himself against the wall, and Rick is on his feet to help when the bile splatters and he pulls away.

He’s disgusted, but then Billy shudders again, and Rick sees the red speckling the carpet.

Red.

Rick looks up, and Billy’s on his knees now, retching desperately. His chin is stained red, and with a fresh heave, more red spews out, to the floor as Billy goes to his hands and knees.

“Billy?” Rick asks, because he doesn’t know what else to say. What else to do.

And Billy convulses again, the force taking him all the way to the ground this time and the blood smears everywhere as Billy collapses, horribly still in the motel room.

The voices on the monitors rise and fall, Rick’s heart pounds, but Billy is still – Billy is still in the puddle of blood—

And Rick moves.

-o-

“We were listening, just like we were supposed to,” Rick explains, feeling helpless. The words are honest and to the point, but they don’t seem to mean anything at all. “We’d met with the asset that morning, and all systems were go.”

They’re sitting now, pulled away in a corner away from the other people. Michael’s voice is hushed, but Rick’s still so shocked that he’s not sure he could speak louder if he wanted to. “Was he acting funny?” Michael prompts.

“He’s Russian mafia,” Casey mutters. “He always acts strange.”

“Well, stranger,” Michael clarifies.

Rick shakes his head, going over it in his head. He’s going over everything, every detail. The mission was normal. The mission had been perfectly normal. “No,” he says. “It was…just another mission. Billy was optimistic.”

Casey scoffs. “As if that means anything,” he says. “He could be optimistic with his insides hanging out just to spite us.”

Rick blanches.

Michael glares. “That’s really not the point,” he says.

“Well, okay, then, but I’m just not sure Rick’s going to be any help figuring out what happened,” Casey says.

“Hey,” Rick protests, indignation flaring.

Casey pins him with a withering look. “You’re covered in blood,” he says. “Emotional shock impairs brain functioning. You might be able to remember the details, but even then, you’re not going to make much sense of them, at least not for what we want.”

“Which is what?” Rick says, his voice hitches. A few people look at them, and Rick flushes red, leaning forward and hissing, “Billy was throwing up blood.

“I know,” Michael says, without missing a beat. “On a case with the Russian mafia.”

Rick stares at him for a moment before the implication finally hits him. “You think it was intentional?”

Michael shrugs. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Rick gapes. “But…Mikhail is a good asset. He’s…been perfect.”

“They usually are,” Casey gripes. “Until you wake up dying of radiation poisoning for no explainable reason.”

Rick shakes his head. “No, it doesn’t make sense,” he says. “The day was normal. Everything was normal. We got our own food and drinks. From a vending machine. Mikhail would have had….” He shakes his head. “There’s no way.”

“Well maybe not today, then,” Michael suggests. “Maybe earlier. Last check in, you said Billy was under the weather.”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “It seemed like the flu.”

“Okay,” Michael says. “Let’s start with that.”

-o-

They’ve been here nearly two weeks; it feels like longer. After the first week, they’d had to separate, and Rick’s been confined to the motel room with Billy since then. They take turns with their daily meets with Mikhail, but pass most of the time alone together.

Of all the trials he’s faced since joining the CIA, Rick never considered this. He likes Billy – he really does – but after a day, he’s come to realize why Billy was a consummate bachelor. After a few days, he knows why Michael and Casey had left him with Billy.

The man is a slob. Sure, his desk has always been in disarray and his clothing ends up over everything on missions, but the mess accumulates faster in the sparse room and this time, there’s no escaping it. There’s empty food containers and there are dirty clothes and then Billy’s dirty underwear ends up on top of his toothbrush, and it’s too much.

“This is disgusting,” Rick announces, using the plastic end of his toothbrush to lift the offending piece of clothing and walk it to the bed. He dumps it on Billy’s chest.

Billy, sprawled out on the bed, head turned to watch the monitor, glances down. “Oh,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “You found them.”

“It’s underwear,” Rick gripes. “How did you lose them?”

“Well that, young Rick, is an answer that involves too much goulash,” Billy says, balling the underwear up and throwing it aside. He shrugs. “And an accidental flip of the channel to the Russian equivalent of Cinemax.”

