Wanda was taken on a Tuesday. She knows the day because there’s a show Wanda likes - some silly thing about a group of former Bears living on Earth - and even though it never would have occurred to her to plan around it, Ian always makes sure that on raids, they’re booked into motels on Tuesday nights. It’s just one of those things he does, one of the endless ways he finds to give her things, like it will never be enough even though she already has more than she ever thought possible.
He was teasing her about it in the Jeep, before she went into the store. He said she had to hurry or they’d never find out how Frozen Light and Placid Rivers would end up calmly resolving their differences, and he kissed her, and he told her to be safe. She’s spent two weeks wondering if that was the last time she’d ever see Ian, or Melanie, or Jared, if she’d ever get to go home again.
Impossible as it seems, the men - Seekers, surely, but not like any Seekers Wanda has ever seen - were true to their word, and they let her go home. Whether anyone will still be there, whether she will be able to find them again if they’ve evacuated, whether she’ll ever get the chance to tell Mel what they’ve been offered...all of that remains to be seen, and for now, there is only desert.
In many ways, the walk is easier than it was that first time. Wanda is much better prepared, and she hasn’t just been in a car accident. But the silence is overwhelming now, and she hasn’t felt so far from Mel since those first confusing days after she woke up alone in her own head. She wishes so strongly to see Mel, to see Ian, that at first she thinks she’s imagining the sound of the Jeep in the distance, but there’s no mistaking it: they’ve come for her. It seems like it’s no time at all before Mel spills out of the vehicle and sprints for her, not even bothering to slow down before they collide. She and Wanda go down in a mess of limbs and tears and unintelligible reassurances, so tangled up in each other that when Ian follows half a second later, he has no choice but to wrap his arms around them both.
Whatever else happens, Wanda is whole again.
She stops short when they enter the caves. It’s one thing for Melanie and Ian to have stayed, and Jamie wrapping his arms around her as soon as she walked in was as unsurprising as it was reassuring, but the place is as busy as ever. Wanda had been sure they would evacuate.
Ian, Mel, and Jamie stop with her - not that they have any choice, when all three are refusing to let go od her. If anyone else latches on, it’s going to be impossible to move at all. Ian gently squeezes Wanda’s hand, but Mel just rolls her eyes. “No, Wanderer, we didn’t assume the last three years were a cunning Seeker plot to gain our trust and then turn us in.”
“Well, Aunt Maggie did,” says Jamie. “Even Sharon told her she was being ridiculous, but it was Kyle who made her shut up.”
“Kyle defended me?”
Mel smiles a little meanly. “Kyle told Maggie that she had no right to talk about his sister-in-law like that,” she says, leering at Ian, who turns a little pink.
“Come on,” he says. “We’ve got to find Jeb and Jared so Wanda doesn’t have to go through the story more than once.”
“Calm down, O’Shea, we all know you can’t wait to make an honest Soul out of Wanda, it’s not like it’s a secret.”
“Has anyone seen Jeb?” Ian calls out, more than a little desperately.
“It’s a great story, Wanda, but you still haven’t told us what they wanted with you,” Jeb says.
He’s right, she hasn’t. They’re sitting in the glow worm room, the only place in the caves where they won’t be overheard, and Wanda has been quietly, calmly explaining the situation - the day the Souls call K-Day, the destruction and death, the Souls who voluntarily evacuated, the Jaeger Program they created to protect those who insisted on staying - for fifteen minutes now, but she can’t bring herself to get to the point. It could be a trap, she thinks, and even if it’s not a trap, it could be a terrible idea. When she says it, they’ll have to put it to a vote, and if everyone votes no, Wanda doesn’t know what she’ll do. She trusts their judgment, but a part of her wants this so badly that she almost doesn’t care if it’s a terrible idea. Wanda doesn’t think she’s ever wanted anything so selfishly before.
