“Hey,” Changbin said, sticking his head in through the open door to the senior trainers’ office late one evening. “There’s a journalist coming by tomorrow wanting to do a fluff piece, can you handle them?”
It took a moment for Chris to register Changbin’s request, deep in thought as he reviewed training footage. “Wh...at?” he asked, looking up and frowning. “Why me?”
“Because I don’t want to,” Changbin said cheerfully, but put up a hand to stall Chris when the other started protesting, “and because they asked for you specifically. The Director already signed off on the interview.”
Chris groaned, dragging a hand down his face. “I’m busy,” he said, trying hard not to full out whine, but a note crept its way in anyway. He was one of five senior trainers on base, but he was taking on more and more of Jisoo’s responsibilities as the Director pulled her from her head trainer duties for special projects. As it stood, he was already buried under recruitment paperwork, trying to select the next pod of Reckoner training hopefuls.
“I’ll help handle onboarding if you say yes,” Changbin offered, sympathetic to Chris’s cause. “The Director said it’d be a pretty good PR piece and all that.”
And fundamentally Chris understood why the Director was pushing for the piece; he knew why he’d make a good fit for the interview. The Director was trying to secure a military contract and any highlighting of Jeju’s Reckoner program increased the chances of them closing out those negotiations. It wasn’t arrogance to acknowledge that Chris made an ideal face for the cause – almost every Reckoner training method currently in use had Chris’s fingerprints on them.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t painful every single time it happened. Chris was an excellent sea monster handler, but also still shy about the publicity. He was plenty charming, just a bit too awkward and bumbling for it to really fit naturally yet.
“... You have to do all the onboarding,” Chris decided. He would have said yes anyway, but there was no way he was passing up on Changbin’s offer. Onboarding was the worst, if only because despite the major advances in technology, paperwork remained a nightmare of duplicate filing and outdated systems.
“Deal. His name is Lee Taeyong and he’s from theeeeeee,” Changbin paused to look down at his tablet, “Oceanic Tribunal. He’ll be here at nine.”
None of that was particularly fun news, but Chan noted it down anyway. “Thanks, Bin. You should head home, it’s getting late.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” Changbin said, already ducking back out of the office. “Don’t stay all night, Chan.”
Chris snorted, turning back to the training footage. He still had at least another hour of footage, and he was hardly rushing home. Since all that awaited him was an empty apartment and instant ramen, he might as well finalize the shortlist of candidates he’d be recommending to the Director for the official Reckoner training title.
Really, dealing with journalists wasn’t the end of the world, but Chris still felt a groggy sense of dread as he badged into the base the next morning, precisely at six a.m. It was times like this when he wished he could stand the taste of coffee, and instead brewed himself an industrial strength cup of black tea – which just meant that he forgot to take the teabags out until it was far too late, and that was a bit disgusting, but drinkable.
Still, he had three hours before Taeyong arrived and he was going to make the most of it, passing by the offices to pick up the reports left by the night crew, before heading into the lab.
They had about ten embryos in a suspended state, but the Director had recently pulled a terrapoid embryo into incubation and Chris spent a fair amount of time pouring over its vitals and charts while watching the sac suspended in amniotic fluids. It would take another month before the embryo was grown enough to hatch, but Chris was hoping to take the lead on this one, especially considering this monstrous little sea turtle was spliced from a new, more advanced strand of Reckoner.
“Morning, Christopher,” the Director greeted as she entered the lab, coffee in one hand, tablet in the other. “You all set for this morning?”
“Of course,” Chris said, giving her two overly enthusiastic thumbs up for the time of day.
She smiled, fond of him despite her more strict nature. “I’m counting on you to make us look good.”
“Consider it done.”
She settled down next to him, taking a moment to watch the sac as she nursed her coffee. “How’s our little monster doing?”
“Good,” Chris said, rifling through the night report. “Growing nicely – just reached the size of a golden retriever, according to Yoojung.”
“Hard to terrorize the seas at that size, poor thing,” she clucked, before sighing and getting back to her feet. “I was planning on taking you and our guest out to lunch, try and swing by my office around eleven-thirty.”
“Treat us fancy, boss,” he teased, giving her a quick two fingered salute before getting up and also resuming his day.
