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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: The New Guy (4/4)

July 13th, 2014 (08:59 pm)
intimidated

feeling: intimidated

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR


-o-

The ball of flame is large, sending a concussive force that knocks Rick off his feet. The men with guns fall, too, and Rick’s able to roll with the blast, gaining his footing and grabbing a stray gun as he continues to run.

With the fire now a pressing reality, Rick’s presence is decidedly underwhelming to the guards. Some seem to be flocking toward the flame, as if to put it out or salvage a bit of their payday. Others, however, seem to assume that they are under attack and scatter to the woods. The two or three who try to intercept Rick are easily disarmed, and Rick just keeps on running.

He feels like this is how it’s been for the last three years. That he hit the ground running and just hasn’t stopped. Nothing has stood in his way, and there’s never any time to look back because he has to keep moving forward. If he doesn’t, he’ll die.

That’s a hell of a way to live.

It’s an inevitable way to die.

Three years.

Rick pumps his legs harder, ducking as another guard fires at him before ramming him in the gut and tackling him to the ground. Two quick punches, and he lifts his gun forcefully at the next man to approach him. The man crumples, bleeding from the head, and Rick gets his footing, and orients himself to the airstrip.

The end is in sight.

Rick just has to keep running.

-o-

The rest of the distance passes quickly, and despite the fact that he’s still recovering from a near fatal snakebite, he feels invigorated. This has always been the best part of the ODS: the unparalleled field work. Even when nothing works out the way it’s supposed to, it’s a rush unlike any other. And not just the pure adrenaline. Knowing that he’s fighting the good fight and doing it well.

Not just well -- good. Damn good. Rick’s a good spy, and if he can pull this out, snatch a mission away from the flames -- literally -- then he’ll have earned his stripes. He’ll never have to be the rookie again. He’ll be just as good, just as daring, just as lucky as the rest of his team.

All he has to do is get to the airstrip, meet up with his team, and then get the hell out of here.

He’s so focused on that goal that he doesn’t see Hernandez until it’s too late to turn away. He skids to a stop, gun up and ready, before he sees his team.

In a line, on their knees, guns pointed to their head.

-o-

It comes out of nowhere.

Rick’s been so focused on running, on downing the enemy, on executing the plan -- he’d always counted on Hernandez to go to the drugs, first. He’d thought Hernandez would protect the product -- his mission -- before all else, and then focus on solidifying his men.

He hadn’t thought Hernandez would turn to the airstrip, abandon everything to save his own skin.

That’s probably why Rick’s not a hardened criminal or a member of a drug cartel. He doesn’t have the constitution for it.

But after three years, he really should be able to predict it.

Instead, here he is. All alone with his team on the line, caught off guard just like a rookie.

“My friend,” Hernandez says. “Perhaps now is the time for a little honesty, yes?”

Rick looks at his team. Casey’s face is barely composed -- no doubt the position on his knees is nothing short of torture on his broken leg. Billy looks like he’s about to fall over -- blood loss, probably, because that’s just like Billy. Michael, though. Michael meets his gaze. He doesn’t say anything; his face doesn’t even flinch.

There’s no need. Michael knows what Rick is thinking, just like Rick knows what Michael is thinking. His team drives him crazy, but they’re a team, more than Rick would ever know how to admit.

Rick steadies himself, easing his posture and letting the aim of his gun drop. “Honesty?” he asks diffidently. “We’re just looking to go home.”

“So you attack my men and destroy my property?” Hernandez asks.

“Well,” Rick says. “You were holding us at gunpoint. And I’m pretty sure my friends didn’t beat up themselves.”

Hernandez almost smiles. “You think you are clever.”

“No,” Rick replies. “I think I’m ready to go.”

“That is a point I am afraid I cannot help you with,” Hernandez continues. “You have many debts to pay with me now.”

“We’re a film crew,” Rick points out. “We don’t actually have much money.”

“Pity,” Hernandez says. “You shall have to pay another way then.”

One of the guards moves forward, pressing a gun to the back of Michael’s head. Michael stiffens.

