Chuck really didn't like Raleigh Becket.
It wasn't just wounded pride and him being a sore loser – which he admittedly was – it was the fact that Becket was so up himself that he didn't seem to realise that he was jeopardising the entire mission. While Chuck could easily dislike the bloke just for being such a bloody dipstick it was the disregard for other people's safety that really set him off.
He could understand Mako, to a certain degree. They'd met several times when they were younger on accounts of their dads working together and Chuck knew her fairly well by then. She had always had ambitions to become a Jaeger pilot, all wide-eyed enthusiasm and vengeful determination. Chuck got that, he did, and he could admit that in a less fucked up situation she might have been a good pilot. But paired up with some washed out ex-Ranger most likely suffering from PTSD at the very least or brain damage at worst?
Chuck almost felt bad for her.
Well, at least until Raleigh fucking Becket punched him in the face while she watched and Chuck figured that they could both piss off. It was part anger that he lost the fight and partly because no one else seemed to understand what a liability they were. This wasn't some rehab for unstable has-beens – it was all-out war, kill or be killed and the end of days as they knew them.
Chuck didn't want to bring any loose cannons on his bomb run.
And perhaps it was a little bit personal as well. Chuck could admit that he despised Becket almost on principle for bailing out the way he had, dead brother or not. The responsibility they had to the PPDC and the people they were protecting shouldn't be so easy to throw away. And yeah, perhaps sixteen-year-old Chuck had felt disappointed when he didn't get to compete against the Becket brothers when he finally climbed into a Jaeger with his dad, and perhaps even a little betrayed when they didn't turn out to be the young, confident heroes the media had made them into.
They were just ordinary men and not particularly inspiring ones either.
That was years ago though. Since then Chuck had learnt more about the war – the losses, the injuries and the battles – and he knew that there was no such thing as heroes. It was a childish notion and he had grown out of it soon enough.
Becket in particular was no hero.
Chuck was insulted by how Becket had run off only to come swaggering back years later, the prodigal son returning, there to save the day. It pissed Chuck off in a huge way. He didn't understand what made Becket so special and considering how he and Mori were only fucking things up it was pretty clear that they didn't need him either.
So Chuck didn't exactly feel that he was in the wrong when he called them out on their bullshit. He was, however, slightly embarrassed that he had gotten his ass handed to him by that bloody wanker. Chuck wanted to blame it on the Ghost Drift between Becket and Mori and the fact that he hadn't expected those moves – her moves – when fighting the bastard, but it was a sad excuse. He'd seen them both during the tryouts and he knew that their fighting styles were similar enough that he shouldn't have been surprised. They were more fluid while Chuck relied on brute strength.
And he lost.
There was no use denying that. He had flat out lost against a glorified construction worker with brain damage. Granted that the man was an ex-Ranger but Chuck hadn't thought that Becket would still be in the shape he was. He hadn't expected Becket to be better than him. Not after five years of crawling on top of that pathetic wall the politicians kept promising would keep them all safe.
That in itself – the fact that a Ranger, ex or not, had been working on what got them all decommissioned – was a huge betrayal.
So Chuck didn't like Raleigh Becket all that much.
Actually, he was pretty certain that he despised him. Becket stood for so many things that Chuck just couldn't stomach and the fact that he'd gotten beaten by him only made matters worse.
Chuck was furious with himself for losing, furious at Herc for stepping in and furious at Raleigh bloody Becket for being such a smug, self-centred piece of shit. Mako got off the hook only because she was the rookie and Becket had thrown her out of alignment first. Becket – or the Marshal at least – should have known it wouldn't work. A Drift between those two was outright dangerous and it obviously took them nearly blowing the entire 'dome off the map before anyone else agreed.
It wasn't much of a consolation though. He and Becket had still resorted to throwing punches and Chuck found himself on the receiving end of that defeated look his dad sometimes shot his way – as if Chuck was beyond help and a disappointment altogether.
So Chuck chose to bail out rather than listen to the earbashing his dad probably had in store for him. And, to be honest, he was pretty sure that no one wanted him to stick around anyway.
