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All the small things

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Chuck was nine years old when the world as everyone knew it changed. It’s a day that’s become branded in his memory, so vivid and distinct he doesn’t have to ever actively recall it. He can still hear the sounds of insects buzzing about outside. The sounds of neighbors calling in the streets and dogs barking over the disturbance in the late hour. He can still feel the carpet runner beneath his feet and every squeak of floorboard as he descended the stairs. He barely made it to the living room fully conscious. Driven as all young things were to seek comfort in its parents when the air was thick with fear and tension.

“Mommy? Daddy?” he’d squeaked, rubbing harshly at an eye in an attempt to focus. He wasn’t scared, not really. More nervous and in need of reassurance.

Chuck,” his mother had gasped.

But he’d been enveloped in warm arms by then and lifted clear of the floor. He can still remember the warmth of his father’s embrace and the strength of his arms. So sure about him as he held him close and carried him over to the couch to sit beside Chuck’s mother. Can still smell the military scent of washed and worn that clung to his father’s skin then. His mother’s hand stroking his back as she tucked up against them.

“Herc…” she’d whispered, with what Chuck is now able to identify as fear.

“It’ll be alright,” his father had replied, steady as ever. He’d given them both a squeeze then, wrapping his arm about his wife and drawing her into the circle of his embrace. “We’re going to be all right.”

To Chuck then, in the middle of the darkness between night and the light of early day, that had been all there was to it. If his father said things would be all right, then Chuck believed him. He’d snuggled close, held protectively, and gone right back to sleep.

He can vaguely recall the sounds of the Kaiju leveling San Francisco. Of its horrible roars and the firing of advanced weaponry. But then, his parents had often watched old movies after he’d been put to bed. And sometimes his mother would review her research, and dragons were as loud as anything Chuck had known until that moment.

The next morning, he’d found - much to his surprise - that something all together new and alien had made landfall. His mother had been busy with calls all morning. As a groundbreaking Dragonologist, she was on the consult list to every major nation in the world. And it seemed they all found it of the utmost urgency and highest priority to call their house a day into the attack.

His father had been dispatched. Called to base to be ready in case another came and attacked Australia instead. He’d kissed Chuck and his mother and squeezed them tightly, murmuring softly to his wife, getting her to promise like he always did. Chuck always knew, because she would look over at him before she nodded. As he got older, he learned to pretend he wasn’t paying attention, but it didn’t stop her from doing it at all. If anything, it gave her liberty to do it for longer stretches of time. So he always knew when it was serious. And it had been serious on that day.

He’d watched the news coverage, wide eyed and in awe of the monstrous beast that trudged through one city and into the next. Given America had been the country invaded, they’d retaliated right away.

Chuck watched explosions of weapons and aircraft, of cars and trucks and even a few tanks. He stared, transfixed as the kaiju, named Trespasser, completely leveled one of the most famous hill cities in the world. “Mommy,” he can remember asking at some point, a juice box clenched tightly in his hands. She tucked the phone at her ear back, chin jutting forward in the universal sign of attention, though Chuck barely caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. He’d been too busy with the Kaiju on the television screen. School had been cancelled. A curfew had been instated. Chuck had known none of this, beyond the fact that he’d been able to remain home with his mother and watch television. He hadn’t ever liked the news before that particular day, but he’ll freely admit, it had kept him in rapt attention for hours. “Are they gonna send Daddy to America?”

She’d politely excused herself, set the phone aside and crossed over to him to wrap both her arms about him and kiss him atop the head. “No,” she’d said, not sounding entirely certain, now that he knew better. “I don’t think they’ll send Daddy away. Not now.”

“What about Uncle Scott?” he’d asked, looking up at her.

“No, pet,” she’d replied, stroking back his hair. “I don’t think they’ll send him either.”

Chuck hadn’t been certain, as his father and uncle Scott were the two greatest men he knew, and people always wanted the best when they were in trouble. It was why so many people called his mother that day and for many afterward. Though he’d trusted his mother’s judgement and had gone back to anxiously following the live footage. And while they did not send his father or his uncle Scott to America, they did not come home for several days.

Chuck, as a child, had been accustomed to his father missing certain key points of his life. Herc had been stationed in Afghanistan when Chuck graduated from Kindergarten. He’d been in Iraq when Chuck won his first swim meet. He had been midflight over the Atlantic when Chuck lost his first tooth. And he’d been in Hawaii when Chuck fell out of a gum tree and broke his arm.

Every memorable first Chuck had, his mother was present, cheering him on, soothing the ache or comforting him gently. Every memorable first, distinctly lacking in his father’s presence. It wasn’t his father’s decision, he knew. If his father had been able to choose, well, there were times Chuck wondered if he’d chosen duty and obligation over family, but in general he knew his father’s spirit had always been with them. His heart had always ached to share in those precious moments, easily lost to time, never to return.

And so, Chuck turned ten - an introduction to double digits, never to be counted among the single ones again - and his father had missed it. He hadn’t even gotten a call, as he had on occasions before, rare as even those might have been. His father had always at least tried. But then, so had his mother always insured he felt special and celebrated regardless. Which was how Chuck saw his first Dragon in real life. Trespasser was not letting up. Had left hundreds of thousands dead in its wake and every nation in the world wanted answers. Chuck’s mother had been spending every spare moment trying to get them those answers, with no luck. And not only had she worn herself down, but she had neglected Chuck in her own way in so doing. Not that Chuck could ever believe his kind, gentle, giving mother in all her selflessness and consideration could have ever willfully done so. He had been aware, even at so young an age, that she felt the slight had been made and had sought to correct it in the only way she knew could both soothe the perceived slight and yet maintain a professional air in her capacity as lead Dragonologist on the Trespasser Project.

He’d been to the aerie before, but never inside the heart of it. His mother held his hand so as not to lose him - he had been a curious, adventurous, absolutely fearless child and she had known him well. It was better lit than he’d thought it would be, and not merely as a concession to the weaker sighted humans that worked there. The aerie itself was vast and open. A hidden valley within a sea of mountain cliffs. The dragons that lived there could move about freely, taking to the sky and setting down and moving all about with plenty of space to spare. He stood on the cliff face, looking down into the endless valley of green, blue and gold and very nearly cried for reasons he still cannot quite explain, save perhaps a feeling of being overwhelmed. His mother had kneeled down beside him and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Chuck?” she’d said softly. He’d nodded, feeling his heart clench in his chest.

“Mommy,” he’d said, tears in his eyes.

“Yes, love?” she’d asked, stroking back his hair. She was looking at him, but he could scarcely look away from the wonder sprawling out before him.

“I want to be like you when I grow up.”

“Oh, Chuck,” she’d laughed, and tugged him close.

When she tucked him into bed that night, after sharing with him every anecdote she knew - him absorbing them ravenously, as if having never heard a single one - he’d dreamt of wings in the sky. All bright colors and clean air, the wind in his face and the sun on his back and nothing but a dragon beneath him; all that saved him from a plummeting death, a friendship whose bonds were so strong, even the sky twinkled in acknowledgement.

He’d woken the next morning and eagerly shared them with his mother, who listened with a kind smile, nodding in shared fantasy. And who hadn’t - not once - corrected him. That dragons were wild things, of their own mind and society. That he was but the latest in a long line of dreamers who looked up into the sky at dragons, hearts bursting with desire to know the joys they knew, only to be forced to content themselves with a life of patient study, in the hopes of silent acknowledgement. A career that lived in the dust of ancient works and the dirt of the mountainsides of the world. Cold nights spent in aged trees and long days unmoving in insect ridden fields. And every moment of it worth it.

He’d spent the day in her office, coloring in pictures of dragons, trying to match the designs to the wash of colors he’d witnessed the day before. She’d spent it on the phone in front of her computer, discussing the Kaiju and trying to find a weakness for the resistance to exploit.

Two days after Chuck turned ten years old, Trespasser reached a dragon aerie. Several dragons flew out to meet it, engaging it head on. The battle broke through the protective great wall of the aerie, and over the course of the day, the world watched with baited breath as the fierce engagement slowed it down. The first thing to do as such. But the dragons were focused only on protecting their home and their own, and many times what could have been a win was diverted by a dragon suddenly leaving the attack force, abandoning the effort and flying off elsewhere.

Twelve hours after the attack had been launched and countered, Trespasser was dead. Slain and strewn across miles of aerie, but so too were countless dragons lost. As an endangered species, the world could not afford the loss, and a great mourning swept through the human race at seeing so many dead. The dragon dead joined the human dead in a great memorial, one telecasted and shared with the world.

Chuck can still remember sitting in his father’s lap, wearing his Academy coat, the sleeves rolled up and pinned so he could attend the funeral in full military dress. His father had said nothing when he’d insisted, had merely retrieved the requested coat and helped him into it. He’d done his best to keep the emotion from his face, but Chuck now knows what ran through his mind as he dressed his ten year old only child in military uniform at Chuck’s fervent insistence. At the time all he had seen was a weight of human loss and a spark of service ignited in the heart of the brightest spot in his life. He fought so that Chuck wouldn’t ever have to, in the hopes of providing a future, if not war free, at least as safe as could be managed. And that future, and all hope of it had been torn from him and dashed to the winds. His son would be a soldier, a life he’d never wanted for him. And Herc would have to stand by and watch it happen.

He’d cried when the dragons of the aerie had roared into the sky, their long necks stretched and wings extended. They’d watched anxious and stressed, impatient and uncomprehending. Watched their slain be carted off and carried away. Had watched them be mourned, and put to rest with all of the other victims. Their ashes spread to the wind, where they would forever be able to fly free, together.

The dragons were restless for some time after that, and many feared they may leave, and never return. America began communications with other nations in the hopes of preserving the species, should they migrate on their own. After so severe a tragedy, the freedom of their natural species, in all its fallen splendor could not be denied. The dragons were granted full immunity - not that they could be forced otherwise, but it was the principle of the thing - and promised proper care wherever they ended up, whenever they chose to go.

In a telling display of patriotism, the American dragons did not, in fact, take any liberty to leave. Stubbornly remaining, though a few began to fly further than the boundaries of the aerie, sweeping the coastline in careful readiness. Humanity began to feel safe again, with the unusual dragon patrols, and life moved on.

Six months after the first attack, another came. And after a third. Until soon the military and the dragons could be seen alongside each other, working to keep the world safe from the invaders, who only arrived stronger, faster and more formidable than the last.

It was Chuck’s mother who lead her fellows to formally approach the governments of the world. Leading conferences and attending symposiums to formally bridge the gap between the species. Until one day, the Jaeger Program was born. The first attempt was a sleek, silver dragon with bright blue eyes who had settled in - in apparent voluntary service - and waited around as humans ran about the military base trying and consistently failing to do anything of relevance.

It was a young American Air Force Captain who managed to break through. His name was Captain Adam Casey and upon finding himself with similar time to kill between theories, had taken up leaning against posts and discussing everything from the banal repetitions present in his day to his life growing up on his family’s horse breeding estate, his hopes and dreams, and everything in between aloud in the dragon’s company. He did nothing but talk to the dragon as one would any other equal. Carrying on a conversation as if the silver beauty were responding, and anyone who asked the Captain about it received the same answer: “Oh, he understands all right,” he’d say with a grin. “More than any other creature I’ve ever held a conversation with.” He’d laugh, but he’d meant it.

He’d also been right. For one day, while reading to the dragon, he’d been startled by a touch to his mind, and the dragon’s quiet response to a throw away comment he’d made on the narrative. Military personnel had found him standing in the dragon clearing, staring up at the dragon, wide eyed, and grinning clear to split his face.

Not only were dragons vastly intelligent, they could communicate. The news set the world alight with anticipation. The scientific community into fits of apoplexy. And the military into full research and development mode.

Unfortunately for the military, an attempt among the volunteers lead to Captain Casey’s death. The dragon, whom he’d affectionately been calling ‘Yukie’ slipped into a depression so deep, it brought other dragons into the military base in sympathy. Weeks slipped by and nearly everyone lost hope that ‘Yukie’ would communicate with anyone again. The other dragons seemingly responding to his distress, did not show similar voluntary spirits.

Lieutenant Sergio D’onofrio, who had flown many missions with Casey and had been touring the facility at the time had seen ‘Yukie’ on base and had drifted over, separating completely from the group, which stopped immediately to watch. Yukie’s head lifted expectantly as he drew close, tilting slightly as soon as he was near enough. They’d stared at one another for long moments and then Sergio had laughed softly and said, “Yeah. He always was a bit of a careless idiot. But, that was part of his charm.”

The Jaeger Program had been saved.

