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and miles to go before i sleep

Chapter Text

 

 

-------- SECURED NETWORK --------

15 October 2021, 1:45 PM

Yixing Zhang <yxzhang@ppdc.cn>
to tylee@ppdc.kr
Subject: INFO - Project 82125 Update

Marshal Lee:

Dr. Suh's initial Drift compatibility assessment has been deemed promising. However, you and I are in agreement that test results will best reflect the in-field compatibility of the chosen pilots. In light of this, Ranger Wong's transfer has been officially approved by PPDC. Please expect arrival within 48 hours.

Wong has been briefed; I trust you and Deputy Marshal Jung will do the same with your cadet. All pertinent information regarding Wong's personal history and records within the HK Shatterdome has been forwarded to your system.

Respectfully,
Marshal Zhang

 


 

15 October 2021, 2:00 PM

Taeyong Lee <tylee@ppdc.kr>
to yxzhang@ppdc.cn
Subject: INFO - Project 82125 Update

Marshal Zhang:

Ranger Wong's personal files have been reviewed and approved. My officers will carry out the tests with the cadet immediately after Wong's arrival. All results will be forwarded to you and the PPDC once carried out.

May this endeavor bear fruit for us all.

For Earth and humanity,
Marshal Lee

----- END OF CORRESPONDENCE -----

 


 

Mark wakes up to the sound of torrential rain slamming angrily against his dorm room window. Sighing, he stretches languidly to the rhythm of raindrops hitting glass. Mid-October wasn't treating the Jeju Shatterdome well—everyone who worked near the bays would get drenched one way or another, either from the ocean water or the rain, and their footsteps would leave wet trails as they traipsed busily across the halls connecting the compounds.

No matter. Mark loved the Shatterdome, rainy weather or no. What was supposed to be the Jeju Civilian-Military Complex Port was seized by the Pan Pacific Defence Corps in late 2015 in response to the Breach's proximity to Asian territory, and the Jeju Shatterdome officially opened its doors in January of 2016, promoting a massive campaign for the enlistment of future Jaeger pilots, engineers, and scientists. Mark's brother enlisted immediately. He followed suit six months later.

Mark has been in the Jaeger Pilot training program for exactly four years, ten months, and twelve days. He's not the oldest cadet in the Jeju Shatterdome, no, but he's been here the longest. He's seen Jaegers come and go, pilots get promoted and put out of commission, Shatterdome officers change one by one. Through all this, he's never gotten an opportunity to pilot a Jaeger of his own, despite his comparatively extensive knowledge and experience in the Dome.

The fact of the matter was that no one could Drift with Mark. God knows the officers tried their hardest—anyone with two eyes could see he was a prime candidate for piloting a Jaeger, it was just a matter of finding the right person who could share that burden. They had tried every test possible with every cadet he was possibly compatible with. At first, Mark was excited, finally thinking his day would come: that his skills would be put to good use in an actual Jaeger, out in the water fighting kaiju.

But the tests kept turning up unsatisfactory. Sync rates were low, and even runs with his own friends proved fruitless; Mark simply couldn't find that one-of-a-kind connection that every pilot would talk about when they Drifted with their partner. Every failed test Drift drained hope from him until there was no one left he could try with.

And so life in the Shatterdome went on.

He tips his feet off the edge of his bed—the top bunk, since Jaemin insisted on claiming the bottom bunk for himself. Mark has retaliated by physically dragging him out of his cocoon of sheets whenever they start running late. Jaemin is a slow mover, and he'll be damned if the teachers start giving him earfuls for being late just because Jaemin was chewing his kaktugi too thoroughly.

"Morning, Mark hyung," Jeno mumbles groggily from the other bottom bunk. Renjun is snoring, undisturbed, on the bed above Jeno's. Mark smiles, dropping to the floor as quietly as he can. It's barely 0700. He'll have plenty of time to terrorize Jaemin later.

"Morning, Jeno," he answers, voice still scratchy from sleep. "Wake Renjun up, will you? The showers are gonna start filling up soon, you know he hates when they're crowded."

"Will do," Jeno answers with a yawn that threatens to dislocate his jaw.

The four of them bathe and get ready with no fuss. Renjun impatiently helps Jeno with buttoning up his fatigues, and Mark gets another opportunity to jostle Jaemin awake. By the time they're done it's almost 0800, and the rush to the mess hall is underway. Predictably, the hallways are wet, and more than a few cadets slip and fall onto their asses much to the senior officers' delight.

The mess hall is teeming with residents of the Dome, the din of conversation even louder than the rain beating against the large windows that overlook the bay. The few pets that the officers are allowed to have circle the room, pawing at people's legs for scraps; Jeno scratches one cat under its chin and promptly erupts into a sneezing fit. The cadets on serving duty spoon galbitang, bean sprouts, and rice into their trays, and they make their way to their usual table right by the doors.

All of them tuck into their breakfast without incident until Mark catches Renjun looking furtively around the hall. "Injun, is there something wrong?" he asks in concern.

Renjun shakes his head. "It's probably nothing," Renjun signs, hands flying quick as lightning. "But... I dunno. Haven't you noticed the staff acting weird?"

"How do you mean?" Jaemin peers at their roommate curiously.

"I mean, the engineers have been busier than usual," Renjun explains. "Look—they're huddled over something at that table."

Jaemin hums. "Come to think of it, we haven't seen Haechan in a while."

"The other officers have been acting weird, too," Mark adds. "Officer Jung has been missing a lot of lessons lately."

"Oh, that's because they're building a new Jaeger," Jeno answers nonchalantly, poking at his bean sprouts as though he hadn't just told everyone a state secret.

Mark leans closer so no other cadets can listen in, and the others follow suit. "How did you know?" he whispers urgently.

"Chenle told me, of course," Jeno answers, puzzled.

"Boyfriend privileges," Jaemin snorts. Mark begrudgingly concurs. Chenle is one of the only two pilots left in the Jeju Shatterdome. He—along with Jisung—pilots Pink Slip, the Dome's newest Jaeger. "What else did he tell you?"

"That's basically it," Jeno shrugs. "He said the Marshal would 'beat his ass' if word got round before it was publicly announced."

Renjun is smirking. "Sounds about right."

"Who do you think will be piloting it, though?" Jaemin prods excitedly. "I mean, four of the top candidates are sitting right here, you know."

"Your modesty does you credit," Renjun returns, rolling his eyes. "It's probably Mark, though, we all know that."

This time, it's Mark's turn to snort. "If they find someone for me to Drift with, that is."

"We could try again," Jeno suggests kindly. Mark finds himself returning that smile despite himself. Leave it to Jeno to be infallibly optimistic.

"I don't think my sync scores will change, Jeno," Mark says softly.

"Even so," Jaemin interjects, clapping a hand on Mark's shoulder, "The Jaeger is only as good as its pilot. And you're the best choice."

Mark smiles and puts a hand over Jaemin's. "Thanks, Jaem."

The revelation of the new Jaeger does little to affect their day, right until it almost ends. They still go to advanced classes from 0900 to 1200, have lunch at 1200 to 1300, and self-train from 1300 onwards, which all of them agree to spend in the Kwoon room. Mark knows Officer Bae is thrilled to see them, even if it doesn't show; they're her best students, after all. The Kwoon fightmaster wastes no time ushering Mark and Renjun to the mats after all of them stretch under her instruction.

The match goes on for a good fifteen minutes, Mark landing more than a few hits on Renjun as Jeno and Jaemin cheer them on. Eventually, Irene sighs and presses a button on her stopwatch. "Alright, cadets, that's enough." Her eyes are tired, but amused. "50 to 37, Lee. Good effort, Huang."

Renjun stands up from the mats with a sniff. "With all due respect, Ma'am," he signs, "If we already know we're not Drift compatible, why put him in the Kwoon room with us?"

"Because your form could always improve, cadet," she quips. Mark can't hide his smile when Renjun throws him a dirty look. "Alright. You, you." Irene points at Mark and Jeno, who's pouting. "Up. Let's see if you can block now, Lee."

Jeno, as it turns out, can block with a little more success, but Mark still takes him out with a devastating 48 to 25. He's smirking at Jeno lying facedown on the exercise mats when there's a knock on the door.

"Sir!" Mark straightens immediately, kicking at Jeno to do the same, and Renjun and Jaemin snap to attention across the room. Deputy Marshal Jung laughs and waves a hand.

"At ease, boys. Good afternoon, Miss Bae." Jaehyun smiles at them, surveying the disarrayed state of the Kwoon room. "Made a right mess, I see. Good job." Here he sends a wink towards Jaemin, who uncharacteristically colors a deep red. Renjun snorts.

Jaehyun turns to Irene with a glint in his eye. "Irene, can I borrow Cadet Lee for a second? Mark, I mean." The cadet in question throws an alarmed look at his friends, to which all of them shrug their shoulders. "Don't worry, it's nothing bad," Jaehyun reassures.

Irene nods her assent, and Mark follows Jaehyun out the door, wiping his sweat and patting his hair into some semblance of order before he speaks. "What's this about, sir?"

Jaehyun smiles kindly, clasping his hands behind his back. "You're one of the cadets with the longest training experience, correct?"

Mark stiffens. "Sir, if you're here to remind me—"

"I'm sorry, cadet, I mean no offense," Jaehyun apologizes, reaching out to put a hand on Mark's shoulder. "What I meant was—you've trained extensively, am I right?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you're confident in your skills?" Jaehyun prods intently.

"Well, I'd like to think so, sir," Mark replies, a little bewildered.

Jaehyun smiles again, squeezing Mark's shoulder before releasing it. "Just making sure. We have a meeting with the Marshal at 1700. I suggest you finish up your training early."

"We—sir—the Marshal?" Mark sputters. "What for?"

"You'll find out soon enough. Now go back in and continue your training." Jaehyun dismisses him with a wave, as though he hadn't just dropped a bomb.

More than a little confused, Mark watches him turn the corner before he returns to the Kwoon room.

 

 

***

 

Mark doesn't tell anyone about his conversation with Jaehyun. He'd like to think he acted well enough when he avoided Jaemin's questioning, only stating that Jaehyun wanted to check up on him; one disbelieving look from Renjun was enough to let him know he isn't hiding anything from them. Nevertheless, he's thankful when they don't press him further, even when they can tell he's distracted for the rest of the day.

He's never been called to the Marshal's offices. Taeyong Lee is a busy man, up early and asleep even earlier in the morning. He only ever sees the Marshal in passing, in the hallways on the way to the Shatterdome or when he talks to the officers. Never the JA students, not even pilot trainees. What if his friends are right and he's going to be the pilot for the new Jaeger? That definitely warranted a meeting with the Marshal and his second-in-command. But oh, Mark doesn't dare hope. Even if it were the case, there was still no one he could Drift with.

It's with much apprehension and anxiety that Mark makes his way to the oft-deserted building at the end of the compound that contains both offices and living spaces for the higher-ups. At the heart of the circular building is an elevator that the guards usher him into; before he knows it, he's shooting up the building. A brass door engraved with the Marshal's name and rank is what greets him at the topmost floor. He knocks, heart racing a mile a minute, and is told to enter.

The Marshal is sitting at his desk with Jaehyun at his side, poring over a breadth of holoscreens projecting plans that Mark can't make heads nor tails of. Marshal Lee looks up, austere in the way he straightens and laces his fingers together when Mark enters. "Good afternoon, cadet."

"You called, sir?" Mark asks timidly.

"Yes, I did. Please, have a seat."

Mark settles stiffly into a leather chair. Jaehyun gives Mark a comforting smile, at least. He's moved behind and to the left of the Marshal's desk. Passive, but could be spurred into action if needed.

"You've been called here because we found someone that might be Drift compatible with you," Marshal Lee explains. "The two of you are the top picks for the new Mark IV model. Dr. Kim will have you tested tomorrow."

Mark shoots up straight in his seat. So they were right—the Jaeger could be his. "Really, sir? That's—" He clears his throat, leaning back to maintain some semblance of professionalism. "That's great, sir. But—just who am I testing with? We already tried everyone in the academy."

The Marshal nods. "Indeed. You won't be testing with any cadet from here, no. You'll be testing with a transferee from the Hong Kong Shatterdome."

"A transferee? Why would one of the priority stations send us their recruits?" Mark wonders.

"Not a recruit, Lee. A Jaeger pilot. He lost his Drift partner a few months back during a Category 3 attack."

A pilot from the Hong Kong Shatterdome who lost his Drift partner... "I'm test Drifting with Tunnel Vision's pilot?"

"Affirmative, cadet."

Mark frowns. Tunnel Vision was the Hong Kong Shatterdome's primary strike team—until one of the pilots died of unknown circumstances while in the Drift. If Mark was to believe anything the teachers told him, it was that losing your Drift partner is an unspeakably horrifying loss. Half your identity, ripped from you while you share your hearts and minds... Mark can't imagine how much pain Tunnel Vision's remaining co-pilot must have been in. "But isn't he—With all due respect, sir. Is he ready to Drift again?"

"I'm going to be honest with you, recruit: our lead team is out of commission." A very vivid memory of Jaehyun getting a migraine in the middle of lessons appears in his mind's eye. "In the past, we were able to get away with less than the three Jaeger minimum solely because our area of jurisdiction doesn't get targeted that often. But now—the kaiju are getting bigger and more aggressive. Zhong and Park can't possibly hold down the fort with just Pink Slip." The Marshal looks him directly in the eye. "You are our best bet."

"But sir," Mark protests. "He's a veteran. I'm just a cadet."

"I wouldn't count you out just yet, Lee," Jaehyun interjects. Mark turns to him, puzzled. "Your drop test scores are impeccable, probably on par with an actual pilot. Every teacher we have couldn't possibly recommend you enough, including me." He smiles encouragingly at Mark. "You're the only one in this base who has the potential to keep up with him in the Drift. Higher-ups in the corps seem to think it's worth a try."

"It's a risky venture," the Marshal adds. "But a risk we're willing to take."

Of course it's risky—Drifting with anyone that damaged is bound to be. But any apprehension in him is overpowered by his desire, his itch to get out there and pilot his own Jaeger. Four years, ten months, twelve days. It could end there. "I understand, sir."

"I'm glad we're on the same page." The Marshal leans back in his chair, clearly relieved. "Do you have any questions?"

"Why send him here? If he's that good a pilot that the PPDC doesn't want to waste him, why send him to a secondary base? No offense, sir," Mark tacks on for good measure.

"He specifically requested to be transferred to a base with a lower attack frequency," the Marshal explains. "The corps is lucky that he's even still willing to pilot. His first idea was retirement."

"I see."

"If that's all, Cadet?" the Marshal prompts.

"That's all, sir."

"Good." Marshal Lee rises, Mark following suit. "We'll see you tomorrow at the receiving bay 0800 sharp. Dismissed."

Jaehyun gives him one last warm smile and extricates himself into the adjacent office. Mark nods at the Marshal, turning to show himself out, when—

"Minhyung."

Mark stiffens, clenching his fists at his sides. He turns back around to face the Marshal, careful to school his face into the professionalism required of a subordinate. "Yes, sir?"

Taeyong sighs, loosening his tie a fraction. "None of that," he says in Korean. "I just want to warn you—this will be nothing like the other test Drifts."

The other test Drifts. Mark feels his cheeks flush with shame. Taeyong's story couldn't be more different from his: they both excelled in the Academy, yes, but he immediately found his Drift partner, and from then on it was basically a red carpet to their own Jaeger. What does he know of the persistent failure Mark's been through?

"How do you know that it will be different?" Mark asks instead. The syllables are clunky, unfamiliar to his tongue from disuse.

"It's not you that I mean," Taeyong explains. "Tunnel Vision's pilot... he's suffered a great loss. I want you to know that this might not go as smoothly as you want. Don't get your hopes up too high."

"I know that, hyung," Mark replies. "But can you blame me? I've been waiting for so long."

"I know, Mark. You were always so eager to learn and get out there..." Taeyong rests his hands on his desk, back hunched over seemingly dozens of holoscreens. For a millisecond, Mark catches a glimpse of the weight on his shoulders—the Shatterdome, the PPDC, the Jaeger Academy. This new, risky project that Mark himself is involved in. "Whatever happens, understand that this won't be anything like you've done before."

Mark feels himself deflate under the weight of Taeyong's stare. Commanding officer or no, Taeyong is still his brother, and he's never led Mark astray. "I understand."

Taeyong nods. "Good." His eyes are warm, but his posture is stiff, movements unsure as he claps Mark on the shoulder. "Best of luck tomorrow."

Mark salutes. "I won't disappoint you, sir."

Taeyong smiles wanly. "I'm not the one to impress, cadet. Save your enthusiasm for Ranger Wong."

 

***

 

Of course he'd be the first choice for the new Jaeger.

The Marshal is finally showing his true colors.

Isn't this blatant favoritism?

For a compound so large, it's really a wonder how quickly news spreads. Silence was what met him when Mark entered the dorm hall, followed by an incessant flurry of whispers and furtive glances as he made his way towards his room.

If I were Taeyong's favorite, he would have had me pilot Pink Slip instead, Mark thinks bitterly. But he keeps his head down and ambles forward, the sounds of gossip fading into the background as he pushes the door marked HUANG, LEE, J., LEE, M., NA. He's promptly greeted with two shrill voices and Renjun waving his hands around.

"Everyone fuck off," Jaemin yells into the hall, and the other cadets flinch. "I'm fucking serious. Anyone who bothers us, I'm telling Miss Bae to test with me in the Kwoon room."

The other recruits scurry off into their rooms on threat of Jaemin bludgeoning them in front of the Kwoon room master. Mark smiles widely at his roommates, allowing himself to be pulled into their room. "The hell is this?" he laughs.

"Heard you were gonna test Drift for the new Mark IV model," Jaemin grins. "Congrats!"

Renjun is smiling as he signs, "Who is it?"

"He's not a recruit in the Jeju base," Mark explains, sitting beside Jeno on his bunk. "Lucas Wong, do you know him?"

"Tunnel Vision's co-pilot?" Jeno says, baffled. "I thought he would have retired after that."

"Me too," Mark sighs. "Apparently the corps thinks he's too good to waste, so..."

Renjun's eyebrows knit together in concern. "Poor guy."

"Yeah. I hope I make it worth it for him."

Jeno rolls his eyes, enveloping Mark in a tight hug. "Seriously, Mark, ignore them. There's no way you won't do great."

"Everyone knows you're the top cadet in this Shatterdome," Jaemin adds seriously. "They're stupid if they think this was all just the Marshal's idea."

"Thanks, you guys." Mark's smile is soft, genuine. What would he do without them? "Really. I appreciate it."

"Of course," Renjun replies, not missing a beat. "Don't worry, Mark. You'll do great tomorrow."

They turn down for the evening with the usual chatter, tossing their one tube of toothpaste around and scrabbling for the expensive facial wash Jeno's sister was able to sneak him. Renjun reviews his physics workbook with Mark, Jeno does his nightly calisthenics, and Jaemin reads his manhwa upside down.

At 2200, Jaemin turns the lights off and they say their good nights. Mark lies down on his bunk, but his mind is racing far too quickly for him to fall asleep; he would be test Drifting for the first time in a long while, with a seasoned pilot that ran point for the first and largest Shatterdome in the world. He'll have to concentrate extra hard not to embarrass himself or the Marshal, but Jaehyun said it himself: he's probably on par with an actual pilot. Hell, he was most of the way there. Only two things were left to seal the deal.

The first time he had been in a simulation Conn-Pod, it had felt so right—the mesh of the Drivesuit against his skin, the cold from the spinal clamp, control panels appearing in front of him in no semblance of order. Even the slight headache he got after every drop test was rewarding. He was meant to be in a Jaeger. For the hundredth time, he wonders what it would be like to share that strain with a partner. How would they communicate in the Drift? Would they need to use words, or would the headspace be enough for them to know what the other thought?

Then there was the matter of Lucas Wong's... circumstances. What if the PPDC is wrong, that he's too damaged to Drift with ever again? Mark will be plugged into the Conn-Pod, hoping against hope that he'll finally be able to pilot, to prove that he can do it, only to be faced with yet another failure. Another day of being just another cadet in the Jeju Shatterdome.

Four years, ten months, twelve days. He hopes it will end tomorrow.

Chapter Text

 

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
HONG KONG SHATTERDOME
HONG KONG, TSING YI, SAI TSO WAN

Personnel Dossier: Lucas Wong

Name: Lucas Wong (Native name: 黃旭熙)
Assigned Team: Rangers, ID R-LWON_238.25-J
Date of Active Service: January 26, 2018
Current Service Status: Inactive

Biography:
Born January 25, 1999, Hong Kong. Parents Li-kang and Mayuree. Only child. Moved to London in 2008. Entered Jaeger Academy at Tsing Yi June 18, 2015, qualified 2018. Assigned with schoolmate Kun Qian as Tunnel Vision's inaugural crew. First deploy August 3, 2018, brought down kaiju KS-8 "Rascal" in Kaohsiung. Three subsequent kills, all within the Hong Kong Shatterdome area of jurisdiction.
During engagement with kaiju JT-12 "Manohara" February 6, 2021, co-pilot Kun Qian KIA. Survived and extracted by Strike team Hero Apocalypse. Temporarily assigned with Jaeger tech team shortly after. Currently receiving psychotherapy along with daily dose of Metharocin.

Notes:
Displayed exemplary piloting skill early within enlistment period. Official qualification for ranger program is technically January 2017 but delayed deployment due to young age.

Addendum:
Consult with Jeju HQ for possibility of resuming active service. -YZ 9/19


 

 

It's still raining on the day that Lucas Wong is set to arrive at the Jeju Shatterdome.

Mark is wide awake by 0600, unable to keep the unruly mix of excitement and anxiety that had been brewing in his gut at bay any longer. He spends most of that extra energy running a lap around the indoor jogging track, and what's left over to sneak into the Kwoon room and practice his stances. Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun send him off after breakfast with well wishes, Jaemin planting a sloppy kiss on his cheek for "good luck", and they usher him off to the receiving bay with no small amount of hooting and hollering, much to his embarrassment.

The rain does little to deter the flurry of activity in the Shatterdome—scientists and engineers meander about with black umbrellas in their hands, accompanying workers that drive carts containing machine parts and harvested kaiju organs preserved in ammonia. Bundled up in a raincoat, Mark arrives at Bay 04 a little before 0800, stomach churning in unease. Jaehyun finds him loitering around the bay doors, and Mark throws up a shaky salute before concentrating all his efforts into preventing his kimchi bokkeumbap from being acquainted with the pavement.

"Calm down, cadet," Jaehyun reassures, taking stock of his face getting greener and greener by the second. "I'm sure Ranger Wong won't bite."

"I'm sure Ranger Wong would be insulted at being partnered with a cadet, sir," Mark returns.

"It's either that or Zhong or Park," Jaehyun points out. "And we both know I can't get out there yet." Mark resents the fact that the senior officer makes quite a lot of sense. Logic notwithstanding, his breakfast is still steadily making its way up his esophagus, his ears are starting to buzz, not to mention the way his heart rate must be off the charts—

 

 

His nervous breakdown is cut short by a head of lime green hair bounding up to him and enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. "Mark hyung!"

"Speak of the devil," Jaehyun laughs.

"Chenle," Mark gasps into a shock of dyed hair. "Let me breathe!"

Chenle lets go with a high-pitched laugh. "Congratulations, Mark!" The younger man is bouncing up and down, excitement practically bouncing off of him in waves, and Mark can't help but be swept up in it. "Finally!"

Jisung appears behind him, armed with an umbrella and an expression that spoke of long years of suffering. "Excuse him," Jisung sighs. "He's been excited ever since Jaehyun told him yesterday."

"How could I not be?" Chenle cries. "We could be in the field with Mark! Tell me you're not excited, Jisung. Just tell me."

Jisung smiles. "Maybe I am a little excited."

"I'm thrilled," Mark deadpans, but he's grinning as well. "Thanks, kiddos."

"'Kiddo?'" Chenle exaggeratedly puffs up his chest. "Oh, I can't wait to boss you around. Primary Strike team, and all that."

"Only Strike team," Jaehyun corrects.

"Don't rain on my parade, sir!"

"Just trying to keep you humble."

"But really, Mark, I'm so proud of you!" Chenle moves over to give Mark another hug that makes him laugh and wheeze. "I have a really good feeling about this one! And if you see your Jaeger, gosh, it's practically meant for you."

"It's not mine yet," Mark reminds him. "There's the Kwoon room, the sim-pod, the test Drift..."

"Oh, shh," Chenle hushes him. "I'm telling you, he's gonna be the one."

Their conversation is interrupted by the whirring of helicopter blades, quickly morphing into a deafening roar; Jisung cringes, adjusting his in-ear audio filter to attenuate the noise. Aircraft marshals rush out onto the bay just as a PPDC chopper slowly comes into view, frantically directing the vehicle to a helipad. Wave after wave of cold air washes over all of them as the helicopter lowers itself right into the middle of the bay.

"And there it is," Jaehyun mutters under his breath. "Look sharp, boys."

"Yes, sir." Even Chenle sobers up, adopting a military propriety that looks out of place on his usually jovial features.

Jaehyun opens his umbrella and leads the charge, the two pilots and cadet following suit. Two men step down from the chopper: the Marshal, and another man who Mark can only assume is his potential co-pilot. His kimchi bokkeumbap threatens to make a reappearance.

"Good morning, boys," the Marshal greets, taking an umbrella from Jaehyun and housing their new arrival within it. "Ranger Wong, let me introduce you to the gentlemen you'll be working with."

"Delighted, I'm sure." The other man smiles, eyes passing over the four of them to finally land on Mark and—oh.

Ranger Wong is... unlike anyone Mark has met before. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his cheeks look more hollow than they should, but both do little to discredit what undoubtedly is still a handsome face. The disagreeable weather miraculously doesn't wash out the burnished bronze of his skin, and somehow the PPDC regulation fatigues aren't unflattering on his figure. And he's tall—much taller than any of them here, probably of a height with Dr. Suh down in the Academy.

Far too absorbed in his own thoughts, Mark doesn't realize that the two of them have been staring at each other until the Marshal speaks up again, forcing Ranger Wong to break his gaze.

Marshal Lee gestures to Jaehyun. "Deputy Marshal Jung is helping me run this facility."

Jaehyun smiles warmly, extending his free hand for Ranger Wong to shake. "We did a drop together, if I'm not wrong."

"Yes, sir. 2019, I believe."

"I'm sorry about your partner."

Ranger Wong's smile is razor-thin. "Thank you, sir."

"Zhong and Park here pilot our only Jaeger," the Marshal continues. "Doing a bang-up job of it as well." Chenle flushes deeply at the praise, smiling widely as both he and Jisung shake hands with the senior pilot.

"And this is Cadet Lee," the Marshal finishes, gesturing for Mark to step forward. "He'll be test Drifting with you today."

"Mark Lee." He tries his hardest not to trip over himself as he extends a hand to shake. Ranger Wong's hand is much larger, he notes, all but dwarfing his. "Welcome to the Jeju Shatterdome."

"Lucas Wong. Nice to meet you, Mark." The taller man is all smiles as he speaks, his British accent curling over every letter. Mark almost forgets to respond.

"Likewise, Ranger Wong."

"Please, it's Lucas. Ranger Wong is my alter ego." Gorgeous and witty. Mark is losing focus very quickly.

"If you'll excuse me—Officer Jung and I have some business to attend to. Zhong, Park, you can show our two recruits around the Jaeger station, I presume?"

"Yes, sir," Jisung replies with the solemnity of a person given an all-important task.

"Good. And behave." The latter instruction is directed more to Chenle than anyone else. "I believe Engineer Lee will be meeting you. Ranger Wong, we will meet after your tour as planned. Gentlemen."

The four of them give the senior officers a salute as they disappear into the station, and Chenle, seemingly reanimating in the absence of the Marshal, turns to them with a wide grin.

"The Shatterdome is busier than usual, brand new Jaeger and all," Chenle says all in one breath as he leads them through the waterlogged hallways of the bay. Jisung begrudgingly takes the rear, rolling his eyes when Mark smirks, amused, at his exasperation. "Engineer Lee is in charge of Project 82125—your Mark IV, of course. Pink Slip himself is still being repaired from a very nasty bout from a week ago."

"We could have minimized the damage if we had just disengaged like I wanted to," Jisung grumbles.

"Ah, but that's what the taxpayer money is for, Jisungie," Chenle responds pragmatically. "And that fight could have lasted more than an hour if we didn't overclock the systems, like I wanted to."

This statement makes Jisung erupt into a rapid-fire defense of his stance, bypassing Mark and Lucas to argue with Chenle up front as they continue to lead the way. Mark finds himself shaking his head at the two pilots' antics. How they were found to be Drift compatible, he'll never know.

"Are those two always like that?" Lucas murmurs to Mark.

"Sadly," Mark answers. He pointedly ignores the way goosebumps rise on his skin at the sound of the other man's deep voice. "But our area has been kaiju-free for ten months. I'm in no position to judge them."

"Indeed," the ranger says, lopsided smile on his face. Well, at least Lucas seems to be enjoying himself.

Chenle and Jisung, still bickering, come to a stop before two large metal doors. Someone with bright orange hair is nonchalantly leaning on them, intently browsing through a holoscreen, and Mark has to squint until he recognizes them.

"Donghyuck!" Mark says in delight.

Haechan looks up from their holoscreen, grins, and flounces over to give Mark an enthusiastic hug. "Cadet Lee! Haven't seen you in a while. Chenle, Jisung, 'sup."

"Hey," the two say in unison before returning to their heated discussion.

Mark steps back from Haechan and gestures lamely to Lucas, blushing at his display of impropriety. "Haechan, this is Ranger Lucas Wong from the Hong Kong Shatterdome."

Haechan turns to Ranger Wong, smiling impishly. "Ah, you must be our new pilot," they say, extending a hand. "Everyone's been dying to meet you."

Lucas raises an eyebrow and shakes Haechan's hand. "Is that so? Lucas Wong."

"Engineer Haechan Lee. Charmed." Haechan claps their hands, beaming radiantly at all of them. "So! Let's introduce you boys to our base of operations, shall we?" They quickly punch in a code on a nearby comms unit, and the doors of the Jaeger station slowly come to life, groaning and creaking until they finally start to come apart. What lies beyond makes Mark's jaw drop.

Chenle and Jisung are pilots, and Haechan practically lives in the Jaeger station. But it's Mark's first time seeing this part of the Shatterdome—the true Shatterdome, where everything happens, the real center of operations on the Jeju compound. It's even busier in the station than in the receiving bay: several driven carts containing fuel tanks, circuitry boards, and sheets of aluminum mill around, along with technicians and mechanics all walking with purpose towards their next task. Workers perched on platforms several stories high hover around a Jaeger, welding sparks falling to the floor as they work; a pallet the size of a skating rink is moving what Mark can only assume is a dismembered Jaeger arm. The sharp scent of metal intermingled with petroleum slices through the air. All around them the thrum of machinery, drilling, hammering, and soldering creates a harmony of sound that Mark has never heard before.

This is where he could be—if today goes well. He hazards a look at the taller man beside him. It's probably nothing like the Hong Kong Shatterdome, which Mark knows can house triple the amount of Jaegers, but Lucas looks overwhelmed all the same; for what reason in particular, Mark doesn't know.

"Wel-come, to the Jeju Shatterdome grand tour!" Haechan exclaims as vivaciously as they can manage. "Exclusive to special guests only." Here they wink at Lucas, to which the taller coughs and wisely looks away.

"What am I, stale bread?" Mark mutters. But he follows Haechan into the Jaeger station anyway, Lucas at his heels.

Haechan cuts a path through the throng of people and vehicles wandering around the staging area, beckoning for them to follow. "We house a total of five Jaegers as of now. One out of commission, one being upgraded, two in repairs, and one in construction," they explain. "That's yours, of course. But we're gonna save her for last."

The engineer halts in front of a Jaeger that occupies the center of the Shatterdome. Its dented bubblegum pink shell is barely visible beneath the complicated patchwork of platforms and cranes attached to it; despite its relatively shorter height, the workers milling around it still look like ants. "This is Pink Slip, currently the only active Jaeger in the Shatterdome."

"There's our baby," Chenle says proudly, puffing his chest out.

Jisung simply rolls his eyes. "Chenle's more than mine. Yerim had him painted like that as a joke, but the first time Chenle laid eyes on Pink, he fell in love."

"How could I not?" Chenle cries. "He's perfect! Find another Jaeger that has a more advanced weaponry system."

"It's true," Haechan concurs. "Yerim, our weapons specialist, was the lead engineer for Pink Slip here. If anyone loves their rocket blasters, it's that girl."

They move onto the next bay where a hulking green mass of a Jaeger has taken residence, paint scuffed and damaged from years of exposure to saltwater. It's bulkier than Pink Slip, and substantially taller—this Jaeger, however, seems to have sustained much more damage than its fellow Mark III model. The entire front half of the Conn-Pod is being reconstructed, and its left arm is missing, the right supported by a crane to prevent the Jaeger from toppling over.

"Over here is Dead Eye, still in the middle of repairs," Haechan informs them. "Jaehyun and Sicheng's."

"So this is Sicheng ge's Jaeger," Lucas says, finally breaking his silence. He looks over Dead Eye with newfound appreciation. "We—I had a drop with them in Shanghai."

"Oh, that's right!" Chenle perks up, rounding onto Lucas with curious eyes. If he noticed the other pilot's slip of the tongue, he doesn't let on. "Sicheng ge transferred to your Shatterdome. How is he?"

"Doing well enough for himself." Lucas smiles indulgently. "The technicians say he's invaluable."

"Ah, the woes of a second priority Dome," Haechan sighs. "Why did they have to ship Sicheng away? He loved me so much."

"You just miss terrorizing him," Chenle scoffs. "And besides, we all know that I'm Sicheng ge's favorite.

"Dream on, Lele."

Lucas turns to Mark and Jisung, wisely ignoring the brewing argument for Ranger Dong's affection. "I understand that Sicheng was transferred because Dead Eye was too damaged to pilot."

"That's part of the story, yes," Mark explains. "Both of them got injured this January during a fight, some problem with their Pons circuitry. Officer Jung is still on his way to recovery, so for the meantime the Marshal's promoted him."

"I see. Sicheng speaks very highly of him."

"They're our longest-running Strike team," Jisung chimes in. "Dead Eye ran point for us when they were still active."

"And now they're out of commission, which is where I come in," Lucas completes.

Jisung looks up at the older pilot pensively. "Fingers crossed."

"You'll love this one, Markie," Haechan is calling out just as they round the corner. Another Jaeger comes into view, and for a moment, Mark is floored—this one is familiar to him despite its mutilation, from its launch to its fights to its decommissioning.

"Blue Blood," he says in awe. Mark has studied Blue Blood more hours than he can count, watched all its fights as they were happening. He knows all of its weaponry, specifications, fighting styles, and tactics—but he's never seen it in the flesh, much less up close. Its damaged cobalt shell tells the story of four successful kaiju takedowns, the last of which disintegrated the entire right half of its upper body and put its pilots out of commission.

He's been with this Jaeger, rooted for it, feared for the people within it. Blue Blood is a myth come to life.

"Blue Blood?" Lucas echoes.

"This used to be the Marshal's Jaeger," Jisung informs him. "The third of this Shatterdome."

"And what a beautiful one she is. It's too bad that Conn-Pod is beyond repair, though. Maybe if we get funds for a Mark II restoration initiative..." Haechan trails off, eyes distant, as though they're already putting together a project proposal in their head.

"Haechan," Mark coughs.

"Right!" Haechan snaps out of their stupor, spurred into motion once again. Mark shares a knowing smile with Chenle and Jisung as they rush to follow the engineer. "Now, I would have shown you Second Wind, but he's still being upgraded. He's a Mark I, and that reactor is downright cancerous, as you know. The hazmat officers have to wear lead-lined suits just to decontaminate the reactor chamber, so we won't be seeing him anytime soon. Good news, though—we can go see your Jaeger now! She's just in Bay 02."

Your Jaeger. A giddy, inexorable excitement comes over Mark, like he's a child that's been told to patiently wait before opening a Christmas present. They take a sharp right to a secluded corner of the staging area, hidden from the rest of the Shatterdome by a veritable legion of catwalks and platforms, all busily transporting an even larger number of workers. Haechan takes them underneath a walkway that leads to the inside of the alcove.

Haechan steps aside and gestures to the Jaeger with a flourish. "May I present to you: Black Widow."

Simply put, Black Widow is a beauty. It's onyx in color, still polished and shining from lack of use, and about 80 meters tall. Slender limbs outfitted with vambraces and greaves that narrow to a point at the joints hang from its frame. A dome-shaped Conn-Pod rests on its shoulders, clear cut glass arranged to look like a spider web allowing a glimpse of the inside. And its most distinguishing feature—an intricate red insignia in the shape of an hourglass in the middle of its chest.

"You really outdid yourself," Mark says dumbly, unable to take his eyes off the Jaeger.

Haechan beams. "I know, my dear. And she can be all yours."

Indeed she can. Mark imagines himself in the Conn-Pod, completely in command of this war machine. Thousands of tons of steel and hardware linked to his consciousness, becoming him. Being deployed in the middle of the ocean, the middle of the action, trying to find weaknesses in kaiju that he can exploit. And his co-pilot—

Lucas is still staring up at Black Widow, a myriad of indiscernible emotions overcoming him. Above all, a particular brand of longing that Mark can't quite place.

"Ranger Wong," he says quietly, so as to not let the others hear them. "Are you alright?"

The pilot turns to him as though only just noticing his presence. Lucas smiles down at Mark, more for assurance than any sincerity. "Quite." He turns to Haechan, who's waiting eagerly for his input. "She's remarkable. Job well done, Engineer Lee." His words, at least, are in earnest.

Haechan is practically glowing under the praise. "Thank you very much. On behalf of the construction team, of course."

"No kidding," Jisung snorts. "Haechan's been breathing down their necks for the past six months."

"Hey, I'm not lead engineer for nothing." Haechan grins at the two prospective pilots. "Want me to take you boys upstairs?" they offer.

"Yes," Mark answers immediately. "If it's no trouble," is Lucas's more restrained reply.

Haechan waves a well-manicured hand. "Of course not, she could very well be your Jaeger soon. It's just right that I show you the ropes."

"We'll wait for you down here!" Chenle informs them, cheerful.

With that, the three of them climb up onto a rickety platform that serves as a lift, dodging the mechanics and engineers traipsing through the area. "Black Widow here is a Mark IV, so you don't have to worry about getting radiation cancer or whatever," Haechan explains as they shoot upwards. "She has fifty diesel engines per muscle strand, specially fitted hyper-torque drives, and a brand-new shock absorber so you can barely feel a thing when a kaiju fucks you up. But what really makes her special is the AI programmed in."

"AI?" Ranger Wong raises his eyebrows in curiosity. "Your Marshal allowed you to install artificial intelligence on a Jaeger?"

"The Marshal knows when to take risks," Haechan replies coolly. "And this project, Ranger Wong, is a gamble. We're doing everything we can to make sure we win."

They alight onto a catwalk leading into the back of the Conn-Pod. Haechan gracefully slides into the room and fiddles with one of the HUDs as Lucas clambers in, extending a hand to Mark in assistance. He has a brief crisis before accepting it, letting himself be helped into the Conn-Pod.

"Aha!" Haechan turns around and braces their hands on their waist. "Wendy, say hi to your possible new pilots."

"Good morning, Ranger Wong," a female voice pipes up from the command console. "Cadet Lee."

"Wendy?" Mark questions.

"Weaponized Electronic Navigation Dyad," Haechan recites. "She doubles as an AI and an OS. Had her imported all the way from Canada. Just like you, Mark."

"It's, er, nice to meet you, Wendy," Lucas says hesitantly.

"Likewise, Ranger Wong. I believe you will find my integration with Black Widow seamless."

It feels strange talking to a program like it's a person, but Mark decides to give it a try anyway. "Um, Wendy, what exactly can you do?"

"My functions include facilitating the neural handshake between you and your Jaeger, ensuring power is equally distributed within your life support and weapons systems, and providing geographical information during kaiju drops," Wendy rattles off without pause. "I also learn with every mission so I can further optimize our running processes."

Lucas nods and crosses his arms. "This is an admirable operation you have here, Engineer Lee."

"Please, it's Haechan. Goodbye, Wendy." The engineer powers down the command console with a flourish. "So, Mark? What do you think?"

"They definitely didn't cover AI in Conn-Pod control class," Mark manages to blurt out. He thinks he catches Lucas stifle a laugh. "But, yeah. I didn't think this could get any more impressive, but you did it." He can definitely imagine himself in here, seeing the world through the eyes of the Jaeger. Control panels within reach, HUDs straight ahead, motion rig emulating every move he makes.

They return to the lift, Lucas helping both of them out of the Conn-Pod. "Black Widow is one of the first Mark IV models," Haechan continues. "If everything goes well, we could consider installing AI into every Jaeger we make or upgrade! So, you know. No pressure or anything."

Haechan pats Mark on the back, who's decidedly unimpressed. "Yeah, definitely."

As discussed, Chenle and Jisung are waiting eagerly by Black Widow's feet. "Did you have fun?" Chenle yells even though they're still ten feet in the air.

Haechan jumps off to ruffle the two pilots' hair. "'Course they had fun. They were with me."

"It's definitely been... enlightening," Lucas concurs. Mark barely manages to rein in a snort. "If you'll excuse me, I believe have a meeting with the Marshal. It was a pleasure to have you show me around, gentlemen." Here he nods at Haechan. "Engineer Lee." Lucas gives Mark one last smile, and the four of them watch as he strides away.

"You're so lucky, Mark," Jisung sighs once Lucas is out of earshot. "I can't believe you get to pilot with an actual pilot."

"Yeah, but, you know." Mark shrugs. "Doesn't matter if he's a pilot or not—if we're not Drift compatible, then that's that."

"I told you, I have a good feeling about this!" Chenle exclaims indignantly. "You could be our next Strike team!"

"Oh, yeah?" Mark snorts, ruffling Chenle's hair. "Either that or it's back to the academy for me."

Jisung scrunches his nose up adorably. "His loss."

"Of course, it would be fabulous if you get to pilot the Jaeger your best friend made," Haechan remarks. "But if you can't Drift with Lucas Wong, so what? I bet your co-pilot is just out there somewhere, waiting for you to find them." Haechan reaches out and takes hold of his hand, squeezing it tight. "You will pilot a Jaeger, Mark. It's what you were meant to do."

Mark smiles at Haechan and squeezes back. He hopes that they're right.

 

***

 

"Is that him? He's hot," is the first thing Mark hears when he enters the Kwoon room. Jaemin is eyeing Lucas appreciatively, who is in deep conversation with Jaehyun and the Marshal across the room.

"Astute as always, Na," Renjun signs, no small amount of displeasure on his face.

"He is, though," Jaemin defends. "Markie, I cannot believe you snagged that supermodel of a pilot. Leave some for the rest of us."

"I have not snagged him yet," Mark replies as he does his stretches. "Which is why we're here. It's so embarrassing that we have to do this in the middle of intermediate class." It's a little past 1300, barely enough time for his lunch to make it down his gullet. Everything is packed into this afternoon—the sim-pod, the test Drift, and sparring in the Kwoon room, which, to Mark's chagrin, is taking place in front of the younger cadets.

It was all moving far too fast, sure, but Mark has no qualms with that. Better that they determine their true Drift compatibility today so they can start training as soon as possible. And if they're not, well.

Jeno smiles beatifically, leaning on his own staff. "I overheard Miss Bae saying she wanted the cadets to see a 'real' demonstration."

"I'd love for Ranger Wong to demonstrate those biceps," Jaemin quips.

"God, you're horrible," Mark groans. "And why are you here, anyway? Last time I checked, we were in the advanced class."

Jaemin melodramatically puts a hand to his chest. "Moral support, Mark, how dare you," he gasps.

"Plus, no way we'd miss this," Renjun adds. "Miss Bae's right. This isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill sparring test."

"If anything, I'd love to see you get your ass kicked in the Kwoon room for once," Jaemin continues.

"Thank you so much for your support."

They all snap to attention when Irene enters the room, bowing at the waist. The fightmaster returns the gesture and assumes her position at the front of the room, Jaehyun nodding as she lines up beside him. "Good afternoon," she says in a clear voice. "Before we begin our lessons, there's something we have to do. You—" Irene gestures to a cadet, who scrambles up from his seat at the gesture. "Score the match. I want everyone to pay attention."

Mark takes this as his cue to step onto the mat. He chooses a staff that's just his height, light enough for him to use in one hand with no trouble. Lucas chooses one much shorter than Mark's but made of heavy-looking wood. He can't help but commend the choice—the other man has longer limbs, which doesn't warrant the need to compensate with a longer staff, and he'll be able to take advantage of his bulkier build by landing harder hits.

He looks past Lucas, straight at the Marshal, standing regally with his hands behind his back. Mark is rewarded with an almost imperceptible nod.

"Lee, Wong, at the ready."

Mark takes a deep, calming breath, and does the customary bow. Lucas mirrors the action, not breaking eye contact for one second.

"Remember, the goal isn't to win." Irene's words aren't directed to them so much as the entire room. "Land as many hits as you can and get to know your partner's fighting style."

Mark doesn't need a reminder. He rules the Kwoon room—Jeno favors his right side, Renjun doesn't move across the floor enough, Jaemin is too flashy. But Lucas... he's in uncharted territory. Irene's advice is nothing new, but it's not any less right: Mark has to get to know Lucas during the fifteen minutes they're allowed on the mat. He positions himself in a starting stance, watching his sparring partner carefully as he does the same.

"Start!"

Mark lunges forward, but Lucas dodges the strike with ease. Mark recoils immediately, and before he knows it their staves are colliding with a loud snap! They trade a few blocks until Lucas easily lands one on Mark's shoulder.

"1-0." Polite applause from the room. Lucas, however, doesn't betray any expression even after drawing first blood. Instead, he resumes his previous starting stance, gaze steady. Mark begrudgingly gives him that. Of course he'd be good at sparring; he's got years of experience on Mark. But the goal isn't to win.

The fight resumes. The hollow sound of wood hitting wood and their labored breathing fills the room. Mark gets a few hits in by chance, but not enough—he just can't predict what the ranger will do next. Lucas is a blank slate. He has no tells, no twitches, and his eyes remain firmly on Mark's. His reflexes are faster than Mark thought, too. But if he had learned anything after several six-hour sessions in the same damn room, it's that instinct is faster than anything else, and it's instinct—not chance—that makes him win nine times out of ten.

Lucas Wong is a challenge. Mark likes that.

Breathing deeply, Mark holds his staff in front of him with both hands. Lucas draws back to a defensive position, staff at an angle to Mark's, ready to block. He drops into a roll, hooking his staff behind the ranger's knee to bring him down onto the mats with a loud thump. Lucas doesn't even have time to react before Mark taps his chest lightly with his staff.

"4-9," the cadet calls out.

Lucas is smiling. "Nice hit."

"Thank you." Mark smirks, reaching out a hand to help Lucas up. There's barely a second of reprieve and they're at it again.

There's no use in looking for weaknesses or tells, Mark realizes. He's far too good to give something like that away. Sparring with Lucas is a game of chess—following his opponent's thoughts, mapping out what he'll do step by step based on what he knows, that's how Mark will land a hit. He stops paying attention to his own technique, opting to run variables through his mind: based on Lucas's previous moves, what's the next logical step to take?

It's with this newfound understanding that Mark starts catching up to the other man's lead. Lucas's fighting style is distinct from his own or any others that he knows. Mark is fast, landing hits when Lucas least expects it. Lucas is strong, often depending on his brute strength to strong-arm Mark into submission. But they're similar in that they both know to anticipate the other's next move.

The two of them are trading hits and blocks faster than Mark's brain can keep up with. Eventually, he stops thinking, just starts doing, both of them moving in perfect synergy across the floor mats. He sees his sparring partner's smile grow with each successful hit—not a taunt, but of genuine budding respect. This recognition eggs Mark on to push harder, move faster, and shift from one position to another with a grace that he didn't even know he had.

Everything and everyone disappears. He forgets the pain of bruises forming on his skin, the cadet calling out their scores, the Marshal's gaze trained intently on the match. It's just him, Lucas, and the electricity he feels every time their bodies touch.

Lucas has him in a body lock on the floor when the timer goes off. The other man helps him up, beaming even as they try to catch their breaths. Mark returns his exhilarated grin with one of his own.

Irene herself looks pleased, as do the two officers beside her. The Marshal's eyes are shining. "Cadet. What's the score?"

"36-37 with Ranger Wong in the lead, Ma'am."

The fightmaster nods, satisfied. "And that, cadets, is how you test for physical compatibility."

 

***

 

There's at least some respite before the next thing on Mark's hectic schedule. The Marshal and Jaehyun had departed to settle Lucas into a guest room, Jaehyun with a promise to drop by Mark's dorm room to escort him to the sim-pods. Mark was able to catch an extremely gratifying peek of Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun getting their punishment for loitering in intermediate class: cleaning duty. Serves Jaemin right. "I bet you have physical compatibility outside the Kwoon room, too," was his ever-ready wisecrack. Mark was a hair away from chucking his staff.

Jaemin wasn't entirely wrong, though; the match was certainly different from every other Kwoon room assessment he'd done. Whether he could chalk it up to the pilot's extensive experience or just him being overly familiar with everyone else he had sparred with, he wasn't sure. But there was definitely something else. An undeniable pull, a magnetism between the two of them that Mark knew Lucas could feel, too. He can't explain it—it's beyond words, what just happened back there.

Mark wonders if this is it, what Chenle went on and on about when he and Jisung first sparred, what inevitably led to them becoming co-pilots. Sure, they get into petty little spats more often than not, but anyone with two eyes can see that those two work best together. The same goes for Jaehyun and Sicheng, the Marshal and his partner, every other Strike team Mark saw form within the Jeju Shatterdome. Was he like that with Lucas? Was their compatibility as obvious, enough for them to be able to pilot Black Widow?

He supposes only the sim-pod will tell. It's not Mark's first rodeo, so to speak, but it's certainly the most daunting one yet—the last test he has to face before qualifying for the ranger program. One that he's failed to pass countless times before.

It's with this depressing thought that he drags his feet to the blessedly deserted showers in the dorms. The pitter-patter of water on tile calms his racing thoughts to some degree, but not enough; by the time he's dressed and ready to go, he's reverted to full meltdown mode, unable to concentrate on anything but the 500 scenarios running through his head, all involving him failing to Drift again.

Jaehyun comes to get him at around 1500 as promised, and they start the long trek across the compound to the J-Tech division.

"Alright, cadet. Spit it out," Jaehyun says by the time they pass the hospital wards.

Mark looks up at him in confusion. "Sir?"

"You're fidgeting," the officer explains. "You always do that when you want to ask a question in class."

"I do?" Mark asks dumbly. "Anyways, that's not the point—I was just wondering."

"About?"

He takes a deep breath. "Sir, do you think this'll work?"

"That's why we're doing a simulation first, aren't we?" Jaehyun answers reasonably.

"I mean your personal opinion, sir," Mark clarifies. "If Ranger Wong and I will be able to Drift. I just don't want to fail again and disappoint the Marshal."

Jaehyun gives him another of his kind, patient smiles. "If that's what you're worried about, then I should tell you that the Marshal was very impressed with your performance."

Mark narrows his eyes skeptically. "Really?"

"He said it was 'quite a display,'" Jaehyun quotes, rolling his eyes. "I said that was the understatement of the year."

"So you think we can Drift, sir?"

"Listen, cadet." Jaehyun stops him in front of the K-science division, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Compatibility is measured through a lot of things—brain scans, personality screenings, training and fighting styles. But all of that is useless if you don't understand each other in the Drift. What you did in the Kwoon room was an excellent example of mutual understanding." Jaehyun squeezes his shoulder in assurance. "So, to answer your question: I believe so, yes."

Mark smiles. "I hope so too, sir."

They finally reach the J-Tech division, a seemingly vacated section of the Shatterdome. It only looks that way, Mark realizes, because most of the engineers and mechanics have set up shop in the Jaeger staging area, and from Haechan's offhand comments, he knows that the laboratories are deep underground.

"Oh, speaking of," Jaehyun pipes up. "Someone's missed you, you know."

"Sir?"

A blonde man in a white coat emerges from an office, grinning widely at the two of them. "Forgotten about me already, Mark?"

"Jungwoo!" he exclaims, laughing as Jungwoo drapes himself over Mark's shorter frame. "My god. I barely get to see you."

"I never get a break!" Jungwoo laments into his shoulder. "Between earning this PhD and Johnny showing me the ropes, I can't even come visit my favorite cadet."

Mark pulls away, still smiling. He's slightly consoled by Jungwoo's presence—they'd entered the Jaeger Academy at the same time, albeit in very different programs. Jungwoo would come and find him after their lessons, spot Mark when he practiced in the Kwoon room, and pore over their mechanics workbooks together, even if the older student's homework was far more advanced than his. Even then, Jungwoo had proven extremely talented when it came to Drift technology. His promotion last January, in Mark's opinion, was long overdue.

"I trust you know why Mark is here today, Dr. Kim?" Jaehyun interjects almost coquettishly. Mark pulls a face, glancing between the two of them.

Jungwoo smiles, coy. "Of course, Officer Jung."

Oh, wow. Now that was a development Mark didn't know of. "Sim-pod," Mark interjects before he can get any more uncomfortable. "I'm here for the sim-pod tests."

"I know!" Jungwoo grips him by the arms, practically shaking with enthusiasm. "I'm so excited! You and Ranger Wong will be my first subjects."

Mark raises his eyebrows in appreciation. "Neural bridge operator, huh? You're rising through the ranks fast."

"Johnny knows talent when he sees it," Jungwoo says cheerily, motioning for the two of them to follow him down the corridor. "He can't meet us right now, though—so I'll be facilitating your test today."

"Sounds good to me."

Jungwoo leads him into the all too familiar waiting room for the sim-pod. It's just as impeccably white as Mark remembers, with a simple steel bench positioned across a two-way mirror. Two test suits encased in a cabinet lie beyond the glass, along with a machine that Mark knows will facilitate the Drift.

The Marshal arrives ten minutes later with Lucas in tow. Jungwoo immediately erupts into a flurry of activity, briefly explaining to Mark and Lucas what the sim-pod is even though the two of them are familiar with the thing. They're then ushered into the room beyond the glass, technicians coming out of nowhere to help them into their test suits. Mark has done this enough times to be familiar with the techs—the one that puts on his helmet smiles kindly before she pumps it full of relay gel. He vaguely feels the sharp click of the spinal clamp being attached to his suit, and the relay gel is absorbed into it shortly after.

Jungwoo and the techs disappear into the adjacent room. Mark catches one last glimpse of himself in the two-way mirror before the lights dim.

"Clear your mind." Jungwoo's voice washes over him soothingly. It's the same speech the previous neural bridge operator gave him, but it sounds much better coming from a friend. "Bring nothing into the Drift."

Mark steadies his breathing, tries his best to do just as Jungwoo says. He vaguely registers the scientist's voice in his ear—"Neural interface Drift initiated,"—and it starts.

He's floating, detached from his body, merely watching, waiting. He's in the middle of nothing, no sights, smells, or sounds. It's always been like this: they would initiate the Drift, and he would wait and wait for any kind of sensation to arise from the nothingness—but nothingness would be the only answer. It would be another failed test Drift, another crossed-out prospect, another thing to add to Mark's long list of failures.

He waits for what seems like an eternity, and he's close to shaking it off, pulling out of the Drift. Then he hears it—music, off to the distance, chaotic and dissonant but somehow beautiful. Enraptured, he tries to reach out, and the music seems to grow louder and louder in response—and when it finally makes contact—

A burst of images flashes by faster than light, burning themselves into Mark's mind. What he can only assume to be a young Lucas being chased around an apartment by his mother and father. Lucas, slightly older now, boarding an airplane and crying quietly into his mother's sleeve as he watches Hong Kong get smaller and smaller. His father ruffling his hair as he's being dropped off at the steps of what seems to be a boarding school. Another boy, slightly older, Kun ge, smiling as he shows Lucas around the campus.

A white and gray kitten being deposited into his arms for Christmas. Reckoner wreaking devastation on Hong Kong. Lucas, now a teenager, making a pact with Kun to enlist in the Jaeger Academy. His mother and father bidding him a tearful goodbye at Heathrow. Kun in PPDC fatigues, laughing as he jogs next to Lucas on Victoria Bay. Their first mission. Their last mission—the kaiju clawing a hole right into Tunnel Vision's Conn-Pod and Kun collapsing onto the floor.

By the time the last image has seared itself into Mark's vision, the music is louder than ever, even more jarring, to the point that it makes Mark retreat from it in dismay. But it grows slower, softer, almost an apology; Mark edges closer, and the music turns into an invitation. Mark accepts, and to his utter surprise, the music falls silent.

He's pulled out of the Drift abruptly—with a tug behind his bellybutton, he's back in the sim-pod, out of the almost-nothingness. The lights are coming back on, and he barely registers Jungwoo rushing into the room before he falls to his hands and knees.

His head is somehow spinning and throbbing at the same time, an intense pain that he's never felt before boring into his skull. Jungwoo is right beside him, propping Mark upright as he tries his best not to hurl all over the tile. "You did well," Jungwoo reports, stroking Mark's back in comfort. "Your sync rates are high."

"Oh, great." It doesn't feel like much of a victory when you're having the child of a migraine and a hangover. Distantly, he registers the spinal clamp being removed from his back; Jungwoo helps him up, and the techs swarm over him again to peel his suit off of his body. To his right, Lucas is slipping out of his own test suit with ease, looking none the worse for wear.

His headache still hasn't dissipated by the time he, Lucas, and Jungwoo file into the waiting room. Both Jaehyun and the Marshal look proud despite the pathetic meltdown Mark just had. "Excellent job, boys," the Marshal praises. "You have your first successful Drift. You two can rest for a while, and we'll see you in Bay 02."

"Sir." He and Lucas throw a salute up as the two officers exit. Mark is sure he's swaying on his feet and he missed his eyebrow completely, but fuck, this has got to be the worst torture known to man, and as soon as the door closes he slumps onto the unforgiving steel bench against the wall. Lucas seats himself on the opposite end, peering at him in concern.

"Would you two like a moment alone?" Jungwoo suggests warmly.

Lucas nods. "Please." He waits until the door clicks closed to turn to Mark, hunched over with his head in his hands. "Are you alright?"

"Jesus," Mark wheezes out.

"The name's Lucas, actually."

"Oh, ha-ha," he responds sardonically, but the attempt at humor does make him feel slightly better. "I'm fine, but... God. My head fucking hurts."

"Of course, it's only your first Drift," Lucas says in understanding. Mark registers a hand on his back, splayed wide right in the middle. "Here, sitting up will make you feel better."

Mark complies, letting Lucas guide him into a proper sitting position. He inhales deeply, trying to calm himself. "Is it always like that?" he breathes out. "Your head hurting like there's a million tiny drills inside?"

"Honestly? It's unusual for you to feel that much pain," the pilot responds. "But I suppose it varies from person to person. Someone is sharing the entirety of their memories with you—of course it's a lot to take in. It gets easier the more you do it."

"I sure hope it does," Mark answers. Once again, he's struck by how different the two of them are. It's his first Drift—his first successful Drift after years of trying and waiting and studying. But for Lucas, it's the nth time that he's letting someone into his thoughts. He looks completely at ease, unflappable, even though he's seen some of the most private moments of Mark's life, and Mark has seen some of his.

And yet—Lucas is twisting at the rings on his hand.

He should be happier. He should be thrilled—he's finally succeeded at Drifting, he can finally pilot. But Mark can't shake the vision of Kun, his bright smile, the years he and Lucas spent together. Kun, nothing but a memory now, a specter that haunts Lucas. How strange it must be for him, Mark thinks, to Drift with an absolute stranger.

"Are you... alright with this?" Mark speaks up at length, his heart beating two-time. "Drifting again?"

"Does it matter?" is the pilot's reply.

"It does to me."

Lucas gives him the smallest of smiles. "We're here to do our job, Mark."

How can he argue with that? "Yes, we are."

"I'm glad you understand." Lucas leans against the wall with a sigh, languid lines of his body laid bare. "The Marshal said we could rest, right? How about we sit here and do nothing?"

Mark's head is still pounding. It's as good a suggestion as any. "Agreed."

It takes them a while to leave the waiting room.

 


 

 

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

TEST DRIFT ASSESSMENT FORM

Section A. Test Subject Information

Subject 1
Wong, Lucas
22 / M
1999-01-25

Subject 2
Lee, Mark
22 / M
1999-08-02

Section B. Test Results
95.49% sync rate
No anomalies found

Section C. Remarks
As postulated by Dr. Suh, Subjects Wong and Lee were able to Drift with success. Sync rates are unusually high, near a perfect 100%, possibly the highest the PPDC has ever seen.
Lee suffered a headache (rated 8 out of 10 on the pain scale), but no other undesirable side effects of the Drifting process were found in both subjects. Painkillers were given upon request of Marshal Lee.
Further counseling for Wong is needed in order to ensure success with actual piloting inside a Jaeger. Please refer to Dr. Suh for further instructions.

Date of Examination: October 17, 2021
Attending Scientist: Dr. Jungwoo Kim, PhD
Received By: Dr. Johnny Suh, PhD, PsyD

 


 

They're back at the Jaeger station at around 1700, Jaehyun guiding them to Bay 02. Mark's headache has subsided somewhat, thanks to the few minutes of respite spent in Lucas's company and the small handful of aspirin Jungwoo had dropped into his hand.

There's no preamble, no introduction from the officers—they're propelled directly to the uppermost floor of the Shatterdome. Haechan drops by just before they board the elevator, wishing him a very energetic "Good luck!" and giving Mark a decidedly unprofessional cheek kiss right in front of Lucas. He makes a point of avoiding the ranger's amused gaze the entire ride as he plots Haechan's untimely death.

Both of them sober up very quickly as they're led into the Drivesuit room, a circular nook with a low ceiling that connects directly to Black Widow's Conn-Pod. A roster of equipment resting in sterilized boxes is arrayed on the far wall, the most notable of which are their Drivesuits.

The bodysuit itself is black polymer, with circuitry sewn into it that creeps up and down the limbs. Nodes that will allow them to feel what the Jaeger does are attached at key points like the spine and major afferent neurons. The armor is a polished black chrome, brand spanking new, with the same red hourglass insignia as the Jaeger emblazoned on the chest piece and the PPDC logo embossed on both shoulders.

There's no modesty in the corps; he and Lucas strip down to their underwear, Drivesuit technicians hovering over them immediately and extricating the circuitry suits from their containers. They're zipped up in under one minute and outfitted with their armor within five, topped off with a sleek helmet that fits Mark perfectly. The process is exactly like getting tested in a sim-pod, but more authentic, legitimate. He's no longer wearing a threadbare test suit that countless other cadets have worn—this Drivesuit, this armor is his.

"It suits you," Lucas comments. Mark flushes, pleased.

He feels like cast-iron, a force of nature. You need to feel like one, Mark supposes, if you're about to man an 80-meter tall mech. A force of nature and nothing less.

They step into the Conn-Pod. Lucas naturally takes the right hemisphere, Mark gravitating to the left. The techs follow right at their heels, attaching spinal clamps and arm sensors from their suits to the motion rig that hangs above their heads. Black gauntlets with glowing red circuitry are fitted onto their hands, and they're prompted to stand on the platforms in front of them, geared locks snaking up to latch onto their boots. Relay gel is pumped into their helmets and absorbed into their suits, and they're ready to go.

The mic in Mark's ear crackles to life, Lucas's deep voice filling the silence in the Conn-Pod. "You ready, partner?" he asks.

Mark can't help but smile. It sounds ridiculous, straight out of a Wild West movie and out of place in the gigantic fucking robot they're about to pilot. "Absolutely."

"Welcome aboard, pilots," a female voice pipes up from the command console. "I'm Sooyoung Park, LOCCENT Mission Controller. I'll be guiding you through your neural bridge exercise today."

"Yes, ma'am." Digital HUDs spring up at eye level, displaying their vitals and the status of the Jaeger's various running systems.

"This is just a test to see if you can maneuver your Jaeger," Sooyoung continues. "Nothing flashy, please. Wendy, are the pilots ready?"

"Pilots are on board and ready to connect," Wendy responds.

"Perfect. Prepare for neural handshake."

Lucas gives him one last reassuring smile before closing his eyes. Mark does the same, inhales, regulates his breathing. He clears his mind of all thoughts, all sensations—"Neural Drift interface initiated," Sooyoung recites—and he's floating within nothingness once again.

The same piece of music reaches out, and Mark accepts. Lucas's memories flood his mind, just like they had in the sim-pod, but with one last addition: Mark in the receiving bay, black umbrella against the dull gray of stone, his eyes the only point of light in the oppressive torrent of rain.

Mark is yanked out of the memory, Black Widow's HUDs and control panels materializing in front of him. Right at the base of his skull, the Drift is humming, excited, rearing to go. He flexes his hands experimentally. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lucas doing the same, as though there was a mirror between them.

"Right hemisphere calibrated," Wendy reports. "Left hemisphere calibrated."

Both of them position themselves into a fighting stance, and Black Widow follows within a nanosecond, as though she were prepping for a Kwoon room fight. Mark cranes his head towards Lucas and smiles, earning a matching grin in return.

"Calibration complete. Proofed and transmitting. Ready to activate the Jaeger."

"Black Widow is syncing up," Sooyoung confirms. "Congratulations, boys."

"Pilot to Jaeger connection complete."

So this is how it feels, Mark ponders, being connected to another human being with the sole purpose of piloting a Jaeger. His head no longer aches—oddly, he feels lighter, unencumbered. Powerful, even. To Mark, the kaiju had always seemed near-indestructible; in a Jaeger, he stood a chance.

He turns to look at Lucas, perfectly at ease and in his element. His eyes are alert and his stance steady, a product of experience and expertise. His confidence, the way he moves like he was made to be in a Jaeger, reminds Mark of his brother.

A picture of Taeyong flashes across his vision, standing tall in his cobalt blue armor. Taeyong on a television screen, fresh from his first kaiju fight, smiling in triumph as the press congratulates him and his partner. Taeyong in a hospital bed, recovering, permanently out of commission. Taeyong, now the Marshal, farther from Mark than ever.

The memory passes by as quickly as it comes. Mark blinks in confusion, the Drift ringing in alarm, his surroundings taking shape once again.

"Lee?" Sooyoung is saying. "Lee, you were out of alignment. Are you alright?"

"Yes, yeah, I'm fine." Mark shakes his head. "Lucas, you good?"

No response. Lucas is staring into the distance, staring at nothing. He might as well be catatonic. "Pilot out of alignment," Wendy informs them.

"Lucas?" he tries. "Lucas, snap out of it!" Mark turns to the control panel. "Sooyoung, what's going on here?"

"He's chasing the rabbit—random access brain impulse triggers," Sooyoung explains, voice calm. "He's latched onto a memory, he's way out."

"Can we pull him out?" Mark asks frantically.

"You can try, but—"

Sooyoung's voice fades away, getting more and more distant until it gives way to the sound of waves crashing against each other. The Conn-Pod dims, yellow and red lights giving way to darkness, then afternoon light. He's still in a Jaeger, but not Black Widow—this Conn-Pod is far from new, bronze panels scratched and dented. The right side of the hull has fallen apart, exposed circuitry raining sparks into the cockpit. Hundreds of feet below him, the ocean churns angrily, drowning out all sound.

It's only until he sees the two pilots that it clicks. Tunnel Vision.

We need to evacuate! Kun is saying, reaching out for one of the control panels in front of him.

No! Lucas seizes Kun's arm. We can still do this! We just need to—

Lucas is cut off by an ear-splitting screech. A kaiju, injured and bleeding, angrily swipes at Tunnel Vision. They swerve to dodge the hit, straighten up, and break out into a run to ram the kaiju with Tunnel Vision's head like a bull. Both Jaeger and kaiju fall to the ocean floor.

