Title: Thicker Than Water
Characters: Billy Collins, Rick Martinez
Rating: T for some violence, mild language
Warnings/Spoilers:Spoilers for Mole. Also, if you are like Billy and get queasy at the thought of blood, this might not be the fic for you.
A/N: Many thanks to Faye Dartmouth for betaing! Also, remember to donate blood. ;)
Summary: Rick ground his teeth together because he had to be strong for Billy; he owed him that.
Thicker Than Water
Rick obeyed, dropping to the ground and immediately curling up with his arms protectively wrapped over his head as the mortar fell through the air with a shrill whistle before erupting into sound and fury and flying fragments of debris. Rick held still, folded in on himself as rubble and detritus rained down, trying not to breathe the dust-filled air. His ears were ringing, and for a few seconds all he could hear was his own heartbeat.
Then someone was shaking him. He looked up at Casey, who was looking at him with a wide-eyed expression, his mouth moving in the shape of words, his hair mussed and a cut along his hairline trickling blood, bright red against the gray dust that coated everything else...
Then the sound of Casey's voice finally kicked in, syncing up with the motion of his lips as he all but screamed into Rick's ear: "I said we need to go!"
Rick nodded dumbly, and somehow managed to get to his feet. His ears were ringing still, though not as deafeningly as before. The amount of dust and smoke in the air made him cough – small fires were scattered across the area where the mortar had demolished the barricade. He didn't take time to survey the damage though; Casey grabbed him by the arm and hauled him along, crouching low as they ran along the length of the stone wall they'd been taking cover behind.
Rick had always known that spywork was critical to military success; that the CIA gathered intelligence that won wars, and that as a spy, he would likely be expected to recover intel for purposes of armed conflict at some juncture. But he'd also thought of espionage as involving politics and embassies and simply watching and talking to the right people, or downloading the right files.
He'd expected that at some point, he'd spy for a war.
He just didn't expect that he'd be smack in the middle of one, somewhere in the mountains in northwestern Pakistan.
Casey ducked down behind the only wall that remained of what had either been a hut or a shed, checking the ammunition left in his clip. "I'm pretty sure that last round was friendly fire. Or as friendly as the Pakistani military ever gets," he remarked, rubbing away the trickle of blood that had been dripping down toward his eye. "You okay?"
Rick nodded. "Yeah. Just, you know, shaken up by the fact that I'm stuck between two armed factions both bent on blowing each other to hell."
Casey smirked. "Shoulda joined the army instead of the agency, kid. At least they would have given you some body armor before throwing you out into the desert to get shot at."
Rick grimaced, then reached for the radio at his belt as it hissed and popped. "This is Scorpion, receiving, over."
"Roger that, Scorpion. This is Mercury," Michael's voice crackled, distorted and barely recognizable through the interference. "What's your status? Over."
"A little dinged up but no worse for wear," Rick replied, glancing over at Casey who held up the courier tube with a meaningful look. "Er, we have the golden goose. Repeat, we have the golden goose, over." He let go of the button and shook his head. "Do we always have to have such ridiculous codenames for everything?"
Casey rolled his eyes by way of response.
"Roger that, Scorpion. Return to rendezvous. Over."
The courier tube contained the intel and schematics they'd stolen from the militant terrorist group they'd been sent to reconnoiter. Of course, the local military had gone and launched a surprise assault on the militant stronghold, throwing a rather large and explosive wrench into the plan, so there was no telling how much of that intel would still be relevant once they managed to get back to Langley. But they'd accomplished their objective and even the ODS knew when to occasionally cut their losses and get the hell out of dodge.
"Roger that, Mercury. On our way, over," Rick replied, stuffing the radio back into his belt even as Casey already started moving through the rubble of the bombed-out stronghold toward the rendezvous point.
The predetermined position was toward the outside of the stronghold – if one could call it that. When Rick had been briefed about the terrorist compound, he'd expected something a bit more organized in appearance than a run-down, ramshackle village. A village that was looking a whole lot more run-down by the minute as the two factions tried to blow one another to bits. With dusk falling and the scattered fires providing a red glow to replace the fading light, the scene looked like some artist's rendition of hell.
Casey pulled Rick down again as another mortar howled overhead, though this one landed a bit farther away, and they were up and running again in seconds, ducking and weaving around heaps of debris toward the far side of the village-turned-compound.
The marker they'd designated as their rendezvous point was a bit charred, but still present. The two operatives ducked into the safety of a doorway just across from it, catching their breath, trying not to cringe at the spitting sound of automatic gunfire that punctuated the hazy, acrid air. Rick looked around; it seemed they had beaten Michael and Billy there. He pulled his radio out: "Mercury, Highlander, this is Scorpion, do you copy? Where are you guys at?"
For a moment there was nothing but static. Then the radio came alive with an awful noise. It took Rick a second to realize he was hearing an echo of the gunfire, though the other end of the receiver had to be much closer to the source. "We copy, Scorpion. We're a bit tied down at the moment, though," Michael finally replied.
Casey tapped Rick on the shoulder, then pointed. Rick didn't know what he was looking for in the gloom initially, but then he saw what the other operative had spotted: several militants positioned on a rooftop, all armed, the muzzle-flash of their machine gun as it spat bullets giving away their position. And below them and to the left, behind an overturned cart, were their teammates.
"They're trapped," Rick murmured, pulling out the binoculars to get a better view.
"Well then, let's fix that,"Casey growled, brow furrowing in what looked like anger, but which Rick now knew Casey well enough to recognize as the older operative's expression of worry.
"You got a plan?" he asked, glancing through the binoculars. Michael and Billy were currently out of the terrorists' direct line of fire, but would be easy targets if they tried to leave the cover of the cart.
"I might. Do we have any explosives?"
"You mean other than the ones constantly going off around us?" Rick hissed. "No. I left all my dynamite at home this morning, sorry!"
"Your sarcasm isn't doing anything to remedy the current situation," Casey retorted, mouth pressed into a thin line.
