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It’s actually not that hard to get a tiger in a Jaeger.  Polly’s easier to convince than Stacker is.  Something about the Tresspasser’s attack has changed her, he can see it, a dark ripple spreading down her spine.

The Jaeger program is still very young, just a little older than a year, and they don’t know what they were doing to themselves, not yet, but Stacker and Polly have been involved in the Jaeger program since the beginning and they’ll be damned if they’re not riding one by the time this year is out.

“You know what this is,” Caitlin warns him, Gil fluttering around her head.  “You know what this could do to you.”

The techs are strapping him into the conn pod, drivesuit against his skin, Polly pacing around his heels.  “Yes,” he says simply, looking at his daemon, and she bares her teeth.

(Luna would’ve loved this.)

Beside him, Tamsin’s Nicky is flying in crooked loops, stress and worry and fear in every smooth line of his body.

“Hey,” Stacker says, looking at his copilot.  Tamsin tries to smile at him, fails; together they’ve seen the Jaeger program become a reality and she’s still unsure, doesn’t trust this metal shell with their bodies, their souls. 

“We’ll be alright,” Stacker tells her.  Polly nudges Tamsin’s legs, her body solid, grounded.  “We’ve been training for this.”

Tamsin finally smiles back.  “Yeah,” she says, and Nikolas settles, perching on her armored shoulder, “I know.”

The techs strap them in, bolt them in place, and leave the pod.  Hinges swing shut.  The only sounds are the faint hum of Coyote Tango, taking her first breaths, and Polly, claws sliding against metal.

Are you ready?  She asks, a bit of Luna’s Pallas in her face.

Yes, he says.  He isn’t.  She is though, his great, fierce tiger, and he’ll follow her wherever she goes.

COYOTE TANGO initiating,” the AI crackles.  “Activating neural handshake.

Deep in Stacker’s bones, something changes. The pons fires up, his drivesuit sparking to life, Coyote Tango breathing all around him, and he has a moment to look into Polly’s eyes before the Drift begins, and he is Tamsin and Tamsin’s him and Polly, his Polly, bursts into heaving Dust before him.

 

Stacker’s father thought that his children should have noble daemons.  His own was a scrappy creature, a brawny mastiff with ragged, perpetually dirty fur and scars across her muzzle.  She was kind, though, Stacker remembers that.  Kind and in love with his mother, who loved all of them, and even though they were poor as dirt, Stacker’s daemon was called Apollonia and his sister’s was Pallas and they lived thinking of Greek heroes.

Polly settled when Obadel Pentecost died.  Boys don’t burn down buildings and come out of it still boys.  They came out of that fire and Polly was a tiger, three times Stacker’s size and fierce and yellow-eyed.

She looked like a hero. Or a demon—opinion varied, depending on who you talked to.  Stacker’s teachers at the academy had high hopes for him; he had a military mind, fierce devotion, and a daemon the size of a small vehicle.  Unstoppable, they said.

Others were wary.  Tiger daemons just didn’t happen in this day and age.  This was the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages; people didn’t need huge predatory daemons to survive anymore.  Clearly there was something wrong with this Pentecost boy. 

“Should they be afraid of you?”  he asked once, walking with a hand on her shoulders.  They were eighteen then, nearly graduated, about to enter the RAF.  He wasn’t so small anymore.  She was still enormous. 

She laughed at him.  “I don’t know,” she said, a deep, rumbling purr.  “Should they be?”

 

Drifting gets easier.  Tamsin is still Tamsin, and now Stacker can feel her across the breadth of the Shatterdome, is as comfortable with Nicky on his shoulder as he is with Polly against his legs.

They fight on.  Coyote takes down kajiu after kaiju. The PPDC expands—they’re talking about Mark II now, Diablo Intercept in production in Chile—and each Drift darkens Polly’s fur, puts some of Pallas’ color in beside her stripes.

“How are you doing, soldier?”  the doctors ask, after every drop. 

Polly curls around Stacker’s feet, warm and solid. 

Their sister would have loved this.  Pallas was an airborne soul.  He always sought new things to do, new wonders, new missions, higher and higher until the sun turned the top of his wings black as pitch.  It’s why Luna joined the RAF, why she flew their newest planes, why she excelled, again and again, when anyone else would’ve been content to just stay put. 

