May 19, 2025
Mako slipped into Raleigh’s room after a perfunctory knock. He was packing, taking down the photos he’d put up five months ago and sliding them back into the plastic bag he used to protect them. At the sound of her entry, Raleigh turned to face her.
“I don’t think you should go. Chuck doesn’t know how to be in a relationship.”
“So don’t think,” Raleigh countered. “And not knowing how to be in a relationship doesn’t give him a free pass to be a dick.”
Mako sighed. “I still need you.”
Raleigh looked at her. Aware she appreciated blunt honesty, he said, “No, you want me, because I’d be the perfect end to that goal you’ve had since you were a little girl. Getting to pilot a jaeger was only the first step. You want what the Kaidonovskys had – perfect compatibility inside and out of a jaeger. I’m not going to pretend for your sake.”
She closed her eyes briefly, regret etched on her face. “Even if it gives you some security by having someone who understands you that way?”
“You’re too principled and disciplined to be happy in that kind of relationship, Mako,” Raleigh said gently, pausing in his packing to step closer. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pressed his forehead briefly against hers. “And I love you, but not like that. I can’t be that guy for you.”
“I’m sorry, Raleigh,” Mako said softly, meeting his eyes.
“So am I.” Stepping back, Raleigh tucked the bag of photos in his duffel bag, which sat on the bunk next to another equally full duffel, and then zipped it shut. He hesitated a moment, then turned to hug his copilot. “You’ll find that guy someday, Mako.”
She offered him a half-smile as she returned the hug. “Be well.”
Grateful they hadn’t Drifted since a post-Pitfall check, a week after the battle, Raleigh stepped back, bowed to her, and picked up his duffel bags. “You too, Mako.”
She bowed to him as well, and then stepped aside to let him pass.
Raleigh was halfway to the jumphawk when Herc caught him. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
“Nothing for me here,” Raleigh said evenly.
Herc looked at him, startled. “Thought you and my son were together.”
Raleigh buried the quick pang of hurt those words produced. “Nah, we were just having fun, nothing serious.”
Herc’s eyes narrowed. “And where are you going?”
“Like I said in my email, back to Anchorage,” Raleigh replied. “Got a job waiting.”
“Thought you were going to stick around, help with the reorganization.”
“Sorry, Marshal, but you can’t match what I was offered,” Raleigh said apologetically. “Need to be moving on, now that the kaiju aren’t a threat.”
“Damn it, Raleigh, I know my son’s an asshole, but –”
“This isn’t all about him,” Raleigh interrupted. “Yeah, he’s a reason, but he’s not the only one. I need to think about the rest of my life, not just live in the moment. Didn’t you read my email?”
Herc studied him a moment, blue eyes assessing him before he sighed. “Yeah, I did. I can’t convince you to stay?”
Raleigh shook his head. “Sorry,” he said again.
“Then don’t be a stranger,” Herc said, and pulled Raleigh into a hug, somehow managing it despite the duffel bags Raleigh had slung on each shoulder. Relying on the pickpocket’s skill he’d developed as a fifteen-year-old and honed in five years of living without PPDC support, Raleigh quickly stuffed his PPDC-issue phone into one of Herc’s open vest pockets, hoping the older man wouldn’t notice. “You need anything, you call me, yeah?”
Raleigh nodded. “Thanks, Marshal.”
“Told you before, it’s Herc,” Herc corrected, but he stepped back and shook Raleigh’s hand.
Raleigh half-smiled at that, but turned before his composure could fail him and headed briskly towards the waiting helicopter.
Twenty-four hours later, the jumphawk landed in Anchorage. Raleigh thanked the pilot, and then walked through the terminal, fully aware of the fact that he had lied about having a job waiting. He just wanted to disappear; he’d done it once and thought he could do it again. Unconsciously, his hand went to his stomach. He knew it was going to be harder to hide his condition in a few weeks, but the only person who’d know was the one person he knew wouldn’t tell anyone else.
A brunette woman, dressed in an olive green puffy jacket, jeans, and knee-high boots, waited for him in baggage claim. Seeing her, Raleigh relaxed. Jazmine Becket had inherited their mother’s brunette hair and blue-green eyes, and while her height and frame matched her brother’s, she had a more delicate porcelain doll look to her facial features. She was ten months younger than Raleigh; he and Yancy had waited until she was old enough to be on her own without them before enlisting in the PPDC.
“Hey, Jaz, did you miss me?” Raleigh called out as he drew near.
“Nah,” she drawled, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth. “Only on alternate Tuesdays. Congrats on saving the world, bro.”
Raleigh grinned at that, and fell in step next to her as she headed for the parking garage. “Thanks. How’s work?”
“Eh, it’s work,” Jazmine said carelessly. “More than some people got and it pays the bills. Danny’s a good boss, though; he likes the work I do as his assistant and he has a lot of different projects going on. Danny Miller Construction’s one of the few construction companies that didn’t get pulled into supporting the Wall; Danny said he wanted to be the guy that didn’t get burned by it.”
“Smart man,” Raleigh said. “Only reason I worked on it was because nobody wanted to hire me.”
“You should’ve asked me,” Jazmine admonished him. “Like I told you.”
“Yeah, well, I was in Sitka with no money,” Raleigh shot back. “And a messed-up head, like I told you when I called you from Sheldon Point.”
Jazmine rolled her eyes; it was an old subject. Both knew if pressed, they’d wind up arguing about it, something neither wanted to do in public. “Since you didn’t ask and I know you’ll need money: I talked to Danny and he said if you wanted to work for him, he’ll hire you if you’re okay being a night security guard.”
“Long as I don’t have to lift anything heavy.”
“Shouldn’t. It’s just patrolling the building, make sure nobody gets in,” she said as they reached a battered, 1990s-era pickup truck; somehow, Jazmine had scored a parking spot close to the terminal. She unlocked the truck while Raleigh dumped his duffels in the truck bed.
“Works for me,” Raleigh told her as they got into the truck.
“I figured. I told Danny you’d come in tomorrow with me, and sign all the paperwork. That way, I can leave you the truck if you wanted to run around.”
Jazmine started up the truck. Before she backed it out of the parking space, she glanced at Raleigh and said, “You’re welcome. You, uh, need any cash?”
“Nah, I’m good,” Raleigh said. “I just need to run by the bank.”
“We can do that on the way home,” Jazmine assured him. “I took the day off, since you said your flight had a two-hour window on arrival. You want to grab something to eat or do you just want to crash on the couch?”
“Crash; I’ve been up too long.” As he said it, he could feel the press of his exhaustion on his body. He might, if he was lucky, sleep tonight. He still had a small supply of the prescriptions the PPDC doctors had prescribed him for his PTSD, but until he knew whether they were safe for him to take while pregnant, he was going to err on the side of ‘don’t’.
Jazmine nodded and carefully navigated the truck out of the parking space. “My apartment’s a small one-bedroom – more like a studio that someone put walls up around the bed area – so your choices are my bed or a sleeping bag on the floor.”
“You still hog the covers?”
“Probably,” Jazmine said, shrugging, as she shifted the truck out of reverse. “Did you bring a sleeping bag?”
“Yeah, still have the one I’ve been using while I worked the Wall.”
“Sure you don’t want to help dismantle that thing?” Jazmine asked as she navigated the parking garage’s winding exit lane. “You know the UN’s announced they’re funding that.”
Raleigh shook his head. “Can’t risk it.” He took a breath and exhaled slowly. “I’m nine weeks pregnant.”
Jazmine sighed as if she’d expected to hear something of the sort. “Why do all of your visits and phone calls start with some variation of ‘I fucked up?’”
Raleigh burst out a laugh at that. “They do not! I called you after we closed the Breach!”
“Well, that’s the grand exception, isn’t it,” Jazmine mused. After a moment’s thought, she said, “Okay, so not all of them, but still. Of course you’re pregnant. If Mom hadn’t been using those stupid ‘natural vitamins’ while she was pregnant with you, you wouldn’t even have that ability. Thank God someone talked her out of using them when she had me.”
“What do you mean, ‘of course’?”
“Because you’re my idiot brother,” Jazmine said placidly. Unspoken was, “Yancy was the one who made sure we weren’t idiots.”
“I love you too, Jazmine,” Raleigh said dryly.
She shot him a grin. “So who’s the father?”
“Nobody important,” Raleigh lied, and hoped his too-perceptive little sister would take the hint to drop the subject.
“Uh huh,” Jazmine said doubtfully. “But since I don’t want you asking questions about my love life, should I ever have one again, I’m not going to push. You going to keep the baby?”
“Only things I ever wanted to kill were kaiju,” Raleigh said quietly.
Jazmine let out a breath. “Then you’re staying until the baby’s born.”
“I –” Raleigh began to protest.
“If you’re thinking you were just going to stay a month after telling me you’re pregnant, think again, bro. I know you think you’re super capable, but I also know you need medical care. What happens if you get sick?”
Raleigh hated that she was right. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No, you’re just going to be my brother,” Jazmine said dryly. “Just don’t ask me to help when you start craving weird shit we can’t get here. Also, please tell me you don’t get nightmares about kaiju.”
Raleigh slanted an incredulous look at her. “You know I’ve got PTSD, Jaz. If I do manage to sleep at all, I’m lucky if I don’t dream of kaiju.”
Mindful of the fact she was driving, Jazmine waited until they were at a light before glancing over at her brother. “Still?”
“Got better drugs to deal with it, but I can’t take them until I know how they affect the baby.”
Jazmine rubbed the back of her neck briefly. “Earplugs for me, then.”
“Look, I know I’m imposing on you a lot,” Raleigh said quickly. “I’ll buy a car by the end of the week. I promise I won’t make you get me anything beyond what you’ve already volunteered.” Jazmine’s insistence on drawing boxes around what she was willing to tolerate had driven him crazy when they were younger; he knew he had to set the rules now before they started fighting again. “And I’ll pay you back for setting up the job by cooking and cleaning. If my nightmares and insomnia get too much for you, I’ll find my own place, but I’d rather not if I can help it.”
Jazmine brightened at that. “Okay,” she agreed readily. “We’ll stop by Fred Meyer then; I burned my skillet and never replaced it.”
Raleigh bit back a groan. “You used to do great omelets.”
“Yeah, well, cooking for one. Easier to use my ration card for a ready-to-eat meal.”
Raleigh said nothing to that; he’d done the same for the better part of five years. “Has rationing been lifted yet?”
“Some stuff still is, but it’s mostly Asian products and rice. You can get vitamin supplements like candy, since California’s farmland’s been nuked so we aren’t getting vegetables like we used to.”
“The Shatterdome was shipping it in from Europe,” Raleigh noted.
“Sure you don’t want go back?” Jazmine asked as she navigated the truck off of the airport access road and onto the highway.
“I can’t, Jaz. It’s too stressful.” He tried not to think about how, for the first time in a long time, he’d felt like he’d come home, and part of that home had been with Chuck. “Not really sure what I could do anyway. I’m not as knowledgeable about the jaeger engineering as Mako or the Hansens. Best I can do there is sit around and try to look like I know what I’m doing, which isn’t much.” Even as he said it, he knew he was going to miss being able to discuss the role of the PPDC now that the Breach was closed, and how Herc was working on getting funding for a new jaeger – both as a just-in-case and as an aid to the Pan-Asian reconstruction efforts.
“Welcome back to Alaska, then, bro. Have you thought of names yet?”
Raleigh stared at her. He’d forgotten how quickly his little sister could shift subjects. “Not really, no.”
“We’ll make a list. Better do it before your hormones get all wacky,” Jazmine said sagely.
“What, hating the fact you grew up with having to remind people your name is different or something?” Raleigh teased her.
Jazmine glared at him briefly before returning her attention to the road, and he laughed. “Trust me, I won’t be naming the baby anything weird.”
“Where’s Raleigh?” Chuck asked his father as he joined him in the mess hall at dinner.
“He left this morning,” Herc replied.
Chuck frowned. “Where’d he go?”
“Back to Anchorage. Said he had a job waiting that paid him more than what we could offer.”
Chuck’s frown deepened. “I thought he was just going to the city to shop.”
“He didn’t say goodbye to you?”
“No. Why would he care about money? He worked for ration cards.”
“Said he had to think about the future, now that the Breach is closed and we’re not building jaegers.”
“Not now, yeah, but what about the negotiation you’re doing to fund a jaeger for reconstruction support?”
Herc sighed. “He also can’t pilot again, Chuck. Nobody’s supposed to pilot a jaeger solo once, let alone twice. He’s risking brain damage if he pilots a jaeger again even with a copilot.”
Confused and alarmed, Chuck stared at his father. “He didn’t say anything about that. You didn’t say anything about that.”
“Doesn’t matter if we don’t have a jaeger,” Herc countered. His eyes narrowed. “You were hoping to Drift with him.”
“Yeah, so?” Chuck rolled his shoulders restlessly.
“Just wanted to know,” Chuck said vaguely. “Doesn’t matter. He said when he’s coming back?”
“Not likely, if he just got hired,” Herc pointed out. He studied his son. “He also said there’s nothing for him here.”
Chuck jerked at that. Dismay and hurt flashed across his features and flooded the ghost Drift the Hansens shared.
“What did you do?” Herc demanded.
“Nothing,” Chuck denied hotly. “He’s the one who left. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Did you ever ask him to stay?”
“Why?” Chuck looked at Herc, confused. “Why would I?”
Herc sighed. Not for the first time, he wondered why he’d ever thought raising his son without his wife was going to be easy. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe because for the last four months, anytime I wanted to find you, I just had to knock on Raleigh’s door?”
“Yeah, so? We were just hanging out.”
“And having sex,” Herc noted flatly. “So Raleigh thought he was dating you, and you just thought you were fuck buddies.”
Chuck stared as he processed that information. “Something wrong with that?” he asked. “I mean, we didn’t make any promises or anything.”
“Chuck, if you were going to treat Raleigh like someone you got off with, you wouldn’t have practically moved in with him,” Herc pointed out gently. “You wouldn’t have bothered to let him get to know you. You wouldn’t have put up with everyone in this ‘dome asking you where your other half was.”
Chuck absorbed that for a full minute. “I thought people were just kidding, trying to poke fun.”
Herc lifted an eyebrow and waited for the information to sink in. It didn’t take long.
“Aw, fuck,” Chuck said, and quickly pulled out his cell phone. He dialed Raleigh’s number, only to hear an answering ring in one of Herc’s pockets. Herc pulled out the phone and laid it on the table.
“He’s not coming back,” Chuck deduced.
Herc sighed. “Looks like it,” he agreed. “Or least, he doesn’t want us to contact him.”
Chuck growled unhappily. “So what do I need to do to fix it?”
Herc looked at his son. Seeing determination on Chuck’s face, he suggested, “Check with Mako and see if Raleigh left a number for him to contact her. Check also with Tendo – he might know someone back in Anchorage who can help. If that leads nowhere, you’re going to have to decide how far you want to go to get him back.”
That brought Chuck up short, as Herc suspected it would. Chuck wasn’t a long-range planner; he was more prone to quick action, decisive blows, and the right word to get someone riled up enough to fight. “What do you mean, old man?”
“Do you love him or do you want him back because he was good in bed? If it’s the latter, you might be better off finding someone else. The way Raleigh left tells me he didn’t think he could be here and just tell you the fun between you two was over.”
Chuck stared. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I mean, I thought we had something good?”
Herc had been in his son’s head too long to try to mince words. “Before you go poking around looking for Raleigh, you’d better figure out what he means to you,” he advised. “Leaving like he did, especially since he left his phone behind, means he’s likely not interested in a half-assed apology.” Herc paused to consider the implications of the way Raleigh left. “So you’d better come up with a damn good plan to get him back, if that’s what you want.”
“Damn it,” Chuck swore. “I didn’t know we were in a relationship. It just sort of happened.” He swore again and pursed his lips together. “You could’ve given me a clue, old man.”
“Didn’t think you needed one, not with everyone else making the comments they were,” Herc said evenly. “Especially after that disaster with that jaeger tech when you were seventeen.”
Chuck rolled his eyes. “This didn’t feel like that,” he insisted. “I knew when Patrick was hanging out with me what he wanted.”
“Yeah, but you fell in love anyway,” Herc reminded him.
“Everybody falls stupidly in love when they’re teenagers. You said so.”
Herc bit back the knee-jerk retort he almost made. He suspected Chuck had fallen in love with Raleigh but wasn’t yet to the point of accepting that he’d done so. “Just promise me you’ll think about your relationship with Raleigh and where you’d like it to go before you make any phone calls or decide to fly to Alaska?”
“Oi, you make it sound like I’d do something stupid,” Chuck said, insulted.
Herc looked at his son pointedly. “Tell me you weren’t thinking of getting a jumphawk pilot to fly you all the way to Anchorage.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Because you’d have to get Raleigh to come back with you to make that flight worth it, and right now, that would be sucker’s bet since it’s not an actual emergency. You’re still sitting here without a damn good reason for him to want to come back.”
Chuck looked away briefly. “Fine,” he said abruptly. “I’ll think about it.” He rose jerkily from the table and took away his unfinished dinner plate. “Come on, Max.”
Aware he wouldn’t get any better answer than that, Herc said nothing. He knew his son would figure out how he felt about Raleigh; whether that happened with any speed was out of Herc’s hands. He’d long ago accepted he couldn’t control what other people did, but it didn’t stop Herc from hoping that his son figured out what and how he’d screwed up sooner rather than later.
Chuck didn’t know what to think or feel, other than he’d gotten complacent and comfortable. He’d liked how things were between him and Raleigh: they’d hang out; have sex; watch movies and shows the other hadn’t seen, sometimes joined by the other senior PPDC staff; play cards and videogames on the battered game console in the communal living room; other times, just spar against each other in jaeger bushido just for the fun of doing so. In between, there was the job of rebuilding the PPDC into a viable, post-war organization. Thanks to Stacker’s planning, they had enough funds to keep running for two years, with just enough funds to rebuild another jaeger. Herc had no intention of letting those two years go to waste; rebuilding a jaeger and demonstrating it could be used for reconstruction would go a long way to helping secure the PPDC’s future. Chuck had thought Raleigh was in full support of that effort, but clearly, he’d been wrong.
Chuck had been in love before, but it hadn’t felt like this. He was no virgin to one-night stands, either; he’d had plenty of those. Herc had taken a ruthlessly practical approach to educating his son about sex after realizing three things. One was that if he didn’t have a conversation about sex with his son, Scott would, which felt like abdicating more parental responsibility than Herc wanted after everything he’d risked to save Chuck. Two was that the jaeger flies weren’t limited to people outside of a Shatterdome. Three was that his son was hitting puberty and would likely be just as hormonal as Herc remembered himself being, without nearly the same amount of outlets and twice the public exposure, since the number of jaeger pilots with children was less than a handful. Having the permission to explore his teenage desires as long as he practiced safe sex and was discreet had been a very liberating experience for Chuck. It had resulted in him learning early that he was gay and had definite preferences about how he liked to get laid.
All that sexual experience didn’t stop him from having a very typical teenage romance at seventeen. That had been a roller coaster of emotions, not helped by the fact that when he’d gone to declare his feelings, his lover had laughed in his face. Now Chuck wasn’t sure what he felt for Raleigh wasn’t deep, abiding lust, or just awed respect for Raleigh as a friend and fellow jaeger pilot, or something more.
