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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (6a/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:46 pm)
cynical

feeling: cynical

MASTER POST for other parts.




Life doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to.

After all this time, Rick thinks he should be used to it. Since K-day, his entire life has been a series of flung together elements. Sometimes he was doing the right thing at the wrong time. Other times he was doing the wrong thing at the right time. He’s such a far cry from the young man who wanted to be a spy that it’s almost funny.


But Rick’s not laughing.


The Shatterdomes are closing; Jaegers are falling.


The Kaiju keep coming.


Rick’s doing what he can.


It may not be enough.


-o-


The Kaiju come faster.


The Jaegers fall just as fast.


-o-


Rick never joined the Jaeger program for the accolades, but he can’t deny that he enjoyed it. He liked reading about himself in the paper. He was secretly happy to see official Orion Disruptor merchandise. He followed the message boards when he had time, relishing the analysis of the fighting style he and Billy share.


People are quieter now. No one sells the products. The only Jaeger news that makes the paper are the failures. The ones that fall. Pilot obituaries start to run on the back page. It’s not that no one cares; it’s that no one can keep caring.


Instead, the front page is full of updates about the Wall of Life. Fights break out on message boards, about why this is, about if it’s good or not.


The Wall is a joke! It’s not going to save anything!


And the Jaegers are?


They need more support, not less.


But who wants to support a dying program?


Rick closes the window. He’s still here; he’s still fighting, against all the odds. This is his job, and he still thinks it’s the most important one in the world.


His chest his tight, like he’s almost the last breath in the dying program.


-o-


Dying, but not dead yet.


A category three heads for the west coast. With Mammoth still being repaired, it’s up to Orion.


“You up for this, lad?” Billy asks.


Rick nods. “As if there’s any choice?”


-o-


“Remember your training,” Casey coaches as they gear up. “If you keep missing the beats, it’s going to give the Kaiju the advantage.”


“And then we die,” Billy says, matter of fact.


“And remember, we sort of can’t afford to lose another Jaeger,” Michael says.


“Especially since we’d probably die,” Billy says.


Rick breathes heavily. “You know, I’m not sure this is a very good pep talk.”


Billy grins. “Aye,” he says. “But never let it be said that we didn’t warn you about the risks.”


“I’ve done this before, though!” Rick protests.


“Yeah, so have we,” Michael says.


“It doesn’t get easier,” Casey says.


“In fact, it just gets harder,” Billy says.


“So, you know,” Michael says with a grim shrug. “Don’t die.”


Rick rolls his eyes.


-o-


Still, when they initiate the neural handshake, he sees beyond Billy’s flippancy. He’s not trying to scare Rick; he’s trying to quell his own fears.


Billy shakes his head. “Now’s not the time,” he says to Rick.


“It’s not?” Rick asks.


“No,” Billy says. “Now’s the time to go stop a monster.”


Their hands clench, and Michael’s voice comes over the speakers. “Neural handshake complete.”


-o-


Drifting -- no matter how many times he does it, it never gets old. It’s never redundant either, which is perhaps the biggest surprise. You would think that being in the same person’s mind time and again would make it less interesting, but Billy has a wealth of experience to draw from.


He always learns something new.


“Hey!” Rick objects as the wade in the waters, waiting for the approach. “Do you really think that’s appropriate right now?”


Billy shrugs. “I like to go to a happy place, if you will,” he says. “Calms me down.”


“So go back to your poetry class at university,” Rick says. “Not...you and Olivia.”


Billy’s smile widens. “Not just any memory, mind you,” he says. “Our very first. And still our best.”


Rick makes a face. “I’m not hearing this.”


“Oh, come now,” Billy says. “Surely you have similar memories. What about you and--”


“I’m not hearing this!”


“Yeah, but we are,” Michael’s voice comes. “Kaiju is about twenty minutes out. You two about done over there?”


Rick groans as Billy’s memory finally finishes.


“We are a go,” Billy says. He glances at Rick. “Unless you have something…”


Rick shakes his head. “We are definitely a go.”


-o-


When the Kaiju arrives, Rick remembers their first battle. He remembers Billy’s first battle, and the last he fought with Olivia. And he knows why Billy thought about anything other than this. It’s not for him -- it’s for Rick.


As it is, there is a brief, suspended moment of terror, and he still feels the water filling Avalon’s cockpit while Billy fades--


Then the Kaiju attacks.


-o-


This Kaiju is faster, stronger, better.


Rick is sweating badly in his suit, his muscles exhausted. The battle is relentless as they last ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes more.


He has no sense of failure, though. There is only fighting; surviving; winning.


There is no other choice.


-o-


The beast goes down; the machine is still standing.


Mankind wins again.


-o-


When they get back, the Jaeger Bay is mostly empty. Michael and Casey are there, along with a few other techs. Blanke is the only one who waves and salutes when they exit.


It’s probably for the best. Rick’s legs feel like jelly, and Billy half passes out from exhaustion. As it is, Michael insists they both head over to the medical bay, just to be sure.


Then he’s on a bed drinking orange juice, and Billy has an IV in his arm. “It’s never been about the fan fare,” Billy reminds him.


“How do you do it?” Rick asks. “How do you do what you do when you know you’re never going to get the recognition you deserve?”


Billy knows exactly what he means. “You already know the answer to that,” Billy says. He taps his head. “It’s in my head, as much as it is in your heart.”


Rick swallows.


“Heart of the hero, son,” Billy reassures him as he looks at the ceiling. “Until the very last.”


-o-


He’s fine, of course. Billy is, too. Orion Disruptor is in worse shape, but Casey thinks it’s all pretty fixable.


“He’s still better than Mammoth,” Casey says.


“Yeah, but Disruptor doesn’t have a repair budget,” Michael says.


“Well, we’re not going to let that stop us, are we?” Billy asks.


“It never has before,” Rick joins in.


It’s just not quite that easy anymore.


-o-


Still, they do what they can. Michael oversees and rearranges; Casey works and pushes; Billy jokes as he works harder than ever.


This is still what Rick wanted.


But as he passes by the countdown clock, he wonders if anything they do will ever be enough.


-o-


There’s nothing to do except what he’s always done. Rick’s worked against the odds and won before. He has to think he can do it again.


He wakes up early; he trains harder. After lunch, he goes to J-science to study extra Kaiju footage for more insight in his afternoon workout. Billy’s going to work the phones to bring in some additional Jaeger donations. Left on his own, Rick pulls his card, swiping it to gain access to the lab, just like always.


Nothing happens.


He tries it again. When it still doesn’t work, he frowns. After another try, he’s about to go get help when someone comes up to him. “Oh, you must not be part of the updated procedures.”


Rick turns, about to ask what’s going on, but he stops short. Because it’s not just some random J-science tech. It’s not anyone he knows. He would like to say that he’s not easily foiled by beautiful women, and that’s mostly true, but clearly, not at this time.

