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we're all together in the same robot (in life)

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"Did you seriously ask me if you could have a turn?" Stiles asks incredulously as Greenberg stares at him with big, round, fascinated eyes. Stiles has just come off a double, he should be sleeping but instead he's been bailed up by Greenberg about something he shouldn't even know about.

"I heard-"

"I don't care what you heard," Stiles grits. They hadn't lost anyone that day, but that was only by pure dumb luck. The new kid, Alexander, had taken a header straight off the top of the wall and it was only because Stiles and Dennings were both cabled in and leaning out at the time trying to fix a jutting piece of rebar that they'd caught him on the way down.

A minute either side and there would have been another newbie pancake.

"I heard it's a real simulator," Greenberg presses.

"There's no such thing as a real simulator."

"I mean from the program. Used by actual pilots."

"I love how people say I heard instead of I snooped."

"Okay, it looks like it's from the program," Greenberg admits after a beat, apparently made remorseless by his excitement. "So? Can I have a turn?"

"It's not a game console," Stiles says, trying to edge past Greenberg but the guy shifts with him, blocking his path.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were doing anything particularly important with it."

"It's a family heirloom, not a toy is what I'm saying," Stiles huffs, irked. When Greenberg doesn't look like he's going to back down, Stiles flails a hand and says, "Look, the interface is all messed up. Do you really want to risk frying your brain just for half an hour of monster stomping?"

"Yes," Greenberg says with no hesitation and Stiles just shakes his head slowly.

"What was I thinking? Of course you would."

"I'll have you know I have finely honed self-preservation instincts," Greenberg says but he's not looking at Stiles anymore, is looking over Stiles' shoulder in fact. "They're telling me to get as far away from you as possible because it looks like there's some guys here to arrest your ass."

Greenberg does indeed flee and Stiles turns to see that there are two young men with dark suits and serious expressions bearing down on him. They're flanking a smaller man with wild hair and crazy eyes and it's this man that talks first. "Stilinski! I should've known!"

"I'm sorry, have we met?" Stiles asks slowly, bewildered. The two suited men don't look quite so scary when they're trying to hold back smirks at the other man's flailing.

"When you were tiny, I wouldn't expect you to remember," he says, then holds out a hand that has a very obvious intention tremor. "Finstock. You can call me Coach."

"Why would I do that?" Stiles asks, raising an eyebrow.

"You don't just look like her, you sound like her too," Finstock snorts and Stiles frowns at him but before he can ask what that means, Finstock says, "Because I'm the guy who's going to get you battle ready."

"I don't know what you're talking about, but the station for the crazy train is down that way," Stiles says, pointing and the guy on the right actually laughs. Finstock turns on him with a snarl and a pointed finger.

The smiling guy Stiles suddenly recognises with a start. "You're Scott McCall," he says and Scott ducks his face, nodding. Stiles' attention skips over to the taller of the two suits. "And Isaac Lahey? What the hell is going on?"

"Do I really need to spell it out?" Finstock demands. When Stiles nods mutely, rendered speechless with shock, Finstock smacks a hand to his face like he can't believe what he's about to say himself.

"We're here to recruit you."

*

Stiles is not a Jaeger pilot groupie, but he does what he calls keeping tabs. He reads articles, goes over stats and scours the feeds. Everyone watches when a Kaiju attack happens so it's not like it's weird, but what people do find odd and are judgemental about is when Stiles breaks the fights down after, what went wrong and right and what could have been done better.

It's a hobby, that's all.

He'd found the simulator gathering dust when he'd been clearing out his dad's old house in Beacon Hills before selling it. It wasn't functional by any stretch of the imagination, an old relic from a bygone era but Stiles had always been good with tinkering and there was nothing much to do at the wall other than work, sleep and go slowly insane so he figured it would keep his brain occupied.

He was more surprised than anyone when he got the damn thing back online.

He explains this to Scott, who turns out to be nice and dryly funny. Scott had offered to help him pack, but once Stiles had pointed out that he owned a total of two pairs of pants and three shirts, had started asking him questions to keep him occupied while he broke down the simulator instead. Stiles can hear Finstock yelling at Isaac in the hallway outside about something and he's wondering if he's making a terrible mistake.

"I swear, I didn't realize it was feeding back to the program," Stiles says. He's still kind of wondering if maybe this is all some elaborate ruse to get him to go quietly and he is being arrested for breaking a law he wasn't aware of. Scott seems guileless enough though as he shrugs.

"It took us ages to find out where it was coming from," he says. "Lydia finally figured it out and demanded we go fetch."

"Me or the simulator?" Stiles asks, not bothering to press for who this Lydia is because he gets the feeling he's going to find out very soon.

"Both. She was very clear."

"My kill rate's only ninety percent though," Stiles says. "I heard that in the program they boot you out if you're below a ninety-eight."

"They do," Scott says and he squishes his face up, looking adorably confused. "She said something complicated about a repeating anomaly and that she needed to know just exactly how you managed to hack the sim specs."

"I didn't..." Stiles grimaces and says, "Okay, I might have changed a few things. I wanted to run a particular scenario."

Something in his face must tell Scott to change the subject and fast because he's smiling gamely and ducking his head again. "It's always weird to be recognized," Scott says. "I still haven't gotten used to it. I don't get out of the base much."

"Are you kidding?" Stiles enthuses. "You're fascinating."

"Me?"

"Y'know what I mean," Stiles huffs. "You're part of a three-person drift. I mean, sharing memories with one person must be pretty zany but you do it with two."