Polly growls, claws stretching. Luna should be here, answering these questions.  Getting ready to go back and collapse next to Tamsin, sleep off the Drift, get up in the morning and do it all again.

She should be here.

Stacker invariably answers the same way.  “Just fine.  When are we going out again?”

 

There’s a thing he notices about Jaeger pilots, about the good ones, anyway;

They all grew up isolated.  They grew inward instead of up.  Their support systems were always very, very small.  Daemon and siblings, mostly.  Almost no one had parents left, no grandparents, no aunts or uncles to tell them No, dear one, it’s too dangerous, stay here, let someone else win the war

Growing up, it was Stacker and Luna and Tamsin, Pallas and Nikolas and Apollonia.  Just them.  Just Stacker and Luna for most of it; Tamsin came later, his sister’s roommate and best friend, fellow wind-seeker.

This pattern is repeated all throughout the PPDC.  Caitlin and Sergio D’onofrio, more insular by the day.  The Kaidonovskys and their Ukrainian hard house, their daemons seemingly large enough to fight kaiju themselves.  Even Stacker’s old friend Herc, growing up with his little brother.

They’re lonely people.

“Maybe that’s what draws us to the Drift,” he says idly, late at night with Polly across his knees. 

She huffs at him, her paws soft.  “What, our lonely, aching souls?” 

Stacker laughs.  “Think about it,” he says.  “We connect with people—with one person, specifically—strongly than most husbands connect to their wives.  What does that say about us?  How can we do that?”

How can you come out of a Drift looking like Nikolas?  He means.  The last few times, he’s seen feathers in Polly’s fur, long and gray primaries, secondaries, soft pinfeathers budding underneath her broad shoulders. 

Nikolas, too, carries some of Polly’s stripes now, on his belly, across his back.  His eyes are less red, now, and Polly’s are tinted bloody.

It’s to be expected, he supposes.  In the Drift it’s him and Tamsin and their daemons together, their bodies the shapeless, rolling Dust that makes the neural bridge possible.  Untangling all that is—difficult. 

No one knows anything about ghost-drifting, not yet.  In a few years Caitlin Lightcap will, but for now it’s just known as the feeling of your copilot between your ears, their voice across a crowded room, their daemon’s patterns bleeding into yours. 

Polly rests her head on his chest, blinking up at him with her solemn eyes.  There’s Nikolas there and some of Pallas too, that old ghost, and Stacker almost smiles to see it.

He misses his sister.  Fighting kaiju eases the ache, a little.  Every one of them he kills is more blood at the altar, more atonement.  They killed his sister; he will burn them to the ground.

“Go to sleep, Stacker,” Polly says.  “You’re not meant to know everything, you know.”   

 

It’s not until a skirmish with a Category II outside of Hong Kong, about three months before Onibaba, that Stacker notices something wrong.

He’s in the Drift and they’re fighting with another team, and his daemon is Dust all around him, and something’s wrong with Tamsin.

It’s not a RABIT, not even really a memory, just—a feeling.  Like a shadow or Kaiju Blue, something cold and slimy.

Tamsin, he thinks, and his Dust rearranges, falters; the kaiju slips past his arm and hammers into his ribs, metal and bone creaking. 

Focus, she snaps, and the kaiju’s coming again, claws like the ones that killed Stacker’s sister, and the cold shadow is temporarily forgotten as Polly’s fire comes roaring back, slams into the kaiju with fang and claw.

They break that kaiju off the coast of Hong Kong, stumble out of the Drift with their daemons reassembling around them, and Tamsin doesn’t look at Stacker. 

“What’s that all about?” he mutters, hanging onto the scruff of Polly’s neck.  She leans into him, takes his weight.  She’s flecked with black and gray, this time.  Nikolas’ feathers bleeding across her stripes. 

Polly licks his palm.  “They’ll tell us when they’re ready.”

Somehow, he doubts that. 

 

He finds feathers scattered across his bed, Polly’s tail lashing, fear thumping in their chests. 

They haven’t drifted in two weeks and she is covered in feathers. 

Most of them come loose when she shakes, fur cragging, tumbling down to the floor.  A few stick, though, a ring around her face, a clump on each shoulder, three at the tip of her tail, fanned out like a phoenix.

“Stacker,” she gasps, and his great daemon is frightened.  “Stacker, help me.”

