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everybody begs to be redeemed

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i.

When Jack arrives at the old, familiar base, conflicting memories throbbing fresh in his mind, it is raining. Before, songs that he used to listen to would always talk about the rain as if it were a bad thing, a sad thing, as if the sky was crying. Jack hadn’t ever understood that, back then.

Everything is different now.

Shitty and Lardo and someone else stand just outside the base, Lardo holding a large umbrella that Shitty has to duck to fit under. It is so them , in all that they are and ever were, that Jack’s chest twinges with nostalgia.  It lingers and grows as he approaches, and his throat tightens, ribs constricting.

He shouldn’t be here.

For a moment, Jack contemplates turning around and walking back the way he came. He can go back to his parents, live with their heavy pity and quiet understanding. He can escape the weight of every memory that occupies this place. He can leave.

Shitty grins, the expression barely visible through the curtain of rain, and bounds out of the cover of the umbrella to Jack. He pulls him into a tight hug, warm despite the wet.

“Brah,” he mutters, and his fingers dig into Jack’s back almost painfully. “You’re soaked as fuck. I’m going to be drenched.”

“Shouldn’t have come out from under the umbrella, then,” Jack replies, feeling the edges of his mouth start to curl into what might, in a generous interpretation, be considered a smile.

“God, I’ve missed you, you beautiful man,” Shitty says, and Jack can hear the grin in his voice.

“Missed you, too,” he answers. He has. This is, in part, why he returned. Shitty and Lardo and the old base and the rush of piloting. Jack holds onto that and lets Shitty’s arms around him act as an anchor.

Shitty lets go, finally, swipes his wet hair out of his face. “How’ve you been?”

Lardo appears then, having walked slower than Shitty’s reckless bounds. The person next to her solidifies into someone a little taller than her, blonde and shivering. Jack swallows, sighs.

“Jack,” Lardo says, and her lips spread into a soft grin. “Welcome back.”

He leans under the umbrella, and she laughs through a half-hearted protest about how he’s dripping wet, how she’s supposed to look imposing but how can she when she looks like a drowned rat?

“It’s good to see you,” he says, and focuses on that, too. “It’s been too long, eh?”

“It was what you needed,” she replies, squeezing harder for a beat before pulling back. “‘Eh’. I’ve missed your Canada-isms.”

Jack pokes her. “Is that an insult or a compliment?”

Lardo shrugs. “I am filled with mystery,” she grins.

“Do you have blue in your hair? Since when?”

She nods, tugging one of the streaks—bright, kaiju blue. “Like, a few months ago?”

“It looks good.”

“Thanks, Jack.” Lardo looks down at her near-sodden clothes, then back toward the base. “Anyway, inside?”

Jack’s heart stutters as Shitty nods. “Probably a good idea. We’ll end up snotting all over our paperwork at this rate.”

“I mean,” says the person beside Lardo, “is that such a bad thing?”

Shitty barks a laugh. “Good point, Bitty.”

Distracted for a moment from the prospect of inside—inside that base again, filled with memories of laughter and tears and years of his life—Jack frowns. “Who are you?” he asks.

“Oh shit, I didn’t introduce you,” Lardo says. “Jack, this is Eric Bittle.” She gestures to him. “He’s just finished training to become a pilot, and is helping me out with some admin stuff until we find him a partner. Bitty, this is Jack Zimmermann.” She looks up at Jack again, warm. “He’s an old friend.”

“Nice to meet you,” Eric Bittle says, his voice stretching over the vowels. He’s a little taller than Lardo and almost as slight, blonde with streaks to match hers. Jack can’t really imagine him as a pilot, but it’s really not so much about physicality as mental fitness. By that criteria, he might be a better candidate than Jack. Then again, most people would be.

Jack nods at him but looks beyond him, and thinks, I don’t think I am ready to go inside . Apprehension buzzes under his skin and crawls up his sides and into his throat. It sits there, then, heavy and sharp and angry, fidgeting.

Shitty claps his shoulder. “Need a moment?” he asks, but Jack knows he has to go in now or face his fear forever.

He swallows, shakes his head, puts what he knows into words and pushes them out before he can rethink it, or think much more at all. “No. We should go.”

“Okay, man.” Lardo shifts the umbrella. “You want in?”

“Would I fit?”

“Probably not.”

It’s easier with the rain, anyway. The torrent of water distracts him from the aching familiarity of each step toward the base, blurs the sides of the building into the heavy sky. It makes this experience less substantial, almost, as if it is just one more jagged memory trapped in the edges of his thoughts.

He takes a step, and then another, and then he walks until he is inside, the others silent beside him. It is exactly how he remembered it, except for how it isn’t. Lardo closes her umbrella and shakes it off as Shitty shakes his head wildly, his hair—a little past his shoulders by this point—hitting his eyes. He swears profusely, and Jack almost smiles, almost laughs , distracted for half a second.

He looks at the wall, then, and that stops anything like that .

It’s the hall of fame, or some name like that, and all along the wall are the pictures of those that died in Jaegers or because of them. Three photos have been added since Jack was last here; he only recognises one.

Jack forces himself to look away. “Can we go on?” he asks. “Please?”

“Yeah, okay,” Lardo says, and her voice is soft and strained.

Shitty, who has proved his role as Jack’s best friend over and over, does so again and changes the subject. “So, we’ve had upgrades to the mess hall.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Okay, Bitty, here—” At this, he catches hold of Eric Bittle and pulls him under his arm, “—went and completely revolutionised our kitchen. Low-budget, absofuckinglutely delicious, and easy to teach to all the cooks—”

“I just didn’t think it was fair to feed the pilots those awful rations,” Bittle says, voice half-muffled by Shitty’s arm.

“I didn’t mind the rations,” Jack answers, and Shitty sputters.

“That is because you are a goddamned robot, Zimmerman. No one likes the rations.”

Lardo nods. “Yeah, I’ll have to agree on that one.”

Well, that at least was true. Jack can’t even count the number of times he’d had to endure complaints over them, suggestions that they find someplace to eat off-base, Kent’s look of disgust at the third week of rations in a row—

“Speaking of food,” Bittle says, finally managing to extricate himself from Shitty’s hold. “I’m best at pies. I made one for you, as a sort of welcome-slash-welcome-back thing.”

“He does it for all the pilots,” Lardo provides, and Jack is suddenly grateful for the conversation, because they are approaching the mess hall and he hadn’t even noticed, hadn’t seen the old halls filled with an emptiness he is still not quite used to. “He does it for me, if I ask nicely enough. Also anytime we— they kill a kaiju.”

Jack catches the slip in her phrasing and doesn’t comment. There is not a lot any of them comment on, these days.

“Maybe later,” he says instead.

“Oh, by the way,” Lardo says. “We have to put you through testing within a few days, otherwise the government won’t approve the funding for a new Jaeger team.”

Jack knows how it must look, a failed pilot of five years ago trying to get back into a Jaeger.  He doesn’t blame them for their hesitance. “Okay,” he agrees. They are standing just outside the mess hall and part of him aches to go inside, but he stays, just for a moment. “Do any of them know?”

Lardo looks at Eric Bittle for half a second, then back at Jack. “No, not yet. It’s not the business of anyone but your copilot. You’ll need to tell them, though, when we find someone.”

Could Jack ever put all that happened into words?

He nods.

“Good,” Lardo says, and opens the doors, and then, finally, they are inside, and the bustle of the hall fills him to the brim and sets him, almost, at peace.

In a lot of ways, the mess hall is still familiar to him, each step striking a chord of memory more profound than the last. He used to spend a good part of his time here. It wasn’t just a place for eating, back then; it was a place of friendship, of camaraderie. It was a place of laughter, and his food being stolen off his tray, and knees knocking under a table, and hands ruffling through his hair, and the shortest, sweetest of reprieves from the rigors of Jaeger piloting…

He blinks. The mess hall is the same, but it’s also different . In ways he has to really concentrate on to bring the dull blur of mundanity into sharp focus, but still significant enough to be uncomfortable, like putting on a favorite sweater that shrunk in the wash, or a shoe on the wrong foot. The room is the same size and shape it’s always been, and the walls are a familiar and comforting stainless steel. It’s not that. It’s the way the tables are arranged, still in long rows but shifted inches to the side of where he remembered them being, like he might step into a place and expect to bump his hip into an edge he won’t encounter. It’s the smell of the place, sharper and sweeter and almost alien.

And it’s the people. The hall is filled with people he has never met before, and the strangeness of it, the ache of being in the midst of an entirely new crowd, settles heavily in his chest, too small for his ribcage, too big for his lungs.

The mess hall, he decides, feels like an almost , or a used to . A place that could almost soothe his nerves. A place he used to know. A place that could almost be a second home. A place he used to feel safe in, and comforted.

Almost the same. Used to be different. It pretty much amounts to the same thing, these days.

He takes in a deep breath, carefully counts out four seconds in his head, holds for seven, exhales for eight. Wills the nervous tingling in his chest to subside, to diffuse through the length of his body into a familiar dull throbbing. Pretends he can force his pulse into submission, that his heart isn’t hammering against his ribcage and stuttering painfully through his veins. Then he steps forward again.

The food looks like it could potentially live up to its hyped-up reputation. He frowns down at it, carefully rationed but elegantly presented on his plate, and doesn’t know how to feel. It’s another way the mess hall is different from before, a step further away from his most cherished and most dreaded memories, and he can’t even tell if he thinks that’s good or bad.

He looks up, catches sight of short, blond hair glinting in the overhead lighting, actually feels his heart freeze in his chest for a second, irrationally, until he remembers things like differences and impossibilities. As his heart slowly learns how to beat again, he kicks himself mentally. This is hard enough without his head making him believe in falsehoods.

Shitty waves him over to the very table that caught his eye. Jack squares his shoulders, and moves.

The table is already filled, save a space next to Shitty. As he takes it, Shitty waves his fork around the table. “Meet the new crew,” he says around a mouthful of pasta.

“Bro, are you Jack Zimmermann?” the man in front of him says, squinting at him through his glasses.

The person next to him swivels his head toward Jack. “Bro, did you just say Jack Zimmermann ?” His face lights up. “Yo, it is him! I’d recognize that mug anywhere! Congrats, man, you’re a fucking legend.”

Jack forces a smile. There are a lot of things he wants more than to be a legend, but he refrains from mentioning any of them. It probably wouldn’t be polite. “Who are you guys?” he tries, willing the words not to sound choked.

The first guy grins. “Adam Birkholtz, co-pilot of the Crimson Specter,” he says.

“And I,” the other one says, gesturing dramatically at his chest, “am his better half, Justin Oluransi.”

“Bro, we definitely agreed we were at least equal-ground halves.”

“I don’t play by your rules, dude.”

“We call them Ransom and Holster,” Shitty says. “Probably some of the best goddamn Jaeger pilots this place has seen since your time, Jack. Also, complete dumbasses.”

Holster throws a fry at Shitty. “I resent that.”

Jack glances over the two of them. “You’re kind of young for this line of business, aren’t you?” he says to Ransom. “How’d you find yourself in a place like this?”

Ransom shrugs. “I’m not the youngest pilot to have ever done this.”

No, Jack knows that. He used to hold that record himself.

“Anyway, I was going to go to college, but I got recruited, like, straight out of high school?” He shrugs again. “I think it worked out for the best, though. Met Holster.”

“Hell yeah you did,” Holster says with a quick grin.

“And I don’t know what I’d do with my life if I didn’t have this, you know?” Ransom laughs, a humble sound. “It’s a dangerous job, but, like, it has its perks.” He glances toward Holster again; smiles.

The words send a pang of nostalgia, unbidden, ringing through Jack’s chest. There was a time in his life he thought the same exact things to himself. When he was that close to someone to talk about them like that, with that voice. It’s a time that has long faded away to a history only he knows, and remembering always leaves a bitter taste in the back of his throat.

Jack looks back down at his tray. “Things have changed a lot, around here.”

“Again. Is that necessarily always a bad thing?”

He glances to the side, mildly startled. Somehow, Bittle sat down next to him without him noticing. He really needs to get his head back in the game.

“Depends on the situation,” Jack says, unsmiling. He knows he sounds a lot colder than he should, and god knows someone he’s barely even met doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, but he’s tired and aching with memories he would burn out of his brain permanently if he could, and this whole thing is starting to get a little overwhelming.

Bittle seems taken aback. “Oh,” he says.

Shitty, luckily, catches on. “Hey, Jack, you okay?” he says quietly to Jack.

Jack nods, swallowing down a mouthful of water. “Yeah, just. All this is a bit much.”

“Yeah, I got you.” Shitty nods. “Bits can show you to your room after dinner. Just relax, dude, okay? We’re glad you’re here.”

The rest of dinner passes by quickly, Jack eating his food as fast as he can. The conversation and laughter fade into a near-indistinguishable blur, makes him almost sick to his stomach if he tries to pick out individual sounds. He puts up his tray, and Bittle stands too, which is a bit unnerving because he hasn’t asked him yet for a favor. Probably just a coincidence, Jack figures. A lot of things in his life lately have been prey to circumstance.

“So,” Jack says, clearing his throat.

“So.” Bittle looks up at him, tries for another grin. “Do you need to be shown around, Mr. Zimmermann?”

“Just to my room, thanks.”

They walk through the labyrinth of halls in silence, Jack’s hands shoved deeply into his pockets and Bittle glancing over occasionally. He can tell Bittle wants to say something. Probably isn’t sure what. Jack should make an effort to help. Doesn’t really have the energy to.

Finally, they get to the wing Jack’s supposedly staying in. It’s different from where he lived before, which should be good for him except for the fact that it just feels wrong . He feels ill-fitting, a badly made puzzle piece shoved into a slot he doesn’t belong. The wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Then again, this is nothing new; he’s felt that way for years now.

Bittle stops in front of a door - presumably Jack’s. “All right, well, this is it,” he says, finally daring to look properly at Jack. “And if you need anything, I’ll be across the hall.”

Across the hall . He squeezes his eyes shut, and breathes.

“Jack,” Bittle says quietly. “I know this must be rough, but – if you need someone to talk to – “

“I’m fine.” Abruptly, Jack spins toward his door, reaching for the knob. “Thanks, but – I don’t need it.”

He leaves it at that, mostly because he’s not sure if he can handle explaining himself further, but also because his knees feel like they’re about to give out for some stupid reason. He retreats into his new room and lets the heavy door clang shut behind him, refusing steadfastly to look back and see the expression on Bittle’s face. The smell of the room hits him all at once, new and strange and wholly discomfiting, and he lets himself sink shakily onto the bed.

For one grimly satisfying second, he lets himself think it - coming here was a mistake . Coming here was a mistake, because even if someone out there thought he was strong enough to come back, he knows he’s not. He didn’t have to return to find that out for himself. Everything is different, now. Wrong , if he had the audacity to believe in the objectivity of such things. There’s no place for him here, not anymore. He almost can’t believe he let himself be convinced that being thrown back into a giant robot too unstable to be piloted solitarily in order to fight a war against monsters entering the world through a crack at the bottom of the ocean was a good idea. It sounds almost as unbelievable as it did half a decade ago, at the beginning of all this.

Coming here was a mistake. He was never meant to do this alone.

But this has always been about more than himself, hasn’t it? He didn’t sign up to be a Jaeger pilot straight out of high school for himself. And, of course, that’s how they got him back here in the first place. They need him. That’s the only thing that really matters. Everything else, his personal issues and his feelings and his fucked up head, is just background noise.

And god, he’s missed piloting, like missing an arm or a piece of his heart. He can admit that much to himself. There’s a part of him that will always belong to the drift, and he doesn’t know how to take it back.

He squeezes his hands into fists on his knees, hunches over, and breathes. He doesn’t need extraterrestrial monsters or whatever kaijus really are to fight battles, it seems. He doesn’t need them to win, either.

He will win the war inside his head, and he will fight. He cannot afford to entertain the possibility of anything else right now.

 

Chapter Text

ii.

The next week or so passes by in a blurring whirl Jack finds himself mostly trying to avoid.

It’s not a conscious choice, really, to avoid the ongoing preparations. It’s just that right now, when he hasn’t been assigned to a new team yet, there’s not much for an ex-pilot to do. Most of the focus is on the Crimson Specter, and for good reason, too. As he understands it, Ransom and Holster had a rough mission a few weeks back, and repairs are still underway despite Lardo’s orders to accelerate them. Not to mention they’re one of only three fully assigned Jaeger teams in the whole base, two teams currently active and the last still in training. Jack can understand Lardo’s urgency, and consequently the necessity of his own presence.

But he also can’t deny that he isn’t ready to step foot again in the Shatterdome. Not yet.

The thing is, Jack can’t hide in his room, either. If he does, the only company he will have are his thoughts, and he knows all too well what will happen if he stays with them for too long.

So he wanders through the base alone, re-familiarizing himself with the layout of the place and slowly getting used to what it’s like to live with absence when all it does is carve holes in his chest and threaten to leave him empty. He thinks about getting into a Jaeger again, the plunge into the drift like an addiction he’ll never lose and the electricity of power coursing through his veins. He thinks, someday soon , and he even attempts to smile. Trying should count for something, he figures.

Bittle is the first person he talks to since his arrival, ironically enough. Not the first person he’d want to see. Probably not a fair thing to think, but Jack has little energy these days for being fair even - especially - to himself, let alone to a person he met barely a week ago.

It happens in the hallway outside Jack’s room. He steps outside, eyes on the floor, and he hears, “Mr. Zimmermann?” and he looks up, and Bittle is but twenty steps away.

Jack swallows down his sudden, irrational irritation. “What is it?” he says.

Bittle looks down at his clipboard. “Lardo wants to meet with you about finding a new pilot.”

Ah. Of course he couldn’t avoid that one forever.

“Okay,” Jack says.

“I’m to escort you,” Bittle says, curt and professional.

Jack supposes he deserves it. “Okay,” he says again. He falls into step with Bittle, wondering if he should say something, wondering if he wants to. In the end, he settles for silence.

And in the end, it doesn’t matter what his choice is. Bittle sighs, running a hand through his hair, and says, with a small laugh, “Well, this is a bit awkward, isn’t it?” And the comment is enough to surprise a smile out of Jack, self-deprecating as it is.

“Probably mostly my fault,” he says, a peace offering.

“No,” Bittle says, surprisingly firmly. He clears his throat as if he startled himself with the outburst, and gives another laugh. “You’re still adjusting. Anyone could see that.”

Yes, but how long would any person reasonably need to adjust? How long has Jack been overstaying his welcome before he needs to start actually doing something useful ?

“So what’s your deal, anyway?” Jack says, turning the conversation away from himself. Some things don’t need to be discussed with strangers. “I mean, are you aiming to be a pilot?”

Bittle nods. “That’s the plan, eventually? I graduated the Academy with decent enough marks. I guess the main issue now is actually finding a partner. Can’t pilot a Jaeger on your own, after all.”

It’s just about the first thing they teach you in the Academy - no one in this world can take on the neural load by themselves without sustaining significant, potentially fatal damage. Jack only knows one person who’s done it and lived, and it’s certainly one more person than anyone expected.

“And Lardo’s not sure I’m ready for first line combat,” Bittle continues. He frowns, then, eyebrows scrunching together in frustration or something else, and Jack’s about to ask, Why? but Bittle says, “Ah, here we are,” and they’re in front of Lardo’s office.

“Thanks for showing me the way,” Jack says. Not that he really needed it, but the company was… more welcome than he expected.

“Yeah. Um.” Bittle reaches into his pockets. “I made you something. In case you need the pick-me-up? Uh, not that I’m saying you need it, but - “

He offers Jack a plastic bag, and inside the bag are chocolate chip cookies.

“Oh,” he says, blinking. “Thanks.” He takes the bag, confused and grateful and unsure what to say all at once. What is there to say when you receive a gift you’re not sure you really deserve?

“It’s the least I could do,” Bittle says, grinning sheepishly. “I know it’s rough, but - you’ll find your way. I know you will.”

Before Jack can think of anything to answer to that , Bittle’s turned on his heel and left. Jack looks down at the bag in his hand, wordlessly. Then he puts the bag in his pocket, and walks into Lardo’s office.

Lardo’s office is almost entirely unchanged from the last time he was in it. Same cluttered desk, same rusty metal walls. Same twin moats crossed by a bridge. The entirety of one wall opens to the outside, a resplendent view of the ocean painted by the light, and when he breathes, the air is faintly salty with the smell of the sea.

Lardo perches lightly on top of her desk, apparently forgetting that she has a perfectly serviceable chair right next to it, and Jack begins to pace slowly around the room, half savoring the comfortable familiarity, half attempting to swallow his nerves down.

“Did you take your meds this morning?” Lardo says, a gentle reminder.

He nods, grateful she remembered to ask.

“Okay.” She hums lightly. “How’ve you been since you got here, Jack? Really.”

He sighs, lets the air seep out of his lungs slowly. “Do you want me to be honest?”

She tilts her head, silent.

“I’m not sure if I can do this,” he says. The truth tastes almost bitter on his tongue, like ashes.

There’s a pause, stilted. He lets the awkwardness envelope him, lets it prickle at his lungs. He can’t even imagine what she’ll say to that. Will she insist that she knows he can, that he’s stupid for thinking otherwise? Will she be angry that he’s wasting time and space by being here? Or will she just look at him with pity in her eyes, wishing he wasn’t so goddamn broken ?

In the end, she doesn’t do any of that.

She says, “Yeah, I get that,” and it’s probably the one possibility he wasn’t prepared for.

Jack turns to her, blinking in surprise. She was the one who asked him to come back; he doesn’t need to say that out loud.

“We all have to know our limits at some point, right?” she says, casually. She glances, in a way that Jack can’t miss, toward the pictures taped on the wall behind her desk. He knows what they will show, without having to look at them – Lardo beaming at the camera, her chest decorated in medals; Lardo in her own Jaeger, long before Jack quit the game; newspaper clippings, headlines blaring the stories of all the pilots who once basked in their own glory, now retired, now washed-up has-beens.

Jack swallows hard. It’s not fair to call Lardo a washed-up has-been, not when what happened wasn’t her fault. Not when she’s spent the last five years fighting the best she could, in whatever way possible.That’s certainly more than can be said for himself.

“But I wouldn’t have asked you to come back if I didn’t think you couldn’t handle it,” Lardo says. “You’re strong, Jack. Always have been. Especially on your own.”

And he supposes he knows that, too. Doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to actually believe in.

“It just takes some getting used to,” Jack says, words scratching at his throat. He hates having to admit this out loud. “I thought for so long I’d never do this again.”

“So you should be jumping at the chance to hop into a Jaeger again, right?” Lardo says, her face splitting into a grin. “You belong there, dude. I’ve never seen anyone work a Jaeger like you do. And you know I don’t give out compliments just like that.”

He lets his mouth curl into a small smile. That’s true enough. “We’ll see how it goes today,” he allows. “But I can’t make any promises.”

“Wouldn’t expect you to,” Lardo says easily. “We just need to explore all our options, yeah?”

“Right.” They both know, of course, that the Jaeger program in Los Angeles is pretty lacking in options at the present moment. But saying that out loud would just waste time, so he holds his tongue.

“Anyway.” Lardo fixes him with a piercing gaze. “What do you think of our new guys?”

“Ransom and Holster seem like they have a solid partnership, and I’m glad we have them on our side,” Jack says automatically. He barely has to think about it to analyze his new peers. “I saw the footage, though. They’re great at taking down targets directly when they have to, but they really shine as back-up, on the defense. For now they’re an adequate first-line solution against the kaijus, but that’s because attacks right now are sporadic, rarely targeting this city’s jurisdiction as much as, say, Hong Kong or Tokyo. What happens when they start becoming more frequent?”

“Yeah.” Lardo’s mouth is a grim line. “You see our problem, then. Our other active team doesn’t have nearly as much experience in the field. And our third team isn’t ready for deployment yet.”

“And you think I would be?” Jack says, before he can quite stop himself. He winces. “Sorry. It’s just – whoever ends up being my partner is probably going to be completely fresh. And I’m not exactly in top condition right now.”

“Yeah.” Lardo frowns. “It’s not easy. But our current team of scientists predicts the current attack schedule will hold for at least another few months. By then, our trainee team will be in commission. And if we’re holding the screening for your new partner today… it won’t be long before you’ll be back.”

“But suppose your guys have their calculations wrong,” Jack says. “Suppose Ransom and Holster burn out.”

“They don’t,” Lardo says firmly. “And they won’t. They’re good guys. Have a little more faith in us, Zimmermann.”

Jack directs his gaze toward the wall. Thing is, it’s hard to believe in the Jaeger program when he can barely believe in himself.