Rick makes a face. “I didn’t need to know that.”

Billy stifles a yawn. “You asked.”

Rick frowns. He considers putting the toothbrush back in the bathroom but considering Billy’s answer, he dumps it in the trash instead, keeping an eye on the Scot. “You’re still feeling that goulash?” he asks. “It was almost a week ago.”

Billy grimaces. “Aye,” he says. “A long and horrible week. I’ve used up all the antacids trying to combat it, but I can’t make it go away.”

“Maybe it’s the flu?” Rick suggests, meandering to the window and peeking out. He turns back to Billy. “You do look pretty tired.”

Billy scoffs. “It’s the Russian weather,” he says. “So damn depressing that it threatens to snuff out even the most vibrant flower.”

Rick cocks his head. “Did you just call yourself a flower?”

Making a noise in the back of his throat, Billy sits up, throwing his legs off the side of the bed. He looks bedraggled and worn, and he seems to hesitate for a moment, face paling as he forces a swallow.

Rick braces himself. “I told you about the puke…”

Billy waves a hand, getting to his feet. “And I told you, I’m fine,” he says. “We have more important things to consider anyway. There’s been nothing new on the feed, I’m afraid.”

“Still no sign of the al-Qaeda cell?” Rick asks.

“Nary a flicker,” Billy says. “But, it’s only a matter of time.”

Rick sighs, shoulders falling. “You keep saying that,” he says. “We’ve been here two weeks, and nothing…”

“These things take time,” Billy says. He looks at Rick seriously. “The Cold War wasn’t resolved in two weeks. Intelligence is a slow and drawn out battle, but the dividends are worth it.”

Rick knows he’s right. He does. He’s just…tired of Billy’s underwear.

Billy grimaces again, trying to hide it but failing as his hand goes to his stomach.

Rick scowls. “Look, I know you’re on watch, but I can take it for a while,” he says.

Billy looks up, surprised. “Kindness?” he asks. Then he tilts his head. “Or pity?”

“Or how about I just don’t want you puking on me,” Rick says. “I’d rather you sleep whatever this is off and be better tomorrow.”

Pushing to his feet, Billy smiles. “That’s very thoughtful – of me and your stomach, no doubt,” he croons. “But really, I’m fine.”

Rick gives him a no-nonsense look.

Billy rolls his eyes. “If I can scrounge up some aspirin, that is,” he says, making his way toward the bathroom. “Besides, I find that sleep is elusive on this mission.”

“That’s because you’re sick,” Rick calls after him.

“No,” Billy says. “You snore.”

“I do not,” Rick protests.

“You do,” Billy says. “And it’s a horrific, grating noise, like a choking walrus—“

“Okay, now you’re just being mean—“

“That has recently had Novocain administered and has lost control of his massive lips, smacking them together in numb desperation while fighting off a head cold.”

“And now you’re just being stupid.”

Billy pauses at the bathroom door, grinning. He’s tired – the black circles under his eyes are evident and his complexion is a little gray – and he seems weary, but the smile is still electric. Still Billy. “Aye,” he agrees. “Stupid enough to make this mission fun.”

“I just want it over,” Rick admits.

“In good time, lad,” Billy assures him as he disappears into the bathroom.

Rick’s gaze lingers, then goes to the window again.

In good time, he thinks.

He has to hope Billy is right.

-o-

Rick answers the questions, but they aren’t the answers Michael’s looking for. He’s focused and intense, scouring the details and coming up with nothing.

“Maybe they got to the water supply?” Casey suggests.

“Rick would be feeling it, too,” Michael points out. “And plus it’d risk taking out the entire motel.”

“Airborne?” Casey says.

“Or maybe touch?” Michael says.

“They’d have to have some pretty advanced toxins,” Casey continues.

Rick shakes his head, his frustration flaring. “No,” he says, a little stronger than he expects. He feels lost, the emotions blurring. “I mean. I don’t know.