Not when she’s smiling, her suit neat and prim as she reaches across him to type in an override on the keypad. She pulls back with a trim smile. “Marshal Higgins wanted to limit access to start with while we evaluate who actually needs access,” she says. She shrugs. “Right now only the highest level personnel have been given unrestricted access.”


Rick’s mouth opens, but he’s not even sure what he wants to say.


“However, I think it’s safe to say that your intentions are good,” she continues. “Am I correct in that assumption, Mr. Martinez?”


Rick’s brow furrows. “Do I know you?”


“Oh, no,” she says.


“Then--”


“You’re a Jaeger pilot, Mr. Martinez,” she says. “And besides, it’s my job to know.”


Rick’s frown deepens. “And you are?”


“Adele Ferrar,” she says. “Director of the Wall of Life project.”


-o-


At dinner, Rick can’t stop thinking about her. He sets his tray down. “You’ll never guess who I met today,” he announces.


“Adele Ferrar,” Michael says without hesitation.


“Director of the Wall of Life,” Casey reports.


“Higgins’ right hand man, so to speak,” Billy says. “A very pretty hand, though.”


Rick frowns. “How did you--”


Michael tweaks his eyebrows. “After all this time, you still think you can hide things from us?”


“We know everything,” Casey adds.


“Besides,” Billy says, “we’ve only had one new hire here since this mess began. It was a pretty easy deduction.”


Rick tries not to let himself be too vexed. It’s hardly unexpected, even if annoying. “She seems nice,” he says benignly.


“Nice?” Casey asks incredulously. “She’s the antithesis to what we do, and she represents everything wrong with the PPDC.”


“Not to mention the fact that she’s out to find ways to appropriate the Jaeger program,” Michael says. “Higgins is downsizing us, but don’t let that fool you. Our budget still looks ripe for the pickings.”


“It is easy to be swayed by a pretty face,” Billy comments. “Which I imagine is part of Higgins’ logic. Not that she’s not exceptional at her job, but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.”


Rick shakes his head. “She’s just doing her job, like the rest of us.”


“If you believe that, you’re worse off than I thought,” Michael says.


“I prefer to have faith in people,” Rick says.


“I prefer to retain my common sense,” Casey returns.


“We’re trying to save the world, so the least we can do is believe the world is worthwhile,” Rick argues.


“The world, maybe,” Michael says. “The growing bureaucracy at the PPDC…”


Rick sighs. “You guys really are bastards.”


Billy slaps him on the shoulder. “I find myself having to agree with that more and more, I’m afraid.”


“It happens to all of us, in the end,” Michael says. “Just wait, kid. You’ll join the club yet.”


Rick scowls and eats his dinner.


-o-


Adele smiles, and she greets people warmly.


She also reorganizes the J-tech staff until there are even fewer techs on duty. She makes consistent statements to the media, staging photo opportunities for the wall’s development.


The front page heralds the start of a new era. Adele is in front of the wall, cutting a red ribbon.


Rick watches from afar, as he picks up extra time in the Jaeger Bay, just trying to get repairs done as best he can.


-o-


“Mr. Martinez!” Adele says.


Rick stops, surprised. He’s on his way to suit up for a morning run with Billy. They need to see if Disruptor’s latest repairs are sufficient.


She hurries up toward him. “I noticed you and your team put in a request for additional funds,” she says.


“Yeah,” he says. “Pretty standard.”


She smiles. “Well, it used to be standard,” she says. “I’m afraid all repairs need to be essential at this point.”


Rick frowns. “But without this part--”


“I realize it will be harder, but I’ve been told you can easily reroute power to bypass this circuit. It’s not as efficient--”


“And it totally minimizes our effectiveness in the field,” Rick objects.


“Well, talented pilot like yourself,” she says. “I think you can figure it out.”


He opens his mouth.


She reaches out, squeezing his arm. She so pretty that it’s distracting. And she’s just so nice and so efficient and so good at what she does. He respects the hell out of her. Even when he wants to stridently object to everything she’s saying.


Ultimately, he says nothing.


“I’m so glad we had this little talk,” she tells him.


With that, she leaves, and Rick turns to watch her. Not sure if he wants to protest or ask her out.


-o-


The Shatterdome becomes something of a ghost town. The halls seem empty. The mess is quiet. When he goes outside, he sees the equipment moving and the staff moving as the outline of the wall starts to take shape against the horizon.


-o-


He gets a letter from his mother. She wants to know how he is; she wants him to visit; she wants him to do a lot of things.


She sends him love and concern and so many questions. She ends the letter by saying, I love you, my son, so very much.


Rick folds the letter and opens it, before folding it again and tucking it in his desk drawer. There’s a lot he could say.


He just doesn’t know what any of it is.


-o-


Jaegers keep falling. Their numbers dwindle. The press stops counting them.


Instead, the first page has pictures of the wall, tracking the progress with each mile completed.


Every mile is another repair Orion Disruptor doesn’t get.


Rick tries not to resent it. That’s not who he is or who he wants to be. He’s a team player, and he always has been. He’s always accepted that.


It’s getting harder, though.


-o-


Not that he has time to dwell on it. With the staff be reallocated, he has more work than ever. He gets up earlier and stays up later. Billy is sleeping fitfully these days, so Rick is, too. He’s honestly not sure Michael sleeps at all. He can never tell with Casey, but nothing that man does would surprise him at this point.


Somehow, they make it work. Michael leads; Casey pushes for action; Billy scrimps together resources; Rick does whatever is left.


-o-


“He’s looking good,” Blanke says one day in the Jaeger Bay.


Rick wipes his forehead, looking up at Disruptor. Repairs are coming along, not great, but coming. “He’s getting there.”


Blanke claps his hands together. “There’s not any doubt!” he exclaims. “Though, I mean, if not, that’s really not your fault. All things considered, you’re lucky you still have a job at all. Much less the fact that you’re still alive.”


Rick gives him a look.


“Oh, don’t get me wrong!” Blanke says. “I think you have the stuff to make it through to the end!”


“You know, that’s not really helping,” Rick says.


“Oh?” Blanke asks.


“Yeah,” Rick says. “Maybe you could go take these readings to Michael.” He holds out a paper.


Blanke nods vigorously, taking it eagerly. “Will do! Anything for the team!”


As he turns to march off proudly, Rick wants to roll his eyes. Except he realizes, Blanke’s one of the few left who can help him at all.


It’s not much, Rick knows. But at least it’s something.


-o-


“She’s a shark,” Casey muses with his eyes glared.


“Wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Michael adds.


“Nicely tailored clothing, at that,” Billy says.


“I would respect her tenacity if she weren’t so poorly misguided,” Casey mutters.


“You know, she actually convinced Higgins that Mammoth is operational?” Michael asks.


Billy makes a face. “And then we’ll be sending out the lads in a death trap.”


“They don’t care,” Michael says. “And it’s her doing.”


“She’s just doing her job,” Rick says.


Billy raises an eyebrow. “So you are still smitten then?”


“No doubt that was part of Higgins strategy, too,” Michael says.