Eventually it was discovered that dragons were each prone to attraction toward a certain type of consciousness. They could make out in a stadium’s worth of people a single person to whom they found worthy to speak and should the chance arrive, would do so, if they so chose. It was discovered that they most dearly enjoyed the companionship of fellow intelligent but emotionally driven creatures. They understood humanity in ways humanity did not yet understand itself, and they accepted humans as an equal, if smaller party.

Extremely social, they preferred the call of more than one mind linked to their own, which was a promising development, as a team effort was the best means by which to coordinate complicated attacks. Like the co-pilots of the Air Force’s behemoths, the dragons preferred a pair of Rangers to a single one, so as to always have someone with which to communicate. But the deep bonds they formed proved permanent and lasting, and most detrimental to progress when harm came to a Ranger, as the dragons chose to honor their bonded Rangers lives over the lives of others. An unfortunate instinctive habit that had developed over the vast expanse of their long lives.

Dragons had a true name. One which they only trusted to one or two humans in their lifetime, for the power it gave them over them. And they were very protective, both of the name, and those chosen to be honored with the knowledge of it.

To keep things running smoothly, the dragons were given codenames, drafted for them from the scores of their real names and shorted by the Rangers to whom they presented them. ‘Yukie’ became known as Brawler Yukon, and after bonding with a scientist - Caitlin Lightcap - was the first dragon in the Pan Pacific Defense Corps.

Across the world, nations scrambled to try and form bonded pairs. But very few dragons came forward to subject themselves to the process. And so the Jaeger Academy was constructed as a means to draw many capable minds to be trained and exposed to the dragons in the hopes that they would find some to their liking. It soon became apparent that the bonds shared between two people affected the dragons perceptions and thus their choices. The deeper the bond of love and trust between people, the more likely they were to be approached by a waiting dragon.

Chuck spent his time as his mother’s assistant. At her side daily whenever he could manage to wiggle away from the importance of his schoolwork - stressed by his parents, and not given much thought as to importance by himself. And at the aerie every weekend. Australia’s dragons were particularly hardy and far more approachable. His mother’s hard work and dedication eventually paid off when several dragons took it upon themselves to make her welcome among them. They didn’t speak to her outright, but they acknowledged her and shared secrets with her in their own quiet ways.

Where they barely spoke to adults however, Chuck found all the dragons were particularly chatty when it came to him. No one knew whether it was his youth, enthusiasm, his status as his mother’s child, or some combination therein, but the more the dragons opened up, the more attention Chuck received. Though he didn’t need much company, not with his mother, her research team and an aerie full of friendly dragons who seemed to take great delight in his views of the status of the world.

He was at the aerie, playing in a dragon’s nest when Scissure lay seige. Australia hadn’t had a Jaeger force at that time, and had been taken wholly unprepared by the attack. Scissure plowed through Sydney and headed straight for the aerie. Chuck can still vividly recall the clutch of his mother’s hand as they ran. The spray of her hair as she looked over her shoulder. He could tell she would have given anything for the strength and speed to pick him up and run, even at that age, and there are yet moments where he finds himself consumed by grief that it had not in fact, been the case. For all of their sakes.

A long, dark shadow had passed over them, a dragon whom he’d come to know better over the course of his life. But whom at the time had been only vaguely familiar in passing. It had attacked Scissure head on, and hadn’t relented, talons sinking deep to keep it from being thrown as it bit and slashed at the Kaiju with fang and tail. Others soon joined it, and Chuck can still remember the sound of choppers and fighter jets piercing the air as they descended to provide much needed assistance.

They had taken refuge in the cave where the eggs were kept, the better to keep them warm and safe. As dragons and the RAAF fought to desperately keep the Kaiju away, Chuck’s mother had calculated the odds of the eggs survival and frantically called out into the valley. Others found their way inside and they all began scrambling around.

“Turn around, Chuck,” she’d gasped at him, and he’d obeyed. His backpack was wrenched open and the contents fished out wildly, scattering about the floor. There was a tearing sound and then a heavy weight that nearly overbalanced him. The zipper was hurriedly closed and he was turned around again by his mother’s hands to his shoulders. He still has dreams about that moment. The look in her eyes, the grip of her hands, the trembling of the ground beneath them and the roaring of dragons and flash of weapons fire.

“Do you remember the fissure-?”

“The one I’m not allowed to go exploring in?” he’d interrupted.

“Yes,” she’d gasped, tears pooling.

He’d nodded.

“I need you to go there now.” She pulled him into the tightest hug he’d ever received in his entire life and kissed him atop the head. His hands curled into the fabric of her clothing reflexively and she stepped back, taking his face in her hands and kissing it all over. “You have to be brave, Chuck,” she’d said, the tears spilling. “Run. Go now!”

“But, Mommy-”

“Go!” she’d ordered.

“No!” he’d shouted back. “Come with me!”

“I can’t. I can’t.” She wiped her face and crouched down to be more level with him, her fingers biting into his arms. “The dragons need me here. Who’s going to protect the babies?”

As an adult, reviewing his memories, Chuck is able to realize the exact moment her resolve overtook her fear. Needing to protect her child with all the strength she possessed. His mother had always been the bravest person he knew.

“And you have to help too,” she’d continued. “I put the egg in your bag. The one we’ve been waiting on to hatch?”

He’d nodded in understanding.

“The dragons need you too, Chuck. We’re all partners now. Will you be brave and protect this one little one for us? So we won’t have to worry over it in the evacuation.”

His heart thus fortified, he’d nodded, and given no further thought to it. Turning on his heel, hands gripping the straps tightly and running as fast as he could for the fissure. He wonders sometimes, if he could go back, if he’d have looked back. Knowing it was the last time he’d ever see her, if he’d say goodbye. But he hadn’t known, and time travel does not yet exist. All he has are the memories.

They hadn’t found him for two days, but he hadn’t despaired. He’d taken off his backpack, settled down on the dusty floor in the crevice of rock and set the egg in his lap, wrapping around it tightly. The thin air had eventually lulled him into unconsciousness, which he was quickly woken from by the rake of talon to rock. Fresh air streamed in, and Chuck coughed, blinking at the rays of sunlight as they sprung to life against the rock face.

Chuck? came a dragon’s voice. Chuck, we are here for you. Hold on a while longer, little one. We are here.

He’d pushed himself up, arms cramped and lifeless from being locked in the same position for days. As the rocks gave way, a snout pressed against the opening and warm air rushed over him.

“Is he alive?! Is he there?! Chuck!!”

The dragon drew away, allowing his father to push his way forward. He reached in and pulled him out, holding him close. Chuck didn’t let go of the backpack.

“Herc! Chuck!”

A shadow cast across the sun and Chuck whined. His uncle’s hands dropped over him, taking stock. Chuck had never felt him tremble before. Not his fearless Uncle Scott.

Come, the dragon said. Herc. Scott. Chuck needs medical attention. Shall we not go?

Chuck can barely recall his first ride on a dragon. But even barely conscious he was aware that for the first time in his young life, he was experiencing a first with his father and it was his mother who was nowhere in sight.

He spent a week in the hospital recovering, his backpack tucked close to his bedside. At first, no one had been aware of anything beyond the fact that his desperate desire to have it near was a product of shock and trauma. The doctors had insisted it be kept within sight to soothe and comfort him. It wasn’t until one night when they were trying to get him to eat his dinner that his uncle had accidentally knocked it over and upon reaching down to right it, noted the weight.

Chuck and the egg were the only young survivors of the attack. Though had it not been for Lucky Seven’s intervention - or more pointedly her fierce protective instincts - the egg may have very well been taken away. Instead, as they could not be separated, they were lauded as a pair of survivors, likely to be friends their whole lives long.

He hadn’t given any particular thought or attention to the news and well wishers. As soon as he’d been well enough, they’d explained to him that his mother was dead. His father and uncle Scott had ushered everyone out, save a tall, dark man in a blue official coat, who stood by the door. They’d explained to him that she had died saving the dragons, and that the dragons had saved them in return. Lucky bonding with them during the battle. They told him they were a Ranger family now, and had to move to Alaska in order to train with Lucky so they could join the Jaeger program and fight the Kaiju, so that no one would have to be hurt anymore. Chuck had nodded and wrapped himself around his egg and not spoken to anyone but dragons for a long time after.

It was a simple thing to do, really, as dragons spoke mind to mind.

They made the move, and Lucky kept his father and uncle assured of his well being. She was a comfort in the new place, the vastness of the Shatterdome. A touchstone he could run to when he was feeling overwhelmed, afraid, alone, or any other of a long list of things he simply could not stop feeling. He became a common sight the crews soon became accustomed to. Especially once Lucky made it adequately clear that Chuck was her little one, and that anyone who harassed or antagonized him would have to deal with a furious dragon over it. Which was only slightly worse than having to deal with her Rangers in defense of their family.

Chuck’s birthday had been spent in hospital, and the weeks that followed it swallowed up by the move and training. But it had not been forgotten. There was no big celebration, in deference to his silence, but he’d been presented with a present that wiggled and was warm and which could love him unconditionally, with judgeless abandon. The first word Chuck said aloud post-Scissure was Max’s name.

Chuck took great care of Max, and Lucky tolerated him on the basis that he was Chuck’s beloved pet, who brought him great happiness and comfort - and on the one occasion he had asked her, had informed him that there wasn’t enough of him to be appetizing. But, while Max kept him company, Chuck did not forget about his egg. It traveled around with him, tucked close to his body for warmth, and slept with him against Lucky at night. It was a curiosity to most of the ‘Dome, and they would stop by whenever he was polishing it to get a better look at it.

Chuck’s egg however, soon became one of a few kept at the Shatterdome, as the Jaeger dragons had confided in their Rangers that newly hatched dragons were more likely to bond tightly to their Rangers, and more apt to be trained in fighting techniques which would provide better service for the cause. So Shatterdomes began to keep small nests of eggs, never more than two or three, and graduating Rangers began to find themselves gathered around them in wait.

Chuck was eleven and sitting in the stands watching over his egg as a graduating class stood before the nest when it began to stir. He straightened in his seat, his heart in his throat. He wanted nothing more than to run over and scoop it up but knew better than to interrupt a graduation. Fear consumed him at the thought that his egg might hatch and bond to Rangers, to be sent away with them and be theirs forever. His hands gripped his seat tightly, and he rocked forward, holding his breath until his lungs burned, lip caught between fretful teeth.

The cap of his dragon’s egg went flying, flipped free by a white tail. The egg canted sideways and crumbled slightly before bursting open. The little dragon shook itself off, took a few unsteady steps and flexed its wings. The graduating class of Rangers held very still as it blinked at them, then gave a little screech and turned around. It screeched again, hurrying in one direction and bowling over entirely - bits of dried plants and gravel sticking to its wet skin. It gave a distressed shriek, and Chuck couldn’t hold still any longer. Knowing he’d be in deep trouble, he launched himself down the bleachers and ran as fast as he could to the nest.

His little dragon was flailing about miserably, and he climbed in after it, sliding down the side of the nest and picking it up. He picked the bits of debris that clung to its damp skin off, clutching it close to his chest. It made a noise at him, teeth on display as it craned its head back. Its head tilted and it blinked large gold eyes at him before inhaling deeply. It sniffed him twice, pressed its brow to his temple and proceeded to make a happy rumbling sound that Chuck was more familiar with hearing out of cats. It relaxed in his arms, gave a wide yawn and promptly dropped into deep sleep.

Chuck climbed the nest one handed to odd looks from a few of the Rangers, and hopped down. He nodded at Stacker, whose mustache twitched slightly in lieu of a smile. Tamsin smiled at him however and gave him a thumbs up as he trotted off to go introduce the newest member of their family to Lucky.

Young dragons, like most young creatures, were completely dependent upon their caregivers in their first year of life. And Chuck’s young dragon was no different. He wasn’t able to name it, because it was too young to explain its true name or to be properly sexed. But, it didn’t deter him in the slightest. Lucky was very happy that dragoning had become a family affair, though she had hoped for Chuck to take over in his father’s place when the time came. As dragons outlived their chosen partners, and when bonded so deeply, often kept company within the circle of their families for generations. But she wasn’t overly distressed, and if anything, was possibly a little smug that she and the dragonling kept frequent company and would for the rest of their long lives.

As Chuck’s father, uncle, and Lucky were on active duty, they traveled the world with Chuck, Max and the dragonling in tow. And were quite the sight wherever they went. They were a curiosity and quickly became well known even by those not in the life, as young dragons were not a sight often afforded the public.