"Look, all I've got is normal bullets, and not nearly enough of those left as I'd like, and a stupid flare gun from the humvee," Rick replied, pulling his meager armaments out to demonstrate.
Casey glanced at him, then reached out and took the flare gun. "May I?"
"Wait, what are you going to do?" Rick asked, confused.
Casey stepped out of the doorway. "Giving those morons on the hill who haveexplosives something to shoot them at." He aimed and fired the flare, which spiralled through the air like a drunken shooting star before landing perfectly on the rooftop where the enemy was concentrated. Rick could make out a distant hubbub of voices, with the shouting increasing in volume as the shrill howl of a mortar round keened through the air...
Where there had been a rooftop, there was now a rather large hole in the top part of the building. Rick blinked. "I... I can't believe that worked."
Casey discarded the flare gun. "Never underestimate the impulse of men with guns to shoot at anything bright and shiny, Martinez."
The radio crackled. "Scorpion, was that you guys, or does the universe just like us?"
Rick grinned. "Negative, Mercury, that was all Badger's idea. You should be clear for rendezvous, over."
"Copy that. Cover us. Over and out."
Rick watched, gun in hand in case he needed to provide suppressing fire, as Michael and Billy ducked out from behind the cart and ran across the street toward the shelter of the building where Rick and Casey were taking cover.
Rick didn't see the shooter.
Casey, however, did.
"Three o'clock!" The older operative suddenly shouted, raising his gun–
– But there was already fresh gunfire cracking through the air, sending tiny showers of sand up from the road where bullets struck around Michael and Billy's feet. Already caught halfway between the cart and the alley, they kept running.
Or Michael did.
Billy took a step, jerked, and went down, twisting as he fell.
Rick cried out. Michael crashed into the side of the building and immediately turned, wide-eyed. Casey made an inarticulate noise of pure rage, then stepped out into the open with his gun raised and fired:
Once. Twice. Three times.
And then there was no more shooting.
"Billy!" Rick shouted, even as Michael ran back out, grabbing the Scot under the arms and hastily dragging him back to the lee shelter of the building. Rick tried not to notice the dark stain in the sand left in Billy's wake. His heart was in his throat as Michael finally pulled Billy back to the rendezvous point. "Is he–?"
"Still alive," Billy groaned.
Rick drew a breath of relief. But there wasn't much time to be relieved. "We need to move," Michael pointed out, expression drawn.
The rendezvous point wasn't too far from the gully and the wall where they'd hidden the humvee they'd made their entrance in. But getting back to their escape vehicle proved challenging: gunfire still occasionally punctuated the air in bursts, though no one seemed to be aiming specifically at them any longer. Billy cried out when they hauled him to his feet, knees buckling and face paling under all the grime and dust. His pant-leg was already dark with blood, clinging wetly to his thigh. "Damn," he swore, eyes watering. "I really hate being shot."
"Could have fooled me," Casey snarked in response, pulling Billy's arm up over his shoulder to help take his weight. Between them, Michael and Casey half-carried Billy over the rough terrain while Rick defended their flank, gun in hand. Finally they made it to the humvee, pulling away the tarps they'd used to conceal it.
"At least you waited until the end of the mission," Casey remarked, helping Billy into the back of the humvee. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
They were less than a mile out when the humvee began to rattle.
"Oh, come on!"Michael shouted, hitting the brakes and throwing it into park, getting out. Rick was crouching in the back, wedged into the footwell between the seats while Billy's lanky form lay across the backseat; Rick had taken off his scarf and was using it to apply pressure to the bullet wound midway up Billy's thigh. He craned to see as best he could as Michael and Casey moved around the vehicle, struggling to hear the low conversation.
"Looks like a stray bullet caught..."
"... Amazed we got it started..."
"... A few more miles..."
Rick bit his lip. "What's going on?" he called, curiosity and worry combining.
Michael walked back to the driver's side door. "Humvee caught a stray shot from something while we were in action. We're not going to be making it back to the border."
Rick didn't miss the way Michael's gaze lingered on Billy, who winced as Rick increased the pressure, trying to ignore the hot, sticky wetness welling up between his fingers.
"So we're stranded?" Rick asked. "In the Pakistani mountains?"
"There's another village nearby," Casey remarked, having pulled a map out of the glove compartment. "Saw it on the satellite photos during the briefing. It's not in great shape; this whole region has been an active warzone for years now. But it's better than trying to hide in a cave."
The unspoken suggestion, of course, was that they might be able to find medical supplies. Rick looked over at Billy, who offered a strained smile. "What are we waiting for, then? Let's coax this bucket of bolts onward to the nearest approximation of civilization!"
Michael and Casey shared a look, exchanged nods, then got back into the humvee. The engine coughed and sputtered, rattling in protest and making a very worrisome sound, but they were moving again.
They barely pulled in to the one main road of the tiny village when the humvee groaned, rattled, and then sighed as the engine died, leaving only the ticking of cooling metal to break the silence. The ramshackle buildings and huts were mostly dark, one or two lights winking out as the ODS opened their doors. The village appeared largely deserted, signs of the fighting in the region manifesting in the form of chipped and charred walls.
Michael and Casey climbed out of the front of the humvee, each with a hand on his respective gun. "Martinez, stay here and keep an eye on Billy. Casey and I are going to see if we can find somewhere to set up camp," Michael said.
Rick nodded, then returned his attention to Billy. The Scot was propped up slightly against the door, unable to lie flat despite the humvee's width. Rick hadn't been able to do much beyond simply apply pressure with the humvee bouncing and jostling over the rough terrain, and even that had elicited the occasional gasp or curse when they hit a rock or pothole. But they were still now, and tentatively, Rick used one hand to pull out a flashlight from the center console while slowly pulling the other away so he could actually see the bullet wound.
"I'm gonna turn the light on," he whispered before flicking the switch. It took him a second for his eyes to adjust, having gotten used to the dark. Once they did, he found himself wishing otherwise.