The word almost breaks, lingering excruciatingly in the stillness between them. Casey and Michael exchange a look before Michael’s gaze settles back on Rick. He seems to gather his thoughts before he nods. “It’s okay,” he says.

Rick laughs, but the sound almost gets choked in his throat. “I’m covered in Billy’s blood,” he says. “I don’t think it’s okay.”

“No,” Michael says, gaze flickering to Rick’s garish appearance before meeting his eyes again. “But it will be.”

Rick just shakes his head, scoffing. “You weren’t there,” he says. “You didn’t see…”

Michael wets his lips, looking down at his hands. “I’ve been there before,” he says. “Trust me, we all have.”

Rick can’t argue with that, but it’s hardly much solace. The despair rising, he looks down numbly.

“But,” Michael continues, “I can tell you that it’s not your fault.”

Tears burn in Rick’s eyes and he doesn’t trust himself to speak.

“You got him here, that’s what counts,” Michael says. “Whatever it was that happened – we can’t account for everything, no matter how hard we try.”

“I learned years ago that accepting failure is a necessary part of achieving ultimate success,” Casey tells him. “The sons of bitches may have won this round, but we’ll get them in the end.”

Michael reaches out, patting his arm awkwardly. He seems ready to speak, but no words of comfort come.

Not that Rick’s in any mood to be comforted.

Not that he’d believe them anyway.

Sitting there, covered in Billy’s blood, Rick doesn’t know if he believes anything anymore.

-o-

It’s only been a day, and Rick is starting to get restless.

This is the Russian mafia, after all. He doesn’t have the best track record in Russia as it is.

And Billy isn’t helping. It’s not just the usual antics, either. This time, when he’s hogging the bathroom, it seems to be because he has to.

When he comes out for the fifth time in the last hour, Rick glares. “Did you wash your hands?”

Billy smirks. “You’ll make a fine mother someday,” he muses, ripping open a fresh box of antacids. “Though you’ll want to save your mother’s touch to try out with Adele. I’m not sure we’ve reached that point in our relationship.”

Rick doesn’t stop glaring. Keeps glaring while Billy makes his way around to the bed, sitting gingerly and blanching slightly. “I told you not to each that second helping of goulash.”

“The second helping wasn’t the problem,” Billy says, popping a few pills into his mouth. He swallows, his face twisted. “I reckon the third might have been a bit much, though.”

Rick’s stomach churns at the very thought. “I didn’t think the first was very good.”

“Yes, but I knew we’d be living out of a vending machine for the next week,” Billy says, sitting back against the headboard. He takes a breath, holding it uncertainly as he clearly forces a smile. “I wanted as much real food as my stomach could handle.”

“I’m not sure that counted as real,” Rick grumbles.

Billy makes a small noise, sighing and closing his eyes while letting his head rest against the wall.

Rick frowns. It’s not like Billy to shy away from the last word. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Billy cracks his eyes. “Why, this is concern!” he says.

“No, you just look like you might puke,” Rick replies curtly.

Billy’s brows wiggle. “Bothered by vomit, eh?” he says.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk,” Rick returns. “You’re squeamish.”

“Which is a very common affliction,” Billy tells him.

“Yeah, and so is an aversion to puke,” Rick says, not missing a beat.

Billy makes a face of disgust. “And to think, I braved my fears and sat by your side unflinchingly while you bled out in Bolivia.”

Rick snorts. “Hey, I’ll take a bullet for you any day,” he says. “But if you puke, you’re on your own.”

Billy’s look of mock seriousness fades into a smile. “Never fear,” he says. “If were to come to that, I’d have done it already.”

Rick is wary.

“Besides,” Billy says. “There is one good thing about my run-in with indigestion.”

Rick is almost afraid to ask.

Billy grins. “It’s entirely distracted you from your doubts about the mission!”

This is true. Rick’s been so worried about hearing Billy retch that he hasn’t thought about whether or not Mikhail will get caught or just turn on them at the last minute. He hasn’t thought about whether or not Michael and Casey will be able to ID their asset with the al-Qaeda cell or if the two groups will end up killing each other before any of the ODS can collect any actual intel.

