Title: The Greatest Asset
Disclaimer: I do not own Chaos.
A/N: For unpredictableone. Fills my on the run square for hc_bingo. Beta by sockie1000.
Summary: In short, confidence was Rick Martinez's greatest asset. It was also his greatest weakness.
For Rick Martinez, his greatest asset had always been his confidence.
Sure, he was smart and he was quick and he was clever. But lots of people were smart and quick and clever. The thing that made Rick different was the confidence to do the impossible with what he had.
Ever since he was very young, Rick was exceptionally self possessed. He saw things that he wanted, and he did not believe in anything but the utter fact that he could get those things for himself. It had made him class valedictorian and earned him a full ride scholarship to school. It got him hired for the most coveted positions, and helped him snag the most eligible girls. Because Rick simply believed he could attain anything.
It was also the reason, however, that no one in school actually liked him. It was probably the cause of his brothers' malice toward him. And, if Rick were honest, it was probably why his fiancee had left him.
Because confidence was the belief in the impossible. Once it was glaringly obvious that the impossible was actually sometimes out of reach, confidence became a little like arrogance.
In short, confidence was Rick Martinez's greatest asset.
It was also his greatest weakness.
Because sometimes Rick took his confidence - in life, in love, in work - and got himself in over his head.
With no way out.
By most accounts, the situation was bad.
Rick was on point in this mission, given that it was his intel and his contact. He'd been the one to pitch it to Higgins, and he'd been the one to talk his team into it. It hadn't mattered how many doubts or reservations they'd had. It hadn't mattered that it had been high risk. Because Rick, for all that he was still young and green, had been pretty damn confident he could pull it off.
On paper, he'd planned for a lot of contingencies. He'd learned a lot in his first year at the CIA, and he'd taken the best of what his teammates had to teach him. He could plan like Michael; he could execute like Casey; he could improvise like Billy.
And he could do it in any language he pleased.
In that sense, Rick didn't care if the situation was bad. Bad could still be salvaged. Bad was indicative of any given moment, not the endgame. A bad turn could still end up just fine, and Rick had been on more than enough missions to believe that with some fortitude.
So what if the asset was falling apart? So what if their cover was hanging by strings? So what if the crime syndicate in rural Nigeria was about to open fire on him miles from any kind of safe exit?
All it took was one good plan, one good turn, one good smile.
"Now everyone take it easy," Rick said, glancing surreptitiously at their asset. As a low level employee with family ties to the syndicate, George had been a good entry point. He was close enough to be valuable, but low enough on the totem pole to be easily turned. It really hadn't taken much to sway him to serve as a mole into the organization, giving them a perfect entry point to infiltrate it for themselves.
Jabez, the leader, took a menacing step toward Rick. "Easy? You would like that now, wouldn't you?"
Rick kept his hands up. He was armed, but there would be no point in opening fire when there were five other men, all with their weapons trained on him. "I think there's been some sort of misunderstanding."
Jabez inched closer, face twisted in a sneer. "Someone here is lying to me," he said.
"Why would I lie to you?" Rick asked, bolstering his confidence with as much bravado as he could muster. "I am set to make millions off this deal with you."
The gun was close enough that Jabez poked it into Rick's chest. "How unfortunate for you, then," he said. "That there is no deal."
Rick hesitated. He swallowed, blinking his eyes rapidly as he tried to process that. "There's no deal?" he asked, feeling hoarse.
Jabez's mouth turned upward in a small, devious smile. "We are not looking at expanding our current operation," he said. "We have no shipments due in, so we have no need for alternative export routes."
Rick shifted the weight on his feet, glancing again at George. The other man looked stricken, eyes wide and sweating profusely. "I don't understand," he admitted, and that much was the honest truth.
Jabez poked him with the gun again, easing back with a smirk. "As I said," he continued, lifting the aim of his gun slightly. "Someone here is lying to me. And I do not tolerate lies. I am not a good man. I have killed; I have committed atrocities. But I am not a liar."
Rick shook his head slightly, not sure what to say. "Then why did you bring me here?"
"Because," Jabez said with feigned innocence. "Many of my employees have brought me potential partners in this venture. Only one, however, has told me different price for the skills offered by these partners and invested the difference in their own bank account."
Stunned, Rick blinked. George. All the qualities that made him a perfect choice to turn also made him the biggest liability. He was in this for his own gain, an easy out. He'd sold out to Rick for cold hard cash.
And he'd lied to Jabez to get a little more.
"Cousin," George interjected. "Please-"
Jabez's face hardened and he lifted the gun, pulling the trigger so fast that Rick was sure he was dead.
But instead, George crumpled without a sound, landing lifelessly on the ground, his dead eyes open and starting at the sky.
Just like that, Rick's asset was gone.
More than that, his mission was gone. There was no job; there was no partnership.
His stomach twisted, and he looked up at Jabez once more. The brutality of the murder; the cruelty of its execution - it caught Rick off guard, dousing him with a sudden dose of reality regarding just how dangerous this job was.
It was easy to plan things. It was easy to talk big and to train hard.
And when things went well, they really went well. Hell, Rick often believed he could save the world.
But when things went wrong-
It only took an instant. One second to turn everything on its head. Months of planning; weeks of execution; and one second was all it took.
A lifetime of success.
Foiled in one second of failure.
"So you have my apologies," Jabez said with unsettling affability as he raised the gun again. "We won't be needing your services after all."
Rick blinked, heart stuttering as his confidence finally faltered down the barrel of a gun.
And then, as Jabez's finger twitched on the trigger, it was finally shot to hell.
For the second time in one day, Rick expected to be dead. He hit the ground hard, the air pushed out of his lungs while he struggled to get his bearings amid the sudden rise of gunfire.
