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Kismet or Kiss Me

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“It’s surprisingly big. Empty, even.”

"The high ceilings right?" Jisoo pours out half his thermos of lukewarm coffee into a styrofoam cup and stands. “It's not so daunting once you get used to it.” He approaches the newcomer, who remains within inches of the doorway with one hand holding an elbow as his eyes flit over the many screens, wires, and print outs stuck to the walls. When Jisoo grabs him by the wrist to press the coffee into his hand, Jeonghan twitches.

Jisoo only catches the movement out of the corner of his eye because the twitch nearly spills some of the liquid, but he instantly offers a smile. "You owe me for this," he jokes clumsily while nudging Jeonghan with his shoulder. "It’s the equivalent of liquid gold around these parts."

Jeonghan's eyes are drawn over the rim of the plastic as he takes a sip, wide and unblinking. A few moments after he's lowered the drink, the back of his tongue protests, triggering a gag reflex too late to counteract the acrid swallow of something. "What am I drinking?" He asks, entire face scrunching up.

Jisoo snorts, and then laughs for real when Jeonghan's fingers curl tighter around the cup in response to Jisoo reaching over to take it back. "Sludge siphoned off of the jaegers after they're brought in for repairs, I'm sure. Also known as caf coffee."

"Well, thanks," Jeonghan says without any inflection.

"No problem," Jisoo replies sincerely, the folds of skin at the sides of his eyes crinkling with his smile. "Have to ease you in gently today."

Jeonghan slowly lowers the drink from his lips. "Is that a threat?"

Jisoo laughs again, not unkindly, and beckons Jeonghan further inside what Hyeryung affectionately refers to as 'their lair'. He points out a mass of tangled cables on the floor to make sure Jeonghan steps over them instead of tripping, and then leads him around to the back of the semi-circular room, where he's been holed up since four o'clock this morning, making tweaks on the design software to match up their print outs of how they expect the inside of the big gaping hole in the Pacific to look like. "Oh! I bet you've never seen the 3D rendering before! I’ve been using this to model the breach."

For something that’s spurting out giant reptiles every month or so, the facsimile of the fissure acting as a portal for kaijus to enter their world is very pretty. Jisoo’s unfinished blueprint stands in a faintly turquoise three dimensional hologram with lights bending over Jeonghan's skin when he reaches a hand forward to touch. The lack of tactile feedback surprises him into a sudden jerking motion forwards that accidentally changes the height of the column. Without being chastised, he snatches his fingers back, wrapping both hands around the coffee cup again while Jisoo splays a hand out and lifts the construct back up to where it was before.

"Fascinating," Jeonghan murmurs, the reflection of the lights in his dark irises completing the starry-eyed look. He hesitates. "But I was under the impression that the job was going to be modelling incidents over time, not the breach itself."

"Yeah." Jisoo's shoulders rise and fall. "That's in our job descriptions too, but we've basically been playing catch up since the beginning. Whether it's the wall or the jaegers, we're like curious children playing poker with no idea what the suits on the cards mean." He takes a long drink from his thermos, nearly seven hours since he last filled it up, before turning back to Jeonghan.

"Well, I guess that’s what I've been working on recently. Hyeryung's been debugging code all night, which is why she isn't here now by the way, off on a nap. Mostly she does analyses of any specimens we get our hands on and makes her own fancy software to do it. As for you...we were hoping to get someone to look over the patterns of the past attacks again. The both of us have tried a ton of different algorithms for it and neither of us are bad at math or stats but we were never able to make a regression that fit the trend in any satisfying way. Well, that’s if the events are even predictable at all. We have a debate about that one at least twice a week." Jisoo straightens his back and offers Jeonghan a tentative smile. "You can basically use anything that doesn't look like it's in the process of computing, pen and paper, tablet, desktop, laptop, we're not judgmental about what kind of technology you use. Not that we're judgmental about anything else either, I mean. Sorry, wow, that didn’t really come out right." Jisoo pats down the hair at the back of his head nervously, not expecting Jeonghan to start giggling.

"Can I just ask, are you nervous?"

The carafe wobbles and threatens to tumble off the table when Jisoo puts it down and he hastens to set it upright. "Um. I'm not super great at people? Meeting strangers is kinda..."

Laughter graces his ears, distinctive but warm. It’s the first sign of positive emotion that Jisoo's been able to elicit from Jeonghan yet, but the effect is diminished when it stems from him being mocked. He waits until Jeonghan finally calms down enough to speak, but one look at the red tips of Jisoo's ears and the way Jisoo rubs his neck while looking off to the side sends Jeonghan into a fit of laughter again, doubled over with his jaw hanging open.

"Hyung!" A voice calls from the doorway, putting an end to Jeonghan's amusement. "You're not that funny, stop laughing at your own jokes—oh, hello." Mingyu's hand cups over his mouth before quickly lowering so he can wave. He reveals a neat row of teeth in a smile that lifts the apples of his cheeks. "The newbie. You should have prepared a welcoming party, Jisoo-hyung!" He bounds forward only to skid to a stop when Jisoo runs toward him, arms outstretched.

"Behind the line!" Jisoo half-bellows, waving his arms.

"Yeah, okay, I got it, I got it." Mingyu says, keeping his feet behind the cracked yellow paint on the floor. As soon as Jisoo's close enough, Mingyu drags him forward by the arm, until they're shoulder to shoulder and facing K-Science's newest hire. "C'mon hyung, you gotta introduce me!"

"Uh, this is," Jisoo pauses and turns his head to Mingyu again. "Wait, do you have a rank?"

"Hyung," Mingyu whines, swinging Jisoo's arm back and forth, "don't act like we're strangers."

"He's worse with strangers." Jeonghan extends a hand, bypassing the middleman. "Yoon Jeonghan, Science Officer, latest addition to the Busan shatterdome."

"Kim Mingyu," he replies enthusiastically, releasing Jisoo from his clutches to pump Jeonghan's hand up and down with vigor. "J-Tech, resident head engineer. And you'll find that's actually Best shatterdome." Mingyu turns to look at Jisoo, who's staring up at the scribbled numbers on the overhead screen without really seeing them. "Hyung, I like him!"

"Yeah,” Jisoo nods earnestly, “and I hired him because I didn’t like him, right?"

"Sense…” Mingyu quickly turns his attention back to Jeonghan crushing the styrofoam cup in his hand and craning his neck over the edges of tables. “Have you been on the grand tour yet? Seen your bunk? The jaeger bays? What about LOCCENT?"

Jisoo eases the cup from Jeonghan’s tight grip. “Slow down with the questions,” he admonishes, voice fading over the course of the steps he takes away from them to toss the cup into the trash.

On his return he opens his mouth to suggest doing a tour later, in the evening maybe when the shatterdome isn't bustling with people and is therefore less overwhelming, but Jeonghan’s already started speaking himself. "I dropped my things off this morning, but my room’s all I’ve seen."

"Well, most of the action happens on the other side of the compound, and if you’re here you might not need to know where everything else is. You should still check out everything, though! Are you hungry? Lunch already started in the mess so we can start there, maybe introduce you to some people."

Jeonghan shakes his hair back and turns to look at Jisoo. "Well, he’s the boss. I just got here, so I don’t know if I’ve earned a lunch break even if I’m being ‘eased in gently’." There’s something mischievous in those eyes, but it’s not Jeonghan that makes Jisoo cave.

Under Mingyu’s pleading expression, Jisoo can only smile weakly. “Well, we might have more energy if we’re well fed first.”

Jeonghan straightens immediately and, without verbally acknowledging Jisoo’s approval, starts walking in step with Mingyu, exuding a confidence that sharply contrasted the meek way he looked standing in the doorway to the K-Science labs.

The sudden change has Jisoo raising an eyebrow, and his face is still drawn when an arm is thrown around Jisoo’s neck halfway down the hallway. He looks down to see chipped red nail polish belonging to the hand used to yank him into a chokehold. “Why do you look like a lost lamb?” Hyeryung berates, her voice causing Mingyu and Jeonghan to turn around.

“Jo Hyeryung,” Jisoo explains with watery eyes, “meet Yoon Jeonghan.” He’s finally let go of when her attention shifts to their new coworker.

“Ah, Yoon-ssi, it’s such a pleasure,” she trills, giving a little salute before shaking his hand. The arm that had just been used to manhandle Jisoo loops around Jeonghan’s elbow, a graceful movement which extends into her speech, which is suddenly inquisitive and friendly. The fluid sidestep she takes to settle in beside Jeonghan displaces Mingyu, who’s acknowledged with little more than a pat on the head. Hyeryung, who had never so much as passed Jisoo a paperclip, tints her voice with warmth and leans close to Jeonghan’s ear. “I’m sure you’ll settle in quickly, but if you need any help feel free to ask. Us non-military types have to help each other out.”

“Aren’t we non-military too?” Mingyu demands, stopping suddenly to voice his dismay. The others continue walking without him, but it only takes him an extra half step to fall back in line with Jisoo. The tiny downturn of his lips goes unnoticed by the two in front, but Jisoo consoles him with a pat on the back. “Hyeryung-noona’s never helped me with anything before.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen any time soon. At least she doesn’t actively try to make your life miserable.”

Mingyu’s lip curls. “It’s because I’m cute and you’re not, I know. That reminds me, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“After insulting my face? Forget it.” Jisoo quickens his steps, but it’s futile against Mingyu’s long legs.

“I only said you weren’t cute! You’re very attractive, Jisoo-hyung, in a handsome guy kind of way.”

Jisoo closes his eyes, unimpressed. “To be honest it’s not the lack of flattery working against you here. The last time you asked for a favor…”

“Hey, wait, hang on, that wasn’t my fault! Okay, it kind of was, but it wasn’t like I knowingly blew up half the room. Weapons testing, you know, there’s always a little bit of risk involved.”

“Uh-huh. Risk that can be kept inside the jaeger bays and away from the science labs where months of research is stored.” Jisoo tucks a hand in one pocket of his khakis. “There is literally a ‘do not trespass line’ now because of you. I’m not dealing with that again.”

“Um…Always back up your files to the server?” Mingyu bares his teeth awkwardly, lips stretching sideways. “Aw, come on hyung, don’t hold grudges. Besides, this favor doesn’t require any experimenting, so nothing’s going to explode this time, I promise.”

“‘N’ is for ‘never letting Kim Mingyu back into the lab’, ‘O’ is for ‘once was enough’. You promised it’d be painless for me last time too.”

Mingyu pulls out the full body puppy pout, jutting out his lower lip, hanging his head down, dragging his feet, and slumping his shoulders. “How come you let the newbie go to lunch early but won’t even listen to my request?”

“Jeonghan-ssi works for me,” Jisoo points out. “You create more work for me. And he’s older than you, so please try not to pull out too many of your hazing tricks.”

“I’ve worked here longer.” Mingyu sticks out his tongue. “And they’re all in good fun! I’ve never seen someone become unhappier because of a prank, except for maybe Jihoon-hyung...Anyway, don’t tip him off, we’ve got—”

Whatever prank Mingyu’s about to explain gets drowned out by Jeonghan’s voice blurting, “No way!” The sound reverberates off the pipes in the vaulted ceiling, bouncing between bars of metal arched and high above their heads. Most of the bones of the building are exposed like this, because there’s no sense wasting effort on finished drywall. As long as the shatterdome is functional, its aesthetics come second.

“Yup, stuck his hand down the front of jeans and pulled them out, just like that.” Hyeryung says with a giggle. “The print on the boxers was pink and purple hearts too. Scene straight out of Zoolander. I figure he just walked around with a pair of underwear inside his pants the entire time, but it was hilarious.”

Jisoo groans.

“He didn’t seem the type,” Jeonghan says, appraising Jisoo under a new light.

“That’s exactly my point. Don’t be too scared of the boss, no matter what he looks like. Maybe we’ll get a reprise tonight.” She wiggles her eyebrows at Jisoo and grins at his glare.

Mingyu shakes his head. “No skits tonight. No one’s had time to prepare anything so, unless Seokmin and Soonyoung-hyung have an impromptu dance off, the most entertainment we’re getting will be a movie. Come to think of it, a classic Ben Stiller’s not a terrible idea. Could even punch in the sequel.”

“Please no,” Jisoo whispers, the sound drowned out by the increasingly louder voices coming from dozens of personnel breaking for lunch in the canteen. The place isn’t as full as it can get before noon, but there’s still a racket.

“I won’t make Seungkwan play it if you agree to help me out,” Mingyu says loudly over the din. He cranes his neck and waves to two familiar faces before ushering Jeonghan quickly into the kitchen for food.

“That’s low,” Jisoo complains, walking behind them. It’s early enough that there’s no line up, and they get to take the time to show Jeonghan where everything is, including the water station, food disposal, napkins, cutlery, and all.

“Suit yourself then, Zoolander it is.” Mingyu winks lavishly at the serving lady, who pretends to fling a ratty old cloth at his head. He turns to make vague hand gestures at Jisoo, holding a thumb and two fingers up behind his back.

Jisoo rolls his eyes, but he still leans in to watch Jeonghan being handed a giant slab of something brown and so dark it’s nearly black. It jiggles while being passed over, then continues wobbling while Jeonghan walks with it, staring down at his meal with furrowed brows. Mingyu gets handed much the same, and flashes an innocent look with batted eyelashes at Jeonghan when he spins around to look at Mingyu’s tray. Jisoo ends up carrying three servings of lunch on two trays, while Hyeryung silently cackles behind him.

“Is this…what’s this type of food called?” Jeonghan whispers into Mingyu’s ear, avoiding the eyes of those already seated and praying none of them read lips. “Is it not Korean? I don’t think I’ve ever had it before.”

He looks so embarrassed about not knowing that Mingyu loses his composure briefly, turning around to smile into his hand and converting uncontrollable snickers into fake coughs. “Nutrition bars,” Mingyu responds after clearing his throat. “All the protein, fats, carbs, and vitamins you need in jell-o form. Tastes like crap though.”

“Oh,” Jeonghan says. He’s guided to a table with mostly vacant spots. The two seats taken are occupied by the same people Mingyu had waved at earlier, both of them suppressing their eagerness at watching Jeonghan set down his tray and sitting in front of it, clocking the trepidation written on his face in the worried wrinkles of his forehead. He pokes at it with a spoon, lips pursed, eyes following its oscillating movements. “Oh.”

Mingyu’s eyes tear up with the struggle of hiding his silent laughter, carefully avoiding anyone else’s gaze lest he really erupt into a fit of giggles. They watch Jeonghan hem and haw, eyes remaining steady on the plate, and upon the next time he reaches forward to prod at it, Mingyu has to bring the joke to its conclusion. He shoves his own spoon into the mound and hovels all of it into his own mouth, nearly spitting it all back out with his laughter at Jeonghan’s taken aback expression.

“It’s grass jelly!” Mingyu explains, hand covering his mouth but not stifling laughter.

Jisoo spins real food into Jeonghan’s hands, pushing the grass jelly to the middle of the table. There’s egg rolls and breaded fried chicken, bite-sized sausages and both fresh and pickled vegetables. Jeonghan’s jaw drops, and he finally looks up to notice that there’s rice on everyone else’s dishes too. “What?” He frowns at the grass jelly. “What’s going on?”

There’s another tray set down with a clamor, and a shrill voice cuts over the conversations surrounding them. “Kim Mingyu are you still up to the same pranks?” Seungkwan has a smile on his face rather than a chastising appearance, and he gleefully high fives Mingyu’s outstretched palm.

“You know it,” Mingyu chirps in English, puffing out his chest and lifting his chin while grinning back.

“Boo Seungkwan,” he says by way of introduction, tilting his head up and framing his face with his fingers. “Med team, and, as you’ll soon learn, the only person around here that cares about anyone’s health, so I’m sure you’ll be wanting my advice. Since you’re new I’ll let you have a few tips for free. Let’s see, eat food, not too much, get enough sleep, drink water, try not to get in between Hyeryung and Jisoo’s fights so you don’t get a black eye. Mingyu’s the only person in this entire godforsaken shatterdome that can give decent haircuts, but our access to fashion pieces is basically nonexistent so what’s the point, at least military greens all match, or the white coat covers everything. Have I missed anything? I don’t think so, that’ll about do it for now anyway, I’m open to providing more life lessons whenever I’m not busy.” After his rambling introduction, his gaze shifts from skyward to towards Jeonghan’s face. “So…you’re the new—holy shit.” Seungkwan breaks off suddenly.

The five others at their table turn to look for the source of what stopped Seungkwan talking, only to see him blinking dazedly at Jeonghan, who stared back at Seungkwan with confusion. “Um, I’m Yoon Jeonghan, the newest hire in K-Science?”

“Like, you’re,” Seungkwan fills in quickly, trying his best to recover. “You must be the prettiest person I’ve ever met?”

Jeonghan’s eyes go round, but it’s not enough to stop the barrage of compliments from Seungkwan.

“Well, Yoon Jungorgeous, I’m sorry for my silly friend over here,” at this he waves a hand at Mingyu, “that prank was in horrible taste. Let me apologize on his behalf, he’s just really dumb, I’ll ask for forgiveness even if he won’t. I’ve always hated his practical jokes, this one in particular because, hello, food waste! Right?”

Mingyu rolls his eyes and aims a kick at Seungkwan’s shins. “You’re worse than me. Stop it. It’s fine, Minghao loves grass jelly, he can eat it for dessert.”

“I’m not your fucking compost bin,” the man beside Mingyu snarls. “Don’t volunteer me to clean up your messes. And who the hell is going to be able to eat that much grass jelly in one sitting?”

“You’re right, you’re not a compost bin, you’re a trash can,” Mingyu retorts. “Why do you have to be such a hog? Who said you were going to eat all of it? The rest of us want to eat dessert too, we can share.”

“Eat shit.”

“Excuse me!” Seungkwan protests. “Seriously, let’s focus on the important issue at hand. His face is...”

“Very pretty,” the person sitting across from Minghao says. He puts down his eating utensils and rests his jaw on one hand, looking at Jeonghan with batted eyelashes. “Don’t hate me for interrupting, Seungkwan, but I need to know. What’s it like, Jeonghan-ssi, seeing jaeger pilots up close and personal for the first time in your life?”

Seungkwan pushes at him sideways with a forearm, and Junhui quickly relents, letting Seungkwan stab at him with a finger and swear at him without any retaliation. Mingyu introduces Rangers Xu and Wen, four kills together in the newest Mark-IV jaeger, Imperishable Grey. “You’d think they’d be scary but Junhui-hyung’s not actually a predator and Minghao’s friends with everyone so don’t be shy.”

Junhui raises his eyebrows twice and bites down on his lower lip, releasing slowly. “Yeah, don’t be shy at all. We won’t…eat you.” The corners of his lips shine after his tongue trails across them, reflecting the massive high bay fluorescent lights hanging from the high ceiling.

“You can say I’m friends with everyone but I refuse to be friends with either of you.” Minghao shoots successive looks of disgust at both Junhui and Mingyu.

“Don’t be like that! It’s true that we’re not friends anyway, we’re best friends!” Mingyu tugs Minghao’s head down and gets swiftly thrown off, but Minghao doesn’t voice disagreement.

“Anyway,” Seungkwan says with drawn out vowel sounds. He waves a spoonful of rice for emphasis. “Like I said, I’m the one around here who takes care of people. Why don’t I show you around after lunch?”

Mingyu quickly disentangles himself from fighting Minghao. “Hey, hey, hey, I called dibs on giving him the tour an hour ago.”

“Okay but I clearly value his beauty more. Who knows what pranks you still have up your sleeve?”

“I wouldn’t want to be disruptive to your work,” Jeonghan interrupts. “Either of you. Although I appreciate the offer.”

“Oh I don’t mind,” Seungkwan says quickly, leaning forward.

“And I don’t mind either! You need someone who knows everything about this building to show you around it, and as someone who oversees its structural integrity, there’s no better candidate than me.” Mingyu snaps his fingers and folds them into the shape of a pistol underneath his chin, flashing Jeonghan a confident smile.

“So what?” Seungkwan scoffs. “You’re going to tell him the heights of the walls and the distances from one room to the next? Please. When you move to a new place, what you need to integrate? A detailed map and blueprints? Oh no, no, no. To really get a feel for a place what you have to know is the gossip, the latest buzz, and the hidden dirt. And let me tell you Kim Mingyu, you don’t have thumbs in half as many pies as I do. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and I know everyone down to their blood type. I’ll have him introduced to everyone by the end of the day and he’ll feel right at home.”

Mingyu turns his head, hand hovering by his mouth to keep his muttered comeback from being heard or read by Seungkwan. “It’s literally your job to know people’s blood types because if you didn’t you couldn’t give out blood transfusions.”

“If you have something to say, say it to my face!” Seungkwan raises a fist above his head, mouth downturned with displeasure at Mingyu’s jibe. Junhui tries to grab his hand to calm him down but when the fist turns over his head, he backs down.

“I didn’t say anything!” Mingyu says shrilly.

“Whatever. I would be honored if you joined me after lunch for a quick survey of the shatterdome, Yoon-ssi,” Seungkwan says, extending his hand with palm facing up.

“Just Jeonghan is fine,” is the reply, but it’s intercepted by Jisoo piping up with pragmatics.

“Even if you two can afford to slack off on the job, the rest of us have to work. The entire morning was a bust so I have to catch Jeonghan up to speed on what we’re doing this afternoon. I’ll show him around after dinner.”

Seungkwan frowns. “Spoilsport.”

“You don’t have time after dinner either,” Mingyu pipes up. “Movie night. Speaking of, Seungkwan-ah, we should definitely watch Zoolan—”

“—No! Fine! I give up! Take him on a tour, just do not let that be the movie.” Jisoo retracts his torso away from the table, hands up defensively. There’s panic written in his eyes, which are blown wide, even if his chin is jutted up to exude an air of apathy.

Mingyu grins. His fingers tap an upbeat rhythm on the tray below, fingernails clacking to match the background sounds of cutlery on dishware. “And the favor…? Aw, come on, it’s just computation, Jisoo-hyung!” There’s a tone of expectancy in his voice, like he’d planned for this outcome, and Jisoo relents with the definite sense that he’d been played.

“Fine, fine, drop by tomorrow morning with my minion in tact and I’ll see what I can do. Although, if you want someone to check your math you should really ask Junhui.”

“Oh, you’re right. Junhui-hyung~” Mingyu calls, rounding on his next victim with an artificially innocent smile on his face.

Junhui clicks his tongue. “Ah, about that…If you want me to do something like that, you know, if you want me to help you, Mingyu…” He trails off touching the four fingers of his right hand to his thumb twice, hand held in front of him. The knee of his right leg overlaps his left thigh, and the expression on his face is closed off, although there’s a tiny lift to the corner of his lips.

There’s not much on his tray to offer but Mingyu immediately parts with an egg roll, picking it up with his chopsticks and laying it on top of Junhui’s rice with a flourish. He blinks brightly, straightening his back, the chopsticks in his hand clicking against each other with anticipation.

“Hm…” Junhui raises an eyebrow, crossing his arms to match the position of his legs.

In the years he spent pursuing his master’s in mechanical engineering at Seouldae, Mingyu scraped through dozens of math classes. His numbers are normally sound, but checking his work always ends up in him agreeing with his past self, unable to spot glaringly obvious errors. The other option is to punch the entire sequence into a computer, but one way or another he’s going to have to get these calculations checked before they can seal the new jaeger up, and handing over a piece of fried chicken thigh to Junhui is easier than manually inputting or verifying that the OCR doesn’t make more mistakes of its own.

With exaggerated gusto, Junhui holds both his hands to his face. “Wow! I wonder where this extra piece of meat came from! I must be really lucky today!” He winks quickly at Mingyu. “I hope I’ll be lucky tomorrow too. Minghao, we have training at 0930 right? I guess I’ll spend some time at K-Sci between the time that I wake up and the time we have to be in the combat room.”

The withering look Minghao gives Junhui nearly suppresses the groan bubbling up from within Mingyu, but the sound escapes his lips anyway at the thought of crawling up from his bunk at the ass crack of dawn. With the number of sacrifices he’s making just to confirm angles and forces, there had better be something wrong to fix or the entire effort will seem like a waste. At least if he wakes up before 0600 it’ll be lunch time in Kodiak Island, although that’s a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel too far to consider while watching Junhui tear slightly soggy breaded skin off the meat of the chicken, Mingyu’s eyes drawn to the movement of Junhui’s strong, square jaw as he chews with contentment.

“Dr. Boo! Seungkwan!” The chewing pauses momentarily while the voice draws the table’s attention to the approaching medical staff, white coat billowing around grape purple scrubs, low heels on a pair of sturdy white pumps clacking quickly against the shiny black flooring while she strides toward them.

Mingyu waves at Jiho and shifts sideways so they can squish together and make room for her to sit down and eat her own lunch, but she doesn’t have a tray in her hands. Instead, she carries a tablet that she passes straight into Seungkwan’s grasp over the top of Mingyu’s head. “File from Shanghai. I have the video call on hold in your office.” She speaks efficiently, directly to Seungkwan, whose gaze darts sideways before looking down at the report.

Fucking hell, I already told them the priority is to recover consciousness. They haven’t even started looking into— Fuck.” Seungkwan grumbles in crisp English, a slight hint of a New England twang, and stands immediately. “Sorry Mr. Beautiful, looks like Mingyu’s going to have to tell you about paint drying after all. Someone get my tray, would you?” He practically leaps over the bench to sweep around the table, giving Junhui’s shoulder a squeeze before sprinting through an increasing crowd of people with Jiho hot on his heels.

“Kim Jiho, medical,” Mingyu supplies quietly, mouth speaking to Jeonghan but eyes narrowed on Junhui. He watches the movement of Junhui’s Adam’s apple with the swallow of that first bite of chicken, chest tightening at the sight of Junhui’s pursed lips.

Despite being given away only a few minutes prior, the piece of fried chicken finds itself back on Mingyu’s tray. His eyes meet Junhui’s and the quip about not wanting half-eaten food dies in his throat. Transformed from lazy smile to awkward grimace, Junhui’s mouth looks tight, his jaw clamped firmly shut, and even his shoulders are raised. The tension dissipates from his face after he deliberately puts down his chopsticks and pulls Seungkwan’s tray toward himself, stacking both unfinished meals one on top of the other in front of him, but the haunted look that scared Mingyu out of telling his joke remains in Junhui’s eyes.

“Give it here, I’ll clean up.” Mingyu makes for both trays, for one because it’s not a hardship on him to carry some extra dishes and for two because it’s the only way he knows how to help.

They’re slid just out of Mingyu’s reach. “Don’t. Let me look chivalrous in front of the pretty one. Make sure to drop by the combat room on your tour so he can get a look at my good side.” Junhui flits a smile at Jeonghan and stands.

“Yeah? Which side’s that?” Minghao asks sarcastically through a mouthful of grass jelly. He forks as much of it as he can into his mouth while also rising.

Junhui raises an eyebrow. “All of them, obviously. But I suppose none match the stunning beauty of our new friend. He’s K-Sci, too. A beautiful brain to match a beautiful face.”

“Fuck, I hate you. I can’t believe I walked into that one, shit,” Minghao swears. “Let’s get going, birdbrain, before he thinks you’re being serious.” He drags Junhui off to the cleaning station, meeting not very much resistance. In fact, Junhui’s hip digs into Minghao’s waist, but he doesn’t say a word about supporting his weight, at least not within earshot.

“Oh. Was he not serious?” Jeonghan asks, eyes scanning over the remaining three’s faces in an attempt to assess the situation. “That’s too bad. He was pretty.”

Hyeryung blanches. “Damn, your type is Wen Junhui?”

“If Minghao says he wasn’t being serious then we probably have to believe him. Mind you, he’s been inside Junhui’s head and still doesn’t really understand him, so who knows?” Mingyu’s eyes trail after them; his intense focus and the tight grip of his fingers around his own tray revealing his worry.

“Erm…Is that something that normally comes with piloting a jaeger together?”

“Yeah, mind melding is a pretty well documented side effect,” Jisoo tells Jeonghan, voice soft. “Pons relay system leads to shared memories, instincts, and even emotions. If your initial bond doesn’t mean you already understood everything about a person, the neural handshake guarantees you now do.”

“Then why?” Jeonghan makes vague hand gestures in the direction Junhui and Minghao wandered off to.

Mingyu shrugs. “When they were finding him a new copilot, apparently Junhui was drift compatible with half the roster of incoming trainees. And yet, Minghao reports that his mind’s almost entirely closed off. Not sure how that’s possible but then, I don’t do pons system.”

“Wait. A new copilot?” Jeonghan wipes his mouth with a napkin, full and surprisingly satisfied with the meal. He eyes the remaining pile of grass jelly, wondering if they get punished for food waste when the coastal areas have been rationing for ages.

“Didn’t you know? Junhui’s the most successful ranger to come out of the jaeger program. 12 kills with his old partner, Yao Mingming, no failed missions in that entire run, until the end, anyway. That’s twice the average number of kaiju destroyed per jaeger and then four more so far with Minghao. Pretty sure the PPDC want to clone Junhui considering how long he’s been standing,” Mingyu says.

Jisoo nods. “Mingming’s been attached to all sorts of wires in Shanghai ever since Tomorrow Dawning went down on their thirteenth mission together. It was a pretty big news story when it happened, they were both superstar status by that point, as if being some of the first rangers out of China weren’t headline breaking already.”

“Were they stationed in China? That might be why I’m not familiar with the story,” Jeonghan suggests.

“No, they were mostly here. Started out in Hong Kong but were transferred to our shatterdome nearly as soon as Marshal Choi was made Marshal.”

“I sometimes forget Seungcheol-hyung was a ranger before he was a marshal,” Mingyu says.

Jisoo laughs mirthlessly, tossing down spoon after finishing the last bite of rice. His tray is spickety span, not a single grain or crumb left behind from any of his food. “Somehow, I don’t think he’ll ever forget.”

Hyeryung brings a hand down on Jisoo’s shoulder, hard, and squeezes until her nails leave crescent-shaped indentations in the skin below the fabric of his clothing. “We’re not in the business of erasing memories, but I’m sure that breach model can occupy your mind for a little while. Back to work. Leave the little ones to have their shatterdome adventures by themselves.”

“Yeah...Yeah, alright. Come back with my new hire still safe, Mingyu,” Jisoo warns. “Or else…or else…or else I’ll…”

“Don’t worry.” Hyeryung brightens. She blows a kiss at Jeonghan and giggles at Mingyu. “I’m sure he knows what’ll happen to him by my hand should he fail.”

“That’s scary, noona.” Mingyu tosses his cutlery in their respective disposal containers, dumps the chicken bones into compost, and leaves the tray on the conveyor belt for the mechanized dishwashing bots to their work on cleaning and disinfecting.

Jeonghan is particularly entranced by the scrubbers, red sponges soaping every crevice of the trays, motorized wheel spinning rapidly to really scrub it down. With the notable exceptions of cooking and thinking, much of the shatterdome is automated, from robots as simple as the vacuuming roombas sweeping the floors at night to ones as complicated as the jaeger maintenance helpers that run routine checks on optimal functioning and perform basic repairs if possible. Mingyu smiles and pats the top of a bot that needs its squeegee replaced.

“You know that this is a professional workplace right? Literally no one else uses the honorifics you use, doesn’t it feel weird for you?” Hyeryung twists Mingyu’s ear on her way out, yanking hard enough to make him stumble sideways.

“Ow, ow, ow, doesn’t it feel impersonal to only use last names and –ssi when we all live together under the same roof?”

She scoffs. “We’re not at a vacation house, think of this like army service. See you later.”

Jisoo walks backward beside her, glaring at Mingyu with surprising force considering it’s just taking someone on a tour. “Seriously man, I really don’t want to have to run another set of interviews.”

“Not a people person,” Jeonghan quips. He gets a raised hand and a brief wave while Jisoo turns around.

“Really? Jisoo-hyung’s really nice though, I can’t think of anyone he doesn’t get along with here.” Mingyu slings an arm around Jeonghan steering him back toward the kitchens, where the end of lunch rush is in full swing, packed with military personnel and civilians alike, while the cooks hurry to feed some of the hundreds of workers at the shatterdome. Even with the bustle around them, Mingyu slips them to the back, where a cook pours water into an enormous pot of rice.

She raises an eyebrow and points to his chest with a calloused hand, wrinkled with age and years of working in boiling hot and freezing cold. “What have I said about being back here during meal times? Especially when it’s this busy?”

“Eomeoni~” Mingyu grins. He gives Jeonghan a nudge forwards and holds out his hands to present him. “Meet our newbie, Yoon Jeonghan. He’s working with Jisoo-hyung and Hyeryung-noona in the science labs. I’m taking him on a tour!”

“Ah, adding another one to the list of people who forget to eat at designated mealtimes then,” she gripes, nodding at Jeonghan’s bow.

Mingyu covers his mouth to stifle his laughter but it slips around his fingers and hangs in the air, a light tinkling sound. “Jeonghan, this is the angel who’s responsible for all of us gaining weight even though food is supposed to be getting rationed, head chef Park. She might not look it but she’s very happy to meet another person to fatten up.”

“Don’t put words into my mouth,” she admonishes, hands on her hips. Almost instantly she softens. “Take some apples with you before you leave.”

“Oh no, we just ate, we’re not hungry,” Jeonghan says quickly.

“Nonsense. Walking around this big place you’ll be hungry again in no time. Mingyu, you know where the fruits are. Off with you two.”

“See? She’s definitely happy.” Mingyu tosses an apple to Jeonghan and rolls the other one back and forth in the palm of his hand. He stops to wave at one of the J-Tech mechanics in the lunch line before guiding Jeonghan out and heading in a different direction from the K-Science labs, toward the eastern half of the shatterdome.

Every hallway in the dome eventually circles to the jaeger bays, whether via a straight or roundabout path, and it’s through the curved corridors of the perimeter that Mingyu leads Jeonghan, skipping over grates and fingers lingering on metal railings with chipped black paint. Most of the bunks are toward the north of the facility, lining the farthest wall. Working in K-Science requires the least distance from ‘home’ to work, although the main hub and cafeteria are located more centrally. Mingyu points out the closest washroom shower facilities to Jeonghan’s room, but also the ones that are furthest from the dorms and thus usually remain cleanest. They comb through several passageways so Mingyu can identify Jisoo and Hyeryung’s bunks with the rest of the non-military personnel, including Seungkwan’s and his own, in case Jeonghan ever needs to find one of them for something.

After basic eating and sleeping essentials are covered, they loop around the combat rooms, and gym facilities. In a small garden with skylights for ceilings, Jeonghan names plant after plant walking between rows of germinating seedlings. At the med bay with its sterile white walls, they pass by Seungkwan’s closed door from within which they can barely make out the sounds of heated voices. After ambling by a series of offices for the higher-ups and even more labs, they finally arrive in the jaeger bays. In all its glory, lying tangential to the port of Busan, there’s a hum of quiet activity in something like the world’s biggest car garage except the Transformers are permanently in robot form instead of folded into vehicles for storage.

The first time Mingyu walked into the jaeger bays he’d gotten lost hanging back with wide-eyed wonder at the sights and sounds around them. He had stared, transfixed, as the blue flame of a welding torch melted together two chest plates on Tomorrow Dawning. Nearby, a remote controlled helper arm reset a layer of magnetic red. The wet paint had shone, matching the shiny chrome and black. In order to get a closer look, he abandoned the tour group and never found his way back. A quarter of an hour later, they’d finally found him, leaning over the railing and staring up at someone in a hard hat barking orders to scurrying mechanics. Hyung hadn’t chastised him or even looked at him funny, but he also hadn’t let him out of sight after that, tugging Mingyu around by the sleeve in case he got lost again.

Jeonghan, however, isn’t really the type to wander off. He’s also not the type to become amazed by the enormity of humanity’s greatest weapons, the last defense between mankind and the kaiju. His eyes follow where Mingyu’s finger points, but they’re glazed over even if Mingyu doesn’t notice, blinded by his own excitement over the robots.

“The gold one with electric orange accents over there, bay five, that’s Perihelion Star. It looks the smallest but it’s probably the heaviest. Strongest armor, and biggest armory. Plasmacasters where you can’t even imagine, armpits, knees, you name it. That’s Seokmin and Soonyoung-hyung’s jaeger, you’ll probably meet them tonight when we group for the movie.” He waves his arms to point out each of the locations of the plasmacasters on his own human anatomy, and Jeonghan gives him a wan smile.

