Stacker doesn’t find Raleigh Becket in Anchorage, Sheldon Point, Nome, or Sitka. Everywhere he goes, he hears, “Raleigh was here, but he just left. You missed him by a day or so.” It’s enough to make Stacker wonder if Raleigh’s been tipped off that the PPDC is looking for him, enough to make Stacker worry that Raleigh thinks the PPDC needs him for the wrong reasons.
Empty handed, Stacker heads back to Hong Kong. He gives Mako his apologies, and they proceed with Plan B - figure out whom of the fifty candidates can Drift with each other. It’s the day after he returns that the head of security announces, “Unauthorized helicopter requesting permission to land. Sir, it’s Lily Piper.”
He hadn’t expected the American heiress, one of his many backers to show up; it startles him - Stacker nonetheless authorizes the landing and hurries out to greet Lily. He’s even more shocked when, instead of her, Scott Hansen steps out of the helicopter. He’s dressed in a dark blue dress shirt, khaki pants, and worn work boots. Time has sharpened the angular planes of his face; he was always the darker-haired, leaner, more charming, more impulsive of the Hansen brothers, but all Stacker cares about is that Scott looks clean and sober.
A moment after Scott exits, a golden retriever leaps gracefully out of the helicopter, a turquoise double-sided pack attached to his back. The dog makes Stacker think of the pair who’d been a mainstay of the Anchorage Shatterdome, which doesn’t seem likely; they’d disappeared with Raleigh Becket, and they’d been middle-aged back then.
Finally, Lily appears, a slender, platinum-haired dowager with a forceful personality and an athletic build; she hauls three large duffel bags out of the back of the helicopter with ease. Scott leans in to kiss Lily on the cheek, as much of a rogue as he ever was, before picking up the bags and slinging them over his shoulders.
“Brought you two pilots,” Lily calls out to Stacker. “Figured you’d need them more than me.”
“I only see one,” Stacker calls back, and Lily laughs.
“You’ll see,” she promises, climbs back in, and the helicopter lifts off.
Scott steps forward as the retriever falls in step beside him, clearly mindful of the swinging bags. “Marshal. Heard you were looking for a pilot for an old jaeger,” Scott says.
“Herc tell you that?” Stacker doubts his 2IC would, but maybe now the world is ending, Herc has forgiven his brother.
Scott grins. “No. But you stirred up some people when you started looking for Raleigh Becket. You know you hired some of his old crew to be on Striker’s crew, and Alaska’s always been fond of their Beckets.”
“Thought you were in prison,” Stacker says evenly.
“Four years,” Scott replies with a nod. “Got out; decided to look a brother up, make sure he wasn’t getting fucked over. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you can’t look for someone who has an entire fucking city protecting him. Imagine my bigger surprise when we heard that the PPDC is looking for Raleigh Becket.”
Stacker narrows his eyes. “The grapevine in Alaska’s better than I thought.”
Scott nods. “Especially for a certain grapevine involving jaeger pilots, yes. People like to talk about the PPDC and its crews. Mind if we go inside? It’s getting pretty damn muggy out here, and Rals can’t stand the humidity.”
Stacker hesitates, but he knows – without Raleigh to pilot Gipsy, he’s stuck with a bunch of rookies who’ve never faced a live kaiju, and that’s not a gamble he’d like to take. If he can’t have Raleigh, he’s just desperate enough to gamble on Scott, as long as the disgraced pilot can manage to keep his hands to himself. Stacker just hopes it doesn’t come to blows; Herc might’ve forgiven Scott, but Stacker is certain Chuck won’t. The youngest Hansen held grudges like few Stacker had ever seen.
As if reading his thoughts, Scott says, “I didn’t come here to repeat my mistakes, Marshal. You’re gonna need someone who’s faced kaiju before; I’ve been paying attention and they’re getting meaner and harder to kill. My brother and my nephew are good and so are the Kaidanovskys and the Weis, but you wouldn’t have gone looking for Raleigh if you didn’t need more than the jaeger pilots you have.”
Stacker nods reluctantly, and motions Scott and his dog to follow him into the ‘dome. After a stop off at security to clear Scott to be, once again, a jaeger pilot with all the rights and accesses associated with it, Stacker sets them up in a room as far away from Mako as he can swing it. Court-mandated rehab notwithstanding, Stacker remembers that Scott had always been a playboy, even before fame had gone to his head.
It does mean putting Scott and his dog closer to Herc and Chuck, but it can’t be helped; the lack of funding meant that the jaeger pilot quarters had been condensed to save on lighting and air conditioning costs. Stacker’s not petty enough to stick Scott in the quarters farthest from everyone; aside from the insult, it would tell everyone that Stacker didn’t trust Scott, and that’s not information Stacker wants made public. Not when he needed people to trust that Scott could still pilot a jaeger.