Initiate plasma cannon! Kun shouts, and the palm of the Jaeger's right hand glows white-hot. Lucas and Kun raise their own hands, preparing for the kill, then—

The kaiju latches onto the Conn-Pod with an appendage, and Lucas and Kun curl up, screaming, clapping their hands to their ears. Both look like they're in excruciating pain, bordering on torture—Mark tries yelling at Lucas to "snap out of it, it's just a memory, it's not real!"—but Lucas can't hear him.

Neither of the pilots notice as the kaiju tears off the face of the Conn-Pod, glass showering onto the platform. Kun falls to his knees, nose bleeding, screaming his head off; Lucas is groaning, taking small, pained steps in an attempt to reach for the control panel. Barely a second passes after he presses the button when Kun falls onto the floor of the Jaeger.

Kun ge! Lucas screams, kneeling to turn Kun over onto his back. His co-pilot's face is ashen, still. Lifeless. Kun ge! Wake up!

"Lucas! It's just a memory!" Mark cries. "None of this is real!" He reaches out to touch Lucas's shoulder and immediately recoils, pain searing through him. His ears are ringing, every nerve in his body feels like it's on fire—he can't see, can't think, forgets about everything else except the absolute agony coursing through his veins—he almost wishes for death, for this torment to end, when—

The pain stops, and he's in nothingness once again.

Chapter Text

 

AUTOPSY REPORT

NAME OF DECEDENT QIAN, KUN  CASE NO 1144854
AGE 25  SEX M  DATE OF BIRTH 1996-01-01
DATE OF DEATH FEBRUARY 6, 2021  TIME OF DEATH 2:37 PM
PRONOUNCED BY ███████████████████

EXTERNAL EXAMINATION
The body is that of a normally developed Asian male measuring 176 centimeters and weighing 60 kilograms, and appearing generally consistent with the stated age of twenty-five years. There are multiple, irregularly distributed bruises all over the body including the limbs and torso, identified as occurring during a kaiju battle.

X-RAYS
Total body x-rays demonstrate fractured skull, right ileum, and right humerus.

GROSS DESCRIPTION

SKIN: Multiple contusions with varying sizes.

HEART: 380 grams. Normal size and shape, coronary arteries within normal limits.

HEAD AND NECK ORGANS: Hemorrhaging in nasal mucosa.

LUNGS: 930 grams combined. Septal hemorrhaging and bronchiolar constriction present.

LIVER: 1650 grams. Within normal limits.

BRAIN AND MENINGES: Extreme shrinkage of cerebral cortex. Severely enlarged ventricles. Intracerebral hemorrhaging present.

SKULL: Linear fracture of right parietal bone.

PELVIS: Comminuted fracture of right ileum.

EXTREMITIES: Multiple bruises concentrated on dorsal side. Comminuted fracture on right humerus.

MICROSCOPIC SECTIONS: Heart, lungs, brain

OTHER LAB PROCEDURES: Toxicology, photography, x-ray, microscopic examination

MICROSCOPIC DESCRIPTION
HEART: No remarkable observations.
LUNGS: Septal hemorrhaging present.
BRAIN: Extensive neuron degeneration.

POST-MORTEM CHANGES:
None identified.

SUMMARY:
The decedent sustained multiple external injuries, but none severe enough to cause death. ICH possible, but doubtful. The current suggestion is rapid brain degeneration, however the connection to other identified injuries remains unclear.

CAUSE OF DEATH:
Unknown.

MANNER OF DEATH:
Unknown.

 


 

Mark wakes up to bright white lights and a drip in his left hand. Groaning, he sits up with difficulty, limbs feeling like they're weighed down with concrete and his mouth full of cotton. His vision is cloudy, but well enough for him to determine he's in one of the private rooms in the hospital wards. On the far wall is a collection of black and white images on a light board—MRI scans of a brain. His? Otherwise, the sterile room is sparsely decorated, save for a single potted plant by the door.

He shakes his head, trying to clear it of fog. It's borderline disturbing how everything feels like it's moving in slow motion, from his thoughts to every little movement he makes—he's all doped up, that much is obvious. What would warrant this large a dosage of painkillers, though, he doesn't know. The last thing he remembers is being in Black Widow, Lucas to his right, the two of them plunging into the Drift and—

Of course. He blacked out, and now he's in the hospital words, drugged up and recovering from something. Most likely the severed Drift, another fucking failure. God, and he really thought it would end today. He had been soaring so high, too—he was finally inside a Jaeger, one that could be his own, with a partner that could actually Drift with him.

What does this mean for the project, he wonders, if their first test was such a disaster? Ranger Wong is the one that PPDC wants—Mark himself is expendable. Would he be replaced with another cadet, someone who wants to pilot a Jaeger just as badly as he does? He would be on the receiving end of more sidelong glances in the dormitories for a different reason. Instead of Mark Lee, the Marshal's favorite, it would be Mark Lee, the one that was almost a ranger.

The door very slowly pushes open, a blonde head of hair peeking in. "Oh, Mark!" Jungwoo exclaims. "You're awake."

"Jungwoo?" Mark replies. "Thank God. Can you tell me what happened? Is the project off?"

"I'll explain it to you later." Jungwoo elbows his way into the room with a tray of what looks to be samgyetang and a small army of side dishes. "Here, you need to eat first. You missed dinner."

"What time is it?"

"A little after 2 AM," Jungwoo says apologetically, rolling up the tray at Mark's feet to deposit the food in front of him. "Eat up. Jaemin will kill me if you starve."

Mark accepts the scientist's offer of steel chopsticks and a spoon. His movements are sluggish, frustrating, and he can't seem to grip his utensils right, but Jungwoo patiently pulls up a chair and chatters on about nothing. Mark obediently finishes everything on the tray and a glass of water before turning to Jungwoo, head tilted in expectation. "Now will you tell me what happened?"

Jungwoo simply sighs, folding his hands on his lap. "Wong chased the rabbit, as you know," he explains, voice soft. "And he... blocked you out while you were Drifting. He ended the neural bridge voluntarily."

Mark frowns, confused. "You can do that?"

"Apparently. At the cost of your Drift partner fainting and suffering the mental equivalent of whiplash."

That explains the MRIs. The brief thought has difficulty materializing in his drug-addled mind, annoying Mark even further. "How did he do that?"

Jungwoo wrings his hands together nervously. "That's what we don't know. It shouldn't be possible. There's a lot of safeguards in the Pons system to ensure pilots don't spontaneously disrupt their neural bridge, even when they're in major peril," Jungwoo says. "For Wong to actually sever your bridge, and do it while in a memory... It's really unusual."

"He meant to do it, right?" Mark clarifies. "Push me out?"

"Mishaps during the first neural bridge exercise aren't uncommon, Mark," Jungwoo reasons preemptively.

"But he did it voluntarily," Mark presses.

Jungwoo bites his lip. "That much is clear from when we got his side of the story, yes."

Anger, red-hot, makes itself known amidst the numbness in his body. They were so close—so fucking close—"Why the fuck would he do that?"

"I'm sure Ranger Wong has reasons of his own."

"Right when it's most dangerous to do it? I'm sure Ranger Wong knows the consequences of a broken neural bridge," Mark echoes, and it sounds vile even to him. Why shouldn't he be? Jungwoo himself has vindicated him. "He fucking did that to me, Jungwoo, on purpose."

Jungwoo sighs, pained. "Mark, I'm not here to argue with you—"

"How long have I been out?" Mark cuts in.

"Since yesterday evening. We're having you stay here until tomorrow, then you'll be released the next morning."

"So he incapacitated me," Mark leers. "And we're going to waste an entire day—"

"We're going to monitor you for a day, Mark," Jungwoo insists, voice firm. "Like I said, this is an uncommon occurrence. We need to know as much as possible what happened to you in the Drift."

Mark gestures blithely to the needle in his hand. "I'm sure you know all you need to."

The scientist is scowling now, the expression not sitting quite right on Jungwoo's usually cheerful face. "Mark, this is serious," he stresses. "It's the first documented case of this happening, and we need as much information as possible to know what caused this, its effects, what it means for you and Ranger Wong's partnership."

Not much of a partnership if he shoves me away, Mark thinks bitterly, but he bites his tongue and nods instead. He may be upset, but he doesn't want to tick Jungwoo off more than he already has. "Fine. Ask away."

"Alright." Jungwoo exhales, clearly relieved that Mark has decided to cooperate. "Is it okay if I dial down the painkillers? Just to make sure you're answering completely sober."

"Go ahead." Jungwoo leans forward to turn a knob connected to the tubing that feeds the needle in his hand. Mark almost immediately regrets giving his assent. Pain shoots up his spine, culminating in yet another headache making his entire brain throb—but he has no intention of showing Jungwoo that, so he tries his best to arrange his face into neutrality. He wonders momentarily if all prospective pilots have to go through this shit, or it's just him that's unlucky.

Jungwoo rearranges himself in his chair, takes out a stylus, and props a holoscreen up on his thighs. "I want you to tell me what you saw in the Drift. Start from the beginning."

Albeit with a tinge of displeasure, Mark dutifully recounts everything he saw: Tunnel Vision and its pilots, the mission going poorly, Kun's death and the memory ending without warning. Jungwoo listens attentively right until Mark describes what happened before he blacked out—the scientist looks up from where he's taking notes, more alert than before, stylus poised like a weapon in his hand.

"You were able to interact with him in the memory?" Jungwoo prods.

Mark shakes his head. "I'm not sure you could really call it an 'interaction,'" he clarifies. "When I was talking, it looked like he couldn't hear me—but when I touched him, I felt some sort of pain. What he was feeling at the time, I guess."

"Can you describe what kind of pain this was?"

His ire ebbs away at the phantom sensation of searing pain in his limbs, making him slump, boneless, against the headboard. "It hurt like hell," he recalls. "I can't really describe it. It was... it was just too much. I wanted to die. And then..."

"He cut you off?" Jungwoo completes.

"Yes."

Jungwoo purses his lips together in thought. "Well, this is... interesting, to say the least."

"That so?"

"Your brain scans showed that you were... leading, in a way," Jungwoo explains, pulling up something on his holoscreen. He holds it up for Mark to see: a graph of brain waves superimposed onto each other, his and Ranger Wong's. "Wong was struggling to keep up with you. You were pushing him quite hard in a way that he probably still wasn't ready for. When he chased the rabbit, you were way ahead of him, so he spiraled further and further into the memory with nothing else to cling to."

"Still doesn't explain why he shoved me out," Mark responds with derision.

"I was getting to that. What's interesting is despite all that—you being ahead of him in the Drift—Ranger Wong said he felt your presence in his memory, coinciding with the moment you said you 'touched' him," Jungwoo continues. "So this suggests that it was definitely a mutual thing, this interaction. Maybe he ended the neural bridge as a reaction to feeling you in the memory."

Irritation pricks at his temples, further aggravating his already insistent migraine. "Great," Mark grumbles.

Jungwoo ignores him, head tilted upwards and eyes distant. "There's something unusual about either you or Wong or your Drift. The fact that he was aware of you while in a memory, and you were able to feel what he was feeling at that moment... Not to mention the effect on you, as well. Whether this has anything to do with your sync scores, I don't know... Perhaps you had such a strong connection that the consequences of your neural bridge being ended that abruptly are this severe? I'm still not sure..."

"Jungwoo."

The scientist snaps out of his trance, pausing to scribble on his holoscreen before gently patting Mark's thigh. "At any rate, thank you for cooperating. Johnny and I will do whatever we can to get to the bottom of this." Jungwoo turns up the dial on his drip and Mark sighs in relief. "I hope you don't get too upset with Ranger Wong, Mark," he chastises gently, clearing up the tray and pulling Mark's sheets up to his waist.

"No promises," he replies, feeling much like a petulant child being put to bed.

Jungwoo smiles. "Always so stubborn. Get some rest, I'll see you later."

"Bye, Jungwoo."

It's nearing 0300 when Jungwoo waves goodbye, leaving Mark to fret alone. The drugs are keeping his headache at bay, but it's maddening how he can't keep track of his thoughts, scattered in his brain like papers blown away by the wind.

He barely has time to think about sneaking out to retrieve his holoscreen, distract himself somewhat, when the door cracks open a second time. The Marshal enters, taking one look at Mark and swiftly closing the door behind him. "I ran into Dr. Kim on his way out," he says, taking measured strides to stand at Mark's bedside. "May I have a word?"

Mark surreptitiously turns the dial down on his needle. He'll probably need it for this conversation. "Of course, sir."

"Dr. Kim has informed you of your condition, I hope?"

"That Ranger Wong basically put me out of commission for a day and a half?" Mark grouses. "Yes, sir."

The Marshal's face grows stony, frowning at Mark in disapproval. "I will not tolerate your impertinence, cadet."

"Sir, he's a ranger," Mark answers, voice raised. "You said he's one of the PPDC's best. He should know better than to shank our neural bridge—"

"That's enough!" the Marshal snaps. "Dr. Kim has informed me that you were pushing Ranger Wong to his limit in the Drift, is that not correct?"

"Yes, sir, but—"

"I believe I warned you yesterday that this wouldn't be like your other tests," the Marshal interjects with a raised hand. "Yet you demanded much more from Wong in the Drift than he was capable of giving. As far as I am concerned, neither of you are blameless in this situation. Do not let your impatience jeopardize this project, cadet," he berates, pointing a stern finger at Mark. "No partnership is ever handed on a silver platter, especially in circumstances as uncommon as yours."

Mark scoffs. "And what circumstances are those, sir?"

"Mr. Lee, do I really need to remind you that Ranger Wong only recently lost his partner?" the Marshal questions. "I know you understand loss on that level—we share the same parents, after all. Furthermore, I'm sure you know how it feels, having been in the Drift with Wong."

Mark's nostrils flare in outrage, but he gives no answer. The Marshal takes this as a sign to continue. "I expect no less than excellence from my pilots, recruit. You know what you must do. If you're not willing to give me that, there are a hundred other cadets in this base that I can have test Drifted with Wong." The Marshal's face is cold as he stares down at Mark, daring him to protest. "Is that what you want?"

Upset as he is with everything right now, he can't bring himself to say yes out of spite. Finally sensing something in nothingness, the lilt and tempo of the music in his ears—he's come too far, too close to even think about giving that up. With gritted teeth, he settles for a "No, sir."

"I expected as much." Marshal Lee crosses his arms in finality. "The project is still on—for now. I hope you won't treat your partner with the same atrocious behavior."

"No, sir."

The Marshal nods, satisfied. "Good. I will see you once you're released."

The Marshal leaves Mark to fume silently in his bed. He wants to throw a fit, punch a wall, do something. But his migraine is back with a vengeance, a constant throbbing at his temples that's craving for attention, so he turns up the dial as quickly as he can. The drugs dull his anger into a low simmer, making him sag against the wall in defeat.

The worst thing about all of this is that the Marshal is right. Of course Mark should have remembered his warning; of course Mark shouldn't have expected everything to go smoothly. And from his end, besides—he was keen, far too keen on piloting that he pushed Lucas to his limit. He may have consented to Drifting, but it's as the pilot said yesterday: they're just doing their jobs. Lucas had no choice but to follow orders even though he's still in mourning.

Another hot spike of shame overtakes him when he remembers the last thing he saw in the Drift—Lucas in anguish, desperately trying to wake his partner up. How could he forget such pain, pain that Mark himself has felt first hand? It took him months to put himself back together again after his parents died in Vancouver. Why should he expect anything else from Lucas, whose partner was torn from him while in the Drift? While Lucas could feel every little agony Kun went through as he died?

But he did gather himself, eventually. Pick up the broken pieces of who he was and stumble along, gathering himself along the way until he was as whole as he could try to be.

If he needs to help Lucas Wong through this, put him back together again, then so be it. If it takes weeks, months—it doesn't matter. A little more waiting won't kill him, as long as it means he gets to pilot Black Widow, finally get out there and fulfill his role in this war. One way or another, he has to make his partnership with Lucas work; it's his best chance. His only chance, and he'll be damned if he lets it slip by.

Taeyong, as always, is right: he knows what he must do.

 


 

Of course everything falls to shit.

It's just the way of the world, Yukhei thinks, as he slots in the key card for his guest room. An inter-dimensional portal opens up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, monsters come out of it to terrorize Earth, pilots get in Jaegers to fight them and die in the process. In his case, he somehow finds a way to end a neural bridge and handicap his partner. He'll never forget the look on the Marshal's face as the medics carried Mark out—consternation warring with composure, all because of Yukhei's actions.

He's ashamed. He should be better than this; three years in a Jaeger and he chases the rabbit like an amateur. "Bring nothing into the Drift," his instructors had always said. He never did, and he thought he wouldn't, not this time. He thought he'd done enough to suppress the memory in his head, that enough time had passed for him to forget, but the moment Mark reached into his mind, it was like the floodgates had opened—there it was, Kun's death, right at the forefront of his mind as though no time had passed at all.

A delusion is all it is; he knows that now. The soldier trudging on, uncaring of anything that strays in his path or interferes with his goal, only living to serve. But Yukhei was never a soldier—he was a ranger, once, along with Kun.

Yukhei shudders, thinking of how vivid, how real it was in the Drift. A thousand voices in his head, magnified tenfold the moment Kun died. Kun's last thought and wish, for Yukhei to be safe. And pain, excruciating pain as the weight of piloting Tunnel Vision crashed onto him, the demands of the Jaeger piling up with the voices in his head. So he did what he wanted, all those months ago: lash out and banish everything from his mind, including his partner.

Why the fuck is he here stewing in his own misery, an ocean away from his friends, his home? If only he'd done the right thing, if he'd just evacuated like Kun wanted to, his partner would be alive. He would still be happy in Hong Kong, surrounded by familiar faces. He wouldn't have had to begrudgingly follow orders, forced to share his memories with a stranger.

And yet. Yukhei can't rightfully call Mark a complete stranger. He saw everything in the Drift, much as he would like to pretend he didn't. He may not want to be here, but the Drift can't be denied—the Kwoon room, the test scores, they can't lie. As much as he never wanted to end up in Jeju, he feels a pull towards Mark Lee, this hopeful cadet with the bright eyes and even brighter spirit, who so readily accepted Yukhei's presence in his life. Mark who had treated him with nothing but kindness, showed him concern even when he himself was hurting.

Here Mark is, probably itching to pilot a Jaeger, and Lucas just had to fucking mentally scar him.

Three sharp knocks on his door interrupt his thoughts, breaking the silence in the room. Yukhei sits up and opens it to reveal a uniform-clad Officer Jung. "Mr. Wong," he says genially. "May I join you?"

"Of course, sir," Yukhei answers, hoping he can hide his confusion at the sudden visit. It has to be around 2000, much too late for an officer to have any schedules with his subordinates. By the way Officer Jung relaxes in the desk chair resting on the far wall, however, Yukhei can tell this isn't a business call.

"At ease, ranger." Jaehyun gestures to Yukhei's bed, prompting him to sit, and he does so. "I hope you find your accommodations alright."

"More than enough, sir."

There's a full moon, so Yukhei hadn't thought to turn on the lights, enough brightness flooding into the room at this time of night. The moonlight cut shapes across Jaehyun's visage, an abstract painting out of place. "Congratulations on your test Drift, by the way," he remarks.

"Thank you, sir. But I rather feel that the congratulations are undeserved."

"Nonsense." Jaehyun turns to look directly into his eyes, searching. Yukhei averts them elsewhere in reservation. "I'm sorry you had to go through this too soon."

He simply looks down at his rings with a grimace. "If anything, eight months' time should have been enough for me to recover."

Jaehyun shakes his head. "We both know wounds like these don't heal as easily. And besides—the first neural bridge exercise is the hardest, isn't it?"

Yukhei shrugs. His first with Kun in Tunnel Vision hadn't gone off without a hitch, sure, but it was impeccable compared to today's incident. "I suppose."

"The first time I Drifted with Sicheng, our neural bridge was so fragile that the operator called it 'abysmal'," Jaehyun reminisces. "There was no way the two of us would be able to pilot, he said. And with good reason—Sicheng and I were the only ones of the same age in the academy, and we fucking hated each other."

This piques Yukhei's interest. He'd never known Sicheng to even mildly dislike anyone. "Sicheng ge hated you?"

A smile spreads across Jaehyun's face. He's handsome, Yukhei notes offhand, even more so when he's smiling, small dimples appearing when he does. Fondness is a good look on him. "Believe me, it was ugly. Constantly trying to one-up each other in PE, comparing test scores—everything in JA became a competition. I have no idea which genius decided to have us test Drift, but I guess the two of us wanted to pilot badly enough that we were willing to do it with the other."

"But you said your neural bridge was weak," Yukhei recalls.

"It was a disaster," Jaehyun agrees. "After we got out of that pathetic excuse of a Drift, we started yelling at each other right away. But the psych analyst must have seen something in us. That we pushed each other just enough to keep getting better. So, hard headed as we both were, we ended up making it work."

Yukhei thinks to Sicheng's arrival in Hong Kong. The older man had been limping, one side propped up with a crutch as he was introduced to them, but he moved with poise all the same. It's difficult to imagine that calm, refined Sicheng was hot-blooded once—much less at odds with Jaehyun and his easy-going nature. "It's a shame that you have to be separated like this."

"Sicheng was always the scientist between the two of us," Jaehyun enthuses. "Everyone thought he would end up in J-Tech or K-Science—I got lucky. He's doing much more in Hong Kong than he ever could in a secondary base. I'm glad his talents are being put to good use."

"But you miss him."

"'Course I do." The officer touches a hand to his sternum, an odd gesture, until Yukhei notices the thin outline of dog tags under his shirt. Sicheng has a similar pair always slung around his neck, and it clicks. "You don't share a cockpit with someone for four years and not miss them when they're gone."

Yukhei smiles, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Naturally."

The corner of Jaehyun's mouth twitches, almost betraying amusement, but instead he leans forward and affixes Yukhei with another searching gaze. "Tell me, Lucas," he says with interest. "How did it feel, Drifting with Mark? Off the record. I won't tattle."

"Well..." Yukhei falters, caught off-guard both by the question and Jaehyun's sudden inquisitiveness. "Different. Kun ge, he was... he was cold, but not distant. Soothing. He always said I was too hyperactive for my own good, but when we Drifted, he calmed me down. Grounded me, I think. Helped me keep a level head."

"And Mark?"

The sim-pod comes to mind, the sensations still crisp in his memory. A burst of colour, heat infusing his limbs, a flare of bright orange edging into his vision. "Mark is warmer. Excited. To the point that I couldn't keep up with him—but I wanted to. I suppose like what you said Sicheng ge is for you," Yukhei concludes. "I wanted to do better."

"Funny." Jaehyun leans back with a lopsided smirk, satisfied. "That's exactly what Chenle and Jisung say about Mark—he always pushed them to the limit, even though he never actually told them to. Just seeing him work so hard, they said, that was enough for them to do the same."

"They do seem to be very fond of him," Yukhei agrees, recalling the affection with which the two pilots regarded Mark.

"Mark raised those kids with his own two hands, been nothing but good to them," Jaehyun continues. "You know who they went to after their first mission? Taught them everything they know and they bypassed Sicheng and I, cheeky little bastards." Jaehyun shakes his head fondly. "Barely out of their armour and they went straight to look for Mark."

Remorse overcomes Yukhei once again; Chenle and Jisung had rushed to the hospital wards as soon as they heard the news, worriedly conversing with Dr. Kim outside Mark's room. "How is he?"

"Being pumped full of painkillers, but he'll be fine."

Yukhei exhales in relief at the news, but it does little to appease his guilt, an ever-present lump in his throat not letting him breathe. "It's good to know that he'll be alright."

Jaehyun levels a comforting hand on Yukhei's knee and looks into his eyes, warm. Knowing. "Mark is tougher than he looks. Nobody wants to do their part in this fight more. Why do you think we chose him to Drift with a pilot with three years of experience?"

"Even so. I don't believe he'll be too thrilled with what's happened," Yukhei responds miserably. "Like you said, sir. I have three years of experience but nothing to show for it."

"Your letters of recommendation from the PPDC say otherwise," Jaehyun counters. "On the contrary, Lucas, I find you very admirable. If I were you, I'd have quit altogether. But the fact that you chose to follow orders, that you're in front of me right now..." He touches the dog tags again, expression contemplative. "I'm still very sorry you had to do it all over again so soon. But I know you know what's at stake here, so I hope you decide to stick around." The moonlight makes Jaehyun's eyes glimmer, the earnestness in them giving Yukhei pause. "Mark is a good kid. I hope you give him a chance."

Yukhei thinks to Mark earlier that day, hunched over in pain but still determined to ask if he wants to Drift. "I will try my best," he responds with as much sincerity as he can muster. "Thank you, sir."

The officer breaks into another smile and squeezes Yukhei's knee. "It's Jaehyun. And you're welcome, Lucas." Jaehyun rises from his chair, brushing himself off as he straightens. "If you have any other concerns, you know where to find me."

"Yes, sir—Jaehyun."

"Good." Yukhei walks Jaehyun to the door, where the officer claps him on the shoulder before turning to leave. "Have a good night, Lucas."

"You too, Jaehyun."

The door clicks closed, and he's alone once again, moonlight streaming through the window. He wonders if he looks just as out-of-place as Jaehyun did. He certainly feels that way, ever since he stepped onto the tarmac of the Jeju Shatterdome's receiving bay.

But he had forgotten that, even if just for a moment, when he was sparring with Mark. Forgotten everything, really, save for himself, Mark, and the adrenaline-pumping challenge of the fight. His smiles came easy, heart eased by the feeling of being in complete synergy with someone. It was something he hadn't felt since February, something he never thought he would experience again in this lifetime.

Yet here Mark is, miracle of miracles. Mark with his warmth and kindness and single-minded devotion to being a pilot. It's thanks to him that Yukhei could ride the high of being in a Jaeger again, Drivesuit melded against his skin, spinal clamp against his lower back, a war machine following his—their—command. Mark and Yukhei, Drift compatible.

Give him a chance, Jaehyun said. A chance. Perhaps that's what Yukhei needs to give himself, too.

 


 

The last day of Mark's confinement is an eventful one. His roommates brought him breakfast, bless them, and kept him company until it was time for their lessons. Jaehyun dropped by to quickly inform Mark to pack his things when he's released—the project is still on, as the Marshal said, and he's to move to the pilots' dorms along with Lucas. He'd barely gotten over the major anxiety that gave him when a slew of nurses checked his vitals, his reflexes, administering all manner of tests to check if any of his brain function was impaired. He was in the all clear, as Jungwoo had predicted, and he's out of the hospital wards by evening.

The next morning sees Mark and Lucas meeting with Jaehyun, who guides them to their new quarters without ceremony. They lug their personal effects into the central building where, only three days ago, Mark wasn't even allowed to set foot in. The dormitories for the pilots are much larger, he learns, with a sizeable interval between the eight or so doors lining a corridor tucked into the rear of the building. He takes note of the doors that say ZHONG, C. & PARK, J. and JUNG, J. & DONG, S., both facing each other across the hallway.

They finally reach the end of the hall, the metal door still unmarred and nameless. The room is large, about the size of an actual apartment, with a living room and a hallway off to the side that leads to a bathroom and a bedroom. And an actual kitchen, nothing like his dorm room in the Academy. He thinks to Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun, one roommate less. They had all helped him pack up his belongings last night, laughing at the clutter that resurfaced from the depths of Mark's closet. He wonders who will wake Jaemin up, now. If Renjun will just look through his physics book alone. If Jeno will look to the top bunk across the room, expecting to greet Mark a good morning, only to be met with an empty mattress.

Lucas opens the door to their bedroom, bare but spacious with high ceilings and a window facing east. Lucas claims the bed on the right, just as he had with Black Widow, and Mark dumps his things on his bed with little grace.

Both of them unpack wordlessly, following their unspoken rule of Lucas-Right, Mark-Left as they move about the room. Mark wants to talk—say anything, really, just to break the silence—but it's Lucas that's been wronged, and he should set the pace for them. He should be the one to decide whether he's ready to talk to Mark or not, much less forgive him; so he keeps his mouth shut, occasionally watching Lucas out of the corner of his eye.

Lucas himself bares little emotion, although Mark catches him standing still more than once, as though in thought. But he carries on with his mundane tasks, and Mark does his, until there's nothing left to do but stare at their pristine new bedroom. They do nothing for a good minute, both fidgeting on their newly made beds and avoiding one another's gaze—then Lucas breaks the spell and turns to Mark.

"Is this arrangement alright with you?" he asks. His words are awkward and stilted, nothing like the suave, confident ranger that introduced himself two days ago.

"If it's okay with you," Mark answers hastily, feeling the back of his neck heat up from sheer mollification.

"Yes—yes, of course." Lucas twists a ring on his hand, anxious, until he decides to look Mark in the eye. His gaze is steady, resolute, and maybe Mark is a little afraid of what he'll say next—that he doesn't intend on staying here, repeat his words from the sim-pod and say he's just here for the job—but what Lucas says is the last thing he expects. "Mark, about the test Drift—I'd like to apologize."

"Oh." Mark's eyes widen, taking in the way Lucas goes rigid, posture tense. "That's... that's not necessary."

Lucas shakes his head. "No, it was unacceptable, what I did to you in the Drift. I could have seriously hurt you." There's genuine regret in the way he doesn't waver, hopeful for Mark's forgiveness. It tells him all he needs to know: Lucas may have deliberately pushed him out of the Drift, but it wasn't out of spite or any ill will towards Mark. He was simply discomfited, a fish out of water—new Shatterdome, new Jaeger, new partner. Add that to the unspeakable pain of reliving your worst memory... Mark can't blame him at all. Mark shouldn't have blamed him in the first place.

The guilt that's been steadily building since the Marshal's lecture makes itself known, tying his gut into ugly knots that nauseate him. "If anything, it's my fault," he responds, trying his best to meet Lucas's eyes, to emulate even a little of the sincerity that the pilot is showing. "I'm sorry for pushing you too hard. I was too eager to Drift—I didn't stop to consider your, uh..." he falters.

"Circumstances?" Lucas provides.

Mark winces. "Yeah. I'm really sorry."

"Well..." There's a nerve-wracking beat after the word. Eventually, a small smile makes the corners of Lucas's lips curl. "I'll accept your apology if you accept mine, first."

Just like that, Mark can breathe easy. He returns the pilot's smile with one of his own. "Okay. Apology accepted."

"Likewise." Lucas stands up, extending his hand for Mark to shake. His grip is firm, assured. Warm.

"So... partners?" Mark asks timidly.

"Of course." Lucas breaks away beaming, the most genuine one yet. "I'm looking forward to piloting a Jaeger with you, Mark. For real, this time."

Mark grins. "Me, too."

Chapter Text

"You're off the Jaeger for now," is the first thing Jaehyun says to them when they meet.

They're in one of the balconies overlooking the staging area, providing them a clear view of Black Widow and the various mechanics surrounding her. Yukhei thinks he can spot a tiny Haechan perched on the Jaeger's shoulder and lording over the staff. It's cruel, really, having her just out of reach. He and Mark had just been handed their new fatigues, black and red to match their Jaeger with the PPDC logo patched on their shoulders, of a similar design to Chenle and Jisung's pink and white.

Mark, who had been raring to go the moment he woke up, deflates quicker than a balloon. Yukhei takes it upon himself to answer. "Understood, sir."

"Luckily for you two, Wendy was able to disengage the weapons systems before anything drastic could happen," Jaehyun continues. Both of them dutifully avoid the officer's gaze. "But the Marshal thinks you two should work on your... theoretical foundation first, so we can avoid incidents like that again."

"So we're gonna have lessons, sir?" Mark clarifies.

Jaehyun nods, handing each of them a dark blue folder. "Your schedules. You're to have classes with the officers in J-Tech and K-Science in addition to yours truly." The officer gives both of them a pointed look. "If your exam results are up to snuff, we'll test Drift you again by the end of the week."

Mark perks up, clutching his folder to his chest. "Yes, sir."

"You can show Mr. Wong around, I assume?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. I'll leave you two alone—I feel a migraine coming on and I need to get back to my blackout curtains. Dismissed."

Yukhei opens his folder once Jaehyun is out of sight. There's a table mapping out the rest of their week: battle programming, Conn-Pod control, kaiju biology, Drift science. It's all too familiar, everything Yukhei thought he would be done with already. He looks over to Mark, eyes shining as he pores over their schedule. Familiar to Yukhei, true, but brand new to his partner. He supposes he needs to revise, anyways. If their first exercise had proved anything, it's that he's more than a tad rusty in the cockpit.

"Did you have lessons too?" Mark asks.

"After the academy? Yes, before my first mission," Yukhei recalls. "The instructors would make me memorize all 52 Jaeger bushido positions."

Mark winces. "Well, I don't think any of the instructors here would make you do that," he reassures Yukhei. "Let's see... we have battle programming first. You ready to head down to J-Tech?”

"After you." Mark complies, leading the way out of the Jaeger station with a spring in his step.

Ever since they've had the "confrontation", so to speak, Mark seems more lively, open and friendlier to Yukhei. Not that he wasn't before, but it's a far stretch from the cadet that stiffly welcomed him to the Shatterdome that rainy day. There's still a hint of deference to his tone, though—as though he were acutely aware of Yukhei's experience, always seeking his approval. Yukhei can't blame Mark in that regard, but he'd much prefer for his partner to actually treat him as, well, his equal.

The Jeju Shatterdome is smaller, but no less busy. Staff in PPDC fatigues are bustling about, different kinds of satoori blending together, indistinguishable to Yukhei's untrained ear. None of them pay the two any mind as Mark expertly navigates the halls of the station, turning corners without even so much as flinching.

The crowd thins out once they reach the compound housing J-Tech, the labs as deserted as the day they had their first test Drift. They briefly pass by Jungwoo, the scientist greeting them a bright "Good morning!" and scurrying to where he needed to be; otherwise, the halls are silent and pristine, save for the occasional whir of equipment. Mark ushers him towards an empty room at the end of the long corridor that comprises J-Tech's top floor.

The battle programmer is a pretty woman named Seulgi, whose ever present smile makes her eyes curve into crescent moons. "It's Seulgi," she says with a lovely laugh. "Just Seulgi. Please don't call me 'ma'am', we're all friends here."

Black Widow, they learn, is made for close quarter combat, to balance Pink Slip's build suited for firing missiles and projectiles. They dive headfirst into computer engineering basics, Seulgi explaining everything calmly and systematically, answering the occasional question with zeal. She doesn't have them recite anything, automatically earning her a place in Yukhei's top ten ranking of Jaeger instructors. He almost feels bad that he's barely listening; but battle programming is already familiar to him, what with all the times he's been asked to repeat the layout of the Pons system.

Mark, on the other hand, is listening with rapt attention. No doubt he's heard most of the material in JA, as Yukhei has—but he still takes notes on his holoscreen, dutifully drawing diagrams indecipherable to Yukhei. He only tunes in when Seulgi is discussing Wendy; the instructor talks with an almost disconcerting fondness for the AI, as though she were a real person. Upon receiving curious stares from Yukhei and Mark both, she laughs and waves a hand.

"Sorry, I've just spent a lot of time with Wendy," she titters. "You should try talking to her! She has a lot to say."

Their next class is Conn-Pod control, held in a room similar to the sim-pod but outfitted with wall-to-wall holoscreen panels meant to mimic the layout of an actual Jaeger Conn-Pod. Their instructor, a man with fiery red hair who looks to be in his late twenties, makes his entry exactly five minutes after they're supposed to start.

"Hello, boys." He sits with a borderline lazy ease in his wheelchair, waving a flippant hand by way of greeting. "The name's Yuta Nakamoto, Ranger Nakamoto if you want to be formal. Served in the Tokyo Shatterdome for five years, then finally quit when I got these fucked up." Yuta slaps his leg, the sound echoing around the room. "Transferred here to teach, then liked it for some reason, so here I am. Questions?"

Yukhei is torn between awed and terrified. A quick glance at Mark confirms that he probably feels the same, so Yukhei opts for a relatively safe shake of the head.

"Good." Yuta levels an almost sardonic smile at the two of them. "Let's see if the station's star students will shine, shall we?"

Yuta steers himself to a panel situated at the back of the room, swiftly entering a combination of numbers Yukhei doesn't doubt that he's pulling from muscle memory. Mark is frozen in place, so Yukhei positions himself where he would be in Black Widow—right hemisphere, dominant pilot. Mark automatically manoeuvres to Yukhei's opposite, ever quick to catch on, and what feels like satisfaction bubbles in Yukhei's chest.

"Alright. Since it's your first day, we'll just be simulating the basics: pilot vitals, weapons systems, and Jaeger systems," Yuta's voice floats from behind them. The panels change colour, morphing from sleek glass to the obsidian of Black Widow's Conn-Pod, vastly different from Tunnel Vision's burnished bronze.

The layout is largely the same—motion rigs, movement platforms, and control panels don't vary much from Jaeger to Jaeger—but it's the HUD that perplexes him. This was something Yukhei noticed during their test run, but never paid attention to until now; Tunnel Vision had a complicated series of tabulations that would be spread out over the interface, but Black Widow has several diagrams depicting their current status, in addition to Wendy's pleasant voice assisting Yuta whenever she can.

It takes Yukhei some time to adjust, but in no time he's interpreting the plethora of graphs and charts in front of him with ease. Mark, however, is frowning—even though he seems to make sense of the HUD much quicker than Yukhei does, he still looks slightly dour as he follows Yuta's instructions. Yukhei is tempted to chalk it up to a dislike of this class in particular, but he finds it hard to believe when his partner had been so enthusiastic to begin.

"You alright?" he asks lowly when Yuta is busy fiddling with a panel.

"I'm fine, just..." Mark chews on his lip, pensive. "I'll tell you later."

"If you say so."

Yukhei doesn't push it any further, and the session continues without incident. Mark's annoyance fades the more they get into the lesson, which Yukhei appreciates more than battle programming by a small margin; some of the information is actually new to him, Black Widow having more advanced systems being a Mark IV model, and in some instances he has to unlearn things that have been drilled into his subconscious. More than once he reaches for a switch or a lever that's not really there.

You're not in Tunnel Vision anymore, he has to remind himself. It seems that he can't let go of the comparison, the difference between the old Jaeger and the new. His old partner and the new, at times. Kun used to take the lead, steer Yukhei to the right direction—now, though, he's assumed that position, helping Mark with some of the more technical parts of the lesson. He's grateful for that, Yukhei supposes. At least it prevents him from having to think too much about things he'd rather not dwell on.

By lunch time, Mark is back to his high-spirited self, all unpleasantness from Conn-Pod control forgotten. He has somewhat of a nervous energy about him, the type that's unsettled by extended periods of silence. And normally Yukhei would be bothered by silence as well, but there's nothing for him to talk about—himself, possibly? But there's nothing about Yukhei that Mark hasn't already seen in the Drift, and truth be told, he isn't in the mood for sharing.

Fortunately for the two of them, Mark is full of little stories about the Jeju Shatterdome and its tenants. Most of the instructors, it turns out, have either been with Mark in the academy or taught him while he was there.

"Seulgi was on the short list of potential pilots for Second Wind, our first Mark I," he explains as they make their way out of the empty mess hall. "But he went to this amazing team, trained on Kodiak Island. One of the originals, you know? So since Seulgi still got past the first cut and the Shatterdome was short on staff, she was promoted to battle programmer."

There's a vague image of the said pilots in his head; Second Wind's launch was heavily publicized, considered another monumental step towards winning the kaiju war. ENLIST NOW! "And what happened to Second Wind's pilots?" Yukhei questions.

Mark smiles, the fondness that can only come from good memories evident on his face. "One of them taught for a while in JA. He retired soon afterwards with his partner, then Jaehyun replaced him. Best instructor I ever had." He lets out a nervous giggle. "Don't tell Jaehyun that."

"I promise," Yukhei responds solemnly.

"Our next class is with some of my seniors, actually," Mark continues with enthusiasm. "Dr. Moon and Dr. Kim. Or, uh, Dr. Kim the first, since Jungwoo is a doctor now... But they're just Taeil and Doyoung to me," he laughs.

"You're familiar with most of the officers, I take it," Yukhei observes.

"I guess so," Mark shrugs. "I've been here for a lot of the big staff changes—every position here's been replaced at least once when I was still training." He turns curiously to Yukhei. "Time moves quickly in the Shatterdome, don't you think?"

"I suppose," he acquiesces. There is some truth to it. Sometimes, Yukhei doesn't even realize he's given six years of his life to the corps. Then he's reminded of how far he's come: the Academy, the agonizing wait between his qualification for the Jaeger program and his first drop, five missions with Tunnel Vision. And more to add to the list—a new partner and a new Jaeger.

Mark leads him into the K-Science division, a maze of windowed laboratories. Some are lined wall to wall with equipment, others with harvested kaiju parts floating in sickly green liquid. After what feels like an eternity, Mark finally opens the door to the largest room yet. One wall is covered in chalkboard, cluttered with numbers and letters that Yukhei can't make sense of; on top of a movable set of stairs like one might find in a library, there's a man in a suit jacket busily solving an equation. The other half of the room is a dissecting station—kaiju parts lying in wait on trays, an entire row of microscopes, a fume hood on the far side filled with a colourful array of test tubes.

Sitting on a desk near the door is a man in a lab coat, lanky figure crowding another scientist who's busily typing on his holoscreen. Yukhei can't decide if he's irritated or amused.

Mark clears his throat. "Hello, Doyoung."

The scientist practically drops his holoscreen. "Mark!" he exclaims, jumping out of his chair to give Mark a bone-crushing hug. "Oh, I haven't seen you in so long!"

The man sitting on the desk saunters over smiling, hands in his pockets. "What, no hug for me?"

"I missed you too, Johnny," Mark replies, sarcastic but without malice. "You two, this is Ranger Lucas Wong."

"Ah, yes, Mark's partner. Dr. Johnny Suh, psychologist," the tall man replies, extending a hand towards Yukhei.

"Doyoung Kim, cryptozoologist," the other man—Doyoung—introduces himself, shaking Yukhei's hand as well. "Taeil, will you stop with those scribbles for one minute and introduce yourself?" he hollers to the other end of the room.

"These 'scribbles' are what stand between days or minutes of preparation, Doyoung," the man in the suit jacket yells across the room, not stopping his writing for even a second. "Hello Mark, Mark's friend. Dr. Taeil Moon, head of K-Watch, blah blah blah, now please let me get back to my calculations."

Yukhei tries for a smile. "Lovely to meet you all."

"We're here for our lessons," Mark explains. Yukhei doesn't miss the exasperated glance his partner shoots his way. "But I guess you and Taeil are busy."

"Lessons? But there's nothing on the agenda..." Doyoung rolls his eyes. "Taeil, did you forget to update our schedule again?"

"It was your turn this week!" is the distant response from across the room.

"Right," Mark says in dismay. "So, uh..."

"I can still show you around the lab," Doyoung suggests hopefully. "Teach you a few things. Just have to finish this report, and we're good to go."

"Sounds good."

"I'll get back to you in thirty minutes," Doyoung promises, sliding back into his desk.

Johnny, silent thus far in his observation of Doyoung, smiles at them magnanimously. "There he goes, my baby," he sighs. "Says he's on the verge of a breakthrough, that genius."

"And how about you, sir?" Mark asks, feigning curiosity. "Thought the head of J-Tech would have better things to do than squat here in K-Science."

"I was very busy," Johnny returns airily.

"Flirting with Dr. Kim?"

"Well, I have to keep him interested in me."

"You're married," Mark deadpans.

"Never hurts to keep the spark alive." Johnny winks at Yukhei. "By the way, Ranger Wong, can I have a word? Mark, you can go bother Taeil."

"Really appreciate you treating me like a five-year-old, sir."

"When you whine like one, how can I not? Now, get." Johnny makes a shooing motion towards Taeil's general direction, and Mark salutes sarcastically before turning heel.

Johnny turns to Yukhei with a smile, guiding him just outside the room. "Have you settled in? Are you having any trouble with Mark?" he asks in quick succession.

"Er, yes and no," Yukhei answers hesitantly, unsure of the direction this conversation is taking. "Mark's been perfectly fine."

"Good, good. I wanted to talk to you because we need to discuss your therapy schedule."

"Oh." Yukhei feels his stomach sink. Therapy is fine, just another part of the week he had to get through in Hong Kong. It hadn't occurred to him that he would have to do it here, still, start over with another psychologist.

Johnny looks over at him sympathetically. "I know apologies won't do anything for your loss," he says, voice low and even. "So I won't say anything of the sort. But what I can do for you is help you feel better about yourself, this whole situation."

"I see."

"It's your choice," Johnny continues. "You're the only one that can decide whether to get therapy or not—but if you do, you're gonna need to let me help you. Does that sound good?"

Does he have a choice? It's Johnny's job to do so, and Yukhei's job to say yes so he can pilot like he used to. "Yes."

"You're more than a war asset." Yukhei looks up, astonished. "I know you might feel like I'm doing this because this is my job and I've been given orders, but this is what I want to do. I want you to get better for your sake, Lucas," Johnny says, earnest.

"I... yes," Yukhei responds dumbly. "Yes, of course."

"So? Will you consider dropping by my office, at least?" Johnny smiles at him as though he were—Kun. He used to look at Yukhei like that, full of understanding no matter how hard headed he was being. "Take heart, bǎobèi," he would always say fondly, with the same kind smile.

He almost feels sick. Sick of seeing Kun everywhere, haunting him, missing his presence that Yukhei took for granted. What would he have done in Yukhei's place? He was always the problem-solver, always prompted them both to move forward, even in the most unorthodox of ways. He would move on, just as Yukhei is supposed to do. Just as Johnny is prompting him to.

But moving on is difficult. Sometimes, it’s much easier to be miserable; it’s easier to do nothing and let himself go, get swallowed up and overwhelmed because there’s no effort involved. It’s easier to let his thoughts consume him because they’re familiar, and they’re always there, and besides—he’s still alive, right? Nothing has changed for the past eight months, but he’s still alive.

Alive, yes. Living—Yukhei doesn’t know.

Eight months and Yukhei is still heartbroken when he’s reminded of his partner. Kun was a bright light, his sun, and Yukhei was content to orbit him; now he’s afloat, drifting, not knowing what else to hold onto so he clings to bits and pieces of Kun scattered around him.

And that’s the thing: Kun is everywhere. He’s still everywhere, and Yukhei can’t possibly let him go. But Kun doesn’t deserve to be remembered with such sorrow. He wouldn’t have wanted Yukhei to be like this, barely alive, struggling day to day, thinking of what he could have done, what he could be now had he acted differently. Take heart, bǎobèi.

Kun is everywhere. But as long as he finds the best of Kun in other people...

He looks up at Johnny, eagerly waiting for his answer.

"I'll do it," Yukhei says. "Therapy. The whole thing."

"Great. I'll give you time to think about it more, and if you decide you still want to do it, you can drop by my office. I promise I'll actually be there, despite what Mark says." Johnny gives him another smile, claps him on the back. "But for now, I believe you have a lesson with my husband, yes? See you around."

"You will," Yukhei returns. This prompts a grin out of Johnny, who salutes before he leaves.

 

***

 

Their session with Doyoung ends early, leaving them with free time in the afternoon and a promise of a legitimate lesson from Taeil the next time they have to come by. Just as well; biology, he can take, but biology and math is far too much for one day. Mark sets off in a rush as soon as they finish, giving Yukhei an excuse he wasn't able to catch and a hurried "I'll see you at dinner!"

Yukhei, after meandering around K-Science looking for a way out, finds himself wandering the floor of the Jaeger station. He would do the same in Hong Kong during his free time, just hang around the staff and observe the Jaegers being repaired or retrofitted. Here it's familiar to the senses, enough to grant him the illusion of being back in the station overlooking Victoria Harbour: hammers banging down sheets of metal, pallets groaning under the weight of requisitioned materials, the smell of diesel and ammonia. And besides, he's loathe to return to their quarters too soon. Too empty. Too easy for him to start thinking, and that's never a good thing.

He takes the route Haechan led him and Mark through their tour. Pink Slip looks as good as new, save for the grey metal that peeks through its eponymous coat of paint. His mechanics have seemed to move over to Dead Eye, who has double the amount of people circling him as they attach a dismembered arm back to the Jaeger. The Conn-Pod still looks rough, however, and Yukhei doesn't doubt it will take weeks or months to rebuild and reprogram the mangled circuitry.

Yukhei wonders how badly the mission must have gone for the Jaeger to suffer so much. Not to mention the pilots—Sicheng was walking around J-Tech on crutches for weeks, and Jaehyun himself said his headaches were so debilitating that he couldn't be present for their lessons, a side effect still present even after months of treatment. Perhaps Yukhei's long road to recovery isn't unusual after all. It's a terrible thought, to be comforted by his superiors' suffering. But it's reassuring nonetheless.

Blue Blood is bereft of any personnel, standing still and lifeless almost like a mannequin. There to be appreciated but not used. She's regal, in a way, despite the irreparable damage on her right side; much like the Marshal himself, both now and in Mark's memories, one of the only ones Yukhei was able to grasp. The Marshal wearing his cobalt Drivesuit and armour almost like a second skin, every inch the poster boy the PPDC wanted. Mark sitting in an Academy classroom, watching his brother triumph again and again.

What was it that he said? How time flies by in the Shatterdome. Somehow Yukhei doubts that it was like that for Mark at all. It must have been agonizing, seeing his brother and his friends move past him, go on to do bigger, better things. That would explain him being so keen on Drifting, him pushing Yukhei so hard their first time in Black Widow. Yukhei still thinks it's unbelievably naïve of him to be so earnest in his efforts; but even so, there's still something to be said about how passionate he is. It's part of what draws Yukhei to Mark, he supposes.

Yukhei is about to turn around, head back to their dorms, when he spies two familiar shapes: Mark on Black Widow's scaffolding, having what looks to be a heated argument with Haechan. Against his better judgment, Yukhei finds a spot where he can peacefully see the events unfold. Mark is capable of getting angry, Yukhei discovers. Not just angry, but livid; he's scowling as he talks, arms crossed. Haechan doesn't look like they're backing down, either, menacingly waving a hand drill around as they quarrel.

"This oughta be good," someone pipes up from behind him. Yukhei turns, startled at the sound of Mandarin—it's the first time he's heard it in days. Chenle is standing with his hands clasped behind his back, teetering back and forth on his feet with a smug smile on his face. "Don't be so surprised," he teases.

"About Mark and Haechan, or you?" Yukhei questions, slipping into the language easily.

"Both," Chenle answers, walking up to stand next to him. He directs his gaze to the bickering pair stories above them. "Those two fight all the time, but they're thick as thieves. One time they fought for an entire summer and it ended with both of them breaking down and crying for an hour."

Yukhei smiles at the image of Mark and Haechan holding each other tearfully. "Hm. Sure hope it works out that way, then." Overhead, the argument has escalated into a yelling match, the pair's voices carrying over and making the mechanics grimace and shuffle their feet in discomfort.

He looks over to Chenle, sticking out like a sore thumb against the greys of the station in his impeccable white and pink. "If anything, it's good to see Mark hyung up and at it again," he continues.

Yukhei flushes in embarrassment. "Erm, well. Sorry about that."

Chenle laughs and waves a dismissive hand. "Everyone makes mistakes. But between you and me, Jisung isn't ready to forgive you yet," Chenle says conspiratorially. "He can hold a nasty grudge, but he'll come around eventually."

Yukhei winces. "Another apology is in order, then. Is Jisung not with you?"

"This is a secret, but..." Chenle leans in close. "He's covering for me ‘cause I got a date."

A laugh erupts out of Yukhei at the unexpected answer. "How sly."

"I know," Chenle sighs. "I'm practically a bad boy. But enough about me!" Chenle grins widely, looking up at Yukhei with expectant eyes. "I know you're probably sick of hearing this, but how are you finding the Shatterdome?"

"Just fine," Yukhei answers honestly. "Definitely not what I was expecting, but... Well, I don't really know what I was expecting, to be honest."

Chenle nods knowingly. "You miss the food, don't you?”

Another laugh makes its way out of him. "How did you know?" Yukhei asks, widening his eyes to feign amazement. He feels very much like an adult humouring a child.

"You're not the first one," Chenle states. "Renjun hyung and I would talk about this too. I mean, bimimbap is good and all, but nothing beats Peking duck." The two of them sigh wistfully. "You haven't met Renjun yet, haven't you?"

"I don't believe so, no."

"You'll like him," Chenle says confidently, smiling wide. "We were homesick for a while, too, you know. There were some nights Renjun hyung and I would just huddle together, staring at pictures of home on our holoscreens," he confides. "Then we found Jisung and Mark hyung and all our other friends here. And then it wasn't so bad."

Yukhei knows what Chenle is getting at: a family, like the one he'd left in Hong Kong. How is Kunhang faring? Is Ten keeping an eye on him and Dejun and Yangyang? Even Sicheng, who managed to make a space for himself in their hearts despite living with them for only a few months. Do they miss him? Guilt takes root in Yukhei again, the knowledge that their e-mails are piling up on his holoscreen making its way to the forefront of his mind. He misses them, of course—but he simply doesn't have the strength to talk to them, tell them of his failure. Not yet. Maybe when he has something good, something happy to write about.

"Lucas ge," Chenle pipes up. "Can I call you that?"

"Of course."

"We'll take care of you, gēgē," Chenle reassures him. "And you can always talk to me if you get tired of Mark hyung."

The other pilot has a talent of drawing smiles out from Yukhei, it seems. Warmth blossoming in Yukhei's chest, he places a hand on Chenle's faded green hair and ruffles it. "Thank you, Chenle."

Chenle smiles back, pure and bright. "No problem."

They stand in silence for a moment, watching Mark stalk off angrily, practically mashing the button on one of the platforms to let himself down. Haechan puts their safety glasses back on, savagely drilling a metal plate onto Black Widow’s leg.

"Chenle!" someone calls out from behind them—a young man in Jaeger Academy uniform, leaning against one of the shipping containers with his arms crossed, curiously peering over at them both.

"Oh!" Chenle grins wide, turning around to wave at the cadet. "Sorry, Lucas ge. That's my date."

"Have fun, dìdì."

Chenle gives him a one armed hug before sauntering off. "Jeno hyung!" he exclaims, embracing the student and planting a fat kiss on his cheek. Jeno flushes, undoubtedly embarrassed at the display of affection within Yukhei's line of sight, and he bows Yukhei's way before tickling Chenle in retaliation.

Another smile makes Yukhei's lips curl; it's easy to see why Mark adores Chenle and Jisung so much. It must not be easy being the Shatterdome's sole Strike team, the only thing that defends thousands of lives against the kaiju at such a young age—but Chenle remains as spirited as a recruit on their first day in the corps, and even taciturn Jisung doesn't act as jaded as Yukhei would have expected. They're still very much the nineteen year olds that they are.

More surprising still is Mark's attitude towards the pair. If two cadets younger than him were to qualify for the Jaeger program before he could, Yukhei would have been much more bitter than Mark—but despite the way he whinges about the two, Mark is evidently extremely proud of Chenle and Jisung. Raised them with his own hands, like Jaehyun said, and Mark's care for them clearly lives on, going by the kindness Chenle just showed him.

We'll take care of you, Chenle had promised. Who "we" is, exactly, Yukhei isn't quite sure, but a few faces already come to mind.

 

***

 

Wind is whipping at his face, cold seeping through his clothes. The faint scent of sea spray tickles his nose, and the muted sound of a ship horn travels languidly through the air. It's almost daybreak, scattered rays of light filtering through the Hong Kong skyline. He's back in Victoria Harbour.

Can't keep up? He's laughing, jogging backwards as he watches Kun huff and puff some ways in front of him.

Let me catch my breath, Kun is gasping. He falls dramatically to the ground, laying a hand on his chest. Have pity on an old man.

Hurry up, gēgē! We have to do another round.

Alright, alright, just help me up...

Yukhei groans, but he's smiling as he runs up to where Kun is sitting with his hands outstretched. He pulls his partner up, about to tug him back into motion, when a deep, earth-shaking rumble makes them both freeze.

What was that? Yukhei asks in fear.

Kun looks rattled. I don't know, but— Another thundering sound, and they feel the ground tremble beneath them. We better get out of here.

The water in front of them starts to ripple, waves growing larger and larger until something grey breaches the surface. It grows and grows, rising out of the depths of the sea until its head is recognizable, something all too familiar to the two of them.

A kaiju. Yukhei isn't sure which one of them says it. Alarms are blaring across the harbour, signalling the need to evacuate. Kun tugs at his hand and they leap into motion, running as fast as they can towards the Shatterdome. They've barely run a few metres when a large paw crashes right in their path, making them skid to a stop, Kun holding a protective arm over Yukhei's chest.

Move, move, move! Kun is yelling now, leaping over cracked gravel and bits of sidewalk as he runs. Yukhei follows suit, pumping his legs as fast as he can; another gargantuan paw lands on the ground, making them lose their footing. Xuxi, what are you doing, run! he hears Kun urge him.

But Yukhei can't move—he has his hands to his ears, ringing high-pitched as soon as he hit the ground. Kun's voice fades out to a thousand voices calling his name, taunting him, mocking him. He curls up, crying out in pain, the movements of the kaiju merely a footnote in his mind—but he pries his eyes open, just a bit, to see where his partner has gone.

Water spills over onto the sidewalk, enveloping him in icy cold. Then—an awful gurgling sound, the sound of air being pushed out of someone's lungs. Yukhei turns around, shivering, terrified of what he will see—Kun's body floating face down, lifeless, in the middle of the ocean.

The voices are drowned by screaming, endless, anguished screaming ripping through his throat, and—

Yukhei jolts awake.

A dream. A nightmare, to be specific. Yukhei sighs and scrubs a hand across his face, body heavy as he tries to sit up. The clock on the wall says 0200, and it looks like it—barely any light is coming through the window, but enough for him to make out the room. It's eerily silent, but Yukhei is grateful for it. Anything to make him forget the voices in his head.

He stands up and scrubs a hand on his face. Sighing, he looks over to see if he's woken Mark. The bed opposite is empty, blankets tucked into neat hospital sheets. Yukhei frowns. Where on earth would he be at this hour?

He makes his way to the living room and finds his answer. A bespectacled Mark is sitting in front of the coffee table, studiously writing on a notebook, books spread in front of him and a holoscreen propped up by an empty mug. A table lamp is his lone source of light, washing his skin a pale white.

"Mark?" Yukhei tries. His partner startles, dropping his pencil. "What are you doing?"

Mark flushes, hurriedly snapping his book closed. "Nothing," he says unconvincingly. "Just reading a bit."

"At 0200?" Yukhei questions. He seats himself at the counter, eyes surveying the mess on the coffee table. Computer science books, physics worksheets, old Academy binders. Certainly not light reading.

Mark sighs in defeat, powering off his holoscreen and clutching it to his chest. "Remember what I told you in Conn-Pod control? When I got upset?" he asks.

"Yes. You said you'd tell me why later."

"Well, this is it." Mark leans against the sofa and levels a stare at Yukhei.

Yukhei knits his brows together in confusion. "You wanted to tell me that you got upset because you... haven't studied enough?"

Mark shakes his head. "No. Well... a little. Augh, God. How do I start?"

"The beginning would be preferable," Yukhei suggests.

"God... alright." Mark inhales deeply. "I'm dyslexic." He gestures to the books on the coffee table. "Words just... they don't come together like they're supposed to. Letters switch around and I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be seeing half the time, so I need to concentrate real hard to get it right. I need to study more."

Well. Yukhei certainly wasn't expecting that. "I see."

"I got pissed at Conn-Pod control because of the interface," Mark continues. "Did you notice how Black Widow's was really different from other Jaegers?"

"Yes, I did."

"Obviously, I thought it was Donghyuck—Haechan's—doing, and they basically confirmed it."

"Does this have anything to do with why you fought?" Yukhei prods gently.

"You saw that?" Mark asks in surprise.

"Hard to miss, honestly."

Mark huffs, gloomily picking at a loose thread on his sweatpants. "They made the controls easier for me. That's why we fought."

"Isn't that a good thing?"

"It's embarrassing! I don't need them to baby me, I could do with the normal controls just fine." Mark sighs. "It's just... I know Haechan is just looking out for me, but they didn't have to do that." He threads his fingers through his hair, pulls. "I know, it's stupid."

"No, I get it," Yukhei contests. "You don't want to feel like you're different." He knows the feeling, wanting to do something right. Doing it on your own.

"Yeah. Everybody is already ragging on me for—I don't need any special treatment," Mark finishes resolutely. "Sorry for dumping this shit on you."

"Hey. Between the two of us, I had a lot more to unload, and I haven't apologized for that yet."

Yukhei gets a low snicker for his trouble. "Yeah, you're right." Mark is smiling a bit now, head tilted on the sofa cushions.

"I didn't even get to use half the things I learned in JA," Yukhei shares. "When you're out there fighting... there's no time to think. You just have to follow your gut." Following his gut led to his partner's death, as Yukhei's dream so kindly reminded him, but he opts to keep that part out.

"Yeah, I hear you." Mark runs a hand through his hair, unruly tufts sticking up off his forehead. "But I just want to be as prepared as I possibly can."

Yukhei shrugs and stands. "Can't blame you for that," he acquiesces. "Shall I leave you to it?"

Mark hums. "For a second there, I thought you were gonna offer me your help."

"Well then, you've overestimated my kindness," Yukhei replies with a lopsided grin. "And besides—you don't look like the type that needs or wants help."

"You're right. I'd much rather figure this out on my own." Mark smiles, eyes shining under the scarce light of the table lamp. "Thank you for understanding."

"Of course."

Yukhei is about to open the door to their room when Mark pipes up behind him: "Wait, why are you awake?"

He gets the feeling telling Mark about the horrors of piloting isn't what he needs right now. "I'll tell you later," he promises.

"Fair enough." Mark smiles, soft and unsure, but kind all the same. "Good night, Lucas."

"Good night, Mark."

 

***

 

The next day is the first time it hasn't been rainy or overcast since his arrival. Yukhei almost thinks it's a mistake when their schedule for the day only indicates "Kwoon room", saying as much to Mark on their way to breakfast; his partner grins, shakes his head, and only replies with a cryptic "You'll see."

The fightmaster is beautiful to a fault, but her stare can kill a man. It probably already has. She was already plenty terrifying when he and Mark had that first match, getting straight to business ever since she stepped into the room—what more when she's actually teaching them, Yukhei shudders to think. But her smile when they had stopped sparring was lovely. Yukhei can only hope to replicate the same results.

Irene wastes no time having them do the most rigorous warm-ups he's ever had the displeasure of experiencing. Jaehyun comes out of hiding to join them, clutching a mug of coffee and barking out the occasional "Pick your knees up, boys," and "Form, c'mon, my joints are aching just watching you two," making Yukhei seriously doubt the necessity of his presence.

Today's agenda, Irene reveals, is for them to try out every martial art known to man. It's for them to find out which fighting style they'll be using in Black Widow so they can perfect whatever they choose in time for the next kaiju attack. Fairly standard protocol as far as Kwoon room sessions go, but it still doesn't explain why it would take up the whole day.

Yukhei quickly learns that Irene and Jaehyun are a formidable pair. Irene, Yukhei gets; this is her job, after all. But even easy-going Jaehyun would watch them so closely that Yukhei can't even do so much as bend his elbow too far without getting reprimanded. The pair nitpick away at him and Mark, the easy camaraderie of years spent working together undoubtedly playing a part in their torture.

The criticism seems to spark a fire in Mark, however. He starts hitting harder, moving faster, prompting Yukhei to do the same; by the time they're on escrima, they're both panting hard, that and their rattan sticks hitting each other the only sounds in the room.

It's tiring, yes, but it's the environment Yukhei likes best: no science, no memorization, just him and his partner hashing it out on the floor mats. Mark has always been open and honest, unable to conceal his emotions; this holds especially true when they spar, eyes practically burning with the desire to win. Yukhei's experience wins out every time, but barely. The match ends with a particularly vicious counter-strike from Yukhei that has Mark dropping his pair of sticks.

"Again," Irene says, slight Australian twang ringing throughout the room. They hear the same word several times throughout the day.

The session ends on a high. Jaehyun's pride is practically palpable, radiating off him in waves, but Irene's approving smile is a whole other level of gratification. For the first time, Yukhei actually feels good, accomplished. In his element. Mark congratulates him on his consecutive wins, accompanied with a vow to defeat Yukhei the next time they spar. But he looks just as content as Yukhei is, apples of his cheeks glowing with exertion.

The two of them traipse back to their dorms to wash the grime off their bodies, immediately trekking down to the mess hall afterwards. Yukhei's body is still thrumming with energy even after having discovered a few bruises here and there while in the shower.

They've never been to meals with the other residents of the Shatterdome. More often than not, their lessons went overtime, so they ate meals in relative privacy; but tonight, the mess is full to packing with students and staff both, the low din of conversation greeting them as soon as they enter.

All noise stops abruptly once they're sighted. Their mishap with Black Widow is still fresh in the recruits' minds, it seems—what feels like the entire hall is shooting them dirty looks, eyeing the two of them down as they make their way down the counters.

"Where are they when you need them," Mark mutters under his breath.

"They?" Yukhei repeats, watching his ration of naengmyeon getting spooned into his bowl.

"My roommates. Probably sneaking out again, brats." Mark's words speak of annoyance, but his face betrays his anxiety—not for his friends, Yukhei realizes, but because of the multitude of eyes following their every move.

Yukhei takes hold of Mark's shoulder once they finish up at the counters, gently steering him out of the dining hall. "You know what?" he says, tone flippant. "I'd like to have supper in the staging area, instead."

Mark looks up at him, face unreadable, but he says nothing and they weave their way through the mostly empty halls of the station. It takes some time for Yukhei to find a suitable balcony, but he manages to locate the one where Jaehyun had briefed them yesterday. Black Widow looks as impressive as ever, lights glinting off her polished obsidian shell.

Yukhei settles down on the floor, balancing his tray of food on his legs, Mark following suit. He tries for an encouraging smile. "This is much better, isn't it?"

Mark answers with a small smile of his own. "Much better, yeah."

"I don't know about you, but I'm starving."

Mark giggles, shoulders losing a bit of their tension at the act. "After spending the whole day with Irene? It happens."

They tuck into their naengmyeon in silence, a much-needed moment of serenity. Yukhei practically slurps his soup down, trying his best to retain his table manners—but Mark seems to have no etiquette qualms of his own, gingerly eating small bundles of noodles.

"Thank you for getting me out of there," Mark says after a stretch.

Yukhei shakes his head. "It was what anyone would have done. You don't need to thank me."

Mark smiles down at his food, stirring the noodles absently. "Doesn't it bother you?" he asks. "The staring?"

"Not really, no," Yukhei answers honestly. "I don't know them. Nor do I care."

"I wish I didn't," Mark sighs. "I just can't help thinking they're right, you know. That I don't deserve to be a pilot."

"What a load of bollocks," Yukhei declares.

Mark lets out another nervous giggle at that. "You think so?"

"I know so. You did better in any of the classes than I did."

"Well, you beat me in every sparring match we had," Mark points out.

"So we're even, is what you're saying," Yukhei concludes.

Mark smirks, bemused. "I guess."

Another stretch of silence. They finish their noodles, but neither of them make to stand up; it's rare, these kinds of moments in the Shatterdome. No noise, no distractions. Yukhei knows the desire to savour it is within Mark, as well.

"It was like that for me, you know," Yukhei confides. "I got accelerated—passed the program in two years. The cadets were always talking behind my back."

"Did you care then?" Mark prods.

"No. I'd much rather train than keep company with gossips." Yukhei turns to Mark. "They had nothing to say when I took down my first kaiju."

Mark huffs. "I bet. The name was Rascal, right?"

Yukhei nods, grin spreading across his face unbidden. "That's right. Someone did their research."

Mark giggles again. "Just wanted to see what I should be keeping up with."

"I'd say you're doing just fine," Yukhei says sincerely.

