Two days after his nineteenth birthday, Hercules Hansen meets Angela Davis. She is twenty-four and wearing a sunshine yellow bikini; he is young and dumb with freshly shorn hair and sunburned shoulders. He's just enlisted in the RAAF and she's two years into a nursing career.
But when she smiles and looks at him over the top of her sunglasses, her hair a strawberry-blonde cloud around her shoulders, Herc thinks he might be in love.
He asks her out and never thinks she'll say yes.
And she doesn't, not really. Instead, she tells him that they – and she gestures to the group of girls hanging on their every word – are going to the footie match that night. He's welcome to come with if he wants, seeing as they've got an extra ticket.
He mutters something about footie isn't really his thing, but God, he wants to say yes.
She just smiles, touches his arm, and says it's not really hers, either, but she was outvoted. Seems as if rugby and Australian Rules are too violent for most of the others.
Herc plops himself down on the edge of her towel and spends the rest of the afternoon talking to her and discussing the finer points of the Wallabies and winning the World Cup just the week before.
They miss the footie match and grab a beer instead.
Their first official date is five days later and it starts off with Herc's car breaking down.
Angela laughs when he swears at the engine and asks if she should call for Chinese. He peers at her through the windshield and smiles when it's obvious she's not mad.
The rest of the evening has nowhere to go but up.
Herc holds her hand on the third date. He almost lets go when she looks at him with one eyebrow raised, but then she smiles. And it's the sort of smile that says "well, it's about time."
It's two more dates before he works up the nerve to kiss her. She grabs his shirt and he almost forgets that they're standing in the hallway outside her front door.
Somehow, he isn't surprised to wake up in her bed the next morning.
She just smiles, stretches like a cat, and pounces. Again.
Six months into their relationship, Angela's best friend, Susan, goes through a bad break-up. To cheer her up, they gather a group of friends and take her out for the evening. Angela is the oldest, Herc is the youngest, but no one cares.
They're all young and carefree and enjoying life.
Then Herc innocently attempts to flirt with Susan to make her smile. Maybe he was too good at it, because he never sees the fist Angela launches at him. It's the first and only time either of them raises a hand to the other.
When Herc shows up at her door the next day with a black eye, a case of beer and a stammered apology, Angela tells him he's a stupid cunt and swears to leave him if he ever does it again.
That's when Herc realizes he's head over heels for her. She stops being Angela and becomes Angie and he takes her home to meet his parents.
Herc proposes for the first time on his twentieth birthday. He has no ring and no plan and just blurts it out during a commercial break on the telly. Angela looks at him for a moment and then tells him no. He's not ready and she's too young and they've got a good thing going.
He's heart-broken, but he doesn't argue. He's not the only one in the relationship.
Four days before his twenty-first birthday, Herc asks again. Angie isn't prepared and just stares at him for a moment.
Finally, she gives him a gentle smile, cups his jaw with one hand, and tells him that she loves him, but no. He's due to leave in a week for deployment.
His smile fades a little, but he says he understands.
Angie really hopes he does. Because she loves him, but she doesn't know that either one of them is ready for that sort of commitment.
He turns twenty-two in November and they celebrate by taking a weekend trip to Hunter Valley.
Six weeks later, they watch the New Year's fireworks from her uncle's boat in Sydney Harbour. She's quiet throughout the night, joining the rest of the party only when Herc pulls her from her silence.
But each time she lapses back and moves to stand by the rail, her eyes on the dark sky overhead, he worries. At ten minutes to midnight, he moves to stand beside her, one arm around her waist as his free hand settles on top of hers.
The tension in her hands, the way her fingers curl around the rail in a death grip, eases slightly. And when the clock strikes midnight, Herc kisses her and she tells him that she thinks she's pregnant.
The next morning, they sit in her apartment and watch as a second pink line appears in the little window.
He looks at her for a long moment, but he doesn't ask. And she doesn't say yes or no. They just say "well" and take a deep breath. He can see in her eyes that she's not ready for this, and he can't say that he is, either.
But there's never any discussion of possible alternatives.
Just after Valentine's Day, he asks her to marry him again. When she doesn't say anything, he points out that she wasn't pregnant the first three times he asked her, so she can't use that as an excuse.
She laughs and finally says yes.
They get married in a civil ceremony early on a Friday in mid-March. Angie's belly is a soft, easy curve that just pushes against the fabric of her sweater. She's four months pregnant and Herc tells her that she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.
Those words make her cry. And when they finally get to the I do's, she cries again. Just a few tears, and she blames them on being pregnant.
But Herc just smiles and kisses her again.
The first time the baby kicks, they're curled up in bed watching a movie. For the rest of the night, Herc ignores the telly and focuses on her body as the baby kicks against his palm. He falls in love all over again.
When she goes for her six month check-up, they ask if she wants to hear the baby's heartbeat. She doesn't want to without Herc, so they wait until he arrives. They watch each other as the technician adjusts the monitor and then they hear it.
It's a soft whooshwhoosh that fills the room. Angie's eyes fill with tears and Herc smiles so wide that it looks painful. It takes a few minutes for them to hear a quiet counterpoint to the heartbeat, and the technician gives them a curious look.
Herc asks what's wrong, barking the words out and scaring the poor man (and Angie bites her bottom lip to keep from laughing), but he doesn't receive an answer. Instead, the technician leaves the room and returns a minute later with the doctor.
While they wait, Herc and Angie listen to the sound and hold hands.
The doctor is calm when she steps into the room. She listens for a moment before telling them that she wants to do a sonogram.
Angie tells her that they don't want to know the baby's sex. It's something they discussed at the beginning, and she's glad Herc had agreed.
That's not a problem. The doctor doesn't say another word as the technician sets up the monitor and preps Angie.
They don't look at the screen. But she can see Herc watching from the corner of his eye as the doctor nods while the technician points out various spots on the monitor. His face is carefully blank, but that might be because Angie has a death grip on his hand.
When the doctor finally turns, smiles, and tells them that it's twins, Herc collapses into a chair. Angie is too stunned to say anything.
They get a picture that is blurry and grainy, but there are two distinct bodies there. Facing each other, foreheads almost touching, it looks as if the babies are holding hands.
Fuck, Herc thinks, just when they'd become used to the idea of one. He carries a copy of the photo in his wallet and takes it out from time to time. His squad mates tease him about it, but he doesn't care.
They move out of Angie's apartment and into a small house on the southern side of Sydney. It's a longer commute for Herc, but Angie likes the neighborhood and the two bedroom house is actually less than the rent on the apartment.
