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fire and the flood

Chapter Text

Again, dammit!”

Guan Shan grinds his teeth. His grip readjusts around the handles, knuckles white and palms slick with sweat. The Simulation pod is hot and suffocating, plunging into darkness as the screen goes black, restarts, and lights anew again as the visual of the open ocean floods the projector.

Outside, someone hits the door, shaking the pod as Guan Shan is deployed onto the battlefield once more with a deep scowl.

“Pull your head out of your ass!” the person growls, voice muffled by the metal walls. “You’re not leaving until I see some fucking results!”

“What for?” Guan Shan snaps back. His face is illuminated blue as the Category Two Kaiju emerges from the expanse of ocean, breaking the water’s surface like a hammer through a wall. Within seconds, it locks onto Guan Shan’s simulated Jaeger and ambles towards him with an animalistic scream. Guan Shan sets his jaw, tight.

“Because if you just want another pretty mark on your fucking report,” he shouts over the approaching Kaiju, “I’d be glad to sign it for you!”

He punctuates the last word with a grunt, pulling the two handles backwards to avoid the wide, clumsy swing of the howling Kaiju. Claws coming up empty, the creature cries out in frustration with an ear-piercing screech, dropping to all fours to charge him. Guan Shan dodges to the left just in time to miss its lunge, sending it plunging face first into the water in a spray of waves.

“Watch your mouth, son!” his trainer yells back, barely audible over the crashing of water and the guttural howls. Guan Shan can tell the man is circling the Sim pod, veins popping from his forehead like they always do whenever they have Simulation sessions, face tight with scorn. Cursing, Guan Shan wipes the sweat from his forehead on the sleeve of his shoulder, blood boiling as his eyes strain to see past the spray of seawater as the Kaiju reemerges.

It turns on its haunches, its massive, grotesque form swiveling to look at him. It’s sizable despite only being a Category Two, its skin thick and occasionally disrupted by gnarled, thorn-like structures. It’s wild eyes are reminiscent of a spider’s, but the deep blue color suggests it’s far from a relative of the arachnids. Guan Shan would rather smother a tarantula with his bare hand over meeting this deformed monstrosity on any given day.

Jaw working, Guan Shan reaches to the overhead control panel to enable his weapons, eyes squinting to read the text above each of the red switches— and the wind is knocked out of him as his Jaeger is hit with sudden impact, falling backwards like a collapsing building. His helmet slams against the side of his headrest as his Jaeger hits the ground, his view obstructed by a sudden rush of blue as the ocean engulfs him. Guan Shan exhales sharply as a misshapen limb crashes down on him, the rumbling howls of the Kaiju resonating in the small pod as it subdues its prey.

“Keep your eyes on the damn target!” his instructor scolds. “Never take your attention away. Basics, candidate, basics!”

“I’m fuckin’— trying!” Guan Shan shouts. He decides impulsively on one of the bigger weapon switches as the screeching Kaiju comes down again and again on his Jaeger with the power of the thousand ton monster it is, inciting blinking red lights and alarms to start blaring within the pod. He wrenches his right handle forward, chest tight as he focuses the crosshairs on the creature's blurry figure. He’s not sure where he’s aiming, nor where it might strike, but he lunges the handle forward nonetheless and jams his thumb into the detonation button, the shattering scream of the Kaiju echoing in response to the weapon. 

Guan Shan yanks his left handle to swing at the Kaiju’s body, releasing himself from its pin as it crashes to the side, still writhing from its injury. He pulls himself out of the water with a hissed curse, the ocean water falling off his Jaeger in waterfalls as he staggers to his feet. His balance barely regained, Guan Shan gnashes his teeth and activates a second attack, aimed on the side of the Kaiju’s head as it sits in a pool of its own blue-green blood. Chest heaving, he forces himself to steady, to focus , and levels the red scope directly on the temple of the creature. 

He pushes the button — the sound of the blaster is deafening — and the writhing Kaiju falls limp. The screen lights up with the final result of the Sim.

Failed.

“Get out, candidate.”

Guan Shan doesn’t waste a second. He tears away his safety straps, yanking off his helmet as the pod door slides open and fluorescent lights flood the darkness. He pushes out of the tight space, breath still unsteady, and uses the edge of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his neck and face as his instructor rounds the pod. He comes to a stop in front of Guan Shan with a frown that suggests anything but satisfaction.

“Well,” the man says, words tight with anger and blue veins pulsing in his temples, “you’ve gone and set a new record today. Want to take a guess as to what it is?”

Guan Shan wipes at his nose, eyes hard. “That’s bullshit,” he says. “I killed the fuckin’ thing, so there was no reason why I failed—“

If you had studied the control panel like the other pilots, you would have known that your first choice of weapon was too dangerous to be used when within a fifty kilometer distance from the civilian shoreline,” his trainer snapped. “If nothing fucking else, it ought to have been obvious from the way the switch was glowing red and had caution written all over it!”

Guan Shan makes an ugly sound, turning away and swiping beads of sweat with the back of his hand. The instructor only watches him, the distaste evident in the way his furrowed brows cast shadows over his eyes.

“We can teach the basics,” the man says, “but we cannot hold your goddamn hand and teach you common sense, Mo Guan Shan. Lack of resolve and intent in this program will not only kill you, but thousands of others, too.”

Guan Shan scoffs, a wry laugh escaping the corner of his mouth.

“Resolve and intent?” he says, flashing a dark look at the man. “My ‘resolve and intent’ came in the form of a draft letter in the fucking mailbox. If this program wanted real resolve and intent, you should’ve started with the people lined up at your front doors.” He scoffs. “But that’s lookin’ pretty scarce these days, isn’t it? I wonder fuckin’ why.”

The instructor’s eyes flash. His jaw sets, face hard as he says, “Return to your dorm. Now.”

And for the first time, Guan Shan is happy to oblige.

 


 

From: Ma

To: You

Subject: Hong Kong

Received at 5:17 PM 

I hope you’re doing well; I miss you tons. Please try to keep in contact more frequently. You know I worry easily. 

Ma

 

From: You

To: Ma

Subject: re: Hong Kong

Sent at 6:47 PM

sorry, its been busier lately. i dont think my term will last long so i should be home soon

GS

 

From: Ma

To: You

Subject: re: re: Hong Kong

Received at 6:49 PM

Home soon? That’s wonderful! I’m glad you were able to work that out with the program. Stay safe and make sure you’re drinking enough water, and I’ll be in touch again soon.

Ma

 


 

The Kwoon Combat Room is tucked away at one of the ends of the facility, just around the corner of a residential hallway. It’s a traditional training room, lacking embellishments and high-end equipment. Rather, the entirety of the floor is covered with a thick black mat, designed to cushion the falls of the weaker candidates, and the walls consist of simple concrete arches that always remind Guan Shan of being in a luxury garage.

But the ceiling is high, allowing for the heat to rise and leaving the trainees in a comfortable atmosphere. The clacks of their wooden poles echo in the wide arena, systematically, like robots working in a factory. Bare feet move back and forth, side to side, thumping quietly against the mat as the candidates give life to the fencing techniques they’ve studied for the past four weeks.

Today, there aren’t many of them; after all, this session is focused more on technique than it is gathering statistics on each individual. Guan Shan and his assigned partner are near the far corner of the room, stepping in rhythm with one another as if they were dancing, their wooden staffs impacting one another as they jab and dodge and swipe in slow motion.

But slow as they might move, Guan Shan can’t help but notice the hesitancy in his partner’s motions; the wariness in his eyes every time they happen to meet one another’s gaze. It’s annoying. It’s an attitude Guan Shan is familiar with. It’s the same behavior his roommate exhibited before collapsing from the stress and anxiety during a Jaeger Sim and being removed from the program.

The cause was obvious, and is still applicable even now. They’re scared shitless. Guan Shan can’t exactly blame them.

His partner barely suppresses a flinch as a voice suddenly rings out in the arena.

“Elbows down,” He Cheng says, and Guan Shan glances in his direction. On the far side of the room, the veteran pilot is lingering near a candidate pair like a vulture, pushing down the elbows of an excitable trainee. “You expose too much of your abdomen otherwise. Lower. There. Now, resume.”

The pair readjusts their stances and obediently continue their mock spar. He Cheng watches them for a moment more before walking away, inciting stiffness in the candidates of whom his dark eyes examine. The pilot’s intensity when experienced first-hand is far more daunting than in interviews on TV. At this point, Guan Shan is no longer sure if it’s in his nature or if it’s been nurtured by the war. Training sessions with the pilot are filled with sore muscles and tired souls. His scoldings scar some trainees for life. Combat footage of his Jaeger, Hydra Chrome, shows nothing short of the precision and confidence that has been molded by Hong Kong’s program. This Shatterdome is one of the oldest and most renowned Shatterdomes in the world, and for good reason. You can only nurture the best of the best when the world is slowly coming to a fucking end.

The best. Guan Shan scowls as his partner accidentally stumbles and flushes in embarrassment as his staff clatters to the mat. Nearby pairs glance over, but a glower from Guan Shan quickly chases away their curious eyes.

Christ. If this program wanted the best, they ought to have found a means other than the draft system to support their suicidal defense program. For a moment, he wonders where the world would be if that were the case. 

If there would even be a world to wonder about.

Guan Shan’s partner fumbles to pick up his weapon, and then the two resume their dance.

“About time,” He Cheng suddenly says.

Guan Shan looks up with everyone else, unsure of who the pilot is speaking to. But then two figures emerge in the entrance of the Kwoon Room, one of whom Guan Shan recognizes as the partner of He Cheng — his name escapes him — and the other a new face he can’t quite put a finger on.

“I had to search the entire damn Shatterdome to find him,” He Cheng’s partner says, arms folded. He grimaces. “And when I did find him, he still refused to come.”

“Because I never agreed to this,” the second man says. He’s smaller than He Cheng’s partner, but his expression is just as dark. “I don’t have time. I was already preoccupied with a Drift Sim.”

He Cheng’s partner scoffs, shaking his silver head as he walks to the nearest rack of weapons. He Cheng ignores the subtle derision and nods to the second man instead. “And? The results?”

There’s a beat. The two men glare at one another across the room and, suddenly, Guan Shan is struck by the resemblance between the two of them. Their sharp features; their wide stances. There’s only so many people whose expressions can be as black as their hair and, if anything, the two almost looked like—

“Exactly,” He Cheng huffs when no response comes. He walks forward, hand outstretched to receive two wooden poles from his partner, who bears a pole of his own.

He Cheng tosses one to the second man. He catches it with ease despite his unwilling scowl.

“You’re only half an hour late,” He Cheng says, the faint annoyance evident in his tone. “You can use all the practice you can get. So get in position. Now.”

For a moment, Guan Shan thinks the man is going to ignore He Cheng and walk straight out the door he entered. But instead the man exhales, irritated, and walks further onto the mat, a white-knuckled grip on his pole. The candidates near him take a half-step away.

He Cheng eyes him for a moment, but then turns back to his newly uncomfortable trainees.

“For the last forty minutes, we will be doing one-on-one sparring,” he announces, gaze flickering over his students. “This will not count towards your final evaluation, nor will it impact your eligibility in this program. It’s simply a change of pace from what we have been doing, so you have the opportunity to implement the skills you’ve been learning to begin preparing for your final eval.”

He pauses. Almost seems to make eye contact with every person in the room in a matter of seconds.

“That being said,” he continues, low, “lack of effort will not be tolerated. We are not blind to your potential. Some of you need to pull your shit together, or it will only get harder from here on out. You still have weeks ahead of you.”

Beside him, Guan Shan swears his partner shivers.

“Qiu,” He Cheng says, signaling towards his partner, “come.”

He Cheng raises his pole in a two-handed grip, and the candidates instantly move backwards, creating a circle around the paired Jaeger pilots as Qiu approaches his partner. He comes to a stop in front of He Cheng and raises his own pole until the weapons cross one another; an X between the two men. Their stances are wide and steady, their hands wrapped around the weapons as though it is a familiarity. There’s a newfound charge between the two of them, and Guan Shan frowns at its emergence.

“This is how you will start until I give the word,” He Cheng says. “All learned techniques and moves are fair game, but hand-to-hand combat is prohibited. There is no time limit. First to three touches wins.”

Simultaneously, the pilots step back from one another, and the charged atmosphere seems to dissipate as quickly as it came.

Qiu readjusts his grip on the pole, walking out of the circle. “We’d give a demonstration,” he says, “but it’d last too long. Our Drift is too strong. But otherwise the sparring is straight-forward, so do your best.”

He takes a spot on the outer edge of the circle, waiting. Some candidates shuffle in unease from the vague instructions. They haven’t done anything like this before. For the past few weeks, emphasis has been on technique, memorization, strength-building, and a few Jaeger Sims here and there. Nothing like actual, physical combat.

But He Cheng seems to ignore the tense atmosphere. He backs away from the center of the circle and juts out his pole. He points at two trainees at random as he takes his place beside Qiu.

“You and you. Center of mat.”

The chosen guy and girl, each one not much older than twenty, amble forward. They take a moment to drop into their stances, to raise their poles in the demonstrated X.

A moment passes.

Then He Cheng orders a simple, “Go,” and the two spring into action.

 


 

It’s like a sick form of entertainment.

Guan Shan has been in his fair share of fights throughout his lifetime in dark alleys and rusty parks, but in the arena of the Kwoon Room he feels uncomfortable. For some pairs, it’s a successful battle. Their poles clack and collide with one another, hesitant at first but gaining traction as time passes. Some pairs become more and more nimble, dodging swipes at their stomachs and necks, pushing their partner back and back with jabs meant to bruise.

Some spars last less than three minutes; others drag on for up to seven. Guan Shan watches as faces contort with winces and pain as their partner lands a good hit or knocks them to the mat, gaining the upper hand. One by one, a candidate comes out victorious, the unexpected pride gleaming in their eyes. There are a few pairs of which Guan Shan suspects to be Drift Compatible, as their movements seemed to flow into each other like ink in water until every swing was met with a block, every step back was met with a step forward. He Cheng seems to take note of these pairs, too, with an acknowledging nod of the head to Qiu.

But for other sparring matches, it’s downright painful to watch. The vast difference in skill and strength, though not apparent at first glance, is brought to light as one trainee hits the ground hard and chokes on their breath, unable to protect themselves against the flurry of jabs and swipes that follow. Luckily no candidate is ruthless; they simply finish the match before giving their partner a hand to help them back to their feet. But the wounded pride and embarrassment is palpable. One trainee even gets his clumsy hand slammed between the two poles and cries out in pain, sniveling as he nurtures three swollen fingers beneath a bag of ice. 

And throughout it all, Guan Shan watches it happen — watches these people bring sticks to each other’s heads with the threat of a draft penalty hanging in the back of their minds — with a bitter taste in his mouth. He Cheng and Qiu, on the other hand, watch with blank expressions.

“Good,” He Cheng nods as a woman brings her partner to his knees, the final tap on his ribcage ending the match. Panting, the two candidates nod to one another before backing away, blending into the circle of onlookers.

In the silence that follows, He Cheng searches the crowd before settling on a single face. He frowns.

“Are you done bitching?” he asks. A few people wince at the sharp tone. “You wouldn’t have had to come today if you came when you were told to weeks ago.”

“I shouldn’t have to come at all,” is the response. Guan Shan looks up to see the second man, expression still dark, on the other end of the circle. He wears an air of disinterest like a cloak, hands resting atop of his pole. Guan Shan is surprised he’s still here.

“Really?” He Cheng asks, sarcasm dripping off the word like melting wax. “I didn’t realize you were that good. How about you take me on, then, for memory’s sake?”

“Fuck off, He Cheng.”

There’s weight behind the banter. Nevertheless, the man makes his way to the center of the mat, obviously ready to get it over with. The atmosphere is heavy as all eyes settle on him. He’s unperturbed by the attention, rolling the pole in his hand.

“Well?” he asks.

“You know the rules. No dirty business, He Tian,” He Cheng warns. “Pull something, and you’re going to be training with She Li from now on.”

He Tian huffs. “Like hell I will.”

“You can count on it,” He Cheng says, low.

The pilot turns.

“You,” he says, and Guan Shan’s stomach drops to the deepest level of hell as the pilot looks in his direction, eyes dark — and then it rises and falls again when he realizes the pilot isn’t looking at him, but rather his partner, who looks dangerously close to shitting himself on the spot. Just to be sure, the man points at himself; a question. He Cheng nods. “Center of mat.”

“I—“

The man’s eyes are wide, his shoulders stiff as he clenches his weapon in hand. His thoughts are as clear as though they are written on his forehead: Of all people, I get paired up with the person who tells the renowned Jaeger pilot He Cheng to fuck off, and lives to tell the story? 

Guan Shan watches the poor soul disintegrate in his shoes before glancing up at He Cheng. The veteran pilot looks disinterested; unaware — or rather, uncaring — of the man’s turmoil. The expressionless look on his face is almost unnerving. But after a few moments of tense silence, it becomes obvious that orders are orders, and the man steps forward, teeth clenched and face bright red.

Christ. 

Guan Shan stops him with a hand on his shoulder, and moves forward into the circle instead.

There’s silence. Guan Shan bounces his pole in his sweaty hand, ignoring the owlish looks of his fellow candidates. He glances up to see He Tian watching him with an unreadable expression — amused, almost — and turns to look at He Cheng when his stomach flips and he can no longer ignore the pilot’s piercing gaze.

“You are not who I called out,” He Cheng says, unnervingly steady, and Guan Shan struggles to hold his black stare. “Get back in line.”

“I—“

“Now, candida—“

It all happens at once. Guan Shan is pulled back, just slightly, by his partner, urgently whispering to him that it’s okay, thank you, but I’m fine—

and then Qiu suddenly elbows He Cheng, just slightly, and the two share a moment unheard by everyone else—

and then He Tian steps forward, slowly dropping into his stance, raising his pole.

An invitation.

“Let’s go, then,” he says, dark eyes alight with something new. Guan Shan notes the faint curve in the corner of his mouth, something too small and dark to be called a smile, and feels something lodge in his throat. He looks back at He Cheng and finds the man quiet but scowling from whatever Qiu must have told him, who stands besides him with folded arms and an intrigued expression. 

Somehow, Guan Shan feels like he royally fucked up. But there’s no turning back now.

Running his tongue along the back of his teeth, Guan Shan closes the distance between himself and He Tian, raising his pole to meet the other man’s with a quiet click. His fingers drum on his weapon, his balance teetering from foot to foot, just barely. Bending, He Tian is closer to Guan Shan’s height, their eyes level with one another as they wait for the call. It’s impossible to read the look on his face, a wall between the two as they stand head to head, and Guan Shan exhales softly, forcing himself to settle and steady. It’ll be over soon enough. 

After all, it’s just a spar.

“Go.”

Neither move. Neither even flinch. Despite the surge in his adrenaline at the release word, Guan Shan remains stock still, eyes locked on He Tian’s every movement. He Tian gives as good as he gets, his tripwire gaze almost hungry as he waits to pounce and react. Daring for an opening. 

A deep inhale.

And then Guan Shan pushes forward, pole sliding against He Tian’s as the latter quickly follows his movement, deflecting his attack. Undeterred, Guan Shan brings his pole back around, the end of it just barely swiping the black fabric of He Tian’s shirt as He Tian steps backwards, bringing his staff up to block the overhead swing of Guan Shan’s pole. The resulting sound resonates in the arena, the impact shaking Guan Shan’s arms.

Without missing a beat, He Tian pushes up suddenly, forcing Guan Shan backwards. He turns and spins his staff around to aim for his lower back but is blocked by the length of Guan Shan’s pole, who uses the momentum to push He Tian’s weapon up and over their heads in an arch as one fluid motion. The poles give off a grating sound as Guan Shan swivels his staff around to take a hit at He Tian’s ribcage, his forearms flexing and his knees bending with the impact of He Tian’s strength as the attack is struck down, his pole hitting the mat.

Immediately Guan Shan goes to raise it once more but He Tian slams his foot down, his shoe digging the end of the pole into the mat, and Guan Shan barely yanks it free before He Tian brings his own staff down, stopping just before the junction of Guan Shan’s neck and shoulder.

A strike meant to shatter. Guan Shan stills.

“One to zero,” He Tian says, stepping back. The curve of his mouth has expanded into a faint smirk.

Asshole.

Guan Shan rises to his full height again, pulling the staff back into his possession when He Tian steps off it. He Tian watches him, staff at his side and gripped by both hands. Again, the two face off, anticipation crackling between them like an unsupervised fire; waiting for the other to make the first move. It’s a stretched string, ready to snap. There’s a question in He Tian’s eyes, waiting patiently, but Guan Shan has never been one for patience. Something more powerful tears through his veins, fueled by the shadow of a smile gracing his opponent’s lips.

Jaw clenched, Guan Shan darts forward, directly colliding his staff with He Tian’s at chest-height. The sudden recovery and advancement catches He Tian off guard, allowing Guan Shan to gain some ground as He Tian steps back. He takes advantage of the stumble and wedges his pole between He Tian and his staff, stepping aside and yanking backwards with peak strength to unceremoniously throw He Tian forward onto the mat. Guan Shan spins before He Tian can roll out of the fall, swinging his pole down to the top of He Tian’s forehead as his fallen opponent turns over. The staff divides the shadowed features into two halves; two separate eyes made of midnight study his face. 

Guan Shan ignores the cold shiver that runs up his spine.

“One to one,” Guan Shan says, breath labored. Somewhere in the room, someone whispers. He Tian watches him from the floor, expression entirely too composed for someone in his position.

But it proves to be a facade. Without warning, He Tian swings his pole around with one hand, hooking it behind Guan Shan’s knees and taking hold of the other end and pulling, wiping Guan Shan clean off his feet. He Tian narrowly misses getting kicked in the head as he rolls out of the way, jumping back on his feet just as Guan Shan falls flat on his back. Breath knocked clean out of his lungs, Guan Shan’s pole rolls out of reach. All he sees are the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, feels the throb of his head from where it hit the floor— and then the end of He Tian’s staff comes down to tap him on the chest. Twice. 

“Two to one.”

Someone in the circle scoffs. Another hoots, low and amused. Guan Shan scowls, shoving away He Tian’s pole and getting to his feet as He Tian backs up, smirking.

“Let’s not go too easy on each other or anything,” Qiu deadpans as Guan Shan grits his teeth, swiping his staff from the floor and circling around and around the ring with He Tian. “That’d just be too boring.”

“Shut up Qiu,” He Cheng mutters, but Qiu only makes a sound of disinterest, smirking.