Mark flushes, pleased, breaking Yukhei's gaze. "I'm glad you think so," he says, voice soft.

"Prove them wrong. Then they'll never be able to talk about you like that again."

Mark's eyes are alight with determination. "I plan to."

Later that night Yukhei finds Mark slumped over the coffee table again, asleep this time, glasses askew on his face. Yukhei carefully takes Mark's glasses off, folds them and sets them atop the stack of books sitting next to him. He powers off the holoscreen and the table lamp, taking care to be as silent as possible.

He's about to slip into his covers, go back to sleep, when he spots Mark's impeccably made bed, still empty. Yukhei tugs the blanket off of the sheets and traipses towards the living room, covering his partner's sleeping figure with it.

Finally satisfied, Yukhei drifts into dreamless sleep.

 


 

 

 

October 30, 2021, 8:29 PM

Lucas Wong <lywong@ppdc.cn>
to ██████████████████
Subject: Update

Hello, mum.

I know, I don't email enough. I'm sorry. A lot has happened in the last few months and, well... Simply put, I wasn't in a state where I could easily talk to others. I'm quite sorry that included my own family. But I promise I'm getting better now. Or trying to, at least.

As you probably already know, I've been relocated to the Korean Shatterdome in Jeju. I'm training to be a pilot again. It's quite strange, re-learning all the things I thought I was done with already. But it's alright.

Don't worry about me, Mum. I can take care of myself. I know you still think I'm your baby that needs to be protected and whatnot, but I'm fine. Everyone here has been kind to me, exceedingly so. Once again, for good measure: I'm fine. Don't worry.

Because I know you're curious, my Drift partner's name is Mark. He's my age, from Canada and/or Korea. I'm not sure which he prefers to say. I'm loathe to admit this, but he's far more intelligent than I am. It's like he actually listened at JA. I'm more of a punch and kick things to get what I want type of bloke, you know that. I think he'll be good for my "laughably short temper," as you like to say. You were always fond of theatrics.

Hope you and Dad are doing well in London. It's beautiful here in Jeju, like a hidden paradise. When I get some leave, we could explore Halla-san, if your old legs can keep up.

Give my love to Dad and Hutong. I miss that silly girl. You and Dad as well, perhaps, but not as much as the cat.

Love, Yukhei.

 

Chapter Text

Before Mark knows it, two weeks breeze past. October bleeds into November, bringing with it chilly winds and temperamental rainstorms—and, in true Jaeger Academy fashion, final tests for all the lessons he and Lucas have taken so far. One difference from the Academy, though, is that where Mark would usually be hunched over his test papers trying his best to decipher the words floating across the pages, now he would be thrust into practical exams. In tandem, of course.

There's no way in hell he's falling behind—if they're being tested together, he needs to hold his own, prove that he’s not just relying on Lucas. Mark splits his spare time between the Kwoon room and reviewing every square inch of his notes. Lucas, of course, doesn't need to do all that, but he accompanies Mark anyway; whenever he so much as looks towards the JA classrooms, Lucas would offer to spar with him. When Lucas wakes up in the middle of the night for some reason that he has yet to disclose, he would take a few minutes to chat before going back to bed, giving Mark a much-needed break to clear his head.

Mark knows what he's doing. You're overworking yourself again, Haechan would nag when Mark appears at breakfast with dark circles under his eyes. He knows he has that tendency, to push himself hard to the point of breaking, but he can't help it; the pressure is too great, he's so close, the Marshal is watching him. There's a thousand reasons why he needs to do it.

But back then, there were also voices of reason, those that would keep him from going over the edge. He’s spent many a night wondering how he would manage without Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun. Whine as he might about how he would take care of them like children, they looked after him in their own way—like how Jaemin would gently pry his books from his hands, or Renjun would distract him by teaching him how to write Chinese script, or how Jeno would insist for all of them to sneak out to the cliffside.

Lucas wordlessly keeping him company—this feels like that. Keeping Mark from plunging over the edge. Whether his partner does his small acts of kindness intentionally, Mark doesn't know. He's thankful, nevertheless.

They pass each test with relative ease, even managing to impress Yuta, who in Mark's eyes is pretty much an impenetrable fortress. Jaehyun was practically beaming when he informed them they were cleared to do another test, with Black Widow this time around. Mark has been on cloud nine since, the knowledge that all his late nights have paid off fueling him through the weekend.

Jaehyun meets them near the Jaeger station on Monday morning, corralling them into a section of the Shatterdome that Mark didn’t even know existed. They take an excruciatingly long elevator ride until they can see the station spread below them, coming to a stop in front of a large brass door adorned with the PPDC seal.

LOCCENT is crammed full of monitoring devices and control panels, all equipped with their own personnel, all fiddling with knobs and levers. On the far end of the room is a window overlooking the Jaeger staging area, providing them with a view of Pink Slip and Black Widow standing at the ready. To Mark's amusement, there's a counter to the side containing at least five different coffee makers and a water cooler—for early morning missions, no doubt.

A woman dressed in a rich blue coat is bent over the largest control panel, tapping her well-manicured fingers onto the metal.

"Sooyoung!" Jaehyun exclaims. "Just got back from Seogwipo?"

Sooyoung whips around with hands on her hips, looking like she's about to berate Jaehyun for the interruption, but a smile breaks across her face. "Always nice to see you, Jaehyun. Just came in this morning." She turns her eyes onto Mark and Lucas, grin growing wider. "And these must be our new rangers! Welcome to the Local Command Center."

"Ma'am," he and Lucas respond in unison, but Sooyoung simply rolls her eyes and comes forward to hug them both. Lucas's ears are red when she pulls away.

"It's Sooyoung," she insists, wagging her finger. "You know better than that, Mark! Lucas, feel free to drop formalities as well. We're all friends here. Except when you're on a mission—then I'm your boss."

“That you are,” Jaehyun agrees. “I thought I'd drop these two here, get them familiarized with the setup before they do another test.”

“I'd be happy to show you around.” There's something to be said about how easily Sooyoung slings her arms around their shoulders even though they're both much taller than her. She steers them around the room, explaining the mass of information LOCCENT engineers and scientists have to monitor during a mission. It's a pity Mark didn't bring his holoscreen; Sooyoung is one of the most capable all-rounders in the Shatterdome, having to know everything from K-Science to Jaeger tech for her role as mission controller. Nevertheless, he tries his best to absorb everything she's saying. Lucas does the same with fascination that Mark hasn’t seen before.

At some point, Lucas and Jaehyun manage to break away, enthusiastically conversing over a contour map. Sooyoung huffs beside him, crossing her arms.

"Look at him, showing off," she says, but she sounds more amused than anything else. "Just because he technically outranks me now..."

"You miss bossing Jaehyun around that much, huh?"

"Absolutely. On the bright side, though, Jaehyun and Sicheng have replacements." Sooyoung reaches up to gently pinch his cheek. "Little Mark, finally a pilot. Not so little now, eh?"

"I'd hope not," Mark replies seriously.

Sooyoung waves a hand. "Nah. To me, you'll always be the little kid with glasses and retainers."

"Dear God, please don't remind me." Across the room, Jaehyun is translating for a harried engineer, Lucas nodding with interest. "Or tell Lucas that. I don't think I'll be able to live it down."

"Why not? He seems nice," Sooyoung quips, sly smile gracing her features as she hip-checks Mark.

Despite himself, Mark grins. “Noona.”

“What? You can't say I'm wrong. And I saw how you were looking at him, boy, don't lie to me.”

“As my senior, it's only right that I appreciate him.”

“Mhm. His looks are worthy of appreciation.”

“I regret coming here.”

Lucas and Jaehyun make their way back, the former's eyes shining. "You two have fun?" Sooyoung inquires good-naturedly. “With that enthusiasm, Lucas, maybe we’d be better off with you in here.”

"We weren't allowed in LOCCENT at Hong Kong," he explains with interest. "It's nice to see what goes on behind the scenes."

Sooyoung beams, pleased with Lucas’s answer. “It’s nice to be appreciated. The pilots may be the face of the operation, but all of us up here are the backbone.”

Before Sooyoung can get in another word, the doors to LOCCENT burst open, the Marshal striding in without ceremony. The poor scientist nearest the door scrambles to straighten himself. “Ah, speaking of.” Sooyoung smiles conspiratorially at them before addressing the room. “Marshal Lee, on deck.”

Everyone immediately straightens and salutes, him and Lucas included, but the Marshal simply puts up a hand. "At ease, everyone. Miss Park, Officer Jung," he nods to Sooyoung and Jaehyun before turning to him and Lucas. "Strike team. Are you ready for your neural exercise?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Please proceed to the Drivesuit room."

Jaehyun salutes them as they leave, Sooyoung giving them a double thumbs up. The Marshal sends them off with a final nod, and they set off across the Jaeger station. The floor has been cleared for the exercise, no ambient sounds of metalwork and buzzing machines; only he and Lucas are on the staging area, but Mark still feels the scrutiny of the staff perched on the balconies, all apprehensive but expectant.

They’re suited up within minutes, the staff flooding into Black Widow’s Conn-Pod with the two of them at the lead. “Welcome back, pilots,” Wendy’s voice floats around them pleasantly.

“Hello, Wendy,” Lucas responds, stepping onto his platform. Mark follows suit. The techs attach them to the Jaeger, wires running from their suits to the motion rig above them. Once the relay gel clears up, Mark hears the sound of the Conn-Pod being shut, latches locking them inside one by one.

“Settled in, boys?” Sooyoung pipes up in his earpiece.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Alright. Wendy, get them ready for the neural handshake.”

“Affirmative.”

“Pilots, are you ready?” Sooyoung prompts.

Lucas turns to him, question unspoken. Mark nods in answer. “Yes. Start it up, Wendy.”

He takes a deep breath, clears his mind, and he’s thrust into the Drift once more. This time, the music reaches him faster than it ever has—but beyond that, nothing. No rapid flash of memories, save for the ones he and Lucas already share. Mark almost reaches out, tries to grasp onto a stray chord or measure, but he stops himself—he pushed Lucas too hard, Jungwoo had said. If this much is what Lucas wants to share with him, it’s what he’ll work with.

With a sharp tug of his navel, he’s back in Black Widow, the telltale presence of the Jaeger’s circuitry humming softly and Lucas right next to him.

The threat of failure takes hold of him again, pooling unpleasantly in the pit of his stomach. Tests were one thing, but this—Drifting and staying in the Drift, it’s something that can’t be taught. Something that he has already failed at once.

Mark looks to his right. If Lucas is nervous, it doesn’t show; he’s standing sure as he always has been, flexing his fingers within his gauntlets. The sight of him is calming, somewhat. If a veteran is this collected, then Mark need not worry as much as he is.

Prove them wrong. This is only the first step.

"Right and left hemisphere calibrated," Wendy reports. They both raise their arms experimentally, feeling the Jaeger move along with them. “Calibration complete. Proofed and transmitting. Ready to activate the Jaeger."

"Black Widow, syncing up," Sooyoung confirms.

"Pilot to Jaeger connection complete."

“Excellent. Give me a quick rundown of your systems, please,” Sooyoung orders. “Try to hold on to your neural bridge.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Lucas wastes no time, pulling up control panels and screens with deft hands. For a moment Mark is paralyzed—but Lucas looks to him expectantly and he leaps into motion, nights of studying and revising kicking in. Pilot vitals, Jaeger systems, weapons systems. Pons circuitry status. Armor health.

“Neural bridge holding strong and steady,” Sooyoung informs them.

Once they’ve double and triple-checked to see if everything is running smoothly, there’s a nerve-wracking beat of silence as Wendy calculates the verdict. “Sync rate: 92.38%. Minimal anomalies. Neural bridge exercise successful.”

Mark breathes a sigh of relief.

“Good job, you two,” Sooyoung praises. “You’re cleared to pilot Black Widow.”

“Well done, rangers.” It’s the Marshal this time, approval evident in his tone. “Please return to LOCCENT once you’re out of your suits. We’ll discuss having you two do a test drive on the proving grounds tomorrow.”

He turns to Lucas, grin spreading from ear to ear. “I can’t believe we did it.”

Lucas smiles. “I told you that you were doing just fine, didn’t I?”

Mark laughs, feeling lighter than he has been in weeks. “I guess you were right.”

 

***

 

“Never stops raining here, does it?” Lucas observes.

Mark stifles a laugh. They’re clutching at their food trays right in the middle of the mess hall and craning their necks to find a seat, the sound of chatter from the residents of the Shatterdome mingling with the rain beating down on the windows. The cadets are much less hostile today. There’s still a stray glare or two, but otherwise nothing too malicious; probably has something to do with the success of their run yesterday, Mark notes with disdain.

“In fall? Not really. It’s much worse this year for some reason,” he elaborates, scanning for an empty table as they walk. “But you’ll love the summer. It’ll be raining half the time—just like London.”

“Sounds lovely.” Lucas stops in his tracks, staring at something to his right. “What…?”

Gathered at a table are Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun, Jaemin waving his arms in the air and pointing to the vacant seats with unmatched energy.

"He wants us to sit with them, I take it?" Lucas says wryly, smirk tugging at his lips.

Mark sighs deeply. "Those are my roommates. Might as well get it over with."

Lucas shakes his head in mock disappointment. "Tch. Is that how you talk of your friends?"

"More like nuisances," Mark returns. “But I bet they’d love to be introduced to you.”

“Now I’m nervous.”

“You’re an excellent liar.” Mark cautiously approaches the table with Lucas in tow, donning what he hopes is an honest smile. “What’s up, you guys?”

"Mark! Ranger Wong," Jaemin enthuses. "So nice of you to join us."

"How could we refuse?” Mark gripes, but he seats himself across Jaemin nonetheless. “Lucas, this is Jaemin, Renjun, and—“

“Jeno,” Lucas finishes. “Yes, we’ve met.”

Jeno turns red, but he recovers admirably, eyes curving into crescents as he smiles. “We heard your test yesterday went well,” he says. “Congratulations!”

“Yes, yes, what an achievement.” Jaemin leans forward with interest, shamelessly peering at Lucas with stars in his eyes. Behind him, Renjun is shaking his head. "So, Ranger Wong. Tell me—how is it, working with our dear Mark?"

Mark chokes on his orange juice. "Jaemin."

"Oh, you're no fun. Let Ranger Wong answer."

"It's Lucas, please,” his partner answers winningly. Mark can practically see Jaemin melt. “Mark is more than capable."

“You’re blushing,” Renjun signs, safely hidden by Jaemin’s back. Mark sends him his iciest glare.

"Do tell me more,” Jaemin says with delight.

“As much as I’d love to hear Lucas sing my praises,” Mark interrupts, “Can we please talk about something else?”

“Please do,” Lucas agrees, looking positively tickled by Mark’s distress.

The conversation proceeds in much less painful direction than Mark anticipated. Jaemin flirts, Jeno smiles, and Renjun occasionally throws his hat in the ring, Mark translating for him. When the clock strikes nine, the three of them clear the table, Jaemin making Lucas promise to drop by the Kwoon room sometime. He gamely agrees, much to Mark’s chagrin.

“They seem nice,” Lucas notes.

“That’s what I said too, at first,” Mark replies seriously. “But it’s been three straight years of torment.”

Lucas chuckles. “It can’t have been that bad.”

“No, it really wasn’t,” Mark acquiesces. “But having roommates is both a blessing and a curse. Didn’t you have roommates in the Academy?”

“I did, yes,” Lucas says thoughtfully. “About my age, as well. But they ended up partnering with each other. Kunhang and Dejun are—“ Lucas pauses, pursing his lips. “Are the pilots of Fever Dream.”

Mark awkwardly pokes at his gyeranmari. “I see.”

Their conversation stops at that. Lucas clearly doesn’t want to talk about his roommates—friends?—so Mark doesn’t push it any further, even though he’s dying to know what they’re like. It’s disconcerting, how much Lucas already knows about him. His life comes in a small package; everything and everyone in it is within the Jeju Shatterdome. But Lucas left pieces of him back in Hong Kong. Back in London, even, and Mark can’t pick him apart the way Lucas has done with him.

The two of them finish breakfast in silence, heading straight to the Jaeger station for their next task. As the Marshal promised, they’re to conduct drills on the Jaeger proving grounds: about 300 hectares of PPDC-owned land just for the exclusive use of testing Jaegers, hidden away somewhere on the southeast area of the island. Once they’re suited and wired up, Black Widow is flown out by a handful of helicopters across the raging ocean.

It’s actually breathtaking, seeing the waves churn leagues beneath them, raindrops streaking across the glass of Black Widow’s Conn-Pod.

“This is Black Widow’s first glimpse of the outside world,” Sooyoung notifies them. In a way, it’s Mark’s first in a while as well. Years and years he’s spent in the confines of the Shatterdome, training and studying endlessly just for this moment to come. It’s exhilarating, making him lean forward on his platform in anticipation.

They’re deposited onto a grassy slope, marked off by walls even taller than Black Widow itself. The fortress itself is completely bare, save for four watch towers adorning each corner, all ablaze with yellow light that cuts through the rain.

“Alright,” Sooyoung begins. “We’re gonna be doing just a few drills to get you two going, see if Black Widow here will run smoothly in the field. No worries.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Now that's what I like to hear. Shall we start?”

Sooyoung guides them through a few basic movements: running, crouching, punching and blocking. Mark lets the Drift take hold of him, the music envelop him completely, and Black Widow moves smoothly, almost completely in sync with them both. Mark has to strain himself at times, the weight of the Jaeger’s consciousness almost too much to bear; but whenever he thinks it’s all too much, the burden will lessen somewhat and he can suddenly breathe easier.

Lucas, however—Lucas is completely in his element. He moves in his Drivesuit with practiced ease, eyes alert to the control panels in front of them while still monitoring Mark beside him. There truly is nothing in the Drift, only the humming of steady, focused energy from him, Mark, and Black Widow moving, thinking together. It’s clear that piloting is something instinctual to him, something he just falls into.

He was meant to be in a Jaeger. The pilot beside him—this is the pilot that the PPDC could never let go of.

They test the Black Widow for hours, enough for the clouds to clear up and the midday sun to beat down on them. But still they press on, following Sooyoung’s every command.

“Drill number 347 cleared,” Wendy announces eventually. “Level one exercises, cleared.”

“Thank God,” Mark pants, straightening himself. “Are we done, Sooyoung?”

There’s only silence on the other end of the line. Mark frowns at Lucas, who seems equally at a loss. “Is there a problem, Miss Park?” he asks tentatively.

“No, no, everything is great, it’s just…” Sooyoung pauses, the faint sound of murmuring coming through the microphone. “There’s some anomalies in your Drift—I’ll have Jungwoo go over it later, but it’s nothing to worry about. But congratulations on clearing your drills.”

“Thank you?” Mark murmurs.

“Everything seems to be in order.” The Marshal. “Report back to LOCCENT when you’re ready.” The line ends abruptly, not even the sound of static to fill the silence within the Conn-Pod.

“What was that about?” Mark wonders aloud.

Lucas shakes his head. “I don’t know, but I’m absolutely knackered.” He hasn’t broken a sweat. “Shall we head back?”

“Yeah. Good job today.”

Lucas nods, distracted. “You, too.”

 

***

 

The rest of their day has been cleared, Lucas breaking off towards the dorms to write a few important e-mails. He’s too restless to go back, though, still fired up from their trip to the proving grounds, so he spends his energy circling around the Shatterdome until his feet lead him back to the staging area.

“Mark hyung!” someone calls from above him. Jisung is on one of the catwalks surrounding Pink Slip. “Come on up!”

He ascends one of the lifts at Jisung’s command, coming to a stop at the Jaeger’s back panel that’s been flipped open to reveal a mess of knobs and wires. “Making some last minute adjustments?” Mark questions, sitting cross-legged beside Jisung, busily packing up his wrenches and pliers.

“Fine-tuning the maintenance,” Jisung clarifies, closing his toolbox with a snap. “Calibrations can never be too accurate.”

Mark chuckles, ruffling Jisung’s hair. He had missed the younger’s company, his peculiar way of thinking. Even the way he spoke, too callous and stilted for most, but honest enough for Mark. “My little perfectionist.”

Jisung scrunches up his nose, patting his hair back into place. “Congratulations on your drill.”

“Thanks, Jisungie.”

“How are you and Ranger Wong?”

Mark snorts. “Straight to the point, huh? You're as nosy as Jaemin.”

“Just concerned as your senior,” Jisung responds with a sly smile. “We have to work with you too, you know. Besides, Chenle knows his side. I want to know yours.”

“You and Chenle talk about us?” Mark asks incredulously. He’s noticed that Chenle and Lucas have grown close over the weeks, sure, but not to the extent that Chenle and Jisung apparently have enough to discuss. About him, no less.

Jisung simply levels a blank stare at him. “Hyung, the whole Shatterdome is talking about you.”

“No pressure.” Mark sighs. “Well, he's... friendly.”

“He's friendly with everyone,” Jisung says, unimpressed.

“That's what being friendly is, Sungie.”

“I know.”

Mark smiles despite himself. “Sarcasm, Jisung ah.”

“Oh.” Jisung shakes his head in annoyance. “I meant with you. How is he as a partner?”

Mark thinks to the blanket over his shoulders as he woke up, hours in the Kwoon room, early morning chats. “He's nice.”

“You're useless.”

“Honest!” he insists. “He's kind. It's just...” Mark bites his lip.

“Just what?” Jisung prods.

“I dunno. It’s just—his actions say one thing, but the Drift says another.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since our first Drift weeks ago, he hasn’t let me through any of his memories,” Mark explains. “I know it sounds strange, but I think he’s keeping me out. Like he did when he chased the rabbit, but without pushing me out of the Drift. It’s kind of hard to explain.” He frowns, recalling how aloof Lucas had been before their drill. “Sooyoung said something about anomalies in the Drift when we had our drills earlier. I think this has something to do with it.”

“Well, Drifting is different for everyone,” Jisung suggests. “Maybe he was just caught off guard that first time. Out of practice, or something.”

“I suppose. I just don’t know why he would keep his memories from me now when I’ve already seen them.” He picks at a loose thread on his pants. “I guess that’s the problem, really. I know practically nothing about him apart from his partner died, and that he’s from Hong Kong. Which everyone already knows.”

“It's only been a few weeks since you've met,” Jisung reasons. “And besides. Does it really matter what he shares with you or not as long as you’re making it work?”

“Yeah, you're right.” Mark sighs deeply. “I shouldn’t pry. I guess I just have really high expectations—the only pilots I know are you and Chenle, and you're practically twins separated at birth.”

Jisung huffs. “I was really scared of him at first, remember?”

“You were scared of him because he was loud!” Mark laughs.

“Exactly. Not really good for my hypersensitivity, is it?” Jisung fiddles with one of his in-ear filters. “It took me a while to open up, too. In any case, if you want to know why Ranger Wong is keeping his memories from you, you won’t get an answer right away. Whatever it is, the facts are that you’re able to Drift and pilot Black Widow.”

Jisung’s words sound cold, but they ring true. He and Lucas have been doing well on every test they’ve conducted. What does it matter to him that Lucas is holding his memories back in the Drift?

“When did you grow up, huh?” Mark questions, pinching Jisung’s cheek. “Where'd my baby go?”

“Ack.” Jisung breaks free of his grip, rubbing at his sore cheek in vexation. “I sure don’t feel like I have grown up, with the way you treat me.”

Mark sighs, smiling as he pats Jisung on the head. “Please don’t grow up and leave me behind, Jisungie.”

“Don’t be silly, Mark hyung,” Jisung chides. “Sometimes I think you grew up faster than any of us have.”

“I had to,” Mark says softly, carding a hand through Jisung’s hair. “Who else will take care of you, hm?”

“You didn’t have to,” Jisung reminds him. “But thanks, anyways.”

Mark laughs, and Jisung smiles along with him.

 

***

 

He’s called to the Marshal’s offices thirty minutes before dinner, his holoscreen pinging off loud in the silence of their room. Lucas is out, probably on one of his biweekly therapy sessions with Johnny, so he makes sure to send a message telling his partner to go ahead to the mess hall before he trudges off towards the elevators.

The Marshal’s desk is as busy is ever, constantly updating holoscreens strewn out over the surface along with stacks of papers and folders. He wordlessly ushers Mark in, and he obeys, seating himself on the same chair he chose when he was first summoned here.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes.” The Marshal pulls something up on his holoscreen, staring intently. “You remember Miss Park said she would go over your Drift anomalies with Dr. Kim today?”

“Yes, sir.” Mark leans forward, interest piqued. “Is there a problem?”

The Marshal hums, a small crease forming between his brows. “Not exactly. You and Ranger Wong have done well. Your sync scores leave something to be desired—they’re high, yes, but not as high as your first try—but they’re still satisfactory overall.”

“But…?” Mark prompts.

“But,” the Marshal continues. “Dr. Kim has discovered that there is an… unequal burden between the two of you in the Drift. There’s been a disproportionate amount of neural load on Ranger Wong’s part.”

Mark frowns. “What does that mean, sir? Like I’m not pulling my weight?”

The Marshal shakes his head. “We’re not quite sure. The results show your load to be normal—it’s just Ranger Wong’s that is above average. Whether the source of the excess is from you or the Jaeger remains to be seen.” He steeples his fingers atop the desk. “Even so, you have been doing well in your drills so far. Only time will tell if this will be a concern, but it’s best if you reach a solution as quickly as possible. We’ll want to minimize risks as much as possible before your first mission.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Get to the bottom of it,” the Marshal instructs. “There’s only so much J-Tech can do for this without you or Ranger Wong’s cooperation. Find out why this is happening, and try your best to prevent it. You need to be in top form if you’re to face a Jaeger.”

Mark nods resolutely. “Understood, sir.”

“Good. Questions?”

“Why not have him with me here, sir?”

“Would you rather have this conversation with Ranger Wong present?” the Marshal asks, raising an eyebrow.

Mark shakes his head. Discussing the fact that he’s possibly not pulling his weight in the Drift with Lucas here would be distressing; heavy neural load or no, his partner is doing well. He’s the one who’s struggling despite his apparently normal burden, and he’d hate to seem even more inexperienced than he actually is. “No, sir.”

“I thought so. Ranger Wong is more… receptive to Officer Jung, anyhow.” The Marshal takes a holoscreen into his hands, clearly finished with the conversation. “If there aren’t any more questions, then you’re free to go.”

“Yes, sir.” Mark catches a final glimpse of the Marshal bent over his desk before he closes the door noiselessly.

 

***

 

The next few days are dedicated to a series of increasingly difficult battle simulations, all conducted in the safety of the proving grounds. Nothing in their training could have prepared Mark for the intensity of them, how mentally taxing they are, but he savors the challenge, especially the gratification of a job well done.

Despite their consecutive successes, however, the Marshal’s words never leave him: get to the bottom of it.

It’s easier said than done. Along with the success of their tests comes a ton of free time, more than Mark knew what to do with. His days in the Academy were busy ones: packed tightly and well-structured for maximum productivity, not leaving much room for leisure. It’s unfathomable to him, spending hours on end doing nothing, so he busies himself with helping Doyoung at K-Science or looking over Jungwoo’s shoulder as he writes his reports.

Lucas spends his free hours helping out in the Kwoon room, of all places. Jaemin, predictably, is ecstatic; Jeno reports that Lucas is taking it all in stride, even managing to strike up an acquaintance with Renjun despite his not knowing any sign language. More often than not, though, he’s seen with Chenle, and on occasion with Jisung as well. He seems to grow much more animated in those moments, talking with enthusiasm and liveliness that Mark had never seen before.

He tries to not let it bother him. Of course Lucas would feel more comfortable with Chenle—they spoke the same language, after all. It’s only natural to feel homesick, seek out what’s familiar. During his first few months in the Shatterdome, Mark would miss Vancouver terribly, finding the weather in Jeju strange and the culture even stranger. He gravitated towards Johnny more than anyone else, comforted by stories of how he would fumble with honorifics and past tense.

He still can’t shake the feeling that whatever anomaly Jungwoo found, it has something to do with Lucas not sharing his memories in the Drift. If only he were closer to Lucas, trained together like Chenle and Jisung, or Jaehyun and Sicheng. But it’s as Jisung said: they’ve only known each other for weeks, and it would be remiss if he brought the issue up now when they’re still getting to know each other. Or Mark is getting to know Lucas, more like.

Shared memories or not, they still work well together. Their sync rates are above average, they can Drift without falling out of it, they get along just fine—hell, they even jog together on the odd day that it isn’t raining. The officers seem happy enough, and even the Marshal seems satisfied. As long as they can do their jobs, Mark has nothing to complain about.

Well, save for the absence of one engineer every time they go down to the staging area.

He knows he has to apologize sooner or later—it’s been weeks, for God’s sake, and if Yerim’s glare that one time she was doing maintenance on Black Widow wasn’t a sign that he should do it, he doesn’t know what is.

But how exactly should he approach Haechan? It’s the first time they’ve fought over something that’s… well, not petty. Who cleaned the bathroom last, sure, he can deal with that; but he actually hurt Haechan’s feelings this time, and there’s no protocol for that.

Providence comes in the form of a staff meeting, high-ranking officers from all offices being called into the Marshal’s office for some matter or other, including Doyoung and Jungwoo. Out of options, Mark finds himself wandering the Jaeger bays again, eventually coming to a stop at Black Widow.

He hitches a ride upstairs for the hell of it. Might as well take Seulgi’s advice and talk to the AI. Maybe they can bond over Canada.

What greets him in Widow’s cockpit, however, isn’t Wendy’s genial voice. “Donghyuck?”

Haechan jumps from where they’re checking one of the motion rigs. They grimace, replacing a wrench on their tool belt. “Hey, Mark.”

Mark scratches at the back of his neck. “Um… everything okay?”

“Mhm. She’s in good shape.”

They stand there in silence until Mark sighs, the awkwardness between them too much to bear. “Look, Donghyuck, I just... I just wanted to apologize. I shouldn't have flipped out on you like that.”

“I'm sorry, too,” Haechan blurts out. “I shouldn't have assumed... I should have asked you first. If you wanted the modifications.”

“It's alright,” he reassures. “No use dwelling on it.”

“Okay.” They avoid meeting each other's eyes, fumbling for their next move, until Haechan lunges forward and wraps their arms around Mark's middle. He does the same, smiling against the younger's hair. “I hate fighting with you.”

“Me, too. But it's part of the package, isn't it?”

Haechan pulls away with a laugh. “That's just sad.” They sober up, looking up at Mark through their eyelashes. “I'll make sure to ask next time I decide to do something drastic.”

Mark shakes his head. “There's no need. I may be the pilot, but you know what's best for Black Widow. And... thank you,” he says earnestly. “For keeping me in mind.”

Haechan smiles, planting a kiss on his cheek. Mark lets them. “You're welcome.”

They clamber out of the Conn-Pod, sitting themselves on the edge of a catwalk, legs dangling over the edge. “I still can't believe it, you know?” Haechan begins, kicking their legs back and forth. “That you're a pilot.”

“Did you have that little faith in me?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Haechan deadpans. “It's just… insane. You piloting a Jaeger that I designed. It's more than I could have dreamed of in the Academy.”

“I know, right?” Mark sighs, looking up at Black Widow's Conn-Pod.

“We haven't had much time to chat since, like, forever. How's the high life treating you?”

“It's hardly the high life when the Marshal is breathing down my neck, but—it's going well. Way different from JA.”

Haechan snorts. “I bet. First day of the promotion, I forgot all my formulae.”

“You also managed to create a new venting system for the Mark III models, so I’d say you’re doing pretty well.”

My point being, it’s only gonna get crazier from now on.”

Mark sighs. “You’re telling me. Every time I think I’m ready, shit just keeps getting harder and harder. I don’t even know if I’m doing this right.”

“I don’t know if there’s a right way to pilot, but.” Haechan throws an arm around Mark’s shoulders, squeezing tightly. “Don’t start doubting yourself.”

“I just feel way in over my head, y’know? And Lucas, he’s just… he’s amazing. Like he was born to be a pilot.” Mark worries his lip, frowning. “I just want to be ready for our first mission. I want it to go well.”

“Mark.” Haechan takes his shoulders, squares them to meet their gaze. “You are literally fighting monsters from another dimension. You can’t expect everything to go right, believe me. I’ve been through enough stupid repairs to attest to that. And hey,” they grin, flicking the tip of his nose with a finger. “You’re pretty fucking amazing, too, you know.”

Mark can’t stop the smile that spreads across his face. “Thanks, Duckie.”

“My God,” Haechan laughs. “You must be feeling pretty sappy if you’re using that nickname.”

“Shut up, you only get this twice a year,” Mark retorts, shoving them away halfheartedly. Haechan finds a way back into his arms, though, their side fitted snugly against his as they gaze over the Jaeger bay.

For a second, Mark is sixteen again, Haechan huddled against him after a particularly long day at the Academy. “Pity me, I’ve been looking at differentials for hours,” they would whine, and Mark would roll his eyes, but he would let them squeeze into his bed anyway. They would spend hours like that, even fall asleep together.

Right now, though, it’s him who needs it more than Haechan does. And he suspects Haechan knows, too—so he lets himself waste time, just this once, and watch life in the Shatterdome go on without him.

 

***

 

Jungwoo's office is decorated with abstract paintings, a blue couch, a glaringly orange coffee maker, and a ceramic figurine of a golden shepherd that sits on the corner of his desk. Mark has the room memorized down to the cracks on the walls; his visits have become more frequent ever since the Marshal has given him his task. Jungwoo’s resources on Drift science is parallel to none in the Shatterdome, save maybe for Johnny’s, making his office the perfect spot for Mark to do his research.

Not that spending hours poring over journal after journal has given him anything to work with. There’s simply nothing to be found about their condition—and that’s saying something, since every Drift sequence since the beginning of the Pan Pacific Defence Corps has been meticulously recorded, mapped, and statistically analyzed down to at least two decimal points.

Groaning, he stretches himself over Jungwoo’s couch, closing his eyes to rest. There’s only so much reading he can take before his vision starts to swim and his head starts aching.

“Given up?” he hears Jungwoo tut from his desk.

“For now. Christ, why is nothing ever simple?” Mark complains.

Jungwoo chuckles, the sharp sound of his pen scratching against paper tickling Mark’s ears. “Drifting and Drift technology is hardly simple,” he lectures. “A lot of work goes into melding two minds together with a Jaeger. And not even accounting for individual variations per pilot, at that.” Jungwoo sighs dreamily. “I have enough data from you two to get another PhD.”

“Thank you for the encouragement, Jungwoo.”

“Just keep at it, Mark. I’m sure we’ll find a solution somehow.”

“Can we please not talk about this right now?” Mark gripes, sitting himself up. He’s spent enough hours on the conundrum of his Drifting capabilities—he doesn’t need any more lip from the Shatterdome’s biggest Drift fanatic. “Let’s talk about you. What’s up with you?”

Jungwoo blinks. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“Dear God. Really? Nothing going on right now?”

“I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy?” Jungwoo ventures.

“Yes, please,” Mark pleads. “Please tell me about your puppy.”

“Jaehyun says it's too much work,” Jungwoo sighs, pouting slightly. “But I think it'll at least give me something else to do.”

“Get it if you want,” he shrugs. “But what does Jaehyun have to do with it?”

Jungwoo flushes up to his neck. “Um.”

Mark’s eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. “You two are serious, huh?” he questions. “That's good. But I thought Jaehyun and Sicheng were...” he fumbles, trying to look for the right word.

“Involved? Yes.”

Mark frowns. “Then you—“

“Also involved.” Jungwoo grimaces. “We're still working it out.”

“Oh.” Mark feels distinctly idiotic. “Well... good luck with that?”

“Thanks, Mark.”

“Have you… heard any news from Sicheng?” Mark asks cautiously.

Jungwoo perks up, pulling his holoscreen out of a drawer. “Yes, actually. We email often. There’s a lot of good sources from the Hong Kong Shatterdome, and I get everything directly from him.” Jungwoo eyes him curiously. “You know, since you look stumped, I could get data on Lucas from him if you want. We could learn more about his history, what his Drift was like with Kun Qian…”

“I… don’t know if I should,” Mark answers. “It feels pretty shady, going behind Lucas’s back like that. I wouldn’t like it if he did that to me.”

Jungwoo nods. “If you’re sure. But you must know, Sicheng’s been spending a lot of time analyzing his Drift sequences. He thinks there’s something… different about Lucas, but he doesn’t know what.” Jungwoo taps his chin thoughtfully, eyes roaming over his holoscreen. “Jaeger pilots who’ve lost their partner… they experience much worse than Lucas has. They deteriorate much quicker, almost lose their will to live, even. They wouldn’t even think of piloting a Jaeger again, but Lucas…”

“He chose to,” Mark completes.

“And he’s doing much better than we expected,” Jungwoo adds. “He must be incredibly strong for that.”

A gross understatement, in Mark’s opinion. Lucas has a presence in the Drift that’s near powerful, demanding that Mark pay attention to his every branch of thought, every possibility, every decision that he makes. And sometimes Mark holds onto him, yes, when he’s lost or overwhelmed—he’s steadfast and sure, not like Mark who’s still fumbling his way through. In the Drift, there’s no sign of the scared pilot in Tunnel Vision’s cockpit at all.

“Yes,” Mark finds himself saying. “Yes, he is.”

 

***

 

December rolls in, bringing with it chilly winds and larger waves lapping at the cliffs of the Jeju Shatterdome. Chenle and Jisung, with the help of single-minded dedication and Haechan operating a crane, bedeck LOCCENT and the Jaeger station with garlands and lights. The Marshal even orders a Christmas tree to be put up in the mess hall, right by the windows that constantly get sprayed with sea water.

Despite the cheery decorations, though, there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over the staff. It’s been three months since the last kaiju attack, two since Pink Slip has been repaired to full function, and the K-Science division is getting restless, monitoring the Breach almost 24/7 in anticipation for the next kaiju’s coming. Taeil seems especially stressed, checking and re-checking his calculations.

“They come every three to four months, like clockwork,” he explained to Mark one day as he fretted over his blackboard. “We should be expecting one at any time, now. You should be ready.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. It’s been weeks, and he still hasn’t found out what’s wrong with him and Lucas in the Drift. Not that it’s been a problem so far—they’ve gone through every simulation possible and passed, much to Sooyoung and Jaehyun’s delight. The Marshal seems happy enough as well, which is all Mark can ask for, but he still can’t shake the feeling that something can and will go wrong. Just like the staff’s apprehension that a kaiju will come soon, things have been going too well for the two of them for Mark not to expect smooth sailing for far too long.

Lucas himself hasn’t acknowledged the assignment they’ve been given, but he looks better, livelier than he was a few weeks ago. There are still moments when he’s distant, sure, but his spirits seem to lift every time they successfully conduct a drill, and on occasion Mark has even made him laugh. It’s a strange thing to see, but he decides he likes the way Lucas laughs—full-bodied and a little hysterical, totally at odds with his deep voice.

He seems especially buoyant today after spotting the Christmas tree in the corner. Mark catches him humming a carol under his breath as they fill up their trays for breakfast. “Excited for Christmas, I presume?” Mark teases as they seat themselves.

“Mhm,” Lucas responds brightly. “It’s always such an affair in Hong Kong. Our Marshal puts up a fundraiser for families affected by the kaiju war, gives out little Jaeger figurines for the children to play with.” A small smile plays across Lucas’s lips. “Complete with the pilots, of course.”

“Oh?” Mark’s eyes widen, and he leans forward curiously. “Were you an action figure, then?”

“Never allowed it,” Lucas laughs. “Far more appealing lads than me in the program.”

Mark sincerely doubts that, but he doesn't voice his opinion. “Wait ‘til you see the rules for the Secret Santa program, you’ll go nuts.”

“I look forward to it.”

He pokes thoughtfully at his fried egg, the yolk spilling over his bowl of rice. “K-Science has been on edge ever since December started, though. They think the next kaiju is due soon.”

Lucas shrugs. “It has been some time since the last attack. It’s only reasonable that they’re cautious.” He looks straight at Mark then, tilting his head. “I thought you’d be excited. Finally get to put that skill to the test on the field, and all that.”

“Sure, but I’m not keen on embarrassing myself in front of the Marshal.”

“What makes you think that?”

“I dunno. Just a feeling.”

“First missions rarely go well, you know.”

“It won’t be your first, though.”

“It’ll be my first with you,” Lucas points out.

Mark feels his cheeks heat up, but he smiles, the ridiculousness of the situation not lost on him. “Isn’t that too forward of you, Ranger Wong?”

“Believe me, Ranger Lee, you’ll know when I’m being forward,” he answers with a smirk.

Mark turns his head, trying to hide his grin. It’s the first time anyone’s called him a ranger.

He’s fully prepared to part ways with Lucas after breakfast to do another day of research, but given the tension in the K-Science division, the Marshal thinks it prudent to call another meeting—with the Strike teams present this time around. They spend the morning discussing strategies, formations that Pink Slip and Black Widow could use while in the field together. A fierce kind of pride rushes through Mark at the sight of Chenle and Jisung heading the table, especially taciturn Jisung who doesn’t miss an opportunity to let his voice be heard. Even more rewarding is how everyone actually listens, values their opinions. They’ve earned every bit of it.

Mark wants to jump in himself, make contributions of his own—his inexperience is something that hounds him, but it’s even more apparent surrounded by Chenle and Jisung, Jaehyun, and even the Marshal. Every time he thinks of something, a better idea comes up, so he contents himself with smiling and nodding, only adding small embellishments to the conversation. More than once Lucas shoots him a curious sidelong look, but he waves his partner away.

Truth be told, he thought Lucas would be more… anxious, given his past. It must not be easy facing a kaiju again, the danger of it looming over their heads like a ticking bomb. But Lucas is as calm and collected as ever, and more than once he’s managed to impress the officers with his knowledge and prowess. It’s not his first mission, true. And it won’t be his last, judging by the determination with which Lucas goes about the rest of their day preparing for the imminent threat.

Except later that night, he’s woken up by a blood-curdling scream. Mark bolts upright, looking around frantically—his eyes land on Lucas, writhing and groaning on his bed.

He pads over, gently shaking his partner awake. “Lucas. Lucas, wake up.”

Lucas’s eyes fly open, pupils almost swallowing his irises, panting as though he had just run a marathon. Eventually he regains control of his breathing, pushing his hair off his forehead that’s beaded with sweat. “Oh, God.”

“You were having a bad dream, I think,” Mark informs him. “Can I… get you some water?” he tries.

“It’s alright, thank you.” Lucas sits up, leaning against his headboard. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“It’s okay.” Mark bites his lip. “Is this… why you wake up at night?”

“Yes. I thought they would be gone by now.” Lucas lets out a mirthless chuckle. "Guess it’s not just K-Science that’s on edge.”

“Oh. You…” He stands uneasily by Lucas’s bed, unsure how to proceed. “We don’t need to talk about it, if you don’t want to.”

“I said I would tell you, right?” Lucas answers with a small smile. “It’s only fair.”

Mark seats himself on his bed and waits for Lucas to collect himself. The two of them face each other, sparse light from the window etching out his partner’s sharp features. His tired eyes. His slumped shoulders, making him look smaller than he is.

“I keep having… nightmares,” Lucas begins. “About my—about Kun ge, my partner. It’s always him dying, over and over again. The circumstances change, but it’s always him dying, and me not being able to do anything about it. The kaiju taunting me for it.”

“Did they start ever since…?”

“Mhm. Ever since.” Lucas exhales deeply. “I just don’t know what it is about my subconscious or whatever the fuck it is that keeps reminding me of it. That keeps making me feel guilty about it, even when I’m not awake.” Lucas pulls at his fingers, frowning at the absence of the rings he usually fidgets with. “I’m here of my own volition. I want to move on. But there’s a part of me that won’t let me. That’s still in grief, apparently.”

“That’s just it, isn’t it?” Mark says softly. Lucas looks up, directly at him, his gaze searching. Searching him, looking to him for answers. “There will always be a part of you that’s mourning. It just means you loved that person so much that they refuse to be forgotten, and that’s not a bad thing at all. They deserve to be remembered.”

Lucas drops his gaze back down to his hands. “I guess so.”

“Some days are worse than others, I know,” he continues. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not getting better. What’s important is that you want to. And you will.”

Lucas affixes him with the same searching stare—but this time, it seems like he’s found what he’s looking for, seeing something else in Mark that wasn’t there before. “Thank you, Mark.”

Mark shakes his head. He’s had his fair share of grieving, himself. If he was able to move on, then Lucas—who’s infinitely stronger than he is—will be able to move forward, too. “It’s nothing.”

“You say that, but you’re awake at the ass-crack of dawn, playing counselor.” Lucas sighs. “You should go back to sleep. I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

“I told you, it’s nothing,” Mark reassures him. “That’s what partners do, isn’t it?”

Lucas smiles. It’s slight, but it’s there. “Yes it is.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Combat Asset Dossier - Jaeger, Blue Blood

Name: Blue Blood
Generation: Mark II

Date of Service: May 6, 2017

Date of Termination: September 11, 2019

Ranger Team Assigned:
Taeyong Lee, Jonghyun Kim
Assigned Jeju Shatterdome

Mission History:
Blue Blood is credited with four kaiju kills: SP-7, Sapporo, May 6, 2017; HC-9, Ho Chi Minh City, September 9, 2017; Multo, West Philippine Sea, February 24, 2018; QD-13, Qingdao, September 10, 2019. Accumulating radiation damage to the Jaeger and the pilots contributed to increasing hiatus lengths.

Operating System:
Stuncore 88 Digital Plasma Reactor

Power System:
Gureum Model 2.4

Armaments:
I-22 Plasmacaster
AKM rocket battery, chest-mounted
Superheated retractable sting blade

Notes:
During the Jaeger's last mission, Blue Blood's pilots sustained extensive radiation damage, rendering them unable to pilot any nuclear-powered Jaeger. Following honorable discharge, Taeyong Lee was reassigned from active Jaeger service to an active command role in the Jeju Shatterdome. Jonghyun Kim was promoted to █████████████ █████████ of the PPDC.

 


 

The kaiju alarm in Jeju, as it turns out, is not much different from the one in Hong Kong.

It starts on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday: Yukhei is in the Kwoon room, arms weighed down with fighting staves, helping Irene sort through piles of equipment that the cadets have left lying around. Working with her is peaceful. Cathartic, even. The fightmaster speaks sparingly, which is just fine with him; Yukhei ends up gravitating to the Kwoon room when he doesn't have any energy to speak, but has some to spare for the heavy lifting.

When Irene does speak, though, it's usually careful, well-thought-out, and Yukhei's learned to listen. It doesn’t hurt that she’s never predictable, either—her stories range from tales of her own Jaeger drops to whatever cooking mishap her husband’s gotten himself into lately. He likes to think she's grown fond of him somehow, her small smiles a far cry from the terrifying teacher he had known in his first weeks. She reminds Yukhei of aunties who would give him sweets if he said "please" and "thank you."

Neither of them are feeling particularly chatty today, which makes the kaiju alarm even more jarring. A deafeningly loud siren resonates throughout the halls, flashing lights painting the room red; both he and Irene freeze in their tracks, paralyzed by the familiar sound.

Yukhei meets Irene’s gaze. She doesn’t even need to speak—he’s off to the Jaeger station within seconds, pacing himself to the sound of Sooyoung’s voice over the intercom.

“All Strike teams please report to Bay 01 and 02, Level B38. Kaiju. Category 2. All Strike teams please report…”

The alarm never failed to excite Yukhei, then. Sirens and flashing red would mean he would get to go out into the field—his blood would hum, every nerve tingling in anticipation for a new fight, a new challenge. A learned response, one developed by the knowledge of certain victory.

But victory is no longer that certain. Much as he would like to act as though everything is alright and play the part of veteran pilot, some things still slip through the cracks. He had been so flippant, so composed when he confirmed Mark's suspicions of a kaiju attack a week ago—yet he had reacted poorly that same night, plagued by nightmares he thought to be long gone, even more vivid than he remembers.

Mark was there, though. Ready to listen and offer answers. Suspicious though Yukhei is of Mark's motivations to pilot, his odd impatience and thirst to prove himself, he had been right that night. What's important is that Yukhei wants to get better—and what else will prove that if not a successful mission?

Over the course of their preparations with the other officers in the Shatterdome, his dread slowly became purpose. He's grown to anticipate the attack, even. His first mission since Kun's death—a new beginning. A new normal. Something to prove that he’ll be useful to the PPDC again.

He arrives at the Jaeger bay where Black Widow is waiting, bustling with activity as mechanics and engineers mill around for some last-minute checks. A few metres over are Chenle and Jisung, already striding towards the elevator that will lead to Pink Slip’s Drivesuit room. Mark appears at his side not long after, looking like he’s about to be sick.

“Alright?” Yukhei asks, and Mark snaps out of his stupor.

“Yes,” he answers tersely. He’s wound up like a string, fists clenched at his sides. “Just our first mission, is all. I’m sure it’ll go just fine.”

“I’m sure it will,” Yukhei returns with finality, unwilling to let Mark’s sullenness distract him.

They ready themselves in the Drivesuit room, like any other day that they’re going to conduct drills on the Proving Grounds—except when they enter Black Widow’s Conn-Pod, they see Pink Slip getting his last-minute checks as well, head getting screwed onto his body. Chenle and Jisung are barely visible through the tinted glass, standing out in their white Drivesuits and armour.

“Well, Black Widow, congratulations on your inaugural mission,” Sooyoung quips as he and Mark take stock of the Jaeger’s systems. “Here’s hoping your drills have served their purpose. Marshal Lee, on deck.”

“I’m sure the rangers will do their best,” the Marshal says, static crackling over the intercom. Yukhei sees Mark wince out the corner of his eye. “Welcome back, pilots. We have a Category 2 today: codename ‘Imugi,’ just off the coast of Incheon. Your job is to subdue that kaiju.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now, Pink Slip: you’re our primary strike team,” the Marshal begins. “Who’s heading this operation? We shouldn’t discount Ranger Wong’s expertise.”

Mark turns to him with wide eyes. “I think Mark and I will leave it to Pink Slip for now, sir,” Yukhei answers.

“Pink Slip?”

“If Ranger Wong says so,” Chenle says amicably. Mark exhales in relief.

“Alright. Pink Slip, Black Widow, are you locked into your Jaegers?”

“Yes, sir,” the four of them echo.

Sooyoung hums. “Copy. Initiating neural Drift interface.”

Yukhei lets the Drift wash over him, flashes of colour and heat overtaking his senses as he forms the neural bridge with Mark. Both Jaegers are hooked up to their carrier helicopters as soon as the Drift stabilizes, wasting no time hauling them towards Incheon.

The ocean is reflecting rays of light as they glide over it, blinding even through the protection of their helmets. It almost masks the sight of the kaiju making its way towards the coastline, large steps displacing tonnes of water as it moves—but kaiju aren’t hard to miss, and this one is no different.

Imugi is an ugly thing, slender head and body with grey, leathery skin and a long, barbed tail. A freak of nature if there ever was one. As soon as it comes into view, Mark goes rigid on his platform, the Drift freezing up with white and pale blue. Yukhei reaches out with his own cool green, and Mark slackens somewhat, breaths coming easier. His gaze drifts over to Yukhei for barely a second, perplexed, but Yukhei doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Damn, that thing’s ugly,” Chenle pipes up in his ear.

“All the more reason to get rid of it,” Sooyoung agrees. “Pink Slip, don’t let it get too close. I don’t like the thought of that tail near your launchers.”

“Affirmative.”

“Black Widow, you’re to tackle and engage that kaiju while Pink Slip hangs back,” the Marshal orders. “Pink Slip, conserve your armaments and remain at a safe distance. We have to see how well Black Widow can handle a kaiju one on one.”

No sooner than the Marshal has finished his orders, the kaiju spots both Jaegers, letting out an angry bellow. It charges towards them, each step making the ocean floor tremble.

“Jumphawk pilots, release, now!” the Marshal barks.

The helicopters relinquish their hold on Black Widow and they plummet to the ground, Pink Slip following suit. The waves rippling from where they’re dropped off do little to deter the kaiju, determined to meet them head-on.

Neither he nor Mark hesitate to race towards it, grabbing its arms for purchase as Black Widow slams her knee into its stomach. Imugi roars, arms thrashing as it’s tackled to the ground. They lunge forward in the Conn-Pod as Black Widow falls along with the kaiju, the motion rig yanking on their armour and drawing them back onto their platforms; Yukhei grunts, the impact making his joints smart.

They shift the Jaeger’s weight onto the kaiju, bracing hands and knees on its arms and stomach to limit its movement. The kaiju flails about, trying to get them off, but they retaliate with an uppercut right at its jaw, the sickening crunch of bones making itself felt at Yukhei’s knuckles. The kaiju groans, dazed.

“Pink Slip,” he grates out, forehead beaded with sweat from keeping the kaiju still.

Chenle responds immediately. “I hear ya. Black Widow, brace for impact.”

The tell-tale whoosh of a rocket sets Yukhei’s ears ringing, rushing past them to its target right at the kaiju’s neck. Black Widow recoils as the projectile explodes, and the kaiju wails in pain; when the smoke clears, however, there’s only a burn on its reptilian skin, swollen red blisters against grey.

“The fuck?” Yukhei mutters under his breath.

“Widow, keep it down. We’ll try another," Jisung warns.

The console in front of them flickers to life. “That won’t be possible, Ranger Park,” Wendy responds. “The kaiju appears to have hardened skin; any type of armament will be ineffective, including Black Widow’s plasmacasters.”

“Wendy is right,” Sooyoung speaks up. “You’ll have to find another spot—“

The kaiju roars again. Somewhat recovered from the attack, it attempts to throw Black Widow off, but they grab at the kaiju's arms, grappling with each other on the ocean floor. Imugi is putting up a hell of a fight—he barely registers Sooyoung and Wendy’s exchange, far too busy trying to pin the monster down. Beside him, Mark is gritting his teeth in concentration.

"The ventral side, it may have soft skin—your blade—" Sooyoung tries.

Yukhei baulks, his split-second lack of focus allowing the kaiju to break its arm free of Black Widow’s grip. They pin it down again quickly, grinding their knee against the kaiju’s stomach harder, and it moans in pain. "The what—"

"The front!" Mark yells. "Wendy, the knife!"

Sheets of metal erupt from where Black Widow's wrist meets her forearm, locking into place to form a blade. Bright red flashes across Yukhei’s vision, Mark’s intent finally making itself known in the Drift, and they slash at the kaiju’s neck; sure enough, electric blue gushes out of the wound, and Black Widow dodges to avoid the kaiju’s acidic blood.

Imugi howls, limbs weakening. He and Mark draw their arms back, preparing for the kill, but before they can plunge the blade into the kaiju’s chest, a heavy weight snaps against Black Widow’s back like a whip.

Both of them cry out in unison; the kaiju’s hit them with its tail, and they collapse onto it, pain receptors stinging along their spinal clamps. Sensing their distraction, the kaiju pushes Black Widow off of it, and they scramble to sit up in an attempt to retaliate—but the kaiju moves again, reaching out and swinging its entire right side to maul Black Widow’s torso with one large, powerful claw.

They cry out again, Yukhei feeling his ribs ache as he and Mark curl into themselves, clutching at their stomachs. Blue drips from the kaiju’s neck onto the shell of the Jaeger, Black Widow’s armour disintegrating. A flashing red alarm appears in front of them: POWER SOURCE COMPROMISED.

“Fuck!” he hears Mark swear. “Chenle, Jisung, backup!”

“Black Widow, stay clear of the explosion!” Chenle alerts them.

Another rocket makes contact with the kaiju, exploding into bits of shrapnel on its back—but the attack is just as ineffectual as the last, simply angering the kaiju, making it rise from the ocean floor and flail its head about until it locates Pink Slip. It moves quickly towards the Jaeger, pupils dilated.

“Shit!” Jisung swears.

“Pink Slip, target the neck wound!” the Marshal commands. “And do not use your last missile unless absolutely necessary.”

He and Mark get Black Widow standing, but when they try to step forward, the same message flashes in front of them more urgently than before: POWER SOURCE COMPROMISED. “Plasma field breached,” Wendy reports. “Power source compromised. Currently on conservation mode.”

“Fuck,” Yukhei swears. “Pink Slip, are you holding up?”

“Trying to get this kaiju off our back, but we’re managing,” Chenle grits out. The kaiju slashes a claw at them, but Pink Slip dodges easily, using a rocket to propel its arm forward and land a punch right at the kaiju’s wound. It recoils, howling, giving them a moment of respite—but it recovers quickly, tail cutting a path right at Pink Slip’s feet, the impact enough to trip them up. The Jaeger falls to the ground with an earth-shaking crash.

“We have to help them!” Mark cries.

“You can’t—you’re running out of power,” Sooyoung informs them. “You have about ten minutes of movement left.”

“That’s more than enough,” Mark protests.

“Absolutely not,” the Marshal dictates. “Pink Slip has managed worse alone—you’re to conserve energy and move only when they need it.”

“Bullshit!” Mark spits. "Jisung—"

"Mark hyung, stay put!" Jisung heaves out. The sickening squelch of flesh against metal rattles in Yukhei’s ear—Pink Slip has dug his fingers deep into the kaiju’s wound, making it thrash and howl. "We can do this."

“The Marshal is right,” Yukhei reasons. “We should stay put.”

“You’re seriously not taking his side?” Mark scoffs, incredulous. “Lucas, they’re alone out there—“

“And they’ve been alone for the past year!” Yukhei shouts. “Mark, you can’t just follow your impulses and take risks like this.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me there’s no knowing what to do when you’re out here?” Mark accuses. “Well, now I know that I want to help Chenle and Jisung!”

Yukhei grabs him by the wrist. “Don’t be brash and make the same mistake I did!”

Mark’s eyes soften, but Yukhei can tell that there’s still a protest waiting to burst forth. He glances outside the Conn-Pod, to where Pink Slip is still battling the kaiju—but the Jaeger is too small, and Mark watches in horror as it’s wrestled to the ocean floor.

Fear overtakes the Drift, ice-cold and grey, cutting straight through Yukhei’s heart. Fear for Chenle and Jisung, fear of not being able to keep them from harm—most of all, the fear of failure, right when success counts the most. Mark freezes, rigid on his platform, and his eyes glaze over.

“Mark?” Yukhei calls out, but he doesn’t answer. “Mark!”

“He’s chased the rabbit,” the Marshal says in his ear. The distress in his voice is palpable, unheard of, and it makes Yukhei’s blood run cold. “Ranger Wong—“

He doesn’t get to finish. The sleek panels of Black Widow’s Conn-Pod fall away, the blinding white sun replaced by a red and orange tinge that Yukhei has become familiar with—the colour that surrounds many of Mark’s memories, ones from his early life. Life before the kaiju.

This one features a family gathered around a fireplace: a mother, a father, and two boys. A younger Mark, Yukhei realizes, not older than five, and the Marshal—Taeyong—with ruddy cheeks and a gap-toothed grin. Fairy lights are strung up all around them and garlands are adorning the ceiling. Outside, snow is falling relentlessly, like a storm almost; but the family is warm for now, all in thick red and green sweaters. It’s Christmastime.

Mark is sitting contently in his pile of gifts, running a hand over a bright yellow raincoat fresh out of its wrappings. Taeyong slowly walks up to him, smiling wide, hiding a wrapped silver box behind his back. Their parents watch from the couch, amused.

Taeyong sets the box down in front of Mark, the light from the fireplace making his grin shine even brighter. “Merry Christmas, Mark!”

Mark looks up at his brother with wide eyes, then at the box waiting in front of him. “Taeyongie hyung got me a gift?” he asks.

“Of course!” Taeyong replies. He has a slight lisp, and one of his teeth is chipped. Yukhei can barely believe this child is going to grow up and become a Marshal.

The younger smiles just as wide, excitedly lifting the cover of the box. He gasps, taking out a small stuffed lion as though it were a precious jewel. Mark hugs it to his chest and lunges for Taeyong with an arm outstretched, hugging him close.

The memory fades in a wash of grey, giving way to a crumbling seaside city. Snow paints the scene white, except for two brothers bundled in winter coats, trudging through the cracked roads. There isn’t another soul in sight: all the shops are either abandoned or crushed, tell-tale signs of a kaiju attack.

"Taeyong hyung?" Mark asks, one hand grasped tightly in Taeyong's and the other holding onto a soft toy. The same lion Taeyong had gifted him what seems like many winters ago—they’ve both grown bigger, but look small in their thick clothes. "When are we going home?"

Taeyong turns and puts heavy hands on Mark's shoulders. "Home is gone, Mark," he tries to explain. A weight too heavy for a teenager to bear. "We can't go home. We're going somewhere else, where we're safe."

"Mom and Dad are gone too, aren’t they?" Mark continues.

Taeyong swallows, nods. “They're gone, little one. I'm sorry.” He kneels, taking Mark’s gloved hands in his and trying for a smile. “Right now, Mark, we need to look for people who will help us. Just a little more and you can sleep with Lion.”

Mark sniffles, rubbing at his red nose. “Mom and Dad... They can't put me to sleep anymore. No more goodnight kisses.”

“I'll put you to sleep, Minhyung,” Taeyong promises. “I'll kiss you all you want.”

“Okay.” Mark looks up at Taeyong with nothing less than adoration in his eyes. “I love you, Taeyongie hyung.”

Taeyong pulls little Mark into a bone-crushing hug. The desperation of someone who knows that this is the only family he has left. "I love you too, Mark."

The last that Yukhei glimpses of this memory is Taeyong lifting Mark up to carry him on his back, a trail of footprints in the snow the only trace left of the pair.

The memories that come next are more of a blur, a multicolour tapestry painting Mark's life after the kaiju attacks. A brief glimpse of a blue-walled orphanage, a cemetery with pristine white flowers against two slabs of grey stone. Then, a bright burst of yellow—Taeyong's selection for the PPDC trainee program, and Mark's own acceptance six months later.

The resulting memories are much lighter, flashes of Mark in the Shatterdome flicking across Yukhei's consciousness in rapid succession: his wonder at arriving for the first time in Jeju, with its high cliffs and even taller waves; his excitement at seeing the Jaeger pilots, armour still shining and unmarred; hours spent puzzling over Academy workbooks and skulking around the dormitories to seek Taeyong's help with their heads put together, the murky yellow of a torch the only illumination in a dark hallway.

Another memory takes form: Mark waiting pensively by one of the hallways in the hospital wards, worrying his lip as he watches a news broadcast on one of the holoscreens hanging on the walls. A kaiju off the coast of Fukuoka has been defeated by Korean Jaeger Second Wind just this morning, as well as a newcomer to the scene—for the pilots of Mark II model Blue Blood, this is their first mission...

One of the doors swings open and Mark looks up, quick as a cat. A man in cobalt blue armour trudges out, helmet under his arm, smiling when he spots Mark. Taeyong's partner ushers him in and he nods in thanks, clicking the door closed in one motion as he makes his way towards the bed.

Taeyong is lying on a hospital bed, arm in a cast, still in his blue Drivesuit. The sterile white hospital lights make his skin look deathly pale, but otherwise—much to Mark’s relief—he looks fine. "You didn't have to come, you know," Taeyong says in good humour. "I'm alright."

"Your arm is in a cast!" Mark points out. "I was worried!"

Taeyong shakes his head, bidding Mark to sit next to him. The younger brother complies, sighing as he surveys the damage. "I dunno if I like this, Taeyong hyung," he confesses. "Next time, what if it’s not just a broken arm?"

Taeyong smiles, grasping Mark’s shoulder with his good hand. "Mark, I entered the Jaeger Program knowing full well what could happen. So did you."

"I know,” Mark breathes out, placing a hand atop Taeyong’s. “I'm just worried."

"Don't be, little one. It's all part of the job. And besides," Taeyong grins. “We always turn out fine one way or another, eh?”

"I hope for your sake that that’s true," Mark responds, but he's smiling all the same.

The succeeding memories bleed into each other. Each is a separate entity on its own, cherished and treasured, but all come together to weave a picture of Mark after Blue Blood's inaugural mission: boundless determination and resolve to pilot a Jaeger. As Taeyong grows busier and busier, Mark throws himself into his studies, teaching himself how best to read and write without his brother's help.

Months pass and other familiar faces join him. Blue days become rarer, his life filling with more colour than he thought possible—there are fleeting images of him braiding Yerim's hair, rooming with Haechan for the first time, Kwoon room sessions with a silent Jungwoo. Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun trickling in, with Jisung and Chenle rounding them off.

Mark finally qualifies for the Jaeger Program; Haechan and Yerim move on to specialize in engineering. The first few months are the most radiant, rife with hope and expectation. He rises to the top of the ranks quicker than anyone had anticipated. Yukhei even catches a stroke of pink, a glimpse of Mark cradled, safe, in someone’s arms.

Everything comes to a peak when he’s called to test Drift with the other recruits. And test him they do; they find him incompatible with every single recruit, but Mark powers through each one with optimism and sunshine yellow. Each failed test Drift is only an obstacle, another hurdle to face on his path to becoming a pilot—but eventually, the weeks grow longer, and the pool of potential co-pilots starts dwindling.

The days are still bright, but grey starts creeping into them, an undercurrent of increasing despondency at his inability to Drift. Mark distracts himself by training harder, working himself to the point of exhaustion. The pink streak ends abruptly, cut short by a cold, grey metal door shutting Mark out; it doesn’t help that he seldom sees Taeyong, either, far too engrossed with his duties as part of the Shatterdome’s primary Strike team.

Months turn into years. Mark can only watch in horror as Blue Blood’s reactor core is breached—the irony of it all—and its pilots are sick enough from the radiation to be honourably discharged. Taeyong takes the next practical step, and his induction ceremony comes no sooner than a week after. This is the day that Mark finally can’t recognize him, this battle-hardened commander, no trace of his brother left. He becomes the Marshal, and Mark keeps the stuffed lion tucked at the bottom of his closet, all but forgotten.

The rumours intensify into their loudest and most vicious form, following him everywhere. They’re all falsehoods, of course—but still enough to make Mark question himself, paint his days black. Enough for his thoughts to echo their questions: what could possibly be wrong with him? Would be sent to another Shatterdome? Why he hasn’t been kicked out of the program yet?

“What makes him so special that he’s still here?” he hears one of the recruits say. He and Jaemin come to a standstill around a bend in the dormitories, ears perked.

“He’s not. I’m pretty sure the Marshal wants to get rid of him already,” another responds with a derisive snort. “Imagine being his brother and not being able to Drift.”

His stomach sinks. Jaemin scowls, ready to march forward and raise hell, but Mark stays him with a hand on his wrist. “It’s not worth it, Jaemin.”

“Mark, you can’t just let them shit on you like this!” Jaemin protests. “You should at least do something, like—like tell the Marshal or Ranger Jung.”

“And be called a tattletale on top of everything else?” Mark returns, brows raised. “Just leave it, Jaemin. Besides, they’re right.”

Jaemin is still frowning, although now in concern instead of anger. “Mark…”

“They’re right,” Mark repeats forcefully. “I’m not anything special. I don’t know what I’m doing here, either.”

“Hyung—“

“Jaemin, I’m fine, just…” Mark exhales, trying for a smile. “Go ahead for now. I’ll catch up later.”

Jaemin nods, turning to leave, but not before he gives Mark’s hand one final squeeze. “Don’t let them get to you.”

Mark huffs out a humourless laugh as he watches Jaemin walk away. “I’ll try,” he sighs into the air.

“If only you knew then,” Yukhei says thoughtlessly.

Mark turns around, alarmed. And then—he stares right at Yukhei. “Lucas?” he wonders.

Yukhei frowns, peering at Mark to see if he’s mistaken, if he’s calling out to someone else, but Mark is looking straight at him. “You can see me?” Yukhei marvels, stepping closer. This is absolutely Mark from the memory—Mark in his Academy uniform, who still hasn’t met Yukhei—but his gestures read familiarity, not caution.

“What are you doing here?” he questions, closing the distance between them. “How are you here?”

“You can see me,” Yukhei repeats, and it’s a realization, not a question. “Incredible.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re communicating in one of your memories, Mark. One that I’m not even supposed to be in.”

