Billy honestly believed that he would die, either because of the explosion or drowning in the sea, deeply unconscious. So when he woke up again, chest feeling tight and with the taste of salt on this tongue, he was astonished and pleasantly surprised.
Rick was kneeling beside him, soaked through and looking exhausted, but relieved.
And then he started talking. At least Billy assumed that he was talking, because his lips moved, but no sound came out. Confusion must have shown on his face, because Rick’s lips moved faster, but instead of sensible words, all Billy began to hear was a high pitched ringing.
The ringing was accompanied by a stabbing pain in his ears that moved effortlessly into his brain, to spiking to near unbearable levels.
Billy closed his eyes against the pain and then tried to push it down, tried to suppress it because he needed to know where he was, how the rest of his teammates were. And the only way to find that out was to open his eyes again.
Rick was still kneeling beside him, now accompanied by a grim looking Casey. Behind the two men, Billy could vaguely make out the shabby furniture of their houseboat kitchen. His vision was blurry, but at least the buzzing in his ears was slowly abating.
And when Casey started to say something, Billy actually heard him over the tinnitus. “You with us, Collins?”
Nodding was the absolute wrong thing to do as pain exploded behind his eyes and caused white spots to dance across his vision. Nausea rose in his stomach and when the boat was rocked heavily from one side to the other by a big wave, Billy found himself retching.
Mostly it was salt water that came up, mixed with bile and it burned in his throat. It wasn’t the first time he had vomited in the presence of his friends and, knowing his tendency to get injured on the job, it was unlikely to be his last time. He was still embarrassed by the process and hoped to avoid a repeat performance. No matter how much he trusted his teammates, there were some things they didn’t need to see. Puking was definitely one of those things.
The heaving caused his ribs to shift and the dull pressure in his chest became a fierce, sudden stab. But over the years Billy had become a master at ignoring his own pains and concentrating on the matters at hand. So he ignored the stabbing in his chest and the fierce throbbing behind his eyes and tried to concentrate on his surroundings.
With the pain pushed aside – more or less successfully – he was getting more aware and realized that the boat was rocking worse, as bigger and bigger waved were crashing against the hull. The storm outside was picking up and they needed to get to the protection of the marina before the peak hit. Anything else was secondary until then and that included his injuries.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Casey said, voice cold, but eyes soft and gleaming with worry.
“No, no. I’m okay. Just help me up,” Billy replied, carefully swallowing down more bile as the boat was tossed about more violently. He forced his eyes to stay focused; he still hadn’t seen Michael and he needed to know if their leader was okay, although Billy was sure that Michael had already taken up his position at the helm.
Casey reluctantly took his outstretched arm and helped him up to a sitting position with Billy’s back resting against the wooden wall opposite their dining table.
The pain immediately shifted with the movement, robbed Billy of his breath for a second and then settled deep in his lungs and behind his forehead. Dark spots promptly covered his vision and no matter how much he blinked, the edges of his vision stayed gray.
“Are you okay? What about Michael?” Billy asked, realizing as he spoke that his voice sounded breathless.
“He’s steering the boat . Unlike you, we managed to avoid most of the explosion by being under the water while it occurred,” Rick explained with slight smirk on his face.
Billy rolled his eyes toward the little bridge, where he could just barely make out Michael’s shape with his still woozy vision. Lightning split the outside world and lit up the bridge for a second, showing Michael and his tight grip on the steering wheel more clearly. After having reassured himself that their fearless leader was okay and that he had the situation more or less in control, Billy turned his attention back to Rick.
“Aye, proper precaution that. I’ll keep that in mind for the next explosion we’re caught in,” he replied with humor in his voice. The gray that had tinged his vision was spreading as the pain in his head increased with every throb of his heartbeat.
“You better. I have other, more important things to do than drag your unconscious body out of the sea,” Casey grumbled.
“Ah, you just pretend to not care. You would always fish me out of the sea,” Billy replied, because he knew that his teammates would always pull him out of trouble, because he would do the same. Right now, however, was one of the situations where they all needed to work together to get themselves out of the mess. He couldn’t let his team down by passing out.