“This last touch wins,” He Tian says, eyes trained on his opponent. Guan Shan wants to smack the amusement straight off his face. “Stay on your toes, Red.”

“Who the hell said it’s going to be the last touch?” Guan Shan retaliates. He Tian doesn’t respond; he simply comes to a stop and Guan Shan follows suit, putting an end to their circling.

This time, He Tian makes the first move. He comes in full power but Guan Shan moves just as fast, if not faster, their dance of attack and dodge becoming rhythmic with each slam of the poles. Guan Shan ducks to avoid a swing to the neck, retaliating with a jab to the torso that is promptly blocked and answered with a strike that is barely redirected in time.

Each movement seems to get faster and faster, the heat of the room encasing Guan Shan like a coffin. He can feel his calluses being rubbed raw on his palms and fingers, but it’s the last thing on his mind as he fights for something that’s suddenly much more than a spar. It’s a fight for pride, through and through, and by the looks of it, his partner could benefit from losing some. 

Blocking an attack to his legs, Guan Shan moves to seize the opportunity to prey on the opening on He Tian’s head region, dancing backwards to gain distance before moving forward again, staff held firmly in both hands as he strikes down on his shoulder—

That is, until another hand joins the length of his pole, firm and unyielding, and Guan Shan hardly has time to react before the world is flipping, a blur of faces and concrete rotating around him, and his body hits the mat once more like a sack of sand, skidding a few feet until the circle has to back away to avoid his tumbling body.

Shock and confusion settles. There’s a ringing in his ears and someone murmurs in worry, but Guan Shan can’t process it at all. He blinks, eye-level with the mat, and exhales sharply.

And then the shock is swiftly replaced with broiling anger. Guan Shan practically throws himself off the ground, stalking towards He Tian with fire in his eyes, burning blood red as tunnel vision kicks in.

He throws his pole to the side — damn who it hits — and shoves at He Tian’s chest, demanding, “Did you just fuckin’ throw me, you piece of—!”

He Tian’s eyes flash. “The opportunity was wide open, little Re—”

“You’re a fucking—!”

Enough!

Guan Shan collides with Qiu’s large build, a barrier between the pair. Guan Shan can barely see past him, fists shaking in anticipation, but Qiu holds him back with a grim expression, pushing him towards the edge of the circle. The other candidates open a path for the two, some wide-eyed and others grinning like idiots, and somewhere behind him Guan Shan can hear He Cheng announcing the end of the session before barking He Tian’s name.

It’s the last thing he hears before he’s led out of the Kwoon Room.

Chapter Text

Guan Shan eats dinner in his dorm that night.

Opting for the little pre-packaged cereals that they keep in the corner of the cafeteria, he doused two of them with milk and was on his way before the rest of the facility could crowd the east wing. His hair is still wet; his clothes sticking to his damp skin. It’s only been, at most, fifteen minutes since candidates were released for the evening. He’d never been one to rush showers, but the community-style bathrooms rubbed his nerves raw after the disaster that had been the Kwoon Room earlier that day, and solitude was never more enticing than at that moment.

All things considered, he should have been one of the last recruits to return to their dorms for the night. He had expected to be ripped a new one by Qiu or, worse, He Cheng, but the chiding was shorter than he’d anticipated. Qiu had warned him of the consequences of his actions — Guan Shan was to stay behind to complete an additional workout after his group’s next training session  — but had otherwise let him go with a figurative slap on the wrist.

Not that Guan Shan gives a shit, frankly. This program seems twisted in all kinds of ways; taut and unbearably strict in some aspects, and careless and undisciplined in others. He couldn’t put a solid definition to it even if he wanted to, but that’d require him at least wanting to.  

Shoving a spoonful of cereal in his mouth, Guan Shan balances the plastic bowl in his hand and climbs onto his mattress, leaned up against the cement wall for support. After living in this room for the past few weeks, he’s come to appreciate his bedroom back in his apartment. Every once in a while he might have to endure his neighbors’ pounding footsteps and blasting music and screaming kids, but it’s certainly better than four cement walls, an empty bunk bed above him, and a single wardrobe to keep his few belongings. He isn’t a sybarite in any sense, but like this he feels like a damn hamster waiting for escape.

His shoulder feeling sore where he landed on it, Guan Shan rolls it out with a tight scowl and unplugs his phone from the wall.

Predictably, he has one unopened message.

 

From: Ma

To: You

Subject: Canada

Received at 7:46 PM

All over the news that a Canadian Jaeger was taken down this morning. One of its pilots died...

Has Hong Kong started making preparations? It’s worrying.

Ma

 

Guan Shan eats another spoonful with one hand, his fingers hovering above the screen with the other. He hesitates, contemplating his choice of responses. After all, it’s the fourth Jaeger to be taken down this year; more than ever before in the history of the war.

And although it’s curious that these large Category Kaiju are appearing in the western hemisphere, no amount of curiosity has led researchers and Kaiju specialists any closer to an answer. Kaijus’ corpses decompose quicker than any substance on Earth and their dead brains are next to useless within an hour. Research opportunities are limited, if not at a complete standstill. This war has been fought for over two decades, and yet humanity is still stuck in the mud — in a puddle of their own piss — right where they started.

Except now they have big metal dolls to protect their shores.

It’s laughable, almost. It’s as if the world is more unified than it’s ever been before as knowledge and support and supplies are sent across hundreds of countries to prevent the end of humanity — but every single person is waiting with baited breath because there’s no telling what to expect next. There’s no telling where the ocean will split and birth the next nightmare that steals mothers and children and fathers and friends and everything in between.

Something hollow settles in his chest at the thought, and he’s not sure why. The absurdity of it all, maybe. The helplessness, maybe. The fact that this war is all he’s ever fucking known, and that fire drills were replaced with Kaiju drills in primary school, and the sound of crashing plates and screaming restaurant employees and crumbling buildings and the scent of blood and dust still flood into his nightmares unbidden, maybe.

Maybe.

 

From: You

To: Ma

Subject: re: Canada

Sent at --:--

im not sure, they dont tell us anything. we’re only recruits

 

He pauses. Adds:

 

but ill ask around since someone has to know. im sure its fi

 

There’s a knock at his door.

Guan Shan looks up. Thinking it to be another door down the hall, he doesn’t move. But then a second knock comes, louder and more persistent, and Guan Shan scowls, setting aside his phone and food. Surely at this point, weeks into the program, people know where their own damn rooms are.

The floor is cold against his bare feet, and when he swings open the metal door, his mouth is already open to tell the person off—

—and then he stops.

“Hello,” the man in the doorway says, hands tucked in his hoodie pockets and his smile wide and genuine. He tilts his head. “Thank god. I was hoping you were here, otherwise I don’t know what I’d do.”

The moment stretches. Guan Shan takes in the pale skin, the even paler hair pulled back in a messy bun. He takes in the tall stature, the obscurely colored eyes. The unmistakable logo printed on his white hoodie. The distinct dog tag hung loosely around his neck.

It’s like he’s punched in the face with recognition and Guan Shan feels heat rise like panic in his chest. He says, “You’re—”

“You found him?” someone cuts in, and both of them turn as a third person joins the blonde in the doorway. Proudly, the first man confirms the question, but Guan Shan’s attention is elsewhere. His eyes are drawn to the glint of the identical dog tag swinging in front of the second man’s t-shirt. Looking closely, he can see an engraving of letters in the metal.

The evidence is indisputable.

The second man nods at him, breaking his train of thought. “Mo Guan Shan, right?”

“Yes,” Guan Shan says, mouth feeling a little dry. “Why?”

The blonde jumps in, pointing between himself and the other man with a thumb. “Good! We’re Kappa Strike’s pilots, and we were sent to— Ow! What?!”

Pouting, he rubs at the back of his head where the second man had thumped him.

“Don’t introduce us like that,” he scolds. “It’s…”

“What? It’s true!”

The second man sighs. “Yes, but don’t be presumptuous. It’s rude.”

“No, it’s fine,” Guan Shan says, and the blondie perks up. Guan Shan gestures at the both of them vaguely, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Jian Yi and, uh, Zheng Xi, right?”

It’s not a particularly challenging deduction. Guan Shan may not be glued to social media, but he’d at least recognize the faces behind one of the most successful and efficient Jaegers in the region. That, or he’s seen Jian Yi’s unique features plastered over enough magazines in his lifetime as he waited for his groceries to be scanned.

Though, admittedly, seeing the pair in clothes other than suits — whether that be tuxedos or Jaeger gear — is somehow unsettling. Guan Shan wonders how many fans would pay to see the pair in this unruly, comfortable state.

“See?” Jian Yi announces, pleased. “You’re going to have to come to terms with your fame eventually, Xixi.”

Zheng Xi sighs again, and Guan Shan gets the notion that it’s a common occurrence. It’s odd. The two are much more synchronized in combat footage and interviews. The disconnect between the two personas throws Guan Shan for a loop.

“Yes, well,” Zheng Xi says, back to business. “We were sent to bring you to Tech and Research. You’ll be able to return here afterwards, though.”

Guan Shan frowns. “Sent by who?”

The Jaeger pilots glance at each other. An uncomfortably long second passes.

“Does ‘a higher authority’ count as an answer?” Jian Yi says with an unconvincing smile.

Guan Shan swallows. “Okay,” he says, equally unconvinced. “But, if this is about what happened during training today, I already talked to Qiu—”

“Oh, no no, you’re not in trouble or anything,” Jian Yi waves off. “At least, I don’t think so. But I am curious what stick-up-his-ass Qiu had to say to you…”

“They just want to run some tests,” Zheng Xi cuts in, clarifying. “Scans and stuff, for your records. Nothing serious.”

Guan Shan looks at them for a long moment, and then turns to look over his shoulder. On the nightstand, the digital clock reads 8:26 PM. He grimaces.

“Now?” It couldn’t wait until tomorrow? 

“I guess,” Zheng Xi says.

“We’re just the messenger boys,” Jian Yi adds, hands up in mock surrender. “We know as much as you.”

Further down the hall, someone’s door slams, closed for the night. It goes silent as Kappa Strike’s pilots watch him, waiting. The situation in and of itself is surreal, though the entire day has been long and trying in general. What’s one more inconvenience?

Running his tongue over his teeth, Guan Shan accepts that he doesn’t have much of a choice after all.

 


 

Jian Yi and Zheng Xi are quiet the entire walk to Tech and Research. Not quiet, per say, but Guan Shan doesn’t know what else to call it. Rather, they don’t talk; but that doesn’t stop them from interacting as if they were.

It’s inexplicable at best. Every once in a while, Jian Yi lets out a snort, or Zheng Xi elbows him seemingly without warning, and Guan Shan watches it all happen in front of him in utter confusion because they aren’t talking, not even a whisper, but somehow they’re still able to goof and bicker. Communicate.

At some point, Guan Shan realizes they are hardly even looking at each other.

It’s just… weird.

“Here we go,” Jian Yi announces eventually, turning into a hallway. A few steps after him, Guan Shan wipes away his thoughts as he finds himself standing in front of two metal doors appropriately labeled “Technology and Research: Sector 1.”

Guan Shan reads the sign, and then looks at the two pilots. “So,” he says slowly when neither move, “Am I just… walking in there by myself, or...?”

The pair glance at each other. Guan Shan is starting to realize he hates the gesture.

“This is your stop,” Zheng Xi says. “We’re not sure if we’re allowed in or not.”

“Why would you not be allowed in?”

“Higher authorities,” Jian Yi says through a shit-eating smile, and he leans forward to pull open one of the doors. He makes a grand gesture towards the entrance. “Have fun.”

It’s an eerie statement, somehow. Inside, Guan Shan can see equipment and computers and hear a murmur of voices. He shoots Jian Yi one last glance before walking forward, slow, and the door shuts behind him.

The room is massive, mostly made up of metal and glass and cabinets. Display cases showcase things of nightmares floating in a thick, clear substance. Only a few lights on the other end of the room are powered on, illuminating five figures who turn to face him at the sound of the door. Looking closely, Guan Shan can see that the figures consist of two people in lab coats — presumably researchers —and He Cheng and Qiu, and—

Jesus Christ. 

“I thought I wasn’t in trouble,” Guan Shan says as he approaches. Irritation bubbles just beneath the surface, like a kettle before it shrieks in alarm.

He consciously avoids looking at He Tian who, leaned up against the edge of a table, avoids looking at him.

“You’re not,” He Cheng says. He sits in a chair at a table crowded with test tubes and other glassware, his partner standing at his side. “Qiu already dealt with the two of you.”

“Then why am I here?” Guan Shan asks, blunt, and for a moment he’s almost deluded into thinking he sees He Tian smirk at the ground in the corner of his eye. Amused.

He Cheng seems to overlook the abrupt response. “We need to take your scans.”

Confused, Guan Shan says, “I already did that at the beginning of training.”

“We need a few more,” Qiu says. “It won’t take long. You’re free to leave afterwards.”

Guan Shan’s gaze flickers between the two of them, unconvinced, and he wants to ask why he has such a goddamn audience if he’s just getting scans done, but one of the researchers beckons him with a, “Right this way,” and he doesn’t really have much of a choice but to follow her.

It’s the same procedure as the first time. He sits down with protective glasses and a lead apron, his arms resting atop the chair’s armrests. The second researcher lowers the white contraption around his head and, as they prepare the machinery and computers that hum to life, Guan Shan glances at He Tian.

The man hasn’t moved from his position. His arms are folded, his body halfway seated on the table. He stares at the floor, expression unreadable. Guan Shan wonders why the hell he would come if he wasn’t even going to be engaged, but the thought is forced aside as the researcher gently adjusts his head, facing him forward and tilting his chin to the perfect angle.

“Okay, hold it there,” she says, and she scurries away to a computer. The machine jolts, and after a moment of quick typing she gives the second researcher the all-clear. Behind him, the researcher adjusts the machine, and Guan Shan instinctively closes his eyes as the scanner shudders to life and a white light flashes around his head. A segment of the scanner slowly rotates around him, beeping periodically as it collects information. The sound seems to echo in the tense atmosphere of the lab.

It only takes a few minutes. Eventually the whirring lowers into a faint humming, and the machine makes one last rotation around his head before stilling, a shrill beep signaling its completion. The second researcher lifts it away, accepting back Guan Shan’s glasses and apron. Guan Shan stands, eyes trained on the frantically typing researcher as she processes and uploads the brain scans. He Cheng and Qiu watch her just as intently.

“Am I free to go?” Guan Shan asks after a moment.

“Not yet,” says Qiu.

Frowning, Guan Shan exhales and waits.

“Okay,” the woman says after a few minutes. And then she leans back in her chair and says, “Okay,” again, quieter. Guan Shan feels a cold thread trail through his body as He Cheng comes up beside her and studies the monitors for a long moment.

A long, long moment.

And then He Cheng closes his eyes and sucks in a long, quiet inhale, a hand coming up to rub at the bridge of his nose. There’s silence. Guan Shan feels his pulse in this throat.

There’s something more going on here. 

“Well?” He Tian says, low and sudden, and Guan Shan almost jumps. The man is looking up now, staring at He Cheng’s back steadily.

“It’s…” He Cheng lowers his hand and sighs, sharp. He almost sounds frustrated when he announces, “It’s compatible.”

He Tian seems to soak in this information. And then he goes back to staring at the floor.

Guan Shan clenches his jaw.

“What the hell does that mean?” he demands in the following silence. “What did I just— What are you looking for?”

“Compatibility,” Qiu says, looking up at him. “Synchronizations, between your and He Tian’s scans. It’s one of the ways we test compatibility outside of simulations.”

Guan Shan bristles. “Compatibil— What the fuck does that mean?” 

“It means,” He Cheng answers, face dark, “that you and He Tian are Drift Compatible. You have the potential to pilot a Jaeger together.”

Time stills. Guan Shan’s mouth is made of cotton, eyes flickering over He Cheng’s tight expression. The words process like they’re trudging through a marsh in his head, slow but determined to take root. To become a reality.

He Tian still hasn’t looked up.

And then Guan Shan laughs, dry.

“What, is that a— a proposal?” he asks. His voice rings in the lab room, making the researchers flinch. “Your idea of a fucking question? Is that what this is about?”

He Cheng looks grim. “We aren’t—”

“In a way, yes,” He Tian cuts in. He meets Guan Shan’s eyes, something about his gaze determined. “You have the opportunity to be a pilot.”

A beat. Guan Shan studies him. His tongue feels heavy as he asks, “And why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know,” He Tian says, pushing off the table. “I was hoping the end of the world would be motivation enough.”

“Putting me in a Jaeger won’t make that any less probable,” Guan Shan snaps. “Especially putting me in a Jaeger with you.”

“You won’t know that until you try.”

“Oh, bullshit,” Guan Shan huffs. “I’ve tried a lot of things in my damn life, but throwing myself into a metal puppet like a fuckin’ kamikazi isn’t going to be one of them.”

He Tian walks forward, hands slipping into the pockets of his joggers. “It won’t be a suicide mission unless you make it one,” he says, tone bleak. “The pilots who die are the ones who didn’t know shit about what they were doing.”

Guan Shan barks a laugh. “And you do?”

He Tian watches him. “I haven’t had the chance to know if I do.”

An odd statement. Guan Shan tears his glare away as Qiu speaks up.

“Outside of Sims, we don’t allow advanced training before pilot pairs are determined,” he explains, gaze flickering between the two men. Undoubtedly he’s recalling the Kwoon Room dispute as they stand head to head, on edge. “But even after being paired, you still undergo training to be considered eligible. The first step is crucial though. He Tian has been looking for a partner for over two years now.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Guan Shan says, dismissive. “It can’t be easy for someone like you. I wouldn’t necessarily want you in my fucking head either, considering how you have a preference for slamming it against the floor.”

He Tian’s eyes are shadowed. “It doesn’t matter who won the spar—"

“Get over yourself. I don’t give two shits about who won. I’m more concerned about the way my shoulder is fucking throbbing right now, and the way you seemed to think it was okay to pull that shit.”

He Tian exhales, irked. “I thought you could handle it. Obviously I was wrong, and you aren’t as good as you thought you were.”

“He Tian,” He Cheng snaps before Guan Shan can. “Watch yourself. You’re only further proving that this isn’t going to work.”

“No, you’re just drawing the conclusions you’ve already decided to be favorable,” He Tian answers darkly.

He Cheng rubs at his brow. “That’s not true, He Tian.”

“And what about you?” Guan Shan turns on him. “After two years, what makes you so sure we’re compatible?”

He Tian jerks his chin in the direction of the monitors. “Other than the scan results right in front of your eyes, our sparring match was pretty telling.”

“That spar was a trainwreck.”

“No, it wasn’t,” He Tian refutes. “Flawless synchronization doesn’t necessarily mean compatibility. People are prone to fall into rhythm, even in combat. That wasn’t rhythm.”

Guan Shan huffs, disbelieving. “What, so as we were whacking each other across the head and rolling on the floor, you thought ‘wow, this is exactly what I need!’ ?” 

He Tian’s jaw sets and Guan Shan feels something close to satisfaction when irritation flashes in He Tian's eyes. Suddenly, it’s easy to understand Qiu and He Cheng’s hesitation about this. With all of today's events considered, He Tian is being impulsive at best after being stuck for two years in this program. Guan Shan would be the first to recognize recklessness after having endured stagnant conditions for so long. It’s far too familiar.

“Yeah,” Guan Shan continues, sharp. “Real ‘favorable conclusions’ you’ve drawn for yourself there.”

He Cheng bows his head, just slightly. “He’s right, He Tian,” he says carefully. “You need to think this through. Scans aren’t a definite sign of proficient pilots.”

“And spars don’t always prove compatibility,” Qiu adds.

Silence ensues. He Tian is back to looking at nothing, the gears working in his head. The way He Cheng and Qiu are talking— it’s as if it was He Tian’s idea to bring Guan Shan into the lab. As if he was the one who thought they held the potential to become a pair after they were separated at the spar. Guan Shan can’t fathom what the hell gave him that idea.

Fed up and tired and sore, Guan Shan shifts on his feet.

“No,” he agrees eventually, “they don’t. Thanks, but I refuse.”

There’s not much else to say after that. Guan Shan turns to leave.

But he only makes it two steps, because suddenly there’s a hand on his bicep, pulling him back. Guan Shan whips around — fire in his eyes — and he’s moving before he realizes it, arm raised to defend himself— but He Tian moves faster and catches his wrist, twisting him around until Guan Shan has no choice but to look at him, struggling.

“Let fucking go —!”

“He Tian!”

But He Tian ignores both demands, eyes trained on Guan Shan’s face. His grip is relentless as Guan Shan twists and turns.

“Then why are you in this program?” he asks suddenly, voice a deep mutter, and it demands to be heard. Demands to be answered.

Breath coming in short huffs, Guan Shan stills and forces himself to meet his gaze.

“What the fuck do you mean?” he hisses.

Eyes flickering across his face, He Tian studies him like he’s something to be remembered. “What are you doing here, Mo Guan Shan?” he asks.

In the lab? In the program? In this world-turned-to-shit? He Tian gets a bitter tsk in response.

“You’re asking the wrong fucking person,” Guan Shan growls.

“No, I’m not.”

“Let go.”

“Answer.”

The childish comeback makes anger flare in Guan Shan’s chest, but there’s something more definite beneath the surface. He Tian’s serious, that much is for damn sure, but so is Guan Shan. It’s not like Guan Shan has an answer for him. After all, he’s been wondering the exact same thing, too. Because why draft him, when he has jobs back home on the line? Why him, when he has a late father and a mother to support? Why him, when there are so many other people more qualified? 

He doesn’t answer. Instead Guan Shan lowers his voice, dripping malice.

“Let. Go.”

He Tian doesn’t move, and Guan Shan can feel the wisps of his breath fanning against his face. Up close, every shadow sinks into He Tian’s features like shards, making it hard to decipher what the man is thinking. But Guan Shan doesn’t waste his time trying to guess.

He gives a final yank and He Tian releases him, hands dropping as the redhead stalks away.

Slamming open the metal door — and ignoring Jian Yi’s surprised yelp as he and Zheng Xi jump back from where they had pressed their ears to the door — Guan Shan heads back the same way he came.

 


 

From: You

To: Ma

Subject: re: Canada

Sent at 9:27PM

im not sure, they dont tell us anything. we’re only trainees

but i doubt hong kong even cares anyways.

GS

 

He sends the message, throws his phone on the nightstand, and turns over to sleep.

 


 

“You need to stop this,” He Cheng says as He Tian rubs at an eye with a thumb. “It’s blatantly obvious you two do not match up. You can’t force compatibility, He Tian.”

