Cover Art provided by busaikko.
"Where are you going?"
Mako turned, the paper lantern in her hand bobbing on the morning breeze. She gripped the stick handle firmly. As a child, she'd been superstitious, believing that imperfectly-performed rituals at O-bon invited disaster. She'd been allowed to watch too many ghost stories on TV at an impressionable age, she thought.
Stacker had dissuaded her, gently but firmly, from superstitions. She no longer believed in ghosts, but her actions now were out of respect for the dead. And for the sake of her own memories.
"To the cemetery," she said. Raleigh squinted at her, still half-asleep, hair messy and feet bare on the floorboards of the garden-side hallway. He always left his slippers somewhere, claiming he forgot, but Mako knew they were too small for his feet, and pink, besides. "You can go back to bed."
"I'm up," he said, and yawned, rolling his shoulders back. "Let me just put on some clothes." He eyed Mako, standing with forced patience on the gravel path, and she indicated with a sarcastic sweep of her hand her t-shirt and jeans, cheap zoori on her feet. "'kay," he said, nodding, and headed for his suitcase.
He always forgot to close the doors, Mako thought, resigned. "I'll bring you your shoes," she called, and headed back around to the genkan. She hadn't bothered to lock the door, which might be foolish of her, but it felt unnecessary. After all, she was home.
"So this isn't a formal thing," he asked when she came back, giving her a nod of thanks as he took his sneakers and shoved his bare feet in.
Mako handed him the aluminum mosquito coil case, and he grimaced as the smoke wafted up to his face, but he carried it obediently as they went out the gate into the lane and turned up, away from the familiar route into town.
"It's O-bon," she said, and Raleigh rolled his eyes at her. She grinned. "We're going to bring the dead home. Don't insult them, and you'll be fine. Do you want to wear a suit?"
"In this heat? And before breakfast?" He looked at his arm before he realized he'd forgotten to put on his watch. "It's not even six yet. Not that I could sleep through the bugs screaming, anyway."
"When I was little, I used to catch cicadas," Mako said, just to make Raleigh flinch. "I'd put four or five in a bag and carry them around. I was always small, but I was louder than the sirens."
"You were brave," Raleigh said. "Bugs gross me out."
"You're lucky my grandfather gave my grandmother an indoors toilet for their fiftieth wedding anniversary," Mako said. "The old one was outside in the back, and there were spiders as big as my hand."
"Get outta here." Raleigh jostled her with his elbow. Mako stared him down. "So this is the festival of thanking your ancestors for the flush toilet. Got it."
"I can't take you anywhere," Mako told him, trying to sound sad, and then straightened her face as the Tamuras entered the lane from the post office road. "Ohayo gozaimasu."
Mrs Tamura was eighty-seven, and she leaned on her cane as she half-turned to look back, while her grandchildren ran ahead. "Mori-san," she said, and her daughter wished them a bright good morning. "Ro-ri-san. O-mukae desu ka?"
"Yes," Mako said, and raised her lantern. "We're just going now to bring them home."
Mrs Tamura nodded and waved her on ahead. "It's going to be a scorcher," she called after them. "You should wear a hat."
The temple bell rang once, a low deep resonant sound that Mako felt down in her bones. "I will," she promised. Somewhere in her grandparents' house, she must have a hat; undoubtedly faded and dusty, not worn since she she was a student, so many years ago.
Raleigh teased her the rest of the way up the hill, trying to guess what color her hat was and whether it was decorated with bunches of grapes or flowers. It was only when they reached the top of the stairs to the temple and were passing through the gate that Raleigh asked awkwardly if Mako wanted to be alone.
She didn't know how to say it gently, so she just gave his shoulder a shove. "You already know everything," she reminded him. "I can't be alone." And she gave him a smile in case the words sounded sharp.
She'd known about the Drift for as long as she'd known about the Jaegers, and she'd always imagined the merger of minds to be focused on the future, on the battle, on the sole purpose of attaining victory at any cost – all distractions muted, pushed aside. And that was true. But there was also something very... humanizing – or perhaps tender was a better word – about carrying another heart into battle. She had experience, after all, living with the ghost of who she used to be, but she had never been someone who'd felt the pain of his brother dying, whose every movement carried echoes of that death.
The Drift did not encourage pity, or even sympathy; it was an understanding that ran even deeper.
Raleigh knew the way to her family grave, knew where to fetch water and how to pay his respects, knew when to hand her the mosquito coil so she could light the candles, moved his hand parallel to hers as they each took and lit a stick of incense and set them before the gravestone. He knew what Mako knew: how she'd loved her parents and fought with her grandparents, how this small island was her home and she hated its confines, how she'd never been homesick after she left, how she'd even spoken with a realtor and knew the value of the land under the empty family house she'd inherited, but still couldn't bring herself to sell.
The last time she'd come here had been with Stacker. He'd been very understanding, sharing her grief.
Mako bowed her head and said a quick formless prayer; Raleigh stood and stared at the hill that just barely obscured the sea.
Well. He was taller; perhaps for him the view was better.
Mako lit the candle in her lantern, tidied up, and stood to go.
"So now your family's going to follow you home?" Raleigh asked, giving the lantern a dubious look.
