October 2011

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Thursday, September 8th, 2011 09:09 am
Title: The uncertain hour before the morning (1/2)
Fandom: CHAOS
Rating: PG
Genre: Gen
Characters: Michael, Billy, Casey, Rick
Spoilers/warnings: None
Length: Approx. 11,000 words total (I know, right?)
Notes: This is really all Faye's fault. Not me getting addicted to this short-lived show, but the writing of massive fic. Of course, she spoils me shamelessly, so it's time I returned the favor.
Disclaimer: CHAOS is property of CBS and its creators, etc. Title is a line from T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding"(in section II, specifically).

Summary: Waiting is difficult for Michael. Particularly when his team is stranded in the forest after a plane crash, waiting to see if help will arrive before it's too late.

It's wet.

It's not a pleasant way to wake up, Michael thinks. Nothing good has ever come from the mornings where he's roused from sleep by water. It's a sign the pipes in the apartment above him have resumed leaking, or that he's camped outside without a tent again, or that he's about to be roused for another session of water boarding. None of these options are particularly pleasant.

Judging by the dull, throbbing pain he's slowly beginning to register, Michael's pretty sure that of all the possible explanations for his current damp state, the last is the most likely. And seasoned agent or no, Michael's never been a fan of waking up to a torture session, so he keeps still and maintains a slow, even breathing pattern, trying to figure out where he is and just how he got there.

He hears water falling on vegetation, a strong breeze blowing through the leaves, and a strange, ominous creaking sound from somewhere above him. Through his eyelids, Michael sees a bright flash of light; a moment later, a dull rumble of thunder rolls through the air around him. It's raining, he realizes, which lends evidence to the idea that he's been camping outside again.

That doesn't explain the pain, though — it's sharper now than it was before, starting in his chest and radiating outward. And there's an odd pressure on his shoulders, almost like he's hanging—

"It's no good, I can't pull out of it — we're going to have to jump!"


A plane crash, Michael realizes, his eyes popping open. He blinks, then blinks again. For a heart stopping moment, he thinks he's gone blind because he can't see anything — it's as black as pitch in front of him. Then he remembers seeing the flash of light. He forces himself to calm down and use his other senses. He can hear rain falling on tree leaves, feel the pull of the parachute's straps around his shoulders as he sways in the wind, but he can't see the tree he knows he's stuck in.

Because now he remembers the mission — infiltrate a building deep in the Cambodian jungle that's allegedly housing a terror cell — and he remembers chartering the plane — Billy's knack for charming people and Rick's translation skills coming in handy once again — and he remembers taking off — Casey making snide remarks about the cramped conditions of the tiny cabin and Michael's less-than-smooth take off in the midst of a tropical storm.

He also remembers the explosion that took out an engine; the sound of alarms blaring; the feel of the stick bouncing and jerking in his hands as he struggled to pull out of the dive; the sight of the forest coming up to meet them; the realization that the plane only had three parachutes for its four occupants.

There's another flash of lightning, and Michael realizes a piece of his parachute has somehow wrapped around his face. A quick self assessment proves all his limbs are relatively uninjured, so he pulls the fabric free, blinking a few times until his eyes adjust to his surroundings.

There's still not much light for him to work with; if he remembers right, the plane went down shortly before midnight. So either he's not been unconscious for very long, or he's been out for at least a day. Michael's willing to bet it's the former — he's stiff, but not that stiff.

Plus, if it's been at least a day, it means his team hasn't been able to find him yet, and he doesn't want to think about what that could imply.

Wiping the rain from his eyes, Michael glances down. He's relieved to see the ground is less than twenty feet below him. As long as there aren't any rocks or logs hidden beneath the dense underbrush, a fall from this height shouldn't cause too much damage.

A quick glance up reveals less encouraging news. The chute has been ripped to shreds; it's too hopelessly entangled in the tree limbs to even try to salvage. And since Michael had jumped with only the chute on his back and no other supplies, that means he'll have nothing to help protect him from the elements.

