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Three Golden Bulls Worth

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The first thing one should know is that Stacker Pentecost handpicks his pilots.

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i.

Cheung is thirteen when San Francisco is torn apart – people and buildings scattered like grains of rice over the raging waves of the ocean so far away from his family’s tiny apartment in Sham Shui Po.

He still manages to shove together a lunch box for himself, Jin and Hu and they attend school anyway, lessons continuing on even as the Western world is frozen in terror. Jin talks fast and hard about – what they’re now calling ‘Trespasser’ – is a genuine dinosaur come back to life. He likes things like that – the fantastical, the impossible, the alien.

‘It’s straight out an anime – those really classic ones,’ he spouts out, grinning, and there’s rice stuck to the corner of his mouth. Cheung snorts and flicks it off.

‘What, like a pokemon?’

Jin purses his mouth in thought. ‘I was thinking more Evangelion, y’know.’

‘No, I really don’t,’ sighs Cheung. He looks around and sees Hu talking with another boy and girl in the classroom. His lunchbox is hanging empty in his hands, which relieves Cheung. ‘Hu! What’s Evangelion?’

Hu looks over his shoulders, eyebrows raised. ‘Dunno, bro.’ Without missing a beat, he resumes his conversation with the other friends.

After school, Jin sits at the table, math homework abandoned as he enthusiastically describes the plot of Evangelion to Cheung and Hu. Cheung props his chin on his hand and humours him. ‘So, Shinji,’ his mouth smears over the Japanese accent, ‘has to pilot a giant robot under water?’

‘Yeah – bro, you need to pay attention to the science of the water though,’ emphasizes Jin.

Hu plays the news while Jin talks. There’s recovery efforts in San Francisco now though Trespasser is still raging and wreaking havoc throughout the city. ‘They’re calling it a Kaiju.’

Cheung frowns. ‘More Japanese?’

Kaiju,’ Jin tastes the word in his mouth. ‘it’s really like an anime.’

‘The army should’ve brought it down by now,’ says Cheung. Hu doesn’t reply – his sight fixed on the small, flickering screen of the television.

Jin pauses in his ramblings and turns his attention to the newscast. His face slowly but steadily drains colour. ‘Hu, turn it off.’

Hu is transfixed. He doesn’t move nor breathe. Jin’s voice has gotten a little squeaky. ‘Hu, brother.’

Cheung elbows Hu hard. ‘Jin says turn it off – it’s scary, stop it.’ Hu blinks fast, almost toppling over before he reaches forward and presses the power button. Silence drifts through the apartment, and Cheung can only hear the scream of people, vendors, and police sirens from outside their window.

His math homework blurs in front of him as his stomach twists and turns. Jin has his fists pressed into his eyes as if to get rid of the wireless broadcast of the Kaiju crushing people under its feet and fists. Hu is pale and still.

Still – the oldest is still the oldest. ‘Hu, start up dinner before mom comes back. Jin, we’ll clear the table, okay?’

Jin sucks in a sharp breath before dropping his hands and looking up at him. ‘I’m scared.’

Cheung swallows down his own anxiety and forces a smile. ‘It’s in San Francisco, brother. C’mon.’

Hu remains silent, but methodically begins slicing up the vegetables on their counter in the corner as the papers are put away from the table and bowls set out. Cheung glances once to the shining, black screen of their television and shivers.

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ii.

The economic crash is devastating after the first attack. It gets progressively worse over the years – both mother and father laid off and homeless for a while until Kowloon’s walled city – a horror from a century past – reemerges as poverty flocks together. A civilization is born in apartment complexes crushed together and the rooms become smaller and smaller until Hu cannot breathe without pressing against Cheung as they lie on the bed, trying for sleep before beginning their search for work in the day time once more.

At fifteen, he meets Hannibal Chau in an alleyway behind a supermarket. The man is British, but Hu paid attention in class. When some hoodlum tries to punch the double-vested chest of Mr. Chau, Hu jump kicks into the man’s side, knocking him over.

