If none of this had happened, if Chuck had bumped into Raleigh by accident on a street somewhere, if Kaiju were just a paper mache mockup in a shitty horror movie, and giant robots left to cartoons, life would seem less like a roller coaster derailment with multiple casualties waiting to happen and more like an endless, meandering stretch of empty highway. Chuck likes to think of Highway 1, cruising in a Jeep, singing loudly to the radio with Max in the front seat. It’s a pipe dream, a moot point, maybe even a dead end.
Sometimes at night when he thinks everyone is asleep, Raleigh sings. He doesn’t have the greatest voice; it’s a little nasally and vaguely reminiscent of coyote howling, but rumbling and rather pleasant, sonorous enough to reverberate through the concrete walls of the ‘Dome. He sings songs that Chuck’s never heard before, songs about travellin’ on, bottoms of rivers, bad times for everyone. Sad, mournful tunes full of soul that roil in Chuck’s gut, lyrics rattling around in his thoughts for days and days afterwards.
Raleigh just assumes everyone is asleep when he spends the nights with his feet up against the wall, head dangling down, singing songs his grandma had taught him a long time ago. He can’t sleep, not much anyway. He doesn’t know it, but Chuck is always sitting around the corner, ear to the wall, eyes closed. He happened to hear a snatch of a tune on his way to the bathroom one night, and every night afterwards, he sits and listens to Raleigh’s folk songs.
It is common knowledge around the ‘Dome that Raleigh and Chuck are in some sort of love with each other. They are the only two that are apparently unaware of this. It’s something in the way they glance at one another in turn; neither are ever both looking at the same time. There is no eye contact. At dinner, Chuck’s eyes slide from his plate, from his father, from his dog, over to where Raleigh sits with Mako, then back to the ceiling, to the salt shaker, to the basket of bread. Not a second later, Raleigh peers over at Chuck, jaw working more slowly for a second, brows furrowing in concentration, before he turns his attention back to his copilot.
There’s a lot that can be said, with a few looks like that.
The two don’t speak, especially after their fist fight. They communicate in their long, one-sided glances, in the space they kept between themselves in the sparring room, passing each other in hallways with their eyes firmly locked on anything but each other. This was done with a deliberate sort of calm, but not a forced or strained one. There were just facts about the two of them: they fought, once. They kissed, once. They did not look at each other, ever.
The kiss was not a memorable one, as kisses go. Chuck was having a fit of existentialist woe after his brawl with Raleigh. When he was a child, he used to sit on the edge of the ‘Dome and stare out across the sea, imagining not the creatures that his father fought but all the pleasant little ocean critters, the turtles and the whales and the tiny shrimp and octopi. Sometimes the sea could calm him. Maybe if he wasn’t a Ranger he would have been a sailor. Maybe he could still be a sailor, if Operation Pitfall was a success.
And that was, unfortunately, exactly what was weighing so heavily on Chuck’s troubled mind. It had not occurred to him to be afraid of death before. It wasn’t the death, exactly, so much as the idea of a life left unfinished. If he died, there would be a missing place in the world, a void where Chuck Hansen used to stand. The potential of a life filled with children and more dogs, even the possibility of anything beyond piloting a Jaeger, was suddenly extremely uncertain.
Raleigh had come to apologize, to explain that he knew what it was like to be twenty-one and feel too big for your bones, to see a great aching expanse that might be your life ahead of you. Chuck had been wrong to provoke him, wrong to insult Mako, but it was just as wrong of Raleigh to try to turn him into hamburger. Chuck was hard to find. One of the guys who oversaw seawater intake and desalination pointed Raleigh in the right direction.
Of all the ways and places to find Chuck, sitting on the edge of the dome with his forehead against the rail, staring at the sunset with a look of panic mixed with fear, tinged with regret, was not the way Raleigh had expected.
Raleigh didn’t say anything. He sat down next to Chuck, threading his arms through the metal rails, chin resting on his arms. Chuck cocked an eyebrow at him, but didn’t say a word. They sat like that for quite some time, neither one saying anything until the sun had long since sunk below the horizon.