There was a lot of blood.
It drenched Billy's pantleg from hip to knee, and was already forming a significant pool in the seat. Rick could see it smeared across his own hands and forearms, vividly red. For a moment, his stomach turned, but he made himself swallow. Carefully, he reached forward and lightly tugged at the material of Billy's pantleg, pulling it away enough to get a glimpse of the wound. It was midway up Billy's thigh, slightly to the right of center, and weeping dark blood. There was no exit wound. Rick sucked in a breath, then pressed the scarf back against the hole, trying to ignore the way Billy tensed in pain.
"This is oddly reminiscent of Bolivia," Billy managed to say after a moment.
Bolivia, Rick thought. Where he'd been the one shot in the leg in the back of a car that wasn't going anywhere, and Billy had been the one stemming the bleeding as best he could.
"I'm sorry," he heard himself say. "If I had one of those morphine pops, I swear I'd give it to you right now."
"I'll be honest, I wouldn't mind one right about now," Billy replied with a strained smile. In the scant illumination of the flashlight, he looked pale, skin waxy and colorless against the saturated redness of all the blood.
Rick frowned. Had he been bleeding this badly in Bolivia? He'd been so out of it at the time... but even as loopy as he'd been, he remembered the grim realization that he was probably going to die. The resignation and the general feeling of regret he'd experienced in response to the idea.
He didn't feel resigned or regretful right now though.
He just felt scared.
Because Billy was hurt and here they were in the back of a car again drenched in blood and miles from anywhere and anyone who could help.
"It could be worse," Billy murmured, slumping back against the stained upholstery.
"Yeah?" Rick looked up at him.
Billy grinned weakly. "We could be surrounded by wild dogs."
Rick heard the scuffing of feet in the dirt outside the humvee and instantly dropped the flashlight, keeping his other hand on Billy's leg as he reached for his gun. He let go of the handle, however, when he heard Casey's voice.
"Easy, Martinez. It's us," the older operative said, pulling open the back seat door.
Michael was with him and nodded to Rick. "We found an abandoned hut that isn't too dilapidated for human occupancy. We should move out of the middle of the street."
Michael lent his belt to help tie Rick's makeshift compress into place, forming a half-bandage, half-tourniquet around Billy's leg. This time, Casey took point while Michael and Rick carried Billy between them, staggering to a small shack of a building just off the main road and ducking into it.
Casey lit what looked like a kerosene lantern and unceremoniously cleared the main table so they could lift Billy up on to it. He gasped and groaned as they hoisted him up, face screwing up in pain. "Bugger," he muttered, breathing a bit raggedly.
Rick stole a glance at Michael, who looked nearly as pale as Billy. "Okay, it looks like we're in clear as far as pursuit goes. I'll go see if I can get the sat-phone to work and hook us up with a ride out of here. Casey –"
"I'll see if I can find any medical supplies in this dump," Casey growled, his usual scowl underscored by an expression of worry.
"Okay." Michael nodded. "Martinez, you good with holding down the fort?"
"Yeah," Rick nodded, looking back at Billy who was staring at the ceiling with his eyes unfocused. "I think so..."
"Good." And with that Michael and Casey took off once again, leaving Rick alone with Billy.
"I'm sorry I'm not particularly riveting company right now," Billy said, accent thickening.
"Yeah? Well you're just going to have to make it up to me by paying for the first round when we get home," Rick remarked, trying to keep his voice calm and happy. Billy had done it for him, after all; he'd been chipper and funny and had told inane and irrelevant stories to keep Rick's spirits up when things had looked bleak. He'd kept him hopeful. Kept him conscious long enough for Michael to make it back with a doctor.
Rick was damned if he wouldn't do his best to return the favor.
"Mm," Billy grunted. "I say we make Michael pay. Stingy blighter."
Rick snorted. "Okay, first round is on you, second one is on Michael."
"Sounds fair to me," Billy replied, trying to smile, but failing as the expression drew into a grimace. "Bloody hell..." He squeezed his eyes shut, drawing a hissing breath between gritted teeth.
Rick instinctively reached forward and took hold of Billy's hand; the Scot squeezed so hard in return that Rick winced. "Hey, just hang in there. You're gonna be fine."
And as he let Billy crush the feeling from his fingers, Rick hoped he wouldn't prove to be a liar.
Michael came back a few minutes later. Rick only needed the briefest glance at their leader's expression to know it was bad. "What's going on?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know.
Michael looked at Billy and hesitated. "Getting out is... going to be tricky. With the army still throwing all that firepower into the sky, an aerial extraction isn't gonna happen."
Rick blinked. "So, what? We wait for them to send us a freaking taxi?"
Michael pursed his lips together. "Pretty much. Higgins is working on getting an outpost near the Afghan border to send a truck in, but it's going to take a while to get here. Turns out the Pakistani army's barricaded a lot of roads to try to bottleneck any fleeing militants."
Rick tried to process what he was hearing. "How long?"
Michael looked down. "At least eighteen hours."
"Well that's a mite distressing," Billy muttered from the table. "I do so hate being stood up and made to wait. It's rather rude, really."
Michael stiffened for a second, then relaxed. "Ah, quit your whining; you've survived worse. You hung on for two days in a culvert when that smuggler stabbed you in Morocco," he retorted with forced cheer.
"And complained for every minute of it," Billy agreed, mouth quirking in a brief smile before contorting back into an expression of pain.
Michael's fake smile fell. "We're gonna get you out. I promise."
Billy blinked, his blue eyes bright and wet. "I know, mate. I know."
The charged silence that followed was mercifully broken by Casey's return as he pulled open the creaking door.
Rick's shoulders slumped. "Please tell me you found some real bandages," he said.
Casey pulled the door open even further, revealing the figure behind him with a thin smile. "Even better. I found a doctor."
