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Chaos/Pacific Rim: The First Line of Defense (7a1/7)

December 29th, 2013 (02:54 pm)
depressed

feeling: depressed

Other stuff in the MASTER POST



“There has to be something you can do,” Michael says. He’s not talking to Rick; he’s talking right next to Rick, sitting rigidly in the chair.

In the bed across the room, Billy is propped up on pillows. Two weeks after their encounter with the Kaiju outside of LA, and he’s off the critical list, but he’s still slow in his recovery and sleeps more than he’s awake. Even so, he’s awake and aware now. “We can build neural links between people,” Billy interjects. “Surely you can fix a scratch.”

The doctor doesn’t look pleased. He’d asked to talk to Rick alone, but Michael had insisted on staying. Rick didn’t see the point in asking him to leave.

As for Billy – well, the Scotsman isn’t going anywhere. It’s not clear if that’s Rick’s choice or Billy’s, but it’s a fairly constant truth that Rick’s not going to fight.

Still, Rick can imagine it’s quite the audience. Billy’s large puppy dog eyes and Michael no-nonsense demands. Rick almost feels sorry for him.

“There are some things that simply can’t be fixed,” he explains. “We’re lucky that the damage was mostly contained so that the majority of his vision won’t be negatively impacted.”

“He’s still going to be blind,” Michael points out.

“Just to the side,” the doctor says. “For most people, the loss of peripheral vision is mostly an annoyance—“

“But for a Jaeger pilot?” Billy asks.

The doctor grits his teeth. He doesn’t want to say it, not with Michael and Billy there.

Michael’s not going to admit it; Billy probably can’t even grasp it.

But Rick knows.

With a sudden, deadening clarity, he knows. He’s held out hope ever since waking up; he’s held on to the resilient belief; but it’s like coming through the neural handshake and seeing the Drift for the first time. When it’s quiet and clear, the truth isn’t obscured by desires and histories.

It merely is.

And Rick knows.

“I’m grounded,” he says, the weight of the bandage on his face, covering his eye suddenly heavier than it used to be. “Aren’t I?”

Next to him, Michael stiffens. Billy holds his breath.

The doctor sighs, looking genuinely regretful for the first time. “I’m sorry, Mr. Martinez,” he says. “But you’ll never be a Ranger again.”

-o-

The doctor rambles on – he shows Rick charts and pictures and leaves him with some pamphlets to read. He asks for questions, but Rick is too numb to think of any. Michael harasses the man for a while, so when Rick quietly thanks him for his time, the doctor is more than eager to make a hasty exit.

To Rick, that’s that.

To Michael and Billy, on the other hand.

“I think we should get a second opinion,” Billy announces.

“I’ve been doing some reading on eye injuries,” Michael says. “There’s a lot of stuff that this guy hasn’t even talked about.”

“The PPDC called the first so-called expert on their list,” Billy continues. “Can’t we find a facility with more specialized treatment options?”

“I can make a few calls,” Michael says. “There’s this place that relocated from Seattle further inland. Supposed to be some of the best.”

They mean well, and Rick knows that. He even appreciates it. Normally, he’d humor them. And really, there’s no reason not to fight. He knows doctors aren’t perfect, and he’s lived his entire life believing that if he works harder, if he just keeps pressing, he can change fates in his favor.

He’s never given up. Not ever. Even when things looked bleak; even when Kaiju rose from the sea; even when he got rejections letters. He’s never stopped trying.

Until now.

“It’s okay,” Rick starts to say.

Billy shakes his head. “You fought for a cause greater than yourself,” he says. “You nearly died for it; you deserve better than lackluster treatment—“

“For once, Collins is right,” Michael says. “There is zero reason to accept this diagnosis as the end of things. We have options—“

Rick makes a face. “Guys,” he says. “Really. I’m okay.”

Billy looks a little crestfallen. “But your eye—“

“I’m alive,” Rick says. “That’s more than most pilots can say at this point in the war.”

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Michael says.

“For what, though?” Rick asks.

Michael shifts uncomfortably. “Well, you want to be fully operational—“

“For what?” Rick asks, voice hinging a little now. Because he has almost died and on the other side, the world is starkly different now. Because he’s broken and he’s weary and— “We don’t have a Jaeger. We don’t even probably have jobs anymore.”

Michael’s face clenches; Billy goes white. “We can sort something out,” Billy says, glancing at Michael. “We can.”

Michael looks back, cheeks reddening.

Rick’s shoulders sag. “Look, what I’m trying to say is that it’s okay,” he says. “The Jaeger program is over and I’m okay.”

Billy’s mouth is hanging open, but Michael draws a slow breath. “I suppose you are,” he says with a small smile.

“I think we all can be,” Rick continues, a little desperate now. “I mean, we can, can’t we?”

Billy’s eyes are full of anguish, even as Michael nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Maybe we can be.”

Rick’s always been the gullible one, but for the first time, he can see through Michael’s lie as plain as anything. He’s trying – for Rick. Just like Billy is trying – and failing. Casey couldn’t even keep trying, which is why he walked away while he still could.

