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Chaos fic: The Next Step (2/2)

December 16th, 2014 (11:03 am)

feeling: geeky

Part One and notes are here.


Casey allows himself about ten seconds for shock.

The pain is intense, radiating from the wound up his leg. The shock of it has left him shaky, and he feels uncharacteristically weak. For those ten seconds, he focuses his energy on the simple act of breathing.

After that, he affords himself no more than five seconds for regret.

A bear trap. He’s stepped in a bear trap. That’s an unlucky turn of events, and it’s entirely an amateur move. Casey knows better. But he’d been so focused on going forward that he’d missed all the obvious things right in front of him.

Five seconds is too much. Regret is a useless emotion.

Then, he clenches his jaw and faces the inevitable. Injury or not, Casey still has to be in control. He’s completed missions under duress before. He’s done amazing feats with gunshots, knife wounds, head injuries, and more.

He has to admit, this is a new one for him.

Making a face, he pulls his ankle closer gingerly, trying to get a better look. Casey’s not squeamish, but his stomach still churns at the sight.

It's not a pretty wound.

But then, very few are.

Still, Casey has to admit, this one is more garish than most. He blames it on the crude craftsmanship and the years of disuse. He doesn't know if this was ever a particularly good bear trap, but he can honestly say it's effective. The snap was too fast to avoid, and it was well hidden among the brush. Casey hadn't been paying attention.

The rusted metal teeth snapping into his flesh, however, had got his attention pretty quick.

Frowning, he forces back the pain with a grunt of annoyance. His vision threatens to fade out on him, but he ignores it willfully, running his fingers along the trap with care. It's not easy to see around the fabric of his pants and the blood, but there are at least ten teeth, each embedded to a different degree in his ankle. Some, around the sides, have barely broken the flesh. The ones toward the front, however.

Well, Casey knows what it's like to have a broken bone.

Now he's fairly sure he knows what it's like to have one splintered.

In his mind, he runs over the list of complications. If the damage is too severe, blood flow could be compromised to his foot and he could suffer nerve damage. Given the state of the trap, the teeth could easily be contaminated, which could lead to all sorts of infection and possibly sepsis. It's not bleeding too much since the trap is still in place, but when it's off, he'll be susceptible to copious amounts of blood loss.

The safest solution is to call to update his location and ensure that immediate medical extraction is available. Before removing the trap, there should be fresh gauze and plenty of fluids ready to wash out the wounds. A meticulous check for foreign bodies in the wound would be preferable, and antibiotics are a must.

That's the safest solution.

But that's not the solution Casey's going to choose. Because medical extraction is already on the way, and Casey's no more than a half mile away. All he has to do is drag himself the rest of the way there.

Well, that and drag Billy with him.

Casey looks to the side, where Billy is sprawled next to him. He's been unconscious for twenty minutes now. He didn't even wake up when Casey took his misstep. It's the blood loss, no doubt. He's in shock from the gut shot three miles back. Casey promised to carry him out. He promised Billy that no one was dying.

He'd promised.

Billy looks even worse than before and the strained sound of his breathing is audible. He's running out of time. If Casey calls it in, if he makes someone come after them, it'll be too late.

It may cost Casey his foot.

But it'll save Billy's life.

Ultimately, it's no decision at all. Casey has a responsibility. Casey made a promise. He’s gone too far into this to turn back now. Casey will not accept failure, not when there’s still a way left to fight.

Gritting his teeth, Casey shrugs out of his t-shirt. He’d already sacrificed his overshirt for Billy, so this will have to do. He rips it in two, wrapping as much as he can around his hands and fingers. Grunting, he shifts, looking for the weakest, most accessible spot in the trap. He analyzes it without emotion, and then reaches his fingers in experimentally to see how good of a grip he can get.

It's not great, but he seems to have enough leverage. He should be able to pry it open and hold it long enough to extract his foot. It won't be easy, of course, given that he has to get his foot clear while holding the sharp prongs in his exposed fingers. One wrong move and he's likely to lose a few fingers along with his foot.