Besides, neither one of them likes the idea of raising a child (let alone two) in the middle of the city.
Herc learns to keep Tim Tams and crunchy peanut butter in the house. They're the only things Angie craves, but the one time they ran out, Herc had to drive all over the city in the middle of the night to find them.
But Angie's smile when he'd returned with both had made it all worthwhile.
Angie quits her job when she reaches her seventh month. Herc asks if she's sure, because he knows how much it means to her.
But she's never wanted to be a part-time mother, so he says he'll support her decision.
She hands in her notice the next morning and says a quick prayer that she's not making a mistake. After all, one baby is a handful and they're having two.
And she's not to proud to admit, even if just to herself, that the idea of being responsible for two babies terrifies her just a little.
As her due date draws near, the doctor reminds them that twins rarely go to full term. Angie just rolls her eyes, lets out a very unladylike snort, and says that the babies are Hansens.
When Herc asks what that means, she tells him.
Call it mother's intuition or whatever, but these babies will be just like their father. Strong, stubborn, and arriving when they damn well want. Herc laughs at how true it is – he'd been three weeks late and only the threat of inducing labor had prompted him to vacate the womb.
Herc's commanding officer likes him. As June rolls into July, she arranges for Herc to have charge of new recruit training. He appreciates the fact that he's home every night and won't be somewhere overseas when the twins arrive.
It's more than he'd expected when he'd signed his enlistment papers.
July flips over to August and the nursery is finally finished.
It's soft green and yellow and tan, and there are fantastical creatures painted across the walls in a parade. Two cribs sit in opposite corners with two small dressers filled with more clothes than any one person needs beside them. A stuffed koala nestles in the corner of each crib.
The room is warm and sunny and happy.
Angie sits in the middle of the floor and cries. Herc sits with her, an arm around her shoulders, and lets her sob on him. She says she's tired of being fat and pregnant.
He tells her that she's not fat and has never been more beautiful to him, but he can't blame her for being tired of being pregnant. He's biased, and she tells him so.
Herc just laughs, kisses her gently, and makes love to her right there on the nursery floor.
Two days later, in the wee hours of the second Thursday morning in August, ten days before their due date, she shakes him from a sound sleep.
He surprises himself by not panicking. She laughs between contractions when he tells her that. And when the two of them are in the truck, she keeps a death grip on his forearm as he drives and he talks her through the next contraction.
Four hours later, at 6:01 a.m., Charles Gabriel Hansen enters the world screaming his little lungs out. Six minutes later, Scott Xavier Hansen follows him, also screaming.
They're identical, with bright red fuzzy caps of hair and big blue eyes that peer at the world around them. A nurse tells them that the eye color might change, and Herc finds himself hoping that they end up with Angie's brilliant green.
Angie is exhausted and pale, but her smile is pure sunshine when the boys are placed in her arms.
Herc falls so deeply in love with the three of them that he feels as if he might drown.
That night, after Herc leaves the hospital, he buys a case of cigars and heads to his favorite tattoo parlor. When he slaps down the photocopies of his sons' feet prints, he receives a round of high fives and back slaps.
All the artists get a cigar as he passes around his phone with photos of the boys.
The whole process takes an hour and a half. When Herc finally leaves, there are four tiny black foot prints, the twins' names, and the date freshly inked over his heart.
The hospital keeps the boys an extra day as a precaution, but they arrive home soon enough to quiet fanfare and little fuss. Only family and close friends are there to greet them.
It's exactly what Herc and Angie want, and little Charlie and Scott seem bored with the entire situation.
They're so bored that they nap through most of the party, snug together on a blanket in the middle of the floor. They wake only to nurse and then fall right back to sleep.
Herc pays more attention to them than he does to anyone else in the house not named Angie. She laughs fondly and rubs his head as she walks past, but Herc doesn't care.
He's a father now, and it's hard to comprehend that he helped to create these two tiny and perfect creatures.
Fatherhood isn't everything it's made out to be as Herc discovers when the twins cry through their entire first night home. It's a thin, reedy sound that makes him want to pull his pillow over his head.
But he'd made a vow that he wouldn't leave Angie to do the hard things alone.
So they take turns, walking and rocking first one and then the other. Nothing works. They're only quiet when they nurse, but the second they're in their cribs, the crying starts once more.
Neither Herc nor Angie gets more than an hour's worth of sleep.
They stare at each other over the breakfast table like zombies. Charlie and Scott are finally asleep, sprawled on a blanket on the floor, and Herc wonders how he's going to get through the day.
And how Angie is going to manage by herself if they start that again.
The next night is the same thing. And the next. And the one after that.
By the end of the first week, Herc and Angie are worn to nubs, scraped raw at the edges, and their tempers have frayed to nearly nothing.
The only time the boys sleep is when they're on their blanket. The cribs, so carefully chosen, are useless.
It's enough to make Angie break down into heaving sobs.
None of the books and none of the classes had prepared them for this.
Angie gets frustrated more than once. Each time, Herc calmly takes over and shoos her out of the room.
He rocks the boys and walks with them, talking the whole time, trying to remain calm so they don't pick up on it. But it's hard because he hasn't had a full night's sleep since they came home.
And when he hears Angie scream into her pillow in the other room, Herc just closes his eyes and whispers softly to the babies.
They'll get through this because they're Hansens and they don't know how to give up.
Two days into the second week, Angie wakes and stretches. It takes a moment to register, but the sunlight filtering through the bedroom window has her bolting from the bed in panic.
The house is too silent.
The nursery is empty.
Skidding to a halt in the living room, she takes in the sight with wide eyes – Herc stretched out on the sofa and the twins curled up on his bare chest, facing each other, tiny hands clasped.
All three are sound asleep.
As she watches them, Herc's lashes flutter and then he looks up at her with a sweet smile as he mumbles that he thought he'd try something new. Angie realizes it's the first full night's sleep she's had since they left the hospital.
That night, they try something else new.
The twins receive their baths in the kitchen sink – Angie bathes and Herc dries and diapers – and get their bedtime nursing in before they're tucked into a single crib.
It's Charlie's, but neither Herc nor Angie thinks it's going to matter.
For several long minutes, the boys make little sucking noises as they wave their fists and kick their feet. When their hands brush, their feet stop moving. Slowly, Charlie uncurls his fingers until he can wrap them around Scott's tiny hand.
Then, as Herc holds his breath and prays, two sets of eyes drift closed.
He mutters that it's a bloody fucking miracle and Angie has to slap her hands over her mouth to keep the laughter quiet.