“I’m alright,” Chuck said softly, “now.”
Raleigh’s shoulders relaxed, dropping an inch. He could barely believe that Chuck had even spoken.
“Okay,” Raleigh said. “Good.”
“Whatever you came out here to say to me . . . you don’t have to say it,” Chuck said, a hint of arrogance coming back into his voice.
Raleigh looked over at him, grabbing the rail and leaning back. He still looked like a scared little kid. Raleigh knocked his foot into Chuck’s, boots colliding with a dull thunk. Chuck looked over at Raleigh and his crooked grin.
Chuck coughed, then let out a tiny bark of a laugh. All of the Jaeger pilots had a bit of an uncanny ability to read people, a sort of low-level telepathy that spread beyond the confines of pilot to pilot protocols. Raleigh leaned forward, swinging his weight off the railing, to press his lips to Chuck’s for one brief second.
“I completely understand,” Raleigh declared before he clambered to his feet and wandered off, whistling a song that made Chuck shiver.
Chuck makes it a point not to think about Raleigh’s lips, the smell of sweat and salt and sun that clung to Raleigh’s sweater, or the deep aching misery that ratchets up and down his spine when he stares at Raleigh during dinner. He does not imagine being on the beach in Sydney like when he was a kid, just him and Max and Raleigh, laughing and roasting in the sun, slurping up melting ice cream and popsicles. The wetter the weather in Hong Kong, the more Chuck yearns for dry heat and sand. There are no beach trips with the threat of Kaiju looming.
Raleigh thinks he’s the king of insomnia, catching naps like a cat in completely inappropriate places during the day, scaring the techs half to death when they find him sprawled on the gangway next to Gipsy snoring like a lumberjack. Chuck sneers when he goes to sit down at lunch with Mako and Raleigh is taking up an entire bench, mouth slack, hands dangling to the floor. Mako is always half bewildered and half amused by her copilot, smiling up at Chuck in that apologetic Japanese way. Chuck snorts and walks away to sit elsewhere.
Raleigh is not the king of insomnia, and Chuck is the proof. At night, he wanders around the ‘Dome, all nervous energy and steady footsteps like a heartbeat that echo through the metal halls. Sometimes he has Max with him, but the dog is a good sleeper. Chuck roams, hungry for something he cannot put his finger on, stopping to listen to Raleigh before he retreats, toes frozen and eyes bleary, to his bunk to lie awake until morning.
Chuck is insistent that he is not pining. His father is stern, tells him to get his head in the game. Herc knows what Chuck is like, how he was as a sullen teenager, nursing crushes based on blind hero worship. Now that Chuck is a sullen young adult, he’s not changed much.
Mako tries to get Raleigh to just go and talk to Chuck, just go and say a few words to each other that aren’t combative or snide. Raleigh isn’t sure he can talk to Chuck like that, or if he can talk to Chuck at all after he pulled that stupid move with the kiss.
Neither of them say how it’s pointless. Neither of them attempt to point out the futility of loving something with an expiration date, something whose time is ticking steadily and surely towards some kind of end. Rangers are nothing if not practical; they needed no stark reminder that any Drop could be their last. When Raleigh was first a pilot and everyone thought the Jaegers were invincible, it was different. But not now. Not now that Jaegers drop like flies and humanity’s last hope rode quite literally on the shoulders of a shining Mark V.
It was just a matter of time. It was anyone’s guess as to what would happen. With Cherno and Typhoon gone, it could be a disaster. Even if it was a success, even if they closed the Breach, the ‘Dome still might be an emptier place. Raleigh had heard once that there are no heroes in a world where heroes don’t die.
So Chuck and Raleigh didn’t speak. They were always separated by something; the precious few seconds between their glances, the good couple of yards they afforded each other in hallways, the concrete wall that Chuck leaned against at night. If one of them didn’t make it out, well. What was one more thing keeping them apart?