riots: (Default)
k ([personal profile] riots) wrote2014-06-18 07:29 pm

setting fire to the sky ; one-shot

Title: Setting Fire To The Sky
Pairing: Chanyeol-centric, Chanyeol/Tao
Rating: R
Length: 49k
Summary: Chanyeol’s wanted to be a Ranger since the day the first Kaiju attacked San Francisco, but you can’t pilot a Jaeger alone. His last chance comes in the form of golden boy Huang Zitao, and Chanyeol knows he’s in for one hell of a ride. Pacific Rim AU.
A/N: written for [community profile] exorbitantly round one!! while the setting is borrowed from Pacific Rim, it’s not necessary to have seen the movie, and there are no spoilers, either!! kisses for v for all of their indulgent handholding, for k for the beta job, and for both team altair and team vega, since we kinda all turned into team sob-over-word-count in the end.

Chanyeol drops his tray onto the table with a clatter, yawning as he throws himself down on the bench next to Kyungsoo. Even the quiet clatter of the cafeteria is too much noise for him this early in the morning, and he’s barely awake. “Well, isn’t this a nice surprise,” Kyungsoo says, a wry smile on his lips. “Park Chanyeol, conscious at this hour.” He reaches out and catches Chanyeol’s juice before it tips over and spills across the table. “Well. Close enough.”

“I can’t believe it,” Minseok says. He rips a chunk off his roll and grins at Chanyeol. “What are you doing up? You can’t have gotten much more sleep than I did.” He looks about as tired as Chanyeol feels, lines worn deep around his eyes.

“Important stuff to do,” Chanyeol mumbles, waving a hand. He’d spent all night with Minseok in LOCCENT, Local Command Centre, working on an update on their early detection system. The brains in K-Science have been predicting that the next attack could happen any day now, so naturally, Marshall Wu insisted they upgrade now. “Stuff.” He nods and yawns again.

Kyungsoo quirks an eyebrow and hums. “So you haven’t heard the news, have you? About Hyperion Wolf.”

Chanyeol wrinkles his nose. “That’s not news,” he tells him, stuffing half his roll into his mouth. He grins around it, and Kyungsoo and Minseok exchange twin looks of disgust. “That’s gossip. What do I care about that?”

Kyungsoo fixes him with a long look that lets Chanyeol know exactly what he thinks of his supposed high-mindedness. It's actually kind of impressive, what he can do with a single raised eyebrow. “I thought you would be pleased to note that your least favourite rangers might be grounded soon,” he says.

Hyperion Wolf is piloted by the pride of Asia, Huang Zitao and Kim Jongin. The two of them are young, handsome, and with what the press makes of them, practically rockstars. Chanyeol sniffs. “Call me when it's for real,” he says viciously, and Minseok laughs.

Once Chanyeol’s worked through his plate of rations, he feels a lot more awake. Awake enough to stop Minseok from stealing his orange juice, at least. They’re squabbling over Kyungsoo’s roll when the alarm cuts through the quiet chatter.

“Movement in the breach.” The computer’s voice is smooth and mechanical, but the whole room erupts into action immediately. Minseok snags Kyungsoo’s roll and crams it into his mouth whole. He wiggles his eyebrows at Chanyeol, cheeks puffed out with food, and he gestures at the door up towards LOCCENT before jogging out of the room.

Chanyeol shakes his head, grinning, body thrumming with nervous energy. He stands in a rush, knocking the bench away with an angry screech of metal. The computer’s voice continues, detailing the location and severity of the event, but Chanyeol is too busy grabbing himself one last mouthful of rice before he heads out. Across the cafeteria, he sees Lu Han vault his table and pull Yixing to his feet, the two of them exchanging half-smiles. They're still new enough that the Kaiju siren comes with excitement as well as the nerves. Yixing grips the back of Lu Han's shirt as they run from the room, heading up the stairs to where their drivesuits await them. He shouldn't linger, but Chanyeol watches them go, Lu Han reaching back to close one hand around Yixing's wrist just as they slip from sight. Chanyeol presses his lips together and turns away. He's got a job to do.

By the time he makes it up to LOCCENT, Minseok is bent over his station, peering at the details on the screen in front of him. Marshall Kris Wu stands behind him, strong brow creased as he examines the information. “One signature, fifteen kilometres off the coast of Nagasaki,” Minseok announces, as much for Chanyeol's benefit as it is for Marshall Wu's. “Category III; he's a big guy. Code name Orannis.”

“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Park,” Kris says, gaze pointed. Chanyeol pulls an apologetic face and mouths sorry. Kris shakes his head a little, the twist of his mouth exasperated and fond, and turns away again. “How are we looking on deployment?”

Chanyeol fumbles on his headpiece and keys through the messages. “Uh, choppers ready to go, sir, waiting on Horizon Serenity. Crew says no more than two minutes.” The technicians have their system down to a science, and Lu Han and Yixing are quick and well trained. It never takes them more than a few minutes to get into their drivesuits. “Military on standby.”

Kris nods and turns to Jinri, monitoring the Kaiju’s movements. “Holding steady, sir,” she says with a frown. “Local authorities are working on clearing the coast now.”

There’s a click in Chanyeol’s ear, and he smiles. “Well, good morning,” Yixing says cheerfully. “Horizon Serenity, ready for drop.”

“Gotcha.” Chanyeol whistles sharply, and in front of him, Minseok nods. He’s already swiping through the commands that will send Lu Han and Yixing in their comm pod down to their waiting Jaeger. Chanyeol knows when they drop, because Lu Han whoops, and Chanyeol can’t help the brief overwhelming jealousy that floods his gut. Lu Han and Yixing get to head out for the biggest adventure of their lives, fighting a real life monster in a robot several stories high, and they get to do this for a living. It’s almost unfair.

“Secure,” Minseok calls as Kris shifts to stand behind him, arms crossed over his chest. Minseok is a gift to this profession, there’s no way around it. There is a colossal monster off the coast of their city, weighing thousands of tons and more than able to tear a massive swath of damage, and Minseok doesn’t even flinch. Kris paces, clenches his hands, runs his fingers through his hair, but Minseok is the vision of grace under pressure. “Engaging pilot to pilot protocol.”

Chanyeol tears himself away, focusing on his own screen. With Horizon Serenity moments from deployment, he sends out half the military choppers they have on hand. Helicopters don’t do a whole lot in the face of Godzilla, but they do provide a distraction, which can be useful when the Kaiju is so close to home. “Ten kilometres off the coast,” Jinri announces.

Minseok glances up at Kris, who gives him a nod. “Preparing for neural handshake,” he says, and Chanyeol hears Lu Han and Yixing echo it. His fingers are sliding over the screen glowing in front of him, monitoring the drift. “Strong and steady.”

“Calibrated,” Lu Han says. “Horizon Serenity, ready for deployment.”

“Ready,” Chanyeol announces, sending off the order for the helicopters to turn and cover the coast, a last line of defense. “Here we go.”

Kris looks every inch the Marshall, standing behind Minseok’s station, dressed in his neatly pressed uniform even at this early hour. “Keep us safe,” Kris tells them.

“You can trust us,” Yixing says, voice soft and syllables blurred with his accent. Chanyeol reaches out to his screen, switching from instruments to visual, a video feed from one of the monitoring choppers. This has always been his absolute favourite part.

Horizon Serenity is a beautiful piece of machinery. She’s green and sleek, a newer model than some of the clunky, heavy Jaegers still running out of Anchorage and Vladivostok, and she’s equipped with the best weaponry and shielding. The first runs of Jaegers had been made in a hurry, before they’d had any idea of what kind of thing would work, and they’re almost as monstrous as the creatures crawling out of the breach. They were designed to withstand anything, behemoths of iron and fire.The Mark-3s, though, they’re something else. They’re lighter, less armoured to allow for greater speed and agility, and they run on nuclear power. Horizon’s always had a grace that Chanyeol doesn’t see with other Jaegers, and he doesn’t know if that’s thanks to her pilots or her suspension, but he thinks she’s beautiful.

Chanyeol mostly tunes out the chatter in his ear as he watches Horizon stride out into the ocean. The Kaiju, Orannis, is approaching, but it’s taking its time. It first appears on camera like a landmass on the horizon, barely visible in the grey half-light of the early morning, but it’s not long before it raises its head out of the water, vast and terrifying. It’s like something out of a movie, salt water pouring off the massive crest of its skull as it stands and opens its mouth in a thunderous scream. “Look, Yixing,” Lu Han says, voice loud in Chanyeol’s earpiece. “He’s asking us to come and play.” Yixing laughs.

There are stats running on the side of Chanyeol’s screen, about the distance of the event from the coast, from Nagasaki itself, and the size of the beast. Orannis is the biggest Kaiju on record, according to the numbers, and Chanyeol believes it. It’s still too far to judge size, with nothing to compare it to, but even in the dim light, the ethereal glow of its eyes and its mouth is obvious. It’s got massive ridges on its shoulders and down its spine and a long tail. It looks like some prehistoric beast, all jagged teeth and massive claws. Chanyeol is in awe.

“Let’s go say hello,” Yixing says, and their Jaeger breaks into a run, headed straight towards Orannis. They collide, and the noise is so loud the camera almost doesn’t register it. The Kaiju is sent reeling backwards, sending up great waves in the water, and Lu Han and Yixing don’t give it a second to recover. They drive Horizon’s fists into the gut of the beast, again and again. The camera veers closer, and Chanyeol can see the shockwaves of the impact rippling through the Kaiju’s flesh. This, this is real power.

Before they were Jaeger pilots, Lu Han and Yixing were dancers. It shows, with each graceful sweep of Horizon’s arms. Most Jaegers, especially in the first generation, are slow, heavy. They’re designed to take a punch because they just can’t get out of the way in time. Horizon is something else entirely. They dodge the sweep of Orannis’ tail, bringing up a hand to catch the base and drive it into the water, pinning the Kaiju to the ocean floor. It bucks, screaming in rage, but before it can shake free, they swing their other hand up, pressing their plasma cannon to its gut and squeezing off a round.

Neon blue blood explodes into the air and Orannis roars, squirming free. It lashes back with its tail, sending Horizon flying back into the ocean. There’s a collective gasp in the quiet of the command room, and Chanyeol presses his hand to his mouth, heart pounding.

Kris’ face is grim, gaze fixed on the screen in front of him as the Kaiju rushes at Horizon, knocking her back again before they can even get her to her feet. They’re getting close to the coast now, too close for comfort, and Chanyeol can hear Jinri on her comm, talking to the techs in the Jaeger bay about readying another. Kris glances at her, and she swallows. “Eight kilometres out.”

“Horizon,” Kris begins, but Yixing cuts him off.

“We’ve got this, duizhang,” he says, voice steel. This time, when Orannis sweeps forward, screaming its anger, Horizon braces for it. On her knees, she can dodge under the massive swing of its claws and reach up, hooking fingers into its jaw. Yixing and Lu Han shout in unison, bringing up the other hand, and in one sharp motion, they drag it down.

The Kaiju’s howl turns shrill and chokes off as its jaw tears clean away, blue spraying out and spattering the deep green of Horizon’s shell. Chanyeol whoops and Jinri echoes it, grinning at him through the glow of her screen.

They’re not done yet, though. Orannis retreats, the remnants of its jaw dangling from the bottom of its skull, and it gives Horizon just enough time to climb to her feet and ready herself again. “One more,” Lu Han shouts, and Yixing echoes it as Horizon charges forward.

This time, the Kaiju is fueled by rage and pain, a potent combination. It throws itself on top of the Jaeger, claws scrabbling for purchase on anything. A Jaeger’s got a lot of moving parts - it’s only a matter of time before they hook in under the plating on her side and rip up.

When Orannis’ claws dig in in Horizon’s side, Chanyeol shivers as the pilots scream in unison. The Kaiju pulls harder, peeling up the metal like the skin of an orange, and they use it to their advantage. This close, it’s easy for them to grip its body and fire round after round into its gut until it’s thrashing and shrieking and all there is left of its torso is a sodden blue mess. Its legs fall into the ocean as its top half slides off Horizon’s shoulder, toppling into the water with a splash.

For one moment, all Chanyeol can hear is the thump of helicopter blades and Lu Han and Yixing panting in his ear, always, always in sync. Then the room erupts in cheers. Chanyeol bolts out from behind his station, grabbing Minseok in a headlock. “Another successful run,” he crows, and Minseok laughs, shoving him away.

“Well done, Horizon,” Kris calls, his deep voice cutting through the noise of the room. “Bring it home.” He gestures for the staff to return to their stations, but he’s never so stern as he intends to be. Relief is written all over his face, in the minute relaxing of his shoulders. He’s feeling the elation too.

And Chanyeol is definitely feeling it. As he slides back into his station, he watches the helicopters hook into Horizon to take her home, and he props his chin up in one hand. This is as close as he’s going to get to the action, and he’ll take every minute of it. Kris turns from his place behind Minseok’s shoulder to raise his eyebrows at Chanyeol, and Chanyeol flashes him a thumbs up, turning to the blinking alerts on his screen. The Kaiju may be dead, but that doesn’t mean their job is done. He’s got to organize the clean-up crew now, before the blood spreads too far and contaminates the whole coast. He’s still thrumming with adrenaline as he keys in the commands to send out the boats, and he can’t help but grin to himself. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but it feels pretty great to be this close to the magic.

“He’s a big one, huh?” Jinri says. She shifts on her perch at the edge of Chanyeol’s desk and reaches for his screen, expanding the images of the Kaiju with her fingertips. Even in a still, the sheer scale of it is impressive, especially measured against Horizon’s height. Chanyeol has been down in the Jaeger bays, he’s seen Horizon for himself, and looking at these tooth on this beast is bigger than he is. “I thought it had them there, for a second.” She shivers. There’s a clip playing in the corner, a loop of the entire attack, and Chanyeol still flinches when he sees Horizon go flying. He slides it away with a finger.

Minseok hums, dragging a hand through his hair. “Kyungsoo says the next one that comes through might be Category IV.” He yawns, reaching for his his coffee, and frowns when he finds his mug empty. They’ve been here all day. After the clean-up had gotten underway and Horizon had been brought back to the Shatterdome, the tedious part began. It mostly involved a lot of coffee, a lot of stats, and a lot of boredom.

The attacks are speeding up. Chanyeol doesn’t need to be one of the brains down in K-Science to be able to understand that. Those monsters are crawling up from the Breach, that portal in the Pacific Ocean, and they’re coming up faster, and they’re getting bigger, too. Which is exciting, at least to the part of Chanyeol that’s terminally ten years old and giddy at the idea of big fucking monsters, but it’s also kind of terrifying. Because the thing is, they still don’t know how to stop them.

For now, they have the Jaeger Program. And that’s why Jinri and Minseok and the rest of the LOCCENT technicians get to spend their entire day, lunch included, analyzing the results of the last event and running tests on their equipment. “That just means we’re gonna need better pilots,” Chanyeol says, and he wiggles his eyebrows. “And I can think of a few.”

Jinri laughs out loud, hitting him with the back of her hand. “What, like you?” She snorts. “You are living in a dream land, Mr. Park Chanyeol.” She grins at him and it takes a beat for Chanyeol to remember to laugh.

Minseok glances at him, and there must be something in the stiffness of Chanyeol’s smile, because he clears his throat and taps Jinri on the knee, bringing her attention back to the work at hand. Just for that, Chanyeol gives him a grateful nod and jumps to his feet. They’ve been at it for hours, and there’s gotta be some coffee they can rustle up, rations be damned.

Sometimes, Chanyeol feels a little bit out of his depth here. Most of the LOCCENT staff are highly trained in things relevant to drift technology. Minseok has a master’s degree in neuroscience, and Jinri’s specialty is biochemistry, and then there’s Chanyeol, who didn’t even make it all the way through university.

When Chanyeol was nineteen, a behemoth erupted out of the San Francisco Bay and destroyed a fifty-six kilometre stretch of the coast before the military could bring it down. That’s when everything changed. And when the Jaeger Academy was established less than two years later, Chanyeol was ready.

It took some convincing for his sister to agree. By then, Yoora was out of university, about to begin her job with a minor television station, well on her way to her dream career. Chanyeol has always been persistent, though, and from the moment he saw those giant machines on TV he knew what he wanted to do. He just couldn’t do it alone.

He remembers their training. Alaska was a hell of a change from Seoul, and the Academy was crowded with Ranger hopefuls, but those numbers were chopped in half by the end of the first week. It’s one thing to want it, but it’s another thing entirely to know that you’ve got it, what ninety nine percent of the trainees didn’t: drift compatibility. The rush of it, when their names were called to enter the next phase of training - Chanyeol won’t ever forget it. He’d spent that entire first night in their new quarters with his head hanging down off the side of his bunk, giddy with excitement. “What do you think our Jaeger will be called?” he’d wiggled his eyebrows, his voice a barely-hushed whisper. “Colossal Inferno,” he’d suggested, scrunching his face up in what he thought was a very adequate example of masculine stoicism and flexing one arm.

On the bunk beneath him, Yoora had laughed, pressing her hand to her forehead. “No, you want something that’ll really inspire fear,” she’d said, a mischievous twist to her lips. “Like Princess Buttercup.”

Noona,” Chanyeol had groaned, trying to push his hair out of his face and banging his forehead on his bunk. “I am not fighting Kaiju in a machine called Princess Buttercup.”

“Fluffy Sparklehorn,” she’d said. “Lady Hugsnkisses.”

Chanyeol had gone slack, letting his arms hang limp off the edge of his bed. He’d rolled his eyes back and stuck out his tongue. “I quit,” he’d told her. “I don’t want to be a pilot with you anymore. You suck.”

Yoora had snorted. She’d never needed a drift bond to know that Chanyeol was full of shit. “Nope,” she’d said, grabbing one of his dangling hands and squeezing it tightly. “I don’t think you’ll ever give it up.”

“Never,” Chanyeol had vowed, and she’d grinned, pleased. He’d gotten barely any sleep that night, too busy staring up at the ceiling, thinking about their future. It had felt like everything was within his grasp.

Funny how things turn out.

Still, he might not have the same technical training as the rest of them, but at least Chanyeol can make a mean cup of coffee. He returns to his station juggling three mugs, a bag of snacks hanging off one arm. He doesn’t remember the last time they ate. “Where’d you dig that up?” Minseok asks, raising an eyebrow. However dubious he may be about the source, it doesn’t stop him from relieving Chanyeol of one of his cups with a grateful nod. “Actually, you know what? I don’t want to know.”

Chanyeol passes Jinri her mug and she beams at him. “Marshall Wu’s stash.” He grins, wide and toothy.

“Oooh, he’s going to kill you,” Jinri laughs, rifling through the snacks he’s brought with him. She takes a bite of a powdery cookie, swiping the sugar off her lips with her tongue.

Minseok hums in agreement, and then nudges Chanyeol in the ribs. “After we’ve gotten through these tech reports, I hope.” A quick tap shifts the screen from video back to column after column of numbers and Chanyeol grimaces. “Look, we’re nearly done. A couple more hours, and we might actually get some sleep tonight.”

Chanyeol groans around a pastry, sending crumbs everywhere. “Sleep,” Jinri sighs, brushing the crumbs off the desktop and onto Chanyeol’s lap. “I miss sleep.”

“So let’s power through,” Minseoks tells them. Chanyeol flops down in his seat again, wiping his mouth clean with the back of his hand. “If you guys can help me figure out this atypical Pons response in Serenity’s conn-pod, we’ll call it a night. Deal?”

Chanyeol snaps off a lazy salute, and Jinri hides her giggle behind a hand. “Aye aye, Captain.” He bends over his tablet again and doesn’t even complain when Minseok cuffs him on the head. He looks up and Minseok raises his eyebrows until Chanyeol nods and settles down to work through the numbers Minseok has assigned him, grinning.

He knows this stuff is important, maintaining the systems they work with is the key to avoiding some kind of deadly accident, but he keeps coming back to that image in the corner. The video is paused in the middle of the battle, Horizon’s fist in Orannis’ gut, and Chanyeol presses his lips together tightly. Jinri has a point. It’s a bit late for him, and Yoora’s been back in Seoul for years.

Somehow, that doesn’t stop him from wanting.

The weeks following an event, once the massive corpse has been cleaned up and the Jaeger’s back into its bay, ready for repairs, things die down. It’s not quiet, really, and Chanyeol’s pretty sure this kind of job never truly will be, but at least there are way fewer eighteen hour days. He’s pretty grateful for the reprieve. LOCCENT is a big room but it still feels a bit claustrophobic when you’re spending every waking minute there.

It’s been a while since Chanyeol has had any time to himself, so when Kris dismisses them for the day, he turns down Minseok’s offer to go grab a drink. Instead, he heads down to the training rooms. He’s been feeling too tense for days, like a toy wound up one turn too tight, and he needs to work some of it off.

There’s something very reassuring about the way that training never changes. There are always new disciplines to be learned, sure, and new moves, but it all boils down to one thing: practice. Chanyeol takes his time wrapping his wrists, slow and methodical, watching the other rangers train. Some of them he knows from his time in the academy, but more of them are younger, newer. They’re the ones who throw him sly glances, eyebrows raised.

He gets it. He’s too old for this, and he’s alone, too. What’s he wasting his time for? He nods at a team he recognizes - the Jung twins. They’d come into the Academy at the same time as he and Yoora had, and they’ve done well for themselves, something like six kills under their belts. Hard to beat the drift compatibility of twins, though. They’re practically born in each other’s heads.

He stands and rolls his shoulders, taking a stand in an empty corner, and he feels entirely conspicuous. Rangers train in pairs, almost exclusively. You can practice alone, but only time, familiarity, and trust strengthen drift compatibility. When that’s what your piloting depends on, you don’t waste any chance you have to practice it.

Chanyeol hasn’t been tasked with saving the world, though, he’s just going through the motions. He’s too old for this, and he hasn’t had a drift compatible partner to train with in over three years, but he still can’t quite give it up. When he raises his hands, he fights the urge to close his eyes and imagine her there. It’s been so long, and it still feels weird it.

He refuses to bow under the weight of the watch of the younger rangers, and once he’s shrugged that off, Chanyeol can focus on what he’s actually trying to do. Even if there’s no one to spar with, there’s still something satisfying about throwing a punch and knowing he nailed it. He’s trained in a ton of different styles since he first entered the Academy, but in the end, he always comes back to what is most familiar.

Instead of force, he thinks about precision, rhythm. It’s late enough that there aren’t a ton of people down here, so Chanyeol carves out a decent section of mats to work on his kicks. Tonight, he’s decided that the enemy is a Kaiju, one with great big claws like some kind of prehistoric crab. It makes it more tolerable if he can focus on that imaginary point in front of him, think of the massive claws and beak of a Kaiju instead of the whisper of the teenage Ranger on the other side of the room. “Doesn’t he know when to give up?” Chanyeol smiles faintly. No, not really.

He turns away, ignores it all. Doesn’t matter. What matters is watching his extension in his punches; his instructors always told him he’s got too much enthusiasm. “Control, Park,” Song Qian had said, again and again, voice sharp but not harsh. She had this way of sweeping her long hair over one shoulder and planting her hands on her hips, staring him down like he wasn’t half a foot taller than she was. “You are battling a Kaiju, not trying to win a barfight. Again. This time, with some finesse, please.”

Fightmasters were never intended to be a trainee’s friend, but Song Qian was never cold. She pushed and she pushed and she pushed, snapping out commands and correcting his posture until he was weak and shaking with the exertion, but there was no malice in how she taught.

Yoora was always better at it than he was. Chanyeol was the one with a background in taekwondo, but it was Yoora who picked the moves up like it was nothing, Yoora who had the focus and talent and made it all easy. Sometimes, it had been hard not to resent her.

But one night, after fourteen hours of training, when Chanyeol was so exhausted he wasn’t sure he could stand up from where he’d fallen on the mats, Song Qian had dropped to a squat beside him. “I’m beginning to think you don’t like me that much,” Chanyeol had said. It was only half a joke. He was fairly certain that Yoora was her favourite. After all, she didn’t need nearly the work that Chanyeol did. Story of his life.

She’d placed a hand on the back of his neck, a surprisingly maternal gesture. It was something Yoora might’ve done, back when he was still a kid. “No,” Song Qian had said, and she’d smiled. “I ask more of you because I expect more of you.” Chanyeol had stared at her. Yoora was turned away, toweling the sweat from the back of her neck and stretching her arms. “You have the perseverance and determination it takes to be a pilot. When you put the world in someone’s hands, you don’t only want someone who can throw a perfect punch. You want the one who won’t quit. The one who won’t ever give up.”

Those were the kind of words that stuck with him, when Yoora was headed back to Seoul and Chanyeol was trying to figure out what to do with himself, when everyone was telling him that being a Ranger wasn’t an option anymore. They were what he thought of when Kris offered him the technician position in LOCCENT in Nagasaki and he’d taken it, without hesitation. What else could he do? He’d spent nearly three years preparing for this, and the only thing he knew he wanted to do now was to be close to the action. It was better than nothing.

Sometimes, though, he wonders if it really is.

He works out for an hour, probably more, long enough that his tank is drenched with sweat and his muscles begin to ache with that pleasant, well-used feeling. Maybe it’s that tiredness and maybe it’s the young Ranger laughing under her breath as she heads out the door, but when Chanyeol kicks out, hooking his heel back in a spin kick, his foot slides out from underneath him. He ends up flat on his back, struggling for breath. As if he didn’t feel embarrassing enough today.

“Hey, you okay?” One of the Jung twins peers down at him, concern etched in his face. Soryong, Chanyeol thinks. He’s never been good at telling the two of them apart, and it only got harder when they’d been drifting for a few years, but he’s definitely the one with that scar down his chin. “Chanyeol?”

Chanyeol sighs, blinking and shaking his head. “Yeah, I’m good,” he sighs. He accepts the hand Soryong holds out and lets him pull him to his feet while Daeryong steadies him with a hand. “Maybe I am getting too old for this.” He laughs and tugs at his sweaty shirt, grimacing when it peels away.

“Nah,” Daeryong says, and he claps him on the shoulder. “If you’re too old, then we’re antiques. You don’t get to complain about that just yet.” He and his brother give Chanyeol matching goofy grins, and it would be eery how in sync they are if Chanyeol hadn’t spent years around Jaeger pilots.

Chanyeol wobbles to the benches, grabbing his water bottle. “My sincerest apologies,” he tells them, and Soryong waves it off, still smiling.

It takes him a while to catch his breath, long enough that the Jungs file out and wish him a good night, along with more than a few other Ranger teams. He’s not alone - he’s not sure the training rooms are ever really empty - but he feels a little bit like he is, lukewarm water bottle wedged beneath his knees as he tries to muster up the motivation to head back to his quarters. He’s just not sure he’s ready for the silence of his bunk just yet.

“This is morbid,” Chanyeol says. He bangs his heels against Kyungsoo’s desk, looking up at the whiteboard. Kyungsoo’s always preferred to do things a little bit old school with his calculations. He’s got enough whiteboards to cover one enormous wall of the room he shares down in K-Science, and he’s got a fistful of coloured markers neatly lined up at the bottom.

But the equations that Kyungsoo’s been working on aren’t what Chanyeol’s looking at right now. He’s staring at the massive Kaiju drawn on two boards, stretching from the floor all the way up to the unfinished ceiling. It’s actually really well done. “Belgaer, right?” he asks, tipping his head. He remembers that one. Manila, nearly two years ago. He remembers, because it was Hyperion Wolf’s first successful outing, and he remembers the cameras shoved in the pilots’ faces. Huang Zitao had answered all their questions in his native Mandarin while Kim Jongin held on to his arm, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the flash of cameras.

Kyungsoo hums, capping the marker in his hand and dropping it back with the rest. He’s a small man already, narrow shoulders and small bones, but he’s dwarfed by the size of this drawing. It must’ve taken hours. “Good, isn’t it?” he says absently. “One of the pilots from Hong Kong drew it when he was waiting around to see Kris.” He stretches out an arm to wipe away a smudge by the Kaiju’s carefully sketched feet and looks blandly at Chanyeol. “Please stop kicking my desk.” He gives Chanyeol one of those smiles, the kind that fills in the rest of that sentence with graphic threats of dismemberment and certain death.

Chanyeol is pretty sure that Kyungsoo wouldn’t hurt him, but it still sends chills down his spine. “You bet.” He stills immediately. “Are you done yet?” This kind of science, numbers and calculations, Chanyeol can’t keep up with it. He only managed to get a year of university under his belt before they’d gotten into the Academy, and he’s fairly certain that even if he’d always made it all the way through, he still wouldn’t get it. Kyungsoo’s a bit of a genius. He’s twenty-four, and he’s already pretty much running this lab. Chanyeol’s always been impressed by him. “Cause, like.” He pats his belly.

“I think so,” Kyungsoo says, stifling a yawn with his fingers. “It is getting late, isn’t it?” He nods towards the door and Chanyeol takes a flying leap off the desk, following him out. He must be in a good mood, because he lets Chanyeol hook his arm in his as they wind through the Shatterdome, headed for the cafeteria.

Their route takes them up from the K-Science labs, buried away in the basement of the massive building and past the Jaeger bays. Kyungsoo walks briskly for someone with such short legs, but Chanyeol stops dead when he spots Kris through the doors, deep in conversation with a familiar face. Kyungsoo jerks to a stop, making a disgruntled noise when Chanyeol’s elbow in his pulls him back. “What?” he asks.

“That’s Huang Zitao.” It’s not the first time that Chanyeol’s seen him in person, he’d even met him once at a press event once. But this is the first time he’s ever seen him without Kim Jongin at his side, a sleepy-eyed and uncomfortably handsome shadow.

Kyungsoo shrugs. “And?” He raises an eyebrow. “Is this Park Chanyeol territory? Is he not allowed here?” He’s steadily pulling Chanyeol forward, towards the door up to the cafeteria and away from eavesdropping on Kris’ conversation. He’s not particularly strong, but Chanyeol lets Kyungsoo drag him away.

“No,” Chanyeol says. “That’s not -” He laughs. “You make me sound like I peed on every corner of the Shatterdome.” He bumps his hip into Kyungsoo’s, making them meander into someone else’s path.

“It would explain the rust,” Kyungsoo says thoughtfully, mouth sly. Chanyeol throws back his head and laughs, his voice loud even as they walk into the babble of the cafeteria.

They’ve only just made it through the line when Jinri swings up. “Did you hear?” She catches Chanyeol’s arm and squeezes his wrist. “Kim Jongin blacked out for nearly ten minutes in the middle of the last attack on Shanghai. Seizure. They’re retiring him.” Kyungsoo twists to look up at Chanyeol. “Hyperion Wolf is grounded.”

“Huh.” Chanyeol blinks. Kyungsoo takes the lead and steers them towards an empty table. “Wow.” It’s one of those things he’s talked a lot of trash about, but never actually expected to happen. Hyperion has enough successful runs to rival even the Russians, and they’re the team that Osaka or Vladivostok calls in for backup. And now they’re grounded.

“I mean, it was bound to happen,” Jinri says, tapping her painted nails against the cafeteria table. “It’s not like Jaeger pilots have a super long life expectancy.” She grimaces. “But wow, you know?”