Casey won't make another wrong move, though.

He can't.

With one last deep breath, he doesn't overthink it. He knows what he needs to do. He bears down and pulls.

The pain is intense, the surge of blood flow almost shocking. The tender flesh screams out from the abuse and the metal cuts into Casey's fingers as he forces himself to pull harder.

He's sweating; he's panting; for a second, he thinks he can't do it.

But failure is not an option.

Leveraging another burst of energy, he pries the trap further open and drags his foot out. The damaged limb protests, but Casey is vicious as he gets it clear. The second it's out, he half throws the trap, listening as it closes in on itself with a sickening clank.

For a moment, he blinks rapidly, working to control his breathing. That's it, he thinks.

He looks at Billy.

That's not it.

Hastily, he uses the strips of his shirt to bandage his foot. It's not an effective bandage, but it'll do for the last half mile.

Decided, he grimaces, using a nearby tree to get his footing. He almost cries out, but cuts himself off, smothering the pain viciously with every technique he knows. Pain is another worthless emotion.

Determination, however.

Determination, Casey can use.

Putting weight on his foot is almost impossible, but he can do just enough to manage a loping run. It'll do terrible damage to the bone, no doubt. He'll need surgery -- and then lots of therapy, assuming he doesn't cripple himself in the process.

But he promised Billy that he'd get him out.

Reaching down, he pulls the limp Scotsman up, cursing bitterly as the heavier weight nearly knocks him down. It's a precarious thing to get Billy up and over his shoulder, and for a second, everything threatens to go black.

Still, Casey shakes it away and takes a step.

Casey's going to keep that promise, even if it’s the last thing he does.

He takes another step, and another. The pain is shooting up his leg, but he can hardly feel it now. He can hardly feel anything at all except the weight of Billy across his shoulders.

Casey's going to keep that promise.

No matter what.


It’s no different now. For Casey’s it’s always been the same. One step after another, going forward at all costs. Moving ahead, pushing the boundaries, never standing still. Casey believes he has to keep challenging himself. If there’s not a goal in front of him, he’ll start to atrophy.

That’s not an option for Casey. He’s worked too hard for too long.

One step after another.

Billy is a dead weight across his shoulders, the warm blood forming a sticky patch across Casey’s back. Billy is bigger than he is, and normally that wouldn’t be a problem, except…

Except Casey’s leg is in agony.

Casey knows how to handle pain, and he’s always done so with stoic aplomb. But this--

This is unrelenting, nonstop torture. Every step feels worse than the last. For the first time in his life, he wants to stop. He wants to go to his knees and just give up. He can feel the muscles burning; he can feel the bone grinding. His toes are numb and blood is collecting in his shoe, squishing with every pace. The pain runs white hot up his leg, tingling into his hip and cording around his lungs until it hurts to breathe.

One more step, he tells himself.

This is his duty. This is his responsibility. This is his only choice. The success of this mission rests with him, just how it should be. The success will be his.

So would the failure.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. He dictates the pace; he determines the path. This is a good thing, he tells himself, even as the edges of his vision start to go gray from the pain.

Steadying his breathing, he forces himself through the pain.

One more step.

One more step.

His awareness tunnels. His sense of time and space dwindles. He exists in a small, singular vacuum, just him and the weight on his shoulders, pushing forward, pushing on.

One step.

If he stops, then it’s over.

It occurs to him that the cost of going forward may be more than he bargained for.

He’s light headed; he’s struggling to breathe. His feet fall heavier now, his vision blurred and spotted. He doesn’t know if Billy’s still alive over his shoulder, but at this point, it doesn’t matter.

Casey’s made a promise.

Casey’s made a plan.

It’s up to Casey.

One more step.

One step.

Because if he’s not moving forward, then it’s over.

His breathing catches, frozen in his lungs. His muscles seize up and his vision goes dark as the pain eclipses everything. He’s falling, Billy slipping from his numb fingers as the world starts to cave in on itself.

It’s over.


It’s a strange moment.