Chuck knew he couldn’t ask his father for clarification. Chuck’s parents had been high school sweethearts who’d managed to defy the odds of staying together in part because they were both too stubborn to let each other go. Herc couldn’t articulate love without it being a rush of memories and jumbled feelings in the Drift. Chuck had long ago decided that when he fell in love, he wanted it to be grounded in something real, something that weathered distance and separation like his parents’ marriage had.
This sensation he was feeling now over Raleigh’s abrupt departure wasn’t something he liked very much. It felt like someone had just stuck a huge kaiju talon into his jaeger’s chest and he was stuck in a feedback loop, unable to stop the pain from circulating. Chuck still felt raw and betrayed, like he wasn’t supposed to get hurt that deep. He’d thought that what he was doing with Raleigh was no more than what two guys did when they had sex and were reasonably decent buddies. Nobody had promised anyone anything, and Raleigh hadn’t been acting like he wanted more, so why did Chuck feel like he’d completely missed what everyone else had apparently been seeing?
Right now, the one thing Chuck knew for certain was that he’d fucked up, and royally so. Where did it go so wrong? he wondered now. After Operation Pitfall, he, Mako, and Raleigh had all been stuck in Medical with no one else to talk to for the better part of a week while they underwent radiation and kaiju exposure protocols. In Chuck’s case, he’d also had to deal with getting knocked out at the last second by Stacker, leaving him with a pounding headache and the sensation of a prematurely cut Drift. Raleigh had also been treated for temporary loss of oxygen. Mako had some minor cuts and bruises from where she’d banged herself trying to get both Raleigh’s and Chuck’s pods open. They’d emerged from that shared experience as better friends – or so Chuck had thought. Discovering that Raleigh was amiable to getting laid frequently had been bonus.
If Raleigh had told him that he wasn’t interested in having sex with Chuck anymore – Chuck realized abruptly he wouldn’t have accepted that. He probably would’ve argued, demanding to know why, and taking it very personally. Was there someone else in Anchorage? Was Chuck just someone on the side?
The only person who could answer that was Mako, Chuck thought. It didn’t take him long to find her. “Did you know Raleigh was leaving?” he demanded of her as soon as she opened the door to her quarters.
“Yes,” Mako said, then looked at Chuck more closely. “He didn’t tell you goodbye?”
Mako let out a breath. “He didn’t say.”
“Then guess. You know him better than anyone. Does he have a boyfriend back in Alaska?”
“You were the first person he’s been with in years. It’s probably something to do with his sister. She’s still in Anchorage. I’m sure he will be back when the situation with her is settled.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
Irked, Mako shot back, “You asked me to guess. That is my best answer. You want better, maybe you should’ve told him how you feel.”
Chuck had known Mako for years. Once upon a time, they’d been best friends. Chuck had pushed her away in favor of focusing his efforts on being the best jaeger pilot he could be, using carefully chosen words to do so. Apologizing to her after the battle in Hong Kong hadn’t been easy, but he’d done it, recognizing that she’d done something he couldn’t: fight two of the biggest, baddest kaiju he’d ever faced, and win. It didn’t change the thread of old animosity that underscored their current, friendlier relationship.
Something about the way she spoke made him think. Mako was usually careful with her words, to the point of precise bluntness. She didn’t usually hide. Yet she was not quite meeting Chuck’s eyes now.
“What did you say to him?” he pounced.
“Nothing he didn’t already know,” Mako said quietly.
Chuck stared her. “Just fucking great,” he swore. “So you don’t know how to get in touch with him either, because you pissed him off too.”
Mako lifted her chin. “I did not. He said goodbye to me,” she said pointedly. “But he wouldn’t have provided me with any information that could be used against him, especially if he assumed you would ask me.”
Unable to argue that, Chuck tried to come up with something cutting to say, but couldn’t find the words. He settled for stomping off.
Chuck knew he had to find a way to fix this situation. It didn’t seem right that Raleigh, who’d become such a fixture in his life, was now gone. How the hell was he supposed to wake up now without seeing Raleigh’s smile? Someone had to know how to get a hold of him in Anchorage.
That thought in mind, he stalked off to find Tendo, who was in the midst of either repairing or dismantling some equipment; Chuck couldn’t tell which, given the pile of wires and circuit boards.
The LOCCENT chief looked surprised to learn that Chuck hadn’t known Raleigh was leaving.
“What, he said goodbye to everyone else?” Chuck demanded, irritated.
“Probably not Newt or Dr. Gottlieb,” Tendo conceded with a half shrug. “And your father almost missed him. He had me tell the jumphawk pilot not to leave until he’d talked to Raleigh.”
“He let Raleigh leave?”
“Tried to talk him out of it, from what I heard,” Tendo said.
“Didn’t try hard enough,” Chuck muttered, annoyed. “Any chance you can get a hold of Raleigh?”
Tendo looked at Chuck. “You do know I’ve known Raleigh for a lot longer than I’ve known you? Whose side do you think I’m on?”
“Thanks a lot, Elvis,” Chuck bit off. “Fat load of help you are.”
Tendo looked at him. “Tell me a better reason than ‘you miss Raleigh’s big dick’ and maybe I’ll tell you.”
Chuck stared back, tried to speak, and resorted to the words he could say. “I can’t put it in words.”
Tendo looked at him sympathetically and held firm to his loyalty. “You’re gonna need better words than that if you’re going to convince Raleigh. Talk to me when you’ve found them.”
“Why, is he going to kick your ass if you tell me how to call him?”
“No,” Tendo drawled. “But the last time he did this sort of thing, he didn’t talk to anyone for three months, not even his sister.”
That stopped Chuck. “So it could be something that’s not even my fault?”
Tendo looked at him. “Not all of it, no.”
“Then you know why.”
Tendo shook his head. “No, he didn’t tell me. But I can guess whatever’s wrong, he’s not willing to talk to you or anyone about it.”
“You’re bloody useless,” Chuck snapped, irritated.
“So are you unless you can help me figure out where the hell we stored spare part number A-635C.”
“Like I would know?” Chuck asked incredulously.
“You know all the good hiding places in any Shatterdome. That means that at some point, you must’ve explored this one.”
Chuck blew out a breath. “Try the fourth floor storage. Last time we were here, it had a bunch of electronic shit in boxes in a temperature-controlled room.” He eyed the other man warily. “So you’re really not going to tell me.”
“Nope.” Tendo unbent slightly to add, “And that’s presuming I even had a phone number to call.”
“You don’t?” Chuck asked, surprised.
“No,” Tendo said honestly.
“Then why did you tell me to come back when I had a better answer?”
Tendo rolled his eyes and looked at Chuck like he was an idiot.
“Oh,” Chuck said, realizing that Tendo was angling for the time to find a number to contact Raleigh. If he kept on pushing Tendo for information, it was likely that Chuck wasn’t going to get very far. “Right. Um, did you want a hand with that circuit board?”
“Yeah, can you –” and soon Chuck was helping Tendo fix the alarm for one of the water penetration sensors in the jaeger bay.
Not wanting to be recognized by any paparazzi, though the fervor of attention had subsided in the four months since the Breach closure, Raleigh dyed his hair to match his sister’s brunette shade. He made sure he didn’t wear anything that could be associated with the PPDC, though it meant he had to spend money on a nondescript winter coat just to blend in a bit more. Some part of him regretted having to put away his Gipsy Danger leather jacket with its recently updated kill count. Seeing it made him remember how he’d argued with Chuck that Slattern’s kill belonged to Gipsy, not Striker, until Chuck finally admitted he’d only argued it just to rile Raleigh.
That admission had been the start of their relationship as far as Raleigh was concerned. He’d known for a while that he had a weakness for arrogant, cock-sure, smart alec people; Chuck fit that bill quite well. Raleigh hadn’t anticipated how much he’d come to enjoy Chuck’s company, both in and out of bed. In four months, he’d found plenty about Chuck to make another man decide he was better with someone who was less complicated. Raleigh hadn’t cared, though, not until Chuck had shown that not only did he not know how to be in a relationship, he didn’t respect any man who could get pregnant. That had been the last straw as far as Raleigh was concerned.
Raleigh made sure he had a regular appointment with the local low-cost health clinic, not wanting anything to happen to his baby. The clinic doctor went through his PTSD medications, and found some drugs that, while they carried risk, were deemed safe for Raleigh to continue taking. The doctor advised Raleigh to keep to a routine to lessen any potential anxieties. Raleigh worked out, with some modifications. His job with Danny Miller Construction wasn’t stressful, and he liked the simplicity of it. It left him with too much time to contemplate how well Chuck had to be doing without him, or how it seemed like Raleigh couldn’t turn on the TV without another story about how the PPDC was going to rebuild a jaeger to help with the reconstruction efforts. Raleigh tried not to let the news get to him.
He wanted to be a part of the new PPDC, but he didn’t think he had a place. He’d heard the doctors worrying about his mental facilities, warning him that he might be more prone to needing to take more time to make decisions and process information. It had left Raleigh more than a little scared that he wouldn’t be able to learn new things like he used to; he’d never been the greatest of students, too easily distracted, too prone to falling in love with whatever was new and shiny in that moment to him. Being a jaeger pilot had honed his ability to focus, but he’d relied heavily on his brother’s calming influence to do it. He was certain he’d never measure up to Mako’s smarts or Chuck’s drive to know everything he needed to know to be better at whatever task he’d been given.
Raleigh took comfort in the fact that at least in Anchorage, no one treated him as some oddity for being a carrier. He got the usual bout of strangers who didn’t understand personal space and thought his being pregnant gave them license to ask probing questions about when he was due, what was his baby’s gender, and how his size likely meant he was going to have a big baby. He ignored it to the best of his ability, but there were definitely some days when he wanted very much to do more than snap, “Excuse me? I don’t know you.” His coworkers at the construction firm surprised him with a baby shower, gifting him and his baby with some things he hadn’t even thought about buying, like a diaper bag that looked like an ordinary backpack, and a baby sleepsack.
Jazmine urged Raleigh to look at a bigger apartment and buy baby furniture, but he didn’t want to stay in Anchorage. True to his word, he’d bought a late-model sedan within a week of his arrival, and then after some careful research, a convertible car seat. He had the sense that he was running out of time. He needed to get out Anchorage, and told his sister as much.
“You’re making a mistake,” Jazmine said, frowning. “Why don’t you just stay here and raise your son?”
“Because you and I will be fighting like we did when we were kids,” Raleigh replied. “You know how vicious we used to get.”
Jazmine sighed. “Yeah. You know I love you and want you to be happy.”
“Yeah, I know. But you want your space back, same way you did after Mom died. It’s nothing personal; you’re more like our dad that way. Remember how we fought after I got discharged? You told me then I better not come back unless I had a plan for how long I was staying.”
Jazmine shot him a rueful look. “Sorry, Rals.”
“I know,” Raleigh said patiently. “I’ll be gone after Jason’s born. Just a few more months and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“At least call your copilot? She must be worrying about you,” Jazmine suggested, and held out her cell phone.
“I’ve been emailing her,” Raleigh lied. He knew if he talked to Mako, she’d convince him to come back, and he didn’t want to just yet. “It’s fine, Jaz; stop fretting.”
Jazmine eyed him dubiously but dropped the subject.
If Raleigh missed the company of people who’d been with him at the near-end of the world, he didn’t speak of it aloud. If he missed being able to speak to a therapist anytime he wanted, even if he never went short of being ordered to go, he didn’t allow himself to dream of that luxury. He held tight to the notion that if he just got through this pregnancy, he could find a place that was safe and quiet and peaceful. He had to hold himself together long enough to get there, and if some days were harder to keep the voices in his head silent, that was his penance for piloting a jaeger solo twice.
If Raleigh had been back at the Shatterdome, under the regular care of a PPDC physician, he would have known that his paranoia was being amplified by his pregnancy, that his fears about his baby being stolen from him were valid but not anything he needed to worry about. He would have had the chance to have others to lean on who wouldn’t see him as weak or make crude insults about his qualifications as a man. He wouldn’t have to deal with a little sister who, in her need to keep her life orderly, did not have the patience or compassion for all of his needs.
Raleigh thought about calling and saying he needed to go back, but he happened to catch the tail end of a news show in which the broadcasters replayed Chuck’s now infamous ‘mediocre pilots’ quote, and it sent him into a bad headspace. Consequently, Raleigh retreated back to the habits that had served him well in the camps for Wall of Life workers. If Jazmine noticed her brother was quieter than usual, she chose not to comment.
Jason Becket Hansen was born two weeks premature at 3:17 am on October 24, 2025. He weighed 6.5 pounds, with a length of 19.7 inches, and had blue eyes and a patch of reddish-blond hair. Raleigh couldn’t see Chuck in their son’s face, a fact that gave Raleigh mixed feelings. Raleigh was advised to take it easy for a few weeks while his stitches from the Cesarean healed. Jason suffered no ill effects from being born early. Within a relatively short period, they were discharged from the hospital. As soon as Raleigh had Jason’s birth certificate and social security card in hand, Raleigh packed them up and started driving, hoping that if he headed south, he’d find them a better place, and maybe stay off the PPDC’s radar longer.
He couldn’t explain why he felt like he had to keep running, except that he needed to go somewhere that the ghosts weren’t. The press of winter in Alaska was giving him flashbacks, and he told himself he needed to keep it together for his son. Jazmine bid them goodbye and pressed a disposable cell phone in her brother’s hand, insisting that he have some means to call her by, and that he at least check in with her every few weeks.
“Don’t scare me again by dropping off the face of this earth,” Jazmine warned. “Especially now that I have a nephew.”
“Jaz, trust me, I’ve been off this earth and into another dimension. It’s overrated,” he tried to joke, but he could tell that she didn’t think it was funny.
Jazmine rolled her eyes. “You’re dodging the subject. Promise me you’ll call. I swear I won’t tell anyone where you are.”
Raleigh looked at her a long minute. “Someone’s already called.”
“Some guy named Tendo, two days ago, but I told them you were here and gone.” Jazmine looked at him, all packed up and ready to head down the road. “Please, Rals, why can’t you stay?”
“I have to go before they take my son,” he told her. “I have to go where the law says I’m Jason’s biological carrier and have rights. That’s not here in Alaska. You know that.”
“You could change that. You’re famous enough to lobby for it.”
“And then what?” Raleigh demanded tiredly. He’d long ago lost his patience for anyone who thought his fame garnered him any sort of real clout. “You know how hard it was for you to be my little sister when Yancy and I were piloting Gipsy. You really want to go through that again? Have people bring up everything I did or didn’t do right, and ask you questions about how you feel about it all? Bad enough that people stare at us when we shop in the store for stuff.”
Jazmine sighed and pushed her hair back impatiently. “How are you going to manage until you get to wherever the hell that is?”
“I’ll be okay,” Raleigh told her. “I have a plan.” He kissed her cheek, put Jason in the baby carrier, and headed on down the road. He wasn’t about to admit to his sister that his plan was about as concrete as sand in an hourglass.
That night, after crossing the Canadian border, he stopped for the night in a motel in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The border patrol made no comment about his identification, even though his passport was still stamped with the special endorsement that identified him as a jaeger pilot, not subject to some of the immigration restrictions placed upon civilian personnel. It would take Raleigh nearly a week of driving to reach the US border, but he was in no hurry to reach his destination, figuring that no one would think to look for him and Jason in Canada.
After getting dinner and the portable crib he’d bought set up, Raleigh took a moment to study his son.
“Someday, Jason,” he promised, “someday we’ll be in a nice house, with a swing in the backyard, and your daddy won’t stay up all night.” He counted Jason’s fingers and toes, and held him tight to his chest, singing the same French lullabies he’d heard and learned as a child from his mother.
“What do you mean, you can’t find him?” Chuck exploded at Tendo.
“I mean,” Tendo explained patiently, “that his sister isn’t going to tell me where Raleigh is. Either she’s lying by saying he’s not with her, or Jazmine’s telling the truth and he really isn’t with her in Anchorage.”
“Where the hell could he be?”
“Anywhere between there and here,” Tendo said. “Or France. He has dual citizenship, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.” Chuck stared at Tendo. “What else should I have known?”
Tendo shot him a telling look.
“Besides the fact that I was too stupid to recognize a good thing when I had it?”
Tendo sighed. “I’m not calling Jazmine again. You want to find Raleigh, you’d better call her yourself.”
Chuck eyed him. “And what should I say?”
Tendo tossed his hands in the air. “I’m not putting words in your mouth, Chuck. I know better. But I’d start with whatever you think isn’t going to piss her off and get Raleigh back here with you.”
For all the times Raleigh was sure someone would recognize him, no one bothered him for an autograph or asked him if he was a famous jaeger pilot. He crossed the border into the US again, hitting the border crossing right in the middle of rush hour, and once again his passport and his documentation for Jason passed inspection without comment. He relaxed somewhat, and continued his journey south, aware that with the winter weather, most of the mountain passes would be closed or in danger of closing, and that he would have to take more southern route to get through the mountains. In December, Raleigh’s luck ran out in Ventura, California when he stopped at a drugstore to pick up formula for his three-month-old son.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you Raleigh Becket?”
Turning from his perusal of the available formula mixes, Jason strapped to his chest in the baby sling Jazmine had gifted him with, Raleigh looked at the woman, who had her cart neatly blocking the aisle in that direction. She looked to be in her mid-forties, with frosted blonde hair, and looked like she’d just walked out of a business meeting to shop.
“I’m just a guy trying to get formula before he starts fussing,” Raleigh said, hoping she’d let him pass.
“No, you’re him,” she said, pointing him accusingly. “Why aren’t you on TV with the rest of them?”
Raleigh sighed and returned his focus on the cans of formula. Why were there so many kinds? He just wanted the one he bought last time. Why was it so hard? Ah, there it was. He quickly stuffed the four available cans into his basket, shifting the weight to ease the stress on his left arm. The California weather was cold and damp, making his left arm ache with the reminder that it would never be original condition ever again.
“Whose baby is that?” the woman asked. “Is it yours? Is that why you’re not on TV anymore?”
Raleigh swore mentally in French at her and tried to finish his shopping. Deliberately ignoring her, he maneuvered around her.
The woman had other ideas. “Why won’t you answer me?” she demanded, crowding into his personal space. Not wanting to bump into her, especially with Jason attached to him, Raleigh stepped back automatically.
“Ma’am, I’m just trying to shop. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get going.” He executed a pivot and started walking briskly. Passing the diaper section of the aisle, he grabbed blindly for a package, hoping he grabbed the right size and kind based on the package color.
Not taking the hint, the stranger followed him to the register. “Why are you paying for that? Shouldn’t that be free? You saved the world.”
“Please just leave me alone,” Raleigh said, but she grabbed his left arm, turning him to face her.
Raleigh’s world went white as her nails dug into sensitive flesh, and he lost a breath. Jason, sensing his father’s distress, started screaming and kicking; since he faced front, he wound up kicking the insistent woman.
“Now you’ve done it,” Raleigh said, regaining his breath, and slapping her hand away. “Happy now? Yeah, I’m that Raleigh Becket. Now get the fuck away from me, whoever the hell you are.”
