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It’s counter-intuitive, but soulbonding doesn’t actually help with the drift.

Which is weird, considering engineers originally developed drift technology from monitoring the neural activity of the brain during mind-speak. One might assume that soulbonded pairs would be perfect for the drift – guaranteed compatibility, and all. Soulbonded couples would be accustomed to sharing their brain, so it wouldn’t be a shock to have such a deep neural connection.

But that’s the thing. It’s too deep. Forget chasing the RABIT, good luck running from the RABIT chasing you.

The few times they attempted a soulbond drift, the strength of the neural handshake impressed the engineers, and they were prepared to call their experiment a success. But then every pair fell apart – the triggers enveloped them, drawing them too deep, blinding their eyes to anything but their own memories.

You’d have to have some fucking incredible control to handle drifting with your soulmate.

 

 

Sure, when Raleigh was young, he thought about soulbonding. Everyone does, y’know? Wondering about whether he would be one of the rare few to beat the odds and meet their other, who would brush fingers with a girl while going to pick up her dropped pencil and feel those tingles he’d heard about, low in his belly.

It hadn’t happened by the time he was assigned to Gipsy with his brother, and he’d kind of forgotten about it. There were more important things to focus on than idle adolescent fantasies.

But the idea was always there, in the back of his mind. Part of him thought – duh, Mako, but their fight hadn’t sent sparks skittering down his spine, and the only fireworks he felt were the white spots in his vision when she slammed his head back against the ground.

But drifting with Mako, that’s what he imagined a real soulbond would be like. Being as comfortable in another person’s head as he was in his own, feeling everything she was feeling in such vivid Technicolor. They were so perfectly in sync, comfortable and complementary.

And it’s good enough. What the fuck does he need a soulbond for when he’s already got this?

 

 

Naturally, less than a day later, he punches Chuck Hansen in the face and fireworks explode in his mind, an electric current running through his curled-up fingers and down his arm, sending him staggering.

Because his life isn’t complicated enough, right?

 

 

He blinks, clearing his vision. When the spots fade, the first thing he sees is Chuck, staring up at him from the ground with his mouth open. He’s just as panicked as Raleigh, if not more so. Raleigh can feel it bleeding through their bond, unfamiliar but instantly recognizable.

“Jesus Christ,” he and Chuck exclaim together.

“What is it?” Mako asks, looking back and forth between them.

Raleigh shakes his head, disbelieving. “We’re –”

“Don’t say it!” Chuck snaps.

Raleigh shoots him an unimpressed look. “Seriously?”

“Don’t.” Chuck rises to his feet, a scowl like a thundercloud gathering on his face.

“You think it’ll change anything to deny it?” Raleigh snorts. “I don’t know what Australian kids are taught about soulbonds, but in America, any five year old child knows that they’re permanent.”

Mako’s lips form an o of comprehension.

“We’re not soulbonded,” Chuck says in a low growl.

Raleigh just sneers at him. “You’re fucking kidding me with this, right?”

“I will not be soulbonded to a coward,” Chuck says, fingers curling into fists.

“Tough shit, little man, it’s happening.” Raleigh rubs a hand over his jaw, starts to pace. “I don’t think the soulbond will affect our drifts with other people, but –”

And that’s when Chuck catches him in a full-body tackle.

Their bond isn’t off to a great start.

 

 

Later, after Herc manhandles away the still-snarling Chuck, Raleigh takes stock of his injuries. He himself has a few bruises on his face and knuckles, but Chuck’s feeling it, his ribs screaming at him and the bones in his arm aching. And Raleigh can sense it like a phantom limb.

The emotions bleeding through their bond are a little harder to identify. Chuck’s got walls up, blasting white noise at him. Raleigh doesn’t get how it’s so intuitive for him to shut Raleigh out, but he supposes that’s normal for Chuck. He probably learned it in the drift with his father.

Shit, that’s sad.

It’s uncomfortable, too. He’s heard about this, what happens when people reject their bonds. The headaches, the nausea, the general soreness that lingers in the joints and muscles. He hadn’t anticipated quite how much it would suck, but that’s Chuck for you, doing his best to make everyone around him as miserable as he is.

 

 

“Why are you fighting this so hard?” Raleigh asks, leaning against the doorjamb into Chuck’s room.

Chuck startles. He straightens up from his crouch, where he was searching under his desk for something. “I’m not fighting anything,” he says.

Raleigh snorts, crossing his arms over his chest. “So why not accept the bond?”

“I don’t want to be soulbonded with a coward,” Chuck says, like it’s obvious. “You ran, remember? My soulmate wouldn’t be a wuss.”

Raleigh bares his teeth. He doesn’t need to express his anger, he knows, because Chuck can feel it pulsing under his skin. It’s just – the most asinine, juvenile assumption to make about Raleigh’s retirement. Like the only possible reason for him withdrawing into the remote corners of Alaska was fear for his own safety.

It wasn’t fear that drew him to the wall.

It was heartbreak, pure and simple, so strong he nearly lost the will to live.

He lets some of the old pain wash over him so Chuck can feel exactly why he had retreated from the PPDC back then, and Chuck stiffens involuntarily, clutching his head.

“Yeah, Becket, you’re really making me want to share your headspace,” he says through gritted teeth. “It seems bloody fun in there.”

Raleigh throws his hands up. “You know what? Fuck it. I tried.”

“And it was a good show, mate,” Chuck calls after him as he leaves.