Chris thought he had time to psych himself up for Taeyong after doing a sweep of the Reckoner pens – he had plans to shower and change into the emergency business casual clothes he kept stashed in the office, get one of the interns to pick up some pastries, and just generally clean up enough that this guy would buy into Chris being an adult who had his shit together.
So maybe it was just someone’s way of punishing him when he felt a soft tap on his shoulder at barely fifteen minutes before eight, while he was still in his wetsuit. “Christopher?” they asked, voice deep and smooth, as Chris turned around in surprise to find a young man standing there, smiling at him, guest badge hanging from a lanyard.
Taeyong was not at all what Chris had envisioned, dressed much more casually than Chris had expected from past visits from the press, with a baseball cap and an oversized hoodie and sneakers that looked extravagantly expensive even to an inexperienced eye like Chris’s. The Oceanic Tribunal must have hired him straight out of college or had him on for an internship, he looked so boyish in his entire demeanor.
All of this was secondary to the fact that he was cute as hell, all doe-eyed and delicate, with the cutest little swoop of a nose, and a smile that felt a bit like flying too close to the sun. Though they stood eye to eye, Taeyong radiated a diminutive air, and Chris would bet that all the aunties liked to fuss over this one, that most anyone who met Taeyong felt a little bit compelled to fawn.
Chris certainly did.
On top of that, he had freckles, splattered across his cheekbones like constellations, and that was when Chris realized that he was maybe staring.
“Oh,” he said, voice cracking just slightly. “You’re early.”
“I guess so,” Taeyong said, his smile turning adorably sheepish. “Sorry, I probably should have waited in the lobby for someone, but the receptionist said I’d find you here.”
Chris made a mental note to talk to the receptionist – he vaguely remembered there being a new kid on the front desk. Just because they’d cleared a journalist to be here didn’t mean it was appropriate for that journalist to just wander through the base. Chris was hoping that the way Taeyong was smiling at him meant that he hadn’t tried to rifle through any of their computers before coming to find Chris.
Still, Taeyong was here and Chris knew that even with the misstep, it was important to put on a good face. “It’s really nice to meet you,” he said, trying to smooth over the initial awkwardness as he stuck his hand out.
“You too,” Taeyong said, grinning brightly as they shook hands. “I’m a huge fan of your work.”
And Chris was no stranger to compliments, but there was something about this pretty boy saying that with his pretty mouth that fried his entire brain to a crisp, and it took every last iota of self control Chris had to not do something drastically stupid.
“That’s… That’s great. Thank you so much,” Chris said, his voice sounding so unnatural to his own ears, but he pushed through it anyhow. “I. I should get changed before we get started. I think?”
Taeyong regarded him for a moment and Chris wasn’t sure if he imagined the way the other’s eyes lingered on his chest and shoulders, where the wetsuit stretched tight over Chris’s more muscular frame.
“You’re fine as you are,” Taeyong assured him, smiling just shy of cheeky, and Chris’s ears turned red in an instant. “But I’ll leave that up to you.”
Though a part of Chris would prefer to escape and regroup, he’d rather still push on rather than finding someone to babysit the journalist while he tried to neaten up. The wetsuit made it more authentic, didn’t it? “Would you like a tour of the facilities? I’m not sure if you’ve been here before.”
“It’s my first time,” Taeyong confirmed. “I’d love to see the main lab, if that’s alright?”
Chris thought it odd that Taeyong hadn’t brought along a camera, though he was jotting down notes on his phone as they went along. Still, the laboratory would be an easy place to start and Chris just started leading the way, giving Taeyong a brief overview of the facilities, though he was sure Taeyong already knew most of it. The Jeju base was an independent research and training facility, though it primarily partnered with Park Industries, and had been established roughly seven years prior – though Chan had only been here for two of those years.
Taeyong followed along, content to listen until they got into the laboratory, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “Hey, you’re hatching!” he said animatedly, pointing towards the main incubation chamber. “A terrapoid?”
“Spot on.” Chris couldn’t help but feel impressed that Taeyong was even able to tell by the shape of the sac, and it made him reconsider the journalist as a whole – maybe this was more than a fluff piece for Taeyong? Being able to recognize a Reckoner before it had even been birthed was something beyond casual research.
“How far along? Are you going to train it?” Where Taeyong had been relatively passive before, he was now a kinetic fissure of energy, whipping around to face Chris, clearly thrilled by the entire situation. It made him enchanting, magnetic, and intense.
