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one thing they don’t tell you about drifting is that once you get past the initial shock and the imperfect neural handshakes — once you start being able to hit 100% on your first try, every time — the hardest thing isn’t staying in sync, it’s ever deviating from being in sync. sure, there are two voices in your heads, plus LOCCENT’s instructions, but physically you feel like one person, one body. one Jaeger.

(that’s something else they didn’t tell you: the more you drift, the more you start to feel like the Jaeger is your body, at least while you’re drifting. you worry a little about how that plays out during real combat; you try to bring it up with an active pilot team and they nod. “yes,” says their lead. “it’s a phase we all go through.”

she looks at her wife, who smiles reassuringly at you and adds, “it’ll pass. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“shouldn’t someone have...said something about this?” you ask. “I mean, it wasn’t in any of the briefings.”

they laugh, not unkindly. their lead says, “some things we need to learn to navigate on our own. the psych types wouldn’t understand.”

her wife winks.

the more you think about it, the more you agree. nothing against the PPDC psychologists, but it’s true: there are some things you have to be a Ranger to understand. about a year later, after you’ve fought your first real kaiju, a pilot in training asks you a similar question, and you give him the same answer.)

you think Raleigh probably has a harder time of it than you, since at least in principle you’re the lead. you can feel him sometimes struggling to extricate himself from your shared thoughts when he needs to flip a control switch. you yourself struggle to separate yourself enough that you can turn to make eye contact with him. often it’s easier if you just don’t look at each other at all. you’re in each other’s heads already, after all. you can see out of Raleigh’s eyes if you concentrate a little, although the first time you try it the double vision is too weird and you barely get your helmet off in time to throw up. when you recover yourself a bit, you look over and see Raleigh on his hands and knees, too, helmet off; he didn’t throw up, but he looks just as shaken as you feel.

they did tell you that drifting doesn’t always end when you step out of the cockpit. your psych evaluator calls it residual heightened empathy. the other pilots call it ghost drifting, which really is a lot more evocative. neither term prepared you for the experience of it.

the first time it happens you think — for a wild moment, in defiance of all logic — that you’re drunk. you stagger a little as you step out into the hall after your drivesuit is removed. you reach out instinctively and your hand comes to rest on Raleigh’s shoulder; at the same time you feel his hand close around your upper arm. you look over at him and find him looking back at you. you’re suddenly hyperaware of the points of contact where your fingers and palm meet Raleigh’s shirt. the heat of his body coming through the fabric. his hand on the skin of your arm.

“thanks,” you say.

“same to you,” he says.

you stand, staring at each other, for a long moment.

“we should probably get back to the room,” you say finally.

“yeah,” Raleigh agrees. neither of you moves. your heart is racing, but your mind is clear. carry nothing into the drift. your drift trainer’s advice comes to you unbidden and you realize what’s happening.

“ghost drifting,” Raleigh says, pulling the words out of your head.

“yeah,” you agree, a little lamely.

“feels weird.”

you nod.

finally you manage to tear your eyes away from one another, although neither of you is quite willing to move your hands. you walk-stagger back to the room you share, supporting each other along the way. you fumble with the lock, Raleigh’s grip on your arm tightening when you take your hand off his shoulder to open the door. you struggle against the urge to shake yourself; the air feels heavy suddenly.

neither of you says anything else once you’re inside, the door swinging shut behind you. after a long pause, Raleigh takes his hand off your arm and goes into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. he’s unsettled; you can feel it — or maybe you feel it yourself? when he emerges, he lies down on his bed and turns his back to you.

in the bathroom yourself, you find yourself staring into the mirror. something about it feels wrong; you realize you’re expecting to see Raleigh’s face looking back at you, like when you’re in your Jaeger. you’re suddenly — but no, not suddenly, you’re just putting words to it for the first time — hyperaware of Raleigh’s body, lying on his bed, resolutely ignoring you. his thoughts are racing, but too fast for you to catch any (or maybe it’s just the limit of this ghost drifting). you splash yourself with cold water, make a feeble attempt at brushing your teeth, close your eyes, exhale, and go back into the sleeping area. Raleigh’s pretending to be asleep, but you’re pretty sure neither of you is going to be sleeping any time soon.

you manage it eventually.

you were expecting (or hoping) that you’d get used to it after that first time, but if anything it only gets weirder. by the time you wake up after your first ghost drift, the connection has faded completely; after that, though, symptoms of ghost drifting start to last longer and longer. even after the feeling of being connected fades, you find yourself, still, constantly looking for Raleigh. sitting in the cafeteria on a day when your schedules aren’t lined up, you completely lose your train of thought when you see him in the food line. the tech you’re talking to has to call you back to yourself, and you struggle force yourself to remember what you were saying. your attention keeps drifting back to Raleigh, until he — finally — sits down across from you, next to the tech, whose name you no longer remember. you stop mid-sentence.

