Max vanishes at some point in the aftermath of Pitfall. One moment, he’s right by Herc’s boots, head on his paws, leash pooling around him where Herc’d dropped it—the strip of weather-worn leather is mostly for show, anyway—and the next he’s simply… gone. Herc isn’t worried. There are only so many places a bulldog can get in the Shatterdome, and Max is smart enough to not try to get into any of them without someone there to drag his fuzzy ass out.
Dignitaries have all flown in from all over the world to congratulate the PPDC on their success in defeating the Kaiju, to reiterate that they’d always thought the PPDC was the right way to go but that they’d been cowed by their fellow politicians with the Wall of Life program. Herc shakes hands with so many people his fingers start to go numb. His smile is cramping, and there’s a dull throb building in the pit of his stomach that’s spreading along the length of his spine. Everyone is talking about how safe they are now. Now, everyone wants to discuss the future, how bright and Kaiju-free it’s looking to be.
No one is quite looking him in the eye.
He knows why. Knows that the loss of his entire family is all anyone sees when they take in the way his shoulders don’t stay quite as square, the way his smiles don’t pull quite as high; the way he can’t seem to keep his eyes from straying, if only for a moment, over to the LOCCENT console where the choppers are even now still busy combing the ocean for any sign of Chuck or Stacker. After all, Striker had escape pods, but the blast more than likely would have completely obliterated them even if they had been launched, the techs say.
When all is said and done, Herc is left feeling exhausted and wrung-out and so horribly, completely alone. Like something in his chest has been carved out, and his fingers itch, twitching in the fists into which he’s curled them. As calmly as he can, he waves away the invitation to the party that someone has organized down in Scramble Alley and heads for his room. It’s not until he’s nearly to his door that he realizes that something’s still missing: the patter of Max’s claws as the dog waddles along behind him. However, the note on his door written in a messy scrawl he recognizes as being Raleigh Becket’s puts him somewhat at ease.
I found Max sitting in front of the door whining at it. I let him in since you were busy with Marshal duties.
Hope you don’t mind. –RB
Herc snorts. Marshal duties. They seem so irrelevant now that there’s hardly anyone left to fight for.
He twists his door open, unsurprised to find that the locking system is disengaged—Chuck must’ve left it open in his haste to change into something more drivesuit-ready. Herc always was trying to get him to remember basic things like that sometimes. The room is dark when he enters, also unsurprising. He leaves it that way even as the entryway seals with the heavy sound of metal on metal, ignoring the light switches in favor of relying on the soft glow from the wall console by his bed and the sliver of light from under the door to see. He sighs as he wanders over to his desk, pulling off his vest and leaving it on the back of the chair. He glances forlornly at the desk pushed against the other wall, a mirror to his own. Chuck’s leather jacket is hanging off the metal chair, dark leather seeming to absorb the inky blackness. Herc crosses over to it, reaching out a tentative hand, wanting so badly to just touch the material, to make contact with the one last piece of his son he has left. Something holds him back. Chuck left this here, just like this. If he moves it—disturbs it at all—it feels like he’s almost dishonoring what’s left of his boy. The hand drops back to his side, and he sighs, the hollow in his chest feeling especially cold.
A noise filters out of the dark. A single word that makes Herc’s stomach freeze and his breath catch in his chest.
It’s got to be the ghost drift, he tells himself. There’s no way it’s what he thinks it is. Absolutely no way. It’s not possible. Chuck is dead, the is no way he’s hearing his voice—
“Dad, that you?”
Herc whirls around, arm stretching to flick the switch on the wall as he does.
His son is on the bed he and Chuck once shared. He’s just sitting there, staring up at Herc as if he’s lost, completely naked, freckles running down his bare arms as he raises them to shield his face, blue-green eyes blinking rapidly.
He hasn’t seen that face in ten years. Even so, there’s no mistaking who it is. The hair, the face, may be almost the same, but his build is slighter, and the sarcastic glimmer is absent from the cerulean depths that are boring a hole through Herc’s skull.
There’s a pause during which they just stare at each other, Herc at a complete loss for what to say. Thankfully, it’s Max who breaks the silence.
“Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s me.”
Herc nods as if this makes sense, as if he can suddenly accept that his other son—Chuck’s twin brother—has decided he wants to be human again after a decade of refusing to shift back. As if he can simply adjust to the fact that his son is no longer a bulldog—that his son had been a bulldog since the day his wife died. Where Chuck had refused to ever shift again, instead choosing to pour himself into his training and revenge, Max, ever the gentler of the two, had simply… gone away.
“Why, uh,” Herc chokes on the words, vision blurring as something so cold it burns spreads icy tendrils through his chest, “why now?”
The words, so simple in their truth, strike Herc like a hammer blow to the chest, and his good hand comes up to his heart without his consent, massaging the muscle over it as he tries to draw in breath. Max must see the effect his words have—Herc knows he does, the way concern flashes in his eyes—but he continues to stare at his father for a moment before he finally holds his arms out, a sad smile coming to his lips.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’m here now. I’m not gonna leave you.”
Herc practically falls into his son’s arms, the shudders and screams of frustration and helplessness ripping themselves from his body as he holds on for dear life. Everything comes pouring out: the grief from Angela’s death that he’d never really allowed himself to feel; the knowledge that he hadn’t been enough for one of his sons, while the other had simply decided to hate him for saving the two of them; the knowledge that one of those sons is dead, is gone, and it’s all Herc’s fault, he should’ve been there with him—
It’s not okay. Herc doesn’t know if they’ll ever really be okay. Max holds him tight, breath warm against the older Hansen’s temple, and says nothing. Herc knows his son will have his own share of grieving to do, the way he’s let his animal side deal with all his problems for the past decade not nearly comprehensive enough. He doesn’t know if they’ll ever get back to where they used to be. Hell, he barely knows his son anymore.
Maybe that doesn’t really matter, though.
Maybe, when Max leans down and plants his lips on Herc’s, telling his father that he did it because “Chuck used to do it to you and it made you happy, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to?” like the competitive child Herc remembers him being, the words so much like something Chuck would’ve said, it nearly rips the jagged edges of the wound in Herc’s chest into bloody furrows, because how the hell has he ruined his family this badly?
Maybe when he manages to convince Max that, yes, he loves him, but, no, he doesn’t have to be that for Herc, Max says he doesn’t care, that he still wants it, but relents anyway because Herc says that it’s too soon.
Maybe Herc lets out a sigh of relief as his son drifts off to sleep next to him, the younger man curling into his father’s side and making the same, soft snuffling sounds he’d made as a bulldog.
Maybe he can’t sleep until he wraps an arm around Max’s slighter form, holding him close, reassuring himself that, maybe, even if Chuck is gone, he and Max can start over, can avoid the same mistakes that he and Chuck had made.
Maybe his last thought, just before he drifts off to sleep, despite the guilt and sadness trying to crush him and cut off his air, is one of hope.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s all that matters.
Herc dreams of Chuck.
He dreams of their first night together, the remnants of their first drift setting their minds on fire as they rush into one another like two celestial bodies colliding. Their fumbling first time together, no finesse, nothing more than a desperate need to crawl as deeply into each other as they possibly could, Chuck’s body pulsing around his length as the younger pilot rides him, the actions tantalizing him with just this side of not enough that Herc grips Chuck’s hips and starts jackknifing into his son’s willing body.
He dreams of the way Chuck would bite at his lips hard enough to draw blood, swallowing the older pilot’s growls and practically mewling when Herc reverses their positions to pin his son underneath him.
He dreams of the way Chuck would look asleep, the way the stress and anger would fade from his face as he huddled into his father’s arms in the midst of his dreams. How Chuck would, for the only time, actually look his age.
He dreams of Chuck’s first shift, the way he’d had two small boys clambering at his legs, both vying for his affection, and then there had been small claws scrabbling up his pants as a small, grey and black shape had run up his leg and buried itself in his pocket, the small sugar glider curling up and seeming to doze off almost immediately as Max had looked on in jealousy.
He dreams of the rescuing Chuck and Max from their school in Sydney, how Chuck is, of course, the one who belligerently asks where Angela is.
