His life, from the very beginning, had always been black and white; yes or no. At first it had been 'no' for a very long time.
No Mr and Mrs Kaidanovsky, your son won't be able to talk.
No Aleksis, you have to speak with your hands.
No Aleksis, you can't play with us.
No Aleksis, we don't want freaks here.
No Mrs Kaidanovsky, your husband did not survive.
No my dear son, we won't meet again but do this for me. Do this for your mother, and for Mother Russia too.
And then the 'no' became a 'yes'.
No Kaidanovsky, it won't be a problem here. Welcome to the Vladivostok Shatterdome.
Suddenly his size was useful and his silence praised. He wasn't to have an opinion, after all, he was to train and push his hulking body to the limit for the Motherland and all who cowered in fear in her icy lands.
Yes Kaidanovsky, you are progressing at an admirable speed.
Yes Kaidanovsky, you are the best trainee by far.
Yes Kaidanovsky, we are submitting you as a candidate for the Jaeger program.
Yes Kaidanovsky, congratulations are in order. You have been accepted and are to undergo Drift training at once.
"This is Private Sasha Volkova: the best in her division and one of the compatible Drift pilots in training. Spar with her."
She saluted and greeted him as a fellow soldier, her posture stiff and her movement fluid and her voice polite. He nodded respectfully, and he noticed the flare in her green eyes and the curl of a snarl on her lips.
"What, do you not wish to greet me?" She spoke through gritted teeth and he shook his head, palms bared to her to convey he meant no harm. "Are you unused to sparring with female soldiers?" Her words were sharp and cut like ice and he knew she would have spent her entire life proving her worth just to survive. He knew that feeling well enough.
No, he shook his head again and took a step back, you are a soldier like me. But the words wouldn't, couldn't, leave his throat and the ice wouldn't leave her eyes and she launched into an attack before he could brace himself. A swift rounding kick to his jaw dislodged his balance and a shoulder rammed into his breastbone forced the air from his lungs.
He was on his back and she was straddling him and squeezing his throat until the words were choked down and her ferocious glare faded into black. Somewhere in the distance he heard their instructor clamouring.
"No, Private! Stop! He's mute! Stop, he can't-"
"Yes, he'll be fine. No injuries, minor or major." He heard someone in the next room declare, and the sound of a door opening coaxed him to try and sit up. A hand pressed firmly against his chest, halting his attempt.
"No. Rest." She commanded, pursing her lips and averting her eyes when he searched her gaze. "I apologize for my actions, but not for my assumption. Understand this: I have fought tooth and nail for every scrap of respect in my life. Soldiers like you have seldom given me the chance to prove myself equal."
No, he thought, not like me.
Sasha caught his gaze briefly and looked away again. Taking a deep breath, she stood to take her leave and gave his hand a pat.
"Maybe not you." The corners of her pale lips twitched up in a faint smile. "Prove me otherwise. I want to be wrong this time."
They called him Bear because of his imposing figure and the growl he didn't know he had the habit of making. He was a fierce opponent in the sparring room and was the major cause of personnel injury amongst his fellow trainees.
She called him 'Mishka', teddy-bear, instead to rile him up and every sparring bout he held back less and less. He no longer feared hurting her because he learned quickly that she was more than capable of hurting him in equal measure.
Each match would end with the acquisition of bruises, grazes, blood noses- sometimes stress fractures and once there had been a broken bone or few. Her gaze was no longer fire and ice, but the thrilling burn of adrenalin.
Initiating neural handshake.
The suit was restrictive and the helmet stifling, but the neural link gave him more freedom than he'd ever experienced.
Neural bridge established; pilots fully synchronised.
Sasha jumped, startled and shocked, before looking across at him.
'I am sorry I could not greet you respectfully when we first met.'
"I'm sorry I choked you."
'No you're not.'
"No, I'm not." She laughed suddenly, and the sweet burst of sound made his breath hitch and his heart pound.
'We are good together.' The thought was meant to be his and his alone but it might as well have been said aloud. He turned away to hide the heat on his cheeks. He felt, rather than saw, her smile and it was a brush of warmth against his mind and a tightness in his chest.
"Yes Aleksis. We are good together."
There was no need to tell her about his past, nor any need for her to tell him of hers. Their minds were one, and with it were all their memories. He was embarrassed to share his, though, for most of them were mundane and awkward; a boy ostracised for his disability and only escaped bullying because he grew too big for his bullies. His happiest moments were but a handful.
What he treasured now were the quiet moments they spent mentally linked together in the laboratory, where he could talk to her as though he'd always had a voice. She teased him about being incredibly talkative, but there's no malice behind her words. Her green eyes were bright and her red-lipped smile honest and he tried his hardest to steady the pounding of his heart.
'What will you do once all this is over?'
