"Watch your head," said Laurent.
To his satisfaction, the last word of his sentence was buried by the thud of Damen's forehead striking the metal door frame. This was followed by another sound as Damen's canvas bag, which was remarkably small for something purporting to contain all the man's possessions, scraped its way through the doorway behind him.
"She's a beauty, your new Mark 3," Damen said. "She doesn't have a name yet?"
"She doesn't have pilots yet."
Laurent paused, a few feet from the entrance to the lab, to let Damen catch up. Damen was a head taller, his stride longer, but Laurent had been leading him through the corridors at a fast pace. A jaeger was named on its maiden battle, baptised by the crash of seawater around its knees, and tagged when it returned triumphant. Engineers played elaborate card games for the right to ride the scaffold and wield the paint that emblazoned the name across the giant chest. Choosing that name was the responsibility of its pilots.
"Why not?" Damen asked, when Laurent didn't speak.
"She was earmarked for Marion and Rakesh Dupont."
"Mother and daughter? They took down Mukade, last year?"
Laurent nodded. "Marion broke her leg during their last engagement," he said. "In two places. She'll be out of action for a while, and Kesh won't drift with anyone else in the meantime. There's a new study out of UCLA--"
"I read it," said Damen. Laurent kept his face impassive, swallowing his surprise. "Adapting to a new partner weakens the neural handshake with the old one. All right. You need a new set of pilots, so that you haven't got a million-dollar piece of brand new kaiju-killing machinery sitting around gathering dust. Who's in charge of choosing them?"
Laurent finally pushed off the wall, setting his hand on the door to the lab. "Me," he said. "Here. Last stop on the tour."
Pascal looked up as they entered the lab. He set down his instruments, but didn't move away from his bench. "Laurent," he said. "If you've driven another of your cadets into an overuse injury, he can come to office hours like everyone else."
"Pascal is our medic," said Laurent. "And our primary researcher. And enjoys casting aspersions on my training techniques."
"Hah," said Pascal, flat.
"Damen here is a new mechanic."
"Just flew into Sydney this morning," Damen confirmed.
Pascal's eyebrows arched. "And you're showing him around? Yourself?"
"My dear uncle does persist in expressing the wish that I would show more interest in the dome's workings instead of, how did he put it? Sulking in the Rangers' wing."
"Oh, hello," said Damen suddenly, crouching down.
"Get out of here, pest," said Pascal, directing an ineffective foot at Nickel.
Damen's eyes creased as the cat, shameless as her owner, shoved her head up into his broad palm and began to emit a sound rivalling the unceasing buzz of the nearby glutaraldehyde tank. Up until then, Damen had smiled at Laurent with only his mouth. His cheeks had been briefly recruited, when they were crossing the floor of the main hangar bay and he'd glanced up at the gleaming shell of the new Mark 3. None of his expressions had reached his eyes before now. The difference it made to his already handsome face was extraordinary. An unwelcome curl of heat took possession of Laurent's sternum, like someone beating a glowing wire into a chain link, and he slowed his breathing. Four counts in. Four out.
"Yours?" Damen glanced up at Pascal.
Pascal was tugging covers over trays of exposed tissue. "No," he said, shooting a mistrustful look at the cat. "But Nicaise refuses to keep her shut in his room, so she spends far too much time here mistaking bits of dead kaiju for her dinner. Bits of dead kaiju which could kill her."
Nickel was still glorying in the attention of Damen's fingers, but she turned her white head so that her eyes, a mild yellow-green, gazed straight back at Pascal. She had Nicaise's smugly unconcerned bearing; Laurent suspected the two of them of practicing it in tandem.
"A shocking lack of respect for the dangers of alien microbiota," said Laurent dryly.
The side of Damen's mouth pulled a dimple into existence. Laurent dug his thumbnail unobtrusively into his index finger and hated himself for wanting it to happen again.
"Nicaise," Damen said. "Operations officer?"
"You haven't met him," Pascal said. "You'd remember."
Damen straightened and looked around the lab. "This place seems…"
"Small?" said Laurent.
Pascal snorted. "It is small. The real research is happening at Hong Kong dome, or in the universities. We send most of our retrieved tissue samples away, but I do a few modest experiments on the scraps that remain here."
Laurent met Pascal's eyes. Neither of them changed expression. Both of them knew very well that most of the kaiju parts sent off-base ended up in the black market, with the proceeds lining the Marshall's pockets. They also knew that the Marshall had a paranoid simmer of spies everywhere in the dome, including Pascal's lab, and any conversations about it would be faithfully reported.
"So Marshall de Vere is your uncle," Damen said, later, when Pascal had kicked them out.
"Do you have any field experience?"
"I said, the Marshall--"
"What about simulations?"
Damen looked at him for a long moment. "I'm a mechanic."
Laurent raised his eyebrows: so?
"I've never been an active Ranger," Damen said. "But yes, I've done some hours in the simulators."
Laurent didn't bother to ask how many hours; so far, Damen had managed to tweak and omit in order to avoid lying outright, which was...interesting. Laurent would gain nothing at this point by pushing him into dishonesty.
"Have you worked on the Mark 3s before?"
"They've only just been rolled out, and Sydney got them first," Damen pointed out. Another nice bit of verbal wriggling. "But there's not much I don't know about the Mark 2s."
"You mean the models that failed."
Damen went still, like a startled animal. He lifted a hand and rubbed at the back of his neck, looking down at Laurent as though the emotion that Laurent had carefully removed from his voice would arrive belatedly in the conversation and give him a clue.
"I heard that was a materials issue," Damen said, "not a design flaw."
"I don't think it made much difference to the pilots who were hurt, do you?"