“No, that’s not it,” He Tian snaps, dropping his hand. “That’s not what this is. There’s substance behind this, because I couldn’t read him at all during our spar and the scans just came out positive. You can’t get more fucking evidence than that.”

“So he got a touch on you during a spar— so what?” Jian Yi says. He and Zheng Xi sit at the end of the table, having been reluctantly invited in when their cover was blown after Guan Shan stormed out. Now, he blows a strand of hair out of his face, careless. “I bet after a few hours I’d get a touch on you, too. After a few days, even Xixi might.”

Zheng Xi shoots him a look, but He Tian ignores them.

“It wasn’t just that he got a touch,” He Tian says, “it’s how he got it. He walked into the circle without a damn care in the world, and he caught me off guard in combat without even trying.” He stops, and adds: “And he back-talked He Cheng.”

“Your rebellion kink isn’t what should determine your partner,” Qiu intervenes and Jian Yi snorts. “This shit takes time; yours just happens to take longer. This isn’t picking out your favorite movie— your partner is a lifetime commitment and has permanent consequences.”

“I know that, yet my stance doesn’t change.”

“I don’t know,” Zheng Xi says, shifting in his chair. “I have to agree with Qiu. Even if you are compatible, if you two don’t click — or get along in general — then it won’t work. You’ll be fighting each other in the Drift more than you’ll be fighting the Kaiju.”

“You’ll be risking your life,” He Cheng puts more bluntly. “It’d be a fucking waste, throwing your life away because you chose to hit the ground running with a feeling you got after a single spar.”

He Tian laughs, wry.

“Of course you’d be the one telling me that, wouldn’t you?” he says. “A bit hypocritical, brother. Isn’t this all verbatim of you and Qiu?”

He Cheng holds his glare, challenging. “I had to quickly find another option after it was obvious you and I weren’t compatible, He Tian. Right now, you being a pilot isn’t as urgent as it was for me. It was a one in a million chance that Qiu and I worked well together, but those odds aren’t applicable to you too.”

He Tian scoffs, derogatory. “I don’t think you should be the one dealing out my ‘odds,’” he says. “Not you, and not father. Though I guess there’s not much of a difference between the two of you in the first place.”

It hits home. Silence falls like a weight over the five men. Jian Yi seems to shrink back in his chair; Zheng Xi’s eyes flicker between the brothers as if waiting for something to happen.

“What do you want to do then, He Tian?” Qiu eventually breaks the silence. His tone is flat but serious. “This is ultimately your choice.”

He Cheng gives his partner a sharp look.

“This involves the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Qiu,” he asserts. “This goes beyond him and that boy.”

“I know that, He Cheng,” Qiu declares. “And that’s a component in his choice. He’ll have to live with his decision and its consequences.”

“At the expense of civilians who didn’t have a damn say?”

“I would hope it doesn’t reach that point while Chrome, Strike, and Rogue are active but yes— that’s what I’m saying.”

A huff of disbelief. “You’re being careless.”

“And you’re holding him back again.”

“Okay, okay,” Jian Yi breaks in, waving away the argument before it explodes. “Calm down. Let’s just shut up and hear He Tian’s answer.”

Four faces turn to look at him. He Tian only exhales, throat working.

“We’re compatible,” he says, firm. “I know we are. And if the training proves we aren’t, then I’ll start over again and he’ll go back to doing whatever the hell he’s been doing. This isn't fucking rocket science, He Cheng.”

It’s just another setback. 

“Well, there we have it,” Zheng Xi mumbles as He Cheng stands, slow, mouth set in a firm line. A moment passes, and he refuses to look at He Tian. And then he shakes his head.

“I’m not taking an unwilling participant,” the pilot says, low. “Guan Shan must agree, without any fucking tricks on your part.”

“I’ll convince him,” He Tian states just as firmly. But He Cheng only shakes his head again, rounding the table as he goes to leave. Qiu follows, but not before meeting He Tian’s eyes. His look holds a clear message: Be careful. 

He Tian doesn’t waver. Eventually Qiu turns away.

The pair leaves; the slam of the door echoes. For a moment, there’s only silence between the remaining trio.

And then He Tian looks up— and Jian Yi is looking back with a grin stretching ear to ear.

“What?” He Tian demands.

A laugh. Zheng Xi hides a smirk.

“Good fuckin’ luck, dude.”

Chapter Text

There’s no preamble. No explanation.

Instead, he walks up to Qiu and says, plainly, “I need you to reserve the Kwoon Room for me.”

And then there’s a pause; a stillness in the air. The request is brittle between them. Fingers hovering above the trackpad, Qiu looks at him for a long, silent moment, studying He Tian’s face over the glow of the laptop. His gaze holds a question — confusion — but He Tian only looks back, resolute. Assertive.

Yes, I’m serious.

It’s a quarter to seven a.m. and he stands in front of Qiu’s table in the community-style workroom, arms folded. Qiu had only typed up four trainee reports before He Tian had entered like a quiet storm, enigmatic energy radiating off him as he made a beeline for the pilot’s table. Though not entirely surprising, the entrance was atypical for He Tian and, frankly, Qiu isn’t even sure how He Tian found him in the first place — after all, the He brothers were on a no-talking basis since the night in the lab — and so early in the morning at that. Those who’ve been at the facility long enough know to steer clear of the youngest He before the clock strikes 9 a.m. else they be flattened by a cold glare and muttered, half-ass responses.

But, again, Qiu isn’t exactly surprised. Taking after his brother, He Tian is often a cause for confusion. A cause for frustration. It runs in the family, apparently.

Exhaling long and low, Qiu sets down his mug on top of his paperwork.

“Good morning to you too, He Tian.”

“Can you do it or not?”

A cause for frustration. Qiu sets his mouth in a firm line and says, “You already know my answer.”

Yet they both know it has nothing to do with authority issues. As an invaluable and accredited pilot for over a decade, Qiu almost holds enough power to challenge the Marshal. Almost.

Pointedly, He Tian hums.

“The answer where you can’t do it, or the answer where you won’t do it?” he asks.

“Both,” Qiu says, flat. Crossing his arms, he nods at the chair opposite of him. “Sit.”

Christ. He Tian hadn’t intended this to be a discussion but, seeing as he has no other option, he obeys, dragging out the metal chair. His body slumps into it; he runs a hand through his hair. When the silence stretches, He Tian raises his brow at Qiu — Well? — and Qiu answers by halfway shutting his laptop, leaning back in his chair with a sigh.

“I guess I should start by asking why the hell you need the room in the first place,” he says, “though I have a feeling I already know why.”

“He won’t talk if he’s surrounded like last time,” He Tian says, transparent. “He’ll feel threatened or, I don’t know, pressured. Obviously, he’s sensitive like that." 

Qiu only shakes his head. “That still doesn’t answer my question. Why the Kwoon Room, of all places? You know we have a strict schedule for the recruits’ training there. Why not just take a lap around the facility?” 

He Tian huffs, curt. “Yeah, I’m sure that’d go down well. A nice, leisurely stroll around the block as he bites my head off and I have him by the leash to keep him from storming away. Real efficient.”

The sarcasm drips and pools between them. The image would be comical, almost, if not for the situation at hand. If not for the hard glint in He Tian’s eyes.

Qiu sighs, rubbing at a brow. He Tian frowns, shifts in his seat, and tries again.

“I need the Kwoon Room. If he’s active — doing something — he’ll probably be more inclined to talk. I’m sure swinging a stick at my head will help, too.” He runs his tongue over his teeth. “I just don’t see any other way I can get through to him without being drowned out by this— this spite that he has for me.”

Qiu looks up at him. “And I’m sure you spent the past few days thinking about this instead of properly training in your Sims. Tell me: have you improved your record like we agreed on?”

It hangs between them. A better kill to attempt ratio in the Jaeger Sim; that was He Tian’s only punishment after the infamous Kwoon spar. Yet He Tian doesn’t respond. In fact, his expression is suddenly closed off. Unreadable.

Biting back a few choice words, Qiu looks away, wetting his lips, and the other man doesn’t even attempt to defend himself. The silence creeps over them, fragile and hesitant. And then Qiu shakes his head.

“I know what I said before, but… you’re betting a lot on this, He Tian,” he says, blunt. “And I don’t understand why. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but at the same time, I don’t see the potential you see in that boy. It’s just not there.”

Amazing. Just like clockwork. And only after a few days, too. He Tian exhales, irritated.

“Probably because you’re too busy looking through my fucking brother’s eyes. What, he managed to convince you to take his side that quickly? Give it a few nights and suddenly all his thoughts become yours, too? You’re getting real damn soft, Qiu.”

“No,” Qiu says, low and dangerous. “He Cheng has his own reasons. But I did your ass a favor and looked at Guan Shan’s Sim results and evaluation scores— and they’re well below proficient. The numbers don’t fucking lie, He Tian. He has strengths, fine, but not in this field. He’s going to be assigned to another unit in a matter of time, and it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”

“He doesn’t have to be.”

“Unfortunately, you don’t get a say in that.”

He Tian laughs, bitter and disbelieving. “Then what the fuck happened to ‘ultimately my choice’ and ‘my decision and its consequences’?” 

“I still stand by that,” Qiu asserts. “And right now, that’s still an option. But I’m also going to be a voice of reason when you become too damn impulsive for your own good.”

Narrowed eyes. “My own good?”

“Lifetime commitment,” Qiu echoes, slow and precise and sharp. It’s hissed through his teeth, tinted by a dark tone. “You don’t seem to understand that. You don’t know what that means or what that entails, no matter how much you think you do, He Tian. And yet there are people with the resources and experience who are trying to tell you, and you’re choosing to act like a damn child instead of considering.”

His voice reverberates in the following silence. Their glares collide head-on. The words are shards of broken glass, reflecting fragments of something He Tian can’t piece together. Something he doesn’t want to piece together. After all, gluing back the shit people leave behind becomes tiring after spending so much time on his knees.  

He leans forward.

“Listen,” He Tian answers, a chill in his voice, “I’m already getting enough shit from He Cheng. Any day now, I’m sure my father is going to be jumping down my fucking throat, too. So no— I didn’t come here for guidance counseling. I didn’t come here to consider your new opinion. I came here to ask for a favor because I was hoping you’d have some consistency and be more reliable than He Cheng ever will be.”

Qiu watches him with a level gaze. Suddenly, it's obvious why He Tian is sitting at his table in the early hours of the morning, shirt wrinkled and eyes tired, with He Cheng predictably nowhere in sight as the pilot oversees the morning wave of recruit training. Understanding floods him like a broken dam, and Qiu says, “You don’t want He Cheng to know.”

“No, I don’t. He has no fucking business knowing.”

There’s a pregnant pause.

And then Qiu exhales. “He Cheng is—”

“I don’t care. I don’t give two shits about what my brother is, isn’t, going to be, was— I don’t care,” He Tian snaps. “The bottom line is that this is my choice, the consequences are mine to deal with, and — like you said — my time is running out. So are you going to help me with the damn Kwoon Room or not?”

The ice cracks beneath the pressure; tension seeps through the crevices, twining through the two men. Qiu’s jaw is set, tight, and He Tian’s eyes have sunken into deep pits of frozen oil. There’s something unspoken lying beneath the surface, something buried beneath the accumulation of years’ and years’ worth of debris.

But it’s meant to be left alone. Better off submerged. They know better than to cut themselves trying to unearth it.

“Okay,” Qiu states. Grim. “I’ll tell the trainers to reschedule the group at noon.”

“Thank you.”

He Tian pushes away from the table; a shrill screech of metal against the floor. They don’t look at each other. They don’t try to evaluate. Instead, the atmosphere seems denser than when He Tian arrived. His footsteps seem louder as he approaches the double doors. His throat seems tighter with emotion he can’t quite explain.

He’s halfway to the doors when Qiu calls out.

“And watch your fucking mouth before I upgrade your punishment, He Tian.”

A dismissive wave over the shoulder. “Will do.”

And the door closes behind him.

 


 

“Breathe in.”

A cacophony of inhales. A synchronized, quiet thing.

“And breathe out.”

A rumble of exhales. Someone’s nose whistles.

“Good. And breathe in.”

Inhales, inhales, inhales. Deep and true.

“And breathe out.”

Exhales. Exhales. Exhales. Gracious, tranquil relief flows throughout the body.

Or at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. He’s not sure. He wasn’t really listening during the first half of the session.

“Good. Now relax your shoulders, your face. Let the tension roll out your body, like a leaf withering away. All four corners of this room extend out like the roots of your tree, and your branches reach up to the sky as you let yourself be filled with the calm and soothing emotions that rush over you.”

His brow furrows.

Fucking hell.

“Good. And breathe in.”

Inhales.

Someone stifles a cough.

“And breathe out.”

Exhales.

Christ. He has a headache.

What time is it?

Guan Shan cracks open his eyes. The room is dim; the dark figures of the other trainees are scattered across the floor on individual mats. It’s hard to see but, predictably, there’s not a single clock to be found on the walls. Nothing to be distracted by. His joints feel creaky and his muscles tense after sitting in the same damn position for so long, and he shifts uncomfortably on his mat, fingers drumming inaudibly against his leg.

At the front of the room, their instructor hums contently.

“Good,” she croons again. Again and again and again. “Now, I want you to rid yourself of superfluous thoughts. Center your mind and emotions. Feel yourself right now, right here, in this moment, and let it consume you. Let your wandering thoughts lie to rest. Good. And breathe in…”

He’s hungry. He’s hungry and tired and sore and simmering with irritation. He wants to leave.

“And breathe out.”

Why the hell am I even doing this?

“And breathe i—”

There’s a giggle.

A ring of laughter, warm and shy. It’s soft, muffled by the walls, but disruptive nonetheless as their instructor pauses. Guan Shan’s eyes sweep across the room, curious. A few of the other trainees do the same.

Up front, the instructor softly clears her throat, drawing back attention.

“Once more, candidates. Eyes closed. Good. Now brea—”

Another faint laughter, this time followed by a deep murmur. Guan Shan’s eyes fully open, watching as the rest of the trainees follow suit, heads swiveling to find the source of the noise beyond the doors. A few candidates snicker at the disturbance and, despite it all, Guan Shan can’t help the smirk on his own face. After all, it’s ironic how easily their attention is caught whilst learning how to be “immersed in one’s own mind and aura.” Not that he’s any better, of course. He’d given up before they even started.

Though, not everyone is amused. There’s a twist of their instructor’s lips and, annoyed, she shifts on her mat, climbing to her feet as if to go confront the troublemakers—

And then the door slides open, and light floods the dark room like a beacon.

The snickers are replaced with groans as everyone flinches at the sudden blinding, muttering curses beneath their breaths. Instinctively, Guan Shan winces, blinking against the sharp glow, a hand coming up to block the onslaught of illumination. Beyond the burn of his eyes, he can just barely make out the shape of a figure in the doorway. A silhouette against the light.

“Excuse me,” the instructor scolds, rattled and visibly infuriated as she shields her own eyes. “We are in the middle of a session right now.”

“My apologies,” is the response, and Guan Shan’s brow furrows because the voice is low and loud and obviously not the least bit sorry and suddenly, painfully, the puzzle piece clicks into place and his breath catches and isn’t that fucking— “I’m here to pick someone up.”

“On whose orders?” the instructor demands. Guan Shan forces himself to blink and squint to see across the room, lowering his hand below his eyes—

And his gut twists as He Tian’s hands slip into his jogger’s pockets, blithe, his stance wide and confident in the doorway as his eyes scan the room. He doesn’t even look at her as he responds.

“Pilot Qiu’s orders.”

It does the trick. The instructor immediately clams up and, suddenly, the room is hushed. Curious. Everyone is looking — or trying to look — at He Tian. At this person who apparently has the authority to interrupt a training session and be dismissive of its instructor when questioned. Everyone looks, and speculates, and wonders. Including Guan Shan.

And so it’s inevitable. Their gazes meet.

But, for a moment, Guan Shan deludes himself into thinking that He Tian isn’t here for him. That his gaze isn’t lingering. That Guan Shan is thinking himself to be more important than he actually is and He Tian is only following orders from a "higher authority" and someone else in the room is going to stand up and say, “Oh yes, I forgot about my meeting with pilot Qiu,” and that will be the end of it and he can go back to being a withered leaf or a damn tree for as long as he pleases.

But it’s a baseless hope. He Tian doesn’t look away. And no one stands up.

The instructor clears her throat, sheepish. “And who are you looking for?”

He Tian smiles. Not even a smile. A creeping, slow lift of his mouth that Guan Shan feels run up his spine like a breeze of winter air injected into his nerves.

“Guan Shan,” He Tian answers, though he’s not really talking to her anymore. His head tilts, just slightly. “It’ll only be a moment.”

A pause. And then necks and torsos twist to look at him, curious. Guan Shan stills under the attention. The rectangle of light brushes the lip of his mat on the floor, soft at the edges, but He Tian’s shadow interrupts the flow of the pale glow, stretching out to meet Guan Shan like an invitation. An offering. Guan Shan’s hands curl in his lap and, teeth clenched, he looks away.

“I’m busy,” he says, firm. His words hang like fog, heavy in his mouth. He gets a few owlish looks in response.

But He Tian is unperturbed. “It won’t take long.”

“I don’t care. Leave.”

Stunned silence engulfs the room. Anxious glances are exchanged. Guan Shan’s palms are moist with sweat, but he refuses to look up because he already knows He Tian is nowhere near as unsettled by this situation as he is. As everyone else is. As any normal person should be. Call it instinct, or call it the knowing tilt to He Tian’s lips that Guan Shan saw through a film of red as Qiu led him out of the circle in the Kwoon Room, hands curled into white-knuckled fists while He Tian had looked on, indifferent. Smug.

Pompous asshole.

“If that’s all,” the instructor shatters the silence, hesitant, “then I would like to resume my lesson, please.”

No response. Guan Shan stares at the floor with a firm tenacity, willing willing willing. But He Tian only shifts in the doorway, rolling out his neck with a sigh that almost sounds tired.

“I’m not leaving without you, Red,” he says, easy. Careless. “I’m on orders. Right now, you’re the only one holding up your class.”

Bullshit.

Yet he can feel his pulse in his throat. The difficulty of swallowing. Guan Shan’s nails indent the skin of his palms; a muscle jumping in his jaw. Across the room, he can hear someone whispering to their neighbor, discreet, but not discreet enough to bypass his hyperfocused senses as he’s aware of every single person, every single unspoken judgment, every single anticipating stare in the room. He Tian’s stare.

The seconds tick by in a steady march. He can feel the thrum in his gut.

Disquieted, the instructor opens her mouth, but the words shrivel and die on her tongue when Guan Shan stands. Stiff.

And then he walks — tongue pressed against the back of his teeth — to the door.

And then he walks — head down, shouldering past He Tian — straight down the hall.

The hallway is colder than the meditation room. Guan Shan’s skin is swept with goosebumps as he storms down the corridor, vision red around the edges. Behind him he can hear He Tian issuing an I-found-him-thank-you to the girl trainees who’d jumped out of the redhead’s way in the midst of his escape, and they give a chirpy response before going back to their day.

Guan Shan has barely rounded the corner before a second pair of footsteps is jogging after him. Behind him, He Tian calls out, grimly, “Mo Guan Shan.”

And Guan Shan breathes through his nose, heavy, his pace unfaltering as their footsteps echo in succession. His teeth are gritted and he growls over his shoulder: “Don’t touch me.”

A pause. “I didn’t.”

“Well it’s only a matter of fucking time, isn’t it?” Guan Shan snaps. “Started to notice you get real handsy when shit isn’t going your way.”

He Tian frowns. They turn another corner. A surprised worker jumps out the way before he’s trampled, but the two men keep blazing through, pace fast and steady. He Tian’s lips press into a thin line as Guan Shan charges ahead, tunnel-visioned.

“Guan Shan, we need to talk.”

“I have nothing to say to you. Leave.”

He Tian lengthens his strides, nearly in rhythm with Guan Shan if not for the redhead’s spite-fueled adrenaline. “Then where the hell are you going right now?” he demands. “You left so we could talk.”

Guan Shan’s teeth grind. “I left because I didn’t have a goddamn choice, you asshole. You made that real fucking clear. And if I recall, I thought Qiu needed me, not you.”

“So, what, you’re going to storm around until you happen to run into him?”

“That’s the plan,” Guan Shan spits. “You’re not the only goddamn person in this building — someone else will help me find him. But thanks for delivering message. Greatly appreciated. You can leave now.”

The scorn in his voice is palpable. It drips off his tongue like venom.

“Fucking Christ,” He Tian mutters. And as they reach another corner, He Tian pulls ahead in their impromptu race, his longer legs exerting their advantage as he takes the lead and pivots on a foot, bringing Guan Shan to an abrupt halt as he stops in front of him. Flaring, Guan Shan immediately goes to sidestep him but He Tian follows the movement with ease, hindering his path.

“Move,” Guan Shan warns, saturated with animosity, but He Tian shakes his head.

“I lied about Qiu’s orders,” he says, cold, “and we both know that. But he did give me the authorization to pull you from training, and I’m not letting it go to waste just because you want to be temperamental.”

“Are you shitting me? Is that supposed to make me feel more accountable?” Guan Shan snaps. “I owe you fucking nothing, and you have no fucking right to demand anything of me.”

He goes to move around him again. And he’s swiftly blocked, again.

“Move out of—!”

“I’m not demanding anything of you,” He Tian interrupts, voice tight. “I won’t make you do anything. But if it’s not too damn difficult, I’m asking you to hear me out instead of walking away after you’ve decided the conversation is done.”

Guan Shan scoffs, ugly.

“Trust me, I heard you loud and clear in the lab that night,” he says, low. “And yet you’ve given me no fucking reason to make me want to do anything for you — whether you’re ‘asking’ me or not. And what you just pulled two minutes ago definitely did not help your damn case. If that’s your version of ‘asking’, you’ve got it all fucking twisted.”

He Tian’s eyes flash. “You wouldn’t have left otherwise. What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to drag you out kicking and screaming? You’re just so goddamn difficult, and I wasn’t trying to fucking—“

“I’m difficult?!”

“Yes, and you’re proving it right fu—!”

The sound of a throat being cleared cuts him off. They both turn as a woman in a white lab coat passes by, shooting the two a scornful glance as they stand in the middle of the hallway, their voices echoing shamelessly off the walls. They lapse into silence, Guan Shan’s jaw working.

When she disappears around the corner, He Tian straightens and exhales, sharp.

“Fine,” he says, voice lowered. “Since I can’t turn back time, let me give you a reason to do this for me.”