“The empty bay number two – Catalysis Orange got shipped out to Pohang a month ago when they opened up the shatterdome there. This one here, Iron Nobility’s been on rotation since Seungcheol-hyung and Doyoon-hyung retired into strategic command; their last pilots just got retired too. I think the academy’s sending two new pilots down since we’re kind of understaffed here but the thing’s a Mark-II, not to say it isn’t a good jaeger, it’s just old and been through so many repairs that I figure they’ll also retire the thing itself soon.” Mingyu rambles as they walk, stopping by the base of the jaeger so they can look up and grasp just how enormous it really is.

“This green one in bay six is Imperishable Grey. Don’t ask me why its name is grey when the thing itself is green, I’ve been ignoring that fact since it’s the best Mark-IV in the world. Light weight, fast, joints everywhere. No jet engines, but the propulsion hydraulics for jumping are insane, and it’s by far the most mobile jaeger ever built. Definitely my favorite for now, but we’re in the middle of building a new one and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be my favorite when it’s done.” He gives Imperishable a pat before they close in on the just started Mark-V, as of yet unnamed.

“My latest project has been designing and putting together this beauty. Most of the plans are laid and some of the parts are already either produced or being produced. We’ll start assembly when Junhui-hyung looks at all the numbers again, just to make sure nothing’s out of place before we join everything together. We have all of the new toys for it, a Gatling chest, twin rear jets for short burst flight, more rounds of plasmacasters packed in there than any other, frame is a magnesium silicon carbide nanocomposite metal, light as aluminum but strong as titanium. I’ve helped on the last two jaegers produced in Busan but this is the first time I spearheaded a project so it’s really—” Mingyu finally clocks the way Jeonghan’s hands are clasped in front of him, nodding regularly instead of comprehendingly at Mingyu’s extended speech, and stops suddenly, shoulders falling. He clears his throat. “You’re not that excited…”

“Uh, no, it’s just a lot to take in!” Jeonghan says quickly, eyes dancing wildly in his search for an excuse.

Mingyu’s expression brightens. “Oh! You should have said something – I can slow down. Where did I lose you?”

“Wait, wait,” Jeonghan puts his hands up to stop Mingyu again. “Okay, I confess that I’m a little less, um, star-struck about the jaegers than I am about the kaiju.”

“What?!” The railing beside them catches Mingyu in the hip when he takes a step back from surprise. “But the jaegers are so cool and the kaiju are literally monsters?”

Jeonghan shrugs. “Yeah but their blood somehow becomes a toxic mist as soon as it leaves their bodies. How neat is that? It doesn’t poison them when it’s flowing through their veins but if one of us comes into contact with kaiju blue, it’s fatal. Doesn’t that fascinate you a little?”

“A little, sure, but it’s scarier than it is interesting. I mean, we manage to fit an entire mini nuclear reactor inside jaegers, that’s cool but doesn’t kill millions of people or wreck havoc on human infrastructure?”

They turn to climb up to LOCCENT, and Jeonghan just shrugs again. It’s kind of weird considering the hype of jaegers in the general population, but the fact that Jeonghan likes the kaiju more than their weapons to fight them harmonizes with the rest of what Mingyu’s seen. That Jeonghan’s in K-Science, for example, or that he didn’t recognize Junhui’s face or Mingming’s name, not even when prompted with their high profile news story. Ranger fever is a very real phenomenon and the story of Tomorrow Dawning retiring had made headlines for a week straight while it happened. Only those who really did not care about the jaeger pilots could have missed it or forgotten about it, especially if they were keeping up with or interested in the kaiju war itself.

“There’s probably a reason I ended up in kaiju science and you ended up in jaeger technology, right?”

“I guess you’re right, we all end up in places that we’re best suited for.” Mingyu raises his voice in the command center to say, “That’s why some of the best ranger trainees end up in mission control when it turns out they’re not drift compatible with anyone.”

“Shut the fuck up, Mingyu.” The chair in front of the main dash swivels around to reveal the main LOCCENT mission controller, previously hidden from the height of his seatback.

“Aw, hyung, I was just joking. Look we have a new guy!” He snags the water bottle sitting on Jihoon’s dash and pours half of its contents into his mouth, from a distance. Talking about all the jaegers had taken a surprising amount out of him.

“Fuck off,” Jihoon says to Mingyu, swiping back his container with a look of disgust. He dismisses Mingyu’s protests entirely and turns to look at Jeonghan.

“Name?”

“Yoon Jeonghan.”

“Rank?”

“I—uh…”

Jihoon rolls his eyes. “Fine, position then.”

“K-Science?”

He’s dismissed with a wave of Jihoon’s hand. “There’s no reason for you to concern yourself with anything around here then, so off the two of you go. I’m busy.”

“Really? Busy with what?” Mingyu walks toward Jihoon without any fear, but Jeonghan hesitates to follow him, as snappish as Jihoon is. “What do you work on in here when there aren’t any fights going on?”

“Even if I wanted to explain it to you, it’s not like you would understand anything I was saying. Seriously, scram.”

“I know basic neuro so you can at least try! Come on Jihoon-hyung, don’t try to scare away another new guy. You’ve already terrified Jeonghan into thinking you’re irritable so he won’t take advantage of your soft heart—” Mingyu stops mid-thought when his mobile vibrates, notifying him of a new message, and pivots on the ball of his foot, ducking his head to read what it says.

Jihoon stares at him and utters a single “What the fuck?” that Mingyu dismisses with a wave of his fingers.

     from Wonwoo-hyung
     >i’m dead
     >how’s the n00b

     from Mingyu
     >it’s been 2 decades since ppl typ3d lik3 thi$
     >he’s great
     >weirdly into giant sea monsters though
     >HYUNG!! don’t die yet you only have one week to go ㅠᆺㅠ

     from Wonwoo-hyung
     >fuck you
     >fucking ksci
     >fuck becoming a jaeger pilot
     >no fucking way it’s worth
     >get your fucking ass online

     from Mingyu
     >ㅇㅂㅇ
     >it must be bad if you’re even swearing…

     from Wonwoo-hyung
     >hurry the fuck up i only have one fucking hour before lights out

“Listen, Jihoon-hyung, do you mind explaining what you’re doing to Jeonghan or let him hang out here for an hour before taking him to dinner? Oh and also, can you bring him to the lounge after for movie night? I have to run.”

The exclamation marks in Jihoon’s eyes from his alarm at being volunteered to show Jeonghan around are visible from outer space. “No, you listen, I’m not taking care of him! You can drop him off with Jisoo before heading back to your little virtual date because there’s no way I’m going to be the one leading him from place to place. I know you often misplace your brain but just stop and think about who you’re asking here.”

Mingyu spins the apple from the kitchens on his palm, holding it out to Jihoon and nearly smashing it into his nose with his urgency. It’s a good thing he hadn’t been hungry enough to eat it while Jeonghan snacked on his own in the jaeger bays. “No way? None at all? Not even for this healthy dose of vitamin C?”

Jihoon hollows his cheeks with his lips drawn together, eyes narrowing at the shiny red apple skin with its lighter patches of pale yellowy-green. “Fuck off for real.” He makes a brief sucking noise while plucking the apple out of Mingyu’s hand, holding the fruit at arms-length by its stem with a forefinger and thumb. “And tell Wonwoo he’s a fucking twat,” Jihoon calls after him, voice muffled by a mouthful of apple.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

23 weeks earlier

“This is ridiculous…The ranger program? I can’t believe you didn’t try to stop me.” Rather than sit still in front of the monitor, Wonwoo throws his things into the tiny mattress before flinging himself onto the bed as well, burying his face in the sheets. Any remaining complaints he has are muffled by the fabric.

Between the time that the idea was first planted in Wonwoo’s head to the time he actually shipped off to Alaska, Mingyu had dozens of chances to tell him not to join the ranger academy, suggest ways in which things might turn out badly, or cast even a slight shadow of doubt over hyung’s prospects as a jaeger pilot. In the end, Mingyu chose to send him off with a forced grin, before turning right around and dropping his smile into a vacant expression, eyes searching wildly for the way forward. For weeks afterward he continued to turn to his right and consult the ghost of hyung, forgetting each time after he had the slightest of ideas that Wonwoo wouldn’t be there to shoot him down or encourage him, not even to laugh at him. Both of them made friends with others throughout their time at the shatterdome, and Mingyu happily made his own decisions whether he was with Wonwoo or not, but in the jaeger bays where they worked together, Wonwoo’s absence translated into a stony silence following him from giant humanoid mech to giant humanoid mech and seeping into his skin until he shivered despite the rising summer temperatures.

When there’s no sound from Mingyu’s side of the video call, Wonwoo lifts his head up, chin digging into his blankets. “What made me think a few years of hapkido lessons as a kid could possibly prepare me to fight for a living? We should have enlisted before grad school, man, although I don’t think even basic would have been as brutal as this.”

“If we enlisted before I did my masters I never would have seen that recruitment notice, much less gotten hired, and we’d probably be in Seoul keeping as far away from the kaiju as possible while struggling to find jobs in academia. Pass.” Mingyu breathes out a long stream of air through his nose, slow and steady so as to not get caught by the microphone, hoping it’ll ease his frayed nerves.

“Mmm. Might’ve been better that way,” Wonwoo suggests. He buries his face back into the sheets, shaking his head from side to side, before lifting his head again and turning his body sideways toward the comms, one elbow bending to support the weight of his head. His military greens catch around his shoulders, the sleeve of his t-shirt hitched high around a well-defined but extremely lean bicep.

“What are you talking about?” Mingyu challenges hotly. He forces himself to take another two deep, calming breaths, trying to slow his heart from sending blood rushing to his face. His ears are warm enough as it is.

“You’re the one who’s always talking about what you’re going to do back in Seoul if we defeat the kaiju, aren’t you?” For a brief moment, the video stream from Wonwoo’s side looks like it stalls out, but it’s just the way Wonwoo pauses and holds himself, unmoving. After a blink, his entire face relaxes, eyes soft and oddly bright in the dim lighting. He rubs the back of his neck absently. “If we weren’t working at the shatterdome, we wouldn’t have missed your sister’s wedding.”

There’s a tightness in Mingyu’s face, right between his eyes, and he rubs at his nose with the intention of extracting that feeling from inside his head but no matter how he prods he can’t dislodge the taut lump. He speaks without processing the words, too busy listening to the echo of the word ‘we’ in Wonwoo’s deep, rich bass, ringing in his ears. “Attending by video conference is basically the same thing. She probably liked it more than physically attending anyway because you can’t eat all of the food if you aren’t really there.” Of course Wonwoo said ‘we’, who else would Mingyu have gone with? As it stood, the ranger training program would be the first time the two of them spent more than two weeks apart, dating as far back as the first time they met in high school.

“Yeah, for sure. Minseo’s definitely that cheap,” Wonwoo says sarcastically.

“She’s not! But as her older brother I have to watch out for her, you know, make sure she’s not eaten out of house and home because you’ve demolished the buffet table before anyone else has managed to get a bite.”

“Me?!” Wonwoo’s eyes widen in surprise, wrist curling to stab his index finger into his own chest. “When has the greedy eater been anybody but you?”

Mingyu giggles behind three fingertips, the skin around his eyes crinkling up with his smile, rendering his hand useless at concealing his amusement. Wonwoo places his free hand over his hips, thumb on his waist and four fingers over his back, exposing the soft and pale flesh of his inner forearm. Mingyu looks away and hurries to fill in the silence with something, anything, desperate to not focus on that pointy elbow or smooth skin. A single look has his mouth dry, and the longer he stares, the more he wants to reach out and touch. “Anyway,” he says quickly, “I only talk about going back to Seoul so often because I want the war to end. If we were actually in Seoul right now I’d be super restless from not being able to help. Fate worked out in the best way possible, to be honest.”

“Speak for yourself. Fate has made this life very very painful,” Wonwoo says, rolling one shoulder in its socket to ease away a knot in his muscles. “I think I’m dying. This is like a literal survival of the fittest, where they get a new cohort of trainees and everyone perishes except maybe two and they make those two breed to create a new elite class of soldier.” As he shrugs upward, hand still on his waist, the hem of his shirt rides up, revealing a sliver of stomach above his military-assigned joggers and a faintly visible trail of hair that dips below the waistband of his trousers, crawls up toward Wonwoo’s navel. Mingyu’s brain faintly screams at him. Look away look away look away.

“Technically we’re all dying, every second of every day.” He closes his eyes and rubs at his temples, trying to erase the vision in his head. Mingyu’s seen Wonwoo naked on numerous occasions, has slept in the same bed as him, showered together with him, and for the most part, kept embarrassing boners to a minimum. It’s not like they’re teenagers anymore, and especially in recent years Mingyu’s commanded full control of himself and his body. Somehow, however, lying in his room far away seen only by a camera, with just small areas of exposed skin, somehow it feels more intimate and Wonwoo looks more enticing than when he’s completely unclothed and air drying himself in the showers. Mingyu focuses on the night table in the back of the room. “I mean, living is literally passing away the seconds before your death, so.”

“Yeah, okay wisenheimer, you know what I mean. We undergo physical torture from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, every single day. Some kid asked Fightmaster Park what the schedule was on weekends and she asked him what a ‘weekend’ was. My entire body,” Wonwoo gesticulates with his hand, “is on fire. There is no part of me that doesn’t hurt. I have aches where I didn’t know muscles even existed, and I swear I look like a grape with the number of bruises I have.”

The tightness returns, this time at the base of Mingyu’s throat, between his clavicles instead of his eyes, and he swallows down his worry because Wonwoo wouldn’t complain so openly if it weren’t something he could handle. Instead of thinking about Wonwoo’s physical well-being, Mingyu wonders if there’s something else that Wonwoo is actually concerned about. “You’re not the only one, okay? Since you left I’ve had to do double duty until we can find another tech or engineer. You really should have trained someone before you left, hyung.” It’s a serious request, but his tone is teasing. He’ll find a substitute sooner or later, but the shadow cast by Imperishable is still large enough that he doesn’t dare hope for an actual replacement. No matter how many hires he finds to plug the gap, there’ll be a hole in J-Tech permanently, as long as Wonwoo doesn’t wash out of training. Which he won’t.

“I really should have…I’m sorry you won’t find anyone as good as me. I guess I really should have stayed in Busan.” Wonwoo laughs at his own hot air, stretches out the arm underneath him to regain blood flow, massaging out the feeling of pins and needles before rolling over onto his back. He runs a hand through his hair, pushing back a recently trimmed fringe (Mingyu’s going away present to him). Sprawled out with his legs splayed across the bed, Wonwoo should look relaxed, but there’s a tightness in the way he moves and the way he holds himself and Mingyu can see it from all the way across the Pacific.

“Nah. You were so excited when Jinah-noona said you should try it out, if you had stayed you would have only been distracted by ‘what-if’s.”

“You could have talked me out of it,” Wonwoo says, voice a quiet grumble while he talks up into the ceiling. “If you had said something I could have come to think the idea was as terrible as it is.”

Pride swells in Mingyu’s chest, taking up the space of his lungs and heart. It’s nice to hear that he has that much sway, that his opinion matters enough that it could change Wonwoo’s opinion of something, but that only enforces his conviction that he shouldn’t have said anything at all. It was difficult, still is difficult, to separate wanting Wonwoo to remain at the shatterdome because it would be better than Wonwoo becoming a ranger from wanting Wonwoo to remain at the shatterdome because Mingyu didn’t want to be left behind. The words ‘don’t go where I can’t follow’ had been on the tip of his tongue before Wonwoo had wondered whether or not to apply, and stayed lodged in his throat long after Wonwoo had already stepped onto the helicopter ferrying him to the airport. Wonwoo really had looked so excited at the prospect that Mingyu bit his tongue, unwilling to be the reason for his enthusiasm fading, regardless of his worries that Wonwoo would be upset when he found out Mingyu did not and would never want to become a jaeger pilot or his fears that he’d become a dead weight expendable friend.

“Why, exactly, is it such a terrible thing? Even if it’s hard, you’re getting super buff, and you’re always going on about having the best body anyway. Is it really terrible because of the training when you signed up for exactly that? Or is it terrible because the cafeteria food isn’t as good over there? Are you jetlagged? Is there no one as good of a friend as I am?”

Wonwoo is quiet for a moment, caught out by Mingyu’s questioning. “The people here are so…they’re so…” He sighs and drops a hand down on his sternum with a loud smack. “They’re so loud. I don’t know if I can stick out another 23 weeks out here.”

The people there. Wonwoo had been patient enough to withstand ten years of Mingyu’s incessant rowdiness, and it seems unlike him to be bothered by boisterous behaviour. Mingyu says as much with eyes narrowed and Wonwoo finally sits up cross-legged on the bed, eyes looking straight at the monitor.

“There are a lot of really impressive people here. Varsity wrestling team captains, kids who got their black belts before they mastered reading, that sort of thing.” Wonwoo rubs his face with his hands. “They think they’ll be superstars, and maybe they will be, but when you’ve already been there, I mean, you know what it’s like. Soonyoung’s completely different in front of the media, Junhui hates having his stats read out. It’s dehumanizing. You repair enough jaegers after battles and it becomes obvious that there’s no real glory to almost dying several times a year. That being a ranger is a job that requires you to put your life on the line, and it’s scary and dangerous, not a fun adventure.”

“You tell them that?” Mingyu asks.

“Sure, and have my English laughed at? I have a bit more self-preservation than that.”

“I mean, you have a lot more first hand experience than they do with the kaiju. And I’m doubtful about your self-preservation, considering you decided you would sign up for the exact life-threatening job you just denounced.”

“I don’t want to one-up them, Mingyu, I’m just…It feels like I’m wasting my time, spending 24 weeks here observing the truculence of the naïve and uninitiated, while you upgrade our first line of attack and defense to make sure our friends keep coming home safe.” Wonwoo sighs down into his hands and blinks slowly.

“Observing the whadda what?”

“Never mind. My point is that we both want to help as much as we can but you’re doing a much better job of pursuing that goal than I am.”

Mingyu folds his hands in his lap, fingers clutched tightly around the back of the opposite hand, gripping hard enough to feel a strain in the tendons. That’s what’s really bothering Wonwoo then, a concern that leaving J-Tech means not doing enough to help just as Mingyu worries that staying at J-Tech means the same thing. “That’s not true at all. First you had seniority in engineering here, and now it’s just a time and energy investment before you leapfrog over me. Then I’ll be the one not being helpful.”

“That’s if I manage to get selected after twelve weeks. Might end up in partner-less limbo, might not even make it through training.” Wonwoo shakes his head. “I guess I made my bed when I chose to come here, and I’d better lie in it. You know, if you’d just come with me we probably could have started off as drift partners immediately and ended up destroying everyone else.”

“You’re going to make it through the 24 weeks,” Mingyu says firmly. “You’ll push through all of the physical training they throw at you and every time someone says something dumb you can vent to me. And if they don’t find you a partner immediately, you can come back here and wrench screws between sparring with whoever they assign to Busan until your co-pilot shows up. They’ll realize rangers with both engineering and fight backgrounds make for better pilots, and you’ll be the first of an elite class of super useful soldiers.” He ignores the comment about them being co-pilots purposefully.

Wonwoo smiles, scoffs at Mingyu echoing back his previous words, and his expression eventually morphs into laughter, nose crinkled and lips spread over astoundingly even teeth. “Thanks Mingyu, now it’s like I’m going to become Captain Korea or something. I’ll believe you.”

“As you should.” Mingyu pumps his fist earnestly in front of the screen. “You gotta kill ‘em dead.”

“Yes sir!” Wonwoo salutes, and then laughs again, hunching over. When his snickers of amusement fade, his expression is sombre again, that familiar cold neutral expression taking over the muscles of his cheeks. Even if he seems unimpressed with his lips a flat line and eyes calmly focused, he looks more relaxed this way. Face blank, muscles losing the tension nestled under his skin, Wonwoo finally looks normal and himself, albeit a little tired. “Sorry. I didn’t mean for the conversation to get so existential, considering the fact that half a city gets destroyed once a month. Tell me something interesting that happened this week. What’s new? And don’t tell me if it was burger night yesterday, I’d rather not know.”

“Um.” Mingyu wracks his brain. While the days passed, Mingyu thought of something he had wanted to share with Wonwoo at least once per hour, sometimes picking up his phone only to realize having to explain the context would kill the joke. He had so much to say but put on the spot with that question, there’s not much that readily comes to mind. The only thing he can think about is the pangs from missing Wonwoo’s presence, but that's a feeling he doesn’t regret. Wonwoo-hyung might have lost some of his chutzpah from a bad week, but surely that was the effect of his insecurities speaking louder without Mingyu’s loud voice to drown them out. At the end of the day, the desire to be the one holding back the kaiju and the satisfaction he garnered from saving lives would pay out the debt collecting in the months when he wasn’t directly part of the action. “Well, it’s not exactly news but I accidentally ran into Jinah-noona making out with Sooyoung-noona in the drivesuit room on Tuesday…Oh, and the marshal’s assigned me to start designing a new jaeger?”

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

“How was the video sex?” Yooyoung asks when Mingyu finally arrives back in the jaeger bays, after missing half a day of work. She has the crinkly eyes to sell an innocent look, but in the months since they started working together, Mingyu’s uncovered Yooyoung’s true nature as evil. Not that he would go back on hiring her considering her blazing wits, but he would have been more guarded at least.

“There was no video sex,” Mingyu says, exasperated.

There was barely any video interaction at all, Wonwoo lying in bed, and Mingyu folding laundry. They’d talked about Wonwoo’s plans for the end of the program (sleeping for 24 hours straight and eating the equivalent of 16 meals in one), the excruciating regimen of examinations for the last week, and the fact that Wonwoo’s drift sim partner had gone to bed too exhausted to eat dinner. Mingyu, in turn, had described Jeonghan in as much detail as he could, as well as his problems with the planning for the Mark-V. Wonwoo had immediately suggested getting Junhui to look over his notes. “There were times when it felt like Imperishable was just as much his design as it was mine,” Wonwoo reminded him, making Mingyu feel small for forgetting who would be his best resource until after Jisoo had mentioned it.

“You wish there were video sexytimes though,” Yooyoung teases, fluttering her eyelashes and quirking the corner of her lips up in that infuriatingly knowing smile of hers. It has to do with the fact that she was basically hired right out of university, Mingyu thinks, there’s no other explanation for why she’s so poor at maintaining professional workplace etiquette. Comments like that should earn her a spot in remedial sexual harassment prevention training, but he’s also certain she knows where the line for appropriate behaviour is drawn. She’d pass the course because she’d know how to, but then choose to step on the other side of the line as soon as she’d gotten the certification.

Mingyu can’t believe there are people who know this girl and think that the best description for her is the word ‘nice’. Today he’s too lazy to deny the fact and start up an argument with no winner; that there’s some partial truth to her statement only demotivates him further. “I know you’ve never met him, but I also know I’ve told you not to say that kind of stuff. He hates it when people imply things like that.”

“Things like what? That you’re dating? If you’re not, isn’t it just a funny joke? I swear people everywhere are grasping for any chance at a relationship they can get in case the world ends tomorrow or we all die, and here you are, pining after your best friend who lives halfway around the planet away from you. Did you take a vow of celibacy when you took on the job here or something?”

“It’s not like I planned the death of my sex life…or that I want to fall in love with him,” Mingyu mutters under his breath, hitching up the last of the retractable metal plates.

“What was that?” Yooyoung wipes engine grease off her face with an old rag, smearing blackened oil all over her nose.

“Nothing.” He tosses a newer towel at her before turning around to start up the paint bots to seal in the final touches on Perihelion, after having added in a new set of missile launchers since the last repairs revealed the old launchers were sorely out of commission.

“For this,” she says, waving the clean white cloth, “I’ll let it slide. Anyway, so where is he being assigned? Is he coming back to Busan? Am I going to be out of a job when he comes back or can y’all afford to keep this poor college grad employed for a while longer?”

Mingyu slams a fist to his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut. “Crap. I can’t believe I forgot to ask.”

“Jesus Christ, Mingyu-ya, how can you forget something like that? Do you literally lose brain cells every time you see him or something? I’ve seen pictures, he’s not that hot. Fucking shit on a stick, that was literally the only thing new this week, he’s only got seven days left. There is something seriously wrong with you.” She throws the now grime-encrusted towel back at Mingyu and it drapes over the back of his head, which he keeps bowed.

“I was telling him about the new guy in K-Sci, okay?” Mingyu defends, whipping the towel off his neck and shaking it out. He has half a mind to bury his face in it, disbelieving that it could possibly be grosser than he feels right now. “Also, isn’t it at least partially his fault for not bringing it up?”

“Maybe he did bring it up and you were too busy staring into his clear chestnut eyes to notice.” She laughs when he swats the towel at her head, only half-heartedly dodging his movements too busy trying to catch her breath past her wheezing giggles.

Mingyu frowns. “There’s no way I missed it, I pay attention to and remember everything Wonwoo-hyung says.” He can’t keep the edge of pride out of his voice, and she can’t stop herself from being appalled by it.

“You are so gone for him it actually scares me. I don’t think I’ve felt that strongly about anything before in my entire life.”

“That’s because you’d sooner take a nap than pee on a burning person. You don’t feel strongly about anything,” Mingyu accuses.

She grins at him, fanning a hand consolingly. “Aw, boss, I’d do anything that doesn’t require me to get dirty to save you, if it comes down to it. Valid point, but I’m still amazed that you’ve managed to hide your feelings from him for this long. You’re an awful liar, you know.”

“Why is it that I can’t tell if anything you’re saying is meant to be a compliment or an insult?”

“Don’t think too hard on it or you might get a headache.” Yooyoung takes another swipe at her face, this time with the back of her hand, running over the skin of her forehead, both cheeks, and chin. Satisfied she’s not covered with oil, she wipes her palms on her trousers. “Come on, you coming to dinner?”

“I’ll catch up later,” Mingyu says, waving one hand. “I’ve been so unproductive today I’d better make sure everything we have is functional so we can get to assembling the Mark-V as soon as possible. Speaking of which, even if we take on more engineers or techs, we somehow got the funding for the magnesium exterior shell so I don’t think you really have to worry about unemployment.” He’s already turning away from her even as he talks, thinking about the long list of to-do’s waiting for him. The gatling chest, for one, is already partially built but needs finishing before it can be tucked into the chest cavity of the jaeger frame afterward.

Yooyoung wiggles her fingers in lieu of a proper goodbye, shouting “You’re the best!” behind her to leave Mingyu to his work. He gets lost in it, gears in his brain clicking at 60 knots and his arms buried to the elbows in the guts of the machinery. So absorbed is Mingyu in the construction that he forgets about dinner until his stomach rumbles and lurches painfully with hunger four and a half hours later, after the dinner hours are over and surely well into the movie.

“Crap.”

He wipes as much soot and motor oil as he can off his arms, but his shirt’s a lost cause. There’s no time to change, however, and Mingyu jogs the length of the halls, grip of his boots squeaking past the doorway of where he’s headed before he backpedals and finds an empty spot on the floor to sit.

When the common room area was first built, it was intended as just a space for the rangers to decompress after missions, one of the only quiet spaces in the building during the bustle of the day, a requisite put in place by the psych analysts from the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Over time, with laughter being the best medicine after all, the ones who were driving the jaegers were bringing anyone who helped out along the way and the space had turned from a fairly restricted lounge to a frequently used communal living space, with its choice comforts making it the ideal spot to have get-togethers for unwinding after a long week, or in the middle of the week whenever there’s another incident.

“What have I missed?” Mingyu asks, reaching around Minghao to steal the entire bowl of popcorn from Junhui.

“It’s Finding Dory, I’m sure you have the entire movie memorised so why are you even asking? Also, you smell like a burning truck.” Minghao wrinkles his nose and shoves Mingyu to the side, hand planting into a grease patch on Mingyu’s shoulder and recoiling. He smears his hand over Mingyu’s cargos, shooting him plain looks of disgust.

“You asked for it. And shh I love the octopus, he kinda has the same personality as Jihoon-hyung,” Mingyu says around a mouthful of popcorn. He sticks his grubby fingers back into the bowl and shoves another handful of it between his lips, some pieces falling out of his mouth and back down to join the uneaten ones. “Want?” He offers the popcorn to Minghao, who pushes the bowl back with pursed lips pulled down and nostrils flared. Mingyu shrugs and finishes off the entire bag by himself, starved from missing dinner.

Mingyu knows the movie like the back of his hand. When the film first came out, Wonwoo had been dating a girl in civ, one of the few female engineering majors in that graduating class taking on the most hated specializations for their field. After overhearing them planning to see it together on a date, Mingyu had searched for an illegal stream of it online and watched the low quality camera recording of the movie alone in his room just so he could say he’d already seen it if asked. Wonwoo-hyung and Sookyeong-noona had broken up a month or two later, much to the delight of the other guys who saw her as a prize instead of a person.

They’re just getting to the wackiest heist when Seungkwan barges in, hair a frazzled mess of permed waves lying askew on his head, and there’s a grim look on his face. “Ranger Wen,” he calls out, stirring a buzz among the other occupants of the room. Chan, who was sitting closest to the projector, hits a button to pause the movie, while Junhui snaps to his feet, standing rigidly like he was preparing for activity in the breach.

“Junhui,” Seungkwan says, quieter. He clears his throat. “Hyung, can you come with me?” There’s an unfamiliar look in his eyes and Junhui’s gone in a flash, taking giant steps to the door and shutting it behind him, the slam marked with a tone of finality.

Any focus on the film is lost after that; Mingyu can see Jeonghan in the corner leaning his ear close to a furiously whispering Jisoo, but his attention quickly falls to Minghao. Mingyu nearly throws the popcorn bowl out of his lap, and Minghao’s head miraculously lands in one of the few clean spots on his trousers. He looks at him staring up at the ceiling and reaches out to give Minghao’s hand a squeeze. “It’ll be okay. No matter what the reason is that they need him, Junhui-hyung is strong. Have you ever seen him quake under any pressure?”

Three even breaths. “That’s the worst part. Whatever it is, he’s going to bottle it in and not tell anyone, and he’ll clear his mind of his memories before the next time we drift so I’ll never get it out of him.” Minghao squeezes back anyway, before letting go to roll over and bury his nose in Mingyu’s knee.

With one hand Mingyu collects the stray kernels that had rolled onto the floor while he had finished with the bowl of popcorn, with the other he rubs circles on the small of Minghao’s back. For the rest of the duration of the movie, Mingyu’s mind is elsewhere, lost in memories of when Mingming had been around, filling the jaeger bays with incessant screaming and a unique zaniness that matched his co-pilot.

Minghao’s breathing is even but he’s not asleep when movie night winds down, or perhaps he’s woken by the muffled giggling at the fish in plastic bags during the post-credits scene or the natural ruckus after the crowd files out of the room, a few sending quick glances in Minghao’s direction, for the most part carrying themselves in a reasonably jovial mood. They’re good at rebounding, the lot of them. They have to be, have to train staying strong in the face of death because they’re surrounded by evidence of half-crushed cities and a deserted coastline from every citizen being evacuated inland. At the shatterdome, they’re even more acquainted with the havoc the kaijus can wreck, whether from shaken-up rangers post battle, permanently disabled jaegers, their permanently disabled pilots, or in the worst case scenario, rangers dying wet and bloody in their own conn-pods.

“He’s not going to sleep tonight,” Minghao says when there’s only the two of them left. It’s said in a matter-of-fact voice, without any inflection. “I mean, obviously I’m not worried about him losing sleep, but if he’s tired tomorrow Yoon-ssaem’s going to bite our heads off.” It’s a total load of bollocks, but Mingyu isn’t going to point out that Junhui is one of two people in the entire building who can match pace with their fightmaster, nor the fact that he’s gone 14 hours of training and taken down an entire category-II kaiju, all without a wink of sleep.

“I’m sure Seungkwan can find him a bed in the infirmary. We don’t even know why he was needed, so let’s not jump to any conclusions.”

“Fuck, it’s not that.” Minghao flops his arms out on the floor, palms up along with his head, facing the ceiling. “You don’t understand, it’s not like there’s no opportunity for him to rest. Junhui doesn’t sleep if he’s alone. When I first moved into the bunk above his I thought he just slept late and woke early but I got up to go to the bathroom and realized he just wasn’t going to bed until his body collapsed. I think he’s mostly scared that there won’t be anyone around when he wakes up and it feels like he’s lost someone again, so he just refuses to close his eyes for extended periods of time.”

Well shit. There’s not much Mingyu can say to something like that. He opens his mouth and blurts the first thing he can think of. “Want to come with me to the gym?”

“Right now?” Minghao tilts his chin up and looks at Mingyu with an unreadable expression. His eyebrows are furrowed but his eyes themselves are serene.

“Yeah,” Mingyu says hurriedly, “I’m greasy and haven’t worked out today. Might as well get the sweat out before hitting the showers.”

“Not really, to be honest. I just spent nine hours on training. But I’ll come watch.”

The weight room is empty when they arrive. Minghao climbs onto a treadmill, jogging slowly and mindlessly for an hour. One foot in front of the other, striking the belt mid-foot, arms loosely swinging at right angles to the side of his body. He stops only to spot Mingyu during his sets of overhead presses, standing behind him with eyes focused on the barbell. If he devotes all his attention to proper form, it means he has less time and energy to focus on the thoughts eating him from the inside, and he revels in forcing Mingyu to push harder like he’s really physically torturing him.

Minghao showers quickest, soaping sweat off with aggressive scrubbing while Mingyu relishes in the warm pitter-patter of water soothing faintly inflamed muscles. Mingyu starts to feel the effects from a day’s worth of manual labor when they arrive at Minghao and Junhui’s rooms. He sinks, boneless and beat, into the lower bunk, shirtless shoulders pressed against the cool wall behind him, long legs held out over the width of the mattress with his calves mostly dangling over the edge. Mingyu’s head droops sideways so his cheek drops down to the top of Minghao’s head, which is tucked over his shoulder.

“Did you know Mingming listed Junhui as his next of kin? Not his older brother, not even his parents. Junhui. The last time they asked for him it was because he was having a seizure when he was supposed to be in coma and they wanted Junhui to choose between permanently fucking up his brain so he could live or potentially permanently fucking up his brain with the high possibility he could die. How are you supposed to choose in a situation like that? Fuck, forget making a choice about someone’s life, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be that close to someone at all.” Minghao looks down at his comms and stares at the unanswered message asking Junhui if he knew when he’d be back.

Mingyu takes the device from his hand and settles it on the other side of his thigh, flipping it over so Minghao can’t peer at the screen. “Yeah, I knew,” he says shortly. “They were best friends, closest friends, everything. The term ‘drift compatible’ was probably coined about them. Not just finishing each other’s sentences, more like knowing what the other person was going to say before you even finished saying your piece.”

“Man, fuck, I can’t believe I brought this up with you, fuck this. You have the same shit going on with Wonwoo,” Minghao accuses. He lifts his head off of Mingyu’s shoulder and crosses his arms, knocking his head back against the concrete with an emphatic clunking noise and releasing a despondent sigh that wells up from the bottom of his lungs and travels up his trachea past partially chapped lips.

“Nah, us two aren’t great at mind-reading and those two weren’t ever fucking.”

“Wait, you and Wonwoo are fucking?! Oh…oh you mean the fact that you want you two to be fucking. I mean, well, yeah I guess we can count that as a distinction between you.” Minghao snorts and gives Mingyu a look. “Are you ever going to tell him the 233 reasons why you love him and also that you want in his pants?”

“It’s 234 now,” Mingyu says venomously, “and are you ever going to tell Junhui about your letters to Mingming?”

“That’s totally different. Those are how I vent. Your thing, that’s a confession. When you tell someone about your feelings because if you keep them inside they might make you explode. Isn’t that what love is?”

“If I thought I had even the slightest chance, I’d say something. But if I tell him…I’d only be burdening him with that knowledge. He wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It’s useless. I know how he looks at girls when he dates them and it’s…it’s not the way he looks at me.” Mingyu tells Minghao the story of Sookyeong-noona, including the pathetic sounding bit about him being alone in his room watching movies. Sookyeong-noona, who was chased after by half the boys in her class, Sookyeong-noona, who was stared at by half the boys in her class like they were entitled to own her for making it into university, Sookyeong-noona, who saw Wonwoo-hyung’s respect as a breath of fresh air. He looked at her like his heart was bursting out of his chest, but never pretended she had hung the stars in the sky or anything over the top.

“Yeah but he doesn't look at you the way he looks at other people,” Minghao says. That he can make that claim is questionable, considering they’d only been in each other’s orbits for a short while.

“Do you see me the same way you see Junhui or even the same way you see your mom?” Mingyu has more to say but it’s interrupted by a loud yawn he’s too tired to cover up with his hand.

