It's a Wonderful life, ODS style
Rick reluctantly headed home for the holidays, upon orders from Michael. His heart and mind were not into celebrating, but he was expected so he would go through the motions of the holiday for his family, for Michael. He hadn't been feeling well, probably due to the fact that he hadn't gotten very much sleep or wasn't eating very well. His mother would see to making sure he made up for his dietary indiscretions with her cooking. He had warned her that he might not be very good company because of what had happened, but she, being a mom, had told him that all that had mattered was that he would be with family, that they would be there for him and the idea of being in their embrace did warm his heart a little. Christmas used to be his favorite holiday, spending it with his family, enjoying the festivities of food, laughter, and togetherness, but this year, all he felt was empty, lost, sick and feeling far from the Christmas spirit.
It had been six months and yet he couldn't shake the pain. If he were to admit it to himself, he had let the pain linger, not even trying to fight it off because it was all he had left to remind him and he knew that forgetting would hurt even more, only in hidden ways. On nights when he was able to sleep at all, he would be besieged by nightmares, awaking up breathless and with an ache in his chest that threatened to implode inside of him.
Rick had often joined Casey in relentless training. Casey worried about Rick's immersion into the routine. He saw the vacant, robotic movements and knew that it wasn't healthy. He told him that he needed to scale back, but Rick refused, telling Casey that he wasn't going to let what had happened ever happen again. Casey bluntly told him that he wasn't the only one who had felt the loss or the blame, but working himself into exhaustion wasn't the answer, that it would only make him more vulnerable to making mistakes. Rick listened and his eyes welled with tears, apologizing and falling to his knees in defeat. Rick told him that he needed to do something or go insane. Casey understood. He had confided to Rick that he, too, had been waking up with nightmares about what could have been done differently and he was seldom ever prone to second-guessing or re-evaluation, but he knew that this had been different. They had lost one of their own, though not the first time for Casey, he understood the devastation Rick had felt, not only because it was Rick's first loss but because of whom they had lost. Still, Casey knew one thing if nothing else, wallowing in self-pity was the last thing any of them should do and he told Rick that. Rick had understood, but couldn't find it in him to get past it. Casey admitted that he was having trouble too and that it would take more than six months, maybe more than a year to come to terms, but for Billy they all had to. Casey was determined not to tarnish his memory by becoming less than who he was or do less than what was expected of him. The best tribute he could give was to live on even if it was difficult to do, on some days seemingly impossible.
Rick had admired Casey's ability to compartmentalize. He possessed no such talent.
As the leader of the ODS, Michael had felt the most responsibility because in the end, he knew that all bucks stopped with him. He had made his share of tactical mistakes, had lost men before he had joined the ODS and during it. Losing Carson had been his first in the ODS and as hard as that loss was, losing Billy was almost crippling.
Michael had ordered Rick to go home and spend the holidays with his family because it was important and it would have been what Billy would have wanted for him…for all of them yet there Michael was still in the office. He was never very good at following orders, especially his own. The holidays had become bittersweet for him after the divorce, but Billy had found a way for four then three single men to celebrate and had made the days bearable to endure until the New Year.
The only regret he had felt had been for Rick over himself and Casey because he had never had the holidays with Billy. They had been Billy's favorite time of the year and he had reveled in each approaching day. He would decorate the office, buy a small tree, decorate it as well with some of his own ornaments from home and treat everyone to a celebratory Christmas Eve night of drinking good cheer until the stroke of midnight. He would sing carols from Hark the Herald Angels Sing to You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. It had amazed both Michael and Casey how well-versed Billy had made himself though it shouldn't have come as a complete surprise given how much else he knew like the complete works of Shakespeare. Once Christmas arrived at the stroke of midnight, he would produce gifts for each and every one of them. He had never forgotten a single Christmas or had left them without a present. They had to admit that they couldn't always say the same, but he had never cared. It was all about the celebration, about being with his friends and admitting that it was just as much about consoling himself at not being able to go home for the holidays for reasons beyond his deportation as it was to make sure that they all didn't brood the entire holiday away as well.