It went to figure, then, that he was wrong - again.
He blinked, looking up into Michael's face, which was no more than a foot from his own. He was on top of Rick, staring at him intently. "You okay?"
Rick swallowed. He felt sick to his stomach and lightheaded, and for a moment, he thought he might throw up. His chest ached, even though he knew unequivocally that he didn't have a scratch on him. "Not really."
Michael nodded, face drawn tautly. "You ready to go?"
On his feet, Rick was momentarily disoriented, but he trusted Michael enough to follow his lead. When the older man pushed him forward with a sharp order to keep his head down, Rick obeyed.
It was pretty clear why his team was here; how they had gotten here was a bit less obvious. Considering that Rick was on point, and that he had insisted, without a doubt, that he could handle a simple meeting without backup.
Diving for cover behind a car, Rick turned back to Michael. "You guys were following me, weren't you?"
Michael ducked down next to him. "Why do you sound surprised?"
"I had this one!" Rick yelled.
Tilting his head, Michael's expression wasn't quite smug. "You sure about that?"
Blowing out a breath, Rick shook his head. "But I had this one," he said, more insistently this time.
Michael looked ready to reply, but there was a steady string of gunfire, a series of yelps and then an explosion that rocked the car and sent debris flying. When it settled, Rick's ears were ringing. He looked up at Michael in utter bewilderment.
Michael shrugged. "You sure about that?"
The thing was, Rick had been sure. It hadn't been all ego, either. It had been work and dedication and training and everything.
He wasn't brash or overly bold or unnecessary cocky. No, that wasn't him. He earned his confidence, day after day.
Step after step.
But as Michael shoved him forward, running toward the nearby cover of trees, he had no choice but to doubt. The mission was, after all, pretty much a complete disaster. His asset was dead. His cover wasn't exactly blown, but it also wasn't remotely usable anymore.
And there was still the not-so-small fact that they were on the run from criminals who were very highly motivated to kill them.
Heart hammering, Rick was so set on moving forward that Michael almost jerked him to a stop when he grabbed his shirt, pulling to the cover of another tree.
Bewildered, Rick turned to him. "But why-?"
Michael brought a finger to his mouth, and Rick's eyes widened as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps, fast and heavy, no more than 30 yards behind them. Rick swallowed, blinking a few times as Michael lifted his gun and gave him a wary nod.
Gritting his teeth, Rick ducked down, inching out of the way both to find a better defensive position and to provide whatever physical back up he could.
The footfalls grew closer, and closer-
Rick tensed, ready to fight.
Michael stiffened, sweat trickling down his temples. He wet his lips, lifting the gun just so-
Then, without a word, Michael sprang up, gun at the ready as he faced down their pursuers. Rick followed suit, throwing himself up behind, ready to pounce.
But he deflated when he saw Casey and Billy.
They were both bloodied and covered in soot, but even with that, Casey managed a glare. "That was your plan?" he asked. "To scare me to death?"
Michael put his gun back in its holster. "To be fair, he didn't have a weapon."
"If you're trained right, everything is a weapon," Casey said.
Billy smiled tautly, clapping him on the shoulder. "It's okay," he assured. "I was quite fearful. You have the gait and tenacity of a gorilla. Quite ferocious, those."
Rick screwed up his face.
Michael shook his head. "How did we fare?"
"We took out their vehicles," Casey confirmed. "But there were still a few left when we ran."
"Worse still," Billy said grimly. "We couldn't take out their communications."
Michael cursed. "So backup will be on the way," he said. "And they've got all the access roads under their control."
"And they really didn't sound too happy," Casey said.
"No," Michael said, starting to chew his lip. "I don't imagine they would be."
"Ah, and there may be one other thing," Billy hemmed, swallowing a little as he shifted his weight with a wince. "I believe that while they are heartless thugs, they are not entirely without skill."
Michael shook his head impatiently. "Meaning?"
Billy pulled his jacket back with a grimace. "Meaning the bastards may have had one shot that counted."
That was when Rick saw that Billy wasn't just dripping sweat, he was dripping blood. The dark stain on his dark shirt was concentrated to his lower right side, punctuated by a visible rip. To prove the point, Billy's fingers were stained with red, slick and sticky in the dim light of the forest.
Rick wasn't sure about anything anymore.
All Rick could do was stare.
Numb, he watched as Casey took Billy by the arm, gruffly guiding him to the ground. Billy grunted, almost in protest, as he submitted to the indignation with relative ease. Within five seconds, Casey had Billy shirt pulled up, using his own jacket to wipe at the blood to get a better look at the wound.
Michael positioned himself between his men and the entrance of the forest, forehead wrinkled as he clearly started to formulate a plan.
Rick, for all his training and his skills and his confidence, was dumbfounded. This mission had gone from bad to worse really, really fast, and the shock of it was still like a punch to the gut. It had only been minutes, after all. Minutes since Jabez had put a bullet in George's head. Minutes since Jabez pointed a gun at Rick's forehead and everything went boom.
Shock, Rick reflected idly. A trained, capable spy, on one of the best teams in the CIA. And he was standing like a newbie in shock.
It was pathetic. Rick would be mortified if he could make himself feel anything at all.
"Ugh," Billy groaned while Casey washed the wound out. He craned his neck forward to get a better look. "Is that really necessary?"
"If you don't want to die of infection, yes," Casey said, matter of fact while he doused it with more water.
Billy dropped his head back with a muffled cry.
"How bad?" Michael asked over Rick's shoulder.