Chuck’s dragonling at first, was hardly any larger than Max, and they would chase each other around, pouncing and running and quickly tiring themselves out. They were often found asleep in a heap of fur and scales somewhere underfoot. If Chuck tried to move them, they would wake and make unhappy noises, as he had to separate them and carry them one at a time to do so. So he took to sitting beside them whenever they had heaped themselves somewhere in the way, to better mark their place.

As he was talking again, he found he rather enjoyed the topic of them, and would go on and on for hours with anyone who would listen. As time went by, however, the dragonling grew steadily larger and soon dwarfed Max in size. Its colors began to become more distinctive, and Chuck spent a lot of time grooming and stroking it to their mutual satisfaction. When it was about six months old, it began speaking. At first in short, disjointed sentences, that rapidly found fluency. By seven months old, his dragonling could speak seven different languages, absorbing them all from the crew and populace around them at various Shatterdomes like a thirsty sponge. And because it only spoke to Chuck and Lucky, Chuck began to find himself rather fluent as well. His schoolwork became increasingly easy, to the surprise of everyone involved, save Lucky who explained to her Rangers that when a dragon bonded from the shell, it shared everything it was with the individuals with whom it bonded. And as the dragonling was of exceptional intelligence and curiosity and Chuck of an accelerated maturity and engaging wit, they openly fed off of one another’s enthusiasm and collective talents.

By twelve, Chuck could be found with the J-crew, learning every turn and weld necessary to both make and maintain dragon armor. And was capable of carrying on several conversations in multiple languages all at once, without losing a step of the process. His dragonling at his side, watching the process either with an intensity that had a tendency to startle newer staff, or with such indifference as to make no matter. By the time his dragonling was a year old, it could be found climbing the sides of posts, walls, buildings and anything vaguely upright and launching itself off them. It would glide around, before coasting to a landing, which at first it wasn’t very good at. Lucky’s crew learned to quickly dart out of the way when it came in for a landing, and the reflex to move out of the way kept long after it had gained steadiness. Which proved only to amuse it and it took to using them as target practice, tail swishing to tap them as it went by until Lucky scolded it.

By thirteen, and two, Chuck’s dragonling outstripped him and was large enough to ride, though not with any guarantee of safety and not for very long. Still, they amused themselves with following Lucky and the elder Hansens around on sweeps to stretch their wings and do something together. It was upon one such return that they entered the Shatterdome to find a beautiful, streamlined blue dragon. She was all grace and majesty and Chuck was instantly awed by her. He’d never seen a thunder dragon before, and was keen to catch sight of her electrical abilities, but she seemed composed and serene. Clearly adored by her Rangers, who were nowhere in sight as Chuck and his dragonling closed the distance to go introduce themselves.

“Hi!” Chuck called, waving. “I’m Chuck Hansen and this is my dragon. Welcome to Manila!”

Gipsy Danger turned to look at them at being addressed and lowered her angled head by means of a long, slender neck. She inhaled deeply against Chuck’s chest and blinked at him in surprise.

You are the little one who was found in the fissure.

“That’s me!” Chuck replied, rocking back on his heels with a grin. He didn’t give two cares what humans thought of him. But every time a dragon recognized (and chose to speak with) him it brought a warmth to his chest. Most dragons had stopped speaking to him directly after he’d turned thirteen. Puberty setting in altering something in their perception of him. Most, if any, who spoke to him did so by the same means they had all agreed to when becoming active Jaegers. Through his dragon. His bond with his dragonling was so strong that Chuck rarely noticed whether a dragon was speaking to him directly or through it, but every so often, the directness of being spoken to mind to mind abruptly informed him of the courtesy he was being awarded, and filled him with a distinctive joy.

Is this the egg? she queried, snout turning on his dragonling.

I am, it responded, chest puffing slightly as it drew itself up into a more respectable position of strength and standing.

How fortunate you were, she commented.

How fortunate I am, it corrected.

She lifted her head in what Chuck had learned was dragon amusement and regarded them. Yes, she agreed. That I can see quite clearly.

“Gipsy!”

Her head rose, neck craning to better accommodate her in the space. Yancy! Raleigh! She was - as most dragons were - most excited to have her Rangers in view, and eager to have them near her once more. This is the little one from the fissure, she informed them.

“Ah, engaging in a little hero worship, huh?” joked the older Ranger.

The younger shook his head in mock disapproval. “Gipsy, you’re going to ruin our reputation.”

Her wings ruffled and folded in, but she didn’t seem offended.

“Yancy Becket,” said the older Ranger, holding his hand out.

“Chuck Hansen,” he replied, shaking.

Yancy whistled. “Quite the reputation you have, kid.”

“Hi, I’m Raleigh,” the younger interrupted, taking Chuck’s hand and shaking it. “Don’t mind Yancy, he gets a little star struck.”

Boys, commented Gipsy. Chuck gathered from her tone this was a situation that happened often enough to warrant a distinctive one.

“Everyone’s heard about you,” Raleigh explained. “The dragons won’t shut up about you.”

As well they should, his dragonling commented to no one in particular.

Chuck could feel the flush rising and prayed to any higher power it wouldn’t make it to his cheeks.

“That was a brave thing you did,” Yancy added.

“It wasn’t really,” he replied, uneasy. “I just did what I was told.”

“I wasn’t talking about the fissure,” Yancy said, leaning in and winking at him.

Chuck went scarlet.

Raleigh laughed.

Gipsy sighed, her sides heaving slightly and the gentle wind of her exhalation washing over them from above.

They all looked up as Lucky towered into view. She lowered her head, and Chuck scrambled on, desperate to escape.

“Nice to meet you!” Raleigh called, flagging an arm as Lucky made her apologies to Gipsy and took Chuck off to dinner.

“We’ll see you around,” Yancy added, hands in his pockets.

Chuck’s dragonling bounded off joyously in Lucky’s wake.

“Wait a minute…” he could hear Raleigh say. “Gipsy...Were you actually talking to him?!”

It was only appropriate, she replied.

But Chuck could only hear her through his dragonling, who was out of range and disinclined to follow the conversation any further. So he didn’t know why she thought so.

I think I’ve decided, his dragonling informed him that night, as they were all tucked in for bed. Chuck always had a bunk wherever they went, but he’d always been most comfortable with the dragons, and while he did find some uses for his room on occasion, his habit was to sleep with Lucky and his dragonling, and no one could sway him otherwise.

“Decided what?” he asked, curious.

Start addressing me with male pronouns please.

“You can choose?!” Chuck replied, sitting up to stare at him.

Of course we can, he replied, wings flexing and folding into a more comfortable position. We can be whatever sex we like until we breed. Then we’re stuck. He didn’t sound terribly disturbed by the prospect however.

“Oh.” He licked his lip and tried not to miss his mother in that moment, failing miserably.

His dragonling curled about him, rumbling low soothingly and added, I should know my name in a few months. I expect a good code name.

He’d meant to distract him, which Chuck was aware of, and yet, it worked. His mind was instantly running through a list of good matches he thought he should probably write down, to sort through when he was told.

“Congratulations!” Raleigh Becket hailed him with, strolling over. “I hear he’s chosen.”

Chuck looked sideways at his dragonling, who puffed up in pride. “Thanks,” he replied awkwardly.

“Did he tell you why?”

“Did Gipsy tell you why?” he countered.

Raleigh actually considered it, and shrugged. “She said it was practical.” He laughed, as if it was some great joke.

“He said it was only appropriate.”

Raleigh raised a brow and looked to Chuck’s newly gendered dragonling. “Well,” he said after a moment. “Want to shoot some hoops?”

Chuck found he enjoyed the Beckets company. They were easy to get along with, and a lot of fun besides. They weren’t all that much older than him. Enough that they were legal and he was...only a few months a teenager, but in ten years that sort of age difference didn’t matter, and he didn’t think it should when dragons were involved anyway.

By the time the Beckets were deployed elsewhere Chuck was aware he had a bit of a crush. Which made the farewell a little awkward, but still amicable, given their combined personalities. Still, he found himself thinking of them often enough that his dragonling and Lucky noticed. Lucky was old enough to have tact, but his dragonling sauntered right up to him one day and said plainly, You shouldn’t worry so, Chuck. You’ll get the chance to mate with them soon enough.

His father choked on his breakfast and uncle Scott quickly spit his coffee back into his cup so he could laugh without choking himself. Mortified, Chuck hadn’t responded.

Lucky spoke to him about the incident, and he found Chuck later to apologize for embarrassing him. Chuck only barely lucked out when it came to the human side of the family. Herc had stammered through a sex talk that left them both ruffled enough to need to take stress relieving flights. Uncle Scott had handed Chuck a condom and a banana and told him to practice until he could do it two fingered in the dark. And informed him that once he could, he’d buy him a pack of his own.

Determined, Chuck still hadn’t quite managed it until he was fourteen. Which, it later turned out, was the entire point. But, Uncle Scott kept his word and Chuck found a box of condoms in his bag a few hours after working up the nerve to tell him so.

Chuck’s dragonling turned three and was finally a fully mature dragon. He was still young enough that he’d continue growing steadily, but he’d learned his name, in the secret, magical way of dragons and had informed Chuck of it. They’d turned up to register his codename the next day.

Striker Eureka was a beautiful dragon. With a deep chest that was a raging inferno kept in check by a combination of physiology and will. The older he got and the more they practiced, the more controlled his firebreathing became. Chuck was well aware it made people nervous to have such a large, powerful dragon bonded to someone as young as he was, but he was determined to prove them all wrong. They both were.

They had every intention of going to the Academy, unprecedented as it was. The simple fact remained, it was healthier and less stressful for a dragon to have a bonded pair of Rangers. Battling Kaiju took a lot of precision and care to attention and two Rangers could maneuver a dragon’s blind spots more easily than one, which was also twice as effective as a dragon alone. The paired Rangers would be trained in all forms of combat and weapons management together, and share the duty of caring for all their dragon’s needs.

Every dragon had a crew, of course, as the work and expense of keeping a dragon was astronomical. But, when it came down to it, the most important needs of a dragon could only be met by a highly select few. And so that duty fell solely upon its Rangers.

Striker, now an adult, was being tended to by Lucky’s crew, which had grown with them and could easily handle two dragons as well, if not better, than most crews could handle one. Yet, as he got older, Chuck could feel the beginnings of strain at the edge of his consciousness. Striker loved him deeply and there wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for Chuck and vice versa, but there were reasons dragons needed more than a single connection. The pull of their consciousness could be overwhelming, and as they got older, bordering on full maturation, Chuck began to get splitting headaches. Striker would coo at him and curl up about him and not let anyone near until he felt better. When Lucky was in, she would curl up with them, to better protect him. Eventually, unconventional or not, they made the trip to Academy.

Chuck found - much to his displeasure - they were something of a legend there. Years of graduating classes speaking of the kid who’d been all but handed a dragon. The kid with the dragon. The kid raised with dragons. The only cadet with a dragon. And on and on it went. Chuck found the gossiping even more trying than keeping Striker’s consciousness aligned. Striker of course, was both no help at all, and all Chuck needed. He deliberately snubbed nearly the entire class. The only exceptions being a petite asian girl, and a lanky blonde with a too familiar smile. Mako Mori was the first, a legend in her own right and someone who could understand Chuck’s predicament. She was the only survivor of the attack on Tokyo by Onibaba and had been raised by Coyote Tango and her Rangers Tamsin Sevier (now retired) and Stacker Pentecost - the Marshall of the PPDC. If anyone had it worse than Chuck, it was Mako, and they became fast friends over their shared circumstances. The other, as it turned out, was Jazmine Becket. Younger sister of Yancy and Raleigh Becket, Gipsy Danger’s Rangers.

Helpfully, while Jazmine resembled her brothers a great deal, her personality was more of a combined effort toward roping in her temper and minding her manners - a distinct departure from Yancy’s polite regard and Raleigh’s ability to find humor in everything. She also helped him solidify another aspect of himself - that he had no sexual attraction to girls. If anything, every time Jazmine smiled, she called to mind Yancy or Raleigh. And Chuck’s mind immediately drifted to pleasured thoughts of broad backs and angled jaws, and other parts women did not have, even if he’d never seen them before, and had to generalize his fantasies.

Striker didn’t seem at all surprised when Chuck revealed the startling revelation to him. It wasn’t that Chuck had been raised to or even personally saw it as wrong. If anything, being exposed to so many cultures, including the unique world of Rangers, their crews and the populations of Shatterdomes, had given him a certain overall acceptance of divergent lifestyles. And while he felt right about his conclusion, there was still something that ached in his gut when he thought that he’d never love a woman the way he would love a man.

It is because you feel unconsciously, that you will never have children whom will have the relationship you miss so dearly, Lucky explained one evening.