The twins sleep the entire night and wake just before dawn. The only reason Herc knows they're awake is because he checks on them before his shower.
He stands beside the crib and watches them for a long while. They just stare back at him, fists waving occasionally, but they don't seem in any hurry to be picked up. In fact, they seem quite content.
Herc quietly changes their diapers, brushes his fingertips across the fuzz covering their skulls, presses a soft kiss to each warm forehead, and turns on the mobile over their heads before leaving the room just as silently as he entered it.
It's easy to forget the nightmare of that first sleepless week as the weeks flow by smoothly.
The twins become more aware of the world around them, growing more active each day, and their eyes slowly lighten from dark blue to the blue-green of the ocean. They know Herc's voice and those eyes snap to him each night as he steps through the front door.
Angie smiles each time and says that they are their father's sons.
Because Angie has all the daytime feeding due to the twins nursing, they trade off at night. Herc takes the odd numbered days and she takes the even ones.
Herc loves his nights.
He loves sitting in the rocking chair in the nursery, with first Scott (because he always wakes first) and then Charlie nestled in his arms and making little grunting piglet noises as they take their bottles. Their eyes stay on his face the entire time, and they snuggle right into the scruff of his jaw and throat when he lifts them up to burp them.
They smell of baby powder and warm milk, and Herc presses soft kisses to their tiny heads as he rocks and pats and whispers made-up stories.
At their six week checkup, the doctor pronounces them healthy and somewhat advanced for their age. Herc can't deny that his chest puffs up with pride at the news.
Angie laughs at him for the rest of the day.
He pays her back by laying her across their bed late that night and making love to her until neither one of them can move. He's careful to use a condom because neither one of them is ready for another child.
The weeks turn into months and parenting is far easier than Herc imagined.
He's there the first time the boys laugh, the sound provoked by him blowing raspberries on their tummies after bath time. He's also there the first time they manage to lift their heads and look around with toothless grins at their accomplishment.
But he misses the first time they roll over and has to watch the video of it later that night.
And the first time he walks into the living room to find Charlie six feet across the floor from where Herc had left him, he calmly begins to childproof the house. As he does so, Scott manages to scoot halfway to Charlie before Herc catches them.
Now that they're somewhat mobile, things change.
It only takes one time for Charlie to scoot behind the sofa and get stuck for Angie to declare they can no longer be left in a room alone. Herc agrees because he's already figured out their boys are going to be a right terror as they get older.
Creeping turns into crawling after a week spent rocking back and forth on their hands and knees. That frustrates them both, a fact they make clear with loud squalls each time they tip over and tumble forward to bump their chins on the blankets beneath them.
But soon enough they're completely mobile, crawling from room to room with happy abandon.
Herc buys a gate that stretches across the bottom of the stairs.
On a cold Sunday morning in mid-July, Charlie pulls himself up on the coffee table and bangs on the surface. It's the same thing he's done for several weeks, and they're used to it.
But this time, something different happens.
As they watch, Charlie works his way to the end of the table and lets go. Herc has enough sense to grab his phone and start recording as Charlie takes four steps towards them before sitting down abruptly.
He gurgles out a laugh while Scott sits up and babbles at him.
Angie has tears in her eyes and a smile on her face when Scott, not to be outdone, crawls to the coffee table, pulls himself up, lets go, and takes exactly four steps as well.
Charlie and Scott don't say a single word in English for the first three years of their lives.
They understand it well enough, because Herc or Angie telling them no usually gets the desired result. And they know their names. They just don't use them.
Instead, they develop their own language, jabbering at each other for hours in twinspeak.
Angie is worried until the doctor assures them that it's perfectly normal and that they'll grow out of it, but may use it off and on for the next few years.
Herc is fascinated as their personalities start to truly develop.
Charlie is him all over again, loud and brash and stubborn to a fault. And Scott is Angie's child, quieter than Charlie and observant and a cuddler. He has no reservations about cuddling up to anyone as long as he knows them – grandparents, aunts, uncles, the neighbor next door that watches them when Herc and Angie need some adult time. And Charlie's a cuddler, too, but he's more stand-offish.
Scott is sweet and warm, while having every bit of his mother's 'take no prisoners' attitude, and Charlie is rough and tumble, and he already demonstrates Angie's thirst for knowledge.
None of that stops them, though, when they think they've been wronged either by their parents or each other.
Herc loses count of the times that he hauls them up by the backs of their shirts and tells them to stop fighting. Angie just watches them, though, knowing that they'll be thick as thieves in five minutes, in spite of bumps and bruises and tears drying on chubby cheeks.
On Herc's twenty-fifth birthday, the twins reveal just how clever they really are.
Angie walks into the kitchen to start dinner and is greeted by what seems to be the result of a small cyclone.
Pots and pans are scattered all over the place, and the floor is covered with what looks like a mixture of flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. It's a sticky mess that grits beneath her feet as she surveys the damage.
Scott is sitting in the cabinet beneath the sink where she stores all the cake pans. And there's a makeshift ladder built of a chair pushed against the counter along with canisters and bins and Charlie peers at her from atop the refrigerator, a streak of flour obscuring the freckles on his nose.
When she asks them what they're doing in a helpless voice (after fighting back the moment of sheer and utter panic), she doesn't expect an answer.
But Charlie, still perched just out of reach, calmly tells her that they're making a cake for Daddy. Scott adds that it's for his birfday.
She's not sure which shocks her more – the fact that they know what goes into a cake or the fact that they actually answered her in English.
The kitchen is spotless by the time Herc gets home, and there's a store-bought cake on the table. He laughs until his stomach hurts when Angie relates the events of the afternoon.
The next day, he changes the locks on the kitchen cabinets and puts up another gate.
The boys are only three, but it's almost a daily ritual now for Angie to swear they won't make it to their fourth birthday. There is no place in the house that is out of their reach, and nothing is safe.
They don't do the things that normal children do – there is no putting small objects in their mouths or touching the stove while it's hot or shoving things into electrical sockets. No, their brand of mayhem is far more subtle.
It starts with their bed – singular because they still have total meltdowns if Angie and Herc try to force them into separate ones. One morning, Herc walks in to discover them sleeping on their mattress which is now on the floor. They'd completely dismantled the bed frame during the night.
He has no idea where they got the tools or how they managed to do it without waking their parents.
They reach their fourth birthday and they figure out how to defeat the gates. There isn't a lock in the house that can keep them out.
Herc honestly debates putting a sliding bolt on the bedroom door just so he and Angie can have some alone time.
Angie buys a swimming pool and Herc gets some of his squad mates to help him set it up one weekend. It's not a big thing, the water just coming to his waist when he stands up, but the twins love it.