Damen opened his mouth. Closed it. He knew who Laurent was; he knew what Laurent wasn't saying, and if he was halfway smart he was wondering why Laurent wasn't saying it.
Laurent made a show of inspecting his watch. "There. I think that's enough time for me to be able to wave my community spirit under my uncle's nose."
"That was a dismissal," said Laurent, slowly, as if to an idiot. He was rewarded by a flicker of clenched muscle in Damen's jaw. "Engineering quarters are on level B. Anyone will be able to point you there, when you get lost."
Part of Laurent, bristling with anger and effort and the memory of that dimple, wanted Damen to grasp the weak bait. But Damen just hoisted his bag higher on his shoulder and nodded, once.
"Thanks for the tour, Laurent."
He turned and walked away--down the correct corridor, Laurent noted in annoyance. Damen clearly thought he'd gotten away with it, that his flimsy nickname was enough to obscure him, and that Laurent had no idea who he really was.
He was wrong.
"Two kilometres and closing," said Nicaise, eyes fixed on the radar display. "Peregrine Steel is clear to engage."
The Marshall nodded and raised his voice. "How are you feeling, boys?"
"Feeling good, sir," came in unison over the comms.
Laurent didn't smile, but he watched the smiles flitting across the faces filling the control room, and the sensation was almost the same. Jord and Orlant had come to Sydney straight out of the Academy, back when the PDCC was training everyone centrally instead of tossing some of that responsibility out to the regional domes. They were odd, in some ways. They didn't look like a Ranger pair, even to the experienced eye; they acted like good friends, which they were, but they didn't have the blatant intimacy of lovers or family. Your eye would pass over them in a crowded room. Hell, in a crowded room they were likely to be standing nowhere near one another. They had their own friends, their own lives.
Put them in a training ring, though, or in a jaeger, and they clicked like two heavy cogs gladly meshing their teeth. The total understanding, the necessary trust, was there beneath it all.
"Neural handshake strong," said Nicaise.
One holographic screen displayed the overlapping lines of the drift to the entire room. Anyone could see the strength of it, but Nicaise liked both the sound of his own voice and to feel himself the centre of the action.
"Laurent, you there?" said Orlant.
Laurent looked at the distant camera view. He could feel his uncle's glance like sunburn on the side of his face. "Do you need me to teach you the difference between right and left again, Orlant?"
Peregrine Steel was wading stolidly out like a toddler in the shallows. As they watched, the jaeger lifted its left arm--Orlant's side--and made a gesture that was recognisable even on the screen.
"My compliments to the builders," said the Marshall, "for such dexterity."
"We're going to try the Triple Swoop," said Orlant, referring to a move that Laurent had developed with them after two hours spent watching them sweat and swear in the ring, teasing out something that would translate their strengths through the combat frames and into a coordinated attack.
"One kilometre," said Nicaise.
The kaiju was visible as a swiftly-closing heat signature, and the noise over the comms increased as Jord and Orlant powered up Peregrine's chain-blade limbs.
"Let's go," said Jord quietly, and: "Let's go," in instant agreement, like the second half of a talisman, from Orlant.
In the last few moments, the loudest sound in the control room was the accelerating blip of two heart rates almost in synch. Then the shapes on Nicaise's screen overlapped, there was a wordless grunt of effort as the Rangers swung their first blow, and the battle was engaged. Nicaise rattled off vital signs, hovering his fingers in front of the dancing string of the drift readout, as though in the event of danger he'd be able to weave their minds back together by hand. On the cam screen all sense of scale vanished; the jaeger could have been a toy in a puddle, doing jerky battle with another toy.
Laurent's hand rubbed at his opposite wrist for a few seconds before he noticed and forced them both down to his sides again. This was a difficult kind of nostalgia. He felt restless, charged-up. Half of him yearned to be back in the field, fighting properly, the sheer satisfaction of it more than outweighing the chafing of the jaeger suit and the way the muscles of his back would scream for two hours afterwards, until they'd been battered with hot water and stretched into calm. There had never been, would never be, anything like it. To fight monsters for the survival of the world, alongside someone who understood you, whose thoughts laid themselves over yours like fingers pressed warmly on a shoulder. Half of Laurent would have endured anything to do it again, just once.
The other half of him was nauseated at the very thought: adrift, still and always ready to skewer him anew on the pain of loss. The other half of him was Auguste, and Auguste was gone.
Laurent blinked, focusing his gaze back inside the room, and looked over at the Marshall. Half the room was inspecting the screens with too much interest, pretending that they hadn't just been looking at Laurent. The battle was over, the bulk of the kaiju now a blue-spattered archipelago where it poked above the ocean surface. Already the helicopters and boats of the retrieval squad would be on the move.
"Jord was talking to you, Laurent," his uncle chided. A glimmer of transparent concern fell over his brow. "Do you need to rest? Is it your head again?"
Laurent smiled back at him. Calm and apologetic. "No. Thank you. My head is fine."
"Those are your men out there, risking their lives. Do them the courtesy of paying attention."
"Yes, sir," said Laurent.
Laurent knew it was Damen entering the training room behind him, even before the man stepped into view. Nothing was audible beyond the dull sound of wood striking wood, down in the ring, but something was palpable. Laurent's skin constricted with it.
Laurent turned and met Damen's eyes for a short moment, saying nothing, giving him nothing. The top half of Damen's grease-smeared coverall had been peeled down and the sleeves tied around his waist, leaving him in a plain khaki T-shirt. It was the usual look for mechanics just off their duty shift, especially as the calendar tipped towards the hotter months of summer. Laurent saw hundreds of people dressed like that every day. There was no reason why his pulse should pick up and his abdominals should tighten just because Damen had broad shoulders, and a few freckles on his nose, and wet hair clinging to his neck from where he'd probably dunked it under a tap to cool off.