“Tell me what it is, Wanderer,” Mel urges, voice barely above a whisper. She’s obviously noticed the way Wanda hasn’t been able to stop looking at her - everyone has, even Ian, who’s got Wanda on his lap and can’t even see her face properly from where he’s hooked his chin over his shoulder.
“The Jaegers are designed to be piloted by human bodies. Their scientists have perfected the technology, but their pilots keep losing in simulated combat. Souls don’t...fighting doesn’t come naturally to them, and it shows. They’re starting to think that human pilots - real human pilots - are their only hope.” That’s not all of it, of course, but it’s enough for right now. Wanda wants them to be able to think it through and debate its merits without factoring her in, at least at first. Mel and Ian clearly notice that she’s got more on her mind, but they don’t say anything.
“That’s great,” says Kyle. “They spend years wiping out our whole species and trying to hunt us down, and now that they’re having their own alien invader problems, they want a favor?”
“It’s still our planet, though, and we’re never going to get it back if it’s been destroyed by giant lizards just because we didn’t want to work with the Souls,” says Jamie.
“You don’t know that - our best shot at getting out of here might be to let the monsters force the Souls out, then take our chances with Godzilla.”
Jamie and Kyle bicker back and forth about it, their voices creeping up enough that a few glow worms start to flicker out. Jeb and Jared, the group’s voices of authority, are both silent. Jared has the hard, focused look that means he’s thinking something through from about forty different angles, but Jeb seems content to let everyone else weigh in before he says anything.
“What else, Wanderer?” asks Mel.
Wanda takes a deep breath, and Ian buries his face in her neck. He’s careful to avoid her scar, but he’s close enough to it that she can feel him there all the same, and she loves him fiercely for it. She’s almost sorry for what she’s about to say, but just as surely as she knows he won’t like it, she knows he’ll accept that it’s not his decision to make.
“The Jaegers are controlled by a co-pilot system: Two pilots, connected by what they’re calling a neural bridge. There’s a certain level of...mental compatibility required, or the pilots can’t work well enough together to effectively move the Jaeger.”
That gets Jared’s attention. Wanda sees his eyes flicking around the room, lingering on Ian and then on Kyle, probably trying to figure out what potential fighting teams they have. He doesn’t see it yet.
Mel sees it. Wanda knew she would. “They want us,” she says softly. “They want you and me, don’t they?”
“Yes,” says Wanda, and Ian stills behind her. “They’re not comfortable giving humans unrestricted access to something that destructive, but they think that one Soul and one human can work. We’re not the only pair they had in mind, but they said we are the most promising.”
“A neural bridge,” Mel repeats.
“Yes,” says Wanda, practically aching with how much she wants this, with how badly she needs someone impartial to decide this is a good idea.
“What the hell are we waiting for? Let’s get inside each other’s heads and go fight some monsters!”
Of course, that’s when the arguing breaks out, and the glow worms blink out, leaving them to hash it out in darkness. Kyle is still against, Jamie is concerned about safety now that they’re talking about his sisters and not some hypothetical human pilots, Mel is passionately, loudly in favor, Jeb chimes in occasionally to keep the peace when someone crosses a line, and Wanda offers up clarifications whenever the facts are in dispute. Ian just holds her tight and radiates concern.
“Hey.” Mel smacks Jared on the arm. “This is all pointless until Jeb decides, and he’s not going to say anything until you weigh in. Share with the class before I punch Kyle in the face again.”
He’s clearly a little annoyed at being put on the spot. Mel’s always telling Wanda that Jared got in the habit of being dramatic while she was gone, and she makes a point of trying to snap him out of it. “I think we should do it,” he says slowly. “But not right away. We’ve never had any kind of leverage with them before, and if things out there are bad enough for them...Wanda, do you think the Souls would consider a treaty? Would they honor one?”
It’s never been done, but it’s certainly possible, she thinks. The Spiders, the Bears, the See Weeds - the Souls haven’t ever visited a world that would even have understood the concept, but if they could be convinced to agree to a treaty, there’s no question that they’d honor it, and she tells Jared as much.
