Actions

Work Header

Fever Dream

Chapter Text

The playground field stretched out to the end of the world, the edges curling the way Mum said they did because the planet was round.  Chuck had never liked it, how things stretched and fell, off into the haze of the city, off into the clouds of dust rising from the rampaging monsters that were always, always just out of sight.

It seemed sometimes that he had been here forever.  Alone.  Waiting for those things to finally break free and kill him.

There had been stories on TV about them, things that Mum talked about with the neighbors in hushed whispers when they thought he couldn't hear.  Kaijuu, the news called them.  Kaijuu.  Aliens who had come to tear the world apart.

Chuck still couldn't see them.  But he could hear them.  He knew; they were out there.  One had come for his home.  Come for him, maybe. 

He curled up tighter in on himself, under the shadow of the biggest slide on the playground, unwilling to go anywhere until the kaijuu was gone.

"Heya, sprog."

Chuck looks up, the shadow of a man falling over him.  "Are you hiding from the kaijuu too?" he asks quietly, and scowls.  "Find your own spot."

The man, whose features Chuck couldn't quite make out, sighed and sat down cross-legged on the sand.  "Is that what you're hiding from?  The kaijuu?"

"Yeah."

"Want to tell me about it?"

Chuck stares - how could anybody not know?  The whole world knew.  It was the whole world they're tearing apart.  He retreats further back into the shadows, wanting to go back to the hiding and the past and the now that he knows.  "It's getting louder," he whispers.  "It's gonna wipe Sydney out."

The man looks back over his shoulder, and reaches out to Chuck.  "I'm here to get you out," he says, and he sounds honest.  "C'mon, why don't we leave?"

Chuck wipes his face on his sleeve.  Snot and tears are everywhere, and Mum would be so upset with him if she could see it.  "How?  They're really big and you can't outrun them in a car."

The man points.  "Good thing I brought my helicopter then, huh?"

Grudgingly, Chuck swallows down the battering fear and reaches back, grabbing onto the man's... what's he wearing?  A uniform of some kind, one of those green jumpsuits that military people always were in the TV shows.  "Are you in the Air Force?" he mumbles, as the man lifts him as if he was nothing.

"I am, actually."

"And you fly helicopters?"

"I do today, I reckon," the man says.  And there it is, a big green and black thing sitting in the middle of the field that led off into the end of the world and Chuck wonders why he has never seen it before.

"Where are we going?"  

"Home, if you'd like."

Chuck shakes his head, eyes to the sky, staring at the rising dust.  "The whole city's gone."

"Somewhere you'll feel safe then, how about?" the man says, and hugs him a little tighter.  Chuck hugged back, but then realized the man was just readjusting so he could reach around to open the helicopter door.  "Stick with me, and we'll get through this."

"Okay," Chuck says, and let the man strap him into the seat.

The panic that has been bubbling in him ever since the kaijuu first came reached a hard boil as they lifted from the ground.  Far from being comforting, getting away from that playground, Chuck can see the whole city.  There's nothing out there but people dying, buildings coming down, flashes of the massive alien creature that has risen from the depths to destroy everything, everything that has ever been.

"Don't look, sprog," the man says over the headsets.  "Focus on me, okay?  Don't be afraid.  You're going to be fine, but you have to be brave."

Chuck tries to listen, tries to obey the man who represents the first change in the world, it seemed, in forever, but he can't stem the fear.  The man's still talking to him, but the words grow further and further away, as far away as the city that's vanishing behind them, and even the man reaching over and squeezing his hand couldn't stem the tide.

Don't look at it

But he still looks back in time to see a mushroom cloud rising over the ruined buildings, and it was then that Chuck remembers.  Mum was working.  

Downtown.

He starts screaming, and the world breaks apart.

+++++

“It’s okay, boss. Didn’t even get me that hard.”

The words aen't comforting.  Not with the sight of that mushroom cloud still banging around in his brain, and Herc could just punch something.  Again. 

At least Raleigh’s still smiling. With his left eye swelling up. Rock solid, that seppo, and while he comes with his own set of demons, he’s got an uncanny ability to smile his way through it all. One of the many reasons Herc hired him on, visa bullshit and all.

“Shouldn’t have happened,” he grunts, rubbing his temples. The fucking headache’s starting up.

The neurologist, Doctor Becket - whose resemblance to Raleigh, along with the last name, is more than a little disconcerting - comes back in the break room, and hands Raleigh an icepack. “Is this is his normal reaction to getting kicked out of a Drift?”

“He doesn’t get kicked out of Drifts,” Raleigh replies.

And isn’t this a bloody great way to start a new consultation? Show up, set up, go in, only to get violently ejected out of the Drift, the force of the patient’s rejection so strong he doesn’t go through the decompression regime he and Raleigh have worked out, just wakes up. Wakes up, still saturated with that fucking coma fear, and punches his own attending nurse.

Yeah. Bloody lovely.

“So I suppose you just walked into his fist while you were doing that emergency disconnect thing, huh?”

“Getting punched by my ex-Special Forces boss is all part of the job."

Herc doesn’t miss the way they’re kind of smirking at each other.

Great.

Kids.

At least the neurologist seems to relax a bit.

“I get it,” Doctor Becket says, sitting down on the sofa next to Raleigh, opposite Herc. "You were under for six hours.  That's rough, even under good conditions."

"I normally have more control than that," Herc grumbles. New doctor. He hates working with new doctors. None of them get it, and the ones that think they do are usually even more insufferable than the ones who.  "Just could not get the kid to listen to me.  He panicked."

“That’s new,” Raleigh replies.

"Intense paranoia while in a comatose state?  Common in adults, especially in medium-term comas. More unusual in children."

"Almost unheard of in children," Herc corrects.  "Kids tend to have more elaborate set-ups."

“But he’s not a kid,” Raleigh points out.

“He’s about eleven, maybe twelve, in his head. He’s regressed or something. I don’t know.” Herc looks at Dr. Becket. “I’ll need to go back in.”

“I might be able to solve that particular mystery,” Becket replies. “If you’re ready for the intro brief yet?”

Herc always likes to go in cold, at least the first time. Especially if the patient’s in a long-term coma, which the boy, Chuck, undoubtedly is. He wouldn’t be up here doing this kind of last-minute pro bono job, in bloody Hong Kong, if it wasn’t a long term coma. The Drift goes both ways, currents running fast on the surface. The less he knows about the patient, the less the patient can pull from him, at least, until he’s been able to map things out and learn where he can hide what he needs to. Herc learned quick, back when he started in this business; most patients react very, very badly to learning they’re being kept alive by machines.

“Shoot.”

“He’s been here for almost a decade.”

“Shit,” Raleigh whistles. “In a coma this whole time?”

“Yeah, it’s really sad. I picked up his case three years ago, after I came onboard, but we haven’t seen any progress in his condition.” Becket sighs. “Can you elaborate on what you saw, Herc?”

"I would rather not."

Doctor Becket shakes his head.  "I am his doctor.  And I don't think he'll mind."

"I mind," Herc replies sharply.  

He has a strict rule about sharing what he saw in the Drift; he didn't.  Not ever.  Not with Raleigh, not with the doctors, the family of a patient, not even with the patient themselves once they wake.  What the subconscious mind subjects a person is, in his studied opinion, isn't usually something that should be drug out into the light of the waking world.

Besides, it isn't Hong Kong's Victoria Hospital that’s paying the bill on the case.

Which is what Raleigh pretty much says.

"I know what you might think about my role in this," Doctor Becket tells them both, somewhere between frustration and sympathy, "but this was not my call.  I want to see him get better.  I've tried Drift therapy with him before, but he's never let me get very far.  If there is anything you can tell me that might help me appeal this....”

Fuck.  Becket seems like a decent enough bloke.  Herc hates cases like this. He hates doing work in China.  "Boy's still stuck in the paranoid phase,” he basically repeats. “Probably why he hasn’t woken up.”

"Specific, or general?" Becket asks, and now he’s got a notebook out. “Juvenile or adult?”  

“Possibly juvenile. There appeared to be monsters, a constructed environment, but very limited.  Didn't see it start expanding until I tried to pull him out."

"I see."  Becket makes another note.  "Did you at least get a name? I'm getting real tired of calling him John Doe Number Sixteen."

Herc has to think about that.  Entering the Drift isn't like opening a book or looking at a bulletin board; there isn't any mind reading involved.  Information comes slowly, if at all.  He’s worked with patients who didn't let him see a goddamn thing, the only clues he had as to their personality or memory provided second-hand by family after the case was concluded and the patient in recovery. 

"I heard Chuck," he finally says, and nods.  "Chuck sounds right."

"Anything else?"

"I think he's Australian.  But I'd need to talk to him more to say for sure.” That post-drift headache is getting worse.  The kid's panic had been overwhelming.  He hasn't felt anything like that in a long time, and it had been even longer since somebody had been able to kick him out of the Drift like that. Makes him feel like a greenhorn, all over again.  “Oz accent.  Seemed to be myopically focused on a location in Sydney."

“Australian. Interesting, considering he was fished out by the Coast Guard about a mile off shore here.  Could that be Drift feedback from you?"

"Possibly.  I'll need to go back in."  Herc’s hands start shaking a little. Raleigh gives him a look and then, handing the icepack back to the doctor, gets up to get him a coffee. Sugar, no cream. He always tries to tell the kid that it’s his job to take care of the patients, not him, but Raleigh’s always there regardless. “So you have no idea about who his family was?" he asked Dr. Becket.

“We ran his DNA against the missing persons database here in Hong Kong. But I didn't know he was Australian until half a minute ago," Becket replies.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but you know he would have already been processed out of here if that Catholic Charities guy, Tendo, hadn't gotten involved."

"Processed?" Raleigh asks sharply from the break room counter, where he’s dumping a second white packet into Herc’s coffee. “That’s a nice fucking term isn’t it?”

“Would you like me to call it what actually is?"

“I’d like to know what an American doctor is doing in a country that has institutionalized...”

“I have a headache,” Herc snaps, cutting that impending disaster of a conversation off.

It really had been a bad Drift. 

Memories are one thing; easy to recognize, simple to maintain detachment.  When the patient starts weaving you into the subconscious dream state, that’s when it get painful. And right now, he’s got a patient who’s got the mental processing power of an adult but is still effectively a child. No telling how bad this case is going to get. He needs to be able to focus, and thinking about what happens if he fails, about how he’s very much on a count down here, isn’t going to help.

“Sorry,” Raleigh says, and presses the coffee mug into his hands. Wraps his fingers around Herc’s. Just for a moment. “You gonna be okay?”

Herc honestly can’t tell if that’s the nurse, the employee, or the sometimes-lover in Raleigh’s words talking, but he really doesn’t care. He hired the kid on as NP specializing in psychology, back when he broke off to found his own consulting firm, but really, Raleigh’s there to make sure he eats meals and doesn’t fry his brain.

"I need to go back and see him," Herc replies, taking a sip of the hot liquid. It helps with the tremors. Kaijuu. Goddamn. Where is that word from, anyway?  "That a problem?"

Becket shrugs and gets up.  "Tendo got you guys full access for the rest of the week."

“Thanks, mate.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Can you get Chuck his own room?” Raleigh asks, before the neurologist can leave.

Becket pauses at the door. “I’m working on it.”

Raleigh pokes Herc with his foot, the second the door closes. “He’s hot. Think he’d be down for a threesome?”

Despite himself, Herc chuckles. “Looks like he could be your brother.”

“I know. Yancy Becket. What are the chances?” Raleigh nudges Herc again. “Don’t suppose I could get you to eat?”

“After I see him.”

“Drink your coffee at least. Need to get some kind of electrolytes back into your stubborn Aussie hide.”

+++++

Truth be told, Herc’s rather anxious to get back in the Drift.

It’s been a long time since he’s been this worried about a patient.

Chuck’s in it deep. And this is going to be a tricky Drift to manage.

The sprog asking him if he could fly a helicopter had been rather adorable, but definitely a case of feedback.  Pieces of the truth, fragments of memory, put through the subconscious blender that spat out coma environments.  Science csn't quite explain it.  Unpredictable shit.

Herc had spent quite a bit of time on choppers as a younger man.  Combat medics went into some terrible places in dangerous ways, after all, and Afghanistan had been brutal that way. He'd liked the work, but not the pay or the patients - spent more time patching up bad guys than he did his own men, it seemed.  And then, of course, there had been that time when a high-value target died twice on the floor, an hour from the FOB, and the orders came down for an immediate interrogation.

That was how Herc had found out that an aircraft's neural interface system could be used for direct contact with another human's mind.

That was how he'd learned he was universally compatible.

Herc’s never forgotten that first drift. Surreal shit.  Nothing but sand and poppies and the night sky, a smoking hookah and shit coffee, a six hour conversation where the target was so convinced he was in paradise that he gave Herc everything he wanted to know, and then some.

The pilot had disconnected the system about half a second before the target stroked out fully.  Since then, Herc has been in people's minds at the moment of death, but that first drift still stood out as the worst.

But since then, Drift technology had been expanded from a simple fifth-gen control interface to full-on therapeutic tool.  Herc hadn't thought too much about it in his last few years of the military, too focused on getting his pre-reqs lined up for med school.  By fucking god, his twenty-five-year-old self had thought, he was going to be the first person in his family to actually go to uni. And respectable uni at that. Med school. Doctor Hansen. It’d be fucking beautiful.

At first, Herc had meant to take his veterans' benefits and put himself through.  But the benefits system was a complete disaster, the government shafted him, and he couldn't even get his disability claim validated. 

To make matters worse, he had hell even trying to find a job to support himself while fighting the claims process.  The medical corps had never made any attempt to get their enlisted personnel any kind of civilian certifications as it was.  Eight years of hard combat time under his belt, working in unspeakable conditions, doing things most surgeons couldn't do, and he wasn't even qualified to work as an EMT.  Everything on his resume was useless.

All he had in the end after a year of chronic unemployment, was a note in his medical profile. UNIVERSALLY COMPATIBLE.   Drift therapy may have been in its infancy, and may have been his least favorite part of the entire job - field amputations were a hell of a lot more fun - but it was at least a steady paycheck.

He found a firm that specialized in PTSD desensitization therapy, thinking that was at least a good place to start, and ended up never looking back. Eighteen years on and med school still hasn't happened. Herc’s at peace with that. He still doesn’t love Drifting, but he’s good at it, it’s given him a good life, and honestly, there’s something quite urgent, quite needed, about saving people from the horrors of their own minds.

His more recent patient is bedded down at the end of Victoria's coma ward, the very last bed in a room of almost twenty.  Public hospitals usually give him the willies. 

Everything is slightly modern and slightly worn here, the kind of strange mix between Western understated excess and Chinese gaudiness that Herc’s come to expect from most places on the Pacific Rim. As far as public hospitals go, this one ain’t bad, but it’s a far cry from where most of Herc’s patients normally are. The government had clearly lavished money on the lobby, the offices, places that the public would see, but the little-visited upper floors of the old buildings have barely enough functioning electrical lines to keep the power on.  It in't his first time consulting sat Victoria, and he knows the room all too well.

Some of the doctors around the place used to call it the Shatterdome.

It was a place a patient comes to be warehoused until they wake up, or until the CCP paperwork catches up and they land themselves on the euthanasia list.

Like Chuck.

He wonders if Stacker Pentecost is still on staff.

Herc isn't a miracle worker.  He isn't a trained psychologist.  Drift therapy is more art than science, and a lot of doctors - like Pentecost - still consider it quack medicine.  He can't force anybody to wake up from a coma.  He hasn’t been able to save everybody he’s Drifted with.

A coma is an enemy, a maelstrom, a wild beast, born of trauma and unleashed without mercy on the psyche.  Always. Always. But beyond that, what he does now is no different from the medevac stuff he'd done in the RAAF.  The enemy’s just different, the territory more dangerous and less knowable.  

Even beyond the physical healing process, the patient has to want to come back. He can help them break through the panic, interrupt the feedback loops of pain and trauma that drive a person deeper and deeper into the recesses of their own mind, drowning in their subconscious. Herc can cut through that, offer a way back to the surface. But the patient has to want it.  

Sometimes, patients choose to stay under.  Sometimes, they choose to die.

The first time that happened to him, Herc hadn’t sleep for a week.

Usually, though, a Drift session had a predictable rhythm.  Go in.  Find where the person's sense of self has hidden from whatever trauma response has taken over; intense fear, panic, or paranoia.  Help lead them to safety.  Stay with them until they woke.

Sometimes it took a few minutes of waking time.  Sometimes, a day or two.

But that was only about ninety percent of his cases.  His successful cases.

That other ten percent, well, Herc hated the other ten percent.  Which was exactly what Chuck's case was going to be.

Chuck's chart is tucked into a plastic cubby on the wall above his heart monitor.  The sprog is registering normal vitals, which meant their exchange on the playground hadn't done jack shit.  No visible changes to brain activity, the read-outs were saying.  Not even Herc's personal Pons set-up registered anything unusual, according to Raleigh.

But then, perhaps it makes sense.  The kid has been at Victoria for almost a decade.  Herc had felt an adult's intelligence in that little boy, but everything else had apparently arrested.  How that might have affected Chuck's development, how stunted he might be mentally - not to mention physically - Herc isn't sure.  He isn't even sure how the hospital had managed to keep Chuck alive as long as they had, given the government's attitude towards such cases.  

No matter, though.

He can get the sprog out.

He’s going to get the sprog out.

He just needs a little time.  Just needs a flight plan. Just needs Chuck to show him where his panic lives, so he can fucking kill it. Bring Chuck home.  Give him a chance at some kind of life.

Herc sits down on the edge of the bed and squeezes Chuck's motionless hand.

Nothing on the monitors changes. 

Never does.

But Herc knows all too well, that doesn’t mean Chuck can’t feel him.

"It's gonna be okay, son," he murmurs quietly. "You and me, we're gonna get through this."

+++++

Chuck's sitting on the edge of a cot, on one of those scratchy blankets that they always seem to hand out at shelters and stuff, like he's seen on TV before. It's gray here and fuzzy, nothing clear, nothing right. That man was with him, the one who took him out of the playground, but nothing is right yet. The kaijuu are still out there, the world is still...

He thinks Mum died. He can't be sure, but all of Sydney is gone now, isn't it?

He feels a weight beside him, feels an arm wrap around him.

It's gonna be okay, son. You and me, we're gonna get through this.

Chuck holds on as tight as he can.

But if this bloke is his dad, why didn't he save Mum too?

Chapter Text

The world is gray.

It’s been gray for a long, long time.

Sydney got nuked - that’s what Gran says, the Americans dropped a bomb like the one from Hiroshima on the kaijuu in order to kill it. It died, but so did Mum. So did a lot of other people. And after getting them out, Dad left. He just... left.

Weeks, it seems, since Dad took off. Chuck’s stuck here at Gran’s, but she’s no help, drinking too much like she always does, Grandpa off on business, even at a time like this, like he always is. Uncle Scott won’t take his calls and Aunt Mary seems to be gone too. He tries to go to school like Gran says to, tries to forget about the kaijuu, but he can’t. Even far away from them like he is now, the fear is still there.

The whole world is coming to an end.

There’s really no place to run.

He’s okay for the moment, though. Isn’t he? Dad saved him, back on the playground - it had to be his dad, who else would it be, he’s been waiting for his dad forever - and as often as Chuck curls into his pillow and cries at night when nobody can hear him, he’s grateful. He just wants his dad back.

You’re going to be fine, but you have to be brave.

Gives him hope.

Seems like an eternity since Chuck’s had any hope.

But then, just when it seems like he can’t take another minute of all the stupidity of school and Gran and the news with its apocalyptic stories, there’s Dad.

On the front porch. With a duffel bag over his shoulder, looking pensive.

Chuck runs out, tackles him around the waist, buries his face in the flight suit uniform, holding on for dear life. (Because in that moment, it seems like his dad is the only real thing in the world.) “You left,” he mumbles.

Arms close around him in a hug, and it takes everything Chuck’s got not to start sobbing. “I didn’t think you wanted me around.”

“Mum’s dead.”

“I know, Chuck. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t leave again, Dad.” Please don’t leave.

His dad - and it has to be his dad, it has to be, it is - kneels down and gives him a hug. “I’ll stay as long as I can, okay sprog? Gotta keep you safe, you know that.”

“Okay.”

“And I brought you something. Cause I know I can’t always be here...”

Yeah, Dad’s job. The military. That was important, especially right now. Chuck nods, sighing a little. But a gift? A gift is good. “What is it?”

A box is produced from nowhere.

Chuck almost forgets all the pain and the sadness and the terror. For a moment. And throws his arms around his dad in sheer gratitude.

Maybe there’s some hope for things here after all.

+++++

After the disaster of the morning, Herc hadn't been too sure of what he'd be walking into.  More violence?  More death?  More panic?

It's still here, of course.  It always is.  But right now, it's on the other side of the TV screen.

A TV that's still playing, even with Chuck outside in the garden, playing with his new puppy and his cousins. With Chuck outside, after a nice normal dinner with what Herc assumes must be his entire family - four cousins, aunts, uncle, grandparents. No mum, but everybody talked about how nice the funeral was and how sad the entire affair was, like adults would actually talk in the presence of children about things like that.

This place is very real. Very complete. And it doesn’t take Chuck’s direct attention to maintain. It’s running without his input.

It's... concerning.

Last time Herc encountered something this intense in an adult, well, he hadn’t been able to save her. Pulled out all the stops, and she still slipped away from him.

And now the sprog thinks he’s his dad. Fucking lovely.

"How's he doing?" he asks Chuck's grandmother, who's doing the dishes with a kind of careless precision that has to be all memory from Chuck, but seems so natural it’d be easy for him to forget he’s not talking to a separate person, but some projected piece of the sprog’s subconscious. 

"He misses his Mum," she says, and looks at him.  Her eyes seem warm, full of emotion, but there's something vaguely unsettling about her.  "He missed you."

"You know I had to go away for a little while," Herc replies, cautious.