Kyungsoo hums. “Kaidonovskys,” he points out, and Chanyeol nods. The Russians have been in service for over four years and they show no sign of stopping. “I think they’re made of titanium. Cherno will outlast the planet.”

“It’s really too bad. Huang looks like he had a bomb dropped on him, poor thing.” Jinri glances at Chanyeol.

He can’t imagine what that’s like. It was bad enough for him, the day that Yoora had packed up her bags and headed home. He’d been so close to what he’d wanted, what he’d worked towards for years, and then nothing. It’s got to be a lot worse when you actually get your hands on the prize and someone snatches it out of your hands. “One less pair of douchebags on TV,” he says, and Jinri makes this little appalled noise and punches him.

Maybe it’s cruel, but it’s just easier to be flippant. Chanyeol doesn’t want to be sympathetic. He bends over his tray, only halfway listening to Jinri and Kyungsoo discuss Shatterdome gossip, something about a rookie pilot sneaking a couple of girls onto the base. He’s far more focused on the hush that falls over the room when Kris walks in, Huang at his side. Huang is wearing these obnoxiously big sunglasses, but he looks washed out, his skin rough. His mouth is pressed into a line. He looks like hell.

Kris only pauses long enough to seek out one of the Fightmasters, at a table at the end of the hall with a few of her fellow trainers, and then the three of them are sweeping out again. This isn’t the Huang Zitao Chanyeol’s seen on the news. He’s wan and uncertain, a half-step behind Kris like he’s got all the answers. Chanyeol watches them leave, his gaze fixed on Huang’s shoulders until they turn the corner, and then he scowls down at his bowl. He’s not sure what he was expecting, but he’s lost his appetite.

After Hyperion’s grounding, there’s a bit of a shuffle to fill the hole left in Hong Kong’s roster. She’s the second Jaeger they’ve lost in the past six months - the first being Troublemaker Prime, the Korean team. Kim Hyuna and Jang Hyunseung had gone down while defending Shanghai against a Category III that could spit acid, but they’d been certain to take the beast down with them. Chanyeol remembers the punch in the gut of that announcement. They’d met in the initial tryouts for the Academy and during the interminable wait for their entrance auditions, it’d been easy to make friends with them. Even now, it seems so bizarre to think that they won’t be coming home.

Hong Kong is getting the Jungs, and that meant that Nagasaki is getting an American team to replace them, a pair of young women from the LA Shatterdome. And somehow, they also seem to be getting Huang, too. Lu Han had said that he’d moved into the Rangers Quarters, and Chanyeol sees him sometimes, sitting alone at the end of a table, taking his time with his meal, or curled up in a chair in Kris’ office, silent and watchful. It’s hard to give a report to the Marshall with Huang sitting right there, eyes big and empty, but Chanyeol doesn’t bother to ask him to leave. Kris has a heart the size of the moon and he’s got some experience with this kind of thing. It’s not hard to guess why Huang’s there.

“And he’s always there,” Chanyeol grumbles, and on his vidscreen, Yoora laughs. She looks good. She’s cut her hair short again and it suits the delicacy of her features, makes her look sweet. “He looks like a kicked puppy. You have no idea how frustrating that is.” It’s the first time they’ve talked in a couple of weeks - it’s always hard to make their schedules line up after a Kaiju attack, when he’s caught up in Shatterdome business, and she’s on the evening news.

“Aw,” Yoora says. “Puppies are cute, though.”

“Not when they’re underfoot,” Chanyeol says. He pouts. “You’re my sister. Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?” On my team? His heart twinges and he spins in his chair, turning his face away. Yoora has never been happier, and there’s no reason to drag up old resentment all over again.

“I am, always,” Yoora tells him, firmly enough that he knows he’s not fooling her. “But you’re also being an idiot.”

He looks up at her, smile wry. “Am not,” he says.

She clicks her tongue and shakes her head. “You said Huang moved in, right?” Chanyeol nods, and shrugs a shoulder. He’s not sure what importance that has. “Why would they give him Ranger Quarters unless he’s going to continue in service?” She taps a fingertip against her temple. “Think about it, baby brother.”

It takes a second to sink in. “They’re going to replace Kim,” he breathes. And that means - oh. “Auditions.” It’s not a common practice, because the heavy emphasis on the trust needed for the drift meant strangers were usually ruled out, but Jaegers are expensive. No one wants to throw away a massive piece of fully functioning machinery.

She points a finger at him. “You’ve got it,” she says. Chanyeol nods to himself, fighting off the grin that’s threatening to overtake his entire face. It’s not often that a chance like this comes along. There aren’t exactly a ton of trained Rangers pilots hanging around, at least, none that are cleared for piloting. If he can get into that audition session, he’s got a real shot. It’s just a matter of getting in.

“Imagine that,” Chanyeol says, and Yoora shakes her head and laughs. She raises her hand menacingly, and Chanyeol knows that if she was here, she’d have flicked him in the forehead already. Vidcalls are great, but Chanyeol still feels the distance keenly.

He doesn’t know what to say, either. It’s always been hard for him to talk about this kind of thing, but it’s doubly difficult with Yoora. She hasn’t had any trouble at all moving on from this life. She’s married, got a successful career, and Chanyeol’s way out here, still hanging on to the tiniest hope that he’ll get to live his dream. How can he talk to her about replacing her? “Enough with the Shatterdome gossip. Tell me what’s up with you.” He shifts forward, resting both of his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands, the picture of attentive listening. He’d rather hear about her, anyway. It’s better than the nagging sense of sympathy he gets when he thinks about Huang Zitao, and it’s miles better than letting himself hope for a chance that he isn’t even sure he’ll have.

“Ah, yeah,” Yoora says, and she pulls an exaggerated scowl. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for weeks! So inconsiderate of you.” She sniffs.

“Sorry, noona,” he says. He bats his eyelashes. “You’re right. Next time I’ll answer your calls instead of helping save the planet.”

The way that she smiles at him then is soft and affectionate. “My brother, the hero.” It makes Chanyeol duck his head, rubbing a hand through his hair and looking everywhere but at her. His stomach shifts unsteadily, and he’s not sure if it’s pride he’s feeling or a sense of guilt. Pilots are heroes. They’re the stars. He just works a computer.

“So, what’s so important that you needed to vidcall in the middle of an event?” he asks.

It must be big, because Yoora draws herself up straight, hands clasped, lips pressed together like she’s trying to contain her words. “I wanted to tell you first,” she says, and she shrugs. “Mom knows, now, but we still haven’t…” She quits trying to hold it back, and her smile spreads across her whole face, lighting her up. “I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”

“What?” Chanyeol almost shouts it, his voice echoing against the metal walls of his quarters. He can feel the excitement bubbling up in his chest. He stands, presses his hands to his head and paces for a second, and then returns, sticking his face into the camera again. “You’re - I’m going to be an uncle?” Yoora is giggling and nodding and Chanyeol feels a little bit like he wants to cry in the best way possible. He’s hundreds of miles away and it’s too far right now. He wants to hug her and kiss her and celebrate with her, and the best he can do is laugh helplessly, smiling so hard it hurts his face. “I can’t believe this. You’re going to have a baby!”

“Uncle Chanyeol,” she teases, and Chanyeol can only clap a hand to his forehead and slump dramatically in his chair.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, that’s worth interrupting a Kaiju for.”

They talk for another hour and he pesters her for all of the details. She tells him about the planning they’ve been doing, how her husband presses his hands to her belly and looks so awed, even though she’s only a month on, how they’re already thinking about names, and Chanyeol tries not to ache. If you work in the Jaeger Program, you don’t get any vacation time. He won’t be able to go home, go shopping with her for baby things, or hold her hand in appointments. He’s going to miss so much.

When he hangs up, he throws himself back in his bunk and stares at the ceiling. He’s supposed to be meeting Minseok soon, they had plans to head out into the city for the night, but he doesn’t want to move. A baby. He’s overjoyed, but also - she is never coming back. Yoora has a real life now, a family. It’s not as though Chanyeol has been entertaining some ridiculous hope that she would return, but her announcement just hammers it all home. She’s got her life all in order and he’s an Academy wash-out with dreams too high.

He grits his teeth and he thinks about what she’d said. If she’s right, if Kris is planning on auditioning co-pilots for Huang, this might be Chanyeol’s last shot at it. He’s going to be too old soon, too old to learn to take the shock of the drift, and he’s getting tired of feeling like a joke. He needs to get into those auditions.

His comm buzzes. “C’mon, Park, get your ass in gear. Shuttle’s leaving in ten.” The impatience in Minseok’s voice shakes Chanyeol out of it. He sits up. “Don’t make me get drunk without you.”

He stretches out to slap the button. “Coming, coming. Keep your pants on.” It only takes a few minutes to get dressed and fix his hair, and then he throws himself out the door, barreling down to the garage where Minseok is waiting. He has to chase down the shuttle bus as it’s leaving, slapping his palm against the side until they stop and he races up the stairs. He bows in apology to the busdriver and then makes his way down the bus, throwing himself down next to Minseok. “Hey, I was just talking to Yoora tonight, and guess what?” he says. He grins. “I’ve got something to celebrate.”

It takes a while for Chanyeol to get Kris on his own. He’s always been pretty busy, but it seems like the longer that Huang’s around, the harder Kris is to find. Chanyeol only sees him during his regular daily meetings, or from a distance, striding fast, Zitao at his heel. He understands that the Marshall of a Shatterdome’s a busy man, he’s got a lot of responsibilities, but it’s getting a little bit ridiculous.

And the clock is ticking. Chanyeol’s not the only one to figure out what the Program was planning to do with Zitao and Hyperion, and it becomes all that much more obvious when they start shipping in the candidates from Alaska. Chanyeol’s grateful that things are quiet for them right now, because focusing on his actual job is kind of impossible. All he can think of his his sister back home, and the auditions and his last chance, slipping through his fingers.

He manages it, finally, nearly a week after Yoora’s call. Kris is headed to what looks like the training rooms, matched stride for stride by the same Fightmaster from before, Kim Hyoyeon. “Marshall Wu!” Chanyeol calls, and he bolts after them. Hyoyeon’s eyebrows raise when he catches Kris’ elbow to prevent him from slipping away. “Sorry, sir, but I need to talk to you. Like, now. Sir.”

Kris stares at him evenly until Chanyeol pulls away, his hands falling to his sides as he quickly dips his head in apology. “I have a meeting, Mr. Park,” Kris says. He glances at Hyoyeon but he turns back to Chanyeol, thick brows creased in concern.

Chanyeol’s known Kris for a long time, and he’s picked a few things. Kris is a good leader, but he’s always been a little soft, too. “It’s important,” Chanyeol says, letting the corners of his mouth droop down. Shameless, maybe, but Kris sighs. “You know I would never interrupt you if it wasn’t, sir.”

Kris presses his fingers to his temple. “Alright.” Hyoyeon covers a smile with her hand, bowing graciously when Kris dismisses her with a quick wave. “You’ve got ten minutes. No more.” He waves a finger, expression stern, but Chanyeol just beams. Finally.

Kris leads the way to his office and gestures for Chanyeol to take a seat. “Alright, Chanyeol,” he says. He leans back against his desk, reaching up to unbutton his jacket and loosen his tie. “Spill. What’s the problem?”

“I want in,” Chanyeol says immediately. “I know you’re going to be auditioning co-pilots for Ranger Huang.” He folds his hands in his lap carefully, stilling the nervous tap of his feet. He needs Kris to know how serious he is. “I want to be on the list.”

Kris is already shaking his head. “Not a good idea,” he says. He stands again, sliding his immaculate uniform jacket from his shoulders and hanging it up. He takes his time straightening the sleeves, long enough that Chanyeol frowns, shifting impatiently in his seat. He’d expected a bit more room to maneuver before Kris shut him down.

“Why not?” Chanyeol clenches his hands against his thighs. “I’m a great candidate. I did pretty good in the Academy, my fightmaster loved me, and I think if nothing else, you can be sure that I’m very, very persistent.” Kris opens his mouth to counter but he closes it again, face going soft and sympathetic in a way that makes Chanyeol tense. He doesn’t want pity. “Tell me what anyone else would have that I don’t.” His voice is getting higher, more strident, and Chanyeol has to take a deep breath so he can rein it in.

Kris crosses his arms over his chest, walking back to his desk. “It’s not that simple,” he says. “And it’s been a long time since you last trained on that level. You know it, too.”

That cuts deeper than Chanyeol expects it to. “You know me,” he says quietly. He feels a bit sick but, well. If he has to beg, he will. “You were at the Academy. You saw our first drift test. You know how much I want this.” He stills his hands, palms flat against his legs. “Why won’t you give me a shot, hyung?”

Kris is quiet for a long time. When he finally speaks, he looks so, so tired. “I don’t think the two of you are a good match,” he admits. He won’t meet Chanyeol’s gaze, more concerned with examining one of his many rings. “He just lost a partner and frankly, I don’t think you’ll be compatible. I don’t want to be the one to crush you all over again.”

Chanyeol feels kind of like he’s been socked in the gut. “Oh,” he says. “Wow.”

“I’m sorry,” Kris says. There’s guilt written all over his face, and that only makes Chanyeol feel worse.

His stomach rolls unsteadily, and he feels angry and sick. “You should be,” Chanyeol tells him. Kris blinks, taken aback. “I can’t - you’re my friend, not my father.” This is his shot, and Kris is telling him no in case his feelings get hurt. It’s embarrassing, to be twenty-five and to have someone he trusts coddle him like a child.

“I’m your commanding officer,” Kris says sharply. “It’s my job to look after the well-being of everyone under my command.”

“It’s also your job to find Huang a replacement, isn’t it?” Chanyeol slides forward in his chair, chin tipped up towards Kris. “It’s your job to maintain a functioning Jaeger pilot force and protect the coast.”

Kris laughs once, shaking his head. “Are you that confident that you’re the right man for the job?” he asks.

“No,” Chanyeol says. He feels naked, admitting it, but Kris doesn’t dismiss him. He sits, and he waits. “But I think that I could be.” His voice wobbles. “I think that I deserve a shot.”

Kris doesn’t speak. It kills Chanyeol, the way that he stares at him, brows furrowed. He’s always taken too long to think things through. After an interminably long stretch of silence, Chanyeol watches as Kris’ shoulders slump and his head tips back, and he exhales in a burst. “Alright,” Kris says, nodding. “Fine. You win.” Elation surges in Chanyeol’s chest, coupled with a sudden rush of nerves. One step down. That doesn’t mean he’s there. “You’d better not embarrass me.” He smiles at Chanyeol a little.

Kris has always had a lame sense of humour, but Chanyeol knows a peacemaking gesture when he sees one. “How could I?” Chanyeol says. “I’m the best there is.”

“I’m sure,” Kris agrees. He laughs and shakes his head a little.

When Chanyeol stands, he feels a little bit unsteady. “Sorry for taking up your time,” Chanyeol says, and Kris immediately waves it off. “I’m sure you’ve got somewhere to be.” So does he, honestly. If he’s going to do well in that audition, he really needs to get practicing. Huang has been fighting Kaiju, and Chanyeol has been fighting shadows. He needs to freshen up.

“My work is never done,” Kris says. Chanyeol stands, but before he can leave, Kris lays one big hand on his shoulder. “No matter how it turns out, Chanyeol, I know you’ll do your best.” His eyes are big, earnest and serious, pinning Chanyeol to the spot. “Don’t let the outcome of this test bring you down.”

He means well, even if he is so very embarrassing. “Thank you, hyung,” Chanyeol says. Kris squeezes his shoulder and then steps away. “And thanks, means a lot to me.”

“I know,” Kris says. He tightens his tie again and fixes his hair, then he opens the door for Chanyeol. “Trust me, I know.”

When Chanyeol heads to bed that night, it’s like his first night at the Academy all over again. He’s nearly vibrating with excitement, far too tense to even think about sleeping. This is it. He’s one step closer. He doesn’t really like the idea of some pompous kid in his head, but he thinks it’s a small price to pay for finally reaching that goal.

A pilot. As long as he doesn’t fuck up this audition, and he won’t, he’s going to be a Jaeger pilot. A Ranger, finally. He stares at the ceiling, a smile on his face, and wishes again that there were someone in the bunk below to share this all with.

“Enough,” Kris calls over the din of the room, and next to him, Minseok makes a note on his clipboard. “Thank you, Ranger Cao.” Chanyeol raises up on his tiptoes, peering over the heads of the people in front of him, wrinkling his nose at the crowd. This is a tryout, not a show, but because it’s Huang Zitao on the floor, the room is packed. Everyone wants to watch this go down. Chanyeol scoffs. Whatever.

The girl on the mat pushes herself up on one hand, rubbing at a bruise on her ribs, but she accepts Zitao’s hand gratefully. Chanyeol watches as she bows to him neatly, and then to Kris, and then pushes her way back through the crush of people. He knows that look on her face well, the disappointment and anger, so he stops her as she passes. “Nice job,” he tells her, giving her a big thumbs up. It’s not her fault she didn’t fit, after all. She smiles tightly and keeps walking.

“Next,” Kris calls, beckoning the next candidate forward, and Chanyeol makes his way up to the front. It’s Lee Howon, a Ranger Chanyeol trained with, once upon a time. He’s not tall, his compact build a contrast to Zitao’s lean body, muscle obvious in the flex of his arms and calves. He swaggers as he approaches Zitao, but he gives himself away with the nervous clutch of his fingers around the staff. Zitao considers him for a moment, and the two of them circle each other. Chanyeol watches the way that Zitao considers Howon’s posture, lingering on his hands, his shoulders, and then finally his face. “Ready,” Kris says, and they stop. Howon raises his staff but Zitao doesn’t. He waits. “Begin.”

As much as Chanyeol hates to admit it, Zitao’s got style. He’s heard that Zitao had trained in wushu since he was five, and only gave it up when he joined the Jaeger program. It shows. Everyone’s got martial arts training in the program, but Zitao’s got a grace that Chanyeol’s never seen. Howon is precise and strong, but Zitao counters each strike easily, sliding away from him at the last minute, never letting him land a blow. He looks bored. When he’s hit his fourth point and thrown Howon to the floor for the seventh time, it’s like he’s rushing them just to get it over with. “Thank you, Ranger Lee,” Kris says, voice cutting through the noise of the room.

Howon grits his teeth, laying for a second against the floor, face hard. He takes his time getting up, but he’s sure to bow neatly, pulling his shirt straight. He pushes his staff into Chanyeol’s hand, lips tight, and hastens to leave the room. Behind him, in the centre of the training floor, Zitao is smirking, drumming his staff against the mats. He shouldn’t be so smug. The whole point of this is to find a partner, not to grind every candidate into the mat. Chanyeol frowns.

He looks up at Kris, but he’s pointedly avoiding his gaze, focusing down at his clipboard. There are no more candidates, and he knows it. “Mr. Park,” Kris calls finally, and Chanyeol bounds out, staff in hand. Behind him, he hears the surprise of the crowd, and he can see more than a few raised eyebrows. Chanyeol ignores it, rolling his shoulders as he approaches Zitao in the centre of the floor. He’s got this.

They’ve been at this for over an hour, and though Zitao has handled each test with ease, he’s starting to feel it. Chanyeol can see the fine sheen of sweat on his chest and throat, the way it beads at his hairline. So he is human. Chanyeol grins.

“Ready?” Kris calls. Zitao is examining him, hooded eyes taking in his stance. Chanyeol’s not as loose as he should be, he’s wound too tightly, tension in every flex of his shoulders and his grip on his staff. He takes a few deep breaths through his nose and exhales slowly, but he still feels the weight of this test on his shoulders. He shifts, settling into a comfortable position, staff raised in front of him, but it’s not until Zitao nods briefly that Kris speaks again. “Begin.”

It’s Chanyeol who swings first. It’s been a while since he had an actual partner to spar with, but even with Yoora, he’d always been the first to strike. He practices his training every chance he gets, but there’s still something about this that feels a bit strange. It’s been ages since he swung at something that can hit back.

He plants his feet, bringing his staff up sharply to catch Zitao around the ribs. Zitao counters it almost lazily, spinning out of the way and jabbing back at Chanyeol with the butt of his own weapon. It’s luck that Chanyeol manages to dodge the blow, bringing up his staff to block the move and stumbling backwards a step, but it just strengthens his resolve.

Zitao is so lazy about his stance, staff held loosely in one hand while he regards Chanyeol, derisive and amused. Chanyeol lets out a yell and swings his staff up over his head, stopping it a hairsbreadth from Zitao’s nose. Zitao doesn’t flinch. “One to zero,” Kris calls.

Chanyeol grins at Zitao, excitement buzzing under his skin. “Not bad, huh, rockstar?” he says.

“We’ll see,” Zitao replies, that patronizing smile still on his face. He’s younger than Chanyeol is, but the way he looks at him, like Chanyeol knows nothing, it’s infuriating. Chanyeol scowls, sliding his feet into a proper stance and bringing his arms up again, his lines sharp and clean. He will not let Zitao win this.

He snaps his staff forward, putting all his force behind it. It’s a good swing, and if Zitao hadn’t brought up his own weapon at the last minute, he would’ve caught him hard across the chest. But Chanyeol is now off balance, his weight too far forward, and Zitao takes advantage of it, slapping his staff down hard against Chanyeol’s thigh. “One to one,” he says, smiling.

Chanyeol’s leg stings, and he knows he’ll have a pretty impressive welt there tomorrow. He grits his teeth. He won’t let another one land. He takes a deep breath, and then he rushes forward again.

Zitao uses his speed against him, dipping down to hook his staff under Chanyeol’s knee and send him sprawling. In one sharp movement, he stabs his staff down, the butt pressing up against Chanyeol’s adam’s apple. “ One point to two.” The room has fallen silent and Kris’ voice is loud at the far end of the mats. Zitao stands there, holding the stance for long enough that Chanyeol glares, slapping his staff away and climbing to his feet again. His leg aches.

“What?” Zitao asks. They’re circling each other now, and Chanyeol matches Zitao step for step. “Did you think this was a fight?” He scoffs. “This is about compatibility, not who wins. Don’t you know anything?”

That stings more than the blow Zitao had landed. Chanyeol has been here longer than most of the cadets watching them. He knows better than anyone what drift compatibility is.

As they move, he glances over Zitao’s shoulder at Kris. Breathe, Kris mouths to him, surreptitiously pressing one of his hands to his breastbone. It’s the same advice Chanyeol’s first trainer had given him, back in his first round of auditions with Yoora. He takes a step back, arms at his sides, and forces the tightness out of his jaw. Breathe.

Some of the smugness fades from Zitao’s expression as Chanyeol watches him, taking in Zitao’s stance. The laziness is a facade, he realizes. Each step Zitao takes is careful, precise, calculated for stability, and his grip on his staff is loose, ready to swing. He’s faking it. Chanyeol thinks about his first session with Yoora, their trainer shouting instructions as they sparred. “Look at her, Chanyeol,” Song Qian had said, voice sharp. “It’s not about winning, it’s about reacting, it’s about working with her. You must learn how she moves.”

Chanyeol had scoffed at that, because at twenty, he was certain he had it all perfected already. He’d spent his entire life in Yoora’s shadow, following her every move. He didn’t need to study his sister, he already knew everything. But Song Qian had been right and when he had taken a step back, let Yoora lead, they had passed through the first round.

“One point to two,” Kris says again, voice echoing against the metal walls of the training room. Chanyeol schools his expression into something blank, closing his eyes for a second, trying to force the tension from his shoulders and his jaw. When he opens them again, he’s ready. He waits.

This time, it’s Zitao who swings first, and Chanyeol is ready for him. He counters with enough power that Zitao is forced use both hands to keep a grip on his staff. Zitao’s brow furrows, but he says nothing, just slides away. Good.

Chanyeol swings again, aiming for Zitao’s ribs, but it’s a feint. He knows that Zitao will be anticipating his aggression, so when he counters, Chanyeol is already spinning left and bringing his staff around to smack against Zitao’s ribs.

Zitao lets out a grunt as he blocks the shot, sloppier than Chanyeol has ever seen, and there’s a flicker of something sharp in the curve of his mouth when he retaliates. To dodge Zitao’s staff, Chanyeol has to throw himself to the floor, and Zitao lunges forward, his heel sailing neatly down to stomp down on the mat, so close to Chanyeol’s ear he can feel the heat of Zitao’s bare foot.

“One to three,” Zitao declares. He doesn’t look so smug anymore, more intrigued, and Chanyeol can’t help but feel a little victorious at the way that Zitao’s breath is coming a little short. He may be losing, but he’s making Zitao work for it.

And he won’t go down without a fight. Chanyeol climbs to his feet again and steadies himself. “Is that all you’ve got?” he asks, and Zitao grins. It suits him well, sharp and wide.

When Zitao attacks this time, he uses his staff not as a weapon, but as a prop. He plants one end in the mats and swings his weight into the air, nearly catching Chanyeol in the jaw with the flat of his foot.

Chanyeol dodges at the last minute, slapping Zitao’s foot away and swinging up and in. Before Zitao can land, he kicks the staff down, and he smirks when Zitao stumbles, turning a poor landing on his knees into a tumble. He’s not down for the count though, and he strikes out at Chanyeol’s ankles, forcing him to leap into the air and then bring his staff down at Zitao’s head.

Zitao stares up at him, lips parted. “Two points to three,” Chanyeol tells him breathlessly, and Zitao’s face hardens. He arches his back, using only his shoulders and legs to throw himself up into a standing position, and Chanyeol has to remind himself not to be impressed.

This is the first time in months that Chanyeol has really, truly sparred with someone. It’s been so long since he’s felt the satisfying reverberation of a good blow echoing up the staff to his arms, the clack of wood on wood loud in the training room. He’d forgotten how good it feels. He’s the only person in this room who can keep up with the rockstar, and that realization makes a grin spread across his face.

He manages to land another blow, this time for real, his staff thumping hard against Zitao’s side. It’s only retaliation for the way that Chanyeol’s thigh burns. It leaves them tied at three points to three, pacing each other, each swinging but neither getting close to another point.

“I think I’ve seen enough,” Kris tells them, and both of them, breathing hard, take a step back and bow to each other. “Thank you all for your time,” Kris says as Zitao and Chanyeol pass off their staffs. “I will deliberate on what I’ve seen and I will let you know my decision within the next few days. Thank you.”

Zitao saunters towards Kris, toweling away the sweat dripping down his neck, and Chanyeol turns back to the crowd watching, spreading his arms wide and grinning. It feels so good. “Nicely done!” Jinri tells him, pulling him into a quick hug. He can’t help the rush of pleasure he feels at her praise.

“I never would’ve thought you could pull it off.” Kyungsoo jostles him with an arm. “I’m impressed.”

Chanyeol claps a hand to his chest. “Am I the only one who has faith in me in this whole Shatterdome?” He pouts. “Some friends you are.”

He lets Jinri ruffle his hair and when he glances back over his shoulder, Zitao and Kris are both watching him. Kris’ mouth is pulled into a tight line, brows pulled down thoughtfully, but Chanyeol has no idea what to make of the look on Zitao’s face. Still, his enthusiasm is undampened. He killed it, and he knows it. How can he not be elated when he’s one step closer to his dream?

True to form, Kris spends nearly a week deciding. “It’s bullshit,” Chanyeol grumps, burying his face in a pillow. Lu Han wrinkles his nose at him, tugging it out of his grip. “I was obviously the best choice. How much time does it take?” It’s driving him absolutely nuts. Every time Kris walks into LOCCENT, Chanyeol turns towards him expectantly. Of course, every time, Kris barely acknowledges him, asking instead for updates on the status of the current round of Pons tech debugging. It’d go a whole lot better if Chanyeol hadn’t been buzzing right out of his skin with anticipation for days.

“You were,” Yixing agrees, shifting over to sit by Chanyeol’s head. It’s his bed, his and Lu Han’s, but Chanyeol has managed to take up most of it, stealing all of the coverlet and scowling at everyone. Yixing pats his shoulder and then gently wedges one hand under Chanyeol’s chest, tossing him onto the floor with one quick shove. “And now you’re throwing the best teenage tantrum.”

Ranger quarters are a lot more spacious than the bunk Chanyeol’s been sharing with three other LOCCENT techs for the past three years. Lu Han and Yixing’s bed has a real mattress, something with support. It’s pretty unfair, considering Chanyeol’s the one too tall for his bed, perpetually just a little bit too big. He tries to reclaim his spot, but Lu Han has replaced him, pressed up against Yixing. “It’s not a tantrum,” Chanyeol says. “I’m just saying.”

It’d be easy to resent the two of them. Lu Han and Yixing are a pilot team with a sterling record, nothing but kills, and the press delights in the easy affection between them. They’re a reporter’s puff piece wet dream. But Yixing is unendingly kind and there’s no way Chanyeol could begrudge Lu Han his slick, well-rehearsed camera face when he knows what he looks like when he laughs. Not a pretty picture.

Lu Han yanks the blanket off Chanyeol’s shoulders but he replaces it with a sweatshirt. “I would’ve thought you’d have learned patience by now,” he says. Yixing elbows him.

“Ugh.” Chanyeol sighs. He tugs on the hoodie, pulling the hood up over his head. It’s not that he’s impatient it’s just - he feels kind of like a dog with a treat balanced on his nose, and until he gets that command to snap, he’s just vibrating with tension. It’s not really fun.

Yixing grins at him. “You’re like a kid before Christmas.” He pulls at Chanyeol’s hood. “Relax. Trust Kris. He’ll get there.” He smiles serenely and Chanyeol groans, letting his body flop backwards onto the floor.

His shoulders hit the metal plating with a sharp bang, just as a knock sounds at the door. “Hey, Chanyeol, Kyungsoo said you were -” Minseok blinks down at him on the floor. “Is this a thing I should be worried about?” Chanyeol can’t tell if the words are directed at him or at Lu Han and Yixing, laughing on the bed.

“I’m perfect,” Chanyeol tells him. He can only see him under the very edge of his hood and he raises his hands, flashing a thumbs up. “Awesome. It’s comfy down here. Good for the back or something.” He brings his hand down, tapping his knuckles against the floor. “Join me.”

Minseok snorts. “Wow, super tempting,” he deadpans. “But I’m actually here on official business.” Chanyeol sits up lightning-fast at that. Minseok grins. “Marshall Wu wants to see you in his office. Wonder why -”

Chanyeol is already scrambling to his feet, pushing past Minseok out into the hallway. “Thanks, hyung!” he bellows over his shoulder. The sound of laughter follows him out.

He moves through the halls at a near-run, dodging around dome staff as he makes his way from the Ranger quarters up to Kris’ office by LOCCENT. There’s no hesitation in him anymore, all he feels is this overriding rush of nerves and excitement. Of course, he could be making an assumption. Kris could be calling Chanyeol into his office after hours so that he can let him down gently and privately. It would be just like him, after all.

Chanyeol chooses to believe otherwise. He was the only choice. This has to be it.

He stops just before the door, giving himself a second to catch his breath. He wants to make a good impression. He pushes his hood down and drags a hand through his hair, doing his best to straighten it. It’s a bit of a staticky mess right now. Oh well.

