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Birthdays and Years

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When you are ten, your parents die. Because your father's relatives want nothing to do with you, you are sent to a group home until it is determined whether Ranger Pentecost will be allowed to adopt you. The walls of the visiting room are bare; the lighting is harsh. He is too large for the small chairs in the room, and you pull your shoulders up and keep your eyes fixed on the table when talking to him because you do not want him to see how badly you want to follow him through those doors.

Somehow, though, he knows.

Years later, you find out that he defied direct orders from Command in order to formally adopt you.

...

When you are twelve, you are in the Hong Kong Shatterdome, and a Category-3 is about to make landfall. Sensei is in LOCCENT, of course.

This is the first time you have been at a Shatterdome while a kaiju was attacking a city; this is the closest you have been to a kaiju since Onibaba. When the three-mile klaxon goes off, you are in the middle of your mathematics and programming tutorial with Doctor Gottlieb, and you imagine that he must have organized the shutdown of the lab and helped you get down to the shelter that is set up more to protect against nuclear strikes than kaiju: you don't remember much of those fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, but the Shatterdome takes preparation seriously. Consequently, you come back to yourself in a clean and well-lit shelter. The ventilation system is working, and there are sufficient berths, but you are still shaking. Your hands feel cold. There is a bubble of fear inside your chest that you fight. Distantly, you realize that you are starting to breathe too fast, but you have difficulty stopping yourself.

"Miss Mori," Doctor Gottlieb says, softly. "Let us work on combinatorial geometry."

You look at him, miserable, not trusting yourself to find words in English or say anything without shaming yourself and sensei by bursting into tears.

What Doctor Gottlieb means by combinatorial geometry, though, is to take out a packet of pretty origami paper that he found time to slip into his pockets -- it is mostly his medications that make the breast pocket stick out like that, but you stare at the paper in his hands, the plastic wrap gleaming around the patterns of tiny, illustrated dogs and tiny, colored balls. Dr. Gottlieb either knew or guessed, or sensei told him. Mathematical models for kaiju attacks -- all that worry about getting the last of his backup research and getting all his medications and getting his cane, all the anxiety he feels because of his physical condition, and he still found time to get the supplies he bought because he knew how sensei came to adopt you.

He talks to you softly, soothingly, working you through a hands-on demonstration of planar graph theory. Then, you show him how to make various figures you learned in school on Kanegawa: two kinds of cranes, frogs, a man, a woman. A little childish, but it occupies the hands, and the two of you talk about the math of what your hands learned to do at six and seven years when your parents were still alive: sensei is in LOCCENT. Sensei runs Nova Hyperion and Tacit Ronin. They stop the kaiju before it has made its way more than a hundred meters onto land.

Years later, back in Hong Kong again, you find Doctor Gottlieb weeping at his work bench. When he sees you, he stops, but you can see the wet streaks on his face while he fumbles for a handkerchief: Vanessa is pregnant, he says. They have been talking about having her go back to Berlin, so that she will be safe. At the word safe, he has to turn his head away again. What kind of world is this to bring a baby into? Three Jaegers have gone down in the past four months; Kaori Jessop hangs between life and death in Seoul. Duc is dead, killed by the fall or the water or the kaiju blue.

Dr. Gottlieb loves his wife so much, and he already loves the child who, according to the Breach activity models he has developed, holds only a small chance of living to see her fifth birthday.

...

When you are thirteen, sensei takes you with him to Anchorage.

At first, you hate it.

It's April; the days are long, but still, to your mind, miserably cold. The Shatterdome is a full forty minutes away from the downtown area by rattling, noisy, dirty shuttle bus. To add insult to injury, you are now enrolled in the public school that services families for the Shatterdome, and as a result, you cannot go with sensei when Command calls him to New York City to help ask for additional funding. You have a math midterm that day. You have classes you should not miss -- as if you couldn't make them up. As if Dr. Gottlieb's tutoring of you and Chuck in Hong Kong didn't take both of you far, far past pre-calculus.

But sensei points out that attendance is important, and he promises to Skype you from his hotel room between the end of afternoon meetings and a dinner at the Chinese consulate. Because of the difference in time zones and latitude, it happens to be sunset in his time and your time simultaneously. You see the high towers of Manhattan behind him, their windows reflecting back pink and gold. There is the gleam of what he explains is East River. Sensei looks tired but handsome in a tuxedo -- just hearing his voice almost makes you cry. You woke by yourself, ate breakfast alone, spoke four words during the course of the school day, three of which were Leave me alone to a pair of boys at lunch when they tried to make friends and sat down at your lunch table.

Then, you came back to empty quarters. Then, Mr. Choi came to look in as sensei had asked him to, and he sees at you sitting on the floor at the coffee table, homework long since done and put away. Instead, you are working your way through neat stacks of what he recognizes as engineering articles in Jaeger technology: you bring a backpack full of paper from the Shatterdome, then print them out at the JSTOR terminal at the Anchorage Library. Mr. Choi tells you that the next time you want articles, you can just ask him. As head of LOCCENT Ops, he has access. You thank him. He considers the neat stacks of articles, the careful color-flagging system you've been using to mark statements that you don't understand, don't agree with, or don't think you have fully grasped.