Raleigh isn’t an idiot. He knows a lost cause when he sees one, and there’s not a lot he can imagine that would shake Chuck from his stubborn stance.

 

 

And then there’s the double event.

 

 

Raleigh’s already freaked out enough, having to stay grounded while the three other Jaegers go off to deal with the double event. He freaks out more when they all watch Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon fall. But the feeling of terror when the kaiju’s EMP shuts down the Shatterdome – that’s a visceral fear that comes from deep in his chest and freezes his blood, that there just aren’t sufficient words in the English language to describe.

It takes him a second to realize that it’s not his fear.

It’s Chuck.

He’s got their bond open, too emotionally shaken to keep up his walls. And he’s emanating helplessness from the marrow of his bones, trapped inside the cold metal frame of the very machine that’s built to make him unbeatable.

Take away his Jaeger, and Chuck is very much a 21-year-old boy.

But it’s not over yet.

While they prepare Gipsy Danger for deployment, Raleigh focuses on exuding all the comfort and assurance he can, and Chuck latches on.

Raleigh? he asks through their bond. Fuck, what do we do?

Hold on, we’re coming, Raleigh thinks back as firmly as he can. Don’t do anything stupid.

He can hear Chuck’s dry laugh as if Chuck were standing right next to him, smiling that small, wry smile. We both know that’s not going to happen, mate.

Chuck! Raleigh’s head snaps up, and he distantly hears Tendo scold him not to fuck up the neural handshake. Just fucking hold on.

He doesn’t get back a response. Not in words, at least. Instead, he’s assaulted by a barrage of images – Herc being slammed into the wall of Striker’s Conn-Pod, Max curled up in his dog-bed, Gipsy Danger’s plasma cannon charging up in the Shatterdome, the blare of an air raid siren, the old news reports of Gipsy Danger taking down another kaiju, the bright gleam of Raleigh’s eyes right before he punched Chuck.

It’s too much, too fast, and his head reels. He hears Mako give a sharp intake of breath next to him. Miraculously, the drift stays intact, and when his head clears, he send back just one more wave of wordless reassurance before focusing on maintaining a steady connection with Mako.

But he still feels it, the one final emotion from Chuck.

Hope.

 

 

In an ideal world, the near-death experience would have stripped Chuck of his fool pride. He would have seen Raleigh’s competence in the field and learned to trust him. He would accept their bond.

They would play footsie under the table in the caf and comfort each other on long nights, distract each other when they need it, and fight when they don’t. They would share their misery and their hope, their resignation and their fear and their elation and their love. Raleigh would find Chuck wearing the missing sweater he thought he’d lost. It would look better on him.

It wouldn’t take a genius to guess, but shockingly, that’s not how things go down.

It takes Raleigh a while to notice, distracted by the cheering crowd, that the wall of white noise is back up in his head, and that his headache is from more than a drift hangover.

Dammit, Chuck.

 

 

Raleigh glances around the mess hall. He spots Mako waving at him, and beelines towards the table, weaving in between passing crew members.

“Hey,” he says to her, sliding into the remaining open seat.

“Hello,” she says, passing him a tray. “Did you sleep well?”

Raleigh shrugs, skewering a chunk of potato with his fork. “Well enough.”

There’s a scoff from across the table, and he looks up just in time to see Chuck’s eyes roll. “Liar,” Chuck mutters.

“Did I keep you awake?” Raleigh asks. He was aiming for sarcastic, but it comes out more concerned, because Chuck does have bags under his eyes, and if that’s a result of Raleigh’s insomnia, that’s not cool.

“Oh, yes, the bond,” Mako says.

Chuck kicks back in his chair, fingers drumming on the table. “Nah, nothing like that. You just look horrible, mate. A blind man could see how tired you are.” His ankle hooks around Raleigh’s under the table, and he uses it to jiggle both their legs until their pants ride up just enough that their skin touches.

Raleigh has to close his eyes to withstand the sense of wholeness that threatens to overwhelm him. It’s like comfort, home, snowball fights with Yancy, hot chocolate waiting on the counter after the long walk home from school. At the same time, it’s like waves crashing against him on the beach, trying to pull him under.

His exhaustion dissolves.

Chuck meets his eyes squarely, defiance in the set of his jaw.

Christ, Hansen is the most contradictory little shit, Raleigh thinks, and doesn’t move his leg.

 

 

Raleigh gets complacent and comfortable – stupidly – and lets the bond wash over him, leeching the stress from his mind and body. He loves the chaos of Chuck’s mind, so unlike Mako’s ordered discipline. The fire and brimstone, the rough and tumble, the bramble of his emotions.

Mako’s mind is like a library. Chuck’s mind is a tornado.

So he forgets, somehow, that Chuck’s not totally on-board with the whole thing, and reaches over to steal a forkful of eggplant from Chuck’s plate. He doesn’t expect the fingers wrapping like a manacle around his wrist.

“What are you doing?” Chuck asks, voice flat.

Raleigh raises his eyebrows. “You don’t even like eggplant,” he says. He drops the fork and tugs his wrist away, and Chuck lets go.

“Fuck off, I love eggplant,” Chuck says unconvincingly.

“That’s not even true and we both know it,” Raleigh says, rolling his eyes. “I can feel it, you idiot.”

Chuck yanks his ankle away, and Raleigh instantly misses the contact. “Shows what you know,” Chuck snorts. “It’s my favorite vegetable.”

By this point, Herc is watching, amusement curling his lips. “Is that right? So you like the taste of, and I’m quoting you here, shoe leather crossed with boiled slug?”