Because Rick’s the one who lost part of his vision.

But for the first time since waking up, Rick realizes that he’s not the only one who lost something.

-o-

It’s quiet.

The hours have always been long in the infirmary, but now they seem longer still. Michael doesn’t talk about what comes next. Billy doesn’t tell stories about once was. They won’t leave each other – the three of them, it’s a thing now – and Rick would never want them to go.

But it is getting a little stifling. He finds that he looks forward to Billy’s physical therapy sessions because it’s the only time when he doesn't feel like he’s suffocating in their depression.

Because that’s what it is. It’s depression. It’s a loss of hope that’s killing his team from the inside out. Rick wants to help, more than anything. Which is why he doesn’t ask for his own room and tries to cajole them into conversation.

Even so, their absence is like a breath of fresh air. Which is why he’s a little sad when someone knocks at the door. He’s tempted to say nothing and hope whoever it is goes away, but when the door opens of his own accord, he knows he has nowhere to hide.

Before he can come up with a better defense tactic, he looks up and sees Adele.

He stops, grinning. “Hey,” he says, pleasantly surprised.

“Hi,” she says, looking a little embarrassed in the doorway. “If this is a bad time—“

“No, no,” Rick says, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Just resting for a little bit.”

“They say you’re doing great,” she says. “Should be out of here soon.”

“In a few days, in fact,” Rick says. Then he pauses, tilting his head. “Were you checking up on me?”

She looks coy. “I am in charge of personnel,” she says. “It’s my responsibility.”

Rick grins knowingly. “Uh huh. If that’s what you have to tell yourself.”

At that, she smiles, making her way a little farther in the room. “So I assume you are happy with your recovery?”

Rick shrugs. “It’s not so bad.”

“And your eye?”

Rick wrinkles his nose, scratching absently at the bandage. He’s supposed to keep it covered a little longer, to improve his outcome and reduce the risk of infection in his still healing sutures. “Come on,” he cajoles. “If you know I’m being discharged, you know the prognosis.”

“Well, I thought I’d be polite by asking,” she says. “And besides, I heard you were considering alternative treatments?”

Rick chuckles, resisting the urge to roll his eye. “There’s no reason,” he says. “I can still see.”

“But your peripheral vision—“

“Won’t affect my daily life,” he says.

“But as a Ranger—“

Rick stops her with a look. “Not you, too.”

She shakes her head, confused. “I don’t—“

“I’m not a Ranger anymore,” he says. “Higgins closed the Jaeger program, remember?”

“Well, that doesn’t mean that there’s not an operational need—“

He keeps his gaze steady. “I’m done,” he says. “You knew it before I did, but even Higgins doesn’t want to fire someone who just saved LA. It’s bad press, right?”

Adele’s expression turns flustered. “It’s not like that—“

He raises his eyebrow.

She wet her lips. “Well, not completely like that.”

Rick shrugged. “I’m okay with it,” he says. “Really.”

She gives him a long once over. “You are handling this surprisingly well.”

“Well, there are worse outcomes,” Rick says. “I mean, how many Jaeger pilots actually make it to retirement? Especially now?”

“You would be among one of the few,” she says.

“Exactly,” Rick tells her.

“You know,” she says thoughtfully. “I never really put much thought into what the Jaeger program was really all about. I mean, sure I knew it was giant robots fighting giant monsters, but I saw it from this practical standpoint. Dollars and statistics. The only reason I took a position with the PPDC was that I thought it would boost my credentials.”

Rick finds himself surprised, even though he reflects he shouldn’t be. “What do you want to do?”

“Well the plan was always to go into diplomacy,” she admits. “My father was a diplomat, and I’d like to start at the State Department. But I didn’t want to start as an intern, so I figured I make a few other rounds in the public sector, get some additional references.”

“Well, your work here has been impressive,” Rick tells her. “How’s the wall coming?”

“Good, actually,” she says. Then she stops. “Do you think it’s a viable option?”

Rick is taken aback. “You’re spearheading the construction,” he says. “Shouldn’t you already be sure of that?”

“Like I said, I was looking at the numbers,” she says. “But seeing what you do in the field; seeing how you train and fight; it’s not simple statistics, is it? It’s more.”

More is about the only way to describe it. Sometimes Rick doesn’t know what to think of it himself. He worked so hard to get here, and it ended so fast, and this should bother him.

This should be a lot of things.

Rick’s lost part of his vision. His only purpose in life has been cut due to budget constraints. All his work, all his skill, everything – is gone.

“You know,” he says. “In the Drift, you see everything good and bad thing in your life. It’s all there, the best and the worst.”

“I’ve read about it,” she muses. “It sounds overwhelming.”

“It is,” Rick says. “The first neural handshake – well, there’s nothing quite like it.”

“Another reason why pilots are so impressive.”

“But that’s the thing,” Rick continues. “Once you sort through it all, once you see it, all you have to do is just…stop.”