He knocks and waits for Kris’ go ahead before he comes in. “You, uh, rang?” he says, sticking his head around the door. Kris isn’t the only one in the room. Chanyeol’s heart does this weird lurch in his chest.

Huang turns around and his face darkens immediately. “Wait, what?” he says.

“Huang Zitao, I believe you’ve already been introduced to your new co-pilot,” Kris says. He’s got a bit of a pinched look to his face, like he’s already anticipating how well this will go over. “This is Park Chanyeol.” He looks up at Chanyeol and he smiles. “Congratulations, Chanyeol. Or rather, Ranger Park.” Chanyeol whoops, sticking both his arms in the air. He’s almost lightheaded. He’s a Ranger now.

“Is this a joke?” Huang asks. He’s got his arms crossed over his lean chest, his eyes narrowed. “You can’t be serious about picking an Academy washout who hasn’t even seen formal training in years.” His Korean is crisp and clear, and he stares at Chanyeol. He wants him to understand him.

“Zitao,” Kris says sharply.

Huang shrugs. “I thought this would be better than nothing, but I was wrong. This -” he gestures at Chanyeol, “this can’t be the best you could do.” He dismisses Chanyeol with an imperious bob of his chin and a click of his tongue.

It figures. Chanyeol can’t even have his moment because he’s been the one unlucky enough to be saddled with a brat like this. “I’m the only one who can take you on,” Chanyeol says. “Are you afraid? Would you rather someone you can push around? Is that it?” He sneers.

“Do you really think one sparring session makes you my equal?” Huang snaps. “Now I know this is a joke.”

“Enough,” Kris says, voice cutting over both of them. Chanyeol turns to him immediately, abashed, and Kris looks tired, a hand pressed to his forehead. He’s starting to get why Kris had said they weren’t a good fit.

Huang quiets, his lips pressed into a sullen line. Chanyeol can see a muscle working in his jaw. “Zitao, I was at the Academy when Chanyeol trained. I would never assign you someone who I did not think was capable of doing the job.” Kris touches Huang’s elbow, and Huang softens, turning towards him. Even though his voice is firm, Kris is gentle with him. “Trust me on that, at least.”

“I’m good,” Chanyeol says fiercely, and Huang glances at him. He’s got a point. Chanyeol is out of practice, he’s unused to working with someone else, much less someone like Huang. He says it again, as much for his own benefit as for Huang’s. “I’m good. Worry about yourself.”

“The rest of the candidates barely lasted a round with you,” Kris says. “Chanyeol matched you well, physically at least. Why don’t you give it a shot?” He hesitates, and then he says something in Mandarin that passes over Chanyeol’s head. Huang replies, voice softer than Chanyeol expects, and a bit petulant.

There’s an intimacy to it that makes Chanyeol shift uncomfortably and wonder if he should look away. He rocks back on his heels, clearing his throat. “So.”

“Fine,” Huang says finally. “I’ll try.”

“Do me a favour, why don’t you?” Chanyeol says, mouth twisting. Huang is taking all of the sweetness out of his success right now, and he’s not really enjoying that.

“You’re not helping,” Kris tells him, and Chanyeol shrugs. He’s not the problem here.

Huang throws himself down into the chair by Kris’ desk and sighs, crossing his legs. He reaches up to toy with a charm around his neck, lips a sullen line. This isn’t how Chanyeol imagined this moment. He has what he’d wanted, but it also means he’s saddled with Huang as a co-pilot, petulant and prickly. This is gonna be a fun ride.

“If you can make this work, you two will make a great team,” Kris says. Chanyeol knows he believes it, too, which is why he doesn’t snap back with a reply. Kris raises his eyebrows. “It just, ah, won’t be easy.”

In the chair, Huang watches him, wary. Chanyeol sighs, and then he sticks out a hand. “I’ll do my best,” he says.

Huang says nothing but after a moment he takes it, shaking firmly. His grip is just a little too tight. “We’ll start training after the weekend,” he says. He narrows his eyes. “You’d better be ready for it.”

“I was born ready,” Chanyeol says, and Kris snorts. “See you then.”

Kris claps a hand onto his shoulder. “Congratulations, Ranger Park,” he says sincerely, reeling Chanyeol in for a tight hug. For a second, Chanyeol presses his face to Kris’ shoulder and grins. Ranger. He likes the sound of that.

Huang stays behind when Chanyeol leaves, and that doesn’t surprise Chanyeol at all.

What is surprising is when Chanyeol turns the corner and comes face to face with Minseok, Lu Han and Yixing. “So?” Minseok asks, but from the slyness to Yixing’s smile, he’s told them all the news already. “What’s the story?”

Chanyeol raises his hands into the air. “Ranger Park,” he crows, and Minseok barrels at him, catching him around the middle in a tight hug. It’s a lot easier to regain his enthusiasm when Lu Han is thumping him on the back and grinning at him, that wide, unrestrained one that isn’t pretty at all.

He’s a pilot now. Pilot. Yixing loops one arm around his waist and squeezes and Chanyeol grins at him. Now, all he’s gotta do is survive training with Huang. Kris was right. It’s not gonna be easy.

Chanyeol sees it coming. He’s not sure that makes it much better when Zitao hooks a foot behind his calf and jerks, sending Chanyeol to the ground again. His teeth rattle with the impact and Chanyeol groans. “Focus, Park,” Huang snaps. In the heat of the training room, his bangs stick to his forehead, and he pushes at them impatiently. “I thought you said you were good.”

Chanyeol pushes himself up. “Real good at falling,” he says. He’d forgotten how painful training is. He’s off LOCCENT duty now, so this is all he has, twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day, locked up in a sweaty Kwoon room with Huang and Hyoyeon, their fightmaster. The technician job hadn’t been that interesting, but after a week of this, he kind of misses it. Maybe he can take one day a week in LOCCENT, just to give his bruises a chance to heal up. He grunts and stands again, rolling his shoulders. “And real good at getting back up again.” He raises his hands. “Let’s go.”

“So I can knock you down all over again?” Huang fits here, in the training room. They’re nearly the same height, but Huang is a bit broader, his arms and shoulders toned in a way that Chanyeol is a little bit jealous of. He moves with the easy grace of someone who’s been doing this his entire life, and Chanyeol can’t help but feel clumsy next to him. He’s ended up on his back on the mat today more times than he can count. “What good is an easy target?”

Maybe Chanyeol is an easy target. His thighs burn from using them in ways he’s not used to anymore, and his shoulders ache from becoming intimately familiar with the training room mats. “I’m trying,” Chanyeol says. He wipes at the steady drip of sweat down the back of his neck. “C’mon.” He shifts his weight from foot to foot, hands up, waiting for Huang to drop into a stance, but he doesn’t.

“Try harder,” Huang tells him. “Because this? This isn’t good enough.” Chanyeol’s used to the hostility from Huang, but this is a bit much, even for him. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, maybe. He smiles a little at his own joke, until his mind slides to Kim Jongin and his brain injury, and all he’s left with is a nagging sense of guilt.

“Alright, let’s call it a night,” Hyoyeon says, clapping her hands together, and the words are barely out of her mouth before Huang is pulling savagely at his hand wraps, unwinding them with an aggression that probably isn’t warranted. He clips Chanyeol with his shoulder as he brushes past, and Chanyeol nearly ends up on his ass one more time.

Chanyeol exhales in a burst and then he drops back down onto the mats. “This is fun,” he grumbles.

Hyoyeon laughs. She retrieves a bottle of water from where it’s been kicked out of the way, up against the wall, and she drops it in his lap. “It’ll get easier,” she promises. The water’s lukewarm at this point, but it’s better than nothing. “As you get more familiar with each other, it’ll get easier.”

“Sure,” Chanyeol says. He dumps the rest of his water over his head and sighs. “Who knew being teamed up with a bratty rockstar would be so much fun.”

“Yeah, I know he’s a pain in the ass,” she says. She drops to her knees in front of him, careless of the water Chanyeol’s spilled everywhere. “But he just lost his co-pilot.” She looks at him hard and knowing, and not for the first time, Chanyeol hates the way that stories travel in this place. “It’s like someone lopped off half his limbs. He’s still trying to figure out how to deal without them, and then here comes someone with replacements that don’t quite fit the same way.”

Chanyeol grins at her. “You’re so wise,” he tells her. He turns the empty bottle in his hands. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time teaching us how to beat up monsters. You should be giving out life advice.” He’s damp and he’s sore and he’s getting a little tired of everyone babying Huang. He tosses the bottle at the wall and watches it rattle to the floor.

“Whatever, buddy.” She stands again, and before he can reply, she tosses a towel in his face. “Make sure you clean up that mess, alright? And get some sleep. I wanna see you here at the crack of dawn, big ole smile on your face.” Chanyeol groans and flops backwards, hiding his face in the towel. He gets to start this all over again in the morning with Captain Sunshine. Great.

It takes Chanyeol a few minutes to realize that Minseok and Kyungsoo are watching him, amused. “What did your breakfast ever do to you?” Minseok asks, a smile playing on his lips. He gestures at Chanyeol’s eviscerated roll. “Because you look like it killed your mother.”

Chanyeol blinks at it for a second before taking pity on it, stuffing the thing into his mouth whole. “I hate him,” Chanyeol mumbles around the roll. Waking up at the crack of dawn to get his ass kicked by a guy who pretty much hates his guts is getting really, really old.

Kyungsoo wrinkles his nose. “Don’t speak with your mouth full,” he says. Obligingly, Chanyeol straightens, chewing, swallowing, and then sticking out his tongue for inspection. Kyungsoo reaches out and closes Chanyeol’s mouth with two fingers under his chin. “Ugh. Okay, now, try again.”

“I hate him,” Chanyeol says. He enunciates clearly, because he wants them to be certain what he’s saying. “I hate him.” He lays his head down on the table. “It’s a nightmare. All he ever does is look down his nose at me and throw me on the ground.” It’s hard to eat at this angle but Chanyeol tries it anyway. He mostly ends up with rice on his face. Lame.

“Then why does he always comes out of your practices looking about as beat up as you do?” Minseok tips his head and grins.

Chanyeol hums, wiping the rice off his chin. He’s not sure that’s really true. Hyoyeon was right about it getting a little easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s becoming any more fun. Chanyeol reports to their training room every day at eight in the morning, and every day, Huang beats him down there. He’s silent now, lips pressed together as he processes Hyoyeon’s commands, taking Chanyeol down with an almost clinical precision. It’s like instead of a co-pilot, he’s got a machine. He doesn’t know how that’s gonna work out when they have to climb into a Jaeger together.

“I thought you wanted this,” Kyungsoo says. He takes a sip of his orange juice. “Don’t tell me you’re giving up now.” He leans over until he’s in Chanyeol’s line of sight again and raises one eyebrow. “You didn’t really think it’d be easy, did you?” He shakes his head.

That’s got more bite than Chanyeol expected. He straightens again, frowning. “No,” he says. Kyungsoo nods, expression bland, clearly disbelieving. Chanyeol scowls. “I’m not giving up!”

“It sure sounds like it,” Kyungsoo says.

Chanyeol rubs at his tired eyes and he whines. “It’s just, how am I supposed to drift with that?” He waves an arm at Huang, walking into the cafeteria. He’s uncharacteristically late this morning, and he’s even skipped his morning hair routine. Chanyeol steadfastly does not wonder about it. “He doesn’t even talk to me anymore, he mostly kind of glowers.”

“Zitao?” Yixing slides his tray onto the table next to Chanyeol, sitting down. “He’s not that bad. You just have to get to know him.”

On Chanyeol’s other side, Lu Han cleans Chanyeol’s stray rice away. “I like him,” he says. He shrugs. “He’s not nearly as uh, intimidating as he looks.”

Chanyeol isn’t sure that intimidating is the word he’s looking for. He looks over at Huang in line, the way he shakes his bangs straight and smiles sweetly at the woman serving. Sometimes, Chanyeol just thinks that Huang is nice to everyone but him. “I’m not scared of him,” he says. “C’mon.”

“Of course not,” Yixing agrees. He smiles at Chanyeol, and then looks right past him. “Zitao!” he calls, waving a hand. “Over here!” Huang hesitates when he notices Chanyeol, but then he gives a little nod and heads their way.

“Traitor,” Chanyeol hisses. He has to spend twelve hours a day looking at Huang’s face. There’s no reason he should have to see him on his off hours too.

Yixing’s smile doesn’t slip. “His closest friend is in a neurology unit in Shanghai and he may have irreparable brain damage,” he says quietly, “and everyone else in our Shatterdome is avoiding him. He can’t very well spend all of his time with Kris, now, can he?” He pats Chanyeol’s knee. “Suck it the fuck up.”

Chanyeol’s mouth snaps shut, and he stares at him. “Youch,” he says. Yixing’s got a point, but that doesn’t stop the hot prickle of indignation in his gut. Why isn’t he getting the same concern as Huang? Seems like everyone’s handling him with kid gloves, and Chanyeol’s the one being told to just keep trucking.

It takes all of Chanyeol’s self-restraint to stop himself from glaring at Huang as he sits down next to Minseok. “Zitao,” Lu Han says, “this is Do Kyungsoo, from K-Science, and Kim Minseok, Head LOCCENT Technician.” He smirks. “You know Chanyeol, I assume.”

Huang’s mouth drops open. “Ah,” he says, twisting to look at Minseok. “You’re the one who figured out how to upgrade the Pons bridge for three Rangers,” he says. Chanyeol glares down at his breakfast. “That was amazing.” He’s not even glancing Chanyeol’s way, and the frustration worms under Chanyeol’s skin.

“Thank you!” Minseok exclaims, sunny smile breaking across his face. “At least someone around here recognizes my genius.”

Huang giggles. Huang is at least 180cm tall, muscled and strong enough to throw Chanyeol to the ground without breaking a sweat, and he giggles. If Chanyeol was angry at his breakfast before, he’s furious now. He mashes the remnants of his food in his bowl into a pulp, lips twisted sullenly.

Across the table, Kyungsoo clears his throat, and Chanyeol glances up. He colours under Kyungsoo’s scrutiny. Kyungsoo is younger than he is, and he’s always had this way of making Chanyeol feel fourteen years old and also tiny. He draws up straight in his seat and pushes his tray away. He’s so not hungry anymore.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Huang says. His voice is sweet and polite, and Chanyeol hates the way that Minseok is smiling at him. “I hope you’ll take good care of me when I’m in service again.” He glances at Chanyeol and all at once, his expression shifts to disdain. “Us, I mean.”

Chanyeol grits his teeth. There’s a tiny part of him that’s hurt, if he’s honest. Huang is the picture of friendliness and manners with everyone but him, and he’s the one who’s supposed to be letting Huang into his head. How is that fair? He stands in a rush. “See you in the training room,” he tells Huang, voice tight, and then he hefts his tray and strides out of the room.

For the first time since he got the assignment, Chanyeol is the first one down there. “Bright and early,” Hyoyeon teases, looking up as he comes in. “I’m impressed.” Chanyeol grunts and strips off his hoodie, sitting down to bind his wrists.

“Whoa.” Hyoyeon sets a pair of staffs down and stands in front of him, hands on her waist. “What’s wrong with you?” She looks at him long and hard. “Hey, are you gonna be okay for today?”

He finishes with his left wrist and flexes his fist, testing it. “I’m fine,” he says. “It’s not like we’re drifting today, right?” He offers up a smile for Hyoyeon’s unimpressed look. “I’m fine,” he says again. “Kaiju wait for no man.”

She nods, finally, reaching down to check his wraps herself. “If you say so,” she says. “You better bring your A-game, though.”

Huang walks in as she’s tightening Chanyeol’s wraps, and he pauses at the door. “Good morning,” he says, and Chanyeol stares at him, wordless. When Chanyeol doesn’t reply, he colours a little, and then turns to kick off his shoes and pull off his socks.

Hyoyeon pats Chanyeol’s wrist and grins at him, eyebrows raised. “Don’t be a dick,” she tells him quietly. He huffs and climbs to his feet, flexing his hands and doing a few stretches.

Huang only ever takes a few minutes to wrap his wrists and then he’s ready, turning to face Chanyeol. “Let’s work hard,” Huang says abruptly.

He’s not smiling but his face is more open than Chanyeol has ever seen it. It’s been so long since Huang has tried to engage him at all, and Chanyeol doesn’t even know what to say. He nods, curt, and then Hyoyeon is calling out their names. “Alright,” she says. “Thirty laps, let’s go. I wanna see those knees up.”

When they run, Huang matches Chanyeol pace for pace. Chanyeol looks at him out of the corner of his eye but Huang stares straight ahead, never flinching. It’s the best session they’ve had yet.

“He’s beautiful,” Chanyeol declares, and Yoora drops the ultrascan, mouth pulling into an exasperated line.

“He’s the size of a bean, you twit,” she tells him. “Or she. What if I’m having a daughter?”

Chanyeol grins at her. “Then she’s a beautiful bean,” he says. “She has to be. She’s going to be your daughter.” It feels so good to see her again. Maybe everyone else in the Shatterdome is team Huang Zitao, but Yoora has always, always sided with him. “Have you been thinking of names? How about Colossal Inferno?” He wiggles his eyebrows.

Yoora shakes her head, and she sighs. “I’m having a baby,” she tells him, “not a Jaeger.”

“You know, if you gave birth to a Jaeger, that is literally the only way I could love you more.” He sighs dreamily and Yoora gets that smile on her face, the one that tells him he’d be in danger of a punch, if he were there. He misses her so, so much.

“Watch it, punk,” she says.

A knock resonates against the metal of his door, and Chanyeol startles. “Hold that thought,” he says.

He doesn’t know who he was expecting when he opened the door, but it was probably not Huang. “Uh, hey,” Chanyeol says. He’s suddenly self-conscious about his sister on the screen behind him. “Can I help you?”

Huang glances at the vidscreen. “Hi,” Yoora says, and Chanyeol sighs, glancing back to see her wave at Huang. “You must be Huang Zitao, my baby brother’s new co-pilot. I’m Yoora.”

He’s astonished when Huang bends into a neat bow. “It’s very good to meet you,” he says. “I’m sorry to interrupt your call.” Chanyeol stares at him. An apology for his sister, but not him. Unbelievable.

Huang straightens, his face once again becoming the polite, distant mask that Chanyeol has gotten very familiar with. “What do you want?” Chanyeol asks again, voice sharp. He hears Yoora click her tongue at him, and that makes it even worse. Huang is embarrassing him in front of his sister. He clenches his teeth.

“I have the date for our first session with drift training,” Huang says. “I just thought you’d want to know.” Chanyeol waits, eyebrows raised, until Huang continues. “We have a month. Hyoyeon says she wants us to work more on physical training before we try the drift.” Chanyeol tries not to flinch at that. Hyoyeon gets a first name, but Chanyeol’s been nothing but Park from the start.

“Great. Thanks.” It doesn’t surprise him that the higher ups putting off their drift training. He and Huang are barely civil at best. That’s not drift material. Not yet. “Is that it?”

“Ranger Huang,” Yoora calls, and Chanyeol frowns. “Ranger Huang, I hope you take good care of my brother for me.” Nearly six hundred kilometres away, and she’s still trying to look after him. Chanyeol rubs at the back of his neck.

Huang is silent for a second, and when he speaks, he’s looking at Chanyeol, not at Yoora or the vidscreen. “I will do my best,” he promises. His voice is gentle and whatever Chanyeol might have planned to say, to usher him out of the room, it’s gone, dried up in his throat. He doesn’t know what to feel right now. Huang leaves with a quick bob of his head, and the metal door clangs shut behind him.

“He seems nice,” Yoora tells him. “Are you sure you’re not making it up?”

Noona,” Chanyeol groans, and Yoora’s smile, so like his own, gets wider.

“Good, Chanyeol,” Hyoyeon calls out, nodding in approval as he ducks under the swing of Huang’s heel. Huang’s eyes narrow, but he doesn’t stumble, simply uses his momentum to spin back and lash out with his hands. Chanyeol catches his wrist before he can make contact and cuts a quick hook up into Huang’s ribs. Huang has never pulled his punches and so neither does Chanyeol, and his knuckles thump against Huang’s side.

They part after that, circling each other on the mats, and Huang is silent, as always. He doesn’t look as awful as he used to, Chanyeol notes. He’s not nearly so washed out anymore, though his dark circles are still there. Chanyeol has to admit, begrudgingly, that Huang is handsome. He’s so striking, with his sharp eyes, high cheekbones, and bowed lips. Now that he looks a little more rested, even with the bruises, he looks every inch the star Jaeger pilot he’s always been.

It’s hard not to feel a bit lacking in comparison. Chanyeol’s gone all out with training since they’ve started, but he still feels miles behind. He’s always a little bit slower, a little bit less agile. It takes him right back to his days in the Academy, really, so he should be used to it. Always playing catch-up. Story of his life.

At least now, he’s leaving his mark on Huang, too. There’s a bruise blooming across Huang’s collarbones, just visible under the strap of his tank, the aftermath of Chanyeol finally landing a kick. This is what Chanyeol has always wanted, this is the life he’s been working towards since he was a teenager, but the only thing satisfying about this is when he manages to actually get one in on Huang.

“Again,” Hyoyeon calls, and though they’ve been at this all day and Chanyeol’s arms ache enough to make the movement suck, he raises his hands again when Huang does, takes a deep breath, and attacks.

Huang parries with ease, zeroing in on Chanyeol in an unnerving way that he’s learning to read as concentration. If there’s anything Huang does, it’s focus. Which is annoying, because part of Chanyeol still wants to write him off as some lazy hotshot. Instead, he counters each of Chanyeol’s blows with one of his own, and they’ve almost struck up a kind of rhythm when that Huang dodges under his fist. He kicks out sharply, catching Chanyeol in the middle of his chest with the flat of his foot, and Chanyeol’s headed towards the floor before he even knows it.

He’s not expecting the hand that Huang holds out to help him up, but he accepts it. “Nicely done,” Kris says, and Chanyeol startles, jolting out of Huang’s hand and covering his embarrassed smile with his fingers. He’d been so focused on Huang, on the clean sweep of his hands and the weight of his gaze, he hadn’t even noticed Kris come in. “Very impressive fall as always, Chanyeol.”

Chanyeol snaps off the world’s laziest salute, smiling tightly. “Thank you, Marshall Wu.”

“Marshall Wu has come to talk to you about your training status,” Hyoyeon says. There’s a seriousness to her features that makes Chanyeol set his jaw and straighten his shoulders. It’s can’t be good. He glances at Zitao, but his face is smooth, unreadable.

Kris steps forward, hands folded together in front of him. “I could speak to you separately, but I would be telling you both the same thing.” Next to Chanyeol, Huang shifts minutely. He doesn’t like this side of Kris, the stern Marshall. “You’ve made a great deal of progress, and it’s impressive, but -” Kris looks at Hyoyeon, who nods. “- it’s not enough.”

“You’re scheduled on the simulator in less than two weeks, and if I had to predict how you’ll do right now?” Hyoyeon shakes her head. “Fail. Easy.”

Chanyeol’s face darkens, but Kris is already shaking his head. “It’s not meant to be an insult,” he says. “Don’t get upset. These are just the facts.” He shrugs. “And the facts are, you’re not improving fast enough.”

“He’s much better than he was,” Huang says quietly, and Chanyeol blinks at him. Now that’s unexpected. “Now that he’s in training every day. He’s much better.”

Hyoyeon nods. “Yeah, he is,” she says.

“You both know that physical compatibility isn’t enough,” Kris points out. “Drift compatibility requires trust. Trust doesn’t happen if you never see each other outside of training sessions, you know.” Kris sighs, pulling absently at the cuffs of his jacket. “You can’t drift with a stranger.”

Chanyeol knows that. He’s seen it firsthand, when he watched pilot candidates wash out of the program when it turned out that best friends weren’t so close after all, and maybe that couple didn’t know each other as well as they thought. It’s why it’s a near impossibility that someone like he and Huang would even make it through one round of Drift simulation. He grits his teeth.

“You need to try harder,” Kris says, and he’s not looking at Huang. He’s looking at Chanyeol. Chanyeol bristles. This is a two-way street, although no one else seems to be taking notice of that. “There are plenty of opportunities for you two to get to know each other. And we’ll be helping with that too.”

That doesn’t sound good. “What do you mean?” Chanyeol asks slowly, dread settling in his gut.

“Pack your bags, Chanyeol,” Kris says. “You’re moving into the Ranger quarters.”

“You can’t be serious,” Chanyeol says, at the same time as Huang goes “Really?”

Kris straightens his cuffs and folds his hands together again. “All Jaeger teams live together. It’s fairly standard.” There’s that pinched look to his small mouth again. He’s anticipated their objections.

“I spend fourteen hours a day with him,” Chanyeol says, gesturing at Huang with a jerk of his chin. “Are you really going to make me live with him?” Training is bad enough, but Chanyeol can’t really imagine it, having to wake up and go to sleep in the same space as a guy who won’t even look him in the eye most of the time.

“Exactly.” The razor sharp edge to Kris’ voice takes Chanyeol aback, his mouth snapping shut. “If making an effort to get to know your co-pilot is too much for you, Ranger Park, then maybe we should begin the search again.” His face is hard. “Zitao at least deserves someone who will try.”

That stings. Chanyeol colours, his gaze dropping to the floor. He is making an effort, he’s the one showing up every single day to get his ass kicked by a guy he isn’t even certain knows his first name. He’s definitely never used it. “I’m trying,” he says, mouth turned downwards sullenly.

“Try harder.” Kris doesn’t leave any room for argument. He fixes Chanyeol to the spot with his stare and then he turns on his heel, striding out of the room.

All Hyoyeon has to offer him is a tight-lipped, sympathetic smile. “Let’s knock off early today,” she suggests. “You did well.” She holds out a water but he doesn’t take it. Her arm hangs in the air for a moment, and then she laughs, short and rough. “Whatever, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” It sounds a bit like a threat.

Chanyeol watches her gather her things, putting away their training weapons before leaving with a curt wave to Huang. How nice of them all, to put the blame on him. It’s not like he’s being met halfway, but golden boy Huang Zitao gets all the benefit of the doubt, as usual. He glares down at his hands as he unwraps them, flexing his fingers and rubbing the marks out of his skin.

“I’m sorry,” Huang says, voice soft and genuine. Chanyeol looks up at him. He’s got his towel thrown over his shoulder and right now, with his messy, sweaty hair and damp shirt, he looks more like a normal person than Chanyeol has ever seen him. “I know you must value your space. It’ll be strange for me too. I’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine.” He nods to Chanyeol, and he smiles, and then he slips out the door.

Chanyeol has never felt more like a petulant child in his life. He backs up until his shoulders hit the wall and then slides down, burying his face in his hands and groaning. “Fuck,” he mutters. Everything hurts and he feels like an absolute idiot. And to top it all off, now he’s got to go pack his stuff up and move out of the room he’s been living in for three years to live with someone he barely knows. He props his chin up on his knees and stares miserably at the far wall. At least, maybe, he’ll get a bed he fits into. That’d be nice.

It’s weird how all of his life seems to take up so little space once he’s packed it all up and ferried it over to his new room. “Thanks, hyung,” Chanyeol says, and Minseok drops the last box beside the bunks. He was right, Huang does have the swanky digs. His room is bigger than Chanyeol’s last room, and he’d shared that one with three other LOCCENT techs. He’s even got one of those tiny kitchenettes that Lu Han and Yixing have, with a fridge and everything. It’s a serious upgrade. Huang is comfortably stretched out across the top bunk, with room to spare, and Chanyeol is definitely looking forward to being able to actually fit in a bed. But -

“You can have the bottom bunk,” Huang says lazily. He rolls over onto his belly in one sinuous motion, almost like a cat. “I’m used to the top.” There’s a spark of something in his expression, something that vanishes as quick as it came, and he turns away again.

Behind him, Minseok snorts. “Glad to help you out,” he says to Chanyeol, clapping a hand against his shoulder. “Especially since it means you owe me so much beer.”

“And here I was, thinking you were doing this out of the goodness of your heart,” Chanyeol says, shaking his head sadly. “What kind of friend are you?”

Minseok glances up at Huang on the bed and back to Chanyeol again, and he shrugs. “The kind who only does manual labour for payment, buddy. I’ll give you time to unpack, and stuff. I’ve got work to do.” Alarmed, Chanyeol turns as he heads out the door, doing his best to communicate with his lips and eyebrows that Minseok shouldn’t leave him alone with Huang, but Minseok just wiggles his fingers in goodbye and grins.


Huang makes no attempt to help, as Chanyeol does his best to make a place for himself in the room. He’s not really sure how he will. His bed feels too low to the ground, and Huang’s things are everywhere. The closet, which Huang only points out when asked, is packed with a weird amount of designer clothes for a man who spends an enormous amount of his time in training, and the walls are covered in pictures. He had a lot of friends back in Hong Kong. “Who’s this?” Chanyeol asks tapping one of the photos. Huang’s got his face pressed up against another man’s affectionately, the two of them flushed, a bit drunk, probably. They look happy.

Huang looks up. “Junmahao,” he answers after a second. “Our mission controller.” He tips his chin down until most of his face is buried in his pillow. All that Chanyeol can see is the bridge of his nose and his down-turned eyes. “I miss him.”

Chanyeol takes in the fond expression on Huang’s face. Ah. “Were you two, like -” He waggles a hand in the air and Huang scrunches up his nose.

“No,” he says firmly. “Gross.” He cracks a fraction of a smile, though, and Chanyeol feels strangely victorious. “More like...a big brother. Or my mother.” His whole face softens when he speaks, and he looks a lot less cold, like this.

Chanyeol carefully peels back a polaroid of Huang and Kim Jongin and shifts it over until he’s got enough room to pin up a picture of his own. He and Yoora had probably taken a million selcas in line for auditions for the Academy, but this one has always been his favourite. He doesn’t remember what he’d been saying any more, but the two of them are both in the middle of a laugh, faces pulled out in grins. This is just the way he likes to think of her.

“Is it going to be weird, working with another mission controller?” Chanyeol asks. He knows Huang is watching him, but that’s not why he smoothes down the edges of Huang’s photos until the one of him and Yoora is tucked neatly underneath the rest. It has to be strange for Huang. Co-pilot, LOCCENT controllers, Marshall, Shatterdome, everything is new ground for Huang. Chanyeol hadn’t thought about it. He hasn’t been doing a ton of thinking lately, it seems.

“I trust Minseok hyung,” Huang says, and Chanyeol bites back the buzz of irritation at the honorific. Minseok gets the friendly stuff and Chanyeol is the one living with him. “I know he’ll look after me. Us. He will look after us.” This time, the correction seems less like an afterthought, and Chanyeol is a little bit mollified.

He hums, turning back to his boxes. Minseok is the best, of course he’ll look after them. Huang is working with Chanyeol, after all. He sits down on his new bunk (sweet, a real mattress) and starts rifling through his bags of clothing. He hadn’t bothered to sort out the clean from the dirty before he’d thrown it all together after training tonight. He pulls out a sweater and sniffs at the collar when he feels the weight of someone’s gaze. He tips his head up to find Huang peering down at him curiously. “What?” he says.