“You should meet our team of scientists,” Lardo says, more gently this time, with a tired smile. “Always at each other’s throats, but damn if they don’t get shit done.”

Jack exhales. “Okay,” he says. Lardo is right, in a way. If he stops to second guess this, even for a single second, it could all fall apart, and he doesn’t know if he could handle that again. The first time was hard enough, as it is. Almost impossible.

He looks toward her, and almost smiles. “Speaking of new guys. That Bittle kid’s interesting.”

Lardo rolls her eyes. “Now, you’re just stalling.” She jumps down from the desk, landing gracefully on her feet. “Come on, dude. You’ve got some drift compatible tests to do.”

Now? Jack almost asks, but the word catches on the tip of his tongue. Of course now . If not now, then when? Tests mean training and a Jaeger and fighting kaiju. Tests are the start of everything he returned for.

“Okay,” he says, instead, before he can think about it any further. He follows Lardo out of the room, paces his steps so that he doesn’t pull ahead of her, the route to the training room branded into his memory.

“You know,” says Lardo, when they’re about halfway there, the silence between them like a well-worn blanket. “I remember when we had to practically drag you out of these rooms.”

Jack’s lips curve at the memory. “As if you were any better,” he replies.

Lardo sniffs. “I was on the primary defence, of course I spent a lot of time there.”

Jack knows that’s not quite true, that she’d spent just as much time as he had in the training rooms, in the middle of the night when no one could see her, when she could glare away the bags under her eyes and brush off her incredible combat skills as natural talent. He only knows because of the few times they’d sparred and the moments their eyes had met in the halls, one leaving and the other just starting. It took work to keep up the standard she and Shitty had set, more to make it seem as effortless as it did.

Jack just hopes she’s sleeping more now, even if he can’t always say the same for himself.

They arrive at the training rooms at last, and Jack walks in so that he won’t think about the feeling curling in his stomach and clawing at his lungs and throat. If he doesn’t stop, he won’t think. If he doesn’t think, he won’t remember. This is a solution that works.

“Okay,” he says to Lardo. The training room is empty, none of the candidates having arrived yet. “Do you want to spar while we wait?”

Lardo shrugs, a grin playing at the corners of her mouth. “Can you handle it?”

“Can you?”

She pulls off her jacket as Jack does the same, both of them already in something approximating training attire—force of habit. Then, they both pick up their sticks, and—

Jack’s missed this. Lardo’s staff rushes toward his face and he intercepts it, follows with a strike of his own as she dodges. Strike-dodge-block.

“Ha,” says Lardo, her staff stilling at his chest. “One-oh.”

He beats her twice, then she beats him, then he beats her with an underhanded swipe that really does take advantage of her stature.

“Asshat,” Lardo grumbles, but she’s smiling. Jack’s nerves have calmed, no longer buzzing under his skin like the storms that have been battering at the Shatterdome since his arrival.

He looks up, then, and can’t help but freeze, because the room filled while he and Lardo were sparring; surely his peripheral vision couldn’t have suffered this much in his time away. Then again, it was never Jack who dealt with people, before.

“Ready?” Lardo asks.

He’s not. He nods anyway.

The first candidate steps onto the mat as Lardo steps off, strikes immediately. Jack dodges, strikes back, feints, strikes. One-oh. There’s a reason he was called a prodigy, a reason he’s one of the very few people to beat Lardo in a match.

“Shit,” the candidate says, admiring, eyes flashing.

Jack strikes first this time, and his opponent isn’t expecting it, just a fraction too slow. Two-oh. Jack’s opponent strikes and he blocks it, then swipes her legs out from under her. The staff comes down. Three-oh.

Lardo shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Definitely not drift compatible.”

His opponent nods, and accepts the hand Jack offers up. “Great fight,” she says, and walks off the mat.

Next candidate. This is someone Jack has seen around the mess hall, Wick or something like that. He’s bulky and tall, and Jack adjusts his stance.

For a moment, they circle. Then Jack darts forward, strikes and is blocked. He dodges one of Wick’s hits, and his own staff stops at Wick’s neck.

Lardo calls an end to that fight at four-one.

The next candidate steps forward. There are others gathering too, people in their uniforms, just there to watch. Ransom and Holster are among them.

Four-oh.

Again. Five-two.

Again. Two-oh.

Again. Three-oh.

Lardo sighs.

Five-oh. There are three candidates left.

Fuck ,” Lardo says, when all of them leave with more than two-point differences. The syllable is tense and fierce, a bowstring strung taut. Her eyes close, just for a moment. She rubs at her forehead. “I thought maybe one of these…”

Jack swallows. “I’m—”

“Don’t blame yourself,” Lardo cuts in, before he can complete the apology. “It just means we have to keep searching.”

Jack has only ever been compatible with two people, and neither of them are plausible candidates. He might never pilot a Jaeger again.

Most of the others have filed out, interest lost when no one came close to being drift compatible with him. It’s just Ransom and Holster left, conferring quietly in the corner.

Ransom steps forward after another moment, Holster barely a beat behind him. “Bro,” he says. “That was pretty badass, even if you didn’t find a partner.”

“Yeah, man,” Holster agrees. “You were like. Ridiculously intense. I’d love to spar with you one day.”

Jack nods. It is nice to know that even now, after four years out of action, the skills that gained the attention of the media in the first place haven’t totally deserted him. “Maybe one day soon.”

Ransom hesitates for a moment, glances at Holster. “You know, it’s not always as easy as finding a partner the moment you arrive.”

Holster hums in agreement. “Like, I tend to be at least somewhat drift compatible with most people, but--”

“I was at another base for like six months before I was transferred here.” Ransom shakes his head. “I tried with pretty much every un-partnered person on the base, but it never quite worked. Then I met Holtzy, here.”

“Bro,” says Holster. “It was like-- I stared into his eyes, and I just knew . Like the stars fucking aligned.”

Lardo scoffs from the corner, where she’s writing something on what looks like a form of some sort. “Dude, you just started calling each other bro and cackling over terrible puns.”

Holster looks affronted. “My puns are not terrible.”

“So, yeah, I don’t know, man, have hope or something,” Ransom continues, as Holster debates the classification of puns. “There could be a chance, even if you don’t see it.”

The list of people that Jack is compatible with has already been halved by tragedy--how can he expect to find one more? He’s never had that much luck. And why should he, in all that has happened because of him? “Thanks,” he says in lieu of that.

“Great.” Ransom knocks his shoulder into his copilot’s lightly, drawing his attention. “Well, we’d better get going-- you guys need any help cleaning up?”

”We’re good,” Jack replies, and musters something resembling a smile as they leave.

After a moment, he sighs. His heart burns and throbs in his chest. “Maybe this is a good thing.”

Lardo looks up sharply. “ What ?”

“You know as well as I do the ramifications of putting a traumatised pilot back in a Jaeger.”

“Do you want out?”

His jaw clenches as he swallows again. He considers—not what he feels, but what he’ll answer. “No.”

“Then I have to take that risk. You’re the best one we have, Jack.” Her voice softens at the end, warms. “I believe in you, nerd.”

Jack nods. “Thanks.”

“Hey,” Lardo says, and she’s frowning, just a little. “You are okay with this, aren’t you? Finding a new pilot, after—”

“Am I interrupting something?” Eric Bittle asks, standing at the door of the training room. “I’m so sorry, Lardo, but you said to inform you the moment the Specter was back online, and Shitty just finished the last repair.”

Lardo smiles. “Thanks, Bits.” She looks around the room, standing up. “Um, we can go through anyone we missed tomorrow. I have to get this paperwork in, so as your commanding officer, I’m tasking you with cleaning this room.”

Jack grins. “You’ve been pulling this trick since I arrived,” he says.

“Yeah, well,” Lardo shrugs, smile playing at the corners of her mouth, frown long forgotten. “I was your superior officer then, too.”

“I’ll clean it,” he assures her, and she smiles gratefully.

“I can help,” Bittle offers, as Lardo steps gracefully off the mat and out of the room. “If you need.”

Jack shrugs. “If you want.”

Bittle picks up a discarded staff. “We do pay actual cleaners, so we don’t have to mop or anything. Just the bigger stuff.”

“I lived here for over two years, you know.”

Bittle colours, just a little. “I didn’t know,” he says. “But I’m glad to hear that I don’t have to explain this all to you.”

Jack frowns. “Sorry,” he says, setting a stick back. His stomach curls.

“It’s fine,” Bittle replies, voice light. He glances down at the staff in his hands. “Hey, before we put these away properly-- do you maybe want to spar?”

Jack considers for a moment. He takes the staff back, weighs it in his hands. Nothing else has worked today, and it might be nice to spar without expectations. Eric Bittle doesn’t look like much of a fighter, physically, but the glint in his eyes is determined and dangerous. “Sure.”

They both stand in the middle of the mat, poised and waiting. There is a hesitance in Bittle that Jack hasn’t seen for a while, but his eyes shine with determination, a small smile playing on the corners of his lips.

Jack strikes first, and he’s not sure he’s ever seen anyone move as fast Bittle does to dodge it. He strikes again, is blocked, dodges a strike of his own. He stops his staff an inch from Bittle’s sternum.

“You’re fast,” Jack says, strikes again. Bittle dodges, counters, and Jack blocks.

“I spar with Lardo a lot.”

Hit—block—hit—dodge. “Ever beat her?”

Bittle grins, bright. He ducks low, swipes Jack’s legs out from under him, brings his staff down next to his head lightly. “Once or twice.”

Jack pulls himself to his feet, hits. Bittle knocks his staff off-course, and then it’s like falling.

He’s felt this before, when sparring, he realises somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but he doesn’t process the thought in its entirety. It’s like the moment is stretching out between them, everything coming down to the swipe and hit and dodge of their spar. When Bittle attempts the same move as before, he rolls with it, out of the range of his staff. When he feints, Bittle sees through it, evades his hit with all the prowess of someone he’s been sparring with for years. He hits, and dodges, and blocks, and never quite manages to land anything, but that’s fine, because neither does Bittle.

Jack smiles, despite himself. He’s missed this, the comfortable flow of fighting someone he’s—

Oh .

He stumbles back, dropping his staff, chest heaving. Jack remembers this.

Bittle stops too, hesitant. “Did you—was I imagining that, or?”

Jack breathes, or tries to, chest too tight for his lungs and all the oxygen he needs. “You weren’t,” he manages, terse.

“Oh.” The blonde’s eyes are wide, shocked. “Um, are you—?”

The last time Jack had sparred with someone he was compatible with, he was younger and happier and had never felt loss, not really, not like he was going to in a few days or hours or however long it was between their last spar and the end. He hadn’t thought about that, hadn’t thought about the fact that it was going to be someone else , because of course it was; how could it ever be—

“Jack…?” Bittle sets his staff down, steps forward, and Jack steps back. For a moment, he weighs what he is to say. Don’t tell anyone ? That’s the most tempting option, really, or would be if Lardo wasn’t losing funding, if everyone wasn’t counting on him. I’m fine ? He doesn’t want to lie, doesn’t think he could get away with it. He considers, briefly, saying something derisive, something that will persuade Bittle to leave him alone, to forget about all of this.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead. “Tell Lardo. About this, I mean. She should know. I just—I have to go.”

Jack walks out of the training room on legs he pretends holds steady underneath him. He goes to hide his trembling hands in his jacket pockets, remembers he left it in the training room. Well, he’ll have to retrieve it another time; there’s no way he can walk back into that room, Eric Bittle’s wide eyes on him, watching him try to hold himself together.

Why Eric Bittle, of all people? Why an inexperienced pilot with a smile too genuine for their kind of work, with no idea of what it’s like to lose someone? Of all the people to let into his brain--of all the people to replace--it can’t be Shitty or anyone he really knows--it’s a five foot six blonde who had the luck to befriend Lardo.

He makes his way back to his room, and shakes, and tries with all he is not to think about the fact that he’ll be standing in a Jaeger soon—that he’ll be standing in a Jaeger with someone else by his side.

Jack does not sleep that night, mind bright with fears of past and future and everything in between.

Chapter Text

iii.

The next day, eyes heavy from lack of sleep, he is walking toward the mess hall when Lardo runs into him.

“Oh, good,” she says. “I was just about to get someone to find you. I need to talk to you and Bitty in my office.”

She already knows, then. Of course she would; Jack told Bitty to tell her, even if he wouldn’t on his own. She’s going to talk to them about their compatibility, and then-- well, one of two things will happen. Either they won’t be assigned a Jaeger, and Jack will continue his search for a partner, or they will. Jack doesn’t want to think about what will happen after that, not now, when it’s suddenly so real, the possibility tangible and imminent.

He knows what will happen next though, if they are assigned a Jaeger: they will drift, and Jack, for the first time in five years, will have to let another person into his mind, will have to dive into Bitty’s mind, deep enough to see his every thought and hope and dream. They will become, as every pair of Jaeger pilots does, almost one.

He follows her, heart pounding against his throat, down halls that have become familiar again. Bittle is already in her office, leaning against the desk with an odd mix of skittishness and comfort.

“Okay,” Lardo says, as she continues to her desk and shoos Bittle away fondly. “I’ll cut to the chase so you can get to breakfast: the two of you have been assigned as copilots. We’re currently discussing your Jaeger and other details, but training starts in a week. Bits, you’re relieved of all your current duties as my assistant. You two have to have your drift test this week sometime, but the exact timing is flexible. Understood?”

It’s real, official. There is no escape or denial or refusal to be had. They both nod, and when Jack glances to the side, the edges of Bittle’s mouth are turned up into a smile.

“Wonderful. I’ll see you during breakfast.”

Bittle is the first to leave, and Lardo’s words were a clear dismissal, but Jack stays. Once he’s sure Bittle is out of earshot, he turns to Lardo.

“Is he a competent pilot?” he asks, feeling ashamed for the words even as they form in his throat.

Lardo blinks at him. “I wouldn’t have assigned you together if he wasn’t.”

Jack frowns, hesitates. “He’s not really--” God, he feels like such an asshole. But the doubts are there, and they need to be voiced, even if he can’t find the words to do it well.

“He’s more than capable,” Lardo says, and her voice is sharp in a way it rarely is with him. His gut curls. “Jack, I understand where you’re coming from, but you do need to trust my judgement. Bitty can hold his own.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shakes her head, fond. “I know what you mean. Don’t worry, Jack; you haven’t offended me .”

Jack nods, then leaves. He could go to the dining hall, filled with Eric Bittle, filled with people who are filled with questions. He could sit and eat his breakfast and pretend his emotions simply do not exist.

He walks back toward his room.

 

Jack manages to avoid Bittle for three days. It’s not easy, but there was a time when Jack knew this base like the back of his hand, like the depths of his mind and of Kent’s. He manages.

Shitty and Lardo, however, he can’t quite escape. They’ve known him for years, and even the time he was away did nothing to change his old haunts, the hideaways that had always been synonymous for peace and comfort. On the second day, when he’s sitting on a small, abandoned pier just outside the base but far enough to still be intact, Lardo brings a pile of paperwork and just sits as he thinks, occupying a space that was always too big for just one person, anyway.

That is the issue, isn’t it? The person filling the spaces he leaves—out of false hope or force of habit—is never the one he expects. It is Lardo, or Shitty, or the new pilots, or, now, Eric Bittle. That is the issue; the spaces he leaves are specific, too big or too small, perfectly formed to a person that will never fill them again. Not even a person—the ideal of a person, the memory, thoughts and moments distorted by five years of remembrance.

It’s Shitty who finds him on the third day.

“Brah,” he says as he crams his legs into the alcove Jack had found in his third month on the base, sitting in that way that seems to take all the space and none of it, legs and arms sprawled in every direction. He doesn’t speak again, and Jack is grateful for it. He just sits, makes his presence known. He’s there if Jack needs to talk.

At long last, he does. “He’s going to see everything,” Jack says, even though the words don’t even begin to sum up the depth or extent of his problems.

Shitty nods. “Yeah,” he concedes. “There’s no way around it.”

“He’ll see—what happened. He’ll see the mess my brain is in. My thought processes might start to affect his.”

“Dude,” Shitty says. “No matter how fucked up your brain is, it’s not going to flow over into his. You become one big brain, yeah, but you’re still individuals beyond that. Your trauma isn’t his to carry.”

Jack wonders, absently, how long it had taken his best friend to learn that, to come to terms with it. Last he’d seen, he was still stuck in the same cycle of blame and guilt and loss that Jack was.

“Who was the one who attended therapy for five years?” he asks, half joking.

Shitty snorts. “Those fucking shrinks are wiser than people think. Maybe I should have gone into psychology instead of this mission control bullshit.”

Shitty would never have gone into psychology; that would have meant leaving Lardo behind, and that possibility is as foreign to him as piloting with anyone else. Jack understands where he’s coming from, except that Lardo is still here.

Jack stays silent for a moment. Then, “What if it doesn’t work?”

“What, the drift?”

“What if I was only imagining it?” He swallows, presses into the cool concrete at his back. “What if I was so desperate to do something right that I convinced myself I was compatible with Bittle?”

Shitty hums. “That’s pretty fucking convoluted, brah.”

Jack laughs, but it’s not humorous. “Well. My brain, so.”

“Yeah.” Shitty hums again, strokes his ridiculous moustache like some sort of aging history professor. “Bitty felt it too, though. He’s the one that told Lardo and me. So it wasn’t just you.”

“What if the test fails anyway?”

“It’s just one test. If it goes horribly wrong you can just wallow in your own righteous angstiness and if it goes well, you could potentially have something good going for you! Win-win!”

Righteous angstiness . Well.

“If it’s so easy,” Jack asks, “then why don’t you? We’re compatible, so you even have someone.”

He feels a little terrible for asking it, for even thinking it; Shitty’s let him heal at his own pace, after all. Still, he’s curious, and Shitty’s affronted sputter makes the risk worth it.

“I—that’s different . That’s really fucking different.”

Jack raises his eyebrow, but doesn’t push the subject. Shitty has his reasons, just as Jack does.

“It is,” Shitty insists.

“Okay.”

They fall into silence again. It stretches out between them, comfortable as always. Jack has always felt more comfortable in his own quiet, when the only noise is in the background, just enough that individual sounds are filtered out and buried under the rush of white noise.

Finally, when the tightness in his chest has faded and the cold concrete behind his head and neck has warmed, he speaks, quiet, almost hoping that Shitty won’t even hear him. “I don’t want to replace him.”

There is no need to define exactly who “he” is; Shitty was there when Jack was half of one of the best Jaeger teams this side of the Pacific. Shitty was there through all of it.

For a long moment, there is no reply. Then, “I get that.”

The thing is, Shitty has nothing to replace. Sure, he lost, but Lardo is still here , working and thriving. She’s still his best friend and partner, still shoulder checking him in the halls and sliding her peas onto his plate and stealing his mushrooms. It is different.

Jack doesn’t voice this. “So,” he says instead, “you’ve got a new Jaeger for me, eh?”

Shitty starts. “You haven’t been in the Shatterdome?” he asks.

Jack hasn’t yet convinced himself to step foot in there. It had never been his spot, though, not really; it had been a shared place, a place for whispered dreams and thoughts and shoulders brushing ever so slightly under the dim light of electronics.

“No.”

“Jack, brah,” Shitty grins. “You haven’t seen your Jaeger?”

Jack shakes his head.

“Dude, you’re in the fucking Monochrome Providence.”

Jack’s heart skips a beat. “What?”

“Lardo got her all fixed up and shit. She’s in the Shatterdome for maintenance right now.”

The Monochrome Providence. Jack hasn’t seen her in more than five years, hadn’t ever brought himself to look at the wreckage or the near-constant footage discussing the tragedy that played in the first few months after. He’s missed her like a part of him, like he’d left a part of his mind, his soul , trapped somewhere within her wiring.

What other memories are trapped within the bounds of her metal walls?

Shitty looks at his watch. “I have a training session to supervise,” he sighs. “Like the true fucking adult I am. But there’s time for a drift test tomorrow, if you want it.”

Jack looks down at his hands. He breathes, focuses on his lungs expanding and deflating, on holding the breath in long enough to feel. The Monochrome, the memories. “Okay,” he answers. “Yeah, okay. I’ll take it.”

His best friend smiles. “I’ll see you then.”

Jack breathes in, and out, and tries to convince himself that everything will be fine.

 

For a blessed few seconds when he wakes up in the morning, Jack does not remember where he is, or what he is going to do that day.

Then, he thinks, Monochrome Providence , and the remembering floods his skull like a burst dam.

He presses his hands to his face, rubs at his eyes, squints at the ceiling. Tries to tell the difference between regret and nostalgia. Fails, inevitably.

He breathes in deep, one of those breathing exercises from his old therapist he keeps tucked away in the back of his head for bad mornings. He goes to the sink in the corner of the room and splashes water on his face, willing the dull ache behind his eyelids to go away. He swallows his meds dry, wincing as they scrape down his throat.

There’s a knock on the door.

He stares at it for a few moments, sluggish just-woke-up brain uncomprehending. The sharp rapping sounds again, and it spurs him into moving toward the door. He swings the door open.

“Good morning, Jack, I was wondering if – oh.”

Jack blinks down at Bittle. Is it his imagination, or are his cheeks actually pink ?

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – that is to say, I didn’t know you weren’t – “ Bittle stammers. Jack can hardly make sense of any of it.

He frowns. “Um – “

“ – decent,” Bittle finishes, looking down at his shoes. “I can come back later, it’s not pressing – “

“Oh.” That’s right. He forgot to put a shirt on before he answered the door. Way to go, Jack Zimmermann. Barely minutes awake and he’s already forgotten the rules of basic human decency. God, and Bittle’s probably gotten a good look at his chest, too, seen the ugly scars that stretch across it. The only remnants he has left of the worst day of his life. Great first impression. He turns away from the door to put on his uniform, and tries not to act embarrassed about it. “Do you need anything?”

“Well, not per se.” Bittle smiles, a bit nervously but still bright. “Just wanted to see if you wanted to walk down to the Shatterdome together.”

For half a moment, Jack considers saying no. That would be the easiest thing to do, wouldn’t it? But as soon as he thinks it, guilt twinges at his insides. He hasn’t exactly been the most forthcoming toward Bitty, which he regrets a little now that they’re partners. He only has himself to blame, after all.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Jack says, flashing Bittle a weak smile. “Good chance to get to know each other, too.”

Bittle laughs as Jack closes the door behind him. They start walking down the hallway, side by side. “What’s there to know about me? I’m a Georgian pilot-in-training with a vicious love of baking and food and baking food. That’s basically me in a nutshell.”

Georgia. That would explain the accent.

There is almost certainly more to Eric Bittle than that.

“You could start with the hair,” Jack says, gesturing at Bittle’s brightly colored bangs.

Bittle laughs again. “That’s not an exciting story, I promise.”

“Okay, so how about how you got recruited?” Jack suggests, curious despite himself.

“Geez, that’s not really a story, either. I mean, I think Coach really wanted me to sign up?” Bittle scrunches up his nose, annoyed. “Sorry, I meant my dad. Not to say I didn’t want to. I mean, I guess I could see myself working with the Jaeger program, but I never thought I could be a pilot one day. I dunno, it’s kinda cool, in a way? Unexpected, but cool.”

For a moment, Jack is reminded of what he felt like when he first joined. He thinks he understands that sentiment, a little. Back when they’d first gotten to the Los Angeles base, young and eager and heads full with notions of heroism, the road to becoming full-fledged pilots had seemed impossibly long before them, just a bright and distant dream, reachable only by working harder than they’d ever had their whole lives before.

“And what about you?” Bittle says. “If it’s not too forward of me to ask.”

It isn’t. But Jack’s own story isn’t really one he’s prepared to tell, either.

“A friend convinced me to sign up with him, and we did,” he says, and leaves it at that.

Bittle nods. If he’s as smart as he looks, he can put the pieces together himself.

“Gosh, our first drift,” Bitty says, and Jack is grateful for the change of subject. “ My first drift. I gotta say, I’m pretty nervous.”

Christ, is Jack really in the position where he has to give other people advice now? What a laugh.

He was never the one who was good with words.

“It’s just a test trial,” he tries. “There’s plenty of training and prep to be done after.”

“Yeah, I know, but – “ Bittle huffs out a laugh. “Still feels like a lot of pressure, you know? Especially when you’re…”

Jack frowns. “When I’m what?”

Bittle gestures helplessly. “ You ,” he says. Jack doesn’t know what to do with that, so he doesn’t try.

Instead, he attempts another smile. “It helps to breathe slowly, before the connection happens. The oxygen flow keeps your brain alert. And don’t fight the drift. Better to just let it happen. Easiest way to avoid chasing the R.A.B.I.T.”