Rick presses his lips together, grinding his teeth for a moment. “That’s a little petty, isn’t it?”

“Vengeance is part of what I do,” he says. “It took me several years to learn that, but I have mastered it now.”

Rick offers a restrained grin. “You must be very proud.”

“Besides,” Hernandez continues. “In my time at this post, I have learned to leave no loose ends. You, my friend, are a very loose end.”

“No,” Rick says. “We’re just a film crew. We just want to go home. And I think you’re going to let us.”

Hernandez raises his eyebrows. “Oh? And why is that?”

Rick wets his lips. “Because,” he says. “Your mother would want you to.”

It’s a risky ploy. To use a man’s grief on the day of his mother’s funeral -- it’s not exactly the most ethical choice.

But ethics are not so simple anymore. Not when Billy looks like he’s about to pass out, not when Casey can’t even move from the pain, not when Michael has a gun to his head. Not when there’s armed men between Rick and his last chance at salvation.

For a moment, Hernandez actually looks surprised.

Then, he sneers. “My mother?”

Rick nods. “She was a good woman, wasn’t she?” he asks. “That’s why you brought her here, to bury her and pay your respects. What would she say if she saw you now?”

“My mother,” Hernandez says slowly. “She hated the violence. She told me that settling for less was better than becoming something you are not to attain more. She believed there was hope for me to change, until the very end.”

Rick feels hope start to solidify in his chest.

“She was a good woman, my mother,” he says. “Everyone loved her.”

Rick nods, expectant.

“My mother,” Hernandez starts, and stop shorts. Then his lip curls. “My mother was a weak, pathetic woman. She never rose above her station, she never thought to want more. She let people tell her where to go and what to do. She gave away all she had until she herself was destitute. I brought her here because I do not like loose ends. I could not bury her in another place. Here, she was under my control. Here, I could build my empire on her grave and show her for all eternity that I knew best.

Rick stares, suppressing the urge to curse. The diatribe isn’t what he expects. Hernandez is more than a grieving son. He’s a psychopath.

A psychopath with more emotional fodder to pull the trigger on each and every one of them. Rick’s managed to take the worst situation imaginable and make it so much worse.

In that instant, Rick knows he can’t fix this.

He just can’t.

His plan has failed. He’s tired and weak; he’s worn out and out of ideas. His best, it’s just not enough this time.

There’s nothing left.

He looks at Michael; Michael looks back.

There’s almost nothing left.

Rick’s out of plans, but he’s not out of options, because there’s still one thing left, one thing that’s always been there since the first day Rick walked into Langley and took a questionable job in Higgins’ office. In three years, a lot has changed, but that much hasn’t.

Rick’s part of a team.

He’s part of the best team, the only team, his team.

Steadier, he looks at Hernandez and lifts his chin. “You shouldn’t forget your roots,” he says, slow and measured as he feels the tension mount and the pressure build in the pit of his stomach.

Hernandez laughs. “You are as delusional as the old woman!” he cries.

Michael holds his breath; Casey straightens; Billy’s eyes clear.

Rick keeps himself still. “Maybe,” he agrees. “But you don’t get it. Good or bad, whether you like it or not, your roots are the only thing that keeps you standing when things get really tough.”

Hernandez looks ready to laugh again, but he never gets the chance. Because Michael reaches back and grabs the gun while Casey throws himself into the guard behind him. Billy ducks and rolls, sending the last guard off balance. In the melee, Hernandez goes for his own gun.

But he’s too slow.

Because Rick’s been holding his all along. And he’s tired, his vision is blurry, and he very well could pass out at any second, but he has the strength for one last shot.

One last chance.

He pulls the trigger.

And Hernandez goes down like a felled tree, a bullet to the chest.

Rick looks from Hernandez to Michael, who’s dragging Billy up with one hand and checking on Casey with the other. There’s still yelling and smoke in the background, but Michael’s eyes find his across the melee.

“You did it,” Michael tells him, a little disbelieving, a little like he probably knew all along.