Mark’s eyes widen, the same comprehension lighting up the Drift. “Are we not supposed to do that?”

“It’s more like we shouldn’t be able to,” Yukhei answers haltingly.

“I see,” Mark answers, although it doesn’t seem like he does. “Wait, why are you even here in the first place?”

Yukhei hesitates. “We were fighting a kaiju and… you chased the rabbit.”

Mark shrinks, mouth thinning into a hard line. “Of course. Even when I’m a pilot I’m still not good enough.”

Yukhei huffs out an exhausted breath. “All this time to prepare for the mission and you still don’t get it, do you?”

Frowning, Mark steps closer, moving until they’re almost toe to toe. “Help me, then.”

Not a second after Mark finishes his sentence, the grey walls around them melt, falling away to reveal blue skies and white clouds. The ground beneath sprouts grass, trees spiralling upward; far off is the sound of a school bell, the rushing sound of a fountain, the chatter of students scurrying out of classrooms. They’re in the courtyard of Yukhei’s old boarding school, lit by the waning afternoon sun. Under the shade of an ancient oak, there are two boys in maroon jackets sitting close, heads together.

Yukhei’s chest tightens. Even though it’s just a memory, the sight of him alive and well still catches Yukhei off-guard—Kun, frozen in time, just as young as he was years ago, and—

“You’re here,” Mark realizes. Transfixed, he drifts closer to them. “How did you do this?” he asks in wonder, all traces of annoyance gone. The oak tree’s leaves cast shadows across Mark’s face: colourless one moment, vibrant the next.

“I didn’t. You did,” Yukhei responds. The vice grip on his throat loosens, allowing him to speak with more eloquence than he thought he would have. “You asked, and I answered.”

“I’ve never seen this memory before.”

Yukhei smiles wryly. “You already know I’ve been keeping things from you. Are you really surprised?”

“I suppose not, no.” There’s no malice in his voice. Mark sits cross-legged in front of Yukhei, observing him and Kun carefully. “Why this one, then?”

“Just listen,” Yukhei suggests. Mark complies, turning his eyes to the picture in front of him.

As if on cue, Kun reaches out a hand to place comfortingly on Yukhei’s back. “I’m sorry, Xuxi.”

Yukhei is spurred into motion, swept into the memory—he recites his lines as though he’s an actor in a play, one solely for Mark’s benefit. He shakes his head. “Not your fault, is it?”

“No, but… I never would have thought…”

“That a monster would come from the middle of the ocean and attack Hong Kong?” Yukhei finishes. “No, you wouldn’t.”

Kun frowns, drawing his hand back. “Xuxi.”

“I’m sorry, ge,” Yukhei sighs, reverting to Mandarin. “It’s just… I can’t believe it, either. I grew up there, Kun ge. I know the people there—to think that so many of them have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their families… to think that I’m here, miles away, unable to help…”

“The headmaster is accepting donations, you know,” Kun suggests optimistically.

“I know that, but donations can only go so far,” Yukhei reasons, finally looking up at Kun. He’s alight with ferocity, red-hot and fuelled by anger and loss. The beginnings of a spark. “Say they rebuild—what’s stopping another kaiju from attacking? Nothing. Hong Kong will be just as defenceless as it was today. Not just Hong Kong, all the other cities that the kaiju have attacked—will attack. I hate being useless like this.”

Kun says nothing for a while, looking up at the sky. He always did that when he was thinking, Yukhei realizes: look up as though the sky held all the answers. Always taking a moment to think, always careful with his words. There to calm Yukhei down with rationality—the mind to his heart. “I also heard something else from the headmaster.”

“And what’s that?”

“The UN—they’re recruiting people. Students, workers, everyone that wants to fight against the kaiju,” Kun explains. “They’re planning something, building weapons that we can use to fight back. And they need people that they can train to use and build those weapons.”

“I don’t know what this has to do with me,” Yukhei answers, confused.

“With us,” Kun corrects. “Xuxi, they’re recruiting anyone with talent. Sports, science, any sort of field. You’re one of the best track athletes in Southern England. I’m taking college-level computer science courses. We could apply together.”

“Work for the UN?” Yukhei wonders aloud, tasting the notion on his tongue. “You’ve given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?”

“Ever since I heard the headmaster mention it to some of the other teachers,” Kun confesses. “Besides, aren’t you always whinging about being bored with school?”

Yukhei smiles. “Kun Qian, are you suggesting we drop out?”

“I’m suggesting we receive special education instead,” Kun answers with an impish smile.

“I like it. We can help this way,” Yukhei agrees, sitting up straight and alert, the spark in him galvanized. “Not just sit around on our bums dropping our allowances in the donation box.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear. Shall I talk to the headmaster about it?”

“Not without me.”

“Alright. See you in a bit.” Kun sits up with a satisfied smile, clapping Yukhei on the shoulder before he leaves. “Don’t beat yourself up about things you have no control over,” he says softly. “At least you’re doing something to help.”

Something happens, then: the Drift comes alive, the beginnings of it working itself up from Yukhei’s chest, spreading along his body. Warmth, coming directly from Mark, a spark that Yukhei recognizes—one lost amidst the blues and greys, the finality of black. But it’s there all the same, just waiting to be set ablaze.

“I see now.” This time, it’s not a lie. Mark’s gaze is penetrative, knowledgeable—most of all, stunned, as though he’s seeing a different Yukhei in front of him. “Is that why you’re still here, after everything? Because you want to help?”

Yukhei nods, watching Kun drift farther and farther away, out of sight. “Yes, it is. It would have been easier to just give up altogether, retire and just live out the rest of my life, but…” His eyes meet Mark’s. “I became a pilot for a reason. I’m not just going to abandon that.”

“Then you’re a better man than I am,” Mark concludes.

“That’s not true,” Yukhei objects. “You’re just… astray, that’s all.”

Mark smirks, smile askew. “And you’re here to set me on the right path?”

He shrugs. “I can’t claim to have the moral high ground, but… it’s something to consider.” He tries to peer at Mark the way the other has just done to him, see if he’s changed in Yukhei’s eyes as well. All Yukhei sees is that his face is no longer in shadow. “The world is so much bigger than the Shatterdome, Mark,” he continues, voice quiet. “And it needs people like you to defend it.”

“I understand.”

“I’m glad.” Yukhei exhales. He surveys the sinking sun, vivid purple seeping into the sky. “It’s a pity we’re still stuck in the Drift, though.”

His partner follows his gaze. “I think I know how we can go back,” he says, with more certainty than Yukhei’s ever heard.

Mark takes his hand. The spark heightens into a flame, the sensation of it multiplied tenfold. Everything rushing through Mark’s mind reflects on his own: understanding, admiration, regret, shame, conviction. Most of all, hope; hope just like Yukhei’s, reignited after months of stagnation, now finally driven towards a purpose.

The last thing he sees is shining brown eyes, then everything fades to black.

 

***

 

Their emergence from the depths of their minds is gradual, each sensation making itself known to Yukhei one after another: the weight of his gauntlets, the pull of the motion rig, the flashing red of their control panels, the blinding afternoon sun. Finally, sharp and urgent voices in his ear, calling his name.

“Mark, Lucas,” Sooyoung is saying frantically. “Please respond. LOCCENT to Black Widow, can you hear me?”

“Sooyoung!” Mark gasps.

“Pink Slip is pinned down—they need backup now!” she answers urgently.

“On our way,” Yukhei responds, pulling a lever over his head.

“Conservation mode overridden,” Wendy informs them. “Caution advised. Only 500 megawatts of power left.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Mark grits out. “Jisung, Chenle, hold on!”

It’s natural as breathing, piloting the Jaeger. Yukhei doesn’t even need to think—they head over to Pink Slip in a few fluid motions, the other Jaeger delivering a swift kick to Imugi’s shoulder in an effort to displace it. The kaiju’s brief moment of vulnerability is all they need.

It happens in a flash: Black Widow rips the kaiju off of Pink Slip, flinging it onto the ocean floor. Before it can recover, they slash off its barbed tail with one measured strike of their blade, electric blue bleeding into the water as the kaiju wails; they step on its stomach, bracing themselves, and drive the knife into its sternum, hacking a bloody line down the length of its torso. Entrails spill out of its abdomen, a gaping hole in its carcass, and the kaiju finally stops moving.

Wendy’s announcement is final. “No life signs detected.”

“Shit,” Chenle says succinctly.

Mark frantically taps at his in-ear. “Are you two alright?”

“Fine, thanks to you,” Jisung answers. “Nevermind us. What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know,” Yukhei replies quietly.

He turns to Mark, whose eyes are wide as though he’s only realized that they’ve done the impossible. Mark returns his stare, awe making his eyes shine. Did we do that? he wonders, the first time they’ve spoken after everything. His lips aren't moving at all, but Yukhei can hear him clearly as if he were.

I think we did, Yukhei confirms, and Mark's eyes widen.

Lucas? Is that you?

Yes, Mark. It's me.

Can we—

I think so, Yukhei returns with no small amount of disbelief.

Their conversation—if they can even call it that—is interrupted when the Marshal's voice buzzes over the intercom. “Well, I don't know how the hell you did it, but I'm glad you did,” he says, the same disbelief tingeing his tone. “Pink Slip, Black Widow, stay put and your pickup will arrive in a few minutes. Job well done.”

The words barely register in Yukhei's mind. They're still in the Drift, minds connected by the Drivesuits and the hardware and everything else—but now that the fighting is over, he feels something else, something more than. An intrusive heat crawling up his body, and when he closes his eyes, there's orange-red instead of black. There are a billion pinpricks of warmth digging into his skin, and fire is shooting up his spine, settling deep into the base of his skull and resting there—a steady, slow flame.

Can you feel that, too? Mark asks, still not speaking. And that's when Yukhei realises.

They have the Ghost Drift.

Chapter Text

 

 

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Research Report—Jaeger Tech

Subject: Ghost Drift phenomenon in Strike Team J-05

Prepared by: Dr. Jungwoo Kim, PhD

The Ghost Drift is, in simple words, a telepathic connection between two pilots, unaided by Pons circuitry and other hardware necessary to make a Jaeger function. Perceived by experts as a side effect of Drifting, it is an uncommon phenomenon, only thus far documented in two other pilot teams. Both accounts are similar: they have described having the ability to predict the other pilot’s next move, or knowing what the other is thinking, albeit for only a few minutes at a time after being disconnected from the Pons system.

Such a phenomenon has been exhibited by the pilots of Black Widow, but to a stronger degree: while connected through the Pons system, both pilots stated that they were able to communicate verbally through telepathy. They have not been able to do so after disconnecting, but they have maintained that they can discern what the other is thinking and feeling, albeit in an abstract manner—Wong via colors and temperatures, and Lee through music. (See attached transcript of interview for particulars.)

To add to the unusual nature of this particular Ghost Drift, the pilot team has not exhibited these symptoms until after their first mission, specifically after successfully resisting a random access brain impulse trigger. I have extensively searched the PPDC’s databases, and there has also been no previously recorded instance of such an event.

The natural course of thought is, of course, to question how these feats are possible. And to a further point, why: why these two pilots in particular? One still recovering from extreme emotional trauma, and the other Drift incompatible with all viable candidates except the aforementioned?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, we cannot deny that the Drift between Wong and Lee has produced exceptional results that I believe will be a great asset to the PPDC.

The consequences of this development are still unknown, but both pilots will be monitored on a regular basis to check for any adverse effects. The possibility is slim, if any, but I will personally guarantee my aid if such a situation arises.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Johnny Suh, PhD, PsyD

Received by:
Deputy Marshal Jaehyun Jung
Marshal Taeyong Lee

 


 

It starts as a low buzzing in Mark’s skull. Not unpleasant, like a hive of bees or the feeling of tinnitus—but music, continuous notes that oscillate and move, never resting and ever present. The Drift, but without the layers of the Drivesuit and armor and hardware.

The music remains with him even as they’re extracted from their suits and ushered to J-Tech immediately after, even as Jungwoo pokes and prods them with fifteen different devices and asks them a hundred questions. Even as they get debriefed by the Marshal, who peers at him as though he’s seeing someone completely different, and—it’s disconcerting. But also exciting, in that he’s never been able to understand Lucas better. There’s no need for words; somehow the Drift tells him everything he needs to know, what Lucas is feeling and thinking.

Unfortunately for him, Lucas is upset. But he doesn’t need the Drift to tell him that—his answers when Jungwoo had interrogated them were clipped, and his steps are heavy as they make their way back to their dorm, unsettlingly silent as he closes the door behind him.

Mark stands pensively in the middle of the living room, unsure how to proceed. Lucas is still clutching at the doorknob, head bowed and face hidden, but Mark knows he’s only trying to keep himself calm; the music in his head grows noisier, chaotic with no semblance of organization to it, too loud for him to ignore.

“Are you okay, Lucas?” he finally ventures.

The music finally quiets. Lucas turns an empty gaze onto Mark. “Of course not,” he says, voice low. “Dr. Kim confirmed it, didn’t he? That we have the Ghost Drift.”

“I don’t understand,” he returns, confused. “Isn’t that a good thing? It means we can pilot better.”

“Again with the piloting!” Lucas snaps. Mark frowns, taking a step back. The buzzing has returned, louder than ever, almost drowning everything out. “Of course you’d think this is good—everything is about piloting to you. Getting close to me so you can pilot better just because the Marshal’s told you to.”

Mark bristles, tilting his chin up to face Lucas head-on. “What’s so wrong with that?” he retorts. “You can’t blame me for following orders. We’re partners, aren’t we? How am I supposed to work with someone I don’t know?”

“You already have, remember?” Lucas answers, his derision palpable through the cadence of his words. “Before the mission. You didn’t know anything and we worked together just fine. But the first time I fucking open up…” He runs a hand through his hair and tugs hard. “We have the Ghost Drift. Never gonna make that mistake again.”

What?” Mark questions in bewilderment.

“It was a mistake letting you in, because you still don’t fucking understand!” Lucas barks. “You want to get close because you want so badly to be a Jaeger pilot, but this job—it isn't for us to play hero, Mark! Look around you—the Marshal’s only there because piloting’s fucked him up so badly he can’t get in another Jaeger again. Jaehyun still hasn’t recovered from whatever happened almost a year ago.” He huffs out a humorless laugh. “I'm only here able to Drift with you because Kun ge died.”

Mark stays silent, his heart beating two-time, letting Lucas walk past him to stand by the window. The sky is turning orange and violet; the second sunset they’ve seen today.

When Lucas speaks, his voice is quiet, almost calm. Resigned. “The props may sell you that being a Jaeger pilot is the best thing in the world, but there's nothing fucking heroic about you being so dependent on another human being that it cripples you when they're gone.”

Mark lets the music simmer down to a staccato before he speaks. Fast and disjointed enough to betray frustration, but distinct enough that he knows Lucas has cleared his mind. “What about you?” he returns, just as hushed. “I thought you were here to help everyone in danger from the kaiju. You chose to be here, knowing full well what to expect going into a partnership, but you refuse to give it your all.” Lucas’s grip on the windowsill tightens, knuckles turning white. “Do you think you're helping anyone by closing yourself off from me? Do you think the world will be safer from kaiju if you refuse to cooperate?”

He walks up to stand beside Lucas, eyes brushing over his profile—bowed head, pursed lips. Sad, sad eyes. “I'm sorry that your Drift partner died, but we need each other, Lucas,” he continues softly. “There's no way around it. Did you see that, back there? When you finally let me in? We took that kaiju down in minutes. We could do so much more with what we have.”

Lucas finally meets his gaze. Silence stretches between them, except it's not really silence—the thrumming at the base of his skull is back, but even more frantic, even more reckless. Eventually it lessens in volume, decrescendo, until it's almost a peaceful presence making a home for itself in his subconscious.

“I'm sorry you don't want to be saddled with me.” He is. It must not be easy, any of this—losing your partner, returning to active service, grappling with the certainty of being known. “But if you want me to see you as more than just a Drift partner… that can’t happen if you don’t give me the chance to know you.”

Another stretch of silence. This time Lucas looks back out of the window, at the darkening sky. “You’re not a burden,” he says. He’s being just as honest.

Despite it all, a small smile tugs at the edge of Mark’s lips. “No?”

“If anything, you’ve been more than helpful.” They lock eyes. Lucas’s irises are a deep hazel, illuminated by the waning daylight. “I’m sorry if I made you feel that way. You’re right—I chose to be here. I should be doing better.”

Mark shakes his head. “No, I’m not expecting you to recover all of a sudden. I understand that it takes time to heal. I just hope that you’ll give me a chance.”

“Hm.” Lucas turns back to the window in thought. “Jaehyun said the same thing. To give you a chance.”

“It’s your decision,” Mark reiterates.

Lucas hums again, turning to lean his back against the glass and crossing his arms. Not to conceal himself, but to think. “I think I am ready,” he says at length. “I didn’t show you that memory in the Drift for nothing. I suppose I was just going about everything the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought that if I just get through this first mission, everything will be alright,” he explains. “That I can go back to being the pilot that the corps wants, what I was in Hong Kong—but that only happened because I trusted Kun. And it’s not gonna happen now, unless I learn to trust you.”

“Do you?” Mark asks cautiously, hesitantly. “Trust me?”

“I said I’d learn, didn’t I?” Lucas answers.

This teases a smile out of him, almost surprising him with how suddenly it comes. Lucas is smiling as well, and it somehow makes his heart ache.

“I’m sorry, too,” he starts. He can’t bring himself to look, so he turns his eyes toward the sunset. “That I thought of you as a means to an end. You were my last chance at being a pilot, and—I got too caught up in trying to succeed that I lost sight of what it means to be a pilot.”

Mark ducks his head, feeling his cheeks flush with shame. “It’s no excuse, but… it’s hard to remember when I’m surrounded by heroes. When I’m partnered with one. When everything and everyone reminds me that I’ll never amount to as much as the Marshal. I wanted to prove myself, just this once. That I could be something.”

"You're more than just your brother, you know," Lucas says softly.

His partner has a talent for prompting smiles out of thin air, it seems. "Sometimes I forget. He's just... he's always been someone that's bigger than me, you know?” he sighs. “Larger than life. Everything I do, he’s already done it, and better. And ever since he’s become the Marshal… It's like I lost my brother."

"I lost my brother, too,” Lucas commiserates. “But you still have Taeyong beside you."

Mark hears the words Lucas doesn't say. Treasure him while you can. But it’s not that easy—it must show on his face, because Lucas presses closer, insistent. “When we test Drifted for the first time and you fainted, he was the first one at your side,” he recounts. “He was beside himself with worry. I thought it was strange at first—why would the Marshal care so much about a cadet? Then I saw your memories and understood.”

“I know,” Mark lets out in a frustrated huff. “I know he cares, I just… it feels like there’s this wall between us, and we can’t get to each other.”

“You got to me, right? And we didn’t even know each other two months ago.” Lucas’s voice is encouraging, optimistic. It’s more than he feels he deserves.

“Have I really?” He absolutely hates how he sounds—needy, craving for validation, any kind of assurance. The exact thing Lucas just called him out for. But the question comes out unbidden; it’s much easier to seek approval from an equal. Much easier if it’s his partner, who’s been nothing but honest to him.

And honest he is. “Not completely,” Lucas admits. “But we’re getting there. I want us to get there.”

Mark releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Not you, not me—us. “Good,” is all he can say. “That’s good.”

Lucas smiles again, using a foot to right himself and walk away from the window. “Where are you going?” Mark asks, alarmed.

“I saw your memories in the Drift,” Lucas says. “It’s only fair that you see mine, right? All of them.” He saunters towards the door, tipping his head towards it. The music stretches out to Mark, much like it does when he enters the Drift: an invitation.

He answers by following Lucas, the click of the door closing behind them almost deafening in the silence of the corridor. The Shatterdome is oddly quiet, caught in the hour where the excitement following the defeat of a kaiju has dissipated, giving way to a moment’s rest before going back to work.

Moonlight is filtering through the windows as they make their way across the compound, a small strip of velvet sky the only indication left of a rapidly sinking sun. Lucas leads him all the way to J-Tech, empty as always, down to the room where they had their first test Drift.

He stands in stunned silence as Lucas meanders around the room, flooding it with sterile white as he goes about flipping the light switches on.

“Huh,” Mark finally lets out. “I have to say, not what I expected.”

His partner’s smile is barely contained. “Kind of ingenious, you have to admit.”

“Yeah,” Mark agrees begrudgingly, following Lucas into the sim-pod. “Do you know how to work this stuff?”

“Can’t be that difficult,” Lucas reasons, tossing Mark a test suit. They slide into their suits, fumbling for a moment with the absence of the usual techs to help them into their hardware—but they manage to locate the helmets and spinal clamps and even the barest amount of relay gel, just enough for another run.

It’s almost silent in the Ghost Drift as Mark turns his back to Lucas, letting his partner attach the spinal clamp to his suit. Calm and collected, and Lucas looks like it as he waits for Mark to hook him up to his own spinal clamp.

Lucas drags his fingertips across the wall behind them once he finishes. “There should be a panel… here.” He pries open a rectangle of metal, exposing a circuit board labeled FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY. “Ready?"

“If you are,” Mark replies gamely.

“Alright.” Lucas flips a switch, and he expects the familiar nothingness of the Drift to envelop him once again—but music welcomes him instead, as though already expecting his arrival.

It hovers for a moment, however, still uncertain, before settling on a lively tune punctuated with high notes, clearer than anything else he’s heard. Lucas’s earliest memory: multicolored fireworks exploding over Victoria Harbor as he's sat on his father's shoulders, his mother holding his hand beside him.

The next comes much easier—his first trip to Thailand and the sweltering heat of summer, meeting his grandparents and helping light up mosquito coils as grandma cooks tom yum goong in the backyard. Memory after memory of Lucas’s firsts trot by with no discernible order, and all have the same melody about them—everything is upbeat in a sickeningly uniform way, Mark realizes, a perfect childhood unmarred by loss like his was.

No sooner than this thought materializes, the memories shift, a disconcerting overture looming over them. Lucas is a little older, bundled in a coat with both parents holding his hands as they weave through the crowds in Heathrow. Noise and bustle isn’t unfamiliar to him, but it’s of a new sort: a language he doesn’t know well, and voices that, to his ears, spoke harshly and unforgivingly. He clings a little harder to his parents’ sleeves the further they go.

The cab ride to the townhouse is probably longer than he thinks it is, where Lucas catches his first real glimpse of London. It’s beautiful in its own way, but still largely unfamiliar; he and his mother try to memorize the maze of streets in the weeks before term, the tube and where to grab groceries, anywhere that had a space they could fit into.

He’s sent off come September, just when he doesn’t need to consult a map to get to the nearest corner store. There’s a somber black car and a small mountain of luggage, a goodbye and a kiss on both his cheeks, then he’s plunged into the British countryside.

A foreboding wrought-iron gate comes into view after what seems like endless lines of trees, and a school that might as well be a castle. And a castle it is: Lucas is lost once again, but this time alone, with no hand to guide him. More often than not, he finds himself sat under an oak tree that Mark recognizes, taking his meals in solitude.

One week in and the spell is broken. Lucas sees someone approaching his spot, lunch tray in hand. He’s tempted to think that the other boy is lost, seeking refuge just like him, but his steps are purposeful and he’s looking directly at him. It’s one of the older students, in year five or six.

Lucas knows who he is. Kun Qian, always surrounded by the other students, bright and dazzling. It’s enviable, the fact that he’s already settled in even though he’s one of the only Chinese students apart from Lucas himself.

“Hello,” he says. It’s in Mandarin, still a language Lucas doesn’t know well, but he recognizes it all the same. “Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” Lucas shrugs, moving over to make space under the tree. Kun smiles and settles down beside him, balancing his tray on his legs.

“I haven’t seen you around here before,” he says kindly. The older boy’s reverted to English; he has a proper accent, a far cry from Lucas's slurred pronunciation. “Have you just transferred this year?”

Lucas nods, disinterested, spooning whatever sludge they’re being served today into his mouth. “From Hong Kong, actually.”

“Ah. Apologies.” Kun peers curiously at him, still smiling. “What’s your name?” Cantonese, this time.

“Wong Yukhei,” he answers meekly. “But here it’s Lucas Wong.”

“Nice to meet you, Lucas. I’m Kun Qian,” he says warmly. “How are you finding England so far?"

It’s much easier to talk to Kun. He isn’t from Hong Kong, but he feels close enough to home—they both find each other once classes finish up, always sprawling themselves beneath the ancient oak tree. Lucas learns that his parents are from Fujian, both accountants, and that he’s an only child just like him. That Kun wants to be an engineer, but honestly that he’s up for whatever interests him. That Kun can play the piano and very nearly went to a music academy instead of public school.

Lucas finds himself looking forward to the end of the day, having someone to talk to that understands what it’s like to be a fish out of water, even though to him Kun fits in like a puzzle piece. He takes Lucas to his favorite shops on weekends, teaches him Mandarin and English after the matron’s finished knocking on their doors to see if they’ve fallen asleep. They stick together, him and Kun, a matched set. He pretends not to hear his mother sniffle over the phone as he tells her he’s made his first friend.

Eventually his English gets better, enough that he can actually hold a conversation without fumbling. Making friends is infinitely easier, and he starts to recognize himself again: his smiles aren’t that difficult to come by, and he grows louder, livelier. Kun is still his best friend, though, even when he graduates from primary school.

First year of secondary school, Lucas hits a ridiculous growth spurt. He already looks like Lucas now, Mark notes with envy, watching him put those long legs to use on the track field. He hits his stride, so to speak, finds something that he enjoys doing, that he wants to keep on doing. His parents are wholly supportive, always going out of their way to go to tournaments, cheering him on.

Along with his burgeoning sports career comes attention—not completely unwanted, at that. Both boys and girls start looking at him differently, and he, them: who does he want to know, and who wants to get to know him, too?

When the first person to fit the bill is neither a boy or a girl, well. He stays up late at night with Kun, trying to sort himself out. After all, no one knows him better, even better than he knows himself. And it all comes down to the fact that Lucas likes pretty girls and pretty boys and everyone in between, but anyone with a pretty heart will do.

He tries to explain himself and his new relationship to his parents, heart pounding in his ears, hoping against hope that they’ll understand—but they don’t, and he can feel his heart crumble into pieces in his chest. Lucas cries into Kun’s shoulder that night and falls asleep there, the two of them cramped into a single bed. It’s uncomfortable, but comforting.

He goes three months with no contact. It’s near torture; he’s never gone without speaking to his parents for more than a week, but he’s adamant. Come Easter break, he prepares himself for the possibility of being disowned—but at last the ceiling caves in, and so does Lucas, crying the hardest he ever has in his life as he listens to his mum and dad try their best to understand him.

The first serious relationship is awkward, and so is the second, but he doesn’t mind—he makes a point that all of them end well, and he comes out a better person each time. Life goes on: school, weekends, track meets. His parents sound like they’re treading on thin ice when they’re talking to him, but it’s better than nothing.

Lucas allows himself to relax, fall into routine. He’s out of the woods now, right? He’s back on track, working towards his goal of making it to nationals, possibly even going to college with a scholarship.

But news of the kaiju attacks springs out of nowhere. First San Francisco, then Mexico, then Manila. The school opens its telephone lines, allowing students to contact family affected by the attacks; some leave for weeks, having to attend funerals. He and Kun are fortunate enough to not be included in that number, but it’s ghastly all the same, having to see empty seats in their classrooms. Every morning starts with dread, eyes trained intently on the television in the canteen as they take their meals.

Then Reckoner attacks Hong Kong. Lucas is rigid as he watches the news on the telly, all eyes turned to him in sympathy. His knuckles are white as he grips at his knife and fork, willing the tears to go away. He goes to his classes with his breakfast untouched, and everyone treats him as if he’s fragile, easily shattered. In a way, he is—even Kun isn’t able to breach his walls, not until after the damn donation box is put up in the dorms.

He doesn’t know what about it pisses him off, but the sight of it—the devastation his home, his people faced reduced to a lock box—he runs away, straight into the courtyard where he knows no one will be. Everyone lets him.

He and Kun reach their resolution to enlist in the PPDC, and they notify their parents the next day. It’s almost like coming out all over again for all the protests his parents put up—what about track? Schooling? But Lucas is just as persistent as ever, determined to see this through as he has been with everything else; his earnestness must have come through the telephone, because they’re easier to convince this time around. He promises to at least finish secondary school, and Kun, sixth form.

Five months later, both their families are there to send them off at Heathrow. He’s outgrown his father now, having to bend down to hug him. His mother is next, tears glistening in her eyes. Lucas will never forget the look in their eyes—like they can’t believe he’s grown up so quickly. A mix of pride, sadness, and longing.

“My brave boy,” his mother calls him.

“Be good,” is all his father can manage.

The twelve hours on the plane is grueling. Lucas is buzzing with excitement, practically itching to get off the plane and land in Hong Kong, see how much it’s changed since he’s been gone. What damage was done. How they recovered—if they were able to recover.

They arrive at near-dawn, heading straight to the bay at Lucas’s insistence. To his relief, the harbor is still very much alive, even though there’s a whole row of felled buildings near the shore. The gargantuan ribcage of a kaiju lies abandoned across Causeway Bay, half-embedded into the ocean floor—but it might as well have not been there at all, ships steering clear of it on their way to the docks. Hong Kong is still as breathtaking as it was when he left.

Kun treats him to takeaway dim sum from one of the food trucks near the Observation Wheel, and they have breakfast by the piers, sitting on their luggage as they try to cool down their dumplings.

“So?” Kun says expectantly. “How’s your homecoming so far?”

“Not what I thought it would be,” Lucas replies honestly. He’s never been to the pier this early, usually so busy with tourists but now almost deserted save for a few bikers and joggers. Then again, he’s never been to the pier after a kaiju attack. “I almost thought it would be… worse, somehow. But it’s almost as if nothing happened.”

“Except for the giant carcass, of course,” Kun quips, small smile gracing his lips.

“Except for that,” he concedes. “I’m relieved, though. That we seem to be doing fine.” He looks out at the bay, smiling at the quickly lightening horizon. “It’s good to be home.”

There’s not much rest to be had when they reach Tsing Yi island. The two of them are bunked with two boys Lucas’s age: the elusive Kunhang and Dejun, who Mark knows will go on to become the pilots of Fever Dream. But for now they’re just Kunhang and Dejun, friends, and somehow they end up with Yangyang and Ten too; this part of the story, Mark knows all too well. A patched together family, just like the one he’s found in Jeju.

It moves him somehow, the music tugging at his heartstrings as he sees himself reflected in Lucas, the way in which he cares for these people. The certainty that you would have someone to fall back on, someone to support you, someone who loves you—it makes his heart seize in his chest, reminds him how lucky he is.

Lucas’s memories with these people, memories of laughter and joy and the occasional heartbreak, are interspersed with those of endless classes, drills, Kwoon room exercises and matchups. Mark is familiar with this, as well—except it’s clear from the start that Lucas and Kun are Drift compatible. Among all the trainees, they’re the only ones equally matched in the Kwoon room, and the psych analyst fast tracks them into the Jaeger program.

It’s everything Mark thought he would be doing. Every test and exercise he and Lucas have gone through, his partner has already done—but the first time around, Lucas is the one that’s lost, fumbling. Unsure, much like Mark was.

Kun is there, though, as he always is, anchoring him. The constant, the ostinato in Lucas’s life: Kun’s presence, always steady, always dependable. And much like Lucas was—is—Mark’s tether in the Drift, Kun is Lucas’s, and they’re practically unstoppable in a Jaeger.

Their first mission is in Kaohsiung, with a monster of a kaiju that the Shatterdome has aptly named Rascal. They do the drop with a senior team, and Lucas feels the same unintelligible mix of dread and excitement that came with Mark’s own first mission in Black Widow. The memory is blurry, far too full of adrenaline that Mark can barely make out any of the details, but the music is beating rapidly along with his heart as he watches the Jaegers grapple with the kaiju.

It’s over all too soon. Lucas and Kun both make it out with nothing more than bruises and scrapes, and he knows he should be grateful—first missions rarely go as well as theirs have. But he’s rattled nevertheless: there’s something about seeing a kaiju up close, its grey, weathered skin glistening with water as it comes up from the depths of the ocean—its disconcertingly electric blue eyes, the eyes of a predator, fully fixated on killing him and Kun…

Now that everything’s over, that he has a clear head—he knows he’s lucky to have made it out alive. Both him and Kun. And it all crashes down on him with frightening clarity: the rest of his life will involve risking it.

The only solace he has is that Kun looks just as lost, just as unnerved. For once, they’re on the same footing—Kun needs him just as much, and they slowly work through it together, coming to terms with the fact. Their little patchwork family helps as well, and it gets better when they all become Jaeger pilots, too.

Fighting kaiju becomes routine. They spend enough time in Tunnel Vision’s cockpit that they get the barest hint of radiation poisoning and a lifetime prescription of Metharocin. In three years’ time, they’ve become a well-oiled machine, the Shatterdome’s primary strike team.

All too soon, Mark is inside Tunnel Vision once again, watching Lucas curl into himself and writhe in pain as he watches Kun die in front of him, feels his death in the Drift. It’s somehow worse than the first time Mark saw this, knowing full well how much Kun meant to Lucas, how he never left Lucas’s side, even once. Kun’s song ends far too abruptly, with no warning, no resolution.

There’s no resolution for Lucas, either, as Kunhang gently pries him away from Kun. He strangely feels disconnected from it all: the medics carting away the body, the techs extracting him from his Drivesuit, the officers cautiously questioning him about the mission. Ten puts him to bed, but he doesn’t sleep, the image of Kun in agony replaying itself over and over again whenever he closes his eyes.

The first few days are brutal—guilt weighs down on him every time he tries to fall asleep, and even when he does the nightmares are relentless, whispering kaiju and Kun dying in a thousand different ways. He only pulls himself together when it’s time to write Kun’s eulogy, but that’s a nightmare in itself, too. Never had he imagined he would have to do this, pay tribute to someone who he thought would be there for the rest of his life.

After the funeral, though, there’s nothing to be done. He’s lost and alone again, with nothing to cling to this time. Lucas wanders around the Shatterdome like a specter, waiting for someone, anyone to give him direction. Eventually—out of pity or frustration, Lucas doesn't know—the Marshal calls him in, asking him what his plans are for the coming months.

“With all due respect, sir, what plans are there to be had?” he replies morosely. “The plan was to fight kaiju for as long as I could. But my partner is dead, and last I checked, it takes two to pilot a Jaeger.”

The Marshal sighs, drawing an exasperated hand across his brow. “Indefinite leave,” he suggests. “However long you want. You can come back when you want to and have your pick of the divisions. Maybe you can teach, who knows.” He smiles kindly. “We can still use you, Wong. Talent like yours is too good to waste.”

Lucas decides to go back to London. When he sees his parents, his smile comes so abruptly that it almost feels unfamiliar, out of practice. His mother and father hug him the tightest they’ve ever had, but they don’t talk about it, and they drive him straight home for supper.

The hustle and bustle of the city is more peaceful than the noise of the Shatterdome. Bereft of any reminders of what he could be doing, had things been different. He takes it upon himself to explore London, large enough for him to get lost but easy enough to find his way home.

He thinks of it as making up for lost time. He helps his mum around the house, doing chores and running errands, and when the press come knocking on their door he can only smile as his father tells them off. Even the cat helps him in her strange, silly little way, curling up in his lap as he anxiously watches Hero Apocalypse and Fever Dream fend off a kaiju on the television.

Ultimately, though, the monotony of life in the city gets to him. It’s nothing at all like the Shatterdome where every day is different, where there’s always something to be done, where he can make himself useful. The Shatterdome is his home, where he’s meant to be—painful as it is to be reminded of what he’s lost, he would be making himself more miserable if he stayed here. Being idle never suited him; there’s nothing left for him in London anymore.

His second homecoming is met with all the liveliness he’s come to expect from his friends. Lucas settles in again, heart somewhat eased by the familiar sounds of metalwork and running engines, the smell of petrol and burnt flesh. His chest constricts when he sees Tunnel Vision standing alone and beyond repair, but it’s not so bad; not when he’s back home.

He considers teaching, but ultimately forgoes it. What would he tell those students, anyway? That they might end up like him, washed up and directionless? J-Tech is his best bet, doing quality control for weapons both old and new. The task is distant enough from the action that it doesn’t remind him of things he would rather not dwell on, but close enough to his line of work that he actually knows what he’s doing.

There’s a new addition to the Shatterdome come April, a pilot from Jeju that he and Kun have worked with before that's on hiatus after a particularly damaging drop. Sicheng is assigned to J-Tech as well, to a top-secret research team that Lucas doesn’t even bother going near even though he probably has enough clearance. It must be difficult to walk around the Shatterdome in crutches, but Sicheng manages, and Lucas finds that tenacity admirable.

Sicheng is intelligent, engaging, curiously funny—and he fits right in with the lot of them. Lucas hovers around the other pilot more often than not, and thankfully Sicheng is more than tolerant of his presence, often regaling him with stories far too ridiculous to believe: how he narrowly escaped a scrape with the Triad, how he flubbed his first physical strength test, how he almost took out an entire panel trying to repair a Conn-Pod.

Most of them feature his partner, a certain kind of longing crossing over Sicheng’s face whenever he talks about Jaehyun. Lucas understands that longing all too well. Sharing your mind, your whole being with someone… some part of you becomes theirs, as well, and they take that part of you with them wherever they go. You’re never really whole without them, for better or for worse. Sicheng seeks comfort in the dog tags around his neck, but Yukhei doesn’t even have that, nothing to remind him that Kun is still within reach because he isn’t.

He doesn’t resent Sicheng for that at all. But Sicheng is definitely luckier than he is, and Lucas finds himself asking a question that hadn’t yet come to him: why? Why him? Why Kun? Is it luck, or misfortune, or karma? What reason would there be for this to happen to him? Is God punishing him somehow, and if so, what kind of God would end someone’s life so abruptly just to teach a lesson?

Then again, this is a world that’s being invaded by monsters from another dimension. There’s no rhyme or reason to anything anymore. Maybe there never was.

It holds true even six months later, when he’s informed by the Marshal that he’ll be transferred to another Shatterdome for another chance at piloting. Him—someone who should be facing early retirement in a few years—piloting again. Not a cadet, not a trainee. Him.

He chooses Jeju. He tells himself that it's because Jeju is a secondary Shatterdome that doesn't see much activity, but he knows better. People and places that so far were only stories that Sicheng’s told him are going to become his reality now. He can't say no—these are direct orders, agreed upon by the higher ups, so when he's faced with the decision, he chooses Jeju. For some reason, the PPDC is still willing to give him a shot. It’s more than he feels he deserves after inspecting Jaeger weaponry for six months.

He says as much to Kunhang as he finishes packing up, just one carrier and a duffel bag. It’s startlingly little for just one person, but he’s been doing nothing else but pilot for the last few years. There hasn't been much opportunity for him to accrue any extra possessions.

“Oh, come on,” Kunhang says brightly, leaning against the doorframe. It’s strange having someone other than Kun in the dorms, but Kunhang’s presence—and the language they both share—is more than welcome. “You’re a great pilot. If anyone deserves another shot at it, it’s you.”

“They’re pairing me with a cadet,” Lucas gripes, zipping up his bag with more force than necessary. “I don’t want to have to fucking hold someone’s hand as well.”

“You say that, but you had the time of your life holding our hands when we became pilots,” Kunhang says with a raised brow. “And besides—if they’re pairing a cadet with a pilot, they have to be the best one.”

Lucas snorts. “Doesn’t matter if they’re the best if we’re not Drift compatible.”

Kunhang rolls his eyes, and Mark gets the sense that this affectionate frustration is a common occurrence. “Well, you can always come back here and play with the plasmacasters that are still in production.”

“I’d much rather do that than leave.” Lucas sighs deeply. “I really thought I was coming back to Hong Kong for good.”

“We’ll miss you too, you big sap,” Kunhang replies. “Just promise to do well for us, okay? The next I hear from you, you better be a Jaeger pilot.”

“No promises. Thanks, Kunhang.”

“Of course, Yukhei. Now come on, the others are waiting.”

Lucas hugs everyone tightly, trying to commit their faces to memory. They’re sad to see him go, but more than that, they’re hopeful: for him to have a new start, get back into stride. Most excited is Sicheng, who’s practically beaming at Lucas as he says goodbye.

“You’ll love it there,” he says brightly. “I know I do.”

That reassures him somehow, calms him enough on the plane ride to Jeju. But his apprehension comes back full force when a PPDC-sanctioned helicopter arrives at the airport to pick him up, carrying within it only one person: his new Marshal.

Marshal Lee is unlike any other person he’s met, and his interest almost distracts him from his unease, far too fixated on absorbing as much information as he can from the short conversation they have on the chopper. But the Marshal is also just like every other pilot he’s met, in that he looks tired, weary. Haunted by the war. Lucas wonders if that’s what he looks like now, too.

The helicopter finally reaches a familiar looking complex of buildings resting atop a cliff. Within sight are the Jaeger bay doors, all embedded into the stone, just waiting to be opened in the event of an attack. Not so different from Hong Kong after all.

It’s chilly when he steps off of the chopper, following the Marshal’s lead. The older man doesn’t seem phased by the rain, not minding the water splashing around his boots as he takes his umbrella from another officer—Jaehyun, Mark realizes. Behind him are Chenle and Jisung, and—

Mark, two months ago. Except he’s seeing himself through Lucas’s eyes, instead, the naïve cadet he’s going to be spending the day with. The rest of his career, if he’s unlucky. Mark feels everything—disdain, scorn, distrust.

But underneath it all, warring with everything else, is curiosity. Curiosity that even Lucas himself can’t explain, curiosity which Mark also felt that rainy day in the Shatterdome. It’s clear that Lucas was drawn to him, somehow, just as Mark was to him. Still is. He never thought of himself as an object of curiosity, much less a subject of interest, but—here’s the indisputable proof.

“Dear me, the secret is out.” Lucas is striding towards him with a thin smile on his lips. It’s just them in the Drift, now, everything else distant and faded.

“I would have been more convinced if you hated me at first sight,” Mark responds.

“Believe me, I wanted to. But here you are, deep in the recesses of my brain.”

“Only because you wanted me to be here.” He meets Lucas’s gaze. “I appreciate it, Lucas, really. This must not be easy for you.”

Lucas smiles. “On the contrary, it’s easier than I thought it would be. Strangely.”

Mark dares to step closer, closing the distance between them. “Lucas, we… felt the same way about each other, outside of the Drift. When we first met, and we didn’t even know it.”

“Yes, we did.” Lucas is searching again, trying to find something in Mark—something that could possibly explain what happened all those months ago.

“Don’t you think it’s some kind of—I don’t know, a sign?” Mark says, voice earnest even to his own ears. Emboldened by what he just saw, free of the doubts he had cast upon himself ever since they’ve met. “Proof that we’re meant to Drift?”

“Maybe,” Lucas answers. But the music tells him that Lucas is more convinced than not. “It’s funny—I never thought that sharing memories would lead to more questions than answers. Not all Drifting is the same, I suppose.” Lucas tilts his head, corner of his lip turning up in a half-smile. “Not all Drift partners, either.”

Mark softens, giving Lucas a small smile of his own. “Thank you, Lucas. For letting me in. I promise, I won’t betray your trust.”

Lucas shakes his head. “I know you won’t.” He extends his hand for Mark to take. “Shall we go back?”

 

***

 

Mark doesn’t know how long they spend in the sim-pod, but by the time they’ve finished, both of them are starving. They manage to sneak into the kitchens and fix themselves up with some leftover kimchi, japchae, and a few strips of pork. Both of them finish in record time, and Mark almost dies laughing when Lucas lets out an ungodly burp.

He feels lighter than he’s ever been since all of this began. Lucas feels lighter as well—sounds lighter, music floating pleasantly around Mark as they make their way back to the dorms in companionable silence. He’s content, finally at a place where he feels like he’s a partner and not just a pilot in the same Jaeger. Someone who’s proven himself worthy of Lucas’s trust.

He's itching to do something that'll prove things have changed between them. That will remind them that their memories will never be forgotten, that they live on in the other. That will remind him of everything he’s had to do to get to this point, everything he’s been made to realize—that his partner has made him realize.

Lucas watches with interest from his bed as Mark rummages through his drawers. It seems like forever before he pulls something out in triumph: a stuffed lion, threadbare and tattered, the gold of its fur faded into yellow. He palms Lion in his hands, stroking at his tangled cotton mane. Abandoned, much like he thought his brother had abandoned him.

But he knows better now. Through Lucas’s eyes, he’s seen the pain in the Marshal—Taeyong—that Mark never saw nor understood, too blinded by the glory of battle, too eclipsed by the shadow his brother cast. Taeyong has demons of his own to contend with, as does Lucas—but despite that, they’ve still shown more compassion, more humanity than he has.

Lucas is right. He’s lost sight of what’s important—but he’ll be damned if he’ll forget now.

“Is that what I think it is?” Lucas pipes up behind him.

Mark turns around, clutching the toy to his chest. “It’s he, thank you very much,” he returns, setting Lion down at the foot of his bed.

“Oh, pardon me then. Is he who I think he is?”

“The one and only,” Mark grins. He settles into his own bed so they’re facing each other. “He’s here to help me remember.” Lucas doesn’t need to ask what—Mark knows he feels it in the Ghost Drift. And even without it, Lucas's smile tells him all he needs to know.

Soft, muted notes are still hovering around him as he pulls up his covers, soothing and tranquil. Before he knows it, his eyes are closing, and Mark catches one last glimpse of hazel before he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

 

 

10 February, 2022, 8:28 PM

Jaehyun Jung <jhjung@ppdc.kr>
to scdong@ppdc.kr
Subject: Jeju Station Update

Good lord. When was the last time I emailed you again? Not that you've noticed, Mr. Very Important Emissary to the Hong Kong Shatterdome. We're all doing well, thank you for asking. It's more than we could've asked for, honestly—two functioning Jaeger teams seemed impossible at the time, but somehow we've managed. And with the Ghost Drift, at that... Lucas and Mark are extraordinary. I've never seen such a perfect mind-meld between two people—but you already know this, of course. I know you've seen Jungwoo's reports. You two are always talking behind my back... I'm starting to feel a little left out.

Chenle and Jisung are doing fine, too. If only you could see them bossing Black Widow's team around... you'd be so proud. They've got everything we taught them down pat. You're probably really proud right now. They got the superiority complex from you, not me.

It's been so successful that the Marshal is thinking of selecting another Strike group to finally fill up the quota. Yerim's team has been fixing up Second Wind, as you know, but there's still a lot of technical difficulties, and the Marshal is gonna request for you to return to help with the Jaeger. It's gonna be a special one—Jungwoo's had a breakthrough. He says he hasn't been this excited since his chest surgery. I don't know if I should have laughed.

I know you're probably busy dazzling all the Hong Kong scientists, but I can't wait ‘til you come back. I miss you. Jungwoo wants to see you, too, and we'll see if we can sort this out. I'm looking forward to finally being with you two.


Love, Jaehyun

P.S. Jungwoo got a puppy, just in case you need more incentive.

Attachment: cotton_220209

 


 

Before the war, Sooyoung had a routine. Breakfast, school, hagwon, dinner, and even more studying when she got home. To some extent, the Jaeger Academy was much of the same: breakfast, lessons, engineering practicals, dinner, and even more studying when she got back to the dorms.

Ever since she'd gotten promoted to LOCCENT mission controller three years ago, though, the routine's been trashed. The kaiju don't care about sleeping schedules or peace of mind; the Breach dilates, all hell breaks loose in the Dome, and it's Sooyoung's job to make sense of that hell.

Her mother always said she had a special talent for making people follow her every word.

Today happens to be one of those days—an alarm blares in her room, the holoscreen in front of her bed pulling up a noisy image of Dr. Moon grimacing apologetically. "Good morning, Sooyoung. Category 2 coming through."

Sooyoung rubs her eyes and swings her legs off the bed with a sigh. Another screen has appeared on top of Taeil, this time showing news coverage of the kaiju. "What time is it?" she asks in the middle of a yawn.

"Four o'clock."

"Shit."

"See you in LOCCENT." The holoscreen turns off. Sooyoung gives herself a minute to wash her face to the low volume of the newscast and pull on a cardigan. She contemplates changing into her fatigues, but fuck it; she's the superior officer, dammit, and if she wants to boss them around in her nightgown, she will.

She's still in her bunny slippers when she joins the rush of engineers, scientists, and techs all spilling out into the hallways, and their greetings are drowned out by the shrill sound of the alarm rattling through the air. Business as usual in the Jeju Shatterdome.

Jaehyun is already at LOCCENT by the time she arrives, smirking at her disheveled state. "Good morning. Love the slippers."

"They're from my sisters, thank you," she replies breezily, sinking into her chair. "Evac status?"

"Already moving," Jaehyun replies. "You're welcome, by the way."

"My hero," she answers drily. "The Marshal?"

"Attending to business. I'll oversee the drop for today."

"Fair enough. Codename?"

Jaehyun rolls his eyes with feeling. "Taeil named it Ashpaw."

"The fuck?" Sooyoung laughs, but she presses the button on the intercom anyway. "Black Widow, report to Bay 02, Level B38. Kaiju. Code name: Ashpaw. Category 2."

Lucas's voice crackles over the intercom. "Pink Slip still out of commission?"

"Affirmative. Repairs still underway."

"On our way. If I can get Mark to move faster."

"Hey!"

Both Sooyoung and Jaehyun snort at Mark's protest. "Coffee?" the other officer offers.

"Please. One cream, two sugars," Sooyoung pleads. Jaehyun salutes and turns heel towards the coffee makers.

LOCCENT is filling up quickly, staff manning the various monitoring stations crammed into the dome-shaped room. She spies Haechan and Yerim up in the catwalks making some last-minute inspections and Seulgi crammed into Black Widow's cockpit, no doubt checking if Wendy is up to scratch.

"Everything okay up there, engineers?" she asks over the intercom.

"Never better," Haechan replies. "The pilots are in the Drivesuit room, gonna suit them up in a bit."

"Great." She switches to Mark and Lucas's helmets just as Jaehyun arrives with the promised caffeine. They raise their mugs in unison as Sooyoung announces, "Officer Jung, on deck."

"Good morning, boys," Jaehyun drawls, taking a sip of the revolting black liquid in his cup. "You know the drill. Keep Ashpaw off the miracle mile to Seogwipo." He draws back from the mic in distaste. "Jesus Christ, Taeil, really?"

"Yes, sir," the pilots respond, oblivious to the laughing fit Sooyoung is going through as she pulls up holoscreens. One for the pilots, one for a map of the area, and one with video coverage from the helicopters circling the kaiju.

"Pilots are on board and ready to connect," Wendy announces. "Prepare for neural handshake. Fifteen... fourteen... thirteen..."

Sooyoung takes a careful sip of her coffee and nods in approval. "Good job, Jae. Much better than that green coffee bullshit you keep pushing."

"Hey. It's good for you," Jaehyun protests weakly.

"Nine, eight, seven..."

"Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's good," Sooyoung recites. "Ecosystem's fucked, anyway. Too much kaiju blue in the ocean.”

“So very positive,” Jaehyun deadpans. “Hi, Taeil. Care to explain why our kaiju is named Ashpaw?

Sooyoung turns around in her seat just in time to see said scientist scurrying to the command panel. "I stand by my decisions!" Taeil cries. The fluttering of his sleep robe adds to the theatrics. "Doyoung said it was a good name!"

"Doyoung will throw himself in front of a kaiju for you," Jaehyun points out.

"Three, two, one,” Wendy informs them. “Neural interface drift initiated."

"Black Widow syncing," Sooyoung confirms, watching the progress bar on her command panel slowly reach a hundred percent. "But Ashpaw? Really?"

"Pilot to Jaeger connection complete."

"I'm sorry, which one of us is the K-Watch officer here?" Taeil sniffs. "Not you? Not the pilot on hiatus? Yeah, it's me. That's what I thought."

"I rest my case." Jaehyun puts his hands up in surrender and takes the mic from Sooyoung in one move. "Wong, Lee. What's going on up there?"

"Everything working smoothly, sir," Lucas confirms. As if to make that point, Black Widow waves like the Queen in the general direction of LOCCENT. "Both of us are locked in."

"Let's see you try and have that attitude with the Marshal," Jaehyun mutters. "I assume you're ready to go?"

"Ready for the drop, Miss Park."

"Engaging drop. Securing the Conn-Pod, getting ready for the drop."

"Conn-Pod door lock secure," Haechan relays.

"Affirmative. Release for drop," Sooyoung reports, tapping out the command on her panel.

The doors of Bay 02 open with the deafening creak of gears grinding, slowly revealing the still-dark sky. The platform beneath Black Widow rolls forward, positioning the Jaeger in the water, and waves splash against the bay doors as it steps off. She'll never get tired of this: something that huge, a monster of a machine, moving on her command. The rush of power it gives her is better than any crack she could have gotten her hands on as a teen.

She surveys the red circle just hanging off the coast of Seogwipo. "If you start walking now, you can reach Ashpaw just in time," Sooyoung informs them.

"Affirmative." She hears the smirk in Lucas's voice as he calls out to Mark, "Ready?"

"Yes, sir," Mark responds.

"Ooh," Sooyoung calls out obnoxiously. Black Widow disappears from sight, walking east towards the miracle mile. "Dirty!"

Mark makes a sound akin to a dying squirrel. "That's not what I meant—!"

"Save it for the bedroom, Ranger," Jaehyun chastises.

"You're really one to talk about professionalism, sir," Lucas snorts. At this, Taeil looks pointedly at Jaehyun, which Jaehyun pointedly ignores.

The other Strike team arrives, both still in pajamas with Chenle dragging an aggravated Jisung by the ear. "Did we miss anything?" he asks brightly, perching himself on the arm of Sooyoung's chair.

"You missed Lucas's dominance kink," Sooyoung reports. "Or was it role-playing? Ranger Wong, can you clarify?"

"Bloody hell," Lucas chokes out.

"We're at the miracle mile, can we please stop talking about this?" Mark pleads.

"Alright, alright. Kaiju approaching at 12 o'clock. Better get as close as you can." Sooyoung surveys the screen in front of her: Ashpaw is barely visible in the dark of night, the helicopters surrounding it providing little light. She makes out a long neck and a wide trunk with two enormous gray claws almost making the kaiju droop with their weight. “Ah. So that’s why it’s Ashpaw.”

“I told you it was a good name,” Taeil sniffs.

“Avoid getting hit as best as you can,” Jaehyun advises. “Especially your reactor core. We don’t want a repeat of last time.”

“Roger that.” Black Widow takes off in a running start, cutting into the kaiju’s path. They fire up their plasmacaster as they go, swirling white tendrils of energy gathering in the Jaeger’s palm. Ashpaw has barely noticed them when they deliver an uppercut to its jaw, following up with a blast to one of its large claws. The kaiju roars in pain as its limb is scorched off.

“Smart,” Jaehyun murmurs approvingly.

“They’re not talking,” Chenle observes.

Taeil hums. “They don’t need to.”

“That’s creepy. But also kinda cool.” Chenle turns to his partner with his head tilted. “Jisung, why can’t we do that?”

“You already talk enough, I don’t want all that in my brain,” Jisung responds blankly.

Chenle purses his lips. “Point taken.”

They’re interrupted by the sound of another roar: Black Widow fires one last round from her plasmacaster, and the kaiju slumps to the ground, defeated. Sooyoung’s eyes grow wide, frantically tapping at her control panel to scan for signs of life. “Wendy, can I get a pulse?”

“No pulse,” Wendy confirms.

“It’s been minutes,” Sooyoung breathes out in disbelief. Beside her, she feels Chenle grow rigid as he inspects the panel to confirm what Wendy just said. No more red circle on the radar—the kaiju is dead.

Jaehyun, though, has no qualms whatsoever. “Excellent job, rangers,” he says into the mic with no small amount of pride. “You can return to the Dome. Sooyoung, have the cleanup copters on site.”

“Yes, sir,” she acquiesces, still stunned. “Cleanup, you’re ready to go. Wendy, can I get the neural sequence statistics please?”

“Of course.”

The data appears on her screen within a second. Jaehyun leans forward, scanning numbers as he sips his coffee. "Lag time 0.002," he whistles. "Impressive."

"Very impressive," Taeil adds. "Pink, you have competition."

Jisung shakes his head. "It was never competition. Look at their sync rates—almost 100%. Their Drift is probably the strongest in the whole corps."

"Thank god for that, then," Jaehyun mutters under his breath. "Sooyoung, make sure to collate the info for Jungwoo. He'll want to see this." Sooyoung raises her eyebrows, but otherwise complies. This doesn't escape Jaehyun’s notice, and he gives her a playful frown, to which she flicks his forehead.

“Good god, it's like watching my divorced parents have a fight,” Chenle groans. “Come on, Jisung, let's wait for Mark hyung and Lucas gēgē so we can have breakfast together.”

“At five a.m.?” Jisung complains, but he lets himself get pulled up from where he's leaning on the console anyways.

Sooyoung can only smile as she watches them drift off, bickering all the way. “How do they have so much energy this early in the morning?”

Jaehyun shakes his head, exasperated but fond. “It's because they're grounded. Can’t help with the mission.” He takes a long, measured sip from his cup. “And they’re twenty years old.”

“Stop making me feel geriatric,” Taeil grumbles from where he's examining footage of the kaiju.

“Don't worry, you're still pretty sexy for twenty-eight.”

“HR exists, Deputy Marshal Jung.” Taeil scans the room, surveying the faces of all the staff. “Are the kids gone?”

Sooyoung swivels around in her chair, wary of Taeil’s tone. “They’re gone. Is there a problem?”

“I wanted to discuss something with you.” They draw closer to Taeil, forming a tight circle. He’s pulled up a graph on his holoscreen—a timeline of kaiju attacks, Sooyoung recognizes. “The last kaiju came on December 21st. It’s February—only two months since the last attack. K-Watch wasn’t able to predict this one, either. It wouldn’t be unusual for us not to be able to detect Breach dilation, but…” The scientist sucks pensively on his teeth. “Something about all this is rubbing me the wrong way. It’s only one deviation from the pattern, yes, but I think we shouldn’t be ignoring it.”

“What would you say caused this, then?” Sooyoung prods.

“I don’t know, but—something's changed. I just don't know what. Maybe it's time to reconsider our position,” Taeil finishes carefully, casting a sidelong look at Jaehyun.

The deputy marshal raises a brow. “Meaning?”

“How much longer are we just going to wait for them, Jaehyun? They're coming faster and faster. In time, our resources won't be enough to fend them off.”

“What would you suggest, then?”

“Go on the offensive,” Taeil says firmly. “Doyoung agrees.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Jaehyun counters. “Does K-Science have enough data to ensure an offensive operation will be successful?”

“Well, no, but—“

“Believe me, Dr. Moon, we would have gone on the offensive if it was feasible. But as it is, the PPDC is lacking in empirical evidence to prove that such an operation—likely costing millions of dollars—will be successful.”

“Sicheng agrees,” Taeil says in defiance, but he shrinks immediately as the words leave his mouth.

Sooyoung grimaces and hazards a glance at Jaehyun. His face has turned stony, cold. “Does Sicheng have enough reason to believe we should, or is this just a hunch like yours?”

“He's working on it, but no,” Taeil admits sheepishly.

“There's your answer,” Jaehyun says with finality. “And besides, even if we somehow do manage to get that data, we can't move on our own. We're a division of the UN. All we can do is act within our budget and not piss off the powers above.”

“Understood, sir.”

Jaehyun nods. “Good. Coordinate with the other Shatterdomes, see if they've been experiencing the same attack frequencies. I'll inform the Marshal.” He turns to Sooyoung’s panel, the gesture itself more of a dismissal than an actual interest in the data. “Thank you for your work, Taeil.”

“Yes, sir.” Taeil turns heel and leaves. There’s no doubt in Sooyoung’s mind that he’ll head straight to K-Watch and pore over his equations again.

She leans closer to Jaehyun so they’re out of earshot. “Don't you think you were kinda harsh?” she questions gently.

“How do you think the Marshal would have reacted to that, then?” Sooyoung winces. Worse than Jaehyun, she knows that much. “Reality checks, Sooyoung. We all need them.”

“But what if Taeil is right? That we need to go on the offensive?”

“Then we will once we have evidence to justify it,” Jaehyun concedes. “But for now, we might as well be sitting ducks.

“Jesus.” Sooyoung leans back in her chair, frowning. “I wish we knew what they wanted.”

“Don’t we all?” Jaehyun sighs, sipping the last of his coffee. “It hardly matters, though. As long as the program is alive, they’ll never get whatever it is.”

Yellow lights flash along the bay doors, indicating Black Widow’s arrival. Sooyoung dives back into the control panel, opening the doors with the push of a button. It’s a little past five, only the barest hint of sunlight creeping into the horizon, but it illuminates Black Widow’s scuffed obsidian shell as she strides confidently into the Shatterdome.

“Everything alright, pilots?” Sooyoung asks, watching as Haechan and Yerim scurry out onto the scaffolding to inspect the Jaeger.

“Doing good, Miss Park,” Lucas responds. “I think the kaiju stepped on our foot, but otherwise alright.”

Jaehyun snorts, shaking his head. “Pink Slip is waiting for you at the mess. They want to have breakfast.”

“Silly kids,” Mark says with the same exasperated fondness Jaehyun had sported. “Come on, Lucas, their highnesses are waiting.”

Sooyoung is smiling again as she takes off her headset, setting it on a stand that Yerim had painted pastel pink on a whim. “How about you, Jaehyun? Feel like breakfast?”

“More like the last three hours of sleep I missed out on,” Jaehyun sighs. “Good work, Sooyoung.”

“You too, Deputy Marshal.” She watches Jaehyun stride out of the room, dismissing everyone in the room on his way. The staff slowly trickle out in groups, yawning and stretching as the adrenaline of the fight leaves them, and Sooyoung smiles when the last engineer looks curiously at her before he leaves.

She swivels back in her chair, watching as the bay doors shut once more to seal Black Widow in, safe and sound. Satisfied, Sooyoung stands up and yawns until her jaw aches, shuffling back to her room for some well-deserved sleep.

 


 

Somehow, Jungwoo had managed to get enough clearance to adopt a dog.

A puppy, to be exact. The animal in question is a four month old Maltese with a coat of pure white, and it's so tiny that Mark constantly gets paranoid that he'll somehow step on it. Lucas has no qualms whatsoever, though, excitedly offering himself and Mark to Jungwoo once the scientist had opened up about needing a dog-sitter, much to Mark’s chagrin.

He says as much to Lucas as they make their way to Jungwoo’s office, where the dog—Cotton—is waiting. “I don’t get why you had to drag me into this,” he borderline whines.

“Oh, hush,” Lucas chastises. “Besides, having a pet is good for you! They’re good companions. And don’t even get me started on the health benefits.”

“We already train and jog,” Mark points out. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just more chores.”

“Oh, come on. Us pilots never have enough to do around here.” Lucas grins as they come within sight of J-Tech, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “And besides, I've always wanted a puppy.”

Mark melts into a puddle of goo. "I've never had a pet before," he says in an attempt to save face.

“Come on, it's easy!” Lucas urges, opening the door to Jungwoo’s office. “You feed them, give them attention, and pick up their crap.”

“Great,” Mark drawls. He watches impassively as Lucas opens the tiny cage next to the couch, fussing over the white ball of fluff that waddles out of it. “Consider me convinced.”

He’s thoroughly ignored. “We're gonna go on a little walk, aren't we, boy?” Lucas coos, the dog puttering around his feet excitedly.

“And when he gets tired?”

“He weighs zero pounds; he can sit on my shoulder if he likes.”

Mark surreptitiously glances at Lucas's shoulders as they make their way out of the office. “Mhm.”

The puppy immediately takes off, paws scrabbling against the floor in a bid to get as far away from Lucas as possible. His partner laughs, looking back at Mark once as he lets himself get dragged around. Mark makes a big show of sighing, but he smiles and takes off too, speed walking to can keep up with them.

It’s good to see Lucas like this, like a great burden has been lifted from his chest. The music that surrounds Mark is rarely turbulent, like what he had heard when they first discovered the Ghost Drift—now it’s almost serene, finally at peace. Rarely does he see the Lucas from months ago that was so paradoxically distant yet civil, the one before him now almost a completely different person. Better yet, the person that bled through sometimes, but just needed more to truly break free.

Most importantly, Lucas is more open— not just to him, but to the residents of the Shatterdome, too. The other day, he had even approached Mark to ask if he could try and teach him Korean and ASL, the former for the staff and the latter for Renjun. Mark had agreed immediately, on the condition that Lucas would teach him Cantonese and Mandarin. It was one of the better parts of his week seeing Renjun light up as Lucas tried to sign.

It’s no secret that Chenle and Jisung are fond of him, either. Together, Lucas and Chenle are a force to be reckoned with, maniacal laughter echoing around the basketball court when the two Jaeger teams play two on two. It’s what matters to Mark most, in a way, the fact that Lucas clearly adores them just as much as he does.

One thing he seems to be struggling with, though, is the Ghost Drift. Mark can ignore the music well enough when he wants to, and it always fizzles out when he and Lucas aren’t within close proximity of one another. His partner, on the other hand, looks like he’s having a hard time adjusting to Mark’s presence in the Drift.

Mark can’t blame him; it must be jarring, having someone else’s thoughts cropping up unwanted in your own mind. But Lucas doesn’t hold it against him like he had feared the other pilot would—he’s always patient, trying not to let the sensations in the Drift consume him far too much. When he does get overwhelmed, he excuses himself and they put some distance between them.

Mark had almost apologized for it, but Lucas stopped him before he could open his mouth. “No more apologies,” he insisted. “Save them for when there’s something to be sorry for, alright? You don’t need to apologize for things you can’t control.”

Lucas must have sensed something shift in the Ghost Drift, because he had smiled and ruffled Mark’s hair. “That’ll take some time to get used to,” Mark replied.

“I’ll just have to refuse your apologies, then,” Lucas said with finality.

His reassurance does nothing to change how apologetic Mark feels, though. All he can think of is to somehow lessen his dependence on the Drift, his unwanted presence in Lucas's consciousness by actually talking to him. If he knows Lucas enough without relying on the Ghost Drift, he reasons, he won’t need it as much.

Unlike everything else, this comes almost deceptively easy to him. Lucas is naturally engaging, bright and effervescent now that he's come out of his shell—more like the younger Lucas that Mark saw in his memories. He commands attention wherever he goes, and Mark is not exempt to his magnetism.

He enjoys Lucas’s company; even more surprising is that Lucas feels the same, too. Though they’re practically together 24/7, it’s not always alone, and its these moments that Mark tends to savor. Quiet moments like when they’re out for a jog, or when they have tea in the afternoon, a habit that Mark’s adopted from him. It’s during these times that Mark can truly feel the two of them let their guards down, able to speak and think anything without judgement.

Lucas has a way of making him talk endlessly about nothing for hours; there’s something about the way he listens so raptly, the way he hangs on to Mark’s every word that makes him feel truly heard. He finds himself divulging things to Lucas that he would never had dreamed of telling anyone, not even Haechan or Jungwoo or Johnny. Secrets and thoughts that have piled up within him for years with no outlet until now.

He likes learning as much as he can about Lucas, too—out of the Drift, anyway. It's one thing being in a memory, but seeing Lucas tell stories, the way his eyes light up and his body comes alive, is another thing altogether. Now that Lucas has decided he's worthy of trust, it's as though he's a man starved, eagerly latching on to every small piece of himself that Lucas is willing to offer.

He learns that Lucas takes three sugars and a dollop of cream in his Earl Grey, and that he begged Jaehyun to smuggle him a tin of biscuits to go with his tea. That Lucas loves spicy food, and gets excited when its jjamppong day. Mark learns that Kunhang Wong is his best friend, his one true confidante; that he’s been emailing his parents once a week, and his friends in Hong Kong as often as he can.

