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Posted August 19, 2013

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Fan Fiction: Canceling the Apocalypse

Title: Canceling the Apocalypse

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-13.

Summary: B:tVS/Pacific Rim. The PPDC had figured out that the kaiju had been here before; what they didn't know was that they were actually Old Ones, the footsoldiers of ancient demon gods. That made them Slayer territory. But even a Slayer can't fight a hurricane alone. 20,200 words.

Spoilers: Set post-"Chosen" for Buffy and begins pre-Pacific Rim (2013).

Notes: Canon-typical violence; non-canonical pairings; language. Written in parts for the 2013 Twistedshorts daily crossover challenge. No intentional comics canon for either, bar some convenient facts plucked from the Wikis. Contains vague non-canonical pairings and a bit of a dangling resolution, because life is messy? But, mostly aims toward happily for-the-foreseeable futures.

Cover Art by Jedi Buttercup

Chapter Index:

  1. Monster at the Door
  2. Regrouping for Round Two
  3. Welcome to the Shatterdome
  4. The Chosen Two
  5. Family Business
  6. Hurricane in Motion
  7. Wipe My Brow and Sweat My Rust
  8. Signal to Noise
  9. Choosing to Believe in Each Other
  10. Rising to the Challenge
  11. Beware the Jabberwock
  12. And Miles to Go

1. Monster at the Door

Buffy paled, staring down the hill at the massive form of the thing tearing its way through San Francisco. They'd arrived in town that morning to visit Dawn and Xander; she'd thought it a serendipitous if frown-worthy coincidence when the news had flashed up images of a gigantic demony form charging out of the water, plowing straight through the Golden Gate Bridge. Old One meet Scythe, done in a jiff, unlike the last time she'd come face to face with a primordial whatzma-whosis in its original form. No explosives needed this time; just the weapon designed for the job.

That was before she'd actually stepped outside and seen what the reporters were calling a 'kaiju' in person, though. She swallowed as the juggernaut of muscle tossed its wedge-shaped, sky-scraping head and swatted at a military chopper firing on it from above. Her sternum vibrated with the depth of its roar as blades spun away and the helicopter fell to earth; her bones shook with each step of its advance, and she'd give even odds whether it was actually the ground quaking or just her knees wobbling under her.

"Wow, someone's been eating their Wheaties," she fumbled for a quip. "Kind of puts the Mayor in perspective, doesn't it?" The snakey form of Olvikan had been maybe sixty feet high, at a guess; the monster in front of her was at least four times the size of the erstwhile Richard Wilkins, and probably exponentially heavier. The scale of the thing was just-- unbelievable.

On her left, Spike managed a snort. "'Fraid I missed that battle, luv, more's the pity. You'll have to ask Red to take its measure, if Niblet reaches her in time. Or Illyria-- what do you say, Blue? This an old friend of yours?"

On his other side, a slim young woman with an inhuman stare tossed blue-streaked hair back over her shoulder. "That? Its kind were as foot soldiers to those who squabbled and fought beneath my banner, not even worthy of names of their own."

"That'd be a no, then," Buffy swallowed. "I, uh, don't suppose it would recognize you either? 'Cause groveling; might come in handy right about now."

Illyria curled her lip. Even in the little time Buffy had known Spike's new friend, she'd picked up that the woman slash ancient demon was kinda touchy about how far down she'd come in the world since her imprisonment in the Deeper Well; she normally only tolerated such comments from Spike or Wes, who'd known her since her rebirth. "I was a god to gods, once. But no longer," she said, bitterly. "They must have detected my reawakening-- and moved to strike before I could consolidate my rule."

Buffy didn't quite know what to make of that. She couldn't tell whether the downsized Old One regretted being the likely trigger of so much death and destruction-- or if she was just mourning her loss of power. Either way, it sent shivers up Buffy's back. "So much for the easy way." She sucked in a breath, tightening her grip on the handle of the Scythe. "Where's Godzilla when you need him?"

"Don't whine, Slayer; it's not a good look on you," Spike snarked. "You got any kind of plan? Or d'you just aim to stab at the beastie's ankles until it kneels down and bares its throat?"

"Hell if I know," Buffy shrugged, bleakly. "But the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Right?"

She hoped, anyway. Because if it proved too much to handle--

Well, they probably wouldn't need to know the plural of apocalypse anymore.

2. Regrouping for Round Two

Buffy eased slowly into the chair at the head of the conference table, careful of her wrapped ribs and splinted knee. "So," she said, glancing around at the worried faces of her friends. "Let me just open this meeting by saying-- the world's still here."

"Just, you know, minus a good chunk of San Francisco. Including our apartment," Xander replied dryly, leaning back in one of the other chairs halfway down the table. Deep bruises blossomed along his forearms where he'd spent hours shifting rubble with the rescue crews, and lines of pain and exhaustion radiated out from his grimy eyepatch. Dawn, seated next to him, had slipped an arm around his back and pillowed her head against his shoulder, watching Buffy through weary eyes; they'd both been awake nearly as much as she had since the first warning sirens had sounded.

Buffy winced. "Yeah, well, I thought I'd open with the good news. It's dead, and we're going to live to see another apocalypse. Yay, us?"

"And how's that old saying go? 'Another such victory, and I am undone'?" Spike snorted. Rather than take a seat, he'd propped himself against the wall at the far end of the room, a looming form shrouded in blood-stained leather. "Considering we were about as useful as a chocolate fireguard out there...."

"...Which I really don't get," Kennedy commented, frowning toward Buffy from the seat next to Willow. "I must have heard the stories from my Watcher a thousand times. The original Slayer was made to drive these things out of our dimension. And the old woman who gave you the Scythe-- she said it was used to kill the last pure demon. So why didn't it work against this thing?"

"I wouldn't say it didn't," Buffy refuted her, half-heartedly. "It did do some damage. It just-- wasn't enough. Maybe if we'd had a level playing field, I could've given it the death of a thousand cuts, but in the middle of a city...." She shook her head, wearily.

It had been like fighting a vampire with a toothpick, or going up against a Bringer with a pair of toenail clippers. Buffy had rarely felt so helpless in a fight. It hadn't even been like fighting Glory or the First; for all their vasty power, they'd at least acknowledged Buffy as an opponent. The kaiju hadn't even seemed to notice her-- or Illyria, or Spike-- as anything more than somewhat thorny prey.

Illyria stirred at the foot of the table, looking even more disgruntled than usual. "Perhaps the last of my kind to leave this world was already ailing. Perhaps its masters were already departing this plane for reasons of their own-- for worlds with climes more suited to those who overthrew my rule. Or perhaps they, too, have evolved in the millennia since their exodus."

Buffy glanced up and met Spike's gaze again; the vampire grimaced, but didn't disagree. "History isn't always written by the victors," he offered, by way of explanation. "Sometimes it's just written by the bloke left behind, to put a prettier face on things."

"It is possible that the accounts we have of the time period are incomplete," Giles acknowledged. "It's been a very long time since the historical texts referencing the period were written."

"I vote for a little of all of the above," Willow agreed, unhappily. "Even if the original Slayer had magic users helping her-- I tried everything I could, and my spells didn't even make a dent. Whether the Old Ones are moving now because of Illyria's awakening, like she thinks, or if it's because of what Angel's crew did in L.A., or if this is the real reason the Mayan calendar ended, whatever-- any weaknesses they might've had back in the day, they don't seem to have any more. Until we come up with a way around whatever immunity, resistancey thing they've got going, it'll probably keep taking massive brute force to stop them."

"And we all saw how much of that it took this time," Giles nodded. "Much as it pains me to say this, Buffy; I fear we cannot continue to fight these creatures in the traditional manner."

"Or any critters, for that matter," Faith, the final Scooby present that day, interrupted him. "All the girls I've talked to since all this started say the lowlifes are fleeing this dimension, like rats from a sinking ship. Vampires, mixed demons, you name it-- sounds like they know something we don't."

"Then perhaps it's time we made use of our contacts in the Initiative once more," Giles sighed. "I had hoped to avoid that option, but... the next time such a being attacks-- presuming one does-- the response will necessarily be on a larger, more organized scale. If we wish to maintain a presence in this fight, to perhaps locate whatever portal it arrived through--"

Spike grunted. "You really think they'll call Cornfed in for this, instead of the '51 crew? Government boys have a bad habit of filing demons and aliens separately, as if there's any difference other than what dimension the beastie was born in. Some of the latter are just as soulless as the former."

"It's a starting point, anyway," Buffy shrugged again, ignoring the digression, then tapped her smartphone awake and started scrolling through its contacts. "Time to Be All We Can Be, I guess."

Xander snorted at that, a weary note of teasing in his voice as he replied. "Maybe if this had happened, like, a decade ago. But they changed the motto to 'Army of One' back around the time they dug in under Sunnydale-- which is pretty ironic, if you think about it."

"And it's not even that anymore-- the commercials are all 'Army Strong', now," Kennedy commented, wryly.

"Let's hope they are," Buffy sighed. "And let's hope the bad guys' army stays at one."

Then she keyed up Riley's number, switched the phone to speaker, and pushed it to the center of the table.

3. Welcome to the Shatterdome

"Hey, here they come," Yancy said, smacking Raleigh across the chest with the back of one hand to catch his attention. "The candidates for Kaiju Slayer. Forgot they were arriving today."

Raleigh looked up from his tray, glancing over at the crowd of young, athletic-looking people in jumpsuits filing through the cafeteria's double doors. There was no way to tell at first glance which pair would end up joining the ranks of Jaeger pilots, which might stay on as support crew, and which would be on the next plane back to wherever they came from; Marshal Pentecost liked to put all prospective rookies through additional sims first, get them used to the rhythm of the place and the demands on the crews before synching them up. They all looked competent, though, and--

"Wait. Are they all women?" he blurted, glancing back at his older brother.

The Becket boys were still fairly new to the program-- Gipsy Danger had yet to make a kill, though she'd got her feet wet in the last incursion-- so he could be wrong, but Raleigh had been under the impression female pilots were kind of rare. He'd heard of a few married couples in service, or paired siblings, but unrelated matches tended to be male-male.

"Yeah. Didn't you hear?" Yancy shrugged. "The organization that funded Slayer made it a condition that they supply all the candidates. The Marshal wasn't too happy about that-- not a one of them have been through the standard Ranger training-- but the ISWC's had their fingers in everything from Drift tech to Jaeger design to siting the first Shatterdome, so he couldn't exactly tell them where to get off."

"Huh," Raleigh said, staring. Usually, it took several countries-- or companies-- working in tandem to build one Jaeger; the ISWC must be a real heavyweight. "I guess not."

The women ranged from late teens to early thirties, bracketing his and Yancy's ages; there were blondes and redheads and brunettes, shaded from ivory white to mahogany brown; and they varied in looks from leggy models to girls next door to stocky muscular types he wouldn't have wanted to run into in a dark alley. All of them seemed fit and walked like they'd seen action, but a handful really stood out, clustered around a tiny, lithe blonde who trailed after Choi asking question after question.

"Yeah," Yancy agreed. "Guess we'll find out if they're worth the price tag. And hey," he elbowed his brother. "You might get a date out of it, too, if you're lucky."

"Yancy," Raleigh rolled his eyes, finally breaking his gaze away. It was kind of difficult to find a woman who didn't begrudge the demands the program made on his time or mind his brother witnessing every memory they made together, yet wasn't after him for the rock star factor; life would be easier if he approached relationships from his brother's more casual mindset. But he wasn't going to hold his breath.

"Just saying, bro. Just saying."

He ran into the Slayer candidates several more times over the next week, usually at a distance-- flocking to meals, exploring the Shatterdome, or out in the bays, staring up at the Jaegers. The little blonde, especially, and her tight-knit clique; all of the women seemed to defer to her, but those few followed her everywhere. Raleigh figured the Mark III's team would be drawn from that group; it was a not so secret, yet often overlooked facet of the Drift that the pilots weren't just bonding with each other, they were bonding with their Jaeger, too. That was why the final compatibility tests were always done live-- and fascination with their future weapon was a good early cue.

By far the most dramatic part of the candidacy testing, though, would be the stick fighting matches, and every pilot in the Shatterdome turned up to watch the girls put each other through their paces. Raleigh and Yancy had proven their candidacy on the mats in the Kwoon combat room under Marshal Pentecost's assessing gaze, and so had half the other Jaeger teams, all the ones that had come up in Alaska Shatterdome's hierarchy from the beginning. A good match was like a conversation-- a dialogue between two people who could read each other's signals like a book, and respond in kind.

