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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: Trial by Fire

September 18th, 2011 (08:40 am)
Tags: ,

Title: Trial by Fire

Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: This fic is dedicated to the wonderful altpointofview, whose epic squee always makes me smile. It's her birthday today, and so she deserves a little Rick whump to pass the time :) Much thanks to moogsthewriter for providing me a beta.

Summary: Because a trial by fire can go either way, and Rick knows which one he prefers now more than ever.



-o-

Rick can’t shake the feeling that he’s getting set up.

Still, he’s careful how he approaches the topic, sitting stiffly in the seat of their rented car, staring through the darkness at the dark farmhouse in front of them.  “So, tell me again why I’m going in alone?”

“Because drug traffickers are notoriously jumpy people,” Casey says plainly.  “Too many of us and we’ll spook him.”

“But doesn’t he think we’re here to talk about a job?” Rick asks.

“Yes, and would you trust the four of us if we came in saying we had drugs to sell?” Casey asks.

Rick looks at each of them.

“Exactly,” Casey snaps.

“It’s easy,” Michael interjects.  “We’ll have you wired and Casey and I will slip back to the barn just over the hill for backup.”

“And I will play your dutiful driver,” Billy says.  “Right here, the entire time.”

There’s some logic to this, Rick supposes, as much as there is any logic to any of the ODS’ missions.

But there’s something off about this one.  Something Rick can’t let go of.  “Okay,” he says slowly, looking at the dark house again.  Then he looks at his team.  “But why me?”

“You don’t think you’re up to it?” Casey asks pointedly.

“No,” Rick says.  “It’s just that you guys never trust me to do any of the real work.”

“Which is why we’re trying to give you more responsibility,” Michael agrees.  “We need to see what you’re made of.”

Billy beams in the driver’s seat as he looks at Rick.  “A trial by fire, as it were,” he says proudly.  “And I, for one, have the utmost confidence that you will flourish in this exercise, coming through the fire as refined metal, fit for use.”

“And we think it’s time to see if you’ll get yourself killed or not,” Casey says with a shrug from his spot in the back.

“So,” Michael continues.  “You ready?”

Offended, confused, and worried, Rick can only gape while Michael and Casey spill out of the car.  Billy slaps him on the back.  “No fear,” he says.  “I am confident this will go perfectly.”

To Rick’s mind, at least that makes one of them.

-o-

As Rick approaches the house, flashlight in hand and drugs in his pocket, he starts to think of how all of this could go wrong.  They’re in Mexico, and even though the intel had suggested that the ring was located in the city, Michael had gotten a tip of some activity in the country.  Posing as suppliers, they were looking to hit up a low level trafficker who might be interested in procuring new business and moving up the ranks.

Billy had made the calls.  Casey had scoped the place.  And now Rick’s here, wearing a wire, carrying a small sample of drugs and preparing to make a deal with a drug trafficker in order to find a more viable entrance into the network.

In theory, this sounds okay.  But the plan has changed so rapidly that Rick’s not sure what to make of it.  Their orders had been mainly to surveil, to work with an established asset, but Rick had taken one nap since they landed and suddenly this is how it is.

A trial by fire.

Rick swallows hard.  Ultimately, this isn’t about drug trafficking, and he knows it.  It’s about proving himself to his team, about showing his worth, about not being the new guy for the rest of his tenure.

Pushing open the front door, Rick rallies his strength.  Knowing his team, he figures he’s going to need it before this entire thing is over.

-o-

All things considered, waiting is kind of anticlimactic.  Rick’s tensions are running so high, that sitting idly while keeping watch out the front window is hard to do.  Every small creak sets his nerves flaring anew, but there’s no sign of the mark.

No sign of anything.

Rick figures drug traffickers are probably just not big on punctuality--especially the lower level types--so he’s settling into wait when there’s a commotion.

It’s not from the front, which is where the road is.  It’s from the back--where he left Billy and the van.

This makes him uneasy, and he gives the front yard a visual sweep and lets his fingers brush his gun before he gets cautiously to his feet.  He moves quietly through the house, careful so the old floorboards don’t creak.

He hesitates at the kitchen door, which squeaks when he pushes it open.  Tense, he stands still, waiting from some kind of response.  When nothing happens, he edges through, eyes keenly focused in the dark for any type of movement.

There’s nothing, but that doesn’t exactly assuage Rick’s growing trepidation.  He inches forward, gun tense in his hand.  At the back door, which is still securely latched, he pauses, taking a deep breath.

Closing his fingers around the handle, he forces himself to breathe again, trying to still the pounding of his heart as he turns the handle and pushes the door open.

The minute the door slides open, something is coming at him.  Rick works hard not to yelp and almost has his gun ready when a breathless voice stops him.  “Rick,” Billy hisses in the darkness.  “Thank God.”

The tension dissipates, but just slightly as Rick glares at the Scottish operative.  “What the hell are you doing?” he demands.  “I thought you were staying in the car!”