"Of course dear.  But it doesn't mean he missed you any less.  He's very upset."

"The world's coming to an end," Chuck's uncle - Scott, his name is Scott, and it’s chilling to Herc that he knows that without anybody having said it yet - replies, rummaging through the fridge for what Herc assumes is another beer.  "Why shouldn't he be upset?"

"You don't know that's what's happening..."

"Of course it is, Margaret.  You think this is just going to stop on its own?"  He does indeed come out with a pair of long necks, one of which he hands over to Herc.

He unscrews the top slowly, taking his time to process what he should say.  "Maybe it will.  The kaijuu could just be some weird anomaly."

Scott stares at him.  "Mate, I don't know what's gotten into you today, but considering the conversation we had with the recruiter yesterday..."

Herc has to force himself not to react. Or at least, react properly.  "We did, but the most complicated thing I've ever operated is a helicopter."

Scott shrugs, and clinks their bottles together.  "You can't tell me that you don't think the jaegers aren't at least kind of sexy."

The grandmother glares at them.  “Can you not talk like that? The kids are outside.”

“They ain’t in here,”

What would a little boy do?  What would a little boy come up with in a game of make-believe?  

As if in answer, the TV over in the kitchen flickers, switches on.  One of those 24 hour news networks broadcasting some development in the DARPA labs from America, some UN Security Council resolution authorizing the funding of...

Holy hell.

Herc knows that's him.  His mind, his adult detail, filtering into the Drift.  Chuck's not in the room, not even in eyeshot, and here it is.  Goddamn, the kid's in this deep, isn't he?  But the only way out is all the way through, kind of like The Inferno.  So he lets it come, and reaches for a pad of paper.

+++++

Mechanical suits. Huge. Piloted, not robots. Potentially anime thing. Get me a name.

Raleigh’s eyes are drawn by the movement on the little note pad, and he almost drops his coffee as he grabs for his cell phone. Herc always has something to write with when he goes into the Drift, but he hardly ever uses it. In fact, Raleigh can’t remember the last time this happened.

His job, really, is pretty easy. He’s got the license and the technical experience with medications, equipment, but all he normally does is help get the Pons calibrated. Get Herc settled in a comfortable chair, spread out his things on the usual side table, in the usual configuration. Deal with any medical staff. Keep the family out of the room. Monitor the Pons, brainwave activity, other vitals on both Herc and the patient. It’s easy, and normally, he just hangs out. Listens to books on tape via ear buds, while Herc goes hunting. He gets paid like he does for emergencies, after all, and emergencies in this business are vanishingly rare.

But this, today? This Drift?

Herc’s down for fifteen minutes, and he’s asking questions?

Yikes.

The first thing that comes up for giant robot anime on a Google search is, perhaps predictably, the Gundam series.

“Ah, shit, Herc, it’s definitely Japanese,” Raleigh says out loud, scrolling through the Wikipedia article. “Anime trope. They’ve got a whole genre dedicated to it. I don’t know, there isn’t one specific name. Mobile suits, mecha, could be a lot of things. If I had to guess, he probably saw them in Gundam Wing. My sister and I loved that show when we were little.”

Plot? is scrawled on the paper.

“A team of asshole teenagers with a death wish save the world. Or it could have been Power Rangers actually. You know, they fight giant monsters, those Japanese kaiju things.”

Rgr.

And Herc’s hand goes still again.

“What was that about?”

Raleigh looks back over his shoulder, at the door. It’s somebody who looks either Eurasian or Hispanic, a greased-back rockability attitude seemingly at odds with the rosary wrapped around his hand. He frowns. “And you are...”

“Tendo Choi. And I take it you’re Raleigh Becket,” the guy with Elvis hair says, coming in and locking the small room’s door behind him. He’s smiling a little, but Raleigh can tell, he’s apprehensive. “You like the private room, brother?”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” Raleigh says. “Catholic Charities, right?

“Yup. Thanks again for coming. Sorry I haven’t been able to catch up with you until now. This town keeps us pretty busy.”

“Not a problem.” Raleigh and Herc had both been relieved to come back from a bad cafeteria lunch to see them wheeling Chuck into his own room. Makes it easier to control the environment, which can be important in same cases. “You pull some strings?”

“No, I coughed up some money,” Tendo replies. “Don’t get anything in this town you don’t pay for direct. This place has a nice facade, you know, for the Western tourists, but...”

“I saw the long term care ward,” Raleigh agrees. “The room helps.”

“Whatever you boys need, let me know.”

“Can you get Chuck another week?”

Tendo hesitates, and then sags. “Look, I’ve tried everything. The Church doesn’t have that much pull in this city, though. I know Herc’s reputation for these lost-cause coma cases, and figured it was better than pissing off Doctor Pentecost, you know, the director, any more than I need to...”

“Or whatever official you’re working with?”

“Fucking Commies, man. They promised Hong Kong they’d leave it alone, and now look at this place,” Tendo says, and waves a hand around the bare cinderblock room. “Don’t go to any of the Chinese-only public hospitals, if you want to keep your lunch down.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Raleigh glances over at Herc, who hasn’t moved again. It’s not that he’s not aware of what’s going on around him - Drift technology was primarily used for piloting systems, after all - but he usually goes pretty deep. The longer the coma, the further back the mind retreats, he’s said. Takes a lot of concentration to get down there, and once he’s in, he usually doesn’t so much as twitch.

“I’ve contacted my counterparts in Canberra,” Tendo says. “Doctor Becket’s got his DNA on file, so we’re sending that over too. Hopefully the Aussies can find him in their missing persons database. The embassy might be able to get him a stay. And if he’s got family, they need to know about this.”

Raleigh nods. “So you heard about the Australia thing?”

“Becket filled me in.” He squints. “You look a lot like him. You sure you’re not related?”

Raleigh laughs. “Naw, man, not as far as I know.”

Shut the fuck up, would you?

The question mark runs down the page. Reaching over, Raleigh squeezes Herc’s hand.

Tendo nods, and falls silent.

center>+++++

Chuck bounds back into the house, puppy in his arms.  Herc hadn't set any kind of breed to it, figuring Chuck could fill that detail in on his own, and sure enough, it's taken on a form now.  Looks like a little brindle bulldog, photo perfect, no doubt a mix between Chuck's wants and Herc's more recent, formative memories of what those puppies look like.  He'd scrolled through a load of photographs on his tablet before coming in here...

"Did you and Dad get cleared, Uncle Scott?"

"Yeah, sprog.  We did," his uncle says, and tousles up his hair.  "We're shipping out next week."

"Can I come?" he begs. “Can I, please?”

Herc’s in no place to tell him no.

“Sure, son. You and me, we stick together now, okay?”

He doesn’t miss the way Scott, much less the sprog’s grandmother, looks at him when he says it.

He also doesn’t miss how easily the word son rolls off his tongue.

+++++

Dad and Uncle Scott move to Jaeger Academy.

Jaeger Academy. In Alaska, way north, so different from home. It’s snowing all the time, and it’s cold, and Dad and Uncle Scott are always exhausted, but they stick together. Their family. All three of them. Dad doesn’t protest when Chuck sleeps in bed with him, and Dad doesn’t complain when Max eats his socks. Dad bears up like he always does, and Chuck goes to class at the little base school and Uncle Scott is always there with some crap story and a big smile, and somehow, they make it through.

The jaegers are so big, so complicated, they need two pilots to function. Chuck knows that much. There's plenty more said, but that's what he holds onto. Two pilots, working together, sticking together. That way, they won't be so afraid when they go out, he figures. They won't have to be scared of the kaijuu, like Chuck was scared when he was alone on the playground. He's overheard Dad and Uncle Scott talking about something called the Drift sometimes, but Dad won't tell him what it is. That sucks, he tells Max, who always listens and never leaves him alone, not for a second.

They might be on a military base, but for the first time in what feels like forever, Chuck can breathe again. Almost. More than before.

Months, but it seems like mere minutes, every moment running into the next, moments blending together until all that's left is the sense of it. But Max grows, the seasons change, another three cities are flattened. The fear waits for him, just on the other side of the base fence, but at least here, at the Academy, with Dad and Scott and all their classmates, like that American bloke Tendo, who comes by and goes out drinking with Uncle Scott sometimes, Chuck can breathe a little.

Months, they’re there. Months, while Dad and Uncle Scott go through what Dad says is the toughest military training in the world.

And then, they get their jaeger.

Seven stories of kaijuu arsekicking metal glory.

She's so pretty. So awesome.

“They said we could name her,” Dad tells him, standing on the catwalk one night, before his wing pinning on. He’s talked about this a lot, and Chuck’s so excited, being able to punch those little silver wings in himself. Dad hadn’t wanted to talk about blood-winging, but Chuck got it out of him anyway. It’s going to be fun, hitting his dad.

The kaijuu are still tearing the world apart, but maybe, maybe now he hopes, they might have a chance.

“Can I name her?”

“I was gonna ask.”

Chuck smiles. He knows he’s supposed to be pissed at Dad for letting Mum die, and he is, but this is too cool. “Can I think about it?” he asks.

But just then, somebody comes walking up. Raleigh Becket, Chuck knows from somewhere and oh, he must be one of the next generation of cadets, cause he’s much younger than Dad, but he says they have to talk, and peels Dad away.

“See you soon, okay son?”

“Okay, Dad.”

Lucky Seven, he thinks, staring up at the machine that's going to deal with this kaijuu situation. That Dad's going to use to save them all.

He can hope. He can hope, just a little, can't he?

+++++

Herc's quiet that evening, after Raleigh finally manages to peel him away from Chuck.  Food and sleep, sleep and food.  That's what Herc needs, and that's exactly what Raleigh's there to make sure he does.  He orders them both room service, which isn't as bad as it usually is, and eats in silence, Herc ignoring him as he journals out about eight pages of notes in his case book.  Another damn case book.

Herc normally abstains from any kind of writing, likes to joke about how he's barely literate, even letting Raleigh handle the consulting firm's email accounts, but for whatever reason, he journals like a motherfucker during these Drift sessions.  He usually burns the book when he's done - there are only three he's ever kept, and Raleigh knows for a fact one of those is labeled Dominique LaPierre Becket.  The one time Raleigh asked him about it, he said there's something cleansing about fire.

Raleigh doesn't ask him too many questions.

The decompression sequence was a bit tougher than usual tonight. Herc had ignored him, the first few times he’d tried calling him, and Raleigh had been wondering if he should just bite the bullet and go in himself when he finally noticed a shift in brain wave activity.

Herc's not a complicated guy.  But he's got a complicated job. And Raleigh’s got the feeling this is more complicated than most.

"It'd be better if you and Tendo don't talk in the room in front of him," he says now, about halfway done with his chicken fried rice, salad untouched.  His pen's just pulled a line halfway down the page.  He drops it and rubs his forehead.  "He's picking stuff up. Saw you during the decompression sequence."

"So he's got some awareness of his surroundings?  That's a good sign."

"I can hear you.  So he can hear you." Herc taps his pen on the book. “Tendo’s part of things no.”

"Ah."  Raleigh pushes his own plate aside.  "You asked me earlier about Japanese mecha anime..."

"Don't," Herc says, and it's a warning more than anything else.

It's been a while since Raleigh's seen Herc this messed up (and holy shit, it's only been a day), but he knows from long hard experience, this isn't going to be resolved through talking.  So he reaches over and closes the casebook, then tugs Herc up away from the table, off towards the bathroom.  The hotel's got a pretty decent shower - the walk in kind, not the sort with the tub, which Raleigh tries to get when available - and very nice towels, and barely half an hour goes by before he's got Herc through all the usual motion and bundled into bed, hair still damp.

"Want me to stay?" he asks, his own towel around his hips, not really concerned with the answer either way.

Herc looks up at him, then rolls onto his back, hands scrubbing over his face.  "Nothing's real down there.  Not sure if I need to hold on, or just let myself go."

Raleigh rolls his eyes and sloughs off the towel.  "Staying it is," he sighs, and crawls in next to his boss.

Contact after the drift helps.

It helps a lot.

Judging from the way Herc rolls into him, wraps around him, surrounds him, today had been intense.

Six days left.

Six days until somebody from the Hong Kong Ministry of Health comes and eliminates Chuck from the pool of state-supported medical patients in the city. How his name had come out now, a week left to him after ten years, Raleigh's got no idea and he doesn't want to know. China's been expanding non-voluntary euthanasia policies for a while now, and while it probably makes sense from some utilitarian, budget-driven point of view, it makes Raleigh sick to his stomach. Chuck's still in there. He deserves more of a chance than this.

Maybe Tendo can find some family.

“We’re gonna get him out, boss,” Raleigh says quietly.

Herc just grunts.

Raleigh would like to force him to get a whole eight hours of sleep - nurse's orders - but he pretty sure Herc's going to wake up screaming about 2 AM.

Wouldn't be the first time.

Chapter Text

One of the things Herc had to get used to, back when he first started out in coma therapy, was the way time worked in the subconscious. He’s heard all manner of different theories, but in his opinion, it’s more about how information is processed. A bloke can be under for mere minutes but feel like he’s lived days upon waking.

It takes some getting used to.

But Herc’s never been much of one for philosophizing. Much less caring about the minutiae. He leaves that to Raleigh. He deals with what he finds.

And this Kaiju War of Chuck’s...

Well, it’s nothing he would have expected.

Blood and poison and death.

But - perhaps since this is a kid he’s dealing with, and maybe because the coma-fear is finally starting to crack - it’s oddly optimistic.

Or maybe it’s too easy to wade into the currents of Chuck’s world and let it take him where it will.

Once a bloke gets a feel for navigating this weird sub-dream space in the Drift, it’s easy to do anything. Anything at all. Which is important, because Chuck’s father is a hero, part of the fist generation of jaeger pilots, and Herc doesn’t want to disappoint him. He throws himself into this strange world - training, fighting, sparring in the Kwoon with a man who isn’t his brother and yet is, coming home victorious after a successful op, another kaijuu dead, to Chuck who’s been watching the whole thing on the telly and wants all the gory details.

Chuck’s growing up so fast. That’s on thing Herc’s noticing. Smart boy, whip smart, absorbed in his classes at the little Hong Kong Shatterdome base school, picking up Arabic and complex math like it’s nothing. Mostly he spends his days crawling through the jaegers; every nut, every bolt, every actuator and valve and hose, he knows. He brings his models to dinner and chatters incessantly about his favorite pilots - the Beckets, the Gages - whenever Herc will listen. He asks more questions than Herc has answers for, but then, that’s just who he is.

Always wanting to know more.

Herc’s so proud of him. This messed up world of theirs, and here is he, wanting more.

It’s a fine night in August, and they’re up on the Shatterdome roof, up above the jaeger bays where Chuck spends so much of his time, having a beer. The crew insisted on throwing Chuck a party for his fourteenth birthday, something he blushed and bitched about but was more than a little pleased about. He got a few gadgets, bits and bobs that Herc didn’t recognize but seemed to make him quite happy, but there’s only so much party that Chuck can take. For all his attitude, the boy’s an introvert.

Makes it hard, sometimes, to know what’s going on in his head.

Herc’s never been much of a talker himself. Silence is a virtue in the Drift.

Chuck looks at him, head tilted a bit and pupils just a little wider than they should be. Probably the booze, Herc thinks, and wonders if the boy’s started jerking off. There wasn’t a sock safe in the house, when he was thirteen. He hasn’t noticed it yet. As long as the boy’s not chasing after any of the girls here. They don’t need that kind of trouble.

“Is Uncle Scott doing okay?” he asks.

“What do you mean?”

Chuck shrugs and sips at his long-neck. The cityscape across the harbor glitters through the evening mist, unreal and distant. “I dunno. There are just some rumors, you know, like he’s doing drugs or something.”

“I haven’t noticed...” Herc begins, and tries to remember his last Drift with the man, his brother, Chuck’s uncle...

His cell phone buzzes in his pocket.

Chuck tries to look at he pulls it out. “Oi, sprog, my business,” Herc snaps, protective of the message and not really sure why.

“You gonna try to date some sheila again?”

What? Oh. “That was one time,” Herc protests, and yes that had been a proper cock-up, hadn’t it? “And no, I’m not going to cheat on your mo-“

I found his family!

Family.

Scott. Uncle Scott. Having problems.

Fuck

Reality crashes over him, and it’s all he can do to keep it from throwing him out of the Drift. That’s right. This isn’t real. Chuck’s in a coma. None of this is real. Chuck is just a patient, just a patient, just a patient...

Whoever’s talking out there, Rals, get them the fuck out of my hospital room

He hits send. Very vaguely, on the edge of his mind, he can feel his hand move.

“I’ve been thinking about going to the Academy,” Chuck says, pulling Herc back.

He raises an eyebrow. “Jaeger Academy?”

“Yeah,” the boy mumbles. “I wanna do something.”

This is good. This is the progress Herc’s been wanting to see. Proactive push-back. Fighting the coma. And it’s only coming now, now, when he’s spent nearly the whole day under.

Deep dive.

That’s what’s going to bring Chuck back.

They can save him. Herc can save him, this amazing, intelligent, beautiful young man.

“Dad? You okay?”

“Just thinking, son,” he says, and roughs up the kid’s hair, laughing as Chuck tries to bat his hand away. “It’s a big decision.”

“I wanna.”

“I know. Tell you what, next year. It’ll take a few months for it to process, you’ll start in the summer, and you can be done when you’re fifteen.”

Chuck grins, and takes another long pull on the beer. “Ace,” he says smugly, like he knew the answer.

Like he knew the answer.

Herc drinks his beer slow. Thoughtful.

Probably time to go. After this moment. Chuck deserves this moment.

+++++

“His name’s Charles Benton,” Tendo says without preamble, brandishing a handful of papers as he barges in. “Sydney native. Went missing on Spring Break with his family, ten years ago.”

Raleigh exchanges a look with Dr. Becket, who insisted on seeing at least part of this Drift today. Herc had paid out this morning for an extra bed to be wheeled into Chuck’s room; more comfortable for these long haul Drifts, over eight hours. He’s been down for nine, and the (hot piece of ass) neurologist seems absolutely fascinated by his brain wave read-outs.

Raleigh just wants to make sure Herc doesn’t do something crazy. The man has a soft spot for child patients. He’s terrible with them once they wake up, but in the Drift? He just doesn’t like seeing kids hurting like this.

So far, Dr. Becket’s hopes of some new medical emergency, and Raleigh’s fears of a repeat episode of the issues he’s seen before, haven’t surfaced. It’s been a fucking boring day.

“Right, okay,” Dr. Becket says, and waves Tendo over. “What happened?”

The charity caseworker seems a little rattled. “Some kind of yatching accident. His mom, his grandparents, both his aunts and four cousins were on board. There was one last distress call that was picked up north of Indonesia, but that was it. Almost a week before a pleasure craft out of Hong Kong found him and brought him in. No father on record.”

Raleigh breathes out slow, thinking of the possibilities. He grew up in a whole host of places, but spent most of his teen years in Anchorage. He’s got a healthy respect for what the sea can do. For an eleven year old, it must have been pure hell. He wonders if that’s what Herc is living out in Chuck’s head, right now. “Does he have any family left?”

“Only one remaining is an uncle, who according to the stories I found, was due to meet up with them in Thailand. He had some last minute work thing to deal with and was going to sail back. They didn’t make port when they were supposed to, and I guess you can imagine what happened.”

Raleigh thinks about that. “Have you talked to his uncle?”

“His uncle was the dad of the other four kids,” Tendo says flatly. “You can imagine how he took it. Long list of drug charges. Heroin, apparently. He’s in rehab somewhere in New South Wales. Second time he’s been.”

“But have you talked to him?”

“I talked to his parole officer. Says he’s in pretty bad shape. With the four days Chuck’s got left...”

“Five,” Dr. Becket says, holding up that many fingers.

“Depending on when Pentecost decides to execute the order,” Tendo snaps.

“I can probably get him to wait until the end of the day.”

“So what about Chuck’s family?” Raleigh asks pointedly, figuring that this argument about the hospital administrator is both old and bitter.

Dr. Becket sighs. “Herc’s having hell reaching this kid. I’m guessing this uncle’s got parole issues, or whatever the Aussies call it?” He looks at Tendo, and Tendo nods. “He’s already lost his nephew once. Would it be fair to make him relive that death?”

Raleigh’s going to protest that Herc is going to get him out, but that’s about the time Herc scrawls out a get the fuck out message on his pad.

“Gentlemen, can you continue this conversation in the hall?” Raleigh asks pointedly. “This conversation is leaking.”

Tendo nods and Dr. Becket waves him off. “I can stop,” he says. “Kind of curious about this.” And he points at the monitors.

Raleigh’s seen that signature so many times he may or may not have a rendering out of it in green and gray acrylics framed and hanging on his wall. “That means he’s coming out. He should be fully aware and awake in about ten, fifteen minutes.”

“I thought he wasn’t really asleep.”

“He’s not. I, uhh, you would know more about how this works than I do. Memory is a funny thing, right? You never remember your whole day perfectly, but those events still shape you. So, down there in the bottom of the coma, it’s like you skip the memory-forming stage, and go straight to memory-saving. So you’re remembering without ever living. It’s very weird.”

“Huh,” Dr. Becket says. “I’d love to see it. For, you know, professional reasons.”

“It’s a trip,” Raleigh says.

The neurologist nods. “You guys been together a long time?”

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a husband, not an employer,” Raleigh says, and catches himself. Shit. He’s still trying to feel this situation out, and he’s throwing cold water on it like that? “He, uhh, he helped me get through nursing school, actually.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. My mom, she, she was one of his patients, back when he was working stateside at the Gage Clinic.”

Dr. Becket whistles. “I did my residency in San Fran. Got to spend some time there. Bruce and Trevin were amazing.”

“Yeah, the Gages were great, until that accident in Seattle. But my mom was there, and uhh, Herc couldn’t save her. But he did give my sister and I the chance to say goodbye. Wouldn’t have had that otherwise.” Raleigh finds himself reaching for Herc’s hand, and has to divert into a little show of checking his pulse. “We got to spend a few days with her, before she, you know. At least, I remember it like it was a few days.”