Michael had given Casey an odd look, but stepped aside to let the other man, who was wrapped up in heavy layers of local garb, enter. The expression on his face was one of skepticism. "I commend your ability to scavenge, Malick, but I think we're going to need a bit more than some hill-country goat doctor," he murmured.
The newcomer pulled away the scarf from his face and snorted in amusement. "I assure you, only a quarter of my patients are goats," he remarked in a heavy accent, pulling his canvas bag from off his shoulder and putting it down on the table beside him.
Michael's eyes went wide. Rick cocked his head in surprise. "Your accent... you're not from around here." Rick had studied Arabic and Farsi and several other middle-eastern languages and dialects from the time he was thirteen. He knew what those accents sounded like.
The doctor offered a worn smile, pulling his pakol off his head and revealing a shock of sandy-colored hair. "Not originally, no."
Michael frowned. "French Foreign Legion?"
He nodded. "Good guess. Medic, fifteen years. Call me Verheyen."
Rick felt a surge of hope. A military medic. In this backwater, it was better than they could have possibly hoped for. "So you have experience treating gunshot wounds?"
"At this point I'll accept whatever experience he has treating goats," Billy moaned from the table. "Provided he brought painkillers with him."
The doctor – Verheyen, Rick reminded himself, noting that the same sounded Dutch – shook his head. "Sorry, friend – you'll have to make do with Tylenol."
Billy made a face. "I suppose it's better than nothing."
Verheyen was already reaching into his bag, pulling out a small bottle of pills that he tossed to Billy, who clumsily caught them with a bit of a fumble. The doctor then withdrew a set of scissors and began to cut the fabric of Billy's pants away, peeling the wet cloth back from the wound, exposing the puckered bullet hole.
"Where did you find this guy?" Rick overheard Michael hissing into Casey's ear.
"He's one of the only people left in town. Majority of the village has given up and taken off as refugees. He asked if I was lost and needed help." Casey shrugged matter-of-factly. "I said yes to the latter. We don't have a whole lot of options here."
And it was true. They might not have been lost, per se, but they were stranded and stuck and they definitely needed help. Billy needed help. And none of them were about to turn down a chance to save their teammate, however unlikely the source.
Rick watched nervously as Verheyn lightly palpated the blood-stained flesh of Billy's leg, eliciting a groan of pain from the operative. The medic made a face. "The bullet is still in. It may have hit the bone. If we're lucky, it's only lodged in the muscle. But it will have to come out."
Michael frowned. "Surgery?"
Verheyen shrugged. "Unless you want him to go into sepsis and die."
"I'm voting... for the not-dying option," Billy grunted, shuddering. He was beginning to look ghastly, dark hair wet and spiky with sweat despite the cool mountain climate, skin turning ashen.
Eighteen hours, Michael had said. Right now, Billy didn't look like he'd last for eight.
Michael swallowed as Casey and Rick both looked to him to make the call. "Okay. What do we need to do?"
Verheyen might have looked like some backwater quack at first glance, but he reacted to a triage situation like an old pro, which instilled Rick with confidence. He sent Casey back to his house to fetch a list of supplies, including the materials with which to boil water. Rick was given directions to go to the well on the far south end of the village ("Not the one in the square. It's unclean") to fetch said water. Michael stayed to help prepare an increasingly agitated Billy for surgery.
Billy looked like hell by the time they got back. Rick's scarf around his leg was soaked through, and he was shivering as Michael held on to his shoulder with a grim expression. By the time they'd sterilized Verheyen's limited field tools and washed the area around the wound in preparation, Billy was having a hard time focusing his vision and appeared disoriented and confused. "Feel... sick..." he mumbled at one point, prompting the doctor to pause, a flash of concern on his features.
Rick remembered a conversation he and Billy had had months prior in the ER. "I think it's all the blood. He's... squeamish."
Verheyen raised an eyebrow but said nothing, returning to his preparations.
Rick pulled up a stool and perched next to Billy, reaching down and giving his hand another squeeze, though Billy didn't return it with a death-grip this time. "Hey, you're doing great. Doc's gonna patch you up, okay?" he said quietly, smiling, trying to offer even a fraction of the support he remembered Billy giving him. "You're gonna be fine. Promise."
Billy looked over at him and blinked, as if trying to remember who Rick was. "A'righ'..." he slurred after a moment before looking back up at the ceiling, taking a ragged, shallow breath.
"I'm ready to try to get the bullet out," Verheyen announced, tongs in hand. "I unfortunately do not have any anesthetic." He looked at each member of the ODS in turn to make sure they understood the ramifications. "It will be best if you find him something to bite down on, and then hold him still. I'm afraid this is not going to be pleasant..."
They exchanged glances. Rick felt his stomach turn, but ground his teeth together because he had to be strong for Billy; he owed him that. Casey pressed his lips into a thin line, his usual anger largely replaced with apprehension. Michael was pale, but set his jaw determinedly. A moment later, Casey had taken the strap from his shoulder-holster and folded it so Billy could bite down on it as Verheyen readied for the extraction...
Billy groaned as the tips of the narrow medical tongs eased into the hole made by the bullet, shuddering and bucking as the ODS made sure to hold him down.
Verheyen pressed further, then extended the tongs, pulling at the flesh to clamp the wound open. Billy whimpered, the muscles in his jaw working as he bit down hard on the leather strap, tears springing to his eyes.
Switching the tongs to his other hand, the medic then reached for a very delicate set of pliers. Tears were streaming down Billy's face unchecked as he squeezed his eyes shut.
And as Verheyen began to root around with the pliers to dig the bullet out, Billy screamed. He thrashed, back arching in pain as Casey and Michael and Rick desperately pinned him down while the doctor cursed.
Then, mercifully, Billy's eyes rolled back and his head lolled to one side as he went limp, slipping out of consciousness. Rick felt a moment of panic, reaching down to check for a pulse, but was reassured by the feel of Billy's heartbeat against his fingers.
