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Chaos fic: History Repeating (2/2)

May 17th, 2013 (02:33 pm)
pensive

feeling: pensive

PART ONE
PART TWO



-o-

He can still hear the shot, rippling through the air and echoing through the once-vacant streets. Somalia isn’t Afghanistan, but streets cleared out by extremists are sort of the same, no matter where you are. Casey’s running a routine security sweep while Michael and Carson are undercover -- they’re almost done, though. Just two or three more days. Four days, tops.

And then they can get the hell out of here.

Casey’s ready for that, and not just because this part of Somalia is stricken with poverty and overrun with terrorists.

But because he’s stuck with Billy.

Billy’s only been on the team a few months, and Casey’s done everything he can to avoid having one-on-one time with the kid. It’s not just that the Scot is annoying and overly friendly; he’s a rookie. Sure, he’s got experience with MI6, but he’s still green and wide-eyed. Casey’s spent most of his career alone, and when he has paired up with other operatives, they’ve been as dangerous and well-trained as him.

Actually putting his life in Billy Collins’ hands -- it’s a little terrifying. He’s half convinced the entire time that the kid is going to get him killed.

It’s ironic, though. Because when Casey turns the corner, he doesn’t see the glint. He just sees Billy slamming into him before the sound of a gunshot rips through the air.

-o-

Billy goes down.

Casey goes up -- and he doesn’t stop. The patrol they’ve encounter fires again, but Casey simply ducks and tackles them, gunfire splitting the air above him before he knocks the gun from the man’s hands, lashing out to slam his fist into the gut of the other. Standing, he brings his booted foot down hard on the first man’s rib cage until he hears a loud crack before using his fingers to gouge the second man’s throat and whip his leg up with a devastating kick. The second man crumples, and Casey rakes his boot across the first man’s face and everything is quiet except for the pounding of his own heart in his ears.

And then, he looks back to where Billy is lying in the street, blood staining his shirt.

-o-

He’s back at Billy’s side within a beat, but the Scot still manages to sit up before he gets there. The kid is pale and shaky, his hand pressed firmly over his side even as blood seeps between his fingers.

Casey reaches down. “How bad is it?”

Billy winces, shying away and shaking his head. “Can’t say that it feels that good,” he admits, expression pinched.

Casey glowers, reaching down again. “Let me see.”

Billy grunts, his body trembling even as Casey pries his fingers loose and rips through the tattered fabric. Billy inhales sharply as Casey’s hand touches the blood-slicked skin, and he hisses when Casey gently probes the wound, turning the kid slightly to see a matching exit wound.

“Through and through,” he reports, the tension in his chest abating just a little. “I don’t think it hit anything vital.”

Billy grimaces again, shifting back and putting his hand over the entry wound again. “I tend to regard every part of my body as vital,” he says.

Casey is shrugging out of his shirt, and he chooses to ignore the sarcasm. “Still,” he says, promptly ripping the shirt in two, “I think you got lucky.”

Billy manages a smile. “We could certainly use a little luck.”

Hurriedly making a bandage to tend a shot meant for him, Casey can’t bring himself to disagree.

-o-

In the week they’ve been here, there’s been no sign of activity, which is why the patrol caught Casey entirely off guard.

At least, that’s what he tells himself.

Logically, he knows that this was probably nothing more than standard scouting and that there is likely no immediate threat.

There is still a threat, though. When the patrol misses its check in, another patrol will be sent for recovery. Whether the men are dead or alive, more men will be sent to the area if they’re not already on their way.

This means that there’s time to run. Part of Casey knows it’s probably the best move.

Except that this is a mission, and it’s not just about Billy. Michael and Carson are deep undercover. They’re expecting to make contact with Casey and Billy in no less than four days. If Casey’s leaves before they arrive, they’ll have no means of communication and there will be no way to verify the intel or arrange for a full extraction.

In short, running will doom the mission and very well may doom Michael and Carson. Hell, if Casey pulls out now, enemy forces may take up a stronghold and there will be no way to warn Michael or Carson of anything.

Still, Billy’s been shot. It’s not a life-threatening wound and Casey does have a well packed first aid kit, including sterile gauze and antibiotics. Casey can clean the wound and watch it. With that kind of treatment, the kid may not even need a hospital.

Casey has to make a choice.

His logic dictates that the risks of staying are worth it. Running is overly cautious. In some ways, it’s almost cowardice. That’s not Casey’s style, not even in the slightest.

But when he looks at Billy, pale and shaking in the street, it’s suddenly not an easy choice.

Because Billy’s been shot. Billy’s been shot because of him.

Nothing is easy at all.

-o-

“Okay,” Casey says, hoisting Billy up and slipping an arm under the Scot’s shoulders to stabilize him. “Let’s get to some cover and see just what we’re dealing with here.”

It’s not exactly a decision to stay, but Casey is hedging his bets. If the wound looks good after Casey cleans it, if Billy’s faring okay, if the safe house is still secure -- then, they’ll stay. If any of those factors are in jeopardy, Casey can think it through later.

One step at a time, though.

Literally.