"All right, stop," Laurent said, returning his eyes to the ring. "I said stop. Aimeric, the reason she keeps getting under your guard is because you're too quick to take advantage of the gaps in hers, and she's better at bluffing than you are. Use your eyes. Engage your brain."
There was a smattering of laughter from the crowd lining the large room. Laurent was aware of Damen melting into that crowd, taking up a spectator's position against one wall.
Aimeric flushed and turned a disgruntled face up to Laurent. "I can bluff."
"Really?" Laurent made a show of glancing around. "Scuttlebutt says Mai won your last pay packet and the parcel of chocolate your parents sent you from Geneva, at the last poker night."
Aimeric squared his shoulders and took the renewed laughter with better grace. Mai flicked her hair back, the black mass of it long and straight as a horse's tail, and her eyes sparkled hopefully up at Laurent as she tapped her staff against the ground and bowed. These sessions had taken on a new edge of competitiveness. Everyone was aware there was a new jaeger to be filled. Mai was one of the better fighters, and she knew it; knew it too well, in fact. She was too eager, and a little too selfish; she and Aimeric were alike in that regard, and it was one of the reasons they'd never make an effective Ranger team.
"Pallas," Laurent said.
Pallas set down his water bottle and walked into the ring with a good-natured smile. Laurent paused, on the brink of telling Mai to remain. He trusted his instincts, and his instincts were niggling at him. He turned to Nicaise, who was crouched down by his side, hands clasped loosely around the railing.
"That new electrical engineer in the intermediate group. The one who transferred from San Francisco dome."
"Lazar?" Nicaise looked up and made a face. "No fucking polish on the basic forms."
"No," Laurent agreed, "but that's style, not capability. I've seen some of the training videos from the American academy. That's probably how he was taught. Delta group," Laurent commanded, raising his voice. "Engage. One at a time and not too fast, please. Pallas, concentrate on your footwork and on utilising the space. Begin."
Laurent had seen enough by the time three people had been knocked back, Pallas's staff at their throats. He called Lazar into the ring. Every one of Laurent's trainees had another role--from janitorial staff to cooks to the most highly-trained and highly-treasured engineers--but they were all here as Ranger cadets because they'd shown combat potential. Drift potential.
Laurent closed his eyes briefly and opened them again. Unsurprisingly, this failed to banish his headache.
"This is not about winning," Laurent said. "This is about asking questions, and giving answers. Do you understand?"
Lazar and Pallas nodded.
The two of them circled at first, wary and smiling with the pleasure of a new opponent, and then spun and smashed their way to every corner of the ring in turn. One point scored on each side, then--after a furious, lengthy bout--another to Lazar. Laurent smoothed his palms against the glossy railing, satisfied. They weren't brilliant, they didn't have the obvious and immediate spark of affinity that would make for the strongest bond, but there was definitely something there.
"That's enough," Laurent said. He waited for Lazar to extend a hand and help Pallas to his feet. When he had their full attention, he went on. "Lazar, stow your gear in Pallas's quarters. Make do," he said, sharp, when Pallas began to open his mouth. "I'm doubling your duties as of right now; report to the head of engineering for your new timetables in an hour. You will coordinate meal shifts, sleep shifts, and gym shifts. I don't want a single person in this dome telling me they've had a glimpse of one of you without the other at his elbow. I'll see you back here in three days, and you'll do this again."
"Yes, all right. Yes." Pallas was grinning, eyes bright in his flushed face.
"Yes, sir," said Lazar, with a hint of admonishment. His salute startled Laurent.
"Dismissed," Laurent said.
It was a risky step, but it was the quickest and most brutal way to strip back the confounding elements. Potential teams tended to come out of that kind of forced proximity either wanting to tear one another's throats out, or drift ready.
Nicaise said, with the air of an expert, "They'll probably fuck."
"Good," said Laurent. "That might help."
He was not watching the door. He kept his eyes on the ring as the newest cadets spread out and slowly began to work through the basic forms, using staffs of light plastic. Nevertheless, Laurent was aware of Damen leaving the training room in the same way that he'd been aware of him entering: like the prickle of vibration through bare feet, warning of movement in a pitch-dark room. Or like something else, something just on the edge of memory and barred from crossing the border into awareness, a white noise of empty aching and nerve endings soaked in painful oxygen.
Laurent bowed his head and looked at his hands where they were clasped on the railing in front of him. He looked at the tight layering of one pale thumb over another, skin on skin, no space in between.
Four breaths in. Four breaths out.
"What's the deal with Laurent?"
Laurent's enameled mug paused for only a second on its way to his mouth, and he managed to take an unconcerned sip of water before setting it down and moving smoothly to take a forkful of mince. Someone in the kitchen had made a reasonable stab in the direction of keema, though they'd found nothing more complex than supermarket curry powder to season it with. The whole thing was lurid yellow. It was still a lot better than last week's shepherd's pie.
The speaker was Damen, and his voice came from the bench directly behind Laurent's back. The mess was crowded, men and women jostled comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, and Laurent was wearing a woollen cap which covered his distinctive hair. He'd been helping Pascal organise samples in the lab's tiny walk-in freezer, partly for the quiet and partly because leaning his forehead against the chilly metal shelves shocked the pain into subsiding for a minute. Here in the hot noise of the dinner service, it was back, like claws raking across his frontal lobe.