The truth of it only made his chest burn and he rubbed at it despondently. Striker nuzzled him gently in support.

And it is not so, Lucky continued, lowering her neck so she could likewise nuzzle him. You know this. And you will come to know it better in time.

It is a shame you cannot change the way we can, Striker commented. You have not mated yet, there would still be plenty of time.

Chuck snorted, half amused, half disturbed. “Nah, Striker. I’d like to keep all my boy parts, thanks. If I don’t want to have sex with girls, why would I want to be one?”

So you could have sex with boys, the younger dragon explained.

Chuck was glad that no one could hear the dragon half of the conversation. As it was, he flushed darkly and scrubbed both hands over his face.

Chuck can have sex with males as he is, Lucky informed Striker.

Striker tilted his head and observed Chuck. In a display of youth he asked innocently, Who will lay the egg? Dragons knew of course, from exposure to humans and other creatures the difference between gestational abilities, but dragon terminology was often their default standard and Rangers were as accustomed to translating it as the dragons were to the reverse.

They will seek the assistance of a female to do as such, Lucky explained, wings shifting. Or they may take in offspring not of their blood, whom require their care and attention.

Orphaned? Striker asked sadly.

Mostly, she replied, clearly using the word’s more encompassing definition, unwilling to explain to a dragon as young as Striker that humans were not the pinnacle of dragon moral values. He’d bonded from the egg, and required a more delicate handling than an unbonded young dragon.

You should do that, regardless, Striker informed him gravely. Are you old enough to do it now? I would like for us to have a little one around.

He is too young for his species to do as such, Lucky informed him. And without a partner besides. You wish him to undertake young when he is still young himself, be kinder to him. She used Striker’s full name and his wings unfurled in response. Dragons did not often address one another as so and it was an indication of shared intimacy and familial ties.

Striker returned the kindness, adding, He is not too young to mate though. I know this to be fact.

In form, no. In all the rest, only Chuck can say as such.

Chuck could feel their eyes on him. It was only slightly less embarrassing than having the sex talk with his father. And mostly because he was the only one in range who could hear their conversation.

I shall miss you when you are gone, Striker confided after a long silence. You will take a mate and have young in your life, won’t you?

Chuck knew the importance of generational dedication to dragons. Lucky still spoke to him directly, and not through Striker, although she ought to by dragon’s own rules. But their’s was an unusual circumstance no matter which species one chose to view it from and he was as much her’s as he was Striker’s. As his father’s only child, and indeed the only child in the family, by dragon’s own bonding rules, he was to take their places in Lucky’s life after they died. As his children would after him. And due to the ties, his kids would be likewise bound to two dragons, if not more should the war continue on that long.

He sat up, startled. Both dragons started in response, but neither took a defensive stance. Their reactions in concern for him.

“You want me to have kids so you won’t be alone, right?” he asked Striker.

And for your happiness and the extension of your lineage. You are a fine example of all things I hold dear, and I would mourn greatly to see the world lose such a genuine treasure, he responded.

“Are we your dragon hoards?” he asked suddenly.

Both dragons raised their necks, heads angling to align with the motion. Chuck knew that to be a silent agreement. A signal of pride they exhibited whenever a human figured out another of the secrets they shared so willingly.

He grinned brightly. “I’ve never been anyone’s treasure before.”

Nonsense, Lucky countered. You have always been a treasure. Long before you met us.

And you will be a treasure long after you leave us, added Striker.

Both dragons suddenly ruffled, as if reminded of Chuck’s mortality and clambered closer, curling about him in a pair of rings. Striker about Chuck and Lucky about Striker, both of their heads resting in the space on either side of him. He stroked their noses to calm them. He had no intention of not honoring them to the best of his ability.

“But, your hoards, our families, does it have to start with one individual?”

I do not understand what you are asking, Striker replied.

Chuck swallowed down his excitement and turned to face him. “You would accept my son and speak to him if I had one, right?”

Son or daughter, it makes no difference, but yes.

“The way Lucky does.”

Yes.

Lucky made a noise that in a human might be termed an Aha moment.

Her tail curled in near them and she stroked along Chuck’s back with it. The tip was highly poisonous and it was a sign of her deep affection for him that so dangerous a thing would never cause him the slightest harm.

“Could you bond with my dad then?”

Striker tilted his head, as if considering. Then answered, It would not do. Hercules is Lucky’s.

I would share him with you, she responded. As you share Chuck with me.

It is your right to share Chuck, as by right he should be your’s. His legs gathered under him, his bulk shifting in discomfort at the reminder.

It is so, she agreed. Yet this is not the first time, nor do I believe it shall be the last that Dragons share the lineages of their dear ones. After all, when Chuck is to mate, will you not also be sharing his children?

Striker made a noise of agreement, and Chuck wondered at their meaning. But things were progressing, his idea taking root in Striker’s mind, and he didn’t want to damage it by distracting him. Instead he added, “You already don’t like anyone in my class.”

I enjoy the company of two of your classmates, he responded indignantly.

“But not enough to talk to them,” he countered.

Striker’s tail thrashed, as if it was an insult, but he didn’t respond. Max barked and began chasing Striker’s tail around, and the dragon calmed significantly, beginning to play with him by continuing the motion.

No, he agreed after a while of leading Max on a merry chase. Not as such.

“So with Lucky’s permission-” He nodded to her and she nodded back. “And through the dragon loophole of direct lineage, him being my dad and all, do you want to try?”

I do have a fondness for you progenitor, he admitted.

Chuck bounced up and held up both hands, his eagerness to see it done causing excitement to thrum through him. “I’ll go get him! We can do it now, right?!”

Yes, Striker hedged and Lucky agreed.

They lifted their tails and necks and he darted naturally between them. He ran as fast as he could, hoping that Striker wouldn’t change his mind in the interim. It took a while to find him, and when he did, he was in LOCCENT with the Marshall, Uncle Scott, and half a dozen other people.

“Dad!” he shouted, as the doors burst open. Everyone turned to look quickly, in the sudden readiness of an amassed military branch.

His father’s brow furrowed in instant concern.

“Chuck, what are you doing here? You should be in bed.”

The Academy had strict rules about the conduct of its cadets which Chuck regularly flouted. He only got away with it because of Striker. His dragon needed him and they needed his dragon. Chuck could probably get away with everything short of murder, and even then it was likely debatable.

Chuck grabbed him by the arm as soon as he was in range and tugged. “You need to come! You need to come right now!”

Uncle Scott was out the door first, but only because no one had hindered his movement. Chuck, his father, the Marshall, his partner Tamsin, and several others they picked up along the way - surgeons and J-crew all in a flurry - followed.

Lucky and Striker looked up at the commotion. Lucky quick to assure Scott, who was standing before her full body atremble, that she was ‘Quite all right.’ and that he ‘Needn’t worry so.’ She nuzzled him, and Chuck’s father, whom Chuck was dragging by the arm, back between the dragons.

Uncle Scott climbed up Lucky’s side, walking along the ridge of her spines, and sat between her shoulderblades to watch. The rest of the amassed group had to wait on the other side of the dragons’ combined bulk, for risk of insulting them and causing an incident.

“Tell him!” Chuck gasped, looking up at the pair of dragons looking down at him. “Tell Dad what you said!”

Realizing that another dragon secret had been revealed, the Marshall snapped off orders. Coyote Tango came lumbering over, happy to see her Rangers. She couldn’t fly any longer - not for long distances at any rate - due to Onibaba’s near severing of her left wing. But with Tamsin - who had also been injured and bore wicked scars across the back of her head that she kept her hair short to display proudly - and Stacker still useful to the PPDC and Stacker still in service, she was kept at the Icebox, where she would be most comfortable. Occasionally, Chuck would see Mako with her, and they would nod to one another from opposite ends of the dragon pens.

Lucky informed Herc, mind to mind, relaying the exchange to him in rather more detail than Chuck would have liked. Because she was communicating Dragon to Ranger solely, the only ones who could hear her were her Rangers, and Chuck for his blood ties. It was always odd to drift with them - the term given to explain the complicated process of mind melding between a Dragon and their Rangers. Lucky didn’t do it often, because it was so overwhelming, but whenever she felt a family affair was to be kept among family, Chuck ended up included by nature of their relationship. It always made him dizzy.

Uncle Scott let out a low whistle of astonishment. “Don’t suppose I count,” he sighed.

No, Lucky replied, nuzzling him affectionately. Unfortunately for you, you are all mine.

“I’ll endeavor to make peace with it,” he drawled, clasping the side of her immense jaw and nuzzling back.

You could always have children of your own, she supplied.

“One of me is more than enough, sweetheart,” he teased, kissing her snout.

Chuck had sat against Striker’s side, Max curling up in his lap. He idly stroked him as he came out from the ordeal more slowly than the experienced members of their family. His father was looking at Striker, who gazed right back at him.

“And you’re okay with this?” he asked finally.

Striker tilted his head as he observed him, then leaned in and nosed him. Herc - used to such bowling affection - merely rocked with the motion.

If you are, Striker said, addressing him directly.

Herc blinked in surprise.

Outside the ring of dragon bodies, the group went very still.

Oh, said Coyote. I do suppose that’s best.

As Stacker and Tamsin pressed her for answers, Chuck’s father reached out and stroked Striker over his muzzle affectionately. “Thank you,” he told him gently.

Thank Lucky.

“Thank you, Lucky.”

You are most welcome, Herc.

Chuck had never heard her so pleased.

The news spread like wildfire and by the time Chuck walked into the Kwoon the next morning, he’d already been nearly mobbed twice. One incident had been so severe in crowd that Striker, who had been out for a lazy morning flight had come tearing out of the sky with a roar. Cadets surged out of the way - dragons always had the right of way - unintentionally leaving Chuck alone in the open courtyard. Striker had slowed as he approached the ground, satisfied with the reaction. He landed, flexing his wings and throwing his head back to release a stream of white hot fire that left a thick cloud billowing overhead.

“I don’t think your dragon likes anyone,” Jazmine had commented from where she’d been leaning against a pillar not too far from him.

Chuck had stroked Striker’s nose and murmured softly to him. “Dragons are just protective,” he’d informed her, as if it were an uncommon fact.

“Perhaps no one should crowd you further,” Mako had suggested loudly.

Chuck had laughed.

“Oh great,” Jazmine groaned, raising a hand to rub at her temple. Her palm nearly covered her face as she did so, and she turned slightly.

Chuck looked up and felt his heart skip a beat.

“Why did it have to be my brothers?” Jazmine moaned. “Why couldn’t it have been the Gage twins?!”

“Because your brothers are highly skilled Rangers with the current highest kill count. And their celebrity will keep cadets interested and involved,” Mako answered diplomatically.

“Because your brothers are hot as fuck and I for one want to get pinned to the mat and crushed by the both of them,” answered a cadet to their left.

Chuck admitted to himself he most definitely agreed. He wondered suddenly if his pants were loose enough to keep from broadcasting the issue and wished he’d had more warning to better prepare that morning.

Yancy Becket was the epitome of professional throughout the introduction of guest instructors to the Academy. Raleigh smirked the entire time, eyes on his sister as if taking great delight in ruining her day. She stared back at him with varying levels of outright glower. They began by performing for the group, to introduce a physical example of drift compatibility. The Becket Brothers were notorious for the strength of their neural handshake and it showed in every movement of their bodies as they circled and parried, working up enough of a sweat to radiate heat as they began to move throughout the group doing forms along the mats in neat rows. They corrected and guided, and while many people deliberately messed up so they would notice them and move to correct them, Chuck was among the group that stuck to uncompromising their abilities, and let their performance do the speaking for them. Chuck had his pride after all. That and the fact that he would quite literally die of embarrassment if one of them touched him and he sprang wood right there in the Kwoon amid his entire class.

After class, Jazmine approached her brothers to confront them over their presence.

“We’re not doing it to deliberately antagonize you, baby girl,” Yancy soothed. “We’re back in Alaska for the foreseeable future.”

“We didn’t even put in a request,” Raleigh continued, hands up in surrender.

“We received orders and we obeyed them,” Yancy added.

Jazmine snorted, unplacated.

“Alright, alright,” Raleigh drawled, wrapping an arm about her shoulders and tucking her close despite her sudden outraged cry and shoving hands. “Will you shut up about it if we let you come visit Gipsy?”