Billy steps closer, and that’s when Rick can make out the panic etched into his features in the moonlight.  He swallows hard and he’s panting.  “We’ve been compromised,” he says, his voice terse and breathless.

Rick frowns, shaking his head.  “But the mark hasn’t shown--”

Billy cuts him off with a shake of his head.  “I caught wind of activity over by the barn.  When I couldn’t raise Michael or Casey on the comms, I went to investigate,” he explains.  “They’re captured.  Still alive, but I can’t tell how badly injured.  When I made my way back over here, I saw more movement.  I think they’re already inside.”

Rick’s heart skips a beat, his stomach going cold.  “They’re here?” he asks.  “But how--”

“Must have gotten here before us,” Billy says, blowing out a heavy breath.  He checks his gun, brow furrowed.  “It’s a set up.”

It’s hard to make sense of--harder still to cope with.  Rick’s still processing it while Billy moves past him.  “I’m going to go upstairs, check it out,” he says.

Rick balks.  “But I thought I was on point.”

Billy glances at him, halfway through the door.  “That was when this was an easy in and out job,” he says.  “Things just got serious.”

“I thought you wanted to see what I could do!” Rick protests.

“Aye,” Billy says.  “And I’d rather not get you killed on your first outing, yeah?”

The lack of confidence is stinging, but Billy’s already moving into the kitchen.  “What am I supposed to do?” Rick demands in a harsh whisper.

Gun poised, Billy looks back one last time.  “Keep guard.  Make sure nothing leaves or enters,” Billy says.  

“And what if you need help?” Rick asks.

Billy smiles a little.  “Then I trust you to do what’s right,” he says.  Then he shrugs.  “But I’m sure it’ll be fine.  I’ll be right back.”

And before Rick can protest further, Billy is already gone.

-o-

Ten minutes pass.  There are footsteps upstairs, but it’s hard to hear from his position on the porch.

Then fifteen.

At twenty, Rick can’t wait any longer.  He knows what Billy said, but he knows what his gut is telling him.  It’s been too long.  It’s been too quiet.

Checking his gun, Rick looks around.  Finding himself alone, he makes the call and goes inside and charges up the stairs.

-o-

The house is empty.  It’s quiet.

The first floor is clear.  When he gets to the second, one of the doors is ajar.

Hesitant, Rick inches forward.  Checking the area, he pokes his head in, sweeping the room as efficiently as he can, too aware of how obtrusive the beam from his flashlight is in the stillness.

And then, his guard drops because there’s Billy, sprawled in the far corner of the room.  His face is turned away, but Rick can see the gash on his head and the awkward turn of his leg.

Chest tight, Rick moves forward quickly, going to his knees next to Billy.  When he puts his hands to Billy’s face, turning it toward him, the Scot twitches, his eyelids fluttering as he comes back to consciousness with a gasp.

“What happen?” Billy asks, even before his eyes settle on Rick’s face.

“I’m the one who should be asking you that,” Rick says, voice still hushed.  It’s clear Billy was attacked.  It’s less clear by whom and what their current location might be.  “I thought you said you’d be right back.”

Billy blinks rapidly, nodding convulsively.  “Ah, yes,” he says and his voice retains its usual cadence, even if strained with pain.  “I can see how poorly such a promise might look under the current circumstances.”

Rick tries not to dwell on the obvious problems.  Instead, he focuses on the details that matter.  “How’s your leg?”

Billy winces at the question, face paling further.  “Broken,” he says.

Rick glances down, shining his light.  There’s no blood, which is good, but it certainly looks uncomfortable given the angle.  “How?”

Billy takes a stunted breath, shifting slightly.  “Bugger had a baseball bat,” he says.  “Clipped me in the leg as I made the initial sweep.”

Rick turns his attention to Billy’s forehead.  “And that?”

“After we had a nice little chat, he apparently decided he preferred to work in silence,” Billy explains.

This time, it’s Rick who winces, the thought of a baseball bat to the head sounding less than appealing.

“Lost my gun when I went down,” Billy admits, and he sounds more sheepish than pained this time.  “Not exactly a shining moment, that.”

“Why weren’t you more careful?” Rick asks before he can help himself.  It’s a slightly inconsiderate question, but it’s not like Billy to be so sloppy.  In fact, it’s not like his team to be taken down so easily at all.  Drug traffickers could be dangerous, but they weren’t usually tactical geniuses.

Billy tries to smile.  “In retrospect, you are most certainly correct.”

“But you said you were going to make the sweep,” Rick contends.  “That you knew they were upstairs.”

Billy seems to wince again.  “Indeed that is what I said,” he has to agree.  “I just didn’t quite expect this.”

Rick is almost incredulous.  “Then what did you expect?”

“If I told you an empty house, how would that make you feel?” Billy ventures cautiously.

It really doesn’t even make sense.  “That would mean you lied to me,” he says.

Billy frowns.  “In a literal sense, yes,” he says.  “But you need to learn that the lies that matter aren’t those of fact or fiction.  Lies that matter are of the heart and of intent.  In my soul, I meant what I said for good, I can assure you of that?”