Bittle nods. “Guess it can’t hurt to try.”

It settles into a sort of quiet after that, surprisingly companionable. Jack wonders, for a moment, what Bittle might be thinking about. But that thought in itself is silly. Why would he need to wonder when they’ll be inside each other’s heads within the hour?

“Thanks for the cookies,” he says. “And the pie.”

Bittle’s head turns toward him, eyes wide. “I’m sorry?” he says.

“It - it means a lot.” Jack exhales. He hardly knows what he’s trying to say, hardly knows how to express what it means, not just the cookies but also this , walking to the Shatterdome to make sure Jack doesn’t have to do it by himself, offering to spar not for the experience or for the chance to be co-pilots but just for the sake of doing it. These small gestures of kindness, things other people wouldn’t think of, things Jack wouldn’t think of, that somehow make him feel that much less alone. Bittle didn’t have to do that for him. Bittle doesn’t owe him a single thing, especially not after the way Jack’s treated him. But he did it anyway. And he doesn’t know how to tell Bittle how grateful he is, for making him feel even just a little less out of place here. He doesn’t know how to tell him, but he finds himself wanting to anyway.

“Oh.” Bittle laughs, more out of relief, Jack thinks, than out of humor.

“What is it?”

“It’s just - “Jack can practically feel the beat of hesitation, measured on a sharp inhale. “Why are you being so nice to me, all of a sudden?”

Jack blinks. “What?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” Bittle says, sounding genuinely chagrined. “You’ve just been… Distant. Since you got here. And I guess I was just wondering if it was anything I could help with.”

Before Jack can make sense of that, can even begin to try to cobble together a response – it’s not Bittle, it’s him; or it’s partially Bittle, in some twisted way, which makes it infinitely worse; and he doesn’t need help, not for this, not for anything, because he’s fine, or he’s getting there, which should count for something, shouldn’t it? – someone in front of them shouts, “Well, there you fucking are!” Jack looks up just in time to see Shitty barreling toward them. They’ve reached the Shatterdome.

“Come on, my dudes,” Shitty says, slinging his arms across their shoulders. “We’ve got work to do.”

“By the way you’re acting, you’d almost think we were late,” Jack comments.

“In the Shatterdome, if you’re on time you’re fucking late. Sorry about it.”

“That sounds fake, but okay,” Bittle says, raising an eyebrow. “Seriously, that can’t be a rule.”

“It’s definitely a rule,” Shitty says sagely. “I said it with my own mouth, and thus from henceforth it shall be writ into the bylaws.”

Bittle turns to Jack. “Is he always like this?” he says in a stage-whisper.

“Hey, the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“You just learn to roll with it,” Jack says with a shrug, smile playing at the corner of his mouth. On a whim, he follows it with a wink. Bittle’s eyes widen, a sight that gives Jack more pleasure than it should.

A shadow passes over them, then, and Jack looks up instinctively, up at the Monochrome Providence for the first time in five years.

Knowing that they’d fixed up the Monochrome Providence isn’t the same as actually seeing her. The last time he’d looked up at her half of her chest was ripped out, circuitry and machinery hanging haphazardly out of the cavity like a mechanical wound. Now she looks just the same as she did the first time he stepped foot in it, black and silver finishing gleaming dully in the dim lighting, powerful-looking in her stance even when still. It almost sends his head spinning to see her like this, like new five years after the fact.

“She’s a fucking beaut, isn’t she?” Shitty says proudly.

“Lord, she’s lovely,” Bittle breathes. Jack glances at him, his gaze pulled by the breathlessness in his voice, and Bittle’s head is tipped back, eyes wide and mouth parted. He doesn’t know how to feel about it, that Bittle would look like that when faced with the Jaeger that was once as much a part of Jack’s life as the feeling of the drift itself. Doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that he noticed.

“Surely you’ve seen the Providence before,” Jack says, voice light in a way he doesn’t feel. “You’ve been working with Lardo all this time.”

“Yeah, but up close? Minutes before I’m about to get into it?” Bittle looks at Jack, and his eyes are shining. “That’s something different, right there.”

Well. There’s no arguing against that.

“Okay, bros, if you need me, I’m gonna be up in LOCCENT Mission Control,” Shitty says, clapping his hands on their shoulders. “I’ll be guiding you through the whole process, so don’t worry, okay? We’re gonna get a perfect neural handshake up in this bitch.”

 

Walking into the Conn-Pod for the first time in five years feels a little like coming home.

Like that, of course, it sounds simple, but it’s not. Because for Jack, the feeling of home is too expansive to be confined to a single place, and this place feels as familiar as it doesn’t in the same breath. It’s the same place he fought a war in, the same place he felt the circuitry of the Providence reverberating in his bones for the first time and the same place he learned what it was like to see through eyes that weren’t his. But this time, he’s alone, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Walking into the Conn-Pod for the first time in five years feels like coming to a home he thought he’d lost, only to find that all the furniture has been rearranged by a stranger he will never meet.

He looks to his side, then, and Bittle is standing next to him, his face determinedly set behind the glass of his helmet. He is not alone, not this time. He almost feels ashamed for thinking otherwise.

“I’ll take the right side, if you don’t mind,” Jack says. He does not offer an explanation.

Bittle does not ask for one. He simply nods, and moves.

Though Jack supposes talking is kind of pointless right now. They’ll be in each other’s heads soon enough.

They strap themselves into their harnesses, and Shitty’s voice crackles to life over the comms. “All right, boys, you ready?”

Jack swallows hard. “Pilots of Monochrome Providence, ready for test trial one.”

“All business as usual, Jack, I see. Initiating the neural handshake.”

Jack closes his eyes instinctively. The fall into the drift is usually pretty disorienting, and he’s always found it easier to just let the darkness fill him up before –

He skates on the ice under the eyes of his father that are always present and never faltering, and he spins and he jumps in the air and he hits the puck into the back of the net and throws his fist into the air up, and up, and up, and he falls and scrapes his knees and his smiling mother smooths a bandage over his raw skin and he pulls the hot tin from the oven and the metal burns into his skin like an old comfort and he’s running up a hill that seems like it’s never going to end and his legs burn too and now all of him is on fire the first time he wins in front of the eyes of his father, and the boys slam him into the metal of the locker door and the boys slam into his body after his first goal, and Lardo runs her fingers through his hair in awe and says “blue’s a good color on you” and she crushes him into an embrace that’s long and hard and desperate with all the things they’ve both lost and the rain falls, and it falls, and he says “Nice to meet you” and he says nothing at all, and the silence swallows him, it swallows him whole, and Kent stands in front of him and he turns and he smiles –

“Left hemisphere calibrated. Right hemisphere calibrated. Ready to activate the Jaeger,” says the cool automated voice of the jaeger’s systems.

Jack opens his eyes and lets out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. He can feel it now, the hum of the machinery searing through his veins like the wires themselves are alive, the sheer power of the Providence settling in his gut and in his limbs and spreading through his chest in an overwhelming flood.

And he can feel Bitty, a quiet presence that nevertheless burns brightly and steadily. He can feel them, their mutual strength flowing and melting into one. He can feel him - next to him, a physical presence that is almost impossible to ignore, but also inside him, their minds and their bodies lining up, outlines blurring until he can hardly tell anymore where one person starts and the other begins.

“Handshake is stable. Nice fucking work, you guys,” Shitty says, sounding impressed. “We’re just gonna run through some really basic stuff, you’ll be in and out in a fuckin’ tic.”

The beat of his heart is fast and hard in his chest, even as it’s calm and steady as it can be. He needs to focus on the calm tempo, needs to bring Bitty – himself – down.

“Focus on my heartbeat,” Jack says, at the same time as he thinks it. The words are a bit redundant, in a way, but they’re an anchoring point that will be crucial in steadying the drift between them when it’s still so new.

Next to him, Bitty breathes in and out, just as Jack does. That, too, must be in sync.

It hurts less than he thought it would.

Jack smiles a little, even as he knows Bitty will feel it keenly. “You thought it would hurt?”

How was he supposed to know what it was going to be like? He’s not the decorated war veteran, here.

Well, he knows, now. One way or another.

He moves his left hand slowly, carefully. Then his right. The machine responds, metal joints creaking in a way that he can feel aching through his fingers. He curls his hands into fists, and thrusts his arm outwards.

The feeling of the movement surges through his veins like static.

Shitty guides the Providence through basic movements, arms and legs and the works. They even do some weapons testing, just to make sure they – he – knows how to deploy them. He doesn’t have to think to move, to feel the machine and her warmth pulsing around him; he doesn’t have to think at all.

This, he realizes. This is worth living for. The drift, a closeness human bodies cannot manufacture on their own, connected to the metal of machines and the blood of men. This is everything he ever loved, everything he will come to love, about piloting a Jaeger.

As Shitty promised, the tests take only a short while, expedited by the strength of their neural handshake. Bitty bursts out of the Jaeger laughing, giddy on the high of his first drift, and Jack can’t help but smile down at him. His happiness is rather infectious, admittedly. It’s been a long while since Jack’s first drift, and he’d all but forgotten the feeling of it, euphoric and lingering and a little breath-taking. Just for a few moments, though, he knew what it was like again, knew what it was like to be young and experiencing everything for the very first time. That, in itself, might be worth celebrating.

“Gosh, when the Plasmacaster came out,” Bitty is saying, pressing a hand to his flushed cheek. “My hand tingled .”

“Yeah, it has the tendency to do that.”

“And the Providence! Jack, she felt so alive.”

“Well, she’s still just a machine – “

“You know what I mean. You felt it too, I know you did, I was just in your head – “

Ransom and Holster are waiting for them when they leave the Shatterdome.

“Bros, that was fucking awesome,” Holster says, offering both of them fist bumps.

Bitty rubs the back of his neck bashfully. “Aw, Holster, you know it was just a test trial.”

“Okay, okay, but the numbers you guys got on the stability of your handshake, though,” Ransom cuts in excitedly. “Fucking off the charts, I mean, you guys could probably – “

“Give us a run for our money,” Holster finishes, grinning. “And it was just your first time, too.”

The current conversation is a little overwhelming for Jack, but he supposes they all have the right to be excited. The success of this test, after all, does mean a potential addition to the active piloting teams in Los Angeles.

“Nice to see a legend back at it again,” Ransom says, clapping a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “You do us Canadians proud, Zimmermann.”

Jack manages to crack a smile. “Thanks.”

“Imagine what it’ll be like to see him finally back in action.” Holster wipes an imaginary tear from his eyes. “I get emotional just thinking about it.”

“Okay, but Bitty here,” Ransom says, beaming.

“Bitty! Bro! Seriously, how was that your first time drifting?”

“Y’all are too much,” Bitty says with a laugh. “Really know how to butter up a guy, don’t you?”

“No buttering to be had here,” Ransom says solemnly.

“Nothing but the cold, hard truth.”

“More like a soft, kind of cuddly truth.”

“Rans, I think you just described yourself.”

“Excuse me, I’m totally a cold and hard badass!”

“Okay, bro, but, like, did you hear what just came out of your mouth.”

Bitty catches Jack’s eye as Ransom and Holster go at it, and grins in commiseration. For once, it doesn’t take much thought for Jack to return it with his own smile.

“Okay, Bitty, but as it’s your first time, remind us to give you a full run-down on the Jaeger stuff at dinner or something,” Ransom is saying.

“Jaeger shit with Ransom and Holster,” Holster says, making finger-guns at Bitty.

“First lesson – don’t forget the escape pods!”

“Emergencies only,” Holster puts in.

“Yeah, you guys didn’t test it out for a reason, but you gotta know it’s there. You probably don’t even know about them, Jack, they’re a new feature that started popping up with the Mark-III jaegers but they’ve probably upgraded your Mark-I with them.”

“And they’re only for emergencies because they’ll break the drift violently if you’re not careful,” Holster says seriously. “Shit could mess up all your gray matter.”

“But hey, if your Jaeger’s about to blow up, I mean, do you pick life or slim chances of getting severe brain damage? I mean, really.”

Bitty glances at Jack again. It’s a look that Jack, startlingly enough, can understand.

Are you following any of this?

Jack shakes his head minutely. His thoughts feel like they’re going to start spinning any second now.

“Thanks, boys,” Bitty says, smiling. “We’re pretty wiped out, though. Gotta get our rest, and all that.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll catch up later,” Ransom says with a nod. “Good job again, guys. Seriously. Can’t wait to have you on our line.”

Jack should respond to that, probably. Something like our pleasure, or can’t wait, either .

But the words stay stuck in his throat.

Jack and Bitty start walking back to their rooms, silent but together. There’s something about being in the drift with someone that renders words between you unnecessary, even when you’re out of it. Even if you’re not in their head anymore, you still understand them. You still feel them. Jack doesn’t need to look down to know their steps will be in time with each other.

The thing about drifting with Bitty, Jack thinks, is that before this, he had no idea what it was like to do this, this powerful and oddly intimate thing, with someone he met just weeks ago.

And he can’t tell if he finds that thrilling or utterly terrifying.

They get to their rooms, but neither of them move to part ways just yet. Jack leans on the wall next to his door, shoving his hands into his pockets. Bitty wants to talk to him some more, he can tell, but he doesn’t know what to say to invite his words, so he keeps his silence, hoping Bitty doesn’t find it hostile.

Bitty stands in the middle of the empty hallway, arms loose by his sides, and he tilts his head up to the ceiling, and he smiles.

“Gosh, that was amazing,” he breathes, but it’s more to himself than to Jack, and so Jack doesn’t say anything to that, either.

They stand there for a long moment after. Jack lets himself watch Bitty as he stares at the ceiling, his slight build but strong stance, the determination in his soft features, the blue that sticks out so brightly against his pale hair. Bitty, he thinks, is fierce, and gentle. Bitty has a heart that burns with love and a want for justice and endless, bottomless compassion. Bitty does not know what it’s like to fight a real kaiju, but somehow, after feeling the fire of his heart, Jack doesn’t doubt he would hold his own without the slightest bit of hesitation.

Bitty is not what Jack expected.

Bitty brings his head down, then, and meets Jack’s eyes steadily.

“Can I ask you something?” he says.

Slightly taken aback, and mesmerized by the force of Bitty’s gaze, Jack nods.

“Who was it we saw in the drift?”

The question pierces Jack in his lungs like a javelin.

His parents, he could joke, but he knows that’s not what Bitty means. Of course it isn’t.

He knows exactly what Bitty means.

And just as he thinks that, he realizes, the epiphany a cold shock to his heart, that Bitty already knows.

Bitty is just as smart as he looks.

“I can’t answer that,” Jack says roughly. It’s all he can do not to choke on the words as they come out, fighting their way out of his lungs and settling like stones on his tongue.

Bitty nods, and for a moment, he looks almost sad.

Then, he says, “You ought to get some rest, Jack.”

And Jack turns and reaches for his door, and he does not think that this is not the first time he’s left Bitty alone in the hallway like this, and he does not wonder if it will be his last.

He does not wonder.

Chapter Text

iv.

Training starts the next day. It's an intense process, just as it's always been, but Jack kept up with it as much as he could back home, and Bitty only just finished at the academy recently. They don't talk about Kent again, but Jack knows Bitty wonders; anyone would, given the circumstances. Jack can only be grateful that he doesn't bring it up. He knows he'll have to talk about it sometime, but he can't, not yet. Not to someone who is still practically a stranger, despite their drift compatibility.

It mostly begins with physical training, not just the sparring matches that determine drift compatibility but also various styles of martial arts and weapons training. Fighting in a Jaeger requires both competence and familiarity with your co-pilot’s physicality. Jack is afraid, before they start the training, that it will be difficult to attain that familiarity with Bitty. They’ve only known each other for a handful of weeks, and their minds are strangers to each other even if their bodies are not. What good is a handful of tests compared to years of close, intense partnership?

After just an hour of sparring with the staffs, though, it becomes clear that it won’t be hard at all.

The way Bitty moves around Jack, the way they move around each other, is almost effortlessly natural. He doesn’t have to think about where to step, where to swing his staff, where to breathe; just moves on instinct, just lets the clutter in his head melt away into silence, just lets Bitty take them where they need to go. He moves, and Bitty is there. It’s not a fight so much as it is a dance, a dialogue, an understanding . They understand each other without having to say a word out loud, where they’ve been, and where they’re going to go.

It’s exhilarating.

It’s scary as hell.

He doesn’t know what to feel.

Eventually, after the fifth or sixth stalemate, Jack throws down his staff. “Want to try something different?”

Bitty grins. “Tired of not winning, Mr. Zimmermann?”

Jack shrugs. “How’s your hand-to-hand combat?”

He means it lightly, playfully, even, but from the way Bitty doesn’t move from where he stands he can tell it’s anything but. To anyone else, perhaps, it would appear as if Bitty didn’t react. Jack, though, can see the way his shoulders tense up, and the slightest of shifts in his grip of his staff. He doesn’t know what to make of it. What did he say? Or was it how he said it?

“Sure, let’s go for it,” Bitty says.

There’s something going on here. Jack doesn’t really know where to begin to puzzle it out, though, so he assumes his stance, and waits. Bitty takes position, too, but he’s still, almost unnaturally so. Probably up to Jack to make the first move, then.

Quickly he steps forward, jabs with a fist just to see how Bitty will react. Unsurprisingly, judging from how good Bitty usually is on the defense during their sparring matches, he dodges it with little effort. The position he ends up in would theoretically give him an opening to make an attack of his own, but he doesn’t, just keeps his hands close to his face and keeps his eyes, uncharacteristically serious, on Jack.

Perhaps he’s hoping to tire Jack out through attrition. It’s not a bad thought, considering the disparities in their height and strength. Jack strikes with his right hand again, hoping to land a blow on his neck or shoulder, but Bitty blocks him with surprising force. If they were sparring with staffs, Bitty might make a quip here - something about Jack being an old man already, he’d imagine, something about not keeping up. Nothing is said, here. Nothing is said, and Bitty stares at Jack with an intensity he’s not used to.

There’s no time to dwell on it. Jack tries to put himself into the fight, tries to think of nothing else. He kicks, and feints, and punches, gradually increasing his speed. Bitty has no trouble keeping up with him, sidestepping his attacks or blocking them, but he never makes an attempt to get off the defensive.

This is a problem, Jack thinks. They can’t afford not to attack while fighting kaijus.

Abruptly, he steps backward, out of reach, and lets his arms fall to his sides.

Bitty keeps his guard up. “What are you doing?” he says, tilting his head in suspicion, or confusion, or possibly both.

“Hit me,” Jack says.

Silence.

“I’m open,” Jack says, frustrated though he know he probably shouldn’t be. “You haven’t once tried anything. So hit me. Show me what you can do.”

Bitty’s eyes widen.

“I - I can’t,” he says.

At this point, everyone else in the training room has begun to take notice of them. Jack is acutely aware of this, the stillness around him, the staring. He imagines Bitty must be, too.

“Okay,” Jack says. “Let’s take a break.”

They go out in the hall, and Bitty sinks against the wall. Jack reaches into his bag for a water bottle to offer Bitty, who takes it wordlessly. It’s only then, when their fingers brush, that Jack realizes Bitty is shaking.

“Hey, are you - “ Jack sits next to Bitty as carefully as he can. “Are you okay?”

Bitty squeezes his eyes shut. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Jack says, frowning. “I shouldn’t have pushed you like that, especially not in front of everyone else.”

“You couldn’t have known.” Bitty sighs, a trembling little thing, and something twists inside Jack’s guts, something he can’t name. “But lord, what good is a Jaeger pilot who can’t land a hit?”

It wouldn’t be appropriate to ask if Bitty knows why he has this mental block, so Jack doesn’t. He leans his head back against the wall, staring at the lights above them.

“Have you always struggled with this?” he says instead.

Bitty nods. “Ever since I got into the Academy. Ever since I knew this was going to be a thing I’d have to do, if I wanted to be a pilot.”

Jack winces. “That’s rough.”

“Yeah. Lardo’s helped me worked through some of it but - it’s hard. It’s still hard.”

“You can spar, though?” Jack offers. “When we work on drift compatibility?”

“That’s different,” Bitty says, shaking his head. “That’s not a fight, you know? That’s - it’s just different. I don’t actually have to hurt anyone, because hurting people isn’t the point.”

Oh.

You wouldn’t be hurting people, you’d be hurting monsters, Jack thinks about saying. But he knows better than anyone else that fear rarely responds to logic.

“I’m sorry,” Bitty says again. He covers his face with his hands. “I don’t know what to do. Lardo’s going to want us to fight soon, but I don’t - I can’t - “

“We could - “ Jack hesitates. Would Bitty even want his help, after everything? But what kind of person would he be, if he didn’t offer the one person he’s supposed to do this with his help? “What if we worked on this? Together? Outside of practice hours, anyone can use these training rooms.”

Bitty looks at Jack. “Really?” he says, quietly. “You’d do that for me?”

“For the sake of the greater good, obviously.”

The statement is enough to surprise a snort out of Bitty, which Jack is more gratified about than he has any right to be.

“Right, yeah,” Bitty says. “It’s a war for humanity, after all.”

“And - “ It’s hard to know the right thing to say in these situations. But Bitty is worth the effort, he thinks. Bitty is worth it. “And we’re a team, now. I’ve got your back.”

Bitty raises his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

Jack lets himself smile, and holds out a curled fist. “Yeah.”

Bitty stares down at his fist, almost as if in disbelief. It doesn’t take him long, though, to reach out and bump their knuckles together.

“Thanks, Jack,” he says.

It’s a small gesture, this moment, but it’s something, at least. It’s something.

The next morning, Jack knocks on Bitty’s door. There’s a few minutes of muffled noise before Bitty finally opens the door, fully dressed and rubbing at his eyes.

“You cannot be serious right now, Jack Zimmermann,” he grumbles. “Please don’t tell me what time it is, I’ll faint.”

“It’s 5:32 AM,” Jack says, ignoring the glare Bitty shoots his way. If looks could kill, he’d have been murdered weeks ago. “And people usually start using the training rooms around six or seven. Come on.”

“What are you even planning on doing?” Bitty wonders as he falls into step next to Jack. “What kind of heartless tortures are Canadians even capable of dreaming up?”

“You’ll see,” Jack says.

“That really doesn’t make me feel better? At all?”

They start off with basic stretches and warm-ups. Soon enough they’re both more or less awake, and Jack can tell Bitty really is nervous. He supposes it’s his fault for being so vague.

“All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” Jack says. “You see those speakers? You can go ahead and play your favorite music. Something with a slow beat, preferably.”

Bitty moves over to the speakers and plugs in his MP3 player. “I’ll have you know, Jack Zimmermann, that I am highly skeptical right now.”

“Wow, what are you playing? Sounds a bit weird.”

“I swear to god, Jack, if you don’t tell me what you’re up to I am going to eviscerate you for blaspheming Beyonce.”

Jack smiles. “Have you ever tried slow sparring?”

Bitty’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Not to music?”

“I figure it might be helpful for you to keep to a rhythm.” Jack gets into position, urging Bitty to do the same. “So you get the general gist of it, then. Moving and hitting and everything else slowly.”

“Uh huh?”

“But right now, I just want you to relax and focus on moving to the beat,” Jack says. “Get the rhythm right. Focus on where you’re going, and focus on where I’m going. That’s all there is to it.”

“What if I move too fast, though?” Bitty says doubtfully. “What if I catch you off guard?”

“I want you to trust me,” Jack says. “Trust that I know you well enough to see when you’re about to hit. Trust that I will block you when the time comes. I’m not going to let you hurt me, Bitty. Trust me on that.”

Easier said than done, he knows. But they have to at least try. Throwing Bitty into all this, making him face it head-on - it’s the only way he knows how to conquer fear.

And it’s what he himself has been doing this whole time, isn’t it?

Bitty takes in a deep breath, his chest rising and falling.

“Okay,” he says. There’s a determined set to his jaw now that almost certainly wasn’t there before. The sight is admittedly encouraging.

They start moving with the words.

Remember those walls I built? Well, baby, they’re tumbling down - “

Jack feints, follows up with an exaggeratedly slow punch. Bitty blocks it with ease, stepping back in time with the music. He moves now like he’s dancing, stepping forward, swaying out of the way, ducking under Jack’s arm, his movements relaxed and leisurely, his breathing calm. The tension that tightened up his shoulders and narrowed his gaze isn’t there anymore. A few more beats into the fight, and the expression on Bitty’s face -

It’s almost like he’s actually having fun .

“You doing okay, Bittle?” Jack says as he carefully doles out a kick.

Bitty steps backwards out of range, each foot landing on the beat of the song. “More or less,” he says.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” Jack says.

Bitty’s eyes widen.

