At the very second that Seokjin wakes, he coughs harshly into his fist and finds a small fleck of blood on his thumb.
That’s the third time this week.
Now, Seokjin knows he should say something and he knows he needs help, but Seokjin is too proud to admit that to anyone other than himself. It’s probably nothing – Seokjin has always been a sickly child who caught the flu way too many times and somehow got chicken pox twice – so he tells himself that this is probably nothing.
There’s a part of his mind that still feels like it’s connected to his father that, when it becomes Seokjin’s voice of reason, tells him in his father’s voice that this isn’t nothing, that Seokjin stopped being a sickly child when the world stopped being a safe place to live in. These days, Seokjin doesn’t really listen to that voice. He lets it come to him, flow right through him, and then he lets it go.
Because the siren is blasting and it only just starts to register in his mind what it means even though the sound is what woke him and even though he’s become used to this, now. He quickly scrambles out of his bed and finds his co-pilot still asleep in his bed, impervious to the siren. Seokjin picks up his pillow and throws it at him.
“Wake up, Yuuya!” he barks, his sore throat turning his voice into a growl. Yuuya groans and rolls over, and Seokjin hastily pulls on his boots as he watches the realisation settle into Yuuya’s face, as his eyes snap open wide and he, too, jumps out of bed.
“Fuck,” he mumbles as he barely manages to pull on his own boots. Together, they run out of their room, out of the barracks, through the PPDC and to the Drivesuit Room. There are Drivesuit technicians there already, but no one comes to them. There are pilots up ahead, already suited and ready to go. No one comes to Seokjin and Yuuya.
They’re completely ignored.
Yuuya hisses a curse word in Japanese that Seokjin doesn’t understand before he takes off in the opposite direction, but when Seokjin follows after him, dejected but unsurprised, he finds that Yuuya isn’t heading back to the barracks. He’s heading towards the LOCCENT command center where the Jaegers are deployed.
His co-pilot isn’t listening. Seokjin continues to follow after him, his walk turning into a half-jog to match Yuuya’s angry pace. He doesn’t say anything else to try slow him down. He just follows after and hopes to contain whatever bursts out of Yuuya when it finally does.
All the LOCCENT technicians are busy with the deployment of what Seokjin can now see are Obsidian Fairy and Basilisk One. He can feel Yuuya seething besides him as they are ignored.
This is the third time they’ve been pushed to the side, and this time, Yuuya doesn’t hold himself back. He marches right up to Chief LOCCENT officer Zhang, who turns around and doesn’t seem fazed at all at the anger on Yuuya’s face.
“We’re your strongest pilots!” Yuuya shouts. No one apart from Zhang acknowledges them, so Seokjin doesn’t interject. He only reaches Yuuya’s side amidst the organised chaos of the Kaiju detection and the Jaeger deployment. “Why are we never sent out?!”
Zhang sighs like he’s exasperated and too tired to listen to this, as if he’s heard it all before. “You two are strong, yes, but you’re just not clicking well with each other. I don’t think you’re drift compatible.”
“Don’t you think you could’ve told us this earlier?” Yuuya snaps back.
“I would’ve thought you’d know better than anyone,” Zhang replies calmly yet annoyed, as if he wants nothing more than to get rid of Seokjin and Yuuya sooner rather than later. Seokjin doesn’t blame him. “Now, Ranger Kim, Ranger Kiyoshi. I’ve got capable Jaegers to command, we can speak about this later.”
Yuuya curses some more in Japanese and spins on his heel before taking off again, back the way they came. Seokjin quietly follows him out of LOCCENT, through the PPDC, and then back to the barracks.
He flings himself onto his bed, boots still on, and faces the wall. Seokjin perches himself on the edge of his own and watches his partner.
“Guess we should… talk about it,” he sighs lightly.
“Don’t wanna,” Yuuya huffs. “Besides, you’ve been inside my head several times. What use is talking?”
Seokjin’s pillow is on the floor from where he’d chucked it at his partner earlier. He reaches down to snatch it up. Throws it once more. “Of course, there’s a use in talking. Whenever we drift all I see is your gross x-rated memories.”
“Hey,” Yuuya turns around to face Seokjin. “We were told that trying to suppress them makes drifting harder.”
“That might be true, but it doesn’t mean I need to visit every sexual encounter you’ve ever had in your memory. It’s kind of traumatising, if I’m honest.”
“If I had memories of sleeping with men would it be easier for you?”
Seokjin pulls his boot off and throws it at Yuuya. Yuuya deflects the boot with his hand and falls back, head hitting his pillow, and he laughs. He laughs for a second or two, and then he calms down. The laugh fizzles away, the smile on his lips disappears. His face becomes stern and he stares up at the low ceiling of their room.
“I tried really hard, Seokjin. I really did,” Yuuya whispers once all the laughter has drained out of his system.
“I know,” Seokjin replies. And swallows, hard. “I know you did. But I guess this was just… not meant to be.”
“I guess we just… find different co-pilots.”
“That’s going to be hard for you. What is this, your fourth co-pilot?” Yuuya asks, his voice a little louder than it had been, a little more casual and less weighed down with despair. “Do you know how hard I trained to match your strength? It’s no use just being drift-compatible with you. I had to work out a lot to match you, physically. You goddamn tank.”
Seokjin laughs, but he has nothing else to say to that. This will be his fourth time finding a new co-pilot and by this point, Seokjin feels like he’s had enough of it. Like he wants to stop trialling different pilots in the hopes that he’ll be a match with one of them. His second pilot was drift-compatible with him, but the difference in their physiques meant that piloting the Jaeger was off-balance. It was a bust. His third pilot, Kiyoshi Yuuya, matched him physically, but they were barely just compatible. Enough to be paired together for a while, but not enough that they were chosen to be deployed over other pilots.
In theory, Seokjin would’ve matched well with Kim Taehyung – they were drift-compatible and similar in height, so with a little bulking up on Taehyung’s part would’ve seen them as perfect co-pilots, Seokjin thinks, but he can’t deny the chemistry that Taehyung has with his current partner, Park Jimin. Jimin is a little shorter than Taehyung, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in strength. And their compatibility is through the roof – Seokjin’s never seen a connection quite as strong as theirs. They command Obsidian Fairy so well that they’ve slowly become the Nagasaki Shatterdome’s pride. Even Jung Hoseok and Min Yoongi, who pilot Basilisk One, have slowly edged Seokjin out of the ranks.
Would Seokjin find a co-pilot this time? He feels like he’s had too many chances. Most rangers match once with a co-pilot and they stay as co-pilots until they die. In some cases, one will die before the other – usually out of sickness or disease, but in most they die together, fighting until the end, in a Jaeger. Seokjin has had three co-pilots so far. Two of them are still alive.
He feels like that won’t matter, though. He feels like he’s had too many chances. The rest of the world already hates him, thinks of him as a failure, a disgrace, and by now he’s pretty sure the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, who once held him in such high regard, are slowly dwindling in their faith in him.
Nothing’s been the same since twenty-fifteen. Seokjin doesn’t feel any different, though: he’s still the same person he was back then. He still has the same goals, the same resolve. The same drive to do good, to help others, to save others. That hasn’t changed. He still views the world in the same way he did all those years ago, but ever since twenty-fifteen, the world’s view of him has slowly been shifting, shifting, until it’s become so warped that sometimes, when Seokjin feels that darkness creep into his mind in the middle of the night, he starts to believe in that view, too. He might still want to do good, to help others, to save others, but the more the world tells him he’s useless, a failure, a disgrace, the more he lets those words come into his mind.