Rick shakes his head.  “But in reality?”

Billy sighs grimly.  “It was a test,” he says.

“Yeah, I know, trial by fire--”

“No,” Billy interjects.  “The entire idea behind it was a set up.  There was no mark coming.  We just wanted to see how you would react with your fellow agents in jeopardy.”

It’s a simple confession, but so stark in its content that all Rick can do is blink for a long moment.  “Wait, you broke your leg and gave yourself a concussion as a test?”

At that, Billy laughs.  “No,” he says.  “I broke my leg when the plan fell apart and our fake mission became far too real.”

Rick stares.  “What?”

“We set up a test for you, but someone set up a test for us,” he says.  “Our friends from the city got tipped off and followed us out here.”

There’s suddenly a lot to make sense of--from Billy’s injury to the story he’s spinning to the slow revelation that Rick may be screwed but not any more screwed than he already thought.  “So wait,” Rick clarifies.  “This was a fake test?”

“Aye,” Billy says.  “That just turned into a real test.”

It sounds too ridiculous to be true, which is why it’s actually the first thing that has made sense all night.  Still, at this point, Rick doesn’t know what to believe.  “And how do I know this isn’t still part of the test?”

Billy’s face contorts with pain.  “Because while I pride myself on dedication to my job, I generally draw the line at self-harm and other sorts of peril that causes me undue pain on purpose,” he says through gritted teeth.

And there’s sense to that.  Because Billy’s really bleeding and his leg is really broken and that does seem extreme even for the ODS.

“And Michael and Casey?” Rick prompts.

Billy shakes his head.  “Not our primary concern,” he says.  “We need to focus on the mark first.”

“You mean he’s still here,” Rick asks.

“Turns out this is a safehouse,” Billy explain.  “There are drugs stored.  He went to clean them out.”

“Clean them out?” Rick asks.  “Before...?”

The question lingers and Rick pauses, head tilted.  There’s something in the air, a thick scent, cloying in his nostrils.  He thinks he recognizes it, but then tells himself he must be wrong.

“Is that...?” he asks.

Billy sighs wearily.  “Before they burn the place to the ground.”

-o-

At the door to the room, Rick’s flashlight is no longer needed.  Flames are growing in the room across the hall and smoke hangs thickly through the darken passageways.

For a moment, Rick just stares.

Then, closing the door, he goes back to Billy.  “When you said trial by fire, I didn’t think you were being literal!” he says, voice hitching with frustration.

In the glow of Rick’s flashlight, Billy does look duly chagrined.  “It was never my intention.”

“You mean just like it wasn’t your intention to get your leg broken and your head almost caved in?”

Billy nods with a meager smile.  “I think you’re getting it now.”

Rick rolls his eyes, reaching down to pull Billy up.  “Let’s just get out of here,” he mutters.  “Before something else goes wrong.”

But Billy resists him, pulling back and shaking his head.  “Not yet.”

Rick glares incredulously.  “Would you prefer to wait until we’re extra crispy?”

Billy just continues to shake his head.  “He’s still here.”

Rick’s brow furrows.

“The trafficker,” Billy clarifies.  “He’s still here.”

“How can you be sure?” Rick asks, looking nervously over his shoulder.  There’s smoke coming through the door now, black puffs starting to fill the room.

“Can we afford not to be?” is Billy’s reply.

Rick’s about to say how stupid it would be to start a fire while still in the house, but he hears a crash in the hall.  He looks at Billy, who just shrugs.

Sighing, Rick gets to his feet and heads back into the fire.

-o-

When he gets into the hallway, the fire is larger now, but still contained to the room across the way.  He’s about to turn down the hall to see if the noise was legitimate when he runs straight into someone.

His first impulse is to apologize.

His second impulse is to fire his gun.

Ultimately, it’s his third impulse that wins.  Stumbling back, Rick glowers and yells, “Hey!”

It’s perhaps not brilliant strategy, but since the drug trafficker looks as surprised to see Rick as Rick is to see him, it actually works.

For a second, they both just stare at each other, eyes wide in the growing firelight.  

The trafficker moves first.  He lifts a gun and Rick kicks it away just in time.  He follows up by running forward, too rushed to even remember to pull his own gun, which is now tucked at his side.  Instead, he leads with his fist, launching a hard swing that connects with a meaty thud.

The impact sends a spike of pain through his arm, but Rick doesn’t let himself dwell on that.  Instead, he follows up with another before lashing out with a kick to the man’s stomach that has him doubling over.

Rick moves in to keep working but is hit with kick to his knees, which makes him stumble.  It’s just for a moment, but the man catches him with a fist and Rick is flat on his back, seeing stars in the gloom.

The man is over him, looking ready to advance, and Rick blinks rapidly, rolling out of the way as a baseball bat comes hurtling at his head.

The floor splinters where his head just was and Rick winces on Billy’s behalf.