And that was where a lot of potential matchups fell apart. It wasn't just about skill; it was about being able to synch up with your partner. And while each and every one of the Slayer candidates were obviously skilled-- more so than Raleigh had been expecting, to be honest, after what Yancy had said about their training-- they had a distinct tendency to go all out against each other, as if they were trying to conquer their opponent, not understand them. It was a little weird; he saw more sticks broken against each other or over opponents' backs in those matches than in all his previous time in the Shatterdome, and even the oldest Mark I pilots were exchanging disbelieving murmurs at the speed and furious power behind the girls' moves. And the Marshal's face grew more and more thunderous as more and more of them were checked off his overall list.

But then, last of all, the blonde gal stepped up, the one Raleigh had been seeing everywhere-- and opposite her, one of her closest companions followed her onto the mats, a long-haired brunette with a few inches on her.

"Ready for this, Bea?" the brunette asked her opponent.

"What's that you always say? Oh yeah; five by five," the blonde replied, grinning back in a distinctly predatory way.

They didn't bother with flashy or provocative gestures; they readied their staves, and then--

Raleigh gulped, half in love already as he watched the women blur into a dance together. That wasn't a dialogue; that was a duet, and if Marshal Pentecost chose anyone else, he'd be very surprised.

He was looking forward to working with them already.

4. The Chosen Two

"Damn, B," her copilot said, eyeing her sidelong as the techs finished fitting their drivesuits. "Do we make these things look good, or what?"

Buffy rolled her eyes as Faith ran appreciative hands up the slick armored exterior of her form-fitting suit, framing hips and breasts in a way guaranteed to distract every red-blooded male in the room-- while subtly testing the polycarbonate shell. The inner layer of the suit, the circuitry mesh, was meant to interface with their nervous systems, and they already knew that part would work for a Slayer as well as any ordinary pilot; Willow and Oz had been a part of Caitlin Lightcap's team from the beginning, helping write the Pons software and the AIs that made piloting a Jaeger even possible, and had made sure the electronics would be able to keep up with augmented humans, too. But the support structure of the outer suit was uniquely formed for each pilot, and there'd been no way to break them in-- to make sure they wouldn't break them in active combat-- before the techs sealed them in.

"Black always was your color wasn't it?" she replied wryly, stretching carefully in her own suit. It was snug, but not too snug; she was pretty sure she'd be fine. It wasn't as though they'd be moving much in the Conn-Pod, just shadow-boxing in place, and she'd fought in much worse. A drivesuit was nothing after being ambushed by demons in a long skirt and high heels.

"Aw, you noticed," Faith replied, smirking back. "A girl likes to feel her efforts have been appreciated."

"Well, appreciate your way on into the Conn-Pod, 'cause we're up," Buffy replied, trying to hold back her own smirk as she followed the techs into Kaiju Slayer's nerve center and took her place in the right-hand harness.

Finally, finally, they were there: half a decade after the fledgling Slayer's Council had joined forces with Riley's boys to form the new Initiative, Slayers and Watchers Consortium, she and Faith were about to take their place back on the front lines of the war. Xander, Dawn, Riley and most of the other unmodified humans in the Consortium had gone to work in the Shatterdomes and other vital parts of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, and the rest of them had kept busy thinning the increasingly desperate herds of lesser demons while the Consortium scraped up the funds and personnel to design and build a Jaeger that could handle a Slayer's capabilities. And now, the day they'd all been working toward had finally arrived.

She glanced over at Faith again as the spinal clamps activated, and they put on their helmets; her vision was briefly blocked by a film of relay gel, and then Faith's wide, white smile flashed back out at her.

"You sure you're ready for this?" Faith asked her again. "Stepping into my head? Here be monsters, and all that jazz."

"Last minute jitters?" Buffy raised her eyebrows, amused. It had been-- jeez, had they really met half their lives ago?-- years since she'd been na´ve enough to be horrified by anything Faith might show her. Or vice versa. "There's nothing you've got that I haven't seen before."

"Oh yeah? Almost forgot about that," Faith said, straightening her back as the final systems in the harnesses activated and the techs exited the Conn-Pod. Though most of them were watching the rookie pilots with amused, curious expressions as they withdrew; Buffy could tell by the way Faith raised her voice that the other Slayer had noticed, too. "We've shared bodies already, and visited each other's dreams-- guess it's about time we shared the rest of it, too."

"And on that note," Buffy cleared her throat, trying not to blush at the unnecessary innuendo as she keyed the comms. "Ready to go, guys; hook us up."

"Roger that," J-Tech Chief Choi replied, in a refreshingly matter-of-fact tone. "Releasing for drop."

The harnesses shifted as the head of their Jaeger moved down into the bay to match up with its body; Buffy's pulse begin to speed up as adrenaline dumped into her system, despite the fact that they weren't actually about to go into battle. She could admit now that she lived for this, for the fight, and it had been far too long since she'd really stretched her Slayer instincts. She shared one more anticipatory grin with Faith, then closed her eyes as the Conn-Pod locked into place and Kaiju Slayer was made whole.

Or-- almost. All she was missing now was the Drift that would turn her from inanimate weapon into a meld of human spirit and machine strength capable of taking on the god-king soldiers that were kaiju-- and winning.

"Ready for neural handshake," someone said; and over the comms, the countdown begin.

5. Family Business

Buffy turned away from the chowline with her tray, feeling half-starved and achy after a long day of training, and flinched as she headed for the usual table. Faith was still in the Kwoon combat room with Marshal Pentecost, and Buffy was catching the fallout all the way from the mess hall. She was still pissed he hadn't sent Kaiju Slayer down to LA with Gipsy Danger to back up the local Jaeger team the day before-- and he maintained that they needed more than a couple of weeks of live training before going up against an actual kaiju.

Buffy didn't exactly disagree with Faith; but she didn't disagree with Stacks, either. There were around thirty Jaegers in active service at the moment; it wouldn't have made sense to send the newest one into combat before her feet were even wet when there were plenty of others ready to serve. Even if they would have had a home-court advantage, in more ways than one.

She perked up a little as she saw Raleigh and Yancy already eating, fending off the occasional pat on the shoulder or hand-shake from other pilots and techs as they passed their table. The boys looked kind of like tired puppies to the Slayer General's experienced eye: wrung out, but physically intact, and palpably relieved to be home.

"All hail the conquering heroes," she greeted them, wending through the mill of foot traffic to slide onto the bench facing Yancy. "I thought the Marshal was just supposed to be sending you guys as backup? Every news site out there is showing footage of Gipsy beheading a kaiju today."

Yancy focused on her with a tired grin, a touch of masculine appreciation briefly flashing in his eyes. It would have been a lot more flattering if he hadn't been practically young enough to be her kid; he was only twenty-two, and his brother was even younger. "We were just supposed to be backup. But Yamarashi was tougher than they were expecting; the biggest Category Three yet. The local team went down and we had to take over."

Buffy's smile faded at that. She'd known one of the pilots of the fallen Jaeger; he'd been one of Riley's soldiers, back in the day. "I heard about the Blazing Angel. Any word on survivors?"

Raleigh looked up from his tray at that, looking pale and worn. "None; sorry. They took too much damage. We nearly didn't make it, either; we barely got back to the Shatterdome in time for them to hose us down before that thing's blood ate into our Conn-Pod."

Buffy grimaced and set down her fork; she'd seen what Kaiju Blue could do up close and personal while Trespasser had been busy wrecking San Francisco. "Well then, I'm extra glad you made it back in one piece. I'm sorry we weren't there to back you up."

"We sure could have used the help," Yancy commented, then narrowed his eyes, frowning thoughtfully at her. "Which reminds me-- why weren't you there to begin with? You never told us your brother-in-law was the LA Marshal. Why wasn't Slayer stationed there, instead of Anchorage?"

Buffy shook her head, exasperated. She might have known someone at the LA Shatterdome would spill the beans. "It's a long story." She loved Xander dearly, as a best friend and her sister's husband, but it would've been a little weird for everyone involved if she and Faith had had to take orders from him.

It was strange enough taking orders from Stacks; they'd known him since he was a snot-nosed punk, a teenaged orphan attending a military school in Britain. It just so happened that he'd had a great-aunt and uncle on the old Council, and Giles had sort of folded him into the extended ISWC family in the process of negotiating with him for the esoteric library he'd inherited from them. He'd ended up passing over a Watcher career in favor of joining the RAF, but he'd been spending leaves up in Scotland for several years before K-Day. He'd got into the Jaeger program on raw talent, though, not through their ISWC contacts, and he'd never actually fought under Buffy's command, so she'd figured she could deal with serving under his instead. Plus, he knew what questions not to ask.

"Aw, it's not that long," Faith said lightly, announcing her presence by plunking her tray down next to Buffy's. "Blame it on me; Little D would, if you asked her."

Buffy rolled her eyes at that and elaborated. "My sister's five years younger than I am. But Xander isn't. When we were in high school, he and I were good friends--"

"--which basically means he lusted after her for years, while Dawnie panted after him, but Buffy was too dense to notice. And then I rolled into town and popped the X-Man's cherry." Faith shrugged, a thread of smugness infecting the light ghost-Drift that still lingered between them, several hours after their last training Drift.

Buffy wrinkled her nose as sweaty images rose in the back of her mind, and tried to return the favor with equally intimate memories of Angel, the closest thing to a brother-figure Faith had. "Did you have to show me that? I don't know how I'm going to look him in the eye next time I call them."

Faith chuckled, parrying verbally for the boys' sake. "You know what they say-- the Drift goes deepest where experiences are shared. Is there something you want to admit about Xander?"

Yancy blinked at that, fork drooping in his hand as the age reference she'd made finally registered. "Wait, what? We met Chief Harris, too-- there's no way you're older than she is."

"Let's just say-- we're old enough to have changed both your diapers, and leave it at that," Faith replied with a wink. One of the double-edged benefits of their mystical heritage, finally coming to light now that Slayers were starting to live past their twenties: they all seemed much younger than their birthdates implied.

"Anyway," Buffy interrupted, clearing her throat. "It would be nice to see more of my nephew and nieces, but it's easier for all of our peace of mind if we don't live under the same roof."

Faith made an amused noise at that, but didn't comment, busy making inroads on her meal. Irony laced with silent laughter chimed along the bond between them.

Silence fell as Buffy worked on her tray, too, and the exhausted brothers turned back to theirs. A few more knots of people washed up against the table, talking to the Beckets or angling for sparring matches with her and Faith-- they were popular training partners now that they'd made the cut-- and Buffy almost forgot the previous topic of conversation in the ebb and flow of camaraderie.

But then Raleigh put down his fork and cleared his throat, expression somewhere between curiosity and confusion. "She does know she doesn't have to be jealous any more, though, right? I mean, now that you're together."

He caught Faith right in the middle of tipping back her glass, and the brunette Slayer choked on her water, barely getting a hand up in time to avoid spraying half the table.

Buffy didn't know which assumption to address first: that she and Faith were necessarily lovers because they were non-related Drift partners; that they'd suddenly cease to be attracted-- or attractive-- to guys even if they were; or that past relationships didn't still affect the present. He was such a puppy; she had to resist the urge to pinch his cheek as he glanced from Faith's choking form to Buffy's lifting eyebrow, cheeks beginning to flame with embarrassment.

"And on that note," Yancy interrupted before either of the Slayers could fire off a suitable response, slapping his brother heavily across the back. "I'm for the baths; we were in harness for hours yesterday, and I'm black and blue all over. That's one thing training doesn't really prepare you for; you don't even notice while you're in the Drift, but afterward?" He winced, stretching theatrically.

"That's good to know," Buffy nodded, grateful for both the knowledge and the diversion. "I'll be sure and stock up on the Icy Hot when it's our turn."

Being the Slayer meant she and Faith healed quickly, but it didn't prevent them from getting injured in the first place, especially the repetitive type of damage that came with sustained exertion. Slayers were built for short, swift fights, and their Jaeger had been specially constructed to take advantage of their enhanced abilities to out-strike any other Jaeger currently in action several-fold. But that meant more torque in the harnesses, more feedback from the neural bridge between pilots and machine-- and higher odds of stress injuries in combat.

"Get some sleep; you'll probably be in debriefings half the day tomorrow," she added, sympathetically.

"Don't remind me," Yancy groaned. Then he picked up his tray, ushered his brother up, and left.

