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

December 29th, 2013 (02:49 pm)
rushed

feeling: rushed

Other parts in the MASTER POST



“I don’t care about your damn procedures,” Casey snarls at one of the nurses. “I want an update on my friends.”


The nurse looks harried and exasperated. “Mr. Malick, I understand your concern--”


“Do you?” he snaps. “Those two men on your operating tables are my friends. More than that, they are my students and Rangers. They fought to save you and me and everyone else in Los Angeles and this entire damn continent. The entire world. I have more invested into their training and well being than you ever could imagine. So I don’t think you actually understand my concern.”


She draws her lips together, forcing a smile. “This isn’t exactly easy on any of us,” she says. “We’re all a part of this.”


Casey grunts. “That must be nice to tell yourself that,” he says.


“There’s nothing nice about this at all,” she says. “We spend most of our time putting people back together after they fall off the wall. With the pilots, there’s usually nothing left to save. That doesn’t mean we don’t try.”


He doesn’t necessarily agree with her, but there’s something respectable in her answer. Maybe a common ground. Casey is so used to dealing with chattel that sometimes he forgets there are still people in the world willing to fight for the right things.


He inclines his head. “Then if you do understand, how about getting me an update?”


Her eyes narrow knowingly. She doesn’t look amused, but she finally nods. “Just wait here.”


Casey watches her go, feeling gratified -- though it’s not like he has anything else he can do.


-o-


When Michael comes back, the other man looks brow beaten. Casey almost doesn’t want to ask.


“I take it Higgins wasn’t pleased,” Casey surmises instead, watching as Michael slumps miserably in a seat.


“He was effusive,” Michael says.


Casey raises his eyebrows. “In his criticism?”


“In his praise,” Michael says. “Apparently I’ve done a great job and he’s impressed with my fortitude.”


Casey doesn’t even know what to say. “That’s...unexpected.”


“That’s bullshit,” Michael grumbles. “He tells me that now, when there’s nothing else we can do. He showers me with praises right as he shows me the damn door.”


It is surprising, though his earlier statement is perhaps premature. It may not be unexpected. Men like Higgins will endorse one thing and tacitly condone another; he’ll play as many angles as possible to get the job done. He’ll be an ally when it’s convenient, and a critic when it suits him. It’s an asset and a fatal flaw, but that’s just how men like Higgins gain standing in the PPDC.


It’s not necessarily Higgins fault for being a cog in a dysfunctional machine.


Just like it’s not Michael’s fault that he failed to prevent the inevitable. They’ve been playing in a system that’s worked against them for years now. There was no other outcome. Not as long as they stayed in this system.


Casey smiles dimly. “It’s not all bad.”


Michael looks at him in total disbelief. “That’s funny, coming from you.”


Casey rolls his eyes. “Now would be a time to trust me.”


Michael inhales deeply. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”


-o-


As expected, Billy is out of surgery first, and Casey’s backward charm on the nurse gets the quick and easy access to the Scot’s bedside. The doctor warns them that Billy’s still in critical condition -- he lost a lot of blood -- but that if he survives the next day or so, his prognosis is good.


That’s good news by all accounts, but sitting next to Billy hardly feels good. The steady rhythm of his heart is about the only solace; everything else in the room is simply indicative of their failure.


Casey knows that’s not the right way to think about it. They went up against insurmountable odds. The fact that they kept the Jaeger program alive so long in Los Angeles is a testament to their skill and persistence.


But failure is failure, and Casey prefers absolutes in life. They won a battle at the expense of the war, and Billy surviving by a thread is not exactly the resounding victory Casey had worked toward. He doesn’t blame Billy -- no more than he blames Rick or Michael or anyone else -- but it’s a sullen reminder of how much they’ve lost.


Michael seems more heartened by it than Michael, and he moves immediately to Billy’s side. He takes up the Scot’s hand, squeezing it for a moment while Casey lingers at the foot of the bed. Billy looks horrible, his face pale and splattered with flecks of blood. He’s intubated, and the think sheet does little to hide the tubes draining fluids from Billy’s body.


The injuries aren’t as severe, Casey knows, but it reminds him too much of Billy’s last hospital stay, when Avalon Challenger fell.


He sighs. “Maybe we should call someone,” he suggests finally.


Michael doesn’t look back, just shakes his head. “Billy doesn’t have any family.”


“I know that,” Casey says. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there who care about him.”


“She won’t come,” Michael says flatly.


Casey presses his lips together, harrumphing softly.


“She didn’t come last time,” Michael adds.


“She was too close to it last time,” Casey says. “The bond they had -- it’s not something that ever goes away.”


“Which is why she won’t come,” Michael says, glancing back. “You know that.”


Casey nods, looking back at Billy. “I know,” he says. “I can’t help but think he’d want her here.”


Michael turns his gaze back to Billy. “Of course he would,” he says. “But he’ll have to settle for us.”


To that, Casey says nothing. He watches Michael hold his vigil; he watches Billy fight for his life. He’s not one to doubt himself, but sometimes it’s hard to be certain of himself in this. He started this as a soldier; he started this to fight. Now, he’s keeping bedside vigils and giving pep talks. It’s not what he intended. It’s not even what he wants.


He’s starting to accept, however, that it may be what matters most.


-o-


Michael doesn’t move until Rick is out of surgery, and then he nearly accosts the medical team as they transfer Rick to a post-operative room. Casey takes a brief look at the kid -- still hooked up to a variety of machines, unconscious but alive -- and quickly strong arms Michael into the hall.


The doctor looks a little relieved by the change in venue, but that’s about the only reprieve she’s going to be getting.


“As you can see, Mr. Martinez came through surgery--” the doctor begins at a tired clip, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear with a weary smile.