“Do you think you can walk?” Casey asks, even as he’s already leading them forward.

The step is lurching, and Billy audibly muffles a cry, but he nods, face red and eyes wet. “Not a problem.”

Casey picks up the pace, tightening his grip to keep Billy in step with him. “You know, you say that a lot.”

Because Billy did. Billy talks all the time. He talks and talks until Casey doesn’t even know what to listen to.

“Mmmm,” Billy says. “And are you listening this time?”

Casey grunts -- it’s almost a laugh. “Maybe it’s about time I started.”

-o-

It’s a long, slow walk back to the house. In reality, it’s only a few blocks away, but Billy is listing badly by the end, sweat running down his face and breathing heavy. Casey doesn’t even have time to go over the safety procedures before he drags Billy inside and deposits him on the floor.

For his part, Billy collapses, spent and heaving. Casey hurries off to the bathroom to find the first aid kit, opening it hastily as he returns to Billy’s side.

The kid looks ghastly. The sweat makes him look sickly and the flushed cheeks are foreboding, even if Casey knows it’s probably just from the exertion.

Still, he’s careful and thorough with the wound. It continues to leak consistently while Casey tends it, and Billy is mercifully silent and still during the ministrations. He hisses, and when Casey flushes it out, tears spring to his eyes and he seems to bite his lip so hard that Casey suspects he draws blood before all is said and done.

As bad as it is, it’s actually pretty good. The wound is painful but it’s clean. It’s tended. Under the circumstances, it’s about the best Casey could ask for.

It’s still a risk, of course. Infection is dangerous, insidious and hard to predict. Even with the antibiotic ointment he’s used on the wound, the unsanitary conditions could still be a factor.

Hesitating, he looks at Billy. “We can go to the hospital...”

Billy shakes his head. “And bugger up the mission?” he says. “It’s a flesh wound. Michael and Carson will be left with far worse if we leave.”

“This area is probably going to be overrun before we leave,” Casey warns him. “This may be our last chance until the others come back with the outfitted car.”

Billy smiles, though it looks more than a little like a wince as he tries to ease himself into a more comfortable position against the wall. “You know that’s not the choice you’re going to make.”

He’s right. It’s not. He could make it; he has seniority; he could very well pull rank and Collins wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight at this point. But his logic is too strong; the factors are too clear. Leaving now would be the safest for Billy, but not for the mission or the rest of the team. Casey can’t make that call.

Even if part of him wants to.

-o-

Most of it after that is a blur. Casey does what needs to be done; he handles patrols and procedures, checks Billy’s wound and takes all but one watch. In the morning, he thinks this may turn out okay.

But when night falls again, Billy is weaker than he should be and he’s lost his appetite. He winces when he swallows and asks Casey if he’ll take the first watch. When Casey checks the wound, it’s starting to look red and tender. It may be nothing. It may be better in the morning.

Morning comes with gunfire and voices outside. Casey is tense, and looking out the window, he sees militants in the street -- it looks like an entire militia. They’re noisy, so Casey figures they don’t know where Casey and Billy are, but the proximity is unnerving.

Even with the commotion, Billy rises sluggishly. His eyes are clouded and this time, when Casey checks the bandage, it’s oozing pus and smells wrong. Worse, there are streaks of red lead away from it and it’s hot to the touch. The infection is in the blood. Casey still treats and packs the wound, but he knows it won’t do much now.

He hunkers down. There’s nothing else he can do.

-o-

Michael and Carson should be there, but with the renewed activity in the area, the rendezvous will be tricky. They could be another day -- maybe more. Under other circumstances, Casey might move out, try to meet them in an alternative location, but with Billy...

With Billy, he’s not going anywhere. The Scot’s fever is climbing, leaving him shaking and insensate most of the time. Sometimes, when the fever peaks, Billy is thrashing and crying so loud that Casey has to forcibly smother him to keep their position secret. Billy whimpers into his hand, but Casey can’t let go, feeling Billy’s heat soak into his skin, holding on until Billy’s body strains and then goes horribly limp beneath him.

On the fourth day, Billy’s dying. He’s only been on the team a few months, and this is Casey’s first mission alone with him -- and now he’s dying. Billy took a bullet for Casey, and Casey made a choice to hole up, and it was the wrong choice.

Billy would have died for Casey.

Casey may have just let him.

It’s a horrifying helplessness, to sit idle while someone who needs him suffers. He’s failed missions before, he’s seen people die before, but not like this.

Not so slowly, not so painfully. Not when Casey could have stopped it. Not when he should have stopped it.

Sitting there, desperate and worthless, Casey will never forget that.

-o-

Casey remembers everything. With Billy, he’d sat in a waiting room, stuck between Michael and Carson for the interminable wait.

With Rick, there’s no one here, and Casey can’t make himself sit. He’s a master of self control, but he can’t force himself to do that. The helplessness is too acute; the rage is too dangerous. Rick’s blood is everywhere and his hands are shaking and his heart is pounding and Casey remembers this.

And he can’t relive it.

He won’t.

Rick might be alive; Rick might be dead. It’s not Casey’s decision anymore. It probably never was. Casey doesn’t know.

