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And the White, White Drift

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You are your father’s son; we’ll drift just fine.

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If anyone had been stupid enough to ask him what he thought he’d experience after he died, he would have growled, ‘How the hell would I know? I’ll be dead,’ and told them to get back to it or he’d dock them a day’s wages. If that anyone had pestered him, he’d add there was no such thing as life after death so the question was pointless.

Because he’d never been a religious man. Not when he was a kid and his mother had tried to get him to church at least once a month, saying that it was too late for Luna but it wasn’t for him. Not later on when he’d taken his first steps in a Jaeger, feeling as if he were a god, a notion quickly shot down when he’d fallen on his ass during training and Tamsin and the other pilots had razzed him for weeks.

But, it was all there, right? In popular culture even though that popular culture was diverted and altered by K-Day, unifying the world in a brand new way. Pearly gates, flights of angels singing him to his rest with maybe a dash of the Prophet and Buddha thrown in, just because.

The few times he did wonder about a life beyond, usually at his desk late at night when the past was too close and he felt weak, sometimes dizzy, he’d think about the future. Would death be something tangible, recognizable? Or would it be a gradual descent into nothingness, never to…

Stack?

…wake again, never to breath again, the moment lost because it just didn’t exist?

When he caught himself at it, the wondering, he always called himself a fool and reminded himself that dying was part of the job. His life was an eternal clock watch and had been for twelve odd years. There was no use pissing and moaning about it, not now when it was far too late.

Still, it was one thing to speculate about his eventual death, a completely different thing to actually live it and as he fought the encroaching black, hovering somewhere between the shock of the explosion that had taken out Scunner and Raiju and what was coming next he had a moment of—

Stacker!

—brief, glorious clarity and he knew it was almost done. All his worries and concerns were washed away in the knowledge that it was done. Whatever the outcome, it was finally done and he should be okay with that but he wasn’t because he was falling and falling, only not down but up, light as a feather. He thought of his mother, his long-dead sister, both waiting for him at the gates he didn’t believe in and he listened for their voices, the trumpets and the beautiful music.

What he got was a sharp hiss and a crushing weight on his chest and a familiar voice whispering, “Oh, my God.”

*

Returning to life, slipping back into a body that had been broken and fried wasn’t Stacker's idea of a good time. His tibia and ulna had both been fractured, a sizeable portion of his epidermis was gone and his retinas were scorched.

He learned all that while playing a floating Lazarus under the care of Dr. Bankoli and his team, suspended in a foot-deep bath of healing gel while most of the damage was repaired. It was a lesson in pain and pain management but that didn’t stop him from barking orders once his throat was healed, once they realized that his body might be a mess, but his mind was still sharp.

Bankoli refused to let Choi install a comm unit in the room, citing the danger of infection, so Choi did the next best thing—he set up a station in the observation room and fit a mic in the wall near the bath.

It was there that Stacker learned Striker Eureka’s conn-pod had melted in the blast, forming a weak, protective shell. That the shell had been thrown clear and had landed on the burning hull. His suit had been designed for many things but not that extreme temperature and he’d burned. Still in drift, Chuck had managed a mental block, preventing the worst of the damage even as he scrambled for the shoulder pod.

Stacker almost remembered the next part: being doused with cooling foam and dragged to the pod to be thrown in like so much garbage. Chuck had climbed on top, flattening Stacker because the pod was designed for one, not two. The pain had crested and Stacker passed out.

After that it was all a blank.

Later, he found out that it was a miracle they’d survived and like all things, miracles were finicky things. The pod had ejected, but not up to the waiting surface. The additional mass made them veer off course. They'd slammed into a pile of deep-sea rocks and got caught in a crevasse, as if between the jaws of a Kaiju.

Miracle or no, that would have been the end had Choi not been on the ball. He’d picked up their beacon, relayed it to the choppers, and a dive team was dispatched. They were pried from the rocks, brought to the surface and flighted to Hong Kong and the P of W Burn Unit. Stacker regained consciousness sometime later, on his own personal drift as the drugs and nanobiotic newskin did their work.

All this was related to him via his own personal ghost, haunting the big observation window, her voice fading in and out as she refused his requests— then orders—to go rest. Finally, on the fifth day he’d had enough. She’d come to report on the upheaval of the Jaeger programs, saying Marshall Hansen was turning away requests for photo ops and interviews because there weren’t enough personnel. Marshall Hansen, also, was in a quandary because funds were pouring in and they couldn’t spend it all fast enough and no one was sure if the surplus should go to infrastructure, new Jaegers or refitting the defunct bases. As she relayed the last bit of intel, she turned white and grabbed the steel window casing for support.

“Miss Mori?”

She jerked her head up and blinked red eyes. “Yes, Marshall?”

“Is Becket out there?”

She blinked again and nodded.

“Can you get him for me? I just thought of something I need to ask him.”

Normally she would have flashed him a sharp glance that hid curiosity and supposition, both subsumed in an instant. Now, she just nodded again and disappeared.

Becket showed up at the window a minute later followed by Dr. Bankoli and his ever-present diagnostic pad.

Becket nodded awkwardly and waved. “How’s it going?”

“Do I really need to answer that?”

Becket grinned. “I think you just did.”

Stacker frowned. “Glad to see you’re in one piece.”

“Me too, sir.” Becket glanced at Bankoli. “I mean, I’m surprised, you know? You blew the Striker up and you had cancer, right? And now you and Chuck are alive and the cancer is gone?”

“So they say.”

“That’s pretty weird, that radiation could cure radiation.”

“That’s not what I said, young man,” Dr. Bankoli murmured without looking up. “I said a number of things, most of which seemed to have gone in one of your ears and out the other.”

Becket rolled his eyes.

“Give him a break, doc,” Stacker called out. “He’s had a rough year.”

Dr. Bankoli gave a distracted, “Humph,” and wandered out of view, head still down.

Becket took a step forward. “So, you’re really okay, sir?”

“I am.” And then Stacker added, in a lowered voice for all the good that would do with a mic that picked up everything, “Is Mako nearby?”

Becket looked over his shoulder and then shook his head. “She said she was gonna call Marshall Hansen.”

He sighed. “Good. Get her to the base and make her sleep. Or at the very least, get her to eat something more than tea.”

Becket shifted from foot to foot. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that, sir.”

“I didn’t ask you if you were comfortable with it, Ranger. She’s your co-pilot; it’s up to you to take care of her. She’d do the same for you.”

Becket straightened up. “What should I do? I can’t just throw her over my shoulder.”

“I don’t care,” Stacker snapped, or tried to. The thin strands of consciousness were dissolving, a familiar process by now. He had a minute, maybe two before he was out again. “Put a sedative in her tea. Tell her a Kaiju survived and broken through the breech and is heading for Hong Kong.” He revived long enough to turn his head and ask, “They’ve not, have they? Broken through?”

Becket pressed a palm against the glass and said reassuringly, “The seal is strong, sir, miles deep. As far as we can tell, they’re all dead.”

“Good.” And, before he could forget about it as he had all the times before, he muttered, “We need to build a shield.”

“Marshal Hansen is flying to London in a week, sir.”

“Right, the conference.” Mako had told him of the hastily-formed gathering of ambassadors and world leaders. They were going to discuss next steps and procedures, culminating in a five-year plan. It made him tired just thinking about it.

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t forget the shield.”

“Choi and Herc have it under control, sir.”

He wanted to snarl at Becket’s soothing tone, saying he wasn’t a baby that needed comforting. He wanted to ask where the hell Herc was because it had been three weeks since he’d been pulled from the wreckage and that was three weeks too long without liaising with his second-in-command. Before he could do any of that, say any of that, reality folded then fractured and he was gone once more.

*

The sheet, as soft as it was, caught on the mesh again and he yanked it, trying to straighten it out. “What about the Dome?”

Mako reached out and plucked the sheet from his hand, then smoothed it out as she read from her pad, “Minor structural damage, already repaired.”

“And the equipment?”

“Very little damage, already repaired or replaced.”

Before, when a glass window and a sharp angle had separated them, he hadn’t been able to see her clearly. Now, standing within arms’ reach, he wasn’t happy to note the deep shadows under her eyes and that she seemed to have dropped at least five pounds. She’d never been heavy, but her small limbs had always carried a smooth layer of muscle. If Becket were responsible for any of those changes, he’d kill him. “And the crews?”

“Eleven dead from fallen debris, another forty-three injured.”

Stacked against millions, eleven wasn’t that bad. Still… “They’re to receive all honors.”

“The paperwork has already been submitted.”

“And make sure their families are taken care of.” He started to rub his eyes, remembering at the last minute that he wasn’t supposed to abrade his skin in any way. The light mesh bodysuit was a pain in the ass but at least he was out of the tub and in a bed.