“We’ll need to bring the others in on this,” he says. “They deserve to be part of this, and I’d like if we had a better idea of what things are like out there before we decide anything.”
Jeb hums quietly. “Kyle,” he says. “Go get the guys. I need you to go see the others - send people out to Nate, Gail, Russell, Max, Allison, and Ollie, and tell them we need them here to meet. Tell them it’s a big one.”
Kyle grumbles about it, but Jeb’s shotgun is a powerful and ever-present motivator, so he goes.
Jared and Jeb continue discussing the plan - Jared seems to think it might be wise to send Wanda and Burns out to the coast, to talk to other Souls and get a picture of how desperate things are getting. Jeb is more concerned with the treaty, with how much they can or should push for. They’ve never had to consider the practical aspect of getting Earth back before; it’s always been a wild daydream. There’s so much to consider: They can’t just demand that the Souls leave, because they know from experience that most human hosts can’t be saved, and all a forced mass evacuation will do is leave behind billions of bodies that will never wake up. But surely they can get the Souls to agree not to infest anyone new, carve out a safe zone where free humans can live and start to rebuild, and maybe, if they can figure out a way, start to free people like Mel and Lacey who are still trapped in their own heads.
“It’s early, I know, but...I didn’t think I’d ever be able to help so much, just by being me,” Wanda tells Ian.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “You saved us all a thousand times just by being you. You changed my life just by being you.”
“Mine too,” says Mel, settling down beside them. “And now I might get to go out and fight monsters from inside a giant robot because of you. I always did want to be a Power Ranger.”
Wanda reaches out and takes Mel’s hand in hers, too shaky with excitement and nerves to ask about the reference. She’s going to feel Mel in her mind again, and now that things are actually moving forward, she finds it impossible to think about anything else. It’s hard to imagine herself doing anything so big and noisy and violent, but it’s even harder to imagine that there’s anything she couldn’t do with Mel by her side and in her head.
Their first battle should be a disaster. Treaty negotiations had dragged on forever, mainly because the humans wanted every contingency and detail accounted for. They pushed hard for the embargo on new Souls, for the establishment of safe zones for free humans and the possibility of expansion, for shared control of the PPDC. Wanda got the sense sometimes that the Souls were offended by the thoroughness (as though they hadn’t covertly taken over the entire planet and then tried to exterminate survivors), but they weren’t in a position to say so; every day they got closer to the next Kaiju attack, and without human cooperation, the Souls didn’t have a chance.
The second the ink was dry, Mel and Wanda were whisked off to headquarters for training, but they’d been in simulations barely a week before another Kaiju emerged from the Breach. Wanda feels impossibly unprepared, they’ve done well in simulations but this is their first time out in Brawler Yukon (“I don’t care what the Souls want, Wanderer, I am not going out and fighting alien dinosaurs in a giant ass-kicking robot named Mists Falling Gently”), and she doesn’t see how they’re going to be able to win a fight when they’ve never even piloted before.
Mel is tense and silent beside her. It must be worse for her, Wanda thinks. Wanda’s changed a lot since they met, but she’s still a Soul, and she’ll never have a human’s genius for destruction. The bulk of the fighting will be done by Mel, and there is an awful lot riding on this.
“You’ll be great out there, don’t worry,” she says, but Mel just looks confused. “Aren’t you worried about the fight?”
“God, no,” Mel laughs. “Please, aliens have been trying and failing to take me out for years. I’m just worried about the neural bridge, I guess. I’ll be glad to have you in my head again no matter what, but I’m worried it won’t be like it was. I used to be able to feel you everywhere, like you were drifting around me, and...I don’t know. I’m just trying to prepare myself for the possibility that it’ll be more limited than that.”
“Only one way to find out,” Wanda says, taking her hand as they step into the Conn-Pod.
As it turns out, the neural bridge is nothing like what they had before.
(They kick the Kaiju’s ass. And the next three, too.)