“How’s the weather out there?” Billy asked, knowing that they didn’t have much time to form a plan.
Casey and Rick exchanged a quick glance, clearly trying to gauge whether to really tell him about the situation out there. But Billy needed to be kept in the loop, needed to know what was going on outside to not feel so helpless and useless. And he knew that if the situation were reversed, they would feel the same, so Billy knew that it would only be a matter of seconds until one of them would break.
“Storm is approaching, but by Michael’s calculation we should hit the harbor in time. Nothing to worry about,” Rick told him. “We have everything under control.”
Billy didn’t doubt that for a second, well aware of his teammates’ capabilities, but he couldn’t help but worry about them, about getting back to safety. “We may need to find a calm cove and sit it out,” he said, eyes already searching for the map that he knew was on the table.
“I’ll doubt your vision is clear enough to even see anything on the map,” Casey replied, having followed his line of sight and successfully found the map. But Casey still got up, and on unsteady legs, took the few steps toward the table to lean over it.
The boat was rocking stronger now, bigger waves tossing it around and playing with it as the lightning stuck more regularly outside and a deep thunder growled right behind every flash.
Billy felt himself being tossed about, unable to hold himself up as he tried to breathe through the agony that the involuntary movement brought. Another strong wave caught the boat and Billy’s head smacked against the wooden wall behind him, as Casey and Rick were tossed off their feet.
The stars that had already danced across his vision broadened and the darkness that he had fought back for so long finally won and overtook his sight. And the pain finally receded with his waning consciousness.
Someone was retching.
The sound was coming from close by and together with the smell, his own nausea rose, just barely kept in check by swallowing excessively.
Billy knew that he had been moved; the ground underneath him was soft, not the hard wooden deck from the boat’s living room. He was covered with a blanket, which meant that he was most likely below decks in the sleeping quarters. Far more comfortable than the upstairs chairs, but he immediately felt removed from the action, even though Billy knew that it was the best solution.
The boat was still cast about, rising and falling with every wave and the incessant movement did nothing to ease his queasiness. He tried to take deep breaths to get it under control, but it was near impossible. His chest felt constricted and his breathing was heavy. It felt as if the air didn’t reach his lungs. His limbs felt useless and heavy; everything was sluggish and Billy knew that the lack of oxygen was already affecting him. He tried not to panic, even as his heart rate sped up.
The sounds of retching abated and paper started to rustle as Billy forced his eyes open. The light in the cabin was low, but it still stung in his eyes and aggravated his headache to nearly unbearable levels.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light and his vision was fuzzy; no matter how hard he tried, nothing came into focus. The person sitting by his bed was nothing more than a blurred figure; still, he managed to recognize Rick by his rough shape and by his mannerisms.
“You alright?” Billy asked. He was worried about his young friend, wondering if he too had been injured in the explosion.
Rick looked up and a small smile appeared on his waxen features. “Yes, I just don’t do boats in bad weather.” Now the smile looked distinctly sheepish. “Casey and Michael have sent me down to watch over you and to not disturb them.”
Despite the pain, Billy smirked. That did sound like Michael and Casey. Rick was turning into a very good field operative and one step in the right direction was to realize one’s weaknesses and learn how to compensate for them. It seemed that for now the two older operatives were balancing the shortcomings out, which was, ultimately, what a made them a good team.
“Don’t worry about that, lad, everyone has a weakness. Most of us just learn to hide it better,” Billy told Rick. It was getting increasingly difficult to breathe; air moving in small painful puffs and still hardly reaching his lungs. And it wasn’t just the boat that was moving restlessly; his vision swam in and out of focus as the room rotated on its own. “How bad is the storm now?”
“Pretty bad,” Rick replied as another wave shook the boat, tossing it about. “But Michael knows what he’s doing.”
“Did Casey find a cove close by?” Billy asked. He knew that they would have to sit the storm out should it become much stronger. Their little houseboat was not meant to sail under conditions like these. It probably wasn’t even meant to drive on the open sea.