Minghao snorts again. “Well, I see both you and Junhui as idiots so…It’s just that Wonwoo gets all…I don’t know, affectionate.”

“That’s your memory getting altered after the fact,” Mingyu retorts without much strength. There’s a tiny sparkle of joy inside him at Minghao’s words but he doesn’t dare let it grow into something expensive like hope. Instead he masks his face and sinks further down along the bed until his knees are dangling off the edge and lolls his head against the side of Minghao’s thigh.

“I don’t think so but I guess Junhui gets pretty fond about Mingming so I won’t argue.” He gives Mingyu’s head a few gentle pats before resting his hand on Mingyu’s shoulder. “Are you that tired?”

“We did a lot of walking today and in the morning I was just moving boxes. I know you’re going to say something like ‘I practice martial arts for a living’ but my body’s not used to this kind of physical activity.” The glimmer of joy fizzles out, turning into a twanging feeling in Mingyu’s chest like a reminder about how dangerous it is to entertain any expectations in his head.

“There there,” Minghao says. His hand returns to the top of Mingyu’s head and comfortingly brushes down his hair. “I’ll commiserate with you now if you don’t whine about how sore your muscles are tomorrow morning. Why’d you want to work out if you were already exhausted?”

To serve as a distraction to Minghao, really, give them both something to do so Minghao didn’t wear down the floor from pacing over it while growing increasingly worried. “Have you seen my delts recently? I’m becoming a beast,” Mingyu says with a winning smile. “And don’t worry about me complaining tomorrow about being in pain, I’ll be too busy falling asleep standing up. Junhui-hyung was going to look over something for me in the morning—wait, what if he’s. Never mind,” Mingyu dismisses the thought quickly, not wanting to raise Minghao’s concern even more at the prospect of Junhui being gone for longer than a few hours. “Um, yeah I have to wake up early so I better head back to my bunk.”

“Wait.” Minghao grabs onto Mingyu’s bicep and pulls him back. “Just stay and sleep on the top bunk. If—when Junhui comes back we’ll both be in the bottom anyway.”

Mingyu gapes. “How do you two fit? Junhui-hyung’s built like a tree, you must squeeze together like sardines.”

“Actually, I don’t think he’s ever moved while sleeping before so if anything it’s me falling off the side. But like I said I don’t think he sleeps at all if no one’s beside him. Don’t tell him I told you that. He won’t even acknowledge the fact that I know that about him, because he’s a scared fucker, but he’s even more scared of other people finding out and it worrying them or something,” Minghao says, while Mingyu hauls himself up onto the top, using the bottom bunk instead of the step ladder to give himself a leg up.

“Obviously. I won’t tell anyone else either, I know what Junhui-hyung’s like.”

“You know, you should try calling him Junhui-ge one day,” Minghao suggests. “He’d get a real kick out of that, especially considering I refuse to let him lord his age over me.”

“The hyung thing is a habit,” Mingyu says, finishing up folding his slacks. He piles his clothes neatly in a corner beside the pillow before slipping underneath the unused blanket in nothing but his boxers. “I’d have to force myself to learn to use ge and I’d definitely mess up. He’d figure out it was something you taught me.”

“So?” Mingyu can picture Minghao’s shrug in his mind even if he can’t see him. “I don’t care if he knows it was me, it’d be funny.”

“Ugh, just go to sleep. Try to think about, I don’t know, sheep jumping over a fence. Pick your poison, but please let me get some shut-eye since it’s going to be another long day tomorrow.”

For a while it’s quiet, and Mingyu thinks Minghao’s really going to let him rest. Just as he’s slipping from consciousness, there’s a kick to the bottom of his bed, courtesy of Minghao poking an extended foot between the metal slats to push the mattress up. “Hey, I know you want to brush it off, but I still think you should say something to Wonwoo. You’ve already let it fester for ten years.” Mingyu doesn’t respond, pretending to be already asleep. It’s because he’s let it fester for ten years that he’ll let it continue on – he knows he can survive things festering for another ten more.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

22 weeks earlier

“…And then she asked me if she was allowed to stock more firepower into it as long as she didn’t change size or weight. That was when I knew I hired the right person,” Mingyu says, “even if I feel like she would have gone ahead and added everything she wanted had I disagreed.”

“Mm, you guys are going to make some killer Mark-V,” Wonwoo hums, before indicating for Mingyu to continue.

“That’s the dream! I don’t know…I don’t think she’s into obeying command or considering future consequences as long as she succeeds now. Nothing’s happened yet but I feel like she’s going to question my authority constantly. At least she’s smart and knows what she’s doing…I guess I’m pretty happy I hired her.”

Wonwoo bares his teeth when he smiles, exhaling quietly through his nose. “I’m glad you hired her too, you were kind of becoming a zombie dealing with everything by yourself. Do you remember? You were telling me about eating jokbal and didn’t smile once the entire time.”

“Well someone abandoned their job so I had to fill in the gaps somehow. Also, Junhui-hyung never sleeps but he’s fine so it’s not like I was going to die.” Mingyu glares as best he can over the screen at Wonwoo who sheepishly combs down his hair. “Anyway, it’s kind of weird for Yooyoung to be working under me when she’s two years older than me.”

“Don’t you like noonas anyway?” Wonwoo jokes. “And I don’t really think Wen Junhui is the poster child for robust health or, um, longevity.”

The clucking noise Mingyu makes with his tongue can probably be construed as annoyance at being teased. The truth is, he’s told Wonwoo something along the lines of ‘my ideal type is tall, straight-forward, and older’ before, being purposefully vague about gender. Mingyu’s never spoken about crushing on a girl before, but he’s commented a half dozen times at least about other guys with nice asses in the gym. He’s never thought to explicitly come out to anyone, especially not after his parents and sister had just looked at each other and said ‘we know’ when he had blurted out he was gay at the dinner table sometime during undergrad. Besides, Seungkwan had taken one look at him and knew. Mingyu smiles crookedly. “Are you kidding? Junhui-hyung’s the definition of long life. He’s literally unbeatable.”

Wonwoo drums his knuckles on the table. The loud noise and proximity to the microphone sends feedback over the line, but Mingyu appreciates the sentiment.

“Okay, taboo, but you named his jaeger Imperishable. Isn’t that asking for it?”

“He was the one who named the jaeger, not me. Who knows, he might have been asking for it. The words, Imperishable Grey, if you think about it, doesn’t it sound like an unending purgatory? After what happened…you know how he’s always smiling? Sometimes he would be smiling but simultaneously spewing existential nihilistic diatribe.” Wonwoo trails off and his eyes briefly become unfocused before he shrugs and continues. “When I asked him though, he said the name had something to do with his and Minghao’s names, which is believable because he really didn’t name it until the last second. It’s hard to say for certain with Junhui.”

“But he always looks happy! Oh, I guess that’s what you just said. I don’t just mean in front of other people though. Yesterday, after the press conference, he was kind of just walking half-circles around their jaeger with a smile on his face,” Mingyu divulges, thinking back to the whirlwind of photographers, journalists, and their various aides crowding into the media room for a snap of history. “I was checking up Catalysis but he didn’t know I was there. You don’t smile if you’re unhappy when no one’s looking.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. I mean it’s been a while since we last talked and I’m sure he’s changed.” Wonwoo’s words ring true, but they also unsettle Mingyu, who’s suddenly hyperaware of the fact that by the time he and Wonwoo are in the same room again, they’ll have spent at least half a year apart. Will they have changed so much there’s a gap like that too? The discomfort only grows worse at the next thing Wonwoo has to say. “And congrats on that kill. I think Hansol said it was the fastest take down of a cat III ever.”

“I don’t know why you’re thanking me when I’m never getting into one of those death traps,” Mingyu reminds him. Wonwoo’s surrounded by other people who want to become jaeger pilots now, so it must be second nature for him to assume that he’s talking to someone in the same boat as him. Mingyu, however, is the eye of the storm only when he feels like he has total control with his toolbelt and blueprints. He possesses neither the physical prowess nor mental strength to dispatch the kaiju, and he knows that about himself, so he’s not about to pretend otherwise. There’s also...well, the partner thing is a bust now anyway. “But yeah, it’s just adding to Junhui-hyung’s aura. There are definitely conspiracy theorists out there already trying to suggest he’s a robot or a government experiment. Seungcheol-hyung had to shut down a bunch of questions asking how they did it because Junhui-hyung got so uncomfy, but I think that’s my point, that he can be really backed into a wall sometimes but a few hours later he was practically skipping.”

“They have an entire class about that here. Resilience practice. I wonder if Junhui also took and subsequently aced that course.” Wonwoo snickers at his own joke but the ensuing smile looks unfamiliar. It’s not from the distortion of the camera or the monitor or the connection, but rather the all-bones look Wonwoo used to get around exam season when he wasn’t eating properly. The creases of his dimples and around his nose pronounced darkly against the protrusion of his cheekbones extend longer and deeper than they should. Of the differences, his jawline looks the weirdest. Wonwoo’s jowls are sunken where they’re not normally particularly full, giving his face a hollowed appearance instead of the sharp angles Mingyu’s so used to.

“How are classes? Are the people still terrible? The food sucks compared to over here right? Are they still working you really hard in the gym?” Mingyu couches his concern in thinly-veiled boasting and smashes the side of his face against his palm to feign disinterest.

“Honestly, the word I’d use for classes is ‘baffling’. There’s a lot of meditating on compatibility but very little by way of practical advice – how to handle mechanical feedback or communicating with the jaeger itself? Not a word. No wonder why new pilots need so many practice runs. Also, I think we might just have a crazy marshal because no one else has heard of jaeger formations for kaiju battles? It’s really feeding into the belief by a lot of people that once you get into one of the robots you’re invincible, but to be honest half of the blockheads are gone now because they couldn’t take the amount of training we were doing.” He makes to continue but stops himself after an aborted sigh, shaking his head. The movement exposes his side profile, which provides more evidence to Mingyu that Wonwoo’s lost weight. “I guess that answers most of your questions. The food’s okay I guess. I think there’s more people here than in the shatterdome and because they have to feed more of us the food’s blander and repetitive but I’ll live. Hansol has an entire wall of protein bars and protein powder so it’s not like I’m starving or anything. In terms of training…Like I said, the first week was brutal but I think my body’s just adapting because I think my triceps are finally getting bigger.” The sound of Wonwoo’s laughter, at least, is familiar and warm, but there’s that name again.

“You? With big guns? No way. I’ll believe it when I see it.” Mingyu shakes his head and covers up a pretend yawn, even though it’s only late afternoon for him and not nighttime like it is for Wonwoo. “Who’s Hansol?”

Wonwoo laughs again and deliberately mirrors Mingyu’s sitting position, resting the bottom of his lower jaw on one hand. “I’d send you pictures but you’d just tell everyone I’m into taking nudes,” he accuses, probably rightly so. “Do you remember Choi Hansol, industrial eng, a year below you?”

“He went to Seouldae?” Mingyu’s heart plummets, and he wracks his brains for all of the Chois he can remember from engineering.

“Yeah, I led his first year MTs, believe it or not. I didn’t recognize him at first but he remembered me and I guess everyone who goes through ECE with Han in first year is irrevocably bonded via shared traumatic experience.”

Mingyu, who had taken ECE with a different professor precisely because of Wonwoo’s warnings and horror stories, suddenly feels like avoiding that class is a handicap instead of a blessing. “I might know him if I see him?”

“I’ll introduce you!” Wonwoo says brightly. “His mom’s from the States and his English accent is that of a native speaker, which renders me saying ‘I’m fluent’ completely laughable.”

“Oh…really? From the States?”

“Yeah, he was born there. The other day he was in my room and played through all the pre-hiatus Epik High stuff.”

It’s like a bucket of cold water has been dumped on Mingyu’s head, first the shocking splash of Wonwoo letting someone else into his space after only knowing them for such a short period of time, followed by a cool trickle down his back leaving an uncomfortable sensation of growing paranoia that by the end of the 24 weeks he’ll be completely replaced. He swallows dryly and runs his fingers through his hair, more than a little surprised that it’s dry and not soaking. “An Epik High fan? Sounds like you’re getting along well then,” he manages, invisible cotton thickening in his mouth.

“He’s really funny too, I think you’d really like him.” Wonwoo agrees readily. “Definitely has something to do with the engineering background but he was really fascinated that we managed to give Imperishable the kind of mobility in its joints for all those jump kicks those two love so much. It’s…he actually sees the jaegers as weapons instead of a video game and he doesn’t have any notions about everything being glamorous or anything like that.”

“So…do you think you’re drift compatible?” Mingyu suggests weakly. He compensates for the tremor in his voice with a hundred megawatt smile, one that Wonwoo doesn’t seem to see through.

“Ehh, don’t say that so early, you’ll jinx us. But we’ll try it out, see how it goes in the simulator, and who knows, maybe something will come of it. The thing is he’s here with his sister in mind, Sofia, she’s younger than him by six years and this is what he can do to protect her. Bohyuk would beat me up if I suggested protecting him in any way but having a younger sibling to protect, I get that, you know? You’re really protective of Minseo too. That seems like solid reasoning to me.”

“True.”

For a painfully silent few moments, they stare at each other awkwardly across the screens transmitting their faces nearly 6000 kilometers apart, and the gap growing wider with each passing second. Wonwoo, having said so much and expecting at least some kind of feedback in return. Mingyu, having nothing to say and expecting that over time the disconnect would only be more apparent.

“Hyung,” Mingyu says quietly, after another beat. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“Hansol-ssi is there because he wants to make sure his sister is safe, most of the rangers want to become famous, Junhui-hyung says he felt an obligation to put his skillsets to good use…Why did you want to try out?” And he doesn’t mean it to be an accusation. But Mingyu’s rarely seen Wonwoo as excited as he was while he hyped up becoming a jaeger pilot and even if he isn’t there for the glory, or to protect something, there has to be something else to it, something that’s driving Wonwoo towards his goal. Otherwise, he’d join the ranks of all those officers who gave up. Otherwise, why would Wonwoo have left him?

Wonwoo snorts, sinking back into his seat with a relieved look on his face. “You got all serious because of that? It’s because I got so excited, I bet. When Jinah told me to try out, we were in the combat room, and she’d caught me running drills. She said she thought I’d be good at it and that was motivating.” After the Marshal, after losing Tempest, and especially after mission thirteen, everyone had started picking up coping mechanisms. For Mingyu that was throwing himself into everything he did. For Wonwoo that was de-stressing with bouts of mixed martial arts.

“I see,” says Mingyu. He doesn’t protest that Wonwoo was good with the jaegers too.

“I think this is something I can be really good at,” Wonwoo finishes. “Does that answer your question?

“Yeah.”

Mingyu’s one word replies kill the enduring grin on Wonwoo’s lips, and the look in his eyes changes too, like he’s seeing Mingyu in a new light. “Anyway, don’t you have a job to be doing? It’s night time for me but you’re on the clock so you’d better get a move on,” he teases.

“Old man, you’re just getting tired!” This kind of joking around, Mingyu can do. Probably best to avoid asking any deep important questions until…well, maybe never. “Same time tomorrow?”

Wonwoo’s smile returns, remains for the quick farewell, and then disappears in a flash as the screen goes black and Mingyu pushes away from his tiny desk feeling bowled over enough that he needs to check the time and remind himself it’s 1645 in the afternoon in Korea, not nearing midnight like it is in Alaska. Mingyu doesn’t want to think about it. In fact, he doesn’t think about it at all.

After dropping into the kitchens for a quick bite, he’s standing in Tempest Sailing’s old bay, looking up and up at all of the idle helper arms permanently switched off and folded into the framework that used to support the jaeger like a car garage. Youngwon-hyung’s voice still echoes in the semi-circular housing unit, along with Yoosang-hyung’s laugh. He resolves, as he replaces the stanchions behind him, that even if he has to witness any more pilots dying, it won’t be because of mechanical failure in the jaeger.

The ensuing four hours are spent inspecting every inch of Perihelion, from top to bottom, including manually oiling and polishing each nook and cranny. Mingyu can hear Wonwoo’s voice in his head, muttering the word, ‘punctilious’, in a tone that begs to be asked to explain what it means. Someone tries to lead him away when he’s finished but he wiggles aside and they leave him to do the same safety checks on Imperishable. It takes him longer with the second jaeger, what with all of the individual joints that have to be greased up, but also because he’s flagging by the end. If he thought he was emotionally exhausted at the end of that conversation with Wonwoo-hyung, it’s nothing compared to the physical and mental exhaustion he has with only the pot lights shining down, and an eerie silence at the dead of night. Mingyu looks down at his watch, the one that had been Wonwoo’s in high school, the first watch he’d ever repaired, and past 0300, he’s not only expecting to be alone, he’s certain everyone else is asleep.

That’s why when the pencil rolls quickly across the floor, kicked out by the toe of his shoes, Mingyu screams.

The person sitting at the base of Perihelion scowls at him and tells him, in no uncertain terms, “If you can’t keep it down during the day, you should at least try to be quieter when everyone’s asleep at night.”

“You’re not asleep,” Mingyu says, pointing out the obvious. He stoops to pick up the pencil, weighing it in his hand curiously, before returning the writing implement to Minghao. Marshal Choi likes to sign off with a pen, but most people only carry around styluses these days, unless you’re Jisoo-hyung and have a strange affinity for chalk and chalkboards. Not to mention, blank paper is a rare commodity around these parts. “What are you writing?” Mingyu asks, unable to curtail his curiosity.

Minghao snatches the pencil from him with vicious speed, and Mingyu only gets a brief glimpse at large loopy Chinese characters, written in a stylized cursive. Mingyu’s never had a good handle on Hanja, not even back when he thought he’d be pursuing the humanities stream in high school, and the letters are so small and far away from him it’s not like he can see them to read what’s on the page anyway. “Something you wouldn’t understand,” Minghao says, snatching back the sheaf of papers in his hand and continuing the flowing script. Mingyu may not be familiar with the words, but he can tell that Minghao’s writing is extraordinarily pretty and not at all like the neat square blocked characters in the windows of the restaurants near Keondae.

“Because it’s in Chinese? You can translate, your Korean’s good enough for that,” Mingyu prods, sitting down with his back against the foot of Imperishable. The column behind him is solid and towering, but for someone who’s spent most of his life seeing the tops of people’s heads, the enormity of the jaegers is comforting, like a parent protecting its small infant child.

“That’s not it,” Minghao replies, expression somewhat taken aback.

“Oh.” At no point does it dawn on Mingyu that Minghao might just want a bit of privacy, not in this crowded circular campsite, even if the jaeger bays are normally deserted at night time. “If it’s about the jaegers, I basically hammered together the sheets of metal that make up yours. Trust me, I know it inside and out.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never had your mind connected to one,” Minghao points out.

It’s not Minghao fault, nor is it really Wonwoo’s or Choi Hansol’s, but the comment cleaves Mingyu in half when he hears it. The truth is not always beautiful, nor is it kind, and here it is a painful reminder of what’s isolating Mingyu and rendering him at a loss for his place amongst the people around him. If there’s one thing Mingyu’s not used to feeling, that emotion would be having no one by his side. “No,” Mingyu agrees miserably, choked up and uncomfortably close to tearing up, “No I have not.”

“Um,” Minghao stares at Mingyu, not entirely sure what brought on this sudden change of mood. The loss of enthusiasm on Mingyu’s part spurs Minghao into blurting out, “Even though I’ve drifted, it’s almost like I haven’t either.”

“Huh?” Mingyu turns back to him quizzically, trying to remember what they had been discussing before his memories swirled and converged on him, drawing his attention somewhere far away. “What are you talking about?”

“When you drift with someone, you’re supposed to know them entirely. Their memories, feelings, things like that. At least in the drift, both people are supposed to be able to know each other’s thoughts, so that they can make decisions in sync to pilot the thing together.”

Mingyu nods, but Minghao doesn’t even pause for breath.

“That’s basic stuff, everyone knows it, you don’t even have to be training to be a ranger to hear about drifting and mind meld and all that. And yet, when I enter the drift, I only get pieces. A little here, a little there, but not a life story, not even close. Mostly I get gaps like I’m drifting with someone who’s had selective amnesia about their entire life, but that can’t be possible because there’s no way you’d get past the psych analysts if there were so many holes in your memory all the time. But that…” Here, Minghao struggles to find the right word. “That…butt! Wen Junhui, when we drift he knows everything about me. All of it. And yet I know next to nothing about him.”

“Butt?” Mingyu tilts his head. “Sure you’re not going for ‘bastard’? ‘Piece of shit’?”

“Does that mean Junhui’s a horrible person? Then ‘bastard’ it is,” Minghao mutters darkly.

Mingyu grins, already looking forward to supplementing Minghao’s vocabulary with even more vulgar words. His smile drops when he suggests, “I’m not really sure how that’s possible but do you know what happened to his old partner? It might be something caused by that…they were still drifting when they were knocked unconscious.”

With a defeated sigh, Minghao holds up the papers in his hands and gives Mingyu a look, entirely unimpressed. He taps a finger against the words at the top of the first page, fingernail hitting just to the left of the word in front of the colon, pencil strokes still unintelligible to Mingyu. “Right? That’s what I assumed at first too.” He puts down his notes, focus shifting away from Mingyu to the pages on the floor, a wry smile on his lips. “So I started writing angry letters to Mingming for getting hurt and leaving behind a half-baked partner. It’s mostly me saying bad stuff about him for the first few pages.”

“Well, um, that’s one way to release your anger.” Mingyu blinks. All of a sudden, the pretty script doesn’t seem so pretty anymore, not when they’re written by someone who’s willing to think badly of someone they didn’t know, especially if they were hospitalized long-term.

“Yeah well, it’s not like I had friends here for healthy ways of dealing with my problems.” Minghao picks up the pencil again, stares down at it with his four fingers and thumb wrapped tightly around the wood, conveniently avoiding Mingyu’s gaze while varying the strength of his grip. “So I said not very smart things while Junhui breezed over our post-drift debriefings saying everything was fine, and I’d written my eighth entry asking Mingming to wake up before I figured it would be more productive to ask Junhui about it, because we’re supposed to be co-pilots together even if we aren’t friends. After he talked over any of my attempts to bring the subject up I started noticing that didn’t add up. He pilots right now but didn’t he pilot left for Mingming? Yet sometimes in his memories he’s still on the right side. Little things like that.”

“What? You can’t just…change memories. Even if they change, Junhui-hyung wouldn’t forget things like that, it doesn’t make sense. Mingming was important to him so of course he’d know what their battles were like, it’s not something he’d forget.”

“I know. And then I started noticing some of his memories were different from drift sim to drift sim. I don’t think it’s his memory going, I think he’s actively trying to hide them from me, unconsciously as well as consciously whenever I pick up anything strongly, he’ll take whatever I’m thinking about and mold it until I don’t know what his friendship with Mingming was like, I don’t know what his childhood was like, I don’t know anything except his fight style and any thoughts he chooses to push at me for the sake of the drift.” Minghao releases a long breath, not from built up energy from his rant, but from an exasperation that’s weeks in the making, one that the rest of them hadn’t noticed.

When Minghao finally looks up, Mingyu’s lips are drawn together, as are his eyebrows, but he’s not looking at him. “How is that even possible? And you guys literally just took down a kaiju, so it’s not like it’s affecting Junhui’s performance. I didn’t even know you could do that in the drift.”

Minghao shakes his head. “The worst part is that I thought it would get better. But it’s still happening. We might have just took down a kaiju together and he was blocking me out the entire time. That kind of stuff is dangerous, you know, and I just had to smile and pretend I was glad for the mission to be successful while the guy beside me pretended everything was okay.”

“But why would Junhui-hyung do that? What purpose does it serve to distract himself while fighting with something that must be so energy consuming?” It’s a pretty big risk to be piloting without full focus, even if Junhui’s good at the killing kaijus business.

“I wish I knew. I have theories, I guess. Maybe he doesn’t want to get close and lose his co-pilot again, but that doesn’t fit because he already knows everything about me. So maybe he doesn’t want to get close because he has some weird thing about not wanting me to get hurt from losing him. That doesn’t make sense to me either, really. I don’t need his protection and it’s not for him to say what should or shouldn’t happen.” Minghao tilts his chin up and jabs the pencil in his hand down on the paper, breaking the lead. He mutters darkly in Mandarin that Mingyu doesn’t understand, and fumbles around in his pockets for a small metal sharpener, shaving away the wood at the worn tip into a thin coiled layer he deposits in front of a nearby hibernating roomba. It wakes up with a beep and two flashes of light when the movement in front of its sensors activates its initiating sequence and makes a funny squelching noise to nip forward and clean up the sprinkle of wood and graphite shavings sullying the shiny, spotless floor. “That’s why I’m still writing these though,” Minghao explains after his pencil is sharp again. “They’ve turned into letters to Mingming about how much I hate Junhui.”

Minghao’s expression is serious, and he’s holding a pointy object in his hand, but Mingyu can’t help laughing. “You know, Mingming probably would have agreed with anything you’re saying. As much as they were best friends, I think Junhui-hyung exasperates everyone because they were always fighting each other. Smiling, but fighting. When all of this is over, all the monsters are dead, and Mingming’s awake again, you should go find him and join forces to beat Junhui up.” He squeezes his eyes closed and bursts into another fit of laughter despite himself.

He doesn’t correct Mingyu to say something about ‘if’s instead of ‘when’s or puncturing Mingyu’s hope by suggesting they might not all make it through, although that might be a tidbit lost in translation. “Well that just means Mingming’s smart and Junhui forces everyone to have the same reaction to him, but if I have a choice, I say he can beat Junhui up on his own. I don’t want to spend another second with that guy if I don’t have to.” Minghao’s nostrils flare and his lips flatten into a straight line, giving him a strangely cartoonish appearance.

“Do you hate him that much? You know, I can try talking to him…”

“I know enough about what he’s like from the things he does and says, I don’t need to know his history in order to see that he’s the kind of person who thinks he knows best.”

More like a scared actor who uses his experience and bravado to mask an internal shitstorm of insecurity, but what does Mingyu know. “What would you be so busy with that you can’t spare a moment for a fight though?”

Minghao’s laughter is light. “Have to go after the girl I dated in university. She’s the only girl who’s ever stood up to my mom, and after the press with that fight, I figure I’m never going to meet anyone else who hates me more than they fawn over me like she does.”

“In China? Gonna buy a house, have two kids, work a 9-5 desk job?”

“Yeah, something like that. If she’ll have me,” Minghao laughs, but it sounds more like a sure thing than the words suggest. “She said she wouldn’t wait to see if I came back in a body bag but…I can hope, right?”

“Sure. And if she’s the type you’re making her out to be, maybe she’s just saying that so she doesn’t feed your ego about becoming a ranger.” Mingyu offers a warm smile.

“You’re right, that’s exactly the kind of thing she would do.” Minghao returns a grin, but his expression grows distant for a moment. “Well, what about you?” he asks, nudging Mingyu with his toe. “When this war finally ends, what are your plans? Do you have a girl waiting for you back home?”

It’s nice to hear the ‘when’ repeated back to him, to have someone else who shares in keeping an optimistic outlook instead of wandering around with the attitude that they’ll all die imminently. The girl though… “Well, you see, about that…I’m not into girls the way I’m into guys?” Mingyu can teach Minghao two words in Korean today. ‘Bastard’ and ‘raging homosexual’ are key terms to developing a robust vocabulary.

 

 

☀☀☀

 

 

The time difference between Busan and Kodiak Island is seventeen hours.

They text. They video call. Not every day, but more than once a week, and never for as long as the first few times, when being apart was new and each other was all they knew. These days Wonwoo is less Mingyu’s Wonwoo-hyung and Mingyu is less Wonwoo’s dongsaeng Mingyu, but they’re still friends and there had been a while in-between when Mingyu wasn’t sure that would hold, so he’s grateful and not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The thing about the seventeen hours is that Mingyu’s day is mostly over before Wonwoo’s has even begun.

The thing about the seventeen hours is Mingyu’s going to bed right around the time Wonwoo’s waking up.

When Mingyu met Wonwoo in junior high, he’d followed after him into the convenience store and quietly sipped strawberry milk through a short plastic straw while Wonwoo cleaned and bandaged the scrape under his knee with the practiced hand of an older brother experienced in comforting a clumsy kid younger than him. Mingyu continued to follow him where for another two years Wonwoo, unlike the other friends Mingyu made, never made a comment on his gangly limbs or loud mouth unless it was one of amusement and fondness. In his third and final year, Mingyu had suffered successive existential crises from the realization that Wonwoo had gone off to a science high school, and spent every hour not lazing around in video cafés with Wonwoo figuring out how he’d be able to continue lazing around in video cafés with Wonwoo if he couldn’t follow him into the same school when all he had been good at for the first sixteen years of his life were history and English. And studying. But the studying hadn’t happened until after the panic.

In high school there had been a week or two when Mingyu suddenly wondered if it wasn’t all that cool to be following someone around so much, and Wonwoo had wordlessly spent time with his other friends, equally wordlessly accepted a sniffling Mingyu back into his space. It must have been that first year of high school when he first started feeling something, because Mingyu spent most of second year lovesick and miserable or succumbed to the usual bout of teenage angst, depending on who you asked. The year after, with Wonwoo in university, Mingyu had resolved to get over his crush, hadn’t turned checked social media once in the entire time his family was vacationing in Jungmun, came back worry and Wonwoo-free, before promptly falling right back where he’d started when he’d followed Wonwoo once again, this time to Seoul National. They pursued different streams but roomed together, ate together, studied together.

They don’t agree on everything. They’ve never agreed on everything. Mingyu doesn’t rely on Wonwoo to make his bed or cook his meals (the opposite, probably, is true), he doesn’t chase after him blindly, or back down when Wonwoo does something Mingyu doesn’t agree with, doesn’t bend over backward to accommodate him, or listen to him about everything. That’s not what the following is about. The following is more about Mingyu wanting them to occupy the same spaces, so that they have the opportunity to fight and tease each other, look out for one another.

The thing about the seventeen hours is if Mingyu is seventeen hours ahead, he’s not following Wonwoo.

This, he supposes, is as good a time as any to stop latching on to the back of Wonwoo’s shirt. He can’t, when the kaiju war is all over, follow Wonwoo into his house ahead of his beautiful, albeit currently faceless and nameless, bride and ask what’s for dinner while the happy couple navigates around his permanent roosting spot on their sofa. Mingyu knows himself well enough that even Wonwoo’s presence can’t turn the jaeger academy into a space for him, probably prevents it really, but that’s fine. Wonwoo’s gone off somewhere he can’t follow, but that’s fine. It’s been six months and not only has Mingyu survived, he’s thrived. He’s happy, he’s productive, he’s living his own life.

The thing about the seventeen hours, the awful, awful thing about the seventeen hours, is that most of the time these days, Mingyu forgets they’re separated at all. If he doesn’t have to look into the sun, he can’t be blinded by the sun.

That’s not the awful thing. The awful thing is that he might be happier looking away.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

At a quarter to six, Mingyu’s alarm beeps for the first time. He doesn’t hear it. Ten minutes later it rings again, an incessant chirping noise that wakes Minghao below him, who groans and rolls over to pull the covers over his head. Mingyu still doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t wake up until Minghao’s pushing both feet between the bars supporting Mingyu’s mattress, kicking into his back while swearing at him in three different languages.

“Okay, okay, I’m up, I’m up, stop doing that!” Mingyu complains, shout muffled by the blanket over his head. He tosses the thick duvet off and shivers as he gropes around for the source of the noise to turn off the wake-up call. After rolling over another time, he talks himself into sitting up and stares at the stack of dirty clothes from the day before. The hallways are going to be freezing right now if he walks back to his own room shirtless, but he’s not about to tug that greasy tshirt from yesterday back on.

“Hey, you, Xu Minghao,” Mingyu says, kicking off the bed and landing barefoot on cold flooring.

Minghao does not lift his head, but he does lift a finger, the middle ones on both his hands, and displays them kindly to Mingyu’s face.

“You don’t have to get up, just, can you lend me a shirt?” He sticks out his tongue for good measure, even if Minghao can’t see him.

Minghao snorts unattractively. “Will you fit in my clothes? Why don’t you take one of Junhui’s shirts instead, they’re in the dresser somewhere, find them yourself and leave me alone.”

“He won’t mind, right? They all go to laundry and I’ll bring it back,” Mingyu reasons.

Minghao does not bother responding. He fakes a loud snore to inform Mingyu of exactly how much he cares about his predicament, because he is a nice and thoughtful friend.

In the dark, Mingyu shoves his head into a sleeve before finding the collar and slipping his head through the right hole. When he’s got it tugged over his shoulders, it sits just long enough to reach the crotch of his pants and he tugs the shirt into his slacks, still unsure of its color or appearance. “How do I look?” He poses for Minghao in lieu of using a mirror.

“Like the Korean Wen Junhui,” Minghao mutters, still turned away from Mingyu. “Fits perfectly. Now get the fuck out of here before I can’t go back to sleep and have to slice you into roast Mingyu ham.”

“Nah. If anything, he’s the Chinese Kim Mingyu.” He whips his shirt to just brush the top of Minghao’s head when he leaves, the fabric making a loud snapping noise in the air. It nearly gets tugged out of his hand when Minghao reaches up to snatch at it, fast reflexes allowing his fingers to tangle into the cloth mere moments before Mingyu tugs it away. “Catch you later, shorty!” Mingyu chirps, slamming the door behind him.

He trudges back to his single room spotting only a single face in the hallway, chucking the really gross cotton tee down the laundry chute before picking up his toiletries. It’s about an hour before most of the shatterdome wakes up, and he revels in the silence of the bathrooms, humming to himself at the sink and doing a little dance while scrubbing his teeth. Mingyu takes extra time to fix his hair in the mirror, shooting himself a multitude of looks and poses before drying his hands and doubling back.

The caf is practically empty when he gets there, but he’s not there to hang around. After chugging down piping hot coffee that tastes like the backwash of a vacuum bot, he folds a strip of bacon into his toast, bites into it, and runs off from the kitchens with a banana in hand, although he’s slowed to a walk by the time he gets to jaeger bays.

Not even the bots are up and running this early in the morning, and it’s strange to be around without the perpetual low whirring noises that fill the background on any given day, even if there aren’t people milling about, moving, talking, building. Mingyu sets up the automated drills to spin on the frame for the gatling chest, for which Yooyoung is already putting together the actual guns. While the metalworking bots hum away, he slips into his office to pull up his notebooks, graph paper and digital notes filled with sketches and equations, neatly laid out, with occasional scrawled notes slanting across the pages. Most of the work is electronically designed but he keeps a reference of his numbers for manual referencing and it’s these things that he wants Junhui to check up on, although having Jisoo-hyung look over the plans would be even more ideal.

Halfway between med bay and K-Science labs, he comes across Hyeryung, shoulder up against the wall, one leg crossed over the other where she stands. “He looks like he didn’t sleep at all,” she says.

Mingyu can’t see the face of the person she’s talking to yet but recognizes Jiho’s voice replying, “That’s because he didn’t. There was an extra bed but when I was leaving to go sleep myself he was still standing outside the door, arms crossed, listening in.”

“And the prognosis?”

“It’s not bad, but everyone’s bogged down by a fear of not wanting to be the one who fucked him up permanently so no one’s doing anything at all. I was hired to mend broken bones, not broken brains, and Seungkwan’s going to break down from exhaustion too if they force him to do all the research while everyone else sits around on their hands.”

“You sound like you’re about to break down from exhaustion yourself,” Hyeryung mutters. “Look it too, where did all these eye bags and wrinkles come from? You can’t let it get you down.”

“I’m—I know. I’m tired. We’re all tired.” She bounces on her toes, still energetic despite the lack of sleep. “But keep an eye on him, alright? I know he won’t listen if you try to foist him off to bed but like…you know that whole ‘do not operate heavy machinery’ thing? That definitely applies.”

“Good thing we need him to drive a ginormous metal robot and fight off giant lizards from the ocean in order to save our lives, then!” Mingyu says, by way of announcing his presence.

Jiho whirls around and pretends to elbow Mingyu in the stomach. “Don’t scare me like that,” she chides, “And don’t tempt fate like that.”

Hyeryung has no qualms about actually flicking Mingyu in the forehead and then yanking him over by the ear. “Go take another nap before your shift, Jiho, I’ll take care of both of them,” she says, before dragging Mingyu with a painful hold around the neck, nails digging into the skin there. “You tell Minghao to get this one to take a nap today too,” she murmurs.

“He already knows,” Mingyu tells her. “Figured he wouldn’t get any sleep before they even took him outside last night.”