Rick had missed out on that and losing Billy so short of experiencing that made Michael's heart ache for him, maybe even more than for himself.
Rick had gotten to his parents' house in the late afternoon, Christmas Eve. He was amazed at how he was able to drive there give how sick he felt, but clearly, a couple of hours had been manageable, still, he was paying the price for ignoring his health. His mother was worried about how haggard he looked so she sent him up to bed immediately, told him to get some sleep and that she would call up to him when dinner was ready. Rick was too weak and tired to argue.
He walked up the steps to his room, dropped his luggage, took off his jacket then laid on the bed, letting the soft support envelope him. As tired as he felt, he didn't fall asleep immediately. He scanned the ceiling of his room and let the tight control he had on his emotions go, the tears then flowed undeterred and this throat choked out a sob. He then rolled onto his side, curling inward into a fetal position and continued to sob.
Six months he had restrained the tears, slipping only as far as to let his eyes redden from holding his tears back. Now that he had let the dam break, he thought the sobbing would never end.
Billy had died in Rick's arms, had died saving him, and losing him that way weighed on Rick in ways he hadn't expected. Survivor's guilt always glared a spotlight that was much brighter, much hotter and much more painfully when it was in direct correlation to a sacrifice, a sacrifice given without hesitation, a loss of a life that was so vital in its presence that the absence of it created such a vortex of remorse and regret that struggling against being sucked into the gaping maw of it seemed futile and giving into the darkness it offered seemed welcoming. Rick was slipping. His tenuous grip on living on without that life had been half-hearted at best, held barely on the precipice with scraping finger nailed grit that was crumbling away with each attempt at grappling at the slim edge.
And so he allowed himself to weep in the room he was raised in, with his mother just downstairs cooking dinner as if a home cooked meal would salve the pain he was feeling. Finally, too exhausted from crying to keep sleep at bay, he succumbed into what he knew would be a nightmare awaiting him.
Rick traversed from building to building, zigzagging to avoid getting hit by the splattering gunfire. In his head, he was thinking how unlucky their luck had been lately, close calls, missions into the most god-forsaken places, facing hostile impediments. It was enough to drive a man to quit, but not the men in the ODS. They seemed to be adrenaline junkies, Rick being the least of the four of them. He watched the others, mission after mission throw themselves headlong into dangerous situations, thriving on the successes, never once questioning whether their tightrope-balancing act would finally give way that their luck would finally run out.
And finally, the cosmos had caught them all unaware.
Billy caught up with Rick, managing to also escape harm, but as they both headed to reconnect with the others, Billy spied two more enemy combatants joining the fray, leaping from out of seemingly nowhere, shooting their automatic weapons at them. Rick's reaction had been a hairs breadth too slow and Billy knew what he had to do. It was instinct.
"RICK!" Billy yelled as he shoved Rick out of harm's way and placed himself into the line of fire.
Rick watched in horrified shock, as everything seemed to move unnaturally slow. He tried to recover from Billy's push, but the momentum was too strong. He was powerless to do anything as what seemed an innumerable amount of bullets hit Billy, making him twist and jerk in painful reaction.
"NO!" was all Rick could get out as he exerted every ounce of countermeasure towards standing up to get to Billy.
Michael and Casey heard the shriek of anger and turned their weapons towards the assassins and mowed them down with returning gunfire, overkill clearly apparent.
Rick stared almost dumbfounded at Billy absorbing so many shots to his body, the jerk of his body as each one penetrated, and the barely audible grunt each time they hit.
Billy plummeted to the ground, unable to brace his fall and when hard ground met soft body, a thud and a groan came with the contact.
Rick rushed to Billy as Billy groaned. He lifted his body ever so slightly to examine him, but Billy shook his head adamantly as every sound of pain and agony emanated from him.
"I need to see how badly –"
"B..Bad, I'm afraid," Billy uttered, his body wracked with waves of pain as he groaned and breathed unevenly.