I can feel your halo…

He steps forward, and on the last word, moves a well-paced arm toward Jack’s chest.

Jack can’t help it; he bursts into a grin, even as he side-steps the blow. Bitty pauses mid-step, mouth open.

“Wait,” Bitty says, “was that - “

“Keep on going,” Jack says. “The song isn’t over yet.”

Bitty doesn’t attack again, but the hit he almost landed seems to already be making a difference. By the time the song is over, Bitty’s moving with more confidence, even when restrained by the slow speed the music dictates.

“That was good,” Jack says. “That was really good.”

“Yeah, but - “ Bitty frowns. “Slow sparring isn’t nearly the same as actual fighting, is it? A kaiju isn’t going to move like that.”

“You’re right. It’s not the same.”

Jack reaches into his bag and tosses a water bottle at Bitty in one fluid motion. It’s a fast throw, but Bitty catches it easily. He looks down at the bottle in his hands as if startled by his own reflexes.

“You can read my moves better now, though,” Jack says. “Even better than before. Do you feel more prepared to deal with combat situations?”

“I - I don’t know.” Bitty scrunches his face up. “I could. Given time.”

“Yeah. So we’re going to work our way up to it.” Jack allows himself another smile, gentle as he can make it, and holds out a fist. “We can do this. You can do this.”

“Wow,” Bitty says, touching their knuckles together. “Two fist bumps in twenty-four hours? Am I dreaming?”

“Don’t get used to it,” Jack says, even as he feels his smile get bigger.

Though maybe this is something he could get used to, making Bitty smile. He wouldn’t mind getting used to something like that.

 

A few days into training, Jack finds himself in the lab. He means to go only for a moment and introduce himself to the scientists that, for all intents and purposes, hold his future in their hands. Shitty accompanies him with claims that he has nothing else to do, though Jack suspects he just doesn’t want to leave Jack alone for too long. It’s a nice sentiment, but honestly he’s not really expecting anything he can’t handle. What’s a couple of guys in white coats compared to what he’s been through?

As it turns out, it’s not just a couple of guys in white coats he finds in the lab.

The first thing he registers about the cavernous room is that the space is clearly divided into two. In fact, a line of bright blue tape cuts down the middle, as if it wasn’t blatantly obvious from the layout of the room itself. On one side towers a giant tank holding pulsating kaiju parts suspended in murky fluid, operation tables covered with a variety of surgical instruments Jack can’t even begin to recognize, and scrawled diagrams obscured with scribbled, cramped handwriting. On the other side, an entire wall is covered in computer screens, and there are at least five different whiteboards covered in neat, complex looking mathematical formulas. The researchers in question are nowhere to be seen.

“Yo, Dex, Nursey, I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” Shitty yells into the abyss.

Nothing moves for a few moments. Jack blinks in confusion.

“Uh, are we sure anyone’s actually here?” he says.

“Don’t worry, brah,” Shitty says unconcernedly, just as a bright red-haired head pops out from behind a particularly intimidating-looking stack of paper.

“Can it wait, Shitty?” he calls. “Sort of busy with some calculations over here – “

The door on the far side of the room bursts open, and someone holding an impressive-looking pile of kaiju guts – a heart, maybe? Or a stomach? Jack is, admittedly, no biology expert – in their gloved hands emerges, trailed by a slightly shorter figure in a white coat. The only white coat in the entire laboratory that Jack can spot, as it is.

“Come on, Poindexter, don’t be rude,” the guy holding the kaiju insides says with a vicious grin. He dumps the parts on a nearby table. “Surely your time isn’t so precious you can’t say hi to someone.”

“Ugh,” the red-haired guy says with feeling.

“I like saying hi,” the guy in the lab coat says, to no one in particular.

“Can you come over here? I want you to meet Jack Zimmermann,” Shitty says.

“Dude, did you just say Jack Zimmermann? Hell yeah,” the guy Jack is beginning to think of as kaiju-man says.

As the three men approach, Jack takes stock of them. Kaiju-man probably looks the furthest from a scientist out of the group, both of his ears pierced and wearing a tank that exposes tattoos stretching from his shoulders down to his wrists. Jack can’t make them all out, but many of them look like stylized drawings of actual kaijus. The red-haired guy is in a sweater vest and a bowtie, and carries himself rather stiffly. The third kid still wears braces . Jesus.

“So these are our science bros,” Shitty says. “Nerd with the sick tattoo jobs is Nursey. Nerd with the adorable sweater vest is Dex. And that’s their lab assistant, Chowder.”

“We’re not science bros, I’ll have you know.” Dex scowls. “More like science arch-nemeses, if I actually cared enough to call him that.”

“Dude, chill,” Nursey says, crossing his arms. “Not everything’s a competition.”

Dex reddens. “How am I supposed to chill when you leave your stupid monster entrails on my side of the room all the damn time , kaiju groupie?”

“Dude, like, is that supposed to be an insult? Because let me tell you a thing about insults – they’re actually supposed to be insulting .”

“Guys, please,” Chowder says, drawing his eyebrows together.

“Oh yeah, and this is Jack Zimmermann,” Shitty says, a bit unnecessarily. Jack figures they’re probably smart enough to figure out who he is, especially considering he said his name just a minute before.

“No shit,” Nursey says, sounding impressed. “I saw the footage of what you and Kent Parson did to Yamarashi. Category III? What a beaut.”

Something inside Jack’s chest twinges at the casual, almost offhand mention of Kent’s name, even though he knows it really shouldn’t. At this point, it should hardly matter at all, who says Kent’s name or how they say it.

“Trust you to find the kaiju more interesting than the kill,” Dex says with a roll of his eyes.

Nursey snorts in disbelief. “I mean, I’m sorry I do this for a living – “

“I’m just,” Shitty says. “Gonna leave you two to it, then.”

Jack almost follows Shitty before looking back and noticing the lab assistant again. He’s looking back and forth between the two arguing scientists, a little at a loss. That’s what draws him toward Chowder, in the end; he knows what it’s like to feel out of place.

“Are they always like this?” Jack says as he approaches Chowder.

Chowder jumps, relaxes when he sees who it is. “Pretty much,” he says, a bit mournfully.

“Doesn’t that get in the way of their work?”

Chowder brightens. “I don’t think so, actually! I mean, don’t tell them I told you, they’d probably kill me before they’d be willing to say anything about it but – I think the arguing actually helps keep them on task? They’ve been doing some really good work lately, like, Dex’s predictions of kaiju attacks have been pretty spot on and Nursey’s been learning some really good stuff from the kills, and, uh, it’s actually been kind of really cool to watch!”

Jack has never met anyone who actually sounds like they’re using exclamation points when they talk, but he figures there’s a first time for everything.

“You must like it here, then,” he says.

Chowder beams. “If you tune out all the yelling, the background noise can be kind of – like, just a sign things are normal, I guess?”

“Mm.” Jack gives Chowder another once-over. He looks young, that’s for sure. But there’s something to him that’s – not. Something a little like strength. “So what do you do around here?”

“I write up most of the reports! And I help set up Nursey’s experiments and I listen to Dex when he gets all math-y and stuff. Not really a big deal, I guess. But still fun.”

Jack nods. It sounds to him as if Chowder might actually be doing a lot of important things, the kind of things that people don’t take notice of but are still crucial to the operation of places like this laboratory. He wishes he knew how to tell Chowder that.

Before he can figure out a way, though, there’s a loud crash somewhere behind them.

“I told you not to touch that, now look what you’ve done!” Dex yells.

“I didn’t do jack shit – “

“And also I try to keep them from murdering each other,” Chowder says with a resigned sigh, before turning away. “Guys, come on, take a couple deep breaths – “

There is something rather charming to the place, Jack thinks, despite the bickering. It’s good to know that somewhere in this base, people are getting work done. Even if he himself isn’t accomplishing anything worthwhile.

He leaves, then, but he returns the next day, some of the endless paperwork he had almost forgotten about in his hand. Dex and Nursey's bickering and Chowder's panicked pleas fade in his mind, a quiet backdrop to his work. It's easier to focus on menial paperwork like this. And when he hits a groove, he really gets into it, ignoring the world around him, utterly concentrated on the work before him. It’s good. It’s productive.

It also leaves him open to surprises.

Which is why, when he looks up for the first time in a while, he is so startled to see Bitty sitting next to him that he jumps a little in his seat.

Bitty raises his eyebrows. “Am I really that scary, Mr. Zimmermann?”

“No, I just - “ Jack shakes his head. “Sorry. Didn’t exactly expect to see you. What are you doing here?”

“I drop in sometimes to check in on Chowder. He used to bring me his reports, back when I was a full-time assistant for Lardo? Sweet kid.”

“Isn’t he around your age?” Jack says, corner of his mouth upturned.

Bitty throws a pen at him. “And what are you up to in here, Jack?”

“Just needed a quiet place to do my paperwork,” Jack says. “Have to feel productive somehow.”

Bitty raises his eyebrows again, presumably at the muffled shouting in the background. “Quiet,” he says dubiously.

“Well, yeah, I guess they bicker a lot, but it’s - I don’t know. It’s consistent. Kind of comforting, in a way.”

“You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘comforting’.” Bitty leans forward on his elbows. “But I guess I can understand that. Hard to come by constants during a war.”

That just goes without saying. Jack glances down at the forms in front of him, regular black type and his own cramped handwriting scrawled on the lines. Bureaucracy counts as a constant, he supposes.

Bitty follows his gaze and squints at the paperwork. “Oh, that does not look fun.”

Jack grimaces. “You’re telling me.”

“Fighting kaijus can’t always be glamorous,” Bitty says.

It hardly ever was, even when Jack was in his prime. The pressure was too much for him to really think about anything else. He didn’t enjoy the fame, couldn’t - not the photoshoots, or the interviews, or god, the press conferences. He dragged his feet through them, got through them by the skin of his teeth just by sheer experience from a life shadowed by media scrutiny before the war. No, he was never the one who shone in the spotlight, who actually liked being there. Not really.

“Hey,” Bitty says softly, knocking his knees against Jack’s. “You okay?”

It’s then he realizes his hand is squeezed into a tight fist. He relaxes his fingers, lets them lie flat on the table. It’s easier than he expected it to be.

Jack knocks his knees back against the side of Bitty’s leg. It makes him feel like a kid again, but he doesn’t mind that. He doesn’t mind not feeling like the grown up he’s supposed to be, just for once.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m good.”

“Well. I’m glad.” Bitty smiles briefly, and though it only lasts for a short while it still makes Jack feel oddly gratified. “Anyway, I was going to say hi to Chowder, but looks like he’s kinda busy.” ‘Busy’ being a bit of an understatement, Jack thinks, as he watches Chowder trail behind Nursey and Dex, completely embroiled in their conflict and feebly attempting to get them to calm down. “Wow, yikes. I’ll be by later, then, I guess. Are you gonna come back too? Would be nice to have the company.”

In retrospect, it should probably be strange that he doesn’t really think about it before he answers. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t think at all before he says, “Yeah, of course.” It’s probably a good thing. It might be a bad thing. It should be strange. It’s not.

After that, he finds himself accompanied to the lab by Bitty more often than he’s not. Sometimes they have paperwork, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Bitty brings baked goods for Chowder and the other two. Sometimes it’s actually calm enough in the lab to hold civil conversations with everyone in there. Jack can see how much Bitty enjoys talking to Chowder, and it’s kind of reassuring that Bitty has a friend around his age at this base. He knows how hard it is to come by friends in a place like this.

Either way, the lab is as good a place as any to kill some free time. There’s always some sort of commotion going on there, and if it’s not always calm it’s at least always interesting.

And if Jack’s not spending his free time in the lab, he’s training, of course. There’s the physical exercise, getting his muscles to remember what fighting is like and helping Bitty work through his mental block in the early mornings, but there’s the mental drills, too, the exercises meant to help strengthen the mind for the myriad challenges of piloting a Jaeger. There’s a lot of meditation with Bitty, a lot of trust building and exercises meant to help you read your partner better.

This, at least, seems like territory Bitty is comfortable with. “We did a lot of this back in the Academy,” he says during a break between exercises. Though they aren’t physically taxing, they can take a lot of energy regardless. “The teachers wanted us to build trust with lots of different kinds of people.” He pauses. “I was actually pretty good at it.” As if he’s almost surprised to admit it.

Jack isn’t surprised to hear it. If Bitty can be drift compatible with a traumatized veteran who gave him nothing but coldness when he first arrived, he could probably be drift compatible with anyone.

“But I think - “ Bitty pauses to gulp down water. “I think there’ll be people you’re gonna be more compatible with compared to others, no matter what. That’s just how it is.”

“Yeah?” Jack grins. “So what does that make us? You’ve got problems with our compatibility, Bittle?”

It’s meant to be a joke, acknowledging his own failings in a light-hearted way, but Bitty doesn’t seem to take it that way. He turns his gaze to the ceiling, contemplative.

“No,” he says. “I don’t. I’m glad we’re partners, Jack. I’m not sure I’d do much better with someone else.”

That can’t be an easy thing for someone to say, especially not for Bitty. Jack looks down at the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

He can feel Bitty glancing at him. “What for?”

“The way I was, when I first got here. We’ve talked about it a bit, but… I’m not sure I ever properly apologized for the way I behaved toward you. It was unwarranted.”

“Jack, you don’t - “ Bitty sighs. “I’ve forgiven you, of course. There was a lot going on…”

“Still.” Jack looks up, daring to meet Bitty in the eyes. To Bitty’s credit, he does not look away. “It needed to be said.”

They hold each other’s gazes for a moment. Jack hopes Bitty can see how serious he is about this, how much he wants them to work well in the Providence when their time comes. How much he wants to move on from his past mistakes.

“I appreciate that, Jack,” Bitty says softly. “Thank you.”

Jack lets himself smile at that, lets himself feel like smiling. It’s been a while since he did that.

“I think we’re ready to jump back into this,” he says, pushing himself back up into a standing position. “Two minutes is enough for a break.”

Bitty groans. “Never mind, I take it all back, you’re the worst partner ever.” But he follows his lead, and they go back into the training room together, and it’s only been a short while since Jack first arrived in Los Angeles, but together has already begun to feel as much of an inevitability as anything can be.

It does feel good to get back into the swing of things, despite Jack’s doubts. Somewhere in the midst of all of it, Jack realizes that he missed this back at home. All of this, energy tingling through his limbs like it hasn’t in years and the feeling of working with another person sharpening his thoughts and his senses, makes him feel alive again. Alive, and actually worth something. If he believed in destiny anymore, he would think this is what he was made to do.

They’re joined frequently by the other teams to strengthen inter-Jaeger teamwork skills. There’s March and April, young and still a bit inexperienced but fierce and competent. There’s Tango and Whiskey, fresh-faced and eager for a battle they haven’t fought yet. And of course there’s Ransom and Holster, always uncannily in sync. Jack finds a certain thrill in seeing the other Jaeger teams spar and train with each other. Observing them allows him to appreciate what he can’t about his own performance – watching two people who know each other almost as well as themselves move in ways that would take aback even the most hardened of spectators.

Sometimes he’ll spar with the others, too, and though it’s not the same as with Bitty the others are actually pretty exhilarating to fight. None of them are experienced enough to definitively beat him yet, but sometimes they pull new tricks he doesn’t see coming, and he appreciates how creative the new pilots can be.

Holster is probably the one who can hold his own the most against Jack, just through sheer strength and experience. He certainly has the advantage of height, and his skills are more recently honed than Jack’s. Out of all the other pilots, he probably gets in the most touches.

Not that this stops Holster from complaining. “Holy hell, dude,” he says while flat on his back, during an unscheduled practice. It’s just them and Ransom using the room right now, the rest of the trainees having called it quits a while back for food, and Ransom’s out to bring back some equipment for a new training exercise. “You cannot be human.”

Jack shrugs, neglecting to point out that Holster put up enough of a fight for Jack to actually be too out of breath for speech right now.

“All right, help me up,” Holster says, swinging himself into a sitting position so Jack can reach out and take his offered hand. They go over to the side of the room and sit against the wall for a much needed break.

“You’re in good shape, though,” Jack says, after he’s calmed down enough for words. “I feel better about this whole thing knowing you and Ransom are looking so good.”

“Yeah, well,” Holster says dismissively, as if it’s just every-day business for a pair of pilots to be in such stellar physical and mental condition. “You and Bitty, too.”

Jack shrugs, trying for the same nonchalance. “I wouldn’t know about that.”

“Nah, man.” Holster shakes his head. “You feeling ready to get back into the field?”

Jack hesitates. The best answer, obviously, would be yes. Anyone would expect him, the most experienced pilot in this base save for Lardo herself, to say yes.

“I don’t know about that, either,” he says eventually. The truth is a good thing to tell, but it still hurts to get out sometimes.

Holster nods, thankfully taking his answer in stride. “Can’t imagine it’s easy to get back into the field after so long,” he says.

“No. Especially – “ His voice falters, irritatingly. He takes in a deep breath, tries again. “Especially with a new co-pilot.”

Now that he’s said it, though, he wishes he could take it back. There’s a thousand ways to interpret that statement – Jack wanting to do this on his own, or the issue being the newness of the co-pilot themselves, or even Bitty not being good enough for him - none of which are the right way.

“Yeah, well, you piloted with Kent Parson for years, didn’t you? That’s not surprising to hear.”

Jack can’t decide if it’s better or worse that Holster actually got what he meant.

Holster glances at Jack and laughs, probably at something in his expression. “You guys broke fucking records in the Monochrome Providence, dude. The whole world knew your names at one point.”

Well. That isn’t exactly news to Jack.

Still, his brain fills in the blanks for him, unhelpfully. Not anymore .

He can’t decide if that’s better or worse, either. That the world doesn’t know who they are anymore.

“I’m just... worried, I guess,” Jack says.

“I get it.” Holster hums softly to himself. “Ransom isn’t my first co-pilot, you know.”

That’s enough of a shock to give Jack some pause. “Really?”

“Yeah, I mean, if you do the math – I’m a couple years older than him, we both got recruited right out of high school… Figures that I’ve had others, right?”

Jack nods. It makes sense, though for some reason they work so well together he just assumed they’d been together since the beginning. That’s how it was for him, long ago. But of course no Jaeger team has the same story.

“It’s not as scary as it might seem, switching co-pilots,” Holster says unconcernedly, as if he’s talking about the weather and not something that has kept Jack awake for nights on end. “Your partnership now doesn’t make your old partnerships mean anything less. And vice versa.”

“Right,” Jack says. He’s not sure if he believes him, but he can appreciate the sentiment, at least.

“I care about Ransom, you know?” Holster says, and suddenly his eyes are serious, almost uncharacteristically so. “Like, a lot. I’d do anything for him. And I mean anything .”

Before Jack can even process what it means that Holster would say something like that, Ransom comes back into the room, arms full of training mats. “Bro,” he says, and if Jack didn’t know any better, he might think Ransom’s voice shook a little on the syllable, “don’t say that.”

Holster blinks up at Ransom.

“Like I’d ever let you do anything stupid,” Ransom says firmly.

Holster nods, almost imperceptibly, and Jack has the vague sense he’s missing out on a whole conversation here.

“Anyway,” Holster says to Jack as he stands up, “you and Bitty will be fine. We’ve seen the way you guys work. You’d be, like, the epitome of drift compatible if Ransom and I weren’t there already.”

Ransom and Holster share a fist bump, then – “Damn fucking right” – and they’re back to training. It’s a little surreal to Jack how quickly they move from topic to topic, but he supposes it’s to be expected for two people who could be mistaken for mind readers.

 

Most of his time, really, is spent training. He doesn’t know if he could really put it into anything else at this point. It feels like there’s so much to do and so little time to do it in. Who knows when the next kaiju attack will come? Who knows if Jack and Bitty will be ready for it when it does?

He practices early in the morning, with Bitty. He practices late in the evening, by himself. Now that he’s settled into this routine, he’s not really sure he trusts himself to do much of anything else.

One evening he’s doing what he’s done for the last however many evenings there’ve been, running through drills he’s been through countless times before. Eventually he resorts to hitting the punching bag, partly because he wants to do something mindless for a change, partly because it’s just kind of relaxing. There’s something soothing about the dull ache in his knuckles he gets from hitting something over and over. Something familiar. He hits, and he hits, and when he’s finally too exhausted to hit anymore, he turns, and Lardo is leaning in the doorway.

“Five years, and you’re still such a goddamn overachiever,” she says with a sideways smile. “Some things never change.”

Jack grabs his towel and wipes his face brusquely with it. “Coming from you?”

“Fair.” She pushes herself off the door frame. “You’ve got to cut yourself some slack sometimes, Jack. Wanna have a drink?”

“A drink,” Jack says.

“Yeah, I’ve got orange juice,” Lardo says, grinning.

Jack snorts. “I could go for some orange juice.”

“Come on, then.”

They end up in her office, sitting on the ledge that overlooks the ocean. This is almost definitely not the safest thing they could be doing, their legs dangling dangerously over the side, but they’ve shared this space with each other plenty enough times in the past that they just don’t really care anymore. Lardo passes Jack a glass bottle of orange juice, true to her word, and pops open a beer for herself.

“Moon’s almost full tonight,” Jack observes.

“It’s pretty,” Lardo says. “I’d paint it, in another life.”

In a life that didn’t involve kaijus, and wars, and giant fighting machines. In a life they could all do normal things and be normal people, or at least as normal as anyone could be. Would Jack know Lardo, in that life? He likes to think he might.

“How are you doing, Lardo?” Jack says.

Lardo laughs, a short, humorless thing. “Loaded question, dude.”

Jack leans back on his hands.

“I’m glad to have you back,” Lardo says. “It was getting too quiet.”

“Took you five years to realize that?”

“Of course not, asshole.” She takes a swig of her beer and sighs. “Missed you from the get-go. It was hard, when you left. Took time to get used to. Not sure I ever did.”

There’s that brutal honesty he knows so well. “You still had Shitty, didn’t you?”

“Kind of. It’s complicated.” She rubs at her eyes, and it’s the first real sign she’s shown tonight that she’s tired, more tired than she would want to let on. Of course she is, though. How could she not be, with the burden she has to bear?

“How complicated?” Jack tries. It’s hard to know, sometimes, what’s a safe question around Lardo and what’s not, but he figures she’d at least tell him the difference if it mattered that much.

She doesn’t tell him to fuck off, as he half-expects her to. Instead she leans her head toward the moon and hums to herself, softly. “How much do you know?”

“A bit.” Even from Canada, even that far away, he heard the rumors. He saw the headlines. And he’s seen them together rarely since he first arrived at the base. If that’s something he noticed enough to remember, it must be obvious. Still, he hasn’t made too much effort to pry. Their business is their own, and theirs to tell.

Lardo nods. “You know that I came out of retirement, after you left. Got back into the Bronze Paladin after years of nothing.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Jack says carefully.

“You know my co-pilot died that day,” Lardo says. “The one that had never been in battle before.” To her credit, her voice does not shake, not even once.

“Yeah,” Jack says. “I knew that too.”

“Did you know I asked Shitty to come out of retirement with me?” Here, now, a wobble on the last syllable, the smallest of cracks. Still there, nonetheless.

He didn’t know.

“I think he blames himself.” Lardo’s voice is small, now, so small, and Jack finds himself a little at a loss for what to do. None of his friends should ever sound like that. But what can he do, really? What can he do that wouldn’t cause more damage than it was worth?

“What for?” he says.

“For not being there. When it all happened, I mean. Somehow he thinks it’s his fault I had to take the neural load on my own. But what could he have done? The kaiju moved so fast, it would have overwhelmed even the best team. Probably would have overwhelmed even y - “

She takes in a sharp exhale. Jack keeps his eyes on the moon, averting his gaze. The only kindness he’s really capable of offering right now.

“But how could I fault him for turning me down?” she says, hugging herself with her arms. “He thought he could do more good in the LOCCENT. He was unused to combat after so many years, we both were. My plan - it was a shitty one from the start. Stupid. Desperate. We were so desperate, back then, for options, for pilots, for anything. And all he wanted - all he wants - was to protect me. But - god, Jack, he was such an asshole about it afterward. So goddamn pitying . He, of all people, should know I wouldn’t want his pity.”

Desperate for options. And whose fault would that be? Who left behind the hole that Lardo felt obligated to fill?

Jack swallows hard. “I’m s - “

“God, Jack, don’t,” Lardo says miserably. “Just - don’t . I don’t want to hear it.”

She wipes at her eyes furiously with the sleeve of her shirt. Takes in a hard, fast breath, and another. And Jack looks down at the glass bottle in his hands, and thinks about blame, and guilt, and ownership, and how after all these years he still can’t really tell the difference.