Mostly, he hasn’t thought about all the ways this mission can go horribly wrong at any second while all Rick can do is sit there and wait.

Until now.

He slumps in his chair.

Billy clucks his tongue. “And there we go again with the spy angst.”

“This mission has a lot of variables at play,” Rick reminds him.

“Indeed,” Billy agrees. “And we are very capable operatives.”

“But we don’t control all the variables,” Rick says.

“We don’t need to,” Billy says. He lifts a finger, looking at Rick earnestly and Rick knows Billy says a lot of things he doesn’t mean, but he still speaks with such implicit vigor that Rick just
wants</i> to believe. “We just need each other. If we believe in that, everything else will come together.”
</i>
-o-

Rick isn’t sure how much time passes. At some point, Casey drags him to a bathroom and shoves him at a sink. When he’s done washing, Casey somehow produces a top half to a set of scrubs, which Rick changes into without thinking.

Back in the waiting room, Michael has settled in. He offers Rick a small smile but doesn’t say anything. There are no more questions, mostly because there are no answers.

That’s a hard thing for them. They’re big on control. They’re used to controlling the variables…

Rick’s own stomach turns viscerally and he has to work to control his breathing.

It has to be okay, but Rick doesn’t know how. He wants to believe, but it’s hard.

He drops his head into his head, rubbing at his forehead, trying to assuage the growing throb. It doesn’t help, though. Nothing helps.

Michael gets to his feet, and Rick jerks his head up, stumbling to follow. He’s moved three paces when he realizes Michael’s face to face with a doctor. The man is grim-faced, looking from Michael to Casey before settling on Rick.

“We need to talk.”

And Rick’s stomach roils again.

-o-

“Come on, lad!” Billy cajoles, scooping a helping of noodles and meat onto his fork. Some of the broth drips down. “You’ve hardly eaten a thing.”

Rick scrunches his nose. “How can you eat?”

Billy takes the bite, chewing hastily and swallowing. “How can you not?”

“The food’s not exactly appetizing,” he says, using his fork to poke at his own plate.

Billy chortles, preparing another forkful. “I’ll admit, it’s not my first choice,” he says, even as he takes the bite. Speaking around the noodles, he continues, “But you make do with what you have.” He swallows, making a face. “Besides, I’m hoping the weight of this goulash can finally help settle my stomach.”

Rick lifts his brows. “You think that’ll help?”

“It can’t hurt,” Billy says. “I’m afraid I haven’t had much luck the last few weeks.”

“Maybe because you never eat balanced meals,” Rick suggests.

Billy makes a condescending sound. “I refuse to be cowed, by food or mission,” he says. “And what about you? What happened to the chipper young agent I first met? Ready to take on the world – quite literally!”

It’s a fair question, maybe. Rick is usually more enthusiastic. But he’s been on this job long enough; he knows the stakes better. He has the scar on his leg from a bullet to prove that point, and he’s starting to lose track of the ways in which he’s almost died.

He sighs, hemming in the uncertainties. “I just,” he tries. “There’s so much that can go wrong.”

“And so much that can go right,” Billy counters, lifting his fork and gesturing toward Rick. “You can focus on the negative – the jetlag, the sapping Russian winter, the possibly contaminated food – or you can focus on the positive.”

Rick stares. “But what’s the positive?”

“We may be able to take down not one – but two – dangerous cells thereby ridding the world of excessive peril,” he says, voice hushed but exuberant. “Plus, this can only be better than your last mission in Russia.”

“You mean when I was nearly thrown in a Russian prison and eaten by wolves?” Rick asks.

“Yes!” Billy says, leaning back in his seat with a smile. It’s so radiant, that it’s easy to overlook the rest. “So you see, things can only be better this time!”

Better. Rick could handle better.

He watches as Billy takes another bite of goulash and takes a tentative bite of his own. He makes a face, almost spitting it out.

At least he knows it can’t get much worse.

-o-

Standing there, Rick’s light headed. His chest is tight; his heart throbs. The blood rushes in his ears and he’s prepared for the worst.