"Were we ever that young?" Buffy sighed, watching them go with a half-disbelieving, half-appreciative eye.

Amusement ghosted between them again, chased with wry warmth. "Nah, girl; you know we were worse."

"Speaking of which, how'd it go with the Marshal? Please tell me you didn't break him."

"Folded and spindled a little, maybe, but not mutilated," Faith shrugged. "Stacks knows what he's doing; he didn't retire from driving for lack of talent. And I do get why he held us back. It's just so frustrating. All these shiny kids, with half the life experience, risking their lives on the line. We should have been out there with them from Day One."

"You know why we weren't," Buffy reminded her. "But we're here now."

"Yeah. We're here now," Faith sighed. Then she stood again, picking up her empty tray. "C'mon-- those baths sounded good. I could use a warm soak."

Buffy could almost feel the hot water lapping blissfully on her own skin, and wasn't sure whose anticipation she was feeling. But did it really matter? They were who they were: the Chosen Two, even more literally now than before, and she'd rather find the positive aspects of it than make them both as miserable as they'd been back in Sunnyhell. "And then a trip to the bay? I wanted to talk to the techs about the sensitivity threshold on the gyros. The AI keeps trying to warn us we're off balance-- it's not a problem yet, but that dizzy inner-ear feedback thing it does would be a real nuisance in combat."

"To be fair, we are pulling moves that none of the other Jaegers could handle, not even Gipsy," Faith smirked. "But yeah; I know what you mean."

They fell into step, no other words needed between them as they exited the room.

6. Hurricane in Motion

Buffy bent her knees as the squadron of heavy choppers released their transport cables, anticipating the shock of impact as Kaiju Slayer plunged toward the ocean.

Technically, she was only responsible for the movement of the right half of the Jaeger, as Faith was in control of the left; but in practice pilot pairs instinctively moved in unison unless they needed their free limbs to manipulate controls in the Conn-Pod. The neural connection transmitted tactile sensation from Jaeger to pilots more or less equally; it was just easier to go along with the illusion that they were one entity wearing three mostly synchronized bodies than to constantly maintain a separate awareness.

They felt the ocean boil up around their legs mostly as resistance and pressure; Buffy widened her stance automatically in the churning mud of the bottom, and sensed more than saw Faith doing the same at her side. "Kaiju Slayer in position at the ten mile line," she announced, glancing up at the comm screens to check the positions of the other Jaegers that were joining them.

One by one their dome-mate Gipsy Danger, Horizon Brave out of Hong Kong, and the brand-new Australian Mark V called in their positions as well, and Buffy blew out a breath, relaxing into the flow of the Drift. There was a part of her that never quite stopped fretting about the bigger picture, even though it wasn't her problem anymore-- but there was another part of her now that lived much closer to the moment, and kept her from getting too wound up to focus on the fight in front of them.

The deceptively calm, predatory anticipation of a Slayer laying a trap for her quarry echoed along the neural link between the women and their machine, and Buffy brought up the Jaeger's right fist without even thinking about it, smacking it against the left palm Faith automatically raised to meet it. Both women felt the sensations as if they'd brought their own hands together. Two years of piloting, and that still never got old; if only everyone who'd ever called Buffy short could see her now.

They'd been deployed as the first line of defense this time out, the Jaeger positioned furthest from the Philippine coast. Gipsy and Horizon Brave had been dropped along the next likeliest lines of advance, and Striker Eureka was stationed back at the Miracle Mile; the PPDC was taking no chances with this one. Manila had nearly been destroyed in the second ever kaiju attack in 2014 and was still recovering from the damage five years later; the Rangers weren't about to let it happen a second time.

"I'm tracking movement," an unfamiliar tech reported over the comms-- probably one of the Hong Kong guys. Their Shatterdome was the closest; when the fight was over, any Jaegers still standing would head there first for rest and redeployment. "Headed your way, Slayer; definitely a Category Four."

"Yeah, we're getting it on our sonar-- damn, it's a fast mover," Faith replied, eyeing the screens on her side. "Visibility's for shit in this weather, but with water displacement like that...."

She trailed off as the waves began to swell higher forward and to the left, and Buffy shifted automatically in her harness as their gestalt mind turned Kaiju Slayer's body to face their attacker head-on. Category Four meant it probably matched them for height, around two hundred and seventy feet tall, and it probably outweighed them by half again as much as their two thousand tons-- but Kaiju Slayer, like its pilots, punched all out of proportion to its size. No fear contaminated their headspace: just a hungry readiness.

"There she blows," Buffy announced, for benefit of their listeners. "Deploying Scythe."

She stretched out her arm, clenching her fingers in the triggering gesture for their right-hand melee weapon, and a sharp, curving blade snapped out of its storage compartment. Its edge glowed a faint orange from the heating mechanism, meant to cauterize the wounds it inflicted before its victim could spill too much acidic blood into the water; it wasn't quite as deadly as the actual Slayer Scythe, but between the enchanted metal that had gone into its construction and the skill of the hands that wielded it, it was the closest they were likely to get in a weapon that size.

"Slices, dices, and makes julienne kaiju," Faith quipped, stepping forward as Buffy began her swing to give the weapon the most possible momentum when it made contact.

The beasts weren't quite as smart as the demons they'd honed their fighting skills on back before K-Day sent them fleeing for other dimensions-- probably a factor of the load their enormous brains were under, just shifting their massive muscles around. But they did learn from experience; the Rangers rarely killed one with the same trick twice. The massive form bearing down on them lunged to the right as the Scythe swung to meet it, and what had been intended as a throat-cutting blow opened up a painful slash on its flank instead.

The rain and waves parted long enough to give Buffy and Faith a good look at its beady eyes and massive, snaggle-toothed head as it turned, whip-fast, to try and fasten its teeth into their Jaeger's left arm, but they were ready, shifting their weight onto one foot and snapping the other out in a kick. Most Jaegers weren't flexible enough to use legs as weapons, but Buffy and Faith's fighting style capitalized on it, and the ISWC construction crew had come through for them in that, too.

The massive demon reared back as the boat-sized foot of Kaiju Slayer impacted with its sternum, roaring in pain. They'd felt something give in that strike, but that wouldn't be enough to put it down; only a kill-shot would do that, with these things. They used their momentum to spin through another full turn and strike it with the same foot, again, as it came back down on all four clawed limbs, then punched it in its grey leathery jaw when it squalled and opened its mouth, exposing a massive cavern brimming with highly toxic neon blue spittle.

It reacted swiftly, massive forelimbs reaching out in an attempt to smash them down or tear them apart-- but Buffy was ready, slashing out with the Scythe again, burying the blade in its chest. Not as good a target as the throat would have been-- but still a grievous, weakening blow. It roared again in agony, thrashing on the point, incandescent droplets flying from its mouth, and--

--in the back of their gestalt, images flashed up: a nearly forgotten face, male, lips flecked in blood. More disbelief than pain showed in his gaping eyes as he reached for the stake buried in his chest. Oh God, oh God, it wasn't a vampire--

--and then the form shifted: it was a vampire impaled on her sword. It was Angel, not Angelus, and she had to do it, she had to--

Buffy blinked hard, Scythe automatically retracting back into the arm compartment in response to their instinctive jerk away. Some echo of muscle memory had triggered a pair of twenty-year old nightmares, the kind of thing the techs called RABITs-- Random Access Brain Impulse Triggers-- but which Buffy not-so-affectionately thought of as killer bunnies in honor of an old friend. Luckily, they rarely lasted long: a side benefit of the Slayer spidey-sense, reasserting reality over illusion. The tech barely had a chance to say, "Wait-- Slayer's losing neural stability--" before Buffy and Faith snapped themselves out of it, screaming in unison in echo of the kaiju.

It had struck out with one clawed hand during their brief disorientation, knocking them off balance, but the Kaiju Slayer was the most sure-footed Jaeger in service: she stumbled a few steps, then righted. Faith clenched her fist, activating the off-hand energy weapon, and Buffy extended the Scythe again, bracing their stance as they waited for the kaiju's next lunge.

It thrashed in the water, squalling in pain as it tried to decide on its next action. Buffy sucked in a cleansing breath, bracing to intercept if it tried to duck around them toward Manila-- but before it could move again, another Jaeger loomed out of the gloom, visible mostly by the bright blue glow of the plasma cannon charging in one clenched fist. The Becket boys had reached them, their intervention timely as always.

The cannon fired, and the bolt struck home: the kaiju thrashed again, churning the waves into foam as it struck out in desperation. Kaiju Slayer fended it off with precision strikes from hand, feet and blade; Gipsy Danger backed them up with an elbow rocket powered fist and more shots from their cannon, and within five minutes it was all over.

"Shit," Faith swore, breathing heavily in harness, shaking her head against the lingering bite of bad old memories. "Thanks, guys; appreciate the assist."

"No problem," the elder Becket replied, jauntily. "So does that count as a half kill then?"

"Hey, no padding the stats," Buffy spoke up, voice light to hide the shake of adrenaline letdown. "Last damage done before it goes down gets the credit, you know that. 'Cause if we start going halfsies, you'll have to give us half the credit for Clawhook this summer."

"It's not the same thing at all; Clawhook was a Category Two," Raleigh retorted.

"And if you keep this up, I'll claim the credit," a familiar, authoritative voice suddenly replaced the Hong Kong tech on the radio. "Stand down, boys and girls. Clean up crew's on the way with the choppers; we'll have dinner warm and waiting."

"Roger that, sir," Faith shot back. "Though I'd be looking forward to it more if you'd said Jacuzzis." Then she flicked the switch on the comms and glanced up at the screens, gauging their distance from Victoria Harbour.

Buffy extended Kaiju Slayer's arm toward the boys', swapping banter for silent camaraderie; Gipsy Danger bumped its knuckles against theirs, then made a blowing-up gesture with extended fingers.

Buffy chuckled, then turned to smile at Faith, pride and reassurance echoing in the Drift as they settled in to wait.

7. Wipe My Brow and Sweat My Rust

Stacker braced his forearms against the railing of the Jaeger bay, watching the tech team swarming around the partially disassembled form of Kaiju Slayer. The massive, twenty-seven-story machine had taken considerable damage in the last incursion, and the engineering crew that had designed her had decided to take the opportunity to work in a few upgrades alongside her repairs. She was, down at her core chassis, a Mark III model, but her performance had been so far ahead of the curve from the beginning that it wasn't until the Mark Vs had gone into production that any other Jaeger had come close to her sheer destructive potential. But as the kaiju kept getting bigger and more difficult to kill, Rosenberg and Burkle-- the ISWC Jaeger's principal designers-- had decided her best just wasn't good enough anymore.

Stacker had signed off on the plan; and why wouldn't he? The interval between incursions had shortened gradually over the last few years, but months still passed between each attack, and Kaiju Slayer's temporary absence from the roster hadn't exactly left his stable empty. The PPDC rarely lost a Jaeger to even the toughest of the kaiju any more so long as they were deployed in teams; Kaiju Slayer may have proven especially effective at the tag-team method, but she was far from the only active Jaeger with an impressive kill-share tally. But as the clock ticked onward toward the next emergence from the breach, Stacker found himself growing more and more restless, and wasn't quite sure why.

He ran over his mental checklist one more time as he watched the techs lift another piece of armor back into place, trying to track down the source of his disquiet. Chrome Brutus and Gipsy Danger were both fully active and ready for deployment; they were both Mark III workhorses with well-seasoned teams, and he could summon additional Jaegers from the LA Shatterdome at a moment's notice if necessary. Mako was down in the scrum below, a slight, seventeen-year-old bundle of energy already a fully qualified member of the Shatterdome's engineering staff. The women he sometimes thought of as annoying older sisters-- though he never used that term in their presence-- had taken the opportunity presented by their enforced downtime to teach a master class in kicking kaiju arse at the Academy on Kodiak Island. And his own health was-- well, if not good, then at least holding steady where it had been since he'd been forced out of the Conn-Pod of Coyote Tango.

His men were well-trained. His adopted daughter was happy. His base was well-run. And with the help of the ISWC, supported by a better than expected track record, the Jaeger program was projected to maintain its funding until at least 2025. Or... until the war was won, whichever came sooner.

Perhaps that was the issue; the fact that the K-Science labs were now projecting an end to the war. A date by which the ever-increasing pace and size of kaiju attacks would necessitate a line drawn in the sand: a sell-by date for the apocalypse. He knew one of the authors of the theory personally, Daniel Osborne, and knew he was about as far from an alarmist as could be imagined; and the credentials of the other scientists, Doctors Newton Geizsler and Hermann Gottlieb, were unparalleled in the field. He believed their conclusions; he just had no idea what he was supposed to do about them.