A few more minutes passed, then Verheyen pulled the pliers out with the bullet. About thirty seconds later, he also pulled out a tiny piece of fabric – the fragment of Billy's pants the bullet had pulled into the wound with it.
"He's lucky. The bullet was against the bone but didn't break into it," Verheyen said with a sigh, breaking the tense silence that had fallen when Billy's screams had come to an abrupt halt. "Give me the water. We will flush it now and bandage it."
Rick watched numbly as they cleaned and then wrapped the wound, staring at Billy's gray, lax features.
They'd found a doctor.
They'd gotten the bullet out.
The worst had to be over.
Sitting in a hovel in a hostile country, hours from rescue with his friend looking more dead than alive, Rick found himself filled with doubt.
The worst wasn't over.
Because Billy got worse.
He remained colorless, skin wan and shiny with sweat. He occasionally shivered, prompting Casey to root around for a scratchy old woolen blanket that they covered Billy with while they watched and waited. At one point, an hour or so after they'd gotten the bullet out, Billy seemed to resurface into consciousness. He whimpered and mumbled incomprehensibly, however, calling out names none of them recognized, flailing in obvious anxiety until Michael sat by him and put a calming hand on his forehead, murmuring soothingly until Billy relaxed and closed his eyes again.
Rick couldn't relax, however; none of them could. They all sat and stared, the tension so palpable you could cut it with a knife. Rick had washed his hands when he'd gone to the well to fetch the water, but he could still imagine the sticky, flaking blood between his fingers.
The only sound was Billy's labored breathing, rapid and shallow.
Verheyen left for a little while, then returned with a few bowls and a pot of some thin soup. He poured a bowl for each of the ODS, shoving the food into their hands, though the three men stared at it with no appetite. Rick took a tentative sip of his, and while the taste was inoffensive, his stomach rebelled at the thought of food...
"You need to eat," Verheyen snapped at him, looking a bit peeved as he touched his fingers to Billy's throat, checking his vitals. "Merde," Rick heard him mutter under his breath, filling the young operative with a sense of dread.
Michael hadn't touched his soup. He had what Rick had come to think of as his 'paranoid bastard face' on: "So how is it that a French Foreign Legionnaire winds up playing doctor in an abandoned village in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province?"
Verheyen gave him a long look. "I could ask a similar question about why four Americans – who are armed, but not soldiers – are getting shot at in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But you notice that I have not."
"Billy's Scottish," Rick murmured, forcing down a mouthful of his soup.
Neither Verheyen nor Michael looked at him, but maintained a sort of staring contest until Michael finally gave, looking back down at Billy. "How is he?"
Verheyen looked grim. "Bad. His pulse is weak and too fast and his blood pressure is going to bottom out."
Rick's stomach flipped.
"Well then do something!"Casey snarled from where he'd been perched on a chair in the corner. "You're a doctor! Even in this hellhole you must have some antibiotics."
Verheyen shook his head. "Antibiotics would do nothing. It's not infection."
Rick lowered his soup, the idea of eating no longer tolerable. His hands shook as he put the bowl down on the floor. "He's going into shock?"
A nod confirmed his suspicions. "He's lost too much blood. I'm sorry. He has maybe a few hours left before his heart shuts down. There's nothing more I can do."
There was a clatter as Casey dropped his bowl. For a moment, no one said a word. Then –
"No," Michael simply stated.
"Unacceptable," Casey followed up with.
"There has to be something," Rick insisted.
Verheyen was beginning to look vexed. "He's hypovolemic. The bleeding went unchecked for too long and it isn't stopping. What do you want me to do?"
"Can't you transfuse him?" Rick ventured hopefully.
"With what? We have no blood bank. There is no supply."
"What about one of us?" Casey asked.
Verheyen paused, appearing to consider this. "Possibly. I will have to see if I even have the materials for a transfusion. But it would only work if one of you is an exact match. The wrong blood type could kill him," he cautioned, heading for the door.
They waited until he'd left before Casey voiced the question on all their minds: "Do we even know Billy's blood type?"
"Guys..." Rick tried to butt in.
"A, I think," Michael said, making a face. "I checked everyone's medical records a while back after that whole mess with Billy not having his malaria vaccine up to date," he explained when Casey raised an eyebrow. Then his shoulders sank. "I don't remember what rh factor he has, though. I'm A positive."
Casey grimaced. "So on the off chance Billy is A negative –"
"–It could kill him," Michael finished grimly.
"I'm AB positive," Casey grumbled, looking dejected. "Universal receiver, but pretty useless at donating, even if we did know his type."
Rick swallowed. "We can give him my blood."
"A noble offer, Martinez, but unless we can be sure of a match, it's an empty gesture," Casey replied.
"I am a match."
"You don't know that," Michael said. "Unless I can get a call patched through to Langley to get them to look up Billy's medical records–"
"We don't need to," Rick interjected with a shake of his head. "It doesn't matter what blood type he is; I'm a universal donor. O negative."
Michael and Casey both paused, processing this revelation. "You're sure?" Michael finally asked.
Rick nodded. "It's on my Red Cross donor card. It's why I give blood whenever I can."
"Well you might be getting the opportunity to donate pretty damn soon," Casey remarked with a sideways glance at Billy, whose breathing had been reduced to reedy panting.
Verheyen returned at that moment, a box of supplies tucked under one arm. "I have good news and bad news," he announced, putting the box down on the table beside Billy. "I don't have the supplies for an indirect transfusion. There are no sterile bags to collect the blood."
Rick swallowed. He saw Casey grind his teeth as Michael asked, "What's the good news?"
Verheyen hesitated. "'Good' might be a somewhat strong word. The 'less bad' news, is that I have supplies that I can convert for a direct transfusion."
"That's great!" Rick exclaimed.
Verheyen made a face. "It isn't ideal. There is a reason direct transfusions are almost never done. They are very risky."