Guan Shan shakes his head, irked. He Tian is missing the whole point. “I don’t want—”

“I’ll get He Cheng to exempt you from all future meditation sessions. Or— anything. Anything you want.”

Guan Shan looks at him. Searches for something that isn’t there. He parrots, skeptically, “Anything I want?”

“Anything within reason,” He Tian amends. “I can’t get you out of Sim training, but I can work something out for those Kaiju history lectures. I know for a fact I can get you out of meditation, though. That shit is like,” he waves his hand dismissively, “like the equivalent of an elective in this program.”

“They told us it was mandatory.”

But He Tian doesn’t respond. He only looks at Guan Shan, dark eyes speaking for themselves, and for a moment Guan Shan catches a glimpse of something indecipherable. Something unsettling.

He blinks, and it’s gone.

“Why,” Guan Shan asks, “are you doing this?”

He Tian studies him.

“We need to talk,” he says again. Quiet.

The undertone to his voice is dark and cutting. Serious. A crack in a frozen pond that makes skaters wary.

Guan Shan’s throat works as a long moment rolls by. The quiet droops between them, hanging low and in waiting. A few curious passersby eye them, held back by the tense aura surrounding the two men.

And then Guan Shan shifts on his feet and looks away.

“Twenty minutes,” he mutters. “That’s it. Twenty minutes and then I’m leaving, and you’ll leave me the hell alone afterwards.”

The corner of He Tian’s mouth lifts.

“Twenty minutes,” he agrees.

“And I’ll never have to step foot in that fucking meditation room again.”

“Deal.”

Their eyes lock. Guan Shan feels something tight in his throat.

There's a word for this, he thinks. A phrase. 

A deal with the devil.

“But first,” He Tian says, glancing around, “let’s move out of the hallway. That woman might come back and snipe us.”

Hands in his pockets, he turns and walks. Scowling, Guan Shan glares at the floor as he follows.

 


 

The Kwoon Room is too big when it’s empty. That’s his first thought. The bare walls extend outwards; the humble equipment is scattered too far apart. Everything echoes in the open space, bouncing off the cement and disturbing the silence in a way that seems almost unnatural. Guan Shan nearly wants to wince when He Tian slides the door shut behind them, the clack of the frame reverberating in the wide space.

The quiet is unsettling yet, in some ways, inviting. He’s never been here without the accompaniment of a training group — but the lingering scent of sweat is as prominent as ever. The chill of the air conditioning is as refreshing as ever. The black mat is as wide and as scuffed as ever.

The only difference is now, it’s only them.

Moving into the center of the mat, Guan Shan is adamant in remaining as silent as the empty room . It is, after all, the only surefire way to get this over with as quickly as possible. He’ll never have to be a fucking tree again if he just shuts up and nods and eventually leaves.  

But as He Tian shrugs out of his jacket, draping it over a rack as he plucks two wooden staffs from their notches, Guan Shan is forced out of his silent resistance.

“I thought you wanted to talk,” he says, flat.

“I do,” He Tian replies, poles held at his side as he approaches. There’s an assured sway in his gait and a leveled look in his eyes. “But if you’re skipping lessons, you should try to make up for it, Red.”

The nickname, so easily falling out of He Tian’s mouth once again, makes Guan Shan’s brows draw together. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. He Tian comes to a stop in front of him, extending out a pole in offering. And after what seems to be heavy contemplation, Guan Shan reaches out and takes it.

“More training wasn’t part of the deal,” he says, gruff, shifting the staff in his hand. “Actually, less was.”

A hum. He Tian spins his own pole, just once, and the familiarity of the movement is made evident by the fluid motion of his fingers, his wrist. Stepping back, he settles into an easy stance, his feet barely a shoulder-width apart.

“It’s not true training if you’re just going through the motions,” he says. “But if you’d rather sit down and stare at my face for the next twenty minutes, we can do that, too.”

There’s a question in his eyes, floating on the surface close enough for Guan Shan to reach out and take hold of. But the latter only clicks his tongue, looking away, and He Tian huffs as if in understanding.

The gesture is slow, but not tentative. He Tian raises his pole, horizontally, at chest-height. Although Guan Shan’s nerves jump at the motion, he knows it’s not a taunt. It’s not the beckoning call of a weapon ready to be crossed and lunged at. It’s not the position of a pole right before a spar, right before the quiet click of two staffs in an X as their wielders lock eyes. It’s a greeting; an invitation of which Guan Shan has been accustomed to for the past month during Kwoon sessions. A signal between two passive bodies. As if instinctually, Guan Shan raises his own pole in the same manner. Slow.

Taking it as a sign of compliance, He Tian moves first.

The pole slides smoothly against his fingers, working its way in a crescent arc before coming into a soft contact with Guan Shan’s staff. As if sparked with life, the latter pushes back on the pressure, deliberate, wrist flexing as he brings his pole around to He Tian’s left hip and, predictably, is blocked where he ought to be: a quarter foot from bodily contact. The weapons make a soft grating sound as they skim across one another, a melody of technique and rhythm, and within moments they’re dancing to the same footwork, the same timing, the same rulebook skill sets and traditional tactics.

They don’t speak. The sounds echo in the quiet space; shoes padding against the mat, poles faintly tapping, the rustle of clothes with every step forward, backward, sideways. Guan Shan doesn’t look at He Tian. He doesn’t need to. Instead, his eyes focus on the contact points of their staffs, the methodical shuffle of He Tian’s feet. For Guan Shan, the movements are mindless, ingrained in his muscle memory after countless sessions with instructors and pilots. For He Tian, it’s as natural as breathing, not a stutter in his technique as they move in slow motion, fluid.

Caught in a nameless trance, Guan Shan is almost startled when He Tian speaks.

“Not bad.”

Guan Shan’s eyes flicker up. He blocks a steady swing to his shoulder. “We practice every other day,” he replies, indifferent. “It’s textbook shit.”

“Still,” He Tian says, pole slipping through his hand, “you’re good. Polished.”

A jab to his torso; blocked with the end of his pole.

“Am I supposed to say thank you?” Guan Shan asks dryly.

He Tian huffs through his nose. “No. It’s just an observation.”

“Ah, that’s right.” A strike at his kneecap. Blocked. “How naive of me to think I could earn a compliment from you.”

He Tian looks up at him. Guan Shan can feel his gaze like a flame held to his skin, brushing the surface but hot enough to burn. Their staffs push against one another with equal strength, and then He Tian steps back.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says, his words taking on a dark undertone.

“I’m sure you didn’t.” 

They step forward. 

Clack.

“I didn’t mean to hurt your shoulder, either.”

A grimace.

A shuffle.

Clack.

“Not so sure about that one.”

He Tian moves forward — more than he should during this part of the mock spar — and says, “I’m serious.”

A beat. A hesitation in their dance.

And then Guan Shan steps away, maintaining their distance.

“That’s not what you said in the damn lab,” is all he can manage, because the sudden intent in He Tian’s voice is unnerving. Unexpected. He swallows as they fall back into rhythm. “If I remember correctly, I ‘wasn’t as good as I thought I was.’”

Clack.

“I was riled up,” He Tian answers. “He Cheng was riding my ass for hours before you came. He knows how to get under my skin.”

Guan Shan snorts, ugly. “And that’s your shit excuse for the spar, too?”

Clack.

“No. The spar was a misjudgment on my part.”

“Seems like you have a lot of those.”

Clack.

He Tian catches Guan Shan’s downward swing in an arc that sweeps it away, a glide of their poles. In the midst of the movement, their eyes meet — a flash of disturbance — before they drift apart once more.

He Tian asks, defensive, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not fucking stupid,” Guan Shan answers, sharp, like lightning splitting the neglected tension caught between them. “I know this talk doesn’t go beyond what happened in the lab. I know what you want. And I know I already gave you — and your goddamn Greek chorus — my answer.”

“Then you also know,” He Tian says, a little breathy, “that I think you should reconsider.”

Clack.

Guan Shan shakes his head, just slightly. “Save your breath. You’re not changing my mind and, frankly, you’re in the worst fucking position to do that in the first place.”

“I know.”

Guan Shan steps back; He Tian steps forward. Guan Shan ducks to avoid a hit to the neck; He Tian twists his torso to avoid an assault to the ribs.

“I know,” He Tian says again, strangely low, “but I’m… trying to fix that.”

Guan Shan’s brow furrows. He chooses brevity over sympathy. “I can’t — I won’t be a pilot.”

“And I want to know why.”

Clack.

Adjusting his grip on the pole as he turns, following the swipe of He Tian’s staff, Guan Shan shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, grim. “I don’t want to be. I never did. And— I’m not a fucking scientist, but even if our scans matched up, common sense tells me that this — we — wouldn’t work.”

“If we had to,” He Tian says, “we would.”

“Well we don’t have to. That’s the difference.”

Guan Shan rocks back to avoid the edge of He Tian’s staff, and rocks forward again to deliver the same attack. Regaining their balance, the two men bring their staffs up between them, an equal force pushing from both sides.

Across from him, He Tian’s eyes search his face.

“Do you not feel an obligation?” He Tian asks. Guan Shan frowns.

“To you?”

“Yes.”

They both push back, pulling apart. But this time they don’t come back together. He Tian straightens before Guan Shan can respond.

“To me,” He Tian continues, “and to this facility. And to your family, and your hometown, and your country. The whole damn world, really.”

“Christ,” Guan Shan breathes. “Don’t go back to that shit. Don’t— don’t get that fucking idealistic hero complex stuck in your head.”

“Jaeger pilots are heroes. And putting it that way sounds childish, I agree. But the Kaiju would’ve trampled over us a long fucking time ago if not for them.” 

Guan Shan swallows. “The Kaiju do trample over us. Hundreds of thousands of people are still dying every damn year, and yet we pat our pilots on the back because hey, they’re trying their best! Last year they let three Kaiju reach the shore and obliterate countless fucking cities but hey — everyone has off days!”

He Tian gives him a look. “Are you saying the alternative is better? No Jaegers at all?”

“No, I’m not. I’m saying that people are placing these damn pilots on a pedestal that shouldn’t be as high as it is.”

Because there are interviews and fan clubs and figurines. There are clothes brands and documentaries and blogs. Jaeger pilots are the celebrities of this modern world, and this modern world has its head so far up its ass that it’s almost starting to forget that it’s coming to an end.

It’s sickening.

“The pilots aren’t herding sheep, Guan Shan,” He Tian says, almost incredulous. “These are creatures from another dimension. Three thousand ton monsters. You can’t realistically expect a clean slate when we’re fighting a war like this.”

Fire courses in Guan Shan’s veins. “I know that. I’m not fucking stupid. But I also know I don’t want any part in that. It may be easy to ignore when you’re thousands of feet up in the air, protected in your safe little robot — but that’s blood on your fucking hands. That’s failure at the expense of a whole region of people.”

He Tian looks at him. “So you’re afraid of the failure?”

“No,” Guan Shan snaps. His hand twists around his pole, tight. “I’m not afraid of anything, asshole. I don’t know how to — You don’t understand.”

“I do,” He Tian argues. “I do, but you’re contradicting yourself. You’re pissed because the pilots aren’t doing their job good enough, but you want to sit back and do nothing as the Kaiju continue to wreak fucking havoc? In that case, only more and more people are going to die!”

“But that’s not on me!” Guan Shan snaps, slamming his pole into the mat. “That’s not my responsibility.”

“But it could be your responsibility!” He Tian retorts. “If you care so damn much, why aren’t you jumping at the opportunity?”

“I don’t care!”

He Tian makes an exasperated sound. “Are you listening to yourself right now? You’re not making any damn sense!”

“And that’s why I’m fucking telling you that you don’t understand!”

He’s yelling; the echo shakes the Kwoon Room. He Tian is watching him with a dark expression, chest rising and falling with heavy breaths. His throat works.

“Then this is me trying to understand,” he says. Something hollow fills Guan Shan’s chest and settles like a rock. Jaw tight, he only shakes his head, bringing his lower lip between his teeth.

“You’re the unrealistic one here,” Guan Shan says. “You have this vision of something but, god, just give it up. All of this. Me. This fucking war. You’re wasting your time.”

“This war isn’t lost, Guan Shan,” He Tian snaps.

Guan Shan flares, dangerous to touch. “This war is all we’ve ever known! It’s been going on for decades and it’ll continue for decades more, and the Kaiju are only getting fucking stronger. We’re just delaying the inevitable and the pilots are getting off on the idea that they might be making a fucking difference, but they’re not, and I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.”

It hangs between them, swinging from a noose. Guan Shan’s mouth is dry, and the way He Tian is looking at him — it’s close to pity. It’s definitely anger. Maybe it’s a mix between both. Maybe it’s a ghost of what he’d felt, years and years ago, as his mother was a shell of her former self, crumpled on the couch as she realized that they couldn’t afford the funeral bills. That there wasn’t much of a body left to have a funeral for. That Guan Shan — stitches in his head and his arm in a sling — hadn’t come out of his room for days, much less attended school. That the principal had said she understood, because there were countless other children who had died or lost loved ones in last week’s Kaiju event.

Looking at He Tian — looking at those memories — is nauseating. Guan Shan wets his lips and looks away. Looks at the ground.

Switching his pole to his other hand, He Tian steps forward.

“I don’t want to fight about this,” he says, voice lowered. Careful. “We’ve done that enough. But you’re not a misjudgment, Guan Shan, and this war isn’t done yet. Every Shatterdome in the world is working their asses off, especially here in Hong Kong.”

Pressed lips.

“I can’t have that kind of fucking optimism,” Guan Shan says, gruff. “I haven’t been groomed to be a pilot like you have.”

He Tian’s mouth twitches. His eyes are darkened by a passing shadow.

“My upbringing has nothing to do with this.”

Guan Shan feels a dry laugh escape the corner of his mouth. “It has everything to do with this,” he replies. “Of course the program is going to hand-feed you good omens about the Shatterdome. Of course you’re going to think they’re working super duper hard to win this war.”

“But you think they aren’t?”

“I don’t—“

Guan Shan stops. Swallows.

“I don’t know what to think,” he settles. “I know they’re not just rolling over to die. But people like me have a whole different perspective when we’re the small ones in the cities and you’re the big ones in the ocean.”

And He Tian frowns, confused, because that’s where the disconnect is. That’s the line drawn between them that He Tian is so desperately trying to smudge beneath his foot and Guan Shan is watching, scowling, because he doesn’t understand. For years, Guan Shan has talked shit about the Shatterdome and it’s shortcomings while on break with his coworkers, hanging in the damp corners of an alleyway, because they don’t have the money to buy the latest Jaeger figurine. They don’t have the spare change to waste on the magazine covering the Hottest Topics about Hong Kong’s Pilots!

Instead, they have back-to-back shifts and tired eyes and a fallacious faith that strangers miles and miles away will cover their asses and maybe, just maybe, prevent their gruesome deaths.

But now, the two men from two worlds only look at each other. Their breathing has calmed. Their throats feel a little sore. A tired atmosphere weighs down on Guan Shan’s shoulders, and he frowns when He Tian reaches out a hand. Palm up. After a moment, Guan Shan extends out his pole and He Tian takes it from him, fingers wrapping quietly around the weapon.

Both staffs in his hand, he looks down at them. And then he exhales.

“I want to show you something,” he says, his voice a rumble. “And you don’t have to come if you’re stuck on your answer. You don’t have to come if you really believe we’re fighting a losing battle. But — I think you could benefit from a new perspective. Whether you’re a pilot or not.”

There’s something liquid in his voice; malleable in Guan Shan’s hands. But he can’t hold onto it. It slips through his fingers.

“In front of Tech and Research,” He Tian continues, meeting Guan Shan’s gaze. “At eleven, tonight.”

Guan Shan scowls. “I can’t leave my dorm at eleven. Curfew is at nine.”

But He Tian only looks at him and says, “You don’t have to come.”

And, suddenly, Guan Shan has too much control.

Chapter Text

For the first time in a long time, Guan Shan scrolls through the news.

Though the text is irritating to decipher on his modest phone screen, he can’t stand watching the television. The newscasters with their ironed suits and stiff shoulders and crispy, gel-lathered hair grind on his nerves like sandpaper, and the screen often goes to black before they can get through a single debate in their little half-circle of groundless predictions and pre-war reminiscences.

Slumped against the wall, a pillow supporting his lower back, Guan Shan thumbs at the screen in his bed. Most of the headlines are repetitive: something about the impact of Kaiju blood on the oceans’ ecosystems; something about housing near the shores plummeting in prices; something about the North and South American Marshals meeting to discuss battle strategies.

Mindlessly, he scrolls and scrolls and scrolls, not really sure what he’s looking for, the words blending into a black blur of a world crumbling into itself — until a sentence catches his eye, and he scrolls back up, a preview of an article taking up the length of his screen.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY GATHER TO HONOR BRYAN LENDON CANADA’S BELOVED INDIGO STRIKE PILOT

It’s dated over a week ago. An echo of his mother’s voice resonates in his mind. He clicks the link. The website flickers to life, images and click-bait advertisements competing for space as the article loads. He skips past the memorial funeral photos and the crowds and the crying people, and comes to a stop at the introduction paragraph. Frowning, his eyes skim the passage.

Canada has faced the tragic loss of one of her most celebrated and experienced Jaeger pilots whilst in battle earlier this week. Bryan Lendon, 27, and his partner Caden Mullens, 26, were deployed in their Jaeger Indigo Strike close off the shores of their country to face yet another approaching Kaiju. With the support of the two other Canadian Jaegers at their side, they had expected the conflict to be resolved quickly and cleanly. Unfortunately, the Kaiju had other plans.

“We’d never seen a Kaiju so big,” a spectator tearfully explained in the aftermath. “It was moving faster than any Kaiju I’ve ever seen, and before I knew it, [Indigo Strike] was beneath it. It was horrible. I couldn’t watch after that.”

He scrolls.

Luckily, Indigo’s companions were able to defeat the Kaiju after a long, hard-fought battle spanning over an hour. But not fast enough.

Indigo Strike was carried away from the scene in multiple parts. Meanwhile, Lendon was pronounced dead at the hospital; Mullens was transported to intensive care for his fatal wounds. The latter has requested for Lendon’s funeral to be postponed until he is healthy enough to attend it himself.

He scrolls. There are more pictures of people crying.

He scrolls.

The Canadian Shatterdome is scheduled to hold a press conference at the end of this week. It will be broadcasted online for all to watch.

Mullens is unavailable to comment on his heartbreaking loss. Fans across the world have continued to send their condolences and are wishing for Mullens’ speedy recovery. It is unclear whether the pilot will be returning to the battlefield in the future.

And then there’s a final image. His thumb hovers above it. Two men, arms slung over one another, their hair clumped with sweat on their foreheads as they stand in their Jaeger suits. It’s a low quality image, unfocused and tilted. The background consists of nothing but machinery and equipment, but their smiles are wide and blinding, their eyes squinted with laughter as they flash lazy peace signs.

Guan Shan doesn’t read the description beneath the image. He can’t bring himself to. The lingering knowledge that one of these grinning men — only a few years older than himself — was crushed beneath a Kaiju’s crooked foot settles like a brick in his stomach, and he closes out of the tab, locking the screen.

His room is quiet. He can hear water running through the pipes behind the wall.

How many people, he wonders, are going to show up at that funeral? How many blogs are going to be tearfully expressing their grief of a man they’ve only seen from the frame of their windows, miles in the distance, or the frame of their TV screens? How much money will the JaegerBots toy company make off the tragedy of a crippled twenty-six year old and his late partner?

Guan Shan rubs at the bridge of his nose. It’s useless to fabricate rhetorical questions, and he knows that. He knows.

And yet—

No. Stop.

He just needs a shower.

 


 

It’s the odd hours of the afternoon; the ones that fall just between a late lunch and dinnertime. The day has been dragging on like boots through mud, heavy with the weight of anticipation as workers grow increasingly anxious to return home and collapse on their couches, worn out. Feet have begun to drag; yawns have started to become contagious. People have become quieter and irritable, keeping their distance when and where they can.

And yet Jian Yi can’t be like other people if it kills him. Fidgety and restless, his incessant whining is as energized as ever, ringing in Zheng Xi’s ears like a discordant chime — over and over and over again until Zheng Xi’s eyes squeeze shut, a sharp exhale escaping his mouth like a gunshot.

“Jian Yi,” he snaps, and the blonde goes quiet as flaming irritation bounces across their drift, hot to the touch. “You’re not hungry.”

“But I am, Xixi,” Jian Yi insists, shifting his head in Zheng Xi’s lap to look up at him. His hair musses against his jeans, and Zheng Xi frowns at the inevitable complaining that will occur when Jian Yi combs out the knots. Jian Yi huffs, upset. “I should’ve ate more at lunch…”

Zheng Xi grimaces. “No, you shouldn’t have. You had two burgers. You just feel like eating right now because you’re bored.”

“Maybe,” Jian Yi mumbles, though the discontent is clear in his voice. His eyes drift over to the TV disdainfully, watching the characters argue about something he never really cared about in the first place. “This movie just sucks ass, though.”

“I asked what you wanted to watch and you didn’t respond, so this is the best we’ve got,” Zheng Xi says. “The better movies are played at night time, anyway.”

Jian Yi groans, his long limbs sprawling across the couch. “I want a snack. Chips sound so good right now.”

“Then go get it, if you really want it that bad.”

“I don’t want to go alone!”

“You wouldn’t have to go at all if you hadn’t finished our last bag in one sitting.”

“Xixi,” Jian Yi whines, reaching up to wrap his arms around Zheng Xi’s neck. He pulls him down despite Zheng Xi’s spiteful attempts to stay upright, eyes defiantly glued to the TV. Jian Yi tugs at him and says, “Come with me.”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No, Jian Yi.”

“But you’re not even doing anything!”

“I’m— watching this movie.”

A lame excuse. It falls flat, and Jian Yi frowns. Zheng Xi refuses to look at him despite the awkward weight of the arms wrapped around his neck and, begrudgingly, Jian Yi sees no other solution to this predicament.

It’s a trump card he doesn’t often pull — but it’s a trump card nonetheless. Sly, he lets the hurt seep into the drift, just barely, as if he hadn’t really meant to let it slip, as if he doesn’t know exactly what the outcome will be — and it works.

Zheng Xi looks down at him, still scowling, but unable to ignore the emotion strung tightly between them.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Jian Yi sulks, pulling himself up until he’s halfway sitting and his face is level with Zheng Xi’s. He places himself between Zheng Xi and the television, arms loosely hung over his partner’s shoulders as he bumps their foreheads together.