Stacker had less than five years to find a way to solve a problem the best of humanity's minds hadn't even scratched the surface of in the preceding seven. Then again... deadlines did have a way of focusing a man's attention.

He sighed, tracking the path of the mobile crane as it lowered another piece of Kaiju Slayer's armor back into position over exposed struts and hydraulics, and let his mind drift to the first time he'd watched the unique Jaeger in action. Painted a vivid blood-red with sharp silver accents, it had looked unlike its compatriots from the beginning-- and its pilots, both short and lightly muscled in comparison with most of the other Jaeger teams in service, had stood out equally vividly from the crowd. Most of the men and women who'd watched them spar had respected their spirit from the start, but beyond that....

Stacker was ashamed to admit that he'd been one of the nay-sayers; he'd been none too happy when word had first arrived that the ISWC's little experiment had been assigned to his Shatterdome. But not because the pilot pool was all female, or because he had any doubts about their skills, or because half the tech in their Jaeger was new and untried. Stacker had known many Slayers since Rupert Giles had tracked him down fifteen years before, a certain blonde and brunette pair who'd treated him like a prickly younger brother from the start not least among them, and he respected the hard work and brilliance the ISWC personnel had invested in their chosen mechanical avatar.

The problem was that he did know Slayers-- and thus knew they were, by and large, individualists. Prior to the fall of Sunnydale, all Slayers and potentials had been indoctrinated to think of themselves as the One Girl in All The World... and post-Sunnydale, the Council had encouraged them to think of themselves rather than dedicate their lives to the cause full-time. He understood the rationale, given the short, brutal life that had been most Slayers' lot in the old days... but that didn't change the fact that the ISWC turned out more warriors than it did soldiers. And that had significant implications for the odds of any of them turning out to be Drift compatible. With anyone.

Buffy Summers and Faith Lehane had proven him wrong, though; they'd proven everyone wrong. They'd synched like they were born for it, the similarities and contrasts in their pasts and personalities fitting together like puzzle pieces. And when they'd walked out of the bay for the first time...

He'd never seen any Jaeger do what Kaiju Slayer could do. It moved like a figure out of a heavyweight ballet: strong, swift, graceful, and unstoppable. It was like comparing a human-scale Slayer's movements to an ordinary fighter, they were that much more flexible and precise in than any other Mark III, never mind the older Jaegers.

Stacker knew if he asked Kaiju Slayer to move against the breach, they would, despite the fact that no other Jaeger had ever returned from it. He knew that he was going to have to do so, sooner or later, whether or not he had a workable plan, and no matter how many other Jaegers he had to send with them. And he also knew that until that day came....

Alarms suddenly sounded throughout the Shatterdome, dragging him back to the present. A voice sounded over the comms, rousing their defenders to action: Gipsy Danger report to Bay Oh-Eight. Chrome Brutus report to Bay Oh-Seven.

Time, tide and kaiju waited for no man. Time to shake off the rust and get on with his job.

Marshal Pentecost pushed away from the railing and strode assertively toward LOCCENT Mission Control.

8. Signal to Noise

Buffy'd had a lot of bad days in her nearly forty years of living. More of them before K-Day than after, which made her kind of unusual as far as humanity went-- so it was probably a good thing she and Faith had proven to be Drift compatible, or their damage would have driven anyone else screaming from the Conn-Pod. But it hadn't been so long that she'd forgotten how days like that tended to start.

A dream. A feeling of dread trickling down the back of her neck, as if someone had cracked an egg in her hair and let it run. And the awareness of some kind of deadline, ticking down to the end of the world.

Buffy sat up, shivering as she rubbed her palms up and down her arms, and glanced toward the digital clock in their quarters. It blinked an unforgiving 3:39 AM, more than an hour before her alarm would usually wake her for an early-morning run. Then she glanced over to the other side of the bed-- she and Faith weren't anything as simple as lovers, but they'd slept better within arm's length of each other ever since they'd first stepped across Kaiju Slayer's neural bridge, not exactly an unusual situation when it came to Jaeger pilots-- and sighed as she caught her sister Slayer looking back at her.

"Did you--"

"Yeah. That's some fucked up shit," Faith swore, scooting back against the pillows to hang her elbows around up-thrust knees. "You think--?"

Buffy nodded, heart aching with echoes of remembered loss. "Don't you? Though-- I guess we'll find out for sure when Stacks calls, or from the news."

"God." Faith shuddered, glancing toward the slick black screen of their vidcomm slash TV unit, but didn't reach for its controls. She didn't really need to. "Guess that's the end of our lecture series, then."

Buffy winced. One way or another, she agreed they probably wouldn't come back to the Academy on Kodiak Island anytime soon; if the dream was true, the Alaska Shatterdome was down a Jaeger and half of one of the most popular pilot teams in the PPDC. Kaiju Slayer would be needed there for morale, if nothing else.

If it was true-- she closed her eyes and shivered again, sliding back to prop herself against the headboard next to Faith. They could take a moment to breathe, right? Just breathe, before anything else had to be done. It had been years since anyone had had a proper Slayer vision, so long that Buffy had assumed the Powers That Be must have fled their dimension along with almost every other supernatural resident of Earth after the first Old One came through the Breach. She'd forgotten how hung-over and cranky they made her feel.

Apparently, they hadn't. Or at least, something about the night's events was important enough to bring them back out of hiding-- and that made her nerves crawl nearly as much as the dream itself.

It had started simply, if a little disorienting in its familiarity: a sunlit bedroom, with a great arching window looking out over a city that hadn't existed in twenty years. Both had been dressed the same as they'd been the last time they'd Seen each other in that space: Faith in a white and orange striped tank top, Buffy in a comfy long-sleeved gray tee, both young and fresh-faced and freshly off of their mortal enemies kick. Except that the bed wasn't made this time; both of them clasped one edge of a sheet with their fingers, stretching it across the width of a Queen-size mattress.

As easily as if they'd been doing the laundry together all of their lives, Buffy had fluttered her end of the sheet, sending it swelling over the bed in a wave. And Faith had fluttered it back, shaking out the last of the wrinkles, then pulled it taut as they drew it down atop the mattress between them.

Only instead of lying smooth, the sheet had molded itself to a pair of slumbering young men. One had sported a bandaged, bloodstained shoulder and wore a troubled expression; the other had wrapped himself around his brother, his hands white-knuckled where they gripped each other across the younger man's back. Both stirred at the cool touch of fabric-- but only one woke, eyes blinking slowly open.

"Who's going to look after him?" Yancy broke the silence, staring at Buffy with pleading eyes.

She wasn't the one who replied, though; Faith sucked a sharp breath, then spoke in echo of the words they'd shared so very long ago. "He's a big boy. He can take care of himself," she drawled.

And that was the moment Buffy had actually realized it was a vision, and not some artifact of the Drift or shard of old memory stirred up by recent events. The feel of it was unmistakable: the imperative underlying every word and motion, the knowledge that something had to be done and it was within her power to do it.

Yancy, though, had shaken his head at Faith's words, going off script as he clutched his brother closer. "I know I should let go-- but I can't. I don't know how," he said, voice thick with confused anguish. "He's me, and I'm him!"

Raleigh had stirred then in his brother's arms, whispering his name brokenly against his throat, and strange words had welled up from Buffy's hindbrain-- or probably the Powers'-- at the sight. "Don't worry; there's still time. Counting down from seventeen-eight-oh."

Fortunately, that had seemed to make more sense to Yancy than it had to her; he'd calmed, relaxing his grip a little, and stroked a soothing hand up his brother's back. "I hope you're right," he said, then closed his eyes, laying his head back beside Raleigh's on the pillow.

The sunlight gilding the Becket boys' forms had transmuted then to a harsher and brighter glow; Buffy had glanced up to see the window replaced by a vidscreen lit with a warming message. KAIJU ATTACK, it flashed, in shades of lurid red and yellow: CATEGORY THREE. CODENAME KNIFEHEAD. Then it stuttered to a glimpse of dark waves, lashed by rain; of Gipsy Danger's navy and gold superstructure looming out of the water, Conn-Pod pierced by kaiju claws.

On the bed, Yancy's form faded a little, as intermittent as the weather. Then he solidified, and the screen changed to a view of the coastline: of a Jaeger toppling to one knee in snow-shrouded sand, then collapsing forward onto a chilly beach.

"Yancy!" she and Faith had shouted in unison, their voice somehow echoing with Raleigh's--

--and then they'd woken, chilled to the marrow with second-hand shock and grief.

"Stacks is going to think we're crazy," she concluded wearily, tucked up against her co-pilot from shoulder to ankle. "He's going to think they're crazy."

"I dunno. Might be surprised," Faith shrugged. "He ran a lot with Andy and Dawn's crowd when he came to visit, back before he got all rank-conscious and shit. He knows a lot of the stories."

"Andrew's stories," Buffy expressed her opinion of that with a wry-half smile. "I wouldn't believe half of Andrew's stories, and I lived through most of them."

She didn't add, Remember when he told all the potentials you killed a Vulcan? and Faith didn't reply, Point, but then, they didn't have to.

"He's got stories of his own, too. Remember Tokyo?"

Buffy blew out a breath at that; she had forgotten. Stacker Pentecost was known as the only pilot ever to drive a Jaeger solo; his co-pilot had fallen unconscious early on in the fight, and he'd gone up against Onibaba alone for three hours. But in one early, unguarded interview, he'd said he hadn't even noticed her absence for half of that, until he'd realized the voice in his head wasn't matching what he actually heard and glanced over to see her drooping in harness, face masked with blood.

"Okay, I get it; trust the Marshal. Stop distracting myself by borrowing trouble," Buffy sighed, leaning over to rest her cheek against Faith's shoulder.

Moments later, their vidscreen chimed with a call.

The moment of truth had arrived.

It was.

Stacks was skeptical, but by the pained look in his eyes, wanted to believe them. Marshal Pentecost couldn't afford to let any valuable resource slip out of his grasp. And by the end of the conversation, their immediate transfer back to Anchorage had been approved, regardless of the benched state of Kaiju Slayer.

He filled in a little more of the context, too, before signing off to convey their regrets to the commandant.

Gipsy Danger wandering out of Chrome Brutus's backup range to rescue a fishing trawler stranded in harm's way. Knifehead zeroing in on that exact location. Then the scenes from their dream: Yancy clawed out of the Conn-Pod while still hooked up to the neural bridge, Raleigh piloting solo.

Gipsy stumbling onto an Alaskan beach more than an hour after Chrome Brutus had arrived at her last known position to report Knifehead dead and Gipsy Danger missing. And then-- the PPDC consigning Gipsy to Oblivion Bay before they even knew whether Raleigh would survive, writing her damage off as irreparable. Which meant that more than half that boy's soul had just been torn away from him-- because a Jaeger gestalt contained more than just the pilots, it encompassed the quirks and A.I. of the machine as well.

Even if Yancy really was somehow still with him, Raleigh Becket would never be the same pilot again.

Nothing they could do would help that. Nothing had ever helped Buffy but time and her own will to keep going-- after Angelus, after her mother's death, after Heaven. But the least they could do was ensure he wasn't alone while he stabilized enough to make his own decisions about what to do next. So the first thing she did after dropping their bags at the Shatterdome was to find the infirmary.

Raleigh had already been seen to at the local hospital, and transferred back to base; he was bandaged from gouged and dislocated shoulder down to the fingertips of his left arm, and heavy black bruising peeked from the neck of his hospital gown. Buffy could only guess what else hid under the light sheet; the boy-- boys?-- slept the sleep of the heavily sedated, but the anguish lurking in the exhausted lines of his face was almost palpable in the air of the room. Who was going to look after him, indeed. Buffy didn't even ask before drawing the curtain around the bed and climbing up onto it with him.

They weren't really that close, but she knew as well as any pilot that the Drift left even the moderately compatible pairs skin-hungry and clingy for hours afterward, and in tight pairs like the Beckets or she and Faith, frequently empathically clingy as well. Whether Raleigh was alone in his own skull or not, this was the most vulnerable phase of any pilot's post-battle experience, and if it had been her--

Well. Buffy wasn't going to think about that; even the wash of reassurance from Faith's direction as she settled atop the sheet, carefully half-draped over Raleigh's unbandaged side, couldn't make her believe she'd survive yet another soulmate bailing on her. But-- something similar might help her heal long enough to come to a different conclusion, as she hoped it would for Raleigh.