“No matter what everyone else says about you,” Yuuya whispers as he sits up and swings his legs over the edge of his bed, facing Seokjin with a determined look on his face that seems to say all the words that usually gets lost in their drift, “you’re not a disgrace. You’re a goddamn superhero. It was an honour to stand by your side, even if it was for a short while.”
Seokjin doesn’t head to training, today. Despite Yuuya’s encouraging words the night before, Seokjin still feels down and doubtful of himself. There must be something wrong with him: something that’s stopping him from matching with a co-pilot. Is it his personality? His behaviour? His reputation?
He heads further down to the Shatterdome to where the Jaeger Technicians are working on repairs for Obsidian Fairy and Basilisk One. Seokjin keeps his cap on his head and low over his eyes as he walks through the Shatterdome. People are shouting to get their voices heard from one tech to another, sparks are flying from welding machines, and Seokjin feels like it’s been way too long since he was down here, a part of the organised chaos. He misses it.
Namjoon locates him almost immediately and lifts his face shield up, resting it along the top of his head. He puts down the welder, pulls his thick utility gloves off his hands, wipes his palms on his overalls and comes over to Seokjin. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” the J-Tech says with a subtly blank expression.
“Yeah,” Seokjin rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “It’s been a while. How’ve you been?”
“Same shit, different day,” Namjoon replies as he pushes one hand into the pocket of his overalls. “I heard you and Ranger Kiyoshi are no longer co-pilots.”
“Word spreads fast, huh?”
“So it’s true?”
“Yeah. We just aren’t compatible enough. I’m going to start looking for my next co-pilot soon. You should consider-“
Namjoon shakes his head, almost solemnly with the barest of smiles on his lips. It looks sad, and Seokjin feels himself turn cold. “Not going to happen. I’m quite happy being just a technician. I might not be on the front lines of saving the world, but I’m contributing. And that’s good enough for me.”
Seokjin licks his lips.
“Besides…” the smile on Namjoon’s lips disappears. “I don’t think we’d be drift compatible. And even if we were, I wouldn’t want to drift with you. I don’t want to be inside your head, and I don’t want you inside mine.”
The soft, melancholy smile returns. “Would be quite embarrassing,” Namjoon tries to joke, “since we broke up, like, seven years ago.”
He’d been counting the years.
“Do you still think of me?” Seokjin ventures carefully, though he supposes he throws all caution out of the window with that question that came out of him far too quickly. He regrets it and wishes he could take it back when he sees Namjoon’s expression shift for just a moment.
“Yeah,” he replies almost as if the question doesn’t sting in the corner of his mind. “I think about whether you’ve eaten, if you’re training hard, if you’re resting properly, if you’re taking care of your mind. If you still think about twenty-fifteen, if you’re still letting it bother you even though you keep saying it doesn’t. If you still think of me. And the fact that I know you don’t.”
Seokjin really regrets asking. He bites down hard on his lip until it starts to hurt. “I’m sorry. I-“
“No need to explain,” Namjoon dismisses his apology with a wave of his hand that makes Seokjin think that it’s okay, like it doesn’t hurt him, like he’s over it. “I may not have ever drifted with you, but I know what’s going on in your mind. You don’t have to tell me. I hope you find a co-pilot, hyung, that matches with you perfectly. You belong on the battlefield.”
Namjoon clasps Seokjin’s shoulder and gives him a look that seems to contradict itself; there’s a smile on his lips but his eyes are filled with remorse, with words unspoken and left hanging between them like exposed nerve endings that still, after all these years, hurts when he touches them. He lets go of Seokjin’s shoulder and turns around to return to welding. Leaves Seokjin behind, just like Seokjin left him behind seven years ago.
He returns to the barracks. Yuuya has already packed his things and vacated the room. Seokjin sighs because this isn’t the first time his co-pilot was the one to leave, and it won’t be the last time. He stares at the empty bed for what feels like hours before he collapses back into his own, back flat against the mattress.
You belong on the battlefield, Namjoon had said to him, just now. Seokjin repeats those words over and over, again and again in his mind until it starts to weigh heavy on his chest. It’s new. Seokjin knows he belongs on the battlefield, he knows that that’s his life’s purpose, and he knows that no matter what happens, what anyone says, he’ll always be on the battlefield, but hearing Namjoon say it now almost feels like he’s drilling in the last nail of the coffin that’s putting them to rest. Even though Seokjin was the one who ended their relationship. Even though Seokjin doesn’t wish to get back together with him. It still hurts.
Because seven years ago, Namjoon begged him to retire. Begged and cried and got on his knees. Said he didn’t want Seokjin to continue to on this path, didn’t want Seokjin to keep risking his life like this. Said he loved Seokjin too much to watch him put his life on the line like this. Seokjin loved him, too, but he believed that his love for Namjoon was holding him back from protecting the world. That wasn’t something Seokjin was willing to give up. He would wake up and be prepared to get into a Jaeger to face off with a Kaiju no matter what, whether or not he had someone who loved him to come back to or not.
You belong on the battlefield, Namjoon said to him. He’d never said that before. It should’ve made him happy to hear, but instead it tears him up inside until he’s gasping for air and clasping at the front of his shirt to give himself more space to breathe. Namjoon doesn’t care anymore. Namjoon has finally let him go. He might still think of Seokjin, but he doesn’t love him anymore.
Tears stream down Seokjin’s cheeks. He doesn’t know why. Namjoon doesn’t love him anymore, and Seokjin hasn’t loved anyone in a long, long time. He cries for a long time and he doesn’t know why.
There are close to thirty candidates lined up in the Kwoon Combat Room waiting to spar with Seokjin. He’s wearing a tank top and loose-fitting joggers and the sweat on his exposed skin makes him feel alive, makes him itch to be back in his Jaeger, to fight. He doesn’t care much about who he selects as his co-pilot, not anymore. He feels like he’s accepted the fact that he’ll never match perfectly with another pilot, not like Taehyung and Jimin, and he’s accepted the fact that he’ll keep cycling through pilots until he dies. He doesn’t care anymore. He spars with the candidates one after the other, looking over at Zhang who is personally overseeing the sparring session after every match to hear the score. Zhang looks at Seokjin like he’s bored, and Seokjin looks back at Zhang like he’s bored, too. Is this one okay? Seokjin tries to ask through his eyes only. I’m not answering your question, Zhang replies through his eyes. Seokjin sneers at him and beckons the next candidate to step forward. Seokjin has, by this point, lost count of how many candidates he’s sparred with so far but it looks like there’s only a handful still left to go through. He hasn’t felt a spark with any of them, yet, nothing that would make him think he’s found his co-pilot.
But then again, he hasn’t felt that spark, ever. Not in the way Taehyung said he felt it with Jimin, or the way Yoongi said he felt with Hoseok. By this point Seokjin’s ready to leave the decision to Zhang. For him to tell Seokjin that based on their algorithms or whatever, a co-pilot has been selected for him. Seokjin would be okay with that, and he’d be happy to let that pilot into his Jaeger, into his mind. He doesn’t care anymore.
The next candidate steps into the combat room and readies himself with his staff, gripping it between his hands carefully. His brows are drawn heavily over his eyes with a fierce kind of determination Seokjin hasn’t seen in any of the candidates before him. Seokjin licks his lips and readies his own staff.