She inclines her head, uncertain.

“You let it go,” he realizes. “The Drift is silence. Everything you thought mattered doesn’t matter so much. All you care about – the only thing you care about – is stopping the monsters and bringing your partner back home.”

She is watching him, almost enthralled. Her lips turn up in a small, reserved smile. “Then in that, you succeeded.”

“We saved the city,” he says. “But Billy’s the one who saved me. Without him, I’d still be lost in the Drift.”

“Without him you’d be dead,” she says quietly.

“And I’m not,” Rick says. He laughs. “Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I’m okay. I would have been okay, dying in the field. I could have gone down with Disruptor. But I guess there’s still something for me to do here.”

She shrugs. “Maybe another position at the PPDC?” she asks. “We’ve had great success using former pilots in leadership roles. I could make some calls.”

Rick makes a face. “I don’t think so,” he says.

“Come on,” she prods. “You’re going to need the job.”

“Maybe someday, then,” he says. “But not now.”

“But what else are you going to do?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “But I’ll find out. I always do.”

She sighs. It’s clear there’s more she wants to say, but she’s smart enough to know there’s no point now. “Well, if you change your mind, you have my number.”

Rick frowns. “No I don’t.”

“Well, if you call the PPDC, I’m sure they’ll transfer you through.”

“And you’ll take my call?” he asks, hopefully.

“No,” she tells him with a smooth smile. “But I will listen to your voicemail.”

“And you’ll call me back?”

She bites her lip playfully. “If you say the right thing,” she says. “I do feel a little guilty about you being out of a job.”

“I thought I wasn’t fired,” Rick objects.

“Well, we both said a lot of things,” Adele comments.

“And still we said nothing that matters,” he observes.

“There’s time yet,” she says. “This war isn’t over yet, Mr. Martinez.”

“No,” he agrees. He looks at her and wonders. In another life, they could have been more by now. In another life, their future could be clearer. But this is the only life there is, and Rick has been playing giant robots while Adele builds a wall. Now, it seems, there’s so much left to say and no space left to speak. “It really isn’t, Deputy Director Ferrar.”

She moves forward, extending her hand. Rick looks at it for a moment before reaching out, shaking it slowly. “I’ll be waiting for your call,” she says primly.

Rick eyes her carefully. He thinks about doing more, about making a move. But he can’t fall in love, not right now. Not when he’s still recovering, not when he’s still mourning. Not when Billy’s still in therapy and Michael doesn’t have a plan. Not when he doesn’t know where Casey it at all. Not when he still dreams of Orion Disruptor, falling deep into the ocean. “I look forward to your answering machine.”

She pulls her hand back, squaring her shoulder. “Until then,” she says.

He nods to her. “Until then.”

-o-

Billy’s been chipper these days – almost blindly so – but after he gets back from his physical therapy, it’s pretty clear he’s wiped. He smiles and tries to joke, but once Michael helps him settle back on his bed, the Scot is out almost immediately. In the quiet, Michael sits down in the chair, watching Billy for a moment.

Rick watches Michael.

“Something you need to say, Martinez?” Michael asks without moving his gaze.

Rick shouldn’t be surprised – he knows how well honed his team is – but he still finds himself blushing. “Not really.”

Michael glances toward him. “You and I haven’t drifted, but I still know when you’re thinking too much.”

Rick sighs. “I just…don’t get why you’re still here.”

Michael raises his eyebrows. “You think I’d ditch you?”

“You don't owe me anything,” Rick says. “You probably have things to do.”

Michael snorts. “What good is a LOCCENT Command chief without a LOCCENT Operations Center?”

“They’ll still do monitoring—“

“They just need one,” Michael says. “Hong Kong has always been the first choice.”

“They won’t just fire you,” Rick says. “Even if Higgins wanted you, someone up the food chain—“

Michael sighs, cutting him off with a look. “You really think I'm here because I don’t have anything better to do?”

Rick suddenly feels foolish.

Michael slumps lower in his chair, shaking his head. “People think that giant robots have helped save the world,” he says. “Now they think a giant wall will save them. No matter how good or bad any of that stuff is, that’s not what matters. It never has been. It’s people. It’s relationships. It’s the people we fight for and the causes we take with us to that fight. It’s not the PPDC has run out of money or that the Jaegers aren’t good enough anymore. It’s that we stopped trying to be people at our very best.”

Rick feels embarrassed, and he looks to Billy to cover his emotions. “You sound like Billy.”

Michael huffs a laugh. “You and Collins share the Drift, but that’s not the only way to know someone.”

Rick’s eyes linger before he looks back at Michael. “No,” he agrees. “I suppose it really isn’t.”

-o-

That night, when it’s late and Michael has nodded off, Rick picks up a pen and a piece of paper from his bedside. Billy was playing hangman with him earlier – horribly, too – but Rick just flips to a fresh sheet and looks at it in the dim light.