Casey has given everything he has. He has pooled all of his self control and utilized every ounce of fortitude he has ever known -- and then some. He has moved an actual distance, carrying another man on his shoulders, while nursing a badly mutilated ankle. Casey has pushed his body to its limits; he has ravaged his mind for the depths of strength he had never had to check before. He has given everything.

And for the first time in his life, he’s come up short.

In some ways, it’s disappointing, but in some ways, Casey is just glad to know. It’s comforting, somehow, to think there’s an end point. To know there’s a stopping place. To know that even Casey Malick has his limits.

He’s a proud man, but he’s not stupid. There’s no shame in admitting when it’s over. Limits are empowering, after all. If you don’t know your boundaries, then you can’t figure out how to break them in the future.

At least, that would be the case if Casey had a future.

He’s spent his whole life moving forward. There’s a whole world out there, and Casey’s not sentimental about seeing places and meeting people, but he appreciates the breadth of the challenges he’s not had the chance to accomplish. He’s kept moving forward because being idle has scared him. He’s scared to stand still because he doesn’t know if he can still flourish. He doesn’t know if it’s possible to be happy when you’ve already attained everything there is to grasp.

Too many people see what’s ahead as the great unknown, but for Casey, it’s always been the status quo that threatens him.

The choice isn’t his anymore. No, this time Casey is falling and he has no way to stop it. He will fail, and the only solace is that he gave everything he had.


The ground rushes up to meet him, though, and he reflects vaguely that’s not much solace at all.

He never hits the ground.

Someone catches him, breathing a curse as the weight is lifted from his shoulders. He’s pulled back, body drawn out until he’s lowered gently to the ground. He blinks hazily, only somewhat conscious as Michael appears above him, brow furrowed in concern. His mouth is moving, but Casey can’t make out the words.

It’s irrelevant anyway.

Because Casey’s body has given out, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over. No, it’s Michael’s turn now. Michael and Carson. His team.

And that, he realizes, is a solace. They can get Billy out. They can dress the wound. They can even get Casey out and possibly try to save his foot.


Casey closes his eyes.

It’s a very, very strange moment.


In his time at the CIA, Casey has accomplished many things. Many of his missions are so impressive that no one has ever even been able to link the United States to the implications whatsoever. Casey’s worked undercover; he’s thwarted criminal masterminds; he’s saved thousands of lives. He’s worked on every continent in the world, and he’s completed unparalleled physical feats. Casey Malick is a force in and of himself.

Even with all this, he has to admit, this is a new one for him.

He comes to hazily, blinking blearily at the ceiling in the car. His body is effused with pain, but the intensity has receded along with the acuity of his consciousness. It’s a little like floating, which is oddly fascinating and equally unsettling.

Casey’s not in control anymore.

All his work; all his training; he’s dedicated his life to retaining ultimate control over himself.

Now, all that’s gone. At this point, it’s all Casey can do to stay conscious. Even that is probably a tenuous thing.

Someone slams a door, and he hears Carson curse. “This is crazy, Michael,” he says. “I don’t even know who’s worse.”

There’s movement next to Casey’s head, and he tilts his gaze just enough to see Michael. “We don’t really have a choice,” he says, eyes on something on his other side.

The car rumbles to life, and Casey feels the gears shift as it lurches forward. “Do we have enough of a local cover in place for two operatives in the hospital?”

“We’ll make it work,” Michael replies. “But you could sure as hell go faster.”

The car jerks a little, rocking them as they hit a rut in the road. The pain intensifies for a moment, and Casey’s vision threatens to go white, but he steels himself and keeps his eyes willfully open.

“You know, this isn’t what I signed up for,” Carson mutters from the front seat.

Michael’s jaw works. “Me neither,” he says. “But this is what we’ve got, and I’m not losing any operatives today, okay?”

That sounds strangely familiar.

Casey wonders if it’s possible that they all come from different places just to end up in the exact same place. Not just a team, but a place where they belong. Different but complementary parts.

“How are they?” Carson asks from the front.