Michael’s not buying it, though. “What’s his prognosis?”


The doctor raises her eyebrows slightly. “Overall, if he can avoid infection, I would say he’s out of the woods so to speak,” she says. “His system endured a shock, but his concussion is moderate and should heal without further intervention. The blood loss was substantial, but none of the lacerations were actually life threatening. We’ve already got him booked for follow up cosmetic surgeries to minimize the scarring on his face, but the plastic surgeon we called in to consult is optimistic.”


“His eye,” Casey interjects tersely. “You haven’t told us about his eye.”


She works her jaw for a moment before nodding. “The good news is that we managed to save the eye,” she says.


“And its functionality?” Michael asks.


This time she doesn’t shy away. “It was a complicated surgery, but in general the repair work went as well as could be expected.”


“That’s what we’re asking,” Casey says. “What was expected.”


She hesitates again. “Right now, it’s hard to say,” she says. “Thanks to the surgery, I’m confident he’ll regain some range of vision, although the amount of damage and the scarring will determine how much vision loss he will suffer in the long term.”


Casey’s chest clenches. Michael goes stiff next to him. “So there will be vision loss,” Casey assumes.


“It’s likely, yes,” she says. “But it could be a minor impairment. We won’t know until the incision site heals and we start assessing his ocular response.”


There’s nothing really to say to that. That’s the truth of it, the ultimate prognosis. Just wait and see.


It’s like waiting for a damn Kaiju to appear from the breech. There’s anticipation and dread, and none of it makes any difference when it finally happens.


All you can do is wait.


Casey huffs. “Fine,” he grumbles. “We expect full updates on his condition daily and we fully expect to be informed of all important decisions in his care.”


“If he has family--”


“We’ll handle it,” Michael says. He steadies himself. “Now we’d like to see him.”


She looks ready to protest. Probably something about protocol, about a long surgery, about risk factors. But Michael is unyielding, and Casey stands by his side uncompromisingly. They may not be an intimidating pair in many respects, but that’s not accounting for resolve.


They’ve been tested and they’ve faced trials, many far greater than this. They won’t back down now.


She smiles faintly. “He’ll be coming out of the anesthesia soon,” she says. “Keep him calm.”


Michael chuckles. “You do your job, doc,” he says. “Trust us to do ours.”


-o-


Inside the room, the nurses are fussing about. When the last one finally leaves, Michael settles in next to the bedside, resting a hand on Rick’s still wrist. Casey steps closer, just in time to see Martinez stir.


Michael springs forward, leaning down a bit, squeezing his wrist harder. “Rick?” he asks. “You with me?”


Rick twitches a little, face contorting. He smacks his lips with a grimace, head turning to the side as his eyes flutter up. It takes a moment -- a long moment -- while the kid looks around in utter confusion. But when his eyes land on Michael’s, his brow furrows in obvious recognition.


His lips move, but the faint garbled sound is impossible to make out.


Michael inches closer even while Casey decidedly stays back. “Easy, Rick,” Michael coaches. “You just got out of surgery.”


It’s not clear how much Martinez understands, and he shakes his head, lips working to form words still. He’s still too weak, though, and Casey can only make out a series of rasping syllables.


Michael seems to get it, though. He smiles. “You’re safe,” he says. “You did it.”


Rick doesn’t seem comforted by this. His heart rate starts to increase, and he strains to sit up even though he can’t even lift his head. There’s a keening sound from his mouth, and at first Casey is concerned, but as Michael holds him down gently, the sound becomes clearer until a single word is audible. “Billy?”


“He’s out of surgery, just like you,” Michael tells him with a small laugh. “You both made it. Together.”


Rick relaxes a bit, expression loosening as he goes limp against the bed again. His eyes are hooded, but he still manages another, strained word. “Disruptor?”


Michael’s expression freezes, but his grip doesn’t change. Casey feels his stomach turn, because he remembers that. He remembers waking up, wanting to know. Not just about the innocent civilians, not just about the people who fought by his side; not even just the Kaiju.


But the Jaeger.


When you pilot, it’s a part of you. You’re a part of it. Losing a Jaeger…


Casey knows saving Billy will mean a lot to Martinez, but losing Disruptor will hurt. Probably more than any vision loss.


Michael just smiles encouragingly. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?” he says. “For now, you just rest.”


Rick’s eyes are already closed, his lips parting as he slips back into sleep.


“Just rest,” Michael soothes.


It’s meant to be comforting, but Casey can’t help but think that it’s also the only thing any of them can do.


There’s no more fighting; no more chances.


Just rest.


-o-


They stay with Rick for a while. He comes to consciousness several more times, each one more coherent than the last. Still, the anesthesia seems to be messing with his memory, and they have to reassure Rick that he’s okay, that Billy’s okay, that everything’s okay before he goes back to sleep.


Each time, if feels a bit more like a lie.


-o-


They start taking shift, splitting their time between Rick and Billy. Casey is just off a shift with the still-unconscious Scotsman when he turns a corner and almost runs into Deputy Director Adele Ferrar.


She looks more surprise than he does, which is probably to be expected. Casey never looks surprised. He merely looks more annoyed or less annoyed at any give point in time.


As it is, Adele is too flustered to be bothered with the fact that Casey can’t decide what frustrates him most.


“I’m sorry!” Adele says, a little hurried. Her cheeks are flushed slightly red. “I, um. Didn’t see you there.”


She’s adept at managing herself well under pressure, and the tells suggesting she is bothered are minor. A normal, respectable human being would let that pass.


Casey is not normal, and he has no interest in being respectable.


Or polite for that matter. “You’re going the wrong way,” he blurts.


Adele frowns, as if she can’t possibly understand what he is saying.