It wasn't like he didn't know that most people saw him as a rude, spoiled brat you'd do well to avoid. He was arrogant, not a drongo. But they didn't need to like him for either of them to do their respective jobs so he was totally fine with that. It was always easier to fall back on anger than actually show any kind of weakness or kindness.
There was no room for kindness in the world of Jaegers and Rangers, not with Kaiju at their door.
And fuck it, there was no place for Becket either but he was obviously too daft to pick up on that. Chuck would have made another attempt to remind him if it wasn't for the fact that he would probably be just as unsuccessful a second time around. He honestly wasn't that keen on getting beaten up.
So he resorted to seething in anger instead while pacing inside his room, trying to ignore the twinge in his back, the dull ache in his shoulder and the lingering taste of blood in his mouth. Fucking Becket with his annoying lost puppy dog look that seemed to trick everyone into believing that he was some kind of saint. He wasn't. He was a bloody arse.
Max was giving Chuck a calm, judgemental stare from where he lay curled up on his doggy bed before sighing in that utterly bored, suffering manner only dogs seemed to manage. As if Chuck was being the unreasonable one.
Even Chuck's dog was switching sides. Wasn't that just grand?
"Bloody traitor," Chuck groused, none too maturely.
Max snorted – clearly unimpressed – before shifting around with a low, rumbling bulldog grumble until his back was to Chuck, clearly signalling that the conversation was over. Chuck would have flipped him off if it hadn't been his dog and that was definitely beneath him. Besides, as annoying as the wrinkly critter was sometimes Chuck still kind of adored him – even if Max wasn't on the Raleigh Becket hate train with him. Chuck was sure he had raised Max better than that, but apparently not.
Probably Herc's fault.
Because his dad seemed to like Becket just fine, which might be an added thorn in Chuck's side. He didn't want to know how amazing Becket was or how good a pilot he might have been when his brother was still around. It was ages ago since he had jockeyed and they weren't in a position where they could risk failure. Operation Pitfall was looming on the horizon and Chuck would kill Becket himself if they failed because of someone like him.
Raleigh Becket was a whacker and had no business being in a Jaeger.
Fuck that stupid arsehole.
Standing stranded and useless on top of Striker while watching Gipsy Danger kick not only one but two Kaiju asses was, admittedly, enough to change Chuck's opinion on Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori's usefulness. She was still a rookie and Chuck still didn't like the bloke but that wasn't a requirement. Loathing and reluctant respect was, funnily enough, not mutually exclusive.
And despite whatever he felt towards Becket and Mori it was still them – the Rangers, Jaegers and humanity as a whole – against the Kaiju. Who the fuck cared about who delivered the killing blow as long the beasts went down? So yeah, Chuck was bloody well going to cheer them on if it meant that less people died. He wasn't petty enough to hold a grudge when lives were at stake. His priority had and always would be getting rid of the Kaiju and as long as Becket and Mori were in agreement they could maybe find ways to work together and finish this bloody mission.
That didn't mean that Chuck was able to swallow his pride and offer them more than a slight nod in thanks for saving his ass, but it wasn't like anyone expected more either. Sometimes it was actually a bit of a relief not having to make any attempts at being civil because everyone already knew that Chuck was rude on a good day and spitting insults with each breath on bad ones. Low expectations meant that he could get away with minimum effort and avoid potentially coming off as an idiot or a wuss.
Feeling happy about their momentary victory would have been easier if it hadn't been for the literal two big gaping holes where Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon should have been. Chuck couldn't say that he had known either of the five pilots all that well but he felt the loss all the same – felt the anxiety pressing down on him when he knew that there would be two less Jaegers protecting him on the bomb run.
Their odds were depressingly low.
What had been a bold, daring plan was beginning to look like a bloody suicide run – and not one that would be particularly successful at that.
In a way Chuck had always known that it would be a suicide run – he wasn't that stupid – but before this last attack he had been able to fool himself that with so many Jaegers they might actually make it back. Now though?
It would take a miracle, especially for him.
It wasn't that he doubted his own abilities but his dad was out of commission and Striker was the one delivering the payload. If the Kaiju were as smart as they seemed to have become they wouldn't bother with Gipsy Danger – they would go straight for Striker Eureka. Especially if there were more than one, like Dr. Gottlieb had predicted.