“Also already done.”

“And screw the squabbling over funds. I want the Dome fully stocked and equipped, just in case.”

“We have just received a two-month’s supply of provisions. And the Puma Real and the Chrome Brutus have been recommissioned and are on their way to Hong Kong. They should arrive in three days at nineteen hundred and twenty-three hundred hours, respectively.”

“How’s Chuck?”

“Remarkably well, considering. His right eye is not responding to the surgery. The doctors want to wait another week; if he is still having issues at that time, they will operate again.”

Young Hansen had never been good with ‘issues,’ something that would no doubt be driving his father around the bend. “How’s Jin?”

“Better.”

Short for: Wei Tang Jin lost his two brothers while in drift fighting the Kaiju and was now alone in his own head—how good could he be? “Well, make sure he’s monitored. I know what it might come to, but I want him to make a rational decision. Maybe we can introduce a new pilot.”

“I was thinking Lieutenant Fontaine would be a good choice.”

He raised an eyebrow; it hurt. “Claire?”

She nodded. “I believe she is ready. Lieutenant Millette has been dead for two years now.”

He nodded, thinking about it. Claire Fontaine had been another of the PPDC’s best and brightest but a chance encounter with a Kaiju that had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared had changed all that. The newly-commissioned Lucifer Ghost had been torn apart, causing a cascading electrical fire. Fontaine had survived but Noelle Millette was killed while in drift; Fontaine had been a wreck ever since.

But it was an interesting idea; Fontaine spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, Yue, and a smattering of Portuguese. She and Jin would be able to communicate and that was the first step towards closure. That and the grief they both shared. “I’ll talk to her when I get back on my feet.”

Mako nodded. “The Mammoth Apostle is being refitted, just in case.”

“What about the memorials?”

“The Kaidonovsky’s families requested burial in Moscow, which took place on the thirteenth.”

“I’ll fly out as soon as possible.”

“I am sure they would appreciate that.”

“What about Cheung and Hu?”

Mako glanced up, then back down again. “I believe it would be best if we let the Wei Tang family grieve in peace.”

“Wei Tang Ming?”

Mako nodded once. “He is still very bitter.”

“He wouldn’t have cause to be bitter if he hadn’t left his three sons to their own devices while he built his empire.” The Wei Tang boys had taken to the streets before joining the PPDC. When they’d joined the forces and became the heroes of all China, their father had shown up, arms metaphorically outstretched. “Perhaps he should have realized that a Ranger puts his or her life in danger every day before he decided to be a dad again.”

“I contacted Wei Tang Lei. She said to give it time. She is sure her husband will reconsider the memorial.”

He smiled, attention suddenly diverted by her calm demeanor, her answer for every question posed. “You don’t really need me along for this ride, do you?”

His attempt at humor didn’t make her laugh or even smile. She frowned, her hands curling into fists, gripping the pad so hard she activated the hologram screen. An image of a Jaeger popped up, rotating slowly. With a muttered curse, she deactivated it and the image disappeared.

So, no, it wasn’t the boy; it wasn’t the boy at all and there was only one thing it could be.

He stretched out a hand.

She looked at his hand, but didn’t move. And then, in the space of a heartbeat, her face crumpled. She dropped the pad and launched herself forward.

He caught her, ignoring the streak of pain that arced across his shoulders and chest as he pulled her in, remembering this from so long ago, the tiny dark-haired girl with tear-stained cheeks who curled into him as if he could solve every problem, large and small. She’d changed so much since then. So much and not at all.

“It almost killed me,” he murmured into her hair. “When I got the diagnosis and I realized I was going to have to leave you sooner rather than later? It almost killed me.”

Her face buried in his chest, she nodded.

‘You can find me in the drift.’

He’d said it, a follow-up to the promise given the day he’d signed the adoption papers—that he’d always be there for her. Now, with her in his arms, crying like she hardly ever did, the words seemed laughable, vainglorious and arrogant. She’d never asked anything of him other than to be by his side, to be there for her in the here and now. Well, that and the opportunity to pilot a Jaeger.

He held her tighter. “The doctors say the cancer is gone.”

“I know.”

“And the brain damage is slight. It probably won’t affect me in any way.” Another laughable statement but she just nodded again.

“I know.”

He sighed. “I’m alive, sweetheart—that’s what counts.”

She didn’t say anything.

He kissed the top of her head, a rare demonstration that made her look up at him and smile through her tears. They stared at each other for a long moment and then she pulled out of his arms and stood up.

Back to Ranger Mori, wiping her face clean, picking up the pad and pretending to scroll through the data. “Dr. Bankoli has said that any danger of infection is gone.” Her voice was shaky and she cleared her throat. “Once the final layer of newskin has been accepted, you may get out of bed. You will be discharged two days after with the understanding that any cuts or wounds must be examined immediately by a qualified technician.”

“Understood.”

“After that, you are to have weekly examinations for the period of five weeks, including a retinal abrasion.”

“Ouch. I’ve become more robot than man.”

She pursed her lips at his levity, but continued, “Upon receiving approval from Dr. Bankoli, you’ll perform a series of exercises, set by the PPDC, to determine your physical fitness. If you fail, you will not be able to retake the tests for one calendar month.”

“I will not fail.”

She looked up and smiled. “No. You will not.”

He drew a long breath—he’d assumed he’d be bedridden for at least another week. “So, I have to stick around here for a few days, take some tests and then I can go back to work?”

She shook her head. “Not quite.” She turned the pad off, then cradled it to her chest. “I believe it will benefit the program if you attend the conference in London.”

“Herc’s handling that.”

She hesitated, then shrugged. “He is. He left a few days ago but I think you should join him. He’s been…” She hesitated again, then said stiffly, “…very busy.”

“Busy? Maybe that’s why he never came to see me.” His tone was surprisingly bad-tempered, his words disturbingly unedited. He glanced at Mako, hoping she hadn’t noticed. She was looking at him from under her eyelashes, so yes, she’d noticed. “Five minutes wouldn’t have killed him.”

Her expression didn’t change and he frowned. A tearful Mako was a rarity; an indecisive Mako was a complete unknown and she watched him steadily before replying in Japanese, “Most likely.”

Another thing she rarely did—speak her native tongue in public. “What aren’t you telling me?”

She shook her head and backed up. “I need to return to the Shatterdome. Marshall Hansen has tasked me with reviewing the new recruit roster.”

“Miss Mori?”

But she bowed and left, a wing of blue-tipped hair fluttering as she hurried away.

He could go after her, of course. And send the bodysuit’s sensors into a frenzy, notifying every doctor within range that he’d done the unthinkable and set a foot on the ground.

He touched his chest, feeling the mesh and under that, the fake skin. Dr. Bankoli had assured him that it wasn’t really fake skin. That it was a clone of his own, and once bonded, there would be no pain and no one would be able to tell that he’d been burned over seventy-one percent of his body.

Another miracle, this one to be truly grateful for because if true, if the Kaiju and cancer were both gone, then his chances of living to old age were that much greater and he didn’t want to spend those years in pain.

So he stroked his chest one more time, not sleepy but bored out of his mind, thinking of Mako, of Herc and his odd behavior, falling into a kind of waking dream that was actually memory of the week he and Herc drifted together, piloting the Diablo Intercept.

*

He hadn’t been to London since the attack on Manila. Then, the city had been on high alert, preparing for attack from all shores . Now it was as he remembered from his childhood: people everywhere, streets crowded with cars and bicycles. The only difference, he realized as he climbed from the cab, was that the people were smiling, even at each other. A man dressed in a grey wool suit edged by with a nod, humming under his breath. It took Stacker a moment to recognize the tune: Some Enchanted Evening. A song from a twentieth-century musical he vaguely remembered as silly even though his mother had loved it.

When he got to the security gate that protected the new UN complex, he nodded to the guards, then showed his ID to the sergeant in the kiosk. The sergeant looked at the card, then up, then down again. His eyes widened and he gave Stacker a huge smile. It had become the norm, this reaction, but that didn’t mean one had to like it.

“Sorry, sir. I didn’t recognize you,” the sergeant said.

“It’s the clothes.” He waved to the silk suit.

On cue, the sergeant grinned and returned the card. “Can I just say how much we appreciate what you did, sir?” He shook his head in wonder. “It was in all the papers. We really appreciate it.”

He tucked the ID away. ‘You’re welcome’ always seemed so ridiculous—as if he’d defeated the Kaiju all on his own—so he’d been responding with a simple, “Thank you.”

“My daughter—she wants to be a Ranger and pilot a Jaeger someday. She’s going to be over the moon when I tell her who I met today.”

“I hope there won’t be need of Jaegers in the future.”