He understands her fear.  They’ve been tigers since they were twelve years old.  This changing—what does it mean?  Are they changing?  Or is it just becoming harder to pull Nikolas out of Stacker, Polly out of Tamsin, two out of one again?

Please,” she says, a mosaic, a child’s drawing, and Stacker helps her pull out her feathers, one by one.  It stings him, like he’s tearing out her fur, but he doesn’t stop until his fists are full or primaries, soft downy pinfeathers pooled around his boots, unraveling into rivers of Dust.

They don’t tell Tamsin.  

 

Tokyo is his fault.

He knew something was wrong with Tamsin, he’d felt those cold fingers, but he’d done nothing about it.  Nothing at all.

When Onibaba slams its claws into Coyote’s head, he can feel Tamsin—his friend, his last, true friend—start to seize. 

That’s terrifying in and of itself—half of him is suddenly dying, a thunderstorm between them, and she jerks and heaves and falls limp, and the Dust powering Coyote Tango halves.

Nicky tumbles to the floor of the conn half-formed, feathers and ribbons of Dust.  The shock nearly breaks Polly; Stacker sees her for a moment, just a golden outline, struggling to hold on to Coyote.

Onibaba is going to kill them.  Stacker, Tamsin, their daemons both, and then all of Japan.  They’re the only Jaeger ready to go, they’d have to bring in Nova from Hong Kong.  There isn’t time.

Stacker will never be able to say what happens next, but the Dust that is his Polly flickers for a moment, becomes his sister’s Pallas, and he stands up.

The fight against Onibaba is brutal and very, very fast. 

Stacker doesn’t know how he wins, just that he’s screaming My sister, my sister, you killed my fucking sister and his voice sounds like Polly’s, and then Onibaba is dead and he is climbing out of the conn, gasping for sunlight.

Apollonia is at his side again, and she is gray and black and wearing a pair of wings, small but perfectly formed, folded against her shoulders.

They’re alive.

Look down, he hears, in Tamsin’s voice, in Luna’s.  He does.

There’s a girl on the ground, amidst the wreckage.  She is small and blue and covered in dust, one hand clutching a red shoe.

Polly looks up at him.  “She’s ours,” she says.

Stacker blinks the blood out of his eyes.  “You know,” he rasps, “I think she might be.”

 

It’s cancer, Tamsin tells him. Nicky doesn’t fly anymore, hasn’t since Onibaba.  His wings are small, shriveled.  He’s given them to Polly, even though hers were gone when Stacker woke the next morning.

“Cancer,” he says, disbelieving.  She can’t be sick, not Tamsin.  She’s the only one he has left.  She’s his copilot.  He needs her.

“No you don’t,” she says gently, and he realizes he must’ve spoken out loud.  “You drove Coyote all by yourself.”

“We didn’t,” Polly murmurs.  “It wasn’t us, it was—”

Who?  Pallas and Luna? 

“It was you,” Nicky insists, fluttering his weakened wings.  “It was you, and you’ll be okay.”

“You aren’t going to die,” Stacker says, fiercely.  He will do anything, move everything, do whatever needs done, to keep Tamsin alive.

Tamsin smiles, slips her hand into the fur on Polly’s head.  “Oh, Stacker,” she says.  “It’s war.   Did you think there wouldn’t be casualties?”

 

He’s angry for a long time.  Tamsin lied to him.  She didn’t tell him she was sick, she held Polly’s face in her hands and didn’t tell them that she was dying.

Most of the Mark I pilots are.  Not Herc, thank god—he’s got a motherless son already, he shouldn’t have to leave that boy an orphan—and not the Kaidonovskys, but then they’re the kind of people to look cancer in the teeth and send it back to hell. 

“You’re mad,” Nicky says, watching him tiredly.  Polly paces.  She does a lot of that these days.  She’s all restless energy, unsettled without Tamsin. 

“You didn’t tell me,” he snarls. 

Tamsin smiles at him. “I didn’t want to worry you,” she says.

Stacker stares at her for a full minute, shoulders bunching, and now he feels like Polly, muscles bulging, ready to spring.

He leaves the room before he puts his fist through the wall. 

 

Stacker’s own diagnosis comes about a month after Tamsin’s.  PPDC needs Coyote, and Stacker’s compatible with nearly everyone.  They’re just doing some routine bloodwork, trying to get him back in the field, and they spot it.