He lifts the barrier, reaching out to Zheng Xi and, albeit reluctantly, Zheng Xi allows him in. He always does.

The warmth — the familiar fullness — floods them both.

It’s just down the hall, Jian Yi reasons, the pout in his eyes. I’m tired of just sitting here, Xixi, and I know you are, too.

Understanding ripples across the drift. Zheng Xi sighs.

Are you really going to make me come with you?

Yes. Please?

And Jian Yi looks at him, expectant, anticipation flooding the bond like a tongue-lolling, tail-wagging puppy — and of course Zheng Xi can’t say no. Of course he knew this was going to be the outcome from the very beginning. Sometimes, he wonders why he bothers resisting in the first place. And so he mutters a quiet, “Fine,” and a smile cracks Jian Yi’s lips before he pushes off his partner, climbing to his feet.

The TV is switched off — that horrible movie is laid to rest — and Jian Yi bounces on his feet as Zheng Xi stands.

“Finally,” the blonde breathes, hands burrowing into the pockets of his hoodie as they approach the door, slipping into their shoes. “I’m starving.”

“You’re not, you idiot.”

But Zheng Xi follows him nonetheless, not bothering to lock the door behind them. Jian Yi is light on his feet as they walk, hair falling out of his messy bun. They nod or smile to those they pass in the halls — a group of trainees do a double take as they walk by — but otherwise arrive at the food court in record time. It’s certainly one of the better perks of living at the Shatterdome, and Jian Yi’s abuse of the benefit is made evident by his easy stroll to the snack rack near the entrance. He hums contently as he crouches to consider his options, and the sound echoes in the empty food court like a whispered melody.

“Cheetos or Doritos?” he asks, interrupting the tune.

Zheng Xi sighs. “I really don’t care, Jian Yi.”

“You’re no fun, you know that?”

But Zheng Xi only makes a disgruntled sound in response, arms folded as Jian Yi scans the shelves. After a bit of grumbling, he settles on Cheetos — two bags — and, in what seems to be an afterthought, grabs an additional bag of kettle-cooked Lays. Curious, Zheng Xi raises a brow.

“Lays?” he asks. “I thought you hated those.”

“I was thinking we could go say hello to mini Xixi,” Jian Yi replies, flashing him a quick smile. “I’m sure she misses her big brother.”

Zheng Xi rolls his eyes. “ I’m sure she’s too busy to be missing me. She’s not here for fun and games, you know.”

“I know, I know, but I don’t really think it was a coincidence that she came to the Hong Kong Shatterdome when she had, like, a million other offers,” Jian Yi says, skeptical. “We’ll just— drop by. Surprise her, or whatever.”

Zheng Xi huffs a laugh, faint. “You’re such a kiss-up to her, you realize that, right?”

“‘Cause she hates my guts,” Jian Yi retorts, a whimper. “I can’t go on living like this. I need validation.”

“I know you do,” Zheng Xi says. He frowns at the choice of chips. “But, if you really want to get on her good side, Fritos is probably a better choice than Lays.”

A pause. “Oh,” Jian Yi says, and he quickly gets to swapping the snacks. Halfway amused, Zheng Xi looks up as he waits, glancing around the food court — and then he stops.

Jian Yi looks up, startled by the flash of surprise that sparked across the drift.

“What?” he asks, low.

“Is that,” Zheng Xi starts, peering across the court, “that redhead?”

Jian Yi follows his gaze to the Fresh Deli section and, sure enough, Guan Shan’s hair stands out like a beacon against the beige walls, though today it seems a shade darker from the aftermath of a shower. He looms over the open display case, considering his very few options of sandwiches. The lunch rush had nearly wiped out the collection of ready-made wedges, and it appears the chefs have yet to replenish the stock of food.

Jian Yi hums. “Looks like it. Why?”

“I don’t know,” Zheng Xi says. “I was kind of expecting He Tian to be biting at his heels.”

Jian Yi snorts, tossing the Lays back on the rack and straightening up. “Me too, actually. That guy’s a damn leech.” He pauses, and adds, “You think he’s talked to Redhead yet?”

Zheng Xi’s brows scrunch. Tries to envision it. Grimaces. “Probably. Can’t imagine it went well, though.”

A snicker. Juggling the chips in his arms, Jian Yi hands the Fritos to Zheng Xi, who accepts it with a frown. Feeling bubbly, Jian Yi turns to leave, the redhead already forgotten as he wonders how he should go about greeting Zi Qian to achieve the lowest possibility of rejection—

But then sharp panic darts through him, an arrow through the stomach, and a hand snags his elbow, swinging him back around as Zheng Xi hisses, “Shit,” beneath his breath, and Jian Yi swivels his head to see what he’s seeing, to see what has him so worked up—

And, immediately, he understands.

A new figure has appeared next to Guan Shan; a silver phantom that materialized out of thin air. It hovers next to the him, holding something in its hand, and Guan Shan is looking at him, surprised but steadfast, his brows furrowed in a tight scowl as they talk about something inaudible. Zheng Xi immediately opens the drift when Jian Yi reaches out to him, sudden and panicked.

There’s no way he already knows, Jian Yi hisses without preamble. It hasn’t even been a full week.

It’s She fucking Li, Zheng Xi shoots back. He’s not particularly famous for initiating small talk with a trainee in the middle of the damn day, Jian Yi. He knows.

The truth is irrefutable. Jian Yi looks a little overwhelmed, eyes darting between the impending catastrophe and Zheng Xi.

What do you think he wants?

I don’t know.

Then what should we

I don’t know, Zheng Xi says again, but he releases Jian Yi’s arm and strides across the food court, towards the two men, and Jian Yi has no choice but to follow.

It’s a march straight into the eye of the storm. She Li is talking when they approach, but his mouth slides shut as he catches sight of the duo, the pale color of his eyes glinting with something dark. His chin dips down.

“Oh,” he says, feigning surprise as they come to a stop beside them. His gaze flickers between the pilots. Settles on Jian Yi. “Haven’t seen you two in a while. Started to wonder where you went.”

Jian Yi’s mouth twitches. Zheng Xi scoffs.

“That’s a load of shit,” he says. “You always know where to find us. Gets suspicious sometimes, actually.”

“True,” She Li sighs. “But unfortunately, you’re not at the top of my agenda right now. Sorry about that.”

“God, I’m not,” Jian Yi says, drenched in spite. “Saves us a lot of breath. And time.”

She Li studies him, unmoved by the sharp tone. “Really?” he says, flat. “Well, I can see that you have a lot of time to spare.”

He glances down at the chip bags. Jian Yi’s jaw sets and something dangerous spikes across the drift. Sensing the shift, Zheng Xi replies before he can.

“Apparently, so do you,” he says, chilled. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in the food court before. Bored?”

And She Li’s mouth lifts, a slick and slimy resemblance of a smile that sucks any remaining warmth from the air.

“Just wanted a quick bite,” She Li says, eyes sliding back to Guan Shan who, in the duration of this confrontation, has been watching the exchange with hard eyes and curled hands. Confused but quiet. Simmering.

She Li lifts his hand, in which he holds a pre-wrapped sandwich. With it, he gives a small wave to Guan Shan. A muscle jumps in Guan Shan’s jaw.

“Thanks for the recommendation,” She Li says, sickeningly polite. He looks back at the Kappa Strike pilots, who glare back just as coldly. “And I’ll be seeing you two again soon. Don’t slack too much.”

“Don’t trip on your pride on your way out,” Jian Yi mutters. It earns a raised brow. And with that, She Li turns, long fingers drumming on the saran wrap of his meal as he walks away, a methodical rhythm of footsteps. Guan Shan seems frozen to the floor, eyes glaring at the spot where She Li disappears, and Jian Yi lets out a long breath in the man’s absence. Zheng Xi only shakes his head, expression hard.

“God, that guy’s a fucking creep,” Jian Yi seethes, the sickening remnants of the interaction twisting his stomach. He’s become convinced that She Li radiates poison like a fog, and these few moments were no exception. But the paralyzing effects of the mist seems to wear off the initial victim, and Guan Shan looks at him, jaw clenched.

“Who the fuck was that?” he demands. Jian Yi blinks.

Should we tell him?

No. There’s no point.

But what if She Li comes back? Does shit.

He won’t. He can’t do anything especially with He Tian around.

And you think that’s enough? For someone as fucking lunatic as She Li?

No. But it’s a start.

Uneasiness warbles across the drift. And then relents.

I guess. But if we find Redhead’s corpse in a garbage bag, I’m blaming it on you.

Fine.

“No one important,” Jian Yi says. “He’s just the resident asshole.”

“Did he do anything?” Zheng Xi asks.

Guan Shan grimaces, his mouth screwed into a tight scowl. “No. The fucker just came up and grabbed the last fucking turkey sandwich out of my hand, and then started spouting shit about the Kwoon Room like nothing happened.”

Christ. He’s worked up.

He’s probably hangry. You get like that, too.

Really? Remind me why we’re here again?

“The Kwoon Room?” Jian Yi asks, making a face. “What about it?”

A stagnant pause.

“I— He Tian and I’s—” Guan Shan stops, throat working. He looks away, face hard. “Nothing. Just shit.”

A moment passes. Shuffling the chip bags in his hands, Jian Yi shifts on his feet.

“Well,” he says carefully, “if that guy ever comes back, He Tian can probably tell him off better than Xixi and I.”

The suggestion makes Guan Shan’s face twist in contempt.

“I don’t need his help,” he asserts, dark. “And, really, I didn’t need yours, either.”

His words are charged with something akin to resentment. They wrap around the trio, suffocating, and Zheng Xi and Jian Yi are struck with silence as they flounder over how to respond. How to react. It’s a painful beat of tension.

And then Guan Shan looks up — an emotion flickering over his eyes too fast to process. Zheng Xi barely catches the tail end of it.

“But… thank you,” he mutters, low, and turns away again. “He was obviously looking for fuckin’ trouble. But it was just a sandwich, so. ‘S fine. Don’t care.”

It’s an unconvincing statement. But the pilots only nod in unison, tongues held back by the bitter aura encasing the redhead. With nothing left to say, Guan Shan turns on his heel, stalking towards the exit. Along the way, he snatches up a cereal bowl from the Quick Meals table, and then disappears around the corner with steam in his wake.

Jian Yi screws up his nose.

“You know,” he says, contemplative, “with a personality like that, if he actually does become a pilot, someone is going to end up dead. And it won’t be the Kaijus’ doing.”

Zheng Xi smirks. “I have twenty bucks on He Tian’s funeral.”

“Thirty says She Li’s.”

“Deal.”

 



The dry cereal doesn’t hit the spot. Guan Shan spends nearly two hours in quiet defiance as his stomach protests its emptiness during his Kaiju History lecture. He slouches in his seat, hoping to muffle the damn noise, but to no avail. For a fleeting moment — as a neighboring candidate flicks him a glance when his stomach moans yet again — he almost wishes he had taken He Tian’s offer to drop this lecture. To escape the confines of this small, cement room once and for all.

But he dismisses the thought as quickly as it comes. Lets it shrivel like paper in water. It’s already been a long and trying day, and He Tian is the last damn thing he wants on his mind.

Nonetheless, it’s a painfully long lecture. Legs begin bouncing; pencils tapping against the sides of thighs. The entirety of his class nearly tramples over each other when the session is dismissed, and as he follows the yawning and grumbling crowd, a glance at the clock in the hallway reads a quarter to nine p.m. — nearly half an hour longer than the lecture was scheduled to take. Any longer, and the candidates would have been scolded for violating curfew, as fucked up as the protocol is. Guan Shan wonders, briefly, just how far this program can bend its own rules before it becomes unethical — but the tired state of his eyes and the hollow feeling of his stomach brings his attention elsewhere, and he stores the bitterness away for later. 

His feet trudge beneath him as he drags himself to his dorm, his stomach growling like a nagging mother. He doesn’t have time to make a stop at the food court, but the door is barely closed behind him and his shoes kicked off before he’s collapsing on his bed, hand rummaging through the nightstand’s drawer and pulling free a granola bar he’d stashed during the first week of training.

It’s stale but it’s enough, and Guan Shan chews sluggishly as his eyes slide shut. His body sinks into the mattress like it’s a blessing, his limbs heavy with the weight of the day. He can’t pin why the exhaustion has overcome him; though, it probably has to do with the fact that the instructor had a voice as monotonous as a computing system and her accompanying slideshow was bright and boring and burned his pupils for over two hours. It proved to be the perfect cherry on top of a day filled with intense endurance and weapons training, but Guan Shan is left with a bitter taste in his mouth as if he’d gnawed the stem.  

The granola bar is finished before he knows it. It leaves a pasty taste on his tongue. He throws the wrapper over the side of the bed and rubs a hand down his face, exhaling. His palm presses into his eyes — and for a moment, the dancing lights behind his eyelids morph into the silver figure of the man who’d plucked his meal straight from his fingers earlier that day, shameless. Those chilling gold eyes stare back at him, taunting. Guan Shan scowls.

“It’s unheard of,” the man had said, every syllable lacking warmth as Guan Shan had looked at him, caught off guard by his presence. “Getting a touch on someone like He Tian. Must have been one hell of a spar.”

And Guan Shan had stared at him, stiff, the shape of his stolen sandwich still held in his hand, and said, low: “It was just a spar.”

A huff.

“Surely,” the silver snake said, “ he didn’t think it was just a spar.”

There’s masked implication behind the words. Guan Shan had scowled, somewhere between irritation and anger and confusion as the stranger watched him with amusement. “And? What the fuck is your point? Who are you?”

Those eyes had flashed with a dark delight. “What?” he asked. “I don’t ring a bell?”

And Guan Shan hadn’t been able to respond to that slimy smirk, because Jian Yi and Zheng Xi were suddenly at their sides, hackles raised, and those pale, shadowed eyes were drawn elsewhere. Slid across the two pilots like a predator sizing up its prey. Guan Shan had gotten the disturbing notion that he’d been saved by the bell.

But now, swallowing, he pushes it out of his mind. It makes him feel nauseous. He blames it on the granola bar.

Counting the days until the end of his draft’s contract, he turns on his side, head thudding on the stiff pillow. It doesn’t take long. His breathing evens out; his mind stops revolving, quiet.

Within minutes, he’s sleeping.

 



And he wakes abruptly.

It’s like emerging from a coma — with the assistance of high voltage.

The sensations hit him all at once, like a balloon popped in his face. His mouth feels dry. His hands are cold. There’s a ringing in his ears, incessant. His heart feels like a motor, drumming against his chest, and when he sits up, the draft from the vents chills the thin sheet of sweat on his forehead. There’s that lingering feeling in his throat, like a brick wedging itself up his trachea, and the world spins, briefly, but all the signs point in the same direction as he blinks the wet blur out of his eyes:

It was a dream. He knows it was. The aftermath is telltale; familiar. But the details elude him, flickering in and out of clarity like an old lightbulb, and his head quietly throbs as it loses grip on what was pseudo-reality only moments ago.

And yet, he’s not stupid. He knows what it was. Knows what it’s always been. Knows it’s been months since his last one.

Wetting his lips with saliva he doesn’t have, Guan Shan rubs the bleariness from his eyes, willing his heart to calm. He’s suspended in the still of the night; a lone figure slouched over in bed. Pulling his hand from his face, the blur of the red numbers on his alarm clock distracts him, and his head turns slowly to look at the time.

He blinks.

It takes a moment.

11:28 p.m.

It floats in front of him.

It takes a moment.

He doesn’t know why.

He Tian.

“Fuck!” Guan Shan hisses, and he’s scrambling off the mattress, nearly falling over when his vision is rushed with stars — but he snatches his phone and staggers his way to the door in the dark, hazardously pulling a hoodie over his head as he slides into the nearest pair of shoes, hopping on one foot as he pulls them over his heels and yanks the hood over his head simultaneously.  

He almost jerks open the door in his rush, caution thrown to the wind — but he catches himself just as his hand wraps around the handle, cold against his palm. Breath labored, Guan Shan centers his self control and twists it slowly, the muted creak of the door echoing in the night. Inch by inch he pulls it open; just enough to slip his body through when he’s verified the hallway to be clear.

The door clicks shut as quietly as it opened, barely echoing off the walls. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walks with his head down, briskly yet stealthily, adrenaline pumping through his veins and lighting his nerves on fire. His breathing sounds heavy in his ears and his mouth is still dry, and as he turns a corner he can’t help but fucking wonder why the hell he’s even bothering. Why the hell his heart is hammering against his chest — why the hell he even thinks He Tian will be waiting for him nearly half an hour past their planned meet-up.

He won’t be, Guan Shan tells himself as he stalks down the hallway, because Guan Shan hadn’t given him an answer before they’d left the Kwoon Room earlier that day. He had only looked at him, silent, because he didn’t want to give voice to the part of him that was actually considering He Tian’s proposal. He didn’t want to fuel the satisfied glint in He Tian’s eyes as he watched the war waging in his victim, his gaze silent but sustaining a million variations of I know as Guan Shan bit his tongue .

He turns another corner. Nearly collides with a wet floor sign.

And yet He Tian hadn’t forced an answer from him. He hadn’t stopped him from leaving after the silence had stretched too thin. There’s a mercy to that; to the unspoken agreement that contained Guan Shan’s pride and the fragile barrier between what he says and what he means. Yet grateful isn’t what he felt — feels — as the empty hallways throw back the sound of his footsteps like a punishment. Instead, he feels resentment. Hostility. The awfulness of the realization that he’s charging forward without thinking, without contemplation, because people like him are weak to people like He Tian despite the gritted teeth and the swinging fists and the bloody noses marking their stubborn declarations of self-help.

Fucking pathetic.

His shoes squeak on the damp floor, and up ahead he can see the directory sign pointing to the Tech and Research wing, and his ears are still ringing and he has to grab onto the wall to prevent slipping and falling flat on his ass as he turns the final corner—

And He Tian looks up.

Guan Shan skids to a stop. The blood pulses in his ears. He Tian is leaned against a column jutting out from the wall, an emergency exit sign above his head emitting a soft green glow on his body. His arms are folded; his head is slightly bowed. But his eyes raise at the appearance of Guan Shan, and he takes in the sight of him as Guan Shan bites back his huffs.

“In a rush?” He Tian asks after a moment. There’s a tilt to his voice — a pleased humor, almost — and Guan Shan scowls.

“Shut the fuck up,” he says, a little breathlessly. “I was sleeping.”

“I can tell.”

The statement is odd and weirdly pointed and at first Guan Shan doesn’t understand. But then He Tian’s eyes slide up ever so slightly, indicative, and Guan Shan reaches up a hand only to realize that his hood had fallen off in his hurry. He becomes hyperaware of the curls brushing against his forehead, pressed against his temple, and immediately he runs his fingers through his hair to pull back the bedhead as best as he can. Reveling in his distress, He Tian looks on, the corners of his mouth upturned.

“If you’re going to be an asshole,” Guan Shan snaps, pulling his hood back over his head to cover his hair and his burning ears, “I’ll go right back to my fucking room.”

“I didn’t say anything,” He Tian says. The smug smile doesn’t disappear. “But fine. Your way or the highway, right?”

“You’re the last fuckin’ person to tell me that.”

“That’s fair.”

Guan Shan’s jaw sets, and He Tian pushes off the wall.

“This way, Red,” he says, easy, and starts down the corridor. After a moment, Guan Shan wills his feet to move. He tries to ignore the way He Tian slows his pace to allow him time to catch up.

“Wherever we’re going better be worth my fucking sleep,” Guan Shan warns as they fall into step.

“It is,” He Tian says. “I think it is.”

“I don’t know how much your opinion is worth to me.”

A huff. “Well, we’re about to find out.”

They turn into a new hallway, one of which Guan Shan has never been to before. Most of the training rooms are on the other side of the facility; the candidates have no real reason to venture beyond that zone. The only reason why he’s even faintly familiar with this section of the campus is because of the disastrous night at the lab room. Even then, he tries not to think about it too much.

But He Tian leads them through the halls with ease, not a flicker of hesitation in his step as they turn left and right and left again, the quiet echoes of their footsteps disturbing the stillness of the night. They pass countless doors and windows, and although all the rooms are dark, Guan Shan can make out the complex equipment and Kaiju samples with the help of the dim emergency lights.

“This entire wing,” He Tian says, a low rumble, “is mostly for research. During the day, this place is like a damn beehive.”

“I can imagine,” Guan Shan replies gruffly. They pass another window, in which Guan Shan can see yet another lab room, cluttered with papers and whiteboards. He frowns. “Don’t see what for, though.”

“The research or the people?”

“The people,” Guan Shan says. “Shoving as many brains as possible into one room isn’t going to suddenly make something click.”

He Tian glances him from the corner of his eye. He looks back ahead. “You’re really something, Guan Shan.”

Guan Shan looks away from the window. They turn yet another corner — but this hallway is much shorter than the others. Instead of doors to laboratories, the two walls consist of three large, metal doors, almost resembling that of garages. There are yellow numbers and letters spray painted to their faces, looking industrial and rustic in nature.

They slow as they approach them. He Tian comes to a stop in front of the door labeled B3 and slips a thin card from his pocket. He places it in front of a scanner, which glows green as it registers the card, and he jabs a thumb into the DOWN button on the panel embedded in the wall.  

There’s a chime, and then one of the oversized doors slides open with a groan. Behind it is a small room, similarly bland in appearance, and as he takes in the small panel of floor level numbers on one of the room’s walls, the puzzle piece clicks into place: it’s an elevator.

Guan Shan hesitates as He Tian steps inside and turns, expectant.

“Well?”

“Where are we going?” Guan Shan demands, because anywhere that requires identification security and metal elevator doors on steroids often doesn’t mean something good, and suddenly he’s doubting the confident posture of He Tian’s body.

He Tian reaches out a hand to prevent the door from closing. “Relax,” he says, low. “You’re acting like I’m going to kill you. Come here.”

“I’m not at your fuckin’ beck and call, asshole,” Guan Shan snaps. “Tell me where we’re going or I’m leaving.”

He Tian studies him. Weighs the tone in his voice. Decides he sees something worth acting on, if barely.

“The Shatterdome,” he says — the vaguest answer he could possibly fucking give — and Guan Shan scoffs incredulously, a sour taste in the back of his mouth and an emotion he can’t describe billowing in his chest. He turns and walks away.

“Fuck you, He Tian.”

“No, not— I meant the Shatterdome,” He Tian says. His voice bounces off the walls, surrounding Guan Shan. Chaining him. “The actual Shatterdome. Not the facility ; not the civilian side.”