Poison. Some type of internal damage. Certain death.

The doctor -- who mercifully speaks English -- presses his lips together gravely, tucking his clipboard under his arm. “Mr. Davis has allowed me to update you on his condition.”

“That’s great,” Michael says. “How is he?”

“He’s doing much better,” the doctor says. “We’ve given him some medication to reduce the discomfort, and he’s been resting more comfortably without any further complications.”

“Complications from what?” Casey asks.

Rick holds his breath, preparing himself.

The doctor looks at them plainly. “The ulcer.”

Rick’s sure he heard him wrong. Michael cocks his head, and Casey’s brow furrows. “The what?” Rick asks.

“The ulcer,” the doctor says again. “A rather large one, at that. I’m amazed he let it go this long; he must have been in excruciating pain—“

Rick actually gapes.

The doctor shrugs. “We’ve got him scheduled for an endoscopy, which should help us find the source of the bleed and relieve the worst of his symptoms,” he continues. “But the quality of his recovery will depend on some significant lifestyle changes, I’m afraid.”

Rick is still staring. He can’t even process the words anymore. He’s been so scared, so terrified, so everything, and this…

Michael manages to breathe, though, and nods for all of them. “We’ll make sure it happens,” he says.

The doctor gives them a perfunctory nod. “We’re going to do the procedure as soon as possible, but I’ll have a nurse transfer you to a more comfortable waiting area,” he says, and he’s already leaving.

Because really, that’s all there is.

Billy has an ulcer.

Billy’s going to be okay.

Rick’s just not so sure about himself anymore.

-o-

“You’re sure about this?” Rick asks. He knows he’s asked this before, but he sort of think it bears repeating.

Billy groans. “Honestly, lad, I thought we’d trained you well enough to stop worrying.”

Michael rocks back in his chair easily. “The kid has a point. This is sort of important.”

“You can never be too safe in Russia,” Casey agrees.

“Granted,” Billy says. “I’m not keen to be eaten by wolves myself, but I think we’re past the point of simple double checking and moving steadily toward full-on paranoia.”

“It’s not paranoia,” Rick blurts, but his cheeks are reddening anyway. “I just.” He fumbles, trying to take a steadying breath. “I’m worried.”

He feels sort of stupid saying it, but if he’s learned anything in his time with the ODS is that he can’t hide these things from his teammates, even when he wants to.

Casey looks at Michael, who raises his eyebrows and looks at Billy. Sighing, Billy takes his feet off his desk and sits forward, looking across his desk at Rick. “A little worry goes a long way,” he says. “But too much can destroy a mission – eat away its very heart – all from the inside out. You have to control your worries, batten them down, or we’ll all be sunk out there. This mission more than the rest.”

Rick’s stomach flutters.

Billy’s face softens. “And no matter how daunting the odds, you’re underestimating the power of your team,” he says. “Do you really think we’d take you into a mission that we didn’t think we could get you out of?”

Rick knows this. He’s known it for a while.

It’s still good to hear.

He takes a breath and lets it out, smiling sheepishly. “I’ll still feel better when it’s over,” he says.

“Aye,” Billy agrees. “It’ll be over sooner than you think. You can mark my words on that.”

-o-

When the doctor leaves, Rick’s too dumbfounded to speak. He stands there, stiff and silent, while Michael talks quietly to the nurses and Casey scribbles something on the paperwork. When Casey is done and Michael thanks the nurse, they finally turn back to Rick, who just stares.

“Looks like we’ve got a bit of a wait on our hands,” Michael says. “They say the endoscopy isn’t a complicated procedure, which is good.”

“It’s still going to put us behind schedule,” Casey points out.

Michael sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, this isn’t life threatening,” he said, looking a bit regretful. “We may have to separate. Casey, you can go back and pick up communications with the al-Qaeda side, and Rick—“

Rick shook his head. “I’m staying.”