“Thanks, Marshal,” Scott says, setting the duffel bags down on the floor of his new quarters. The dog sniffs at everything in typical dog fashion, clearly checking things out, before returning to sit beside Scott. “Everything good, Rals?”
He gets a bark of affirmation, and Stacker grins despite himself; he’d always appreciated smart dogs.
“Be ready at 0800 tomorrow morning; we’ll start testing Drift candidates then. I’ll send someone by shortly to give you a full tour. Please do not give your brother or your nephew any cause to start a fight.”
“My being here is reason enough,” Scott reminds him blandly as he crouches down to remove the backpack from the retriever’s back. “There is one more thing, though. Rals, you ready?”
The retriever tilts his head at Scott, grinning. Then he shakes his head, and faster than Stacker can track, suddenly becomes Raleigh Becket. The drivesuit scars are unmistakable, but much to Stacker’s relief, Raleigh’s wearing jeans, no shoes.
“How the hell?” Stacker starts to say, and then he remembers how there’d always been a golden retriever around the Alaskan Shatterdome, and how the crews and techs would always say, “Oh, it’s one of the Beckets.”...and how he’d just assumed they meant the dog belonged to Yancy or Raleigh. “Who was it that used to come to my office at the end of the day?”
“That was Yancy, sir,” Raleigh says. “He always thought you needed to pet a dog to feel better.”
“How?” Stacker demands.
“Family gift,” Raleigh says. “Most everyone from the area of town I’m from is a Shifter. We’re a little stronger and studier than humans, heal a bit faster, too, but we can still break and die like everybody else. It’s family custom to call someone by their nickname when they’re shifted; it helps keep people who don’t know about us in the dark.”
Stacker looks at Scott. “I take it you found out.”
“The hard way,” Scott agreed. “Idiot here thought it was hilarious to see how I’d react if he acted like he was some stray in need of a home.”
Raleigh grins, unrepentant, but he sobers quickly. “You were looking for me, sir,” he tells Stacker respectfully. “Had to make sure you weren’t making good on that promise to turn me into a lab rat.”
Suddenly, it’s painfully clear why Raleigh ran, why the Gages helped cover for him, why so many people thought Stacker had been unreasonable with his conditions.
“Stay and we can help you. We just need to run some tests, make sure your brain isn’t irrevocably damaged,” Stacker told Raleigh as he’d laid in the hospital bed of the Shatterdome’s medical clinic.
“I’m fine,” Raleigh said dully.
“We can get you back in a jaeger. We need the data for future pilots. Just cooperate, Mr. Becket; we’ll take care of you.”
Two days later, the Gage twins – who’d been reassigned to Anchorage to help cover the area while they were down a pilot crew – were logged in as visiting Raleigh; they stayed for hours, taking advantage of the relative lull that usually followed a kaiju attack. By morning, Raleigh Becket was gone; a resignation letter in his bed and two decorated American military officers who claimed complete amnesia as to where he’d disappeared.
“Depends on whether you think Drifting with someone new counts as a bad experiment or not, Mr. Becket,” Stacker says now, carefully. He’s heard rumors about Shifters for years, but the few who’d gone public had tended to do so either under extreme pressure or with a flamboyant flair. To Stacker’s knowledge, none of the Shifters had ever been military or paramilitary.
Raleigh shrugs. “Depends on whether they’re willing to Drift with someone who was connected to his brother when he died.”
“You’re not worried about keeping your ability to shift a secret?”
“All they’ll see in the Drift is me and Yancy as golden retrievers; it’s likely they’ll just think we had pets. Scott’s willing, if no one else is.”
Stacker nods and mentally reshuffles his plans. Scott had been half of a successful jaeger team; the only thing that had taken him out of the game was his own lack of self-control. Looking at Scott now, Stacker suspects that he’s learned that lesson the hard way. Raleigh had been impulsive as well, but he came from a core of solid morality. Stacker hadn’t been present for the Manila drop, but he’d heard the gossip about how the Beckets had steered clear of Scott Hansen and only made a brief appearance at the celebratory party. Raleigh wouldn’t waste time on Scott the party boy, even if he kept a secret well – and neither would Lily Piper. That settles it for Stacker; he’ll take the chance. Two experienced pilots are better than none.
Still, Stacker doesn’t like to bank on his cards just yet. “We’ll see how you two fight; then we’ll see. We’re going for the Breach, gentlemen. We’ll put a thermonuclear bomb on Striker’s back and send the kaiju back to where they came from.”
“Figured it was something like that,” Scott says. “You wouldn’t want a guy capable of piloting a jaeger solo if it wasn’t a suicide run.”
