It was dark and hot, and Chuck was sprawled out like a starfish on a hard surface. He moved his arms and legs experimentally, hearing the armor of his drivesuit scrape against what felt like concrete. His hands bumped into objects that yielded with a metallic rasp. A faint blend of grease and motor oil filled his nostrils - where was his helmet? Slowly, carefully, he pushed himself up to a sitting position and tried to remember where he was and how he got there.
His last clear memory was of being in Striker Eureka, with Stacker. The Cat 5 had them pinned, with the remaining Cat 4 closing in on them, and then…
“That’s not right,” Chuck said out loud, because he was pretty sure after that he and Stacker had agreed to detonate the payload, and if that had happened, how could there be enough of him left to wake up in an unidentified location?
“No, that’s right,” a male voice replied, and Chuck looked wildly around to find the owner even as he realized how stupid that was in the dark.
“Who’s there?” he called out, scrambling to his feet and smacking his head on the edge of something. “OW! Fucking hell...."
A light snapped on, a single bare bulb swinging lightly overhead. Chuck squinted around his newly revealed surroundings, seeing the low shelf he had just brained himself on and the open toolbox on the ground he had pushed away. Definitely not someplace in the Shatterdome.
“Don’t worry, it’s not gonna leave a mark.” Spinning around, he saw a sandy haired man leaning against the wall behind him, arms crossed. He gave a little wave and smirked.
“Who the hell are you?” He was still rubbing his head when he realized it didn’t actually hurt, even though he’d surely hit it hard enough to open his scalp. Pulling his hand in front of his face to check, he looked in confusion from his fingers, clear of blood, to the man, back to his hand. “Where am I?”
The man pushed himself away from the wall and stepped forward, and Chuck took a step back. “Easy there, tiger. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now.”
He wasn't wearing a uniform of any sort, just civilian clothes, but Chuck recognized the PPDC logo on the badge clipped to the waistband of his jeans. There was something about his voice that sounded familiar, and Chuck was sure he’d seen his face before, somewhere... another pilot? Had they fought together sometime?
The answer hit him with all the force of a Jaeger punch to the gut. “You’re Yancy Becket.”
Yancy put his hands up. “Guilty as charged.”
“That’s not--” Chuck couldn’t even finish his sentence, he was already pacing back and forth trying to work through his current situation. The man who claimed to be Yancy watched him pace with mild amusement. “This is ridiculous. I detonated a nuclear weapon directly behind me while we were at the bottom of the fucking ocean. That happened,” he spat, stopping to stare at maybe-Yancy.
“Yes, it happened,” maybe-Yancy said, and Chuck started pacing again.
“And if that really happened, and I’m standing here with you, and you say you're Yancy Becket, who I know for a fact died five years ago--” Chuck came to a halt. “Am I dead?”
“Oh, thank god.” Yancy sighed with relief. “Look, I know you’re a smart kid, but that took way too long for you to put it all together.”
Much to Yancy’s chagrin, the pacing resumed, but he was silent this time. Every few laps Chuck would stop, turn and point as if to say something, then shut his mouth and continue pacing.
“You’re not gonna be able to walk this one off, kiddo,” Yancy said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “You got questions, that’s why I’m here. Spit it out.”
“If I’m dead, where are we? You’re telling me heaven is a junked up garage?” he asked, kicking the toolbox.
“Oh, this isn’t heaven. Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Yancy grabbed a folding chair off a stack of them by the wall he had been leaning against and tugged at the seat to open it, the metal of the chair frame squeaking in protest as he sat down. “This is just the reception area. It’s usually someplace that meant a lot to you. Look a little closer, sure you don’t recognize it?”
Chuck stilled himself, looked around. Looked again. The heat in the air, the tools, the small bike propped against a rack of sports equipment, the radio on the bench.... "This is my garage. In Sydney. My home.” He had lived in several places in Sydney, but the last house his mother had lived in with them was the one he always thought of as home.
“You spent a lot of time in here with your dad, tinkering with stuff. That radio was the first thing you fixed together,” Yancy said, opening up another chair to set in front of him.
