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The First and Best Victory

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"I've heard the rumors, you know," Raleigh said, after it was all over. They'd been brought back to the Shatterdome, checked over, and left to lean against one another on a cot in the infirmary; beyond the half-open steel doors, they could hear the noise of the celebration echoing up and down the corridors.

Mako looked a question up at him, eyebrows faintly raised; the ghost Drift thrummed between them like a shallow current, faint and still fading in the aftermath of the fight at the Breach. Only when hooked into a Jaeger could words or memories be conveyed between pilots, but it took time for the empathic connection to fade in well-matched pairs. And for all they'd still barely begun to know each other, they were definitely that; for the first time since he'd lost his brother, he didn't feel achingly alone anymore.

He smiled faintly back at her, shifting an arm around her to settle more comfortably together, and reached up with the other to tug at a lock of dark, blue-dyed hair. "This. Working at the Wall, you hear a lot of things that never make the public newsfeeds. Everyone up there knows a guy who knows a guy who says he's seen Her."

She looked briefly surprised: a widening of the eyes echoed by a bright exclamation point of emotion. Then she smiled, a wispy, nostalgic curl tugging at the undercurrent of grief they both shared.

"Or knows a girl," she corrected him, wryly. "Sensei took me back to see what remained of Onibaba, days after the battle, because I was having terrible nightmares. The streets were still full of rubble and stained with the Blue; we could not go close, just enough to see that it was no longer a threat. He turned away to speak with someone else... and it was then that I saw her, leaning close to the skull as if speaking to it. Her hair was marked as if it had been dipped in Kaiju blood, and when she looked up at me, I could see she was unafraid. "

"I can see how that might make an impression," Raleigh allowed, lifting his eyebrows. Something for a little girl who'd lost her parents to a monster to hold on to.

Whoever the stranger was, it didn't sound like she'd been wearing a protective suit-- not normal procedure for handling Kaiju remains, unless you were a greedy black marketeer. But that was part of what made it a good story; all the stories agreed on that, in fact. A slight brunette woman, completely unprotected, standing over the corpses of monsters or looking out over the ocean near the sites of sea battles. Sometimes, on land, she'd even find survivors everyone else had written off; or, at least, that was the rumor. He'd almost wondered, when Mako had first looked up at him from under her umbrella, if she could possibly have been the source of the tales-- but he'd known she was far too young for that. Rumor held the blue-haired Valkyrie had been visiting the site of every Kaiju defeat since the first, over twelve years ago.

Mako eyed him for a moment, weighing his belief in what she'd said; then her smile turned unexpectedly mischievous, a fading zing of effervescent energy snapping between them. "It wasn't the last time I saw her, either."

"Really?" He blinked at her, taken aback. One sighting he could believe; but when would she have had the opportunity for another? Between the Mark III restoration project and her own pilot training, he'd had the impression she'd been more or less confined to the Shatterdomes ever since Pentecost had taken her in. "All the time I spent with the PPDC, I never heard of her; the stories at the Wall said she only shows up after the battle's done, when the pilot crews have gone and the cleanup's in progress."

"Ah. But where do you think she comes from? She does not exist only on the battlefield." Mako slid out from under his arm and off the cot, then turned to offer him her hand, wearing an expectant expression.

Raleigh took it, blinking at her in astonishment. "Wait... you mean to tell me she's here? Then how did no one else ever figure it out?"

She shook her head, tugging gently at his grip, and led him out into the network of concrete and metal corridors that laced through the Shatterdome. "Come with me, and I will show you."

Out in the main bay, the sounds of celebration were clearer-- but also emptier somehow, stripped of the four massive presences that had guarded it only days before. Lady Danger; Cherno Alpha; Crimson Typhoon; and Striker Eureka. Massive machines that took hundreds of people, maintaining them on a daily basis, to function properly. It occurred to him now that he'd never managed to check up on the crew that looked after he and his brother before Knifehead; hopefully they'd gone on to other crews, or been brought back when Mako resurrected the mechanical member of their team from the scrapheap. In addition to the dedicated Jaeger crews, though, there was also a dedicated staff running the Shatterdome itself, and all the jury-rigged processes and procedures it had accumulated over twelve years of first heady success and then fighting the long defeat.

The Jaeger crews were gone, probably either grieving together or among the raucous crowds in cafeterias and dormitory areas, but as Mako led him deeper in the complex, he saw some of the regular staff still at work. Keeping things ready for the new Marshal to pick up the reins--

He glanced at Mako, and the last flashes of connection brought a small, sad smile to her mouth. "He would approve, I think," she said, and then led him into a side room a lot like the one the research team was set up in.

A slender brunette woman was working with a holographic console there, projecting a detailed schematic up into the air. She was frowning at it with an intent expression, poking at various parts and muttering to herself under her breath. At first glance, she didn't look anything like the Valkyrie he'd heard of, apart from her general physical type; there were no blue stripes in her hair, no unnaturally icy gaze. But then it occurred to him what a perfect disguise that would be.

Applying blue to visit the Blue, then taking it off after? Reverse camouflage, and the perfect way to keep anyone from connecting her to the legend. He shot a questioning glance at Mako, and was not surprised when she replied with a smiling nod.