He knows his mother knows he’s alive; Michael promised him that. She probably doesn’t realize how close it was, and she probably has no idea how he’s doing or what his plans are. He can see her, watching the television, flipping to news channels for any update on the Jaeger project. She’s probably clipped all the articles about Orion Disruptor and folded them into a book, where she opens them up to reread them when she needs some type of reassurance.

He used to write her more, at least he tried to. But once he started Drifting; once he started fighting; he hadn’t known what to say. It’s a different world out there; it’s a different life. He’s not the same boy his mother raised. The idea of going back, of helping around the house and working odd jobs to make ends meet – it’s almost impossible to conceptualize. It’s not that he needs adrenaline or glory. It’s not that he needs action and drama.

It’s that he needs a purpose. He needs to fulfill a role. He needs to be more.

Or does he? When he’s fulfilled all his dreams, what else is left?

His pen hesitates on the paper, wondering if it’s so simple. Wondering if going back is the same as going forward. Wondering if that’s what this is all about in the end. Like Michael said, that’s not the only way to know someone.

It might be the only way he knows, though.

He falls asleep with the pen in hand, page still blank when he wakes with the morning sun.

-o-

The days are long, but they’re not without something to do. When Michael and Billy aren’t spending their time being difficult and overbearing, there is actual recovery to be done.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of recovery, not that Billy wants to let on. He’s good at hiding it to a certain degree, but when he tries to get up, he still grunts with pain, and sometimes Rick catches him with his face clenched and eyes shuts.

Then, when Michael has stepped out for some real food, Billy tries to go to the bathroom and almost falls over.

Rick is there in an instant, catching him before he hits the ground. The weight of the other man strained his own injuries, and they both end up in a heap together, breathing hard and red faced.

“Sorry, sorry,” Billy mumbles, trying to push away. “Reckon I just need a tick—“

Rick doesn’t let go, though. Instead, he cautiously props the other man up, looking at him with a frown. “You need more than a tick,” he says tersely. “You do know you’re not fooling anyone, right?”

Billy sits up, inching away ever so gently. “Fooling anyone about what?”

Rick sighs in frustration. “You’re still recovering, Billy.”

“And so are you,” he says. “We’ll both be out of here in no time, though—“

“I suffered mostly facial injuries and blood loss,” Rick reminds him. “You had major abdominal surgery and were unconscious with an infection for days. There’s nothing wrong with taking it slow.”

“But we’re a unit,” Billy protests. “We do it together.”

“Right,” Rick says. “When I was the new guy, you went at my pace.”

“Well, you were the rookie,” Billy says.

“I’m not the rookie anymore,” Rick says. “Besides, out there, you saved my life.”

Billy flits a hand through the air. “Hardly the point—“

“No, it is the point,” Rick says. “I don’t remember everything, but I remember going down. I remember letting go. But you – you never did, did you?”

Billy looks away, chewing his lip a little. “It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.”

“Because of Olivia,” Rick says.

Billy doesn’t flinch, but he still doesn’t look up. “I couldn’t lose another partner,” he says. His gaze finally turns up, and his blue eyes are tired and worn. “I wouldn’t lose you.”

Rick nods. “Exactly,” he says. “So really, right now, all I can do is return the favor.”

Billy’s expression is mixed for a moment, full of hope, full of uncertainty. There are a lot of emotions, and Rick knows them all. Every last one. After the Drift, he always will.

“So,” Rick says, resituating himself and getting to his feet. He reaches out a hand. “Let me help you now.”

Billy hesitates only a moment before taking Rick’s hand. Rick helps hoist Billy off the floor, their grips locked, neither letting go.

-o-

Rick’s in perfect health, according to his doctor. There’s just one thing left.

“There may still be some fuzziness,” the doctor advises. “And you may have increased sensitivity to light for a while, but that should fade.”

Rick nods, trying not to be anxious. Michael is tapping his foot, and Billy is sitting up in bed. Rick’s been so busy trying to allay their fears that he’s barely acknowledged his own. Because when the bandaged is removed, when he’s finally released from the hospital, that means it’s over. He’s known it for a while, but knowing it and living it – those are very different things.

He can’t fight it now.

He just has to accept it.

“Okay,” he says. “I understand.”

The doctor hesitates. “The loss of side vision may be a bit disorienting, but you will get used to it over time.”

Rick nods. “With respect, we’ve already been over this,” he says. “Can we just get this over with?”

The doctor takes a breath; lets it out; then starts to undo the bandage.

When it comes off, Rick’s skin feels the fresh air acutely, and he squints automatically against the glare of the fluorescent lights. It’s disorienting, and for a moment the influx of light make his head hurt. He flinches, tempted to pull away, but he’s come this far.

And he’s not alone.

There’s no turning back.

He gives it a moment, and his eye adjusts to the light. He blinks rapidly a few times, clearing away the buildup, before things start to come into focus.

It’s jarring at first, and the entire room seems shifted with two eyes to use. Things are clear, wider, broader.