Jazmine stilled, and Chuck found it somewhat odd to be on the outside of things. For once, uncomprehending the bonds between a dragon and their family. To have visiting the dragon be a balm, a reward was inconceivable. Even when it had just been Lucky and his egg, his father and Uncle Scott had never once not allowed him to be in the dragon’s pen whenever he liked. As long as he wasn’t underfoot, they’d allowed him to come and go as he pleased. He supposed however, for someone in the position of Jazmine and her brothers, the situation was different in innumerable ways. As Yancy and Raleigh Becket had graduated Academy with the reward of a newly hatched dragon whom they then raised on their own. Limited to what knowledge was issued by the PPDC and perhaps what Gipsy herself had allowed. Which Chuck knew from experience was very little, as young dragons tended to ask more questions than they gave answers.

“-can’t believe they actually attracted a dragon,” Jazmine was saying and Chuck mentally shook himself free of his wandering. “But!” She slapped each on the back, youngest to oldest and leaned in between them proudly. “They did! Gipsy was so cute when she was a baby!” She made a gesture with her hands, indicating the approximate size and shape of the lovely dragon’s younger form. “Like a little cat!”

Raleigh rolled his eyes and Yancy sighed, but it was all good natured sibling interaction. Something Chuck (and Mako) could only recognize from second hand observation.

“How old was she when she first spat lightning?” he found himself asking.

The Ranger reaction of Dragon Pride was instantaneous. Their whole bodies seemed to shift, their demeanours overtaken by their love for their dragon, and the chance to speak of her.

“She was always something of a magnet,” Yancy said. “Even as a dragonling.”

“She used to shock the hell out of us!” Raleigh added, with a happy laugh. “At first we thought if we removed everything that could cause static build up, we’d be okay. We ripped up carpets and traded in the couch-”

“They made a mess,” Jazmine interrupted. “The house was in ruins for weeks. It still is! All concrete and wood plank, like a barracks.”

“Got you prepared at least,” Raleigh countered, ruffling her hair in a way that was apparently a tried and true means of annoying her.

“At any rate,” continued Yancy. “It didn’t help.”

“Not in the slightest,” laughed Raleigh.

“Laundry would stick to her, outlets would fry, once, she even managed to make toast by playing too close to the toaster.”

“Which she then ruthlessly murdered after it scared the hell out of her when it sprang free and she reacted with a full surge across her tiny scales.”

“In her first year?” Chuck asked, amazed.

They both thought about it, brows furrowing slightly. Yancy’s fingertips drummed against his thumb in silent count as Raleigh’s hands made measurements from memory.

“Yeah,” he finally said.

“Pretty sure,” Yancy agreed.

“Before six months?” asked Chuck, fascinated.

Raleigh bit his lip and Chuck was suddenly struck by how plump they were. He tried to look at Yancy instead, but his mouth was curved in thought in a way that just made Chuck want to grab him by the back of his head and kiss it. So he looked at Jazmine and slowly regained control of himself. If nothing else, her shoulderlength blonde hair was jarring enough to not be mistaken as anything too similar to her brothers.

“I think so,” Raleigh replied, drawing out the word as he looked to his brother.

Yancy nodded, and the movement made his adam’s apple sway hypnotically. “Probably,” he agreed.

“Why? Was Striker breathing fire that young?” asked Raleigh, turning the conversation around.

“Nah,” Chuck replied, shaking his head. The topic of Striker and his development easing the tension in his body. “He didn’t really show much by way of abilities until after he was two.”

They both raised their brows.

“That’s a bit late, isn’t it?” Yancy asked.

“Not for fire breathers, no.” He touched his throat and ran his hand down until he stroked over his breastbone. “There’s a whole internal system that has to be developed, and some required maturation hormone to jump start the ignition process. Which Lucky says is important for fire breathers because there’s a certain degree of responsibility that comes with the more destructive abilities and it’s best they understand the consequences of fire breathing before simply setting everything on fire just to watch it burn.”

They all nodded in understanding.

“How hot can he burn?” Raleigh asked.

Chuck sucked his lower lip into his mouth as he considered. “He’s still young,” he pointed out. “But, Lucky says that by the time he’s fully grown - in a few more years - he should be able to spit plasma, which will melt the Kaiju clear through on contact.”

Stunned silence surrounded him, and it took him a moment to realize it, looking around at the suddenly large group of cadets that had been listening in. Yancy and Raleigh looked impressed.

Raleigh clapped him on the shoulder. “Feed him everything. Feed him Jaz, if you have to, she’s a spitfire.”

Jazmine punched her brother in the arm. From the solid sound of the connection, Raleigh was built like a dragon cave. Chuck looked to see if she’d shake the hand out, but Jazmine clearly had experience with physical altercations with the older Beckets, and simply tucked her hand in her pocket.

“No wonder Gipsy’s all aflutter,” Yancy teased. “That sort of power doesn’t come around very often.”

Chuck raised an eyebrow at the comment, but his question was interrupted by Mako asking one of her own. “Is it not common among fire breathers?”

The Beckets cocked their heads, in opposite directions, but in perfect synchronicity.

“Well, that depends,” Raleigh replied.

“On what?” asked Jazmine.

“On where they come from,” interjected Yancy. “Fire breathers aren’t as common as fairytales would have you believe. And it takes a certain...climate.”

“Hot as fuck,” Raleigh expanded.

Yancy gave him a withering look.

Jazmine laughed.

“Dragons live in aeries now,” Chuck explained. “But, they’ve crafted them to benefit all the breeds co-existance.”

“Crafted?” echoed Jazmine. “I thought no humans were allowed in…” She seemed to recall whom she was talking to and didn’t finish.

Chuck shook his head. “The dragons craft them themselves. When a certain number of them band together, with different abilities, it only really takes about a decade or two to get the aerie the way they want it. And most aeries were in place long before our grandparents were born. Dragons foresaw a cohabitation issue with humans and staked claim to the spots they wanted before we could reach them.” He shrugged. “Probably not a person in the world can remember an aerie just cropping up. They’ve had them in place for a long time. And people just accepted it and settled around them - which was the entire purpose from the start.”

There had been some exceptions, of course. Attempts by people who sought power over all living things and saw the dragons as a challenge. There would always be those kinds of people, but with the world in the state it was in, Chuck figured it would never have quite the same dangerous edge to it that it’d once had. There would be legions of humans on the dragons side in a few generations, if not the entire world.

People were staring at him again, some in ways that would have made him uncomfortable, if Yancy and Raleigh weren’t smiling at him the way they were. He raked a hand through his hair and shrugged, stuffing both hands in his pockets so no one would notice them shaking. “Fire breathers manifest differently,” he added after a swallow to manage the emotions swirling in his gut. “But, Striker’s of a line that once slept in volcanoes. He could probably roll around in the molten core of the planet and be happy. He was always really warm to the touch, come to think of it.” The last comment was for the Rangers among them alone. As if answering their earlier question belatedly. “Even as an egg.” Which had probably accounted for his survival - two days in a dark, dank fissure curled about it unconscious.

He started at the grip against his shoulder and looked up into Yancy’s concerned eyes. He flashed a quick smile of reassurance, banishing the memory somewhere it couldn’t reach him. Of course, the change in him had called Striker to him subconsciously, and the dragon roared so loudly, the floor trembled.

“Come on,” Raleigh said, throwing an arm about his sister’s shoulders. “Gipsy’s outside.”

“That was Gipsy?” Mako asked, astonished.

“No, that was Striker,” Yancy replied. “But, Gipsy’s with him.”

“Come on, Chuck,” Raleigh said, already a few steps ahead with Jazmine. “You know he won’t calm down until he sees you.”

Chuck sighed heavily. They were having a bad day. “The Marshall’s gonna have my hide after today,” he grumbled.

“I’ll speak to him,” Mako soothed.

“Need a lift back?” he asked. “Striker can hold two now.”

She smiled. “Thank you. That would be most kind.”

Striker and Gipsy were in the courtyard. He was clearly agitated, wings spread wide and tail thrashing. Dark plumes of smoke coiled from his nostrils and his gold eyes flashed with the promise of violence. Gipsy looked entirely regal, as composed as she was beside him. Her bright blue scales glimmering like moving water in the sunlight.

“Gipsy! You planning to get us court martialed?” was Raleigh’s greeting as they exited the building.

I thought it would be best to keep Striker company, she reasoned, looking sideways at the irate younger dragon.

“Oi!” Chuck told him, and was nearly flattened by Striker’s snout as it met his chest. His arms went about it reflexively, feet lifting clear of the ground. Striker tossed his head back in one swift motion and Chuck landed on his back. “Calm down,” he soothed, dropping his legs over either side of the base of his dragon’s thick neck. All the motion ever really did was spread his legs wide, and set his feet against the hollows between strong muscles and sinew. But it relaxed Striker all the same to feel him so solidly. Chuck dug his feet in and Striker’s muscles gave a quiver before he rolled his shoulders. “Nothing happened,” he assured him, dropping forward to stroke over his scales.

Striker surprised him by opening to him fully, drawing him into a drift unprepared. Chuck could vaguely feel his father, as his mind was assaulted suddenly by sensations. Memories, emotions, and sensory impulses washing through him quickly. He felt himself pulled by the current and instinctively tried to fight it. He trusted Striker, but the new and untested connection of their minds rolled him over until he couldn’t tell himself apart from anything else within it. He heard the boom of a roar, and shouts. And then hands were on him, turning him over and holding him down.

“CHUCK!” someone yelled in his face. “CHUCK!”

“STAY WITH US, KID!!”

“CHUCK!!”

“CHUCK!!”

The world was trembling, as if an earthquake had overtaken them. And Chuck was at a loss as to the reason no one else seemed to notice.

CHUCK! CHUCK! Striker’s voice echoed in his head. CHUCK I AM HERE!

Fingers pried his mouth open. “He didn’t bite his tongue,” someone rasped, relieved.

“Let’s get him on his side.”

Chuck knew the sounds of wings well, and could tell from the angry roar that Lucky had just landed. Striker hissed back, but Chuck could feel the remorse drifting free of him in waves.

Booted feet clambered over, his father and uncle taking the place of the Rangers who had been tending to him. The Beckets, he belatedly realized.

“Fight later!” Uncle Scott snapped. “Lucky, we need to get him to medical now!”

Chuck felt his body lift free of the ground, in a solid hold that he recognized from long ago. The memories surfaced again, and he jerked in pain. And then they were in the air.

He must have lost consciousness, because the next thing he knew, he was blinking up at a hospital ceiling. His whole body ached as if he’d been electrocuted. His tongue felt like lead in his mouth, all dry dead weight. He swiped it across his lower lip - more slowly than he’d anticipated - and pain shot up to burn white hot behind his eyes. He coughed, rolling over to throw up, but all that happened was a slight jerk of his body in one direction and his stomach promptly twitching until he thought it’d fall clean out of his side.

“Hey,” a rough voice greeted. “Don’t try to move.”

Chuck groaned, a sound that indicated ‘too late’ and the owner of the voice laughed softly, a warm, rich sound. Hands reached for him, making light contact, and directing him with gentle pressure until he was more comfortable. The sound of water was almost too loud for him to take, as it was poured into a glass at his bedside. The mattress dipped and he was drawn up against a warm chest, directed back into it - not that he could have done anything but slump into it with all his weight, given the way his body was absolutely refusing to cooperate. The lip of the glass met his and they parted with great effort. Water was poured in slowly, allowing for a steady trickle to meet the back of his throat and be swallowed. As they went, it became easier, but the effort alone was herculean and left him more exhausted than anything.

The door opened, and someone asked, “How’s our patient?”

“First Drift lag is a bitch.”

“Solo drift lag can be crippling.”

“That explains the sexy pajamas.”

There came the sound of flesh meeting flesh, and the body he was propped up against vibrated with amusement.

"How're you feeling, Chuck?" asked the new voice.

Chuck groaned. A cool hand brushed his brow and he closed his eyes, relaxing further into the warm body behind him. The hand moved, cupping his cheek, then touching his throat. “I think he’s a bit warm,” the new voice went on, before pressing lips to his forehead. Chuck’s insides fluttered at the brush of skin and he swallowed at the unfamiliar feeling. “Feel him, Rals.”

“He’s in my lap, Yance, I can feel him just fine.”

Slow dread ratcheted sharply into stark realization and Chuck’s stomach rolled for entirely new reasons. A hand rested against his temple, lips pressing to it after a moment. “Maybe a bit,” Raleigh agreed.

Chuck’s lungs seized in his chest. Did that count? Had he just been kissed by Yancy and Raleigh Becket?!

“I’ll go get the doctor.”

He must have made a noise, because the bed dipped again, this time from the other side. “Chuck?” Yancy queried softly. His warm breath drifted across feverish, oversensitive skin and Chuck shivered. “You okay, kiddo?”

He felt his stomach drop out. Right...Right. It hadn’t counted at all. His chest hurt suddenly and he curled in on himself weakly.