“How do you know that?” Chuck asked, sitting down.
“I know a lot of things. Next question.”
“Why am I still in my drivesuit?”
“Because that’s what you think you’re supposed to be wearing right now. This stuff, it’s all very easily influenced once you understand.” Yancy leaned back in his chair. “There. Better?”
Chuck looked down to find that his drivesuit had been replaced with his more common boots, fatigues and t-shirt. He looked back up. “Please don’t do that again.”
“Sorry. By the way--it worked, just so you know.” Seeing the confusion on Chuck’s face, Yancy continued. “Your sacrifice play. It gave Mako and Raleigh the chance they needed to close the Breach.”
“Oh.” He took a moment to absorb that new bit of information, torn between relief and dread. “Did they, ah--” Chuck pointed to himself.
Yancy smiled. “No. No, they both made it. Barely. So thanks for that; I owe you one.”
Nodding with satisfaction, Chuck leaned over to rest his elbows on his knees. “So what now?”
His companion sat up and made finger guns at him. “Ahh, now that is the million dollar question! Now,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “we get to work.”
“What?” Chuck stared blankly in disbelief. “Get to work? I just saved the fucking world! Don’t I get to go to my, I don’t know, hero’s rest or something?”
“All in good time,” Yancy said, standing up. “There’s some loose ends you’ve got to tie up first. Standard procedure, everyone’s gotta do it. Oh, except Stacker. That guy spent the last ten years tying up all his loose ends.”
Chuck stood up to join Yancy, still staring at him in confusion. “What do you mean, ‘loose ends?’ I’m dead. What’m I going to do?”
“You’re going to follow me.” Without waiting for an response, Yancy walked over to the door that led into the house and opened it, then disappeared inside. “You’ve got all the time in the world, but they don’t,” he called out.
“Who’s ‘they?’” No answer. Frustrated, Chuck followed after him and walked through the door.
Herc Hansen pulled his keys out of his pocket as he walked up the steps to his front door, Max trotting faithfully beside him, still feeling that faint pang of nostalgic deja-vu. The first few weeks of living in that house, the last house they’d shared as a family, had been the toughest--every time he’d opened the door, part of him thought he might still find his wife and son on the other side.
He still wasn’t sure what had possessed him to buy the house. After the Hong Kong Shatterdome had been decommissioned, and the doors had shut for the last time, everything in him wanted to run away to the other side of the planet, just forget about everything he’d lost and start over. Life had other plans for him, though; an old air force buddy had reached out to him, told him he’d always have a place with the RAAF, and--when Herc initially refused--had not so subtly told him he couldn’t run away from himself forever, and sent him some house listings.
Their old address was on the first page. It had been put on the market the day before. Herc figured the universe was trying to tell him something; he just wished he could figure out what that was.
Max was unusually excited to get inside, and when the door finally opened he nosed his way in first, making a beeline straight for the door that connected the house to the garage. He sat and watched it, tail wagging.
“What do you want in there for?” Herc asked, but Max paid him no mind, just sat and wagged his stump of a tail. Shaking his head, Herc left the dog to his puzzling vigil and headed to the kitchen to make himself some dinner.
Chuck wasn’t sure what he’d find on the other side of the door, half expecting to be teleported somewhere completely different like in a movie. He wasn’t expecting to actually walk into his house--at least, not in its current condition. The walls of the living room were painted beige instead of the sunny yellow he remembered, and the furnishings were sparse; the dining room was empty, save for some boxes stacked neatly against the wall, and the living room had only a couch and a small cabinet with a TV set.
“Who lives here now?” he asked Yancy, who stood two steps in front of him.
Yancy didn’t turn around, just surveyed the room. “Your father. He bought the place when he moved back from Hong Kong.”
“What? When did--when are we?”
“It’s been seven months since you closed the Breach. Time moves a little differently in there,” Yancy replied, turning to nod towards the garage door. “Your old man spent three months in Hong Kong while the Shatterdome was being shut down, then he moved out here.”
“He’s been living here for four months, and the place still looks like this?” Chuck looked around again. “This is just sad.”