The candidate isn’t pulling any punches. He lunges forward with his staff and feigns an attack from above, catching Seokjin off-guard as he pivots on his foot at the last second and strikes him from the side. Seokjin’s eyes snap open wide at the candidate who is now paused, his staff mere centimetres from Seokjin’s waist. This is the first time since the beginning of the candidate selections process that Seokjin’s lost a point.
He stands up straight and clears his throat. The candidate does the same. This time, however, Seokjin doesn’t coast along the match like he did with all the candidates that came before, he grits his teeth and he strikes back with his staff with more gusto than he’s expended so far. Their staffs collide with one another, Seokjin pulls back quickly and attacks from another angle, but the candidate fends off that attack. They go back and forth until Seokjin manages to get a point in. The candidate doesn’t look fazed, but this seems to aggravate him more, and he launches straight back into another attack.
He’s completely relentless. Seokjin fends off all of his attacks, parries him and strikes him, but the candidate bounds right back. Grits his teeth and strikes. If this wasn’t a sparring match Seokjin might’ve thought the candidate was intending to hurt him.
Seokjin strikes down from above after a rapid succession of strikes and deflections, and he pushes through with a burst of strength to finally take the match and win, but the candidate seems to have read his movements because he swings his staff out in an arc, parrying Seokjin and making him stumble backwards just a step. It’s a small blunder but it’s all that matters when the candidate loops his staff under Seokjin’s arms and swiftly hauls him over his shoulder, throwing him onto the ground on his back. The candidate lunges down, one knee pressing into Seokjin’s bicep, forcing him to let go of his staff, his own staff pointed directly in between Seokjin’s eyes. “I win,” the candidate whispers breathlessly. He’s cute.
“Four points to Cadet Jeon,” Zhang announces. “Are you getting tired, Ranger Kim?”
The candidate extricates himself from on top of Seokjin and stands up quickly to face Zhang. He holds his staff besides him as if on standby. Seokjin slowly peels himself off the floor and stands to face Zhang. “I’m never tired,” Seokjin breathes. “I just got blown away by my new co-pilot.”
Zhang raises his eyes, and the candidate snaps his head towards him. Seokjin only focuses on Zhang. “You’ve never picked your own co-pilot before,” he remarks.
“Well,” Seokjin replies as he flashes back to being flipped over and onto his back, to being pinned under the candidate’s knee, and feeling a spark of something ignite in his mind. He isn’t sure if it’s just the exhilaration of a challenging match or if it’s because of the rush of endorphins from actually putting in effort into fighting back but he wonders if this is what Taehyung and Yoongi spoke about. The spark they felt when they knew they were in the presence of their co-pilot. “I’m picking now.”
He turns to face the candidate and holds out his sweaty hand. “Nice to meet you, partner.”
The candidate doesn’t shake Seokjin’s hand. He doesn’t do much of anything besides turning on his heel to storm out of the combat room like a child that’s been told off.
“What the fuck?”
“That’s Cadet Jeon Jeongguk, nineteen,” Zhang tells him. “According to his roommates he’s got a stick up his ass.”
“Brilliant,” Seokjin sighs. “I’m going to wash up.”
He apologises to every other candidate who sparred with him and to those who didn’t get a chance to before he heads back to the barracks.
Later that night in the dining room, Seokjin finds the sour-faced Jeongguk sitting with a few others at a table near the corner of the room. He doesn’t sit down at his table and instead taps Hoseok on the shoulder, telling the table without detaching his eyes from the cadet that he won’t be sitting with them today. He takes his tray of food and weaves through the closely packed tables, greeting the pilots and technicians on his way, before he reaches the table and sits down at the edge of the bench, squeezing himself onto it.
The cadets on the table gawk at him, eyes wide and disbelieving. Seokjin smiles at them briefly but fixates his gaze on Jeongguk, who scowls. “Hey, partner. Don’t you think we should try to get to know each other as much as possible? In a few days we’ll be inside each other’s heads. There’s no point in being shy with me, now.”
He tries to flash a winning smile. The boy only scowls harder. “I really don’t want to get to know you at all,” he bats back.
Someone slaps him on the arm. “Jeongguk!” the girl whispers angrily. “That’s Kim Seokjin you’re talking to!”
Seokjin laughs lightly.
“It’s an honour to meet you, sir,” the girl quickly strikes her hand out, and Seokjin takes it, giving it a shake. “You’ve been my idol since, well, since you first became a pilot.”
“Thank you,” Seokjin replies as he lets go of her hand and looks at the name badge on her shirt that all cadets are required to wear, “Hana.”
Hana blushes a little and brings her hand back to herself. Seokjin returns his attention to Jeongguk. “So?” he asks Jeongguk. “After dinner why don’t you come down to the Shatterdome with me? I can show you my Jaeger up close and personal.”
There’s a chorus of oohs after Seokjin offers the invitation that makes him feel like a celebrity. He hasn’t felt like one in a while, and he’s sure he’d feel happier if Jeongguk looked even a little bit impressed. He just continues to scowl. Seokjin wonders what the fuck his problem is.
But he stays and he eats and he interacts with everyone else on the table who treats him like a celebrity. Their role-model. They ask him about what it’s like to have served for the PPDC for such a long time, to have started at such a young age. Seokjin answers all of their questions, he laughs and he jokes with them, but not once does Jeongguk look at him.
He pouts a little.
When dinner ends Seokjin doesn’t let Jeongguk out of his sight. He places his hand on Jeongguk’s back and leads him away from the dining hall, through the PPDC, towards the Shatterdome.
Jeongguk shrugs Seokjin’s hand off his back in the elevator. Seokjin furrows his brows and takes a step away from the cadet to scrutinise him.
He’s about the same height as Seokjin. Well-built and muscular. A scowl on his face that makes Seokjin wonder whether he’s actually annoyed at something or if he’s just got a bad case of resting bitch face. Hair that’s wavy and just long enough that it falls in front of his eyes and he has to shake his head to get it out of the way. He rarely shakes it out of his eyes, though. Like he’d rather not be able to see if it means he doesn’t have to see Seokjin.
“What’s your problem, Cadet Jeon?” Seokjin asks, lowering his voice to a pitch he rarely uses. “No one forced you to join the candidate trials, and you knew the trials were to find a co-pilot for me. So what’s with all the attitude?”
Jeongguk flickers his eyes over to meet Seokjin but doesn’t face him. “That’s none of your business.”
“Of course, it’s my business. You’re going to be my co-pilot. I’m going to form a neural bridge with you. I’m going to let you inside my head. If you have some kind of issue with me, that’s going to cause a huge problem.”
Jeongguk returns to looking at the elevator door and his lips are set in a straight line. He doesn’t say a word.
“So now you’re ignoring me?”
Still, Jeongguk doesn’t say a word. Seokjin huffs and stares at the elevator door, too, until they reach the lowest level and the doors open up into the vast Shatterdome. Jeongguk silently follows Seokjin, but this time he looks around and takes in the sights of the technicians, the machinery, and the colossal Jaegers that line the Shatterdome.
Seokjin raises his hand and points, demanding Jeongguk’s attention, though he isn’t sure if he gains it. “There’s mine,” he says proudly. “Brawler Djinn. Named after me, Seokjin.”