Nobody else on Laurent's table seemed to have noticed. They were all engaged in their own conversations, and besides, Damen hadn't raised his voice. It would have blended into the general hubbub if it weren't for the fact that one's own name always rises to the surface and demands to be heard. Laurent was, now, listening.
In response to Damen's question, there was an interested gulp of laughter that sounded like Aimeric. "You mean, why does he look like a wet dream but act like there's nothing down there but a hunk of ice?"
"Or a chastity belt," put in someone else.
There was a soft round of curses, further suggestions, and laughing protests. Laurent chased a pea across the plate with his fork and put names and faces to the voices involved, tucking the information away.
"Those are some vivid images," Damen said finally. His voice sounded odd, like he was choking back his own laughter. "But I meant, why hasn't the Marshall put him in the new jaeger? He's clearly got the best instinct for combat of anyone in the dome. He should be holding trials for his own partner, not picking a team from scratch."
"Drift? With Laurent?" A low whistle. "Mate, you couldn't pay me enough. He's not safe."
Aimeric said, "You know how his brother died, right? Auguste?"
"Yes," said Damen, after a pause. "Yeah, I heard about that."
Laurent tore his bread roll into pieces. No trace of his appetite remained. He tore those pieces into even smaller pieces, covering his plate like snow.
"Having your partner die while you're neurally linked. That does something to your brain."
"He seems fine," Damen said.
Laurent thought: how long has it been since I've seen snow?
Aimeric said, "Look, the de Veres are all brilliant pilots, but not even his uncle--and he's the closest relative Laurent has left--could manage to drift with Laurent after what happened. It almost killed the Marshall when they tried."
"And Laurent got stuck chasing the rabbit for two days. He came back from the hospital--well, like you see him now."
"Laurent's no use in a jaeger. Not any more," said Aimeric, soft and matter-of-fact. "He's broken."
The middle of evening shift was an hour when plenty of dome staff on the day schedule were still awake, watching TV or playing cards or otherwise amusing themselves. It was not yet late enough for wakefulness to qualify as insomnia, which Laurent was counting as a win. He wandered the floor of the main hangar, watching the lights glow on and off as Peregrine Steel's maintenance crew crawled over and inside her like flies on a corpse, ticking off their checklists, readying her for the next attack.
Laurent received a few nods, varying from wary to respectful, but didn't stop and talk to anyone. He stood for a long time gazing up at the new Mark 3: the unscarred metal surfaces gleaming, the blue and red panels, the silhouette sleeker and more gently angled than any he'd seen before. The bare breastplate, awaiting a name.
On his way out of the hangar Laurent caught sight of Damen alone atop a maintenance scaffold, working on an open panel behind the knee joint of Princess. Laurent diverted his path; Damen noticed his approach and lowered his tools.
"I'd forgotten this was where Mecha-hime ended up," Damen called down.
Laurent halted next to a foot that was thrice his height, and leaned a shoulder against the faded pink and silver of the paint job. Princess Mecha had originally been piloted out of Tokyo by two nineteen-year-old girls, superb fighters who had seen the job as a kind of stepping stone between winning the world Dance Dance Revolution championship and cashing in their Ranger celebrity to become talk show hosts. Their jaeger was as famous as they were, relatively old but still in good condition, and none of the men who'd piloted her since would have countenanced painting over a single flower. Sydney dome had acquired her two years ago.
"What are you doing?" Laurent asked.
"Nikandros has been complaining that his knee is stiff, but Pascal can't find anything wrong with him. I thought perhaps it might be a biofeedback thing; I've seen something like it before. The insulation around the pistons is worn. I'm patching it up."
"Nikandros didn't say anything to me," said Laurent.
"He knows you need Princess combat-ready, especially while you're still picking the new team."
Anger jabbed in Laurent's throat at the barely-veiled accusation. "Come down."
A pause. "Sir," said Damen. He made a final adjustment, levered the large panel back into place, and lowered himself to the hangar deck.
Laurent hailed someone in maintenance overalls who looked awake enough to be part of the evening crew. "Go and fetch the senior duty engineer. Who is it tonight? Steven?"
"Pallabi," said the mechanic.
"I want her to go over the leg mechanisms for Princess. Make sure everything is working as it should be."
"I told you, I fixed it," said Damen.
"She's going to check your work."
"My work is fine."
"Now," said Laurent.
The mechanic nodded and moved away at something just shy of a scuttle, and they were left alone. Damen's eyes were narrow. His hair was long enough that he'd pulled it back into a messy knot while he was working, and it sharpened the planes of his face.
Laurent realised he was bracing himself as though for a hit, expecting at any moment to feel the brutal drag of the jaeger frame at his ankles and arms.
"Look," Damen snapped. "I realise you take perverse pleasure in hounding everyone in this dome, apparently to the point of overuse injuries, because you can't stand the idea that you've been permanently benched from the job you should be doing, but you can back the hell off. I'm an experienced engineer, not a child, and I don't need this kind of oversight."
Laurent's head had been pounding for almost twenty-four hours straight. He felt untethered, dangerously loose, ignored by gravity. Damen's voice was ringing between his ribs: the job you should be doing. His anger slipped out of a crack that he should have known to look for.
"You think I'd trust you with the safety of my Rangers?" he fired back. "You, of all people?"
Silence, like the ebb of a wave. Laurent didn't move. Damen didn't either.
”You knew," Damen said. Disbelief hoarsened his voice. He shoved back an escaped curl of black hair which was threatening to obscure his gaze, and gave Laurent the look he might give a magpie poised to swoop. "You knew who I was this whole time."
"I watch the news," Laurent said. "I read the papers. I'm a jaeger pilot. Of course I know."
