A/N: Prompted by Faye, beta'd by Faye. Basically my entire existence in this fandom is thanks to Faye. Remaining mistakes are my own.
Disclaimer: CHAOS is property of CBS and its creators, etc. Title is a line from Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
The mission is supposed to be over.
Billy and Casey had infiltrated the target without incident; Michael has already passed the information along through the proper channels. Rick knows that agents from Interpol and MI6 have already apprehended the ringleaders of the art smuggling ring, and more are tracking down the stolen paintings at that very moment. They're in northern Sweden and they should be having a relaxing evening at the hotel because it's the weekend and the mission is supposed to be over.
Which is why Rick can't quite figure out why they're running for their lives through the woods.
"I thought Michael said he had this all under control!" he gasps as he runs, flinching a little when he hears a burst of gunfire from somewhere behind him. They've managed to stay a good distance ahead of their pursuers—which Rick has to admit is impressive, considering their vehicle had been ambushed as they were driving back from a large dinner, and considering they're running through snow in shoes and clothes that weren't meant to be used for such strenuous activities—but they're still not out of firing range yet, and they're having a hard time shaking them because of the trail of footprints they're leaving in the snow.
Billy leaps nimbly over a snow-covered log. "He does!"
"Then why are there six guys with guns chasing us?" Rick demands, following Billy as he veers to the left into a dense cluster of brush and trees.
"Two," Billy corrects, casting a quick glance over his shoulder. Rick does the same; he can't get a visual on the guys chasing them, but he can hear them. "Casey's reputation has apparently preceded him—the biggest and meanest of the lot went after him and Michael."
Rick stumbles a little on a protruding tree root that's been obscured by snow but manages to keep going. "That still doesn't sound like 'in control' to me," he grunts, focusing his attention back on the trail in front of them.
Billy suddenly grabs his arm and yanks him headlong beneath the cover of a bush. Before Rick can protest his complaint at the treatment, Billy's silently army crawling underneath the bushes back the way they just came. Scowling, Rick follows him, making sure to keep as quiet as possible. The snow is already soaking through his dress pants, and he can feel debris snagging at the primly pressed fabric, as well as at the wool of his coat. Another outfit ruined on the job—the job that's supposed to be finished, he thinks sourly.
They manage to crawl half a dozen yards before Billy freezes, forcing Rick to stop. A moment later, their tails crash through the brush right toward them. Rick hears one of them cursing in a mixture of Arabic and French, and even though they're on different sides, he can't help but sympathize a little—after all, running through all this brush in the midst of a freezing cold night is no picnic.
On the other hand, Rick's running because this man and his partners are chasing the ODS, so his sympathies fade quickly.
Billy gives Rick a silent signal before standing, one hand gripping a large branch. The two men barely have time to shout their surprise before the Scotsman swings the branch like a bat, catching one man on the side of the head. The other starts to aim his gun, but Rick tackles him before he can fire, and with two good punches, the smuggler's unconscious.
Rick pauses to make sure the man's not getting up anytime soon before standing and glancing at Billy, who's beaming at him. "See?" Billy declares, tossing his makeshift weapon aside. "Totally in control."
They both look off to the south when they hear the distant sound of gunfire. "Right," Billy says when Rick shoots him a pointed glare. "Maybe we should go make sure the other half of our noble team is still in one piece."
Rick glances at the two unconscious men. "What do we do with them?"
There's more gunfire, and Billy starts jogging toward the sound. "Leave 'em!" he calls over his shoulder.
Rick hesitates for only a moment before following. "And if they wake up?"
"They won't be going anywhere fast," Billy replies easily. In the bits of moonlight breaking through the tree, Rick can see the tension in Billy's shoulders that betrays the worry he's hidden in his voice. The woods are silent now, but there's really no way to tell if that's a good silence or a bad one. Rick wants to have faith, to trust in their fearless leader and the human weapon with him, but if there's one thing he's learned during his time in the ODS, it's that his teammates aren't as invincible as they want Rick to think.
"They'll be easy enough to track in this terrain," Rick says, and from the glance he gets, Billy knows he's not talking about their former pursuers anymore.