“It wasn’t named after you,” comes a deep voice that steals Seokjin’s focus, and he turns his head to find Taehyung walking towards him with Jimin by his side. “Hi,” he says to Jeongguk once they’re standing face to face. “I’m-“
“Kim Taehyung and Park Jimin,” Jeongguk answers quickly, cutting him off. Seokjin flicks his eyes over to him, to the wide-eyed look on his face. “Pilots of Obsidian Fairy.”
Jimin grins. “That’s right,” he laughs, and then points. Seokjin follows his finger to their Jaeger, Obsidian Fairy. It’s not as bulky in physique as Brawler Djinn or Basilisk One, but it’s faster and stealthier. It has a sleek black exterior that makes it look both deadly and beautiful. “Ain’t she gorgeous?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk breathes as he admires the Jaeger with unabashed wonder.
“But when I show him my Jaeger, he gives me a dirty look,” Seokjin complains.
“Brawler Djinn ain’t pretty. He’s just a big hefty tank,” Taehyung replies, matter-of-factly. “Like you.”
“Are you calling me fat and ugly?”
Jimin holds his hands out and stands in between the two rangers. “Enough,” he sighs. “Seokjin-ssi, Taehyung, you both know you’re the two most attractive rangers here. Stop acting like there’s any kind of competition between you. Taehyung, we should get going.”
Seokjin bids them farewell with a wave of his hand, and Taehyung sticks his tongue out at him. Yeah, Seokjin thinks to himself. He’s a goddamn beauty. It’s a shame Jimin snatched him up as a co-pilot before Seokjin could. They could’ve been amazing co-pilots and they would’ve become so popular. He sighs. His days of popularity are long over and Seokjin has to keep reminding himself that the fame isn’t why he’s here.
“Come on,” Seokjin taps Jeongguk on the shoulder and takes him over to where Brawler Djinn is stationed. There are J-Techs working on him, for the first time in a while. Seokjin smiles. “He looks so much more magnificent up close, huh?”
Brawler Djinn isn’t sleek and svelte like Obsidian Fairy, but what he lacks in speed he more than makes up for in sheer power. Armed with a morning star, it delivers fatal blows that can smash right through a Kaiju’s skeleton on the first strike. But Brawler Djinn is just as powerful without his weapon; many times Seokjin has found that taking on a Kaiju with his fists and rocket launchers in his elbows worked just as well. He’s not a Brawler for no reason. There’s a reason why Seokjin rose to fame with Brawler Djinn. There’s a reason why he reached the heights he did before it all came crumbling down.
“No,” Jeongguk answers flatly, interrupting Seokjin’s stream of thoughts. “It’s not my first time seeing it up close.”
Seokjin raises his brows. “Really?” he asks curiously. “Have you been here before?”
Jeongguk shakes his head, and then reaches up to tuck some of his hair behind his ear. Seokjin studies the side of his face, the way his features don’t look as darkened as it had been all this time, just before he furrows his brows once again until they create shadows over his eyes, and he parts his lips just to grit his teeth. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he seethes.
“You know,” Seokjin lowers the tone of his voice. “I’m getting real tired of your shit. Clearly you have a problem with me, and not all Jaeger pilots. Either you fix your attitude or I’ll send you back. Don’t forget that you’re a cadet, and I’m a veteran ranger.”
For a moment it seems as though Jeongguk isn’t able to let go of whatever is bothering him. His jaw remains clenched, his teeth gritted. Seokjin gives him a minute, because soon Jeongguk releases a breath through parted lips and closes his eyes like he’s trying to let go of his anger. But he does. He lets it go and he tries to refresh his expression, though it doesn’t look like there’s much of a difference. “I’m sorry, sir,” Jeongguk whispers like he’s holding back waves and waves of anger, “for my behaviour.”
Seokjin purses his lips. “Head back to your barracks. Tomorrow we’ll train together. I won’t go easy on you, so rest well. And think about whether you really want to do this. It’s not a game. I don’t care if you don’t like me, you can’t let that get in the way of what we do here. Which is to save potentially thousands of lives.”
Jeongguk nods and turns quickly on his heel before running off. Seokjin just watches him go and crosses his arms over his chest. He misses Yuuya. Yuuya was respectful. Yuuya didn’t have a stick up his ass when they first met.
“That was painful to watch,” comes a voice Seokjin knows well, and he uncrosses his arms to find a J-Tech walking towards him that he doesn’t recognise until the face-shield comes off. It’s Namjoon. “Your new co-pilot?”
“Yeah,” Seokjin breathes as he feels his pent-up frustration drain out of him. “Well, that’s if he’s serious about all of this.”
“He seems like a handful. It’s been a while since I saw you pull your rank,” Namjoon laughs.
Seokjin laughs awkwardly. You wouldn’t understand, Seokjin had said to Namjoon, seven years ago. You’re just a J-Tech. You don’t know what it’s like to be on the front lines of saving people. “I felt like it was necessary.”
“I agree,” Namjoon replies and looks off to where Jeongguk is running back through the Shatterdome on his way out. “He seemed like he needed to be put in his place.”
Seokjin laughs again, and he looks away from Namjoon. Tries not to remember crying himself to sleep the other night. His heart hurts to stand here, joking and laughing with Namjoon, when his heart no longer beats for him. It no longer quickens and makes him turn hot. It just feels empty, now, and the void hurts him like a tender bruise. A soft, dull pain. “I should get going,” Seokjin says, taking a step back. “I’ve got a lot of work to do if I want to drift successfully with that kid.”
“Sure. See you around, Seokjin-ssi,” Namjoon bids farewell. With an empty, aching heart Seokjin returns to the barracks.
At six in the morning, Jeongguk is already awake and waiting in the combat room. He’s got that same scowl on his face as always, but he’s dressed in a tank top and loose-fitting sweatpants. His hair, though it’s not long enough, has been tied back. The lower sections of his hair don’t reach the hairband, but at the very least there’s no hair falling into his eyes. Seokjin steps out of his boots and joins Jeongguk. “Have you thought about whether you want to be serious or not?” he asks, though the look on Jeongguk’s face seems to say it all.
Jeongguk nods. “I have.”
“And? Your answer?”
As a response, Jeongguk readies his staff in his two hands and assumes his stance. “I’m serious about saving people, about fighting the Kaiju. But,” he points the staff towards Seokjin. “I’m not serious about you. You’ve yet to earn my respect.”
“You little shit,” Seokjin grits his teeth. “You’re the one who should be earning my respect.”
“Well,” Jeongguk begins, and for the first time Seokjin sees a quirk in the corner of Jeongguk’s lips, like a challenging smirk of sorts, “you lost our first match, didn’t you? A veteran ranger lost to a cadet.”
“The candidate trials aren’t a chance for me to whip everyone’s asses, surprisingly,” Seokjin replies calmly as he takes absolutely no offence from Jeongguk’s quip. “It’s a chance for me to asses your fighting ability. Your drive. Whether we’d be compatible fighting together, not against each other.”
“And? From me taking your ass down you decided I was your perfect match?”
Seokjin tips his chin up. “Don’t be mistaken, I let you win.”
“Then, if we spar again and you allow nothing of the sort, will you win against me?”
“Trust me,” Seokjin replies, “I will.”
The small quirk of Jeongguk’s lips turns into an open-mouthed grin. “Let’s see about that,” he provokes Seokjin as he readies his staff in both hands again. Seokjin assumes his stance, too.
“Four points marks a win,” Seokjin whispers, just loud enough for Jeongguk to hear. Then, he lunges forward.