He learns that Lucas is more considerate than he lets on. He speaks clearly and concisely with Jisung, understanding of the younger’s bluntness. He always waits patiently for Mark to translate whatever Renjun is saying, and he never fails to match Jaemin’s energy that even Mark can’t keep up with sometimes.

Lucas reads things for him, but never condescendingly; he opens doors for Mark, and gives him an extra egg roll whenever he’s particularly hungry. He sits up with Mark whenever he studies, sits on the opposite end of the couch with a book to keep him company. It never fails to surprise him, these little acts of kindness that Lucas seems to have an endless supply of. It somehow makes him even more compelling—but Mark has met plenty of kind people, so what makes Lucas so different? Besides the Drift, what is it about Lucas that's so thrilling?

It strikes him on one of their afternoons off, when they’re playing a game of mahjong on the coffee table—he hasn't made a friend in years. They both could have been anywhere, with anyone else, but they chose to spend time with each other. He had forgotten this sensation—the thrill of getting to know someone for the first time, discovering things about them, the excitement that comes with the prospect of spending more time with them.

It’s refreshing, to have a blank slate. Someone getting to know you—someone who wants to know you—without presumptions.

“That’s not a chow,” Lucas pipes up, interrupting his thoughts.

Mark looks down at his tiles. “I thought you wouldn’t notice,” he admits sheepishly. “And this game is bogus, anyways. There are only two of us.”

“D’you want to call Chenle and Jisung, then?” Lucas proposes, sweeping up the tiles with a large hand.

“Let’s not,” Mark hums. I’d rather just stay here with you, is what he means, but by the way Lucas smiles, it looks like he feels the same way, too.

 


 

 

10 February, 2022, 9:37 PM

Sicheng Dong <scdong@ppdc.kr>
to jhjung@ppdc.kr
Subject: Sorry!

Dearest Jaehyun,

Hello to you too. Sorry I haven’t been e-mailing as often, we were finishing up the project. Yes, the top-secret one. And just in time, too. Good Lord, am I tired of seeing the inside of our laboratory. You and Jungwoo should really come over sometime—we could stroll around Victoria Harbor, eat street food. It'll be romantic. I can't wait to see you back in Jeju, even if it is for some engineering troubleshooting. What could Yerim possibly be doing with Second Wind that needs my help? I have to get around to asking Jungwoo what this breakthrough you’re saying is.

I get to see you two and solve a problem. How exciting.

It’s good to hear our pilots are doing well. Let me tell you, the Shatterdome almost went insane when Mark and Lucas pulled that off. I think Kunhang nearly cried. It's a pity I couldn't get it on my holoscreen, but only because I couldn't believe it, either. Still can't—the Ghost Drift and telepathy? I know what I’m doing in my off time when I get back.

How are you doing, though? I know everyone else is fine, but are your migraines still giving you trouble? Jungwoo won’t tell me. He keeps saying I need to ask you myself, but how will I do that if you don’t give me a straight answer? I know you don’t want me to worry, but I’m even more worried that you’re not telling me the whole truth.

I just want you to be well, Jaehyun. Both of us have to make a full recovery if we have to Drift again. Fingers crossed it won’t come to that, what with this new Jaeger team you’re telling me about—but you never know.

Your Sicheng

P.S. That is the cutest goddamn puppy I’ve seen in my life.

 


 

The wind is biting, ice cold as it whips and whistles around him shrilly. He’s surrounded by devastation, felled buildings blanketed with falling white, the deserted remains of a kaiju attack. He’s shivering, bundled in a thick coat, feet leaving deeper and deeper marks as he trudges along. There’s a figure standing tall, all in black, back turned to him.

Taeyong hyung? he calls. Help me! The specter doesn’t move. He falls to his feet, bare hands hitting the freezing snow, but he hardly feels anything. Please, help me.

The shadow dematerializes in front of him, pieces and fragments carried away by the wind. The snow melts, and he’s in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nothing else but water for miles and miles. There’s a figure floating in front of him, dressed in a bronze Drivesuit, lying face down. It turns over and—

He claps his hands over his ears, ringing louder than they ever have before—whispering kaiju, their voices a fearsome chill running down his back. Louder and louder, until—

Mark bolts upright, panting, cold sweat beading on his forehead. It was a dream. Just a dream.

“Mark?” a voice says in the dark.

He turns to his right. Lucas is frowning, peering at him. “Lucas—did I wake you up?”

“Did I wake you up?” Lucas retorts.

“You had a nightmare, too?”

“Yeah, it was just the usual, but… it somehow got worse.” Lucas is still scowling, turning a ring on his index finger round and round. “I think I saw the Marshal.”

“I think I saw Kun,” Mark says, now wearing a scowl of his own, but more confused than upset. “Did we…?”

“Oh, god.” Lucas squeezes his eyes shut, digging the heel of his palms into them as though to chase away what they just saw. Mark has nothing to say, either, just listens to the erratic music coming through the Drift. They sit in silence for a while, neither of them moving; Lucas avoids Mark’s gaze, looking more perturbed than any of the other times he wakes up from his nightmares. Guilty, almost.

“It’s the Ghost Drift, isn’t it?” he says eventually. “You’ve never had nightmares like this before, right?”

“No,” Mark admits. “Never. But it’s alright, Lucas.”

“What is?” Lucas counters miserably. “This was supposed to be mine to contend with. I know I said no apologies, but…”

Mark stands up, Lucas’s gaze following him as he sits beside his partner. Almost hesitating, he reaches out to take hold of Lucas’s cold hand in his. “I get it. It’s your problem; you want to be responsible for it, and you want to take care of it alone so you can feel… accomplished, that you’ve done something to overcome your trauma.” He holds Lucas’s gaze, hoping that his sincerity comes across. “I’m sorry that the Ghost Drift is taking that away from you.”

“No apologies,” Lucas reminds him.

“I’m not apologizing for myself, am I?” Mark prompts. “It’s just the circumstances we’re in. The Ghost Drift… us having it, that’s out of our control. But it doesn’t mean that it has to be a burden on both of us. We’ll figure it out,” he resolves, trying his best to sound reassuring. “Just like everything else.”

Lucas looks at where their hands are joined, and Mark can hear the music tone itself down, become calmer. “You’re right. We’ll figure it out.”

“When am I ever wrong?” Mark prompts in an attempt to tease a smile out of Lucas. It works, and again he’s reminded of how much has changed between them. His partner’s smile lights up the dim room, shining eyes turned on him in mirth.

“I can think of a few times,” Lucas quips. “But I’d rather save you the embarrassment.”

“My hero,” Mark says wryly. Lucas’s grin grows wider, and he squeezes Mark’s hand with his much larger one. Oh.

Before he can say anything about it, Lucas pulls his hand away, spreading it across Mark’s back. “I’ve woken you up in the middle of the night far too often than I’m comfortable with. We’d best go back to sleep.”

“Y-yeah,” Mark stutters pathetically, wooden as he gets on his feet. Lucas’s fingertips trail down his spine, leaving sparks of electricity down their path, and he gently pushes on Mark’s lower back to get him to move. He stiffly crosses the small gap between their beds, tucks himself back under the covers.

The music is still hovering in the air as he stares up at the ceiling, clenching and unclenching his fist. God, it’s embarrassing, how quickly he had turned into a stuttering mess. Even more mortifying still is how Lucas is probably sensing his embarrassment in the Drift, and now he’s the one screwing his eyes shut, trying his best to block Lucas out to no avail.

But it sounds like his partner is restless as well, the music still not fading out even as they lie there for what seems like hours.

“Can’t sleep?” Lucas’s voice floats over to him.

“Yeah.”

“Me neither.”

Mark bites his lip. “Do you… want to do the laundry?” he asks the ceiling.

This earns him a disbelieving chuckle. “The laundry? At this hour?”

“I used to do it when I was still in the Academy,” he answers, trying and failing to keep the pout out of his voice. “It’s better than just lying around in bed.”

“Can’t stop yourself from being productive, huh.”

It’s not the words so much as the tone—Lucas says it with such familiarity and knowing that he’s somehow even more agitated, sitting himself up in a bid to clear his head. “Yes, I can’t. So would you get your hamper?”

Lucas snorts as he gets up, throwing his covers haphazardly back onto his mattress. “Alright. But I’m not washing your underwear.”

“Who said I was letting you?” Mark says incredulously.

“Just get your arse in the utility room.”

“Yes, sir,” he mocks. This time, Lucas is caught off guard, the music stopping and starting for a half-second, and Mark feels a keen sense of vindication in how Lucas’s ears redden.

 

***

 

The message on his holoscreen had come after another one of the countless calibration tests Jungwoo is having him and Lucas take every few days, just sitting around and talking in the sim-pod. “It’s to observe how the Ghost Drift works when you’re under low-stress situations,” he had explained, a maniacal glint in his eye. The next thing he knew, Mark’s holoscreen was pinging with a message from the Marshal, asking him to come up to his office once he was done with the tests.

He’s starting to dread these meetings. It's what he imagines going to the principal's office is like, if he wasn't such a goody two shoes at what little school he was able to attend. Lucas sends him off with a knowing look and a succession of high notes in the Drift, but he turns his back before Mark can decipher what they mean. A reminder of sorts, he thinks—Lucas’s first memory of the Marshal flashes in front of his eyes, and he understands.

It’s ridiculous, but even the way he knocks on the Marshal’s door seems nervous, and he can’t stop fidgeting when he walks up to the desk that takes up most of the space in the room. Does Marshal look at him differently, he wonders, now that he’s seen Mark in action? Does the Marshal seem different to him, now that Mark recognizes the haunted look in his eyes?

He tries looking up. Mark doesn’t know if it’s just his imagination, but the Marshal looks tired, weary as his eyes flit over the reports on his desk one last time before meeting Mark’s gaze. “Ranger.”

“You called, sir?”

“Yes, take a seat. I would just like an update on your assignment.”

Mark winces as he seats himself. The assignment itself is months old; so much has happened since then that it feels like ages since his research sessions in Jungwoo’s office. “To be honest, sir, I’ve forgotten about it,” he confesses. “I still don’t know why Lucas has an excess neural load. But there haven’t been any issues so far, ever since we discovered we have the Ghost Drift.”

The Marshal nods, flipping through one of the reports. Mark catches a glimpse of Jungwoo’s messy cursive. “I see. I thought I would confirm it with you regardless. Nothing in the data here suggests that anything has changed; Ranger Wong’s readings are lower. A small amount, but still better than nothing.”

“That’s… good?” Mark says hesitantly.

“Quite,” the Marshal agrees. “We'll have to see if the situation changes as time goes on, but I agree that it's not a pressing issue for now. Probably just another random anomaly in the Drift.”

He breathes out a sigh that he didn’t know he was holding. “Okay. Is there anything else, sir?”

“Nothing for now.” The Marshal looks up at him again, and Mark squirms under the weight of his full attention. “Excellent job, ranger. Keep it up.”

It’s what he’s wanted to hear all this time, but why does he feel so hollow? “Thank you, sir,” he says, and he stands up, frowning to himself, but the Marshal speaks again when he’s opened the door halfway.

“Mark.”

At the sound of his name, Mark startles, turning around to see the Marshal’s bowed head and clenched fists. He breathes in deeply, looking up at Mark and opening his mouth to speak—but whatever he’s about to say evades him, and he shakes his head.

“Sir?” Mark prompts, heart thumping inexplicably in his chest. Hopeful, against his own wishes.

“It’s nothing,” the Marshal answers. “Dismissed.”

Of course. It's stupidity to expect anything else. “Yes, sir,” Mark says dutifully, and he closes the door behind him.

 


 

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Key Telephone System Archives
Transcript: Line K-13 to Line C-02

START OF TRANSCRIPT

C-02: Doyoung? Why did you call?
K-13: It's me, Jaehyun.
C-02: Jungwoo? Why are you using Doyoung's line?
K-13: Because you won't talk to me?
C-02: I'm not—
K-13: Cut the crap, Jung Jaehyun. I know you're avoiding me, and it's because of what I said last time.
C-02: Jungwoo, can we not do this right now?
K-13: When are we going to do this, then? When you're too far gone?
C-02: Jungwoo, I’m far from gone.
K-13: That’s how it starts! You don’t realize you’re doing it, then you’re in too deep. Jaehyun, just... cut down on the painkillers.
C-02: They’re the only reason I can get up in the morning, Jungwoo. You know that.
K-13: I know, but please. Sicheng agrees.
C-02: Why is everyone using Sicheng to guilt me?
K-13: What? Jung Jaehyun.
C-02: Nothing, it's just… Taeil says the kaiju are coming faster.
K-13: Faster?
C-02: He thinks something’s changed that made them want to attack more often. He suggested we go on the offensive, said Sicheng agreed.
K-13: Has Sicheng ever been wrong?
C-02: Jungwoo, we need proof
K-13: Not about the goddamn kaiju! About you. Jaehyun, we just want you to get better. But that won't happen if you keep popping pills.
C-02: Wow.
K-13: I'm sorry. Jaehyun, I... I'm just concerned. We all are. I know it's hard, but you need to see Johnny, at least. Or any professional that can help you.
C-02: I know.
K-13: We just want you to get better.
C-02: I know. I'm sorry. I’ll try.
K-13: Good... good.
C-02: Anything for you two.
K-13: Hm. If I knew this was what would make you do it, I should have guilted you earlier.
C-02: Oh, ha-ha.
K-13: You’re cute when you’re trying to be sarcastic. I’m holding you to that, alright?
C-02: Wouldn’t have expected anything less.
K-13: And answer Sicheng’s email, for god’s sake. You have no right whining about him not replying when you try and dodge his questions.
C-02: Okay, okay, jeez. Opening up my email now.
K-13: Good. I’m hanging up now, okay?
C-02: Yeah, yeah. I’ll see you at dinner.
K-13: Mhm. Bye, Jaehyun.
C-02: Bye, Jungwoo.
K-13: Love you.
C-02: Love you, too.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

Chapter Text


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Combat Asset Dossier - Jaeger, Second Wind

Name: Second Wind

Generation: Mark I [upgraded 2020-2022; no further classification]

Date of Service: March 21, 2016 - October 2, 2017; pending reinstatement

Ranger Team Assigned:
Jongin Kim, Sehun Oh (retired)

Current base of operations: Jeju Shatterdome

Mission History:
Second Wind is credited with two kaiju kills: IC-4, Incheon, March 21, 2016 and SP-7, Sapporo, May 6, 2017, both by its original team. Extensive damage during its maiden sortie caused the Jaeger to be sidelined for a year. Following its second and last engagement, pilots exhibited troubling symptoms of radiation damage, prompting Marshal Junmyeon Kim to retire both pilots immediately.

Operating System:
Cerberus-4 Zirca Sync

Power System:
Iso-Thor Collision Chamber

Armaments:
V-P1 EnergyCaster, capable of modulation through five modes, forearm mounted [retractable]

Notes:
Following retirement, pilot Jongin Kim was reassigned from active Jaeger service to Conn-Pod control instructor for the Jeju Shatterdome, while pilot Sehun Oh was reassigned to Kwoon fightmaster.
Pursuant to the restoration initiative proposed by Marshal Taeyong Lee, Second Wind has been upgraded to current PPDC standards. The search for a pilot team to continue the Jaeger’s use has been reopened as of February 2022.

 


 

J-Tech Project Update: Second Wind Upgrade Process

February 14, 2022

The project of restoring and upgrading Second Wind has been completed. An updated list of improvements follows.

  • Additional back-mounted arm installed and fully integrated into neuro-command systems
  • Added third motion rig and control platform
  • Reconfigured operating system for three-pilot use and three-way neural handshake
  • Upgraded reactor and Drivesuit shielding
  • Integrated post-Mark I advances in Conn-Pod interface technology
  • Updated painted insignia
  • Escape mechanisms tested and components updated per most recent PPDC specifications
  • Other minor improvements in aesthetics and functionality

Notes:
Modifications to Pons system still pending upon arrival of Ranger Sicheng Dong.

Personal Aside
Happy birthday to Officer Jeffrey Jaehyun Jung. Due to the busy nature of my occupation within the esteemed Jeju Shatterdome, I was not able to prepare a suitable present. This humble engineer hopes that this report is sufficient as a birthday gift.

Submitted by Yerim Kim on behalf of the Second Wind Upgrade Team

 


 

Sicheng arrives at Jeju on a sunny day in March. The Shatterdome is ablaze with excitement and activity, all of the staff from the officers to the line cooks at breakfast happily chattering about his return. Yukhei himself is eager to see Sicheng, too—it’s been a long six months of keeping up through email, and he’s more than ready to see the other pilot face to face.

They've all gathered in the receiving bay: both pilot teams, Jaehyun, and Jungwoo. The latter looks nervous, unable to keep still on his feet as Jaehyun holds his hand to calm him. Chenle, on the other hand, is practically vibrating with excitement, using his hand to search for the chopper that Sicheng will be riding.

“Can you please stand still,” Jisung begs.

“It’s been a year, Jisung, let me have this!” Chenle retorts. “And it’s not like you don’t want to see him, too.”

Jisung purses his lips, sulking. Yukhei feels the warm yellow of fondness emanate from Mark as it often does when the younger two are bickering.

“Jungwoo’s about to have an aneurysm,” Yukhei whispers to him.

“Can you blame him?” Mark whispers back. “It’s only been Jaehyun and Sicheng for years. He probably thinks he’s third-wheeling.”

Yukhei snorts. By the way Sicheng gushes about Jungwoo in his emails, it’s fair to say that’s far from the truth.

“I see it!” Chenle exclaims.

“Jungwoo, I can’t feel my hand,” Jaehyun says, and Jungwoo lets go in favour of watching the far off speck of black that’s nearing by the second.

The helicopter descends with a gust of wind that has Yukhei blinking dirt from his eyes. Once his vision has cleared, Sicheng is already descending from the chopper, smiling brightly at the small gathering that greets him. He looks no different from when Yukhei last saw him at Hong Kong, wishing him well on his way to Jeju. Happy and healthy.

“Dong Sicheng!” Jaehyun yells. He wastes no time running to his partner, enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. It's the happiest Yukhei has seen him.

“Jung Jaehyun!” Sicheng laughs, eyes shining as he embraces Jaehyun. Yukhei smiles as Jaehyun holds Sicheng in front of him as though unsure if he's real.

Sicheng’s gaze lands on Jungwoo, who’d been paralyzed the moment the pilot stepped off the helicopter. His grin grows wider, sidestepping Jaehyun in favour of hugging Jungwoo tightly. The scientist pauses, hands hanging awkwardly beside him, but they come up to circle Sicheng’s shoulders just as tight.

Jaehyun is grinning like a madman, basking in their glow. He's so ecstatic that it's almost painful to look at; Yukhei wonders briefly if he's ever looked like that, felt so strongly about someone that he's started radiating happiness.

Mark sighs, leaning into his side. “God, that’s adorable.”

Yukhei looks down at his partner. He’s smiling dreamily, eyes transfixed on the scene before him. “Mhm.” Warmth pulsates up and down Yukhei’s arm where Mark is touching him. He hesitates, hand fluttering at his side, before wrapping it around Mark’s shoulders and bringing him closer. Mark doesn’t protest.

“Break it up, break it up,” Chenle orders. “It’s my turn with Sicheng gēgē.”

Said pilot laughs, breaking away from Jungwoo to hug Chenle as well. He still walks with a limp, Yukhei notes worriedly. “Hello, dìdì. Did you grow taller?”

“No, but this beanpole did,” Chenle says grumpily, gesturing to Jisung with a thumb.

Sicheng ruffles Jisung’s hair, well aware that the younger is allergic to hugs. “You did! All grown now, huh?”

“Only ‘cause you were gone for so long,” Jisung grumbles, but Yukhei knows that means he missed Sicheng.

Finally, Sicheng turns to him and Mark. Yukhei hurriedly lowers his arm, far too late to be inconspicuous, and Sicheng raises a brow that says they’ll talk about it later. “Hi there, Xuxi,” he says as he embraces Yukhei.

Xuxi?” Mark chokes out. Yukhei chooses to ignore him.

“Hello to you too, Mark,” Sicheng says amicably. “This is long overdue, but congratulations on your promotion.”

Mark colours. “Thank you… sir?”

“Please, like I haven’t known you since you had braces,” Sicheng snorts. If possible, Mark reddens even deeper. “How have you two been?"

He and Mark exchange a look. "As well as we could be," Yukhei responds, then lowers his voice. "Your leg?"

Sicheng shakes his head, smiling. "It's nothing. But look at you two—I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about your Drift. But that’s not what I’m here for, sadly.” He gives them both a pat on the shoulder, then turns to Jaehyun and Jungwoo, all business. “Now, Deputy Marshal—where’s this Jaeger you need help with?”

The seven of them traipse down to the Jaeger bays together, Jaehyun leading the way. “Yerim and her team’s finished up working on Second Wind’s upgrades, but we’re still lost on how to make the Pons system work," he explains. "Specifically, how to make it sustain a three-way neural handshake.”

“A three-way handshake?” Sicheng questions. “So there’ll be three pilots for Second Wind?”

“It was Jungwoo’s idea,” Jaehyun offers by way of explanation. “From, you know.”

Jungwoo coughs, colour rising to his cheeks. “Yes, well. It was good in theory, but we can’t really figure out how to get the Pons system to reconcile three minds.”

“Wait, am I hearing this right?” Chenle pipes up, “Three pilots in one Jaeger? Who on earth could possibly be compatible with two other people together?

Jaehyun smirks. “You tell me.”

Yukhei turns to Mark for an answer, but he looks just as lost as the others.

Jaehyun types in the keycode to the first Jaeger bay, reserved for the Shatterdome’s oldest and sole Mark I model. The doors part, revealing a grey Jaeger with light blue stripes darting along its arms and legs, burly compared to Black Widow. A first-generation collision chamber lies dormant right in the middle of its chest, waiting to come alive again.

“Wow,” Sicheng murmurs. “I never thought I’d get to see him again.”

“And radiation-free, at that,” Jaehyun adds. “Those, I believe, are our pilots.” Four figures are standing by one of the Jaeger’s feet, silhouettes somewhat recognizable.

“Jeno hyung!” Chenle practically screams, and it clicks.

Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun look up, conversation with Yerim interrupted. Chenle tackles Jeno with a hug, laughing maniacally all the while. “You’re piloting Second Wind?”

“The three of us, yes,” Jeno answers, planting a quick peck on Chenle’s nose. He straightens when he sees the rest of them approaching, but otherwise doesn’t relinquish his hold on the younger pilot. “We just had our compatibility test.”

“We passed, obviously,” Jaemin pipes up. “But we can’t pilot without a functional Jaeger.”

Renjun ignores them all, making a beeline for Sicheng, who picks him up from the floor as they hug. Yukhei can barely understand what the younger is saying, but “help” and “Jaeger” are among the signs he understands.

“Yes, that’s where I come in,” Sicheng laughs. “It’s good to see you too, Renjun.”

Yukhei hazards a look at Mark, who has yet to speak, or pick his jaw up from the floor. His eyes haven’t strayed from Second Wind, and there’s a myriad of colours flashing through the Ghost Drift, both hot and cold, incomprehensible to Yukhei. He exchanges a look with Jisung, silently asking what the problem is, but he's only offered a cryptic smile by way of an answer.

“If you’ll excuse us, cadets,” Jaehyun interjects, “We have much to discuss about your future Jaeger. And you, Strike team one. Back to your Jaeger, it’s your turn for diagnostic tests today.”

Chenle reluctantly peels himself from Jeno’s side, pouting as he takes Jisung’s hand. The three cadets salute as the officers make their leave, bringing Yerim along with them, who gives Yukhei and the others one last wave. Chenle promises to have dinner with all of them before tugging Jisung towards their own Jaeger bay.

Jeno turns to Mark. “I’m kinda disappointed, hyung,” he confides. “I thought you would be more excited than this.”

Mark breaks away from his trance. “I am,” he reassures, reaching out to embrace the three of them. It’s adorable how easily they melt into it, a gesture borne out of familiarity. Yukhei finds himself wishing his friends were there, too. “I just—I can't believe it. Three pilots in a Jaeger and it's you.

“I mean, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense,” Yukhei points out in an effort to keep the peace.

Mark shakes his head vehemently. “No, of course—god, I’m so happy for you guys. No one else deserves it more. I’m just…”

“Just conflicted that we're piloting your ex-boyfriend's Jaeger?" Jaemin finishes, earning a double elbow to the ribs from Jeno and Renjun for his trouble.

So that explains it. "… Ex-boyfriend?" Yukhei inquires at length.

Mark is turning a worrying shade of red. "Tell you about it later, when I’m finished with Na Jaemin."

“And that’s our cue, boys,” Jaemin smiles sunnily, ushering Jeno and Renjun towards the bay doors. “See you both at dinner!”

They bid their goodbyes, Renjun flicking Jaemin on the forehead as they walk. Yukhei waits until the three of them are out of sight before turning to Mark. “You basically dated a celebrity and you didn't tell me?” he accuses, eyes wide. “Was it Jongin or Sehun?”

Mark pauses. “Jongin,” he admits.

“And Jongin was the one who became your teacher?” Yukhei questions further.

“Yes…”

“He was your teacher!”

“Why are you saying it like that?"

“I just can't believe it! Did you like him?”

Mark scoffs. “What, like I would date people I don't like?”

“Just asking,” Yukhei pouts, sufficiently chastised. He glances at Mark, gauging his reaction. “He's quite hot.”

“Stupid hot, yeah,” Mark sighs. He peers up at Yukhei with innocent eyes. “Don't worry. You're not bad, either.”

Yukhei is having trouble not smiling. “That so?”

“Don’t let it get to your head.”

“Hm,” Yukhei huffs, crossing his arms. “And how did you two…?”

“Got a promotion in the corps. He was always meant for bigger things.”

Yukhei smirks. “What? Bigger pricks?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Mark laughs, shoving at his bicep. “It’s all in the past, anyways. No sense talking about it now.”

“I suppose. That’s mental, though.” Yukhei clutches at his shirt dramatically. “I thought we were friends, mate.”

Mark punches his arm, but it’s weak. “Of course we are! I just didn’t know how to bring it up.”

He was kidding around, but Mark’s admission still makes him feel fuzzy and warm. “You’re forgiven. But only because you’re cute.”

Mark’s cheeks colour, but he shoots back: “Who’re you calling cute, Xuxi?

God, he made a mistake. Yukhei feels his ears growing hot. “Alright, fine—are we even now?”

He’s met with a shit-eating grin. “Come on. We gotta head back to Widow for those tests, or Haechan will eviscerate us.” Yukhei lets Mark lock their arms and lead him to their Jaeger, unable to wipe the smile from his face.

 

***

 

At Chenle’s insistence, they’ve all gathered in Pink Slip’s dorm, crammed into the living room and the kitchen that Yukhei’s pretty sure has never been used. An induction party of sorts, the younger pilot had claimed, although they all knew it was just an excuse to spend time with them. How could they refuse?

They had arrived with their own fare, liquor and food that they’ve pilfered from the kitchens. At some point, Jaehyun had dropped off his own stock, lining the counters with a few colourful bottles while reminding them not to get too pissed. Yukhei chooses a whisky, nursing it at the kitchen table as he observes the room: Chenle practically on Jeno’s lap, both giggling like schoolchildren as they talk; Renjun and Jisung sat on the floor, playing gin rummy on the coffee table; Jaemin with his head in Mark’s lap, stretched out on the couch, argument forgotten.

Yukhei takes a large gulp out of his glass. Now that things have wound down, he can’t get the image out of his mind. It makes sense, now, the pink streak he saw while Mark was chasing the rabbit: Jongin Kim, one of the Jeju Shatterdome’s first pilots. And Mark was with him. Just the thought sends his stomach churning unpleasantly.

He would be delusional to think he knows everything about Mark after a mere six months, but a boyfriend—what did he see in Jongin? Who else has he been with, and what does he look for? Does Yukhei have it, whatever it is?

Since when did he care?

“Jaemin is like that with everyone, babes, don't worry,” someone pipes up at his shoulder. Haechan is holding their own glass filled with something amber-coloured that looks far too strong for such a tiny person.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, you don't need to pop a nerve whenever Jaemin is clinging to Mark,” they explain knowingly.

“I'm not ‘popping a nerve.’” It’s a half-truth. Jaemin isn’t the cause of his jealousy.

“Could have fooled me. I don't blame you, though. Everyone's dazzled by our Mark at one point or another.” Haechan looks up at him with a raised eyebrow. “Although I have to wonder if your fixation means something else.”

Yukhei takes a sip of his drink. “A gentleman never tells.”

“I bet,” Haechan snorts.

“This is supposed to be a celebration for Second Wind’s pilots,” he says clumsily, eager to stop talking about himself. “You don’t look too happy.”

“Oh, I’m plenty happy for those three idiots,” Haechan reassures him. “I'm worried about Mark. If anything, now that you're all working together, he’s just going to be more on edge.”

“And why is that?”

“Did you see how he reacted when he saw Pink Slip go down?” Haechan questions, brows arched. “He chased the rabbit, Lucas. All of you are going to be in the field together, and there's no knowing what will happen.”

“You seem to have very little faith in Mark.”

Haechan shakes their head. “No. I just know him.”

Yukhei has nothing to say to that. He takes another sip of his whisky, and it burns.

“Mark has somehow gotten into his head that he's personally responsible for all of us,” Haechan continues. “And we let him. Who wouldn't want to be cared for by someone like Mark?” they ask, looking pointedly at Yukhei. Late nights spent talking about his nightmares flash through his vision, all too vivid, and Yukhei ducks his head, caught. “But no one takes care of him. He doesn't want anyone to take care of him. He wants to be strong for all of us… but what happens when his strength runs out?”

“It's a good thing he has a partner, then, isn't it?” Yukhei responds.

Haechan peers up at him curiously. They hum, swirl their drink in their glass, and say nothing more. Until—

“It was just Jongin, by the way. No one else.”

Yukhei freezes. “Wait, how—“

“Don’t think about it too much.” Haechan claps him on the back, and Yukhei can only watch as they drift off to join the others.

 

***

 

Alcohol, Yukhei learns, has quite a strange effect on Mark—for the first time, he wakes up earlier than Yukhei, sky still midnight blue as he shakes Yukhei awake. “I want to see the sun rise,” he says, eyes far too bright for the dark room.

Yukhei, still somewhat buzzed from the whisky, peels the covers away obediently. How could he refuse Mark something so simple? His partner has already laced up his trainers, waiting for Yukhei by the couch, and he does the same, Mark filling the room with idle chatter.

He stops abruptly when they lock the door behind them, Yukhei looking up to see what’s given him pause. Jungwoo is very carefully closing the door to Jaehyun and Sicheng's dorm, not even noticing the two of them standing across the hall, paralyzed, until he looks up.

"Morning, boys," Jungwoo winces, buttoning up his shirt.

Yukhei’s grin almost threatens to split his face in half. "Walk of shame, huh, Dr. Kim?" he teases. "Glad you, er, worked it out with them." Mark can do little more than gape like a fish.

"Lucas," Jungwoo sighs. "I'm already sore enough as it is—"

"Ha!"

"—so if you would please not breathe a word of this to anyone else..."

“Oh, my lips are sealed,” Yukhei reassures him. “I don’t know about the cleaning staff, though.”

Jungwoo groans, running a hand through his hair in a futile effort to make himself more presentable. “I’ll see you two later.”

They both watch as Jungwoo scurries out of sight. Mark looks catatonic, unable to digest what just happened, or even just the implications of what happened. Yukhei waits until they’re at the beach to speak. “Well—“

No,” Mark says with feeling.

“I can't stop imagining it,” Yukhei ploughs forward, ignoring Mark. “How did they... was Jungwoo the receiver, or—“

“Oh my god,” Mark wheezes. “I really don’t want to think about my superiors’ sex life.”

“Not even when it’s happening in the room next to us?”

“Oh god, don’t remind me!” Mark groans, running faster to get away from Yukhei. He laughs, knowing that Mark knows he can easily catch up, but he lets the other pilot get ahead of him nonetheless.

Besides, it’s quite a view. Mark is... incredibly fit, for lack of a better word. And if Yukhei sneaks a few glances at his bum while they jog, well, he doesn't seem to notice.

“I am happy for Jungwoo hyung, you know,” Mark says after a while.

Yukhei smiles despite himself. “I never doubted that, Mark.”

“It just… reminds me of when we were still in the Academy, you know?” Mark continues. “Jungwoo’s liked them for so long but he never took a shot. He was crushed when Sicheng went to Hong Kong, and all of the stuff going on with Jaehyun’s migraines… I’m just glad it all worked out.”

“They seem happy.”

“Yeah. I dunno, it’s just got me thinking how different things are now since we were all in JA.” Mark gives him a sidelong glance. “Sorry, by the way. No apologies, I know, but.”

“What for?”

“Not telling you about Jongin hyung.”

Oh. Try as he might, Yukhei can’t keep his displeasure from seeping into the Ghost Drift. “It was bothering you that much? You don’t owe me an apology. Really.”

“Yeah, but… I dunno.” Mark seems confused, the same muddled colours from when they first saw Second Wind flashing through the Drift. “I just feel like you should have known about it.”

“He was that important to you?”

His partner's eyes light up. “Of course! He didn’t just teach me about Jaegers, he was… he helped me. Through everything.” He pulls at his sleeves, suddenly shy. “It was difficult when he left. He was someone to look up to, you know? Someone I aspired to.”

Mark loved him. Yukhei can see it in his eyes, feel it in the Ghost Drift—a cloying kind of warmth that overtakes his senses, making it difficult to breathe. Yukhei clenches his jaw, turning a ring over and over on his finger. “But he left,” he finally says, and he hates the way he sounds: bitter and resentful.

“He had to,” Mark replies. “I mean, it wasn’t even a choice. For the corps, right? The good of humanity and all that. I would have done the same if I were him.” He sighs deeply, wistful. “I wasn’t dumb enough to think that it would last forever, but… some part of me hoped, y’know?”

I would never leave you, Yukhei almost blurts out, but he stops himself at the last second. It seems like Mark senses something in the Drift either way, because he looks at Yukhei, curious frown etched on his face.

Yukhei retaliates the only way he can think of: he reaches down into the water and splashes Mark’s front all over.

Unexpectedly, Mark bursts into laughter, wiping his face with a hand. “How old are you?” he accuses, but he toes off his trainers and socks to dip his feet into the water as he says it.

Yukhei follows suit, bewildered when Mark exacts his revenge; he loses track of time, splashing seawater at each other like little children. By the time they’re tired and spent, the sun has already risen, but Mark doesn’t seem to mind.

 

***

 

Since when did Yukhei start getting so fixated on Mark?

It’s easy, he supposes, to be fascinated by someone you spend almost all your time with. Especially now that Mark has changed—in the past Yukhei would resent his naïveté, his one-track mind to get into a Jaeger, but he’s taken everything Yukhei’s said to heart. He’s still absolutely enthusiastic with his work, but never to the point of ignorance; he knows that fighting a kaiju isn’t all there is to piloting, and he remembers it well.

Mark doesn't doubt himself as much as he used to. When the pilots and officers gather in the conference room, he knows when to speak, and everything he says matters; more than once, Yukhei has seen the Marshal smile with pride. He has reason to. Mark is finally showing what he’s capable of.

No, all of that is apparent to anyone who knows Mark. What’s truly unnatural is how Yukhei finds himself noticing the little things—the way his nose scrunches up when he laughs, the way his hair falls in messy waves over his forehead, the way he bites his lip when he's hesitant. It’s not really fair to say that he starts noticing, per se, these minutiae having always been filed away somewhere in his memory, but they've become more and more prominent as of late.

Mark is warm. Warm in the way he easily converses with the staff, how he fusses over Chenle and Jisung, how he laughs when Yukhei tries to speak in his stilted Korean but always manages to correct him kindly. He has a glow about him that commands attention, that makes Yukhei lose the ability to string a sentence together. It's like he has—

Tunnel vision, his mind supplies thoughtfully. It’s almost funny. Kun always said he fell fast, and fell hard.

Fortunately—or unfortunately—he doesn’t see much of his partner the rest of the day, busy with dog-sitting Cotton and dropping by the Kwoon room to visit Irene. Then he’d seen Seulgi struggling to lug a suspicious crate around J-Tech, and his quick detour to help her had turned into a discussion about integrating martial art techniques into battle programs over tea. Then he had dropped by Sicheng’s newly refurbished office—right next to Jungwoo’s—to catch up with the other pilot.

He had come back to Mark and a steaming hot bowl of ramen, listening intently to his partner tell him about his day while Yukhei inhales the noodles as fast he can. They wash the cutlery as Yukhei tells Mark about his. It’s just the kind of lull that he needs to rest: the now familiar motions of them living together, existing together.

It also helps that he can peacefully continue his study of Mark. It's a bit endearing to see him still studying even if they're both well out of the Academy. Tonight he's sitting cross-legged on the couch, squinting through his round glasses at a Chinese dictionary that Renjun had given him.

Mark looks insanely attractive, even in just a mere t-shirt and basketball shorts. The way his hair curls away from his forehead, damp from the shower he just took, the way his collar exposes his clavicle, the way his shorts ride up to reveal pale thighs... and the glasses. There’s something about the glasses, Yukhei concludes.

The corner of Mark's mouth turns up into a knowing smirk.

“What?” Yukhei says nervously.

“Whatever it is you're thinking, you're thinkin’ it real loud,” Mark says, amusedly tapping his temple. “It's like a symphony in here.”

Shit. Yukhei thanks his stars that Mark's Ghost Drift isn't literal. “Just… things.”

“Things?” Mark laughs. “Important things?”

“Not really," he lies.

“If it’s not that important, then, can you help me over here?” Mark says, waving him over. “I can’t tell if I’m reading this right. So many lines…”

Yukhei complies, sinking into the spot on the couch next to Mark. Their thighs press against each other, but neither of them say a word. “You never taught me how to write your name,” Mark continues, twirling his pencil. God, even his fingers are distracting. “What was it that Sicheng called you? Xuxi?”

He reaches over to take Mark’s pencil, scribbling his name into the margins of the dictionary. “Huang Xuxi,” he says slowly.

“Huang Xuxi,” Mark repeats. “Still cute.”

“This again?” Yukhei says in bewilderment, but he’s pleased.

“I like Wong Yukhei more, though.” Mark smiles, a little shy to even admit it, and the Ghost Drift pulses with orange.

“Call me that, then,” Yukhei finds himself saying. “Call me Yukhei.”

“Yukhei,” Mark tries, tasting the name on his tongue. “If that’s what you want.”

“It’s what I want.”

“Okay.” Mark smiles again, soft even in the harsh light. “Okay.” Mark’s fingers curl around his pencil as he writes, brows furrowed in concentration: Wong Yukhei, Wong Yukhei, Wong Yukhei.

“See? It’s not that bad.”

“To learn just three characters in one day?” Mark laughs. “I guess not. Thank you for helping me, Yukhei.”

If Mark had heard a symphony, he must be hearing the entire spectrum of music now. Yukhei catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror: glowing, radiant. The same besotted radiance that he'd seen on Jaehyun's face as he looked at Jungwoo and Sicheng.

 


 

March 17, 2022, 10:19 PM

Kunhang Wong <khwong@ppdc.cn>
to lywong@ppdc.kr
Subject: Update

It’s good to hear that Sicheng ge arrived safely. Ten isn’t having any of it, though. Keeps complaining that he’s been left alone to “watch the kids”, like all of us aren’t fully grown adults. Except for Yangyang. That kid is always gonna be a child no matter how old and obnoxious he gets.

It’s kinda lonely out here, actually, with just the four of us. Maybe we can come visit you and Sicheng there? When there’s no kaiju coming out of the ocean, of course. Who knows when that’ll happen, though. But it’s great that you’re settling in so well. Sicheng says you’re well taken care of. Guess I don’t have to follow up on that threat to beat up whoever is mean to you, big baby.

About your question... I don’t know, Yukhei. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but if you’re really sure about it, why not? Just think it over for a bit more. I know it’s scary, but risk or reward, right? Gosh, now I really want to meet this Mark Lee of yours. See what’s got you in such a tizzy. And this ghost Drift of yours, how are you coping with it? Is it giving you any trouble? I hope it hasn't overwhelmed you much. If it's a problem, you know you can tell me, right? I know I'm not a genius, but I'll do what I can to help.

Dejun says hi, too, by the way. For the life of me I can’t figure out why he doesn’t just write his own emails, but whatever.

Stay safe out there. We all miss you.

Kunhang

 


 

One thing about being a Jaeger pilot, Mark learns, is that there’s barely any rest to be had. Being him, it’s something about the job that he absolutely loves. There’s still so much he doesn’t know—about the corps, the kaiju, the Jaegers and all the work that goes into them. Every day he learns a little more, bit by bit; his favorite spot is the Jaeger bays, where he can make up for all the time he lost with Haechan when they got promoted to engineer.

Working with everyone is a dream, especially now that Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun have joined them. Sometimes his cheeks hurt too much from smiling; it’s just like when they were still kids, playing around in their dorms and copying Jaeger Academy assignments from one another. Except that this is the real deal, what they’d been working towards for years. He couldn’t be happier that his friends finally have the chance to show their brilliance.

Sicheng and Jungwoo had finished the upgrades to Second Wind within a week, and the team had their test Drift right after. Mark had been anxious in the way only he could be, pacing restlessly around one of the viewing decks as the officers did their thing—but the test had gone without a hitch, and Yukhei had laughed when he sighed in relief, slumping against his side.

They’re in LOCCENT today, reviewing Black Widow’s weaponry with Yerim and Sooyoung. He would never admit it, but he had missed spending time with Yerim. They were close when they were still in the Academy, but all of that had been put to a halt when she got promoted, too.

She excuses herself when she gets a call on her holoscreen, and Mark resolves to ask her to get a drink sometime when they’re done. Yukhei can survive one night without him.

It looks like Yukhei’s doing just fine without him, anyway. He ignores the little spark of annoyance when he spots his partner flirting with Sooyoung, leaning in with interest at what the LOCCENT mission controller has to say. It's ridiculous, of course; Sooyoung is very happily engaged to a civilian who's tending to a lovely bed and breakfast in Daejeong. But still, he feels an irksome restlessness, wanting to drag Yukhei off somewhere else where he could—

It's probably better if he doesn't continue that train of thought.

“Well, you look pissy,” someone quips behind him. Pocketing her holoscreen, Yerim is returning from her call, smirking up at Mark.

“You're such a good friend,” he deadpans.

“Just telling it like it is, friend.” She tilts her head, smiling wryly at him. “I didn’t realize—I never congratulated you on your promotion.”

“Please, you’re the last person I would expect that from.”

“You know me so well.” Yerim turns her back on him, flipping her hair over her shoulder—an unspoken gesture that she wants him to do her hair. Mark rolls his eyes even though she can’t see him and dutifully starts gathering locks of hair between his fingers.

“How’s married life?” she asks.

“The hell are you talking about?”

“Lucas? You’ve been in the honeymoon stage for weeks now. It’s making us all feel very sick.”

“Shut up, it’s not like that,” Mark says weakly, but even so, he can’t take his eyes off Yukhei, laughing at something that Sooyoung just said.

Yerim follows his gaze, and Mark very distinctly feels his stomach drop as she turns to give him a shit-eating grin. “Jealous, are we?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” he says far too quickly for it to be convincing.

“Alright, then. I'll gladly take him.”

“I thought you had a girlfriend?”

“Who said we were exclusive?” Yerim replies coolly. “But don't worry, stud. I know you want to climb him like a tree.”

Mark pulls lightly at the braid taking form in his hands. “You should be nicer to the guy doing your hair.”

“Just saying. Snatch him up before someone else does.”

“Lucas is not a toy,” Mark scoffs. He stretches out his hand, and Yerim deposits a hair tie in it. “And I can’t just reserve him.”

“I’m pretty sure he’d love to be reserved,” Yerim mutters. She turns to face him again, running her fingers over the blonde plait he just made. “Thanks. Reminds me of the good old days.”

“Missed me?”

“You wish.” She pokes his side. It hurts, which means she definitely missed him. “Anyways, think about it. Your boy isn’t exactly unpopular around these parts.”

Mark sighs. “Alright, fine, whatever. Can we please get back to work?”

They finish up the session with little incident, although he almost throttles Yerim when she makes a vulgar gesture his way before she leaves. He doesn’t know what’s more annoying—the fact that Yerim felt the need to say all that, or that he’s actually mulling it over.

He's not blind. Yukhei is gorgeous, and he knows the rest of the Shatterdome thinks so, too. Some of the staff's eyes linger on him more than they need to, and it makes something ugly twist up inside him, makes him want to hide Yukhei from the world.

He's not an idiot, either. He knows that something's changed; he hears it in the Drift, feels it in the charged air between him and Yukhei that he’s tried to ignore for fear of putting a name to it. It’s far too soon to say anything with certainty, and besides—he’s loathe to disturb the peace they have, something that they’ve earned after months of trying and trying to understand each other.

A hand waves itself back and forth in front of him, and Mark straightens, looking up. Yukhei is smiling, enough for that dimple in his cheek to make an appearance. “Thinkin’ real hard, huh?”

Mark rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling, too. “Mhm. None of your business.”

“If you say so,” Yukhei answers skeptically, and his heart leaps in his chest, sure that he’s been caught—thankfully, Yukhei doesn’t push the subject further. He wonders what goes through his mind, when Mark thinks of him. What Yukhei sees in the Ghost Drift.

“By the way, Jaehyun’s asked us to join them for drinks tonight,” Yukhei continues. “Personally, I just think it’s his way of making his boyfriends stop working.”

“Oh, well…” Mark falters. Truth be told, he had been looking forward to doing nothing with Yukhei for the rest of the evening.

“Or I could just tell them we’re too tired,” Yukhei suggests.

“How did you read my mind?” Mark asks, exaggerating his frown for effect.

Yukhei pulls a face. “Very funny. I’ll tell them to reschedule.”

He smiles, letting Yukhei lead the way back to their rooms. They’re alright. Mark is perfectly fine with what they have now.

 

***

 

Mark wasn’t made for nightmares, or dreams of any kind. He knew this even when he was a child—his parents had thought it curious, that Mark rarely dreamt if at all. Most of his dreams were unremarkable, mostly just him doing things he already did during the day, like riding a bike or washing the dishes. When he started living in the Shatterdome, they had changed to Kwoon room sessions and laundry duty. Dreams of a different variety, but still unremarkable overall.

Now, though, sleeping is hard to come by. There are nights of fitful sleep, and nights when he can’t sleep at all. And when he can, there’s a new horror waiting for him when his eyes close.

He’s taken to studying and reading into the night in hopes of tiring himself enough to either sleep or stave off the nightmares, but it seldom works; the dreams are Yukhei’s, and he’s just there to share them. Yukhei stays with him, as he always does when Mark studies—he’s pretty sure that Yukhei knows the reason he stays up, too, but neither of them acknowledge it.

When the gimmick does work and he falls asleep on his study material, he always wakes up in his own bed, tucked into the sheets. Mark wants to entertain the delusion that he sleepwalks his way there; it's certainly less embarrassing than admitting that Yukhei would carry him and tuck him in like he's a child. But he knows that this exactly what Yukhei would do, one of the ways Yukhei can apologize without saying sorry. Mark thinks he understands. He would do the same, if he were the one unconsciously sharing his nightmares.

How does Yukhei live with them? They’re awful, insidious, pulling out Mark’s fears by the root and laying them before him to watch. His friends, dying one by one. The kaiju whispering incessantly in his ears, warning him that they’re coming, their collective voices far too much for him to bear.

Tonight is the worst one yet: Haechan hanging by their fingertips from a cliff, the raging ocean below. Mark had reached out with a hand, but it was too late—they fell for what felt like centuries, body swallowed up by the water. Mark doesn’t dare sleep again after that. It’s not like he could have even if he tried, anyway, so he shuffles out of his bed and into the Shatterdome.

It’s about 0200, no staff around save for the occasional scientist pulling an all-nighter, and he makes his way to Black Widow’s Jaeger bay in relative peace. On a whim, he boards the elevator up to the Jaeger’s Conn-Pod, climbing in after locating the manual escape hatch. It’s strange, being in Black Widow after hours; there’s no blinking lights around them, no LOCCENT or Sooyoung to talk to.

Except for the Jaeger itself. He pushes a button on the console, and a single blue light flares up, almost blinding. Mark blinks as he adjusts to the glare. “Hi, Wendy.”

“Hello, Ranger Lee,” she answers pleasantly. “What brings you here this time of day? Or time of night?”

“Oh, just couldn't sleep.”

“I see. If you think it’s pertinent, I have detected some irregularity in your brain wave patterns during your recent calibration tests.”

“Really? What do you think is up?”

“There is an unusual amount of excess neural load coming from Ranger Wong,” she explains. “We’ve known this ever since your first test Drift. But recently, your own neural load has been exceeding the recommended threshold.”

Mark frowns, leaning forward with renewed interest. “So you’re saying some of Yukhei’s neural load is getting transferred to me through the Ghost Drift?”

“There’s a high possibility of correlation, but this does not equate to causality,” Wendy says cautiously. “What I know for sure is that your excess neural load is stimulating you too much for you to be able to fall asleep normally.”

Mark huffs out a breath. “I understand. Could you send this data to Jungwoo, please?”

“Data sent. I hope this helps you, Mark.”

He nods. “Thank you, Wendy. I think it’s about time to head back. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodbye, Ranger Lee.” The blue light blinks twice before fading out.

Yukhei is still asleep when he enters their room, but he’s frowning, forehead beaded with sweat as he curls up into himself. Mark can only sigh, chest tight, wishing he could do something to help.

He makes to tuck himself back into bed, but Yukhei is whimpering now, the Ghost Drift ringing loud and demanding in his ears—and he can’t just ignore that, can he? Mark tentatively lays a hand on his forehead, the Ghost Drift calming somewhat. Against his better judgement, he cards his fingers through Yukhei's hair, relief flooding into him as he sees the rigid lines of the other pilot's body relax.

When the cacophony of sounds in his head is all but gone, he stands to make his way towards his bed, but a hand grips his wrist. "Yukhei?" Mark turns to his Drift partner, voice soft.

Yukhei doesn't speak, only affixes beseeching eyes onto his face. His head thrums with harmonies, some pleasant, some disingenuous, and he knows what Yukhei wants.

Mark slides into the covers without another word. Yukhei smiles, a strained thing, but there all the same. He reaches forward to plant a kiss on Mark's cheek, hands still connected, and settles in to go back to sleep.

Mark tries to do the same, but his heart is racing, his cheek burning from Yukhei’s touch. It’s all too much—the scent that engulfs him is overwhelming, far too distracting. Now that he’s in Yukhei’s sheets, he can smell it clearly: clean mint and cedarwood. More than a little embarrassed at himself, he turns his face into the covers, inhaling deeply as he watches Yukhei sleep, chest rising and falling in a rhythm.

The Ghost Drift is silent, but the music of his beating heart is enough. He puts his lips to Yukhei’s forehead, careful not to wake him, and closes his eyes.

 

***

 

Among all of them, Mark was the first one to arrive at the Shatterdome, apart from the Marshal. He had spent quite some time alone, before his days were filled with everyone else; he spent that time wandering around the Shatterdome grounds, and when that wasn’t enough, beyond it. Jeju had much to offer: cliffs and hidden alcoves, bustling ports shipping product from all over the world.

When the others had arrived, he had shared all these places with them, so that they could find peace when they needed it, just like Mark had. They have their favorite haunts, nights where they would just do nothing and lie beneath the stars—he cherishes those moments and remembers them when times are difficult, but he has a spot that he never revealed to anyone else, to keep to himself whenever he wants to be truly alone.

Tonight is one of those times. He’s still wide awake long after Yukhei drifts off, the Ghost Drift silent for once, so he carefully peels off the covers and makes his way there.

It’s some ways from the first Jaeger bay, hidden behind a rocky outcrop that’s a pain to navigate. But what lies beyond is more than worth it: a small strip of beach hidden by towering cliffs, pristine and untouched by human hands. Mark seats himself, uncaring of the sand that’s probably getting into all the crevices of his clothes, but it hardly matters. The moon is sinking, casting a sliver of white light across the tranquil ocean.

“How can something so beautiful be the source of so much suffering?” he sighs.

He sits there, lost in time, listening to the waves crash against the shore. Mark doesn’t know how long he stays, so engrossed that he almost doesn’t hear the sound of footsteps approaching, sand crunching under someone’s weight. He sits up, alert, scanning for movement—but all he sees is someone climbing over a boulder, huffing and puffing.

“Yukhei?” Mark says incredulously.

Yukhei looks up, sighing in relief when he spots Mark. “There you are,” he says. He’s still in his sleep clothes, with a thick black jacket thrown over his t-shirt. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“Oh. Sorry about that.”

Yukhei shakes his head, crouching next to him. “Took me an hour to find you. Are you alright?”

Mark smiles at the thought of Yukhei frantically running around the Shatterdome in search of him. “Yeah, it's nothing.”

“You're at the beach in the middle of the night, Mark,” Yukhei counters doubtfully. “I somehow doubt it's nothing.”

He’s been caught. Mark bites his lip, considering. “It's... my parents' death anniversary.”

“Oh.” Yukhei’s eyes soften, and he makes to stand up. “I'll leave you alone—“

The words tumble out before Mark can stop them, his hand fumbling for Yukhei’s. "No! No, Yukhei, can you..." What is he doing? "Can you stay?"

“Of course,” Yukhei answers immediately, settling himself in the sand next to Mark. “Do you want to talk about it? Or just sit?”

“Just sit, I guess,” he says, loosening his grip on Yukhei’s wrist. Immediately, he regrets doing so—his fingers itch to do something, to get closer, but instead he folds his arms together and holds onto himself to stop the urge.

He must have been shivering, because Yukhei sheds his jacket, offering it to Mark. “Here.”

“Oh... thank you,” he says quietly, trying not to blush as he pulls his arms through the sleeves. The jacket is large on him, heavy, but it's comforting. He draws it tighter around him, tucking his head down to his chest. Immediately, he's hit with cedarwood and mint—subtle, but intoxicating all the same.

They sit in silence, staring out at the ocean, until Mark’s curiosity gets the better of him. “What's your mom like?”

Yukhei raises his eyebrows, caught off guard. “I dunno,” he admits. “I've never really given it much thought. What mummies are like, I guess. Loving, caring. Strict when you need it.”

“You always email them, right? Your mom and dad.”

“Every week. Any more than that and it feels suffocating.”

“Lucky.”

“I suppose.”

“You are,” Mark insists. “Sometimes, I forget what my parents are like. And I want to remember, but it was so long ago that they just... faded away, I guess. I don't have anything to remember them by—the kaiju attack destroyed everything.”

“You don’t need to. The fact that you keep them in your thoughts is enough.”

“You’re right, I guess. I don’t know.” Mark laughs, and even to him, it’s dry and humorless. “It’s weird, isn’t it? That I’m still hung up on them like this. Today's always been a bad day ever since. And I've never been able to get over it.”

“Someone once told me that having bad days doesn't mean you're not getting better,” Yukhei offers with a meaningful look.

Mark smiles wanly. “They sound like they know what they're saying.”

“He does,” Yukhei agrees. “Which is why I think it's worth repeating. Especially now that he needs to hear it for himself.”

“I know. It's just... I can't even mourn properly—the only other person who understands is—doesn't have time for anything.” He sighs deeply, remembering the look on his brother’s face as he dismissed Mark without another word. “And I don't blame Taeyong for that at all, it's... it would be easier if I didn't have to do this every year alone.”

“You're not alone now,” Yukhei points out.

His smile is genuine this time. “I guess not. Thank you, Yukhei. For staying.”

“Hey, you asked,” Yukhei says lowly, returning his smile. “Who am I to say no, hm?”

The silence between them comes easily, naturally. Not for the first time, Mark is reminded of how much he treasures Yukhei’s company. He doesn’t know how it happened—how Yukhei so easily managed to fit himself into his days—but it doesn’t really matter, not when his mere presence is a comfort. Not when there’s moments like these, when time comes to a stop and Mark can simply exist.

“Mark?”

“Yeah?”

To his surprise, Yukhei takes his hand, threading his fingers with Mark’s smaller ones. His partner's rings press against the bones of his hand, but Mark can’t find it in himself to care. “If you have problems like these, next time—please don't run away. Let me help you, if you want. I'll be there for you.” Yukhei kisses his knuckles softly. “I want you to feel safe with me.”

His heart is hammering away at his ribcage, restless, like a bird about to take flight. For the better part of a minute, he's speechless; Yukhei is offering himself to Mark, wants to be a shoulder he can lean on. He's incredibly earnest, eyes shining with sincerity, with barely concealed affection for him. And Mark wants to run away from it, the weight of his partner's regard staggering, unprecedented—but he's never been a good liar, especially not to Yukhei.

“I do,” he answers, voice barely above a whisper. “I do feel safe with you.”

Yukhei smiles, caressing his thumb over Mark's knuckles. “I'm glad.”

Mark doesn’t quite remember how to breathe, the warmth of Yukhei’s hand in his the only thing he can feel. But it’s far too little and Mark wants more, so he moves closer, pressing himself against Yukhei’s side. He rests his head on Yukhei’s shoulder, settling there, and it finally feels right.

Closing his eyes, he listens to the simple harmony playing over and over in the Ghost Drift. He hopes that it means something good.

Chapter Text

The following days are an endless bout of torrential rain, indistinguishable from one another. It’s put a hamper on their early morning jogs; instead, they spend their extra time lounging in bed as they listen to the downpour outside. Mark has moved into Yukhei’s bed indefinitely ever since the night they shared it—paradoxically, they both discovered that sleeping together meant less nightmares. It wouldn’t always work, of course; sometimes they still wake up reeling from their dreams, but waking up next to each other makes it less terrible. Easier to bear.

It’s never gone further than that, though. They sleep next to each other, and that’s about it. Sometimes Mark finds himself wishing that Yukhei wouldn’t be such a gentleman. He’s no stranger to having other people in his bed—when they were still new to the Jaeger program, the younger kids would slide into the covers with him if they were feeling lonely, wiry arms around him as they slept. Mark never cared; he welcomed it, even. He thinks Yukhei would be welcome to it, too, especially on a rainy day like this.

Maybe it’s just that. They’re not kids, and Yukhei is not Haechan, or Jaemin, or Chenle, and whatever it is they have in the Drift isn’t enough to warrant physical touch that intimate.

For the first time, he’s woken up before Yukhei has. The rain seems to have lulled him to sleep—the Ghost Drift is silent, and Yukhei’s breaths come in regular intervals, the only other sound in the room. Mark tries to breathe in time with him, committing the sight to memory. Yukhei is animated, more expressive than most when he talks. There’s barely any moments like this when he looks calm and serene.

Mark sighs. His eyes trace over the features of his partner's face: strong eyebrows, long lashes, tall nose, looking away when his gaze brushes over his lips. Yukhei really is exquisite—but this is as far as he can go. A work of art for him to look at, but not touch.

He carefully slips out from the nest of covers they’ve made. Last night’s dreams featured Kunhang and Dejun in Fever Dream getting crushed by a kaiju, swept away by ocean waves as they struggled to breathe. Yukhei had trouble sleeping after that, and Mark doesn’t want to be the one to interrupt his hard-earned rest.

The coffee maker can barely be heard over the deluge, but it wakes Mark up just like it does every other morning. Yukhei must have the same sentiments because he follows soon after, taking up his usual spot at the kitchen island.

Mark frowns at him over the rim of his cup. “Awake already?”

Yukhei shrugs, draping himself over the counter to rest his chin atop his hands. “Can’t help it. I’m just wired that way.”

“You okay? We still have some time, you can go back to sleep.”

Yukhei shakes his head. “No, I’m fine. Besides, we have a big meeting today.”

“Hm.” Mark turns back to the machine and fills Yukhei’s cup, trying not to be too conscious of the gaze on the back of his neck. “What’s the Marshal gonna do about what Taeil said, you think?” he asks, sliding the cup over the counter.

Yukhei shrugs, taking it in both hands and blowing lightly. “Dunno. I can’t get a read on him, either.”

The walk down to the conference room is silent, contemplative. Ever since Taeil had let it slip that there was a possibility the kaiju would be coming once a month, there’s been an unspoken tension among the high-ranking officers. The Marshal looks more on edge than usual, and Jaehyun is more often than not camped out in his office—or at least that’s what Jungwoo’s told him. Sicheng, Doyoung, and Taeil have been working overtime on god knows what, shutting themselves in K-Science almost 24/7.

It would be a lie to say that their behavior hasn’t been making Mark anxious. It’s odd, being out of the loop—the officers may treat them like friends, but they still have their own secrets to keep, classified data that the pilots aren’t allowed to see. It’s safe to say that none of them are looking forward to this meeting.

The conference room is already filled up when they arrive, even more cramped with the addition of Second Wind’s pilots who’ve lined themselves up next to Haechan. Mark sits himself next to Jungwoo, nervously watching the Marshal and Jaehyun conversing at the head of the table.

“Any news?” Mark whispers.

“None,” Jungwoo answers, aggravation clear on his face. “Jaehyun and Sicheng are driving me nuts. They’re fighting over something and I have no idea what.”

They’re interrupted by the Marshal clearing his throat, and the room snaps to attention. “As you are all aware, K-Science has predicted a rise in frequency of kaiju attacks, which we will be discussing today,” he begins. The Marshal turns to Taeil, who straightens under his gaze. “Dr. Moon, please elaborate.”

“The last kaiju caught us off guard, but we’ve been able to recalculate. Assuming that the kaiju will be coming at a constant rate, we can expect attacks once a month,” Taeil explains, eyes briefly darting over to Sicheng, who nods in reassurance. “Analysis of Breach dilation data has led us to believe that the next one will arrive within next week.”

Silence in the room except for sharp inhales from some of the officers. “Another point of concern is that this isn’t the case for the other Shatterdomes,” Taeil continues. “We’re still looking into it, but there’s no concrete data as of now.

“However: there is a possibility that they will start appearing at an accelerated rate, which we need to be prepared for. Either way, it’s safe to say that the kaiju are changing their strategy.” Taeil’s eyes sweep over the room and, strangely, his gaze lands on Mark. He looks away quickly. “We should be more careful from now on—there’s no knowing what surprises they’ll be pulling this time.”

The Marshal nods. “Agreed, Dr. Moon. We’ll deploy Second Wind to be sure.”

Jaemin looks like he’s about to dry heave over the table, which Mark sympathizes more with than he cares to admit.

The Marshal dismisses them not long after that. Beside him, Yukhei is turning one of his rings over and over on his finger, brows knitted close together. There’s a frantic melody incessantly repeating itself in the Ghost Drift.

Mark takes hold of his hand, frowning when he realizes it’s gone cold. “Yukhei. Are you alright?” he asks lowly.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Yukhei answers, giving his hand a squeeze. “I just… need some time alone.”

Mark slots their fingers together, pressing their palms against each other in what he hopes is comfort. “Okay. I’ll see you at lunch?”

“Mhm,” Yukhei replies absently. His hand slips out of Mark’s just as quickly as it had received it, and Yukhei takes his leave, brushing past the other officers on his way out. Mark knits his brows together again, wracking his brain for anything that might have upset his partner. Maybe Yukhei’s dream was troubling him more than he let on.

His thoughts are interrupted when someone catches his arm on his way out, clinging onto his side. “Mark hyung!”

Mark's smile comes instantly, sharing an exasperated look with Jisung who’s occupied the spot on his other side. “You act like you haven’t seen me for years.”

“It might as well be!” Chenle gripes. “It’s always work, work, work.”

“We’re the people he works with,” Jisung points out.

“Whatever!” Chenle peers up at Mark, eyes wide. “Is everything okay? Lucas ge didn’t look so good.”

He pats Chenle’s hand that’s in the crook of his elbow, trying for a reassuring smile. “Just worried about the upcoming attack.”

“Like you two have any reason to,” Jisung adds skeptically.

“You heard Taeil,” Mark sighs. “What’ll our sync scores do when the kaiju are apparently switching up?”

Jisung sobers up after that, drawing his lips into a pout. “Why couldn’t they have waited until we retire?”

“Ey, what kind of attitude is that?” Chenle laughs. “It is kinda scary, I admit. But we’re a team now! It’s not just us two anymore.” He smiles brightly at Mark. “If anyone can defeat the kaiju, it’s us. I'm glad we're all together again.”

Mark could cry. He crushes Chenle against his chest, the younger laughing as he wraps his arms around Mark’s waist. “Me too, little one. And you,” he tells Jisung over Chenle’s shoulder. “Even though you’re not so little anymore.”

“Don’t worry too much, hyung,” Chenle says, sure as rain. “You and Lucas gēgē. Everything will be okay.”

How could Mark ever disagree with him? He pulls away, stroking softly at Chenle’s hair. “You’re right. Everything will be fine.”

 

***

 

Yukhei is strangely distant as they go about the rest of their day. Even when they’re working, it seems like his mind is elsewhere, never in the present moment. It’s worrisome for more than one reason: Mark has never seen Yukhei like that, so detached from what’s in front of him, and he’s never heard the Drift so agitated before, repeating the same melody over and over again.

He’s torn between wanting to pry and trying to give Yukhei his distance. Eventually he settles on touch: a hand on Yukhei’s arm, between his shoulderblades, just to remind Yukhei he’s still there. And it works, a little bit; the Ghost Drift calms down, Yukhei’s hand briefly touching his in acknowledgement. Mark is probably more reassured by that than Yukhei is.

It’s not until they’re both in their sleep clothes and sitting on Yukhei’s bed that he speaks, voice cutting through the night air. “Mark, can we talk?”

“Of course,” Mark says softly, turning to face Yukhei. He looks pensive, brow furrowed in thought. “Is something wrong?

“No. Maybe.” Yukhei sighs deeply. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

Yukhei wrings his hands together, eyes downcast. “About this morning… you heard what Taeil said, that the kaiju are coming faster. They could be getting stronger. We’ve been lucky so far, but I don’t think that’s going to last.” Yukhei finally looks up, eyes wide. “I'm scared, Mark. Because I care about you and I don't want to lose you. I don't want to feel the pain I did when I lost Kun ge. I can’t do that again.”

Mark’s heart is drumming out a steady beat in his chest, far louder than it needs to be. He’s known how Yukhei felt about him for a while now, but to hear it so plainly—so clearly—

“Yukhei, I care about you too,” he says earnestly. “You're my Drift partner, I...” He falters when Yukhei draws his lips into a thin line, unconvinced. “You think I don't feel the same?”

“I don't think you do, because I care about you more than just as a Drift partner.” Yukhei’s gaze is piercing through him, laying his soul bare. “I'm in love with you, Mark Lee.”

Time stops, and Mark forgets to breathe. For a precious second, the moment hovers in the air, untainted: Yukhei’s hazel eyes, the moonlight bathing his features in the palest yellow, dark hair curling over his forehead in messy waves.

It’s almost perfect—but no matter how beautiful the picture is, the notes pulsing through him tell a different story. It’s an admission of fear just as much as it’s a profession of love: a symphony of sounds, all dissonant yet begging to be heard. For an excruciatingly long moment, Mark is speechless; even if he had something to say, he wouldn’t have been able to, because the Drift grows more agitated with every passing second, making it difficult to think.

“I'm terrified, because what if—what if I lose you?” Yukhei continues, voice feeble. It sends shooting pains through Mark’s chest, seeing Yukhei’s pupils widen in fear. “I'm afraid that this time, I'll stay broken.”

“Yukhei, you won’t. I—“ Mark reaches out, the instinct to comfort him, to protect him superseding his judgment—but Yukhei draws away from his touch. It stings.

“You can’t promise me that, Mark. You know that.” Yukhei curls his hands into fists. “Please, just... I've said enough. I know you don't feel the same, so please, spare me.” He stands, avoiding Mark’s gaze. “I just wanted to tell you. So I don’t have any regrets.”

“Yukhei…”

“Don't think much on it. I'll sleep somewhere else tonight.”