Still, Rick needs to keep moving if he’s not going to meet a similar fate.

The bat swings again, and Rick barely misses this time, ducking out of the way and surging upward.  The trafficker swing again and this time the blow hits Rick in the head, sending him reeling to the side.

He crashes into the wall, thankfully on the non-burning side of the hall.  The smoke is thicker now, and it seems to move sluggishly through Rick’s lungs.  He’s not sure if it’s the head wound or the smoke, but moving is suddenly harder and the bat connects again, this time in Rick’s side.

The impact sears and Rick curses heavily.  He’s going to go down--and he’s going to go down fast--and that means he’ll get burned alive.

Just like Billy.

And that’s not really the result he wants, trial by fire or not.

The sudden will to live is powerful, but it’s the incessant desire to prove his teammates wrong about him that gets him to his feet, running blindly at the bat before it has the chance to swing again.

They connect hard and both hit the ground.  They roll down the hall and Rick feels hot embers at his back.  The dancing shadows make it hard to focus, but he catches the murderous gleam of his attacker’s eyes as he pushes to his feet, looming over Rick.  The bat is in his hands again and he winds up like a baseball player looking to hit one out of the park.

And that would be that.

A trial by fire ending with a spectacular blaze.

But only if Rick lets it.

And Rick’s not going to let it.

As the man winds up, Rick gathers his strength.  With both feet, he pushes out, catching the man hard at the knees.  The impact isn’t incapacitating or even that painful, but it pushes him off balances and the man teeters backward.  He tries to catch himself but fails, and as he stumbles back, the flame-ridden wall gives way and he trips backward into the flames.

Rick sits up quickly, gaping at the sight.  Because the man is touched by the flames, which start to consume him.  It’s just a little at first while the man twists and yells, and Rick thinks to help him but by the time he gets to his feet, it’s already too late.

The man’s yells are lost in the crackle, and he goes to his knees as the flames burn his clothes and start in on his skin.

Rick watches for a long moment, both amazed and horrified, before he remembers that this is a fate he doesn’t want.

It’s also one he still has time to avoid--but he needs to move.

Because a trial by fire can go either way, and Rick knows which one he prefers now more than ever.

-o-

Billy is still on the floor where Rick left him.  Given that the Scottish man has a thoroughly broken leg, this really isn’t much of a surprise, but Rick still finds it vaguely comforting to have at least one predictable element to this increasingly erratic night.

Of course, that also means that Rick will be lugging said predictable element out of a burning house, which is less appealing but even more pressing.

At Billy’s side, Rick starts to pull him up again.  This time, it takes Billy a minute to respond, blinking sluggishly through the growing gloom.  “Done already?” he asks, voice scratchy and hard to hear over the growing din.

Rick snorts, his head throbbing and side aching.  “You make it sound so easy.”

Billy blinks a few more times.

Rick fights against the pain and grits his teeth as he gets Billy into a sitting position.  “I think it’s time to go.”

Billy frowns at that.  “I think we’re forgetting something,” he says, almost like he’s trying to remember.

Rick rolls his eyes.  “What could we possibly be forgetting.  I took care of the trafficker.  The house is on fire.  We have to go.”

Billy blinks again, his eyes focusing on Rick.  “There’s three.”

For a second, Rick thinks Billy is probably just speaking nonsense, hallucinating from a concussion and smoke inhalation, but in reality, Rick knows he’s not that lucky.  “Three what?”

“Three traffickers,” Billy says with a simple certainty.

It takes a moment for Rick to process this.  “So if I took out one,” he ventures, “where are the other two?”

With effort, Billy seems to swallow.  “One went to take care of Michael and Casey,” he says.  His expression turns grim.  “If they’re not here, we can assume how that went.”

This salient fact catches Rick off guard, though he knows he should have seen it coming.  “Wait, you mean Michael and Casey have really been captured?”.

Billy nods tightly, looking vaguely apologetic.  “It seems that way,” he says.  “Comms have been down; they’d come looking by now if they could.”

Rick snorts in disbelief.  “So you weren’t lying to me.”

“Oh, no,” Billy says quickly.  “I was lying to you.  At least, I intended to lie to you.”  He shrugs with futility.  “Seems like we have some self-fulfilling prophecies.  I am beginning to know how the boy who cried wolf felt.”

Sometimes Billy talks so much that it is easy to get lost in the words and miss his meaning entirely.  Rick supposes that’s usually the point, how he manages to charm people into doing what he wants without them even suspecting, but the house is literally burning down around them right now and Rick sort of has to focus on the important things, no matter what Billy is trying to distract him with.

Wetting his lips, he’s certain that his look of incredulity is clear even in the growing smoke.  “So while Michael and Casey were back there pretending to be captured, they actually got captured?”

The ridiculousness of it makes Billy wince.  “I’m afraid so,” he says.  “And while I was pretending to get subdued, three traffickers managed to do just that.”

“So if I took care of one,” Rick begins to figure, “and the other went to take care of Michael and Casey--”

Billy nods grimly.  “There’s another.”