It wasn't just the physical closeness; no two pilot teams, or even the same pilot team in two different Jaegers, ever bonded on the same frequency as any other, or there'd be a telepathic jumble in every Shatterdome's mess every time a group came back from a drop. But in pairs matched tightly enough that ghost-Drifting was a regular phenomenon rather than an occasional distraction, it created a sort of empathic 'noise' that other such teams could pick up. Having her and Faith near might be the only medicine that could help Raleigh's less physical wounds.

Faith stood over them for a moment, then went out and flagged down a nurse in a PPDC uniform. She came back radiating a faint mixture of concern and empathetic pain, then pulled up a chair on the other side of the bed and reached out to wrap a hand around Raleigh's wrist.

The thread of connection flared more brightly at the gesture, channeled through their friend, and the wounded pilot relaxed fractionally in his sleep with perhaps a few less lines around his eyes.

Buffy had called the Scoobies her chosen family for more than half her life, but the long-term staff of the Alaska Shatterdome had become just as important to her over the last few years, and the Beckets were like-- well, like obnoxiously cute nephews, the kind where it was impossible to decide whether the obnoxious was really a descriptor of their cuteness or the boys themselves. And Buffy would never turn her back on family-- not unless they were dead, or they turned their backs on her first.

She took a deep breath, tasting tears on the back of her tongue, and settled in to wait.

9. Choosing to Believe in Each Other

Raleigh exchanged nods with several of the tech crew as he entered the mess hall, hungry after a long morning spent helping them settle two new, as-yet unchristened Jaegers in Bay Eight and tow the visiting Striker Eureka into a refueling alcove. There were a lot more people packed around the tables than there usually would be at that hour-- probably there to check out their visitors. A knot of fresh-faced kids joked among themselves at a table in the far corner, bracketed by vaguely familiar faces in leather jackets with Jaeger patches. And everyone was smiling; if the air were any more electrified with anticipation, a man could shock himself just walking across the room.

Raleigh usually ate with the Kaiju Slayer pilots, but he doubted they were among the throng-- they seemed even more allergic to crowds than he was, these days. If he had to guess, he'd say they were probably still in the Kwoon, wedging in a little more exercise before the afternoon's candidate trials. He sought out Tendo instead, and listened with half an ear to the man's latest adventures with the now actually single Alison while he took the pulse of the crowd.

Alaska Shatterdome tended to have just two moods, Raleigh had noticed in the years since he and Yancy had arrived there. If its staff weren't preparing, they were partying. And if they weren't partying? They were preparing. There was always more work to be done-- more training, more repairs, more research, more heavy-lifting goodwill missions to keep the Jaeger teams in tune and their countries of origin coughing up funds for the PPDC. But they also dropped it all at the slightest excuse, scraping together rationed luxuries and alcohol to give those same hardworking people a reason to keep going.

No-- not a reason. A reward? An acknowledgement of the sacrifices they'd made to protect the rest of the world? Something along those lines. They weren't all media rock stars, but it took all of them to keep the kaiju at bay, and they deserved the recognition for it. Raleigh had tried his hand at several of those nitty-gritty support roles to keep himself busy in the recovery period after losing Gipsy Danger, and was unashamed to say that the Jaeger prep guys were his new favorite heroes.

And that was why, every time one of the monsters went down, every time a new Jaeger made it off the production line, every time a new pilot pair successfully established a solid Drift-- Tendo broke out the good booze, the kitchens dug out the delicacies they'd been saving for weeks, the tech guys reprogrammed the comms to play old school rock, and Marshal Pentecost pretended to turn a blind eye to it all. It was noisy; it was chaotic; it was a release valve for the massive stresses they were under, and he had no doubt this crowd would turn into one of those by the time the night was over.

Raleigh had sat out the last one, after Kaiju Slayer came back from taking down a Cat Three in the South Pacific with Solar Prophet. No one had grudged him that; not even Yancy, who'd always been the more gregarious Becket brother. They'd still been adjusting to their new circumstances then, and neither of them had been eager to subject themselves to that kind of atmosphere while the news was still full of reporters making hay out of Raleigh's 'tragic survival' and 'disappearance from public view'.

This time, though? Yancy would mock him for running away if he holed up in their quarters again, and he'd deserve it. Not to mention, Miss Mori was in the candidate pool this time, and he'd been more than a little impressed by the sharp-edged, talented junior engineer since assisting with the last round of repairs on Chrome Brutus. She'd graduated the Jaeger Academy before returning to the 'Dome she'd grown up in for a job on the floor, a level of dedication he respected. She never tried to get him to 'talk about it', but seemed to perfectly understand him just the same in a way he'd call Drift-compatible if it was just him. Though Yancy did like her, too, in more of an intimidating genius younger sister kind of way. They fully intended to be there to cheer her on.

Besides. If not for friends like her-- and if not for Buffy and Faith reassuring him from the moment he woke with an extra presence still in his head that he hadn't actually gone crazy from trauma-- Raleigh probably would have left the Shatterdome months ago. The only thing he had ever been excellent at was piloting a Jaeger; without his brother, without Gipsy, and convinced he was too wounded to try again, he probably would have joined one of the construction crews rebuilding kaiju-torn cities, or maybe one of the consortiums funding thick-walled enclaves up and down the coast. Manual labor that would let him be helpful, without reminding him of his losses at every turn. Instead, while he and Yancy might not be pilots anymore, and might never be again, he'd come to realize that they were at home here, useful here, in a way they wouldn't be anywhere else. And that was worth celebrating.

He was just finishing off the last of his potatoes, and wondering if he should have picked up a few of those asparagus spears to shut Yancy up-- yuck, really? Don't you know by now that my taste buds aren't the same as yours, man?-- when he heard the Marshal's measured tread behind him, and looked up to see Pentecost approaching with a couple of visitors in tow. Raleigh swallowed his last spoonful, then stood, inclining his head respectfully.

"Marshal. What brings you by?"

"Misters Becket," Pentecost nodded back. "I'd like to introduce you to an old friend of mine from the Mark I glory days-- Hercules Hansen. I believe you fought alongside him in the strike group off Manila a year and half back?"

"Striker Eureka, right?" Raleigh greeted the older man, stretching out a hand to shake. Herc Hansen was nearly as legendary as Stacker Pentecost; he was the only pilot known to have driven every single model of Jaeger from Mark I through Mark V, only excepting the modified version of the Mark III the ISWC had kept for its own. He was also the only pilot from the first year of the War still in active combat, despite losing his first co-pilot to circumstances no-one would discuss and his wife to Scissure's attack in 2014. And the breadth of his chest and the strength of his grip-- not to mention the way all the single folk in the room eyed him as he walked by-- testified to how hard he'd worked to keep himself in the field.

"Right. That was a good fight," Hansen said, smiling warmly at him. "Good to see you again. This is my son, Chuck; he's my current co-pilot," he added next, releasing Raleigh's hand to gesture at the brawny teenager at his side.

Chuck had to be about Miss Mori's age; one of the newest crop of pilots. Too young to remember much of the world before K-Day, raised on tales of heroes in Jaegers-- and in Chuck's case, the son of one, too. There was something tense and a little angry in his expression as Raleigh turned to shake his hand.

"More like he's my copilot," Chuck bragged half-seriously as their hands met-- then paused, raising his voice a little sharply. "Misters Becket? What's that all about? Don't tell me that reporter was right, and you've cracked up and started hearing voices."

Raleigh blinked, raising his eyebrows as Yancy tightened their grip in response. No matter how much the kid must have dominated in the sims in order to qualify as a pilot at what, seventeen? He hadn't a chance in hell of matching a riled Becket, and the only thing keeping him from demonstrating that fact was that he didn't want his good mood ruined. They were a lot rarer these days than they used to be.

"Crazy, no. Voices, yes," he smiled lopsidedly, letting Yancy compress Chuck's knuckles. "Actually, voice, singular; and sometimes I'm the voice. The specialists think it's kind of like a permanent Drift."

Chuck winced, then pulled his hand back sharply, giving Raleigh a startled, disbelieving look. "What?" He clearly hadn't expected Raleigh to confirm it. "But that's-- how would that even work?"

"Chuck--" the elder Hansen reached for his son's shoulder with an apologetic wince.

Raleigh let Yancy step forward to answer that one, as Chuck shrugged Herc's hand off. They didn't trade places very often, as it felt strange to both of them, but it wasn't any more difficult than switching hemispheres in Gipsy Danger had been during that last fight: pretty much instinctual.

"Kind of like this," Yancy explained, somehow making Raleigh's voice sound older and more confident-- something to do with the way his posture shifted, or so they'd been told. Not that it mattered; just that he was recognizably someone else when it happened, and tended to startle people who weren't expecting it. "It's not all that complicated; we'd already spent years learning to operate one body with two minds, after all. The scale's a lot different, but the rest is more familiar than you'd think."

That visibly threw Chuck; and his father, too, though he looked more astounded than disturbed.

"Well, it's a miracle that you're still with us in any form," Hercules said. "All things considered."

"Thanks. Sometimes I'd even agree with you," Yancy shrugged-- and then relaxed again, turning primary control back over to Raleigh.

Raleigh rolled his eyes, then glanced over at the Marshal. "Sorry, sir. You were saying?"

Pentecost gave him a considering look, then the younger Hansen, then nodded as though he'd just come to a conclusion. "I'd like you to attend the candidate testing this afternoon," he said. "We're not just choosing teams for the new Jaegers; we'll be testing candidates against the Hansens as well. They're a strong match, but an abrasive one, and they'd like to test some of the latest theories about Drift compatibility."

Namely, that anyone who could pilot a Jaeger was technically compatible with any other pilot; it was just that the gene for that kind of mental structure tended to run in families, Raleigh assumed. It was an unusual request, though, even so; Drift-compatible pilots usually stayed together until one or both couldn't pilot at all anymore, and they'd been matched less than a year. Chuck seemed really sour about it, and his dad didn't look much happier-- kind of pained and long-suffering. And even from just a few minutes around Chuck, it was clear the kid thought he had something to prove. What would happen if Herc found a better match, but Chuck didn't?

Nothing good, Yancy dismissed that with a mental smirk. You know the Marshal doesn't think so, though. Notice how he didn't say anything until after we shut Chuck down?

Raleigh startled, instinctively defensive for some reason, at that thought. Do you really want to compete for the chance to ride herd on some impulsive jerkass teenager...?

Ah, ah, careful; you weren't that much different five years ago, kid, Yancy replied, warmly amused.

Raleigh wanted to deny that; he wanted to deny the whole idea. But he couldn't, quite. Getting back in a Conn-Pod under any circumstances would be like touching a raw nerve-- but it was also what he wanted, more than anything. He just hadn't let himself hope it would ever happen.

He eyed Chuck again, then the Marshal, then nodded thoughtfully. "So long as you aren't pulling Miss Mori out; she'll have my guts for garters if she thinks I'm stealing her chance."

The Marshal grimaced-- he was such a secretly overprotective father-- but finally nodded agreement. "You'll be the only change to the rosters," he said. "Don't get cocky, though."

"Who, us?" Raleigh replied, grinning. "Don't worry. We'll be ready."

Pentecost raised an eyebrow at that; he seemed amused, but he still lifted one hand to curl around an ear, turning a little to aim that ear in Raleigh's direction.

"Thank you, sir," he replied, saluting; then walked off to stow his tray to the strains of "you can't be serious" rising behind him.

Buffy and Faith were still in the Kwoon when he wandered that way to warm up, exercise gear damp with sweat as they stowed their combat sticks. They were every bit as in shape-- or more so-- than Herc Hansen, and weren't much younger, though they still looked barely thirty. Raleigh really respected both of them, and had a lot of platonic affection for them after everything that had happened-- though that was one of the few areas where he disagreed with Yancy. His brother still thought of them as MILFs, which made for some embarrassing cognitive dissonance from time to time.

Yancy was all business that day, though, as Raleigh greeted them. "Hey, guys."

"Hey Beckets," they replied, assessing his candidate blacks with a quick, knowing glance. "All dressed up with someplace to go, then?" Faith added.

There was perceptive; and then there was foreknowledge. Raleigh easily read which one that was, and crossed his arms, giving them both disgusted looks. "You knew he was going to ask," he accused them. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"The Marshal only agreed to think about it," Buffy shrugged. "But we thought you were ready. And I guess he decided you were, too."