The sergeant’s smile faded. “Me too, sir, me too.” He tapped his keyboard; the alarm sounded and the guards stepped apart. The gates began to open.

Oddly sorry for spoiling the sergeant’s good mood, Stacker smiled briefly. “But we never know what the future holds, do we?”

The sergeant smiled again, blue eyes brightening. “No, we don’t, sir.”

He turned to go, then said over his shoulder. “Tell your daughter to contact the PPDC when she gets old enough. We’ll have a place for her, no doubt.”

The sergeant leaned through the kiosk window and called out, “Will do, sir!”

*

He got the same reaction as he signed in at reception and made his way up the stairs and down the long hall. People actually stopped and stared, some whispering and pointing as he walked by. He took it all calmly, even though it was absurd. He’d done his job, nothing more.

“How’s it feel to be a rock star?”

He stopped, turning so quickly he slipped, his new shoes making a loud squeaking sound. Well, finally. “I’m too old to be a rock star.”

Herc pushed away from the wall and came forward, hand extended.

Stacker didn’t frown at the unusually formal greeting. He just took  Herc’s hand and gave it a brief squeeze, trying to figure out what he was seeing.

Herc looked good, great even. He was wearing a new dark grey suit with a new blue tie. His cheeks were shaved and his smile was as calm as ever, as steady as ever. But his eyes were bloodshot as if he hadn’t been sleeping and his shoulders were tight. “How’s the arm?”

Herc raised his right arm and wiggled his fingers. “Good as new.”

“And the concussion?”

“Gone.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Stacker cocked his head. Herc had never been able to lie to him; why was he trying now? “What’s going on with you?”

Herc gaze shifted until he was looking somewhere over Stacker’s shoulder. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Is it Chuck?”

Herc shook his head. “I told you, there’s nothing going on.” And then, before Stacker could say anything else, he gestured towards the end of the hall. “We’re about to begin and you’re late. Come on.”

*

This was important, he assured himself as Ambassador Satou insisted—for the fourth time—that the all clear not be given until they had proof positive that the Kaiju were gone. It was important and he needed to consider all opinions and concerns because that’s what an alliance did. And he sympathized with Satou. Japan was extraordinarily vulnerable to an oceanic assault and they were still recovering from Onibaba. But there was caution and then there was caution.

“Ambassador,” he said, interrupting Satou gently, “I appreciate your anxieties over your manufacturing plants but I think it’s premature to move them at this juncture. Not only would the move affect your country’s revenue stream but the lives of your people, as well.”

“Not to mention a day late and a dollar short,” Herc muttered into his palm.

“My Rangers,” Stacker continued as if he hadn’t heard, “are out there right now, scouring the ocean floor. We have found nothing but the remains of Raiju and Scunner. We will ensure that precautions and safety measures are put into place. And not just at the original portal but at other fissures and points of ingress.”

The ambassador humphed, clearly not convinced.

Herc sighed and leaned sideways. Their shoulders touched and Stacker wanted to ask again, ‘What’s with you?’ because Herc was never insubordinate or rude, even if the target of his rudeness wasn’t aware of it.

“That does not address my country’s concern—”

“Daito,” Ambassador Sasaki also interrupted, not gently. “We are all concerned. We all want assurances that it is over and the Kaiju have been destroyed. But…” She powered down her pad. “We are also tired. We have been sitting here for eight hours and I for one would like my dinner and a glass of celebratory champagne.”

She looked around. No one uttered a word and Stacker hid a smile. It had been the Americans and the Brits that had started this show, but it had been Sasaki that had run it. For all that she was half his size and fifteen years his senior, she could probably take them all in one, maybe two falls.

Herc coughed.

“You okay?” he whispered.

Herc nodded.

“Then,” Sasaki smiled and stood. “We will meet again tomorrow. You will find tomorrow’s agenda has been sent to your computers. Hong Kong and the surrounding areas are still experiencing power outages but emergency services are back online and will no doubt be requesting aid. If you have the resources, please contact the HKES directly—I am sure they would appreciate it. And…” Sasaki turned to Stacker and Herc and bowed. “Gentlemen. Thank you for your service, your dedication, and your quick thinking under pressure. We would not be here if it were not for you.” Sasaki began to clap and the other ambassadors followed, even Cole and Taylor, a minor miracle.

Stacker nodded shortly, only then realizing that Herc was clapping, too; he frowned but put it away for later. He stood and bowed briefly, then began gathering his pad and notes and pens.

“It would be easier if you would just join the twenty-first century and took notes on your pad like everyone else,” Herc murmured as he stood up.

He tapped the small mountain of paper, ordering the sheets just so. “It would.” He stuffed everything in his briefcase and snapped it shut. “But you and I both know that some things are more fragile than others.”

Herc shrugged. “Paper burns.”

He gestured for Herc to lead the way. “Everything burns.”

Herc shot him a strange, blank look, but just nodded and started walking.

*

By unspoken agreement, they skipped the official party and took the lift to the main entrance. There was, Stacker mused out loud, a pub not too far away, built after K-Day when elected officials were spending every waking minute on the job.

But good location or not, they came to a stop as soon as they reached the wide lobby doors. Stacker peered through the glass. Beyond the tall gates was a moving mass and it took the harsh spotlight of a security drone for him to realize that it was a lot of people. A whole hell of a lot of people.

“It’s been like this for three weeks, sir.”

He looked over his shoulder; the sergeant from earlier was coming towards them, a small security contingent behind him.

“Are they rioting?”

The sergeant shook his head. “Not them—they’re just really happy. They start gathering, sometimes here, most times at the Circus or Covent Garden and pretty soon it’s like the whole of London is out there on the streets, dancing and singing.”

“A flash mob gone bad,” Herc muttered.

“They won’t do any harm, sir,” the sergeant chided. “We’ve had to break it up a few times when they’ve picked our block for their hijinks, hence Mick and the boys.” He jerked his thumb to his men. “But we mostly just let them go at it. They’ll break up around midnight.”

“You feel like going out there?” Herc asked with a frown.

Stacker shook his head. “All I want is a drink and a little peace and quiet.”

Herc touched his elbow. “Follow me.”

*

After a stop at the commissary, they ended up in paradise, a courtyard off the main building, full of plants and trees and a gazebo sitting Thameside.

“This is nice,” Stacker said, running his palm over the clean lines of the gazebo’s bamboo balustrade.

Herc nodded. He was holding an armful of liquor bottles and they clanked softly. “It was a gift from Japan after Tokyo.”

“Yeah?” He climbed the steps and looked around. A bench ran the circumference of the octagonal walls; in the center was a low table and a tea service.

“Hold these…” Herc shoved the bottles into Stacker’s arms, then dragged the table to the side that faced the river. He retrieved the bottles and jerked his head, nodding towards a bench. “There are some cushions in that bench over there—just lift the top.”

“You come here a lot?” It sounded like a pick-up line and he smiled.

Herc just nodded and set the bottles on the table. “Yeah. The ambassadors get a little rowdy. I can hear myself think out here.”

He lifted the bench lid and grabbed a long cushion and then another. “That lot? Rowdy?”

“You better believe it,” Herc replied absently, examining the bottles one by one. “They’re party animals.”

He snorted, trying to banish the unpleasant image of Ambassador Takashi in the middle of a dance floor from his mind. He set a cushion on the bench, then pulled off his jacket. It felt so good, the cool London night. He sighed and draped the jacket over the balustrade and started in on his tie. “What’d you get?” He was too tired to wrestle the knot, so he loosened it, then slipped the tie over his head and tossed it on his jacket.

“Vodka, whisky, tequila.”

“The big three.” One collar button, then a few more and yeah, that was it. He dropped onto a bench and leaned his head back. “That feels good.”

“I’m glad.”

High above, seen through the latticework that made up the roof of the gazebo, the moon was a bare sliver. When he was a kid, he’d dreamed of becoming an astronaut—so odd to realize that he’d spent most of his adult life not among the stars, but down in the depths of the oceans.

“What is it?” Herc asked softly.

“Nothing.” From Hong Kong to Sydney and Alaska and finally, back to the Pacific Rim to make the last stand… It suddenly was as if it had all happened within the space of a few hours, not a few months. One minute the world was ending, the next, it wasn’t. One minute he was dying, the next…

He closed his eyes.

“Hey.”

Cool fingertips touched the back of his hand. He reached without opening his eyes. Herc put the glass in his hand. “Thanks.” He drank the same way, blind to everything but the bite of whiskey and the hushed sounds of Herc, getting comfortable nearby.

He took another sip. “Mako told me we got funding.”

Herc nodded. “They can’t throw it at us fast enough.”

“How long?”

“Another decade at the very least. We’ll be able to open up all the closed Domes and build a fleet of Jaegers.”