"All this? The Kaiju War, you mean?" Sasha hummed in thought and he felt the flash of several thoughts as she organised an answer. "I don't know. I guess I'd stay on as a soldier. Just in case, you know?"
'One day they will no longer need us. I fight for that day.' He answered earnestly and her expression was both sad and contemplative.
"They may never need Jaeger pilots like us in the future, true, but I don't think I'm good at much else."
I will always need you, he wanted to say.
For a moment it escaped him that she's in his head and all manner of thoughts were easily read. He didn't realize she'd heard it, until he caught the tenderness in her eyes.
Their first kiss was an explosion of joy in his mind, and he didn't know where his ended and hers began.
Her natural hair was the colour of gold but she bleached it to resemble the winter sun. Every fortnight she would touch up her scalp until her head was crowned with sugar blonde hair again.
He liked to watch her, fascinated by the mixture of chemicals that burned the colour from the strands. She caught him looking, catching his gaze in the mirror, and smiled mischievously.
Pushing off the fur throws, he slid out of their bed and joined her in the bathroom, wrapping his arms around her from behind. He would never tire of how she fit against his body just so.
"Let us turn you into a polar bear."
It wasn't their first fight against a Kaiju, but it had been their first fight against each other. The disastrous blizzard conditions meant a considerable delay before Communications patched through a desperate, urgent plea to mobilize the Jaeger. They had been sleeping when the call came through, and it was a mad, clumsy rush to dress themselves and run to their war machine. They were not as sharp and as focused as they should have been, and Sasha was nursing a migraine from overexertion during a previous battle.
The Cherno Alpha suffered considerable damage against the titan Kaiju, the worst of it being a breached cockpit. The monster was intent on tearing them out, gargantuan jaws gnashing rabidly as it reached deeper and deeper with each bite.
He could feel her falter; feel the incredible strain the neural bridge caused; feel the searing white stabs of pain in her head, but there wasn't an ounce of fear in her thoughts. There was anger instead, a surging torrent of anger against the Kaiju and against herself for feeling anything less than her murderous best.
They raised the Jaeger's fists and brought them down through the monster's head and its agonised roar was matched by the one from Sasha's throat as the strain on her mind reached breaking point. Without thinking Aleksis wrenched control from her, and the sudden weight of the neural link collapsed against his brain. Gritting his teeth and focusing through the haze, he shoved the beast away and wrestled its bottom jaw from its head.
By the time his vision stopped swimming, he realized she had disengaged from her position and was shaking him by the shoulders. His eyes, nose and mouth felt incredibly wet, and as she shook him he coughed up the bitter, coppery taste of blood. He hadn't seen such intensity in her glare since the day they'd met.
"Aleksis what the hell was that?!" She screamed, giving him another vicious shake. "What were you thinking?! We are a pair! We have to share the load or our brains will be scrambled!"
'You were in danger,' he tried to reason, sniffling back his blood nose, 'I had to-'
"NO." There were tears in her eyes as she gripped his face with trembling hands. "Don't you ever do something so stupid ever again, do you understand?"
'I will do anything to keep you safe.'
"If we die, we die together." Sasha kissed him and he felt the desperation both in her actions and her words. "We die together, or not at all."
It was their sixth year of piloting as a team and he knew he would give her the world if it were his to give. Unfortunately he possessed little else beyond his name; everything in their shared quarters belonged in some way or another to the Jaeger program. Would it be possible in such times, in such a place, to acquire a ring? Would she even want to get married? Was marriage even relevant when they lived their lives moment to moment, dancing the fine line between life and death?
She hadn't spoken, but answered him with a rush of unbridled happiness as she flipped his visor back and crushed their mouths together. He could feel the thrum of adrenalin coursing through their bodies, the corpse of a Kaiju cooling in the snow at the foot of the Cherno Alpha. He couldn't remember asking her to marry him, but his heart was as much an open book to her as was his mind.
The breech was disastrous, and the sea came pouring into the cockpit as the two Kaiju worked to tear the Jaeger apart. There was steely determination on her mind, and the quick beating thoughts of deal as much damage as we can, deal as much damage as we can, we have to deal as much damage as we can before we-
His life, from the very beginning, had always been black and white; yes or no.
Yes, this is where I am meant to be.
He thinks back to the precise moment her pen touched paper as she signed the marriage certificate. He thinks back to her radiant smile and her brilliant laugh and her red lipstick and her hair the colour of the winter sun and her body in his arms and her kisses, all the kisses she'd gifted him and he loves her, his Tzarina, his beautiful Sasha.
We die together, or not at all.
He's unsure whether he said it or she did, but he can feel her grip the neural bridge between them with an iron fist.
We die together, or not at all.
He closes his eyes as the water floods his helmet, and he thinks of the fire in her eyes and blaze of her soul that he loved, loves and will always love.
We die together, or-