This is not about him. This was never about him. Of course it isn’t.

Jack clears his aching throat. “So what happened after that?”

“I dunno. It was weird.” Lardo downs another gulp of beer, a hard swallow. “We never really talked about it, I guess. And he’s still my best friend, Jack. Of course he is. But we never talked about it. Not to anyone. Not to each other.”

“Do you want to?” Jack says quietly.

“Fuck, I don’t know. Maybe? I should. It’s been years.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not too late,” Jack says. They’re both still alive, still in the same place, still caring about each other. They still have the opportunity to say the words they need or want to. Not like him.

“Oh, shit,” Lardo says. “Shit, Jack, I didn’t - “

Jack closes his eyes. “He deserves it. You both do.”

For a long, drawn out moment, there’s nothing but the sound of the ocean waves lapping gently against the side of the building. It’s a nice sound, he thinks. One of the things he missed about this base, the constant song of the ocean in the distance.

Then he feels short, strong arms wrapping around him, and Lardo’s face burying into his shoulder.

“You deserve it too,” she says fiercely. “You deserve it too.”

And how much of his life has he spent pushing those words away, trying to convince himself they were words that didn’t belong to him, that never would? How much of his life has he tried his hardest to believe otherwise?

But there’s a conviction to Lardo’s words now that makes it hard to do the same, now. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s about time he stop, or at least try to. Maybe trying counts, too.

“So I guess I know why you dyed your hair now,” Jack says.

Lardo hiccups a laugh, and buries her face deeper into Jack’s shirt.

“Missed you, nerd,” she mumbles. “Didn’t tell you that enough, I don’t think.”

Jack wraps an arm around Lardo’s shoulders. “You told me enough.”

And he’s telling the truth. It’s enough. He’s finally starting to believe in that.

 

It’s on a brief, one day holiday from training that Jack dares to head up to the Shatterdome on his own.

This is the best day for it, he decides, because if it turns out the experience is detrimental more than anything he doesn’t actually have to be around anyone until tomorrow. He lets Lardo know right after lunch, walks up on his own. She doesn’t offer to go with him. He wouldn’t say yes even if she did.

He bypasses the main entrance, too many technicians and other such members of the base milling around inside. Rather, he walks up a flight of steps, takes a side door, and hopes the outside route to the balcony is still open.

It is; Jack doesn’t know whether or not to rejoice.

As he draws nearer, Jack hears voices and almost hangs back. He steps forward instead, rounds the corner, and--

His heart stutters, feels like it wishes to collapse under the weight of memories.

Kent? he almost says, the name desperate and raw on the back of his tongue, stinging his throat with its intensity.

"Oh," says Bitty, starting. He's just closed his laptop, goodbyes still on his tongue. Jack shuts his eyes for a moment, lets himself breathe. It's still difficult to remember who is alive and who is dead, in the split second between sight and interpretation. That doesn’t mean he can use the memory as an excuse not to know Eric Bittle.

"Sorry," Jack says. "I thought you were-- I used to come here, before."

“Oh,” Bitty repeats. “Oh— oh . I’m sorry, I’ll just get out of your way, then.” He starts to pack up, or maybe is about to, but the thing about the drift is that it’s difficult to tell which is which after a time.

“It’s fine,” Jack assures him, even though those aren’t the right words, not really. “I don’t own it.”

Bitty pauses. “Are you sure?”

He nods. “Do you mind if I join you?”

Pushing his computer and bag to the side, Bitty pats the ground. “Not at all. Are you sure you’re okay if I stay?”

Jack sits. “It could be a tradition, eh? Co-pilots sitting here and watching Jaeger maintenance. Ransom and Holster probably do it in another viewing bay.”

Bitty hums. “It is gorgeous.”

Looking up at the Providence, Jack can’t help but agree. He can’t count the number of hours he’s spent here, sitting in quiet comfort with someone who knew him more than anyone in the world, the Jaeger repairs lighting their faces softly. It had felt ethereal; still does, like he’s sitting on a bridge between realities, like nothing matters but what lies ahead.

“I was telling my parents about it,” the blond continues, when Jack is silent. “What it feels like to be in a Jaeger. I couldn’t find the words.”

“Yeah,” Jack agrees. “There aren’t words to describe the experience. It’s just—feelings, really. Emotions. Impressions.”

“Not even coherent thoughts.”

They fall into silence, but it’s not one either feel the need to fill with words. They watch the Jaeger, the repair crews hurrying around it, and something like peace fills Jack’s chest, settles.

“So,” Bitty says at last. “You used to skate?”

“You did, too.”

Bitty grins. “God, I miss it. That was a different type of skating though.”

“Hockey is probably a bit different, yeah. Just a little.”

“Don’t you sass me, Mr Zimmermann.”

Jack laughs, and the sound doesn’t surprise him as it did just a few weeks ago. He thinks, maybe, that means he’s getting better. “Never.”

“Sure.” Bitty scoffs, leans back on his hands. “Ice hockey, though. Were you any good?”

He shrugs. “Yeah, I guess. I’d played ever since I was a little kid, put everything I had into it. People said I was good.”

They had said more than that, but that’s old news, buried beneath news reports on incredible compatibility and awe-inspiring take downs and loss. It’s always the loss, these days.

“I was like that with figure skating,” Bitty says. “Spent every spare moment at the rink. Of course, it wasn’t always to do with the ice, but there wasn’t anything to do but train, anyway. I won a few competitions.”

“It was the ice, for me,” Jack confesses. He can feel Bitty’s eyes on him, but it’s not uncomfortable. “I always felt like me, when I was out there.”

He looks at Bitty, then; the blonde looks away, cheeks dusted red in the glow. He doesn’t ask Jack to explain himself; Jack doesn’t know if that’s because of their shared mindspace or another reason entirely, but he’s grateful. He’s not entirely certain he could explain, if pressed.

“So, why did you stop?” Bitty asks instead, still not meeting his eyes.

That is a question. “Why did you?” he asks, instead of answering.

Bitty pauses, then laughs, then groans. He rubs his face. “Um,” he says. “That’s sort of a difficult question?”

“Sorry,” Jack says. “You don’t have to answer it if you don’t—”

“No, it’s fine,” Bitty insists. “I asked you first.” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “So, like, I grew up in the South, right? Small town, conservative values, all that. I was a five and a half foot, gay figure skater. And the figure skating—my parents always supported me, you know, but I could tell it wore on them. That people didn’t like it, that they were saying things about me—about them. We had to move midway through high school, it got so bad at one point. And then I came out to them, and they were supportive about that, too, but. I don’t know, I was never the son to play football with Coach—with my dad—and my Mama always worried about me. So then, when I was in college, there were all these advertisements about recruitment, and I had a class on the history of Jaegers, and I thought, ‘ This is what I could do. I could do something that mattered. I could make them proud .’” He shrugs. “So, I did. And then I met Lardo, and she’s amazing and taught me most of what I know outside the academy syllabus, and then she took me on when I graduated. So, yeah. I quit figure skating because I thought fighting giant monsters from the depths of the ocean or whatever dimension they come from would make my parents proud.”

Jack nods slowly, processes silently. At last, after what feels like far too long for a reply to wait, he says, “I understand that, I think. Not wanting to disappoint your parents. Sexuality stuff. But I think they’d be proud of you.”

Bitty looks up, then, blinking. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He smiles. “Thanks. I mean, I know I’m not really cut out for it, but I’ve-- I think I’m getting better.”

“You are.”

Bitty’s grin widens for a moment, then fades. “I know my problems with it are a little ridiculous. I mean, what sort of pilot can’t even hit?” He sighs, and Jack doesn’t quite know what to say.

“You are improving,” he tries. “I know not everything has a rational reason, and sometimes they seem ridiculous, but you’re doing all you can to get past it. That’s bravery, eh?” Bitty is still frowning slightly, so he tries again. For some reason, a frown seems unnatural on his face, ill-fitting. There is a part of Jack that wants to keep Bitty smiling for the rest of their lives, however long that might be in their profession. “It might help to talk about it?”

Bitty shrugs, then nods. “It’s just--the overview is that I had a hard time with other kids, when I was younger. They never liked me...we had some issues in my younger years, petty playground stuff, but it wasn’t… it didn’t get bad until high school.” He exhales shakily. “It got violent, sometimes. Coach always told me to hit back, but...I didn’t want to be like them.”

That is, perhaps, the most admirable and infuriating sentence Jack has ever heard. To refuse self-defense for fear of his own capacity for cruelty?

“We’re fighting literal monsters,” Jack reminds him. “Not other humans. You’re nothing like them.”

Bitty looks up, then. “I know,” he says, and his smile trembles but at least it is present. “Anyway, now that I’ve unloaded all that on you, feel free to share your own dark past. No pressure, though.”

Jack hesitates for a moment, then, “My story is… heavy. Are you sure you want to hear it?”

Bitty’s smile softens. “If you want to tell it?”

Jack isn’t sure that want is the right word, but if there is anyone he is going to tell, he thinks it should be Eric Bittle.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Uh. Like I said, I was really good at hockey, and I put a lot into it. There was a lot of expectation on me to do well—better than well. My father played hockey before he enlisted. Have you ever heard of Bad Bob?”

Bitty shakes his head. “I’m pretty clueless about hockey, actually.”

“He was amazing, really famous. They wanted me to be like him. They wanted me to be this perfect poster boy for ice hockey, normality in the time of giant monsters and robots battling it out in the seas like life-sized comic book characters. I was trying to fit into everything they wanted me to be. The expectation piled up, further and further, and—I couldn’t breathe under it.” He looks down at his hands. “My anxiety grew worse and worse as time went on. Kent, my best friend—he saw what was happening. We played together, had for a while. And he suggested we do something different, something that didn’t have the same pressure. So, we joined the Jaeger program. He’d wanted to for a long time...” He bites his lip, trying to gather his thoughts. It’s the first time he’s mentioned Kent to Bitty since that first drift.

“Do you want a moment?” Bitty asks.

Jack nods, and breathes, and tries to gather the second act of his story into coherent sentences. Bitty waits, silent. “The Jaeger academy was better, at first. It was new and strange and different to anything I’d ever done, but Kent was there with me, so—it was good. And then we were scoring at the top of the class, and when we sparred it was obvious we were incredibly drift compatible, and they moved us up a few classes. They told us they expected big things of us, and – we were seventeen, at that point, and suddenly they were piling all this stuff that twenty-year-olds are supposed to learn on us. We graduated the year we both turned eighteen. They put us in the Providence, under Shitty and Lardo in the Bronze Paladin, and. We became famous, I suppose.” This, now, is the hardest part, the part that had taken his therapist a year to get into, the part that still lumps in his throat and kicks at his heart and drops to his stomach like his torso is no more than a pinball machine.

“You don’t have to tell,” Bitty says. “If you don’t want to.”

Jack shakes his head. “It’s—just difficult. You should know, if you’re going to pilot with me.” He curls his hands into fists, uncurls them. “So, Shitty and Lardo retired about six months after Kent and I became full time pilots.”

“Right.”

“Kent and I were put on the first line. We were good, more than capable of anything we were expected to do. But—there were people who didn’t think so. They wrote articles about our sudden drop from hockey, about breaking under pressure, and I just—couldn’t. One day, a while after they retired, we were called out to a Category III.” Jack remembers that day with the hazy semi-clarity of regret. “I wasn’t doing well, anxiety-wise, and Kent didn’t know how to handle it.” Zimms , he’d said, the panic flowing through their shared headspace dangerously. Zimms, come on, we’ve got a job to do .

“I brushed him off, pretended I was fine, even though we were drifting. He knew I was lying. And then, when they dropped us in the water, I—I started having a panic attack, and Kent couldn’t help me when we were both in the drift. The kaiju appeared, and we were incapacitated. I was incapacitated.” He pauses, tries to breathe, fails the first time. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. Repeat. It helps, if marginally. “The kaiju came at us again and again, and we tried to fight, but the panic just took over everything. We were taking so much damage from every side, and they were yelling at us through the comms, and I couldn’t do anything, which just made it worse, and the kaiju tore into us, and—” He swallows, counts his breaths, curls his fists tightly together. “Next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital and I couldn’t feel him.” He swallows again, eyes burning. “He’d died while I was unconscious, after two days in a coma.”

“Oh, Jack…” Bitty says, and trails off into silence.

“I went back to my parents, in Canada. You know ghost drifting? It was like parts of him—parts of my memory of him—were stuck in my mind, memories that didn’t belong to me, touches and whispers that weren’t there. They took eleven months to fade. And now, I’m back.”

Jack blinks, eyes still hot. His throat aches, and he breathes again, pattern familiar. His fists uncurl.

“Jack,” Bitty says again. “I’m so—” He cuts himself off. “Can I hug you?”

Jack thinks, it was hard enough to let you in this far . He thinks, I don’t know how much of myself I will have left if I let you see further. He says, “I’m sorry—I can’t—” His hands are shaking, and it feels like his chest is shaking, too. He breathes. He breathes.

“It’s okay,” Bitty says. “I’ll just sit here, okay?”

Jack nods. He breathes. He breathes.

He breathes, and Bitty sits next to him in silence, and they watch the technicians run about their business, faces awash in the soft glow of the Jaeger.

He breathes, and knows that he is healing.

Chapter Text

v.

Jack and Bitty watch the other teams go out again, and again, and again, come back with scratches and tears and triumphant smiles. Whiskey and Tango stay with them, not yet fully trained, not yet trusted with the fate of the world in their hands.

Six weeks in, Jack visits Lardo in her office, as he has a couple of times every week since he arrived, but this time is different. This time, Lardo sighs a few minutes in, frowns.

“Is anything wrong?” he asks. There are no shadows under her eyes, but she’s been wearing concealer since before he ever met her, and he’s learnt other tells.

“I’m just—” Lardo starts, then pauses, stutters to a stop. “Honest assessment, how prepared do you think you and Bitty are?”

Jack considers the question, gauges his own capability and Bitty’s, the way they intersect, tamps down the shiver of hope. “If you needed us, we could be out there at the next attack. I know I said Ransom and Holster are best as defence, but they’re more recently experienced, as are March and April, so we’d have to take the back line for now.”

Lardo sighs again. He’s well-versed in her sighs, knows how to read them without too much difficulty.

“I’m reviewing the damage for our active Jaegers,” she says. “Pilots and machines. We’ve had three attacks in the last week—two of them were fucking Category Fours. Fuck . We can’t sustain this with two active teams.”

“You want the Providence out there.”

She looks up. “I want to put the Providence out there. But, Jack, I can put out Whiskey and Tango if I need to. They’ve been training for three months at this point; they could handle it.”

There’s a reason Lardo would rather put out the Providence, though; Whiskey and Tango are green and inexperienced, unused to real combat situations. Jack has been out there, has fought and bled and lost, and Bitty would be inside his head. “Providence is the better choice,” he says. “Send the rookies out in another couple of weeks, backup in a smaller attack.”

“I know Providence is the better choice,” Lardo says. “I’m asking if you’re ready, Jack.”

He wants to say yes, to tell her that he’s been ready since the moment he stepped into the base, but that’s not accurate. “I can be,” he answers, instead, “if you need me to be.”

Lardo rubs her forehead. “I hate that I’m asking you to do this. Fuck, I’m sending a new pilot out with a traumatised vet. Shit.”

Jack reaches over the desk, nudges her hand with his own. “We’ll be okay,” he assures her, assures himself. “We’ll be safe.”

“You won’t chase the R.A.B.I.T.?” Her own ghosts haunt the downturn of her mouth, the flicker of fear in her eyes.

The R.A.B.I.T.-- Jack hasn’t allowed himself to even think of the possibility, not with all that it would hold for him. To chase his thoughts down the depths of his own mind, to compromise the drift like that, to compromise Bitty like that-- he won’t let himself. “I won’t,” he promises, because he’s piloted before, and he knows what paths to avoid. He’s had practice.

Lardo nods. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, I’ll have the Providence prepped for mission. I can call Bitty in to let him know.”

Jack nods, ruffles her hair as he stands. Lardo glares up at him, hair mussed and face stony.

“I am a decorated veteran and the marshall of this goddamned base,” she says. “Do that again, I dare you.”

Smiling, Jack backs out of her office. “Bye, Lardo.”

“Fuck off, you big Canadian oaf.”

As it turns out, they do not have to wait for long for another Jaeger to appear. Two days later, midway through training, the alarms blare, a sharp automated voice – Crimson Specter and Monochrome Providence to the Shatterdome. Category III. Crimson Specter and Monochrome Providence to the Shatterdome. Category III. Crimson Specter and Monochrome Providence—

“Holy hell, bros, you joining us this mission?” Holster says, helping Ransom up from where he’d been stretching on the floor. “I thought it’d be a few more weeks, at least.”

Bitty grins, bright, like sunshine and hot chocolate and fresh pies and everything that could ever personify warmth. “If we’re ready, we’re ready,” he says.

March pushes her hair out of her face, then out of April’s, as if one is simply an extension of the other. “Keep your mind focused,” she reminds them. “There are wonderful and dangerous things out there, and it’s all too easy to become distracted. Remember that you’re there to save the world, not stare at the stars—”

“—however gorgeous the stars may be,” April continues. “Make us proud and all that.”

Crimson Specter and Monochrome Providence to the Shatterdome. Category III.

“Oh shit,” Ransom says. “Better run, yeah?” He and Holster grin at each other, wide, and burst into a sprint as they race out the door and out of sight.

“Come on, Bittle,” Jack prompts, and they follow.

The Shatterdome, when they arrive, is a familiar bustling chaos. Most of the technicians are running, too absorbed in their own tasks to do more than wave vaguely at the Conn-Pods.

“Well,” Bitty says. “I guess we just have to suit up?”

There are people there, at least, whose jobs are to get pilots into their suits without any unfortunate incidents to do with improperly aligned gear. They slip on the smooth body armour, piece by piece, but wait for the helmets.

There’s a Category III kaiju raging somewhere outside, slowly but surely making its way toward shore. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he asks Bitty.

Bitty nods. They step into the Conn-Pods, into what Jack knows will be the next stage of their lives. He can hear Shitty working with Ransom and Holster over the comms as he secures himself into the Jaeger.

“Alright,” Shitty says. “The Crimson Specter is fully synced. Now preparing Monochrome Providence.”

Bitty glances at Jack, and his eyes are dancing under the helmet. “Ready?”

“I’ve got your back.”

“Like I’ve got yours,” Bitty replies.

The automated voice says, “Initiating neural handshake.”

Jack closes his eyes over the sound of Shitty’s words, and waits for the drift to hit. He doesn’t have to wait long.

He is floating in the water, staring at the sky, pressing his fingertips into the ice at his feet, and the sun reflects off the clouds off the snow and his chest is tight with victory with anxiety with laughter with tears, and his mother calls for him to come inside, and the stands scream at him and the judges frown at paper and the endurance training is always the worst, weights attached to his ankles, and he flies and he slams into the boards and Kent says, “This isn’t working for you,” and a classmate visits her grandmother on the coast and never comes back, and he swallows back his tears and says his goodbyes and he doesn’t get to say goodbye at all, and his parents sit by his side as he tells them, as he tells them, as they hold him, and Lardo raises her eyebrow appraisingly and says, “Would you like a job?” and he accepts and he meets her on a cloudy day, fresh from the academy and raw with nerves but not alone, and he offers a hug and he turns it down and that’s the way it is, that’s just the way it is, and his father tells him he’s proud and that is everything and not enough and he’s running, always running, and the ice stretches out before him like eternity—

Jack opens his eyes.

“Left hemisphere calibrated. Right hemisphere calibrated. Ready to activate the Jaeger.”

“Stable handshake, okay,” Shitty announces. “You guys ready to fuck shit up?”

“Yeah,” Bitty replies for him, for the both of them. “We’re ready.”

Shitty cheers over the comm. “All right, this motherfucker is about five miles off the coast. Crimson, take point. Providence, you’re providing backup. You’ve all been out there before, or been in the heads of those that have, so you know the drill.”

“Dude,” says Ransom over the comms. “Your faith in us is touching.”

“Your face is touching,” Holster says.

“Bro,” Ransom replies.

Bro .”

That’s when the helicopters take off, pulling both Jaegers into the air with a disorienting jolt that Jack had forgotten about. He used to forget about it all the time, before, and Kent would needle him endlessly for it.

He feels Bitty look over, the motion as familiar as if it is his own. “You good?”

Jack takes a breath as he remembers where he is, feels Bitty take it with him. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” Holster says. “Jack and Bitty, we want you to get behind it. Watch out for the tail.”

“Holtzy and I are going to draw attention from the front,” Ransom continues. “Big and splashy and dangerous.”

“You come in when you see an opening, make sure it doesn’t have time to recover between attacks, all of that.”

The Jaegers drop, and Jack doesn’t let himself flinch at the brief immersion. They surface, and wait, both teams still as they search the glistening ocean.

“On your guard,” Holster says, across the comms. “It could surface at any moment.”

Another moment passes, tense. Bitty counts the seconds—or maybe Jack does—each one stretching out far longer than it should. Three seconds. Five. Ten. Twenty. And then—

The kaiju shrieks as it attacks, seemingly bursting into existence. Bitty almost flinches back, but Jack is used to this. They step forward, just a step, just watching, just waiting. Ransom and Holster throw a fierce right hook, dodge the muscled tail. The kaiju shrieks again, charges. Again, the Crimson pushes back.

The sun reflects off the battling Jaeger, and for a moment Bitty thinks, They are invincible . But Jack knows better, has felt invincible before, has had people think he was. They are powerful , he corrects. They are not kaiju-proof; no Jaeger is or has ever been. That’s why the Providence is there, because anything could go wrong at any time; because everything has before.

Jack knows the weaponry of the Providence like the back of his hand, which means Bitty does too, by extension. He thinks, or they think, maybe—the lines are blurring the longer they are in the Jaeger, until he isn’t quite sure where he ends and Bitty begins—of all the weapons concealed beneath shining panels and ordered wiring.

“Should we—” begins Bitty, but the Crimson have brought out their own weapon, a long, wicked scythe that glints in the afternoon sun. The kaiju stumbles back, leaps toward the Providence. They are ready.

For a moment, Jack feels a flicker of hesitance-- it’s not his, but Bitty’s, all their practice not quite enough preparation for a combat situation.

“Are you okay?” he asks, his concern bleeding across.

He feels Bitty breathe, breathes with him. “Just like we’ve practiced, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jack replies, and remembers their training sessions, brings it to the forefront of their minds until they can almost hear the music.

“Okay,” Bitty says, “okay.”

Together, their minds brushing and overlapping until neither are absolutely certain who is controlling which body, or whether they have separate bodies at all, they attack, throwing an uppercut at the screaming monster approaching them. It connects, pushing the kaiju back, and they twist, kicking—the monster is thrown into the Crimson, where, with an ear-shattering shriek, it lands on the scythe.

The Crimson pull their weapon out, and the kaiju sinks down, limp and lifeless.

“Fuck yeah!” Ransom shouts over the comms, and Jack and Bitty are grinning so wide their cheeks hurt, exhilaration and relief pumping through their veins like blood.

“Cleanup crew are gonna have fun with that one,” Holster says. “D’you think there’s enough there for Nurse to plunder?”

“He’ll find something,” Bitty says, still smiling. Jack thinks, with something that isn’t quite shock, that he loves it when Bitty smiles. “He always does.”

“We should head back,” Jack points out. “So they can actually get to it.”

“And for the party!” Ransom pauses. “Wait, shit, Bitty. Bitty, you aren’t going to stop making celebratory pies now that you’re a pilot, are you?”

“Are you implying I don’t deserve pie for my efforts, Justin Oluransi? Just for that, I might make sure you don’t get a piece.”

“No, never!”

“Bro,” Holster says, as they all turn toward the base. “I’d share my pie with you.”

Jack grins. “Collaborators don’t get pie, eh, Bittle?”

Bitty laughs, meets Jack’s eyes. They’re both high on the adrenaline, the joy of the triumph. “I think you’re right, Jack.”

The pilots of the Crimson protest over the comm, but they seem to fade, just for a moment, into the background. Bitty smiles again, cheeks flushed under his helmet, and the rapid thumping of Jack’s heart calms for the first time in a long time.

The adrenaline hasn’t faded by the time they arrive back at base, but it’s a good kind of energy—pleasant, like waking up after a good sleep, like hearing a good joke, like everything in the world is right, just for a moment. They dock the Jaeger back in its place, where technicians are already gathering to retune Jaegers and repair anything that needs it, and wait for the drift to fade.