He’d known, of course, that the grateful world had shown its appreciation in terms of cash, but even so… “That much?”

“That much.”

He shrugged. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

“You want appreciation? Take a look.”

He opened his eyes. Herc was pointing south, towards the Vauxhall Bridge. He twisted around and looked over the railing. “Christ,” he muttered.

“They’ve been running it all week.”

During the last few years, technology had progressed but everything else had slowed to a crawl, including most traditional forms of business and marketing. He was fine with that—he’d hated the intrusive floating screens that had started to crop up in the sky before K-Day, advertising everything from Pepsi to Viagra. After Knifehead had showed his ugly face, money was diverted, people stopped buying and gradually the adverts ceased.

But here they were again, floating above the city, slowly swiveling this way and that. Tonight, the featured attraction was a holographic recording of him, suited up, addressing the Hong Kong crew. “How the hell did they get that?”

“You know everything is recorded these days,” Herc got up and joined him, leaning against the balustrade. “I like it. You’re very impressive in that drivesuit.”

He winced, then winced again as his huge twin finished up his speech and the Rangers and crew roared. The crowd below cheered as well; he could hear the sudden swell of shouts and whistles above the recorded audio.

He sighed and turned back around. “I don’t want to be impressive.”

Herc burst out laughing and dropped on the cushion next to Stacker. He reached for the vodka, still chuckling.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. You sound like a five year old who doesn’t want to go to bed. ‘I don’t want to be impressive.’

He couldn’t help a smile in the face of Herc’s laughter and awful British accent, but that was business as usual—Herc always brought out the best in him, always made things better. “I saw Chuck before I left.”

“Yeah?”

“He said to say hi.”

“No, he didn’t.”

No, he did not. “He did, however, say he was sorry for being such an ass and that he’d try to do better by the PPDC.”

Herc’s laughter died. He capped the vodka, then leaned back and gave Stacker a sideways glance. “He did?”

Stacker nodded. It had surprised him, too, getting the visit a few minutes before he was due on the helipad. “I think he had an epiphany, out there in the big blue.”

“It’s about damn time.”

They nodded in sync, then turned their heads as the crowd roared anew.

“You gotta be kidding,” Stacker growled as the clip began again. “Wasn’t once enough?”

“You’re a hero,” Herc murmured. “They’re just paying tribute to your sacrifice.”

One time he could take, but two and three? He shook his head. “What’re you talking about? You should be up there on that screen, not me. You think I don’t know what it cost you, to let go of the only thing you love?” He downed the last of his drink. “Don’t talk to me about being a hero, about sacrifice.”

Herc’s expression changed. “Yeah, right.” He slammed his glass down, adding harshly, “You know, I gotta go.” He stood up.

“What?”

“I’ve been sitting on my ass all day. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”

Herc turned to leave but Stacker lunged and grabbed his arm. “What the hell is wrong with you and don’t tell me you’re fine! I know you too well.” Herc’s forearm was like rock under his hand.

“Yeah, you know me too well,” Herc muttered sarcastically.

He frowned. “What is this? Is it about Chuck?” He tugged, trying to get Herc to sit back down. “He’s family, the last of it. I get it.”

Words meant to soothe but only seemed to aggravate, because Herc jerked free and paced towards the rear of the gazebo then back again. “You think that’s it? That when you two suited up, it was only Chuck that I—” Herc shook his head like a bull about to charge. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

It was like watching one of those Japanese cartoons that Mako used to love when she’d first come to live with him and they were learning each other’s language—no subtitles to tell him what the characters were saying, just expressions and body language to go by and he narrowed his eyes, at a loss because this level of anger was too much, too—

Oh.

Oh.

He set his glass down carefully as if the table was armed with a pressure trigger and any wrong move would send them both sky high. “You told me it was over, remember?” he said, mostly to the glossy black lacquer surface. “You came to me and said, sorry, it was a while ago and a one-time thing but she has a kid and I gotta do right by them.” He looked up, trying to rein in the anger, the pain that the memory of that night unleashed only to have it bleed free. “Remember?”

Herc didn’t move.

“So I did it. I let you go. I said thanks for the memories and I’ll see you at roll call.”

“I know.”

Herc’s deep voice was sandpaper rough and that only made Stacker’s anger burn brighter. “When Mako was twelve and I had to leave her in that place to oversee Vladivostok, did you say anything? Do anything? I could have used your help. I needed you!”

Herc’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t your babysitter and —”

He was on his feet. “No, you weren’t, but you were my family, the only one I had!”

Herc took a step closer, jabbing his finger at Stacker’s chest. “Don’t lecture me on family. I was there for her, every step of the way.”

His anger shifted, stilled and then morphed. “What are you talking about?”

“I was there,” Herc bit out. “I took that transfer to be with her because you couldn’t. I left my son to be with your daughter. I stayed because of her, because of you.

He shook his head, the words making sense and no sense, both at the same time.

“And when they offered me Australia again, I told them no. Because of you.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Every time, every time, you had to be away for longer than a few weeks, I managed to fly out, to make sure she was okay.”

So, not anger, but something else, something darker and less familiar.

“And when you got sick,” Herc added, voice dropping to a low growl, “I kept it from her by lying and stalling. Telling her you were just tired, that those pills were for your headaches and nothing more.”

Even in the dim light, he could see that Herc’s face was flushed with anger, his eyes a bright blue. “When I got sick…” he repeated softly, realizing something he should have thought of a long time ago. “I never told you about the cancer but somehow you knew. When did you know? How did you know?” He leaned forward. “Was it the base doctors? Did they blab?”

Herc didn’t look away even though he narrowed his eyes as if he were gazing into the sun. “I knew the second you got the diagnosis.”

He shook his head. “Not possible. I was in Hong Kong. You were in Australia.” His voice was strained as if he’d been shouting. “You were in Australia!

“Yeah, I was.”

“No,” he said after a long moment, shaking his head again and again. “No.”

“I felt it all, your anger, your rage—”

“It’s not possible.”

“I’m not a scientist,” Herc said. “I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not. All I know is that we’re still drifting.” When Stacker didn’t say anything, Herc added, “We are.”

“How?”

Herc shrugged. “It used to be that I could just sense when you were angry or worried. Now I can hear actual words. Sometimes it’s like you’re speaking into my ear.”

He shook his head, leaning forward. “It’s not. Possible.”

“I heard you the first time and you can keep repeating yourself but it’s not gonna change the fact that things are the way they are.”

He swallowed in denial even as he recalled all those little instances that alone meant nothing, but taken as a whole?

He should sit down because he felt like he was gonna fall and heroes didn’t fall, right? He wanted to call Lightcap in her citadel and yell at her, too, although what—

“If Dr. Lightcap knew this could happen, she would have told us,” Herc said tightly. “Screaming at her won’t help.”

Stop that!

“I can’t!

He rubbed his forehead, nodding. “Yeah, okay.” And then softly, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer to the next question, “How long?”

“Since our first drift.”

He dropped to the bench. “Christ.” Nine years and he hadn’t noticed. Talk about epiphanies. Or lack thereof.

“I figured it was because of the cancer,” Herc muttered. “I think you would have noticed if it weren’t for the tumors.”

He nodded absently. “And if I hadn’t…” He waved a hand, encompassing the attack where he’d died, the hospital where he’d been resurrected. “Would you have told me?”

“You were dying,” Herc said with a shrug, “so the point was kind of moot.”

Anger flickered again. “And if I had miraculously recovered all on my own?”

Herc looked him right in the eye. “No. If you never realized it yourself, I would never have told you. You wanted it that way.”

His laugh was bitter. “Hercules, the day I need you to tell me what I want…” He shook his head. “You should have told me. You had no right to keep it from me.”

Herc didn’t say anything for the longest time and then he murmured flatly, as if reading from a prepared speech, “Do you remember when you called me up and said, ‘Herc, our world is ending and I need you here—’Do you remember what I said?”

“You said you’d fly out that night and be there by seven.”

‘By seven,’ I said. I got there to find the place in an uproar and you bleeding from your nose every five minutes.”

“It wasn’t ev—”

“And I thought, okay, the world is ending, Stacker is still dying—what have I got to lose?” Herc took a step closer. “So I made my move.”

He was already shaking his head. “Oh, no. I was right there, every damn day. You said nothing.

“Stack,” Herc said quietly, “I’ve been shouting at you for six months. Every chance I got, every way I could. You never heard me. I figured it was your way of telling me that—”

“I was ignoring you?

“No!” Herc said, making a sharp gesture. “That you wanted—”

‘it that way,’” Stacker finished for him wearily. “And you didn’t think I’d be interested in anything you might say in that arena? I mean, out loud?