“Nothing,” Huang says. “This is the most you’ve ever spoken to me, though.” He tips his head. “You asked questions and everything.” His smile broadens just a little, into something smug and pleased.

“And?” Chanyeol asks, feeling a flush creep up the back of his neck. “It’s like everyone in this Shatterdome has some bottom-of-the-barrel expectations of me.”

“Who’s fault is that?” Huang asks. There’s no bite to it, though, and that’s...surprising. And not a little bit gratifying. Huang pulls himself back up onto his bunk. “Keep your things off the floor. We’re sharing this space.”

Chanyeol scrunches up his nose, the questionable sweater still in his hands. Kinda hard to keep his things off the floor when there’s no space for him in the closet. He doesn’t bother to argue, though. In the end, he settles for stuffing most of it underneath his bunk and then laying down. Hyoyeon had them doing wushu in training today, and Huang had been merciless. He’s exhausted. They can figure out how to split up the room later. Chanyeol’s earned an early bedtime tonight.

He knows he’s dreaming. This has all happened before, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

He clutches Baekhyun’s hand, sweaty in his even in the cold November air. There’s a public shelter somewhere around here in an old, repurposed subway station, or at least there’s supposed to be, according to all of the news reports. He remembers his mother reminding him to have the locations memorized, but it’s all gone now, vanished the instant that alarm cut through the noise of the evening streets and sent ice down his spine.

Baekhyun’s grip on his hand is painful, fingers digging into the soft pad at the heel of Chanyeol’s hand, but Chanyeol holds on just as hard. Baekhyun is so small and the last thing he wants is to lose him in the rush of people. How would he ever explain that to Baekhyun’s mother? “Where is it?” Baekhyun keeps asking. He shakes against Chanyeol’s arm, his bravado gone, and that scares Chanyeol almost as much as the siren.

It’s chaos, and Chanyeol doesn’t know where to go. Neither does anyone else, it seems. Everyone is running in different directions, and Chanyeol can’t even figure out what street they’re on anymore, much less where they need to go. Beyond the siren, he can hear something like the ragged screech of tearing metal, and he can’t tell if it’s fear making the ground unsteady beneath his feet, or something much worse.

When they make it to the public shelter, the doors are closed. Chanyeol hammers on the door with his hand until his knuckles ache, but it’s no good. They’re too late. Even the stairwell down to the shelter is crowded with people, and there’s no space for them there. “What do we do now?” Baekhyun asks him. Chanyeol’s known him since they were kids, and Baekhyun is a little guy, but Chanyeol has never, ever seen him look so small and scared.

Chanyeol pulls him into a quick hug, Baekhyun’s face pressed up tightly against his chest, hands gripping at his waist. “We find somewhere else,” Chanyeol says, with a determination that he doesn’t really feel. “We’ll be okay.”

The streets are mostly empty when they emerge again, and Chanyeol’s mom has drilled the rules into his head. Below ground. If you can’t find a shelter, avoid any highrises. Stay low. They end up crouched in the doorway of a grocery store, listening to the tearful sobs of a family behind them. The noise is louder now. He can hear the thwap of helicopter blades overhead but bigger than that is the roar of the Kaiju.

Later, he finds out they’d named it Atticon. It doesn’t seem like a name big enough for the sound of its voice. He can see the glass in the buildings across the street rattle with each footstep it takes, and he jerks when he hears it scream, a sound so massive it’s almost unthinkable. Baekhyun has his face tucked against Chanyeol’s shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut. “If we make it out of this,” Baekhyun says, voice shaky, “I’m so using it for a pity date with Taeyeon.”

The Kaiju roars again and Chanyeol presses his mouth to the top of Baekhyun’s head. “The only way she’ll ever say yes, you know.” He can’t tell if the way that Baekhyun’s body shakes is from laughter or the awful tremors of the ground below them. It’s getting closer now. He clings to the scant warmth of Baekhyun’s body and shivers. Waiting is almost worst of all.

They must be sending over a Jaeger, they have to. The closest Shatterdome is in Hong Kong, but they must’ve known about it the instant the Breach opened. Isn’t that what they’re there for? “They’re coming,” Chanyeol says quietly. It’s so quiet he can barely hear himself over the tremendous crash and roar of the Kaiju coming up from the coast. Behind him, the child has quieted, hiccuping. Waiting. Everyone is just waiting. “They have to be.” He’s not sure if he’s talking to Baekhyun anymore.

It takes forever. They get to hear the monstrous steps of the Kaiju coming inexorably closer, tearing through the city. By the time it comes into sight, awful, blunted head raised over the tops of buildings, Chanyeol’s knees ache, and his knuckles too, from gripping Baekhyun so hard. Atticon roars and the whole store gasps. The child behind them screams as the Kaiju swings its massive head and smashes through a highrise. Yoora had a job interview there once, he thinks, watching the building tip and tumble to the ground. The impact shakes everything, making the cans on the shelves rattle and tip onto the tiled floor. There are helicopters circling the Kaiju’s head, but they’re like flies around the beast. A distraction. It keeps coming.

When it’s a block away, tearing down an apartment building with one careless swat of its claws, Chanyeol feels the tears on his face. They’d warned everyone who lived on the coast, but the attacks had always been so far away. San Francisco, Manila, Cabo San Lucas, it was all so far away. Distant enough that Chanyeol had thought that the Jaeger Program would handle things, and they’d all be fine. “I love you,” Chanyeol tells Baekhyun. He doesn’t know if Baekhyun can even hear him anymore. “I love you.”

He jerks awake so hard that the whole bunk shakes, gasping for air and trembling. It’s been years since the attack on Seoul, but he still gets these nightmares, sometimes. He’s clammy with sweat, his jaw aching from clenching his teeth in his sleep. These never really get any easier.

There’s a creak above him, and in the dark of the room, Chanyeol can see the outline of Huang’s face, suspended upside down over the edge of the bed. “I’m fine,” Chanyeol mutters. He drags his hands down his face, trying to will his heartbeat to slow. “Just - I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”

Huang stares at him for a long moment, then his head disappears from view. “Okay,” he says finally.

Chanyeol flops back against his pillow, exhaling hard and listening to Huang shift around, making himself comfortable again. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the attack. The thunder of falling buildings, the roar from its huge mouth. He had been so afraid then, but he hadn’t had to be.

He remembers it, when a massive, metal boot dropped out of the sky in front of the store. Chanyeol had lurched and Baekhyun had yelped, fingers tightening in Chanyeol’s shirt, and something had surged in Chanyeol’s chest, something huge and unnameable. The boot had lifted again, carrying on, and Chanyeol had stumbled to his feet, running out into the street, ignoring Baekhyun’s calls.

It was one thing to hear about the size of it, but it was another thing entirely to see a Jaeger in action. She’d towered over the buildings, stretching out one arm and firing a weapon at the Kaiju. Their aim was good. Something white hot had torn into the shoulder of the beast and its arm had detached with an explosion of bright blue. The shriek the Kaiju had let out was piercing, and Chanyeol had clapped his hands over his ears, staring up.

“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Baekhyun had shouted, grabbing at Chanyeol’s arm and pulling, but Chanyeol wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t. He’d just turned his face to the sky and watched. The Kaiju had screamed again, rushing the Jaeger, but there was no contest. This was what she was made for. The Jaeger had torn it apart, leaving sprays of blue splashed across the glossy, broken windows of the highrises they fought between.

The massive body of the Kaiju had fallen to the ground with a tremendous thud, and the silence that followed was almost deafening. Slowly, Chanyeol had let his hands drop to his sides, looking up at the now still form of the Jaeger. He’d recognized her, even then. There weren’t many Jaegers in service, at the beginning, and everyone in South Korea knew about the local boys, Kwon Jiyong and Choi Seunghyun.

With Baekhyun at his heels, he’d raced to the Jaeger but they were already shipping it back out to Hong Kong for repairs and cleaning. The crews were fast. Chanyeol’s no idiot, he knew to avoid the toxic splash of Kaiju blood, but before he could even get a good look at the massive carcass there were clean-up crews pushing them away, telling them that it was off limits. He remembers so clearly, the sight of one arm, stretched down the middle of the street, the curled up claws bigger than his family’s house. The scale of it had been incredible.

It’s later that he saw them. They’d ended up back at Chanyeol’s mother’s house, both she and Yoora fussing over the two of them while they’d watched the press conference. Choi Seunghyun spoke little, a faint smile playing on his handsome face, and Kwon Jiyong had deftly handled the questions. He’d seemed so small, to do things so big. Slight, long gangly limbs, and he and Seunghyun had just saved the city.

Chanyeol never, ever forgot it. The way that Seunghyun and Jiyong had both laughed a little, glancing at each other, when a reporter called them ‘heroes’. The cameras had flashed and that name had stuck with Chanyeol, wormed up under his ribs and found a place there. Hero. He wanted that.

He can hear Huang’s even breathing above him, deepening as he drops into sleep. When he’d pictured himself there, in front of the reporters, it had never been with a stranger. He doesn’t know how he is supposed to fit with Huang, who can be so soft with the people he likes, and then knock Chanyeol to the floor without hesitation, without mercy. They have drift sync testing in two weeks, and he’ll have to let Huang in then. Chanyeol swallows hard, rolling over onto his side, and staring at the floor. Huang has a massive collection of boots, and the faint light of the clock reflects off the shiny buckles by the closet.

He has to make this work. Chanyeol turns away again, stretching out on his belly and burying his face in his pillow. He will.

Chanyeol hasn’t quite gotten used to it, finding Huang sitting at the table with his friends. He doesn’t complain, anymore, though. He sees the way that Huang bends towards Minseok’s easy affection, tipping his chin up in a pleased smile when Jinri teases him. It’s good for him. And if Chanyeol’s gonna make it all the way to a Jaeger conn-pod, he’s going to have to make a few adjustments.

This face is new, though. “Who’s this?” Chanyeol asks, gesturing at Kyungsoo’s new companion. He’s not very big, and he has bowed lips and an easy, friendly smile. “Are we picking up all the Shatterdome strays, now?” Both Kyungsoo and Huang shoot him a look at that, but when Huang catches his gaze, all he does is narrow his eyes. Chanyeol grins.

“This is Kim Jongdae,” Kyungsoo tells him. “He’s your replacement.” He turns to smile at Jongdae. “This time, Kris went for skill, instead of height.”

Chanyeol squawks indignantly, laying one hand on his chest and pulling an exaggerated face. He makes a point to smile at Jongdae, even if Jinri once told him that it was kind of horrifying when he smiles with all of his teeth and makes him look a bit homicidal. He thinks it’s welcoming. “And here I was, thinking I was irreplaceable,” he says.

“Oh, buddy,” Minseok says. He shakes his head and pats Chanyeol’s knee. “You are.” He takes a sip of his juice and then blinks up at him. “Sorry, what’s your name again?”

Chanyeol shoves Minseok, laughing. He and Huang were in training all day, as usual, but he doesn’t feel as sore as he has. He’s starting to fall back into the rhythm now, and it comes easier. He’s not sure if that’s just his history or maybe it’s something a little better. He glances over at Huang, elbow to elbow with Jinri, the two of them deep in conversation. If they’re more in sync, it means they’re getting better. And if they get better, maybe they’re on the way to climbing into the cockpit of one of the biggest machines in the world and taking down some Kaiju. Sounds ideal to me.

“He’s got a point,” Jinri calls from across the table. She pulls down the corners of her mouth with her fingers. “I never see you any more. Don’t you love me? Don’t you love us?”

Chanyeol opens his mouth, but Huang surprises him, tugging on a strand of her hair. “He’s been training,” he chides, and Chanyeol pauses, waiting. He’s got no idea where Huang is going with this. “If he’s ever going to have a hope of matching me, I need him in tiptop shape.” He glances at Chanyeol, his smile a little sharp, a little playful. “He’s got so far to go.”

Maybe Kris had a good idea, when he stuffed them both in the same room. Huang’s words prickle at him, but Chanyeol just scoffs, shaking his head. “Saving the world,” he says. “Keeps you busy.” Across the table, Huang tears a neat chunk out of his roll and smirks at him.

The table only gets noisier when Lu Han and Yixing drop their trays down on the table, and Lu Han sets about doing his best to charm Minseok’s dessert off his tray. He’s overestimated his skills, as usual, but Yixing just watches the both of them, amused.

Jinri might have something there, but Chanyeol doesn’t have time to feel guilty about it. They’ve only got a couple of weeks until drift sync testing, and while the Program may be bending over backwards to keep Huang in the program now, Chanyeol isn’t kidding himself. Their patience isn’t infinite. He and Huang only have so much time to figure out how they fit together. They need every minute they’ve got.

Chanyeol finishes up the last of his dinner as Kyungsoo and Jinri do, and he grabs their trays, heading to put them away. “They’re putting on a movie in the common room,” Kyungsoo says. “Something mindless and dumb. Your favourite. Coming?”

He juggles the trays over to the trash bin and scrapes them clean, stacking them neatly on top. “You’d better,” Jinri tells him. She holds out a hand expectantly, and Chanyeol cocks his elbow for her to take. “You owe us!” When Chanyeol doesn’t immediately agree, she pouts up at him. It’s a pretty convincing argument.

“I don’t know,” Chanyeol says, pursing his lips. “I’m more of a romcom kind of dude.” Minseok snorts. “What about you guys?”

This is directed at Lu Han and Yixing. Yixing shakes his head. “Date night,” he says, batting his eyelashes. “Lu Han’s got something planned.” Lu Han wiggles his eyebrows aggressively and Chanyeol pulls a face. “You crazy kids go have fun.”

Kyungsoo’s already practically out of the cafeteria, too impatient to wait for them, Minseok and Jongdae trailing behind him, and Jinri’s pulling on Chanyeol’s arm. Still, he waits for a second. Huang is toying with his water glass, watching them go, but not saying anything. Chanyeol isn’t sure he’s got it in him to be totally magnanimous, but he can try. He hesitates, and then he sighs, meeting Huang’s gaze and gesturing at the door with a jerk of his chin.

Huang doesn’t thank him, and Chanyeol’s not expecting it, either. But he does jog up on Jinri’s other side, offering his own elbow for her to take. “Two handsome escorts,” she sighs dreamily, grinning. “Why, I am just the luckiest girl in the world, aren’t I?”

Chanyeol isn’t sure her girlfriend would agree, but he likes compliments, so he just beams at her. “Well, I’m handsome, at least.” He looks over at Huang and pointedly looks him up and down. “He’s getting there.” When Huang raises his eyebrows, mouth falling open to protest, Chanyeol tips his head and grins. “He still needs some practice.”

Jinri coos over Huang, arguing with Chanyeol before he can, just as Chanyeol had expected, and Huang...Huang narrows his eyes at Chanyeol, shaking his head. There’s enough menace in it that Chanyeol knows he scored a hit, and he’s pretty pleased with that, but Huang doesn’t snap. Progress, right?


He feels like he’s going to shake out of his skin. Chanyeol looks at Huang, but he’s motionless, focused on the screens in front of them, hands at his sides. It’s not doing anything to help Chanyeol’s nerves. He shifts from foot to foot, still unused to the fit of the drivesuit. He’d never gotten this far with Yoora. They’d done drift testing, but the suit makes it all so much more real. He’d gotten fitted for it last week, but still he hadn’t expected the weight of it. It feels almost like armour, like he’s a knight, headed out for battle.

“Go ahead and take a seat, guys. We’re ready.” Chanyeol jerks when he hears Minseok’s voice in his earpiece. It’s louder than he’d thought it would be. The testing chamber is different from Hyperion’s conn-pod, it has to be, but Chanyeol watches Huang slide into his seat on the right, all casual ease. He turns to Chanyeol, and even through his helmet, he can see Huang’s cocked eyebrow. Chanyeol grits his teeth.

It takes a few seconds for him to settle in, get comfortable. The simulator isn’t exactly like a conn-pod, designed mostly to test drift sync capacity, not a pilot’s ability to drive a Jaeger, so at least they get to sit down. He runs through everything in his head, the sequence for initialization, the repeated reminders not to chase the random access brain impulse triggers, or RABIT. he knows it all, but he’s still jittery and tense.

“Comfy?” Minseok asks. Chanyeol jerks again, but Huang doesn’t move. It reminds him of Huang’s co-pilot tryout. He’s still, but he’s waiting. “Relax,” Minseok says. “I’m only talking to you.”

The electrodes of Chanyeol’s helmet press up against his temples, and he shifts a little. “I’m as comfortable as I’ll ever get, I guess.”

There’s a soft click and then he feels the chair shift up, the Pons bridge locking into place at the base of his skull. He’s only ever done this a handful of times, and that had been years ago. Chanyeol clenches his hands into fists and takes a shaky breath. “Dude, relax,” Minseok says again. “Your heartrate’s off the charts.”

“I’m trying,” Chanyeol hisses. Drivesuits are designed for as much comfort as possible while in use, but he can feel sweat itching at his hairline. He can’t even scratch at it. This is a nightmare.

“Chanyeol.” Minseok’s voice is even. “You’ve done this before. You’ve got no reason to panic.” Around him, the simulation room is lighting up. The dual screens wink into life, running through intro sequences, and Chanyeol can feel the hum of it as the machines supporting his weight buzz awake. “It’s not a dealbreaker if you two don’t make it this time around, you know. No one expects a couple of strangers to manage a perfect drift on their first shot.”

Minseok doesn’t get it, of course. That’s because Minseok’s never been here before. He doesn’t know how it feels when it all goes wrong, and it’s all your fault. “I know,” Chanyeol grumbles. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”

In front of them, the screens still. “Ready?” Minseok asks. “I can give you a minute or two, if -”

“It’s fine.” Waiting just prolongs the inevitable, anyway. Whether or not he likes it, Chanyeol’s going to have to let a stranger climb into his head today. He might as well get it over with now. “Let’s do this.”

“Alright, then,” Minseok says. This time, Huang lifts his chin. “Ready for pilot-to-pilot engagement,” Minseok says. “Huang? Park?”

“Ready,” Huang says. His voice sounds tight, and it’s not much comfort right now, but it means that at least Chanyeol isn’t the only one feeling the weight of today’s test.


Chanyeol glances at Huang one last time, and it’s not like he’s expecting any kind of comforting last words or ‘go get ‘em, tiger’ or anything like that, but it’d be nice to know that they’re going into this together. Huang stays silent but he nods, just once. Chanyeol returns the gesture and then he turns back, staring at the screen in front of him. If he hadn’t been strapped into this chair, he’d be shaking.

“Initiating neural handshake,” Minseok says. “Here we go.” Chanyeol takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and then it hits.

It’s nothing like drifting with Yoora. With Yoora, it was kind of like putting on an old sweater that didn’t quite fit anymore. It was familiar, even if it was uncomfortable. This is something else entirely. It’s noise and warmth and light and Chanyeol is overwhelmed just trying to keep up with it all.

It doesn’t feel like a give and take. It feels like Chanyeol is drowning in Zitao’s head. He’s dimly aware of the way that he gasps for breath as he tries to sort through the assault of Zitao, Zitao everywhere. He catches glimpses of things, snatches of memories that aren’t his to know. How Jongin’s mouth feels under his, plush and slick. The recognition in Kris’ face, the knowing reflection of Zitao’s loss. The satisfaction of watching Chanyeol? himself? hit the floor, again and again. Stay in the drift, Zitao chides, and for one tiny second, Chanyeol doesn’t want to listen. Zitao is a mystery to him, and now, with his mind wide open for Chanyeol to see, now he could figure him out. He could pick through everything and find out who he is. Don’t pry.

“Chanyeol?” Minseok’s voice sounds miles away. “C’mon, man, you’re way out of alignment. Straighten yourself out.”

It takes every inch of Chanyeol’s control to pull himself up and out of Zitao’s mind. It falls aways slowly, little by little, until there’s nothing but silence and next to him, the ghost of Zitao’s gaze. Better.

Yeah, thanks. Here, in the drift, it’s easier to catch his bearings. Slowly, he becomes aware of himself again. The white fades and the simulation room drifts back into focus, and he tests his body, flexing his fingers and shifting his toes. He can hear Zitao talking to Minseok, letting him know he’s stabilized, and Zitao’s words echo in his head, too. He’d forgotten the odd sense of immediate deja vu, of everything happening in two ways.

“Chanyeol. Buddy. Talk to me. Zitao knows you’re stable.”

Chanyeol’s tongue feels heavy. “‘m here,” he says.

“Atta boy.” Minseok’s laughter is fond and gentle. “Neural handshake steady and holding. Not bad, guys.” Zitao’s surprise buzzes against Chanyeol’s mind and he bristles a little, nudging back. “See, Chanyeol? Amazing what you can do with a little focus.”

Focus. Maybe it’s the wording, and maybe it’s the location, but Minseok’s voice shakes something loose in Chanyeol’s head. He can feel Zitao turning towards him, telling him not to chase it, but it’s a bit late for that. Chanyeol remembers.

“Focus,” Seohyun chides, her voice tight. “Yoora, you’re out of alignment. Come back to us.”

Yeah, Chanyeol echoes. Come back to us. It’s always him being scolded in training, it’s always him who has to work to achieve alignment and it’s always him who has to run to catch up with Yoora, so he’s enjoying this moment. Only a little, though, because achieving stable drift with Yoora is imperative to the both of them graduating and moving on to active duty, and their sync tests have been getting inexplicably worse lately, not better. It’s just nice to not be the one at fault, this time around.

Trying. She says the words out loud at the same time, and Chanyeol looks at her. He can feel the tension rolling off her, and her...guilt? She has her lips pressed tightly together, a muscle working in her jaw, and Chanyeol frowns, concerned.

Noona? She’s pulling away, and it hurts, the bridge between them stretching thin and painful. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong, and she’s hiding from him. Yoora never hides from him. He reaches out with his consciousness, trying to find her.

Chanyeol, no - she begins, but before she can pull her mind away, Chanyeol’s following her in. Both of them have chased the RABIT, before, losing themselves in painful memories (a break-up for Yoora, and the attack on Seoul, for Chanyeol), but this time, the memory just seems so mundane.

It’s recent, and Chanyeol can tell because of how new and clear it is, fresh in her mind. “How do you do it?” He recognizes Kibum, a pilot hopeful closer to Yoora’s age than his own. He toys with his chopsticks and then looks up at her. “I’m sure you love your brother, but it’s obvious who the
real pilot is.”

“Don’t be like that,” she replies, but Chanyeol can feel it, curling in her gut. “He’s a good pilot, he just needs a little work, that’s all.”

Kibum raises his eyebrows and hums. “I don’t know,” he says. “How can you trust someone in a battle when he can’t even handle himself in a training room?”

Whatever Yoora says next in argument, it’s weak and unsure, and Chanyeol can feel it all building in her head, the doubt and the guilt, and the belief that maybe Kibum is right. It hits him like a punch in the teeth and he lurches back in his harness.

“Chanyeol!” Seohyun calls, again and again, but Chanyeol’s too far gone. He stares at his sister and all he can feel is her distrust. He’s suffocating in it. He’s aware that somewhere, Seohyun is calling for an end to the testing, and Yoora is starting to cry, but it seems so far away. When Chanyeol had sat down to convince her to try this, he’d known that it was a slim shot. Only a tiny percentage of people even had the capability to pilot a Jaeger, and it was hard work, so hard. But when she’d agreed, her hands in his, Chanyeol had felt like he could conquer the world.

And that’s crumbling. The drift cuts out suddenly, and Chanyeol ricochets back into his own body, and everything feels too heavy and clumsy. It takes him a few seconds to realize that he’s crying, the tears running unheeded down his cheeks. He lets them fall, sucking in a breath as the Pons unclips and retracts behind them, and then he gets unsteadily to his feet.

“Chanyeol,” Yoora says. She’s between him and the door, and Chanyeol knows better than to try to dodge around her. She’s always been faster, hasn’t she? “I’m sorry, Chanyeol, I don’t - I don’t believe him, you know that, right?” She looks stricken, teary and red-faced, and he wonders if he looks the same right now.

The thing is, she does, and they both know it. Somewhere, deep in her gut, there’s a little part of her that agrees with with Kibum had said. And it’s crushing Chanyeol.

Their whole lives, Yoora has always been the golden child. She got perfect grades, she always had respectable friends and was certain of what she wanted when she grew up. Chanyeol grew up in her shadow, but he was okay with that, because Yoora always had faith in him. When he was seventeen, he was convinced he was going to be an idol. Baekhyun had laughed at him, but it was Yoora who had bought him hiphop albums and listened to him beatbox. She had always believed in him.

And now… Chanyeol leaves his helmet on as he pushes past her, but he knows he’s not hiding anything. Yoora knows him too well. “Seohyun noona,” he calls from the door. “Are we done for the day?”

There’s a long pause, but then the comm crackles into life. “Yes, I think so,” Seohyun replies. She can’t know what just happened, but she’s merciful today, even so. Chanyeol’s grateful for it. “You’ve earned an afternoon off.”

Chanyeol ignores Yoora calling his name and strips out of his drivesuit, wasting no time before he heads as far away from the simulation chamber and from Yoora as he can possibly get.

He ends up in the library, holed up in a corner far out of sight. There’s no chair, so Chanyeol just tucks himself into nook on the floor. It’s always silent in here. Pilot candidates have to study tactics, but most spend their time on things they feel are more useful, like physical training, not books. It makes it the ideal place to hide from everyone and to stew and to think.

His tears dry up pretty quickly, and he’s left with a throbbing head and this enormous yawning ache in his chest. He’s under no illusions here - she is his sister, but he can’t pilot a Jaeger with someone who doesn’t even trust him to pull his weight. And that’s the sucker punch of it all - this is it. His dream is over. Chanyeol curls himself up as small as he can get and presses his face to his knees. He could feel it, under the doubt, and the guilt, and everything else. Yoora wants to go home. Maybe it’s for the best. Chanyeol’s always had a bad habit of dreaming too big. It’s about time someone brought him back down to earth.

He looks up, and Zitao’s face is right in front of him.

Chanyeol sucks in a breath, abruptly aware that he’s the only one in his head. His head is pounding and his mouth is dry. “Chanyeol?” Zitao says again. He doesn’t touch him, but he’s folded up in front of Chanyeol, hovering, one hand fluttering in the space between them. He looks concerned. That confuses Chanyeol, until he realizes that he wasn’t the only one who’d gotten a free rerun of one of the worst moments of his life. “Are you -”

“This test is over,” Chanyeol rasps. The clasps at his neck, wrists and ankles are all already undone, and Minseok stands at the door, brow furrowed. “We’re done here.”

“You don’t get to decide that,” Minseok points out, voice gentle, but he steps aside for Chanyeol anyway. Zitao is right there at his elbow, which makes it all even worse. Doesn’t he get it? Doesn’t he understand that the last thing that Chanyeol wants is company from someone like him?

He tears off his brand new drivesuit carelessly, ignoring as Zitao does the same next to him. His cheeks are hot with anger and embarrassment. He’s been trying so hard to prove himself the past few weeks, and all it takes is one moment to wash it all away. He’s exactly as bad at this as everyone thought he would be.

He doesn’t realize until late that night, staring up at Zitao’s mattress and listening to him move, that Zitao had called him by his given name.

He can’t sleep. That’s getting to be pretty common, the last few weeks. Even after spending all day in training, since the sync testing, Chanyeol spends most of his nights tossing and turning and catching a fitful couple of hours, if he’s lucky.

Tonight’s no different. Zitao dropped off almost as soon as he’d gone to bed, which almost makes it worse. He’s been listening to his steady, even breathing for hours, and no matter how he tries to match it, his brain is still on third gear, ready and racing. This is ridiculous.

With a huff, Chanyeol pulls himself out of bed and pulls on a pair of sweatpants. He glances up at the top bunk and in the dim light of the room, he can see the neat dip of Zitao’s waist and his soft, messy hair. At least one of them is getting some sleep tonight. He bends down to tug on his sneakers and he heads out of the room. The door’s not quiet, but there’s not a lot that can be done about it, and Chanyeol is sick of counting sheep.

The silence of the Shatterdome is eery at this time of night. Everyone else is in bed, and the narrow metal corridors echo with every one of Chanyeol’s footsteps. There’s only a skeleton staff running overnight, monitoring the Kaiju alert system and maintaining LOCCENT’s readiness, so Chanyeol’s got the whole base to himself to run a few laps. He’s tired and sore from the day’s training, but this is still better than nothing. He’d rather run until he passes out instead of laying wide awake while his mind circles back to the same scene it has for weeks: the failed drift sync test.

Nothing like reliving one of the worst days of his life to wind him up for weeks on end. The headache had lasted for days, lingering behind his temples every time he looked at Zitao, and it’s faded now, but Chanyeol still can’t stand the weight of his gaze. Zitao never pulled his punches, but now he is. He’s watchful. Concerned. It’s awful.

Chanyeol rounds a corner, heading back towards the Rangers Quarters again. He can hear something behind him, an echo of footsteps just enough offbeat that it sounds like someone’s following him, but he ignores it. He focuses instead on his own breathing, on pushing himself hard enough that when his door comes back into sight, maybe he’ll be tired enough to pass out for a while. If not, he’ll just run another lap. There are worse things to do.

He doesn’t get that far. The footsteps behind him get louder and Chanyeol whips around to face Zitao, only a few steps behind him. He’s not wearing much, a tank that doesn’t disguise the well-muscled stretch of his shoulders and shorts that probably don’t need to be that small. “I heard you leave,” he tells Chanyeol, coming to a stop.

Chanyeol scowls, rubbing at his eyes. “I don’t need a babysitter,” he says. “I just couldn’t sleep.” He feels pretty exhausted now, with Zitao watching him like that, all wary. He’s got nothing to worry about, really. It’s not like Chanyeol’s got anywhere to run.

Zitao shifts his weight from foot to foot, easy and smooth. “Well, maybe neither could I.”

Chanyeol can’t help the way that he bristles. “Your supervision is not needed,” he snaps, and he turns back. There’s another couple of halls to their room. Maybe when he gets there, he’ll be ready to pass out, and he won’t have to suffer through Zitao for any longer today. “And I definitely don’t need your pity.”

It’s a little bit infuriating, how easily Zitao catches up to him. He wraps a hand around Chanyeol’s bicep and drags him to a stop. Chanyeol gapes at him. “I’m not offering it,” Zitao says.

Chanyeol expects the distance he’s gotten used to, but the anger and frustration in Zitao’s voice is heated. His brows furrow and Zitao raises his chin in defiance. “Then what is this?” Chanyeol asks. He doesn’t understand what else would compel Zitao to get out of bed in the middle of the night to chase down his wayward co-pilot.

Zitao’s silent for a long moment, and then he lets Chanyeol go, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head. “I don’t know,” he admits. “But I’m trying.”

It wasn’t just the memory that shook Chanyeol up, it was who saw it. There aren’t a lot of people in the Shatterdome who know the real reason that Yoora left, and Chanyeol likes it that way. There are enough rumours floating around about poor old washed up Park, desperate enough to hang around a Shatterdome, hoping for a second chance. Zitao’s already made it pretty clear what he thinks of Chanyeol, and now he’s got extra ammo. It’s not the most comfortable situation for him. For the past three weeks, he’s just been waiting for Zitao to use it against him.