“You questioning my plans, Mr. Hansen?” Stacker demands. “Because I wasn’t looking for you.”
Scott laughs. “You may not have been, but you need me as a spare, if nothing else. If my brother or nephew get hurt, you’re gonna need someone who can pilot Striker - and those harnesses are fitted for a Hansen or someone of similar height and build.”
“Fair enough.” Stacker nods, and exits the room.
Raleigh looks over at Scott, who pulls him into a hug. “He didn’t shoot either of us,” Scott points out, and Raleigh laughs dryly.
“Not yet anyway.”
They take a moment to survey the room. The door is centered on the wall. Immediately to the right of the door is a single desk; a flat screen computer is hung above it. Between it and the other wall is the closet. Continuing around is the kitchenette, which Raleigh finds to be stocked with silverware, dishes, microwavable snacks, and small variety of juices. The bathroom sits to the left of the kitchenette, on same wall as one of the beds. The two beds form an L-shape in the other corner, with a combination nightstand/bookcase in the junction. Scott peers into the bathroom, noting there’s an actual door instead of a sliding metal pocket one.
“Look any different to you than what you had in Anchorage?” Scott asks. “This is what we had in Sydney.”
“We had bunk beds in Anchorage; Yancy hated it because I’d always manage to wake him up unintentionally.” Raleigh steps over to the bathroom. “Damn, this is nice. Wish we had this.”
The bathroom, they note, is unusual; it’s a complete toilet, shower stall, and sink setup in duplicate, built so that each pilot could use the facilities without seeing the other. Scott whistles softly. “I remember these. Herc and I were stationed here for a training run; made me wish all of the ‘domes were built like this. They went a little nuts building this place, but they wanted to be able to launch the most jaegers the most efficient way possible.”
“Well, if you had to share a bathroom but didn’t want people to see you using the toilet or showering, this is the way I’d want it. Yancy and I always had to take turns.”
“Sydney had the dual toilets but not the shower stalls,” Scott says. “Guess they figured people could take turns on showers.” The bathroom is set up with towels, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, and disposable razors; there’s even a hair dryer. Scott’s impressed. Either the ‘dome has efficient runners to have set this up in the time it took for him to clear Security, or, more likely, it was set up for whoever would pilot Gipsy Danger – an upgrade, Scott suspects, from the four-to-a-room crew quarters where they’d put the candidates, if they are following PPDC tradition.
A laundry hamper sits at the edge of the three-quarter wall dividing the two bathroom areas, with a note reminding pilots that they were responsible for doing their own laundry regularly in their designated laundry room (usually located, Scott remembers, at the farthest end of the jaeger pilot residence wing) and that linen and towels were to be dropped off weekly at the quartermaster’s. There’s a multi-language warning that drivesuit-related materials were not to be laundered, but returned to the pilot prep area; the familiar warning makes Scott smile briefly at the thought that some things haven’t changed.
Scott moves out of the bathroom; Raleigh follows. Raleigh immediately starts unpacking his backpack, tacking up the photos he carried with him on the wall above the bed he’d claimed. Scott takes a moment to look at the closet, which is the standard built-in configuration – two six-drawer chests, one on each side, and a shared clothes rod. The closet’s sized for two weeks’ worth of clothes for each pilot plus their dress and work uniforms. For two ex-jaeger pilots whose worldly possessions all fit into three duffels and one dog-sized backpack, there’s more than enough space for both of them.
Scott’s already figured out that he’s much more of a fashion plate than Raleigh is. Even so, he’s learned to travel light; traveling with someone who’s sometimes more comfortable in dog form meant they couldn’t acquire everything Scott might’ve otherwise tried to get. The bags they brought are his and Raleigh’s clothes, mostly winter gear and clothes better suited for construction work. Scott takes the time to put away what they’d brought; he’s been sharing rooms with Raleigh long enough to know how the younger man wanted things arranged. He knows, too, that putting up the family album is a ritual he shouldn’t interrupt. Physical photos are something Scott’s glad he doesn’t have; he suspects any of him from his pilot days would invariably be of the reckless, self-centered party boy he’d been. Fifteen minutes later, Scott finishes the task of unpacking.
“There, we’ll all moved in,” he announces. “What next?”
Raleigh takes a deep breath; he’s nervous but trying to be calm. “Want to go see how people react to you?”
Scott narrows his eyes as he considers. “Might be better if people didn’t know you were here yet. I know it tires you out, but –”
Raleigh shakes his head. “No, you have a point. But I’m doing away with the jeans and boots. I hate shifting with clothes on. Please don’t make me regret this like you did with Ms. Lily.”