“Figures. Damn jaeger pilots, always in each other’s heads.” She shoves his head down so he stumbles through the hallway.

Actually, Minghao’s not really in Junhui’s head, he’s just spent a lot of time watching him to figure him out without the drift helping him along, but Mingyu’s not about to reveal all of that with Junhui in earshot, so instead he quips back, “Damn K-Sci,” even though he’s not a jaeger pilot and shouldn’t really be defending them.

“Watch your mouth, you’re standing on our territory,” she warns, pushing him through the doorway hard enough that Mingyu stumbles. “See? This is why we have a do not cross line. You’re such a troublemaker, Mingyu.” She clucks her tongue and aims another kick at his feet while he rights himself, before heading off into her half of the room filled with warning signs for biological hazards and contamination.

Junhui looks up from where he’s fiddling with knobs on an incident projector and stops humming a song Mingyu doesn’t recognize. “Oh, hey, you’re up early.” There are always bags under Junhui-hyung’s eyes, but today they’re designer totes instead of tiny clutches, the creases nearly as deep as his eyelid folds, and the darkened skin reminiscent of a child playing with eyeshadow on the wrong side of his eyes. He smiles brightly at Mingyu, which masks the sunken cheeks and sallow skin, but it doesn’t make up for the weariness consuming his aura.

“Miracles do happen,” Mingyu murmurs. He walks over to where Junhui’s sitting, ready to spring everything on him, but halts with one foot dangling above the floor before he can reach the bench. “Hang on, why does Junhui get to cross the personnel-only line?”

“What personnel-only line?” Hyeryung puts down the pipette in her hand to squint at Mingyu, giant protective goggles covering most of her face.

“This line,” Mingyu says. He toes the thick yellow stripe on the floor and flinches when she sucks in a breath and reaches for the nearest breakable object to throw at him.

“You mean the Mingyu-line? Don’t cross it. The Mingyu line is only for you.” She puts down the filter stand after he shuffles back an inch. “Why would Junhui not be able to cross the Mingyu line? His name isn’t Kim Mingyu.”

Mingyu gapes, mouth opening and closing several times as he struggles to find the words with which to defend himself. “What? How is that fair? Why are you excluding just me?” His fists go straight to his hips, face settling into a look of utter disapproval.

Hyeryung rolls her eyes. “When Junhui comes here making a mess, he leaves a trail of cracker crumbs behind him. When you come in here, you leave everything in ashes. Why do you think it’s just you? Do you know someone else who’s blown up half our labs before?”

“Excuse me! It’s not like it’s a habit or anything,” Mingyu protests. He looks to Junhui for support, but Junhui’s watching him with faint amusement. Mingyu frowns at him but receives only an arched eyebrow and a ‘so what’ expression accompanied by an uncaring shrug.

“Hey, there’s no sense in getting both of us evicted. At least if you’re the scapegoat, one of us can still sit comfortably.”

“See? Smart. Smarter than you, anyway,” Hyeryung says, pointing a long finger in their direction without lifting her head.

Junhui chuckles and stands, crossing the distance between him and Mingyu shortly. “I never knew you had to stay behind the line, Mingyu, I thought they added in the paint just as decoration to try to make the place nicer when they were fixing it back up. You never told me it was your fault they needed repairs in the first place.” He stands tauntingly behind the line, only centimetres out of reach, and playfully mirrors Mingyu’s displeased body language.

“That’s because it wasn’t my fault. Not really! If I had known things would turn out that way I obviously wouldn’t have asked to do the experiment at all, much less here.”

“Hmm…why does that sound like it’s definitely your fault then?”

In a bold move, Mingyu steps forward, planting his foot firmly over the line, and smacks everything in his hands into Junhui’s chest. If it were just paper, it probably wouldn’t have done much, but there’s a tablet in the mix that knocks into Junhui’s ribs and has him massaging the spot to relieve the pain.

“I’ll eviscerate you, don’t think I won’t,” Hyeryung warns, somehow seeing the movement from her peripheral vision despite the fact that it should be covered by the protective guards of her goggles. She clicks her tongue loudly. “You’re already in deep water. I heard you abandoned Jeonghan yesterday and he had to find his way to the movie by himself, after Jisoo asked you so nicely to take care of our new fawn. If Jeonghan tells me you were a bad tour guide yesterday, you’re going to find yourself lying on the ground trying to stuff your sliced intestines back into your abdominal cavity.”

“Now, now, I’m sure there’s no need to be so graphic,” Junhui placates with a gentle chuckle. He holds the pages out in front of him and up close, Mingyu can see it’s not just bags under his eyes displaying his lack of sleep, but the blood vessels on the surface of them, thin red lines expanded from fatigue and overuse.

“That’s not even accurate,” Mingyu protests. “I didn’t abandon Jeonghan to his death or something, I got Jihoon-hyung to look after him. And before you start I didn’t feed him to Jihoon-hyung or something, he actually agreed to look out for him until movie night.”

Hyeryung is so taken aback by this she sets her equipment down and pulls her goggles over her head to look Mingyu dead in the eye. It’s hard not to laugh at her when there’s a red line etched into her forehead, a souvenir from the rim of plastic, but he looks back unwaveringly. “Lee Jihoon?” she confirms, “The miserable bumpkin sitting in the LOCCENT chair? You got Jihoon to agree to watch over somebody?”

“Aw, hyung’s not miserable! If you get to know him he’s very happy, although sometimes he doesn’t have enough coffee in him to remember that fact about his personality.”

“If you’re about to sell me some line about you being cute and bringing out joy in people…” Hyeryung’s tone is threatening, and she completes the look with bared teeth and crossed arms, eyes narrowed and boring a hole into Mingyu’s very soul.

“Of course not. I bribed him, obviously. If you want anyone to do anything for you around here the only things you can offer are soap and food.”

“Accurate,” Junhui levels. Mingyu turns to smile at him in appreciation for backing him up, but while his eyes are focused on Junhui’s face, they don’t notice the quick motion of Junhui’s hands, which snatch the banana out of Mingyu’s clutches and steadies it on top of his notebook. “Thanks for breakfast, you’re a real star,” Junhui says breezily, backing up out of Mingyu’s reach again and blowing him an air kiss.

Mingyu has no words of protest about his fruit being stolen, not when Junhui-hyung looks the way he does.

“I guess we’ll find out how well your bribe worked when Jeonghan comes in. That’s if he can find this place again.” Hyeryung remains unconvinced, but she returns to her project and starts arranging cuvettes into her ridiculously fancy spectrometer.

She ignores him after that, and no matter how much Mingyu pouts and whines, he can’t win over her attention from the bottles of kaiju saliva she’s inspecting, even though that should be even more disgusting than Mingyu is adorable. He gives up eventually to pull up a chair at the other end of the long bench, as close to Junhui as he can get with the stupid line in the way.

“So, to open things up and look at the properties—”

“Yes Mingyu, I used this software on my own jaeger when Wonwoo was designing it, remember?” Junhui says, fingernails of his left hand clicking on the countertop while he skims through everything first.

“Oh…right.” Mingyu sinks in his seat and grabs a wayward ballpoint pen, holding his right hand down on a piece of foolscap and tracing the shape of his fingers. He spends about five minutes turning the tracing into a turkey, complete with feathers shaded different degrees of black ink. Mingyu yawns when he’s finished, covering his mouth with the hand holding on to the pen, and he accidentally prods himself in the cheek with the nib, getting a dot of ink on his skin that he tries to rub out. In front of him, Junhui is meticulously jotting down numbers and checking calculations, having already gone through four sheets of grid paper, double-sided.

“I’ll say one thing, and it’s that your handwriting is so much easier to read than Wonwoo’s,” Junhui says lightly, not looking up.

Mingyu mumbles back a response incoherently, dropping his chin to the table and resting it there while staring blankly at Junhui’s profile. It’s not fair that Junhui-hyung can be this precise on so little sleep, doubly so considering Mingyu can barely keep his eyes awake and he actually got to go to bed last night. He puffs out air from his cheeks, and the next thing he knows, he’s being shaken awake by a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you ever doing your actual job?” Jisoo asks with some amusement. He presses a Styrofoam cup into Mingyu’s hands, and Mingyu knocks back the burnt coffee in the blink of an eye.

“Yeah, I was in the office at 0630 this morning!” Mingyu defends himself, tongue mostly glued to the roof of his mouth from the peeling burn. He works, it’s just that he keeps irregular hours, that’s all.

“Did you have a good nap?” Junhui asks him. There’s laughter in his voice, Mingyu can hear it, but before he can comment he notices the giant spread of papers, tablets, and comms surrounding them, spilling over from the bench they’re at to the one on the other side of Junhui. He’s gotten through a lot of the material, and way faster than Mingyu had expected. He thought they’d be just going over basic details today, not getting into any of the numbers.

“Even better now that I’ve seen how much you’ve finished,” Mingyu says, voice filled with awe.

Junhui giggles for real this time, and waves a hand absently. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Not with me though,” Jisoo interrupts. “Why’d you ditch Jeonghan yesterday when I specifically told you to treat him with care?”

“Oh, he left me with Jihoon,” Jeonghan says, looking up from the computer. “It was fine.”

“Don’t—ugh. My authority is always undermined here. People probably think Hyeryung’s the boss, I don’t know why I even try.” Jisoo stomps off with his thermos, and Mingyu misses the coffee more than he misses his presence.

“What did you end up doing with Jihoon anyway?” Hyeryung asks. In the time that Mingyu had fallen asleep and woken up again, Hyeryung had finished taking down notes on whatever substances she was looking at earlier and had migrated back to the scaled scans of the kaijus, a drawing compass between her fingers as she scrutinized the hologram projections on to the sheets below.

“Um, the same thing Mingyu’s been doing actually. I napped while Jihoon braided my hair and read through probably four journals’ worth of papers.” Jeonghan pinches the top his nose bridge before blinking open his eyes again.

“Sounds like him,” Junhui mutters.

Mingyu scoffs. “Sounds like him? Really? I kind of always assumed Jihoon-hyung spent most of his time whenever LOCCENT was inactive just napping. I can see him from the jaeger bays and nine times out of ten he’s lying down when I spot him through the window.” He stands and stretches out, eager to assuage the weird cramp in his neck.

“You can be productive while lying down,” Junhui points out. “You can do a lot of things lying down.” He chuckles at the three looks of disgust sent his way, apparently sensing their reactions without having to physically see them.

Jeonghan, however, is too busy with whatever he’s working on to process Junhui’s penchant for entendres and insinuating things that shouldn’t be implied in polite company. “Hyeryung-ssi, you were the one who came up with the original algorithms right? Can you come take a look at something?”

“Sure,” she says. “Just give me a second.”

While Hyeryung’s setting things aside, Mingyu wanders over behind Jeonghan, looking over his shoulder to see what’s going on. “Are these the predictor models again? Haven’t they never been right or something?”

Hyeryung smacks him harshly in the back of his head and Mingyu’s nose connects with the top of Jeonghan’s head. Mingyu rubs the sore spot, aggrieved, but Jeonghan doesn’t even move. “It’s not like their error rate was insanely high, it just wasn't good enough that we could actually say it was predicting incidents, more like a weather report, that kind of accuracy.”

“Well, I saved that,” Jeonghan prefaces before he shows her the new variable he’s added. “And I really only changed one thing but um…it’s pretty good when ran retrogradely on old dates.”

Mingyu squints at the screen. “What did you add? It’s not like Hyeryung-noona or Jisoo-hyung to get their numbers wrong.”

“I didn’t change any variable that way,” Jeonghan starts slowly. “Uh, I tossed in the possibility that there could be more than one kaiju at a given time?”

“Double events,” Junhui says, voice very close to Mingyu’s ear. He appears suddenly, crowding the computer with the rest of them, and Hyeryung quickly takes over the keyboard to project the monitor display onto the wall so all of them can see everything. “Well.”

Jisoo’s still fiddling with his own stuff, not one to quickly believe that they could work something out like this. “And it fits? It somehow makes the regression work? Keep in mind we didn’t think we could map them without looking at the entire Pacific Ocean – if there’s actually a regionally localized pattern, that’d be massive, we’d have to publish and tell the PPDC immediately. And it’s never held true before, even when it looked like it did.”

“I mean, there’s probably some confirmation bias but—”

“P value less than point oh five,” Junhui says with a low whistle.

There’s a clatter while Jisoo drops whatever he’s doing and makes his way toward them, hands on his hips and eyes quickly absorbing everything on the screen. He adds a whistle after Junhui’s, and then remains standing, staring up at the beautifully aligned data with a slackened jaw.

“Well, when they say a fresh pair of eyes…How does it feel to have cracked a project abandoned for half a year in half a morning?” Hyeryung asks, pleased to have accurately gauged Jeonghan’s potential on first sight a day ago.

“Hah…would you believe me if I said it was an accident when I was clicking around to find what each button did?” Jeonghan says ducking his head. “I mean, I’ll take credit for it anyway.” He laughs, mouth wide and eyes squeezed closed.

“Sounds like basically everything in science.” Mingyu snorts and nudges Junhui in the side. “What do you think? Scared? Two kaijus at the same time?”

“Two small lizards or one big one, it doesn’t really matter. Job’s still to take them down,” Junhui says with a shrug. For some reason, his nonchalance and quiet confidence makes Mingyu feel safer here, close to the coast, than when he watched news reports of the kaiju landing on an entirely different continent from the safety of the apartment in Seoul.

“Double events, sure, starting off small but they’ll get bigger. And that could be followed by triple, maybe even quadruple events. Who knows how big the kaiju can get or how many of them there are?” Jeonghan says, leaning back, still with more adoration of the murderous beasts than makes Mingyu’s entirely comfortable.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jeonghan’s serendipitous finding is really important, but we have to make sure it predicts future events before we can say this works,” Jisoo reminds them, playing the role of the serious boss. He suddenly breaks into a grin, doing a weird finger pointing celebration, bouncing on the balls of his feet and pulling Hyeryung into his floppy foot tapping dance. “This has been the most productive morning we’ve had since these labs were first built, and it’s not even 1000 hours yet.”

“Must not have had very many productive mornings,” Junhui murmurs, in an almost Minghao-like way. He shakes his head. “I better go to training. Mingyu, I’m going to leave what I’ve finished with Jisoo so he can look over it and then finish the rest and do a second lookover when I have time. Can I leave it on your desk, say, by the end of the week?”

“If you can get it to me in a single week, I’ll buy you extra at lunch time for a month,” Mingyu swears.

Junhui grins, happy to take on the challenge. “Call.”

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

There’s a large but neat stack of documents on his desk six days later, complete with a cover page that explains the notation and color-coding Junhui had used for suggestions as opposed to corrections. Mingyu cries while transferring his commissary.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

It happens again, only a week after the last occurrence, that Mingyu is up before 0600, but this time he can’t ignore the wailing sirens or flashing lights alerting the shatterdome to movement detected in the breach for another wink of sleep. He bolts upright and springs out of bed in search of clothing, keeping one eye on his comms in case of anything happening. Mingyu likes it better when the kaiju shows up in the evening, while everyone is dispersed, way more than just before dawn because it means everyone is migrating out of the dorm areas simultaneously. When he opens his door there’s a dozen people scrambling towards his right, and he takes a good look around before heading left to sprint down the longer, less direct route, shirt still only half on. He’s not the only one though, because he runs into Chan doing the same run against the current, bone dome under one arm.

“Don’t ask,” he says huffily, clutching the flight helmet closer to his body. “The visor needed cleaning, okay, I wasn’t expecting that I’d take it out of the Jumphawk right on the night before I needed it.”

“Wasn’t gonna say anything,” Mingyu informs him, picking up the pace.

The jet pilots might have been caught off guard, but the jaegers are ready today. Well, they’re always at the ready, but sometimes J-Tech get caught only halfway through an upgrade or repair and have to hastily take down in the short period of time before the conn-pods are engaged. Today, Mingyu doesn’t even have to bark orders at anyone before taking the stairs two at a time up into LOCCENT.

Not for the first time, Mingyu wonders if Jihoon sleeps in LOCCENT, because he’s already booted up 6 displays and the lights of his entire dashboard are flicked on while he coolly reads print-outs and updates information coming in from the sensors.

“Don’t know how your constant updates on the structural integrity of the jaegers will help us,” Jihoon jibes, also not for the first time. Mingyu’s too busy getting three screens turning on to fight back, but the truth is even if he’s off to the side, he’s got the closest look he can get to the action without piloting a jaeger himself.

He’s watching all of the scans load a happy, maximum-reaching, green when it occurs to him. “Who’s piloting Iron? Has PPDC sent anyone down? We could really do with a new jaeger…”

“Then make haste with the one you’re building, Officer Kim!” Seungcheol’s voice barks.

“Marshal Choi on deck!” One of the technicians announces, a little too late.

Mingyu gulps, and voices his assent without turning around, ducking his head while Jihoon cackles silently at him, his eyes squeezed shut and fingers moving on muscle memory alone. When he sees Mingyu’s worried expression, he stops laughing to elbow him in the ribs. “Don’t worry,” Jihoon reassures Mingyu quietly, “Their rest cycle might be a bit shorter but it’s not like they can’t handle it.”

As if to prove it, Junhui’s voice relays clearly over the comms, smooth and composed. “Imperishable Grey, reporting in.” Well, if there’s people like that protecting their city, Mingyu supposes there’s no need to get too scared.

Jihoon slides over to the pons system controls and taps his headpiece. “You’re too collected for this early in the morning. Engaging drop now.”

From Jihoon’s other side, Yejin, monitoring comms with the respective jaeger crews, nods her head and announces, “Conn-pod secured, sir.”

“All set. Ready for the drop, you two? Three…two…” He hits the button before reaching one, just to give them a little jolt in case they’re not as awake as they sound.

There’s a metallic whirr and and Mingyu watches on his displays as the virtual representation of the jaeger prepares itself, stats still holding well after the drop. He flashes a hand signal of a-okay to the marshal, as well as a verbal cue once the numbers stabilize, locking into place.

“Engage pilot-to-pilot protocol,” Seungcheol orders.

“Engaging,” Jihoon affirms. A bar flashes across the main screen, indicating the connecting sequence.

“Synchronization 100 percent, steady and holding. Engaging neural handshake now.”

Both overhead and in Mingyu’s headset, Junhui declares, “Right hemisphere calibrated.”

“Left hemisphere calibrated,” Minghao’s voice comes immediately afterward.

“Copy that,” Jihoon says, after seeing Seungcheol nod. “Perihelion, don’t tell me you guys slept in or something. You ready yet?”

There’s a brief moment’s pause, and then: “Aye, aye, captain~” Soonyoung and Seokmin’s voices sing out in sync. Jihoon pinches the top of his nose bridge before initiating the same series of steps for their jaeger.

When Perihelion is ready as well, two sets of bay doors open at once, and two stacks of V-50 Jumphawks fly out, each fleet of planes carrying one jaeger. Jihoon clears his throat and reads out the stats in a loud and clear voice. “Kaiju codename ‘Slammer’. Category-III, 3700 tons. 31 kilometres offshore. Busan shatterdome sending jaegers ‘Imperishable Grey’ and ‘Perihelion Star’. Awaiting orders.” He spins around in his chair, waving a hand out at Seungcheol, who takes the floor calmly, both hands behind his back while he stares up at the map of the East Sea.

“Imperishable’s turn on point today. As always, take it down before it even gets close to civilization. Perihelion, you’ll be dropped just outside the miracle mile, and if anything happens, you’ll protect the coastline at any cost. The armor on this one looks thick and it’s moving fast, so don’t let your guards down. Pohang is on standby, but we don’t need their help, do we boys?”

“Absolutely not!” Junhui replies, affronted. There’s a quickly released snort on the comms that Mingyu can tell is from Minghao’s aborted laughter, dissolving quickly when Imperishable is released from the sky, splashing into the depths of the seas below. She stands quickly, especially considering her size, joints and hydraulics top of the class, rising from the ocean with her armor gleaming a menacing deep green that’s reflecting the first rays of light as the sun announces the morning.

Being as strong and beautiful as she is, Imperishable easily draws Slammer’s attention, and the kaiju turns away from its northward climb to the coast in order to stand on its two hind legs and roar at the unfazed Imperishable. In a quick flurry of movements, characteristic only of the Mark-IVs capable of moving their many plated joints, Imperishable is armed and poised for attack, taking its chance, while Slammer’s underbelly is exposed, to discharge both plasmacasters straight into the beast’s abdomen. It’s things like that which make Junhui and Minghao such a good team with their quick thinking and fast reflexes. They’re a little too far off to do as much damage as Mingyu has seen is possible with those weapons, but it’s destructive and certainly painful, not just a teasing slap but a good, solid punch. The roar is cut off, and the creature remains standing for a moment, bony mandible hanging open to reveal four rows of pointed teeth. And then there’s the aftermath.

It goes down, shrieking, loud enough that Mingyu has to pull his headpiece away for a second before adjusting it back over his ear. Even if it needs a moment’s recuperating, it’s not down for the count, however, flailing its enormous head with the plate extending from top of its head to nose thrashing from side to side, splashing huge waves whenever the massive protrusion hits the water. Slammer won’t make the mistake of standing on its rear again, not after that, but it’s injured enough to only be able to crawl slowly toward Imperishable at first. As it gains speed, Imperishable breaks into a run as well, her two pilots fighting the inertia that comes with increased mass to charge towards the vile thing, and they collide with enough impact that there are twin grunts from the pilots, as well as another deep roar from the kaiju.

“You, my friend, need to lose some weight,” Minghao complains to the uncomprehending kaiju. “I hear a diet of nothing but grass jelly is nutritious, but also extremely slimming.”

Mingyu bursts into laughter inside LOCCENT, earning a twitch of the lips from Seungcheol which is schooled by the marshal to a stern frown. Mingyu ducks down again, covering his mouth with one hand, and when he thinks no one’s looking, aims a kick at Jihoon’s shins with one long leg for laughing at him again.

Slammer may not have understood the barb, but the kaiju is agitated enough as it is, and hurt to boot, so it moves unpredictably. One second it’s low to the ground, the next it’s ramming its head upward, pointy end of its headplate leading the way and Imperishable gets its head out of the way, but there’s a sharp suck of air when the sharp lower corner tears through the jaeger’s right shoulder, followed by by a groan. They react by swinging a punch into the side of Slammer’s head, and it goes down a second time with its heavy body causing another set of waves as it lands in the water.

Imperishable stumbles backward, and it’s still unbalanced when Slammer’s arm reaches out, attacking the same arm of the jaeger, having already weakened it. The kaiju’s hands dig into the metal plating, and it drags its three fat claws down from shoulder to hand, earning two equally sharp screams of pain, heard only by the occupants of LOCCENT.

Mingyu has both hands clasped together in front of his mouth, heart in his throat while he watches the displays. Each hit flashes red lettering and a blinking outline where the jaeger’s been struck, but Imperishable isn’t broken yet, not by a long shot. Those claw marks, however, have really got to hurt.

Just before Marshal Choi says anything, Junhui forces an exhale and mutters, “We’re fine. Perihelion, hold!”

While Slammer’s hand is still stuck in Imperishable’s metal plating, the right wrist of the jaeger spins around, hand grabbing onto the kaiju’s arm and pulling it taut while Imperishable’s left elbow comes crashing down on it. Slammer releases a loud screech, shaking off its grasp on Imperishable, who refuses to let go. Junhui and Minghao attempt to wrestle the jaeger onto its back, bearing the brunt of its claws, and its tail whipping into their jaeger’s back with clenched teeth.

By this point, Mingyu is standing, hands down on the dash to support his weight and he cranes his head toward the projection of what the cameras are capturing, and no longer monitoring the damage to the jaegers reported by the computer sensors. He’s cheering on his friends, even if internally, and praying for them to be safe, and to keep Busan safe.

Sick of having the tail whip into the back of their jaeger’s legs, Imperishable steps on it, crushing the appendage down with its weight, and eventually flips the kaiju over, even if it strikes back. At last, they have a clear shot, and the kaiju seems to recognize it’s close to defeat as well. It tries to buck, but with the plasmacaster aimed straight into its chest, the kaiju’s torso explodes in blue kaiju blood and guts, severing its body in half. The kaiju signature blinks out of existence. “If you wanted to compare manicures,” Minghao quips through his heavy breathing, “all you had to do was ask nicely.”

“Good work, giving your audience a real master class today,” Seungcheol says proudly. “Come home.”

“Wait,” Junhui says. He rarely makes any comments of a non-official nature. Imperishable steps over Slammer’s shoulders and squats down, so the conn-pod is facing its ugly head. There’s a flash of light and Junhui extends his chainsword. “LOCCENT, you might want to look away.”

Mingyu shuts his eyes immediately, but peeks one open when he hears Jihoon chuckling to himself. In the camera, he can see Imperishable methodically sawing off the offending face axe that had injured them in the first place. The sword cuts through the bone surprisingly easily, even if it takes a while, and when they’re finished, Junhui retracts the blade while Minghao drops the plate into the water with a splash. “The kaiju should really be paying us. Who gets free plastic surgery these days?”

LOCCENT erupts, a chorus of applause and laughter, and Mingyu’s too astounded to say a word. He feels a warm hand on his shoulder, but doesn’t turn around, too busy smiling. He’s got his work cut out for him in the upcoming week - there’s a few scratches on Imperishable’s posterior that look superficial but need to be checked, and obviously the right arm will have to be replaced, but Perihelion barely moved, and it’s not terribly difficult in terms of repair work. They deserve to celebrate, and he should probably do something nice for Yooyoung, who must have done something to the chainsword recently too, cutting much faster and smoother than it should have. He looks to his right, where Jihoon’s got his chin resting on one palm, looking fondly out at his display, reading the green ‘MISSION: SUCCESS’ banner over and over again.

“I hope you two learned something from that,” Seungcheol says. Mingyu freezes, wondering if he and Jihoon are in trouble for some reason, but that’s followed up with, “Imperishable really is the cream of the crop amongst all jaegers, and their pilots are even better.”

Mingyu turns to see who Seungcheol’s speaking to, but all he gets is the side of someone’s head, a person he doesn’t recognize. “Who was that?” he asks Jihoon.

“Huh? Oh, with Seungcheol? You didn’t see them?” Jihoon raises an eyebrow.

Impatiently, Mingyu shakes his head and taps Jihoon’s knee. “Hurry and tell me, hyung.”

“Just our two new Busan jaeger pilots,” Jihoon says. He grins widely at Mingyu and pats the top of his head, using a little more force than necessary.

“PPDC sent down the assignments?” Mingyu asks, surprised.

“Yup. Now get your shit together and get lost if you don’t have food or coffee to placate me with, kiddo.”

Mingyu rolls his eyes, but starts shutting down. He saves a copy of the damage reports from the computers to his own comms, carrying it with him down the stairs to the jaeger bays, where techs are already milling about, waiting for instructions. After sending off the junior officers to bring in the jaegers safely, Mingyu groups the engineers and senior technicians together to lay out his plans for what needs to be done and what order they need doing. Last on the list is an inspection of Perihelion, and first on the list is manufacturing parts for a new right arm for Imperishable. The joints will be the hardest part because they’ll have to be made from scratch, whereas they can recycle some of the other parts as long as they’re not too mangled. The weapons, certainly, remain undamaged, sheathed deep inside a series of encasements. Also lower priority are the cosmetic damages to the rest of the jaeger.

When everyone seems to know what they’re doing, Mingyu pulls Yooyoung aside. “I know you’re weapons, but since none need replacing, I want you to help me speed up development on the Mark-V. Seungcheol-hyung, I mean, Marshal Choi has the new pilots already and they’re going to be lugging Iron Nobility around. No one should be consigned to that Mark-II, it doesn’t even have any of its original parts remaining considering how many times it’s been around the block.”

“You make it sound like the jaeger’s been very sexually active.” Yooyoung snorts. “But yeah, it makes sense that I should help you with this. How else are you going to get really cool shit in there with your boring old person brain?”

“I’m younger than you!” Mingyu complains, “How do I have an old person brain?”

“It’s not the age, it’s that you think like a geezer, so uninventive. No creative ways to kill the kaiju at all, how are you supposed to surprise them if you can’t even surprise me?” She shakes her head, face awash with dramatized disappointment, falling into step beside him toward the workshops, bypassing bay eight where the Mark-V’s base, ready to be built up, sits waiting for the rest of the jaeger. The scaffolding is already in place as well, and now that he has the verified plans, they just need to cobble the whole thing together.

Inside the workshop, the internal generator hangs suspended by one wall, waiting for its nuclear core to power it up. The gatling chest, too, is ready, as are the plasmacasters, the rear jets, sawblades, and a whole arsenal of other weaponry, courtesy of Yooyoung’s so called inventive side. “It’s a good thing that you’re putting your scary brain to use on something productive that protects mankind, noona. I have a strange feeling that if it weren’t for the kaiju, you’d be designing ways to kill humans,” Mingyu says, pulling a lever to unlock the entrance into the stock warehouse.

Yooyoung manhandles one of the builder bots onto a portable workstation before glaring at Mingyu with both hands on her hips. “Are you looking down on me? Why would I want to kill humans when they’re so small? I’m not a war-mongering politician, Mingyu-yaa, I just want to destroy the things that think they can kill me easily.”

They work through lunch, mostly silent as each of them puts together everything they need to load up the assembly line, including both parts and helper bots. Once they’re done, Yooyoung finds glee in driving the massive moving truck that transports all of the materials they’ve amassed to jaeger bay eight, not that she’s careless. She does, however, find way too much pleasure honking incessantly at the tiny workers hurrying to get out of her way. “They’re already moving!” Mingyu shouts sideways, out of the corner of his mouth. He’s glued to the door of the passenger seat, both hands around the handle above the window.

“Not fast enough,” she says back, a gleam in her eyes.

After setting up her comms to play the post-battle press conference scheduled for 1530 hours, she piles her hair onto the top of her head and caps it with a sturdy yellow helmet. They both sit down with their gloves, goggles, and hard hats to hammer out the beginnings of some structure. Tomorrow, after the furor dies down a bit and people are better rested, Mingyu will have them move in the giant beams central to the legs of the jaeger, and see if they can separate out a group of the brighter techs and engineers to work on the arms and torso inside the workshops without Mingyu or Yooyoung’s supervision. For now, they’re assembly the jaeger from the feet up.

The first question of the night starts off already on a bad foot. Mingyu pauses what he’s doing to see Minghao and Junhui looking at each other and trying to convince the other to answer first. “Congratulations on your latest kill, Rangers Wen and Xu. How many is that now in Imperishable?” For a few tense moments, the only sounds are the incessant clicks of dozens of cameras going off, each flash of light attempting to cast away the rangers’ dark expressions without success.

“Isn’t that your job as a journalist to know?” Minghao finally snaps, not so much caving to Junhui’s refusal to speak, as much as appalled that someone could ask something like that. It sets the tone for the way the rest of their answers go.

“With two of your pilot pairs recently gone, do you feel like the Pan Pacific Defense Corps are spreading too thin, Marshal Choi?” It’s a leading question from one of the reporters who hasn’t stopped criticizing the way things are run by the government since the jaeger program was first set up.

“It’s true that we currently only have two active jaegers, but clearly we can handle the tasks we’re faced with using what we have. The PPDC sent down a new batch of recruits this morning, including an established drift-compatible pair of rangers, and I’m sure they’re more than up for the challenge,” Seungcheol says, somewhat tersely.

“Hey,” Mingyu calls, focus back on the equipment in his hands. His voice is crackly from lack of use, and at first Yooyoung doesn’t notice him trying to catch her attention, tuning out his voice the way she’s been tuning out all of the noise in the jaeger bay, except what’s coming from the comms. “You meet the new rangers yet?”

Yooyoung scrunches her nose and wipes sweat off her brow with the back of an arm. “When was I supposed to do that? While I was running over to make sure the alterations to the chainsword in Imperishable retracted properly or after you got me stuck sitting my ass on the ground banging in screws?”

“So that was you,” Mingyu confirms. “I knew it wasn’t supposed to cut through bone like that.”

“Of course it’s supposed to cut through bone like that! You’re trying to get rid of the kaiju, not baby them. The weapons in the jaegers better work as efficiently as you can get them. You weren’t supposed to have such a uselessly unjagged surface.”

“Okay, okay, ‘supposed to’ wasn’t the right way to put it, I mean I’d never seen it cut through anything so easily before.” He grins impishly. “Thanks for doing your job, hoobae.”

“I’m going to get whiplash between you calling me noona and hoobae. Pick one and stick to it,” Yooyoung mutters.

“What was that?” Mingyu asks pleasantly.

“Nothing,” is her reply, keeping with their tradition of saying things the other doesn’t want to hear and responding by pretending really not to have heard. “Anyway, I didn’t know we were even getting new recruits, much less that they’d be arriving today. Do you think Junhui will terrify them back to Alaska with how hard and fast he and Minghao take each other down in the combat room?”

Mingyu stumbles backward with the force of his laughter, catching himself from falling just in time. “Can you imagine? One of them specializes in kicks, before realizing Junhui is a hundred times better than they’ll ever be. Another’s good at doing tricks and flips, and then starts crying when Minghao back somersaults in circles around them. Didn’t it feel like Inseong and Seungjoon only quit because they couldn’t keep up with the pressure when they were doing group manoeuvers?”

“Oh sure, but that was definitely more Hyerin and Jinah’s work, I feel. Probably burnt out from just watching how much smoother Catalysis was in battle, and then really did themselves in practicing after hours to try to match their level. But what a pair of hypocrites we are, sitting cozy inside the shatterdome while they do the real work.”

“I guess we should cut them some slack, at least they tried. How many of them tucked tail and dropped out before they even ran a round through the simulated drift?” Mingyu sighs.

“If there’s already a partnered pair in this batch, it might bode well. Although, Junhui might flirt and seduce both of them and shock them out of compatibility when they drift with a jaeger and find out they’re both into the same guy.”

“That’s if they’re both into guys. We don’t know anything about them yet.”

Yooyoung shrugs, and forcefully tries to tuck the hair that’s escaped her helmet back underneath the yellow rim. “You don’t need to be into guys to be into Wen Junhui. He’s the type of person that everyone’s a little in love with, whether they like it or not, just because he’s legendary.”

The skin between Mingyu’s eyebrows wrinkles. “It’s weird thinking about Junhui-hyung like that.”

“That’s because you actually know and care about him,” she says, rolling her eyes. Yooyoung readjusts her sitting position to straddle the pole beneath her. “You know he needs to eat and sleep just like the rest of us mortals.”

As if on cue, the next press question is one that acts like Junhui is a robot instead of a human. “Since Ranger Wen has the highest success rate in the jaeger program, doesn’t it make more sense to send him out to a more populated area like in Jakarta, especially when there was an attack on Java two months ago?”

Seungcheol leans forward, holding a hand out to stop Minghao from ripping into the reporter. “As we’ve mentioned, we currently only have two active jaegers. Sending Ranger Wen and Ranger Xu elsewhere would leave the Busan coastline more vulnerable, and would be a deeply irresponsible decision. No more questions today.”

There’s a flurry of activity while they file out, camera operators and reporters climbing over each other to get to the front of the room. Yooyoung clucks her tongue. “Wow, they really don’t see him as human, do they? He’s just like…a tool, to get what they want done.”

Mingyu throws down the box he’s moving, and it lands with a heavy thud as he stretches out his back, feeling the cracking in his spine. “You see enough of those jaegers take down a kaiju and people forget there are living, breathing, human beings inside, controlling them.”

“It’s all fun and games until someone dies,” she mutters.

“Not even then.” Mingyu laughs mirthlessly. “The mission after Yoosang-hyung and Youngwon-hyung’s jaeger went missing, people asked why Tempest wasn’t out there fighting with Catalysis and Tomorrow. They asked that in a press conference too, in a room full of people who are supposed to be on top of this shit. No one was even ready to mourn yet, hoping we’d find them the way someone got to that guy in Anchorage.”

“I’m grateful there are people who do, but I can’t understand wanting to become a jaeger pilot. Like, to save the world? You’re one person, how much can you really accomplish? Most of the time it’s for fame and I don’t know why anyone would want their lives laid out in the open but none of the people watching actually try to get to know you.” Yooyoung voices exactly how Mingyu feels about the jaeger program, but he thinks about Wonwoo and stays mostly mum, allowing a single nod. “I guess I shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze my friends. Never mind, I’m probably just really weird. You going to go make your love call?”

It’s about an hour before Mingyu normally begins contemplating eating dinner, but there’s no message in his comms from Wonwoo, and hasn’t been for a few days. He’s not worried, but he might drop him a line later, when things aren’t as hectic. “They’re not love calls. You make it sound like he messages me for sexual favors.”