"It's an experiment," Scott says. "Apparently China's building a three-armed Jaeger now that's going to be piloted by triplets. They'll probably be able to kick our asses."

"What's it like though?"

"I don't know," Scott says, scrubbing at the back of his head. "We're all pretty close, we have to be. Isaac and Allison are just... special."

"N'aw, make me barf why don't you?"

"Shut up man," Scott says, but he's laughing.

"Something I don't get though," Stiles says, standing up from the simulator. It's packed into its cases and Finstock has sworn black and blue that it will be treated with the utmost care during transport. "You guys don't normally go out to recruit. People line up to apply for the program."

"It's another experiment," Scott says, waggling his eyebrows in a way that he probably thinks is enigmatic but just makes him look like a dork. "Our Marshall loves his special projects."

"You have no idea, do you?" Stiles says and Scott's cheeks flush before he's scuffing a foot and shaking his head.

"They don't exactly tell us much. We escorted Finstock so you didn't think you were being disappeared or something."

"I still think that," Stiles admits. He's spent his whole life being very un-special and he's not delusional enough to think that's going to change anytime soon. He doesn't warrant this kind of attention and he's pretty sure once the Marshall Scott's talking about gets a good look at him, he'll come to the same conclusion and sling Stiles' butt back to the wall so fast his head will spin.

Hell, it's something interesting to do for a few days at least and it's not like he won't be able to get his job back. There's always vacancies opening up on the wall.

Scott holds a hand out for Stiles' duffel and he passes it over when he's done stuffing his meagre possessions inside. Scott's a good guy and Stiles hopes he's not too disappointed when Stiles is kicked to the curb.

In another life, a better time, they could have been friends.

*

"Marshall Argent," Stiles has barked at him before his hand is ruthlessly shaken to the point where he thinks his whole arm is going to drop out of the socket. Stiles deceptively strong for his frame, he has to be to work on the wall, but this guy is a little above and beyond the normal. Stiles finally gets his hand back and fights the urge to cradle it and cry a little.

"Wow, say that three times fast," Stiles blurts, because he says terrible, embarrassing things when he's nervous, and he's super nervous right now. He'd been transported by chopper to the middle of nowhere, Finstock talking at him the entire time. Stiles wasn't wearing a headset like the others so he hadn't heard a word and hoped it wasn't important. The way Scott and Isaac were rolling their eyes when Finstock wasn't looking directly at them, he'd figured it wasn't.

Stiles can't help but feel the tiniest bit excited about it all, despite his best efforts. He doesn't want to because then the crushing disappointment when they cast him aside or relegate him to a glorified janitorial position out of pity will be that much worse. He doesn't think he'll be able to be Scott's friend like he wants to be if he's responsible for cleaning toilets and emptying trash.

"I've heard... things," Argent says. He's an older man with hair greying at the temples and hard eyes. The kind of man made tough and spare by age rather than soft.

"Good, bad, indifferent?" Stiles presses, because he's never learned to shut up, or at least that's what every boss he's ever had has yelled at him at some point.

"That remains to be seen," Argent says stiffly.

"Wait, Argent? Are you Allison Argent's father?" Stiles asks, surprised.

That earns him a startled blink and nod.

"Oh wow, you must be chewing knuckles every time she goes out. Plus the whole threesome robot thing-urk!"

"Sir, you probably shouldn't strangle him on his first day," Scott says, trying to pull Stiles out of Argent's grip. Argent just growls and drops Stiles into Scott's arms before turning on his heel and stalking away.

"Way to make an excellent first impression," Scott muses as he pats Stiles down.

"This is going to be so much fun," Isaac enthuses, sounding like he's pleasantly surprised by this turn of events, by Stiles' ability to flip someone from neutral to murderous in three seconds flat just by talking. "Oh hey, you should totally meet Jackson."

"Maybe not today," Scott says, patting Stiles on the shoulder.

"Why? Who's Jackson?"

"Lydia first," Scott says, waylaying what Stiles assumes would be a disastrous meeting if the way Isaac's eyes gleaming is any indication. "She'll kill us if Stiles dies before she has a chance to grill him."

"Spoil sport," Isaac huffs and disappears the same way Argent marched.

"So, tour?" Scott proposes, then he grins. "You ever seen a Jaeger up close?"

"What about Lydia?"

"If you don't want a tour-"

"Dude, I thought you'd never ask," Stiles says and tugs at Scott's arm who laughs, corrects their direction and tows Stiles along.

They make their way through about a dozen corridors and Stiles is hopelessly lost before they reach a blast door with Authorized Personnel Only stencilled in red across it. "I always wanted to be authorized personnel," Stiles muses as Scott digs what looks like a pass card out of his pocket and swipes it over a digital reader next to the doors.

The doors slide back and Stiles feels his whole mouth unhinge. He stumbles forward into a vast space crowded with people, machinery and five different Jaeger bodies set against the walls. They're taller than some buildings, details made indistinct by sheer size. Stiles has seen Jaegers in pictures, television and the news feeds but it's hard to wrap his mind around the dimensions in front of him.

He dances aside when a guy on a small transport beeps at him and Scott catches his elbow and tugs him along as Stiles goggles about.

"Where's yours?" Stiles demands when he can scrape his wits back together enough to be coherent and Scott takes his shoulders and turns him until Stiles catches the blue and silver metal of Triskelion, one of the only three-pilot Jaeger's in existence. He stumbles towards her, arms outstretched, not really sure what he's going to do until he lands on one of her feet.