He can only watch helplessly as Yukhei leaves, the melody in his ears getting fainter and fainter until it disappears.

 

***

 

Love is supposed to be a beautiful thing: something that lights you up from the inside out and makes you shine, not shroud you in darkness and fear. Or at least that’s what Mark thinks it is, to love someone. It’s what he knows love to be. Not whatever it is that Yukhei feels for him, or thinks he feels for him. Not that.

Maybe he just doesn’t understand. He knows the feeling, having someone you love pilot a Jaeger, but this—having someone you love pilot a Jaeger with you, knowing their every feeling and thought right as it happens—is a different story altogether. He can’t imagine what it must have been like to feel Kun die, to know for yourself what it’s like the moment your life ends. To see and feel your loved one die right in front of you.

How much more painful would it be, then, if Mark died and Yukhei felt everything in the Ghost Drift? He can’t blame Yukhei for being afraid of that possibility. Nor can he blame Yukhei for confessing in that way, for wanting to have no regrets. He would have done the same.

Mark slept alone in his own bed, Lion at his feet. Wherever Yukhei stayed was far enough that there weren’t any nightmares, but Mark couldn’t find it in himself to be relieved. Come morning, it’s raining again, and Yukhei still hasn’t returned.

He skips breakfast, bypassing the droves of cadets and workers that are flocking to the mess hall. Instead, Mark finds himself wandering the Jaeger bays, feet leading him to Black Widow where a tiny Haechan is perched on one of her arms. He takes the lift up, waving at the engineer as he ascends.

"'Sup, Hyuck," Mark greets. Haechan smiles and places a micro-welder back in their tool belt. "Black Widow over here doing okay?"

"Just doing some last-minute fixes, but otherwise she’s fine," Haechan answers, bouncing over to Mark on the catwalk. "So, to what do I owe this visit from my favorite ranger?"

Mark chuckles, leaning over the railing to look over the hustle and bustle of the Dome. J-Tech engineers and mechanics are milling around Second Wind, Yerim lording over them. “Just felt like getting some advice.”

“Well, you came to the right place.” Haechan takes their place beside Mark, arms hanging haphazardly off the railing. “What’s bothering you, then?”

Mark inhales deeply. "How do you respond to someone telling you they love you?"

"Tell them you love them back?" Haechan answers, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. "Look, if you came here looking for advice because Jaemin's been harassing you again—"

"No, no. It's not Jaemin." Mark chews on his lip. "Yukhei—Lucas told me he loved me last night."

Haechan inhales sharply, clapping a hand on Mark's back. "Wow. Congrats?" Mark gives them a withering stare. "Hey! You can't say you didn't see it coming."

"I didn't!" Mark protests. "I mean; I knew he liked me. How could I have known he was in love with me?"

"Don't you have the Ghost Drift?"

"I think you know that the Ghost Drift isn’t as literal as you think it is," Mark answers, deadpan.

Haechan puts up both hands in surrender. “Point taken. Still don’t see why you came to me, though. You’ve been confessed to before.”

Mark hates that his cheeks heat up. “Yes, but—this is Lucas,” he says helplessly. Haechan nods in understanding. “It’s just—it’s different. He was afraid. That’s what bothered me.”

“It’s reasonable that he would be.”

“Yeah, but he sounded… miserable. Like he hates that he has feelings for me. Or thinks he does.” Mark huffs out a laugh, dropping his head into his hands. “God, this is all so ridiculous.”

“What is?”

“Literal monsters from the sea are terrorizing humanity and here we are, gossiping about my love life.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Mark sees Haechan smile. "Well, do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Love him back?"

Mark finally looks up. Haechan’s eyes are alight with curiosity, but also a warning: don’t lie to me, because I’ll know if you are. "I don't know,” he answers honestly. “Maybe I could, but... It’s complicated.”

Haechan sighs. “When is it ever not?”

Their lack of contention—that Haechan so easily accepts that Yukhei loves him as fact—makes him want to justify himself, bail himself out of the situation. “We just became friends, I don't think he could…” Mark flounders.

Haechan stares at him doubtfully.

“He's just confused!” Mark continues, voice far too high-pitched. “He's confused. I'm his Drift partner and we've been spending a lot of time together, and... he thinks he doesn't have a choice. Yeah.”

“You and Jongin hyung fell in love, didn't you?” Haechan counters reasonably. “And the threesome isn’t exactly romantically involved. Even Jaehyun and Sicheng have Jungwoo, too. It's not just the Drift.” They take his face into their hands, making Mark turn to face them. “He’s afraid because his feelings are real. Lucas has lost someone to the kaiju already. Losing you…”

They inhale deeply, shaking their head as though to clear it. “Everyone else can see it, Mark. He cares for you. It’s not a stretch to assume that he genuinely loves you, especially now that he’s told you that himself.”

“That can't be true,” Mark says softly.

Haechan frowns at him, but it’s not out of anger, just frustration. “Is it so hard to accept that you deserve love?”

“Not his.”

“What?”

“I haven’t done anything to deserve it. He's done so much for me, I... I'm still lacking. As a friend, as a Drift partner... I just don't see how he could claim to love me.”

“I don't see how you could rationalize love, Mark.”

They’re not wrong. He sighs for what feels like the hundredth time today, hanging his head. “I just... I don't think I can deal with this right now. I didn’t want it to be this complicated.”

Haechan loops their arm through his, resting their head on his shoulder. “I understand. But don't invalidate his feelings just because you can't process them.”

“I know. I know.”

“We love because. Not in spite of. Okay?”

Mark tries to protest, but there’s no fight left in him. “Okay.”

Yukhei is in his bed when Mark returns late in the night. He listens carefully for any sound in the Ghost Drift, but when he’s met with nothing, he sighs in relief, careful not to make any sound as he approaches his partner. Yukhei’s eyes are closed, and his breathing is even.

Mark tucks his sheets in tighter, and ignores the way his pulse jumps when he leans forward to place a light kiss on his temple.

 

***

 

The kaiju arrives as scheduled, five days after the meeting. Five days after Yukhei confessed, Mark unhelpfully reminds himself, but he pushes the thought to the back of his mind. Defeating the kaiju is the most important thing right now.

Both he and Yukhei are silent as they make their way towards the Jaeger bays. Second Wind is standing tall, more than prepared for its first mission after five years; standing next to the Jaeger are its pilots, marveling at their gray and blue Drivesuits. Mark catches a glimpse of Chenle wrapping his arms around Jeno to give him a good luck kiss, jovial as he usually is. At least one of them is optimistic about all this.

“This kaiju is the biggest Category 3 yet,” the Marshal says as soon as they’re connected to their Jaegers. “Heed Dr. Moon’s advice and be on your guard. Second Wind, you’re the largest Jaeger we have. Use that to your advantage.”

“Affirmative,” Jeno answers grimly.

All three Jaegers are attached to their own transport helicopters, and they’re flown out to some remote island in Okinawa. Instantly, they’re hit by sheets of relentless rain, thudding loudly against the glass of Black Widow’s Conn-Pod.

“Visibility’s fucked,” Sooyoung mutters. “Careful out there, all of you.”

Mark glances at Yukhei. He looks calm as usual when he’s in the Jaeger, but the Drift is roaring loud in Mark’s ears, a troubled rendition of the melody he’s been hearing all week. Yukhei. It’ll be alright.

Yukhei nods, but he doesn’t meet Mark’s gaze. If you say so.

Their first glimpse of the kaiju is a mass of dark gray, barely visible against the even grayer ocean. As they draw closer, something catches his attention: the kaiju has bright blue ropes crisscrossing against its leathered back.

“Noona, any idea what those things are on its back?” Chenle wonders.

“No idea,” Sooyoung admits. “Be careful, pilots.”

“Agreed. Black Widow and Second Wind, you’re to engage as soon as you land,” the Marshal orders. “Pink Slip, provide assisting fire.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Jumphawk pilots, release for the drop.”

All three Jaegers land with a deafening bang, even louder than the crack of thunder across the sky. The kajiu’s answering roar is just as loud, instantly turning on them with a snarl.

Black Widow connects with a punch to its jaw, making the kaiju stumble back, but only a short distance. Second Wind follows up with a powerful kick to its gut, finally knocking it off its feet and sending it crashing onto the ocean floor. “Missile incoming!” Chenle warns—sure enough, a rocket is whistling past them, exploding into pieces on the kaiju’s left arm. It wails in pain, baring a row of sharp teeth.

“Plasmacaster!” Yukhei barks out, and the weapon comes to life in Black Widow’s hand. They aim it right at the kaiju’s chest, a clean kill—but tendrils of electric blue snap up from the kaiju’s back, wrapping themselves around the Jaeger’s wrist. What the—

Instant, searing pain shoots up Mark’s right arm, and both he and Yukhei scream, holding their right wrist with the other. The kaiju’s snapped Black Widow’s hand right off, plunging it into the raging ocean below.

“Shit!” Mark curses. “Jeno, backup—“

Second Wind is on the kaiju before he can finish his sentence. It pulls the kaiju out from under Black Widow, hoisting it over its shoulder and slamming it onto the seabed. They force the kaiju onto its front, and another missile comes hurtling past them, aiming for the kaiju’s back—but when the smoke clears, the strands of blue are still there.

Yukhei is still wincing, but his eyes are afire, staring at the kaiju as though it were scum. You ready?

Mark shakes his right arm, readying his stance. Let’s go.

They run towards the kaiju, Second Wind holding it down as it thrashes about. Black Widow unsheathes its knife and slashes blindly at the kaiju, but the weapon bounces back, sending dull pain up their good arm.

“It’s useless—dismember it,” the Marshal orders. “Those appendages can’t reach you if it can’t move.”

“Affirmative, sir!” Second Wind’s third arm comes down to hold the kaiju’s head in place, and Black Widow raises her knife high, poising it to slash right at the kaiju’s neck—but it’s too quick for them, blue tendrils wrapping themselves around the Jaeger’s Conn-Pod.

Mark can’t hear anything but his own screams. His own blood feels like molten lava coursing through his veins, and he falls to the floor, head throbbing, swimming with images far too complicated for him to decipher. He gathers his head in his hands, willing it to stop—but the pain is relentless, and his heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest any minute.

Not again. Not again.

“Yukhei,” Mark groans weakly, turning his head to see his co-pilot curled up on his side. The Ghost Drift flashes with images of Kun, Tunnel Vision, torturous pain just like what he’s feeling right now. Yukhei, hang on—

Mark… Not again. Not—Yukhei slumps to the floor, motionless.

Yukhei!

“Ranger!” The Marshal’s voice crackles in his ear. “What happened?”

Though his vision is swimming, he vaguely registers bright blue appendages receding from the Conn-Pod. “I dunno, the kaiju just—Lucas is unconscious, he—“ Mark babbles incoherently, hands trembling as he shakes Yukhei awake to no avail.

Groaning, he curls over Yukhei in pain; the throbbing in his head is getting even worse, the weight of piloting Black Widow pressing down on him, rendering him immobile. “I can’t handle the load,” he pants out, heart racing to keep up with the burden in his brain. “I can’t pilot.”

“Fuck—hyung, are you okay?” Jaemin worries.

“I’m fine, I—will you be able to handle the kaiju?”

“We’ll get it done,” Chenle reassures him. “Jeno hyung, line it up for another missile.”

The sounds of the fight outside get fainter and fainter, drowned by the ringing in his ears. “Disconnecting both pilots from the Jaeger,” Wendy announces, and the pounding in his head eases up, letting him breathe again.

“Extraction team, get Lee and Wong out of there, now!” The Marshal barks. “Lee, get Wong into his escape pod and follow.”

“Yes, sir!” With a mighty heave, he drags Yukhei over to his own pod, trying to phase out Jeno and Chenle’s panicked voices, the sound of metal grinding against flesh. There’s only so much he can deal with at a time—they’ll be fine, he tries to tell himself, sighing in relief when Yukhei is finally in his escape pod. They have each other. They’ll be fine.

“Lucas is in his escape pod. Wendy—”

“Affirmative.” The hatch closes up, and Mark settles into his own pod next to it, inhaling deeply when the doors close in front of him. It’s cold and dark, and he feels slightly claustrophobic, but he closes his eyes, forcing himself to even out his breathing.

An almighty crash shakes Black Widow, jostling him around. “What’s happening out there?” Mark demands in alarm.

"Jisung's audio filters broke," Chenle relays, panicked. "He's having an attack. Sooyoung, we can't move until—“

Chenle is cut off by the sound of his escape pod detaching from Black Widow, launching itself into the air. Mark screws his eyes shut, bracing himself for impact; the entire pod rattles once it meets water, tossing him around within it. He stands on shaky feet as soon as it opens, looking up to see a helicopter hovering above him.

The rain is beating heavily onto the glass of his helmet, but the face that peeks out of the chopper is unmistakable. “Mark!”

“Sicheng,” he breathes in relief. A ladder brings him up into the aircraft, where Yukhei is lying on a stretcher, still unconscious.

Mark tosses his helmet off, kneeling beside Yukhei’s prone form; his face is deathly pale, lips almost blue, but he’s still breathing. Mark lets out a shuddering breath, brushing Yukhei’s hair away from his forehead. “How is he?” he asks to no one in particular.

“Stable,” Sicheng answers, crouching down next to him. “We don’t know why he fainted, though. What happened out there?”

Mark clasps Yukhei’s hand in both of his, looking up at Sicheng. “I think—I think the kaiju sent out some sort of signal. Something that overwhelmed the Drift, enough that we couldn’t take it,” he explains shakily. “He kept saying ‘not again’. I think it’s what happened with him and Kun, on their last mission.”

Sicheng’s eyes widen. “I see.” He braces a hand on Mark’s arm, peering at him. “Are you alright?”

Mark shakes his head, turning his gaze back to Yukhei. “I’m fine, hyung. Don’t worry about me. The other pilots?”

Sicheng shakes his head. “They’ll be fine. Focus on getting some rest.”

Mark nods begrudgingly, but his thoughts won’t let him rest, brows knitted with worry the whole trip to the Shatterdome.

As soon as the helicopter touches ground, the medics carry Yukhei out, leaving Mark to follow them as they rush to the hospital wards. He’s still in his Drivesuit armor, trailing water everywhere, but he doesn’t care—Yukhei is all that matters right now.

It’s a flurry of activity in the emergency room, and Sicheng stands beside him all through it, worrying his lip as they watch doctors and nurses hover around Yukhei, attaching tubes and all sorts of instruments Mark can’t make sense of. At Sicheng’s behest, another doctor starts poking and prodding at him, but her assurance that Mark is alright isn’t enough to put him to ease.

It’s only when Yukhei is tucked into bed and hooked up to an IV that he can breathe again. Mark pulls up a chair and grasps his free hand, watching the color slowly come back to his cheeks. He barely notices Sicheng disappear behind a curtain with a doctor, and he doesn’t hear them speaking in hushed tones.

“I’m sorry,” Mark whispers, although he doesn’t know what he’s apologizing for. Anything. Everything. The fact that Yukhei had to go through all of that again. He sighs, lifting Yukhei’s hand and brushing his lips over his knuckles. “I’m sorry.”

The swish of a curtain draws his attention away from Yukhei. Sicheng’s face is grim, and his mouth is set into a hard line. “Hyung?” Mark asks worriedly, standing to meet him halfway.

“Mark,” Sicheng says lowly. “The doctor said that… Xuxi won’t be awake for a while.”

“What?”

Sicheng finally looks up at him. “He’s comatose as of now.”

His heart drops as soon as Sicheng finishes. For a moment, he can’t even move, eyes shifting out of focus, dazed; there’s dull pain coursing through him, an aftereffect of whatever the kaiju did, but it can hardly compare to the twisting of his gut. A coma. Yukhei is in a coma. Mark scrubs a hand across his face, breathing out a shaky exhale.

But wait—he stills, desperately tries to listen for even the faintest note in the Ghost Drift—but there’s nothing. Mark clenches his hands, fingernails digging into his palms. Anything to stop him from feeling numb.

“Mark…” Sicheng’s eyes are sympathetic. “We’re not sure of anything yet. There’s still some tests they have to run. What matters is that Xuxi is stable now.”

Mark shakes his head. “But he’s still unconscious. Just him. Why did it have to be him?” he says hollowly. “Why couldn’t it have been me instead?”

At this, Sicheng frowns. “You’re right. Why is it just Xuxi?”

He looks up at Sicheng, eyes widening in realization, but any answer evades him.

They’re interrupted by a loud crash—the doors of the ER burst open, a harried Jungwoo rushing to Yukhei’s bedside. “Sicheng, Mark! Thank god.” He grasps Sicheng’s hand, fraught with worry. “Is Lucas alright?”

“The doctors said he’ll be fine,” Sicheng reassures him. Mark doesn't call him out on his almost-lie. “The other pilots?”

At this, Jungwoo sobers up. “Second Wind killed the kaiju. They’re all okay.”

“Jisung?” Mark questions urgently, remembering Chenle’s troubled warning getting cut off before he could finish. “Where's Jisung?”

“Safe, with Johnny. He's going to be alright.”

“Chenle?”

Jungwoo inhales. “I'm sorry.”

Stone cold fear seizes him. Mark grips Jungwoo’s shoulders, urging him to meet his gaze. “Jungwoo. Where is he?”

“In—in the receiving bay.”

Mark takes off as soon as Jungwoo finishes his sentence, legs pumping towards the receiving bay at a speed he didn’t know he had. Everything else melts away—the lingering pain in his limbs, the phantom images in his mind, even Yukhei’s prone figure, only leaving the sound of his heart thumping madly in his ears. He skids to a stop as soon as he sees the Marshal, frozen as he watches the scene in front of him.

Their eyes meet, and—and Mark has seen that expression only once before, when they were children and the city was crumbling around them.

“Mark,” Taeyong calls out, trying to grasp at his arm to stop him—but he pushes forward, Taeyong’s fingers weakly grasping at his own. It’s the only thing he can feel as he takes everything in: Renjun with his head tucked into Jaemin's shoulder, and Jeno, wide-eyed, bent over a stretcher, his hands slick with something red.

There’s blood, so much blood, seeping through Chenle's white armor. Even paler still is his face, faded blonde hair matted with water and grime. Mark shakes his head, blinks, wills it all to go away—but he's still there, and Jeno is sobbing, and Chenle is still as a statue.

 

 

Chapter Text

His funeral suit fits, Mark notes blankly, closing up the last few buttons on his jacket. It’s a deep black, made of an expensive fabric he doesn’t know the name of. He’s never had a reason to use it before—only had it made when he was eighteen and Taeyong was still Blue Blood’s pilot. A necessary precaution, if not morbid. But Taeyong is still alive, and Mark is twenty-one, using a suit for the very first time.

He winces at his reflection, turning his back on the mirror to pick up the white and black band laying on his bedsheet, sliding it carefully up his left arm.

The Shatterdome is eerily quiet. No distant thrum of machinery from the Jaeger bays, no chattering in the hallways. There’s only the soft clacking of his dress shoes as he makes his way across the deserted station, footsteps echoing against the walls; it’s a bit jarring, but a distraction nonetheless, and Mark doesn’t have the luxury of choice.

A row of white-flowered wreaths greets him when he arrives at the empty funeral hall. It's only been six hours, but everything's been set up: a shrine, flowers, a portrait with two black ribbons.

He's smiling so brightly.

"Mark hyung."

Mark tears his eyes away from Chenle's smiling face. Jeno is sitting on a mat, dressed in an identical suit and an almost identical arm band. Two stripes for him. He stands to face Mark, and they bow, foreheads touching the ground.

When they rise, Jeno’s stare is vacant. Mark’s heart aches—the blood on his hands had barely dried when he was whisked away for the funeral preparations. It was a formality more than anything else; others had done the work, but someone had to stay with Chenle during the procedure. It’s not like Jeno would have wanted to part with him, besides.

Mark takes his place beside Jeno on the mat, wordlessly folding his legs and unbuttoning his suit. Up close, Jeno looks pale and sickly, eyes red from crying. He wants to reach out, touch the younger boy, but he looks like he might break.

“Where’s Jaemin and Renjun?” Jeno asks.

“Still in debriefing. Jaehyun wants a complete account of what happened.” Jeno nods dazedly. “They’ll be here soon,” Mark tacks on, hoping that it will be of some comfort.

“Jisung?”

Mark bites the inside of his cheek, hesitating. “Jisung can't come,” he says as gently as he can manage. “Johnny says it would be best for him to be monitored for now. Alone.”

“Oh. I see.” Jeno lowers his head. “Thank you for coming so soon, hyung.”

He finally gives in and laces his fingers together with Jeno’s.

They don’t speak much after that, even after Haechan arrives with Jaemin and Renjun in tow. What is there to say? All of them have the same hollow space carved out in their hearts that no words can soothe, especially when the wound is still so raw. And so they wait in silence, hands linked together in an effort to weather the oncoming storm.

The first guest is—unexpectedly—the Marshal, dressed in full regalia. He leaves a single white carnation on the shrine. They all bow, and Taeyong's eyes meet Mark’s for a split second.

“I'm sorry for your loss, Ranger,” he says to Jeno, and Mark can’t help but scoff. As though it wasn’t the Marshal’s loss, either. Nevertheless, Jeno thanks him, and he leaves Mark to stew in his bitterness alone.

The guests come in a steady trickle after that. Next is Jungwoo, with Jaehyun and Sicheng behind him; the latter hugs Renjun, whispering words of comfort in Mandarin. You'll be alright, bǎobèi, is the only thing Mark understands, but it puts his heart at ease, too.

Johnny, Doyoung, and Taeil come next, wheeling Yuta in with them. Sooyoung and Yerim in black hanbok, with Irene and Seulgi following suit. What feels like a hundred more people, all workers from the Shatterdome: technicians, scientists, engineers, even the cooking staff. They come until at the wee hours of the morning, until the sun is rising over the horizon.

The second day is the hardest. The funeral home is opened to civilians—countless droves of people trickle in from all over Jeju, bringing flowers and gifts and offerings. Mark remembers only a few of them: an elderly couple that traveled since early morning from the other side of the island; a group of haenyeo that thank them for keeping them safe; university students that converse with Haechan in the local language. A child between his mothers, clutching a miniature Jaeger to his chest.

Knowing that Chenle was loved and appreciated even beyond the walls of the Shatterdome somehow reassures and dispirits him in equal measure. But he would rather not dwell on that; instead he bows and accepts offerings until his thighs smart and his arms start to shake, vision blurring the more he’s kept awake.

The guests let up around ten in the evening, and when Mark looks over the others their eyes are bloodshot, begging for rest. Five more minutes and exhaustion finally takes over, leaning against each other as they sleep, save for Jeno who’s staring at nothing.

Mark rises and returns with spare blankets from the storeroom. He drapes them over Renjun and Jaemin, shushing Haechan when they sit up. "Sleep," Mark chastises.

"What about you?" they mumble groggily.

"I can sleep when this is done. Rest." Haechan nods, too tired to protest.

Mark turns to Jeno next, gently nudging him to stand. “Jeno, come. We need to get some food into you.”

“Hyung, I can't leave.” The statement is loaded. Should a guest come, there would be no one to greet them if they both leave—but he can't because he doesn't know what to do, either, rooted to the spot he’s been in since yesterday.

Mark extends a hand. “No one is coming,” he promises. “Come on, Jeno. I'll go with you.”

It's with hesitance that Jeno takes his hand, letting himself be pulled to his feet. Together they retreat to the mess hall, and Mark makes Jeno wait while he bustles around the kitchen, gathering leftovers.

The sound of metal trays being set down onto the table startles Jeno from his trance. “Eat,” Mark urges, handing him a pair of chopsticks.

Jeno’s movements are sluggish. Mark tries not to watch him, but there’s a slight tremor in his hands, and his shoulders are slumped in resignation, bags under his eyes made even more prominent by the scarce moonlight coming through the windows.

Jeno shouldn’t look like this. He should be alight with happiness, all wide smiles and crescent-shaped eyes. Not this ghost that Mark sees before him.

“I miss him,” Jeno murmurs.

Mark can only sigh. “I know.”

“It’s just… strange. Realizing I won’t get to see him again. Talk to him again. That he’s gone, just like that.” Jeno frowns, clenching his fist until his knuckles turn white. “If only I had known, I would have treated him better.”

“Oh, Jeno,” Mark breathes. “You couldn’t have even if you tried. I know you did everything to make him happy.”

“I just—I could have done something while I was out there,” Jeno insists. “The whole year that Pink Slip was alone, I was so afraid that I'd lose him. I'd train every day, thinking that if I could just get in a Jaeger, I would be able to protect him. I finally did it, but I still lost him. I failed him. Him and Jisung both.”

“Jeno...”

“We promised the rest of our lives to each other.” Jeno’s voice wavers, and his eyes glisten with unshed tears. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Mark doesn't think his heart can break any more. Carefully, he sits himself beside Jeno, nudging his head towards his shoulder. Jeno’s arms cling to his waist, a few tears wetting his neck. “It’s okay to be lost, Jeno,” he murmurs gently, stroking at Jeno’s hair. “It’s only been two days. Let yourself grieve.”

“I loved him so much,” Jeno hiccups. “Why did it have to be him?”

Mark doesn’t have the answer to that. No one does. So he pulls Jeno closer even as his own throat closes up, even though he can barely keep his own eyes open, and lets Jeno cry on his shoulder until his sobs peter out.

They stay like that for a while, listening to the sound of ocean waves crashing against the cliffs outside. The hall seems larger than it should, now that it’s without the throngs of cadets and officers coming through it every day—an empty carcass.

“I’m tired, Mark hyung,” Jeno whispers.

“I know.” Gingerly, he wipes at the tears staining Jeno’s cheeks. “I don’t know what the future holds for you, Jeno, but you’re strong,” he murmurs, voice delicate. “You’ll be okay. You trust hyung, right?” Jeno nods. “Good. Then believe me when I say that you will.”

“Alright,” Jeno echoes. There’s doubt at the edges of his tone, but Mark takes what he can get.

When they return to the funeral hall, the others are still sleeping. Renjun stirs when Jeno joins them, but he lets the other lay his head across his lap, absently running a hand through his hair. Mark covers Jeno with another blanket once he finally falls asleep, and Renjun signs a tired “thank you.”

Mark shakes his head, gesturing for him to get some rest, and retreats to the other side of the room. He takes one last look at the four of them before he closes his eyes and drifts off to a dreamless sleep.

 

***

 

The last day of the funeral is Chenle’s sendoff. Seemingly everyone in the Shatterdome has gathered in the receiving bay, with some of the stragglers spilling out into the hallways; they part when the five of them come bearing the casket. Mark can barely breathe—focuses only on the two-step of his feet and the weight on his shoulders as they draw closer to the airplane that will carry Chenle’s remains to China, where a hero's welcome will be waiting for him.

There’s nothing else but the grip of Haechan’s hand in his when the plane takes off, farther and farther until it’s barely a white speck on the horizon. He tries not to think about Chenle’s mother, a woman with kind eyes and his smile, having to see her precious son return in a casket.

The crowd fizzles out eventually, all low murmurs and commiseration, until only the officers remain. And even they disappear, too, until only he and Haechan are left, the morning sun beating down on them. It’s only then that Haechan starts to cry, and Mark lets them, rubbing a hand between their shoulderblades.

“Had you fooled, didn’t I?” Haechan says through tears, trying for a smile.

“Nah,” Mark contests, giving them a shaky smile of his own. “Not for a second.”

“Damn. You’re too good.” Haechan wipes their cheeks, reaching for Mark’s hand again. “I hope he’s happy, wherever he is.”

Mark hasn’t been religious for a long time, but maybe he can spare it just this once. “Me too.”

Despite everything, life goes on. Black Widow needs to be repaired, having lost one hand in the fight; Haechan returns to their post in the Jaeger bay, and Mark spends most of his time there, too, helping the workers reattach the severed limb. The rush of accomplishment he gets when the task is finished is transient, almost cruel with the way it leaves him hollow afterwards.

He turns to work to regain some semblance of normalcy, shutting himself in Jungwoo’s office and poring through papers whenever the Drift scientist is out; but it's not the same, not when he can't meet Yukhei at the staging area and walk to the mess hall together, not when neither Chenle nor Jisung are there to greet him.

Mark barely sleeps. He should be able to—he doesn’t have the Ghost Drift for the time being, no reason to be kept up because of Yukhei’s nightmares and whatever else the connection is bearing. But for some reason, he can’t, and when Jaemin meekly approaches him to ask if he can stay in their room for the time being, he readily accepts.

He tells himself it’s because they need him. That they can’t be left alone—but he knows in his heart that he accepted Jaemin’s offer because he can't stomach being in his and Yukhei’s room, looking at the bed opposite and seeing it empty. Not seeing Yukhei puttering around in the early morning making coffee, or lacing up his shoes for another jog.

Worst of all is not hearing anything. Sometimes, when he’s alone with nothing but his thoughts, Mark thinks that he’s gone deaf; but it’s just that he had become so accustomed to it, had gotten so used to the music that fluttered around in the Drift that he’s forgotten what it’s like now that it’s gone. It’s the closest thing he’s felt to having a severed limb: phantom pains, reaching for something that’s not there.

Except that Yukhei is just within reach. There for Mark to look at, but not feel. He’s cruelly reminded of this when he visits Yukhei in his hospital room, straining his ears for the faintest note only to be met with disappointment. With nothingness.

So he ignores his severed limb, tries to convince himself that it’s not needed to function. Obediently does all the tests Jungwoo and Sicheng make him take alone, ignores the empty space to his right when he sits on Jungwoo’s couch. He’s aware of the pitying stares that Jungwoo and Sicheng level at him, but he pays no mind, leaning forward to make his demands.

“I want to know what happened.”

Jungwoo winces. “Mark, you look like death. We can continue tomorrow.”

“I don’t care. There must be some reason why I’m here now and Lucas isn’t,” Mark insists.

Jungwoo and Sicheng share an exasperated look, but eventually Sicheng sighs in resignation, turning to face Mark from where he’s perched on Jungwoo’s desk. “While I was in Hong Kong, I was researching what happened to Tunnel Vision’s pilots,” he starts.

“Kun Qian died from unknown circumstances, but the autopsy showed that he sustained excessive brain damage. We believe that what killed him was an excessive neural response—he couldn’t handle the amount of information that was being transmitted.”

“An excessive neural response… and from the kaiju itself?” Mark questions.

“Yes. Somehow, the kaiju was able to… overwhelm his mental functions, leading to his death. Which is what I think happened with you and Lucas, as well. Didn’t you say it felt similar?”

“Yeah, but—why was Lucas able to handle it the first time and not the second?”

“Like you said, it’s the second time,” Jungwoo points out.  “You know all too well that there’s still residual trauma from the first attack. Handling one is already impressive. Handling another... it’s surprising that he isn’t in much worse shape.”

Mark swallows the lump in his throat, not too keen on being reminded of Yukhei’s current state. “Then why am I fine?”

“That’s still something we don’t know,” Sicheng admits. “Add that to the fact that we barely have any data regarding your Ghost Drift—anything goes right now. It’s all new data.”

“New data…” Mark turns to Jungwoo. “Did you get the information I asked Wendy to forward to you?”

“Well, yes,” Jungwoo says haltingly. “But we still don’t know how that can factor in to what happened.”

Sicheng leans forward, now interested. “Clue me in?”

“Wendy thought that Lucas could be unconsciously transmitting information to me through the Ghost Drift,” Mark explains. “My neural load has been over the threshold ever since we discovered we had it. We even have the same dreams.”

“And Mark’s brain activity has been normal ever since the mission,” Jungwoo adds.

“I see. So this proves that neural load transference is possible,” Sicheng ponders, making a note on his holoscreen. “That’s good.”

Mark leans back into the couch, huffing out a frustrated breath. “Is it?” he mutters. “We’re still where we started.”

“It’s better than nothing.”

“I suppose,” he admits, picking at a thread on his trousers, still irate. “It’s just that I’m tired of having more questions than answers.”

Sicheng moves to sit beside him, place a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Trust me, I know how it feels,” he says soothingly. “But that’s our job—to find answers.”

Jungwoo smiles encouragingly from behind his desk. “We’re trying our best to work it out. For you and Lucas.”

Mark lowers his head, ashamed at his outburst. “Thank you,” he murmurs quietly. “For working so hard.”

Sicheng squeezes his shoulder. “Go get some rest, Mark. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

He nods, letting himself be led to the door, but despite Jungwoo and Sicheng’s assurances he leaves with an even bigger pit in his stomach.

 

***

 

By the end of the week, Johnny finally allows visitors for Jisung, albeit only one a day. Mark is the first, according to him, and Mark feels strangely nervous about it, watching Johnny twirl his pen around from behind his desk.

“Jeno wanted to see him, but Jisung refused,” Johnny tells him ruefully. “And I won't divulge any more for the sake of doctor-patient confidentiality, but... I'm sure you can divine the rest.”

Of course he can. “I understand. I’ll try to convince him.”

“Will you visit him?”

Mark can barely grasp the incredulity of the question. “Of course I will!”

Johnny furrows his brows skeptically. “Are you sure? Considering…”

“Considering what, Johnny?” Mark challenges.

Johnny’s gaze is almost pitying, and Mark is quickly getting tired of it. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew, Mark.”

Something in the statement sets something off within him. What does Johnny know about what his limits are? Who is he to tell Mark what to do? Scoffing, Mark folds his arms. “That’s none of your business.”

“It actually is. I’m your psychiatrist.”

“Well, treatment only works when the patient is willing, right?”

Johnny shakes his head, and Mark knows he’s won the battle. “Sharp as always.”

“I’m visiting Jisung,” Mark says firmly.

“I know. Can’t stop you either, can I?”

“Good that you know.” He makes to leave the office, hand already on the doorknob when Johnny speaks again.

“Come to me when you’re ready.”

Mark could almost laugh. “Don’t hold your breath,” he mutters, closing the door behind him.

His anger dissipates the closer he gets to Jisung’s hospital room, replaced with an acute sense of dread and anxiety. Mark bites his lip, hesitating in front of the door; does Jisung even want to see him? Does he want to see what state Jisung is in?

He thinks to Jeno’s troubled eyes, his pale face. The hundred little instances he almost broke down during those three days. If that was how Jeno fared, how much worse would it be for Jisung? He needs to at least see if the younger is okay.

Steeling himself with a breath, he opens the door.

The room is dark, lit only by a single weak lamp by the hospital bed. Huddled on it is a small figure, head resting limply on the wall, arms curled around his knees as though to protect himself.

Jisung looks… gaunt. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his shirt hangs a little too loosely from his frame. What scares Mark the most is the blank stare he receives when Jisung looks up—he’s always been a little detached, more stoic than most. But he’s never been this lifeless.

Mark plasters on a smile as he approaches, seating himself carefully on the edge of Jisung’s bed. “Hey, Jisungie.”

“Hi, Mark hyung.” His voice is small, timid. “Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Of course,” Mark says gently. “How are you?”

“I don't know. How should I be feeling?” Jisung’s voice is hollow. “It’s been a week, hasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“And you took care of the funeral?”

Thorns are digging into his chest, but Mark manages to choke out an affirmation.

Jisung nods, turning his eyes towards the window. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

“Don’t apologize. We understand.” Mark worries at his lip, pausing before taking Jisung’s hand in both of his. Jisung doesn’t move, doesn’t react—simply lets Mark do it without so much as a breath out of place. He doesn’t know why, but fear spreads quickly within him. “Jisung—“

“It’s odd,” Jisung interrupts. “We’ve seen each other every day for—five years? He was determined to become my friend ever since the day he arrived. Even without the Drift, nobody understood me the way he did. And now he’s just…”

Mark clutches Jisung’s hand tighter. He finally moves, only to look Mark straight in the eye, and—his eyes are no longer empty but filled with remorse and regret. “If I wasn't like this, if I hadn't insisted on being a pilot, Chenle might still be alive.”

“Jisung—no, don't say that.” The words come tumbling out of Mark’s mouth before he even knows what to say. He clasps Jisung’s hand earnestly, peering into his eyes, hoping that his sincerity comes across. “Both of you knew the risks. Chenle wanted to be in Pink Slip with no one else but you. You did it together; you shouldn't be blaming yourself.”

Jisung grows more frantic with every word. “But if I didn't have an attack—if I didn't have to have those stupid audio filters in—if I wasn't so damn retarded—“

“Jisung! Don't you dare.” In some ways, this hurts more than anything else. Had he not loved Jisung enough for him to know what he's worth? Is Jisung not proud of all he’s overcome throughout the long years he’s been in the Shatterdome, ever since he was just a child? It breaks his heart to think that this is how little Jisung thinks of himself.

“How could you say that about yourself, little one?” he asks sadly. “Jisung, you... you're more than that. You’re brave, you’re intelligent—you’re good. You know that, don’t you?”

“I—I know shouldn’t think that way,” Jisung concedes, but his voice is shaky, and the hand that Mark is holding is trembling, too. “I just can't help but blame myself. I was in there with him—I could have stopped and went through with the mission—“

“No, you couldn't have,” Mark says firmly. “And that's not your fault, Jisung, it never will be, okay?” When Jisung doesn’t answer, Mark takes his shoulders so they face each other. Tears are falling from his eyes, and Mark holds him steady, steeling the both of them. “Listen to me. It will never be your fault.”

Jisung’s voice is small. “You think so?”

“I know so. Come here.” It's a bit tragic, Mark thinks, that this is what it takes for Jisung to finally hug him. He holds the younger boy close, cheek nestled against his hair. “Hyung loves you so much, you know that?”

“I know.”

“You can be sad. You can cry all you want, but don't belittle yourself, Jisung, don't. You're more than that.”

“I know,” Jisung sniffles against his neck. “I just—who’s to blame if it’s not me?”

“No one, Jisung. No one is to blame for this. Especially not you, little one.”

Jisung draws his arms tighter against Mark’s back and says nothing.

They let go after what seems like an eternity, but Mark can’t quite pull away, carding his fingers through Jisung’s hair as he looks at him. “Thank you again for coming, Mark hyung,” he says quietly.

The corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. “Of course.” Mark bites at his lip. “Jeno wants to see you too, you know.”

“He does? Even if…” Jisung swallows, then nods. “Tell him he can come tomorrow.”

“Good.” Mark bites back his sigh of relief. “I’ll tell him.”

“Okay.” Jisung looks nervous, but still resolute. Mark takes what he can get.

“Go to sleep,” he prompts gently. “You'll feel better in the morning.”

“And if I don't?”

He cups the edge of Jisung’s jaw, stroking tenderly at his cheek. “Then we'll keep trying.”

Mark hesitates at the door, loathe to leave Jisung alone, but it’s late into the night and both of them need the rest. He consoles himself by tucking the sheets around Jisung tighter, dropping a careful kiss on his forehead before he turns to leave.

“Wait!” Jisung calls out.

He turns back expectantly. Jisung is wringing his hands in his lap, but gathers the strength to look up, eyes shining. “I love you too, hyung.”

Mark smiles for the first time in what feels like forever. “Good night, Jisung.”

 

***

 

His body has seemingly decided that his visit to Jisung was the breaking point: one week of scarce sleep finally catches up to him, and the moment he curls up into bed, his eyes close of their own accord. No dreams come to him while he sleeps.

When he wakes up, it’s to weak sunlight filtering through the blinds, dust motes floating in the air. Around him is the smell of mint and cedarwood, achingly familiar.

“Hey there, sleepyhead.”

Mark pries his eyes open. Yerim is somehow in the room, sitting on his bed and smiling at him. Sitting on his bed across him, which means—

Of course. Mark closes his eyes again, inhaling deeply. He’s in Yukhei’s bed.

Ignoring the way his chest constricts at the realization, he throws the sheets off his body, sitting up to face Yerim. “How long was I asleep?” he mumbles, wiping the sand from his eyes.

“No idea. I just got here.”

“How?”

“You didn’t lock the door, dummy,” she snorts. “I brought you breakfast. Jaemin was getting worried when you didn’t show up at their room last night.”

Mark hazards a look at the wall clock: 0800. He’d been asleep for sixteen hours. “Sorry.”

Yerim ushers him into the living room, and Mark can’t help his amusement at how she’s acting like she owns the place. He settles into one end of the couch as she makes a fuss in the kitchen, the sound of the coffee maker jarring enough to truly wake him up; he obediently accepts his cup, and refuses when Yerim hands him a bowl of doenjang jjigae.

"Not going to eat?"

"Not now. But thank you though,” he says, hoping his sincerity comes across.

"'Course,” Yerim answers flippantly, sinking herself into the opposite end of the couch after she sets the bowl down on the coffee table. “But you have to take care of yourself, you know."

"I know that,” Mark sighs. “I'm trying."

"I know that, too."

She affectionately pats at the back of his head. He doesn't know what about it makes him crumble—but he does, lying down and turning his face into Yerim's lap.

“You okay?” she hums. Gentle fingers are running through his hair, and Mark screws his eyes shut.

“No.” Yerim smells of peaches. It’s not unwelcome, but not what he wants, either. “I miss him.” They both know he's not talking about Chenle.

“You never realize what you have until it's lost, huh?” Yerim says, and he hears the wistful smile in her voice.

“Yeah. I know that now.”

“You just have to tough it out a little bit, hm? He’ll be awake soon enough.”

“Yeah.”

He doesn’t tell her that’s not what’s worrying him. Try as he might, he can’t get the image of Jisung out of his mind: Jisung, who never once doubted himself, suddenly timid and meek. Rife with uncharacteristic self-loathing, and all because Chenle—

It’s suddenly real to him, the possibility that Yukhei could be gone forever. What Yukhei fears will happen to Mark. What if Yukhei was the one who died during the mission? Would Mark feel the same guilt? The same hatred for himself simply because he’s the one that was spared? Or will he be a shell of who he once was like Yukhei, taking months to heal and be himself again?

He’s sure of one thing: he would be devastated. The past week has been hell, not having anyone by his side. Not having anyone to share his thoughts with, to ease the burden and make it somewhat bearable, to reassure him that everything will be alright even though they’re not certain that everything will be. It’s only been six months, but to him, Yukhei is indispensable.

Yukhei is Yukhei, and there is no one else like him. No one cares for him like Yukhei does. No one understands him, sees him like Yukhei does. No one makes him feel the way Yukhei does—like he’s a force of nature, like he can weather the storm. No one compares. And for that to be taken away from him—

What if I lose you? I’m afraid that this time, I’ll stay broken.

Mark is terrified.

 


 

 

March 25, 2022, 8:49 AM

Kunhang Wong <khwong@ppdc.cn>
to mhlee@ppdc.kr
Subject: Our deepest condolences

Ranger Lee:

This is Ranger Kunhang Wong, writing to you from the Hong Kong Shatterdome. Before anything else, I’m very sorry for your loss. Though we didn’t know Ranger Zhong personally, us here in Hong Kong know the pain of losing a friend all too well. As colleagues, we sympathize deeply with you and are here to offer you support in any way during this undoubtedly difficult time.

Secondly — I’m sorry if this comes off as insensitive, but we’re desperate to know about Yukhei’s condition. We’ve heard from Sicheng that he’s in a coma of some sorts, but that’s all. I hate to mistrust him like this, but if you know anything else, anything at all, it would be much appreciated if you told me so we can help. I don’t know what or how much we can do from Hong Kong, but we’re willing to try anything.

I know that it’s shameless of me to ask, but please take care of Yukhei for us. And please, inform me if anything changes. We’re all anxious to see him recover.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself, Ranger Lee. Grief is never easy. Yukhei speaks very highly of you as a friend and a pilot, and any friend of his is a friend of mine. If you need anything, I’m only one email away.

Yours respectfully,
Kunhang Wong

 


 

Yerim finally runs off around noon, but only after she watches him eat every morsel of the breakfast that she brought him. Satisfied, she leaves with two French braids and a stern warning for him to come to dinner.

“Oh, and Jaehyun said you don’t have to work today,” she says at the door. “If you do, we’re all under strict orders to lock our offices and make you leave.”

Mark scoffs at that, rolling his eyes. “Alright, I get the message. I’m staying here.”

“Good. See you later.”

“Wait, Yerim.” She raises her eyebrows in question. “Look after Haechan for me?”

“Obviously. Rest, Mark,” she almost groans. “Or I’ll tell Jaehyun to lock you up here ‘til tomorrow.”

Sufficiently threatened, Mark retreats to the living room, watching Yerim shut the door behind her. As soon as her footsteps recede, he rises from the couch, gathering books in his arms as he goes around the dormitory, spreading them across the coffee table. Yerim said he couldn’t go to work in the Dome, but he might as well make use of his free day. Better to do something productive than be lost in his thoughts again.

Even so, with his holoscreen propped up in front of him and a cup of Earl Grey within reach, there’s still something missing. The room is far too bare without Yukhei lounging on the couch, too quiet without Yukhei’s booming voice interrupting him once in a while.

Struck with inspiration, he retrieves Lion from the foot of his bed and lets him sit on one of the armchairs next to the window.

“Just you and me, eh, bud?” Mark sighs. Lion doesn’t answer.

The rest of the afternoon breezes past without disruption. Everything else melts away save for what’s in front of him; he almost forgets that he’s alone, except for the moments when his eyes wander to a stray transistor that Yukhei stole from the Jaeger bays, or when he catches a whiff of his clothes that have acquired some of Yukhei’s smell.

It’s past sunset when his eyes start to dry up and he can’t make sense of the letters rearranging themselves on the book pages. Belatedly, he remembers his promise to Yerim that he would show up at dinner, and he hurriedly types up an apology on his holoscreen, not keen on receiving another verbal lashing.

He doesn’t have the energy to go all the way down to the mess hall, anyhow.

As soon as he hits send, there’s a knock on the door. Mark sighs, pushing himself to his feet and readying himself for either Yerim or Jaemin to open the door—but it’s the Marshal, standing awkwardly in the hallway as though he’s aware that he’s out of place.

Mark straightens. “Sir.”

“I'm not here as your senior officer, Minhyung,” the Marshal says. He looks tired, as always. “I just... wanted to see how you were doing.”

Mark grits his teeth. “I'm fine, thank you. Now can you please go?”

“Minhyung, please. At least let me in? Just for a bit so we can talk.” Taeyong is pleading, eyes searching Mark for something, and he quickly looks away.

Tightening his grip on the door knob, he nods his assent, letting Taeyong step into the entryway. He surveys the room slowly, and Mark sees a spark of familiarity there, of nostalgia. Of course—Taeyong once lived in a dormitory like this with his own partner, sharing meals and stories like he and Yukhei do. Or did.

Mark gestures lamely to the couch, and Taeyong sinks into it, Mark following suit.

Taeyong's eyes land on the armchair. “You kept him,” he remarks, voice tinged with wonder.

“What?”

“Lion.”

Mark clenches his jaw, turning away to look at the window. The sky is clear, dotted with stars. “I did.”

“I thought...”

“I can't just throw him away,” he says quietly. “My brother gave him to me.”

“Your brother.” He hears Taeyong sigh deeply, feels a hand on his. Mark turns to face him in alarm, looking down at Taeyong’s hand clasped around his fingers.

“Minhyung, I'm... I'm sorry,” he starts. “For however much and in whatever way I've been lacking as a brother to you. The past few years... they haven't been easy on both of us. Especially you. There were times that you needed a brother and not a commanding officer, and I failed you. I'm sorry.”

For a moment, neither of them speak. Taeyong waits, and Mark listens to the sound of his own heartbeat drumming in his ears. Taeyong—his brother is right in front of him, but he thinks of Yukhei. How Yukhei recognized Taeyong’s haunted eyes. Recognized that they were bound by the same experience, something Mark understands now. Ought to understand.

Mark turns his hand over, slotting his fingers in between Taeyong’s. “Hyung, I—I don't blame you,” he says shakily. “You have responsibilities, more than I could even imagine. You were just doing your job.”

“But I could have done better.”

“Hyung, I’m not blameless, either.” Taeyong tightens his grip around Mark’s hand, the slightest of frowns marring his features. “I didn’t even try and reach out to you, knowing that you could be suffering, too. That maybe you needed me, too. All this time, I thought you had it easy—now I know that you never did, and I was so stupid for it.

“It's just... years and years of hearing that I'm not enough, that I'm nothing compared to you—I let it get to me when it shouldn't have, and I acted horribly towards you for that stupid, stupid reason. I'm sorry.”

“Oh, Minhyung...” Taeyong reaches up to tuck his hair behind his ear, and Mark has to resist the urge to lean into his touch. “I had no idea it was that bad.”

He shakes his head. “It's alright, hyung. It's beyond me now. There are more important things.”

Taeyong’s smile is slight. “There are.”

“Do you forgive me?”

“There's nothing to forgive, little one. And do you forgive me?”

Mark nods, and it’s that minute gesture that spurs Taeyong into action, pulling Mark to his chest. His arms come up to clutch onto Taeyong’s back, strong and sturdy, and he buries his face in Taeyong’s shoulder, now wider than he remembers it to be.

Tears prick at his eyes, and he moves closer, feeling the knots in his chest loosen up, finally letting him breathe. It’s been years since Taeyong’s held him like this—like he’s the most precious thing on earth, like he deserves everything and more.

“I'll make it up to you, Minhyung,” Taeyong whispers, and it’s a soft, soothing caress. “I promise.”

Mark can do little else but nod, letting Taeyong press a kiss to his temple. “I promise that I’ll make it up to you, too.”

Taeyong’s eyes are shining when he pulls away, Mark’s face cradled in his hand. “Not so little anymore, hm?” he laughs wetly. “You grew up so quickly. How did I miss it?”

“I’m still your little brother,” Mark reminds him, trying for a smile.

Taeyong answers with a smile of his own. Mark has never seen him glow brighter. “That you are, little one. That you are.”

 

Chapter Text

Two weeks after the attack, the Shatterdome has more or less gone back to normal; staff and cadets alike are walking the corridors, muted conversation is echoing against the walls. The only difference is that there is an underlying tension, something that none of the residents dare to articulate. Like a curse that will come true if uttered.

The fact of the matter is that Jeju is a ticking time bomb. None of them know exactly when or how it will implode, but it doesn’t stop them from preparing themselves for the inevitable.

It tastes bitter. It reminds Mark of how they weren’t afforded that luxury; it’s suffocating, relentless in the way it reminds Mark of how much he’s lost. How much is missing. So he distances himself from it all, locks himself up somewhere he never would have thought would be his safe space: Taeyong’s office.

Talking to Taeyong again is… strange, to say the least. But there are things he understands much more than Mark ever has, and despite how much he’s changed, he’s still the same brother Mark loved when he was a child, the same comforting presence he sought when he scraped his knee or had a bad day at school.

Mark learns that they’re more similar than he thought, too, both hardheaded and stiff during those first few days—but both of them ease into it with time, and eventually Mark can laugh again, feel the gaping hole in his heart mend, bit by bit.

Taeyong doesn’t push him, lets him talk about anything he feels like. And he listens, in a way no one ever has before, a way Mark never knew he needed. Taeyong himself looks lighter, more at ease when Mark is with him—until something urgent comes up and he has to work. But Mark is happy that Taeyong finds some sort of reprieve in him, too, even if it’s just for a moment.

It’s on a day like that when he receives Jungwoo’s message. It only consists of two words, but they’re enough to make him stop breathing: He’s awake.

Had Yukhei been with him, what would he be feeling in the Ghost Drift? Glee, panic, and anticipation course through Mark, each emotion more intense than the last, rendering him paralyzed with the weight of them. He’s awake.

He forgets what he’s doing—can’t be bothered to remember, not when Yukhei is awake, and he has to see him right now—

“Is there something wrong?” Taeyong is asking him, mere background noise to Mark’s ears.

“He’s awake,” Mark echoes, and Taeyong’s eyes widen in realization.

“Go. Now, ” he says, and Mark heeds his orders, letting his feet lead him through the hallways of the station.

There’s nothing else, only thoughts of Yukhei flooding his senses as he runs like a man possessed, heart thumping madly in his chest. He’s awake. He’s awake.

He practically barrels through the hospital wards, nurses and doctors giving him knowing looks as he goes. When the door of Yukhei’s room comes into view, Mark pauses in his tracks, takes a moment to breathe, let his body catch up with his mind. Try and prepare himself for their first meeting after everything—but when he opens the door, there’s no Yukhei to be seen.

“Mark, he’s not here.” He swivels around to see Jungwoo, grimacing apologetically at him with his hands in his coat pockets.

“But he’s awake,” Mark says dumbly, out of breath from his haste.

Jungwoo must take pity on him, because he takes hold of Mark’s shoulder, speaking gently as though not to scare him off. “Lucas is talking to Jisung.”

“Jisung?”

“He wanted to see Jisung first. Lucas told me not to disturb them.”

“Yukhei is… talking to Jisung,” Mark repeats slowly. He feels his heartbeat slow, excitement replaced by confusion.

“He wanted to see how Jisung was doing. Said he needed all the help he could get.”

“Oh,” is all Mark can say, and the tension leaves his body, replaced by something—something he can’t describe, but it’s intense, overwhelming, crawling up the base of his spine through his limbs, culminating in his fingertips. His addled mind can’t make sense of it, but he knows it’s something different.

Jungwoo’s eyes soften, mistaking his silence for disappointment. “Mark, don’t be upset.”

“I’m not, I—“ He swallows thickly, voice hoarse when he speaks. “Jungwoo, could you leave me for a moment, please?”

“Sure,” Jungwoo acquiesces, squeezing his shoulder in sympathy. “Don’t worry, I’m sure he wants to talk to you, too.” Mark doesn’t bother to correct Jungwoo, just nods to him as he leaves.

Carefully, he trudges to Jisung’s room, peering through the small crack in the door, and he’s there, just within reach, but—

Yukhei has Jisung’s hand in his, heads close together as they talk in low voices. There’s the faintest tinkling of music in his ears that almost makes him move, step forward, seize Yukhei, do something—but he’s seen all that needs to, and he closes the door as silently as he can.

His footsteps falter the louder the music grows: it’s a song from Yukhei’s heart that’s being poured out to Jisung, one that speaks of comfort, companionship, better days to come. Everything that Mark wishes for Jisung himself, Yukhei is feeling—and he can’t find it in himself to just walk away, not when he can so clearly hear Yukhei’s sincerity, his fervent desire for Jisung to recover.

Mark leans feebly against the wall, screwing his eyes shut. He lets out a shaky breath, willing his heartbeat to slow—but the rhythm in his chest continues its frenetic pace, incapable of being stifled, unwilling to let him ignore how he feels. Seeing Yukhei care, so much so that the first thing he does after waking up is see if Jisung is okay—

There’s a moment of clarity where everything fades away, making it impossible to think anything else other than I love him, I love him, I love him.

Oddly enough, the revelation is followed by a sense of calm. Tranquility that Mark hasn’t experienced ever since these two weeks that Yukhei has been asleep. He lets the realization sink deep into his skin, his bones, permeating everything that comprises him because loving Yukhei—knowing that he loves Yukhei—is a fact of his being.

His name is Mark Lee. He’s twenty-one years old and a Jaeger pilot. Yukhei loves him. Mark loves him back.

He stays for a few minutes more, letting music wash over him, a soothing balm for his weary heart. He understands Yukhei a little bit more, what he meant all those months ago: to be dependent on someone so much that you're not quite yourself when they're gone.

And Mark wasn’t himself, not really. There are parts of him that are hollow, lacking—parts of him that he doesn’t even know are incomplete, not until Yukhei was absent. But right now, hearing music again after the longest time, he feels whole, phantom pains gone, wounds healed.

Almost.

 


 

 

8 April, 2022, 3:54 AM 

Mark Lee <mhlee@ppdc.kr>
to khwong@ppdc.cn
Subject: Update

Ranger Wong:

Thank you for your kindness. It means much to me and everyone here at Jeju that our friends from Hong Kong stand with us.

You may be aware of this already, but Yukhei has just woken up. The doctors tell me that his condition is stable, but some tests still need to be done to confirm if there are any long-lasting consequences from the incident. Our Ghost Drift is fine, however, so I'm confident that Yukhei is, too.

I will definitely let you know if there's anything we need assistance with regarding Yukhei’s condition, a sentiment that my colleagues endorse wholeheartedly. All of us here are working to help Yukhei recover to the best of his ability. Please rest assured that he is in good hands.

And please, call me Mark.

Kind regards,
Mark Lee

 


 

He returns to Yukhei's room hours later, in the dark of night. The Shatterdome is quiet now, safe for him to venture into, and it's silence that welcomes him when he trapises down to the hospital wards.

Not for long. The closer he gets to Yukhei’s room, the louder the music grows, and from the way its tempo grows faster—allegro—he can tell that Yukhei feels him in the Drift, too. The notes thrum against his skull, pensive; Mark feels his own heartbeat quickening in response, nerves and anticipation magnified tenfold by the Ghost Drift.

He braces himself, hand against the doorknob, and pushes the door open.

Yukhei’s gaze is on him as soon as he steps into the room, and the music grows unbearably loud, almost deafeningly so. Throat tight, he makes his way to Yukhei’s bedside. In the Drift is a somber tune that slots itself between the spaces of his ribs and squeezes—but even the pain is welcome, as long as it means that Yukhei is here.

He seats himself slowly, cautious of Yukhei’s space. It’s almost foolish to be this wary, as though they haven’t been closer. But things have changed. They’ve changed, somehow.

Mark looks up, straight into Yukhei’s eyes, and it takes everything in him not to splinter apart from the intensity of his stare. It’s unthinkable how much Yukhei feels for him, even though it’s there in the Ghost Drift for him to hear, in Yukhei’s eyes for him to see.

“Hi,” Mark tries, and his voice comes out as a shaky breath.

Yukhei doesn’t speak for a long while. Just looks at him, and Mark forces himself to bear the weight of that gaze, of the emotion it carries that he’s only just starting to understand. Then Yukhei’s hand comes up to his face, fingers grazing his skin, and Mark has to push down a sob.

“Look at you,” Yukhei sighs. His fingers twitch, then he touches the length of his palm to Mark’s cheek. “Are you alright?”

“Of course I am,” he answers. Even he’s somewhat amazed by the false confidence he manages to inject in his voice. “Shouldn't I be fussing over you?”

“I'm fine, really. I feel great. But you…” A thumb swipes over his cheekbone, leaving heat in its wake. “You look like death warmed over, Mark.”

Mark shakes his head, lips stretching in a poor imitation of a smile. “It’s been a rough two weeks.”

Yukhei swallows, lowering his hand. Mark almost takes it in his own, but it’s too soon. For what, he doesn’t know—but the timing feels wrong, so he keeps his hands to himself. “You talked to Jisung,” he says instead.

“I wanted to see him first, if that's alright with you.”

“No, it's okay. I just—thank you. For caring.” Words don’t even come close to how he feels, but he hopes the Ghost Drift will fill the gaps in between.

This time, Yukhei shakes his head, as though the proclamation is ridiculous. “You don’t have to thank me for that. I just wanted to make sure he's doing alright.” He smiles ruefully. “I don't want what happened to me happening to him. Jisung deserves far more than that.”

Mark doesn't try to fight it this time. He wraps his arms around Yukhei, hugging as tight as he dares without hurting his partner. Yukhei’s arms come up to hold him, steadying him because he’s shaking, unraveling bit by bit. No more lies.

“I told you that you could come to me, didn't I?” Yukhei says right against his ear, and Mark shivers, curling his fists against Yukhei’s back.

“Yes, but—you've only woken up, it's so soon—“

“Mark. Look at me?”

He buries his face in Yukhei’s shoulder, but Yukhei pulls away, framing Mark’s face in his hands and giving him no choice but to look up. Yukhei’s features are open, welcoming—loving in a way that is only for Mark to see, and something in him shatters.

“I can't do anything for them,” he says hollowly. “They're hurting so much, and I can't do anything. I can't protect them from this. And I want to be strong for them, but it's hard. It's so hard—he's gone, and you were gone, too, and I—“

Yukhei gathers him in his arms before he can finish. Feeling Yukhei's warmth, his proximity, his kindness that Mark had sorely missed—the tears don't stop falling, seizing Mark's chest something awful, making him weep into Yukhei's shirt. He embraces Mark tighter, whispering reassurances into his ear, but it only makes him cry harder.

“Chenle,” Mark chokes out. “I could have—“

“Shh. You did your best. You did well, Mark.”

And it’s somehow exactly what he needed to hear, but he doesn’t deserve it, either, so he makes himself scarce, letting Yukhei envelop him completely.

“It was so hard without you,” Mark sobs—and that's it, isn't it? He needed Yukhei. He wasn't brave enough to acknowledge it, but now, in his arms, there's nothing to hide. 

He's stripped of everything superfluous, everything that isn't really him. He's not a brother, or a pilot, or even a partner. Right now, he's just Mark, tired and afraid.

For the first time, he allows himself to mourn. For his parents. For Taeyong. The childhood that was taken from them. The years he spent waiting and waiting, only to be met with one heartache after another. For Chenle, and everyone Mark loves who feels his loss so keenly. For all of them, who have seen far too much death and destruction than anyone should. It's the weight of the world on his shoulders all at once, cloying and oppressive, sowing doubt and fear into his heart.

But Yukhei's still holding him, so tightly as though he's the only one keeping Mark together.

And maybe he is. It's unhealthy, Mark knows—depending on one person so much it cripples you when they're gone. But Yukhei isn't gone, he's here, and Mark is surrounded by music, and he asks himself how Yukhei could ever have considered this—them—a weakness.

Yukhei holds him until his sobbing dwindles, until his head is throbbing and his heartbeat is slowly coming down from its high. "There, there," he murmurs, carefully wiping Mark's tears with his thumbs. He turns his face to lean into the warmth of Yukhei's hand. "You'll be alright."

It’s not something easily forgotten, the exact shade of hazel in Yukhei’s eyes—but Mark finds himself drinking it in all the same, greedily taking in every detail of Yukhei’s face even though his vision is still blurry with tears.

"It must have been difficult,” Yukhei continues, fingertips brushing against his hairline. “God, if only I hadn't... It's my responsibility. I shouldn't have been so weak—"

Mark harshly wipes away the remaining wetness from his eyes, to better look at Yukhei when he cradles his partner's face in his hands. "Yukhei, no," he says firmly, throat still raw and aching. "Don't blame yourself for this, not even a bit. It's not your fault."

"But—"

"It's not your fault."

"Whose is it, then?" 

Mark inhales. Lowers his hands to grasp at Yukhei's own. "It's... it's easier to find someone to blame, even if it's yourself, rather than to accept that some things happen without good reason."

"Without good reason." Yukhei screws his eyes shut. "Again. God, I—I wake up, and—I can't believe he's just gone." 

"I know,” Mark whispers, and Yukhei’s grip tightens, a little desperate. “It's not fucking fair." 

"Nothing ever is." Yukhei leans his forehead on Mark's shoulder. He’s exhausted. Mark doesn’t need the Ghost Drift to tell him that. "I know it’s near impossible, but—I don't want to lose anyone else." 

"Neither do I." It’s his turn to wrap his arms around Yukhei, winding them across his back and pulling him closer. Yukhei returns the action, his own arms around Mark’s waist, and Mark allows himself to press his lips against Yukhei's hair. "How did you do it?" They both know he's talking about nothing less than moving on from Kun.

"I don't know,” he admits, and the Ghost Drift hums. “But you helped. Everyone helped.” Yukhei’s fingers card against his hair, soothing even though he’s just as distressed. “We'll be alright. Not now, not soon. But we will be."

It’s a truth that Mark already knows, one that he himself has told Jeno and Jisung and everyone who needed to know it; but hearing it from Yukhei, having Yukhei tell him that they will be alright, makes it seem just a bit more true than it already is. “I believe you.”

They pull away far too soon, leaving small, burning points of contact between them: their legs slotted together, their hands still connected, the warmth of Yukhei’s gaze as he watches Mark try and gather himself again. “You should go back,” he says gently. “You must be tired.”

“I'm not leaving,” Mark protests. “You just woke up.”

“I'll be fine.”

I won't, Mark almost blurts out foolishly, but it seems that Yukhei knows anyway. His gaze softens, and he strokes his thumb across Mark’s knuckles, much like he had that day on the beach so long ago. “Stay, then.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I always want you to stay with me.”

Mark feels the fractures within him deepen into valleys filled with melody. Here he is, broken, but still wanted. And he wants, too—he wants more, so much more, but he contents himself with what he has now.

“I want to stay with you, too.”

They arrange themselves carefully on Yukhei’s narrow hospital bed, and it involves long limbs and nervous, breathless laughs, but eventually they settle with Mark’s head on Yukhei’s chest and their hands laced tightly on Yukhei’s stomach.

It’s not the first time Mark’s been held like this, no, but it’s the first time Yukhei has held him like this, and it should feel momentous, but it doesn’t. Instead, he feels his breathing even out and his eyes slip closed to the metronome of Yukhei’s heart beneath his ear.

“Thank you,” he whispers. To him, it sounds like I love you. He hopes Yukhei can hear it, too. 

 

***

 

Yukhei's presence does wonders for the Shatterdome's morale. Most excited among them—apart from Mark—is Sicheng, who wastes no time enveloping Yukhei in a massive hug that Mark is sure the other pilot has ever given anyone except Renjun.

Irene dotes on him, dropping a small banquet of homemade dishes by Yukhei’s hospital room almost every day. Somehow, Taeyong finds his way there, too, and Mark can only smile at Yukhei’s surprise when they start—well, talking, like normal people do. Even Jeno is happy to see Yukhei, cracking his first smile when they meet. “Welcome back,” he says, and Mark can’t help his own smile when Jeno’s eyes light up.

Despite Yukhei's fragile state, there’s no rest to be had; two weeks in bed hadn’t done any favors for his body, and he’s put on a strict schedule for physical therapy on top of the seemingly endless diagnostic tests that the doctors have ordered. Mark insists on never leaving his side unless absolutely necessary, which Yukhei protests, but the small grin on his face when Mark is there to listen to the doctor’s orders or when he helps Yukhei with his exercises tell him otherwise.

Thankfully, Yukhei doesn’t seem to be in bad shape apart from a few migraines that Jaehyun is more than equipped to help him with, and Mark’s emails to Kunhang turn hopeful, a little less somber with each passing day.

Two days after Yukhei wakes up, they're called into Jungwoo's office for a meeting with him and Sicheng. As much as Mark has been dreading this inevitability, it's much needed; they need all the information they can so they can fight again. 

Both Jungwoo and Sicheng look somber when they step into the room, the older gesturing for them to sit on the leather couch. It's much more comforting than the last time Mark was here, with Yukhei's weight sinking into the cushions beside him.

"How are you, Lucas?" Jungwoo starts.

"I feel fine," Yukhei nods. "Let's cut to the chase. Mark said we could transfer our neural loads to each other?" 

"Well, yes," Jungwoo fumbles, alarmed at Yukhei's directness. "From what we've gathered, you have an excess of neural burden that you've been unconsciously transferring to Mark to make it easier on yourself. This is what must have happened during your last mission, with—" 

"Second Wind and Pink Slip, yes," Mark grits out. Yukhei's impatience—the swift, marching pace in the Ghost Drift—is taking its toll on him as well. "But if that's the case, I should have been the one in a coma. If I bore most of the load, why am I fine?"

"Time will tell," Sicheng reassures him. "And a lot more tests. What we're fairly sure about now is that whatever is causing this phenomenon between the two of you—be it the Ghost Drift or something else—is something that the kaiju wants to cut off." 

Yukhei scowls. "Why? And how would they know that?" 

"We don't know, either. But think about it: ever since you and Mark discovered that you have the Ghost Drift, the attacks on Jeju have been strengthening,” Jungwoo explains. “And only Jeju—none of the other Shatterdomes have been reporting this acceleration of attacks.”

"It must mean something, right?” Sicheng continues. “That we’re being targeted. The last mission in particular—the kaiju seemed to know about our weaknesses, like Xuxi's residual trauma from his last mission with Tunnel Vision and Jisung’s hypersensitivity." The senior pilot’s eyes are afire, and he leans forward on Jungwoo’s desk, spreading his hands on the surface to steady himself as he talks. "We have something that they want. And I don’t want to rule out the fact that these intensified attacks coincide with Black Widow's launch."