Chuck didn't know what to feel about that even if he knew what it would most likely result in.
He was going to die.
If he got inside that Jaeger he probably wouldn't make it back. Chuck had accepted it with a resigned kind of detachment. People would probably be surprised by how calmly he took it.
He didn't want to die of course – he hadn't lied when he told Becket that he planned on coming back from the mission – but he wasn't going to believe it until it happened. There was a huge difference between intention and what actually came to pass. Chuck had learned that early on.
There was no room for disillusion when you were at war.
But he couldn't say that he wasn't feeling it – the nerves and jitters and plain apprehension towards what was to come. He was only human. He could accept that he was probably about to die but he couldn't help feeling anxious about it.
Restlessness was clawing at him, building in his throat until he could barely breathe. It was only a matter of time before the Jaegers were repaired to the best of the techs' abilities and Chuck doubted that they would get much time before they were ordered to ship out after that. Operation Pitfall would begin. And this could very well be his last hour alive not spent in a Jaeger.
Pathetically enough he couldn't think of a single thing he wanted to do.
His life had only ever been the war, Jaegers and Kaiju. Even when it was coming to an end he couldn't think outside of those parameters.
What else did he have?
Perhaps that was why he found himself drifting towards the main hangar, Max's leash loose in his hand. The J-techs were busy at work, taking no notice of him as they raced against the clock trying to get the Jaegers up and running as quickly as possible. Chuck could feel the urgency in the air – the almost expectant panic.
They all knew they were coming closer and closer to the end.
Max trotted faithfully next to him when Chuck climbed the stairs, one metal grated level after the other, until he was high enough that he could overlook the two Jaegers without craning his neck uncomfortably. As much as he wished that the war had never happened he couldn't deny that the Jaegers were a work of art. They were downright beautiful, and he was pretty certain that he loved them as much as he hated them – both for what they had given and taken from him.
Chuck braced his hands against the railing, staring out at the last two remaining Jaegers.
It didn't matter that Chuck knew that it would most likely lead to his death – he would still take part in the mission. Not that he knew exactly how the Marshal had planned for it to play out with only three active pilots at his disposal, but Chuck wouldn't put it past the man to have some final ace up his sleeve. Chuck was willing to put a little faith in the man who had, despite everything, gotten them as far as this.
A sharp tug on Max's leash pulled Chuck back to the present and he was honestly surprised to find that he wasn't alone, especially since he couldn't quite tell if Becket had been there the whole time or not. It almost looked like it, what with the distant look on his face as he stared almost forlornly at the Jaegers, much like Chuck had.
Becket was still in his Drivesuit, probably figuring that it was more of a hassle to get out of it and then back in again when the repairs were done rather than just staying in it. Becket and Mori probably didn't have more than two hours before they would be performing their next drop – possibly even less than that.
Max sniffed on the side of Becket's armoured calf, the leash stretched taut as he tried to reach further. Chuck had half a mind to rein him back in but he figured that if Becket somehow found dog drool offensive he would just have to say so. And be the one to withstand Max's bloody puppy eyes when he didn't get exactly what he wanted.
To Chuck's immense surprise Becket seemed to come out of his daze and smiled a little crookedly before bending down to rub a gloved hand over Max's head. Chuck felt his eyes narrow, as if he honestly expected Becket to do some funny business to his dog.
Max – the bloody traitor – plonked down on his haunches, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth as he grumbled happily under the attention he was getting. Chuck snorted in disdain but the look Max gave him seemed to say that Chuck was clearly the one missing out on the fun here.
"What a cheeky little shit you are," Chuck informed his dog, who only seemed to hum louder and butt his head against Becket's hand to get another pat, which was obviously the dog equivalent of completely ignoring whatever Chuck had just said.
"He's more well-behaved than you are," Becket deadpanned before straightening, leaving Max to whine in disappointment.
Chuck felt the familiar flare of indignation and anger, his hands clenching harder around the metal railing. The smile he gave Becket was more of a sneer.
"Well, Rahleigh, I guess I'm just better at raising people than my old man is."