“Rick’s room is the other direction,” Casey says.


“Oh,” she says, eyes wide. “I wasn’t--”


“Yes, you were,” Casey says, matter of fact.


“Well, I mean, I promised the Marshal I would look into his condition,” Adele says. “Him and Ranger Collins both--”


“But you really want to check on Rick,” Casey says.


“As a matter of professionalism--”


Casey rolls his eyes. “You like him. He likes you. Personally, I don’t have time for romantic attachment -- it’s too cumbersome and tiring -- but watching two people play with the notion and never take it to the next step is frankly stupid.”


Adele’s mouth opens, too shocked to speak.


“We’re losing a war,” Casey says. “If you put it off too long, you won’t have time for it at all.”


“Are you giving me...dating advice?” she asks in total incredulity.


Casey grimaces at the notion. “You’re worried about compromising your position by sleeping with a Jaeger pilot,” he says. “But you compromise yourself more by pretending like you don’t care when you do. Just go to him. Tell him you care about him. Otherwise you just look stupid wandering the wrong direction around the Shatterdome.”


She closes her mouth, finally nodding. “Your advice is noted,” she says. She hesitates. “You know, if you were interested in continuing on in a different capacity here, I am sure I could make good use of your skills on the Wall of Life.”


Casey snorts. It’s his turn to be incredulous. “Like I said, we’re losing this war,” he tells her. “Building a giant wall is even stupider than wandering around the Shatterdome.”


She wets her lips. “We do good work.”


“You do pointless work.”


“It’s the best option,” she says.


“It’s the best option you’re willing to consider,” Casey concludes. He nods down the hall. “He’s down that way. Michael is out right now, so if you want to take five minutes…”


She looks like she wants to say no, but ultimately, she nods. “Very good, Mr. Malick.”


Somehow, he doubts that. But as Adele ducks her head to walk past him, he lets her go. He watches for a minute, pitying the fact that she had so much potential and she was using it in all the wrong ways. She thought the Wall of Life would advance her career. But if it failed to protect mankind, then what the hell was her career for anyway?


People want to believe in miracles.


Casey believes in action.


He turns away, and intends to do just that.


-o-


A day after the Kaiju falls outside of Los Angeles, Rick is fully conscious and is moved off the critical list. There’s still no definite word on the state of his eye, though. Billy’s vitals are still erratic, but he’s holding his own.


Michael doesn’t leave. When Casey asks him questions about standard cleanup procedure, he tells Casey to talk to Adele instead.


The news reports run graphic pictures of down Jaegers and Kaiju blue. There’s talk of effectiveness, of cost. There’s an editorial about needing a new way to fight the Kaiju, a new great hope to save them all.


Casey taps his fingers against his leg, and waits for more to do.


-o-


The morning comes with good news. Billy’s vitals are stabilizing. Rick shows no signs of post-operative infection. They both have a ways to go, but the prognosis is generally more positive than it was yesterday.


Then, there is bad news. Higgins announces it at the start of the morning shift. It’s couched in grandiose words and crafted compliments. The more effusive the praise, the more Higgins talks about how good they’ve done, the more Casey dreads what he says next.


The Los Angeles Jaeger program is over. The Shatterdome will remain operational to oversee the Wall of Life for the next six months before it will be officially decommissioned by the PPDC.


This isn’t the end, Higgins promises. This is merely a new beginning.


Casey knows better.


-o-


It’s hardly a surprise, but everyone else has been living in denial. The nurses and doctors are not discrete as they start talking about the possibility of getting new jobs. People in J-tech and J-science talk about updated their resumes. Even with six months, there’s not much need for a Jaeger repair team while working on the Wall of Life. Besides, Casey knows the lucrative jobs for the wall of life are few and far between. A few engineers; a handful of Kaiju experts. But unless people want to risk their life in construction, they’re going to need to find new employment.


Which is going to be easier said than done. People in the Shatterdome are on the front lines, so to speak, but they live oddly sheltered lives. They don’t know the full extent of the growing poverty. They don’t know the reality of going to a supermarket and not having enough to bring home to feed a family. They don’t know about gasoline shortages, unemployment lines, camps for the displaced and homeless. The world is falling apart by sheer virtue of the economic toll. The lack of morale isn’t helping either. Pretty soon, if they don’t change the tide, there’s not going to be much of civilization left to save.


Casey resists the urge to say I told you so to everyone bemoaning their likely fate. When he sits down next to Michael, he shakes his head. “You’d think they’d see it coming.”


Michael’s face is pinched. “People put their faith in the PPDC,” he says flatly. “They never thought failure was a viable reality.”


“Failure is always a viable reality,” Casey says. “Accepting that is the first way to circumventing it.”


Michael looks down. “There are some failures you can’t accept.”


Casey frowns. “Hey,” he says. “You know this isn’t over yet, right?”


Michael looks at him, a little lost, a little bitter. “You think the wall will save us?”


“Of course it won’t,” Casey says. “But we’ll find another way.”


Michael sighs. He gets wearily to his feet. “I don’t know any other way,” he says. He looks at Casey, almost shrugging. “I don’t know anything anymore.”


Futility. It’s not an attractive quality, and it is also unsettling. Casey narrows his gaze, watching as Michael disappears down the hall. The PPDC isn’t just losing its Jaegers and its Rangers; its losing all its heroes, one by one.


Going down in a Jaeger, after all, isn’t the only way to fall.


-o-


Rick is conscious and even a little upbeat when Casey visits him next. His eye is still tightly bound, and he looks too pale, but it’s clear that the visit from Adele has lifted his spirits. Since the kid just got mauled by a Kaiju, Casey will let that pass without comment -- for now.