"You okay?" Scott asks, sounding amused beyond belief.

"I'm not a fanboy, I swear," Stiles groans, rolling over so he's staring at Triskelion's reassuring bulk stretching up and away from him.

"You're doing an outstanding impression of one."

"I'm just... affected," Stiles says. He would challenge anyone to step into this place and not be moved after knowing how many lives these human-made behemoths have saved, disasters they've averted. Plus, his parents-

Stiles chokes a little, sitting up quickly as his breathing gets shallow and panicked and Scott's eyes go round with concern. "Wait, are you okay?" he demands, darting forward, hands patting around Stiles as Stiles bends over and tries to tug air into his lungs by sheer force of will.

"I'm good," Stiles says, getting a hold of himself and knuckling at his streaming eyes, before elbowing Scott off him. He's heard Jaeger pilots are a touchy crowd but Scott seems to have missed the whole concept of a personal bubble of any kind.

"So, do you like our little lady?"

Stiles looks up and sees Isaac with a dark haired girl at his shoulder who's smiling at him. He startles upwards, patting himself down before he holds out a hand. "Oh, hey! Allison Argent, right?"

"One and the same," Allison says, clasping Stiles' hand briefly before she steps back with him so they can both look up at Triskelion's imposing form. "You like her?"

"She's amazing. I'd love to see you guys in action."

"You will," Scott says, nudging into Allison's side and she rubs an affectionate hand through his hair.

There's a commotion off to the side, people clustering together and whispering and Stiles cranes around Scott and Allison to see what the fuss is about. He's not really sure what he was expecting, but it takes him a second to recognize the man with a satchel slung over his shoulder because he's not supposed to be alive.

"No way, dude. That’s Derek Hale!" Stiles exclaims, clutching a fist in Scott’s jacket sleeve.

"Who?" Scott says, tugging his sleeve out of Stiles’ death grip as Allison watches them with a bemused expression.

"Derek Hale," Stiles repeats, possibly too loudly because when he adds, “He totally died," Derek is standing right behind him with one eyebrow raised.

"Obviously I didn’t," Derek huffs, looking irritated.

"I saw the Calamity Jane wreck. There’s no way anyone survived that."

"No one did," Derek says, his whole demeanour shifting from annoyed to blank and then he’s turning and marching stiffly away. Scott is still looking bewildered but Allison has twisted up her mouth and is shaking her head.

"What just happened?" Stiles asks, voice small and hollow.

"Derek wasn’t in Calamity Jane when the Category Three hit landfall."

"But-"

"He’d broken his leg a week earlier. The Cat Three got scanned as a two and his other sister took his place with Laura because they thought she could handle it."

"Huh?"

"His younger sister, Cora. She was a candidate." Stiles doesn't ask how Allison knows all of this because of course she would, being a Marshall's daughter. She probably knows more about him than he does.

"I read all the feeds," Stiles says slowly, still staring back the way Derek has long since disappeared.

"It happened right when the Jaeger program was trying to get their funding for upgrades. It made a better argument for the money when two seasoned pilots got their asses kicked. If the people with the chokehold on the budget had gotten wind of there being an inexperienced pilot in the mix, they might have delayed the approvals. His Marshall helped Derek drop quietly out of the public eye," Allison explains.

"Yeah, but that’s also when they started talking about the coastal wall, and how the Jaegers weren’t as reliable as the program wanted everyone to believe."

*

Stiles knows it's a sore point as soon as he's brought it up. Allison and Isaac suddenly have somewhere else to be and even Scott disappears on him, after ensuring Stiles is handed off to a steward to find his quarters and a meal. The steward's politely disinterested in him and when she's sure Stiles is squared away and has a map to the cafeteria, rec room and offices, excuses herself.

Stiles is used to sparse accommodation and the Jaeger barracks are no different. He's pleased to have a small room to himself although he'd been hoping his simulator would've been dropped off but all that's in his room is his sad-looking duffle sitting atop the single bed pushed against one side of his room.

Stiles figures until someone comes to collect him it won't hurt to go exploring on his own. He's never been the type to sit still and stare at the walls so he opens his door, takes one step down and looks up to see Derek Hale staring back at him from the room on the other side of the corridor. Derek snorts, rolls his eyes and slams his own door pointedly closed.

"Rude," Stiles huffs, contemplates knocking on Derek's door and asking what his problem is, or maybe just if he wants to accompany Stiles in his search for the cafeteria but he figures he's pushed his luck enough for one day. Stiles instead palms the card that has directions to the commonly used amenities on it, turns it around a few times, decides if he tries to follow it he'll probably end up more lost and tosses it back into his room before he sets off.

It's a big complex, but Stiles finds the cafeteria by following where most people are heading, figuring that's where the tide will flow at meal times. The cafeteria is a large space with bolted down tables and chairs and a long buffet set off to the side. Stiles approaches, can feel his own eyes growing round at the sheer amount and variety of food on display. He's used to rationing, tiny set portions in vacuum sealed packages that make you more aware of how hungry you are rather than satiating that hunger.

"Stilinski!"

Stiles jerks, not having realized that he'd frozen for quite so long in indecision. A cluster of people close to him titter amongst themselves and he gives them a dry grimace before he turns and finds a small, red haired woman standing behind him with her arms crossed. She has a smudge of something black on her cheek, is wearing coveralls and is glaring at Stiles like he's personally offended her.