“This is why I tell all of you the trick to happiness is benefits without friendship,” Casey lectures.


“I’m not sure we all have the same low emotional standards,” Billy says. He looks at Rick. “And if not for her desire to have us all fired into oblivion or skewered in the field, she is a fine choice. In another life, at any rate. But true love. It knows no bounds.”


Rick reddens. “It’s not love.”


Michael smirks. “No, but it is infatuation.”


“It’s not,” Rick says.


“Methinks you doth protest too much,” Billy says.


Rick glares.


But he can’t deny it.


-o-


At night, he still tries to write a letter to his mom. He wants to tell her it’s going to be okay. He wants to tell her that things are going fine. He wants to say he’ll see her soon, just as soon as he can.


He puts the letter away again and tries to sleep.


-o-


He doesn’t know what to say to his mother, but he doesn’t have to think twice about how to fill his days. The hours are never enough, and they work through meals. He barely knows it’s time to sleep until Billy nods off at the work station next to him, propped up on paperwork or one of the repair kits for Orion Disruptor.


Rick’s a pilot, but after all this time, he knows about as much as the mechanics and the science officers. He doesn’t know all the science, and he doesn’t always know the terms, but he knows how to get the job done. He’s always been a quick study, after all.


That’s okay with him. He always wanted to do what was needed.


He’s never been needed more.


-o-


If nothing else makes sense, there’s always the drift.


-o-


“You should write your mum,” Billy tells him one afternoon after taking Disruptor for a walk about. He’s still listing a little, and a few of the circuit panels keep overloading, but it’s getting there.


“Right, like you’re one to offer advice about interpersonal relationships,” Rick returns.


“I have wonderful relationships,” Billy says. “Everyone loves me, and I am known for always having the perfect thing to say.”


“That’s because you’re always lying.”


Billy makes a sound of mortification. “That is downright libelous!”


“I’ve shared your brain,” Rick points out.


Billy shuts his mouth, furrowing his brow. “You should still write your mum.”


Rick snorts. “Yeah,” he says. “And when are you going to track down Olivia?”


Billy glares at him. “Damn the drift.”


-o-


Casey produces a list of parts. He hands it to Michael. “We need these parts.”


Michael scrutinizes the list, and Rick leans over, peeking over his shoulder. It’s long.


Michael unfolds it.


It’s very long.


Billy raises his eyebrows and chuckles. “And here I thought Casey was a realist among us.”


“I am a realist,” Casey snaps. “There’s no way around it. We need these parts.”


Michael shakes his head. “There’s no way we’re getting these parts,” he says. “Can’t we work something out with what we have?”


“Sure,” Casey says. “And we can also leave Disruptor only marginally functional. I mean, I’m sure Rick and Billy didn’t want the laser cannons to actually aim during a fight with a Kaiju. And if backup oxygen is actually superfluous, then, hey, we’re just fine.”


“What about the way the fingers stick while making a fist?” Rick asks. “Because we’ve had a lot of trouble with that in the field.”


“That’s covered on page three,” Casey says.


“I’m not saying this stuff isn’t important,” Michael replies. “I’m saying, I don’t have the funds. I’ve barely managed to get what we have -- and I have to pilfer staff as it is.”


“But if we go to Higgins and explain,” Rick says. “He wouldn’t want us to go in the field at this much of a disadvantage.”


“The man did approve Mammoth for the field,” Billy points out.


“Mammoth was more refined to begin with,” Casey says. “He can actually hold his own. If we send Orion Disruptor in the field like this…” He shrugs. “Well, there’s a good chance you won’t be coming home at all.”


“That’s why we have escape pods, though, right?” Rick asks.


Billy grunts. “Those repairs are on page six, aren’t they?”


Rick’s brow creases.


Casey purses his lips. “Seven, actually. Right now if you try to deploy, the only thing that will happen is a lot of noise and some sparks. But hey, you may fry yourself before the Kaiju crushes you, so that may still be a win.”


“Lovely,” Billy says.


Rick shakes his head. “Can’t we get the funds like we always have?”


“I’ve rearranged everything I can,” Michael says.


“And I’m afraid I’m just about out of contacts willing to entertain me,” Billy admits.


“My threats are increasingly less effective,” Casey says.


Rick chews his lip. “Well, Higgins isn’t the only option, right? Maybe we just need to talk to someone else in the upper rung. I mean, the Wall of Life has a surplus right now. All we need to do is get someone to cut us a bit on the side.”


Billy looks interested. “Someone, eh?”


“Someone with clout,” Michael says.


“Someone we have an in with,” Casey adds.


“I mean, I could talk to Adele even,” Rick suggests.


His team is watching him keenly. Billy appears to be trying not to smile.


Rick reddens. “You guys had this planned the whole time, didn’t you?”


“Yeah, we just wanted you to feel like you had some say in it,” Michael says with a smirk.


“Or if you’d be too stupid to figure it out at all,” Casey says.


Rick narrows his gaze.


Billy pats his shoulder reassuringly. “You played your part splendidly!”


Michael hands him the report. “Remember, we need all of this,” he says.


Rick looks down, feeling suddenly bleak. “Wait, all of this?”


“Unless you really don’t want the emergency pods to work,” Casey says. “In which case, you can omit page seven.”


Rick fumbles. “Oh, um--”


Billy smiles reassuringly. “Good luck!”


-o-


It had been the natural conclusion. They need funding. They need a new source of funding. Rick likes Adele; Adele seems to like Rick well enough. The conclusion had been so simple that Rick hadn’t questioned it at all.


Now, holding the stack of parts requests outside of Adele’s office, it doesn’t seem so natural or simple at all.


It just feels stupid.


And embarrassing and awkward and weird.


And really, really stupid.


Because he likes her. And he needs funding. And how did his team talk him into this anyway?


Sighing, he knocks on the door.


-o-


Inside, she smiles, face lighting up. “Mr. Martinez! This is a surprise. Is there something I can help you with?”


Rick presses his lips together, fingers tightening unconsciously on the packet of papers in his hand. He inhales. “Yes,” he says, then falters. He wets his lips. “I was wondering if I could ask you for a little funding.”


“Well, official funding forms are readily accessible--”


“We both know how well those work,” Rick says.


Her smile falls. “Mr. Martinez, you know what my job is,” she says.


“You’re in charge of overseeing the Wall of Life,” Rick says.


“More than that,” she continues. “I’ve been tasked with making the PPDC a viable solution.”


Rick nods earnestly, stepping forward. “Which is why I’m talking to you,” he says. “The Wall -- it may be part of the strategy, but it’s not going to be enough to control the Kaiju.”


“With enough resources, we believe the Wall can effectively contain the Kaiju.”


“That’s a party line,” Rick says. “Even if the Wall does hold Kaiju back, the only way we’ve been able to kill one without massive destruction is a Jaeger.”