Casey was making strips of his jacket, face set tersely. "It's not great," he said. "But he's had worse. Bullet went straight through. It didn't hit anything vital, and it's actually not bleeding too bad. All things considered, we could be much worse off."
"I beg to differ," Billy said, lifting his head again. He was pale but coherent, looking duly offended at the choice of conversation. "I've currently got a hole in my side. I'd rather not see how things could be worse."
Michael nodded, watching while Casey started to wrap the bandages around Billy's midsection. "Well, we're going to try to avoid that," he said with wry comfort.
Billy whimpered, visibly keeping himself still while Casey worked.
Rick was aware, suddenly, that Michael was looking at him.
Dumbly, he looked back.
"We're going to need a plan," Michael announced.
As it was, that wasn't particularly a revelation. They always needed a plan.
But then Rick realized that Michael was waiting for Rick to offer input.
"I-" he started, almost out of reflex. He had worked hard to earn a place on this team, to get them to listen to what he had to say. Now, suddenly, he found himself at a loss. "I don't know."
Michael's frown deepened, concern flickering in his eyes. "Well, what's the likelihood they'd just let us go?"
Rick blinked, remembering George's dead, dead eyes and the barrel of a gun pointed at his forehead. His throat tightened.
"Not likely," Casey supplied from the ground, putting another bandage in place. "They've got too much pride to take a hit like this without payback."
"Plus, they don't know who we are," Billy said breathlessly. "It'd be a wee bit irresponsible to let us go, all things considered."
Michael nodded in agreement, blowing out a breath. "Killing George, it definitely seems like they don't plan on leaving loose ends," he said. "How are we looking for ammo?"
"Mostly spent," Casey reported, ripping off another piece of fabric with his teeth. "A few rounds, but nothing that will last long."
"And all our explosives are spent," Billy said, tipping his head back toward Michael.
Michael sighed again, shaking his head. "So direct confrontation is probably not in our best interest this time."
"I don't think it was in our best interest the first time," Billy mumbled, stifling another yelp as Casey tied off the last piece of bandage.
"And we can't go back," Michael said. "They've got all the access roads."
"And we can't stay here," Casey said, sitting back on his heads. "We're sitting ducks."
Billy sat up with difficulty, pulling his tattered shirt back down. "So what options do we have?"
Michael looked at them, then he looked at Rick, almost hopefully.
Rick swallowed, looking away.
Collecting a breath, Michael shrugged. "Well," he said. "Looks like there's only one thing to do: run."
Grumbling, Casey pulled Billy to his feet. "All my training, and this is the plan you give us. Run."
Billy stumbled, catching himself against Casey. "I admit, I'm not much of a fan either."
"It's better than dying," Michael said. "Casey, you and Billy take point. Due east to the other side of the forest."
"Yeah, yeah," Casey muttered, starting them forward.
Michael hesitated, nudging Rick's arm gently. "You okay, kid?"
Rick startled, turning his eyes up in surprise. "What?"
Michael's eyes narrowed. "You okay?"
"I," Rick started, but didn't know what he wanted to say. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm good."
Michael looked doubtful, but he nodded back. "Okay," he said. "Let's go."
Rick blinked again, remembering vaguely to breathe. He was dimly aware that Michael was waiting for him to move. That wasn't Rick's thing, following orders blindly. That wasn't Rick's thing to hand over control.
But, as it turned out, maybe he'd never had control in the first place.
With nothing else to do, he forced his legs to move. One foot in front of the other until he started to run.
It wasn't like he had a better plan, anyway.
Eyes on the ground, he kept his gaze fixed on Casey and Billy in front of him. He measured his steps against theirs, listening vaguely for the rustling of Michael's footfalls behind him.
It was surreal when he thought about it. He'd made up his mind as a kid that he wanted to be a hero. He'd known since he was in elementary school that he was destined for greatness. He'd never let anything hold him back. He'd never flinched in the face of a challenged. And he'd always given anything and everything to get exactly what he wanted.
Some people called it naive. Others just called it stupid. His team had always seemed to respect it in a roundabout way, even while reminding him that it was never that easy.
It had been easy, though. It really had been. Rick had gotten a job at the CIA, even during a hiring freeze. He'd survived with the ODS, even when they tried to out him. He'd done everything right.
But to what end? Where was he going, anyway? It all had seemed so clear, but on the run for his life, he was starting to wonder if it had ever been clear. Maybe he'd been wrong about some things, just like he'd been wrong about George. Maybe greatness didn't look like he thought it did. Maybe he was still a little kid pinning a sheriff's badge on his shirt, twirling water pistols in the backyard.
Maybe it was even less than that.
His confidence could ruin missions. His confidence could compromise his country. His confidence could get people killed.
His confidence could get him killed.
On his gravestone, no one wrote about confidence anyway. They wrote about a live well lived, about sacrifices made. No one remember the people who wanted to be great.
Rick had been playing spy for a year, and he'd thought he'd done pretty well. Saved more people than he'd let down; had more success than failure. But what did it mean? Wasn't that the danger of Carson Simms, anyway? Of all the people who'd started out so bold and ended up so meek. Would Rick sell trade secrets for a little extra cash? Would he wander the halls, desperate for a place to belong? Would he be a washed up spy, unable to accept that the game had gone out without him?
He didn't want to think so. But there was a dead man a few miles back, and his team was on the run, and if he made it back to Langley, he'd have to sit in Higgins' office and explain just how badly things went wrong.
Confidence was an asset.
Confidence was a weakness.
In the end, though, sometimes confidence didn't matter at all.
Rick was so focused on the next step that he almost didn't notice when Billy missed a step. In fact, it was all Rick could do to stop himself while Billy faltered and went down, half taking down Casey with him.
