Chuck sighed as he stepped out onto the observation deck of the Shatterdome and found Raleigh at the edge of the platform, leaning against the railing. Chuck couldn’t say he blamed him for wanting a little distance and some air, not after what had just happened that morning. Some woman from one of the Wall of Life camps had gone on TV, spreading lies and rumors about Raleigh. She claimed he’d given her drugs, gotten her pregnant, and been ‘talking crazy talk all the time about his brother.’ Since the mess hall always had a TV on with the news running, everyone there, including Raleigh, had seen the interview. Raleigh had promptly aborted his attempt at food acquisition and vanished.
Worried that Raleigh had gone further than somewhere in the Shatterdome, Chuck had spent the last half hour tracking him down. He’d finally resorted to asking Security if they could track Raleigh’s badge, which had identified Raleigh had used it to unlock the observation platform door. Chuck didn’t want to lose Raleigh; he’d only started to get to know him.
Raleigh glanced at Chuck as he drew near. “Come to ask me if any of it’s true?” he asked, sounding resigned.
Chuck studied him. The Breach had been closed for seven weeks. Chuck hadn’t expected to survive Operation Pitfall, but he hadn’t counted on Stacker being willing to pilot a jaeger solo one more time. Chuck had gotten knocked out and had woken up in an escape pod; the shock wave from the detonation had rattled him around enough that he’d broken his left forearm and bruised most of his body. He still had his arm in a soft cast. Raleigh had been the one to volunteer to take Max out on walks that first week after they’d cleared the three-day radiation exposure waiting period. Chuck had taken that to mean that Raleigh didn’t hold a grudge, and had cautiously reached out, suspecting the press from their success would mean they’d have to at least tolerate each other for the foreseeable future. So far, he hadn’t been wrong.
Chuck could see Raleigh was braced for impact, as if he fully expected Chuck to believe what some random woman said, even if said woman was someone Raleigh had met while working on the Wall of Life. The notion that Raleigh would be reckless enough to get someone pregnant offended Chuck. It didn’t fit with what he’d figured out about Raleigh.
“From where I’m standing, that’s some impressive bullshit. You were arguing about how you wouldn’t abandon your kids to go on a three-month cruise when we watched that stupid movie the other night.”
Raleigh blew out a breath. “I’m more pissed that I thought she was pretty and in need of help, so I traded my extra rations for the morning-after pill she wanted.”
“You never slept with her,” Chuck surmised.
“No. I quit chasing women when one of them got between me and Yancy and almost cost us a shot at our jaeger.” Raleigh’s voice was flat.
Chuck blinked at that. “You weren’t known for being a monk before.”
Raleigh smiled ruefully and turned away from the view of the city under reconstruction. “Yeah, well. Yancy was better at catching them than I was, and who was I to refuse if one of them wanted me? Always made sure they went home happy.” His voice hardened. “And that we used condoms, no matter how many times they tried to tell me otherwise.”
Remembering how he’d been at sixteen, full of hormones and eager to help himself to the buffet of people who wanted to say they’d been with a jaeger pilot, Chuck nodded ruefully. “Know how that goes.” He studied Raleigh, the scruffy blond hair and tense jawline, wanting to help. He hated seeing Raleigh upset, though he shied away examining from exactly why it mattered to him. “Want to spar, maybe blow off some steam?”
Raleigh shook his head. “My luck, I’d hit your arm and break it. Just…” He looked out at the harbor and let out a breath before turning again to face Chuck. “I didn’t talk to that many people when I was out there. Didn’t want to get close to anyone.”
“Afraid you’d get recognized?” Chuck tried to ignore the constant itch under his cast and focused on Raleigh instead.
“That, and I just didn’t want to talk.”
“And she was one of the few who got close enough.”
Raleigh nodded briefly, regret and disappointment on his face. “It was starting to snow, and I could never get warm enough in the tents they’d put up for us. Even if I had a sleeping bag that was rated for hiking in the Arctic. I just wanted someone next to me so I’d know I wasn’t ghost-Drifting again. And now she’s turning that into something it wasn’t.”
“You could deny it.”
“You know that just makes that kind of shit worse.”
“So you’re just gonna stand here and be pissed instead?”
“Nobody invited you up here,” Raleigh shot back, annoyed. “Unless there’s something you need me for, I’ll work through this on my own.”
“Got a better idea,” Chuck countered. “Come with me; we’ll head into the city and get something to eat that isn’t mess hall food. Security will drive us there so we won’t be alone.”
Raleigh looked at him for a long moment before letting out a breath and nodding in agreement. “Just don’t expect me to eat anything spicy. I’m out of practice.”
Chuck mentally congratulated himself, but he knew one outing wouldn’t fix the situation. The best he could hope for was a distraction; he just hoped this was enough.
Aware that their security detail was listening in, both men kept their conversation general on the trip. The restaurant had been fairly crowded, so Security had insisted Chuck and Raleigh take their meal to go, even going as far as sending one of the security team to place and retrieve the order while the jaeger pilots remained in the vehicle.
“Next time, we come when it’s not lunchtime, yeah?” Chuck suggested.
Raleigh offered a half-smile. “Maybe, if the food’s good.”
“Last time I was here, the Weis tried to get me and my old man to eat the hottest thing on the menu.”
“Did they succeed?”
Chuck cracked a grin. “It was a running joke – we’d teamed with them before and learned our lesson then. You, uh, you ever dare your brother to do stupid shit?”
Raleigh’s expression shuttered. “Of course.”
Chuck cursed himself and searched for something else to say, wanting to make Raleigh smile again.
As if noticing his distress, Raleigh offered quietly, “Did you ever see that video of me and Yancy where we’re supposedly fishing in a lake outdoors?”
Chuck flipped through his mental file and shook his head. “Can’t say I remember that one.”
“It was actually shot in this sporting goods store,” Raleigh told him. “Which had this giant stuffed moose as one of the props. I dared Yancy to get up on it and take a selfie.” He paused. “I later found out that one of the PR people took that selfie and tried to pass it off as a genuine outdoor moment.”
“Pretty sure you could find it,” Raleigh went on, in a tone that dared Chuck to do so.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Chuck took the dare and pulled out his phone. A quick Google produced the photo, which apparently had been turned into a meme, judging from the results. He tried, and failed, to suppress his laughter. “God, that’s awful.”
“Has it gotten worse?” Raleigh asked, and Chuck passed over his phone.
Raleigh studied the images as a slow grin spread across his features. “Yeah, about what I remembered. He loved these things.”
“Really?” Chuck looked surprised.
“Yeah. We couldn’t protest any of the staging, so if the PR took a selfie they weren’t supposed to have, it was fair game for anything that happened after.”
“Must’ve been why they hated dealing with me. I’d play nice up to a point, but some of the shit they wanted me to do for photo ops, I refused to do.”
Raleigh nodded and passed back the phone.