“Yeah, you should see what his bedroom looks like.” The sound of keys interrupted them, and Yancy put a hand on Chuck’s arm. “There he is now. Don’t freak out; he can't see us."
Chuck was doing a pretty good job of not freaking out until Max pushed his way inside and made straight for them, sitting right at Yancy’s feet and gazing at them expectantly.
“He knows we’re here," Chuck said. He wanted to get down on the floor and play with his dog, but somehow he knew it wouldn’t go quite the way he wanted it to.
“Animals usually do. It’ll come and go, so don’t get offended when he ignores you.” Yancy strolled ahead, following Herc into the kitchen.
Sure enough, after a minute Max lost interest and wandered off. Chuck heard the beeping of the microwave from the kitchen, and looked around to take in the house once more. “This isn’t happening,” he said out loud, more to himself than anything else.
“What’d you say?” Yancy had followed Herc back out of the kitchen, where his father settled on the couch with his microwave dinner and flipped on the TV.
“I said this isn’t happening. I’m having some crazy nightmare, or I’m hallucinating.” Chuck walked over to stand in front of Herc, who continued to stare through him at the TV as he ate. “You’re not real. None of this is real!”
“--memorials planned for Stacker Pentecost and Charles Hansen, the two pilots of Striker Eureka who perished during the--” Spinning around in shock, Chuck saw pictures of himself and Stacker on the screen as the newscaster droned on about them. A pained sigh from behind him pulled his eyes back to his father, who clenched his jaw and aggressively changed the channel to a nature documentary.
“It’s real for him,” Yancy said softly. “He’s not dealing with it very well. He’s not dealing with it at all, actually.”
Chuck sat down next to his father, absently noting how the cushions didn’t give way beneath him. “What the hell are you doing, old man?” he asked. “You’re in the same house you lived in with your dead wife and your dead son, and you haven’t even bothered to finish unpacking.”
Herc blinked down into his empty cardboard food tray for a moment, then abruptly shut off the TV and went back into the kitchen. It was, Chuck thought to himself sadly, a lot like the conversations they’d had when he was still alive.
Herc threw away his trash, still feeling unsettled. It was next to impossible to try and keep up with the news without hearing some mention of Chuck or Stacker, but he kept trying, hoping that one day he’d hear his son’s name and not want to throw something at the television screen.
Half a year later, he still wasn’t there yet.
He walked around the house to make sure all the doors were locked, then headed for his bedroom, stopping in front of the room that had once been Chuck’s. The door was closed, and he put his hand on the doorknob, turned it, then thought better of himself, continuing down the hall to his room and closing the door behind him.
“What’s he got in there? Why doesn’t he want to go in?” Chuck asked, after watching his father’s behavior.
“Memories,” Yancy answered him. “A whole lot of boxes full of memories. All your mom’s stuff from storage, all of your stuff.... he stuck it in there and hasn’t looked at it since.”
Chuck buried his face in his hands, exasperated. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why is he doing this to himself? He wasn’t like this after mum died, he picked himself up and took me and...." Chuck's hands dropped and his voice trailed off as something clicked into place.
“He still had something worth fighting for,” he said. It wasn’t a secret, Chuck had seen it during every Drift, but he hadn’t really considered the implications.
He stood in the hall, saw the light go out through the crack under Herc’s door. “I have to do something. I can’t let him live like this," he said, heading back down the hall towards the dining room. Stopping in front of the stack of unpacked boxes, he reached out to pull them down, and nothing happened. Chuck tried again, but his hands slid harmlessly around the boxes. He kicked them ineffectively, flailed around them, scrabbled at the edges like some kind of animal, but he was unable to disturb so much as the layer of dust sitting on top.
Finally admitting defeat, he sat on the floor in front of them, leaning back into the cardboard and glaring up at Yancy, who looked far too amused for Chuck’s taste. “Well, are you going to fucking help me? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Yancy chuckled to himself. “Come on, kid,” he said, offering Chuck a hand. “Let’s go teach you how to wreck stuff.”