His musings are interrupted by the sound of something crashing through the brush. "Michael? Michael!"

The relief he feels is almost overwhelming — at least one person on his team's survived, which gives him hope for the others — but he keeps his voice steady. "Up here, Martinez."

Rick limps out from behind the tree. He's got smears of blood across his face and shirt, and he's keeping his left arm close to his body. The gloom of the night doesn't obscure the relief plain on his face, but then, he's always worn his heart on his sleeve — at least around his teammates. "You okay?" he calls, squinting against the rain falling in his eyes as he looks up at Michael.

"Other than being stuck in this tree, yeah," Michael lies. He's pretty sure he's got at least one broken rib. A concussion is also pretty likely, but both are issues that can be dealt with later. "You?"

"Fine," Rick says unconvincingly.

Michael lets it slide for now. "Seen Billy and Casey?"

Even in the rain and dim light, he can see Rick's expression shift to worry. "Yeah. They're in a cave two miles south. It's dry — Casey's pretty sure it used to be some kind of animal's den, but it looks like it's been abandoned for awhile. We can take shelter there until this storm passes over."

Michael frowns. "Two miles?"

"You got blown pretty far off course," Rick replies with a one-shouldered shrug.

Michael glances up through the canopy of leaves above him. Aside from the steady stream of rain and occasional rumble of thunder, the storm is fairly quiet. Though if his memories are correct, it had been raging much harder when they'd been forced to jump out of the plane.

He looks back down at Rick. "How are they?"

Rick shifts. "Casey broke his leg. It was a clean break, though; we were able to set it without too many problems. He's cracked a few ribs, too."

He pauses for a moment as lightning flashes above them. Thunder rumbles loudly an instant later. "And Billy?" Michael asks. Not that he needs to ask to know it's bad; Rick wouldn't be dodging the subject otherwise.

Rick drops his gaze. "He got knocked out when their chute got caught up in the trees. Casey couldn't hold onto him, and he fell. He hasn't woken up yet."

Michael swears under his breath. It isn't an entirely unexpected outcome — Billy had been the one handing out chutes, had been the first to realize there wasn't one for each of them. There'd been no harness for a tandem jump, either, though that hadn't stopped Casey from trying to make one up out of their seat belts and a short coil of rope they'd found.

"Between my core strength and Billy's ridiculous amount of luck, it might just work. It's the only feasible option. Now let's get moving; otherwise the plane will crash and this discussion will have been entirely pointless."


"He's still alive, though," Michael says.

Rick nods, keeping his eyes averted. "At the moment, yes."

And that's enough, for now. But it's far past time for Michael to be out of this tree.

He reaches for the harness clips holding him in place. "Watch yourself, I'm coming down."

Rick looks up. "Wait, I don't think—"

Before he can finish his sentence, Michael's free-falling toward the ground below. He bends his knees and tucks his body into a roll when he lands, trying to reduce the impact. It sort of works — he ends up sprawled on his back, ribs screaming and head throbbing as he struggles to breathe and tries his hardest not to vomit or pass out.

Gradually the pain and nausea ebb, and Michael realizes Rick's kneeling next to him, one hand on his shoulder. "—and if I carry you back to the cave, Casey's going to get annoyed and huffy because he told me not to overexert myself, and you know how he gets when someone doesn't listen to his orders—"

"You're not going to carry me back," Michael says, cracking open first one eye, then the other when he realizes the world isn't spinning as much as his body thinks it is. "I'm fine, just give me a second."

Rick looks skeptical, but he doesn't argue. "Can you stand? We really need to get out of this rain."

Michael holds out his hand. "Help me up and we can get moving."

-o-

The trip to the cave is slow-going. Rick's ankle is clearly in worse shape than he's letting on, and the darkness and uneven terrain aren't helping matters there. The rain has yet to let up, making everything slick and wet and miserable. On top of that, the nausea overpowers Michael's strong will halfway through the trip, resulting in a long break to empty everything in his stomach and then dry heave for a bit.