"How risky?" Michael immediately demanded
Verheyen gave a shrug. "It is impossible to tell how much blood is being given. Sometimes clots form and less blood flows than needs to. Sometimes the donor gives too much..." he trailed off, letting the outcome of that hypothetical situation hang in the air. "There is also risk of arterial damage, risk of infection, and the risk that your friend might be too far gone for it to make a difference."
Michael and Casey both turned to Rick.
"Are you sure about this?" Michael asked quietly.
Risks. Rick remembered lying in the back of a van in Bolivia, watching his blood drain out of his leg and soak into the upholstery. Remembered thinking he was dying, thinking that was it. Remembered Billy telling him it was rubbish.
He remembered the very real fear of bleeding to death; while he wasn't in a hurry to go through it again, neither was he willing to let Billy succumb to the same fate.
Rick pressed his lips together, then nodded. "In my place, he'd do the same for me."
Michael and Casey exchanged a look, then both nodded. Neither could argue against that.
"You are a match?" Verheyen asked, eyebrow raised.
"Yeah," Rick answered.
"Good. Then we'll get started now..."
In some ways, it was like a repeat of their set-up for the surgery to remove the bullet. Only this time Casey went to fetch the water, and Michael helped Rick drag a small cot over from the building next door and position it next to the table, hefting the unconscious Billy up and moving him over and down to the cot. They did their best to mop up the blood that had pooled on the tabletop, but the wood was stained dark from where Billy had bled into it.
"So, you've done this before?" Rick asked.
Verheyen wiped off his scalpel, his face darkening. "Twice."
"And it worked?" Rick pressed, seeking reassurance.
Verheyen hesitated. "Let's say it was fifty-fifty."
"Wait," Casey interjected as he put down the bucket of well-water he'd been sent to retrieve. "You mean you've only gotten this to work once?"
Verheyen shrugged. "I said it was risky."
"So the time it didn't work," Rick ventured, "the receiver died anyways?"
Verheyen looked away. "Him too, yes."
Rick's stomach dropped. The medic turned around and gave him a critical look. "You really are sure?"
And he wasn't. Not really. He was scared; scared of this going wrong, of dying, of never getting home...
But he was more scared of watching Billy die when there was a chance he could stop it. "Fifty-fifty's not the worst odds," he replied with a shaky smile, which was apparently answer enough.
At Verheyen's instruction, Rick took off his jacket and overshirt, stripping to his short-sleeved undershirt and climbing up onto the table, trying to ignore the stickiness.
"Normally, during an indirect transfusion, we would take blood from a vein," the medic explained. "But for a direct transfusion, we need pressure. We have you positioned higher up than him, which gives us some help from gravity, but I will need to take the blood from your radial artery. There will be some small surgery involved in this," he elaborated, looking Rick in the eye, as if waiting for him to back out.
The thought of someone cutting into his arm and operating on his artery in these conditions was admittedly not something Rick relished.
But it was better than letting Billy die. So he just nodded and then did his best not to look or cry out when the scalpel dug into his arm, forming a lengthy incision down his wrist. He looked instead to his side, where Michael and Casey both stood against the wall, rigid and pale.
It wasn't as comforting as he'd hoped.
"I've exposed the radial artery," Verheyen narrated. "I am making an incision through which to thread the cannula... now."
Rick winced, hoping that this didn't go wrong. Having one operative bleeding out would be bad enough. Two exsanguinated agents would have Higgins in a fit.
"Insertion is successful. We have blood flow. Inserting the other end into the recipient's vein..."
After a few minutes passed, Rick dared to look. A length of thin rubber tubing ran from his wrist to the crook of Billy's elbow, capped by small silver cannulas that vanished into their respective arms at each end. The tube was dark with the blood that flowed through it. Rick's blood. Blood that Billy needed...
"We seem to be transfusing successfully," Verheyen announced with a tired smile.
Rick looked over at Billy, who whimpered and rolled his head aside but didn't wake, and could only hope it was enough.
Rick's heart beat.
He was intimately aware of it now – aware of how strong each contraction was, that it could pump the blood throughout his entire circulatory system. And now, with each beat, his heart was pushing blood out of his body. And into Billy's. Billy, whose pulse was shallow and uneven, his heart struggling to keep beating as shock threatened to shut his organs down.
Rick's heart beat. And with each pulse, he grew a little weaker. And if Billy grew a little stronger, well, he still couldn't tell. He lay with his head turned to one side, staring over at Billy's still form, wishing he could see the life flowing back into him and the color returning to his cheeks. But the only sign of life Billy showed was the brief minute when he whimpered and cried out, eyes opening and flicking back and forth across the room, unseeing.
"Billy," Rick said, wishing he could reach over and squeeze Billy's arm, though he knew any movement would risk dislodging the tubing that connected them. "Billy, it's okay," he murmured, seeing Michael tense up out of the corner of his eye. "It's okay. You're gonna be fine." He'd promised Billy, back when they'd been in the humvee. Just like Billy had promised him.
Billy kept his promises.
And Rick intended to keep his.
Verheyen returned from washing his hands. He checked Billy's pulse again, lightly felt the tube to ensure blood was still flowing through it, then touched cold fingers to Rick's throat, feeling his carotid. "I think that's enough," he finally announced.
"No." Rick shook his head. Billy's eyes had fluttered shut again, though his breathing remained shaky and uneven.
Verheyen frowned. "We cannot measure the blood flow in a direct transfusion. We risk you losing too much blood–"
"I'm fine," Rick retorted through gritted teeth. "He needs more."
Because Rick had promised. And he wasn't going to stop now.
Minutes ticked past. Heartbeats thudded in Rick's chest. Blood flowed. Out and down and from Rick to Billy, who still wasn't moving.
Rick was beginning to feel a little lightheaded, his peripheral vision swimming. But he said nothing. Because he'd promised. Because Billy needed him, needed this, and who was Rick to deny him? His friend, his teammate, his brother in arms...
Verheyen had stepped back, frowning, but after a few minutes he moved forward again, shaking his head. "That's enough."