“Better get the doctor,” Raleigh urged, and Yancy’s touch to Chuck’s arm was a butterfly’s kiss, as he got up before fully connecting.

“You’re gonna be okay, kid,” Raleigh assured him in what Chuck supposed was meant to be comforting. The reminder that he was so much younger only made it worse. Raleigh’s arms about him only a small concession in the laundry list of his own faults.

Striker was apologetic to the point of being very nearly aggravating by the time Chuck had recovered enough to be able to leave the hospital. He’d wanted to be sprung a lot sooner than the doctors had allowed. And a combination of hurt feelings, rejection, loneliness and boredom had made him short with everyone. The longer he’d been confined, the worse it had gotten, until he was very nearly acting the child he presumed the Beckets saw him as.

The moment he’d been released, he’d stalked to the dragon pens and climbed under Lucky’s forelegs, curling up under her bulk, much like an egg in need of warmth. Lucky had crossed her forelegs at their lowest joints and brought her long neck down. Wings folding up and head resting inward where she could inhale his scent.

She’d let him sulk until she felt he needed feeding, then promptly ratted him out to his Uncle. Uncle Scott, however, was the coolest person Chuck had ever had the good fortune to be related to. He’d gone to the canteen and brought Chuck back a sandwich and contraband soda - his doctors were restricting his sugar intake. Chuck had eaten in the safety of Lucky’s shadow and then curled back under her to sulk some more.

Striker returned and paced, circling Lucky and appealing to Chuck in increasingly desperate pleas until she’d snapped at him. He’d backed off and curled up across from her, giving them ample space. He didn’t lower his head or take any rest, gaze focussed on the space he knew Chuck to be until Chuck couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I’m not angry with you,” he admitted quietly, climbing out from beneath Lucky to sit again. He held out an arm and Striker’s long neck lowered his head in relief. His eyes closed in bliss as Chuck stroked him below the jaw.

If you aren’t angry with me, he hedged after several minutes of soaking in his Ranger’s presence. Then why are you so upset?

Chuck’s head dropped back and he ended up looking up at Lucky, who was looking down at him. “My heart hurts,” he said quietly, barely audible. But dragon hearing was superb and Striker ruffled in sudden alarm.

You should not be here! he protested. He sounded convinced, regardless of the misery it would cause him to be kept from Chuck again.

The use of his full name brought his attention to Lucky and once she had it, she lowered her head, the curve of her snout nuzzling Chuck gently. It is a deeper hurt, she explained.

Striker looked to Chuck with genuine pain in his golden gaze, which quickly flashed with anger. Tell me who it is and I will make sure they never do it again!

Chuck just shook his head, closed his eyes and dropped back into the curve of Lucky’s body. The dragons spoke quietly above him in movement and the stretch of time. The meaning conveyed, two heads lowered to rest on either side of him, and soon they were all asleep.

“Bend your knees more,” his Uncle called up at him and Chuck sank lower and nearly toppled over. His father caught him just above the elbow and resettled him.

“Like this,” he said and leaned slowly, but deeply in one direction, then the other.

Chuck felt like an idiot.

“Good,” his father said. “Just like that.”

“WINGS UP!” Uncle Scott ordered and Striker obeyed. They were in serious training now, and it could only be overseen by other pilots.

Chuck wobbled, throwing both arms out to keep his balance.

“Relax your arms.” His father shook his own arms slightly. “Keep your back straight. You lean into dragon turns. Brace your feet and slide them on every other wing beat to keep steady.”

Can we go up now? Striker asked in earnest.

“Not until your Rangers can both seat,” Uncle Scott replied.

Lucky, curled up and watching to the side, was close enough to keep him within hearing range.

“I feel stupid,” Chuck grumbled, harness jangling slightly as his thighs bumped the leather straps on either side of him.

You are not stupid, Striker protested. So you needn’t feel like it.

“It feels stupid at first, because it’s unnatural,” his father explained. “You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s easier in drift,” Uncle Scott said, glaring back at his father as he was glared at. “You can’t put it off forever. Herc, you’re trying to teach him how to ride a bike before he can even stand. It’s not going to work and you know it!”

Chuck blinked at his father. “Are we supposed to drift first?”

“We don’t have to-”

YES.

His father looked to his uncle, jaw twitching in anger. “Plenty of people-”

“If I have to hear this bullshit one more time-!”

Lucky made a deep, sharp noise and they both stopped.

“Dad,” Chuck sighed, appealing to the Ranger in him. “I’m not afraid-”

“I never said you were!”

I am not afraid. Lucky told me you must first be prepared. Are you prepared, Chuck?
“Yes.”

Are you prepared, Herc?

“Yes!” Uncle Scott answered for him.

His father sighed and nodded, Striker having turned his head to look back at them where they were harnessed on opposite sides between his shoulderblades. Herc on the right and Chuck on the left.

This time it will not hurt! he informed Chuck with all seriousness, and just a touch of glee.

Chuck braced himself, but it wasn’t as chaotic as he’d thought. In fact, it felt amazing! He could feel every muscle in Striker’s body. The heat from his incendiary gland a warm weight in Chuck’s gut. He blinked, seeing the world in a stark array of colors, the likes of which he couldn’t have even imagined before that moment. He looked to his father, who was looking at him with some concern but seemed to be lacking the sheer wonder of it all on his face.

“Is it always like this?” he asked eyes drifting over everything excitedly. Color and scent swirled all around them, alight in the air and stretching across the empty spaces in long, elegant wisps.

“Yeah,” Uncle Scott replied with a laugh of happiness. “Isn’t it great?”

I am being fitted for armor today! Striker greeted him several weeks later, near vibrating in delight. There were a few dozen people, a handful of ladders, and bits of ramshackle scaffolding precariously balanced all around him.

Chuck frowned. He didn’t recognize most of them, beyond a few scattered here and there who were members of Lucky’s crew, and likely present as moral support.

We have our own crew! he added in excitement, wings flaring slightly to some gasps and sudden flailing limbs.

“Ranger on deck!” someone called. It was a common warning all members of a J-crew knew from their first day. Mostly precautionary, it was a means by which to warn the crew that the dragon’s reactive impulses would be heightened. So that they may better be on their guard. And their best behavior. The quickest way to find oneself on a dragon’s shitlist was to in any way aggravate, assault, or injure their Rangers. As it could happen through an accident as likely as deliberately, fair warning was called, and anyone who fell into the unfortunate situation regardless was on their own.

Chuck looked up, feeling an odd mix of happiness and pride swirl in his belly. He was a Ranger now. Having graduated swiftly once his father had gotten over his concerns toward exposing Chuck to further drifting. He and Striker were on reserve for the moment, as his father, uncle and Lucky were a founding unit. Hercules Hansen had a duty first and foremost to his own team. It meant that Chuck and Striker wouldn’t see much action, but he was all right with that for the moment. Striker hadn’t yet reached his full size or range of abilities and the longer Chuck could keep him from being needlessly strained, the better a show they’d make of it later.

He watched people regard him. The youngest pilot yet at fifteen. Untried, untested, but exceptionally skilled. He’d had a dragon long before most had had the chance. And what a dragon he was.

A low whistle sounded behind him and he felt the hair on his neck stand to attention.

“That is a beautiful lay out, Striker,” Raleigh Becket commented.

Chuck didn’t have to turn and look to know both Beckets were behind him. Like most dragon bonded Rangers, they were joined at the hip. It was very rare to see one without the other, and on such occasions, it was not long before the other found their way over.

Thank you, Striker chirped, practically preening in response.

When Raleigh didn’t respond, Chuck chanced a look behind him and noted Gipsy wasn’t within sight. The Beckets couldn’t hear Striker.

“Where’s Gipsy?” he asked before he could stop himself.

“Cherno and the Kaidanovskys are passing through,” Yancy informed him. “She and Cherno are friends, so she’s abandoned us for the afternoon.”

“Cherno Alpha is here?” he asked, surprised.

“Something about supplies,” Raleigh responded. “Have you never seen her?” he continued after a moment, looking Chuck over.

Chuck snorted. “I know Cherno.”

She tried to keep us.

“Did she now?” Yancy asked, both Beckets grinning.

Yes. She thought we were exceptional and fancied raising us herself. His wings flared slightly, tail lashing lazily, caught up in his story. But, Lucky would have none of it.

Chuck blinked up at the ceiling. Gipsy and Cherno were flying a little low, he thought.

We were her little ones, and besides, it was too cold for us there.

“Could have stunted your growth,” Raleigh agreed, with a grin.

Yes, it was for the best we didn’t stay. Although, I do like Cherno regardless. He shook himself out, sending secured crew members swinging in their safety harnesses.

Chuck buried his face in his palm and tried not to laugh.

I think I will go join them. And without waiting, he stepped clear, extended his wings and beat upward until he was aloft, ducking into a release shaft and shooting away.

“He’s…” Raleigh said, teeth showing in a grin that was the only thing keeping him from laughing outright.

“Excitable,” Chuck suggested.

“Impetuous,” Yancy said at the same time, finishing his brother’s statement. He was managing to hold it together far better than the younger two Rangers, solely by virtue of having turned his back on the hilarious show of upended crew still being swung about.

Raleigh laughed, turning sideways in an attempt at politeness. Given the way his shoulders were shaking, it was little help.

Cherno Alpha was the largest, broadest, heaviest dragon in the PPDC. She was dark and covered in spikes with large, curving horns that flowed back from her head in spiraling archs, falling well over the curve of her back. Her tail was thick, ending in a heavy club covered in hard ridges. And if she weren’t imposing enough, she could spray an acid blast from as far away as a mile and have it land on a rapidly moving target. It was no wonder she managed to protect the Siberian coastline mostly alone.

But for as imposing as she was, her personality betrayed her apperance of ferocity.

Chuck, she rumbled in warm happiness, head lowering to nudge his cheek.

His hands reached up automatically and stroked her. “Long time, no see, Cherno,” he greeted. “How’ve you been?”

Her head shifted so that the broad expanse of her snout could bump against him. Well accustomed to such actions, Chuck kept his feet. We are all well, she informed him. And happy to hear that you are now a Ranger. She lifted her head free of him, neck raising so she could tilt it back skyward and release a few short grunting sounds that Chuck knew was a celebratory call for dragons. Four other dragons took up the sound and Chuck realized they were not alone. He’d known Striker was there, could feel him through the bond they shared even if he couldn’t see him. But Cherno’s mass seemed to be unintentionally concealing a few others as well.

He took a few steps to the side to find Striker, Lucky, Gipsy and Romeo Blue. His grin widened and he was moving before he’d even given it much thought. Cherno’s head followed him on her long neck, the silver underscales of her body glinting in the light like a work of priceless art.

“Romeo!” he greeted.

The dragon put its nose down allowing Chuck to stroke it in greeting.

It is good to see you, Chuck, she greeted.

Due to her name, many assumed Romeo Blue was a male dragon. Or perhaps people were just more often stuck in the unfortunately misguided assumption that all the dragons in the PPDC were male, because they fought. In truth, the majority of the dragons in service were female, and if anything, should be assumed as such without further knowledge.

In Dragon Society, it was female dragons who ran things, as they were the ones who produced the eggs. Male dragons cared for the eggs while female dragons - with their greater sense of protective instincts and desires to keep their territories clear of anything that would cause their young harm - flew perimeter patrol and engaged all hostiles. History and story - the majority of which was written and handed down in the male gaze through the male line - would have people believe that every fearsome dragon of old was male. Regardless of the tale itself, getting everything absolutely, devastatingly wrong.

Tales of Dragon hoards and the beasts within great glittering caves were about the only stories where the likelihood of the dragon being male was higher than it being female. As ancient ‘heroes’ would have been encroaching on dragon nests and any young or potential young therein would have been left in the male dragon’s care.

And all tales of sacrifices being offered were skewed stories of hostage situations wherein a member of a dragon’s generationally tied family was taken and used in an attempt to control the dragon itself. Many dragons had lost long, multi-generational ties this way and after a while the practice had died out, for fear of younger dragons experiencing the devastation. The war had rekindled the tradition and changed the understanding of dragons all at once. Bringing them from large, intelligent but otherwise wild beasts back to the civil, social, sentient beings they were. Most of the world still seemed to view them as war machines that obeyed the humans to whom they were assigned, but given dragon history, the dragons themselves were not discomforted by the widespread misinformation. Nor were many on various levels within the PPDC. As fear and awe of them kept the safe. And people could be...dangerous when their long held beliefs were threatened.