He says it with a resolve that is surprising to him, but Michael doesn’t seem taken aback. He smiles faintly, and the lines around his eyes look deeper than normal. “You heard the doctor,” he says. “He’s going to be okay. I mean, we’re going to have to have a talk about a few things, but—“

Rick just shakes his head again. “ You go back, check in with Mikhail,” he says. “He likes you better anyway.”

Michael regards Rick carefully. “I know it’s unsettling…”

Unsettling isn’t the word Rick would use. It’s terrifying to see his teammate go down, throwing up blood, holding his lax form. It’s terrifying, and the doctor can give them platitudes and Michael can offer assurances but Rick can still feel Billy’s blood, hot and slick on his fingers. He can still see his clammy skin under his touch.

Rick had thought he knew what worry was.

He hadn’t had a clue.

“I need to stay,” he says, almost demanding now, the edge to his voice just barely hiding the plea.

Michael seems to hear it anyway. “He’s fine,” he says, gentler now. “It’s just an—“

“—an ulcer,” Rick finishes for him. He lets the word dangle for a moment and then laughs, because it’s almost funny to him. “All the things that could go wrong and it’s an ulcer.”

“It’s a stressful job—“

“But it’s Billy,” Rick interjects, more forcefully than he intends. His own stomach aches to think about it, but he can’t avoid it. “I mean, an ulcer? He’s the only one of you who ever actually seems happy or optimistic, and he has an ulcer?”

“Stress is only one compounding factor,” Casey tells him.

“And really,” Michael says. “You think Billy’s not as scared or paranoid as the rest of us?”

“Billy loves missions,” Rick says.

“Yeah, because they’re all he has,” Michael says. “Billy knows better than the rest of us just how risky this job is. He lives out of a crappy apartment and reads books because he has no one else to talk to. He can’t even go home again. While that may not bother someone like Malick, we all know Billy’s not like that.”

Rick struggles to make sense of the implications. It’s not that he doesn’t know these things, it’s just… “You’re saying it’s all an act?”

“I’m saying Billy is good at charming people,” Michael tells him. “That doesn’t just apply on cases.”

“He’s also very good at annoying people,” Casey adds. “And unfortunately he learned years ago that I can tolerate almost anything except a chipper personality and has been incessant ever since.”

Rick finds himself in denial. “But it’s Billy,” he says, but it sounds silly now, a futile defense for an argument he realizes that he maybe never believed.

“And that’s exactly what he’s wanted you to believe since the beginning,” Michael says.

“He really has ramped up his ridiculously upbeat persona since you joined,” Casey tells him, shaking his head. “It was only a matter of time before something had to give.”

Something like the lining of Billy’s stomach.

Something like a whole lot more.

Michael’s hand is on his shoulder. “This is good news still,” he says. “If this were poison, we’d have a lot less we could do. We can handle an ulcer.”

Michael is probably right about that. They can handle the recovery and the lifestyle changes; they can handle a lot of things. But Rick knows, this isn’t just physical.

This is emotional, too. It’s not just the coffee and the alcohol and the aspirin.

It’s the little white lies and the forced smiles; it’s Billy saying a lot of things he doesn’t mean because he thinks that’s what his team expects, what Rick needs.

Rick steadies himself and lifts his chin. “I’m still staying,” he says.

Michael looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t. Because somehow, Michael understands. They’re learning each other in these ways, reading the implicit actions and comprehending the unspoken emotions. Michael knows Rick needs this, and Rick knows that Michael’s ready to trust him with it.

Because they all want what’s best for Billy.

Rick’s not necessarily an optimist, but he is an idealist. There are causes worth fighting for, starting with this: his team.

No matter what, his team.

-o-

When Higgins calls them in, he’s grave. Even Fay is nervously perfunctory, handing out their file folders with due diligence.

“I know we’ve had our differences, gentlemen,” Higgins begins, leaning forward with forearms resting on the table. He looks each of them in the eyes. “But I need your very best on this one.”

“I find that supposition insulting,” Casey says tersely, flipping open his file with disdain. “I never agree to a mission unless I can give my best.”

Michael opens his folder, eyeing Higgins purposefully. “That’s one hell of a way to start a meeting.”