Just like the candidate trials the two of them battle for dominance, striking and deflecting in rapid succession. Jeongguk keeps up with all of Seokjin’s attacks, his speed and his strength. His years and years’ worth of skill and training seems to fizzle away in front of Jeongguk. It’s almost as if they’re at the same level.
They continue to spar for several minutes without either of them managing to give up a single point. Seokjin grows desperate and so does Jeongguk; their attacks become faster, hastier. They expend more strength into each swing and into each parry. Seokjin grits his teeth as he tells himself not to let this kid get the best of him. He feigns a strike but Jeongguk seems to read his moves like a book, spears his staff under Seokjin’s and flicks his arm back, forcing the staff out of Seokjin’s hands. It clutters onto the floor and Jeongguk freezes just before his staff strikes Seokjin’s shoulder. “One-zero,” he breathes out quietly.
Seokjin furrows his brows and presses his lips together as he challenges the haughty, shit-eating grin on Jeongguk’s face and steps around him to pick up his staff. He doesn’t waste a single second and launches right into an attack that catches Jeongguk off-guard, and he too pauses just before his staff strikes his arm. “One-one,” Seokjin whispers back.
They continue to spar, gaining a point before losing a point, and they both start to grow tired and more desperate. Their defences begin to lower as they grow more eager to gain points. Seokjin tries to put an end to the frantic skirmish by lurching his arm forward with a burst of strength that Jeongguk would be powerless to parry, but Jeongguk quickly drops to the ground and swings his staff out in an arc that catches at Seokjin’s ankles and sweeps him off his feet. His breath is caught in his lungs as he smacks onto the ground.
He chokes out and tries to roll over, not giving himself any time to regain his breath, but Jeongguk appears over him, knees on either side of Seokjin’s ribcage, holding him in place, his staff pointed at his neck. His heartbeat quickens in his chest and he feels the temperature between them grow warm.
“I win,” Jeongguk breathes out, his chest rising and falling with every inhale and exhale that heaves out of him. “Again.”
“Whatever,” Seokjin rasps, and coughs to clear his throat. He reaches up and grabs the staff to push it away. Jeongguk lets go of it easily and it clutters onto the floor besides them. “It’s just a sparring match.”
“You seemed very sure you’d win,” Jeongguk bats back. “But now that you’ve lost, it’s just a sparring match? How disappointing. I thought you had even a little more integrity than that.”
“I have enough integrity. Inside a Jaeger,” Seokjin replies as he tries to turn to get Jeongguk off him. Jeongguk doesn’t budge. “I’m not here to earn your respect. So, like I said before, no one’s forcing you to be my co-pilot. You can return to being a cadet if you’re not happy with this arrangement.”
“If I’ve got to be paired with you in order to be a ranger, then so be it,” Jeongguk answers, and he curves down to plant his hands on either side of Seokjin’s head. “And even though I’ve taken you down twice, now, you’re not a bad fighter.”
Seokjin bites down on his lip and twists at the waist before he lifts his legs off the ground and flips Jeongguk over, catching him off-guard, until he falls to the side and onto his back. “Don’t forget who’s in charge, here,” Seokjin replies as he hangs over Jeongguk for just a moment before he draws back. “And in any case, when we practice drift tomorrow, you can’t bring anything in with you,” he begins as he heaves himself up. “Whatever it is you feel about me, leave it behind.”
Jeongguk peels himself off the ground and wipes some sweat from his forehead. He pulls his hairband off and shakes out his hair. “I’m not an idiot,” Jeongguk replies.
“Funny, that’s exactly what I thought you were,” Seokjin snaps back.
“Funny you’re making jabs at me when you were under me just a second ago.”
Seokjin feels himself grow hot at that, and momentarily it confuses him to think about why, so he turns away on the pretence that he needs to pull his boots back on. He laces them up and then he slaps his hands on his cheeks before he stands up and he faces Jeongguk. “Go meditate for the rest of the day,” Seokjin orders him, although he feels as though he should be talking to himself. Why does his stomach feel like it’s clenching on itself? Why is Jeongguk stirring up the contents of his mind? “I’m not going to drift with you if you’re all angry and shouty like you always are.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Jeongguk replies, and he leaves the combat room.
The heat from Seokjin’s skin dissolves in the air as his body cools down from their sparring match. Seokjin presses the back of his hand against his cheek and feels that it’s still warm. The spark he felt between himself and Jeongguk is something he felt again, today, as they fought against each other with more zest than they had before, but now Seokjin isn’t sure if it’s because of their drift-compatibility or if it’s because of something else. He tries not to remember being pinned under Jeongguk. Tries not to remember him curving down over him. He has to clear his mind, because there’s no way he can bring that into the drift with him. He supposes he might have to meditate, too.
Jeongguk’s jaw is clenched as he stands besides Seokjin in the Drivesuit Room. He’s got his hair tied back again, with the lower portion of his hairs clipped up with bobby pins because they won’t reach the hairband. He looks over at Seokjin, his scowl ever-present on his face, but this time Seokjin reads it differently. He reads the scowl as determination – as the desire to ace the test-drift. To appear as though he matches with Seokjin just enough to be trusted in a Jaeger, fighting against a Kaiju. Seokjin furrows his brows as he watches Jeongguk with hesitation playing in his mind. He tells himself to calm down, that this is just a test run. There won’t be any repercussions if they don’t match well in practice. Seokjin will just return to step one and he’ll have to find another co-pilot – preferably one that doesn’t seem to hate him.
The Drivesuit technicians fit them with their suits, clicking their spinal clamps into place. The helmets come on, the relay gel clears away, and Jeongguk looks down at his hands. Seokjin remembers doing that the first time he wore a Drivesuit all those years ago. He allows a small smile to himself.
They walk through the tunnel and to the Conn-Pod of Brawler Djinn. Jeongguk stays silent, and Seokjin doesn’t bother with words anymore. He’s said all that he wants to say to Jeongguk, and now it’s up to him if he wants to take this seriously. Because Seokjin has been a Jaeger pilot for eight years. He’s a veteran, despite his young age. He’s heard it all. The praise for joining the PPDC at the age of fifteen, the doubts in his skills for becoming a ranger at the age of sixteen. His rise to fame and the subsequent fall at the tender age of seventeen. The way he stood right up and he continued to fight, to protect, like none of it bothered him. It doesn’t.
Despite the downfall of his reputation in twenty-fifteen, at the tender, painful age of seventeen, Seokjin kept going. There were three things he always kept in mind. First: always follow protocol. Second: don’t bite off more than you can chew. And finally: don’t chase the rabbit.
He steps into the Conn-Pod and steps into place, connecting himself to the operating system. His feet click into place, his arms are and legs are calibrated. The system turns on, it accounts for Seokjin, and it accounts for Jeongguk.
“Ranger Kim, Ranger Jeon, you boys ready?” comes Zhang’s voice through the live communication.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk breathes.
Seokjin looks over at him, aligned and secured in a Conn-Pod for the first time in his life. “Brawler Djinn, ready for the drop.”
And suddenly, they are released and travel downwards through the shaft that connects them to Brawler Djinn. Seokjin adjusts himself to the feeling of free-falling immediately, though Jeongguk gasps a little and flounders for a moment. Seokjin stops himself from laughing just before they connect with the base of the body. There are a few more adjustments made by J-Techs outside the Jaeger until they hear Zhang’s voice again. “Coupling confirmed.”