With sweat soaking the back of his shirt, Rick tried to steady his breathing as he watched Casey squirm away with a curse, easing Billy onto his back.
The Scotsman's face was lined with pain, his pale features soaked with sweat. He blew out a breath and muttered a bitter curse of his own, before shaking his head and apologize. "Bollocks," he said. "I'm sorry - I'm so sorry-"
Casey wasn't listening, though. Instead, he forced Billy's hands away from the wound, ignoring the small hiss of pain while he started to poke at the blood-soaked bandage.
Michael came up behind them. "Everything okay?"
"I'm afraid I've been remiss in my exercise lately," Billy said thinly, though he valiantly tried to smile. "Missed a step is all."
Casey shook his head. "Your complete lack of physical perfection is an issue we can deal with later," he said before looking back at Michael. "The bleeding hasn't slowed down much."
Michael's expression shifted subtly, from stressed to something worse. He nodded tautly. "You think you can keep running?"
Billy winced, swallowing hard. "What's the alternative?"
"Capture and execution probably," Casey said. He looked at Michael again. "I assume you've been hearing it, too."
Michael inclined his head grimly. "They're still a ways back, but we've definitely got a tail," he said.
"Bloody hell," Billy muttered, letting his head drop back.
"Any chance we can call out yet?" Casey asked.
Michael shook his head. "Still too far out," he said. He hesitated, looking to Rick. "You have any ideas, Martinez?"
Rick stared at him, somewhat dumbfounded. Rick had lots of ideas. He had ideas about exit strategies and the rules of engagement in hostile territory. He had ideas about cover stories and emergency extraction plans.
None of which did him any good right now.
Because George was dead, the mission was over, they were on the run, and Billy was bleeding to death. No one planned that kind of thing, and only an idiot would face that sort of thing with confidence. Rick was the kind of person who jumped out of a moving car in traffic, who ate a scorpion and blew his cover. He took a slipshod cover in the face of drug dealers and willingly bled out without a single regret. He stood face to face with a tank; he promised suicidal men the impossible.
He'd thought that was the brave thing to do. He'd thought of himself as a hero.
Maybe he was just stupid, though.
"Rick?" Michael asked, a bit stronger this time.
Rick startled, realizing belatedly that he'd zoned out. Michael was watching him carefully, eyes narrowed knowingly.
Swallowing, Rick shook his head. "No," he said, his own voice sounding hollow. "I-"
He looked at Casey, sitting anxiously with blood on his hands.
He looked at Billy, still bleeding out on the forest floor.
He looked at Michael, trying to salvage the mess of a mission Rick had planned from the start.
"No," he finished hoarsely.
Michael drew a breath, letting it out threw his nose. "Okay, then," he said. "Everyone up. We keep running."
They didn't stop, but they couldn't keep the same pace. It was almost inevitable, just given Billy's injury. Though it was just a flesh wound, blood loss was a serious concern, and Rick could see the way Billy's feet were starting to drag as he leaned on Casey a little more with every step.
After a while, Rick could hear it, too - the sound of movement in the distance. They were taking a roundabout path through the trees, as best Rick could tell, to make it harder to track them, but it was only a matter of time, given the size of Jabez's forces and the strength of his need for revenge.
And with an injured man, four poorly armed men didn't stand a chance. They were running on nothing but confidence now.
Or maybe just desperation.
Come to think of it, Rick thought those two things might be the same thing.
No one seemed willing to talk about the inevitable.
Instead, Michael sent off Casey to cut a fake trail through the trees, something winding and obvious, in an attempt to distract as many as possible. Michael hung back, using his knife and some improvised tactics to create what he was calling booby traps.
That left Rick to help Billy along, step after staggering step, pushing through the trees toward the hope of safety on the other side.
"You know," Billy said, pausing to take another ragged breath as he leaned heavily on Rick for another step. "If it makes you feel better, I've been on worse missions."
Rick shook his head. "I'm not sure there could be worse missions," he grunted, adjusting his grip on Billy's waist as they struggled another step.
"Nonsense," Billy said. "There was a mission not too long before you joined our team."
Blinking sweat out of his eyes, Rick said, "Yeah?"
"Blood awful mission," Billy said. "Death, destruction. Michael nearly bled out, and Casey was unconscious for a whole week. We lost all our intel and all our leads."
"That sounds horrible," Rick said. After several more paces, he added, "But it turned out okay, right?"
"Well, we're all still here, at any rate," Billy said.
"And Higgins," Rick said. "He was okay with it."
"That was the last mission we had before he added you to our ranks," Billy said. "At least the old man is creative in his revenge."
Rick sighed. "This isn't a joke, Billy," he said. "People died. More people are probably going to die."
"Aye," Billy said with a wince. "And if we can't hurry, I could be one of them."
"This isn't the time for joke!" Rick said, feeling his self control start to slip more than a little.
"Son, this is exactly the time to joke," he said. "Because the alternative just isn't worth it."
Rick drew a breath and held it, letting the pressure build in his chest even as he clutched his fingers tighter around Billy's wrist. It wasn't a joke. It wasn't something they could whitewash. This was Rick's mission, and its failure was on his head. George was dead; the intel was gone; Billy was bleeding out. The damage control alone would void any possible gains and set them back by years.
And for what? For Rick's confidence? So they could chalk one up to experience? He was only as good as his last mission.
His stomach churned, and another bead of sweat trickled between his eyes as Billy's weight fell heavily on him.
His last mission.
He shook his head. "I thought I knew what I was doing," he said. "I thought I had this under control."
"We never have it entirely under control," Billy consoled. "You should know that by now."