In that instant, it’s invigorating. After all he’s come through, after so much time with just one eye, this is better. This is so much better.

But then his vision veers to the side, and cuts off. He feels his gaze turn, but his vision cuts off. There’s just nothing. Anything to his right side – it’s gone.

He’ll never pilot a Jaeger this way.

He may never even drive a car.

He hadn’t admitted it, but he’d held out hope, however small and unrealistic, that maybe it would be better than this. That maybe they’d been wrong; that maybe his eye hadn’t been done healing. He sees that not the case now.

Rather, he doesn’t see.

That’s the point.

He doesn’t see, not as much as he used to. Not as much as he needs to.

“So?” Michael asks, interrupting Rick’s thoughts.

“How does it feel?” Billy prods.

Rick has to turn to look at them, but when he sees them, they’re clear and in focus. They’re still right there.

Suddenly, it doesn’t look so bad.

“Different,” Rick says.

Michael’s face is stiff; Billy’s hope wavers. They need this, almost as much as he does. Maybe more.

Rick smiles. “But I think I can get used to it.”

-o-

It’s sort of weird. With both eyes uncovered, he acclimates quickly to the changes in his vision. It’s a bit disorienting at times, and he can’t deny that he feels a spike of panic every time he looks to the side and sees nothing.

His team adapts quickly, though. Michael sits out of his blind spot and Billy shuffles his feet when he’s entering and exiting, just so Rick has a better sense of things. They do these things without being asked, without comment. Just because that’s what they do.

They’ve always been resilient. Rick supposes now would be no different.

-o-

He’s discharged the next day. The paperwork is done and signed, but Rick finds himself lingering.

Finally Billy rolls his eyes. “You are allowed to leave.”

Rick shrugs. “It seems wrong. We should leave together.”

Billy gives him a look. “You’re being discharged, not transferred to another planet,” he says. “Last I heard, you were still a resident of this Shatterdome unless the powers that be were so unkind as to fire you before you were discharge.”

“Well, sure, but—“

“But go out! Get showered! Pack up our flat!”

“But—“

“But then, once you have put on clean clothes and made sense of the mess, you will come back.”

It’s reasonable. Practical. And yet… “We’ve done it all together so far,” Rick says.

Billy’s expression softens. “And for that, I am grateful,” he says. “But don’t deceive yourself, lad. We have no Jaeger. We aren’t pilots. A little separation is going to be inevitable.”

It’s unexpected how much that hurts. Rick’s accepted a lot – the loss of his vision, the loss of his Jaeger, the loss of his job – but this? Losing Billy?

He doesn’t even know how to deal with that. It doesn't even make sense. Billy’s a part of him. They’re a pair, a partnership – and so much more.

“Just go,” Billy orders softly. “See what the world looks like on the outside. Then you can come back and tell me.”

“Yeah,” Rick says reluctantly. “I guess I can do that.”

“Of course you can!” Billy says buoyantly. “It’s a brave new world out there for us. We need all the head start we can get.”

Rick smiles and nods, trying not to think about how true that is.

-o-

Stepping out of the medical bay doors is strange. For a moment, it’s almost liberating, but as he starts through the vacant halls, it just feels lonely. It’s like all the life is gone – all the fight. The people still milling about walk quickly with their heads ducked down. That’s the difference, Rick realizes, between a good offense and a last ditch defense.

The Shatterdome used to be the proudest place in the world. People were envious of him.

Now, it’s a ghost town. Haunted by the failures of bureaucrats and pilots alike. In some ways, it reminds him of a Jaeger. All the parts are there – it’s a feat of modern innovation – but without people at its core, it’s nothing.

Rick wanders the empty corridors and knows in time this place will become as much an empty mausoleum as San Francisco. A testament to unrealized hope, to past success, to what used to be.

He just hopes someone will still be around to appreciate it.

-o-

Rick doesn’t even bother with his quarters. He hasn’t lived there for months now, and whatever he has there doesn’t mean much to him anymore. Instead, he makes his way to Billy’s quarters and lets himself inside.

The first thing he notices is the smell. They’ve been out of commission for a few weeks now, and it’s apparent that no one came by to do any type of cleaning why they were gone. He tries to remember what Billy might have left half-eaten, but comes up with so many options that he decides not to figure it out.

Instead, he scrounges for a plastic sack and hastily starts throwing things inside. It takes him a while to get past the trash before he discovers some molded food. He has to make a trip to the trash compactor, and he knocks on the neighbor’s door to find some extra bags but when no one answers, Rick realizes she’s probably not there anymore. Jolene had be part of J-tech, one of Mammoth’s repair team. She probably got fired already.

Disheartened, Rick has to walk all the way to a utility closet before he finally picks a lock and gets more bags. Back in the room, he starts rounding things up by the armful and just throwing it out. It’s remarkable how much they’ve both accumulated. Rick arrived at the Shatterdome with little to call his own, but somehow he and Billy have collected more than their share of things. Clothing and books; paperwork and files. There’s workout equipment, training manuals, maps – and so much more.