The present tense exploded on his tongue like tart fruit. Wrong. Was, was, he was a pilot; he had been. No longer. And there was Damen using the same word, you knew who I was, like he could brush his identity off so easily, like the past was nothing.
"I know who you are," Laurent said precisely. "Damianos. Heir to the Akielos manufacturing fortune and, more importantly, its disgraced head of design and development. Now sunk so low as to be here in the bowels of a jaeger dome, smeared in grease and tightening screws by hand."
"Yes!" Damen's anger flared out in return. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm doing. And it's no business of yours how I choose to spend my time."
"No business," Laurent said. He'd gotten control of himself now. Speaking felt like gliding over ice. "No business of mine, Damianos?"
Damen swallowed. "Laurent--"
"You're the reason my brother is dead."
This time the silence had a sucking quality to it, ugly and heavy.
Damen said, slowly, "I'm sorry about what happened to your brother. But no matter what you heard, no matter what the papers said...I didn't know what was going on. The factories, the deals we made--I didn't know."
"It was your fucking job to know." Laurent felt his arm moving, lashing out along with his tongue. He knew exactly how fast he was. Nobody could block him when he didn't want to be blocked; not even Auguste could manage it three times out of five.
Damen managed it.
Laurent's wrist was arrested mid-swing with a force that jarred all the way up to his shoulder and rattled his neck. His breath escaped in a gasp. Damen's fingers held him in place and Laurent was on fire with the anger he'd been keeping sealed tight away; right then he wanted more than anything the shell and the scope and the power of a jaeger. He wanted to know that when he moved he would be unstoppable.
"Come on then," Damen said. "You've got a ring here. You want to attack me? Do it properly."
"That equipment is for drift training."
"It doesn't have to be." All trace of conciliation was gone. Damen's gaze was dark and level as the harbour under stars. "Sometimes, it can just be about hitting someone with a stick."
There was already a small audience, by the time the two of them had changed into training gear, and it grew in a constant trickle. On their way to the training room they'd run into a group of cadets back from a drinking expedition to the bars of Circular Quay, and word had managed to spread that Laurent de Vere, who ran the training program with venomous words and fastidious distance, was actually picking up a staff.
Damen in a white tank top was the most attractive version of him yet. Laurent noted this, and then ignored it. He was still angry. It felt like kaiju acid inside him, like he could open his mouth and spit stinging blue glow. At the same time, his bare soles felt vulnerable against the rough, flexible mat. The hems of the loose pants stroked the tops of Laurent's feet. The sensation was throwing him years back in time.
Damen turned from picking a staff out of the wall bracket, faced Laurent, and spun the staff over the back of his hand in a single easy arc. The noise level in the room dipped considerably. Damen had a small, hard smile on his face.
This man has never piloted a jaeger in battle, Laurent told himself
A more cautious part of him said: but how many hours of simulation would he have done, as head of development?
Laurent took his time warming up, welcoming the feel of the staff against his palms, reacquainting himself with simple movements before pushing through into showier ones. He couldn't help remembering facing off against his brother for the first time: the teasing grin on Auguste's face, the chaotic joy of clacking wood. This dance had been hammered into Laurent's muscles. It would never leave.
"Ready?" he said.
The tip of Damen's staff dipped towards him in reply, and Laurent whirled into attack.
For the first minute, every speck of Laurent's attention was involved in working out what kind of fighter Damen was. Their blows were experimental, almost flirtatious, and Laurent carefully held back the best and truest part of his own skill. Only once he'd begun to feel out the natural rhythm of Damen's training, and gained a healthy respect for the dexterity with which Damen wielded incredible force, did he let his awareness creep outwards. A watchful silence had fallen in the room, broken only by murmurs and people shushing the murmurers. Apart from the staves Laurent could hear his and Damen's breathing and the scuff of their feet, and the occasional grunt of effort or strain as one of them dodged a blow.
The fight was a tapestry of wary circling punctuated by short explosions of violence, and in the end Laurent saw his defeat coming a half-second too late to avoid it. Leaping over a low swing forced him onto the side of his foot, and as he lifted his staff Damen hooked it with his own. The strength of Damen's arm bore Laurent down until he had to fall or else sprain his ankle, and Damen's staff was poised at Laurent's throat as soon as his back hit the mat.
"One-nothing!" came a call.
Laurent turned his head carefully and looked up. Nicaise was standing at the railing where Laurent usually placed himself to oversee training. The dome's operations officer was wearing bright green pajamas with cartoon kaiju on them, his hair was a mess, and Nickel was nestled in his arms. He looked like a child dragged out of bed to see an eclipse or a fireworks display, but his expression was amused and alert.
"You look ridiculous, Nicaise," Laurent said.
"Wouldn't miss it," Nicaise shot back. "One-nothing. You're rusty, Laurent. Forgotten how to hold a stick?"
To his surprise, Laurent's mouth itched to smile. He rolled clear of Damen's staff and then all the way to his feet, a clean motion that tugged at his Achilles tendons.
When he attacked again, he did it with everything he had. He was exultant, fierce, dancing with all the speed that he and Auguste had practiced, and practiced again, and turned into the signature moves that had splashed Sapphire Electric across thousands of television screens. Laurent's palms burned and promised him blisters tomorrow. He battered at his anger, at Damianos, at the never-ending assaults on his city, at the total fucking unfairness of the world. All of it was ground to powder beneath his feet.
"You were pulling your punches before," Damen remarked, between heaving breaths.
Laurent directed a savage blow at the place on Damen's elbow where the nerve ran snug against bone. Damen parried, but Laurent was already pivoting, his feet lightning-fast, his staff a blur, moving blind and certain and stopping with the staff pressed up beneath Damen's ribs.
