Mark knew he was ready to be a Jaeger pilot when he was aged 15. They called him the best youngest cadet around because he always excels in his training and he had also been known as Fightmaster Kim’s golden child and wild card. And Mark took pride in the given reputation that the other cadets talk about him; sometimes with fear, sometimes with respect. But finding a partner for Mark to go into the Drift and be his Jaeger co-pilot doesn’t come easy.
The other cadets are always too slow, or in a way, slightly lacking and incompatible in even being Mark’s potential Jaeger co-pilot — they always keep one step behind him. And Mark always wins his fight because he gets a little too competitive and a little too self-conscious in keeping his ‘golden boy’ title. The closest Mark had even gotten himself a possible candidate for a co-pilot is an older boy named Jung Jaehyun. Jaehyun’s a chill boy raised in America who has brown hair that sticks out in different directions when the older male’s too lazy to groom (which is an excuse of his aloof personality) and despite standing about 180 centimeter tall, he’s similarly like Mark, even if the other male is a few years older. They’re both passionate in piloting and in their steadfast training and while they could almost synchronised perfectly with their footsteps in the combat room, mentally, Jaehyun was never meant to be Mark’s partner. But even when Jaehyun being one of the two pilot of White Jazz, one of the most beautiful and advanced Jaeger originated from South Korea and similarly designed like Jaegers of Mark IV series, that factor itself and the fact that Johnny, who is Jaehyun’s co-pilot, is someone whom Mark also gives a huge amount of respect to, still won’t stop the young ambitious cadet from befriending the older male and constantly asking him about his first experience of fighting an actual Kaiju for when Jaehyun was first enlisted into a battle albeit it being a Category II Kaiju that was lurking by the bay. Mark hoped that someday he would be able to pilot his own Jaeger and battle off a Kaiju as well.
“It’ll be your turn soon,” Jaehyun reassured Mark, offering a smile that an older brother would give to their younger sibling as well as an encouraging pat on the back before he gets a walkie signal from his co-pilot about some Category III Kaijus being spotted by the K-Science team and that they needed to be on stand-by position.
At the mention of ‘Category III Kaijus’, Mark looked at Jaehyun with a worrisome expression. The older male has never fought with a Kaiju of such high category yet, often only tasked to deal with Category I or II. Jaehyun, on the other hand, reassured the younger male that he would be alright. But before Mark could tell Jaehyun to ‘come home safely’ as he always would when the latter has to go for missions, Jaehyun had to make a run to the Conn-Pods for his roll-call.
Ever since then, four years has passed since. Mark still hasn’t gotten himself any suitable candidate for a partner and he was no longer the youngest cadet around. He still had his ‘golden boy’ title though albeit another younger cadet by the name of Park Jisung seems to be a threat to snatch the title away from him these days. (Mark would willingly pass the title to the younger male though because Jisung reminds Mark of his younger 15 year old self but better). And Jaehyun… Jaehyun never returned home since he’s been sent to take down the Category III Kaiju.
Life without Jaehyun feels different even when he has new friends now that are around his age. While Renjun offers him solace in forms of compliments and kind gestures, and Jaemin gives him obligatory pats in the back whenever he wins over someone in spars during practice, it doesn’t feel the same when Jaehyun does it to him last time. He knows full well that the pilots of White Jazz are honoured in death and that life goes on after the funeral, and more so since it’s been years, but sometimes he misses Jaehyun’s absence when the latter is like a family to him.
There are days where the hours and day felt long without the presence of Jaehyun, and inwardly sometimes he’s afraid of meeting the same sort of fate that Jaehyun had walked into. But Mark didn’t allowed himself to be in a state of sadness because he knew Jaehyun would have wanted for him to be proud of the older male and in himself. Staying sad for so long won’t do you any good, Mark could hear Jaehyun’s voice nagging at him even in his sleep. His sleep was however interrupted when the knock on Mark’s door stays persistent. It started soft at first and there were patient pauses between the soft knocks, but when Mark has yet to respond to its call; the younger cadet is still asleep from the unnecessary all-nighter he had pulled last night to play a game of Atari with Jaemin, the soft knocks are then turned into bangings and eventually someone is yelling Mark’s name outside of his room.
“Jezz, I’m coming! I’m coming!” Mark grumbled softly, voice sounding slightly hoarse from last night screaming at Jaemin and the intense game they had aside the fact that sleepiness had also contributed as a factor to his voice, as he got up hastily to unlock the door while trying to put his glasses on before stepping back a little, knowing full well that the door would swing open.