It was obvious that Becket wanted to say something – his shoulders tense, body angled as if bracing for a fight – so it was a little surprising when he eventually just exhaled slowly, softly almost, before turning back to look out over the gigantic hangar. Chuck wasn't sure what to make of that.
Max seemed to admit defeat and dragged himself over to slump at Chuck's feet instead, but not without a suffering, dejected sigh. Chuck pursed his lips and gave the silly bulldog an unimpressed glare. Max ignored him.
Becket seemed to be ignoring him too, or at least not jumping at the chance to start another fight. Chuck had to admit that it was somewhat of a relief. While he was high-strung and agitated and honestly wouldn't mind some kind of outlet they couldn't risk landing more pilots in medical. That would only jeopardise the mission even further.
That's not to say that Chuck was all that interested in standing there having some sort of mutual introspective bonding moment with Becket – which seemed to be what was going on – but Chuck would be damned if he left first.
He heard the crinkle of some kind of plastic but it wasn't until Becket actually spoke to him that he looked up.
Chuck did, but only out of pure reflex, grabbing whatever Becket was lobbing at him mid-air. When he unfurled his fingers he couldn't help staring at what was lying in his palm.
"Why the fuck are you throwing lollies at me?"
Because it was. Some generic, green piece of hard candy in a clear wrapper.
"Why not?" Becket replied with a shrug, looking like a complete dimwit standing there in his shiny, black Drivesuit with a bag of colourful lollies in his hand. Where the heck he had been hiding them up until then was a mystery that Chuck told himself that he probably didn't want to pursue.
"What are you? Five?" he shot back, contemplating throwing the candy at Becket's head to counteract the amused grin on his face – as if Chuck's reaction was funny somehow.
"Only you could find candy offensive," Becket replied with a snort.
"I know a couple of diabetics who might disagree."
Strangely enough Becket only rolled his eyes rather than saying something insulting back. He seemed really reluctant to even get into a verbal fight. It made Chuck uneasy. He was used to people either pushing back or retreating when he got started, not outright ignoring him like his barbs meant nothing at all.
Becket unwrapped and popped one of the lollies into his mouth – which was rather impressive considering the Drivesuit gloves he still wore – and Chuck couldn't help grimacing when Becket proceeded to bite down around it with a loud, snapping crunch.
"Jesus, mate, ya' gonna crack your teeth going about it like that." It slipped out before Chuck could hold it back.
Becket looked at him, eyes wide and wholly innocent, but there was something juvenile and almost challenging in the way he just kept chewing, clearly not bothered by the crunching noises that sent chills down Chuck's spine.
"I'd say that's the least of my worries right now."
He had a point. Maybe. Arse.
Chuck considered giving his piece of candy to Max but knowing his canine companion he'd probably manage to choke on it somehow and then Chuck really would have to kill Becket for inadvertently murdering his dog. But Chuck wasn't sure if he wanted it himself either.
It was stupid that something so small could actually make Chuck uneasy. It was just a piece of candy for fuck's sake and he was pretty certain that Becket hadn't poisoned it somehow. He just couldn't figure out why on earth Becket had given it to him in the first place.
Chuck briefly wondered how Becket had gotten his hands on candy – it couldn't have been easy considering the war and all that – but he wasn't interested enough to actually ask about it. What Becket did on his spare time was none of Chuck's business.
It was only to prove to himself that he was clearly making too big a deal out of it that he ended up unwrapping the flimsy plastic. Max lifted his head as if to check if this was something he could perhaps partake in but Chuck shook his head.
It tasted like apples.
And unlike Becket he knew not to chew on the bloody thing. Chuck still felt a little stupid. He couldn't remember the last time he ate lollies of this kind but he guessed on years and years ago, when he was still just a wee sprog.
It was actually kind of nice. In a weird, probably retarded, way.
That didn't stop Chuck from giving Becket a sharp glare when he felt eyes on him.
"Not a fucking word, mate." It was difficult to sound threatening when you were struggling not to let a piece of hard candy clack against your teeth and this was apparently something that seemed to amuse Becket greatly.
Chuck responded with the middle finger and was rewarded with a surprisingly sincere laugh.
Becket looked happy and relaxed when he laughed.
