It's early days yet for the soulmate timers, long before they become a mandatory accessory, and they cost a pretty penny when they first become commercially available, which means that for five years, the Leung siblings can't afford one, not without breaking the bank. To their father's immense relief, neither of them are very fazed by it, even as everyone around them starts nagging their parents for one of their very own, showing off their rapidly running numbers on the schoolyard. Xiaorou thinks it's fucking ridiculous because all the scientific research on soulmate theory is so full of inconsistencies. Xiaogang just finds it amusing. They're both fairly sure they could make it through the rest of their lives without this soulmate garbage - so when Dad wins the lottery and spends nearly all of it on the operation, they balk behind closed doors, then go through it with a smile so they don't hurt his feelings.
Xiaorou's timer counts down three years, two months, zero weeks, six days, thirty minutes, eight seconds, seven seconds, six -
Xiaogang's timer is blank.
They take great pains to hide it from their father - Xiaogang takes to wearing wristbands all hours of the day. Xiaorou reasons that the timer's probably just faulty, but to get a replacement would probably be so expensive they'd be eating scraps for three months, and honestly, her brother really doesn't care -
he does. He does, but it's easier to let it go.
Life goes on as normal. Xiaorou glances at her timer every now and then, lets herself imagine what her soulmate will be like, but doesn't bother waiting around for them, whoever they are. There are more interesting things in life to pursue.
His third day in college, Tim walks right into Charlie along a crowded hallway and their timers go off. They greet each other with small smiles and he asks her out for coffee after his last class of the day.
It's nice and neat and uncomplicated, and it fits him perfectly. Charlie makes him laugh, makes him see the world in the more beautiful, less analytical light. He meets Peipei, Charlie's best friend, aspiring cardiologist in the same college as they are, and later Sam, Charlie's younger brother, suave, loyal and devoted to his sister. He gets along with both of them like a house on fire.
Life is good.
And then Charlie gets sick.
Sam doesn't get a soulmate timer fitted on until he's twenty and stops fucking around with drugs and the gang. Charlie personally pays for it out of her own pocket, believing that it'll give him a greater sense of responsibility - knowing that there's someone out there who's his as much as he's theirs, she hopes, will sober him up. If he doesn't give a fuck about his own life, she tells him, at least give a fuck about some innocent person out there who's waiting for their soulmate, waiting to meet him, whose heart would break if he bled to death in a back alley after a gang fight and their timer shorted out.
It works, sort of. He smartens up, gets his act together, puts himself on the straight and narrow - but still he scoffs at the idea of the timer. Love can't be defined that way, so cold and arbitrary. He never once looks at the numbers, not really. He respects Charlie's belief in the timer - and she has good reason to, because even Sam has to admit that Tim is perfect for his sister - but he'll fall in love with whoever he pleases.
That's a big reason why he and Xiaorou start dating, which is pretty funny when he thinks about it - getting together because of their shared disdain at the idea of soulmates. Her timer is deactivated - Sam learns that she's already met her soulmate, but he wasn't anything she was looking for, so she turned the damn thing off and went about her life like a "normal person", quote unquote.
Xiaorou is sharp, daring, smart as hell and takes no shit. Sam really, really likes her.
When she's sixteen, Peipei falls in love, and the numbers don't match. She's got twenty years left and Charlie's only got two.
The universe has spoken.
She becomes Charlie's best friend, despite. They share everything - meals, homework, secrets. Charlie frets about her rebellious younger brother and confesses how afraid she is that she'll lose him to the darkness that festers beneath Hong Kong in the form of the underground gangs, and Peipei listens.
Two years later, she meets Tim, and she can't even be jealous.
Tim is perfect.
Josie, Edwin and Terence meet in the police academy. They all walk into the cafeteria at the same time and everyone stares at them when three timers go off simultaneously.
Edwin blinks owlishly in their direction. Terence's so shocked he slips and falls spectacularly on a puddle of milk. Josie goes into hysterics. In short - what they'll come to know as the usual.