“Great job today, you glorious motherfuckers,” Shitty calls over the speaker. “And…disconnecting the Monochrome Providence in five…four…three…two…”

Jack feels Bitty’s mind receding from his, sensing less and less each moment that passes. It’s disorienting for a moment, as if it would throw him completely off balance if he wasn’t strapped into the Jaeger. He blinks once, twice, waits for his head to clear.

“Fuck,” Bitty says.

“Yeah,” Jack agrees. He can still feel Bitty, just a little, a ghost of their previous drift. It’s like their minds are brushing up against each other, barely touching, too far away to press in completely. He unstraps his harness, waiting for Bitty to follow his head. There are people waiting outside to take the suits. “Come on, Bittle.”

Bitty unstraps himself, taking off his helmet, but doesn’t move for a moment. He only looks at Jack, eyebrows furrowed.

“You call me Bitty in your head,” he says. Jack’s heart stutters. He hadn’t meant— “It’s nothing bad. I was just thinking—you know you can call me that, right? You can call me Bitty if you want?”

Jack lets out a breath. “Okay,” he says. “Sure, Bitty.”

Bitty grins again, and they step out of the Conn-Pod together, and Jack thinks, dizzyingly, that if he could preserve one moment in his memory for the rest of his life, it would be this.

 

Jack supposes there’s no escaping the party the Shatterdome always throws after a successful kaiju kill. He doesn’t think Bitty would let him. For once, though, he actually doesn’t mind. Unprecedented.

Bitty drags him to the kitchens after debriefing with Lardo – “Come on, like you’ve got anything better to do!” Admittedly, he really doesn’t – insisting that they make pies together for the occasion. Surprisingly, he doesn’t mind this either. Though he’s not sure anyone actually wants that.

“I’m not sure that anyone actually wants that,” Jack says as Bitty dashes down the hallways, pulling Jack along by the hand at breakneck speeds. “Me being involved with the pies, I mean.”

“Nonsense! Listen, Jack, if we can help kill a kaiju together, surely pie will be no challenge.”

“Okay, but kaijus are different,” Jack protests.

Bitty arches an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you think kaijus are somehow less scary than pie?”

“… Yes?”

Bitty bursts out laughing, the sound of it clear and ringing and a little mesmerizing. “Oh, my sweet summer child. You’re in good hands, promise. And don’t you think there’s something kind of – I dunno, poetic about it?”

It has literally never occurred to Jack that there might be anything poetic about pie. “Sure?”

“Doing it together, I mean. Like – gosh, I dunno. It could be a new tradition, even!”

If something makes Bitty this excited, Jack finds himself thinking, he’d probably go along with just about anything.

“I wasn’t aware we needed a new post kaiju-kill tradition,” Jack says. “You know my favorite post kaiju-kill tradition? Taking a nap.”

“You hush, Mr. Zimmermann. You’re gonna have fun baking, and you know it.” They approach the kitchen, then, and Bitty lets out a little contented noise that makes Jack’s heartbeat kick in his chest for some inexplicable reason.

“Someone’s excited,” Jack says, knocking their shoulders together.

He expects Bitty to express indignation at that statement, maybe push back. Bitty doesn’t do any of that. Bitty just beams up at him, face splitting into a grin, and Jack is, in no shape or form, prepared for how bright he looks. It’s almost unbearable – like looking into the sun. His breath catches in his throat, and stays there.

“This is the closest to home I’m gonna get,” Bitty says softly, and if Bitty is like the sun, his voice is like the ocean, lilting and rhythmic. Jack’s heart hammers on.

“Come on,” Bitty says then, tugging lightly on Jack’s hand, reminding him that he has hold of his hand in the first place. They go into the kitchen.

Making the pies is a lot more relaxing than Jack would anticipate. Normally he would probably be pretty stressed out if he had to cook for other people, but halfway into it, his fingers kneading patiently through the dough and Bitty chattering the whole way through, it occurs to him that he hasn’t even thought about being stressed since they got here. Which isn’t exactly a normal occurrence. The only time that happens to him, as far as he’s aware, is when he’s in the drift.

And what’s the difference now, really? Bitty’s with him either way.

Bitty pops the first batch of pies into the oven. “We might just get this all done before tonight,” he says.

“How optimistic,” Jack says, leaning against the countertop.

“I can’t just make one batch for these boys. It wouldn’t be nearly enough.” He doesn’t sound upset to say it, just endlessly and exasperatedly fond. He comes over and leans next to Jack, their legs almost close enough to touch. “You should see Ransom and Holster going at it. Sometimes they have contests.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would end well.”

“Trust me, it doesn’t.” Bitty smiles a little at a faraway recollection. Jack doesn’t know what it might be, but it seems telling enough that he can already figure out that much. “This feels… Nice. I’ve never made pie after a kaiju kill before. Feels like I actually worked for it. Almost like I deserve it, even.”

Bitty’s eyes are wide, like he’s surprised to admit something like that out loud. Jack’s heart clenches, unbidden.

“You do deserve it, Bitty,” Jack says, on an impulse. He didn’t exactly mean to say it, but now that he’s made the jump, he doesn’t really want to take it back. “You were amazing today. After everything, all you’ve had to overcome to get there - you were amazing.”

Bitty’s gaze flashes to Jack, and when their eyes hook onto each other, Jack doesn’t have it in himself to look away. He’s seen what lie behind those eyes; he knows what makes them shine.

“Thanks, Jack,” Bitty says. “It means a lot to hear you say that.”

The silence that comes after that feels full – of what, Jack cannot name. It swells up around him, and in its heart he feels still, and quiet.

Bitty clears his throat. “Ought to start the next batch of pies, soon.”

Jack looks away, finally, down at his hands. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

Bitty reaches for the mixing bowl, and Jack glances up at him, safe in the knowledge that Bitty doesn’t know he’s looking at him this time. It’s kind of a nice feeling, actually, to be with someone in a place they clearly feel they belong. The drift is a thing they’re both still trying to get used to, but here Bitty is truly in his element, and it shows – in the way he moves, so easy and comfortable like Jack has never seen him, so familiar with his surroundings it seems like he barely has to think about where something is before reaching for it; in the casual way his sleeves are shoved to his elbows, exposing his slender but wiry forearms; in the expression on his face, equal turns intense and tender, passion for what he does written into his very smile.

Jack’s felt that passion. He’s felt it like it burns in his own ribcage. But this is the first time he’s really let himself see it.

“Just gonna sit there, Jack Zimmermann?” Bitty calls over his shoulder, jarring him from his thoughts.

Jack blinks once, and twice. And he moves to help Bitty, and he leaves his thoughts behind.

When they bring the finished pies out to the mess hall, the party is already in full swing. Bitty said Ransom and Holster usually take charge of these celebrations, and it seems like they haven’t disappointed this time around. The tables have been cleared, the walls covered in posters and streamers, and someone’s hung the largest disco ball Jack has ever seen from the ceiling. It seems like every speaker in the entire base has been collected in this room to play the music, the huge mess of a sound system somehow managing to sound appropriately gritty rather than chaotic. Jack is pretty sure just about everyone who works in the base is here. And then some.

Jack pauses at the door, looking at Bitty uncertainly. “Is it always this – “

“Wild?” Bitty says, voice cutting through the noise. “Just about, yeah. Come on, the food table’s over here – “

People converge upon the table when they put the pie on it like sharks drawn to blood. Jack side-steps them quickly, wondering briefly if they even made enough. This suspicion becomes a confirmation when Ransom and Holster come barreling toward the table with a shout.

“You’re a miracle man,” Holster shouts at Bitty through a mouthful of pie. “You are full of goddamn miracles.”

Bitty laughs. “Leave some for everyone else, Holster.”

“Yeah, Holtzy, leave some for everyone else,” Ransom says, holding an entire pie tin in his hands and looking at it like he’s trying to figure out if eating it by slice or shoving his face into it is a better pie-eating method.

“That goes for you too, Justin,” Bitty says sternly.

“Ooh, he broke out the first names,” Holster says, reaching for Ransom’s plate. “Nice going, bro.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Adam,” Bitty says, raising his eyebrows.

“Yeah, Adam ,” Ransom says, flicking a piece of pie toward Holster’s face. Jack supposes it’s meant to hit him in the cheek or something, but Holster opens his mouth and the pie lands right on his tongue.

“Bro! Did you see that!”

“You only got that because your mouth’s so fucking big,” Ransom says.

“You would know,” Holster says, eyebrows wiggling up and down.

“Okay, and that’s my cue to get more food,” Bitty says. “Come on, Jack.”

They make their way back to the kitchen and grab the rest of the food. Bitty has so much in his arms he can barely see over the top of the stack.

“Wait, I can get that,” Jack says.

“No, Jack, it’s no trouble – “

“Too late,” Jack says, transferring the top few containers to his pile easily, and grins at Bitty’s betrayed expression. “Come on, let’s go back out.”

“Back into the lion’s den,” Bitty sighs. “You wouldn’t think all these fancy engineers and soldiers would have it in them. And yet.”

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Jack agrees. “But also pretty nice, being able to cut loose. It’s not easy to find time for that these days.”

Bitty glances at Jack, but says nothing. They walk in silence for a few moments, amiable, as familiar as it is new. Bitty seems content to leave it like that, but Jack has rarely found silence comforting. He casts around his head for something to say, something to fill the space, anything to make the air feel less empty.

“I really don’t think you made enough pie,” Jack says.

“Maybe not.” Bitty shrugs. “I don’t mind making more if we need them, though.”

Jack frowns. “You shouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen all night.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble, really. It’s enough to see everyone else enjoying themselves.”

Before Jack can answer – god knows what his impulses would make him say now – Shitty spots them and weaves through the crowd toward them. “Bitty! My man! You come bearing pies!” Shitty shouts. He has a hand curled around a beer, already looking well on his way to getting wasted. “And Jack too! I gotta tell you guys, the Providence was bitching today!”

“We were okay,” Jack says. “Drift was strong, we got the objective done. Could probably work on taking the lead more, though, now that we’re back in the swing of things.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Shitty says, throwing his arm across Jack’s shoulders. “Especially when you’re at a party thrown in your own goddamn honor.”

“Well,” Jack says. “Kind of.”

“Party pooper!” Shitty yells in Jack’s ear. “We’ve got a party pooper here!”

“I’m gonna leave you boys to it,” Bitty laughs. “Gotta get the rest of the food. No, no, Jack, don’t worry about it, you stay here and have fun. Someone has to keep these folks fed.”

“If you’re sure, Bits,” Jack says.

“Yeah, of course.” Bitty beams, dazzling even in the dim lights. “See y’all later!”

And then he’s gone, swallowed by the mass of bodies around him.

“Bits,” Shitty says.

Jack feels his cheeks warm, inexplicably. “Shut up.”

“You’ve got a soft spot for the guy,” Shitty says gleefully. “Jesus fuck, Jack, when you first came here I thought you were gonna bite the poor kid’s head off.”

Jack frowns. “I wasn’t that mean to him, was I?”

Shitty shrugs. “There was a lot of glaring. A lot of sullen silence. I think he was kind of worried. Though how the fuck am I supposed to know, really?”

Something swells up painfully in Jack’s throat, something that tastes like guilt. “Oh.”

Shitty gives Jack’s shoulders a little shake. “But you guys make a great fucking team! You gotta show the guy some love sometime.”

“You know who else makes a great team,” Jack says with a pointed look, half because he has a sudden, very irrational, very powerful need to change the subject, half because he’s too tired to give any real thought to what he just said.

As soon as he says it, though, and looks at Shitty’s face, he knows it was a mistake.

“Low blow, bro,” Shitty says.

Jack sighs. “I’m sorry.”

Shitty takes a long swig of his drink before he speaks. “It’s a different fucking situation.”

“Sure.”

“It’s for the best that we don’t work together like that.”

“Yeah.”

“God. I’m such a cock.” Shitty groans and runs a hand through his hair. “And definitely too drunk for this, fuck.”

Jack wraps an arm tentatively around Shitty’s waist and squeezes him into a hug. “It’s a good reason, Shitty. She thinks so, too.”

Shitty throws his arms around Jack’s neck and tightens the embrace. Then he pulls away, and scrunches his face into a frown. “How would you know?”

“Have you talked to her about this? Since it happened?”

Shitty just looks at Jack for a moment.

“Shitballs,” he says.

And then he’s gone too.

“Well,” Jack says, out loud. He waits in place, for a while. Then he walks off to find Bitty.

He’s probably in the kitchens somewhere, Jack thinks. Probably started in on another batch of pies already, knowing him. And of course Jack knows him; he’s been inside his head for more time than most people will ever spend outside of their own skull. But Bitty shouldn’t be stuck in the kitchen all night, not when he could be spending the night actually celebrating for once. Not when he could be letting himself celebrate.

Not when he could be here, next to Jack.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else!” Ransom shouts, his voice piercing through the blurred noise of the crowd. “I’ve got something to say.”

“Dude, stop, you’re going to embarrass yourself,” Holster says from somewhere in the background.

“I don’t give no fucks, now shut up.” Ransom is now standing on top of a table in the middle of the room, holding his glass up to the ceiling. “I just want to tell you all something. Something important! This goes to you, and to you, and also to my future self.”

“Embarrassing already,” Holster intones.

“Silence, heathen! I just want to say – it’s important – to live in the goddamn moment!”

“Bro, you’re so wasted right now.”

“Live in the goddamn fucking moment!” Ransom bellows. Everyone around him cheers.

“How are you telling your future self to live in the moment?” Holster yells. “That’s not even logical.”

“Shut up and dance with me,” Ransom says, and leaps off the table.

Jack definitely needs to find Bitty again. He leaves the room and makes his way back to the kitchens. Outside the door, he hears a muffled voice that sounds like Bitty’s. Satisfaction wells up in his gut, and he pushes open the kitchen door.

Bitty is standing in the kitchen, eyes closed and headphones in, and he’s swaying back and forth, and he’s singing. The image is so jarring that it takes a while for Jack to focus on the words that he’s singing, to actually register what they are.

“Remember those walls I built? Well, baby, they’re tumbling down…”

Jack’s heart freezes in his throat.

Beautiful , is his first thought.

Oh , is his second.

Bitty’s eyes flutter open, then, and the frozen world breaks apart.

“Jack!” Bitty says, eyes widening. “Oh lord, I can’t believe you saw that – “

Jack clears his throat. “No, it’s okay,” he manages to get out, despite the fact that his words feel too big for his chest, despite the fact that everything feels too big for his insides.

“Oh, how embarrassing,” Bitty says. He tugs his headphones out and looks down at his shoes, sheepish grin spreading across his face. “Well, I guess this means I ought to get back out there, huh?”

“Were you hiding in here?” Jack says, a sudden and warm rush of inexplicable affection flooding his gut.

“… Definitely not.” Bitty sighs, takes off his apron and starts walking toward Jack. “All right, into the fray again, I guess.”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Jack says. “Just – it would be better. If you were there.”

Bitty stops in the middle of the kitchen, three or four steps away from Jack, and looks up, looks into Jack’s eyes, mouth slightly parted, and stares.

“Do you really mean that, Jack?” he says, quietly, and Jack cannot move; he cannot answer.

The silence is almost palpable, now, between them. A chasm, it feels like, that cannot be bridged. Or perhaps it is a blanket that wraps around them and binds them together, inescapable and suffocating.

He wants to touch Bitty, he thinks. Wants to skim his thumb over his cheekbone, to see if he’s real or just a dream, some distant and unreachable dream. Wants to know that Bitty is here, and present, and alive .

“Yeah,” Jack says, mouth dry. “I do.”

Something clatters in the distance. Bitty jumps.

“One of the volunteers on the dishes, I think,” he says.

“Oh,” Jack says.

“Let’s.” Bitty takes in a deep breath, and he looks at Jack again, and smiles. “Let’s get out there.”

“Let’s,” Jack echoes. He follows Bitty out of the kitchen.

On the way back to the mess hall, they run into Lardo, her blue-streaked hair mussed and her eyes wild. “Have you guys seen – “ she says, not needing to finish the sentence before Jack understands.

“He’s looking for you,” Jack says.

“Yeah, I know,” she snaps. Immediately, her face softens. “I’m sorry – “

“Lardo, are you okay?” Bitty says, frowning in concern.

“Yeah, yeah, I just need to – “ She takes in a deep breath, exhales sharply. “We need to talk. We haven’t been. About the thing that really matters, I mean.”

“Yeah, of course.” Bitty reaches out and takes her hand, unassumingly, no sign that he doesn’t understand the half-incoherent things she’s saying. She does not pull away. “Breathe, Lardo. Come on – in, out – “

Lardo closes her eyes, and takes in another breath. She opens them again, new determination burning behind her gaze.

“Okay, I’m going to go find him,” she says, and leaves.

“God,” Bitty murmurs, almost to himself. “I hope she’s okay.”

“She will be,” Jack says with a conviction he’s not sure he feels. “They will be.”

“Well, I’d certainly like to believe that.” Bitty sighs again. “Let’s see what music they’re playing in the mess hall. I wanna dance.”

The music they’re playing in the mess hall, as it turns out, is soft, and slow, and gentle. There are couples swaying back and forth, and from a distance it looks almost like they’ve all melted into each other, like candle wax. Somewhere in the back, Jack can see Holster and Ransom dancing together, hands interlocked, the head of one tucked into the shoulder of another.

“Still want to dance?” Jack says to Bitty.

Bitty glances at Jack. “Do you?”

Jack’s throat feels thick, and heavy. “Sure,” he says.

Bitty takes his hand, wordlessly, and they step forward onto the dance floor.

The thing about the dance floor is that it’s not loud, or hard, or fast. The thing about the dance floor is that Bitty is here, and pressing close to him, eyes closed and head tilted as he concentrates on the music. The thing is Jack can almost feel where Bitty is going to move half a second before he moves there, a knowledge so innate he barely even has to think it to feel the instinct prickling somewhere inside his skull, his ribcage, his heart.

The thing is, Jack’s looking down at Bitty, and the light dances across the planes of his face and casts shadows down his cheeks like paint. And he’s beautiful in his grace, and his warmth, and his fiery love of things that are alive; breathtakingly beautiful. His eyes are closed and his hands press against the skin of Jack’s waist, palms warm and sweaty, and his lips move silently in time with the music, fervently, like a prayer, like a dream. And Jack wishes, with sudden fierceness, that it was a dream he didn’t have to wake up from.

He can hardly stand it, how it feels to have Bitty in his arms. He does not remember the last time he felt at peace, but he feels it now, still in his heart, quiet in his head. He can hardly stand it.

The song ends, melts and shifts into something with a pounding beat, and Bitty pulls himself from Jack’s grip. “I think I might go to bed soon, actually,” Bitty says.

“Let me walk you,” Jack says, before he can stop himself.

For a moment, he actually expects Bitty to say no, from the look in his eyes - something wistful? Or maybe that’s just Jack projecting, that aching feeling in your chest when you want something you don’t know if you can have - but instead Bitty nods his head silently, and they leave the mess hall.

It’s achingly quiet on the way back to their rooms, the sound of their steps echoing off the walls and clattering in Jack’s ears, nothing to distract him from the noise, nothing to distract him from his thoughts. He can’t think, though, not with Bitty here, not with this thing neither of them can really put into words lingering between them like a persistent fog.

And there is a thing, isn’t there? He’s not just imagining it. He’s not just imagining the way Bitty looks at him, wide-eyed and amazed, almost as if he can’t believe he’s real. The painful way his heart stumbles over the beats of his pulse when Bitty smiles, all wide and eyes scrunched together and teeth showing. How it feels like to be in the drift with him, to lay out all the darkest and most intimate parts of his mind and his soul right next to his, to line up the cracks and to think, this is okay, you’re okay, we’re okay. To see the world through someone else’s eyes, and know that’s how you see it too.

And is it any wonder, really, that Jack doesn’t even know where to begin to find the words that describe this? Words are not adequate, not when the person you want to find the words for is also the person you’ve shared a mind, a heart, a body with. Not when you already know what it’s like not to need words around them.

“All right,” Bitty murmurs, and Jack looks up with a start. They’re in front of Bitty’s room, now, and their steps stutter to a stop. Jack shoves his hands in his pockets, hardly daring to look at Bitty, not quite able to look anywhere else. In the end he settles for staring at his feet, tracing his eyes over the twists of his shoelaces, the scuffs on his heels. He should leave, probably. Should probably tell Bitty good night.

But he doesn’t want to. For some dumb reason.

Bitty doesn’t move, either. Jack doesn’t know what his face looks like, doesn’t know what either of their faces look like. Maybe, just maybe, Bitty can feel this too, can feel just how tragic it would be to let all this silence that’s built up between them dissolve into nothing, just like that.

At last, Bitty says, quietly, like a whisper -

“Thank you.”

Jack looks up, heart in his throat, and what he sees freezes his breath in his lungs.

It’s Bitty, but the look on his face is one he’s never seen before. His eyes are lowered, his mouth a sincere line. It’s soft, and hopeful, and sad, endlessly, infinitely sad, about what Jack doesn’t know, but god, seeing it makes his heart ache for something like home.

Being with Bitty is something like home, he thinks, or it could be one day, and it’s as stunning a thought as it is unsurprising. He wants to reach out and touch him, wants to trace the lines of his face and memorize them until they’re all he sees in his dreams, wants to pull him in and fold him into his chest until their hearts beat as one, and everything else fades away, and nothing else matters.

But the thing is, he already knows what that feels like. That’s the drift. That’s the drift between them, inside of the Jaeger and outside. Now that they’ve felt it, Jack doesn’t know if he ever wants to leave.

Jack steps forward. Maybe he’s going to pull Bitty into a hug; maybe he’s going to do something entirely different. It doesn’t matter what he wants to do, because when he steps to Bitty, when Bitty looks up, dazzlingly, heartbreakingly close, and his breath hitches in his throat, and his hands lift almost like an instinct to Jack’s elbows, he stops thinking, stops thinking and brings his hands to Bitty’s face and leans in and kisses him.

He can feel Bitty’s breath stuttering against his lips in a surprised gasp, seconds before Bitty moves his hands and grips Jack’s wrists, grips them tight like a lifeline. He doesn’t push him away; he parts his mouth, and sighs like he’s been holding his breath for years.

And shit, maybe Jack has too. Maybe he has too.

They part, and Bitty looks at him like he’s holding the whole world in his hands, and he thinks, but that’s you.

Then Jack thinks, Oh god, what have I done , and he pulls his hands away from Bitty’s face.

You don’t know what he wants. You don’t even know what you want.

You didn’t ask. You didn’t say anything.

You took advantage of him.

You made a mistake.

You made a mistake.

You made a mistake.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out, turns his face away before he can know what Bitty looks like, before he can know what he looks like. Turns his face away before he can know the damage he’s caused.

“Jack, what - “

What has he done? What has he done, to make Bitty sound like that? No one should sound like that, that - that confused, that shocked, that hurt, that heart-broken . No one -

This is too much . You are too much. He deserves so much more than you .

The words swell up inside him, and they drown his lungs, his heart, his insides. They are so loud and so fast in his head they’re not words anymore, they’re noise, noise like static, noise like a storm that will never end. He wants it to end; he has never wanted something more in his life.

He cannot be here anymore. It’s too damn loud .

He should say something, he thinks dimly as he reaches for his door, should explain why, should at least have the decency to say good night. But the words are too big inside him to let go of.

The door shuts behind him, a damning crash, and he sinks to the floor, and he falls.

Chapter Text

interlude: an almost

Everything feels a little off-center when Jack wakes up. Just the tiniest bit off. For the most part, reality looks the way it always has – his sink in the corner, his bed in the right place. But there’s a tilt to it. Or a blur, maybe. He can’t be sure which. He just knows that though it’s barely there, it’s enough for him to notice.

This was how he felt when Kent died, he thinks. All wrong, like he’s the one who broke the world around him. Which is just stupid. Idiotic, because nothing happened to him last night that could make him feel as bad as losing his best friend did.

Does?

“Fuck,” Jack says, the word trembling in the back of his throat.

He squeezes his eyes shut, swallows the syllables down, forces them back into his lungs. He hasn’t lost a goddamn thing.

He gets out of bed, and takes his pills.

The base seems strangely subdued, now that Jack knows – or remembers, more accurately – what it’s like to have a party in it. He’s not really sure what to do or where he needs to be, especially so soon after the last kaiju attack.

Turns out he doesn’t have to figure it out on his own. He runs into Shitty somewhere on the way to the mess hall in the process of avoiding someone else entirely.

“Well, you look like a trainwreck,” Shitty says cheerfully.

Jack almost laughs at the irony of the statement, considering Shitty isn’t even wearing a shirt right now. “Don’t we all,” he says, glancing pointedly at Shitty’s bare chest.