"Whatever it is, I'm very sorry," Stiles offers. He's not really sure what he's done to piss someone off so much so early, but he figures it's probably safest to beg forgiveness rather than try and puzzle it out.

"You were supposed to come and see me after orientation."

"I was supposed to have orientation?" Stiles asks, because that sounds like something official that he probably shouldn't have missed.

"Seriously," the girl huffs. "I don't know how you aren't all Kaiju paste already."

"Lydia?" Stiles guesses because he's picturing how Finstock had shuddered every time the mysterious Lydia had been mentioned and he can see the woman in front of him inspiring that kind of terror.

"Yes," she confirms, her face softening just the tiniest bit like she's relieved that he's not a completely lost cause. "Grab something to go and come to my lab."

Stiles snatches an apple and a bread roll from the table in front of him, neither of which he's seen in months and hugs them to his chest. "I'm good," he says and Lydia nods and leads him out of the cafeteria.

When they reach her lab which seems to be another room like all the others that have been designated offices but a little larger and filled with more delicate looking equipment, Stiles sees what happened to his simulator. It's unpacked and, "Oh my god, who put this on backwards?" Stiles exclaims, darting forward in horror.

"What?" Lydia hisses, then turns on a man Stiles hadn't noticed at first in the room. "Danny!"

"What? I'm not used to these ancient single-person units. This thing's an antique. You're lucky I didn't put it together upside down."

"Heathen," Stiles grumbles, setting about dismantling the simulator and setting it to rights. He's relieved to see all the parts arrived undamaged but he's still a little put out by it being in someone else's clutches. Lydia watches him fussing about for approximately ten seconds before she says, "I want to know how you hacked the system, and why."

"I like to have dinner first before the dirty talk portion of the evening," Stiles says distractedly, plucking the apple out of his pocket and taking an overlarge bite. It's probably a little old, the inside flesh gone slightly furry, but it's still one of the most amazing things he's ever eaten.

"Wow," Danny snorts, shaking his head and not looking up from where he's bent over an interface panel that's seen better days.

"Stilinski-"

"Stiles," he corrects Lydia automatically. Her nostrils flare in an unattractive way for a second at being interrupted before she takes a deep breath and smiles at him gamely.

"Stiles then. You've got an old Mark Zero simulator that was feeding back to our mainframe and you had a one hundred percent kill rate except for the scenario you hacked. From the parameters I know what mission you were trying to recreate and I can guess why-"

"It's none of your business," Stiles snaps, surprising himself with his own vehemence. Lydia's eyes widen and Danny gives up all pretense of being busy and openly stares. "Discard the failure data. It doesn't matter. The program simulations are all that should matter, right?"

"I still want-"

"I'm hearing the word want from you, which tells me this isn't war critical information," Stiles says and Danny suddenly looks fascinated with him, like he's grown a second head. "Tell me exactly how the failure data is important, how my hacking this old simulator is vital need to know and I'll tell you why I did it and how."

"It's..." Lydia's mouth opens and closes for a second before it firms down into a determined line. "It's not at the moment but it could become-"

"Ask me when you have a reason," Stiles interrupts. "Is that all I was brought here for, because if it was you guys can throw me back like a too-small fish, I don't care in the slightest."

After a beat, Lydia says, "It's not."

"No?" Stiles says, and he's honestly surprised. He hadn't believed the whole recruitment song and dance, had suspected that he was being brought to the base for informational purposes only and since it was questions he wasn't willing to answer, he figures that would be that.

"Current circumstances require us to look at re-utilising decommissioned resources. There is a Mark Zero Jaeger that's almost back to serviceability but it would take too long to train a pair of pilots from scratch to use it."

"Uh, you'd have to train me from scratch though, to even be a pilot," Stiles points out.

"You've been using this simulator for about two years from the data we've collated. You have a leg up we can't ignore and you're potentially drift compatible with the only other pilot we've been able to find that would be able to come up to speed as quickly."

"Surely you've got candidates that would be better suited," Stiles says, isn't really sure why he's arguing against this except that he's still waiting for it to all be some elaborate joke.

"There's a lot of training even candidates would have to unlearn let alone already trained pilots, which is harder than honing someone who's raw but has the basics," Lydia says with a shrug. "The Mark One's interfaces became more intuitive, more responsive. There's a lot more mental grunt work involved in piloting a Zero."

"So, who's the other guy?" Stiles asks, but as soon as he does, he knows exactly who it's going to be.

"Derek Hale."

*

"PPDC Psyche test, Ranger Ready testing, Drive Suit testing and Drift Sync testing," Scott rattles off as Stiles sits on Isaac's bed, feet dangling over the edge. He's got the PPDC Psyche test in a folder on his lap and has been flipping through it, had asked what other hoops he was going to have to jump through and Scott, bless him, had immediately elaborated.

"Within a group, my preferred role is," Stiles reads, then frowns at the test paper. "I'm assuming I shouldn't pick d. working alone if I want to ever see the inside of a Jaeger?"

"You should try and answer honestly, not answer what you think will get you into the program," Scott admonishes gently and Stiles rolls his eyes.

"I'm going to pick c. following orders quickly and efficiently," Stiles says. "That's totally my honest response. I swear."

Scott snorts and drops onto his own bed. He, Isaac and Allison share a room which is common with most Jaeger pilot teams. Stiles had found out after meeting with Lydia that she was actually a pilot, teamed with a Jackson Whittemore in a Jaeger called Mountain Havoc and, to Stiles' endless amusement, had been nicknamed Prada by absolutely everyone although he was yet to figure out why. By all accounts, Jackson was a jerk of truly epic proportions and it made his head explode every time someone called out for Prada on comms.

