“In other news this morning, Pan Pacific Defense Corps Marshal Hercules Hansen and his son, Ranger Chuck Hansen – seen here in this video wearing their dress uniforms – attended the funeral of Scott Hansen, who died earlier this week from a stroke related to his abuse of the illegal drug, kaiju blue fever. The disgraced former jaeger pilot was serving life in prison for murder and drug charges. He was forty-five,” the news anchor said in faux concerned tones. “Scott piloted the Mark-3 jaeger, Lucky Seven, with his older brother Hercules Hansen from 2018 to 2021. Lucky Seven is credited with three confirmed kaiju kills. In 2021, Scott was dismissed from the PPDC service and found guilty by a PPDC court martial for the murder of a young prostitute, distribution of illegal substances, and piloting while under the influence of unauthorized medical substances. In a press release, Marshal Hansen stated that his brother fought with demons and can now be at peace. Confronted by paparazzi as they left the cemetery in Sydney, Ranger Hansen echoed his father’s words and had no other comments.”
“Fucking paparazzi,” Chuck swore as he climbed into the limo, grateful that it was just his father and the security team. “I’d like to –”
Herc just looked at him, grief and regret filling the ghost drift between them, and Chuck finished with, “– just once, have the last fucking word.”
Dryly, his father noted, “You do, most days.”
Chuck let out a heavy breath. It felt as though he’d been grieving for his uncle for years, so why did it still feel raw? Damned unfair, he thought, and wished Raleigh and Richie had been able to come with them. Raleigh was sick and wasn’t in any shape to travel. Richie had been obligated to stay home as well, as both of the jaegers were in the process of getting much-needed repairs completed, necessitating oversight of the jaeger crews.
“Should’ve just let the prison cremate that loser like they were going to,” Chuck complained.
“And you would’ve demanded proof,” Herc said, grief making his tone harsher than normal. “Look, we both know Scott fucked up and how, but he was still my brother and my copilot for a while. We killed kaiju while you were still dreaming of being in the conn-pod.”
Chuck looked at his father, seeing the tears rolling down his cheeks and decided that just because he wanted to vent his anger, now wasn’t the time. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever stop being angry with Scott, but something – maybe from the ghost drift, maybe it was the memory of being eight years old and getting a hug from his uncle when he needed one – made his anger collapse like a house of cards. He tried fighting the emotion, but his breath hitched anyway, and he started crying openly. For a moment, both he and his father fought the urge to go to each other for comfort. “Just get over here, old man,” Chuck said crossly. Though they were more at ease with each other since the Breach had been closed, physical contact still didn’t come easily.
Herc slid across the limo and pulled an unresisting Chuck into his arms while the two security guards riding with them pointedly did not look at them. The ride to the airport was silent except for the sound of their grief. Once parked, the limo driver passed the message back to their security team that they were at their destination.
“Marshal, we’re at the airport,” the leader of the security team announced at a moment he thought was appropriate, several minutes after their arrival.
Herc drew in a deep breath as Chuck pulled back and tried to straighten his shirt. Someone passed a box of facial tissue and a small plastic bag to them and they spent a few minutes wiping their eyes and blowing their noses before disposing the used tissue in the plastic bag. “You ready?” Herc asked.
“Ready to run for it,” Chuck said bluntly, certain the paparazzi had followed them.
Their security team hustled them out of the limo. Much to their relief, the paparazzi had followed the decoy vehicle, and the Hansens were soon aboard the jumphawk along with their security team and headed back to Hong Kong.
“You, uh, okay?” Herc asked as the jumphawk leveled out to cruising altitude.
Chuck lifted his head slightly. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
Herc half-shrugged. “Give me a few days.” He sighed heavily, eyes welling with unshed tears, and it made Chuck abruptly mad.
“What, you can’t cry in front of me over him like you were a few minutes ago?” Chuck dared to push.
Herc glared at him. “You never made a secret of how you felt about him.”
“Yeah and I’m still sitting here, feeling like I need to punch something or cry or both,” Chuck shot back. “He was a good guy once upon a time. If he’d learned to fill that hole inside of him with something that wasn’t drugs or alcohol or sex, maybe you two would still be kicking ass in Lucky Seven and they’d have paired me up with Raleigh or someone else in Striker.”
At those words, Herc blinked once, and Chuck moved out of his seat to hold his father, feeling his grief cascade through their ghost drift like a tidal wave. For once, Chuck didn’t care who saw them or that Herc’s shuddering tears were soaking through his shirt. Some small part of him knew that he’d harbored a tiny hope that his uncle would pull his shit together someday and walk out of prison a changed man for the better, but that had been a little boy’s sun-washed dream.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder and he looked up to see that one of their security guards was trying to hand him a box of facial tissue. Breathing deep, Chuck willed calm into himself before taking the box with a nod of gratitude, then passing it wordlessly to his father, who took a few tissues and deliberately tried to compose himself.
“I’ll be fine,” Herc managed. “Just…give me some time?”
Chuck nodded and, after taking a few tissues for himself, reclaimed his seat. Pointedly, he looked away from his father as he wiped his tears and blew his nose before he busied himself with his tablet, wanting to be the strong one for his father as Herc had so often been for him.
Richie hugged both Chuck and Herc as soon as they were clear of the jumphawk. Herc shamelessly leaned into the older man, wishing he had some of Richie’s resilience. He knew that Richie had learned that resilience from the school of hard knocks, but it didn’t change the fact that Herc didn’t feel strong right now. Knowing that a chapter of his life had been closed permanently, even though he’d been expecting his brother’s death for years, was throwing Herc for a loop. He kept waiting for another text, another phone call, another email, or another letter from his little brother, and it was cognitive dissonance to realize he’d never receive another one from Scott. Worse, Herc realized he’d harbored a secret hope that one day, he could Drift with Scott and understand just why Scott had chosen the path he had.
Dylan Carrodus, deputy marshal of the PPDC and the former marshal of the Sydney Shatterdome, waited until Richie had stepped back before she looked up at both men. Blonde, with pixie-like features, she stood an inch under five feet tall. Looking down at her through a sudden rush of tears, it occurred to Herc that she was one of the few still alive who’d watched Scott evolve into a man bent on self-destruction. Dylan had assigned security to make sure that Scott didn’t kill himself trying to find something to fill the hole he saw in his life, but she hadn’t factored in Scott’s resourcefulness or willingness to bribe. Herc couldn’t fault her for the things his brother had done. Knowing that, though, didn’t stop the instant flash of ‘she could’ve done more’ that crossed Herc’s mind. Dylan’s face reflected understanding and compassion as Herc tried to pull his dignity back together.
“No need for that, Herc,” she admonished him. “You’re allowed to grieve. In fact, you both are off duty for the next three days.” She held up a hand to forestall the argument she could see coming. “Standard protocol.”
“And Chuck,” Richie added, “If you decide to climb rigging to avoid talking to anyone instead of tending to Raleigh, I will kick your ass. He’s got bronchitis and he’s been trying to tough it out. I was asked to ask you to make sure he doesn’t let it get too bad.”
“Got it,” Chuck said, surprising both Dylan and Richie with his ready agreement. He glanced at his father. “I’m going to check on him. You need me for anything?”
Herc shook his head and deliberately turned to Dylan. “Anything needing my attention?”
“No,” Dylan said crisply. Turning to Richie, she added, “That goes for you too. I don’t want to see either of you until at least dinner.”
From the look on Richie’s face, Herc suspected Dylan’s words were mere formality. Richie would’ve ensured he had the rest of the day free. Richie’s next words only confirmed Herc’s guess.
“Planned on it,” Richie said. “Permission to be excused, ma’am?”
“Granted,” Dylan said, nodding.
Herc didn’t expect Dylan to express her condolences. She’d made them, along with a statement of her regret that she had overlooked Scott’s excesses as long as he was able to fight, before Herc and Chuck had left for the funeral. She was not the kind of person to repeat such words, something Herc appreciated now as he and Richie made their way to what was quickly becoming their room.
“Someone spread the word I wasn’t to be bothered?” Herc asked gruffly, noticing that no one interrupted his and Richie’s path through the hallways. The people they encountered acknowledged their presence with a nod, but said nothing more, even people Herc knew to be effusive, extroverted people.
“Dylan thought you’d appreciate it if you weren’t bombarded by well-meaning people right as you landed,” Richie said carefully. “You’ll probably have people later at dinner, though.”
“I can handle dinner,” Herc decided. A few hours of distance, he thought, and some time to grieve in the arms of a man who knew just what Scott had done, and he might be ready to deal with the condolences.
Once in the privacy of their room, Herc let Richie fuss over him. The shower stall was big enough for two, and Richie played bath attendant, distracting Herc from his grief with his pampering. It felt a little wrong to indulge this way, but when Herc started to protest, Richie kissed him.
“Don’t ever let yourself regret this,” Richie said harshly as he set the soap back in its dish. “If he were alive right now, he’d be the first to encourage you to be a hedonist.”
Herc laughed briefly, remembering the many ways his brother had thought Herc’s attitude could be bettered if he got laid more. “Yeah, he did, often.” Herc closed his eyes a moment and tilted his head back to let the water cascade down his face before he moved out of the spray. “I can’t believe he’s dead, Richie. My little brother is dead, and I knew it was coming, but…” He looked at Richie helplessly.
“It still is a shock,” Richie agreed as he took the handheld shower and proceeded to rinse off Herc. “I think we all hoped he was going to be a stubborn asshole and live to be ninety. Maybe with a heart transplant and telling everybody to stay away from drugs and alcohol – be some kind of changed man.”
“Yeah,” Herc agreed, bitterness lacing his tone. “Why did he have to do all that shit, Richie? I was in his head for years and I still don’t understand.”
Richie turned off the water and stepped out. Grabbing a towel, he quickly dried himself off before grabbing a fresh towel and turning his attention to Herc, who stepped out of the shower. “Because Scott felt he had to,” Richie said simply. “He knew he wasn’t going to be immortal, and he settled for the kind of immortality he could get.”
Herc shuddered and sniffed back a sudden rush of tears. “I didn’t know how to stop him, Richie. I wish I could have. I feel like I spent years watching him load a gun and play Russian roulette with it.” Herc drew a breath. “And I’m pissed off that I’m standing here mourning his sorry ass.”
“Not surprising,” Richie said mildly. “If you want more constructive ideas on how to deal with those feelings, talk to Victoria in the morning,” he suggested, referring to the Shatterdome’s chief psychiatrist. “I’m not saying that to say you can’t vent to me. Right now, I think you’re in the need of some cuddling and some sleep. It’s a long flight from Sydney, even on a jumphawk.”
“And if I said I wasn’t tired?”
“So talk to me while I cuddle you.”
Herc didn’t have the heart to argue with Richie’s plans. Herc pulled on a pair of briefs and a pair of sleep shorts before pulling the covers back on the queen-sized bed. Richie just donned a pair of plaid boxer shorts from the stash of his clothes that occupied one drawer of the chest of drawers next to the closet. Once they were both on the bed, Richie wrapped his arms around Herc and arranged him so they were both comfortable.
“Tell me something about him that you’ve never told me before, a good memory,” Richie said quietly, as if understanding Herc had words he wanted to say on the tip of his tongue.
Herc considered. As a member of Lucky Seven’s crew, Richie had heard many of the Hansen brothers’ stories of growing up together; there had been enough downtime in the glory days of the Kaiju War for such chatter and bonding. “I’d only been married a month before I shipped out to basic training, and Angela hadn’t learned to drive yet. Her parents had been worried she’d meet a boy, you see.”
Richie laughed softly. “I remember that trip to pick up Chuck. They were very emphatic about what they thought was proper. So Scott taught her?”
“He was a mechanic at a car dealership, so he had access to all sorts of cars. When I came home, not only did Angie know how to drive, but she had this amazing little sleeper car – you know, the kind you look at and think, ‘no way is that a fast car’? Turned out it had been redone to be an amateur track car, but one of the requirements was that it had to be street legal. So it had all the safety features and then some, and it had a hell of an engine.”
Richie whistled softly. “Did she love it?”
“She loved it,” Herc agreed. “She told me that it was a boost of confidence to know she could drive that fast, even if she never did. Or if she did, she never told me; I’m sure Scott encouraged her to do it at least once, just so she’d know.” He paused, and tried to remember other, better times. “Did I ever tell you that Scott bought Chuck’s first proper motorcycle?”
“No, but Chuck did. He said you weren’t sure whether to thank your brother for also buying all the gear he needed or to yell at him for spending the money, so you did both?”
Herc tried to laugh, but the laughter turned into a sob. He hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed that brother – the one who’d flirted with the pretty girls and taken them home, but had made sure he took care of his family. “I miss that guy, Richie. He gave a damn about Chuck and me and Angie and the kid across the street. Why couldn’t he have stayed that guy?”
“Because neither of you stayed the same,” Richie reminded him. “Didn’t you always tell me that Drifting changes you?”
Herc hitched a breath. “Do you…do you think I could’ve done anything different?”
Richie shook his head. “Not in my book, not with Scott. I was there when I heard you chide him over drinking and partying too much and his antics giving you secondhand nausea in the Drift. You can play Monday-morning quarterback with it for years, but you only can only live in the moment you’re in, make decisions based on what you have. You can’t live life backwards – it’s forwards and onwards, all the way, even if you stop for an hour or two to think about the things you should’ve done different.”
Herc looked at Richie, who held on tight as Herc’s tears started to flow. Eventually, Herc had to get up and blow his nose, but he felt more at peace by the time he crawled back into bed.
Meanwhile, Chuck had tracked his boyfriend down to the medical clinic, where Dr. Grace Chandel was trying to convince Raleigh that no, he needed to stay put.
“Your lungs aren’t clear, and you don’t sleep, and you need to rest,” she was saying as Chuck entered the room.
Raleigh just looked at her, then over her shoulder at Chuck. He sagged visibly when he saw Chuck.
“You do not need to match your brother on how to not to heal a respiratory infection,” she chided.
Raleigh sighed. “Only if you let him stay with me,” he bargained. His voice sounded rough, like he’d been coughing a lot.
Grace looked at Chuck. Not for the first time, Chuck marveled at the way she seemed unruffled at feeling another immortal walk into a room, even if it was someone she knew. Someday, he thought, I’m going to have to ask her how she does it. “Only for tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll see. I’ll be back with cough syrup and an antibiotic, and you will take them.”
“How bad are you?” Chuck asked Raleigh after kissing him in greeting.
“Ribs hurt,” Raleigh admitted. He coughed again. “Bronchitis. Yancy’s forbidden to see me.”
Chuck winced. He knew in the two months since Yancy had been recovered, the brothers had become almost inseparable. It wasn’t uncommon to see them walking together, usually in wolf form, down the hallways. Yancy was far more comfortable as a wolf than he was as a human, and Chuck suspected it had to do with the fact that he’d spent most of the last decade in wolf form. As wolves, the brothers could communicate mentally, much like they’d done in the Drift.
“Well, considering he’s just finally recovered, I don’t think he’d appreciate getting sick again so soon,” Chuck noted.
Raleigh shot him a look. “He was supposed to move into his new place today.”
“Quit talking; you sound horrible,” Chuck admonished. “And yes, he was, but I’m sure you can check it out tomorrow if he went ahead with the plans. And no, I’m not going to talk about my uncle, either.”
“Wasn’t expecting you to,” Raleigh admitted as Grace returned with the medicine. “Can you get me my PJs?”
“And something to read,” Chuck agreed, aware of Raleigh’s hatred of hospital gowns. “Dr. Chandel, is there anything else you want me to do besides get out of your way for a while?” Although he could call her by her first name, Chuck only did so when she was off-duty out of respect for her professional rank.
“Shower and change,” she advised. “Go punch a bag if it will make you feel better. And eat something. I’ll make sure Raleigh gets fed. Then you can come back.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He respected Grace at lot, both as a physician and as one of the oldest immortals he knew. She had made his First Death as painless as possible, and for that alone, he would be forever in her debt. He wasn’t about to countermand any order she gave. He pressed a kiss to Raleigh’s cheek and headed to the quarters he shared with Raleigh.
Mako’s room was across the hall, and she was waiting on the steps leading up to her room. Seeing her, Chuck paused before unlocking the door to his quarters.
“I know I have said it before,” Mako said after greeting him, “but I am sorry for your loss, Chuck.”
Chuck’s breath caught and he forced himself to look at her. How long had it been since they’d first met, he wondered abruptly. 2017, in Lima, on that two-week training Lucky Seven did, he thought. Ten years, and she had Uncle Scott pegged then even though she didn’t quite know the English for it. “You remember the day we met?” he asked her now. “You told me my uncle didn’t respect anyone but himself. We almost got into a fight about it.”
Mako’s eyes widened. “I would not expect you to have remembered that.”
Chuck laughed shortly. “I remember because you were the first person other than Richie to tell me my uncle wasn’t a happy man.”
She bowed her head briefly, but not before he saw compassion and understanding in her eyes. “If you want to spar this afternoon, I am free. Yancy said he would meet us in the kwoon if you want a different partner.”
“I thought he was moving into his new apartment today?”
“Not much to move when your life is in a backpack,” Mako pointed out. “I just need to text him; he’s hanging out with Tendo.”
“Give me a few moments to get what Raleigh wanted me to get, come back, change, and I’ll take you and Yancy up on that.” It wouldn’t resolve the grief pouring through him, but it would go a long way to venting it.
As always, comments, constructive criticism, suggestions, 'I like this', etc. welcome.
As for when will the next chapter be up: variable, but my goal is to finish this by the end of the year if not sooner. :-)
Yancy, Chuck discovered, was far rustier on jaeger bushido than Chuck expected, even after seeing his fight against Raleigh a few weeks prior. “You haven’t been practicing?” Chuck asked.
Yancy shrugged. “I spent most of the last seven years chasing sheep. Why should I practice now?”
“Because your brother does,” Chuck pointed out.
“Oh.” Yancy considered this, shrugged, and then stepped off the mat. “Why don’t you two show me why you weren’t ever matched?”
Mako grinned. “Should I answer that?” she asked Chuck, but she was already stepping out of her boots and setting them on the edge of the mat.
“Go ahead,” Chuck invited, watching her step on the mat.
“If pressed, we could be Drift compatible,” Mako said. “But neither of our fathers wanted us both in the same jaeger.” She dodged Chuck’s first attempt at a strike and smoothly countered with another strike. For several minutes, they put on a display of technique that showed off their intense training. Chuck had fought against her enough to predict some of her moves, and vice versa. To an outside observer, it would look like they were almost Drift compatible, but it was more a testament to their familiarity with each other.
“Why not?” Yancy asked as Chuck took the first point.
“Because,” Chuck said, “Mako wanted vengeance and I wanted everyone to know my name. I didn’t want anyone to compare me to anyone else, not even my old man.”
Taking advantage of his distraction, Mako struck a point then, then immediately followed it up with a second.
Chuck grinned and set a trap for his second point. Mako fell for it as he’d expected, and he quickly took the third point, then the fourth as her surge of frustration at his win cost her focus. “Better luck next time?” he asked her, bowing.
Mako made a face. “Next time coming right up, unless you want to stop.”
“So you’re familiar with each other enough to predict what moves the other might make,” Yancy surmised. “But what if you had to pilot a jaeger together tomorrow?”
Chuck looked at Mako. “I’d say no,” he said bluntly. “No offense, Mako.”
“None taken. I have your memories, Yancy, as well as Raleigh’s and mine,” Mako pointed out calmly. “I have run the numbers on Drift compatibility. It would be easier for Chuck to pilot with someone new than for me to Drift with him. There are some memories best left unshared.” She looked at Chuck compassionately before turning her gaze to Yancy. “And there’s a recommended limit on the number of people one person should Drift with, based on the marshal’s experiences.”
“Really?” Yancy looked surprised. “I don’t remember reading that. Is that new?”
Chuck frowned. “New to you maybe. It must’ve gotten put in after your class graduated. All I know for sure is that my old man insisted on getting it put in. He was a test pilot for all of the versions of jaegers, plus there was a delay between when he and my uncle were assigned a jaeger and when it was built. The brass didn’t want to have a pilot idle and unused, so they sent my old man and my uncle around to run other jaegers and do Drift compatibility testing with other people.” Disgust seeped into Chuck’s tone. “My old man won’t say it, but he has ghosts of other people’s memories in his head. I’ve got them too. You know how the Drift works.”
Yancy winced, then looked thoughtful. “So you know what your uncle did. Not the whitewashed version that went around when I was a pilot or the version we’re getting now in the media, the one that people are saying is the truth.”
Chuck drew a deep breath, the old feeling of resignation mixing now with anger, disappointment, and grief. “Does it matter?”
“Only that you don’t seem to be as upset as I thought you’d be,” Yancy said mildly. “Which tells me that you’ve known the truth a long time.”
Chuck closed his eyes briefly. It wasn’t in his nature to fall apart in public, but Mako had cried copiously in his arms when her stoicism over Stacker’s death had finally cracked open. He’d never admit to having tears in his eyes, either, when he’d had to try to cut Herc off from openly admitting his pride and love and tangled feelings over him before he’d dropped with Stacker for that last battle.
“You expecting me to get pissed off? The asshole never thanked me for saving his life.”
“Pissed off, cry, rage, anything,” Yancy said steadily. “Holding it in isn’t going to help anything. God knows I still want to rage at my mother for smoking when the damn packs were all labeled with warnings. She died of lung cancer and left me to raise my siblings.”
“Why should I let go in front of you?” Chuck demanded. “Why can’t it be Raleigh?”
“Because I won’t judge, and if Dr. Chandel prescribed my brother narcotic cough syrup, he’ll be dead to the world by the time you get back,” Yancy pointed out. “Which means you won’t have the audience you want.”
Chuck shook his head. He’d cried on the plane, and he’d cried and raged enough, in his opinion, over someone who’d proven to be unworthy of the tears and anger. “Thanks for the offer, mate, but I’m done wasting my time over that loser.” He knew he was bluffing on that, but he hoped Yancy would let him slide on it; from the look on Mako’s face, she wasn’t going to say anything, but she’d noticed the attempt.
Yancy nodded in understanding. “Mako warned me you might say that. Do you want to get worn out enough so you can just fall asleep next to my brother?”
Chuck narrowed his gaze. “What did you have in mind?”
Mako spoke up. “We thought you might want to see if you wanted to do the Weis training routine. Hu walked us through it this morning since he wanted to see if we could help him train now that he has a more mobile wheelchair; it’s basically two-on-one jaeger bushido, with the one trading off.”
“Bring it on,” Chuck said, and let himself fall into the fight. He was very sore by the time Mako called a halt more than an hour later, but he felt more firmly grounded. He suspected he’d probably cry more over Scott in the next few days, but at least this got out the initial anger he felt, and made it so that he could fall asleep next to his boyfriend feeling more at peace.
“Who is Herc’s mystery man, kissing him in a restaurant in Paris? Ever since this video surfaced six days ago, gossip sites have been buzzing with the news that Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) marshal, Hercules Hansen, has been dating again. It looks like last fall’s whirlwind romance with E.J. Seiler, a senior financial analyst with the Asian Development Bank, is truly dead. Now, we at Celebrity News can confirm that Herc’s mystery man is none other than PPDC chief of jaeger crew operations, Jordan ‘Richie’ Richards. According to Martin Smith, the PPDC public relations officer, Richie started his career with the PPDC as a martial arts trainer, moved to the Lucky Seven crew as a jaeger tech, and served on the Lima Shatterdome jaeger crew before volunteering to be the senior jaeger tech on Striker Eureka after its decommissioning and relocation to Hong Kong. Richie was the jaeger tech assigned to watch over a young Chuck Hansen whenever Lucky Seven was deployed, and Richie is Herc’s best friend,” the hostess of the evening celebrity and pop culture news show said, looking at the camera as a split screen showed a grainy video of Herc and Richie kissing inside a restaurant, followed by a much clearer shot of Richie. “Guess Ms. Seiler never really stood a chance, huh, Nancy?” She turned to her co-hostess.
“Doesn’t look like it, Cheryl,” Nancy said with a shake of her head. “Sources say that despite Richie’s youthful good looks, he is not – as some reports claim – as young as Chuck Hansen, Herc’s son. Richie is thirty-nine years old, with familial ties to both the US and France. All I know, Cheryl, is that he’s hot – and Herc’s one lucky guy.”
“Amen to that.”
The two hostesses shared a conspiratorial look before Nancy finished her report with, “And that also means that both Hansen men are taken. Herc’s son and copilot, Chuck, recently confirmed that he and fellow jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket, have been dating for several months. They were spotted in a Hong Kong nightclub – and from the looks of that video of them dancing close, I don’t think they noticed anyone else around!”