And it does. Following the action, comes a boy with pacing steps into Mark’s room. The pacing doesn’t stop even when the other male is now in Mark’s room and with the lack of space of the brunette’s room, there’s only that much of pacing the intruder could do before Mark gets a little dizzy from it.
“What is wrong with you, Renjun? Chill out. Sit down!” Mark pats against the spot on his bed as an offering, as well as it is the only possible spot that one could sit on if not the floor of Mark’s room. The brunette didn’t bother getting a chair (or a proper piece of furniture, for that matter, since it’s usually him in his own room and he doesn’t spend a lot of time there as well besides to take a nap or a proper sleep).
“They found you a partner!” Renjun announces excitedly, black hair bouncing from the male’s excited action.
Mark blinks before inwardly facepalming himself. Of course Renjun would have knock against his door this excitedly to inform Mark about his ‘possible’ candidates. He always does. It isn’t the first but Mark knew it wouldn’t be the last either. How many times has Renjun (and/or Jaemin) has come knocking his room to tell him about his ‘partner’.
“I overheard the big guys saying it’s a high possibility this time! Like—”
“—like higher than Kangmin” Mark interrupted, already working on stretching his limbs for he knew he’d be called to spar with this new candidate.
Renjun clicked his tongue at the interruption but beamed in excitement nevertheless. “Higher than Kangmin! It’s 99.99%!”
The brunette perked his head from the forward waist bend he’s doing and gave Renjun a surprised look. “Higher than Kangmin? For real?” Mark asked, not wanting to give himself false hopes.
“99.99%! He’s from Hong Kong, from what I heard. The best they got.” Renjun pointed out.
Mark felt challenged. But also intrigued. He knows he shouldn’t get his hopes up high especially after Jaehyun and Kangmin whom he had sparred with years and months back respectively, had both been the closest to being his possible co-pilot. But Mark had been waiting for this even he if he feels a little more nervous than excited.
Another knock comes out softly to his door as Mark and Renjun turned to the direction of the mahogany piece when the new presence made himself known.
“Fightmaster Kim!” the two young cadets immediately greeted the newcomer.
“At ease,” the older male gestures as Mark and Renjun puts themselves in a more relaxed position.
“I guess Renjun here told you about your new possibile candidate, Mark?” Fightmaster Kim asked, to which the addressed male nodded.
“Then get ready for the sparring. We’ll see if you’re really compatible to the new cadet as they say. It’s been months since the last co-pilot search, hasn’t it?” the older male asked with a smile.
“Is he really that good as they say?” Mark asked curiously.
“You’re my best student, Mark. But try not to be too confident, young one. It’s not a competition.” the older male tells Mark, who nodded understandingly.
He then bidded the Fightmaster as the other needed to get the room ready. Renjun, who was by Mark’s side snickers playfully. “Not a competition, Mark! I remember the first time I had to partner with you and suffered a bruise for 2 weeks. I don’t think I can ever go against you again, Mark.”
“Dramatic. I wasn’t that hard against you!” Mark says defensively. “Anyway, let’s get going. Wouldn’t want to keep Fightmaster Kim or the other person waiting!”
“You go ahead first and I’d bring Jaemin with me! I heard you two played Atari until late night, then again, I’m not even surprised at this point.” Renjun pointed while having his arms crossed. “You two didn’t even have the audacity to invite me to play!”
Mark snickered. “You went to sleep early after training with Sicheng! Therefore, you complaining is invalid! We did ask!”
Renjun huffed in defeat and walks away but not without grumbling about letting Mark (and Jaemin) off the hook this time.
There isn’t a lot of people in Kwoon Combat Room, which is not surprising in all honesty. Mark picked a stick up, swinging it a few times fancily, letting his adrenaline run through with his actions than thoughts. Renjun calls him out as a show off from where he’s standing with Fightmaster Kim and Jaemin. Someone else joins in the combat room — someone who Mark has never seen before. His supposedly 99.99% drift compatible partner.
The other male stood 183 centimeters tall and had looked tough with his hair dyed blonde (that Mark is sorta reminded a little of of some anime character he watched with Jaemin), and if it weren’t for the friendly smile he’s offering Mark, the young cadet would have been a little intimidated.
“Introduce yourselves,” Fightmaster Kim points out in a friendly manner when he approached the two cadets.
The other male and Mark gave each other a formal bow and the latter beats Mark a few seconds too early by introducing himself first. “The name’s Yukhei! I’m 19 and I’m from Hong Kong.”
Mark blinked at this cheerful vibe the other male gave off. “I’m Mark. I’m 19 too, and from Canada originally. I stayed a little in Seoul for a while before coming here… to the Los Angeles Shatterdome.”