“Hey, no slut shaming, motherfucker.” Shitty wraps his arm around Jack’s shoulders and steers him down the hallway. “Walk with me, Jack.”

“Do I have any choice?”

“Nope,” Shitty says. “You look like you need a distraction.”

Instantly, Jack is wary. “Distraction?”

“I just need to do some tests on the Providence, don’t worry. And it’ll give us a chance to have a manly talk about our feelings.”

“I don’t need to talk about my feelings,” Jack says half-heartedly.

“Uh huh. Here we are – “

They turn into LOCCENT, and Shitty makes a beeline for the control panels.

“It’s not exactly professional to be working without clothes on,” Jack says.

“Brah, the working day doesn’t even start for another two hours, we just happen to be unlucky enough bastards to be awake right now. Don’t have to be dressed for work if it hasn’t started yet.”

“Loopholes,” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “Has anyone told you you’d make a good lawyer?”

Shitty scoffs. “Jack Laurent Zimmermann, did you just fucking insinuate I’d rather be doing anything but this? Jack. Please. I’m goddamn hurt .”

“Right.” Shitty pulls the headphones over his ears, says something into the microphone Jack can’t quite catch. Through the glass, far below them, he can see tiny figures milling about the Providence’s feet. “So how’d it go with Lardo?”

Shitty shrugs, a carefully noncommittal gesture. “About how you’d expect. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl get respectably shitfaced. Boy and girl are brutally honest about issues they haven’t talked about in years. Same old.”

“So you guys are okay,” Jack guesses. A reasonable assumption to make, if Shitty is in the mood to be so light-hearted about it. Although, honestly, it’s not so easy to tell with him.

Shitty shoots him a quick smile. “Yeah, bro. We basically talked about how I blamed myself because I didn’t go with her into the Jaeger when she asked me, and she blamed herself for not knowing better than to get her copilot killed. And, like, I was angry because when she took the neural load on her own, she didn’t tell me. Cut off all fucking communications, actually, before she did it. But she was angry because I was being a total shit-eating asshole about it. Which, granted. Lardo can make her own decisions.”

“Damn right,” Jack says, almost reflexively.

“Damn fucking right.” Shitty turns his attention back to the Providence. “So yeah, long fucking story short, I think we’re going to try to be honest about it from now on. Like, actually talk about it. Like normal human beings.” He pauses. “Speaking of which.”

The meaning in Shitty’s words is too obvious for even Jack to miss. He swallows thickly. “He told you.”

“Not in so many words, but… I got the gist of it.” Shitty sighs. “Look, I’m not gonna yell at you. I mean, I understand. I think? Better than most, anyway. But you can’t just leave things like that, my dude. You’ve gotta use your fucking words.”

But how can he use his words when none of them are good enough?

“Easier said than done,” Jack says. His voice comes out hoarser than he meant it to.

“I know, man. Trust me, I know.” Shitty claps a hand on Jack’s shoulder solemnly. “But you should try? He deserves that much. You deserve that much.”

Well. He doesn’t really know about that. Not after everything he’s done.

“Jack,” Shitty says quietly. “Brah, it fucking kills me to see you beat yourself up like this. It’s not your fault, okay? None of it is.”

Jack wonders if they’re still talking about Bitty, at this point. Probably. But he senses Shitty means something else, too. Something he’s spent years trying and failing to get over, to forget, to move past and move on from. And it’s one thing to think It’s not my fault , because if he thinks that it’ll inevitably be followed by, how do you know that? It’s one thing to think that and to try to convince himself of its truth while knowing he never can, and it’s entirely another to hear someone outside his head say it.

It’s easier, somehow, to listen to someone else than to believe in yourself.

“It might not be,” Jack says. “But I still did it.”

Shitty sighs. “Yeah, man. I hear you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t own up to your actions or any bullshit like that. I just - don’t give yourself more shit than you deserve. It’s not about you right now. It’s about making things right.”

And it’s not like Jack can ignore, at this point, the extent to which Shitty is drawing from a place that must be deeply personal. Not after everything.

“Yeah,” he says, resigned. “I know.”

“I know you know. Just bears fuckin’ repeating, sometimes.” Shitty sighs again. “I hope you guys can work it out. I really do. I mean, for the drift, if nothing else.”

“For the drift,” Jack echoes.

“But also - “ Shitty runs a hand through his hair, a little helplessly. “I just want you fuckers to be okay. God fucking knows you’ve been through enough.”

Sudden fondness floods Jack’s gut with warmth at the realization that Shitty actually cares that much, though of course he would. Of course Shitty would care that much. Jack wishes there were words to express how grateful he is, not just for this but for his friendship, for his words, for everything Shitty has ever done for him. But he doesn’t have them, so in lieu of a dramatic and heartfelt speech he walks over and pulls Shitty into an embrace, rough and raw and clinging.

Shitty’s arms come up, and his hands rest on Jack’s back. “That’s good shit,” he says, and his voice doesn’t even shake at all.

 

Jack doesn’t have to look long to find Bitty. Their drift is still not quite faded, a day later, and even if it was, he’s spent enough time in his head—they’ve spent enough time in each other’s heads—to know a few of the places Bitty would run to, just as Bitty knows his.

When he climbs the stairs to the balcony overlooking the Shatterdome, he’s not disappointed. Bitty leans against the railing, legs dangling over the side, beautiful in the soft light of the repairs, and Jack wants nothing more than to run, or to kiss him again, or neither or both or somewhere in between. He wants to disappear under the weight of it.

You made a mistake , he thinks again, and thinks, Bitty is never going to trust you . Still, he has to try, for the sake of the Providence. He has to at least apologise, has to let the incident slip from their memories. It was nothing—it has to be.

Jack quietly walks across the balcony and sits next to his co-pilot, far away enough that he won’t feel crowded. After a moment of consideration, he lets his feet dangle, too. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t let himself look at Bitty. He doesn’t think Bitty is looking at him either.

For a while, neither of them speak.

At last, Bitty says, “I’m sorry,” and his voice is small and raspy and Jack feels like he’s drowning. “I shouldn’t have—that was so stupid of me.”

Jack blinks, looks up and sees Bitty’s tense shoulders tremble.

Bitty swallows. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “For everything. For—” He cuts himself off. “I’m sorry.”

Jack flounders for words, presses his palms into the cool railing like he could push his emotions into it. “You shouldn’t be the one apologising to me. I—you’re not the one who…”

Bitty shakes his head, still not looking at Jack. “I was flirting with you all night, though, and I know you were vulnerable from fighting again, after—I should have pushed you away.”

He looks miserable, shadows under his eyes, knuckles white where they’re holding onto the railing. Jack wants to take them and smooth out his fingers, to press kisses to the dark spaces under his eyes. He wants to hold Bitty until he stops trembling, until they both do.

“It wasn’t—you’re not at fault here,” he says instead.

Bitty doesn’t answer.

Jack knows this cycle of self-blame, knows how difficult it is to get out of it. He breathes, can almost taste the sparks in the air. “I was flirting back,” he says, finally. “You’re not—it wasn’t just you. It was me that…”

“I still shouldn’t’ve,” Bitty whispers. “Shit, I learnt this lesson ages ago. I should know by now.”

Jack’s heart jumps and stumbles over itself, falls to a grinding, painful halt. He does not want to be another heartbreak of Bitty’s past, another in the collection of people that have reinforced an idea within him that he is not enough , that he is not good, or worthy, or right. This more than anything is an idea that he cannot bear. Bitty is not perfect, but he bakes pies for successful kaiju kills, and he dyed part of his hair blue to support his best friend, and he secretly thinks of Chris Chow as his son. He’s quick-witted and smart, and he joined the Jaeger program because he thought he wasn’t good enough for his parents, and he does everything he can to not be his tormentors, even to the cost of his own wellbeing, and he plays songs Jack has never heard of in the training room, so loud Jack feels like his ears might burst, and he smiles so widely he could split open the sky. He’s been working on his self-esteem issues since he started college, and he’s not where he wants to be but he’s getting there , he’s trying, and Jack won’t be the one to erase that. He won’t; he can’t.

“I kissed you,” Jack says, and it’s the first time he’s acknowledged it out loud. The words feel tight and cold in his throat. He presses harder into the rail. “It wasn’t a leftover from the drift, or the party, or anything like that. I kissed you because I wanted to.”

Bitty inhales sharply, eyes darting to meet Jack’s for half a heartbeat. “I kissed back, though,” he says. “I kissed back and then you left, so—” He shakes his head, breathes in slowly.

“I didn’t leave because of you,” Jack says, and, god, he’s fucked this up, hasn’t he? “Why would I—I left because of me .”

This time, when Bitty looks at him, he holds his gaze, eyebrows half raised. “‘It’s not you, it’s me?’” His eyes are wet but he’s not quite crying, though the corner of his mouth is still trembling.

Jack sighs. It’s not inaccurate , exactly. “You’ve seen the inside of my head,” he says, in lieu of an answer. “You know what’s in there.”

“Which is why I shouldn’t’ve—”

“Why I shouldn’t have.” He takes a deep breath, holds it, lets it out slowly. “I’m—you know I’m fucked up.”

Bitty glares, then, his gaze sharpening. “You’re not .”

“Bittl—Bitty—”

“I’m not trying to trivialise your experiences, but you’re not fucked up. You have issues, but you’re not stuck in them. You’re working through them. You’re trying to get better, and I—” Bitty takes a sharp breath, then another, then—“I’m so proud of you, Jack.”

Jack stares at the Providence, at the technicians scrubbing at the kaiju blood splattered down its side. He thinks—he hopes—that his face isn’t red, because that’s not the point in this; what he does or does not feel is far beyond this conversation and anything he might wish for. “The point still stands,” he says. “I kissed you, and then I left. That wasn’t—I shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t fair to you.” It made you feel this way , he thinks, and hates himself a little for it.

Bitty takes a deep, shaking breath. “You don’t—blame me for it?”

Never ,” Jack insists, and cannot find it in himself to be shocked at his own vehemence. “Never, Bitty. I-- you say you’re proud of me, but you’ve come so far in the time that I’ve known you. You’re brave and hardworking, and--how could I ever blame you for something like this?”

“Really?” Bitty asks, voice soft and still hesitant, but warm.

“Really.”

“We won’t let this fuck up our drift,” Bitty adds, and there is something stronger in his voice now, something that has been in there every day that Jack has known him and longer, something that has never quite left. “Right, Jack?”

Jack nods. “Right.”

Slow, hesitant, Bitty smiles, one side of his mouth tipping up. It’s nothing compared to his usual joy, but Jack will take this for now, will take this over a Bitty who blames himself for Jack’s problems any day. He would give anything to stay in this moment, far away from anything that could hurt any of them, suspended in their world between worlds, softened by the light of the Jaeger repairs.

There is so much more that he could say, that he aches to, that he knows he shouldn’t. It can sit, though, and wait, and grow until he knows how to deal with it. He has time enough--- with Bitty, he has all the time he needs.

Slow, hesitant, Jack smiles back, and lets the words settle between them.

Chapter Text

+i.

Life goes on.

Not normally, because life as a Jaeger pilot could never be classified as “normal”, but it goes regardless, and Jack feels himself settle into a rhythm that feels increasingly familiar, beating somewhere in his ribcage.

Mornings, when he wakes up and does not wish for death; when he splashes water on his face and swallows his pills and feels calm, and at peace, and not burning, not going up in flames like a meteor in the stratosphere.

Afternoons, when he trains, and he does his paperwork, and he listens in to the debates and the strategizing; and the regular motions – the staff whistling through the air, or the papers sliding in his hands, or the sounds of voices blurring and sharpening and rolling around in his ears – make him feel like he’s actually doing something, for once.

Evenings, when he leans against a counter in the kitchen and listens to Bitty talk as he prepares the next day’s meals, the smile on his face easier to let in than to force away.

And the Breach, the crack in the ocean, is quiet for a while, or if it’s not, the kaijus leave Los Angeles alone. Dex and Nursey, for all their squabbling, really do seem to be good at their jobs, and their calculations have held for at least the last few months.

Then, suddenly, they don’t, and the fragile quiet Jack almost let himself get used to shatters.

It’s four in the morning, more or less, when the first sirens in weeks pierce through the air. Jack vaults out of bed more out of sheer instinct than anything else, his pulse skyrocketing and his eyes darting around the room wildly before he’s even realized what the hell is going on, before he’s woken up enough to process the words he’s hearing.

Crimson Specter, Monochrome Providence, and Ares Thunder to the Shatterdome. Categories II and III. Crimson Specter, Monochrome Providence, and Ares Thunder to the Shatterdome…

Jack opens the door just as Bitty emerges from across the hall, bleary-eyed and hair all messed up.

Jack’s heart has just enough time to clench once before Bitty says, “Two kaijus?”

That’s when the words really sink in.

“Fuck,” Jack says.

March and April run past them, fully clothed, eyes blazing and looking ready for war.

“Hurry up, boys,” March yells over her shoulder. “Those kaijus aren’t going to wait on any of us!”

Minutes later, Jack and Bitty run into the Shatterdome, straight into the chaos. The atmosphere seems tense in a way it doesn’t usually become even in times of crisis. Usually before a kaiju fight, the place is teeming with activity, but calm with the familiarity of routine. People know what they’re doing, and they’re glad to do it in the face of danger.

The appearance of two kaijus, admittedly, is not exactly routine.

Lardo’s waiting for them as they join the already present pilots, her brow furrowed. Jack doesn’t think she expected this, either.

“’Morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she says curtly. “So this is how we’re going to do it. Crimson takes the lead on the Cat III, Ares takes the lead on the Cat II. Providence provides backup. Focus on taking down the Cat III first, Providence. Ares should have the Cat II handled. We’ll have Whiskey and Tango on standby if any of you need it.”

Once upon a time, Jack might have felt indignant that they’re still being assigned as backup. Once upon a time, Jack might even have taken offense. But now he sees the sense in it. This is only their second mission together, and though he might be a seasoned fighter, Bitty isn’t. March and April, meanwhile, have almost half a year of combat experience under their belt, and plenty of their own kills. Perhaps it’s the time that has passed that’s allowed Jack to see this clearly. And perhaps it’s something else entirely.

We’re ready , Jack thinks, but it’s Bitty who says, “Let’s do it.”

Jack looks down at Bitty, surprised, and Bitty meets his gaze squarely, almost defiantly. A jolt goes through Jack’s heart like lightning.

“Great,” Lardo says, breaking into a grin despite her grim tone. “Let’s hurry up, people. Kaijus can’t slay themselves.”

They’re silent as they suit up and strap themselves into the Conn-Pods. Jack forces himself to focus on what he’s currently doing, arms and legs going through motions he knows so well he barely has to think about it. Push here, pull there. Feel this. Think of nothing else.

Breathe.

Bring nothing into the drift.

Breathe .

They wait for Shitty to start the handshake, and Jack’s mind is empty, empty as it can be with the low thrum of anxiety buzzing in the tips of his fingers and a dreadful sort of anticipation cold and uneasy and settling heavily in his gut. He thinks of nothing. Nothing, nothing in his head, nothing in his heart.

Nothing to say, nothing to feel.

“Hey,” Bitty says, the word slicing through the best of Jack’s efforts.

He swallows down his surprise, his shock, his everything. “What?”

“I got your back,” Bitty says, simply.

Jack can’t help but stare at Bitty. It’s a truth that feels easier than most at the same time it took them so long to actually reach. But it’s everything to hear him say that, to know that they can put their past mistakes behind them, to know that despite what he’s done, despite all that’s happened, they still have this. Their friendship, their jaeger, them . Each other.

God, it is everything.

“Ready, boys?” Shitty cuts in through the comms, voice tight and all-business.

Now, perhaps, is not the best time for sentimentality. Jack clears his throat. “Pilots of Monochrome Providence, ready for battle.”

“Initiating neural handshake.”

And it’s quiet in his head, quiet and motionless like the eye of the storm, and it’s thundering outside and it’s thundering in his chest and he’s never felt this big, figure skating medal heavy around his neck and the sheer adrenaline of a first kaiju kill roaring through his veins, and he’s never felt this happy, never felt this safe except for when he’s on the ice, except for when he’s baking, except for when he’s with you, and you’re with him, and when he kisses you, when you kiss him, it’s everything he wants and nothing he deserves, and he’s never felt this sad, leaving behind a home and a family and a future for a war he doesn’t know he believes in, waking up to a gaping hole of an absence none of his years of training and therapy and looking into the mirror and saying to himself, ‘it’s okay, it’s okay, you’ll be okay, this is nothing and you’ll be okay,’ could have prepared him for, god, he’s never felt this small, Coach staring at him and they both know he’ll never be everything they want him to be, and Kent’s sitting on his bed, looking up at him with fire burning in his eyes, and he says, “This is never going to be enough for you, is it, nothing’s ever good enough for you .”

“Shitfuck, is the drift destabilizing?! – “

“I think Jack’s chasing the R.A.B.I.T!”

“Well, shit, is there anything we can do to stop it before they wreck everything?”

“Oh, no, Jack – “

Kent stares up at him, and he stares, and he stares, and it’s empty, he’s never felt so empty; and he opens his mouth, and he says, “You can’t do this without me, Zimms. Without me in your head you’re nothing.”

Nothing… Nothing… Nothing…

“ – Jack. Jack, can you hear me? Jack, please. You can do this without him. You can. You aren’t nothing, Jack. You’re smart and funny and kind and – and brave. Jack, you aren’t nothing .”

Jack surfaces from the depths of his head like a man desperate not to drown, breaking through the surface of an invisible lake, the fathomless lake of his thoughts and his worries and his darkest nightmares. He takes in long and gasping breaths, gulps of air rattling around in his ribcage. Wildly, he grasps for something, anything , to ground him, to keep him from letting the panic swallow him whole once more.

And there’s warmth in his hand, a steady pressure that feels soothing against his pounding pulse, and he holds on to it, that feeling of safety and comfort and a dozen other things he can’t put into words, because right now, it’s the one thing that makes him want peace again.

He takes in a breath. Lets it out. Takes in another. They’re calmer now. He can do this. He can work through the panic, make sure it doesn’t turn into something he can’t overcome. Another breath, now, slower and longer and more reassuring.

You can do this.

At last, he opens his eyes, and he looks down. There is nothing in his hands.

But he looks over at Bitty, and Bitty looks back, eyes wide with worry, and he understands what Bitty is doing right now, the feeling he’s sending through the drift, of understanding and support, and he’s grateful, more than he could ever say, that it’s Bitty with him in the Conn-Pod, and not a ghost from his past it took him years just to begin to believe they couldn’t hurt each other anymore.

Because Bitty - Bitty is sending him the feeling of what it’s like to hold his hand. No one has ever done that for him before.

“Shit, man, are you guys okay?” someone says over the comms – Ransom, Jack thinks – and suddenly there’s a whole chorus of voices, all “Take it easy, now, okay,” and “Oh, thank god, I’m so glad you guys fought through that,” and a dozen other different shows of concern. It’s almost overwhelming; almost.

“Jack,” Shitty says, voice cutting through the din and strained with worry, “we can send out Whiskey and Tango if you can’t – “

“I can do this,” he says. His voice is hoarse, but it rings out, strong and clear. And this time, this time he knows he can. This time is different. He knows his own limits now, he knows what he can and can’t do. This time he’s not trying to prove anything. He’s fighting for the right reasons this time. And so he knows –

He knows –

“We can do this,” he says.

He can feel Bitty looking at him, like he’s looking at himself. There’s a peculiar sensation in his fingers, tingling, like someone’s just squeezed them.

Shitty doesn’t try to put up a fight. He just says, “Okay, man, I trust you,” and the helicopters lift into the air, and they’re flying toward the kaijus, for better or for worse.

Jack lets the silence of the passing seconds fill the Conn-Pod for a while. He goes through his breathing exercises, counting steadily in the back of his head until the thrum of anxiety has been subsumed by the dull roar of anticipation, until the words inside his heart and his head are still enough to say out loud.

“Are you okay, Bittle?” Jack says quietly.

And he’s startled to hear the words. But why should he be? Why should it be a surprise that he wants to make sure he’s okay, after everything that’s happened?

Yeah, he’s okay. He’s okay, knowing he’s not alone. Knowing he doesn’t have to do this alone.

“Me too,” Jack whispers to himself. A small smile touches the corner of Bitty’s mouth, and Jack can feel it almost as well as he can see it.

Was it real?

Jack swallows, and closes his eyes. The image of Kent is stark against the darkness of his eyelids now, hard to forget, harder to remember.

“Does it matter?” he says.

It hurts to say those words, to pull them out from a place that is raw and wounded and that he tried for years to bury beneath the layers of everything else that was supposed to matter more, let alone to show them to someone else. But it’s also a relief, in a way. It’s a truth Jack spent years denying, a truth he didn’t even really understand. And it’s a truth he doesn’t feel the need to hide anymore. Not from anyone; not from himself.

Not from him.

He opens his eyes, and Bitty is looking at him, steady and fierce, blindingly, heartbreakingly fierce. He doesn’t say anything, anymore. He doesn’t have to. He just knows.

We’re a team.

“Jaegers are at the drop-off point,” Shitty says, then. “Ares Thunder is a couple miles south of Monochrome Providence and Crimson Specter. I hope to god speed isn’t of the essence here, Christ on a fucking bike. Okay, ready to drop in five, four, three, two…”

They land in the ocean, and this time, they do not stumble.

“Ares has eyes on the Category II,” March says. “Nasty little beast. We’re moving in.”

“Careful with the Cat III, guys,” April says. “Can you spot him?”

It’s five in the morning and still dark. Optics are abysmal, and nothing’s appearing on the infrared scanner, which is far more unsettling than it has any right to be. Jack can see the Specter in the distance, casting about the ocean waves. It might be a bit risky to be so far away from each other, but this way they can cover more ground in their search.

“We’ve got nothing,” Holster says, sounding frustrated. “It’s so damn dark. Providence, any luck?”

“No,” Jack says. “Is it possible we got the wrong drop off location?”

“Hey, my equipment’s perfectly fucking fine, thank you very much,” Shitty says. “Fuck, we haven’t updated your scanners, have we? They’re still infrared? The kaiju might not have a damn heat signature.”

“Great,” Ransom says flatly. “Fucking fantastic.”

“Wait, we’ve got flares, right?” Bitty says. “How’s that for visibility?”

“Wait, Bits, you’re a genius,” Holster says. “Let’s light this shit up like the fourth of July.”

“Half of us are Canadian,” Ransom points out.

“What, and you and Jack can’t be patriotic?”

“I’m just saying, that’s a flawed metaphor – “

“Your face is a flawed metaphor.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“Boys,” Jack says tersely. “Please.”

“All right, all right, sorry – “

Jack brushes his hand over the control panel, feels Bitty do the same. They find the flares, and deploy every single one of them.

Light unfurls from the darkness, so blinding Jack has to squint, spots of color streaking deliriously across his vision.

And that’s when the kaiju explodes out of the water, and lunges for the Crimson Specter.

The Jaeger’s arm swings up over her face just in time, an impressive show of Ransom and Holster’s fast reflexes, but it’s still not enough. The monster’s claws sink into the metal, and Jack watches what happens next in mounting horror, feeling like the world should be in slow motion, watches as the paneling comes off, falls away into the ocean out of the kaiju’s uncaring grip. The kaiju slinks away into the ocean, snarling, and the Crimson is missing a part of her left arm.

“Fuck!” Ransom and Holster roar in unison.

“Ransom, Holster, are you okay?” Bitty says, frantic.

But there’s no time for that. No time for thinking, no time for stopping. Don’t think, don’t pause for a second. Just move. Just move .

They activate their Plasmacaster and move closer to the kaiju cautiously, trying to sneak up behind it. The monster is circling around in the water, watching the Crimson, gathering its strength.

“You can’t shoot at that range, your accuracy isn’t going to be guaranteed,” Holster says, voice tight from pain, probably already anticipating Jack’s plan. “You can’t get in any closer or it’ll notice you. And the light will give you away if you miss. You want its attention on us, right?”

“God damn it,” Jack swears, though he knows Holster is right. “What do you suggest, then?”

“You do nothing. You stay right there.”

“You guys can’t take this thing on your own,” Jack grits out, eyes trained on the kaiju. “It’s ridiculously strong.”

“And you can’t either, Jack, so just let us do this,” Holster snaps back.

“Holster, I have a really bad feeling about this,” Ransom says.

Ransom can see into Holster’s head; Jack can’t. But he knows, suddenly, the suspicion cold and slimy in his gut, what Holster is thinking. It’s what he would have done years in the past, had he been in the same situation they’re in now. It’s exactly what he would have done.