“Pilot to pilot connection protocol sequence, initiating,” comes the automated voice of the Conn-Pod.
“Prepare for neural handshake,” Zhang tells them, and Seokjin turns to face Jeongguk as he begins counting down to the drift.
“Don’t chase the rabbit,” Seokjin tells him. Jeongguk doesn’t seem to listen to him; or if he does, he doesn’t show it. He just looks straight ahead, breathing heavily. His suited chest rises and falls. “Random Access Brain Impulse Triggers,” he elaborates, louder now, to gain Jeongguk’s attention. He finally gets it and looks at Seokjin. “Clear your mind and don’t latch onto any random memories that might pop up. Don’t chase the rabbit. Got it?”
He doesn’t confirm or make any kind of gesture of an affirmative.
“Just let it flow right through you,” Seokjin tells him. “If a memory comes, let it go.”
“Neural interface drift: initiated,” the automated voice announces, and Seokjin closes his eyes.
He’s gotten used to it, over time. Drifting with another person, forming a neural bridge with them. It feels like his body melts away and is sucked up by his brain until that’s all that’s left of him. His mind melds with Jeongguk’s, and for a moment it’s utter chaos: there are memories thrown around that Seokjin can’t make any sense of, and he isn’t sure how to navigate through it, if he should navigate through it at all.
Jeongguk’s younger than any other pilot Seokjin’s drifted with before. His emotions are all over the place. Seokjin isn’t sure if he should intervene. If he has any right to do so. “Let it flow right through you,” he tries to tell Jeongguk in a calming voice, but he has to yell to be heard. Jeongguk doesn’t hear him, and Seokjin feels him being dragged deeper into his memories. By now they’ve completely mind-melded with each other, and Jeongguk unknowingly drags Seokjin down with him.
“Right hemisphere: calibrated,” the automated voice confirms. “Left hemisphere: calibrated.”
Half of Seokjin’s mind is trapped inside of Jeongguk’s, while Jeongguk has been completely swayed by the rabbit. He sees nothing else right now but it. But the Jaeger has been calibrated to their movements, so when Seokjin raises his arms, so does Jeongguk, and so does the Brawler Djinn.
He thinks he’s got it under control, so he tests a few more movements and slams his fists together, but something in his left arm sparks off a chain reaction that seems to flicker like an ember in his mind. “Ranger Kim!” comes Zhang’s agitated voice. “Ranger Jeon is out of alignment!”
“Fuck,” Seokjin hisses as he looks over at Jeongguk, who’s staring blankly ahead, arms by his sides. “Jeongguk! Jeongguk, can you hear me?!”
“He’s starting to chase the rabbit,” Zhang tells him, and Seokjin grits his teeth.
“Jeongguk, let it go! Whatever you’re remembering, don’t latch onto it!” he tries to tell the younger male. “It’s not real. It’s all in the past. Let it go. Stay with me, okay? Let it go.”
Jeongguk doesn’t seem to listen to him, and he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit-hole, dragging Seokjin down with him. For a moment they free-fall in darkness, until Seokjin hits the ground and groans. When he peels his eyelids open, he finds himself on a coastal city he doesn’t recognise. He stands on top of an overpass, and when he approaches the edge and grips the railings that hold him back, he oversees the beach that lines the coastal city.
He doesn’t recognise what city he’s in, but vaguely he remembers being here. It’s strange, and for a moment he wonders if it’s Jeongguk’s rabbit they’ve chased, or if it’s his. He watches the beach, what he can see from this distance, but on the pier he watches a young boy run to the edge while his family laugh from the beach and tell him to return.
The tide seems to come in, suddenly, and way too fast, until it hits Seokjin like a tidal wave. Grand Fisher, the Kaiju that attacked Busan in twenty-fifteen, rises out of the water. It was the largest Kaiju the world had seen yet, and the first of the category III’s. But the PPDC had full faith in Seokjin and his co-pilot at the time, his father.
Seokjin watches as the civilians run away from Grand Fisher in horror, and as Brawler Djinn arrives on the scene. Seokjin’s head feels like it’s splitting in half as his mind feels like it’s stuck in between two places; here, on the overpass as a bystander watching the horror of the Kaiju attack as a veteran ranger at the young age of twenty-four, and over there, inside Brawler Djinn besides his father, taking the Kaiju on at the even younger age of seventeen.
The young boy on the pier tries to run back up the way he came, crying out loud as he tries to join his family, but Seokjin screams at him to stay back. That he’s only running back towards Grand Fisher. Seokjin reaches out to him, but he’s way too far to help him.
Brawler Djinn reaches out for the young boy. Picks him up and tries to settle him down somewhere away from the chaos just before he returns to taking down Grand Fisher, who just moments earlier he’d smashed one of the arms off. The boy is screaming and crying and will not be consoled, not even when he’s taken to safety, out of the warpath of Grand Fisher, when Seokjin recognises the young boy.
Seokjin watches as Brawler Djinn returns to fighting Grand Fisher, who opens its mouth and sprays acid all over the beach where civilians are still trying to escape.
“No!” Seokjin screams out from where he is, and suddenly he is whipped off his feet, off the overpass where he stood and watched helplessly, and in a blink he finds himself inside the Conn-Pod of Brawler Djinn, the jaw of Grand Fisher in his hands just after he’d killed everyone on the beach. He tries to rip the Kaiju’s jaw apart in a fit of anger, but through his frustration he doesn’t see Grand Fisher’s spiked tail come from behind and pierce through the left side of Brawler Djinn’s body. His father screams as he feels the pain in his own side, and he almost falls over. “Get back up!” Seokjin screams, his eyes blurring with tears. “You can’t give up, now!”
But his father is sputtering up blood, now. He coughs and blood pours down from his mouth onto the front of his Drivesuit. “Son, I-“
“No, no, no…” Seokjin shakes his head vehemently and shifts all of his power onto his side, to force the Jaeger up despite his father’s sudden weakness. He didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want to talk about it with his father all this time, and now, with a Kaiju in front of him and a city of over three million in his hands, it demands to be heard.
His father is dying. He’s been slowly dying, all this time, from a cancer that was almost certainly caused by the nuclear reactor of their Jaeger. But Seokjin’s father was still young, he thought he had more time. Seokjin’s vision blurs from tears, but he shakes them out of his eyes.
“Get up, old man! Don’t you dare die on me, now!” he screams, but his father seems to drift in and out of consciousness. Seokjin’s brain feels like it’s on fire, now, as the neural load begins to weigh down on him the more his father lets go. “Please, don’t go!” Seokjin continues to scream as he holds Grand Fisher back. Deploys the morning star in his right hand. “I need you! I can’t do this alone!”
“Son, I’m so sorr-“ his father tries to say but he chokes again, and more blood spills from his lips, and Seokjin screams out loud as the neural bridge is broken and his father loses consciousness.
He feels like his brain is tearing itself apart. Brawler Djinn is massive: way too massive to pilot on his own. Blood trickles down his nose and he feels himself losing close to fainting. His vision blurs in and out, and he barely manages to lock his sight on Grand Fisher, grabs at its jaw, and he tears the muscles in his arms to force it’s jaw apart, killing it.
“Plasma canon, automatic firing,” Seokjin commands as his arms hang limp by his side. He can no longer move them. The plasma canon readies itself and fires at Grand Fisher several times to ensure it’s dead, and just as Seokjin hears Zhang tell him that Grand Fisher has been taken down, Seokjin too passes out.