She drew back, shocked and indignant that she’d been hurt. “I’m going to call the police.”
“You do that,” Raleigh said evenly, and pointedly turned to the cashier. “How much do I owe you?”
The cashier blatantly discounted the purchase before telling him the total.
“Shh, Jase, it’ll be okay,” Raleigh soothed his son as he tucked the cans and the pack of diapers into the backpack he’d taken to carrying.
The store manager, who’d been at the next register, stopped Raleigh from exiting. “You’re bleeding, Ranger Becket,” he noted.
“I’ll take care of it,” Raleigh assured him. “My son’s upset now.”
The manager bit her lip but acquiesced after a glance at the insistent woman, who was now on her phone. Raleigh didn’t look back, but hurried out of the parking lot as quickly as he could. He didn’t get very far.
“Chuck, now that the Breach has been closed for almost a year, what are your plans for the future?” the interviewer asked.
Chuck smiled, though inwardly he was sick of the question. “Continue to support the reconstruction efforts in Hong Kong and Sydney. We may be a smaller operation these days, but we’re still the PPDC; we still have jumphawks and personnel that can assist.”
“Have you heard from Ranger Becket since his departure?”
“No,” Chuck said, suspecting that the question was a setup.
“So you have no idea who the father of his son is?” The interviewer stuck a tablet with the photo of Raleigh, dressed in a navy blue t-shirt that partially exposed his newest drive suit scars. An infant was strapped to his front; he looked as though he’d been shopping, given the background.
Jealousy rose within Chuck and he fought to keep a poker face. So that’s why he left; got some sheila pregnant, he thought. “No idea. Cute kid, though.”
“Ah. Too bad; they’re apparently looking for the father, since Ranger Becket’s been arrested for assault and suspicion of kidnapping in Ventura, California.”
Chuck stared at the interviewer. “This is over,” he told the man and exited the conference room they’d been using.
Chuck headed straight for his father. “Raleigh’s been arrested for assault and suspicion of kidnapping in California.” He explained what he’d heard in the interview.
Startled, Herc frowned and immediately called his head of security. “Can you get in touch with whoever is in charge of arrests in Ventura, California? Some idiot’s arrested Raleigh for assault and thinks he kidnapped a kid. Yeah, I know, not his style. If they need to call me, yeah.”
Chuck sat down in the chair in front of Herc’s desk and waited. Twenty minutes later, the head of security called back. Herc switched it to speaker. “The charges have been dropped, sir. The store security cameras backed up Ranger Becket’s allegation that he was attacked first. Plus, he was bleeding when he was arrested; the woman grabbed his left arm and stabbed him with her nails. He also had his son’s birth certificate with him, showing that he was the birth father.”
“Any idea where he went from there?”
“None, sir. He gave his permanent address as here, though. The arrest happened yesterday, so if he’s traveling through, he’s probably gone now.”
“Hmm,” Herc mused. “Thank you, Peter; that’s all.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
Herc disconnected the line. “So he’s not in Alaska anymore. Aren’t you supposed to be in an interview?”
“How else you think I find out Raleigh was arrested?”
Herc sighed. “If you want to find him, we’re going to have to hire a private detective, just like we did when we went hunting for him before. And you’re going to have to give me a better reason than ‘Mako misses him.’”
“So I fell in love with the seppo, yeah? Only I didn’t know that’s what it was,” Chuck said irritably. “And I’ll hire the damn detective myself, and when he finds Raleigh, we’ll have a proper talking.” Chuck nearly rolled his eyes when he said ‘talking.’
Herc managed to smother a laugh at the tone his son used, but he knew how far Chuck had come to understand that he screwed up his relationship with Raleigh.
Chuck paused. “So who do I call?”
Raleigh sat in the nondescript motel room, counting fingers and toes and making sure his son was unharmed for his brief time away. Secure in his car carrier, Jason slept on, unaware.
“My pretty boy,” Raleigh cooed at his son, relieved to see that Jason was safe.
A man of instinct, Raleigh decided the arrest was a sign that he should move on. He took a shower and changed clothes, then made sure that his son was secure before putting him in the car. Heading east, where the kaiju were just news on the TV and he wouldn’t get as recognized, sounded like a good plan. He wasn’t sure where he was running to, only that he needed to be away, somewhere else.
A voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Yancy’s argued he’d be better staying put, but Raleigh ignored it with the ease of long practice. He still had enough money to keep them fed and clothed and warm; they were going to be okay. This being recognized and arrested just meant he would have to be more judicious about where he shopped and what he wore. He’d been gambling that the media’s love for Chuck and Mako and Herc meant they’d forgotten him, but he’d clearly miscalculated. Six hours away from Ventura, Raleigh stopped at another motel and checked in, aware he needed to take care of his now-very-wide-awake-and-hungry son, something he couldn’t do while driving.
Jason screamed as Raleigh checked in. “Sorry, he’s hungry,” Raleigh apologized to the desk clerk.
“Don’t worry about it. He’s just being a baby; nothing wrong with that,” the clerk said easily. “My baby brother screamed all the time until he learned to talk. Then he screamed whole sentences.” She offered him a commiserating smile. “All right, here’s your key, sir,” she said. “We won’t charge the card until checkout.”
Needing to reassure himself, he reached out to Jason, careful not to wake him. Nothing mattered but making sure no one took his son away from him again. He’d almost fought with the cops who’d taken Jason away, ‘just as a precaution’ they’d told him while they sorted out the paperwork. While Raleigh understood on one level, he was still furious, hours later. Tomorrow, he needed to stop by a library and figure out his destination; there had to be a state where the default assumption wasn’t that he was a non-custodial father.
He decided against risking a library, figuring he wouldn’t be able to be anonymous. Instead, he asked the motel desk clerk if he could use the Internet on one of their computers, claiming his phone needed more charging, and that he needed to check Google maps. The desk clerk readily agreed, pointing to a kiosk on one side of the lobby.
“Are you really the jaeger pilot?” she asked before he moved over to the kiosk.
“No,” he lied. “People ask me that all the time. Don’t think Ranger Becket would qualify to be a jaeger pilot if they’d known he was a carrier.”
“Guess not,” she said after a moment’s thought. “My cousin tried out for that and they rejected him because he has asthma.”
Raleigh smiled tightly. He hadn’t lied about being a carrier, but he’d heard rumors that other men had been rejected for that reason. It wasn’t legal – federal legislation had been passed that recognized carriers as having the rights equivalent to biological mothers – but it didn’t stop the perception among some folks that anyone who could carry a child shouldn’t be fighting in wars. “Kind of like the military that way, I guess.”
The desk clerk nodded and left him alone after that. A few moments’ research brought up a pro-carrier advocacy group’s website, which indicated the acceptance and support of carriers by state. Some states offered more benefits to mothers, regardless of gender, and Raleigh knew he’d might be living off welfare and food stamps until he got a job again. While he hadn’t gambled away his PPDC earnings, he didn’t want to touch his bank account until he absolutely had to, on the off chance that the PPDC was tracking him again. Raleigh set his sights on Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a carrier advocacy group had its headquarters, and made notes regarding his course in the notebook he’d taken to carrying in lieu of a tablet. Fifteen minutes later, he checked out of the motel.
“He’s fallen off the grid,” the US-based detective told Chuck and Herc six weeks later via videoconference. “He’s not using a credit card or a debit card, so he’s sticking to motels where they’ll take cash upfront, or sleeping in campgrounds or rest stops. If he’s buying anything for his son, again, he’s sticking with cash and going places when and where nobody’s going to be looking at him twice. If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.” The detective sighed. “How long did it take Marshal Pentecost to find him?”
“Two months, and that’s only because Raleigh stuck with working on the Wall.”
“I’ll be honest. The only way you’re going to get his attention is if you put the word out that you’re looking.”
“Then we need to do that gently,” Herc decided. “No need to freak him out. We just want to be sure he’s not running from anyone who’s hurt him or his son. He has PTSD.”
The detective nodded. “You’ll want discreet, then. No sense in getting the public at large worked up in trying to find him; it might cause him to go further into hiding. I’ll work with my contacts here. See if we can find him and ask him that question.” The detective hesitated before adding, “There’s one more thing. Not sure if I should let him tell you or not.”
“Out with it,” Herc said suspiciously.
“Here’s his son’s birth certificate,” the detective said, sharing the document. “It’s public record.”
Chuck pounced on the PDF as soon as it appeared on the screen, then his jaw dropped as he read his name. “He has our son? He gave him my last name?”
“I take it he didn’t tell you?” the detective asked as Herc’s gaze swung to Chuck.
“Didn’t even know he was a carrier,” Chuck said, stunned and dismayed. “He never said a word.” He’d thought Raleigh’s preference for frottage and oral sex over anal sex to have been interesting but nothing worth mentioning; not every guy liked being a bottom, and Chuck had been fine with that. Now it made Chuck think that Raleigh had been trying to be careful in case the condom broke, and clearly, that caution hadn’t passed the test.
The detective, a grizzled older man who’d been a career police officer, nodded. “If any of them can’t, they’re not saying where anyone can hear.”
“Why would he hide that from me?” Chuck asked.
“It's not surprising; most of the ones who’ve gone public about being a carrier have gotten flak for it in some way, even if it's illegal to discriminate against them. A lot of people think they’re not real men. Like it’s their fault their moms took a vitamin supplement that caused them to be able to be pregnant in the first place. Then again, probably doesn’t help that the most public carriers have been advocating for some cause or another. Most carriers I’ve met have just wanted to raise their kids in peace.”
Chuck swallowed, remembering abruptly that he’d sneered at some guy on TV for being proud he’d birthed seven children and was looking forward to having more, as if he was some kind of one-man repopulation machine. Chuck had been more annoyed at the guy for making it sound like he was addicted to pregnancy than his ability to have kids. Raleigh had overheard him and been quiet the rest of the evening. In hindsight, Chuck could see where his comments were misconstrued to mean that he was contemptuous of carriers, as men who could bear children had become known.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” Chuck said carefully, conscious of his father’s piercing gaze. The ghost Drift between them was suddenly full of a familiar, please God Chuck don’t tell me you were that stupid kind of feeling. Chuck swallowed hard. “I, uh, might’ve echoed that sentiment accidentally.”
“I see,” the detective said, sounding like he’d already guessed that was the case. “Well, I’ll leave it up to you to make it better, but I suggest you start with an apology and chocolate. I’ll be in touch as soon as I have more details.”
“Thank you, Mr. Naumann,” Herc said tactfully.
The detective nodded and ended the videoconference.
Herc turned immediately to his son. “Couldn’t you have waited until you were twenty-three?”
Chuck barked out a laugh as he realized that he’d become a father at the same age as his father. “Wasn’t like I planned on the condom breaking, old man, and he didn’t say anything to make me think it was a problem.”
“Maybe he was hoping it wouldn’t be,” Herc suggested. He studied Chuck. “Will it be?”
“You’re seriously asking me that?” Chuck asked, incredulous. “You know me. I’m you, without some filters, or so everyone’s told me for years.”
“Yeah, and I freaked out for about three months. You’ve only had less than fifteen minutes – and Raleigh left rather than deal with telling you.” Herc looked worried. “And you’ve just found out that Raleigh not only was a carrier, but didn’t tell you, which means he feared what you’d say. Are you sure you can handle knowing he birthed your son?”
Biting his lip briefly, Chuck looked away a moment before he met his father’s eyes. “I don’t know yet,” he answered honestly. “I’m sitting here trying to picture Raleigh pregnant and…I can’t quite do it. But I know Raleigh’s no kaiju and we handled those just fine.”
Herc looked at him, not quite believing.
Chuck sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Me freaking out won’t change the truth. I have a son and I have to step up, yeah? So that means I gotta find out more about how to make it right, make sure nobody can take our son away from Raleigh and me. And Raleigh runs on instinct, more than I thought he did, so if he felt threatened, he probably…aw, shit.”
“Mako said she made a couple of passes at him, hoping for more. And if he was hoping for more from me, then we both made him feel like a piece of meat.”
Herc studied Chuck a moment. “In that case, I hope we can convince Raleigh to come home.”
“Me too, old man. Or should I say Grandpa?”
“Do not start,” Herc warned, “or I will tell Raleigh all of your embarrassing stories. Including how you demanded I get his autograph on a scale model of Gipsy Danger.”
Chuck glared at his father. “Fine, I won’t call you Grandpa.” He waited a beat. “Until Jason starts talking at least.”
Herc nodded, accepting the compromise, but the gleam in his eyes promised Chuck would pay for that the next time they sparred.
Fair warning: updates are going to slow down after this posting, but I'm committed to updating at least once a week until this is done. :-) Thanks for all the feedback so far!
Nothing against Tennessee; it’s a perfectly lovely state that’s home to some beautiful folks I know, some awesome music, and the replica of the Partheton. This is strictly hypothetical law and based loosely on the thought that some folks would have used the same illogical arguments about homosexual parents’ fitness to raise children and applied them to carriers. Because an accident in biology means that you’re always going to be unfit to raise the child you carried, right? (::snort::)
“Marshal Hercules Hansen speaking,” Herc answered the call perfunctorily, certain this was just another politician trying to waste his time.
“Marshal Hansen, this is Doctor Geneva Buckner, the chief medical officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. I have Ranger Raleigh Becket and his son here in our care, and need your authorization for their treatment.”
Herc glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was an international number. He knew the PPDC switchboard wouldn’t have forwarded the call without verifying the caller was who they said they were; security protocol prevented it. “You have it. What’s wrong?”
“Pneumonia and malnutrition,” Dr. Buckner said. “Also mild exposure; it’s been cold here the last few nights. They were found sleeping in a car on the side of the road.” Dr. Buckner’s voice was professional, but Herc had long ago learned to recognize polite disapproval when he heard it, and he was hearing it now. “Were you aware that Ranger Becket was traveling?”
“We’ve been trying to find him since he left,” Herc said evenly. “He has PTSD and needs medication. If you get him and his son stabilized, I can have our medical staff take over their care.”
Dr. Buckner hesitated a moment. “I can’t authorize an international flight, not with the way they are now.”
Herc pulled up the hospital’s location on a map on his tablet and calculated the expense, time, and political permissions required. He also verified that Dr. Buckner was indeed who she said she was; the website for the hospital had her in the directory. Trust but verify had been pounded into his soldier’s brain too long for him to do anything less. “It’ll be three days for me to get a jumphawk to your location for transport. Would that be enough time?”
“One moment, please.” The doctor put the line on hold, long enough to hear the canned spiel promoting the hospital’s wellness line twice. “Yes, that will be enough time. They’re responding well to treatment. If anything changes, is there a direct line I can contact you at? Also, an email address so I can send you the authorization form?”
Herc rattled off the information, then asked for Dr. Buckner’s in return, which she provided.
“They’re in good hands, Marshal Hansen,” Dr. Buckner assured him.
“I’m sure they are,” Herc replied dryly. “I’ll feel better if they were home.”
“Of course. Thank you for taking my call, Marshal Hansen.”
“You’re welcome.” Herc disconnected the line before dialing the head of his jumphawk crew. “How soon can you get in the air for a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, in the USA? We’re bringing Raleigh home, and he has an infant son.”
“We’ll need the refueling authorizations and the air traffic control checkpoints, sir,” the jumphawk chief said. “After that, it’s just a matter of topping off the fuel and supplies. I can get the authorizations as long as you tell me why we’re going to Nashville.”
“Ranger Becket and his son are in the hospital there, so be prepared to have me and Dr. Seguro on board. And,” he sighed, “probably my son, too.”
“Not a problem, sir. The SkyKing has room for six adult passengers and four crew,” the jumphawk chief said, referring to the medium-lift, extreme range helicopter used as the marshal’s transport or as a long-range kaiju spotter.
“Yes, but will your weight calculations –”
“Marshal, unless you want to pilot her yourself, you let me worry about the weight calcs,” the jumphawk chief said crisply. “No offense, sir, but you aren’t certified on a jumphawk, last anyone told me.”
Herc winced at the censure in his jumphawk chief’s tone and realized he was overstepping. “Sorry. You know us jaeger pilots; we like to get going faster than you’re able to fly. Let me know if you need me to talk to anyone about those authorizations.”
“Will do, sir.” Herc disconnected the line, then went to find his son.
He found Chuck in the communal living room, hunched over a laptop as if staring at a Google map would magically locate Raleigh for him. “Just got a call from a hospital,” Herc said.
Alarm crossed Chuck’s face. “Raleigh and Jason? Are they okay?”
Herc relayed what the doctor had told him. “The hell?” Chuck exploded. He immediately looked up where Nashville, Tennessee was on his laptop and said, “What the fuck were they doing there?”
“I don’t know,” Herc said. “But we’ll get them home, I promise. You need to think about what you’re going to do when they’re here.”
“And the reason we’re not leaving now is?” Chuck demanded.
“Because it’s going to take a few days to make sure they’re stabilized for travel, and we need to get all the authorizations to fly a jumphawk into civilian airspace. I’ve got the flight chief working on those.”
Chuck stared at him. From the look on his face, Herc could tell that his son had no memory of ever not being able to take a jumphawk anywhere he wanted. It clicked, finally. “Right, not at war, no kaiju, so what do you want me to do?”
Herc nodded at the laptop. “Look up a list of baby things; we’re going to need all of them once Raleigh and Jason are here.”
“Oi, I’m just supposed to sit here and shop?”
“Well, you could try calling Jazmine again,” Herc suggested, and watched Chuck wince.
“She put her therapist on the line the last time, who told me that I was causing severe emotional distress to her patient by calling every week,” Chuck said. “I was advised not to call again.”
Herc lifted an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Chuck said. “I, uh, now understand why Raleigh didn’t call her very much. Thought it was just the time difference.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked at his father. “I’m not going to upset her. Not until I know how Raleigh and Jason are doing.”
Herc nodded in understanding. “You might want to also get with the quartermaster and see about setting up a room for your son. Raleigh won’t want to be very far away from him.”
Chuck suddenly looked terrified and very young. “What am I going to do if he hates me? And what if where he’s at tries to take our son? Some people think carriers shouldn’t have birth rights at all, claiming they’re unnatural and unfit. There are allegations that people have been using the endangered child laws to remove carriers from their birth fathers, even though it’s been generally recognized that if you bore the child, you have legal rights.”
Alarmed at that notion, Herc demanded, “Where?”
Chuck hastily looked it up. He showed the results to his father. “We need to get them out of Tennessee,” Chuck said darkly. “And before someone thinks they can use the law to steal my son. This here –” he pointed to the article “– says we have a week from when an endangered child is located to claim parental responsibility. If they found Raleigh and Jason sleeping in a car, they might have enough justification. I won’t let idiots take them away from me.” Chuck looked fiercely at his father. “I’m not letting them go. Not when I’ve found them again.”
“Agreed,” Herc said. “Let me make some calls.” He patted his son’s shoulder and headed back to his office.
Fair warning: some of the actions described here aren't pretty. Any named institutions here are used only for fictional purposes. Please don't take what I say here to be reflective of reality. (Come on, it's an mpreg fic! Reality?!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in to see Mr. Becket,” the nurse at the station told Herc and Chuck. “He’s in quarantine.”