Rick’s lungs are burning, and the pounding between his ears is suddenly pronounced again. He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “We did it.”

Michael wets his lips, adjusting his grip on Billy as Casey gets his footing. “So what’s next?” he asks.

Inhaling, Rick blinks a few times to clear his head. “Now,” he says. “We get the hell out of here.”

Despite the dried blood on his face, Michael grins. “I couldn’t have planned it better myself.”

-o-

The mission is mostly shot to hell.

On the one hand, they did identify several key members of Hernandez’s organization. They also located a key base in the operation, before shutting it down and stopping Hernandez -- permanently. Rick’s not naive enough to think that’s the end of all drug trafficking in the area -- what Hernandez leaves behind will be picked up by someone else, probably someone just as ruthless and smart as Hernandez was. That’s the thing with spywork. One mission is never enough. The mission, as it is, never actually ends.

Higgins won’t be thrilled, and honestly, Rick’s not exactly thrilled either. He’d spent months tracking Hernandez, and now he’ll basically have to start over since all the intel on Hernandez is worthless now. But they have slowed the flow of drugs, at least for now. That will count for something with Higgins, although Rick knows it probably won’t count for much.

Still, as Rick makes a straight run to the plane, helping Casey limp on board as Michael drags Billy, he thinks maybe it counts for enough. Casey helps settle Billy in the back while Michael joins Rick at the controls.

“You sure you can fly this thing?” Michael asks as Rick fumbles through a takeoff checklist.

“I got my pilot’s license last year,” he says, flipping a few more switches.

“With all your free time?” Michael jokes.

Rick doesn’t even bother to glare at him. “You want to do it?”

“No, no,” Michael says, holding up his hands. “Looks like you’ve got it entirely under control.”

Rick smirks, bringing the engine to life and starting to taxi around toward the runway. It’s a little short, but the plane is small. Out the window, Rick can see the men continuing to scatter as dark smoke billows in the air. The villagers have taken cover, but Rick catches glimpses of them hiding at their doors.

Life will go back to normal here. These villagers, they won’t have to hide drugs or live with a cartel. They can go back to their roots.

With the plane in position, Rick takes a breath, glancing out one last time to where he can see the cemetery. He wonders if Hernandez will be buried with his mother -- if he even deserves that much.

It’s not Rick’s place to say, though.

“Okay,” Rick says. “We all good?”

Michael glances back toward Casey and Billy. “Looks like.”

“Alright then,” Rick murmurs, putting his hand on the throttle and giving it all he has. “Let’s go home.”

Because no matter how well it went, the mission is finally over.

-o-

At cruising altitude, Rick evaluates his options. Navigating toward the smallest airfield nearby, he make contact and sells a convincing enough story to get them access. He figures having Hernandez’s plane is probably a convenient selling point with local officials, and he can only figure that by the time anyone figures out what happened in the village, they’ll be long gone.

At least, Rick hopes so.

Exhausted, he puts the plane on autopilot, turning back to catch a glimpse of Casey and Billy. “Everyone okay?”

“We’ve been better,” Casey snaps.

“Aye,” Billy says. “Reckon we’ve earned some R and R after this escapade.”

Michael grunts. “If you count a hospital recovery room, then sure.”

Billy makes a face. “Given the choice between drug dealers and that--”

“I’d probably pick the drug dealers,” Casey mutters.

Rick nods. “We’re good then,” he says. “We’re good.”

“Yeah, kid,” Michael says, patting him on the shoulder. “You did good.”

Rick looks at him. He wants to remind Michael that he’s no kid. He’s sure as hell not a rookie, not when he’s gotten them all this far. He’s part of this team, and equal and important part--

And that’s what matters.

The world is spinning, and Rick’s heart is fluttering in his chest. His breathing quickens, and in his mind he still sees Hernandez fall and a snake dangling from his arm.

You shouldn’t forget your roots.

Rick blinks and sees Michael, who’s frowning at him now.

“Martinez?” Michael asks. “You okay?”

Dumbly, Rick nods. His mouth is dry, and his tongue is thick. “Yeah,” he says. “You think you can take over now?”