Mutating cells.

His body turning against him.

 Stacker sits in the hospital bed and lets Polly roar, helpless in her fury.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he tells her, and he understands why Tamsin never told him, why she preferred to hide it.  He can feel cold fingers on his spine.  “You can’t fight this, love.”

And Polly cannot—for all her strength, for all her force of will, she can’t fight this.  Polly can power a Jaeger with her heart alone, but she can’t do this. 

They are going to die.

It settles over Stacker easier than he thought it would. 

He swings his feet over the side of the bed, stands up.  He doesn’t feel any different, really.  Less angry.  Maybe a little more afraid.  This time, he lets Polly lean against him, draw support from the strength of his spine.

“Come on,” he says.  “We still have work to do.”

 

They take Coyote Tango.  Of course they do—neither Stacker nor Tamsin can pilot it anymore, and she’s too sorely needed to languish like her dying pilots.

Stacker sees her handed over to the new pilots—Gunnar and Vic Tunnari, brothers, a mountain goat and a peregrine falcon.  They’re good pilots.  Not the best (they’ll be dead within a few years), but good.  Solid.

When they take Coyote Tango away, Polly rages.  Stacker does too; he and Tamsin go head to head in the Kwoon, hanbo clacking, for hours until he can’t feel his lungs and bruises cross his arms, his chest, and feathers and fur litter the mats.

The PPDC promotes him, tells him to teach.  Mark III is in production, the Mark IIs need a leader, the world needs a solid, reassuring face to soothe their fears.

Tamsin laughs when he tells her.  “Marshall Pentecost,” she says teasingly.  She looks good today; the chemo takes the color out of Nicky’s wings, the vitality out of her laugh.  “Not bad for a juvenile delinquent, yeah?”

He has to laugh at that, just a little.  Polly licks her palms.  He will never Drift with Tamsin again.  Coyote is gone.  He kisses her forehead.   “Not bad at all,” he concedes. 

“So,” Nicky says, his eyes bright.  “Now that you’re a teacher and everything.  How do you feel about collecting your first student?"

 

Mako Mori is twelve years old and sullen, clutching her red shoes.  The orphanage was not the place for this girl. 

Stacker is furious with her relatives—he will not call them her family—and Polly relishes the chance to let out some of her trapped rage, cowing these little groveling vermin into submission.

“This girl will never wear our name again,” the new patriarch hisses, his daemon something small and shrinking.  Polly snarls at him.  Her teeth are as long as his hand. 

“Good,” Stacker says crisply, English so the girl doesn’t understand what’s happening, doesn’t have to feel this pain to.  “You do not deserve her name anyway.”

With that he scoops the girl up, red shoes and all, and strides away with Polly at his heels, growling violence.

“Sir,” the girl says timidly, in stuttering Japanese.  “Where are we going?” She has a daemon hiding in her shoes, he sees that now.  A little blue creature, watching him with double-lidded eyes.

He smiles at her.  “Home,” he says simply.

 

Mako is good for him.  She’s a smart girl, too smart, probably.  Her daemon’s name is Michi.  He is not yet settled, though he spends enough time in his favorite form to pass. 

Mako likes reading, and machines, and swords, and talking about killing kaiju.

There is so much of Luna in her that it almost hurts.  He sees Luna’s heart in her, her need to excel, her drive.  Mako’s not thirteen yet and she’s already a force of nature.  Polly adores the girl. 

Stacker does too, before the month is out.

He chases her around the Shatterdome, tells her about the Jaeger program, teaches her how to cook fish and chips, how to properly make tea.  She laughs at him, tells him he’s like an anime character, shows him how her father made tea instead. 

Michi is quiet.  This is to be expected; he’s been through a lot, that little daemon, and he’s not so badly traumatized that he doesn’t curl up in Polly’s fur on movie nights, disappearing except for his eyes.

Having a student grounds Stacker.  Tamsin is dying, still—he loses a little more of her every day—and he doesn’t have Coyote, but he has a Shatterdome to manage, a war to win, a little girl who wants to play Jaeger versus kaiju on nights when she doesn’t feel like reading books about neural integration and engineering.

(Frighteningly smart girl, this one.)

“We’re doing alright, I think,” Polly says one night, tiredly. 