“She likes you,” Scott protests. “She’s the one who picked you up in that coffee shop we treated ourselves to that day – who knew a billionaire heiress like her always wanted a golden retriever? If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have gotten a head’s up that Stacker was looking for you. And you did give her quite a thrill, shifting naked.”
“Woman’s old enough to be my grandmother,” Raleigh complains, shucking off his clothing, and not bothering to put any of it neatly away. As soon as his boots are off, he shimmies back to being a golden retriever.
“I swear, Rals, you adore being a dog too much.” Raleigh gives him a doggie grin, and Scott just shakes his head. Scott turns his focus to the computer on the wall and pulls up a Shatterdome map. He discovers it’s essentially the same as Sydney, just larger, and starts trying to commit it to memory, when a knock resounds on the door.
He opens it to find his brother, looking equal parts pissed off and wary, and – surprise, surprise – Mako Mori, looking far more grown up and serious than Scott remembered from the brief introduction he’d been given so many years ago. The blue highlights in her hair were definitely new. Raleigh nudges him as if to say, “You’re staring.”
“Didn’t know you’d gotten out,” Herc says flatly.
“Didn’t think you wanted to know, as long as I was nowhere near the PPDC, you, or Chuck,” Scott replies evenly. He knows he fucked up; knows that he nearly killed his own brother because he’d been stupid, reckless, arrogant, and blind. If he hadn’t been drunk and stoned, he’d have known the girl was in no shape to consent to anything, but he’d been too certain of his appeal as a jaeger pilot, too sure she was just star struck. Sobering up the hard way by panicking afterwards hadn’t helped, either, nor had the fight in the conn-pod. He takes a deep breath to shove the memory of his mistakes away. “Besides, the terms of my parole were that I was not to contact anyone in the PPDC unless the world was ending. Figured you’d appreciate it if I froze my ass off in Alaska.”
Herc scowls. “Would’ve appreciated it more if you’d stayed gone. What have you been doing?”
Scott lifts his head; he refuses to be ashamed of what he’s done to survive, though he knows Raleigh is more cautious about what he said to whom. Scott knows Herc won’t settle for less than the truth – not from him, not since he fucked up – and Scott doesn’t want his brother to doubt his word. “Working on the damned Wall for lack of anything better to do because I found out the world doesn’t want a jaeger pilot who isn’t piloting a jaeger. Living on rations and trying to keep up with this overgrown puppy here.” Scott gestures to Raleigh, who is doing his best ‘obedient dog’ impression.
Herc doesn’t look happy at the answer, but Scott knows there’d been only five things that had ever made his older brother happy: flying helicopters, Angela, Chuck, and later, killing kaiju and following Stacker’s lead. From the looks of things, that hadn’t changed.
“Stacker said you brought Raleigh Becket with you. Where is he?”
Scott is a little shocked to realize that Stacker didn’t provide the little tidbit of info that Raleigh is a Shifter. Then again, the marshal always had his reasons to keep his ace card in the hole. Scott finds this little tidbit amusing, and mentally debates whether to keep his brother in the dark. Just when he’s half-tempted to ask Raleigh to shift, Raleigh knocks Scott’s legs, and Scott shoots him a look. As much as Raleigh might complain about how much extra energy it took to shift with clothes on, Scott knows the younger man respects Herc a lot; he’d said as much in past conversations. That, and the fact that Raleigh hates revealing his secret to strangers – and right now, Mako counts as one; Scott’s pretty sure Stacker rarely let her travel when he visited other Shatterdomes – makes Scott decide to keep the secret. “He’s not far.”
Then Raleigh does something completely unexpected: he maneuvers past the two Hansens to where Mako is standing, and sniffs at her, nudging her into petting him.
Mako laughs, delighted, and pets Raleigh. “Oh, you’re a handsome fellow, aren’t you? You look a lot like the ones that used to be at the Shatterdome in Anchorage,” Mako says.
Raleigh stares up at her adoringly and Scott mentally sighs. “Rals, heel.”
Raleigh gives him a dirty look, as if he’d rather keep getting petted, but Scott’s seen him act like this before; it usually means Raleigh wants that person. Scott doesn’t think it would be a good idea for Raleigh to choose now to indulge that want. Mako’s comment makes Scott wonder if Raleigh’s met her before in dog form. Still, it’s worrisome, and Scott doesn’t want to give Stacker any reason to reconsider letting them back in the ‘dome. “Now,” Scott says in his firmest voice.
Raleigh makes a growl of protest, but he goes back to Scott’s side as Herc notes with a laugh, “Acts like he understands you.”
“Imagine that,” Scott says dryly as Raleigh pretends to be a well-behaved dog, no doubt showing off for Mako. “Well. You’re obviously here to show us around, so… shall we?”