Gabriela had been shipped north within days of the closure of the Peruvian Shatterdome, which had of course coincided with the near complete obliteration of their entire fleet -- with the loss of Karina.
If she was honest, Gabriela felt as though she’d blinked for only a fleeting second and opened her eyes to find herself abandoned in Los Angeles without her other half.
Her new quarters were small and empty. Every motion echoed tinnily. Gabriela sighed often.
After the faint ping of her tablet told her of incoming mail, she shut her eyes with a sinking stomach and prayed she would wake up three months back, in her home and with her sister, with all of this, since L.A., having been an elabourate nightmare.
Instead, she opened her eyes to have them fall upon the form letter informing her that her mother had been found dead in the wreckage of the latest Kaiju attack in Lima.
She clasped a hard hand over her mouth to keep her cries from echoing around her, too.
The US program was struggling, but it was still in operation, and that was more than Lima could say. Kaijus were getting stronger, adaptive, and incredibly predictive, and her home country preferred to devote its energies to more consistently successful endeavors than to pour resources into the constant repairs on the unfathomably complex mechanations of the Jaegers. Unfortunately, it looked like nothing else was working against the Kaijus’ increasing force and proficiency either, and given the choice Gabriela was far more inclined to put her money on the strength and integrity of the neural handshake before anything else.
It was a month of tests until her commanding officer was confident of her grasp on US-grade qualifications, and only then was she given the pleasure of meeting her new partner.
Ratana, tall and lithe with muscles knotting high in her shoulders, stared stonily down at Gabriela with far more authority than her advantage of mere inches should have afforded her. Gabriela extended a friendly hand upon their introduction, but Ratana did not so much as look at it.
Gabriela shot an uncertain glance at Commander Bendlin, and Ratana cocked her head. “Already a sign of deference?” she intoned coldly.
Gabriela frowned, feeling her expression harden; and she regarded Ratana with scrutiny. “If you’re certain,” she directed at Bendlin without averting her gaze.
Bendlin barely subdued a smirk before offering, “I’m certain,” and tossed staffs swiftly in the direction of both women.
Each caught hers handily without breaking eye contact with one another.
It was only once Gabriela had thrown Ratana onto her back and shoved the end of her staff against her throat that she offered any give. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” she rasped against the pressure on her neck, and kicked her way easily to her feet upon swatting the staff away.
Gabriela herself was thrown to the ground only seconds later, and she saw by the glint in Ratana’s eye and by the quirk of her lips that they probably wouldn’t have any trouble understanding each other, after all.
In fact, their drift compatibility was off the charts.
That didn’t necessarily make them similar.
Ratana seemed consistently puzzled by Gabriela’s failure to radiate tension in the same way she did. “Did you hear Bendlin?” Ratana asked once as they were suiting up. “Category Four. It’s gonna be a brutal fight.”
“Doesn’t that concern you?”
Gabriela shrugged and balanced her helmet under her arm. “We’ll win or we won’t.”
“We will,” Ratana hissed, as though that settled the issue.
Gabriela smiled, which only served to intensify Ratana’s annoyance. She did not understand Ratana’s intensity any more than Ratana understood the evenness that seemed to spread from without her pores; but she did know that, once linked, they evened each other out, coming together to generate a degree of iron focus she didn’t think she’d even achieved with Karina.
The glimpses into Ratana’s memory had given Gabriela enough to understand why she was seemed as hardened as she did: her partner, too, had been lost, shot through the torso with a metal shank the Kaiju had thrown back at them, bleeding to death slowly while they’d still been synced and leaving Ratana to stagger the left-heavy Jaeger as far back toward land as she could. Then the sync had broken with the loss of Ryo’s consciousness, and Ratana had had to set it down, unable to command it alone. Then she’d been adrift, slipping slowly, steadily to the bottom of the ocean, forced to drag Ryo along to the only remaining escape pod and lying in on top of her as the last breath shuddered out of her body.
Gabriela thought she might be a bit ornery, too, in Ratana’s position.
Sometimes, Ratana gave her sidelong glances that bordered on sympathetic, and Gabriela knew she was wondering about Karina. Gabriela felt it had been far less meaningful, Karina’s death; or far more meaningful, depending on how you looked at it. It had been the night before the Lima program had been shut down, and the night after they’d been ordered to run defense for another Jaeger that had gotten torn to shreds in seconds by the incoming Kaiju. Karina had set out wordlessly into the late afternoon sun after their haggard victory, her eyes distracted and unfocused, to be found dead the next morning with a note that said only, It is only a matter of time.
“I worry about your indifference,” Ratana had clipped without prelude one day after having won another match, staff pressed almost bruisingly against Gabriela’s ribs. They trained, mostly, in their spare time; they were evenly matched, with their primary difference being their emotional involvement in the fight. It was when fighting that they best related to one another outside of the Jaeger.
Gabriela struggled to get up, but Ratana was too strong. “I am not my sister,” she replied quietly.
Ratana only stared.
“It’s not indifference,” she clarified. “My passion manifests selectively.” Swiftly, she knocked the staff away from her chest and tripped Ratana fluidly, throwing herself atop of her and pinning her to the ground with a horizontal staff held below her collarbone. “You know I’m in it,” she breathed quietly. “When we’re paired, you know I’m there. Karina was as different from me as I am from you.” She frowned and shifted her weight against the staff. “I’m not going to leave you.”