“Love it,” Chuck says. He bares his teeth.

“So eat it,” Raleigh says.

Chuck frowns. “What?”

“Eat the eggplant,” Raleigh says, carefully enunciating every syllable.

Chuck looks at Herc, who smirks, sitting back with his arms crossed over his chest. Then looks to Mako, who has her eyebrows raised in an implicit challenge. And then, back to Raleigh, who meets his gaze, stone-faced.

Chuck, glaring like death itself, picks up his fork. He starts shoveling eggplant into his mouth, apparently trying to swallow so fast that he doesn’t taste it. They all watch as he polishes off the plateful, distaste bleeding through their bond so strongly Raleigh feels it in the back of his throat. He doesn’t love eggplant himself, but he doesn’t hate it the way Chuck does. He almost feels bad.

Herc doesn’t, clearly. “Here,” he says cheerily, sliding his own plate onto Chuck’s tray. “I hate the stuff, myself.”

Chuck makes a cute growling sound in the back of his throat.

“It is your favorite,” Raleigh says, smiling.

Chuck eats three portions of the shit before Mako finally takes pity on him and pulls Raleigh away for training.

Stubborn little fuck deserved it.

 

 

Herc catches up with him in the gym later, which, shit, Raleigh really should have seen this coming. 

Raleigh's on his back, eyes closed so he can concentrate on regulating his breathing. He hears a hushed conversation above him, but ignores it in favor of doing another rep of 10, arms shaking with the effort of lifting the 300-pound bar. 

Then the weight is relieved as someone takes the bar from his hands. He grabs a towel from the side without looking, swiping it over his sweaty face. "Thanks," he says.

Then he opens his eyes and sees Herc's smiling face hovering overhead.

Somehow, he doesn't think this is a purely social call.

"What happened to Cesar?" Raleigh asks slowly, moving to sit up.

Herc pushes him down with a light hand on his shoulder. If he fought it, Raleigh could overpower him, but he knows that would be a spectacularly bad idea. He sinks back down.

"Off spotting for someone else, I reckon," Herc says, still wearing that shark's smile. "I thought we should talk."

"About what?" Raleigh asks. He wants to stand up, put himself on equal footing here, but he knows that's why Herc caught him in this vulnerable position in the first place.

It may be a transparent intimidation technique, but damned if it's not effective.

"About my boy," Herc says. "And you."

"Uh huh...?" Raleigh says. He has to focus hard not to fidget under Herc's piercing stare.

"He doesn't trust easy," Herc says. "And a complete soulbond, that's a lot you're asking for."

Raleigh frowns. "I know that." 

Herc's eyes flash.

"Sir," Raleigh adds quickly.

Herc grunts. "He doesn't want to get hurt."

"I'm not going to - "

Herc hefts the bar in his good hand, the muscles in his arm flexing as he holds it about a foot over Raleigh's chest.

Raleigh's breath stutters to a stop.

"I know you're a good bloke," Herc says. "And I know you're just looking out for him. But if you hurt him..." he trails off ominously, guessing (accurately) that there's no threat he could state that would be as effective as Raleigh's imagination.

"That's not something you have to worry about, sir," Raleigh says.

"I hope not." Herc sets the bar down on his chest, just hard enough to knock the wind out of him. "Welcome to the family, son."

Raleigh cranes his neck to watch as Herc strolls away, Max trotting along beside him.

God, no wonder Chuck's such a freakshow.

 

 

He's got the bar back in place, absently rubbing his hand over his chest, when he realizes his fight-or-flight instinct isn't abating. If anything, it's getting stronger now, panic setting his nerves alight. 

"They're like goddamn vultures," he mutters, and goes to find Chuck.

By the time he gets there, Chuck's gone, and Mako's doing her best to look like an innocent bystander. Bullshit.

"You guys need to stop giving us the third degree," he says in lieu of a greeting. "He's not gonna get any more compliant just because you're threatening him."

Mako just smiles. "I was not threatening him. But who is 'you guys'?"

"So you didn't plan it with Herc?" Raleigh asks, skeptical. "You guys independently decided to interrogate us on our intentions? He's more suited to the daddy-with-a-shotgun role, you know."

She looks puzzled.

"Never mind," he sighs. "Just... leave him alone, alright?"

Mako nods. "Believe me, I know how defensive Chuck can be. I was just curious as to the reason for his reluctance to complete your bond."

Raleigh gives a crooked smirk. "Yeah, well, good luck with that." His willpower runs dry after about five seconds, and he blurts out, "So what did he say?"

"The same deflection as before - that you are a coward and he deserves better." Mako purses her lips. "When I pointed out your success against Otachi and Leatherback -"

"Our success," he interjects.

She smiles. "His objections shifted to a concern that having too many neural connections could distract from the drift."

Raleigh nods. He'd considered that himself, after their bond had sparked, but there was no evidence to support the idea that soulbonds clogged up the drift. Sure, only three Jaeger pilots had been soulbonded to other people, but it hadn’t had a noticeable effect on them. There's no reason to think it would be any worse for Raleigh and Chuck.

"He's full of shit," he says.

"I know."

Raleigh gently knocks his forehead into Mako's in a wordless show of affection. "You didn't have to do that," he says.

"It's hurting you," she whispers.

Raleigh grimaces. By this point, the residual ache is so normal to him, he barely notices it anymore. Sure, some days are worse than others, and he wishes he could stand up quickly without his head spinning, but - 

It's Chuck's choice, and he has to respect it.