The last half mile is the worst. It's been over two hours and they're leaning on each other now; at this point, neither one is able to stand up straight on his own. As it is, the only reason they're able to keep moving is because they both want to check on the rest of the team and make sure they're okay; make sure Billy's still with them.

"You know, I'm really starting to hate all the subtropical countries," Rick pants as they duck under a low-hanging tree branch.

Michael huffs a laugh, pausing long enough to help Rick hop over a fallen log. "I've never seen the appeal, myself," he says. "The bugs are huge and the beaches are too crowded."

"Actually, I was thinking about how I've never been able to come to one without nearly being killed by something or someone," Rick replies. He smacks at his neck and glances at his hand, making a face and wiping his palm on his pants. "But the bugs definitely don't help."

-o-

When they finally reach the cave, the sun's up somewhere behind the clouds and Casey's lingering near the entrance of their hideout. His left leg is wrapped in a basic splint, and he's somehow been able to find a branch large enough to serve as a crutch. Casey's always kept his emotions close to the vest, but Michael knows him well enough to see the slightest release of tension in his shoulders, the ease of the worry lines around his eyes.

"Glad to see you made it back in one piece," Casey says, nodding at Michael.

"Please tell me you got a fire going," Rick says. The air is still warm, but they're soaked completely through, and it's a miserable feeling on top of their injuries.

Casey gives him a look. "It's the middle of the monsoon season. There hasn't been dry wood around here for six weeks." When Rick huffs a sigh, he smirks a little and adds, "There was a small stash stowed away in the corner of the cave, though. I was waiting until you two got back to light it."

"Such a gentleman," Michael deadpans. "How's Billy?"

Casey's lips press into a thin line. "There's good news and bad news."

-o-

Billy's lying on a make-shift bed made of banana leaves, palm fronds, and pieces of Rick's parachute canvas. The left side of his face is obscured by severe bruising that extends well above his hairline; the other half is smeared in blood. His left hand is clearly broken in a couple places. Michael has to stare closely to see the shallow rise and fall of his chest. It's the only sign Billy's still alive.

At the moment, it's the only sign Michael needs.

"His pupils have started responding just a little; I think it's pretty safe to say he's got a bad concussion, not a cracked skull. He's moved a couple times," Casey tells them as Michael kneels down next to Billy. "Never regained full awareness, though."

"That's something, though," Rick says, huddling close to the small fire they've got going now. He props up his injured ankle on a rock. "Right?"

"He's got a fever," Michael says with a frown as he lays a hand on Billy's forehead. The moisture he thought was rain is actually a thin sheen of sweat, and the heat radiating off the Scotsman's skin is worrisome.

Casey nods once. "That's the bad news," he says, kneeling down and gently lifting the shirt from Billy's stomach.

Rick sucks in a breath as Michael swears. There's dark, colorful bruising across most of Billy's abdomen. "How bad?" Michael asks.

Casey shrugs, lowering the shirt again. "Right now, it seems to be pretty slow. But if he doesn't get some medical attention here in the next couple hours, it's going to go downhill quick."

"You said there was good news?" Rick inquires.

Casey nods again, pulling something from his pocket. "Billy managed to keep hold of this," he says, tossing it at Michael.

Michael catches it and can't help the grin that crosses his face. The silver item's small, no larger than a Zippo lighter. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a cigarette lighter.

Which is entirely the point, Michael thinks as he flips open the top. The small red button on the side has been pressed down.

"The emergency beacon," Rick says, a slow smile forming as he looks from Michael to Casey. "He activated it?"

Casey nods. "And as far as I can tell, it's still active."

"So they can find us," Rick says. "They can track us down?"

This time Michael nods. He clicks the lid of the beacon shut and stows it in his pocket. "They can. All we have to do is wait."

-o-

Waiting is hard.

Michael's never been one for waiting. Growing up, his mother always lectured him on patience. His teachers chastised him for rushing off before the bell had even rung. He's had countless tickets for running red lights and speeding.