But he hasn’t. And now he’s just standing here, holding out a hand. Chanyeol’s headache is coming back. “Yeah,” he says. He rubs a hand across the back of his neck and sighs. He doesn’t take Zitao’s hand, but when he sets off in a run again, he slows his pace, letting Zitao match him.

They run past the door, and Zitao glances at him, silent. “Not tired,” Chanyeol says. It’s a challenge, but Zitao just nods. He looks sleepy, his pace flagging, but he stays with Chanyeol while they make another complete circuit of the base.

It’s nearly three am when they make it back to the Rangers Quarters. Zitao toes off his shoes and scrambles back up into his bunk, making a sweet little noise of contentment as soon as his face hits the pillow. He’s asleep in a matter of minutes, his face relaxed and lips parted and Chanyeol snorts as he strips off his sweaty shirt and pants. Lucky guy.

This time, when he falls into bed, rest seems within reach. He looks up at the edge of his bunk, at Zitao’s fingers, dangling over the edge, and slides into sleep.

The blare of the siren makes Chanyeol lurch right out of sleep, rolling out of bed and up towards the door before he remembers that he’s not LOCCENT staff anymore. He doesn’t have to rush up front anymore. “Fuck,” he mutters, rubbing at his face.

Zitao jumps off his bunk, landing lightly on his feet. Next to the door, the computer is announcing the details of the attack. Dyrim, the second recorded Category IV, is approaching Miyazaki. Tokyo’s sending two teams, and Nagasaki’s sending two of their own - Horizon Serenity and the new American team, Electric Typhoon. Chanyeol blinks at the screen, letting the information wash over him. It’s a big one.

“Should we go watch?” Zitao asks with a yawn. He pulls a sweatshirt on over his head and blinks at Chanyeol.

Chanyeol takes a moment to process that (we), scratching at his bare chest, and he nods finally. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.” The alarm continues to blare, and Chanyeol takes his time to get dressed, dragging his sweatpants up over his hips and yawning again. After three years in the Shatterdome, it feels so weird not to have somewhere to be, when there’s a Kaiju approaching the coast. He’s not really sure what to do with himself.

It’s odd, walking up into LOCCENT after the initial crush has passed. Kris gives them a nod as they come in, and Chanyeol glances at Jongdae, seated in his old station. He’s good, Chanyeol notes. His clever fingers skate over the holoscreen and Chanyeol startles when he hears him whistle to Minseok. Oh.

Jinri looks up from her station and she grins. “Look who it is,” she says. She reaches out long enough to squeeze his fingers. “Are you here to be our lucky charm?”

“Stay out of the way, please,” Kris cautions. It’s the middle of the night, and he’s still managed to show up to LOCCENT in his full uniform, a neat trick that Chanyeol knows he prides himself on. Kris has never had nearly the backbone he pretends to have, but he’s always looked the part. “Don’t get underfoot.”

Chanyeol holds up his hands in surrender, backing up a few steps. His elbow jostles against Zitao, and Zitao smiles, just a little.

“Thirty kilometres off the coast,” Jinri calls. “Local authorities in motion.”

Kris nods. “Jongdae?”

“Horizon and Typhoon are in the air, sir,” Jongdae replies. Chanyeol can hear Minseok talking quietly to one of the Jaegers, but his voice is too low to be distinct. “Perfect Warrior and Helldriver Alpha have been deployed from Tokyo, but it’ll take some time.”

“Thank you,” Kris says. He steps towards Minseok’s station and keys the microphone. “Alright, Horizon Serenity will take point and I want Electric Typhoon on the miracle mile.” Chanyeol catches a hint of Kris’ tongue as he licks his lips and takes a breath. “I know he’s a big one, but you are the best. Take him down.”

“You’re so sweet, Marshall.” Chanyeol hasn’t had much time to get to know the new American team, but he still recognizes Amber Liu’s voice. He envies the easy laughter coming out of Typhoon’s conn-pod. Rookies always do love it.

“We’ve got this.” Yixing’s voice is firm, and on the massive screen at the front of the room, Chanyeol watches Horizon move forward, striding to meet the monster.

Dyrim is taller than the past few Kaiju through the Breach, with gangly limbs and a long, wicked tail. It doesn’t lumber, it’s fast, cutting through the ocean water with a purpose, and Chanyeol’s glad that Kris has sent Horizon out to face it. They’re one of the fastest teams at the base, and it seems like they’re going to need that today.

“Come on,” Lu Han says, and Chanyeol knows it’s not for LOCCENT. It’s for Yixing. “Let’s do this.”

Before Horizon can even get within range to fire off a shot, Dyrim folds its long legs up underneath its body and it leaps. “Shit,” Chanyeol mutters, clapping his hands to his mouth. The massive beast shrieks and tackles Horizon into the water, snapping and tearing at the cockpit. The pilots grunt in unison, and somehow, the noise is even worse when Chanyeol’s listening to the scream of the Kaiju echoing off the cavernous walls of LOCCENT instead of intimately, in his earpiece.

“Horizon?” Kris says. He grips the microphone, knuckles white.

“He’s fast,” Lu Han mutters. “Tokyo better get here, and soon.”

“Marshall.” Amy Lee’s voice is tight. “We’re close. We can get there in a few minutes -”

Kris is already shaking his head. “No. No, Typhoon, I need you to hold the coast. Miyazaki is counting on you to be that last line of defense.”

“Yes sir.” She doesn’t sound pleased, but on the screen, Typhoon stays stationary, still planted between Horizon and the Kaiju, and the city behind them.

With a strangled cry, Horizon finally shoves Dyrim off, throwing it back as they struggle to their feet. “Piece of cake,” Lu Han says. “See?” Horizon’s arm raises and they squeeze out a few rounds. It knocks the Kaiju back a few steps. “Trust in us.”

He’s spoken too soon. Dyrim plants its front arms down with an enormous splash and screams, barreling forward at Horizon again. It’s unrelenting, scrabbling at the hard metal of Horizon’s exterior. The screech of its claws on Horizon’s shell is deafening and painful.

“Tokyo is fifteen kilometres out,” Jinri calls. This is twice as hard for Chanyeol without something to occupy himself with. He’s antsy, like he should be busy, he should be helping, not just standing at the back of the room, watching it all go down.

The Kaiju howls and bends down in one quick, violent motion, closing its teeth around Horizon’s conn-pod and pulling. Both pilots scream and Chanyeol flinches. He doesn’t pull away when Zitao grabs his elbow and ducks his face into his shoulder.

“Horizon, report!” Kris calls. He’s hiding his panic well, Chanyeol notes, but his hands clench into fists at his sides.

“They’re taking heavy damage,” Minseok says tightly. “Left arm is at half mobility and the plasma cannon is disabled.”

The Kaiju wrenches its head up and abruptly, one scream cuts out. “Yixing?” Lu Han cries, voice strained, desperate. “Xing? Xing!” It’s pained and terrifying and Chanyeol thinks he might throw up.

“The whole left side of the conn-pod is wide open,” Minseok says. He’s scrambling with the controls, and for once, he sounds scared. “Yixing’s out cold, I don’t know -”

Kris lunges forward, slapping on the microphone. “Typhoon, you get up there now. Horizon is down. They need cover immediately.”

The room is echoing with Lu Han’s voice, urgent and terrified. Chanyeol swallows and Zitao’s fingers tighten on his arm. “I can’t - he’s not moving, Minseok, I don’t -”

“Lu Han. You need to eject.” Dyrim is still tearing at Horizon’s hull, screaming and wrenching at the now-dead arm hanging at Horizon’s side. It’s nigh on impossible to pilot a Jaeger solo, and now Lu Han is on his own with one of the biggest Kaiju in recorded history on his shoulders. “Right now, Lu Han. Let Typhoon handle it.”

“My head,” Lu Han mutters. It’s heartbreaking. “Xing is - Kris, I can’t just bail, this is the job.”

“Losing main power,” Minseok cautions. “The core is damaged.” Behind him, Jongdae is talking to Amber and Amy, directing them up to where Horizon is kneeling, Dyrim tearing viciously at her back. “They need to get out, now.”

“Get him out of there,” Kris says. His voice is remarkably steady, and Chanyeol thinks that maybe that makes sense. After all, Kris has been on the other side of these things. He’s seen the worst of it. He knows how it feels. “Lu Han, get Yixing out of there. Bring him home.”

Typhoon is a newer model, a Mark-3 with a chestful of rockets. They launch a volley at Dyrim, knocking it back a step as they run up, leaving behind a wake. It’s the opening that Lu Han needs. “Now, Lu Han,” Kris says.

There’s a second’s pause, the room filled with the outraged and pained shrieks of the Kaiju and Lu Han’s breathing, ragged and hoarse, and then Horizon’s conn-pod launches into the air, rocketing away from the Jaeger. “Atta boy, Lu Han,” Minseok says.

“Typhoon,” Kris calls, and when Amber and Amy reply, he pulls himself up straight. “Bring it down. Now.” His voice is cold and hard.

“With pleasure,” Amber says.

Typhoon doesn’t have Horizon’s grace, but that works for her. There’s a straightforward brutality to their fighting style, but right now, Chanyeol’s grateful for that. Dyrim raises its head and screams, turning its attention from Horizon’s waterlogged corpse to Typhoon and leaping into the air.

Typhoon is heavier than Horizon, and she catches the weight of the beast, holding it up and away from her body as it snaps and shrieks futilely. The distance gives just enough room for them to fire off another round of rockets straight into its chest.

The Kaiju screams, a choked and strangled noise, and blue splatters outwards, staining Typhoon’s neon hull. There’s something very satisfying about the awful wet noise Dyrim makes as Typhoon throws it down and does their best to hammer its skull into blue pulp.

“How are we looking on recovery?” Kris asks, turning to Jongdae. He’s got his arms folded over his chest and the weight of his gaze is heavy.

“Choppers moving in now,” Jongdae replies. “If Typhoon can hold it off, they’ll pick up Horizon’s pilots within five.”

“Helldriver and Warrior have landed,” Jinri calls, voice wobbling. “Dyrim is finished.”

Typhoon had things well in hand, but two extra hands end the fight quickly. Warrior holds the coast and Typhoon locks her arms around the beast’s massive body while Helldriver wrenches its head free. There’s no doubt that it’s done when Helldriver has the Kaiju’s skull in her hands and Typhoon throws the body down again. “Kaiju neutralized, Marshall,” Amber says, triumphant.

Kris nods tersely, and then looks over at Jongdae again. “Choppers have Horizon’s conn-pod,” he tells him. “They’re on the way to shore. Medical is prepping to meet them.”

“Thank you, Mr. Kim.” Kris turns back to the microphone. “Lu Han.” His voice is gentle. “Talk to me.”

“He’s not moving, Kris.” Chanyeol has never heard Lu Han sound so crushed and lost. “There’s blood everywhere, and he’s not, he’s not moving.”

“Hang in there,” Kris says. He’s got that expression on his face again, that same soft, knowing look he’d given Zitao when he’d shown up on base. Chanyeol’s gut lurches. He doesn’t think Yixing is going to make it. “We’re going to get you back to shore and then we’ll get Yixing looked after. You just keep holding on.”

Chanyeol looks down at Zitao. He’s still got his face pressed to Chanyeol’s shoulder, and it’s a little strange, and Chanyeol doesn’t know what to do with that, but he doesn’t shake it off. Kris isn’t the only pilot in LOCCENT who’s lost a partner.

Kris drags a hand through his hair, knocking it out of its carefully coiffed perfection. “Lu Han?”

“I hear you, Marshall.” Lu Han’s voice is barely audible over the comm. “They got him, right?”

“You softened him up first,” Minseok tells him, but Lu Han doesn’t reward him with a laugh. Chanyeol can only imagine what he’s going through, right now.

Kris presses his fingers to his temple. “Alright,” he says. “Jongdae, get on clean-up, immediately. They made a mess of this one. Jinri, send someone out to recover Horizon Serenity.” She raises her eyebrows and he levels his gaze at her, steady. “We can’t leave a Jaeger out rusting in the Pacific.”

“Got it.”


Minseok nods. “You know I’ve already got medical on standby,” he says. “I’ve alerted all the local hospitals as well, in case we need a specialist. We’re ready.”

Kris squeezes Minseok’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he says. He sweeps past Chanyeol and Zitao, standing at the back. “Show’s over,” he says, but there’s no real edge to his voice. “I’m going to meet Horizon’s pilots when they come in. I trust you can handle things here, Minseok?”

“Of course,” Minseok says. He straightens his shoulders and sniffs a little. “You got it.”

Kris strides out and the room is suddenly much quieter, save for Jongdae speaking to the cleanup crew. Jinri wipes at her eyes. “Well,” she says. “There’s always work to be done.”

Zitao sucks in a shaky breath and he stands. He pulls away from Chanyeol, avoiding his eye. “Practice?” he suggests.

They’d gotten maybe three hours of sleep before the Kaiju siren had sounded, and now the sun is starting to come up. Hyoyeon will probably give them a pass for the day, like the rest of the base, but Chanyeol can’t fathom taking a break on a day like today. Not until they know how Yixing is. “Practice,” Chanyeol agrees.

They’ve never much been that close, but Chanyeol doesn’t mind the companionable way that Zitao bumps into him as they make their way down to the training rooms. Not on a day like today.

The news about Yixing doesn’t come down until the following afternoon. Chanyeol throws himself into training, and he’s glad that for once, Zitao seems to be on the same page. They’d both showed up early and have been beating the hell out of each other for hours. It’s very satisfying in a kind of painful way.

Chanyeol catches Zitao in the jaw with his heel, hard enough that Zitao’s head whips to the side and he staggers back a few steps. “Not bad, Chanyeol,” Hyoyeon calls, throwing him a thumbs up.

Zitao rolls his shoulders and raises his eyebrows. “Yeah,” he says. He pouts for a moment but it fades, the corners of his mouth turning up. There’s a certain novelty to that, Chanyeol thinks. He could get used to Zitao being a bit softer towards him. “Not bad. Could use some work.”

“I think your face begs to differ,” Chanyeol replies, clicking his tongue.

Still, despite that whole failed sync thing, this is the best they’ve ever been. Chanyeol hasn’t spent half their session on his back, which is always a nice change. He watches Zitao roll his jaw, and he’s fairly certain that he hadn’t meant to let Chanyeol land that one. That pleases Chanyeol, a whole lot.

It’s good, being able to lose himself in practice like this. When he and Zitao can hit a rhythm, he barely even remembers that Hyoyeon is there. She calls out encouragement, circling them, correcting their posture or positions, but Chanyeol’s more interested in Zitao.

He can predict his moves now, Chanyeol realizes. Chanyeol trained in taekwondo but he’s always been a bit of a boxer. He likes to use his fists. In contrast, Zitao has always favoured kicks, height, acrobatics. He grins when he sees Zitao tense his thighs in preparation for a leap, ducking underneath the neat swing of Zitao’s toes. He catches Zitao’s ankle and tugs him off balance. Zitao stumbles, but he recovers easily, rebounding and grabbing Chanyeol’s biceps.

The two of them go down hard, and this time when Chanyeol ends up on his back, Zitao lands on his chest, his chin digging into Chanyeol’s sternum and his knee landing dangerously close to Chanyeol’s junk. Chanyeol groans and Zitao giggles. It startles Chanyeol so much that all he can do is laugh in return, staring at Zitao.

Hyoyeon drops to a crouch next to them, looking amused. It’s warm in the Kwoon training room, and Chanyeol can see a fine sheen of sweat over her tattooed arms. “You know we’re training here,” she says, “not cuddling.”

Zitao squirms away, but there’s something nice about the way that he’s casual with touch now, instead of snatching himself away as though he were burned. “Does it count as improvement if I’m not the only one who ends up on the floor?” Chanyeol asks. He props himself up on his elbows and fights to catch his breath.

“Congratulations,” Zitao tells him, and drops a water bottle onto his gut.

Chanyeol is groaning and clutching at his belly when the door swings open. He can’t see who it is, so he arches his back, bending until he’s balancing his weight on the top of his head and his hips, looking at the door upside down.

Kyungsoo doesn’t look too impressed by his trick. “I thought you’d want to know, we’ve heard back about Yixing.”

Chanyeol’s heels slip and he lands on the mats again with an oof. “How is he?” Zitao asks. The last they’d heard, Yixing was in intensive care in a unit in the city. He’d suffered some serious head trauma when the Kaiju had torn open their conn-pod and he’d been rattled around in his harness.

“He’s stable,” Kyungsoo says, and Chanyeol rolls over onto his belly and sticks his hands in the air. “Minseok says that he’s been moved to his own room for recovery, but the doctors are pretty positive about it. The prognosis looks good.”

Chanyeol whoops. “That’s amazing news,” Hyoyeon says. She holds out a hand to help Chanyeol to his feet.

“But this means that Horizon is grounded, doesn’t it?” Chanyeol says.

Kyungsoo blinks at him. “Considering that Yixing can barely stay awake for a coherent conversation and their Jaeger was trashed yesterday, I’m going to go ahead and hazard a guess that yes, Horizon is grounded.”

From his spot by the door, Zitao glances at him. If Horizon is grounded, that means that Nagasaki is short a crew. There are, of course, pilots in training in Alaska, and Jaegers in production, but it turns out that massive, billion dollar machines take a bit of time to build. Kris is going to be under a lot of pressure to replace Horizon now, and as much as Chanyeol wishes they could be it, a failed drift test doesn’t make things look too hopeful. “How’s Lu Han doing?” Chanyeol asks.

“How do you think?” Kyungsoo shrugs. “He hasn’t moved from Yixing’s bedside. He looks better since Yixing woke up, though.” He raises an eyebrow, smile sly. “Why, are you planning on making them a care package? Knit them a couple of your patented matching ‘get well soon’ sweaters?”

Zitao laughs, but he covers his mouth and he laughs even louder when Chanyeol turns red instead of arguing. “You knit?” he asks, astonished. “You knit.”

Chanyeol buries his face in his hands. “I haven’t had any time lately,” he grumbles. “And sweaters are complicated.”

Kyungsoo only steps far enough into the heated room to pat Chanyeol’s hand condescendingly. “I know,” he says. “Anyway, I apologize for interrupting. I just thought you’d like to know.” He bows out quickly.

Hyoyeon claps her hands together. “Alright. Now that we’ve had such good news, let’s pick it up again. We’ve got a few more hours before I can let you go.”

Zitao lifts his hands, mischief written in the jut of his chin. “You knit,” he says again. He boxes the air a little, one of those smug little smiles on his lips. “Will you knit me a scarf?” The question is a bit bold, especially for someone who can barely hold a conversation with Chanyeol, and Chanyeol wrinkles his nose. Part of him wants to tell him no, just because he wants to drag his heels, but there’s something playful about Zitao’s teasing, and Chanyeol can’t think of another time when Zitao has been so relaxed around him.

“It’s not even October,” Chanyeol says, holding his hands up as targets for Zitao’s fists. “What do you need a scarf for right now?”

It’s not a no, and Zitao knows it. “I like scarves. Doesn’t everyone like them?” Chanyeol’s palm stings when Zitao swings in earnest, a decent cross with serious force.

Chanyeol catches Zitao’s next punch and throws one of his own, a tough hook that skates just past the tip of Zitao’s nose. “I feel used,” he says.

This is easy. Chanyeol feels like there’s been a weight lifted off his shoulders, now that he knows that Yixing will be okay, and he thinks that Zitao does too. His eyes are light and his smile sharp as he swipes at Chanyeol, ignoring Hyoyeon’s scolding to tighten his kicks. “Don’t you two want to get the okay to get into a Jaeger?” she asks pointedly, and they step apart. Chanyeol ducks his head in apology. “Get your shit in gear.”

“Sorry, noona,” Chanyeol sings. She’s got a point, though. They’re going to have to push it if they want to step it up. Kris needs another team, and he’s going to need it sooner rather than later. Their time is ticking down.

“Don’t be sorry,” Hyoyeon tells him. She taps his elbow, pushing his arm higher. “Be ready. Gimme half an hour of solid sparring, then you can fuck around.” She steps back and nods. “Go.”

Maybe he’s feeling particularly buoyed up by the good news, but Chanyeol grins at Zitao. “If you win this round,” he says, “I’ll knit you your very own scarf. Leopard print.”

It might’ve been a mistake. Zitao’s expression darkens suddenly, and Chanyeol definitely recognizes that competitive glint. “You’re on,” Zitao says, and Chanyeol raises his hands. He’s so ready when Zitao steps forward and attacks.

It’s not often, these days, that Chanyeol doesn’t know where Zitao is. They sleep in the same room, and eat at the same table, and when they train together for fourteen hours a day, that doesn’t really leave a ton of free time in between. So when Hyoyeon catches his elbow in the cafeteria to let him know that Kris has set a date for their second drift sync test, he’s kinda surprised to realize that he has absolutely no idea where Zitao has gone.

“That is weird,” Kyungsoo says mildly. He takes a sip of his juice and examines Chanyeol. “I mean, you two have been kind of attached at the hip lately. Funny, that.”

“We have to train together,” Chanyeol tells him. “You know, so we can get into a Jaeger? Save the world? Be heroes? Live my dream?” He knocks his knuckles against Kyungsoo’s skull and then jerks his hand away fast enough to escape his wrath. “Duh.”

Kyungsoo hums, clearly unconvinced. “Go,” he says, waving a hand. “Take your excited puppy act to the one person who cares.” There’s no bite to it, and his expression is as fond as Kyungsoo gets, so Chanyeol doesn’t feel guilty wolfing down the last of his dinner so that he can leave.

Excited isn’t the word that Chanyeol would use. After the disaster of the last test, the thought of another round with Zitao in his head makes him tense and stressed, but it’s still the next step. They need to get through it if they’re ever gonna keep going. “Whatever,” Chanyeol sniffs. He stands, hoisting his tray, and tips over Kyungsoo’s empty juice box. “Enjoy your lunch by yourself.”

Kyungsoo smiles at him, completely unruffled. “I will,” he says. He rights his juice box and wiggles his fingers in goodbye, dismissing him.

It takes some hunting to find him. He’s not in the Ranger common room, and he’s not with Kris, either. The training room is empty, and Chanyeol finds himself circling back to their room. He’s gotta be there.

Chanyeol’s hunch pays off. He hauls open the door to find Zitao sitting, oddly enough, on Chanyeol’s bunk, not his own. “There you are,” he begins, but he stops dead when he realizes that Zitao’s not the only person in the room.

Kim Jongin is sitting right in front of Zitao, the two of them knee to knee, their foreheads pressed together. The smile on Zitao’s face is something soft and private and Chanyeol’s never seen it before. This is an intimate moment, and it’s one he’s definitely not welcome in. His stomach twists. “My bad,” he says, backing out of the room before Zitao and Jongin can untangle their hands and turn to look at him.

Chanyeol beats a hasty retreat back to the cafeteria. Maybe Kyungsoo is still around, and he’ll let Chanyeol hang around while he does his research. It’s been years since the Breach opened in the bottom of the Pacific, and they still don’t know much about the Kaiju that emerge.

He knows he’s avoiding thinking about things. Chanyeol isn’t sure what to make of the sick lurch in his stomach when he saw the two of them, so close. Chanyeol hadn’t been trying to pry, but a peek into Zitao’s head had been enough to let him know what Jongin means to him. He should be happy to see that Jongin’s well enough not only to be up and about but traveling, too. It’s probably good for Zitao, seeing Jongin.

Maybe it was the reminder that Chanyeol’s just the replacement model that’s making him feel so sick. He tugs at his bangs and huffs. Where is Kyungsoo, anyway?

“Chanyeol!” It seems like Zitao’s making a habit of chasing him down these days. He doesn’t expect the way that Zitao’s fingers fit around his wrist, pulling him back. “Wait. I want you to meet him.”

For a rockstar, Kim Jongin is remarkably shy looking. Chanyeol takes in the bridge of his prominent nose and lingers on his lips for a second, before Chanyeol clears his throat and looks away. “Park Chanyeol,” Zitao announces, voice dramatic, “this is Kim Jongin. Jongin, meet my new co-pilot, Chanyeol.”

Jongin bobs his head and sticks out a hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” Jongin says. “Zitao’s told me about you.” It’s hard to be resentful of someone when they’re eyeing you like a kicked puppy, all big eyes and hunched shoulders. Chanyeol feels the ghost of a memory push at the back of his mind and ignores it, only sparing Jongin’s lips a second glance. It’s not his memory, after all.

Zitao’s thumb presses insistently against the pulse in Chanyeol’s wrist. “He has?” Chanyeol asks. He looks at Zitao, eyebrows raised, but Zitao’s gaze is fixed on Jongin instead. “Uh, nice to meet you too.” He gestures at Jongin with a vague wave of his hand. “Glad to see you up and about.”

“His doctors gave him the go-ahead for a visit,” Zitao says, grinning. “Doesn’t he look good?” He reaches out to cup Jongin’s face in one hand, smile fond.

Chanyeol isn’t sure that he’d agree, really. Jongin’s still obviously sick, a pallor under his tan skin and one hand steadying himself against the wall, but he’s standing, which has to be an improvement. “Like a star,” Chanyeol says, flashing a thumbs up. Still, he feels a little odd. It’s his side that Zitao is standing on, it’s his hand that Zitao’s holding, his grip warm and firm. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The silence stretches long enough to become awkward, and he clears his throat. “Uh, you ever been to Nagasaki before?” he asks.

“Once,” Jongin says. “Before we were grounded. But I only saw the labs and Marshall Wu’s office.”

He doesn’t look too steady, so Chanyeol sticks out an arm for Jongin to take. “How about a tour?” he suggests. “Don’t let Zitao keep you cooped up in our room forever. Everything smells like his cheap cologne in there.”

After a second’s hesitation, Jongin reaches out for him. “That sounds nice,” he says. “Can we see the Jaegers? I’ve always wanted to see Electric Typhoon up close.”

“My cologne is not cheap,” Zitao hisses at Chanyeol. They take slow easy steps down towards the main body of the Shatterdome, and Chanyeol’s got two of the biggest Jaeger pilots in the history of the program on either arm.

“But you do practically bathe in it,” Chanyeol tells him. Jongin laughs and Zitao digs his nails into Chanyeol’s wrist in revenge, but he doesn’t let go. It’s weird, but somehow, Chanyeol doesn’t feel too inclined to wiggle free. It’s not so bad.

“Alright,” Minseok says. It’s early, and Chanyeol had hoped that the timing would make him too sleepy for nerves, but, well. That would’ve required he actually sleep. He’s always been kind of terrible at that. So now, not only is he running on the few hours he’d scrounged while he rolled around in bed, he’s wired and tense, his heart running a mile a minute. They can’t fuck this up.

“Ready,” Chanyeol says, a half beat before Zitao does. For once, Zitao hadn’t gotten much sleep either. Chanyeol had heard him shifting around above him, seen the blue light from his phone, and it’s not like Chanyeol was happy that he was awake, but it makes him a little bit hopeful. Maybe they’re just that tiny bit in sync right now. He’s decided to take it as a good omen.

Their chairs tip back simultaneously and Chanyeol hears the click as the Pons engages at the base of his skull. “This time, Chanyeol, how about you stay with us?” Minseok’s voice is light, teasing, and Chanyeol knows he means no harm, but he still clenches his teeth for a second. Nothing like the reminder of his repeated abject failure to relax him.

“Is that how it works?” Chanyeol replies, just a bit too rough to be as casual as he’d like.

Next to him, Zitao laughs softly, and some of the tension drains from Chanyeol’s shoulders. “We’ve got it,” Zitao says. “Let’s start.”

They’re seated pretty far apart, but when Chanyeol stretches out an arm, Zitao reaches over and knocks his knuckles against Chanyeol’s. Chanyeol smiles. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

The screens in front of them light up, racing through start-up procedures. This time, somewhere in the control room, Kris is watching. Chanyeol feels the weight of it, the pressure of the Program behind him. It’s been a couple of months, and he’s pretty sure that he and Zitao have gotten good, now. The problem is whether they’ve gotten good enough. He swallows. “Initiating neural handshake,” Minseok says.

Chanyeol sucks in a breath when it hits him, and somewhere, he hears Zitao do the same. Zitao is everywhere, but it’s not as overwhelming this time. The warmth is more familiar, less suffocating and Chanyeol closes his eyes, lets it wash over him.

Fragments of memories run through his head, and more than ever, Chanyeol wants to stop and pick through them. He’s lived with Zitao for weeks but he’s still not sure he knows him. Images snag on his consciousness, giving him little peeks into Zitao’s head, but this time, he sees himself, his whole face curving into laughter, and he feels something hot prickle in his gut. It takes all of his strength not to chase that one.

When he surfaces in the Drift again, Zitao is there. His presence presses up against Chanyeol’s, and Chanyeol can feel a whisper of embarrassment - he knows what Chanyeol saw. “Here,” Chanyeol says, and for a second, he could swear that he feels Zitao’s fingers press up against his wrist and squeeze before he echoes Chanyeol’s words.

“Good, good,” Minseok says. “Keep it steady, alright?” Minseok’s voice is so solid, even, and Chanyeol peels his eyes open. Seohyun was only a trainer, and he’d liked her well enough, but Minseok has that kind of unshakeable, even-keel manner that helps anchor everyone else with him. “You know you’ve got this.”

Maybe it’s the practice, maybe it’s just the amount of time they’ve been spending together, but it’s not so hard to maintain the drift. Better. Chanyeol turns to look at Zitao, but he already knows that he’s grinning.

“You’re lining up well,” Kris says. He sounds pleased, and Chanyeol can’t help but feel gratified by that. It only increases when he feels it mirrored from Zitao. “Stable and holding. Well done.” There’s a flicker of something from Zitao, but when Chanyeol shifts his focus to him, it’s obscured again.

“Alright,” Minseok says, and the screens in front of them switch from standby to the beginning of the program. Chanyeol recognizes it - an entry level simulation program, modeled off the attack on Vancouver. “We’re gonna make sure you can hold steady for a few more minutes, then we’re gonna see how far we can push you two today.”

Zitao flickers again, and this time, Chanyeol feels him peeling away, making a soft noise. “Losing alignment,” Minseok cautions. “Zitao?”

“I’m fine,” Zitao replies, but Chanyeol can feel the strain off it. “Just - let me work through it.” Chanyeol catches a gleam of something from Zitao, Jongin’s lips and a whisper - please - then it’s gone.

“You’re way out there, Zitao,” Minseok says. “Don’t chase it.”

“I know,” Zitao hisses, and the embarrassment rolls off him in waves. He’s the professional and he’s the one who’s slipping. Chanyeol reaches out to steady him, but Zitao just slides further away, the bridge between them stretching tight and uncomfortable. He feels off in a way that Chanyeol’s never seen, flustered and upset. Whatever he’s chasing, it’s upsetting him.

Come back to me, Chanyeol says. Listen only to my voice. It’s a bit late, though. The memory’s got its hooks in Zitao, and when he’s pulled into it, Chanyeol is dragged along for the ride.

He’s never been on this side of things of a RABIT chase before.