 If only it weren't such a goddamn stupid choice to have made.

 

 

Raleigh jerks awake in the middle of the night, heart pounding.

Having been a victim of insomnia for five years (and four months), Raleigh is accustomed to long bouts of tossing and turning at night. He knows the heavy weight of fatigue well. There have been countless nights where he drifts off into restless sleep, only to jerk awake scant minutes later for no discernable reason.

This? This isn’t that.

Surprisingly, the soulbond helps with his insomnia, because Chuck can’t fight it while he’s unconscious. Raleigh can always tell when Chuck falls asleep because of the warm, drowsy feeling that seeps through their bond, the blaring white noise fading into a pleasant hum.

The eye of the hurricane, to follow up on the weather metaphors for Chuck’s mind.

And it helps Raleigh sleep better than any drug ever has, so this night, he instinctively reaches out with his mind to feel for Chuck’s comforting warmth.

And – oh

Chuck’s dreaming. About him.

About them.

Raleigh just gets flashes – heated skin, exploring fingers, scattered hickeys and the hot, tight squeeze of his body around Chuck’s cock. It’s that last image that makes him wrap his hand around his dick, because how is he supposed to resist?

It makes him feel kind of gross, but is it voyeurism, really, to watch your soulmate dream about you? He doesn’t think there’s a judge in the world who would convict him.

Still feels wrong, though.

He almost stops, but then a crystal clear image presents itself, stark against the hazy blur of the rest of the dream.

Laughter.

In his dream, Chuck is muffling his chuckles against Raleigh’s neck, and Raleigh’s head is tipped back as laughter cascades like the chime of bells from his lips. And Chuck loves the sound, Raleigh can tell – loves it fiercely, unquenchably.

Well, shit. He couldn’t stop now if the Marshal busted down the door and ordered him to. He tightens his fingers, panting into the still night air as he thrusts up into his fist, free hand digging valleys into the sheets.

That’s what Chuck dreams about, Raleigh thinks, nigh-delirious. He dreams about them fucking, yes, but more than that – he dreams about them in love.

How the hell can he fight this bond, when every cell in Raleigh’s body is screaming for them to complete it?

Raleigh’s so lost in the sensations that he doesn’t initially notice when something shifts. But he sure as fuck notices when there’s another presence in his head, Chuck’s internal voice slurred and confused.

What the hell, Becket?

You fucking started it, Raleigh shoots back, too far gone to be ashamed. He bites down on the meat of his palm to muffle his moans. Fucking – dreaming about me, what the hell do you expect?

Chuck doesn’t even try to deny it, for once. He just starts to withdraw, shields coming up.

No, wait! Raleigh begs. C’mon, give me something here.

No response.

Please, Jesus, just – be there, you don’t have to say anything.

Chuck must either be seriously tired or seriously turned on, because that’s all it takes before he’s dropped all his walls. And – oh, Christ, Raleigh can feel how hard he is. When he concentrates, he can make out the sweat trailing down Chuck’s temples, and the way he’s jacking his dick just this side of painful.

So talk, Chuck thinks to him suddenly. Make this worth it.

Raleigh doesn’t need any more encouragement. I want it, he thinks, what you were dreaming about, all of it. I want your dick in me, splitting me open. I want you to hold me down.

Chuck doesn’t respond with words, but he sends Raleigh images: Raleigh swallowing his cock while Chuck’s still strapped into Striker’s harness, Raleigh riding him with his hands bound behind his back, Raleigh handcuffed to the headboard while Chuck rims him until he cries.

Chuck’s dirtier than Raleigh ever gave him credit for, Raleigh thinks hazily.

In the end, it’s not any of these fantasies that gets Raleigh off. It’s the fact that Chuck is two doors down, jacking off frantically, and that it would take minutes for Raleigh to slip into his room and pin him to his mattress with kisses and words, finish the job with a hand over his mouth and whispered declarations in his ear.

Because, see – the first time Raleigh says “I love you,” he wants it to be out loud.

And that’s the thought that makes Chuck come, so hard his vision whites out.

 

 

Then Chuck comes down from his high, and he throws his walls up so fast it makes Raleigh’s head spin, dizzy and half-ready to puke.

Chuck doesn’t go back to sleep that night.

Which means Raleigh doesn’t either, just spends the time tossing and turning and trying not to think of how he’d fucked up.

It was too much, he knows. He went too far. He hadn’t meant to think that, because he knew it would freak Chuck out. But he couldn’t help it, not when his guard was down, not when he had Chuck willing and eager in his head.

Dammit.

He vows not to bother Chuck that day, either mentally or in person. He owes the kid at least that much of a reprieve.

 

 

But he can’t keep his promise, because he’s coming out of his room when he feels a spike of pure panic flow through him, courtesy of one Chuck Hansen. It’s not like when Mako talked to him; this is a threat to his safety, not his pride. He’s scared, helpless in a way Raleigh hasn’t felt since Leatherback’s EMP.

Raleigh’s off running before he even registers moving. He runs without any idea where he’s going, following the sense of fear to its source, growing more concerned with every step. Then he feels a sharp pain in his eye, and anger joins the concern.

So when he turns the corner and finds two men holding Chuck’s arms behind his back while one of them stuffs a sock into his mouth to gag him, it isn’t worry that causes his limbs to shake and his eyes to narrow.

It’s rage. Rage like he’s only felt once before on a cold, snowy morning outside of Anchorage. And this time, he doesn’t need a Jaeger to lend him strength.