His time in the CIA has taught him the value of waiting in certain situations. Waiting just a few extra days for a bust could mean the difference between a handful of years or a lifetime in prison. Holding out for that extra few minutes in a gunfight turns a grim situation into a victory when backup arrives. Pausing for just a minute when approaching a target prevents detection by a security guard taking an unplanned bathroom break.

This kind of waiting is the worst, though. Huddled in a cave, with little fuel for a dying fire, no food, no supplies, no possible way to complete their mission — nothing to do but sit and wait for help to arrive.

Nothing to do but sit and wait for Billy to take another breath.

Because Michael knows his operative is in bad shape. Billy's fever is picking up; they've resorted to taking strips of parachute canvas and letting them soak in the rain before laying them on his forehead to try to cool his temperature. The bruised skin across his stomach is getting firmer; the internal bleed might be slow, but it's steady.

And that's not even counting the concussion, which looks pretty serious, or the two broken ribs. The entire picture is grim.

"He's survived worse than this," Casey murmurs as Michael steps back inside the cave. Rick's sitting against the cave wall near Billy's feet, dozing restlessly; he's got one hand gripped lightly around Billy's ankle. Casey's leg is in too bad of shape to let him move around much, leaving Michael to keep heading back into the rain.

Michael tilts his head as he hands Casey a freshly soaked strip of cloth. "He has."

"More lives than a cat," Casey says, and Billy moans a little as the old cloth is replaced with the new, dripping one.

Michael frowns as he watches Casey adjust the fabric, taking care not to let the water drip into Billy's eyes. Casey's statement is true enough — Billy's always had a knack for getting himself into trouble, for taking the brunt of the hits for his team. He'd taken two bullets to the chest in Tajikistan a few years ago; even after flat lining three times he still managed to pull through somehow.

Billy is nothing if not resilient. But here, now, as Michael and his team sit yet another vigil over a wounded Billy, waiting once again for a rescue that might not make it in time, Michael can't help but wonder if this is the mission where they'll find out that this is it; this is the situation where Billy's luck finally runs out; this is the one where Billy comes back in a box, not a wheelchair.

And the worst part is that Michael has no choice but to sit and wait for the outcome. They're doing all they can at this point. There is nothing else to do but wait. Wait and hope and pray that Billy's got at least one more life left in him.

-o-

A few hours pass. The rain continues on, though the thunder has mostly stopped. The fire is down to just a few embers, making it difficult to see inside the cave, but not impossible; they're saving the rest of the fuel for nighttime so that they'll be able to see when the sun sets.

Rick's awake now; he takes a short trip out into the rain and manages to get a few bananas that have fallen from a tree he'd spotted on the way in. They're green and relatively tasteless, but it's something edible, something to satisfy the gnawing in their stomachs and give them a little more energy, even if it is energy just to sit and wait around.

Billy's fever is still climbing, slowly but steadily. His face is pinched in pain, and every so often he moans or mutters something inaudible. He's yet to open his eyes though; at this point, Michael isn't expecting him to.

"It's my fault," Casey says suddenly.

Rick and Michael look at him. "What are you talking about?" Rick asks. "You weren't the one who sabotaged the plane."

Casey levels a steady gaze at them. "When we pulled the chute, my jerry-rigged tandem harness came loose. And I had to try to steer the chute when we were landing, so I couldn't hold on to him. As soon as we hit the trees, he got knocked out and let go of me before I could grab him. And then I landed poorly after I freed myself from my chute, breaking my leg."

"It's not your fault," Rick replies immediately.

Casey glares at him. "The harness I built failed."

"It wasn't your fault, Casey," Michael declares firmly. "The fact that Billy's still alive is a miracle — you know that as well as I do. If you hadn't made the harness, there would have been no way you could have kept a hold of him when the chute opened, not in this weather. And there's no way he would have survived going down with the plane."

"Not that we would have let him do that," Rick adds firmly.

"Of course not," Michael replies.

Casey stares at them. "The broken leg was still my fault."

Michael tilts his head. "I don't think so. But we'll let you have that one, if it makes you feel any better."

Casey scoffs. "It doesn't."