Michael lets out a breath. “Collins is pretty shocky,” he says. “I’m keeping on the pressure, but he’s lost a lot of volume.”

Casey tilts his head even further, looking past Michael to the figure slumped on the other side of the backseat. Billy’s sprawled lifelessly against the seat, and there’s blood smeared everywhere, including Michael’s hands as he presses down hard on the wound.

“And Malick?” Carson asks.

Michael’s eyes turn to Casey, and they make eye contact. Michael studies him for a moment, and Casey thinks to say something but realizes he has no idea what.

“Still hanging in there,” Michael reports finally with a hint of a smile. “He’s a tough son of a bitch.”

Carson snorts from the front. “Glad he’s on our side,” he says. “I still can’t believe he dragged Billy back on a busted foot.”

“Saved his life,” Michael concurs, eyes still on Casey. “At one hell of a personal cost.”

It’s not a passing comment, and it’s as much to Casey as it is to Carson. Because Michael understands Casey, even in ways that Casey hasn’t come to admit yet. There’s a reason Michael recruited him to be on this team.

And there’s a reason Casey said yes.

Not just that it was the next step.

But that it was the best step.

From the front seat, Carson curses again. “You sure you know where we’re going with this whole thing?”

“Not exactly,” Michael admits. “But we keep going forward -- together -- and we’ll make the rest work from there.”

Somehow, that much is comforting.

Billy’s alive, and so is Casey. Michael’s got a plan, and Carson’s got his hand on the wheel. Casey did what he could.

Now his team can do the rest.

At least, Casey hopes so.

The car takes another sharp turn, and the momentum nearly throws Casey off the seat. Michael reaches out with one hand to brace him, and even though he stops Casey from tumbling to the floor, the movement jars Casey’s foot.


Pain flares; Casey’s breathing catches. He thinks to hold on, to keep holding on, and Casey tells himself this isn’t surrender.

But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a form of defeat when the darkness takes him.


Casey wakes up to the sound of someone speaking Russian. A woman in scrubs stands over him. She smiles, pulling off her gloves with a snap before she nods in a perfunctory fashion and leaves.

So, Casey deduces, he’s made it to the hospital.

Although he hates to give up control, he has to admit he doesn’t mind missing out on the rest of the car ride. Excruciating pain aside, being out of control is actually rather boring.

And frustrating.

He starts to turn his head, hoping to find a nurse who speaks English, when Michael steps into view.

He looks horrible. His hair is askew, and there’s a smudge of blood on his face. He looks tired, the lines around his eyes making him look older than he is.

Casey takes a breath, finding the pain manageable. Clearly, he’s on some good drugs at this point, which is annoying but probably necessary. “The camera,” he says thickly. “Is it okay?”

“Yeah, it’s safe,” Michael says. He glances around for a second. “Though your sightseeing photos are really low on our list of concerns.”

The implications are clear. First, the data is still intact, which means the mission isn’t a total failure. Second, their covers are holding. Third, they can’t let up their guard, now more than ever.

Fourth, they really do have other concerns.

Casey licks his lips. “Billy?”

Michael’s gaze narrows a little. “You don’t need to worry about that.”

It’s a brush off, and Casey finds that insulting. “I’m not that bad off,” he says. “I can handle news on his condition.”

“You don’t even know how bad off you are,” Michael points out.

“It still hurts, so I figured I still have a foot, right?” Casey asks. “And these doctors can’t be complete idiots, can they?”

“They’re taking you up to surgery, you know,” Michael says. “Try to clean out the wound and assess the internal damage. You’re already showing signs of infection.”

Casey has known all this from the moment he stepped in the trap. He’s not stupid; in fact, if anyone knows the risks he takes, it’s him. Casey doesn’t need to be lectured about the risk of losing his foot or developing an infection that might ultimately kill him.

No, Casey just needs to know about Billy.

“All the more reason to know it was worth it,” Casey says tersely. “I risked a lot to save his life, and I want to know he’s not gone and screwed it up by dying.”