“Whoa there,” Chris laughed, bringing Taeyong over to the incubator, skirting around several research assistants. “We started incubating a couple of weeks ago.”
“Nice,” and there’s something about the way Taeyong says it that catches in Chris’s ear, a familiarity that was jarring outside of his own mouth.
“Oh hey, are you from Australia?” Chris asked, hoping it wasn’t too forward a question (but somehow he doubted that, because he was pretty sure Taeyong had ogled his chest earlier.) “Your accent, it’s not super strong, but…”
“Yeah, I’m from Sydney,” Taeyong confirmed.
And if that didn’t make him all the prettier. “I’m from Sydney too.”
Taeyong laughed, bright and lively. “I know you are, Wonder Boy,” he said with a wink.
It took a lot of willpower for Chris not to derail the entire visit, wanting to sit Taeyong down so they could chat about the city Chris hadn’t seen in so long, wanting to impress him because Taeyong was from a place Chris still called home. Wanting to absolutely combust because Taeyong just winked at him.
(Taeyong was really testing Chris’s willpower, and it had only been maybe fifteen minutes.)
“I want to see the pens,” Taeyong said after they’d finished orbiting the incubator.
“Are you sure about that?” Chris asked, turning to give Taeyong a strictly professional once-over. Though almost all tech was waterproofed – something necessary in a post-Flood world – they had not yet figured out how to waterproof people, and Taeyong didn’t quite look dressed for it with the way he was swimming in his hoodie, which was just a concern about how waterlogged it’d get and not at all about how cute Taeyong looked in it.
“I think I’ll manage drying off,” Taeyong assured him with a wry smile and Chris figured that was good enough. “You’ve got…. Hm, sixteen Reckoners here right now?”
“Fifteen, actually. We just had a send-off for one of our serpentoids, Beethoven. Cruiser companion, sailing down for the tropics,” Chris explained as he led them back out of the lab and along the tunnel that would lead them up to the surface access to the Reckoner pens.
“Exciting. No simioids?”
There was an undercurrent to Taeyong’s question, so much sharper, so much more pointed, like the tip of a knife sliding just under the sweetness of his smile, and Chris had to pause to regard the other with fascination. Definitely not a fluff piece by a put-upon newbie and that just made him so much more interesting.
“No,” Chris finally answered. “I don’t think you could find a single simioid Reckoner anywhere in the Pan-Pacific programs anymore. You’d have to try London or maybe Sacramento.”
“So you’ve never trained one?”
That actually got a shudder out of Chris, though he tried to repress it. “I’ve only even seen them twice. No… No, definitely not. I could never.”
Even just thinking about it made a soft sense of unease prickle at the back of Chris’s neck. There was a good reason their program had avoided simioids. Sea monkeys was an awfully cute nickname for the smallest and most deadly Reckoners created to date. Simioids were the only Reckoners that weren’t made to exist in the ocean itself, instead living on the ships they bonded with as apes roughly the size of elephants – apes that were bulletproof, could swim a kilometer a minute, and rip steel with their bare hands.
All of this paired with an intelligence that was downright disturbing. Chris would never be able to forget accompanying the Director on business to Japan while they’d been hosting a simioid. He’d only watched from a distance, but at one point, the simioid had looked up from his handler and locked eyes with Chris, and it had left him feeling vaguely horrified for the rest of the day, only able to identify why once he’d laid down and tried to sleep: the simioid had looked at him as a predator would look at a helpless prey, knowing that it could strike at any moment and win, but choosing not to.
But also a predator that could always choose to strike later.
“That’s... very interesting,” Taeyong said, but he sounded pleased, and Chris badged onto the main deck, eager to change the subject.
The Reckoner pens were Chris’s favorite place to be in the entire world. There was just something so charming about the sea salt on the breeze and the pungent mixture of seaweed and fish as a backdrop to the sea monsters Chris spent all his time with. It got a smile from him as he brought Taeyong to the nearest pen, where a small Reckoner, barely the size of a car, was swimming along the railing, looking for treats and attention. “This is Lucky, our youngest terrapoid. We just assigned him his permanent handler, Soobin. She's been doing such an amazing job with him.”
“He’s gorgeous!” Taeyong said, and that spark was there again, that passion that set his eyes alight as he leaned in closer – though Chris was thankful that he didn’t stray too close. Lucky was a well behaved Reckoner, but they tried to limit contact with strangers that didn’t involve a companion ship. “Look at that coloring, he looks so devilish like this.”