They turn into little fish and are swimming without assistance by the time the New Year rolls around. And when they learn to swim underwater with their eyes open, Herc likens them to baby eels with the way they twist and turn.
Keeping bathers on them is a struggle, though.
Finally, after the tenth time that Herc has to climb the golden wattle tree to retrieve the offending articles of clothing, he declares a prohibition on them. Angie gives him a look that has him holding up his hands and offering to let her climb the tree the next time.
By the time the weather cools off and Herc has to cover the pool for the winter, Charlie and Scott are a lovely golden brown all over.
Preschool is an adventure. For the twins and for Angie.
Herc had supported her original decision to quit work and his pay is enough to support them all with no problems.
But five years of dealing with the two of them all day, every day, is enough to test the patience of a saint.
And Angie is no saint.
So off to preschool they go, no arguments. Herc supports that decision, too.
When she breaks down in tears after they drop the boys off, Herc pulls over and wraps her in a tight hug and doesn't say a word.
But their faces when they climb into the car that afternoon make it all worthwhile. Charlie's dimples are so deep that Herc thinks his entire finger might vanish if he pokes them, and Scott talks a mile a minute about all the things they did.
Both boys consistently get high marks and glowing comments from their teacher. This surprises neither Herc nor Angie.
After all, their boys did manage to disassemble a bed when they were three. And the toaster oven when they were four. Afterwards, they'd sat and solemnly watched as Herc tried to put it back together. Eventually he gave up and went and bought another one.
Luckily for everyone, there aren't any electronics in their classroom.
Herc lives in fear of the day they discover that the telly comes apart, too.
Angie gets over her separation anxiety and goes back to work part-time. Herc takes over dinner duties two nights a week to give her a break.
The meals are simple, but Charlie and Scott insist on helping. They stand on chairs to reach the counter and poke their tongues out as they carefully measure and stir the things that Herc gives them.
After a few weeks, he considers expanding it to three nights a week.
Angie grins and says he can have all seven if he wants.
Herc tumbles her to the sofa and tickles her until she shrieks with laughter. He only stops when Charlie and Scott join in, and then it's open season for tickle wars.
The twins make friends quickly and easily. They're happy boys with a thirst for knowledge and a love of adventure.
And none of their classmates have ever seen a set of identical twins before.
By the end of March, Charlie and Scott are social butterflies. There are play dates and zoo trips and afternoons spent at the park. Angie and Herc consider allowing sleepovers.
By the end of April, Charlie has two girlfriends and Scott has three. Over dinner Herc asks why Scott has more and Charlie shrugs and swallows his bite of broccoli before saying that it's because he has a boyfriend and Scott doesn't.
When Angie looks at him across the table, Herc just shrugs and says that he guesses that's fair since they each have three.
If preschool was a breeze, the first day of primary school is a nightmare.
Herc and Angie are barely through the front door when Herc's cellphone rings. It's the school.
As the teacher talks, Herc can hear Charlie or Scott screaming in the background. They're already back inside the car and backing out of the driveway by the time the call ends.
When they get to the school, they're confronted with two very angry boys, their faces covered in tears and snot. At the sight of their father, Charlie and Scott each latch on to a leg and refuse to let go.
It's a puzzle, because the boys love school.
But it turns out that someone in administration had the infinite wisdom to assign the twins to different classes. To better promote their social development and independence.
It takes less than five minutes of Herc's 'sergeant' voice before the headmistress agrees to put the boys in the same class. Upon hearing this, Charlie and Scott stop crying and give the woman suspicious looks. She gives them a flustered smile in return.
Primary school isn't as easy for them as preschool was.
They still make friends and get good grades, but there are a lot more children now. Children with different personalities and opinions. Bigger children who think nothing of picking on the littler ones.
But Herc and Angie have always taught the twins to stand up for what they believe is right.
So the first time Charlie comes home with a black eye and a reprimand, they aren't exactly surprised.
And when Angie's called down a week later because Scott's been in a fight and has a bloody nose, they aren't surprised by that, either.
But there are rules and fighting in school breaks at least two of them and it doesn't matter that Charlie was being bullied by a second year student or that Scott had wanted two third years to stop picking on another first year, so the boys are grounded for a week. Herc wants to bend the grounding for movie night, but Angie stands fast.
Charlie and Scott accept their punishment and quietly help do the dishes.
Two weeks after the twins turn six, Herc gets deployed to Afghanistan. He doesn't want to go, but he gave up the right to say no when he signed his enlistment papers.
Charlie and Scott cry when it's time for him to leave, and Angie has to pry their arms from around his neck. He kisses them both and makes them promise that they'll be good for mum.
Angie cries when he kisses her goodbye.
Herc calls home every chance he gets and figures out how to work Skype on his tablet. After that, he has two nights a week in which his boys regale him with tales of their exploits and he praises their latest drawings.
His entire squad is in stitches the night Angie tells him of how Charlie and Scott managed to get the neighbor's dog to hold still long enough to attach a string of bells to his tail. The poor animal refuses to come out of the house now.
And that's nothing compared to the afternoon they managed to turn old man Winston's poodle blue.
Angie says they're grounded for life over that while Charlie and Scott howl in protest in the background. Herc has to cover his mouth with one hand to hide his smile, because Angie will kill him if he laughs.
The six month deployment is the longest six months of Herc's life.
He misses Angie and the boys every minute, and the photos and videos and care packages they send are a poor replacement. But he has nothing but smiles for them on Skype and a calendar that he uses to mark off the days.
Christmas is the worst.
He watches them open their presents on Skype and laughs as they dance around with bows on their heads. When the chat is over, after the boys have kissed the screen and said they love him, Herc has to wipe his eyes.
When Herc's feet hit the tarmac, the first thing he sees is the line of families to welcome them home.
The second is Charlie and Scott pushing through that line and running towards him. The bright sun turns their hair copper, and their matching smiles are the most beautiful things he's ever seen.
He drops his bag and scoops them up into a hug that's full of kisses and laughter and love.
There are tears in Angie's eyes and a wide smile on her face when she joins them and wraps her arms around the three of them. Herc has never been happier to be home.
That night, Herc oversees bath time and story time. And when the boys are sound asleep in their bed, he talks about getting out of the military. Angie listens.
She supports whatever decision he makes.
He decides to talk it over with his commanding officer. And when he turns out the light and reaches for her, she comes into his arms eagerly.