"HELP ME! I NEED HELP HERE!" Rick screamed with an intensity and volume he didn't think he had in him.
Billy squeezed Rick's arm partly to get his attention and partly to communicate the pain he was in.
"R..Rick…stop…I…I'm not gonna make it…"
"No, no, you can't know that –"
"Oh, but I can, mate…I…know," Billy arched and moaned, his breaths coming out of him in short bursts.
"No, no," Rick kept repeating, all coherent thought leaving him.
"L…Listen to me, lad…no regrets, yeh? D…don't forget that…" Billy said as he choked on a breath.
"Noooo…" Rick said, unable to stop sobbing. "D…don't let go…"
"P…Promise me…live your life…Adele…d…don't s…squander it…yeh?" Billy insisted through the pain, pain that caused him to buck, jerk and moan.
"I…can't…I can't," Rick said, Billy blurring in his tear-filled vision.
"C…Consider it…a dying man's last wish…yeh? P…promise me…" Billy insisted again as he gripped Rick's arm from the pain, Rick thought he would break it. "Let me go…Rick…"
Rick's voice was completely overcome with emotion and he couldn't even protest without it coming out as a squeak.
Billy's breathing began to stall, but Rick noticed that he seemed to be resisting and for each breath he took, he saw the pain radiate across every muscle on his face. Billy was holding on for him, for his promise and suffering because of his selfishness.
"Let me go, lad…I'm not afraid…"
"But I am…" Rick finally said, realizing how selfish he was sounding, but couldn't help it.
Billy smiled shakily.
"D…don't be, not for me anyways…been prepared for this…comes with the job…yeh?" Billy said as he gripped Rick's jacket into his fist, an intense rush of agony making his body rattle and tense.
Rick lowered his gaze in embarrassment and Billy understood.
"Y…you can go on without me…the ODS…more than just one man…Y…you can do this…" Billy said reminding Rick of the last time he had said those words to him, the same confidence still in his voice.
Rick could only shake his head negatively.
"Y…you can and y…you will…" Billy said, his breathing slowing, each intake of air a struggling wheeze. "P…promise me you will…"
Rick saw that Billy was holding on by sheer will and even though he would be lying, he knew he had to give Billy his permission to release himself from the pain.
"I promise…let go, Billy…it's okay," Rick said, each word painful to say and unconvincing.
Billy was no fool, even dying. He knew Rick would struggle, but he also knew he would have Michael and Casey to guide him. He hated that he wouldn't be there to watch Rick become the full-fledged hero he was already on his way to becoming. He had to hope that he'd find his way there without him.
"I'm holding you to…be…true…to…your word, sonny…or I'm coming back…to haunt ya…" Billy smiled painfully. "H…heart of a h...hero…you're that and more…mate. D...don't ever forget that..."
Billy's grip loosened and his whole body went limp, a last shuddered breath exhaled.
Rick could only hold him and wail out his name.
Rick then sat bolt upright in his bed, sweat drenched and taking in deep breaths. He looked around his room to orient himself.
"About time you woke up, lad," a familiar voice said.
Rick turned and saw Billy sitting in a chair in a corner of his room, a bright and wide smile on his face.
"I told ya I'd be coming back to haunt ya if you didn't keep your promise."
Rick kept blinking in the hopes that his hallucination of Billy would disappear, but no matter how much he clenched his eyes closed and squinted, Billy remained.
"Afraid you're not going to be rid of me that easily," Billy snarked.
"You're just a hallucination. I'm feverish and sick and this is just another nightmare."
"I've never considered myself as someone who would appear as a nightmare in some one's fevered brain. I'm far too cheerful an apparition for that."
"How else do you explain you being here? You're..." Rick still had trouble saying the word.
"Dead? Yes, well, that is true, still that, but I prefer to be a more Dickensian delusion rather than the Nightmare on Elm street variety."
"I must really be sick," Rick said as he laid back down onto his bed.
"Aye, you are not well, but you'll not be joining me anytime soon. Not if I have anything to say about it."