Cheryl fanned herself. “I don’t think so either, Nancy! ”
Life went on in its usual way, and the whole of the PPDC was quickly caught up with the search and rescue operations during typhoon season that formed the bulk of its operations and funding. Two weeks after the funeral, Herc sat in his office, reading through a proposal. A consortium of universities wanted to use the jaegers for assistance with oceanographic research, since the jaegers could withstand extreme depths and temperatures in ways conventional craft couldn’t. The consortium would pay the PPDC a nominal fee for the use of the jaegers. Herc wasn’t worried about the costs as much as he was concerned about when the universities might want to do the project. Protocol meant that no proposal or contract reached the marshal’s desk without being thoroughly vetted, but Herc believed in knowing what was going on so he wasn’t in the dark.
Dylan sat in one of the guest chairs, awaiting his verdict. A copy of the proposal was visible in her tablet’s screen.
“So they want to do this later this year? Am I reading that right?” Herc asked.
Dylan nodded. “They want to do winter conditions in North America.”
“Hell of time to try and operate, especially if they want to research polar ice. Only jaeger pilot with real winter experience is Raleigh,” Herc concluded. “But it would give us a chance to see if our jaegers are capable in those conditions. To hear Newt and Hermann talk, the next Breach is likely to open somewhere else, somewhere we’re not prepared to see it.”
Dylan nodded. “So you’ll accept?”
“Make sure we have conditions for repairs and weather delays,” Herc advised. “And let’s not pay any penalties for our jaegers not being operable. If the staff they want to be observing us aren’t on time, then we aren’t going to stick around waiting for them. We have our own rock star scientists.” Herc smiled thinly. “We don’t need theirs.”
Dylan grinned. “Figured you’d say something like that. I’ll get with Legal and get those clauses added. Anything else?”
Herc started to speak when his phone rang and he felt the unmistakable sense of another immortal. Picking up the receiver, he glanced at the caller ID display. Seeing it was his executive assistant, Lily Aksakova, Herc greeted her formally, as was her preference.
“Sir, I have a visitor who insists on speaking with you. She said her name is Amanda?”
Dylan looked startled. “She’s supposed to be in Torago right now; what is she doing here?” she blurted out.
Herc looked at his Watcher pointedly and pressed the hold button on his phone. “Keeping track of who’s where?”
Dylan raised her chin defiantly. “Part of knowing who’s who,” she countered. “Would you prefer I pretended I didn’t Watch you and your son?”
“Why not?” Herc offered. “It’s what you’ve been doing and works out fine for everyone, far as I can tell.”
“I assure you, I won’t mention it again,” Dylan said stiffly. “Would you prefer if I left?”
Herc considered the notion, then shook his head. “You being here would give me the excuse of needing to finish a business conversation.” He pressed the line for Lily and told her to send in Amanda.
Amanda walked confidently into the room, carrying a large tote bag and wearing high heels in the same vibrant red as her body-hugging dress. Stepping out from behind the desk, Herc greeted her warmly. “You’re a long way from home,” he noted.
“I thought you could use a hug from a friend,” she said easily. “I’m sorry to hear about your brother.”
Herc’s breath caught. “It’s been two weeks,” he managed. He hadn’t thought of Scott since the funeral, and now that grief was abruptly all he could feel. He swallowed hard and saw understanding in Amanda’s eyes.
“Anyone who puts a time limit on grief hasn’t lived long enough to understand it,” Amanda told him tartly. “Any chance I might be able to take you out to lunch? I would’ve been here sooner but Nick needed me.”
“Go on,” Dylan encouraged him. “I’ll hold down the fort.”
Herc knew he could put Amanda off, but it had been a very long time since he’d had lunch with a beautiful woman, and he wanted to be selfish, damn it. Being with her would suit nicely as a distraction; he was certain she had a better reason to him than what she was willing to admit in front of Dylan. He rose and stepped closer to Amanda. “Did you want company or did you just want mine? I could call Richie and Chuck.”
“Your assistant said they were busy working on things they couldn’t get out of,” Amanda told him, drawing him close and giving him the promised hug before stepping back.
Herc looked at her. “Even if that was true, Amanda, they’d stop for a chance to spend time with you.”
“I’m flattered, but let’s not risk it,” Amanda said with a smile. “Your executive assistant looked rather perturbed at the notion we might.” Herc barked a laugh at that; Lily hated disorder. “Shall we?”
Fifteen minutes later, they were in the tiny little restaurant just outside of the Shatterdome’s gates. Amanda spoke fluent Cantonese, Herc discovered, and liked her food spicy enough to leave a lasting impression.
“So what is it really that you’re here for?” Herc asked as soon as their entrees were served.
“Any truth to the rumor that the Beckets turn furry?” Amanda asked bluntly.
“Depends on why you’re asking.” Herc wasn’t surprised Amanda knew such a rumor; she was immortal, well connected, and rich. He also suspected that she was someone who made it her business to know what other things were in the world. “They could be vampires who’ve figured out how to appear in daylight.”
She looked at him and her lips curved. “Ah, so you’re neither confirming nor denying. And by the way, those vampires do exist. They’re called financial advisors.” She grinned briefly. “A word of warning, then. Don’t make alliances with anyone claiming to be representing werewolves as a clan.”
Amanda smiled wryly. “Because they’re pains in the ass, for one, and for two, they can’t ever make up their minds as to who’s in charge. They like to align themselves with immortals for protection, but really…it’s not to anyone’s benefit but theirs.”
“And you couldn’t send me this in an email or call me because?” Herc asked evenly.
Amanda flashed him a grin. “Because, darling, you would have Richie telling you that I don’t always tell people the truth.”
Herc studied her. He didn’t know her well enough to know whether she had a good poker face, but he believed any immortal who’d survived the Game for several centuries would have one. Outside of the visits he’d made to Paris, Amanda wasn’t in the habit of showing up in his life. From talking with Richie, Herc knew that was usually a sign of trouble. He went with his gut. “So what’s the part you’re deliberately leaving out so you can try to take care of the situation on your own?”
Caught, Amanda stared at him before she sighed reluctantly and admitted, “Nick thinks they’ll try to convince Yancy to be the ambassador to the clans, because the old king of the clans finally died, and he and his brother are from that bloodline through their mother. The new king would love to be able to say that one of their own helped save the world, which would bolster his position.”
“And you’re here to block this new king or to help him?”
Amanda shrugged. “Who says I have to choose?”
Herc shook his head. “I see how you are. Well, they can’t have either of the Beckets without asking Yancy or Raleigh, and I need them right where they are.”
“Fair enough,” Amanda said, and kissed him on his cheek before rising.
“Amanda,” Herc said, certain she was going to be walking into a dangerous situation, “whatever you do, please check your plan first and make sure it’s airtight?”
Amanda smiled. “Why do you suppose I keep Nick around?” she answered lightly and started out of the restaurant.
“But Nick’s in Paris, isn’t he? Stuck in the city?”
“That’s what Skype is for,” Amanda said, exiting before he could reply.
Aware from previous conversations with everyone who knew Amanda that he couldn’t prevent or stop the thousand-year-old thief from doing precisely whatever she wanted, Herc exhaled slowly, noting that she’d managed to stick him with the bill for their lunch. Shaking his head, Herc finished eating, paid, and left. It wasn’t until much later that he realized Amanda’s unexpected appearance had indeed distracted him neatly. He said as much to Richie as they got ready for bed.
“She’s good for that,” Richie agreed wryly. “But given what she said, I don’t think she’s going to be in need of any help from us. Whoever approached her had to be a little desperate; she’s not known as a diplomat.”
Herc arranged himself so he could see Richie’s face as they lay in bed. “You don’t think she’s in any real danger?”
“The better question is: do you want to get involved?” Richie asked knowingly.
“Not really, no,” Herc replied.
“Then the thing to do would be to wait and see,” Richie said. “Knowing Nick, he’s probably sent someone to make sure Amanda doesn’t do anything stupid, like lose her head.”
“You’d feel better if Nick could be here himself.”
“Yeah, but he can’t, unless he’s somehow figured out how to transfer guardianship status of the entirety of Paris to someone else, which I know he’s been working on so he can leave the city more easily. If that were the case, he would’ve shown up by now,” Rich pointed out. “And frankly, the less we get involved in whatever Amanda’s tangled up in, the less likely one of us is going to get kidnapped, stabbed, used as a hostage (which is not the same as being kidnapped), or worse.”
Herc chuckled a bit at the recitation. “Voice of experience?”
“Yeah. I lost count of how many times Duncan yelled at me for letting Amanda cajole me into helping her.” Richie kissed Herc slowly. “Now, I say enough talk about Amanda. It’s been a long day and I haven’t kissed you enough yet.”
“Oh?” Herc asked archly. “And by whose standard are we judging by?”
Richie laughed huskily. “Mine, of course. Now stop talking and start kissing.”
Herc would never admit it to his son unless they Drifted again, but Chuck had been right about Herc being very susceptible to command voice. Thankfully, Richie used it sparingly, but Herc knew he’d never stop getting a thrill from hearing that note in his lover’s voice. Herc also knew part of the appeal was Richie’s apparent age of nineteen mixed with his years of experience; someone who looked that young shouldn’t know how to wield such a weapon, but that was Richie, and Herc loved him for it. Herc surrendered to Richie’s command willingly, and set about making sure they thought of nothing else but each other for the rest of the evening.
I'm supposed to be writing two other fics for holiday challenges, but this one wanted to be written instead.
Though Hong Kong was nothing like Sydney, Chuck relished shopping in the city for much needed personal supplies and a few sweets and snacks. Part of the fun was that the inventory of the stores changed weekly, sometimes daily, and Chuck had learned the seemingly random mix of product was something of a custom in the city, one that had been in existence long before the Kaiju War. PPDC security tailed Chuck at a discreet distance, but he ignored them and pretended – as he had for years – that he was alone. He knew that he could get nearly anything delivered to him, but he knew that if he spent too much time in the ‘dome, he would wind up feeling caged. Even with the war raging and with Herc being less of a parent than a PPDC ranger, Herc had made sure that Chuck got out, even for a little while, even going so far as to let Richie take Chuck out on a ride when they’d been stationed in Tokyo.
Now that the war was over, Chuck enjoyed the trips to shop or ride his motorcycle through the city, even though he still had to coordinate them with Security. He felt a little more like a regular person, not someone who had to get everything delivered. While it was a minor thing to buy his own personal hygiene products, stock up on laundry detergent, lube, and condoms, or just snacks, those items were the things he got to choose for himself. In the height of the Kaiju War, security had tightened to the point where everything was issued from the PPDC Quartermaster; Chuck remembered hating that someone else had that much control over and knowledge about his life. With the full moon due that evening, Raleigh had chosen to stay in the ‘dome so he could stay in wolf form more easily, even though Chuck had offered to pretend Raleigh was just a dog. Unlike his brother, Raleigh wasn’t as comfortable in wolf form, especially walking through the city, and generally preferred to be human, which meant that the moon’s cycles affected him more. It also meant that Chuck had a short list of items Raleigh wanted him to pick up while he was out.
One of Chuck’s favorite stores was a mishmash of items – part grocery store, part department store, part gift shop, but its main draw was the selection of Asian snack and sweet items. Thanks to his long exposure to Pan-Asian cuisine, Chuck had gotten hooked on a number of local treats and was having fun introducing them to his boyfriend, and now Yancy. This trip was specifically to stock up on snacks, since they were scheduled to have another all-senior-staff movie gathering, and Chuck knew he wanted some chips to go with the beer that would be present.
Having found a sufficient quantity of chips, he had just reached for the last package of Wang Wang snow cookies when he heard a dismayed cry. Turning, he looked at a woman with long black hair, toffee-brown skin, and angular features. Recognition hit, followed immediately by the realization that he hadn’t seen her in half a year. Chuck’s eyes widened as he realized she was very pregnant. “E.J.?”
She smiled nervously. “Fancy meeting you here, Chuck,” she said lightly. “I don’t suppose you’d take pity on a pregnant woman, would you?”
“Depends,” Chuck said steadily. He hadn’t forgiven her for breaking his father’s heart, even if he understood her reasons. “Are you going to consider it contaminated since I touched it?”
E.J. winced at that barb. “No.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’ll get out of your way.”
“You plan on avoiding me and my old man for as long as your kid’s alive?” It was a shot in the dark, but Chuck remembered how she’d gone out of her way not to be a burden to others.
Tellingly, E.J. froze. Her hazel eyes pleaded with Chuck not to cause a scene.
“Or is more that you have something you forgot to mention to my old man?”
“It’s not that –” she started, then faltered at his look of suspicion.
Chuck sighed mentally. “Only way you’re getting out of going back to the ‘dome with me now is if you need to be back at work.”
E.J. looked away briefly. “I don’t want to compromise my principles by seeing your father, and I really don’t want to have this conversation in this store.”
“Tough,” Chuck said succinctly. “Because your other option is to see him in private, and either way, he’d feel compelled to make sure you’re okay. Even if it’s not his kid.” Chuck shot her a half-smile. “He’s honorable like that.”
“Please, Chuck. I’ll call him later but please, just let me go now.”
“What’s your hurry?” Something felt off, and Chuck was too much of a battle-hardened soldier to ignore that sense of warning.
“I need to get back,” E.J. said desperately. “He’ll kill me if I’m late.”
That got Chuck’s attention. “Who, E.J.? You know I can help you.”
E.J. bit her lip, clearly unwilling to let Chuck help but equally unsure if she should ask for it.
“Fuck that shit,” Chuck said, and stuck the cookies in his shopping basket. “You’re coming with me, E.J., and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
E.J. looked at him and burst into tears.
Chuck narrowed his eyes. He’d heard that pregnant women were hormonal, but he remembered her as being someone who prided herself on control. “You crying for a good reason?” he challenged her deliberately.
E.J. drew in a breath and glared at him. “Isn’t being pregnant and confronted by you enough? You always this much of an asshole to people?”
Chuck smirked, hiding his concern under that mask. “You know the answer to that, E.J.”
E.J. sighed, wiped her eyes, and then lifted her chin. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll go with you. But whatever you think, you’re wrong.”
“Oh?” Chuck challenged. “Then why you hiding from the baby’s father?”
“I’m not hiding,” E.J. denied. “I just don’t want to go back to that stupid argument.”
“Is that the only reason you’re going with me?”
E.J. looked away. “Maybe.” She looked at Chuck. “And maybe you and your father have a better solution to this situation than what I’ve come up with, because…” She let out a breath. “I can’t keep on doing this. I just didn’t want to bother you or Herc.”
“Tough,” Chuck said shortly. “Because my gut says you’re in trouble and you need help. If you aren’t, well, all you have to do is walk out of this store. Sans biscuits, of course.” He wasn’t above playing dirty, but he knew his conscience would be soothed if he didn’t have to resort to force.
E.J. looked at him, looked at the door, and then back at him before she said wryly, “Please tell me you’re not going to put me on your motorcycle and you’ll let me have some of those cookies on the ride over.”
“Contrary to what you might think, I’m not a heartless asshole.” Ignoring her look of disbelief, Chuck texted his security, grateful that he’d chosen to ride with a driver rather than ride his motorcycle, then paid for his purchases. He then texted his father, aware that the permanent ghost Drift between them would have alerted Herc that something was going on.
E.J.’s pregnant and in trouble. I’m bringing her home.
He didn’t get a reply, but he felt the surge of shock through the ghost Drift, and suspected his father wasn’t going to waste time on texting or calling. The only thing was that for the first time in a very long time, Chuck wasn’t sure how his father was going to react, and he was very afraid that the truth was going to hurt.
The best part of his new apartment, Yancy thought, was that while it was in an older, secured-access building, it was bigger than any room he’d ever shared with his brother, which was the secondary reason he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in the Shatterdome. The first reason was that he wanted to give his brother a place to go that was separate from the PPDC’s control, but after a month of living in the space, Yancy had realized he was spending more time in the Shatterdome anyway. The job he’d initially taken with an international aid agency had abruptly ceased; funding had been unceremoniously cut, so he was at loose ends again. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself, though he was certain he could stretch the funds Duncan had given him (“back pay for seven years of working for me,” Duncan had claimed) for quite a few years even at Hong Kong prices for living.
Yancy knew too much free time was not good for his mental state. He needed to go out for a good run, but he was feeling caged by the fact he’d already figured out Hong Kong wasn’t the best place for a werewolf. Too many smells, too much construction, just too much…city. What he needed, he thought ruefully, was Duncan’s farm, which was now out of the possibility since Duncan had told him he’d sold it once he knew Yancy was staying in Hong Kong.
He knew it didn’t help that his brother was deeply in love and was loved just as much in return. Chuck was brash, arrogant, and sarcastic, but he treated Raleigh like he was precious and treasured without demeaning him or disrespecting him. Yancy wondered what it would feel like to have that kind of love. He wasn’t sure anyone would want him; he wasn’t bisexual like his brother and he didn’t think now was the right time in his life to go experimenting. Yancy knew he could find a one-night stand easily, but he wanted what his brother had.
Aware he was being unusually morose, Yancy sighed and decided to head out for a run. He had just opened the door when he saw Lily Aksakova, the executive assistant to the marshal, deputy marshal, and operations manager of the PPDC, step off the elevator. She wore her PPDC-issue business suit, the crisp navy adding to the impression of business competence and confidence she radiated. She was a willowy woman with grey eyes and typically Russian features. Her long ash brown hair was braided into a neat bun.
Seeing him, she said quickly, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve sorted through your mail and thought this warranted your immediate attention.” Since English wasn’t her first language, she spoke it with a Russian accent. As a result, it took Yancy a moment to parse what she said.
Startled, for she usually routed any fan mail (pretty much all he got these days) to the PR department to handle, Yancy gestured for her to enter his apartment. “What is it?”
Lily handed him an envelope that had been sealed with an old-fashioned red wax seal that bore the imprint of a wolf’s paw and the initials PLH. Lily had ignored the seal and sliced one end of the envelope open so she could check the letter inside. For a moment, Yancy felt odd at the notion that she’d read his mail, but he was also aware that too many people sent all sorts of oddball invitations, letters, and gifts to the jaeger pilots.
The card was heavy stock, cream-colored, and smelled faintly of vanilla. Yancy had only seen cards like it for formal invitations. Curious, he opened the card.
Ranger Yancy Becket is cordially invited to lunch with Mr. Pierre Huppé to discuss opportunities with the Wolf Alliance at the Four Seasons Hotel, Penthouse Suite, at 11:30 AM Monday, June 28, 2027. Business Attire Required. No More Than 2 Personal Security Please.
Yancy checked the date, realizing that it was in two days’ time. Little wonder, then, that Lily felt it warranted a personal visit. “What’s the Wolf Alliance and who’s this Pierre dude?”
The middle-aged woman looked anxious. “As you know, Mr. Livojević is the chief of PPDC Security. Mr. Livojević said that Mr. Huppé is a French engineer who owns a medium-sized but very successful engineering firm specializing in seismic engineering. Nothing on his social media or his business websites indicates anything about this Wolf Alliance. Mr. Livojević suggested that you at least hear what Mr. Huppé has to say.”
Lily let that sink in a moment before adding, “The last time I saw an invitation like this, we could not find any information on the organization, but the Kaidonovskys said not to worry. They went, said they had a very nice lunch, but the person who invited them was mistaken. They were not werewolves or immortals or magical persons. I think because they were the only Mark-1 pilots besides your father to not suffer from radiation sickness, someone thought they were enhanced. They were just Russian strong.”
“I see,” Yancy said. “So why not toss this one into the loony bin?”
Lily hesitated before saying, “Because you would be dead if you were human. The pilots of Sablya Dominator died when they fell while being extracted from their jaeger during a training exercise in Amur Bay. It was winter, so the ice was thick and the water freezing cold.”
Lily didn’t have to say more. Yancy wasn’t an expert on polar water survival by any means, but he remembered that Vladivostok was much like Alaska in terms of temperature. The lone time Gipsy Danger had been stationed there for training, it had been cold and raining. He also remembered hearing that the pilots of Sablya Dominator were the only Mark-1 pilots to die in training, testing out what turned out to a badly designed jaeger with more looks than functionality. From the look on Lily’s face, Yancy suspected she knew more than what she was willing to say aloud; it would fit, given her position, that she had an understanding of the truth.
“I see,” Yancy said carefully. “So it’s not because you know…?” He gestured at himself and made a vague dog-shape with his hands.
Lily drew in a breath, but nodded. “The marshal did not want me to treat you like a common dog.” She sounded insulted as she added, “As if I would do such a thing.”
Yancy barked a laugh. “No, you wouldn’t. You’re too much of a lady for that.”
That brought a brief smile to her lips. “You are a flatterer, Mr. Becket. Please be assured that I will not speak of this to anyone who does not have authorization.”
Yancy believed her. He’d heard already how seriously she took her job and how she didn’t socialize with the staff in order to keep her work life and her personal life separate, but knowing that only strengthened his sense of her integrity. “I wasn’t worried that you would. I don’t think the marshal would keep you around if he couldn’t trust that you’d keep his secrets.”
She acknowledged that with a slight smile.
“I appreciate you coming out to deliver this. I don’t suppose you have a suit ready I could wear? Because I don’t have one.”
Lily smiled then. “That’s why I came to you. I thought if you were to accept, you’d need a tailor and would want to speak with Security about this invitation.”
Yancy wasn’t sure what this invitation signified, but he felt better that he was expected to bring a security detail. It meant he wouldn’t be alone, no matter what happened. Suspecting she had a car waiting, he quickly put on shoes and grabbed his wallet. “Then let’s get to it,” he told her.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving: Thanks to everyone who reads this! :-)
Herc was waiting in the lobby when Chuck and E.J. arrived. He wore what Chuck called his ‘meet with VIPs’ face, but the ghost Drift between them thrummed with a swirl of emotions, especially once he saw how pregnant E.J. was. Chuck knew from conversations they’d had since the New Year’s breakup that his father still cared deeply about E.J., but her rejection of wanting to be a part of his life, especially now that she knew about immortality, had cut deep. Chuck was convinced that even if the relationship had managed to last, it wouldn’t match the solidity his father had with Richie.
Without a word, Herc gestured E.J. and Chuck to follow him into the nearest conference room off the lobby.
“This isn’t how I wanted to see you again,” E.J. began once they were seated and the door shut. After pulling two bottles of water out of the mini-fridge, Chuck took the seat to the left of his father and took out the now-open package of cookies and slid the package and a water bottle towards E.J.
“I’m sure,” Herc said, his voice clipped. “Two questions: who’s the father of your baby, and why are you in trouble?”
E.J. closed her eyes briefly. “It’s not yours,” she said, opening her eyes and looking at Herc. “If it was, I would’ve of course been in touch sooner. I was introduced to a man named Pierre Huppé at a fundraiser three weeks after you and I parted ways. He was charming and very persuasive. I was drunk; we had sex.” She spread her hands helplessly. “I didn’t think more of that night until I realized I was pregnant. I contacted him. He’s been pestering me ever since.”
Herc raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want him to be around?”
E.J. met Herc’s gaze. “He was a one-night stand,” she said flatly. “I felt obligated to let him know what happened.”
“And you expected him to what, say, ‘okay, I got you preggers, here’s some money, and go away?” Chuck asked incredulously.
“Yes,” E.J. said, taken aback at Chuck’s shock. She faltered in the face of his reaction. “I thought...I thought I was being reasonable.”
Herc shook his head. “No wonder you kept telling me you thought me treating you like I did created obligations.” He studied E.J. “So what does he want you to do instead of paying you off?”
E.J. bit her lip. “He said he wanted to marry me and he wanted to rush a visa for me to go to France with him. I said no. My work is here and I like it here. I know where things are. Then he goes off and says I need to see the doctors in France; that the doctors here aren’t prepared. He scares me when he says it, especially since he gets so angry that I say no. He says I’m not ready. When I ask him to explain, he gets frustrated and lapses into French so I can’t understand what he’s saying.” She paused. “I was supposed to go to a doctor he picked out to check on the baby, but I looked at the address and it’s in the Bone Slums. I don’t want to expose my baby to kaiju.” She looked at Herc and Chuck in turn. “I really don’t want to bother you with this. This isn’t your problem.”
“Maybe not,” Herc said decisively. “But would you feel better if someone accompanied you? I could ask Grace to go with you.”
E.J. hesitated. “If it’s not too much trouble. I don’t want to pull her away from her work.”
Herc glanced at Chuck, who took the cue to page Grace Chandel via the internal phone system. “She was your friend first before I knew you,” Herc pointed out. “I know she’s missed you.”
“And E.J.?” Herc asked as, in the background, he heard Grace confirm that she would go with E.J. “If this situation you’re in is bad, please don’t let what happened between us continue to be the reason you don’t ask for help.”
E.J. looked at him. “I don’t understand how you can sit there and offer that to me.”
Herc smiled sadly at her, suddenly and abruptly aware that she would never understand him. She was someone who looked too hard at others and saw strings where there were none. “That’s okay,” he told her. “I’m doing it anyway, but since I think you’d rather I stepped aside, I’ll let you know that I won’t get involved unless Grace or you think it’s warranted.”