The neural bridge is broken, and Seokjin falls onto the ground of the Conn-Pod. His head is spinning and he can barely lift himself off the ground. He musters all of his strength to look up, to where Jeongguk is standing over him, watching him with his eyes filled with fury. He throws his helmet onto the floor and exits the Conn-Pod, leaving Seokjin behind.
Seokjin coughs harshly, his lungs feeling like they’re on fire, and just before everything turns black, he finds his own blood splattered onto the floor of the Conn-Pod.
The next time he opens his eyes, he’s in a bed. It’s not his room, or any room in the barracks, but when he tries to sit up his chest hurts and it takes him a moment to bypass the nausea and dizziness. He presses a hand to his head.
“Not once,” comes a voice he vaguely recognises, “have I ever seen you chase the rabbit,” Dr Halim tells him. “No wonder you were so good at avoiding it, if this is the kind of shit that happens to you when you chase it.”
“I wasn’t intending to,” Seokjin replies, his voice raw, scratching at the back of his throat.
“When were you going to tell me you were coughing up blood?”
“Never?” Seokjin ventures. “I’m okay.”
“Who’s the doctor here, me or you?”
Seokjin sighs. “Fine. Just tell me. Do I have cancer, too? Will I die, like my father?”
Dr Halim sits down besides Seokjin’s bed. “No, you don’t have cancer. But you are overworking yourself. I heard you found a co-pilot that you’re a perfect match with. Why don’t you try relying on him, more? All you’ve ever done in a Jaeger was try to shoulder the bulk of the burden on yourself.”
Seokjin looks down at his hands and he remembers that day, in twenty-fifteen, like he hasn’t been carrying it around in his heart all this time. He’d never brought it into a drift with him, and he thought he was doing a good job of suppressing it, of clearing it from his mind. Clearly not. He remembers being seventeen, being in the spotlight for his natural talent inside a Jaeger at his young age. He remembers how it felt to drift with his father, how it felt to pilot a Jaeger and to save lives.
He remembers twenty-fifteen, how his father passed out inside the Conn-Pod and Seokjin was left to take the Kaiju down by himself. How the neural load almost broke him, and how his father died later that night. How he became disregarded by the public.
One moment, he was a dashing young hero. The next, he was a disgrace. He shouldn’t have underestimated Grand Fisher. He shouldn’t have looked away to save that one young boy. He shouldn’t have agreed to fight when he knew his father was sick. He should’ve been better. He should’ve never stepped foot into a Jaeger at all. Seokjin has heard it all, and he carries twenty-fifteen around with him everywhere he goes. His father passed away, his fame stripped from him, his boyfriend no longer with him. The incidence didn’t discourage him from piloting at all: instead, it lit a fire under his ass to do better, to be better. While his father was hailed as a hero who died protecting the city, Seokjin was labelled a disgrace who failed to save the lives of many.
The rangers he knew at the time and the rangers who joined the PPDC after that all knew the truth, how difficult it must’ve been to pilot Brawler Djinn by himself when his father lost consciousness, and that was all Seokjin needed to continue. The reassurance that he did the best he could, and that it could’ve been a lot worse. That there were other rangers willing to be his co-pilot after his father, despite the reputation Seokjin had unwillingly built for himself.
Briefly, the thought of quitting as a ranger comes to mind. He wonders if it might be for the best. He can’t find a co-pilot that would match him as well as his father did. What use is he as a Jaeger pilot if he doesn’t have someone to stand by his side, to fight with him?
He shakes that thought out of his head. No. He will continue to serve and he will continue to fight until he dies. He doesn’t care how many times he’ll have to find a co-pilot. He doesn’t care if the world hates him. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters when there are lives on the line. He had learned from his mistake, back in twenty-fifteen, and he vowed to do better, to be better. He prioritised the life of one boy, of the then-twelve-year-old Jeongguk, and lost the lives of so many, many more. He didn’t follow protocol, he bit off way more than he could chew, and just now, he fell down the rabbit hole.
But there’s always room for improvement. Seokjin knows that. He isn’t embarrassed to admit it, and he’ll begin with Jeongguk.
The cadet makes himself scarce, it seems. Seokjin doesn’t see him at training, at dinner, or anywhere for a few days. Seokjin doesn’t blame him. He knows, now, why Jeongguk hated him so much, and Seokjin doesn’t blame him for it. He thought, at the time, that what he was doing was the right thing to do, but now he realises it wasn’t.
He actively seeks Jeongguk out, and finally on one night he finds the cadet in his room that he’s yet to move out of and into Seokjin’s. Jeongguk tries to pretend Seokjin’s not there as he continues counting each of his push-ups. “We need to talk,” Seokjin tells him, arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the doorframe.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Jeongguk replies as he lowers himself down again until his chest is inches from touching the ground. “We drifted. There’s no use for words.”
“There is,” Seokjin counters. “I didn’t know you were the boy whose life I prioritised over thousands of others. I understand now your hostility towards me. And I apologise for the past.”
Jeongguk pauses mid-push. “I know you didn’t know,” he replies, and resumes his work-out. “I was just another faceless person you thought you could save. You didn’t know my name, or any of the names of the people who didn’t have to die that day, but did. Because of you.”
Seokjin swallows, hard, and walks into the room. Sits on the edge of the bed, looking down at Jeongguk who keeps up with his push-ups. “I was young and hasty. But I’ve grown, and I’m not that person anymore.”
“Yeah, well,” Jeongguk stops his work-out to stand up to his full height. Seokjin cranes his neck back to look up at Jeongguk who now stands over him. “You might’ve recovered from it, having lost nothing, but I haven’t. I lost my home, my city, and my family that you separated me from even though I begged you not to. But I was as small as an ant in your hands that day, and it didn’t matter to you.”
I lost my father, Seokjin wants to say. He was my last remaining family member. I lost everything, too.
He doesn’t say any of that. “I’m sorry,” he says instead, hoping that it would help, knowing it won’t. “There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about that day. I am so, so sorry.”
“You only think about that day because of how it affected you!” Jeongguk raises his voice. “You picked yourself up and moved on and continued with your life while the rest of us had to live with the consequences every single fucking day! I was twelve when I watched my entire family melt to death!”
His eyes sting but he squeezes them to stop himself from crying as he bites down on his lip and squeezes on his knees. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I-“
“Don’t fucking cry,” Jeongguk hisses, and reaches down to grab at the front of Seokjin’s shirt, forcing him up onto his feet. He pulls, roughly, drawing him in close. “Don’t make me pity you. You had a look into my mind, and I had a look into yours. I know what you went through that day, so don’t cry or make me feel bad for you!”
Seokjin raises his hands to clasp at Jeongguk’s and force them to let go. “It wasn’t my intention,” he begins quietly, “to make you feel bad for me. I just want you to know that I truly am sorry.”
He lets go of Jeongguk’s wrists and then lowers himself onto his knees. Then, he lays his palms flat on the ground in front of him, and he begins to lower his forehead onto the ground in between his hands when Jeongguk stops him. Drops to the ground in front of him and grabs his shoulders, forcing him to sit upright on his knees. “Don’t do that,” he seethes. “Do you think I want you to beg for my forgiveness on your knees? Do you think that will bring my life back? My family?”