Michael watches him for a moment. Finally, he nods. “Billy’s in surgery,” he says. “They’ve already put a few units into him, so it’s a little touch and go, but despite the blood loss, they’re talking optimistically.”

Casey sighs, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Good,” he says, settling back against the gurney. “That’s good.”

Michael shakes his head with a low chuckle. “Just when I think I have you figured out, you still surprise me.”

“What?” Casey asks, feeling more annoyed now.

“You care about this kid,” he says.

“I care about the job we agreed to do,” Casey says. “And part of that is making sure we all come home.”

“You could lose your foot,” Michael points out. “And you’re asking about him.”

“I made him a promise, just like I made you and Carson a promise,” Casey says.

“No one would have blamed you,” Michael says. “You stepped in a bear trap.”

“So, what?” Casey asks. “I should have let him die?”

“You really don’t see it, do you?” Michael asks, cocking his head curiously.

Casey makes a face. “See what?”

“That being a part of a team has changed you.”

Casey scoffs. “I never would let someone die when I could save them, especially if I’m working with them.”

“No,” Michael agrees. “But three years ago, you’d be more worried about your leg. I know you; you prioritize the most important things. And here, right now, you’re putting Billy’s well being above your own. That’s not responsibility. That’s not duty. That’s something more.”

“Look,” Casey hisses. “It was just, I don’t know. The next step, I guess.”

Michael smiles, patting Casey on the shoulder fondly. “Well, for the next step I want you to focus on yourself,” he says. “You’ve got a hell of a fight ahead of you.”

Casey puffs up his chest as best he can while lying prostrate in a hospital bed. “Then I guess it’s good I never lose a fight.”

Michael nods. “Just remember,” he says. “This time you’re not fighting alone.”

It’s a platitude; it has no meaning.

So Casey’s not sure why it makes him feel so much better.


He’s quite conscious when they take him up to surgery. Michael goes as far as he can, and he can see the other man lingering just behind a pair of double swinging doors, trying to look nonchalant and failing miserably. For all that Michael has chided him, the other operative cares about Casey.

Then, Michael’s never quite denied it as stridently as Casey.

In the operating room, he’s transferred to the table. His foot feels oddly heavy, and when he looks down, he sees it’s in a bulky bandage. The doctors start to adjust the gauze when a nurse stands above him with a perfunctory smile.

“Please,” she says in heavily accented English. “Count back from 100.”

Someone puts a mask to his face, and Casey can smell the gas. More than that, he feels it, easing into his system with the force of a freight train.

Still, he’s Casey Malick. It’s a bit pointless because he knows that no one is supposed to make it to 90, but somehow, he feels like he needs to try.

Counting is just like taking steps.

One logical progression, right after another.

Gruffly, he exhales. “100,” he starts, settling himself down and blinking a few times. “99, 98, 97--”

He hears the voices of the medical team; he sees someone drape him with a sheet when his gown is pulled away.

“96, 95, 94--”

His head feels light now, and the only thing grounding him is the weight in his foot. In a way, he can almost feel the metal teeth, grinding against the bone, like he’s still tied down against his will in the forest.

“93, 92, 91--”

But then he remembers Billy. He remembers Michael and Carson. He remembers there’s still a reason to fight.

“90, 89--”

There’s still a reason.

That’s enough.

Call it strength, call it weakness, but it’s enough.


Casey doesn’t stop counting. Backward from 100, from the operating room to the forest floor to the start of the mission. He’s scowling and complaining. “I am a man of too many skills to take photos.

To Billy’s first day, over eager and nervous. The kid is scared, but he’s too annoying for Casey to bother acknowledging that. That’s not how Casey operates, anyway.

And before that, Casey’s joining the team. Michael has talked him into it, but Casey just wants a challenge. “Trust me,” Michael says. “We never do anything the easy way.”

But it goes earlier, to his years as a loner in the field. Top secret missions, high level marks. He’s everyone and no one; he’s everywhere and nowhere. He saves lives; he takes lives.

In China, Linda tells him that it doesn’t have to be this way. She tells him that they’re good together. “Yeah,” he says. “But I’m better apart.”