"You mean it’s us that they want?” Mark questions, incredulous. “But why?"

“That's why we're here.” Jungwoo turns to Yukhei, the same concentration in Sicheng’s eyes written across his face. “Lucas, I need you to remember everything you can about your last mission in Tunnel Vision. How similar was it with the one in Black Widow?”

Mark scowls. “Jungwoo—”

“Mark, it's fine,” Yukhei soothes, placing a hand on his knee. Mark bristles, but he stands down, folding his arms and listening intently for the slightest shift in the Ghost Drift. “I can remember it, but it wouldn't make sense even if I explain.”

“Go on.”

“It sounded like… the kaiju were speaking to me,” Yukhei starts hesitantly. Mark covers the hand on his knee with his own, nodding encouragingly. “Then I saw them—what must have been hundreds, gathered somewhere. After that, I couldn't understand what I saw.”

“What do you mean?” Sicheng prods gently.

“It's like… trying to understand a conversation in a language you don't know, but with all these… images. I can't fully explain it,” Yukhei finishes, frustrated.

Sicheng nods, nonetheless. “I see. If the kaiju were really able to overwhelm your mental faculties, you were probably seeing something that only kaiju could understand. Which means—” Sicheng stops in his tracks, exchanging a look with Jungwoo.

“Which means what , Sicheng?” Mark urges.

“I have a hunch,” Sicheng answers cautiously. “You two may have a connection to the kaiju that we need to explore. But let's not jump to any conclusions until I've been able to run more tests. There's no point in worrying you both when Xuxi is still recovering.”

Both of them straighten in their seats, objections at the ready. “Sicheng—”

The pilot shakes his head firmly. “I'm sorry, Xuxi. But it's science—I'll believe it when I see it, and everything is hypothesis for now. I'll give you something to worry about when there is something to worry about.”

“Patience, you two,” Jungwoo placates them. “We'll get to the bottom of this. While we do, you two just focus on getting better.” He looks pointedly at Mark. “Yes, this goes for you, too.”

He almost opens his mouth to protest, but the three pairs of eyes trained on him are enough to make him stand down.

"Jesus, fine,” Mark grumbles, holding both hands up in surrender. “You'll tell us when something happens, right?" 

"You'll be the first ones, apart from the Marshal," Sicheng promises.

Mark nods, willing himself to be satisfied. “Okay.”

Yukhei breathes out a sigh beside him. “We really appreciate your work.” It’s stupidly simple, but something about Yukhei saying “we” makes his heart stutter.

“Now you know how I felt when I met with them last week,” Mark sighs once they’ve closed the door behind them, leaving Jungwoo and Sicheng alone to their research.

“Unbearably annoyed? Then yes,” Yukhei agrees, running a hand through his hair in irritation. “But you heard them. All good things to those who wait, and whatnot.”

“When have we ever benefited from waiting?” Mark counters. “All that we’ve been doing is wait. Wait for the kaiju to come, kill them off, wait for the next one. And now we’re waiting for the kaiju to come to us—you and me.”

“You and me,” Yukhei echoes pensively. “What on earth could they want? What connection with them could the two of us possibly have?”

“I’m just as lost as you are,” Mark huffs out, annoyed. “But whatever it is, I’m sure as hell not letting them have it.”

Yukhei snorts. “That makes two of us.”

They lean over the railing in front of Jungwoo’s office, looking out at the commotion of the Shatterdome. “It’s strange, to think that it had to be us two,” Mark ponders. “Of all the pilots. Of all the people in the world.”

“That’s true,” Yukhei acquiesces. He draws closer so their arms are touching, nudging Mark’s shoulder with his own. “But I would choose no one else to fight with.”

Mark doesn’t try to stifle his grin. Despite the dread, the fear, everything sinister, the Drift thrums with energy, daring anything to even so much as touch them. For a moment, he’s invincible. “Me, neither.”

 

***

 

Yukhei is cleared from the hospital wards a mere five days after he wakes up. The doctors leave them both with stringent instructions to keep up his physical therapy, along with a meticulously arranged schedule for medications that Yukhei has to take. His partner sighs when he scans the matrix in front of him, stuffing it into his pocket as Mark coughs to hide a laugh.

It feels somewhat significant, the moment they step over the threshold to their dormitory. They’re oddly quiet as they move around, Yukhei getting himself reacquainted with their rooms, Mark familiarizing himself with Yukhei being in their rooms. The air between them is charged with something that Mark can’t quite explain; the Drift is calm, but there’s an underlying note of unease, of tension.

They settle wordlessly onto Yukhei’s bed, legs pressed together as they sit. Their hands find each other again, fingers slotting together like they have so many times this week.

“Feels different, hm?” Yukhei tries, and his smile sits askew on his face—but it’s so endearingly sincere that Mark can’t help a smile of his own.

“It does,” he agrees, voice quiet. “There’s a lot that’s changed.”

Yukhei hums. “Like the fact that the kaiju have it out for us.”

That teases a laugh out of him, breathy and disbelieving. “Well, that. But I meant…”

Yukhei nods, squeezing his hand tight. “I know.”

They sit in silence for a while, letting the Drift permeate the room. The troubling note unspools, giving way to something more peaceful.

Mark takes Yukhei’s hand in both of his, and his partner looks down at their hands, then up into his eyes. “Is there something wrong?” he asks, and Mark wonders if Yukhei can feel how loudly his heart is thumping against his chest.

“Not exactly, just that… these past few weeks have made me realize a lot of things,” Mark says quietly.

Yukhei smiles, freeing his hand to run comforting fingers along Mark’s hairline, behind his ear, under his jaw. “Tell me?”

Mark inhales. “I... I was afraid,” he admits, turning away from Yukhei’s gaze to stare at his own hands, trembling enough for him to feel but not for Yukhei to notice. “Two weeks without hearing you in my head was terrifying. All this time I thought I could do this alone, that I could go on without you just fine, but—I think I know how you felt, when you lost Kun. I know it's not the same, but I do care about you. Enough that I didn't know what to do. I don't know what I would do if I really did lose you.”

There’s an abrupt spike in volume in the Ghost Drift—alarm, elation, pure joy. There’s no cause for him to be nervous, but he is, and he forces himself to look up and meet Yukhei’s eyes. “I'm sorry for pushing you too much, when we were first piloting,” Mark says, as sincerely as he can muster. “I may have not felt the same grief you did, but it was enough to make me finally understand how you felt. I'm sorry.”

Yukhei shakes his head, tangling their hands together again. “Mark, it's fine. That was months ago.”

“Still…”

“What's important is that we're together again,” Yukhei says firmly. “Alright? I had forgiven you a long time ago.”

“If you say so,” Mark whispers. “I'm really, really glad that you're okay.”

“Me, too.” 

Mark curls his hand around Yukhei's. The Ghost Drift hums pleasantly, content. No more lies.

“I love you.” The truth—it's freeing.

“What?” Yukhei lifts his head, the hope in his eyes heartbreaking.

“I love you, Wong Yukhei,” he repeats, and it isn't any less daunting or terrifying, but God, it's true.

It happens slow, unsure—at first, the music barely picks up, but as more time passes it reaches a crescendo, an unwavering note that sears itself into Mark’s memory. It’s a single note, but it means everything—everything from their joined hands to their locked gazes to the Ghost Drift itself, everything that entangles them together.

A smile spreads quick across Yukhei's features, and Mark can't help but follow suit. “Oh.” He leans his head on Mark's shoulder, hiding his smile in Mark's neck. The Ghost Drift hums even louder, growing almost frantic when Mark winds his arms around Yukhei and he returns the embrace. It feels so good, so fucking right that it hurts.

“Oh,” Mark laughs.

“Is this what you realized?” Yukhei murmurs against his skin.

“Partly,” he breathes out, and his grin grows wider when Yukhei pulls away to look at him. “Mostly.”

Yukhei’s smile wanes into something more subdued, adoration making his eyes glow. He lays a careful hand on Mark’s cheek, fingertips tracing lines under his eye, palm fitting itself against his jaw. There’s no need to speak.

The kiss is tender, full of longing. It speaks of missed opportunities and second chances, of early mornings at the beach and late nights in their living room, of Earl Grey tea and a tray full of crumbling biscuits. It's startlingly quiet in the Ghost Drift, but it's not the overwhelming emptiness Mark had come to know—it's as though the world has fallen into place and there's no need for sound or sensation to fill the gaps in between, because they're together, finally, just the two of them. Mark and Lucas. Minhyung and Yukhei.

Yukhei chases his lips when he pulls away, and Mark can't help but laugh as they touch their foreheads together. Their grins are indelible, growing wider and wider as the Ghost Drift spurs itself into motion once again, filling the air with every melody that Mark has ever known.

Yukhei steals another kiss before gathering him in his arms, chest to chest, Mark bracketing Yukhei’s legs with his own to better fit themselves against each other. They hold each other like that for what seems like their own little eternity, unfettered by anything except for the weight of their own bodies pressing together, unable to get any closer even though they so desperately want to.

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Mark whispers, breath fanning across Yukhei’s skin.

Delicately, Yukhei kisses the shell of his ear. “I wasn't waiting for you to return my feelings,” he murmurs back. “I’m just happy that you do.” Mark brushes his lips where Yukhei’s neck meets his shoulder. “And even if you didn’t—if you just stay by my side, that would be enough for me.”

Mark pulls away to frame Yukhei’s face between his hands. “I always will,” he says, resolute. “I will do everything and more for you, Yukhei.”

“I’ll do the same for you, my love.” Mark can’t get enough of the way that Yukhei looks at him—like he’s the only thing he sees, the only person in the world. Like nothing else matters.

How he wishes that were the truth.

“Are you still afraid?” Yukhei asks quietly.

“Terrified,” Mark answers. “But that doesn't matter right now.”

Yukhei smiles, pulling him close once more. “No, it doesn't.”

It’s warm in the Ghost Drift.

 

 

Chapter Text

-------- SECURED NETWORK --------

 

7 April, 2022

Sicheng Dong <scdong@ppdc.kr>
to archive@ppdc.un
Subject: Request

CODE 42681

 

----- END OF CORRESPONDENCE -----

 


 

Once, when Yukhei was still young and silly and naïve, he had been lying listlessly in bed and staring up at the ceiling of his and Kun’s shared dormitory. Kun, as always, was propped up against his headboard, round-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. Yukhei still remembers how they glinted with moonlight every now and then.

“Gēgē,” he started without preamble. “Is there something wrong with me?”

The sound of a book being snapped shut punctuated the frigid air. He turned his head to look at his partner, who was now frowning. “Xuxi, what does that even mean?”

Yukhei shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Dunno. Just wanted to ask.”

Kun had sighed, taking off his glasses in a single world-weary motion. “This is about her , isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” Yukhei answered as nonchalantly as he could muster.

“I thought the breakup was mutual.”

“Well, yes, but—” It’s Yukhei’s turn to sigh. “Every time I start— getting serious with someone, it doesn’t work out the way I want it to.” Petulantly, he shifted so his back was to Kun, voice muffled against his pillow. “I’m just getting tired of people leaving me.”

A contemplative stretch of silence. The clack of glasses being set down on Kun’s bedside table interrupts it, along with another deep sigh. “Xuxi, people leave for a reason,” Kun said gently. “Maybe the timing isn't right, or you're not right for each other.”

“Yeah,” Yukhei begrudgingly agreed. “I know. Doesn’t stop me from feeling like shit.”

This prompted a laugh out of Kun. “Of course you do—it’s only been three days.” His voice turned soft, warm. “When you find the right person at the right place, at the right time, they will never leave you.”

Yukhei sat up at that, finally facing his partner. “You’ll always be here, though, right?” It was a selfish question. Immature, even. But Kun, as always, saw through all of that, saw the child he met all those years ago in England who had longed for a friend.

“Of course I will, bǎobèi,” he said, sure as rain. Yukhei believed him.

 

Yukhei awakens with the sun in his eyes and warmth pressed against his side. Dazed, his gaze drifts toward a mop of black hair tickling his nose and a hand curled over his chest—Mark, fast asleep. The tension in his body gives way to relief, and his arm around Mark’s waist tightens of its own volition, pulling him closer so Yukhei can press a kiss to the top of his head.

The sunlight glinting off the ocean casts flickering patterns on the ceiling; Yukhei watches the shadows shift and move, listening to the rhythm of Mark’s breathing. He looks peaceful, unlike the Mark shrouded in blue and grey that met him in his hospital room, looking aged beyond his years. Yukhei hopes he was able to ease Mark's conscience, somewhat. He was never able to bear seeing his loved ones suffer.

His loved ones. The two of them have come far—Mark's confession last night is a testament to that, and Yukhei feels warm all over again, feels his chest constrict at the thought of it. How Mark had kissed him so sweetly, so openly; how Mark loves with no bounds, how lucky Yukhei is to be considered worthy of that love.

And yet the child in him is still there. He had decided to trust Mark long ago, but a part of him is still skeptical of—everything. If what Mark told him last night was real or just a byproduct of his grief, a consequence of the Ghost Drift.

It had been nothing to Yukhei, but for Mark, it was two long weeks without his partner. He may have had his brother and his friends, yes, but no one understands a Jaeger pilot better than the person they have Drifted with. It’s a loss that Yukhei knows all too well—it would have been easy to conflate this loss with love.

And he knows that his problems are miniscule in the scheme of things, but God , he needs to know. He's not sure if he can take much more heartache, kaiju or not.

Unknowingly, he’s curled his fingers into Mark’s hair. Mark stirs, and Yukhei catches the flutter of his lashes as he blinks, trying to get his bearings. He tilts his head to lock gazes with Yukhei, eyes still half-lidded with sleep.

The Drift floods with warmth, the colour of rose petals bleeding into the edges of Yukhei's vision. It comes instantaneously, and his heart hammers against his ribcage in answer; Mark smiles, undoubtedly able to hear it from where his ear is pressed to Yukhei’s chest.

Yukhei answers with his own smile, and Mark reaches up to kiss it.

The Ghost Drift doesn’t lie.

 

***

 

It was for the best that he missed Chenle's funeral, Yukhei supposes; it’s a regret, to be sure, but he never knew what to do at funerals. Didn't know what to do at Kun's, probably wouldn't have at Chenle's. Nonetheless, he insists on paying the dead the respect they deserve, especially if it’s someone as precious as Chenle—so Mark leads him to a rocky outcrop near the Shatterdome, a few minutes’ hike that has him panting, the exertion disagreeing with the fragile state his body is in.

The place is peaceful. A simple slab of white marble is laid into the ground, standing proudly with the raging sea behind it, unmoved by the harsh wind that could almost be a gale. Around the gravestone are tilled strips of earth where wildflowers have been planted, striking a colourful picture against the gray rock that cuts the area off from the rest of the land. Carved into the marble are three characters: Zhong Chenle. Yukhei tries not to think about the space below his name.

Carefully, Mark seats himself in front of the gravestone. Yukhei follows, not hesitating to take hold of Mark’s clammy hand in his. “I know it’s odd to say,” he starts. “But it suits him.”

He barely catches Mark’s smile in the periphery of his vision. “I know exactly what you mean. He was always so…”

“Bright?” Yukhei supplies.

“Yes,” Mark breathes out. His gaze grows distant, and Yukhei tugs his hand into his lap, squeezing tight. “The Academy, the kaiju—nothing fazed him. It amazed me how someone so young could be so steadfast. I was always on the brink of giving up in those early years, but Chenle never once complained—he was never extraordinary, the teachers made sure to let him know that, but he didn't care at all. He knew he was strong in his own way.” Mark smiles ruefully. “It's something I should have known to be true for me, too.

“He and Jisung always said they learned from me. But I—” Mark swallows, casting his gaze down into his lap. “Do you know what I told myself? As long as Chenle is smiling, I'll be okay.”

Yukhei understands perfectly. Young though he was, Chenle’s presence was more reassuring than anyone else’s at the Shatterdome; Yukhei doesn’t think he would have made it through that first week in Jeju if Chenle wasn’t there, pulling him out of his thoughts and making him smile. 

Mark sighs, gaze boring into the gravestone, looking for something that's not there. “Little one… I'm sorry your life ended so soon.”

“It won't be for nothing,” Yukhei promises.

Mark’s smile is fleeting, a stretch of his lips more than anything else. “What about you, Yukhei?” he prods gently. “Do you have anyone you want to talk to while we’re here?”

He means Kun, of course. His heart still feels like its walls are caving in, the way he always feels when thinking of Kun, but it’s not as agonizing as before—a bittersweet kind of pain. “I don’t know what I would say,” Yukhei confesses. “I know it’s silly, but I always thought that he was watching over me, somehow. Through everything.”

A genuine smile this time. “Like a guardian angel?”

Yukhei chuckles, brushing a few stray hairs from Mark’s forehead. “Something like that."

"It's far from silly," Mark reassures him softly. "If it's what you choose to believe, it's as real as anything else you can see or feel."

“Maybe,” Yukhei sighs. “But it’s comforting. Real or not, it’s nice to think that he’s still there for me, in his own way. I suppose we make up our own realities to endure our misery.”

“Misery,” Mark repeats thoughtfully. “Are you miserable, Yukhei?”

“Not anymore, I don’t think.” The Drift fills with pale greys and pastel blues. If he strains his ears, he can faintly recognize the tinkling of notes, a light and airy sound. Like an old-timey music box, the ones with a ballerina that would pop up and spin. “I suppose I was always curious about something, though...” He exhales deeply, looking up at the sky. “Are you proud of me, ge? Are you proud of who I've become?”

Beside him, Mark tightens his grip on his hand.

“Because I like where I am now,” Yukhei continues. “I hope you’re proud of me, too.”

 

***

 

The Shatterdome has seemingly gone back to normal in Yukhei's absence. He doesn't know whether to be thankful for that or not—it's never an easy thing to be confronted with the fact that the world goes on without you. He voiced as much to Mark when they were looking over the Jaeger bays from their favourite viewing deck.

Mark grew silent for a while, watching the hubbub below before replying. "The Shatterdome might not need you, but I do," he said quietly.

And, well. Yukhei didn’t really have an answer to that.

The other pilots recover, in their own way. Jisung painfully reminds Yukhei of himself—lost and untethered without Chenle's gravity to ground him. He'll be damned if Jisung turns out like he did, though, and Mark will never say as much, but Yukhei knows that he agrees. They spend their afternoons in Jisung's hospital room, inviting him over to their dorms when he's finally released.

Both Jisung and Mark's eyes shine brighter when they're together. In those moments, they're children again; where Yukhei might have once called them naïve, instead he finds himself drawn to their innocence. 

Even the pilots of Second Wind are faring better than Yukhei had hoped. Jaemin has the ability to pull them together—to Yukhei, he has always been the heart of the group, ever complementary to Renjun and Jeno's mind and gut. He has a gift for pulling the other two out from the recesses of their thoughts, reassuring them with his smile. It's a gift Yukhei envies. 

Jeno is healing, all things considered. In the meeting room he's a commanding presence, leading his two co-pilots with ease. In private, however, he's quiet, and not in the usual tranquil manner that balances Jaemin and Renjun out. A more contemplative kind of silence that Yukhei can sympathize with.

One night, they see him hurrying through the halls of the Shatterdome with earth-soiled hands, but neither he or Mark say a word.

Renjun, who’s taken to shadowing Yukhei when Mark can’t come with him on his trips to the Jaeger bays, is good company. Renjun likes the relative silence that Yukhei offers, since he hasn’t quite brushed up on his sign language. Yukhei likes the silence because there are only ever a few moments when his mind is quiet.

“That wasn’t too bad,” Renjun scribbles on his holoscreen after an equally silent ASL lesson, showing it to Yukhei when he finishes. “But your ‘e’s are screaming at me.”

“Mark hasn't really had the time to teach me,” is his abashed answer, verbally this time. “I’ve had no one to correct me while I practice.”

The next few signs, Yukhei can understand. "How is Mark?"

Yukhei hesitates to answer, but it's all that Renjun needs. Nodding, he signs, "I knew this would happen."

What Renjun means by this, exactly, Yukhei isn't sure; what he's certain of is that Renjun can't have possibly predicted the extent to which this would happen.

Yukhei didn’t think it possible, but the nightmares have been getting worse, each one more cruel than the last. And not from his end, either—the dreams are wholly Mark's, and they feature a different resident of the Shatterdome each time. Jisung, Second Wind’s pilots, even Jaehyun. 

Dreams about the Marshal are still about Mark losing him from his grasp, but in a much different way than before. One night, Yukhei even relives Blue Blood's last mission: Mark sitting pensively in an Academy classroom, hands gripping his desk as a kaiju mauls the Jaeger's chest with a claw. Except this time, Taeyong doesn't survive—he’s lost to the depths of the ocean, never to be seen again.

Each morning, Mark throws himself into work as soon as he wakes up, refuses to let himself even think about what they dreamt. He has a propensity for overworking, Yukhei knows, but he says nothing—there are worse vices, especially for someone who’s been through what Mark has. Let him spend his time and energy on something relatively harmless; ever since the meeting with Sicheng and Jungwoo, he’s been anxious to find the answer to the problem that’s been weighing on them all. 

Except that where Mark would usually have razor-sharp focus on the task at hand, he spends most of his time gazing at absolutely nothing, sometimes not moving for hours at a time, not even with Yukhei’s prompting. When Mark does snap out of it, it's almost like he doesn't even care for all the time he lost, either resuming his mindless staring or going to sleep. Then the cycle repeats. 

Yukhei has seen this before. He's lived it before—not being in control of yourself, having difficulty doing anything, really. The difference is that although both of them didn’t straightaway take action on the fact, he had readily admitted to himself that something was different, whereas Mark seems deep in denial. In the Drift, it’s a single note that grates on Yukhei's ears, cold and lifeless.

Two days pass by with Mark in that catatonic state. Both he and Yukhei barely step out of their dorm; Mark stares into space, and Yukhei listens to the Drift.

At the end of the third day when he—albeit with hesitance and a few pointers for Jaemin—finally decides to leave Mark to his own devices, the Marshal corners Yukhei somewhere between the mess hall and J-Tech. He straightens immediately, throwing up a salute, but the Marshal shakes his head.

There are heavy circles under his eyes, and his ramrod straight posture is marred by slightly hunched shoulders. “Ranger Wong,” he begins, then— ”Lucas.” The Marshal speaks quietly, as though afraid someone would overhear them in the empty corridor. “I wanted to talk to you about Mark.”

“What about Mark, sir?” he asks, even if it's abundantly clear.

The Marshal straightens to the same commanding stance that he takes when talking to the staff. But he's not ordering Yukhei this time—just asking. "I know that Mark hasn't been feeling well. As much as I'd like to think that I help, there are some things that are… beyond me. The Mark that I know—in my head, he's still a child. That's where you and I are different. Where you can help, but I can't.

"I know that I haven't done enough to earn Mark's full trust again. But he trusts you, so—please. Take care of him for me." The Marshal’s eyes are wide, almost pleading—uncharacteristically so, enough to remind Yukhei of Mark.

“You don’t need to ask, sir,” is his answer.

“Taeyong," the Marshal insists with an encouraging nod of his head.

Yukhei hesitates, the pilot in him wanting to give an instinctual “no”—but those eyes can’t be denied, especially if it’s this simple of a request. It’s a strange weakness to discover. "Taeyong," he repeats carefully.

The Marshal smiles, satisfied. “And you, Lucas? Are you alright?”

“I’ll be fine, Taeyong.” It’s the truth.

“Good.” Taeyong braces a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tight. “I’m glad you two have each other.”

The tension leeches out of his shoulders, warmth bleeding into his tired bones. He peers into Taeyong’s eyes once more and sees honesty there; perhaps even fondness, the likes of which he’s only seen for one other person.

Yukhei nods, smiling. “Me too.”

 


 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Excerpt of transcript: Psychotherapy session / Patient W25

86  [Suh]     I think we’re good for today, Lucas.
87  [Wong]    Alright.
88  [Suh]     Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
89  [Wong]    Well—it’s not really about me, but…
90  [Suh]     Mark?
91  [Wong]    Yes. He’s been... spacing out, lately. For hours at a time. Almost like he’s chasing the rabbit.
92  [Suh]     Hm.
93  [Wong]    And it takes me a bit to get him out of it. It's like he can't hear or see me. I'm worried.
94  [Suh]     The Ghost Drift?
95  [Wong]    Cold.
96  [Suh]     I see. And this happens regularly?
97  [Wong]    A few times a day.
98  [Suh]     It's possible that he may be dissociating. As a coping mechanism. 
99  [Wong]    Quite late, then.
100 [Suh]     Yes, but late onset is not uncommon. It's another layer of denial. He has been keeping himself busy with tending to the others. To you. Now that they're doing a little better... he has nothing to distract him. And now he's dissociating, to distance himself from his grief.
101 [Wong]    Jesus Christ... What should I do?<
102 [Suh]     This is above your paygrade, Lucas. I'll see what I can do for him. But you should just support him as you already have.
103 [Wong]    Alright. Is that everything?
104 [Suh]     For now. I’ll see you soon, Lucas. And hopefully Mark, too.
105 [Wong]    Hopefully. Thank you, Johnny.

End of transcript

 


 

Yukhei is awoken by another nightmare, by far the worst of them all: Chenle talking to them as they walk the halls of the Shatterdome, bright and jovial and content as he always was. His smile was just as Yukhei remembered it, his faded white-blond hair sweeping against the crinkle of his merry eyes in just the right way.

Chenle alive and well, something they will never see except in their dreams—it's haunting in its simplicity. Sighing, Yukhei scrubs at his eyes to stave off the beginnings of a migraine.

A whimper interrupts his thoughts. Yukhei props himself up on one elbow, eyes glazing over the figure under his covers: Mark is crying in his sleep, tears escaping tightly shut eyes. His fists are clenched, body tense and curled up as though to make himself smaller, hiding himself in Yukhei’s side.

There’s more kinds of heartache in the world, Yukhei realizes.

"Mark, wake up," he whispers, gently carding his fingers through Mark's hair. "Wake up, darling. Shh, it’s alright. It's just a dream."

Mark’s eyes open, startled into wakefulness; the Ghost Drift is agitated, searing hot, but it calms itself when Mark’s eyes land on him, still watery and unfocused from sleep. “It’s alright,” he repeats lowly, trying to ignore the twinge in his chest from having to wipe Mark's tears away for the second time that week. “It was just a dream.” 

Mark’s voice is small. “It felt real.”

“I know.” Yukhei sighs, gathering himself to sit up properly.

Mark makes no move to follow and closes his eyes again, as though hoping that the vision of Chenle would appear behind his eyelids—but nothing, of course, and he looks up at Yukhei blankly.

It's terrifying, this Mark that's void of emotion. Mark always—he always felt, sometimes more strongly than others. And Yukhei knows that the intermediate is alright—that not feeling is normal, needed—but this, apathy, is something Mark isn't capable of. Shouldn't be. 

Mark himself must feel his distress because he turns away, sitting up with his back to Yukhei. He’s getting into that strange headspace again, that familiar note ringing through the Drift.

This time, the note cuts off when Yukhei speaks. “Mark, I think you and I both know this can’t go on.”

“There's nothing wrong with me,” Mark answers. It comes far too quickly for Yukhei’s liking.

“You’re right,” Yukhei agrees. "There's nothing wrong with you. You just need a little help.”

Another stretch of silence that Mark doesn’t break. Refuses to.

"Mark,"  Yukhei pleads. The Drift pulses with red, frustration and anger welling up in both of them. "You’re unwell, I know that you know. We can’t just sit here and pretend that you’re alright—" 

"You’re right," Mark says coldly, swiveling around to face him. “I’m not fine, and it’s fucking killing me. Why can’t I just—do better?" His voice breaks apart at the words, and he clutches at the bedsheets, white-knuckled. "I try my hardest, but I can't do anything—I’m fucking useless.” Grey washes away red. Yukhei tires of seeing the same colours. 

“No one expects you to be at full capacity except for you , Mark, I—" Yukhei braces his hands on Mark's arms, practically begging for him to listen. "You know this isn't healthy, right? Expecting yourself to act like normal after everything that's happened?”

Hesitantly, Mark nods, but he doesn't meet Yukhei's gaze.

"It's like you said. Things have changed. You've changed, Mark. And believe me, I know how frustrating it is to be like this, but—you’re the one who made me realize that there's no moving forward unless I realize I’m not alone." His hands trail down to grip Mark's own. "So, please—let me do the same for you. You don't deserve to suffer any more than you already have." 

I can’t bear to see you suffer any more than I already have, is what goes unsaid, a selfish reason that he dares not say aloud. The Drift knows better, of course.

Mark finally looks up at him, eyes wide with remorse. “I'm sorry that I'm hurting you.”

Yukhei shakes his head, pulling Mark close to his chest. "Can't you think of yourself for once?" he begs, pained.

"I know, but—you're so cold and grey," Mark says, settling further into Yukhei's embrace, as though he's the one that needs comforting. "I can't ignore it." 

"You don’t have to be sorry,” Yukhei murmurs into his hair. “You just have to get better, or at least take the first step. Not for my sake, or anyone else’s—just for you." 

"I’ll try.”

Gently, he tilts Mark’s chin up so their eyes meet. "Promise me." 

"I promise,” Mark whispers.

They sit like that for a while, Mark's back to Yukhei's chest, listening to the quiet hum of the Drift. This time, it’s the moonlight casting patterns on the ceiling. Neither of them attempt to sleep again for fear of more dreams coming to them, but Yukhei doesn’t mind. He’ll stay up with Mark if he has to.

“We keep saying sorry to each other, even though we promised no apologies,” Mark says at length. His hands are clasping Yukhei’s, fingers running over his palm.

“It’s the world we live in.”

“The world of the kaiju?”

“No, just the world.” Yukhei watches as Mark traces lines on his palm: Wong Yukhei. “We hurt the people we love the most.”

Mark pillows his head on Yukhei’s sternum, inhaling deeply. “I don’t want to hurt anymore. Me, you. Everyone else.”

“I know.” Yukhei drops a careful kiss onto the crown of his head. “I’m prepared to do everything to make you hurt a little less.”

“I don’t need everything,” Mark answers, reaching up to cup Yukhei’s face in his hand. “I just need you to be here.”

“How could I ever think of leaving you?” he responds. 

Mark turns around, straddling Yukhei's waist. He curls slender fingers around the nape of Yukhei's neck, and his heart beats two-time, faster as their gazes meet. "What have I done to deserve you, Wong Yukhei?" he wonders, but Yukhei can't provide an answer because Mark moves up to kiss him slowly, tenderly, as though they have all the time in the world.

Maybe Yukhei can fool himself, just this once.

 


 

-------- SECURED NETWORK --------

 

8 April, 2022

Pan Pacific Defence Corps Archive <archive@ppdc.un>
to scdong@ppdc.kr
Subject: Request

DENIED.

 

----- END OF CORRESPONDENCE -----

 


 

Sicheng rings up Yukhei’s holoscreen at God knows what time in the morning, asking—demanding them to come to his office. “Come immediately, ” he orders, and there's the distant but unmistakable sound of Jungwoo placating him, all but ignored. Yukhei has never seen—or heard—Sicheng angry, and he doesn’t want to test the other pilot’s patience even further, so he sets aside his confusion and the few remaining dregs of sleep from his system to pull himself away from his pillow.

Mark's eyes are glassy when Yukhei rouses him, unfocused when they traipse across the halls of the Shatterdome in the dead of night. Yukhei takes hold of his hand as they walk, just to be sure that Mark is still following him.

Sicheng and Jungwoo are still in their sleep clothes when they arrive, the former pensively circling his desk. Jungwoo makes them settle into the couch, and Sicheng turns to them, eyes afire and jaw set. "Nothing I say will leave this room," he warns. "I will brief the Marshal and Jaehyun later, but seeing as they want definitive proof, I won’t be able to convince them just yet." 

"Sicheng, what is this about?" Yukhei demands. Beside him, Mark is impassive, ever so slightly curling his fingers around Yukhei's hand. 

"Listen carefully. This is classified information that only I and the other scientists working on it in Hong Kong have." Sicheng scoffs, crossing his arms. "But after everything I've done for them they have the audacity to keep the data from me—"

"Sicheng," Jungwoo interrupts pointedly.

"Right." Sicheng inhales, gripping the edge of his table. "There's no other way to say it—the kaiju operate in a hivemind. They can sense each other's thoughts, one way or another. Although we don’t know how, it’s a huge secret that, if disclosed to the public, would cause mass speculation and panic."

Neither of them have anything to say to that. Yukhei leans back into the couch, eyes wide; the Drift is blotted with ink spots of colour, but nothing substantial. Mark doesn't move. 

"The data was virtually useless to us, but the fact that you’ve mentioned seeing hordes of them in your dreams—it must mean something," Sicheng continues. "We just don’t know what.

"The Drift," Mark says. 

Yukhei turns to him, frowning. Their own Drift is painting itself electric blue. "What?" 

"Sicheng—if their minds are connected like you said, they can sense the others’ thoughts. It’s the Drift." Mark leans forward, eyes shining. "The kaiju can Drift with each other, and Tunnel Vision’s last mission—Kun died from neural damage of unknown cause. He couldn’t handle the load of hundreds of different kaiju." Mark turns to him, then, the look in his eyes almost crazed. "And our last mission with Black Widow—we were able to Drift with them, too, and that's why you went into that coma. It's the same thing." 

"That’s why you couldn’t understand what you saw in the Drift—because the kaiju’s brains are wired differently!" Jungwoo exclaims. "They don’t process images like humans do." 

"Say the same thing happened in Tunnel Vision and Black Widow," Yukhei tries. “It still doesn’t explain why we survived the last attack.”

The light in Mark's eyes fizzles out, and Yukhei would almost be sorry, but then—

The sound of a siren cuts through the air.

“You’re kidding me,” Sicheng exhales in disbelief.

"It can't be—" Jungwoo says at the same time, but their worst fears are confirmed by Sooyoung’s voice blasting through the speakers. 

“Alert: all officers, please report to the conference room. The Breach is dilating. A Category 4 kaiju is on the way.”

 


 

Mark doesn’t remember much after the announcement. He remembers Yukhei tugging him up onto his feet, Jungwoo and Sicheng leading the charge. A flurry of activity in the hallways, the staff and scientists being roused from sleep to man their stations, and he doesn’t even register that they’ve arrived at the conference room, Taeyong and Jaehyun already at the helm.

“The biggest kaiju yet is on the way,” Taeyong says as soon as they’re all seated. Faintly, Mark recognizes Jeno and Renjun across him; Jisung is attached to Jaemin’s side at the far end of the table.  “It’s heading straight for Gangjeong. We have four hours to intercept it.”

“There’s a problem, sir,” Jaehyun pipes up beside him. “Second Wind is the only Strike team that can be deployed. I don’t like the odds of them going out there alone.”

“Agreed,” Taeyong nods. “But both Wong and Park are grounded, doctor’s orders. The same goes for you and Ranger Dong, Deputy Marshal. Are there any other cadets that can pilot Black Widow?”

“Please, sir.” It’s Jungwoo, tilting his head forward so Taeyong can see him. “We don’t need to find another cadet. There’s someone here that’s Drift compatible with Mark.”

Everything prior to this had sounded muffled, as though he were hearing everything underwater. But Jungwoo’s statement rouses him, makes him snap his head up so quickly that Yukhei startles beside him. Bile rises up in his throat, and he stands up from his seat, slamming his hands down on the table. "No . Absolutely not."

"Mark, just listen," Jungwoo pleads. "There's no one in the training program—no one in this Shatterdome that's compatible with you. But you and your brother—"

"No, I am not risking Taeyong's life just so I can Drift!" Mark cries. "The Shatterdome needs him." Frantically, he meets Taeyong's eyes. "Sir. You know the risks. You can't possibly agree to this!"

Taeyong looks stricken, eyes wide as he meets Mark's gaze. Yukhei tries to take hold of his hand, but he brushes it away, ignoring the discordant notes in the Drift.

"With all due respect, Mark." It's Jisung's voice that cuts through the silence. "I don't think that's your call to make. The Marshal is our—your superior officer."

"Jisung…" Mark says, pained.

"If you go through with this…" Jisung swallows. "It's the only way Chenle's death will be worth it."

It happens slowly. 

His fingers are the first to lose feeling, and it spreads up through his arms, his stomach, his entire body. Vaguely, he registers sinking into his chair, voices around him—but all fades into nothing. Meaningless.

“Mark? Mark.”

Yukhei? he wonders distantly. Then he’s blinking, vision coming back into focus. It is Yukhei, bent over him in concern, eyes searching. “Yukhei?”

Yukhei’s brows knit together, more worried than upset. “Mark, you…”

“What happened?” It’s only then that the rest of the conference room shifts into focus. Jisung sounds shaken, eyes flitting from him to Yukhei to Taeyong in search of an answer. “Mark hyung, what was that?”

The rest of the room looks to him for an answer.

“Enough.” Of course, Taeyong commands attention with a single word. “I will be piloting with Ranger Lee. No objections,” he directs to Mark, who almost springs up from his seat to do exactly that. “All of you, dismissed. Prepare for the Jaeger drop.”

Hesitantly, the rest of the room clears out. Mark stands his ground, even when Yukhei is tugging at his hand for him to leave—but one look is all he needs to let go, and Mark knows he’ll be waiting for him just outside.

The door closes behind Yukhei, and it’s just him and Taeyong. His limbs still feel like they’re detached from his body, but he manages to make his way to the head of the table. “Hyung,” he says, and it’s accusatory. “You would risk your life again?”

“Over and over,” Taeyong answers, steadfast as ever. “You know our cause. We want the same thing, do we not?”

“Not when it means losing the only family I have left.”

The lines of Taeyong’s shoulders soften, and he reaches across the table to clasp Mark's hand in his. “We’ve all made our sacrifices. You know this is the right thing to do.”

“I do know," he sighs, turning his hand over in Taeyong's so he can squeeze back. "But I can’t say that I’m happy about it.”

“We’ll have each other’s backs, little one. All we can do is try.”

Mark nods. “I trust you.”

Taeyong's smile spreads slow, a kind of happiness he hasn't seen in years. "I'll see you in the Conn-Pod, little brother."

 

***

 

Thirty minutes before the drop, Jungwoo pulls him and Yukhei into an empty medical bay, brandishing something with his free hand. A syringe, Mark realizes as Jungwoo pushes him into a chair, presenting his arm without question.

“It won’t hurt a bit,” Jungwoo promises, trying a tourniquet around his bicep. “Mark, close your palm.” He complies.

"What is that?" Yukhei questions, frowning at the clear substance as Jungwoo rubs an alcohol pad into the crook of Mark's elbow.  

"Uppers, basically,” Jungwoo answers. Carefully, he sinks the needle into Mark’s arm. “So that you won't..."

“Zone out?” Mark supplies.

Jungwoo winces, pulls the tourniquet off, withdraws the needle and affixes a bandaid to the puncture. “Yes. Can’t afford that on a high risk mission.”

The Drift stirs, red and black. “No, we can’t,” Yukhei agrees.

It’s him that accompanies Mark to the Jaeger bays—except this time, Yukhei won’t be in the elevator with him. The walk there is slow and silent, uncaring of the commotion of the Shatterdome around them. Mark tries to savor it: the feeling of Yukhei's hand in his, the soft, resigned music that floats about. The color of hazel that tints his vision.

They dawdle at the elevator doors, unsure how to proceed yet knowing exactly what they need to do.

“Jisung and I will be at LOCCENT.” Yukhei tries for a smile. “Good luck.”

Mark nods, finding himself unable to speak.

Yukhei cups his face in his hands and bends down to kiss him deeply. Mark threads his hands through Yukhei’s hair, pressing as close as he can to his partner because although he hates to think of it, this might very well be the last time they get to do this.

It’s slow, desperate. Think of us, the kiss demands, even when they both pull away. “Come back to me,” Yukhei pleads.

“I'll try,” is his only answer.

It’s with great hesitance that he steps into the elevator, drinking in the sight of Yukhei until the very last second before the doors close. He's smiling, and Mark knows the intention; aches because of it. Should it become his last memory of Yukhei, at least it's of him smiling. It's with this knowledge that he listens to the music peter out the further up he’s taken, before it disappears completely.

A single, shaky breath. He doesn’t know if it’s him or the uppers, but his heart is beating madly, even faster when he reaches the Drivesuit room. Taeyong is waiting for him in his cobalt blue armor, and Mark is sixteen all over again, watching his brother risk his life while he stands by, waiting for his turn.

But Taeyong is beside him this time, and Mark knows better. 

“Are you ready?” Taeyong asks him when he’s in his own black Drivesuit.

Mark nods, pulling on his helmet. “As I’ll ever be.”

Stepping into Black Widow’s Conn-Pod with anyone other than Yukhei is strange. In some silly part of his mind, he had always thought of her as theirs , even though he knows that they themselves are replaceable. Still, Black Widow has spent all of her missions with him and Yukhei, had been tailored to suit their Drift.

The technicians hook them up to the Jaeger, leaving him and Taeyong alone. “Neural interface Drift initiated,” Wendy announces, and Mark closes his eyes.

The music that comes to him is melancholy, slow in tempo. Dragging, even, an obstinateness to it that’s so painfully Taeyong. Mark welcomes it without hesitance.

“Adjusting,” Wendy informs them. “The Jaeger has been calibrated for your use.”

“Feeling alright, pilots?” Jaehyun pipes up in his ear.

“Yes,” Taeyong responds, watching in wonder as he moves his arm and the Jaeger follows. “We’re ready for the drop.”

“Excellent. You will be taking point on Fiend, Category 4. Second Wind is providing support. The kaiju is close to the miracle mile—ensure that it does not breach it.”

“Affirmative.”

The dispatch to the drop site is quiet, save for Jaehyun and Sooyoung’s steady voices feeding them updates. They hear the kaiju before they see it—Fiend is shrieking, a shrill sound that punctuates its path across the ocean. The Category 4 deserves its classification: it’s a giant, taller than both Jaegers, with large, protruding eyes and a maw that glows bright blue. Both Mark and Taeyong wince as they get closer, the noise almost unbearable.

“What’s the plan, sir?” Jeno asks.

“Jaehyun?” Taeyong returns without hesitation.

A split second of stunned silence on the other end. Then: “Sensors detect a strange signal coming from the kaiju’s laryngeal area. We aren’t taking any chances—you are to behead it.”

“Can do,” Taeyong confirms. The helicopters release both Jaegers, waves rippling from the points of impact and catching Fiend’s attention.

The kaiju lets out a guttural roar, loud enough that Mark’s ears are ringing even behind the safety of his helmet. The Drift picks up in tempo, and Black Widow begins her interception of the kaiju, running at full speed.

The Jaeger’s knife meets the kaiju’s underbelly, and it roars again, this time in pain. They twist the knife further into its gut, and it howls. Second Wind is quick to follow, grabbing onto Fiend’s head with all three arms. “Widow, now!” Jeno barks, voice strained from keeping the kaiju in place.

Before they can extract the knife from the kaiju’s stomach, it stops struggling, opens its maw, and releases an ear-shattering screech.

One by one, the lights in the Conn-Pod fizzle out, until Black Widow herself grows slack. “What the fuck?” Mark curses. “Wendy, what happened?”

“It was an EMP signal!” Sooyoung answers instead. “The kaiju disabled your power. It’ll take a few minutes for Wendy to reroute to your auxiliary—”

Fiend breaks free of their hold, tossing Second Wind aside like the Jaeger weighs nothing. The kaiju rounds on them, a giant paw raised, and they can only watch as it draws its arm back.

The kaiju tears into the Conn-Pod, and Mark screams as he feels the Drift sever itself, Taeyong’s consciousness torn from him within a few agonizing seconds. When he comes to, sparks are raining down on him, and half the cockpit has been torn out—along with its pilot.

"Taeyong!" Mark screams, tears blurring his vision. "Taeyong hyung! Fuck —Jaehyun, Sooyoung, please, save him please— "

“We’re searching for him,” is Jaehyun’s frantic answer. Without the metal of the Conn-Pod encasing him, the sounds of the ocean raging and Second Wind contending with the kaiju make Jaehyun’s words hard to hear, even harder to believe in his distress. 

“No, no, no, ” he repeats, over and over, and he tries to slip into that space again, but the uppers aren’t letting him. He stands there, useless, as the kaiju tears one of Second Wind’s legs clean off, Jeno and Jaemin shrieking in pain.

"Second Wind is down!" Sooyoung reports. "The kaiju, it’s… it’s heading towards the Shatterdome.”

The Conn-Pod’s lights come to life, and Wendy speaks, voice urgent: “Auxiliary power rerouted. 1000 megawatts of power left.”

“Perfect. Black Widow, it's up to you to subdue that kaiju!" Jaehyun orders.

I’ve lost my co-pilot!” Mark retorts. “Taeyong hyung—he—”

Mark!

Mark stills, and his heart along with him. "Yukhei?" he wonders aloud.

Mark, listen to me. It’s unmistakably Yukhei, sounding just like he does when they’re in Black Widow together. But they’re not— how? You need to pilot Widow. The kaiju is getting closer to the coastline.

Fiend roars, and Black Widow lunges to the right out of reflex. Mark groans, the simple movement causing his head to throb. Yukhei, I can't. I'm alone and— Taeyong hyung—

I know. But I'm here with you. Don't think of anything for now, just empty your mind and pilot.

Hyung—

He'll be alright. Just empty your mind.

Empty your mind. Empty your mind. Empty your mind.

Mark breathes in.

With an agonized scream, Mark forces one step forward, then two. Soon enough he’s running, catching up to the kaiju with each large step. He can’t even feel the throbbing at his temples, the neural load of the Jaeger pressing down on him—there’s only him, Black Widow, and the kaiju that he’s about to kill.

Fiend doesn’t even get to whip around and see what’s coming. Black Widow latches onto its neck, climbing atop its back. The kaiju thrashes around, trying to throw the Jaeger off, but she digs her knife into its neck, a slow drag that makes it squirm in pain.

Acidic kaiju blue is dripping onto Widow’s left arm, but Mark barely feels it as he releases the kaiju, letting it crumple onto the ocean floor. Black Widow turns it over with a foot, and beneath him, Mark watches it gurgle and choke on its own blood. "Wendy, the caster," he grits out.

"Deploying plasmacaster." Black Widow fires a round of plasma into the kaiju’s stomach. Then another, and another, and another, until the flesh of its wound is charred black.

“Mark,” Jaehyun says gently. “That’s enough.”

He lowers his arm. Warm blood is dripping from his nose into his mouth, his vision is red, his skull feels like nails are being hammered into it—but it's over. "Sooyoung. Life signs?"

"No pulse," she confirms. "You might want to know that Marshal Lee has been located and is being evacuated from the area."

Mark sighs, smiling at nothing. "Thank you, Sooyoung."

"Mark, your vital signs are abnormally high,” Wendy chirps. "Would you like me to end the neural handshake with Black Widow?"

"Please."

He only has time for another breath before he collapses onto the floor of the Conn-Pod. Tasting metal, he watches the ocean stretch out in front of him, endless waves.

You did well.

Mark closes his eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

There's only been a few significant silences in his life, Yukhei thinks. Once, when was still in school, he kicked a football and sent it smashing through the window of the nurse's office, but that had been followed with shrieking laughter. Another was when he walked into their mess hall after the first attack on Hong Kong, a pitying silence borne of not knowing what to do or say. 

This silence is more grave than either of those instances. Every staff member, every scientist and engineer in LOCCENT, even Jaehyun is at a loss; of course they all are. Mark just piloted a Jaeger by himself.

Eventually it's Sooyoung that's spurred into action, a quiet order: "Jumphawk pilots. Please extract both Jaegers from the area." Jaehyun dismisses the staff, and the room clears out save for the officers.

"Solo piloting," Jungwoo says at length, awe making his eyes shine. "Well, who would have thought?" 

Jisung, perceptive as ever, turns to him in question. "I heard what Mark hyung said," he accuses. "'Yukhei.' But you weren't talking into the intercom."

"Yes," Yukhei answers, still somewhat dazed, still reliving the video feed of Mark collapsing onto the floor of the Conn-Pod. The dull thunk of his helmet had seemed almost deafening. "Yes. I was able to… talk to him. Through the Drift." 

This piques Jungwoo's interest, and he exchanges a look with Sicheng. "Even though you were so far apart?" 

"Is an interrogation really necessary at the moment?" Jaehyun interrupts. "Ranger Lee is unconscious—any questions you have can wait until we confirm his condition." 

"Of course," Jungwoo agrees, shamed. "If you would excuse us, sir."

"Dismissed." At Jaehyun’s word, Sicheng and Jungwoo leave hand in hand; Jisung hangs back, but after a nod from Yukhei, he retreats as well, Sooyoung's hand between his shoulders.

Yukhei exhales for what feels like the first time since the kaiju died. "Thank you, Jaehyun."

"It's nothing." Jaehyun waves a hand. "I love them, of course, it's just… they forget themselves." 

"I understand. I would be curious, too, if I were them."

Jaehyun can only smile. "You're free to go, Lucas. Check on Mark. Transmission says he's arrived at the hospital wards." 

Yukhei nods, leaving with a final salute. "Sir." 

The stares that accost him when he walks through the hallways are sympathetic, but Yukhei doesn’t pay them any heed, far too absorbed in his own thoughts. It should have been impossible, but he heard Mark in his head, clear as day as though they were in the Conn-Pod together. How, for a few terrifying minutes, he could see nothing but red. He had never felt so much… contempt, so much anger in his life—rage that wasn’t even his, but Mark’s.

He wonders if Mark felt the fear in his own Drift, or if his anger was too absolute, too all-consuming. Because Yukhei was, indeed, afraid, but not for the right reasons. It was a selfish kind of fear, of not wanting to be left alone. Not wanting to lose another Drift partner, especially one he has shared so much of himself with. It’s from this fear that his will for Mark to live stems. He wonders if that’s why they were able to communicate so far apart—because he wanted so badly for Mark to stay alive.

A doctor interrupts him outside Mark’s room; the words float past him, but he understands enough to know that Mark is unconscious, but alright. That he was lucky to survive. Yukhei nods politely at everything, and the doctor leaves him as soon as he’s finished, looking relieved to be out of Yukhei’s hair.

Carefully, he pushes the door open. Mark is still unconscious, just as the doctor said. Yukhei settles into the couch opposite the bed and prepares himself for a long wait, thinking of polished white marble and dirt-soiled hands. Lucky to survive. Yukhei presses a kiss to Mark's forehead and wonders how many more chances they will get.

 

***

 

The nurses kick him out at around 0200, almost begging him to sleep, or at least eat. Yukhei had responded by peeking into Taeyong’s room, where the Marshal lay sleeping with the aid of a steady stream of sedatives. Yukhei winced at his injuries; his entire right side was wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, and his arm was in a cast. But Taeyong is a survivor, just like his brother. Yukhei knows better than to doubt them.

With a sigh, he pushes the door to their dormitory rooms open; flicking the lights on, he roots around the cupboards for a packet of instant ramen, boiling water on the stove.

He’s nearly finished with his soup when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Sicheng, still looking pretty much awake even though it’s almost 0300. “Not that I mind, but what are you doing here?” Yukhei questions.

“I thought I’d check on you for a bit.” Sicheng enters the living room at Yukhei’s bidding, eyes roving around with interest. “Booted from the hospital room?” 

“Yeah.” Yukhei sinks into the couch with a sigh, Sicheng following suit. “Would have spent the whole night there if I could, but…”

“I understand. When Jaehyun and I got off our last mission, the nurses had to lock my door so I would stop sneaking into his room,” Sicheng chuckles. “I just… I felt his pain, you know? The migraines, everything.”

Yukhei smiles. “I know.”

Sicheng places a hand on his knee in commiseration. “Of course you do. More than I ever could.” He leans back against the couch, stretching his bad leg out with a sigh of relief. The beginnings of a question are on Yukhei’s lips, but he chooses not to speak; if Sicheng doesn’t bring it up, there’s no reason for him to, either.

Sicheng turns to him. “The kaiju attack… what happened there? Off the record,” the older pilot amends. “This isn't for research.”

“I… I'm not sure either,” Yukhei falters. “I remember being afraid—more than I've ever been in my life. Then I called his name, in the Drift, and somehow he heard me.” Frowning, he continues, “The expression of our Drift—it’s changed, too. In the past week, I’ve heard music in mine, and Mark says that he sometimes feels cold. Now we can talk to each other, too… everything’s much more complicated now.”

“All this after I tell you that you've been able to Drift with the kaiju,” Sicheng says thoughtfully. “Your Ghost Drift is getting stronger and stronger.”

“I imagined as much,” Yukhei returns, morose.

Sicheng purses his lips, mirroring Yukhei’s frown, then: "I’d better turn in, think this over after a night’s sleep.” Gently, he cards a hand through Yukhei’s hair. “Tell me if you need anything, Xuxi." 

Yukhei nods and placates Sicheng with the slightest of smiles. "Not right now, thank you." 

"Okay. Good night—I'll see you tomorrow."

Shuffling around the dormitory with no other presence—no shifting colours and warmth—is strange. Idly, he wonders how Mark bore it for two weeks, if Yukhei is this discomfited in only one night. Even stranger still is the empty bed that greets him. Sighing, he settles into his sheets; some of Mark’s scent has rubbed off on them, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. 

The space beside him—he had come incredibly close to having that space permanently emptied. It’s been hours since the attack, but he can still clearly see the image on Sooyoung’s holoscreen, the kaiju fast approaching Black Widow. Mark boring a hole into the kaiju until it slumped onto the ocean floor, lifeless, just as his eyes had been. Mark falling unconscious, nose dripping blood; Yukhei tasting metal as Kun drops onto the floor of Tunnel Vision’s Conn-Pod, never to be awoken again.

Yukhei screws his eyes shut, but no matter how much he tries, sleep won’t come. The sun is barely over the horizon when he throws off his sheets and readies himself to resume his vigil.

 


 

This is familiar, Mark thinks, as he blinks up at the ceiling lights. It’s the same hospital room he stayed in when he and Yukhei did their first test Drift in Black Widow—except that Yukhei himself is at his bedside, body twisting to accommodate himself in the small chair he’s in, head resting on his arms as he sleeps on Mark’s covers.

There’s so much numbness that even smiling is difficult, but he manages. Wiggling his fingers, he ruefully eyes the IV drip in his hand; he can’t really blame Jaehyun in this respect, he thinks. The morphine is doing a splendid job of keeping his headache at bay, and he can barely feel his limbs.

With much effort, he reaches down to brush his fingers against Yukhei’s face, only managing to graze his ear—Yukhei awakens nonetheless, yawning and wiping the sand from his eyes. "Hey, you," he says, smiling as he grasps at Mark’s fingers. 

His tongue might as well be made of lead, but he manages to get the words out. “We have to stop meeting like this,” he croaks.

Yukhei chuckles at that, grip tightening around his fingers. “Agreed.”

“Is... is Taeyong hyung—“

“In the room next door,” Yukhei reassures him. “Nothing the doctors couldn’t fix. He’ll be fine.”

“Good. Good,” he breathes out, staring up at the ceiling once again.

It comes slowly, drug-addled mind struggling with the simplest task, but the recollection comes: Taeyong in the cockpit, Taeyong being torn out of it. Yukhei’s voice in his head, guiding him. Tentatively, he reaches out: Can you still hear me?

Yes, Yukhei answers, and there’s the barest tinge of surprise. 

What do you think it means?

It means the Ghost Drift is getting stronger.

They’ll want to kill us even more than they already do.

Like you’ll let them.

Mark smiles at that. You said I did well.

And you did. You risked yourself to save the Shatterdome, Mark.

With your help. There’s a heaviness to his limbs that he still can’t shake; his eyelids start to close of their own accord. No, not yet…

“Rest now, lionheart. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

There’s no fighting the drugs pulling him under, so he settles for another squeeze of Yukhei’s hand before succumbing to sleep again.

 

***

 

Recovery goes as well as it could, for both him and Taeyong. As soon as they were both able, Taeyong called for an emergency meeting; he was met with minimal resistance from Jaehyun, who insisted he rest for a bit more before resuming work. Taeyong, of course, got his way: armed with an oxygen tank, a nasal cannula, and one of Yuta’s spare wheelchairs, he wasted no time barking at the Deputy Marshal to gather everyone in the conference room. Mark himself is in better shape, but even the littlest movements prove difficult; he settles for a handful of painkillers, just this once, despite Jungwoo’s reproach. 

As always, Taeyong is at the helm of the table with Jaehyun to his right, but they’re joined by Sicheng and Jungwoo who are deep in conversation. The rest of the officers are equally tense, Second Wind’s pilots in a tight circle, Doyoung and Taeil whispering to each other in hushed voices.

Sicheng came to see me last night, before you woke up. Yukhei is surveying the room just as he is. I think he’s had a breakthrough.

Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Meetings like these, we rarely ever get good news.

Any information is good information. Especially if it’ll help us understand why this is happening.

I suppose so. It’ll be fine. They link their fingers again, and Taeyong calls for silence.

“Ranger Dong will share with us some information that may put Jeju Shatterdome in an… unfavorable position within the PPDC,” he begins. “They may decide to cut off support due to this breach of protocol, but I am of the opinion that the disclosure of this information is crucial to our success. Is there anyone in this room that thinks otherwise?”

Taeyong’s speech is met with silence. He sighs, wheeling himself away from the head of the table. “Ranger Dong, you have the floor.”

Sicheng sets down his holoscreen, and a projection appears before them: an interconnected web with many overlapping strings, enough to make it appear nebulous. “During my time in Hong Kong, I was working on a secret project along with some of their scientists. Only officers with the highest clearance were allowed to view the results, and those officers decided to keep those results a secret to prevent mass panic in the PPDC, not to mention the world at large.

“I’ll cut to the chase: we discovered that the kaiju have a hivemind, and even more recently, that they communicate through the Drift. This is what happened during Tunnel Vision’s last mission—Kun Qian and Lucas Wong were able to Drift with a kaiju, which is why Ranger Qian was killed.”

Yukhei’s grip on his hand tightens.

“We believe that this is why the attacks on Jeju have become more and more frequent,” Jungwoo adds. “The kaiju—they must be attacking Earth for a reason. Lucas, having Drifted with them, is a threat to that because he has, in essence, Drifted with the whole of their species, exposing him to the possibility that he knows the reason for their attacking Earth. Lucas and Mark’s last mission in Black Widow, where they were also able to Drift with the kaiju, was their attempt at gleaning more information. More weaknesses for them to exploit.”

“But why was Mark spared, then?” Haechan, from the other end of the table. “Why was Lucas?”

Sicheng frowns at that, but Jaehyun answers for him: “Solo piloting.”

The senior pilot’s eyes grow wide. “Of course—his ability to solo pilot proves that Mark is able to bear more neural burden than the average pilot. Add that to the fact that transference occurs between him and Lucas... being the dominant pilot that bears most of the neural burden, Lucas must have subconsciously transferred the load to Mark. This is why he was spared when he was still in Tunnel Vision. No neural transference there—Kun Qian bore most of it.”

So that’s why.

I’m sorry.

Not your fault, is it?

“Thank you, Ranger Dong. Doctor Kim.” Taeyong resumes his previous position at the head of the table, breathing deeply. “Frankly, I’m open to suggestions.”

“We mount an offensive.” To everyone’s surprise, it’s Taeil that speaks. He doesn’t even flinch under the attention—the scientist throws a cursory glance at Jaehyun, who exchanges a look with Sooyoung. “We know something that they don’t. I say we exploit it.”

“I agree, Dr. Moon,” Taeyong acquiesces. Beside him, Jaehyun looks defeated; Sicheng squeezes his hand in reassurance, and he nods briefly, turning his attention back onto the Marshal. “Circumstances are dire enough that we have to attack directly. But how?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Yet another surprise—Doyoung is the one that answers, leaning forward so the Marshal can see him. “We have them Drift with the kaiju. Knowingly, this time.”

Mark and Yukhei meet eyes. Oh, he’s not gonna like that.

Taeyong?

Who else?

“We can find out their weaknesses and use it against them,” Doyoung continues. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, sir. We could learn everything there is to learn about the kaiju.”

“Black Widow is one of the only two Strike teams we have,” Taeyong protests. “If we are to continue with this plan, I need a guarantee that they will survive another Drift with the kaiju. God knows they’ve been lucky enough to get away with two.”

“We can use the dead kaiju’s brain,” Doyoung suggests. “Fiend. The data we get will be outdated, but it’ll be safer. The only thing left is to find a way to interpret kaiju thoughts into something that we can understand.”

Sicheng shakes his head. “That data is with Hong Kong’s cryptozoology division, which they so gracefully denied access to.”

“Kunhang can help us,” Yukhei pipes up beside him. Mark turns to him in surprise, and Yukhei nods. Trust me.

You know I do.

Taeyong knits his brows together, considering. “Fever Dream’s co-pilot?”

“Yes. He doesn’t have enough clearance to access the data, but I believe he can get it one way or another,” Yukhei continues. “Will that be enough?”

“Yes, more than enough,” Sicheng agrees. “Whatever Lucas and Mark can get from the kaiju, it can be decrypted by a device that we’ll attach to Black Widow.”

“Engineering can head the device development,” Taeyong orders, to which Yerim and Haechan squeak out a “Yes, sir.” “Well, it seems that everything’s set. How about you, pilots?” The question is directed to him and Yukhei. “Are you up to the task?”

“The plan is as good as it gets, sir,” Mark answers. “Yukhei and I will do it.”

Taeyong sighs, looking every bit as unhappy as Mark expected him to be. “Very well. It’s settled, then.”

“One last thing, sir,” Jaehyun pipes up beside him. He and Sicheng exchange a brief look, and Sicheng nods in encouragement. “Like you said, there are only two active Jaegers. I would like to request that Dead Eye be the third.”

Alarmed, Taeyong grips the armrests of his wheelchair, eyes flitting from Jaehyun to Sicheng to Jungwoo, who looks paradoxically determined and nauseated. “Deputy Marshal, you and Ranger Dong are unfit to pilot—”

“With respect, sir, we will never be 'fit' to pilot again,” Sicheng interrupts. “We would like to do what we can while we can still do it. I will personally oversee Dead Eye's repairs.”

“I say both of you have done enough even without resuming active duty,” Taeyong mutters, sinking back into the wheelchair. “But very well, if that's what you both want. See to it that the repairs are done.”

“Sir.”

“Any other suggestions, officers?” Silence once again. “I want all of you to start working immediately. Only mine and Ranger Wong's terminal will be open to outside communication, so don't go around e-mailing your friends in the other Shatterdomes." Even more silence as Taeyong makes eye contact with every single one of them. For all his diminished stature and the tubes in his nose, he doesn't look any less intimidating. "Understood, then. Dismissed. Wong, Lee. May I have a minute?”

The room clears out. Jaehyun exchanges one last look of commiseration before trailing after Jungwoo and Sicheng, leaving only Mark and Yukhei with Taeyong. “This seems familiar,” Mark begins.

Taeyong's gaze is full of admonition, but even that seems halfhearted. He sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Look, pilots. The risk is great. I’m giving you an out while you still can.”

“We’re going through with it, sir,” Yukhei affirms. “Taeyong—it’s too great an opportunity to miss.”

Taeyong? When did that happen?

Long story.

“Yukhei is right. We could learn so much—what they want, how to defeat them,” Mark continues. “We could finally end it all. Isn’t that what we all want?”

“Yes, but what’s at stake—”

“You know better than both of us what’s at stake, hyung,” Mark counters. “The choice is clear.”

“If only there was a choice.” Taeyong sighs again. “Alright. If it’s what you want. I trust you both.”

“Thank you, hyung.” Mark reaches forward to clasp Taeyong’s hand in his. “We won’t let you down.”

Taeyong shakes his head, covering Mark’s hand with his free one. “Not once have you disappointed me. Both of you.” He takes Yukhei's hand in his, as well, and the Drift buzzes with warmth.

 


 

16 April, 2022, 5:25 PM

Kunhang Wong <khwong@ppdc.cn>
to lywong@ppdc.kr
Subject: X

I sent Sicheng the files. Of course I did—Dejun went on about losing our positions, but I don’t care for that, and I convinced him that neither should he. Besides, I don’t think Marshal Zhang—if he does find out—would be dumb enough to decommission his Primary strike team. What’s it matter, anyway, when we could end it all? I regret nothing. After all is said and done, at least I’ll know that I did the right thing.

Sicheng told me of your plan. Stay safe, Yukhei. I know you’re already decided, so there’s no use in me trying to convince you otherwise like Ten wants me to. But we all just want you to stay safe. 

We’re all proud of you and what you’re doing, Yangyang especially. You were always the world to that child. I don’t have the heart to give him any bad news, so please, be careful. We’re all rooting for you.

Kunhang

 


 

For the next few days, the Shatterdome is in a frenzy like Mark has never seen. The sudden announcement of Dead Eye’s re-commissioning has sent a shock through J-Tech, and both Yerim and Haechan have been putting in extra hours to get the Jaeger up and running, not to mention Second Wind’s dismembered leg and Black Widow’s mangled Conn-Pod in addition to the “translation” device that they’ll be using.

Mark would have loved to help with the repairs to their Jaeger, but he’s been slipping away more than he would like—which ends up in him forcing himself to go to Johnny’s office like he promised Yukhei. It’s slow going, but it’s going. Even Johnny himself has expressed surprise at Mark’s willingness to undergo treatment: “I never thought I’d see you walk in here for therapy without kicking and screaming.”

“Lucky for you, Lucas is very convincing,” Mark had answered wryly.

Yukhei himself is still in physical therapy, with the help of a small army of nurses and Cotton the Maltese, who gives Yukhei enough exercise to get his legs back in shape again. They don’t see much of each other, too preoccupied with their own quests for self-improvement, but returning to their dormitory is always a treat at the end of the day no matter how little time they spend together.

Mostly, they find themselves falling into bed, sleeping the best they can through the intensifying nightmares. Tonight isn't one of these nights—Mark finds himself still awake long after they’ve gone to bed, Yukhei’s arm a comforting weight around his middle. The longer he tries to fall asleep, the more he feels himself slipping away, reality fraying at the edges.

What is it that Johnny said? Anchor yourself with something, while you're still aware. His hand reaches out to grasp Yukhei's, running his fingers over the calloused warmth of his palm; slowly registers the small puffs of breath against his neck, forces himself to follow. Inhale, exhale.

He brings Yukhei's hand up to his lips and kisses his knuckles. Careful not to disturb his sleeping partner, he slips out of bed and traipses down to the lower levels of J-Tech with Yukhei’s jacket over his shoulders.

The area is deserted at this hour, but Mark knows better than to be deterred by that. He peers into the frosted windows of the doors that line the long, narrow hallway, until he finds one that’s occupied—a laboratory with a large table that takes up the middle of it, scrap metal and all manner of tools scattered across the surface.

Gingerly, Mark steps into the laboratory. Yerim is fast asleep, head resting on her arms over some blueprints. Her cornsilk hair falls like a curtain over her shoulder, dark hair peeking through the base of her scalp. It’s saddening, in a way—she was always scrupulous about maintaining her hair, to the point that he would joke about her being a natural blonde.

He seats himself on the bench next to her and gathers her hair in his hands, weaving careful fingers through so as not to wake her up. He’s distracted from his fishtail braid when someone appears at the door—Haechan, with a tray of something in their arms. Mark puts a finger to his lips, and Haechan nods, closing the door carefully behind them with a foot.

“I would have brought another one if I knew you were here,” Haechan says, setting the tray down onto the table. Two mugs of coffee; if Mark knows them, they won’t be the first of the night.

Mark shakes his head, resuming his task. “I'm fine, save it for her.”

“If you say so.” Haechan makes no move to pick up their mug, and Mark looks up.

“What is it, then?”

“What is what?”

“What did you want to talk about?” Mark clarifies. “Clearly, you’re distracted.”

“You’re starting to sound a lot like Lucas,” Haechan grumbles, finally taking a sip from their cup.