Chuck felt his chest tighten and he wasn't entirely sure what caused it. Seeing Becket smile shouldn't make that big of a difference, even if Chuck was more used to that constipated look Becket always had when he seemed mere inches from baring his teeth and snarling because Chuck pissed him off somehow. It wasn't a good look on him.
Laughing was though. Becket looked even more like a blond overgrown puppy when he did that. Chuck kinda wanted to hate him for it but it was difficult to find the proper motivation.
He couldn't tell if that was a good or a bad thing.
Chuck turned his head and braced his elbows on the metal railing, looking out at the two Jaegers while trying not to show how unsettled he was. It was awkward being in Becket's company when they weren't throwing insults or punches and the silence that settled between them felt tense.
The taste of apples only seemed to distract him more.
Chuck shot Becket a nasty look when he started crunching on another piece of candy. Becket met the glare head on, completely unafraid, before turning towards Chuck.
Oh fucking hell. Becket was going to attempt to talk to him, wasn't he?
"Why do you hate me so much?"
Out of all the things he had been expecting that definitely wasn't it. To cover up his surprise he merely scoffed and shrugged, as if it was no big deal and not something worth talking about.
Becket didn't seem to accept that as a proper answer.
"Because as far as I know I haven't done anything to warrant that kind of dislike."
Chuck gritted his teeth and pushed off from the railing, causing Max to grumble in frustration at the slight tug on his leash. The dog didn't move though, not even when Chuck turned towards Becket, advancing a step as if to meet the obvious challenge.
"Oh really? Little Ray is feeling hurt that not everyone is worshipping the very ground he walks on, is that it?" Chuck snarled.
Becket stiffened immediately.
"That's not what-"
"Nah, mate, you fucking asked so I'll lay it out for you."
Chuck forced himself not to get up in Becket's face. He really wanted to but the necessity of not putting another pilot out of commission was no less important just because he was angry. Not to mention the fact that odds were that he would be the one flat on his back before it was all over, not Raleigh bloody Becket.
"You fucking bailed, that's what. A Ranger doesn't bail."
"What? A Ranger like you?" Becket snapped back. "Who obviously can't see the difference between an ally and his enemies and keeps picking on both like some egotistic, insecure child?"
Chuck saw red.
He could feel the anger curling under his skin, menacing and enticing. He spat out the candy to be able to speak properly, not even caring where it landed.
"You fucking watch it, Becket," Chuck hissed, taking a step closer.
Now that look was back on Becket's face – the sneering, barely curbed contempt.
"Or what? You're going to let me kick your ass again?"
Chuck wanted to strangle the man. He could probably use Max's leash to do it. His hands clenched, knuckles turning white.
"But let's do this your way, Hansen," Becket continued while scrunching up the bag of lollies in his hand, "I'll lay it out for you. After Anchorage they didn't want me in a Jaeger any more than I wanted to be in one."
Chuck paused but forced himself not to waver.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Becket spread his arms wide, mangled candy bag in one hand, looking almost achingly earnest.
"Exactly what I just said. You think that they would have let me stay on after what happened?" He sounded incredulous of all things. "I disobeyed a direct order, got my brother killed, wrecked one of their Jaegers and probably caused myself permanent brain damage by piloting Gipsy on my own. Even if I had stayed they would have dishonourably discharged me and I would have been just as useless to the cause. If it wasn't for the Marshal and how desperate he is I would never have considered getting back inside a Jaeger and the brass sure as hell wouldn't have let me."
Chuck faltered. Okay, he might not have thought of that and it was difficult to argue against it.
Becket chuckled humourlessly.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the Marshal has somehow failed to officially mention that I'm even here in the first place."
Becket caught and held Chuck's gaze, looking so much more tired and weary than someone that young should probably be allowed to. Like he had already suffered through an entire lifetime and was paying the price in mute, aching silence. Chuck swallowed.
"Staying wouldn't have made any kind of difference. You saw what happened when I Drifted with Mako. I threw her – someone that controlled and precise – out of alignment and that's after five years of supposed time to heal. How do you think that would have played out if they had dragged me back in earlier? What kind of strain would that have put on my co-pilot? How many people would I have hurt before I either got it under control or they kicked me out?"