"No. You were lying," said Damen then. A slow smile spread across his face.
"One all," Nicaise called.
Damen laughed, and backed away.
The next point was Damen's; the next two, Laurent's. In the pause that accompanied each one, Laurent was aware of people encroaching on the ring, sitting cross-legged at the mat's edge to give a better view to the spectators layered three-deep behind them. Motion was a cool towel mopping sticky pain from Laurent's skull, lifting away with it the worst tangles of his thoughts. Laurent forgot what they were fighting about, forgot to care that he was laying himself bare. He fought for the joy of feeling Damen push back, of feeling them balance one another, and when Damen's staff came to an impeccably controlled halt an inch from Laurent's face and Nicaise called, "Four all!" sounding more excited than Laurent had ever heard him, Laurent forgot himself enough to close his eyes and laugh. Applause and sharp whistles erupted around them.
"Well now," called a voice, once the cheers had subsided, "I don't know what you've all been faffing around with trials for, when we could be putting that at the controls of the new girl." It was Nikandros, he of the stiff knee, who piloted Princess Mecha along with his cousin Katia.
"An interesting proposal, Ranger," said another voice, and a muffling blanket of silence fell.
Laurent opened his eyes. His knuckles tightened on his staff. He had the sudden, bewildering urge to step forward and place himself between Damen and the source of that voice.
It wasn't surprising that someone had told the Marshall what was going on. There was a firm set to his uncle's face, like rigid plastic, that told Laurent he was furious. His voice, however, was perfectly controlled: almost sorrowful, almost sweet.
"I have to say, nephew, it saddens me to see you prepared to put someone else at risk like this. No. I forbid it. It's pure selfishness, wanting to step back into the hero's role, when you know how dangerous it could be for your partner."
"Is that your only objection? That Laurent's too damaged? That he might hurt me?"
Laurent jerked his head to look at Damen, who was gazing up at the Marshall with his eyebrows raised in innocent query. The word damaged echoed around the room in a way that exposed an underbelly of sarcasm.
The Marshall frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"Because if it is," Damen said, "I'll take the risk. I'm only a mechanic, after all. If anything happens to me, you won't be losing an active Ranger, and you might gain two."
Laurent looked back up and met his uncle's eyes. The Marshall was trapped; they both knew it. There was no denying what had taken place here, in front of everyone. He had to agree to the idea. Laurent had to agree, no matter how he felt about Damen, because Damen had been right, his first day here: they couldn't have a jaeger standing empty, if a team existed who could pilot it well. The safety of the country was at stake. Laurent couldn't justify ignoring this feeling like soaring wings beneath his ribs.
The Marshall nodded, slowly and stiffly. "Very well. Have suits fitted tomorrow. Report at noon for a drift trial." He turned on his heel; the crowd parted to let him through, and he was gone.
Laurent exhaled. The exhaustion of unfamiliar exertion was descending upon his limbs, and he suspected that for once he'd be asleep within a few minutes of crawling into bed. But the evening wasn't over yet. There was something else he had to deal with first.
Forcing lightness into his feet, he leaped up the steps and lifted his staff, capturing the attention of the crowd as it mustered itself and began to disperse.
"I don't know where you all think you're going," Laurent said pleasantly.
There was a general halt to the exodus. Laurent beckoned to Damen, who, after a moment, came up to stand next to him at the railing. Laurent handed his staff to Nicaise and leaned forward, clasping his hands, pulling his command posture over himself like a jacket.
"Aimeric," he clipped out. "Into the ring. Piper. Gaspard. Am I not speaking clearly? Do any of you want to sleep tonight? Yes? Danh. Ranier."
When he was finished, the room had settled to curious silence again, and the row of Ranger cadets in front of him included everyone who had taken such delight in suggesting Laurent's various sexual deficiencies over dinner. Laurent passed his eyes over them at the speed of setting concrete, watching the uneasy realisation of this fact sink in.
"Damen has never been a combat pilot before," Laurent said. "He needs more training before our trial. You've all just volunteered to help him."
They had all watched the fight. They all knew that Damen needed nothing of the kind; that he could probably wipe the floor with any of them.
Damen's voice was low. "What are you doing now? This isn't about training."
"Ah," Damen said. "This is about me hitting them with sticks."
"Nicaise," said Laurent. "Go and wake up Pascal, and tell him he's needed here."
"Is he?" Nicaise asked.
Laurent said coolly, "He will be."
In the Mark 3's cockpit, before they strapped into the combat frames, Laurent clutched his helmet and turned to Damen. The new suit was light and stiff. He was already halfway to forgetting that it was there; to feeling it as natural as skin. The easiness of it was what made him pause. Most of his uncle's barbs were all the more painful for containing a sliver of truth, and this was no exception.
"Damianos," he said. "Are you sure?"
Fairness forced Laurent to add: "The last time I did this... I mean, what if I am--"
"I do keep telling you I'm a good engineer," said Damen, smiling a bit. "I won't call anything broken until I've looked under the bonnet myself."
"Flattering," said Laurent. His heart pounded in gratitude.
Laurent nodded. "Ready."
There was no way not to look, the first time you were in someone else's head. Human curiosity was reflexive as the jerk of a knee. Laurent followed along, a ribbon in the slipstream of Damen's fall through Laurent's consciousness, watching individual memories come briefly into focus. He knew where they would begin. Laurent's life was a disaster with a single moment as its epicentre.
And this was the moment: the joy of fighting alongside his brother turning to sheer horror as Sapphire Electric froze, not responding to their movements. The ghastly grind of metal and sparks and screams as Auguste was ripped away from him, Auguste's nerves shredding Laurent's as his life blinked out of their enmeshment.