“It’s only fair if you’re making insinuations about the jaegers.”

 

 

☀☀☀

 

 

Imperishable’s crew sends a greenie scurrying over when they run into a snag with the shoulder replacement and Mingyu keeps a hand on his stomach the entire time he has to explain that it’s meant for 360-degree movement instead of the regular ball and socket. Needless to say, he’s famished by the time he gets to the cafeteria, Yooyoung long gone without him, although having left a message that she’ll be back after dessert. He cops an extra helping of potatoes and pork by making some cute pouty faces.

“How are both of you getting so much food?” Minghao asks, looking between Mingyu and Junhui with a face full of disbelief.

Junhui has a mostly empty tray and a tart cherry ice cream in front of him, the kind that comes in a carton with a portable plastic spoon rather than the popsicles that are easier to find and to hold. It’s a pretty hefty tub too, with little grains of ice still stuck to the sides, although most of that is slowly melting the longer he leaves it out. It may be winter, but they have central heating. It’s typical for him to be recovering from a battle with extra food, but for it to be something decadent is a sign that Junhui-hyung’s eating his feelings again, not unimaginable considering the way the press conference went this afternoon. Mingyu had planned on treading lightly in the first place, but faced with ironclad evidence of Junhui’s discomfort, he pulls out all the stops to keep the mood cheery. He sets his tray down and shoves a spoonful of mash into Minghao’s mouth to shut him up. “I didn’t know commissary still had ice cream,” Mingyu says, keeping his voice bright.

“Made them dig through the freezer,” Junhui says, sickeningly happy, “I think they’re hoarding some of the good stuff in their stocks but I think she figured if I was looking for ice cream in January, needs must.”

The spoon in Minghao’s mouth, sticking out of his lips like he’s holding an oral thermometer, is finally removed and shoved back into Mingyu’s peas. “You’re going to share that, right?” Minghao asks, looking sideways over Junhui’s forearm.

“Be honest,” Jisoo interrupts. “If it were you, would you share? I didn’t think so.”

“Just because you’re selfish doesn’t mean we all are, Hong Jisoo,” says Hyeryung.

“Don’t worry, if I found ice cream, I’d share with you, Hyeryung-ssi.” Jeonghan and Hyeryung high five behind Jisoo’s back while he complains that hiring a minion has only ended up with him getting ganged up on.

“It’s your own fault.” Minghao turns back to Junhui without any sympathy. “So, I mean, you ate all of your dinner and had extra too. You must be feeling a little full now…”

“Nope,” Junhui says, peeling back the seal underneath the plastic cap. He taps the plastic spoon to his lower lip with anticipation, before taking a dainty first bite. His tongue darts out to lick up any remnants still on his lips, which he proceeds to smack loudly. “Still hungry. This really hits the spot though.”

“You two with your fucking massive appetites,” Minghao mutters, finally giving up and stabbing into his own food.

Mingyu kicks at Minghao’s ankles under the table and his face splits into a wide grin. “Chinese Kim Mingyu,” he jokes, and Minghao only rolls his eyes before kicking him back.

After taking approximately two bites of his pork cutlet, Mingyu hears benches scraping, and he hurriedly puts his eating utensils down in order to stand with the rest of them while Marshal Choi makes his way through the tables, back ramrod straight and shoulders wide in his dark blue suit of choice, regal and imposing even if he’s not the tallest person in the crowd.

“Rangers Xu, Wen,” Marshal Choi says, nodding to each of them. It’s like a little show of faith, or something, the way Seungcheol-hyung walks in while the dining hall is fullest, addressing the heroes of the day. Mingyu thinks this is what makes a good leader, the kind that inspires his men to follow behind him, because he’s willing to put his faith in others so they’re willing to trust him as well. “Enjoying your meals? I presume Rangers Kwon and Lee have already eaten?”

“Yes sir,” Junhui replies quickly, voice no-nonsense, and stance immediately at the ready. Minghao’s in a matching rigid posture, hands behind his back, feet shoulder width apart, body aligned to all be facing straight forward. He nods in agreement with Junhui.

“Good, good.” Seungcheol dips his head, swivelling slightly to his left and right, taking a look around at the other faces in the mess, a small smile on his lips whenever his eyes meet someone else’s. The military personnel are all quick to salute, while the civilian officers mostly tend to duck their heads.

“Officer Kim Mingyu!” Seungcheol says, and it takes Mingyu a moment to realize he’s being addressed, too busy lost his in his world, and certainly not expecting to be singled out. “How’s dinner?”

“Very good sir!” Mingyu says, frightened into a sloppy salute that Minghao snorts at, ducking his head sideways before straightening immediately and holding back his smile with pursed lips. It’s not really Mingyu’s fault that he doesn’t know proper procedure, not when he’s never enlisted or done any military training whatsoever.

“And the Mark-V, how’s that coming?” Marshal Choi is smiling too, probably equally as amused by Mingyu’s floundering as Minghao, if not as incapable of remaining professional.

“Two months out, sir. Manufacturing complete, blueprints verified, and scaffolding in place. Only assembly required,” Mingyu says, unable to stop himself from tacking on the last bit jokingly.

Marshal Choi really laughs at that, a chuckle that spreads warmth through Mingyu from head to toe with the sense of approval. He clears his throat and sweeps an arm to the side, stepping out of the way. “Then let me introduce you to the rangers who will be piloting your new jaeger.”

Mingyu doesn’t even process the words, so shocked at what he sees. Or, to be more precise, whom. Seungcheol’s barely out of the way when he hops over the bench and barrels forward, not slowing down in the slightest when he gets close but simply running smack into Jeon Wonwoo, arms quickly wrapping around his back for a hug. Mingyu buries his face in Wonwoo’s shoulder for a second, inhaling deeply, before letting go and shoving him backward before he’s even had a chance to reciprocate.

“Hyung! You didn’t tell me you were coming here! You didn’t tell me anything!”

“You didn’t ask!” Wonwoo laughs, cuffing Mingyu in the back of the neck.

“Well, you’re all familiar with Ranger Jeon Wonwoo, who’s joined us again although in a different capacity this time, along with his co-pilot, Ranger Choi Hansol, our dongsaeng. I trust you will all take good care of them,” Seungcheol says, smiling calmly at everyone from their table.

“Ohh I’ve seen this episode before,” Jeonghan says, a little too loudly. “This is the part of the show when Junhui goes ‘Yeah we’ll take very good care of them and gives them a really lewd look, right?” He yelps when Jisoo stomps on his foot.

Hyeryung works quickly to cover the question up as well. “What about the other rangers sent by PPDC, sir? Will they be joining us?” she asks, voice sweet.

“Our fightmaster has been taking them on a tour and getting them oriented with our facilities since the press conference this afternoon. Hyelim-ssi wanted to personally make sure they were familiar with her training schedule, as they will all fall under her jurisdiction until Yejin-ssi can test them for drift compatibility with any of the other ranger candidates,” Seungcheol offers readily.

It finally processes in Mingyu’s brain. “Hyu—Marshal! Why didn’t you tell me I’d be building the jaeger for them?” He’s panicking now, that he won’t do a good enough job, that he won’t be able to keep the rangers safe, even if he’s double, triple, quadruple checked everything. There’s always something unforeseen, it’s the law of the universe.

“I didn’t know,” Seungcheol explains honestly. “And if I had told you, would it have changed anything?” He smiles when Mingyu looks torn, realizing he would have done his best either way, but it still feels like a betrayal, at least until Seungcheol ruffles his hair fondly. “Work hard, everyone. All of us have a role in keeping Busan safe.”

Mingyu watches the marshal walking away, his broad back broadcasting confidence, safety, and security. As his eyes trail behind him, they fall onto Wonwoo again, and it’s such a sight for sore eyes. Seeing him again is a ringing slap to the face of a reminder just how much Mingyu missed him, although he looks different, smells different, and even sounds different. Maybe increased lung capacity from improving his fitness, or just that Mingyu’s memory of him had shifted and changed over the months when all he heard was Wonwoo’s filtered voice through a mic and speaker system, perhaps distorting the sound of the real thing. Maybe the jaeger academy has a different supplier for soap and laundry detergent because the smell on his clothes is fruiter, a little citrusy, but there’s still an undeniably Wonwoo scent to him, the same one Mingyu had gotten used to years and years ago during summers spent lying side-by-side reading comic books and trying not to move in the heat. From one look at his chest it’s obvious that he’s filled out a little more, looking sturdier. Still lithe, but maybe a little less ready to fall over if the wind blew just a little too hard.

“Are you crying?” Wonwoo asks, bumping their shoulders together while everyone around them returns to their seats.

“No! I’m not!” Mingyu says, clearly choking up. Okay, so he might be tearing up, but that’s because there’s something his eye.

“Mingyu, sit down and stop being an embarrassment to all scientists everywhere,” Hyeryung mutters. “Wonwoo, long time no see. Are you two going to join us in eating dinner?”

“Err, actually, we ate with Marshal Choi just now,” Hansol says earnestly, nodding at everyone with an awkward repeated head bobble.

“You ate with him? Wait, let me get something straight. Marshal Choi, Ranger Choi…are you two related? His younger sibling? Is that why?” Jisoo asks.

“Wonwoo-hyung! You’ll have to be really careful with him then. If you let him get hurt, won’t Marshal Choi ground you? Or there might be an even worse punishment,” Mingyu jokes.

“Ah, no, it’s not like that…” Hansol says shyly.

“Well whatever the reason is, you better sit down or more people will stare. It’ll be faster to do introductions here anyway,” Hyeryung says pragmatically.

They introduce themselves in a circle, ending with Mingyu, to which Hansol replies. “Yeah, we’ve spoke,” referring to the few times that he was with Wonwoo when they were video chatting. “It’s nice to meet, not just virtually, but you know, for real. Wonwoo-hyung has a lot of cool stories about you.” He says while throwing in some nervous hand gestures.

Mingyu’s feelings tangle into an ugly mess. He doesn’t know whether it’s jealousy from someone else calling Wonwoo ‘hyung’ that intimately, or satisfaction from knowing that Wonwoo talks about him, or ambivalence at being described as ‘cool’, or the conflicting nature of those emotions, but together it results in the smile he sends Hansol being thin and more bared teeth than kind. Unperturbed, Hansol grins sincerely back, like he’s happy to have made a new friend.

“Not that I’m not glad to see you again or something, but I really thought they’d send us some girls this round, you know, after Hyerin and Jinah left.” Hyeryung sighs, putting down her chopsticks, and it reminds Mingyu that he’d barely started eating. He starts in on his pork cutlet again, holding the entire thing up with his chopsticks and taking chomping bites. Wonwoo doesn’t break focus from the conversation to shove Mingyu’s hand aside and start cutting the meat into neat strips with Mingyu’s abandoned knife and fork, like he’s a kid instead of nearing thirty, and Mingyu promptly starts tearing up again.

“Does Junhui flirt with the girls more? None of you acted like it was out of the ordinary, but now that Marshal Choi is gone, this is the time when Junhui starts flirting outrageously, right?” Jeonghan asks. “I guess not with Wonwoo-ssi if they’ve met before but why was I the recipient of that treatment only? What’s going on?”

“If it were girls there’d be no flirting whatsoever,” Minghao says with a snort. “There’s not a straight bone in Junhui’s body.” He looks startled after he says that, turning to look at Junhui with alarm written all over his face. That hadn’t been a factoid Junhui or Minghao had ever shared with him before, and by the looks of it Minghao had just accidentally outed his co-pilot without prior knowledge that he was even in the closet either.

“How would you know?” Mingyu asks, trying to give Junhui a way out of the situation. “You weren’t around for any of the single female pilots we had, and it’s not like he would have survived saying anything to Yooyoung when she was new here.”

Junhui looks up and flashes a quick smile at Mingyu in thanks, before catching Minghao’s eye. “Ghostdrifting,” he says quietly, staring down in front of him.

“That’s not a thing,” Hyeryung says, more out of disbelief than an actual accusation.

Junhui shrugs. “You don’t have to believe me.” He’s still looking Minghao in the eye. Minghao is equally disbelieving, but not about the existence of ghostdrifting. He’s spent so many months locked out of Junhui’s head that upon being let in, his control on his lower jaw has disappeared and his mouth is gaping wide open, has been since the second that word first left Junhui’s lips. If there were fewer people around Mingyu would be popping champagne bottles right now, and Minghao would shove him aside, laughing that it’s not something to celebrate. Actually, it might not matter whether or not there were fewer people around because Minghao and Junhui are too focused on each other, having some kind of smackdown in their heads that the rest of them aren’t privy too.

Oblivious to the milestone that’s just occurred, Hansol pipes up to pose the question, “What exactly is ghostdrifting?”

“It’s supposedly a phenomenon when drift partners still have the connection through the neural handshake even after they’ve disconnected, so they’re in sync with each other’s feelings, share a similar headspace, stuff like that,” Hyeryung explains. “There’s no literature supporting proof of its existence, though, only anecdotal news reports that go straight to press instead of to any reputable papers.”

“You bio types rely too much on ‘the scientific literature’,” Jisoo mutters, dodging Hyeryung’s claws even as he speaks. He’s still scratched.

Hansol leans forward to stare wide-eyed at Minghao and Junhui. “Can you guys read each other’s minds or something?”

“No,” they reply, with a synchronicity that belies their answer. Junhui looks away first, amused, and smiles openly at Hansol. “It’d be kind of cool if rangers could do something like that, right? Although…I’m not sure I’d want to know what goes on in Wonwoo’s brain anyway.”

Wonwoo’s too busy looking between Mingyu and Minghao, expression blank, to process the quip at first, but he wastes no time reaching over to smack Junhui on the head.

Hansol laughs good naturedly, and it gives him a sort of boy-band look with his teeth all sparkling white. “How bad could it be? It’s probably just all filled with video games anyway, or those really sad teenage romance novels he loves to read.”

Instead of his chuckle, or the forced obnoxious laugh he sometimes makes when there’s a lot of people around, Junhui lets out a sound of pure delight. It can’t really be categorized as a giggle, but Mingyu doesn’t really know how to describe it other than to say it’s a tinkling joyous sound, one not out of derisive amusement or even surprise, and he doesn’t think he’s ever heard it from Junhui-hyung before. “Here, you’ve deserved it,” Junhui says. He hands Hansol his entire carton of ice cream. It’s a little melted at the top, where a layer of pale pink liquid obscures the more solid treat underneath, but it’s also largely untouched since the marshal had interrupted their meal before he had started to eat.

While the rest of the table shares bewildered looks (Minghao, in particular, looks not just shocked but outright offended at having been denied the ice cream earlier in the evening), Hansol simply regards the gift as something nice but not out of the usual. “Thanks! I don’t think we had ice cream in the caf in Alaska. In January too, do you guys get dessert like this year round?”

No one can really meet his eyes to inform him that it’s not the norm, and even Junhui himself only seems to be able to smile wanly while watching him spoon the ice cream into his mouth.

“What’s happening?” Wonwoo hisses into Mingyu’s ear, familiar and warm like they haven’t been separated at all. Mingyu looks at Minghao, who’s looking at Junhui differently again – less appalled and more considering. He turns to look at Hansol, who’s got everyone’s attention without trying, and who doesn’t seem to notice the spotlight. He looks at Jeonghan, who’s settled in so quickly that his snarky confusion at Junhui’s behaviour seems out of place. He looks at Wonwoo, who is undoubtedly changed.

“Things are…different?” Mingyu tries. “It’s been weird around here without you, hyung.” It’s more of a guess than a conclusion.

Not everything’s changed though.

“Yeah yeah,” Wonwoo replies with a roll of his eyes. “I missed you too.”

Some things are still the same, like the way Jeon Wonwoo makes Kim Mingyu’s heart flutter.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

For some reason, Mingyu’s brain processes Wonwoo’s return to mean that if he shoots up in bed at the sound of the alarm the morning, gets ready, and skitters over to the bunk diagonally across from his in the same hallway, he’ll find Wonwoo, still in pyjamas and his hair sticking up all over, ears open to Mingyu’s morning chatter. He’s already knocked on the door by the time that he remembers this is Yooyoung’s room now, and has been for five months, at least, and that Wonwoo’s bunking in the double rooms reserved for the rangers and ranger hopefuls halfway around the dorm block. Something to do with developing greater chemistry together to enhance drift compatibility, that axiom of jaeger piloting that no one can stop using around rangers. Fuck drift compatibility.

She opens the door in her slippers, hair frizzy and eyes barely open, but somehow still able to shoot daggers at Mingyu. “Die in a fire,” she says calmly, before proceeding to shuffle back into her room.

Mingyu’s got a foot in the door, though, and even if he’s just as exhausted as she is, he maintains a chipper mood, more for his own sake than hers. “The kaiju aren’t waiting for us to be all styled up before they come knocking on our door,” he singsongs. Yooyoung flips both middle fingers up at him but at least she doesn’t return to bed.

His humming is quiet and a little monotone throughout his morning routine, but it keeps him chipper through to breakfast, where Hyeryung has her hair up in a bun and Jeonghan is passed out into his porridge. Jisoo looks marginally alive but tightly wound, his hands wrapped tightly around his ever-present thermos, staring blankly ahead of him between sips of coffee. Soonyoung’s snoring on Seokmin’s shoulder, and Seokmin himself looks like a broken man.

“Good morning~” Mingyu sings out, shoving Soonyoung sideways to find space for himself at their table. Soonyoung, rather than waking up, topples over Seokmin’s thighs, forehead collapsing into the bench on the other side of his legs. Seokmin, not having processed this happening, leans forward to mechanically take a bite of food.

“Kill him,” Hyeryung mutters, stabbing at her eggs until they’re a heap of crushed pieces. She gives them a disgusted look and puts down her chopsticks to rub at already red eyes. “It’s way too early and he’s way too loud.”

“Too lazy,” Jeonghan mumbles into the rim of his bowl. His head slips sideways and he pushes his tray forward so it can fall gracelessly to the table.

“Up too late celebrating?” Mingyu asks. The eggs are a little rubbery, but edible to him. Maybe not so much to someone hungover. While the others patted themselves on the back for a job well done the day before, he and Yooyoung had been working until midnight in the jaeger bays, passing on the usual rounds to the common room for decompressing. Actually, Mingyu had been a little surprised that Yooyoung stayed with him after things had gotten started, but she’d shrugged and told him, “Not the same if you don’t bring your hooch with you.”

Back when he and Wonwoo had first arrived, Mingyu collected scraps and broken electronics from the kitchens and workshops to cobble together a makeshift fridge in his room that housed beer and not much else. He’d really sucked up to civilian staff for the original brew, and it was loads better than the regular fermented piss tasting beer that people normally were able to procure from the kitchens or commissary. Unless you were a really big fan of bagged wine, Mingyu’s stash was the best alcohol in the shatterdome.

“Oh is that what we were doing?” Jisoo asks faintly, taking another small sip from his thermos. His eyes remain glued to the table, blinking slowly. “Once those two started joyriding the cleaner bots in a circle around the room, I thought we’d been transported to a racetrack.”

Mingyu’s about to ask who ‘those two’ are when Seokmin opens his mouth and croaks out, “You know, the horrifying thing is that while you guys might have been drunk when you were cheering us on, we were completely sober.” He shuts his mouth, turns his head slowly to give Mingyu a sad look, and turns back to stare forward, reverting to a shell of himself.

“That’s not horrifying,” Jeonghan informs him. “That’s normal. When I first met you, the two of you were trying to tickle each other off the chin up bars with your feet.” He turns his head to the other side, pressing his cheek down against the table, and blows a strand of hair away from his face before attempting to sit up again. It’s looking like he’ll manage to bring that mouthful of porridge to his lips when his spoon clatters back into the bowl and he winces, quickly laying his head down again.

Hyeryung looks thoughtfully at Jeonghan’s prone form. “Horrifying is how gossipy Jeonghannie gets when he’s drunk. Gives Seungkwan a run for his money on how much he can blab.”

“Everyone keeps telling me the dirt to catch me up, it’s great,” Jeonghan agrees, pressing a hand to his forehead.

“Sounds like an all around good night then.” There’s a wistful smile on Mingyu’s face when he pats a sleeping Soonyoung on the bum. “Wish I’d been there to see it. When’d you guys sleep?”

“Sleep? Is that something you eat for breakfast?” Jisoo asks miserably into his rolled eggs.

“Are you two still eating breakfast?” It’s Yooyoung’s voice, floating over while she carries her tray of food, completely transformed from the way she appeared when she just woke up. “I’m surprised to see you here,” she says, nodding at Seokmin. “The other rangers look like they’ve been going at it for at least an hour in the combat room.”

“What? I thought we were the early ones for once!” Seokmin repeatedly jabs his fingers into Soonyoung’s side to wake him up. Soonyoung jumps to a sitting position quickly, but he’s still groggy when Seokmin shoves three pieces of egg into his mouth in quick succession, stored in his cheek pouches not unlike a hamster. He starts chewing instinctively, but nearly chokes when his arm is yanked away by Seokmin.

“Hey, clean up your…trays.” Mingyu trails off, shaking his head. He clears the table so Yooyoung can join them.

“Are they actually in the combat room or are you just messing with them?” Mingyu asks. When she’s sleepy she doesn’t usually get up to any antics, but Yooyoung’s too alert now for him not to be suspicious.

“Eh, I don’t know about an hour but the four of them were definitely training when I walked by the main gyms. Figured I’d give them a little push, you know, for the betterment of society. Don’t want our rangers getting lazy.”

Hyeryung cackles in a slightly sardonic way, and gets waved at by Jeonghan, who’s too lazy to reach further and actually attempt to hit her for being so noisy.

“Why are they training this early? How did they wake up before you?” Mingyu asks.

“Probably went to bed at a decent hour?” Hyeryung shrugs. “Don’t know, I don’t remember seeing them last night after dinner.”

Mingyu snorts. Seeing her continuous rubbing of her temples, it’s not hard to believe that she doesn’t remember seeing them. He’d wager she doesn’t remember much of anything.

“Actually, I think I remember seeing them. Well, Minghao and Junhui. They were fighting in the combat room last night when Jiho and I were looking for a room to—” Jisoo breaks off to suddenly gulp down several swallows of coffee.

“Hyung! I didn’t know you and Jiho were a thing, why didn’t you tell me?”

Jisoo’s entire face slowly reddens, and Hyeryung laughs again before slapping his back. “Don’t tease him. They’re both adults, they can do whatever they like with their time as long as it’s consensual. You weren’t drunk right?” She peers closely at him for confirmation.

“I barely drank,” Jisoo wails. “I barely drank and I’m still dying.”

“There there,” she says, still slapping his back. “I know what you mean. We’re just getting too old for this, I think. Remember when drinking didn’t leave us broken the next morning?”

Jisoo shakes his head sadly, mouth still affixed to his thermos. “No, I don’t remember what it felt like to be young.”

Mingyu wants to press him for more answers, about Jiho, but also about Minghao and Junhui, except he’s interrupted by a new voice. “Alright you old people, rise and shine.” It’s Seungkwan, who brings a pot of haejangguk with him.

Jeonghan’s nose alerts him to the arrival of the stew, and he sits up to give Seungkwan a watery smile and open arms. “Seungkwan-ssi…you know you’re the best, right? I don’t know why I went on a tour with Mingyu-ssi when I could have gone with you. I must have done some amazing things in a past life to deserve to know you.”

“I already know I’m the best, so you don’t have to tell me,” Seungkwan says, putting down the pot in front of the exhausted K-Science crew before returning the embrace and patting Jeonghan on the back. “I also told everyone Mingyu was a loser but no one wanted to believe me. That’s your choice, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to have an opinion, but if your opinion is different from mine it’s objectively wrong, you know. And you should really remember to thank everyone in the kitchens instead of me because they woke up early to make a dozen batches of this stuff knowing that you all would go crazy last night. It’s really not easy taking care of all of you hopeless cases, you don’t eat properly, don’t sleep properly, you drink too much, and then when you’re tired you ask me why. Looking after this shatterdome is so hard.”

“If I hadn’t heard the first time, I would have caught it at least once out of the subsequent hundred times you’ve reminded us about how tough your job is,” Mingyu says, rolling his eyes. The K-Sci bunch are too busy slurping up beef broth and chewing their cabbage to pay attention to Seungkwan’s spiel anyway, and Yooyoung generally thinks Seungkwan’s funny. He tunes out Seungkwan’s retort and the rest of his nattering to finish his breakfast and taps Yooyoung’s shoulder to get her attention.

“You finish eating and I’ll meet you in bay eight at 0900?”

She nods absently, more interested by Seungkwan’s retelling of some frat party story from his med school days in Boston, and Mingyu slips away with his own tray as well as Soonyoung and Seokmin’s half-eaten breakfast plates.

The slightly monotone humming returns while Mingyu wanders down the hallway, headed in the opposite direction of the jaeger bays. He wants to catch Minghao, mostly, after everything that happened yesterday, he wants to think about something that isn’t the precise layout of all the jaegers, how quickly they can finish repairing Imperishable so he can move crew to building the (still unnamed) Mark-V. There’s other things to think about, but he hasn’t had the time. After the kaijus, after the war with them is over, Mingyu’s going to take a month long break climbing mountains and living in forests just to give himself some room to breathe. He’ll take his time finding a new job since he has saved up back pay from PPDC that there’s nothing to use on now anyway. He’s going to sleep for entire days if he feels like it, never waking up before his body’s ready. But right now, he has to make sure the new jaeger gets built as quickly as possible, or he’s going to be forced to send pilots out in that death trap of a Mark-II.

He finds Minghao before he even gets to the combat room. Minghao has his eyes closed, an arm around Junhui’s shoulder, the other wrapped around his own stomach. Junhui has a hand supporting Minghao’s back, and Mingyu gets the distinct sense that if Junhui-hyung were to let go, Minghao would fall over.

“He’s okay,” Junhui says quietly.

“Are you ghostdrifting with me now?” Mingyu gapes.

Junhui smiles, and lets Minghao’s head fall onto his shoulder before opening his eyes and blinking sluggishly at Mingyu. “No one needs the drift to be observant,” Junhui says.

“You’re—”

“Don’t,” Minghao cuts him off.

Mingyu’s just shocked because he’s never seen them this close before. Even after Minghao gave up being frustrated and angry all the time, they two of them still worked together with a certain distance. A healthy dose of respect was what they tried to play it off as, but Mingyu wasn’t stupid. He remembered Mingming and he knew how touchy and affectionate Minghao could be from personal experience. There was something between Junhui and Minghao that wasn’t going away, especially not if they were functional in the drift despite the existence of whatever was holding them apart. He didn’t think it was a lack of care for the other, but they weren’t like Soonyoung and Seokmin who high-fived and hugged each other after successful missions, or like Hyerin and Jinah who had their arms looped around each other’s wherever they went, they weren’t like Yoosang and Youngwon who finished each other’s sentences, or even Seungcheol and Doyoon who were draped over each other all the time.

“How early did you wake up?” he says, instead of pressing about the change in their partnership.

“Never slept,” Junhui says with a chuckle. He lifts one shoulder to raise Minghao’s head. “This one wanted to blow off some steam. Got pretty angry with me so tried to beat me up for eight hours.”

“You deserved to be hit, you fucking asshole,” Minghao mutters. He’s mostly staring up at the grates in the ceilings.

“Yeah,” Junhui agrees readily. “I probably did.”

“Still do,” Minghao says stubbornly.

“Does this mean you know everything about him now? I can’t believe you didn’t notice until after you the neural handshake was disengaged.” Mingyu reaches out to pat Minghao’s shoulder, thinks better of it, and flicks him in the forehead instead.

“Nah. I’d been giving him a little more every time we drifted, actually,” Junhui says. “Yesterday was all of it but since it wasn’t his first time in the drift, and not all of it was new information, I don’t think it was as overwhelming as it is for new pilots.” He makes a quick sweeping gesture toward the combat room.

“It would have been better if I didn’t know anything,” Minghao confides. “He’s gross. I have to make sure he never taints Hansol, that kid is too cute to suffer from this one’s despicableness.”

“Stop it,” Junhui mutters, horrified. He smacks Minghao in the ass for that one, sending him careening forward into Mingyu’s chest. Mingyu stumbles back with the suddenness of the weight, and eventually rights Minghao enough to shove him back against Junhui’s side.

“I mean, I don't think it’s something you can hide,” Mingyu says with a laugh. “You don’t give other people food; other people give you food. But you gave this kid ice cream within half an hour of meeting him… For you, Junhui-hyung, that’s basically scrawling your names with a heart in the sky.”

“Shut up,” Junhui says sadly and without any heat. “He’s really really good looking, okay?”

Mingyu raises an eyebrow in disbelief. “Jeonghan’s good looking, you said so yourself. But you didn’t get all flustered and feed him all your food.”

“Oh God, no,” Minghao moans. “Not again. If I have to hear one more time about how innocent Ranger Choi is, or how he’s capable of thinking for himself, and so honest and sooo funny, I’m going to walk up to the breach and let a kaiju just eat me.”

“Be my guest. You’d die trying to walk underwater for that long but go ahead, I can find a new drift partner.” Junhui huffs.

“I think it’s cute that Junhui-hyung acts all cool around us but when it really counts he turns all soft and confused. The kind of guy who will cut the face off a kaiju for daring to scratch his jaeger, but sees his love interest and starts hiding behind his co-pilot. Don’t you think it’s sweet that he changes so much in the face of love?”

“No, it’s ugly as fuck,” Minghao deadpans.

“Why are you both so mean to me? You were all cute and sleepy ten minutes ago, why are you so ready to fight again?” Junhui whines to Minghao first, and then turns to stick his tongue out at Mingyu. “And you, why don’t you go and find your ‘love interest’ inside and stop making fun of me about mine!”

Mingyu sticks his tongue out back at Junhui but he waves the two of them off and slides the combat room door open. On one side of the front half of the room, Seokmin and Soonyoung are doing tumbling exercises that require them to flip each other over. It makes Mingyu dizzy just watching them, so his eyes drift to the back of the mats where Hyelim-noona is leading the unpaired rangers through drills alternating partners. It’s easy to distinguish the newest recruits because they’re still wearing the white garb of the jaeger academy, rather than the military assigned blues and greens. On the other side from Soonyoung and Seokmin are Hansol and Wonwoo-hyung, doing upper-body-only sparring training.

As loathe as he is to admit it, the two of them fit smoothly together. They’re not as acrobatic as Minghao and Junhui-hyung are, and they aren’t quite as fluid as Seokmin and Soonyoung-hyung, but they parry each other seemingly with the knowledge of where the next blow will land, rhythmically blocking or evading as necessary. Neither of them look as exhausted as Junhui and Minghao did, but there’s a trail of sweat along Wonwoo’s collarbones, a trail that dips between them toward his sternum, behind the collar of his sleeveless shirt. Hansol’s hair is wet enough that droplets of sweat fly out when he spins his head, so they must have been there for a while.

All of them are so focused, or in sync, or there’s already so much movement in the room, whatever, that no one notices Mingyu’s presence. He stands in the doorway wavering between stepping further inside or calling out their names. Entranced as he is by their movements, a kind of hypnotic dance that requires careful concentration, the urge to act passes, and he remains still and silent with his arms crossed all the way until his comms beep the time and has to sprint to make it to the jaeger bays.

Yooyoung is already there when he arrives, only a few minutes late, but she’s not at all pleased. “I thought you were going to be waiting for me here but I got here early and you were nowhere to be found.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he says quickly. The construction crews look more awake this morning, probably from not being ripped out of bed before six, and Mingyu sends Yooyoung off to check everything inside Imperishable is functional before they close her up and leave the designated maintenance crews to deal with the rest of the surface damage. He also pulls some of the more experienced techs out from their teams to help him erect the beams needed inside the Mark-V before dismissing everyone to work on whatever needs doing for the day.

There’s movement in and out of bay eight constantly, from people swapping tasks or asking questions. At some point Mingyu realizes almost everyone is gone but he works through lunch again, determined to finish the armor plates by the end of the day. There’s a constant racket of people and robots, the sounds of blades slicing through metal or wrenches turning. The noise ebbs and flows as well,

“Projected calibration at 98.7%,” Yooyoung tells him, tapping a monitor attached to the assembly line. “Good to go?”

“That’s not a margin of error I’m willing to accept,” Mingyu says, sticky and sweaty. He removes his gloves and wipes his neck with the shoulder of his shirt sleeve ahead of standing to see the screen for himself.

“We’re going to have to bend and heat these things together somehow,” Yooyoung points out. “There’s not going to be structural integrity issues, and a few inches isn’t going to be what fucks a jaeger up.”

“We can get it to 99.5,” Mingyu says confidently.

There’s a snort and a voice from behind Mingyu calls out, “Well now you’re just being pedantic.”

Mingyu whirls around, dropping a utility glove in surprise. “Wonwoo-hyung!”

Wonwoo’s standing there with his hands in the pockets of his military greens, the cuffs stuffed into black work boots. There’s a grey t-shirt, tight across his shoulders but loose around his abdomen, tucked haphazardly into his trousers. “Didn’t know the engs did construction now.” He knocks his knuckles on Mingyu’s hard hat. “These things were only for show when we did MT, you know?”

“We’ve stopped being a dictatorship since you left, so I get my hands dirty with the rest of them,” Mingyu says. He catches Wonwoo’s forearm in one hand to shove his hand away, and wraps around thick, solid muscle. It’s not unexpected that he’s stronger, but it still comes as a surprise to his muscle memory and he has to buy himself time from the shock but shuffling backward and unclipping his hard hat. He leans forward to shake out his hair and feels Wonwoo patting his shoulder.

“That’s a very nice way of saying that no one respects you as much as they did me so you have to do things yourself when no one listens.”

Yooyoung bursts into peals of laughter, bent over at the waist, her head so far down her hair brushes the floor. “Spot fucking on.”

Mingyu pats his own chest while heaving a great sigh. “Hyung, this is Yooyoung, I don’t know how or why she became my second-in-command. Noona, this is Wonwoo-hyung, he used to be the one who ran J-Tech.”

“It’s because I’m pretty and smart,” she says without modesty. “But I’m actually gunning to be top dog. ”

Wonwoo smiles gamely, pointing a finger at Mingyu’s face. “Over him? Easy. You’ll get there in no time.”

“I can’t believe this. I can’t believe I can empathize with Jisoo-hyung. This is the worst,” Mingyu complains dramatically. “What are you even doing here, hyung? Did you forget that you don’t work here anymore?”

“What, so you can come spy on our training sessions but it’s suddenly prohibited for me to be visiting the jaeger bays?”

Shit. He hadn’t thought anyone noticed he was there since no one said anything. “I wasn’t spying,” he protests, immediately realizing his mistake. Shit shit shit. That was an admission he’d been watching, wasn’t it?

Wonwoo shrugs like it’s not difference to him whatever Mingyu was doing. “Figured I’d see if you were gonna eat dinner. It’s burger night today, isn’t it?” He drags a finger over the piece of the jaeger arm Mingyu’s working on and frowns. “This isn’t titanium…what is it?”

“Magnesium silicon carbide particles. Nanocomposite, super low density, super high strength. Higher specific resistance and specific module in both low and high temperatures than any other material tested before,” Mingyu says, pride in his voice.

Yooyoung rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. “Jesus, control your hard on. Can we go for food before you start your sonnet about how great the magnesium alloy is, boss?”

He makes a face at her while tidying up, storing his PPE in a corner before lugging the parts into a pile where they won’t be in the way. “After you then,” he says sarcastically, holding an arm out to indicate the path.

There’s a tickle of air by Mingyu’s ear and an arm pulling him sideways into a warm body. “Tall, straight-forward, older, just your type,” Wonwoo’s voice murmurs quietly, and Mingyu swears he can feel the movement of his lips at his earlobe. He shivers and then frowns when Wonwoo takes this to mean he’s onto something, grinning at Mingyu while staring straight into his eyes.

“Thanks but he’s not my type,” Yooyoung says, giggling behind one hand.

Wonwoo’s eyes widen. He scratches at the back of his neck and shoots Mingyu an apologetic glance that Mingyu tries to smile and dismiss. He’s not sure how convincing he comes off as considering the internal mortification he’s facing. Is it worse that Wonwoo thinks he has a crush on Yooyoung or worse that Yooyoung’s laughing about him having a crush on someone who still thinks he likes girls? It’s a tough call, but at least neither of them try to say anything while they’re walking toward the caf. They cover the basics, university backgrounds, majors, experience. Yooyoung, like Jeon Bohyuk, is a KAIST grad, and they talk about the sibling situation in their families.