He doesn’t bother asking questions, just advances on the men and pulls his fist back, decking the supposed leader full across the face with all his weight behind it. The man crumples to the ground.

Chuck takes advantage of the distraction to rip his right hand out of the stranger’s grip, and elbows the man in the face hard enough to break his nose, sending his head flying back against the concrete wall with a sickening crack. Raleigh catches the last one with a knee to the diaphragm before pinning him to the ground, sitting on his back to keep him there.

“Get the Marshal,” Raleigh growls.

Chuck, for once, does as he’s told.

 

 

This uncharacteristic obedience only lasts a few minutes, of course, because Chuck’s too damn proud to visit the infirmary for something as minor as a black eye. He’s right, of course, and Raleigh knows it, but he can’t help being protective of the little shit. He trails after Chuck all the way back to his room after they’ve left the three attempted kidnappers with the Marshal for interrogation, watching him to make sure he doesn’t take the ice pack off his bruised eye.

Chuck lets him fret with admirable patience, but when they reach Chuck’s room and Raleigh tries to follow him inside, he draws the line. “I’m not a bloody wuss,” he says, rolling his eyes. He sounds tired.

Raleigh remembers suddenly how little sleep Chuck got the night before.

“I know,” he says. “But you know I could help.”

Chuck scoffs. “How’s that, exactly?”

Raleigh plucks the ice pack out of Chuck’s hand and sets it aside. He wordlessly cradles Chuck’s face between his palms, leaning in to press a gentle, lingering kiss to the swelling skin around his eye. Chuck’s breath hitches and he tries to tug away, but Raleigh can feel the pain fading through their bond. He tightens his grip, sliding his hand around to the back of Chuck’s neck to keep him there.

“I can help,” he breathes against Chuck’s abused flesh. “Let me help.”

He really should have expected the fist in his solar plexus.

 

 

“What the hell is your deal, anyway?” Raleigh snaps, glaring at Chuck from his perch on Chuck’s desk. He’s holding the ice pack to his solar plexus, but it doesn’t really help. You can’t numb your whole torso.

Chuck doesn’t look up from where he’s petting Max on his bed. “What?” he asks with forced nonchalance.

“Why are you fighting it so much?” Raleigh stabs his finger in the air at Chuck. “What, you like having headaches? And feeling like you’re gonna vomit all the damn time?”

“It’s not so rough,” Chuck says, shrugging.

“It’s fucking miserable and you know it,” Raleigh says.

Chuck’s lips curl with annoyance. “It’s no walk in the park, but I deal. Could be worse.”

“Could be a hell of a lot better, too,” Raleigh mutters.

Chuck whirls on him, abruptly angry. “Oh, fuck you. You don’t even like me, don’t pretend you’re stoked to be living in my head.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I love you, you absolute shithead,” Raleigh exclaims.

It’s not exactly how he wanted the words to come out, but it’ll do.

Chuck sneers. “You love me because of the bond, because you have to. But you don’t like me.”

Raleigh’s irritation fizzles out. “What?” He slides to his feet. “Is that… Is that why?”

Chuck looks back down at Max, eyelashes fanning over his cheeks. He doesn’t say anything.

I’m not just an obligation, Raleigh hears, faintly.

Chuck, he thinks back, desperate.

“We both know you’re only in this because it’s biological,” Chuck says. His shoulders hunch. “If you had a choice, you’d never… you don’t like me, Becket. Don’t pretend to for my sake.”

Chuck, Raleigh thinks again. Then he crosses the room, presses their foreheads together, and feels.

 

 

The floodgates broke, the dams burst, and all of Raleigh’s desperate, raw affection pours out. He doesn’t hide anymore, doesn’t hold anything back.

And this time, he doesn’t try for words. Chuck thinks better in images, so that’s how he does it, sending a jumbled mass of thoughts and memories to him: their fight that sparked the bond, Chuck gorging himself on eggplant to make a point, how much he loves that one damn smirk on Chuck’s lips, the way watching Chuck with Max makes him want to ruffle the kid’s hair and give him a cookie, the admiration and envy he feels over Chuck’s absolute conviction, the respect and the exasperation and the lust and the pride.

That’s the feeling he lets linger. He is so damn proud of Chuck, proud of the man he’s become from the scared little boy he used to be. And sure Chuck’s a shithead, but piloting a Jaeger at 16 doesn’t make you the most well-adjusted person in the world. Raleigh would know.

And Raleigh knows he’s a shithead. It’s not like he doesn’t realize it – the soulbond doesn’t mask Chuck’s negative qualities, doesn’t trick Raleigh out of seeing them.

But there are worse things, he figures. He can handle douchebaggery.

Besides, he likes the smug little smirk Chuck gets when he feels like he’s won.

“I like you, Chuck,” he murmurs. They’re so close that their eyelashes brush when he blinks. “I swear, I’m crazy about you.”

Chuck lets out a long, ragged breath. Then he pulls away.

“Christ,” Raleigh says. He cards a hand through his hair. “I can’t win with you.”

Chuck’s mind flares up at that.

“Not that you’re a prize, or a game,” Raleigh adds hastily. He rubs that same hand over his face, now. “Just – I’m tired of this. I’m so goddamn tired. Aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m tired,” Chuck says, all weariness and disdain. “You think it’s easy, blocking you out?”

Then why

“Because I don’t want to be left alone!”

The words echo off the metal walls.

And finally, everything clicks into place.