It’s hard to imagine, Casey as the new guy. What he lacks in experience, he has in skill. “I have a lot of operatives,” Higgins says.

“Yeah,” Casey replies. “But you’ll never have one like me.”

And Casey’s serving in the military, and he’s going to college. He’s graduating from high school, and he’s living under his father’s roof. “No son of mine will sit idle,” he lectures. “I expect something from you, boy.”

These are the steps, Casey realizes. All the next steps he’s taken, one right after another. This is the journey; this is the path that’s led him into the jaws of a bear trap. Each one has made sense; every one has been right. But now that he’s here, he’s not sure where to go next.

For the first time in his life, Casey is at a crossroad and he doesn’t know what path to take.

Hell, he’s not sure he wants to go anywhere at all. Maybe it’s time to sit down in the middle of the road and let it happen.

Maybe it’s time to stop.

Maybe it’s time to count backward to zero and accept there’s no place else left he actually wants to go.


Casey comes through surgery. He is vaguely aware as the doctors poke him in the recovery ward. They lift and turn him, speaking in hushed Russian tones and he’s about to ask how it went when someone touches his calf and pain erupts through his body.

An alarm blares, and he’s hastily laid back against the bed. The voices pick up, and he’s flat on his back with a bright light in his eyes.

Then the whiteness collects, so bright that darkness inevitable and indubitably follows.


The pain recedes but the heat takes its place. Casey is trapped by it, locked in a battle he’s not sure he can win. He’s endured jungles and deserts, and he’s literally run through flames, but this burns from the inside. It takes his intentions and abilities and sets them ablaze like kindling. All that he is, all that he’s tried to be, it’s burning up here. It consumes his foot, licking up his leg, threatening to take all of him.

This is the fever, he knows. This is the infection he knew was coming. His body is finely tuned; his fortitude is expertly honed. Casey’s devoted his life to making himself the best that he can be. He has no equal.

None of it matters now.

One step makes all the difference.

Just one step.


“Easy, easy,” Carson mutters, giving Casey’s wrist an awkward squeeze. “You’re a son of a bitch, Malick. Don’t disappoint me now.”

Casey grunts, eyes opening to slits, but nothing’s in focus.

“I don’t actually know what I’d do without you,” Carson quips. “Get myself killed, probably. I need you, buddy. I need you to watch my back.”

That much is true, but Casey can’t find the strength to retort.

“We need you,” Carson says again, a little quieter now. He squeezes again. “Come on, Casey. Come back to us.”

Now, that’s a thought.

It’s steps forward, but it’s steps backward, too.

And maybe no matter which way he goes, he’s not going to be alone.


Carson takes the days, but Michael spends the nights. Casey’s not sure how he pulls it off, but he knows better than to doubt Michael Dorset. Casey’s a son of a bitch, but Michael’s a bastard, and for what Casey has in fortitude, Michael has in recourse.

The fever, somehow, is worse at night. During the day, he sleeps between the doses of medication, lulled into a hazy stupor by Carson’s recycled stories of the glory days. But when the drugs taper off, and his temperature rises, he finds himself clawing at his own sanity, just trying to stay together.

He’s not sure how long he’s been here. He’s not sure if he still has a foot. He doesn’t know if Billy’s alive.

But he knows his team is here.

His team never left.

It’s true that Casey doesn’t need them.

But it may also be true that he doesn’t mind having them around after all.


It gets worse.

Casey’s been through a lot of things. He’s never flinched; he’s never complained; he’s hardly even winced.

But this…

This is like facing the gates of hell and not knowing which way to go.

The fire builds on all sides. Forward or backward, left or right, maybe it’s all the same. There are infinite possibilities, and somehow none of the choices matter.

He wants to know if he still has a foot.

He wants to know if his team is still there.

He wants to know where Billy is.

He doesn’t know which way to go.

It seems that the only thing left is to count down to zero, open his eyes and make peace with whatever’s out there. No more logical steps.

Just jarring ones.

And the simple trust that it will end up the way it should.