Once back in the Shatterdome, Raleigh directed Chuck to the jaeger pilots’ common room. The area was set up as a media and gaming room, with an L-shaped sectional couch, coffee table, side tables, and a table that seated four. A bookcase along one wall held an assortment of board games and books, with the requisite admonitions in the PPDC’s six primary languages to return all borrowed items to their proper locations. A small fridge was stocked with various beverages; Chuck took one of the cans of fruit juice before offering one to Raleigh, who declined in favor of a bottle of water.
Raleigh took a seat at the table and began opening the bag of food, passing one of the two containers and chopsticks over to Chuck. “This is a lot of food,” Raleigh noted as he opened his container, which was stuffed to the brim with the chicken-based noodle and vegetable dish he’d chosen.
“Still not used to an open port?”
“Or food that’s not in a rationing packet,” Raleigh agreed, taking a bite of the noodle dish.
“Is that why you eat so slow?” Chuck asked, opening his container. He’d gotten the same dish, since it had made getting their food faster.
“Mostly,” Raleigh admitted. “Doctor said since I got used to eating less, I have to get used to eating more slowly, else I could make myself sick.”
“Huh,” Chuck said, and began eating. After several minutes, he realized he was eating faster than Raleigh was, and deliberately slowed down. “So what do you want to do after this?”
“You know about the jaeger Mako’s working on?”
“What jaeger? Thought we were done with jaegers.” Chuck frowned, thinking of how his father had been trying to talk to him about something, but Chuck hadn’t wanted to get into another awkward conversation. Knowing his father loved him and was relieved he wasn’t dead was enough. Chuck wasn’t sure what to make of a father who apparently had taken Chuck’s near-death experience as some kind of wake-up call to be more present and communicative. He’d gotten used to how they tended to talk more in the Drift than out of it.
“Mako’s been using parts from Mark-4 jaegers for a while. It’s how she got Gipsy Danger upgraded.” Raleigh ate more of his meal before adding, “We have an incomplete jaeger in the jaeger shop. Your dad wants to finish it.”
“We don’t have enough money for another one, do we?”
Raleigh shrugged. “You’d know more than me; you’re closer to the source. I just know what Herc and Mako tell me.”
Chuck frowned at Raleigh’s lack of enthusiasm. “You don’t seem excited.”
Raleigh rolled his eyes. “I can’t pilot again, Chuck. Not unless I want to fry what’s left of my brain. Thought you knew that.”
“So why stick around?” Chuck wondered. “You could go back and –”
“And deal with people like that bitch from this morning?” Raleigh shot back, annoyed. “People who want to make a fast buck on my name and my being nice to them?”
“You don’t have anything to go back to? I mean, you’re from Alaska.”
Raleigh said nothing for a long moment. “No. You do realize a good portion of my official bio’s a bunch of PR crap?”
Chuck blinked. “What? No.” He thought the Beckets were among the most genuine of the pilots; Chuck thought he’d gotten good at spotting a PR job on a pilot’s backstory.
“I never graduated high school, never knew how to hunt or fish, never went boating or hiking in the snow,” Raleigh ticked the points off on one hand. “Got my GED a year after I started piloting, because some general got his panties in a twist that I was operating a million-dollar machine without one. I also only learned to hunt, fish, and hike in snow after I left the PPDC. All those photos and videos? Staged. I’m a city boy, Chuck. My father walked out on me and my brother at our mother’s funeral. He left us to fend for ourselves until we said fuck this shit and applied for the Academy.”
“That was three years of hell, by the way,” Raleigh said into the shocked silence. “Only thing that made into the press kit was that our mother died of cancer.”
“…the fuck? Why did you put up with that bullshit?” Chuck demanded, bewildered.
Raleigh sighed. “The PPDC wanted two All-American golden boys they could sell to the public as wholesome representatives of the Alaskan way. Pentecost told us to keep our mouths shut about the white lies because he knew we’d do anything to remain pilots. Yancy told me as long as we knew the truth, it didn’t matter what anyone said.”
Chuck shook his head slowly, unable to believe he’d swallowed the PR, hook, line, and sinker. It made him realize part of why he’d been so pissed off at Raleigh for leaving was because it proved he wasn’t as perfect as the press had made him out to be. “No wonder they played up how close you and Yancy were instead of focusing on your past or your kill count.”
“It was easier not to lie if they did that,” he replied. “You, they probably couldn’t do as much, just because everyone heard part of your story already.”
“Yeah. I didn’t let them, either. I didn’t want to have to pretend I was someone else. Hard enough to come out of a Drift.”
Raleigh smiled faintly at that. “Do you want to Drift again?”
Chuck considered the question. “Feels weird to think I might not again,” he admitted. “Been a big part of my life the last six years.”
“There’s a PONs setup in the jaeger pilot training room off the main jaeger bay,” Raleigh said.
“Yeah, I know,” Chuck admitted. “It’s why I’ve been avoiding my old man. He insisted on using it yesterday.”
Raleigh looked surprised. “Really?”
Chuck shifted restlessly. “Told him it wasn’t necessary, but…he wanted to be sure I wasn’t fucked up by my Drift with Stacker. It’s been weeks.”
“Oh,” Raleigh said, and ate some more of his noodles. “Are you?” He sounded sympathetic, but unsure if the sentiment would be welcome. “I mean, if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay. I get it.”
“Just…” Chuck looked at Raleigh and realized, if anyone would understand, it would be the man who claimed he’d been ghost-Drifting with his brother for years. “Flashes, sometimes, of things I know I’ve never done.” He glanced down at the container of noodles and realized he wasn’t hungry. “I saw what Stacker saw when he found Mako.” Chuck shuddered at the memory, and felt relief that he’d made the effort to apologize to Mako in private, after Victoria Harbour. “Makes me feel weird, especially since she and I were friends and then we weren’t and now we are again. And I like tea more than I used to.”
Raleigh nodded sympathetically. “Don’t tell the shrinks that. They’ll want to analyze why. Like it’s not obvious?”
Chuck barked a laugh. “Yeah, well, the shrinks have never liked me much for pointing out that fact.”
Raleigh grinned, and Chuck counted it as a win. “So what’s this about a jaeger?”
“You haven’t talked to Herc?”
“I try not to,” Chuck said dryly. “I usually piss him off if we try to talk about anything outside of a Drift.”
“We have a jaeger,” Raleigh said, and ate a bite before correcting, “Most of one.”
“Oh, the one we’ve been taking for parts,” Chuck said.
Raleigh shook his head. “No, that’s a Franken-jaeger, made up of a couple of different jaegers. This one’s different. Mako acquired a Mark-4 that’s three-quarters finished. Supposedly it was largely funded by North Korea and was supposed to have gotten here before Pitfall. No one knows why it wound up on a barge headed to Manila instead of Hong Kong. It was delivered this morning.”
Startled, Chuck got excited for a moment before he processed that it wasn’t a completely functional jaeger. “Yeah, so?”
“So Mako thinks we might be able to get it working again.”
“Is that why you’re staying, even if you can’t pilot?”
“Nowhere else I want to be, and my visa’s good for another five years,” Raleigh said, shrugging philosophically. “Plus, I don’t know if I’m good for much. I piloted a jaeger solo twice, and the docs tell me I fucked up my brain by doing that.”