It had been a strange day all around. Max had refused to leave the house when Herc had to go to work, so he’d left the dog behind and felt like he was missing something all day. Then he’d been filled with the overwhelming feeling that he should leave work and go home. It was strong enough that he actually called a neighbor to make sure the house wasn’t burning down. “No, everything looks fine,” Mrs. Robbins had told him after using a spare key to get into the house. “Well... the dog made a big mess of things, but nothing’s on fire.”
He’d left work early anyway, to survey the damage Max had done in his absence. Letting himself in, he could see the wreckage in the dining room, boxes strewn about and torn, their contents dumped all over the floor.
“What in the--Max!” The bulldog trotted cheerfully out of the kitchen, oblivious to Herc’s frustration. “Did you do this?”
Even as he said it, he knew something was off. Those boxes had been stacked three high, and Max had shown no interest in them before.... Walking over to the mess, Herc saw that nothing seemed to be chewed or broken. It was like someone had pulled everything out of the boxes before ripping them to shreds, and there were no telltale teeth marks anywhere. Quietly, Herc walked into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from the drawer, and then checked all the rooms. The house was completely empty.
“Who would break in just to tear up a bunch of boxes?” he asked Max, and the dog cocked his head in reply. “It doesn’t look like anything’s missing. Did you do this somehow?” he asked again, but Max wasn’t showing his usual signs of guilt. Herc sighed. “Don’t suppose it matters much, still have to get this mess cleaned up. I needed to pick up some shelves and tables anyway,” he said, and left to try and find some furniture to hold the belongings that no longer had a box to hide in.
Yancy and Chuck followed Herc through the furniture store, getting all the way to the dining room section before Yancy took off. “You’ve got this covered,” he said. “I need to be somewhere for a little while.”
With Yancy gone, Chuck started talking to his father, just to feel a little less lonely. “Those chairs are ridiculous,” he said as Herc regarded a dining room set with giant carved wood chairs. “Seriously? You might as well buy a card table and some folding chairs!” he exclaimed when Herc looked over a tiny, cheap four-seater, but was even more frustrated by his father’s next choice. “You can’t buy that one, it’s got leather on the seats! Max would chew those out as soon as you got it home!”
“He might not chew on it,” Herc muttered to himself, and Chuck looked at him in surprise.
“Did you hear that? Dad, can you hear me?” His father’s brow furrowed, and he glanced around the store, but before Chuck could continue a woman with curly brown hair and a nametag that read “DANA” noticed Herc’s confused expression and walked straight for him.
“What can I help you with tonight?” she asked, but Herc barely noticed, turning his attention back to the furniture in front of him.
“I’m just... taking a look around, thanks.”
“No problem. You looked like you had a question so I thought I’d come check on you. I’m Dana, I own the store.” She extended a hand, and Herc shook it politely, but still hardly looked at her.
“Yeah, you’ve got some nice things in here.” He couldn’t have acted more disinterested if he tried. Chuck rolled his eyes.
“If you’re looking for a dining room set, we’ve got some nice ones marked down. I can show them to you, if you’d like?” Her tenacity was impressive, and her smile was luminous.
“God, Dad, she’s a lovely woman. You’re missing out staring at that damn table.” Chuck was being flippant, and maybe it had been a coincidence, but as soon as he’d said the words his father finally lifted his eyes to take in the woman standing beside him. Herc’s eyebrows shot up, and he opened his mouth to speak but closed it, flustered.
“You’ve got, ah... sure. Let’s take a look.” He smiled back at her, and Chuck couldn’t help but to feel a tiny spark of hope for his old man.
Two bookshelves, a coffee table, a dining room set and three side tables later, Herc was pulling out his wallet to pay for his new furniture. Dana was an excellent saleswoman, but not in an underhanded way, and Herc had almost seemed like he was enjoying himself as he chatted with her about wood finishes and craftsmanship. Chuck had simply followed them through the store, listening to his father make small talk--it wasn’t something he’d heard often, growing up.
“The soonest we can deliver the tables is Friday, but I can’t give you an exact time--can you make sure somebody’s home that day? You or--your wife maybe?” She looked directly at Herc as she said it.
