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Absent With Leave

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Commercial flights take forever. How does anyone travel without Jumphawks? Shouldn’t Shao Industries switch to the airline business and steal someone else’s pilots? The questions are petty and inconsequential given the scope of current events, but Mako has ten hours of nothing to fill. She is uninterested in the in-flight movie selection and unable to make any calls just now, being presumed dead.

A pair of absurd sunglasses hides the scratches on her face and she keeps her wide-brimmed hat tugged low. The rest of her outfit is just as non-regulation, breezy for the southern hemisphere summer. An old friend spotted her the money for a change of clothes and plane ticket, and put the helicopter pilot up in the guest house for the next few days, until--

Until when?

Not yet is the only answer she has. Still, by the time the plane lands, she has made up her mind regarding several related matters.

She never takes the days for granted, but in recent months she would not describe her work as rewarding. The last several hours, on the other hand, have been exhilarating in a way that went beyond the adrenaline rush of the near miss, or the fear when it hit home that someone wanted her quite specifically dead. What she feels most of all is alive, with perhaps a hint of guilt, because in those last moments on the helicopter she only had time to send one message, and she chose the one that might save the world.

She has just enough cash left for the train. Her building has keypads by all the doors, and so Mako Mori makes it from Sydney to Hong Kong without speaking a word to anyone aside from flight attendants. She intends to start with I’m sorry , and she removes her disguise and clears her throat as the door to her flat swings open.

“Well I’ll be damned,” says Tendo Choi. He is in the midst of pouring coffee from the French press, and he curses again when it overflows the mug.

Beyond him at the kitchen table, Raleigh looks up--first at Tendo, but then he sees her in the open door. His hands, wrapped around a mug of his own, lose their color. He opens his mouth but can’t speak at first, and Mako realizes abruptly that her hastily purchased tourist clothes are all white and she must look like a spectre of death, or a Drift memory.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and Raleigh closes his mouth again, jaw tight. Mako steps into her flat and shuts the door. “I couldn’t call ahead, and I told Herc not to.” She walks, slower than she wants to, to his side, and Raleigh’s eyes follow her until he is looking almost straight up at her. It’s been eighteen hours since Sydney, but his sweater is definitely from the day before, and he has neither slept nor showered.

Mako sets her hand on his forearm, and Raleigh draws in a shaky breath. Something clears in his eyes. He moves quickly, releasing the mug and turning in his chair to wrap both arms around her waist and duck his head just beneath her ribcage. She feels him groan.

“I spiked his coffee pretty hard,” Tendo says, rinsing grinds from the French press. “I was hoping he’d pass out. Figure you can both use a rest.”

“Tendo,” she says, and he pauses on his way to the door. “I owe you an apology, too. You were right about what the PPDC was becoming.”

He gives her a quizzical look. “I don’t recall you saying I was wrong. I know you stayed in because you wanted to make a difference. Trust me, we’re cool.”

“Thank you,” she says, not only for that, but also for coming here to look after Raleigh. Tendo raises his mug to her and goes.

“Mako,” Raleigh sighs against her side. “God, Mako.” He turns again, pulling her into his lap, and holds her closer.

“You’re squeezing me too tight,” she wheezes.

He lets go of her waist and places his hands on her cheeks instead; there are tears rolling into his stubble, the grief he did not have time to work through, released now. She doesn’t take this for granted either, any more than he does. They do not live in a world where people come back.

His thumb brushes the scratch across her cheekbone. Mako presses her brow to his and shifts to straddle him on the chair. Her hands settle in his hair. Raleigh breathes in once and lets it out through his nose. She can feel, in a way that no longer has anything to do with ghost Drifting, but everything to do with ten years of sharing his personal space, that he has finally begun to relax. Maybe Tendo’s liquor is kicking in. “How long are you going to let them think you’re dead?” Raleigh asks.

“I’ll tell Jake in a day or two.” Once she can reach him by something other than a PPDC channel. “The rest of the Corps… that seems like need-to-know information.”

For the first time since she came home, Raleigh smiles. “Wherefore this dereliction of duty, Madame Secretary General?”

Mako worries at her lip. The fact that she came to this conclusion six hours ago on the flight doesn’t make it any easier to put into words in the moment. “We used to be the resistance. Whatever’s going to happen next, what we need isn’t rank. It’s--”

“Rebellion?” he tries.

She nods. That’s close enough. Among the things they’ll need is a prodigal son, and a fifteen-year-old who built her own Jaeger out of garbage. Whatever happens next, bureaucracy would only slow it down, and if she comes back now, it will distract from the work that needs to be done.

“Which means you’ll come back when they absolutely can’t save the world without you,” Raleigh says, shifting so her head rests against his shoulder.

“So next week,” Mako answers, and basks in his laugh.

Raleigh’s tablet chimes. He reaches to silence it, but Mako sees the preview video of Jake, and climbs off Raleigh’s lap and onto the neighboring chair instead. Raleigh keeps one hand on hers, and runs the other over his face and does his best to look grave.

“Raleigh,” Jake greets, still in his drivesuit. The feed is unstable and full of static, possibly a band-hopping signal to stay off the Corps’s network. Beyond him she can see his dim quarters. “I wanted you to know, we took down Obsidian Fury today. I can’t tell you much more than that, and I know it won’t bring her back.”

Raleigh doesn’t have much of a poker face, but he does manage to not look at Mako. “Good work, Jake,” he says, and Mako can see how much this means to her brother.

She lets the silence exhale a moment, then moves into the camera’s field of view and asks, “Who says it won’t bring me back?”

Jake’s mouth works, his eyes wide. “Ma… Mako?”

“Thank God, you can see her too,” says Raleigh, and then he pulls her to him again. Mako turns to face the tablet. Raleigh’s arms lock across her hips and his head rests against her back, positioned to listen to her heartbeat.

“How did you live through that?” Jake demands, leaning in like he wants to hug his tablet. “I mean, I think this is all going to get worse before it gets better, you know? And I could really use some tips on surviving giant explosions.”

“He’s deflecting from real emotions,” Raleigh whispers at her back, and Mako pats his arm. “It’s a lot to process.”

She goes along with her brother’s defensive humor for the moment. Later, when she sees Jake in person again, she will hold him for a long, long time. “Know when to eject,” she shrugs. “Thank you for bringing Fury down. If you don’t mind, I’m going to stay out of sight for a little while, just in case someone still has me on a Jaeger kill list.”

“As soon as I find out who’s behind this, I’ll let you know.”

“I look forward to it. You know where to reach me. Be safe, Jake.”

Her brother’s image blinks out and Mako sets the tablet down. Raleigh pulls her back against him, his mouth at her ear. “Welcome home.”

She lets herself rise and fall with his breath. “You and I,” says Mako, “are going to be back in a Jaeger very soon.”

Raleigh’s grip on her tightens. She feels his fingers hover at the hem of her shirt, feels how much he wants to undress her and make sure the scratch on her cheek is the worst of it. “Is that an order, ma’am? Because I should probably start sparring again. I’m a little out of practice.”

Mako doesn’t know when or how, but the very first conclusion she reached on her way back to him is that when her time comes, she absolutely will not die in a dress uniform. She turns her head to kiss the curling corner of his mouth, and look at him directly. “If I put you on your back a couple times, I’m sure your muscle memory will take over.”

He drops his jaw, but no amount of mock outrage can hide the arousal in his eyes. He presses his face behind her ear, and she hears him breathe in before he says, “Let’s go, Ranger Mori.”

She is alive, she is home, and she is going to enjoy this.