Later, when Terence's finished getting his cheek patched up and they're all sitting together in the med bay while a nurse swabs the cut on his knee, they introduce themselves to each other proper.
"I didn't know you could have two," Edwin says, which, unsurprisingly, is his idea of an introduction.
"Well, what do you think?" Josie answers jauntily, swinging her legs over the side of the armchair she's seated in. "I like it."
And just like that, they are three. They click together well - they're soulmates, after all - and consistently top the class during their time at the academy. They're a force to be reckoned with, and when they become colleagues in the CID, they give Shen Xiong no end of trouble.
It's good. People don't get it, but then, they don't need to. They are enough on their own.
Yvonne marries Chris two years before she joins Forensics. He doesn't have a timer and hers continues counting down, but she doesn't care. He's charming, sweeps her off her feet, and looks at her like she hung the stars in the sky. The honeymoon continues long after their wedding.
She's in that blissful state when she meets Shen Xiong. They introduce her to CID, of course - she likes Xiaorou's blunt courage, Josie's wit, Edwin's dedication, Terence's tenacity, and Shen Xiong.
He gets to her, and not just because their timers match. The numbers reflected on the tiny strip are identical, due to go off in a little less than a year. It's not that they're soulmates, obviously, but it does mean that they'll meet their soulmates at the exact same time.
It's pretty weird. They laugh together about it.
They laugh together about a lot of things.
Not like Chris, no.
But she likes him.
When Charlie dies, Tim's timer shorts out, like it should.
The day after the funeral, it reboots itself, starts counting down again.
His wardrobe becomes relegated entirely to blazers, sweaters and a medley of long-sleeved shirts. He tugs the fabric over his wrist and ignores the timer, paying attention to his wedding ring instead. He knows he should just deactivate the timer outright, but somehow, that just doesn't sit right. So he takes the harder way out.
Xiaogang watches his boss hide his numbers and never fails to glance down at his own. So many years, and nothing has changed - it's still grey, quiet, empty.
He's not sure what he's waiting around for anymore, or even if he is.
Xiaorou's timer goes off when she meets John. His doesn't, but he covers his wrist with his other hand and goes to shake hers despite.
"It doesn't matter," he says, and she agrees, she's always agreed, hasn't she?
They're in a committed relationship for a grand total of two years, and then his timer goes off. Suddenly, it matters, it matters so much, and he leaves.
That night she drinks all the vodka she has in the house and deactivates her timer. A couple months after, she starts going out with Sam, who is pleasant enough but whose personality is ultimately incompatible with her own. They break up amicably after a while, with no hard feelings - he becomes her best friend, and he helps Xiaogang out with his timer issue.
She shrugs and continues telling people what she always has - it doesn't matter, she doesn't care, this soulmate stuff is a mistake.
If she lies awake at night sometimes and wonders if, after all, she's the mistake - well, nobody has to know.
Three days after Xiaorou and Sam break up, Xiaogang walks into his sister's room with a dog-eared book, the cover wearing off. He places it gently on her bed and looks up at her with an expression of wonder, relief, joy, understanding. "Sam gave me this to read."
Xiaorou looks up at him, uncomprehending, and he smiles. "Did you know," he says, slow and measured and quiet. "Did you know that aromanticism exists?"
And she's happy for Xiaogang, she's happy that her ex-boyfriend and best friend has helped her brother understand that he's not broken and that his timer isn't faulty after all, but all it does for her is prove one thing - the system is broken.
Tim gives her hope, of some sort. They spend more time together, and he gets her, she gets him, they have a night together, and she thinks she might be falling in love again. It's not John. Maybe it's better. She can't tell.
He tells her it was a mistake, and yeah, definitely not better. She puts her walls back up.
After that, she forgets about the timer altogether.
Chris cheats and leaves.