“Sure,” Michael says. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Rick says again, blinking in futility as his vision starts to blur even worse than before. “I just think I’m going to pass out now.”

With that, Rick pitches sideways, and he hears Michael curse. He doesn’t see the floor rushing up to meet him -- he doesn’t have to.

Because that’s the thing. Rick’s an equal and important part of this team. Those are his roots. Even when he falls--

They’ll catch him every time.

-o-

When Rick sleeps, he dreams of snakes in the rainforest and drug cartels with guns. There’s smoke and there’s pain as chaos erupts and threatens to swallow him whole.

He dreams of big dreams and lofty plans. He dreams of a cover overseas, and asking Adele to marry him. Rick’s always had plans. Plans to be a hero and a patriot; plans to be happy; plans to be better.

These are Rick’s dreams.

Then he wakes up.

-o-

A hospital.

Rick looks up at the generic tile ceiling and smells the powerful scent of disinfectant. There are monitors beeping and fluorescent lights try to blind him.

Of course it’s a hospital.

After almost dying from a snakebite in the Amazon and passing out on an airplane that he commandeered, a hospital is really the only next logical conclusion.

His team should be harping on him, cracking jokes at his expense and--

He jolts upright, his IV tugging painfully at his hand. His team.

That’s what this has been all about, after all. From the start. It’s been about his team.

That settles hollowly in his stomach, and he sits up a little more, tentatively swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He feels a little fuzzy, but his head is clearer than before and all the aches seem muted now. He licks his lips and cautiously gets his footing, reaching out to the curtain surrounding his bed in hopes of better determining his current situation.

He’s not sure what his current cover status is. He’s not even sure what his current physical status is. He can only assume the plane was landed successfully and without incident, although without knowing what hospital he’s in, such deductions are actually a bit of a stretch. His team could be anywhere -- shot, broken limbs, concussion -- they needed medical help as much if not more than him, and the fact that they’re not there--

Well, that’s probably the scariest thing yet. His team is always there. Not always when he wants them, and not always when he needs him, but still there in their own twisted way.

That’s just the ODS.

Shaking, he pulls back the curtain, hoping to steady himself. All his efforts, though, prove to be in vain. When he pulls back the curtain, there they are.

The ODS.

His team.

The line of beds goes to the door. Michael’s next to him, sleeping with his head bandaged. Billy’s in the next bed, mouth open while he huffs lightly in unconsciousness, a bulky bandage plainly visible under the thin sheet. Closest to the door, Casey’s sleeping in utter stillness, his casted leg almost comically large.

They’re alive. They’re okay.

They’re his team.

Seeing them, knowing this -- well, that makes all the rest okay.

Leaving the curtain open, he hobbles back to the bed. He settles gingerly on his back, look at his recovering team for a long moment. He’s tired, he wants to sleep. He probably should sleep. But, he can’t help but think, it’s his turn.

Three years, and it’s really his turn.

-o-

Apparently, they’re all going to be fine. By morning, they’re each up in turn, and Rick stays awake just long enough to talk to a doctor, who is quite grateful that Rick can speak fluently. From that conversation, Rick finds out that his team is recovering well. Michael’s concussion is showing signs of improvement, and Casey will get cleared for crutches soon. Billy’s not even going to need much rehab to get back on his feet.

“You forgot to ask about yourself,” Michael reminds him balefully.

“You are the one with the dramatic condition,” Billy says.

“And this is all your fault,” Casey mutters.

Rick rolls his eyes. “I’m fine--”

“Senor,” the doctor interjects. “Your friends, they are correct. You are very weak. You are very lucky.”

“See,” Michael says, far too smug.

“You should know better by now,” Billy muses.

Casey smirks. “We’re never wrong.”

Rick chuckles, nodding his head as he wets his lips. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I’m pretty damn lucky.”

-o-

If being on a mission with the ODS is hard, being cooped up in the same hospital room with nothing to do is astronomically worse. Casey hums to himself incessantly, and Michael fusses over every little detail. Billy complains about everything, and by the end of the day, Rick wants to kill them each in turn.