“I’ve seen the numbers, though,” Adele says. “It’s not that the pilots aren’t doing good work or that the Jaegers are not magnificent machines, but they’re simply not tasked with keeping up with the threat.”


“I’m not asking for a new Jaeger,” Rick says. “I’m asking for enough funds to keep Orion Disruptor operational in the field.”


“To what end, though?” Adele asks. “The Jaeger program is being phased out until further notice.”


“The Wall of Life will take, what? A few years?”


“We hope to have the stretch along Southern California operational within two years, yes.”


“And what about the rest of California? And Canada? And Mexico?” Rick pushes. “What about Panama and South America? How long will that take?”


“Work is going on simultaneously at most of these sites--”


“How long will it take?” Rick pushes.


Adele stops, looking duly chagrined. “Five years is our estimate for 80 percent coverage,” she says. “Another two and we should be at 100 percent.”


“And that’s assuming no setbacks,” Rick says. “And what are you going to do without Jaegers? What are you going to do when the Kaiju learn to attack the open points? What then?”


Adele works her jaw a little bit. “The hope was to keep enough Jaegers operational to protect the coast until that time,” she concedes.


“Exactly,” Rick says. “Which is why you need to approve these repairs.”


She looks skeptical. “Two Jaegers is a luxury,” she tells him. “Mammoth has already been cleared for duty.”


Rick gives her a look. “Mammoth Apostle has his own repair needs,” he says. “And do you really want to tell the people up and down the coast to just hope for the best until the wall reaches them? Or do you want to look like you’re fighting on all fronts.”


Her gaze is dark. “Are you trying to use emotional blackmail on me?”


Rick reddens with a shrug. “I’m sorry if it was out of line--”


“No,” she says. “It’s quite impressive. I’m making a mental note to use it with my next request to Higgins.”


Rick grins, feeling relieved. He holds out the repair list. “So we can have the funding?”


She takes it, eyeing Rick critically. “Well, let’s just say I’m not ruling it out.”


-o-


“So?” Michael asks back in the Jaeger Bay.


Rick shrugs. “So what?”


“So, moron,” Casey says. “How did it go?”


“Did you manage to woo her with your infinite charms?” Billy asks.


Rick wrinkles his brow. “I was asking her for funding,” he says. “Not on a date.”


“The two do not have to be mutually exclusive,” Billy says. He winks. “I know you’d like that.”


Rick glares. “I asked her for the funding like you wanted.”


“Which gets us back to the question,” Michael says. “So?”


“So, she’ll see what she can do,” Rick says.


Michael makes a face. “That’s it?”


“Those results are surprisingly mediocre,” Casey concurs.


Billy shakes his head. “If you’d just asked her out--”


“She’ll work on it,” he says. “You can trust her.”


“She’s a power hungry middle manager,” Michael replies. “Trust really isn’t part of the picture.”


“Especially when she’s been the main person pushing against the Jaeger program,” Casey mutters.


“She wants what’s best for the PPDC,” Rick explains. “She wants what’s best for the world.”


“Ah, youthful idealism,” Billy says. “I do hope it never dies.”


Rick sighs. “If you don’t trust her, trust me.”


“You know how we feel about that,” Michael says.


“I knew we should have found a better way to blackmail him when he first came on board,” Casey says.


“Don’t listen to these two moody bastards,” Billy says. “I trust you. Wholeheartedly.”


“You share his brain,” Casey says. “You have no choice.”


“Unless you don’t trust yourself,” Michael says. “Given your history…”


“Wouldn’t it just be easier to trust me?” Rick asks.


“Easier, yes,” Michael says. “Smarter, no.”


“Feasible, no,” Casey says.


“But so much more fun!” Billy says.


Rick rolls his eyes. “Just wait,” he says. “You’ll see.”


-o-


A day passes, then two. Rick goes about his business with his head held high. Michael and Casey give him looks. In the Drift, he feels Billy’s doubts.


“I thought you trusted me!” Rick exclaims.


Billy gives him an apologetic look. “I say a lot of things I don’t mean.”


-o-


Rick tries not to be anxious. He knows he can’t fool Billy, but he’s disappointed he can’t fool the other guys.


“We may not be in the Drift with you, kid, but we still know a thing or two,” Michael assures him.


“Besides, you’re pretty simple to figure out,” Casey says. “You’re an idealistic believer who is too blind to turn back, even in the face of insurmountable obstacles and probable death.”


Rick is this close to pouting. “You guys really don’t like me, do you?”


Billy smiles in commiseration. “To the contrary, lad,” he says. “Those were all just compliments.”


-o-


Rick’s starting to worry. He’s losing sleep. Repairs are at a standstill.


Then, one morning, someone shakes him out of his position on Billy’s couch. He startles, flailing wildly as he falls on the floor. Michael is standing there, smirking. Casey is behind him, cracking his knuckles.


“Um,” Rick says. “Do you need something?”


“Yeah, you,” Michael says. “We’ve got a lot to do today.”


Rick is befuddled. “We’ve barely had anything to do all week,” he complains. “I thought were waiting….” His eyes widen.


Michael nods.


“You mean, it got approved?” he asks.


“Better still,” Michael said. “Shipment is already in the Bay.”


“Which is why you shouldn’t be in bed,” Casey says.


Rick scrambles to his feet. He glances over to where Billy is still passed out in the bed, tangled in his sheets. “Billy--”


Michael inclines his head. “You shower,” he says. He gestures to Casey. “Malick will get Billy up.”


Casey cracks his neck now. “With pleasure.”


-o-


In the shower, Rick can hear Billy yelp and curse. He considers going to see what measures Michael and Casey subjected his Drift companion to, but then again, Billy probably deserves it.


And really, Rick can only smile.


Things are finally getting back to normal.


-o-


After a week of scrapping together to make ends meet, the sudden influx of parts is a fresh spark of energy. They have supplies. They have funds.


They have hope.


That changes everything.


-o-


Hope is not just for him. Apparently, it’s a worldwide phenomenon.


Which is why everyone stops work -- no one goes out to Higgins’ precious wall -- when Striker Eureka makes her debut.


The techs are in love. J-science is taking bets while discussing the specs.


Rick watches as she moves, though. She’s fast; she’s strong; she’s fearless.


Among everything, what Rick sees more than anything, is hope.


-o-


Hope, as it turns out, is akin to confidence.


When he sees Adele approaching, he stops what he’s doing and smiles. She comes up to him. “I see repairs are going well.”


“Thanks to you, yes,” he says.


She shrugs, demure. “It was nothing.”


“It wasn’t nothing,” Rick says. “It was something. It was a lot of something.”


“Well, I’m just happy to have the power to help,” she says.


“And I’m grateful,” Rick says. He hesitates. She’s watching him, and he’s watching her. Their eyes are locked; their bodies are turned toward each other, leaned just slightly in. She’s interested; he’s interested; and they’ve danced so close to this that Rick decides to go for it. “I’d like to make it up to you.”


“Oh,” Adele says, waving her hand. “Just all part of my job.”