"I'm an engineer, not a theologian," Mako told him, brushing dirt off her knees. "I don't... believe exactly as I'm supposed to." She touched the side of the gravestone, already dry and warmed by the sun. "My parents' bodies were never recovered, but I was told they were here anyway. I think of this as a ritual for me, to pay my respects to my dead. To remember." She gave him a short, regretful glance. "I don't believe in an afterlife."
"I know," Raleigh said, his voice dry and amused.
Mako frowned at him and walked ahead, so he didn't see her expression fade into a grin. "It can be for your dead, too. If you wish."
She heard his footsteps on the gravel behind her, following, and had a fanciful moment imagining herself leading a procession of ghosts. Generations of Moris. Raleigh's brother. Stacker and all the other Jaeger pilots who'd given their lives. The people of Tokyo – the people of all the cities, the dead and the missing, hundreds of millions of souls at her heels.
Someone rang the temple bell again – a quick glance showed it was a Tamura grandchild, being guided by her grandmother. A flock of crows rose up, startled, and circled, cawing nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of the bell. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky.
Mako called to Mrs Tamura to take care of her health in this heat, and passed through the gate, down the uneven stone steps, back onto the road home.
The wall around the house had just come into view when Raleigh said, "I brought pictures." He sounded almost embarrassed. "My family album." Mako didn't know what to say, so she nodded, to show she was listening. "I thought you'd be more of a rock star," he went on. "Small town girl makes good. No one's asking you for your autograph."
"That would be impolite," Mako told him, even though that wasn't the whole explanation. The island had been home to some of the most famous Japanese people; she was only one more. And she grew up here. Mrs Tamura understood that Mako helped save the world. But she also knew that for the whole first year of elementary school, Mako ran past her house at full speed, deathly afraid of the chickens in her yard.
Mako wasn't going to tell Raleigh that story. If he already knew, at least he was keeping his mouth shut.
"It feels safe," Raleigh said, stepping to the side so Mako could pass ahead of him on the path to the door. Mako looked at him as she went past. He was frowning, almost a scowl, and he wrinkled his nose at her in response to her raised eyebrow. "I never did anything for my dead," he said, pulling the words out like the roots of stubborn weeds. "Maybe it's good, to take them out once a year, in a place like this, and then let them go."
"Maybe," Mako repeated. She slid the front door open and stepped out of her shoes, up into the hallway, and crossed into the room where the family altar was kept.
She wasn't going to follow tradition as her grandparents had drilled into her, and she explained this silently as she worked.
Things are different now, she said, as she hung the lantern. In the past, there had been offerings of perfect melons from Hokkaido, grapes from Nagano, peaches and pears, elegant flowers. Every day packages arrived from people paying her grandfather tribute: bottles of oil, expensive tea and o-sake, a child's treasure trove of jellies and canned juices. This island is lucky to have electricity and water. I am luckier than everyone, because I am important enough to afford travel anywhere in the world. Everything is scarce, everyone is poorer, there is so much work to do. She set out the bowls of local tomatoes and peppers, the brown reused bottles of Mr Santoh's home-brewed beer, and the sweet rice dumplings that she'd made before sunrise. These are riches, she informed her grandfather, meeting his remembered sternness with her own. She lit the candles in front of the altar from the flame in the lantern to welcome the spirits into her home, and sat back.
"Looks good." Raleigh slid a zabuton over and dropped down next to her. "We get to drink the beer later, right?" Mako didn't need to say anything; he knew how to read her looks by now, and said, "Hai, hai," in a tone that was almost – nearly – apologetic. "Here." He handed her a cheap paper-bound photo album, opened to the center, two school pictures facing each other. The blue backgrounds had faded over time, and the paper was spotted with water. She studied the faces of the two boys, each with brown hair grown long, a narrow face, and antenna-dish ears. "Which one's me?" Raleigh asked, like he was testing her.
Mako shook her head. "I don't know."
He gave her an incredulous look. "No, seriously."
"Seriously. I can't tell. You look – " She waved her hand.
"Well," Raleigh said, and settled in, crossing his legs. He tapped his finger under the picture on the left. "That one's me. The handsome one's Yancy."
"Ah," she said, and looked from the photo, to Raleigh, and back. She didn't see the difference. "Tell me about him. Tell me," and she held the book up, "about when these pictures were taken."
"It's not a question of when so much as where," Raleigh started. As he talked, one story leading into the next, she felt echoes of the words in the memories she had from him, and through him, from Yancy. She was glad the Drift hadn't shown her everything; she was glad the war hadn't taken everything. Memory was a connection, its own bridge between the living and the dead, and she was glad to have a companion.
When Raleigh ran out of words and his stomach protested the lack of breakfast, he followed her into the kitchen and got in her way while trying to be helpful. She told him to just make the tea, and he asked her when her grandparents died, and how old she'd been when she went to live with Stacker.
There were things she didn't speak of with anyone, but the words came now, over hot tea and rice, with the kitchen door propped open and the windchimes on the eaves dancing in the sea breeze. She spoke, and Raleigh listened, as if the telling was more important than the knowing. He kept her cup refilled before she could realize it had gone empty, and Mako let herself drift with her memories, trusting him to bring her home, safe and sound.