In the end – after weeks of discussion with Angie and their parents – Herc opts to stay in the RAAF. But he puts in for a transfer to recruiting duty over field assignments. It's a desk job and he hates that part of it, but it comes with a pay increase and the fact that he's home every night and on weekends.
Charlie and Scott like to visit his office and play under the desk. They stage battles that involve robots and dinosaurs and a whole battalion of army men.
The one time he leaves them alone to see a new recruit out to her car, they staple every sheet of paper on the desk to the desk. Herc is only gone five minutes.
Angie does a poor job of looking sympathetic that night over dinner.
They join a children's football league – because rugby and Australian rules aren't offered for their age group, much to Herc's disappointment – and adapt to the new routine fairly quickly.
But Herc will never forget the one Saturday morning game early in the season where Angie displayed all the fire and spirit he'd fallen in love with originally.
Charlie and Scott's team are down by one goal and there's a bigger boy on the other team. And Herc knows the boy has tormented his sons throughout the school year, but he's been willing to let them handle it. Given the other boy's size, two on one seems fair odds.
But when the kid jumps for the ball that's already past and slams skull first into Scott's face, the game collapses. Charlie flies at the boy, yelling and punching and kicking, and they're rolling on the ground within seconds.
Herc is out of his seat two seconds after Angie, and she beats him to the field.
What comes next would be talked about for months, if not years.
Angie gets right in the face of the boy's father and tells him that he needs to get a handle on his goddamn bully of a son or someone'll do it for him. Herc scoops Charlie up out of the fight and carries him (like a sack of potatoes) to where Scott is sitting on the ground holding his nose and the three of them just watch in silence.
He's never been more proud of Angie than he is in that moment. And he pretends not to hear the delighted whispers at his feet of how mum's a total badass, just like da.
They get bicycles for their seventh birthday and, by the beginning of September, insist Herc take off the training wheels.
He balks. Angie just shrugs and says that they're his sons so he might as well.
Skinned knees and elbows follow, but the boys stick with it. In no time at all, they're racing down the road in front of the house, hollering at the top of their lungs. Luckily, the neighbors all love them. Even if they can't tell them apart, a fact that never fails to astound Herc and Angie.
Six months later, Charlie crashes his bike into a tree and breaks his left arm.
It's the first time since they were infants that Herc hasn't been able to take the pain away with a hug and a kiss. It breaks his heart. But Charlie is a trooper and only whimpers when they set the arm and wrap it in gauze and plaster.
When Scott sees the emerald green cast, his eyes go wide.
Two weeks later, he climbs the golden wattle tree in the backyard and falls out, breaking his right arm.
Herc just shakes his head, sighs, and tells them that they don't have to do everything in tandem. Scott asks if his cast can be blue.
They get a bigger swimming pool. An in-ground one with a diving board.
Neither boy likes the new rule – they have to keep their bathers on – but they accept it because it means they can have friends over.
By the end of the summer, they're doing cannonballs off the diving board and swimming from one end to the other underwater. They're as brown as little nuts and their hair, while darkening towards auburn, is shot with streaks of gold.
When they start studying computers in school, Herc realizes that the rest of the world may not be ready.
His boys are geniuses when it comes to mechanical things, proven by the way they've taken both of their bikes apart and rebuilt them. If they could get the bonnet of the car open, Herc knows they'd make an attempt at the engine.
The threat of not being able to sit down for a week had been enough to deter that particular adventure.
But electronics? Herc's not sure there's any threat strong enough to keep them away from that siren's call. Between their eighth and ninth birthdays, they demolish a laptop, two cellphones – old ones because they learned that lesson after programming Herc's to play "Yankee Doodle Dandy" with every incoming call – a set of walkie talkies, the lawnmower, and three alarm clocks.
Surprisingly, the lawn mower and the walkie talkies work better than before, but the clocks are all off by minutes and Herc can't get the alarms to set for anything other than 4:00 a.m.
For some reason, Angie isn't amused the first time they go off in rapid succession.
Halfway through Year 4, the twins' teacher and the headmistress meet with Herc and Angie. Charlie and Scott test far above their grade level and they're bored in class. Disruptive. The school wants to advance them to Year 5.
The headmistress suggests more intensive testing.
Herc isn't quite sure what to do with the two of them, because he was an average student at best. And while Angie was a good student, the twins are possibly smarter than both of their parents combined.
Angie jokes that maybe it was all the Tim Tams while she was pregnant.
Four days before the twins' tenth birthday, the world changes.
An enormous beast roars out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean and tears its way through San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento. The combined might of the American and British military forces fail to bring the creature down.
Herc's small family watches the telly in horror as the order is given and nuclear missiles kill the thing six days and thirty-five miles after it destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge. Tens of thousands of people are dead.
That night, Charlie and Scott wake from a nightmare and crawl into Herc and Angie's bed. Herc just slides over and gives them room to curl up together.
The world believes that the Trespasser is an isolated event.
The world is wrong.
Six months later, Hundun crawls from the ocean to attack Manila. Four months after that, Kaiceph emerges and lays waste to Cabo San Lucas.
Once again, nuclear weapons are the only things that stop the creatures.
The twins have more nightmares, waking in tears each time. They no longer play with their dinosaur toys.
Angie finds them all stuffed in three shoe boxes and shoved far beneath their bed.
Their grades suffer, and their normal sunny dispositions disappear. Finally, Herc has enough. He sits down with them after dinner one night – Charlie on his right leg and Scott on his left – and gives them all his attention.
What if one of those monsters comes to Sydney? What will happen to them? What if he has to go out and fight it like they've seen on the telly?
Herc doesn't lie to them. He's never lied to them. As Angie sits quietly at his feet and holds their hands, he tells the boys that if one of those big ugly beasts dares to show its face around these parts, he and his squad mates will go out and show it what for. But really, surely something that big and ugly isn't stupid enough to want to tangle with a bunch of angry Aussies.
That night, they don't even try to put the boys in their own bed.
Instead, Angie gathers their blankets and pillows and makes a pallet for the four of them on the living room floor. Herc watches over them as they sleep: his boys facing each other, Charlie's right hand clasping Scott's left, and Angie curled around them both.
That night, after the twins are asleep, Herc and Angie have a whispered conversation over their heads.
None of the creatures have come close to Sydney, but that's not to say they never will. And Herc wants to have a plan of some sort.
Angie agrees, because it's smart and logical and it helps to ease her nerves. But when Herc says he'll come get her and they'll go get the boys if anything happens, she is quick to shake her head and say no.
Charlie and Scott are to be retrieved first. She's an adult and so is Herc. They can find their own way to an agreed upon meeting place. The boys can't.