Chuck doesn’t trust easy, Herc said. Chuck doesn’t want to be hurt. Chuck’s scared, understandably, of the future, because Chuck can only guess at the pain he will feel, if and when his soul is ripped in two. He won’t complete the bond, because he can’t afford to lose it.

Raleigh didn’t help, he realizes now, showing him the crippling pain he felt when Yancy was ripped out of their drift. He inadvertently gave voice to Chuck’s fears, solidified the vague unease he felt when looking into their future and seeing nothing more than a dark chasm open before them.

“If we complete the bond and then I lost you…” Chuck’s voice grows thick with an emotion that Raleigh can’t name. He won’t meet Raleigh’s eyes. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

There could be a happy ending for them, Raleigh knows. But the chance of it is slim, as slim as the chance of successfully dropping a bomb into the breach.

But if humanity is brave enough to pin their hopes on a long-shot, who is Raleigh to do anything different?

He sits at the edge of Chuck’s bed, looking down at his own hands. “When Pentecost asked me to come back, I told him I didn’t think I could let anyone in my head again. And he asked me if I would rather die there, or in a Jaeger.”

“So?”

Raleigh shrugs one shoulder. “So, how would you rather die? Safe and isolated, or fighting with everything you’ve got in you? Personally, I’d rather die with no regrets.”

“I…” Finally, Chuck looks up and meets his eye. There’s fear there, yes – but a steadfast determination burns in his gaze.

Raleigh smirks. “I don’t want to be soulbonded to a coward.”

Hearing this, Chuck shakes his head, recognizing his own words from the day their bond sparked. Then he takes a deep breath, gives a half-smile, and reaches both hands out to Raleigh.

Raleigh takes them.

 

 

This time, there are no fireworks. There’s no sensation of being dragged down by the waves. There’s no sparks.

There’s just – calm.

It’s a good feeling.

 

 

The next day, they’re sparring with bō staffs when the Marshal comes in, standing just outside the mat with his hands behind his back. They come to a stopping point, and Raleigh leans on his staff, chest heaving with exertion. “Any updates?” he asks.

“Terrorists, either from the Children of God or the Holy Rapture.” The Marshal tips his head to Chuck. “They believe our work interferes with God’s plan. Without our rangers…”

Chuck huffs. “I haven’t even got a partner right now. If they really want to neutralize the Jaegers, they should have taken Miss Mori or this asshole over here.” He catches Raleigh with an elbow to the sternum.

“Miss Mori and this asshole don’t do a lot of public interviews bragging about how awesome they are,” Raleigh says dryly. “And I doubt the PPDC released a statement announcing that their best Jaeger team is incapacitated.”

Before Chuck can shoot back something equally snarky, Stacker raises a hand. “That’s actually what I came to talk to you two about. I’d like to try an experiment.”

Raleigh and Chuck glance at each other, confused. Then recognition lights up Chuck’s gaze, and Raleigh straightens up when the realization bleeds through the link.

“You want us to pilot Striker,” Raleigh says.

Stacker dips his head in a nod. “Of the four remaining Jaeger pilots, I believe you two have the best shot.”

Chuck rubs his jaw. “So who would jockey Gipsy with Mako?”

The Marshal doesn’t say anything, just stares at them until they both look down.

Stacker Pentecost is a man worth following, for so many reasons.

Putting Stacker’s sacrifice out of his head, Raleigh thinks about the offer on the table. “But – soulbonded pairs don’t drift,” he points out.

“Desperate times, Mr. Becket,” Stacker says in that low, booming voice of his.

Chuck shifts on his feet, uncertain.

Stacker nods to the staff in Raleigh’s hand. “What’s the score of your match here?”

“0-0,” Raleigh answers.

“And how long have you been sparring?”

Chuck sighs. He knows they’ve already lost this one. “Fifteen minutes,” he says, quiet and clear.

Raleigh can see Stacker’s point, kind of. That kind of balance, of total chemistry, can’t be recreated, not even in the drift. And if they were able to control it, to tame their neural handshake, to keep their eyes on the prize and ignore the RABIT lurking at the edges of their vision –

They would be unstoppable.

 

 

For the next 24 hours, Chuck doesn’t leave Raleigh’s side. Like, literally. If they weren’t soulbonded, they’d be knocking knees and brushing shoulders every time they so much as turn around, but as it is, they just freak out everyone around them by unconsciously adjusting to each other’s motions before they even start to move. Even Mako stares when Chuck’s hand shoots out to catch the cup Raleigh’s elbow knocks over before it spills so much as a drop.

Chuck only leaves the five-foot radius around Raleigh when Herc calls him over, before the drop. Raleigh hangs back in deference to their privacy, although he can hear every word they’re saying through their link.

He frowns when Chuck cuts Herc off, and frowns deeper when Chuck expresses a heartfelt goodbye to Max while his father stands by and watches. Herc’s a military man to the end, and maybe it’s his fault that Chuck ended up as emotionally stunted as he did, but Raleigh can’t suppress the well of sympathy that surges up at the tableau before him: the lifelong soldier, unable to fight. The father unable to protect his son from the fate that should be his by choice.

That’s cold, even for you, Raleigh comments as Chuck falls back into step beside him, shoulders hunched.

Leave it, Chuck says, weary.

Raleigh works his jaw. I understand that it’s hard to let yourself open up… he starts.

Leave it, Chuck says, an edge in his tone.

“I never got to say goodbye to Yancy,” Raleigh says. He chews on his lip. “And he was still yelling something at me when he was ripped out of the hull.” I wish I knew what it was, he thinks.

Chuck sneers. “I’m not Yancy.”