They fall silent, keeping a steady pace in the direction they last saw their friends heading. Rick is in good shape, but they had already run for nearly a mile before they decided to split up, and he would guess that he and Billy have run at least half that distance in the time since then—in dress shoes, nonetheless. Plus, the night air is bitterly cold; Rick can feel it searing his lungs with every breath he takes, and he really wants to do nothing more than curl up under a blanket or near a fire somewhere, but he keeps moving. Michael and Casey are more than capable of taking care of themselves, but they've got four armed, angry men on their tail, and Rick's not about to let them get in caught in the line of fire if he can help it.
Within minutes, they've entered a vast clearing. Billy runs down a sudden embankment with ease; Rick's not so lucky. His aching legs give out, and he stumbles and falls to his hands and knees.
Then there's a sharp crack and a sudden splash, and when Rick looks up ahead, Billy's gone.
For a moment, Rick is completely confused; there's nowhere for Billy to hide, and if he'd been hit by the gunshot, Rick would be able to see him—the snow's not that deep, after all.
Then he notices the dark patch marring the otherwise smooth snow, sees the bits of ice floating in the middle of it, and his stomach clenches painfully.
"Billy!" he shouts, scrambling forward onto the ice on his hands and knees—because it is ice, he knows that now, can see where Billy fell through it into the water below, where Billy has yet to reappear—
Billy surfaces with a shuddering gasp, arms flailing as he tries to get some kind of grip on the ice around him. "Billy—Billy, stop!" Rick orders, nearly panicking because Billy's panicking, and Billy neverpanics, and if Billy's panicking, then the situation is dire.
Rick doesn't allow his panic to seep through, though, because if he loses his head here, then Billy's dead. He inches forward cautiously, doing his best to make sure he doesn't join Billy in the lake; the ice beneath him groans, and he pauses, trying to get through to Billy. "Billy, you need to calm down, you're going to break—"
But it's too late—there's another sharp snap, and the ice beneath Billy's hands breaks, and Billy lurches forward, disappearing into the water again. Before Rick can move or shout, Billy's head reappears. The second dunking into the freezing water has either helped Billy gain his senses or sapped his strength entirely, because this time he stays where he is, keeping his arms close to his body and shivering in the water.
Rick decides that it's the former reason, because the latter has implications that he doesn't want to think about right now.
"Billy? You back with me?" he calls, inching forward again.
Billy nods, head shaking with the violence of his shivering. His feet must have found purchase, because the water is just below his shoulders, and he doesn't appear to be treading water. "S-s-s-sorry," the Scot says through chattering teeth. "L-l-lost my head."
"Understandable," Rick reassures him, forcing a lightheartedness into his voice that nowhere near matches the worry he's really feeling. Billy's face is pale in the moonlight, and there's a bluish tinge in his lips and nose. The water that was dripping off the ends of his hair is already crystallizing, and the sheen of water that was on his face is turning frosty. Rick moves another few inches closer. "Can you—"
They both freeze when they hear another sharp crack. Rick feels a tremor pass through the ice beneath his hands, and he drops down onto his stomach, sprawling his limbs out to spread the weight more evenly.
For several long seconds, neither of them move; Rick hardly dares to breathe, half-expecting to feel the icy waters surrounding him at any moment. "B-b-b-back," Billy chatters finally. His eyes look particularly large and bright within the pale skin of his face. The cold and his severe shivering keep the normally verbose Scotsman limited to just a few words. "G-g-g-go back."
Rick's lips thin into a firm line. "I'm not leaving you here, Billy," he says, debating if it's safe to get up on his hands and knees again. Every second he spends here on the ice is another second Billy spends in the water, losing precious body heat to the frigid lake.
Billy shakes his head once; it looks like it takes entirely too much effort for the simple movement. "D-d-d-d-don't fall in b-b-b-b-because of m-m-me," he replies.
Rick snorts. "I won't. I didn't load myself up with éclairs and cheesecake for dessert."
Billy manages to laugh, though it's more than a little forced. "B-b-bur-bur-burned it off run-run-running," he says. "St-st-st-still fit a-a-and t-trim."
