Shen Jiu’s brother dies while the two of them are still in the Drift.
The barbed scales of the Kaiju catch on their Jaeger, and the metal screeches as layers of armour and machinery are shredded to pieces, flung into the air by the Kaiju’s impossible strength. Shen Yuan’s terror scorches through Shen Jiu’s veins as they are torn apart, and Shen Jiu stops feeling his presence on the other end of his mind. Wind and rainwater rush in through the hole Shen Yuan was pulled out of. The alarms tint everything the colour of blood.
Where are you I can’t feel you I can’t find you here—
The silence that answers him is emptier than the Drift silence.
Somewhere, past the gaping hole that Shen Yuan has left— I can’t find you I can’t find you —the Liu siblings’ Jaeger crashes into the churning waves of the sea, knocked down by the Kaiju. Liu Mingyan is shouting something into the comms about Liu Qingge being down, but Shen Jiu doesn’t hear it. All he hears is a familiar voice screaming his brother’s name.
It takes a while for Shen Jiu to realise that the screams are his own.
The jagged edges of Shen Jiu’s broken Jaeger cut through the air as it’s positioned back in its place in the Cang Qiong Shatterdome. Shen Jiu watches the proceedings from an elevated platform, his hands curled around the railing so tightly that his knuckles are bone-white. The acrid scents of the infirmary still cling to his clothing, but it is overpowered by the smell of burnt metal and sea salt in the cold, suffocating wind.
He can see the exact spot where Shen Yuan died, left in shadow even with the bright lights trained on the Jaeger.
Shen Jiu feels like that Jaeger. Threatening, sharp enough to cut, but on the inside there’s nothing but loss.
Yue Qingyuan is standing behind him. He has been there for some time now, a silent observer to Shen Jiu’s grief. Shen Jiu doesn’t turn to look at him.
“Xiao Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan says softly. There is guilt in his voice and Shen Jiu wants to claw it out of his throat.
Yue Qingyuan is the Marshal. He gave the orders to prioritise the mission despite the instability of their damaged Jaegers, despite the risks of encountering a new category of Kaiju. He killed two Rangers. He killed Shen Yuan.
It should have been me, Shen Jiu wants to say.
“It was your fault,” he hisses instead.
Yue Qingyuan doesn’t deny it.
Trials for Shen Yuan’s replacement begin not long after his funeral. Shen Jiu hates everyone in the Shatterdome for it, but he knows better than anyone that they need every available Jaeger out there, fighting against the threat. Every Jaeger needs two Drift compatible Rangers, neurally linked together, to pilot it. Shen Jiu has to find a new Drift partner even if that person could never, never be Shen Yuan.
Even if that person has to be Yue Qingyuan.
The mental link between them is slow to form during their Drift trial, stuttering like a piece of old machinery. They enter Shen Jiu’s mind first and hurtle into the emotions he works so hard to hide. Uneasiness creeps into the neurons of his brain as he bares his mind to Yue Qingyuan.
Shen Jiu has always felt too much of everything—too much bitterness, too much envy, too much hatred.
Too much love.
His love for his brother is the air above the world, covering everything, tinged with the scent of sea salt and, now, blood.
His love for Yue Qingyuan is the caverns beneath the oceans, the endless darkness that threatens to swallow any creature whole, always there even when he tries to swim away from it.
Shen Jiu wrests himself away from that depth before Yue Qingyuan sees it. Even he knows that this type of love is too much. Yue Qingyuan would take one look at it and flee.
The harsh motion traps both Shen Jiu and Yue Qingyuan into Shen Jiu’s memory of the Qiu manor massacre.
The fire burns the Qiu house down as the Kaiju tears its former inhabitants to pieces. Shen Jiu’s hands are stained with ash and blood; he had been the one to let the Kaiju in, recklessly hoping that it would kill his tormentors.
Yue Qingyuan is here with him in the Drift, now a solid spectre in his mind. The metallic sheen of his Drivesuit is barely visible through the smoke that clouds Shen Jiu’s vision. Shen Jiu can’t access Yue Qingyuan’s feelings or thoughts, as if he has closed himself off from Shen Jiu yet again. When the smoke dissipates, though, Shen Jiu sees the look of horror on his face. He finally sees what Shen Jiu has become after Qi-ge abandoned him.
Drift compatibility does not guarantee a successful Drift.
Shen Jiu knows this—he knows this, and yet he still feels something small and painful in his chest as Yue Qingyuan wrenches himself out of Shen Jiu’s memory.
They never speak of being Drift compatible again.