Casey doesn’t know the odds of survival. Casey doesn’t know how much blood the kid lost -- or how much more more he could afford to lose. Casey doesn’t know what arteries and veins were hit; he doesn’t know if infection has had a chance to set in.

Casey remembers a lot, but he sure as hell doesn’t know much.

What he does know is that he can’t sit idly in some waiting room to find out.

-o-

It may be a secure military base, but Casey manages to make it around the back of the main complex. He can see the hospital in the distance so he works his way around until he’s in the relative privacy of the far side of the facility. A few soldiers glance his way -- no doubt, he’s a macabre image, even for soldiers too used to the harrowing realities of war -- but no one stops him.

Which is really for the best.

On the far side, Casey pulls up to a stop. For a second, he stands very still.

He remembers.

Walking around the corner, hearing the shot. He can hear Rick’s body hitting the ground, he can see the blood even as the gunfire swells. He can feel flesh yield beneath his touch as he kills their attackers; he can feel Rick’s hot blood soaking into his shirt.

He can see Rick’s face, pale and hopeful. His voice, stilted, wavering, and undoubting: You’ll take care of it.

He remembers hazing Rick back at Langley; he can remember the kid’s first mission, eating a scorpion. He can remember Rick’s stupid mission to North Korea; he can remember almost losing the kid to the Russian prison system.

Rick’s the kid. The new guy. He’s Casey’s responsibility.

Casey remembers.

And when there’s nothing to fight, he’ll fight the only thing still standing, even if it’s himself.

He lashes out, kicking the wall. The cement makes his foot ache, so he kicks it again, harder this time. He raises his fists and pounds, once and twice before dropping down and charging the wall with everything he has in him.

It doesn’t make a difference of course. The walls doesn’t yield.

Nothing changes.

Nothing.

Casey remembers.

And when he finally sinks to the ground, the tears are familiar, too.

-o-

This is a story Casey knows. It’s the story of a veteran operative and the new kid. It’s a story about failed responsibilities and too-close calls.

Casey remembers how it starts.

He remembers how it ends.

Billy almost died six years ago, but he’s still alive, and when Casey looks up to see the Scot standing in the sunlight, he remembers that, too.

Still, Billy’s expression is grim.

“Have you been here the entire time?” he asks, brow furrowed in obvious concern.

Casey squints at him, too sluggish to bother moving. “Like it matters.”

Something shifts in Billy’s expression, and he purses his lips. “You are many things, Casey Malick,” he says. “But you’re not fatalistic.”

Casey doesn’t reply.

Billy sighs. “Come on, now,” he says, offering a hand. “Let’s get you up.”

Casey looks at Billy; looks at his hand.

Billy rolls his eyes and reaches down, clasping his fingers around Casey’s wrist and hefting him up.

Casey has no choice but to comply, even though his feet protest under the weight and his wrist twinges with the contact. Still, when he’s on his feet, he finds himself steady under Billy’s touch, even as the taller man continues to look him in the eye. “Reckon we have a few things to talk about, yeah?” he prompts.

Casey looks at him.

Billy gathers a breath and lets it out. “Right then,” he says. “Let’s go someplace a bit more comfortable.”

-o-

Billy takes them to an area outside the hospital. Casey tenses when he recognizes the building, but Billy seems to know better than to take him inside. As it is, Billy leans against the wall, watching Casey intently for a moment.

Under the gaze, Casey resists the urge to fidget. Finally, he musters up a glare. “So,” he says, purposefully standing away from the building. “You said you wanted to talk.”

Billy lifts his eyebrows. “You have no questions yourself?”

Casey huffs, crossing his arms. “Like what?”

“Well, how about the state of young Rick?” Billy prompts with a nod toward Casey. “I will assume that is his blood you’re wearing.”

Casey glances to his shoulder, where the blood is dried and stiff. “Yeah,” he says. “Kid was half-dead by the time I got him here.”

“I could have gathered from one glance,” Billy confirms, but he doesn’t elaborate.

Casey waits a tenuous moment, hoping the Scot will continue, but he quickly realizes that Billy doesn’t intend to make this easy for him.

Hesitating, Casey wets his lips and does his best not to look anxious. “So the kid...,” he starts. “He’s...?”

Billy waits. “Alive?” he provides.

Casey’s jaw tightens. “I mean, I’m assuming he’s alive,” he snaps. “Or you wouldn’t have set this up as a conversation and you’d be a hell of a lot more sad.”

Billy doesn’t deny it. He sighs a bit, situating himself so he’s a bit more comfortable. Casey notices for the first time since Billy found him that the Scot has bruising on his face and a bandage around his hand. “Aye,” he confirms finally, shrugging one shoulder meagerly. “At least for now. The bullet apparently did some internal damage. They’re having a long go at it while repairing some of the vessels near his heart.”

The fact that Billy’s told him that much means that things are well and truly bad. The Scot is often creative with the truth, and if that’s the good news, then Casey is pretty sure that the bad is more than he can probably hear without going into another blind rage.