Chuck realized what she was doing but it flew right over Herc’s head. “Oh... no, it’s just me. I’ll take the day off.”
His frustrated son threw his hands up and groaned. “How dense can you be? She wants to know if you’re single, you idiot!”
“Now, we do have a return policy on the back of the receipt, so read that over, and if anything breaks within the first year bring it right back and we’ll replace it for you,” Dana told him as she rang him up.
“I suppose asking for her number would be too much to expect,” Chuck said from behind, and crossed his fingers when Herc paused before taking the receipt.
“Thanks for all your help, Dana. It was very nice talking with you tonight.” Herc took the piece of paper from her and shoved it in his back pocket.
“Of course, it was very nice talking to you as well! Just pull around back of the store, the boys back there will get your bookshelves all loaded up. Have a wonderful night.” She smiled again, and Chuck moved to smack his old man across the back of his head but let his hand glance off harmlessly as Herc gave a final wave and walked out the door.
When Yancy finally returned from wherever he’d disappeared to, Chuck was fuming silently on the couch, arms crossed as he watched his father move furniture around and place books and knick-knacks on his new shelves.
“'Bout time you showed up. You missed watching him somehow manage to cockblock himself,” Chuck sniped, and Yancy chuckled. “It’s not funny. I’m supposed to be helping him move on, and he’s so stuck in his own head he didn’t even realize the sales girl was flirting with him.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t force these things.” Yancy sat down next to him. “Looks like he picked out some nice stuff, at least. What is that, walnut?”
His observation earned him a glare. “You’re a regular interior designer, aren’t you. I’m going to be stuck here for years.”
“Cool your jets, at least you got him to unpack. It’ll help, you’ll see.”
It did, in fact, seem to help, at least with Herc’s decidedly bacheloresque decor. Wednesday he bought some new blinds to replace the mangled ones hanging in the windows, and Thursday he brought home a tablecloth in anticipation of having a table. The first thing he did after the delivery men left was lay it out over the table, standing back to appreciate his handiwork.
“It’s crooked,” Chuck grumbled, and Yancy elbowed him as Herc quickly straightened the blue checked cloth.
“Cut the man some slack, he probably hasn’t even seen a tablecloth in ten years,” Yancy chided him.
Herc fixed himself an actual meal for the first time since he’d moved in, an expensive steak that he’d had to go to three different stores to find, and a potato that he microwaved after finding out how long it actually took to bake a potato. He was feeling pretty pleased with himself when he sat down to his meal.
As soon as he rested his full weight on the chair, one of the rear legs gave way with a sharp crack, sending him toppling backwards. The fall knocked the wind out of his lungs and he froze, fork still in hand, staring at the ceiling.
“MAAAAAX!” he roared as soon as he got his breath back, mostly out of reflex, feeling guilty as soon as he heard the jingle of Max’s collar from the other room and realized the dog certainly hadn’t had anything to do with the structural failure of the chair. Like a loyal companion, Max rushed to his side and licked at Herc’s face as he contemplated the absurdity of his life. He sighed and pulled himself to his feet.
“That wasn’t really necessary,” Yancy scolded, but it did nothing to remove the smirk from Chuck’s face.
“No, but it was funny,” he responded, watching his father move the broken piece of furniture to the side and cautiously test his weight on a different chair. “Guess he’ll just have to take the chair back.”
“Hello, Herc!” Dana greeted him warmly by name. “How are you--oh, no,” she lamented, seeing the broken chair he carried.
“Yeah, we had an incident last night,” he said. “Must’ve been a crack in the wood I didn’t catch.”
“I’m so sorry about that!” Dana said, leading him to the counter and pulling out a form. “We can replace that for you straightaway, I’ve just got to fill this out--now you weren’t trying to break it over someone’s head, were you?” she teased.
“No, nothing like that.” Herc laughed. “I was just sitting down for dinner, and the next thing I knew I was staring at the ceiling.”
“Oh my god, you poor man.” She slid the form over to him so he could sign. “Again, I’m deeply sorry. We check for defects, but you can’t always see them.”