Stiles had been willing to reserve judgement until he'd run into Jackson on his way back from Lydia's lab and the guy had bailed him up in the corridor, told him in no uncertain terms that his kind wasn't wanted and Jackson would be only too happy to personally take him out if he got in his way.

Stiles, to date never able to shut his mouth when it was prudent, had asked exactly what Jackson meant by his kind.

"He said damaged," Stiles scoffs. "He said me and Derek were both just a disaster waiting to happen and he didn't want to be caught in the fallout."

"Just ignore him," Scott recommends serenely. He's got a book open while Stiles runs through his psyche test, legs crossed at the ankle and head propped on the arm not holding his book. "He's been insufferable ever since he found out he and Lyds have the kill rate record."

"Well, that's just annoying," Stiles huffs.

"What?"

"That he's good. It would be a lot easier to complain about him if he was unjustifiably smug."

"You're weird," Scott says, but he's smiling and Stiles throws the pillow from Isaac's bed at him. Scott bats it aside easily.

"So, why did you hack your simulator?" Scott asks, and the question would almost sound offhand, idle curiosity if Stiles hadn't already had Finstock, Allison and Marshall Argent try to grill him on Lydia's behalf. He'd held his ground, given them the same answer he'd given Lydia, that if they couldn't prove it was mission critical, there was no reason they had to know.

"Scott," Stiles groans and Scott sits up, mouth pulling down.

"Sorry, I promised I'd ask," he says. "I mean, you've been able to, but most of us find it extremely hard to say no to Lydia."

"Look-"

"No, it's totally fine," Scott rushes to say, tossing his book aside so he can hold his hands up. "I agreed to ask you. I've asked you. I'm done. If you want to talk about it, I'm here, but if not, that's okay too."

"Thanks man," Stiles says, more than a little touched.

"No problemo," Scott says, lays back down but jerks upright when someone thumps on his door. Derek Hale pokes his head in without waiting for a response. He's got a sim suit on and no one should be able to make one of those look hot like Derek does.

"There you are," Derek says, giving Stiles impressively unimpressed eyebrows.

"Here I am," Stiles agrees, waving his folder and grinning. Scott blinks at him, probably not used to someone looking so cheerful in the face of the murderous expression Derek's giving him.

"We've got a sim session in ten minutes and it takes twenty to just get the suit on."

"I didn't know that. No one tells me anything," Stiles protests.

"I can get you in the suit in ten," Scott says, jumping up and pin wheeling his arms like he's warming up or something.

"Make it five and you can have my dessert tonight," Derek offers and Scott looks far too gleeful at the prospect.

"Hey, no!" Stiles squawks as Scott launches himself across the room.

*

"I believe in the deep-end method," Finstock is saying as he checks over Stiles' suit. Stiles is feeling a little tender after what Scott did to him in the name of pudding and he winces as Finstock pokes at him. "Sink or swim, y'know?"

"I'm starting to gather," Stiles says as Derek raises an eyebrow at him.

"We don't talk about it, agreed?" Derek asks. It seems Danny isn't only Lydia's assistant as he's also in the simulator dome, checking over Derek's gear.

"About Scott violating me?" Stiles asks, confused.

"No," Derek huffs. "About what we see, in here." Derek taps a finger at his temple. "We don't talk about it, we don't judge and we don't use it against each other."

"Yeah, absolutely," Stiles agrees readily. Everything that's happened has been such a whirlwind that he hasn't taken a moment to really think about what all of this means, that he's about to have someone in his head. What Derek's proposing sounds easy enough, but a hint of doubt must have creeped into his face because Derek gives him a level look.

"Stiles."

"Yes, okay," he repeats and he must sound more sure this time because Derek nods and then Danny's stepping away from him, smacking hands against his chest in a satisfied way.

"All good," Danny proclaims and Finstock nods, also stepping back.

"So, I know what you said about the deep end but aren't we supposed to do a bunch of tests together to check for compatibility before we get here?" Stiles asks.

"Found the psyche test that stimulating did you?" Finstock asks and when Stiles just stares at him he says, "We don't have a lot of time. On paper you guys should be compatible but this is the best way to know for sure. If you can maintain a neural link and don't fry yourselves, then we'll call it a win, hmm?"

"What if we do fry ourselves?" Stiles asks slowly.

"You probably won't be in much of a position to worry about it," Finstock says.

"Uh-"

"C'mon, I don't have all day," Finstock snaps, clapping his hands together and then he's helping Stiles into the foot clamps and Danny's showing him how to attach the arm and head cables since Derek seems to know what he's doing already. The simulator he'd had at home is nothing like this. The program simulator is built full size, plus he and Derek will be connected.

Finstock and Danny retreat, the portal into the simulator clanging dully with their departure.

He's trying to concentrate, trying to sort out the jumble of advice he's been given from everyone in his head but it's hard. His mind is skipping around like it hasn't since he was a kid and Stiles knows that's the wrong mental space to be in for this. He bears down, tries to reel it back in, the tendrils of his thoughts slipping away like ribbons through his fingers.

"Three... two... one..." an outside voice counts down and then-

He's outside and it's a beautiful day. They're riding on the back of a convertible in the center of the street, a car his dad had run a careful hand over wearing a reverential smile. "They don't make 'em like this anymore kiddo," he'd said with a brightness Stiles hadn't heard in a while and he'd smiled helplessly back up at his dad.