Stacker thinks of Mako, asleep in the next room.  He thinks of Tamsin in Hawaii, how much he misses her, of Luna who rode with him in Tokyo.  “We’ll see,” he says simply.

 

Mako and Tamsin get along like a house on fire.  It’s actually quite terrifying; Mako is devious and Tamsin is experienced, and between them he has to file more paperwork than he does for the rest of the damn PPDC. 

“She’s a good girl,” Tamsin says, smiling.  She’s thin and pale, and Nicky doesn’t leave her shoulder anymore. 

Stacker nods.  “She wants to fight kaiju.”  It worries him—Mako is a child still, and for all she’s seen she doesn’t know war, not yet.  Stacker never wants her to.  He wants to protect her.  More than anything, he wants to protect her. 

Polly nips his fingers.  She’s not ours to protect. 

Tamsin snorts.  “You sound surprised.”

Stacker struggles.  Michi hasn’t even settled yet.  The idea of throwing him in a Jaeger, turning him to Dust and fuel, twists something in his gut. 

“You don’t want her to get hurt.”

Relieved, Stacker nods. 

Tamsin rests a thin hand on his shoulder.  “Stacks, I know you don’t wanna hear this, but that girl is something special.  When she figures out what she wants to do, I don’t think you’ll be able to stop her.”

“Mako will listen to me,” he says.  She calls him Sensei, Polly too.  She respects them. 

Nicky’s eyes are very kind as he leans across Tamsin’s shoulder, brushes a wing down Stacker’s face.  The touch is familiar and comforting.  “Love,” he says, “you and I both know that would be doing her a great dishonor.”

 

Polly feels Tamsin die.  It wakes her up in the middle of the night, a sudden hole in the world, she says, and she roars and roars until the sound imprints in the walls.

His copilot is dead. 

Stacker winds his hands into Polly’s fur and lets her roar. 

 

The years pass.  Mako grows up.  The Mark IIIs come out, do good work.  The kaiju keep coming.  They keep falling.   

Mako, despite his increasing concern, continues to learn to fight kaiju.  She’s still too young to enter the Academy, thank god—Polly is seriously considering changing the entrance age to twenty-one—but she followed Tendo Choi and his hummingbird daemon around LOCCENT and learns everything there is to know about Jaegers and kaiju.

So far Stacker’s managed to keep her away from Newton.  Small victories, he thinks, because once Newton gets a hold of her, it’s over.  He’ll lose his student to kaiju entrails and obnoxious 2010 pop music forever.

Hercules Hansen becomes his right-hand man.  The soldier is earth down to the tips of his Ayla’s claws. 

Stacker misses Tamsin.  He misses Luna.  He misses the Drift and Coyote Tango and even Polly’s feathers. 

He’s got Mako, though. 

She’s fourteen, nearly fifteen, when she comes to him with worry on her face, not looking him in the eye.

Stacker frowns.  “What’s wrong, Miss Mori?” 

She hesitates and Polly grumbles, concerned, rising to her feet.  Mako’s just about as tall as she is. 

Finally, Mako takes a deep breath.  “Michi is settled,” she tells him, all in a rush.  She switches back to Japanese when she’s nervous, or when she wants to hide something.

“Did he now?  Congratulations,” he says warmly, smiling at her.  “You are growing up, Miss Mori.”

 “Michi?”  Polly calls. 

Mako hesitates again, and then she says something lowly, too lowly for Stacker to hear. 

Michi slowly slides out of her sleeves. 

Stacker’s first thought is, He looks strong.  His second is, Ah, so that’s why she was nervous. 

“Michi,” he says gravely, bowing.  “Your shape suits you.”

And it does.  A snake of some kind, a viper, he thinks.  Long and lean, with dragon’s scales that bristle down his spine, pale eyes, a smooth belly, teeth sharp. 

Mako blinks, her daemon looping himself around her arm, draping over one shoulder.  “You don’t—you’re not worried?”

Stacker smiles at her.  “Miss Mori,” Polly says, coming to stand at Stacker’s side. “When I settled, they thought we had to be serial killers in the making, and we looking nothing like the kaiju.”

“They almost sent me to prison,” Stacker adds, resting a hand on his student’s shoulder.  “And look at us now.”