“hey,” you say to Raleigh.

“hey,” he says. you hold eye contact for a few seconds, then he flashes you a grin. you grin back and dig into the food you’d forgotten was on your tray.

as time goes on you stop looking for Raleigh and start knowing. the first time it happens you don’t even realize it till after you’ve already answered the tech who asked you where he is.

“he’s in the gym,” you say.

“thanks,” the tech says, and heads off in that direction. you continue on your way towards your room, and it takes you a minute to realize that you have no idea how you know Raleigh’s in the gym. you just do, as surely as you know where you are yourself.

you ask Raleigh about it later and he just shrugs. “yeah,” he says. “I knew you were in the engineering bay when our psych evaluator was looking for you.”

“weird, huh?” you say. he shrugs again and doesn’t meet your eye. you’re not sure what to make of this. considering how much time you spend in each other’s heads, you feel, somehow, like you understand him less and less all the time. you wonder if he feels the same way. if he does, he doesn’t say anything about it during your joint psych evaluations, so neither do you. your psych evaluator doesn’t seem to notice. your performance in drift remains exemplary.

when you reach for his mind in the drift, all you see is yourself.

you wake from a dream in the middle of the night one night and you feel like you’re burning up. your sheets are sweat-soaked and you’re gasping for breath. before you can say anything, Raleigh’s standing next to your bed, his hand on your forehead.

“feels normal,” he says, sounding perplexed. “if you have a fever, then I must, too. let’s get you some water, I guess.”

you try to stand and have to sit down again immediately, so he helps you to your feet. his arm around your shoulders is cool, soothing. by the time you get to the bathroom you’re breathing normally. he fills you a cup of water from the tap and you pour it over yourself.

“Yance,” he says, exasperated, but you can tell he’s not really annoyed. he fills the cup again and this time you drink it. your skin is cooling; you’re not sure if that’s because of the water or because his hand is still resting on your shoulder.

“thanks,” you manage, finally, after draining a second cup.

“no problem,” he says. “are you good? can we go back to bed now?”

you take a moment to take stock of yourself — no longer sweating, temperature back at something like normal, some hydration, steady enough on your feet — then you nod, and he takes his hand away and turns to head back to the sleeping area.

“hey,” you say. he stops and turns back to you. “are we...are we good?”

he doesn’t answer you for a long moment, just looks at you. his eyes are like ice, but warm ice. (maybe you’re still overheating a little.) “yeah,” he says finally. “we’re good.”

you wish you could remember what you were dreaming about before you woke up. you can’t shake the feeling that it would explain what just happened. you change your sheets, since the ones on the bed are drenched in sweat; before you climb back into bed, you look at Raleigh. he’s lying with his back to you again — shirtless, you notice consciously, suddenly, for the first time.

“’night, Rals,” you say. he doesn’t answer.

in the morning you go to medical, but they can’t find anything wrong with you. “if it happens again,” your doctor says, “come straight to me. otherwise...”

it doesn’t happen again.

you’ve never really been one to remember your dreams — a snippet here or there, but never anything detailed. it’s never bothered you before, but lately you can’t shake the feeling that if you could remember you’d understand what’s happening in your life. what’s happening with Raleigh. you were told sharing dreams was a potential side effect of ghost drifting, but since you never remember yours anyway, it never seemed to matter. now it does.

you wake up before him one morning and find yourself staring at him from the bathroom as you brush your teeth. his sleep is restless; he keeps moving, first on one side, then the other, then on his back. you wonder if you move that much. it worries you a little. finally you can’t deal with it anymore.

“Raleigh?” you call. he doesn’t react, so you walk over to him, reach out gently to touch his shoulder. “Rals, wake up.”

his eyes open and he turns to look at you, no trace of surprise on his face.

“Yance.” there’s no question in it, no hesitation — like he expected you.

“you were dreaming,” you say.

“yeah.”

“what about?” you ask.

“nothing.” he turns away from you for a moment, then sits up, not meeting your eyes. “I have to piss.”

the bathroom door closes behind him and you’re left wondering if you did something wrong.

Raleigh’s always been so easy for you to read that it’s disconcerting, now, to be struggling to understand him. after about a week of trying you finally just grab him in the hall after lunch and drag him back to your room. he’s a little annoyed.

“what, Yance?” he asks when you finally — a little reluctantly; physical contact is still hard to break — let go of his arm to close the door behind you.