See? Told you, Yancy chimed in, amused. It's about that Hansen kid; he needs someone who can sync with him that he can't walk all over.

Quiet, you, he snorted, then replied aloud: "Yancy thinks he wants us to match Chuck Hansen. I think he's full of shit; I think Mako's going to leave her tiny footprints all over him. But we'll see in a few hours, I guess."

"Which him? Yancy, or Chuck?" Faith teased. Then she grew more serious, smile slipping away. "Seriously, though, kid; Yancy's probably right."

"Really?" Raleigh frowned at her, surprised by the shift in tone.

Buffy nodded and took up the thread. "I don't know if you've noticed-- you've had a lot else on your mind lately-- but Stacks has been trying to get Striker transferred here permanently, and he's going to keep at least one of the new-model Jaegers. The ISWC's been helping him come up with the funding, which is why we know-- but I think you should know, too. He's building a special strike team, staffed with only the best pilots. That's you; and us; and Mako, much as he wants to protect her; and the Hansens, even with that chip on Chuck's shoulder. Maybe the Kaidanovskys too, if he can pry them away from Russia, or the Wei Triplets; he knows them."

"What? Why?" Raleigh blurted, surprised-- then sucked in a breath as the obvious answer occurred to him. "He wants to assault the Breach again."

Buffy nodded. "He doesn't want to wait until the five years are up. Illyria-- Dr. Burkle-- has this theory that the kaiju are learning from us, communicating somehow. Before Knifehead, none of them could have bit through hull plating, or survived that many shots from Gipsy, and they've only gotten stronger since. If we play defense much longer, we'll be losing Jaegers for every kaiju that goes down. Better to strike while we still have technological superiority."

"But nothing's ever made it through from our side," he objected. He and Yancy had been at the Academy the last time an attempt failed; an entire strike group had been lost.

Faith shrugged. "He's got a new plan. And we could use you at our backs when the time comes."

How the hell was he supposed to argue with that? He did have one more question, though. "Why five years? What happens if we wait that long?"

Buffy and Faith shared a glance, then shrugged. "The K-Science guys think the interval between attacks will be under a week by then. And we had-- some independent confirmation, so. It makes a convenient deadline to hang our hats on."

Seventeen eight-oh, Yancy suddenly blurted in the back of his mind. So that's what that was all about.

What all? he fired back, confused-- but Yancy would say nothing more.

Whatever. Raleigh took a deep breath, then let it out. "All right, then. I'll give it a shot. But I still think Yancy's full of shit on this one."

A few hours later, breathing hard from effort as he held his staff to Chuck Hansen's throat, Raleigh heard Yancy laughing in the back of his mind. Adrenaline and exhilaration sang in his veins, and he knew without even asking that Chuck felt it too, however reluctantly-- another sign they were compatible. Maybe the new theories were right, and all Jaeger pilots really were just naturally slightly psychic? Regardless, while Chuck might never be Yancy-- he didn't have to be, did he? Chuck had to balance both of them, and it looked like he just might have the fire and determination to do it.

And as for Miss Mori-- he'd been right about her putting her tiny footprints all over a Hansen, but he'd guessed wrong about which one. She stood next to Chuck's father, radiating smug triumph despite perfectly composed features; Herc, on the other hand, wore a kind of amazed and apprehensive expression as he spoke with the Marshal. Ha; it would be a lot of fun to see that one play out.

Maybe they'd all be dead together in a few months; and maybe they wouldn't, and Raleigh's timing was as awful as always. But optimism was starting to take root in his spirit again, like a weed.

Suck that, kaiju. You didn't get Yancy; you won't get the rest of us either.

It's time to party.

10. Rising to the Challenge

"Okay," Buffy said, looking around the briefing table at the other members of the Breach strike team. "It looks like the gang's all here."

Faith stood next to her, at the front of the room; the Marshal was seated at the head of a long table beside Chief Choi, who would be their lifeline while they were in the water. The others were spaced out around the perimeter, grouped by pilot teams. Mako and Herc Hansen were seated on Pentecost's other side, both looking more at peace than Buffy had seen them in years; Chuck Hansen was next to his father, looking older without that resentful simmer that used to come off him in waves. The Beckets had been good for him; they might bitch, but they complemented each other's rough edges rather than wearing against them, like Chuck and Herc had done. The Kaidanovskys were sharing a chair, their impressive physiques and stark blond hair a dramatic contrast to their soft body language with each other. And the Wei triplets, who piloted the only other crimson Jaeger in the service, seemed to be passing nonverbal commentary between each other the way they normally did basketballs in the Hong Kong hangar bays.

"So, it's time to level with you guys," she continued, meeting their curious and wary gazes one by one. "Most of you know Marshal Pentecost's been planning a major mission all year; most of you have probably even guessed what it is."

Nods followed all around at that statement, and commentary in at least four languages. Buffy waited a moment for it to die down, then went on. "What you didn't know is why. The answer's simple; we figured out how to open the Breach from our side."

It was easy to tell who'd known anything about it before, and who'd been surprised; gasps echoed through the room, and pilots exchanged shocked glances before raising their voices again in a jumble.

Faith held up a hand, pushing away from the wall she'd been leaning against to gesture them all down. "See, the last time the kaiju were here, they didn't just cut a swath through the fossil record. They left other evidence behind. Scratchings and shit. Drawings. Artefacts. But nobody had any clue what it really meant until Trespasser stuck its nose through the Breach and plowed through San Francisco."

"The ISWC," Sasha Kaidanovsky said, her tone clipped and a little accusing. "This is where your influence comes from; your power. We have wondered."

"To an extent," Buffy nodded to her. "We had knowledge DARPA didn't. It's one of the reasons why we funded our own Jaeger, and why Faith and I joined the Rangers: to put that knowledge to good use."

"Suddenly Dr. Geiszler makes heaps more sense," Herc Hansen commented, one corner of his mouth turned up wryly.

"Hah, you'd think so, wouldn't you?" Faith fielded that one. "But no; he's not with us. He's just a brilliant, crazy little motherfucker. A couple of his colleagues, though, in the labs and engineering teams-- how many of you have met Dr. Burkle?"

They all had; Buffy watched spines straighten as the pilots exchanged startled, then understanding glances. Illyria was definitely the type to leave an impression, and if they wanted to put her weirdnesses down to belated recognition of inside knowledge, Buffy wouldn't discourage them. "She has the closest thing we've got to a first-person account of what went down then. And she believes she knows why all our previous attempts failed. Because the Breach is set to only let their own kind through-- from either direction."

"I assume you have planned to overcome this problem?" Aleksis Kaidanovsky frowned at her.

"Yeah. We give it what it wants," Faith told him. "Like we said; they've been here before. Lived here-- and died here. We make up a payload to seal the Breach, and toss it through in a coffin full of ancient kaiju remains. It goes through; it blows; the Breach collapses, and no more kaiju. Ever."

There was more to it, of course; but they didn't need to hear about the magic factor.

"So what's the catch?" Chuck demanded, skeptically. "There has to be one, or you wouldn't need five Jaegers to deliver it."

"Indeed not, Mr. Hansen," the Marshal interrupted. "The catch is that the payload will have to sink through the passage between our world and theirs and emerge on the other side before it can detonate. Until that time, the Breach will be fully opened-- and its creators will obviously be aware that none of them opened it. Whatever guardians may be set on that side-- whether it be a lone Category One or an entire army of Category Fours lined up waiting for attack orders-- will have several minutes to reach us before the detonation. We must keep them from making it ashore, or rejecting the payload. Drastic measures may need to be taken."

Chuck swallowed, then shot a sideways glance at the Beckets. Raleigh gave him a tight nod; they didn't quite touch, but Buffy saw Herc reach over to drop a hand on his son's knee, and Mako knitted her fingers with Herc's under the table. The Weis exchanged speaking glances again, and Aleksis tightened his hands around his wife's waist.

"Well, then," Raleigh drawled, clearing his throat. "The sooner we get it done, the better. When do we drop?"

11. Beware the Jabberwock

There was a certain rhythm to walking in a Jaeger. Momentum was a product of mass and velocity, and Jaegers had a fuckton of mass; you'd better have rhythm if you wanted to keep one moving. That was one of the reasons piloting was so hard on the mind and body; why there was so much resistance built into the harnesses, and why the relay gel and circuitry mesh undersuits were necessary despite the risks of feedback injuries. Pilots had to feel the heft and power of their Jaegers as though they were their own bodies, or they'd never be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other or coordinate muscle fibers with muscle engines to deliver a punch.

But sometimes, when a pilot match was very strong, when they were well suited to both their Jaeger and each other-- well, there was a reason the next to last compatibility tests before setting foot in a Conn-Pod always took place in the Kwoon. There was more than just a rhythm to it, if the pilots were lucky. Hell, Raleigh felt like Cobalt Lancer could dance if they needed her to, striding through the stirred-up sediment of the ocean floor as smoothly as if they were crossing the tarmac at the Icebox.

That's cute. Really, Chuck smirked at him. But you can wax poetic about how awesome I am later, when I have time to bask in it properly.

Raleigh snorted, slowing his stride in tandem with Chuck's as they approached the edge of the continental shelf. Remind me, who had whose Jaeger tacked up on their dorm room wall again?

Aw, don't pick on Mako, Chuck replied shamelessly, as if Raleigh hadn't already seen the truth in the Drift. She'll kick your arse without breaking a sweat.

Probably. I think she'd rather be kicking your Dad's, though, Raleigh fired back, and grinned as Chuck's mindspace twitched, shying away from the thought. If banter was the way he and Chuck communicated best, Miss Mori seemed intent on proving herself to her copilot one stick match at a time; there was a dance going on there, too, one that flustered Chuck every time someone else brought it up.

Don't make me pull this Jaeger over, Yancy interrupted wryly, still as much the big brother as ever even as a disembodied voice in Raleigh's head. We're coming up on the jump, boys. Time to lock it down.

"Close up the ports," Tendo spoke over him, keeping an eye on their positions from the Shatterdome. "And careful with your oxygen mix-- remember, it's a long way down."

"Roger that, LOCCENT," Raleigh drawled, reaching out to toggle several switches on the main console. "Locking it down."

The strike team had launched early that morning, choppered out to sea and dropped in a line several minutes' walk from the Breach. Kaiju Slayer had been assigned the lead as the toughest brawler of the group, followed closely by Striker Eureka and Cobalt Lancer, their new Mark VI; Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon had brought up the rear, fanned out slightly in a loose triangular formation as they approached the underwater cliff. At any point before that, they could easily have broken off the mission; taking that step off the edge would be committing themselves to a course of action that had killed everyone who'd ever attempted it before.

"Taking the jump," Slayer radioed back from in front of them, then vanished off their scopes, dropping into the crushing gloom.

Take a deep breath, kids, Yancy said. Then they followed her over the edge of the world.

Raleigh had always looked up at the stars as a kid, daydreaming about what might be out there. Those aspirations were long gone now, destroyed by the kaiju like so much else. But that slow motion fall through the blackness, lit intermittently by sparks of strange, living light and rock formations looming out of nowhere only to vanish again seconds later, reminded him of those dreams in a strange way: looking out into the vast deeps of the cosmos and wondering if anything was watching them back.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son," he murmured, half to himself, nudged by old, poignant memories.

"The jaws that bite, the claws that catch," Chuck finished the next lines, muted sadness and guilt spiking in him at the words, nudged by memories of his own. They locked it back down again quickly, though, deflecting the RABIT, and a moment later bent their knees to absorb the shock of impact.

"Cobalt Lancer down," they announced, as a cloud of silt billowed outward from their position.

"Striker Eureka down," Herc echoed them. "Can't see an inch in this shit. But we're still in one piece. Switching over to sensors now."

"Crimson Typhoon, down," the Weis added, and then the Kaidanovskys followed, their Mark I dropping last to watch the team's six for the final approach. "Cherno Alpha, down."

"Strike team in position for the next stage," Faith transmitted back from Slayer. "LOCCENT, you still have us?"

"Five pretty lights on the board. Operation Doorknocker still a go," Tendo confirmed.

"All right, then. Let's get ready to rumble," Buffy quipped, taking comms over from Faith. "Package on the move."