Chuck didn't want to feel sorry for the guy – and told himself that he didn't – but it was hard to stay angry when the one you were pissed at looked so pathetic. It felt like he was kicking a puppy for fuck's sake. Stupid bloody Raleigh and his wounded puppy dog look.
Chuck eased back, subtly trying to hide just how uncomfortable he was now that he couldn't just shout at the bloke. Max was giving him a judgemental stare, as if Chuck was somehow to blame for the turns the conversation was taking.
His dog really needed to start looking over where his loyalties were.
"Trust me when I say that I've been through this thousand of times these past five years – replayed it over and over again in my mind, trying to figure out what I could have done differently." Becket looked down at the bag of lollies in his hand. "But it's no use. The moment Yancy died I just-..."
Oh hell no. Chuck was not ready to deal with that slight but still noticeable crack in Becket's voice when he said his brother's name. It wasn't Chuck's fault since Becket was the one who had pulled them towards this particular subject but he still felt a twinge of guilt.
He was pretty sure that Becket didn't want to talk about this. Chuck knew deep down that Becket was probably still so torn up about it that he barely even knew how to form the words. And Chuck sure as hell knew that Raleigh would swap places with Yancy Becket if he only could. He didn't even have to know the man all that well to read the look on his face.
But he couldn't say that out loud. He didn't know how.
"For fuck's sake, Becket, don't start bawling on me."
Becket scoffed – or perhaps it was some kind of half-choked chuckle – before shaking his head.
"Relax, Hansen, we don't have time for nervous breakdowns."
Chuck flashed a quick, sharp grin but it was a little too uneasy.
"Good onya. For once we can agree about something." Chuck was desperately eager to steer clear of their previous line of conversation.
He didn't want to be reminded about his own accusations either because, yeah, Becket had a point. Becket would probably not have been allowed to remain a Ranger if all the paperwork and hearings had had time to be completed before he left on his own accord. The PPDC wasn't exactly lax when it came to the expectations and demands they placed on their Rangers.
Chuck was willing to let the subject go, mostly because he knew that he wouldn't be able to apologise even if a tiny, miniscule part of him maybe felt that he should. It wasn't like Becket had actually wanted his big brother to get killed like that.
But of course Becket had to be a girl about it and bring it right back up again.
"If it had been wiser to stay I would have, but it really wasn't. I couldn't do it. And perhaps that's a little selfish but I'm pretty sure I spared a couple of co-pilots the agony of sharing headspace with me. Getting back inside a Jaeger that shortly after my brother's death would have broken me completely."
Chuck didn't understand how anyone could admit something like that so openly – as if Becket wasn't afraid of being called weak or pathetic – but he made sure not to question it. If anything he wanted the entire conversation to end. He was going to full-on panic if he had to discuss any more of Becket's precious feelings.
"So it wasn't that-"
"Oh bloody Jesus, mate! Will you let up? I'll fucking pay you to shut up, alright?" Chuck barked, but failed quite spectacularly when it came to looking menacing. "I get it, okay? So just-... stop talking. For fuck's sake, stop talking."
Becket – the bastard – grinned.
"Yeah, yeah, stop looking so fucking smug." Chuck tugged on Max's leash, the bulldog getting to his feet surprisingly quickly, shaking himself back to full alertness. Chuck shot Becket a nasty glare. "You're doing it on purpose, aren't ya'?"
Becket adopted that open, earnest look he sometimes had which was apparently his way of pretending to be innocent even if they all knew he wasn't. Kinda like a puppy. And fuck it if it wasn't working as well.
Chuck shook his head with a scoff.
Such a dork.
"We're going to come back from this."
Chuck looked up, pausing for several seconds. He knew what Becket was referring to – you had to be an idiot not to get it. At this point it wasn't even clear if Chuck was going to be able to pilot Striker since he couldn't do it without his dad, but even so he had to call Becket out on his lie.
A wry smile spread on his lips.
"No, we won't."
Becket looked sad, as if he didn't want Chuck to give up so easily.
"And you're fine with that?"
Chuck shrugged, pulling softly on Max's leash to make him turn and walk the first couple of steps towards the stairs leading down to ground level.