“Yes, nice and secluded; at least on the map. But Michael is pretty sure that we can reach the harbor in time,” Rick replied. There was some hesitation in his voice and Billy could guess why. The weather conditions were probably worse than Rick let on and the only reason they were still driving and not hiding in that cove was because of Billy.
The Scot knew that his condition was bad, could feel it with every grating breath he took, and Michael knew just how quickly everything could turn for the worse. So he was pushing the boat to its limits. In that moment, Billy was incredibly grateful that he had teammates like that, who would risk everything to get him to safety. At the same time, it also scared him, because they shouldn’t risk everything including their lives just for him.
“You shouldn’t risk that,” Billy said. “Anchor down in the cove.”
“We can’t risk stopping either.” Rick was serious and his brown eyes were staring into Billy's blue ones. “And we all know the dangers and are willing to take them. We’re a team; it’s either all of us or none. ”
“Read a bit much Dumas lately, have you?” Billy replied. His words were getting more breathless as it took more and more effort to draw in air. He should have guessed that Rick was a fan of the Three Musketeers. Although he could see the appeal and the correlation with the ODS. The team was a tight knit group and each member would do anything to keep each other safe; including jumping right into danger. And he knew if there was anyone who could steer the boat back to safety, it was Michael, especially with Casey at his side.
“One for all and all for one,” Rick quoted. “But he’s right. We stick together, no matter what. Although I didn’t know that Michael could steer a boat, where did he learn that?” It was a clear attempted to distract Billy, which was a hard task considering the circumstances and Billy’s stubbornness. Still, Billy had to give the lad credit: he was learning.
But it was getting harder to concentrate on Rick’s words, the syllables running together and losing their meaning to Billy even as the younger operative spoke. The world started to warp around him, leaving just a pinpoint of light left in his vision. His muscles started to scream in agony as they tightened up against his will. His back arched of the mattress and his nerve endings burned with pain.
The shaking started in his calves, went up his thighs and then engulfed his complete body. He had no control over his limbs as they flailed about wildly; his head was bouncing off the mattress and his tongue felt like a foreign thing in his mouth.
He heard Rick calling his name desperately, but Billy was far beyond answering, he was beyond thinking, just hoping that everything would stop.
And then it suddenly did as even the small pinprick of light disappeared and Billy sunk into the darkness.
When he opened his eyes again, Billy had no idea where he was. He didn’t recognize the ceiling he was staring at, didn’t recognize the mattress he was lying on. What he could identify was the stabbing headache of a bad concussion, together with the low churning nausea and the slowly revolving world. But it was somehow worse than when he had been concussed before.
His whole body hurt; a deep muscle ache that had settled in and made his arms and legs heavy and stiff. His chest felt tight and while he tried to take even breaths, he couldn’t; as if something was stopping him from breathing properly.
There was a metallic taste on his tongue – clearly blood – but Billy didn’t understand where that came from. Not much made sense to him right now and it was an awkward, unknown feeling, one that he wished to get rid of sooner rather than later. But his own aching mind was drawing a blank and none of his teammates were around to help him out.
Billy could feel his heart beating against his chest, every thud sending new spikes of pain through his body as the worry rose in him. Where were Michael, Casey and Rick?
He forced himself into a sitting position, ignoring the fire that spread through him and his inability to breathe. His fear pushed him on, his need to find his friends drove him forward even as his knees buckled on the uneven ground.
There was a clatter, then a curse and suddenly arms were around his chest, guiding him back to the bed.
“Damnit, Billy,” Rick’s voice broke through the haze that had clouded his mind, sounding annoyed and worried at the same time. “What are you doing up?”
“Needed to find you,” Billy replied, out of breath and struggling against the upcoming sickness. Everything was moving around him, going first clockwise, then moving abruptly up and down. And the more he moved, the worse it got. The second he was sitting down, he couldn’t force the bile back down again.