Herc’s expression hardened. “What had changed in the last nine years? You were more closed off than ever, more alone than ever. You were working seventeen hours a day, every goddamn week—what had changed?”

“You’re blaming me for that?”

Herc shook his head. “Of course not. We were at war; there was no time for anything but war. It was just…”

Herc shook his head again and for the first time that Stacker could remember, Herc seemed unsure, almost diffident. “Herc?”

“What do you want, Stack?”

“What d’you mean, what do I want?”

“Are you going to stay in the Corps or give it up and go live inland for the rest of your life?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I heard you,” Herc snapped, back to anger. “All these last weeks you’ve been thinking about stepping down, right? Getting as far away from water as you can, just you and Mako. And then, a few minutes later it’s back to, ‘Oh, in the future I gotta do this with the PPDC,’ or, ‘Now I can do that.’” Herc took another step. “Which is it? Stay or go, because you’re starting to drive me crazy!”

He opened his mouth to ask how the hell Herc knew about all of that when none of it had made it to the surface of his own mind but what came out was, “If this is gonna work, you gotta stay out of my head.”

Herc gestured. “That’s just it, I can’t stay out of your head! I’ve tried and it doesn’t matter if you’re on the other side of the planet or right next to me! I’m in you whether you like it or not. Whether I like it or not and I gotta tell you, it’s a goddamn pain in—”

Herc was an arm’s length away and it was little work, reaching up and jerking him down to sprawl on his lap, mouth on mouth, shutting up all his complaints.

And, hell, how had he managed to forget this, forget Herc? Two inches shorter but stronger, adapting in an instant, controlling the embrace, kissing like it was their last day on earth and he had to get it right because it was important, it was vital

“It is important. It is vital.”

He tilted his head and grabbed Herc’s biceps in a grip that probably hurt, a better angle but somehow not perfect because it had only taken that same instant to realize that there was a null place in the center of his mind, like a repulse zone he couldn’t touch, couldn’t feel…

He pulled back, just barely. “Hey, H?”

Herc sort of softened at the long-unused nickname. “Yeah?”

“You’re not kidding, right? You can hear my thoughts?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I can.”

“You think I can do it?”

“I think if you slow down, yeah, you’ll be able. You just gotta try.”

He breathed deep, taking the next step like he was jumping off a cliff. He brushed his mouth against Herc’s whispering, “Then help me out. Help me drift.”

Words out of the blue, surprising them both and this time everything about Herc softened. “Not here.”

“Okay, where?”

*

‘Where’ turned out to be Herc’s hotel, two blocks southwest of the UN complex.

They stumbled across the mob halfway there but Stacker kept his head down and no one recognized him.

Their luck ran out as soon as they got inside the hotel. They were at the lift, waiting for a car, dodging the people coming and going when he heard, “It’s you.”

He looked over. A family of six was getting off the lift. The father was trying to juggle the baby, a pram and a diaper bag while the mother was trying to corral the kids. The littlest was having none of it—he was standing by the open doors, staring up at Stacker, eyes wide.

It was a tricky moment that Herc sidestepped neatly. Before the doors could close, he herded Stacker around the family and into the car. Stacker waved to the wide-eyed boy as the doors slid shut. “You’re right,” he said thoughtfully, staring at his reflection while Herc reached around and pressed number eleven.

“I’m right about what?”

“It’s a pain in the ass.”

He thought Herc would say, ‘That wasn’t what I was talking about,’ or at least press his advantage; he just shifted from foot to foot and nodded.

*

The room wasn’t anything fancy—bedroom, bathroom, balcony that overlooked the Thames. He would have expected something a little more upscale because Herc had saved the day, as much as anyone. He was turning to say just that when Herc shoved him. “Hey—”

“Shut up,” Herc murmured, pushing Stacker towards the bed, turning him around when his knees hit the mattress, sliding his hands up Stacker’s chest to slip off his suit jacket.

He started to laugh.

Herc tossed his jacket on the chair and reached for Stacker’s shirt buttons. “What’s so funny?”

“We never had to get naked before. To drift, I mean.”

Herc cracked a smile. “We can do it my way or fly eleven hours to the Hong Kong Shatterdome. Which do you prefer?”

“What do you think?”

Herc’s answer was simple and direct: he pushed and Stacker fell on the bed with a surprised huff of laughter.

He was still smiling when Herc began to shed his own clothes, first coat and then tie and shirt. Normally, he would have been planning a reprisal for the pushing but things weren’t normal. The only thoughts that surfaced were those of the shallow variety, because even with the scars, Herc was so beautiful. The smooth dip and arch of his hard chest and arms, the curve of his belly with its thin layer of fat that Herc had always hated but he had loved because it had been so sexy, running his tongue along—

Herc paused in the middle of unbuckling his belt. He bent his head and groan, a low almost-not-there sound. “Jesus, will you stop that?”

He glanced up. “Sorry,” he said, really meaning it, the moment hitting him. He’d had Herc and then lost him and now he was gonna have him again. He spread his legs, just a bit and thought, ‘It’s just that it’s been so long.’

Herc muttered something under his breath and yanked his belt free and then he was on Stacker, sliding between his legs, so warm, so heavy.

“I know,” Herc muttered, kissing Stacker’s mouth and then neck, reaching down to unbuckle his belt. “So long. Too long.”

A reminder that they were on a one-way street and he drew a deep breath to protest, relaxing instead because what was the point? He let Herc situate them, rolling when needed, giving up, giving in. It was a curious feeling, being this passive, and he closed his eyes to evaluate whether it was a good thing or a bad.

In the middle of taking of Stacker’s shoes, Herc paused. “Am I hurting you?”

He spread his arms out and said with a smile, “What do you think?”

“I mean it. Am I hurting you? I can’t tell.” Herc leaned over and ran a hand under Stacker’s shirt, stroking his chest and stomach, fingers spread. “What about that?”

“I wasn’t burned there.”

Herc’s face closed up. “I know.”

He frowned. “How—” He drew a breath. “You were the one that found me.” The hushed, ‘Oh, my God,’ rang in his ears all over again and he covered Herc’s hand with his own

“That was Choi; but, yeah, I was the one that opened the pod up.”

He didn’t have to ask if it had been bad as a secondary, more appalling epiphany hit. “You felt it, too, didn’t you? The pain I was in? That’s why you didn’t visit me in hospital.”

Herc pulled free and sat up. “I tried that first day, but it was too much. I—” He shook his head, looking down at his hands. “Every time they drugged you up, I thought I was gonna puke or pass out. Mako finally told Dr. Bankoli. He banned me on the spot.”

‘He’s been very busy…’ He stroked Herc’s thigh, loving the contrast of dark skin to light. “Mako—she knows about us?”

“It was past tense at the time, but yeah, she knew. She told me—very delicately, mind you—that she’s known for a very long time.”

She hadn’t said anything, either verbally or non. Not surprising, really. He’d always made it clear that their first duty was to the Corps and everything—including personal matters—came second. Or not at all. “Did she ask about the neural connection?”

“She figured it out and asked why the bond lasted so long after—” Herc shrugged and bent over again, unzipping Stacker’s trousers.

“What did you tell her?”

“That I didn’t know.” Herc patted the side of Stacker’s ass and when he raised his hips, drew his trousers and shorts off. “I still don’t know. It was never that way with any of my other co-pilots.”

“That you know of.”

Herc glanced up, eyes narrowing. He added Stacker’s trousers to the small pile of clothes and then said, “That I know of.”

He nodded thoughtfully, distractedly.

“No.”

He glanced up.

Herc shook his head. “Yes, you can run your tests and interview my son. Yes, we can hook up to a computer and find out far this thing goes. You can even bring Lightcap to the Shatterdome even though she and I don’t see eye to eye where you’re concerned.”

“But?”

Herc dragged Stacker’s shirt over his head. “But, not now. Now…” He pushed Stacker’s legs apart. “…is not the time. Move up.”

He obeyed as ordered, moving up and then straightening out. When Herc came to him again, wrapping him up with arms and legs, he responded, holding Herc to him.

It had been too long, yes. Years spent worrying about the fate of the world, hours spared for Mako, leaving not much time for anything else. Even Tamsin, his other half for so long, had never had so much of him and this was probably a mistake because it wasn’t going to work. He was too aware, taking Herc’s kisses speculatively, calmly, as if he were a bystander in his own body.

The heady desire from long ago was gone. Only superficial lust remained, engaging his body but not his mind and it stood to reason—he’d changed and was no longer the man he used to be. He was far too familiar with death and solitude so maybe there was nothing to connect with. Or, it could be the brain damage—‘Slight, but there,’ had been Dr. Bankoli’s words. Had that had been an exaggeration? What if he was no longer physically able to accept any kind neural connection and there went any chance of piloting a Jaeger, never mind—

“Jesus Christ,” Herc muttered into his neck. “I’m trying to get you relaxed, here. Will you shut up?”