Chuck spent the afternoon in the dragons company. There was always something relaxing and freeing in spending time with them. Dragons were enlightened and understanding in ways humans weren’t, accepting in ways humans couldn’t, and generally all around better. By the time they parted, having spent the later hours in fellow Rangers’ company, Chuck felt as if a weight had been lifted from his chest.

As he lay over Striker’s back, looking up at the stars he asked, “Striker, why did you choose to be male?”

He’d wondered about it a lot since their conversation about Chuck’s own sexuality.

It made sense to be.

“Why?”

The dragon exhaled in a sigh and Chuck smiled as it lowered him, sinking slowly into scales before being risen back up. Because your own preference is to males.

He sat up at that, confused and slightly alarmed. “Did you think I wouldn’t like you if you were female?” he asked, feeling something tight twist inside him at the thought.

Striker huffed the equivalent of a dragon laugh. You would love me regardless. As I love you.

“Yeah, I would,” he assured him, stroking him with the hand at his side. “So why?”

Because I was aware before you were that you held a male preference, I foresaw the need to take a complimentary form. We hold no concerns over choice of companionship, and we may chose differently at different stages of our lives, but humans are more settled in this than we, and so it was more practical to be male.

“I’m still not getting the why,” Chuck replied, rubbing at his brow. Striker was talking in circles.

You will.

He’d clearly meant ‘one day’ because that had been the end of the discussion. No matter how Chuck phrased the question or how often he asked, he received the same round about answer. He hated to think that Striker had chosen in deference to him and one day while complaining of it to Lucky in earshot of Gipsy received an answer he hadn’t been expecting.

You are focusing on your own feelings in the matter and not taking his into consideration, she informed him.

“I am taking his feelings into consideration!” he’d countered. “I don’t want him to do this just because he feels like he has to, Gipsy! I want him to want to be the gender he is for himself, and be comfortable in it without my comfort being a factor.”

Humans must know a reason for everything, she commented. If there is no answer, you are unhappy. If you do not understand an answer, you are unhappy. If you do not agree with an answer, you are unhappy. Can you not be happy that there is no need to question at all? Some things just are.

“Oh….I know that face,” Raleigh commented as Chuck wandered into the canteen.

“What’d Gipsy tell you?” sighed Yancy.

A chair was pushed out by a booted foot to the leg and Chuck went to it without thinking. These were Gipsy’s Rangers after all, they knew her best and could help him understand what she’d meant.

As he sat, a slice of chocolate cake was set down in front of him.

“You’re too young to drink,” was the explanation.

He took a bite of it absently, trying to put the exchange and his disjointed thoughts in some semblance of order so it could be relayed properly enough to get the right response.

Neither Becket said anything as he laid out the story, which he belatedly realized included the reasoning behind the encounter in the first place. But, neither brother looked uncomfortable. If anything, they took the news of Chuck’s sexuality in a stride so easy, it may as well have been non-existent. As if, it didn’t matter at all.

By the time the story was over, he’d eaten all the cake and half a pudding he hadn’t realized he’d been given. And Yancy and Raleigh were nodding.

“She’s right, you know,” Yancy informed him gently.

“That I’m not thinking about Striker’s feelings?” he asked, feeling heat rise in his face.

“Look at it this way,” Raleigh said, leaning in and holding up his hands. “If you could choose your gender, what would you base the decision on?”

Chuck blinked.

“It’s not an easy process,” Yancy continued. “They have to change their entire bodies to accommodate their gender. Sure, they can switch back and forth until their first breeding, but most don’t. They pick one and they devote their body’s resources to cultivating that gender, and then that’s it.”

“So if you had to go through a long, uncomfortable and slow process that you first undertake at a young age, and you knew that you could change it, but it would be the same process all over again, maybe even more uncomfortable the second time around, wouldn’t you want to get it right the first time?”

Chuck nodded.

“So, what would you base the decision on?” Raleigh asked again. “You have no idea what one gender is like over the other. You don’t have any real understanding of gender at all. How do you decide?”

Chuck bit his lip and frowned into his pudding. Twisting the spoon around and poking it.

“You go with your gut,” Yancy told him after a long silence.

Raleigh looked to his brother slightly exasperated like he’d wanted Chuck to figure it out on his own no matter how long it took. Yancy shot him back a look that Chuck couldn’t place, but knew meant something by the way Raleigh’s shoulders sagged.

Yancy reached out and put a hand over Chuck’s forearm. It was a gentle, comforting touch, but electricity sparked up Chuck’s nerves and he could feel his breath catch. He became suddenly hyper aware of how close the brothers were. How intimate their conversation was, and the location of it. They were sitting in a corner, with no one about for several tables. As the brothers were the only ones at Gipsy Danger’s space. Crews didn’t have to eat together and tables weren’t assigned, but it was easier on the peace to do so, and preferences were observed and quietly noted. Once the Rangers had chosen, regardless of where crew had sat earlier upon arrival to a new Shatterdome, they would immediately defer to the Rangers’ preference. And so it would hold throughout their stay.

“You go with what feels right,” he continued.

Raleigh turned in his seat. “How did you know you were gay?”

Chuck swallowed. He wanted to blurt out ‘you’ because this simply could not be happening. He wanted to pinch himself, but he knew it wouldn’t help. Even if it was a dream - which, given his dreams, would sort itself out in short order. He’d know he wasn’t conscious if they leaned in and started something. His pants tightened as his body responded to that bit of news, images coming unbidden and unchecked. He tried desperately to distract himself, but every shift of his eyes only landed on more Becket. Why did they have to be so goddamn beautiful?!

Yancy’s hand hadn’t moved, and Raleigh was sitting so close that his knee brushed Chuck’s hip when he’d shifted. Heat and arousal burned through him, churning in his gut like the feel of Striker’s incendiary gland during drift. He gripped his spoon tightly, glad it wasn’t plastic so it wouldn’t be obvious.

“You just knew, didn’t you?” Raleigh urged, but he was so close Chuck’s brain automatically translated the hushed tone to keep his voice from carrying across the room to a bedroom voice and felt muscles jerk around his abdomen.

He nodded, red as anything, he knew. Too embarrassed to meet their eyes.

“And that’s how Striker knew,” Yancy replied, giving his arm a supportive squeeze.

That night, Chuck didn’t sleep with the dragons. Instead, he locked his bunk and indulged in wild fantasies until he was too exhausted to move. In the morning neither dragon asked after his absence, and he flushed in the realization that they didn’t have to.

Alaska was entirely too damn cold in the winter, and he was glad when the order came to transfer across Shatterdomes. They were headed back to Australia and Chuck could hardly contain his excitement. He’d packed as soon as orders arrived, he and Striker still attached to Lucky’s dispatches, by way of sharing a co-pilot. And as a descendent of Herc’s, he could in theory also be required to fly with him or his uncle on her should a need arise. They were a family of interchangeable parts, but it suited them.

Striker himself was not as enthusiastic and in fact spent the dwindling countdown to their departure growing increasingly more melancholy.

“What’s wrong?” Chuck asked him the day before they were to leave. “We’re going home! Don’t you want to go home? We haven’t been there in so long.”

Striker simply exhaled and blinked once before shifting his head against the ground and forlornly closing his eyes.

“Striker, talk to me! Please.”

He will settle, Lucky informed him, interrupting. Leave him be for now, Chuck.

Chuck looked sideways at his dragon and sighed, trotting away from him at Lucky’s beckoning.

At two in the morning, he was awoken by the sounds of an alert. The dragons all unfurled from their resting places, heads craning to watch as their J-crews came rushing in. Gipsy unfurled her wings and gave herself a shake as her crew scrambled in and promptly moved to the armor bay to be equipped. Romeo followed.

Chuck stood as the crews ran to the dragon bays, machinery whirling to life to crane the humongous pieces of plate armor that protected the dragons from additional damage. They were fairly hardy as a species, but regular engagement necessitated certain precautionary measures and all Jaeger teams were fully equipped with as much armor as could be comfortably borne.

He padded across Lucky’s back, having fallen asleep between her shoulderblades and slid down the length of her tail. Neither her nor Striker’s crew had run in and he was curious as to why they’d been grounded. “Oi, Elvis,” he complained into the wall comm.

“What can I do you for, Chuck?” came Tendo’s cheery reply. If the LOCCENT master wasn’t worried, it couldn’t be that great an issue.

“What’re we looking at?”

“You know, one of these days you’ll be sleeping in your room and get updates as they come in like a normal person.”

“Elvis, I’m a fifteen year old Ranger who rides dragons out to battle Godzilla’s cast offs. Normal was never on the table.”

Tendo laughed. “Category Four, codename Knifehead-”

“You really need to come up with more original names, mate.”

“Romeo and Gipsy on the roll.”

“Why aren’t there any Hansens at this party?”

“You’ve been off-rostered. You leave in eight hours. You’re Sydney’s now.”

“Marvelous.”

“What’s the matter, Chuck?” came Raleigh’s voice over the comm. “Afraid you’re gonna miss all the fun?”

“Come on, Rals, you know Chuck’s just worried the Kaiju are going to suddenly dry up before he gets a chance.”

“We should be so lucky,” Tendo drawled.

“Bite me, Becket!”

“Later,” they chorused.

Chuck waved to them as they crossed the bay in full gear. Their helmets were already on - which explained the comm patching - but they still saw him and waved back in high spirits.

“Be careful out there,” he told them, watching as they rode the lift to the flight platform, walking right off it in full confidence that Gipsy wouldn’t move. She didn’t of course, and they strode across her back to lock in. “Don’t break anything important.”

They both laughed.

“No promises,” Raleigh replied.

“Good morning, Becket Boys!”

“Tendo, what’s happening my man?”

“How’d that date with Alison go last night, Mr. Choi?”

Chuck flipped the switch and crossed back to where Lucky and Striker were waiting, alert and ready. “We’re not even on standby,” he informed them, climbing up Striker’s nose and walking up the center of his face to settle atop his head. Whenever general call rose, the dragons had a tendency to get protective.

He could see Tamsin, shrugging on her jacket, boots untied as she shuffled determinedly out to Coyote Tango, whose ruff lowered as she approached. She waved and Chuck waved back; it was mostly a raised arm and spread fingers, but Tamsin and 2 A.M. had never been the best of friends. Chuck could understand any additional grumpiness on her part, having been forced to sit back and wait out engagements many times himself. He hadn’t been a Ranger then, and it had been difficult. Now that he was, it was nearly painful. But they had their orders.

He sprawled out over Striker’s head and lay face up with his arms tucked behind his own. “We might as well go back to sleep,” he told them.

Neither dragon commented, but they didn’t really need to. They all knew no one’d be getting any rest until the others returned.

Not knowing eventually rankled, but he refused to flip the comm back on. It was rude to listen in on another Ranger’s flight uninvited. He knew neither the Beckets nor the Gages would care, but Marshall Stacker Pentecost was on deck, and as he hadn’t yet had a mission of his own, he didn’t want to accidentally do something that would ensure he never received one.

It didn’t stop Tamsin however, and sound carried well in the dragon pens.

The Kaiju had evaded the Gages, who’d been sent further south than necessary, and the Beckets ended up with the full brunt of the Kaiju’s surprise attack. LOCCENT had tracked it, but when Gipsy and the Beckets had arrived, it had submerged so deeply in the water, they’d been forced to fly lower to search for it.

The echo of Gipsy’s roars could be heard from within and without the bays, and Chuck sat up anxiously. Dragons were shifting in response and that was never a good sign.

The Gages were on their way back but having overshot, and with Romeo not the swiftest flier, they were too far away to provide assistance. Chuck watched his dad and uncle come running in and felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Lucky went to be armored, and the elder Hansens were being equipped when the screaming started.

It wasn’t unusual for Kaiju to go after a dragon’s Rangers. Injury to them forced the dragon to retreat in a blind panic, and any sort of threat was taken as a personal affront. The dragons became difficult to guide when their Rangers were endangered, minds taking on a hard, dangerous edge that called to mind their status as top of the food chain and reverberated with the fierce instincts of any wild animal.

Yancy and Raleigh were talking over each other, and Tendo and the Marshall over them. Chuck caught snippets, based on the urgency of the tones, and his predilection toward the Beckets. Gipsy’s chest armor had been breached. She was bleeding. Something about water. And below the enraged roars, more screaming. This time, with little more attached to it than response to impulses.

“YANCY! NOOOO!” echoed through the bays, Gipsy’s agonized roar ripped through just below it, rattling all the armor in the hangar.

“RALEIGH!! RALEIGH!!” the Gages cried as one. “RALEIGH NO!”