Rick opens his own folder and looks down, scanning the first page as his stomach churns. The Russian mafia. Arms sales to al-Qaeda. Possible American targets in the aftermath.

This is big.

This is very big.

“Ah,” Billy says, looking over the first page with a grin. “A foreboding start for a foreboding mission.” He grins widely. “I’m a fan already.”

Higgins adjusts his glasses with a grimace. “This is no joking matter, Operative Collins.”

Billy feigns seriousness, but he can’t squash the impish gleam in his eyes. “I never joke about missions,” he says. He winks at Rick. “Or anything that actually matters.”

-o-

Michael leaves to check in with Mikhail, and Casey hightails it back to their other safehouse to keep tabs on their al-Qaeda informant. It’s possible things have happened in their absence, but somehow, Rick doesn’t care.

Nothing is more important than this.

He has a lot of thoughts in the waiting room. He has a lot of ideas.

None of them mean anything when he’s finally ushered into Billy’s room.

The Scot is propped up on the bed. His complexion is just as bad as before and the dark circles are more pronounced than ever under his eyes. He looks sickly, the stubble too thick on his face as he still manages a smile.

Moving awkwardly to Billy’s bedside, Rick doesn’t manage a smile in return.

“So,” Billy says, and his voice is softer than normal, the simple act of breathing seeming taxing even as the monitors beeped reassuringly, “when you were looking for excitement, somehow I’m thinking this wasn’t what you had in mind.”

It’s a joke. Of course it’s a joke. Rick finds that he doesn’t know how to reply.

Billy’s face falls a bit, and he looks down at his hands sheepishly. “Tough crowd,” he says hastily. “I know you’re new at this whole bedside vigil thing, but if I may offer a few tips—“

Rick’s face hardens and he shakes his head. “You have an ulcer.”

Billy stops, blinking up at Rick. “I am aware,” he says. “Though thankfully the bleeding has stopped so I don’t think there’s much risk in throwing up again—“

Face contorting, Rick scoffs. “You think that’s what I’m worried about?”

“Well, I hope it’s not the extra charge for blood in the motel room because that will never come out—“

Exasperated, Rick wants to throttle Billy. Maybe with the damn bag of saline and other medicines dripping into his arm. He wants to hit him, scream at him, rage – something.

Instead, his frustration builds to a peak and he flails helplessly. “Why didn’t you tell me you had an ulcer?”

“Well, I didn’t know—“

Rick shakes his head. “You knew you were sick,” he says. “You knew something.”

“And I was trying to control it,” Billy counters. “We were in the middle of a top secret mission, as I recall. There wasn’t a lot of options.”

This is true. This is true, and yet somehow not relevant at all.

“Yeah, a mission,” Rick says, anger flaring. “A mission you acted like was no big deal, like you didn’t have a care in the world—“

“Well, comparatively speaking—“

“Uh uh,” Rick says, lifting his hand and gesturing toward Billy. “Nothing compares. You worried your way into a hole in your stomach, so comparatively speaking, you’re way worse. In fact, you’re not just worse, you’re a liar. Which is even worse—“ His monologue falls suddenly and he shifts uncertainly before adding, “—worse.”

Billy raises his eyebrows. “My, that does sound…worse.”

Rick sighs and rolls his eyes. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” Billy asks, like he actually doesn’t know.

And then Rick realizes, maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe Billy’s been deflecting so long that he’s hardly aware of it. Maybe of all the lies he’s told, he’s lied more to himself than the rest of them.

Maybe.

Rick wants to feel sorry for him. But it’s so infuriating that he doesn’t know how. “Deflecting,” he says, throwing his arms up in the air to accentuate the point. Because Billy needs to get it. Before Rick gets an ulcer from it all, too.

Billy is staring at him.

Rick’s mouth opens and his anger breaks. His hands fall and he shrugs helplessly. “You joked and told me things were fine and then you threw up blood,” he says, feeling feeble now. “Do you know what that did to me?”

This time, Billy’s face falls.

And Rick knows he’s hit it. “Every time you deflect, you’re just kicking the can down the road and you’re not always the one who has to deal with that,” he says.