Michael's mouth twitches. "I thought not. So stop thinking about it."

Casey glances down at Billy. "Easier said than done."

-o-

They've been silent, apart from Billy's quiet moans, for almost an hour. Michael's keeping an eye on the cave entrance for signs of someone coming — either friend or foe — and Casey's trying to strip away the wet bark of a thick, long-dead branch to get at the dry wood underneath when Rick suddenly gasps. "Billy?"

Michael looks back and is momentarily startled. Billy's eyes are open. He's staring at the ceiling, blinking lazily at it as if he's trying to figure out why it's there. Michael's not sure if it's because Billy doesn't know where he is or if it's because he wasn't expecting to wake up. He decides not to dwell on it.

Billy clears his throat. "That's unexpected," he rasps.

It's like a signal, a command that breaks the spell of silence that has fallen over them, and the others scramble to gather in around him. "You back with us?" Michael asks, moving so he's in Billy's line of sight.

It's a relief to see the operative's eyes tracking his movements; it's even more of a relief to see the faintest hint of a smile on Billy's face. "Not sure where I went," he replies, voice barely more than a whisper.

"A cave in the Cambodian rainforest," Rick replies.

Billy tries to move his head to see where the voice came from and hisses in pain, closing his eyes again. "Ah. Concussion, then," he moans, his already ashen face going even paler.

"Try not to puke, you might make the abdominal bleeding worse," Casey says, laying a hand on Billy's shoulder to ensure he stays still.

"Ha," Billy gasps. "Two-for-one! My favorite. Ribs, too?"

"Only a couple this time. You got off lucky," Michael tells him with a tense smile.

Billy shifts, then hisses again. "Lucky, eh? Beg to differ."

"You could be trapped in the undoubtedly smoking remains of our plane," Casey points out. "Or splattered like a bug on a windshield against a tree."

Billy hums in agreement, relaxing back into his makeshift bed. "T'would be most unfortunate," he slurs softly. His accent is thick, to the point Michael can barely understand him. Not that he always needs to understand Billy's words to get his meaning, especially at times like this. "And th' rest of you?"

Rick scoots in a little closer. "We're fine. Don't worry about us. You just hang in there, okay?"

Billy smiles a little but doesn't open his eyes. "Still a horrible liar, Martinez," he whispers. "Need to work on making you a… a proper charlatan."

Rick forces a laugh. "Alright then, you'll have to do that when we get home, okay?" There's no response. "Billy?"

Billy's silent once more, though his face looks less pinched than it did before. His skin still hasn't regained its color, though.

"He's out again," Michael says with a sigh, glancing up at them.

Rick looks both relieved and worried; Casey looks grim. "But he's doing better, right?" Rick asks. "I mean, he woke up. That's better. Right?"

"It's something, anyway," Michael says, glancing away from Casey's knowing look. The look that says he knows just what Michael's thinking.

They've been down this road before. With Billy, things always seem to get a little better, right before everything goes to hell. For once, Michael's really hoping they're wrong about this.

-o-

They're right.

The rain stops a couple hours later. Normally Michael would be all for that — it's one less inconvenience to deal with, and he's never actually enjoyed standing out in the rain — but this time it only adds to their problems.

Because Billy's fever, which had dropped for a little bit, is climbing again. Even with the subtropical heat and the warmth of the fire, he's shivering violently, and skin on his face that isn't violently bruised is extremely pale, save for the bright flush of fever on his cheekbones. The fever has been controlled somewhat by the rain-soaked parachute scraps they've been using, but now that the rain's stopped, they have nothing else to treat the fever with.

The only thing Michael can do right now is sit next to Billy and keep a gentle grip on his head with both hands to keep him from thrashing around too much and injuring himself more. The skin beneath his fingers is hot and dry; the fever's high enough now that any moisture that was there has evaporated, and Billy's past the point of sweating.

Rick and Casey linger nearby, too, each doing what they can to keep their teammate still. Billy's muttering at them, whispering and hissing and moaning words too garbled for Michael to really make out.