He saw E.J. sag with relief at his words and felt his son leave the room, disgust and pity filling the ghost Drift between them. He knew Chuck had left rather than say something he’d regret later. A few minutes later, Grace arrived, looking concerned.
“What’s this about you going anywhere?” Grace demanded. “And why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant? Hmpf. I thought we were friends. Well, don’t just sit there, let’s get going and meet this – person – who thinks he knows a better doctor than me. Marshal, we’re taking Poppy with us; I’ve left Dr. Lavonia in charge.” Briskly, Grace maneuvered E.J. out of the conference room.
For a moment, Herc sat there, wondering what he would’ve done if E.J. had been carrying his child. Since Chuck had been conceived prior to Herc’s First Death, Grace thought that it was not plausible for Herc to sire another child, but she freely admitted that if Chuck was an exception to the rule, anything was possible. Herc knew he wasn’t in a good place to have children, not that having Chuck had been all that planned, but still, he’d vowed then that the next one would be better planned. With a small sigh for what might’ve been, Herc rose, took the package of cookies, and headed back to his office.
He found Chuck waiting there.
“I can’t believe she honestly thinks that shit. You’re better off without her,” Chuck started. “What kind of woman thinks someone’s going to just abandon her and their child?”
“The kind who got put between her parents as a chess piece,” Herc said softly. “One who expects life isn’t free.”
That took the wind out of Chuck’s argument. “Well, that’s a crock of shit. Are we going to do anything more about it?”
“Depends on what Grace thinks, but I’m going let her run with this situation,” Herc decided. “If Grace needs our help, then we’ll give it. Until then, I’m going to respect E.J.’s wishes not to get further involved. I’m not sure there’s anything more I can do than that, honestly.” He looked at Chuck, certain his son had more words he wanted to say, and just as certain they’d get into an argument if he let Chuck say them. “Why don’t you go see if Richie’s done with teaching tai-chi to the jaeger crew and rant at him a while? I need a few minutes.”
Instantly, Chuck looked at his father in concern. “Did you really think it might be yours?”
Herc looked at him. “You did.”
Chuck rubbed an ear sheepishly. “Yeah. I didn’t think she’d bother you about it if it was, but the way she talked…she would’ve, and then expected you to just fucking brush her off. As if.”
“Do you want a little brother or sister?”
“No, I like being an only child,” Chuck said bluntly. “So don’t get ideas, old man.” Satisfied he’d gotten the last word, Chuck walked out of the office.
Alone, Herc let himself take the deep breath he’d been reserving for this moment and shuddered, feeling as though he’d just dodged one hell of a sword strike. He didn’t feel as though he was in a good position to have another child, and shuddered again at the thought of trying to raise one while being the marshal of the PPDC. He looked at Chuck sometimes and wondered if he’d simply let Richie and other people raise his son. It wasn’t that he wasn’t proud of his son – far from it – it just seemed like there was this long stretch where he didn’t remember being a father to Chuck. Herc knew it was just the old guilt talking, but he couldn’t shake the sense that if he was given the chance to raise another child, he’d fuck it up just the same or worse. He took another breath and let it out slowly, aware he was grateful that E.J.’s child wasn’t his after all. He just hoped that for her sake, what she perceived to be trouble was nothing more than another man wanting to take care of her in the way she deserved.
This chapter has been edited from its original posting - I messed up the timing a little. Sorry!
After having the PPDC tailor measure him for a suit, Yancy found himself trying on a selection of suits the tailor had on hand. In the wake of the UN’s decision to shut down the Jaeger Program, the standard uniform for the PPDC was now a navy business suit. Yancy hadn’t expected to have a suit issued to him by the PPDC, but Lily insisted that he needed to have one, since he no longer had his initially issued dress uniform and now held the status of a retired jaeger pilot.
“I had this on my list of things to ensure you received,” Lily told him. “Given that you are likely to appear at public events with your brother in the future, the least we can do is make sure you have a proper suit.”
“Thank you, Ms. Aksakova,” Yancy said gratefully.
Raleigh walked into the room as the tailor was finishing marking the changes he needed to make with pins and chalk. “Heard you were here,” Raleigh greeted his brother. “Thought you were going to spend the day away.”
“Apparently I can’t,” Yancy half-joked. “How do I look?” He struck a pose.
“Like Mr. Giàu has his work cut out for him,” Raleigh said dryly. “These suits are cut for people with muscles. You’ve gone all sleek and lean.”
Yancy made a face.
“You both lost weight since you were last fitted for uniforms,” Mr. Giàu pointed out. “Not surprising. Raleigh, how is your suit fitting now?”
“Better,” Raleigh said. “You were right about keeping it loose.”
“Thirty-two years tailoring,” the Vietnamese man said proudly. To Yancy, he said, “I will have it ready for you tomorrow afternoon. You come by at 1600 and we make last changes. See the quartermaster for your shoes. Do not be like Ranger Reardon and ask if you can wear Nikes.”
Yancy grinned at that. “But why not?”
“Not proper,” Mr. Giàu said, as affronted as any stereotypical butler. “Suit requires dress shoes. Besides, it’s not regulation.”
Startled by the tailor’s reaction, Yancy said quickly, “I wouldn’t. Thank you, Mr. Giàu.” He didn’t say anything more until they were out in the hallway. “He sounded so insulted.”
“Man takes pride in his work,” Raleigh said with a shrug as they headed to the quartermaster’s office, who was down the hall. “You staying long?”
“Have to talk to Security after this, but then I should be free. What’s up?”
Raleigh looked at him wryly. “Thought we could spend the full moon together, plus a little birdie told me I should avoid being around Chuck for the next hour or so.”
“Because when Chuck is pissed off, he tends to make me lose my temper too,” Raleigh explained. “And then I get a migraine.”
“Oh,” Yancy said. “Well, let me get these dress shoes I’m supposed to have and meet with Security. If you don’t mind hanging around and waiting on me, we could go do something?”
Raleigh brightened. “Do you want to go run in the park? Since you’re headed over to Security anyway, we could ask then.”
Yancy smiled at his brother’s enthusiasm. “Might as well. You know you should shift more; you won’t have to spend tonight as a wolf if you did.”
Raleigh rolled his eyes and waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah, says the guy who would rather be a wolf than a human. Besides, I’ve been a wolf most of the day. I need to get up and walk before I forget how.”
Yancy punched his brother’s shoulder lightly. “You wouldn’t, and I don’t want to be wolf all the time,” he protested. “I just didn’t see the point in talking much to Duncan. There’s only so much I wanted to tell him that didn’t involve the sheep or the survivalist family up the road or taking care of Faye.”
“Uh huh,” Raleigh teased.
Yancy pointedly ignored him.
Jeremy Livojević was a barrel-chested Croatian who took his duties as chief of PPDC security very seriously. He prided himself on being able to balance a need for freedom of movement with the very real threat of harm to the PPDC’s people and property by fanatics and terrorists. To that end, he assigned a protective detail to the jaeger pilots and senior staff, and ensured to the best of his ability that all staff followed security protocols. He had spent considerable time reading the reports of attacks by kaiju cultists on other PPDC facilities and people, and had scenarios in place based on both the PPDC-developed protocols that had resulted from such incidents and his own assessments. Given that most of the leaders of the kaiju cults had been arrested in the months following the Breach closure, Jeremy doubted any of them to be much of a threat, but he didn’t rule out that possibility. All it took was one charismatic and organized leader with money, and they’d be beating the war drums again in hopes of raising the kaiju.
Now, Jeremy studied the American ex-PPDC ranger. He knew – because it was his business to know such things – that the Beckets were werewolves, just like he knew Chuck, Herc, and Richie were immortals. In Jeremy’s head that meant that while being hard to kill, they were still able to bleed and die if you knew how; it wasn’t a guarantee that they couldn’t be hurt or killed. “I’ll have Travis drive you,” he told Yancy now. “And Poppy will serve as your second guard, in addition to Hisao Nishiyama, who’s been serving as your personal security.”
Yancy glanced at his brother. “Is that a good thing?”
“Poppy Goddard is the deputy chief of security,” Jeremy answered before Raleigh could. “I would not send anyone who is not familiar with werewolves.”
Yancy blinked at that. “You, um, right, of course you’d know.”
Jeremy flashed him a quick smile. “I cannot protect what I don’t know,” he said gently. “Poppy and Hisao know, but Travis doesn’t. If you choose to change that, please let me know, preferably in advance.”
“Why them and no one else?” Yancy wondered.
“So far the threat level hasn’t warranted it,” Jeremy said simply. “A show of strength tends to indicate we have cause to warrant it.”
“Got it,” Yancy said. “Anything else you need from me?”
“Travis will pick you up from your apartment twenty minutes prior to your appointment. Please be ready.”
“Thank you, Jeremy.” Yancy glanced at his brother as they exited the security office.
“You didn’t ask him if we could go to the park.”
“Didn’t seem like it would be a good idea. I know Poppy and Travis are with the younger pilots right now – I heard them saying they were going to a international exhibition match downtown. If Poppy knows about us, I’d want her to be with us in the park, not some guy who’s not sure why he’s taking the Hansens’ dogs out. At least with Poppy and Travis, we could shift in the car instead of having to do it before we left. I wish you lived here,” Raleigh said. “No one cares if we’re shifted.”
“I’m sure they care,” Yancy countered. “They just don’t say anything. There’s a difference.”
Raleigh looked away briefly. “How come you got an invite to some fancy lunch and I didn’t?”
“Dunno,” Yancy said, shrugging. “Maybe this guy knows you have a job.”
“Yeah, but why you? I mean, there’s got to be a million other people. You didn’t apply or nothing, did you?”
“No,” Yancy said. “But Ms. Aksakova vetted it, so it’s legit enough, I guess.”
Raleigh made a face. “Did you give me all the sense when you shoved your brain into mine? Why aren’t you afraid or scared?”
Stopping in the hallway, Yancy turned and looked at his brother. “Should I be?” he asked, realizing abruptly that he hadn’t had the time to consider that possibility. “If it’s been screened and looked at and I’m not going alone, what’s there to worry about?”
Raleigh threw his hands up exasperatedly. “The fact that some random dude is offering you a job out of the blue? Look, I trust Lily and Jeremy too but that didn’t stop some crazed idiot from kidnapping me a few months ago.”
Taken aback, Yancy stared at his brother. Raleigh held tight to his calm these days, mostly because he hated getting migraines, but in the process, Yancy had forgotten just how angry and protective his brother could get. “Look, all that I know is that it has to do with what we are, and I have the option of telling him to go fuck off. He apparently though the Kaidonovskys were like us.”
“And you will tell him to fuck off?”
“And then what?” Yancy shot back. “What if he has something I want and if I pass it up, it’s something I live to regret? Don’t you know I have enough of those already?”
“Yeah, and Dr. P’Eng says you got guilt issues to fill a tanker. So? You think that makes you fucking special?”
“No,” Yancy growled. “I know you’re fucked up too, so why are you pushing me so hard? It’s not like I’m going to starve.”
“Maybe I just want to be proud of my big brother,” Raleigh retorted. “Maybe I want to be able to say you’re doing something that wasn’t handed to you or arranged for you or that you really wanted, rather than settling for what you can get.”
Those words shocked Yancy. “You really think I’m settling?”
Raleigh met his eyes. “Yancy, you could live anywhere in the world,” he said quietly. “Do anything. Learn anything. Be anything. You don’t have to be here in Hong Kong. Don’t you get it? I know you want to be near me, but I know you’re not happy. You think I don’t see it? Don’t feel it every time we’re shifted and the way you look at what I’ve got here?”
Yancy swallowed hard. “How do you do it? How the fuck do you get up every morning and put up with Chuck’s shit and train the new pilots and put up with their shit and then go out on TV promoting the PPDC’s efforts and put up with that shit only to do it again next week?”
“Because in here,” Raleigh gestured to the walls of the Shatterdome, “I know I’m safe and loved and the people here aren’t going to think less of me if I roam around the halls at two in the morning because I woke up in a nightmare. You – you got used to be able to shift and run, and you’re still running, somewhere in your head. So fucking quit it and decide who you’re going to be.”
Yancy let out a slow breath. He’d forgotten how perceptive his little brother was. “And if that means moving away from here?”
“We got state-of-the-art video chatting,” Raleigh said with a shrug. “Do it with VIPs all the time. And I know Richie has friends all over the world. Not saying you can’t use the connections, bro, but it frustrates me that you’re just…”
“Sulking over the way things are instead of doing something about it?” Yancy finished.
“You said it, not me.”
“You’re all the family I got now,” Yancy stated. “I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to rush into anything, either.”
“But you used to be the one pushing me to do better, even if all you wanted to do was sleep in. Once I got you awake, you were the one wanting to aim higher, beat the records, do the things that were impossible.”
“Doing the impossible got us in trouble,” Yancy reminded him heavily. “I died and you had my brain shoved into yours.”
Raleigh grinned. “Well, no one said it wasn’t risky,” he said cheekily. “But,” his smile faded, “whatever this guy offers you, remember this: you didn’t earn it. You didn’t apply for it, and you didn’t ask for it, either.”
Yancy’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know that you aren’t saying?”
Raleigh shook his head. “Nothing. Just…if you weren’t an ex-jaeger pilot or a werewolf, would this guy even approach you? And if that’s the case, would you want an offer like that anyway? It just doesn’t feel right.”
“Maybe I should just turn this down.”
“No one’s holding the gun to your head to go.”
“But –” Yancy hesitated. “What if this guy is someone important? That’s why Lily and Jeremy want me to go, even if I do say no? If being an ex-jaeger pilot’s the reason he’s even approaching me, isn’t it worth listening to his pitch? Come on, Rals, you’re being unrealistic.”
Raleigh sighed. “Yancy, we’re not in a conn-pod. You don’t need me to make your decisions. Hell, you used to argue with me more.”
Yancy stared at him. “Is that why I can’t seem to make up my mind?” he demanded. “I left the good parts of my brain in yours?”
Raleigh chuckled ruefully. “Could be.” He slung an arm around his brother’s shoulders in a reassuring gesture. “Come on. You can think on that and make a decision later. I want to see if Mako’s finished futzing around with that scale model of Gipsy Danger.”
“You just want to see if she added the chain swords.”
“So? They were fucking awesome.” He made a slicing sound. “Cut through Otachi and Raiju like butter.”
Yancy shook his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you fall asleep to Star Wars when we were kids.”
“And who taught Jaz to use that toy light saber we had?” Raleigh shot back. “Wasn’t me.”
Yancy just shook his head again. “You just want to learn how to use Chuck’s sword.”
“Nah,” Raleigh said. “It’s not like fighting in a jaeger with a chain sword. Too hilt-heavy for me and too…” Raleigh paused and searched for a word. “Too personal. I don’t want to know how to use it because I’m not prepared to. Did Duncan teach you?”
Yancy shook his head. “He offered to teach me katas but I discovered I was better off being shifted and just walking and running around; it exercised my muscles better. Or so I thought. I sparred against Chuck two weeks ago. He said I was damn rusty at jaeger bushido and thought I should be practicing with you more.”
“Be interesting if you did,” Raleigh admitted freely. “I get so wrapped up in how wonderful I think Mako is when we fight that I don’t get as vicious as I should be, and Chuck and I tend to choreograph our fights so we know what we’re trying to show the younger pilots. It doesn’t allow much room for just how you and I used to fight.”
“Huh,” Yancy said. “You know, the way you look at Mako, I thought you had a crush on her.”
Raleigh laughed. “She’s amazing, and I’m proud to call her my best friend and copilot.” He studied his brother. “Don’t tell me you’re just now freaking out that I’m in love with a guy.”
“What, I can’t have a delayed reaction?” Yancy teased. More seriously, he said, “No, it’s just…when I pictured you in love with someone, Chuck Hansen wasn’t it. Some buxom brunette maybe.”
Hearing footsteps and the sound of something whirring in the hallway, the brothers turned to see who it was. Mako was with Hu, who was using his standing wheelchair. “So this is where the party is,” Hu joked.
“Well, we were going to move the party elsewhere, but I’m guessing that direction isn’t the way,” Raleigh replied.
“Only if you want to listen to Chuck ranting about people who wouldn’t know kindness if it slapped them in the face,” Mako replied. “We were headed to the mall. Want to join us?”
Yancy glanced at his brother. “Might as well. Not doing anything else. Rals?”
“Who’s Chuck ranting to?”
“Richie,” Hu said. “I wouldn’t go there even if I were you.”
Raleigh considered. “The mall it is then. Maybe when we’re back, Chuck will have calmed down.”
Rating's been upped because sex. :-)
Edited from previous posting because, well, I forgot a few things. :-)
Richie let the younger man vent for several minutes before looking at him wryly. “Feeling any better?” he asked. The jaeger crews to whom he’d been teaching tai chai had vacated the kwoon, and Chuck had waited until they were all clear of the room before launching into his rant.
Chuck exhaled heavily. “Not really,” he admitted. He looked at Richie. “I hate feeling helpless.”
Richie stepped closer and hugged him. Chuck sagged into the embrace for a few moments before stepping back, his expression wry. “That’s your answer for everything.”
“Yeah, well, what would you have me say?”
“Dunno,” Chuck said. “Just…what kind of woman thinks a guy’s not gonna stand up when she tells him he got her pregnant?”
Richie held up a hand, aware he’d already answered that question. “We aren’t rehashing this, Chuck. I’ve listened to you rant about this for –” he checked his watch “– more than a half hour now. You don’t want me to offer solutions, platitudes, or even a dose of reality. From what you’ve said, Grace is handling E.J., and that’s as it should be, since E.J. was her friend first. If you want to do more than vent about E.J. and how she’s living life, and how wrong you think she is to live that way, then I’m the wrong person you should be talking to.” He studied Chuck a moment. “If E.J. was pregnant with Herc’s child, would you be this upset?”
Chuck didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Yeah, maybe even more so, because she would expect to get shoved away and it would be trouble for you and Dad. I don’t anyone fucking up what you have.”
Richie eyed him, certain this was part of the reason why Chuck was this upset. “You really think I’d let anyone do that?”
“For years, you didn’t ever make a move on my old man,” Chuck said steadily. “And then you tried to break up with him rather than tell him you needed to step back and figure out how to keep your identity so people stopped asking you how come you look the same as when you started working as a jaeger crew member. How am I supposed to know this kind of shit wouldn’t make you leave?”
Richie looked at him and shook his head slowly. “I swear sometimes, Chuck, you demand a kind of proof no one can give you. How do you know you love Raleigh enough that you won’t run if someone comes from his past, demanding answers only he can give?”
“Because that would be the coward’s way out,” Chuck snapped, insulted. Then his words sunk in. “Oh. You won’t run, not now.”
Richie met his gaze steadily. “I thought I could handle my identity without your father’s help, but I was wrong. That’s the only mistake I’ve made in my relationship with Herc, and I’m not about to repeat it.” He let that sink in before adding, “I can’t guarantee a damn thing in this life. All I can do is fight for what I hold to be true, for the family I’ve made, and for the love I’ve found. You are your father’s son and a special gift, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think of you as my son, too, for all the years I spent taking care of you.” He paused as Chuck ducked his head sheepishly. “That means I get that you feel insulted by what E.J. wasn’t going to do, which is ask a friend for help. You don’t have many friends, and you treasure the ones you have, so you honor those relationships and expect that if you offer help, it’ll be taken in good faith. Even worse in your mind is that E.J. wouldn’t ask your father for help, because he meant it when he said she could still ask him for it.”
“And she wouldn’t ask Grace,” Chuck muttered angrily. “That pisses me off. What’s the use of claiming a friend if you aren’t going to use them when you need help?”
“The kind of person who thinks doing so will get them hurt,” Richie replied. His eyes narrowed a moment. “But you already knew that.”
Chuck sighed. “I know, but damn it, it doesn’t feel right. And you’re awfully calm about this news, too.”
Richie laughed. Aha, he thought. “What, you thought you could wind me up? I’ve seen this before, Chuck. Matter of fact, I was about your age when it happened to Duncan – he had an ex-girlfriend get pregnant after they broke up.”
“Maybe,” Chuck said reluctantly. “I just figured you’d be upset.”
Richie smiled and shrugged. He knew that sometimes Chuck picked fights just to blow off steam, and his way of asking for that release was to try and get someone else riled up enough to strike first. “Nothing to be upset over as far as I’m concerned.”
Chuck studied him. “Even if it was my old man’s kid, you wouldn’t be, I dunno, pissed off, worried, concerned?” He was incredulous.
Richie sighed mentally. “Chuck, given the timing of how your father and I got together, it would be within the realm of possibility. If it wasn’t E.J. and it was some weeks from now, then yeah, I might have reason to be upset. I can’t see that being plausible, and I don’t think you do either.” Richie let that sink in a moment before adding, “Besides, if the baby was Herc’s, getting angry doesn’t change or solve a damn thing except prove that I have a redhead’s temper, which still gets me nowhere. If you still have temper to burn, why don’t we spar a while?”
“Nah,” Chuck decided. “Think I’ll go for a ride. Fighting you is only going to piss me off.”
Richie grinned. “Be safe out there, then.” He hugged Chuck again. “I love you, kid.”
“Not a kid,” Chuck muttered as he returned the hug. “And don’t tell me you remember when I was shorter than you.” Not letting Richie get the last word, Chuck quickly exited the room.
Richie waited a beat before he picked up the phone to call Herc. “Would you rather I left you alone or do you want my company?”
“What kind of question is that?” Herc asked irritably, then blew out a breath. “Sorry. Why don’t I meet you in your quarters? I’ve been dealing with crap all morning.”
Richie smiled, suspecting Herc wanted to be distracted for a while. “Thought you didn’t like trying to fit onto my mattress.”
“Who said we needed a mattress?” Herc teased. “I seem to recall you promised to do me up against the door.”
“Oh did I?” Richie said archly. “Guess I’d better make good on that, so you know I keep my promises.”
“As if I doubted that,” Herc said huskily. “See you soon, love.”
Richie didn’t quite run to his quarters, but it was close. He knew how long it would take Herc to get from the front conference room, which would give him just enough time to shower. He managed to be toweling his hair dry by the time he felt Herc approach. Grateful that one of the talents he had was a greater sensing range than most immortals, Richie finished quickly. Aware that Herc was not a man who wasted time, Richie didn’t bother with putting on a shirt or underwear, only a pair of sweatpants, certain those wouldn’t last very long either.
Herc arrived a few minutes later, looking intent and focused. As soon as the door was shut behind him, he said, “Let me get something clear, since you probably got an earful from Chuck. I could tell he was pissed off from the way he was feeling in our ghost Drift. I’m really glad E.J.’s baby isn’t mine, and that’s the last I hope to mention her name to you. I love you, Richie.” He quickly divested himself of his clothes as he spoke.
“I love you, too, Herc,” Richie said. Even though he had no doubt of Herc’s love or loyalty, he appreciated his lover’s words. He kissed Herc slowly, savoring his response. He knew Herc had never taken a male lover before him, and Richie knew a part of him would always wonder if Herc missed a woman’s touch and taste.
As if sensing his thoughts, Herc broke the kiss. “You’re thinking too hard.”
“Yeah? Maybe I’m thinking you might be missing out on the way a woman feels around your cock.”
Herc snorted and nipped the juncture of Richie’s neck and shoulder. “No. Stop being silly and fuck me.”
Richie smothered a laugh and kissed him. “Had to check, y’know.”
“Uh huh,” Herc said drolly. He reached for Richie’s sweatpants and, going to his knees, took the pants down with him. Richie took the cue to step out of the pants as desire heated his blood. Herc tasted and teased him until Richie was fully hard, then rose to his feet.
“Much as I like the fantasy,” Herc said, “I’ll take squeezing on the bed this time over maybe hitting my face against the damn door lock.”
Richie smiled and kissed him before following him to the bed, grabbing a tube of lube along the way. Aware that Herc enjoyed the act of preparation nearly as much as the act itself, Richie lingered over the task, ignoring Herc’s demands to hurry. Once he deemed Herc ready, Richie carefully lifted him and positioned him with his back against the wall Richie had chosen for this. “I think this will work better,” he said as he thrust into Herc, and saw Herc’s face flush with passion and hunger.
The new position meant Herc was trapped against the wall, unable to move much, but he took it as a challenge. “I see,” he said breathlessly, and did his best to meet Richie’s thrusts. Herc’s enthusiasm added to the thrill pounding through Richie’s blood.
The musky smell of sex and sweat rose in the air as passion swelled to a peak. With a cry, Richie came hard. Panting, he kissed Herc, and then moved them both to the bed, positioning Herc so that he was on the bottom. Richie wasn’t done yet, and Herc moaned in anticipation. Richie knew Herc would take longer to climax, since he didn’t have Richie’s nineteen-year-old-forever refractory rate. Not wanting Herc to feel neglected, Richie made sure to slip his hand between their bodies to grasp Herc’s cock and stroke firmly. He watched Herc’s eyes darken at his touch.
“We gonna play that game today, love?” Herc dared him.