The crowds pressing in against the temporary fences worry him. The noise is oppressive, almost like a physical thing and his father's gripping his hand resting between them a little too tightly so it's starting to hurt.

A woman clutching a little girl slips through a space in the fences and rushes out into the street. She bypasses the guys marching just ahead of them and jogs a little to catch up with their car. It's a parade, Stiles realizes, everyone should be happy but something about this all makes him so scared.

The woman catches at his dad's sleeve on the opposite side to him, says a little breathlessly, "I just had to thank you. You saved all-"

His dad lets go of his hand, swivels and slides off the back of the car. His face had gone deathly blank right before, an expression Stiles has come to recognize and fear because it means his father has mentally checked out. He's always sorry after he goes away like this, hugs Stiles extra hard when he comes back to himself, but the episodes have been getting longer and more frequent and Stiles knows, deep down, that at some point his father won't come back at all.

"Dad!" Stiles cries as his father hops the nearest fence and disappears into the crowd. Stiles awkwardly slides off the back of the car too, the driver having not noticed he's lost his passengers. Stiles lands badly, scraping his knee and his hands. The woman who'd caught up to them is at his side, eyes large and worried.

He slaps her.

He's little, not very strong, but he slaps her hard enough that the imprint of his small hand floods pink on her cheek almost immediately. The little girl in her arms begins to cry and Stiles does too because he didn't mean it, he didn't mean to hurt the woman but she made his dad go away and despite this the woman is using her free arm to tug Stiles close. She smells like a mom, sweet and warm and that's so much worse. Stiles struggles in her grip but she's not letting him go, she's holding on so tightly-

"Stiles!"

It's Derek, holding his shoulders, shaking him roughly. "Hey, come back, come on!" Derek is yelling right in his face, helmet removed so Derek can move his hands to Stiles' head, press fingers against his cheekbones and temple, like he can find and hold Stiles in this world physically. When he gets his bearings a little, Stiles notices that Derek has disconnected them, bodily hauled Stiles out of his foot clamps and is pressing him against the side hull of the simulator.

"Derek, I-" Stiles starts to say, isn't sure whether he means to apologize or explain but he doesn't get to. Derek drops his head onto Stiles' shoulder, is breathing hard with his palms still resting against Stiles' face.

The intercom clicks next to Stiles' head and Argent's voice crackles through. "Both of you in my office, now," he says, tone no-nonsense. Stiles is still a little fuzzy from what happened, but he knows that this is bad, very bad. He'd chased the rabbit right down its little rabbit hole and it took Derek yanking him completely out of his body harness to get him back.

That kind of thing can't happen in combat.

Stiles swallows roughly as Derek steps away, head coming up. He's left wondering if he'll get to say goodbye to everyone, if he can really go back to the wall after all this, if he can leave Derek. He'd gotten snatches of Derek, right before he'd been yanked underneath by his own memories, tiny glimpses. He's seen a much younger Derek smile and he really wants to see that smile in real life.

He doesn't think he's going to get to, though.

He follows Derek numbly to the Marshall's office, letting Derek nudge him in the right direction when he hesitates. The compound is still a maze to him, he hasn't had a chance to mentally map the space. He figures there really isn't any point after today.

"What the hell was that?" Argent demands. They get inside his office and Argent has his arms crossed and an unimpressed look on his face.

Stiles opens his mouth, but Derek beats him to the punch. "It was my fault," he says.

Stiles turns his head, staring open-mouthed at Derek. "What?" he says, incredulous. Derek isn't looking at him though, eyes trained front and center.

"I dropped out of the drift first, I dumped him in his own memories unprepared."

"He couldn't pull himself out," Argent says and Stiles really wants to object to being talked about like he isn't in the room but he doesn't get a chance to.

"That's lack of experience, not skill. He would’ve been able to hold it if I had."

"Hang on," Stiles says. "I was the one that screwed up. Coach is going to scream at me and I'm going to let him before I pack my bags, probably while I pack my bags too."

"You're not going anywhere," Derek dismisses, sounding annoyed.

"I'm not?" Stiles asks at the same time Argent says, "He's not?"

"Right before..." Derek seems at a loss how to explain whatever he's thinking, opening and closing his fists. "Just ask Lydia. I'm sure she's pouring over the data as we speak."

"Strong?" Argent asks, raising a scarred eyebrow.

"More than strong," Derek says and Argent stops looking angry and starts looking intrigued.

"Can someone tell me what's going on?" Stiles demands.

"It took a special kind of bond to drive the old Mark Zeroes," Argent explains as Derek's stance relaxes, sensing the dressing down is finished. Stiles himself is still tense, still waiting for the hammer to drop. "The later interfaces were more forgiving but... frankly I'm surprised you were able to do anything at all other than suffer horrendous brain damage."

"That was a possibility?" Stiles squeaks. "Wait, we didn't do anything," he adds. "I mean, al I did was freak out."

"We stepped forward, armed weapons. You don't remember that bit?" Derek asks.

"Uh, no?" Stiles screws up his face. "That's bad right?"

"On the contrary," Argent says. "It means you were completely immersed. We might have to dial it back a little so you can actually function but no, it's not bad." Argent tilts his head. "The first Mark Zero pilots were siblings mostly, but there was one particularly brilliant married couple."