Shen Jiu couldn’t replace Shen Yuan, so they replace Shen Jiu with Luo Binghe.
Yue Qingyuan appoints Shen Jiu to oversee the potential Rangers for Qi Qingqi’s Mark III Restoration Programme, and so Shen Jiu is one of the first people to see Luo Binghe in action.
Luo Binghe is the best of the new recruits, well-suited to taking on the Mark III Jaeger. But he has no partner, and he has beaten every single sparring opponent with barely a pant of effort. His staff slices through the air like a sword, his movements are fast enough to be almost inhuman, and the only sounds in the room are the thumps of his opponents hitting the floor.
Shen Jiu watches the sparring with his tablet held in front of his lower face, hiding the sneer threatening to show in the corner of his mouth. None of the candidates so far have been compatible with Luo Binghe. Not a single one of them can feel the electric, almost-there link to Luo Binghe.
Shen Jiu can feel it.
He ignores it.
“Four-zero,” Shen Jiu says, his voice cool and clipped.
Luo Binghe’s gaze slides over to him and latches there. The surprise on Luo Binghe’s face is meticulously wiped away after a second, and Shen Jiu calls for the next person to spar with him, his fingers already tapping the match results into his tablet.
Luo Binghe is sitting at the table in the centre of the mess hall when Shen Jiu descends there for his lunch break. The other Ranger trainees are clustered around Luo Binghe, already looking at him like he’s the next big star to save the world. Shen Jiu curls his lip. The sour expression vanishes the second it arrives, but as if he senses it, Luo Binghe looks up and catches Shen Jiu’s gaze across the expanse of the hall.
Despite the distance and the sitting crowd between them, Shen Jiu sees every single detail in the planes of Luo Binghe’s face. The amalgamation of the voices in the mess hall fades until all Shen Jiu hears is the droning hum of a Jaeger about to be activated.
Luo Binghe raises one languid hand to wave, half-moving as if to stand. The surprise from earlier is back on his face, and this time it’s coupled with a steely conviction.
Shen Jiu takes his lunch tray and leaves.
The names of the dead are displayed on the walls of a small, solitary room in the heart of the Shatterdome. The walls are the same military metal as the rest of the base, but here there are also bamboo plants in vases, clicking softly against each other in the breeze from the window opening out to the sea.
How ironic that the memorial room has a sea view. Most of the names here are Rangers, and Rangers almost always die at sea.
Liu Mingyan stands in front of the two newest names etched onto rectangular plates nailed to the wall. Without turning to look at Shen Jiu, she says, “I keep wondering, if this Shatterdome falls and these walls are torn apart, if all the people here are killed, who will remember them?”
“The world will remember them,” says Shen Jiu. It’s the same pointless bullshit that Yue Qingyuan spouted at the funeral.
“The world never knew them like we do.” Liu Mingyan sighs. Shen Jiu rarely hears her speak, and the sound of her voice seems out of place in the still, empty room. “It seems insufficient. They gave their lives to defend all of humanity and all they get in return is a piece of metal.”
Shen Jiu doesn’t say anything in reply. They are Rangers, and Rangers are nothing but pieces of metal in a war machine that humanity built to fight against monsters.
Shen Yuan’s name on the wall is fresh. The metal of his plate is cold.
“Qingge loved your brother, you know,” continues Liu Mingyan. “He was trying to shield you both.”
Her grief seems more subdued now—quieter, as hidden inside her heart as if behind a veil.
Shen Jiu still feels Shen Yuan’s absence in him like a rotting hole in a long-abandoned Jaeger, filled with salt water and the bones of forgotten sea creatures.
He doesn’t think that the feeling will ever go away.
“Ranger Shen should rest,” Gongyi Xiao announces, saluting Shen Jiu. They are standing in front of the door to Shen Jiu’s room, and Gongyi Xiao has taken the tablet with the reports Shen Jiu meant to go through tonight. “This assistant will take care of matters for the rest of the evening.”
Gongyi Xiao seemed to notice Shen Jiu’s melancholy, and has stuck to him for the past day like a magnet. Shen Jiu is too tired to argue with him now; he only gives a small smile, the kind that Shen Yuan used to give.
The movement of his face muscles feels like the creaking of an old machine, and the smile vanishes as quickly as it came.
Luo Binghe is watching them from the other end of the hallway. Shen Jiu feels him like a flicker in the back of his mind, even after he enters his room and shuts the door behind him.