“We’re not here to see him,” Herc countered. “We’re here to transfer him.” He showed her the authorization forms.
The nurse, whose name tag identified her as Brandy, refocused her attention on them, seeing the medical crew with them. For a wide-eyed moment, she looked at the Hansens, starstruck, before visibly pulling herself together and checking her computer. “Room 108, down the hall on the left. Your senior medical person in charge of this transfer needs to sign this release form, and then you can take Mr. Becket.”
Herc turned to the senior flight paramedic and the flight-certified physician who’d accompanied him and Chuck into the hospital. “Dr. Segura?” he prompted the older of the two men.
Letting go of the wheelchair he’d been pushing, Dr. Hadrian Segura stepped forward, and quickly read the form before signing. Based on the information they’d been given, a full medical gurney wasn’t needed, but the wheelchair had an IV pole attached just in case. That task done, he asked the nurse, “Would you please print me a copy of his current medical record?” Once he had it, Dr. Segura, the paramedic, and Herc headed down the hall.
Assured that Raleigh was in good hands, Chuck turned to Brandy. Long-distance travel made him cranky, and he wanted nothing more than to take Raleigh and Jason and go home. “Where’s my son?”
The nurse blinked. “Your son?”
“Raleigh Becket’s son. Our son, Jason Becket Hansen. I understand Jason was with Raleigh when they were brought in.”
“Oh! Let me check. One moment, Ranger Hansen.” The nurse looked through the computer’s records before dialing someone. “Susie, this is Brandy in ICU. The PPDC is here to transfer Raleigh Becket and his son back into their care. You should have the authorization in the computer.” Brandy frowned at the response Susie gave her. “What? Yes…uh huh, yeah, okay…. Yes, I’ll let them know.” Hanging up the phone, she turned to Chuck and smiled a strained smile. “Your son was in pediatric ICU. They’re checking now – he may have been transferred down to the regular pediatric wing.”
Chuck narrowed his eyes. “You better not have lost my son,” he warned her. “Which way to Pediatrics?”
Brandy hastily said, “Susie’s supposed to call me back in ten minutes. Please wait. I'm sure it's just that they're busy and can't check this instant.”
Chuck glared at her unhappily, but he took the cue to find a seat in the waiting room of the ICU.
A few minutes later, Herc returned from Raleigh’s room, looking furious. “They have Raleigh strapped down like a violent patient,” he told Chuck. “He’s also been drugged unconscious. Hadrian thinks Raleigh must’ve had a nightmare, but it’ll take him and Mikayla a bit longer to get Raleigh ready for transport. Hadrian wants to get Raleigh up to the jumphawk first so the rest of the medical team can stabilize him, and then get Jason. I assume Jason’s down in pediatric ICU?”
Chuck relayed what Brandy had told him.
Herc immediately stepped over to the nurse’s station. “Have you heard back from your friend in pediatric ICU?”
Brandy picked up the phone and called. Whatever she heard on the other end of the line made her frown deeply. She hung up and dialed someone else. “Hi, Mark, this is Brandy in ICU. I’m looking for a patient that was supposed to have been transferred to you yesterday, Jason Becket Hansen?” She listened a moment. “Are you sure? He’s supposed to be transferred back into the Pan Pacific Defense Corps’ care right now. Yes, that one. He’s Ranger Becket and Ranger Hansen’s son. Yes. No, really. What? No. No.” Clearly upset, Brandy disconnected the line again and stepped away from the desk without telling Herc or Chuck what she’d learned so far.
Fifteen minutes later, an older, slightly overweight man in a well-fitted business suit walked up to Chuck. He radiated confidence and assurance; he was the very picture of the surgeon who’d worked his way up the ranks to become CEO of one of the top American hospitals. “Ranger Hansen, Marshal Hansen, I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I’m Dr. Luke Prince, the CEO. I’m sorry you felt you had to come all this way. Raleigh is in good hands.”
Chuck’s eyes narrowed and he felt his father stiffen beside him. “Now he is,” Herc countered. “I’m less worried about Raleigh right now than where his son is. From what I’m hearing, you can’t find where Jason is.”
“Where is our son?” Chuck interrupted, suspecting the worst. “Because if I find out you put my son in foster care because you deemed Raleigh unworthy because he’s a carrier –”
“Your son?” As if that fact changed the circumstances, made it suddenly okay, the CEO shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. “I, uh, let me check. Are you sure you have a son and that Raleigh isn’t just making it up? Everyone knows that carriers aren’t to be believed.”
Unable to believe what he was hearing from a licensed medical professional, Chuck growled, “If the next words out of your mouth aren’t where my son is, then you’d best shut the fuck up and leave your bigoted opinions to yourself. Dad, let’s get Raleigh and Jason out of here. I’m sure they drugged Raleigh comatose just to keep him from protesting.”
Herc nodded agreement. “Dr. Prince, you have no right to hold a member of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps or one of their dependents in treatment against their will, per both US federal law and UN treaty. So, please, release my grandson. If you’ve arranged alternative care for Jason, I suggest you undo that. We have a jumphawk standing by with medical personnel. I highly recommend that you comply, as I have the Tennessee governor’s personal number.”
Dr. Prince swallowed hard. “Give me twenty minutes.” He swallowed again, nervously. “I was told that they found a baby with Mr. Becket. I didn’t know he was that Raleigh Becket or I would have made other arrangements.”
It took nearly four hours to locate and free Jason, who’d been turned over to the care of an overworked foster care system and released from the hospital as an abandoned child. A call to the local child protective services revealed that no one had bothered to believe the proof Raleigh had stashed in Jason’s jacket – a copy of Jason’s birth certificate – “because it was a photocopy and not an official one.” The whole fiasco made Chuck’s blood boil and made him wonder just how many times Dr. Prince had gotten away with deliberately misplacing the children of carriers. Herc called the governor to complain about Dr. Prince’s interference and bigotry; the governor in turn made the phone calls that ultimately led to a horrified, stunned apology from the head of the local child protective services.
It didn’t escape either Hansen’s notice that when said apology came, Jason was referred to as being Chuck’s son, not Raleigh’s, or that the officials were quick to emphasize that they were deeply apologetic because of who the Hansens were. It was as if Raleigh being a carrier completely wiped out his contribution as a jaeger pilot.
“Look, I get it,” Chuck snapped at Dr. Prince, “you think Raleigh is somehow less of a person because he birthed a child, but without him, we’d still all be talking about fighting kaiju.”
Dr. Prince faltered in the face of Chuck’s fury. “You mean he was a carrier while being a jaeger pilot?”
Chuck lost his temper then and started for the doctor, only to be held back by his father. Betrayed, Chuck looked at Herc before shrugging off the hold.
“He’s not worth it, Chuck,” Herc said evenly. “He’s just jealous because those are two things he’ll never get to be.” Herc turned to the suddenly nervous and visibly shaken doctor. “Now I want to remember three things, Dr. Prince. One: Raleigh Becket is still a person, carrier or not. Two: Jason Becket Hansen is Raleigh’s and Chuck’s son and my grandson. Three.” Herc stepped forward, crowding into the physician’s personal space. The physician looked at him nervously and automatically stepped back. “We Hansens protect our family. You’ll be hearing from the governor about this, and possibly the American president.”
Herc smiled wolfishly as the physician blanched. Beside him, Dr. Buckner, who’d been Herc’s liaison prior to their arrival and had shown up during the inquiry into Jason’s whereabouts, turned to Dr. Prince and demanded, “You did what to a biological father’s child? Are you insane? You’ve broken a federal law! Not to mention every ethics rule in the book!”
After that, it took no time at all to get a fussy, still not-quite-well Jason onto the jumphawk. Raleigh was still sleeping off the effects of the sedative he’d been given, and still sick enough to warrant protective measures, but not a full quarantine. Dr. Seguro told Chuck and Herc that he expected Raleigh to wake at some point during the long flight.
“They tried to steal our son away from us,” Chuck told Raleigh as he sat, covered in a protective mask and gown, in the medical section of the jumphawk as the flight crew prepared the specialized helicopter for takeoff. “I stopped them. Jason’s still sick but he’s getting better. They were too stupid to check Jason’s jacket for ID, can you believe that? We’ll be home soon, and we’ll make this right, you and I.” Chuck squeezed Raleigh’s hand gently; Raleigh didn’t stir.
Raleigh woke abruptly. For a moment, he thought he was having a flashback to when he’d last been in the Shatterdome medical clinic, just after Operation Pitfall. The doctor hadn’t cleared any of the surviving pilots until they’d passed the three-day radiation safety protocols. In both Raleigh’s and Chuck’s cases, they’d wound up staying a full week, between burns, Chuck suffering a concussion, and Raleigh’s brief oxygen deprivation. The IV in Raleigh’s hand was real, though, and Raleigh sighed. How he wound up here didn’t take much to figure out; he knew he’d been sick, maybe sicker than he’d presumed, and his notion of waiting until the morning to go find an emergency room hadn’t prevailed. He remembered falling asleep; remembered, too, fighting with hospital staff, but he’d thought at the time it was just part of his ongoing nightmares.
All he wanted to know now was where his son was. He fumbled around until he found the nurse call button, and depressed it. He was unsurprised to see the same no-nonsense head nurse, Trina, he remembered from his last visit step into the room.
“Afternoon, Raleigh,” Trina said as she set a pitcher of water and a plastic cup on the sliding tray and pulled the lot within Raleigh’s reach. “Your son is doing much better than you; he wasn’t nearly as sick as you are, but both of you had pneumonia. You two arrived early yesterday; the marshal brought you back from the US. You can blame Dr. Seguro for making sure you don’t remember any of the flight; he thought it best if you slept through it all so you got more rest.” Trina manipulated the bed so that it was a little more upright, poured water into the cup, and held the cup out to Raleigh.
Raleigh took the hint to drink water before speaking. “Thank you, Trina. I was going to go to the doctor.”
Trina favored him with a look. “Just like you were going to stay in that bed and not try to sneak out? Dr. Lee will be in shortly.”
As if on cue, the Shatterdome’s head physician stepped into the room. After checking Raleigh’s lungs and his neurological functions, Dr. Lee told Raleigh, “You’re very close to being fully recovered; another day or two, provided you sleep, and since I know you –”
“That means I’m stuck here,” Raleigh said flatly. “I want to see my son. I won’t be able to sleep if he’s not here.”
Dr. Lee softened slightly. “You need to be more recovered than you currently are, Raleigh. You still sound like you have fluid in your lungs and I don’t like the way your temperature and blood pressure are fluctuating. Do you want your son to get sick again?”
“No, of course not,” Raleigh bit off. “But you could at least let me see him briefly, please? I need to know he’s safe.”
Dr. Lee shook his head. “I’m sorry, but it’s too risky. He’s also underweight for his age and more prone to being sick as a result.”
Raleigh closed his eyes in defeat. “Anything else I should know?”
“The marshal is taking good care of your son. Get some rest,” Dr. Lee said gently. “If you need anything, just press the button.”
As soon as Dr. Lee departed, Raleigh stared up at the ceiling, feeling trapped and alone. He had to wait until he was well or least able to fake it better before he could leave. Then, he promised himself, he’d figure out how to disappear again. He couldn’t imagine what use the PPDC would have for him now. Raleigh was sure that once Chuck found out that he was Jason’s father, nothing would stop Chuck from making sure that Raleigh never got to see Jason again, solely on the basis of Jason getting sick in Raleigh’s care. Raleigh had heard the stories, after all; carriers didn’t have the same rights as mothers in a lot of countries. Chuck could very well be within his rights to demand sole custody. Raleigh knew that in the US, despite a federal law ruling that carriers had the same rights as birth mothers, some places were more accepting of carriers than others. He’d been trying to get to Virginia, where he’d read that support for carriers was greater than in some other states since it had been where the first instance of a carrier had occurred.
If he lost Jason, Raleigh wasn’t sure he had much reason to keep going. He’d done the big heroic thing, the thing he’d promised his brother he’d do: finish the fight, save the world. For the last year and a half, Raleigh’s world had been consumed by making sure he and his son stayed alive and off the PPDC’s radar, but clearly, he’d failed at that. Maybe it would be better if Raleigh just gave up; maybe, this whole thing was the Hansens’ way of telling him that they knew about Jason and the only way Raleigh could get out of it was to pretend he was fine with whatever they wanted him to do.
The sooner they stopped worrying about him, the sooner Raleigh could get away.
SCANDAL ROCKS MAJOR TENNESSEE HOSPITAL
Associated Press (AP) – Vanderbilt University Hospital has disclaimed the actions of its CEO, Luke Prince, MD, FACS, now under federal investigation for the attempted kidnapping of the son of famed jaeger pilots, Rangers Chuck Hansen and Raleigh Becket. The Tennessee medical board is moving to revoke Prince’s license after his arrest for the attempted kidnapping. The FBI has alleged that Prince has systemically been removing the children of carriers in a adoption scheme. During his arrest, which was caught on camera by Nashville news, Prince was unrepentant, claiming he only did it to protect the children from the unnatural circumstances of their birth. In a statement, Vanderbilt University Hospital reiterated its promise to provide quality medical treatment without regard to race, creed, sex, nationality, gender or source payment.
Oh yeah, heads are gonna roll after this one. You think the Hansens would let something go like that?
As always, commentary, suggestions, feedback, 'I liked this!', etc. are always welcome.
Previous chapters have been edited. Thanks, Sonora, for your feedback!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the newly set up room, Chuck held his son, rocking him in a hastily acquired rocking chair. A changing table with drawers and a crib, along with all of the necessary baby supplies, had also been obtained. Chuck had worked with the quartermaster to find a room large enough for all of the baby furniture plus a queen-sized bed, a dining table big enough to seat two plus a high chair, and a couch. Like all other jaeger pilot rooms, it had its own kitchenette and ensuite bathroom. Chuck had even made sure to put a baby tub in the bathroom so that it was safe for Jason to be bathed, since the standard bathroom configuration was a sink with a counter, a shower, and a toilet. Chuck was hopeful that by providing a big, well-equipped space, it would meet Raleigh and Jason’s needs.
After the days of worrying and travel and dealing with bigots, Chuck was relieved to be home again. He was also deeply glad that Jason had recovered from his illness. For the time being, Chuck had moved into the room, aware that he needed to ask Raleigh if he wanted to share the space long-term. Chuck hoped so; he wanted to make his relationship with Raleigh work. From all the parenting and baby books and websites he’d been reading, Chuck knew that if he wanted any chance of seeing his son on a regular basis and helping to raise him, he needed Raleigh’s cooperation.
Chuck had initially been terrified to hold Jason when Mikalya, the flight paramedic, had handed him over to him so she could run a tiny IV line. Mikayla had insisted. “You need to hold him tight,” she’d advised then. “He’s going to squirm and as you know, the floor of this jumphawk isn’t padded. Besides, if you soothe him after, I get to be the bad guy and you get to be the nice daddy.”
Now, days later, Chuck didn’t want to let go. He was utterly fascinated by this tiny human that he and Raleigh had created. Like his father before him, Chuck had fallen head over heels with his son, and knew that nothing would stop him from ensuring Jason’s safety.
Herc sat in the couch that now delineated the kitchenette and sleeping area.
“You gonna hand him over anytime soon?” Herc asked dryly, amused that his son hadn’t yet surrendered Jason since the baby had been cleared to leave the Shatterdome’s clinic. It seemed like a miracle to know that his grandson had come from another man, something that had been too much like science fiction when Herc had been a father for the first time.
“He’s not sleeping,” Chuck said, biting his lower lip in worry. “He’s too wide awake. Isn’t he supposed to be sleeping?”
Herc barked a laugh. “Not if he doesn’t want to. You kept me and your mum up all night. Maybe if you hand him over to me?”
Chuck shot his father a look, certain it was nothing more than a shameless ploy, but rose reluctantly and handed his son over to him.
Herc cradled his grandson in his arms and reveled a little in the moment. He wasn’t about to admit it aloud, but until this moment, Jason hadn’t quite seemed real. Worldwide, carriers were still only a very small percentage of the population. Herc could count on one hand how many he’d met and known personally, though he was certain he’d met more during the glory days of the Kaiju War, when the PPDC had jaeger pilots signing autographs like rock stars. Herc wasn’t also going to admit he’d harbored no small amount of fear that Jason was going to turn out to be some kind of weird mutated creature because he’d been born of a man instead of a woman. He was relieved to know that Jason was not such a thing.
The fact that the baby was reacting pretty much like Herc remembered babies of that age reacting only settled his concerns even further. “Hey, Jason, you gonna stay up all night like your daddy did?” he asked, rocking the infant. “Or are you looking for the right heartbeat? Is that it?” Herc looked at his son. “You wouldn’t settle unless you heard your mum.”
Chuck looked startled, and then his eyes narrowed. “Makes sense; Raleigh’s who he’s used to.”
Herc nodded but kept rocking Jason. “Doc said Raleigh’s still too sick to be around this little guy.”
Chuck watched his son settle a bit more in Herc’s firmer, more knowing hold. “What are you doing different?” Chuck demanded.
“Seems like your boy likes being held tight,” Herc remarked. Jason blinked up at him. “Yeah, you’re a good boy, aren’t you, Jay?” Jason responded by closing his eyes. Pleased, Herc said nothing until his grandson fell asleep, then carefully placed him in the crib.
“You saw Raleigh?” Herc asked.
Chuck grimaced. “Yeah. He was sleeping but still looks like hell. What was he thinking, sleeping in a car? Was he that broke? Or was it more of those fuckers like that Dr. Prince?”
Herc shook his head. “You’ll have to ask Raleigh, and I mean ask, not demand.” Herc looked at his son. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he just cooperates until he can see his son.”
“You make it sound like we’re holding him prisoner,” Chuck shot back, annoyed.
“We didn’t give him a choice on coming back, and Dr. Seguro did sedate him to try to get him to sleep the rest of the way home,” Herc pointed out. “So yeah, in a way, we are.”
“Then you get to handle his questions, not me,” Chuck retorted. “Since it was your idea.”
Not wanting to get into an argument that might wake his grandson, Herc bit back the retort he was about to make. “If Jason gets fussy –”
“I’ve memorized the checklist,” Chuck finished. “Go on, I’ve got this.”
Herc half-smiled. “What, trying to get rid of me already?”
“Well, if you’re just going to sit here and watch my son sleep, yeah.” Chuck pointedly picked up the tablet he’d put on the table and started to read.
Grinning, Herc countered, “Oh, so you’re saying you know everything now. Who was it that was asking how to change a diaper and mix formula just a few days ago?”
Chuck flipped him off. “See if I let you help next time,” he threatened, but it was an idle threat, and both of them knew it.
It wasn’t until two days later that Raleigh got the clearance to leave the clinic. Herc had been by in the intervening time, welcoming him back to the Shatterdome and letting him know that Chuck and Herc had been seeing to Jason’s care. Herc had also mentioned that once Raleigh was well, he wanted to see him to discuss his future with the PPDC. Mako had also made time to see Raleigh; he assumed she’d been the one to give him a tablet with access to the Shatterdome’s guest network so he could at least browse the internet and play a few games. Raleigh also assumed that the photos someone had taken of Jason and loaded onto the tablet were courtesy of Mako. Mako hadn’t denied it when Raleigh asked, only changed the subject to whether she had Raleigh’s permission to buy more clothes for Jason, since most of what he had was more suited for colder weather.