"What are you saying?" Stiles asks slowly. Stiles doesn't know how much of himself he just gave to Derek, whether Derek now knows about his parents but Argent certainly does, probably has a whole scarily thick dossier on him.

"Nothing. I'm just surprised," Argent says with a shrug, but his face is shrewd, like he's waiting for them to admit something.

"So-o," Stiles drawls, letting himself feel encouraged for the first time in days. "When do we get to have a go at the real deal?"

"When I'm certain you can handle it," Argent says, but in a way that tells Stiles that he's not saying never. He expects that time to be very close. Stiles isn't used to people having faith in him and he's not sure what to do with the feeling.

"Can we at least see this very special Jaeger everyone is talking about?" Stiles presses.

"Soon," Argent promises, going back to whatever he was doing before, obviously dismissing them. Derek salutes, the giant dork and Stiles offers a sloppy one of his own before following Derek back out of Argent's office.

"So, uh, what did you-?" Stiles starts to ask, at Derek's heels.

"I thought we agreed not to discuss that stuff?" Derek cuts him off, throwing a look over his shoulder at Stiles that says he was a-okay with that plan and wishes for it to continue.

"Oh, sure," Stiles sighs, nodding although he's oddly disappointed.

*

Stiles is dead asleep when the first alarms go off. He almost falls out of bed before he's able to right himself and stumble to the door. He pushes open his hatch and sees Derek on the other side, halfway out of his room, frozen. He's only wearing sweat pants, his hair adorably flattened against his skull. He's frowning at the people rushing by.

"Hey," Stiles says and Derek's head jerks his way. He makes a face Stiles doesn't know him well enough to read but he doesn't slam his door this time so Stiles figures that's progress in their relationship. He even waits for a break in the flood of people buzzing by their rooms and then crosses over to Stiles.

"I... it's Pavlovian I guess," Derek says. He's chewing on his thumbnail and looking unsure. "I hear the alarms and feel like I should be doing something."

"Our time will come," Stiles offers and then screws up his mouth and shrugs, a half-hearted apology for the lame platitude. "You know what it is?"

"Nah. It would... we'd just be getting in the way if we went down to control."

"Oh man, I live for getting in the way," Stiles enthuses and Derek looks ridiculously relieved that Stiles is willing to indulge him. He darts back over to him own room so he can grab a shirt and step into boots and then collects Stiles who's pulled on a hoodie and his Jaeger feet slippers. Derek snorts when he sees them and shakes his head.

Stiles is happy to let Derek lead them down to the control room. Argent doesn't look surprised to see them, just waves for them to hug the wall instead of chasing them out. Stiles' eyes scan automatically over the various HUDs, sees that it's a Category Two and that it's received the designation Trollfist.

The controller is a calm-looking man Stiles hasn't seen before. He's wearing what looks like a retro bowling shirt with Boyd stitched on the breast pocket. "McCall, Lahey, Argent. Ready to drop on my count."

"As we'll ever be," Stiles hears over comms and he smiles at Allison's voice.

"Pra- Mountain Havoc set?" Boyd says and Stiles bites on his fist to stop laughing out loud at the near-slip. There's a growl in Jackson's voice as he answers, obviously having caught it too.

"Set."

"Drop them," Boyd instructs and Stiles fights the urge to grab onto Derek. Suddenly he doesn't want to be in the control room anymore. He doesn't want to be helpless as these people he's come to know and like a great deal head out to fight the good fight.

He's stuck because the thought of sitting in his room and twiddling his thumbs isn't exactly appealing either.

Derek seems to sense his agitation, is the one that grabs onto Stiles' shoulder. "You want to show me that old one-person monstrosity you lugged here?"

"Sure, yeah," Stiles says, grateful for the proffered escape.

They find Lydia’s lab without too much trouble as Derek turns out to have a much better navigational memory than Stiles and Derek whistles low when he sees the simulator. “This must be one of the first.”

“They had to build the first Jaegers in a hurry. The simulators were kind of an afterthought. This one’s been heavily modified by my d- by one of the first pilots,” Stiles explains as Derek runs a reverential hand over the simulator before climbing up into the harness and setting his feet in the clamps.

“Talk me through it,” Derek says and Stiles marvels at how keenly interested Derek seems, how different he is from the guy Stiles first met. He’s still pretty scowly, but Stiles is beginning to wonder if he’s seeing something in Derek he hadn’t before just from the few minutes they spent in the drift. It’s like Derek went from an abstract to a real person, colored in and pared down.

“There’s virtual HUDs. You’re not drifting with anyone but the computer does a pretty good approximation. It’s hard to get going and even harder to find the inventory. Like people keep saying, this is a Zero simulator and a lot of the intuitiveness was built in to the Mark Ones and later. It’s pretty raw.”

“It’s what we need, right?” Derek says. “They don’t have time or resources to rebuild the entire interface so we’re basically old school-ing it.”

“Yeah,” Stiles agrees. “I mean, that’s good for me because otherwise I would have been laughed out of here. Desperation makes the unpalatable more attractive.”

“You run yourself down a lot,” Derek notes, uncoiling a loop of feeder cables and clipping them onto the harness he’s shrugged into like he’s been doing it for years.

“It’s better to go offensive rather than defensive.”

“You really think that’s the way other people see you.” For a moment, Stiles thinks it's a question, but he realizes belatedly that it's an observation instead because Derek isn’t waiting for an answer. “This bad boy got a Category Three sim pack?”

“Nope,” Stiles says and Derek looks at him sharply.