“It’s not a problem,” he said, signing his name and handing back the pen. “I got to come in and see you again, there’s a silver lining to everything.”
Dana smiled, a slight blush rising in her cheeks. “I suppose there is,” she said. “Tell you what--I’ll grab you a replacement from one of the ones we’ve got in the back so you don’t have to wait for another delivery. It’s the least I can do to make it up to you.”
“If you want to make it up to me, maybe you’d let me take you out for dinner?” he asked, surprised at his own bluntness.
Her smile widened. “I generally don’t make a policy of dating customers,” she said, “but I’d like that. Next weekend?”
“Your dad’s got game,” Yancy remarked as he and Chuck watched the two of them exchange numbers.
Chuck might have chafed at the comment, but he was too busy fist pumping and jumping up and down like he was at a sporting match. “Yes! Finally! That’s how you do it, old man!”
If watching his father successfully ask a woman out had raised Chuck’s hopes, seeing him try to pick out date-appropriate clothes was quickly sinking them.
After the fourth iteration of flannel and jeans, Chuck decided he was a lost cause and started eyeing up the selection in Herc’s closet. Herc, meanwhile, was trying to talk Max--and by extension, himself--into his choice of outfit.
“It’s just a casual dinner. This is comfortable. That’s the key, right? To be comfortable?” Max cocked his head and whined.
“The man has a point,” Yancy said. “He’s just being himself.”
“Yeah, well, ‘himself’ is a man who hasn’t been on a date since well before I was born,” Chuck retorted, spotting a lone blue button-down shirt towards the back of the closet. “Oh, thank god,” he said, swiping at it just enough to make it fall to the floor, hangers jingling softly.
Curious at the sound, Herc stuck his head into the closet and saw the shirt on the floor. “Forgot I had this,” he said to Max as he picked it up. “What do you think?”
“Speak, boy!” Chuck prompted the dog, hoping he could still hear him, and sighing in relief when Max let out a hearty bark.
“Okay then,” Herc said, unbuttoning the plaid flannel shirt he had on. “Thanks for the advice.”
“You’re welcome, Dad,” Chuck grumbled, and Yancy rolled his eyes. “Hey, I thought you were here to help.”
“You’re not supposed to follow him around for the rest of his life,” Yancy reminded him. “This isn’t about him, it’s about you.”
“About me?” Chuck exclaimed as his dad pocketed his wallet and keys and left the room. “I’m just trying to help him move on with his life! You said I had loose ends to tie up, I’m doing it!”
“That’s all I said. That you needed to tie up loose ends. So I brought you to your dad, and you assumed that it was your job to fix his life. Why is that?”
Chuck didn’t answer, just clenched his jaw.
Yancy shook his head. “Look, there’s this saying: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’ I can’t make you drink, Chuck.”
“I know my dad. He feels guilty. It’s eating him up inside, and I can’t let him do that. He deserves to be happy. I owe him that chance.” The front door opened and closed, and Max came trotting back into the bedroom to join them.
“I’m not saying you don’t," Yancy said. "I’m just asking why you think that.”
“I just do, okay?” Chuck exploded, and even as the words left his mouth realization began to dawn.
Yancy smiled at the stupefied look on his face. “Your mother was right, you’re too stubborn for your own good.”
“My mother?” Chuck asked, taken aback. “What, does everyone know each other in the afterlife?”
“Something like that.”
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “You’re really starting to piss me off, you know that? It’s all vague answers and wise-man advice that isn’t really advice. What are you even doing here? Couldn’t tie up your own loose ends? Had to stick around to keep an eye on that brother of yours?” Chuck sneered.
To his frustration, Yancy kept his Zen-like calm. “Nah, I lived a pretty honest life. Raleigh’s a good kid, I raised him well.” It took all the wind out of Chuck’s sails, and Yancy noticed his crestfallen expression. He sighed. “You want to know why I’m here? I can give you a real answer this time.”
Chuck looked around and realized they weren’t in his father’s bedroom anymore, but in the living room of a small apartment. The tv was on, and a little girl sat in front of it. He could hear the sounds of someone making dinner in the kitchen.