They’re in a hospital, that much is clear. The waiting room is nearly empty, just an elderly couple seated together at the other end. Zitao’s curled up in a chair by himself, long legs folded up underneath his body, pale and wan. His hair is dark, messy and damp, hanging in his face, and he’s shaking. Whether that’s from the exhaustion or his anxiety, it’s hard to tell.

Chanyeol looks around. There’s a doctor nearby, speaking softly to an orderly in Mandarin, and that’s when it clicks in his head. Ah. Shanghai.

He takes the seat next to Zitao, watching him. Zitao’s focused on the far wall, seeing nothing, empty. Hollow. Zitao? He’s not sure of the etiquette of this, and he pushes down the urge to reach for Zitao. He’s never seen him so scared and lonely.

A doctor approaches, and Zitao tears his gaze up, doing his best to focus on the man’s face. His voice is unclear, the details slurred, and all that Chanyeol can hear is Jongin’s name, and something about brain trauma and critical condition. Zitao’s stomach clenches hard and Chanyeol winces, feeling the echo of it himself. The man nods and walks away again, and Zitao is left staring at the floor tiles.

The room is silent again for one long moment, until suddenly, Zitao speaks. “It’s my fault, you know,” he says. His tone is conversational, but Chanyeol isn’t fooled. He can feel the guilt threatening to choke Zitao, the way it squeezes his heart, makes him struggle for breath. “I did this. I put him in the hospital.”

Chanyeol blinks, and the images slam into him, sharp and painful and awful. The terror Zitao felt when Jongin’s mind all of a sudden shuttered down, nothing but black, and the way he’d slumped in his harness, pale and silent. The way the Jaeger pressed down on Zitao, like moving through concrete, setting off a fierce ache at the base of his skull. Solo piloting would kill him, and Jongin was so still next to him, and Zitao hadn’t known what to do.

Then when they’d landed, and Zitao had struggled out of his harness, stumbling over to Jongin and pushing his helmet off. He’d cupped Jongin’s face in his hands, his heart thundering with fear and relief when Jongin had shifted into the touch, eyelids fluttering. It’d been only a matter of minutes before the med team moved in, elbowing Zitao out of the way and carrying Jongin away, and Zitao had been left in the empty husk of their conn-pod, terrified and alone.

I’m pretty sure that you didn’t have anything to do with him having a seizure, Chanyeol points out. That was what the reports had said, right? It’s not uncommon for a Ranger to fold under the strain of piloting a Jaeger. Sometimes, even with a co-pilot, it’s just too much. He can feel the confirmation of it mirrored in Zitao’s head, too, but the guilt doesn’t recede.

“No,” Zitao agrees. He pulls his legs up against his chest and curls back in his chair, hiding his face behind his knees. “But I knew. I let it happen.”

Chanyeol’s confused until he catches a snatch of it, Zitao’s memories of before Shanghai. Seeing yet another empty bottle of painkillers in the trashcan by the door. The way that Jongin’s hands trembled helplessly against the Jaeger controls. And then when they’d drifted, Jongin’s certainty and his fear and desperation. Please, he’d begged, face open and earnest and scared. Zitao hadn’t had to climb into Jongin’s head to know how much he loved being a pilot. “I could’ve stopped it,” Zitao says. His voice is barely audible, but Chanyeol hears him loud and clear. “I should’ve had us grounded. I let it happen.” Chanyeol can feel the sick lurch of Zitao’s gut and the heat of his tears and he presses his lips together, wordless.

“Chanyeol?” Minseok’s voice seems like it’s miles away. “I know Zitao’s way out, but don’t follow him. Hold steady.”

“I hear you,” Chanyeol replies. If he concentrates, he can see the training room around them. He looks at Zitao, takes in the clench of his hands and the way his teeth are gritted, visible even through the helmet, and he knows he’s only really got one choice.

“Chanyeol!” Minseok calls again, but Chanyeol’s already tuned him back, turning to Zitao.

Zitao raises his face, and Chanyeol is struck by how awful he looks. He’s drawn and pale and his dark circles are so pronounced. “I’m not a good co-pilot,” he says, and when Zitao looks at him, Chanyeol thinks that maybe this isn’t all about Jongin.

He’s about to reply when he’s thrown back into his chair and his own head with a lurch. Minseok is talking to them, saying something about disengaging the neural bridge, but Chanyeol doesn’t pay him much mind. The instant the clasp disengages, Zitao stumbles forward, sliding off his chair and landing on his knees. He’s disoriented, trying to climb to his feet but wavering. “Hey,” Chanyeol says, catching his elbow to steady him. “Are you gonna be okay?”

“Don’t,” Zitao tells him. He pulls out of Chanyeol’s grip and yanks his helmet off, wiping futilely at the tears sliding down his cheeks. “Please don’t.”

“I guess we’ll call this one a failure,” Minseok sighs. “Sorry, guys.” The screens power down and Zitao starts working at pulling his gloves off too. “But we’ve got the room for a couple more hours. Take some time, gather yourself, and we’ll go again.”

Zitao is shaking. He can barely focus and he drops his gloves, cursing under his breath in Mandarin. “No,” Chanyeol says. He twists until he’s facing the camera that he knows feeds into the control room. “No, I think we’re done.”

There’s a long pause, and then: “Are you sure, Ranger Park?” There’s nothing menacing about Kris’ voice, but Chanyeol recognizes the weight of it. A successful drift test will go miles towards convincing the higher-ups at the Program to let them continue to train together. It’s been months and all they have to show for it is some bruises and the fact that Chanyeol knows Zitao’s got a fondness for leopard print. If they push today, they might get that successful test.

But one look at Zitao is enough to know that he can’t do round two. Chanyeol’s pretty sure that if he challenged Zitao, he’d rise to it. He’d try. But he’s in no shape for it, not right now. Chanyeol’s pretty much an expert on failed drifts now, and he knows how much it takes out of you. “Yeah. We’re done.”

Zitao doesn’t thank him. The most that Chanyeol gets from him is a quick bob of his chin before he bolts from the room. It’s something, though.

Chanyeol’s wrestles off his own helmet and gloves, and looks up to find Kris at the doorway. “They’re watching the two of you very closely,” Kris says quietly. “They’re not going to let this one slide.”

Chanyeol sighs, shrugging a shoulder. “I know,” he says. His helmet feels heavy in his hands. He’s only ever worn it twice.

“You’ve done really well, you know that?” Chanyeol glances up at Kris. His face has softened from Marshall sternness to something fonder. “I’m very proud of you. Both of you.” He lays one big hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder and smiles at him earnestly.

“Thanks, hyung.” Chanyeol returns the smile weakly. He just hopes it’s enough.

Once Chanyeol’s stripped out of his drivesuit, Zitao is nowhere to be found. Chanyeol goes to lunch alone, and he can’t shake the feeling that he’s missing something. He keeps turning to look for someone who isn’t there. He can’t tell if that’s a good thing.

Chanyeol kind of expected Zitao to dodge him after the drift test. He just hadn’t really expected it to bother him this much.

Their training continues, but more than a few times, Hyoyeon has been pulled out for quiet conferences with Kris while they keep going on their own. As soon as she dismisses them, Zitao is gone. He eats alone now, slipping out of the cafeteria as soon as he can, and Chanyeol still can’t figure out where he goes. He’s tried, though. It’s a little bit unfair that Chanyeol’s the one who’s lived and worked in Nagasaki for three years and Zitao can still manage to give him the slip.

He walks in on Zitao’s vidcalls with Jongin, and every time, Zitao looks drawn and upset and lonely. The thing is, he shrinks away from Chanyeol’s touch, pins him to the spot with his gaze, and somehow Chanyeol’s words dry up. It’s funny, because they’ve been in each other’s heads. They’ve seen each other at their worst, and Chanyeol still has no idea how to talk to Zitao.

It’s more than a week before Chanyeol manages to corner Zitao after a training session. Chanyeol catches him by the wrist before he can dart out the door, and he can feel the sweat under his palm. Before Zitao can argue, Chanyeol shoves his phone under Zitao’s nose. He’d gotten a text from Lu Han early that morning. “Yixing’s out of intensive care,” he says.

Zitao glances at the phone, and then up at Chanyeol. “Good,” he says uncomfortably. He tries to pull away, but Chanyeol holds him tight.

“Let’s go visit?” he suggests. He hates the way that Zitao looks at the door, and then down at the hand holding him captive. He’d thought - well, aren’t they friends by now? Chanyeol drops his wrist. “Or not, whatever.” At least no one can say he didn’t try.

Zitao doesn’t immediately run, and Chanyeol supposes that’s a small victory on its own. “Okay,” he says finally. He searches Chanyeol’s face, but for what, Chanyeol has no idea. “Yeah.”

He’s not expecting Zitao to give in, honestly. “Oh,” he says, and his grin is slow but genuine. “Okay, good.” He tucks his phone away again and rubs at the sticky itch of sweat at the back of his neck. “Um, shower first, though?”

For the first time in a while, Zitao cracks a smile. “Deal,” he says.

They take one of the last shuttles into the city. It’s been a while since Chanyeol left the Shatterdome. It’s not like he’s got a lot of time or energy outside of the practices that stretch all day long. And okay, so a hospital visit isn’t really an exciting reason to leave, but it’s still something. He shifts in his seat excitedly, messaging Lu Han to let him know they’re coming, but next to him, Zitao is still. He leans up against the window, silent, until they reach their stop. It takes Chanyeol tugging on his arm for him to even realize where they’re are.

He balks when they walk inside. Chanyeol doesn’t notice at first, gets nearly all the way to the nearest nurse’s station before he realizes that he’s alone. He spins around, searching the hall until he spots Zitao, paused by the door. He walks slowly towards Chanyeol, careful, sure steps, like he’s considering each one. Chanyeol thinks about Zitao in the waiting room in Shanghai, and he holds out a hand. That had been a wound that was barely healed over, and the failed drift had opened it up all over again. “We can go home,” he says. “I don’t think they’d mind.”

Around them, the hospital buzzes with noise. They’re at the tail end of visiting hours, but there are still plenty of people around. “No,” Zitao says finally. There’s something gratifying about how he takes Chanyeol’s hand. He’s slow to curl his fingers between Chanyeol’s but when he does, he steps close. “Let’s go.”

Yixing looks awful. They’ve shaved his head, and there’s this terrible, angry line of stitches stretching from his eyebrow up over the top of his head, standing starkly out against the pallor of his skin. He’s awake, though. That has to be a good thing. “Hey!” Chanyeol says, too loudly. Next to the bed, Lu Han jerks awake, nearly falling off the chair he’s folded himself into. “Look at you, Captain Death-Defying. You look good!”

“No, I don’t,” Yixing says, a ghost of a smile on his face. “But thank you for trying anyway.”

“You look alive,” Chanyeol tells him. “That’s pretty good to me.” Lu Han climbs out his chair and perches on the end of Yixing’s bed, freeing up room for the two of them to sit down.

“It’s good to see you,” Zitao says. When they sit, his knee bumps up against Chanyeol’s, and he leans in, his arm falling into Chanyeol’s lap. He reaches out, brushes his fingertips against the stubble of Yixing’s scalp, carefully far away from the stitches. “This is really nasty.” He tips his head and smiles. “I bet it’ll scar. Just think of how badass you’ll look.”

Yixing snorts. “If only I’d lost an eye,” he says. “Then I could’ve had an eyepatch. Extra impressive.”

“Oh!” Chanyeol says suddenly. “You could’ve rename Horizon to something more appropriate, like Pirate Sally.” He curls his fingers into a hook and squints. “Arrrrrrrr. Ahoy, mateys, there be some Kaiju at the coast.”

Lu Han blinks at him for a second before his face crumples in laughter and he twists to rest his forehead against Yixing. “You’re an embarrassment,” Zitao tells Chanyeol with a huff, and Chanyeol’s startled to realize that he sounds more fond than anything.

“Am not,” Chanyeol says, all mock affront. Yixing’s smiling though, sleepy and wan, but still genuine. So is Zitao. He smacks Chanyeol with the back of his hand and Chanyeol takes it with a laugh. Mission successful, in his opinion.

They stay until visiting hours run out, Chanyeol making sneaky little tries for Yixing’s jello and Lu Han playing defense, slapping his hands away. Zitao ends up curled up next to Yixing, his head fit under Yixing’s chin, kicking Chanyeol in the knee when he gets too close to the jello (leveling the playing field,’ he calls it, eyes sly). It’s funny how someone that much bigger than Yixing can make himself so small next to him, pliant as a cat in a good mood. Yixing nods off once or twice, just for a second, his cheek pressed to Zitao’s head and his hand in Zitao’s hair. As nasty as that wound is, he looks pretty alert for someone who’d just dodged death at the hands of a Kaiju. He’s lucky.

They leave only when a nurse politely ousts them, shooing them out after they ignore the first announcement. “Get better soon,” Chanyeol says, waving at them with both hands. “Someone’s gotta save the world.”

Yixing reaches out and taps the back of Lu Han’s hand, turning his own palm up so that Lu Han can curl his fingers between his. “More like someone’s gotta have your back when the two of you finally get out there,” Lu Han says.

“Yeah,” Chanyeol says. He glances at Zitao, but he’s preoccupied with playing with his cuffs, face dark and closed off. “Yeah, something like that.”

Zitao falls asleep on the ride home, shoulders hunched in on himself and head tucked into his chest. It’s probably a good thing, because Chanyeol doesn’t really know what to say to him right now. He settles for shrugging off his jacket and tossing it over Zitao. He always whines when he’s cold when he’s trying to sleep.

When they get back to the base and Zitao shakes himself awake, yawning and bleary, Chanyeol expects he’ll hand the jacket back. Instead, Zitao slides it on. He zips it right up to his chin, and before he hides his mouth under the collar, Chanyeol catches the hint of a smile.

The moment that Chanyeol steps through the door after practice, he’s nearly knocked over. “Sorry!” Amber shouts, turning to wave an apology at them, though she doesn’t slow. Next to her, Amy sweeps her long thick hair up into a ponytail as she runs, face determined.

It takes Chanyeol a second to register that the Kaiju alarm is sounding. “Where is it?” he calls. Zitao bumps into his shoulder, a little groggy after a long day of practice, and makes a little noise of annoyance.

“Off the cost of Yokohama,” Amber replies. Her hair is cropped close to her scalp and when she turns, Chanyeol can see the jagged white line of a scar. From their first attack, he thinks. San Diego. “Tokyo radioed us for backup.”

“Good luck,” Chanyeol says. Amy winks and salutes, and then they disappear around the corner.

He turns to look at Zitao. He looks a lot more aware now. “Yokohama,” he says. He pulls at the strap of the tank, and Chanyeol does his best not to linger on the strong lines of Zitao’s chest. “Should we go watch?”

“Is there anything to see?” It’ll take a while for Electric Typhoon to even get to the action, and until then, there’ll be a lot of hurry up and wait. “Let’s get clean, first.” He snaps his handwraps, damp with sweat, at Zitao’s face.

Zitao yelps, jumping back, and then he scowls. “Are you afraid of a little sweat?” he scoffs.

Chanyeol likes him like this. After their training sessions, Zitao is so much looser, more relaxed. Chanyeol leans in, sniffing exaggeratedly, and then wrinkles up his nose. “Just yours,” he tells him. He pauses in the hallway just long enough to take in Zitao’s affront, and then he heads back to their quarters. He really does feel pretty gross right now.

When they make it up to LOCCENT, Tokyo is struggling. Helldriver is one of the best teams on the coast, but these Category IV Kaiju are no joke. Mosrael is built like a massive crustacean, heavy-set and low to the ground, claws half the size of Helldriver’s chest. It takes the abuse of Helldriver’s assault and then some, refusing to be flipped over or moved. There’s a tiny part of Chanyeol, the giddy kid who still thinks robots fighting monsters is cool, that thinks that it’s almost impressive. The rest of him is just scared, mostly. Those are his friends out there.

It takes three hours and all three Jaegers to bring it down. Once they’ve managed it, Helldriver is missing an arm and Warrior is immobile, conn-pod missing and engine near catastrophic failure. “Good work, everyone,” Kris calls, and he takes his time to go from station to station, shaking everyone’s hands. “You did a phenomenal job today, especially since we’re one team short.”

He looks at Chanyeol and Zitao as he speaks, and Chanyeol swallows hard, feeling the weight of it. If they’d just gotten their shit together, Nagasaki wouldn’t be vulnerable right now. Before, it’d been just them, an empty slot waiting in the Jaeger bay for when they were ready to step forward. Now, however, Nagasaki’s down two teams, and the Kaiju are only getting bigger and meaner. This is not good timing. “I get it,” Chanyeol mutters when Kris comes close, but Kris doesn’t reply.

Before they can leave, however, Kris signals them. “I’d like to see you in my office in a few minutes,” he says.

After all day in training and then the attack, Chanyeol’s completely wiped out. He hadn’t anticipated having to sit in on a talk with his boss, too. He’s already getting a headache. Kris fixes them both with a stare until they nod, and then he strides up to speak to Minseok.

Chanyeol doesn’t have to see Zitao’s face to know that he’s feeling the same apprehension that Chanyeol is. There’s only one thing that Kris could want to see them for, and it’s definitely not good.

They have to wait for Kris to get through a few final things up in LOCCENT before he makes it down to his office, and that just gives Chanyeol too much time to think. Zitao drops to a crouch by the door, eyes half-closed, and Chanyeol pulls a hand through his hair, too roughly. It’s nearly midnight by now, and the anxiety settles heavily in Chanyeol’s gut. He’s trained hard, but he really should have trained harder. He only hopes that it’s not all going to be taken away from him now.

He nearly trips when Zitao grabs his ankle to stop him. “You’re going to wear a hole in the floor,” Zitao says, looking up at him. His hand drops. Chanyeol hadn’t even realized that he’d been pacing. “Relax.”

“Sorry,” Chanyeol says. He rubs at his face and yawns so fiercely that his jaw pops. He kind of wishes that tonight was already over.

When Kris shows up again, he’s sprawled out on the floor with Zitao, long legs stretched halfway across the hallway. “Thank you for waiting,” he says. He holds out a hand to help Chanyeol up but Zitao takes it instead, climbing gracefully to his feet. Before Chanyeol has much of a chance to be annoyed, Zitao sticks his hand under Chanyeol’s nose. Chanyeol makes a show of grumbling, but he takes it.

Chanyeol isn’t surprised that Zitao takes the one chair. He is surprised that Kris skirts around the desk, sliding into his own seat before he speaks. He doesn’t remember the last time that Kris took that level of formality with him, much less Zitao. “I found out this morning that Command is looking over your case right now.” Kris doesn’t look grim, because Kris really doesn’t do grim, but his words are serious. “It’s just fact that most Jaeger teams who enter training without a previous bond of trust rarely, if ever, make it to piloting. Two unsuccessful tests do not look good.”

Chanyeol sits down heavily on the seat of Zitao’s chair and bites his tongue. He wants to retort with the case of Tokyo’s Perfect Warrior, and maybe the fact that it’s only been a handful of months since they began training. They’ve come miles from where they were.

But Kris looks resigned, exhausted. It’s not like any of this is anything new to him. “They’re considering grounding you. Permanently.” Zitao makes a little noise and Kris glances at him, apologetic. Seems like their time is running out. Chanyeol reaches down instinctively and Zitao’s hand is already there. He grips Chanyeol’s fingers like a lifeline.

“So…” Chanyeol frowns. “Is there something we can do?” It seems a bit cruel to shut them down like this, before there’s even official confirmation.

Kris shakes his head. “I’m working on getting you a third test, but it’ll take time. I can’t afford to take Minseok off LOCCENT right now.” As Chanyeol watches, one of his big hands reaches up to pull at his tie, but he seems to remember himself and he stops, carefully folding his hands in front of him. “So just - train. Keep it up. That’s all I can tell you.”

That doesn’t feel like much. Next to him, Zitao clenches his jaw and shifts a little, and Chanyeol can hear him exhale. “That’s it?” Zitao asks.

“The next class of Jaeger Academy graduates within the month,” Kris says, and Chanyeol’s stomach sinks. “Your experience is useful, but not irreplaceable.” Kris sighs, pushing his hair back. “I’m sorry. It’s the best I can do.”

Before Chanyeol can reply, Zitao tugs on his hand, pulling him back again. “Thank you, duizhang,” he says in Mandarin, inclining his head. It takes Chanyeol a moment to process the fact that he understands that. “We’ll do our best.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” Chanyeol says begrudgingly, and Kris nods.

“Go get some sleep,” he says, dismissing them with a quick wave of his hand. “Typhoon’s due in soon, and I have to debrief them.” He smiles at them, tight-lipped and weary. “I’m sorry,” he says again.

It’s hard to be mad at someone who’s gone to bat for you more times than almost anyone else. “No,” Chanyeol says. “Thanks, hyung.” This time, it’s more genuine. So is the way that Kris smiles in response. When they leave, Kris is loosening his tie and staring at a picture frame on his desk, mouth downturned.

Zitao drops Chanyeol’s hand in the hallway, silent as ever, and Chanyeol isn’t really inclined to break that. There’s one person dragging them down, and it’s definitely not Zitao. He knows what he’s doing. Chanyeol’s the one playing catchup, and apparently, he’s not doing a very good job of that. Not a good feeling. There isn’t really a good way to apologize for it, either. Chanyeol’s trying, but as it turns out, effort might not be enough. He drags his heels noisily against the metal floor and bites his lip, frowning.

Back at their room, Zitao wastes no time climbing into bed. Chanyeol settles in himself, but as he’s trying to nod off, Zitao swings his head down over the edge of his bunk. “I’m going in to training early tomorrow,” he says decisively. His head disappears from view again. “Maybe you should come too.”

‘Early’ means before six am. Chanyeol covers his face with his hands. “Yeah, definitely,” he says, voice muffled by his palms. “Why not?” Seems a bit silly to give up now, anyway.

“Are you crying?” Minseok asks.

It’s been a week since the last attack, and things have finally slowed down enough for the LOCCENT team to have some kind of downtime. It’s been a while since Chanyeol hung out with them, which is why he’s sitting on the floor between Jinri’s knees while she combs her hands through his hair. Alright, so it’s getting a little bit long. “No,” Chanyeol says. He hides his face with his hands. “You’re imagining it.” He’s barely even tearing up.

Minseok squeezes Chanyeol’s cheek, cooing. “Cute,” he says. “I never knew you had this side to you.” Chanyeol throw some popcorn at him. Minseok blows a kiss in return.

“I’m glad you came today,” Jinri tells him. He thinks she’s doing her best to fill his hair with tiny braids to occupy her hands. “You’ve been training so much. I miss you! Do you even get a chance to like, see sunlight anymore?”

“No,” Chanyeol admits. He pulls a face, baring his teeth and hissing. It’s his best impression of a monster. “I’m channeling the Kaiju.”

Minseok glances at him, knocks his knuckles against Chanyeol’s knee. Of course, he knows why they’re working extra hard lately. “It’s working,” he says solemnly. He gestures at Chanyeol’s face. “You really look the part these days. I’m stoked for you.”

“Thanks,” Chanyeol says dryly. As tired as he is, though, he feels a lot better after a night with his friends. It helps, of course, to have Jinri playing with his hair, too. Maybe he’s a bit shameless, but he’s always liked being pampered. “You’re a pal.”

“You’re lucky the movie’s over,” Kyungsoo tells them. He’d claimed the prime spot on Minseok’s bed, fighting for the blankets and pillows with his fierce little elbows and carving out a nest for himself. “Because you all talk too much.” He eats a handful of popcorn and glares at them. Chanyeol pats his foot.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll let you all enjoy the sequel in peace, then.” It’s getting late enough as it is and he knows that if he nods off on Jinri’s knee and drools again, they’ll never let him live it down. Besides, as always, he’s got training at the crack of dawn, and he doesn’t want to let Zitao down. He stands, Jongdae waves him out of the way and then slides into his spot, smiling appealingly up at Jinri. “Don’t wanna end up snoring on you.” He raises his hands to comb out the braids still in his hair.

Kyungsoo’s expression shifts from irritated to sly. “Are you sure you aren’t just pining for Zitao?” he asks, and Chanyeol turns red to the tips of his ears and flicks Kyungsoo’s blanket up over his head. It takes him a minute to fight free, and he grins at Chanyeol, his hair all over the place. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he decides.

“I’m leaving,” Chanyeol says again, raising his voice and trying to ignore the way that his ears burn. That’s not it, but...that’s kind of it. He’s spent so much time with Zitao over the past few months that it feels weird not to have him around. He’d said something about hanging out with one of the other teams while Chanyeol was here with the LOCCENT techs, and it’s not like he wants to interrupt that, but maybe he’ll just check in with him before bed. That’s reasonable, right? “I don’t have to take this.”

“You love it,” Minseok tells him. He hits Chanyeol with one last kernel of popcorn as he’s headed out the door, and Chanyeol flips him off as he hears him whoop with victory. Funny to think that he’s one of the senior-most officers in the Shatterdome. His aim is pretty deadly, too.

But as it turns out, Zitao’s not in the Ranger Quarters. Amber and Amy tell Chanyeol that he’d left earlier, and when he stops by Kris’ office, all he finds is their Marshall elbow-deep in paperwork. Chanyeol makes a detour to the cafeteria to grab some drinks, but the hallways are mostly empty and no one’s seen him. The training rooms are near empty, but when he finds Hyoyeon, she points him in the direction of the Jaeger bay.

That’s where he finds Zitao. Not down on the floor, but up on one of the maintenance walkways, his long legs kicking over the edge and his chin resting on the railing. “There you are,” Chanyeol says. Zitao blinks up at him, surprised, and Chanyeol hands him one of the drinks as he drops down next to him.

“I wasn’t hiding,” Zitao says, a bit sullen. Chanyeol nods, but he doesn’t make any move to leave. He pops the lid on his drink and takes a sip, looking out. Here, they have a perfect view of Hyperion Wolf in all her glory. She’s a pretty beautiful machine, Chanyeol’s got to admit. Even if she’s been in storage for months, she’s got a shine to her red shell. “It’s kind of weird,” Zitao says quietly. “It’s been so long.” He slumps over the railing, gesturing at the Jaeger with his chin. “Sometimes it feels a little strange. Like looking into a fun mirror. It’s me, but it’s not me.”

Chanyeol nudges him with an elbow. “You’re a little bit more handsome,” he says, and Zitao cracks a smile. Chanyeol turns back to the Jaeger. “Is it as cool as it looks?” Drifting in a simulator is one thing. Actually piloting a Jaeger is a whole nother ball game.

“Cooler,” Zitao replies, lips turning up in a smirk. “It’s not easy, but.” He grins. “You feel like a rockstar. You can take on the world.” He reaches out to Chanyeol and Chanyeol swerves out from underneath his hand until he realizes that he’s just trying to comb out a braid that Chanyeol had missed. “You wanna be a rockstar?”

“Obviously,” Chanyeol scoffs. “Since the attack on Seoul.” He taps his fingers against the can in his hand. “I was there, you know. I saw Hurricane Knockout in action.” He hesitates, but then he realizes he doesn’t have a whole lot to lose. Zitao’s already been in his head once. “I saw them, and I knew that I wanted it.” He waves a hand at the Jaeger bay. “All of it.”

Zitao’s silent for a second, then he presses his hand over his mouth and laughs, surprisingly high and loud. Chanyeol feels a rush of embarrassment, his ears turning hot all over again. That was a mistake.

“Me too,” Zitao says, and he curls his fingers around Chanyeol’s knee. His whole face is lit up with it, and there’s a weird lurch in Chanyeol’s chest that he’s determined to ignore. “My dad, his company supplied a lot of the technical parts in the initial test runs for the Pons tech, and I got to meet them at a party once.” He presses his face into Chanyeol’s shoulder. “I can’t believe they went from doing hiphop to fighting Kaiju. I’ve wanted to be Kwon Jiyong since I was like fifteen.”

Chanyeol tips his face against the top of Zitao’s head for a second. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re a bit tall for that.” Zitao slaps his thigh and laughs.

It’s funny how quickly Chanyeol’s gotten used to the way that Zitao gravitates towards touch. He settles an arm around Zitao’s waist and leans into it. “Sorry,” he says, finally. Zitao makes a little noise, but Chanyeol can’t translate it, so he plows on. “I know it was kinda shitty getting stuck with me for a new co-pilot, and I’m sorry that we couldn’t make it work.”

Zitao hums. “You were okay,” he says. He pats Chanyeol’s knee. “We were a longshot at best anyway.” He curls up against Chanyeol, sweet when he’s sleepy. “Could’ve been worse. It turns out I kind of like you.”

“No, I mean -” Chanyeol’s mouth twists. “I know, with what happened with Jongin and everything, it’s gotta suck. Being grounded.” And it’s all my fault.

“Ugh, no,” Zitao says. He straightens huffs, pulling at his bangs. “Shut up.” He shakes his head. “Don’t...this isn’t your fault. Stop acting like some kind of martyr.”

Chanyeol pushes out his bottom lip. “I’m not acting like a martyr.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Zitao tells him. His gaze can be intense on the best of days, but it’s heavy now, serious. “You did your best. I did my best. We just have to hope it’s enough.” He scrunches his nose up. “So stop it.”

There’s a tightness to Zitao’s mouth, and Chanyeol knows that he’s right, but he still feels bad. He snorts and rubs at his eyes. “Okay,” he says. “I’m stopping.”

“Better,” Zitao says. His expression softens, and his head tilts the way it does when he’s pleased with himself. Chanyeol didn’t know he was so bossy. “We should go to bed. We have a long day tomorrow.”

Chanyeol groans, but when Zitao stands and curls his fingers in Chanyeol’s shirt, hauling him to his feet, he goes easily enough. He likes the way Zitao’s hand fits in his as they make their way back to their quarters and maybe it’s all the training, but Chanyeol falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

Chanyeol hopes that this extra training pays off, because it’s been a week, and he’s practically falling asleep on the treadmill. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his earbuds, tucking them into his ears. Zitao leans over the controls and nudges up the speed, a smirk playing on his lips. “Look alive,” he tells Chanyeol, taking his place on the machine next to him.

“Thanks,” Chanyeol says dryly, but he doesn’t bump it down again. That’d mean he’s letting Zitao win, and he’s not into that.

“You’re welcome,” Zitao tells him sweetly. He keys on the treadmill and then snags one of Chanyeol’s earbuds for himself. It’s a bit of a stretch, but these days, they usually manage to hit a good rhythm together and make it work.

It’s hard to keep his head up and work hard when every time he sees Kris, he’s striding from one important meeting to another important meeting, his face set into a hard mask, looking wrung out and exhausted. Their odds aren’t looking too good these days.

The thing is, Chanyeol doesn’t really know what to do other than try. They’ve come so far, and even if things don’t look too promising, he’s the closest he’s ever been to living out his dream. Quitting now just seems like a colossal waste of his time. So if Zitao keeps pushing, so will Chanyeol. What else can he do?

They run for half an hour. Chanyeol surrenders his iPod five minutes in, lets Zitao pick their songs for a while. He’s got decent taste, Chanyeol’s got to admit, and he only sneaks in a booty shaking track by a girl group like, every fourth track. Chanyeol’s even starting to get used to that, too. It reminds him of high school, of Baekhyun. He wonders if Baekhyun and Zitao would get along. Baekhyun would like him, definitely. If this were college, Baekhyun would have already sat Chanyeol down and talked him through a four step plan for Getting Baekhyun’s Hands on Zitao’s Booty.