“I’m just saying,” Michael continues. “Their entire charting system is entirely impractical and wasteful. I mean, they have to flip three pages just to see the medication list when clearly it should be visible on the front--”

“Oh, good Lord, man,” Billy cuts him off. “You’re only on painkillers, and the good ones at that. Whatever antibiotics they’ve got in this thing are making me continually nauseous.”

“Well, maybe if you didn’t eat everyone’s leftovers, you wouldn’t feel sick,” Casey mutters.

“I do not believe in waste,” Billy objects.

“Have you seen your apartment? It’s all waste,” Michael points out.

“Your brain is a waste,” Casey agrees acidically.

“The fact that you are devolving to personal slights is offensive,” Billy insists, puffing his chest out in indignation.

“The fact that the three of you are still alive after all these years is offensive,” Rick interjects. “Seriously, how have you managed that?”

This earns him three long looks. Rick refuses to blush.

“So says the new guy,” Billy murmurs.

“Who got bit by a snake,” Casey adds.

“And had to be healed by a drug dealer,” Michael says with due force.

Rick shakes his head. “No way,” he says. “You’re not pinning this on a rookie mistake.”

Remarkably in unison, his team each cocks their heads.

“I saved all your asses,” Rick says. “I can’t account for snakes.”

They each offer a version of their own withering stare.

Rick scoffs. “You can’t,” he says, more insistently now. “I mean, none of you did.”

“We did successfully provide first aid,” Casey says.

“And carried you efficiently,” Billy points out.

“And came up with a plan that saved your life,” Michael tells him.

Rick stares at them, hoping they’re joking.

They have to be joking.

“I’m not the new guy,” Rick says.

They don’t reply.

“Three years!” Rick says.

“Whatever you say, kid,” Michael says, settling back with his arms crossed.

Rick groans.

-o-

The irony is that he’s the first one to be released. He’s smug when he leaves them, because three years.

“Bring us back some real food in the morning,” Michael says.

“With meat I can identify,” Casey says.

“And perhaps a wee bit of sugar for my coffee?” Billy asks.

Rick shakes his head. “No way,” he says.

“Seniority rules,” Michael protests.

Rick smirks. “I told you, though,” he says. “I’m not the new guy. See you tomorrow. I’ll stop by after I eat my breakfast and drink my coffee. Enjoy your hospital food.”

“Three years has made you cold,” Billy mutters.

Rick grins. “Now you’re starting to get it.”

-o-

He eats a big dinner. He gets dessert and drinks an expensive bottle of wine. He upgrades to a bigger room and takes a bath, just because he can. He doesn’t care who ends up footing the bill, almost dying on a would-be farewell mission warrants a little indulgence.

In bed, he tries texting Adele, but she’s caught up at work. He flips through the channels and dozes a bit, thinking back about everything.

He’s better; his team is healing. The mission is over.

But Rick can’t shake this feeling. This nagging sense that it’s not over. That it’s never over.

That’s the paranoia, of course. That’s why he has to leave the ODS. They’ve made him a bastard, just like the rest of them. If he stays, he’ll be the exact same way. Impossible and difficult and alone.

And Rick doesn’t want that.

He looks around, and realizes the irony of it all. He is alone, and that’s the scariest thing of all. He is paranoid, more so than ever, and it is his team’s fault. But not because they’re bad spies, but because they’re good spies. They’re the best spies. And Rick knows after three years exactly what that means.

It means they almost die. It means they put it all on the line. It means that every mission could be their last. And Rick’s scared of that. Rick’s scared because the mission isn’t enough. No, the thing that matters most is bringing his team home.

That’s what makes the ODS the best.

That’s what makes the ODS the worst.

That’s why they’re difficult and impossible and paranoid. Being with the ODS has changed him, but leaving will only make him less connected. He’ll have less to lose. He’ll never have to worry about smuggling his team out of a village run by a cartel.

Then again, when he’s bit by a snake in the Amazon, they’ll be no one there to get a drug dealer to save his life.