“No,” Rick says. “I’d like to thank you personally.”


Her eyebrows go up, the question unspoken on her lips.


“Go out on a date with me,” he blurts.


She blinks. “Oh. Um,” she says. “Is that a joke?”


Rick tilts his head, pausing for a moment. “Depends what your answer is,” he says. “If it’s yes, then no, I’m completely serious. If no, then, yes. It’s all a joke.”


Her lips tweak knowingly. “Is that really how you’d ask me out?” she asks. “By backing into it?”


Rick takes a breath. He nods. “Okay, then go out with me,” he says again. “Tonight. Dinner.”


She presses her lips together, shrugging coyly. “Can’t, I’m afraid.”


Rick’s eyes widen. “Tomorrow?”


“I’m not sure it’s a good idea to mix business and pleasure,” she says.


“Why not?” he presses.


“I’m a professional,” she says. “And technically your superior. It wouldn’t exactly be in my best interest professionally. And you’d never look at me the same.”


He shakes his head. “I have nothing but respect for you,” he says. “And I will only respect you more as I get to know you.”


“And for that, I am grateful,” she replies.


“So that’s a yes?” he asks hopefully.


She chuckles. “Oh, no,” she says.


Rick’s shoulders slump. “But--”


“But nothing,” she says. “I don’t date Jaeger pilots.”


Rick furrows his brow. “How can that be a thing? There’s not very many of us.”


“It’s come up,” she assures him.


“Then why didn’t you tell me that!” Rick exclaims.


Her eyes twinkle mischievously. “It was just so fun to watch you try.”


-o-


Even with hope, there’s reality.


The news plays, and Rick can’t look away.


“How can you look at a machine like Striker Eureka and not be impressed?” one anchor asks.


“Easy, because it’s like buying a sports car and taking it to the roller derby. No matter how well it does, it’s going to lose its value immediately. It’s an untenable solution.”


“But this isn’t a luxury. This is survival--”


“Which is why we can’t mess around with giant robots. I mean, come on. We think Jaegers are the salvation of mankind?”


“And the Wall of Life is so much better?”


“At least it’s a grown up solution to a grown up problem. This isn’t child’s play--”


“They can’t mean that,” Rick says with an incredulous snort.


Billy glances up. “Are you still watching this rubbish?”


“Well, yeah,” Rick says, watching as a diagram goes on screen, showing the loss and cost over the course of the Kaiju war. “I mean, it’s relevant.”


“It’s a bunch of idiot talking heads on a screen,” Casey says. “They’re more concerned with ratings than the truth.”


“And their talking points are pretty limited,” Michael says.


“And I thought we told you,” Billy lectures. “We can’t be in the game for the praise.”


“It’s not even that,” Rick says. “It’s just -- they don’t even understand. They’re just looking at these cold hard facts and it’s more than that.” He fumbles. “It’s--”


“Idealism,” Billy says.


“Pragmatism,” Michael says.


“War,” Casey concludes. He shakes his head. “Besides, Higgins watches the news.”


Rick frowns. “So?”


“So,” Michael says. “That means you shouldn’t.”


“But don’t you want to prove yourself?” Rick says. “Don’t you want to tell your side of the story?”


Billy smiles reassuringly. “The longer we keep killing Kaiju, the longer we do just that,” he says. “And that’s all you need to focus on.”


-o-


Focus.

Rick’s always been good with focus. He’s always been able to set his mind to something and accomplish it. He’s gotten everything he’s ever wanted.


Because here he is. A Jaeger pilot. Saving the world.


So really, this shouldn’t be so hard.


He just needs to focus.


-o-


He trains. He works.


Orion Disruptor is ready. He and Billy are in synch.


Now, it’s a waiting game.


-o-


In the spare moments -- no matter how fleeting they are -- he looks at his mother’s letter. He sits down, pen in hand and scrawls a simple note.


Dear Mama,


There’s not much to tell you that you don’t already know. I am working hard and keeping busy. I do miss your asopao, though.


Most of what you see in the news isn’t important, but just know that I’m doing everything I can to keep the coastline safe. To keep you safe.


I miss you, Mama.


He lingers, considering whether to add a promise to see her when this is over.


Finally he writes.


Love,
Rick


He looks at the letter. It’s not much -- not as much as it should be -- but it’s something. Sighing, he folds his response and puts it in an envelope. He neatly puts on her address and licks it closed.


Focus, he tells himself. It’s all a question of focus.


-o-


He’s eating lunch when the alarm sounds. He exchanges a look with Billy. They both freeze, then drop their forks and run. They reach the command center only to find Michael and Casey are already there. Casey looks grim.


Michael takes a breath and nods his head. “Suit up,” he says. “You’re on.”


-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-


Billy still remembers his first Kaiju. He remembers the exhilaration; he still feels the thrill of the battle. It was terrifying, sure, but the most enlivening experience of his entire life.


He remembers it like it was yesterday, in fact. That’s a funny side effect of the Drift. The past and the present coalesce; history never seems as separate as it used to.

It’s the same thrill Rick gets, even if he tries not to admit it.


So Billy knows the feeling.


He just doesn’t feel it at all anymore.


Standing there, in LOCCENT command, his stomach churns as he looks at the screen. “What are we looking at?” he prompts. There’s no familiar flourish in the question; bloody hell, Billy is getting old.


Michael, at least, seems to share his anxieties. “Name’s Mincemeat,” he says as they all gather round. Casey is there, and Rick stands right next to Billy. Mammoth’s pilots have showed up now as well. Michael swallows a little, hesitating slightly. “Category 4.”


There’s a moment of stunned silence. “So they don’t think the one in Japan a few months ago was a fluke?” Rick asks finally.


“Did anyone actually think that?” Casey says. “The Kaiju have always been emerging with progressive increases in size and capability. This is the new normal.”


“Mincemeat is bigger and stronger than the one in Japan,” he says. “But he’s also slower.”


“Somehow I’m not feeling overly assured,” Billy murmurs.


“Still,” Casey says. “This will easily be the biggest challenge yet.”


“So who’s on point?” Rick ventures, glancing uncertainly at Mammoth’s pilots. They’re not enemies by any stretch of the imagination, but there is little camaraderie between them. It’s hard to tell why exactly, but Billy reckons he and Rick aren’t the most sociable pair of pilots. Besides, pilots have never been the type to link arms and sing songs ‘round the campfire. There’s too much competition in the program for that.


At least, there used to be.


Now, it’s too hard to be friends with someone who will likely die on the next run.


“Both of you,” Michael says, eyes going from Billy to Rick and the other two. His gaze locks on Billy’s again. “We saw what a Cat 4 did in Japan. It took three Jaegers, and only one came out standing.”


“Gee, now I’m feeling so much better about this,” Billy quips.


Rick nods, though. Resolute. “We can do this,” he says. “We’re ready.”


Billy watches him, and the lad is so young it actually hurts. He’s too young for this; too bright and idealistic. He’s who Billy used to be, when he didn’t know better. When he thought he had nothing to lose.