Yancy’s eyes stayed on the girl. “She’s the reason I’m here.”
She looked about five years old, with long dark hair and big blue eyes. As she laughed at the cartoons on the television set, Chuck found himself nodding. “She’s yours.”
“Yeah. My loose end. I didn’t know until after I died, hell of a way to find out.” The little girl laughed again, and he smiled. “I didn’t have to stay, but--I wanted to see her. So that’s the deal I made; I help people move on, and I get to stick around to watch her grow up.”
“You’re kind of like... her guardian angel,” Chuck said, a little embarrassed at how cheesy he sounded, but his embarrassment faded when he saw Yancy’s smile widen.
“Yeah, I guess I am.” His smile faded a bit. “When she was really little, she could see me sometimes. She probably doesn’t even remember.”
Something about the fact that Yancy had a child was bothering Chuck, the realization had shocked him more than it should have…“I saw Raleigh’s personnel file, it said he doesn’t have any surviving relatives.”
“He doesn’t know. How could he? I didn’t even know. I'd just started seeing Jo, it wasn't serious yet.”
“Don’t you think they deserve to know each other?” He was genuinely curious, but Yancy’s eyes were wary. “I know you’re all about not meddling too much with the living, but really. Life’s too short,” he continued, and Yancy looked him in the eyes for the first time since they’d arrived. “Both of us should know that better than anyone.”
Yancy thought for a moment, pressing his lips together, then made for the tv remote and pushed a button. The channel changed to a news program.
“Katerina, I told you not to mess with the remote,” said a voice said from the kitchen, and a pretty dark-haired woman with olive skin and bright green eyes walked into the living room, then stopped short.
“I didn’t, Mama, it changed all by itself,” Katie protested, but her mother wasn’t listening anymore. Her eyes were fixed on the television screen, where Raleigh and Mako were being interviewed.
“Now the entire world, myself included, we’re all in awe of the courage it must have taken to get back into a Jaeger after losing your brother in one,” the reporter trilled, and Chuck and Yancy both rolled their eyes.
Raleigh laughed uncomfortably. “I don’t think it was courage, it was something that had to be done, and I just found myself in the position of being the only one who could do it,”he said. “I think anyone else would have done the same thing. I know my brother would have done the same thing.”
Katie had noticed something was amiss with her mother. “What’s wrong, mama?”
“Nothing, baby, nothing.” She tore her eyes away from the TV and changed the channel. “Dinner will be ready in just a minute, okay?” Her tone was cheerful, but she was obviously shaken as she headed back into the kitchen.
Yancy shrugged. “She’s warming up to the idea. Just worried Raleigh's going to think she's looking for a free ride.”
“I knew it.” Chuck started laughing. “This whole time you’ve been acting like some all-knowing sage, and you’re in the same boat I’m in.” He clapped Yancy on the back. “You really had me going there for a while.”
“Hey, it’s not quite the same,” Yancy complained. “You’re a much bigger mess than I was.”
“Whatever, Obi-Wan,” he said, still chuckling to himself. “The important thing is, I know what I need to do.”
The date had gone well enough for Dana to agree to a second date before the night was over, and Herc was in the best mood he’d been in for a long time. He was in such a great mood, in fact, that he nearly forgot he was supposed to meet Raleigh and Mako for lunch the next day.
“Are you sure you don’t need to cancel? We know you’re busy,” Mako said as he settled into the restaurant booth.
“No, definitely not. I don’t get to see the two of you nearly enough,” he told them, picking up his menu. “Just a little distracted this morning, that’s all.”
Herc waited until their food arrived before he asked the question that had been on his mind for the last several days. “Raleigh--this is a pretty personal question, I understand if you don’t want to answer it, but... after you lost Yancy,” he said, slowly and carefully, “Did you ever feel like--well, like he was still around?”
Raleigh and Mako exchanged a glance. “To be completely honest with you...no,” he said. “I thought maybe I would, because of the drift, but I didn’t have a sense that he was still with me at all. It was probably harder on me than if I was able to tell myself he was around somehow.” He studied Herc with concern. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just..." Herc picked up his fork, then paused. “There’s been some strange things happening around the house lately, probably all coincidences. But sometimes I could swear I still hear him, like I used to.”