"That's a platitude, Billy," Rick said shortly through gritted teeth. "But it doesn't make me feel better."
"It's the truth," Billy returned.
"The truth," Rick said, straining more now as he tried to pick up the pace and drag Billy with him. "Is that I had a plan. And it ended up with my asset dying and my team in danger. It ended with a bullet in your side and a run through the jungle that's probably not going to work."
"Lad," Billy said, voice pitching breathlessly now. "You're forgetting one important point."
"What?" Rick snapped.
Billy stumbled, face paling as he struggled to keep moving. "It's not over yet."
Rick shut his mouth, pressing his lips together so tight that he almost couldn't breathe. If Billy meant it as a comfort, Rick wasn't sure how. Because it sure as hell felt like a curse.
If it wasn't over yet, then something could still go wrong.
He grunted, hoisting Billy a little higher as they kept on running.
A lot of things could go very, very wrong.
The reason Rick had fit in with the ODS, despite all the obvious differences, was that they were just as confident as he was. There had never been a mission where they hadn't found a way out; there had never been a situation in which they didn't think they could make the most of it. When things got tough, the ODS got tougher, and it had always been that way.
Rick had come to count on that, as much as he had always counted on his own abilities.
So it didn't take much more for him to start to seriously question just how poorly thought out this plan was.
Michael was setting up booby traps; Casey was running in circle; Billy was bleeding to death; and Rick? Hell, he was along for the ride, banking on this notion that their luck wouldn't run out.
Except it already had.
And no one knew how to admit it.
But Rick didn't know how to deny it.
That was, of course, about the time when everything completely fell apart.
Billy had been leaning heavily on him for the last ten minutes, but then his knees gave out altogether. Given that Billy was a head taller than Rick, there was nothing the younger man could do except try to keep Billy from hitting too hard.
As it was, they ended up in a heap together, Billy heavy and bleeding half on top of him.
Rick muttered a curse, trying to extricate himself when Michael and Casey came up a few paces behind them. Casey gently pulled Billy back while Michael helped Rick to his feet.
Panting, Rick watched as Casey laid Billy on his back. The Scotsman was nearly white now, sweat drenching his brow while he breathed rapidly through his mouth.
Casey looked up, grim. "He's not going to be able to keep going," he said.
"Shock?" Michael asked.
"Early stages, but sure enough," Casey confirmed.
Michael let out a terse breath. He shook his head. "We'll have to split up."
At that suggestion, Casey got to his feet. "And leave Billy here?"
"I'll stay with him," Michael said.
"They'll kill you both," Casey argued.
"Then you stay with him," Michael countered.
"I'm a human weapon, but I'm not impervious," he replied tautly. "They're a squadron of armed men set on killing us. Besides, I don't know if Billy will survive a rescue at this rate."
"They're gaining on us," Michael said, shaking his head. "If we bring Billy with us, they'll catch up and we're all dead."
"So, that's it, then?" Casey asked. "We leave Billy to die?"
"I'm not saying that," Michael said, his voice starting to pitch. "If we split up-"
"Then two of us die, yeah," Casey said. "That's not exactly a better option."
Rick stared between them, looking from one to the next. They were right, both of them. They couldn't stay here; they couldn't keep going. The proverbial rock and a hard place, where everything ended with total disaster.
And then, an explosion rocked the forest, close enough to send birds in the trees above them skittering into the air. Rick ducked instinctively, but Michael and Casey looked up with dread.
"That's the last checkpoint," Michael said.
"Ten minutes?" Casey asked.
"Less," was Michael's reply.
Less than ten minutes, and they would be overrun. Billy was dying; they were going to be captured. Rick had charged in here on bravado, and now his entire team was going to die. His confidence was going to be his downfall.
He looked at Michael and Casey. He looked at Billy.
Rick's fate was sealed, but he realized suddenly that maybe theirs didn't have to be.
Confidence wasn't just about a belief in your abilities.
It was about knowing you had nothing left to lose.
Rick started with the former, but he'd end with the latter.
Decided, he took a breath. Without waiting to second guess himself or let his team talk him out of anything, Rick made one last choice and turned back toward their pursuers and started to run.
Rick didn't look back; he couldn't afford to. They didn't have the luxury of time, and Rick wasn't worried about having second thoughts - hell, he wasn't sure he had really thought about this thoroughly at all in the first place - but he couldn't give his team time to try to dissuade him.
Michael would appeal to his logic, his reason, his sense of duty.
Casey would just run him down and tie him up before letting him run off.
It was actually a little surprising that neither of them tried to follow him. That was one of the advantages of confidence: if often caught everyone else off guard.
Besides, they had Billy to worry about, a mission to salvage, and an extraction plan that was hanging on by a thread. They both knew as well as Rick did that this was the only viable option. If anything, they were probably grinding their teeth, wishing they'd had the chance to do it before Rick did.
The ODS was lacking in many things - resources, common courtesy, sanity - but confidence wasn't one of them. Any one of his teammates would be proud to do this, to lay down his life for the sake of the others. Rick was just doing what they had trained him to do, the only thing he could do. Rick wasn't the smartest of the fastest of the most charming. But he didn't need to be any of that.
He just had to be the most desperate.
He would win this thing, one way or another.
Even if it meant losing.
Rick ran with surety. He ran without doubts. He ran with confidence.
He could do this.
Then he stumbled into a small clearing, almost falling over himself as he skidded to the stop, just shy of the working end of a machine gun.
Still breathing heavily, Rick teetered, holding up his hands while a cold sweat broke out over his body. As he straightened, he saw that there was more than one gun. There were lots of guns, and lots of men, all with their sights trained on Rick.