Mako showed Raleigh to his new quarters, which turned to be very clearly Chuck’s and Jason’s, judging from the contents. A stack of gray and olive green t-shirts sat in a milk crate by the bed along with the distinctive vintage motorcycle boots that made up part of Chuck’s official PPDC uniform. A Striker Eureka cap and a matching hoodie hung from the back of one of the mini-dining set’s chairs. There was even a checklist in Chuck’s handwriting, detailing the steps on how to prepare a bottle of formula, taped to the cabinet above the kitchenette’s sink.
“I don’t have my own quarters?” Raleigh asked.
“This is yours; Chuck has been staying here to take care of your son. He took Jason out for a walk; they should be back soon.”
“I see,” Raleigh said dully in response to that news. He didn’t want to talk to Chuck, especially since it seemed as though Chuck had handled a few days with Jason without any problems. He also wasn’t entirely sure that Mako was telling the truth about the quarters being his.
Mako looked at him. “Is something the matter? I can let Chuck know you want to see your son.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll do it myself later,” Raleigh lied. He could feel the weight of all of his anxieties and fears crashing down on him and didn’t want his former copilot to be a witness to his meltdown. “I’m still a little tired. Dr. Lee said I should sleep some. I’ll see you at dinner, okay?”
Mako looked at him uncertainly. “All right,” she acquiesced, bowing slightly before leaving.
Once she was gone, Raleigh stripped out of his clothes and headed for the shower. He turned on the water, not bothering to wait until it was hot, and sat down on the tile until he couldn’t distinguish between his tears and the water of the shower. His teeth were chattering when he finally stepped out and started to dry himself, but he didn’t care. Nothing mattered any more; he wasn’t needed here.
He might’ve stayed there, naked and cold, if it weren’t for the sudden sense he needed to get dressed and in a hurry.
Raleigh stepped into the room to see Chuck waiting, their son in his arms. “Oh, good, you’re here,” he greeted Raleigh. “Jason’s been a good boy, but I think he’s been missing you.”
Raleigh reached for Jason, and Chuck surrendered him willingly. “He’s usually a quiet one,” Raleigh said, perking up slightly as Jason instinctively curled in closer.
“Can we talk?” Chuck asked.
“About what?” Raleigh asked, fear edging his tone. Instinctively, he clutched Jason tighter.
“Why have you been hiding him from me?”
Raleigh stared at him, looking confused. “I wasn’t hiding him from you.”
Chuck took a deep breath, clearly trying not to get upset. “Why did you think I wouldn’t want to know you were pregnant?”
Raleigh met Chuck’s gaze. “Because I knew you were like everyone else who thinks carriers aren’t real men.”
“You never even gave me a chance to convince you otherwise.”
Raleigh scoffed openly at that notion. “Like you wouldn’t have freaked out.”
“Yeah, for about thirty seconds, same way I’ve ever freaked out about dealing with something bigger than me before strapping my boots on and figuring out how to get through it,” Chuck said with a shrug. “And it’s not like we’re talking about kaiju.”
Raleigh looked at Chuck then, who was rubbing his right hand over his left as if it ached. Chuck’s gaze was on Raleigh, but for a man who’d been trained to stand at attention and in a jaeger pilot’s drive suit no less, he wasn’t succeeding at it. Something about the way Chuck seemed unusually nervous got to Raleigh, and he took a seat in the rocking chair. “So you don’t think I’m a monster?”
Chuck glared at him. “Don’t be a fucking idiot. You’re a guy who can and did get pregnant. With our son, no less.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“If you’d stayed, we could’ve freaked out together,” Chuck offered, pulling up an ottoman and sitting down. “Look, what’s done is done. You’re here now, yeah? And we have a son. I’d like to raise him with you, see if we can be friends.”
It sounded too good to be true. Raleigh looked at him suspiciously. “Just friends?”
Chuck offered a rueful smile. “I don’t think I can ask to be your lover just yet.”
Raleigh stared at him, not quite sure how to handle a more contrite and conversant Chuck. “You still want me, even knowing what I am? Or is it because I’m a carrier?”
Chuck made an impatient sound. “I’m not into you because you can get pregnant. If you’d told me that was a possibility, I’d have made sure we were more careful about protection.”
“That’s all?” Raleigh couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “And what if I said I want to go back to the US?” Raleigh challenged.
“I’d rather you didn’t, because that would mean a hell of a long way to try and see Jason.” Chuck took another deep breath. “Tell me why you thought living out of car was a good idea.”
Raleigh looked down at their son. “Cheaper that way. No one throws you out for screaming about kaiju killing people you love. Nobody accuses you of stealing your own son.” He shrugged restlessly and looked away, missing Chuck’s look of horror at his words.
“Someone threw you out for having nightmares?” Chuck asked, aghast.
Raleigh looked at him then. “Couple of times, in some of the motels. One of them thought I was hurting Jason.”
Chuck swore vehemently. “Please don’t leave, Raleigh. I can’t imagine there’s anywhere in the US that’s safe for you or our son, not after what they almost got away with doing in Nashville. Even if there’s supposed to be a law to protect you from such crap.”
Alarmed by that, Raleigh asked, “What happened?”
Chuck told him, finishing with, “Fucker had a whole system in place. He’s going to jail for a long time. I’m told they’re looking into other cases, but he won’t be in any position to hurt us or anyone else again.”
Raleigh shuddered through a breath. “That explains why I have a memory of someone taking Jason from me and telling me he was better elsewhere.” A thought occurred to Raleigh then. “But we’re safe here? No one can do that here?”
“Not in Hong Kong and not as long as you’re PPDC. They can try but it’s illegal,” Chuck said fiercely. “If we have to, we can go to Australia; it’s illegal to mistreat carriers there. I checked.”
“But I thought I wasn’t PPDC anymore.”
“Old man never officially let you resign,” Chuck told him. “He figured you might need the benefits at some point, so he put your status as on extended personal leave.”
Raleigh blinked past a sudden rush of tears as he realized Herc had meant it when he said he cared about his people. Needing to clear his vision, Raleigh looked down at his son, who was starting to fuss in a way that Raleigh recognized as hunger.
“So I guess this means you want Jason, huh?”
“Of course,” Chuck said, as if that had been in doubt.
“Okay, just let me know when you need me to watch him for you while you’re at work.”
Caught off guard by that, Chuck stared at Raleigh. “And what will you be doing when he’s not with you?”
Raleigh shrugged again. “Whatever you or the marshal wants, I guess.” He looked at Chuck. “What, is that a problem?”
“No, I guess we didn’t think that through. You’ll want something to do while he sleeps, yeah?”
“It’s okay, I can entertain myself,” Raleigh protested. “I’ve gotten good at that, and it’ll be a while before I can really feel like I can commit to a working schedule, especially if I don’t have someone to watch Jason. Do you have formula handy? He’s getting hungry.”
Chuck nodded and showed Raleigh where the cans of formula and bottles were kept before helping to make a bottle.
“Speaking of food, have you eaten since you were discharged from Medical?”
“Not really hungry,” Raleigh replied. “But I promised Mako I’d see her at dinner.”
“Oh, that’s what I was coming to get you for,” Chuck said easily.
Raleigh didn’t feel much like eating, but he knew he couldn’t get out of refusing. Much to his surprise, Chuck suggested they bring Jason with them, and located the sling Raleigh had feared had been lost. His surprise must have showed on his face.
“I made the hospital get all of your things from your car. The police impounded it as abandoned,” Chuck explained. “They sent it FedEx; it arrived yesterday. As far as I can tell, you didn’t lose anything, but you’ll want to check and let the old man know if anything is. I put the duffel bags in the closet – I didn’t want to trip over them – but here’s your backpack.” Chuck rose and handed the item to Raleigh.
Relieved by the news, Raleigh said, “I’ll do that.”
“I bought one of those baby slings but Jason squirmed out of it the one time I finally managed to get it on me. Do you have a better one?”
Surprised, Raleigh looked at Chuck. “You really want to know how to do this?”
“Can’t be any harder than learning to Drift.”
Raleigh barked a laugh. “You’d think that, wouldn’t you.” He nodded to the backpack. “This is actually a multipart system – the backpack attaches to the baby sling so the load’s balanced. My coworkers back in Anchorage got me the backpack and Jaz gave me the sling.” He smiled ruefully. “Jason’s probably used to the way this one fits.” He picked up the backpack and showed the way the military-inspired baby carrier integrated with the daypack.
“So that’s what that’s for!” Chuck exclaimed. “I was wondering what in the world you’d need a tactical vest for.” He shook his head, admiring. “That’s aces. So how do you use it without the pack part?”
“You don’t,” Raleigh said with the voice of experience. “Because the moment you walk out the door without a pack of wipes, an extra diaper, or something to distract him, he’s going to act up. He’s usually pretty quiet but he’s been getting louder, the more he notices the world around him.”
“I was noticing that earlier,” Chuck said. “I took him out for a walk because he was starting to get restless. Can’t say I blame him; not much interesting about the same four walls. Anything you want help with so we can go to dinner?”
The next several minutes were consumed with getting the backpack loaded with supplies and Jason into the carrier. Raleigh was surprised with the questions Chuck was asking about Jason’s development; he hadn’t been expecting that much genuine interest and concern. Raleigh knew he’d been expecting the worst. He’d forgotten just how laser-focused Chuck could be on something, and it looked like getting to know their son was Chuck’s current mission.
Telling himself to be grateful for that, Raleigh decided he needed more time to evaluate his current situation. It wouldn’t be wise to be hasty here, not with Chuck appearing to want to be a part of their son’s life. Raleigh wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret that. Given that his father had been distant most of his life until he’d finally left entirely, Raleigh had been of the opinion that his son would be better off without his other father than to know him at all. With the knowledge that Jason had been cared for by Chuck, and well, while Raleigh had been recovering, Raleigh knew he couldn’t continue with the same assumptions.
Facing the inevitable crowd of people in the mess hall seemed daunting, but Chuck didn’t let Raleigh hesitate. He did, however, pause before they entered the room.
“Just so you know,” Chuck said conversationally, “we have a few more staff than when you left. We’ve been rebuilding two jaegers.”
Alarmed, Raleigh asked, “More kaiju?”
“I’m not my old man, thinking the safest place in war zone was on base in the middle of it,” Chuck said, offended. “Besides, do you think we wouldn’t have told you the kaiju were back as soon as you woke up?”
“Maybe you were just waiting until I wasn’t drugged anymore.”
Chuck rolled his eyes. To Jason, who was sitting face forward in the carrier, he said, “Your papa’s paranoid, but that’s okay, isn’t it?” He gently touched the six-month-old baby’s nose.
Jason just stared at Chuck with wide eyes.
Chuck stood up straighter and looked at Raleigh. “Haven’t you been paying attention to the news? A private consortium wants to make sure we don’t get caught with our pants down if the kaiju come back, and they want us to use them for rebuilding some of the port cities that were heavily damaged during the Kaiju War.”
“Oh,” Raleigh said. “So we’re still not part of the UN, then.”
Chuck shook his head. “No. The old man still stands by his statement that the UN left the world to die and when we proved that the Jaeger Program was not only still a viable option, it was the definitive one, they lost all credibility as an organization committed to helping save the world. He’s not budging.”
Raleigh smiled at that. “Good. So new people?”
Chuck nodded. “If you want to avoid this – ”
Raleigh shook his head. “No. If I don’t do this now, it’ll only be worse later.” This way, Raleigh knew, he could judge whether or not the others in the Shatterdome supported him in public. In private, when there were less eyes watching, it would be another story, but with Chuck beside him, Raleigh hoped that people would be less inclined to say nasty things.
Word had already apparently spread that Raleigh Becket was back, and with a baby no less. They were greeted by a mix of people from both the Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka crews, along with a few others Raleigh didn’t recognize. Raleigh and Chuck got congratulated, the baby and military-inspired carrier inspected and praised, and generally made to feel welcome. Some part of Raleigh was certain that somewhere in that mess hall was someone who didn’t share the majority sentiment, but he shoved that worry aside. Chuck eventually convinced the group to let them get their dinner. Aware that Raleigh had his hands free but had a very curious baby attached to him, Chuck insisted on taking Raleigh’s tray and helping him get his dinner.
“I got this,” Chuck said when it came time to pay for their meals. Long-standing protocol for the mess hall meant every employee using it had to swipe their ID badge to show whose account would be charged for the meal, even if it was included as part of their pay, to discourage people from abusing the system. Raleigh had gotten his ID badge, which still showed him as Gipsy Danger’s jaeger pilot, and had fully expected to pay for his own meal.
Chuck crooked a smile. “Might not be the fanciest dinner, Raleigh, but it’s what I can do tonight. Next date – you tell me where you want to go and we’ll make it happen.”
Raleigh opened his mouth and realized he didn’t know what to say. “Um, I’ll think about it,” he said lamely.
Chuck visibly bit back the comment he was about to make and said with an effort, “Why don’t you go ahead. Mako and the old man have a table waiting for us.”
Deciding retreat was the better part of valor, Raleigh nodded and took the cue.
Note: Raleigh’s baby carrier and backpack: missioncritical.cc
It didn’t occur to Chuck until after dinner, when Jason had been put to bed, just how Raleigh would interpret the living arrangement. “So if it’s okay with you, I’m going to sleep on the floor,” Raleigh announced.
Chuck blinked and did a double take. “What? No,” he said, insulted and upset. “What kind of guy do you think I am? Some fucker who’d take advantage and not wait for your permission?” Not waiting for a reply, Chuck added, “I still have my own quarters. I was just staying here to take care of our son; didn’t want to have to move him twice. If you want the help, just say the word and I’ll stay.”
Oh,” Raleigh said in a small voice. “I saw the bed and thought it looked big enough for both of us.”
Not liking the sound of that, Chuck frowned. “Yes, it is but, jeez, Raleigh, I won’t touch you unless you want me to. Like I said earlier, we should spend some time getting to know each other again before we had sex again, especially since we have Jason now. No matter what happens between us, this is your home. Nobody’s gonna kick you out unless we’re all abandoning the ‘dome and that order will come from the old man or his deputy marshal, Akito Oyanagi, who I don’t think you’ve met yet. If that happens, I swear to God you and Jason and the old man are going to be right with me when we go.”
Raleigh eyed the other man warily. “I thought you’d be more…”
“Pissed off?” Chuck finished. “With a side of disapproval for running away?”
“Yeah.” Raleigh looked at him expectantly. “You didn’t hesitate to let me know you thought I was a mediocre pilot when I came back before.”
Chuck grimaced at that reminder. “I apologized, didn’t I, after Pitfall and we’d cleared Medical?”
Raleigh ducked his head at that, remembering how very attentive, intimate, and tender that apology had been. “Thought you just wanted victory sex.”
“That too,” Chuck said, unrepentant. “As I recall, you didn’t complain.”
He hadn’t, Raleigh remembered, and had been motivated enough to want more, repeatedly. That had been the start of their sexual liaisons. Heat flooded through him as he remembered just how very thorough Chuck had been at making sure they both enjoyed the experiences. Clearing his throat, Raleigh countered, “Maybe not then, but you didn’t give me much reason to believe you wouldn’t start a fight if I came back with our son. We didn’t do a lot of talking about this sort of stuff, and what I heard you say about carriers made me think you wouldn’t want me anymore.”
“Look, I get it,” Chuck said impatiently, with a small shake of his head. “I probably said something stupid about carriers, yeah? Probably about that guy who acts like it’s his personal mission from God to repopulate the world with his kids. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a carrier. I’m just saying there’s something wrong with anyone who thinks they’re on a mission from God to do anything.”
“Oh,” Raleigh said again. He looked at Chuck, who’d started to pick up the clothes and various personal bits he’d brought over from his quarters. Implications swirled through Raleigh’s mind, and he knew he needed time to digest what Chuck had said. “Did Jason mind me being gone?”
“He knew I wasn’t his papa,” Chuck said firmly. “But he figured out I wasn’t too bad.”
A thought occurred to Raleigh. If Chuck had moved in to take care of Jason, he had to be far enough away that not being in the room was impractical. “So how far away are you?”
“Two corridors west and down the hall, near the end, same place as when you left,” Chuck told him. “When I asked the quartermaster for a room big enough to house you and Jason, this is the one she assigned. I remember wanting one of these when I was younger; I had this notion that if you were a senior enough pilot, you got your own room. Then I found out that they were mostly for the senior staff, period.” He smiled ruefully. “Anyway, if you want your old room back, I measured it, and there’s not enough space for you and all the baby stuff.”
“I’ve been managing without most of it for months,” Raleigh objected as he watched the other man retrieve a reusable shopping bag from underneath the sink. The part of Raleigh that hadn’t stopped lusting after Chuck drooled over the sight of Chuck’s perfectly sculpted ass, outlined in faded jeans, as he bent over to retrieve the bag. Hastily, Raleigh pulled back his gaze before Chuck could catch him staring.
“Yes, but were you going to do without forever?” Chuck asked pointedly.
“No,” Raleigh said. He wasn’t entirely sure they were talking about the baby stuff anymore, and some part of him didn’t care. He tamped down his libido, telling himself indulging in lust had gotten him in this mess in the first place.
Chuck nodded as if Raleigh’s refusal settled the issue. “So don’t.” He waited a beat, long enough for Raleigh to realize he needed to meet his gaze, and then continued, “And I’m pretty sure our boy’s gonna start trying to crawl if he isn’t already, so you’re going to want someplace that’s safe.”
Raleigh decided then that he wasn’t going to argue. “Do I owe you for any of this stuff?” he asked.
Chuck looked at him like he was crazy. “No,” he said with finality. He took a second look around the room and stuffed what few items he’d brought with him into the bag. “If you need anything, just bang on my door or text me.” He lingered a moment over Jason’s crib. “Be good for your papa, now.”
With that, Chuck offered Raleigh a smile and exited the room.
Alone again for the first time since he’d arrived, Raleigh sagged in his chair. Chuck was being nice, which didn’t quite fit with what Raleigh had expected. He’d fully expected a fight of some kind, not acceptance and gifts and the promise of more, if Raleigh wanted. Having Chuck act as if this room had always been planned for Raleigh and Jason in mind made Raleigh want to reevaluate his assumptions, but the whole notion that maybe he’d made a mistake by leaving was just too overwhelming to contemplate.
For more than a year, Raleigh had been pushing himself to live for his son. If he accepted that Chuck wasn’t mad and actually wanted to be a part of their son’s life, which meant being a part of Raleigh’s life, could Raleigh trust that Chuck meant what he’d said? Given Chuck’s forthright, no-holds-barred personality, Raleigh doubted the other man was lying or concealing his motivations. Was it enough to try?
Raleigh closed his eyes briefly, wondering if he was just tired or if he’d been listening to that voice in his head too long. Not letting himself dwell too much on it, he got up, went to the computer, and emailed the staff psychiatrist to request an appointment. The PTSD meds had helped before, but he knew he needed to get them adjusted now that he wasn’t pregnant. Maybe if he talked with someone who wasn’t Chuck or Mako or Herc, Raleigh could figure this out.