“The point stands.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Chuck stops him with a hand on his arm, meeting Raleigh’s eyes, deadly serious. “Listen up, Becket. My father and I are unique individuals. The relationship we have – that’s unique, too. There’s no parallel here. And when I told him I already knew everything he’d never said…” He sets his jaw.

Raleigh gets hit with a sudden wave of emotion. It’s tangled and twisted, but beneath the resentment and envy and regret is fierce devotion.

No, Raleigh realizes now. The problem was never that Herc and Chuck didn’t understand each other. It’s that they understood each other too well. When they looked at each other, they saw their own warped images, like a carnival mirror that only reflected the ugly and hateful parts of them.

But there was love between them, as pure as he’s ever felt.

And Chuck didn’t just stop Herc out of his own self-interest, he suddenly sees – this isn’t an issue of Chuck being too emotionally fucked-up to listen to the last wishes of a broken man. If Chuck had allowed Herc to believe even for a second that a last minute, deathbed confession was necessary for Chuck to know Herc loved him, it would only serve to show how fragile their bond was. Trying to express their connection in spoken word would just make it sound trivial and weak.

There are no words to sum up how deeply Chuck loves his father.

“You’re right,” Raleigh says. “I didn’t… It’s not my right.”

Chuck looks at him for another long moment, then gives a slow nod, satisfied.

Then, he says again, “I’m not Yancy.”

“I know that,” Raleigh says.

“No, you don’t.” Chuck shakes his head, irritated, although Raleigh can’t tell if it’s directed at Raleigh or at Chuck’s own inability to communicate this clearly. “I’m not him, okay? If we die, we die together.”

Raleigh opens his mouth to reply, and then stops. He swallows hard against the sudden lump in his throat.

I am not your brother, Chuck thinks to him. He tips his head up and murmurs the words into Raleigh’s ear, lips warm against his skin. “I am not your brother.”

It’s funny, Raleigh thinks, shaken. Before this, he was the one convincing Chuck not to close himself off due to the fear of being abandoned. He didn’t realize, but – all along, it hadn’t been only Chuck’s fear.

All along, he’d been just as scared.

“So, if it happens… we won’t have to die alone,” Raleigh says with something like wonder.

Chuck nods. There’s heartbreak in the lines of his smile, and in the bond that rests like a steady hum in the back of his mind.

“We won’t have to live alone, either,” he says.

It’s all or nothing, now. Either they make it out alive, together, or…

There are worse fates Raleigh can think of.

 

 

Raleigh isn’t sure how Stacker knew. Maybe he’s freakin’ intuitive, maybe their psychological makeup is just that transparent, maybe he took a shot in the dark and lucked out.

Whatever the reason, they’re amazing. They go into the drift and lock in, and the RABIT doesn’t have a chance against their unwavering focus.

Privately, Raleigh thinks it’s because Chuck is so accustomed to blocking the bond that skirting along the edge of their mental connection is second nature to him, but thinking that just gets him eye rolls, and he doesn’t share his hypothesis with anyone else.

Mako and Stacker also ease into their neural handshake without trouble, although both of their eyes are suspiciously wet when they come back down from the mind-meld. No one says anything.

So they go to drop the bomb, because what else can they do?

And if the crew has to maneuver around Raleigh and Chuck’s tightly interlocked fingers when they’re suiting them up for combat – well, no one says anything about that, either.

 

 

On the ocean floor, everything is quiet and still. There’s too much time to think, to anticipate. When the kaiju finally show up, it’s almost a relief.

At least now they have something to fight.

And God, do they have something to fight.

Slattern is the biggest fucking thing Raleigh has ever seen, deadly grace in every curve of its muscles, harsh and vicious and beautiful. He’s a monster in every sense of the term, the sort of creature found in nightmares and horror stories, the product of the wildest reaches of the human imagination. And Chuck doesn’t hesitate for a moment before unsheathing his dual blades for battle.

It truly is amazing, Raleigh thinks, as Striker drops into a fighting stance, what a contradiction Chuck is. Fearless in the face of certain death, and utterly terrified of living, left behind.

They’re going to get through this, Raleigh decides, abruptly determined. He’s going to spend every single day showing Chuck that he made the right choice in completing the bond.

“Great,” Chuck says aloud, an almost lazy smile touching his lips. He casts Raleigh a warm sidelong glance. “Now that that’s decided, you gonna help? S’gonna be hard to show me a good time if you’re a rotting corpse at the bottom of the ocean.”

Raleigh steps to the side, neatly avoiding Scunner’s lunge. “Just try to keep up, baby boy,” he says.

He and Chuck trade grins. There’s still something small and scared and sad in Chuck’s mind, but Raleigh’s been in his head for days, and he knows the feeling of this secondhand emotion well.

Hope is a powerful thing.

 

 

If Raleigh had to pick a person to trust with the fate of humanity, Stacker Pentecost would be at the top of the list. Hell, he is the list.

But that doesn’t make it any easier, sitting on their escape pods with the entire ocean spread out around and under them with no idea what’s going on those miles below. Sure, Raleigh’s relieved to be alive, but it’s blended with panic and fear and red, raw guilt. He should be down there, he should be helping. It was their job to blow up the breach.

It was their job, and they failed.

But Striker needed to detonate early, and now it’s all on Gipsy to finish the job that needs to be done.

Their communication links are shot from the EMP released by their own bomb, so they don’t have any way of knowing what’s happening under there, and it’s – weirdly liberating, actually. They did what they could do. They clawed and dragged themselves to the breach, they bled and broke for it. And now, all they can do is wait.