“More than two people can drift at the same time?” Dr. Becket asks.

“Herc’s universally compatible. He can do some crazy shit.” Raleigh laughs. “He told me one time it was his complete lack of imagination and hatred of conversation that made it work.”

“Interesting,” Dr. Becket says, in that voice doctors always use when they’re dreaming about writing their next peer-reviewed paper.

Raleigh leaves him to his notes, which he’s scribbling all over his tablet, while Herc comes back to the surface.

“Heya, kiddo,” he mumbles, actually reaching out for Raleigh’s hand.

He smiles, squeezing back as he turns off the Pons. “Hey, boss. How’ya feeling?”

“Dragged. Kid’s deep.” He rubs his face with both hands.

And then says the one thing that is literally guaranteed to piss a neurologist right the hell off.

Chapter Text

“So, about this Chuck thing,” Raleigh says, running his fingers through Herc’s chest hair, the sweat still cooling on both their bodies. “Do I get a vote?”

And of course this is the way the morning is going to start. Waking up next to his adorable nurse, some reality-confirming sex, and then... whinging. Four, maybe five days left, and this is the only logical solution.

You didn’t complain when we did it for your mum, Herc thinks to himself, but even he knows better than to say that. Instead, he says.

“No.”

“He’s not just your patient.”

“Yes, he’s the other Becket’s too. And if he gives the go-ahead, we’re going ahead.”

“For a medical coma. You seriously want to medically induce a coma?”

Herc sighs. Like he didn’t get enough of this shit from the neurologist. “I’ve got to stay down there. He wants to fight, he wants to come back, live. I need to help him.”

Raleigh’s blue eyes can really be piercing sometimes. Usually only when they’re in bed together. He’s a big goofball most of the time, except for bed. Well, medical emergencies, and bed. “What aren’t you telling me about this?”

“I don’t talk about the Drift...”

“There’s something different about this, Herc. We both know it. Kid’s been down too long.”

“We’re gonna get him back.”

His nurse lays his head down on Herc’s shoulder, curling closer. “I’m not going to talk you out of this, am I?”

“No.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then I probably shouldn’t show you this text, huh?”

A cell phone is dropped on his chest.

After considering your proposal, I will approve it on one condition: you show me what Chuck’s mental state is. I need to know he’s stable enough to handle this kind of strain. Be here by 8.

Oh, balls. And wait? “Why does Doctor Becket have your cell phone number? And why is he listed as Yancy?”

“So he’ll take me out for coffee after we save Chuck,” Raleigh says smugly, grabbing his phone back, grinning. “And so I’ll make sure I’m not yelling doctor when he’s...”

Herc shuts Raleigh up by rolling on top of him and kissing him hard.

They have time for another round. If they make it quick.

It’s going to be a few days.

+++++

Yancy knew Hansen’s reputation before he showed up. Everyone even remotely connected to the neurology community knows about Hercules Hansen. The Gages had never shut up about him. The man who uses a rather inexplicable technology to do inexplicable things, things medical science can measure but not substantiate. Not even the Gages could properly formulate experiments to study what he does. The conditions in every coma are just unique enough to prevent replication of resuls.

But what walked into his ward a few days ago...

Well, Yancy hadn’t been expecting some cranky-ass, be-stubbled Aussie who looked like he just came off a month-long trek through the Outback.

Or that nurse, Raleigh, who looks so much like him it’s freaky.

Yancy’s dealt with so-called Drift Specialists before, and in his experience, they are a pack of bullshitters. If it hadn’t been for his time at the Gage Institute, Herc would have never set a foot in his hospital. But so far, the information the Drifter’s pulled out of Chuck’s mind has actually born out - nationality, name, family. If it hadn’t been for that...

I need you to put me in a coma

That’s what Hansen had said last night. Not asked. Said. So fucked up. Putting a healthy brain through that? Yancy’s pretty sure he’d be risking his medical license back home, pulling such a stunt. He’d almost told the man to go to hell, when he caught the expression on Raleigh’s face; this was a last resort for both of them. It wasn’t being asked lightly.

And besides, Yancy didn’t fucking come to Hong Kong, halfway around the planet, to just kill his patients when the government gets tired of keeping them alive. He’d come to do some good, for people who needed the help, and Chuck needs the help. The kid’s only living relative had no means to bring Chuck home, Yancy can’t keep begging Pentecost for a stay (because that only means somebody else gets to be the unfortunate bastard to keep the hospital’s numbers down), and if Herc thinks he could make this work, Yancy is willing to give him a chance.

It’s, like, ninety-five percent altruistic.

(Five percent burning curiosity.)

He’s got everything set up, by the time Herc and Raleigh rock back up into his ward, Herc in his usual worn-out henley and a large aluminum case, Raleigh with a gigantic Starbucks and bleary disapproval in his eyes.

“I don’t like this, mate,” is the first thing Herc says, scowling at the additional chairs in the room, as Raleigh goes to work inspecting his equipment.

“I don’t like it either.”

“We don’t like it for different reasons.”

Yancy folds his arms. “Are you concerned you can’t do it?”

Herc gives him a look that could peel paint, and Raleigh snorts. “The boss can do it.”

“You know, he wouldn’t be asking me this if you hadn’t told him about your mum,” Herc tells him, eyes still on Yancy.

“It was my Drift too,” Raleigh says mildly. “I have the right to talk about it.”

Yancy coughs. “What did happen with your mom?”

“She...”

“Boys, stuff it,” Herc snaps, and points at Chuck. “I don’t know how much he can hear right now. But he knows who both of you are, so let’s not make this more challenging than it needs to be.”

Yancy glances at Raleigh, who (for the first time) isn’t ogling him. “What does that mean?”

“Things get woven in,” Raleigh answers.

“I’ve been woven in?” What does that even mean? From what little Raleigh’s been able to offer, it sounds like Chuck’s playing some game of Power Rangers in there. “Who am I to him?”

Herc hesitates, and then looks at Raleigh. “Actually, reconsidering our earlier conversation, I think you both need to come. To him, you two are co-pilots.”

“Co-pilots of what?” the doctor asks.

The nurse grins. “Giant robot anime? Fuck yeah!”

It’s insane. It really is. But Herc signed every single waiver Yancy could have Mako, the hospital’s legal counsel, draft up in a couple of hours. So whatever.

And it doesn’t escape Yancy’s notice that Herc is holding Chuck’s hand.

Well.

This ought to be fun.

“I’ll have Doctor Wei monitor the Pons,” he says. “If you don’t mind.”

“Whatever works for you, mate. It’s your field trip.”

+++++

It feels like it’s been forever since the last time he’s seen Dad, when the old bastard shows up at the Icebox that afternoon.

Chuck tries to ignore him. Because fuck him for being away so long, training or not.

But really, he wants to run over, let Dad wrap him up in a hug like he used to when Chuck was little.

Stick with me, Dad said to him once.

Where’s he been? Even before Chuck left for school, he was distant, that year after his fourteenth birthday, when Dad let him have a beer and promised to sign his paperwork and made Chuck start feeling things he doesn’t understand. (And doesn’t want to understand, because the last thing he wants to do is drive Dad away again.)

Hardly a word from him. Nothing but the news reports, the news reports about Uncle Scott’s drug meltdowns and the old fears, the fear, resurfacing...

Sure it’s more exciting, knowing that he’ll get to pilot a jaeger someday, but it’s hard work. Boring and stressful, one day blurring into the next until nothing distinguishes anything from anything else.

Things seem... normal again.

He hadn’t realized how much he needed his dad.

“Hey, old man,” he says, leaning on his staff in the middle of the ring, trying to ignore it. “What brings you by?”

“Like I’m gonna miss my boy’s first week at the Academy,” Dad replies, and steps out of his shoes. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Chuck doesn’t like being confined like he is here at school, this feeling of being squeezed, and there’s always the drumming threat that someday, someday, the kaijuu are going to finish what they started that day on the playground.

But now everything is back in focus. Bright.

It has nothing to do with Dad.

(It has everything to do with Dad.)

Chuck tosses him a staff from the rack in the corner, and Dad just smiles.

Blow for blow, parry for parry, they meet there on the mat. Chuck’s learned everything he knows about fighting from the man in front of him. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in speed, but even after all these months of training, he can’t get the drop on his old man. Still, as frustrating as it is to not be able to win, there’s something that feels so good being able to just push up against something as solid like his father.

And then Dad knocks him on his arse.

There’s a crowd watching them now, Chuck realizes, looking around at the periphery of the Kwoon floor. His face is burning, even as Dad offers him a hand to help him up, because shit, shit.

Those are the Beckets.

“That’s some Drift compatibility if I’ve ever seen it,” Raleigh says, smiling from where he’s got his uniform boots kicked up on the stand. “Nice moves, Chuck.”

“Ranger Hansen,” Chuck corrects, grumbling but secretly pleased that one of his favorite pilots is being so nice. And that’s right, the Beckets are stationed up here in Alaska, aren’t they? Raleigh’s from Anchorage...

“So you’re a Ranger already, huh?” Dad says. “What about all this training?”

“Dad,” he whines, because these are the Beckets after all. Arsehole. (He never knew how hot they’d be in person. And he doesn’t know why they’re hot, but they are, or what that means, but there it is.)

Yancy Becket, the older of the two brothers, is obviously more restrained than Raleigh. He is in interviews, too, right? That is how it goes; Chuck remembers. He’s quieter, the senior right-side pilot, the grounding force to Raleigh’s wild imagination. “How you doing, kiddo? With all this?”

Chuck shrugs. “Gonna be a lot better when I can actually get out there and fight, mate.”

Raleigh leans forward, chin perched on his hands. “So, you and Herc gonna fight together?”

“I dunno,” Chuck says and looks over at his dad. “Are we?”

His dad kind of tilts his head. “You gotta make it through training first here, sprog.”

Raleigh laughs, and turns to where Yancy was, only moments before. But his brother’s not there. (Chuck’s can’t help but feel a little insulted.) “Huh,” he says. “I should probably go find my brother.”

“Yeah, you should do that. I’m sure you boys need to catch your transport back,” Dad says, and nods back at the ring. “Let’s have another go here. Open-hand.”

Chuck grins, and sets his staff aside.

+++++

Yancy’s half-expecting to see the... the world drop away when he leaves Chuck’s immediate vicinity. There has to be a limit to how far this goes, doesn’t it? Raleigh had mentioned this was about memory storage, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like it has space and depth and history and *age*... things are worn here, weathered, cold and hot and peeling and...

“Chuck’s obviously thinking about some kind of military base, and you’re filling it in with your own pre-conceptions,” Raleigh says next to him, falling into step with him in the hallway, thumbs hooked through the velcro loops of his flight suit, like he does this every day. “Or something like that. You can feel the panic too, the despair he’s feeling.”

“Can you?”

“Yeah, man. Just listen for a second.”

Yancy pauses, not sure what he’s supposed to be “listening” to. He could describe how Chuck’s neurons are firing, what chemical changes are at work in his brain, predict what a scan might look like, demonstrate the regions where activity is highest and what that means. But he can’t just *listen*. His own brain just doesn’t work that way. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his patients, but in this business, the ability to maintain emotional separation is a boon.

“There’s almost a sound,” he finally says. “Like an out of tune violin note.”

“Yeah, that would be right. That’s the coma.”

“Is that how Herc explains it?”

“The Drift is an exchange. Information flows both ways. This might be Chuck’s prison, but you’re forming your own opinions about it,” Raleigh says, and bumps him with his shoulder. Yancy’s not sure where they’re going, but he keeps walking anyway.

“So if this is Chuck’s mind, why are we in Alaska?”

“I, uhh, I’m from Alaska. I dated a guy for a while who was stationed at Elmendorf. So that could be it.”

You’re gay? Yancy wants to ask. It explains a fucking lot. Possibly about both him and Herc, but he really doesn’t want to go there. Especially not in a patient’s brain. How does a young man who probably didn’t even start sex ed in school feel about sex, anyway? Again, not something to mull over inside the patient’s brain.

“He was acting like he’d been here for a while. But if he pulled that from you, why didn’t he notice the change?”

“Dunno,” Raleigh shrugs. “Dreams are like that, though. You just go with it and it doesn’t seem strange. Reality evolves, and your understanding goes with it.”

“Huh.”

And that is such an interesting concept - the fact they’re having a full conversation is such an interesting concept - that Yancy doesn’t notice that they’ve wandered away from the training academy and into something completely different until Raleigh says something about it.

“Different from school, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Yancy says as they turn down another faceless hallway, and wonders where that’s coming from. They’re headed towards something, something big, something important. It feels like he’s reaching for something, but he doesn’t know what it is.

But there’s a klaxon going off, and they’re running, running, towards a hulking giant made of metal, and whatever Yancy was worried about before, he can’t remember.

That’s the kaijuu alarm.

+++++

They’ve bagged two kills together already.

Today is their third.

There’s always something brilliant about the Drift, whole and fulfilling as he steps into his brother’s mind. After their mom’s death and their dad’s abandonment, they’re all they have left and it feels like coming home, each and every time they do this.

The ritual of suiting up, as sure and as careful as a surgeon scrubbing down.

The thrill of the drop.

The harmony of combat.

The elation of victory.

Yancy’s heart is hammering in his chest by the time they finish, when the kaijuu is smoking blue smoke on the surface of the Pacific. They drag it further out, awaiting decontamination and extract.

From across the conn-pod, Raleigh flips up his visor to give Yancy a tired smile and a thumbs up. Yancy fistbumps him, and Raleigh smiles wider.

Shit, the kid’s beautiful, isn’t he?

Somehow, they get out of cockpit, out of their drive-suits and back to their cramped, narrow quarters (as bad as any college dorm, but Yancy didn’t finish out pre-med, did he? It was about Raleigh, it was about the war, and he dropped out for this, he did), and Yancy needs a shower, he does. But no sooner does he duck into the spray than Raleigh’s whining about needing to take a piss and what else do you let your little brother do?

“Thanks,” he says, uncomfortably close, leaning on the mildewed edge of the tile. “Long day, huh?”

“Yeah, long day.”

Raleigh smiles at him.

He’s beautiful.

He’s really beautiful.

“Hey, little bro. You skink,” Yancy laughs, heedless (or incredibly aware) of the fact he’s naked and wet and this is nothing they’re supposed to be doing, which makes it all the better.

Raleigh smiles back. “Well some old man is hogging the shower, keeping little innocent me from cleaning up.”

“Get your skinny ass in here, then.”

Yancy’s not really thinking about what he’s saying. Or what he’s doing. Drunk on triumph, awash in the ghost drift, the two of them end up making out in the shower. Moving to the bed. Still wet. Kissing without any idea of what they’re doing or why until Raleigh grabs his cock.

Yancy stops wondering about anything after that.

Things blur, and reform, and flow into each other like oil on the surface of the sea. Raleigh tugs Yancy back into the lower bunk, their lips locked and clothes banished, settling down on his back as Yancy moves between his legs, the two of them undulating against each other in a dance more delicious than anything Yancy’s ever felt in the Kwoon. Raleigh’s kisses are intoxicating, his body perfect, and there’s shame in touching him like this. Shame, and relief, as Yancy sinks lubed fingers into his little brother’s body.

Raleigh opens to him.

Raleigh would never deny him anything.

(It’s like that night after their second kill, in Manila, when Yancy found himself watching Raleigh and Herc fuck in a hotel room, but so much better. So much more real.)

Things don’t change between them after that, except they do. Because things are bright, real, all the forbidden or unacknowledged desires they’ve had for so long finally released. Yancy has a hard time keeping his hands off his little brother; Raleigh has a hard time keeping his clothes on. He’s a sweet boy, he really is, open and gasping and grasping, always wanting more but so content with whatever Yancy can give him, kissing him when he thinks nobody else is looking, but for jaeger pilots, somebody is always watching.

They make it through one slightly scandalous People magazine cover. Some bad rumors around the Icebox. Taunts. At least one call from Herc Hansen that leaves Raleigh curled up in Yancy’s lap... odd.

“Do you want him?”

“Of course. Who wouldn’t want to be the apple of that guy’s eye?” Raleigh admits, and kisses him. “But you and me, we’re drift compatible. I love you, Yancy.”

“Love you too, Rals.” And he does. He loves this. Loves them. Loves saying fuck it to every social convention he’s ever had to live under and just let himself enjoy something for once.

But it doesn’t last. Making love every night, wearing an absolute minimum of clothes, kissing each other stupid after training runs. It doesn’t last.

Because there’s Knifehead.

There’s panic, that isn’t their own.

There’s risk, and heroism, and death.

And as the Arctic wind howls through the conn-pod, the indescribable stench of Kaiju Blue in the air, as Knifehead grabs for him, Yancy remembers.

The clinic. The hospital. His job. Raleigh’s job. Chuck. Their lives.

“Raleigh, listen to me!” he screams.

But the howling wind of Chuck’s fear swallows him whole.

+++++

After his brother died, everything was indistinct. Everything was unclear.

Raleigh remembers driving Gipsy back to shore. Collapsing on the sand. Gasping for Yancy - where is he, why can’t he feel him? - as a couple of concerned civilians try to help. He remembers gray walls, medical exams, threats, Marshall Pentecost yelling so many threats at him. He remembers the pain of having Yancy ripped from his head, the agony of hearing Yancy’s voice, even though Yancy is gone, of the threat of a court martial, standing at attention in front of the Marshall’s desk...

You really shit the bed on this one, Becket.

“I know,” he says, unable to defend himself. “It’s my fault, it’s my fault...”

“No, I believe the fault lies with your boss,” Marshall Pentecost says. “And my soon to be ex-head of neurology.”

Something cool and damp is pressed to his forehead. “How’re you feeling, Nurse Becket?”

Nurse

Nurse.

That’s right.

Hong Kong, Victoria General Hospital, Doctor Becket, Herc...

And that must be Yancy’s asshole boss. The one who put Chuck’s name on this week’s list.

Yancy, the guy he just fucked inside a patient’s head. The guy he said I love you to.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Raleigh has never been more grateful to anyone in his life, than when Yancy pulls that big Brit Pentecost out of the room with a "c'mon boss, let's discuss this in your office." He's shaky and discombobulated and he really does need a good ten minutes sitting down before he feels well enough to stand.

According to the clock over the door, they were only down for about half an hour.

The doctor in the room, Wei on his name tag, gives Raleigh a sympathetic smile when he finally stirs. "Feeling better?"

"Mostly," Raleigh grunts. There's a faint thread of irritation in his mind that isn't his, a smooth stream of bullshit verbal maneuvering that he can feel but not influence. It's loosening up, sure, unknotting, but the fact that it's there at all is a serious concern.

Ghost drift.

Only half an hour, and he's ghosting with Yancy?

They are so not talking about that.

"How's Herc?" he asks, trying to take his mind off it.

Doctor Wei hands him a pad of paper. Herc's handwriting. Hit the decompression setting now. Raleigh had taped the instructions to the Pons. "Sounded intense. Took you lads fifteen minutes to come out after I did that."

"It gets weird sometimes," Raleigh agrees, and stands up, steady enough to check Herc's vitals himself. If he's ghosting with Yancy, it's entirely possible that'll start up with Herc soon too and Raleigh doesn't want to put the man under any more strain. "Look, I, uhh, I need to go clear my head. Do you mind..."

The doctor nods and waves him off. "I can watch him."

"Thanks."

Raleigh feels pounded, bruised, like somebody took a baseball bat to his entire body. Walking helps, but he can tell his blood sugar is dropping and his adrenaline levels are way up - probably spiked severely when Knifehead (Chuck's unconscious fear) hit the conn-pod (Chuck's very subconscious declaration of autonomy, if Raleigh read it right). The last time he did something like that, it was with Jaz for Mom and it resulted in him and his sister not talking for the past four years. But Yancy... he's never felt a connection like that. Not even with Herc, one on one, the couple of times they've done that. Not even the time they had sex while Drifting, which really had been a hell of a thing but not something Herc wanted to repeat.

It's business for Herc, the Drift. Not personal. Dispassionate, reserved, unemotional business.

You always make it intimate, his boss had told him, last time they'd hooked up to the Pons together.

Was he the reason...his need for... fuck, has he just messed this kid up?

Sex in the Drift.

Raleigh needs food. Carbs and caffeine. Sugar. Distraction. Now.

Cafeteria it is.

If Yancy wants to see him, he'll be able to find him. Ghosting's funny that way.

It's an odd hour, before lunch but after breakfast, so the cafeteria is quiet. One of the staff hooks him up with a giant pot of tea and a platter of dim sum, the doughy exteriors just starting to harden from too much time in the cool air after the steamer, and gets him all cozied into a nice booth in the staffsection. This is even emptier than the rest of the place; Raleigh is, for all intents and purposes, alone.

The quiet would be nice, if it wasn't filled with the screaming, Yancy's scream, that feeling of dying. Hell. Fucking comas. Herc always talked about them like hunters talk about rabid wolves, but Raleigh had never felt one like that. That was a bitch of a place to be stuck. No wonder Chuck couldn't wake up. No wonder Herc was so worried for him.

Raleigh's in the middle of dumping yet another sugar packet into his third cup of oolong when Yancy shows up.

"Worked it out with Pentecost. He's allowing me to proceed with Herc's request. Agreed to give it as long as he can." Yancy slides a folder across to Raleigh. "I worked this up last night. Let me know if there's anything in there that stands out to you, given that you know Herc's brain better than me."

Raleigh blinks. Based on the sheer rage he'd felt dripping off the senior-ranking doctor, he'd assumed the worst. "Really?" he asks, and picks up the file.

"He's a hard ass but he does care." He breathed. "The scariness is intentional."

Unsure of what he can - or should - do, Raleigh stands but doesn't touch. "You okay, doc?"

Yancy nods, supporting himself on the back of the chair opposite Raleigh with both hands. There are red marks on his forehead where the Pons had been connected. "Yeah. Just, did not need to have that argument."