Richie dropped a kiss on his lips. “That a problem?” he teased.
“Only if you stop,” Herc shot back.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Richie said.
“Promises, promises,” Herc panted, but he was thrusting up into Richie’s hand and moving his body to meet Richie’s cock.
Neither of them paid attention to the time, caught up in each other and the love they shared. For the moment, the responsibilities of their respective positions were somewhere outside the room. They were two men in love, trying to fit onto a mattress that hadn’t been designed for men of their builds and height, and caring only that they didn’t fall off as they made love.
Still, sometime later when the heat of passion had cooled, Richie wasn’t surprised when Herc said, “I’m making an executive decision and authorizing you a proper mattress. Otherwise, you’re moving in with me and I know you like sleeping here when things get busy.”
Richie laughed and kissed him. “I’ll make sure to fill out the requisition later. I know how the marshal likes having proper paperwork and procedure.”
Herc snorted. “Like I don’t know you couldn’t fabricate a damn bed and get a damn fine mattress set in here by the end of the week if you wanted. I saw what you and Raleigh did for his bed.”
“He’s a good welder. You want me to ask him if he’ll help?”
Herc sighed. “Not asking for that, love. Just…remembering how the pilots got treated like royalty and the crew like disposable shit when it should’ve been equal. The fact that you’re still sleeping on a cobbled-together mattress says volumes to me about how it’s still not right.”
“Hey, at least it’s not pallets on the floor,” Richie reminded him. “Lima had nothing by the time I got there. And you know as well as I do that my choices aren’t representative of my crews. I just figured since at least half of my time is in your bed, I didn’t see the need yet to change things.”
Herc kissed him. “So I’m asking now. Please change the damn bed. You deserve better.”
Grinning, Richie kissed him back. “Yes, sir.”
“Smart alec.” The look in Herc’s eyes was fond, and Richie knew Herc wouldn’t say more on the subject unless Richie failed to act on the request.
“You wouldn’t want me any other way,” Richie said, and maneuvering carefully, cuddled him closer.
Some minutes later, Herc asked, “So what was my son upset about?”
“How someone like E.J. could assume friendship equated a cost she couldn’t afford,” Richie summarized. “And he thought he could rile me up so he could vent that anger into a fight, but I wouldn’t let him.”
Herc sighed. “We were getting dressed this morning after our spar and he saw I still had one of Scott’s dog tags on my chain. I’d forgotten it was there, honestly, and he was upset I hadn’t taken it off. It’s been an emotional morning.”
“Figured it wasn’t just one thing,” Richie said. He studied Herc. “You always hoped Scott would redeem himself, didn’t you?”
Herc closed his eyes. “Yeah, and seeing E.J. reminded me how I had a hope she’d…” Sighing, he opened his eyes and met Richie’s gaze. “Take advantage of the friendship, change her mind, say she was sorry for rejecting me, hell, I don’t know. I wouldn’t trade what I have with you for anything. I just...wish I could stop hoping people were more than they are. I mean, I know they’re not, and I go in prepared for them to be that way, but I still have that crazy hope.” ”
“But you wouldn’t be you if you weren’t a kind of idealist,” Richie pointed out. “And for the record, E.J. can’t have you. Not without us talking over why first, and maybe not even then.”
Herc kissed him. “Not ready to have that discussion anytime soon, love. Far as I’m concerned, you’re whom I want to be with, and that’s not going to change.”
Raleigh glanced at his brother as they sat in Raleigh’s room after returning from the mall. “Yeah?”
“What did you mean by a job not given to me? You wouldn’t have the job you have now if it hadn’t been given to you.”
Raleigh stared at him. “That didn’t come out right,” he said slowly.
“Ya think?” Yancy asked, irked. “Some things take me a little more time to figure out than others, but I’m not incapable of deciding for myself whether a job offer is legit or not.”
“Yeah, I know,” Raleigh snapped, annoyed. “But maybe I’m more worried that if someone gave you a job right this fucking minute, you’d be so grateful you won’t look to see if it has problems.”
“And you did?”
“Yeah,” Raleigh shot back. “That bed in this room? Is me spending weeks with Richie, working out why the fuck I shouldn’t hightail it back to Alaska where nobody was going to ask me ‘how does it feel to have closed the Breach’ one more goddamned time. I’m grateful that Herc understood how big a decision it was to say, ‘yeah, I’ll help the PPDC rebuild and I’ll teach the pilots.’ Because the truth is, I can’t function anywhere else. You can.”
Yancy eyed him, remembering how Raleigh had been the more impulsive one of them. “What happened to the guy who used to jump into everything? I’d have thought you’d be the one to just say ‘go for it.’”
Raleigh sighed. “I’ve had mornings where I’ve woken up thinking I was you,” he said flatly. “Fucks me up enough that I’ve had to figure out how not to fuck up whatever I’m doing, which usually means proceeding with caution until I’ve figured out which way is up and who I am.”
Yancy drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “So it’s not that you think someone giving me a job is a bad thing?”
“No,” Raleigh said. “I mean, as long as you want it and it doesn’t come with a million strings. I just…” He grimaced. “I can’t say this right. I want you to be happy, all right? And you’ve always taken forever to decide on something.”
Yancy half-smiled at that. “You do know that I’ll always be here for you, no matter where I am?”
“I know, but it’s easier to forget people when you’re not there to remind them.”
Yancy swallowed hard. “I didn’t forget you, kid.”
Raleigh met his gaze. “Yeah, but come on, Yancy. I know it’s hard to make decisions when you’re stuck emotionally, so I get that part. I just –”
“Am trying to kick my ass so I don’t get stuck again?”
Raleigh looked slightly sheepish. “Yeah?” he ventured.
Yancy hugged him. “Thanks, but maybe you’re making too much of a deal over this? Trust that I’m going into this with open eyes and an open mind, okay, kid?”
Raleigh sighed. “Sorry, Yance. I just…worry, y’know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Yancy said, and then gave his brother a noogie for it, because he could.
That quickly turned into a wrestling match, one neither wanted to lose.
“Well,” Chuck drawled as he stepped into the room, “that’s not what I was expecting to see.”
Yancy looked down, realizing abruptly that he’d managed to grab Raleigh’s right thigh with both hands. With his ankles, Yancy had wrapped his legs across Raleigh’s head, forcing Raleigh’s head down such that Raleigh was bent over with his head hanging down. Quickly, Yancy let go and rolled off his brother. “Yeah?” he dared Chuck, summoning his best ‘we weren’t doing anything’ look and tone as Raleigh straightened and went to kiss Chuck hello.
Chuck barked a laugh as he pulled Raleigh closer. “Did I break up a fight?” he asked.
“Nah, we were just wrestling,” Raleigh replied, kissing him lightly.
“Thought you said no fighting in this room,” Chuck reminded him.
Raleigh looked sheepish. “It’s his fault,” he said immediately, and jerked a thumb at Yancy.
“Uh huh,” Chuck said. “You guys all cleared out. Where did you go?”
“The mall. Hu wanted to see if he had the stamina for a full hour in the mall,” Yancy said, taking up the official excuse.
“Oh? How’d he do?”
“Standing wheelchair helped a lot, but some kids recognized him and we almost got mobbed,” Raleigh said. “Mall security was pissed we didn’t notify them in advance.”
“I’m sure they got the notice; just didn’t pass it down to everyone,” Chuck said. “So were you going to stay for movie night, Yancy?”
“Yeah, that was the plan,” Yancy agreed. “Rals, you should probably shift again or it’ll hurt when the moon is high and you get forced to shift. I’ll meet you two in the media room. I just realized I left my bags with Mako, and I have some questions I want to ask Security.”
“Was wondering when you’d remember where you’d left those,” Raleigh teased him.
Yancy exited the room. He was certain Mako would bring his purchases to media room, and just as certain that she was with Hu, taking advantage of some private time. He decided to head up to the observation deck and get some air before spending another few hours inside with a bunch of other people. The guard on the observation deck was no one he’d met before, but he looked to be Japanese and built like a tank. His nametag indicated he was H. Nomura.
“Is it okay if I go out there?”
The guard nodded. “Just don’t get too close to the edge, please, Mr. Becket.”
From previous experience, Yancy knew there were cameras on the observation deck. He didn’t care. He’d found, through trial and error, an alcove that wasn’t in camera sight, and used it now to take off his clothes, stack them in a pile, and shift forms. He had no real sense of time as a wolf, but he’d gotten good at estimating based on the amount of available light.
Yancy breathed in the air and closed his eyes briefly. In this form, he could admit that he was afraid of not meeting his brother’s expectations. He put his head to his paws and breathed in deeply. He couldn’t see the moon, which was obscured by clouds, but he could feel it pulling at him and knew his brother would likely be spending the evening watching movies as a wolf, since Raleigh didn’t shift nearly as much as Yancy did and was more prone to the moon’s pull. For a moment, Yancy wished he could go back in time. He knew he had to make his way forward, but he found himself grieving for what he couldn’t have: one more phone call with his sister, who’d known what they’d all be and had kept the family history.
Tomorrow, Yancy promised himself, tomorrow, I am going to run in the park and chase rabbits and not give a fucking damn about jobs, being an older brother, or any of that shit. I’m just going to pretend, for a little while, that all I am is a wolf, and that nothing else matters. Jazmine, I wish you were alive so we could talk about this. I miss you so damn much, little sister.
Yancy howled once because it felt good to do so, then took a deep breath before squaring his shoulders and moving over to where he’d stacked his clothes.
Yancy didn’t know what to expect, given the invitation. He decided to go with an open mind. He felt reassured by the presence of his security: Poppy Goddard, a middle-aged woman who looked like the athletic Australian-girl-next-door, and who had earned her position as deputy chief of security in part to her diligence in guarding the Hansens; and Hideo Nomura, a stocky Japanese man who radiated calm confidence, and who looked to be about the same age as Yancy. Both wore the standard PPDC security uniform, which was a navy blue dress shirt with a slightly darker tie, black pants, and black boots. The PPDC logo was embroidered on the shirt on the left side, under which they wore their name pins; both wore the patches of their rank. Curiously, Poppy carried a small round metal shield in a tote bag, and both she and Hideo wore Tasers on their belt holsters. Yancy was relieved to see that the guard who’d been on the observation deck was the same person who’d be accompanying him.
“You going to tell me why you’re carrying that?” Yancy asked as they stepped into the elevator.
“You’ll be fine,” Poppy assured him, not answering his question.
Yancy took the hint and spent the rest of the elevator ride reviewing his answers to the list of probable interview questions he’d found on the Internet. He was confident in his ability to deliver under pressure. He was more worried about what he would find when they stepped into the suite. According to Poppy’s briefing before they’d exited the towncar, they were destined for the hotel’s second-best suite, a corner suite with a king-size bedroom with en-suite bathroom, a study, a living/dining room, a pantry, and a separate guest bathroom. Yancy had spent a moment wondering if his soon-to-be host hadn’t been able to afford the penthouse, but then he’d decided that maybe it hadn’t been available.
A man who looked like a member of Pierre Huppé’s security stood outside the door to the suite. At their approach, he verified their names against his phone before opening the door and ushering them inside. They stepped past the guest bathroom and the study on their way into the living/dining area. Yancy noticed immediately that the dining table was round and seated eight; it was on their left. To their right was a sofa with two club chairs and a coffee table. The view was of Victoria Harbour and threatened to be a serious distraction.
With an effort, Yancy ignored the impressive view. He zeroed in on his host, a man who radiated confidence, power, and the unmistakable scent of werewolf. Yancy couldn’t describe how he knew, but he knew that wild, musky, almost feral magic like he knew his own scent.
The man Yancy presumed to be Pierre Huppé wore a two-button business suit in gray, accented by a teal pocket square and a complementing tie. He looked like someone had chiseled him out of granite, with a face full of angles and a wide, rugged body frame. His hair was graying, cut fashionably short, and his green eyes missed nothing as he watched Yancy approach the sofa. He looked to be about mid-forties. He sat in the sofa as if it was a throne, leaving Yancy with no choice but to take the only unoccupied chair if he wanted to sit down. End tables flanked the sofa; one held a laptop, the other held what Yancy assumed to be various papers.
A woman sat in the other club chair, a small tablet in front of her on the coffee table. She looked almost wren-like, brown and small, as if her sole job was to blend into the furniture. Yancy presumed she was some kind of assistant; he doubted someone like Pierre did his own paperwork. The table wasn’t set for lunch, though Yancy caught sight of a server trying and failing to hover unobtrusively in the background.
At Yancy’s approach, the man stood. He looked over what Yancy wore as if to measure what he wore, sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “I am Pierre Huppé,” he said, greeting Yancy in French. “You are Yancy Becket.”
Yancy offered his hand, which the man visibly ignored. Yancy frowned and decided that maybe he was just someone who didn’t touch other people. Deciding he would treat this like he’d treated a few of the more awful PPDC-arranged PR outings, Yancy put on his best smile. Still as he dropped his hand, Yancy felt awkward on top of being nervous. Trying to disguise what he was feeling, Yancy greeted, “Pleasure to meet you.” He sat down; Poppy and Hideo took positions behind the chair.
“You did not bring your brother.” Pierre continued to speak French; his tone was full of disappointment.
“You didn’t invite him,” Yancy returned in English, certain the other man was speaking French deliberately. “I thought the job offer was for me alone. Last time I was invited to an interview, they made sure to tell me not to bring my brother.”
Pierre’s eyes flashed. “This is not how you speak to me. Do you not know who I am?” he raged in French.
“Right now, I’d say you’re an angry dude,” Yancy said, continuing in English because he didn’t want to take the chance that Hsiao and Poppy didn’t understand French, “and my mama taught me better manners than to act like a dog.”
Pierre eyed him warily. “Forgive me,” he said abruptly, switching languages easily. “Do you not speak French?”
“I do, but unless you give me a compelling reason to speak to you in it, I’m not going to,” Yancy said sweetly. “So unless you want to tell me in the next five minutes why the fuck I’m here, talking to you, I’m going to go find lunch elsewhere.”
“You do not need to be hunting rabbits in the park!” Pierre shouted, banging his hand on the sofa. It made a dull thud. “You are the last of the Lapierre line! You should be treated as the royalty you are!”
Yancy narrowed his eyes. “Look, I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m hunting rabbits in a park for food. For fun, sure. Also, you’re forgetting my brother in that count. Royalty? What the fuck do you mean by royalty?
“I am king of the werewolf clans,” Pierre muttered. His eyes took on an angry glow. “But we need an ambassador to the immortals, an emissary who can convince a few of them to help protect us, and your family has served the clans that way for years. In that way, you are royalty.”
Yancy eyed Pierre dubiously as he tried to remember what his sister had written about their family. “And what does being ambassador of the werewolf clans get you?” he stalled.
“Access to opportunities you would not otherwise have,” Pierre snapped, as if the answer was obvious. “Meetings with people with influence, authority, power, and money.”
Yancy started to say something in protest, then rewound what Pierre had said. “Which means what, exactly?”
“You would represent me and the clans,” Pierre said. “We are hunted, mistaken for real wolves, used and abused. You would advocate for understanding and peace. If you found an immortal to protect us, we could become even stronger.”
“Even supposing I could, how many people are we talking? Because I can’t imagine only one immortal would be able to help, what – a thousand werewolves, six thousand?”
“That information is confidential,” Pierre said.
“Okay,” Yancy said dubiously. “Say I say yes to this and then what? Last I checked, going up to someone and asking if they’re either a werewolf or an immortal was a no-go.”
“You would have access to that information,” Pierre said. “You would not be approaching anyone blindly.”
“And then what does this supposed immortal get in exchange?”
Pierre looked at him as if he was stupid. “A companion who isn’t likely to die of old age within a century. That means a lot to someone with a long lifeline.”
“What kind of immortals are we talking about? Because I only thought werewolves existed. I didn’t know any others existed.” Yancy deliberately played dumb, wanting to see how Pierre would react.
“You were not with the Highlander? He never showed you his famous sword?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yancy said in his best ‘I’m blond and dumb’ tone. “I was living on a farm with this super-prepared dude, so I got lucky.”
Pierre’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying,” he snarled. “I can smell the lie on you. You’ve already found an immortal who’ll protect you.”
“So?” Yancy challenged, dropping the pretense. “What he told me was that there are no werewolf kings. No emissaries and no games and certainly no participation in the Game. Or was he ignorant? You tell me.”
Pierre snarled unhappily. “No. I’m trying to change things so we have a greater voice in what happens. Your family has historically united us.”
“Yeah,” Yancy drawled as he remembered what Jazmine had written. “And according to my family’s journals, it got them nothing but giant headache and none of the money, power, prestige, or influence they’d been promised.”
“I would change that for you,” Pierre said. “All you have to do is agree.”
Yancy stared at him, appalled that he thought that was enough incentive. “So you invited me here to just fucking say, ‘Hey, sure, I’ll do this thing’ without thinking it through? Besides, it doesn’t look like you’re hurting for money or power. What would me being an ambassador serve?”
“You have no idea of what it takes to unite the clans,” Pierre said. “I have spent a fortune in tracing the lineage of all the werewolves, all of the clans. Now that I’m king, we could –”
“Let me guess: rule the world. No thanks.” Yancy stood up.
“You don’t understand,” Pierre said, lapsing into French. “You don’t know what good it would do. We could fix the poison in the land, erase the effects of kaiju blue, extend the peace.”
“With what? My blood? Everyone who’s a werewolf? You have got to be kidding me. Werewolf blood magic doesn’t work like that,” Yancy snapped. “I should know. I almost died because some witch believed that.” Disgusted, he turned to leave. The last thing he needed in his life was someone who thought werewolf blood meant something more than what it was. Everything Yancy had read in his sister’s journals about being a werewolf had indicated being a werewolf inferred no status, power, or wealth. Anyone who thought it did was likely trying to get something – and Yancy didn’t need the memory of what his sister had written to recognize a schemer when he saw one. He’d certainly met enough of them when he was a jaeger pilot.
“What would motivate you, then?” Pierre asked casually. “You could be famous.”
Yancy turned and looked at the other man incredulously. “Seriously? Do you not know who I am? I’m one of the guys who helped kick kaiju ass. What did you do? Cower in a shelter? Look, you can take your notions of royalty and shove it. I’m not ceding anything to you or giving you a damn thing to help you hunt for more power. Not without checking out everything first and certainly not on your say-so. If you have more useful information than ‘it’ll save the world’, then I’d like to hear it.”
“I would’ve thought you would be interested, if you were a jaeger pilot,” Pierre said silkily, his tone implying Yancy’s claim of being a jaeger pilot was in doubt.
“I was a jaeger pilot. I piloted Gipsy Danger with my brother from 2017 to 2020,” Yancy snarled, insulted. “Together we took down five kaiju. What that means,” Yancy said, drawing closer and watching Pierre’s eyes narrow, “is that I know what the fuck saving the fucking world means. It means that you’re willing to die for what you believe in. Right now, I’m not hearing anything that makes me think uniting the werewolf clans will give the world anything it needs. Will it feed the hungry, build them new shelters, give them meaningful and useful jobs?”
Pierre lifted his head. He didn’t smell afraid, but he did smell wary, as if he hadn’t expected Yancy to argue. “You think that matters?”
“Yes,” Yancy shot back. “So tell me: what would I do if I were your ambassador and you were my puppet master?”
Pierre looked thunderstruck. “You think what is available to you is not worth it? You could hold a genuine position of authority and influence. We could make history.”
“Yeah, until I piss you off and you decide to accidentally kill me. So sorry, but I’m not going there.”
Yancy nodded to Hideo and Poppy and started for the door, Hideo leading, Poppy at his back. Abruptly, he heard Poppy snarl, “You overstep yourself, werewolf,” and the sound of claws hitting steel.
Very slowly, Yancy turned to see Poppy holding the shield she’d brought. Pierre stood, partially shifted, looking stunned, as if he’d hit the shield.
“You dare?!” Pierre said, incredulous.
“You’re the one who attacked,” Poppy said readily, surprising both Yancy and Pierre by speaking French, albeit with a strong Australian accent. “Whatever it is you really want, you’re not going to get it this way.”
“What she said,” Yancy said, deliberately speaking French, and watched Pierre’s eyes widen. Dismissing him, Yancy turned away. “Let’s go home.”
They were nearly at the door when they heard the woman speak. “Please, don’t go just yet.” She spoke English with a French accent.
Yancy turned and looked at her incredulously, noting as he did so that she’d come closer in her attempt to stop him from leaving. “And you are?”
“Stéphanie Paimbouef,” she said, smiling quickly and clearly trying to be reassuring. “I assist Mr. Huppé. Please, take this with you and read it.” She handed him a thick envelope. “I know Mr. Huppé is very passionate and it can be disturbing to witness. He does not like being disappointed. If nothing else, you should have this information. If you change your mind, there’s a business card included where you can contact us. If we don’t hear from you in three days, no further contact will be made.”
“And if I don’t want anything to do with this?” Yancy asked.
Stéphanie smiled again. “You would not be the first or the last to say no. As much as your participation would help us, it isn’t required. We would prefer it, of course.”
Reluctantly, Yancy took the envelope, figuring if he took it, it would get them out of that suite faster. He felt vaguely vile for taking it, suspecting he’d given hope when he shouldn’t have. Once they were in the elevator, he looked at Poppy, who was tucking the shield she’d used back into the oversized tote bag she carried. “If I tossed this away, do you think anyone would think less of me?”
“Depends,” Poppy said. “It might have useful information.”
“I’ll take it,” Hideo offered. “I’m guessing you don’t want to handle it?”
Yancy shook his head. “Felt like a last-minute sales pitch.” He handed it over to Hideo.
“We’ll look at it and make sure it’s not anything dangerous,” Poppy assured him. “My guess is that it’s the information he wanted you to have, regardless.”
Yancy made a face. “Like having it is going to make me change my mind. What the hell do I need with being the son of royalty? All this talk about blood makes me think the worst. Can’t I get offered a job where what I think matters?”
Poppy gripped his arm reassuringly. “I’m sure you will.”
“I didn’t know you spoke French,” Yancy said to Poppy as they made their way through the hotel to the parking lot where Travis waited with the PPDC towncar.
Poppy smiled. “I’m a little rusty,” she admitted. “I’ve been speaking Cantonese and Mandarin more lately. You and Raleigh grew up speaking French?”
“Yeah, our mom was French.” Yancy realized abruptly it had been almost twelve years since her death from lung cancer and wished he could call her. She would’ve laughed at the notion of being royalty. “She was a waitress in a café when she met Dad. We never had much, especially traveling around as much as we did, but she always made sure we knew we were loved.”
“That’s the important part,” Poppy agreed. “Did you want Travis to take you back to your apartment or did you want to hang out at the Shatterdome until after dinner? Your choice. If you went to the Shatterdome, I’m sure you could talk Lauren in HR into helping you do a job search.”
“Might as well,” Yancy said. “I spent last night looking on the Internet and gave up a bit. How do I put ‘chased sheep in exchange for room and board’ on my resume?”
“I don’t know,” Poppy replied. “But I’m sure Lauren can get creative.”
“Thanks,” Yancy said, and lapsed into silence. He was furious that anyone would assume he would just hand over something that sounded so huge without a thought. More importantly in Yancy’s mind, he had the sense that he didn’t know enough about what uniting the werewolf clans would do to make an informed decision.
Were there enough werewolves in the world for it to matter? Yancy wondered. He imagined werewolves were among every people in the planet, though he imagined it would be harder to hide being one if you were in a place that didn’t have a native wolf population. Uniting people tended to only happen in times of crisis, Yancy knew. From what he’d heard from his brother and the other jaeger pilots, the world wasn’t remaining in the united-against-the-kaiju configuration it had held for so many years. Yancy held no doubt that the Pacific Rim countries would be back to their pre-Kaiju War quibbling in due time. The only saving grace was that using jaegers as war machines against human targets was considered verboten and vile, plus the PPDC held the patents for jaeger manufacture.
Even assuming that the world werewolf population was a small percentage, Yancy thought it was unrealistic that such a large group could do much good. In small, concentrated doses, maybe, but as big as Yancy thought that group to be, it didn’t seem feasible or wise. He sighed. Maybe he wasn’t thinking like a megalomaniac, he thought wryly.
He let Poppy and Hideo take the envelope off to wherever they were going to go through it, trusting they had a process for dealing with it, and headed to speak with Lauren Nolan in Human Resources. Lauren had helped Yancy with finding placement before; he trusted she would help him again. Half an hour later, he emerged with a list of possibilities, a reminder to update his resume, and a gentle admonition that his career path was only as limited as he wanted it to be.
He found his brother waiting for him outside HR’s offices, dressed in what Yancy knew to be his work uniform: a PPDC-issue blue t-shirt emblazoned with a PPDC logo and the word ‘instructor’ underneath it, jeans, and work boots. Raleigh didn’t care much for the PPDC-logowear, but he’d flatly refused to wear a dress shirt and tie unless he had to, so the logo T-shirts were his compromise between ‘looking like a professional’ and ‘looking like he didn’t belong in front of a group of fellow jaeger pilots.’ Yancy suspected said jaeger pilots were long past caring what Raleigh wore; he’d kicked their collective asses enough to warrant respect on top of what he’d done in a conn-pod.