Chanyeol snorts at the thought and Zitao looks at him, eyebrows raised in question. Chanyeol just shakes his head, but he’s still smiling. He’s pretty sure that Zitao would like the attention, too. He’s always wearing those tight pants. Something about that train of thought makes Chanyeol’s smile sour, but it’s really not something he wants to address right now. He needs his focus, after all.

Right before he gets off the treadmill, Chanyeol yanks his earbud back from Zitao, grinning when he yelps. Payback. He tries to bump Zitao’s speed up a few notches too, but Zitao fights off his hand instead. He’s always had such good balance.

Chanyeol ends up with Zitao clinging to his back like a monkey, digging his knees into Chanyeol’s side and laughing in his ear. That’s how Jinri finds them when she runs into the room, breathless. “Um,” she says.

She doesn’t crack a joke or tease them, and Chanyeol’s smile fades. “Uh, is there something…?” he asks, and Zitao drops lightly to the floor behind him, peering over his shoulder.

“Marshall Wu wants to see you,” Jinri says. There’s something very grim about the way she says it, and Chanyeol swallows hard. “Like, now.”

Zitao butts his chin up against Chanyeol’s shoulder for a moment and then straightens again. “Thank you, Jinri,” he says. He pushes Chanyeol’s iPod back into his pocket and then slides his fingers into Chanyeol’s. “I guess training is over, huh?”

Chanyeol tugs at the sticky collar of his shirt. “Do we really need to go like this?” he says.

“You should go,” Jinri tells them. “Now.” Chanyeol isn’t sure that she’s aware of the way that she’s clenching her hands together in front of her, but it’s making him feel kinda like throwing up.

“Okay, okay,” he says. He can’t decide if it’s the drying sweat that makes him shiver, or something else. He lets Zitao jostle him out of the room, his hand still held tight in his. It’s nice, an anchor. He could use that right now.

Kris’ face, when they enter his office, just confirm Chanyeol’s fears. Kris has always done his best to present a strong face to those he looks after, but his poker face needs work. “Sit, please,” he says stiffly. It’s pretty late, and Kris still has his tie tied perfectly, his shirt buttoned up all the way to this collar. All formalities. Chanyeol doesn’t even know why they’re stretching this out. He knows what he’ll say.

Zitao takes the chair, but this time, he pulls Chanyeol with him, gesturing at the arm of the chair. “Not good news, huh?” Chanyeol says.

“They simply can’t justify the continued costs of training the two of you if there’s no guarantee of a successful team in the end. When the next class at the Academy graduates, they’re sending me two teams to replace you. I’m sorry.” The worst part is that Kris truly is. He’s got his hands folded neatly on the desk and he stares at them earnestly and Chanyeol’s stomach clenches. “Trust me, I know you tried your best, and I am so proud of you both.” His gaze shifts up to Chanyeol’s face. “You proved me wrong. I wish I could give you more time.”

Zitao’s grip on Chanyeol’s hand is nearly painful, but Chanyeol doesn’t pull away. “Thank you,” Chanyeol says hoarsely. Proving Kris wrong is a small comfort when everything he’s dreamed about was so close he could taste it, and then just torn away.

“Is there anything we can do?” Zitao asks. “Anything at all?”

Kris shakes his head. “There’s just no time,” he says. “And I can’t - the Kaiju are getting bigger, Zitao. We’re still handling them, but it’s not so easy anymore. And sometimes, there are casualties of our own.” Hyuna and Hyunseung flit across Chanyeol’s mind, and he stares at the metal floor for a moment. “Nagasaki is down two Jaegers, and it leaves us exposed and underprepared. It’d be irresponsible of me to leave our part of the coast unprotected.”

Sometimes, Chanyeol hates that Kris is such a Good Guy, capitals and all. He loves them both, especially Zitao, but he would never choose them over a whole countryside of innocent people. “We get it,” Chanyeol says, and he does his best to keep the misery out of his voice. He can feel Zitao nod because his face is pressed to Chanyeol’s arm again. “Greater good, and all that.”

“I’m sorry I called you in so late at night, but I didn’t think this was something you wanted to wait around for.” Kris pauses. “You would have made a great Jaeger team,” he says, and Chanyeol feels like there’s something stuck in his throat, making it tight and hard to breathe.

“Yes,” Zitao says fiercely, warm against Chanyeol’s side. “We would have.”

Chanyeol doesn’t even want to think about it. What do idle dreams matter now, if he’s never going to get there? This was his last shot, and he blew it. Tears push at the back of his eyes, hot and insistent, but he blinks them away. He won’t cry in front of them. He won’t.

Kris’ screen chimes with a vidcall and he rubs his temples, grimacing. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I have to take this.” He stands when they do, and he looks as though some great weight is pushing on his shoulders. “Thank you for working so hard.”

Chanyeol just nods, an odd sort of numbness taking up residence in his chest. He stands when Zitao does, and he’s the first out of the door. As Marshall, Kris has always had a fairly roomy office, but right now, it’s absolutely stifling.

They’re silent as they walk back to their room. Silence is easiest. Zitao’s arm brushes up against his as they walk, and it’s a sort of comfort, but Chanyeol’s kind of afraid that the instant he tries to speak, he’ll just crumble away into nothing at all.

He almost does, too. He darts through the door of their room and as soon as Zitao’s shut the door behind them, Chanyeol folds to the ground, his face in his hands. Everything he’s worked for for nearly four years, everything he’s wanted, everything he’s dreamed of and fought for, it all just slipped through his fingers. He should have tried so much harder.

He’s startled when Zitao drops down next to him, draping himself over Chanyeol’s back and burying his face in the crook of Chanyeol’s neck. “I’m sorry,” he says, voice muffled against Chanyeol’s skin. “I know - you wanted this so much.” The thing is that Zitao wanted it too. After Jongin, all he’d had to hold onto was being a pilot. And now Chanyeol’s taken it away, all because he couldn’t step up to the plate. It turns out that everyone was right. He is a joke. “I’m so sorry,” Zitao says.

That’s when Chanyeol breaks. He cries the way he wanted to, the first time he’d chased the RABIT with Yoora, big, awful sobs that shake his whole body, and Zitao shakes with him. He can feel the wetness of Zitao’s tears on his neck. He understands the reasoning behind it, he knows that their commanders made the responsible decision for their Shatterdome, but...but it just feels so unfair. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Zitao whispers again, and Chanyeol lets himself fall.

Chanyeol doesn’t sleep that night. It’s got nothing to do with how Zitao shoves him aside and makes room for himself on Chanyeol’s narrow bottom bunk, hogging the pillow and stealing Chanyeol’s blankets for himself. If anything, the warmth of Zitao’s body, curled up against him like a cat, makes him want to nod off himself. But laying awake, his throat sore and his head aching, it gave Chanyeol time to think. He has something he needs to do.

He’s out of bed the instant he knows that there will be someone up in LOCCENT, wiggling out from underneath Zitao and pulling on a shirt. He knows he must look a mess, and it pains him, but he needs to speak to Kris, and he needs to do it now. If he hangs around in their room and tries to tidy himself up, Zitao will wake up, and that is not something that Chanyeol wants right now.

Thankfully, Kris is in LOCCENT when Chanyeol walks in, shoulders squared. “I need to speak to you, Marshall,” he announces, and Kris stares at him, brow furrowed in concern. Behind him, Minseok exchanges a look with Jinri that Chanyeol does his best to ignore. He’s got a pretty good guess of what they’re thinking right now. “Now.”

“Ranger Park,” Kris sighs, and though it’s standard for Kris to be formal in LOCCENT, it still makes Chanyeol bristle and set his jaw. “I thought we’d said everything there was to say.”

Chanyeol shakes his head. “Spare me a minute of your time,” he says, and it’s not begging, but it’s pretty close.

It takes a moment or two of silence before Kris responds. “Alright,” he says with a curt nod. “Mr. Kim, please see to the updates while I’m gone.” Minseok snaps off a quick salute, but his gaze is on Chanyeol. Chanyeol doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like the weight or the wariness of it, like he thinks Chanyeol is about to do something profoundly stupid. He’s wrong. Chanyeol’s going to do the smartest thing he’s ever done.

Kris is one of the only people in the Shatterdome taller than Chanyeol, and he’s taking advantage of it now. He strides quickly, always a half-step in front of Chanyeol, leaving him staring at the back of his jacket. It just makes Chanyeol walk faster and when they reach Kris’ office, he’s caught up. Kris looks at him, and Chanyeol stares back, defiant. He needs to do this.

“What is it, Chanyeol?” Kris asks. The door is shut safely behind them and Kris doesn’t even bother to sit behind his desk. He stands, instead, arms crossed over his chest. “What couldn’t wait?”

“Don’t ground Zitao,” Chanyeol says. It’s not what Kris is expecting. His mouth falls open a little and he stares at Chanyeol. Chanyeol plows on. “It’s my fault,” he says. “I was out of practice and inexperienced, I couldn’t keep my focus in our sync tests. Zitao is a great pilot, and you know it would be a shame to lose him.”

It takes Kris a moment to recover. “It’s not that simple,” he says. “We’ve already spent a lot of time and money just to find you and train the two of you -”

“You can find someone else,” Chanyeol interrupts. He licks over his lips. “He nearly lost his best friend and his - well, you’d know better than anyone else what that feels like.” Kris flinches like he’s been hit. Chanyeol feels a pang of guilt, but he knows that he needs to pull out all the stops for this. “Please don’t take this away from him too.”

“Chanyeol,” Kris says gently, “even if I had any say in this, there isn’t enough time to train someone new.”

“Try,” Chanyeol snaps, and he’s a bit horrified to realize that he feels like crying all over again. “Please, hyung, just - just try.”

Kris presses his hand to his mouth, searching Chanyeol’s face. Chanyeol knows that Kris expected him to beg for a second chance for himself. After all, that’s pretty much all he’s been doing for the past three years. He doesn’t break away from Kris’ gaze. He holds firm.

Kris sighs and rubs at his temple with his fingers. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, and maybe it’s the lack of sleep that makes Chanyeol throw himself at Kris, squeezing him tightly.

“Thank you, hyung,” he says. He hopes Kris knows how much he means it, with every inch of his body. “Thank you.”

Kris nods. “I make no promises,” he says.

“I know,” Chanyeol replies. But it’s better than nothing. Chanyeol won’t take the both of them down if he can help it. “It’s appreciated anyway.”

When Kris presses his hand to his forehead, it’s a gesture that reminds Chanyeol of his father, several hundred kilometres away. Chanyeol’s kind of always caused this kind of resigned exasperation in the people around him. “I’m sure,” Kris says, not unkindly. “Now go. Get some sleep or something. You look like hell and you’ve earned a nap.”

If anyone in this room needs a nap, it’s Kris. He’s been carrying the whole Shatterdome on his shoulders for years. “Yes, sir,” Chanyeol says with a wan smile. “Thank you.”

Kris waves him off, and Chanyeol opens the door to leave, and Zitao is right there, eyes wide. His face is puffy with sleep and his hair is a mess, and he frowns. “You left,” he says. He glances in the room at Kris, but Chanyeol shuts the door before Zitao can pry. “What were you two talking about?”

“Nothing,” Chanyeol says quickly.

Zitao clicks his tongue, but he doesn’t bother to argue, just butts his cheek against Chanyeol’s shoulder. “You didn’t sleep,” he says reproachfully.

Chanyeol probably shouldn’t be so pleased that Zitao noticed. “No,” he agrees, “but I was just headed back to bed. Do you wanna -?” Zitao hums and hooks his arm in Chanyeol’s, half-asleep and sweet.

Chanyeol doesn’t sleep well that day, but he does sleep, with the metronome of Zitao’s heart against his ribs to send him off.

“Oh, Chanyeol, I’m so sorry.”

Chanyeol drags his suitcase out from underneath his bunk. “It’s not a big deal, noona,” he says, all false cheer. “We gave it a try, and it didn’t work out. I told you it wouldn’t.”

He throws open the closet and starts pulling out his clothes, probably with more vicious force than is strictly necessary. On the vidscreen, Yoora raises an eyebrow. He’s never been able to fool her. “I know how much this meant to you,” she says, and the softness of her voice just makes him feel worse. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” he says. He stuffs his shirts into the suitcase carelessly. Why fold? It’ll all end up in the same place anyway. “I should probably get some kind of award. Has there ever been any other pilot wannabe who’s failed to establish drift compatibility with two separate partners?”

Yoora groans. “Stop it,” she says. “Everything will end up all wrinkled.” She hasn’t put on a ton of weight, but she’s always been so thin, and it shows in the new fullness of her cheeks and the softness of her face. He huffs, but he starts pulling his clothes back out again, folding each one before laying it in. “Are you sure you want to leave the Shatterdome?” she asks. “You seem pretty happy there. Especially now that -” He looks up sharply, face hard, and she closes her mouth, holding her hands up in apology.

“They’ve already replaced me,” Chanyeol says. “And Jongdae actually trained for this, so he’s probably twice as qualified as I am.” He realizes, with a start, that he’s trying to fold one of Zitao’s hoodies up and pack it away with his clothes. He colours and sets it aside.

“So what are you going to do?” Yoora asks.

It’s an innocent enough question, but Chanyeol still feels the weight of it. In university, he took classes more because he thought he should than any real direction. He’d always liked music, but was university really the best route? And then K-Day happened, and the attack on Seoul, and there had only ever been one choice for him. He’s not really sure what to do with himself, if there isn’t any possibility that he can be a Ranger anymore.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m sure I’ll figure something out.” He’d actually called Baekhyun, in the afternoon after he’d spoken to Kris and taken a nap. He’s doing well for himself now, working his way up the ladder at a pretty prominent PR firm, and he’d said something about finding Chanyeol a place there, if he wanted it. Chanyeol isn’t really sure what he’d do with an office job, so far away from all of the action, but he’ll make it work. It isn’t like he’s got a lot of options right now.

“That sounds promising,” Yoora says, though her tone says anything but. She props her chin up on her hand and sighs loudly, her hair falling into her face.

Chanyeol tosses another folded shirt into his suitcase. “I don’t see what you’re all upset about,” he says. “If I come back to Seoul, it means I get to be around for baby stuff.” He claps his hands and then holds them out. “Appointments, shopping for like, teeny tiny shoes. I’ll knit her an itty bitty scarf! My niece is gonna be the best dressed baby on the block.”

Yoora favours him with a look he’s intimately familiar with, the one that says ‘you are not nearly as right as you think you are’, but in a fond way. “I’m so sure,” she says. “Tiny little hoodies…”

“Little baby snapbacks,” Chanyeol agrees. He sorts through his t-shirts and wonders how so much of his clothing got mixed up with ZItao’s. “I’m gonna get her started on her rap career early, I think. She’ll be a star.”

“You’d rather be a manager of the next big idol than a Jaeger pilot?” Yoora asks.

Chanyeol flinches. “I won’t ever be a pilot,” he says, voice harsh. “And even if I stay at the Shatterdome, it’s the same either way. I still end up behind the scenes, close, but never touching.”

Yoora is quiet for a long moment. “You don’t know that,” she says.

“I do.” Chanyeol’s chest aches and his eyes burn and he focuses on his hands, on making each fold clean and careful. “I can’t keep waiting around and hoping that maybe I’ll get another shot.” He shrugs one shoulder. He feels a bit helpless. “Sometimes you need to know when to move on.”

“If you’re sure,” Yoora says.

He looks up finally and her lips are pressed tightly together in concern. Is he sure? No. But he’s heartbroken and more than a little bit of a wreck. There’s something profoundly disheartening about working so hard for that second chance and then blowing it to such a spectacular degree. Being here, in the Shatterdome, it all just feels like one big reminder of how he’s never really managed to measure up. All he wants right now is distance. If he only sees Jaegers on TV, maybe he can pretend it’s all made-up, and he never had a chance to touch greatness.

“I’m sure,” he tells her, tidying the clothes in his suitcase. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Okay,” Yoora says. She sighs again. “You better come sleep on my couch, then. I’ve been shopping around for a live-in foot-masseuse.”

Chanyeol musters up a wan smile. “I’ll be living the dream,” he says.

They talk until her husband comes home, waving a quick hello to Chanyeol before claiming Yoora for a dinner date. When the vidscreen winks off, Chanyeol’s lap still full of his clothes. There’s no rush, not really. He knows that Kris would never run them out of the Shatterdome, he’d give them all the time that they might need, but Chanyeol’s itching for it now. He’s been in Nagasaki for over three years. He’s long overdue for a change, isn’t he?

“I thought I might find you here.” Kyungsoo stands in the doorway, eyeing Chanyeol and his suitcase. “Leaving so soon?”

“Hey, they don’t need me up in LOCCENT anymore,” he says, pasting on a grin. “Time to look for something else to do. There is really only so much world-saving one man can do, you know.”

Kyungsoo grimaces, shutting the door and making a space for himself on Chanyeol’s bunk. “Don’t pull that with me,” he warns. “You look like a half-deflated party balloon, all sad and wilted.” Chanyeol’s mouth snaps shut and he colours. “Does Zitao know you’re running away?”

Zitao. “No,” Chanyeol says immediately. That’s not something he’s thinking about right now, and the way that his gut lurches at the mention of Zitao’s name just makes him want to never think about it at all. “I’m not running away.”

“Looks like it to me.” Kyungsoo has always been brusque, but there’s something sharp about the way that he’s going after Chanyeol now, and Chanyeol recognizes it. He’s hurt.


“I’m not -” Chanyeol doesn’t know how he can explain this. “I’m not running away,” he says. “I just think that maybe I’ve spent enough time kicking around the Shatterdome, you know?” He swallows down the urge to fake a smile. Kyungsoo did ask him, after all. “I did my best, but I just didn’t measure up. Time to figure out what I actually am good at.”

“You didn’t fail,” Kyungsoo says, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. “Given enough time, you two would’ve gotten there.”

Chanyeol shrugs. “Does it matter? The end result is the same. I’m going home.” He snorts. “I probably should have gone home a long time ago.”

Kyungsoo looks at him, long and hard. There’s something vulnerable about his expression when he speaks. “I thought you were home,” he says quietly.

“What?” Chanyeol stares at Kyungsoo, thunderstruck. He’d been so busy thinking about himself and he hadn’t even considered the idea that anyone else might miss him around here. And Kyungsoo, as always, has a very solid point. In Seoul, of course, he has his family. He knows his mom would welcome him with open arms, and Yoora has already extended an invite, but other than that, all of his friends besides Baekhyun are in the Program. He would be starting over again, in more ways than one.

“I think you’re making a mistake,” Kyungsoo tells him, but he makes no move to stop Chanyeol when he begins to fold his clothes up again. “And I’m not visiting you in Seoul. I’m a busy man.”

Chanyeol nods. “A world to save and all.” He lets the shirt he’s working on drop into his lap and then he holds out his arms, eyebrows raised.

Kyungsoo shakes his head but he lets Chanyeol pull him into a hug and his grip on Chanyeol’s shirt is surprisingly tight. “You’re an idiot,” he says, and Chanyeol buries his nose in Kyungsoo’s hair.

There’s a dread setting in under his skin, that Kyungsoo is right and he’s going to end up alone and lonely in Seoul. Kyungsoo is almost always right. “Yeah,” Chanyeol agrees easily, and Kyungsoo laughs a tiny bit, pushing him away.

When he stands again, he fixes Chanyeol with his stare. “Talk to Zitao,” he says. “You owe him at least that much.”

Chanyeol hates it a little, that Kyungsoo has him pegged like that. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says, his stomach rolling uneasily. “I know.” The prospect of talking to Zitao right now is frightening, and Chanyeol would much rather leave him a note and disappear, instead. If he’s honest with himself, even if Zitao gets another shot with another pilot, Chanyeol is afraid that talking to him will make him want to stay. And he’s not sure that he wants to be talked out of this right now.

“And you had better come say goodbye before you leave.” His tone leaves absolutely no room for argument on this one, and Chanyeol holds up his hands in defeat.

“Promise,” he says. He’s had three years to learn not to risk Kyungsoo’s wrath, and he’s sure he’d regret it if he headed back to Seoul without even seeing everyone one last time. Zitao is - Zitao is different.

“Good,” Kyungsoo says. “I guess I’ll leave you to your packing, then.” He nods at Chanyeol and then wastes no time in heading out the door.

Chanyeol drags a hand through his hair and then flops backward onto his bed on top of all his clothes. He’s pretty used to people telling him he’s making a mistake, but he’s always had something to work towards, a goal he was sure he’d reach. It’s so different when everything is so uncertain. He groans and pulls a hoodie over his face. Maybe he’ll just hide, instead.

Zitao corners him in the cafeteria at dinner. Chanyeol had grabbed Jinri for the meal, and they’d spent more time talking than eating, reminiscing and making plans. They’ve watched a lot of romcoms together, and it’s gonna be weird to break that habit. Baekhyun was never any fun to watch movies with, he always took issue with how unbelievable the plots were. “Vid dates,” Jinri says, pointing a finger at him. “Weekly.” She tips her hand up, offering her pinky. “You better promise.”

Chanyeol laughs and hooks his pinky in hers. “I swear,” he says solemnly. His chest aches.

Someone clears their throat next to the two of them, and Chanyeol turns to see Zitao. From the sullen set of his jaw, he’s heard the news. “Hey,” Chanyeol says. Maybe if he’s casual about it, this won’t turn into an argument.

“I need you,” Zitao says. He glances at Jinri. “Sorry,” he adds. The whole cafeteria is watching them, Chanyeol realizes, and he ducks his head, feeling a flush creep up his throat. This is the kind of attention that he absolutely does not want.

Jinri glances at Chanyeol, and she shakes her head. “No, go ahead,” she says. “I understand completely.”

Chanyeol raises an eyebrow at that. What exactly does she understand? “I guess I’ll see you around, then,” Chanyeol says. When he stands, he takes his time clearing off his tray. It’s worse now, with Zitao right there. He’s got no idea what to say to him right now.

Zitao waits until they’re out of the crowded room before he speaks. “Kris told me you came to see him,” he says.

It takes Chanyeol a second to process that. It’s not where he’d expected the conversation to go. “Ah, that,” he says. He shrugs. “Yeah, I did.”

“Why?” When Chanyeol meets his eyes, Zitao’s gaze is sharp, questioning. “I thought you wanted to be a pilot more than anything. I know you wanted that.”

Chanyeol’s getting a little tired of explaining himself. “Because you need it,” Chanyeol tells him. “And I’m the one who brought us down. It was the smart thing to do.” It was the only thing to do. Chanyeol was the one who couldn’t measure up. It only makes sense that he clean up his own mistake. Or try, anyway.

“And now you’re just going to leave?” Zitao’s eyebrows crease. “Just like that?” Someone walks past, eyeing them curiously, and Zitao’s glare is cold as ice.

“Yeah, just like that,” Chanyeol says, voice rough. He’s getting sick of people acting like he’s giving up when he’s making the right decision. The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right? He failed. He needs to move on.

“I can’t believe you,” Zitao hisses. “After everything that we’ve - all the training, all the time.” There’s too much foot traffic here. Too many passersby. Zitao huffs and pushes Chanyeol down a narrow corridor, a dead-end hall with nothing but storage units. “You’re just going to go?”

Chanyeol purses his lips. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” he says. “Especially from you. You didn’t even want me around for the first month.” He laughs once, humourlessly. “You called me a washout. I guess you were right.”

It’s been a while since Chanyeol has seen this particular blend of irritation and anger on Zitao’s face. “Don’t pretend you don’t get it,” he snaps. “Stop playing dumb.”

Playing dumb? Chanyeol’s not playing at anything. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he says.

“I want you to stay.” There’s a fierce sincerity in Zitao’s face and Chanyeol’s frustration fades as quickly as it came, replaced by something softer, hotter, more dangerous. Zitao crowds him up against the wall and Chanyeol lets him, lets Zitao cup his face in his hands, his eyes boring into him. “You’ve been in my head. Don’t pretend you don’t know it’s there.”

Can you really lie to someone you’ve drifted with? Zitao doesn’t give him the chance to test it out, and he leans in and kisses Chanyeol.

Zitao’s mouth is hot and slick and he doesn’t hesitate to slip his tongue into Chanyeol’s mouth, licking at the back of his teeth. He kisses like he’s trying to win a prize, and it would be funny if Chanyeol wasn’t getting a bit weak in the knees. He pulls Zitao to him, hands landing on Zitao’s narrow hips and tugging him forward until he’s slotted between Chanyeol’s legs. He digs his fingertips into Zitao’s sides and Zitao retaliates with a quick nip to his bottom lip, smiling against Chanyeol’s mouth.

This was why Chanyeol had wanted to avoid Zitao. “Stay with me,” Zitao says, almost pleading, and he butts his nose up against Chanyeol’s cheekbone, breath wet and warm against his jaw. “Stay.” It’s a pretty persuasive argument.

“What would I even do?” Chanyeol asks. He’s breathless, and Zitao isn’t helping anything, placing tiny biting kisses down the column of Chanyeol’s throat. “I’m not exactly Shatterdome material anymore.”

“Do you really want to go to Seoul?” Zitao asks. He tips his head up again, meeting Chanyeol’s gaze with the kind of seriousness that says that he’s already got an answer for his question. “Do you really want to leave?”

Chanyeol presses his lips together. “There’s no place for me here,” he says, a bit desperately. “I can’t hang around and wait for someone to drop a Jaeger in my lap, Zitao.” Zitao doesn’t know how much it had sucked, three years of watching new Rangers fly in, fresh from the Academy. Three years of standing by and watching everyone else get what he wants.

“Would you stay for me?” Zitao asks, voice quiet.

Chanyeol’s heart leaps, but the magnitude of it makes him freeze, his voice dying in his throat. He wants it, but it’s also kind of terrifying. Two months ago, they hated each other. Neither of them has a position, now that Jaeger training has been taken away from them and there are no openings in Nagasaki either.

He hesitates too long. Zitao pulls away, and he nods. “Okay,” he says, voice tight. His lips are red and he looks absolutely crushed, and Chanyeol clenches his hands at his sides. He wants to reach out to him. “Okay. I hope Seoul treats you well.”

“Zitao,” Chanyeol says, but he’s already walking away. “Zitao, please.”

“I’m glad I got to meet you,” Zitao says, and Chanyeol’s chest clenches at the wobble in Zitao’s voice. He won’t turn around again, and it’s killing Chanyeol. “Goodbye.”

When Zitao rounds the corner and slips away, Chanyeol slides down the wall to the floor and lets his head fall back against the wall with a thump. Well, at least Kyungsoo can’t tell him he never tried, right? He presses his fingertips to his lips and he stares at the floor, his chest aching.

Chanyeol will miss a few of the perks of working for the Jaeger Program, but especially the private transport. He hoists his last bag on his shoulder, heading out across the tarmac to where the helicopter is waiting for him. Chanyeol didn’t have much stuff to begin with, and now it’s all carefully packed away in the helicopter. It all feels pretty final.

He takes one last moment to look out at the Shatterdome. Kyungsoo was right, this has been his home for three years, and it’d served him well. He’s going to miss it all. But Chanyeol has made his choice. He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and starts to climb up into the helicopter.

He almost doesn’t hear Kris calling over the noise of the helicopter blades, and he’s halfway into the machine before he turns and sees him. Kris is smiling, which is strange, but Chanyeol’s stuck on Zitao, trailing after him. Minseok follows half a step behind.“Yes, Marshall?” Chanyeol shouts, pushing fruitlessly at his bangs, caught in the wind of the helicopter. They’d already said their goodbyes this morning, and it was exactly as quiet and short as Chanyeol had expected it to be. He isn’t sure what Kris could possibly want now.

Kris’ tie pulls loose, flapping in the wind in front of him, and Chanyeol almost laughs at the disgruntled way that Kris fights to secure it again. “Phoenix Valiant was just grounded,” Kris says. He beckons Chanyeol down and away from the helicopter so they can talk without shouting.

“Sehun knocked Soojung up,” Minseok says. He’s got his hands tucked into his pockets, and he looks pretty pleased. “You can’t drift with a baby, you know.”

Chanyeol’s familiar with the team. They’re young, one Korean, one American, stationed in Vladivostok. “And?” he asks, shaking his head. He’s not sure what the status of one team thousands of kilometres away has to do with him.

“They’ll need a replacement,” Kris says, and he smiles. “We’re sending them one of our new teams, fresh from the Academy.”

Chanyeol raises his eyebrows, and Minseok chuckles. “We’re still short a team, dummy,” he says. “Yixing has been cleared to come back, but he’s definitely not ready for active duty.”

“I talked them into giving you one last chance,” Kris says. Chanyeol’s bag almost slides off his shoulder. “It’s only a month, but it’s the best I can do. Honestly, I don’t think you even need that much time.”

Chanyeol’s heart is thundering in his chest, louder than the helicopter. “I’m glad,” he says, and he glances at Zitao. He’s still silent. “But are you sure that you want me? There’s gotta be someone who’s a better match.”

Both Kris and Minseok laugh at that, turning to Zitao. “I won’t do it without you,” Zitao says after a moment, his voice almost sullen. “I don’t want anybody else.”

Chanyeol drags his hand through his windblown hair and he snorts. Zitao is blackmailing him to stay. He probably shouldn’t be a little bit charmed by that. Zitao tips his chin up, defiant and hopeful. “All my stuff is already in the helicopter,” he says.

“That’s a terrible excuse,” Zitao tells him. He crosses his arms over his chest. “They’ll wait.”

Chanyeol hadn’t ever considered that this could happen. He wouldn’t let himself even fantasize for a moment about being called back, about getting a second chance. The time for hoping, for wanting the impossible had passed. This feels too unreal. If it weren’t for the thwop of helicopter blades behind him and the shout of the crew on the tarmac, Chanyeol would be half convinced this was a dream. It’s too scary and too big. “I…”

Zitao purses his lips. “Chanyeol.”

“Zitao,” Chanyeol replies, a bit of edge to his voice.

Zitao takes it as an answer. He darts forward and yanks Chanyeol’s bag out of his hand, throwing it carelessly over his shoulder. “You can get the rest,” he tells Chanyeol. Chanyeol blinks and Kris presses his lips together, ducking his head and trying not to laugh.

“Welcome home, Ranger Park,” Minseok says, slapping a hand on his shoulder. “Hell of a short trip you took.” Kris steps forward and signals the helicopter pilot, and the noise of the machine stops.

Chanyeol opens his mouth and closes it, watching Zitao march back to the Shatterdome. He turns around and raises his eyebrows at Chanyeol, holding one hand up in impatience, and Chanyeol grins. “Feels like I barely got off the helicopter,” he says. He feels dazed, and he can’t help but keep sneaking looks at Kris, like he’s going to take it all away all over again.

“Lemme help you with your stuff.” Minseok gestures at the chopper with his chin, and Chanyeol shakes off his fog, following him over.

“You’re never gonna let me escape, are you?” he asks, and Minseok laughs.