"I'm going to go get you some tea," Raleigh says, without really offering the doctor a choice in the matter, and pulls the chair out as he walks by.

At least Yancy sits down. At least he doesn't run off. At least he showed up.

By the time Raleigh gets back with a fresh pot and another cup, Yancy looks a little better. He's eaten a bit, which always helps, and he gives Raleigh a watery smile as the nurse pours them both a fresh cup. "Asian manners and American sweetness," he says, gesturing at the discarded sugar packets. "Interesting mix. But you like hard candy, right?"

Raleigh pulls out a piece from the breast pocket of his scrubs, and drops it back in. "Almost as much as you hate fish."

"I do hate fish," Yancy agrees, and runs a hand through his hair. The marks haven't faded, and Raleigh's wondering if they could be some sort of burn, instead of just a contact mark. "Drift thing, I take it?"

Raleigh nods.

"That was some craziness in there."

"How much do you remember?"

"I feel like I remember everything," Yancy says quietly. "But none of it happened, did it?"

"We were on the periphery too," Raleigh says. "Gets worse the further in you go. There's more, I don't know, focus from the patient. Herc says these things with kid comas can be really involved."

"I feel like we really were," Yancy swallows the rest of the sentence. "You and me, that connection. I've never felt anything like it. Wasn't like that, the few times I've tried it."

"Compatibility is a big deal. The literature tends to downplay it, but very few people can form a connection with just anyone, like Herc can. You and me, we must be compatible."

"It's gotta be some kind of biological trigger," Yancy mutters. "Some kind of electrical or biochemical synchronization between memory neurons, or... something."

Raleigh eats a dumpling and tries not to give into the disappointment shivering through him. This is why he doesn't date doctors. Ever. Clinic, cynical, scientific idiots. Of course Yancy's going to autopsy something very personal, very intimate, until it's nothing but little chunks bleeding on the linoleum.

"Genetics? If we're talking about similar brain structure, with the differences in location and diet and everything else, shared genetics would be the most likely explanation," Yancy says. "You and me, I mean, we could be brothers. We look like brothers."

"I'm not adopted. You're not adopted." It's nothing Yancy's told him out loud, something that must have come through the Drift, Raleigh realizes the second the words leave his mouth, but at least Yancy doesn't seem to notice.

"Not that either of us know. Our parents could have kept it from us." Yancy reaches for the plate. "I can ask my aunt."

"Adoption? Why would we have the same last name? Still?"

"I'm ordering a gene panel on both of us."

And of course. That too. Raleigh sighs. "My DNA's on file back home. I can get a copy of the report. If you really want to make this about that."

"What else would it be?"

"Did you... enjoy, what we had in there?"

"Raleigh, you're an awesome guy so don't take this the wrong way, but..." Yancy tenses up. "You and me... we...that stuff, in our, uhh, quarters, I'm not, I mean, not for a long time..."

Right. And this is what Raleigh's been dreading.

Cause he saw it.

Why are the cute ones always straight? Or at least, so repressed they might as well be?

"College experimentation?"

"Like one time. Tops. And I was drunk."

"You're not gay." Raleigh picks at another dim sum, trying to sort through the memories; the world, the Drift, the two of them together, in perfect synch. "You sure?"

"I think I would have noticed. Shit, I mean... I'm engaged."

That cuts through Raleigh's lingering hope like a hot knife through butter. He hadn't seen a damn thing about that in the Drift. "Oh."

"I know you've worked with Herc a long time," Yancy says slowly, "and I know the two of you..."

There it is. Again. Ghost drift. Yancy's thinking about the memory that surfaced of him and Herc together. Manila, a crappy little rent-by-the-month apartment in San Francisco, after one hell of a battle, the night after the shared Drift with his mom, when there hadn't been anything else to do but hold on. He tries to push it away. The coma-induced reinterpretation will fade, those memories evaporate. "I don't let that affect my professional assessments. I'm on his payroll because I'm fucking good at what I do, not because he's hot for me."

"And what is your professional assessment?"

"Chuck's in it really deep," Raleigh repeats. "Prolonged contact is going to be essential. Herc's got to stop the kaijuu. Chuck's defined it very specifically."

"So the only way to save this kid is playing his little game of make-believe?"

"Looks like. Thanks for making the recommendation."

"Yeah, but look, little bro..."

They both stop.

Raleigh wants to run, he really does, but they're not done here yet. Not for at least a few more days. He can swallow the embarrassment for a few more days. "I would recommend calling your girl and getting some post-Drift snuggles. Contact's important after disconnecting, and that was pretty rough."

"Raleigh..."

"The memories will probably fade in a day or two. It's kind of like a dream. Nothing's real in there." He pauses. "It's best not to take anything literally."

The neurologist gives him a half-smile that somehow manages to be grateful and regretful at the same time. If Raleigh's hoping he'll at least get a hug, it doesn't come. "You are seriously prescribing sex?"

"I am prescribing cuddles. After you knock out that medical coma thing." Raleigh smiles with a levity he doesn't feel. "Taking care of you idiot doctors, that's my job as a nurse."

Yancy snorts out a laugh, and reaches for another dim sum. "Let me eat the rest of this plate, and I'll get on it."

Good," Raleigh says and gets up, smiling as best he can. "I want you guys at the top of your game before you start shooting barbiturates into my boss."

The false cheerfulness only lasts as long as it takes to get back to the room with Herc and Chuck. Raleigh sinks back into his chair with a groan, scooting it close enough to the bed Herc's to wind his fingers through his.

He can still feel the irritation.

Maybe it's Herc's.

They are absolutely not exclusive. Most of the time, Raleigh's fine with that. Never really thought about the future, about settling down with just one guy, buying pillows together at the local Crate and Barrel, or whatever. He's not ready for anything like that - hell, he spends most of his free time back home in Sydney working on reno projects around his little beach house instead of going to clubs, or wherever you go to meet guys. Mako, their freelance admin girl, watches his dogs for him when he's out of town, and all three of them (Mako, Gipsy, and Danger) are far better company than some faceless fuck. He likes his life the way it is. But it's hard sometimes, being close to somebody but not being more.

Fucking Drift.

Scrambles your brain.

"Doing my best here, boss," he murmurs, staring up at the ceiling, "but you gotta cut me some slack."

He plugs in the decompression sequence into the Pons. It'll just be better for Herc to be awake for this part. Chuck can hang on for a little while longer.

He starts leafing through Yancy's proposal on the procedure.

Herc's gonna want to go back down as soon as possible.

+++++

Yancy's not really sure what to expect when he comes back to the room with his team and the necessary gear.

It's not like he's been in this position before.

That was some weird shit in there, but they're both professionals, so this is all going to work out just fine. It's going to be fine (even if he did just send an email to an aunt, asking, in the most delicate way possible, if her brother, his dad, had ever had an affair. No good asking his mom. She got too damn emotional. She'd hated Dad's old business trips enough as it was. Constantly jealous. Constantly pissed. Divorced him when Yancy was fifteen and hadn't that hurt? But then, maybe she knew something.)

Yeah. Everything is fine.

And it is, because Raleigh's grinning again and chatting with Herc, who's awake now, but both fall silent when they see the cart with the intubation equipment.

Yancy clears his throat. Herc's boring holes in him and he really, really doesn't want to have a conversation about that in front of his team. "So, Herc, we're going to do this properly, it seems. Administer a mild anesthetic, intubate, get you hooked up to all the necessary inputs and outputs, and then initiate the drug regimen that'll put you under. I've looked over your medical file and believe a mix of phenobarbital and..."

Herc points at Raleigh. "Has he seen it?"

Raleigh nods. "The dosages all look right. No allergies. No known negative reactions. I think we're good."

"Good," Herc says. "But Rals does the intubation. You got a problem with that, Stacker?"

Of course. Pentecost showed up. Right there, in the doorway, disapproval dripping off him.

But he's all smiles as he comes over to shake Herc's hand. "Sergeant Hansen, good to see you again."

"Been a while since the Sandbox," Herc agrees, but doesn't smile. "Got tired of that Doctors Without Borders stint?"

"The lad here does enough of that for the both of us," the hospital director says, clapping Yancy on the shoulder. "I have my hands full here."

"Oh, I'm aware," Herc replies. "You should have called me years ago on this case. Would have been much easier to deal with when he was twelve."

"Well, you're here now. Doctor Becket believes you're the right man for the job, so if you're as good at this as you were with amputations..."

Herc nods, stiff, and glances back at Chuck. "If you don't mind, Doc, I'd like to get going. Time is at a premium here, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," Pentecost says, and squeezes Yancy's shoulder before letting him go. Yancy tries not to cringe. Three years at this place, and he still can't figure out if Pentecost is really an asshole or if he just likes to pretend. "I'll let you lads get to it, then."

Everyone in the room seems to exhale when Pentecost is finally gone and the door finally closes.

Yancy tosses Herc a hospital gown. Dude still has his street clothes on. "Let's get started."

"Fine with me," Herc says, and with a wink at him, just starts stripping right there in the middle of the room.

Of course.

Maybe he deserves that little bit of taunting.

(It's not like it's Raleigh's fault that they... inside Chuck's head, and Yancy still can't figure out why he did that. He might have been lying about the engagement thing, but he definitely was not gay.)

Yancy is really, really curious about why Chuck is calling Herc dad, and what that means, and how Herc feels about that. Is he caught up in this thing too? Does he have as much trouble distinguishing reality from Drift?

Herc's a professional - the professional.

It's gonna be fine.

+++++

Dad almost doesn't make graduation, but he does.

And when he shows up, it's without Uncle Scott.

Chuck's seen some of the news, heard some of the reports. He doesn't know what Scott did, just that it's bad enough for Dad to have ripped out of the harness and attacked him mid-fight, with the fate of the world in balance. He wants to be mad about it, wants to be mad at his father for so many things, but there's something so soothing about him being here that he just... can't.

"Proud of you, sprog," Dad says, eyes wet, as he pins Chuck's wings on his chest, taps them down lightly with his fist. "Good work."

Smiling back, Chuck wants to throw his arms around his dad's massive shoulders, but he's fifteen now and he's not going to embarrass himself like that in front of the rest of his class. Instead, he just touches his new wings, smiling. "Think you can keep up with me, old man?"

"Watch it, boy."

Dad sounds cranky, but he's not. Because he doesn't try to stop Chuck from having a beer at the after party, when half the base turns up to celebrate and bitch about the rumors about the stupid Wall of Life project the UN is floating. Chuck's been thinking about that a lot lately, with Dad gone and all the unsettled silence here in Kodiak, but it's a bullshit idea. They can't just lock the kaijuu away. They can't Band-Aid over this.

They have to fight it.

He has to fight it.

He's been thinking a lot about his dad, too. About the old hugs. About the feel of his body, last time they sparred. About how he thinks more about Dad when he touches his dick in the middle of the night, instead of Raleigh and Yancy like he used to before Yancy died and Raleigh ran away. He's not really sure why he does it, or what it is, or how any of this works, but it feels good and Chuck wants more of it.

Dad lets him have a lot of beers at the after party, it turns out, and that's a good thing, because when Chuck can barely walk straight on the way back to his quarters, Dad's there to hold him up. He doesn't have a Drift partner that he went through the Academy with, but that's okay, because they're talking about putting him in the conn-pod with Herc, except they don't have a jaeger anymore, with Lucky Seven being destroyed, and Chuck's got to figure that out, there are so many things he has to figure out...

He feels his body hit the mattress, and Dad's between his legs, stripping his boots off. The room is spinning, and Chuck holds on for dear life to those big shoulders. "Am I drunk?" he asks, word slurring.

Dad laughs and stands up. "I think so, sprog."

Dad still has his own boots on, though, and it fills Chuck with fear. He grabs for him. "You aren't leaving again, are you?"

"No. I'll not leave you again, Chuck. We're gonna see this war through, you and me, like I promised."

Chuck absolutely does not cry.

He also doesn't sneak out of his bed and stretch out next to Dad on Dad's cot, after Dad goes to sleep. It's a tight fit, but somehow Chuck fits right in between Dad's arms, up against his chest.

Dad's going to be here when he wakes up.

He knows it.

Something about that gives him the courage to shut his eyes. And for a little while, the fear stops screaming in his head.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, the battle comes back to him in bits and pieces, memories formed in the conn-pod that didn't seem to stick outside, in the open air, outside the Drift, where he and Dad were separate people, where he couldn't find any rest at all.

There was the smell of the city burning.  Pain; neural feedback from the circuitry suits that translated movement into action.  The sound of the chest cannons firing and the sensation of sticking that he wasn't expecting from the sling blades, the titanium alloy taking more effort to cut than he'd expected.  There was a flash of desert mountains and arterial blood spraying into the thin air - something Dad would tell him later was a memory caught in the Drift - and the feel of sand under his feet as he ran with a kite and his cousins down white sands in places he can no longer remember the names of.  There was ocean, and screaming, and darkness, and dying.

They win.

But Chuck's first clear moment, when he feels like he's in control on himself, is found on his knees in a corner of the drive suit room, retching into a bucket that Dad put in front of him from somewhere.  His throat is on fire, his eyes stinging from tears, like his body was trying to turn itself inside out.

Dad, on the other hand, kneeling next to him, looks fine.  Calm, even, as he rubs his back.

"You did good," Dad says.

Despite the pride in his voice, Chuck shoves him off and runs.  Back to their room, still in his circuitry suit, where he can curl up with Max in Dad's bunk.  (Dad has the lower bunk, and that's all it is, all it is)

Things change, after that first battle.  Not noticeably at first, but they do.  The rhythms of life stay about the same, with perhaps an uptick in Kwoon sessions, training runs in the sims, where the kaijuu on the screen are almost comically cartoonish, like something out of a Saturday morning anime for primary schoolers, if there are such things.  The food at the 'Dome still tastes like shit from his old school cafeteria, the Sydney sky is still grey, Bondi Beach is still closed off, Max still loves him. The UN is still a packs of fuckheads; the Wall is still getting built.

It's not the normal stuff that changes.

It's him.

Dad says he's just getting older, and every day brings some new thought, new realization, a new idea that's not new to the rest of the world.  It feels like he's growing but not like a person.  More like a tree, which doesn't make any sense, roots twisting out and away, burrowing into the dark places and making them live.

Chuck doesn't like thinking about stuff like that, like that.  It's kind of fucked up.  He's no poncy novelist, like one of his aunts was, always publishing books about big ideas and never happy about any of it.  Things are just different in his head and he can't figure out why.

It's probably Dad.

He's sixteen, and there are a lot of rumors in the 'Dome.  Chuck's never really been able to find porn - Dad probably makes sure nobody gives it to him, wanker - and he's not sure if he would want to.  There are plenty of sheilas around, but there's nothing about them he finds particularly interesting. 

No.

What gets him hard are those rumors about Yancy and Raleigh, before Yancy died and Raleigh fell off the face of the earth.  He thinks about calloused hands and commanding strength and stubble against his lips.  He can't quite put shape to all that, the idea of sex and what all it entails, but he knows he's hungry for it and he knows what ideas wisp across his mind when he touches himself.

He knows who he thinks about.

Chuck doesn't know why he thinks about his dad.  He just does.  Maybe it's because after everything they've been through together in the past, and now, now the Drift, Dad seems like the only real thing in the world.  Maybe it's because he's devastatingly... something, attractive, and Chuck hurts sometimes when he looks at him.  Maybe it's because Dad is the only person who seems to genuinely care about him, even as the world around them stops treating him like some poor child soldier and starts viewing him as a hero.

One kill, two kills, three kills.  

And all Chuck can think about when he looks at his father is how much he needs.

Dad stays distant, though.  The warmth of their connection from before seems muted, like Dad's holding himself in check - struggling to do so, Chuck knows, although he doesn't know why - and no matter how well they fight together, there's a nagging feeling that something is being hidden from him.  Something is being kept away.

His breaking point finally comes at no particular time for no particular reason, other than the fact that the moment is incredibly clear.  He's sitting at the table in their cramped quarters pretending to read a manual on the new fluid synapse system they're installing in Striker this week.  Max is sitting at his feet, gnawing contentedly on a rawhide chew that will no doubt make him really stinky tonight.  Dad's in the bathroom, bare-chested with a pair of PPDC sweatpants clinging low to his hips, frowning a little as he shaves.  He's never used one of those electric things, like Chuck does when the stupid peach fuzz gets a little too thick.  No, Dad's got a proper straight razor.

Easy swipes, up and through the cream, wipe off on the little towel perched on the sink.  Careless and studious, dangerous but mundane.  Surgical, is the word that comes to Chuck's mind as he watches.  

Surgical.

He has a flash of something, a murmuring image, of Dad in a reeking little adobe hut, dressed in the old desert fatigues, barking some command at somebody as he tightens a tourniquet with one hand and unrolls a small bag of gleaming, razor-sharp implements with the other.  He's younger, it's hot, there's a woman screeching in a dark corner that Chuck can't quite see...

Dad hisses, and then curses softly.

He's cut himself.

Drawn by something he doesn't quite understand, Chuck closes his manual and gets up, going over, watching for a moment as Dad wipes that side of his neck off and presses a bit of gauze to the wound.  His blood is a cherry red on the counter.  So vivid, it makes Chuck's eyes hurt.

Dad just looks at him.  "Reckon you saw that."

"What was it?"

"Afghanistan."  Dad never talks about this.  Chuck's surprised to even hear him say the word.  "When I was still killing people."

"Looked like you were saving that bloke."

"We all carried a side-arm.  Fuckin' Taliban didn't care about the Red Cross or reducing casualties or mercy."

Dad was a pilot; this Chuck knows.  He's not talking like one, though, and something else is trying to poke through.  "How'd I see that?"

"Ghost drift," Dad explains.  "Even outside the conn-pod, we're connected, you and me."

Chuck takes a chance, and scoots closer.  Close enough so he can let his knee fall out against his dad's leg.  "Doesn't feel like it much.  Feels like you're pullin' away."

"There are a lot of things in m'head that I wouldn't want you to..."

But fuck this, Chuck thinks.  He's no good with words, and neither is Dad, but why do they need them?  They're in each other's heads more than they're out.  He has to know, he has to see.  So he leans over and kisses his father.

Dad doesn't shove him away, but he doesn't reciprocate.  Chuck pulls back again, wiping a bit of shaving cream away from his own cheek, not sure if he wants to cry or hit something.  He's so tired of being alone.  "Why can't we?"

"Chuck, you're my... you're my son, and..."

"I'm your co-pilot," he says, tired, unsure why he's so despondant all of the sudden.  "And I love you.  I wanna feel..."

Wiping off the rest of his face with the towel, Dad gives him a strange look.  "Feel what?"

Chuck shrugs, not sure where the words are coming from.  "I just wanna feel like I'm still alive."

Dad hesitates for a moment, and then curls a hand around the back of Chuck's neck, the other at his hip.  For a terrible moment, Chuck thinks that Dad's going to tell him to bugger off.  His eyes are piercing blue.

"You and me," he pleads, begging now and not caring if he's embarrassing himself.  "You and me, that's what you said, stick with you and we'll-"

The words don't have a chance to get any further, because Dad's kissing him now, and all Chuck can do is hold on.

+++++

“Oh hey, didn’t realize anyone else would be here.”

Raleigh stops short in the doorway, dinner in hand, at the sight of the slight Japanese woman adjusting a series of electrodes he recognizes as muscle activators. She looks up, brushing electric blue highlights out of her face, and bows slightly.

“You must be Raleigh Becket,” she says in lightly accented English. “You are Doctor Hansen’s nurse.”

“Nurse Practitioner,” Raleigh corrects, coming in. He takes a moment to look Herc over. The tubes are in, the monitors are beeping out that he’s stable, and his face is blank. He’s down there somewhere with Chuck, fighting the kaiju. Raleigh doesn’t even want to think about that Dad thing either. Or Yancy. Does Chuck have an incest kink? Would Chuck even know what a kink is? And fuck, does this happen a lot? Is this why Herc never talks about his patients? Or is it like it is with dreams, where the things that happen shouldn’t be taken literally in the waking world? “And he’s not a doctor.”

“Oh, my mistake. He is the therapist, correct?”

“He is that,” Raleigh agrees, and sets his dinner aside. He keeps the coffee, though. He’s gonna need the coffee. He doesn’t sleep well most nights anyway and hasn’t since that drift with his mom, but with Herc in this barbiturate coma, there’s no way he’s getting any shut-eye. “But I’ve got the medical license.”

She smiles. “I was not sure what to expect. From either of you.”

“Better or worse?” he replies in Japanese.

She smiles wider, but shoos him away as he tries to get a closer look at Chuck, telling him she needs to work.

Thanks in no small part to the Gage Institute, the medical care for traumatic brain injury patients has improved vastly in the past decade or so. One of the biggest areas of growth has been in the physical realm. It’s rare now for post-coma impairments to become permanent. Physical therapy, with passive exercise and the proper stimulation, is an important component of the overall healing process.

(Raleigh’s also noticed that Herc’s patients tend to have better recoveries in terms of the psychological aspect of things. Lower incidents of post-traumatic amnesia, less cognitive therapy required. But who knows? Herc destroys the only metrics he takes, and Raleigh can’t exactly stick a patient in an MRI while they’re drifting with him.)

It takes Mako about thirty minutes to finish, and Raleigh lets her work in peace. Until she’s packing up her gear.

“How’s Chuck looking?”

She snaps the lock shut on one of her plastic cases. “Given his circumstances, he is as healthy as he can be. He is not authorized physio, but I come after hours.” She pats the case. “With my own equipment.”

“I’ve been wondering why he’s here, and not in a long-term care facility,” Raleigh says. “It’d be better for him.”

“This is all the long term care facility we have here. The government doesn’t fund them.”

Makes a horrible kind of sense. How can anybody work in this place? “Ah,” Raleigh says. Since she’s done, he goes back for his neglected dinner. Take-out of some kind. He’s pretty sure it won’t give him food poisoning. “Shame.”

The physical therapist pauses. “I have read extensively on Mr. Hansen. Looked through his entire record, or what there is to be found, before he came. Analyzed his cases and what what little is out there about his techniques.”