Before Rick can respond, there's a commotion on the other side of the lake. He looks up and is momentarily shocked to see Casey and Michael staring back at him from the opposite shore. They're nearly a quarter-mile off, but from what Rick can see, they appear to be fine, though a little worse for wear.
Michael raises his hands to his mouth. "What happened?" he shouts, voice reverberating across the ice.
Billy starts a little at the unexpected voice, but remains where he is; again, Rick's not sure if it's because he doesn't want to risk another dunk into the lake, or if it's because he doesn't have the energy to move.
He forces the thought aside from the moment. "Billy fell in!" he calls back.
"Can you get him out?" Casey asks.
Rick shifts, and there's another groan from the ice beneath him. Judging by the way Casey and Michael react, they heard it, too. "We're working on it!" Rick replies.
"Okay, you do that," Michael orders. "We're going to cross a little farther up."
"Understood!" Rick says, looking back at Billy. His gut clenches when he sees Billy standing there with his eyes closed. The Scot has mostly stopped shivering, which is far from a good sign. "Billy. Billy!"
"M'up," Billy mutters, prying his eyes apart. It takes a bit of effort because of the ice clumping his eyelashes together.
Wary of the ice beneath him, Rick gets up onto his knees enough to pull off his jacket. The skin beneath his dress shirt, which was already quite cold, goosefleshes at the bite of the winter air cutting through the thinner fabric. He ignores it for the moment, wrapping one sleeve twice around his hand. "Billy, I'm going to toss my jacket at you. I need you to grab on so I can pull you out, okay?" he calls, thrusting the jacket toward Billy before he can reply.
The coat tail brushes Billy's face, rousing him from his stupor. He looks at the coat, then at Rick, who's sprawled on his stomach again, both hands gripping the material of his jacket. He shakes his head again. "N-n-n-no, d-d-d-d—"
"Don't argue, just do it," Rick snaps. "I'm not about to leave you in there, and even if I did want to, Casey and Michael would kill me."
Billy's lips twitch a little. "C-c-c-can't have th-that," he murmurs, prying one hand away from his body. Rick refuses to notice how the fingers stay curled like claws, to see how much effort it takes for Billy to grab hold of the fabric that's literally in front of his face.
Instead, he encourages, "That's it. Now the other hand." When Billy complies, he slowly moves back until the fabric is nearly taut between them. "Okay, Billy, I know you're cold, and I know you don't want to move, but I need you to do one thing for me, got it?" He waits until Billy nods before continuing, "I'm going to count to three, and when I say three, I'm going to pull. But I need you to try to jump up at the same time so I can pull you out, okay?"
Billy blinks at him a few times. It's not a good sign—Billy's always been a quick thinker, so the hypothermia is obviously setting in quickly. After a long moment, Billy nods his agreement. "Okay. I can do that."
Rick licks his lips and shifts, bracing himself. "Okay, then. One." He eases himself to his knees, sighing a little in relief when he doesn't hear the ice protesting the movement. "Two." He can't help but smile a little when he sees Billy adjust his stance a little, preparing for his jump. Rick tightens his grip on the fabric. "Three!" he calls, pulling back as Billy does his best to jump.
Before he can comprehend just what's happening, the ice beneath Rick gives out, and suddenly he's surrounded by an intense cold, the likes of which he's never felt before. It's enough to drive every last bit of air from his lungs, to eliminate all conscious thought except cold, and it feels like he's being stabbed with a million needles. His body reacts instinctively, and within seconds—though to his screaming nerves and aching lungs it feels like an eternity—he's surfacing, spluttering and gasping and shivering.
He feels an odd tug around his arm, and it isn't until he looks down that he sees the coat has twisted itself around his forearm. The sight of the coat reminds him of Billy; a quick glance around proves Billy hasn't surfaced yet. But the coat is weighed down by more than just water, and with two tugs, Rick manages to pull Billy's head and shoulders up above the water.