“The Crimson’s gonna take up all the attention of the kaiju,” Holster says. “It wants a distraction, we’re gonna be a motherfucking distraction. And when it’s got all eyes on us? That’s when you guys come in. That’s when you take it down.”

“That’s insane,” Bitty bursts out. “You can’t make a sacrifice play like that!”

“It’s the only chance we’ve got,” Holster says grimly.

He doesn’t like this. He really, really doesn’t like this.

But the thing is, he can’t even be mad at Holster, because this is exactly the kind of stupid, reckless scheme that reminds Jack why he sees so much of himself in the pilots of the Crimson Specter. He did this too, when he was young and naive and still believed in his own invincibility, still believed everyone who said he should be invincible. When all he thought he could give, should give, was everything he had. And he did, back then. He fought and he fought until he had nothing left inside him, for giving or for anything else. He would have died for the war, back then. He almost did.

Except Holster isn’t trying to prove himself, not the way Jack wanted to back then, with the knowledge that everyone back home was watching him and believing in him and putting all their damn hope in him burning so brightly in his mind it almost consumed everything else that mattered. Holster isn’t trying to prove himself. He just has no other choice.

Jack takes in a deep breath. “Okay,” he says. ”You’re right.”

Bitty’s head whips toward him. “Jack!”

“If we wait around much longer, it’s going to attack, and I don’t think either of us can take the hit this time,” Jack says.

“Jack, we could, we could take the hit, we can’t let them do this - “

“We can’t take the hit,” Jack says forcefully, but he means, I can’t watch you take it , and he knows Bitty knows it.

Bitty’s mouth parts in shock. “Jack - “

“So are we doing this or not?” Holster says, voice rumbling impatiently over the comms.

Lord .”

Bitty’s not happy about this. Jack doesn’t have to be in his head to know that. But he is, and so he feels all of it, the fear and the stress and the knowledge, deeper and scarier than anything, that this really is their only choice right now, roiling under his ribcage like a thunderstorm. The feelings are so potent and so real Jack barely knows whose they really are anymore.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe they belong to the both of them, and maybe that’s just the way it is.

It’s going to be okay , he thinks. We’re going to be okay .

And for now, that’s going to have to be enough.

“Okay,” Bitty says. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

It’s an echo of what Bitty said just hours ago, all jittery with nerves in anticipation for the difficult battle ahead of them before they even got into the Jaeger to begin with. And he’s scared, and anxious, and a thousand other things, but he also sounds just like he did then – firm, and resolved, and burning .

“All right, then,” Holster says, steely resolve behind his words. “Let’s blow this sucker wide open.”

The Crimson brings out her Plasmacaster and fires a few shots in the direction of the kaiju. Her pilots have good aim, Jack observes, but their range isn’t exactly ideal either, so none of the shots are going to be fatal. They get the kaiju in the leg, on the hip; enough pain to make the kaiju screech with pain, spin wildly in the Crimson’s direction, swim in the water almost blindly toward the source of the shots. Quickly the Crimson brings out their scythe, the deadly blade visible even in the darkness of early morning. Jack and Bitty begin to advance toward the kaiju, slowly but surely. By the time the kaiju gets there, the Providence will be in position to make the kill.

And that’s when Ransom and Holster start arguing.

“Get the fuck out of here, Rans,” Holster is saying, calmer than he has any right to be. “I can do this on my own. Just go.”

“Like fuck,” Ransom shouts. “If we do this, we’re doing this together.”

“Bro, it makes a lot more sense for one person to die over two. Come on now, you’re supposed to be the smart one here.”

“It doesn’t make sense for you to do this alone! Do you even know what’ll happen? What are the chances you’ll have to take the neural load on your own?!”

“We can’t argue about this right now – “

“Why can’t we both leave?” Ransom says, sounding panicked and desperate.

“We both leave, this jaeger topples over without our sweet brain power holding it up, the plan’s a bust. Come on, Rans, think !”

“Holster, don’t do this,” Ransom says, pleads, and Jack’s heart constricts in his chest. This isn’t a conversation anyone else should be listening to, not Jack, not Bitty, not anyone back at the base. This is a conversation where two people are laying themselves bare to each other, fervently, desperately, to protect each other, to love each other, to care so much it hurts, and it should be taking place anywhere else but here, in a giant war machine that was never meant for anything but killing, in the middle of the relentless ocean, in the face of imminent, heart-pounding danger.

But it’s not. It’s happening in the midst of a war, and war has never paid heed to the ones who are fighting it.

The silence that follows, as the kaiju makes its slow and doomed way toward the Crimson, is so sharp it hurts. Jack doesn’t know if they’re arguing in the drift now, or if they’re not speaking at all. Doesn’t know what would be worse. The world seems like it’s holding its breath now, to see what Ransom and Holster will do next. Jack himself doesn’t know if he remembers how to exhale.

There’s nothing they can do. Nothing anyone can do. It’s up to Ransom and Holster. It’s entirely their choice, and no one has the right to take that from them. Not even Jack; especially not him.

They’re going to get hurt , he thinks. Doesn’t know if it comes from himself, from Bitty, from the both of them. Doesn’t care; just hurts inside, for all that has happened before, and all that will happen after this moment.

“I’m sorry, Rans,” Holster says finally.

“Holst - Adam , no – “

The comms cut off.

A pod ejects itself from the Conn-Pod, into the ocean and safely out of harm’s way.

Bitty gasps, and Jack can feel the prickle of tears hot behind his eyes, thick in the back of his throat.

“Oh, boys,” Bitty says softly.

“There’s no time,” Jack chokes out. “We have to – “

The kaiju has reached the Crimson, now, and the Jaeger raises her scythe but it’s not going to be enough, not nearly, and Jack can’t even think about how Holster is doing, or how Ransom is doing, or even how he’s planning on keeping the kaiju’s attention all by himself. He can’t do any of that because they have a mission to finish, and now is not the time for thinking, not when the kaiju is leaping through the air toward the Crimson, not when his heart is beating so hard it could burst right out of his chest, the sound and the feeling of his pulse flooding his skull with urgency.

Not when someone could actually die, and god, Jack just can’t handle the thought of losing someone else to the kaiju; not again.

No time for thinking. No time, hardly, for breathing. They raise their right arm, and aim the Plasmacaster, and he doesn’t think about hitting or missing, doesn’t think about potentially hitting the Crimson instead of the kaiju; just shoots.

The charged plasma sears through the air, bright blue and glowing. For a half second, Jack can almost imagine it suspended in the air, a dangerous arc of heat and fire that burns, burns with the hope of victory and the last chance they have to save the people they care about. There is something beautiful about something so violent, the kind of beauty that makes people write songs about wars and dream about being struck by lightning. The kind of beauty that makes Jack’s breath feel stuck in his throat, and feel like the whole world is stuck too.

Then the shot hits the kaiju in the head. It lets loose one last shriek, and it stumbles, and falls. Its claws rake over the Crimson’s chest, and the monster falls into the ocean with her. For all the tension that built up to this moment, it doesn’t take long for the kaiju to stop moving.

The Jaeger doesn’t move, either.

He stares numbly at the water, almost in disbelief. Breathing hard, their inhales in time with each other, they lower their arm. The blood pounds so hard in Jack’s head – Bitty’s too – that it takes him a while to register the voices coming in from the comms.

“Cat II is down, Ares Thunder needs no back up. How are you guys doing over there? The comms cut off for us – “

“Holy Christ, you guys all right? Providence, how are you guys?”

“Crimson? You copy?”

“Cat III is down,” Bitty is saying into the comms, words trembling as they leave his mouth. It does not feel like a victory, this time, to have killed a kaiju. It does not feel like a victory at all. “I repeat, Cat III is down.”

“Providence is reporting, but what about Crimson ?”

“Crimson is down too,” Jack cuts in, to spare Bitty the responsibility of bearing the news. This, at least, he knows he is capable of. “Ransom’s in an escape pod somewhere in the ocean. We should get a recovery team to find him. Holster…”

“What is it?” Lardo’s voice, now, tense, impatient, fearing the worst. “What is it, Zimmermann?”

“I don’t know how Holster is,” Jack says, struggling to find the words. If this isn’t the worst, he doesn’t know what is. “Holster - he stayed in the Jaeger. Manually ejected Ransom, we think. We don’t - we don’t know. But the Jaeger is down.” Swallowed by the waves. He can’t even bring himself to say it.

“Fuck,” Shitty says emphatically. “ Fuck his hero complex.”

For a long moment after that, no one says anything. Jack’s heart beats hard in his chest, and for a moment it feels like it’s swelling, feels like it’s pressing tightly against his rib cage, like it’s going to leap out between the gaps and fly to a world where you don’t lose your friends to the monsters from other dimensions and the monsters in your head. A world where you can live; just live. Just breathe. If only hearts could do that. If only people could do that.

“Good job, guys,” Lardo says finally. Her words are calm, but Jack knows what she’s trying to hide when she sounds like that. “We’re bringing you back now.”

“No,” Bitty says, adamantly, almost angrily. “No, we have to help them – “

“Bitty, as your commanding officer, I’m telling you we have to bring you back,” Lardo snaps. “There’s nothing you can do right now. Just let our people do their jobs.”

“Lardo - “

“And as your friend,” Lardo says, and this time her voice actually trembles, and god, this is hard for her too, of course it is , “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

The heat stings behind Jack’s eyes again, and this time he can feel wetness as the tears roll down his cheeks, and though he knows they are not his, he also knows they could be. They absolutely could be.

He thinks, for a moment, about holding Bitty’s hand, letting their fingers intertwine and settle into the gaps they were made to fall into. He pictures it, clear as he can in his mind, Bitty’s hand in his, small and warm and sweat sticky against his palm. He imagines his fingers brushing over the bony knuckles of Bitty’s hands, running gently over the calluses and the scars. He breathes, slowly, in and out, reveling in the knowledge that Bitty is breathing, too.

“Let’s go home,” Jack says, and Bitty nods, finally; and neither of them look back as the helicopters swarm around the fallen Crimson Specter, the wreckage of a battle no one won, because neither of them can. There’s nothing left for them to do, now, but move on. It’s the only thing in the world he knows how to do.

The Providence arrives back on base just as the sun is rising, first few rays stretching over the horizon, painting the sea and sky a deep, mournful red. Jack does not look back at it, but Bitty does, and they take a steadying breath. It is then, before the drift between them is even dropped, that chaos descends. On the way back, they had turned off the comms, neither of them ready to handle the situation.

They still aren’t, but there’s no escaping it now.

“Disengaging drift now,” Shitty says, and they can hear the frenzy in the background.

Can we get a med on-site? someone asks. Prep the surgery room , another demands. Call the cleanup , says another, as the drift drops. Keep scanning for remaining kaiju .

Jack doesn’t realise he’s frozen there, just listening, until Bitty touches his elbow genty.

“Come on,” he says. “We need to get out of here so they can do repairs.”

Jack’s nod is automatic, stiff. He follows Bitty out and waits for the technicians to remove his suit, and then he’s on his way out--anywhere but there, in that moment and that space, every second all to familiar and yet not at all. He barely registers Bitty’s words to him as he leaves.

Somehow, he makes it to his room. Hands shaking, Jack opens the door, manages to get inside before his legs give out. He wonders if this is what Shitty and Lardo felt, when Kent died. He wonders what Ransom is feeling, the fate of the most important person to him in the world swinging on a frayed string. His heart beats strong and fast and loud in his chest. He breathes. He breathes. He counts them, and focuses on that until his stomach stills.

Jack loses count after two hundred and fifty four, but there are many more than that before he finds the strength to push himself to his feet. He takes another breath, walks over to the sink to wash his face. He’s not the only one in this base, not the only one feeling and remembering. There will be time for panic and mourning later.

LOCCENT is still in disarray when he arrives, but there is enough order that someone finds a job for him within moments, enough that when he asks for an update it’s given without hesitation. Ransom is alive. Holster is-- in the medical wing.

Jack nods and narrows his focus to the task ahead of him, to nothing but the dreary recording of paperwork no one has the time for. It is damage reports and requests for medical funding and bureaucratic cries for help. It is straightforward and all facts.

He isn’t sure how much time passes before he feels a hand on his shoulder, pausing him in his work.

“Jack,” Lardo says, voice hoarse and eyes tired and rimmed with red. “We have people for this. You should sleep.”

Except--Jack can’t sleep, not like this, not with everything too loud and dangerous within him to ponder leaving himself alone with it. “All your people are busy,” he protests.

“And you’re about to collapse,” she retorts. “Go to sleep, Jack. I’ve got enough worry over pilots on my hands.”

She is trembling, almost imperceptibly, under the weight of her stress, and in a brief moment Jack lets himself imagine another world, in which legendary monsters had never begun attacking their world and they all lived out their days in relative peace. Lardo would have been an artist, he thinks, and she would never have to deal with situations and choices like these.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”

He lets her pull him to his feet despite their size difference, and almost doesn’t feel guilty for abandoning the others to this chaos. Still, he is tired, despite everything else, and that might be enough to overwhelm his mind. Before he leaves, though, Lardo folds herself into him, and he wraps his arms around her and carefully pretends he doesn’t feel her subtle trembling.

“Get some rest,” she whispers into his shoulder, and even as he nods he knows she won’t be doing the same.

It is two hallways away from his room that Jack finds Ransom.

The pilot is sitting against the wall, head in his knees, shoulders slumped and still. Defeat is written in every plane of his being.

“Is--” Jack begins, the captain that he had used to be, in a life before this life, coming to the fore. It is not his place, now, to keep watch over his team. He does not have the right to pry into other people’s business.

“You were going to ask if Holster is okay,” Ransom says, and his voice is so quiet that Jack almost doesn’t pick it up.

Jack doesn’t know how to answer.

Ransom doesn’t look up. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know if he’s going to live. It’s been--it’s been hours, and no one knows--” He takes a quick breath, shaky. “They won’t tell me whether he’s going to wake up. I only saw him for five minutes, the moment he was out of surgery.”

Jack lowers himself to the floor next to Ransom, far enough away that they’re not touching, that Ransom can leave easily if he wants to. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t know what he could say. This is not the kind of situation anyone has words for.

“The nurses kicked me out. They said I have to—eat and sleep, change. But Holster—I don’t know if he’ll—I don’t know what will happen while I’m gone. I don’t—” He breaks off, shudders, looks up.

“They’ll let you back in soon,” he says, almost automatically. What comfort can he offer here?

Ransom swallows. “But I don’t know—” He pauses again, breath hitching. “I don’t know what will happen.”

No one ever does , Jack doesn’t say, because this is a man who could lose the most important person to him in the world, and words like that don’t help. Jack, of all people, knows this.

“I don’t want to have to miss him,” Ransom says. “We’ve barely been apart since we met. And I know--I know I have to prepare for all possibilities, but the one I hate the most is the most likely one, and I can’t—I can’t even think straight. My own goddamn brain is playing tricks on me.” The words are sharp but his voice is filled with nothing but resigned misery. “I keep on thinking I see him,” Ransom says. His hands have curled into fists, tight enough that there’s no way his fingernails aren’t digging painfully into his palms. “I keep on feeling him right next to me. I think I can hear him breathing. I heard my name, and I turned, and no one was there. I—I was sitting next to his bed, and I heard him tell me everything was going to be okay. It’s not… it’s not fucking okay.”

The ghost drift. Oh. “You feel like you’re losing your mind, don’t you?”

Ransom nods, terse.

Jack leans back against the wall, the plaster cool at his back. “That happened to me, too.”

“With Kent?”

“I was unconscious,” Jack says, feeling more as though he is hearing someone else speak than speaking himself, “when he died. When I woke up, I didn’t believe he was gone. They told me, but I could feel him still, just pieces, just enough. And then, even after I realised they weren’t lying, my brain would fool itself into thinking he was there. I’d smell his cologne, or hear him laugh, feel his arm over my shoulders.”

“Did it stop?” Ransom asks, and when Jack looks at him his eyes are red and watery.

Jack nods. “I didn’t want it to, for a while,” he confesses. “It was all I had left of him. Kent was my best friend for years. He was with me through everything. But then, after a while, it did, and...” The words are heavy in his mouth. “I’ve made my peace with it, I think.”

“I don’t know if I’d want it to stop, if—” Ransom shakes his head. “I go to talk to him, and it feels like he’s there, like he’s listening, and he’s not, and he might never listen again, and I can’t—” He breaks off, choking, and Jack looks away. He can at least afford Ransom his dignity. He hears Ransom take a rattling breath, then another, barely hears his next words, “There is so much I never said to him.”

Little of what Jack had come to terms with in five years’ worth of therapy sessions can help Ransom here. That had been about coming to terms with death, about accepting that Kent wasn’t coming back, that the loss of their drift was a permanent one.

“He’s so fucking pale,” Ransom says. “And still, and quiet. It’s like he’s asleep, but it’s so much worse, because I know if I call his name he won’t wake up. He’s always woken up for me, and that’s so stupid and petty, but he’s not waking up, and I just—” He breaks off again. “What if—what if he…”

Jack sits still, silent and helpless as he watches Ransom struggle.

“What if Holster dies?” Ransom says, voice small and tense and desolate. “He piloted solo ; no one survives that.”

“Lardo did,” Jack says. “There’s a chance.”

Ransom’s jaw clenches. “One person in a different generation of Jaeger, out of--I don’t even know how many. And she--Lardo can never pilot again. The brain damage she sustained… Holster would hate that. He loves piloting. There isn’t--The doctor—he looked at me with so much pity , like he knows what’s going to happen and that I’m not going to like it, but he won’t say anything either way. He told me to have hope. My co-pilot was just ripped out of my head while we were in the drift, and he told me to have hope .”

By the time Jack had woken up five years ago, there had been no room for anything resembling hope. He isn’t sure if he’s better for the absence of it.

“How could I—how could I move on from that?”

He doesn’t ask, how did you? , but Jack knows the question is there. He swallows, turns his eyes to the ground for a moment as he gathers his thoughts. “You just live,” he answers at last, and the words feel horribly inadequate. “Just breathe, day by day, and somehow you make it through.”

Ransom takes a shaky breath. “He’s all I have left, Jack. Everyone else is gone. He’s the only one—I don’t know if I can .”

“He’s not dead,” Jack reminds him gently, because there is nothing he can say to that that will help.

“He might be, though!” Ransom is breathing heavily, quickly, hands trembling. “I can’t fix it; I can do anything. He might die and I’m just sitting here—they won’t even let me be with him. He might—he might…” His words stumble and fade to a stop. “He might die while I’m just sitting here. Oh god. Oh god. Oh shit. What if he dies while I’m just sitting here? I’m not even there with him—what if he wakes up before he dies and he looks around and the last thing he sees is the empty room and he thinks I’ve abandoned him, oh god —”

“Hey,” Jack says, and tries to keep his voice calm even when Ransom’s panic is starting to affect him, his heart rate rising, gut curling. “They wouldn’t have sent you out if they thought he was going to die.”

“But—anything can happen. There could be complications, or something that everyone missed, and he could die, and I can’t stop thinking about it. There are so many possibilities, and it was my fault ; if he dies, it’ll be because of me. I shouldn’t have let him—I should’ve—fuck.”

If there is anything Jack knows about, it’s guilt. “What he did was his choice,” he says, remembering the chill in his bones as Holster and Ransom argued over the comms. “He chose to eject you; nothing you did caused that.”

“But I should’ve—”

“You did all you could,” Jack says, and the words lump in his throat, because that is something that he has been trying to learn for years, and for the first time the words feel true. “You did everything you could in the shitty set of circumstances you had. It’s not your fault.”

Ransom takes a shaking breath, then another. “I’m so scared,” he confesses, and sounds like the child all of them wish they could be. Jack remembers, suddenly, that he can’t be older than twenty, that he’s barely more than a child himself. How lonely would it be, to lose everyone so early? “He’s all I have left.”

“You have us,” Jack says, and it feels woefully inadequate but it’s true. “You have April and March and the scientists and Lardo and Shitty and Bitty and me and everyone else here. Even if—the worst happens, you’ll still have us. We care about you.”

Ransom closes his eyes, then opens them, pressing his lips together for half a moment. “Thank you,” he says, hoarse. “Thank you, Jack.”

Jack doesn’t say, it’s all I wanted after Kent or it’s the least I could do or any number of responses that spring to mind. Instead, he stands. “You should change and eat,” he says, hoping that this is the right course of action, that he isn’t just making it worse. “Do you need another minute?”

Taking a deep breath, Ransom shakes his head. “The faster I do that, the faster I can go back.” He pulls himself to his feet and rubs his eyes, sniffling. “Really, Jack, thank you . I need to—” His breath hitches again, and he nods, then sets off into the direction of the mess hall. Jack watches him leave, then leans against the wall, sighing.

There is so much I never said to him , Ransom had mourned.

If that had been Bitty—if he had watched as Bitty pushed him out of the Conn-Pod and took the neural load upon himself, if Bitty was lying unconscious and uncertain in the medical wing—would all that they left unsaid between them haunt him now? He has been pushing off their conversations with an assumption that they would have time, but hasn’t he learnt by now that that is guaranteed to no one?

He needs to talk to Bitty. He needs to—

More than anything, Jack needs to be with him, sharing the same space, the same air, the sight of his drift partner indisputable and undoubtable.

What if it had been Bitty?

He pushes off the wall, hesitating for a moment. Bitty had murmured to him, as they left the Conn-Pod in tears and shock, that he would be in the kitchen, but that had been hours ago. Would he—but of course he would.

Jack walks toward the mess halls, and mentally attempts to compose something to say—anything. His heart beats with every step, I love you whispered in the spaces between, but Bitty already knows that. I want to be with you , but they are closer than any couple, have seen the best and worst of each other’s’ minds and come out the other side still in awe.

I am so, so glad you’re alive .

Jack’s steps pick up as he nears the kitchens, throat tight with the pain of the night, and before he knows it he is running, feet slapping onto the concrete with steps that feel too loud and too dangerous, but to slow down would be to stop, and this is not something he can let himself falter on. He runs, and runs, and almost does not notice the people he passes, all still in shock at the loss of another pilot, just like five years ago, just like always in this endless war against monsters too great for any one person to triumph against.

And then, finally, he pushes open the doors to the kitchen.

There is no music playing this time, no dancing softly to songs Jack doesn’t know. A blanket of solemnity hangs over the kitchen, most of the volunteers scattered throughout the base. Only Bitty fills the space, small shoulders even smaller as they hunch over his mixing bowl. Every so often, they shake, so subtly that it could almost be a hiccup.

“Bitty,” Jack says, and the name comes out raw and hoarse.

He looks up, eyes ringed red. “Oh,” he says. “Jack, I—” His carefully composed face quavers. “I’m—when I’m stressed, I just—and I thought maybe the other pilots would want—”

Carefully, Jack steps toward him. His heartbeat is too loud in his ears. He steps forward again, until he is so close to Bitty that he can see the freckles lightly dusting his nose. Neither of them speak, and Bitty doesn’t even move but for the tightly regulated measure of his breaths. Slowly, hesitantly, Jack takes the bowl from Bitty’s hands and places it on the counter. He doesn’t pull away. Their hands are still touching, just lightly. Jack swallows, then curls his fingers around Bitty’s palms. After a moment, Bitty’s curl back.

“I just,” he begins, then swallows, then begins again. His throat is tight and sore. “I know it’s selfish, but I had to tell you how relieved I am that it wasn’t you.” There is a part of him that knows this is not something he should think—it is not fair to Ransom or Holster or their pain. But, god , Jack can’t lose Bitty too. Not after Kent, not even now, when he’s finally come to a point within himself where it doesn’t hurt to think his name, where he can look back on his experience without the heavy weight of recent loss, where he is no longer quite the boy that blamed himself for the death of his best friend.

Bitty makes a small sound, sharp and heartbroken. “It’s not selfish,” he says. “It’s not. I can’t--I keep imagining would have happened if it had been us in the Jaeger, and I just--I don’t even know if Holster is alive , and I--”

His composure breaks, and he lets go of Jack’s hands to bury his face in his chest, shoulders shuddering. His fingers clutch at the back of Jack’s shirt, drawing him in closer, and Jack never wants him to let go. He presses a kiss to the crown of Bitty’s head, breathes in his presence, swallows past the tears that threaten to flow.

“He is,” Jack says, and doesn’t add for now. No one knows what will happen to Holster, not even the doctors. “And we are.” He doesn’t say that everything is fine, would rather not lie to his copilot. “We’re alive, Bitty.”

I love you , he thinks, and he will tell Bitty this as soon as they both pull away, as soon as he can find his voice within him again. I love you I love you I love you .

For now, though, Jack wraps his arms around Bitty’s shoulders and presses his nose into his hair, and they lean into each other, and everything is quiet.

fin