“But you don’t talk or act like you’re messed up,” Chuck felt compelled to point out. “Way they talked about Drift damage, they made it sound like you’d be –”
“A drooling vegetable?” Raleigh finished, a little sharply. “Yeah, well, turns out they don’t know everything about how the Drift works, let alone half the shit you and me and everyone else who’s piloted a jaeger ever pulled off. Something about neuroplasticity and how the brain can handle increased data in high-adrenaline situations and then learns from that.”
Chuck stared. “Which means what?”
“Means I’m brain damaged but not the way they predicted,” Raleigh said sourly. “Don’t ask me what they predicted. It’s too depressing.” He waved a hand. “Besides. I’d like to be able to talk about something other than what happened seven weeks ago.”
“We’ll be talking about that for the rest of our lives,” Chuck pointed out. “They’ll come find us when we’re ancient and ask us how it felt, were we scared, did we have a plan, etc., etc., and we’ll still have to claim we weren’t just winging it and hoping like hell, as always.”
Raleigh put down his chopsticks as his smile widened. “Nah. By then, we’ll have the freedom to tell it like it really happened. Pretty sure the ‘classified’ on what we did expires in fifty years.”
Chuck laughed, even as he made a note to check out the jaeger Raleigh had mentioned.
Raleigh excused himself after the meal, claiming he had an appointment. All the surviving jaeger pilots had standing appointments for checkups, both physical and mental, with the Shatterdome’s medical staff. Chuck tolerated them with ill grace; he knew they were well-intentioned, but he couldn’t feel like some sort of guinea pig at times. Judging from the resignation on Raleigh’s face as he’d departed, Chuck suspected the other man felt the same way.
Since his father hadn’t assigned him work beyond a vague ‘be available if I need you,’ Chuck took the opportunity to wander down to the jaeger shop, where the three-quarters finished Mark-4 lay in pieces. He found Mako there with several jaeger techs. From the conversation, Chuck surmised Mako was trying to assess how quickly they could finish the jaeger. North Korea had been one of several Pacific Rim countries who’d balked at the final cost of building a jaeger, even if having one meant millions of their citizens were saved. Cynically, Chuck wasn’t entirely surprised that this one had been ‘mysteriously found’ a little too late.
“So I take it we have money?” Chuck asked Mako now.
“Enough to rebuild this one,” Mako replied. “We had enough to keep operating for three months, and we had contracts even before the UN decided to cease funding us to use the jumphawk fleet with reconstruction and search and rescue. The marshal thinks having a functional jaeger will be an asset, long-term, even if the kaiju never come back.”
“Don’t you just want to go do something else?” Chuck demanded.
Mako looked at him. “And what would that be?” she asked calmly. “I lived for one thing. I got it. Now this is the future.” She gestured to the jaeger on the floor. “Do you not want to be a part of it?”
“Thought we were done,” Chuck countered. “We won.”
“And we thought we were safe for how long?” she responded, lifting an eyebrow. “And for how many times did we tell ourselves, we killed the last kaiju?”
Aware she was right, Chuck sighed as the ghost-Drift with his father flared to life, a sure sign that Herc was somewhere nearby. “And what’s the official line?”
“Official line is that a jaeger can help with some of the reconstruction, and with search and rescue,” Herc said, stepping forward. “You gonna stand there and tell me you don’t want to get your hands on this jaeger, fix all those things you told me were wrong with these Mark-4s?”
“No,” Chuck shot back. “Just figured we’d start fresh if we were building jaegers. Kaiju already know how to kill a Mark-4.”
“So we work with what we got,” Herc said flatly. “Like the fact that a Mark-4 won’t be as vulnerable to an EMP.”
Chuck winced at the reminder that their jaeger had been taken out by that tactic. “What do you need me to do here?” he asked.
“Pull up a chair at that desk over there,” Herc said, gesturing to the desk along the wall to their left, “and we’ll see if we can figure out what we can do with the budget we got. Raleigh’s gonna join us when he’s done with his therapy.”
“Let me see what we got, first,” Chuck bargained.
The unnamed, incomplete jaeger lay in three major pieces on the floor, awaiting assembly, but it was missing key parts, such as the final conn-pod assembly and some of the major wiring cables. Some of the parts were in large, rolling plastic bins to keep them together; others were in even smaller, numbered bins. Colored tape designated the major sections, and kept similar-looking parts from being used in the wrong section. The disassembled jaeger took up every inch of the available space in the shop, which was designated as an assembly and repair area, and had the materials, hydraulic rigging and hoists, tools, and general industrial lube oil/burnt solder/rubber smell of a well-used machine shop area. It was one of two shops in the jaeger hanger and consumed the floor space for one of the launch bays, enabling the final jaeger to be test-launched directly from the shop if need be. Jaegers were not named until construction was almost completed; until then, this jaeger bore the designation of Mark-4- 20-NK, denoting it as the twentieth of the Mark-4 jaegers to be produced. Chuck knew only fifteen Mark-4s had been produced, and none of them had survived contact with the kaiju. He’d heard rumors for years that several more Mark-4 jaegers had been built, but were being used for spare parts for all jaegers currently in service; the existence of this one only proved the rumor had weight.
By the time Raleigh joined them, an hour later, Chuck, Mako, and Herc were discussing what they could use and had on hand to get the jaeger together. It turned into a hunt of the parts storage, which was a massive, secured storage warehouse on the floor above the jaeger bay. Though everything in the room was neatly labeled, stacked and stored appropriately, the sheer size meant that it took the trio a few minutes to figure out that whoever had organized it had based it on the size of the storage containers and whether said containers needed a pallet jack or not.
Raleigh looked up at the third row of storage racks and then at the ten-foot ladder he’d found. “This isn’t tall enough. Do you know how to drive a pallet jack?”
“No,” Chuck said. “And I don’t know how the hell they got that up there anyway.” He stared at the offending container. “I mean, that cable’s heavy – I wouldn’t want to try to uncoil it without two other people.”
“Well, we aren’t going to get it standing here,” Raleigh pointed out. “I vote for we find Mako and let her team figure it out. What’s next on that list?”
Chuck checked his tablet. “Something on Shelf 5A, Section 16.” He could hear Mako and his father checking another aisle. He was glad that his father hadn’t insisted on enforcing a ‘drift-compatible pilot pairs’ rule, which often happened in situations like these, as if he couldn’t function without his other pilot outside of a jaeger. “And if it’s where I think it is, that’ll make the fifth thing Mako’s gonna have to get someone way taller than us to get it.”
“Well, it is cooler up on the upper shelves,” Raleigh pointed out. “Closer to the AC, even if heat rises.”
“Still feels like a freezer in here,” Chuck griped. “Should’ve grabbed a jacket.” He eyed Raleigh, who’d worn his newly updated Gipsy Danger leather jacket.
“Don’t you even think it, Hansen,” Raleigh warned. “Because if you steal my jacket, that gives me license to steal yours, and I’m pretty sure that means war.”