“we’re not good, are we.” it’s not a question.

“no,” he says after a long moment, “I guess we’re not.”

“what’d I do?” you ask.

“nothing,” he says, but he looks a litle uncomfortable.

you roll your eyes. “you’re not getting off that easy, Rals. is it something I said? something I did?” he shakes his head. “then what?”

he looks away from you, doesn’t answer.

“Rals. I need to know,” you say. “it hasn’t affected our drift performance yet, but if things get any weirder I’m sure it will. I can’t read your mind. even when we’re drifting I can’t see you anymore. I look at you and it’s like looking in a mirror.”

he takes a deep breath, then exhales heavily, but still doesn’t say anything.

“who are you?” you’re not sure why that’s the question you asked, but having asked it it feels like the right one.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess that’s the problem. neither of us knows who we are. and you don’t remember your dreams.”

then he opens the door and leaves, heading, you think, for the cafeteria. you stay behind, alone with thoughts that you’re no longer sure are actually yours. who are you? and when, exactly, did you stop knowing?

the next time you drift, you’re both distracted; you can feel Raleigh’s mind shifting, his thoughts racing. you barely make it through the training exercise. when it’s done, you turn your head to look at him and find him looking back. you close your eyes and trace the connection between you through the drift. you come to rest in a part of Raleigh’s mind — you think — except it’s filled with you. your name. the feeling of his hand on your forehead, of the skin of his arm under your fingers. you open your eyes, but it’s Raleigh’s eyes that open, looking at you. there’s a thought, or a memory, or a feeling, something at the edge of your awareness, but as you reach for it the neural link turns off, and you’re shoved unceremoniously back into your own body.

overcome with vertigo, you disengage from the pilot mount and lower yourself to your knees; when you recover yourself enough to look up, Raleigh’s there, his hand paused, hovering next to your shoulder, as if he’s waiting for permission.

“I don’t understand,” you say.

“I don’t either.”

you realize that was the first time in months that you’ve felt like two people while drifting, instead of one.

he helps you to your feet and you head to the changing room, climb out of your drivesuits. you find yourself following Raleigh with your eyes as he strips off the mesh undersuit. even with this thing between you, there’s an easy confidence to his movement. the way his shoulders move as he wipes sweat from his face with a towel. you wonder if you’d look the same way, to an outsider.

“what?” he asks, noticing your stare.

“nothing,” you say, looking away, and hurry to catch up before your debriefing.

that evening, in the shower, is the first time your thoughts land on Raleigh when you’re jacking off — your mind’s eye is suddenly full of him, stepping out of the shower in the gym locker room. you recoil, turn off the shower without finishing. you should be disgusted with yourself, but you’re not, and that’s what worries you most. it’s not the first time you’ve thought of a man — you’ve always thought of men. just never of your brother.

“fuck,” you whisper to yourself, staring at your face in the mirror, steam slowly receding around the edges.

you can’t look at Raleigh all day the next day. fortunately you’re not drifting, but it’s only a matter of time, and you’re not sure what you’ll do when you have to. you’ve never had to hide anything before — the things you might have chosen to hide had nothing to do with him, so they never surfaced in the drift anyway. but this...

you wake up the next day, a drift day, rock hard and no less worried, and you have the sinking suspicion that your dream was about Raleigh.

you catch his arm in the changing room before you leave for the cockpit, then let go immediately. too close. he looks at you, looks at the hand that you’ve pulled away as if touching him burned you.

“maybe we shouldn’t, today,” you say.

“and ruin our perfect record?” he asks, frowning. “what gives?”

“it’s —” you stop yourself, reformulate. “I can’t explain it,” you say finally. “I’ve just got a bad feeling about today.”

“hm.” his frown deepens. before he can answer, though, a Jaeger tech has poked his head around the door to hurry you up towards the cockpit. Raleigh shrugs helplessly and opens the door; you follow him, because you don’t know what else to do anymore.

you manage to get through the training exercise, somehow. it’s afterwards that you get into trouble, between the end of the exercise and when LOCCENT turns off the neural link. during training, your mind was on the task at hand. now, it’s left to wander, and it wanders, inevitably, back to Raleigh. you struggle not to let it, but you know you’re just making it worse. you know Raleigh can feel your distress; you can feel his mind reaching out to yours, and you try to pull away, but you can’t. you never could. and there you are in the shower again, wishing you had Raleigh’s cock in your mouth.