“So were you not going to tell me about the Shatterdome?” Rick asks out of nowhere.


Casey allows himself a moment of surprise. “Michael didn’t want to hinder your recovery.”


Rick’s look is a little hard to place with the bandage, but the affectionate exasperation is easy enough to understand. “You know, after all my time in the field, I would have thought you guys would stop seeing me as the rookie.”


It’s a point, and not one that Casey considers often. Rick has seen combat. Rick has endured significant injury in the line of duty. He’s the new guy, sure -- but he’s not the same kid he was when he first showed up in Los Angeles.


But there’s an even more subtle truth after that. The three of them -- Casey and Michael and Billy -- they don’t have anyone on the outside world to fight for. They’ve been in the PPDC so long that it’s almost impossible to remember the world outside. Sure, they read about it and hear about it on the news, but they don’t know it. They have no connection.


Babying the rookie, looking out for the newest among them -- it’s what keeps them grounded in the reality that there is still something left to lose. It’s not necessarily fair to the kid, but it ultimately has nothing to do with his skills. The fact that he’s a damn good pilot just makes it all the more of a concern.


Not that Casey is about to say any of that. Just acknowledging it makes him annoyed, because sentimentality is not his thing. He walks a fine line in this, he knows. Balancing the necessary emotional investment to keep fighting the good fight without letting it become a burden.


“You’re the rookie as long as there’s not someone newer to come along,” Casey tells him gruffly.


Martinez looks distressed. “They just canceled the Los Angeles Jaeger program. There’s never going to be anyone newer.”


Casey shrugs indifferently. “So you’ll always be the rookie,” he says. “Congratulations.”


Rick frowns. “That’s not fair.”


“Would you rather us be callous and cruel?” Casey asks. “We could turn you out now since you don’t have a job.”


“You wouldn’t,” Rick objects.


“Exactly,” Casey says. “You’re welcome.”


That clearly isn’t the answer Rick wants or the one he expected. Which all goes to prove that despite his capabilities in the field, Rick’s rookie status is still duly deserved. This hasn’t left him jaded. Not like the rest of them. He’s probably the only one among them who still believes things will work out for the best.


“Fine,” Rick says. “So what about Billy?”


“What about him?” Casey asks evasively.


“Michael won’t tell me about him either,” Rick says. “And Adele doesn’t know.”


Casey weighs his options for a moment, and ultimately decides that lying is more trouble than it’s worth. “He should be coming around soon.”


Rick waits, tilting his head a little, eyeing Casey carefully with his good eye. “Should be?”


Casey had hoped to slip that past the kid, given the drugs still working through his system. “He lost a lot of blood.”


“It’s more than that, though,” Rick says.


“How do you figure?”


Rick shrugs. “It has to be more than that,” he says. “I mean, I was pretty bad off, right?”


It’s true, and there’s no easy way to explain that. There’s no easy way to tell the kid about the power of belief, about the strain of being the last man standing in the Drift. Casey had never been emotionally attached to his partners, but feeling them go out had left an impression. Billy cares about Rick more than he should, and all the evidence from the electronic logs suggests that Billy was the last one to be conscious before Disruptor went down. Rick hadn’t been aware of anything. Billy, on the other hand…


He carried Rick’s weight and his own. Hell, he probably carried Olivia’s and Avalon Challenger’s with him as well. It’s one hell of a thing to carry.


“We just have to give him time,” Casey says finally, which isn’t a lie but isn’t exactly the whole truth. It’s all he has, though.


“Will I get to see him?” Rick asks.


“I know you’re feeling better after your talk with your girlfriend, but you’re still recovering from serious injuries,” Casey points out.


Rick’s cheeks redden. “She’s not my girlfriend.”


Casey rolls his eyes. “Then you’re just not trying very hard. She likes you.”


Rick perks up. “You think so?”


Casey grumbles, “I’m not doing this with you.”


“Doing what--?”


“I’m not going to talk to you about your desire to be romantically involved,” Casey says dourly. “It’s not happening.”


“But you think she likes me?”


“Shut up, Martinez,” Casey snaps.

“You know something!”


“Shut up or I will have them sedate you,” Casey threatens.


“You wouldn’t,” Rick says.


Casey can’t deny it.


“Tell me,” Rick says, looking stupidly earnest. “Tell me.”


Casey inhales deeply, and he can still see the kid, bloody and still when he first got pulled out of the chopper. He can still remember sitting for hours, waiting for news. Casey fights against sentimentality because it’s not good for the cause.


But this time, he thinks, looking at the kid.


This time maybe he can make an exception.


-o-


Rick’s doing better. Casey grumbles and complains, but sitting with the kid actually makes him feel better. Strangely optimistic.


Sitting with Billy is a sobering dose of reality. Billy’s vitals seem to grow increasingly erratic. He’s showing signs of infection, and in general, his body is simply not responding as well as expected.


They can still lose this war, after all.


They can still lose a lot.


-o-

Michael fusses with the paperwork. He argues with the nurses, and forces the doctors to explain things to him again. Casey knows things are bad when Michael actually makes a call to Rick’s mother.

“You need to find a new outlet for your energy,” Casey observes.

Michael looks perturbed. “She deserved to know.”

“That’s why we have lackeys,” Casey says.

“She deserves to hear it from someone who cares,” Michael argues.

“That’s why we have compassionate lackeys,” Casey says.

Michael sighs. “You’re a heartless bastard.”

Casey doesn’t even flinch. “And you’re losing your grip.”

It says something – it says too much – that Michael doesn’t argue.

-o-

The next day, there are no grand pronouncements. Members of PPDC upper logistics team come in and start taking people aside, one by one. Some of them are spared, transferred over to the centralized research division or moved to the still operational Shatterdomes. Some are reallocated to the Wall of Life project.