“What if I asked nicely?” Chuck asked, flirting deliberately, “and asked please?” He smiled, aware that he had dimples, and that usually worked on people.
Raleigh just laughed. “Maybe if your dad wasn’t standing right behind you,” he suggested.
Chuck turned to see his father looking stern and slightly perturbed, as if he’d heard something he wasn’t sure he’d liked.
“How far did you get on that list?” Herc demanded, and Chuck bit back the sigh before answering.
Chuck followed that meal up with another invitation, this time to shoot pool in one of the jaeger crew lounges that had been abandoned in preparation for Operation Pitfall. Most of the equipment had been moved, except for the pool table. It was deemed too heavy and impractical to move, so it and its associated cues, chalk, and pool balls had been left behind. It still bore the banner declaring it to be the home of a PPDC-funded jaeger named Midway Tempest, which meant several of the smaller PPDC countries had supported it in a joint effort.
Chuck had known of those jaeger pilots and of the jaeger, but he’d never fought with them, so the jaeger crew lounge held no associations. Raleigh glanced at the banner, then at the half-ripped poster someone had glued to the wall when the jaeger was new. “What happened to this jaeger?” he asked as he waited for Chuck to select his cue stick. “I don’t remember this one.”
“You probably wouldn’t. It was built after you left and didn’t last very long; only had two kills. Went up against what they thought was a Category III, later determined to be a Category IV,” Chuck said briefly. “They thought they’d killed it and it came back. Killed them with a tail swipe. They managed to get a hell of a lucky shot off with their cannon and killed the kaiju. Can’t argue with that too much, even if they could’ve killed the damn thing a hell of a lot sooner.”
Raleigh looked at Chuck. “You really think so?”
Chuck handed a cue stick to Raleigh. “Weakest part of that kaiju was the belly, so if you got the damn thing to move so the armor plates exposed the belly, you had the kill shot.”
“I suspect there’s a catch to that move.”
“Yeah. You had to be a master of physics in your jaeger to pull it off, and it was easier if you had a second jaeger to play distraction. Fucking kaiju was like an armadillo crossed with a cobra.”
“Oh, so kinda like an armored eel,” Raleigh said.
“Yeah. We were lucky it was just spitting water at us.”
“Talk about something else, please,” Raleigh said urgently, looking distressed.
Chuck winced at his choice of topic, realizing he was probably causing Raleigh to think about things he’d rather forget. “You interested in motorcycles?”
“Some. Hard to drive in Alaska in the winter unless you bundle up and have snow tires, so it hasn’t been practical. I saw those scooters everyone uses around here – do you know how powerful those are?”
“Dunno, but I can’t imagine taking them on the highway. Especially not loaded down like they do here.” He lined up the balls on the table and took the first shot, pleased that he managed to sink a solid ball. He aimed for a second and missed.
“Wonder what it would take to get a driver’s license,” Raleigh mused, then focused on his shot.
“That’s even assuming Security would let you get one,” Chuck argued. “Kaiju might be gone but the cultists haven’t shut down operations.”
Raleigh grimaced at the reminder. “Praying to something that’s hell-bent on destroying the world never made sense to me.” He sunk the ten-ball and managed to set up the table for a shot that Chuck knew would be difficult to make, neatly blocking Chuck in the process.
Chuck soon regretted thinking that Raleigh didn’t know how to play pool. The man was a shark, and if he noticed Chuck staring at his ass in those tight jeans, he very carefully didn’t mention it, much to Chuck’s relief. He liked Raleigh. A lot. He just wanted to hear Raleigh laughing and teasing him, see some of the shadows that lurked in Raleigh’s eyes fade. And if a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Herc’s laughed at Chuck trying to pretend he wasn’t interested in more, Chuck ignored it with the ease of long practice.
Chuck and Raleigh’s days quickly became filled with helping piece the Mark-4 jaeger back together, though Chuck was barred from doing any heavy lifting until his cast came off. He wound up seated with Raleigh and Mako, going over the new schematics to figure out what the jaeger could do once it was rebuilt.
“It looks like it has a turtle head,” Raleigh said after studying the plans and the pieces. “I’m all for not having an exposed conn-pod, but –”
“You’ll spend precious seconds lifting your head,” Chuck said. “Any way we can maybe trim this front armor down, Mako?”
Mako frowned. “I begin to see why this one was lost. This looks like someone let a child draw a jaeger. I would much rather see Lucky Seven’s head on this jaeger than this.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Chuck objected. He remembered how much his father and his uncle had bitched about how Lucky Seven’s knight-like helmet had made for crappy sightlines. “Not even if you painted it that hideous astral orange that Nova Hyperion got.”
Raleigh frowned. “I don’t remember that one.”
“Mark-4, South Korean. Agile bugger. Piloted by a couple of former Olympic fencers,” Chuck said. From previous conversations, Chuck knew that immediately following Knifehead, Raleigh had done all he could to avoid any mention of jaegers and kaiju, unable to deal with the flashbacks. “Launched in 2018 and stationed at Vladivostok until they were destroyed mid-last year. Problem with these Mark-4s is that they aren’t heavily armored, so they tended to be more prone to falling over if you hit them just right. Hell, you got thrown across the harbor like you weighed nothing.”
“Do we need this one to be heavily armored?” Raleigh wondered, pointedly ignoring the reminder about how he and Mako had been tossed by Leatherback.
“Maybe, if it’s all we got.”
“Keep in mind we’re limited on budget and materials,” Mako reminded them. “We can’t put a shield over every joint. This was built for speed and agility.” She frowned at the design. “Even if it looks…”
“Like a flattened turtle on a diet?” Raleigh offered. “Maybe the LEGO version of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?”
Chuck stared at Raleigh. “What do you mean?”
Raleigh sighed and pulled out his phone to google what he meant. After showing Chuck and Mako, they both snickered and made comparisons.
“But that means we have some room,” Mako said, getting serious. “See, we could make this change here,” she drew on the tablet built into the table, “and give whoever’s in the conn-pod more visibility.”
The discussion continued until they haggled out a compromise. Then it went into design, and all three were assigned to oversee the jaeger crews who did the construction. Evenings found Chuck, Raleigh, and Mako watching TV shows and movies in the jaeger pilots’ common room. Depending on the day, Herc, Tendo, and some of the other resident senior staff would join them. Chuck suspected his father’s hand in the informal team bonding, but he didn’t resent the effort. He knew that he couldn’t go on alienating people the way he had before Operation Pitfall. For better or worse, these people were all he had left to support him.
Raleigh seemed to be of the same opinion, and while there were nights he didn’t join in, he made a habit of letting Mako and Chuck know if he wasn’t going to be there. Chuck appreciated being included on those texts; it made him feel more like he and Raleigh were friends, not just coworkers.
“Today’s welding day,” Chuck said to Raleigh, three weeks later. “Figured I’d see you out there.” He nodded to the shop, where crews were already busy at work piecing the lower half of the jaeger together.