Rick rose up to a sitting position again, his expression a mix of illness and grim sadness.
"And how do you intend to stop it?" He said almost angrily.
Billy's expression then became sad.
"Is that what you really want? I doubt that very much."
"And how would you know?" Rick said his angry tone intensifying. "You died and left me."
Billy stood up and walked over to Rick, his expression a mix of empathy and regret and yet there was sternness carved into his features well.
"If I could have prevented what happened, I would have. I had no death wish, but I wasn't going to just stand idly by and let you get killed neither. It's against everything I believe in. I don't regret doing it and you won't convince me otherwise. I thought you knew me better than that."
Rick bowed his head.
"I know and I do. It doesn't make the reality that you died, that you died saving me any easier."
"Rick, I can find no other better reason to die than in saving someone who has so much to offer the world."
"And you didn't?" Rick pleaded the case softly.
"I've had my time and with you mates, I did my best work, but we can't always foresee what our futures will be. Doesn't take away from all I was able to accomplish while on the terrestrial plane."
Rick was trembling into emotion that he couldn't stop.
"But you never got to go back home…"
"I was home, mate and as for my ancestral roots, I'm there now as well. Thank you for bringing me home at last," Billy said with gentle gratitude.
Billy could see that Rick was in torment over his death and needed to find a way to bring him back from the brink.
"You needn't mourn for me, Rick. I'm at peace. There are no regrets and your grieving is hurting those who care for you and who need your presence."
"Michael and Casey are grieving too."
"Yes, of course they are. All the more that they need you, rely upon you really to lift them from their sorrow."
"And who will lift me from mine?"
Billy was struck by the resignation and lack of purpose in Rick's voice.
"You, mate, have a ravishing lass who loves you with all her heart and you are abandoning that gift for a dead man, hardly fair of you and completely ridiculous, really. Did you not heed my lesson about CIA operatives and happily ever afters? She is willing to comfort you both body and soul if you'd let her and instead you choose to curl up alone and nurse a cold and unfeeling bottle for comfort," Billy scolded with caring intent in his voice.
Rick took in a breath and allowed long held tension to release and Billy felt it. He knew he was on the right track.
"I see that a demonstration is in order. Take my hand," Billy said, reaching out.
Rick hesitated, staring at the proffered hand.
"Are you afraid of what you'll see? That my earlier Dickensian reference might be happening to you? Or are you just not comfortable holding the hand of a ghost? I may no longer be flesh and bone, but the only thing that's slipping away here is your will and trust. I will not allow that to happen."
Rick reached out then stopped short.
"I am afraid," he admitted.
"Fear not, young Rick. I only want to show you what's possible if you'd only free yourself of the memory of my death. Think of me as your personalized ghost of Christmas future."
Rick finally, if tentatively, took Billy's hand and allowed him to lead him through a foggy mist. When things cleared, he saw the ODS office. It was decorated with garland and strings of lights. A small tree worthy of Charlie Brown only healthier and spruced up with ornaments was sitting on Billy's desk.
"I have to admit I will miss the good cheer. This used to be my handiwork."
"What? This isn't –"
The office door opened and Rick was shocked to see himself, arms full of boxes with ornaments.
"That's me," Rick said.
"A fine job of identification there," Billy teased. "You're a natural."
Rick rolled his eyes.
"No, I mean, I –"
"Didn't even think about it? Well, yes, I know that because you were too busy feeling regret over something that wasn't your fault-"
"I knew that it wasn't…I just didn't understand…why it had to be me!" Rick blurted in anger.
Billy gazed at him wide-eyed, surprised by the spontaneous response. His expression softened. He hadn't realized that there was more to Rick's grief than just him dying.
Rick noticed and turned away.
"God, could I sound more selfish?" Rick said. "I know you couldn't help how it happened. I get that, but you died not only because of me, to save my life, but you died before you could do…THIS!"
Rick turned back and threw his hands in a flourish to showcase the room.