Before he’d been proven wrong.


Sometimes Billy thinks he’s living on borrowed time.


Sometimes he thinks he’s been giving the greatest gift possible -- a second chance -- and he’s squandering it.


Sometimes he thinks Olivia was right to leave.


Sometimes he wishes he’d followed her.


None of that matters now. None of it changes the task before him. Billy wanted to be a hero, and now he’s going to be one, whether he likes it or not.


“So where’s it headed?” Billy asks.


Michael works his jaw. “Here,” he says, and the room settles into uncomfortable stillness. “It’s making a straight beeline to LA.”


-o-


Billy needs to focus.


After all, there is a Kaiju approaching. And he’s being tasked with dispatching it before it annihilates the city. If he fails, he’s likely going to die.


Which is why he needs to focus.


He can’t, though. Not at all. His fingers are shaking as he suits up; his hands fumble as he tries to get dressed. He almost runs into an open locker and he bangs his knee on a bench with a curse.


He can’t.


It’s another funny thing about drifting -- people talk about chasing RABITs in the drift, but they start to exist more in real life, too. His memories are too real now; too vibrant. He has less separation, and he can’t always control them. Wisps, like phantoms in his mind.


He can still feel it as the metal punctures his side, ripping through his gear like it was nothing at all. He can feel the agony, the pain, radiating and growing, the screams he can no longer distinguish between Olivia’s and his own.


“Hold on, Billy,” she begs. “Just hold on.”


Because Billy had promised. Billy had made so many promises, and he’s broken them all in the end. He’s a liar and a coward and ultimately just not a very good man.


It’s his last memory of Olivia.


Sometimes he thinks it should have been his last memory all together.


But he’s still alive, still making promises he’s not sure he can keep. Still fighting a war he’s pretty sure he can’t win.


He loves it, though. He loves fighting in a Jaeger and he loves the drift. There’s nothing better in life. There’s nothing more noble. But he can’t help but think; if Rick had another partner, a better partner.


Rick trusts Billy, just like Olivia did.


Billy’s just not sure he trusts himself anymore.


“You’re thinking about it again,” Rick notes.


Billy startles, cheeks reddening as he turns his attention to his boots with renewed concentration. “Just trying to psych myself up,” he says with a wan smile. “Big day.”


Rick doesn’t buy it. “You didn’t do anything wrong in your last run with Olivia,” he says.


Billy doesn’t look up at him, adjusting his gear.


“It wasn’t your fault,” Rick continues. “I looked it up; you were pretty close to death. You couldn’t have held on, no matter how hard you tried.”


“I reckon I didn’t try very hard, though,” Billy quips gently.


“I don’t believe that,” Rick says. “It’s like you always say; this is hero’s work. You have to be willing to die for the cause or you have no business getting in a Jaeger.”


Billy looks at the younger man fondly. He likes Rick. He sees himself in Rick. Which is probably why he pities the lad. “I’m afraid I may have steered you wrong,” he says. “That’s the talk of a martyr, not a hero.”


“Aren’t they the same?”


“I used to think so,” Billy muses. “Now, I’m not so sure.”


Rick nudges him. “I am,” he says with a grin.


Billy smiles back and tries not to admit that may be what scares him the most.


-o-


As the load up into Orion Disruptor, Casey stands idle.


“Why, Casey,” Billy realizes. “You’re more nervous than I am.”


Casey scowls. “I’m not nervous,” he snaps. “We’re just so well prepared. I have nothing of value to do.”


“You’re nervous, mate,” Billy says with a satisfied nod.


Casey sighs. “That’s because you’re an idiot.”


“We’re ready,” Rick interjects calmly, getting himself into position.


“And you’re too young to be so cocky,” Casey says dourly.


Rick rolls his eyes. “This is the job I signed up to do,” he says. “The job we all signed up to do.”


Billy’s stomach flips, and he forces a hard smile on his lips. “My, they grow up so fast,” he comments wryly.


Casey snorts. “As opposed to you, who never grew up at all.”


“There’s time yet,” Billy assures him. “You’ll see.”


“I better,” Casey says, holding his gaze.


Billy looks away, suddenly uncomfortable. He’s given enough promises he’s not sure he can keep. He doesn’t fancy another one.


The silence doesn’t make him feel any better, though.


At this point, he reckons nothing will.


So he gears up, settles down, and doesn’t look back.


-o-


“Okay, Mammoth Apostle is already in the water,” Michael’s voice comes. “How are you two?”


Billy glances to Rick, who nods emphatically. “Ready for neural handshake,” the younger man says.


“All right,” Michael replies. “You guys sure you’re ready?”


Billy’s mouth is clamped shut tight with all the doubt he can’t bring himself to speak. It doesn’t matter, though. Rick’s answer is without reservation. “Completely,” he says.


“Here we go, then,” Michael says. “Initiating neural handshake.”


Billy takes a breath, clenches his fists and closes his eyes.


-o-


For Rick, it just keeps getting easier. He blasts past his memories and easily circumvents Billy’s. He’s a strong and consistent presence, fully in control of the drift without a moment’s hesitation.


For Billy, it just gets harder. The memories are draining and sorting through them feels messy. He’s overwhelmed by the influx of emotions, and doesn’t know how to make Rick’s confidence parse with his own lingering uncertainties. It’s hard to let go -- Rick’s mom, his boss at MI-6, Rick’s fiance, Olivia -- but Rick’s strong presence is impossible to miss.


He pushes through, and when his mind settles, Rick smiles.


Michael’s voice resounds through the connection. “Neural handshake complete.”


-o-


It’s always a heady feeling, stepping out of the Jaeger Bay. Billy’s sitting on top of a massive metal machine, wielding it seamlessly with the power of his mind. He strides out into the ocean and still stands tall.


This is part of the appeal, he knows. This is why Jaeger pilots are notoriously cocky. There is unprecedented control; unimaginable power. In essence, Rangers become nothing short of a force of nature. Capable and strong.


But not quite invincible.


“Yeah,” Rick agrees, in synch with Billy’s thought. “But neither are the Kaiju.”


Billy chuckles. “Where did you learn such unabashed optimism?”


Rick smirks. “I had a good teacher.”


“Too good, I reckon,” Billy says. He nods out to the open water. “Shall we?”


Rick nods. “I’m ready when you are.”


They stride out together.


-o-


Most of the time, Billy would be thankful to do without the flight into location. It’s a strange, surreal feeling, being carted by air in a giant machine. He knows there’s little chance of being dropped prematurely, but it always makes him unduly nervous, as if a short flight is somehow more dangerous than a murderous hell beast from the bottom of the ocean.


The short walk, however, doesn’t make him feel much better. His stomach is still in knots by the time they arrive at their coordinates, and he’s sweating uncomfortably in his suit.


Rick’s still the new guy in this relationship, but he handles everything like it’s old hat. He coordinates with Michael; he gets their position finalized; he makes a visual with Mammoth Apostle.