Raleigh shook his head. “Picked up a welding torch and had a flashback. Decided I’d be safe and not go there. You know how to weld?
“And anything to do with repairing a jaeger,” Chuck said with a nod. “When the engineers found out I was going to be piloting, they put in some safety protocols so I wouldn’t injure myself because I hadn’t finished growing yet. I eventually had to get them to override them, especially since I grew three inches in height and bulked up, but every time someone did a diagnostic on Striker…”
“It reset to factory defaults and someone forgot you weren’t sixteen anymore?”
“Yeah,” Chuck said.
“Well, that’s damned annoying,” Raleigh said. “Hey, you want to go out tonight? There’s a nightclub that’s on Security’s approved list, and I want to drink something that’s not cheap Chinese beer.”
Surprised, Chuck asked, “What are we celebrating?”
“You haven’t seen yet? That woman who claimed I got her pregnant – the press found the father, and it’s not me. I sent you an email about it just a few minutes ago.”
Chuck pulled out his phone and quickly checked his email. “Well, that’s cause for celebration.” He held up his forearm. “Plus, I got my cast off. It’s why I didn’t hear your email; you know how Medical makes you turn off your phones because they have heart monitoring equipment.”
“Even more reason to go out and drink, then,” Raleigh said with a grin and a nod. “Meet you in the motorpool after this? Mako said if you came by, she wants to see you.”
“What are you going to be doing?”
“Lao in PR wants my input on what we’re doing here,” Raleigh said, “since Herc’s busy on that conference call with our lawyers and the UN.”
“Still think we should tell the UN to fuck off, since that’s what they told us.”
Raleigh made a face. “So you have repeatedly said since Herc announced he was having that meeting. The UN owes back pay – not just to you and all the pilots who fought the last three months, but to the crews and the admin staff of all the Shatterdomes. That’s what the meeting’s about.”
Chuck grimaced. From what his father had said, the amount due everyone affected was larger than what the PPDC currently had, and to pay it would mean shutting down everything, which would incur additional expenses. As marshal of the PPDC, Herc wasn’t willing to bear the financial burden of something the UN had, in writing, promised to do. “So tell Lao that we’re trying to make sure we aren’t caught with our pants down.”
“I’ll pass on that message,” Raleigh promised dryly.
Chuck watched him leave, admiring the way Raleigh looked in the jaeger tech uniform he’d donned that morning. The denim workpants clung to Raleigh’s ass, and Chuck spent a moment to wonder if Raleigh had chosen that size deliberately. The quartermaster was good, but not that good.
“You know if you stare long enough, he’ll notice,” Mako said, and Chuck jerked back in surprise.
“Oi, and what’s it to you?” Chuck growled defensively.
“I don’t want to see him hurt,” she said simply. “And we have work to do.” She met his gaze with placid calm. For a moment, he could just see how Stacker had taught her to face difficult situations.
Remembering Stacker and their Drift, Chuck sucked in a sharp breath and bit back the cutting words he’d been about to say. “What do you need me to do?” he asked instead.
“Be careful,” she said, “and help me figure out if we can trim this plating over the elbow.”
Chuck eyed her warily as he followed her over to the table they were using for design work. “That’s all you’re gonna say?”
Mako smiled thinly. “You know already how hard Raleigh punches. What more do I need to say?”
“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” Chuck griped.
Mako just smiled, sat down at the table, and brought up the plans. Another time, Chuck knew, she’d be seething with resentment and he’d have too many unflattering words to say about her qualifications. It was a testament to how far they’d come that she said nothing now, and seemed amused. Still, he felt compelled to say, “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”
She glanced at him. “Not today, no,” she agreed, and changed the subject back to the jaeger.
From his position at the bar, Chuck watched as Raleigh made yet another conquest. The nightclub’s patrons were a decent mix of foreigners and locals, and the club had long been a regular haunt for the Shatterdome crew. PPDC security kept an eye on any of the senior staff when they went out, leery of any extremists; the bar’s own security prided itself on a low rate for incidents involving jaeger pilots and crew since the Shatterdome had been built. So far, their luck was holding. Chuck knew getting Raleigh out of the Shatterdome had helped, but he hadn’t expected Raleigh to decide that he needed to get out even more – or that he wanted Chuck as his wingman.
From the looks of it, Raleigh didn’t need one; he was finding partners to dance with just fine. Wishing he could find a damned good reason as to why he was jealous, Chuck turned away from the sight and flagged the bartender for another drink. It wasn’t as if Raleigh was his, Chuck mused, then swore as he realized what he’d just thought.
Chuck waited for the bartender to pour the shot he’d ordered before drinking it in one gulp, wincing at the taste. He stared suspiciously at the last drop of something purple in the glass as he realized he hadn’t drunk a shot of whiskey as he’d thought, and swore as he realized he was probably drunk enough that his accent made ordering anything a risky proposition. Not wanting to offend him by not serving him anything, the bartender had probably made him one of the featured cocktail shots. Wincing, Chuck paid his tab, then made his way over to where one of the PPDC security guards stood waiting. He needed to get out of here before he did something drunk and stupid, like keep drinking when he wanted to touch Raleigh in ways that were far more intimate than the friends they were.
He didn’t get very far; seeing him move, the other PPDC security moved to collect Raleigh. Chuck swore again; he’d forgotten that if one of them left, the other had to go as well, unless other arrangements had been previously made. It was a protocol from lessons learned during the glory days of the Jaeger Program. “Can’t we make an exception?” Chuck demanded of the senior of the guard. “No reason he has to go home just because I want to.”
“Sorry, Ranger Hansen, but it’s time you two went home anyway,” the guard said, not sounding apologetic at all.
Chuck glanced at his watch and realized it was past midnight, which meant they’d been drinking and hanging out since just after dinner. Hong Kong was still under a curfew to help keep crime and looting to a minimum, which meant all the clubs and restaurants shut down at 1 AM so that they could abide by the 1:30 AM curfew. Chuck grimaced; he hadn’t been keeping track, and he could feel from the way his body was reacting that he’d drunk more than he should have.
Raleigh leaned into him, startling him. “Hey, Chuck.”
Chuck looked at him, not quite comprehending. In response, Raleigh grinned wider and curled an arm around his shoulders, half-hugging him. “You should’ve been dancing.”
“Would’ve puked,” Chuck said. “You got any water?”
“Yeah,” Raleigh said, but didn’t hand him over any. “Come on, Chuck, you gotta move so we can go home.” He seemed amused at something.
Chuck blinked. Moving seemed like a great effort and he was regretting that last drink even more. “What the hell did I order? Tasted like…like raspberry, lime, and vodka?”
“Dunno, but if it was any color other than clear or brown, it was probably a bad idea,” Raleigh said, steering him towards the door as their security flanked them. “I’ll get you water when we get somewhere where you aren’t going to puke.”
That sounded like a very good idea to Chuck. He could feel his brain slowing down, more proof that he was very, very drunk, and forced himself to focus on coordinating his limbs. Raleigh didn’t let go, apparently equally concerned that Chuck wasn’t in full control. Somehow through the haze of alcohol, Chuck registered the fact that Raleigh was nowhere near as drunk as he was, and it didn’t seem fair.