She can see that Herc wants to argue, but he just nods and says she's right.
There comes a night when Herc's cellphone wakes him in the wee hours.
As he listens, he closes his eyes and says a silent prayer. Then, quietly, he wakes Angie and tells her that there's an emergency. He has to head to the base.
She's still mostly asleep so she just smiles and kisses him goodbye.
Before he leaves, Herc stops in the boys' room and presses a soft kiss to their foreheads before whispering a quiet "I love you" as he pulls the blanket back up over their shoulders.
The morning of September 2, 2014, dawns bright and clear and just a little cool.
Charlie and Scott eat toaster waffles for breakfast and kick their feet against their chairs as they jabber at each other while Angie finishes getting dressed. She washes their faces, grabs their backpacks, and bundles them into the car.
They don't ask where Herc is. Ten years of being military brats have made them understand that sometimes Dad has odd hours.
At school, Angie gives them each a kiss and a hug and tells them she loves them. They wave as she drives away.
The second Angie steps into the hospital, she learns the exact nature of Herc's 'emergency'. Her heart skips a beat as she thinks of her boys – Charlie and Scott at school on the other side of the city and Herc at the base or God only knows where.
She wants to leave, to collect all three of them and get the hell out of Sydney. But she's a nurse and she has a job. And the utmost faith in the military to protect them all from the kaiju that is off Australia's coast.
They name the monster Scissure and engage it on a string of islands off the coast. The Air Force and the Army throw everything they have at it.
The nuclear missile they launch just shakes the kaiju.
Back on base, Herc gets the warning. They failed to stop it and now Scissure is rampaging through downtown Sydney. The Army is attempting to lure it to Garigal National Park. There will be more nukes.
Barking orders at his men, Herc pulls out his phone and calls Angie. He gets her voicemail.
Commandeering a Bell Kiowa helicopter – and he sees that he isn't the only one – he makes the one decision he's prayed for ten years that he'd never have to make.
Herc has less than an hour. He can't make it to both places.
So he flies out and he prays that Angie gets the hell out of there.
The school is in chaos when Herc sets the chopper down on the playground.
It takes him precious minutes to cut through the crowd. The noise drops to absolute silence when he bellows his sons' names. He almost collapses in relief when he hears the startled "Dad" from near the buses.
He drops to his knees in front of them, running anxious hands over their bodies and worried eyes over their pale faces. They know.
Once again, he doesn't lie.
After he helps shepherd children onto the nearby buses, he carries Charlie and Scott to the chopper. When they ask where Mum is, he tells them that she should be on her way to the base. It's been their emergency plan for months, so it's not a lie.
Herc just doesn't know if she's going to stick to it.
Three days later, Herc has to tell his sons that their mother is gone. They scream at him that it's not true, he's lying, where's Mum, why isn't she here.
Herc just holds their small bodies tight and lets them scream themselves hoarse.
The official story is that the kaiju destroyed the hospital before anyone could get out of the building. But Herc knows it could just as easily have been the nuclear strike that took out an entire quadrant of the city.
He doesn't tell Charlie and Scott that.
By December, the world has a new word to add to all of its languages.
Adam Casey, Jasper Schoenfeld, Sergio D'onofrio, and Caitlin Lightcap become headline names. There are new phrases like neural handshake and Drift compatibility. The Pan Pacific Defense Corps forms and starts recruiting people all over the world.
Herc makes his decision. If there's a chance to make the bastards pay, he's going to take it.
Charlie and Scott sit on the edge of the sofa and listen in silence. They've been sullen and withdrawn since Angie's death, and Herc can't blame them.
He can't blame them, but he misses their smiles and their laughter and the way they'd chase each other through the house as Angie yelled at them to take it outside. He misses his wife with every breath and mourns his sons' lost innocence the same.
When he tells them that they're moving to Alaska for a while so he can go to school and become a Jaeger pilot, Charlie tilts his head. A few seconds later, Scott does the same.
When they nod and say okay, Herc breathes a quiet sigh of relief.
The Jaeger Academy on Kodiak Island is hard. Harder than boot camp. It's six months of pure hell.
But the sight of his sons tucked in their bed each night with a photo of Angie on their nightstand reminds Herc why he's doing this. Over the next few months, more photos of Angie join that first one.
The twins put them up all over their quarters – photos of Angie, of Herc and Angie, of Angie with the boys, of all four of them. They touch those photos often, until the gloss is smudged by small fingerprints.
Herc finds himself touching the photos as well as fresh pain over her loss rips through him.
And when his sons wake in the middle of the night from another nightmare of their mother dying, Herc holds them as they cry.
He wants to tell them that it will be okay, but he doesn't really believe that himself.
Herc graduates in June. Charlie and Scott stand at attention and salute him. They look so much like their mother with their solemn faces and more-green-than-blue eyes that Herc can't breathe.
He salutes back.
One of the last Mark I Jaegers is his. Lucky Seven. Turns out he's Drift compatible with Malaya, a young woman from Manila. She lost her entire family to Hundun.
Herc understands her pain.
They're assigned to the soon-to-be opened Hong Kong Shatterdome, with assurances that Sydney will have its own Shatterdome in a few years.
Location doesn't matter to Herc. All he wants is a chance to kick some kaiju arse.
In Hong Kong, Herc and the boys meet Stacker Pentecost and Tamsin Sevier, pilots of Coyote Tango.
Stacker is black and so very British and towers over Herc. Tamsin is petite and a ginger with one side of her head shaved and earrings running the length of both ears. The boys watch her in silent awe.
It's been almost ten months since Scissure and his sons still haven't found their smiles.
But as they stare at this tiny Welsh woman with a spirit of fire like Angie's, Herc starts a mental countdown to when one of them shaves the side of the other's head. He makes it to eleven days before he comes back to their quarters after training to find them both with only half a head of hair.
He just rubs the back of his neck and tells them to clean up the mess in the bathroom. The wide grins that blossom on their faces make up for the ridiculousness of their new hair style.
Tamsin claps in delight when she sees them at dinner.
Herc and Malaya's first deployment comes a month later. It's the middle of the night when the alarms go off, and Herc knows the boys are awake the second his feet hit the floor.
He can hear it in the silence coming from their side of the room.
On the way to suit up, he runs into Tendo Choi, one of the new J-Tech officers, and he offers to keep an eye on Charlie and Scott. They wear identical pleading looks when they turn their faces up to Herc.