"No," Rick repeated, though his protestation was weaker this time. "He needs... still..."
"He needs more blood than you can afford to lose, Martinez," Michael interrupted, putting a hand on Rick's shoulder. His face was drawn and fraught with worry. "You've done enough."
Rick shook his head weakly. "S' not enough–"
"Yes, it is." Michael's voice went from gentle to stern. "That's an order, Martinez. I'm not losing two men on this mission."
Rick found himself thinking that he shouldn't have to lose any at all. But his mind was drifting and cloudy and the thoughts were oddly hard to form, and when Verheyen pulled the tube from his arm and began to suture the artery, Rick was too far gone to even find the thought of his open and bleeding arm disturbing. The one thing he could focus on was Billy.
Still pale. Still sweating and shivering. Still breathing in faint, quick gasps. Still... still.
"Not enough," Rick mumbled, then the gray at the corners of his vision closed in and he felt the oddest sensation of falling...
It was light.
Rick squeezed his eyes shut against it for a moment, but then relented and opened them, blinking blearily. Everything was fuzzy and slowly moving in circles around him as he tried to remember where he was and what had happened.
It was light. Daytime. But hadn't it been night? He had the vaguest memories of being cramped into a tiny building, lit by a flickering lantern, holding vigil in the gloom...
He rolled his head to the side. There was Billy, lying on the cot beside him, pale and unmoving. Sitting beside him was Michael, one hand wrapped around Billy's fingers, eyelids heavy with drowsiness and the lines around his mouth deeper than Rick had ever seen them. But when Rick took a deep breath Michael's head snapped up at the sound, suddenly alert.
Then, he offered a weak smile. "Hey."
Rick's mouth felt like it was full of cotton. Sandy cotton, at that. "How...?" he rasped, looking over at Billy.
"Still with us," Michael affirmed.
Which meant Billy had survived the night. Rick felt his entire body flood with relief. "Good. S'good..."
"You, on the other hand, gave us a scare, you idiot. Should have said something sooner, you know."
"Nng," Rick grunted, lacking the energy to argue.
"The transport should be here in a few hours..." Michael continued, but the room was doing that unpleasant spinning thing again and Rick let his eyes close. Because Billy was still alive and that had really been all he needed to know.
When Rick awoke next, there was noise. An engine rumbled and hummed, the ground beneath him shifting and jerking, bouncing him every few minutes. He opened his eyes, vision still blurred from drowsiness. "Where..."
"Truck," he heard Casey's voice answer. "We're heading back to the border, so just keep it together, Sleeping Beauty, okay?"
"Okay," Rick answered, closing his eyes again. A truck. Rescue. The border.
Everything was going to be okay...
When he drifted next into consciousness, the roar of the truck was gone. There were voices, and the light was soft, and he was pretty sure he was lying on a bed instead of cold metal or a wooden table, which made for a pleasant change of pace.
He opened his eyes and looked around, getting his bearings. Yep, in a bed. With an IV sticking into his arm, linked up to a bag of something clear. And the room around him was long and open and looked like some sort of cabin – no, wait, not a cabin, more like a tent...
"We're in a US Army field hospital in Afghanistan, in case you were wondering."
Rick turned his head to the other side so quickly he got dizzy, sucking in a breath as he tried to repress the sudden vertigo.
Michael was sitting in a folding chair to the side of him, looking haggard and a little worse for wear, but smiling nonetheless. "Welcome back, kiddo."
Rick blinked, slowly pulling himself up into a sitting position. His arm ached, and when he looked down he saw it was swathed in bandages. "What happened?" His head felt all muddled still, and trying to think, to remember much of anything, was a strenuous chore.
"You nearly bled out is what happened, moron." That was Casey, walking over with a styrofoam cup of what smelled like burned coffee in one hand, which he promptly passed to Michael. "And then you slept the whole way here from Pakistan."
Rick tried to remember. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Bleeding.
Then his breath caught. "Billy?" He sat bolt upright, ignoring the rush of blood from his head and the nausea, adrenaline suddenly pumping into his system.
"Easy now," Michael said as a heart monitor Rick hadn't even realized he was hooked up to beeped plaintively. "He's fine. He's stable. Doctors are keeping a close eye on him but they say he's gonna pull through just fine."
And Rick breathed, sinking back, suddenly giddy with a mixture of relief and low blood pressure. Fine. He'd promised Billy he would be fine. And he was.
Fate hadn't make a liar out of Rick yet.
"Can I see him?"
"Sure, look to your left," Casey remarked dryly.
Rick pushed himself back up, slower this time, with Michael putting a hand on his shoulder for support. Leaning forward, he could see a familiar figure lying still on a white cot several beds down from him. "And he's really okay?" he asked again, though he noted that Billy looked less ghastly than he had before, and the rise and fall of his chest was even and visible from several feet away.
"Thanks to you, kid." Michael gave his shoulder a squeeze, then let go. "Though I'd appreciate you not scaring us like that again. Having one agent almost bleed out on me was bad enough, and I think Malick's got a few more gray hairs."
Casey frowned "What do you mean a few more?"
Rick smiled apologetically. "Sorry. I just..."
"We know," Casey finished, looking uncomfortable. "Just try not to be stupid again, okay?"
This time Rick grinned. "That sounds dangerously close to you caring, Casey," he teased.
The older operative scowled. "I'm getting more of that sludge they call coffee," he announced, turning and walking away.
Rick looked back to Michael. "After I passed out..."
"Verheyen stitched you up. Did an okay job, though you'd already lost more blood than you should have given. He kept you and Billy both stable until the transport got there. Then we broke back to the army base –"
"Wait, wasn't it eighteen hours?"
"To get out to us, yeah. We made much better time getting back, though, since they'd cleared the roads," Michael explained. "They've been treating you for dehydration and they're keeping an eye on both of your for infection, but so far so good. We got pretty damn lucky, overall."