Mako smiles at him, a wide, beaming grin that makes his stomach lurch.  “Sensei, thank you,” she says, and he can tell that she’s been worried about this sense Michi settled, probably paced herself sick, worrying and worrying that his shape would cost her everything.

“Mako,” he says, cupping her face.  “You have nothing to be worried about.  Michi is perfect.  Never let anyone tell you different.”

Mako nods.  “I promise,” she says.

“Good girl.”  He smiles at her again.  He does that a lot, smiles around her.  She makes him feel centered, this girl.  She makes him feel stable, like he can win.  Like they can win.  “Now run along, yes?  We have to be in Anchorage by oh-four-hundred.”

Mako nods and bows, backing out of the room. 

Polly watches her go fondly, love and worry bubbling underneath her fur.  “Is it a coincidence, do you think?” 

Stacker shakes his head.  “You know what they say about coincidences,” he says, watching Mako go, Michi wrapped around her arm, his scales pebbled like Tresspasser’s armor, as blue and vibrant as Onibaba’s blood.    

 

In Alaska, he loses Gipsy Danger.  Not the Jaeger, amazingly enough. Raleigh Becket’s soul, it seems, is enough to power the Jaeger on her own.  He always thought that Yancy was the stronger of the two—his daemon had been a stag, magnificent creature, really, strong and noble.  The perfect face for the Jaeger Program, and a natural pilot besides.

Stacker Pentecost underestimated Raleigh Becket. 

That’s why he lets the boy go, he tells himself.  Polly wants him to stay—they need pilots, the kaiju are adapting, the Mark IVs are rolling out in less than a month and the cost was astronomical.  Raleigh has to be compatible with another pilot. 

But Stacker underestimated him.  He should have lost two pilots out there in the ocean.  No one else has ever been able to pilot a Jaeger alone.

No one else has survived losing their copilot in the Drift.

“We can’t, Stacker,” Polly growls.  “We need him, we need his experience—”

Stacker watches Raleigh pull on his brother’s clothes, cable sweater, jacket, parka, layers and layers.  The boy doesn’t realize he’s on camera.  Or maybe he does, and just doesn’t care. 

Everything he seems to want goes into a battered duffle.  His daemon, smaller now, disappears under his coat. 

Raleigh Becket pulls his collar up, hunches his shoulders, and walks out of the Shatterdome.

Polly snarls, angry, unyielding.  She doesn’t have room inside her for mercy anymore, not since Luna, not since Tamsin.

Stacker, though, does.  He lets Raleigh go.

 

The Jaeger program goes to shit.

It’s to be expected.  Gipsy Danger’s technical victory came at a very high cost, and other Jaegers start to fall quickly, metal bodies breaking, pilots dying, Dust scattering across the Pacific. 

Herc Hansen is there at his side when the Council tells him the Jaeger program is losing all its funding.  Ayla snarls at them, her stout body shaking.  Stacker appreciates it.

“So what are we gonna do now?”  Herc asks.  He’s thinking of his son, no doubt. Striker Eureka, just commissioned.  The world that’s dying all around them, now without even the Jaegers to slow the bleeding.

Polly snarls thinly.  “What we always do,” she says.  “We adapt.”

 

Hannibal Chau is a pompous, flashy, overdressed fool.  He’s also very rich.

With his help, the Jaeger program survives.  Barely; with Mako’s help—she graduates the Academy top of her class and is furious when he doesn’t give her a Jaeger—but they live.  Shatterdomes close, Jaegers fall or are decommissioned, but they live.

Polly gets leaner, brighter. Tamsin and Luna, Nicky and Pallas, bleed out of her fur as the cancer spreads.  Her fire rises to meet its cold, and between the two Stacker lives.

Mako worries.  She’s angry but she worries, still does everything he asks of her.  He gives her Gipsy to restore because she’s up to it, and she goes with her kaiju-colored daemon and rebuilds Gipsy into something more.

When Mutavore breaks through the Wall, as Stacker knew a kaiju would, eventually, he thinks for half a second that the Council will restore his funding. 

Polly laughs, bitterly.

They’re still on their own.

Operation Pitfall is born in the minutes after Mutavore, Hermann and Newton shouting over each other. 

Stacker has four Jaegers left.  Four Jaegers stand between the kaiju and the world. It’s not enough.  It won’t be enough—they have to do something.

Polly looks at him, eyes like a solar flare.  “I know what we can do,” she says.