Ratana’s hands braced themselves over Gabriela’s thighs, and they breathed heavily at one another for several solid seconds. “All right,” Ratana murmured at last, and tossed Gabriela fluidly up to her feet by her hips. “I trust you.”
It had been after that Category Four that they’d become celebrated.
By some incredible miracle, they’d thrown the Kaiju back in spite of the unexpected failure of the city’s secondary defense system at the cost of no casualties. The Kaiju had apparently adapted to the electrical net, which didn’t surprise Gabriela as much as it would have six weeks ago; and it had taken eleven steady canon pulses to the neck and the risk of a complete Jaeger power failure for the monster to go down.
But it had gone down.
The congratulations upon their return had been overwhelming, to say the least, with what must have been the entirety of the base awake to greet them. Ratana was taking the attention well, her mouth hitching up at one side as though she, too, was proud of the job they’d done; but Gabriela was far less comfortable, feeling panic bubble inexplicably up within her as she tried to fight her way down the corridor.
Suddenly and to Gabriela’s confusion, Ratana had wrapped a hand around her wrist and pulled her abruptly inside her own quarters, shutting the door quickly behind them.
Gabriela leaned against the wall beside the door and tried to steady her breathing as the mass clamoured in confusion outside. “Thank you,” she huffed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Jackals,” Ratana muttered to the closed door, her own hands set apart and supporting her weight as she leaned against the steel. She turned her head to give Gabriela a shrewd glance. “You all right?”
“Yes,” Gabriela replied; but the breathiness of her tone gave her away. “I will be. I just--” she cut off and swallowed hard, suddenly unable to finish the sentence.
Ratana looked at her a moment longer, then stepped slowly toward her. Long fingers curled around Gabriela’s armour as Ratana pulled at the fastenings along the back of her neck. “You just?”
Gabriela continued to focus on her breathing as she let Ratana take her armour apart, piece by piece. Ratana kept eye contact with her when possible, breaking away only to get a better look at what she was doing or to put a piece of uniform on the floor, and Gabriela felt herself evening out as she was slowly freed from the confines of the materials.
“I just sometimes think about,” she began slowly, her voice sounding unbelievably strange to her own ears, “what Karina had to say, at the end.” Ratana stopped and straightened, looked her dead in the eye, hands frozen. “What if it really is only a matter of time?”
Ratana’s gaze was as direct and scrupulous as it ever was, searching Gabriela’s eyes for what was already inside her own head. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. “We are going to beat this,” she said, low and convincing. “Maybe not us, but humanity?” She clenched her jaw and ran her fingers gently across the back of Gabriela’s neck. “Humanity doesn’t have a choice but to survive. So they’ll make survival happen, one way or another. That’s what we’re fighting for: to give humanity the time they need to figure out how to come out of this.”
Gabriela hung in the moment, blinked, and moved to take apart Ratana’s armour in return. “You really believe that.”
Ratana nodded slowly and returned to fussing with the clasps at Gabriela’s hip. “Sometimes I think I’m fucking nuts for it, but I do. For whatever that’s worth.”
Gabriela worked silently, enjoying the synchronicity of their movements; and it was only the next natural step for Ratana to tug Gabriela’s skintight suit down to waist-level, to plant lazy kisses along her hip as she removed Gabriela’s leg armour, to trail her way up the length of her torso until she caught Gabriela’s lips between her own; and to affirm their victory very far away from the wolves at the door.
It happened very quickly: a critical blow, a power-down, a wrenching scream, and a collision with the water.
Gabriela’s next slice of consciousness came to her in frames: She was in a hospital. People milled around her, sounding panicked, tending to her abdomen. She was no longer in the Jaeger.
Frames only became clips two days later, and she almost immediately wished for a return to fragments for all the pain coherence brought her.
Bendlin came in to debrief her in full: the Kaiju had won the battle; significant portions of San Diego had been obliterated before reinforcements had been brought in; her Jaeger was lost underwater, to be retrieved god knows when; based on this recent failure, among others, they were shutting down the Los Angeles Shatterdome effective immediately; and Sydney was probably close behind. Hong Kong would be the only one left by the end of the year.
Ah, and yes -- she was expected to make a full recovery.
“Where’s Ratana?” she rasped -- the only question of any importance to her.
A pointed silence.
Gabriela let gravity weigh heavy on her eyelids. That was all she needed to hear.
She went to Sydney anyway, but Bendlin’s prediction had been good; the program folded within ten days of L.A.
She spent a few days forcing herself to try to enjoy the Sydney summer, but found herself mostly staring at the mammoth wall that was supposed to save the city from future destruction. She was initially annoyed with its presence as it prevented her view of the very same ocean she’d once loved to stare out over for hours at a time. But now the ocean represented beasts and war and loss -- of Karina, of Mama, of Ratana -- and she suddenly found she strongly preferred the wall’s presence.
She breathed deeply of the ocean air, loving it as much as she hated it, and turned to return to her hotel room. Her retirement stipend had been generous -- she could stay here for the rest of her life without needing to work another day.
The problem was that her memories of Ratana were now in stereo -- and she felt her beliefs as strongly as though they were her own.
She was on a flight to Hong Kong within the week.