Billy is watching him now, and after another moment, he says, “We got pinned down about a mile from your position. Bomb took out the better part of a street, and we found ourselves in the midst of a firefight that we had no ally in. Once we managed to extract ourselves from that, we had to procure a vehicle and find a clear route to get to the rendezvous. By then, of course, Fay had called...”

Casey doesn’t look at him.

Billy continues cautiously. “I’m sorry we missed the rendezvous--”

At that Casey recoils.

“I promise, we went as fast as we could--”

Casey turns his eyes to Billy. “We’re in a warzone,” he snaps. “It happens. Trust me, I know.”

Billy’s face is carefully impassive. “Given the look of you, I can’t argue that.”

Under Billy’s gaze, Casey feels suddenly conspicuous. He shifts awkwardly, glowering. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“We were two hours late, mate,” Billy tells him. “Two hours in which you needed us. Two hours in which Rick--”

Casey shakes his head sharply. “It’s not your fault,” he says again, more insistently now.

“And it’s yours?” Billy prompts quietly.

Casey’s heart skips a beat and his face flushes red. For a second, the anger swells and he considers lashing out, pummeling the Scot senseless.

That’s not the answer, though. That’s not even what Casey wants.

He’s not sure what the answer is.

His jaw is taut; his head aches. “I didn’t even see it coming,” Casey finally says. “I turned the corner, heard the shot, and then Rick went down.”

“You said it yourself,” Billy interjects. “We’re in a warzone--”

“Which is why I should have been more careful!” Casey shoots back, his temper flaring in earnest now. “I was the senior operative. Rick’s never been in a war zone before. He had no idea what we were getting into.”

“Rick’s a good operative,” Billy reminds him.

“Exactly,” Casey says. “He’s a good operative who needs time and experience. Not a bullet in the chest.”

Billy drops his head, but he doesn’t say anything.

Casey breathes in raggedly, Billy’s silence deflating him. “He was my responsibility,” he continues feebly. He feels old suddenly, too old to do this job. “He was counting on me to have his back, and I let him get shot -- and I didn’t have anything I could do.”

The helplessness is almost overwhelming, and the confession is damn near emasculating. He looks at Billy because he has nothing left to hide.

Billy looks back, and he sighs, face plain with sympathy. “You got him here,” he says. “That’s more than most could do.”

“And what good did it do?” Casey returns. “You said it yourself, he’s alive but not by much. He might not even survive surgery, and then he has to manage to avoid infection and complications--”

“And you’re scared,” Billy concludes for him.

At first, Casey wants to deny it. The impulse is strong -- he doesn’t admit weakness -- but suddenly, he doesn’t see the point. He’s already laid himself bare; Billy knows better.

Of all people, Billy knows better.

Inclining his head, Billy offers him a small smile. “You only lose control when you’re scared,” he says.

Casey stiffens. “You would remember that.”

Billy’s brow furrows. “Remember what?”

“The mission to Somalia,” Casey says.

It’s been years, of course, but Billy pales immediately at the reference, arm clenching reflexively at his side where Casey knows there’s still a scar from the bullet wound.

“That was my fault, too,” Casey says. “Seems to be a pattern with me. Give me a rookie for a mission, and I’ll get him shot.”

Billy scoffs. “You’re still blaming yourself for that?”

“It was my fault,” Casey repeats simply. “I was the senior operative--”

“I walked into a bloody bullet,” Billy reminds him. “You’re the one who saved my life.”

“After I let you get septic by deciding to stay instead of getting proper medical help,” Casey says.

“A decision which I agreed with, by the way,” Billy says.

“Still my decision,” Casey insists. “You were the kid; you were too eager to please. You were never going to ask to pull out. I had the experience. I knew better, and I took the risk with your life willingly anyway.”

The objection is clear on Billy’s face, but he closes his mouth. He settles himself back against the wall before continuing. “You seem to be forgetting the part where I lived.”

Casey shakes his head stubbornly. “No thanks to me.”

“You are not my sole protector,” Billy objects. “I’m a grown man and a trained operative. I survived for six years without you in MI6.”

“Yeah, and you got yourself deported,” Casey points out.

“Fine,” Billy counters. “But I’ve certainly proven that I’m more than capable of handling myself since.”

“Because after that mission, I took it upon myself to look after you,” Casey tells him. “You were reckless and walked around all smiles and talking all the time. Everyone wanted to shoot you, whether you were on their side or not. Keeping you alive was the hardest task I ever took upon myself.”

Billy’s mouth falls open and he gapes. Then, there’s a visible choice in his eyes, and he lets out a breath, closing his mouth again. “I never turn my nose up at backup,” he says. “But I think you’re forgetting that I’ve saved you just as many times. The mission in Bulgaria. Our little scuffle in Rome. And what about the horrid boat ride across the Red Sea?”

The memories are easily there, and Casey can’t deny it. It’s not something he acknowledges; it’s not something he even thinks about. But Billy’s a good operative. Somewhere along the line, he became someone Casey could trust -- maybe more than anyone else in this world. Casey doesn’t think of himself as one among many, but he regards Billy and Michael among the best he’s ever worked with.