Rick’s eyes are wide and burning.  “And where is he?”

Billy shrugs, in obvious pain.  “Possibly sweeping the attic.”

Rick sorts of hates it, but he finds that he has to ask.  “Why would he do that?”

“Well, after they broke my leg and I learned that they already knew of Michael and Casey’s presence in the barn, I may have indicated that we had found their drugs and started moving their stash up there,” he says.

In this, Rick almost pities the traffickers because he can imagine how persuasive Billy probably was.  Still, there’s a question Rick needs to ask.  “Why?”

“Buy us all some time,” he says, breaking off a bit to cough into his arm.

“And how did you even figure out that this was a safehouse for them?” Rick asks, his breath coming harder now.

“It’s funny how talkative such blokes get when they think they’re gloating,” Billy says with a hint of pride.

“They broke your leg,” Rick reminds him.  “I’m pretty sure they were gloating.”

“And I sent them on a wild goose chase in the closet, thereby sparing you from being discovered,” Billy counters.

Rick’s about to say that the bad guy could already be gone--that he could have escaped at any point--when there’s a series of muffled thumps from out in the hall.

Flinching, Rick looks behind him.

When he looks back at Billy, it’s remarkable that the Scot manages to look smug and apologetic, even while heaving through the smoke-filled air.

Rick sighs.  “Fine,” he mutters, and he looks at Billy seriously.  “Stay there.”

Billy blinks innocently up at him.  “I don’t think I could move even if I wanted to.”

Rolling his eyes, Rick gets back to his feet, covering his face with his arm as he charges back out into the smoke.

-o-

In the hall, Rick’s really beginning to think that this is a bad idea.

The flames have consumed the far wall, and they’re still spreading.  The smoke is so thick that it’s hard to see, and each time Rick breathes, it feels like his chest is filling with sludge.

He has to squint to see, and even then it’s a bit of a challenge.  Between the smoke and the flames, his eyes are stinging, and when the shot goes off, he’s already crying even though the shot goes harmlessly wide.

Still, it’s enough to jar him, and Rick turns hard, pulling his own gun as he looks for his assailant.

He catches the slightest movement at the stairs and fires instinctively.  It’s a good shot but the figure dodges, firing back a quick shot that is so close, Rick can hear it whistling.

The air is hot but his stomach is cold and his fingers tingle as he tries to focus again.  The trafficker is still at the top of the stairs, stumbling a bit as the fire works its way down the banister.  The fire sparks on the fresh wood, flaring with a sudden brightness that provides an apt distraction.

The distraction Rick needs.

He has to stifle a cost and keeping his eyes open makes fresh tears stream out, but he doesn’t care, can’t care.  Because his chances are slim and burning around him, and he doesn’t want to fail, can’t fail, won’t fail.

So Rick steels himself and pulls the trigger.

The shot hits the target, and the man jerks back.  He hits the wall then hits the floor, slumping down a few steps, his gun skittering all the way down the stairs.

The man doesn’t move, not even when the flames lick at his clothes.  Rick knows how this ends for him, and he doesn’t want to see it.  Doesn’t need to.  Especially since he still has to work to make sure that his part of this doesn’t go up in flames.

-o-

By the time he gets back, it’s almost too late to think of anything else.  The flames have almost consumed the door to Billy’s room, and the smoke is so thick that it chokes Rick, even through his sleeve.

It’s hard to see, but he remembers where Billy is without looking.  On his hands and knees, he feels for the Scot across the hot floor, and when his hands touch the softness of Billy’s flesh, he feels relief.

It’s short lived, though.  Because this time, Billy doesn’t wake, and when Rick sees the older operative’s face through the haze, his eyes are close, his features pale.  

Rick was hoping for some help in their escape, but it’s clear he’s not going to get any.  Gritting his teeth, Rick levers Billy up, straining as he pulls the Scotsman over his shoulder and gets shakily to his feet.

The smoke is getting worse; it burns his eyes and he stifles his breath against it.  He may be out of time already, but he doesn’t let himself think it.

There’s no point to, anyway.  If he goes down, he won’t know the difference, and neither will Billy.  He doesn’t know what Michael and Casey are doing, but he knows that even if they do manage to mount a rescue, it’ll be too late.

It’s up to Rick.

Stomach clenching with something cold like fear, Rick adjusts his grip on Billy and moves toward the door.  In the hall, the flames lick closer and closer, burning down the walls of the stairwell--his only out.

Blinking rapidly, Rick knows what he has to do.  Trial by fire, he thinks, as he plunges into the flames once and for all.

-o-

Rick feels the heat pressing hot against his skin.  He feels the smoke clogging in his lungs.  Billy’s weight bears down on him, and the stairs creak precariously.

Still, Rick doesn’t stop.

Can’t stop.

Won’t stop.

He charges forward, bursting through the growing flames, and when he pushes open the front door, a burst of a fireball follows him all the way out.