Most of them, however, are given notice. Three weeks; two months; six months. The cuts are broad and no one is spared: K-science, J-tech, middle management. From custodians to doctors, in a single day the Los Angeles Shatterdome loses more staff than it has in all its years of operation.

In the name of progress. For the greater good.

It breaks like loss all the same.

-o-

Casey’s not sure if the PPDC staff is simply too afraid to talk to him or if his affiliation with Martinez and Collins earns him a temporary reprieve, but no one calls him in.

“Maybe they want to keep you on,” Rick says hopefully.

Casey does his best not to roll his eyes. He knows the kid isn’t being wishful for Casey’s stake; part of Rick surely wants to believe that this isn’t the end of his short career.

Michael nods reassuringly. “Just focus on your surgery,” he says. “This one will have a big impact on your prognosis.”

As in, it will probably determine if Rick walks around with a bum eye for the rest of his life or not. Casey’s listened in on the doctors talking; they couch it all in positive euphemisms, but this surgery is important and by no means a given success.

Rick looks nervous, even as he tries not to show it. “It’ll be okay, right?”

“Sure it will,” Michael says.

Rick looks to Casey to back up the assertion.

Casey shrugs. “You’ve gotten this far,” he says, and if it’s noncommittal, Rick is far too idiotically needy to notice.

And the truth is, it’s not a lie. Rick has gotten this far. And he has no Jaeger and no funding to get a new one. He probably doesn’t even have a job, but not even Higgins is enough of a bastard to can the kid before he’s fully cleared. Vision loss is a secondary concern.

“Great,” Rick says, a smile spreading across his face. “And you think Billy will be awake when I get out?”

This time, Michael does look to Casey. Michael hesitates now, and Casey offers a gruff approximation of a smile. “We’ll sit with him until you’re out.”

Rick looks relieved. “Thanks, guys,” he says, honestly and sincerely grateful. “For everything.”

Casey shifts uncomfortably, but Michael has the gall to look Martinez in the eyes. “Any time.”

They’re still right bastards, after all. Even until the very end.

-o-

Billy’s doing a little better today, at least, which is some sort of solace. They took him off the ventilator early in the morning, and by the time of Rick’s surgery, he’s finally showing some signs of consciousness.

Normally, Casey isn’t too keen on listening to the Scotsman blather, but all things considered, Billy is overdue for a bit of rambling.

Casey sees him open his eyes first, but it’s Michael who gets up, moving closer and standing in Billy’s line of vision. Billy twitches a little, eyes fluttering for a few moments before he seems to come to.

Michael smiles, and Casey feels something unclench in his chest. “Hey,” Michael says.

There’s a hitching breath, and Billy’s lips move wordlessly. He breathes again, swallowing with obvious pain and effort. “Rick?”

Of course he’s thinking about Rick. It’s pretty clear Billy worked his ass off to save Rick’s life, and given how Billy parted with Olivia, he knows the Scotsman has some attachment issues. That’s how it is when most people drift; the connection is intense and inherent, until it becomes a very part of who you are.

Only Casey’s supreme self discipline had kept him from being so compromised with his partners.

Michael nods. “The kid’s fine,” he says.

Billy doesn’t seem to hear him – or he just doesn’t believe him. Instead, he turns his head, starting to search. “Rick,” he says, word still garbled and strained.

“He’s not here,” Michael says. “He’s back in surgery—“

It’s the truth.

It’s also the exact wrong thing to say.

Billy is conscious and aware, but his lucidity is questionable. He hears the word surgery, and lets out a strangled, pained sound as he tries to lurch upward, off the gurney.

Michael responds immediately, putting a restraining hand on Billy’s shoulder. Casey is on his feet, coming up along the other side as a precaution.

Billy fights, though. He bucks weakly, looking around frantically. “Rick—“

He tries to roll away, starting to flail. A monitor bleats plaintively, and Casey looks up in time to see Billy’s vitals start to fluctuate wildly.

“Billy,” Michael says, pressing him down more firmly now. “Billy, you need to calm down—“

Billy can’t hear him now, his breathing starting to come faster, harder.

“He’s hyperventilating,” Casey says.

Michael sets his jaw firmly. “Billy, calm down,” he orders. “You need to calm down. Rick’s fine. You’re fine. We’re all fine.”

Michael is trying to hard to convince Billy, and Casey almost believes him, too. It’s still a lie, though. They may recover, but none of them are fine.

Nothing is fine.

Billy thrashes, almost starting to choke. His eyes are wide and full of unshed tears. Another monitor starts to beep, and Casey’s about to hit the call button when a nurse bustles in, a doctor right behind her.

“What happened?” the doctor barks, moving around and edging Michael out of the way.

Michael steps back, expression stony. “He woke up and just started panicking.”

Billy cries out, Rick’s name inarticulate and desperate on his lips. His face is going dusky, his flailing wild.

“Ranger Collins,” the doctor says, drawing a syringe. “We’re going to give you something to help you rest now, okay?”

Billy doesn’t respond; he kicks the sheet off, frantic eyes passing unknowingly over Casey’s face.

The doctor nods, moving to the IV. She injects something deftly as the nurse adjusts the flow. Moving back toward Billy, the doctor holds him steady. “Just relax,” she says, as Billy fights. “Relax.”

This time, Billy has no choice but to obey. The drugs take effect, slow and steady. His movements lessen and slow, before dissipating. He falls limp against the bed, limbs lax and his eyes staring dully as he looks at Casey one last time. “Rick,” he mumbles, his eyes slipping closed.

After a moment, the doctor sighs. “His body can’t handle this kind of trauma.”

“He just woke up like this,” Michael objects.