Rick can be a hero anywhere. Nameless and faceless. He can save the world all on his own.

Or, he can stick with his team. It’ll be harder and scarier, but he’ll save the world -- starting with each one of them.

He’s not the man he was three years ago. He’s not the spy he thought he’d be.

Tonight, though, he’s on his own. He can determine his own future. He can get everything he’s ever wanted -- and then some. He can move beyond the ODS. He can determine his own missions and define his own success. He can be whoever he wants.

He doesn’t need them.

But he’s better with them.

Just like they’re better with him.

For Rick, it’s the longest night yet in three whole years.

-o-

Rick goes back to the hospital first thing in the morning. He has to sneak in past the nurses since visiting hours haven’t actually started yet, but he’s a spy. He can handle a few nurses.

In the room, his teammates don’t look surprised.

“You didn’t bring breakfast,” Michael notices.

“I was looking forward to meat,” Casey says.

Billy offers him a baleful look. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had coffee?”

Rick makes a face. “You probably shouldn’t be on caffeine anyway. You’re recovering from a gunshot wound.”

“And you’re recovering from a snakebite,” Michael says.

“Recovered,” Rick clarifies. “I’m fine.”

Michael exchanges a look with Billy and Casey.

“I said, I’m fine,” Rick repeats, because he knows what they’re thinking.

“So that’s why you snuck in here before visiting hours without so much as a donut?” Michael asks.

“I think your definition of fine leaves something lacking,” Casey agrees.

“As does your sense of decency,” Billy mutters.

Rick sighs, because of course they know. If he can read them, they can read him. That’s how it works. “I just--” he starts but isn’t sure how to finish. He takes a breath and lets it out with a shake of his head. “Things almost weren’t fine.”

This earns him three curious glances. “I thought you were the one calling this a success,” Michael remarks far too casually.

“I was,” Rick says. “I mean, I am. I just -- I thought--”

He fumbles, look at the bruises on Michael’s face, the circles under Billy’s eyes and the weight of Casey’s leg in a cast.

“I thought I was going to lose you guys back there,” he admits with an uncomfortable shrug. “All of you, and -- I don’t know. I could finish the mission and do it all right, but that never would be okay.”

To say that the admission is awkward would be an understatement. In his time with the ODS, Rick has learned how not to say a lot of things. It’s not that they don’t talk about their feelings, it’s that they don’t talk directly about their feelings. Billy will write poetry, and Michael will lie a little less, and Casey -- well, Casey does whatever the hell Casey wants, so that’s pretty much not a relevant issue.

But feelings. Fears and truths. That just doesn’t fit into what they do. Sure, they’ve broached the topic. They say thank you for saving each other’s lives, and then the next day everything is back to normal.

That’s the problem, though. Normal doesn’t work; not really. Not when they do what the ODS does.

“I think we know how that feels,” Michael reminds him, a little more gently now.

“I know, I just--” Rick sighs with a shakes of his head. “I’ve been doing this for three years. Three years, I’ve been going out and putting it all on the line. And I’m not scared of dying, but the thought of leaving you guys behind….”

“And we know that, too,” Michael says.

“Do you?” Rick returns. “Do you really?”

Michael shifts, pressing his lips together for a moment. He shares a glance with Billy and Casey before looking back at Rick plaintively. “I think you’re forgetting a few key details of this mission.”

“Like what? The part where you guys nearly got tortured and executed?”

“How about when Casey cut into your arm to relieve the venom and carried you across the jungle,” Michael says.

“Or how Michael came up with the brilliant plan of begging a drug lord for help,” Billy says.

“Or when Billy took a bullet instead of letting them hurt you,” Casey says.

Rick stares at them, forgetting to blink.

Michael lifts his chin coolly. “So yeah,” he says. “We know.”

That’s not a surprise. Rick’s known that since he nearly bled out in the back of a SUV a few countries over. But for some reason, it’s easy to forget. Or easy to think that it’s different for them. That they don’t feel like he does, that they don’t feel as scared or as desperate or as stupid. That somehow they’re immune to such things because, well, they’re bastards.