 

The best laid plans, he thinks. 

“I want to pilot Gipsy Danger,” his student says, her blue daemon wrapped around her shoulders.  “I can do it, I know I can—”

“You will not,” he snaps, harsher than he means to.  Polly bites at his hand and Mako recoils, curling in on herself.  Michi’s scales are bristling, a forest of azure teeth.  This isn’t going well.  Stacker tries to soften, tries to convey his fear.  I’m so scared for you, my child.  “Ranger Becket will partner with one of the pilots from your list.”

“He’s already proved that he’s not compatible with any of them,” Mako argues.  “But he and I are!”

I don’t want you going in there with him! 

Michi is a damaged daemon already—what would he come out of the Drift looking like?  And Mako has her own traumas.  Raleigh, Stacker thinks, could push through his.  But Mako is in this for revenge, he can feel it.  She wants to avenge her family, like he wanted to avenge his sister.

In better days, Stacker would have allowed her to pilot.  Rage is a powerful tool, he knows that very well.  Polly’s rage saved him in Tokyo.  Raleigh’s rage saved him in Anchorage. 

But there are four Jaegers left.  Cherno Alpha is outdated by a decade.  Gipsy’s dragging Raleigh and his dead brother.

Stacker will not send Mako and her vendetta out into that.  He can’t, he won’t, she could compromise everything.  She could die. 

Polly understands, he knows.  Mako does not, but Polly does.

Stacker Pentecost has no family left.  Parents dead, sister dead, copilot dead.  All he has left is the little girl he saw in the wreckage of Tokyo. 

I cannot lose her too, he thinks.

I know, Polly thinks back.

Mako presses her mouth into a thin, angry line, nearly crying.  Michi dives back into her clothes, shivering with fury.

But she respects him enough to listen. 

Stacker sighs, suddenly, desperately exhausted. 

“Why do I feel like I’ve just made a mistake?”  he asks, crouching down to look Polly in the eye.

Polly licks his chin.  “Because you have,” she tells him, and he closes his eyes.

 

Mako is magnificent.  

“You always knew she would be,” Polly says, watching them fight from LOCCENT, one kaiju and then another falling to Gipsy Danger.  The sword Mako built saves them all.  Striker, Gipsy, their whole damn mission. 

Stacker is so proud he thinks he could burst.  My daughter, he thinks.  My brave daughter. 

“She’s going to survive,” he realizes.   He knows that, all of a sudden, like roots expanding and anchoring him to the earth. 

Polly laughs.  “Yes,” she says.  “They’re going to survive.”

Mako and Michi will survive. 

The choice, then, is easy.

Herc Hansen can’t pilot Striker, but Stacker can.  Chuck Hansen is a brat, but he is his father’s son.  His daemon is sturdy and solid. 

“I need you to protect me,” Stacker says, looking Mako in the eye.  Michi sighs, bumps his nose against his gloved fingers. 

Polly can’t look at either of them.

Mako smiles at him, tiredly.  “I will,” she promises. 

Stacker smiles back at her, takes a deep breath, looks at the Resistance proudly.  “At the end of our hope,” he says, and prepares to die.

 

Drifting again is like coming home.  The Dust that is Polly pulses around him, driving Striker forward.  It’s been years but her spirit remembers; they remember.  They move Striker one step at a time, Gispy Danger at their backs, and when the kaiju come, Stacker and Chuck fight together, desperately, to the very end.

Polly’s spirit thunders around him. 

We are going to die, he thinks, apologetically.

Chuck Hansen and his daemon are unflinching.  “It’s been an honor,” he says, and Stacker underestimated this one too, didn’t he. 

We do a lot of that, it seems.  Polly is wrapped around him, rivers of Dust holding him up, supporting him, and he starts the sequence.

Sensei,” he hears, his daughter’s voice coming through the comms, and Polly roars in grief because they’re not going to see Mako grow up, they aren’t going to see her fall in love and get married, they aren’t going to see the great, marvelous things she gives to the world.

But she will live to do those things, Stacker thinks, and the Dust around him heaves, his Polly a golden, glimmering outline. 

Aishiteimasu,” Mako says, and Stacker lets that love wash over him, bear him and Chuck through the fire, and the last thing he sees is Polly, Nicky’s wings, Pallas’ wings, spreading out behind her.