Then the drift trial with his uncle, which felt like vertigo gone deadly from the first awful brush of mind against mind.
Waking up in a hospital bed two days later, pale and gutted and remembering only these two things: that the Marshall was corrupt, was lining his pockets on the sale of kaiju parts. And that his uncle hated him, hated him, beyond anything that Laurent would ever have suspected.
Pretending, afterwards, not to have seen anything at all. Slipping into his new role, acerbic and loyal, keeping his eyes open and his thoughts obscure. Headaches that woke him from sleep and lasted for days. Putting up with the whispers that swarmed around him: weak, broken. Watching and training others, and always feeling that raw nerve of a blind spot where Auguste was not.
Treasuring the small semblances of friendship he had with Nicaise and Pascal, but keeping most of himself closed off; the heart of him like the frail humans enclosed in a jaeger, small and tender and shielded from damage by layers and layers of steel.
I'm sorry, said Damen. This time it was not an apology for action, or even for inaction. It was nothing more than a hand reached out in sympathy, and Laurent found it easy to accept.
Laurent swung them sideways in the drift, over the line. The first thing he saw was Damen's pride in the Akielos name and what it used to represent.
The start of the war. Damen's company being the first to step forward and innovate furiously, building the Pacific's guardians, refining the interface between mind and machine. Damen loving the challenge of the work, loving his people, loving the news reports which showed his creations taking on the kaiju and finally, finally winning.
Damen, retreating into work as a balm for grief, letting Kastor handle the business half of things after their father's death.
Damen's confusion and guilt when things started going wrong. When their jaegers started malfunctioning, and reports trickled in of pilots suffering radiation sickness at levels higher than expected.
Damen grimly whistleblowing on the company that his father had built up from nothing. Kastor seizing control of the media story and blaming Damen's division for design flaws, to hide the fact that Kastor was cutting corners, buying cheap materials, fudging the test data and lying to investors.
Damen never seeing it coming.
Why are you here now? Laurent asked, and saw the answer at once. Damen was in Sydney, where his true name was less than dirt, tightening screws by hand to make sure the Mark 3s were sound. To make sure nobody else got hurt if he could possibly avoid it.
Swimming towards the calmer waters of the present, Laurent felt himself hooked on a new series of flashing memories: himself, seen through Damen's eyes. The day Damen arrived at Sydney dome, the instant recognition that Damen felt, followed almost as instantly by a crash of desire. Laurent leaning on the railing in the training room, all keen blue eyes and merciless voice, picking the cadets apart. Laurent kneading at his own neck muscles and drinking tea in a corner of the hangar, body tense with fatigue, unaware of being observed. Laurent sprawled on the mat; Laurent a whirlwind of mastery as his staff descended towards Damen's; the fragile veins of Laurent's wrists, his dry smile, all outlined in a glow of helpless attraction and shoved-aside need.
Find the drift, came Damen's nudge, with a hint of embarrassment.
Laurent released himself from everything and let the chaos of their twinned minds stream past him, through him, until he found the silence. Then he opened his eyes, to noise.
"Right hemisphere, calibrating. Left hemisphere, calibrating."
The drift was a strong undercurrent, tethering them to one another and to the jaeger, but Laurent was again aware of his own body on a level beyond the abstract. His cheeks were warm. His nerves thrummed.
They lifted their right hands, in unison, and through the transparent panes of the cockpit they could see the looming metal bulk of the jaeger's fist as it rose to their command.
"Neural handshake strong," said Nicaise over the comms. "Took your time about it, didn't you?"
"Nicaise," said Laurent, "you do realise we could crush you under our thumb?"
"Oh, our thumb," said Nicaise, but it sounded like he was trying not to laugh.
"Let's take her for a spin," Damen said. "See what she can do."
They stumbled back to quarters afterwards and it took Laurent a moment to realise that he'd led Damen to his own room. Or else some unspoken agreement had led them there together. They hadn't said much of anything since walking out of the jaeger, half-drunk on the drift, bodies swaying together. Laurent couldn't stop glancing at a piece of dark hair, come loose from its band and skimming Damen's jaw. He was thirsty. His head was clear and completely painless for the first time in weeks, as though a mist had dissipated.
Damen pulled the hatch closed. Laurent leaned against the wall and heard, with faint surprise, the clink of metal on metal.
"The suits," he said. "We should have--now we'll have to do it ourselves."
Damen waved a hand. "I'll help you, you help me. How hard can it be?"
"Oh, you think so?" Laurent steadied himself and held out one arm towards Damen, eyebrows raised. "Go on, then."
Damen tugged off first his own gloves, then Laurent's. He touched the smooth surface of the suit where it enclosed Laurent's forearm. Laurent held obligingly still. Damen's fingers skimmed searchingly down the joins, tugged at the edges, cupped Laurent's elbow, and finally fell back in defeat.
"Damn it," said Damen, and started to laugh. "These are different to the simulation suits."
"I'll show you," said Laurent.
It was his turn to reach out. Every piece of the jaeger suit clicked cunningly together, the whole thing snug and flexible and designed to withstand more violent real-world forces than the sims. There was a place on every join where pressure would allow it to spring loose, but finding them was often counter-intuitive. Laurent took Damen's suit methodically apart, piece by piece, leaving him in the thin black underclothes that stretched from wrist to ankle. Damen was warm and solid. When Laurent leaned very close, digging his fingertips into a stubborn clasp, he could feel the rough edge of Damen's jaw against his forehead; he could hear the small hitch of Damen's breathing, and the charge that filled the air between them. There were no lies in the drift, not even of omission. Neither of them could pretend not to know what the other wanted. Laurent's thirst had expanded from his mouth to his whole body, and his pulse had quickened, by the time he stepped back.