Sitting in LOCCENT with Tendo means they'll watch every second of the battle unfold. It's not exactly an ideal situation as far as Herc is concerned. Even though Lucky is to hold the Miracle Mile and back up Tacit Ronin, Herc knows there's always a chance that he and Malaya will see action.
Still, it's better than having them huddled in their quarters with no news at all.
Hours later, when they return, battered and exhausted after having to wade into the actual battle, the first thing Herc sees are his boys' faces.
The pride in their wide grins, so like their mothers, makes the moments of terror experienced out there all worth it.
An assignment to Lima follows Hong Kong, and Tokyo follows that. Herc and Malaya are never assigned stints at Vladivostok – the Kaidanovskys have their situation well in hand – or Anchorage. For that, Herc is grateful.
He's heard stories of the Gage twins and the newly graduated darlings (and terrors) of the PPDC, the Becket brothers.
The Sydney Shatterdome opens in May 2017 and Herc takes his boys home.
It's the first time they've set foot on Australian soil in almost three years.
Before they report to the Shatterdome, the twins demand to see the memorial. Herc only stops so they can pick out flowers.
He watches as their fingers trace Angie's name after they place the flowers by the pillar. And when he wraps his arms around their shoulders, they lean into him and make no effort to wipe away their tears.
They can finally talk about Angie without crying, but it's not easy. It will never be easy.
Herc misses her with every breath he takes. He misses her smile and her warmth, the way her hair smelled, and the sound of her laugh. He misses her every time he looks at their sons and sees the ghost of her face in the lines of theirs.
And he knows there are nights they still cry themselves to sleep. So he does his best to make sure he's in their quarters at bedtime to see that they get their showers and brush their teeth and don't stay up too late reading or following the many Jaeger pilot blogs online.
It doesn't always work like he wants and there are arguments, but the argument always disappears as soon as one of them says "but Mum always –"
Even now, Angie's role in their life is still a gaping hole raw around the edges.
Charlie and Scott are fourteen and they're taller and bigger than most kids their age, thanks to hours spent working themselves into exhaustion in the gym. Herc isn't the only one who wants a measure of revenge.
There are tutors now, the subjects and people changing from Dome to Dome, but they still excel at everything they put their minds to. And the biggest of those things is Lucky Seven.
They know their dad's Jaeger inside and out and spend hours and hours crawling over and inside her. If there's a glitch in the system, they can often diagnose it before the crew chief does. It makes them the darlings of the Shatterdome. Even if more than one tech curses them out for the various upgrades that they seem determined to try (and Herc hears all about those in the daily briefings).
And if the sight of them in harnesses eighty meters in the air scrambling across Lucky's chassis gives Herc more than a few grey hairs, he keeps it to himself.
In no time at all, Herc becomes the de facto leader of the Shatterdome. It's not a position he wants, but it's one he seems stuck with regardless.
Marshal Eversmann just shrugs when Herc complains about it. The man's not terribly concerned about the chain of command as long as the Dome runs smoothly.
And for the most part it does just that.
Sure there's the time where every surface in the Mess ends up covered in aluminum foil and duct tape – there isn't a single witness to the incident, but given the fact that Charlie and Scott had slept until almost noon the next morning, Herc has his suspicions – and they're still trying to find the alarm that goes off in the Marshal's office every six hours. But there's a lot of down time between kaiju and everyone gets bored.
There's only so much training they can do.
But Herc should have known better than to let Charlie and Scott hang out in LOCCENT for any amount of time. The first morning that "Highway to Hell" blares through the Shatterdome speakers at full volume at 6:00 a.m., they don't even try to look innocent.
That one earns them a few creative names (and they're creative even for a bunch of Australians) yelled out from various rooms, and Herc hears all about that, too.
And every time that LOCCENT Chief Swofford tries to page someone, they have to sit through the chorus of Crowded House's "Weather With You" before he can actually make the announcement. The twins are particularly smug about that one.
Most of their pranks are harmless and fun.
That's what Herc tells himself after three days when he realizes that they set his watch forward by an hour so he'd think he was late for everything. They look suitably chastened when he yells at them, but he knows that twinkle in their eyes.
A week later, he wakes up strapped to his bunk by two dozen bungee cords.
Charlie and Scott return that afternoon to find everything in their room zip-tied – their clothes are zip-tied to the hangers, their drawers are zip-tied shut, their blankets and pillows are zipped so tightly to their bunk that they can't wiggle them free. Even their shoes are zip-tied together in a single line.
In the middle of the floor is a pair of scissors. There's a zip-tie around the handles.
Herc flashes a wide grin and waggles his eyebrows when they show up for supper that night with blisters on their fingertips.
The next four months are open prank warfare throughout the Dome. At one time or another, every single member of the Jaeger crews – and there are two now that Echo Saber has joined them – get dragged into the pranks.
Some of them are elaborate, like the time they had managed to plaster anti-kaiju propaganda posters to Echo's back. But usually it's little things that are more annoying than anything.
Like the time they managed to change the pass codes on all the doors of the living quarters. Herc still doesn't know which one actually did it and neither one of them confesses, so he grounds them both.
He comes back four nights in a row to find one creature or another in his bed.
Herc retaliates by having housekeeping dye all of their boxers pink.
Most of the time, it's Charlie and Scott against Herc. The boys are clever, but their old man is devious. And he reckons it's worth the hassle to see them laughing again. But there are times the boys quarrel, and then it's no holds barred.
Herc will never forget the morning that Charlie had fidgeted in his seat all through breakfast because he'd pissed off Scott the night before, so Scott had coated their toilet seat with Icy Hot. He'd made sure that Charlie had his bathroom time first.
Charlie's revenge for that is to mix some Orajel with Scott's toothpaste. He howls with laughter as Scott drools on himself for the next hour.
Herc catches them the first time a week shy of their fifteenth birthday.
Their family has always had an open door policy – barring the few years when they were little and Herc had really wanted some privacy with Angie – and Herc doesn't think twice before opening their door. To say he gets an eyeful is an understatement.
The last time he saw his boys that naked, they were six and rebelling against the new pool rules. The young woman between them is not quite seventeen and the daughter of Echo's chief tech.
He can't say he's surprised because they are his sons.
Without saying a word, Herc backs out of their room, closes the door, and leans against the wall. He doesn't have to wait long. Less than five minutes later, the door opens and the young woman slips out and hurries past him.
She never raises her gaze from the floor.
Charlie and Scott are half-dressed – and Herc thanks God for that small favor – and look torn between embarrassment and anger. They're both so red they're practically glowing.
They're expecting a lecture.
Instead, Herc holds onto his temper by the thinnest of threads and asks them when and how often and is she the only one. Their answers are several weeks, not often, and no.