“There are many documented cases of pilots suffering from severe psychological disorientation,” the doctor says. “It’s not your fault.”

“That’s nice,” Casey says. “But what can we do about it?”

She shrugs as the nurse fusses about. “Do your best to keep him calm,” she says.

“That’s easier said than done, doc,” Michael says.

“I realize that,” she says. “But another episode like this may not be so easily contained.”

“I’m not sure this one was easily contained,” Casey snarks, looking down at Billy again, drugged and unaware.

“I’m saying his vitals could crash,” she says, more bluntly now. “His condition is improving, but he’s still far more critical than he should be at this point.”

“You’re saying that he could die?” Michael asks, almost incredulous.

“I’m saying he needs our help,” she replies without hesitation.

Casey doesn’t even know what that means; he doesn’t know what more than can give.

Michael nods, though; he’s resolute. “We’ll do whatever we can.”

Even if they have no idea what that means.

-o-

Once Billy is settled, the doctor leaves. Casey watches Michael, waiting to talk about it. To talk about anything. About the Shatterdome closing; about Rick’s surgery possibly not working; about Billy not being okay.

Stubbornly, Michael refuses to look at him, alternating his vision between Billy and the clock. As if not talking about any of it will make it any less real.

For now, Casey doesn’t fight him.

His eyes linger on Billy.

For now.

-o-

When Michael steps out to get an update on Rick, Casey is surprise to see Fay step in. She frowns a little. “I thought Michael would be here,” she says.

“You just missed him,” he comments.

Fay hesitates in the door before finally asking, “How’s Billy?”

“Holding in there,” Casey says vaguely. He doesn’t like to parse words, but he has no desire to explain such things to Michael’s ex.

Fay’s a smart woman. Her decision to not comment on the evasion is just as purposeful as the evasion itself. “And Rick?”

“We’ll see,” Casey says. Or not see, as it were.

Fay hesitates again, pressing her lips together for a long moment. She finally takes a breath. “Well, I’ll catch him before I go,” she says.

Casey arches an eyebrow.

Fay smiles grimly. “This morning I was thanked for my years of service before being informed that my position was no longer a part of the PPDC,” she says, sounding just a little bitter.

To this, Casey is actually surprised. “Higgins let them can you?”

She shrugs. “I’m not sure he had much say in the matter.”

Casey snorts. “The PPDC is stupider than I thought.”

“Well, they’re not the only future,” she says. “At least, I don’t like to think so.”

“If it is, we have no future,” Casey says.

“Too many good people to allow for that,” she says. “But, anyway.”

“I guess this is goodbye,” Casey says.

Fay smiles. “We’ll see,” she says cryptically. “One way or another.”

Casey almost asks her to explain, but she’s already gone.

We’ll see, he thinks.

He certainly hopes so – for all their sakes.

-o-

Michael comes back with no news. Billy’s vitals hover precariously.

The fight’s not over yet.

Casey girds himself to the finish.

-o-

“Mr. Martinez is resting comfortably after his surgery,” the surgeon explains. “We made good progress reducing the amount of scar tissue.”

Casey huffs. “But?”

The surgeon allows himself a moment of hesitation. “The damage was considerable,” he says. “I’m confident he’ll regain at least partial vision.”

“But not all of it?” Michael asks, his jaw tight.

“I believe it’s time to focus on the positives,” the surgeon says. “Mr. Martinez is alive, and he is going to have a long, healthy life ahead of him.”

It’s true, in a lot of ways. Probably in the ways that matter to most people. But Casey still knows what Michael is thinking; it’s what he’s thinking, too.

Rick will live a long, healthy life.

Just not inside a Jaeger.

-o-

Rick is slow to come out of anesthesia, but Michael and Casey camp out anyway.

“They don’t know for sure yet,” Michael says, a little absently. “Rick’s surprised us before.”

Casey sighs, sitting back in his chair wearily. “I know we both want him to regain full use of his eye, but it’s not like it matters,” he says.

“He still has potential as a pilot,” Michael argues.

“There are no Jaegers left,” Casey points out.

Michael doesn’t reply. Instead, he stares stiffly at Martinez.

“You need to talk about it,” Casey finally says. “You can’t avoid it forever.”

“I’m not avoiding anything,” Michael says. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“We’re going to have to make some sort of decision,” Casey argues. “The longer we sit here—“

“This is where we’re needed,” Michael cuts him off, glancing toward Casey venomously. “I don’t know where else to be.”

“There’s a war—“

“This is our team,” Michael all but hisses. His cheeks are bright; his eyes burning. “Our team. Whatever comes next, we start with that.”

“You and I don’t have jobs,” Casey points out. “Rick’s probably washed up and Billy – well, Billy’s barely holding on again.”

“They’re going to be fine,” Michael says. “We’re going to be fine.”

The point is punctuated, though, but the sound of an alarm down the hall. Then they hear the intercom. “Code Blue. Repeat, Code Blue.”

Michael’s face goes white.

Casey swallows.

They both know.

This is a fight – one they could all still lose.

-o-

Casey makes it first by sheer virtue of his training. He skids to a halt outside Billy’s room in time to see the doctor’s cut his gown away, throwing back the blanket. The monitors are wailing, and Michael stumbles to a stop just in time to see Billy’s chest go still.

The doctor stands tall, pressing down on his chest while another starts a round of epi. Someone calls for the paddles, and when the charge surges through Billy, Michael jerks more than the half-dead Scotsman.

It’s a long, tremulous moment before the heart monitor registers a beat, and then another. The doctor backs away, nodding slowly.

When she turns, looking back at Michael and Casey, her face is grim.

-o-

“There’s no reason I can see for him not to be rebounding,” the doctor explains. “It’s like he’s just not holding on. Like he’s run out of reasons to fight. I’m sorry.”