The fact there was anything out there about Herc comes as a surprise. A couple years back, somebody from the New York Times wanted to do a profile on Herc, and Herc told the reporter to go fuck himself (and then told the editor, when the paper wouldn’t give it up). Fuck. Raleigh would have to start really examining the medical publications again.

He doesn’t say any of that to the therapist, though.

“And what’d you think?” Raleigh asks, folding his arms.

“I think he takes too many risks. Endangers himself and his patient. I don’t think he’s the right man for this job,” she says quietly, but firmly.

Raleigh nods. “You may be right. Have you ever been in the drift?”

“No. I’ve been working on sims, hoping to expand my skill base, but I have not performed this therapy with a patient.”

“When you’re down there, things are different. Things happen, and you have to react. Like this,” and he waves a hand at his comatose boss. “He does whatever he needs to do. That’s why he’s so successful. Even I can’t do what he does.”

The therapist inclines her head again. “My apologies.”

“Not needed. He’s a little... unconventional.”

She holds out her hand. “Mako Mori.”

“Raleigh Becket. At your service, madame.”

She cocks her head, considering him. “You are sweet,” she says, and it’s the voice of a woman who gets way too much shit from men on a regular basis, “but I don’t need a boyfriend.”

“Oh honey, believe me, I’m gayer than a Lisa Frank tea party,” Raleigh says. “I’m not hitting on you. Those are my mama’s good manners. But you are kind of awesome.”

She laughs. “I don’t know what Lisa Frank is, but you are kind of awesome too.”

Well, that’s two great people he won’t be having sex with, Raleigh figures as she leaves, and wonders if maybe that’s Yancy’s fiancee.

“Herc,” he mutters aloud to the room, “finish up with that kid before this stupid job turns into a CW soap opera.”

+++++

Herc hadn't meant to do that.

Chuck's a beautiful boy, somebody he'd go for in a heartbeat if he saw him in a bar or on the street if he wasn't his son (outside the Drift), if somebody like Chuck would even have a beat-up old Jaeger pilot (military vet).  But Chuck's his charge, his boy, his mission, his everything (right now only right now) and he shouldn’t be doing this.

He shouldn’t.

But now that it’s started, he doesn’t want to stop.

When he looks at Chuck, his heart aches for the boy. There’s so much life he hasn’t seen. So much he hasn’t known. He’s growing up in a war zone, a soldier before he’s even old enough to drive, the threat of the world dying around him a staccato that never stops. A boy who’s never had a chance to live.

He wants to show Chuck everything.

(Drifting is hard enough under the best of circumstances. Being in a drug-induced coma is about the worst scenario there is. There’s no external noise to hang on to, no comfort of his notebook or Raleigh’s presence that he never acknowledges, but always feels. All his anchors are gone. All that’s left is Chuck.

When it’s time, they’ll surface together. So Herc doesn’t fight the currents that pull him under. Right into Chuck’s heart. There’s probably something deeply unprofessional about this, but the boy is finally starting to fight back, and Herc oh so wants to see his eyes open.)

There’s only so much he can do in the ‘Dome, and no matter how he feels, there are plenty of things he can’t talk to Chuck about. He never wants his boy to know about Afghanistan, the wars of humans against humans. There are the men he’s slept with since Angela died, that on-again-off-again little affair with Raleigh Becket, who Chuck has hated since the day he tucked tail and ran. There are so many things that can’t be looked at, so Herc locks them away and focuses on the now.

Oh the war.

On Striker Eureka.

On killing the goddamn kaijuu.

When they’re gone, the world will be okay again.

Chuck won’t be scared anymore.

Because Chuck is scared. He doesn’t say it very much, puts on a good face for the cameras

But they’re on a time table here.

The Wall’s getting built. The Wall. Like the UN can turn the entire Pacific into some kind of kaijuu bathtub and that’ll solve the problem. It’s ridiculous, but the’yre talking about inter-dimensional sea monsters, so everything these days is a bit ridiculous.

Best thing to do is just kill the damn things.

And work on a more final solution.

Chuck catches Herc in the bathroom one day. Voice rubbed raw, eyes tired, and the desire to protect his son wars, for a moment, with his own desire to touch.

“Son,” Herc rasps against Chuck’s lips, “my baby boy. Are you sure?”

“Make love to me, Dad.”

It’s too old for his boy’s lips.

But Herc’s never been able to deny Chuck anything.

Anything Chuck needs.

That’s the only thing he’s been able to think about since he set foot on that playground, what seems like a lifetime ago.

Anything Chuck needs. Until Herc’s able to bring him home.

They train. They fight. They kill kaijuu. Kaijuu after kaijuu after kaijuu.

Flashes.

A bar fight that ends with both of them spitting up blood and laughing all the same as they stumble back to the ‘Dome.

A holiday spent in the interior, far from the ocean, amid red rocks and low grasses. Max is barking at a dingo and Chuck is whining about how dusty everything is.

The mats, bodies close, and Herc breaks first, rolling over and kissing Chuck hard.

An interview room, some fucking journo asking sycophantic questions as Herc nods. He’s got a hand on Chuck’s shoulders, nothing more than is fatherly but enough to keep the boy from talking too much. Afterward, they’ll read the article together and laugh.

Trying to teach Chuck Urdu, because he asked for something new and that’s all Herc has left to give him. Language isn’t Chuck’s strong suit and Herc’s not the best teacher, but somehow, they make it works.

Years. Years of memories, lives entwined, piling up.

Herc tries to teach him, raise him up right, but he’s a shitty father. He doesn’t know what wisdom he has to pass along, but he does his best. Chuck doesn’t always respond, but then, Chuck is so much more clever than he. Even with that, Herc talks about everything he can, and tries to answer questions, tries to give direction, but he’s so amazed, so proud, at how Chuck figures it out anyway.

Most of their serious conversations are solved into the Kwoon or in bed, when they’ve tumbled in together, bodies sore and aching and craving. Chuck kisses like he’s dying, and Herc murmurs sweetness against his skin as he preps him, enters him, shows him what humans can be to each other. It’s always fleeting, never enough, never quite clear, but it’s what they do.

He loves his boy.

He realizes this one sunny afternoon as the wall is going up around Sydney Harbor.

(Herc doesn’t really know why the UN decided to do this. He used to, but can’t remember now. The PPDC has tried everything, everything, to strike at the Breach - he and Chuck have never been along, which is why they’re still alive. Closing it is the only end to this, to this war. But the UN is calling them off. Marshall Pentecost is going along with it. They have to fight it - if Chuck’s going to live, Herc has to fight it. That he knows. Fight it to the last.)

It’s warm, but not too humid, a breeze easing along the floor of the jaeger bays. Most of them are empty now. One by one, the other jaegers have fallen. They are near to all that’s left now of the dozens that used to fight. The sky is bright; the ocean lapping at the sea wall is quiet. Chuck is off working on Striker. He has a cold beer in hand. All is still.

You love him.

The thought comes to Herc easily enough.

Not love like a father for a son. Oh no.

He’s in love with his son.

Condensation drips off the bottle.

Herc wonders what that means.

Chapter Text

Laughing, Chuck grabs for Dad the second their door closes behind them. Nobody much cares back at the ‘Dome if they’re handsy with each other in public, but this is a hotel, with nice sheets and plenty of eyes and out here, in the real world, fathers don’t fuck their sons.

Whatever.

Dad can say that as many times as he wants. But they had to go shirtless for that photo shoot this afternoon and Dad spent half the day wandering around in nothing but a pair of compression shorts and Chuck’s horny.

“Eager little thing, aren’t we?” his father rasps in his ear, hands already working on Chuck’s jeans. And this is what Chuck likes, when the sensation of contact overwhelms everything else. Because this is what’s real. This is what makes him feel whole. This is what he lives for now - being touched, being loved, being connected to the one solid thing in his entire reality.

(Ever since the playground, since Scissure, nothing’s been right. The only time he’s not scared or unease or panicked is when Dad’s with him. Chuck doesn’t know what that’s about. It just is. He wishes it wasn’t, but he has no idea what to do about it except what he’s doing right now.)

“Want my daddy,” he purrs.

Dad’s eyes go dark and he circles Chuck’s face with one hand, fingers soft against the stubble of his cheek but carrying oh so much promise. “You are a brat, you know that?”

“And the photographer was leering at you.”

“They were leering at you, sweetheart. The world wants you, not me.”

“Yeah, fuck the world. I just want you to fuck me.”

“I keep telling you, son. This is your war to win.”

But Chuck doesn’t know how.

He doesn’t know how to do more than what they’re doing now. Six kills. Six kills, and it’s nowhere near enough.

He doesn’t know how to make the monsters go away.

“I don’t know how to win it.”

“You do.” Dad strokes his hair, kisses him. “And when you find that shot, you gotta take. You understand me? You take the shot, son.”

Dad’s afraid too, Chuck realizes, something jittering through the ghost drift they seem to be permanently sharing now. Afraid of time. Like they’re running down a clock. On a deadline. But when Chuck asks, Dad says he’s not sure either, just a feeling he can’t place, and there’s nothing to indicate he’s lying.

The article comes out in a couple of days. Rolling Stone, which is some kind of seppo rag, Chuck doesn’t much care. The headline on their spread is Where the Kaiju War Begins and Ends.

In it, they talk about the Wall of Life. That the Jaeger Corps will soon be decommissioned. That this is all going to be coming to an end.

That this, their life, their reality, their everything, really is on a countdown.

How’s Chuck supposed to get his shot, if they take Striker from him?

What’s he gonna do without this connection to his father?

“We’ll think of something,” Dad promises. “Not ready to give up yet.”

+++++

One thing that Raleigh was not prepared for are how many people keep coming by their room.

Normally on these multi-day jobs, things have a pretty distinct rhythm. Herc goes down for six to eight hours at a stretch, lays there half-aware of the room around them, not enough to have a conversation but enough to get polluted by one. So Raleigh gets to ban everyone from the room, work on his continuing education credits or do some knitting (his one gay hobby, Herc's words, not his). It's quiet and peaceful and not very stressful at all, even if there always is a possibility of something going wrong with the Pons or the patient.

He doesn't have people treating it like a goddamn... exhibition.

While the Gages once theorized that Drift impressions could be somehow translated and shown in a visual format, like a movie, the technology for mind reading just isn't there. As far as Raleigh's concerned, there's nothing to see here. But everyone keeps coming.

Yancy - Doctor Becket - comes by a couple times a day, at random times. Brought Raleigh lunch yesterday. Mostly just to talk. He looks pre-occupied, like there's something he wants to say, but when Raleigh asked him about the results of the gene test this morning, three days in, the neurologist muttered some excuse and bolted from the room.

There's Mako, who comes by in the evenings, and really is a cool chick.

And then, there's a hipster nerd named Geiszler. Who apparently thinks this a goddamn science project in the middle school gym.

Which, in a way, it apparently is.

If any of thise bullshit is to be believed.

“Chuck is not an experiment!” Raleigh snaps, drained and tired and out of every other argument he can summon.

“Well, he is. Well, not really, but, like, kind of,” the little nerdy dude on the other side of Dr. Pentecost’s office protests.

Doctor Newton Geiszler, Raleigh’s been told - once by Newt, when the nurse caught him fucking with the computer controls on the Pons, once by Yancy, who told Raleigh he couldn’t just throw somebody into the hallway, and lastly by Pentecost. Pentecost, who apparently wants to make it very very clear that neither Raleigh nor Herc have any authority in his hospital, and drug them all up here to his concrete chic Zen office have a little conversation about it.

It’s all such a fucking mess.

“Herc is not an experiment,” Raleigh counters.

Dr. Pentecost snorts. “I’m sure he doesn’t think of himself that way. But Nurse Becket, Doctor Geiszler is here on a grant from the Gage Institute. He’s...”

“Been studying Chuck?” Raleigh asks, and shoots a hard glare over to Yancy, who manages to actually look guilty.

Why the hell didn't anybody tell him about this?

Yancy shakes his head. “Well, everybody in our ward, not Chuck specifically...”

Pentecost’s forehead does this little twitchy thing. “I was going to say, Nurse Becket, that Doctor Geizsler deserves your every cooperation.”

And fuck this. Fuck this bullshit.

“Whatever, it’s your hospital, but not while Herc’s in his head. He is not touching my Pons. And he was touching my Pons.”

Yancy groans. “Newt, jesus. I thought you were just pulling nu-complex waveforms out of the EEG. Dude. You were fucking with his equipment?”

“I just wanted to download a little bit of data. Just a little tiny bit.” Geizsler looks at Raleigh, like Raleigh’s going to help him out here. Fat chance. “Herc probably worked with the Gages on this stuff, right?” he pleads.

“You mean how the Gages thought they could utilize aspects of the Drift to create a localized scanning field that could map both brain structure and mental activity?" Raleigh asks.

Newt perks. "Yeah dude, exactly! Almost like a continuous MRI that could literally follow thoughts through your neurons, recreate coma dreams and map it to the brain structure..."

"Yeah, Herc already told them no on that," Raleigh says flatly - and while he's not sure if it was this particular issue or something else, because Herc never talks about it, he does know Herc terminated his relationship with the Gages in part over the research issue.

“Newt, I admire the Gages as much as the next neurologist, but they might as well have been looking for the human soul,” Yancy agrees, and sighs, rubbing his temples. "Why didn't you tell me about this?"

"It's just a little tiny bit of data..."

“Could you use the results of such an analysis to wake him up?” Pentecost asks, cutting him off with a wave of his hand.

Geizsler’s little nerd mania just... deflates. “No, not... not that I’m aware.”

“I’m going to have Gottleib down in Accounting run the numbers again on the budget,” Pentecost says, but he’s saying it to Yancy, not Raleigh. “The Australian embassy, I’m told, is attempting to work a deal. But even continued funding or diplomatic pressure, the Chinese may simply want us to keep Chuck on the list out of the principle. In the meantime, I don’t want you,” and he points at Geizsler, “touching quarter million quid equipment that doesn’t belong to this hospital, and I don’t want you,” his finger moves to Raleigh, “laying a finger on any of my staff. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Crystal, boss,” Yancy says, and nudges Raleigh. “Let’s go check on Chuck, okay?”

Chuck is, of course, exactly where he’s been for the past week. The past ten years. In his bed, eyes shut, unmoving. Raleigh tries not to look at him too closely, nor the jungle of cables that are coming and out of Herc like some monster from a bad hentai.

Thirty-six hours. That’s what’s left.

Yancy shuts the door behind them, and Raleigh forces himself to do something. Check equipment. Ensure the Drift is stable. Check Herc’s heart rate. Check Herc’s EEG readings. Check...

“I, uhh, I sent my aunt an email,” Yancy says.

Raleigh stops, looks at him. “What...”

“I got the results on the DNA test, but I, uhh, I need to talk to her first.”

“Are we related?”

Yancy leans on the rail at the foot of Chuck’s bed. And studiously does not answer him in the slightest. “How do you think that kaiju war is going?”

Raleigh bristles - that’s Chuck’s coma, Chuck’s world, Chuck’s story. But at the same time, it’s Herc’s now. Theirs. “I don’t know. I’m guessing they haven’t won it yet.”

“Do you really think Chuck needs to win it to wake up?” Raleigh shrugs, and Yancy gets that faraway doctor look on his face again. “It’s really fascinating. Why the narrative? Why the complexity? And how, considering the brain is virtually non-responsive.”

“I have no idea, man. I’m just here to watch the monitors.”

Raleigh’s got no idea what’s going on in there. But if anybody can do it, it’s Herc.

+++++

There’s a pattern to life in the ‘Dome. A predictability to it. A beautiful simplicity to how uncomplicated it all is, how clear. (Sleep, waking, food, training, deploying, sleep). Or at least, there should be. There has been. But everything’s changing now.

Herc doesn't give voice to his concerns, but his son's a perceptive boy, and there's the Drift, the ghost drift that never goes away. He's sure Chuck feels it, just like he feels the fear, constantly rippling under the boy's skin. He's tried so hard to take that fear away, and sometimes it even seems like he's succeeded,

The PPDC - Marshall Pentecost, the UN, everyone - has abandoned the jaeger corps. The Wall of Life is going up, stupid euphemistic bullshit that it is. Like that can save anyone. Like this isn’t Chuck’s war.

Herc doesn't remember why he thinks this. Doesn't know how he knows it. Maybe it's just the father in him, those instincts that come up when you look at your child and your heart swells with far too many things to can't explain, but he's always felt like the support system here. This is about Chuck. Making sure Chuck survives. Seeing Chuck through to the end. No matter what else they do or say or kill, it's always about Chuck.

He doesn't know how to save his boy from this.

He doesn't know how to win it.

They can't stop the kaijuu now. Too few jaegers left. Too few pilots. Not enough imagination. When they take Striker out for her seventh, eighth, ninth kill, he stares out over the ocean as the breaking waves wash the Blue from their jaeger's knees and the horizon itself seems to contract. The blue of the sky fades, the ocean turns gray, and something is wrong but he does not know what it is.

Herc doesn't remember feeling this grief before, this fear he can't control.

But he swallows it down, ignores the doubts and the questions that gnaw at his mind in the darkness when Chuck isn't there to see, because Chuck can't see it.

Has to be strong for them both.

Has to...

But then the shutdown comes for Sydney.

Then Mutavore hits.

And he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is it.

This is all coming to an end.

One final chance to win.

"When you get your shot, take it," he tells Chuck that night, sprawled out in an unfamiliar bed together in Hong Kong.

Chuck just throws an arm around him and burrows closer. "You'll be there with me."

No I won't, Herc thinks, and it fills him with dread.

+++++

Yancy knows Raleigh’s been sleeping here at the hospital. Mostly because he normally gets in super early, and has found his little brother sleeping in one of the bunks in the break room.

(And yeah. Raleigh’s his little brother. His aunt got back to him. That genetics test could only confirm they shared a parent; his aunt confirmed that his dad had had a history of cheating. Before and after the divorce. Those month-long trips he was always taking when Yancy was in elementary school? Apparently the fucker had another family. But this shit can wait.)

Raleigh’s not in the bunks this morning though, oh no.

Raleigh’s asleep in a chair in Chuck’s room.

Right next to Herc.

He’d be pissed if he knew that Yancy was letting Geiszler pull scan data. And honestly, Yancy knows he shouldn’t be doing it. Unethical, probably, to be monitoring somebody without their consent. But this is important.

Geiszler’s found a pattern.

Came by Yancy’s office last night, nerding out hard.

“I suggested you redirect your efforts months ago, Newt. The data’s not reliable.”

“Because we don’t have reliable calibration processes. In a coma, right, brain activity flatlines to the point where some areas seemingly act independently, at random. But the Drift itself is proof that this is not random. Consciousness is somehow preserved in these little recesses of the mind. Chuck is interacting with Herc, his brain is still engaged... I figured if I could locate that and document it and define how it works, it would be a scientific coup!” He scrambled around, bringing up a series of three-dimensional images on his laptop. “So if you run this through my program, you can see this. Like this, this is his brain scan from a couple months ago taken in an inactive Drift state with Doctor Becket’s rig, and one I took this morning before I was so rudely accosted by your nurse buddy. If you look at this structure here...”

“Just get to the point.”

“He is regrowing neural pathways. Chuck, in the past few days, is exhibiting the kind of regeneration I would expect out of a coma patient who’d been awake for something like six months to a year!” Geizsler was manic. “And it’s not just that. Emotion centers, memory, all of these things are exhibiting change. It looks random, but only because we don’t have detectable brain wave activity.”

“How is that possible?”

“That’s what I’m saying, it’s not!”

It’s completely unprecedented, even if it did make sense - Herc's consults typically have quicker recovery times, fewer problems, simply because their brain is already re-learning how to function. Maybe the secret to waking up was nothing more than healing the most heavily damaged regions of the mind, restoring whatever subtle pathways exist between the physical world and reactive perception.

Regardless, Yancy can’t properly explain any of it. And he’s spent the night emailing and calling literally everyone he knows who might be able to help, if on no other grounds that this is indeed a medical coup, but it’s not going to do anybody a damn bit of good now. No time left.

The guy from the Ministry of Health who does this euthanasia shit is going to be here in an hour.

They’re the first place on the list today.

Waking a healthy brain up from a coma is just about as tricky as putting it under, but Yancy did the math on the meds a few times. He cuts the drip, changes out the saline bags, and starts the meds.

Herc's probably going to be groggy as shit for a day or two.

Yancy's ashamed that he's relieved.

This is going to be easier without a pissed off Aussie breathing down his neck.

So it's only after things are already past the point of sustainment that he shakes Raleigh awake. And the younger man, god bless him, jerks awake.

"What's wrong?" he asks, and stifles a yawn with the back of his hand. "Chuck okay?"

Nurses, Yancy thinks, and just gets to it. "You good to Drift?”

Raleigh rubs a tired hand across his face. “Why?”

“We need to get Herc out.”

"Why?"

"Chau's gonna be here pretty soon. He shouldn't be in somebody's brain when they..."

And that's when Raleigh hits him. Hard. In the face. Pain explodes behind Yancy's skull, but only for a moment - it fades to a dull pound almost instantly, eye socket stinging. Great. Swelling already. "This is not my fault," he says through gritted teeth, hand clamping over the pain site.

"You work here."

Yancy can't really argue with that, so he doesn't try. He doesn't like this shit either. It was not what he signed up for when he first took a job out here - he wouldn't say that Pentecost lied to him, but the Ministry of Health certainly has gotten a hell of a lot more invasive in just under half a decade. "I've got the meds adjusted. He should wake up in a couple of hours. Want me to just turn the Pons off?"

Raleigh sighs, chews the inside of his cheek. "No," he finally says. "I'm not going to do that to him. I'll go."

"Dude, I'm sorry."

"Shove it, Doc," Raleigh says through a yawn, and pulls the spare headset on.

Yancy waits until Raleigh's fully under, and then plugs his laptop into the Pons. He knows he should feel like shit, running Geiszler's hack on the system, stealing data that's not really his to review, but Herc can get pissed at him later.