‘It is not safe here,’ says Hu as clearly as possible in English as the hoodlum coughs, curled on the ground. With a hissed curse and a kick to the stomach, Hu has the man scrabbling out of the alleyway, before he glances back at the rich foreigner. Hannibal Chau is a foot taller than Hu and his teeth are piercingly white when he smiles – very, very rich.

‘You live around here?’ asks Mr. Chau in stunted Mandarin.

‘Sure,’ offers Hu, keeping to English, and smiles back. Mr. Chau seems to like that because he laughs.

‘You need work?’

There is a beat. ‘Sure.’

‘Work for me? Fight for me?’ Mr. Chau has a hand in his pocket and he draws out red-coloured paper. Hu flicks his eyes over it and counts five red snappers. He forgets to breathe. Mr. Chau takes his silence as hesitance. ‘Five hundred if you fight good. You know other fighters?’

Hu swallows, before he’s smiling again, playing it easy as he stuffs his hands into his pockets of his dirty jeans. When he speaks again, Hu makes sure to slip into Mandarin: ‘All five hundred for me? You are a generous god.’

Mr. Chau raises his brows at the epithet and nods, his expression brightening. ‘God need disciples. One hundred for you, one hundred for other fighters.’

‘I’ll give you three of me if you give me all five snappers,’ replies Hu. He’s still smiling, still playing it cool, as if he can walk away from this deal, as if he can afford to walk away from this deal. Mr. Chau cocks his head, takes a step back.

‘Show me something.’ Mr. Chau’s first order, and Hu takes a breath, lets his body memory creep on him from his younger years of martial arts. He’s a bit clumsy at first with his kata, but it evens and smoothes out, something even half-way to passable.

Hu finishes and lets his hands hang limply at his sides. Mr. Chau is evaluative. ‘Three of you?’

‘Three for five,’ repeats Hu.

He leaves that alleyway with two snappers and a business card to get the other three. Their mother and father are blessedly out of apartment when Hu comes back. Jin has a bruise on his cheek and Cheung is rubbing ice over it.

‘Where were you? Dinner’s on the bed,’ says Cheung, back turned towards Hu.

‘I got us some work,’ says Hu because he can’t play his words with his brothers. Cheung isn’t Hu’s friend from school, a store clerk to swindle, a Mr. Chau to seduce. ‘Here.’

‘Leave it on the bed and eat first,’ orders Cheung. Hu frowns – reaching forward and grabbing his brother’s shoulder, pulling him back. Cheung gasps and topples backwards onto the bed. Jin has a bruise on his cheek and purpling around his neck. Hu rears and, without thought, jerks his head towards the ceiling. Hanging above them is a cut rope.

Jin,’ he snarls, and Jin cowers away, covers his face.

‘Hu, brother, I – ’ sobs Jin, and Cheung is there, pushing Hu away.

‘It’s fine, we talked it through, it’s fine,’ he says, and Hu doesn’t believe him – not even a single word.

‘I got us jobs as street fighters for a rich American named Hannibal Chau,’ he spits out instead, turning towards the bed and tossing the two snappers down. He grabs the paper bag and rips it open, staring at the twenty-eighth serving of the same cardboard-tasting meal. ‘He’ll give us five snappers.’

Jin gasps. ‘Five?’

Cheung turns to Hu, ‘five snappers? Is that two on the bed?’

Hu nods and snaps open the chopsticks. ‘There’s three more if we meet him at his club.’

‘I don’t remember much of my katas,’ says Cheung. Hu knows he’s stalling, evaluating, weighing up the pros and cons of it all.

‘We’ll be fine. We’ll be fighting hoodlums, pickpockets and stuff.’ Hu waves a hand through the air. ‘Jin, can you…’

Jin rubs a hand over his neck, ‘I – ' His voice cuts off. Cheung shoots Hu a sharp look as if in warning. Don’t push him, but Hu’s the boy with the words, the brother who knows language inside and out, who doesn’t smear accents and drop slang.

Hu puts down his meal, kneels in front of Jin, watching as his brother’s skin gets darker with the bruising as the burst veins begin clotting underneath. Without a sound, Hu gently trails his fingertips over the injury, and Jin’s face crumples at the softness of the touch. Suicidal thoughts have not been far from their family ever since San Francisco, but an actual attempt –

‘Jin,’ says Hu but all his words die on his tongue when Jin starts a fresh bout of crying. ‘Jin.’