It strikes him as odd that Hansol isn’t with Wonwoo, considering how new the shatterdome must be for him, and their partnership.

“He can take care of himself, he’s an adult,” Wonwoo says, uninterested in anything but the ground beef on a bun in front of him. “After training I mentioned that I wanted to see the Mark-V before dinner but Junhui and Minghao wanted to show him a movie in the common room since we all missed the party yesterday so he chose to go with them instead. It’s not like we signed a marriage contract to always be in each other’s faces.”

Mingyu chokes, coughing harder when Yooyoung sends him a knowing look, and takes a sip of water before speaking. “What are they going to show him? Doesn’t Seungkwan have all the movies?”

“It’s not like they can’t download from their comms but according to Junhui, Seungkwan left last movie night’s film in the lounge since he got busy, and Hansol’s never seen Finding Dory.”

Yooyoung frowns. “They’re watching it again? Well I guess since Junhui missed most of it and Minghao probably wasn’t paying attention once they’d left, it makes sense. I was going to say it was cute but not really worth a re-watch but if none of them have seen it through once, it’s not a bad way to waste away two hours.”

“Excuse you, that movie is excellent and definitely fun to rewatch,” Mingyu protests, mouth full of food. When he gets clucked at, he does the bare minimum of licking sauce off his lips, but continues chewing noisily.

“Funny, Minghao also said you really liked the movie, but for some reason I remember you telling me that you didn’t enjoy it that much.” Wonwoo tilts his head and considers Mingyu for a moment. It occurs to Mingyu then, when he has his cheeks drawn up in a wide smile to conceal the nerves he has while swallowing his food, that the guilty feeling he gets from lying to Wonwoo-hyung about seeing a movie is remarkably similar to the feeling he gets whenever he thinks about the fact that he’s concealing his feelings. It’s not an outright lie, but it doesn’t sit right, knowing that he’s not affording Wonwoo-hyung the whole truth. An uneasy emotional state isn’t particularly pleasant on a constant time scale, but that’s still better than feeling outright awful, a fact that keeps his mouth shut instead of having him reveal his secret.

“Baby Dory saves lives,” Mingyu recites faithfully, “that’s how cute she is. And the octopus and Jihoon-hyung have oddly similar personalities.”

Wonwoo gives him a sideways glance and then squints with his nose and forehead wrinkled so adorably it puts baby Dory to shame. Mingyu can’t stare for too long and has to look away before Wonwoo finally says, “Yeah, you know, I think I can see the resemblance.”

Mingyu beams, happy to have the support. He gets a few pats on the knee for his enthusiasm, the warmth from Wonwoo’s hand spreading up his knee through his entire chest, but that’s about all Wonwoo’s willing to give up before returning to his dinner, taking giant bites from the sesame bun, face equally satisfied. Yooyoung’s stuffing herself too, not bothered by social conventions to eat daintily. She opens her mouth wide enough Mingyu wonders if she’s capable of unhinging her jaw, ripping at the meat and vegetables using her teeth with the force of a wild animal. It turns out that she’s in a hurry to finish because she has to walk off the meal before one of Jiho’s yoga classes, and she’s jumping up to run off before Mingyu’s done half his fries.

“Does that mean you’re not helping with construction tonight?” Mingyu yells after her.

“Have you ever heard of not working every waking hour? Take a break this evening! Live a little!” She waves a hand and flies off.

Wonwoo nudges Mingyu with a shoulder. “Do you really work all the time?”

“Including weekends,” Mingyu agrees. “Everything’s more hectic when we’re trying to build and maintain at the same time. But it’s like, if we don’t work, then things won’t get finished.”

“You can afford to take a few hours to yourself,” Wonwoo says matter-of-factly. “It’ll change the schedule by a day, max, and when it comes down to it, I think everyone’s expecting us to have our first missions taking Iron for a spin anyway.”

“Oh.” Mingyu’s face falls. It makes more sense for them to use the other jaeger for now, considering finishing the Mark-V in two months will require a Herculean effort, and still might not be a guaranteed thing. But Mingyu’s been producing parts for and designing it for six months already, and the actual building or assembly seems like it should be the easier part. He just really doesn’t think the Mark-II should still be in active duty.

“So we’ll retire it after we’re done with it. But it’s not broken, right? And it was the marshal and Doyoon-hyung’s baby for three years. Don’t kill their child prematurely,” Wonwoo says, amused by his own analogy.

“That’s…alright, fine.” Mingyu miserably shoves the rest of the lettuce on his burger into his mouth, chewing slowly.

“Now you look like I killed your kid.” Wonwoo shakes Mingyu’s shoulder, trying to make him crack a smile. “Look lively. Your best friend just came back from training, aren’t you going to throw him a party or something?”

Mingyu caves easily, turning sideways and putting his cutest face forward. “Well…that best friend’s the type to complain when there’s too many people and it gets too noisy. How about we just get drunk in my room and you can tell me about everything you’ve kept bottled up for six months?”

The corners of Wonwoo’s lips lift lightly. He pats Mingyu’s head, smoothing his bangs over his forehead, and then pauses, opens his mouth once before closing it again. His head tilts as his eyes search for something in Mingyu’s and then seems to find enough of it for his satisfaction. After removing his hand and chuckling lightly, Wonwoo says, “Sounds perfect.”

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

It is both incredibly easy and not easy at all to like Wonwoo. He is very likeable. Handsome and self-assured about his good-looks. Easy-going, funny, kind. The hard part about liking him is a little more difficult to describe with a few buzzwords. Mingyu is considering this, and how to put it into words, when Minghao’s fists pound the mats below them.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God there are freaking two of you and I’ve been straddled with having to deal with both. When the fuck did I agree to this?” He punches the floor again, one hand after the other, two soft thuds.

One of them is close enough to Mingyu’s head that he sits up to glare at him. “Can you not?”

He mutters under his breath, “Oh, sorry, my bad. Am I distracting you from giving off your lovelorn looks?”

“Yes, now be quiet and behave, little Haohao,” Junhui-hyung says from Minghao’s other side, batting away the looming smack before it can land on his arm.

Mingyu has to tilt his head to see him from his position lying down with his head on Minghao’s lap, and then twist his neck again to see where Junhui is looking. Unsurprisingly, it’s in the direction of the spar they’re watching, on the two figures that all three of them have been staring at. Mingyu waves at Soonyoung-hyung, who’s also watching but sitting across the room from them with Seokmin. “I don’t get it. What looks?”

“Chinese Kim Mingyu! Korean Wen Junhui!” Minghao hisses in a low whisper, “Two big eaters, both annoyingly taller than me, and both sickeningly in love with the same jaeger pair.”

“You know how some people have a romantic ‘type’? Maybe you just have a friend ‘type’,” Mingyu suggests, once he’s stopped laughing at how affronted Minghao looks.

“It’s not funny!”

“It kind of is.” Junhui swaps the knee underneath him to let blood flow to his toes. “But it also could be worse. Imagine if we were after the same guy.”

“I would fucking kill myself,” Minghao says, a little too loudly. It attracts Hyelim’s attention away from the sparring, and she frowns, hesitant to look away until all three of them mouth ‘joke’ at her emphatically, and Mingyu falls into another fit of giggles. “Fuck,” Minghao says, quieter. “That’s not even fair, why should I have to die for you two being insufferable? I’d kill you, and I’d probably be acquitted because both of you fucking deserve it.”

“The death penalty is so passé,” Junhui scoffs. “Buck up, I’m sure we can find you some strapping young thing so you can moon over someone too.”

“Fuck you,” says Minghao.

“Sure, but not with your dick, I have someone else in mind,” Junhui says calmly.

Mingyu loses it, laughing controllably with his feet kicking at the floor and his forearm slapping against the mats. Minghao has to cover Mingyu’s mouth with two hands to muffle the noise and even then Mingyu’s still thrashing about against Minghao’s knee. He has to take several deep breaths to calm down, but he dissolves back into peals of amusement, arms squeezed shut against the flood lamps shining down as he laughs up to the ceilings whenever he thinks about Minghao’s utter disgust.

Sometime after that, with his eyes closed and body resting, Mingyu falls asleep against the rhythmic pitter-patter of feet striking the cushioned floors, and soft hits of flesh against flesh. When he comes to and rolls over, there’s a hand running through his hair, and Mingyu snuggles in further before blinking awake slowly.

“Good nap?” Wonwoo asks, looking down at him.

Mingyu very nearly yelps out loud in surprise. He turns his head the other way out of embarrassment, digging his nose into the top of Wonwoo’s thigh. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “Where’d the others go?”

“It’s Junhui and Minghao’s turn to rumble, and Hansol’s right here.” with this he gives Hansol’s head a pat with his free hand although Hansol doesn’t break eye contact from his steady observation of the way Junhui and Minghao fight. “Soonyoung and Seokmin are also napping over there.”

“Oh,” Mingyu says, “I didn’t noti—” His words are cut off by a large yawn, too late to be covered by his hands, and Mingyu rubs at his eyes.

“You’re so sleepy,” Wonwoo says with amusement. His hand shifts from the top of Mingyu’s head to Mingyu’s shoulder, arm sitting almost protectively around his neck.

“Well, it’s ass o’clock in the morning,” is Mingyu’s defense.

“That’s why everyone else has gone to bed. There wasn’t any reason why you shouldn’t have slept too, you know, I don’t understand why you wanted to stick around for this.” Wonwoo lifts his chin to indicate the battle going on in front of them, mediated by an always focused Hyelim-noona.

“I wanted to see what your training was like.” Mingyu says.

“There’s not much to it.” Wonwoo shrugs, his thumb tapping gently against Mingyu’s clavicle. “A bunch of sweaty guys throwing each other to the floor, blocking punches, standing up again, rinse and repeat.”

“Are you kidding me? In undergrad you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing physical exercise. When you said you’d gained muscle I needed to see it to believe it, considering how lazy you were before. You’re really good,” Mingyu tells him earnestly.

Wonwoo raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Am I now?”

“You work really well with Hansol and even Junhui-hyung says you two are impressive.”

“It’s nice of him to say that,” Hansol says quietly. “Considering he’s set almost every jaeger pilot and academy record ever.”

Mingyu scrambles up, so he can lean forward on his hands and knees and speak directly to Hansol. “The jaeger academy too?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, his name is engraved on basically every trophy on the wall? It’s really cool, and he’s a really good guy too, not stuck up or anything like that, the way you might think he’d be since he’s so talented and stuff.” Hansol looks at Mingyu while he speaks, not taken aback at all by their proximity.

“You don’t think he’s weird?” Wonwoo leans over against Mingyu, looking between them with interest.

“Weird? Nah. He’s really funny, though, and he’s been really nice to me. I really like him.” Hansol acquiesces Mingyu’s request for a high five easily, good-naturedly bumping shoulders with him before Mingyu sits back down, nearly vibrating with the news.

It’s a very good way to gain alertness, gathering gossipy details like that, and Wonwoo has to place an arm heavily around Mingyu’s shoulders to stop him from bouncing around so much. It’s also a way for him to pull Mingyu closer so he can mutter, “What was that about?” into Mingyu’s ear.

Wonwoo’s arm slides against the skin at Mingyu’s nape when he turns his entire torso to whisper an answer back, body tucked into Wonwoo’s side, lips so close they nearly brush against Wonwoo’s high cheekbone. He jerks sideways, forcing Wonwoo to pull him in tighter and to thump at his shoulder blade in an attempt to get him to stop squirming. Finally, he says quickly, “I can’t tell you.”

There’s a frown on Wonwoo’s face when he turns to look at Mingyu who has his lips pursed and a single finger held before them in a shushing motion. He leans in, nose against Mingyu’s temple. “Can’t? Or won’t?” There’s a bite to his voice, his attempt to make it sound like a threat, but Mingyu’s staying quiet about it.

“Both!” Mingyu declares. His confidence in himself is shattered by Wonwoo’s fingers immediately reaching for Mingyu’s sides, tickling him into squealing for help. Wonwoo doesn’t let up on his attack, not even when Mingyu falls flat onto his back, trying to defend against prodding fingers that are too dextrous to keep up with. Off to the side, Hansol laughs at Mingyu’s flailing with a wide toothy grin, helping Wonwoo by distracting Mingyu and tickling his socked feet.

Mingyu makes the fatal mistake of holding both his hands together over his left side and Wonwoo manages to pin both of them to the ground with one hand, the other held up above Mingyu’s abdomen. Mingyu squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for the kill shot, and is surprised to be booped on the chin instead. When he musters up the courage to peek open his eyes, Wonwoo’s leaning over him, expression mild until he starts laughing at Mingyu and his fear. Wonwoo lets up with a slap to Mingyu’s arm, but Mingyu remains lying there for a while longer yet, piecing his brain back together as his heart rate slows to a more normal pattern. He breathes deeply, letting his mind go blank.

“Are you okay?” Wonwoo asks, patting Mingyu’s hand.

“Yeah,” Mingyu wheezes squeakily, “not as fit as you. Gimme a minute.”

Or a lifetime, so I can get over you.

   

 

☀☀☀

 

 

Hansol and Wonwoo’s first test pilot session in an actual jaeger is scheduled for three weeks later, time mostly for them to be briefed in on Seungcheol’s preferred battle plans. Unlike in Alaska, the Busan shatterdome heavily emphasizes formation and relative positioning, allowing the jaegers to work together instead of fighting the kaiju 1-on-1 only, giving them a numerical advantage. However, without more than two active jaegers, that strategy had been placed on backburner for a few months, to be renewed now with Wonwoo and Hansol’s help. Straight out of the jaeger academy, most rangers are angling for their first mission, or at least a promise of a fight. Instead, the two of them spend more time in classes learning about things like terrain navigation and water pressure.

The time not spent studying or training is used on drifting simulations, where Yejin and Jihoon familiarize themselves with Wonwoo and Hansol’s brains, coaching them through mock experiences of what being in a jaeger feels like while encouraging them to share as much as possible with each other before their brains are also merged with a giant machine. Mingyu wants to point out that Minghao and Junhui did fine without understanding their partners, but Wonwoo and Hansol take the advice to heart, becoming complementary in both words and actions. He tries to avoid them when they’re together because of the uncanniness, but still he insists on being present for the test pilot in Iron Nobility.

“There is literally no reason for you to be here. Unless you’ve suddenly pulled a neuro or biochem degree out of your ass, you and your engineering contribute absolute zero to this part of the project,” Jihoon deadpans, fingers tapping on his tablet without amusement. “Maybe even a negative number, now that I’m thinking about it. You’ll take up space. And you’re loud.”

Mingyu grabs onto Jihoon’s arm and clings. “No, no, I can totally control myself! I swear I won’t say anything, and I’ll just be one of the background crew. You won’t even notice that I’m here.”

Jihoon stares at Mingyu’s pout, giving him no reaction when he starts whining. When Mingyu is first to blink, Jihoon turns around and closes up the final coolant panel, ticking off the last thing on his checklist. Mingyu’s fingers are still attached to his sleeve, however, tugging his arm back. Jihoon sighs, carefully peels his hand away, and stares into Mingyu’s moping face again. “Well, the jaeger passes inspection so at least you’re not slacking on the job.” He jabs a finger out the back. “Go sit in your normal spot in LOCCENT and you better make sure to stay completely silent.”

Hyung,” Mingyu breathes, simultaneously touched and in disbelief. “Thank you so much.”

“Why do you want to watch this anyway? You know what happens and it’s not like you won’t see it again in the future.”

In lieu of answering, Mingyu bends over and wraps his arms around Jihoon’s waist, burying his smile into the back of Jihoon’s neck. “You’re the best, hyung. People around here don’t appreciate you enough.” His voice is muffled against the frayed cotton edge of Jihoon’s collar, air from his nose barely registering on Jihoon’s skin.

It’s distracting enough that Jihoon forgets his question, pats Mingyu’s hand once before realizing what he’s doing, and shoving him away to finish up giving instructions to Iron’s crew, most of whom aren’t new to having more pilots test drift compatibility with this jaeger. She’s been the most reused and recycled, but somehow stayed standing for the longest in Busan. Mingyu tries to remember the timeline of the jaeger, but he’s fuzzy on the dates for the earlier pilots, and stops thinking about it after he can’t figure out who came between Ara-noona with Jeongmin-hyung and Minki-hyung and Dongho-hyung. On one hand, Iron Nobility is a Mark-II. On the other hand, even if her pilots have all retired, or been injured, she’s never gone down and none of her rangers are dead. That, if anything, is a hopeful sign.

One of the junior officers is passing out coffee in LOCCENT when Mingyu arrives, and he accepts a cup gladly, sitting back in his seat to take slow sips while the Iron crew flits about with final preparations. It’s mid-morning, and Mingyu could be taking this time to be working on the Mark-V. Yooyoung had taken one look at him in bay eight, however, and told him to scram off to bay one while she took care of things for the day. She’d given him a look, a knowing look, and even though Mingyu isn’t perfectly sure what she was thinking, whatever it was, she was probably right. For a ranger, the first drift with a jaeger is usually the hardest, the one where most RABITs are chased and pilots fall out of alignment with their partner or with the jaeger itself. Consequently, the first drift is also a milestone, the kind that Mingyu isn’t really privy to, as an engineer.

This is Wonwoo’s milestone and Mingyu wants to be there to witness it – there’s no need for a more than surface level glance to understand that. Mingyu doesn’t want to look too deeply at what it says about him that not being there would make him feel left out, doesn’t need to look too deeply because it’s not a cause of disease but rather a symptom of a pre-existing one that’s already been diagnosed.

The first thing Jihoon does when he walks in is snatch Mingyu’s coffee and chug the entire contents. If Marshal Choi is surprised by Mingyu’s presence, he says nothing, standing some ways back to let Yejin and Jihoon take control.

“Rangers in conn-pod, sir,” reports Iron’s crew, and Jihoon quickly confirms receipt of the message. It’s the first time Mingyu sees them in their drivesuits, and he quickly crosses his fingers for good luck where Jihoon, disbelieving of all superstitions, can’t see his hands. It might be the dark color, or the circuitry sticking out of the armor-like suits, but for the first time, Mingyu thinks of Wonwoo as small, tiny really in the expanse of the conn-pod, which will sit in a 75-meter-tall jaeger. He looks away at the sound of several clicks, while the crews lock their spinal clamps into place. There’s a few moments of waiting, even with the practiced hands, bolting them into the jaeger, slotting their gauntlets into the feedback cradle, and snapping the closures over their boots into place.

“Data relay gel dispersing,” is the next report, after Hansol and Wonwoo have their helmets over their heads.

The crew disperses after they’re harnessed, Wonwoo on the right and Hansol on the left, finally signing off with a, “Engaging drop, conn-pod secure.”

“Alright kiddos,” Jihoon mutters, “let’s see what you can do. Ready for the big drop?”

Wonwoo and Hansol look at each other, before looking forward. In a strangely haunting way, they say, “Ready,” at the same time. To see into each other’s heads, and get into the mind of a giant metal robot. The conn-pod plummets.

He’s not attached to the pons system, but Mingyu has a memory of his own that distracts him, and he latches onto the sudden flashback to high school, when he and Wonwoo had skipped out on a tutoring cram class to spend the day at Lotte World. Wonwoo had looked ready to puke just going up the Gyro Drop, staring out over the Disney rip-off magic castle with terrified eyes, fingernails digging painfully into the back of Mingyu’s left hand. He’d cursed him out at the top, in the brief moment when they remained suspended high up in the air, unmoving, before screaming with exhilaration on the way down, and pushing Mingyu back into the line-up to ride it again. When Mingyu tears his eyes away from the screen to find something in the present to focus on, he spots Jihoon grinning. Oh, they’d made the drop without puking. “Initiating pilot-to-pilot connection. Neural handshake in five, four, three, two, one…and go.” Silence.

There’s background noise, sure, there’s always background noise in the jaeger bays, and Jihoon is flickering back and forth between displays to monitor everything from breathing, heart rate, to neural alignment. He mutters under his breath while he does it, too, which should be annoying, but it’s hard to focus on anything other than the blinking dots and brain regions lighting up. “Neural handshake initiated. Steady…not holding.”

Jihoon and Yejin are the experts, but it’s not hard to see what’s going on. “Jeon Wonwoo, get it together. You’re falling out of alignment!” Jihoon barks, way before Seungcheol can even get his mouth to a microphone.

It’s the fact that they’re in Iron Nobility. It has to be. Wonwoo exhales out, and says “Doyoon-hyung,” in a tiny voice, like a baby kaiju that digs its claws around Mingyu’s chest and yanks. Whatever pain Mingyu was feeling couldn’t have been as vivid as Wonwoo, living in the memory. He’d been part of Iron’s crew first, the familiarity with the jaeger must have been what triggered the memory. Mingyu grips at the control panel in front of him, mercifully turned off. Hyung…

“It’s alright,” comes Hansol’s voice, soft and smooth in the speaker system. He’s so calm that it’s unnerving, and there isn’t any fear or wavering in his tone. Mingyu’s not sure the next part is for the rest of them to hear, but Hansol doesn’t switch out his comms and the rest of them are witness to an equally calm and quiet, “Wonwoo-hyung?”

“What is he doing?” mutters Yejin. “Call it off, Jihoonie, if Wonwoo’s so gone that he can’t hear Hansol inside his head—”

Jihoon puts up a hand, interrupting her. “Out loud is good. Out loud works. He’s getting it in his sensory system and cognitive system, might be able to pull him out.”

“Kick,” Hansol says. “Push.” He repeats it again, and the beeping coming from Jihoon’s console slows. Another chant, slow, steady, rhythmic. Of fucking course they’d have song lyrics as anchor words.

After Hansol’s repeated the words another three or four times, the computer screen blinks back with the announcement of ‘aligned’, and Jihoon shoots Yejin a triumphant smirk. “Ranger Jeon, you with us?”

Mingyu falls back in his seat, exhaling slowly upon hearing Wonwoo’s voice, feebly saying, “Yeah, I’m here. Sorry for falling out.”

“Glad to have you,” Jihoon says seriously, taking Yejin’s typed report to add it to their notes.

“Aw, don’t get soft on me, Hoon-ah.”

Jihoon doesn’t reply, but he’s holding both his middle fingers up against the corners of his mouth when he says, “Steady and holding.”

“Right hemisphere calibrating,” says Wonwoo, wholly recovered.

“Left hemisphere calibrating,” says Hansol.

“Stable. Nicely done.”

Jihoon, Yejin, and Mingyu all spin around in their seats to look at Seungcheol, who gives them a thumbs up.

Before Marshal Choi can explain their first set of exercises, the HUDs all go to black before flashing up a map. There’s a millisecond delay before the sirens start to wail.

“Shit.” Jihoon slams his hand on a series of buttons, trying to get as much info as he can. “It’s targeting Ulsan, Marshal, a category-IV to boot. What do you want us to do?”

Mingyu’s spurred into movement as well, booting up the screens in front of him to get live updates on Perihelion and Imperishable’s statuses ready.

“Get those two out and get Perihelion on deck. Is Pohang deploying?”

“Looks like we’re working with Catalysis Orange again, sir,” Jihoon says, multitasking to switch the displays back to the drift test and updating breach data at the same time. “We’ll mark this one down as a success, kids, let’s get you out of there.”

“With all due respect, sir, we’re already engaged. You might as well deploy us to fight,” says Hansol.

Jihoon pauses what he’s doing, turning to look at Seungcheol.

“On their first run?” Mingyu blurts. Seungcheol’s eyes dart over to him and back to the screen.

“We’re closer to Pohang and we’ll get there faster. If we deploy two, we can get the job done before they even arrive, cat-III or not, sir,” Jihoon says quickly. “It’ll be another five minutes before Soonyoung and Seokmin can even get here, not to mention securing and drifting. We have two pilots, trained for this might I remind you, already inside a jaeger.”

“Is Iron Nobility battle ready?” Seungcheol asks, addressing Mingyu.

Mingyu frowns, but nods begrudgingly. “As always, sir.” He flips around to load up a display for Iron as well, and Seungcheol’s made up his mind.

“Get them hooked up to the Jumphawks,” Seungcheol instructs. “We’re keeping Imperishable in the bay, but make them suit up in case. Perihelion will take point, Iron to provide back-up.”

“We won’t even need them,” Soonyoung scoffs when they’re filled in on the plan.

Junhui isn’t best pleased, worried about sending two of the slower jaegers out when Ulsan will take a few minutes to get to, at which point the jaeger could already have crossed the miracle mile.

“Thank you for having so much faith in us,” Wonwoo says sarcastically.

Junhui sighs. “Well, at least you’ve never failed a mission before,” he says optimistically.

“Your vacuous truths aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring either,” Wonwoo mutters.

“Like our fight controller said, Iron’s pilots have been rigorously trained. Imperishable’s still missing paint on her right arm so we’re not going to bargain on this decision,” Seungcheol says, voice final.

The kaiju’s codename is Knifehead, and Minghao jokes on broadcast to all of them that after Junhui cut off the protrusion on Slammer, all of the kaiju needing facial reconstruction are coming out for cosmetic surgery services. Knifehead is a fitting name because there’s a giant dagger-like extension of the kaiju’s large grey nose. The rest of its body is similarly grey, but covered with yellow lines, like egg yolk seeping out of a cracked egg. It’s more of a chartreuse than Perihelion’s gold, giving Knifehead a dirty instead of imposing look.

“We’re in range.” Iron’s V50 Jumphawk pilots are first to radio in.

“Get them further up the coast, put some distance.”

“You’re using them as bait?” Junhui balks.

“Ranger Wen, if you keep questioning orders, we’re taking you off open comms,” Jihoon growls, more a threat than an order. Junhui doesn’t apologize.

Seungcheol seems to ignore all of it and simply asks. “How far out is Perihelion?”

“Well,” says Seokmin cheerily, “I can see his big fat ugly nose from here.”

“Heh, funny that you’re calling out someone else’s nose,” Soonyoung teases.

“Rangers! This is the first category-IV any of you are fighting, can we please cut the chatter?” It’s still not Seungcheol putting his foot down, but Jihoon, voice tight while he tries to coordinate the drop times. The radios clam up immediately, and he coolly dictates, “Release for both jaegers in three, two, one.”

Knifehead seems confused by the two successive splashes, raising his head up and looking in two directions, but not far enough in either to spot the arrival of the jaegers. Iron is unsteady on her feet after she straightens up, her pilots not yet used to commanding two sets of limbs, but she manages to stand. It’s a pretty sharp learning curve from there, approaching Knifehead to draw its attention. Just when Knifehead turns around, Perihelion starts its run, charging forward to bear hug Knifehead and slam a round of the plasmacasters into its back. The discharge, however, barely affects its armor, and it only turns to fight back.

Perihelion might be one of the slower jaegers, but Seokmin and Soonyoung make up for it by being efficient with their movements, and they’re also among the top in defensive fighting techniques in the area. They duck immediately when Knifehead whips its head around, trying to catch them off guard, and go for its back legs instead. As sturdy as they are, they still fall to repeated rounds from the plasmacasters, weakening the kaiju enough that it falls into the ocean. Perihelion takes the chance to jump on top of it, pounding its passive fists into its skull, and watching its bones fragment bit by bit, until Knifehead’s eyes finally close.

“See?” Soonyoung points out, panting. “Told you we wouldn’t even need the back up.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Seungcheol says calmly. “Nice job going for the limbs when the back didn’t work.”

“Marshal! Don't tell me you believe when Jihoon tells you that we’re too dumb to be rangers,” Soonyoung protests.

It draws laughter, and no one’s attention is still on the water when Hansol says, “Is the water supposed to be doing that?”

At the same time, Jihoon notices the blinking on the displays hasn’t faded with Knifehead, and before Perihelion can brace, the kaiju is up and crashing into their back, sending them sprawling forward into the water.

“Perihelion Star, do you read?” Jihoon asks sharply. “Catalysis is another ten minutes out,” he mutters to Seungcheol. “Can we get Iron in the fray?”

“We’re fine, but shit that sucked,” Seokmin grumbles. They get their jaeger turned around just in time to dodge another stab forward by the kaiju’s massive pointy nose, and kicks out with their feet straight into Knifehead’s abdomen to knock it back into the water.

Hansol shouts desperately, “Stop submerging it! That thing has a blowhole so it’s going to have an advantage in the water.”

“Then what do you want us to do kid? We can’t plasmacaster it into oblivion!” Seokmin yells back.

Marshal Choi marches forward, hands splayed across Jihoon’s dash. “This is why we practice maneuvers together. You have to work as a team right now. Iron, your job is to keep on the Kaiju’s six, force it to always have its back on you. Perihelion, it’s not going to be easy, but you’re going to have to somehow get to its front side and launch all your firepower at its abdomen.”

Knifehead is rising again, presence announced by the cannon of air and water spurting into the air from its blowhole, but they’re not ready.

“Wonwoo! On your side there’s a harpoon. If you break off the spearhead, you can use the rod to hold it in a headlock.”

Mingyu suddenly remembers who had piloted Iron after Ara and Jeongmin. It had been Junhui and Seungcheol, for a single mission, after Tomorrow Dawning’s last expedition, and before the jaeger academy sent them a fresh batch of pilots.

“Will it hold?” Wonwoo asks, skeptical.

“Well I wanna see you try getting your arms around that thing's back,” Minghao says sarcastically.

“We don’t need you to be on him for very long,” Seokmin points out. The two jaegers circle the kaiju, neither moving forward. Knifehead pivots and starts for land, suddenly bypassing the jaegers entirely. “Alright, that’s the plan we’re going with, move, move, move!”

They give chase, and Perihelion manages to trip Knifehead up again with a well placed grenade, and Iron catches up two hands around a giant staff, holding onto the kaiju by the neck. In such close distance with another jaeger, Perihelion can only release its regular artillery, firing missiles straight into the belly of the beast. When there’s nothing left and the smoke clears, Iron is still gripping Knifehead in a chokehold.

“Is it dead?” asks Hansol.

Soonyoung makes a gagging sound. “It literally does not have any guts anymore. I think we’re done.”

There’s a screech of feedback when Jihoon taps his headpiece and clears his throat. “Can someone other than me be the one who has to tell Jinah that there’s nothing left for her to do?”

 

 

☀☀☀

 

 

All of them end up in the common room for the celebration that day, including Jihoon, who normally avoids any kind of socialization like it’s contagious. Marshal Choi pops in briefly to make sure everyone’s alright, and gets strong-armed by Seungkwan into an impromptu noraebang performance. The thought of repairs and the Mark-V holds Mingyu back from really celebrating with the others, but he wanders about with a beer in each hand, drinking to pretend to forget. The party is for Busan’s first category-IV kill, impressive, but also worrying. K-Science are huddled in on themselves, talking about the possibility of a double event again, and Mingyu’s still sober enough to worry about the kaijus getting bigger. It means the jaegers have to get better too or they won’t match them in the arms race.

“Don’t sulk,” says Minghao, prodding at Mingyu with a toe to get him to budge over on the couch. “We didn’t even get to do anything and we’re not sulking. You’re not upset that you didn’t go into ranger training or something, are you?”

“No!” Mingyu refutes, offended by the very suggestion.

“You could have come with me,” Wonwoo says, suddenly at his arm. It’s also Wonwoo and Hansol’s first successful mission.

“No thanks,” Mingyu replies faux brightly. “Want a drink?”

Wonwoo looks at him and the beer he’s holding out, fingers slowly clenching into a fist. Mingyu tries to push the bottle closer to him, uncomprehending.

“The rangers don’t really drink…” Hansol says. God, they’re like groundhogs or something, one pilot popping up after another.

Next should be…yup, there’s Junhui, who covers Hansol’s back, draping himself over his shoulders. “I hear you have the best beer around though,” he says with amusement.

“Junhui, come here and stop bothering the poor kid,” Minghao says with a sigh.

“It’s alright,” Hansol replies quickly, smiling at Minghao’s raised eyebrow. “I don’t mind.”

Mingyu’s nursing his first, not gone enough to have forgotten himself. Junhui often sits in a corner with whatever snacks he could get his hands on whenever they spend time in the common room but it’s true that Mingyu’s never seen him drunk before, and he and Minghao have always been embarrassingly loose-lipped to each other without the help of alcohol, but that doesn’t change the fact that he and Wonwoo had gotten tipsy in his room after he’d come back from Alaska. Mingyu opens and closes his mouth like a fish, staring up at Wonwoo with brows furrowed in confusion. “Why don’t you drink?”

“Alcohol messes with your hormones,” Hansol explains, before Wonwoo can say anything. “Lower serum testosterone, poor muscle recovery, all kinds of stuff that leave you off your game. The other thing is if you get drunk you can’t pilot, and if you’re hungover you don’t want to pilot, so sobriety is pretty important at all times.”

It wasn’t like they’d gotten blackout drunk, but Wonwoo had definitely not been sober the day after he’d arrived back in Busan. Mingyu startles at Wonwoo’s hand covering his own. He twists away and retracts his hand as if burned, too confused to understand the motion or why Wonwoo hadn’t told him the rule about drinking before. Had he thought Mingyu wouldn’t accept a ‘no’ from him? That he wouldn’t be understanding of him being a ranger? It didn’t make sense, and he didn’t think it’d make sense if he were completely sober either.

“I’m going to find someone else to share in all my festivities then,” he grumbles, standing quickly and ignoring Wonwoo calling out his name. He feels Minghao’s fingers grabbing onto his wrist but shakes him off. “Later.”

Luckily, Seungkwan doesn’t have any annoying questions for him when he passes him the drink, accepting it gratefully before pretending, “Of course you should be giving me stuff like this, it’s your dues for my services.”

“What services?” Mingyu snorts. “Having my ear talked off?”

“My presence obviously! Okay but like, do you have any more? I feel I’m really going to need it taking care of these two. It’s like they feed off of everyone else’s energy even if they’re not drinking themselves, you know, like that whole pseudodrunk college bullshit where someone walks in eyeshot of a keg and suddenly they turn into morons before anything’s passed their lips.”

“You can have the rest of mine,” Mingyu says quickly, pushing everything into Seungkwan’s hands. Even the stuff that’s already in his stomach is starting to revolt him, and that’s not an alcohol poisoning induced kind of nausea. “Listen, am I stupid to not know that the jaeger pilots don’t consume alcohol? Has that always been a thing?”

“I feel like Yoosang and Youngwon drank. Doyoon and Seungcheol too, after missions. After PPDC changed all the staff in the jaeger academy this lot got a lot cleaner, but it’s not like you drink a lot, and most of the time isn’t it Yooyoung selling off your hooch? She told me you kept giving it away without getting anything in return when you were in control of the stash so she had to make a unilateral business decision for your sake,” Seungkwan says with a sniff. “When it comes down to it, you’re a decent man, Kim Mingyu. A real nice guy. I hope tomorrow you find money in your pocket you didn’t know you had, and get a double yolk in your eggs, and none of your techs mess up, and there’s cake or something for dessert instead of just fruit, and—”

“Kwannie, it’s your turn.” There’s a shoe on top of Soonyoung’s head and he giggles while staring up at the leather sole. Mingyu quickly glances down to see that Soonyoung’s still got both boots on so how…

“Two shoes!” Seokmin cheers delightedly, and of course, he’s missing one.

Seungkwan makes a noise like a dying camel, dry and moaning in a funny kind of way. He chugs down the remnants of Mingyu’s beer before thrusting the empty bottle into his chest and putting his own down on a table. “Do you understand my pain now? Get away while you still can,” he hisses, before huffing a deep sigh and accepting both of Soonyoung’s boots into his hands.

He’s laughing as he leaves, but Mingyu does take Seungkwan’s advice, trailing away to sit by himself and watch as more and more personnel embarrassed or impressed at the front of the room, shouting into the wireless microphones over the clamor of people around them. Jiho is her normally bubbly self, jumping up and down while belting out an old English pop song and spreading her energy to a laughing Jisoo, who shuffles his feet in time with the music, eyes trained on her for the length of the track.

Someone Mingyu doesn’t recognize takes the makeshift stage next, so he grapples for a sip of his drink, frustrated to remember he’d given it all away.

Mingyu leans his head back. It’s like Yooyoung said – if there’s no good alcohol then it’s not worth it, not when the Mark-V could use some work.

“Hyung. Mingyu-hyung.” Hansol taps his shoulder and Mingyu jerks upright, staring when Hansol passes him a cup. It’s weird being called ‘hyung’, Hyeryung was right, the honorifics thing wasn’t really…did people think of it as odd? It’s his thing but it sounds odd to his ears when it’s someone else. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Me? Why?” Mingyu takes the water and sips slowly, taking the time to feel it sliding down his throat.