“How’d it go?” Raleigh asked. “Given that I’m guessing that you just talked to Lauren or one of her assistants, I’m thinking it was a bust.”
“Yeah, it was,” Yancy said. He didn’t really want to get into discussing the whole thing with his little brother, given how Raleigh seemed to think Yancy wasn’t trying hard enough to find work. He knew, though, that if he didn’t give Raleigh some information, Raleigh would just try to find out by other means. “I didn’t even get a free lunch.”
“Well, that sucks,” Raleigh said. “Have you eaten anything?”
“Nah, it’s okay; I’m not really hungry. Aren’t you supposed to be working now?”
“Can’t I take a break to see my brother?”
“Yeah, but now that you’ve seen me, go back to work,” Yancy said, amused. He hugged his brother briefly, and turned him in the direction of the jaeger bay. “I’ll see you at dinner in a few hours.”
Raleigh pouted but took the hint. Alone again, Yancy waited five minutes before heading for Grace’s office. He knew the head physician was immortal, and if he remembered correctly, the oldest immortal in the Shatterdome. If anyone knew about werewolves, he figured she did.
Grace was deep in her work, but welcomed him in her office with a smile. “Have a seat. What can I do for you, Yancy?”
“Have you ever heard of the werewolves banding together with immortals for protection?” Yancy asked as he sat down.
Grace chuckled. “Every so often, yes, there’s a group of them who think that we immortals want a whole posse of them around, either as companions or lovers who are hard to kill. Usually they get one or two takers and it causes problems because then someone gets jealous that they weren’t picked. Honestly, it’s not anything I’ve advocated getting into, but if it works for you, just know that it paints a target on your back. Why?”
“Someone claiming to be king of the werewolf clans wants me to be his emissary.”
“Let me guess,” Grace said dryly, “his last name is Huppé or Chartré, and he claims to have united all of the clans.”
Startled, Yancy looked at her. “I take it you’ve heard this before?”
“They have a long history of doing so, yes. Together they have anywhere from fifty to two hundred people, depending on how successful they’ve been at their recruitment and how well their families have done over the years.” Grace’s tone was dry. “They recruited me two centuries ago to assist with some of the childbirths, which turned out to be a mistake on my part, since I had no idea how I’d be blamed for two very difficult and ultimately tragic births.
“I’ve kept them on my radar ever since because they almost got me killed twice. But in terms of really representing all werewolves -” She shook her head. “They would have to know who all is a werewolf, and there’s been too much persecution over the years for everyone to want to be known. Not all of your kind likes being in groups or being counted.”
“So you don’t think it’s anything evil?”
“More like annoying,” Grace said, “but annoying could turn evil, given enough motivation and opportunity. The good thing is that they’ve always respected a ‘no, not interested.’ I’d be worried more if they didn’t.”
“That’s what I was hoping.” He paused, thinking about what Pierre had said. “What do you think would happen if they managed to get that many werewolves together?”
Grace shook her head. “The same thing that happens when you have that many people in one place: someone will want to do good, but how it gets executed makes the difference between it being perceived as good and useful or being an utter exercise in too much money and power.”
“So you don’t think werewolf blood would do anything magical if it was in mass quantities?”
“As far as I know, no,” Grace said firmly. “Unless it was for a blood transfusion between werewolves.”
“Thanks, Dr. Chandel.” He rose to leave.
“You’re welcome. And Yancy?”
“Yes?” He turned to look at her.
“It’s Grace when you’re not my patient.”
Yancy smiled. “Thanks again, Grace.”
He felt better after speaking to her, but knew he had one more stop to make before he could consider his decision solid. He headed for Security, and found Poppy and Hideo in the office. “Ah, just the man we wanted to see,” Poppy greeted.
“Anything in that package worth my time?” Yancy asked, stepping closer to the cubicle where Poppy sat.
“Not unless you want a marketing brochure for Pierre Huppé’s seismic engineering company,” Poppy said with a slight shrug. “Interested?”
Yancy shook his head. “Was there anything else in the envelope?”
“Business card and a note from Stéphanie pleading you to consider the position,” Poppy replied. “Did you want to read it?”
“If I don’t, I’m always gonna wonder if I should have,” Yancy pointed out.
Hideo handed it over; the note looked to be handwritten on cream-colored stationery with a red ribbon border. On closer inspection, Yancy realized it was actually a typewritten font, meant to look cursive. Already less than impressed, he read it. Halfway through, he looked up and asked, “Is it just me or does this not say a damn thing other than ‘pretty please take this job that’s going to consume your life?’ I don’t care if it offers healthcare benefits. And I’m sorry, but –” he scanned to the bottom of the letter “ – that salary works out to less a month than the rent on my apartment. Wealth, my ass.”
“We thought so, yes,” Hideo agreed. “Do you believe he has merit in what he’s trying to do?”
Yancy shook his head. “Maybe if I had this dream that finding other werewolves would magically mean I had a family who understood me, but I don’t.” He paused, realizing belatedly that he meant it. “Grace said she’s heard of this guy before. Apparently his family and one other have a history of trying to claim they’ve united the clans.”
Poppy nodded. “I’ll check with her in a bit, but I’d let that three-day deadline pass without comment if I were you.”
“Thanks, Poppy, Hideo. I really didn’t know what to expect walking into that.” He paused. “Do you think they’d do anything now that they know I’m a werewolf?”
“He’d be an idiot if he tried,” Poppy said. “And for all his ranting, he didn’t strike me as that kind of idiot. I wouldn’t go out without security, just to be safe, at least for the next few weeks.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Yancy agreed.
So, what do you think? Suggestions welcome on where this goes from here. :-)
Herc looked up at the feel of another immortal approaching and tensed automatically. Habit had him reaching for his sword, which he kept in a specially designed sheath underneath the desk.
“Herc, may I have a word?” Grace called as she knocked on his office door.
Letting go of his sword, he smiled. “Come in, have a seat. What I can do for you?”
Grace pulled his office door shut as she stepped into his office. “It didn’t occur to me to put the pieces together until after Yancy spoke to me earlier today. When E.J. was here, did she tell you who the father of her baby was?”
“Yeah, some guy named Pierre Huppé. Why? What does that have to do with Yancy?”
Grace sighed as she sat down. “Means that your ex-girlfriend is likely carrying the child of a werewolf.”
Herc studied her. “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he said cautiously.
“It explains why the doctor Pierre insisted she see was very upset that she wasn’t taking better care of herself,” Grace said. “And why they kept trying to get her to come back to see them for her prenatal care and childbirth. I agreed with E.J. at the time that it seemed excessive, but I didn’t think anything of it, really. She wouldn’t tell me who the father was, only that it wasn’t you, and the only people who needed to know had already been told.”
“Women who get pregnant by a werewolf tend to have premature babies,” Grace said bluntly. “And they run a greater risk of breech births and high-risk deliveries. I almost got killed because the mother whose child I was delivering died. She stopped breathing. Then her baby did the same.”
“You aren’t suggesting I contact her and convince her that werewolves exist, are you? Because from where I’m sitting, you might be the only one she’ll listen to on that score.”
Grace smiled ruefully. “Perhaps, but…I don’t want to get involved with that family again.”
“The Huppé family,” Grace explained, and repeated what she’d told Yancy, and what he’d told her about his job interview.
Herc rubbed the bridge of his nose. “That explains why Amanda was warning me not to get involved with anyone claiming that they’re uniting the werewolf clans. This is a mess, you know that.” He looked down at his desk, not quite seeing the stacks of work to be done, but remembering how E.J. had looked the last time he’d seen her. Every part of Herc that believed in doing the right thing wanted very much to just march out and bring his ex-girlfriend home where she would be safe – but he kept tripping over the fact that she was a) his ex and b) not inclined to let him do anything for her.
Damn it, E.J., for someone who wants her life to be this orderly thing where you can control what triggers you, you’ve got a talent for finding people who’ll turn it upside down, he thought sourly. But I can’t stand by and let you get hurt, and that means I still care. Damn it.
He considered the situation and looked at Grace. “If E.J. goes into labor and goes to the hospital, what are her chances? I mean, it’s not like she’s going to deliver a wolf pup, is she?”
“It’s a rare but not unheard of possibility,” Grace replied. She grimaced. “The first time I saw that, I freaked out. I can’t say my first thought wasn’t at all educated or nice or benefitting someone older than a century. I thought she’d birthed a demon.”
“Did they tell you it might happen?”
“Danced around it like it was a maypole. ‘You might see something different,’ is what they told me.” Grace shook her head. “Different is an understatement.” The six-hundred-year-old Frenchwoman added, “I wanted to run, but I couldn’t abandon the mother. I said a prayer and did my best to save both mother and baby.” Old regret filled her eyes as she finished, “They’re the ones that died.”
“Let me guess: the father blamed you for their deaths because you reacted like you did.”
Grace smiled tightly. “I made the mistake of thinking that since four centuries had passed since someone stoned me to death for being a witch, that people had changed. Trouble was, I’d forgotten I was in a small, closeted society who only brought in outsiders like me when they thought I would be useful.”
“Is that why you are hesitating over helping E.J. further?”
“But E.J.’s a friend,” Herc pointed out. “And from what I’ve come to know about you, you’ve risked far more for less, and damn anyone who thinks you don’t take your Hippocratic oath seriously.”
Grace looked at him. “I only have privileges at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital for PPDC personnel and their dependents,” she pointed out. “She isn’t one.”
Herc eyed the Frenchwoman. “No, but I doubt that would stop you if you really wanted to push the issue. You’re afraid.”
Grace closed her eyes briefly. “Yes. I’d prefer not to be in servitude to that family again – and as I told Yancy, they’ve usually respected a ‘no, not interested.’ The problem is when you’ve said yes once and try to walk away.”
“Surely they would’ve forgotten your name by now. Were you using the name Grace Chandel then?”
“No, but werewolves live for at least a century and they keep family histories. Because they live such long lives, many seek out immortals for companionship and marriage. I would not put it past a few of them to have been Watchers.”
Herc considered the situation. “That still leaves a lot of holes,” he noted. “And I haven’t heard anything yet to make me think you have sufficient cause to be afraid, Grace.”
“Isn’t the fact that the Huppé family had the means to locate Yancy sufficient cause?”
“He wasn’t hiding anymore,” Herc replied. “We did put out a big announcement. As much as I might wish otherwise, I don’t think his existence is a state secret here in the city. I get that you have history, but how long ago was it that you were in that family’s service?”
“1718,” Grace said. “You’re looking at me like I’m being irrational for thinking they’d remember.”
“Grace, that was two centuries ago,” Herc shot back. “I’m surprised you remember the exact year.”
“When you’ve passed two centuries, I’ll remind you of this conversation,” Grace retorted. “And maybe you’re right and maybe I’m being overly paranoid, but if I presume they kept up with their oral and written histories, that means that this family knows about immortals. They know how to kill one. That alone makes me think twice about wanting to help E.J.”
Herc had never seen Grace this shaken up, which gave him pause. He didn’t doubt that she felt she had cause for concern. Still, what she described seemed very far-fetched to him, even factoring in Pierre’s attack on Yancy. “This other clinic that you went to with E.J….do you think they’re competent?”
“No,” Grace said softly. “And…” She met Herc’s gaze. “I don’t want to fail her as a friend or a physician.”
Herc sighed. “So you have three choices. Either you pretend you don’t know a damned thing and stay away, or you get more involved than you already are, or you hand E.J.’s care over to the doctors this Pierre Huppé guy found for her and then you walk away. You know what you can live with, Grace, far better than me. I know we aren’t set up for anything more than an emergency childbirth, but I’m also certain you’ve dealt with that fact of life in far worse conditions.”
Grace studied him. “So you aren’t going to tell me not to get involved and you’re not ordering me not to, either.”
“Would you prefer if I did?” Herc asked dryly. “Because if I’m hearing you right, you think this Huppé family’s trouble.”
Grace sighed and squared her shoulders. “No, because that just seems to dare God to prove us wrong. Let me check with E.J. and make sure who the father of her baby is the same person.”
“Let me know what you find out,” Herc said. “I’d hate for us to go in guns blazing when there’s no danger.”
Grace nodded. “I will,” she promised.
Half an hour later, Jeremy Livojević walked into the office, looking troubled. The chief of PPDC security was a barrel-chested man of Croatian heritage with prematurely gray hair, a prominent nose, deep-set brown eyes, a pointed chin and wide forehead. “Grace spoke to me about her concerns. Sir, you’ll want to see this.” He handed Herc a tablet, already open to a newspaper obituary. “This was in French, but I’ve opened it to the English translation.”
Pierre Huppé, a leading expert in seismic engineering, died at his home in Paris, on April 16. He was 52. An investigation into his death is still pending. Huppé was the founder of PH Engineering, which has become renowned across the Pacific Rim for its efforts to assist cities by building and renovating structures to be more kaiju-resistant.
A photo of a man, who looked like he could’ve been Herc’s cousin, albeit with black hair, accompanied the article.
“This didn’t come up before Yancy went to the interview?” Herc asked, irritated.
Jeremy met Herc’s gaze. “It did, but we needed visual confirmation,” he said. “And if the offer was genuine, and from someone who coincidentally shares the same name, I wanted to be absolutely sure I wasn’t jumping to conclusions because I’m paranoid.”
Herc looked at his chief of security, who usually projected such unflappability that Herc had come to rely on that calm. “But now you have that visual confirmation, you’re worried,” he surmised.
“There’s still a chance – granted, a small one – that this Pierre Huppé isn’t the same person Grace remembers,” Jeremy pointed out. “But even if it’s not, it’s someone who a) is a werewolf and b) is willing to commit violence. That’s not a combination I trust to just walk away, especially if he’s like some other werewolves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some werewolves like to seek out immortals for protection. Based on what Yancy said, it sounded like Pierre was upset that Yancy had not only found one, but that he knew one of the most powerful immortals.”
“Ah.” Herc sat back in his chair and considered. “Do you think there’s much risk to E.J.?”
Jeremy sighed unhappily. “If he’s the same person Yancy met – and that’s an ‘if’ I’m not ruling out – then yes. But my hands are tied since she’s your ex-girlfriend and therefore a private citizen, not covered by PPDC security policy. The rules are different for Yancy, since he’s both a retired jaeger pilot and family.”
Herc covered his mouth briefly with a fist, torn between his need to protect someone he still cared about and his awareness that he couldn’t protect everyone. “Damn it. Thought so. Anything you can do unofficially?”
“Unofficially, I may have some friends in the local police force who are treating it like a stalker case.”
Herc nodded tightly. He couldn’t ask for much more without committing PPDC resources, and he was well-aware that while the PPDC was managing quite nicely in a post-Breach world, said resources were not finite. “Appreciate that. So as paper-thin as that effort is, it’s still something.”
“Glad you see it that way,” Jeremy said dryly. “Which brings me to the problem of ensuring Yancy’s protection.”
“Yancy’s activity isn’t something I can control,” Jeremy pointed out. “If he was working or living here, I could limit how much outside exposure he gets. Since he doesn’t work or live here, and he’s intent on finding a new job, he won’t appreciate being confined to his apartment. He’ll go stir crazy, and I’m sure he’s figured out how to get out of and back into his apartment while being a wolf.”
“Come up with plans, then, but we’ll start with making sure he stays put for the time being,” Herc said. “Is Yancy still here?”
Jeremy used his walkie-talkie to check with his team. “Yes, he’s with his brother in the kwoon.”
“I’ll talk with him,” Herc decided, rising to his feet. “Let me know what you come up with by dinnertime. Dismissed.”
Jeremy nodded, saluted Herc, and walked out the door.
The Shatterdome was large enough that walking from his office to the kwoon took several minutes. Herc stepped into the room to see that Raleigh and Chuck were studying how Curtis Mason and Võ Chuyên moved through a bō routine. Curtis and Võ had quickly become the lead rangers among the newer pilots, and their dedication to their work showed in moments like this. The PPDC’s focus had shifted in the years since the Breach closure, so asking for extra training was unusual, since it reflected a desire to expect the unexpected.
Herc didn’t recognize the pattern of movement until he saw that Curtis and Võ had matching straps binding their right arms to their sides. Herc’s eyes widened as he realized that Raleigh and Chuck had come up with a way to teach the less experienced rangers how to move through a presumed injury without a simulator. Yancy stood beside his brother, looking as though he wasn’t entirely onboard with what was happening.
At the sound of Herc’s approach, Raleigh glanced over long enough to greet, “Marshal.”
“Raleigh,” Herc acknowledged.
“Come to check up on us, old man?” Chuck asked, but his tone and the ghost Drift between him and Herc only held mild curiosity.
“Cat got your tongue?” Herc asked Yancy.
“Not sure what I’m doing here,” Yancy admitted. “Other than to say they both look like they’re in trouble.”
Herc studied Curtis and Võ as they struggled to maintain their usual fluidity. Curtis was a sandy brown haired Brit who, in his previous life, had been a pro surfer and part-time model. His copilot was a wiry Vietnamese who was six inches shorter in height and had previous training in martial arts. Both men had the balance control mastered, but they were clearly not finding a good rhythm as they tried to find a way to fight without causing injury. That wasn’t the point of the fight under these conditions, Herc knew; it was learning how to move and do what needed to be done anyway.
“Best if they learn that now instead of in a storm,” Herc told Yancy.
Raleigh shot his brother a look said clearly, See, the marshal agrees with me.
Ignoring it, suspecting he’d stepped into a brotherly disagreement, Herc said, “Excuse us. Yancy, if you’d follow me?”
Hearing the order in his tone, Yancy gestured to the door. “Lead on, Marshal.”
Herc led him to a nearby training classroom, currently unoccupied, and shut the door. “You don’t think what Curtis and Võ are doing is useful information?”
Yancy shrugged. “If they think it is, sure. Just seems like the likelihood of a kaiju ripping their jaeger’s right arm off is pretty low these days.”
“They could be asked to pick up something that would overtax their jaeger, causing damage,” Herc pointed out. “You know how it is – you know what your jaeger’s capable of, but in the moment, you aren’t necessarily calculating physics and loads.”
“True,” Yancy said. “I mean, I wouldn’t try if I had the kind of time to have the jaeger computer or LOCCENT do the calcs, but –” he sighed “–I also wasn’t considering that Chuck and Raleigh would train the new guys as if they had to face the worst-case scenarios.”
“What, you thought they’d be easier on the newer rangers?” Herc barked a laugh. “If anything, they’re tougher in some ways because they don’t want the newer rangers to get complacent.”
“Oh,” Yancy said, blinking in surprise. “Right.” He looked at Herc sheepishly. “I wasn’t thinking of it that way. Anyway, you didn’t come find me to ask me what I thought about the training. What’s up?”
“Would you be willing to stay in the Shatterdome for the next two weeks?”
“What for? That crazy dude who interviewed me this morning?”
“Just to be safe,” Herc insisted. “He did try to attack you. Who knows what he might try, especially if he was smart enough to find you in the first place. Plus, Jeremy’s found evidence to suggest he’s not who he says he is. The Pierre Huppé who owned a seismic engineering company died in April.”
Startled by that, Yancy blinked and made a face. “Really? All that and he’s pretending to be someone else? No wonder he was acting weird and creepy.”
Yancy mulled it over. “For how long do you want me to stay here?”
“I’m thinking a week, maybe two, tops.”
“Long as I’m not sharing a room with my brother,” Yancy agreed. “But I’m gonna need to go back to my place for clothes and stuff.”
Relieved that Yancy hadn’t protested, Herc smiled. “Have Trevor or Poppy drive you – don’t go alone. We’ll put you up in one of the guest suites.”
Herc exited the room, aware he still felt like he wanted to do more than make sure Yancy was safe and trust Jeremy’s contacts in the local police force to do their jobs. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to will away the impulse. He was the marshal of the PPDC and one half of the most successful jaeger team ever, not a hotheaded chopper pilot running on pure emotion. He wasn’t going to do anything stupid. E.J. had broken his heart – why should he care what happened to her next?
Except that Herc hadn’t gotten to where he was in life by standing idly by.
Except he was still a redheaded, bulldog stubborn, proud, self-sacrificing Australian who’d rarely let anyone rein in his need to protect other people.
Feeling the whisper of another immortal and the unmistakable feel of the ghost Drift he shared with his son, Herc opened his eyes to find Chuck standing before him.
“You’re planning to do something very stupid,” Chuck announced.
“Yeah,” Herc agreed. “Probably shouldn’t go where I’m going, but –” he shrugged, feeling his resolve strengthen with the movement “- if she tells me to leave her alone this time, I know I’ll have at least tried to keep her safe. More than sitting around on my ass at least. You here to stop me or to help me?”
Chuck grinned and held up a pair of car keys. “What do you think?”
Thanks for waiting for this! January has not been a great month for me personally, but it's wound up on a good note - my temp job is now permanent. :-)
Warning: death of a minor (red-shirt type) character ahead.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ten feet from the door to the motor pool, Herc swore as his phone buzzed. Habit had him reaching to answer it.
“Marshal, you need to come to Medical,” Maria, the lead medical assistant, said. “There’s been an accident with one of the jaegers.”
Alarmed, Herc didn’t bother continuing on his journey. “What happened?”
“The techs were installing an upgraded arm panel on Emerald when one of the support cables snapped and the whole thing just came crashing down.”
“How many got hurt?”
“Five people, sir, including Richie, who got knocked unconscious. He hasn’t woken up yet. The others – we’re working on them now, but it’s touch and go for two of them, and we’ll be lucky if all the third loses is a leg. The fourth is DOA; the arm panel crushed him when it fell.”
Herc swore viciously. “I’ll be right there.” He knew Richie was immortal, and immortal healing wasn’t always an instant reaction no matter how many heads an immortal took, but it didn’t stop the alarm that shot through him. Plus, the ‘dome operated on a small enough staff that Herc had come to know every tech who worked on the two jaegers, at least enough to recognize their faces and names, and to potentially lose that many skilled jaeger techs in one go was a harsh reminder of the dangers involved in working on giant robots.
“What’s going on?” Chuck asked as Herc hung up.
“Accident in the jaeger bay. Richie and four others.” Herc thought about his original mission and swore again.
“You want me to go where you were going originally?” Chuck asked.
Herc shook his head. “It was an impulse. Probably best if we focus on what we can do here.” He turned decisively towards Medical as Chuck followed. “Will you let the others know not to go near the jaeger bay until we can make sure the whole thing’s been cleaned up and made safe?”
Chuck nodded, and picked up his own phone.
Three hours later, the jaeger bay had been cleaned up, but another of the jaeger techs was dead. One was still being operated on and would likely never walk unassisted again. The other had suffered a heart attack and survived; her injuries were the least of the non-immortal techs. Richie was awake but furious that so many were dead and injured.
Eliot “Eli” Davies, the jaeger equipment chief, was just as furious. He’d prided himself on an impeccable safety record since before Operation Pitfall, and thought he’d taught his crew better. A lean, athletic man with a narrow face who never failed to remind Herc of a greyhound, Eli sat with Richie in Herc’s office, trying to figure out where everything had gone wrong.
“Near as I can figure,” Eli said with a resigned sigh, “we had a guy who didn’t follow basic procedure, which is to check the damned cable before taking on a load. Ana says she thinks Joe grabbed the light load cable instead of the heavyweight one.”
Richie groaned. “So I got a fucking concussion and two of my crew hurt for that?”
Eli spread his hands. “Much as I wish I could take it back, Richie, you know shit like this happens. In some ways, we were overdue, and that’s when this happens. When no accidents happen for a long time, everyone forgets they can.”
Richie sighed and looked at Eli. “You know as well as I do those damn cables are labeled in six languages, including Braille. Hell, you can fucking feel the difference in the thickness.”
“Yeah, and Joe’s dead for it,” Eli shot back. “He was already on report for slacking off. I didn’t think it would come to this crap. Ana’s lucky she had her safety harness on, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get her to work again once she clears Medical.”
“Easy, both of you,” Herc cautioned. “What’s done is done. You two know the score; I don’t think it’s worth rehashing the protocol in situations like this. Have you notified the families yet?”
Eli and Richie looked at each other.
“I’ll call yours and mine,” Eli offered. “You look still a little green around the gills.”
“Thanks,” Richie said. He looked at Herc. “Permission to be dismissed, sir?”
Herc shot Richie a slightly annoyed look; Richie retreating to formality meant he was not feeling as in control as he was pretending. “That alone tells me you’re not feeling right. Head on over to my quarters and I’ll be right there. Eli, anything you need from me?”
Eli shook his head. “I’ll email you the full report. I thought for sure Richie was dead – he was so still when I managed to scramble down to see who all was injured.” He met Herc’s eyes. “My sincerest apologies, sir. I take full responsibility.”