Guan Shan turns to look at him. He Tian looks back. The light of the open elevator floods around his shoulders, casting a sharp shadow beneath him, and Guan Shan can’t read his expression. Can’t judge the validity of his words.

“This would go a lot smoother,” He Tian says in his lack of response, “if you would stop jumping at every damn word I say.”

In the dim lighting, Guan Shan gives him a look. “If you think anything about you gives me a sense of security, then you’re sadly fucking mistaken.”

A scoff, bitter.

“It’s the middle of the damn week, nearly midnight, and you snuck out of your dorm to meet up with someone you obviously hold a grudge against for something you’re not even sure is worth it, but you came anyways because something told you it might be,” He Tian says, eyes dark. “That’s not security, I agree. But it’s something you can’t discredit either, Red.”

The truth pricks his skin, irritating but not painful, and Guan Shan can feel the backlash of the burn. He can feel the aftereffect it’ll leave when everything is said and done and he’s left alone to mull over the events of the week. He resists the urge to move; to waver beneath He Tian’s shadowed gaze.

But He Tian doesn’t move either. He looks at Guan Shan — looks through him — and Guan Shan thinks that, maybe, he sees something pending in He Tian’s face. Waiting, but also expecting. Expecting for something to fall into place. Expecting for Guan Shan to cave beneath the pressure of his palm and mold into the shape he desires. Guan Shan wonders, vaguely, how many clay dolls He Tian has made out of people in his lifetime.

He wonders, vaguely, if his footsteps leave a muddy trail as he walks forward, face grim, past He Tian and into the elevator.

He wonders, vaguely, if he’ll be watered down and smeared onto the walls as He Tian pushes a button, closing the doors with a guttural groan, and they begin to descend, the elevator jutting into motion and Guan Shan presses back against the handrail for a false sense of stability.

They ride in silence. He Tian faces forward, hands in pockets, and Guan Shan’s eyes are trained on his back. His mind races and stumbles faster than he can keep up with, and as the elevator trembles downwards, he decides it’s better to not think at all. He’s here and he’s stuck and he’s already come this far so why reflect on it now?

He can’t help but wonder if He Tian is telling himself the same thing, too.

The elevator jolts to a stop. The doors grate open. Outside, the lighting consists of nothing but standard emergency lights, but He Tian walks into the shadows with an unparalleled familiarity. Following, Guan Shan gets the impression that the man might belong to the darkness and its obscurity.

The elevator feeds into a similar hallway as the one they had just came from, but large double doors to their right are illuminated by dimmed lights. The two approach them, basked in soft yellow light as He Tian uses the same keycard to activate the second scanner on the wall. It beeps with recognition and flashes green, and He Tian and Guan Shan step back as the doors turn open, slow and deliberate, and Guan Shan frowns.

“You have to wait like this every time you come down here?” he asks.

“No,” He Tian answers, tucking away his card. “This is one of the side entrances for the staff directly above us. It’s always open during the day. The main entrance is open twenty-four seven.”

And Guan Shan doesn’t need to ask why they’re entering through a side door, given that a facility as complex and vital as the Shatterdome probably has extra security measures that even He Tian can’t bypass at the main entrance at this time of night. But the thought dissolves when the doors slide open, a gust of cool breeze ruffling his clothes as the air rushes through the doorway, and as Guan Shan blinks to protect his eyes from the chill, he looks up as He Tian walks forward and—

Holy shit.

Guan Shan’s steps stutter.

Past the doors, He Tian looks over his shoulder. “Coming?”

“You’re shitting me,” Guan Shan replies. But he walks forward, legs feeling stiff, and he feels like he’ll fall through the grates in the platform as he joins He Tian at the railing, overlooking the vast dome, and it’s—

It’s—

“You’re shitting me,” Guan Shan says again, throat feeling tight, and his hands grip the rails as he takes in the expanse of the Shatterdome — the machinery, the platforms, the lights, the endless maze of technology and supplies and crates and and floor levels and vehicles. It’s almost too much to take in at once; almost too much for his eyes to comprehend, flickering here and there without knowing where to focus. The roof of the dome stretches impossibly high, geometric patterns of windows showcasing the distant black sky in patches. There are blinking lights in every corner, every stretch of wall, and bright fluorescent spotlights illuminate even the darkest recesses of the dome, revealing cranes and maintenance ladders and resting areas.

Predictably there are no people, but he can only imagine what the place looks like during working hours. A beehive, He Tian had said, and that was just in the research wing. Compared to that, this would be a fucking infestation of bees, of wasps. This would be everything Guan Shan ever thought it could be.

There’s a wall to his left, blocking his line of sight, but he takes in the other half of the dome in a quiet, trembling awe. It’s a jungle of metal and concrete and symbols he doesn’t know what to make of, and he almost feels sick from the extensive size of it all when a beaming blue light suddenly catches his attention, and his eyes are drawn up to stare at something beyond his rational state of mind.

Photos — news, broadcasts, videos — don’t even begin to compare to this.

“Hydra Chrome,” He Tian says. His voice is barely a ripple in Guan Shan’s consciousness as the latter takes in the massive build of the Jaeger, a chill running up his spine. Even in the limited lighting, the glossy coating of the Jaeger’s bulk reflects every ray of light in the dome, warping the colors in its colossus stature. There’s a tint of blue to its design, and Guan Shan feels as though he has to tear his gaze away from its scuffed and battle-worn armor like he’s ripping his tongue from a frozen pole, and his eyes swing across the Shatterdome, faltering, like he’s afraid to face what he will inevitably see. What he needs to see.

To the right of Hydra Chrome, hidden by construction cranes and platforms, is another Jaeger. The overwhelming familiarity of its dark green frame, its short stature, its faded chestplate symbol that he saw etched into the metal of matching dog tags dangling from pale necks — Kappa Strike.

His eyes swing.

To the left of Hydra Chrome, shrunk back into darkness, lurks yet another Jaeger. Its pale yellow visor seems to stare back at him, its angular head resting atop heavy-weighted shoulder plates. There’s a dark tint to its silver color; scrapes and dents and gashes mark its exterior like stripes on a tiger. Its bulkiness is more defined than the other two, and it takes a long moment for Guan Shan to sort through the jumbled information in his head, grasping for sense, but then a blue light flashes next to the Jaeger’s head and the reflection sparks his memory: Silver Rogue.

All three of Hong Kong’s — China’s — Jaegers. Here.

His eyes drop to his grip on the railing. He swallows.

“You look paler than usual.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Guan Shan grinds out. “I wasn’t— expecting this.”

He feels He Tian look at him. “I told you we were going to the Shatterdome.”

And yes, Guan Shan knew that. But this isn’t looking at a photograph. This isn’t watching a shaky YouTube video of a distant Kaiju battle. This is, without preparation, the full view of the largest weapons of mankind right in front of him, tangible, and the naked reality of it is — crushing. Suffocating. Something mixed between awe and skepticism and it makes him feel sick.

He Tian takes a step away from the railing.

“We’re going this way,” he says, and Guan Shan looks up at him with hard eyes.

“Why?” he asks. He can’t help it. The weight of their situation has hit him in full force and he’s not quite sure they should be roaming around the Shatterdome if they can avoid it. He’s not quite sure he’s the type of person who should be allowed this view.

But He Tian ignores the caution in his voice. “I haven’t shown you what we came here for.”

It worms into Guan Shan’s gut like a parasite. Slowly, he releases the railing.

“What more is there to see?” he asks, voice tight, and He Tian answers by popping a brow, turning, and walking further down the platform, his shoes clanging against the metal. Guan Shan presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth and follows.

The soft blue lights on the platform’s floor illuminate their legs as they follow the path, slowly but surely trailing the expansive perimeter of the Shatterdome. Guan Shan’s gaze flickers back and forth to read the signs on the walls detailing procedures and equipment, and his fingers trail the cold metal of the railing as they make their way around the dome. Looking over the edge of the platform, he guesses they’re on the third-highest level in what seems to be a five-level high building.

Yet the Jaegers — of which his eyes can’t help but drift back to as if it were a sin — tower nearly three times the height over the highest level. Even Kappa Strike, the shortest of the three Jaegers, seems to mock the size of the dome as it stretches upwards; higher than any building he’s seen in the city.

It’s surreal, at best.

He Tian stops walking when they’ve nearly circled the entire dome. Willing the uneasy sinking in his chest to subside, Guan Shan follows suit. Leaning forward on the rail, forearms supporting his weight, He Tian faces inwards towards the dome. Naturally, Guan Shan follows his gaze.

And he does a double take.

“That,” He Tian says, “is what we’re here for.”

Guan Shan blinks — and blinks again. But it doesn’t disappear. It isn’t a mirage produced from the tired glaze in his eyes. And he feels disoriented, because knowing your country’s Jaegers is the modern day equivalent of knowing your country’s government leader — and yet this one-armed, lean, deep crimson, fourth Jaeger stares back at him, accusatory, and Guan Shan’s throat clicks dryly as he swallows because there isn’t a fourth Jaeger representing China. There’s only three. Three, and they’re here.

But the evidence is undeniable.

He says, slow, “Four.”

“Four,” He Tian affirms. His voice sounds dense in the open air. “Four, as of six years ago.”

The statement, though blunt in nature, startles him.

“Six years?” Guan Shan parrots, turning to look at him. “This was— This Jaeger has been sitting here for six years?”

There’s a tight press of He Tian’s lips. His eyes scan the fourth Jaeger across the dome, adamant on avoiding Guan Shan’s incredulous look.

“Originally, it was only supposed to be three years,” he answers. “They’ve been designing and constructing this Jaeger for about eight years in total. Everything just… ran behind schedule.”

Guan Shan’s gaze sweeps back to the Jaeger. Its build is too thin to describe as bulky, yet too armored to describe as lanky. The deep ruby hue of its exterior seems to absorb both the shadow and the light, polished and untouched by battle scars unlike its three companions. He can see the open door of which he and He Tian entered right beside it, and there’s a part of him that refuses to believe that they had been separated from the massive Jaeger by only a mere cement wall, out of sight. But the distraction is only momentary. His eyes return to the Jaeger and focus on the empty gap where a second arm should be, throwing its structure off balance, and Guan Shan frowns.

“They’re really behind schedule if they’re not even done building the damn thing,” he says, but He Tian shakes his head.

“They are done. But they’ve had the extra time to make adjustments and upgrades, so they took the opportunity while they could.”

Guan Shan’s brow furrows. Extra time? Enough ‘extra time’ to remove the totality of the Jaeger’s limb? Enough ‘extra time’ to forget they have an entire country to inform of the emergence of a new weapon? Guan Shan isn’t exactly on the edge of his seat to be up to date on every Shatterdomes’ activity — but a new Jaeger? That would make international news faster than he could reach over to turn off the television.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Guan Shan replies, skeptical. “How much extra time could you possibly fucking have in the middle of this damn war?”

He Tian turns to look him. His hands hang limply over the railing, fingers woven into each other. His eyes search for something as he answers, “About two years.”

There’s meaning behind the words. Guan Shan hangs in the silence, a thick confusion clouding his mind as He Tian watches him, waiting, and maybe Guan Shan is waiting, too, for something that will never come — when, suddenly, the flat look in He Tian’s expression brings him back to the night at the lab. A voice rings.

He Tian has been looking for a partner for over two years now.

“Don’t tell me,” Guan Shan scoffs, halfway between disgust and disbelief. “You’ve got to be— this is fucking ridiculous. You’ve been— This Jaeger was made for you — for you — at least, what did you fuckin’ say, six years ago? Seven? That’s— how old were you?”

It’s a jumble of words but He Tian doesn’t seem amused by his struggle. Instead, he inhales, slow and deliberate.

“Fifteen, when it was verified for battle,” He Tian says, tone level. “But that doesn’t matter. By law, I wasn’t eligible until I was eighteen.”

“I don’t— That’s not the point,” Guan Shan shoots back. “How fucking long have you been here? I thought you were—”

He stops. Fumbles for words.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t fucking know.”

After a moment, He Tian hums. Makes a face. “You thought I was a recruit.”

Guan Shan exhales sharply, rubbing at his nose. “Yes— I mean, what else am I supposed to think? Obviously you’re not a fucking normal recruit, but that,” he makes a jerked motion towards the crimson Jaeger, standing like a soldier in the distance, “that’s beyond abnormal. That’s something you need to — need to tell me.”

He Tian gives him an odd look. “Tell you?” he repeats. “What difference would it have made?”

Guan Shan feels like he’s choking. He tears off his hood, damn his hair, and snaps, “I don’t know. I don’t know. But you think it’s perfectly normal for you to just spring on me that you’re straight from the fucking bloodline of this Shatterdome? That you’re a goddamn purebred of this entire process, and that Jaeger was made entirely for you ? I know I said groomed, but this is just—”

“I don’t understand,” He Tian cuts in. “What the hell were you expecting? And— what does it matter? A pilot is a pilot.”

“A pilot chosen after they’re legally eligible and have been trained as a recruit is different than someone who’s been fucking planted in this program since they were fifteen,” Guan Shan argues. “Probably even younger than that, right? You only said the damn Jaeger was done being built when you were fifteen.”

“Being in this program has always been my plan,” He Tian says. “These were just my circumstances. I don’t know why you’re so fucking fixated on this.”

Circumstances? Guan Shan sets his jaw. There’s a danger here, but he snaps, demanding, “Who the fuck are you?”

It’s a question not entirely unfounded. He Tian straightens, hands untangling as he pulls off the railing.

“I’m not a recruit,” he says. “But I’m not far off from your situation, either. I didn’t have a choice. This Shatterdome, this program — This is what I’ve known, whether that’s for better or for worse. My father probably had a plan laid out for me before I could even walk.”

Guan Shan’s brow screws up. “Your father? Why the hell would he care what you do?”

He Tian gives him a flat, empty look. It bores into Guan Shan’s core, and he gets the fleeting sensation that he’s missing something that He Tian is clearly trying to convey.

“What?” Guan Shan demands. A shake of the head.

“My father is not the same as yours, Red,” He Tian says, dull but confident, and Guan Shan feels that awful hollow feeling cave in his chest despite his best efforts to keep it sturdy.

“You don’t know my father,” he grits.

“But I know mine,” He Tian says, eyes flashing up to meet his. “Believe me when I say he’s not the same version of the person you see on screen.”

Guan Shan scowls. “No, I don’t believe you. He looks fucking dull on screen, and it didn’t look like he was jumping for fucking joy when he saw our scans, either.”

Time freezes. The look that flashes across He Tian’s face is dangerous, if not startled, quick and cutting like shattered glass. Guan Shan’s defenses are raised as He Tian processes his words, his eyes running across Guan Shan’s face as if he doesn’t think he heard him correctly.

“You,” He Tian says, voice low, “met my father?”

Guan Shan only looks at him. “Yes,” he says slowly, “I did. And you were there, too.”

He Tian looks stiff. “No, I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were,” Guan Shan shoots back. “Unless I was fucking hallucinating, you were there.”

“When was this?”

“Like, two days ago, in the lab,” he answers a little sharply. “Are you okay right now? What the fuck is your problem?”

But He Tian doesn’t waver. “Guan Shan, I was never in the same room with you and my father—”

“Yes, you were! What the hell are you talking about? It was you and me and Qiu and those other two guys and He Cheng!”

Silence drops like a stone in a river. He Tian looks at him, frighteningly still, and Guan Shan feels the frustration knotted in his chest. The two standoff.

And then something glints in those dark eyes. Shimmers. He Tian looks away, turning his head to the side, and it’s not until Guan Shan looks closer that he sees the quiet upturn of the man’s mouth, hidden in the shadows cast across his face.

Unbidden, heat floods Guan Shan’s neck.

“What?” he snaps, but He Tian doesn’t look at him. He only makes a vague gesture, noiseless, and uses that same hand to rub at his nose in a poor attempt to conceal the beginnings of a grin splitting his lips.

“Nothing,” he says. Guan Shan bristles.

What, you fucker?”

He Tian clears his throat. “Nothing,” he repeats, tongue running over his smiling lips. There’s humor in his voice, adding fuel to the fire of Guan Shan’s skin. “Just— He Cheng is not my... father.”

Guan Shan finds it hard to swallow. He growls, “But your names—”

“Brothers,” He Tian interjects. “We’re brothers, not— How long did you think…?”

Guan Shan feels like he’s been set ablaze, the warmth of his face reaching the tips of his ears. He clenches his jaw as He Tian looks at him, a faint glitter in his eye. Amused.

“What the fuck was I supposed to think?” he snaps, defensive. “If it’s not He Cheng, then who is your damn father?”

He Tian tilts his head, just slightly. The smile falters, just slightly.

“Would you believe me if I said the Marshal?” he answers.

And suddenly it makes sense. Suddenly, Guan Shan can see the same sharp features and low tone and stoic expression that he has seen reflected on an older face, atop broader shoulders that are decorated with pins showcasing rank. Suddenly, He Tian isn’t just a product of farmed pilot potential. He’s an heirloom; a legacy of not only a reputable Shatterdome, but also its highest-ranking official.

Guan Shan runs a hand through his hair, mouth feeling dry.

“This is fucking crazy,” he mutters.  

“I would’ve thought you already knew this.”

Guan Shan’s lips press together. “I don’t watch the news. And I sure as hell don’t sit around and gossip, either.”

“Is it gossip, or common sense?” He Tian asks — and the rational side of Guan Shan’s brain knows he’s right because how could anyone forget the name of their Shatterdome’s Marshal and not connect the dots from the moment they laid eyes on the He brothers — but Guan Shan almost has the mind to strike that smile straight off He Tian’s mouth and spare what remains of his pride.

Recognizing the hard look behind the redhead’s flushed face, He Tian backs off. “Okay, fine. I won’t mention this again, for your sake.”

“Don’t,” Guan Shan warns in affirmation, and that’s that. He exhales, hoping to let the heat in his face escape, but he knows it’s a futile endeavor. From head to toe he’s a hot fucking mess, but maintaining his image isn’t exactly his biggest concern at the moment. Instead, his attention is pulled as He Tian sighs and returns to his relaxed position on the rail, muscles slackened.  

“Well,” He Tian says, “I would’ve known if you met my father, anyway. It would have been… memorable.”

Guan Shan lets that hang between them. It’s a landmine he’s not sure he wants to take his chances with. He swallows, and says, “And even with all of that — whatever that is — considered, you still…”

He wonders how to put it. How to maintain this steady barrier between them.

“… You still think us, piloting, is the best option?” he finishes.

“You’re my only option.”

It’s like the sentence, spoken into existence, places an invisible weight on He Tian’s shoulders. His eyes train on his hands.

“And, no, before you say anything: I’m not settling,” he continues. “I’ve waited two years, almost three. I could go longer if I had to. But— this could work if we give it the chance. This could work if you give me the chance. I know it will.”

Guan Shan shakes his head. “It’s not just a fucking chance, He Tian, if I’m putting everything on the line. I have work. I have family. I have a life I left behind for this shit because I didn’t have a choice. And no, you don’t understand that, because everything you have is here and, apparently, it always has been.”

“You’re right. I don’t understand.” His head tilts to face him. His face is blank. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to, or at least— compromise on this.”

Guan Shan chews the inside of his cheek. “Those are empty fucking words. How could you possibly compromise on something like this?”

“I can’t, after a certain point. But until then, you’re not a fucking prisoner to this Shatterdome. You won’t be killed if you decide to drop out later down the line. You have options.”

Guan Shan shifts his weight, stuffing his hands in his hoodie. There’s something in him losing shape, like cracking ice in a cup slowly filling with water, and he’s not sure how to repair it. He’s not sure what to make of it. To a certain degree, he’s not even sure if he’s the one qualified to fixed it.

A part of him wonders if it was meant to be broken to begin with.

“Then give me my options,” he says.

He Tian’s throat works. Something shifts in his eyes and, for a moment, he looks a little lost. Caught off guard. But it disappears as quickly as it came.

“How much time do you have left in your draft requirement?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Guan Shan says. “It’s February, so— four months?”

Surprise crosses He Tian’s face. “They keep you ‘til June?”

“Or longer. They said it depends on where you’re assigned and the demand there, or they’ll end up hiring you and you stay as long as necessary.” He pauses. “Shouldn’t you… know this?”

He Tian makes an uninterested sound. “I never paid attention to recruiting season. Unless my father made a deal out of it, it had nothing to do with me.”

“Until now.”

He Tian meets his gaze. “Until now,” he agrees.

He Tian straightens and leans back against the railing. Absentmindedly, his knuckles rap against the wire barrier between him and his three-story-high plunge towards death. After a long moment, he seems to make up his mind. Seems to solidify whatever image he has in his head.

“Train with me,” He Tian says, “until the end of your draft.”

Guan Shan’s brow furrows. “Train?”

“Pilot training. We’ll tell He Cheng and Qiu and whoever else that you agreed, but you only have to stay until your draft ends. That way, you avoid getting assigned to some shitty unit and I have four months to convince you to stay. Everyone’s a winner.”

The sincerity is palpable. Guan Shan runs his tongue over his teeth.

He says, rumbled, “Your chances are low.”

“I know,” He Tian huffs. “But it’s a chance I’m not going to just let walk by.”

“And when the four months are up?”

“You can stay, or you can fuck off if you want to,” he answers. “I won’t stop you. But you’ll be leaving me to deal with my brother’s batshit meltdown in the aftermath.”

Guan Shan rolls his eyes. “Oh, boo-fuckin’-hoo,” he counters. “That won’t be my fault. You better remember that you had a choice in this, too.”

“Fine. I’ve made mine.” He Tian searches Guan Shan’s face. He asks, “So what’s yours?”

It’s a moment suspended on a string; a tightrope. Guan Shan can feel it cutting into his feet, drawing blood with every little movement. And there should be no reason why he feels this apprehension, this constricting feeling as He Tian watches him, quiet, waiting. But he does. And his mind jumps from one thought to another like a startled deer, incapable from focusing and thinking rationally whilst under that gaze but desperately trying to do so regardless.

And He Tian waits. He waits. He’s placed the controller in Guan Shan’s hand and said, “Go,” because there’s nothing more he can do to determine the outcome of this game of cat and mouse. There’s nothing more he can say. If the facility can’t force Guan Shan to stay, neither can He Tian, and the quiet submission of that fact is dwelling in the shadows of his eyes. Guan Shan soaks in it.

He thinks of his mother. He thinks of the Jaeger across the dome. He thinks of Bryan Lendon. He thinks of his father.

This war isn’t lost, Guan Shan.