"Before you died, Michael and Casey were randomly just shooting the breeze and were talking about how I'd get to see a Billy Collins Christmas and how great it was and then you were killed and…I felt like I denied EVERYONE your Christmas, that I denied ME of your Christmas. It's not rational, I know that, but…I mean, I normally get excited about Christmas, but this year I was going to get my first Billy Collins Christmas and…I didn't. I know it's not your fault either, but I'm just angry and sad and I can't seem to stop feeling that way."
Billy listened with compassion and hadn't considered that his loss would be so far reaching as to affect something he had taken for granted as just something he did, nothing special about it, but it had taken on a life of its own without his knowledge.
"I'm sorry, Rick. I've been callous and unfeeling. Here I thought it was just about me dying. When I did those Christmases, I had no notion that it would become so important to anyone other than myself. I did it in order to fill a void within me of not being able to be with my own family so I had deemed it more selfish than altruistic. Obviously, I was wrong and I'm truly sorry."
Rick looked at Billy and shook his head.
"Don't be…not having it just makes me, makes all of us, feel that much more alone."
Rick then felt suddenly weak and teetered on his feet. Billy felt Rick's illness blossoming into something more serious. The image shifted back to Rick's room and there on his bed was his body, drenched in sweat, his breathing labored.
"Listen to me, mate. You're getting sicker, pneumonia is settling in, I suspect. I have to get help for ya or you're going to die."
Rick looked over and seeing himself seemed unreal.
"Maybe it's better that I…"
"Rubbish!" Billy said as grasped Rick's shoulders and turned him around to face him. "Look at me!"
Rick did and saw Billy's determined expression.
"You'll only remember this as a dream when you wake, but you have to fight. You need to know that I'll be with ya the entire time. I can give you my spirit, but not my will. You'll need to find that in ya yourself. I need ya to find that in ya. You have much to live for and to accomplish. I've seen your future and it's full of hero's work, lives that you will save and which will surely be lost if you don't fight your way back. My death was destiny fulfilled. I was meant to give my life for yours so that you could live to do so much more though you have to know that I would have gladly have given it simply to see you live happily in any way you chose. Your death will only cause unnecessary calamity. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Rick said before his spirit dimmed and disappeared from Billy's grasp.
Billy had to hope it was enough.
Rick had been rushed to the hospital. His mother, with a little prompting from Billy, sensed something was wrong had found him feverish and breathing heavily in his room.
His recovery was luckily swift and without complications much to the relief of his family who stood vigil. Within two week's time, he was well enough to go back home. His mother had deemed it a Christmas miracle. Christmas had come and gone, but once well, his family rallied around to give Rick a belated double celebration with the coming of the New Year. Rick had felt renewed and the brooding clouds that had dogged him for months finally lifted though he hadn't known why. He did remember vague dreams while he was feverish, but they weren't images he could latch on to, they were more feelings of warmth, comfort and even strength. He had stopped having nightmares about Billy's death. In fact, he had been seeing him happy, holding up a glass of beer in a toast.
Rick had remembered how he had wished he could have experienced the Christmases that Billy had thrown in the past, but instead of feeling deprived, he suddenly felt that it was his duty to keep Billy's tradition alive so when he was back in the office, he decorated it with garland and lights, the acts feeling oddly familiar, bought a fake tree this go round, but vowed to himself that future Christmases would have a real tree and placed ornaments on it. He snuck in a bottle of Billy's favorite scotch and four glasses.
When Michael and Casey walked in, their faces were a mix of nostalgia and a twinge of loss.
"What's this?" Michael asked even though he didn't need an answer.
"I know I haven't exactly been the embodiment of Christmas spirit –"
"More like Scrooge to be honest," Casey said.
"Yes, well, I wanted to make up for that and even though it's late, I hope we can resurrect what Billy started in his honor," Rick said as he poured the scotch into glasses one of which he placed on Billy's vacant desk.
"What's brought this on?" Michael teased.
Rick smiled a little thinking that Billy would have enjoyed the cosmic joke that had been played on him.