“Ghost drifting... with a ghost?” Raleigh’s tone was amused, but gentle. “Hey, I believe you. There’s some crazy stories out there. Just--don’t let yourself get stuck in the past, okay?” Just then, his phone started ringing, and he checked it with a puzzled look. “I don’t recognize the number--hang on, I’m going to take this.”
Mako was in the middle of describing the house they were building when Raleigh came back to their booth with a dazed expression on his face. “Is everything all right?” Mako asked.
“Yeah.” He was still staring at his phone. “That was someone from PR--one of Yancy’s old girlfriends contacted them.” Finally he looked up at Mako, half-smiling in disbelief. “Apparently I have a niece.”
“What a crazy day,” Herc muttered to himself as he walked up his front steps, and let himself into his house, where he looked around to find himself in the craziest situation yet.
Every flat surface was covered with photographs. Old family pictures, pictures of Angela, pictures of Chuck, they were everywhere. Herc felt the blood drain from his face, and he staggered to the couch to sit down as his knees buckled.
There was no reasonable explanation. Those photos were stashed away in boxes, in Chuck’s old room... Herc forced himself to his feet and ran down the hallway, where the door to the room he’d been hiding his memories in was still closed. He opened it to find Max sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by boxes that seemed otherwise fine, but were definitely not in the same order Herc had put them in.
He gathered his wits about him enough to let Max out in the backyard to relieve himself, then turned to face the empty living room.
“I know you’re here,” he said out loud, and Chuck smiled from the corner he was standing in. “I know you’re here, and I know you must be so angry at me,” he continued, his voice breaking, “and I’m sorry.”
Chuck’s smile slid off his face. “Angry at you? Why would you think I was angry at you?”he asked incredulously.
Yancy couldn’t help himself. “Probably because you destroyed his dining room, and kicked his chair out from under him.”
“Hey, this conversation doesn’t include you,” Chuck snapped, and Herc began talking again.
“I just want to tell you.... I made a lot of mistakes, and I’m sorry for that. I didn’t know how to help you, and I just left you to figure it out on your own. I’m always going to regret that.”
“Dad, you don’t have to regret anything. I didn’t want your help. I threw it in your face every chance I got!” Chuck almost shook with frustration.
“But you need to know--you’ll always be my son, and I’ll always love you. I’m so proud of everything you did.” The words were almost a whisper, and tears were rolling down Herc’s face. “And I should have told you that when you were alive.” He sat on the couch again, struggling to regain his composure.
Chuck sat next to him. “We both made a lot of mistakes, dad. I wasn’t very good to you, it’s okay to think that. Remember when I spent an entire week sleeping next to Striker because I was mad at you?” Herc must have heard him, because he smiled at the memory. “How I died--that was my choice. It was just pure, dumb luck that you weren’t in there with me, because we both know you would’ve made the same call. But you’re alive, old man, do you hear me? And I’m going to be fine. So don’t you lock yourself up in this house and rot away, because I’ll come back and kick your ass if you try it.”
Herc took a shuddering breath and sat up a bit straighter, and Chuck kept talking. “Go live a good life, because you deserve it. I love you too, dad.” He focused on his father as much as he could. “Now go buy some goddamn albums to put these pictures in. You’re not going to keep my face hidden in a bunch of boxes to be forgotten.”
As if on cue, Herc got up and let the dog in, then grabbed his keys and left the house. Yancy nodded his approval. “How do you feel?”
“Relieved. Happy.” He stretched his arms towards the heavens. “Free.”
“You ready to go?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.” As he said it, he could feel a spark starting to grow deep in his chest. “I don’t want to keep Mum waiting.”
Yancy smiled. “She’s been waiting for a while. Don’t fight it.”
“Don’t worry, I’m done fighting.” As the warmth spread through his body, seeping into his limbs, Chuck closed his eyes and let it overtake him.
And he let go.