The next few minutes were some of the tensest, and yet most boring, Raleigh had ever spent in a Jaeger; there was nothing to see except their own body, moving in a murky haze, and the map screen marking off the distance to the target. The closed Breach didn't radiate much energy, so they couldn't even use it as a visual reference point, and any undersea life that might have once been in the area had long since been killed off by the effects of Kaiju Blue. The comms had gone silent, too, except for Tendo narrating their advance; he counted down the meters until Slayer reached the gap in the sea floor, and then they all halted, waiting for the next stage.

"Here goes nothin'," Faith announced. Then Kaiju Slayer, backlit now by a very faint reddish glow as she stopped at the fissure, opened one hand to drop the object they'd carried all the way from the Shatterdome. It was some kind of special explosive, Raleigh had been told, packaged in a box full of ancient kaiju remains; theoretically, the bones would trigger the Breach to let the bomb through.

"Get ready to stop the war clock, LOCCENT. In three... two... Shit!"

The faint light Raleigh had guessed to be the dormant Breach flared brightly, suddenly, stabbing out through the murk; then an unexpected shockwave of energy rippled outward from it, knocking all of the approaching Jaegers flying. Raleigh swore as Cobalt Lancer finally dug her feet in several dozen meters away, stopping their slide, and got them turned forward again just in time to see something else block out part of that light. Something that just kept coming, and coming, and--

"What the bloody hell is that?" Chuck gasped. "LOCCENT, we have a guardian here-- what's your read?"

"Category Five," Tendo transmitted back, voice strained. "I repeat, it's-- no, make that a Category Five, plus at least one Category Four-- no, two! And the Breach isn't closing back down; did the bomb make it in?"

"Should have known this wouldn't be easy; it's apocalypse season, after all!" Buffy gritted out, and light flashed again from up ahead as Kaiju Slayer readied its energy weapon. "Yeah, the bomb went in. And the way these guys are circling, it's like they know--" Her voice cut off with a grunt of pain.

Raleigh swore again and focused, sharing an idea with Chuck. Then they leaped off the sea floor, intent on crossing the distance as quickly as possible. The Mark VI had been designed specifically with the possibility of an underwater mission in mind, unlike older models; as Cobalt Lancer leaned forward and came almost horizontal in the water, vents opened in her massive thighs and feet. Vast water drivers leapt into gear, sucking seawater into the hollow spaces of her legs and expelling it for fluid propulsion; jaegers couldn't really swim, it turned out, but they could make a pretty good impression of a torpedo. Chuck and Raleigh clasped Lancer's hands together, deploying chain swords and aiming them forward while Yancy controlled the propulsion, and they rocketed toward the kaiju's vast form.

The swords punched through its left shoulder like a knife through hot butter, then ripped out again, taking a huge chunk of flesh with it as the kaiju jerked and swatted at the wound. "Got a piece of it," Raleigh grunted as Cobalt Lancer took a blow across the chest, sending them thudding back to the sea floor. "Slayer, you still there?"

"Dinged up, but still in one piece; thanks for the distraction," Faith transmitted back.

"Category Four engaging," the Weis said sharply from behind them. "Readying thundercloud formation!"

"Cherno Alpha assisting," the Kaidanovskys announced. No one in their right minds wanted to face a Four-- or better-- on their own.

"Striker Eureka, engaging second Category Four," Herc Hansen transmitted. "It's circling round-- keep an eye on your backs, everyone!"

A spike of concern flared from Chuck's side of the Drift, then tucked itself away again; there was no time to worry about his father when their own opponent still loomed overhead. The enormous kaiju swung a clawed arm in Slayer's direction, which the Mark III ducked just in time-- then whipped a vast, three-pronged tail toward Lancer so fast they almost didn't see it coming.

Their arms jerked together at the last second, almost without conscious input-- thanks, Yancy-- and the tails crossed the sharp edge of their swords instead of impacting their body, resulting in another convulsive shudder through the beast as the writhing ends of the appendages drifted away into the water. Glowing blood poured from the wounds; it swiveled its head back toward them, ignoring Slayer entirely now.

"Got its attention now," Raleigh grunted. "Plasma cannons?"

"Plasma cannons," Chuck confirmed, retracting the swords to split their Jaeger's fists open in the pronged shape of the energy weapons.

Slayer had taken the opportunity of the giant turning away from them to leap upward, targeting its unwounded shoulder with their trademark weapon, the Scythe; they dug it in hard, but didn't quite sever the arm before it swatted them away. The distraction gave Lancer enough time to overcharge its cannons, though; they fired a shot straight into an ankle, and had the satisfaction of seeing it buckle toward that side. It caught itself after a moment, though-- and then the water shivered all around them, as it sent out some kind of pulse that rattled them even through the Conn-Pod.

Raleigh had been blocking out the sounds of the other fights in the immediacy of the moment, but he registered Mako's voice then, raised in dismay: "It's breaking away-- returning to the Breach!"

"Not this one," Aleksis Kaidanovsky said, gutturally triumphant. "Kaiju is down. Moving to assist."

It called for help, Yancy said, urgently. Guys--

"Going!" Raleigh and Chuck replied, almost as one, instinctively turning to one side and shoving off against the sea floor to not be wherever the big guy had told its friends its attackers were. If there'd been any question left about whether or not these things were intelligent, he thought it had just been answered.

They had changed course just in time; a muscular form loomed out of the darkness where they'd been, bulling forward toward the Breach's position. Lancer didn't stop there, though; there was no way they could face two of those things at once without ending up paste. They had to reach a better position.

"Any more movement, LOCCENT?" Herc panted over the comms. "We're one down, but the other two are keeping us hopping-- how much longer until the payload--?"

"Ninety-five seconds," Marshal Pentecost took over the comms. "The movement's stopped; they must be aware of it by now, but we've seen no sign of it being pushed back through. You just have to keep them penned up there for another couple of minutes--"

"Augh!" A long, wordless shout came from Slayer's pilots; Raleigh jerked his head toward the noise, and Cobalt Lancer's followed, aiming their sensors back in the direction of their friends. They caught a bare glimpse of the massive form of the Category Five turning to leap back into the Breach, clutching the form of a Jaeger in its claws, before their distraction cost them; the still active Category Four smashed into them from behind and they went down hard, face first into the sediment.

"LOCCENT, it's got Slayer-- I think you're right, I think it knows, I think it's trying to take them back with it to do something about the bomb--" Herc's voice rang in their ears, terse and angry, as they struggled back to their feet. Then they were turning, aiming a punch in the Category Four's direction--

--as it staggered, propelled from behind by the smashing fists of Cherno Alpha.

"Thanks, guys!" Raleigh panted, and began charging the cannons again as Crimson Typhoon also converged on their location.

It was the work of just a few more sweaty, swearing seconds for three Jaegers to finally finish tearing it apart, but while they were busy with it, they lost tabs on the bigger fight. There was no more word from Striker, and nothing else from Slayer after that scream; the minute the brawny, blunt-headed kaiju was dead, they all headed for the Breach, the rasping of breath the only sound coming over the comms.

"LOCCENT," Chuck finally spoke up again. "Both Category Fours down. Can you see anything else?"

Tendo's voice sounded a little choked as he replied. "The Category Five's vanished-- back into the Breach. We've lost telemetry on Kaiju Slayer and Striker Eureka. And the payload should be detonating in less than-- wait, wait; no I have Striker! Coming back out!"

Relief flooded the Drift from Chuck's side, but Raleigh's heart was still in his throat.

"But still no sign of Slayer; bomb will be going off in five, four, three--"

They all held their breaths and went to one knee as the count finished, bracing for impact-- but whatever happened on the other side, it was almost an anti-climax on theirs. The red glow of the Breach flared one final time, sun-bright-- then winked out as the fiery seam between the universes was finally sealed shut by human determination and ingenuity.

...With Kaiju Slayer still on the other side.

"It's done," the Marshal said heavily, as the Jaegers all climbed slowly back to their feet. "The Breach is sealed. Well done, all of you."

"Any sign of--?" Herc rasped, suppressed pain audible in his voice. "There should have been--"

"Two escape pod signals!" Tendo blurted suddenly, excited. "The telemetry must have been disrupted by the detonation! Pilots in the water! Vitals strong!"

Now it was Raleigh's turn to slump in relief, sagging in his harness. He couldn't believe it; it was actually over, and they'd survived. Somehow, despite the optimism he'd felt the day he'd won the right to pilot again, he'd never actually expected they'd all come out the other side intact.

"Sending choppers now," Tendo sighed. "They'll get back before the rest of you do."

"Then tell them not to start the party without us," Herc chuckled, lowly. "Someone lend us an arm? We got a little knocked about prying the guardian off Slayer long enough for her to launch her pods."

Raleigh and Chuck turned Cobalt Lancer that direction without even discussing it between them; there was a hitch in her stride now from the kaijus' punishing blows, but they still moved easily, solid in their Drift. Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon fell in behind them, both in similar condition. Typhoon had lost an arm somehow, and there were claw marks across its faceplates where the kaiju had scraped at the Conn-Pod, but it moved without restraint. And Cherno looked as solid as ever, like a battered, blunt-edged knight with just a few new gouges in its armor.

But Striker-- Raleigh winced as they came into visual range again. The Australian Jaeger looked to have fared about as badly as Gipsy Danger had on her final mission, the one that had cost the Beckets so much. One arm had been torn away at the elbow, half the plating on the opposite leg ripped off entirely, the intact hand slagged somehow, and a sparking ruin in the chest all that was left of its missile launchers. It was a wonder it was still holding air at all.

"Sure you're all right in there?" he asked, apprehensively, Chuck's worry spiking again in the back of his mind.

"We are all right, Mr. Becket," Mako replied, calmly. "If conditions worsen, we will eject also; but with assistance we should make it to the Shatterdome for repairs."

And she would know; she was a restoration tech for nearly a year, Yancy reassured them.

Chuck swallowed, then relaxed a fraction. Old bastard's just too stubborn to die.

I would get matched with a guy who thinks insults are a sign of affection, Raleigh sighed into the Drift, rolling his eyes to lighten the mood. I blame it on you, Yance.

I have no idea what you're talking about, Raaaleigh, Chuck sniffed as they maneuvered Lancer into place under Striker's intact arm. Then Cherno moved into position on the opposite side, taking the rest of Striker's weight.

No wonder Mako's such a tyrant in the Kwoon, if you learned your courting techniques from your dad... he needled further.

Shut up, Chuck retorted, embarrassment washing through the Drift again.

Aw, you do like me. Maybe you should be waxing poetic about my awesomeness.

And maybe I should be taking lessons from Mako instead!

"Strike group returning to base," Raleigh announced aloud, trying not to smirk.

Then the Jaegers turned and began the long walk home.

They'd won.

12. And Miles to Go

"You think we've seen the last of 'em?" Faith murmured, head pillowed on Buffy's knee as they curled around each other in the infirmary. They'd taken some bad hits before Striker distracted the Cat Five long enough for Kaiju Slayer's pods to eject, and while Slayer healing was taking care of the physical injuries, the post-Drift hangover was the worst it had ever been.

Buffy shuddered, casting her mind back to those final psychedelic moments in the Anteverse as she traced her fingers over the tattoo on Faith's arm. The human brain wasn't built to interpret what they'd seen there, but she did remember the smaller not-kaijus watching them fall, and the sense of an enormous, affronted mental presence bearing down on them. "Willow and Illyria were the ones that set the spell up, and they knew what they were doing; it took them long enough to find a way around the resistance effect. The Breach won't open again, and the Old Ones guarding it are dead. But we bloodied their nose pretty bad. It might take awhile to find a way, but they'll be back."

"Maybe we should have given Wolfman's crazy boss the okay," Faith snorted. "Might be nice to actually have a warning the next time."

"Yeah, but Drifting with a kaiju?" Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Nobody knows what would happen, except maybe Illyria, and there's no way we're asking her to do it."

"Not arguing there," Faith shrugged. "Have him find a Drift-buddy, then, for safety's sake. There's gotta be someone else willing to do crazy shit in the name of Science! In the meantime, though-- he's coming here, right? I've heard a lot about the guy, but never met him."

"Yep. Stacks said we wrapped the bodies of those Cat Fours intact, before that gold-toed scavenger out of Hong Kong could get a boat out. Newt and his lab partner, Dr. Gottlieb, should be on the next flight. But I don't know if Oz is coming, too; he said it depends on how a certain conversation goes."

"You think they'll stay with the program long-term, if the higher-ups don't cut the funding?"

"Stacks won't let 'em, and I think they will," Buffy said, then sighed as she finally noticed the wash of unease overlaying Faith's mood. "But that's not what you really want to know, is it. Are we going to stay with the program?"