He’s never stopped looking out for Billy, but without Casey’s consent, Billy started returning the favor.

Worse, Casey’s come to count on it, even if he’s never admitted as much.

Billy nods, a little smug. “The point is, I’m not the kid anymore.”

“No,” Casey says. “Because you’ve gained the experience. I can mostly trust you in the field. You’re not the kid; Rick is. And I’ve done the same damn thing, all over again.”

At that, Billy sighs. His shoulders slump and the indignation drains from his face. “Wee Rick is our rookie, more so than I ever was,” he concedes. “But you’re forgetting that you’re not the only one trained to protect him around here. Michael and I have our say in that, too, and we weren’t exactly there when you needed us.”

Casey rolls his eyes. “You can’t control blown out roads or firefights.”

Billy smiles wryly. “Thank you for that ever-salient reminder,” he says meaningfully.

And Casey understands the point. He understands that there are factors out there they can’t control. He understands that sometimes they’re reckless and that sometimes bad things just happen. He understands that they can only do their best -- and that sometimes, unfortunately, their best may not be enough.

“We’re equals in this, Casey,” Billy says gently. “Partners. And if we count on each other for our own safety, we can count on each other for the lives of the rest of our team as well. Rick’s condition is as much your fault as it is mine.”

It feels a little like a copout. Maybe it sort of is.

But maybe that’s the lesson from Somalia. Maybe it’s not about protecting the kid. Maybe it’s about being part of a team. After all these years, Casey’s not properly realized what that meant. It’s a give and take; it’s the good and the bad.

It’s protecting the new guy. And the old guys. It’s protecting each other; it’s sharing the load. Even when it’s more than any of them can handle.

“Besides,” Billy says. “I’d like to save some of the ire for the bloody terrorists who destroyed this town and shot Rick. All this self-deprecation lets them get off without enough blame.”

Casey grunts. “They already paid for their actions,” he says.

“This does not surprise me,” Billy says. “I seem to remember that you decimated the better part of an entire militia in Somalia.”

“There was no other way to get you out quickly,” Casey replies. “And I only took out half. Michael and Carson helped with the last few.”

A smile plays slightly on Billy’s lips. “Well, I was a bit delirious.”

“You were septic and had a fever of 105.”

Billy shrugs. “You’ll forgive me if those are details I prefer to forget.”

“I’m amazed you remember any of it at all,” Casey says truthfully. “You were having some pretty vivid hallucinations by the end.”

Billy pushes off the wall, clapping Casey on the shoulder. “There are some things you just know, mate,” he says. “Now, do you think you’re ready to go find out more about Rick?”

The thought makes Casey’s stomach turn. His fists tingle and the ache in his feet increases. Body taut, he wants to run. He wants to fight, and if there’s no one left, he’ll fight himself if he has to.

But he doesn’t, is the thing. At least, not alone. Not when Billy and Michael are there to fight with him.

Not when Rick needs him.

Casey couldn’t stop the shot; maybe he wasn’t fast enough to get him here; but Casey sure as hell will be there for the kid now.

“Okay,” he says. “But if you tell anyone about this--”

Billy smirks. “Your threats would carry more weight if you hadn’t just admitted to saving my life endlessly over the last six years.”

Casey glares.

Billy grins. “Come on,” he cajoles. “You can trust me by now, I think.”

Billy starts walking back inside, and Casey is left following because he realizes that Billy’s actually right for once.

-o-

Michael’s already in what passes for a waiting room. It’s a small, cramped space, but it’s more private than not. Michael’s seated on the edge of one of the chairs, his knee jiggling. He stands up abruptly when they arrive, his eyes lingering over Casey for a moment before he nods toward Billy.

“I’m fine,” Casey says, preempting any questions or concerns. He’s too tired to go over this again. If anyone could understand cutting to the chase, it’s Michael. “Tell me what we know.”

Michael glances back at him, appraising the blood more closely this time. Casey is only vaguely aware how bad he looks; mostly, though, he doesn’t care. Appearances are mostly irrelevant, and he generally prefers to look like less than he is. And frankly, the blood is the only connection he has to Rick right now, no matter how morbid that may be.

“Well, he’s still hanging on,” Michael reports, eyes flitting between Casey and Billy now. “They’ve had to transfuse him a couple of times, and they’re worried about keeping his pressure up with the extreme blood loss, but you know Martinez. He surprises you.”

“I don’t want vague platitudes,” Casey snaps, because he’s been through too much today. He’s fought too hard to get Rick this far; he needs to know.

Michael’s expression wavers. Michael is not above lying to his team when he needs to. Casey’s never needed to be coddled, though it’s plain to see that Michael’s tempted.

But while Michael may be team leader, Casey’s still his equal in all the ways that count. Just like Billy is. Just like Rick will be.

They’re a team.

They’ll lie when they need to protect each other.

And they’ll tell the truth when that’s all that’s left.

“Michael,” Casey says emphatically. His eyes flicker to Billy, who stands close to his side. “This is our responsibility.”

Michael presses his lips together; then, he sighs. “The surgery is about fifty-fifty,” he admits. “They’ve got to catch all the bleeders, and his chest is like shredded beef from what the nurse told me. They managed to contain the large bleeds first, which is good, but trying to get all the rest is a race against time.”