"I got pneumonia when I was at home for the holidays and missed the entire thing. When I woke up, all I wanted to do was recapture it."
Michael and Casey gave him surprised looks.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Casey asked uncharacteristically concerned.
"It wasn't serious, there was nothing you could have done and I didn't want to ruin your holidays."
Michael and Casey just gave each other knowing looks. Rick caught it and let the subject die.
He handed each glass to the men and raised his in toast.
"To Billy!" he said.
"To Billy!" Michael and Casey chorused together.
They tossed the scotch down their throats, as Billy was wont to do.
Rick then absent-mindedly reached into his pocket as he felt something digging into his thigh. He pulled out a desk key and though he didn't know how he knew, he knew that it belonged to a lock in Billy's desk.
Michael and Casey watched with curious interest as Rick fit the key into a lock, turned it then opened a drawer. In it, he found wrapped gifts, one for each of them.
"How did you…" Michael asked.
"I don't know," Rick said as the moment filled with the sound of presents being opened.
For Casey, it was the book, TheArtofWar by Sun Tzu. It was a rare feat to render Casey speechless, but all he could do was stare at the book in his hands with awe on his face. When he flipped the cover, there was an inscription inside.
"Casey, never forget that for all your talents at subterfuge and physical confrontation, you have in your possession a humanity that must never be lost for it binds you to your strength. You may deny it exists, but I know differently. I see it every time you go into battle to save our lives for which I am eternally grateful."
Casey sat down at his desk, dumbfounded and silent.
Next, Michael opened his gift and for him it was a pocket watch, the one that Billy often wore. With it was a note.
"Michael, this was my dad's watch. He was a watchmaker and by being so, he understood intimately how precious time was, how it escapes one's grasp quickly. He passed it on to me, literally placed it in my hands and told me to never squander love or time. The next day, he passed in his sleep. I give it to you to remind you that for every wound, time heals, for every lost life, there is one born, for every lost love there is another awaiting an open heart. You feel that as a leader you must shoulder all responsibility and deny yourself forgiveness and love, but I want this to remind you that you lead a team who would gladly follow you as I have done without regret. It is with all our shoulders that we bare all our burdens."
Like Casey, Michael had been rendered speechless and also sat as his desk to ponder Billy's last words.
Finally, it had been Rick's turn. When he opened his gift, there were two small boxes, boxes for rings. He opened each one. It was clear to him that one ring was meant to be worn by a woman and that the other one was meant to be worn by a man.
"Rick, I told you that happily ever afters were not destined for us and that if you had found love with Adele, which I believe you have, then you should not squander it. These rings belonged to my parents who were married for fifty happy years. Surely they have been infused with the kind of love and devotion that remains stalwart through difficult times and yet rekindles every time they are gazed upon by similarly inclined lovers. Take them and make Adele your confidant and lover for life. There is no greater fulfillment in life than finding love and cherishing it and so you mustn't let Adele slip from your grasp, from your life. Poorer is the man who believes that he can do without the embrace of love. A hero's heart cannot serve without it."
As the three men sat, looking at their respective gifts from a man they had all respected and had considered a brother, there was the pain of loss, but there was also a renewed sense of devotion to the work and to honoring the memory of the fourth member of their team who had lived fully, giving teachable moments for every opportunity that had presented itself and who had died living true to his doctrines, that nothing was more sacred, more valued than the life of another.
In a corner, Billy watched his friends and if he had a heart, he would have felt it break just a little as he accepted that he would never serve with those men again. Still, he felt fulfilled that he would be watching over them, would greet them as they fell and that his respect for them would remain with them.
At the darkest point of his life, he had found belonging, worthiness, and purpose with these men. His life may be done, but he had hoped he had returned those qualities back to them in kind and tenfold.
"Thank you, mates, for everything."
Billy dissolved away, his smile the last to fade.
FIN. Thanks for reading and a happy holiday to you all and a joyous New Year. Thanks for sticking with a deathfic to reach the final message.