It used to mean a lot; it used to mean everything.

Now, Rick reflects, most of it is trash.

He makes different bags, some to throw out immediately and some to recycle. He’s not sure what the PPDC would do with used uniforms, but he has to think they have some use for them. He throws all the files and paperwork together. Even if they don’t want it, they’ll want to dispose of it carefully, no doubt.

When he’s done with that, he pushes the remaining items to the center of the room. There’s not much left, but he quickly puts his own personal effects in the small travel bag that he finds stuffed under Billy’s bed. It’s all still there – the pictures of his family, the notes from his mother – and he doesn’t let himself think about that as he packs it up.

It’s harder with Billy’s things. There are no pictures or letters, and he’s not sure if any of the books are actually Billy’s or not. They’re all worn, though, with Billy’s notations on the side. In the back of one, he finds one lone photograph, and he recognizes Olivia from Billy’s memories.

Sighing, Rick puts all the books in a fresh bag and ties it off, sitting it neatly on the bed.

That’s it.

Months of work. A lifetime of memories.

And that’s it.

Rick suddenly feels tired, his knees weak. He sits down on the couch where he used to sleep and rests his head in his head.

Because suddenly there’s no denying it.

That’s it.

-o-

He hops in the shower, and takes his time with it. He rinses over the fresh and healing scars, using the scalding water as long as it lasts.

When he’s done, he towels dry and finds a fresh pair of clothes. There’s nothing left that’s edible left in the room, so he heads down the hall toward the vending machines. They look poorly stocked, but they’re still plugged in. Apparently the PPDC doesn’t want to employ him, but they will still take his loose change.

He considers going down to the mess hall just to see what it’s like, but after so much time isolated in the infirmary, he just doesn’t feel up to it yet. Instead, he makes his way back to Billy’s room and settles down at the table.

He devours the bag of chips but takes his time with the candy bar. He realizes it’s been too long since he’s been able to have junk food. The nurses had been stingy, and Casey had watched them like hawks during training. Now, though…

Well, there’s not reason not to indulge.

He looks at his bag again, packed and ready to go, and realizes that he hasn’t even thought about what comes next. He has no destination. For the first time in so long, he doesn’t even have the resemblance of a plan.

Which means there’s just one place to go.

Chewing his lip, he finds a pad of paper. His mother has internet access, but she doesn’t like it. She still knows her mailman by name. He should have written her days ago, probably as soon as he woke up. He could have called, just said hello and made sure she understood he was alive and okay.

Because his mother is a good woman. And he loves his mother. He’s always wanted to make her proud.

The problem is, though, Rick doesn’t feel proud. As a Ranger, it was easy. He’d been a hero, in every sense of the word. Even when funding was cut; even when people stopped looking to him as the would-be savior of the world, Rick had known he was doing the right thing. He risked his life – and almost lost it.

Rick’s proud of that. He’s proud of it with every fiber of his being.

He’s not proud of what comes next, though. He’s not proud of limping out with a pink slip in his hand. He’s not proud of leaving Orion Disruptor at the bottom of the ocean. He’s not proud that he’ll leave with his head ducked in the shadow of a wall. He’s done nothing wrong, but he hasn’t won.

That’s the thing. Rick didn’t just join the PPDC to be a hero. He joined to save the world. And now he’s been a big damn hero, and it doesn’t mean anything. He saved Los Angeles, but there will be another Kaiju. There will be another and another and another, and they’re not going to stop at a wall. They’re not going to stop until this is over, one way or another.

That’s Rick’s failure. That’s Rick’s shame. That’s why he can’t write his mother, who will want to herald him as a hero. She wants to dote on him and love him, but it just reminds Rick that he left to accomplish one thing and came back a lesser man than he was before.

There are no words for that.

There are no words at all.

His pen lingers, trying to form the words Dear Mom.

They don’t come, no matter how hard he tries.

Finally, he scraps the paper, wadding it up and throwing it across the room. Biting his lip, he starts the next page. He has nothing to say to his mother, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say.

Dear Marshall Higgins,
he begins to write.

And he doesn’t stop.

-o-

When he’s done writing, he has two letters. He folds them, puts them in envelopes. He walks out with his head held high, gait certain. It’s not that he wants to deliver these letters.

It’s just that he knows now he has to.

-o-

He gets back to Billy’s room just in time to see Michael coming down the hall. He lifts his chin when he sees Rick, smiling a little as he approached, a cup of coffee in his hand. “Hey, Billy’s not back yet,” Michael says. “They’re pushing him a little harder in PT, so maybe he can get out of here earlier.”

Rick just nods. “That’s good,” he says. “I wanted to talk to you actually.”

Michael lifts his eyebrows in question.

Rick doesn’t explain, he just holds out one of the letters.

Eyes narrowing, Michael regards it tentatively. “What’s this?”

Rick pushes it forward further. “Just read it.”