Through the crowd, Jabez stalked forward. He laughed. "My friend," he said convivially. "I am not sure you understand what it means to run away."
Rick swallowed, his tongue dry and stuck against the roof of his mouth.
Jabez shook his head with a smirk. "No matter," he said. "You will spare me the trouble."
Holding himself as still as possible, Rick struggled to keep the last vestiges of his confidence.
Jabez shrugged. "I'm afraid, however, that you have spared yourself nothing," he said. He glanced to one of the men - a large, beefy hulking one - and ordered something blunt in Spanish.
Just that fast, Rick's confidence wavered.
The man approached, cracking his knuckles. Rick blinked rapidly, wondering if there was a way out, if he should try to speak, if he should try to lie. He could tell the truth, or some variation of it; he could find a way out, he could-
Except that was not why he came.
The man rolled his neck with a series of cracks, squaring his shoulders in front of Rick.
And with the first punch, Rick's confidence shattered for the second time that day.
Rick had been in fights before. Hell, he'd been shot in South America. He knew what it was to be injured.
At least, that was what he had told himself.
He'd likened the whole idea to some grand ideal, a moment of unadulterated courage in the face of inevitable defeat. He'd taken solace in the fact that his teammates had a way out, even if he didn't.
None of that meant anything now.
No, there was nothing of heroism in this. There was nothing of confidence or experience.
There was just pain.
The first man had beefy fists and a sharp ring on one of his fingers that raked painfully across Rick's cheek. With the first volley of punches, Rick's nose was shattered and his cheekbone was cracked. He lost two teeth and his busted lip spewed blood everywhere.
The second round came from behind, the unexpected boot to his ribs nearly taking him out entirely. As it was, the first man held him up by the hair while the second used the butt of his rifle to thoroughly break each of Rick's ribs on one side.
When he was tossed to the ground, it was hardly a reprieve. His ears were ringing, and his vision was doubled and hazy, and he inhaled sharply, trying to regain control of himself.
He never got the chance.
Instead, he was pulled up once more, and he saw Jabez grin at him. His lips moved, and he waved something like a goodbye.
Rick didn't understand.
But when the fist caught him at the temple and everything went dark, Rick understood better than he wanted to.
The thing was, Rick had believed in himself. He'd believed he could do anything.
He could become class valedictorian. He could get a full ride academic scholarship. He could get a job at the CIA.
He was always running, you see. From one thing to the next, a relentless pursuit to succeed. It was part of who he was, part of his very nature. It wasn't that Rick didn't know how to quit. It was that he never believed he had to.
Because he was Rick Martinez.
He could do anything if he put his mind to it.
Even get himself killed.
It only occurred to him now that maybe he'd been trying to succeed at all the wrong things.
Rick woke with a start.
And that was promptly followed by intense and pervasive pain.
The pain was localized in several places, including his head and his face and his ribs and his stomach and his right arm - and by the time he catalogued all that, he decided it just wasn't worth it and resigned himself to horrible, unimaginable agony.
Blinking up, he realized he was still in the jungle.
He also wasn't dead.
That was something, anyway.
But that didn't compute. Jabez had intended to kill him. Rick had charged back with the intention of being killed. So being alive was actually a bit disconcerting because that met something was wrong.
Then he saw a flash of movement in his peripheral vision. He tried to turn his head, but he sort of thought maybe every bone in his body was broken.
And really, if he didn't see his impending death head on, that probably wasn't a bad thing.
Accordingly, Rick braced himself, clenching his teeth together until he realized he was missing three or four now. Gagging on blood, he fisted his fingers into the ground, drew a ragged breath and did his best to remind himself that this was all part of the plan.
He would tell himself that he needed better plans, but seeing as he was about to die, there was no sense berating himself.
The shadow fell across him; then Rick saw the figure.
It was strangely small.
Rick squinted, trying to blink blood out of his eyes. "Casey?" he asked, voice garbled from the litany of debilitating injuries he had incurred.
The older man hastened to Rick's side, going to his knees. "Come on," he cajoled, reaching down to take Rick's arm.
Rick grunted as Casey levered him up. The world tunneled for a moment, and when he looked up at Casey, there were two of him suddenly.
Which didn't make sense since there wasn't supposed to be any. "Aren't you supposed to be escaping?"
Casey made a long suffering noise, hoisting Rick with surprising care to his feet. "Just because you go off and do something stupid in the name of a greater good doesn't mean we have to accept it."
Rick swayed, and when his legs didn't support him, he leaned into Casey even more. "But I was going to die for you."
"Yeah," Casey said tersely, adjusting his grip on Rick. "Which we thought was a stupid plan."
Rick protested, both from the pain of movement and the insinuation. "But they'll kill us all!"
With a harrumph, Casey started dragging Rick forward. "Do I look dead?"
Rick turned his head, trying to focus on Casey once again with only marginal effort. Despite the fact that he was concussed and probably wouldn't remember much of this clearly, his deductive reasoning was still intact enough to conclude one basic fact. "No."
"Exactly," Casey said, moving a little faster now. "But you sort of do."
Rick thought he should be insulted. But he felt a little dead, so he couldn't muster up anything resembling indignation.
Instead, he did his best not to throw up or pass out. Or both.
"But it was going to work," Rick remembered suddenly. "I was going to sacrifice myself so you could get Billy out. It was going to work."
Casey sighed, more exasperated now. "Your confidence is admirable," he said. "But your plan was still stupid."
Rick grimaced, the overwhelming pain starting to deaden his extremities. "I don't understand."
"Look," Casey said. "You're not the only one confident enough to risk his life for the team. Nor are you the only one stupid enough."
Rick shook his head. "I don't understand."