Raleigh laughed. “Two beers, Chuck, and that was hours ago,” he said, guiding Chuck into their waiting PPDC-issue SUV. “I can’t drink more than that anymore, especially not if I want to dance.”
“Oh,” Chuck said, and pondered this notion. It was the last clear thought he had before the morning.
Chuck hated hangovers. He’d prided himself on control when it came to drinking, but apparently, he’d slipped up. He woke, groaning, and instantly shut his eyes in reaction.
Someone helped him sit up. “Easy, Chuck,” Raleigh said quietly. “Herc said you’ll want migraine painkillers, not just Tylenol.” Pills of some sort were put in his hand, and he swallowed them dry, trusting Raleigh to not poison him.
Raleigh laughed and handed him a glass of water. “You’ll want this too,” he added, curling Chuck’s hands around it so Chuck wouldn’t drop the glass.
Chuck drank. “Someone cancel my day,” he said with a groan, hating that he felt too crappy to do anything on his schedule.
“Already done,” Raleigh said. “Just stay here and sleep. Max won’t bother you here, and I’ve got you covered on the rest.”
Trusting in that, Chuck closed his eyes and let the painkillers do their work. Much to his surprise, he slept. His watch told him it was now early afternoon, which meant that he’d probably awakened at his usual pre-dawn time, and slept for hours. A glance around the room told him he was in Raleigh’s bunk, which surprised him until he realized it lacked any windows, unlike the room he shared with his father. Like most single-person rooms, the bathroom, kitchenette, and desk/dining area were directly to the right of the door, the sleeping area to the left. It looked like Raleigh had made modifications to the room. The wall-mounted bunk had been taken down and replaced by a free-standing full-size bed, which Chuck currently occupied. One side of the bed touched the edge of the clothes locker; someone had glued a layer of foam to the side of the locker that faced the bed as a protective measure. Chuck grinned at that, remembering how he’d done the same when he was younger and prone to startling whenever the kaiju alarm went off in the middle of the night.
A closer look at the counter of the kitchenette found a note on top of a stack of his clothes, a glass of water, a protein bar, and a clean towel. Taking the hint, Chuck made sure to drink the water before he took a shower and changed into fresh clothes. He ate the protein bar, appreciating that Raleigh had recognized he probably wouldn’t wake when the mess hall would be operational, and that the flavor had been one of the better-tasting protein bars.
Chuck still felt vaguely hungover but it was nowhere near what he’d been. He made his way over to LOCCENT, certain that would be where most of the action would be. It was a Friday; they’d taken to working regular business hours in the wake of the Breach closure, but today was supposed to be when an international navy went in search of any signs of Breach activity and reinstall what sensors could be installed, since most of the sensors had been damaged by Striker’s detonation. Chuck had originally been scheduled to help Tendo with the data collection, but from the looks of things, no one was in LOCCENT.
Frowning, Chuck headed to his father’s office. Herc hadn’t felt comfortable operating out of Stacker’s former quarters, so he’d relocated the marshal’s office to its original location: upstairs in the administrative section. Chuck didn’t find anyone there either, though the computer monitor was on and displaying the lock screen, which meant his father had been in recently.
He finally found his father, Raleigh, Tendo, and Mako in the jaeger shop in the hangar.
From the conversation, it sounded like Mako, Raleigh, and several jaeger techs were helping inventory what they had and what pieces had been taken to repair Gipsy and Striker. Striker had needed new fuses to replace what the EMP had blown; fuses that would have likely come from this jaeger. Gipsy had needed new shock absorbers and a host of other parts. Mako had used newer parts where she could to improve Gipsy’s performance, stealing shamelessly from the Mark-4 had undoubtedly been part of her efforts.
“What’s up?” Chuck asked as he approached his father, who was overseeing the operation from the foot of the jaeger, Max at his feet.
“Submarines declared no Breach activity,” Herc told him. “But someone popped up on one of the international auction sites with jaeger parts.”
Chuck swore. “And we don’t have the manpower or the funds to go after them.”
“Not really,” Herc admitted. “But the Chinese government said if we can verify our inventory, they’ll make sure we get the stolen parts back.”
Chuck grimaced. “And what if it’s not from this jaeger, but one from Oblivion Bay? You know we’ve had a problem with that in the past.”
“That’s what Raleigh thinks too,” Herc said, and tipped his tablet to show Chuck the screenshot of the listing. “He says he’s heard someone’s paying cancer patients to go in and get parts.”
“That’s just sick.” The jaegers in Oblivion Bay were monitored for radiation activity and were under constant guard, but it was also a memorial. Officially, no one was allowed in without proper protective gear and special permissions, but the site had been prone to theft and vandalism for years.
“People will do anything for money,” Herc said sourly.
Feeling useless, Chuck asked, “Anything I can do?”
“Hold on, let me check,” Herc told him before using his phone to call Mako, since the distance between where he stood and where Mako was meant he would have to yell, and Chuck knew his father preferred not to when he could prevent it. “How are we doing?” Herc asked, flipping it to speaker.
“Almost done, sir,” Mako said. “The part the listing matches is here, but we’re checking to see if we’re missing anything else.”
“Need another hand? Chuck’s here.”
“Send him down,” Mako agreed.
As Chuck walked down the line, he saw groups of four people working on each jaeger section: two scanning parts, two passing over the next parts to scan. Raleigh was inside the middle section, and didn’t see Chuck go by, so Chuck decided to wait to thank him.
It took them several hours to go through the jaeger. Chuck didn’t question why they were hand-verifying the jaeger; he’d had his share of being told ‘the computer says the part exists but the stockroom says it doesn’t’ when he’d wanted to make upgrades to his jaeger. By the time the team was finished, they’d verified that they had exactly the parts they expected to have, which still resulted in a jaeger that needed more parts to be functional. Chuck hadn’t quite realized the extent of how much still needed to be done; it left a bad feeling in his stomach. Even accounting for the fact the feet had been assembled, rebuilding a jaeger this incomplete would take at least fifteen months, if not more, and they didn’t have the manpower that had enabled Gipsy Danger’s ahead-of-schedule completion.
“This sucks,” Chuck told his father after the jaeger techs were dismissed, and it was just him, Herc, Mako, Raleigh, and Tendo. “We’re nowhere near ready if the kaiju attacked tomorrow. How much did you take from this jaeger to fix Striker and Gipsy?”
Mako shook her head. “We didn’t. Remember, this is the one that just came in, so we didn’t have it. If we had, I would’ve made sure Striker had the capability to fire your chest cannons underwater like you were originally supposed to.”
Chuck frowned. They’d never been able to fire Striker’s chest cannons underwater; he’d never been able to acquire the control module to make that happen. “I was told we’d leak water if we even got that module to work.”
Mako used a laser pointer to point to a bin. “Well, we have that module now, for what it’s worth. The good news is that we know we have everything here we should.” She looked exhausted.