Time Rick may not have.

The kid believed in Casey, though. He trusted Casey to get him this far.

Now all Casey has left is trust in the kid to do the rest.

-o-

They’re in a military hospital in Afghanistan, but Casey’s been here before. He’s still in Somalia, and his hands are clean but shaking. He tries to remember the words of a song, but everything is blank; numb.

Michael does the paperwork; Carson fidgets, stealing drinks from the flask in his pocket.

His hands are empty; pointless.

He’s meaningless.

He has all the skills. He’s had all the opportunities. And he prioritized a mission over a teammate; he’s used his experience to serve the greater good at the expense of someone who trusted him.

Who needed him.

There’s a reason Casey’s never wanted to work with a team. He thinks maybe this is it.

But if he’d been here alone, there’s a good chance he’d be dead. There’s vulnerability with a team.

There’s possibility.

Only if Casey holds on to it, though. Because this kid can learn from Casey -- and Casey can learn from him. And the first lesson -- the only lesson that matters -- is that the team always comes first. He made that mistake once, and Billy’s half dead in the ICU for it. He’s in organ failure and he may suffer brain damage, assuming he recovers at all.

It’s not a mistake he’ll make again.

-o-

This time, when Michael does the paperwork, Billy takes Casey back to a curtained area. He draws it shut.

Standing idly, Casey feels conspicuous and awkward. “I don’t think I understand.”

Billy seemingly ignores him, putzing around by the bed. “You took care of Rick,” he says, shaking his head as he turns around. “And yet you’ve failed to take care of yourself entirely.”

Casey frowns and looks down at Billy’s outstretched hands. He’s produced a pair of scrubs and he jerks his chin over his shoulder. “I’ve talked to the nurses,” he says. “You’re welcome to the shower. Heaven knows you need it.”

Casey stares at the clothes, then he looks at Billy.

Billy shrugs. “I told you, we’re equals in this,” he says. “You looked after Rick. You’ve looked after me for six years. I reckon it’s time you let me return the favor in earnest.”

Casey takes the scrubs, but then he hesitates. “Rick...”

Billy smiles gently. “I’ll man your post in the waiting room,” he says. “And let you know immediately of any changes.”

Nodding, Casey feels awkward. He’s not used to this -- being looked after. Except, maybe it’s been like this longer than he’s thought.

And really, maybe it’s not so bad.

“Okay,” he says finally.

Billy moves quietly toward the exit.

Turning, Casey wets his lips. “And thank you,” he says.

Billy turns, surprised.

Casey holds up the clothes. “For this,” he says. Then he shrugs. “And...everything.”

Slowly, a smile spreads across Billy’s face. “Any time.”

-o-

When Casey is cleaned and dressed, he becomes more aware of his own injuries. He might have a concussion, but he doesn’t see much need to mention that to anyone. The lump under his hair hurts like hell, but he’s level headed and his vision is clear, and he doesn’t plan on sleeping any time soon anyway.

His feet are sore, but his boots protected him from his own stupidity and rage. His hands, however, are probably the most telling sign of injury. Luckily, he finds some gauze stored in the room, so he washes the fresh abrasions and wraps them tentatively. At least that way, everyone will think he’s already been looked at.

Being refreshed has allowed him fresh control of his emotions, though the truth is, he’s still tenuous at best. The worry is deep in his gut, and it’s only force of will and years of practice that allow him to move calmly and collectedly.

When he sees Michael and Billy in the waiting room, though, he still almost wants to lose it.

This is his fault, he thinks.

He remembers.

Our responsibility.

Bracing himself, he crosses the room and joins them.

You’ll take care of it.

Casey’s not big on hope, but after everything, it seems that’s all he has.

-o-

Rick gets out of surgery; he’s alive.

He’s weak and his vitals are unstable. He’s listed as critical; the next 24 hours will be telling.

Michael takes the news soberly. Billy looks crushed. Casey doesn’t even know what to do.

“Well,” Michael says finally. “I guess we’ll have to work out a schedule. The kid shouldn’t be alone for this part.”

“I reckon not,” Billy says. He glances toward Casey. “You want first shift?”

Casey looks at him, surprised. He’s never been the one to take first shift. It’s usually Michael, who likes control. Rick, who needs the reassurance. Billy, who’s so good at optimism.

Michael shrugs in agreement, though. “You’ve gotten him this far,” he says. “You should see him through the rest.”

-o-

Rick’s condition isn’t a surprise. Casey had dragged the kid half-dead through the streets, after all. And the doctors had been quite clear about the extent of Rick’s injuries. So the kid’s appearance is far from unexpected.

That doesn’t make it easier, though.

Rick looks small under the equipment, which seems to crowd him on the bed. There’s tubes and wires, the electrodes hastily strung off to the large bank of monitors and other machines. Casey recognizes a few of them, but he tries not to dwell on what they mean. The ventilator is hard to ignore, though, as it whooshes steadily and Rick’s chest rises and falls methodically under the sheet.