He pushed Herc away. “It’s not gonna work, H. I’m—”

“I already heard you,” Herc interrupted with a sigh. “Not gonna work. Too different, too solitary, brain damage, and so on and so on. Look—” Herc rolled, pulling Stacker with him so they were face to face. He slipped his legs between Stacker’s and cupped his jaw. “I know it’s been a while. I know that giving up any control is hard for you. I know your occipital lobe is a little fucked up.” He stroked Stacker’s jaw with his thumb. “Will you just let me try?”

He hesitated, then nodded.

“Okay, first off, we gotta get you loosened up.”

“I am loosened up.”

Herc ignored that. “Second, you gotta stop with all the, ‘I cant’s’, okay? That’s not gonna get us anywhere.”

“Okay.”

“Close your eyes.”

He wanted to object but Herc was using that tone he generally saved for new recruits who mistook his restrained demeanor for weakness. He closed his eyes.

“Wait a minute…” Like a seal, Herc slipped over him. From behind, he pressed up close, arms wrapped around Stacker’s waist, leg slung over his thigh. “That’s better. Now, I want you to remember how it was the first time we bridged.” He tightened his grip. “Do you remember?”

He did, like it was yesterday.

Flying to Lima in the spring of ’16 with Tamsin and a few other Rangers to inspect the new Jaeger and take her for a spin, anticipation and excitement making the trip seem too long because Diablo Intercept was a step up in their arsenal and he couldn’t wait to get inside her. Built for distance and speed, she had nuclear capabilities that were going to show the Kaiju a thing or two and he couldn’t wait.

He’d wanted Tamsin as his co-pilot, but when they arrived in Lima, she’d had to retreat to sickbay, her headaches having gotten worse. She’d insisted he go with another pilot, saying that anyone was better than missing the chance to take out the newest and best.

The pool was limited and after hours of testing, anticipating and trouncing everyone who’d come at him, a redheaded Aussie had stepped forward, murmuring, ‘Hercules Hansen. Let me have a go.’ They’d bowed to one another and began. Hercules took charge, off the block so fast that Stacker was immediately on the defensive, not a position he was familiar with. He caught up quickly, though, and by the time a tie was called and the bout was over, he’d made his decision.

Hercules, he’d found, was quiet and direct, speaking only when needed. As they suited up, they chatted about this and that, Herc’s responses slow and methodical. Stacker began to worry that he’d made a mistake. He and Tamsin fit so well—aggressive and chatty, she’d always said they made such a good pair because they were two halves of the same whole. Herc was none of that and Stacker had reminded himself that it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t pairing with Hercules permanently and he’d find some way to make the drift work.

His worry proved needless—the minute he heard the metallic, ‘Neural handshake, engaged,’ he and Hercules bridged. Instantaneous and strong, he slipped into Herc as Herc slipped into him, all laid bare in the honesty of the drift. They took a moment to adjust to each other and then ran through the necessary drills, each responding smoothly to the other’s input.

The transport picked them up, then dropped them into the calm blue waters south of El Frontón. They had landed, glanced at each other, then smiled and took off, running hip-deep at first because it felt so damn good. When they submerged, they had to stop…

“That’s right.”

…because the Atacama Trench was only a mile away and they weren’t cleared for that…

“There you go.”

…kind of depth. With a thumb’s up from Stacker and a grin from Herc, they began the tests.

It had been exhilarating, both the testing and the bond. It had been a while since anybody had been in his head that wasn’t Tamsin and it was…

“Amazing.”

…yes, amazing. They’d returned to the Shatterdome and emerged from the drift the same way they’d entered: slipping gently out but still in sync. Alive with the moment, they’d clasped each other by the shoulders and agreed that Diablo was perfect and ready to deploy. They’d changed into their uniforms and Herc had asked him to dinner. Stacker had hesitated. He’d planned on visiting Tamsin and then retreating to his temporary bunk to catch up on the intel reports. Instead he said yes.

He swung by sickbay only to find Tamsin fast asleep. He touched the back of her hand, then went to find the commissary.

He never remembered what they ate because the evening was a minor revelation. Never much of a conversationalist to begin with, never one to bare his soul to relative strangers, he talked the entire time. Herc had a way of drawing him out and he found himself speaking at length about everything from the mundane to the serious: his worry about the attack on Hong Kong, his new favorite wine, the sudden death of his sister a few years back.

Herc listened, giving his own point of view, showing an insight that was both acute and pragmatic, all underscored by a restrained edge of wry, sly humor. Stacker found himself smiling more than he generally did, even laughing once or twice.

The next day, they’d followed the same general pattern: drills in the morning, tests in the afternoon, dinner later on. This time, after they’d eaten and were watching each other too carefully, Herc had invited him back to his berth for a whiskey. Stacker had gone, no wool over his eyes, not expecting much other than companionship and a few moments of oblivion.

What he’d received changed his life.

In hindsight, maybe the neural connection was responsible for that moment of perfection when Herc had reached out and taken his glass and then his mouth. Maybe it had been the intimacy of the drift that made that first kiss so perfect. Maybe, but maybe not and the past now collided with the present as he remembered how effortless it had all been, not bothering with foreplay because there was no need, their pairing in bed as seamless as that first bridging. Even when Herc had startled him by rolling over and handing him a small tube of slick it had been…

“Perfect. So perfect.”

They had sex twice that night and then once in the morning, pressed up against the wall of his berth as Herc fucked him before roll call because he’d woken up feeling as if his arms were as empty as his head.

“So amazing.”

After that it had been on and off, a schedule forced by the growing Kaiju presence and

“Goddamn monsters.”

then by necessity when he’d adopted the little girl who changed his life once more.

“You should have seen your face when you brought her to Sydney. You were over the moon.”

But it was good, those times with Herc, and if he started looking forward to their chance meetings a little too much, if he caught himself making plans, he kept it to himself.

“Seriously?”

It all came to a screeching halt the week they met for a three-day conference on the new tech that Lightcap and Schoenfeld had cooked up.

He and Mako had arrived at Kodiak Island a day early and he spent the next twenty-four hours ignoring the anticipation that was curling in his gut and heart. Herc landed the following day and with only a brief hello at the afternoon’s session, they got down to business. Afterwards, they ate dinner with Mako and he read to her until she fell asleep. Then, as if they were automatons set to a single purpose, they got up and went straight to Herc’s room.

Stacker practically attacked Herc, pulling him down to the narrow bed, not caring of the how, only interested in the when because it had been a longer-than-normal wait. Just the wait, and not Tamsin dying while he stood by helpless, furious. Not his new daughter gripping his hand so tight it almost hurt, staring at Tamsin, gaunt and so pale, asking him why, why, why.

That’s all it had been and Herc had seemed to know it, too. He’d said nothing, just let Stacker strip them both of whatever clothes needed gone, then turned him over, prepped him and slipped in.

So good.

Like drifting, having Herc in him had been like drifting, and then again, after they’d both caught their breath, this time on his back because he was tired of looking at the pillow.

No, because you’re a control freak, even in that.

The conference ended but they both stayed on Kodiak Island for a week and in that week, he managed to have more sex than he’d had the entire year.

Babe, that’s not saying much.

And then the shit had hit the fan when

I didn’t know how else to tell you

Herc had told him about a one-nighter with an ex-girlfriend

and I wanted as much of you as I could get because

that had ended up as something more. He had nodded politely when Herc told him about the baby, sitting on Herc’s bunk, calmly agreeing that Herc had to focus on his newly-discovered son and that was okay because

I don’t regret that. I don’t regret my son.

it was never going anywhere anyway, this ill-defined thing between them. And no, Herc shouldn’t regret anything about Chuck. For all the kid was a pain in the ass, he was an exceptional Ranger. Not quite on par with his father, of course, but still, Chuck was a capable soldier.

Stacker, thank you.

Now, magnified by time and distance, he once more felt the grief of losing first Tamsin, then Herc, and finally the war, and he wondered if he hadn’t gotten sick, if the Kaiju hadn’t been knocking down the world’s collective doors every second, would he have found some way back to Herc?

It would have happened.

Would they have made it a permanent arrangement like he’d planned, like he’d wanted? He wasn’t sure and

I was sure. I am sure, and if I had known any of this, I would have sat on you until you were sure, too.

and…

He took a startled breath, then another. “H?” He cracked his eyes open and looked over his shoulder.

Yeah? Herc answered without moving his lips.

“I’m there. I’m—” He closed his eyes, this time with clear purpose and there he was, touching the edge of the drift, stepping in and wandering through Herc’s mind just as Herc was in his and it was so…

…before, when he and Herc had drifted, there’d been little to compare it with. Just Tamsin and the simulator. But, his recent encounter with Chuck still fresh in his mind, he could feel the difference, something akin to drinking inferior scotch after having only superb.