Yancy. you’re not sure if he said it out loud or if you heard your name in his thoughts. Yance, it’s okay.

it’s not, you think, and realize you’ve said it aloud when you hear the LOCCENT tech’s voice answer you: “what’s not? Beckets? everything all right?

you look at Raleigh; he takes the lead and says, “we’re fine, everything’s fine.”

Yancy?” they’re not going to be satisfied without an answer from the lead.

you pull yourself together. “we’re fine.”

all right. neural link termination in thirty seconds.

Raleigh reaches out to you again, through the drift, and this time you can’t bring yourself to struggle against him. instead, you let yourself be soothed by his presence, the way it used to be, your thoughts running together. we’ll talk it out, he thinks to you, or you think together, and you both nod. that’s what we’ve needed the whole time.

what are you, a psych? you ask, and you feel, rather than hear, him laughing. then the neural link breaks, and you’re in your own body again, more or less, small and unsettled but still feeling the ghost of connection to him.

you almost drop your helmet when you take it off, and you can’t bring yourself to look at him while you’re changing. you head to debriefing in silence, and afterwards you walk together, silently, back to your room.

once the door’s closed behind you, Raleigh grabs your shoulders and pushes you back against it. “when did you figure it out?”

“what?” you don’t understand.

he stares at you. “you still haven’t, have you.”

“figured what out?” you ask. “you’re not making any sense.”

he licks his lips, and you wonder, for the first time, what it would be like to kiss him. “Yancy,” he says finally. “we’re gay.”

“how did you —” but then you realize what he said. “we —?”

“yeah,” he says. and you realize you already knew. you’ve known, you think, for a long time.

“how did you know?” you whisper, but you realize as you ask that it’s a stupid question. he knew the same way you did.

he rolls his eyes. “you don’t remember your dreams, but I do.”

almost the same way you did.

“oh.” you take a second to process that. “fuck.”

“among other things,” he says, his mouth twisting into a wry smile. his hands on your shoulders, his body this close to you, suddenly make you uncomfortable. you want to shrug him off, but his grip on your shoulders tightens instead. you feel heat rising to your face, but before you can open your mouth to apologize. he cuts you off. “bro,” he says. “it’s okay.”

“no,” you say, “it’s not. it’s fucked up. this is fucked up. I fucked it up.”

he shakes his head. “Yance, I love you, but god damn you’re an idiot sometimes.” he moves closer to you, his left hand moving from your shoulder to the back of your neck. you lean, automatically, into the touch. “I said it’s okay.”

oh.

“we shouldn’t do this,” you say. “there’ll be no going back after.”

“do you want to go back?” he asks. “if you could forget all of it, forget drifting, forget what it feels like to be this close to someone, would you?”

you want to be able to say yes. you should say yes. instead the word that comes to you is —

no,” you and Raleigh say together. you continue: “how could I? how could I forget you? how could I give up knowing you?”

he nods. “exactly.”

“so what do we do?” you ask.

“I think you know,” he says.

and you do. slowly, carefully, hyperaware every inch of the space between you, you lean forward — only it’s not you, it’s Raleigh closing the gap and kissing you, and it’s you kissing him back. it’s his body pressing, warm, against yours, and it’s your dick nudging against his thigh, hard already. his isn’t far behind.

your lips still locked together, he drags you towards your bed, and the two of you half-collapse onto it, your limbs tangling. you don’t know if it’s just the confusion of what you’re doing or if it’s ghost drift that’s left you unsure where Yancy ends and Raleigh begins.

there’s a hand rubbing your dick through your uniform pants. Raleigh’s hand, you think, and you press into his touch. your hand, you realize, has come to rest on his ass; you pull him closer. right now what you need is contact.

he pauses, pulls back — with difficulty — and you say the words he was about to: “too many clothes.”

you extricate yourselves from one another, struggling a little to do so, and strip. you feel self-conscious, suddenly, being naked in front of him, in a way you haven’t before. you look up at him and realize he’s feeling the same, and you both laugh. he reaches over to touch your cheek.

“is this all right?” he asks. you nod, and he kisses you again, and then your bodies are pressed close against one another, skin against skin, and this is it: this is everything, this is all you ever wanted but could never put words to. you still aren’t sure you could —

later, lying together on your slightly-too-small bed, a thought drifts through your mind, or Raleigh’s; either way, Raleigh’s the one to articulate it. “our psych evaluator would have a field day.”

“probably,” you say. “there’s some things they just wouldn’t understand.”

“do you think they know?” Raleigh asks, turning his head — you know he’s going to, so you do the same — to look at you.

you shrug, a little awkwardly. the motion doesn’t quite work while you’re lying down, but he gets the idea. “I don’t know,” you say. “there are so many things they didn’t tell us.”