They all tense as Billy bucks beneath them, moaning in pain and sobbing something in a language Michael can't understand. "It's Welsh," Rick says suddenly, blinking in surprise. "He's speaking in Welsh."

Somehow that's not really surprising at all. "What's he saying?" Michael asks.

Rick leans in a little closer, trying to catch everything Billy's murmuring. "He's apologizing."

Casey tilts his head. "For what?"

They stay silent for a long moment as Rick listens closely to what Billy's saying. Finally Rick glances up at them. His face is troubled. "Everything. That's all he says. Popeth. 'Everything.'"

Casey snorts in derision, though it's pretty easy to see the concern lining his eyes. "The only things he needs to be sorry for are the stains on the passenger seat of my car and the gouge in the wall outside Higgins' office."

"I thought you said Blank was the one who did that," Rick says.

"He was the instigator, but Billy was the one who physically made the mark," Casey replies. "Just don't tell Higgins that — he still fumes about the plaque that got damaged when it fell because of that incident."

Michael remains silent, staring down at Billy's fevered face as he continues mumbling, occasionally turning his head as if trying to evade Michael's gentle grip. Even though Michael doesn't understand what Billy's saying, he's pretty sure he knows exactly what he's talking about, and the fact that Billy's fevered mind is dwelling on that at a time like this is far from reassuring.

There are only six people in the entire world who know exactly why Billy was kicked out of his homeland almost a decade ago. One is dead; one is in a prison so secure and so hidden it's as if he's dead; one runs MI6; one runs the CIA. The last two are in this cave.

Michael's not sure how much the other ODS agents know. As far as he knows, Rick only has a basic understanding of what happened. Casey knows a bit more, and he might have been able to dig up even more information than the scarce details Billy, Higgins, and Michael have mentioned over the years. But Michael's pretty sure Casey doesn't know everything, if only because a few of the key parts to the story were disposed from any permanent record a long time ago.

And Michael is well aware that despite Billy's outwardly cheerful, carefree nature, the events that happened over the course of a few days in Spain continue to haunt the Scotsman to this day. There were many things left unsaid throughout the process, things Michael's certain Billy wishes he'd said at the time.

If that's what he's thinking about now, trapped and injured and delirious in this cave, then things are even more dire than they thought. It means that Billy's mind, even if it's his subconscious mind, is thinking about regrets. About lost causes and failures and the way things could have been, and that isn't something that is going to help Billy pull through this.

Hang in there
, Michael wills silently. Billy whimpers softly. Hang in there so you can come back and fix things. That's what you really want, isn't it?

Billy hisses something, then sighs and falls silent, save for his shallow, raspy breaths that are starting to sound far too close to death rattles, and Michael can't help but think that even if Billy does want to fix things, it might already be too late.

-o-

The clouds outside thin out just in time for the sunset. The air is still thick with humidity, even more so inside the small, stifled space of the cave. With Rick's help, Casey's managed to strip down an impressive amount of dead wood over the past few hours, giving them enough to fuel a small fire for the night. And on a quick check of the area, Michael managed to find a small collection of rocks that had trapped a decent amount of rainwater, allowing them to resume soaking the cloth strips to try to check Billy's fever again.

Unfortunately that's about the only good news they have. With no way to purify water, they've been reduced to the water they can extract from edible leaves and the green bananas they've been eating — which means there's no way for them to give any water to Billy to offset the dehydration from his fever and internal bleeding.

And the rest of the team isn't doing much better — Rick's having a difficult time staying focused, Casey's beginning to show early signs of an infection himself, and Michael's concussion makes him want to do nothing more than lay down and sleep to escape the pounding headache. He's been able to ignore it for the most part — Billy's condition is much more dire — but his body is starting to catch up with him, and he's not sure how long he can fend off the consequences of the head injury.

In short, their situation isn't good.