He asks if you'd like to come down and eat dinner in the canteen with him and some other LOCCENT staff: they've been working on Romeo Blue. "Looks like you've got some thoughts on Jaegers."

You're tempted, but point to the rice cooker bubbling away on the kitchen counter. He considers it, then considers you. "If you need anything while the Marshal is gone," he says, "just page me through the Shatterdome system, OK?"

You nod, and after he leaves, you go back to your work. When the rice timer plays its five-note melody, you eat. You decide that you like Mr. Choi.

You don't mention to him that it's your birthday. You have your pride, and you are glad sensei didn't tell him either.

Years later, you and Tendo rebuild Gipsy Danger together.

...

It's sunset when sensei calls you from New York, and because of the long Alaska days, it's sunset in Anchorage, too. He wishes you happy birthday, and you bow to him through the video. He bows back. He says that he knows he has been busy recently, and you tell him that the PPDC comes first: he doesn't look satisfied by that, and later, when he comes back, he says he'd like to make it up to you. He is already taking you to Honolulu in June, after the school year, to spend time with Tamsin. This will be sooner.

Next weekend, he says. Cabin up in the Chugach Mountains. The weather should be reasonably clear.

You blink at him, not entirely sure

"Camping?" you say, struggling to be polite, but failing in both inflection and facial expression.

At the way you look and sound, he sighs. It was, apparently, Herc Hansen's idea. The cabin is, apparently, already booked and paid for.

Then, sensei gives you the birthday presents that the Hansens gave him in New York for you: two new kaiju patches for the kills they've made since you and sensei left, plus a keychain with a small plush bulldog on the end.

"From Chuck," sensei says, a little unnecessarily. He watches your face carefully.

...

What does sensei know about camping? He was born in Tottenham and raised within city limits. He knows what he learned in mandatory wilderness survival training in the RAF. What do you expect? The word "cabin" is unfamiliar to you, so you look it up on Google and in the privacy of your room, with the lights off and the laptop screen and your alarm clock the only illumination, you make faces at the pictures that come up. You look up the name of the campgrounds at which sensei has booked the cabin and worry yourself by reading negative reviews.

You practice the calm, unsurprised face you'll make when a spider runs out from under the bed mattress.

...

In reality, the cabin turns out to be much better than you expected. For one thing, it is only fifteen minutes away from Anchorage, and it is undoubtedly beautiful. For another thing, it is relatively clean. It has clearly been recently scrubbed down and swept out, and it actually has electricity and a small kitchen and refrigerator. The mountains interfere with cell phone signals, and there is no WiFi, but sensei brought a satellite phone in case they need him for an emergency. You have a pile of reading printed out with the assistance of Mr. Choi, and at the grocery store at the last town, sensei buys groceries. Dinner is hot dogs cooked in the fire pit outside the cabin. You're familiar with them from Shatterdome canteens, except these taste a little like lighter fuel, which smells like Jaeger fuel to you.

After some more struggle, though, the fire is burning without lighter fuel, and the stars are overhead. The air seems to fill your lungs more than it usually does: a strange sensation, but you take a breath and can hold it longer. There are a few chairs dragged out by the fire pit, and sensei pours a little Scotch into a mug and works at it. You have hot cocoa made from a packet on the stove inside. When the time is right, you tell him, quietly, that you'd like to take the entrance examinations for the Jaeger Academy next year when you are fourteen: you've been studying, and you think you will qualify.

He considers this. There are things he could say -- you are too young to pilot, for example. If you qualified, you would be the youngest person to ever qualify for Jaeger piloting by years. He could also ask whether this is something you and Chuck have schemed up together, and whether Chuck has even asked his father: are you asking sensei now?

One of the things that you admire the most about sensei is that his words are always carefully considered.

"We should make this count then, Mako," he says, finally, just as quietly, looking you in the eyes -- Mako, not Miss Mori. He knows how good you are in the Kwoon. As few people do, he knows how deeply you are engaged the technical elements of being a Jaeger pilot: you can see on the other side of the fire that his face is already a mix of pride and love and anticipation of how much he will miss you, how much he missed you when he was in New York.

Years later --

...

Years later, you know that other people have helped raise you. Doctor Gottlieb and Commander Choi, for example. Now, their children will grow up to adulthood in a world without kaiju. You also have Raleigh; you still have Marshal Hansen.

Nevertheless, one night, in a hotel room in New York City, when you are due to address the United Nations general assembly the next day, you wake up from a dream of bright stars on a black sky. There is the smell of wood smoke in your nose; in the darkness, you can almost see sensei's face, lit from below and the side by the fire. It is a happy memory, but you know that, in your dream, it was overlaid with sensei's voice from the maintenance bay floor, asking you to protect him.

On that mountainside in Alaska, at thirteen, how confidently would you have promised him that you could? You would have said always. You would have said of course and talked to him about ow your Jaeger would have specific measures designed to allow for group defense situations.

...

You haven't woken up with tears on your cheeks, Mako Mori, ever since sensei took you out of the group home. He defied direct orders from Command in order to adopt you.

Years later, in New York, the tears come back.