“No, but I don’t know how else I-“
“You asshole,” Jeongguk spits, and the way his voice cracks slightly makes Seokjin snap his head up and face him. There are tears streaming down his face. “I’ve been carrying this anger around with me for seven years, wondering what I’d do if I met you. How badly I wanted to hurt you. But I… no matter what, I… I’m so conflicted. I can’t seem to hate you, no matter how hard I try. I can’t hate you.”
Seokjin’s eyes sting again, but when he closes them, tears spill from them. “What do you want me to do?” he asks quietly. “What can I do to earn your forgiveness?”
“Why do you want it? I’m a nobody to you. Just some kid whose family was lost to the Kaiju. My story isn’t any different to the next unfortunate kid.”
Seokjin presses his lips together. “You’re not a nobody. You’re my co-pilot, and you’re a human being who was hurt because of my actions.”
Jeongguk grits his teeth. “I thought Jaeger pilots were taught not to be too compassionate. That you had to detach yourself from the lives that are lost.”
“Well, I guess I’m not a very good pilot, then. But you knew that already. From twenty-fifteen, that I’ve never detached myself from.”
He watches as Jeongguk swallows, hard, before he reaches forward again to grab at the front of Seokjin’s shirt. This time, he’s not rough or forceful. This time, he’s the one who moves forward and this time, he presses his lips to Seokjin’s. Seokjin’s eyes widen at the sudden kiss, and Jeongguk ends it just as quickly. He draws away, his hand still on Seokjin’s shirt. “You’re not like any of the other rangers I’ve ever met,” Jeongguk whispers. “You don’t care about reputation or rank. You only care about doing what’s right.”
Seokjin licks his lips, his mouth turning dry as his stomach feels like it’s tightening. “It’s a flaw,” Seokjin whispers. “Doing what’s right and following protocols don’t always line up.”
“You apologised to me,” Jeongguk begins, dismissing Seokjin’s remark, “even though your rank is miles above mine, even though I’m a nobody to you.”
“Stop saying that, I told you, you’re not a nobody.”
The hand on Seokjin’s shirt tightens. “Can I kiss you again?”
His stomach squeezes on itself, and he feels himself grow hot again. There’s a faint pink flush on Jeongguk’s cheeks that could be from the tears he spilled earlier, or it could be from the request that hangs in the air, now, between them. Seokjin licks his lips and meets Jeongguk’s eyes. He nods, and Jeongguk leans back in. Presses a light kiss to Seokjin’s lips.
The tension that had been thrumming under Jeongguk’s skin all this time, that had built up like an elastic band close to snapping, seeps out of him altogether. He kisses harder, pushing Seokjin back against the side of the bed he’d been sitting on earlier. He then crawls forward and grabs Seokjin’s hips before he pulls him up with ease, setting him back on top of the bed. “I’m sorry for being a dick,” Jeongguk tells him when they part for a moment. “I tried to hate you, I really did, but-“
“Yeah, yeah, gotcha,” Seokjin cuts him off as he grabs the front of Jeongguk’s t-shirt and falls back on the mattress, bringing Jeongguk down with him. They kiss again, and Seokjin reaches up to wrap his arms around Jeongguk’s neck, pulling him even closer in, until he lies on top of Seokjin. “Maybe we can have a healthy discussion about this later,” he edges in in between kisses.
“Is this not healthy?” Jeongguk asks. He kisses again.
“Probably not,” Seokjin replies and captures Jeongguk’s lips again. “You were screaming at me, like, a minute ago.”
“My bad,” Jeongguk whispers, and pecks at Seokjin’s lips. “It’s very conflicting when the person you’re meant to hate is hot as hell.”
“That, I am.”
They didn’t get around to having a healthy discussion about it. They were scheduled to test another drift in a few days, but instead of spending those few days training together, increasing their compatibility together, or at the very least talking to one another about any issues that may still be lingering between them, they just use whatever free time they can find to get intimate with one another. Jeongguk will pull Seokjin aside and kiss the living shit out of him, or Seokjin will opt to just cuddle with him instead of training. They tell Zhang they’re getting to know each other, but they fail to mention in what way.
Jeongguk, as Seokjin discovers, does have a resting bitch face. But this time, when Jeongguk clenches his jaw and looks angry, Seokjin knows he’s not. And besides, that expression of his makes Seokjin blush. He imagines finding Jeongguk later, imagines running his fingers along Jeongguk’s jaw, feeling it clench under his palms. He imagines Jeongguk’s hands on his waist, his hips, his skin.
They get intimate with each other in more ways than one, and Seokjin starts to wonder if this will make drifting harder for him. He remembers drifting with Yuuya, remembers having to see Yuuya’s sexual encounters that surfaced involuntarily, and he wonders if he or Jeongguk would do the same. If he’d see himself, if Jeongguk sees himself.
They still don’t talk about it, but they don’t get another chance to practice drift with each other – because the siren is blasting and Seokjin knows exactly what that means, has that sound ingrained into his memory. He shoots out of bed when it wakes him up, and finds that Jeongguk, who had been asleep besides him, had woken up even earlier. They don’t say a word to each other; there’s no time for words as they quickly dress themselves and head out of the barracks, to the Drivesuit Room. There, technicians fit them with their suits, attach their spinal clamps, and make their final preparations before they head to their Conn-Pod.
Still, they don’t talk, not as they head down the shaft and couple with the main body of Brawler Djinn. Zhang’s voice sounds through the live communication. “Hope you boys are ready,” he tells them. “It’s a category IV. You’ll be with Basilisk One on this. Don’t mess up.”
Seokjin licks his lips as the countdown begins to forming the neural handshake. He looks over at Jeongguk. “You know, we still haven’t talked about it,” he tells Jeongguk quietly.
“What’s there to talk about? We’ll be drifting with each other very soon. We’ll know exactly what goes on in each other’s minds,” Jeongguk replies.
“I know, but…” Seokjin starts slowly, “when you’ve spent most of your life drifting with people more than you do talk… you kind of miss it. I really regret not being able to tell my father what he meant to me when he was alive. I thought there was no reason to say it, because he was in my head. But it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel human.”
Jeongguk reaches into the space between them and holds Seokjin’s hand. “Maybe you’re right,” he replies mildly. “I haven’t felt human since twenty-fifteen. And maybe it’s because I was so hell-bent on hating you, like I had to hate you, like I was programmed to. Just like a Jaeger,” he laughs lightly to himself. “But seeing you that night… apologising to me even though you saved my life, even though you… tore yourself apart to pilot that Jaeger while your father was unconscious… made me realise that I was wrong to hate you. You did the best you could. And I know now why everyone here admires you so much. They know how difficult it must’ve been, and how you pulled through. I know, now, too.”
The neural bridge is formed, and Seokjin feels like his body is melting away again, leaving only his mind that melds with Jeongguk’s. And this time, he lets the memories come to him, flow right through him, and then he lets it go. “It felt good,” Seokjin says quietly, “to not be admired for a moment. And to be confronted about twenty-fifteen, because up until now, no one ever spoke to me about it. I felt human.”
“Still, it wasn’t nice of me,” Jeongguk laughs.
“It’s all water under the bridge, now,” Seokjin tells him as the choppers that carry Brawler Djinn release them and they land with a reverberating thud in the Pacific Ocean. He holds his arms up to take a fighting stance, and Jeongguk matches the action immediately.
A massive Kaiju emerges from the ocean and lunges at them, but Seokjin and Jeongguk prove to be better co-pilots than they’d ever imagined they would be.