Then, Casey wakes up.

If it sounds simple, that much sort of is. Casey’s aware that time has passed, and he knows it’s more time than he’d like to admit. He’s tired and worn; he’s weak and weary. But the fever has spiked, and he’s on the other side.

For a moment, he stares at the ceiling, feeling somewhat embarrassed. It’s not a fun thing to be delusional -- in fact, it’s essentially Casey’s worst nightmare to be that out of control of his own faculties -- but there’s nothing to be done for it now. Besides, he did step in a rusty bear trap and drag Billy to safety.

That thought shifts his attention.


The last time he saw Billy, the younger operative was dangerously hypovolemic. For all that Michael and Carson had stood by him, they hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with information about, well, anything.

Even though he’s weak from what he can assume is a long period of inactivity and supplement nutrition, he’s still Casey Malick. He lifts his head marginally, tilting it to the side, bracing himself as his stomach roils and his vision darkens for a moment.

“Easy, mate,” Billy croons. “You’re going to need a wee bit more rest.”

For a moment, Casey thinks it’s possible that he’s still hallucinating, all things considered.

But he’s weak and pained and totally coherent.

Blinking, he forces his gaze to narrow and rolls his head all the way to the side. He’s not in a private room, unfortunately.

He does know his roommate, though.

From the other bed, Billy grins. “You look horrible.”

Casey scoffs, ignoring how it taxes his body. Because he has no doubt that he’s not in prime condition, but it’s not exactly Billy’s place to say anything. The other man looks unduly pasty, and there are thick whiskers growing in on his cheeks and chin. The bags under his eyes are pronounced, and his hair, which is always a bit unruly, is flat and greasy on his head.

“Like you’re one to talk,” Casey quips, and even though his voice is a bit rough, he’s pleased with the tone.

Billy indulges him with another smile. “I take objection to that,” he says. “The nurses have found me quite charming.”

“Don’t confuse pity with affection,” Casey warns.

“They’ve saved the pity for you,” Billy returns without missing a beat. “You’ve spent the better part of the last week in the ICU, lingering on the critical list with a nasty case of septicemia. They thought you might not make it, but don’t worry. I defended you, said there was no way you’d let this beat you. I told them, you’d come out unscathed, foot and all.”

That’s when Casey remembers: his foot.

He looks down quickly, too fast to realize that he probably looks concerned.

Billy chuckles. “It’s still there,” he says. “Nasty looking wound, but everything appears to be intact. Now that your fever is finally under control, I fully expect that you will be up and about in no time.”

Concentrating, Casey flexes his toes experimentally. It feels horrible with shooting pains and burning agony, but he takes that as a good sign. He can work with pain.

Billy takes a breath, hesitating slightly. “All that said, you did push my resolve,” he says. “No need to cut it so close, eh?”

Casey looks up from his foot, eyes on Billy again. He could lecture the kid about sentimentality and attachment. He could remind Billy that it’s Casey’s tenacity that gave Billy a chance to stay alive at all. Those things are all true.

But they all sort of miss the point.

He sighs. “What about you?”

Billy lifts his eyebrows, as if genuinely surprised by the inquiry. “Me?”

Casey grimaces. “The last time I saw you, you had almost bled out,” he says.

Billy gives him a funny look. “A little emergency surgery is all,” he says, gesturing to the bulky bandage under the blankets. “Well, that and a few units of blood and packed cells. Nothing much to write home about.”

“No complications?” Casey asks.

“I’ve been conscious the better part of the week,” Billy informs him. “Hurts like hell, but I’ll be back on active duty before you are.”

This is a relief in many ways, not that Casey wants to admit that. The fact that he cares is almost as annoying as the fact that it’s true. He will be on sick leave for an extended period of time.

“But it’s maybe for the best,” Billy continues, keeping his voice upbeat. “This will give you plenty of time, I reckon.”

“Time for what?” Casey mutters.

“To decide on the next step,” Billy tells him earnestly. “I know you were thinking about a transfer, and with how much Higgins hates the ODS, I imagine he’d only be too glad to break us up a bit. You could go wherever you want.”