Luo Binghe ends up in the infirmary after getting into a fistfight with Gongyi Xiao. The latter sports a black eye and several minor fractures in his arm, while his opponent apparently got away unscathed apart from a bruise on his shoulder.
Shen Jiu is leaning against the wall beside the infirmary doors when Luo Binghe is released by Mu Qingfang. Luo Binghe’s head immediately pivots to meet Shen Jiu’s gaze, as if he already knew of Shen Jiu’s presence there. There is a water bottle in Luo Binghe’s hand, and his fingers curl tighter around it; Shen Jiu hears the creak of the plastic like the groaning of a Jaeger’s limbs. The air between him and Luo Binghe crackles with the static that he continues not to acknowledge.
Instead, he raises an imperious eyebrow. “What the hell did Gongyi Xiao ever do to you?”
The glimmer in Luo Binghe’s black eyes makes them look as red as the alarm lights in a Jaeger. He looks at Shen Jiu with none of the hint of fear present in the other new recruits, nor the pity of the Shatterdome crew, and certainly not any of Yue Qingyuan’s remorse.
“Gongyi Xiao took something that should have been mine,” Luo Binghe says simply, his eyes narrowing at Shen Jiu’s mouth.
Shen Jiu presses his lips together. “You’re a soldier, not a spoiled child.”
“Marshal Yue has already given me the lectures, Shizun.”
Shen Jiu’s face tightens at the mention of Yue Qingyuan, cooling further into his mask. “Another transgression of this level and you lose your spot on the Mark III programme.”
Luo Binghe’s mouth curves into a smirk, and the audacity of it is like a shot fired from a Jaeger cannon. “The world can’t afford to lose a potential Ranger.”
“The world can’t afford to stake its safety on a brat who can’t follow orders,” Shen Jiu retorts. He pushes off the wall and starts to walk away, ending the conversation.
Behind him, Luo Binghe says, “Shizun.”
Something flies through the air on Shen Jiu’s right—the water bottle. He catches it by instinct, looking back to glare at Luo Binghe. The red in Luo Binghe’s eyes sharpens as Shen Jiu smoothly turns and hands the water bottle back to him.
Shen Jiu moves his hand away right before it brushes against Luo Binghe’s.
He can still feel the heat from its proximity.
The Shatterdome never truly sleeps. There are always some people awake doing their tasks, always a crew ready in case of another Kaiju breach. Still, there are some hours in which the smaller one of the Shatterdome’s two combat halls remains unused. It’s empty now apart from Shen Jiu.
He is training with a practice sword, and its silver blade shines in the fluorescents as he swings it, going through the same motions that he and Shen Yuan used to train with.
Shen Jiu is retired from being an active Ranger, but he still spends his little free time here in the combat room. Perhaps it is a habit he can’t rid himself of, the way Shen Yuan could never erase the scars on his arm and hand. Perhaps it is pure logic; he isn’t naturally talented like Luo Binghe, and they may still need him to step in and co-pilot a Jaeger in an emergency.
Not that he would agree to letting anybody else into his mind.
Shen Jiu isn’t paying much attention to his surroundings, and it surprises him when his next swing is blocked by another sword, wielded by Luo Binghe. Even though the blades are blunt, the sound that rings from the impact still echoes throughout the hall.
“Shizun,” Luo Binghe greets respectfully, but the mirth in his eyes tells more of amusement than courtesy.
Shen Jiu lowers his sword and takes a slow step back. “You’re supposed to be asleep now.”
Luo Binghe’s lips twitch upwards. “There are more interesting things to do at night than sleep.”
Shen Jiu narrows his eyes, and then he swiftly turns and returns his practice sword to the rack on the wall. He doesn’t need to look at Luo Binghe to know that his eyes are tracking his every movement. Luo Binghe’s attention is like a hand ghosting at the back of Shen Jiu’s neck, and Shen Jiu can feel exactly how many steps are between him and Luo Binghe. Shen Jiu is suddenly very aware how he is only wearing his training clothes, lacking the armour of the many layers he tends to don even indoors.
“You have more sparring matches scheduled for tomorrow,” says Shen Jiu, not looking up from his rearranging of the practice weapons. “The list of your many potential co-pilots is dwindling. Choose one soon, or else Qi Qingqi will find someone else to pilot the Mark III.”
“You and I both know that none of the people on that list can be my co-pilot.”
Shen Jiu frowns. When he faces Luo Binghe again, Luo Binghe is holding a new sparring staff in each hand, and he is only a pace away from Shen Jiu.
