Chuck sighed as he stepped out onto the observation deck of the Shatterdome and found Raleigh at the edge of the platform, leaning against the railing. Chuck couldn’t say he blamed him for wanting a little distance and some air, not after what had just happened that morning. Some woman from one of the Wall of Life camps had gone on TV, spreading lies and rumors about Raleigh. She claimed he’d given her drugs, gotten her pregnant, and been ‘talking crazy talk all the time about his brother.’ Since the mess hall always had a TV on with the news running, everyone there, including Raleigh, had seen the interview. Raleigh had promptly aborted his attempt at food acquisition and vanished.
Worried that Raleigh had gone further than somewhere in the Shatterdome, Chuck had spent the last half hour tracking him down. He’d finally resorted to asking Security if they could track Raleigh’s badge, which had identified Raleigh had used it to unlock the observation platform door. Chuck didn’t want to lose Raleigh; he’d only started to get to know him.
Raleigh glanced at Chuck as he drew near. “Come to ask me if any of it’s true?” he asked, sounding resigned.
Chuck studied him. The Breach had been closed for seven weeks. Chuck hadn’t expected to survive Operation Pitfall, but he hadn’t counted on Stacker being willing to pilot a jaeger solo one more time. Chuck had gotten knocked out and had woken up in an escape pod; the shock wave from the detonation had rattled him around enough that he’d broken his left forearm and bruised most of his body. He still had his arm in a soft cast. Raleigh had been the one to volunteer to take Max out on walks that first week after they’d cleared the three-day radiation exposure waiting period. Chuck had taken that to mean that Raleigh didn’t hold a grudge, and had cautiously reached out, suspecting the press from their success would mean they’d have to at least tolerate each other for the foreseeable future. So far, he hadn’t been wrong.
Chuck could see Raleigh was braced for impact, as if he fully expected Chuck to believe what some random woman said, even if said woman was someone Raleigh had met while working on the Wall of Life. The notion that Raleigh would be reckless enough to get someone pregnant offended Chuck. It didn’t fit with what he’d figured out about Raleigh.
“From where I’m standing, that’s some impressive bullshit. You were arguing about how you wouldn’t abandon your kids to go on a three-month cruise when we watched that stupid movie the other night.”
Raleigh blew out a breath. “I’m more pissed that I thought she was pretty and in need of help, so I traded my extra rations for the morning-after pill she wanted.”
“You never slept with her,” Chuck surmised.
“No. I quit chasing women when one of them got between me and Yancy and almost cost us a shot at our jaeger.” Raleigh’s voice was flat.
Chuck blinked at that. “You weren’t known for being a monk before.”
Raleigh smiled ruefully and turned away from the view of the city under reconstruction. “Yeah, well. Yancy was better at catching them than I was, and who was I to refuse if one of them wanted me? Always made sure they went home happy.” His voice hardened. “And that we used condoms, no matter how many times they tried to tell me otherwise.”
Remembering how he’d been at sixteen, full of hormones and eager to help himself to the buffet of people who wanted to say they’d been with a jaeger pilot, Chuck nodded ruefully. “Know how that goes.” He studied Raleigh, the scruffy blond hair and tense jawline, wanting to help. He hated seeing Raleigh upset, though he shied away examining from exactly why it mattered to him. “Want to spar, maybe blow off some steam?”
Raleigh shook his head. “My luck, I’d hit your arm and break it. Just…” He looked out at the harbor and let out a breath before turning again to face Chuck. “I didn’t talk to that many people when I was out there. Didn’t want to get close to anyone.”
“Afraid you’d get recognized?” Chuck tried to ignore the constant itch under his cast and focused on Raleigh instead.
“That, and I just didn’t want to talk.”
“And she was one of the few who got close enough.”
Raleigh nodded briefly, regret and disappointment on his face. “It was starting to snow, and I could never get warm enough in the tents they’d put up for us. Even if I had a sleeping bag that was rated for hiking in the Arctic. I just wanted someone next to me so I’d know I wasn’t ghost-Drifting again. And now she’s turning that into something it wasn’t.”
“You could deny it.”
“You know that just makes that kind of shit worse.”
“So you’re just gonna stand here and be pissed instead?”
“Nobody invited you up here,” Raleigh shot back, annoyed. “Unless there’s something you need me for, I’ll work through this on my own.”
“Got a better idea,” Chuck countered. “Come with me; we’ll head into the city and get something to eat that isn’t mess hall food. Security will drive us there so we won’t be alone.”
Raleigh looked at him for a long moment before letting out a breath and nodding in agreement. “Just don’t expect me to eat anything spicy. I’m out of practice.”
Chuck mentally congratulated himself, but he knew one outing wouldn’t fix the situation. The best he could hope for was a distraction; he just hoped this was enough.