It was the last thing Chuck heard, the wind tearing away the sound. Striker had taken flight without orders and with absolutely no warning. Chuck wasn’t about to scold him, as he was of the same mind. They had no harness, no armor - for him or Striker - no flares, absolutely nothing but their will and what strength Striker’s rage brought forth.

Chuck was privately grateful for every last drill, as he settled himself between two of Striker’s spines, shoving his shoulder against the boney curve to keep him seated, knees flexed and feet shifting to maintain balance. Striker was the fastest flyer in the PPDC, and they reached the entanglement in no time at all, with his dragon’s heart driven to push himself. Romeo’s jaws were locked about Knifehead’s skull protrusion, her fore and rear legs scrabbling as she fought to keep purchase and score hits against it. The Kaiju had been electrocuted something awful, large chunks of its breast fallen away, and a pair of charred minor forelegs crippled against it. Below its haunches Gipsy thrashed, her tail and neck making great waves. The tip of a wing flailing out of the water every so often as she fought to keep her head above the water, and not be rolled onto Raleigh who was presumably still attached and likely unconscious. Chuck knew Gipsy would drown before she’d allow herself to be used to kill him, she wouldn’t have been struggling so wildly if it weren’t the case. Which was one Becket accounted for at least.

Striker roared, a sound that seemed to still every other creature present, which was helpful as it gave Chuck the moment of hush to cry, “ROMEO GET OUT OF THE WAY!” in time for the dragon to break free as Striker’s jaws parted and the brightest fire Chuck had ever seen burst free of him.

The Kaiju roared and reared. Romeo turned, clubbing it in the center of its chest swiftly enough to not catch fire herself. The Kaiju overbalanced and Striker swept in a clean turn and blasted it again. Chuck didn’t think a second hit was necessary, but he wasn’t about to argue and Striker wouldn’t have listened anyway.

Knifehead screeched and thrashed. The saltwater caught fire and Chuck had a terrified moment of concern for Gipsy and the Beckets before Striker was lunging down and impaling the Kaiju with the claws of all four legs. The Kaiju’s cries were piercing, but Striker lifted and hurled it further away, beating his wings to keep them in place, tail striking the water to cut great slashes. He roared again and a third round of flames caught the Kaiju square in the face. A second volley compliments of Lucky herself who’d just arrived. She rarely breathed fire, as she explained she didn’t quite have the heart for it. But the light of her flame was powerfully bright in the darkness and Chuck could feel the warmth of it from atop Striker.

The Kaiju stopped making sounds, body twitching only minorly as what was left responded to the aft brain’s undamaged state.

Striker landed in the water heavily, his head disappearing under the water and absolutely soaking Chuck a moment later. He backed up as Gipsy’s head landed against Striker’s side, shifting down as quickly as he dared to check for signs of life. Between them, the three dragons managed to carry Gipsy and a dangling Raleigh back to the ‘Dome. Striker had barely set his part of Gipsy down before they were off again.

The second trip was much colder than the first. The sharp winter chill sinking into Chuck’s soaked (and light) clothing. But he said nothing and kept his eyes open, drifting with Striker so they could use the combination of their senses for the search. It was hard to see, with the Kaiju carcass bleeding out sluggishly and murking up the water, but they managed to catch sight of him. The flash of his armor catching the dying embers of Striker’s attack on Knifehead in stray patches that bobbed across the ocean. Chuck didn’t even think, merely reacted, diving in as soon as they were level. Striker wouldn’t be able to reach him and free him without ripping Yancy’s arm off in the process. As it was, it took Chuck fifteen minutes of tugging and shoving and careful swipes from Striker to get Yancy free of the rock outcropping he’d been embedded within.

Arms about him, he tugged him up into position against him and held on to Striker’s spines with numb limbs as they raced back. Lucky was on her way back to search for them and turned to follow after them. Striker landed with a boom in the hangar and Chuck let go. He and Yancy sliding bonelessly down the dragon’s side.

Striker shifted, spreading a wing to catch them and cushion the fall. They rolled as they hit the ground and medical was on them immediately. The crinkle of heating foil and the flash of lights passing as he was put on a gurney and wheeled out was the last thing his mind registered before losing to unconsciousness.

When next he woke, everything hurt. And in a way he was unused to it doing so. His lungs burned and his skin felt like it had been broken off and was hanging on only due to the connection to his nerve endings which were raw and screamed at him loud enough to split his head in two.

“Chuck?” came a voice.

He frowned, face scrunching up at the sound.

“Mr. Hansen.”

His eyes opened in response to the command, registering the hazy figure of the Marshall. He opened his mouth to speak and coughed, gagging suddenly.

“Easy, Chuck,” his uncle soothed, resting a hand to his chest. “You’ve been intubated. Don’t fight it, just relax.” His hand stroked down Chuck’s breastbone and Chuck tried to focus on it. His uncle did it a few more times until Chuck’s features had smoothed out. The tube was the most irritating thing Chuck had ever been forced to endure and nothing he did could quite make him ignore it. But after collecting himself, he met the Marshall’s gaze again.

“I’m aware,” Stacker said. “That the circumstances of the engagement with Knifehead in which you found yourself were of your dragon’s choosing.” Chuck shook his head, but the Marshall held up a hand. “Instinct drove him, yes. But you were not consulted either time, and in any event, the situation warranted action - ordered or otherwise. Be advised, this is the only time you will be pardoned from such a breach of conduct.”

Chuck blinked at him.

“Your Jaeger’s action saved the lives of two of the PPDC’s finest.” Chuck felt something unravel in his chest. “Congratulations on your first kill, Ranger Hansen.”

His breath caught long enough that a slight beeping came from one of the machines and his father leaned over - having been standing by his head, and thus out of Chuck’s immediate line of sight - and kissed his brow. “Breathe, Chuck,” he murmured against his skin.

The breath all rushed out and he ended up choking as oxygen pumped in at twice the efficiency. His father stroked his hair back, and his uncle took his hand and gave it a bit of a squeeze.

“Let’s see about getting you more comfortable,” the Marshall said, turning. “Nurse!”

Yancy Becket had torn his rotator cuff, broken his arm at the stress points of every joint and looked like he’d lost a fight with the side of a building, but he grinned as Chuck was wheeled into his and Raleigh’s shared room.

“My hero!” he exclaimed brightly, uninjured arm extended in welcome.

Chuck flushed, looking down.

“That is so adorable,” Raleigh commented from his own bed. Though he’d remained harnessed and thus hadn’t been lost to the water as Yancy had, because of the position he’d been in and the struggle to keep him from being crushed, he’d sustained internal injuries and had needed abdominal surgery. He was propped up by as many pillows as Chuck figured they could find, a tube with what Chuck knew to be damn fine painkillers connected to the I.V. tucked into his inner arm. He’d sustained a few burns due to his armor heating in the water under the force of Striker’s initial blast, and that arm - the opposite of Yancy’s - was carefully wrapped and slung. “Do it again!”

Yancy chuckled as red swathed up the back of Chuck’s neck. “Aww, leave him alone, Rals.” He beckoned Chuck over and the orderly rolled him up beside Yancy and locking his wheels, left quietly.

“It is damn adorable though,” he informed Chuck with a wink.

Chuck’s eyes darted back down to his tangled fingers resting in his lap and both Beckets laughed softly.

Thank you,” the elder said with so much feeling, Chuck looked back up immediately.

“We owe you,” Raleigh added.

“I didn’t-” he began to protest, but they cut him off, both shaking their heads.

“I don’t care what anyone says. Striker didn’t jump into a Kaiju Blue ridden patch of ocean and spend fifteen minutes in freezing water clawing my arm out of solid rock in nothing but sleep pants and a tank.” He tilted his head, waiting for Chuck to meet his eyes. “You did.”

Chuck felt his heart thud.

“You could have let Striker just grab me and go-”

“He would have torn your arm off!” Chuck gasped in horror.

Yancy smiled, nodding. “Exactly.”

“You showed initiative,” Raleigh added. “Cool head under pressure. You may not have had a choice in the matter, but you used what you knew to your advantage. You saved Yancy’s life. You saved mine. And you saved Gipsy’s. Spoke to her the whole way back. I heard you.”

Chuck swallowed hard. He couldn’t exactly recall what he’d said, and he hadn’t thought Raleigh would have remembered any of it besides. Hadn’t thought Raleigh’d been able to hear him to begin with, but then...he had been in drift.

“So did I,” Yancy said. “If not all of it, enough.”

“There’s a special place you go, when you’re near death,” Raleigh explained. “Somewhere only dragons know. We’d heard of it, but…” They looked to each other. “Your dragon puts you there, so you won’t feel the pain, so you won’t see the killing blow coming, so you won’t suffer.”

“Gipsy kept us there. We had a lot of time to think, while we waited on her. On death. Whichever came first.”

“Chuck…” He exhaled heavily and raked the hand of his I.V. ladened arm through his blond hair. “We haven’t exactly been…” He licked his lip, drawing it into his mouth to pin it between his teeth.

Chuck looked from one to the other, confused.

“We thought, we’d wait until you were older,” Yancy explained.

They were silent for a long moment. One that seemed to stretch on even longer as no one spoke. Chuck didn’t know what was going on, but could feel the weight of its importance and so kept silent for once in his life and remained patient, whether through fear or out of necessity, he couldn’t say.

“Have you looked at us?” Raleigh asked just when Chuck thought he couldn’t bear it any longer and began frantically searching for something to say. “When drifting with Striker. Have you looked at us?”

“Yeah,” Chuck replied, relieved to be able to contribute somehow. “I was looking at you when we rescued you.”

“And you found me,” Yancy said. “You saw me in pitch black water, ensconced in dark rocks, five feet below the surface.”

“You were shiny,” Chuck informed him.

“I was shiny,” Yancy said, as if that was answer enough.

“Your armor-”

“You knew I was still harnessed to Gipsy,” Raleigh cut in.

“The way she was moving-”

“No. You said, and I quote: ‘Careful Romeo, Raleigh’s on your left.’ There were two dragons between us at the time.”

“You were…”

“Shiny?” they asked.

Chuck swallowed. “...Yeah.”

“You’re shiny to us too,” Raleigh told him.

“I don’t…”

Yancy heaved a sigh. “It’s...not ideal,” he began. Chuck could tell it was difficult for him to get out, whatever it was. “Our age differences...Ten years from now, they wouldn’t matter. Hell, five years from now- But as it stands…”

“You’re fifteen, Chuck.”

He opened his mouth, paused, then snapped it shut. Eyes going wide slowly.

“Yeah,” Raleigh said, holding his gaze. Yancy said it at the same time, but his was accompanied by a heavy sigh of resignation.

“We’ve known for a while,” the elder Becket confessed.

“A long while,” Raleigh admitted.

“We just…” He waved his uninjured hand around, at a loss. “You’re so young.”

“Not that that’s your fault!”

“No, no. Not your fault.”

“It’s just...that...well, you know.”

Chuck nodded, stunned.

“We wouldn’t even be telling you,” Raleigh went on. “If not…”

Yancy sighed again. “We can’t keep it from you anymore. Not when...not when it affects you like this.”

“Affects me?” Chuck asked, finding his voice.

“Striker may have been the one to break rank, but you wanted it just as much as he did. You didn’t even try to stop him,” Raleigh said.

“You were willing to risk your life for ours.”

“I love you,” Chuck defended. It wasn’t an outburst, it hadn’t been halted or stilted. It had rolled off his tongue, a simple fact. He didn’t even feel sorry about it. Didn’t feel dread, or shame, or mortification. He felt...unchanged. As if…

“We know,” Yancy said softly.

“And you love me,” Chuck replied. It wasn’t even a guess. It wasn’t a question.

“We love you,” Raleigh confirmed with a nod.

Chuck leaned back in his wheelchair.

The Beckets didn’t say anything further.

They sat in quiet for a while.

“I’m going to grow up,” Chuck said eventually. He looked up, met each pair of eyes, one and then the other. “In five years it won’t matter.”

Yancy frowned, brow furrowing slightly.

Raleigh lifted an eyebrow.

“So we pretend. And we...we stay friends. And we don’t die.”

They each huffed quietly in amusement.

“And in five years…”

“Five years,” they agreed.

Chuck reached over and unlocked his wheelchair, prodding the call button a few feet away. “Hey, Elvis! Think we can get some chocolate cake down here?”

“I’m not an operator, Chuck.”

“None of us are allowed sugar.”

“But, I am a black market dealer, apparently. I’ll bring it down myself. I have a break in five minutes.”

“Thanks.”

“Cake?” Yancy and Raleigh asked when he turned back around.

Chuck shrugged. “None of us can drink.”

When Tendo arrived, the Becket Boys were still laughing.