Stack.

I did it.

Told you.

Yeah, you told me all right.

You should listen to me more often.

He laughed or thought he did. You’re the only one I do listen to.

I know. Are you in any pain? Does your head hurt?

It was hard, grasping even the idea of pain, but he tried. I don’t think so.

That’s not the answer I was hoping for.

He hesitated, seeking to separate his mind from Herc’s, to go outside when all he wanted was to stay in but… No, I can’t feel anything other than you.

Then come on…

And there it was, the plurality of two minds, two bodies, as Herc kissed the back of his neck and reached a lazy hand down his belly. It truly had been too long and the sleek sensuality of it combined with the parade of loosely formed images was heady, overwhelming as…

A girl, maybe eight, already tall, looks up as a jet streaks across the noonday sky. ‘That’s gonna be me, Stack,’ she says, shading her eyes. ‘I’m gonna be a pilot one day.’ She looks down, then smiles and reaches down for his hand and…

…the scene shifts and he’s on a trail that hugs a rocky shoreline, running as he listens to music, nodding every time another runner passes him and…

…he strides, long false steps that makes Diablo Intercept sweep across the Pacific floor, concentrating on the diagnostics and not the Ranger at his side, charismatic, too good looking by half, already a legend thanks to Tokyo and Onibaba…

Stop

…planning what he’s gonna do, what he’s gonna say because he wants Pentecost in his bed, even if it’s…

Stack, slow down, you know you don’t want to get caught up in my

…just for the night and…

Stacker

…no.

Yeah, that’s it.

That’s not right; he’s not him. He’s Stacker Pentecost, Marshall and…

“You got it.”

…before that, Ranger, brother, son…

“You’re Stacker Pentecost.”

“I am.” His voice cracked and he swallowed, feeling the effort it took to pull back, to crawl back into his own bulky mind. He sighed, feeling the length of his body on the soft mattress, the warmth of Herc. “I’m me.”

Herc kissed the back of his neck again. “You are.”

He turned his head. “Herc?”

“Yeah?”

“This better not be a one off.”

“If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, it’s sitting time.”

He snorted gently, then said, “How’re we gonna survive this?”

“What d’you mean?”

“Sex, normal life, the Corps…” He shrugged. “How’re we gonna stay separate?”

We practice, we train. Like always.

So easy. Hearing Herc in his head was so easy and that made it easy to say, “Can we start with the sex first?”

Herc laughed. And then leaned over, angling head and body to kiss the side of Stacker’s mouth. “You read my mind.”

*

They kept it simple, side by side, legs interlaced, working each other, breath hard and fast. Contrary to his fears, he didn’t get lost inside Herc as his nerves fired and his vision frayed. He stayed inside himself, senses tuned to Herc, drinking in his reactions, thinking, ‘Yes’ and ‘I remember’, faltering towards the end when Herc came, white teeth biting his lip, silent as always.

*

The bell chimed, then chimed again.

“Uh,” he muttered, throwing an arm over his eyes to shield out light and sound. Behind him, the mattress dipped and he felt a kiss on his shoulder.

“Here.”

Something cool slid along his arm. He blinked. Herc was leaning on him, handing him the phone.

“It’s for you.”

“Thanks.” He turned on his back and put the phone to his ear. “Hello?” Herc had rolled to his stomach, one arm draped over the side of the bed, his favorite sleeping position. He had a long red mark on his scapula, another on the curve his ass. Stacker remembered giving him the one but not the other.

“Marshall?”

He sat up. “Mako?”

Herc turned his head and winked.

Thanks for the head’s up.

You’re welcome.

“Sir?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” He leaned back against the headboard and drew the sheet up. “Is everything all right?”

“It is. You were going to call. I was worried.”

He was rubbing his forehead before she’d finished talking because, yes, he’d promised Dr. Bankoli that he’d let him know how the flight went. And apparently informing Bankoli also meant informing Mako, something he should have anticipated. “I’m fine. No headaches.”

“Any dizziness?”

“No, doctor; no dizziness.” Herc snorted and Stacker gave him a cuff that turned into a caress. Herc sighed. “Anything else?”

“Don’t forget your appointment with Dr. Field.”

“I won’t.”

“The conference—it is going well?”

“It is going slow.”

“Ambassador Cole?”

“He thinks we should funnel the Ranger Program into regular army. And before you ask, no, that is not going to happen.”

“Good.” And then a hesitant, “Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Raleigh was inquiring as to when you are coming home? He would like permission to return to the Shatterdome in Anchorage. He wants to consult with the engineers before they begin construction on the new Jaeger.”

“Why?”

“He has some ideas about modifications.”

“He does, does he?” He started to add an automatic ‘no,’ but something made him ask, “What do you think?”

Mako didn’t say anything for a long moment and when she spoke again, he could hear her pleased smile. “I believe his suggestions have merit. One or two may be beyond our capabilities at the moment, but the others are sound.”

“You want to go with him, I take it?”

A pointless question and he wasn’t surprised when she answered with a firm, “Yes.”

Those two were going to be joined at the hip and he should have expected that, too. Nothing for it now; a drift bond was a drift bond. “I want the both of you back in a week. We’ve been invited to attend the ceremonies in Hong Kong, New York and Panama.” Meaning, if he had to go, so did they.

Herc snorted again, this time much louder.

Don’t laugh—you and Chuck are coming, too.

I know.

“Yes, sir.”

Herc turned on his side, then slipped his hand under the sheet.

“Sir?”

Warm hand on his thigh, warm presence at his side. He closed his eyes briefly and focused on the conversation. “Yes, Miss Mori?”

“I am very happy for you.”

He wanted to growl a denial but he wasn’t fond of subterfuge and besides, of anyone, she had a right to know. Even though there wasn’t much to know, even though it felt as if he were giving up some crucial part of himself in the acknowledgement. “Thank you.”

“Then, I will see you at the end of the week.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Please give Marshall Hansen my regards.”

“I will.”

She hung up.

He looked down at Herc. “You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you?”

Herc smiled. “You know I’m clever.” Just as I know you’re easy.

Challenge thrown, challenge accepted. “Easy, am I?”

He dropped the phone, hearing the soft thud as if hearing it through a thick pane of glass, trying to reach as much of Herc as possible, getting tangled by the sheets and the white, white drift.

 

 

 

 

Seven months later

 

“You’re sure about this?” Becket asked for the third time.

He nodded sedately, backing into the dock, one boot locking, then the other. “I’m sure.” The techs scrambled over him and Herc, bees to their flowers as they started their pre-flight diagnostics.

“Because this could be a mistake. What if—”

“Young man,” Dr. Bankoli interrupted from his seat at his terminal. “Are you Marshall Pentecost’s doctor?” He waited for Becket to answer. When Becket didn’t reply, he said, “No, you are not. Nothing is going to happen. The brain isn’t a toy that once broken cannot be fixed.” He turned back to his monitor. “You worry too much.”

Stacker and Herc grinned, Dr. Lightcap smiled. Even Mako, standing by the computer array, bent her lips. Something he’d seen very little since he’d announced that he and Herc would be the ones to take Fire Switch out for a test drive.

The only unhappy one was Chuck, but Stacker hadn’t expected anything new in that direction. Chuck and Max had arrived on Kodiak Island a couple weeks ago, surprising everyone, including Stacker. The boy’s excuse had a miscommunication in his duty assignment. Other than an initial order to sit tight, Stacker had left the lie unchallenged—he’d had more to worry about than a Ranger whose curiosity had gotten the better of him.

Besides, Herc had worried enough for the both of them, saying crazy things like, with Chuck aboard, he was going to find his own berth.

Stacker had just given him a long look, reminding him of their recent conversation—how he’d waited all these years, and even though a pissed off Ranger could cause a morale problem, it was important to nip this in the bud. He wasn’t going to give Herc up like he had before—it wasn’t even an option.

That’s really sweet, but make sure you lock the door next time.

He choked back a smile at the sarcasm in Herc’s voice. Yes, that had been a mistake but he’d wondered, even at the time, if he’d done it not by accident but by intent. He wasn’t about to turn this into a drama by lying and sneaking around. If Chuck hadn’t liked what he saw, well too damn bad. In any case there’d been nothing to see. At least, not at that point.

Herc tipped his head to the side, giving the tech access to hook up the suit’s new aural sensor. I’m gonna have a talk with him.

Good.

He’ll come around.

He’d better. And then, as it was his turn to look sideways, You worry too much about him.

Meaning?

Meaning, I had to let Mako grow up. When are you gonna do the same for Chuck?