“The moment I start saying ‘torch’ instead of ‘flashlight’, please feel free to intervene,” Mark says with a smile. “But seriously. Out with it.”

Haechan sighs, fingers tightening around their cup. “About that meeting, before Fiend attacked. When you... disappeared for a while.”

Ah, yes. “Did the others put you up to this?” he asks gently.

“No,” Haechan denies. “But I get the feeling that they want the same thing as I do. Which is to know how you’re doing.”

“I'm alright, Donghyuck,” he insists.

“You know you can talk to us about it, right? If you're having trouble.” With Chenle, Haechan doesn't say. 

“You all have your own problems, and I don’t ever want to seem weak in front of you all, especially Jisung,” Mark confesses. “You saw how he reacted.”

“It was because he was worried about you. Just like all of us are.”

He grabs a spare rubber band from the table, winding it around the end of Yerim’s braid. “I know. And thank you, really. I’m getting better. Or trying to at least.”

“That’s good to hear.”

It’s at this point that Yerim stirs, letting out the biggest yawn Mark has ever seen from her. “Oh, you’re here,” she says, sounding distinctly unimpressed as she stretches. “Gossiping without me?”

“Nothing you don’t already know,” Mark answers dismissively. “You rest. Haechan and I will take over from here.”

Yerim raises an eyebrow. “Sure?”

“You're not the only one with an engineering degree, you know,” Haechan sniffs, rolling up the blueprints that Yerim was sleeping on.

“Alright, alright,” she acquiesces, sliding a coffee mug over to her side of the table. “I have to check on Dead Eye, anyway. Have fun, you two.” She kisses them both on the head and saunters off to the Jaeger bays, a slight wave of her hand the last thing they see before the door closes.

“Well then,” Haechan sighs, draining the last of their cup. “Off to work.”

 

***

 

It’s almost 0400 when they finish up at J-Tech, Haechan bidding Mark a sleepy goodbye as they make their way through the officers’ complex. But Mark himself has no desire of his own to return to the dorms just yet, not wanting to disturb Yukhei when he arrives, so he opts to make the trek all the way up to one of the Jaeger viewing decks, the one where Jaehyun had briefed him and Yukhei on so long ago.

Much to his surprise, Yukhei is already there, seated on the grated floor. “How are you here?” Mark laughs, taking up the spot beside him.

“I had a hunch,” Yukhei shrugs. He pushes a thermos towards Mark, and he screws off the top to sniff at what’s inside—Earl Grey, of course. "I see you've made good use of my jacket." 

Smiling, Mark blows lightly on the tea. “Did I wake you up?”

“Not really. Just felt strange when you weren’t restricting my air flow."

“How can I not when your rock hard chest is so comfortable?” Mark returns, taking a small sip.

Very funny. Where’ve you been?”

“Just helping Haechan and Yerim with the device. They think it’ll be done by the end of the week.”

Yukhei whistles lowly. “Ready for that?”

“We weren’t ready for everything that’s happened to us so far. What’s Drifting with a kaiju a third time?” 

They both look up at the Jaeger, a hulking mass of scratched black paint. Even from this distance, Mark can see the scrap sheets of metal that Haechan’s used to restore the right hemisphere of the Conn-Pod, where the kaiju had so mercilessly ripped Taeyong out. Screwing his eyes shut, Mark passes the thermos to Yukhei so he can dig his fingernails into his palms.

“What did you get up to today, dearest?” he tries by way of distraction.

To Mark's amusement, Yukhei actually flushes at that, hiding his quickly reddening face behind the thermos. "PT, mostly. The nurses say I can safely pilot Black Widow now." 

“That’s good to hear.”

“And you?”

“I snapped at Johnny today.”

Yukhei smiles into the rim of the bottle. “It’s not funny.”

“Oh, Johnny definitely didn’t think it was,” Mark concurs with a smile. “But I’ll try harder next time.”

“Good,” Yukhei answers, dead serious. “I’d be more worried if you didn’t put up a fight.”

They lapse into silence once again—or as silent as it can be, when the Ghost Drift is thrumming between them as it always is. The music spikes in pitch, and Mark turns to Yukhei in curiosity.

There’s no need for him to ask. “During the last mission, I… I felt everything. What went through your mind when you were fighting,” Yukhei begins. “Are you still angry?”

“At the time, I was,” he admits. “I was angry at everything. Why me, you know? Why us? Why Taeyong?” A deep sigh. “Now, I just… I just want it all to be over.”

Yukhei nods in understanding, reaching over to take Mark’s hand in his. “We’re nearing the end.”

“It could end. All of it.”

Yukhei smiles, pushing the thermos aside to face him fully. “What will you do after?” he asks.

“I guess I never thought of it, what comes after,” Mark confesses. “I never thought it would end. I didn’t even think I would get to be a Jaeger pilot.”

“I’ve never thought about it, either." Yukhei hums. "Let's think of it now. What to do.”

“The two of us?” Mark asks with a smile.

“Mhm.”

Yukhei pulls him closer to wrap his arms around Mark’s waist, hooking his chin on Mark’s shoulder. He laughs when Yukhei’s breath tickles his ear, leaning back into Yukhei’s chest. “I want a house,” he begins.

"It would have to be a big house," Yukhei agrees, drawing his arms tighter around Mark. "With big windows and high ceilings." 

"I’d like that. But where, though?"

“We can split our time between Jeju and Hong Kong,” Yukhei suggests, and Mark hums his agreement. “You know what's strange? I want it to be near the ocean.”

He can see it clearly: seafoam blue, yellow sands, white paneling. “I get it. The Shatterdome has been home for years now; I don't think I can wake up without seeing the ocean. I’d miss the beach too much.”

“It will be much more beautiful when it's peaceful. I'd like to live near that.”

“It's decided, then.” Mark wraps his hands around Yukhei’s settled on his waist. “A big summer house near the ocean.”

Yukhei kisses the shell of his ear. “All that's left to do is survive. The pension will cover everything."

Mark laughs at that, turning around in Yukhei's arms to press a kiss to his lips, cupping Yukhei’s face in his palm when they pull away. It’s odd moments like this that make his heart ache—the lighting in the viewing deck is harsh, but Yukhei has never seemed so beautiful, so tangible. So real.  

“What if we don't?” he asks softly. “What if one of us doesn't?” It's not a matter of possibility, but practicality. 

“I don't think I could do it.” Yukhei’s eyes are grave. “Put myself back together again.”

“Me, neither.” Mark kisses him again, deeper than before. “We have to promise each other that—if it happens—we'll at least try.”

“That's certainly one of the more difficult promises I've had to make,” Yukhei sighs. “Alright. But you have to promise me something, too.”

“What is it?”

“No heroics,” Yukhei says firmly. “Both of us will try our best to keep ourselves alive.”

“Okay. I promise,” he whispers.

“Okay.” Yukhei pulls him close, cheek resting on his hair, and Mark wraps his arms around Yukhei in answer. It's a familiar gesture, one that they’ve shared too many times to count since Yukhei’s awakened, but it’s comforting all the same.

He buries his nose into the crook of Yukhei’s neck and inhales, letting mint and cedarwood permeate his senses. Listens to the drumming of Yukhei's heartbeat, the warmth of his body pressed against his. Allows himself to think of blue waves crashing against a golden shore, of time stretching endlessly, farther than the horizon.

 

***

 

As promised, the device is finished and operational by the end of the week. It’s smaller than Mark thought it would be, a nondescript cube that’ll be fitted into the back of Black Widow’s Conn-Pod, wires from it feeding directly into the spinal clamps on their Drivesuits. It’s hard to believe that it will help them interpret a kaiju’s memories—much less those of a dead kaiju.

They’d been flown to the scene of the last attack beforehand, during Doyoung’s preservation initiative. The sea has been unkind to Fiend’s corpse; the stench of rotting flesh was made worse by the saltwater, but there’s no decomposition in the gaping hole in the middle of its chest, a reminder of Mark’s success.

“Keep the central nervous system intact,” Taeyong had ordered. “The helicopters can bring all the ammonia you need.”

Doyoung tutted, marking something down on his clipboard. “The marine biologists are gonna be on my ass again…”

“Tell them that if we don’t go through with this, there won’t be a biome to study,” Taeyong answered, and that was that.

Mark’s third return to the site is marked by a buzzing in his head, undoubtedly due to the uppers that Jungwoo had injected in him only a few minutes before. Even so, he feels much more at ease with Yukhei beside him, in Black Widow as they should be. Her frame casts an ominous shadow on the kaiju’s carcass, skull carved open to reveal a yellowed mass of wrinkled tissue.

In their Jaeger’s hand is a spike that they’ll drive into the kaiju’s brain; submerged up to his waist some ways behind them is Second Wind, on standby in the very likely case of an attack. 

“Breach dilation detected,” Sooyoung warns. “Second Wind, prepare yourselves. Getting Black Widow’s pilots out is top priority.”

Mark’s stomach churns at the order, but Jeno answers with a simple “Affirmative, ma’am.”

It’ll be over before we know it. We can help them fend the kaiju off.

I hope so.

“Let’s make this quick, then,” Taeyong says in his ear. “Begin operation.”

Black Widow drives the spike into the kaiju’s brain. Immediately, Mark collapses onto the floor of the Conn-Pod, Yukhei doing the same next to him; searing hot pain makes its way up his limbs, the sensation quadrupled by the Drift between both pilots. Gritting his teeth, he finds Yukhei’s hand across the floor, grasping at it weakly with his fingers—Yukhei returns the gesture, and they plunge into a memory.

To see through the eyes of a kaiju—it’s something that will haunt him for the rest of his days. The first memory that comes to them is that of a barren wasteland, red-hot magma seeping over scorched earth, the cries of a thousand kaiju rattling in his ears. Then, a blinding white light; an explosion that shakes the land beneath him, rendering him almost deaf, smoke blinding his eyes.

When the fog clears, there’s a glowing chasm in the middle of the wasteland—the Breach. He watches as the first kaiju to come to their Earth, Trespasser, steps into the chasm and disappears. Watches as Trespasser destroys three cities before finally standing down, the first victory. But Trespasser was only the first.

He smells smoke and sulfur, feels rubble beneath his feet as a kaiju trudges through the ruins of a city, its thirst for blood still dissatisfied. Then, the first of the Jaegers; the pain and agony as the Jaeger drives a weapon into the kaiju’s stomach, leaving it to bleed acid onto the debris. The other kaiju, back in their wasteland, an angry clamor as they realize that they’ve been defeated once again. One of the kaiju going through the portal to attack once more, leaving a wrecked ship in its wake.

The other kaiju watch the ship sink to the bottom of the ocean, straight into the Breach—but it never reaches the wasteland, only disintegrates bit by bit as it comes into contact with the blinding column of light. A kaiju, ten times larger than any of them have seen before, swims up and engulfs the hull of the ship in its gaping maw, descending back into the embrace of its kind.

They become smarter as the years go by. Stronger. The PPDC wipes out the wave of scouts; then come the real exterminators, those who enter the Breach to kill humans, living vermin in their eyes. They have a purpose, and one purpose only: to kill life on Earth so that they may populate it, instead of the wasteland that is their home.

Mark watches Jaegers and pilots fall. Watches Jongin, Taeyong, Chenle and Jisung, all of them. Tunnel Vision’s bronze frame, the aberration in both Jaeger and kaiju that enabled Yukhei to Drift with them. Feels the kaijus’ anger that an insignificant human on Earth was able to Drift with them, sees them retaliate by sending more of their kind through the Breach. Sees Black Widow in all her glory in the middle of the ocean, shiny new obsidian shell glinting in the sunlight; sees her paint get scuffed, damaged, Conn-Pod torn apart and Taeyong plunging into the ocean as Mark screamed.

He opens his eyes with a gasp. Yukhei’s fingers are limp in his grasp—heart pounding, he reaches out in the Drift: Are you there?

Yukhei’s fingers twitch. Here.

Mark sighs in relief, closing his eyes and letting himself slump against the floor of the Conn-Pod. There’s an incessant ringing in his ears, and he can taste blood, but more importantly he’s alive. They’re alive. 

The moment of respite doesn’t last. Dazed as he is, he can still feel the earth shake beneath Black Widow’s feet—a kaiju, fast approaching.

“Kaiju incoming!” Jeno informs them. “Black Widow, are you able to assist?”

“On our way,” Yukhei grits out, getting on all fours and struggling to his feet. You alright?

I'm fine—we need to help them.

Yukhei helps him up with a hand, and they both turn to face the next immediate threat: a three-headed kaiju with cruel-looking horns on the crowns of each, huge and lumbering and ungraceful as it walks towards them on all fours, tail twitching menacingly as it gets closer.

Second Wind is already moving, wading deeper into the water to grapple with the kaiju. All three arms wrestle with the heads, but the kaiju simply rams into the Jaeger’s chest. Jeno and Jaemin’s groans of pain echo in their ears as they start to move, readying Black Widow’s plasmacaster as they go.

“Jeno, steer clear for the shot!” Yukhei orders, and Second Wind dodges to the side just in time for the plasmacaster to fire. It’s a clean shot through the middle head, and the kaiju groans, sound multiplied twofold. But the loss does little to deter it, and it trudges straight towards Black Widow in anger.

Second Wind dives into its path, retaliating by shoving his fist into the kaiju’s gut. It roars as the Jaeger’s fingers expand, spinning and digging into its flesh; Second Wind’s other arms hold the kaiju in place as it pulls a mess of entrails from its stomach, and the kaiju wails, swiping at the Jaeger weakly with its remaining heads.

Black Widow grabs the kaiju by the tail, throwing it over her shoulder with a mighty heave and sending it crashing down onto the ocean floor. The kaiju recovers quickly, grabbing onto the Jaeger’s leg and slashing a claw down the length of it. Both he and Yukhei cry out in pain, louder as the kaiju rams its horns into the joint of the Jaeger's hip.

They fire the plasmacaster blindly, only managing to breach the surface of the water; Second Wind holds it in place, submerging the two heads into the water, and the kaiju flails and whips its tail.

“The only way to kill it is to sever all heads!” Taeyong barks. “Second Wind, clear Black Widow for the right one!”

Second Wind does as they’re told, and Black Widow hacks a clean line across the neck of the kaiju’s second head. The remaining one screams, finally wriggling out of Second Wind’s grasp to force its horns into the Jaeger’s reactor core, bone grinding against metal.

Black Widow loops her arms around the last head’s neck, prying it off of Second Wind. It thrashes and struggles against their grasp, and both Jaeger and kaiju fall, water rushing over the glass of the Conn-Pod and blurring their vision. “Second Wind, now!” Mark orders.

“You’ll take damage!” Jeno protests. “We can’t cut the head off like this!”

Now!” both he and Yukhei demand, and they scream in unison when the blades of Second Wind’s hands dig into the kaiju’s neck and Black Widow’s forearms. Bubbles erupt from the kaiju’s remaining windpipe, electric blue seeping into the green of the ocean, and it stops struggling. They let Black Widow’s arms fall, laying themselves flat on the seabed.

“Help us up,” Mark croaks, and Second Wind grabs Black Widow by the shoulder, shoving the Jaeger upright with the help of its weight.

Black Widow is barely on her feet when an almighty quake makes the earth beneath them tremble, strong enough to send waves crashing into both Jaegers. Their Conn-Pod goes haywire, red lights blinking on and off in an attempt to warn them. “Pilots are in imminent danger,” Wendy reports, calm as ever.

The same cannot be said of the Marshal. “All of you need to evacuate, now!” Taeyong cries. “We need to regroup. The Breach isn’t closing.”

Chapter Text

Black Widow and Second Wind's return to the Shatterdome is met with a frenzy unlike any other that Taeyong has seen. He can only watch the Jaeger bays lapse into disarray, technicians running about to check diagnostics, engineers anxious to take stock of the damage to both Jaegers. Even LOCCENT isn't spared from the chaos: Sooyoung is tapping her nails nervously on the command console, Jaehyun is pacing along the row of coffee machines, and the other staff are conversing in increasingly high-pitched voices that grate on Taeyong’s ears.

He's about to bellow his loudest for silence when Taeil all but bursts through the door, Doyoung hot on his heels. “Marshal!”

“Dr. Moon, Dr. Kim,” he breathes, almost relieved at the distraction. “Please tell me you have good news.”

At this, Taeil halts his stride, unsure of how to proceed. “Yes and no,” he starts carefully. “As we already know, the Breach is expanding, but it will take 48 hours before it reaches the diameter needed to expel the next kaiju.”

“I suspect the next bit is the bad news?” Taeyong suggests, voice sour.

Doyoung nods, thrusting a stack of papers towards him. Taeyong takes them, scanning quickly through the topmost document. Nothing good. “This kaiju is the biggest one yet. A Category 5.”

Jaehyun inhales sharply, exchanging a look with Taeyong. “A Category 5. We've truly angered them now.”

“Yes, we have,” Taeyong agrees. In the periphery, the rest of the staff have quieted themselves, listening to his every word with bated breath. He nods, hoping that he looks as composed as he thinks he is. “All we have to do, then, is prepare. Black Widow will have gained some information from them somehow—”

The door crashing open again cuts him off, all heads turning towards the commotion—the five Jaeger pilots still in their Drivesuits and armor with Mark at the helm, holding a bloodied cloth to his nose. “Rangers—” Taeyong begins.

“Sir. The Breach won't open for just anyone,” Mark interrupts. “It needs kaiju DNA. Living kaiju DNA. If we're to attack the Breach, we need a living kaiju, else we’ll just be destroying everything else around it.”

Taeyong purses his lips. “Thank you, Ranger Lee. It seems that sending you and Ranger Wong out there was worth the risk.”

Mark nods profusely, then turns to Taeil and Doyoung as though only noticing them just now. “What’s the news?” he demands. “Why isn’t the Breach closing?”

Taeyong exchanges another grim look with Jaehyun. “We're in luck. According to Dr. Moon, the Breach is staying open because there is a Category 5 on the way.”

“This is the kaiju we're leaving alive?” Lucas questions. “A Category 5?”

“It's the only fresh meat we'll get our hands on,” Taeyong reasons. “No more waiting behind the borderlines—we go to the Breach directly, using this kaiju to infiltrate it.”

“And then what, sir?” Jeno asks calmly.

His gaze drifts over to the Jaeger bays. “Blue Blood's reactor core would make a hell of a bomb, don't you think?” Taeyong muses.

“It might work,” Doyoung agrees, eyes shining. “Detonate the bomb along with the kaiju, destroy the Breach.”

“You're forgetting the part where we're going to fight a Category 5 underwater, sir,” Jaemin interjects dryly.

“The engineers can provide the necessary repairs and reinforcements to your Jaegers. Tell them to dismantle Blue Blood for parts—she's done her service,” Taeyong directs to Sooyoung, whose eyes widen at the command. She nods immediately, turning to her console to communicate with Yerim. “After this, we may not even need her anymore.”

“Sir.”

Taeyong eyes Jaehyun, then, waiting for orders as always. “Dead Eye, you’re to assist.” The Deputy Marshal nods in agreement. “Pilots—any objections?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. In 48 hours, we’re assaulting the Breach.”

 

***

 

It’s well past dinner but Jaehyun is still in Taeyong’s office, shuffling through a stack of papers on the coffee table. Just as Taeyong anticipated, he sighs, leaning back into his chair and rubbing at the space between his eyes. “Any news from Hong Kong, sir?” Jaehyun asks, eyes closed.

“No response from Marshal Zhang. Can't blame him, I suppose. Let's just hope the other Ranger Wong hasn't gotten the short end of the stick.” Taeyong flips through his clipboard, stifling a yawn. “What about our own comms?”

“Cut off, sir. And even if we get past the firewall, it’s not like they’re allowed to initiate communication with us, either.”

“So much for protecting humanity,” Taeyong mutters, taking off his glasses. “You can go now, Deputy Marshal. Dr. Kim and Ranger Dong will hate me if I keep you from them any longer.”

Jaehyun opens his eyes, sitting up bolt-straight and looking right at him. “Are you sure, sir? Maybe there’s still something that we missed…”

Taeyong shakes his head, giving Jaehyun a tight-lipped smile. A dismissal if there ever was one. “You said it yourself, Deputy Marshal. No communications either way. We're doing this on our own—and with you and Ranger Dong joining the fray, I have every confidence we’ll succeed.” 

Jaehyun looks doubtful, but he nods, gathering himself and saluting. “See you tomorrow, sir.”

The Deputy Marshal’s steady stride towards the door is interrupted by its opening—Mark, looking startled at Jaehyun’s presence, but relaxing just as quickly. They both nod to each other wordlessly, and somehow, this simple exchange gives Taeyong pause. It’s striking how alike they look, with the same tired eyes and slumped shoulders, down to the curtness and efficacy of their movements. To see some mutual understanding between the two of them when Jaehyun should have been an object of admiration… it’s strange.

There was a time that he had wished that Mark would never have those haunted eyes just like the rest of them. But along with those haunted eyes came the widest smiles Taeyong had ever seen on his brother, and he can’t begrudge the happiness Mark has found by becoming a pilot. It’s all on him, he supposes. For failing to comprehend that his not-so-little brother has already grown up.

Mark closes the door behind Jaehyun, and Taeyong smiles for his benefit—the smile adults use on children to assure them everything’s okay, even though it’s not. He knows he’s fooling no one, but the habit is ingrained within him. “How are the preparations going?” Mark questions, padding over to Taeyong’s desk, eyes skimming over the documents strewn over its surface.

“Could be better, could be worse. We make do with what we have.” Taeyong sweeps the papers into a pile, clearing the table to prevent any more distractions. “I’m glad you came.”

Mark smiles. “Can’t refuse a direct order from my Marshal, can I?”

“Or one from your older brother,” Taeyong responds. This time, his smile is honest.

“Speaking of… I brought you this.” Mark produces something familiar from behind his back, something with worn yellow fur and a brown mane.

Taeyong aches. “Mark…” He accepts the stuffed lion, staring into its button eyes, letting him rest atop the stack of papers on his desk. “Why?” he asks, even though he already knows the answer.

Mark seems to know that he knows, too. “Thank you for everything, hyung. For believing in me.”

“Of course,” Taeyong breathes, stepping out from behind the table to join Mark. It never fails to astound him that he doesn’t need to look down to meet Mark’s eyes. “You’re the strongest person I know.” He takes both of Mark’s hands in his. “End of the line. I never thought I’d see the day, and all because of you.”

“Not entirely because of me,” Mark laughs weakly. “I wouldn’t have gotten through it all if it weren’t for you.”

“The same goes for me.” 

Mark lunges forward to hug him, and Taeyong can’t hold his tears back any longer, letting them drip onto Mark’s shoulder. “This isn’t goodbye,” Mark whispers against his neck, and Taeyong is thirteen again, ankle-deep in snow with a city collapsing all around him, strengthened only by the boy in his arms.

The man, now. “Of course it’s not, little one,” he answers hoarsely, drawing his arms tighter around Mark.

Taeyong doesn’t know how long they stand there holding each other, but he knows that however many minutes and seconds it is, it will never make up for the years they’ve spent apart. So he pulls Mark closer, hopes that Mark can feel everything that he can’t say; he begs for forgiveness once again, and Mark’s answering touch, the way he clings to Taeyong with all his might, is all the absolution he needs.

 


 

Dead Eye is a patched-together mess of green and unfinished gray metal, almost ugly in comparison to the other, newer Jaegers in the Shatterdome. But to Jaehyun’s eyes, he’s as perfect as the day he was unveiled to him and Sicheng, now fully-functional and almost as good as new.

The same can’t be said for the Jaeger pilots, he thinks grimly. A sync rate of 84.95% per cent—not their best, but they’ll make it work. They have to.

“Look at him,” Sicheng breathes, leaning over the railing of the viewing bay. To Jaehyun’s left, Jungwoo huffs, but he follows Sicheng’s eyes, anyway. “Can you believe we’re going to pilot again?”

“If we can,” Jaehyun replies lightly. “Our sync rate isn’t what it was.”

“Oh, stop making me feel like a has-been. We’ll be just fine.”

“With that leg?” Jungwoo chastises, frowning at Sicheng. “You're lucky if you can make Dead Eye walk.”

“What's a bad leg compared to the end of the world, eh?” Sicheng laughs. At Jungwoo’s unamused expression, he amends, “Seriously, Jungwoo, we'll be fine. At least I'm still intact.”

“I doubt you’ll be saying that when you’re actually in the Jaeger,” Jungwoo mutters glumly. “Are you two sure about this? I know it’s the Marshal’s orders, but...”

“Last hurrah,” Jaehyun reasons. “We need all the help we can. The PPDC’s cut us off—we’re on our own.”

“You don't understand.” Something in the tone of Jungwoo’s voice makes both of them snap to attention, tilting their heads in concern. “If something happens to you both on this mission, I—I'll be the one that's left alone,” he explains, wringing his hands. Jungwoo looks to Dead Eye again, breathing deeply. “I know that's incredibly selfish to think, but—”

“You're only human, Jungwoo,” Jaehyun interrupts, sliding a hand over Jungwoo’s in comfort. Sicheng walks over to Jungwoo’s left, and he turns to face the other pilot, met with a reassuring smile. “Of course we’re worried, too. But you’ll never be alone,” Jaehyun promises, squeezing Jungwoo’s hand in his. “Okay?”

Jungwoo turns to Sicheng again, who nods and places a comforting kiss on Jungwoo's temple. Jungwoo breathes in and nods, tightening his grip on their hands. “Okay.”

Jaehyun holds both of them close, and they lean on him just as they always have. It's what Jaehyun loves so much about them—that they trust him enough with their weaknesses, their worst moments. And so he makes himself as solid as possible, enough to keep all of them standing, and tries not to think about what will happen if they fall.

 


 

Jaemin and Renjun are asleep enough, Jeno thinks. Jaemin has lapsed into those faint snores they've learned to tune out long ago, and Renjun is curled up on his side, breathing softly into the fabric of his pillow. It's more than Jeno could have hoped for—they've both been restless, the looming threat of the Breach an inescapable thought that didn't let them sleep for over a day. But both of them have reached their limit, it seems, sleeping the most peacefully Jeno has seen them ever since their first mission.

He pads over to the living room, taking Jaemin's jacket from the reading chair and throwing it over his shoulders. He had taken Renjun's last time; having little pieces of them on his excursions was a much-needed comfort, he discovered. 

It's a long, chilly walk, but one that he's become well-accustomed to. The rain has been falling more often as summer nears, and the soil beneath his boots sinks with every step he takes, but Jeno doesn't mind. It's familiar, at least. One thing about the Shatterdome that hasn't changed.

A few minutes later it comes into view: a marble stone, a slab of white misplaced in the backdrop of the dark sea. Jeno kneels beside it, paying no heed to the water soaking the knees of his pants. 

The flowers are coming along nicely. Jeno doesn't know what miracle let them survive the wind and rain, but there they still are, little spots of color strewn around the tombstone.

Jeno talks about his day. How the Shatterdome looks the busiest it's ever been, how everyone is thrumming with anxiety, how little rest he’s been getting. How Jaemin’s nails have been bitten down almost to their beds, the hours that Renjun spends in the Kwoon room alone, Jisung busying himself helping with Jaeger repairs. Mark and Lucas disappearing into their own little world. How Jeno wishes he could do the same.

It gets colder and colder, but he doesn’t mind that, either, staying as long as his thoughts allow him. Eventually, he runs out of things to say;  it's fine, he tells himself. There will always be tomorrow.

“I miss you,” Jeno whispers. “Every day.”

He lays his palm flat on the marble. Despite the wind, it's warm to the touch. 

The sight that greets Jeno when he returns to their room at midnight is a surprise. Two mattresses have been pulled to the floor, Jaemin fast asleep on one of them; Renjun is sitting cross-legged on the other, gaze trained on Jeno as he steps closer. 

“You're awake,” he signs dumbly, draping Jaemin's jacket over the desk chair. 

“So are you,” Renjun answers, watching him even as he discards his damp clothes, changing into sleepwear. He meets Renjun's eyes once he's pulled his shirt over his head, and his partner doesn't waste a second to start signing again. “How was your visit?”

“Just fine.” Jeno settles in the uncomfortable gap between the two mattresses, pushing Jaemin's hair back from his forehead with a hand. This wakes his other partner, but just barely, hand curling around Jeno's wrist. 

“We were worried,” Jaemin murmurs, face half-buried into his pillow, but concern palpable nonetheless. On his shoulder, Jeno feels Renjun's chin find its perch. “What with everything.”

“I'm okay,” Jeno breathes. It's half-hearted, much like everything he's been doing ever since. How else is he supposed to act when the other half is six feet under? 

They see through it, of course, as always. Renjun drapes himself over Jeno's back in response, and Jaemin tightens his grip on Jeno's hand, now fully awake. “We'll do it for him,” Jaemin promises. “We'll do it together.”

“I know,” Jeno answers with a smile. “I never doubted that.”

They settle on either side of him, almost crowding him in with their bodies, but Jeno doesn’t mind. He never did, not when they were younger and he would whine that they were nuisances—not now, when their closeness is exactly what he needs to feel like himself again.

Renjun index finger traces a few lines on Jeno’s stomach, the rest of his hand trapped under Jaemin’s. “Good night.”

Jeno smiles, pulls them close enough that they gasp for air, giggling as Jeno releases them. “Good night,” he whispers, and they melt back into each other, Jeno falling asleep to soft snores and delicate breaths.

 


 

It’s deep into the night, but Mark hasn’t stopped working. Not that Yukhei expected anything less from him, though, even though he's derailed more often than not; Yukhei has stayed long enough in the living room to observe how Mark stares into space now and then, eyes glassy, the Drift discordant and grey. But he’s getting better, Yukhei thinks, now able to pull himself out from his trances. It’s a small victory, one that Yukhei welcomes with open arms.

Still, it’s much later than both of them should be awake, and even the strongest need rest. Yukhei’s eyes drag over Mark’s features, a slow sweep: the beauty marks across his neck; curly, tousled hair; gold-rimmed glasses. The hunch of his shoulders as he pores over the binders spread across the coffee table, harsh white light from the floor lamp sharpening the angle of his jaw, deepening the hollow of his cheek.

“Mark?” Yukhei calls. His partner looks up, startled, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “We had better get to bed.”

“I'll be there soon,” Mark answers with a smile, smoothing a hand over Yukhei’s knee from where he’s perched on the couch. “I'll just finish up this report…”

“I don't think there's much more you can do,” Yukhei says softly. “You've done what you can, maybe even more. Let yourself rest.”

Mark sighs, taking off his glasses and setting them down on the coffee table with a clatter. The music slows to a steady rhythm, almost indistinguishable from Yukhei’s own beating heart, and the Drift wipes itself clean of colour. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

It's methodic in a way, how they brush their teeth and change into their sleep clothes, side by side as though it’s something they've always done. When they sink into bed, Mark's head resting on Yukhei's chest, it feels natural, too. Like Yukhei can't imagine a time when he didn’t spend his nights like this.

They lay in silence for a while, music and warmth all around them.

“Tomorrow,” Mark breathes.

“Tomorrow,” Yukhei answers. “Are you ready for the apocalypse?”

Mark huffs out a laugh, burying his face deeper into Yukhei’s shirt. “I think the point is that we won't let it come to that.”

Yukhei nods. His hand entangles itself with Mark’s on his stomach, and Mark sighs, content. “You remember our promise?”

“Of course,” Mark breathes. “No matter what happens tomorrow, we’re coming out of it alive.”

“I hope so.” He drops a kiss onto the top of Mark’s head, letting his lips rest there for a moment longer than they should. “Darling,” he says in a whisper, afraid that if he says it any louder, he'll be overcome. “You know that I love you, right?”

Mark looks up at him, then, brown eyes swimming with warmth. “After everything you've done for me, how could I not know?”

Yukhei smiles. “Okay. I just thought I oughta let you know, every now and then.”

Mark brings Yukhei’s hand to his lips, brushing them lightly over his knuckles. “You have nothing to worry about. I feel it every second of every day.” 

Their eyes meet again. “Thank you, Yukhei,” Mark whispers, much in the same tone as his own confession. “For making me feel like no one ever has before.” His fingertips trace the curve of Yukhei’s cheek, almost reverent in the lightness of their touch. “I have never loved anyone as I have loved you. I hope you know that, too.”

Unable to resist any longer, Yukhei presses their lips together. Mark’s response is immediate, hands locking around Yukhei’s neck, pulling himself up to better fit their mouths against each other. Yukhei sweeps a careful hand down the back of Mark's thigh, bringing it up to hook over his waist. Mark doesn't seem satisfied with that at all, because he moves to straddle Yukhei, lips still attached and hands making their way up Yukhei's shirt. 

His lips leave a burning trail down Yukhei's neck, and when he keens at the feel of teeth on his skin, Mark straightens himself. Dazed, Yukhei looks up at him—his moonlight-tinted face, the depth of his eyes, the desire clouding his senses. There's no music or warmth, now, just the steady weight of Mark atop him. “You're a wonder,” Yukhei breathes. 

In Mark's eyes is an invitation. Yukhei's hands readily accept, pulling him closer by the waist in answer, enough that they're chest to chest and Yukhei can feel his every breath, every little shudder. And Yukhei gives himself willingly, surrenders everything to the man in his arms—lets himself kiss and be kissed, touch and be touched, take as much as he's given. Lets himself feel what it's like to truly be alive.

 

***

 

Yukhei wakes up to fingertips brushing over his shoulder, his neck, his back. The air is still cold and blue, not quite morning yet, but it’s warm beneath the blanket.

“What're you doing?” he murmurs into his pillow. Mark’s fingers pause at the nape of his neck when he speaks, but they resume their movements, trailing down to his shoulder. 

“I didn't know you could get scars like this,” he says in answer, tenderly grazing a thumb over a raised patch of skin where his Drivesuit armour had rubbed his shoulderblade raw. 

Yukhei hums. “Pilot long enough, and they'll show up on you, too.”

Mark kisses the scar. Resting his forehead in the divot between Yukhei's shoulder blades, he breathes in deeply, laying his palm flat over where Yukhei's heart would be. “I like them. They give you character.”

He chuckles, sinking further into his pillow. “Do they?”

“Mhm. I still don't know so many things about you…” His lips trail further down Yukhei's back, making him shiver. “I think I'd like to find out. Can't we just stay here?”

“I never thought I'd see the day you put yourself first.”

“You and I, you mean.”

Yukhei shifts so that he's facing Mark. Immediately, he's struck—the sight is already familiar, sleep swollen eyes and hair that could never be tamed, but the curve of Mark's bare shoulder is what makes his breath hitch, reminds him of last night.

Mark flushes, no doubt hearing every heated thought running through Yukhei's mind. “Pervert.”

“What's there to be embarrassed about? You want the same thing.”

“Still,” Mark pouts. “Why did we wait that long, again?”

This prompts a laugh out of Yukhei, and he wraps his hand around the swell of Mark's waist, pulling him closer.

“You're so beautiful,” Mark breathes, voice full of wonder, as though he's discovering meaning in Yukhei's eyes. “I always thought so, ever since that first day.”

“Well, now I feel terrible,” Yukhei sighs. “I didn’t think much of you then.”

“Worst mistake you ever made,” Mark answers with a smile.

“I know better now, don't I?” Yukhei twines their fingers together, drawing closer, and Mark closes his eyes in anticipation. They kiss slowly, letting their lips and hands say everything that words can’t, letting the Drift fill the spaces in between.

What Yukhei wouldn’t give to have more moments like these—music and warmth, Mark in his arms, the rest of the world a distant, fading dream. But tomorrow is today, an inevitability they must face if they want to have a lifetime of moments.

For now, Yukhei kisses him, moulds their bodies together so that even if they don’t make it til tomorrow, Mark will remember the colour of hazel that greets him at dawn. 

 


 

The commotion of the Shatterdome is eerily absent as Mark and Yukhei make their way towards Black Widow's bay. None of the staff dare speak, but all of them stare when they walk past like they're pigs at the slaughter. Mark wishes it weren't so, but they're not wrong, are they? 

The uppers are working their magic, his mind restless and jumping from one thought to another: did he miss anything? Are the repairs to Second Wind enough to handle a Category 5? Will Jaehyun and Sicheng be able to manage Dead Eye after more than a year of not piloting a Jaeger?

It only takes Yukhei's hand in his to collect himself, a soothing melody fluttering past him in the Drift. They're silent, too, as they board the elevator. Silent even as they're met with the sight of Jisung in the Drivesuit room, letting him fit their armor over their suits, watching him work calmly and methodically, caring for them in his own way. 

Jisung brings Mark's helmet to him, and he takes it from Jisung's hands, staring into the face of the young man he so adores. “Thank you, Jisung,” he says softly.

Jisung shakes his head, reaching for Mark's hand. “No, thank you.” His other hand reaches out to Yukhei's, and he accepts. “For everything. For helping me.”

Mark ruffles his hair with a smile, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach the top of his head. “You helped me too, little one. I'll see you soon.”

Nodding, Jisung watches them climb into the Conn-Pod where the other technicians are waiting to attach them to Black Widow’s circuitry, aligning the spinal clamps to their suits, performing final checks on the Jaeger. Eventually, they all clear out, leaving just him and Yukhei in the cockpit. 

They twine their fingers together again; Mark breathes in, out, meeting Yukhei’s eyes. It’s odd, the sense of calm that washes over him. Odd, but it makes perfect sense—who else in the world could make him feel unstoppable with just a touch of their hand?

Their earpieces crackle to life, Sooyoung’s steady voice feeding them information. “Black Widow, Second Wind, ready for the drop. Dead Eye, calibrated and waiting to activate.” To their left, Dead Eye lifts its newly attached arm. “All Jaegers ready for transport.” 

“Thank you, Miss Park.” It’s Taeyong, then, the steel in his tone somewhat of a comfort. “Black Widow, the bomb is attached to your back. You’re the youngest and fastest Jaeger here—the chances of success are larger if you're the ones to drop it into the Breach.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Pilots—ready?”

“As ever, Marshal,” Jaehyun answers promptly. 

“Very good.” There's a pause, then the Marshal speaks again, tone softer than what’s warranted. “No matter what happens out there, know that I am honored to be your Marshal.”

It’s Jeno who answers for all of them. “Thank you, sir.”

Mark imagines Taeyong nodding, sweeping his eyes over the Jaegers, the officers and staff in the Conn-Pod, before turning to the intercom. “Move out.” 

Three bay doors creak open, revealing three slivers of the same gray sky. Dead Eye is the first to step off his platform, plunging his feet into the water; Black Widow and Second Wind follow suit, letting the helicopters circling the Shatterdome attach their cables to each Jaeger.

They’re dropped somewhere off the coast of Guam, water up to the Jaegers’ reactor cores. The descent into the ocean is slow and grueling; the water pressure makes movement harder the deeper they go, especially when they’re completely submerged, Black Widow’s Conn-Pod fully underwater. 

The water is devoid of any other living creature. Murky and dark, they wade through with difficulty, the Jaegers’ feet kicking up dust with every step. It’s nauseating how everything is muted, how they can barely see anything if not for the headlamps on their Jaegers.

“A thousand meters til the plateau drops,” Sooyoung reports. “Eight hundred. Keep alert, Jaegers—movement detected. Six hundred. It’s coming closer—”

A mass of gray, leathered skin rushes past them, circling back to swim straight at Black Widow. Dead Eye intercepts it with one of the thin blades attached to its forearm, slicing a path through the water. It doesn’t connect with the kaiju, but it’s enough to send it careening off course, circling back again with a snarl.

“We’ll take it head-on!” Jaehyun orders as Dead Eye positions itself in front of Black Widow, who fires up her plasmacasters in anticipation. “Second Wind, attempt to flank it. We need to keep that bomb safe.”

“Affirmative!”

The kaiju makes a dive for Second Wind this time, somewhat recognizing that the Jaeger is in the way of what it really wants. Dead Eye manages to pierce the side of the kaiju, carving out a chunk of flesh; Second Wind grabs at its tail, but Jeno and Jaemin let out a cry, immediately retracting the Jaeger’s hand. A cloud of electric blue diffuses into the water.

“What happened?” Mark demands.

“Some sort of toxin,” Jaemin answers with gritted teeth. “It’s eating away at the metal—”

The kaiju swoops down, opening its maw and tearing out part of Dead Eye’s torso. Jaehyun and Sicheng scream in pain, slashing a blade wildly in retaliation, but the kaiju is quick to evade it. Black Widow fires one of her plasmacasters, yet the ensuing blast is too slow, barely managing to graze the kaiju’s fin. Second Wind attempts to get closer with Black Widow hot on his heels, but another spray of bright blue toxin is enough to keep them back.

The toxin diffuses through the water, Dead Eye getting the worst of it; the substance seeps into the Jaeger’s reactor core, making both pilots cry out again.

“Dead Eye, you're grounded,” Taeyong says frantically. “If you want to escape, you’ll need to do it now. Second Wind—try herding it into the path of Black Widow’s plasmacasters.”

“Yes, sir!” Jeno answers at the same time as Jaehyun barks “Sicheng, in the pod. Go!”

Second Wind extends its remaining hand, fingers morphing into spinning blades, but the kaiju pays no heed. It attacks Dead Eye, vicious teeth scraping against metal—but the Jaeger fights back, despite its pilots having absconded into their evacuation pods.

Or so they thought. “Jaehyun, come on, what are you doing!” Sicheng urges.

“I'll distract the kaiju,” Jaehyun answers, voice strained.

I, Mark realizes with a lurch of his stomach. Not we. “No... No!” Sicheng pleads. “Jaehyun, please, don't do this to me—” 

“Second Wind, cover Black Widow.” Jaehyun sounds wholly at peace. “Mark, Lucas—go. You need to detonate that bomb.”

“Jaehyun!” Sicheng screams, and it's a heart-rending sob, his fists pounding against the glass of his escape pod muffled and distant. 

Mark screws his eyes shut. 

We need to move.

I know.

Yukhei takes his hand, and they press forward, deeper and deeper into the ocean. 

“I love you,” Jaehyun says, voice cracked with static and emotion. “I love you both, so much.”

The sound of weeping is drowned out by teeth grinding against metal. It gets fainter and fainter, until they can hear nothing at all.

“Pilots,” Taeyong calls. The steel has lost its edge. “The mission.”

“Two hundred meters until the drop,” Sooyoung’s announces. Her voice wavers ever so slightly, and Mark's stomach drops at the sound,  squeezing Yukhei's hand tighter to keep himself grounded.

They reach the edge of the plateau, jumping off and landing with twin crashes that shake the earth. Underwater vents litter the ocean floor, expelling gusts of hot gas; a crater about a hundred yards before them glows bright orange, pulsing and thrumming with energy. Otherworldly arcs of blue shoot across a yawning chasm, casting transient light on their Jaegers, almost warning them to keep away.

“The Breach,” Mark breathes.

As though summoned, a beast of a kaiju rises up from the crater, almost double the size of Second Wind. Its head sports a ring of horns, large and hunched back adorned with spikes extending down the line of its spine; each limb is as thick as Black Widow’s torso, and when it opens its mouth to roar, they’re pushed back by the force of the water that crashes into them.

“Well, fuck,” Jaemin swears under his breath.

“We’ll keep it off your back,” Jeno promises. “Just get ready to intercept when you can.”

Yukhei nods. “Affirmative. Jeno—”

“Watch out!” Sooyoung warns. Yet another kaiju, slender and limbless, swims toward Second Wind with unprecedented speed. The Jaeger swipes its blade in the direction of the kaiju, only managing to nick the underside of its belly. The first kaiju is slower, four limbs crawling towards Black Widow, but it looks much more cruel, all horns and spikes that can easily pierce through metal.

Black Widow lunges straight for the kaiju, firing a burst of plasma at its stomach. Its movements are sluggish, bogged down by the water and the weight of its own limbs, but it avoids most of the blast, the flesh of its inner left arm singed off. The kaiju breaks out into a run, and Black Widow braces for impact, hands outstretched and blades deployed in anticipation of the kaiju ramming into them.

Jaeger and kaiju collide, but Black Widow keeps her stance, feet skidding as they’re pushed back by the force of the kaiju. It tumbles over them, crushing the joint of Black Widow’s left arm as it rolls over the ocean floor; Mark and Yukhei cry out, slapping the hand of their uninjured arm over their shoulder as they drag themselves to their feet. The arm is barely hanging on, only a few wires keeping it attached to the body.

“Black Widow! Status?” Jeno grits out.

“Alive,” Mark answers grimly. The kaiju is back on its feet, too, getting ready for another round. “You?”

“Same,” Jaemin responds, sounding breathless. “An arm for an arm, huh?”

Their kaiju charges again, but it runs straight into one of Black Widow’s knives, howling in pain as the blade pierces its neck. They use the leverage to tackle the kaiju onto the seabed, wavering from the lack of balance provided by their mangled left arm. Black Widow extracts the knife from the kaiju’s neck, and it spasms, horned head knocking against the glass of the Conn-Pod. A starburst crack appears, spraying water into the cockpit.

Enraged, they stab the remaining knife at the kaiju’s sternum, feeling every bone crack and splinter under the weight of it. The kaiju thrashes about, a giant claw ripping through their right leg. They scream, twisting the knife deeper into the kaiju until it screeches, too.

“Black Widow! Quickly!” Jeno warns them. Some ways off, the other kaiju has wrapped itself around Second Wind, slowly crushing the Jaeger as it winds tighter and tighter around its body.

They don’t hesitate to hack the kaiju open, electric blue bleeding out into the saltwater pressing down on them. Black Widow grabs the bomb strapped around her back, crushing it between the dead kaiju's intestines. 

“Bomb in position, ready to detonate.” Mark doesn’t know which one of them says it. They drag the kaiju over to the crater, Black Widow limping her way to the glowing mass of blue-orange, and push it into the Breach.

The water is up to their necks, now, but somehow they both breathe easy.

“Marshal? We’re ready.”

“Affirmative. Detonating in five.”

Mark’s hand feels heavy as it skims through the water in search of Yukhei’s. But Yukhei knows him, of course. They find each other, salt of the ocean around them, readying themselves to drown.

There's a burst of blinding white, then the familiar embrace of nothingness. 



 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

It's raining.

That's the first thing Mark registers when he opens his eyes. Not that he's facedown in sand, or that his head feels like it's being squeezed between two bricks—no, it's the rain plinking onto the metal of Black Widow's Conn-Pod, embedded in the sand of the beach like he is. 

There's blood on his temple, and he almost falls face first as he attempts to straighten himself with painstakingly slow movements. His body feels bruised, aching all over; he groans when he takes his helmet off his head, inspecting the cracked glass. The rain drenches his hair, his face, and when he touches his cheek his hand comes away bloody. 

He can't see. His vision is blurry, but there's something else—something missing. 

“Wendy. Are you there?” His voice is dry and cracked, faint.

“Yes, Ranger.” 

“Where are we?”

“An island in Micronesia. I've already sent a signal to HQ,” she reassures him. “Evacuation copters are on the way.”

Mark nods, and the small action makes his temples throb.

“I advise against any sudden movement,” Wendy cautions him. “It's possible that you have a concussion. It might worsen your left eye.”

“My eye?” he asks, dazed. 

“Yes, Mark, it's—”

He lifts a hand to his eye—or, the hollow space where his eye had been. “It's gone.” He drags his fingers down his cheek, pressing against the torn tissue there. “Did this happen when...?”

“The blast was too strong,” Wendy says apologetically. “You hit the beach with excessive force.”

He nods again. It's painful, but it gives him something to do while he collects himself, tries to remember what else it is that's missing. It’s been quiet for a while. The pitter-patter of rain is loud, and so is the rushing ocean, but it’s not the sound he’s searching for. “Where is he?”

“Ten meters ahead, but—”

He never catches the tail end of whatever Wendy says. Even through his impaired vision, he can finally see Yukhei some distance in front of him, unconscious, lying in a pool of red. Fear seizes him, and he scrambles forward to see for himself if Yukhei is—

There's a pulse. Mark lets out a shuddering exhale. It's cold on the sand, the Drivesuit providing little insulation. He drags Yukhei beneath a nearby copse of palm trees, removes his helmet and taps Yukhei's cheeks once, twice. “Yukhei, wake up. Wake up.” When Yukhei doesn't come to, he stumbles back towards the surf, waves sloshing around Black Widow's broken panels. 

“Wendy. Is the first-aid kit still there?”

“Yes, there should be one behind the motion rig.”

He fishes the first-aid kit out with difficulty, headache worsening his lack of depth perception, but with it in hand he can finally get to work. The pouring rain makes congealed blood flow down his face in rivulets, so he tries his best to do a decent bandage around his head under the safety of the mangled Conn-Pod panels. He trudges back to Yukhei, whose lips are quickly turning pale—loss of blood.

His eye tracks the trail of red from where he dragged Yukhei closer inland. His right leg is the problem, blood almost indistinguishable from the plates of his black armor. The uppers are long gone, now, and with the pain from his mangled face finally setting in, Mark almost misses himself slipping further and further away.

But Yukhei moves. His fingers twitch as though in search of something, and Mark springs into action, gripping Yukhei’s hand in his. “Yukhei?” he calls softly, and his partner cracks his eyes open.

“Hello, darling,” Yukhei responds.

Mark sighs. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear your voice.”

“I think I do.” Yukhei's hand comes up to lightly stroke at his uninjured cheek. Mark’s own hands shake as they pry off Yukhei’s armor. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing important.” An army knife slashes away the leg of Yukhei’s Drivesuit, revealing a deep gash running down the length of his thigh. “Oh, Yukhei. Stay still.” His unsteady hands search through the first-aid kit, finally turning it over in frustration until he sees a strip of elastic.

“Did we do it?” Yukhei asks absently.

“Yeah. We did it,” Mark answers, gritting his teeth as he slides the tourniquet up Yukhei's leg. He grimaces when Mark screws the windlass tighter, gripping Mark’s forearm with a hand, but otherwise, he doesn’t make a sound. “Yukhei, are you with me?”

“Yes. Always.”

“Good. Good,” Mark breathes, feeling behind Yukhei’s knee for a pulse, sighing in relief when he finds none. He cups Yukhei's face in his hands—paler than he's ever seen before, but eyes still open. Mark smoothes his hair back and drops a kiss on his forehead, making sure it lingers.

Yukhei's gaze doesn't stray from him once he pulls away. Instead, they stare at each other, rain seeping through their armor, chilling them to the bone and making their bodies shiver; but none of it matters, not at all.

Mark lays down on the sand next to Yukhei—to his left, as always. He finds that spot on Yukhei's chest, rests his head on it, and Yukhei's hand finds its place on his waist, pulling him closer.

“What now?” Yukhei's voice is clear, despite the question coming out as a whisper. 

Mark exhales. Curls a hand over Yukhei's beating heart and closes his eyes. “We sleep.”

Chapter Text

 


PAN PACIFIC DEFENCE CORPS
JEJU SHATTERDOME
SEOGWIPO-SI, JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA

Personnel Dossier: Mark Lee

Name: Mark Lee (Native name: 이민형)
Assigned Team: Rangers, ID R-MLEE_535.25-J
Date of Active Service: December 21, 2021
Current Service Status: Active

Biography:
Born August 2, 1999, Vancouver, Canada. Parents █████████ and ███████. Brother Taeyong migrated with family from Seoul to Vancouver in 1998. Both orphaned 2010 after kaiju attack. 
Entered Jaeger Academy at Jeju 2016, qualified 2021. Assigned with Ranger Lucas Wong as Black Widow's inaugural crew. First deploy December 21, 2021, brought down kaiju IC-24 “Imugi” in Incheon. Six subsequent kills, one alone, the rest with partner, including Operation Tartarus.
Operation Tartarus engaged with Jaegers Second Wind and Dead Eye. Successfully conducted assault on the Breach, killing kaijus “Titan” and “Behemoth”, and closing the inter-dimensional portal to Earth. 

Notes:
Redaction by request of Marshal Lee.

 


 

Mark thinks he'll be lucky if he never has to see another hospital in his life. 

The glaring brightness of the overhead lights couldn’t be farther from what he remembers last—rain pelting the cracked glass of his helmet, a gray beach, an inky black ocean lapping at his feet as he attempted to stand. To see. It's still what burns on the back of his eyelids as he blinks, trying to get his bearings. 

He's in the Shatterdome again, in the hospital room that seems to have been corralled off for his own use. There's a figure on the couch pressed against the opposite wall, decked in black and gold, multicolor decorations indistinguishable from one another to his impaired vision. 

“Hyung,” Mark calls, and it's only then that he realizes his throat is dry. 

Taeyong straightens, alarmed, eyes darting over to the bed. “Mark,” he exclaims in relief, rushing over to help him sit up. He does so with difficulty, joints feeling much like they've rusted in their sockets from lack of movement, but he manages to grasp the glass of water Taeyong hands him, drinking greedily from it to soothe his throat. 

“Why the dress uniform?” he demands of Taeyong when he finishes. 

Taeyong's face is unfocused, his one good eye disallowing any clearer image, but he can still catch how his brother grimaces at the question. “Jaehyun.”

Mark swallows, nods. “Are the services over?”

“Just ended.”

“The casualties—Second Wind—”

“We had to pump water from their stomachs when we found them, but they're fine. Sicheng… he could be better,” Taeyong answers haltingly. “Lucas is fine, too.”

“Oh.” Mark slumps back into his pillows. His head is spinning, vacillating between relief, shame, and guilt—here Taeyong is, dressed in black, but he has the audacity to rejoice in the fact that he and Yukhei kept their promises to each other. And yet, as the tranquilizers and painkillers being pumped into his arm add more and more to the fog clouding his senses, he finds that there’s only one thing he cares for. “Where is he?”

Taeyong's lips thin into a straight line. “You’re not leaving this bed. You’ve been asleep for days, you’ll—”

“Take me to him.” At Taeyong’s stern gaze, he sits up, ripping out the needle in the crook of his elbow. “Now, hyung.”

Taeyong’s nostrils flare, but he helps Mark up nonetheless. “Can you walk?”

“I’ll manage.”

A nurse is called to the room, and he’s painstakingly helped into a pair of crutches, limbs uncooperative with how long he’s been in bed. “Are you sure about this?” Taeyong asks, walking him towards the door. The nurse looks worried, too, but she doesn’t say a word, scurrying out of the room as soon as she’s able. “You might not like what you see,” Taeyong continues.

“And why is that?” Mark asks sternly.

His brother inhales, bracing a hand on his shoulder. “Your tourniquet helped stop the bleeding, but the wound… it was left for too long. Infection set in.” When Mark only stares at him, uncomprehending, Taeyong sighs. “He’s in the operating room.”

Inhaling sharply through his nose, Mark answers, “All the more reason I should be there, then.”

There’s not much resistance from Taeyong after that. Movement is achingly slow and painful, but they manage to shuffle through the hospital wards, nurses craning their heads in surprise at the sight of Mark out of bed. When they reach the operating room, Taeyong barks at the hospital staff to let them enter the viewing gallery. On a normal day, Mark would care; today, it's of the utmost importance that he sees Yukhei, no matter whose feelings get hurt in the process.

They're left alone in the tiny, raised room, and Mark is free to look through the glass, into the operating room in search of what he's looking for. It’s him—Yukhei—lying supine on the surgical table, lights illuminating his figure as the doctors shuffle around him. There’s already a line drawn on his right leg, above the ghastly wound that Mark had staunched the bleeding of, and an oxygen mask is fitted over his mouth, chest rising and falling.

Mark listens, waits for the Ghost Drift to sing to him—but there’s nothing, and he frowns, hobbling closer to the viewing window to press his hands against the glass. He can’t feel anything, no matter how close he gets, and Yukhei’s face is obscured by the doctors surrounding him, but an agonizing glance at the monitor in the operating room confirms that it’s him, and that his heart is beating.

“He’s still awake?”

“Anesthetized,” Taeyong answers.

“But—” Mark holds his tongue instead, peering through the glass of the viewing window once again. His vision is swimming, but he forces his eyes—eye—to focus. To see what needs to be done.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Taeyong flinch at the first incision, a small trickle of blood seeping into the cloth on the gurney; the knife digs deeper and wider until the trickle intensifies into a steady stream and muscle is bared, and even that is cut, carefully dissected to preserve the still-living tissue.

Taeyong’s hand is on his shoulder. “Mark, it’s better if you don’t watch.”

“No,” he says simply, watching the surgeons peel Yukhei’s flesh away to show white bone. “I'm staying.” 

 

***

 

The surgeon informs him that Yukhei's immediate recovery will take a little over a week. What little hours he's awake will be spent on physical therapy and counseling, and he's not to receive any visitors during that time, including Mark. He would have lunged at her if not for Taeyong gripping his wrist.

“Rest, Mark,” Taeyong advises, long after the rattled surgeon has disappeared past the door of his hospital room. “The doctors know what’s best for you and Lucas—you two have lost much more than an eye and a leg. You need to come to terms with it. Get used to it.”

“‘More than an eye’—what are you saying?” Mark presses. “Hyung. Tell me.”

Taeyong purses his lips. “I’ll call Jungwoo.”

Mark huffs, crossing his arms in exasperation. “Jungwoo is mourning. What can it possibly be that you can’t explain to me yourself?”

“It’s better if it comes from him,” Taeyong reassures him. “Patience, little one. It’ll be good for you to see each other.”

His desire to see Jungwoo weighs more than his impatience, and so Mark waits until he comes, just as Taeyong promised. The moment Jungwoo opens the door, Mark stumbles out of bed, hands in front of him to steady himself. “Jungwoo!” He almost trips, but Jungwoo doesn’t seem to mind nor care, arms outstretched for Mark to fall into them. “Jungwoo, I—”

“Let’s sit down, okay?” Jungwoo says gently. “I’ll explain everything to you.”

“But—”

“Everything in its own time, Mark.” Jungwoo pulls away, hands on his shoulders. “Let’s talk about you first, okay?”

“Okay,” Mark finds himself answering, Jungwoo’s tone enough to make him obey, letting Jungwoo help him to the bed. 

Jungwoo pulls up a chair and sits beside him, just like that first test Drift with Yukhei months ago. This time, though, Jungwoo’s eyes are glassy, dark circles beneath them prominent. Beneath his collar, Mark can just barely make out a pair of dog tags slung around his neck. “I heard from the Marshal that you were there for Lucas’s surgery,” he begins.

“Yes,” Mark agrees, unable to tear his eyes away from the hollow of Jungwoo’s cheeks. “But the Ghost Drift—I couldn’t feel anything. It was like I couldn’t Drift all over again.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Jungwoo says. It’s not so much his words that prompt Mark to snap to attention—it’s the remorse in them.  “The Ghost Drift… you don’t have it anymore.”

“What?” Mark questions dumbly. “What do you mean—that it’s gone?”

Jungwoo nods, somber. “Ever since you first Drifted with the kaiju, they conferred that ability to you. They communicate through the Ghost Drift, and to communicate with you…”

“We needed the Ghost Drift, too,” Mark finishes, heart dropping to his feet. “And now that the kaiju are gone…”

“I’m really sorry, Mark.”

He flattens a palm on the wall next to him. Behind that wall is a living, breathing Yukhei that he can’t feel. Having nightmares he can't share, experiencing pain that he can’t understand. Mark listens, but nothing comes to him, not even a single note.

What matters is that Yukhei is there, isn’t he? Things could be much, much worse.

“Have you been eating well, Jungwoo?” he asks instead. He takes his palm off the wall, folding his hands in his lap.

Jungwoo smiles, and it’s a little wobbly; one that’s for Mark’s benefit, not his. “I’m fine, Mark,” he answers. “As fine as I can be.”

“Jungwoo—”

“To be honest, I tried preparing myself for the possibility,” Jungwoo confesses. “I didn’t want to see them as dead men walking, but I didn’t want to be blindsided, either…” Jungwoo takes Mark’s hand in his own. “No amount of preparation will ever brace you for the real thing. And if we prevented thousands of people from feeling what Sicheng and I are feeling, well…” 

Mark squeezes his hand. “I understand.”

“You know what pisses me off the most?” Jungwoo laughs bleakly. “He kept his promise. I’m not alone, but not in the way I wanted.” 

“I’m so sorry, Jungwoo,” Mark whispers.

Jungwoo shakes his head, placing a careful kiss on the side of his temple. “I’m sorry, too.”

 

***

 

The doctors recommend an hour of walking every day to let himself get accustomed to seeing with only one eye. It’s frustrating—his depth of field is off, and he keeps crashing into something every five steps. It’s frustrating to know that only a few days ago he was in a Jaeger, moving seamlessly along with his partner; another thing that the kaiju have taken from him.

In the scheme of things, however, what’s the loss of an eye? The Ghost Drift? A life? The Shatterdome has never been this quiet; the destruction of the Breach has rendered them directionless, unsure of what work now means for them. There are no missions to prepare for, no Jaegers to repair, no kaiju to study—only undisturbed peace, the likes of which he would like to cling onto even if it means limbo.

Dead Eye’s Jaeger bay stands empty. Next to him is what remains of Blue Blood: the hollow in her chest where the reactor core once was, her mangled limbs used for parts to patch up the rest of the Jaegers. Second Wind has caved into himself, the kaiju having crushed most of his chest, and Pink Slip is unrecognizable—but Black Widow stands tall, almost good as new if not for the scuffed paint on her shell and the sutures where her limbs have been reattached.

His feet take him to the receiving bay, just as quiet as the rest of the Shatterdome. There’s no staff bustling across the asphalt, no kaiju parts being transported, all three helicopters are in their respective helipads. There's only one person there—someone in a wheelchair that's settled almost too close to the edge of the cliff, someone who Mark knows even without the Ghost Drift. 

He wonders if Yukhei can tell that it’s him, even though his steps are interrupted by the walking stick hitting the ground; even though he, too, can no longer feel warmth or hear music. He thinks Yukhei already knows, anyway, because he doesn't even so much as turn his head when his footsteps near, or look startled when Mark comes into view, smiling down at him as widely as his disfigured face will allow. 

He's still as stunning as he was the day they met. “Not so tall now, are you?” Mark observes with a laugh, kneeling next to Yukhei. 

Yukhei chuckles, taking the walking stick from his hands and propping it up on the side of his wheelchair. “Just you wait until we can get this prosthetic working, and we'll see if you're as smug as you are now.”

“Let me savor it,” Mark answers, leaning his head against Yukhei's good leg. He takes a good look at Yukhei, all of him—the slope of his brows, his perfect nose, the corners of his lips upturned in a smile. Those hazel eyes. “Does it hurt?”

“A bit. Nothing compared to Drifting with a kaiju, I'll tell you that.” Yukhei runs light fingers over the bandage covering most of his face. “Your eye?”

“Nothing they could have done about it.” He twines their fingers together on Yukhei's knee. “Makes me look more dashing, don't you think?”

“I'd like it more if I could actually see you.”

“In time, darling,” Mark promises, watching a grin bloom on Yukhei's face. “We have all the time in the world.”

“That we do.” Yukhei's fingers trail over his cheek. “Both of us have some missing parts, huh?”

Mark shakes his head, unable to tear his eyes away from the beautiful man before him. There's no earth-shattering realization, no revelation that turns him inside out—only the knowledge that Yukhei is here. Not all of him, but whole, the Yukhei he had come to know for only months but would like to love for a thousand more lifetimes after this one. 

He covers Yukhei's hand with his own, turning his head to kiss the palm of it, right on his heart line. “I'm not missing anything.”

Urgently, Yukhei tugs him up by the hand, and Mark smiles, letting Yukhei capture his lips with his own. 

The only sound that can be heard for miles is the water rushing beneath them. The ocean is calm, and so is he. 

Chapter Text

Mark is staring at the mirror again.

Not out of vanity—Yukhei supposes it's morbid fixation, seeing his mismatched eyes. One warm brown, the other slate grey, an artificial but functioning replacement. A remnant of the war that can’t be erased, just like Yukhei’s prosthetic leg; even now, Mark still has difficulty looking at him, all of him, even more when he catches a glimpse of his own reflection. 

When Mark looks into the mirror, he’s not really there. He’s in Black Widow’s cockpit, he’s in the stark white of a hospital room, he’s at the bottom of the ocean. Yukhei can almost hear the dissonant note in his mind, feel grey creeping up his limbs—all his imagination, of course. Another thing the war has robbed them of.

“Need help?” Yukhei finally says at length.

Mark snaps out of his trance, arms hanging limply at his sides. He gestures to the bowtie slung around his neck. “I don’t think we can attend the wedding,” he laments, wide eyes pleading with Yukhei through the mirror. “I can’t figure this thing out.”

Chuckling, Yukhei heaves his legs off the hotel bed, limping over to the vanity. “It’s easy,” he says, projecting an air of flippancy. “You cross one end over the other, tuck it under and…”

Mark grows silent again, but it’s not the catatonic state he was previously in—Yukhei knows he’s tuning out every word, a small smile on his lips as he stares shamelessly at Yukhei’s face. “Here I was teaching you,” he chides, giving the now finished tie one last pull. “And you don’t even bother to listen.”

“You can always tie my bows for me,” Mark reasons, reaching out to take Yukhei’s hands in his. His tone is light, but the crease between his brows hasn’t faded.

“What's wrong?” Yukhei asks softly, brushing an errant strand of hair from Mark’s forehead.

Mark stiffens, caught, but his hands relax in Yukhei’s as he starts to talk. “Jaehyun was supposed to be part of the entourage,” Mark answers quietly. “And Chenle—he would have loved to be here. Run around hopped up on wedding cake.” He shakes his head. “I know it's a happy occasion, but... I can't help thinking.”

Yukhei nods in understanding. Even yesterday, as he laid awake with Mark’s steady breaths on his neck, his mind was elsewhere. Kun would have loved Mark. And even on the slim chance that he didn’t, he would have loved the way Mark made Yukhei happy.

When Yukhei doesn’t answer, Mark barks out a small, self-deprecating laugh. “I'm sorry for being so morbid, today of all days. It's not at all about me.”

Yukhei shakes his head, squeezing Mark’s hands tighter. “It's what could have been. I understand.”

“You always do.” Finally, Mark smiles, giving Yukhei’s own bowtie a light tug. “You look handsome.”

His eyes drag over Mark's face, a slow sweep—brown and grey, and a long, jagged strip of tissue that starts at the edge of his hairline, down to his cheek. The scar itself is ugly, but Mark is beautiful. ”And you look lovely, as always.”

Mark presses close to kiss him, lips moulding against his in a gesture so familiar yet still somehow so new every time. Yukhei melts into the kiss like he always does, winding an arm around Mark’s waist, a hand braced on his cheek. Even with his eyes closed, the colour of rose petals floods his vision.

Pulling away, their smiles are mirror images. “Ready to go?” Yukhei suggests.

“The ceremony won’t be for another hour,” Mark reasons, trailing his fingers up the sleeve of Yukhei’s suit jacket. “Can’t we stay for a bit instead?”

“You’re the devil,” Yukhei mutters, but he bends down to give Mark another lingering kiss. “Satisfied?”

Mark hums. “When's our turn?” he wonders.

“Our turn?” Yukhei questions, lips quirking into a knowing smile. 

“You know…” Brows raised, Mark holds his left hand up, wiggling his fingers as though he can’t believe Yukhei is that dense.

“If you're trying to get me to ask…”

“I'm just curious!” Mark laughs. “It's not as if it was never part of the conversation.”

Yukhei frowns. “What do you mean? I was always planning on leaving you when I got bored.”

“Simply hilarious, Yukhei.” Mark’s eyes soften. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“Absolutely not,” Yukhei counters. “Let’s get your measurements right now.”

Laughing, Mark tiptoes to kiss Yukhei once more. “I was just asking, you know. They’re just rings and a piece of paper.”

“Not if they mean more than that to you,” Yukhei reasons.

Mark is smiling again. “You’re stuck with me regardless, rings and paper or not.”

Yukhei smiles, too, looking into those mismatched eyes, wondering what lies behind them. He had taken it for granted, the privilege of knowing Mark’s every thought, feeling every emotion as they shifted within him. It doesn’t matter—he has the rest of his life to learn again. “Yes, I am.”