Somehow, he doesn’t fall down.  Somehow, he doesn’t even trip when the front stoop starts collapsing beneath him.  Somehow, he makes it all the way out, all the way into the clear, and doesn’t stop until his knees give out and he hits the ground.

-o-

He wakes up with a start.

His face is pressed into the grass and he hurts--he aches--and his lung are burning.

They’re burning.

The thought triggers his memory and he flails, jerking upright and flopping onto his back.  He lies there for a second, feeling the cold night air recycling in his lungs and blinking dry eyes up at the sky.

He’s alive.

He’s alive.

Rick laughs.  His harsh and barking, but it still feels good.

A trial by fire and he’s alive.

And then, Rick remembers the rest.

Pushing up, the world spins but he refuses to give in.  Desperate, he squints in the dark.  The house is still burning in the distance, the orange glow almost consumed now.  And there’s still a dark shape by his side.

“Billy,” he says, scrambling to his knees.  Frantic, he rolls the Scot onto his back, watching as his long limbs flop and his head lolls.  

Shaking him, Rick tries again, “Billy!”

There’s no response, and Rick’s throat constricts further as he places two fingers to the other man’s neck.  He’s covered in soot and his complexion is ashen, parts of his clothes singed from the flames.  But beneath Rick’s fingers, a pulse still skips.

Leaning forward, Rick presses his ear to Billy’s chest, and it’s easy to hear the grating pull and push of his breathing.

He’s alive, too, but there’s still the broken leg and probably smoke inhalation to deal with.  Billy needs a hospital.

Swallowing hard, Rick sits up straight, looking back into the night, feeling his own stomach turn and his chest constrict.  He tries to take another breath, but coughs instead, and wonders if a hospital might do him some good, too.

But, he realizes, there’s not really time for that.  Because the mission’s not over.

Michael and Casey are still missing; there’s still one perp at large.  

Glancing at Billy, Rick doesn’t like gauging how long the other man can last.  It seems wrong, to play with his life like that, but Rick doesn’t see any other options.  This is their last chance.  If he cuts out now to get medical help, the entire thing is for nothing.

After everything that Rick’s been through, it can’t be for nothing.

Struggling, he gets to his feet.  The change in altitude nearly brings him to his knees again, but Rick breathes through it.  Holding in a cough, Rick looks at Billy.  “I’ll just be a second,” he promises, and Rick’s not sure if it’s a lie.  But Billy’s right; the truth’s not so much in the facts as it is in the intent and Rick’s come too far to back out now.

Trial by fire, after all.  The flames are still building and Rick needs to see what parts of him will come out on the other side.

-o-

The barn isn’t far on the other side of the hill; it is the ideal spot for backup.  Close enough for quick access, but obscured enough to provide cover.  It’s perfect for a set up, real, fake, or otherwise.

It also means that if the third trafficker is taking up residence with Michael and Casey, then he’s got a secure location but a poor sense of what’s happening back at the main house.  This works both for and against Rick; it’s all a matter of how he plays it.

A few hours ago, Rick probably would have been cautious.  Would have scoped it out, assessed things, and carefully executed a plan.

But this is a fake test turned into a real test and the only thing that Rick knows for sure is that Billy is unconscious and struggling to breathe and Michael and Casey may be compromised and the only person here who can fix any of that is him.  Fake or real or whatever, Rick can’t fail at this.

He can’t.

He slows as he approaches, pressing himself up against the siding and scooting along cautiously.  He can see lights dancing on the inside, so it’s clearly still occupied.  It’s too bright to be Michael and Casey, and as Rick sidles up to a gap in the boards, he sees everything he needs to.

Michael and Casey are on their knees, hands bound behind their back.  Michael has blood smeared across half of his face; Casey has copious amounts spreading down his neck from the back of his head and staining the collar of his shirt.

In the foreground, there’s a local.  He’s got a gun and he’s pacing, glancing at his watch anxiously.

He’s been relegated to background duty, so Rick knows how frustrating that might be.

He also knows that he has to prove himself sooner or later.  Only one of them can win this battle, and Rick knows it has to be himself.

Without thinking, he continues circling around to the backside.  The man is poised toward the front, and Rick needs the element of surprise.  At the back, he eases in.  He takes one breath, then two before turning the corner, gun up.

“Freeze!” he yells in Spanish, gun trained.

The man startles, flinching out of his line of fire before Rick can get a shot off.  As the man rolls, he fires his own gun, and Rick has to duck down for cover.

There’s not much to hide him, so Rick focuses on being a moving target rather than finding permanent shelter.  He can’t afford a shootout--not with Michael and Casey in the crossfire and Billy prone and unconscious on the lawn.

The gunfire continues, but it’s off.  The guy isn’t looking, and Rick focuses on moving rather than firing back.

It’s a tactic that works in his favor, so when the man sticks his head out to gauge where Rick is, it’s easier to get a good shot off.

It nearly hits--but not quite.  The man ducks back down, swearing in Spanish.