"Chuck has an hour," he says aloud, hoping that Raleigh will hear him.

If it makes any difference at all at this point.

Chapter Text

A coma forms memories without living those moments first.

Raleigh's never felt it like that before.

The second Yancy took the Pons off him, after Chuck kicked him out, Raleigh was out of his chair, and into the bathroom as his stomach turns over. He didn't quite throw up, but Raleigh's not entirely sure that's the best option. Everything hurts. He hurts.

He fought a four hour fucking battle through the streets of Hong Kong in. Giant metal monster.

But that isn't the worst part.

"What'd you see?" Doctor Becket asks.

He blearily paws at his watch. "How much time do we have?"

"Maybe twenty minutes. Newt is stalling."

Raleigh closes his eyes, trying to make sense of it.

The memories of the past hour, the past week, that make no sense at all.

+++++

This time, stepping into the Drift, Raleigh can practically feel the world of the Kaiju War wrapping around him. Water, sucking him under. An avalanche, blocking the light.

It was all he can do to hold on to what little reality he can feel - the room, Yancy's presence (which didn't leave him, but sat down beside him and held his hand) - as he collapsed back inward. The images of Chuck's confected reality assaults him; a gray wall taller than anything man had or would ever build; dirt under his nails; Chuck on TV bitching about mediocre pilots; Stacker Pentecost in a suit stepping out of a military chopper; the grand bays of the Hong Kong Shatterdome...

Hong Kong.

They're in Hong Kong.

He doesn't quite know what to say to Herc, but it doesn't matter because Herc doesn't seem to recognize him. "Sorry about your brother, mate," he says in that sincere way of his. Raleigh recognizes it at the voice his boss uses when he has to tell a family that the patient doesn't want to wake up. Herc never quite puts it that way, but then, Herc isn't exactly saying sorry your brother died either.

A "thank you sir," is the best Raleigh can do.

Chuck's mind is trying to drown him.

With his limited knowledge of the Drift, there's little Raleigh can do. He can't latch on to anything roaring through Chuck's thoughts. Can't rely on his own senses - the input is all Chuck's anyway, and nothing makes any sense in this steampunk maze of neon and rusted iron - and can't find anything familiar in Herc's rushing emotions. Fear and anger and exasperation and a desire, a desire to see this through, see Chuck make it through, see...

(Dimly, he can hear talking. Yancy and that Newt guy, having a fight in the hall. The real world, the waking world, the world outside of Chuck's head that might as well not exist at all, like a number on the other side of the lottery ticket scratching patch, so close and so so far)

Raleigh's not sure what he sees.

Gipsy, Mako, and does Chuck recognize her, know her at all, or is that something that Raleigh has brought him himself?, LOCCENT, a first Drift that fails so spectacularly in a burst of death in the streets of Tokyo, Herc and Chuck having a fight and him and Chuck having a fight, Marsha-no, Doctor Pentecost telling him...

(Pentecost, pulling up a chair, was talking to him. Something about being a fixed point, the last man standing. Like he was responding to Raleigh judging him, and of course, of course Raleigh's been judging this asshole, but he was apologizing too in some way, and Raleigh can't reach...)

There is water and waves and glowing blue acid, a pain Chuck is so close to that he just won't touch, until he almost does and Herc's arm breaks as he's thrown across the conn-pod in agony.

(Raleigh, listen to me...)

There is something in the water. In the rain. In the screaming on the radio as the Russian team dies; water, drowning, an explosion... the upturned hull of a boat and the lights dying beneath it, a woman of maybe thirty frantic, screaming into the storm and...

"Gipsy's nuclear," Raleigh tells the facsimile of the man who's responsible for this stupid bullshit death deadline for Chuck, when the rollers pass and he's able to come up for air. "Analog."

It's all he can do. Seize control for a moment, wrest it away.

He needs to find Herc. He needs Herc to come back with him.

But they're hitting the Breach, going after the place where it all went wrong in the first place, where the nightmares come from, where the war will end, and of course Herc won't leave Chuck. Herc does his duty, he always does his duty...

( Hannibal Chau is at the corner of Fong and Tull already...)

There are no answers, but there are solutions, there is a young man in here who wants to live, somebody who looks Raleigh in the face and says he likes his life, that he wants to keep it, and then volunteers for - dreams the fuck up - a suicide mission.

Raleigh tries, he tries so hard to get to Herc but he can't. Chuck keeps pushing him away, the Drift tearing at him, cutting between him and his goal like the surging sea and pushing him back out into the depths.

Something is breaking out there. Huddled on a shoal, a fist of coral, bleary eyes watching the rising sun vanish beneath another coming storm, weak arms around his shoulders...

(Yancy had his hand on Raleigh's shoulder, leaning down, "Raleigh it has to be now, you gotta get Herc out," but there's nothing to do, nothing to hold onto, Raleigh isn't Herc, he doesn't know how to help, what to say, what he can do, and he's only hanging on by his fingertips, Chuck more and more agitated, pushing him out like a foreign body...)

"My son would never admit it, but he's grateful."

It's Herc. Finally talking to him.

There isn't really time for a conversation. Time dilation here is a weird thing. So Raleigh does the only thing he can think of.

Kisses his boss. Right there in the middle of the hangar floor.

"The guy from the Ministry of Health is here," he says quietly, Herc staring him with confusion on his face. "There's no stay. You gotta-"

+++++

"Raleigh?" Yancy asks again, leaning on the bathroom door.

"He's almost back," the nurse replies, trying to get the images straight, remember what Herc's told him. "That fear, the thing that keeps people in these comas, it... it's out at sea. That's why he's been fighting sea monsters, I guess. That's why it never goes away."

"Makes sense," the neurologist agrees. "That's where his family died."

Raleigh lets go of the sink and forces himself to walk back into the hospital room. Chuck is silent, motionless in his bed, limbs wasted beneath the thin blanket. So different from the energetic, passionate jaeger pilot Raleigh's met in the Drift. He deserves a chance to live his life free of that insane Kaiju War...

In the next bed over, Herc gasps.

Awake.

"Shit," Raleigh grumbles, sliding into the space between them to pull up the screen on the Pons.

Herc reaches out for his hand, and Raleigh takes it without hesitation.

"So, which patient is it? Let's get this show on the road."

Raleigh raises an eyebrow at the sight of the man who just walked through the door, a harried Doctor Pentecost behind him, flanked by a couple of security guards.

That gets his attention.

He sighs, and steps out.

Whatever Chuck's going to do, he's gonna have to do it on his own.

+++++

The ocean is cold. Dark. Unforgiving.

This is where death lives.

Chuck tries not to think about anything. Everything has been moving very very quickly since Becket showed back up, since the count-down started for Pitfall. He hasn't been able to hold on to anything. Can't remember anything.

He wanted to be here with Dad. They promised - Dad promised - they'd go together.

But he's here alone. With a man he can't read, can't feel, Dad's fear still rippling through him, last words still ringing in his ears.

That's my son you've got there, Stacker! My son!

This is where death is.

This is where death is.

And he doesn't want to die. There are so many things he wants to do. It's not even about saving the world, not really. It would be nice to be a hero, but Chuck doesn't care. He wants to see the places that Dad has told him about, the rest of the world, do everything he's never been able to do, locked away in this cage of noxious blood and rotting metal and the depths of the ocean, the ocean, where everything bad comes from, where everything bad started...

All they have to do is close the Breach.

Close the Breach, and he never has to be afraid again.

But rising from it is death incarnate.

It's a kaiju, a monster, lightning in the deep sky and waves so high they look like mountains and the smell of gasoline as the fuel tanks rupture and the power dies and the light fails and people he loves are...

Pentecost is talking.

All Chuck can hear is Herc's voice.

Striker, take the leap.

+++++

"Why the long face?" Chau asks, as he unpacks his little kit of evil. "You know this kid's on the list. Gotta take care of the list."

"Fuck, Hannibal, can we not?" Yancy snaps, arms crossed, standing at the foot of Chuck's bed. He's seen a lot of shit in the years since he's been in Hong Kong - all public hospitals here are subject to the same rules. Euthanasia's been gaining popularity as a sick way to balance the books in a lot of places, but the Chinese are particularly blasé about it.

Probably why they hire this guy. Dresses like a pimp. Used to have a medical license back stateside, but lost it due to some kind of shady under-the-table drug dealing. Yancy's got no patience for doctors that abuse their prescription pads, and he's got even less for the ones that are authorized to dispense this shit.

He's done everything he can.

At least Pentecost is letting him stay, unlike Raleigh, who was escorted out and is probably being held in some office on the top floor, or Herc, who got wheeled out by a couple of the orderlies, too weak (and too entubated) to do anything.

Yancy figures he owes it to Chuck Hansen to at least be here at the end.

"I don't know what your problem is, Doctor Hansen. I do clean out your inventory on a regular basis..."

"That's enough," Pentecost says, barely raising his voice but irritation still palpable. "You're here to do a job, not taunt my staff."

Chau shrugs, and shakes one of his little vials. "Just making conversation."

"Well, I would ask you to stop."

"Fine by me." He looks at Yancy again. "You wanna kiss him goodbye, princess?"

"You're only here to avoid a jail sentence in America, right?" Yancy counters. He thinks about the impressions he got, those brief brushes of Chuck's mind, and feels dirty for watching this. For allowing this.

Chau smiles at him, a big toothy grin.

He likes his job way too much for Yancy's comfort.

Yancy's dealt with this too many times. The prep. The wind-up. The joking around. The way Chau taps the air bubbles out of his first syringe, like it fucking matters for anything at this point.

But before that needle can hit skin, Chuck - a kid who hasn't so much as twitched in over ten years - sits up bolt-straight in his bed and screams loud enough to peel paint off the wall.

Or, at least, stun three grown men into immobility, as they all stand there and stare in disbelief.

And then Herc's there, hospital gown gaping and catheter bag in hand, shoving Chau aside to fight his way over to Chuck. The boy falls back on his bed, curling onto his side (likely as close as he can get to Herc right now, Yancy thinks), the screams hiccuping into big, heavy sobs.

One hand in the boy's lank red hair, Herc glares at Chau. "You'll not touch my son," he rasps, voice almost gone from what surely had to be a self-removal of the intubation line. "I won't let you."

Chau snorts. "Buddy, I don't know what's going on here, but have you looked at yourself?" He rolls his eyes and picks his syringe back up. "We have a system here in Hong Kong..."

"He's absolutely right," Pentecost replies in that mild voice he uses when he knows he's won the argument. "The situation has changed. We don't need your presence here this morning."

"You sure?"

"Absolutely."

The Ministry of Health's hitman shrugs, and pulls his little surgical prep table aside to start packing up. "Suit yourself, but we are gonna need to fill out some paperwork together on why you're refusing an official government..."

"Of course."

"Pack your shit and go," Herc growls.

Chau cleans up in record time.

Chuck is still sobbing.

Yancy's torn between wanting to examine his patient and wanting a front-row set to whatever political magic their hospital director is about to pull, but there's not much he can do about anything right now.

He settles into the chair Raleigh was using this morning.

He can hang out. At least, until this first emotion spell passes.

Always hard on people, waking up from comas. But he'd be lying if he said he wasn't intensely curious about how this one's going to work out. If Newt's data and his own theories are correct, Chuck's recovery could be very interesting indeed.

He also really wants that Pons data. All that wonderful, lovely, irreplaceable Pons data.

Chapter Text

Chuck’s not really sure what happens after Pitfall.  

Nothing seems to make any sense.  It’s almost impossible to pick out details from the mass of gray that’s enveloped him.  A voice here, a flash of somebody’s hand there, hunger and confusion and boredom and sleep he keeps trying to run from... it’s the sleep he hates the most, though he doesn’t know why, and at least once, he’s pretty sure he can feel Mako’s arms around his shoulders, holding him as he sobs. But nothing makes any sense, until the moment his eyes actually seem to open for the first time in what feels like years, and focus.

On Raleigh.

Raleigh Becket.

Doing something to his IV.

“Oi, hands off,” he grumbles, swatting ineffectually at the other Ranger, who steps back but hardly seems threatened.  It’s a bloody insult, that’s what it is.  It’s a nasty hospital room, too.  How long has he been out?  “Don’t touch m’ shit.”

“I have to, in order to make sure your fluid intake is adequate.  You’re not on the feeding tube anymore, but doc ordered you back on the IV last night,” the infuriating American tells him.  “You remember punching that last glass of water out of my hands?”

“That’s not your job,” Chuck grumbles.  His throat hurts.  His eyes hurt.  Everything hurts.  

“Yes it is.”

“No it’s not.”

“I’m a registered nurse, kiddo.  It is totally my job to make sure you stay alive.”

Fucking whatever.  Becket's probably just being his usual annoying puppy dog self.  Doesn't look like he accrued any damage in Pitfall either.  Not fair.  Where's his hospital bed?

“Where is Dad?” he asks.

Raleigh - who is wearing scrubs, and what the fuck is up with that? - stops.  Looks at him.  “Look, you’ve been in a coma for a while.  Things are going to be confusing.  The brain gets all scrambled.  Believe me, I’ve seen it.  But you’ve got one of the best neurologists I’ve worked with in a long time on your case.  You’re gonna be fine.”

Chuck considers this.  Still.  "You're not really a nurse.”

“Registered in the US and Australia.  Not so much here in Hong Kong, but I promise you, I know what I'm doing.”

That’s good at least.  Even if this nurse shit is, well, shit.

“When you’d go to nursing school?”

Raleigh takes a deep breath, like he’s preparing to say something, and then backs off.  “What do you remember?”

Chuck sits up a little in bed, back protesting strenuously - feels like he’s been beaten by a fire hose, actually - but he doesn’t care.  “Since when do you care, you seppo arsehole?”

The American Ranger purses his lips. “Chuck, don’t be a dick. Answer my question. What do you remember?” Every word is punctuated harshly. Fine. If he’s being serious...

“I...”  And Chuck shuts his eyes, trying to grab onto something, anything.  But the inside of his mind is as confusing as this world outside.  “I think I was havin’ a dream about a boat.”

“Anything else?”

“I don’t know, Ray.  How about the motherfuckin’ kaijuu?”

Raleigh stares off into space for a few moments and then makes a note on his clipboard.

(Why does he have a bloody clipboard?  Why is he a bloody nurse?  The fuck is going on here?)

“Look, I’m going to go get Herc, okay?  He stepped out for a few minutes to get some dinner, but I think he can explain this better than me.”

Good.  Dad. Dad’ll know what to do about this clusterfuck. But before Raleigh can go, Chuck’s seized by a sudden fear.  “Hey, Becket?”

“Yeah, Chuck?”

“Did we, uhh, did we win?”

Raleigh gives him a sad smile, one that makes no sense, because the next thing he says is, “Yeah, of course. You won the war.”

Relief floods through Chuck - not that he’d admit it - and he falls back on his pillow, feeling curiously drained.  “Of course I did.”

“We knew you could do it,” Raleigh tells him.

And Chuck lays there for a little while, counting the pits in the ceiling and thinking about Dad, when the last person in the world who should be here, walks in.  Nonchalant, a thick file in hand and a doctor's coat carelessly thrown around broad shoulders.

“Chuck, glad to see you’re awake.  How’re you feeling?”

It’s Yancy Becket.  Yancy-motherfucking-Becket.

Alive.

Right in front of him.

So maybe Chuck panics a little.

+++++

“Chuck you are not dead!”

“He is, jesus christ!  This is hell!  This has to be hell!”

Rubbing his forehead, Herc glares at the neurologist who just will not leave the room.  Post coma paranoia, probably.  Not uncommon, but it’s never fun. This is why he normally doesn’t stick around for the recovery period.  It can be a fucking disaster.  Typically, though, his patients don’t rabbit this hard, or so he's told.  

Really, he's impressed the kid was even able to get from the bed to the bathroom, much less lock the door.  He shouldn't be able to walk at all.  It should be weeks, if not months, before he gets proper use of his limbs back.

“Chuck, son, please...”

“What if he’s a demon?!  What if you’re all demons, or those things on other side, or this is some kind of kaiju trick, or...”

“You lived through Pitfall,” Herc tells him, not sure what else to say.  The truth?  Sorry kiddo, you've been in a coma for over a decade and your entire family is dead and by the way I'm not your dad.. Probably not the right time.  He hadn't planned on this kind of reaction. He probably should have, considering. Fuck.  “You are alive, Chuck. You are in hospital in Hong Kong.  Tendo is working right now on getting you a ride home.”

“This ain’t the Shatterdome.  It isn’t, it isn’t right.”

“You just woke up.  Things aren’t going to feel right for a while.”

“Fuck you!  How do I know you're even my dad?”

Herc closes his eyes, because he can practically feel Raleigh’s sadness, as well as Yancy’s embarrassed judgement.  This is not the way he wanted this to go down.  Hell, he normally doesn't even stick around this long, but Chuck's been having a hard time staying awake for the past week or so and Yancy practically begged them to stay.  Just in case. And deep down, Herc knew something wasn't right.  He's known this might happen.  

Call it intuition.

He hates intuition.

It might be the ghost drift.

Thinking about that doesn’t help, either.

“I’m not going anywhere, sprog.  I’ll not leave you.  If you need to spend some time in there in order to figure this out, that’s fine.  I’ll be right here.”  More silence.  “You’re my boy, Chuck, and don’t forget it.”

Settling back against the wall, Yancy is definitely staring at him.  “This isn’t a healthy way of handling this,” he said quietly.

Herc folds his arms.  He isn't about to get into it with a fucking doctor, and he didn’t quite understand it himself.  Drifts normally fade after a few days, the memories of the coma-spun realities evaporating, like mist burning off the ocean in the midday sun.  He destroys his journals, and then the shit's gone forever.  Herc likes it that way.  

This is different.  

He can remember it all.  He can remember Chuck.  Loving him.  Being in love with him.  Being with him.  For five years.

It's extremely disconcerting.  

He can only imagine how the sprog's feeling about it.

“Buy you a coffee?” Raleigh asks, and grabs Yancy by the arm, dragging him from the room.

Herc taps on the door, settling back on the wall just to the other side.  "Just you and me now, Chuck.  I’m not goin’ anywhere. You tell me when you’re ready to talk, okay?”

It's a good half hour before Chuck speaks again.

But at least he cracks the door to do it.

He looks like hell, dark circles around his eyes skin pale, limbs in that wasted state that doesn't seem right, doesn't seem right at all, after all Herc's memories of a bulky, strong young man at the peak of physical condition.  He's leaning hard against the door, legs sprawled out behind him, and there are fresh bruises on his arms.  Yancy did say he scrambled out of the bed pretty quick.

“How long was I in a coma?” he asks quietly.

Herc sighs.  “You want the answer to that right now?”

Chuck looks like he's going to cry.  "My drive suit scars are gone.  So's the tattoo you let me get last year.  Dad, what's going on?"

Taking a deep breath, because he’s had some time to think about this, Herc stands up and offers Chuck a hand.  "Let's get you in a wheelchair, and I'll show you."

"Wheelchair?"

"Don't know if you've noticed, but your legs ain't working so good, are they?"

Chuck flushes, but at least he lets Herc pull him to his feet.  It's clear he can't holds his own weight right now, but that's okay; Herc can take it for the both of them.

+++++

"You were in a coma," Dad's saying.  "All of that, Chuck, it..."

"It didn't happen," Chuck finishes weakly.

He's not sure if this is real or not. If Dad is right or not.  He's not sure about anything.  But here they are, on the roof of the hospital building, looking out of a Hong Kong skyline that is neither broken nor bleeding, a city intact, buildings standing proud that Otachi tore down not a week ago (or a year, or ten years, for all Chuck knows), the sky polluted from functioning industry, the wiring scent of cars and food and trash and life on the stiff sea breeze.

At his core, he doesn't want to believe it.  His entire life, everything good, everything bad, everything he can remember and everything he is, can't all be a lie, can it?  It's too enormous a thing to even try to contemplate.  And isn’t that a fucked-up thing? Nukes over Syndey, millions dead, and he wants it to be true?

But this, out here, the afternoon sun on his face and his body aching and the feel of the pleather arm pads under his finger tips is real in a way things haven't been in a long, long time.  Since the playground.

Dad was there, at the playground.

That's where they began.

Why can he remember all of that?  Why does it feel so true

"It happened.  Everything that you remember, it happened."  Dad - Herc, or whoever the fuck this man is - is leaning against the wall at the edge of the roof, out of reach, staring off into nothing.  Uncomfortable, Chuck can feel, although he's not sure if that's real.  What was the Drift?  How does he know this man, if they never piloted together?  "It just didn't happen out here."

"I was in a coma."

"Yeah."

It takes him a minute to work that out.  "The whole kaiju thing was the coma?"

"The mind does strange things when it's under severe trauma, Chuck, and..."

"How long?" Chuck asks, numbness spreading through him now. He flexes a hand open and shut, more wanting to know he can do it than anything else. Fuck, even his fingers hurt. When was the last time he used his muscles?  "How long was I... dreaming this up?"

"You were ten, when they brought you in here.  You're twenty-one now."

Chuck's eyes are stinging, but he can barely lift his hand right now; he's not about to start crying.  "Eleven years?"

"Thereabouts."

"What about..." and he closes his eyes, trying to sort everything out in his mind.  There was Pitfall, the ocean, the kaiju, the battle.  But there was a storm-tosses sea, a boat overturned, lights dying in the water and the cut of reef coral and a woman screaming... "is my mum really dead?"

"There was a boating accident, with you and your family," Herc says slowly.  "They don't really know what happened.  If you can remember..."

"Why don't you know?" Chuck asks, and it's more accusatory than he'd perhaps wanted it to be.  You and your family.  That fills him with dread.

"I'm just the bloke they called in to bring you back," Herc says.

"Not my dad."

Herc finally, finally looks at him.  Regret in his eyes.  "No, son.  I'm not."

He's different than Chuck remembers.  He's more.