There was a long pause and then Herc nodded. You’re right.

I’m always right.

“Fascinating.”

He turned. Dr. Lightcap had come closer and was staring down at her pad as if it were the Holy Grail.

“You’re synapses are firing at an extraordinary rate,” she murmured. “You’re communicating right now?”

“We are.”

She shook her head. “Fascinating.”

“Glad you’re enjoying the show, doc.”

“‘Enjoying’ isn’t the word I’d use,” she murmured, tapping a few keys. “Your neural transmitters actually seem to be expanding. Amazing.”

“Hm.”

“And you really can only hear each other?” She asked. “Ranger Mori said there are limitations in regards to the link. Is that correct?”

Only when we’re having sex or piloting, Herc answered for him with a sidelong glance. They had planned on telling Lightcap everything, but up until now, she hadn’t asked. Don’t ask, don’t tell, Herc added, quoting a ridiculous twentieth-century American military axiom.

“That’s right,” Stacker confirmed. “Just words, sometimes feelings, but that’s about it.”

“And what about any kind of precognition? Have you noticed any—”

“Doc?”

“Yes, Marshall Pentecost?”

He tapped the monitor still glued to his temple. “We’re trying to get out of here?”

She looked up. Then adjusted her glasses and smiled. “Of course.” She tucked her pad into her pocket and reached up to remove the monitor. “What I wouldn’t give to come out with you.” She moved on to Herc. “I’d love to observe your connection while under extreme duress.” She gently removed Herc’s monitor, then touched his temple. “Did that hurt?”

“Doc?” Stacker said before Herc could answer. “You were in these boots before. Do you really want to go through that again?”

She smiled up at Herc, then tucked a strand of long blond hair behind her ear, saying over her shoulder, “You’re right. Maybe I can rig up a simulation.” She patted Herc’s arm through the body armor and got out her pad again.

I can’t believe it.

“What?” he asked out loud. Lightcap wandered over to stand by Dr. Bankoli. She held the pad up and pointed to something; Dr. Bankoli nodded slowly.

You’re jealous.

He turned his head. Herc was grinning. You can’t be serious.

Oh, I’m serious. You’re jealous of Lightcap.

The problem with being constantly linked was that he couldn’t hide, even from himself. Luckily, he was saved from having to refute or defend as Mako came up and stood directly in front of him.

You’re not getting off that easy.

Mako cleared her throat. “How does the new suit feel?”

She was holding her pad to her chest, a defense mechanism so long ingrained he doubted she even realized what it meant. “Lighter, better.”

She nodded. “You will want to watch out as the electrical systems engage. There is a slight jolt.”

“I’ll be fine, Miss Mori.”

She blinked, as if offended. “I know.”

“I can’t ask my pilots to take the Fire Switch on if I don’t know what she can do.” Head cocked, he waited for Herc to mutter something about control freaks but he said nothing. “It’s just a series of training exercises.”

She nodded again, this time frowning, as well. “I know.”

He held back a sigh. Ever since the Event—as he’d taken to calling it in own mind—she’d become more quiet, more serious. And since she’d never been a happy-go-lucky kid to begin with… “We’ll be back before you know it.”

“I know.”

“Then out with it.”

She shifted her weight from foot to foot. “What if Ambassador Satou is right? What if the Kaiju were not destroyed but are quietly gathering forces?”

Ambassador Satou is a fool. “Ambassador Satou is worried for the wrong reasons. We’ve examined the sea floor and the nearby fissures and vents. There is no evidence that the bombs didn’t work.”

She stepped forward. “But what about—”

“Mako.” He leaned forward, making the harness creak. He touched the side of her cheek, wishing he weren’t wearing gloves. “One of the reasons why we pushed production on this Jaeger is to be prepared if the worst happens. We’ve had seven Kaiju-free months and that’s the thing to remember. If they could have attacked, they would have.”

She opened her mouth, but Dr. Bankoli got there first. He stomped over saying, “What is it with you young people? You are always worrying about things you should not be worrying about. When I was young, I spent my time on more productive things, like girls and science. Now…” He gestured towards Mako, as if he were shooing away a child or a chicken. “Go stand where you are supposed to stand, young lady. I want to get this show on the road.”

Stacker raised his eyebrow, waiting on Mako’s reaction. She’d taken a strong dislike to Dr. Bankoli. He wasn’t sure if it was because the doctor was as brilliant as she or because the doc was forever encroaching on her territory.

The latter, Herc said silently, and then adding out loud, “Don’t worry, Mako. I’ll be the first to know if anything goes wrong.”

She finally cracked a smile. “That is true.”

“I won’t let him do anything stupid.”

Her smile became real. “Thank you, Marshall Hansen.”

It would be irritating, this newborn bond between Mako and Herc, if he found such things irritating.

I never knew you had such a capacity for jealousy. You’re all over the place with it today. It’s amazing, really.

“Okay,” he said loudly, drowning out Herc’s silent laughter, making the techs jump. “Doctor Bankoli is right—let’s get this show on the road!”

“Finally,” Choi muttered from his console in LOCCENT. “I thought you guys were never gonna shut up.”

*

It took him a moment to get used to the new helmet, but once he did, he found that the visor did as advertised—his eyesight had sharpened, giving him an unusually extended field of vision. It was like looking through a concave fishbowl; he turned his head this way and that, nodding as Herc muttered, Nice.

“Neural handshake, initiated,” cooed the metallic voice, and then, before the neural gel had a chance to work, “Neural handshake, engaged.”

“Fantastic,” breathed Lightcap through the mic.

Herc shook his head. I feel like a lab rat.

Stacker grinned as, second nature, they raised their arms in tandem and saluted.

He could hear the onlookers clap and shout and then Herc’s soft, “Let’s go.”

*

The transport was smooth even though the landing wasn’t—he’d forgotten this, how choppy the proving ground waters were as they sank, waist-deep.

Everything okay?

“Yeah,” he said. The drivesuit docks were as new as everything else—it was disconcerting, being tethered by only a few cables and the loosely-jointed boot plates. “Just getting my balance.”

You know I wasn’t kidding, right? If you’re in trouble, we’re pulling out ASAP.

I know.

“Dr. Bankoli?” Herc said out loud.

“Neural activity is within norm,” Bankoli answered. “No hot spots. You have my permission to proceed.”

Herc answered, “Got it.”

“Let’s try something simple, gentlemen,” Choi said. “Auxiliary armament first.”

They raised Switch’s arms and rotated them, releasing the munitions bay doors.

“Good,” Choi said. “Now the propulsion system.”

“Primary propulsion system, engage, ten percent,” Stacker said, watching through the camera as the jets that ran across Switch’s back like a bulky set of wings fired up. “Looks good.”

“Sure does,” Choi murmured. “Try the turn. I want to see it.”

“Propulsion system, terminate.” And then, as one, they turned. Fire Switch matched them, swiveling at her massive waist joint until she was facing the Alaskan coast.

“So smooth,” Choi said. “Give me a moment to read the data… Okay, it looks good. Turn again, still counter-clockwise and then another three-sixty, this time clockwise.”

They turned once more, and then again, all the way around. The 3d imagery systems had activated and it was if they were viewing everything in person and not through a metal screen.

“Okay, Switch,” Choi said, “everything is online—you’re good to go.”

Stacker nodded at Herc and they took a step, and another, dropping as the ocean floor dropped. Switch took the elevation difference with barely a hitch, her stride smooth and steady as they went deeper.

She’s right, you know.

Who’s right?

Mako. We have no way of truly evaluating whether the seal worked.

They pushed an ice floe out of the way.

I know. A Kaiju might be out there and we wouldn’t know until it was too late.

That doesn’t worry you?

No.

Why?

Why?

Because the world hadn’t ended and he’d had time to think.

About the future, about what he wanted.

He’d said it to Raleigh, all those months ago: ‘I’m a big believer in second chances,’ and his second chance didn’t include watching everyone he loved die at the talons of monsters. It also didn’t include sacrificing so much to the program that he had nothing in reserve, nothing left to give. If faced with the same scenario as he had at the Breach, he’d do it all over again without pause. Only this time, he’d go to his death knowing he’d taken at least some time to carve out a proper life because balance was important, even in times of war.

Especially in times of war, Herc murmured.

He nodded. If the Kaiju attacked, they attacked. The only thing he could do—the only thing the world could do—was prepare. Beyond that, he would live his life as it came with Mako and Herc.

“Gentleman?” Choi said. “I’ve got visuals on our friends. They’ll be commencing their flyover in forty-five seconds. Try not to hurt them.”

You ready? he asked. They’re coming.

Let them come, Herc answered calmly.

Stacker nodded as they both leaned back to face the sky, not having to look to know that Herc was smiling.

 

 

fin.