‘I – I thought I was just a burden,’ he sobs, his mouth twisted, expression ugly with self-loathing, ‘just a-another mouth to feed and – ’ He sucks in air, and Hu is holding his hand, gripping it tight. ‘I’m youngest, br-brother. I should leave. Last week, Ka-Kaiju Onibaba c-came in and crashed into Japan. They’re getting closer, Hu – and I – ’ Jin wails, broken, and Hu curls his arms around his brother’s shoulders, pulls him in, face pressed into the sweaty dampness of his dark hair.

‘I love you,’ and Hu’s voice cracks and he feels so desperate for Jin to understand, that Cheung has always been the one carrying the responsibility on his shoulders for his brothers, so Hu has only had Jin, only him. ‘We need you, I need you, please – ’

‘I’m scared,’ says Jin.

‘Me too,’ blurts Hu, because he might know all the words and languages and tones, but they all fall through when it comes to his brothers. ‘Me too, so please fight with me. Fight with me and let’s be strong and not scared anymore.’

Cheung is clutching the two snappers in his fist by the time Hu and Jin are done crying and clinging frantically to each other. By the time their voices have eased into hiccups, they have both arms curled around each other, faces drained, fingers tangled together.

‘We take to street fighting for cash,’ he decides – oldest of the three. ‘We’ll need to brush up on our katas. And I want us to fight together – all three of us. Can you do that, Hu?’

Hu’s voice is raspy from crying so he nods instead.

‘Then we’ll need to figure out plans and formations. This is street fighting, not street brawling. We’re going to win.’ Cheung looks down at the two snappers in his fist. ‘We’re getting real food and clothes now. We’re going to get through this.’

Hu squeezes Jin’s hand in his grip and looks into Cheung’s eyes, sees determination and a fire to live, and trusts.

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iii.

China’s first Jaeger is Horizon Brave. It kills the Kaiju Reckoner and lets the people of Hong Kong take its skeleton and build a shanty town between its white ribs and cult temple in its skull. It also kills both of their parents.

One Kaiju attack later in the year, and the Horizon Brave makes a brave, explosive depart. Jin takes down his posters of Lo Min Shen and Kichi Po from his walls in mourning, until China announces the introduction of Shaolin Rogue in Hong Kong’s Shatterdome.

Jin doesn’t have time to get a poster of the Shaolin Rogue’s pilot crew when the Category III Kaiju rips it to shreds on the same night Hu and Cheung come up with the Thundercloud Formation in the fight ring.

Hannibal Chau is generous with his petty cash with all the Kaiju organs suddenly in his lab when Jin and his brothers come to pick up their winnings. They don’t like staying long with the distinct smell of ammonia staining into their clothes until Cheung is bitching five ways to Sunday as he scrubs it out in the kitchen sink.

Jin is good at this fighting thing when there’s a plan and organization. When Cheung gives him a purpose, Jin follows through, obeys by roundhouse kicking the guy with the knife in the side so that Hu can crack his skull with his elbow and they’re both moving swiftly onto the next opponent.

After the fight, Jin is wiping blood from his cut cheek when a tall, well-dressed British man steps into the back room – a sorry, broken-glass littered excuse for a locker room in the underground street fighting ring.

‘Hello, you are one of the Wei Tang triplets?’ the British man asks in Mandarin that is vastly superior to Mr. Chau.

‘Yes, I am Jin.’ Jin glances to the side of the cramped room where the entrance is located. Hu is taking a shower in the very back and Cheung is out scouting the now emptied fight ring for more clues to improve their skills and take winnings faster, easier and – most importantly – with least damage.

‘My name is Stacker Pentecost,’ he says, ‘I am the Marshall of the Jaeger project.’

Jin drops his towel. Admittedly, the British man looks nothing like Shinji’s father, but he still commands the same professional, cool authority that comes with military power. Belatedly, Jin does an odd, jerking bow, not letting his eyes leave the British man. ‘Hello, welcome to Mr. Chau’s street fighting ring. However, there are no more fights for tonight, you missed it.’