It is, Guan Shan thinks. It is, and he’s counting his days as they speak. It is, and his father is living — dead — proof. It is, and nothing he does in the next three months will change that.

It is, Guan Shan thinks, and he hates the fucking futility of everything that can and has ever been done to prevent it.

What are you doing here, Mo Guan Shan?

You’re asking the wrong fucking person.

This war is lost.

“Okay,” Guan Shan says. His voice is low. Barely audible. Almost sounds foreign. His eyes have fallen to the floor. “Four months.”

The words are thick in his mouth. Guan Shan swears he can hear the hum of the machinery around them. Swears he can feel the dull thud of his heart. He Tian, rested against the rail, scans him. Frozen like he’s captured in a polaroid; stoic.

And then He Tian moves. It’s slow at first, like dragging through honey. And Guan Shan hardly has the chance to glance up before there’s a spark, a flash of movement — his nerves alight with a burst of sensation as a hand runs through his short hair, quick, his head pulled back gently with the gesture, and he swats away the touch almost as soon as it makes contact, wide eyes shooting up to look at He Tian. Accusatory and wary and, above all, surprised.

“Right,” He Tian says as if recalling something, and Guan Shan can see the faint remnants of a smile on his mouth as his hand draws away. His expression is void of any form of apology as he continues, “No touching.”

Guan Shan’s jaw feels tight. Feels like a child who just had their toy snatched by the whiny, spoiled kid on the playground. He Tian watches him for a moment more before walking forward, maintaining the distance between them as he passes Guan Shan and retraces their steps. Wetting his lips, Guan Shan turns and trails him.

“No one has to know,” He Tian says amidst the quiet taps of their shoes. Guan Shan thinks he imagines the steadier, surer sway in He Tian’s gait. “This is between us. Strictly a four month deal. But act… neutral, at least.”

“I know,” Guan Shan mutters. He wonders, really, if he does.

But He Tian leaves it at that. And when they return to the elevator, the heavy groan of the doors closing in front of them, Guan Shan feels the weight of his tired eyes sink in his face.

What are you doing here, Mo Guan Shan?

He thought he had an idea before. He thought the draft was his one-way ticket in and out of this system. But here, now, with He Tian

He couldn’t answer even if he wanted to.

 


 

[Delivered to He Cheng — Today, 12:18 AM]

Guess who I just saw wandering around the dome?

 

[Received from He Cheng — Today, 12:18 AM]

Don’t tell me.

 

[Delivered to He Cheng — Today, 12:19 AM]

I wasn’t aware your brother has friends. How nice...

 

[Received from He Cheng — Today, 12:20 AM]

He doesn’t.

Red hair?

 

[Delivered to He Cheng — Today, 12:21 AM]

Bright red. Beautiful.

 

[Received from He Cheng — Today, 12:23 AM]

Fucking christ, He Tian.

 

Chapter Text

The reaction — or lack thereof — is as much as He Tian expected.

They face each other on opposite couches, murmurs of the Shatterdome’s morning activity muffled by the walls. It had been a gamble to come to the pilots’ dorm so early. Jian Yi had looked both surprised and suspicious in equal parts when he opened the door to He Tian’s telling smirk, and a greeting fell flat between them. Instead, fumbling behind the dorm’s bathroom door gave away Zheng Xi’s whereabouts, and He Tian had simply pushed past the blonde without much more than a flippant, “Morning,” before making himself at home on the worn cushions.

For as unexpected as his visit was, he earned a considerable amount of resistance. It’d taken three minutes to quell Jian Yi’s protests and two extra minutes to get him to sit down, shut up, and yes, I know it’s early but listen and I’ll leave faster, dumbass . And as Jian Yi huffed and hugged a pillow to his chest and tilted his head, grumpy yet expectant, He Tian wondered how in the hell he thought he owed it to these idiots to tell them first.

But it paid off.

Now, quiet, Jian Yi only blinks. The cobwebs are dusted away and he opens his mouth to say something — and then shuts it. It’s comical, almost. Like watching a fish gasping for water, silent yet troubled, and He Tian waits as his words process behind the wire-rimmed glasses that have begun to slide down Jian Yi’s nose in his idle state.

There’s a part of He Tian that wonders if it’s too early for Jian Yi’s mind to wrap itself around something like this — but another part of him revels in the quiet malfunction on the pilot’s face; the wariness in those pale eyes asking, Are you fucking with me right now? — and He Tian only responds with an upturn of his mouth: You tell me.

The moment, though sluggish, passes between them in silence. But the silence doesn’t last.

They only get the rattle of a doorknob in warning before the bathroom door slams open, shaking the walls.

“He what?” Zheng Xi demands from the doorway, toothbrush hanging from his mouth. He Tian only makes an exasperated sound in response, throwing Jian Yi a look.

“You couldn’t let me tell him myself?” he asks, flat.

“I didn’t — I mean, yeah, dude,” Jian Yi stammers, having found his voice again. He makes a grand, helpless gesture and runs a hand through his hair, rattled. “Yeah. You can’t just say something like that and then expect to me control our drift and, besides, this is a — a big fucking deal.”

He Tian makes a face. Zheng Xi starts to say something, stops, and then shakes his head in disbelief before craning his neck around the corner to spit out into the sink. Discarding his toothbrush, Zheng Xi wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and folds his arms, expectant.

“How?” he asks, gaze intense. “And when, and — why?”

A grimace. “The hell kind of question is that?”

“A valid one, actually,” Zheng Xi counters, sharp. “Last we heard, you two were at each other’s throats. Worse, even. And now you’re — now he’s — agreed to pilot with you? How the hell does that work?”

It sounds like an accusation. He Tian frowns and says, “Christ. I thought this would be more of a,” he makes a vague motion, “celebratory occasion. You act like I murdered someone.”

“Right, sorry,” Zheng Xi says dryly. “I forgot the balloons and the Congrats, You’re Fucked When Cheng Finds Out cake in the hallway.”

As the two exchange cold looks, Jian Yi makes a puzzled face.

“Cheng doesn’t know yet? How do you know that, Xixi?” Jian Yi asks. And then he backpedals — holds up a hand before anyone can respond, shaking his head as if to sort the jumbled mess in his brain. “Actually, wait, before that: When, exactly, did Redhead agree to all this?”

“Last night, after his training,” He Tian answers, kicking his feet up on the coffee table littered with cans and used napkins. He pushes aside a crumpled chip bag and adds, noncommittal, “I took him out to the Dome.”

The reaction is predictable; it’s like a splash of cold water. Something flatlines, and neither Jian Yi nor Zheng Xi move, caught in wax as they wait for an explanation that never comes. He Tian only watches, and waits.

And then Zheng Xi closes his eyes, slow, fingers rubbing at the bridge of his nose while Jian Yi wheezes a laugh, head falling back on the couch with a shocked amusement.

“You’re fucked,” Jian Yi huffs, a shit-eating grin stretching his face. He shakes his head, messy bun splayed across the cushion. “God, He Tian. Forget everything else — Cheng is gonna mount your head above the fireplace when he hears that.”

“If Qiu doesn’t get to you first,” Zheng Xi adds, feeling a headache coming on because, really, he isn’t surprised. He isn’t shocked that He Tian brought an unauthorized civilian to the Shatterdome and did — said — god knows what about the program. He is, however, already loathing the extensive safety and security lecture they’ll all receive once the higher-ups catch wind of this — but Zheng Xi only feels a warm amusement in response to his irritation across the drift and, not for the first time, he both resents and admires Jian Yi’s careless nature.

“They don’t have to know,” He Tian says, fingers drumming a steady rhythm against the couch’s arm. “We only walked around, and it was past working hours anyway.”

It comes off as nonchalant — but he keeps his tone flat, a low note of warning behind it, and Jian Yi smiles in response.

“Relax, we’re not snitches,” he assures in good spirit. “I couldn’t care less what you two did. Obviously, something worked. But I’m just saying, I totally wanna be there to witness how it goes down when you tell Chrome.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” He Tian scoffs and Jian Yi’s brows furrow in protest. He Tian only gives him an empty look, unwavering. “No, idiot. This isn’t some kind of display we’re putting on. It’s going to be hard enough as it is without you stirring Qiu up from the sidelines.”

Jian Yi makes a face. “What? I won’t —”

“But you’re telling them today, right?” Zheng Xi cuts in. Disgruntled, Jian Yi grumbles something beneath his breath but goes quiet when Zheng Xi shoots him a look. Lips twisted, the latter turns back to He Tian and continues.

“I mean, sooner is better than later at this point. Not to say you’ll be in the Jaeger anytime soon, but the clock’s intervals have been shortening.” He pauses, and adds, “Are you going to bring Guan Shan with you?”

He Tian hums, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I don’t really have a choice, do I? I doubt Cheng’ll believe me if I just walk in and say he agreed. But they can’t argue a damn thing if they hear it directly from Guan Shan himself.” He shifts on the couch and exhales. “The only real problem is getting Guan Shan to tell them.”

A pause.

“But I thought you said he already agreed,” Jian Yi says.

“He did. But it’s one thing to tell me, and another thing to publicize it for everyone else to hear.”

It rings with truth and, for a moment, the reality caves in. How long ago had it been, back when Kappa Strike first debuted? Zheng Xi chews on the memory for a long moment — and, predictably, nothing about it tastes sweet. Too much training and publicity and failing clouds the nostalgia, and with a quiet acceptance he realizes that there’s a reason why he doesn’t think of those days often anymore.

“You think he’ll flake?” Zheng Xi asks. To his surprise, He Tian brushes off the question with ease.

“No,” he says, dismissive. “He’ll stick to his word, at least for a while.”

Jian Yi scoffs. “Yeah, sure, until he realizes that piloting is more than looking pretty in the Jaeger. No one warned me, at least. I bet you didn’t tell him that he has to do all of the s—”

“It’ll be fine,” He Tian says, airy, and Jian Yi shrugs offhandedly, leaving it for the future to handle. But Zheng Xi doesn’t miss the sharp edge — the rigid tone in He Tian’s response — and he glances up at him with quiet interest.

Only now, looking closely, can Zheng Xi see the faint darkness beneath He Tian’s eyes — the wrinkled state of his t-shirt, the free-floating strands of hair out of place, the negligible fidget of fingers longing for a cigarette. He cocks a brow.

What is it?

Nothing.

He Tian continues on, unaware.

“Dumping all of that on him at once would’ve been completely counterproductive,” he says. “We’ll have to move little by little. And yes, that’ll take time, so don’t go running your big mouth and setting everything back even further.”

Jian Yi smirks. “Geez, you act like I have no self control. I’m insulted.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You have the impulse of a six year old. Drifting must be a damn nightmare between you two.”

Jian Yi rolls his eyes. “Whatever. You couldn’t handle my mind anyway, you ass.”

“Yeah, you’re right. My brain would probably short circuit from being hooked up to something so small.”

A pillow is hurtled between them and He Tian catches it easily before impact. Undeterred, Jian Yi flips him off. “I hope Cheng delivers your ass on a platter.”

And He Tian only gives him a smug look, tossing the pillow aside as he pushes off the couch, climbing to his feet. He pulls out his phone and checks the time.

A quarter ‘till nine o’clock. Cheng and Qiu should be up by now and, hopefully, in the mood for an inevitably volatile discussion. He grimaces.

“I should go,” He Tian says, pocketing his phone and heading for the door. “Don’t tell anyone yet, except for — well, you know. Just use common sense. And look forward to a Chrome meltdown.”

“We’ll be sure to act surprised,” Zheng Xi says as he steps back into the bathroom, the tap rushing to life once more. Jian Yi gives a lazy half-salute before flopping backwards, sinking back into the cushions with his lanky legs sprawled out.

And there’s something comforting about the moment, like a bridge between yesterday and today’s realities. Like nothing fundamentally changed; like nothing will change. And it’s shown in the way Jian Yi is slumped on the couch in his PJ’s, scrolling through his phone with his chin tucked in, and Zheng Xi is back to brushing his teeth, probably thinking about He Tian’s situation, sure, but also about breakfast and the clock and their upcoming meetings and their workout regimen, and somehow, someway, it’s all so—

Reassuring.

No, He Tian thinks as he turns, the door shutting behind him with a thud. He starts down the hall, one foot in front of the other, mouth in a firm line.

No. Nothing is reassured. Nothing is promised. He knows that, really, they’ve only taken the first step down a long and winding road.

Four months.

That’s it.

Well, so be it.

He turns the corner and starts towards the nearest fire exit, fingers drumming against the pack of cigarettes in his pocket.

 


 

“Hey, you alright there?”

Guan Shan blinks. For a moment, everything feels sluggish. His hand is still hovering beneath the soda machine dispensers, his cup still empty with the exception of a few lone ice cubes. The woman behind him is looking at him curiously, waiting, and Guan Shan quickly shoves his cup beneath the nearest dispenser and fills it halfway with orange juice before shuffling out of the way, breakfast tray in hand.

The food court is always busiest in the mornings. On weekends, recruits typically have until ten a.m. to drag themselves out of bed and fill their stomachs before lectures and training begin. It’s supposed to be refreshing; a gracious break from their usual early morning routines. But, now, Guan Shan only feels groggy, the edges of his eyes heavy as he takes a table in the corner by the full-wall windows. He slumps in the chair, his tray and cup clattering on the tabletop. He’d only had enough energy and patience to prepare a bowl of oatmeal and grab an apple from the fruit baskets, and while it isn’t the most fulfilling breakfast, it’s enough to get him to lunch.

Head in hand, he stirs the oatmeal with distaste, watching the steam rise and dissipate in the morning sunlight. It’s clumpy and runny and he must’ve added too much milk judging by the washed-out color, and soon enough he abandons the bowl in favor of the apple. But it tastes empty on his tongue, the crunch a distant sound, and Guan Shan rubs tiredly at an eye as he chews, languid.

If it weren’t for the exhaustion, the irritation of the early day would have been enough to fuel a fire. He hadn’t gotten much sleep. Or rather, he hadn’t gotten good sleep, try as he did. He’d tossed and turned all night — too hot and then too cold, too alert and then too vulnerable to the darkness. Too powerless to the events of the week and his own restless thoughts.

There’s a level of ludicracy regarding all that has happened, he realized in the dark, staring up at the rustic water pipe that runs across the ceiling of his dorm. There’s something unreal; intangible in a way that is both mesmerizing and puzzling. He’s never been the type to have an agenda laid out, but he’s aware enough to know when things have gone off the rails — and, truly, there could be nothing more discordant than the situation he’s found himself in now.

A shadow crosses the table, fleeting, and he looks out the window to watch a flock of birds in passing.

What was it, Guan Shan wonders, that compelled him to agree to something so half-assed and vague? What was it that he saw in He Tian’s words, in He Tian’s eyes, that so easily infiltrated his common sense? Because, frankly, that’s what it comes down to: a fault in common sense. He’d spent so many years and so many lifetimes watching the downfall of humanity from the comfort of his living room. He’d wasted four years in high school, for a degree that earned him nothing more than bragging rights as he washes dishes in yet another restaurant. And yet never, never did Guan Shan let his mind wander past the realm of what was realistic. What was within reach.

But here, now, is something he can’t put words to. It’s something that makes the hollow feeling in his chest tremble like an avalanche in waiting.

The sunlight burns his eyes, and Guan Shan closes them as he takes another bite of apple.

Four months.

That’s it. That’s all he had agreed to, and that’s all he’s held accountable for.

And then what?

He doesn’t get to finish the thought. He’s shaken — literally — back to consciousness as the table suddenly trembles beneath him, a screech of metal as Guan Shan lifts his head to watch a second person join the table, sliding into the chair opposite of him.

And if Guan Shan wasn’t tired before, he certainly is now.

“Seat’s taken,” the redhead says, guttural, but He Tian only pops a grape into his mouth with an indifference that pricks Guan Shan’s nerves.

“Shame,” He Tian says. He smirks. “For them, I mean.”

Guan Shan leans back in his seat with a grimace, apple clenched in his hand.

“You need something, or are you bored?” he asks dryly.

“I have four months to change your mind,” He Tian answers, setting down his small bowl of fruit. “Something tells me I should start as soon as possible if we actually want to get anywhere.”

Guan Shan scowls. “It hasn't even been a day. ‘S a little overzealous, even for you.”

He Tian looks at him, unimpressed. “Did you need to do something else beforehand?”

A scowl. The lack of response is response enough. Self-assured, He Tian rolls a strawberry between his fingers, and Guan Shan watches the action with a bitter taste accumulating in the back of his mouth. There’s silence for a moment, neither of them not quite knowing where to go from here, and then He Tian bites off the tip of the strawberry and takes his chances.

“You look like you had an interesting night,” he says, knowing, and Guan Shan gives him a look.

“I wonder fuckin’ why,” he deadpans. “I wasn’t told that we’d be walking for five miles, and I couldn’t sleep after being dragged around all damn night.” Careful, his eyes flicker over He Tian’s face. “And apparently, neither could you, asshole.”

Without even having stopped by the bathrooms yet, Guan Shan knows they’re mirror images of one another: heavy eyes, curved shoulders, rough voices. The thought had briefly crossed his mind, but now he can’t help but notice that He Tian looks — worn. A little disheveled, even. The faint smell of cigarettes wafting across the table is far too pungent for so early in the morning.

And He Tian doesn’t even try to deny it. He simply raises his brows, eyes lowered as he plucks a leaf from the top of the berry.

“Well,” he says, and the corner of his mouth turns up in a smirk, “at least the bedhead’s looking better. Almost.”

“Your time is quickly running out.”

“Okay, fine,” He Tian relents, not in the least bit apologetic, and he tosses the half-eaten strawberry back in the bowl. The yawning murmur of the food court fades into the background as He Tian folds his arms, looking up at Guan Shan with a new kind of intent. Guan Shan rolls the apple in his hand, waiting.

“First thing is to announce all of this, officially,” He Tian starts, and Guan Shan frowns in distaste.

“Announce it to who?”

The response is unfavorable. He Tian exhales, sharp, like the question in and of itself is exhausting to think about.

After a moment, he answers, “I’d say we start with Cheng and Qiu, seeing as they’re the head team. Then my — the Marshal. After that I’m sure there’ll be some kind of general Shatterdome meeting — at least for the main staff, and whoever else is relevant enough. There’s probably some specific agenda already laid out, but with this we can try to get a headstart on things.”

“Well that’s fucking convoluted,” Guan Shan responds, mouth twisted. “I can’t just sign some papers and call it good? Why do we have to announce it so many damn times?”

“Because if it wasn’t obvious, this is kind of important, Guan Shan,” He Tian says, pointedly. “We’re introducing an entirely new Jaeger in China, not just its pilots. You can’t just blow over something like this. Whether you decide to stay or not, this is going to be national — international — news.”

Something cold settles in Guan Shan’s gut, and he shifts in his seat.

“You said that this was a four month deal,” he says, low, as if fearing a passerby hearing his words.

“It is,” He Tian affirms. “But either way, this process is inevitable. You’re not stupid; I know you know that people are going to be nosy about this.”

People. Guan Shan knows he’s not talking about the Shatterdome staff.

Annoyance brushed with an uncomfortable apprehension, Guan Shan sighs. “How fuckin’ nosy?”

“Interviews. Pictures. Media blasts,” He Tian lists as though he were talking of the weather, but Guan Shan’s teeth grind with every syllable. He Tian watches him carefully. Says, “As much as you like to pull your hermit card, I know you’ve sat in front of your TV for at least five collective minutes. You already know how this will go down.”

And he’s right, because the truth is Guan Shan does know, but it doesn’t make his response any less immediate and barbed. “I don’t do that kind of shit.”

An empty, breathy laugh. “Well, you’re gonna have to.”

Guan Shan shakes his head, jaw tight. He leans forward, arms resting on the cold tabletop, and clarifies low enough for only the two of them to hear: “No, He Tian. Let me rephrase that: I won’t do that shit. I can’t.”

The moment is thick between them. He Tian searches his face, his eyes a shadowed pit. But Guan Shan doesn’t waver, and something dark crosses He Tian’s face like a retreating wave.

“What do you want me to tell you, Guan Shan?” He Tian asks, steady. “What were you expecting when you agreed to this?”

He swallows a rock. “I don’t fucking know. I don’t know. But you didn’t tell me all of this shit last night.” He scowls. “Conveniently left this part out, didn’t you?”

He Tian’s jaw works. “No, I just didn’t think I had to boil this down to the last grain of salt. I thought this was common sense. Were you honestly expecting to jump headfirst into a Jaeger like some masked hero and everyone in the world would be okay with that?”

Guan Shan’s gaze hardens, nails pressing crescents into the skin of the apple. There’s an incredulity in He Tian’s voice, hardly hidden, and it grates on Guan Shan’s skin like splintered wood because it’s entirely fucking unprecedented. Guan Shan hadn’t signed up to be a public entertainer. He hadn’t signed up to look stiff and pretty in front of the cameras. He hadn’t signed up to be anything more than what he had to be.

Instead, he had agreed to the impossible. He agreed to four months, because a part of him knows what he is and isn’t capable of. He knows the deep, burning scorn the FAILED simulation screens incite in him. He knows he was destined for some shitty receptionist position had he not taken up — taken advantage of — He Tian’s offer.

It’s a give and take; a game of chance. He might have lost the gamble against the draft, but now the dice are in his hands. And he’s not sure where it will take him, much less how to navigate to the end. But this is self-preservation. This is nothing more than the benefits he will reap. Best case scenario, Guan Shan won’t even have to quit at the four-month mark; He Tian will call it off for him after a few painful runs in the Sims.

Guan Shan tells himself that as He Tian studies him, quiet.

“So let’s say I agree to this,” Guan Shan starts, a dark undertone lining his words, “and I make a complete fuckin’ joke of myself on live television for the entire country to mock. Or — even better — I drop off the face of the earth in four months and no one knows what the fuck happened to their beloved pilot until one day they’re ringing up my groceries and put two and two together. Then what, He Tian? What do I do? Say? Better yet, tell me: at what point, exactly, does this four months hold some fucking truth to it?”

There’s an anger there, inflamed, but this time Guan Shan can’t tell if it’s aimed at He Tian or at himself — at the ignorance he had towards the consequences of his own choice. It simmers like red embers, waiting to catch fire. He Tian opens his mouth, a response clearly formed on his tongue — and then, abruptly, he stops. Presses his lips together with an emotion close to scorn. Looks away, out the window, like there’s something more to be found out there than there is here.

The silence passes like morning fog, the clink of dishes and quiet laughter never sounding as loud as it does now. Apple juice runs down Guan Shan’s fingers, and he thinks it stains his skin.