Billy keeps in tandem, rolling his shoulders and flexing his fingers.


“Okay,” Michael says. “Just sit tight. We’ll keep you updated on the ETA and trajectory.”


“Copy that,” Rick says.


They turn and steady their stance, hunkering down and letting their systems idle while they wait. Rick’s attention is acute, senses totally primed. He breathes, and Billy breathes with him. They don’t have to look at each other, not in the drift.


“Heroes’ work,” Rick says. “This is what we were meant to do.”


Billy can’t help but wish he wasn’t right.


-o-


They wait.


Rick’s been waiting his entire life.


Billy’s been waiting since Olivia left him.


It’s only now that Billy thinks maybe they’ve all been waiting for different things.


Right when the Kaiju leaps out of the water and it’s too late to think about anything at all.


-o-


Billy’s seen Kaiju. He’s studied them in film; he’s faced them in person. He’s seen their teeth ripping into metal, he’s felt their meaty hands pound against the ocean. He’s watched them bleed blue until the light fades in their grotesque eyes.


So Billy’s seen Kaiju.


But never one like this.


Mincemeat may be slower, but he’s still a massive beast with a surprising amount of agility. He’s literally airborne for a moment, hurling his thick frame through the air and almost sideswiping Mammoth Apostle as it lands feet first in the water, sending large waves rippling toward them. He’s an ugly son of a bitch, with mottled skin that is almost black in parts and a broad face and a grizzled snout. His two eyes are deeply set, gleaming under a prominent brow. The back of his head arches back almost into a crest, with a handful of asymmetrical spikes that turn down in a line down his back.


His arms are massive and totally muscled. His fists are punctuated with short claws and when he opens his mouth to bellow, he displays two rows of jagged teeth as he hisses fire.


There’s a racket over the comm, but it’s all drowned out by Mincemeat’s second roar. Mammoth Apostle turns to attack, bringing its cannons up to bear, and Billy is moving with Rick to jog the distance toward their fellow Jaeger.


It’s not a far distance, but it may as well be miles.


Mammoth charges his gun, and the first volley is a direct hit. He lets off a second and a third and a fourth hit, which Billy knows has downed more than one Kaiju.


Mincemeat, however, doesn’t even flinch. There’s a spray of blue blood but Mincemeat bellows again, expanding his jaw and then rearing back. The lower jaw comes almost completely open, and a third and four set of teeth descend as the jaw unhinges. Mincemeat turns his head, lunging forward even as Mammoth disperses a fifth round. On the sixth, Mincemeat has its jaw around Mammoth’s head before it clamps shut.


Billy expects it to be a drawn out process, but Mincemeat’s jaw is unlike anything they’ve seen. Even across the water, moving against the win, Billy can hear it. The sound of crunching metal and blown circuits as the jaws cut through the layers of defense and weaponry. Mammoth’s cannons falter; his arms go limp; there’s a shriek over the comm system and then Mincemeat whips his head, ripping Mammoth’s head clean off his body, taking the conn-pod with him as he crunches almost gleefully.


Mammoth’s decapitated form falls listlessly into the water, and as Orion Disruptor approaches, Mincemeat turns, bits of metal and wiring poking out of his mouth. His eyes gleam as Billy and Rick charge forward, and there’s no time to anticipate Mincemeat’s next attack.


His mouth opens and then there’s debris -- everywhere. Something hard pings off Disruptor’s body; something dings the arms. When something almost shatters the windshield, Billy realizes what’s happening.


The Kaiju is spitting at them. Not just venom or whatnot; he’s spitting Mammoth Apostle. He’s turned a down Jaeger into a weapon. He’s using the metal and the parts and the people --


Billy’s stomach turns, and Rick’s mind hardens.


They’ve never seen a Kaiju like this before.


And they’re going to make sure no one else does either.


-o-


Billy’s never been under the impression that what he does is easy. Even before his injury, he’d always been well aware of the inherent peril. After all, as terrifying as Kaiju look on screen, they’re even worse in real life. Billy doesn’t throw the term hell beast around lightly, but it hardly does Mincemeat justice.


Mincemeat is nothing but power, and if he’s slower, Billy reckons it doesn’t matter much. Orion Disruptor is unconventional and wiry, which helps, but even a glancing blow incurs significant damage.


Which is why they’re losing systems left and right. Worse still, they can hardly get close enough to mount an effective offensive. They’ve landed a few blasts from their guns, but it’s hardly even slowed Mincemeat down.


“We’ll never take him head on!” Billy finally calls out.


“So let’s not,” Rick counters. “Casey trains us for the long haul--”


Billy understands. “Let’s see if our monstrous companion here has done the same.”


Gritting his teeth, Billy shifts his weight until they’re both on their feet. They stand still long enough for Mincemeat to approach -- and then they start to run.


-o-


At first Billy worries Mincemeat won’t play their game -- that he’ll set his sights on the shore -- but if Kaiju are getting stronger and more effective, they’re also getting more vindictive. They see the Jaegers as their enemies and seek them out.


Relentlessly.


Rick and Billy start off at a brisk pace, staying as shallow as possible without getting too close to the shoreline. They don’t want to risk the city, but they also don’t want to give Mincemeat too much opportunity to swim. Their only advantage at this point is the beast’s lumbering pace, an advantage they’ll lose if Mincemeat takes to the water.


Working together, they bob and weave, coming up and backtracking every now and then to land a few hits. Their aim is spectacular, but it doesn’t do much good. Mincemeat is damn near invincible.


“Do we have air support on standby?” Billy huffs as they jog again, listening to the sound of Mincemeat breaking through the waves behind them.


The comm crackles. “Tracking you the whole way, Disruptor,” Michael reports.


“What about nukes?” Rick asks. “This son of a bitch isn’t going down.”


“You’d have to get clear of the area,” Michael says.


Billy grunts. “Somehow I don’t think that’s happening.”


Rick seethes. “He has to have a weakness,” he says.


“Aye, but we have to find it soon,” Billy mutters as they veer off again, doubling back to mount a short offensive. They score three direct hits before Mincemeat howls and dives at them -- sending them running again. “Because at this point, we may wear out before he does.”


“Not on your life,” Rick hisses, pushing the pace as Billy has no choice but to comply.


“Aye,” Billy says again, breathless now. “That’s what I’m worried about.”


-o-


A half hour.


It’s not the longest fight Billy’s been in, but it’s the most exhausting. His vision is dim around the edges and every part of him feels ready to give up.


Rick screams, his own energy giving out.


Monitors are wailing. Systems are failing.


“You guys need to move!” Michael yells. “Move, move, move!”


But there’s no more time to move.


There’s no more time to run.


Billy and Rick don’t need to talk.


They simply act.


A perfect pair, entirely in unison. Bonded, down to their very souls. All their questions are answers. All their doubts are assuaged. They can’t win by running.


They can only win by fighting.