"Do you want to get out of here?" Casey snapped.
Rick wrinkled his nose. "Yes?"
"Then shut up," Casey ordered. "And start running."
Running wasn't easy, considering that Rick had been beaten to a pulp and generally felt like total and complete crap. And really, running didn't even make a lot of sense. There was no indication they were being followed; there was no sense that they were even still going in the right direction.
But Casey kept his grip fast, pulling Rick step after step.
It would have been easy, probably, to pass out and let Casey do the hard work.
That didn't seem right, though, and it really wasn't Rick's style.
No, Rick kept running. He kept working, no matter what. There was no obstacle too big or too small. Rick pushed himself forward at all costs, no matter what, and he didn't fail.
Even when people told him it was stupid.
Even when it was stupid.
Even when it was probably too late.
Rick wasn't sure he could succeed at this.
But then, maybe it was time to start changing the goalposts, just a little bit.
Then, just like that, they stopped.
Rather, Casey stopped and Rick slumped over onto the older man's shoulder, slipping toward the ground unceremoniously before someone stopped his fall.
On his back again, he blinked up.
"Michael?" he asked, more confused than ever.
Michael set his mouth grimly. "That was stupid."
"Why didn't anyone escape?" Rick asked, feeling his own frustration start to build.
"Because we were a man down," Michael said.
Rick strained to breath. "Billy?"
"Hanging in there," Michael said. "But we need to move."
Rick nodded absently, still not sure what happened or why. He let his gaze drift to the side. "We going to keep running?"
"We could," Michael conceded. There was a sound nearby, a low rumbling as a large object came into Rick's line of vision. "But we sort of thought a car might be faster."
Rick stared, and it took several long moments before he realized the object was a well outfitted SUV, which looked just like the one Jabez used. Only with the back hatch open, Casey was busy securing Billy inside.
Rick looked at Michael. "You stole the car?"
"And his prisoner, and his intel, and his money," Michael reported.
"But how?" Rick asked.
Michael shrugged. "It was your plan."
"What?" Rick asked.
"Come on, Michael!" Casey called. "We need to move."
Michael nodded, looking back down at Rick apologetically. "This is going to hurt-"
Rick's mouth opened to ask the question, but Michael pulled him up with an explosion of pain that coursed through every part of his body.
Unconsciousness suddenly seemed like the best plan of all.
Not that it lasted, at any rate.
Things in life, they never lasted.
All his accomplishments, as great and many as they were, they were fleeting.
Because one second he was spearheading a mission; the next he was passed out in the back of a SUV, speeding toward safety.
Eyes open, he saw Billy sprawled next to him. Casey was perched between them, pressing a firm hand to Billy's midsection. When he glanced over, he nodded at Rick.
"What happened?" Rick asked, voice no more than a whisper.
"Do you mean the part where our mission was blown or the part where we had to run for our lives?" Casey asked.
The SUV hit a rut in the road, jarring them all. Rick winced, breath catching as fresh pain lanced through his chest. Still, he shook his head. "No," he croaked. "When I saved you."
"Ah," Casey said, not relenting in his pressure on Billy's bullet wound. "Well, you went to save us. And then we went to save you."
Rick's breathing was thin, and he was starting to feel cold as his consciousness threatened to fade again. "But how?"
"Well, you did make a good distraction," Casey pointed out. "They were so busy trying to kill you that they didn't even see me coming. Which gave Michael plenty of time to steal their car and load Billy up. And here we are. Intel recovered, bad guys eliminated and well on our way to safety."
Rick blinked for a moment, wondering if he was missing something.
"So, wait," he said haltingly as his sluggish mind struggled to comprehend. "It worked?"
Casey smirked, both amused and exhausted. "Yeah, kid," he said, more gently than Rick might have expected. "It worked."
All the things Rick had tried to do and he succeeded at the only one he hadn't set out to accomplish.
Most victories in life didn't last.
The important things, on the other hand.
Those were the things that just didn't know when to quit.
Rick passed out again, slipping in and out of awareness the entire drive back. He could feel himself getting weaker, the pain starting to eclipse everything until numbness started to prevail. It was shock, probably, and as he started to lose the fight with his pained body, he focused on the simple act of breathing.
In and out, in and out.
He had to keep breathing, keep running, keep moving. He didn't stop fighting, he didn't stop working.
His gaze drifted from the ceiling of the SUV to Casey's face pinched with concentration. Lolling his head to the side, he could see Billy growing dangerously pale next to him, his stuttered breaths coming fewer and further between.
"Malick, we okay back there?" Michael called from somewhere.
"We need to move faster," Casey yelled. "Billy's BP is starting to slip - and Martinez doesn't look so good."
"I'm working on it," Michael called back. "Just a little longer-"
"I don't know how much longer we have," Casey muttered, bearing down even harder. Billy didn't flinched under the ministration.
"We'll get there," Rick murmured, not sure if anyone could hear him or not. In fact, he wasn't sure he was even still conscious, and the only reason he knew he was still alive was the slowly sound of his own breathing, in and out, in and out. "We'll get there."
His eyelids started to flutter, the scene slipping out of his reach. This was a fight he was losing, slowly and inevitably, and Rick knew that if he passed out now, he might not wake up again.
He wasn't scared, though, even if he should be.
He had confidence.
If not in himself, in his team.
That, he had to believe, would be enough.
He was only sort of aware for the rest. He remembered snippets of everything, watching as Michael opened up the hatch and Casey helped pull Billy out. He could still see the doctor take Billy's pulse before nodding grimly toward the hospital.
Then he was on a gurney himself, looking up at a medical team he didn't recognize, speaking a language he could only make out bits and pieces of. And Michael was there, holding his hand, while the gurney moved down the hallway.