The next thing he realized was that a bucket was shoved under his face and Billy mentally thanked Rick and his fast reflexes. He tasted bile and blood and he could feel tears running down his face as he heaved breathlessly into the bucket. Every single movement tore in his chest and when he was finally finished, every breath he could drag into his starved lungs was a painful wheeze. His lungs felt strained and the dull pressure that had been there since he woke up intensified and he just couldn’t get enough air in.
Billy was drowning on dry land and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
He could still feel Rick’s arms around him, as the rest of his body sagged into the hold. There was no strength left, all energy wasted on the futile attempt to breathe. For now Rick’s constant murmuring was holding him in the present, was stopping him from giving in to the dark. But every second that passed, this darkness drew closer and even Rick’s: “Don’t do this, Billy. Just keep breathing,” was drowned out by the ever increasing buzzing in his ears.
Trusting in Rick to take care of him, Billy let go completely.
The taste of blood had been replaced by a strong taste of plastic when Billy woke up next. There was something struck in his throat and he felt his lungs fill with air without him doing the breathing. It was a scary, if not entirely unknown feeling and Billy would panic if his mind wasn’t so insensible or his limbs so lethargic.
He didn’t know where he was, but he didn’t feel alone. Voices washed over him, words without meaning, but the familiar cadence was a reassurance. He knew that his friends were there. There was no need to see them or really understand them to know that; Billy could feel it.
And if his teammates were close by, he knew that everything was alright or that at least everything would be alright. Billy could always trust them to right the wrongs.
Right now that was all he needed.
With the sense of security washing over him, Billy drifted back into the deeper blacks of his mind.
Time was meaningless for Billy. He knew that he woke up from time to time, saw blurry shapes above his face whenever he was aware enough to open his eyes, but he was never awake enough to speak.
He knew that the taste of plastic disappeared in between his moments of wakefulness and was replaced by the stench of plastic. Not much of an improvement, but at least he realized that he was breathing under his own stamina again. Heavy and slow, but he could control it.
The voices of his teammates were always there whenever he came close to awakening, either talking to him or talking with each other, but all Billy knew was that he was never alone.
This sense of security was always around him and in the end, it was what forced him to open his eyes and stay awake long enough to speak with his teammates. Because he knew that they were worried, could hear it in their tones and he wanted to alleviate their concerns. So when he was close to waking up again, Billy forced his eyes open and forced them to focus, despite the still underlying pain and haze of drugs that was swirling around him.
It took a while to bring Rick’s face into focus, but when he did, the relieved smile he saw was definitely worth the effort.
“Billy?” Despite the smile, Rick’s voice was still uncertain.
His eyes felt gritty, dry despite the fact that they had been closed for so long and his throat was scratchy and raw when he swallowed. Immediately Rick was there with ice chips and when the frozen water slid down his abused throat, Billy closed his eyes and moaned in delight.
Rick was chuckling and that jolted him into opening his eyes again. “This is no’ funny,” Billy replied and felt the words grate against his vocal chords, but they brought out another smile from Rick, so it was worth it again.
“Where’s the rest?” The rest of his small cubicle – and really it wasn’t a room, not with just curtains separating from the rest of the unit – was conspicuously empty, now that Billy could actually see it.
“Out for lunch. They’ll be annoyed that they missed you being aware,” Rick said and now Billy could hear the exhaustion in his voice and he could see it in the shadows underneath Rick’s eyes and the stubble grazing the other man’s jaw. It had been more than just a few days that he had been out and he could see that reflected in young Rick. And he would really like to stay awake longer, just to see Michael and Casey too, reassure them as well, but he could feel the darkness creeping in again, a mixture of exhaustion and the drugs coursing through his system.
He was blinking heavily again, wanting to stay awake just a little longer.
“I’ll them that that you were up and then they’ll just have to wait for you again. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Thanks,” Billy replied, although he wanted to say more, but his eyes and his mind betrayed him and he could feel himself slipping back into the waiting black.
A warm hand grasped his forearm, squeezing it gently and as his consciousness was slowly slipping away, he heard Rick say: “Told you that we would get you back safely.”