He’s so alive. Everything is so alive. From out of a world that was dying, everything is so alive here, so close and vast, too impossible to accept or deny all at once, and it hurts, it hurts not having Striker, not having the Drift, the only place he’s ever felt okay...

So maybe Chuck starts crying.  

Herc doesn't say anything.  

Somehow, that helps.

+++++

It was ten days between him breaking free of the coma, he’s told, and that morning he freaked out on Doctor Becket. Everything seems to go into overdrive now, though.

His doctor - who really is Yancy-fucking-Becket, but this is a world where Yancy-fucking-Becket was never a Ranger and never torn from the conn-pod in the freeze cold of an Alaskan leap year - says he's in extraordinarily good condition, for all he's been through.

No transitory amnesia, no serious brain damage, Chuck, you're a medical miracle.

Like that's supposed to make him feel better.

Chuck can remember running - in the coma-world of the Shatterdome and the kaiju, in the old school playground, when Mum was alive.  He can remember eating and sleeping and fucking... god, he remembers that most of all, and how could he possibly know what that feels like, if he fell into a coma at eleven?  But he can't hardly do anything now.  

"Your muscles have atrophied," the physio - Mako, and how insane is that? - keeps telling him.  "We can only do so much for the long-term patients, and many treatments simply are not meant to do anything more than maintain a bare minimum of functionality.  This is when you work.  When you're awake."

Chuck can remember a time when he was sixteen, working out in the 'Dome gym, Dad adding weight after weight to the bar because the pilots had a bet going on about who could bench press the most... 

It never happened.

But he can remember it.

It was still your world. It still has value, Herc will tell him, if Chuck asks.

He grits his teeth against the screaming pain in his body right now, in the waking world, and does what Mako says.

Raleigh's around quite a bit, too.  A nurse here, an actual nurse, which seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world.  He's almost exactly the way Chuck knew him in the Drift, but his life is so different out here.  He apparently stepped into the Drift a few times, so maybe that's why he seems so familiar, and Chuck's not sure if it's a good or bad thing; Raleigh's the one who has to help him to the toilet that first week, more than once.

"If you tell anybody about this, I'll fucking gut you, Ray," Chuck snarls at him.

Raleigh grins.  "Won't utter a word about it, Hansen," he laughs, and then seems to realize what he said.

Hansen

It's not Chuck's name.  

It's Herc's.

And that's the worst of it, isn't it?

Chuck tries not to think about any of... that.

It’s not unusual, he’s told, for long-term coma patients to have difficulty waking up. Chuck can believe it. That world was his world for most of his life; he’s lived most of his life asleep. Why would he want to wake up?

Nights are the worst. Chuck doesn’t want to asleep, afraid of his dreams, uncomfortable alone in bed after so long at Herc’s side. He goes almost forty-eight hours, seven days after he wakes up, refusing to close his eyes, unable to commit to something so final again. Herc shows up on night three of his no-sleep vigil in scrubs instead of his usual khakis and henley, and tells him to scoot over.

Doctor Becket wakes them up in the morning.

Doctor Becket seems to think it’s hilarious.

Chuck doesn’t. Because Herc is holding back from him, when they’ve already been intimate for years. At least, years that Chuck can remember.

He aches for his dad. But his dad’s not coming back. And he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know what Herc’s thinking. Sure, Herc’s explained the Pons and Drift therapy and all that, but it still doesn't make sense. They were so close. In Striker, they were so close.

So when Doctor Becket comes by and casually asks Chuck if he'd consent to being the subject of a research paper he wants to write, Chuck cuts through all his bullshit about helping other patients and on the brink of a revolutionary new understanding of TBI and asks.

"Will that force D- I mean, Herc, to talk about what happened?"

"I will need his data, yes.  We might have to initiate another Drift or two for comparison's sake.  Brain activity and all that."

Drifting with Dad sounds like a mighty fine idea.

Chuck signs the paperwork.

Herc isn’t happy about it, when Chuck tells him that afternoon. But he squeezes Chuck’s hand and says he supports his choices and Chuck wonders, for a crazy second, if Herc’s having as much trouble as he is with accepting that they aren’t family.

Try as he might, he can't remember the storm that took his real family's lives.  He doesn't remember the boat, or sailing, or the ocean.  He has a passing brush of memory that involves a dock, waving goodbye to a man on the pier, but that's it.  What happened to him, little Charles Benton, he's got no idea.

That's not who he is.  Or it is, but he's somebody else now, somebody different maybe from who he might have been.  He's a combat veteran, a war hero, an international celebrity, not an orphan but somebody with a father who loves him dearly and a dog and a crew... except he's not.  

Chuck feels horribly adrift, most of the time.  He's only barely holding it together, he thinks, the security of the rhythm of hospital life the only thing he really knows, and then some asshat from the Embassy comes by to tell him he's being sent home. To Sydney.

Chapter Text

"You're healthy enough to travel," the embassy guy is saying, "and Australia really does need to get you out of here.  The government back home is floating the bill for you right now, and..."

Herc could punch this man in the face. He could. This pencil-neck paper pusher with his skinny suit pants and know-it-all attitude. He’s loving this, this little mission of mercy he’s been sent on, except he’s telling a boy who’s barely a fortnight out of an eleven year coma that the only solid thing in his life right now is being taken away.

“Isn’t there any way we can step in?” Tendo interrupts. He’s rubbing that rosary in his hand raw; he looks as pissed as Herc feels. “Catholic Charities does not mind paying for Chuck’s continued care. Doctor Becket here is putting together some research grants, Herc is donating his time...”

“And the Chinese have lost face by declaring a patient terminal and having him recover so miraculously,” Pentecost says in that steady, declarative way of his. He looks over at Yancy, who hasn’t sat down this entire conversation, standing there, braced up on the back of a chair. “You know how much trouble this could bring down on all of us.”

“What, you think they’re going to send that freakshow Chau back up here?”

Embassy bloke sighs. “Gentlemen, the government is paying Chuck’s way. All the way home. This is a no-brainer.”

“Because it’s political, right?” Yancy snaps back. He gestures at where Chuck is all but puddled in his wheelchair. “He is my patient, and it should be my decision when and how he is moved...”

“It’s not your decision, Doctor Becket. Or anybody’s in this room,” Embassy bloke declares. Smug arsehole. “Chuck, we’re looking forward to bringing you home. You’ll have world class treatment. I promise.”

“Fuck off,” Chuck grumbles, and won’t look up from the floor.

(He’s starting to panic. Herc can feel it, knows it in his bones. Sure, the kid wears his emotions on his sleeve. Lacks all that adult development that might have taught him how to hide it. But still, it’s a little scary for Herc, how much of Chuck he can still feel. How open the ghost drift is. How connected they are.)

Sick of the charade, Herc stands and walks over to Chuck’s chair. He lays a hand on the kid’s shoulder, a touch that’s reciprocated when Chuck grabs onto him. He squeezes reassuringly, and kicks off the brakes on the wheel.

“Wait, Herc, what are you going?” Embassy bloke says.

Herc shrugs. “You’ve clearly made all these decisions without Chuck’s input. I see no reason why he should have to sit here and listen to this bullshit.”

Embassy bloke starts to protest, but Tendo shuts him down. “Wonderful idea, Herc. I’ll catch you up when we’re done here. Chuck, man, I’m sorry.”

Chuck nods; Herc takes him out of the room.

The boy holds it together until they’re clear.

He doesn’t say anything, but emotion pours off him like a foghorn.

Herc wheels him down to the elevator.

Chuck doesn’t say a word after they get up to the roof deck. He pushes himself closer to the wall and stands up, shaking from the effort, but up he goes. Herc can feel his desperation, and moves closer, instinctively it seems.

It’s a long way down.

“I don’t wanna leave,” he mumbles.

“Chuck, it's going to be okay,” he says, trying to keep his own emotions at bay. “Doctor Becket and Mako are coming along to keep the research going, Raleigh'll be there with us.  You'll know people.  You won't be alone.”

The boy just looks tired. “I’m a bloody freak show."

Herc lays a hand on his shoulder. “You are not a freak show.  You are a survivor, and you are in recovery.  We have to keep moving forward, and this is part of it. Son, it’s time to go home.”

"I don't have anything," Chuck says quietly, eyes firmly fixed on the city below them.  “I don’t have a fuckin’ home. So you tell me, what am I supposed to do?"

“Like the embassy bloke said, your uncle's been notified..."

"Uncle Scott's a fucking drug addict.  Tendo told me.”

Herc takes a deep breath.  "I'll be there, Chuck."

"More in-patient therapy?" the kid grumbles.

“No. Out-patient.  Doc’s super pleased with the progress you’re making.”   And Yancy was emphatic about this, needing to get the kid out of the hospital, force him to start making at least baby steps back into the wider world. Need to do it safely, of course, Yancy said, but he doesn’t seem to have a plan for that. 

Chuck laughs, but it sounds like a sob.  He runs his hands through his hair, making it stick up at all angles.  Herc can feel the ache in his muscles, the weariness in his nervous system, still trying to accustom itself to this kind of constant use.  “Out-patient?  I have to leave? I don’t have anything. I don’t have any family. I didn’t even finish bloody primary school.  Where I am supposed to go, Dad?  The fuck am I supposed to do?"

Herc leans against the wall next to the son who isn’t his, staring out at the city.  This unbroken, whole, city. He can feel how much horror it holds for Chuck. How much fear is out there. He spends his life rescuing people from nightmares; he’s never had anybody this invested to their coma-world who actually wanted to come back with him. The people like Chuck, the people who’ve lived the fever dream so deeply, normally choose to stay. Like Raleigh’s mum; they just... slip away.

He’s not sure what brought Chuck back. He’s not sure why the boy is standing here with him now, almost in tears at the prospect of leaving the hospital, instead of taking up space down in a morgue fridge. But Herc’s used to dealing in the weird world of human emotion; he’s used to saving people from themselves, and he’s never needed to understand before. Never wanted to.

What he wants from Chuck...

Well. He sure as shit isn’t done with this op. Stick with me, and we’ll get through this.  Wasn’t that what Herc had said, when he came to Chuck on the playground?  When he first started in? When they first met?

Like Chuck can hear his thoughts - or feel them at least, which he probably can - the boy reaches out for his hand.

“Dad, can I tell you a secret?” he asks, and he sounds so much like a child it’s heartbreaking.

“Anything,” Herc promises, still frowning, not sure where this is going.

Chuck grabs onto his arm, taking that last step into him, and then throws his arms around Herc’s shoulders. “I wish you really were my dad,” he says softly, clinging on, all his weight falling on Herc’s lanky frame. “I don’t wanna be somewhere you aren’t my dad.”

Herc’s eyes sting, but he blinks it back, and holds on.

So that’s it.

This boy came back for him.

He’s not going to watch him fall now.

+++++

The idea for Chuck to move in with him (them) is actually Raleigh’s idea.

The devious little shit cooks it up on the charter flight back to Australia. Then tells Chuck first. Whatever he says gives Chuck the impression that it’s Herc’s idea, though, and judging from the way the kid beams when he says thank you, it’s exactly what Chuck needed to hear.

“Why did you tell him that?” Herc hisses at Raleigh, after Chuck’s fallen asleep in one of the back bunks on the too-posh Gulfstream the fucking government sent to drag them home.

“I, uhh, might have already had a few things done for the apartment...”

“My flat? The fuck, Raleigh?”

Raleigh pokes Herc with a socked foot. “Because that kid’s in love with you, you pathetic lump.”

He raises an eyebrow, and then looks over at Yancy, who looks pained. “Oi, like you’re so fuckin’ innocent, Becket.”

“He needs you,” Raleigh says, and gestures at Yancy. “Back me up here, bro. We both saw that shit in the Drift.”

“Yeah, he’s got it bad.”

“So do you, boss,” Raleigh adds.

“I’m not getting in the middle of that one,” Yancy amends quickly.

Herc just stares at his nurse. “There is something wrong with you.”

“Chuck can have my room. I promised Yancy I’d show him around Sydney, maybe get a rental place together, depending on how long this study goes.”

Yancy nods. “I hear it’s kind of expensive, and I didn’t my grant to include living expenses, what with leaving Hong Kong and all...”

“It’s fucking creepy how you two are finishing each other’s sentences now,” Herc grumbles.

“Turns out our dad was a total creepy bigamist who was keeping two families for a long time,” Raleigh offers, too flippant to be anything other than hurt. Herc can’t hold that against him; he’s lost all his family at this point and it’s a huge sore spot for him. “So we’ve got that in common.”

“Our dad?” Herc asks wearily.

Yancy shrugs. “DNA test suggested it, my aunt confirmed.”

Herc sighs. Great. Two Beckets. Two actual Beckets. “Chuck’s not going to sleep in your room.”

Raleigh grins. “I know.”

Yancy still looks pained. But at least, Herc thinks with not a small amount of possessiveness, the neurologist isn’t fucking his nurse.

+++++

Herc’s flat isn’t big. It doesn’t make much sense to him at first that Herc lives in a flat at all. He seems more like the kind of bloke who’d have a house on some land somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, but before Chuck can even ask, Herc tells him that all he wanted was a place to sleep, something he can lock up and go.

Apparently, he spends a lot of time on the road. Doing for other coma patients exactly what he did for Chuck.

You’re not special, Chuck reminds himself as Herc lets him hang onto his arm and walks him around the apartment, showing him every inch of the space. He does this for everybody. You’re just a patient.

So when Herc shows him the second bedroom, fitted with a bar that lets him pull himself in and out of bed and over to his chair more easily, shows him the bathroom with the sliding transfer chair in the bathtub and handrails at the toilet, Chuck accepts it without comment.

Herc must do this all the time, right?

Chuck doesn’t care. Probably makes him a pathetic sad sack of kaijuu shit, but he’s here with Herc. He’s got something real in all this confusing bullshit that he’s woken up to, and that’s all it is.

“This gonna work for you, kiddo?” Herc asks as he helps Chuck settle down on the sofa.

“You have a nice place,” Chuck mumbles. At least, he thinks it’s nice. He’s not real sure what the standards are, but the furniture is mostly in the same color palette and everything is clean, cleaner than Mum kept the house for sure, and it smells better than the hospital did. There aren’t any pictures, not many books or a stereo or anything like that. He has a big TV though. A blanket with the RAAF logo on it thrown across the back of the couch. Frames on the wall that are military going-away gifts, but Chuck’s not sure how he knows that.

It’s not what he expected.

Their quarters in the ‘Dome were spartan like this, sure. But there were photos of Mum. Photos of him as a little boy.

“Like I said, it’s just a place to crash,” Herc replies, and heads over to the kitchen. “You hungry at all?”

“Not really,” Chuck says. His stomach is actually grumbling, but it still hurts every time he eats. An after-effect, Doctor Becket said, of being on a feeding tube for so damn long.

“We can order out later,” Herc tells him, and the fridge door opens and shuts. The coma specialist comes back with a beer for himself, and some kind of fruit soda thing for Chuck. “I’m afraid I’m not much of a cook.”

“That’s okay. Neither was Mum.”

“Normally Raleigh handles all that,” Herc says casually, and then his face kind of tightens up, like he’s said something wrong.

Oh.

Of course. That makes sense.

Well. Fuck.

You’re just a patient. Just like everyone else.

+++++

Despite all the progress Doctor Becket keeps telling him he’s making, most of the time, Chuck doesn’t feel all the way there.

In his life as a jaeger pilot, as Herc’s son, things were more scattered, less sensical, but at least they felt right. Here, each moment flows into the next in this jarring series of images and sensations and feelings that never fucking stops, but can only be held in small bits and pieces. It’s disconcerting as hell, and Chuck thinks he hates it.

At the same time, though, it’s kind of amazing, watching things build on themselves, an entire system of causality that he can’t control and can’t influence, not like he could in the coma, and best of all, doesn’t seem to give a shit about his moods.

When he wakes up from an afternoon nap on Herc’s couch with a bad dream, the sun is still shining outside.

When he’s scared, he can turn on the TV and find nothing but mindless soap operas, instead of some fresh report of the latest kaijuu attack.

It’s... freeing, in a way he wasn’t expecting. The world doesn’t answer to him, but in return, he’s not responsible for saving it.

All he has to do is deal with himself.

Which is a relief, because dealing with himself is really hard.

Doctor Becket is working with the team at the outpatient care facility on his research, while Chuck goes through all his therapy. Physical, mostly at this point, for a few hours a day, plus weekly scans, counseling, notes, journalling, some neurological stuff... but even that doesn’t take up a whole twelve or eighteen waking hours.

Raleigh gives Chuck a study guide, about a week in.

“What’s this for?”

“Thought you might like to finish school up. Get your GED, or whatever the Aussies call it.”

“I was only in grade four!”

“Well, smart kid like you, you ought to be able to kill this Happy Gilmore style,” Raleigh says, and grins at him.

Raleigh Becket is a stupid puppy, no matter what reality he’s in, isn’t he?

“What’s Happy Gilmore?”

“Movies nights. We’re gonna have some movies nights from here on out.”

Herc is still working- and of course he is, saving people is what Herc does. No hard cases, from what he says. Shallow, sort-term comas only right now, people who don’t need much help or who are going to wake up on their own but their families need the comfort of talking to them. One case, Herc says, lasts fifteen minutes and that’s just because the cops need some information; the sheila wakes up on her own a week later, but the guy who assaulted her is already in prison. Bottom line, Herc is still working, is gone long hours sometimes, and Chuck is grateful for something to do.

Studying books, learning things, knowledge... he’d forgotten what this felt like. One thing building on another, something to be discovered instead of created, found instead of forced. Chuck reads an astronomy book one afternoon, the physics of the creation of a black hole, and finds himself crying; this is nothing he ever would have come up with on his own, or known to even wonder about.

The world is so big.

It’s so big it’s terrifying.

One of the downsides of Herc working so much is that Raleigh often comes home with him. This shouldn’t be a downside really, because Raleigh is an amazing cook and doesn’t mind playing video games and always knows the good movies.

(Like Happy Gilmore. That’s a pretty good movie.)

Raleigh sleeps over, though. Not all the time, but sometimes.

He sleeps over.

In Herc’s room.

Chuck minds more than he should.

Chuck also minds that he doesn’t have his dog any more.

Other than that, between the therapy and the books and the rhythm of the evenings when Herc comes home tired and they both crash on the couch and watch shitty TV, things are... things are things.

One thing flowing into the next.

It’s hard to get used to, how moments still stand down out but everything is there for the reaching, if he wants to look back.

(It takes him a long time to figure out a way to vocalize this to the head-doc Doctor Becket insists he sees once a week. But the head-doc doesn’t quite know what to say about it, a phenomenon I frankly haven’t encountered before, so it’s Herc who ultimately explains it to him.

It’s hard, but at the same time, it’s...it’s nice.

Like the visit with Uncle Scott, apprehension gnawing in Chuck’s gut but his uncle - gaunt and far thinner than he used to be, the creases of both arms scarred to fuck - breaking down in tears the second he sees him. An awkward five minutes of stilted conversation finally ends when Uncle Scott hugs him with those ruined arms and promises I’m going to stay clean this time, I’ve got a reason now.

Like how he walks on his own without help, three weeks after he gets home.

Like the first time he cajoles Herc into picking up a game controller and going head-on in some old-school Mario Kart.

Like how he finds Herc’s journal from his own case, spilled out of his messenger bag, and wants so desperately to read past that first page but can’t bring himself to.

Like the weekly scans with Doctor Becket, and how Raleigh is always on the other end of his headset to talk with him, or read him something from whatever course book he’s on.

Like Herc taking him to a superhero movie, Chuck’s first real excursion out into the world, and how it’s both more boring and more exciting than anything ever was in his coma.

Like when they accidentally drive by his old primary school, and Chuck has to go back to just look at the place.

Like when a journo and his camera crew show up in front of the clinic, wanting to know all about this miracle-mystery coma patient rumor that’s apparently been making the rounds in Canberra, and Herc almost throws the man off the sidewalk.

So many things. Sparking each one into the next, spilling over, carrying on. It’s almost too much, but Chuck figures that if he has to stretch his muscles, get them used to living again, maybe it’s the same for his mind. Maybe he needs to stretch it, no matter what Doctor Becket says about taking it easy or you still have some brain damage, Chuck, and we can’t tell the extent of it.

Whatever.

He feels great.

Except when he looks at Herc.

Chuck feels something completely different when he looks at Herc, something he can’t quite identify. He knows what he wants, but just like the coma, Herc probably does this for everybody.

And this is the thing Chuck wishes he could control. He doesn’t want to carry the world on his shoulders anymore. He has too much to deal with, all the therapy, all the recovery, to be responsible for everything again.

But Herc loved him in the coma. In the Drift.

Here, he’s just a patient.

Here, there’s nothing important about him at all.

+++++

“He’s sinking,” Yancy tells Herc without preamble one afternoon, about two months after Chuck woke up.

“What do you mean?”

“You have this kid living with you, a boy who spent effectively five years of his life, or at least, what he remembers as his life...”

“What do you mean, what he remembers?”

The neurologist folds his arms, leaning back against the edge of his desk, an expression on his face like Herc just asked him about the world being flat. “What the fuck do you mean, what he remembers? Herc, that was his life in there. He remembers everything.”

Herc shakes his head slowly. Most of his patients, at least as far as he knows, don’t hold onto this this long. “That’s not how this works. It’s a coma, it’s a fever dream, it fades...”

“Herc, from what I can tell, the reason why Chuck can stand right now, much less speak, is because he was effectively growing up in the Drift with you. Your presence sparked real, sustained, affective neurological development. His brain changed, it healed. He is who he is today because of what he went through in that coma, same as any other set of waking experiences.”

“I don’t know...”

“I can fuckin’ prove it,” he says, and nods back at his laptop, open on the desk behind him. “This is quantifiable, Herc.”

“So what, why tell me? Doesn’t this fuck with your experiment...”

“Fuck that. Herc, the kid’s starting to go into a really bad depression.”

Shit. “Why?”