It's easy to say but hard to stomach, and Yvonne spends entire days just - out of it. She doesn't turn up at work for two days straight, and on the third day, she awakens to the sound of insistent knocking on her front door. When she opens it, it's Shen Xiong, carrying a plastic bag of takeout and his track shoes.
It takes her another six months but she discovers that he knows her better than Chris ever did, from the tarot cards to her love for hiking and running. He's there for her while she pulls herself out of her slump and forces herself to get over Chris, come to terms with her failed relationship and stop blaming herself for his actions.
Chris always saw her as an other half.
Shen Xiong sees her as a whole.
The morning they finish one of their daily runs - something Shen's finally getting used to - she stops at the water cooler and turns to him and out of nowhere, all of a sudden, it feels like she's seeing him for the very first time, all over again.
"Shen," she says. "Thank you. For everything."
Their timers go off.
She laughs until she's sick on a patch of grass next to the cooler.
He kisses her for the first time that day.
Sam is okay with the breakup, when it happens, and to be honest, he sees it coming from a mile away. Xiaorou is still his friend, and their dynamic works better that way, it really does.
He is less okay with Charlie's death, but that's to be expected. He has Tim to lean on when it gets too hard, and he pours his grief out into his writing, tries not to stagnate because he knows that's not what his sister would have wanted for him. She spent so long saving him from himself - he's not going to lay her efforts to waste.
Dingding reminds him of her, in some sense. She brings new light into his life, and she couldn't care less about the idea of soulmates.
They've been dating just two months but he's so deeply in love, he would lay down his life for this girl. Sam sees a future ahead of him, something real, and for the first time he kind of understands what Charlie meant when she talked about living for the sake of someone else, even if he wasn't willing to live for his own sake.
So. He's spent more than a decade working his way back, proving to himself and everyone around him that he's not a coward who hides in the shadows and hurts those weaker than him. That's all thanks to Charlie. This is a different Sam Koo.
When Dingding dies in the explosion, he considers taking the coward's way out for one second - thinks about revenge, thinks about festering anger, thinks about retreating into himself and never allowing himself to love again, to hurt again -
He thinks he's better for it.
Tim gets kidnapped.
When he's rescued, he blocks out pretty much all his memories of the ordeal, of being trapped in the container without food, water, believing he was going to die. It's the mind's response to trauma. He knows that.
He remembers Charlie, though.
And he remembers Xiaorou.
She visits him in the hospital. He can barely speak, he's still so delirious and drugged up, but he needs to tell her, and he tries -
it wasn't a mistake, he realises that now.
It wasn't a mistake.
She isn't a mistake.
He doesn't need to say it -
her timer reactivates, and his goes off.
It's a cacophony in the tiny hospital room. Xiaorou looks down at where their hands are clasped together and exhales, soft and disbelieving and desperately relieved.
He closes his eyes, and lets Charlie slip away for the last time.
Dingding gets a proper funeral that befits someone who lay down her life in service of her home. Sam walks into the church with Tim the day they're taking her to be cremated and his timer fucking goes off.
The first thing he feels is relieved, and he wonders if he's been waiting all this time after all, just that he didn't know it.
The woman standing by Dingding's casket turns and meets his eyes, and something shifts inside him. Her eyes widen.
"Hi, I'm Sam," he says, the words spilling out of his mouth without him even thinking.
Her eyes well up with tears. "I'm Peipei."
Tim's by his side, breathing a quiet sigh of understanding.
The world falls into place, and Sam just - finally gets it.
If a clock could count down to the moment you meet your soul mate,
would you want to know?
"Yes." Josie grins, tossing popcorn at Edwin and Terence's heads.
"Yes." Shen Xiong says, looking at Yvonne from across the dinner table, the candles illuminating her face.
"Yes." Peipei echoes, her voice reverberating against the walls of the chapel.
"Yes." Xiaogang smirks, a wicked grin on his face.
"Yes." Xiaorou whispers, when Tim slides the wedding ring on her finger.