“What happens now?” Tendo asked.
“I have to make some phone calls in my office,” Herc said. “Tendo, I’ll need your help. Mako, you too, since you know what parts we’ll be discussing. Raleigh and Chuck, you’re dismissed.” Not waiting for a reply, Herc left with Mako and Tendo in his wake.
“Guess that leaves us with nothing to do,” Raleigh observed. He glanced at his watch. “Mess hall should be serving dinner if you’re hungry.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Chuck agreed, and fell in step besides the other man as he headed towards the mess hall. “You want to do anything after?”
“Movie in my room? Figured you might not want to go out tonight, and I heard Emilio and the others talking about wanting to see a movie that’s not primarily in English. I don’t feel up to reading subtitles for two hours or making my brain try to translate any more than I’ve done today.”
Chuck glanced at the other man, seeing his tiredness. The parts had been primarily labeled in Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese; the English labels had been few, which was typical of a jaeger that had been destined for an Asian Shatterdome. “Long as you don’t mind me sitting on your bed.”
Raleigh grinned. “You slept in it last night. Fit just fine.”
“Did you sleep?”
“Yeah,” Raleigh said. “Pulled out a sleeping bag, slept fine.”
“You shouldn’t have let me kick you out of bed.”
“You insisted,” Raleigh countered, sounding amused. “I tried to get you to go to your room but you said you said you were fine where you were.”
Alarmed at that, Chuck stopped and faced Raleigh. “Did I say anything else?”
Raleigh said nothing for a moment. “You don’t remember?”
“That’s why I don’t make a habit out of getting that drunk,” Chuck shot back. “Last time, my uncle told the whole Lucky Seven crew what I said. It was embarrassing.”
“Ah,” Raleigh said. He looked as though he’d expected something of the sort.
“What did I say?” Chuck demanded. “Come on, whatever I said, I was probably too drunk to mean anything by it.”
“You offered to fuck me,” Raleigh said quietly. “I told you I didn’t believe in taking advantage of people when they’re drunk, and you fell asleep.”
Chuck narrowed his eyes. “Before or after I tried to kiss you?” he asked, certain of it.
Raleigh shrugged, hands opening slightly to echo the sentiment. “Like I said. Doesn’t count. God knows I’ve done stupid shit when I was drunk; wouldn’t hold anyone else up to be perfect when I wasn’t.” He met Chuck’s eyes. “Besides, I’m not into one-night stands. Not anymore.”
Chuck breathed out a breath. It sounded like he was forgiven, but a part of him really, really wanted to know just how big of a fool he’d been. He suspected Raleigh wasn’t going to tell him and wondered if it was just because Raleigh felt uncomfortable sharing what he’d said. Chuck took another look at the other man and decided that had to be the reason. “Good to know,” Chuck said, and decided to focus on getting to and through dinner.
They’d walked a few more feet before Raleigh turned to him. “You’re too quiet. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“Whatever I said last night must’ve offended you.”
To Chuck’s surprise, Raleigh shook his head, grinning. “Nope. More like confirmed what I already knew.”
Raleigh closed the distance between them. “Just so we’re clear,” he said, meeting Chuck’s eyes, “I don’t want to fuck up what I’ve got. What I’ve got is pretty damn amazing. You and I – I didn’t think we’d be friends. Not like this. But I’ve always wanted more than I had, even when I couldn’t afford it. So, if you want us to be lovers, you need to tell me when you’re sober, not when you’re drunk, and I’d rather you tell me when you’ve had time to think it through. Because I already know what I want.”
“And that is?” Chuck challenged.
“You,” Raleigh said simply. “I’ve always had a weakness for cocky assholes.”
Chuck blinked, caught off guard. “So why –”
“Because if we were to go back right now and fuck, I want to be sure it isn’t to scratch an itch or to mark a notch on a bedpost. All I have in the world is right here. There’s nothing I can go back to, even if I had a place.”
Chuck’s breath caught as he realized Raleigh was serious. “Spent a lot of time thinking about this?”
“You could go right now, Chuck, go back to Sydney, and the world would want to hire you. You’d never want for anything.”
“And do what?”
“Get your degree in engineering.”
“You…how’d you know that?”
Raleigh smiled. “You’re damn talkative when you’re drunk. That’s why I want you to think about this. I’ll still be your friend no matter what happens. May take me a while to get there if we piss each other off, but –” Raleigh half-shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time you did.”
Chuck stared at him a long moment. “Why aren’t you more…I dunno, I thought you’d be…” Chuck shrugged. “Well, I figured you’d either punch me or tell me hell no.” He rubbed his forearm, which ached despite having been declared fully healed.
“Already punched you once, but that was before I knew you as anything other than an asshole.” Raleigh grinned. “You don’t like people knowing you care as much as you do.”
Chuck blinked, surprised at how easily Raleigh had read him.
“It’s okay. I like that about you. Means if you care about something, you aren’t going to half-ass it.” Raleigh let that sink in before saying, “Come on, I’m hungry and I can smell that the mess hall has something I can recognize.”
Willing to let the issue drop for now, Chuck followed Raleigh to the mess hall.
He spent the next three days thinking about what Raleigh said. He knew all the cautions about getting involved with someone you worked with; he’d lived it enough times to know that the line between ‘messy breakup’ and ‘friendly parting’ involved more communication than Chuck usually managed. He’d grown up in a Shatterdome, sheltered from the public because he was initially, the son of a jaeger pilot, then a jaeger pilot himself. He’d learned quickly not to have relationships with any of the jaeger techs or visiting crew, but not before getting his heart broken. He’d also had his share of jaeger flies; he’d been a hormonal teenager, after all. Herc had taught Chuck about consent and sex from an early age; Chuck hadn’t known until later that part of that education had been driven by Herc’s knowledge of his brother’s sexual proclivities. From the Drift, Chuck knew his father hadn’t been celibate, and that lack of celibacy had driven Herc to decide he couldn’t be a hypocrite. Herc had impressed on his son the need to be discreet, to practice safe sex every time, and to choose partners wisely. “Just because someone’s offering doesn’t mean you should say yes. Don’t be your uncle, taking it all because it’s there.”
Chuck hadn’t, and he’d fallen in love twice along the way. Both times had been educational, though he’d figured out the second time he wasn’t nearly in love with the other person before the inevitable breakup. After thinking it through some more, he knew being with Raleigh wasn’t going to be easy.
Raleigh, for his part, kept their contact to a minimum those three days, as if acknowledging that being around was going to make Chuck’s decision harder. Chuck was just about to head over to Raleigh’s room when Herc stepped into their shared quarters.
“Oh, there you are.” Herc looked at him, abruptly awkward.
“Please, whatever you’re going to say, just say it.”
“Don’t hurt him,” Herc said. “Otherwise I’m going to have to get creative with separating you two and the last three days were too weird, with both of you going out of your way to avoid each other. Try to be smart.”
“Oi! What makes you think it’s my fault?”