"There," he said. He cleared his throat. "There. Now try again."
Damen was a fast learner. His eyes were hot and returned often to Laurent's face as he found the pressure clasps and undressed Laurent in turn.
"I've been thinking about something," Damen said, as he knelt down to remove the panels from Laurent's legs. "Can you lift--that's it. The battle where Auguste was killed, that was July, right?"
"Yes," said Laurent. The air streaming in through the jagged hole in Sapphire's side had been cold, ice-tipped.
"I knew something was wrong by the middle of June," Damen said. "My official report, the one Kastor buried, I didn't get that completed for weeks. But there was a short memo with no details, just warning of the danger and advising immediate safety testing. Two of the Mark 2s at Manila dome turned up similar freezing issues when they did the tests. And I sent that report out before the end of the month."
"Who did you send it to?" Laurent asked.
Damen said. "The--" and stopped, with his hands cradling Laurent's socked foot.
A chill sliced through Laurent. "The Marshalls," he said.
Slowly, Damen reached for the clasp behind the knee, and continued to peel the stiff panels from Laurent's limbs one by one.
"Perhaps he didn't get it," Damen said.
"He got it." It was like waking up in the hospital all over again, confused and furious and scared. "He knew. He knew and he let us go out there anyway."
There was a pause before Damen said, low, "Do you think Auguste knew what your uncle was doing, with the kaiju trade?"
"Maybe." Laurent stepped clear of a final panel, which Damen set aside. "Maybe I was supposed to be collateral damage."
"We'll find out," Damen said. It sounded like an oath. He stood, and Laurent looked at him. The gap of air between them felt like a magnetic field.
"We'll destroy Kastor," Laurent offered in return. "Get you your company back."
Damen said, "You think I wouldn't have done that before, if I could?"
"You didn't have me, before." Laurent was touching Damen's chest, skimming his palm over the thin fabric of Damen's undershirt. He couldn't remember lifting his hand to do so. Words spilled from his lips. "I feel like I can do anything. It's been a long time since I felt this. It's…"
"Not unwelcome," Laurent said, but he could hear the warmth leaking helplessly out through his voice. He might have been smiling. All he could see was the way Damen's face changed, the way Damen's eyes creased.
"Hold still," Damen said, and unclipped the anchoring belt from Laurent's waist.
The last piece of the suit fell to the ground. Laurent sucked in an urgent breath and Damen's hand closed around his bare wrist and then they were kissing, Damen pulling Laurent hard against him but kissing him with an agonising softness, undemanding and tender and far, far from enough. Laurent wrapped his arms around Damen's back, shyness mingling with the part of him that was raging to keep going, keep unpeeling, until there was nothing between them, not even skin. The shyness was odd. Damen now knew him better than anyone else alive, after all; or perhaps that was part of it, the sensation that they had leapt from one point on a long and winding path to another, bypassing a host of dangers, and found themselves in a new country.
Be quiet, thought Laurent, and let himself be kissed. Damen's hands were cupping his face now, Damen's mouth making small detours to Laurent's cheeks, then dragging along his lips again. After a while they just stood there, foreheads pressed together, and breathed.
"And I thought the drift was good," Damen said dazedly. "Is this--does this always happen?"
"Not in my experience," said Laurent.
Damen froze and straightened his neck, breaking contact. He stared at Laurent from close range, as if unsure of whether he was allowed to acknowledge the humour there. Then he burst out laughing, a cheerful sound that made the pit of Laurent's stomach glow.
"I should hope not," said Damen. "God, Laurent. I want you."
"Yes," Laurent breathed. He put a hand at the back of Damen's neck and stole another kiss, and another. The drift was incredible, but the drift was good like coming home after a long journey was good. Being wanted was something new, and Laurent had the urge to dig his fingers into it, feel out its shape.
One of Damen's hands slid beneath Laurent's undershirt and flattened over his spine, steady and promising. Laurent leaned into it. Damen's thumb made small movements against his skin.
"We'll have to come up with a name for her," Laurent said.
"I know," said Damen. "We're in luck. I can't believe nobody's used Waltzing Matilda yet."
"You must be joking."
"You've got a better idea?"
Laurent said, "I'll fight you for it."
He was half joking, but also half expecting it when Damen grinned and tightened his arm swiftly around Laurent's waist, tackling Laurent down into the nearby bunk and holding him there with his own body. A small quake of naked need shuddered through Laurent's torso as he tested the pressure of Damen's arms and legs and found them immovable. This close, the detail in Damen's brown irises was visible, tiny streaks of irregular yellow like the grain in wood.
Laurent smiled up at Damen.
"Best of three?" he said.
"Dilation in the breach confirmed," came Nicaise's voice. "Kingdom Come, stand by."
"We're due a big one," said Damen.
"They're all big," said Laurent. "Though perhaps they don't seem that way to you."
Damen grinned. "Shut up, Laurent."
"No, by all means, continue," said Nicaise, with sarcasm that could have corroded a wall. "Everyone is so very interested in this conversation about Damen's size."
Ground crew were hooking cables into place, ready for the jaeger to be carried out beyond the bay. The front and roof of the hangar were sliding open, revealing a thin purple sky fading to apricot at the edges.
"Sunset," said Damen. "How romantic."
"I swear to fucking God, you two are worse than Katia's singing," said Nicaise.
Anticipation tingled up Laurent's spine and out into his fingertips. He knew where he was. He knew who was with him. He was whole and healing, and he was heading into a battle that he knew exactly how to win.
"Take us out," he said.