Michael doesn’t look like he wants to, and he gives Rick one more leery look before finally taking the letter from Rick’s grasp. He opens it slowly, skimming the first line before his face goes blank. He continues reading, and then he folds the letter and hands it back. “This is nice for creative writing,” he says. “But I’m not accepting this.”

Rick furrows his brow. “That’s not for you to decide.”

“Sure it is,” Michael says. “That’s why the post office lets you write Return to Sender.”

“But this isn’t the post office,” Rick objects.

“So I don’t need to make it formal,” Michael says. He shrugs. “I’m not taking this.”

Rick is truly feeling vexed now. He worked hard on this; he worked really hard on this and it took a lot for him to get himself this far together. Michael has to take it. “But you need to.”

“No,” Michael says. “I don’t.”

Rick gapes. “But this is what I want,” he explains. “This is what I have to do.”

“It’s stupid,” Michael tells him.

“It’s not stupid,” Rick replies indignantly.

“Yes, it is.”

“How is it stupid?” Rick asks. “There is no Jaeger program, so I don't see—“

“So you think you should just quit?” Michael asks. “That you should roll over and just let it happen, no fight at all?”

Rick is almost at a loss. “There’s nothing left here to fight for,” he says. “I’m not going to sit around building a wall—“

“There are other options—“

“I’ve lost part of my vision, Michael,” Rick cuts him off. “There is nothing here for me anymore. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, and I wish there was more I could do, but I can’t. We both know it. If the PPDC keeps me around, it’ll be as a spokesperson, and I don’t want that to happen. I want to walk away. On my terms. That’s why I have to do this.”

Michael is silent for a moment, studying him. There is something inscrutable in his expression, his eyes critical and inquiring. There’s something he wants to say – what, Rick’s not sure, and he realizes he’s a little afraid to know what.

Finally, Michael sighs. He shakes his head. “Keep the letter.”

Rick’s shoulders slump. “But—“

“Just keep the letter,” Michael says. At Rick’s crestfallen expression, Michael’s face shifts grimly. “I have a plan.”

-o-

The doctors want to keep Billy, but Michael talks them into letting him out early.

“His body isn’t healed yet,” is the protest.

Michael gives them a look. “What do you think he’s going to do? It’s not like he’s got a Jaeger to train for.”

The logic is pretty good, but Rick adds the finishing touch. “We’ll look after him. Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.”

Logic and emotion. The doctors have no choice.

And Rick figures Billy’s baleful expression of hope and reticence probably help matters. They could use Casey as a threatening back up presence, but this time they don’t need him.

Billy gets his walking papers.

After all this time, they’ll all finally cleared to leave.

-o-

They can go anywhere. They could go to their quarters; they could go get food. They could leave the Shatterdome. For a moment, the world is limitless.

Except for the truths they can’t escape.

There is only one place they’re going.

And they walk there together.

Michael is leading, face drawn and stony. Rick lingers behind, glancing uncertainly at Billy. Billy limps next to him, huffing to keep pace. Even so, they walk in tandem, just like they have since the start.

Even if it is the last time.

-o-

Higgins isn’t expecting them, but they go right in. The Marshall makes a pretense of greeting them, but Michael doesn’t let him. He strides up to the desk, and lays down a letter.

“What’s this?” Higgins asks, sounding genuinely surprised.

“The thing you’ve wanted since the start,” Michael says.

Higgins cocks his head.

“My resignation,” Michael tells him.

Higgins purses his lips. “There are positions available—“

Michael shakes his head. “Nothing worth doing,” he says. “I want to save the world, not get a paycheck while we wait for it to end.”

Higgins visibly keeps himself in check. “If that’s how you feel.”

“It is,” Michael says with a short, curt smile. He looks back at Billy, who hobbles forward and puts his own letter down.

“For the record,” Billy says. “I was the one who smuggled in all the alcohol for the Christmas party last year.”

Higgins eyes him suspiciously.

Billy straightens with a nod. “You’re welcome.”

He steps back, falling in line next to Michael, and they both look at Rick.

His cheeks flush; this is it. He’s the one who started this, and now it seems like he has to finish it.

He has to finish everything.

The end of his career.

The end of his team.

The end of the Jaeger program at Los Angeles.

The end.

He walks forward, nodding resolutely and puts his letter down. “It’s been a pleasure, sir.”

Higgins sighs, bowing his head for a long moment. When he looks up, his expression is as broken as Rick has ever seen it. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he says. “You are good men. All of you.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Rick says, and he means it. He means it so much. “But I really think it does.

When he turns to go, this time it’s Billy who follows him and Michael who brings up the rear. They don’t look back – they don’t dare look back.

Because this is the end.

-o-

It’s a somber goodbye without much fanfare. A few people tip their heads in respect, but Rick doesn’t even know how to respond. They’re almost out of the command wing, when Adele stops them, wide eyed. “You’re quitting.”

She’s looking right at Rick, almost as if Billy and Michael aren’t even there.

“It was a group decision, actually,” Billy offers. “If that makes any difference.”