Down and down and down.
It was going to stop sometime, Rick knew.
Everything had to stop.
He just had to hope, this one time, that it wouldn't be the end of everything.
Turned out, Rick's confidence wasn't entirely in vain.
That his his first coherent thought, anyway.
The next coherent thought was pain.
It was oddly dulled, but not enough, and the multitude of aches made Rick wish he was still unconsciousness. That would be the easy thing.
But Rick wasn't really one who did things the easy way.
Instead, he forced his eyes open, taking short, measured breaths while he tried to regain control of his sense and get a hold on the pain. In those long seconds, he concluded a few things.
First, he was in a hospital.
Second, he was still pretty badly injured.
Third, he survived.
How, he wasn't sure. Why, he wouldn't probably ever know.
"And look who's awake!"
Rick turned his head to the side, surprised to see Billy propped up in a nearby bed, grinning.
"About time," Casey muttered from a chair in the corner.
"It was getting pretty boring," Michael agreed from his spot between Billy and Rick.
With difficulty, Rick swallowed. His broken lip was still tender, and one of his eyes was entirely bandaged over. "Sorry to disappoint," he said thickly.
"Given your heroics back there, I don't think an apology is in order," Billy said.
"You look….good," Rick commented, studying Billy.
Billy grinned. "Thank you," he said. "I dare say I always look good-"
Rick shook his head. "No, I mean-"
"He means that the last time he saw you, you were probably hypovolemic and mostly dead," Casey said.
"Ah," Billy said. "Thank you for that pleasant reminder."
"They had to replace about half his blood volume, but he's doing okay," Michael supplied.
Billy straightened his shoulders. "Been awake longer than you, at any rate," he said, with a smug nod to Rick.
"Concussion," Michael explained. "They thought you'd wake up a few days ago…"
"But you took your sweet time," Casey said tersely.
"I believe young Rick was entitled," Billy said. "Given all he did for us. Mission MVP for sure, this time."
The mission, Rick remembered.
He closed his eyes, memory flashing back to the start, back to his overconfident approach. Back to George's dead stare and the barrel of Jabez's gun. Back to Billy bleeding out in the jungle and Rick's dead run back into the heart of danger to fix the mess he made.
He swallowed, opening his eyes more cautiously.
He found his teammates watching him.
With effort, he managed a tremulous smile. "Sorry," he said. He shrugged. "Concussion."
It was a lie, and a bad one. His team saw through it instantly.
"You know," Michael said, sitting forward a little bit. "It was a good plan you had."
Rick wasn't sure what to say to that.
"It would have been better if you had told us first, though," Casey said.
"To be fair, I wouldn't have cared, being unconscious anyway," Billy offered.
Michael rolled his eyes. "We could have made it work better if we'd done it all together."
Rick let out a breath, averting his gaze. "It was my mission," he said. "It was my mistake to begin with. I just wanted to fix it."
"How do you know there was a mistake?" Michael asked.
"It seemed like your cover was actually still intact," Casey added.
"But the asset got killed," Rick said, looking up again, adamant now. "I planned it all, and I thought I had prepared for everything, and then it all fell apart."
There was a silence after that, and Rick hung his head again.
"Is that really it?" Michael asked.
"Because it seems like there should be more," Casey said.
Rick looked up, confused. "It all fell apart," he said. "Billy almost died!"
"With the frequency that that happens, I hardly think that's your fault," Casey said.
"Besides," Billy said. "We tend to measure by end results, not the hiccups in the middle."
"You can't do everything, Martinez," Michael said. "None of us can."
They were being nice. Worse, they made sense. And it seemed like easy absolution.
Except Rick didn't believe it, not really.
He shrugged, feeling helpless. "I'm not used to failure," he said. "All my life, I've succeeded at everything. I don't make mistakes. I don't screw up. I defy the odds; I do the things that no one believes I can do. That's who I am. That's who I've always been."
Michael nodded. "That's great," he said. "For high school and college and relationships. But not for the spy world."
"I don't like to think of it as failure," Casey said. "I prefer to think of it as a challenging outcome."
"A learning experience, perhaps," Billy said. "A chance to improvise."
"Yeah," Michael said, making a face. "But it's really all failure. And it's part of the spy game."
Rick's shoulders slumped, feeling gutted. "If we're always going to lose at some point, then why even bother?"
"Because," Michael said. "We have to know the difference between losing and quitting."
Rick tilted his head, curious.
"Losing," Michael continued, "is a lost asset or a downed operative."
"Quitting," Casey said, "is throwing yourself at the enemy with no escape plan."
Billy nodded sagely. "And our losses need to matter," he said. "We make that happen by surviving them."
They were so sure.
Rick wanted to point out that someday the losses might outweigh the gains. That there may be a time when their confidence didn't mean anything at all. That eventually, for all of them, there would be a reckoning. If it was retirement or a promotion or the business end of a gun, Rick couldn't be sure.
But he knew, without a doubt, that he had to keep going to find out.
"Is that how you do it, then?" Rick asked finally. "Is that how you get up the courage to keep going even when everything goes wrong?"
"You're a good operative, Martinez," Michael said.
"You've got the guts," Casey agreed.
"And you've got the heart," Billy said.
"Now you have to trust that you have the team you need to back you up," Michael said. "This isn't a solo game for any of us."
Rick nodded. "Okay," he said. "I think I can deal with that."
Because his confidence in himself was a little strained.
But his confidence in his team was stronger than ever.
If he couldn't believe in himself just yet, then he'd believe in them.
Confidence could be a weakness.
But Rick was pretty sure it was still his greatest asset after all.