“You were his dad,” Yancy says, and grimaces a bit, “and his, uhh, lover, I guess. For years. That’s what he remembers. That what he knows. He seems like he’s adjusting really well, but that...he’s holding onto that. And he thinks you don’t care about him.”

This is so out of character for the doctor that Herc thinks he might be hallucinating it. Yancy’s not normally this forward. Or emotional. Or concerned about anything other than his data. “Where is this coming from?” Herc asks, perplexed.

“He didn’t know I was in the collection room after his MRI today. He freaked out about halfway through, and my tech had to go in, pull him out. He, uhh,” and Yancy sighs. “He was pretty raw.”

Herc doesn’t know what to say to that.

Chuck has his good days and bad days, but it seems like he has more good days than bad. He’s excited about all the books he’s reading, more and more advanced material piling up around the sofa and the bed in the guest room. He’s moved up from the wheelchair to a walker with leg braces, and is all but killing himself to get down to just a cane. He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but he smiles often and he seems... he seems okay.

He really does, he seems okay.

He never says he’s not.

He never talks about what happened in the coma, and Herc says so.

Yancy just sighs. “Look, Herc, I’m not really an expert with people and shit, but have you ever asked him? Have you ever tried to talk to him about it?”

“Why would I?”

The neurologist purses his lips. “You talk to me about it.”

“Because it’s scientifically relevant...”

“And you’re the one who keeps insisting this Drift thing isn’t about science,” Yancy snaps, and checks his watch. “He’s probably done with his PT by now.”

“Are you done?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Chuck’s had a bad day. Herc can tell. It’s not his body language, not the glower on his face. It’s the way he feels, his frustration thrumming down through the ghost drift.

Three months, three months since last they Drifted, and Herc can still feel him as acutely as he could the moment he woke up on that gurney in another room and knew without a shadow of a doubt that Chuck was in grave danger.

It’s a problem. It’s keeping Herc from taking any but the easiest consults right now. He can’t hold the Drift with Chuck still in his head. (And maybe if he just dove into a hard case, he could expunge the remnants of that from himself, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to.)

He doesn’t ask Chuck how he is. Just pats his shoulder and helps him out to the car.

Chuck doesn’t offer anything, either.

He kind of looks like he’s been crying.

He’s silent on the way up to Herc’s flat, and silent, he pushes himself inside. He’s moving slow, jerky, obviously in pain, but when Herc tries to help him, he just swats the hand away. “I can get it m’self, old man,” he grumbles.

Old man.

Chuck hasn’t called him that since Pitfall.

Since he woke up.

He also hasn’t made a reference from the coma in weeks. He’s very good about not doing that.

Herc had honestly thought that meant the sprog had forgotten about it.

“Sorry,” he says, and waits for Chuck to drag himself inside. “You want anything in particular for dinner?”

“I’m gonna take a shower,” Chuck replies, ignoring him completely, and heads slowly down the hall to the bathroom.

Herc waits until he hears the shower start.

Then sits down, and phones his nurse.

“Herc, what’s up? You decide to take that case today? These parents are fuckin’ desperate and you know these milk runs aren’t paying the bills right now...”

He sits down on the sofa. His legs hurt; his whole body feels tired. “Remember when we were coming home?”

There’s a pause on the other end. “Umm, when?”

“On the charter flight, Raleigh, jesus. From Hong Kong.”

“That was, like, a ten hour flight, so...”

“About Chuck.”

“Oh.” Silence again. “He, uhh, he’s in love with you. And I think you’re kind of in love with him, right?”

Right. Yeah. Raleigh would put things that bluntly. “I don’t know.”

“Bullshit. If you’re asking me, you know.”

“How am I... Raleigh, he’s... if I’m the influence that made him... wake up, or reformatted his brain, or whatever the fuck Yancy thinks I did, then wouldn’t I be the reason he feels like that?”

“You think you made him gay?”

“He thinks I’m his dad too.”

“Well, you’re not.”

“I feel like I am.”

“Then get your daddy kink on. That shit’s hot. You ever play that game before? I’m telling you, it’s a lot of fun.”

Herc rubs a weary hand across his face. “Raleigh, I...”

But just then, there’s a crash from the toilet.

“Everything okay?”

“Probably,” and Herc hangs up.

Leaves the phone where it is.

Chapter Text

It’s been a shit day all around; a bad physio session where his legs wouldn’t support his weight, a bad shrink session where the doctor kept trying to tell him that what happened in the Drift wasn’t real and he should give those feelings no more heed than dreams (and you aren’t that person but then who is he?), a bad follow-up with Doctor Becket, who he maybe yelled at. That fucking MRI, and the panic attack that followed. Those things not necessarily in that order; Chuck’s brain is still having trouble sorting this shit out into nice easy causality chains.

Still.

Goddammit.

What happened? The fucking chair collapsed or something... he was going to take a shower, right?

Makes sense, he thinks to himself with not a small sense of defeat, crumpled in the bottom of the tub, one of the chair’s plastic ribs poking him in the back.

The water’s on, and all that.

Chuck’s more embarrassed than hurt; he can’t get up, can’t do anything more than pull himself a few centimeters away from the collapsed chair. He can’t even shut the water off, because of course his stupid legs would pick now to stop working, after that shit physio session today, and his left hip is aching and it’s still fucking cold, and...

And an all-too familiar hand reaches around him to turn the handle on the shower.

Dad.

No, not Dad. He doesn’t have a dad.

That’s right.

At least Herc doesn’t compound the problem by asking if he’s okay.

But of course, Chuck is naked and everything in him is crying out to be touched by this man who used to love him and that doesn’t help anything either.

“What happened?” he asks softly, offering Chuck a hand up.

The younger man takes it grudgingly, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. His legs are shaky, though, and he ends up falling back into Herc’s chest, too unsteady to stand.

Being naked really does not help. At all.

“Not sure,” he mutters into the ancient cotton of Herc’s worn out henley, the warm scent of his skin and the firmness of the muscle beneath. (This is one of those things he remembers from the coma in what’s turned out to be perfect detail. Perfect.) “Chair just gave out.”

“Ahh yeah, looks like the swivel got off its track,” Herc comments, looking over his shoulder.

It’s been forever since Herc’s touched him - since the Drift - so Chuck can’t help himself. He buries his face in that chest he remembers so well...but they’ve never really touched before, have they? Not like this. Not outside the coma.

Fuck. Nothing in his life has been real, has it?

Maybe this does hurt.

Hurts worse than his therapy session earlier, probably. (He never hurt this much after Kwoon matches, or fights in Striker.)

“Has it done that before?” he asks.

“Dunno,” Herc says, and Chuck hopes he’s not imagining the hand in his hair. “You’re the first person who’s used it.”

“This one?”

“You feel strong enough to swing your legs over the edge of the tub for me?”

Of course Herc ignores it. Chuck closes his eyes, hating the way he has to shake his head. “I reckon not.”

“Okay. Hold on for me, yeah?”

Huh? Before Chuck can ask, Herc takes a firmer grip on his shoulders and dips an arm under his thighs and just... picks him up.

Chuck automatically wraps his arms tight around Herc’s shoulders, and screws his eyes shut. As much as he hates it, it makes him want to cry; reminds him suddenly of his grandpa carrying him back to his room after staying up too late, eating ice cream and watching one of those scary movies Mum never liked. Grandpa was always good about doing man stuff like that, like he called it.

But that was before, when Chuck was a little boy, when he was himself, and not some freak in an adult body that he can remember growing up into, but those memories are lies from a fucking coma world, a world that was never real.

Almost his entire family is dead and he can’t even remember what happened. And the father he remembers doesn’t give a shit about him outside the Drift.

So yeah.

Maybe he’s crying by the time Herc sets him down.

It’s his room, the guest room, the one with the bar set up for him over the double bed and decent furniture, but nothing personal except for the top drawer that has some of Raleigh’s socks in it. Herc tries to go, but Chuck grabs for him. The only solid, real thing in his life right now. The only thing that makes any sense.

He yanks.

Herc looks at him, that strange lack of expression in his face that means he’s thinking about something way too deep, and then he nods. Sits.

Chuck might not be able to get up on his own right now, but he does have enough strength to reach back up and pull Herc down next to him. He can already feel the protest starting up, but the tears are coming back, so fuck what Herc wants.

He wraps himself around the older man’s body and holds on for dear life.

That hand is back in his drying hair, sweeping little bits of moisture out. Chuck realizes he’s shivering.

“Left your walker in the toilet...”

“Fuck the walker,” Chuck snaps, blinking the tears out of his eyes, and tries to shift his weight to keep Herc here.

“I’d like to take a look at the chair. Shouldn’t have done that. Might be a screw loose or something.”

Chuck rubs his face on Herc’s shoulder. The words feel good; he likes that rumbling quality of the man’s voice. Makes him feel warm inside. This is a detail he never caught in the Drift. “Did you just get a new chair?”

“Raleigh had that put in, before you came.”

“So what was wrong with the one you had before?”

“I never had one before.”

Really? That has to be bullshit. “What about the other patients?”

There’s a long pause. “I’ve never had a patient stay with me,” Herc says quietly, “if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Who stays here then? All this?” He waves a hand around the room, the room that’s very clearly set up to handle a handicapped bloke.

“Nobody. Except Raleigh.”

“Really?”

“You’re the first.”

Why me, Chuck wants to ask, but he’s not brave enough to hear the answer. He’s pretty sure he knows what it is, although he doesn’t know why.

He used to be so connected to his dad. But that was all lies too.

Everything good in his life is a fucking lie.

“Why don’t you want me?”

Herc sighs, and rolls over on his back, one hand reaching up to bat at the bar above the bed. “It’s not about... Chuck, like you said, you’re a patient and...”

“I thought you loved me, in the Drift,” Chuck says, wavering. “You were my dad, you were... everything.”

“Your mind latched onto me, like it was supposed to, like you... look, Chuck, I’m just the bloke who goes in to give you a bridge out. That doesn’t mean anything.”

“I don’t mean anything to you? I’m the only patient you’ve ever had in your home, and I don’t mean anything to you?”

“I’m not your dad.”

“Do you love me?”

Herc sits up on an elbow, turning so they’re face to face. “I’m not sure how to love you,” he says.

“I’m right here,” Chuck replies, things starting to blur a bit, the tug of the ghost drift leading him back to their old quarters, their bed, before all of this. Before he woke up, body fucked to hell and nothing right about the world at all. “The fuck do you need to figure out?”

Herc touches him, and it’s gentle, gentle in a way Chuck hasn’t heard out of him in the waking world. He runs the back of his knuckles down between Chuck’s pecs. There’s something wistful in his eyes. “You just woke up. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You don’t have to settle for me.”

“Where else am I gonna go, Dad?” Chuck asks, completely confused now and too tired to sort out all the shit that’s floating around in his head. “You ’n’ Max ’n’ Striker, that’s all I want.”

Dad doesn’t say anything for a moment, except to tell Chuck to scoot over a bit. Chuck does as asked and to his relief, Dad slips in next to him. He pulls the blanket up around them both, and Chuck cuddles in, close as he can get.

It’s warm and safe and the ache of the day is starting to fade, when Chuck’s startled awake by the sound of the house alarm going off.

“Dad?” he asks, groggily trying to sit up.

“Fuckin’ hell,” Dad groans, and swings out of bed.

“Oi, the fuck’s going on?” Chuck yells after him - his legs still won’t move.

“It’s not an intruder,” Dad calls back over the sound of the alarm, and then a second later, it falls silent. Dad pads back into the room, barefoot and in his boxers, cell phone in hand. “It’s Raleigh. He’s got my alarm system app on his phone. And here I was, thinking we could have a bit of peace tonight.”

Chuck cocks his head. “Wa-what? Why’s Becket’s have our flat alarm code?”

Dad sets the phone down for a moment and turns to face him. “I’ve got a client I have to go see. Raleigh set off the alarm cause I ignored three of his calls. He does that sometimes.” He frowns. “When there’s an emergency.”

Client

Oh, that’s right.

His stupid fuckin’ brain.

This stupid fuckin’ life he’s stuck in.

“Can I come?” he asks, without really thinking beyond how very, very much he does not want to be alone right now.

And Herc must see something in his face, because while it’s well past ten PM and they both know Chuck’s going to have to take his chair which is going to slow Herc down, Chuck gets a nod anyway.

+++++

Herc isn’t entirely sure what he’s walking into on this consult, but Raleigh wouldn’t have set off his alarm - wanker - if there isn’t a damn good reason for it.

That means somebody’s dying.

That means somebody needs to know something. Or wants to say goodbye.

Herc hates these kind of jobs.

His Range Rover isn’t the easiest vehicle for Chuck to get in and out of. It’s kind of adorable, the way Chuck gets all cheerfully bitchy about it. Tonight, though, Chuck doesn’t order a peep.

The ghost drift’s pretty heavy right now.

Just touching the sprog like he had tonight - that was hard.

This is going to be worse. He can tell. Herc’s not a man much given to intuition in everyday matters but every military member develops a feel for the battlespace; this is going to be a rough job.

He’s actually kind of glad that Chuck’s here.

The sprog holds out his arms and lets Herc lift him out of the SUV, settle him down into the wheelchair. He could probably walk the step or two, but it’s comforting for Herc to pick him up; he’s pretty sure Chuck needs the contact too.

Chuck holds the pelican case with the Pons on his lap. Herc wheels them in.

This isn’t some cushy trip to one of the upper floors, the long-term patient wards. Oh no, this is the emergency room on a busy night, and Raleigh in on them the second they get in.

“Somebody’s dying,” Herc says, flat and matter of fact, as Raleigh leads them down a hall.

“Yeah, a, uh, twenty year old girl. They think she might hold on for a couple of days, but nobody knows for sure. She’s in bad shape. Hospital called me, I called you. The usual shit.”

Great. Herc just hopes some rich granny isn’t trying to make her final farewells. But then, Raleigh usually screens that shit pretty hard himself. After what happened with his mum, the American nurse goes out of his way now to keep Herc from taking those cases. “They need an ID on the attacker?”

“No. She’s eight months pregnant.”

“What are we talking about, then?”

“They’re not sure she’ll survive a c-section.”

Herc stops, grabbing Raleigh’s arm. “They want me to ask her about this?”

Raleigh scrubs a hand through his hair. He looks exhausted. Probably came straight over here from the outpatient facility. “The grandmother won’t authorize the doctors to operate.”

“I don’t need to fuckin’ drift with her for the hospital to...”

“These people, her family, they have pull, Herc.”

Spoiled rich arseholes who can’t make a decision for themselves then, or can’t prioritize what really matters here. Herc growls a little, but lets Raleigh go. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

A trauma case.

He’s not sure if he’s even going to be able to hold this. He can’t hold a steady Drift with Raleigh right now; there’s a reason he’s been taking milk-run jobs and this legitimately scares him. The ghost drift with Chuck is still fucking strong, fucking with everything, and Herc doesn’t want to ask this, but the stakes are high.

“Chuck?”

“Yeah?”

“I might need you to come in with me.”

“You want to risk that, boss?” Raleigh asks, eyebrow raised.

“I reckon it’s more of a risk to not,” he says blandly, and that’s the end of that discussion.

+++++

Chuck doesn’t really listen to Herc’s conversation with the family, an older man who’s quite literally holding his wife vertical. The ER doctor, a middle-aged lady who looks to be at her wit’s end, is just nodding along. Raleigh is moving fast, getting the equipment set up, barking a few commands at the other nurses to clear out as best they can.

He presses a Pons into Chuck’s hand. “Drifts like this take a third person to help stabilize them,” he says seriously. “Herc’s gonna go in, and then you’re going to follow him down, just like usual.”

Not for his benefit, those words, but Chuck nods anyway, trying not to look at the ruined girl on the bed. Most of her face is bandaged, but her hair is soaked in blood. “Oi, I know what to do, Becket.”

“Then get with it, Hansen,” Raleigh tells him.

Herc comes back over. “You done?”

Raleigh points at the chair next to Chuck’s. “All yours, boss.”

“Get me a notepad and a pen,” he orders, pointing at one of the nurses, and sits.

Despite the promises in the study that there would be some follow up Drifts, Doctor Becket hasn’t authorized it yet. So this is the first Chuck’s witnessed this process, the thing that brought him home. He watched Herc strap the head apparatus on, a sudden flash of feeling coming through, the plastic cover under his fingers not his own.

He gets his own kit on without any trouble at all, which gets a frown out of Raleigh when he glances over, presumably to adjust. Chuck just glares back, and Raleigh rolls his eyes.

“Let’s go, Raleigh,” Herc says.

“Roger that, boss.” Raleigh nods. “Initiating Drift in three, two, on-“

The room pulls away from the corners, then contracts, collapses into the center of universe, and Chuck falls.

It’s sunny, when he opens his eyes. Sunset in some posh neighborhood. Warm. Clear. Today, Chuck realizes, and doesn’t know how he knows that.

He’s in the garden, right on the edge of the pool. Herc is nowhere to be seen. There is no sound. There’s a feeling here, tingling on the surface of his skin-not-skin, that he’s all too familiar with. It’s the anxiety of the unknown, of your own brain trying to expel you, death that comes in howling joy.

The coma.

Suddenly nervous, Chuck pushes to his feet and goes looking.

The light changes as he climbs the stairs of the high teak deck, falling too fast.

It’s dark when he puts his hand on the house door.

Now inside, there’s a shadow looming, the sound of kids screaming and this woman, whoever she is, hobbled by her pregnancy and still trying to shield a younger girl, teenager behind her. There’s a body in the hallway and two in the living room, blood everywhere, her left arm barely working from the stab wounds that had gone clean through the other side. She’s screaming, she’s pleading...

She’s sitting in the kitchen. At the counter. Still sunny. Shaking. Her sundress is splattered with her own blood.

Herc is sitting next to her.

They both turn to look at him, and she says something, but Chuck can’t hear it. Herc nods, and reaches out to Chuck, bidding him closer.

And then it’s as if the mute button was turned off.

“So that’s what happened?” Herc asks her. “Your whole family?”

“Yeah,” she whispers, and shakes herself, like she’s waking up. “Yeah, I remember now.”

“Then does what I was telling you make more sense?” he asks, gentle and she nods, slow, her grief rotten in the air around them. “All of it?”

“Yeah, but I... wanted to see him grow up.”

“He still can,” Herc says, and lays a hand on hers. There’s a notepad between them. “You can still give him that.”

Tears eke down here cheeks, and she puts a hand over her face, but Herc doesn’t waver. Just sits there with her, his hand over hers.

Until she starts to write.

Chuck looks over Herc’s shoulder, to the outside of this non-space. The sky is hazy, the trees indistinct. The coma-rage is still here, mixed in with resolve and fear and finality and things he has no name for, but recognizes from those last moments in the conn-pod.

She puts the pen down and breaks down in sobs.

Herc catches her before she can fall out of her chair.

Chuck closes his eyes.

Opens them to the sound of the ER doc barked orders at her staff, asking for another unit of blood, let’s give her a chance, get her closed up! but the machines are beating out a fatal rhythm.

Herc is slouched against the far wall, the Pons pushed down around his neck, expression unreadable.

There’s a pad in his hand.

It’s not his handwriting.

One of the nurses comes over. “I need to ask you both to...”

Herc straightens, taking a deep breath. Folds his arms. “I told her I’d stay until it was over, either way.”

According to the clock on the wall, they were down there for an hour.

Chuck wheels himself as close as he can get to Herc , away from the equipment trolley and the bed with the dying girl. Still shaky himself, he pushes out of his chair and Herc reaches over to support him, almost automatically. Chuck lays his head against the older man’s shoulder.

“Is it often like this?”

“Not often. But it happens too much.”

They don’t move again until the doctor pronounces her.

+++++

Herc always feel strung out after a Drift, no matter how it goes or what the outcome. But it’s always worse when the client dies. Always.

And right now, after what seemed like a six hour fight where he had to confront the girl about what had happened to her (and her entire family, holy *fuck*), in a Drift he barely held together (and wouldn’t have broken through had Chuck not just... *found* that event as if it was nothing to dig up that last trauma-memory and break the paranoia of the coma-state), he feels like he’s been beat with a cricket bat.

In this case, though, at least there’s some good.

Because outside in the waiting area, the grandparents are curled around a small, squalling bundle, Raleigh and a nurse who’s probably from the NICU keeping watch.

Leaving his wife for a moment, the grandfather - Herc is fairly certain he’s the state Attorney General, but he’s too tired to much care - comes over, his expensive suit rumpled and stained. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. Hansen.”

Herc nods. “She was a brave girl,” he says, and offers the man the notepad he still has in his hand. “This, this is exactly what she said to me. If you’d like...”

“It’s even her handwriting, or close to,” the grandfather says, voice cracking a bit, and takes it. “We were so upset with her at first, over that random...”

“She knew,” Herc replies, hoping he’s not being too snippy; he hates this part. It’s always worse when the client dies. He knows the family needs to talk, but he’d almost always rather go home, get a stiff drink, and go to sleep. “She told me.”

“Well thank you again,” he says, and looks at Chuck. “And thank you, for assisting?”

“Severe trauma sometimes necessitates a second mind to help stabilize things,” Herc lies. But then, he’s not about to let on to the fact that he’s bullshitting. “Chuck has a lot of experience with the Drift himself.”

“So, are you partners?”

Herc looks at Chuck, who’s kind of chewing the inside of his lip, and thinks about their years spent together, locked in Chuck’s dread. A decade of memories; he has them too, and those memories aren’t just going away. A decade, where the success of the Drift depended on connection, on cooperation, on understanding and love and trust beyond what should even be reasonable to expect from another human being.

He wonders if the issues he’s been having with clients is less about the ghost drift, and more about having the Drift redefined.

Maybe this is the way things will be from now on.

Or maybe it won’t. But what he does know is that while he doesn’t understand it properly, he loves this young man.

Herc’s not sure he’s ever been in love before, if this is what it feels like now.

And however this is going to work, whatever it’s going to take, whatever price is going to be extracted here, he’s okay with that.

He lays a hand on Chuck’s shoulder.

“He’s my son.”