As he did so, he saw that Herc had sent him a morning appointment to discuss his employment with the PPDC. Raleigh knew that he was likely to say yes as long as it didn’t require him to do anything that might leave Jason without a father. He’d had enough time on the road to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Raleigh just wanted to be able to eat, have a roof over his head that was warm and didn’t leak, stay sane, and provide for his son in a way that allowed him to hold his head high.
With that thought on his mind, Raleigh got ready for bed, aware that Jason would likely wake him at some point.
The next morning after breakfast, Raleigh went to see Herc. Post-Pitfall, Herc had set up the marshal’s office in the administrative area of the building. Mako had told Raleigh that Stacker had set up his office in his quarters because it was closer to the jaeger launch bays. Whatever the reason, Raleigh appreciated the way the new marshal’s office looked proper, like what he remembered such offices looking like back when he and Yancy had been piloting. Herc’s desk was neat and orderly, but the piles betrayed a backlog of work.
Herc was dressed in what Raleigh recognized as the new official PPDC uniform for senior personnel – a navy blue business suit worn with a white dress shirt and a dark patterned tie. Feeling undressed in his customary attire of jeans and a clean t-shirt, especially since he’d brought Jason with him, Raleigh said awkwardly, “If I’d known this was formal, I’d have run out and gotten something better to wear, and tried to find a sitter.”
“It is formal,” Herc said firmly. “But given I knew you were likely to have Jason with you, I figured you wouldn’t want to mess up your suit. Babies can be unpredictable messes.”
Raleigh smiled gratefully. “I appreciate it, sir.”
“What you’re wearing is fine for this conversation, and finding a sitter’s one of the things I want to discuss,” Herc said, waving off his concern as he shut the door of his office. He stepped over to check on Jason, grinning at the sight of the six-month-old sleeping in the carrier, before going around to his desk and sitting down behind it. “Have a seat and we’ll get started.”
“Your email said you wanted me to work. On what?”
“Training the new jaeger pilots,” Herc said. “Which means you, Mako, and Chuck need to come up with a training plan between now and six weeks from now, when the new pilots start. We don’t expect the kaiju to come back, but we can’t assume they won’t, either. That said, fighting kaiju won’t be the priority. Underwater exploration and construction as well as search and rescue will be.”
Raleigh stared at him. “That won’t take the three of us six weeks to do that.”
Herc looked at him levelly. “I know it won’t. If I ordered the three of you to do it right now, you’d have it back to me in an hour, maybe two max, complete with detailed diagrams, a drift simulation, and a backup plan for what to do when we pair the right people at the wrong time. That’s not the point, Raleigh. Point is that it’ll give you a chance to get to know everybody here you don’t already know – the new jaeger techs, the LOCCENT crew, my other staff – and figure out ways to work with those you don’t already know, so that when the new pilots start, you know who’s going to support you. It’ll also give you, Chuck, and Mako time to figure out how to work together in a professional capacity and how to stand united as a team.
“All I’m asking for during the next six weeks is that you spend at least 25-30 hours a week, working, and doing something other than taking care of my grandson.” Herc studied Raleigh a moment before adding, “And no, that isn’t a criticism of how you’ve been taking care of Jason. It’s more an acknowledgement that you need something other than taking care of him to keep you from going slowly out of your mind from the lack of adult conversation.”
Mindful of his sleeping son, Raleigh sat back carefully. “You think I need something else?”
“Raleigh, if you can’t separate yourself from your son, it only gets harder to let go, especially at this age where they don’t talk back,” Herc told him, sounding like the voice of knowledge. “My wife learned that lesson the hard way. Plus, once we get started with this new jaeger program, you’ll be expected to do press events, and those don’t usually allow kids.”
“And if I were to say no?”
Herc half-smiled, as if he’d expected that objection. “You’re not a prisoner here, Raleigh, and neither is your son. If you want to go back to the US now that both you and Jason are well, you’re free to go.”
“But?” Raleigh was certain there was a catch. As much as he wanted to be a part of the PPDC, he wanted to be sure he was doing it for the right reasons.
“But you’d be going back as a retired jaeger pilot, Raleigh, and you’d be missing the opportunity to help us figure out how to transfer a Drift load to a single jaeger pilot in an emergency so that what happened to you doesn’t happen to anyone else. Can you live with yourself knowing you didn’t help? What will you tell Jason when he gets old enough to ask?”
“That’s playing dirty,” Raleigh snapped, the words already triggering guilt.
Herc spread his hands wide and offered a toothy smile. “No, dirty is telling you that I have a local, fully licensed and bonded, prescreened childcare service agency on speed dial. And that if you were to leave right now, your medical benefits will be cut significantly, and the number of medical professionals qualified to handle PTSD due to Drift experiences worldwide is not a very large number. Four of them are here in this ‘dome.”
Raleigh stared at him. Somehow, he’d forgotten that, out of all the candidates for his replacement, including every deputy marshal and marshal of every Shatterdome, Stacker Pentecost had chosen Herc, who’d been called ‘a committed, thorough, and precise jaeger pilot; a soldier’s soldier.’ Raleigh remembered being awed by Hercules Hansen the first time he’d met the man, marveling that such a man could have a polar opposite in his playboy, feckless, here-for-a-good-time brother. Raleigh also remembered playing euchre against the Hansens and losing, badly, because he hadn’t yet learned that the Hansens used their ‘we’re exactly what we say we are’ personas as easily as weapons. With a slight shake, Raleigh pushed the memories aside.
“So do I get any choice in who that nanny will be?”
Herc’s smile widened. “Of course.” He pushed a tablet towards Raleigh. “As soon as you sign the paperwork for your new position, we can discuss childcare.”
Aware that he’d been outmaneuvered and that he’d gone into the meeting with half a mind to accept a position, Raleigh took the tablet. Reading over the document, he saw that what the position entailed was exactly as described. He couldn’t bring himself to refuse it with any degree of honesty; he was starting to get excited at the notion of being able to help someone else learn how to Drift, how to do what others considered to be impossible. Then a thought occurred to him.
“Just for the record, Herc, me signing this or agreeing to any childcare doesn’t mean you get to have more say than anyone else in how I raise Jason,” Raleigh warned.
Caught off guard at that, Herc froze, then he smiled slowly, appreciating Raleigh’s words. “Noted,” he said. “And Raleigh – if I step on your toes where Jason’s concerned, please tell me shove off?”
“So does that mean I can tell you to butt out now?” Raleigh asked evenly.
Herc grinned sheepishly at that. “Yeah, it does. But if you want my advice, just ask.”
Raleigh acknowledged that with a nod. “I’ll keep that in mind. So when do you want me to start, and how many candidates have you narrowed the list down to?”
“Two days from now, and what makes you think I have?”
“Because you would’ve already contacted a few agencies in case you needed to pull Chuck away from Jason for work on the new jaegers,” Raleigh surmised.
Herc shifted uncomfortably. “Seven candidates,” he told Raleigh.
Not surprised by that number, Raleigh told Herc, “So let’s take a look at them.”
Sexy Japanese jaeger pilot Mako Mori pregnant? No, says the PPDC’s publicist – she was just buying baby gifts for her copilot, the handsome blond All American Raleigh Becket, who had a baby boy six months ago. The PPDC hasn’t disclosed who the other father is, but sources claim that he’s the reason Raleigh was on medical leave for more than a year. Could a tragic secret be the cause? – National Enquirer
The next several days were a surreal experience for Raleigh. The PPDC had picked up contracts to use the existing jumphawk fleet for search and rescue and reconstruction. The private consortium’s funding of the new jaegers had also caused a flurry of activity as the Shatterdome crews worked on finishing the jaegers, which had been constructed in the time that Raleigh had been gone.
Raleigh took some time to press his dress blues and shine his shoes; Herc had warned him that the PPDC would be doing an official press release at the end of the week. Raleigh also requisitioned some official PPDC shirts and purchased some more clothes, appropriate for wearing during his work hours. The PPDC dress code allowed Raleigh to wear jeans and t-shirts, but considering a good number of his shirts were baby-stained, he didn’t think they were professional.
Raleigh had, after some discussion with Herc, refused to consider any of the nanny candidates. As long as he wasn’t climbing on or into a jaeger, Raleigh saw no reason not to carry Jason anywhere he needed to be. Herc relented with one caveat: when the new jaeger pilots started training, Raleigh was to choose some kind of childcare. Raleigh’s resolve lasted all of a week.
He hated admitting that Herc was right; he couldn’t focus on work if his son wanted attention or was fidgeting, wanting to be out of the carrier. With Herc’s help, he found a nanny who was able to clear the PPDC’s security screening and would watch over Jason while he worked, a woman named Elina Frolova who had a decade of experience as a professional nanny and who’d recently been a nanny for an executive with the Asian Development Bank. Elina was brought in as a PPDC employee and, as part of her compensation, given quarters with the maintenance and security staff.
Raleigh was heading back to his quarters when Tendo stopped him. “Hey, Becket boy,” Tendo greeted. “Got a minute?”
“Sure,” Raleigh said, grinning at the sight of his old friend. “But if we can walk and talk, that would be better. I need to get back to my quarters before I get charged for overtime.”
“This won’t take long,” Tendo insisted, sounding serious.
Immediately, Raleigh stopped and turned to the other man. “What’s wrong?”
“Just want to be sure you’re okay with turning your son’s care over to a nanny,” Tendo said seriously. “My wife could help if you wanted her to.”
“Look,” Raleigh said, “I didn’t ask you because I’d heard your little girl has been sick.”
“Doesn’t mean she’ll always be,” Tendo countered. “Plus, it would be someone you’d know.”
Raleigh sighed; Herc had warned him some people might get upset over his choice to go with a nanny. “Tendo, I value your friendship, but if you and I get into a fight, I don’t want it to be over my son.”
Tendo looked surprised at that logic. “You think we’d argue over that?”
“I may not know how to be a parent like you do by now, but you and Alison probably do stuff differently than I would,” Raleigh pointed out. “And I know you’d mean well with whatever suggestions you have, but it would feel like you were telling me how to raise my son. Especially if your wife was babysitting Jason.”
“We’d respect whatever you decide,” Tendo assured him hastily.
“Even if the way I’m doing it seems stupid to you?” Raleigh countered. “Because I seem to recall hearing you argue with your wife over whether your daughter needed to see the doctor again. You wouldn’t appreciate me telling you how to handle your daughter’s care, would you?”
Tendo smiled sheepishly. “Touché. Well, if you need one in emergency –”
“I know who to ask,” Raleigh assured him, clasping his shoulder briefly before heading down the hall.
Raleigh’s smile faded as he hurried down the hall. He appreciated Tendo’s offer, but it felt a little too much like asking for a favor he might not be able to repay, even if money was exchanged. He already owed enough people as it was.
As had become the routine, Elina waited until after he’d changed out of his work clothes to hand over his son. “I think he wants to try solid food,” she told him. “He was trying to reach for my lunch and eat it.”
“Did you give him anything?”
Elina shook her head. “I didn’t want to do it without your permission, and I had nothing baby-safe to eat.”
“Things he can gum or that will dissolve easily in his mouth,” Elina said. “Nothing too sweet or salty or spicy. Cereal’s good, and so are strained fruits and vegetables.”
“Noted,” Raleigh said. “I’ll see what he wants tonight, but if he wants to try something tomorrow, please use your best judgment.”
Elina nodded. “Have a good evening, Raleigh.”
“Thank you, Elina.” Raleigh shifted his son’s weight to his hip as Elina let herself out of the room. “Think it’s time you and I talked to the kitchen staff, see what we can get in here besides formula, what do you say, Jase?”
Jason blinked at him.
More in love with his son than ever, Raleigh quickly put him into the carrier and headed back out to speak with the kitchen. Raleigh knew that anything that came through the Shatterdome’s kitchen was sourced so that it met certain quality standards and that the executive chef was charged with making sure everyone stayed healthy and if not well-fed, fed well enough. He’d heard the lecture from the Shatterdome’s staff physician about how his five years of living on rations had affected his health and how he needed to eat a certain way to make up for it. He wanted Jason to grow up healthy and strong, and if his dreams of having a house with a yard and a white picket fence were going to be on hold for a while, then the least Raleigh could do for his son was make sure he had a safe environment where he wouldn’t know what hunger felt like.
For a moment, Raleigh let himself remember that awful period between his mother’s death and when he and Yancy had managed to become jaeger pilots. He’d been hungry a lot back then – hungry for food, for acceptance, for someone to believe he wasn’t abandoning his little sister to the wolves by choosing the riskier path. He’d wanted to drown his father’s parting words of advice in becoming the first carrier to ever become a jaeger pilot and prove all the naysayers wrong. The PPDC hadn’t wanted to include that little detail in his bio; the PR machine had whitewashed everything and turned him and his brother into Alaska’s golden boys, complete with the requisite ‘we hunt and fish’ bio. Raleigh hadn’t dared to admit they’d only hunted and fished because they hadn’t enough money to buy meat.
Sometimes, Raleigh swore he could still hear his father’s voice in his head. “Get you a sugar daddy; that’ll fix everything for ya.”
As a result, Raleigh instinctively recoiled from everything Chuck was offering. Raleigh knew he was being unreasonable. Just thinking about it now made him call himself stupid. He couldn’t quite stop himself from wondering, though, just when Chuck would wake up and realize being a father was not something he could try on and put away when he got tired of it.
Meanwhile, Mako waited for Chuck to finish updating the budget spreadsheet they were working on, which was being projected onto a screen in the conference room they were using. Raleigh had deferred to their expertise on budgeting, telling them that they could tell him later what, if anything, they’d cut. “So when are you going to ask Raleigh for a date now that he has a nanny?”
Chuck slanted a glare at her. “Since when is it your business what I do or not do with Raleigh?”
“I’m still his copilot.”
“He can’t Drift anymore.”
“Not unless the world was ending again, no. But we’re still scheduled for regular Drift checkups and sims, same as you and the marshal, just to make sure we don’t have scrambled brains and could fight if need be.”
Chuck stared at her and sighed impatiently. “I still think you were holding out on me. You couldn’t have warned me Jazmine was difficult?”
Mako just looked at him. “You wouldn’t have believed me even if I had.”
Chuck made a face at that comment. “Why are you grilling me and not Raleigh?”
Mako smiled sweetly. “Because if I left it up to him, he wouldn’t make the first move.”
Chuck eyed her warily. “And you aren’t going to try again for him?”
Mako let out a small sigh of regret. “He was right. What I wanted from him was an impossibility. Even if we were to be together like that, it wouldn’t be anything that made him happy. You, on the other hand, have a chance.”
Chuck studied her a moment. She didn’t squirm under the scrutiny; she was aware she’d have done the same if the situation was reversed. “Any suggestions?”
Mako half-smiled. “Ask him on a date,” she said again. “Are we finished with that spreadsheet? You can’t make those numbers any smaller no matter how you try.”
Chuck glanced at the spreadsheet and decided he’d fiddled with it enough. Training the new pilots wasn’t going to be as cheap as they’d thought. None of the candidates Mako had selected to be Raleigh’s copilot had stuck around after the Breach had been closed, which meant they were starting over with the physical fitness levels, jaeger bushido training, and Drift simulations. It would have to be good enough. “Yeah, I’m done.”
“If you’ll save it to the server, I’ll submit it to the marshal for his approval.”
“Thanks, Mako.” Chuck spent a few minutes shutting down the laptop and projector screen before heading out, Max in tow.
With the thought of arranging a date on his mind, Chuck headed back to his quarters to figure out his options.
Contrary to popular opinion, being a jaeger pilot didn’t mean that any of them were rich. Herc liked to joke that he only had money now because he hadn’t had anywhere to spend it. Chuck wryly acknowledged that if he wasn’t in the same boat, he’d resent his father now for it, when they had had to get by on much less when he was a kid. While the salaries for jaeger pilots were comparable to that of a high-ranked military fighter pilot (averaged across all the Pan Pacific countries in the PPDC and paid in the currency of the pilot’s home country), it was still less than what most airline pilots made if based on a sheer monetary scale. Adding in benefits for housing, food, clothing, and healthcare was what made the compensation package attractive. Chuck had learned at an early age what being a military dependent meant, and saving his money had therefore been a habit long before the kaiju were a daily part of his vocabulary. He could, if he wanted, spring for dinner at one of Hong Kong’s finest and most expensive restaurants and not wince at the bill. Somehow, though, he didn’t think Raleigh was quite ready to be in the kind of spotlight that would bring.
Who’s the father of Raleigh Becket’s baby? Multiple sources claim it’s none other than fellow jaeger pilot, Chuck Hansen, copilot of Striker Eureka. But where’s the official announcement? A source close to the couple, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claims that Raleigh’s baby is the result of a one-night stand – and the baby’s father isn’t even a jaeger pilot, but some hookup back in Anchorage. “If it was Chuck’s, you know he’d shout it to the world,” the source tells TMZ.
“Dinner?” Raleigh asked blankly the next day, caught off guard. “What’s wrong with the mess hall?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Just wanted to do something special, that’s all. We don’t have to go out if you aren’t ready to face being in a restaurant; I know of a few places that will let us order in.”
Chuck waited as Raleigh changed Jason’s diaper and tried not to breathe in the accompanying smell. Jason was being wriggly, Chuck noticed. “Need a hand?” Chuck asked.
“Yeah, can you make sure he doesn’t wriggle off? He’s been trying to go places all day.”
Easily, Chuck moved to keep their son on the changing table while Raleigh threw out the used diaper and got a new one. “Well, he is the son of two guys who didn’t stay put at home.”
“Har har,” Raleigh said dryly as he used a wet wipe on Jason and quickly put on a new diaper. “You want to hold him a bit?”
Raleigh shook his head. He couldn’t come up with a good reason to deny Chuck’s pleasure in holding their son. Nor could he deny that he enjoyed seeing Chuck reveal just how he adored Jason.
Chuck sent him a pleased smile and shifted their son into a more secure hold. “Oof, he’s heavier than I remember. You feeding him formula still?”
“Some. Just started switching him to solid food. I can’t get the same formula here I got in the US without it being a special order.”
Chuck frowned at Raleigh. “You know you’re allowed to do those,” he said slowly.
Raleigh shrugged. “No sense in spending extra money we don’t have to. I heard you and Mako talking yesterday about how we don’t have an infinite amount of money anymore.”
“Maybe not, but food’s covered and always will be,” Chuck countered. “You think the old man would let you and Jason starve? Or anyone in the ‘dome? Hell, I’d pay for whatever Jason needed myself.”
Raleigh eyed him warily. “I don’t want you to put you out.”
“He’s my son too. I don’t understand why you think it’s some kind of extra effort of my part to want to take care of him. Unless there’s something you’re not talking me about Jason?”
“No,” Raleigh said hotly. “Just don’t want to be an obligation.”
“If that were all that you and Jason were to me, we wouldn't be having this conservation.” Seeing he wasn't getting through, Chuck switched tactics and gentled his tone. “Would you prefer I left you alone?”
“No,” Raleigh replied. “I don’t think we could avoid each other that much.”
“So give me a chance. Dinner Friday night, we leave Jason with the old man, and we see where it goes?”