It was hard for him to stay awake for more than just a few minutes at a time. The longest he had managed to keep his eyes open was for an hour yesterday. It was a frustrating situation for him. Billy hated being tired all the time, hated sleeping his days away even though he knew that his body needed the rest.
In general he had nothing against a good lie in, but those usually involved a good book, a comfortable bed and most definitely no medical equipment. But Billy was adaptable and with his teammates close by it was easier to endure it.
The doctors had explained all the medical details and although Billy had tuned out most of the medical talk, he still got the gist of it. The shockwave had caused a severe pulmonary contusion that caused blood to accumulate in his lungs. Blood that had nearly drowned him. He’d been more dead than alive by the time his team had dragged him to the closest emergency room. But he still had been lucky, because he had managed to avoid pneumonia and further blast injuries, except for a concussion.
He had finally been moved to a normal unit and that alone meant more freedom from medical equipment and less regular checkups from nurses and doctors alike. With less supervision, the rest of his team managed to smuggle in some forbidden goods in the form of chocolate and coffee. Billy didn’t understand why the doctors banned that from a healthy diet, when it was clearly a stable source of untold nutrition and psychological value in everyone’s diet all the time; especially if you were a harassed CIA operative.
It was nearly nine in the morning now and knowing his friends, they would arrive any minute now. Billy himself had been up half an hour now, happy that he managed that long without feeling exhausted again. The doctors had reduced his pain medication, which was probably one of the reasons why he managed to stay awake longer every time he woke up, but now, as a result, his broken ribs ached dully, throbbing, and his lungs still felt constricted. At least the room had stopped spinning and his headache was slowly decreasing in magnitude. They were small favors and Billy hoped that he would be released in another few days to finally go home again.
The door to his room opened wide and Michael, Casey and Rick stepped in, Rick holding a cardboard box with four disposable coffee cups.
“My heroes,” Billy exclaimed and stretched his left hand, the one currently not pinned down by an IV, toward the coffee.
“You better remember that,” Michael said and handed the cup over, grabbing another one for himself before he settled into a chair right beside the bed. “How are you doing?”
Billy wiggled carefully and then took a sip of his coffee before answering, “Better and ready to go home. Any chance you could smuggle me out of here?”
“None,” Casey deadpanned. “I did not drag you out of the ocean just so you can collapse on the plane.”
Billy tried to look wounded, which he supposed wasn’t that hard in his current situation. “When did I ever collapsed on a plane?”
Not that his teammates were fooled by any of this, they simply knew him too well to fall for it.
“Israel,” Michael replied without hesitating for a beat and that made Billy hesitate for a second. Israel had been a long time ago and he really didn’t remember a lot from the flight home. He'd heard stories, though only vaguely. It was apparently among Casey's top five least favorite missions, right behind the jaunt in Mongolia, which had involved yaks, snow and sleeping in a yurt.
“Point taken,” the Scot conceded and tipped his cup at them.
As with all of their references to earlier missions, Rick looked at them with interest in his eyes and as usual, none of the team was reacting to his unposed question.
“But that’s why I’ve got you around, don’t I?” Billy continued, trying to keep his voice light, but hoping that the rest would still realize the meaning behind the words.
“You do have your uses in the field, so it’s in our best interest to keep you alive,” Casey remarked as he took up his usual position against the wall opposite the bed.
“See, I knew you liked me,” Billy said, grinning brightly even as he felt his energy waning again despite the sugar laced coffee he was drinking.
“As I said, you have your values in the field. My continued survival depends on your well being.”
“And we’d be lost without the human weapon. Besides I really don’t want to carpool with Casey to save gas money. So your continued well being is for all our sake’s,” Michael added with an askew grin.
Billy simply continued to grin. He knew the truth, no matter how hard Casey might like to deny it or how hard he tried to find excuses.
“One for all and all for one, aye?” Billy said, aiming a smirk right at Rick, who grinned back.
“The classics never die,” Rick continued.
And while Michael chuckled along with them, Casey just groaned but neither of them disagreed.