Herc nodded, accepting the apology. “Send me the training plan for how you’re going to prevent it from happening again. If this happened because someone was out partying too late last night, then we need to go back to full rest and medical clearance protocols until we are sure nobody’s doing stupid shit.”
“Understood, sir.” Eli stood and saluted Herc before leaving the office.
For a moment, Herc let himself indulge in the fantasy of being anywhere else than in his office, handling the aftermath of the worst accident in the PPDC’s history since Operation Pitfall.
“I know that look,” Dylan announced, stepping into the room. “It’s the ‘I’d like to escape to a private location where nobody knows me or needs me for anything other than to sip on a beer and get stinking drunk’ look.”
Herc barked a laugh and looked at the petite woman who served as the PPDC’s deputy marshal. “You coming to rescue me?”
“Go, shoo, see if your guy’s as concussed as he looks or if he’s over it by now,” Dylan urged. “Knowing him, he probably was dead for a few minutes, which would explain why he took so long to wake up. I got the ‘dome.”
“Dylan, I could kiss you,” Herc said gratefully.
She grinned. “Yeah, and start those damn rumors again,” she said lightly. “Do you know how hard it is when people think I’m dating you?”
Herc shook his head, aware that his longtime friend had a horrible dating track record. She was married to her job, which didn’t help matters. “No, but considering how you like to remind me, it’s awful. Thanks, Dylan.”
It didn’t take him long to get to his quarters, where he found Richie in bed. “How are you?”
Richie closed his eyes and shuddered. “I did not need to fucking add to my list of bad ways to die today. Remind me not to get smashed by a jaeger arm panel again,” he said, proving Dylan’s theory correct. “If I wasn’t immortal, I’d be as dead as Joe and Zeke. As it is, I don’t think I’m going to be up for much for the next two days.”
“Wasn’t going to ask,” Herc told him. “Did you try to save Yun?”
“Shoved her out of the way as much as I could, but she still caught the edge of the weight.” Regret laced Richie’s voice. “She was talking about how she was going to finally walk down the aisle with her guy.”
“When’s the wedding?”
“Two days from now,” Richie said. He looked at Herc. “Having met her guy, I’m not sure he’ll stick around for the shit she’s going to have go through.”
Herc eyed his boyfriend. “You’re that certain?”
“Yeah,” Richie said flatly. “Seen it happen before.”
Herc studied him a moment longer. “Would you rather I left you alone?”
Richie closed his eyes briefly. “No,” he admitted. “But Herc, I’m shitty company tonight. My body feels like my bones are still knitting together, and I haven’t felt like that in decades.”
Herc leaned down and kissed him gently. “So I’ll just hold you carefully.”
“Shouldn’t you be managing the crisis?”
“Dylan chased me out of my office and there’s not much left to be done except wait. Cleanup’s done, the jaegers are all on stand-down, Eli’s working on the report, Jeremy’s making sure nobody talks to the press or messing around with the accident scene who shouldn’t, Victoria’s working with the crews who need counseling, and Grace has her hands full. Nothing for me to do but make sure you’re all right.”
Richie let out a slow breath. “Never thought I’d see that kind of accident, and now I’m wishing I won’t see it in my nightmares.” He looked at Herc. “I’ll be fine, eventually. Why don’t you get yourself settled and come back? I’ll be here. I’m officially recovering from sore ribs and a concussion anyway, so I’m not supposed to be up and about for a few days.”
Herc kissed him again, appreciating that Richie understood his needs. “Just going to check in with Chuck. Be right back.”
Herc headed across the hall to knock on the door to his son’s quarters, which had originally been Raleigh’s before Chuck had moved in, though Chuck still had the Hansens’ original suite for the increasingly rare nights when Raleigh didn’t want company.
No one answered the door, and Herc pulled out his phone to text his son. Where are you?
A minute passed before he got a call back. “Sorry, I had to step out of Medical. Raleigh thought we might find one of the pilots on the jaeger observation platform, and it turns out he was right. Shannon was on the platform when the accident happened, and she’s not handling it. Grace is giving her a sedative and now her brother’s worried what this all might mean for their next turn in Emerald’s conn-pod. You know they’ve been struggling.”
“You say anything?”
Chuck sighed. “Told Shawn if his sister didn’t react, she’d be no better than their jaeger and that’s not anyone we want in a conn-pod.” He swore. “Shawn was convinced I’d yell at him or something worse. Like I’m supposed to fault either of them for being human?”
Herc barked a laugh. “Yeah, well, you would’ve, once upon a time.”
He felt his son’s amusement at being reminded of his past behavior through their ghost Drift. “Yeah, well, back then it would’ve likely meant I’d have shitty-ass backup,” Chuck said, unrepentant. “How’s Richie?”
Aware his son looked up to the older immortal, Herc said carefully, “Sore and grumpy. Why do you think I’m calling you?”
With a short laugh, Chuck said, “Because we have unfinished business? You still want to go?”
“Better if I don’t,” Herc said heavily, aware that even with Dylan’s willingness to cover for him, he needed to be in the Shatterdome. “I’ll talk to Grace tomorrow, see if she’s checked in with E.J.”
Chuck seemed relieved. “Was hoping you’d decide that.”
“Even though you’d have driven me to her apartment?”
“Can’t abandon my old man,” Chuck said simply. “Even if I think she’s not worth any more of our time. Need anything else from me? It looks like the Reardons are being handled here so I’m going to finish seeing where we are with readiness in case of the apocalypse happening again.”
Herc shook his head, forgetting his son couldn’t see him on a voice call. “No. You need anything from me?”
“No, I’m good.” Clearly certain that was their end of the conversation, Chuck disconnected the line.
Herc stared at the phone a moment before putting it away and stepping back inside his quarters. He couldn’t help feeling like he’d left something unfinished, and hoped he wasn’t going to live to regret the choice he was making by not following through on his earlier impulse.
Comments, kudos, suggestions for what happens next, and constructive criticism all welcome!
Satisfied his work as his father’s messenger and as the co-director of jaeger pilot operations was complete, Chuck went in search of his boyfriend. He found Raleigh, in wolf form, sitting in Medical’s lobby with Xiuxiu Fu, who was Richie’s second-in-command. Xiuxiu, like many others in the Shatterdome, was a veteran of the PPDC since the beginning of the program; she’d seen a lot along the way in her career as a lead jaeger crew specialist. Still, this incident clearly had her rattled, and somehow, Chuck wasn’t surprised Raleigh was sitting with her.
Xiuxiu and Raleigh looked up at Chuck’s approach. Raleigh looked at her apologetically and rose, stepping back from her petting as he did so. She straightened and rose to her feet. “Thank you,” she told Raleigh, and braced herself before moving towards the reception desk.
Suspecting that she was going to see the staff psychiatrist as per protocol, Chuck said nothing to her. Instead, he jerked his head towards the exit and said to Raleigh, “You know, everyone’s going to want to pet you now.”
Raleigh didn’t dignify that with a reply, waiting until they were in their quarters to shift and speak. “You say that like it was a bad thing, given what’s happened.”
Chuck kissed him lightly. “Can’t a guy be a little selfish about who touches you?” he asked, drawing him closer and taking advantage of the fact that Raleigh hadn’t yet put on clothes.
“Yeah, but it would be weird if I didn’t let some people pet me when I’m a wolf,” Raleigh pointed out logically. “Especially since Xiuxiu needed someone who wasn’t going to judge her for actually needing to talk to Dr. P’Eng instead of just going because that’s protocol. Besides, if it bothered me, I’d just walk away. You know that. I’m not Yancy, who’s shameless about getting petted.”
Chuck acknowledged that with a wry smile. “Did he get out of here to pack his stuff?”
Raleigh nodded. “That’s why I wound up shifting – he suggested after we got Shawn and Shannon to Medical. It was his idea, but Poppy was insistent that he get his things in case we had to go into complete lockdown. Knowing him, he’ll probably come back and be wandering through Medical the rest of the night as a wolf.”
Chuck held Raleigh close, drawing strength from their embrace. For a long moment, he said nothing, all the what-ifs from the past three hours running through his mind. As if sensing his mood, Raleigh let him indulge in the silence before saying, “Now, unless you’re going to do something about me being totally naked, I’d like to shower and at least put on some underwear.”
Chuck smiled. “Who says I won’t follow you into that shower?” he challenged, leering.
Raleigh favored him with a look. “Because if you didn’t, I’d think you were someone else.” He kissed Chuck, then wriggled out of the embrace before Chuck could escalate.
Aware that meant that Raleigh was going to try and take the fastest shower possible in an effort to thwart him, Chuck grinned wickedly and followed. If Raleigh thought he could toss a challenge like that at him and get away with it, he was going to be sorely mistaken.
In the way of most organizations that had specific post-accident protocols, the PPDC was back to normal operations within a few days of the accident. Eli’s investigation found that the one of the lines that broke in the accident had been recently replaced with the wrong type of cable, and that according to all accounts, Joe had been insistent that it was ‘okay to handle the weight even though it looked wrong.’ New safety measures were implemented to ensure that the load-carrying lines were inspected thoroughly before any loads were placed on them, and that a second opinion was sought when things looked wrong.
Meanwhile, Yancy chafed under the restraint of having to stay within the Shatterdome. He’d gotten used to a certain level of freedom, even if it was nothing more than being able to walk outside of his apartment, shift, and utilize the nearby park. He did enjoy the higher-speed Internet connections and the access to HR’s resources, which only served to reinforce his impression that there wasn’t a whole lot of work to be had for someone like him unless he wanted to go back to school and learn how to be something other than an ex-jaeger pilot.
He said nothing, though, not wanting to sound ungrateful for the concern over his safety. Still, he was surprised when, two weeks after the accident, he was summoned to the marshal’s office.
“Shut the door behind you and have a seat,” Herc invited.
“What’s this about?” Yancy asked after he sat down in one of the guest chairs in front of the massive executive desk.
“I understand that you have not had much success in looking for work in Hong Kong,” Herc began, “and I wanted to talk with you and see what you were planning on doing next.”
Yancy blinked, surprised. “Is this your way of telling me I can’t use HR’s resources anymore?”
Herc sighed impatiently. “No. But it has occurred to me that you might need more help.”
Yancy eyed him warily. “I’ve applied to every job ad and then some.”
“Yancy, has it occurred to you that you could call or email Duncan MacLeod and ask him if he knows anyone looking for someone with your skills and talent?”
“That feels like asking for a handout,” Yancy snapped.
“And how is that any different than what brought you to Hong Kong?” Herc countered. “If he didn’t have a relationship with Grace, he wouldn’t have brought you here to her.”
Yancy considered it before sighing heavily. “I don’t want to owe him more than I already do.” He looked at Herc. “But I’ll think about it.”
Herc didn’t look surprised by that answer. “I was talking with Richie about your situation,” he said. “He suggested you might consider looking at security consulting instead of the non-profit sector, since you already have the training to assess threats and have some basic defense training. Sound interesting?”
“Security consulting for whom?”
Herc handed him a tablet. “Ingrid Security. They do high-profile security consulting and training, and they contacted Richie, hoping he would be interested in this role. He’s not interested, but he thought – and I agree – that you might like it more. I realize what the job description says is unusual, but I think it’s a better fit to your talents and skill than entering data all day.”
“You’re not serious,” Yancy said in shock after reading through the job and training descriptions on the tablet. His eyes narrowed as he considered the wording and Herc’s interest. “Why does this matter so much to you? Do you have plans for me after I go through four months of training to become an diplomat-level security consultant?”
“Depends on you, but I’ll say this much: retired doesn’t mean you’re dead,” Herc pointed out. “And from what I’ve been seeing, you don’t do well sitting on your ass, watching the world pass you by as you wonder if you should be doing more, like you used to. You’re like your brother; you might want the open sky more than he does, but you’re a man of action, Yancy.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Yancy shot back.
“Pierre Huppé won’t be the last threat we face here. If I could hire you directly without fucking up your retirement status and my personnel budget for this year, I would, so this is me trying to do the next best thing. That’s even assuming you want to be a part of the PPDC again, which I’m guessing you might not be.”
Yancy’s eyes widened. “You want me to learn how to guard the PPDC? Doesn’t Jeremy do a good enough job?”
“Yes, but he’s not a werewolf, and even without that, you need to feel needed.”
Yancy sat back in his chair at that. “And this job would allow me to very publicly not be with the PPDC, which I’ve already said I’m glad not to be.” He looked at Herc. “So what do I tell Raleigh when he accuses me of taking a job that’s a handout?”
“You still have to fill out the application and pass all the training,” Herc said dryly. “My connections just opened the door. If you don’t take this opportunity, that’s on you, and since you’re not my subordinate, I can’t order you to take it. That said, I’d very much like it if you gave it a shot. We can discuss what you do or not do for the PPDC after you finish your training and contracted service period for Ingrid Security.”
Yancy read the tablet again before handing it back. “Email all the info to me. I’ll start on the application as soon as I get it. Thanks, Herc, and please thank Richie for me.”
“You can thank us after you get through the training,” Herc said firmly.
Hearing the dismissal in his tone, Yancy asked, “Speaking of Pierre, do you think the threat’s over?”
“Probably not,” Herc said, “but I can’t justify keeping you here without a clear threat since he hasn’t made any further moves. You’re free to head back to your apartment anytime you like.”
“Appreciate that.” Yancy rose. “Is there anything else you need from me, sir?”
Herc shook his head. “Be careful out there, Yancy.”
“Will do.” So saying, Yancy exited the office.
Yancy didn’t go in search of his brother to tell the news. Instead, he headed to his temporary quarters. Assuming that Herc would have emailed him the job information as soon as he’d said yes, Yancy wanted to spend the time filling out the application, which took a longer time than he’d anticipated. The more he thought about the job, the more excited he got about it. Working as security was something he’d thought would be the best he’d be able to manage with just a high school diploma, but this felt different somehow, especially since he knew what he was doing had a long-term goal. If he could protect his brother and their friends…well, suddenly his life had purpose and meaning again. He decided he wasn’t going to tell Raleigh until he was confirmed as a candidate – nothing was guaranteed, and it wasn’t worth getting too worked up about something if it didn’t happen. Still, Yancy couldn’t contain the feeling that coursed through him, cutting through the fog of self-despair that had started to crowd in on him.
Hope to see you at Escapade!
“Did Yancy go for the job?” Richie asked as he stepped into the office a few minutes after Yancy’s exit.
“He said he’d look at it,” Herc said. “But he did seem interested, so maybe he will.”
“Feel better for offering it?” Richie asked knowingly.
Herc sighed heavily before turning to kiss him. “Some. Is it really a handout if someone points you to a job that you still have to apply for?”
“Not in my book,” Richie said. “Hell, I wouldn’t have gotten through my thirties if it weren’t for people I knew pointing me at things I could do.” He took a half-seat on the desk and studied Herc. “You’re not completely happy about something.”
“Still feel like there’s a threat out there I can’t eliminate.”
“What, the werewolf guy you mentioned?”
“Yeah.” Herc looked at Richie. “Doesn’t seem right that he’d go through the trouble of finding Yancy and then back off. I can’t help thinking that maybe he’s doing something with E.J. instead, and that’s why he hasn’t bothered Yancy.”
“Chuck told me you almost went to check on E.J. the night of the accident.” Richie’s voice held no censure for that action. “You’ve been thinking something’s not right with her for a few weeks now. Maybe it’s time to go check it out.”
“You’re not serious.”
“Wouldn’t be the first or the last time I paid attention to a gut feeling. Given it hasn’t faded, and given what I know about E.J., I’m inclined to think maybe you have a good enough reason to worry. Have you tried calling her?”
“Not yet,” Herc said. He sighed heavily. “But there’s also a part of me that thinks I shouldn’t do anything. She refused my help, and I have to respect that.”
Richie kissed him gently. “So you do that, and I’ll go looking for trouble.” He smiled crookedly.
“Without backup?” Herc asked, concerned.
“Well,” Richie hedged, “if you happened to come along, I could say you insisted.”
Herc snorted, not fooled. He started to reach for his cell phone when his office vidphone screen beeped with an incoming, internal call from the front desk security officer on duty. “Sir, pardon the interruption, but we have an unidentified woman with Ms. Seiler, insisting that we provide them with medical assistance. She claims Ms. Seiler is in labor and can’t go to a regular hospital. Chief Livojević told me to ask you – he’s on his way to check them out.”
Herc didn’t hesitate. “Notify Dr. Chandel and bring them to triage in Medical. Follow security protocols.”
“Yes, sir.” The duty officer didn’t waste time arguing the order.
Herc hurried to Medical, Richie beside him. The medical receptionist was a petite Japanese woman whose nametag identified her as Kie. “Marshal, Dr. Chandel asked me to tell you that you will have to wait for her to finish with Ms. Seiler. Chief Livojević is with Ms. Seiler’s friend now in the patient conference room.” Kie’s tone was firm, but she looked anxiously at Herc, as if expecting him to overrule her simply because he was the marshal.
“Thank you, Kie,” Herc said respectfully. He winked at her. “Now that you’ve said that, you know I’m going to pretend like I didn’t.”
“Yes, but Marshal, Dr. Chandel said you shouldn’t,” Kie said desperately. “She said she can’t afford distractions right now and she needs only essential personnel in the operating room.”
That made Herc pause. “That bad?”
“Yes, sir,” Kie said, letting go of the breath she’d been holding.
“Let me know if that changes,” Herc said.
Stepping away from the reception desk, he pulled out his phone and called Raleigh.
“What can I do for you?” Raleigh asked cheerfully.
“Are you done with the training exercises you said you wanted to go through with the pilots?”
“Yeah, we were just blowing off steam. They’re getting restless without something to do.”
“Bad weather will be here soon enough, and then they’ll wish for this break,” Herc said, aware the newer jaeger pilots enjoyed being out in the typhoons. Search and rescue comprised a good portion of the PPDC’s mission now, and Herc didn’t fault the pilots for wanting to be in their jaegers. “Would you mind coming to Medical? I need your nose to check something out.”
“Yancy’s better at that than I am,” Raleigh objected.
“You’re closer,” Herc countered, in his best don’t-make-me-make-this-an-order tone. He wanted to keep Yancy away from this mess, but he wanted the confirmation that the stranger who’d brought in E.J. was a werewolf. “And I’d rather not involve your brother if I can help it. He’s safer where he is.”
“Be right there,” Raleigh said crisply.
Richie moved away from the desk, maneuvering Herc in the process, and looked at him quizzically. “You sure you want Raleigh here?” he asked quietly. “If they’re after Yancy, he’d make a fine hostage.”
“So would we, unless you have some nifty trick to tell us we’ve got werewolves?” Herc asked.
“No,” Richie said, resigned. “Might have to start asking if there’s a way we can, if this keeps up.”
Raleigh arrived and started to ask questions before sniffing hard, scowling, and looking at Herc. “Who the fuck is here? They smell like a –” he lowered his voice and whispered “ – a werewolf. Whoever it is, they’re scared and afraid and someone’s in labor and –” Raleigh sniffed again and his eyes widened. “Someone else who’s like me is here.”
Herc nodded. “You just answered my question.”
Raleigh narrowed his gaze. “That all you needed?” he asked.
“For now, yes,” Herc agreed.
“Who’s in labor? Nobody on staff is pregnant,” Raleigh said. “At least, not that I know of. And what kind of trouble’s here if my brother’s safer where he is instead of here?”
Jeremy Livojević stepped out of the patient conference room.
Seeing him, Herc said, “Raleigh, I don’t have all the answers yet. Richie, would you let him know what you know?”
“Marshal, I have Sophie Chartré in the conference room,” Jeremy said, “and she has something to tell you. Did you want to step into the conference room?”
Ignoring the curious looks from Richie and Raleigh, Herc nodded and followed. Along with Hideo, one of the PPDC security officers who was familiar with werewolves, Herc found a widely built woman with long black hair and dark brown skin at one end of the table, pacing. The stranger wore a loose blouse, a pair of black pants, and knee-high laced boots, and conveyed contained energy. Her angled face revealed her fear and anxiety.
“Sorry,” she apologized, her voice revealing a slight English accent. “I couldn’t sit. Is E.J. okay?”
“No news yet,” Herc hastened to assure her.
“Marshal, this is Sophie Chartré,” Jeremy performed the introductions. “Would you please repeat what you told me to the marshal?”
Sophie took the cue to sit down before she smiled tremulously and said, “Marshal Hansen, my cousin, Pierre, is out of control. He’s furious that you’re protecting Yancy Becket and he’s convinced the only way to stop that protection is by hiring a headhunter to challenge you. E.J. overheard him and tried to stop him from making the call and he clawed her. I don’t…I don’t know if she’s going to survive or the baby’s going to survive but I had to do something.”
“Your cousin shared the same name as the engineer who died in April?” Herc asked dubiously.
“Yes. It’s tradition that the first-born son on the Huppé side of the tree is named Pierre. My uncle was Pierre Bertrand Huppé; my cousin is Pierre Avenall Huppé.” Sophie smiled ruefully. “My uncle was brilliant and kind, but he married a woman who filled my cousin’s head with dreams of grandeur and magic, and found him a woman to keep those dreams alive. I tried to be the voice of reason, but Pierre doesn’t listen to me. He only listens to Angeline, who tells him that if enough werewolf and immortal blood gets spilled, he will live forever.”
“You don’t believe that?”
“No,” Sophie said fiercely. “The only ones who get that forever promise are your kind, and even then that’s not a guarantee, just a guideline. The only real immortality lies in your name and your kin, and I will not be associated with monsters who kill in the name of some stupid notion of glory.” She shook her head. “All my life, my parents said I had to remember the lessons of our family history. Anyone who’s tried to unite the werewolves under one leader has only left a trail of death and tears in their wake. I’m sick of my family being treated like we’re as bad as kaiju blue among those who know what some of the Chartré and Huppé family members have done over the centuries in the name of unification, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble, either. Not like my cousin is.”
“What does your cousin hope to do?”
Sophie met Herc’s gaze unflinchingly. “Rule the world. Just like every other idiot in our family tree who’s ever tried. Oh, sure, unification sounds lovely – here we have all of the world’s werewolves, united for a cause, but what cause? The kaiju would’ve been a hell of a reason, but it didn’t happen. Someone could start a hunt to kill all of us if they knew just whom we all were – and Pierre’s headed in that direction. He thinks if we had the old bloodlines together again, we could be pure, not watered down.”
“Could you even have a pure bloodline?” Herc asked.
Sophie shook her head. “Not unless you invented a time machine and stopped the immortal who told us centuries ago we’d have healthier children if we didn’t keep to ourselves. Angeline’s full of shit like that, but she’s also pissed off that Pierre got someone pregnant who wasn’t her.” She looked at Herc apologetically. “Angeline is supposed to be his fiancée, but Pierre won’t marry her until he has E.J.’s child.”
“And then what?”
Sophie looked at him. “And then he’ll let Angeline kill it because Angeline will convince him that his firstborn’s blood needs to be spilled in order to guarantee his success.”
“And what do you propose I do about it?” Herc asked. His gut told him Sophie was genuine, and he trusted Jeremy to have run at least a partial background check on her before making the introduction. Herc didn’t like the picture Sophie was painting. His mind raced for answers to the problem, but he couldn’t see offhand what, if anything, he could do. Pierre wasn’t an immortal who’d challenged him, and Herc wasn’t about to start killing werewolves. It didn’t fit with Herc’s morality. Immortals who wanted him dead were one thing; the Game provided enough justification for that. This was something else entirely, and felt a little too close to murder.
Sophie closed her eyes briefly. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just know that I needed to get E.J. to someone who gave a damn about whether she lived or died, and not the butchers in the Bone Slums. I needed to warn you that my cousin is insane and is in the thrall of a witch. What you do about that?” She shrugged helplessly. “I stayed with Pierre because I thought he’d be calmer and more sane if I was his personal assistant, but he gives Angeline everything he used to give me.”
“I see,” Herc said carefully. “Let me do some research and see what we can do. I’m not going to promise you anything. Even though we are an independent organization, we are still subject to local, federal, and international laws. There are things I cannot do, even in my position.”
Sophie acknowledged that with a rueful smile. “I understand. Will I be able to see E.J.?”
“Let me check with Dr. Chandel, first, but as long as you’re accompanied by a member of security,” Herc said, glancing at Jeremy, who nodded agreement, “then that shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll see what we can arrange for temporary sanctuary for you.”
“Thank you, Marshal Hansen. I’m sorry my family’s been trouble for you. I feel like I should’ve been able to stop Pierre from…” she gestured helplessly and let her voice trail off.
Herc studied her a moment. She looked as lost and contrite as he remembered feeling when people would tell him Scott had drunk to excess and pissed someone off, or got into a fight he shouldn’t have. Herc knew all too well that feeling of needing to apologize for damn near everything and wanting to somehow stop the madness. “Short of him dying, I don’t know if you can, based on what you’ve said. I appreciate what you’ve told me. I’ll have someone let you know when you can see E.J., and where you’ll be staying.”