She’s sorry, but not for the right reasons. She’s sorry, but she doesn’t know why.

Casey glares at her as she walks away, shaking his head. “We have to do something.”

Michael is colorless. “Like what?” he demands flatly.

“Anything,” Casey growls. He turns, hitting the wall hard with his open fist. “You said we’re going to be okay; you said it’s about the team; you’re supposed to be our team leader.” He rounds on Michael, feeling his self control slip. Because he’s played nice; he’s been patient. He’s given space and done things on his own. But this is too much, it’s teetering too close to the brink, and Casey is going to cut and run if something doesn’t change soon.

Something has to change soon.

He keeps his eyes on Michael, stepping forward and dropping his voice. “So fix it.”

-o-

Casey walks away.

It’s a miracle he’s lasted this long, but he can’t take it anymore. He can’t take the waiting; he can’t take the inaction. He can’t take it.

Out in the Shatterdome, things are much better. People move quietly, carrying packed bags. Lab doors swing open, with hastily taped boxes in piles along the corridors. He finds his way to the Jaeger Bay, standing in the empty room, looking up at the looming, vacant spaces.

This is what he came for. Now that it’s empty, he wonders why he’s still here.

It’s like echoes in the Drift, though. The thoughts and the memories. The hope.

Hope.

Casey is impervious to most things, but even he is susceptible to hope. That’s what Michael led them, too. That’s what Rick and Billy found in the conn-pod of a piecemealed Jaeger.

That’s why he can’t walk away.

That’s why he’s still going to go back.

Because his team, it is something special. It is what the PPDC strove to be in the beginning. It is everything it needs to be, and more. It works even when it shouldn’t; it prevails against the odds. If something is going to win this war, maybe Michael’s right. Maybe it starts with that.

Casey can fight for grand causes.

He can fight for people.

Mostly, Casey can fight.

For himself, for his team.

For the rest of the world.

-o-

When he gets back, he goes to Rick’s room. It’s empty, though, and for a second, Casey fears the worst. But when he goes to Billy’s room, he sees Michael slumped in a chair, sleeping with his head leaned back against the wall.

Rick is in a bed, pushed up against the wall. His eye is bandaged, but he’s still awake, turned toward Billy.

Billy is on his back, features waxen as his eyelids flicker. But his hand reaches out, just a little.

Just enough.

Rick reaches back, and their hands touch, fingers closing firmly.

Rick smiles.

Billy breathes.

Michael was right, Casey realizes. Not about everything, but about what matters.

Suddenly, there’s more reason for hope than ever before.

-o-

With Rick nearby, Billy’s vitals stabilize quickly. He starts rebounding and within days, he’s already joking and flirting with the nurses. Rick’s eye is still questionable. Only time well tell.

Michael still spends most of his time in their room, rocking back on his chair and smiling. After several days, Casey catches Michael on a bathroom break, and they peek into the room, where Rick and Billy are sleeping, faces tilted toward each other on their parallel beds.

“I told you we’d make it,” Michael says, smirking a little.

Casey can’t quite stop a small smile from forming on his lips. “It is rather remarkable,” he says. “Of everything that survived, we’re all still standing.”

“We’re that good,” Michael says. “I never doubted it.”

Casey looks at Michael carefully for a moment. He could argue the point, maybe, but that doesn’t seem necessary. It doesn’t even seem right. Michael’s not been a perfect leader, but he has been good. He’s still worth following, even if he’s not sure where he’s going anymore. Casey has always preferred to be on his own – it is easier that way – but there’s something about a team.

There’s something about this team.

It endures.

Which is what makes this so hard.

“I’m leaving,” Casey announces abruptly.

Michael looks at him, eyes wide. “You’re what?”

Casey refuses to be bothered by his utter shock. Michael surely had to have seen this coming; if he didn’t acknowledge it, that’s his own problem. “We’re all as good as fired anyway,” he says. “I told you before, I don’t intend to go down on a sinking ship.”

“But the team—“

“Has no place here,” Casey says.

“Rick and Billy – they need you,” Michael says.

“I’m not leaving the team,” Casey says.

“Then what the hell do you call it?” Michael snaps.

“I’m leaving the PPDC,” Casey says. “And if you’re smart, you’ll leave, too.”

“To do what?” Michael asks, voice lowering as he glares at Casey. “What else is there?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Casey says. “But it’s not exactly like there’s a lot here to do. What are you going to do? Ask Higgins to let you in on the Wall project? Are you going to parade Martinez around like a wounded soldier, trying to elicit donations for a fruitless project? Are we going to have Billy charming people to throw their money down the drain?”

“We’ll figure something out,” Michael says. “We always do.”

“Exactly,” Casey says. “We don’t need to be in the system to subvert the system.”

“You can’t walk away,” Michael says, shaking his head. “Not yet.”

Casey flattens his lips. “Now’s the time, Michael.”

“Rick and Billy are still in the hospital—“

“Which is why we need to get something together for them when they’re on their feet,” Casey says. His shoulders slump a little. “I’m right, Michael. And you know I am.”

Michael’s eyes are bright, and his face is taut. He wants to argue. He wants to rage. But finally he purses his lips. “And if you find something?”

Casey starts to smile slightly. “You’ll be the first to know.”

Michael swallows, nodding, as if accepting the truth, maybe for the first time since Orion Disruptor fell into the water, lifeless and broken. “Okay,” he says. “Good luck.”

Casey glances in toward his sleeping teammates. “Save the luck for yourself,” he says. “You’re still the one who needs it.”

At this, Michael smiles a little. “You may be right about that.”

