Grantaire has never held with those who favor fire.
He expects death to be frozen silence, a void unbroken by the warmth of a star.
So when Patria’s right arm splinters, crushed by the tentacles of a category-four Kaiju—when the feedback shorts out the sensors and rushes up his arm in a series of white-hot sparks—when everything begins to fade—
He’s ready for it. He never expected anything else.
Enjolras is screaming at him, but he can’t make out the words, and even the Drift, thick with fear, begins to dim. Then he can’t hear Enjolras over the roar in his ears and the searing shock of pain radiating from his shoulder to his fingertips, agony clawing its way into his brain.
Grantaire closes his eyes, and the void swallows him whole.
* * *
The Kaiju roars, and its tentacles wrap around the Jaeger like a lover. Enjolras can hear the hissing of burst pipes, and he can smell the hydraulic fluid through the oxygen intakes. The feedback from the damaged right arm knocked Grantaire out five minutes ago, nearly taking Enjolras with him. He can still feel the echoes of Grantaire’s pain in the Drift.
He’s hanging limply in the rig now, his head bowed, and the fact that Enjolras can see his breath fogging the faceplate of his helmet is the only thing keeping him sane.
Since then, he’s tried everything—every desperate, last-ditch maneuver that was designed to free Patria from a tight spot. Nothing has worked; there’s only one thing left to try.
"Patria Renegade, report," Fantine says crisply over the radio.
Enjolras reaches for the radio button. “We’ve lost right-arm functionality," he says, his voice emotionless, flatter than the pleasant automated voice warning him about structural integrity and life support systems. “And one of the escape pods is offline. Emergency systems are critical. Mobility near zero."
It’s hard to think. Drifting with Grantaire while he’s unconscious is like being blind in one eye, deaf in one ear. Like there’s a gaping void somewhere inside his mind.
The Jaeger shivers again as the Kaiju tightens its grip, and Enjolras shifts his weight, plants his feet so they don’t tip over. Even unconscious, Grantaire’s taking some of the neural load—enough that Enjolras can operate Patria without killing himself.
Not that it’s going to matter, in the long run. It’s not even going to matter in the short run.
One of the shoulder plates rips free with a horrifying shriek. They’re dead in the water, literally and figuratively, and they’re all that stands between a category-four Kaiju and the city of Los Angeles. In a matter of minutes, the Kaiju will rip them apart, and then it’s going to start on Santa Monica.
He takes a deep breath and hits the radio button again. “I don’t know what kind of readouts you’re getting back there. Grantaire’s unconscious, but he’s breathing. I’m going to override the system and get him into the remaining escape pod, and then…" He straightens his shoulders—or tries to. Patria’s immobility won’t let him do much. “Our major weapons are all offline, but I can still set the self-destruct. The blast will take out the Kaiju before it can make landfall."
He looked it up once—the payload for Patria’s self-destruct sequence. Bad luck, Grantaire had told him, Grantaire who never believed in anything. Superstitious Drift-jockey nonsense, Enjolras had called it.
Does it still count as superstition after it comes true?
Patria’s payload is an estimated fifteen kilotons of high-explosive firepower. And the Jaeger will fragment, pummeling the Kaiju with shrapnel…it will be enough. Their seventh kill. “Better put out a tsunami warning," he says as an afterthought, thinking about the shockwave. He remembers the time they walked the Santa Monica pier on shore leave, the way he’d twined his fingers with Grantaire’s as they’d wandered the creaking, salt-worn boardwalk, all but deserted because who in their right mind would take a stroll so near the ocean?
The memory strengthens and doubles, like a picture coming into focus, and he can feel the harsh wind, how cold it was because he hadn’t worn a jacket—
No. Grantaire had been the one who left his jacket in his—their—bunk. Enjolras looks up sharply, and for the space of a heartbeat he’s watching himself from outside.
The Drift stabilizes.
"What’d I miss?" Grantaire mutters weakly. Enjolras doesn’t have to tell him; in a matter of seconds, he’s picked it all up from the Drift and the flashing red warnings on-screen. “Well, shit."
The pressure on Patria increases again, and something pops in the left knee, titanium beginning to bow under the pressure. Enjolras feels the echo in his own body and winces. “You’re wasting time," he says. “Your escape pod is still working, you need to get out while you still can."
"Excuse me?" Grantaire’s mouth says. His mind is saying something much more colorful.
Enjolras forges ahead. “Only one of us has to do this."
"And what in God’s name makes you think it should be you?"
Enjolras floods the Drift with horror and denial. You want me to leave you here?
"Well, you seemed to think I’d be okay with leaving you here! You were going to toss me in an escape pod and blow yourself up!"
"I didn’t have a choice." You were unconscious.
"Well, now I’m not." And I’m not going anywhere without you.
As always, it’s hard to tell how much of the argument is out loud, and how much of it stays in their minds. Every word is backed with emotion, fierce and uncompromising, shored up with flashes of memory.
It only takes a few seconds to settle on a plan. The Kaiju is chewing on the defunct right arm, giving them a little more time.
"We do it together," Grantaire says at last. They’ll stay in the Drift, stay connected, living in each other’s minds until the blast takes them.
There are worse ways to die.
Decision made, Enjolras taps the radio button. “Command, we’ve had a slight change of plans. We’re going to activate the self-destruct together." Technically it’s a waste of resources—they could potentially salvage a pilot from this mission. A good Jaeger pilot is hard to find, and they’re two of the best.
Grantaire has been ‘salvaged’ before. He’d rather die than do it again. Even if Fantine orders one of them to return, it won’t matter. You can’t court-martial a dead man; they’re beyond orders now.
"Understood," comes the reply, as steady as ever. “Patria Renegade, you are authorized for self-destruct."
"Thank you, ma’am," Enjolras says.
"It’s been a pleasure," Grantaire adds, meaning it.
There’s a click from the radio, and the faintest catch of breath. “You will be missed," Fantine says, and then the line closes.
Setting the self-destruct is almost anticlimactic. Flip a few switches, confirm the decision with a code word, and all that’s left to do is hit the button.
Grantaire looks over at Enjolras and smiles. “Allow me?"
"Be my guest."
His hand hovers over the panel, and he looks back at Enjolras. “Wish I could kiss you again," he says. But if they take the helmets off, they’ll lose the Drift, and that’s more important.
Enjolras smiles, and images tumble through the Drift between them, memories of sound and touch and taste. He’s not chasing them, just calling them up one by one, and letting them fall away. A hundred kisses, a thousand, from chaste to carnal and back again. Grantaire had hoped to have a lifetime of them.
"Me too," Enjolras murmurs.
Grantaire presses the button to start the countdown and stretches out his free hand. Enjolras reaches out to catch it.
The clock ticks down from thirty, to twenty, to ten.
He doesn’t have to say it; neither one of them does. It’s understood, as innate and automatic as breathing. But he hasn’t said it enough, and he’s not going to get another chance.
"Love you," Grantaire says.
"Yeah. You, too."
* * *
He was wrong.
He smiles, tightening his grip on Enjolras’ hand, and closes his eyes against the light.