"B-B-B-Billy!" Rick chatters, pulling his friend close, grimacing at how cold he feels. The Scot's eyes are closed; his head moves limply as Rick shifts his grip, and it's clear the only reason Billy managed to keep hold of the coat was because his fingers were too stiff to uncurl when he passed out.
Then Rick makes another discovery: Billy isn't gasping or spluttering like he was before.
Billy isn't breathing.
The realization clamors through Rick's mind, driving out all thought of the water, the cold, the feel of the icy sand making its way into his shoes and socks as he stands on the lakebed, until the all he knows is that Billy isn't breathing and that Billy needs to be on solid land.
Because solid land is safety. Solid land is sanctuary, and it's a place where Billy can breathe again.
With that in mind, Rick pulls Billy close and heads toward the broken edge of ice. The sand shifts beneath him, but he keeps his footing, noticing that with each step, the water becomes a little shallower. When he reaches the edge of the ice again, the water level is just under his armpits.
Some part of his mind reasons that the ice is still too high for him to push Billy up and out of the water, but he ignores it. Land is safety, he reminds himself, and safety is where Billy can breathe.
Billy needs to breathe. Rick can't quite remember why right now, but Billy needs to breathe, and the land is the only place he can do that, so Rick's got to get him to land.
With a grunt, Rick shifts his grip so that he's got both hands under Billy's armpits. Without thinking about it, he squats so that his ears are nearly touching the water and then launches up, using the momentum to lift Billy out onto the ice.
He nearly shouts in surprise when a burning hand brushes his, but the cry gets lodged in his frozen throat, so he flinches instead, blinking in surprise when he sees a familiar face peering down at him.
It's Michael, Rick realizes. He can't quite remember who Michael is, or where he was, or where he came from, but he, like the land, is safe, and if Michael has Billy, then Rick's work is done. Because Michael, whoever he is, will help Billy breathe, and even if Rick can't remember why, that will be a good thing.
He barely registers the second set of hands grabbing his shoulders before he lets the cold and the dark sweep him up and away into peaceful oblivion.
The first time he surfaces from the dark, he's surrounded by strange voices he doesn't recognize. They're saying words he doesn't like, like "fever" and "blood pressure" and "pneumonia" so he ignores them and heads back into peaceful dark.
The second time he surfaces is much quieter. There's something taped to his nose, and it tastes like something died in his mouth, but for the most part he feels relaxed. Safe.
The hand lying on his arm has something to do with that. As does the firm, familiar voice telling him, "It's okay, Martinez. You're going to be fine, as long as you rest."
Rest sounds good, Rick thinks, rest sounds like something he can accomplish, and so he does just that.
The third time, Rick wakes to the sound of a doctor talking. He keeps his eyes closed, content to maintain the illusion of sleep a little longer as he listens to the conversation happening around him. It's a female voice with a heavy accent; she sounds nice, Rick decides, though that could be because of the good news she's relating.
"…don't anticipate any further complications. They're both recovering nicely, despite the initial setbacks, and so we should be able to move Mr. Collins into this room this evening. I trust that's something you two would prefer?"
"No, I'd rather continue making laps between the third and fifth floors," Casey says dryly. "I have nothing better to do with my time than spend it in an elevator that moves like an octogenarian at a WalMart."
"What he means is, thank you," Michael cuts in. Rick doesn't have his eyes open, but he can picture their expressions perfectly—Casey's mildly annoyed, Michael's amused, and both more than a little relieved.
Rick contemplates opening his eyes, but as sleep is already pulling him back under, he decides that will have to wait until next time.
The fourth time, the others register he's awake before Rick does.
"Are you with us, Martinez?" Michael asks from somewhere off to his left.
"Like, really with us?" Casey adds from his right. "Because I don't really want to be treated to another enlightening summarization of the last season of As the World Turns."
Rick frowns at that, forcing his eyes open. They feel dry and itchy, and he blinks a few times until everything in the room comes into focus. Michael's smiling faintly at him, and Casey looks less annoyed than usual, but they both look exhausted.
"I don't think I'd do that," Rick rasps, wincing at how hoarse his voice sounds. Michael's there a moment later with a glass of water with a straw in it, and as Rick drinks a few sips, he thinks it's quite possibly the best water he's ever had.
