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Even If It Hurts

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Chuck doesn't remember how he winds up standing in the hallway of the now-mostly-empty Shatterdome, having been released from what felt like an eternity in the medical ward but was actually only a few days. He's supposed to be headed to his quarters but somehow he's wound up in the hallway outside the jaeger bay, staring at the locked door and wondering why the hell his access badge won't let him pass. He tries again - his badge has always worked, he's a senior jaeger pilot, he has goddamn access to everything in every Shatterdome ever made, why the fuck won't it work.

He doesn't realize he's shouted his frustration until Raleigh answers, "Radiation protocols are in place since the marshal's ordered recovery of everything we can, so none of us are allowed in the bay without protective gear."

Chuck whirls on him, ready to snap, but Raleigh stands in the hallway, looking serene and calm, wearing a gray sweater, faded jeans, and work boots. Raleigh's tucked his access badge onto his belt, and the chain for his dog tags is around his neck, peeking out from under the collar of his sweater. Mako's a few feet away, as if she'd been looking in the nearby training room, and it's a shock to consider the pair might have been worried about him wandering off.

"Your dad figured you'd leave medical before he got out of his meetings," Raleigh tells Chuck.

"That why he didn't come around?" Chuck tries to sneer, but he can't put much bite into it. He's had too many days in a row where his father has been there, checking on his progress, updating him, treating him like he hadn't spent most of their last few years copiloting being an angry, angsty teenager who didn't know exactly how and what his father thought. The realization breaks him, and he's in Raleigh's arms crying before he realizes that's exactly where he wants to be.

It’s awkward as hell but Chuck hopes to whatever higher power’s listening that Raleigh doesn’t let go. Chuck doesn’t know how to hold himself up, not when he still has the echoes in his head of a dying, stubborn, "I’ll take this last shot because I’m a goddamned jaeger pilot who piloted solo asshole from the first generation of jaeger pilot assholes", Stacker fucking Pentecost. Chuck doesn’t know how to stop crying. Part of him doesn't want to; the grief is too much. They lost too many people; too many heroes that Chuck looked up to and thought they were going to be goddamn immortal because they'd kicked kaiju ass for so long and so well. And then Stacker - Stacker stepped into a jaeger one more time because he was that badass, and everyone said he was going to regret it. Stacker knew he wasn't going to live long enough to have regrets but not keeping his promise to his best friend was going to be the death of Herc and Stacker knew it so he triggered the escape pod, the one that had gotten broken months ago and not fixed because they didn't have the time or the parts -

The dry sobs have turned into real tears. It feels like a river’s rushing through him, ugly and broken and so damn fucking much, but eventually, he manages to take a deep breath. He doesn’t look up when from somewhere, Mako (her hand is too distinct for him not to recognize it) offers him a box of tissues, handed over in such a way that he doesn’t have to let go of Raleigh’s comforting embrace. He takes a couple of tissues, manages to step back enough to blow his nose and wipe his eyes. He makes the mistake of looking up at Raleigh and sees - not scorn or pity - but compassion, and his breath hitches. Next to Raleigh, Mako is a quiet reminder of the man who raised her as his daughter, and it hurts to look at her without getting flashes of Drift memories that Chuck knows are completely Stacker's. Stacker and Chuck had zero time to do anything but come together in the Drift hard and fast, and it's left Chuck with too much awareness of who Stacker was and how much pride he had.

"Mako, I'm sorry," Chuck begins, but he can't finish. He can't find the words to tell her that Stacker, her father, wanted to die in a jaeger instead of from cancer. It's been five days and he still can't, and he knows Mako's not the only child he'll have to find words for, but that's not his secret to share. Jake's safe in London, far away from this madness, Jake won't understand the way Mako will, and Chuck's not strong enough to be that guy, not yet.

As if sensing his distress, Mako nods once. "I will come find you later," she assures him, "and you can tell me everything or nothing about what you saw from my father in the Drift."

Chuck shudders. He doesn't want to unpack those memories but he knows he's going to have to, at least for the Drift techs and the psychologists, and the grief sweeps him up again, but he can't cry anymore. He blinks back unshed tears and coughs as his breath hitches again and he chokes briefly.

“Come on,” Raleigh urges gently. “You’ll need some water after that. My quarters are closer.” He puts his hand on Chuck’s back and steers him firmly but uncompromisingly towards his quarters. “And if you want to talk or not, that’s up to you, but I always feel like I want to crawl into a black hole after I’ve cried but I don’t…” Raleigh’s voice breaks slightly before he finishes determinedly, “I don’t want to be alone either. I don’t think you should be. That okay with you?”

From the pressure on his back, Chuck suspects the question is rhetorical at best. “And if I said no?” he dares, because he doesn’t want to look like a guy who’ll do whatever Raleigh wants.

“Then we’ll just get you a bottle of water from my room and send you to the shrink, which isn’t what you want but at least I’ll have done what I’ve been asked to do, which is make sure you're okay. You left before we could let you know Herc has Max with him.”

Chuck closes his eyes briefly, aware he’d been headed straight towards that kind of no-win situation. Jaeger pilots didn’t get to choose whether they saw a shrink or not, just when, and ‘never’ wasn’t an option unless you were dead. “I’ll see the doctor tomorrow,” he promises. “I just…don’t want any questions.”

“None? So you mean we can’t play the Jaeger Edition of 'Trivial Pursuit'?” Raleigh looks genuinely hurt.

For a moment, Chuck is too shocked to realize Raleigh is pulling his leg. Then he catches the glimpse of glee in Raleigh’s eyes and realizes. “You…you realize that game’s incredibly wrong? Like they don’t even have your jaeger’s stats right.”

“Yeah, I know,” Raleigh says with a shrug. “But every jaeger pilot I’ve ever known is a card shark, and both of us are not allowed anywhere near your father’s office for the next hour. He’s on a conference call with the UN Council. Unless you want me to ask questions about why you were just now crying on my shoulder?”

Chuck blows out a breath as he follows Raleigh into his quarters. “Not really, no. But if you’re looking for a distraction, the server’s got a few movies we could watch.”

Raleigh nods. “Long as you don’t mind me leaving the door open a bit. Can’t stand feeling like I’m being locked up.”

"I'll join you in a bit," Mako tells them, "I want to let the marshal know where we are so he doesn't worry."

Chuck agrees readily. He knows he isn’t ready to talk about what just happened, but he feels safe with Raleigh, like the older man isn’t going to judge him for it. Everything still feels so raw. He’s initially surprised by Raleigh’s insistence that they watch old American classic cartoons, but a few minutes into one episode, he gets it. This is nothing like the reality they’ve been living in, and it’s easy to let his guard down as a result. Raleigh’s a warm support next to him on the small bunk, laughing at the really insane cartoon bits, arguing without heat over the impossibility of the Road Runner’s machines. Mako joins them with snacks and more water, bracketing Chuck as if he needed the support on both sides. If Chuck sheds a few more tears, both of them carefully pretend not to notice, but the box of tissues mysteriously winds up his lap anyway. He knows they're a long way from being friends, but something tells Chuck that he hasn't quite burned all of his bridges just yet.