When he drops his bag back in his shared room in the Ranger Quarters, Zitao is waiting. “Now we both have what we need,” he says. “We won’t waste this chance.”

“I won’t let you down,” Chanyeol says. He throws his last bag down on the floor, and something shifts in his chest when he realizes that the room is exactly as he’d left it. Zitao, who’d taken up every inch of the room he could when Chanyeol had first moved in, has left half the closet and half the drawers empty. For him. “If you won’t quit, then neither can I, right?”

Zitao makes a face. “Enough,” he says. “I chased the RABIT the second time. It was me who fucked up our second test.” He shakes his head. “And I’m no rookie.” He hesitates before he speaks again. “I never thanked you for what you did,” he says, more quietly. “I don’t think I could’ve drifted again that day, but I would’ve tried.”

Chanyeol doesn’t understand how Zitao can be so vulnerable and defiant, all at once. He swallows, flushing. “It was the right thing to do,” he shrugs.

“Are you afraid now?” Zitao asks. He tips his head. “How will you run from me when I’m in your head?”

The thing about drifting with someone is that it means no secrets. It makes it twice as hard to lie to yourself too. “Yeah, I’m afraid,” he says after a second. “But I’ll try.” He holds out his hands. “I’m sorry.”

Zitao clicks his tongue but he steps forward and curls his hands into Chanyeol’s. “You were wrong,” he says with complete certainty. “But I’m willing to let you prove how sorry you are.”

Chanyeol loves how tactile Zitao is, the way he slides his hands up Chanyeol’s arms and pulls him closer. “Be honest,” Chanyeol says. “You just missed your favourite punching bag, didn’t you?”

With a little jerk of his chin, Zitao smiles, pleased. “Yes,” he agrees, and he leans in to rest his forehead against Chanyeol’s. “Exactly.”

Zitao pirouettes neatly, the flat of his foot slamming into Chanyeol’s ribs with enough force to knock the breath out of him. Chanyeol wobbles, his chest heaving, and Zitao lands it, raising his hands in front of his face again. “Nice, Chanyeol,” Hyoyeon calls, clapping her hands together. “That is exactly what I like to see.”

Chanyeol catches the little scrunch of Zitao’s nose when her praise falls to Chanyeol instead, and he grins. Zitao is the skilled one - he’s the one who’s been training since he was a child, has had these moves drilled into him until they’re pure muscle memory, but Chanyeol’s dealt with his fair share of failure in training. Zitao can dodge it, but Chanyeol knows how to take a punch. That’s important when you’re fighting a creature that fights for destruction, not to win points in a match.

If Chanyeol had thought their training was intense before, they’ve both kicked it up into overdrive in the past couple of weeks. From the moment they roll out of bed until late at night, it’s nothing but training. They run down to the Kwoon room and take their breakfast down there, studying historical assault tactics while they wait for their food to settle. Zitao’s not so good at focusing on that, but Chanyeol finds it kind of interesting, actually. He usually ends up with his nose in his book and his feet in Zitao’s lap. Pretty comfy.

Then it’s their usual fourteen hours of training, and Hyoyeon cuts them no slack. Chanyeol feels like these days, she gets in as many hits as Zitao does, quick little jabs to the small of his back to straighten his posture, a slap under his elbow to straighten his arm. Chanyeol raises his eyebrows at Zitao. “Well?” he says. “I’ve gotten good, you know. Gonna have to do better than that if you want to knock me down.”

He loves the way that Zitao’s eyes spark at a challenge. Hyoyeon claps her hands again and Zitao launches himself at Chanyeol, kick after kick aimed mercilessly at Chanyeol’s head.

A Kaiju is unpredictable. One of those things comes out of the Breach, the only thing you’re certain about is that it’s going to pack an enormous punch, and it’s going to do its best to tear up the entire coastline. Zitao, though...after four months of training together, Zitao is predictable. He loves his flying kicks, and that’s why Chanyeol knows when to dodge out from under the swing of Zitao’s foot, catching his ankle as it passes and snapping out a quick punch into the back of Zitao’s thigh.

Zitao shouts, expression dark, and he nearly ends up on his face. He gambles, hopping in towards Chanyeol and then using the closer range to plant his heel against Chanyeol’s chest and shove. He manages to yank his foot out of Chanyeol’s grip and spin, breathing hard. “Cheater,” he declares.

“Less talking,” Chanyeol says, “more fighting.” He beckons Zitao with both hands. “Or are you just trying to distract me?”

“Maybe I’m just learning from you,” Zitao says with a shrug, and he bats his eyelashes in the instant before he runs at him again.

There’s a lot of space in the training room, but Zitao chases Chanyeol into a corner with a flurry of blows with his feet. Chanyeol thinks it’s a credit of how long they’ve been at it that he can block each one with his forearms and not go down. If he didn’t know any better, he’d wonder if Zitao was going easy on him, but that is one thing that Zitao has never done. He never pulls his punches.

When Zitao leaps into the air again, Chanyeol ducks under his legs and spinning back out towards the rest of the room. Before Zitao can land, he darts in and slams his hands into Zitao’s chest. There’s no chance of Zitao recovering his balance, and he lets out a gasp, flying backwards.

He lands on his back with such a satisfying thump. Chanyeol blinks down at him, and his own astonishment is mirrored on Zitao’s face. “Whoa,” he says. He turns to look at Hyoyeon watching them both with her hands on her hips. “Is this real life?”

“I’m impressed,” she admits, nodding. “Nicely done.” She holds out a hand for a high five and Chanyeol takes it without hesitating. He’s never managed to knock Zitao down without going down with him.

“Is nobody going to help me?” Zitao asks peevishly, and Chanyeol drops to a squat next to him.

He plants his hand on Zitao’s forehead and presses down when Zitao tries to sit up. “No, stay down,” he tells Zitao, grinning when Zitao slaps his hand away, scowling. “I want to savour this moment. I think I’ve earned it.”

“Ass,” Zitao huffs, but there’s no heat in it. He settles for shoving Chanyeol over and then climbing to his feet again, graceful as a cat.

“You know,” Hyoyeon says, “I think I liked it better when you never spoke to each other.” She holds out a hand to Chanyeol to help him up. “That aside, though, I think the two of you are pretty much ready.”

Chanyeol shrugs, wiping the sweat off the back of his neck with his fingers. “I was born ready,” he insists, and Zitao shoves him again.

“I’m impressed,” Hyoyeon says again, ignoring the both of them. Zitao wanders over to the side of the room to collect a couple of towels and water bottles, doling out one of each to Chanyeol. He nods at him gratefully. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“A good trainer always has faith in her trainees,” Chanyeol tells her, throwing his towel over his neck and pouting.

Hyoyeon just raises her voice. “You’ve proven me wrong,” she says, “and I’m super proud of you both.” She throws her long blonde hair over her shoulder and she grins. “Good job, boys.”

Zitao has his lips pressed together, but it’s doing absolutely nothing to hold back his grin. “Noona,” he says. “Can we have a hug?”

It’s warm in the Kwoon room, but Hyoyeon hasn’t been working nearly as hard as the two of them have. “Oh no,” she says, holding up her hands, alarmed. “No, thank you. Your verbal appreciation is plenty. Let’s not get crazy here.”

“Noonaaa,” Chanyeol croons, and with a glance at Zitao, the two of them advance on her and pull her into a gross, sweaty hug. She laughs and groans even as she’s pulling them in tightly. “Thank you,” Chanyeol says, pressing his cheek to the top of her head.

“You two were a nightmare to work with,” Hyoyeon says cheerfully, and she squeezes them. “I’m really glad I got to watch you grow.”

Zitao chuckles. “Sappy,” he says.

“Let your noona have her moment,” Hyoyeon replies, and Chanyeol hears Zitao yelp when she pinches his side.

It feels really good to be here right now. Hyoyeon has never gone easy on them, and she’s never minced her words, either. If she says she thinks they’re ready then, well, they’re as ready as they will be. Which is good, because their next drift sync test is in a matter of days at this point. “Okay,” Chanyeol says, pulling away again. “Moment over.”

Hyoyeon claps a hand on his back, harder than is actually necessary. “I agree,” she says. “So break’s over. We’ve still got five hours to go, let’s move!”

Zitao whines, shooting Chanyeol an annoyed look. “Your fault,” he says.

Chanyeol takes one last swig of water and then he’s turning back to Zitao, hands raised. “So what are you going to do about it?” he asks. Zitao rolls his shoulders, bouncing from foot to foot, and he grins.

Chanyeol whistles as he walks into the drivesuit room, head swiveling as he tries to look everywhere all at once. “The whole team’s here,” he says, laughing. He’s been here before of course, twice, before their first sync tests, but instead of the two crew members to help them into their drivesuits before they head back downstairs, they’re all here. You only need one person to help, but when a Kaiju attacks, speed is of the essence. It’s like a pitstop in a car race: the faster you get out there, the better. It definitely makes things feel a whole lot more real this way.

“Yes,” Sunyoung agrees. The room is her command, and that much is clear - she’s tiny, at least half a foot taller than Chanyeol is with a sweet and pleasant face, but all of her staff stands at attention, waiting. “But this isn’t a party.” She clasps her hands together in front of her and she smiles. “Welcome to the drivesuit room, boys. Marshall Wu has enough trust in you that he’s decided to conduct your last test in Hyperion herself, and we’re here to get you all dressed up to play the part.”

When Kris had made the suggestion, Chanyeol had almost wanted to bail immediately. In the simulation room, if they fail, all that happens is that Minseok shuts down the computer. This is a test on a much greater scale. Kris’ faith is a bit overwhelming.

Zitao jostles his elbow against Chanyeol’s. “Please look after us,” he says politely. Maybe the crew is new, but the routine isn’t, not for Zitao. Chanyeol might not be in his head yet, but there’s something comforting about that. Three months ago, Chanyeol would’ve found it infuriating. Funny how things change. “We will do our best.”

“Of course you will,” Sunyoung says, bestowing a sunshine-bright smile at them both. She beckons them forward. “Alright, now, let’s do this. We’re the fastest team in the Program, you know?” Around her, the crew bustles into motion. “Let’s not waste time.”

They work like a well-oiled machine. Chanyeol steps into place next to Zitao and there’s already a crew member swinging forward to hook his chest place over his shoulders. “Relax,” she says, and at least she’s a familiar face. Soonkyu had helped him into his suit the first couple of times, too. “You’ve got this.” Behind her, another tech snaps his backplate up and in. “I know it.” Soonkyu taps his nose with a finger and grins.

There’s something a little bit weird about being physically bolted into a drivesuit. Soonkyu is replaced by a tall man who screws down the shell of his drivesuit with brisk efficiency. Between that and the weight of it, it almost feels like armour. He raises his hands and looks at them for a moment, flexing his fingers. Like a superhero’s costume.

The whole process takes maybe five minutes, and they’re not even rushing. It seems like he blinked and then Soonkyu is handing over his helmet. Sunyoung, at the door, keys the comm. “Hyperion Wolf, suited up and ready for conn-pod,” she announces.

“Roger,” Minseok replies.

Sunyoung gestures at the opposite door of the room, the one that leads to Hyperion’s conn-pod. “Ready when you are,” she says, and Zitao is the first one to head towards it. As he passes her, Soonkyu flashes him a double thumbs-up, and even with the anxious roll of his stomach, Chanyeol can’t help but smile back.

Chanyeol’s seen pictures and diagrams, but nothing compares him for Hyperion’s conn-pod itself. The room is big, the walls all dark steel and the polished floor dark. It’s empty until the harnesses shift down into the centre with a whir as they walk in, and Zitao doesn’t hesitate to approach the one marked with the number one. It’s the same configuration as when they were training, but he still turns back to Chanyeol, a bit apologetic. “It fits,” he says, and for a moment, Chanyeol is very aware of his position as Jongin’s replacement. He just nods, and takes the left side.

As Zitao keys in the test setting for his harness, the control screen flares into life. It takes up the entire front wall, keying through its intro sequence as the Jaeger controls push up from the floor, opening up. Chanyeol knows all of this, of course he does, he’s been living and breathing Jaeger piloting for the past four months, but it’s something else entirely to finally get to see it all for himself. He doesn’t know if his nausea is from nerves or excitement.

He runs his fingers over the control panel and looks up to see Zitao watching him, amused. “Ready?” he asks.

Right. Of course. Chanyeol’s hands shake when he sets his harness for simulation. “Pilot two, harness set.” He says.

Zitao makes it all look so easy. This is second nature to him, the way that he steps back into the harness, and raises his hands for the wrist clamps to snap into place. Chanyeol pulls on his helmet, and he’s immediately claustrophobic, his breath too noisy in his ears.

“Chanyeol,” Zitao calls, his voice loud over the comm in Chanyeol’s ear. “You’re going to be doing this a lot from now on.” One of the crew members snaps his oxygen hose into place, and there’s a click and a rush of cold air on the back of Chanyeol’s neck. “Try not to throw up in your drivesuit. You’ll have to smell that for a very long time.”

If he could reach, Chanyeol would smack Zitao. But he can’t, and instead, his hands are being fastened into his harness. “Thanks,” he says dryly.

His feet are the last, strapped in tightly to the knee, and at Sunyoung’s bidding, he raises them a few times, testing the pull of the machine. “Looks good,” she says with a nod, and another wave of nerves washes over Chanyeol. This is it. “Good luck, boys.”

The door closes behind her and her crew with a creak of metal and a snap as the lock spins into place. Chanyeol sucks in a breath, and Zitao must hear it, because he turns to look at him. “Okay?” he asks.

Chanyeol thinks about asking for a moment, but he’s not sure if it would even help. They’ll have to have this test sooner or later, and the longer he waits, the bigger his anxiety gets. “Okay,” he says.

Zitao reaches out to tap the control panel. “Hyperion Wolf, ready for the drop,” he says.

“Roger that.” The entire conn-pod shudders and Chanyeol shudders with it, his heart in his throat.

“Here we go,” Zitao says, and even through his helmet, Chanyeol can see the glint of his eyes and the sharpness of his smile.

And then the conn-pod drops.

Chanyeol’s climbed the stairs up to the level the pods are held on dozens of times, and he knows, in theory, how many floors there are between the drivesuit room and the ground level. It doesn’t mean a thing when he’s feeling each and every one of them as Hyperion’s conn-pod hurtles towards the body of the Jaeger. “Fuck,” Chanyeol gasps, struggling to brace himself on anything, even though he knew the harness would hold him steady. Zitao throws back his head and laughs. Chanyeol regrets the distance between them all over again.

The conn-pod hits the neck of the Jaeger with an echoing boom, and Chanyeol wobbles in his restraints. He can hear the resounding clang of each brace snapping into place, fixing the conn-pod where it belongs - on the body of Hyperion Wolf. “Conn-pod secure,” Minseok says over the intercom.

There’s only one step left now. Chanyeol swallows hard, more aware than ever of the pressure points of the Pons helmet against the back of his skull and his forehead. “Alright,” Kris says, his voice clear and even. “This is it. Remember, this isn’t like simulation. Are you ready?”

Chanyeol knows who that question is really addressed to. “As we’ll ever be,” Chanyeol says.

“Engaging pilot to pilot protocol,” Kris says. Chanyeol reaches out to key in his initialization code at the same time as Zitao does, shifting in his harness and listening to Minseok count down.

Zitao turns to Chanyeol, and he nods. “We can do this,” he says fiercely, and his conviction makes Chanyeol grin. He’s right. They’re ready. Hyoyeon’s said it, Minseok has said it, even Kris. They’re going to do this.

“Neural handshake initiated,” Minseok says, and Chanyeol doesn’t even have time to suck in a breath before he’s dragged under.

Zitao was right. This isn’t anything like the simulator. In the simulator, they’re only drifting with each other. This time, they’ve got Hyperion too. Zitao’s memories flit across Chanyeol’s mind, but they’re taking a backseat to the enormous pressure Chanyeol feels. It’s like he’s in two places at once, and he doesn’t know where to focus. He can’t even tell which limbs are his and which are Hyperion’s. It’s dizzying.

Chanyeol. Zitao’s voice is in his ear and so far away, and Chanyeol swivels instinctively towards it. It seems to take a lot more effort to turn than he’s used to. Chanyeol. Listen.

“He’s out of alignment,” Minseok cautions, and even if he’s miles away, Chanyeol can feel the hot bristle of Zitao’s irritation wash over him.

“Give us time,” he snaps at Minseok.

They don’t have time, though. Chanyeol catches a glimpse of Yoora’s face, stricken and apologetic, and he shies away as though stung. He knows better than to chase that. He’s already had to relive it once.

Chanyeol. Closer this time. Chanyeol is struggling just to open his eyes, but he’s still off-centre, struggling with the weight of Hyperion’s massive frame, all around him. Not only that, he’s got Zitao’s memories and his own to deal with. When he lifts an arm, it’s like he’s fighting the gravity of three Earths. It’s too much it’s too much it’s too -

Here. Right here. Warm hands around his wrists and suddenly, the pressure is halved. Chanyeol sucks in a breath, trying to get his balance. Got you.

The Drift is all impressions, and as everything calms around them, all Chanyeol can see is Zitao. “Whoa,” he mutters.

“Stabilizing. Much better, guys. Had me scared for a moment there.”

Every second that Zitao’s there, everything gets a little clearer. The whole co-pilot thing is starting to make a whole lot of sense right now. Chanyeol could never do this alone. No, Zitao agrees. You couldn’t. Chanyeol feels Zitao’s smile as he moves closer.

“Chanyeol.” The drift is settling around them when Minseok speaks again, and Zitao shifts little by little into clarity. “Verbalize for me, buddy. How are you doing?”

It’s a fight just to remember how to use his mouth again. “Yeah, I’m here” he says finally, like the words are being dragged up out of his throat. “Right here.” Zitao is warm and approving, his grip firm on Chanyeol’s hand.

“You’re killing it, guys,” Minseok says. It takes Chanyeol a moment to focus, but when he does, the screen in front of them is flashing from intro sequence to the initialization test. “Strong and holding. I’m gonna get you to calibrate for me now, all right?”

It’s the strangest sensation, to be standing two metres away from someone and to know it’s impossible and yet still feel their hand in yours. “Okay,” Chanyeol says. He’s starting to figure out where he ends and Hyperion begins, feel the weight of her massive body like extensions of his own limbs. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Ready when you are.”

Chanyeol feels the echo of it when Zitao lifts his hand. “Right hemisphere, calibrating.” The way that he hears it twice, both in his head and in his ear, it’s like an immediate sense of deja vu. Chanyeol shakes his head and the Jaeger rocks. Careful, Zitao says.

Careful. Chanyeol raises his left arm and he can feel Hyperion respond, feel her arm raise in response out in front of her body. He focuses on the motion, on controlling her movements, just as he’s been taught. “Left hemisphere, calibrating.”

He can tell that Minseok’s doing something up in LOCCENT because there’s a sudden shift and everything snaps into focus, the weight becoming bearable, manageable. Chanyeol sucks in a breath and for the first time, he thinks that maybe Zitao’s right. Maybe they can do this. Of course I’m right, Zitao chides, fondness curling around Chanyeol’s chest.

“How’s that?” Minseok’s face blinks onto the screen, and he waves a little. “It’s always a little bumpy the first time around. Gotta tweak for your brain patterns, especially with you old guys.” He winks.

“If I’m old, you’re decrepit,” Chanyeol points out. He wiggles his jaw around trying to shake off the tightness. His teeth are already starting to ache. How do you people do this?

Practice, Zitao replies.

“Perfect, guys,” Minseok says. The screen shifts again, this time to a training simulation. “We’re gonna run you through a few exercises to get you used to working together, and then we’ll let you go, alright?”

“I’ll be sending my report to Command immediately,” Kris tells them, and Chanyeol’s can feel his own pleasure mirrored in Zitao. “I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear about such a successful test.”

“Not even a wobble once you got aligned,” Minseok says, and he sounds so proud. “You guys nailed it. Congratulations.”

Chanyeol doesn’t know how to respond. He still feels a bit like he’s juggling while running on a treadmill, but they’ve done it. He’s a real Ranger now, a true pilot. “We make a good team,” he says after a moment, because it’s the only thing he can think of, and it feels right.

“Yeah, we do,” Zitao agrees, his laughter doubled up in Chanyeol’s head, and Chanyeol grins until his face might break.

“Movement in the Breach.” The light of the vidscreen throws an eerie red glow across everything in the room, and for a second, Chanyeol is completely disoriented. He shifts and Zitao makes a noise of complaint, butting his head up against Chanyeol’s chin and pulling him tighter. They’ve really gotta quit sleeping in the same bunk, Chanyeol keeps waking up either stiff and uncomfortable or on the floor and cold. “Category III off the coast of Busan. Code name Saraneth. Hyperion Wolf, report to bay twelve.”

It takes a second for the mechanical voice to sink in, and then Chanyeol jerks straight upright, banging his head off Zitao’s bunk. “Fuck,” he hisses, holding a hand top of his head. The movement has dislodged Zitao too, and sent him tumbling off the bed. In the red light of the room, his glare looks particularly demonic. “Kaiju alert,” Chanyeol explains, scrubbing at his eyes. Zitao glowers and hisses something in Mandarin, yanking Chanyeol’s blanket away. A couple of months worth of drifting with Zitao means that he’s picked up enough of the language to know that that is definitely not flattering. “They’re calling for us.”

“Oh,” Zitao says. He stands with the blanket around his shoulders like a cape, blinking away sleep. “What time is it, anyway?”

It turns out to be three in the morning, but the exhilaration is waking Chanyeol up in an instant. “Our first run,” he tells Zitao breathlessly, shaking his arm even as they’re jogging up to the drivesuit room. “We’re gonna fight a Kaiju.”

“That is the job,” Zitao says, but he hooks his elbow in Chanyeol’s and squeezes, grinning at him.

Sunyoung and her team really are fast. Chanyeol had thought so before, they’re in and out, suits tested and all, in less than five minutes. “Do us proud,” she tells Chanyeol when she slots his oxygen tube into place in the conn-pod, knocking her knuckles against his helmet for luck.

This time, when Minseok initiates the drift, it only takes Chanyeol a moment or two to orient himself before he’s surfacing again, the shift of Zitao’s mind in his nearly comfortable. “Hyperion Wolf,” Kris calls, stern and even, “you will be headed out with Horizon Serenity and Electric Typhoon. Typhoon will hold down the coast while Horizon and Hyperion take point with Saraneth.”

Kris’ unshakeable faith in them is so gratifying but also a little bit terrifying. They’re taking point? And if Horizon’s coming out with them… “I thought Yixing was still grounded?” Chanyeol asks.

Chanyeol can hear Kris sigh even over the comm. “Mr. Zhang thought it was important that Horizon be there when Hyperion went out on her first battle,” he says, and Chanyeol feels Zitao’s grin pulling the corners of his own mouth up. Chanyeol would trust any of the other of the other teams in the Shatterdome, but knowing that it’s Yixing and Lu Han out there with them, well. It feels good.

“Told you we’d have your back,” Yixing says, and Chanyeol laughs.

“Good luck, Rangers.”

It takes a while to get out to Busan, though the helicopters that carry them move as quickly as they can. It’s enough time for Chanyeol to get antsy, and annoy Zitao enough to push at him with his mind. “Relax,” Zitao chides. “You’re gonna burn out all your energy before we even get there, and we’re going to need it.”

He knows that Zitao is right, but Chanyeol can’t stop fidgeting. He’s always had a bit too much energy anyway. “Sorry,” he says, though he doesn’t really mean it. Zitao snorts. You can’t lie to someone who’s already in your head.

Typhoon is the first on the scene, striding to put herself in between the city and the Kaiju and hold the miracle mile. “You’re up next, Hyperion,” Minseok says, and Chanyeol feels like he’ll vibrate right out of his skin. “Get ready for it.”

The Kaiju is only a couple of kilometres away when the helicopters let them go and Hyperion falls into the ocean. The shock of impact radiates up Chanyeol’s legs, and he takes a shaky breath. “Hyperion, headed out,” Zitao says, and then he turns to Chanyeol and nods once. Jittery nerves aside, this is serious business. Lives are depending on them.

Chanyeol’s still getting used to piloting Hyperion. Zitao’s experience helps, but there’s just nothing that compares to it. The scale of Hyperion is so great that everything’s slowed down by necessity - big, slow steps that leave waves in their wake and have the Kaiju’s head swiveling towards them, locking on and breaking into a run.

Saraneth isn’t the largest Kaiju the Nagasaki Jaegers have dealt with, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a kitten. It’s got a pair of wicked horns on its head and a massive mouth filled with jagged teeth. Hyperion is a Mark-3, lighter and faster than most of their predecessors, and Chanyeol hopes that’ll be enough. “Steady,” he reminds himself, and as one, they raise Hyperion’s hands in front of her face. “Steady”

Saraneth shrieks at them, dipping its head down into the water and raising it again, seawater rushing down over its face as it roars. “We’ll go first,” Zitao decides, and Lu Han and Yixing call their understanding as Horizon lands behind them. “Yixing doesn’t have the tolerance he’s used to. We’ll tire it out, and if we need your help, you can step in. Agreed?”

“Sound plan, Taozi,” Lu Han says. “Let’s go to work.”

The Kaiju isn’t more than a few lengths away now, splashing through the ocean, its blue eyes shining in the night sky. Hyperion’s sensors make the Kaiju easily visible to her, stark against the skyline, but there’s something about the glow of its teeth and mouth that’s very unsettling. “Chanyeol,” Zitao says. “Focus.”

“I’m here,” Chanyeol says. I’m with you.

Good. “Hands up,” Zitao calls. “Brace for impact.”

Even if Chanyeol understands that they’re technically drifting with Hyperion, he doesn’t really get it until Saraneth collides with them at a run, barreling into them and sending them skipping like a flat stone across the water. The impact of it knocks his breath away, as though it were him it’d hit, and he’s stunned. “Shit,” he gasps.

The thing about being knocked over like this is it sucks, but all of a sudden, there’s anger bubbling under Chanyeol’s skin. It’s the same kind of anger he felt when Zitao used to knock him down with that look on his face, cold and impersonal. Yes, Zitao says.

“You okay, Hyperion?” Yixing asks over the comm.

“Let’s fuck this guy up,” Chanyeol growls, and he knows that Zitao’s grinning.

Saraneth is rapidly closing the distance on them, and they need to get back up, right now. Chanyeol thinks about the first time he saw Zitao fight. “I have an idea,” he says. Zitao catches sight of the image in his mind and he laughs.

They bend Hyperion’s arms up over her head and it’s Zitao’s muscle memory that shifts her weight to her shoulders. With a grunt, they throw the massive body of the Jaeger up into a standing position using only the strength of her legs and the momentum of the movement. She wobbles but remains upright.

“I can’t believe we just did that in a Jaeger,” Zitao says, and Lu Han is howling over the comm.

“You two are unbelievable,” he crows.

They don’t really get a moment to bask in it, though. The Kaiju is right there, shrieking its displeasure, and it leaps at them again.

This time, Hyperion remains standing, although Chanyeol can feel the Kaiju dig in its claws, like a particularly vicious cat. As the two of them focus in on the Kaiju clinging to Hyperion’s chest, the line blurs between them, and they think as one. It’s easy to curl Hyperion’s fingers around the Kaiju’s throat, hammering upward with her free hand until the monster is howling and scrabbling desperately at Hyperion’s hull, and there’s something very satisfying about the splash of blue across Hyperion’s knuckles. This beast isn’t getting anywhere near Chanyeol’s home country.

Saraneth squirms free, spitting and furious, and it shrieks its rage at them. “You’ve got this, boys,” Minseok tells them. “Bring it home.”

Hyperion attacks first this time. Chanyeol doesn’t know if he thinks of it first, or Zitao, but they swing up Hyperion’s arm, a panel opening up to reveal a rocket that they lever at Saraneth’s face. It’s not easy to aim with two people, and instead of its eye, which Chanyeol had intended, or the back of its throat, which was what Zitao had wanted, the rocket shoots out and detonates in the meaty part of the Kaiju’s shoulder instead.

It just makes the beast angrier. It roars and ducks its head, catching Hyperion in the ribs with the sharp point, and Chanyeol is astonished when he feels it dig in and tear. It’s the oddest sort of pain, one that isn’t his or Zitao’s, but Hyperion’s, and he lets out a shout that Zitao echoes.

Use it,” Zitao thinks, and they stretch Hyperion’s arm out to grab the other horn, holding the Kaiju’s head close. A Kaiju can do a lot of damage like this, but it also can’t evade them, and that’s crucial. They’ve only got one other rocket, but this time there’s no confusion. They’ve got this.

The Kaiju screams when the rocket punctures its eye, a shrill, desperate noise, and it thrashes, desperately seeking escape. It’s unfortunate because its horn is still hooked in Hyperion’s hull and as it drags the tear open further, Chanyeol feels like his entire side is on fire. They have to stop it, and they have to stop it now.

Together, they hammer Hyperion’s fist into the open wound of Saraneth’s eye, again and again until its fighting gets weaker and the noises get quieter and most of its face is a bright blue bloody pulp. Horizon approaches then, helps them pull the Kaiju’s horn free of Hyperion’s gut, and they fire one last shot into the beast’s head just to be certain.

“Well done, boys,” Kris says, and Chanyeol is laughing and shaking, a bone deep ache somewhere behind his ribs that feels like it should be bleeding. “Saraneth disabled. Attack successful. Stand down.” The cheers of LOCCENT staff are faint but Chanyeol still grins to hear them. He feels lightheaded, but in a good way, the adrenaline still racing through his system.

“Nicely done,” Yixing tells them. “You didn’t even need us here.”

“Well,” Lu Han says. “It was only a Category III, after all.” Chanyeol just laughs.

Their comms crackle on again. “Head into shore,” Kris says. “We’ve schedule the press conference for nine am, so we can get it out of the way, and then you’re more than welcome to take the day to yourselves. I think you’ve earned it.”

Chanyeol is still pretty much at a loss. He needs the way that Zitao’s presence curls around him and shakes a little, warm and fond. We did it, he says, which seems a little bit absurd to Chanyeol, because he still feels mostly like he was along for the ride.

“Yeah,” Chanyeol agrees, “we did.” Through Hyperion’s sensors, he can see the blue blood dripping from Hyperion’s hands, and he feels Zitao’s smile against the back of his neck. Right now, he thinks, he could take on anything.

He has to admit, it’s a great feeling when the three of them stride towards Busan, the whole shoreline lit up. The Shatterdome had sent word for evacuation, of course, but somehow, there are still people there to watch and wave and shout and Chanyeol feels a little bit like he can’t breathe. “Wow,” he says.

“Yeah,” Zitao agrees. “Exactly.”

When Hurricane Knockout had stepped over his head and taken down the Kaiju in Seoul, Chanyeol had been in absolute awe of the power of it all. He hadn’t expected how it would feel to be on the other end of things. Busan is safe because of him. He senses rather than sees Zitao raise his eyebrow, and he swallows back a grin. Them he amends. It’s a huge feeling, the kind of thing that feels too big for his chest to contain.

He can’t reach Zitao, but Chanyeol still feels the way his fingers curl around his and the press of his nose against the back of his neck. “I know,” Zitao says, and Chanyeol grins.

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