Rick’s close enough now--and he’s tired of the game.  Charging hard, he barrels over the hay bales and tackles the man.

They both tumble, the man hitting the ground hard, his gun skidding away.  Rick tries to aim his, but is thrown off balance.  Rocking hard, Rick tumbles head over heels, and his gun is lost in the scuffle.

It doesn’t matter, though.

He doesn’t need it.

Instead, he gets to his feet and charges again.  It’s a full on football tackle this time, and the air is forced out of the man’s lungs with decided force.  Normally Rick might see if that were enough, but Rick doesn’t want to this time.  Because he’s seen one man burn alive, he put a bullet in another, and this is the last person who he’s going to let try to kill him tonight.

So Rick follows up fast and he follows up hard.  He doesn’t have a gun and he’s no human weapon, but he’s still trained and dangerous and it’s about time someone understood that.  The mark stops moving after three hits, but Rick keeps going until the skin on his knuckles break and he realizes that the only thing moving in the barn is him.

Sitting back, Rick pants.  The man is bloodied and limp but not dead.  Rick can’t guarantee no permanent damage, but since he is a drug trafficker who tried to kill him and his teammates, he figures that’s probably within his rights.

Still, it’s exhausting.

And then he remembers that it’s still  not over.

Looking across the barn, his eyes settle on Michael and Casey.  They’re both still sitting on their knees, staring at him.  Closer up, they look worse than before--the blood garish--but they’re awake and alert in the lantern light and that’s what matters.

Sighing, Rick gets to his feet.  The world pitches wildly, but Rick trudges on despite it.  He’s stumbling when he gets next to them and he practically falls over when he bends over to untie them.

“You okay?” he asks, breathing heavily as he tries to focus on the knot tying Michael’s hands together.

“Sounds like we should ask you that,” Michael says as his hands come free.

Rick snorts and moves somewhat drunkenly to Casey.  His vision is tunneling by this point, but he’s on autopilot now, so he’s not stopping.  Not until he’s done.  “The house is secure,” he says, working at Casey’s knot.  “Burned, but secure.”

“The other marks?” Michael asks with real concern.

“Dead,” he says.  “And extra crispy.”

It’s morbid, but it sort of makes Rick want to giggle.

Casey twists his hands the rest of the way free.  “And Billy?” he asks, getting to his feet.

Rick tries to stand and has to blink away the dancing spots in his vision.  “Unconscious on the lawn,” he says.  “I wanted to get him help--”  His voice cuts off with a wheeze.

Michael is there next to him, nodding.  “But you had to secure the scene first,” he agrees.

Casey is upright as well, head inclined.  “Smart thinking,” he says.  “You managed to take out three armed men.”

Rick tries to straighten but finds his breath short in his chest.  He gasps, heaving a bit.  “Trial by fire,” he says, but it’s garbled.

“What?” Michael asks.

And Rick wants to answer, but he doesn’t actually know the answer anymore, and he doesn’t actually have the energy to speak, much less stay standing.  He sucks hard for air, but comes up empty, and as Casey reaches out to steady him, Rick’s eyes roll up and he hits the ground, unconscious before anyone can stop him.

-o-

Rick’s still lost in the smoke.

The pressure in his chest is mounting and he struggles to breathe.  And he’s hot--burning from the inside out--even as someone soothes a cool hand over his forehead.

His ears ring and he can hear the blaze as it edges closer and closer.  He wants to be afraid, but there’s no time.  He wants to get away, but there’s nowhere to go.  He just has to stand strong and face it, no matter what.

It’s a stark fact, but one he accepts.

And as he stands fast against the encroaching fire, he realizes he’s not alone.

Michael is there, and Rick can hear his voice.  “We’re not going anywhere, Martinez.”

Casey inclines his head but inches closer.  “Not until it’s over.”

“Trial by fire,” Billy adds.  “And we’ll all come out gleaming on the other side.”

Or they won’t come out at all, Rick knows as the fire consumes him once and for all.

-o-

The first thing Rick notices is that it’s not hot anymore.

A little warm, maybe, and the air is sterile and circulated but still pure.

As in, there’s no smoke.

There’s no fire.

Rick opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling.  It’s white and tiled and not on fire.

Blinking, he realizes he’s in a hospital, but he’s so glad that there are no flames and no drug traffickers, that he sort of doesn’t care.

When he takes a breath, though, he starts to care a little bit, because his chest is still tight, lungs aching and side throbbing.  Trying to sit up proves to be problematic as well, since his head erupts in a headache that sends him back down to the pillow.

“You might want to try lying flat,” Michael advises from somewhere nearby.  “The doctor says your concussion looks pretty nasty.”

“As in, someone tried to pound your brains out of your head with a bat,” Casey adds very unhelpfully.

“Which, trust me, I know is quite unpleasant,” Billy throws into the conversation with a twinge of sympathy.

Rick turns his head, blinking as his teammates come into view.

Michael is sitting, leaned back but alert.  Casey is erect, legs crossed as he stares.  Billy is in a wheelchair, head bandaged and leg in front of him, complete with a bulky cast.