Hansol blinks at him, all reasonable and sincere. “Alcohol’s a diuretic, right? Wanted to make sure you were hydrated.” It’s too reasonable, too sincere and Mingyu doesn’t know what to do with the kindness. Everyone here wears a mask. Everyone here starts out as strangers, needing to protect themselves before anything else. So Seungkwan pretends that he’s narcissistic and tired of taking care of everyone, when really Mingyu doesn’t know anyone who genuinely cares as much as he does. Junhui-hyung behaves as if he’s open and flirty, but he’s shy and terrified of letting people get too close to him. Even Minghao acts annoyed and tough but the anger is a cover for being worried. But Hansol doesn’t have a mask, doesn’t act like he has anything to hide.

What’s Mingyu’s mask? That he’s trying to stay happy to try to get everyone else happy? That he’s fine with being friends with a bunch of successful jaeger pilots and not really contributing anything of his own? Mingyu knocks back the rest of the water and crushes the cup in his fist. “Thanks for the concern,” he says, tonelessly.

“We were gonna start a game of cards next, did you want to join us?” Hansol asks. “Junhui-hyung seems kind of a card shark but he promised to go easy on me.” He believes that, earnestly, there’s a smile on his face that says so, and weirdly enough Junhui might mean that earnestly too. The sound of the word ‘hyung’ is like rubbing two sheets of plastic against each other, right next to Mingyu’s head, the kind of thing that makes him instinctively recoil and want to cover his ears.

“Um,” Mingyu says, looking at the table they’d commandeered, Wonwoo lying his head down on it, Junhui prodding at his face, Minghao retying his own shoelaces. Three of his closest friends and the one who came to ask him to join was the one Mingyu barely knew. He snorts and stands. “Nah, you guys have fun.”

“Mingyu-hyung,” Hansol says, forcing him to turn and face him again. “Did I say something wrong today? Are you mad at me?”

“No,” Mingyu replies. He kind of wishes he were. Hansol is the person in the world he’s least mad at. “No, but I’m not feeling myself right now. You did great in the drift today. Congrats on taking down that kaiju.” He leaves the room quickly, footsteps echoing in the empty halls all the way down to the jaeger bays.

He can explain it now, in words, why it’s so hard to like Wonwoo. It’s that feeling of being close but not close enough. The constant reminder every time he tried to quietly bring a girlfriend home without disrupting Mingyu studying, or prodded him about his own love life, like that stupid moment of embarrassment with Yooyoung-noona. It’s Wonwoo’s kindness being a double-edged sword, the way it drew Mingyu in like a moth to a flame, but then the fire grew and the moth continued to fly, and that kindness burned him, burned him and burned him but he never stopped flying into the fire.

The difficulty lies in being best friends and not boyfriends, but being best friends at least, meant he was the top in something. Knowing someone for a dozen years doesn’t get erased overnight, but even if Hansol and Wonwoo weren’t drift partners, if they didn’t have the same taste in music, or know the way each other moves and fights, even if they were regular coworkers, in a universe without the kaiju, all of them sitting 9-5 desk jobs in construction companies, even then – wouldn’t Hansol count as the better friend? At least he wasn’t lying by omission every time he and Wonwoo were in the same room, or lying by choice something like once a conversation. That made him the better person too, and Mingyu thinks the better person is also probably the one that deserves to be the better friend.

There’s no one to blame, really. He wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t mad at Hansol, but the truth, which he says out loud after turning off the blowtorch and peeling the tinted full face mask off his head, is that, “I’m just mad at myself.”

“Should you even be operating that?” Wonwoo walks over, squatting beside the circuitry panel with an impressed face. “You did a good job but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be handling an open flame unless you’re completely sober.” He wiggles the blowtorch out of Mingyu’s gloved hands and sets it aside.

Mingyu throws his gloves off. “No one says anything when we build after getting only four hours of sleep, which has the same effect on cognition as being drunk, but half a pint of slightly stronger than normal beer and I can’t be trusted not to burn myself?”

Wonwoo’s fingers run over the smooth, shiny metal, only slightly warm to the touch. “You’re pretty mad, aren’t you?” He bites his lip.

“Yeah hyung, I am. And I’d really like to continue being mad at myself alone, if that’s alright with you.”

“You’re not mad at yourself,” Wonwoo says calmly.

“Oh, are we going to question my own emotions now too?” Mingyu tugs at his hair, forcing himself to laugh hysterically, lest his emotions bubble over and turn into tears. “Number one, I can’t be trusted to do my job in my own workshop without supervision, and number two, I can’t be trusted to know what I’m feeling either?”

“No, you’re right. You’re an adult. I shouldn't have made it seem like I knew your situation better than you do.” Wonwoo pauses to stand, reaching up to Mingyu’s head and combing his fingers through his hair to get it to sit right after Mingyu had messed it up. Even after the unruly strands have all been smoothed down, Wonwoo continues to pet at Mingyu’s hair, slowly patting down around his forehead. “You’re so tall. I told myself for years that some guys can still get late growth spurts and that I’d surpass you eventually, but it’s probably too late now, huh?” He offers Mingyu a small, lazy smile, the kind that sings a siren song and lulls Mingyu in whether he likes it or not.

Mingyu sighs and shakes his head. “Hyung, can you just go? I’m pretty sure you aren’t authorized to be here after hours anyway,” Mingyu says.

Wonwoo’s hand flinches mid-pat, and he takes a step backward. “Yeah, I’ll go. It’s just…I’m pretty sure I contributed to this. Your frustration.” He gestures toward the gloves on the ground, eyes on Mingyu’s frown the whole time. “With the alcohol thing.”

“What do you mean?” Mingyu asks flatly, cheeks pouched out when he draws his lips into a firm straight line.

“I didn’t think it would come up and I thought it through at the time, we weren’t going on a mission any time soon when we weren’t cleared for jaeger drifting, and the hormone thing is apparently true but it’s not like a do or die, I wasn’t suddenly going to stop being able to move because of one night. And it’s not like we’re ever excessive, so it was just, it was fun, and you enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

“Alright,” Mingyu says, nodding.

“Look, the reason I drank with you is because I wanted to. That’s how simple it is.”

“Okay. It’s fine. Is there anything else? Because I want to close up the other side of this board, and—”

“You’re hurt by it. You might be mad at yourself but clearly I upset you.”

“I’m not upset, Wonwoo-hyung,” Mingyu tells him impatiently. He picks up his gloves, the blowtorch, the face mask, and holds them all in his arms. “I’m a little confused why you couldn’t have told me instead of making me feel like I made you break rules, especially when I’ve always thought we had fun regardless of any alcohol present, but if you can only find my presence enjoyable with the help of alcohol, it’s no skin off my back, okay?”

“It’s not like—there’s no hard rules about it! It’s just you get taught it’s probably something bad so most people don’t do it but you didn’t ruin my life, so stop acting like it’s such a big deal. It’s not. And you know I like you fine with or without alcohol, don’t twist my meaning like that.” Wonwoo says, voice cold and angry.

Mingyu breaks at that, tearing his focus away to blink furiously at the space heater in the corner of the room. He holds his things tighter to his chest when he feels a finger looping around one of his own, curled around the knuckle, unmoving.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything,” Wonwoo says quietly. Still cold, but apologetic instead of angry.

Mingyu breathes in deeply, and reaffirms the fact that he’s angry at himself. Wonwoo can apologize for not telling him things, but Mingyu’s still keeping secrets from him, with no apologies forthcoming. “Don’t be,” he says, finally, with a sigh.

“Do you still want me to go?”

“Stay.” Mingyu memorizes, for the millionth time, Wonwoo’s smile.

    

 

☀☀☀

 

 

Two and a half weeks into February, Marshal Choi shows up at the rangers’ dinner table, this time holding a small cake with vanilla frosting and a single lit candle. It’s placed in front of Hansol with a smile, and a quiet, “Happy birthday to our little Hansollie.”

After his departure, Seokmin screams in frustration. “It’s my birthday too! we’re sitting at the exact same table, and he definitely saw me. Why don’t I get cake? And why doesn’t anyone else get cake?”

“Uh, I mean, you all can have some,” Hansol says sheepishly. “I wouldn’t eat it by myself even if I could finish it.”

Mingyu squints at Seungcheol’s retreating back, also confused. “Are you sure you two aren’t related?”

“Oh,” Hansol says, gathering plates. “It’s a little complicated. Seungcheol-hyung used to come over when we were kids because he was friends with Doyoon-hyung and Doyoon-hyung’s older sister was my little sister’s babysitter so we all kind of knew each other like that? Wonwoo-hyung said they used to do footie games in the jaeger bays together and I remember when I was young they used to teach me to kick and stuff.”

“So you do have a connection! Blow your candle and make a wish, kid, because the marshal can probably make it happen.”

Hansol closes his eyes and blows out the flame, laughing when there’s a round of applause from the table. He looks for a knife that can cut the cake up into slices and divide it among those present.

“Just so you know, the appropriate wish to make just now was, ‘I wish the kaiju war would end right now,’ but no one’s comms are going off saying that the breach is down so clearly you made the wrong call,” Minghao informs him, accepting a piece with no shame.

“Or birthday wishes don’t come true,” Wonwoo points out.

“Excuse you,” Soonyoung says, swiping icing on Wonwoo’s nose. “You keep your super wrong opinions to yourself, no one wants to hear it.”

That action ends messily, with Seokmin snorting icing up his nose and cake crumbs littering Wonwoo’s hair. It seems to stay in their corner of the table, however, and Mingyu’s allowed to enjoy his slice of dessert with minimal fighting on Minghao’s part to get extra bites in. On the other hand, Junhui is willingly offering Hansol more of his own cake, despite repeated questioning of, “Are you sure hyung? Do you not like cake? But then why don’t you eat it?” Junhui’s persistent, however, and he looks more pleased at being able to feed someone cake than eating it himself.

“What was your wish about anyway?” Junhui asks at last, licking icing off the same fork he used to feed Hansol.

“Ah…Hyung, I can’t say. I’m not as cynical as Wonwoo-hyung and I actually believe in this kind of thing, a little bit anyway.” Hansol smiles, his eyes curving. “I don’t want to jinx it.”

“The general idea then,” Junhui insists.

“Hmm…well, there’s someone I want to confess to and I hope that person returns my feelings? Something like that,” Hansol says blushing a warm pink.

Junhui’s face freezes in place. “I’m sure whoever it is, they’re bound to say yes,” his voice is filled with the kind of bravado Mingyu hasn’t heard in weeks. Minghao silently turns his head and gags, and for the most part, Mingyu shares the sentiment.

“Really hyung? What if it’s you? I really like you.”

Minghao does a good imitation of a star exploding at that, jumping to his feet and pulling Mingyu away so he can half-laugh, half-cry into his shoulder. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Minghao says, when they’re out of earshot. “Oh my God.”

“Jesus, you’d think you’d be a little happier for your friends,” Mingyu admonishes, but he’s cackling into one hand too, leaning back against Minghao for support.

“I’m happy, but also embarrassed as fuck,” Minghao complains. “That was so embarrassing I’m never going to forget it. Oh my God I can’t believe that just happened, did that really happen? Please tell me I imagined it.”

Mingyu collapses, sinking to his feet before they’re even out of the dining area, burying his face in Minghao’s hip. He clings onto Minghao’s waist for support, quickly losing the ability to breathe with the force of his laughter. “At least they’re probably happy now.”

“Oh nooo,” Minghao whines, clutching Mingyu’s head. “Oh no this is terrible, they’re going to get all touchy now. I’m going to puke, they’re already disgustingly sweet on each other, if I have to see like cuddling on the bed…oh my God what if they fuck in our room, fuck, Mingyu we have to stop them I’m never going to be able to sleep in my room again.”

“Well at least you’ll probably get your bunk back. Junhui can use Hansol as a human pillow. Maybe you two should swap rooms and you can bunk with Wonwoo-hyung.”

“Oh my God,” Minghao says for the hundredth time.

“What?” Mingyu says, straightening so they can move again to drop off their dirty trays and cutlery.

“I just had a nightmare vision of what my future rooming experience is going to be like. That was horrifying, and I really hope it doesn't happen.”

“What?” Mingyu repeats.

“No, I can’t tell you.” Minghao shakes his head. “If you find out then it might actually happen, and that just can’t. I fucking refuse.”

“Tell me~” Mingyu whines. They start some sort of fight in the middle of the hallway, tussling in the way of passersby.

“Don’t you have evening training or something?” Yooyoung asks, coming up behind them. Unlike the others, she’s not worried about being caught in the crossfire, and stands with her hands on her hips right next to their brawling bodies. “And don’t you have a jaeger to build? Other people have lives too, if you’re going to interrupt your own in favor of being schoolboys, can you at least do it where you’re not blocking everyone’s path?”

They’re forced to release each other under Yooyoung’s impatient finger tapping, Minghao spinning on his toes and holding his head high on his way toward the combat room, Mingyu with his tail tucked in as he’s dragged by the ear to the jaeger bays. “Considering you’re the one whose notes wanted us to be putting the sawblades into the arms today, you’re awfully unhurried,” she remarks.

“Haven’t the sawblades been finished for weeks?” Mingyu asks. “Why haven’t we done them yet?”

“Yes they’ve been finished because I’m in charge of weapons and I don’t do behind schedule, but the arms still aren’t quite done yet so there’s no where for the sawblades to go,” Yooyoung explains. “Everything is getting delayed boss, and every time there’s another battle where we have to send people off into repairs is only another time that we slow down again. I don’t want to be responsible for any of the rangers getting killed over the fact that we’re understaffed, but I don’t really see a solution.”

“It’s not just the sawblades either, is it?” Mingyu sighs, scrubbing his face. He surveys the workshop in front of him, thinking to what bay eight looked like when he left it this afternoon. Even with the regular overtime hours, everything’s just going extremely slowly, and the completion date estimates loom further and further away.

Hyeryung shakes her head, her hair sweeping over her shoulders with the movement. It should really be tied up, but Mingyu’s too tired to berate her for it. “No, it’s not. I know you don’t want them in the Mark-II because it’s probably dangerous to be out there in something that moves so slowly these days. And it’s frustrating when things aren’t finished regardless, but I think we have to just let the build take however long it does. Seungcheol-hyung was thinking it’d be finished in a year, and it hasn’t even been eight months yet. We’re close, only weeks out at this point, not months.”

“That’s true,” he murmurs.

“Things will be okay! They will be. What were you and Minghao fighting about, anyway?”

“I don’t think we were even fighting each other, really. But Junhui-hyung and Hansol are finally an item now.” Mingyu laughs at Yooyoung’s shocked expression.

She recovers quickly. “They got off their asses and did something about it? It was Hansol, right? There’s no way Junhui would have said something first, watching him was like staring at a glacier moving on land.”

“Yeah, but he basically said it in front of everyone? I don’t think anyone but Minghao and I were paying attention though.”

“That’s cute,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows at Mingyu creepily. “So…When are you going to do your thing?”

“Not this again.” Mingyu rolls his eyes, dusting off his trousers. “This is my least favourite conversation…why do we carry it out so often?”

“It’s your dose of medicine, you have to take it at least once a month,” Yooyoung informs him, happy to absorb his long-suffering look.

“I’m happy right now, okay? Isn’t it better to be able to hear him jokingly tell me that I’m ‘tall and handsome’ than to not hear that at all?” Mingyu carves aggressively into the metal with his power saw, the front of his visor taking the shower of sparks from metal against metal.

“I think you must have forgotten what happiness feels like in the past ten years.”

Mingyu turns away from her. “That’s absurd. I’m healthy. I have a job. I have a family that’s still alive, and I have friends. I get to eat three meals a day, have a bed to sleep on, and a roof over my head. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”

“You’re asking me? I can literally hear your brain pining whenever you look at him. It’s driving me insane, how the hell can you describe that as happiness?”

“Because I have to!” Mingyu yells, putting down his tools with a little less care than he really ought. “We’re done here tonight.”

 

 

☀☀☀

 

 

“Hey hyung,” Hansol says, plopping a tray down beside Mingyu at a mostly empty table. He’d skipped lunch and figured he’d have an early dinner, not expecting company. “Have you seen Junhui-hyung?”

Mingyu smirks into this seaweed. “Shouldn’t you know the answer to that better than I do?”

Hansol blushes vividly, ducking his head shyly. “Hyung, don’t tease. We had drift sims today and he and Minghao-hyung were doing weights so I haven’t seen him all day.”

“That’s alright,” Mingyu consoles wickedly. “Even if you can’t see him during the day time, I’m sure you can see him alllllllll night.”

“No, we’re not like that,” Hansol protests earnestly, face so shocked that Mingyu chokes on his rice.

“You’re cute. You’re, what, 26, and abashed about sex?” Mingyu gives him a fond smile. “That’s alright, hyung will teach you. So when a man loves a man very much…” Hansol looks like he’s ripe enough to pluck at this point, a juicy tomato that Mingyu feels bad about teasing him further. “Ah, okay, I won’t go into details.”

“I guess that means you haven’t seen him today, huh?” Hansol is earnest, as always.

“I haven’t. Sorry kid.” Mingyu looks at him and his meticulous way of eating, neat, without making any noise, and feels nothing but fondness in his heart. He leans forward to gently pat Hansol’s head, picking out a piece of fluff that he finds. “You know, Wonwoo was right when he said I’d really like you.”

Hansol beams at him, hand over his mouth to make sure Mingyu doesn’t see some half chewed food or something. “Can I say I’m relieved? When Wonwoo-hyung told me stories about you it kinda felt like you know, you two were a package deal so if I didn’t like you then any partnership was off the table. But you’re always so smiley and I’m really thankful for that.”

“More or less relieved than when Junhui told you he liked you?” Mingyu teases.

He squirms in his seat, pulling a face as he finds the words to respond. “More, actually. Junhui-hyung’s always been nice to me but I was kind of worried that you hated me after our first mission. Wonwoo-hyung told me about why you were upset and I’m sorry that I brought about that misunderstanding.”

Mingyu laughs unintentionally. “Wonwoo doesn’t really know the reason why I was upset but thanks for saying that. It wasn’t your fault at all.” He smiles and chews at the same time, leaving Hansol to hem and haw.

“The thing is,” Mingyu says abruptly, after Hansol tries and fails to ask his question several times, “I think I was worried too. That he was staring to be closer to you than me. I think that made me kind of sensitive.”

“I don’t think anyone can replace what you mean to Wonwoo-hyung,” Hansol says gently. “If someone couldn’t see that with their eyes, well, I can confirm knowing it for a fact from being inside his head. You’re in all of his memories, so it’s almost like I’m drifting with both of you.”

If he’s expecting a reaction, he doesn’t get one. Mingyu’s shoved an enormous spoonful of rice into his mouth, and looks down into his tray so he’s indisposed.

“I don’t really think I have a friend that I’ve known for that long and who knows me so well without doing the whole mind meld thing.” Hansol waves his fingers like the neuro behind the drift is magic instead of science. “But I kinda get a little of Wonwoo-hyung’s feelings when we’re connected and…I’m going to guess that whatever you were feeling is kind of how Wonwoo-hyung sees Minghao-hyung.”

Mingyu’s head snaps up, jaw opening and rice falling out of his mouth back into his stew. “Minghao? What? Why?”

“I don’t think he thought you guys were very close before he left? But now you guys tie your shoelaces for each other in the halls, so it was a bit of a surprise to him.”

“That’s…” Mingyu’s eyes dart around as he thinks. His and Minghao’s friendship had been the culmination of six months of back and forth, probably unfolding naturally in front of the friends who were around to witness it. Only, Wonwoo hadn’t been there, and without having witnessed it, well… “Oh.”

Hansol gives him a wry look. “I think you two are the same, really. More scared that things have changed than things have actually changed.”

He’s about to say more but it’s interrupted by the sirens.

Mingyu drops his spoon and looks at Hansol. “Race you to the jaeger bays?”

“You’re on.”

They’re pretty much neck-and-neck the entire way, Mingyu waving before he grips the railings to climb up to LOCCENT, shooting into his seat while Jihoon starts barking out, “Kaiju codename ‘Escutcheon’. Category-IV, 6200 tons.”

“Imperishable and Iron on point, Perihelion on the miracle mile. Let’s get him, boys,” Seungcheol says grimly.

Escutcheon is best described, in Mingyu’s opinion, as a giant crab. It has enormous pincers instead of hands, sharp and jagged. The armor on it is thick and tight to the skin, a shell encasing the entire kaiju protectively.

“No plastic surgery today?” Minghao asks pleasantly.

“More like limb modifications,” Jihoon mutters. “That thing has two extra arms, Jaeger teams, don’t be fooled.”

That’s the kind of thing that gets Wen Junhui excited instead of scared, and it shows. Imperishable toys with Escutcheon, engaging it in close range combat, using its ability to move its limbs quickly to its advantage. Escutcheon has extra hands, but they’re useless if Imperishable can parry further attacks and get in punches of its own. Imperishable’s sustaining damage, but it’s not particularly worrisome, and Mingyu has complete faith in the jaegers after Minghao gets a good left hook into Escutcheon’s left flank, diverting it into the path of Junhui’s waiting broadsword, which punctures its abdomen and leaves a gaping wound, although no blood.

Escutcheon roars and rears backward, and Junhui wastes no time re-sheathing the sword to blast a plasmacaster in the puncture hole where he’d managed to impale it. That serves to blow up the opening in its armor, and finally, finally, Imperishable lands a blow that goes beyond Escutcheon’s skin, ripping a gash in its torso that starts gushing kaiju blue.

Iron takes its chance while the kaiju is distracted to lead fist first into Escutcheon’s face, knuckles retracting to fire four ballistic missiles directly toward its mouth. While only one meets its target, the rest do the job of forcing a weakness in its head armor, the force of the blasts creating visible cracks where it really only needs one well-aimed blow to shatter. Wonwoo lands a good punch and Escutcheon goes careening into the water.

No one’s taking that fall for granted this time. “Kaiju signature still there. It’s still alive, so stay sharp,” Jihoon says. A breath.

Mingyu is wrong. Escutcheon is not a crab. Escutcheon is more like a scorpion.

Junhui is the first one to scream after the kaiju’s tail comes up from behind Iron Nobility and shoots straight through the left side of the jaeger’s conn-pod, shattering metal and glass like it’s crushing an aluminum can. Junhui screams a name, Hansol’s name, twice to no response. All of the displays in LOCCENT start flashing red, from the diagrams Jihoon has up of their neural handshake to the fall-back warning alarms when jaegers sustain major damage.

“I’m not getting any signal from the left side,” Jihoon yells, panic filtering into his voice. A panicking Jihoon is definitely a terrifying sign. “We’ve lost connection to Hansol completely!”

“Ranger Jeon do you copy?” Seungcheol barks. “Iron Nobility, report!”

“The entire hull is breached, sir,” Mingyu says, hand moving shakily over his own screens. “They have to eject. There’s no way they’re still connected to the rest of the kaiju, the entire left side is offline. They have to eject.”

Seungcheol relays this succinctly by screaming, “Eject! Eject now! Eject!” into his comms.

Wonwoo’s haggard breath comes through. “He’s out, Cheol, I can’t hear him inside the drift or out.” There’s a choked sob.

“Get him out of there Wonwoo, you need to get out of there!”

Another wracked cry. “Trying…I’m trying—!”

Imperishable doesn’t wait to see what happens next. If Minghao and Junhui are normally skilled and efficient at taking down jaegers, seeing Iron go down is like waving a cape in front of a bull, and they turn into a ruthless killing machine. They take turns punching and kneeing the thing, until Escutcheon not only stops roaring, but stops squirming, with its skull caved in and part of its brain leaking out. The only sound coming out of the speakers is Minghao and Junhui’s synchronized breathing.

“The choppers have spotted Iron’s conn-pod, sir,” reports a junior tech.

The marshal nods. His breathing is harsh when he gives his instructions. “Bring them in. And whatever you can salvage of Iron too.”

Iron’s conn-pod is more like an open deck boat than something that should be able to function for sustained periods of time underwater when it lands inside the bay, and its occupants are dripping wet from seawater. That’s not the only thing covering them, however. Wonwoo has an arm underneath an unconscious Hansol, who’s bleeding out uncontrollably from his left side.

“Fuck,” Seungkwan swears when he sees, rushing to help Wonwoo put him on a gurney and screaming wildly at the people around him. “The med bay isn’t going to be enough. Marshal, we have to lift him to the hospital!” He’s cleaning and packing the wound, wrapping Hansol tight as he barks out instructions, and Junhui only races out of Imperishable fast enough to see Hansol being rolled into the chopper, Wonwoo and Seungkwan climbing in with him.

Seungcheol’s face is grim when the helicopter peels out into the sky, and Mingyu only just gets an arm around Junhui to prevent him from foolishly chasing after it.

“You fix things, Mingyu-ya. You can fix him. Please fix him,” Junhui cries into Mingyu’s shoulder.

“I fix things, not people. The doctors will take care of him, Junhui-hyung,” Mingyu says, wrapping his arms around him. He locks eyes with Minghao, standing a pace or two away and breathing through his mouth. His eyes are red rimmed and he’s clearly blinking back tears when he places his palm on the back of Junhui’s head, threading his fingers through his co-pilot’s hair.

“He lost so much blood…”

Minghao starts murmuring in Mandarin after that, words that Mingyu doesn’t understand but still finds comfort in. Whether it’s the words themselves or the way Minghao’s speaking, there’s a lyricism, and it slows Junhui’s choked sniffling enough that they can walk him to the steps to LOCCENT. Mingyu transfers Junhui’s weight to Seungcheol, who holds him in his arms and presses his nose to Junhui’s hair, eliciting a whole new round of tears.

“It’s his second time watching someone he cares about get airlifted out but he’s seen a lot of death,” Minghao whispers, resting against Mingyu’s shoulder. “The reason why he’s so upset…does the marshal know?”

“I think, if the entire shatterdome hadn’t caught on by now, the way he screamed Hansol’s name just now might have made that one clear.” Mingyu swallows thickly, and he can still hear that shout ringing in his ears. Reliving the moment sends his heart rate skyrocketing again.

After Junhui’s shoulders stop shaking so much, Jihoon puts a hand on his knee and pats it. He looks at Seungcheol and says, “Yejin or I can run LOCCENT alone in a pinch. The other one of us can drive to the hospital and stay just until he comes out of surgery, at least.”

Seungcheol nods, cheek rubbing against Junhui’s hair. “You better take Mingyu with you, because Wonwoo’s going to need the emotional support too.”

“What’s another kid when I’ve already got one in the backseat?” Jihoon sighs, smile tight.

“That’s the spirit,” Seungcheol says grimly, hoisting Junhui up with an arm around his back and another under his knees. He’s tuckered out after crying so hard like a little kid, and he looks even smaller curled up against Seungcheol’s chest, like the marshal’s own child. After he deposits him beside Mingyu in the back of the Humvee, Minghao steps in.

“Take care of them for me,” Minghao charges Mingyu. “All three of them.”

 

   

☀☀☀

 

 

“The prognosis is pretty good,” Seungkwan says. “As long as he wakes up, he’s going to be fine. In pain, on drugs, and he’ll need time to recover but he will recover. And he will wake up.”

“Thanks Seungkwan-ah.” Junhui takes the cup of coffee he’d made down the hall and hands it to Seungkwan with a smile.

Seungkwan looks at it, takes it, downs the entire thing in one gulp. “God my nerves are frayed. I’m going to go see if Jihoon will drive me back. He’s probably bored anyway and I have to head back to the shatterdome. He can still pick you guys up later. I’ll message you on the comms, whatever we decide.”

Junhui nods, and makes way for Seungkwan to pass by.

“Here,” Mingyu says, pushing his own cup of instant hospital coffee into Junhui’s hands. “You look like you need it more than I do.”

“Thanks.” He holds the cup between his hands.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’ve put two people in hospital,” Junhui says, looking Mingyu straight in the eyes with his mouth and chin trembling to keep a hold of his smile. “And I loved both of them. In different ways, but let me tell you, it is not pleasant to see the people most important to you lying unmoving in a gurney, attached to IV drips or covered in sutures and bandages, or just bleeding out. The guilt—” His voice cracks, and he drops his head.

Mingyu makes Junhui hold the coffee in one hand and takes the other between his own. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Junhui grimaces and shakes his head once. “That I didn’t know the thing had a stinger on its tail? Alright, maybe that one’s no one’s fault. But Mingming was all me.”

“What are you talking about?” Mingyu asks, shaking him. “I was there, I saw what happened, you both tried your best to hold off until Catalysis could provide back up.”

“No you saw what was visible. You weren’t inside his head, Mingyu, he needed a break. Needed a break for months. I should have said something, gotten us retired or something, but I wanted the battle glory and I didn’t say anything. We both went into shock that day, but I came out alive, didn’t I?”

Mingyu’s silent for a moment, eyes on the styrofoam cup sitting in Junhui’s long fingers. “That’s why you let Seungkwan do whatever to you,” he says with sudden realization. “He knows because you told him so they could treat him and you think he thinks badly of you for it. Does Minghao know?”

“Are you going to tell him?” Junhui asks.

Mingyu purses his lips. “No. But I think you should.”

“And I think you should tell Wonwoo how you feel.”

“Wow.” Mingyu whistles. “I know your timing leaves something to be desired most of the time, Junhui-hyung, but this one’s a really really shitty moment, even for you. We’re in a hospital, his co-pilot’s on life support, and I was trying to cheer you up.”

“I know, and I’m grateful, but who’s going to cheer you up? Look, you and Haohao both have this thing about discussing what you’ll do once the war with the kaiju will end, and then you’ll go on some great life adventure that you’ve planned out, and everything’s going to be just peachy. Holding onto that dream is how you get through most days, I get it. But for one thing we’re all rounding up to thirty now, and none of us are getting younger. If you look at the future forever, one day you’re going to be a hundred years old and realize you never lived a day in the present. And the future might change. We fight monsters for a living, who knows when one of us might be injured so badly we don’t wake up again? If we fail a mission completely? Those kaiju are getting bigger, and this is just evidence for it. What if the war never ends? When will it end?”

Mingyu nods along, but still counters, “Nothing’s going to change, hyung. If I tell him or not, the only difference is maybe I add more weight to his shoulders. I kind of suspect the 1800 tons of jaeger are heavy enough. The only thing that can happen is a transfer of shit from my back to his, and I’m not carrying anything else, so I can take it.”

“That’s…fair,” Junhui allows. “But not saying things to Mingming is my biggest regret. There’s nothing I want more than for him to wake up so I can say I’m sorry for not watching out for him more, sorry for not listening to him more in the drift. I would give anything to have my best friend back. When you wait until you get to my kind of situation…it’s too late. You’re not going to hold onto your feelings until you’re standing as his best man at the wedding altar trying not to object to the marriage, are you? I’m serious. You do a lot in making the shatterdome a happier place. But things like love and happiness aren’t zero sum games, it’s not like you have to give away yours to make things better for other people.”

“I think I’m starting to see that about emotions. Like I didn’t become friends with Minghao at the expense of my friendship with Wonwoo, right? It’s an addition.”

“Exactly like that.” They’re quiet for a while while Junhui drinks. He breathes deeply when he’s finished and throws the empty cup in the direction of the trash but misses by a foot. You can be a great fighter, it turns out, but still suck at something like basketball. He stands in order to put his litter in the garbage and when he sits down again he wraps an arm around Mingyu’s shoulder. It’s not quite clear if he’s holding Mingyu together or if Mingyu is holding Junhui upright. “I might be a hypocrite for saying this, but I don’t think keeping things inside is the way to go.”

“You’re a hypocrite for saying so,” Mingyu tells him.

“If I promise to tell Minghao about Mingming, will you tell Wonwoo?”

Mingyu pulls a face. “I don’t really see what part of this deal is benefitting me.”

“There aren’t that many outcomes. Either he tells you he doesn’t feel the same way or he does. If he doesn’t, though, you can finally move on. I’m not saying it’ll be immediate or it won’t hurt, but right now, you’re never going to give yourself the chance of something else. You’ll cling until the bitter end when he’s honeymooning with someone and you realize you never even gave it a shot. If you try and don’t succeed, your heart will hurt but it will heal, instead of staying in this perpetual raw state forever.”

“That’s motivating.” Mingyu laughs, tucking his head against Junhui’s shoulder. “My heart might move on, but if I lose my best friend that’s not something that’s going to mend, hyung.”

“Do you really think, after all the time you two have been through, that the friendship will die because of something like this? I mean clearly you kept it together for this long anyway, I can’t imagine Wonwoo pushing you away. The other thing is he might feel the same way.”

“He doesn’t,” Mingyu says firmly, quickly, shutting down any discussion down that route. “I know him. I know he doesn’t feel like that.”

Junhui looks at Mingyu from the corners of his eyes. “And he probably thinks he knows you. You could both be being stupid without realizing it. That’s not the most important part though. I think starting a relationship is pretty terrifying, you’re all uncertain about things. But feelings are sure. You and Minghao put your lives on pause when the war started. I put mine into fast forward. I feel like I need to hurry to do the things I want to do in case I won’t be alive to do them later. So I wanted to take care of Hansol and I did so immediately. I’d like to think that even if life weren’t hurrying me, we could have made our timing work.”

“You’re very cute together, Junhui-hyung. You turn surprisingly innocent around him, and you’re both so shy about it. But it’s nice, he respects you a ton, and you clearly adore him, so instead of finding it weird, I think it’s kind of sweet.”

“Thanks, I think.” Junhui cocks a smile. “But that’s not my point. I’m more focused on the fact that even before all this kaiju business, you knew exactly how you felt about Wonwoo. And how deep those feelings go. You still know.”

Mingyu snorts. “How do you figure that?”

“After the drift became well-established, everyone started relying on some intuitive chemistry to know what was going on in people’s heads. They forgot that most of the time, from someone’s actions and words, it’s obvious what people are thinking. All you have to do is observe, and then you realize you don’t need the drift to see things that are obvious.”

“I’ve never drifted,” Mingyu reminds him. “I’ve only ever sat around and watched people. I don’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s head and know something for sure.”

“But you’re sure enough, right? That’s how you keep in touch with the emotions of the people around you. Notice when they’re unhappy, know how to make them smile again.”

“Maybe. I try, but it doesn’t always work.”

Junhui hums a little. “It’s always worked on Haohao and me. Keep that in mind, okay?” Junhui pulls him into a quick hug, standing when the door opens. Mingyu hadn’t even heard the sound of footsteps, caught up in his own thoughts, intermixing with Junhui-hyung’s advice.

“He’s awake.” It’s Wonwoo, standing with bandages and exhaustion on his face, but otherwise not looking too much worse for wear. “Do you want to see him?”

“Hyung, you should go. I’m going to think about what you said,” Mingyu says from his seat. He flashes a quick thumbs up.

“I’ll let you two have some time alone,” Wonwoo says, smiling a little and shutting the door behind Junhui.

“Thanks.”

“This is why they don’t have couples as rangers,” Wonwoo says, jerking a thumb in the direction he came from. “It’s already tough enough fighting with someone you love, but to see someone you’re in love with go down. I think Junhui really would have torn that kaiju limb to limb if Minghao hadn’t been calming him down. But even I was emotional. I was so angry at myself for not stopping it.”

“I don’t think there was any way anyone could have stopped it,” Mingyu says.

“Yeah but he trusted me to have his back and I didn’t. I didn’t have his back.”

“He trusted you to do your best, not to make sure he lives life without getting a scratch. It’s his job to run into danger and beat it off with a stick and he knew the risks that came with something like that. You said it yourself when you two first got here, remember? That Hansol’s an adult and he can make his own decisions and take care of himself.”

“Aigu,” Wonwoo breathes out. He tangles his fingers into Mingyu’s hair and strokes down with his hand, petting Mingyu’s head with fondness. “Our Mingoo-ya’s all grown up into a handsome adult too.”

If he were a dog, Mingyu would be wagging his tail. He’s not. So he ducks his head and swings his legs, feet catching on the floor with every motion because legs are too long to dangle them over the floor. “I wonder if it’s tougher for siblings. There has to be background emotions there, right? No one’s never felt resentment for their siblings, not even if you’re twins.”

“The Jo twins are making it work,” Wonwoo says mildly, retrieving his own hand. He sits sideways, gauging the space behind his back before scooting forward a little. He lies down with his head on Mingyu’s lap, eyes closed, a small smile on his lips.

“I don’t really know how they manage. You have to completely trust the person you’re drifting with but not be carrying too much emotional baggage. To have both, at the same time? They don’t seem like they’d normally fit together.”