Chuck sees it differently, of course. He’s got a hero complex the size of Alaska, and Raleigh knows he’ll blame himself if the plan falls through, which is only one of many reasons he hopes Mako and Stacker make it.

God, does he hope they make it.

Raleigh reaches over without looking and pulls Chuck’s hand from his face to keep him from gnawing on his thumbnail. “Trust them, alright? They can do it.”

Chuck smiles, but it’s grim.

“Alright, if you can’t trust them, trust me.” Raleigh brushes his lips against Chuck’s knuckles. “Believe in me, because I believe in them.”

“You get cornier and cornier every time you open your mouth,” Chuck says, but there’s no bite in the words, and the fingers of his free hand beat a nervous tattoo against the pod’s exoskeleton.

Raleigh opens his mouth to respond, then there’s a ripple under the water. Their heads whip over in unison.

And then the ripple swells and grows, as an escape pod erupts from the water.

 

 

The drunk, giddy feeling in Raleigh’s chest doesn’t fade in the next few hours. If anything, it bubbles and fizzles, like he’s swallowed a hundred butterflies, like he’s high on pixie dust.

Part of it’s Chuck, he knows, and they’ve got a feedback loop of manic elation going back and forth, but who can blame them? Mako’s alive, and they’re alive, and the breach is closed, and – God, fuck, the breach is closed – and Chuck is here, at his side, sharing this with him.

Raleigh’s sitting with Mako and Tendo, laughing at Newt’s impression of the crazy black market dealer the Marshal sent him to track down, but he’s hyperaware of Chuck’s warm buzz in the back of his mind the whole time. When he feels light fingers against the back of his neck, he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder to know who’ll be standing there.

But when he makes his excuses and stands to leave, no one’s there.

I didn’t know you could do that, he thinks to Chuck, weaving his way through the crowd.

Just testing, Chuck thinks, and projects an image of where he is.

Which is Raleigh’s bed.

Naked.

Raleigh speeds up.

 

 

“We did it,” Raleigh whispers into Chuck’s neck, licking away the sweat forming in the hollow of his throat. “We did it, we did it –”

Chuck tugs his head up and kisses him messily.

We did it, Raleigh thinks. We finished the mission.

But we’re not done here, mate, Chuck returns. He bites Raleigh’s lower lip. Who gets the honors?

Raleigh’s feeling magnanimous, and he can feel Chuck’s yearning, like he’s never wanted anything more in his life. “To the victor, the spoils,” he says. “You clean?”

He doesn’t even get an answer, just a wave of exasperation and amusement.

“I’m on top, though,” Raleigh says.

Fine, you demanding shrew, Chuck thinks, but he can’t tamp down the flare of heat in time, and Raleigh grins.

He’s still grinning when he sinks down on Chuck’s cock after slicking himself up, but that’s more for the awestruck look on Chuck’s face than anything.

“First time?” he asks.

“Nah, I’ve been – girls, but…” Chuck gives a strangled curse. Jesus fuck, you’re tight.

Share the wealth, man, Raleigh thinks.

Chuck blinks, dazed. Then he kisses Raleigh and lets go.

It’s the weirdest fucking feeling. Like he’s so fucking full, being split open, and at the same time, like he’s got his dick sheathed in a slick, hot vise. Oh, shit, he thinks.

Chuck bucks his hips, and it’s – oh, fuck.

Raleigh’s head swims.

If he had more control, he’d love to experiment with the phantom touching, but –

“Time and place, man,” Chuck pants. “We can work on that later.” For now, move, fucker.

“You’re so romantic,” Raleigh coos, and rolls his hips down.

They both make noises they’ll deny to the death later, and Chuck’s head snaps back against the pillows, eyes rolling back. “Shit,” he says.

“You sound like you’re dying,” Raleigh says. Which, he’s one to talk, breathing like he’s just come out of a fight with a kaiju.

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna kill you if you don’t hurry the fuck up,” Chuck says, but it’s weak, and Raleigh would tell him that if Chuck didn’t pick that moment to grab his hips and force him into a rhythm.

The feedback loop only intensifies, and by the fifth roll of his hips, Raleigh literally does not know where he ends and Chuck begins. There’s probably a technical term for this, but all Raleigh can think is that stupid euphemism for sex, something about a beast with two backs?

Chuck bursts out laughing. Do you always sound this dumb during sex, or am I just that good?

Raleigh would blush, but all his blood is occupied elsewhere, for the moment. You’re the fucking worst. I’m cutting off our bond.

Bullshit, thinks Chuck, entirely too cheerful. You love me. You like me. You’re crazy about me. He punctuates every thought with a slow upward grind, and Raleigh can’t respond for a moment because his brain shorts out.

“You definitely do drive me crazy,” Raleigh says, finally.

“Tough shit,” Chuck says, his thrusts speeding up until they’ve lost the rhythm and are reduced to rutting frantically against each other, heat coiling low in their bellies. “There’s no getting rid of me now.”

Raleigh would retort with another insult, but it’d be futile and he knows it. Chuck can definitely feel the affection leaking through their bond, spilling through Raleigh’s minimal mental walls. Trying to hold it back is like catching a waterfall with his hands, so he doesn’t bother.

Besides, he can feel how much Chuck gets off on being genuinely liked, which is both sad and endearing, like most things about Chuck.

He leans over, disrupting the movement of their hips, and kisses Chuck with all the energy he has left in him.

They come together.