“That’s not what we’re supposed to be thinking about in the field,” Rick murmurs. “Higgins--”

“Higgins isn’t really our primary concern,” Michael says. “Spies have no one. We don’t have personal lives. We don’t have friends. We just have each other. If we don’t look out for each other, then what’s the point?”

The point, Rick think. That’s the point. That’s why the ODS is special; that’s why they’re different.

That’s the point.

“Besides,” Michael says, settling back a little easier. “You got us out and made this mission work.”

“It is rather...impressive,” Casey concedes.

“For the new guy no less,” Billy says with a wide grin.

Rick deflates. This is also the point. “You know I’m not the new guy, right?” he asks, too tired to be angry. Too tired to be anything but weary.

“You have three years,” Michael says. “Between the three of us, we have decades. What else do you call it?”

“I call it good enough!” Rick replies. “I know I haven’t been in the game as long as you guys, but I have experience. I’m good. I’m more than good, I’m capable of anything you guys can do and then some. I can’t always be your new guy.” He stops, and he doesn’t like to be vulnerable, but at this point -- after three years -- he’s desperate. “I can’t.

He wants them to understand. He wants them to see. He wants them.

For a moment, the silence lingers. When Michael composes himself, he looks straight in Rick’s eyes. “Martinez,” he says, as a matter of fact. “We’re a team. We all have a part to play. Casey’s the muscle. Billy’s the charmer. I’m the mastermind. I guess we could call you the translator, but that’s not really it either, is it? We create personas. We craft lies. We manufacture parts for ourselves because that’s how we live our lives. But it’s not who we are separately, and it never has been. It’s who we are together. We’re a team.”

Rick’s throat is tight. “But I’m the butt of all your jokes--”

“Oh, please,” Casey says. “All of them?”

“Personally I am quite fond of mocking Michael for trailing after Fay like a lost puppy after all these years,” Billy says.

“And Casey’s a great target for his strange lack of social skills,” Michael says.

“And Billy -- come on,” Casey adds. “How often do we bring up the fact that he was kicked out of his homeland and sentenced to a life of exile?”

Rick blinks, a growing awareness settling over him.

“Come on, Martinez,” Michael says. “It’s been three years, and you haven’t given us much else to work with. Let us have the new guy shtick.”

His team doesn’t ask him for much. They trick him; they coerce him; they humiliate him; they order him. But they don’t ask.

Yet, here they are. Asking him this.

And all Rick can think is how stupid he feels. After three years, he actually needed it spelled out. He needed to be told and reassured and coddled. After three years, he is still insecure and uncertain and trying to prove himself.

Hell, he is the new guy.

Maybe it’s not what he wants, but it’s really not so bad.

Sheepishly, he smiles. “I just want to know I’m in the right place.”

“We didn’t realize you had someplace else to go,” Billy muses.

“The private sector’s not worth it,” Casey says.

“And management would annoy the hell out of you,” Michael says.

“No, I know,” Rick says. “I just….well…”

They’re watching him, waiting. Rick’s not sure how much he wants to admit, but it seems like the thing to do.

He sighs. “There’s this job,” he says. “A deputy field position out of one of the Middle East offices. It’s a definitive step up, and I’d mostly be working solo in a long cover situation.”

He trails off, awkward.

Michael raises his eyebrows. “A deputy, huh?”

“The Middle East would be exciting at least,” Casey says. “But the food leaves something to be desired.”

“And solo work has its merits,” Billy says, as though trying to sound enthusiastic.

“And it’s drawbacks,” Michael comments. “Just ask Casey.”

“Don’t,” Casey says tersely. “I did my time, and you have to be particularly well suited for it.”

“Or you run amuck like our friend Gallo in Germany,” Billy points out.

“Or worse,” Michael says. “It’s a dangerous thing to work alone.”

“But I’m good,” Rick protests. “I mean, that’s sort of the thing. You guys always think I need to be protected, but I’m good. We all take risks, and maybe it doesn’t always work out, but I’m the same as you.”