“Y’know, the interesting thing about being in someone’s head, even for a short time, is you can tell when they’re lying when you’re out of it.”

“What?” Stiles splutters. “It doesn’t. There’s only standard-“

“I’m not talking about standard,” Derek interrupts.

“Oh no, wait a second,” Stiles says, because how could he have been this stupid? Obviously Lydia found someone way more subtle to get information out of him and he nearly hadn’t seen it. “This is about the hack. Well done, you nearly had me convinced that this was all about us but Lydia got to you too. Frankly, I’m surprised at you.”

“Stiles,” Derek says, sounding exasperated. “I don’t know anything about a hack and I’m not sure what Lydia has to do with this.”

Stiles narrows his eyes as Derek just looks at him levelly. “Argh, not fair. I can’t tell when you’re lying.”

“It’s simple, I’m not. Is there a Cat Three scenario or isn't there?”

“There is but it’s... I hacked an existing Two and rewrote it for a particular scenario but I think it’s buggy because I’ve failed it every time.”

“Let me try,” Derek urges, sounding keen again.

“No,” Stiles snaps because, just no.

“Why not?”

“I really don’t-“

“I’m going to know eventually,” Derek points out, flailing his hands and Stiles moves to the control panel, types fast and then smacks the engage switch.

“Meet Cat Two, designation IronClaw. Have fun and don’t die, the simulator shocks you.”

“It what?”

“They believed in aversion training back then,” Stiles says. “Finstock would've loved it.”

*

Stiles makes his way to the infirmary, only having to ask directions the once. He knows Isaac's fine, that it's just bruised ribs and a concussion, but it could have been so much worse. Stiles' mind skitters away from just how much worse as he's snagged by Scott when he almost wanders right past the infirmary doors.

"Hey, hi," Scott says. He's still in his suit, hair damp and curling oddly because the hull breach happened when they were in the middle of the ocean.

Hull breach, Jesus.

"Hey Stiles," Allison greets as Stiles leans in the doorway. There are four cots in the room and Isaac's lying on the one furthest from the door with Allison on a seat pulled up at his side. She's got a butterfly bandage on a cut just above her eyebrow and she looks tired.

"We're fine," Scott says and his voice is gentle. Stiles looks down and realizes belatedly that he's got a death grip on Scott's suit. He lets go slowly, opens and closes his fingers to get feeling back into them with a wry tilt to his mouth.

"Yeah, totally," he huffs. "Uh, how is he?"

"On the good drugs," Isaac croons muzzily without opening his eyes. "Only hurts when I laugh so don't do that, don't make me laugh."

"We should get Derek in here then, he sucks the funny right out of a room," Stiles says and Isaac snorts.

"Ow, hey, what did I just say?"

"What happened?"

"There was a weak point in the chest plate on Triskelion. It's been patched over too many times. We need a replacement."

"There's no money for that," Allison says, evident in her tone that this is an old argument and Scott shrugs.

"Yeah, well, there's now a giant gaping hole where that part of the chest plate was so we'll have to find it."

"I thought the Jaeger program was well funded," Stiles says. The governments of the world had come together, pooled resources and made sure the Jaeger program had everything it needed.

"It was, at first," Allison says. "When the memory of taking six days to drop the first Kaiju was fresh in everyone's memory. Now there's an uproar if we take longer than an hour. Trollfist got close enough for the population onshore to see its parasites while we were literally dead in the water. That's not good for PR."

"Surely that's argument enough to stop complaining about putting their hands in their wallets," Stiles says.

"That's argument enough for people to want to find a better way. More and more of our funds are getting diverted into the coastal wall projects."

"They won't hold back the Kaiju," Stiles scoffs.

"You were working on the wall when we found you. I thought-" Scott starts to say but Stiles holds his hand up.

"Do people really think we can what, corral the Kaiju? We can keep them penned in like really large, angry cows?"

"They're just... we're all just tired," Allison says, tone resigned. "There's only so long you can live in fear before it starts beating you, before it starts impairing your judgement."

"That's why I need a live one," Lydia says, striding into the room.

"A live what?" Stiles asks, sees the way Scott and Allison's faces tighten up like they're bracing themselves for a rant they've heard too many times before.

"A Kaiju, for study," Lydia says, the duh evident in her tone. "The dead ones decompose too fast, like they don't want us to get any valuable intel. The black-market Kaiju flesh merchants have their tricks but they're not sharing and sometimes the methods they use for preserving what they scavenge are more detrimental than the decay."

"Wait, who's they?" Stiles asks.

"Lydia, c'mon," Scott starts to groan but she holds up one pointed, imperious finger.

"The Kaiju. Their masters if they have any. You don't really think we're being attacked by an alien version of what... an elephant lumbering through a downed fence do you?"

"I've never really thought about it," Stiles says, but that isn't true. He's thought about it, wondered just who the hell was responsible when his mother died, when his father-

"They're always different and always just a little bit nastier when they come through. We moved from Cat Ones to Cat Twos without going backwards. Why aren't there any Category Ones coming through anymore if it's all just random?"

"There's been Threes," Allison says, eyes darting to Stiles and away again. "But we're still getting Cat Twos most of the time."

"I'd bet anything that's not going to hold true for much longer. We're going to start seeing Threes come through again and the Twos will stop. We're going to see Threes, maybe Fours and eventually-"

"Don't say it," Isaac groans from the bed.

"A double event!"

"Ugh, if we see a double event, I'm totally blaming you," Isaac grumbles, one arm thrown over his face.