“Shizun’s fighting style is graceful, and this student would appreciate a closer demonstration,” says Luo Binghe, and he holds out a staff to Shen Jiu. The material of the staff seems light in his grip, but this moment in time seems heavy, as if it would sink to the bottom of the ocean if it is released.
It’s a challenge.
Shen Jiu doesn’t take the bait. “If you have so much time to play with sticks, I suggest you find Liu Mingyan and spar with her. She is still in need of a co-pilot herself.”
The light in Luo Binghe’s eyes doesn’t dim. If anything, it seems to burn brighter with an emotion that Shen Jiu can’t place.
Shen Jiu doesn’t care to decipher it. He just walks away, leaving Luo Binghe alone in the centre of the combat floor.
Liu Mingyan does get a new co-pilot, but it’s not Luo Binghe.
Shen Jiu views the end of her successful Drift trial with Ning Yingying from a raised platform. He isn’t alone; the Rangers in training for the Mark III Project are here, too, some of them still wiping away sweat from the recent training session.
Luo Binghe comes up to stand beside Shen Jiu, his steps on the metal flooring like the rhythmic ticking of a bomb. He leans against the railing and stays quiet, watching Shen Jiu without fully facing him.
Shen Jiu is still watching Liu Mingyan. Her face is hidden in her helmet, but anybody could see the joy radiating from her and Ning Yingying.
“I could never replace my partner,” Shen Jiu says, quietly enough so that only Luo Binghe hears him. He isn’t sure why he said it aloud.
Luo Binghe’s eyes are still on him, scarlet and burning, hotter than the nuclear reactor core of a Jaeger.
“It’s not about replacing anybody,” he says. “It’s about finding the one person alive who won’t break away from you, even after they see all of your worst faults.”
“And you believe that every potential Jaeger pilot finds someone like that, even the ones who don’t deserve it?” Shen Jiu’s voice is frosted over with vitriol, the ice hiding the emotion behind it.
He looks over in time to see Luo Binghe cracking a smile and tilting his head in a way that Shen Jiu decides he hates.
“A Ranger like that,” says Luo Binghe slowly, “would just have to find someone equally as bad as them, then.”
When demons attack the Shatterdome, half a dozen of them corner Shen Jiu and Luo Binghe in an unused hallway. The demons all look human, apart from a few visible signs of them being part-Kaiju. They look at Shen Jiu with hunger in their eyes.
Luo Binghe pushes Shen Jiu behind him with a snarl. Black and red explode in Shen Jiu’s vision as demonic energy detonates from Luo Binghe’s outstretched hands.
Shen Jiu staggers back. Demon, his mind shouts.
Luo Binghe a demon.
The two closest demons are shoved back by the blast. They are dead by the time they hit the far wall and slide to the ground.
The crimson mark on Luo Binghe’s forehead glistens like a drop of blood, reflecting back the alert lights like fire, and the air around him still quakes from his demonic energy. His face contorts with surprise, but that rapidly dissolves into a cold, cruel determination. Demonic energy swirls around him like the armour of a Jaeger. His eyes gleam the same colour as the demon mark on his forehead as he stalks forward towards the other demons.
Shen Jiu recognises that look on his face. You don’t discover a powerful weapon and just freeze with shock—you use it against your enemies to destroy them.
Luo Binghe is inexperienced, but powerful. He is a shadowy blur as he tears off the limbs of one demon, then beheads two demons with a single slice of his sword, then grabs another demon by the neck and crushes him against the wall. The sound of bones splintering makes Luo Binghe grin.
It isn’t a violence born from hatred and scorn. It’s a brutality that arises from enjoying this, enjoying the act of merciless slaughter.
The ghosts of the Qiu manor still linger in Shen Jiu’s fingertips. He curls his hand into a fist and feels his nails pierce his palms.
The final demon looks more Kaiju than the others. He has the same blazing glow in his eyes like Luo Binghe, and he is fast enough to get Luo Binghe into a chokehold. Luo Binghe struggles against him. His eyes wrench up to meet Shen Jiu’s gaze.
Xiu Ya is heavy and solid in Shen Jiu’s hand.
Shen Jiu should kill both Luo Binghe and the demon holding him captive. That is the protocol for encountering anybody associated with the Kaiju in this way, and there is no one else around to do it.
Why should a demon like Luo Binghe live when Shen Yuan is dead?
Why should Shen Jiu show mercy to someone like Luo Binghe?
Shen Jiu raises Xiu Ya, and without breaking eye contact with Luo Binghe, drives the blade of the sword into the neck of the other demon. The movement brings Shen Jiu’s face a breath away from Luo Binghe’s. The demon releases Luo Binghe and screams, the scent of burnt flesh from his cauterized wound stinging in Shen Jiu’s nose. He writhes as he falls and doesn’t move after hitting the ground.