“What, then, Guan Shan?” He Tian answers with a question, his voice gravelly and weighted. Those dark eyes slide to meet Guan Shan’s. A challenge. “Because you’re not wrong. The aftermath will stick, and people are going to know. I won’t feed you lies and bullshit; I won’t waste your time like that. So don’t waste mine.”

It’s cold. The shift in atmosphere is sudden — a flash flood that sweeps the board with vehemence. It’s as though He Tian surfaced from whatever he’d lay beneath, all teasing remarks and steadfast tones lost to something darker, to the cigarette smell that clings to his clothes.

Guan Shan’s intuition has never been so quickly proven correct. He suppresses the cold heat that threatens to rush his chest.

His tongue feels heavy as he shoots back, “The fuck is that supposed to mean?”

He Tian doesn’t blink. “Take it however you want,” he says. “Either way, I’m right.”

Silence follows, hinged on broken potential. And then He Tian’s fingers wrap around his fruit bowl and, somehow, unease billows in Guan Shan’s chest as he realizes He Tian is moving to leave — to plant those final words and get up and walk away from something that Guan Shan hadn’t even realized was here until now.

“What just crawled up your ass?” Guan Shan speaks up, and He Tian stills to look at him. Guan Shan holds the black gaze, relentless. “I’m not sayin’ anything that isn’t a valid fucking concern.”

He Tian shakes his head. “No. These aren’t concerns. This and everything else is just a numbered list of every possible reason why you’ll make this deal fall through and, christ, I don’t have time for this. I’m not so damn clueless that I don’t know a lost cause when I see one, and everything since the Kwoon Room has been pointing to one thing.”

“Everything,” Guan Shan repeats, dry. “Because it’s not like the reason why I’m so fucking tired right now is because of what we’d agreed on last night.”

“Did we though, Guan Shan?” He Tian snaps. “Because if we did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.”

Guan Shan falls back in his chair, a disbelieving huff passing his lips.

“We’d be having this conversation at some point, no matter what we did. But I figured we might as well find some common ground before everything went to shit and we had our thumbs up our asses.”

Guan Shan shifts in his chair, throat working. Adds: “I’m not — I’m not fucking saying it’s impossible. I’m saying I can’t do it. Not now. Not when everything is so damn provisional, because that’ll only lead to more shit that we’ll have to deal with later. Just — relax for half a damn second.” He scoffs. “Because, apparently, there’s a lot of extra shit I’ve signed up for, and I can’t do it all at once. I haven’t had six years to prepare like you have, and I won’t pretend like I have a fucking clue what I’m doing.”

It’s the most straightforward thing he’s told him, Guan Shan realizes. In fact, it’s the most he’ll ever let He Tian know regarding the nauseating, twisted feeling in his stomach when Guan Shan fathoms the idea of piloting. The same twisted feeling he gets when he wakes in a cold sweat, bedsheets sticking to his skin.

He swallows the thought before it can fully formulate, and He Tian works his jaw.  

“I’m not asking that of you,” He Tian says, eyes searching. “I wouldn’t — I won’t just throw you into something headfirst and hope for the best. I can’t, actually. You’re representing the Hong Kong Shatterdome; you’re all of our responsibility. You’re not the only one who’s going to have something hanging over your head if you fuck up.”

The half-assed reassurance falls flat between them.

“Well isn’t that a damn comfort,” Guan Shan mutters.

“It is. It means you’re going to get what you need, no matter what you’re doing.”

The edge to He Tian’s voice has been sandpapered down, replaced with a sense of poise that drifts between them and hooks on the rim of Guan Shan’s attempts to sort the mess in his head, in the tension between what he knows and what he doesn’t but wants to. And he feels borderline insane but he isn’t, because he’s never dared to be so careless when it mattered the most.

Yet ‘careless’ isn’t what this is. Rather, this is his feet slick with blood from the tightline, and he’s teetering and falling and hoping — praying — for something to catch him at the bottom. Blind faith.

“What I need,” Guan Shan says, his voice barely a rumble, “is for the Shatterdome to keep their damn mouths shut when I screw up.”

Something warm settles in He Tian’s gaze. “No promises.”

 


 

Twenty minutes later, He Tian waits outside as Guan Shan freshens up in the bathroom.

The mirrors are streaked with water stains, and as he runs the toothbrush over his teeth Guan Shan stares at his sunken reflection. There’s nothing to be said, nor to be done. He feels disconnected, like the glass is a warped glimpse into a moment that melts into the background, and it’s so distantly unfamiliar. So blatantly distinct in a way that’s unsettling.

He ducks down and spits in the sink.

“Ready?” He Tian asks when Guan Shan emerges, and the latter only gives a grim nod in response. They walk as they normally do, with He Tian taking the lead, only this time there’s a certain sinking in Guan Shan’s chest that causes him to fall half a step behind, dragging weights. He’s not sure how he noticed it, or why. It’s trivial enough to be overlooked, but the unsynchronized pattern of footsteps seems to be thrown back in his face as they travel the halls, quiet.

It’s a quick walk. They’re back in the training wing, which is predictable. Despite the recent excitement that seemed to worm itself inside Guan Shan’s situation, other recruits are still undergoing the same mundane training as they always have, and Cheng and Qiu are still responsible for overseeing it. The world marches on, even if that means leaving Guan Shan behind. In some way, the feeling is familiar.

But despite it all, Guan Shan doesn’t stop to wonder if now is a good time to be bothering the veteran pilots until they’re standing in front of a sliding door and He Tian opens it to a room full of recruits that turn to look at them, curious.

There’s a video playing from a projector, images lighting up the dark room as the narrator drones on. He Tian stands halfway in the doorway as he scans the room. Over his shoulder, Guan Shan can see candidates watching them owlishly, a few of them leaning over to one another to whisper an obvious Who is that? only to receive a shrug in return.

The eyes and silence are disorienting. Pressure pushing down on his shoulders, Guan Shan mutters a quiet “He Tian,” moving to nudge him on the arm and tell him that they should just come back later and not disturb the class — but then He Tian is motioning, waving at someone, and Guan Shan feels a part of him crack as he hears a chair within the room screech with movement.

The approaching footsteps are heavy and dull, and Guan Shan’s eyes focus on the floor as He Tian leans forward to speak to the person.

“I’m in the middle of a lesson, He Tian,” a voice says — Cheng — in a mutter as to not disturb the video.

“I know,” He Tian says. “But I need to talk to you. Now.”

“I don’t have time. Go find Qiu, he’s down the hall.”

He Tian shifts against the doorframe. “I need to talk to you and Qiu. It’s urgent.”

Hidden by both He Tian and the wall, Guan Shan can only listen as He Cheng exhales an irritated sigh.

“You don’t talk to me for days, and now you suddenly need something from me immediately? Is that how things work now?”

“Yeah. I need you to just stand there and fucking listen, if that isn’t too much for you to handle.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“Sorry father, but I —”

“He Tian,” Guan Shan says again, but this time he steps forward, hand falling on a stiff shoulder and his eyes pointedly avoiding the gazes of the intrigued recruits, “We can do this later. Let’s go.”

Both brothers stop. But both brothers also look at him, a dangerous set of dark twin eyes shot through him like arrows, and Guan Shan feels his hackles raise beneath the sudden weight. The moment stretches for what feels like hours — and then He Cheng looks away from him. His gaze slides back to He Tian, lips pressed.

Something unspoken passes between them. Guan Shan feels sweat pricking his palms.

And then He Cheng mutters, “Three minutes,” and the door is suddenly slid shut in front of them with a clack.

He Tian steps back, his mouth a firm line as he leans back against the wall and waits. Agitated and coming down from the panic-incited high, Guan Shan runs a hand through his hair.

“We could’ve just come back,” he says, accusatory. “We didn’t have to — I didn’t know he was literally going to be in the middle of something.”

“What does it matter?” He Tian says, looking up at him. “It was either this or wait until fuck-all when he and Qiu aren’t running around with their heads cut off. Personally, I don’t have the patience for that.”

Guan Shan grimaces. “Is it normally like this?”

“No, just during recruiting season. It’s only every four years but he’s a pain in the ass regardless of recruits being here or not.”

The bitterness to his words suspends in the air, and something must show on Guan Shan’s face because He Tian gives him a look.

He says, “It’s a little too late to be nervous.”

“No,” Guan Shan says, grim. “It’s not that. You’re just — You’re really on fucking edge right now, and it’s really not going to help our damn case if you keep it up.”

He knows it’s a lot, especially coming from him. But that only makes it all the more real.

He Tian blinks. Says, “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You’re ticked off and you just tried to start unnecessary shit at breakfast, too.”

“You tried to start shit.”

“Me? I wasn’t the fucking one who was—”

Guan Shan breaks off, an irritated huff breaking past his lips.

“Forget it. I’m not doing this again.”

He Tian looks away. “Fine by me.”

Guan Shan’s jaw tightens. Fortunately, the following silence between them is short-lived. An echo of footsteps has them both looking up, heads turned to watch Qiu round the corner, expression unreadable as he approaches. None of them have the opportunity to exchange a greeting — What would Guan Shan even say? — because, not a moment later, the classroom door slides back open and Cheng steps out, closing it behind him.

Stepping back, Guan Shan feels his throat tighten.

They watch one another; a square of four mens’ tension strung tight. Predictably, Qiu speaks first.

“It’s barely been a week.”

“It was enough time,” He Tian says, firm.

He Cheng turns to face Guan Shan. “Did he offer you anything?”

“No,” Guan Shan says through cotton. “This was my choice.”

The decree settles like oil on water. He Cheng’s jaw works, and he looks at the floor, at nothing. Guan Shan consciously paces his breathing.

“There’s a part of me that wants to ask how the hell you two made a one-eighty like this overnight,” Qiu says, eyes flickering back and forth between He Tian and Guan Shan, “but another part tells me I won’t get the full answer.”

“The answer doesn’t matter,” He Tian responds. “We just need to know where to go from here, and you’re the only ones who can tell us.”

He Cheng scowls. He shakes his head, and leans back against the door.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he says with a note of warning, “but we seem to be missing something in this damn discussion.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Guan Shan sees He Tian make an amused face that is anything but amused.

“What, brother? Your permission?” he asks, dripping with an ill intent that makes Guan Shan go cold. “God forbid you allow me to take an opportunity when I have one, right?”

Guan Shan’s mind reels. It’s compatible, He Cheng had said, back at the night in the lab. And Guan Shan didn’t know much but he knew resentment and heavy fatigue when he saw it, and the veteran pilot wore it like cologne in that moment. Now, at the foot of the lion’s den, it chokes him like smoke. Guan Shan swallows, heavy.

“I don’t want this to be a fight,” he says before He Cheng can retaliate. Careful, he continues with a steadiness he’s not sure how he’s maintaining. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but I won’t intentionally intrude on something if I’m not wanted there.”

He Tian huffs. “No Guan Shan, the point of the matter is that it doesn’t matter whether Cheng ‘approves’ or not.” His gaze slides to Qiu. “This is ultimately my choice, and I’ve made it.”

Qiu holds his stare. There’s a pointedness to He Tian’s voice that Guan Shan doesn’t understand, but apparently the encrypted message is delivered to Qiu because the pilot exhales and looks at his partner, waiting.

The silence dwells. He Cheng wets his lips, eyes trained on the floor.

“When are you planning to tell father?” he asks, low.

“Whenever the need arises.”

He Cheng shakes his head. “No, He Tian. You will not be lackadaisical about this. That’s my only condition.”

A scoff. He Tian makes an exasperated gesture and says, “He’s a hundred miles away. What do you want me to do? Send it over text?”

“It’ll be better to discuss this in person,” Qiu agrees. “We might as well wait until he returns. But you need to talk to him as soon as he’s back, He Tian.” His gaze hardens. “If Cheng or I end up telling him first, there will be consequences.”

A warning well received. He Tian doesn’t respond, but the intent in Qiu’s tone is far too real to be ignored, and Guan Shan takes a mental note himself in the case that He Tian forgets.

With the boundaries having been set, Qiu looks at his watch.

“I’m done reviewing at four o’clock,” he says, looking up at the both of them. “Meet me in the commons upstairs, at the tables.”

“Until then,” He Cheng adds, gaze pointed to Guan Shan, “attend your lectures.”

Inwardly, a part of him deflates. Outwardly, Guan Shan gives a brief nod. He Tian, on the other hand, doesn’t take it as well and he speaks up without missing a beat.

“Why?” he asks, firm.

“Because if he’s really going to pilot, then the general information won’t hurt him in the long run,” Qiu explains. “It might even save us some time and energy.”

He Cheng pushes off the door. Looks up.

“You asked where to go from here, and we’re telling you,” he says, barbed. And although his next words are really only applicable to Guan Shan at the moment, He Cheng’s eyes fix on He Tian. “Do as you’re told and don’t complain.”

It’s an open invitation for yet another bitter quarrel, but Guan Shan likes to think that the just shut up and let it go look that he shoots He Tian contributes to the gracious — tense — silence that befalls the four men. Finding the conversation’s end, He Cheng gives his brother and Guan Shan one final look before dropping his chin, a dismissal of some kind, and the door thuds behind him as he returns to his lesson.

Immediately, pressure is released like a cap popping off a water bottle. Listening to the muffled drone of the video within, Qiu closes his eyes and releases a long, tired breath through his nose. Resetting.

And then he opens them again and turns to address Guan Shan — only this time, there’s something more open about the pilot’s face. More changed. Guan Shan looks back.

“Welcome to the team,” Qiu says. He looks at He Tian, who remains expressionless. “Both of you.”

And if Guan Shan hadn’t been so out of it, he would’ve been more perceptive of Qiu’s movements as the pilot reaches forward to ruffle He Tian’s hair — an action that the pilot clearly expects to be rejected, if the ghost of a smirk on his face is anything to go off of — and he is rejected, a rough swat of an arm repelling the touch with a keen quickness and a deep scowl. Guan Shan is reminded of the night at the Shatterdome; of long fingers separating his own short curls unbidden. And he frowns at the resemblance, and He Tian is also frowning for a different reason, but Qiu only huffs a laugh before checking his watch once more.

“I have to get back to my group,” he says, backing away. “I expect to see both of you at four. And go to your classes, Guan Shan. I will know if you don’t.”

Strangely, it feels like talking to his mother. And when Qiu disappears around the corner he came from, Guan Shan feels his shoulders fall back, relaxed without the suffocating atmosphere that was so quickly and collectively created within the past ten minutes. Heartbeat coming under control, he turns to look at He Tian and isn’t too surprised to find He Tian already looking back at him.

“Well now you’ve got six hours to burn,” Guan Shan says, a bit scornfully. He checks his phone. “I’ve got to go now, too. I’m already twenty minutes late, and I wouldn’t be too damned surprised if I get in trouble for it.”

“I’ll come with you.”

Guan Shan gives him a twisted look. “To my lecture?”

He Tian pushes off the wall, wandering forward. “Sure. Unless you have any other ideas for me to do in the meantime.”

“Well, what do you usually do?”

“Nothing that’s more exciting than a quality lecture,” He Tian says with an added smile, a bit sarcastic in nature, but Guan Shan can’t help but feel something high-strung within him snap at the sight. He’d be damned if he thought he knew the first thing about He Tian, but he’s beginning to learn. And he knows that there’s certainly something off when the He brothers cross paths; the same kind of off he’d felt at breakfast, albeit only for a moment. And he still doesn’t know — doesn’t understand — what spurs it on, but he knows that the chemistry changes when He Tian is exposed to the toxic chemicals. He can only hope the instability doesn’t come back to burn him.

But, until then, it’s none of Guan Shan’s business. As long as He Tian is himself — whatever himself is — Guan Shan couldn’t be less concerned.

“Let’s go, then,” he mutters, starting back where they came from. Sporting the same plastic smirk, He Tian falls into stride alongside him.

Quiet, their footsteps tap in harmony.

 


 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 10:53 AM]

 I assume you two already know.

 

[Received from Zheng Xi — Today, 10:55 AM]

Yeah

Did he just tell you guys? That was quick

 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 10:57 AM]

He was probably anxious. Acted like the exact same brat as ever, though.

 

[Received from Zheng Xi — Today, 10:57 AM]

If you want to rant about your Big Brother problems, you already have someone inside your head to listen to it

 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 10:59 AM]

No, I don’t. What I want is to establish who is going to tell She Li, and when.

 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 11:07 AM]

 Zheng Xi.

 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 11:12 AM]

 

[Delivered to Zheng Xi — Today, 11:17 AM]

Christ.

None of you even attempt to make my life easier.

 


 

“No, not quite. The calibration is off, see? For this, even the smallest degree matters. It’ll be vital when the weapon is triggered and enters the first stage.”

She reaches over and twists the knob, just slightly, the digital notch sliding into place with an accuracy that renders Zi Qian bright-eyed as she watches.  

“Just like that,” Jian Liu says, sitting back on her heels. A piece of hair falls from her braid, and she brushes it behind her ear as Zi Qian sits up beside her, wiping her hands on her jeans. She sighs.

“This system is much touchier than I thought it would be,” Zi Qian says, quiet, and Liu gives her a reassuring smile.

“Don’t worry; the experience will come with time. It’s a lot to remember, after all. For now, let’s take a break and then we’ll review the regeneration methods in the small capacity cannons.”

Flashing her a grateful smile, Zi Qian nods before pushing to her feet, careful to step over the equipment as she makes her way to the pastel pink backpack in the corner. Liu follows suit, stretching out her back as she stands. Her spine pops once — twice — and christ, it feels like a heavenly relief. Working with the winter trainees is always entertaining to partake in, but their teenage flexibility and energy is something she’s never been able to keep up with without facing some bodily consequences along the way.

Making her way to a nearby stool, Liu settles down for the break and picks up her phone from the oil-stained table. Surprised, her brows furrow as she reads the blinking message on screen.

Two missed calls from: Son

Her confusion is shortly resolved. Across the room, the lab door creaks open, just barely audible over the murmur of scattered technicians and mechanics. Her mouth upturns as Jian Yi — predictably trailed by Zheng Xi — make their way to her with the former offering a small wave in greeting.

“Two calls?” she says when they’re within hearing distance. “What’s that all about?”

“Well, it’s kind of a good thing you didn’t answer your phone because you definitely won’t believe me if I tell you,” Jian Yi says, warm. There’s a note of brightness in his voice, and it gleams in his eyes as he turns to Zheng Xi. “Want to do the honors, Xixi?”

But the question goes unanswered. Glancing from her phone, Zi Qian looks up at the sound of Jian Yi’s voice, and her face turns impossibly bright as she catches sight of her brother beside him.

A bubbly laugh rings in the lab room as she bounds to him, and she’s greeted with a warm embrace that lifts her from the ground, feet dangling as Zheng Xi sways her with the momentum. It’s a moment seen by all, and the sight is warm and soft and reminiscent, almost, because no matter how old Zi Qian gets, her clinginess and affection never fades. A few of the veteran staff in the room can’t help the quiet smiles as they recall the days when Zheng Xi was only eighteen, a newly instated Jaeger pilot wet behind the ears, and Zi Qian fifteen, the loud little sister that wouldn’t stop visiting .

“Geezus, you’re a lot heavier than when you were as a kid,” Zheng Xi teases, releasing her. He fixes a stray hair strand in her ponytail and asks, “How’s it been going so far?”

“Good, kinda,” she replies, warm. “It’s still a lot more complicated than what I studied, but I’m getting better, I think. Why haven’t you visited more, brother?”

“We’ve been busy,” he says, a little apologetic. “Actually, we still are. We were going to stop by yesterday, but—”

“Oh, yeah!” Jian Yi exclaims, and he rummages inside the pocket of his jacket and emerges, triumphant, with a crushed bag of Fritos. He grins. “I got these for you, little Xixi!”

“You carried that around in your jacket all day?” Zheng Xi asks. And then his expression goes flat. “Why am I not surprised.”

Jian Yi ignores him as he approaches the siblings, chips held out like an offering. More than a little amused, Zi Qian accepts it, and Jian Yi’s eyes gleam with pride. Certainly there can’t be anything more than broken crumbs in that mangled bag, but Zheng Xi decides to hold his tongue and instead looks up at Liu, who watches with a quiet mirth.

“We actually do have another reason for coming here, though,” he says. The response is immediate. Liu’s smile falls.

“Did the clock decrease again?” she asks, low, but Jian Yi quickly waves his hands in dismissal.

“No no no, we have good news,” he reassures her. “It’ll definitely make your day. He Tian just told us that—”

Wait, idiot!

Jian Yi cuts off his own words, abrupt and confused and he’s lucky he didn’t bite his tongue. Curiously, Liu looks at him.

What?! You just scared the shit out of me!

You’re being too loud. At least try to be a little more aware. Everyone is listening.

The words are hissed. Discreet, Jian Yi looks around. Sure enough, though their hands are still at work, the surrounding staff have one ear pointed in their direction, entertained by the presence and energy of the newly arrived pilots. Huffing, Jian Yi frowns.

Fine, he moans. What a pain...

I’m just trying to save our asses. He Tian would blow a fuse if we went around telling everyone within a single day of knowing.

“Okay, okay,” Jian Yi yields out loud, and he signals for his mother to come close. A question in her eyes, Liu follows his silent command, leaning in when Jian Yi goes to whisper in her ear.

It only takes a moment. Eyes wide, Liu leans back.

That’s who that was?” she asks, a whispered revelation as she recalls a brilliant flash of red moving amongst the dim lighting of the Dome. Liu frowns. “I had my suspicions, but I didn’t actually think it was…”

Jian Yi and Zheng Xi watch her, puzzled. Emerging from her own thoughts, Liu looks up at the boys.

“What’s their name?” she asks.

“Mo Guan Shan,” Jian Yi answers, quiet. He smirks. “He’s… interesting, in the crazy temperamental sort of way. Kinda. You’ll probably like him, though.”

“He’d better hope so,” Zheng Xi says and earns an amused smile in response.

Shifting on the stool, Liu sighs. “Well, I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t expect anything less for someone like He Tian. He’s a whole package himself.”

“Wait,” Zi Qian suddenly pipes in, turning to her brother. “What’s going on? What are they talking about?”

Zheng Xi only gives her a shrug. “Can’t say.”

An exasperated sigh. “ Really?”

“Really. But when I can, I’ll tell you right away.”

“Fine,” Zi Qian relents, fiddling with the Fritos. Her lips twist. “But it’d better be good if you’re getting my hopes up like this.”

“Honestly,” Jian Yi says, an impish smile gracing his face, “it couldn’t get any better than this, little Xixi.”