"Dr. Burkle," she said respectfully, catching the other woman's attention.

The engineer, he was guessing by the looks of that screen, looked up at the sound of Mako's voice. A frown creased her brow at first, but then smoothed out into a welcoming smile, and she spoke in a warm voice carrying a Texas accent. "Mako. How many times am I gonna have to ask you to call me Fred?"

"I was wondering if you had been to the harbour yet?" Mako replied, dodging the question with a rather pointed remark of her own.

Dr. Burkle didn't answer, eyes darting in his direction; but then Mako reached up and tugged at the dyed streak in her own hair with an apologetic smile.

"Ah," the doc said. As she spoke, her hair bled blue at the roots like flowers wicking dye up out a vase of water, blowing his wig theory away with something even more amazing. Within moments, her hair and much of her skin followed, tinted a blue nearly as bright as the glowing throat of Knifehead, and her eyes had shifted to a shade like frost-crazed glass. "You have found, at last, your Qwa'ha Xahn."

"And he, me," Mako replied, warmly. "He had heard your legends, and I thought to tell him, for it is not a secret easily kept from one who has seen my memories."

"And will see them again," the doc nodded, then switched that cool gaze to him. "You have walked away from this fight once; if you do so again when the Breach reopens, there will be nowhere you can hide."

She was still just as petite as she'd been when they'd begun the conversation, but Raleigh felt almost dwarfed before the intensity of this other personality. He almost didn't dare ask what she was, as she clearly wasn't an ordinary human being; he had seen the scale the Kaijus' masters were built on, and it was surprisingly similar to theirs. And with the hair trick, who knew what other camouflage she could pull? But if what she'd chosen to do with her power was come here to help the PPDC against her species, and be protective of Mako... well, it would be rude, not to mention look bad, if he derailed the conversation to accuse her now.

He inclined his head in a deeper nod of respect, tightening the hand still clasping Mako's. "I left once before out of grief, not because I lost my commitment to the fight. If I leave again, it'll be in a coffin, or a conn pod. What reason would they have to come back, though? I didn't detonate the bomb until it was all the way through the Throat and into their world, where they were building the Kaijus. Won't they give up the invasion as a bad job?"

She tilted her head, assessing his reaction, and then gave him a wintry smile. "I have heard the loud one's assertion that the Kaijus' masters were here once before. He is incorrect; they have always been here, biding their time to make a return. Humanity's entire existence subsists in their despite. They are no more capable of giving up this grudge than humans are of submitting before a fight they are told they cannot win."

"Because we are not alone," Mako replied, firmly. "And we have never been alone, have we?"

Dr. Burkle looked at her-- and then the dyed effect suddenly reversed. Her skin faded back to its regular pale hue, the blue streaks receded from her stick-straight brown hair, and her eye color darkened to match. "So my last Qwa'ha Xahn tried to teach me, many years ago," she said, reaching out to rest a hand on Mako's shoulder. "So I try to pay forward now in his name. Hope hurts when you're not used to it. But after everything, it turns out I can still be surprised; and they'll take that from me over my lifeless body."

Phrased in that friendly Texas accent, after the cold echoing voice of what Raleigh suspected was her true self, the words ran a chill up his spine. And made him very grateful he'd never had to attempt a Drift with her.

"The visitations, though... the ones that got people talking. Are you looking for something Marshal Hansen should know about?"

"Astute question," she nodded genially, "and when I do see it, he'll know. The Old Ones running this phase of invasion weren't familiar; their creations didn't bear a signature I knew. When the Wolf, Ram and Hart get involved, my knowledge may be more useful. Until then...."

She gestured to the schematic behind her, which on closer look resembled a modified Jaeger.

"Thank you," Raleigh said, meaning it, "and thank you for everything you've done for Mako."

"No problem, sugar," she replied, with a significant look, "so long as you do the same."

Mako made her own farewells; and then led him out again, back toward the corridor where their quarters faced each other in the pilots' area.

"Wow," he breathed, when they were far enough away he wasn't irrationally worried about drawing that not-exactly-woman's attention. "Think I'm just going to keep calling her the Valkyrie in my head, though."

"I do not think she would be offended," Mako replied, eyes crinkling at the corners in amusement.

"That Qwa'ha Xhan thing she said, do you know what it means?" he had to ask, raising an eyebrow at her.

"She explained it to me once: that they were priest, and servant, and guide in this world," she replied. "One who carries the other's sacraments close to their heart. She said that is the closest concept she had for what pilots become to each other. I do not necessarily agree, but...."

Raleigh thought back over the pilot pairs he'd known over time: the ones that worked well, the ones that had problems, and the ones like he'd been after Yancy and before Mako, a part of themselves always aching and empty. It was an irreverent way to phrase it, maybe... but yeah, he could see that take on it.

"You'll have to tell me what sort of offerings are best to appease Mako Mori," he replied, grinning at her, "but I have no objection."

The sound of her laughter was the perfect balance to his day, one more victory against the shadows afflicting their world.

Whatever came next, they would handle, too. Because no matter what challenges they faced, they weren't doing so alone.