The next step. Something twists in Casey’s chest, leaving him inexplicably pained. It takes him a long moment to realize it’s not actually a physical sensation.

It’s emotion.

Damn it.

He hates that, but then, he also can’t deny it.

He cares about his team. It’s not just duty or obligation: he cares about his team.

And worse still, they care about him. Billy would jump in front of a bullet. Michael and Carson would stand by him, no matter what. Casey doesn’t need a team, and he might be more effective away from them, but he’s better with them.

All his life, he’s wanted to move forward. He’s always gauged things in terms of what he can accomplish and what barriers he can break. But when all is said and done, Casey is more than a list of accomplishments. He doesn’t believe in fate or any such nonsense, but he knows that some things are truly for the best.

He’s been restless, this much is true, but that’s not because he has to move on.

He’s restless because he’s afraid of what it means to be dependent on other people.

He’s afraid that the next step isn’t a step forward.

He’s afraid that it’s a jarring step, kept in tandem with his team.

It’s not an easy realization, although it is the only one that makes sense. He may accept that, but he eyes Billy critically. That doesn’t mean he’s going to admit to it readily.

Pursing his lips, he manages to pull off an annoyed look with relative ease. “I suppose there’s no rush on that.”

Billy has the audacity to look surprised -- the bastard. “Oh?”

“This is a long recovery,” Casey says, as nonchalantly as possible. “It should give all of us plenty of time to think about the next step.”

Billy trains his face to not look amused, but it’s clear that he already knows where Casey is going with this. But he’s clearly going to make Casey say it. “All of us?”

It’s tempting to tell Billy to go to hell and to call up Langley and ask for the damn transfer paperwork. But that’d be a bit like cutting off his nose to spite his face, and Casey hates a gloating Scotsman, but he knows some sacrifices must be made.

“I was just thinking, given how you almost got yourself killed back there, leaving the team would make you all vulnerable,” he says. “I can accomplish more on my own, but the impact of our collective worth will still exceed that. Leaving would be selfish and short sighted, given how much you would all suffer without me.”

Billy nods. “So you’re staying for us.”

“As a favor to you,” Casey amends.

“Because you care about us,” Billy concludes.

“Because it’s the next logical step,” Casey clarifies.

“That we’re going to take together,” Billy ventures.

Casey glares at him. “Don’t make me change my mind.”

Billy grins impishly. “I, for one, am looking forward to seeing where the path leads us,” he announces, settling back a bit. “Should be quite an adventure.”

Casey rolls his eyes. “Just try not to get shot.”

“And you avoid those bear traps,” Billy adds.

With a small harrumph, Casey looks back at the ceiling. “Noted.”

There’s a lull, and Casey lets himself relax again. It’s still awkward, but somehow it’s less so. Vulnerability isn’t so scary when it’s shared, somehow, and while it’s not Casey’s favorite thing, he can think of worse things.

“Thank you, by the way,” Billy says.

Casey glances at him.

“For saving my life,” he concludes.

Casey shrugs. “That’s what teammates do, right?”

Billy lifts the corners of his mouth in a small smile. “And look at that,” he muses. “Things are changing already.”

“You know what change would be nice?” Casey asks.

Billy looks keen. “What?”

“Quiet,” Casey tells him gruffly. “Do you think you can manage that?”

Another smile spreads across Billy’s face. “For you, Casey,” he says. “I think I can try.”

Casey grunts, easing back against the pillows. He could stay awake, but there’s really no need. His team is nearby. His team is safe. His team.

There are drawbacks, to be sure, but there are advantages, too. Someone there to watch his back. Someone there to care when things go wrong. Someone there.

When he’s happy; when he’s sad; when he’s in trouble; when he’s at his best.

And someone there when he’s laid out in the hospital.

Someone there when he sleeps.

And, Casey thinks as he lets himself drift to sleep, someone to be there when he wakes up again.

The next step may be jarring.

But Casey’s always been up for a challenge.