Otherwise, Rick is lifeless. The blood has been mostly washed away, leaving his skin whitewashed and his complexion sallow. There are deep circles smudged under his eyes, and his hair, which is normally well maintained, is messier than Billy’s on the stark white sheets.

Rick’s been treated; he’s receiving full-time medical care. This is an improvement, Casey reminds himself.

But watching the machines breathe for Rick, it hardly feels that way.

Because all the intervention simply reminds Casey how close Rick is to death. How everything may not still be enough. How Casey made the best choices he could, and he’s still back in the same spot.

After all, Casey remembers this. He spent hours at Billy’s bedside, watching as the Scot suffered setback after setback, struggling to survive. He’d been impotent then.

He’s impotent now.

This is his fault. Rick trusted him; Billy trusted him; his team trusted him.

And here they are again.

He’d change it if he could, but it’s too late for that now. He’d thought he’d been smarter after Billy, but maybe he’d gotten lazy. Billy had made it easy to be lax. He’d forgotten what it meant to have a kid on the team. To have someone so green, so new, so inexperienced.

So young.

Lingering by Rick’s side, Casey doesn’t know what to do. There’s nothing to do. He could hold Rick’s hand, maybe; he could offer platitudes to the kid’s comatose body.

That’s not Casey’s style, though. And he’s scared and helpless, but he’s not stupid.

Casey remembers this.

He’s changed a lot since the first time he was here, but he won’t change this: a steadfast commitment, a renewed vigor. He won’t leave. Not now.

Not ever.

-o-

Michael takes his turn after Casey, and then Billy after him. In truth, it’s all a blur to Casey, who can’t quite seem to keep track of time with the same precision that he normally does. All the moments seem the same -- interminable stretches when Rick’s not awake.

And it does stretch. Minutes pass into hours, and before Casey knows it, the night has passed, and they’re all taking turns dozing in a spare bed. Rick shows no change, but when 24 hours pass, the doctor is hesitantly optimistic.

This should probably be some sort of solace, but Casey finds the comfort cold. It’s enough to make Michael start talking in earnest to Langley, organizing the vestiges of their shot to hell mission, and Billy even goes back to the hotel to clean up and sleep.

Casey doesn’t leave, though. He sits next to Rick and waits.

The machines beep; the venitalor swishes; Rick’s still alive.

That’s something, Casey knows.

But it’s sure as hell not enough.

The kid deserves better. Casey would do anything to give that to him, but he can’t. It’s a hard fact to face, that this isn’t just about Casey’s lapses, it’s about an inherent lack of control. It’s about the fact that Casey’s good, but Rick can make his own choices -- and rookies never know when or how to listen. Billy learned eventually.

Maybe Rick will too.

At least, Casey thinks there’s hope if the kid would just wake up.

-o-

It goes to figure, of course, Rick does wake up. Not right away, but it’s sooner than the doctors expect. It’s not because of any great medical feats as far as Casey is concerned. It’s because Rick is so damned eager to please.

At first, he’s still pretty out of it with the drugs and the pain and the general disorientation of being shot and unconscious. For a day or two, he doesn’t stay awake long enough for much resembling coherent conversation, but after a few days of steady progress, Rick wakes up in the morning clear-eyed and sheepish.

Casey’s still been taking the early morning shift, so he’s there for it. At first, he doesn’t think much has changed and waits for the kid to ask for the fiftieth time if everyone’s okay before drifting off to sleep.

Instead, Rick stares at him for a long moment.

Casey, surprised by this turn of events, just stares back.

Finally, Rick asks, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?”

Casey’s heart skips a beat and he finds himself going painfully still. It’s a simple question, really. One Rick probably has a right to know, all things considered. One that Casey can answer better than anyone, because he can still feel Rick’s blood, hot and wet down his back. He can still see the kid’s pale features, eyes going dim as his life just slips further away from Casey’s grasp.

It takes actual thought to make himself breathe again, and he tilts his head critically. “You took a bullet to the chest,” Casey replies finally. “What do you think?”

It’s not sensitive, but sensitivity has never been Casey’s thing.

Rick frowns slightly. “Well, I think it’s getting easier.”

Casey lifts his eyebrows. “Getting shot?”

Rick shrugs. “Last time I actually thought I was going to die,” he says. “This time...I just. I don’t know. Didn’t.”

“Well, this was a much more traumatic injury,” Casey points out.

“Yeah,” Rick says, and his head lists to the side for a second before he looks at Casey again. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down, though. And you didn’t.”

Rick’s trust is so complete -- it hurts.

Casey works his jaw, and fights back the emotions. It’s in his nature to push it all back down, and he squashes most of it. But not quite all. Because Casey does owe Rick something.

He’s not sure how to say it. Billy would say it with nuance. Michael would achieve some appropriate level of contrition.

Casey just blurts it. “I’m sorry.”

Rick straightens at that, a confused look crossing his face. “For what?”

Casey feels his face flush and he shifts miserably in his seat, glowering. “You got shot,” he says.

Rick shakes his head. “Yeah, so....”