"See, I didn't think so, either," Billy rasps from the other side of Casey's chair; his voice sounds even worse than Rick's. Rick tilts his head and sees the Scotsman sitting up in the bed next to him. Billy still looks pale, though not as bad as he had back in the freezing waters of the lake. He's holding an oxygen mask just below his chin. He takes a breath from it before pulling it away and adding, "I would have pegged you as a General Hospital fan."
"Well, I'm neither, actually," Rick says, mildly confused.
"Ah," Michael says knowingly. "Like I thought. All My Children, right?"
Rick blinks a few times, then decides to shift the conversation to something that might actually make more sense. "What happened?"
Michael tilts his head. "On All My Children?"
Rick scowls when he sees the grin on Billy's face and the smug look on Casey's. "No, at the lake!"
"You mean other than the two of us nearly drowning and freezing to death," Billy clarifies.
Rick rolls his eyes, but Casey interrupts him before he can even start talking. "I hauled you out of the water while Michael made sure Billy started breathing again. Fortunately I still had my phone on me, so we called for an ambulance, which picked us up at the entrance to the forest."
"Which was lucky, because the two of you were heavy," Michael adds. "And cold."
He says it lightly enough, but there's a haunted shadow in his eyes, and Casey's shoulders have tensed up noticeably—both signs that that walk through the woods was much more difficult than Michael made it sound. Which, considering he and Billy are both still in the hospital after who knows how many days, is easy enough for Rick to believe.
"How long's it been?" he asks.
"Well, you both developed pretty nasty cases of pneumonia," Michael says. "They put Billy on a ventilator, mostly as a precaution, but you were fighting a pretty high fever, and neither of you woke up for about a week."
"And now you've spent the last couple days in and out of consciousness, and they moved Billy in here earlier today so that Michael and I wouldn't have to keep moving from one room to the other," Casey finishes.
Rick contemplates that for a long moment. It certainly explains why he feels so stiff and sleepy. "And the mission?"
"Completed," Billy tells him. "For real this time."
"Interpol's helped us round up the last of the smugglers and has extradited them to their appropriate countries," Michael adds.
"And Higgins has arranged for a lovely military transport home for us at the end of the week," Casey says. "So you'll have that exciting and comfortable event to look forward to."
Rick makes a face at that. C17s are his least favorite way to travel. Still, it will be nice to be home. He's only been awake and aware for twenty minutes, but he's already more than ready to head home; he's not a fan of hospitals in general, and he knows Billy isn't either. Judging by the exhaustion, weariness, and stubble Michael and Casey are both sporting, they're about ready to move on from this mission as well.
Michael stands and stretches. "Well, now that everyone's awake, I think I'm going to head down to the cafeteria, see if they've got something that passes for food."
"I'll go with you," Casey agrees, following Michael out the door. "You might need back up in case the food's gained sentience. I don't trust it."
The door closes behind them, leaving Billy and Rick in a comfortable silence. "You're really okay?" Rick asks, glancing over at his friend. "No frostbite or anything?"
"It was a near miss," Billy admits, but then he grins. "Luckily, all my toes are still intact," he adds, making a show of wiggling his feet under the blanket.
Rick smiles, slumping back against his pillows. "Good. I'm glad," he murmurs. In the back of his mind, he's annoyed that he's already this sleepy—after all, he's been sleeping for over a week now.
"You really shouldn't have done that, you know."
Rick blinks a few times and looks over at Billy again; Billy stares at him, all signs of humor gone from his face. "What?"
"You should have backed away from the hole," Billy clarifies. "You shouldn't have tried to pull me out."
"What was I supposed to do, leave you to freeze in the lake?" Rick asks. "That isn't how we operate, Billy—you should know that by now. I'm the rookie, after all, and I know it."
Billy studies him for a long moment. "You do catch on quick," he says finally.
Rick nods, letting his eyes close again. "Though next time if you could eat less cheesecake and not fall into the frozen lake, I'd appreciate it."
He slips back into sleep with a smile as Billy says, "I'll do my best."