Luo Binghe looks at Shen Jiu with a cold satisfaction in the twist of his mouth. Neither of them have stepped back from each other, and neither of them speak. Shen Jiu sees himself reflected in the irises of Luo Binghe’s eyes as they fade back to their usual black colour, and his demon mark flickers out.
There is an unspoken agreement hovering in the air between them. Shen Jiu can feel it settling into his being with the same tangible substance as a Drift.
The night of the demon attack on the Shatterdome, there is a knock on Shen Jiu’s door at precisely 2:44 AM. It is less of a knock and more of a fist slamming once on the metal door. Shen Jiu feels murder in his gaze as he wrenches the door open.
“What the h—”
Luo Binghe is standing on the other side of the threshold. The lights of the hallway are behind him, leaving his face in darkness, but his eyes are alight with scarlet. He leans with one hand against the doorframe and takes a ragged breath. His other hand is clutching at his chest, and it comes away painted with red, the same red seeping through the fabric of his jacket.
“Shizun,” says Luo Binghe. He somehow makes the word seem simultaneously a mockery and a respected title.
Then he slumps forward, and Shen Jiu just about manages to catch him before they both fall to the floor.
Shen Jiu knows that Shang Qinghua is a scientist specialising in Kaiju biology. More importantly, Shen Jiu knows that Shang Qinghua has ties to Mobei-Jun, a demon who runs a Kaiju organ harvesting operation.
He uses that kernel of information to blackmail Shang Qinghua into figuring out what the fuck is wrong with Luo Binghe.
They’re in Shang Qinghua’s lab, and they’ve brought in a cot from the infirmary to set Luo Binghe down on. Nervousness is laced in Shang Qinghua’s every movement as he checks Luo Binghe over, but it is in the same way a drink can be laced with hidden poison. When he thinks Shen Jiu isn’t looking, Shang Qinghua’s gaze turns cold and calculating, and Shen Jiu understands how such a mousy person could stand beside someone with Mobei-Jun’s reputation.
Shang Qinghua squints at the odd wounds on Luo Binghe’s chest, and then rubs at his eyes. “Ah, this would be much easier with Mu Qingfang here…”
“No,” growls Shen Jiu. He has his tablet in his hands. The screen is blank, but he still looks down at it to avoid seeing Luo Binghe, pale and unconscious on the bed. “Just get on with it.”
Grumbling under his breath, Shang Qinghua turns to inspect Luo Binghe’s sword on the small table by the cot. After a few moments, he picks it up and holds it gingerly on top of his palms. “There’s something really off about the energy of this weapon. It’s powerful, but it seems to take more than it gives. I’m not sure if it was even made on this planet.”
Shen Jiu pulls a chair over to the side of the cot, sitting down close enough to take Luo Binghe’s hand. He doesn’t. “Is the sword why he’s like that?”
“Probably.” Shang Qinghua pauses, and then says, “There is one other person in this Shatterdome whose being is tied to their weapon. From what I heard, he used Kaiju energy to try and make himself stronger in order to save someone from a bad situation. He failed, though. The person he tried to save had to go through horrible things before getting out.”
“I don’t care about that,” snaps Shen Jiu. He flicks the air towards Luo Binghe. “What about him?”
“…Luo Binghe should be fine with a night’s sleep.” Shang Qinghua puts the sword down and thinks for a moment. “But I think he needs to regularly go into the Drift with someone, or else the demonic energy in this sword will backlash again. You know, like today.”
Shen Jiu raises his tablet, hiding the clenching of his jaw. Sleep deprivation turns the irritated tone in his voice into something more dangerous. “If you so much as breathe a word of this to anyone, I will make you wish you had died in the first Kaiju attack.”
Shang Qinghua makes an indignant squawk and hurries away to the other side of the lab.
Shen Jiu rolls his eyes and looks back at Luo Binghe. He watches the steady rise and fall of his breathing and the flickers of movement behind his eyelids. With Luo Binghe unconscious, the potential Drift between the two of them is softer, less like the anticipation of lightning and more like a connection that Shen Jiu has missed for a long time. He wonders what it’ll feel like when it disappears—when Luo Binghe chooses someone else to be his Drift partner.
Shen Jiu stays sitting there in that chair beside the bed. When his eyes slip shut, the memory of crimson irises flashes before his mind, and then it slips away into nothingness.