“Oh, we know,” Michael says.

“We have already begrudgingly admitted your worth,” Casey says.

“And that’s why I think we can all agree it’s not the sort of place for you,” Billy tells him.

“But what if I’m good at it?” Rick asks. “Sometimes I feel like I just need to prove it. If not to you guys, then to myself. That I’m a good spy, all on my own.”

“Of course you’d be good,” Casey says. “I do not tolerate mediocrity.”

“You haven’t lasted this long with the likes of us without being good, lad,” Billy says.

“And if you’re looking to move up, that’s where you’d want to go,” Michael says. “I’m not surprised they want you. But if you go--”

Rick waits for a quip. He listens for a turn of the tone. He’s expecting reverse psychology, manipulation -- the whole works.

But Michael shrugs. “We’d have a hell of a time replacing you.”

It’s exactly the right thing to say. Damn it, it’s perfect.

Rick wants to hate Michael for it, as much as he wants to hate Billy’s baleful sincerity and Casey’s plaintive acceptance. They want him; they like him; they respect him. They’re his team.

He’ll never change that. If he moves on, if he goes solo, it doesn’t change any of this. It’s not about what people say or what they appear to be; it’s about who they are when the chips are down. On paper, Hernandez looked like a good son, but in the end, he’d chopped himself off at the roots and paid the price. It’s the same for Rick. Leaving isn’t wrong, but it’s certainly not better. More than that, it doesn’t fix anything.

This is about how Rick feels about himself. Adele was right; his team is right.

This is where he belongs. He owes his team everything.

Just like they owe him everything.

“Well, I haven’t taken it yet,” Rick says.

“And will you be taking it?” Billy asks, hedging slightly. They’re all trying to look nonchalant, but Rick knows better.

He smiles. “Nah,” he says. “I’m too tired to even consider something new right now anyway.”

The tension breaks, and Billy smiles outright. Michael looks pleased, and Casey looks less like he wants to kill someone.

“We are glad to hear that,” Michael says.

“It would have been off putting to drag you through the rainforest just to have you leave,” Casey agrees.

“Besides,” Billy says. “You wouldn’t have liked Lebanon much anyway.”

Rick’s nodding in agreement, but then he stops. “Wait,” he says. “I never said it was Lebanon--”

He stops short. The smile fades on his face.

“Damn it!” he says. “You knew!”

Billy has the decency to look vaguely sheepish.

Michael just shrugs. “After three years, is that really a surprise?”

“You should know none of your drawers are secure,” Casey says.

“Not even that false bottom on the top,” Billy says.

“Hey!” Rick protests. “You knew all along and you didn’t say anything?”

“We weren’t sure what you were going to do,” Michael says.

“I never had any doubts,” Billy tells him. “I spoke of your loyalty.”

“I figured you’d chicken out,” Casey admits.

Rick’s mouth drops open. “You’re bastards,” he says. “You’re all bastards.

Michael chuckles. “You know it,” he says. “So welcome to the club.”

It’s not a club Rick wanted to join.

But he knows it’s not one he’ll ever leave.

-o-

It’s another three days before Rick’s ready to go home. Billy’s still weak, and Casey should really be in a wheelchair. Michael pretends like everything is normal, but Rick finds himself taking the lead.

They let him, while they grouse and grumble. They let him, because they trust him. They let him, because he’s one of them.

In the motel, he packs up. There’s a car waiting for them, and his team is waiting. Rick has time to make one short call.

Adele answers quickly, and she sounds happy to hear him. “Higgins was surprised to say the least, but I think everyone’s secretly impressed,” she explains. “No one expected that outcome.”

“Yeah, myself included,” Rick murmurs.

“Well, it did wonders for your resume,” she tells him. “I hear you’re at the top of the list.”

“Oh,” Rick says, rubbing the back of his neck. “About that--”

“Okay, really, you are the list,” she says. “The job is yours, if you still want it.”

Rick swallows. Three years.

Three years.

“That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about,” he begins.

Because three years is a long time.

But it’s sure as hell not long enough.