Sophie nodded her understanding. “Thank you, Marshal Hansen.”
“Jeremy, a word?” Herc asked, rising to his feet and indicating that Jeremy should follow him out of the room.
Jeremy didn’t say anything until they were well out of earshot of the room, which was soundproofed for compliance with patient confidentiality rules, but neither he nor Herc were going to presume a werewolf couldn’t hear what they were saying. “You believe her?” Jeremy asked.
“If this is all an elaborate trap, I’d say it’s pretty well set,” Herc noted grimly. “Not much we can do other than monitor what happens next and stay on guard. I’ll let you handle the guest arrangements and security. I’m going to check on E.J.”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, sir.” He stepped away to do as Herc bid.
Ignoring him, Herc started to approach the reception desk, only to be stopped by Richie’s hand on his left shoulder. “I’ll save you some steps,” Richie said. “Raleigh left so he could let his brother and Chuck know what’s going on. E.J.’s still in labor. Grace said she’ll call you when everything’s stable. Right now, she’s hoping for a miracle. Kie also said she’d notify whoever she needs to when E.J.’s ready for visitors.”
Herc let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“And judging from the way you’re still not happy, I’m guessing whoever’s in that conference room didn’t give you good news,” Richie surmised.
“Yeah. Somehow, walking into a bar and getting challenged sounds a hell of lot easier instead of this bullshit.”
Richie shook his head. “I doubt it, but why don’t we head back to your office and talk there?”
Writing this is going slowly, but I am committed to finishing this. Thanks for your patience! As always, I look forward to your comments and constructive criticism. :-)
Herc was not surprised to see his son and the Beckets waiting for him in his office.
“Why the fuck is E.J. having her baby here?” Chuck demanded.
Not surprised Chuck had been able to get that information, Herc chose not to answer right away. “Richie, shut the door. Gentlemen, take a seat at the conference table; this is going to take some strategy.”
Chuck took note of his tone. “I was right: she’s in trouble,” he declared, taking a seat to his father’s left. Raleigh sat down next to him; Yancy directly across, while Richie took the seat across from Chuck.
Raleigh exchanged a look with his brother, who looked grim. “I’m guessing it’s werewolf related, given what you asked me to do.”
“Yes,” Herc said. He saw no reason to skirt the truth.
“Good thing I decided to use the ‘net here instead of at my apartment,” Yancy said. “All I was thinking was that my connection at my apartment kinda sucks and I wanted to fill out that job application on a secure connection.”
Herc breathed a sigh of relief at that decision, but tried to not let his relief show.
“So what’s going on?” Raleigh asked.
“As we anticipated, Pierre Huppé is upset that Yancy has found an immortal to protect him. Pierre is the father of E.J.’s child.”
“How upset?” Yancy asked. “Like threaten to kill you upset?”
“Yes,” Herc replied.
Yancy studied him a moment. “You’re not going to challenge him, are you?”
“You can take him,” Chuck said confidently.
“He’s a werewolf, not an immortal,” Herc replied. “He’s not in the Game, unless there’s some loophole for that.”
Richie shook his head. “Not unless you want to claim self-defense and since he hasn’t directly challenged you, it’s iffy.”
“How do you know about Pierre?” Yancy wondered.
“E.J. came in with a friend of hers – Pierre’s cousin, Sophie. Sophie’s the one who wanted to warn me that the challenge is coming.”
“Does that mean you don’t want me to go back to my apartment yet?” Yancy wondered.
“Yes,” Herc replied. “He clawed E.J. when she tried to stop him from calling a headhunter. That’s why she’s here.”
“He what?” Raleigh looked furious. “Is that why she’s here, besides birthing a werewolf?”
“What do you mean, birthing a werewolf?” Chuck demanded.
“The protection spells we wore were so we didn’t revert back to wolf form when we’re kids,” Yancy explained. “Some of us were born wolf, then we shift.”
“So you’re telling me your parents had to put protection spells on you just so you wouldn’t revert back to your birth form?”
“If they didn’t, we wouldn’t understand why we needed to shift at all,” Yancy countered quietly. “Our little sister didn’t want to; that’s why for a long time we weren’t sure if we had a dog or a sister and our mama didn’t want to tell us the difference.”
Chuck looked sick. “Won’t that kill E.J.?”
“It could,” Richie interjected. “Or she could die from being clawed, depending on how bad the attack was.”
“Okay, so why aren’t you going after him?” Chuck asked impatiently.
Herc sighed. “Legally, my hands are tied, Chuck. The PPDC is an extraterritorial entity, with treaties to observe Chinese laws. The only way I can authorize action against anyone is if it involves kaiju or jaegers. Until he actually comes forth with a direct threat to me, I have to pretend like it’s just hot air.”
“Even if you’re a jaeger pilot and it would count as a threat to your safety?” Raleigh asked.
“I’m not an active one and we aren’t at war with the kaiju.”
“Richie, don’t you know someone who could handle this?” Chuck demanded.
“Yes, but that’s a favor I’d like to keep as a last resort,” Richie said. “I’d rather not pay that price yet.”
“Won’t diplomatic immunity cover you?” Yancy wondered.
“No. Diplomatic immunity doesn’t mean that any PPDC personnel get a license to flout the law and purposely avoid liability for their actions. In your case, you’re retired PPDC – which means you’re not going to go out there and challenge him yourself, because you’re essentially a private citizen.”
“So we’re sitting ducks until this asshole makes his move,” Chuck surmised. He studied his father a moment. “Which you’re already aware of, which means you’re trying to think of a way you can attack rather than defend.”
“What about telling the Chinese police about the threat?”
“Nothing against them, but their hands are tied too,” Herc pointed out. “For as long as I stay on PPDC property, they can’t do anything.”
“Because the Shatterdome is not China,” Chuck said. “As much as they’d like to be.”
“That’s why you’d rather I was here,” Yancy said. “Because here, you can claim I’m visiting my brother and my PPDC friends, and all the fucking loopholes you’d have to go through out there in the city don’t matter.”
Herc nodded again.
“So what kind of trap did you want to spring on this bastard?” Yancy asked. “If we have E.J. and his sister, wouldn’t that be enough incentive?”
“He’ll want to draw you out,” Richie pointed out, looking at Herc.
“You’re not seriously considering playing sitting duck, are you?” Chuck looked ready to charge out of the room and take the fight to Pierre, but Herc knew it was more bravado talking than anything else.
“And you’d have me do what?” Herc countered.
“What if he doesn’t want to challenge you?” Yancy asked. “What if he’s pissed off at me?”
“Yancy –” Raleigh started to protest, only to stop at the look his brother shot him.
“No, listen. He’s angry at me for refusing him and for allying myself with an immortal before he was expecting. What if all he wants is me?”
“Then that’s a problem,” Herc replied, “because if what Sophie said is true, her brother is in league with a witch, and there’s no telling what having you might mean.”
“Witches aren’t that powerful,” Yancy scoffed.
“No?” Richie countered. “You might want to rethink that one. You can heal from most anything, right? What could you do with someone who could heal like that? Doesn’t matter if you can perform real magic. You could harvest organs and sell them. Tell people it’s werewolf magic and the desperate and ignorant will believe it.”
Yancy stared at Richie, horrified. “That’s sick and twisted and cruel. And now you’ve got me thinking of even worse shit.”
“Didn’t MacLeod rescue you from a witch who wanted to use your blood?” Raleigh reminded his brother. “What if it’s the same one?”
“That’s not possible. Mac said she’s dead.”
“So? Maybe it’s her sister or another relative.”
Yancy put his head in his left hand and swiped his face in tired frustration. “Why the fuck every time I come close to succeeding at something, someone wants to take it away?” He looked at Herc. “So if offering myself is out of the question, then what? If we sit here and do nothing, this Pierre asshole has the advantage.”
“Not quite,” Richie countered. “He can’t get to us. Unless Sophie’s really a spy.”
“If she is, she’s a hell of an actress,” Herc said heavily.
“Sounds that still leaves us sitting on our asses waiting for that asshole to strike,” Chuck said sourly.
“And what do you propose?” Richie said sharply.
“Do like we did to the kaiju – take the fight to him. He wants Yancy and he’s pissed he found an immortal to protect him? Then he can damn well find out what we can do to protect our friends.” Chuck didn’t back down. “You can’t tell me you and the old man weren’t going to just come here and fuck.”
Herc took a breath. He was damn proud of his son, and moments like this made him realize Chuck was still a fierce fighter, eager to plunge straight into the fight and win it, no matter what the cost. “No, we weren’t,” he said evenly. “But to get to Pierre Huppé, we have to find out where he is, figure out how we’re going to attack, what we have to do to protect ourselves, and how we’re going to execute the plan. Right now, I don’t think we have nearly enough information to formulate one.”
“No plan survives first contact, old man, you know that,” Chuck shot back.
“No, but you don’t go up to someone in a rage and expect not to lose your head,” Richie reminded him.
“Fine,” Chuck snapped. “But sitting here talking about it doesn’t change we’re not getting anywhere.”
“He’s got a point,” Raleigh said. “But Chuck, we can’t go to wherever this Pierre’s living and attack him. We’d get arrested the moment he saw us coming. Hell, if I or Yancy show up, he could smell us.”
Frustrated by that logic, Chuck sat back in his chair. “So we just sit around with our thumbs up our asses?”
“Yes,” Herc said firmly. “At least for now. I want to talk to Sophie again, see if she’s any help.” He looked at his son and the Beckets as he rose to his feet. “Your job is to figure out how you can defend against a werewolf who’s already shown he’s willing to hurt others to get what he wants.”
“Let me go with you,” Raleigh offered. “I can smell if Sophie is lying.”
“Rals –” Yancy started to protest.
“No, one of us should, and if they’re after you, bro, then you need to be safe.” He looked at his brother. “Especially if she’s the witch in disguise or some other shit like that.”
Yancy didn’t look happy at that, but he nodded acquiescence as his brother moved to where Herc stood.
“Richie, what are you going to do?” Chuck asked.
“Coordinate with security,” Richie said. “You and Yancy should stay together; find somewhere defensible if need be.”
Herc glanced at him, worried. “You’re not getting premonitions, are you?”
“Just being ruthlessly practical,” Richie countered, shaking his head. “And I told you before, I don’t get premonitions. I just have too much experience for the wrong reasons.” To Chuck and the Beckets, he asked, “You have your phones?”
Chuck and Yancy nodded, as did Raleigh.
“One more thing,” Yancy said, and hugged his brother. “Love you, kid. Don’t let her fool you.”
“Love you too, bro.” Raleigh shot his brother a wry half-grin before looking at Herc. “Lead the way, sir.”
Grace met Herc and Raleigh in the lobby, clearly anticipating their return. “E.J.’s resting and she had a boy. It was a breech birth. She’ll recover, but she’s still in shock. I wouldn’t advise moving her or the baby anytime soon.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Herc said.
Grace drew a breath. “You should know: Sophie hid how badly her cousin hurt her. He didn’t just claw her; he stabbed her. How she got from the center of the city to her is nothing short of a miracle.”
“Adrenaline and stubbornness,” Raleigh surmised. “Plus, Yancy tells me that he once survived an anti-kaiju laser rifle blast, so it’s not inconceivable Sophie managed to get here even wounded.”
“Yeah, but she spent thirty minutes bleeding when she could’ve gotten treated, just so she could tell me what was going on,” Herc said, half-admiring at her fortitude. “E.J. handling being the mother of a werewolf okay?”
Grace looked rueful. “I figure we have about a half hour before it really sinks in. I’ll use the excuse to take the baby and let her freak out in private. I assume you want to talk to Sophie again?”
“In that case, do me a favor and get Sophie elsewhere? I don’t mind keeping her in my clinic if you don’t want to use a guest room, but I’d like to give E.J. a little more time to rest and absorb everything.”
“Not a problem,” Herc said.
Sophie had moved from the conference room to E.J.’s bedside. E.J. looked exhausted, but she cradled her newborn. At the sound of Herc and Raleigh’s footsteps, both women looked up.
“You knew,” E.J. said accusingly, looking at Herc. “Why didn’t you come right out and tell me about werewolves?”
Herc shrugged slightly. “Would you have believed me then?”
E.J. half-laughed. “No,” she admitted ruefully. “Come meet my son.”
The newborn was small, but stirred at the new smells. His eyes were closed. He had a small patch of brown hair, and as Herc watched, the baby shifted to wolf form, then shifted back.
“He keeps doing that,” E.J. remarked, sounding exasperated. “Sophie and Dr. Chandel say it’s normal for a werewolf.” E.J. looked up at Herc. “If you’d have told me werewolves existed, I’d have thought you were playing a joke on me. Of course, that explains why he was all upside down and turned wrong.”
Herc thought she still looked a bit shell-shocked at her new reality. “Have you named him yet?” Herc asked.
“Not yet,” E.J. said. “Still thinking about it.”
“May I suggest not naming your child after cities you’ve never been to?” Raleigh asked wryly.
That made E.J. chuckle, as Herc suspected Raleigh intended. “I’ll keep that in mind,” E.J. said. “No, I was thinking Ethan. I’ve always liked that name.”
“That’s a good, strong name,” Raleigh said, smiling. “I also wanted to let you know that if you want some help with the werewolf stuff, my brother and I are willing to help.”
E.J. looked startled. “I appreciate that offer,” she said sincerely, “but I don’t want to be in your debt.”
“Nonsense,” Raleigh said shortly. “Being a single mom’s going to be hard enough. You’re going to need help with that baby of yours, especially if he can’t decide which form he’s going to stay in.”
“He’s right, E.J.” Sophie said softly. “And we’ll need all the friends we can get, especially for as long as Pierre’s alive.”
E.J. looked distressed at that.
Noticing, Raleigh quickly said, “No strings attached, and if you never ask for help, I won’t hold it against you.” Turning to Sophie, he introduced himself, turning on the charm. “Raleigh Becket. You must be the mysterious Sophie, E.J.’s rescuer.”
Sophie blinked, clearly not accustomed to the intensity of Raleigh’s interest. “I couldn’t leave her there. My cousin was going to kill her.”
“Speaking of, we’d like to ask you a few more questions,” Herc said. “E.J., you just rest and take care of that sprog. He looks like he’ll be a handful.”
“Thank you, Herc,” E.J. said.
Sophie took her cue. “I’ll be back, E.J.” Stepping out of the room, she asked, “I assume you want to know where my cousin lives and works?”
“That would be helpful,” Herc said.
Yancy turned to Chuck. “Last time I knew, these Shatterdomes weren’t meant to hold out against any kind of real attack.”
“This one is,” Chuck told him. “They were afraid the kaiju might come ashore and hammer the base.”
“Which is great,” Yancy agreed readily, “but if we’re looking for a place to hunker down against an insane werewolf, I’m not going to barricade myself in my room. This place has a central ventilation system. If I was going to attack it, I’d toss a bunch of tear gas grenades into the courtyard and wait for the rescuers to come in, then sneak in that way. Or hell, bribe somebody to sneak in for me. Who’s to say we can really trust this Sophie?”
Chuck eyed the American ex-jaeger pilot warily. “I thought you were the kinder, gentler Becket.”
Yancy chuckled darkly. “Based on what?”
“You moping around?” Chuck ventured.
Yancy snorted. “Like you wouldn’t if you kept being told you were only good for piloting a jaeger and the world didn’t need you anymore.”
That made Chuck pause. “Okay, so what do you want to do instead?”
“Take this damn fight to Pierre and get it over with,” Yancy said. “You in?”
“Don’t you want to see if my old man gets more info from Sophie?” Chuck countered. “Look, I get you’re sick of this shit. So am I.”
Yancy looked at him. “What happened to the cocky asshole who’d jump into any fight? You were all for attacking Pierre a few minutes ago.”
Chuck scowled. “That’s beside the point. You heard what they said.”
“Fine,” Yancy snapped. “But you’ll pardon me if I raid the armory for something more than your sword for protection.”
Seeing that the other man wasn’t going to back down, Chuck sighed mentally and went to the cupboard behind his father’s desk, revealing a small cache of firearms, including a pair of anti-kaiju rifles. “That good enough?” he asked.
Yancy whistled softly and took one of the anti-kaiju rifles. “Yeah. Won’t kill a werewolf, but it’ll slow him down a lot.”
Chuck looked at him. “What do you mean won’t kill him? They were designed to slow down a kaiju.”
“Personal experience,” Yancy said shortly. “Trust me, he’ll wish he was dead. Come on, we’ll take the maintenance tunnels to the motor pool.”
“And go where?” Chuck asked, taking a rifle.
Yancy looked at him like he was stupid.
“You couldn’t mention that you know where this idiot is?” Chuck grumped, but followed Yancy.
“Would it have changed what Herc and Richie said?”
“There’s your answer.”
Before they could do more than step into the motor pool, Jeremy caught up with them. “I can guess where you two are going, and that’s the wrong direction,” the security chief snapped.
“What the fuck do you mean?” Yancy demanded.
“Huppé’s at the front gate,” Jeremy said grimly. “And he’s demanding we not only turn you over, but E.J. as well. He has Krystian Kozłowski with him, and Kozłowski’s issued a challenge to Herc. You cannot leave this base.”
“Who the fuck is Krystian Kozłowski?” Chuck wanted to know.
“According to Dylan, he’s a headhunter who’s been making his name in Europe.”
Yancy looked expectantly at Chuck.
“And no, you two are not going to the front gate and answering that challenge,” Jeremy said firmly, reading that look. “Unless Pierre leaps the fence, which would be quite the feat, you are not –”
Chuck waved off the rest of Jeremy’s words. “We got it,” he said. Looking at Yancy, he jerked a thumb to indicate turning back inside. “Come on.”
“I’m sick of playing it safe,” Yancy spat angrily. “Safe got me years of regret for not coming forward sooner and making a difference when it counted. Safe got my brother fucked in the head and me too fucking scared of making a move when I should’ve. I’m sick of making excuses for things I should be doing.”
“Yancy, don’t be an idiot,” Jeremy cautioned.
Yancy looked two seconds away from bolting towards the front gate. “Why shouldn’t I go there?” he demanded.
“Because you’d be playing into what he wants,” Jeremy replied.
Yancy growled in frustration. “I am not going to cower like a mouse.”
“I’m not asking you to do that,” Jeremy replied evenly, crossing his arms and standing like a tank. “But I’m asking you to reconsider whatever you’re going to do next. Your brother and the marshal are planning a counterattack now.”
Yancy stared the other man a long, wordless moment before executing a perfect pivot and heading back. Chuck had just opened the door when a golden brown streak of fur shot past him. He had time to notice the discarded pile of clothing and the anti-kaiju rifle just inside the doorway and hear Jeremy swear.
Jeremy didn’t bother asking the obvious; he just took off running after Yancy. Swearing, Chuck followed, wondering what Jeremy planned to do to stop Yancy. He froze just a few feet behind Jeremy, who’d stopped abruptly short of where a larger-than-normal-sized werewolf now stood.
Chuck stared at Yancy, trying to remember when he’d last seen the American werewolf in shifted form. He didn’t remember Yancy being that big – less like a Yukon wolf and more like a small bear. From the look Jeremy shot him, the chief of security was thinking the same thing. Chuck didn’t think Yancy’s rage could make him bigger than normal, but given his knowledge of werewolves was not extensive, he wasn’t about to discount anything.
“Yancy?” Chuck ventured cautiously. “You, uh, coming back inside or what?”
Yancy sniffed the air and scowled, as much as a werewolf could scowl. He shot Chuck and Jeremy an indecipherable look before heading back.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Herc demanded fifteen minutes later.
Yancy had shifted and redressed, and met Herc’s stare unflinchingly. He stood proudly and ignored his brother’s incredulous stare.
“I don’t know,” Yancy said bluntly. “I just couldn’t stand there and do nothing.”
“And was it worth it?”
Herc was furious, but Yancy wasn’t cowed. He’d been yelled at by far more intimidating people, including Stacker Pentecost. “Yes.”
The ‘and’ surprised Yancy. He eyed Herc warily. “What do you mean?”
“And I know you went out intent on doing something stupid, but you stopped. What made you stop?”
Yancy took a deep breath, trying to cover that he hadn’t been expecting that question. “The smell. Pierre smelled sick, like Mama did when she had cancer.”
“That’s why he wants werewolf blood,” Raleigh realized. “But that doesn’t explain why he wants yours.”
“Probably because he can’t go to just any blood bank,” Jeremy guessed. “Or thinks he can’t, for whatever reason. Did you know you could get that big?”
“Big? What do you mean big?”
“Like bear-sized,” Chuck replied. “Which, if Pierre knows you could, would explain why he chose you.”
“Great, as if I needed any more reason to want him dead,” Yancy snapped. “And no, I didn’t know I could, but my sister’s journal said something about us being bigger than most.”
“No, she wrote that if we get angry enough, we could be bear-sized,” Raleigh countered.
“Since when did you start reading Jazmine’s journal?”
“Since you said I knew all I needed to know and I was sure there was something you missed,” Raleigh shot back, looking at his brother. “Like you didn’t immediately read it when you got it, thinking the same thing.”
“Like that helps us now. So what are we going to do besides rehash this bullshit about doing nothing again?”
Herc met his furious gaze. “Pierre can’t touch you as long as you’re here, but I’m not willing to hold you hostage, either. You need to move on with your life. From the information Sophie gave us, we know the layout of the house where he wants to meet.”
“And?” Yancy threw the word back at him.
“And we’ll go, you and I, and settle this.”
“That’s it?” Yancy demanded. “That’s the plan?” He turned to Raleigh. “You agreed to this?”
“Wait, you haven’t heard all of it yet,” Raleigh countered. “And for god’s sake, Yance, calm down, please. Right now it feels like we’re ghost drifting. You’re making me want to shift and run out there and do stupid shit. You know I’d follow you anywhere.”
Yancy’s eyes widened and he deliberately took a deep breath before sitting down. “I’m listening.”
“The challenge has been made to me,” Herc said, looking at Yancy. “In two days, at 7 AM, I’m to deliver you, Sophie, and E.J. to what Sophie says is her cousin’s rented mansion in the hills of the city. Or I fight.”
“But here’s the loophole,” Raleigh said, picking up the narrative, “it has to be the immortal protecting the werewolf who accepts the challenge. That would be Duncan in Yancy’s case, since Herc wasn’t the one to find him and offer him protection.”
“But Duncan’s not even in Asia right now,” Yancy said, frowning. “I could call him, but I promised myself I wouldn’t bother him. Plus, he’d ask why you won’t take this challenge.”
Chuck’s eyes widened. “So even though the old man could technically accept, he’d be fighting for someone else.”
Herc nodded. “Which isn’t a big deal; I’m here, and I’m willing to deal with it. And there’s one other thing. Yancy refused the offer to help Pierre, which means he has no right to be angry.”
“So in other words, I’m screwed and so is everyone else,” Yancy summarized.
“You don’t seriously think Pierre’s going to just sit on his hands and let you walk over him on technicalities,” Chuck said, glancing at Yancy. “Especially since you now have him on record as threatening a jaeger pilot with that little stunt of his at the front gate. I’m with Yancy; we have to do something.”
“Agreed, which is why we’re not going to wait for Pierre to set up any traps,” Herc replied. “Two days is long enough for him to fortify his defenses. If Sophie’s right and Angeline’s power is in her words, then we need to remove as many barriers as we can.”
He began detailing the plan as his son and the Beckets listened.
The bar was a dive and a half. Chuck hadn’t been in one like it since his uncle had decided to sneak him into one when he was fourteen. Even at one in the afternoon, it had a handful of patrons and the nearly overwhelming stench of cigarette smoke and spilled beer.
“Lovely,” Chuck remarked dryly.
Richie surveyed the room with a practiced glance and glanced at Chuck. “Stick close,” he warned. “And don’t drink anything.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Chuck said with a nod. He’d traded his trademark jaeger pilot’s leather jacket for a nondescript black one – a Christmas gift from his father, who’d wanted to give Chuck something that drew less attention. Chuck had initially been contemptuous of it, seeing it as an insult to his pride, but he was grateful for it now. It meant none of the patrons in the bar looked twice at him. Chuck’s double-edged broadsword with a basket hilt hung in the custom cross-draw sword sheath that lined the inside back of the jacket. Immortal magic made the bulge of the sword invisible to the naked eye.
Richie also wore a leather motorcycle jacket. Like Chuck’s, it had been customized to hold his medieval broadsword, but otherwise looked like a highly protective motorcycle jacket. Richie had once told Chuck that the jacket was older than Chuck and repaired many times. Both men wore t-shirts, jeans, and harness boots designed for motorcycle riding. They’d ridden their motorcycles to the bar.
Their target was the heavyset man sitting in the middle of the bar, trying – and failing – to flirt with the bartender. To Chuck’s ear, the man spoke English as if he was from somewhere in mid-North-America - that ‘everyman’ accent every newscaster tried to employ. He had a shaved head, a large build, and wore a black leather vest with chains, studs, and fringe. The vest showcased his overly muscled arms, giving him an almost cartoon-character look.