Turning, they pull Orion Disruptor upright, squaring his shoulders and lifting his guns as Mincemeat charges straight at them.


They fire -- one, two, three, four, five -- not stopping as he closes the gap, approaching them with his mouth wide and unhinged before the world is consumed in blackness.


-o-


Blackness but not nothingness.


Metal screeches, and sparks fly. Billy’s mind flashes, and he tenses, the memory of his last fight with Olivia coming to mind. He’d had no choice, then.


He may have no choice now.


The alarms are blaring; Michael is all but screaming. The walls start to cave and Billy sees gnarled teeth rip through the exterior.


Rick’s connection falters, and his mind races. There’s a flash of Trespasser on the TV screen, the smoking remains of San Francisco. There’s Rick saying goodbye to his mother.


This is it.


This time, it’s really it.


Billy’s body tenses and he tries to pull down when he realizes he can’t. Because his arm is locked up.


His arm.


Disruptor’s arm.


It’s in front of them. When Mincemeat latched on, he tried to take Disruptor’s arm with it. He can easily crush through it all, after all.


If Billy lets him.


Because Disruptor’s arm has guns.


Lots and lots of guns.


And if this son of a bitch is armed like steel on the outside, Billy has to think there’s more give on the inside.


He doesn’t know if they can still fire, but at this point, he has nothing to lose.


Rather, he has everything to lose.


And just one chance to save it.


Screaming, Billy feels something slash against him. His stomach burns and hot blood pools inside his suit. Rick flails, something hitting him hard on the head before slicing across his face after shattering his helmet. Rick’s mind flits wildly. Billy’s concentration flags.


It’d be easy to let go.


So very, very easy.


But Billy made a promise.


And this time --


This time he’s bloody going to keep it.


Mustering the last of his strength he keeps his arm steady and fires. The muffled sound is loud and the explosion flares too close to their decimated conn podd. The flash is blinding and Billy closes his eyes but just keeps firing.


He fires with every ounce of strength he has, with every bit of courage he can fire. He fires until it’s the only thing he knows, the only thing that matters--


Until there’s simply nothing left at all.


-o-


They fall.


In the dark, it’s disorienting. The impact is sudden and unexpected, and Billy hears the rush of water somewhere distant. His eyes are open but they might as well be closed, and every synapse in his body is overloaded and overwrought. He’s not sure what pain he feels anymore -- his own or Rick’s or Disruptor -- but it’s all building, it’s all coming to a point, it’s all been working toward this the entire bloody time--


And then, light.


It’s bright against his retinas, and he can only stare through the jagged cracks of what used to be the conn-pod.


With the light comes water, and it fills the space as they start to drift.


Not drifting.


Sinking.


Disruptor is dying. The Kaiju is gone.


Rick is…


“It’s okay,” Rick breathes somehow, even as his vision fades and falters. “It’s okay now.”


And Rick’s mother is crying and Olivia is screaming and Rick’s eye doesn’t work and Billy’s blood is filling his suit and Disruptor is sinking and maybe this is it, maybe this has always been it. Maybe he’s always been meant to die this way, to die here, to die like this.


“It’s okay,” Rick intones, voice steady in his head as the pain numbs everything and his body loosens. “It’s okay.”


Maybe it’s time to let go.


Maybe--


Billy’s breath catches, his consciousness flags.


Maybe--


Rick remembers his mother; Rick smiles.


Rick lets go.


And Billy screams.


-o-


He’s felt loss before. He’s felt pain worse than he can imagine. He’s felt death, in all honesty, but not like this. There’s nothing like this. There’s no way to describe it, the feeling of losing someone.


Not just the person, but who they are. Part of yourself. It’s like someone has cut his brain in half; ripped out half of his soul. The better half.


The silence is so loud it hurts. It hurts, it aches, it throbs -- it damn near drives him insane. His heart beats hollowly in his chest, his memories echo distantly in his mind. He feels like he’s been gutted; he feels like he’s been taken apart. He feels empty. He feels broken.


He feels dead.


Because Rick’s been right about most things, but not about this. This isn’t okay.


This will never be okay.


Rick may let go, but Billy’s not going to. Not this time. He’s going to hang on until the very last. He’s never going to let go.


No matter what.


-o-


It’s not easy to disconnect, and Billy’s body protests at the slightest movement. Not that he actually cares, but the meager act of lifting his arm is a monumental effort. He hefts his helmet off, letting it drop to the water rising beside him. He can’t rotate enough with the pain in his abdomen to unhook properly, but since Disruptor is as good as dead anyway, he doesn’t bother to do it right and gathers his strength, gritting his teeth as he yanks himself free.


Out of his harness, he floats on the water, a little too dazed to move. The light is fading now as the water rises, and Billy thinks fleetingly about trying for the escape pods but is too tired to consider if they’ll even work given how much of Disruptor has been compromised.


As it is, it takes all his energy to roll over. He swims lamely across the conn-podd, grabbing weakly onto Rick’s harness to pull himself closer.


Rick’s helmet is a mess with the protective shield broken. His face has been lacerated, cutting up along his cheek and slicing through his eyelid. It doesn’t look too deep, but the placement is bad. As it is, it’s a bloody mess, and Billy feels his stomach turn.


Fortunately, he doesn’t even have the energy to be sick. Instead, he works to disconnect Rick, pulling away the harness until the lad is floating on top of the water alongside him. Billy pulls him close, ignoring the spike of pain throughout his torso as he holds Rick tighter.


The structure of the conn-pod groans and Billy contemplates the escape pods again. They’re going down fast, though, and the water is rising. Much longer, and Billy will drown before he can finish his so-called rescue attempt. The problem is, he’s not sure what to do. He’s not even sure if he can move. He feels cold and exhausted and if he closes his eyes, he thinks he could just sleep.


He could let go.


Jostling himself, he yanks Rick closer. He can’t do that. He won’t.


He just needs a way out. He just needs a wee bit a hope.


Billy looks up, squinting at the last bits of light. They’re almost to the top now and Billy can almost touch it. The sky seems to be right outside--


Because it is outside.


Mincemeat nearly killed them but he also left them with their way out. Because Billy can’t reach the escape pods and Billy can’t pilot a dead Jaeger to safety. But he can hold onto Rick and slip through the broken conn-pod.


All he has to do is hold on.


His heart races as the water rises, and he adjusts his grip on Rick as they approach the peeled away portion of the metal. It’s jagged, so Billy kicks weakly, trying to get Rick as centered as possible. When the water has almost filled the pod, Billy pushes Rick up, takes a deep breath as the water covers his head, and then kicks.


He holds tight, kicking against the downward pull of the water, he kicks and kicks and holds on until he breaks the surface.


This is a promise fulfilled. This is surviving. This is why Olivia never looked back. This is why Billy should have died in Avalon Challenger, all those years ago. This is why Billy will never let go again.


In the vast ocean, Billy’s no more than a speck, small and insignificant. He floats on the water, his hand locked around Rick’s wrist, and he just keeps holding on.