Rick blinks, focusing for a long second on trying to breathe deeply.  When they’re still there and he’s sure he’s not hallucinating, he asks, “What happened?”

“You passed out,” Billy informs him.  “I didn’t get to see it, which is a shame.  But I’ve been told it was quite heroic.”

“And kind of stupid,” Michael says.  “You ran around like a madman in there.  What were you thinking?”

Rick frowns, and tries to remember.  Most of it is hazy, even as he tries to breathe through it, but the parts about charging through fires and throwing himself at armed drug traffickers comes back with sudden clarity.

He winces.  “It was a test,” he says.  “I don’t like to fail.”

“So you threw yourself purposefully in harms way?” Michael asks with a note of skepticism.

“What else was I supposed to do?” Rick asks.  “They were going to kill you.  They’d already tried to kill Billy.  And wasn’t that the point anyway?”

Michael looks at Casey, who looks at Billy.  Billy just shrugs.  

Michael sighs.  “You do know that when we said it was a trial by fire, we didn’t mean it literally,” he says.

Rick scoffs, taking a wheezing breath.  “So, what, it was a lie?”

“Not hardly,” Casey says.  “We wanted to see how you would react; not put you in actual harm’s way.”

Rick manages a smile.  “Good job with that,” he says sarcastically.

“The point is that we didn’t lie to you,” Michael says.

“That’s because three drug traffickers got the drop on you,” Rick points out.

“We were a bit preoccupied,” Billy says diplomatically.

“Trying to lie to me,” Rick says with enough vigor that he has to cough.

“You’re mincing the details now,” Billy says with a shake of his head.  “The point is--and this matters--is that you did it.”

The inflection is colorful and sincere.  Billy is beaming a bit.

Next to him, Casey doesn’t disagree.

Michael nods, almost reluctantly.  “You passed the test we never really meant to give you,” he says.  

“Which you’ll find are the ones that matter most,” Casey says.  His expression softens, just slightly.  “It was pretty impressive.”

Billy breaks in with more enthusiasm.  “More than impressive,” he says.  “It was downright spectacular.  You’ve proven your mettle.  The fire was closing in on every side--quite literally--and you didn’t melt.  You pushed through, forged yourself into precious and refined silver, the most valuable outcome of all.”

Rick’s head is kind of hurting and it’s still hard to breathe.  That’s making it hard to focus and he shakes his head.  “So what exactly are you saying?”

His teammates eye each other again, each hesitating slightly.  Casey looks like he wants to roll his eyes, but Billy is barely controlling a grin.  Michael looks at Rick and sighs.  “Just that we’re proud of you,” he says.

“And thank you for saving our lives,” Casey adds.

“And mostly,” Billy contends, “you can test loyalty and strengths, valor and skill, but there is no test for friendship that can be given.  It’s the thing that stands in the ashes when everything else is burned away, and I think we all see it clearly now.”

It makes Rick smile.  “So the next trial by fire?” he asks.

“Is one we all do together,” Michael says.

And even if nothing else in this mission has made sense, that much is something Rick can cling to, even as the embers smolder and the next fire awaits.

Comments

Posted by: fara (farad)
Posted at: September 18th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC)
Vin forward-half

AWH - lovely! And nicely convoluted! I love the way the plot is a series of concentric circles, with the guys screwing themselves up the whole way. Nicely done!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 20th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)
billy

LOL, I'm glad it's not TOO convoluted. I sort of built the plot on this backward and by the time I realized how screwed up it was, I was too far in to start over :)

Thanks!

Posted by: ✦ Citty ✦ (lilrand0m_chik)
Posted at: September 19th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC)

Aww this was gorgeous!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 20th, 2011 01:22 am (UTC)
billy guitar

Much thanks!

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: September 19th, 2011 08:41 am (UTC)
Coffee

Poor Rick :)
But it actually feels like something the team would do, testing whether or not he's ready to work alone.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 20th, 2011 01:24 am (UTC)
billy considers

I was hoping that I could pull off such a ridiculous plot due to the quirky nature of the show :)

Thanks!

(And I keep meaning to get to the first part of your mountain fic beta. And I also keep hoping for more to read of it :) But I got a cold and being sick while also being two weeks from my due date is making me excessively sleepy. I will get it done by the end of the week, though!)

Posted by: altpointofview (altpointofview)
Posted at: September 21st, 2011 01:45 am (UTC)

Okay I'm sure I already posted this once but since it doesn't seem to be here I'll try one more time. ;)

Thank you so much for my fic. You know how I feel about this one but it certainly is worth saying again. This fic is pure unadulterated love! It is convoluted & irreverent & slightly unbelievable which makes it pure canon in my book! Thank you again for my most wonderful birthday present. You rawk!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 30th, 2011 01:38 pm (UTC)
billy likes

I'm very glad to give you something to brighten your day :) You always deserve it!

Thanks!

(And happy birthday--very late--again!)

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