Richie took the stool on the stranger’s right; Chuck, the one on his left.
“You know, flirting with the bartender usually works better when you speak their language, Krystian,” Richie said mildly.
Krystian looked at him. “Yeah, and who says it’s any of your business?”
“It is when you’re in my city and threatening people I care about,” Richie continued in the same even tone.
“And who the fuck are you?” Krystian demanded.
“Someone with a vested interest in making sure you don’t make stupid mistakes,” Chuck drawled.
Krystian looked at him and his eyes grew wide. “Aw, fuck. That’s not possible. You can’t be one of us.”
Chuck shrugged. “And you can’t be that much of an idiot. You called out my old man. He can’t be here tonight, so I’m taking his place. You want a fight, you got one.”
“No, aw, fuck,” Krystian said, shaking his head rapidly. “No, no, no. You Hansens are off limits.”
“Since when?” Chuck challenged, surprised by that sentiment. He remembered his father being challenged multiple times during the Kaiju War; he’d fully expected that to continue to be true.
“Since you saved the world,” Krystian said. He looked very afraid. “I told that wolf he was out of his mind, going to the Shatterdome.”
“So why’d you do it?” Richie asked.
Krystian rolled his head awkwardly, as if he could somehow hide his involvement. “I might’ve offended the wrong people.” He eyed Richie warily. “I, uh, didn’t know the last guy was connected.”
Chuck couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So just because you accidentally pissed off the Mob, you’re agreeing to do what a crazy man says?”
Krystian spread his hands. “You know the life we have doesn’t have a safety net.”
Disgusted, Chuck looked at Richie. “Now what?”
Richie looked at Krystian. “I’ll make you a deal,” he offered. “You tell me how to get past the witch guarding Pierre Huppé and live to see another sunrise, or I’ll take it out of your Quickening.”
Krystian stared at Richie, taking in his size, and guffawed loudly. “You? You’re nothing. You can’t beat me.”
“Fine,” Richie said. “There’s an alley behind the bar.”
Krystian rose, nodded once, and led the way.
Watching the fight, Chuck thought Krystian had no finesse, relying heavily on his sheer mass and the bastard sword he wielded. Richie had long experience fighting against older and stronger immortals, and wasn’t going to let his opponent batter him into giving up. The more Richie danced in and out of range, parrying and dodging the brute force attacks, the more Krystian grew frustrated. His attacks grew sloppy and desperate as Richie refused to play Krystian’s game. It didn’t take long before Krystian was on his knees, gasping, “Who the fuck are you?”
Richie smiled as he prepared the killing stroke. “A street rat like you, only older and wiser.”
Krystian’s head fell to the ground seconds later.
Chuck waited until the Quickening had appeared to settle before approaching his father’s teacher. “You okay?”
Richie closed his eyes briefly before letting out a deep breath. “Yes. Stupid idiot thought I was a ninety-pound weakling.”
Chuck snorted at that thought. “Did anyone ever think that of you?”
“Yeah, when I was seven,” Richie said dryly.
“Did this idiot have the info you wanted?”
Richie nodded. “Yeah. Tell you more when we get back; I’d rather only talk about this once. All I’ll say now is that Angeline is no witch. Grab that blanket from my saddlebags?”
Here, in a back alley of a dive like this, it was easy enough to strip Krystian’s body of identification, roll it under a tattered blanket, douse it with alcohol, and leave it for the rats to find. In another city, one not with a history of homeless and unexplained death due to the ravages of the Kaiju war, a body like this would raise more notice. In Hong Kong, it was just another dead body, not worth the effort of further investigation.
Before they mounted their motorcycles to head back to the Shatterdome, Chuck sent his father a quick text, letting him know that Richie had taken a Quickening. Chuck felt a measure of regret over the loss of life and he knew Richie didn’t take what had happened lightly. He understood, though, that if they had not dealt with Krystian now, they would’ve had to deal with him later, in a place where the cards were stacked against them. Eliminating Krystian now took away one of Pierre’s defenses. It didn’t mean that Pierre couldn’t find another immortal, but it would mean he would have to scramble to find one – and Herc was calculating that the chances of Pierre doing so in less than forty-eight hours was improbable.
For their sakes, Chuck hoped his father was right. He didn’t like feeling like they were fighting blind against an enemy who’d already proven to be unpredictable.
“Angeline isn’t a witch, at least not in the ‘I do magic’ sense,” Richie said in Herc’s office nearly an hour later. “She’s more of a con artist with a drug supplier, and she’s neither an immortal nor a werewolf.”
Herc breathed out a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been looking forward to dealing with someone who could wield magic. He had no doubt someone out there could, given everything he’d come to know as real. Richie had long ago warned him that the old legends and myths were real, but Herc had no burning desire to find just how many of them were.
That said, Herc admired Richie’s control and ability to recover quickly from taking a head. Though Richie had tried to teach Herc the same level of control, Herc knew he hadn’t nearly the years of practice as the older, more experienced immortal. To sit here in this office and give a briefing on what he’d learned via a Quickening was something Herc wasn’t entirely sure he could do. The part of Herc that was Richie’s lover wanted very much to just say screw it and coddle the other man for a while, pretend that they weren’t against a deadline, but Herc prided himself on being a pragmatist. The sooner they knew what kind of defenses Pierre had left, the sooner Herc could let out the more romantic, indulgent side of himself.
“Anything else?” Chuck wondered. “Because if that was all, you’d have been content to tell me when we were in the alley.”
Richie took a breath before letting it out slowly. “Angeline’s connections enabled her to get Krystian to defend Pierre, and by extension, her. If we’re going to eliminate her, we need more help.”
“Like going to Hannibal Chau kind of help?” Raleigh asked. He sat near Chuck, but the slightly disheveled way he was dressed made Herc think that he might’ve spent a good portion of the last hour as a wolf.
“Who’s Hannibal Chau?” Yancy asked, and everyone in the room looked at him a moment before realizing no one had told him that part of the Operation Pitfall story. A small, awkward silence fell as they realized that part was classified.
Herc broke the silence with a compromise. “Someone who helped us during Operation Pitfall.”
Yancy glanced at his brother, then at Chuck and Herc. “Right, someone with dubious connections, and you can’t tell me what his were exactly or what he did to help you.” He was noticeably calmer now, but his words were tainted with a note of regret. Herc knew Yancy felt he should’ve been stronger to help more during Operation Pitfall. “What will you owe him if you ask this Hannibal Chau for help now?
Herc shook his head. “We won’t ask him.” Hannibal Chau had made it clear, after an incident involving an immortal who wanted to be king, that he wanted nothing to do with any future favors that might involve his associates or potential customers. Herc, for his part, preferred not to engage the kaiju parts dealer for anything further if he could help it.
“Then who do we ask?” Raleigh asked.
“Lily,” Richie said.
Shocked, it took a moment for Herc to absorb that information as Yancy muttered, “Knew there had to be a reason she came to see me personally about that invitation.”
Herc closed his eyes briefly, swearing at himself for forgetting that he had people on his staff who were not only willing to do anything to keep the world safe, they had connections to make that a reality. Lily had been part of Stacker’s contingency plan; part of his ‘I’m not going to leave you alone if I fail to come back from this mission’ promise. It stood to reason that Stacker had believed that if something happened to the Kaidonovskys, he would’ve left Herc with someone with similar connections. Herc’s first instinct was to run out and grab his executive assistant, but he forced himself to calm. “Have you spoken to her yet, Richie?”
Richie shook his head. “Was waiting to see if you wanted to use her. Before you do, Herc – consider this: we could just get Angeline and Pierre arrested for threatening to kill you.”
“Do you think that will stop them?” Yancy asked.
Herc considered. “Based on what we know, what do you think?”
Yancy shook his head. “I don’t think it will,” he said, sighing, “but let’s not have any more blood on our hands tonight. I’d rather spend the time worrying about how we’re going to ensure E.J.’s son stays human until he’s old enough.”
“In that case,” Herc decided, “let’s call in Jeremy, get him to work with the authorities.”
“One more thing, Herc,” Richie said gently, “we should ask Lily a few questions. She’s rarely gone out of her way for anything; the fact she did for Yancy does make me wonder why, especially given what I know now.”
Chuck didn’t wait for direction; he simply got up from his chair and retrieved Lily, who looked flustered and startled by his sudden action. Seeing Herc, she straightened her shoulders and regained her legendary poise.
“Why did you give me that invitation to see Pierre Huppé?” Yancy asked once Lily was in the room.
“And don’t give us ‘you thought it was urgent,’” Herc cautioned. He studied the Russian woman, and went with his gut. “What axe do you have to grind against Pierre Huppé?”
“I wanted to see another werewolf tell him to fuck off and die,” Lily said evenly.
Yancy gawped at her. “You really expected me to do that?”
“You are a jaeger pilot,” Lily said, as if that was obvious.
“But why?” Chuck asked. “How’d he piss you off?”
“When I was at Vladivostok, Mr. Huppé found out I can do protective magic, and would not take no for an answer until I blocked his calls,” Lily said. She looked at Herc apologetically. “I did not feel it necessary to mention it to you before now, but if you’d asked me to find someone to ensure Ms. Seiler’s son stays human, I was prepared to volunteer. It is why I do not socialize with everyone. It is exhausting to keep up my shields in such settings.”
Herc studied her and surmised that her connections to people involved in dubious activities had to be related to her abilities. “E.J. will appreciate you offering,” he said carefully. “But be prepared for her to say no.”
Lily half-smiled. “I was and am.”
“So you’re a witch?” Yancy asked.
“Witches hang their shingles up to prey on the unsuspecting and the desperate,” Lily spat, her expression indicating contempt. “My family has always been healers and protectors, and careful to choose who we administer our magic to. We may have been poor but we’ve had pride in our work and in the connections we forge. I am truly sorry my ambition has led you all to this. I did not think it would escalate to what happened earlier today, with Mr. Huppé coming here and making demands.”
“Well,” Raleigh observed, “maybe if we get him arrested, he won’t be around to try again.”
Lily looked worried. “He won’t stop. The Kaidonovskys had to ask some friends to convince him to leave Vladivostok before he relented. I’m sure if he found out if I was here, it would only add more fuel to his convictions.”
“Krystian was convinced you had similar friends,” Richie noted.
Lily looked startled, and for a moment, Herc saw through the poised, dignified, classy mask she wore. “My friends have not made the wisest choices,” she allowed. “If Mr. Huppé and his companion were to be arrested, I’ll see what my foolish friends can do.”
“That is all we can ask,” Herc said. “Please send Jeremy in to see me. Thank you, Lily. Gentlemen, Lily, unless any of you have anything else to add, you’re dismissed. Richie, would you stay behind? Chuck, would you do me the favor of checking in on E.J. and Sophie?”
“And then what, besides get the fuck out of your hair?” Chuck asked.
“See if Sophie can draw us a plan of the house, in case we need it.”
Chuck nodded once before telling Raleigh and Yancy, “Come on, we should see if one of you can talk to the baby and convince him to stop biting his mama’s fingers.”
“I did that already,” Raleigh protested. “He doesn’t understand why his mama isn’t like him.”
Herc didn’t pay attention to the rest of the conversation as the Beckets and his son exited the room, a few steps behind Lily.
Turning to his lover, Herc looked at him. “Hey, come here,” he said, and kissed him when he did. “Have I mentioned lately how much I love how you defend our family?”
Richie smiled crookedly. “Not since last week, no.” He let out a slow breath. “You thinking about asking E.J. to stay?”
“She won’t do it,” Herc said, sure of it, and held Richie close.
Richie leaned in shamelessly. “Would you hate me if I said I’m hoping you’re right?”
“No.” Herc studied Richie a moment. “But I know you, and you’ve been advocating protecting her regardless of how upset you are that she broke my heart.”
“Yeah, well, she’s tangled up in this mess.” Richie met his gaze. “That said, when this is over, I’m not willing to watch you or any of us try to get her to understand the difference between what we consider part of being normal, generous people, and what she sees as obligation. I’ve already heard Yancy and Raleigh discussing how they think she’s an idiot for rejecting everything they’ve been suggesting. We don’t need her drama in our lives any longer than necessary.”
“In what way?”
“Nothing – and I mean nothing – we give her is going to be a simple ‘here, have it,’ and that includes whatever Lily does for her son.”
Herc kissed Richie slowly. “All right,” he conceded. “But for now, we’ll keep her and her son safe, and Sophie too, and when this is over, we’ll let them go.” Herc made a face at the thought. “Even if it hurts me to think about how the hell E.J.’s going to manage.”
A knock on the door interrupted them, and they turned to let Jeremy into the office to discuss just how Pierre and Angeline could be arrested.
Warning: I am not happy I had to write E.J. this way, but like she did when Herc told her about immortality, she insisted this was the only way.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“The upper crust neighborhood in Hong Kong where Pierre Avenall Huppé, son of the late businessman and engineer Pierre Bertrand Huppé, was staying, was shocked by a sudden burst of violence early this Sunday morning,” the pretty international newscaster intoned in faux horror and sympathy. “Hong Kong police had a warrant for the arrest of the younger Huppé and his companion, Angeline, for multiple counts of attempted murder as well as threats of violence against a jaeger pilot. According to a police spokesman, when the police attempted to execute the warrant, shots were fired at the officers and inside the house. When police were able to enter the house, they found Mr. Huppé had been dead for at least several hours. Angeline refused to surrender to police, and killed herself rather than surrender.”
Seated at the conference table in Herc’s office, Yancy looked at Herc as soon as the video ended. “How dead is dead?” he asked. “And seeing it’s marked ‘not for redistribution without PPDC release,’ how old is it, and is it going out to the media?”
“Not more than fifteen minutes,” Herc told him. “And the unofficial report is that Pierre overdosed on a drug cocktail that made him asphyxiate, which makes me think that Angeline didn’t want him talking to anyone. The police went this morning to make the arrest like we discussed on Friday.”
Yancy considered the news. “Is it tacky to celebrate?”
“I’m the wrong one to ask about that shit,” Herc told him. “You want to know what’s proper in a situation like this, go ask the PR department.”
Yancy closed his eyes briefly. “I’m not sad he’s dead,” he said after a moment. “But I was already thinking about how the hell we’re supposed to tell E.J. the guy who got her pregnant was an asshole. Does E.J. know yet?”
“Not yet.” Herc looked at Yancy. “Thought you’d appreciate knowing first. Maybe you could tell her and Sophie what happened this morning? This report is going live in twenty minutes. I wasn’t able to convince the local media to hold it for longer than that.”
Yancy nodded once. “I’ll talk to E.J. and Sophie. If they doesn’t like what I’m saying, they can check with you.” He paused before adding, “I don’t think E.J.’s handling any of this well. Not that I’m one to talk about handling shit, but…I think she keeps hoping she’ll wake up and her son won’t be a werewolf. Sophie was asking me last night if our parents ever freaked out about us being werewolves. I said the only thing was that Jaz shifted too early and then had to lie to us about it because Mama wouldn’t let her tell us, so sometimes we thought we had a dog instead of a little sister.”
Herc sighed. “I’ll see if Dr. P’Eng has time for her.”
“Anyone I shouldn’t talk to about this?” Yancy asked.
“It’ll be over the news shortly like I said, so anything that’s been officially reported is fair game. What I’ve told you beyond that stays here in this office. As for people who will want to know - I didn’t want to interrupt your brother’s time with Chuck, so I’ll probably have a pissed-off son in my office if I don’t text him now. I’ll brief Richie when he’s done with his morning run.”
Yancy half-smiled at that. “Do you think this is really over? I mean, it seems like there’s always going to be some idiot wanting me or my brother or you, Chuck, and Richie.”
“That’s why I still hope you’re going to apply for that security consultant training.”
“Already sent in my application,” Yancy said with a nod. “Just waiting to see if they’ll interview me.”
Herc clasped Yancy’s shoulder briefly. “You okay with this? I know you were a heartbeat away from wanting to kill Pierre yourself.”
Yancy looked away briefly. “I’m not proud of that,” he said quietly. “And I’m kinda feeling like my wishing him dead made it so.” He met Herc’s gaze. “So while I’m glad he’s no longer a threat, I just wish I had an answer as to why he wanted me so badly he was willing to risk everything for it.”
“Maybe it’s as simple as you represented something he wanted and thought he deserved, and said no, like Lily said happened to her.” Herc knew he couldn’t say much to make the younger man feel better. “Best you can do is focus on what you can do now to live your life. This also means, in case it wasn’t obvious, that you’re free to go back to your apartment and aren’t subject to the emergency safety protocols anymore.”
Yancy nodded tightly and rose from the guest chair. “Thanks for letting me know.” He started for the door before he turned back. “One more thing.”
Herc looked at him expectantly.
“In case I haven’t said it – thanks for making sure I stayed safe, even when my frustration at everything was making me act like an idiot.”
Herc half-smiled and nodded once. “You’re welcome.”
While Yancy exited the office, Herc quickly texted his son and Richie. “Pierre and Angeline dead – murder and suicide-by-cop. See me if you have questions.”
He felt the wave of relief wash through the Ghost Drift he shared with Chuck before he got the reply. “Long as we don’t have blood to wash up or a body to hide, I’m good and so is Raleigh. Yancy know?”
“Told him first.”
That got him a nodding emoji and “No cleanup then?”
“Not by us, no,” Herc replied.
Richie called at that moment. “Anything we need to do?” he asked.
“No. News is going live in less than ten minutes so the world will know.”
“In that case, what are you doing still in your office?” Richie asked. “It’s Sunday. Get your ass back in bed. We had plans, remember?”
“Need to get Victoria over to Sophie and E.J., in case they want a grief counselor,” Herc said, referring to Dr. P’Eng, the chief psychiatrist.
“You can do that on the way over,” Richie insisted, and Herc laughed. He could hear relief in his lover’s voice that this latest drama was over. Herc felt the same, but he knew, too, that it wouldn’t be over for him until he saw Sophie and E.J. and Ethan settled somewhere safe. Then, and only then, could he feel that his duty was done and his honor satisfied.
Both Victoria and Grace insisted that E.J. and her son be well enough to leave the Shatterdome clinic before allowing them to be discharged. As Yancy had stated, E.J. had shown worrisome signs of fracturing mentally under the strain of her new reality. By the end of the week, E.J. made it clear she wanted nothing more to do with her son. Given the way she’d rejected Herc and his immortality, Herc wasn’t entirely surprised that she was reacting in a similar fashion to her werewolf child. Victoria’s assessment was that in E.J.’s need for self-preservation, she would continue to reject anything that didn’t fit her definition of normal. A normal baby didn’t shapeshift into a wolf; a normal baby didn’t bite when breastfeeding; a normal baby didn’t howl.
Under the circumstances, E.J.’s usual coping methods were failing her. Victoria wound up prescribing anti-stress medication and anti-depressants to help, but E.J.’s pregnancy had also changed her metabolism, increasing the severity of her reactions, both physically and emotionally. It meant E.J. couldn’t breastfeed, and it also meant that whatever drugs Victoria prescribed were in high enough doses that she required constant monitoring. Victoria’s recommendation was to place E.J. in an inpatient care facility until both her physical and mental wounds healed. The care facility, however, didn’t have the resources to deal with a baby, and wouldn’t admit E.J. until a caregiver for Ethan was found.
“I’ll take Ethan,” Sophie volunteered, when Victoria informed her of the situation. “E.J. didn’t ask for any of this. I’ll make sure she has access to Ethan, whatever it takes.” Sophie looked at Herc, who’d asked to sit in on the conversation. “I’ll also make sure she has money to take care of herself and get further counseling. I have the money to hire professionals to help me raise Ethan, but I’m not going to abandon him to nannies, either. He’s my nephew and I love him so much already.”
“You understand you’re volunteering to raise your nephew and committing the next twenty years or so of your life, minimum, to this.” Herc eyed her, certain of her willingness and of her wealth, but not sure she knew what she was getting herself into.
“Yes. My grandmother was not a part of my life until I was ten,” Sophie revealed. “She was also an outsider like E.J.” Sophie looked at her hands a moment. “She used to ask me if my mama told me lies about people turning into animals.”
“What did you say to that?” Victoria asked.
“I told her my mama wouldn’t lie to me, and that she was being mean. She always looked sad, like she hoped I’d someday change my story.” Sophie shook her head. “Ethan will always know who his mother is. If E.J.’s never ready to be his mother,” Sophie drew in a breath, “we’ll deal, Ethan and I.”
That reassured Herc. “Do you have a place to go from here? I understand that the landlord for your cousin’s place has revoked the lease.”
Sophie nodded. “I got the call from the landlord after the news hit, so I’ve made arrangements for another condo. I’d hoped E.J. will come with us, but given the situation, I suspect she’ll just want to go back to her place.”
“As much as she wants that, I don’t think she’s ready,” Victoria said. “If I allowed her to do so, she will continue to try to pretend none of this is real, and that what happened is all very much a bad dream. She’s made statements that make me think she’s starting to deny she was ever pregnant. I’ve arranged for her to stay at an inpatient care facility for a few more weeks. She’s suffered major trauma and as much as she thinks she can just go back to work, she needs time and space to heal and to come to terms with what has happened to her.”
“Would you let me know the name of the facility?” Sophie asked. “I want to pay for it, even if I suspect she won’t want me around much.” She pulled a business card out of her purse and passed it over to Victoria. “That’s how you can reach me.”
“I’ll email you the details,” Victoria promised. “We’ll start the process of transferring E.J. this afternoon, since we won’t have to worry about temporary care for Ethan. Did you have any questions?”
“No,” Sophie said with a heavy sigh. “Just wish, oh hell, a million different things. Guess I’d better get my nephew and go home.”
“If you need anything, just let us know,” Victoria said, rising to her feet. “Good luck.”
“Thank you, and I’m sorry for all this,” Sophie said to Herc as they started to leave the conference room.
“Not your fault.”
“No, but it was easier to deal with my cousin’s delusions of grandeur when his father was alive. I could pretend it wouldn’t ever impact anyone,” Sophie said, resigned. “If you or anyone from the PPDC wants to come visit me and Ethan, just let me know.”
“I will,” Herc promised.
He wasn’t surprised to see Raleigh and Yancy in his office an hour later. “You’re just going to let E.J. and Sophie go?” Raleigh asked, concerned.
“They aren’t PPDC,” Herc told them. “And E.J. needs post-traumatic stress and post-pregnancy care that we can’t provide to a non-PPDC member for the length of time she needs. We’re not at war, and the temporary emergency that allowed us to care for her, her son, and Sophie is over.”
“So who’s going to take care of Ethan?” Yancy worried.
“Sophie is,” Herc said. “She’s willing to provide for him for as long as he needs.”
“Even if that means the rest of his childhood?” Yancy asked. “Because E.J. was acting like she didn’t want anything to do with her son.”
The brothers exchanged looks. “Permission to go visit Ethan and Sophie anytime Sophie allows us to?” Raleigh asked.
“Like I could stop you from sneaking out and doing it if I said no,” Herc said dryly. “You’d likely tell Security you were visiting your brother and just happen to show up at Sophie’s place.”
Raleigh looked at his brother. “Told you,” he said.
“Keep in mind that the same Hong Kong rules about being in the city apply, regardless of who you’re seeing, Raleigh. The last thing we need is a riot breaking out because the paps spotted you with a baby, or worse.”
“Understood, sir,” Raleigh agreed. “Is there a ban on seeing E.J.?”
“Talk to Grace and Victoria before you do,” Herc cautioned. “E.J. may not want to be reminded of anyone from here, given everything that’s happened.”
Both brothers looked unhappy at that news. “I was afraid it might be that bad,” Yancy said. “And you’re not going to elaborate on her health any further, given all the healthcare confidentiality rules, so…” He turned to his brother. “Come on, Rals, let’s see if Sophie needs any help from us to get all that new baby stuff in her condo. Did you see the bracelet Lily made for Ethan?”
“If I didn’t know what it was, I’d think it was just nifty baby jewelry,” Raleigh said as he followed Yancy out of the office.
Alone again, Herc let out a deep breath. He wouldn’t wish what happened to E.J. on anyone, but he’d loved her, and hoped in time she could see what a wide, beautiful, and expanded world it was in which they lived, even with all the ugliness from people with delusions of grandeur. For the moment, Herc’s duty towards E.J. and her son was done. Herc’s computer chimed with a reminder that he still had other duties to see to as marshal of the PPDC. He took another deep breath, let E.J.’s situation slide to the back of his mental filing cabinet, and focused on what had to be done next.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading, commenting, and kudoing this fic! It's been a wild ride for me, and I honestly wasn't sure how it would all turn out.
Special thanks to minim_calibre and raveninthewind for helping to break my block on this fic at bitchin!party!
Please let me know what you think of this story. I love to hear from my readers, even long after the original posting date, and even if it's nothing more than the hearts html pasted in because you can't leave any more kudos. Constructive criticism especially welcome!