Raleigh knew he had a weakness for Chuck when he was being charming. Those dimples, that voice, Chuck’s earnestness, and the way he held their son with such love and security … Raleigh closed his eyes briefly, aware that it was too much. He didn’t know what to do with a man who, once committed to a plan of action, stayed the course. Chuck had warned him, after all, that he was interested in more, if Raleigh wanted.
What did Raleigh want? Being alone with his son had been incredibly lonely. Even the monthly phone calls to Jazmine hadn’t stopped the ache in Raleigh’s heart. What would happen after the novelty wore off? Raleigh was sure Chuck would find someone new, someone who didn’t have the baggage of a child, even if it was his. Was taking a risk now worth the inevitable heartache? Chuck had been a tender, considerate lover, and Raleigh knew he’d missed having someone hold him and make love to him.
“Hey,” Chuck said softly, interrupting Raleigh’s thoughts, “if you don’t want to go out on a date, that’s okay.”
Raleigh looked up, realizing abruptly he’d turned away and put his head down to think. Turning back, Raleigh saw that Chuck looked worried, as if he’d overstepped somehow. “Give me a minute, okay?” Raleigh bargained. “I don’t think fast these days.”
“One minute,” Chuck said.
Raleigh looked away rather than see Chuck’s predictable scowl. Chuck didn’t like Raleigh putting himself down, but Raleigh knew the truth. Piloting solo twice had left him with brain damage; it took longer for Raleigh to make decisions.
Going on a date with Chuck didn’t seem all that daunting, especially since what Chuck was proposing wasn't out in public. The only witness to his failure would be Chuck. Maybe if they didn't do any talking on this date, it would be okay. “Okay, but not in a restaurant that’s full of people. Where and what time?”
“1930 hours, and meet me at my quarters?” Chuck asked. “If that’s not too late?”
“No, and I can ask Elina to watch Jason.”
Chuck gave him a look. “The old man’s been complaining that you don’t bring Jason ‘round anymore.”
“Was I supposed to?” Raleigh fretted, feeling like he’d overlooked some task he should have already known he was supposed to do.
“Only if you want to win brownie points for letting him indulge in being a grandpa,” Chuck noted dryly. “Not mandatory, and it’s likely he’ll want Elina to step in and care for Jason the rest of the evening, but an hour or two will be fine.”
“Oh,” Raleigh said as Jason began to wriggle in Chuck’s arms. “Right. Grandparents. Something I didn’t have growing up.”
Chuck frowned at that. “Really?”
“Yeah, one of the reasons my mom left France was because her parents were dead and my dad never talked about his parents. I take it you had yours?”
“Yeah, my old man’s parents watched me while he and my uncle were going through jaeger pilot training. They got pissed off when I joined and stopped talking to me and the old man, so –” Chuck shrugged as Jason started wriggling more. “Hey, squirmy boy, where do you think you’re going?” Chuck asked, gripping his son tighter. Jason whimpered in protest.
“Let me take him,” Raleigh offered. “Like I said, he’s being a wriggle worm.”
“I’ve an idea,” Chuck said. “Why don’t we take him over to the lounge and give him a bit of room to wriggle around?”
“You think he’s trying to crawl?”
“Baby website I read said he might be old enough to try. Might as well give him room to do it.”
“Let me grab a blanket to put on the floor so it’s clean.”
Jason didn’t crawl that afternoon, but it wasn’t long before he figured out how.
Chuck Hansen Dating Again! Australia’s favorite no-holds-barred jaeger pilot, Chuck Hansen, was spied having a very intimate lunch with international pop star Hayley Oliver. Hayley is in Hong Kong to perform for a sold-out crowd tomorrow evening. She is originally a native of Sydney and was introduced to Ranger Hansen when they were both eighteen. Hayley recently broke her engagement with Canadian hockey star Peter Drucker. Could romance be in the air? – InTouch
“I brought a gift for you,” Hayley told Chuck. Brunette and willowy, she could’ve been a fashion model, and had done so since her talent for songwriting and singing had skyrocketed her to fame and fortune. She was also one of the few women his age he’d managed not to alienate completely, simply because she’d figured he was off saving the world and therefore was allowed to be an arrogant asshole occasionally.
They’d been introduced on an Australian late-night TV show where the theme had been teenage achievers – her there to promote her second album, him to talk about being a jaeger pilot. In the years since, Chuck had come to treasure her friendship. It was good to know there was someone not in the jaeger program who’d care about him as a person, not just a killer of kaiju. She sent him snippets of songs she was working on, videos from the places she was visiting on tour, and random text messages with no expectation that he’d respond to any of it, let alone in a timely fashion. He did his best to keep up and keep it a two-way street, even though he knew he probably bored her to tears by going on and on about jaeger mechanics.
“Why, Hayley, it’s not my birthday,” Chuck said. He knew the paparazzi had swarmed the restaurant; Hayley tolerated them better than he ever could. Her excuse was that when she was younger and not famous, she’d read all of the gossip news and knew there were fans just like her younger self out there. He thought she was being incredibly gracious and a little naïve, but it hadn’t escaped his notice that her two security guards were occupying a line-of-sight distance from their table. No doubt the paparazzi would be speculating that they were in love – again – for the umpteenth time, Chuck thought. Never mind the fact that they’d never been in love in the first place.
Hayley grinned and passed the small gift bag over. “You expect me not to react to you texting me you have a son?”
Chuck acknowledged that with a wry grin. “True, but I wasn’t expecting you to show up in person.”
“Like it’s a hardship since I’d be here anyway, and since it’s horrendously expensive to ship something this small, I decided to bring it with me.”
Chuck dug into the gift bag, which only had a small wad of tissue paper to cover the surprise - a baby-sized and baby-safe stuffed toy koala bear. “Aw, Hayley,” he said, touched. “You didn’t have to.”
“No, but you’re one of the few people who’ll tell me if something sucks or when I’m being an idiot, so…” Hayley shrugged. “Besides, how else am I going to see pictures?”
Chuck laughed. “Who says I have pictures?”
Hayley narrowed her eyes. “You’re a proud papa; of course you have pictures. What’s your son’s name?”
Chuck feigned reluctance for a long moment, but pulled out his phone and showed her his current favorite – a photo of Raleigh holding Jason, Max at their feet. “Jason,” he said, handing his phone over so she could get a better look, and leaning in to try to make sure no one took a photo of his phone.
“That’s so cute,” Hayley gushed. She handed his phone back. Aware they had listeners, she said, “That who I think it is? He looks happy.”
“Maybe,” Chuck told her, teasing.
Hayley laughed knowingly. “Uh huh. That why you were so frantic the last few months? Raleigh didn’t want you around?”
“You know me, Hayley. I’m an asshole.”
Hayley took a sip of her tea before replying. “Yeah, so what’s new?”
Halfway through his own sip of tea, Chuck swallowed hastily before he choked.
Hayley’s eyes danced with laughter as she added, “What? You expect me to not agree with you?”
“No, but damn it, you make it sound worse somehow?”
“Would you rather I sing it, soften the blow?”
“Oh God no, that’ll just be even worse. I’ve heard you tear into your ex-boyfriend in a song before.”
“He was a cheating idiot and he deserved every word, and I get to laugh all the way to the bank now because his career is tanking as I speak,” Hayley said flatly. “Not that I’m vicious in revenge or anything.”
“No, you’re just a shark,” Chuck murmured. “Have I been that bad?”
Hayley reached over and grasped his hand reassuringly. “No, but you forget, I’ve known you a while. Me, I put all my words in a song. You put yours into killing kaiju.”
That made Chuck pause. “Never thought about it that way.”
Hayley shrugged elegantly. “Yeah, well, take it from someone who knows: people need to hear you say the words, not just act them. You going to make it official? If you do, I want to sing at your wedding.”
“Maybe we’ll just elope. You can record yourself singing and send it to us as a wedding gift,” Chuck drawled, but he realized even as he spoke that he hadn’t considered proposing.
Hayley laughed. “Right. Like you seriously think I’m going to let you get away with that.”
One of the security guards approached. “Miss Oliver, Ranger Hansen, I’m sorry to interrupt, but we need to get going if we’re to make Miss Oliver’s next appointment on time.”
“Thank you, Fred,” Hayley said easily, and signaled the server for the check. Over Chuck’s objections, she paid for their lunch before kissing him on the cheek as she hugged him.
“Don’t let a good guy slip through your fingers, Chuck,” Hayley warned him, lingering a bit in the embrace. “Else I might have to write a song about that too.”
Chuck smothered a laugh. He knew she’d do it too, and probably add to her collection of international number one hit singles in the process. “Go be a pop star, Hayley,” he admonished her. “I’ll handle my life just fine.”
Hayley snorted and stepped back. “So you will. Tell your dad and Mako I said hi.”
Chuck followed a step behind Hayley, aware that getting out of the restaurant safely would be easier if they left together. His security guided him towards the waiting PPDC sedan parked behind Hayley’s towncar. He had a few more stops to make, such as arranging the delivery of the food for tonight’s dinner, before he could consider this Friday afternoon trip a success, but for a moment, he let himself enjoy the fact he’d managed to keep one of his very few close friends.
Friday evening, Raleigh was getting ready when he heard a knock on his door. Quickly, he finished buttoning his dress shirt and tucked it into his jeans before moving to answer the knock.
“Hope I’m not too early,” Herc said easily.
“No, I was just finishing getting dressed.” Raleigh hesitated before asking, “Chuck hasn’t changed his mind, has he? He texted me with a different location.”
Herc looked at Raleigh. “No, you’re fine. He just realized he didn’t want your first date in his quarters. Might feel like you’re pressured to do something more than eat, yeah? So he got stuff set up in one of the old crew lounges that we’re not using right now.”
“Oh. I was wondering why it was near the jaeger bay.” Not wanting to be late, Raleigh finished putting on socks and shoes. He slid his name badge onto his belt. “Elina knows you’ll be here, but she said to text her whenever you’re ready to go.”
Herc smiled reassuringly. “We’ll be fine.”
Raleigh took his cue, but not before he took a moment to kiss his son goodbye.
It didn’t take him long to get to the crew lounge. From the looks of it, that jaeger bay had long ago been cleaned up, but evidence remained that it had once been home to a South Korean-sponsored jaeger named Zeta Caliber. Raleigh didn’t recognize it, but his wanderings through the massive ‘dome had revealed that there were a few jaeger bays designated for jaegers that had never been produced. He suspected, given Chuck’s knowledge of many of the jaegers and jaeger pilots who’d fought and died, that this was one of them. It looked completely unused, with none of the smell he’d come to associate with a heavily-used jaeger bay.
What he smelled instead, though, was something incredibly delicious, and he followed the intriguing scent to the crew lounge, which had been transformed into a dining room for two.
Dressed in jeans, his trademark boots, and a short-sleeved olive green dress shirt, Chuck finished lighting the second of a pair of white taper candles. “Hope you like it,” he told Raleigh, greeting him with a welcoming smile.
“How’d you manage this?” Raleigh marveled, seeing the white tablecloth, the small round table with two chairs, the cart with its takeout containers and an ice bucket with a couple of beers chilling in it.
“Stole the idea from something I heard the Kaidonovskys’ crew did for them for their wedding anniversary one year,” Chuck admitted. “Tendo helped me find the table and the tablecloth. The food is from one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Beer?”
Raleigh appreciated that Chuck had chosen an assortment of traditional Chinese dishes for them to try. The beer was not something Raleigh would have chosen for himself, but paired with the food, it was the right flavor – not too bitter or too hoppy. Raleigh didn’t consider himself to be a food snob, but he knew he hadn’t had dishes like these – spicy, full of flavor, with a combination of ingredients he hadn’t tasted prior to this.
“This is amazing,” Raleigh told Chuck after sampling a bit of each of the dishes. Chuck had gotten an appetizer, a soup, and three main dishes. It was a lot of food, but Raleigh knew that Chuck still trained as if he needed to be in a jaeger and therefore was used to burning a lot of calories. “I’m not sure I can eat all of my share. I don’t eat like this anymore, but damn, this is good.”
Chuck beamed. “Next time, if you’re up for it, we’ll go there in person. And don’t worry about trying to finish it all; the leftovers will keep. Do you cook?”
“Some, but I wouldn’t call myself a chef or anything. Do you?”
“It’s my next thing to learn,” Chuck admitted. “Probably need a proper stove, though, not just a hotplate and a microwave.”
Raleigh chuckled. “Yeah, that helps.”
“Do you cook anything special?”
“My mom was a good cook before she died,” Raleigh said. “She taught us all. I can’t remember when I wasn’t able to cook. Jazmine’s better at soufflés than I am, though. I get impatient and pull the thing out of the oven too soon.”
“That would be me, I think,” Chuck replied. “The old man’s been talking about how I might like baking because it’s precise.”
“I can see that,” Raleigh said, taking a sip of his beer. “If you mix up salt and sugar, or have too much, it can be disastrous. Not that I’ve ever done that.”
Chuck grinned. “And never accidentally on purpose to annoy a certain little sister?”
“Of course not,” Raleigh said, mock-affronted. His smile faded. “Did you call Jazmine to try and find me?”
“She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone or when you’d left. Your sister’s very loyal.”
“That’s one word for her,” Raleigh agreed. “She likes to draw lines around her life. I keep messing it up for her.”
“But isn’t that what older brothers are supposed to do?” Chuck asked lightly.
Sensing a difficult subject, Chuck changed topics. “I was thinking you and I could go shopping tomorrow, pick up a few things for Jason so he has stuff to grow into.”
“I figured I could just order it.”
“Afraid of being in public or just afraid someone is going to harass you for being you and having a son?”
“You’re not afraid? Even after all that’s happened?”
“We can’t hide our son forever, much as we might like to,” Chuck said seriously. “And I don’t know about you, mate, but I hate trying to return anything I buy online. Besides, we’re not supposed to go out of the ‘dome without a security escort.”
Raleigh ate in silence while he contemplated that argument. “So you think no one would grab our son if we had security with us?”
“They could try, but they won’t get very far,” Chuck said confidently. He reached across the table and grasped Raleigh’s hand reassuringly. “I won’t let them.”
“You make it sound easy.”
Chuck smiled wryly. “Well, we could hide and pretend everything’s okay, but eventually Jason’s going to get old enough to ask questions. I’d like to tell him we did everything we could to protect him without sheltering him so much he got smothered.”
Raleigh studied the other man a moment. “Is that what Herc did with you, when he brought you to the ‘dome?”
Chuck nodded. “He knew he had to try and make things as normal as possible for me. I just was an angry little shit who didn’t always appreciate what he was trying to do.”
“You don’t regret growing up in a Shatterdome?”
“Given the alternative was living with my grandparents, who were convinced that we wouldn’t win against the kaiju, no, I don’t regret it,” Chuck said. “That said, I don’t want to repeat that experience, long-term, with Jason. I grew up in a house with a yard and a tree with a swing in it before we moved into the ‘dome.”
“But that’s not feasible, not here,” Raleigh objected.
“Maybe not now,” Chuck conceded, “but we can make anything happen if we want it to.”
Raleigh wasn’t sure it would be that easy, but he didn’t want to ruin the evening by arguing. He decided to change the subject. “I’m surprised you aren’t angling for a seat in one of the new jaegers.”
“Figured me and the old man could do the test runs,” Chuck said easily. “But we’re not aiming for the kaiju, and that’s all I ever wanted to do in a jaeger.”
“No desire to find out what else these new jaegers can do?”
Chuck grinned widely. “That’s what the test runs are for.”
Raleigh’s eyes narrowed and he put down his fork. “Does Tendo know what you’re capable of doing with a jaeger in the name of putting it through its paces? I heard someone made a jaeger dance in the name of testing the hip flexors.”
Chuck only smiled wider. “Yes. That’s why he won’t put up with my shit.”
“You realize you might piss off our investors.”
Chuck shrugged. “If they didn’t study the history of how we test jaegers, that’s on them,” he pointed out. “And honestly, if you know of a better way to check flexibility, let me know, but it’s what sixteen-year-old me came up with on the fly.”
“And here I thought it was tradition for you Aussies,” Raleigh teased. “Your uncle was telling me he and Herc blasted AC/DC and headbanged in Lucky Seven.”
Chuck’s eyes went wide. “That’s why he won’t let me play that song?!”
Raleigh could see the moment the secondhand Drift memories connected in Chuck’s brain. He recognized that distant look, if only because he’d seen it enough in the mirror, but he was quietly awed at the way Chuck flipped through the moment as if it was a screen on his phone. “Good memory?” he asked.
“My uncle was a crazy shithead,” Chuck pronounced, “but I’ve never thought that sort of thing was my old man’s idea.”
Raleigh chuckled. “What, you thought he was immune somehow because he was your dad?”
“Guess I never bothered to look at it that way,” Chuck admitted. He glanced at Raleigh’s plate. “Want more or are you done? If you’re done, we can pack up this stuff. I brought an eksy so we can store it.”
Chuck pointed to the cooler on the cart.
“Oh. Never heard it called that before.” Raleigh started putting the food away. “Did you want to do something else after this?”
“The media room is reserved for us,” Chuck said, referring to the small lounge off the jaeger pilots’ quarters that had a big screen TV and couches for watching games and movies. “Want to watch a movie?”
Raleigh agreed, and after a small detour to put the cooler with its leftovers in Chuck’s room, they sat down to debate a movie they could both watch. Raleigh kept expecting the date to be somehow weird or difficult, but he’d forgotten to factor in that they weren’t strangers. They knew each other. Chuck was knowledgeable, driven, and occasionally abrupt, but he respected Raleigh. He was more open with Raleigh as a result. The movie they both agreed upon turned out to be one neither had seen about a group of thieves who masqueraded as magicians. It was surprisingly enjoyable, and they lingered in the media room after it ended.
“I want to know how they managed to disappear in the middle of a park like that,” Chuck said.
“Trapdoors and glass?” Raleigh asked, amused that Chuck wanted to dissect a fictional universe.
Chuck looked at him. “Maybe,” he conceded. “But it’s getting late.” He stood.
“What, you think I’m going to turn into a pumpkin if you don’t end this date now?” Raleigh asked, rising to his feet.
“No,” Chuck said. “But I want to kiss you.”
Raleigh froze, uncertain. He hadn’t expected this from Chuck, though he supposed in hindsight he should have. The date had been going so well that he’d put the notion of sex completely out of his head.
Chuck cocked an eyebrow. “Too soon?” he asked.
Unable to speak for the words sticking in his throat, Raleigh nodded hastily.
“Right,” Chuck said briskly, looking disappointed but not surprised. “Want company back to your quarters or shall I just see you and Jason at breakfast?”
“Breakfast,” Raleigh managed. Deciding retreating would be a better strategic move, he swallowed hard and said, “Thanks, Chuck,” before leaving the room, hoping it didn’t look like he was racing to get away.
Chuck watched Raleigh go with a sinking heart and wondered if he ought to settle for friendship instead of romance. He’d rarely given up on anything he’d wanted in his life since his mother’s death. Yet he couldn’t shake the sense that maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t done enough prep before he’d launched this plan of attack.