“Yeah,” Chris said, except he wasn’t really watching Lucky, too caught up in the playful tilt of Taeyong’s smile. “Yeah, he’s… funny. A little demon.”
The moment was broken by a near deafening roar, and Chris whipped around towards two of the pens further down the deck. Heebum, one of their most senior Reckoners, a serpentoid that was nearly as old as the base itself, had reared out of the water, limbless body rising high as he hissed towards another pen containing a terrapoid Reckoner named Bambi. They’d been needling each other all week and Chris quickly realized that the deck was absent of all other handlers as Bambi let out an annoyed bellow.
“Ah shit,” he swore, fumbling for the Otachi he’d clipped to his waist, cursing that he hadn’t suited up properly before joining the deck like he should.
“Here, let me,” Taeyong interrupted.
His fingers slid around Chris’s wrist, and Chris watched, frozen on the spot, as Taeyong lifted the Otachi and manually sent a burst of lights to Heebum. Stop, and then behave, all in Heebum’s signal set.
Heebum gave an irritated little snort, but obeyed, slowly sinking back into the waters until his eyes were the only thing visible.
It was in that moment that Chris realized he had maybe, just maybe, fucked up.
Because he hadn’t actually looked too closely at the guest badge, just noting the large printing of the surname ‘Lee’ and vaguely remembering there being a ‘Yong’ in the given name in smaller print below, and he also had only ever seen this person wear glasses and suits with carefully coiffed hair during press conferences and guest lectures; he’d never seen him up close, just through video feeds or at a distance.
But there were only so many people who could command Reckoners they had never met and it probably helped to be the person who helped create them.
Chris turned, slowly, and was met with an amused look, those eyes so glinting and clever.
“You’re not Taeyong,” he said weakly.
“I’m not,” Felix agreed.
As if to confirm his folly, Changbin stuck his head out from the nearest door. “CHAN,” he bellowed. “You’re fifteen minutes late, he’s waiting for you in the lobby?”
“Oh fuck,” Chris breathed out, looking from Felix to Changbin and then back to Felix. Felix. Lee Felix, child genius and Park Industries’ star Reckoner geneticist, and the boy that Chris had totally been checking out twenty minutes earlier. “Oh, fuck.”
To that, Felix laughed, genuinely laughed, his entire face scrunching up with delight. “I’m so sorry,” he said, covering his mouth as he tried to stifle himself. “I really should have said something, you just didn’t know, and I couldn't– I just couldn’t help myself.”
“I–” Chris swatted the air in Changbin’s direction, trying to buy himself a minute. “I… I uhm. Jesus Christ.”
“I should let you go,” Felix said, stepping back away from him, the corners of his mouth twitching, and Chris wondered what it said about him that despite the rug being yanked right out from under his feet, he still thought Felix’s smile was incredibly sweet. “It really was great to meet you, Chris.”
Chris just watched Felix head back into the base, passing by Changbin, who was ready to physically drag Chris into the lobby.
Holy shit, that was Lee Felix.
“I’m going to kill you,” Changbin declared, and did finally start dragging Chris back inside. “You useless gay man.”
Taeyong, as it turned out, was rather pretty in his own right, though he lacked the magnetism of Felix’s eyes, and his freckles.
The interview went well – there was another tour of the facilities and Taeyong actually did bring a camera, though he did not recognize what was being incubated in the lab. The questions Taeyong asked were intelligent, but superficial, and Chris tried not to judge when Taeyong chose to keep a wide berth from the pens when they went up to see the Reckoners themselves.
Felix had left sometime before Chris brought Taeyong to meet the Director, who did take them out to lunch, but she spent half of it sending Chris meaningful looks, and Chris assumed that had less to do with their current guest and more to do with their surprise guest.
He wasn’t sure how he was going to explain that one, really.
But once Taeyong had bid farewell and Chris was able to slink back into his office, he found a sticky note stuck to one of the picture frames sitting on his desk.
[XXX XXX XXXX – I had fun today. Call me? F☆]
(And well, if a few weeks later, Park Industries was able to close a deal with the Pan-Pacific Naval Fleet on behalf of Jeju’s Reckoner program, that was probably mere coincidence.)