He dreams of the moment that is forever seared into his memory when the second sun had bloomed behind the chopper, the shockwave from the explosion rattling them even as Herc fought to keep them in the air.
He dreams of both his sons’ faces as they realize that their mother isn’t coming back.
Herc dreams of Chuck.
And then he wakes up.
The transition is not smooth, not a gentle rising from dreaming into wakefulness. Instead, Herc is awakened all at once by a frantic screeching in his ear, coming from right next to the bed. The console then; being used in emergency mode. He sits bolt upright, because there used to be exactly one thing that this channel was used for, and that one thing is supposedly gone—locked away from then until whatever freaks of nature Becket had dropped a bomb on found another way back.
"What is it?" he asks gruffly, wiping crusty sleep from his face as he does. It’s not like this channel uses video, but it’s still the principle of the thing.
"Sir," comes Tendo’s voice, his excitement almost palpable, "we found a third escape pod. Biometrics were shot to hell and back, so we still don’t know if he’s injured or not, and medical doesn’t want them to open the pod yet just in case—"
Herc’s patience, which is practically nonexistent at this time of night and is more thin than usual as of late, snaps.
"Get to the point, Choi," he growls. "Who’s in the pod?"
Tendo takes a deep breath before, finally, he says, “It’s Chuck, sir.”
There’s a harsh intake of breath from beside him, and Herc looks down to see Max propping himself up on his arms, staring avidly at the display of red and blue numbers and figures from which Tendo’s voice is projecting.
"Chuck’s alive?" he asks softly, almost reverently? "He’s back?"
"Sir?" the chief LOCCENT tech sounds confused. "Is there someone there with you?"
"Answer the bloody question," Herc responds, in no mood for explaining that he actually has another son whom no one in the PPDC except Stacker and Scott had ever met because, well, as it turned out, he was the dog the Hansens always had with them. No. Not a conversation for now. "Is my son alive or not?"
There’s a short pause during which his heart plummets, because, despite Tendo’s earlier tone of happiness, a pause like that means something. It always does. Then,
"Yes, sir, he is. Medical is already waiting at the helipad for the chopper with his pod, but, yeah. Chuck’s alive."
It takes Herc and Max fewer than five minutes to get dressed. And, even then, it only takes so long because Herc has to grab his son to prevent him from just wandering out into the hallway naked as the day he was born. It’s not that his son is forgetful or even overexcited: he’s simply been a dog long enough that he's… forgotten. When the elder Hansen grabs his son and explains that, no, he can’t just walk around naked anymore, Max looks confused for perhaps half a second before Herc sees the light bulb go off in his head, and then he glances down at his feet and murmurs something about not having any clothes, because, well, dog for ten years.
The nice thing about having identical twins is that their clothes tend to fit one another. This time is no exception. Dressed up in one of Chuck’s drab olive tees, some jeans, and—Herc nearly weeps when he puts it on—Chuck’s jacket, the younger of Herc’s boys looks almost exactly like his brother, except that everything is slightly baggy on Max. Regardless, it fits well enough, and they’re both dashing out the door, Herc shouting people out of the way.
When they finally reach medical, though, Herc freezes. He doesn’t know why, exactly, because this is his son, one of the only things he has left in the world to fight for. Yet, for some reason, he can’t seem to make his feet move. Max must notice his distress, because he noses at Herc’s jawline in a move that is entirely too intimate for them to be doing in public. Even so, it makes the older Hansen shiver.
"Max," he starts reproachfully.
But then Max licks him. From the angle of his jaw to just under his mouth. Actually licks him. Herc blinks, stunned, for a few moments before he has to fight to keep himself from bursting with laughter. Because, really, he’s almost positive that Max’d meant to give him a reassuring kiss on the jaw or cheek. Instead he’d licked him. Just goes to show what ten years as a dog will do to a person.
Max’s smile is wide, pleased, and for a moment there is so much of Chuck in it that Herc has to close his eyes, count back from three, and then open them again to make sure he isn’t hallucinating.
"C’mon, Dad," Max encourages him, voice soft, fingers winding together so that their hands are joined. "Let’s go see Chuck."