Herc glared at him. “Because you have no finesse; you’re about as subtle as a jaeger and you’re my son. You’ve been Raleigh’s shadow for weeks, and now the two of you can’t be in the same room. Fix it.”
Chuck tried to find a counterargument, but couldn’t quite get past the idea his father had noticed what he was doing. “I was going to talk to Raleigh,” he settled on, “you interrupted me.”
Herc looked at him, clearly not fooled. “You want me to keep Max?”
“He’s my dog,” Chuck shot back, taking the leash. Ignoring his father, Chuck left the room.
“Raleigh’s with Mako up in the jaeger shop!” Herc called out.
Chuck didn’t turn, but acknowledged that with a curt nod.
“And don’t say anything stupid!”
“Like you would?” Chuck muttered under his breath. Not wanting to get into an argument, he settled for moving on instead.
As he approached the floor of the jaeger shop, Chuck heard rapid-fire Japanese and saw Mako and Raleigh seated at one of the work desks near the door. He knew enough of the language to understand Mako and Raleigh were discussing –
“You have a crush on Emilio?” Chuck interrupted, referring to the chief of jaeger maintenance.
Mako glared at him. “You will not tell him.”
“Long as you let me steal Raleigh here,” Chuck bargained, amused. If he’d heard right, Mako had been nursing her crush for a while, but had been afraid of what Stacker would’ve have thought.
Mako narrowed her eyes and looked at her copilot.
“Can’t steal the willing,” Raleigh countered. “But I’ll make sure he doesn’t blab,” he promised Mako. “See you tomorrow.” He rose easily from the chair he’d been sitting in and stepped towards Chuck. “So where are we going?”
“Mind if we go up?”
Raleigh shook his head. “Have you been in the shop in the last three days?”
“No. Figured you’d be here with Mako and my old man wanted help with wrangling the finances.”
“You should see how much progress they’ve made.” He led the way up the catwalk stairs. “Since we did inventory, they found they had more parts than Mako thought.” The shop had numerous catwalks and elevators, since assembling a jaeger meant dealing with a machine that stood anywhere from 200 to 300 feet tall. The catwalk stairs Raleigh had chosen led them to a viewpoint that was at about stomach height for the average jaeger and had a viewing platform big enough for four people. From this point, Chuck could see that the major cabling for the jaeger was, unlike a few days before, complete. The jaeger skeleton was now staged, allowing the cabling to run through all the parts; rigging held various parts in place, awaiting welding. The heart of the jaeger was missing, but since that was the nuclear engine, it would be last part installed.
“No wonder my old man was concerned about the budget,” Chuck whistled, impressed. “Where’d you find the other parts?”
“Mako thought she remembered that the other shop was being used as storage. Turns out she was right, and there’s enough to finish that jaeger.”
“Who’d pilot it?”
Raleigh shrugged. “Docs don’t want me to unless it’s the end of the world again and there’s nobody else. That leaves you and Herc, unless he sticks to the protocol of the marshal not piloting.”
“Which he might. He’s been piloting since the beginning; he’s been tired of this shit for a long time.” He looked at Raleigh. “So am I. We saved the world. Want to run away with me and join a circus?”
Raleigh stared at him for a half moment. “Nah,” he deadpanned. “That means learning new tricks, and I was never that great in school.”
A wicked grin spread slowly across Raleigh’s mouth. “Told you before, I got nowhere else to go and nowhere else I want to be. Might as well let my new trick be figuring out how to teach someone else how not to fuck up the way I did, so they can fuck up some other way. Want to join me?”
Chuck pretended to consider it. “Sure,” he said. “Just so they know the standards they have to live up to. I’m not leaving this in the hands of mediocre pilots. That almost got us killed last time.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said.
Chuck narrowed his eyes. “I came to tell you something,” he began.
“I know. You want a relationship with me,” Raleigh said. At Chuck’s look, he added, “I’m brain-damaged, not blind.”
“Maybe I wanted to tell you so you were sure,” Chuck shot back, a little irked that he’d been obvious.
“Fair enough,” Raleigh allowed. “But I wanted to let you know we have a bigger challenge ahead, too. Even on the days we can’t stand each other, we’ll still have to work together. Herc thinks you and I should train whoever’s next to pilot. Not just figure out what the training should be.”
Chuck glanced down at the jaeger, aware of what it represented. “Eh, we’ll figure it out,” he said, shrugging, and drew Raleigh in closer. “Later. I want to kiss you.”
Raleigh made a noise of agreement and kissed him, slow, sweet, and filthy, until Chuck nearly forgot they were on a dangerous catwalk. “You want to wait to get naked or…?”
“World might end tomorrow,” Chuck tried, and Raleigh laughed.
“You gonna be a gentleman about this?” Chuck demanded.
“Maybe, because I don’t want to treat you like a one-night stand,” Raleigh argued.
Surprised by that, Chuck pulled back slightly, then shook himself. “Just as long as you don’t mind me getting a little handsy.”
“I’ll tell you when to stop,” Raleigh said. “Speaking of – we should probably actually get some work done.”
Chuck blew out a breath, aware that if they kept on kissing, he’d intentionally blow past any limits they’d just set, if only because he could. “What do you need?”
“Help me figure out where the hell to start with a training program for jaeger pilots when the kaiju may or may not be back?” he asked. He sounded less than confident.
“You have ideas, yeah? Something to make sure we don’t pair up the wrong people before they get into a conn-pod and fry their brains?”
“Some,” Raleigh said, looking down at the outline of a jaeger that had only been pieces a few weeks ago. He looked at Chuck. “Starting with full disclosure on personal histories.”
Chuck smirked at that. “Well, Mako would probably tell you if you’d only stuck to the candidate list…” he teased.
“We wouldn’t have done as well,” Raleigh said firmly. “They paired you with someone at the Academy, before someone paired you and Herc. Someone you would’ve probably fought in another jaeger with.”
Chuck blew out a breath. “Yeah. They told me I had to pick someone because my last name was no guarantee of anything other than I had the permission to go in two years early.”
Chuck shook his head. “He made some smartass remark about how he knew I’d get the newest jaeger because my last name is Hansen and that’s the only reason he wanted to become my copilot. Unfortunately, he made that remark where someone could hear. I never saw him again. Didn’t care; I had a jaeger and he didn’t.”
Raleigh winced. “How far along into the program were you?”
“Far enough,” Chuck allowed. He tried not to think about how close he and Mark had gotten; it had been a teenage, first-time-away-from-home, rookie mistake. “I heard later that they were going to pull him anyway; he’d apparently said stuff to other people that made the psych team nervous about how he’d react to the adrenaline crash.” He shook his head, firmly putting that memory in the past. “Enough about him. You want to go out tonight or just order something in, maybe watch a movie?”
“I could go for pizza, if that’s something we can get,” Raleigh allowed, stepping closer to kiss Chuck lightly and take his hand.
Chuck made a skeptical face. “Probably not, but someone around here should know. If not, I’m pretty sure we could find something else to eat.” He knew, just like the jaeger on the floor below them, they were a work in progress. It was enough to build something on, maybe something that lasted a very long time.