Adele turns a little red, looking at Billy and then at Michael. She shakes her head, a little flustered. “Yes, of course,” she says. Her brow knits as she looks at Rick. “I just…it’s rather sudden, is all.”

“You mean because you hadn’t had time to give us a pink slip yet?” Michael asks, tone just a little sharp.

Her expression hardens. “Not all of us were out to get you,” she says brusquely. “And none of us believe that your skills are without merit.”

“Adele,” Rick says, gentle and soft. “I already told you, I don’t want to be a face for this program.”

“But there are options we haven’t talked about,” Adele says. She glances toward Billy and Michael. “For all of you. I was in contact—“

Michael shifts on his feet. Billy clears his throat.

Rick sighs, shaking his head. “It’s over,” he says. “There’s something out there for us to do, but it’s not here. Not anymore.”

She looks ready to argue. Rick can almost see the ideas on the tip of her tongue. This time, however, she looks at him. She’s not a woman afraid to stand up for herself; she’s not afraid to take a leadership role. She always has a comeback; she knows how to get the last word.

Which means she’s smart enough to know when someone else is right.

Finally, she nods. “Well,” she says, more composed now. “I will admit, it is a bold move. I didn’t see it coming.”

Rick shrugs, smiling wryly. “You did say you liked a man who took action.”

Her eyebrows quirks just slightly, her lips tilting upward. “Yes,” she agrees. “Yes, I did.”

Michael and Billy are lingering awkwardly, and Adele is standing expectantly. This is Rick’s chance for closure; to say goodbye; to make a proper ending.

Or maybe – just maybe – it’s his chance to start something.

Conventions, rejections, common sense – all of it aside.

“I’m probably going to be staying in the area,” he announces. “I don't suppose you’d like to have dinner with me.”

Michael’s eyebrows go up, and Billy makes a low whistle under his breath. Rick feels his cheeks flush, but he keeps his shoulders square and refuses to back down.

Adele, to her credit, holds in her surprise well. She adjusts her stance a little, her calm mask returning. “I told you, Mr. Martinez, I don’t date Jaeger pilots.”

“Good thing there are no more Jaegers in Los Angeles,” Michael says.

“And I dare say that Rick is a pilot no longer,” Billy murmurs.

“Just a dinner,” Rick says. “No power plays; no office politics. Just dinner.”

She considers this, face shrouded in thought. It’s a bold move, Rick knows. One that may blow up in his face.

Or one that will pay off.

Her face widens into a smile. “Okay, Mr. Martinez,” she says, looking a little pleased now. “Dinner, it is.”

Rick’s eyes widen and his own composure falters. “Really?” he asks, far too excitedly. “I mean, really?”

She shrugs coyly. “Seems like the least I can do,” she says.

Rick frowns. “Wait, is this a pity date?”

“Would that matter?” Adele asks.

“No,” Billy interjects for him. “It most certainly would not. Next Saturday, then?”

“Dinner—“ Rick starts.

Billy nudges him, and Rick knows what he’s thinking. That now isn’t the time to play it safe or simple. Now is the time to go all out.

“And a movie, maybe,” Rick offers.

Michael rolls his eyes; Billy almost shoves him.

“And maybe a baseball game,” Rick says. “I haven’t been to a Dodgers game in forever. They’re one of the few teams that decided to stick it out on a coastal city.”

“I’ve never been to a game, actually,” Adele says.

“Well, who has time for baseball when the world is ending,” Michael quips.

“It sounds lovely,” Billy says over him. “Rick will meet you here. Contrary to tradition, I imagine you’ll be doing the driving.”

“Well, I can borrow my mother’s car,” Rick starts to say.

Billy all but groans.

Michael chuckles. “He’ll meet you here.”

“Well, it’s a date then,” Adele says.

“Erm, yes,” Rick says, almost shocked. “I guess it is.”

“I will see you then,” she says. She nods to Billy and Michael. “Gentlemen.”

Michael nods at her, and Billy does a small bow as she turns and walks back toward her office.

“She said yes,” Rick breathes.

“No thanks to your poor dating skills,” Billy says. “Honestly, have you learned nothing from being in my head?”

“You haven’t had any serious relationships,” Rick points out. “Except for the one that ended when she left without a goodbye and refused to see you.”

Billy’s mouth falls open.

Michael shrugs. “He has a point.”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk,” Billy says, sulking. “Years later, you’re still pining after your ex-wife.”

“Hey, at least she still talks to me,” Michael says.

“In a purely professional capacity,” Billy says.

“Guys, can we just call it even?” Rick asks. Then he grins. “I mean, you two are both failures on that front. Me on the other hand…”

Billy narrows his eyes. “They grow up so fast.”

“They grow stupid so fast,” Michael observes. “Don’t forget where you come from, kid.”

“Or how you got to stand on those two feet on which you’re walking,” Billy says.

Rick smiles again, more genuinely this time. “Don’t worry,” he tells him. “I never will.”