‘No, I was here for the fight,’ says Pentecost, ‘and I was impressed by your organization. I am here to offer you the position of Jaeger piloting recruits.’ His voice remains neutral, but Jin can hear the line of hope strain through Pentecost’s vocal cords.

‘I would have to speak to my brothers, you see,’ defers Jin as polite as possible. Jaegers are a dream come true for Jin, yes – giant robots defeating the Kaiju monsters, a symbol and light of hope, though China is terrible at building them compared to others. Yet, Jin refuses to forget Shinji’s mind, his insanity, his slipping grip on morality as he came back from fighting monster after monster under his father’s tutelage.

‘Funny, they both said the same thing when I asked them.’ Personally, Jin finds nothing humorous in Pentecost’s voice. Only grave seriousness.

Hu takes that moment to step back into the locker room, dressed and toweling his damp hair when he sees Pentecost. Immediately, he crosses the small space and steps just to the left and in front of Jin. ‘Hello, Marshall.’

‘Hu Wei, yes?’ Pentecost inquires lightly. Jin blinks – how Pentecost can tell them apart is beyond him.

‘Correct.’ Jin sees Hu shift his weight to his back foot in preparation for a fight.

‘I’d like to offer recruitment to you once more.’ Pentecost is all straight spine and broad shoulders and professionalism, but Jin knows that no matter how straight his lapels are, each day is as hard on him as it is on all of them.

‘Hu? Jin? Who’re you talking to?’ calls out Cheung, stepping into the locker room holding a shard of glass in his hand but stops when he sees Pentecost. ‘Hello, Marshall.’

‘Mr. Cheung,’ Pentecost replies.

There is a pause where Jin sees Cheung sigh, exhausted. As if he has been over this conversation over and over. It makes Jin wonder. ‘Marshall, let me repeat something: the only way we would ever kill Kaiju in your so-called Jaegers,’ and his tongue trips over the foreign words as usual, ‘is if your Jaeger can have all three of us.’

Pentecost clasps his hands behind his back, drawing to his towering full height. Hu clenches his jaw and Jin places a hand on his brother’s shoulder to restrain him. ‘He won’t do anything.’

Cheung spares the remark a glance before his attention is back on the Marshall, who is now speaking: ‘That is why – after the untimely destruction of Shaolin Rogue, we are undergoing the process of building a new Jaeger. Mark IV. New generation.’

‘The specifications?’ pipes up Jin.

Pentecost swings his gaze from Cheung to him and it almost feels like a literal weight has been dropped on his shoulders. Still, Jin straightens his back and faces it head-on.

‘Approximately 1700 tons, a Russian STERNO Piston, also Japan’s OSIHI Achilles Shock Absorber. Emphasis on speed and power, which loses at armor strength.’

‘Like how we fight, right?’ prompts Jin.

Pentecost reevaluates him. ‘Yes. The Thundercloud formation, wasn’t it?’

‘The Thundercloud formation for triplets.’

‘It will be applicable,’ says Pentecost. Jin sees both Cheung and Hu’s heads jerk up as realization hits them.

‘You mean you’re building a Jaeger just for three punk street fighters, Marshall?’ says Cheung in wonder. Hu’s shoulders slump in shock as he glances over to Jin with wide eyes, but Jin knew from the beginning. Shinji might have slipped away, but he still defeated monsters, still saved people.

Later, he’ll find out that they’ve been scouted for months before that day, but for now, Jin can feel certainty, a purpose, setting within the spaces of his bones, pushing him forward so he’ll never retreat to the dark place years ago.

‘Brother,’ says Jin almost breathlessly, but he knows they’ll agree. He knows they’ll come through. Pentecost quirks a smile – perhaps it’s a little grateful, it’s hard to tell when Jin’s heart is pounding fast and hard. Hu chews at his lip before he’s swinging an arm around Jin’s shoulders in solidarity.

Cheung is a little slower but he strides over to stand at Jin’s other side, clasping a hand on the back of his brother’s neck. ‘Are you sure – we are the Wei Tang triplets.’

‘The first thing you should know then is that I handpick my pilots,’ says Pentecost.

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