Billy twitches in his sleep, snuffling, flopping his arm a bit toward Rick. In response, Rick grumbles, his own arm slipping from the bed toward Billy

“I would think you’d have learned by now,” Casey muses wryly. “I’m always right.”

This time, Michael doesn’t try to argue. He doesn’t try to stop Casey. There’s no need. This isn’t the end.

No, as Casey walks away, he highly suspects this is just the beginning.

-o-

Casey’s not sure if he’s technically still an employee of the PPDC or not when he arrives at Oblivion Bay, but he’s not worried about that. He left the Shatterdome before receiving his official termination notice, so he imagines there’s still unfinished paperwork that might have his actual employment status in limbo. On top of that, he knows with the shutdowns and massive cutbacks, the PPDC has become more of a bureaucratic nightmare than usual.

Besides, if anyone questions his credentials, Casey has other measures of ensuring compliance.

As it is, he breezes by the checkpoint with his credentials. In truth, he guesses it’s not a common problem. No one wants to visit Oblivion Bay. Jaeger remains and debris isn’t much to look at, and the rotting Kaiju corpses make it a rather toxic destination. No one may want to visit, but Casey knows its value.

Not just as a historical monument to the losses of this war.

But for everything else it offers.

He spends most of the day visiting the Jaegers, taking his time with Avalon Challenger before making sure Mammoth Apostle has been treated adequately. He takes extra time with Orion Disruptor, walking along its hull, seeing the damage up close and in person. He’s practically memorized the reports, but he squats down and puts his hand along the marred exterior, almost wincing when he sees the damage to the conn-pod.

Orion Disruptor had never been much to look at, but it had fought hard. It had fought hard until the very end. He was a worthy Jaeger, one of the best.

Not that it mattered. The best; the worst; they all end up here.

In oblivion.

Before he goes, he visits Sierra Paladin. He misses her. All the years have made him strangely sentimental. When he sees her, it’s like nothing has changed. She’s rusting and broken, but she’s there for him.

When he finally walks away, he has to look back to where she’s laid out, almost like she’s waiting for him.

Almost like she knows someday he’ll join her.

Casey doesn’t know if he looks forward to that or not.

-o-

He leaves Oblivion Bay that night, driving north toward the mountains. He recognizes the sleepy little town along the coast and pulls off, stopping at the first bar right off the road. It’s dim and sparsely populated. He asks for a shot of whiskey before slinking down at the far end of the bar, sitting just out of the light.

He drinks the first shot, and then a second when someone sits down heavily next to him. Casey doesn’t look up, but he hears the steady breath let out before the person straightens, unbuttoning his long coat so it falls just slightly open. He grabs a napkin with broad hands, flattening it carefully in front of him before he orders a round for himself in a deep, English accent.

Casey waits until the drink comes, waits until the newcomer holds the glass and tips it back, downing it all in one, swift gulp. He puts the glass down in the middle of the napkin, exhaling heavily.

Casey shakes his head. “I didn’t think you drank,” he observes.

The person next to him doesn’t flinch. “You were the one who said Rangers spent too much time drinking and not enough time working,” is the reply. The man turns, tilting his head with a sardonic quirk of his lips. “And yet, here you are.”

Casey lifts his chin. “I’m not a pilot anymore,” he says. “What’s your excuse?”

The man shrugs diffidently. “The last days of war,” he muses.

“But to what end?” Casey asks.

“And that is why I drink,” the man says. He nods to the bartender. “Another round for my friend and I.”

Casey sits back, eyebrows up. “Since when were we ever friends? You were many things to me, Stacker, but friend wasn’t one of them.”

“Since almost all our colleagues died in the line of duty,” Pentecost says. “And yet we live on.”

“That does make our rivalry rather superfluous,” Casey acknowledges, a tad petulantly. “But for the record, I was still the better pilot.”

Pentecost looks slightly bemused. “I was grounded before you were,” he says.

“I still had more kills,” Casey counters.

“I piloted Coyote Tango by myself,” Stacker says. “It’s a rare feat of neural fortitude that few have accomplished.”

“Total kills,” Casey says with a smug lilt. “Everyone knows that’s what it come back to.”

“If that were the case, then why did the PPDC move me to the upper echelon and leave you to waste as a, what, instructor?” Pentecost asks.

Casey narrows his eyes. “That was my choice, not theirs,” he says. “I never wanted management.”

“Afraid you couldn’t handle it?” Pentecost baits.

Casey scoffs. “Please,” he says. “For all our competition back in the early days, you know me better than that.”

Stacker’s pretenses fall, and his smile is softer now. “Yes, I do,” he says. He sobers somewhat. “That’s why I asked you to come here, actually.”

“I’m pretty sure that I don’t work for the PPDC anymore,” Casey says.

“That’s fine,” Stacker says. “I don’t need you to.”

Casey inclines his head curiously. “Then I’m not sure how I can help you.”

“You and I both know the PPDC doesn’t have the solution we need,” Pentecost says.

“I knew that years ago,” Casey says.

“And yet we both stayed on,” Pentecost says, “because it was the most viable means toward our desired end.”

Casey tweaks his eyebrows. “And what end is that?”

Stacker meets his gaze, holding it unwaveringly. “Victory.”

Casey eyes him. He owes Stacker Pentecost nothing. He’s not even sure how much he likes the man. People make stupid, desperate promises in war; people are not to be trusted.

And yet, Stacker Pentecost is a man of his word; a man of integrity. Casey doesn’t have to like him to respect the hell out of him. He’s not sure Pentecost is the sure ticket for salvation, but Casey has to admit, he’s the best option yet.

More than that, he may be the only option.

Casey picks up his drink, sloshing it around thoughtfully. “Okay,” he says with a slow, steady nod. “I’m listening.”