Surprisingly, it takes a long time for Rick to ask the question Michael's sure he's had since the plane started going down. "How long do you think it will take for help to arrive?" Rick asks, fiddling with a small piece of wood. His eyes are locked on Billy. The fever's now past the point of delirium; there's no longer a need to hold him down. The only sounds the Scotsman makes are his wheezing breaths, each a little shorter than the one before.

No one responds for a moment. "It depends if Higgins is willing to push for some inter-agency cooperation," Casey says finally. "The FBI supposedly has a team stationed in Bangkok. If it's true, and if Higgins is able to pull enough strings, it would only take them a day, maybe two at the most to reach us."

Rick nods distractedly, eyes still on Billy. "And if Higgins can't? If the FBI's team isn't there?"

"Then we could be looking at three or four days," Michael says. "Which means that come morning, we're going to have to figure out a way to get some water. Another storm system is supposed to blow in within the next thirty-six hours. We'll need to stay hydrated."

Rick huffs. "Not that it matters."

Michael and Casey look sharply at him. "What the hell are you talking about?" Casey says, voice dangerously low.

Rick pulls his gaze away from Billy's face to look at them. "Billy won't last that long. He won't even last the night."

"Shut up," Casey snaps before Michael can respond. "That kind of pessimistic attitude gets you nowhere in situations like this."

Rick laughs hollowly. Michael will never admit it to anyone, but it disturbs him. Rick's never sounded like that before. "What's so funny?" he asks with a frown.

Rick waves a hand at Casey. "Him," he says. "Telling me not to be pessimistic."

"I'm not pessimistic," Casey replies flatly. "I'm realistic. Yes, circumstances are less than ideal right now, but it's not going to do any good—"

"'Less than ideal' — really? That's a bit of an understatement, don't you think?" Rick scoffs.

Michael doesn't like where this is heading. "Rick—"

"Billy's dying!" Rick exclaims, voice cracking on the word. He points at the Scotsman, whose rattling breaths emphasize Rick's point. "Does that sound like someone who can last the night? We've got to face the truth. If that FBI team's not on its way right now, then Billy's as good as dead."

Every word is true — Michael's well aware of this, has been thinking it for the last few hours — but that doesn't stop the anger from flooding his system. "Listen to me, Martinez," he says, putting as much feeling and confidence as he possibly can into his words. It seems to work; Rick closes his mouth and sits up straighter. Even Casey seems to pay closer attention. "You know as well as I do that this is a bad situation. There is a very good chance Billy won't make it; we're not out of the woods, either. But this isn't the first time we've been in a situation like this and, God help us, it won't be the last. Billy's pulled through worse before; as long as he keeps breathing, he'll keep fighting, and he'll even keep fighting after that. And as long as he's fighting, then we're going to be right there with him. Okay?"

Rick swallows and lets out a shaky sigh. "Okay." Casey doesn't say anything, but he nods once, settling back against the cave wall. Even Billy's next breath seems to come a little easier.

It reminds Michael just how much this team counts on him. How much they trust him, how they listen to what he says, even when things look bad. How far they're willing to go, the things they're willing to do, the amount they're willing to sacrifice, just because he tells them to. Higgins might be the director of the CIA, but Michael's head of the ODS, and everyone knows that the ODS follows his lead first and foremost, even if some are less than willing to admit it.

It's an enormous responsibility; on missions like this, it's almost more than he wants. He'd been the one to develop the plan to attack by air; he'd been the one to select the plane they needed; he'd been the one who'd ordered them to jump into the dense forest in the midst of a downpour and gale-force winds.

Casey might think it's his fault that Billy's in this condition, but Michael knows better. Yes, the mission was necessary, vital to the continued security and protection of the country and the welfare of its people, but he was still the one who gave the order to pack up and leave the safety of their offices for the tropical jungle and ultimately a plane crash in the midst of a storm. It's his fault they're in this mess.

No one will ever blame Michael if Billy doesn't return from this trip. It's the nature of the job, and Michael had done everything he could to ensure the safety of his team, to bring them out of it alive.

But it won't matter if they absolve him of guilt. Because if Billy dies, Michael will blame himself enough for all of them.

(Part Two)

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