“So,” Casey says with more than a hint of aggravation. “You’re the rookie; I’m the senior operative. You had never been in that type of situation before; I have. I should have been at point, and I should have scouted the street, and--”

Rick shakes his head again, more vigorously now, holding up one hand. “Wait,” he interrupts. “You’re apologizing because I walked around a corner and got shot?”

“No, I’m apologizing because I didn’t use my years of experience to your advantage and you nearly died because of my failure to offer basic protection,” Casey clarifies.

Casey’s not sure what he expects. Rick’s gaping is hardly reassuring, though.

“So, anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for my lapse in ability,” Casey continues, feeling positively uncomfortable now. “And that I will work harder to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

It’s about as much vulnerability as Casey can handle after all this, especially with the kid. Michael and Billy have seen him at his best and his worst; he’s preferred to maintain a veil of secrecy when possible with the kid; it just makes things easier.

Except when it gets the kid shot, and here they are.

Rick, however, laughs.

Casey frowns. “Don’t make me regret it.”

“No,” Rick says. “It’s just...I’m not sure whether I should be flattered or pissed off.”

Casey’s frown deepens. That’s not exactly the response he expected. “I just expressed a sincere desire to save your life and you’re pissed off?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful you were there for me. But do you really think that little of me that I can’t do it myself? That I can’t even take point?”

“You don’t have the experience--”

“Yeah,” Rick interrupts again. “And how am I going to get the experience if you’re always taking care of it for me?”

“There’s a proper time and place--”

Rick stiffens, a bit indignant. “I’m more than capable--”

“Sure,” Casey says, voice gruff now. “You’re more than capable of walking in and getting yourself killed. You’re still a rookie. You still sort of think you’re James Bond. You still want to be James Bond. It’s not so much that I don’t trust your capabilities, I just don’t know if you always have the judgment necessary to save your own life, and, quite frankly, that is something that I’d like you to outgrow before I let you go jumping in front of bullets, especially in some misguided attempt on my behalf.”

The diatribe is exhausting. When Casey’s done, his heart is pounding and his palms are sweating. His mouth is dry and his cheeks are hot. He has an overwhelming urge to hit the wall again, and it takes all the self control he has left to sit there and endure the silence that follows.

The kid, on the other hand, just stares at him. It’s a long, agonizing moment, and Casey contemplates taking it all back, rolling his eyes and saying the kid is taking things too seriously. Hell, he could just walk out, leave the hospital, leave the base, leave the whole damn CIA because this is why he never wanted to work with a team, this is why he should have stayed on deep cover, this.

Casey remembers this.

The vulnerability; the inherent humiliation; the emotions.

Then, Rick does something unexpected. “Thank you,” he says.

Casey goes still again, reverting to his base instincts. Fight or flight is imminent.

Rick swallows, nodding. “I mean, you’re right,” he says. “About, um, most of it anyway. But, uh, there’s one thing you should know.”

Casey is still ready to run, but he regards Rick carefully. “Oh?”

“Well, it’s just... it’s not that I want to get shot,” he says. “I mean, trust me. I really don’t enjoy it, but, it’s just... I’m not scared to go into these situations because I know you’re there. You and Michael and Billy. You’ve had my back since the beginning, even when I didn’t realize it. So, for that -- for everything -- just... thank you.”

It’s a nice sentiment.

Still, it’s sentiment.

All in all, Casey’s had more than enough of that. Especially since he doesn’t even know what to say. What can he say? They’ve both expended Casey’s tolerance for emotion for a month -- probably a year. Hell, a lifetime.

It is reassuring, though. Rick’s going to be okay. Rick understands, as best he can. Though Casey thinks the kid might never get it until there’s someone else under his charge, someone new and inexperienced, someone so damn young that it hurts.

But working together, Casey also is starting to think they all might live long enough to find out.

And really, there’s only one thing left to say. “You’re welcome,” he grits out, settling back in his chair, sulking a little.

The tension eases, just enough. A smile pulls at Rick’s lips. “You know,” he says. “There is one good thing about getting shot, I think.”

Casey purses his lips. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

“I get to see what you guys really think,” he says. “I mean, the first time, Michael ran for fifteen miles. This time, you actually shared your feelings. I wonder what Billy will do for me next time.”

Casey rolls his eyes. “I think you’re missing the point of this conversation.”

Rick’s grin widens. “Nah,” he says. “I actually don’t think I am.”

Casey grunts and doesn’t reply. After all, he sort of think maybe Rick’s right.

Not that Casey will ever admit that.

-o-

Casey remembers this.

He remembers the uncomfortable hours in the hospital, the slow and tedious recovery. The pain no one talks about because they’re all just relieved to still be alive.

He remembers the fresh uncertainty of healing, the testing of old bonds, the forging of new ones. He remembers that nothing will ever be the same.

He remembers that some things will be better.

After all, Casey had never thought Billy would be safe on his own -- and sometimes, he’s still not sure, not with Billy’s penchant for trouble and his martyr streak a mile wide -- but he’s turned out okay. He’s turned out better than okay.

There’s hope for Rick yet.

There’s hope for all of them.

And that’s something Casey will never forget.