“Rick, you know I would never put you in any position of actual harm—“

“Oh, so passing out while we’re on a mission doesn’t leave me vulnerable?” Rick counters.

“I didn’t want you to worry,” Billy protests. “There’s enough things to fear in this line of work, and I don’t want you to be as hampered by that as I am. Fear can be productive, but it can also be paralyzing. I mean, this mission. One word and our covers could be blown. The motel could be stormed by Russian intelligence. We could be blown up by a member of al-Qaeda. We could be captured and held for ransom, thereby ending our careers and most likely our lives. Even that motel room – it wasn’t thoroughly vetted and the walls were too thin. I have expected we’d been bugged.”

Rick’s brow furrowed. “Really?”

“Yes,” Billy says. “This entire mission was a disaster from the start. How we even made it this far is remarkable to me.”

The starkness of it is unsettling, and Rick has to force himself back to the point. “See, I think I needed to know that.”

“No,” Billy says. “Because I can see it, you’re overthinking now. It would have paralyzed you.”

Rick glowers. “I’d get over it.”

Billy shrugs a shoulder. “Maybe. But I figure only one of us really has to worry.”

“Yeah, me,” Rick retorts.

“You’re being melodramatic,” Billy says.

“You threw up blood and passed out,” Rick reminds him.

Billy shrugs. “Point taken.”

“And besides, how am I ever going to become a good operative if you’re doing all the hard stuff for me,” he says. “We’re a team.

“And we each have our parts to play,” Billy says. “I reckon I always figured the part of optimist fell to me.”

“That’s stupid.”

“You think Michael and Casey can pull it off?”

“Yes. I mean no. I mean—“ Rick sighed again, shaking his head. “Be optimistic then. But that doesn’t mean you have to hide things from me. I need more than your optimism. I need you – the team – us.” His voice falters just a little. “And I thought I’d lost that today…”

At this, Billy sits for a moment. Finally, he sighs but he holds Rick’s gaze steadily and nods. “Fair enough.”

The acquiescence is so sudden that Rick doesn’t think he heard correctly. “What? That’s it?”

Billy shrugs. “It sounds reasonable.”

Rick had been ready for an argument. For a nonsensical fight that led them in circles until Rick was forced to agree to nothing and everything all at once. But this… “Really?”

Billy rolls his eyes. “Really,” he says. “And actually I think telling the whole truth might be a refreshing change of pace for once.”

Rick relaxes, easing back a bit. “Yeah, I mean, it has its merits.”

“I mean, this way, we won’t have to listen to the wire in your apartment on shifts during the weekend,” he says. “We can trust you won’t find trouble.”

“Wait,” Rick says, frowning. “I thought you didn’t bug my apartment.”

Billy grins. “Well, remember how I say a lot of things I don’t mean?”

“Yeah…”

“That’s been the only truth since the beginning,” he says with a wink. He lets out a breath. “I do admit. This does feel better.”

“That’s probably the medication,” Rick says with a scowl.

“Either way,” Billy says. “I can’t say I’m happy for this hole in my stomach but I think maybe something will come from it.”

“Yeah, no alcohol or aspirin,” Rick says, and he’s aware that he’s being petulant and that Billy’s recovering from a serious condition. Somehow, he doesn’t care. “And you may want to lay off the fried foods, too.”

Billy’s eyes darken in dismay. “Well that sounds less than ideal—“

Rick shrugs. “That’s what happens when you lie to your teammates.”

“Mean spirited mocking already?” Billy asks. “This seems cruel and unusual.”

“Hey, you’re the optimist here, remember,” Rick reminds him cagily.

Finally, Billy grins again, wider this time, eyes sparkling. “Aye,” he says. “As long as some things never change.”

Maybe this time, Billy has a point. Maybe some things needed to change, but maybe some things needed to stay the same.

Things like teamwork and dedication, like lies for the right reasons and truths they all know anyway. Billy can deflect his worry, and Rick will be there to catch it as best he can.

And if that isn’t a reason to look forward to the future, Rick doesn’t know what is.