Faith swallowed, sitting up to look Buffy in the eye. Physically, she'd always appeared stronger than her sister-Slayer, but emotionally, she'd always been more vulnerable. "Well. Are we?"

"Of course we're staying. Who'll look after the boys if we don't?" Buffy smiled wryly, making an effort to infuse the words with a feeling of home: of each other; their Jaeger-- they could build another; and the people they'd claimed as family.

Theirs from the jump, not just hers. That was worth holding onto.

"All right, then. Just so that's clear." Faith finally relaxed, and curled back up again, radiating peace.

"You're a werewolf?" Newt blurted in surprise, staring at his and Hermann's captive programmer slash clandestine goods supplier slash lab assistant. He took a second to verify that he really had heard what he'd heard-- Hermann's expression made a good confirmation of that-- then burst with questions. "What? Since when? How? Is it like the stories? Do you really change shape every full moon? Does--?"

"Oh, good heavens. Don't tell me you believe him," Hermann interrupted, sounding as scandalized as he always did when Newt discovered something really cool that couldn't be neatly verified with logic or equations. "Who ever heard of a werewolf with-- with-- blue spiky hair, and black nailpolish, and-- he was in here with us on the full moon, just three days ago! Honestly!"

"S'true, though," Oz-- as he was known to Newt, though Hermann usually insisted on calling him Mr. Osborne-- shrugged, glancing between them in amusement. "C'mon, Dr. Gottlieb. You believed me when I told you the kaiju were actually the foot soldiers of ancient demon gods. Are werewolves really that much more of a stretch?"

"He believed you," Hermann objected tartly, pointing at Newt. "And I... well..." he spluttered further, then deflated a little. "There was the small matter of proof... your friend Ms. Rosenberg was really quite persuasive...."

"Is that all?" Oz grinned, his expression somehow, well, toothier than before. "You want proof?"

Newt gasped at the sight, about to explode with excitement. "Oh, wow, it's like nothing changed but somehow everything did. How did you do that? It's like my hair's standing on end! Hey, is this why people always talk about getting the chills when ghosts are around? Is this, like, a supernatural effect? I was never close enough to a live kaiju to compare it, and no one's ever confessed to being a creature out of myth to me before. But, wait, if this is a supernatural thing, how come you don't make my hair stand on end the rest of the time? Are you just, like, the most Zen werewolf in existence? 'Cause I don't think I've ever heard of a fairy tale where...."

Oz laughed, holding his hands up. "One question at a time, man. And you can ask me on the plane-- we'll have plenty of time on the way to the Shatterdome."

"Oh, lord; don't remind me," Hermann sighed. "Fresh kaiju remains in the lab. I assure you, if it weren't for the chance to study the final readings from the Breach on the original equipment...."

"Don't worry, doc, I'll make sure the chalk stays on your side of the line and the entrails stay on his," Oz reassured Newt's finicky sort-of friend. They had been getting along a lot better since Oz had shown up to keep the coffee coming; Newt didn't want him to stay behind.

"I'll be on my best behavior, I swear," he promised, too.

Hermann shook his head in disbelief; but Oz smiled approval.

Good. He had so many questions....

Herc inclined his head to Mako as they left the Kwoon, headed for their separate duties: she to the bay to work on Striker Eureka, and he to LOCCENT to play second to the Marshal while he convinced the UN the Jaeger program was still necessary.

Mako returned the gesture, giving him a pleased, knowing smile framed by the blue highlights in her hair, and he couldn't help but smile back-- despite the blood rushing to his face, and other parts southward. He wouldn't be able to put her off much longer at this rate, but he was intent on making them both work for it; given the gap in their ages, the thorny mess his wife's death had made of him and his relationships with his family, and the fact that her adoptive father was his closest living friend, he thought it best to take things slow and sure.

She seemed to be enjoying it all as much as he was, though-- as if it gave her a chance to prove to herself and everyone else that she was fit to partner one of the most elite pilots in the service. Frankly, he felt it was the other way round-- but he didn't mind her appreciation, not one bit.

He gave her retreating form one final, lingering glance, then turned... right into the path of the Marshal.

"Sir," he blurted, feeling a bit like a kid caught with his hand in the biscuit jar.

Stacker stared him down, gaze deadly serious. "You know what she is to me," he said.

"I know," Herc winced. "Believe me, I know. But she's eighteen now-- and this isn't just a crush."

Stacker nodded, slowly. "I suppose she hasn't really been a child since Tokyo... and I know what Drift compatibility does to relationships. If she's seen everything, and still wants-- well, I can't stop her. But I also know it takes two to make any partnership work, and we both know you're capable of letting problems fester rather than solve them. If you let that happen with Mako...."

Herc swallowed; he deserved that. "No, sir," he replied, firmly. "I hope I've learned from my mistakes."

"Good," the Marshal nodded; then relaxed his shoulders, abruptly Herc's friend again. "Let's hope your son has, as well. How is it, having the Beckets as next best thing to in-laws?"

"Not a dull day goes by," Herc admitted, wryly. Privately, he thought it was the best thing that could have happened to them; Raleigh Becket seemed much more present these days, less locked up in his own head, and Chuck was much less self-centered. "But they'll be fine. The rest of us, though.... you do realize this effectively makes you their grandfather?" He raised an eyebrow.

Stacker gave him a startled look, then stalked away, muttering under his breath about what the world's coming to.

Herc chuckled, then followed behind, nursing a spark of optimism that had been absent in his life for far too long.

Raleigh had spent most of his free time hanging out with Chuck since closing the Breach, or handing Mako things while she worked on the Jaegers. But he still made sure to stop by and see Buffy and Faith on a regular basis; they'd seemed at loose ends right after losing Kaiju Slayer, and until the funding question was settled there was no telling when they'd be able to pilot again. He knew what that was like.

They'd been keeping pretty busy, though, spending time with the PPDC personnel coming in for meetings and research related to Operation Doorknocker; the ISWC had connections everywhere, it seemed, and it had been a long time since they'd touched base with some of them. The L.A. Marshal's visit had been especially distracting as he'd brought his tech chief-- Buffy's sister-- and all their little ones along; they were all adorable, foul mouthed little shits, and had repeatedly pestered Raleigh and the other pilots on base for stories and autographs. The little guy with the spiked hair that came in with the scientists, too; there'd been a lot of hugging and indignant exclamations the day he'd arrived.

In the midst of all that chaos, it was perhaps not surprising that it took Raleigh awhile to notice how quiet Yancy was being, gradually speaking less and less, fading to a watchful presence more like the muted ghost-Drifts of their Gipsy Danger days than the dual identity they'd lived since. It wasn't until he went from breakfast to bedtime one day without hearing a single disembodied comment that he realized something serious was going on.

Yancy? he asked, worry sparking along his nerves. Yancy? What's wrong?

Yancy hesitated, but finally came forward, presence muted and thick with... regret? It's time, little brother. They said I had five years, but there's no sense putting it off. You're going to have to get used to it eventually.

The next thing Raleigh knew, he was standing in front of Faith and Buffy's room, breath coming short and a roaring in his ears.

"Raleigh? Raleigh, calm down. What's wrong?" Buffy asked, expression alarmed as she opened the door to let him in.

"He said--" Raleigh began, then had to take a deep breath to keep from choking up. "Yancy's been getting quieter lately, and when I asked why, he said someone told him he'd only have five years. That I was going to have to get used to-- to being alone now," he blurted.

"Oh, honey," Buffy replied, eyes going wide as she clapped a hand over her mouth. She glanced over at Faith; Faith shook her head, but then reached out to pull him close, sandwiching him between her and Buffy like they'd done right after Knifehead when Yancy's change of state and the absence of Gipsy Danger had been raw, bleeding wounds.

"Don't be a moron," Faith said, gruffly. "It was a fuckin' dream, not holy writ! But even if it was-- we've made a whole damn career out of defying prophecies. You don't get to break our record. You're harshing our happily ever after, here."

Raleigh felt Yancy's stifled hope at the words, amid his own surprise; what dream? When had that happened? And how had Yancy hidden it from him for so long?

"You mean that?" He wasn't sure which of them was asking.

"You don't get to give up that easily, you jerk," Buffy shook them, then pulled them close again.

They held on for a long time; until Raleigh's face was dry again, and he felt a little less like he was about to shake to pieces. Maybe the shrinks had had a point when they'd said he'd never grieved properly. "This dream thing," he finally said. "Was this...?"

"Right after, when you were still in surgery," Faith sighed. "You know we're not exactly normal, right? You've never asked, but you have to've noticed. And part of what that means is that sometimes we dream-- true dreams. But that whole seventeen-eight-oh thing? We figured it matched the science nuts' theories about the Breach-- not whatever bullshit the psychologists fed you about 'traumatic constructs'."

Raleigh nodded slowly. "Didn't need to ask. We knew all we needed to know," he said, then let out a long breath. "Are you sure?"

"We're sure," Buffy nodded, firmly. "Now go find your copilot; if you've been ghosting on and off the way we have this last week, he's probably worked himself up pretty good by now."

"And how would that be any different from normal?" Raleigh snarked back. But he knew she was right; it would be a dick move not to at least check in with him.

Chuck's door opened easily at his touch-- so, he had been waiting. He'd taken off his shirt and shoes already, but not his jeans and tags, sitting on one edge of his narrow bed and scratching Max's ears. He looked up at Raleigh's entrance, but for once didn't joke; just gave him a long, considering look. "Well?"

Raleigh shut the door, then sat down on the other side of the bed; he didn't feel like looking anybody in the eye at the moment, but pressed back to back like that, he thought he might be able to talk. But the faint post-Drift connection strengthened at the touch, short-cutting the explanation for him: raw emotion flashed between them like bolts of plasma fire until Chuck took a shaky breath.

"You know," he said, heavily. "When Sydney was attacked... Dad had a choice. He was told there was only time to save one person. Me... or mom."

That hadn't yet come up in the Drift; but it explained so much. "Chuck...."

"...Anyway," Chuck cleared his throat. "I don't want to talk about it-- but I get it. Grief fucks you up."

I'm so sorry, Rals, Yancy added.

None of them said anything else. But they didn't sleep apart that night, either.

It wasn't their happily ever after. But it was a start.

Spike looked up-- and up-- at the giant skull looming over the Boneslums. He hadn't seen a live one of the things up close since San Francisco, but the demony aura of a kaiju was unmistakable, even pared down to just its ivories. "You sure we're in the right place? Lot of deluded folk inside, but they all smell human from here."

At his side, his blue-tressed companion gave him a frosty look. "We do not come to slay; we come to make them aware to whom they owe their allegiance. The worms that nest within the shell of the Reckoner believed it to be the messenger of an angry god, and prayed for mercy. But the Old Ones have no mercy; they know only conquest. These shall be better off in my care."

Spike frowned. The Kaiju War had altered Illyria-- or a better phrase might be, reverted her-- in ways that often left him uncomfortable. In L.A., after helping Angel defeat the Wolf, Ram and Hart, she'd been well on her way to learning how to behave like a human. But she'd watched the first kaiju level San Francisco up close and personal-- and reacted more like an offended ruler defending her turf than one of its residents. Afterward, she'd made it her purpose in life to exterminate them.

Not that plenty of others hadn't shared that purpose... and not that she ever went directly against any of the principles Watcher Boy tried to teach her. She even still moonlighted as Dr. Burkle from time to time, helping Red's crowd come up with more intellectual ways to defeat the enemy. But there was none of that abortive attempt at humility left in her... and some of the things she said were downright disturbing.

What if she'd only gone along with Buffy's plans to clear out the competition? This wouldn't be a bad time and place to start her own takeover bid. With the Breach closed, fresh minions awaiting in yonder temple, and the Hong Kong Shatterdome personnel mostly attending the party in Alaska, who would stop her?

Spike had fought at Illyria's side the whole time Buffy had been stomping around in her battle suit, doing his bit to thin out the lesser demons battening on the chaos. Partly because all the Scoobies, even the Niblet, had moved on without him-- but partly because of such questions. Someone had to stay close enough to try and keep the former Old One from deciding to make mass murder her new favorite party trick, and she rarely listened to the others.

"The next time they attempt to claim this world, we will be ready," she added, firmly.

And maybe she only meant what she said? A bloke could hope.

Spike dropped his contraband cig, crushing it out under his foot, then cracked his knuckles. "Then what are we waiting for, luv?"

Illyria strode toward the door of the temple, blue hair whipping behind her like a flag in the wind.



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