Rick made a face. "Billy almost died for intel that might not even be any good. That doesn't seem lucky to me."
Michael shrugged. "It's the nature of the spy game, Martinez. You take risks. Any day you make it home is a pretty lucky day."
Looking back over at Billy, who was still and unconscious, but alive, Rick decided Michael had a point.
A thought occurred to him. "What about Verheyen?"
"Waved goodbye as we took off, then probably went to get some shut eye."
"He stayed? Out in an abandoned village in the middle of a warzone?" Rick's eyes widened. "Why?"
Michael shrugged again. "Damned if I know. I offered to let him hitch a lift, but he said he'd do more good where he was. Considering what he did for us, I couldn't really argue that point. But I'd say we have a friend in rural Pakistan, if we can ever find him again."
Rick nodded. It was a bit surreal now, looking back on it. "I feel like we should send him a fruit basket or something."
That made Michael laugh out loud. "I'll see what we can do. Now take it easy. I've gotta go call Langley and you should get some shut eye so you can get back on your feet, alright?"
"Yeah, okay," Rick replied, sinking back onto the pillows. "Tell Adele I say hi."
"Will do," Michael replied with a smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle, easing the haggard lines and making him look more like the confident, snarky Michael Dorset that Rick knew.
It made him feel better as he relaxed into the pillows. That and the knowledge that soon, this would all be finally over and they could all go home.
But for them to go home, Billy had to wake up first.
Fortunately, he didn't keep them waiting long.
A full day passed from the time Rick awoke in the hospital bed. The army medical staff kept him on an IV for the next twelve hours to replenish the fluids he'd lost during the transfusion, before apparently deciding they were satisfied with his blood pressure and removing the needle. He was given strict instructions by a nurse in fatigues on how to take care of the gash on his arm, keeping it clean and changing the dressing. Finally, he was handed the rest of his clothes and told he was cleared. It was all a lot more efficient and matter-of-fact than his experiences with civilian hospitals. But then again, he and Billy and the rest of the ODS were never technically there, according to the record, so there was no need for anyone to cover their asses with paperwork.
Discharged and out of his bed the following morning, Rick had moved to a folding chair by Billy's bedside, sipping at the foul coffee Casey had introduced him to earlier. He'd been sitting and staring blankly into space, mind wandering, when he heard Billy's breathing change. Looking down, he saw the Scot's blue eyes lazily drifting open.
"Hey," Rick said, reaching out and taking Billy's hand with a squeeze.
For a moment, Billy had a dazed and disoriented look on his face, but then his eyes focused on Rick. "Hey," he replied, then glanced around him. "I appear to be hospitalized again."
"Yeah, the army is putting us up in a field hospital until you're good to go again," Rick offered by way of explanation, letting go of Billy's hand. "You, er, you got shot."
Billy grimaced. "Yes, I remember that part. And being in the humvee, and getting into a small town... and from there it all sort of goes a bit fuzzy."
Rick took a deep breath, then filled him in on how Casey had found Verheyen, and how he'd been the one to remove the bullet while they waited for the transport Michael had arranged.
Billy raised an eyebrow. "Seems if it was just a matter of getting a bullet out that all this –" he waved at the medical equipment surrounding them, "– would be a touch superfluous."
"Well... you did go into shock," Rick admitted. "From the blood loss."
Billy seemed to digest this for a moment. "How long did that take?"
Remembering, Rick grimaced. "I dunno, a couple hours?"
"And the transport didn't arrive for eighteen hours, you said?"
"Well, they told us eighteen, but apparently they managed to shave about four hours off the estimate –"
"Mate, you're telling me I was in hypovolemic shock for half a bloody day. I'm a little bit puzzled as to how I'm still alive." Billy gave him a genuinely perplexed look, with an undertone of expectation, as if he knewRick was omitting something.
Rick subconsciously rubbed at the bandage on his forearm. "Well, we got you a transfusion."
"What? In rural sodding Pakistan?" Billy's expression turned to one of surprise. "I'm A negative, how did you even find blood to match?"
Rick looked down sheepishly. "Well, I'm O neg. So, er, you've kinda got my blood."
Billy stared at him. "You donated blood to me?"
"But you're –" Billy stopped and waved at Rick's form, "–tiny! You've got naught to spare!"
"You didn't have much left at all!" Rick pointed out, feeling a little defensive. "You were dy–"
He stopped, but the half-said word hung in the air.
Billy looked down. "Aye, I suppose I probably was. Reckon that means I owe you a hearty 'thank you' for saving my life."
Rick shook his head. "No." Seeing Billy's eyebrow rise, he clarified: "No, you don't owe me anything. You were there for me in Bolivia, and you would have done the same for me if our places were switched. You don't have to thank me and you never need to. Because I'd do it again in a heartbeat." The words poured out of him, uncensored and unplanned. He felt himself blush as he spoke, realizing the sheer sentimentality of his honesty, but he couldn't help it. And it needed to be said.
Billy gave him a long look, then smiled and chuckled. "Well I guess they have a point about blood running thicker than water. Seeing as we share the same blood now..." he paused. "Oi! Does that make us blood brothers now?"
"I, er, I'm not sure what–"
Billy's eyes twinkled wickedly. "It's a good thing you say I don't owe you anything, because otherwise I reckon there would be a 'blood debt.'"
"And the fact that I survived could be referred to as a 'bloody miracle'!"
"Is this going to be a thing?"
"Oh come now, young Rick, don't let there be 'bad blood' between us!"
"This is a thing now, isn't it. You're not gonna stop."
"Not bloody likely."
Rick sighed as Billy threw his head back and laughed. The puns and jokes would be insufferable for a while, but he was glad to have Billy alive and around to make them. He smirked at the awful jokes and ribbed back and forth with his teammate as he recovered, happy and relieved and grateful.
Because Billy was fine.
Rick had kept that promise; and smiling and laughing and trading jokes with Billy, his friend and brother in arms, he knew that he would do everything in his power to make sure he always would.