“Hmm… Isn’t that why so many ranger trainees stay stuck as trainees instead of pilots?”

Mingyu shrugs. “I guess.” He doesn’t say something about being glad he never went to the jaeger academy.

Wonwoo says it for him. “I like Hansol a lot. He’s basically my own younger brother now too. But I still think if you’d come with me to Alaska, we would have made a really killer jaeger team.” He looks up with a cheeky grin at Mingyu, who looks away and draws his lips together instead of smiling back.

“Even if I wanted to be a pilot, I don’t think we would have worked out.” Mingyu stares at the wall straight ahead, lifting an arm away from Wonwoo so he can’t grab at Mingyu’s wrist.

“What, do you have some big, trust-defying secret you’re keeping from me that would prevent us from drifting?” Wonwoo asks with joking disbelief. “I know everything about you. I raised you from middle school. Until last year I watched over your ass almost every day. Do you think you could keep something from me?”

“Something like that,” Mingyu agrees. “Is Hansol really going to be okay? It was terrifying seeing you two come out of the conn-pod so bloody.”

“Yeah, I mean, blood transfusions, stitches. He’s alive.” Wonwoo sits up, spinning around so both his feet are pointed at Mingyu’s lap, knees bent so Wonwoo can rest his chin on top of them. “But wait, really? You’re going to tell me you’re hiding a secret from me on the monumental life-changing scale, but you’re not going to tell me what it is?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Well, obviously.”

There must be some of Junhui-hyung’s bad timing rubbing off on Mingyu that he even considers answering. As for a reason, it’s not Junhui telling him it’ll give him the closure to move on that makes him do it. It’s not the chance that he’s missed some sign that Wonwoo feels the same way (Mingyu hasn’t, he’s watched Wonwoo all this time after all). If pressed, Mingyu does it for Minghao. Everything is Minghao’s fault. It’s because Minghao deserves to know about Mingming, and in a roundabout way, Wonwoo deserves to know about…Wonwoo.

“I mean, they wouldn’t stop us from being co-pilots because we were a couple, but they might stop us from being co-pilots because I wish we were a couple.” Mingyu’s heart figuratively leaps out of his throat along with all the contents of his stomach. That was vile, really, and it’s not like he’s imagined many confession scenes of the two of them, but he certainly hadn’t imagined it to be inside a hospital, and not in such a roundabout way like that. He’s going to blame this one on Minghao too, as puke-worthy as it is.

“What? Are you kidding me? Don’t joke about that it’s not—”

“Yeah, I hope Jihoon’s back with the car. I’m just going to wait there, you can come when Junhui’s ready to leave or whatever.” Mingyu stands and turns, trying his best to not look like he’s running away but failing. There’s a hand on his wrist and he’s tugged back.

“Don’t go, wait. You’re serious?” Wonwoo’s grip on Mingyu’s arm tightens until Mingyu turns around and peels his hand back for himself. “But you haven’t acted differently at all? You’re not a good liar Kim Mingyu, I would have noticed if you started acting differently around me. What changed, how did it—”

A twitch of his lips. “About that…”

“You’ve…How long has it been? When did it start?” Wonwoo whispers, sounding lost. He doesn’t look at Mingyu when he speaks, but he forces him to sit down.

Mingyu barks out a braying laugh even though there’s no real humour in the situation. “When did I first start being head over heels madly in love with you? The first time you bought me candy at the convenience store? When you lent me your sweater three days before your trig test and caught a cold but didn’t tell me until after? We were teenagers and everything you did was cool to me.”

“But I’m not…That teenage Wonwoo is completely different from current Wonwoo.”

“True. Same goes for me though, doesn’t it? Middle school Wonwoo didn’t know how to drive but high school Wonwoo waited with me for nine hours in the ER when I thought I had appendicitis and even paid for parking. And then he got a part-time job after he were accepted into Seouldae and paid for tickets to movies because he was a breadwinner now. But high school Wonwoo was different from university Wonwoo too! University Wonwoo rubbed circles on my back the first time I was forced to drink more than I wanted at a MT and made me drink water even though he kept having to carry me to the bathroom so I could pee. Should I continue?” Mingyu asks, after growing increasingly hysterical with each rung of the ladder.

“Shit Mingyu, that’s like, ten years,” Wonwoo says, eyes wide and round. “Ten years and you didn’t say anything? How the hell did you keep it inside you and survive?”

“Oh trust me, I know.” Mingyu’s caught between tears and laughter. “I know. Everything you’re wondering right now? I’ve thought of it before too. Probably hundreds of times. Now can I go sit with Jihoon in the car and can you come back pretending we never had this conversation?”

Wonwoo grabs his arm and pulls him back a second time, keeping his hand around Mingyu’s elbow and not letting go. “No, wait. Normally, if someone says something like this, they have to receive a reply.”

Mingyu looks pained. “I don’t need to hear the rejection out loud, hyung. Don’t make it hurt more than it already does.”

“I’m not saying yes, but I’m not saying no either!” Wonwoo refutes hotly. “I don’t have an answer. I’ll be honest, I’ve never…I don’t have an answer not because of anything but the fact that I’ve just never thought about you like that before. You’ve always been…Mingyu. You’ve always been Mingyu.” He trails off.

Mingyu’s eyes slide shut and he leans his head back against the sterile white hospital walls. “Look, this isn’t the time or the place. All of us are tired and Hansol has a giant gash in his body.”

“Yeah but you’ve been carrying this for ten years. Has it been longer than that? At least ten years then. You’ve said it now and ten years is enough waiting.”

“No, it means that another few days or weeks or even months is nothing to me,” Mingyu says. He doesn’t mean for it to sound bitter, but it comes off harshly.

“Can we…We’re waiting for Junhui right now anyway, so can you focus on the best friend role for a second and hear me out without trying to run off to the car again?” Wonwoo’s voice is tiny, like he knows he’s asking for a lot, but his grip around Mingyu’s wrist remains strong and steady.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

He’s quiet when he nods, brain whirring. “Thank you.” Then, in a quieter voice, he adds, “Because I like you here.”

Mingyu fidgets. He wants to run. He sits. And Wonwoo’s hand slides into his own, fingers folding slowly, one by one, each of them searing their print into Mingyu’s skin with all its arches and loops and whorls. His hand is squeezed; he doesn’t squeeze back, but he relaxes minutely.

“We’ve held hands like this the entire time,” Wonwoo says. He looks uninterested but he sounds happy. For the first time in ages, Mingyu stares at Wonwoo instead of looking away. The sun – it’s as blinding as he knows. He thought he was happier without it blinding him, but he’s wrong. Junhui-hyung is wrong too if he thinks Mingyu doesn’t have anyone to cheer him up. No, Mingyu’s always had his own personal ball of sunshine, standing next to him everywhere he goes, the sun he revolved around, pulled into Wonwoo’s orbit from day one, circling and circling even as he’s tried to look away.

He lets Wonwoo study his face. It’s an intense experience, being scrutinized so openly, and it only lasts for moments but it seems to take Mingyu’s breath from him. He suddenly remembers that he had shaved really quickly in the morning, rolling out of bed late, and becomes very aware of how cracked his lips are. When he licks them, Wonwoo’s eyes follow the movement of his tongue. Mingyu pulls his hand away, uncomfortable with how intimate it feels.

Wonwoo lets him go but his eyes are still on his face and Mingyu’s eyes are still slightly downcast, focused on Wonwoo’s own. “For you...with you...you make me want to try. You asked me once why I wanted to be a jaeger, and I told you it was because I was excited at the prospect of being good at something. I was also excited at the prospect of being a better person. When you joked about calling me boss or deferred to me in J-Tech, you made me want to be better. I thought the jaeger academy could be part of me becoming better.”

“You said it yourself that it was painful, hyung.”

“It was a challenge, but it was worth it. I kind of feel like you’d be worth it no matter what the outcome, Mingyu-ya.”

“I don’t think it’s the same thing as becoming a jaeger pilot. I also don’t think you should have to try so hard,” Mingyu says softly. They’re close enough that if he exhales too forcefully, Wonwoo can probably feel the air on his face. “I knew I shouldn’t say anything. I knew you’d take it on yourself to do something about it when it’s my problem, not yours.”

“Try so hard to like you?” Wonwoo dismisses the idea breezily. “Everyone likes you, Mingyu. You're the kind of person everyone loves, whether they like it or not. The teachers in every one of the schools we went to. My parents. All the people in LOCCENT. The kitchen staff. You brighten someone’s day just flitting into a room, make people laugh just by laughing. Of course I love you, you should already know that. I’ve always loved you. You should know that too. It’s a question of being in love with you, but I think if there’s a precipice you tumble off of to fall in love with Kim Mingyu, I’ve been standing on the edge all this time.” He leans their foreheads against each other, hands coming to rest at the back of Mingyu’s neck.

It’s too much. Mingyu can’t look away but he can close his eyes, trembling all the while. “You’re not listening. I don’t want you to try to do something you don’t want. That makes it worse okay, I just want to be over this and have things over with. You...placating me or whatever, that’s like all of my nightmares coming true. I’ve never had a stupid misconception about you feeling the same way, hyung.”

“I’m trying to tell you what I want. I don’t want you to get over me. Is that selfish?” When Wonwoo laughs, Mingyu can feel it surrounding him. When he runs his thumb along Mingyu’s cheekbone, Mingyu can feel his own tears welling up. When Wonwoo speaks, Mingyu really does start to cry. “I went to Alaska and just wanted to see you. I came back from Alaska and just wanted to get drunk with you. With you, I just want, and it’s simple, I’ve never questioned it. You make me want to do things and I do them, willingly. It’s the same now. I want to teeter over the brink. I want to fall in love with you. That’s it. Are you really not going to catch me at the bottom?”

Wonwoo’s hand is gentle as it brushes away Mingyu’s tears, but it can’t stop Mingyu’s lower lip from quivering. He stutters and shakes his way through what he has to say. “I’d always catch you, hyung. But it’s not that easy, you don’t think about wanting to feel a certain way about someone and then, poof, suddenly that’s exactly how you feel.”

“You’re right. And you know what else? It’s terrifying. I’m terrified. You know I’m not great with heights or free-falling, but the depth of my fear is a puddle next to the depth of how important you are to me. It’s actually easy to forget the fear when you make me feel this happy. I wish you’d told me sooner, but knowing that I have your love? Makes me giddy.” Wonwoo pulls him in for a hug, soothing a shaking Mingyu with slow circles on his lower back. He presses a kiss to the top of Mingyu’s head one hand supporting his crown. His cheek rests against the spot his lips have left, and he absorbs the force of trembling shoulders against his chest.

“Hyung…” Mingyu warbles, hands clutching the front of Wonwoo’s shirt. “Wonwoo-hyung…”

“Um...Is this a bad time?”

Wonwoo looks up, not letting go of Mingyu, and turns his head to see Junhui flitting from side to side in the doorway. “It’s just, Hansollie’s getting sleepy and Mingyu hasn’t seen him yet?”

“I’m coming,” Mingyu sniffles.

Inside the room, the lighting is dimmer and bluer than the bright sterile whites of K-Sci or the yellow lamps of J-Tech. It’s softer, and the shadows that fall on Hansol’s face make it obvious how tired he looks. His arm is hooked up to an IV drip, and his back is supported by three pillows. He blinks at Mingyu, sluggish. “I’m pretty sure I got there first today. To the jaeger bay, I mean.” Hansol remains halfway caught between a wince and a smile while Mingyu starts laughing through his tears.

 

  

☀☀☀

 

 

“I mean, we don’t even have a fallback jaeger. Tomorrow never got put back together after we fished it out of the pacific. I could make a new conn-pod for Iron but I might as well spend that time finishing the Mark-V,” Mingyu mutters, dangling off of Minghao’s shoulder.

“Junhui said you promised Hansol to have the Mark-V finished by the time he’s out of the hospital. How’s that coming along?”

“We’re basically done. Going to put the reactor core in tomorrow, and then once it’s painted all it still needs is a name.” Yooyoung had actually looked impressed with the color scheme. Actually, she’d made an impressed expression at all of the finished project, and then told Mingyu it wasn’t that she doubted his abilities, but that the Mark-V was really above and beyond anyone’s imagination.

“You should tell Junhui that. He could probably use some good news.” Mingyu’s hands are wrenched away from Minghao, and he ends up tucked under Wonwoo’s arm in a loose headlock.

Minghao looks at them, rubbing the back of his neck, and raises an eyebrow. “Did you see him coming out of med?”

“Yeah. I was called in too. Hansol’s ripped a stitch and apparently Mingming’s troponin levels have started to scare Seungkwan.” Wonwoo grimaces, letting Mingyu go with a pat to his hip, but he stays his remaining arm around Mingyu’s shoulders. “They’re having a sederunt figuring out what they’re going to do so I imagine it’s been a pretty rough day.”

Mingyu purses his lips dramatically, spinning in Wonwoo’s arm to flick him in the ear. “Again, in words people can understand.”

“The doctors think Mingming’s body is giving out. Elevated levels of troponin are a sign that cardiac muscle is dying, and if his heart’s going, especially when he’s already had a seizure while in an induced coma, that’s not very promising. Seungkwan has ideas but everyone just wants to sit around talking about consequences instead of trying anything to help him. Hansol started bleeding again, and no one can get him to sit still except Junhui, but Junhui’s grounded here per Seungcheol’s orders. Now he’s super stressed and it would help if he knew that Hansol was coming back to something that would really protect him.”

“Is he buying candy in commissary again? I wish he had healthier coping mechanisms.” Minghao sighs, oblivious to Mingyu coming to a standstill and holding Wonwoo back with him.

“Are you worried about Junhui-hyung’s health right now?” Mingyu asks, perplexed. “You care. You like Junhui-hyung. You totally don’t even hate him anymore.”

“Fuck! No, I mean, if he doesn’t stop eating so many sweets his ratio of lean body mass to weight will be lower and that’ll make him more inefficient in the jaeger, and shit, you’re not buying any of this are you?”

“Nope. Not a bit.”

“Whatever, it’s a fucking lost cause then.” Minghao shakes his head and crosses his arms. “You know, I’m half convinced that if I just flew to Shanghai, I could go yell at Mingming and he’d just wake up. I have fucking had it up to here with the fact that the doctors aren’t doing anything, and Junhui’s still convinced it’s his fault because Mingming, a grown man, chose not to tell anyone that he was fading even if Junhui could kind of sense it. All that ghostdrifting bullshit? It’s making me feel guilt now. I hate it. It has to stop, do you hear me?”

“He told you about that?” Mingyu asks, surprised. “I didn’t think he ever would.”

“I was pretty surprised too,” Minghao admits. He elbows Mingyu in the ribs, chin stuck out. “He says that it was to get you to uphold your end of the deal though, so now you have to.”

“I kind of already did,” Mingyu says sheepishly.

“What?” It’s Minghao’s turn to freeze in his tracks, falling behind Mingyu and Wonwoo for several paces before they turn around and wait for him to catch up. “But you’re like the exact same as you’ve always been, what’s going on? Is there really...There’s something between you two?”

Mingyu looks uneasily at Wonwoo who faces Minghao with a smile. “Something,” he agrees. “Still working it out.”

“Fucking hell,” Minghao whispers. “I feel happy. I feel sad about a friend going through tough shit and happy about a friend going through good shit. What the fuck is happening to me? Am I supposed to say congratulations right now? What does working it out mean?”

“I think you can save the congratulations until there’s a ring involved,” Wonwoo says. But he says it confidently, like he knows there will be one in some future, and Mingyu squeaks, tripping over his own feet. Wonwoo seems amused, holding tighter onto Mingyu, but Minghao’s face falls into an expression of dismay.

“It’s happening. I’m becoming the fifth wheel. All of my friends are dating each other and I’m the only solo ride.”

Mingyu snorts. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

“You’d be dramatic as fuck too if you were in my shoes,” Minghao mumbles. “All these couples. Where did you even come from? Why’d you come back from Alaska and bring some cute dumb kid with you?” Minghao asks, turning accusatory at Wonwoo. “Have you two been together all this time? Like, I’ve never commented on it before but you’ve both always been really touchy-feely around each other. Nevermind, I just remembered Mingyu’s ugly pining face and that just went out the window.”

“I don’t have an ugly pining face!”

Minghao rolls his eyes. “You only think that because you haven’t seen it.”

The smell of roast beef wafts through the open caf door, beckoning them inside.

“Wait,” Wonwoo calls out, bending over to tie his shoes. “You guys can go in, I’ll be with you in a second.”

Minghao wastes no time flying past the entrance for dinner, but Mingyu gets tugged back. Wonwoo stands using their interlocked fingers to spin Mingyu around until they’re facing each other. While Mingyu’s still recovering, Wonwoo leans forward to softly brush his lips against Mingyu’s cheek, his face the same shade of crimson as the highlights on Perihelion. “Sorry, wanted to do that while no one else was watching,” he mutters, embarrassed.

Mingyu doesn’t say anything, blinking in shock.

“Don’t listen to Minghao, okay? Your face is very cute.” Wonwoo leans in again to smooch Mingyu’s nose, his cheeks darkening to an impossibly bright red. He lets go of Mingyu’s hand and ducks into the dining hall.

Mingyu continues to blink, hand ghosting his cheek at the same spot Wonwoo’s lips had touched, an irrepressible smile gracing his face.

 

 

☀☀☀

 

 

Hansol returns on a Thursday. It’s not supposed to be a particularly eventful day, but it turns out that way, and it turns out that no one will forget that Thursday.

It starts off normal. Waking up in the morning sucks, but breakfast is alright because Wonwoo lets Mingyu nap on his shoulder, cutting his sausages into pieces and feeding Mingyu slices with rice and pickled cucumbers whenever Mingyu slides back into consciousness. Minghao gags, Yooyoung looks thoughtful, Mingyu still isn’t really sure where they stand. Has Wonwoo fallen? Is he still falling? Has he even taken a step away from the ledge? Mingyu doesn’t know, so he lets Wonwoo lead. He’s been following him for his entire life, after all.

Things degenerate a little.

“You’re working too hard,” Hyeryung worries, handing Jisoo another tissue. He has two fingers pinched around the bridge of his nose, his other hand holding napkins up to his nostrils to collect the blood. Having a nosebleed from not sleeping or working too hard seems like something that only happens in dramas, but here, Mingyu sees it happening with his own two eyes.

“Thanks,” Jisoo says in a weirdly accented nasally voice. He accepts the tissue from Hyeryung and quickly replaces the one already at his nose, minimizing any collateral damage where blood might get on something unwanted. “And it’s better to be working too hard than to not have any work.”

“This paper isn’t that important,” Jeonghan reasons. He’s the one waiting with the next tissue. “Not more important than not killing yourself.”

“I’m bleeding a little, not dying.” Jisoo rolls his eyes, but it just looks funny with the lower half of his face covered. “Other people might die if they aren’t prepared for a kaiju attack, though,” he reasons.

“Even if we can predict the timing here, the localized scale isn’t that small. People might have this and think that means they’re safe, but that’s not always true. We can’t always send someone out in time to protect them. And sometimes, even if we send someone out in time, the kaiju get the better of us,” Hyeryung says. “In that case it’s almost better not to know. It’s not like there isn’t a scientific explanation, but sometimes explaining things away as a work of God just makes things a little less painful. The paper will be helpful, I’m not doubting that. But like every scientific article ever published, it’s not going to very suddenly nor very dramatically change the world.”

“You don’t need to save the world. You just need to prevent people from being near the coast on days when there’s an incident predicted. You just need to make sure that your parents don’t take a vacation to San Francisco on the day a 100 metre tall monster emerges from the Pacific Ocean and kills tens of thousands of people in the Bay Area in an event that people remember henceforth as K-Day.”

The table goes completely silent after that confession from Jisoo, silent for several moments while people look uneasily at each other, and Jisoo doesn’t notice from keeping his head down and eyes closed while blood continues to trickle down his nostrils.

Hyeryung suddenly moves forward, wrapping her arms around Jisoo’s shoulders and not caring whether or not his blood gets on her skin or clothes. Jisoo swaps a tissue with Jeonghan, who carefully piles all of the bloodied tissues together, keeping quiet while Hyeryung gently strokes Jisoo’s head. “It’s not futile. Our work’s going to save lives. I’m sorry we couldn’t save your parents, but because we can put a warning system in place, there’s going to be another kid from California whose parents stay away from the water and he doesn’t lose them. Because of you.”

Jeonghan awkwardly pats Jisoo’s back, unsure how to comfort his bosses. “The kaiju can’t win. We’ll take them down,” he murmurs. It’s a 180 degree difference from when he first arrived. Whether it’s the three jaeger-kaiju battles he’s seen, Hansol getting injured, jaegers returning semi-broken, or just coming face to face with the fact of death, he’s not as wide-eyed and wondrous about the beasts.

Futility.

When it comes down to it, everyone always succumbs to the sense of futility the kaijus create, ending everyone spinning off to their respective roles and throwing themselves into their work. But that sea of doubt, it remains, makes reasonable people like Jisoo-hyung go overboard trying to figure out the answers to all of their problems.

It’s okay. It’s okay because it’s just a Thursday, and even if things are feeling futile, there’s always hope. Today, it arrives in the shape of a certain Choi Hansol, arrived at the shatterdome with press in his face, all coldly rejected by the marshal when demanding interviews.

“I can talk,” Hansol says when they’re inside. “It’s not like any of their words can hurt me more than the kaiju physically can.”

Seungcheol doesn’t smile at the joke. “I know,” he says. “But I don’t want to give them the chance to try.”

Everybody is overjoyed, none more so than Wonwoo and Junhui, who remain at his side.

“Hey Mingyu hyung,” Hansol greets when it’s finally their time. “Is the Mark-V finished?” His eyes are clear and the color has returned to his cheeks. He doesn’t look nearly as tired as when Mingyu had seen him inside the hospital last. That cheekiness is familiar, and it’s never left him.

The Mark-V is sitting in the open bay eight, its fresh coat of indigo blue paint air drying. She’s finished and she’s beautiful. “Just needs a name,” Mingyu reports diligently, much to Hansol’s excitement.

It’s a Thursday, and they’re all gathered in the jaeger bays when they’re informed.

“It’s not bad I guess,” Soonyoung says, standing with his hands behind his back and nodding carefully, face serious.

“Yeah, if you’re into style over substance,” Seokmin snarks. Soonyoung’s eyes widen and he pretends to scold him for it, but the hands behind his back flatten out, asking for a high five.

“There’s more to life than a plasmacaster,” Mingyu informs them. “And Yooyoung-noona really went all out in giving this one some kick. Throwing stars that explode shrapnel after deployment, a grappling hook, a giant machine gun.”

“Don’t lie,” Seokmin says in a scolding tone. “Of course the only thing to life is plasmacasters.”

“I mean, it’s got plasmacasters,” Minghao points out. “They’re just not coming out of its ass.”

“It’s still too pretty. Perihelion’s built like a brick shithouse, you know.”

“Moves like one too,” Minghao mutters.

“Excuse me, it does not move like a brick shithouse, it moves like me and Soonyoung.”

“Don’t mind him,” Soonyoung says, voice a silky smooth betrayal to his co-pilot. “Seokminnie’s just still hung up on the fact that he can’t be the next Hokage.”

Jisoo laughs, bumping Soonyoung’s shoulder and giving Seokmin’s arm a pat. He looks at Mingyu with a somewhat impressed expression, nodding as if to say ‘not bad’ before clapping a hand on Mingyu’s shoulder. “It’s come a long way. You really took your vision and spun it into reality. Maybe if you show Hyeryung this and convince her you’re actually good at your job, she’ll let you cross the Mingyu line.”

Mingyu furrows his eyebrows. “She’ll let me? I thought you were the boss.”

“I’ve since come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard I try to maintain control, she will always take it from me within seconds,” Jisoo says, sad but serene. “Jiho’s got me doing all that zen meditation stuff now, so I’m starting to accept reality.”

“Oooh she leads really good yoga classes.” Junhui pats Hansol’s cheek. “We should go together once you’re cleared to move around and stuff since Haohao never comes with me.”

“You can go with Yooyoung-noona!” Mingyu declares.

“No,” Hansol says quickly, wrapping his fingers around Junhui’s palm. “I’ll come.”

Minghao heaves an exasperated sigh, eyes rolling, and then rolling again when Junhui starts cooing and touching Hansol’s face.

“Admit it, you totally find them cute,” Mingyu teases. He follows it up with a yelp, because Minghao doesn’t believe in holding his punches and his knuckles sink into Mingyu’s unprepared stomach easily. “That’s mean,” Mingyu complains in English. “You’re mean.”

“Xu Meanhao,” Wonwoo quips proudly, earning him a punch of his own.

“You’re both terrible but the jaeger isn’t bad. For a while I thought Mingyu was just mooching off of us in the shatterdome, pretending to screw in nails when he actually had no idea what he was doing. But I guess you aren’t useless after all!”

“What, did you think Imperishable was just regenerating HP overnight in the jaeger bays? How do you think things got fixed around here?”

Minghao shrugs. “We have the crew.”

“I think some people wondered if Mingyu was only hired out of nepotism when I was still in J-Tech,” Wonwoo says. “You can’t have been alone in thinking that.”

“I’m taking it back,” Mingyu warns. “I’m taking the entire jaeger back and you can build one yourself and spend eight months sweating over it and then after you’re finished I’m going to say every insult I can think of about both it and you.”

“Really? Sounds good.” Minghao nods his head with a firm smile, engaging Mingyu in a competition to see who can bob his head longest.

Wonwoo’s head turns, and he leans in with his mouth at the corner of Mingyu’s jaw. “Thank you for your hard work.” Mingyu doesn’t stop nodding, but he smiles, and as always, his hand goes to the spot where Wonwoo had left a chaste kiss.

It’s not until they’re inside the conn-pod that Hansol unveils his assessment. And, unexpectedly, he turns out to be the person whose opinion Mingyu most cherishes, partially because of the promise he made to finish the Mark-V for him, but Hansol’s earnestness in everything he says and does also contributes to it. Hansol’s honest, and he honestly tells Mingyu, “I like it. I’m really looking forward to piloting this.” Mingyu doesn’t sag against Wonwoo, but it’s a close thing.

So far, Mingyu marks it down as a happy day. It’s Thursday. Jisoo’s stressed but hanging on. Hansol’s back. The Mark-V is finally complete.

“Um, boss?” It’s Yooyoung. “You might want to see this. All of you, actually.”

They pour out, curiosity slipping into horror as they stand, amongst dozens of other techs and crew, behind Jihoon, Yejin, and Marshal Choi, all of them staring up at the newsreel clip playing on the screens normally displaying mission control.

Off the coast of Incheon, less than an hour after movement in the breach was detected, but the story is already over. The caption underneath scenes of destruction reads, ‘OCCISION: FIRST CATEGORY V’, and Mingyu believes it, seeing the flattened buildings and wreckage along the coast. There’s an aerial shot of the battle, too, with Occision spraying Descant Janus with acid before pulverizing the stunned jaeger, ripping her pilots out and tossing them like tiny ragdolls. Junhui ducks his head, hand to his mouth once the crushing sound starts, still doubled over when the shot fizzles out and is swapped in with profile shots of the Jo twins. Eleven kills, in the peak of their prime, now dead.

Occision gets the better of Fatal Masquerade too, forcing Taeeun and Darae to eject before submerging their conn-pod underwater and crushing it. Their mangled bodies, the journalist reports, were retrieved, unlike those of the Jo twins, still lost in the harbor. When the kaiju finally went down, nearly a mile inland, and after wrecking all the infrastructure along its route of killing everything that moved, Flying Infinity was missing most of its left side and the Incheon shatterdome was left with only two out of its original five functional jaegers.

“With the death of two pilot teams and destruction of their jaegers in a single battle, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps must answer the pressing question of whether or not the jaeger program, now in its ninth year of operation, is sufficient to protect civilians living in coastal regions.”

Quite suddenly, the displays are switched off. “They kept Seoul safe,” Seungcheol says simply. “We can’t start questioning what we’re doing here, or we won’t be able to keep Busan safe. Have faith. In yourselves, and each other,” he says quietly. LOCCENT is so silent that everyone hears his words without straining.

Held up by Hansol’s arms around his waist and Minghao’s hand at his back, Junhui, for the first time where other people can see him, breaks down crying.

Hansol returns on a Thursday. It’s not supposed to be a particularly eventful day, but it turns out that way, and it turns out that Mingyu will never forget that Thursday.

There’s tension curled in Mingyu’s belly. He never knew any of Incheon’s pilots, not like Junhui who had trained with Youngmin and Kwangmin in Alaska, but he knew of them, and knew they were successful rangers who did their jobs and put their lives on the line when it came down for it. Jaeger piloting, like Wonwoo enjoyed reminding people, was a flashy job but not a fun one, not truly. To put yourself at risk like that, over and over again for the sake of other people, it was much the same as willingly stepping over the edge of a cliff only on a grander scale, with more at stake. More terrifying than terrifying. He looks over at Wonwoo with his blindingly bright attempt to stay smiling and twines their pinky fingers together, swinging his arm the entire time they walk back to the bunks.

In recent weeks, Mingyu’s face has been peppered with tiny butterfly kisses. Wonwoo presses their mouths together before Mingyu falls asleep, brushes his lips against Mingyu’s hand before they part after breakfast, drops a kiss to Mingyu’s brow whenever Mingyu pouts. The way he kisses Mingyu in his room after the news, however, is hungry and demanding instead of simple and sweet. Mingyu feels heady from it, hands clutching at Wonwoo’s hips while his mouth is at first tentatively explored and then thoroughly combed through by Wonwoo’s tongue.

“I’ve thought about it,” Wonwoo explains, when Mingyu can only give him a dazed look. He pushes him backward until they’re toppling onto Mingyu’s bed, Mingyu nodding desperately when Wonwoo tells him, “Let me know when to stop.”

“I pictured myself in one of those jaegers, sinking underwater. Was it a painful death? It certainly didn’t look quick. I wondered what my last thoughts would be if I were in their position and the only thing I could come up with was the fact that I didn’t know what you tasted like. What you feel like. I know so much about you but there’s still so much I don’t know and I want to. I want to know all of you.” His fingers slowly crawl up Mingyu’s chest, underneath the fabric of his shirt. They rake over his abdomen, touching and touching, everywhere, not for long. He stops, eyelashes moving slowly as he blinks, eyes fixed on Mingyu’s face. It’s hard to tell whose expression is more adoring.

“Hyung,” Mingyu whispers, held tightly in Wonwoo’s arms, his mouth between the two muscles ending as a V between Wonwoo’s collarbones, just above where his sternum starts. “I love you, Wonwoo-hyung.” It spills unwittingly and irrevocably from Mingyu’s heart as much as from Mingyu’s voice box.

“I’ve thought about everything, and I don’t think there’s any other explanation for how much I want everything from you. Maybe I’m not supposed to rationalize it but I feel like my heart just keeps expanding. Loving you and being in love with you is all tangled up together, but I want, Mingyu, I want you so much. All of you. All the time. I don’t know if I’ve just fallen or long fell but the truth is, Jeon Wonwoo is also in love with Kim Mingyu.”

“I’ve figured out the name for the Mark-V,” Mingyu says suddenly, right up along the column of Wonwoo’s throat. He bites down at the pale flesh there, before pressing his mouth down around the spot to provide suction while he laps against it with his tongue.

Wonwoo paws at Mingyu’s back, hands dipping below his waistband to squeeze at his ass. He lifts his chin higher, granting Mingyu better access to his neck. “Well…” he prompts, voice raw. “What is it?”

“Blessed Frontier.”

Mingyu can feel the hum of Wonwoo’s laughter everywhere they’re pressed together. “Don’t tell me it’s because you feel blessed by my presence or something like that.”

“Alright,” Mingyu assents. “I won’t.”

“In the wise words of Xu Meanhao, ‘Oh my God’.”

He lets Wonwoo peel his shirt off, and then helps him with his own. “We should ask Minghao and Junhui and Hansol to rearrange rooms. So we can bunk together and Junhui and Hansol can bunk together. Minghao can take your room by himself.”

That triggers Mingyu’s memory, and he giggles with his palm against Wonwoo’s washboard abs. “I think that’s what his terrifying vision was. I think he suspected we’d ask him to move the room arrangements around like that.”

“Mmm,” Wonwoo murmurs, fingernails scratching at Mingyu’s scalp. “Less talking about other people in bed.”

  

  

☀☀☀

 

 

If Mingyu had thought that after finishing the Mark-V he’d get a brief reprieve, it was a thought made in the ignorance of the now obviously growing force of the kaiju. Iron Nobility, which Mingyu had been planning on giving up as a lost cause, is assigned refurbishing into another Mark-V, and PPDC sends down orders to hire more engineers for more jaegers. Marshal Son is quickly dispatched to approve the existing one, as well as to witness trial after trial of new ranger pairings, all hastily matched together with the increasing demand for more pilots. Mingyu accidentally overhears one side of a conversation she has over the phone, where she refuses to accept insufficiently trained rangers as pilots, citing them as a waste of a jaeger, and he’s unsurprised to know that the pressure is really coming down from public demand. She becomes a somewhat permanent fixture in the shatterdome, since almost none of the test pilots are approved, sticking around to continue testing.

The one benefit to PPDC suddenly spurring into action is that Mingming’s case becomes top priority, with doctors finally willing to do something other than ‘run tests’. Junhui’s not best pleased that their goal is to return him to active duty, but carefully turns his eye away once there’s noticeable improvement in his condition (something about EEG activity and BDNF) and Seungkwan stops swearing in English every time his coma is brought up.

After Hansol is physically and mentally approved fit for battle again, he and Wonwoo run another drift test, this time in their new jaeger.

“We don’t want you stuck in a feedback loop, replaying the injury once you’re drifting,” Marshal Son explains. “It’s happened in the past with other victims of traumatic injury. Anything can be a random access brain impulse trigger inside a jaeger, and if there’s one in the conn-pod, or any lasting effects affecting drift stability, we’ll run you through psych analysts before we can approve you two again, but let me tell you, PPDC does not want to lose another pilot team.”

Hansol does not chase the RABIT. He has Wonwoo to mutter Lupe Fiasco lyrics at him if he does, but the words ‘kick’ and ‘push’ aren’t needed when he remains calmly within alignment, nerves remembering the familiarity of being affixed to the spinal clamp.

“Do you have any amnesia around the time of the event?” she asks, later, during the debrief in LOCCENT when everyone pretends to be busy doing something but is actually paying careful attention to their hushed conversation.

“No, I have a pretty vivid memory of even when the tail went into my back,” Hansol says clearly. “Parts of it are a little blurry, but I think most of what I remember matches what Wonwoo-hyung remembers.”

“And you’re not scared to return to action?” She asks, vaguely impressed. “You must have some pretty good coping mechanisms.”

Hansol meets Junhui’s eyes over Marshal Son’s shoulder and blushes. “I, uh, do yoga if that counts?”

She marks it down on her tablet, smiling encouragingly at him before shaking his and Wonwoo’s hands. “I’ll have to get the ranger academy to add that to their repertoire as soon as possible,” she says, looking grateful, while Hansol’s eyes widen comically.

  

 

☀☀☀

 

 

Three days later, Jeonghan’s double event prediction comes true. It’s exactly the day his and Hyeryung’s initial algorithm predicts, and while they don’t exactly celebrate, they do speed off to publish their results while the rest of the shatterdome heads in the opposite direction to outfit the jaegers being deployed. Two category-IIIs land just north of Fukuoka, and their shatterdome calls for backup from Kitakyushu, Busan, and Nagasaki. Leatherback and Yamarashi launch a two pronged attack from either side of Hakata Bay, and three jaegers are assigned to each kaiju.

“We’ll be okay,” Wonwoo says. It’s Blessed Frontier’s first official mission. Junhui is nervous about Hansol first fight since the injury, Mingyu is nervous about his jaeger’s first fight period.

“Yeah, hyung, don’t worry! The Mark-V is hella safe, you built it!”

“You kind of end up in the drift with us,” Wonwoo says apologetically, “because you’re in so many of my memories, I think. And since you built the jaeger, when we drift with her it’s like…”

“Being protected in a cocoon?” Hansol says. “That kind of feeling.”

Wonwoo smiles at having his sentence finished for him. “Being inside the jaeger kind of feels like being inside you.” He pauses. “Not like that.” His tongue darts out, licking obscenely at the corner of his mouth, in a way that suggests he knows exactly what he means. “Okay, a little like that.”

Mingyu sends them off with a laugh, with full faith that they’ll return safe and sound. That’s the nice thing about sunsets: they always lead to a sunrise.