He doesn't press them to elaborate on the last one, but he wants to because they're not even fifteen yet for crying out loud. Instead, he just drags a chair over, sits down, and gives them The Talk.
By the end of it, they're both squirming and whining at him to just stop already, please, fuck's sake, Dad. Herc is just as uncomfortable, but he does a better job of hiding it. But it takes everything in him to keep from smiling at their identical looks of disgust when he asks if they've ever touched each other.
And if he takes great delight in handing them each a box of rubbers in front of Lucky's entire crew the next day, well, it serves the little arseholes right.
The next time Herc catches them, there's another boy bent over between them. He doesn't say a word. He just includes a bottle of slick with the next box of rubbers.
There's a Shatterdome-wide party on their fifteenth birthday.
Charlie and Scott have a great time. There are presents and cake and general silliness, and Herc allows them each one beer. If Angie were there, she'd give him hell for it.
That night, they knock on his door and tell him that they want to go to the Jaeger Academy.
Herc waits a beat too long to answer because his brain has stopped working. Just the idea of the two of them crawling into a Conn-Pod and going out there fills him with a soul deep fear like he's never known.
He tells them that they're too young and they get that stubborn Hansen expression on their faces.
So he tells them that this isn't the life he wants for them, that he wants them to actually have a life and not just be another cog in the war machine. He tells them that this isn't what their mum would have wanted. They just look at him for a long moment, their faces giving away nothing.
Then they turn as one and walk away.
They don't say a single word to him for two weeks. And they avoid him for another two after that.
It's only when he corners them coming out of their room one morning that they even look at him. The entire hallway bears witness to the screaming fight that follows as they tell him that Angie might have been his wife, but she was their mother and they deserve the chance to make those sons of bitches pay.
It's the first time that Herc realizes just how much like him his boys are.
Marshal Eversmann shows Herc their evaluations and grades. They've earned near-perfect marks in every subject the tutor has set in front of them. They know the Jaegers and the technology.
They might be too young, but Eversmann will sign off on it if Herc agrees.
But all Herc can do is look at their Kwoon evaluation – and how they managed to take down Echo's pilots in a two-on-two match with a score of four to two each. Leilani and Peeta are twice the twins' age and graduated in Herc's class. He knows how well they work together.
But the match had lasted less than fifteen minutes and all witnesses agree that Charlie and Scott moved in total synchronization.
Christmas is a quiet, strained affair for the Hansen men.
They don't talk much and they exchange gifts with few words. But Herc doesn't miss the fact that they slip into twinspeak a few times during the day. He doesn't say anything, just watches them with tired eyes and wonders how he ever thought this could turn out any differently.
They're his sons after all. And they're just as much their mothers'.
That night, he knocks on their bedroom door and silently hands them the last present he has for each of them. He'd struggled with giving it to them all day and had decided against it more than once.
But their faces when they open the boxes and see dog tags and two sets of cadet uniforms tell him that he made the right decision.
Two days later, the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald shows two photographs.
The first is of Herc and the twins at the memorial pillar. Herc knows exactly when and where it happened. He just doesn't remember seeing the photographer.
The other is far more recent. Charlie and Scott stand in front of the memorial, both clearly in tears and angry. Scott has his hand cupped over Angie's name on the pillar while Chuck looks seemingly right at the photographer.
The expression in their eyes shatters Herc's heart.
The headline reads "Sydney's Sons to Become Jaeger Pilots" and Charlie and Scott stare at it in silence. The article talks about them, about how they lost their mother to Scissure and how their father became a PPDC Ranger. It tells how they moved from Shatterdome to Shatterdome before finally landing in Sydney, and how they – along with a young girl from Tokyo – have become the true faces of the Kaiju War. It talks about how the boys and Herc still grieve for Angie.
And it speculates about what their mother would think of them becoming child soldiers.
Charlie growls that they had no right while Scott gets up and silently punches the wall before Herc can grab him.
No one in the Dome has any idea how the vultures found out about their enlistment or any of the other private details, but it's all water under the bridge. The city knows about them now and, soon enough, so will the entire world.
Herc isn't sure how he feels about that.
Vulcan Specter arrives on New Year's Eve, and Herc takes a week's leave.
It's a long flight from Sydney to Alaska, but Herc is going to see his sons settled into their quarters at the Academy. They're the youngest ever admitted and, if they make both cuts and graduate, they'll be the youngest pilots ever produced. That's going to leave them open to a lot of bullying from their older classmates.
And Herc can't protect them from that, but he can make damn sure that they get there safely.
Though, as he watches the two of them interact, he almost pities the first seppo that tries to bully them. He can still remember their fights in school and how the two of them had never hesitated to band together to take down a bigger opponent.
The week passes faster than Herc wants. He spends every minute of it with Charlie and Scott.
Most of the instructors are still the same, and Tamsin is Kwoon Master now. She refused to let them retire her after she seized in the harness in Tokyo, so the PPDC sent her to the Academy along with Stacker, who is now in charge of Ranger training. The entire staff seems pleased that the twins are there, and Tamsin is delighted to see them.
Herc can't help but wonder if everyone will feel the same once the prank wars begin.
Herc stands on the tarmac, jacket collar flipped up against the Alaskan cold and waits for the chopper that will carry him to Anchorage and the flight back to Sydney. Charlie and Scott stand with him, clad in their cadet's uniforms, chins held high as they squint into the wind.
The chopper lands and it's too soon. Far too soon.
Without a word, Herc turns to face them and pulls himself up straight. When he salutes them, they salute back and their forms are perfect.
He expects no less.
And then they break, first Charlie and then Scott. Both boys wrap him in their arms, and Herc can feel their tears on his skin as he enfolds them in a tight hug.
When they finally separate and sort themselves out, their faces are pale and tear-stained and they look so damn young that Herc wants to bundle them onto the chopper and take them back home. But he can't.
They're not his little boys anymore, even though all he can see is the two tiny sprogs that wrapped his heart around their little fingers with their first breaths. Between one blink and the next, Herc sees them as children and the young lads that they are and the men they're going to become.
He's going to be proud of them.
He's already proud of them. And when he tells them so, their smiles rival the winter sun high overhead.
It's only six months. And they have Skype and phones and orders to contact him at least once a week. Only six months, but they will be some of the longest months of Herc's life.
His last sight of them as the chopper lifts away from the tarmac is Charlie with his arm around Scott's shoulders as the two of them wave until he's out of sight.
Herc settles back, closes his eyes, and starts the mental countdown until his next flight back to Alaska.