JUST LIKE US, Marshal Herc Hansen has a sweet tooth! The sexy Aussie, hero jaeger pilot, and man-in-charge of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) made an early-morning stop for coffee and sweets in a Hong Kong coffee and confectionery shop. Accompanied by PPDC security, Marshal Hansen was reportedly charming and personable with the store staff, spoke fluent Cantonese, and even posed for a photo with the lead barista! – People Magazine Online
“You’re being an idiot,” Jazmine told Raleigh when he called her the next day. In deference to her aversion to videocalls, he’d kept it to voice only.
“What? What happened to ‘hi, bro, how are you doing?’”
“Chuck’s not in love with you,” Jazmine went on, ignoring his complaint.
“I never said he was,” Raleigh objected. “What makes you think he’s in love with anyone besides himself?” Grateful that Jazmine couldn’t see his face, Raleigh did his best to keep his voice level.
Jazmine hesitated. “Hayley Oliver, the singer. I love her music.”
“Are you reading those gossip feeds again?” Raleigh asked incredulously.
“Some of it’s true,” Jazmine said defensively.
“Yeah, but that’s not much,” Raleigh argued. “I told you before, if it’s about any of us, the only thing that might actually be true is where they say we were.” Still, the seed of doubt had been planted.
“So Chuck isn’t in love with anyone then,” Jazmine concluded, a little too happily for Raleigh’s comfort.
“He loves Jason,” Raleigh countered, certain of that much.
“Which isn’t you.”
“Jaz, if that’s all you want to talk about, then maybe I should go,” Raleigh said. He really, really didn’t want to get into a discussion of what, if anything, Chuck felt for him.
She sighed. “People at work keep asking when you’ll be back. They liked you a lot.”
“I’m helping train new jaeger pilots, Jaz. I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon.”
“Are the kaiju coming back?” she asked, fearful.
“No,” Raleigh said firmly. “But we want to do deep ocean research and help with the reconstruction.”
“Oh,” Jazmine replied. “Are you going to pilot again?”
“No, not unless I absolutely have to.”
“But that was everything to you!”
Raleigh bit back a sigh. Jazmine defined ‘being a jaeger pilot’ as the thing that stole her brothers away from her. Any change in that definition forced her to remember that ‘being a jaeger pilot’ killed Yancy and forever altered Raleigh in ways that she found difficult to comprehend. For Raleigh to go back to the PPDC had to mean that Raleigh was being a jaeger pilot again. He hated having to be the one to tell her, again, that she needed to accept that he had changed. “Still is, Jazzy, but so is Jason. If I pilot again, I might not survive the experience, and I’d rather not leave Jason without a father.”
Jazmine was silent a moment. “Even if Chuck’s there?”
“Even if,” Raleigh affirmed.
“Don’t you trust him?”
Raleigh looked over at the crib, where Jason lay. “It’s not that simple.” He thought about how terrified he was that all the proof he had so far of Chuck’s commitment would evaporate like dust in the wind. Hearing his little sister put words to that fear only magnified it.
“Ah, so he’s in love with someone else then,” Jazmine concluded triumphantly.
“Does what I feel even matter to you?” Raleigh demanded sharply, irked that his worst fear was nothing more than proof that the gossip sites were right. “And before you tell me Yancy and I didn’t consider your feelings when we joined the PPDC, I’ll remind you we thought you wouldn’t be put in a guardianship because you were sixteen, and we did ask you then if you were okay with us leaving.”
“But you kept on leaving,” Jazmine shot back. “And not staying.”
Raleigh sighed. “You know why I can’t stay; I’ve told you that many times. I love you, Jazmine,” he said gently, and disconnected the call before they could get into another argument about how she refused to forgive him for something he and Yancy had done to keep from starving and dying in the Alaskan cold. Jazmine had always wanted her life in neat, ordered boxes, a legacy of their father’s impossible demands on all of the Becket children. The months Raleigh had spent with Jazmine while he was pregnant with Jason had only served to underscore that he couldn’t fix his little sister’s issues, and he wasn’t about to try now.
Forcing that thought from his mind, Raleigh decided to take Jason to visit Mako, who was taking advantage of the Saturday morning quiet to catch up on work. Mako, Raleigh, and Chuck now shared a corner of the cubicle farm that made up the administrative offices of the Shatterdome. Its bright spot was that it had windows that looked out towards the city, and was high enough off ground level that the perimeter fence surrounding the ‘dome was not in one’s line of sight unless one looked down to see it.
Out of considering for his left arm, which was stiffer than usual, Raleigh opted to forgo using the military-style carrier, since putting it on required a dexterity he didn’t have that morning. He used a car carrier instead, since that only required one hand, and could be propped up to serve as a kind of temporary crib for Jason.
Mako was all too happy to see Jason and Raleigh. Like she had done with Gipsy Danger before Operation Pitfall, she was in charge of overseeing the final construction of the two new jaegers, which were being built with a combination of salvaged and new parts. Even though today was officially a rest day, her work desk was covered with printouts of the engineering drawings for the new jaegers. Raleigh knew that the deadline to finish them was looming near, and Mako was a perfectionist.
Mako let Raleigh distract her from her work with talk of Jason’s growth progress before asking, “Did last night’s date not go well?”
“It was fine,” Raleigh said neutrally, hoping she would take the hint.
“So he was too intense too soon, like always.”
“What?” Surprised by that assessment, Raleigh took a second look at Mako, who didn’t seem surprised by his reaction.
“Chuck Hansen is either fully committed with whatever he’s doing or he’s not. If he’s not, you’d know by the way he acts like you don’t exist.”
“All or nothing, huh?”
“He is a jaeger pilot,” Mako reminded Raleigh gently. “You know if you hesitate…”
“You could lose,” Raleigh finished, remembering Operation Pitfall and how urgent Chuck had sounded about making the jump. He remembered, too, that Stacker’s caution had been well-advised in hindsight. “Maybe I’ve been looking at this wrong,” he mused, considering.
“Have you asked Chuck?” Mako countered. “You know he can talk – you’ve heard him when we’ve been discussing the training plans.”
“I know, but…” Raleigh sighed and looked at his copilot. “What if he says something I don’t want to hear?”
“Then at least you know,” Mako said practically. She leaned over to coo at Jason a moment and play with his hands before adding, “If that’s the only thing you’re afraid of, then it’s better if you get it out of the way now before it builds into something you can’t speak of.” She looked at Raleigh. “Was he a gentleman last night?”
“Yes, but –”
Mako held up a hand. “No buts. Did he do something special?”
“Like you didn’t help somehow. Who else would know which crew lounge was empty and clean if not for you, who’s been working on restoring jaegers?”
Mako grinned, but didn’t stop asking questions. “Did you like the surprise?”
“So based on that, if it was anyone else, would you date them again?”
Raleigh closed his eyes briefly. Framed that way, it seemed so simple. “Yeah, I would.”
“Then talk to him,” Mako suggested. “Now, shoo, or else we won’t have jaegers to put new pilots into.”
“So what isn’t done?” Raleigh asked, curious.
“These are supposed to be for civilian purposes only, but if the kaiju come back, I don’t want us defenseless either. So I need to figure out how to mount weapons that can be swapped out if need be.”
“Didn’t Coyote Tango have a shoulder-mounted missile launcher? Or am I thinking of another jaeger?” Raleigh asked, remembering how the early jaegers didn’t have as complete of an arsenal of weapons as the later models. “And you know how effective the plasma casters were on our girl; those could be used for general-purpose cutting.” Before long, Raleigh was absorbed in helping Mako figure out a solution to her problem.
Herc studied his son, who was unsuccessfully trying to get Max to chase a ball in the side yard. The side yard had a wrought iron bench, which was where Chuck sat. Herc sat down next to his son.
“He’s not a puppy anymore, Chuck.”
“He used to love this game,” Chuck said stubbornly.
“Yeah, well, he’s getting older. He’s older than most bulldogs. Lot of ‘em die before they’re twelve.”
Chuck scowled at the reminder, but he gave up on tossing the ball. “Thought you were going into the city, old man.”
“Went and came back,” Herc affirmed. “Got those sweets you wanted, but you’ll want to keep them, including the wrappers, away from Jason. He could choke if he swallows them.”
Chuck took the small bag his father handed him. “I’m not going to give up eating these.” He quickly unwrapped one of the hard candies and popped it into his mouth.
Herc laughed. “Just passing on the warning. Have you talked to Raleigh since your date last night?”
Chuck glared at him, but Herc knew that was more for form’s sake. Being jaeger pilots together for as long as they had meant Herc knew his son’s moods like a second skin. If Chuck was truly irritated, he’d stomp off with a few choice cutting words, but Chuck’s silence spoke volumes.
“So that’s a no then,” Herc surmised.
Chuck tucked the hard candy to one side of his mouth and demanded, “Can’t a guy enjoy his candy without twenty questions?”
“Sure,” Herc said as Max trotted up to him to be petted. Herc indulged the bulldog, pulling him into his lap, and wondered idly if it was too soon to get Jason a dog. Herc waited until his son had finished with the candy, noting that Chuck hadn’t left like he would have if he really wanted to avoid the conversation.
“Didn’t want to pressure Raleigh,” Chuck finally said. “Not until I know what’s going on. Some of the stuff he’s said makes me think someone made him feel ashamed to be a carrier. Or maybe made him feel like a sex toy or some shit like that. He’s just a guy.”
“Who happens to be able to get pregnant,” Herc noted. “That kind of thing didn’t happen when I was your age. Nobody thought it was possible. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Raleigh’s probably heard a lot of bullshit about how carriers shouldn’t be doing physically dangerous things – hell, I heard them.” Herc was careful not to mention that his brother had been the source.
“Why?” Chuck asked, puzzled.
“Why what? Why people would say that crap?”
“No, why would they think a carrier isn’t fit to do everything anyone else does?”
“Because they’re usually the same people who think that women are weaker?”
Chuck scoffed at the notion. “I can’t believe Raleigh would believe that shit.”
“Maybe not believe it so much as think he has to prove himself more,” Herc suggested. “How many times did people ask you if you were old enough to pilot before they shut up about it?”
“Once was too damn many,” Chuck growled. “Raleigh doesn’t have to prove anything to me.”
“Maybe if you say it enough times to him, he’ll believe it,” Herc suggested. “Or maybe not. He might not appreciate it from you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, old man?”
Unfazed by his son’s annoyance, Herc shrugged. “Just saying he might not believe you. You do have a biased opinion, after all, especially if you’ve just tried to get in his pants again and he’s said no.”
“He didn’t say no,” Chuck protested automatically, defensive.
“But he didn’t say yes either,” Herc guessed correctly. “And that’s the same as a no, and you know it.”
Chuck sagged a bit at the reminder. “Should be simpler than this.”
“What, you expected him to just say yes because you’ve had sex before?”
Chuck looked surprised at his father’s incredulity. “Yes?”
“Especially given the last time resulted in him getting pregnant?”
“….Oh.” Understanding dawned on Chuck’s face. “Too soon?”
“Maybe,” Herc allowed. “Or just bad timing.”
“Oh,” Chuck said, and looked hopeful.
“That said,” Herc suggested, “you might want to back off a bit.”
“Because he’s only been here a few weeks and we’ve both been pushing him to do things? Last night, he didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about going on a date with you.”
Chuck scowled at that. “I’m going back in. Max!” He called the bulldog back to him and took the bag of candies.
“If you aren’t going to see Raleigh and Jason, do you want me to spot you on weights?”
Chuck shot his father an annoyed glare that said he hated being seen as predictable. He held Herc’s gaze for a moment longer, just to make sure Herc understood he was annoyed, before sighing in frustration. “Yeah, might as well.”
Two hours later, feeling a little more settled now that he’d exercised off some of his frustration and sparred against his father, Chuck headed back to his room, Max trotting at his heels. Just as he went to let Max into the room, Chuck felt his phone buzz with an incoming text. He waited until he’d shut the door behind himself to check to see what the text said.
I sent a courier over with another present – tickets and backstage passes to tonight’s concert.
Not surprised Haley had done so, Chuck texted back, I’m not introducing my son to you if that’s what you’re hoping. Too loud for little ears, and too late in the evening.
He got a disappointed emoji in reply, along with, So bring Raleigh along anyway.
You playing matchmaker?
That got him a Cheshire Cat grin emoji. See you tonight.
Chuck considered. He hadn’t seen Haley perform in years, but she was his primary exception to his usual style of music, which was modern rock. Not letting himself dwell on it too long, he went to see how many tickets and passes Haley had sent along before going to ask Raleigh.
He found Raleigh, Jason in his arms, in the jaeger bay where the nearly-finished jaegers stood. From the looks of it, Raleigh was telling their son about the jaegers, whose names had yet to be determined. As Chuck drew near, it dawned on him that the language Raleigh was using wasn’t English, but Japanese.
“You trying to teach our boy to be multilingual?” Chuck asked, amused.
Startled, Raleigh jumped slightly. “Oh, hey, Chuck. Wasn’t I speaking English?”
“Not a moment ago, no. You were speaking Japanese.”
“Huh. Could’ve sworn it was English. Must be because I was talking to Mako.” He considered it a moment longer, then shrugged. “Did you want to hold Jason?”
Chuck accepted the transfer readily.
“Thanks,” Raleigh said with a slight wince. “Forgot the carrier I was using in Mako’s office and I didn’t do enough stretching this morning. He’s getting heavy.”
“And wriggly,” Chuck noticed as Jason immediately tried to get loose. “Uh huh, Jason, you stay right here with me, give your old man a break.” He shifted his son’s weight to grasp him more firmly. He’d noticed already that Jason liked a firm grip, and was relieved to see that did the trick.
“So besides Jason, did you need me for something?”
“Friend of mine is in town for a concert. Mako and my old man already have their tickets, and I have a spare. Want to go?”
Raleigh frowned. “I can’t ask Elina to watch Jason two nights in a row. That’s overtime.”
Chuck bit back the instinctive protest that rose to his lips, swallowing hard to give himself time to rethink what he was going to say. “I’ll pay it,” he offered. “Please. Hayley wants to meet you, and she doesn’t like taking no for an answer.”
“Oh, so she’s like you, then,” Raleigh said, then his eyes narrowed. “Hayley? As in Hayley Oliver, pop singer?”
A look Chuck couldn’t decipher flashed across Raleigh’s face. “You’re not involved with her?”
“No,” Chuck said flatly. “I’m gay and she’s a serial monogamist.”
It took a moment for Raleigh to process that statement. “A serial what?” He looked at Chuck, confused.
“Monogamist. She won’t settle down, has dated multiple people in a row, but she won’t cheat either.”
“Oh. You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It is when you’re the guy who gets to hear about how awful those guys were.”
Raleigh looked at him oddly. “If she’s a friend, then why do people keep telling me you have none?”
“Because they’re assholes who wanted something I wouldn’t give them,” Chuck shot back impatiently. “Come on, Raleigh; you know how people talk shit and you’re smarter than that. I know I’m pushing on this, especially after last night, but I can’t Drift with you.”
“Wait, what?” Caught off guard, Raleigh could only stare. “Why do you want me in your head?”
Chuck looked down at their son, hoping to gain a measure of strength – and a moment’s breath – by doing so. He looked at Raleigh, feeling as if it was now or never. “I love you. If we’re only going to be friends, I’ll learn to deal but I’ve been in love with you and I didn’t know I was and then you left and I got scared and I don’t know if we can be just friends because I want you so much and I think I fucked up and you make me crazy wanting more and –”
Raleigh stepped closer and, mindful that Chuck held Jason, grasped Chuck’s shoulders, leaned in, and shut Chuck up with a kiss. “Why couldn’t you have told me that sooner?” he demanded.
Mind blank, it took Chuck a few seconds to think. “Because you don’t talk?” he asked weakly.
“Pot, kettle,” Raleigh returned, but he didn’t let go. “So you aren’t just into me because of this little guy here?”
“No,” Chuck said firmly. “I don’t let too many people in. That’s why those assholes all like to say shit about me not having friends. I’m picky that way.” Narrowing his eyes, he studied Raleigh. “You ran because you were scared I didn’t love you.”
Raleigh flushed guilty.
“Because someone taught you men like me would either see you as a sex toy or weak or better off barefoot and pregnant or some bullshit crap like that. That’s why you froze last night.”
Raleigh’s flush deepened. “I know it’s stupid,” he began defensively.
“But someone did. Someone whose ass I’m going to kick.”
“Don’t. He’s not worth you getting arrested,” Raleigh protested immediately. “And I wouldn’t even know where to look for my father. Hell, I’m not sure how you found me.”
“Doctor at the hospital called for permission to treat you,” Chuck said as Jason started to wriggle again. Quickly, Chuck shifted his son, settling him. “So tell me why you won’t date me or come with me to this concert tonight.”
Raleigh looked away briefly. “Because I don’t know if you’ll stick around once the novelty wears off.”
“Novelty?” Chuck was flabbergasted and insulted. “Novelty of what? Being with you? Being a parent to this wriggle worm here? You do know I don’t commit to something unless I can see it to the end?”
Raleigh met his eyes. “Maybe I just need you to say that a couple million times.”
“Fuck words.” Now Chuck kissed him lovingly, taking his time, until he nearly forgot where they were. When he finally broke the kiss, his breathing was ragged and Raleigh had closed his eyes with pleasure. Chuck waited until Raleigh opened his eyes before he added, “I love you and I love Jason. I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea what I’m doing in a relationship, but we’ll figure it out together, yeah? And we’ll probably fight and get mad, but I swear I’ll be here for you and Jason no matter what it takes. Just…don’t shut me out. I can’t Drift with you and I forget I can’t until shit like this comes up and I’m lost.”
Raleigh shuddered through a breath. “Okay,” he said softly. “But we’d better get Jason down for his nap and make sure Elina doesn’t have plans, or we aren’t going anywhere.”
“And after tonight?”
“One day at a time,” Raleigh told him, “but if you want to tell Hayley we’re dating – or hell, the world – I’m okay with that.”
Chuck silently cheered. Still, there was something he had to know. “Do you love me?”
Raleigh’s lips curved into a mischievous smile. “Wouldn’t want to give you everything all at once now,” he said, but he kissed Chuck again.
Suspecting he wouldn’t get a declaration until they’d both had enough time to process, Chuck accepted the not-quite-answer as a challenge. Silently, he vowed that he wouldn’t give Raleigh reason to feel disappointed by this choice. “Come on, then. We’ve places to go and people to meet.”
JAEGER PILOTS IN LOVE – Hero jaeger pilots Chuck Hansen and Raleigh Becket were spotted having a picnic lunch in one of Hong Kong’s city parks with their seventh-month-old son. Chuck and Raleigh were in good spirits, at one point playfully wrestling each other while their son slept. Could wedding bells be in the air? Sources close to the jaeger pilots say it’s too early to tell, but they also claim that the pair were separated for more than a year. ‘Chuck’s just gone on Raleigh and their son. He’ll fight anyone who claims otherwise!’ – Celebrity News Pacific
Thanks to everyone who's read this along the way and posted kudos and comments. I really appreciate it!
If you're reading this long after the posting date, please note that I adore hearing from you - even on the "old stuff".
I decided to leave this on a 'they're working it out note' because I figure these two will fight (maybe even literally) to make their relationship work, and with that kind of committed intention, they're going to be unstoppable and live happily ever after. :-)
Title and story partly inspired by Poets of the Fall's "King of Fools." Happy Father's Day to all the fathers out there!