Yukhei smiled. Fightmaster Kim then interrupts the little moment of exchanged information. “I’m sure there will be some time to catch up after this, if you’d like. You two cadets know well why we’re here.”
The two cadets nodded. To find out if they’re physiologically compatible for each other before going into Drift.
Fightmaster Kim then nodded as well, backing to join the spot where Renjun and Jaemin had stood in silence and awe.
Yukhei picked up a stick, swinging it a little as a warm-up before he gets in position. Mark follows suits as well. And on cue by the Fightmaster, both the nineteen-year-old cadets charged at each other.
They’re both on a similar set of skills, Mark thinks. While Yukhei’s height had ideally helped him weigh Mark down, the brunette is more persistent and had always had his basic rundowns of keeping a balance with his height, or for the lack of it as compared to the taller cadet. Sparring with Jaehyun in the past helped Mark but whilst the brunette reminisce the little moment, Yukhei scored a point when he managed to strike down Mark; pointing the end of his stick a few centimeters away from Mark’s face.
If the brunette could hear well, he swore Renjun and Jaemin had gasped and probably even the exchange of how Mark had gone down in the first round. It’s embarrassing because Mark never goes down on the first round but it also induces his will to take Yukhei down. And he does in the next round where he aimed for Yukhei’s waist; an open area the other male seemed to sometimes forget in keeping guard of.
If Mark paid attention, he could hear ‘1-1’ being announced by Fightmaster Kim but he’s busy exchanging a known eye contact with the other male. Somewhere in the back of his head, he hears Fightmaster Kim’s advice. It’s not a competition.
Before Mark could let the elder’s advice settle in his thoughts, the taller cadet charged again but this time Mark was able to keep a consistency of blocking the said attack while trying to ‘attack’ the other male as well.
While the first two round came easy when it comes to trying to score points for each parties, the current and the few next rounds went on a little longer as they began to know and read each other’s moves. Each time Mark counters an attack, Yukhei dodges them easily and vice versa. It felt very practiced for the two of them. Mark never learned dancing before (besides the random head bobbing and dabbing to the pop music that Renjun plays with his advanced radio on Saturday night) but with Yukhei, it felt like he’s been learning to dance his entire life with every footsteps he makes that the other cadet matches so easily.
For once, his combat with the blonde haired cadet didn’t felt like it was a competition like most of his other combats with his previous drift compatible candidates. It felt like they were ‘one’ yet not entirely.
By 19-18, Mark’s a little weared down but so is Yukhei. Their breaths are heavy yet both trying to keep their composure. Their palms are rough and possibly a little tired from all the gripping of their sticks throughout the long hours of sparring. Beads of sweat clings to their forehead, and their feet feeling sore against the mat from their shufflings and the friction made in contact. But Yukhei still has the same smile he gave Mark when he introduced himself to the other and Mark now wears a content smile during a compatibility combat for the first time.
Mark ties the score of 19 to 19. Fightmaster Kim ended up calling it a day because it’s been more than 6 hours since the first round and both the male are obviously tired but content. And they need any more rounds of scores to tell that the two nineteen-year-old boys are compatible. Somewhere in the corner, Renjun and Jaemin rejoiced celebratory, running out of the combat room to announce that Mark Lee has finally found himself a partner and Fightmaster Kim gives both of them some time.
Now alone in the combat room with only their breaths heavy and gasping for air, Mark thinks to himself. This is it. After years of just training and waiting and seeing some of his friends find someone they’re compatible with, Mark finally found his. He still felt the adrenaline in him from sparring with Yukhei in his system and he knows the feeling won’t go away anytime soon. He felt something similar like this with Jaehyun and almost with Kangmin but with Yukhei, the feeling never washes away from his system even after the sparring. He feels a little giddy, probably from happiness, if he allows himself to openly show it. Both males then erupted in a fit of laughter.
“That was the first time I sparred with someone who treated me like a competition yet it didn’t feel like one,” Yukhei spoke out first, turning his head to look at Mark.
“And that was the first time someone could keep up to me, and the first time someone took me down on the first round,” Mark confessed, turning his head as well to meet eyes with the other.
They remained in that position for some time, simply just looking at each other — reading each others’ facial features and trying to learn what the other has to say through expressions, or the lack of.
“Did you wait long?” Mark asked.
“Since 16. And you?” the blonde haired asked in return.
“15. And for about 1460 days at least,” Mark stood up and held his hand out for the other.
“You don’t have to count anymore.” Yukhei takes Mark’s hand as the other pulled him up. “We’re drift compatible.”