"I've known it since before I even jockeyed the first time, Ray. You might have been here during the glory days when Jaegers were invincible and pilots were gods among men, but me? I only caught the tail end of that. For me it was war from day one and I always knew that as soon as I committed myself to this it'd be where I died too."
Becket smiled – a crooked, aching kind of smile.
"And you still climbed on."
Chuck grinned, wide and brash, spreading his arms as he backed towards the stairs.
"Hell yeah, old man. I couldn't let mediocre pilots such as yourself lead the way, now could I?"
Becket shook his head but there was almost a slight gentleness to the way he smiled – a softness in his eyes.
"Then you better show us the way, kid, and you do it well. We will need it where we're going. Gipsy will follow your lead."
There was a strange kind of lurch in Chuck's chest and he had to try twice before he was able to breathe properly again. And even then he was pretty certain that his smile was a little shaky and his steps somewhat faltering.
He stopped, looking back at Becket, who unfurled the bag of candies, fished one out and tossed it at Chuck. He couldn't help catching it.
Yellow, this time.
"One for the road," Becket explained with a slight nod.
Chuck rolled his eyes.
"Brat," Becket shot back without missing a beat.
Chuck flipped him off over his shoulder as he continued to walk, but he held on to the candy.
He couldn't quite tell if his chest felt lighter or heavier as he made his way down the stairs, Max lumbering faithfully beside him, but he felt the strangest urge to smile.
That had to mean something.
Chuck clearly wasn't thinking straight when he popped the yellow piece of candy into his mouth just as he and the Marshal were getting ready for the drop. He just figured that it would be a shame to waste it and he hadn't had the opportunity to eat it before since he had been talking to his dad.
It was almost soothing to taste the lemon on his tongue while he struggled to push all the thoughts of Herc and Max aside. He didn't need that now.
He couldn't afford to linger on it, not when Striker was getting ready to ship out with a bomb strapped to its back and he was in the middle of Drifting with Stacker Pentecost of all people. That in itself was humbling, terrifying and mindboggling, all at once.
Chuck ended up forgetting about the candy, so focused on their mission and keeping the Drift stable that it fell out of his mind entirely. It was when they were on their way towards the drop off point that the Marshal brought it up.
"Why do I smell lemon?"
"I have no idea, sir," Chuck lied instantly, tucking the candy under his tongue as if to hide it away.
It was only Chuck's sense of pride that kept him from clearing his throat and fidget but he couldn't deny that the tips of his ears were burning when the Marshal gave him a long, even stare and a dubiously raised eyebrow.
Chuck was pretty certain that Pentecost was in fact not smelling lemon himself considering their helmets, but he was in all likelihood feeling it through the Drift. Probably both smelled and tasted it.
This was all Becket's fault. Raleigh and his stupid lollies. But Chuck couldn't deny that he liked them. It was nice. Comforting.
Chuck blew out a short breath that morphed into a strangled chuckle. He didn't even manage to get upset about it. Not when he might be dead within a couple of hours.
He could have said more but the Drift spoke for him.
Why not? It was harmless and would most likely be the last thing both of them tasted.
Why not enjoy it?
Pentecost didn't answer a first and when he did Chuck couldn't help grinning.
"Well, I always did like lemon."
"Roger that, sir."
Chuck reached for the switch that would detonate the payload, trying to push back the myriad of different thoughts and emotions whirling inside of him. Some slipped through his fingers, bleeding out into the Drift, spreading like ink on water.
I wish I had told Dad I love him.
It was just one moment of frailty, so pure and instinctual in its intensity that it left Chuck feeling like a frightened little boy again.
He knows. He has always known.
Chuck held his breath, both grateful for and intimidated by Pentecost's stable, reassuring presence inside his head.
I know. But what good does that do when you can't say it, even when it matters the most? I should have told him.
Their gazes locked and Chuck forced himself to nod despite the fear, anger and regret clogging his throat. He always knew this was how it would end. He had accepted it. He had said his goodbyes. He was ready.
But even so – even if he was proud of what he had accomplished and wouldn't change a thing, not even Operation Pitfall – there was no way to silence that one final plea from a lost, confused little boy who never knew anything but war, death and suffering.
I don't want to die.
A beat of silence.
Then I won't let you.
Everything went white.