Prequel to Build Upon The Ruins.
Index: Part I – Part II –
Warnings: past abuse, violence.
One of the Headmaster’s favorite things to say about Atsushi was that he destroyed everything he touched.
It wasn’t one of his lessons, exactly; he never applied it to Atsushi’s mind with more than brief, dismissive words, never carved it into Atsushi’s back with belt or stick. “You destroy everything, boy,“ he would simply say. And he would look at him with profound disgust and leave.
So Atsushi figured that this was one rule he could circumvent with time. He broke breakable things, yes, because his hands shook often; he stepped over fragilities, indeed, in his attempts to cower and flee; but these were not things he attributed to himself as much as to the Headmaster, who was the source of the flight and who was the source of the shakes.
Atsushi thought: Once I am out of here, I won’t shake anymore.
It made sense that he would break something not even one week into his first attempt at a job. It made sense that the Headmaster had been right about him once again.
“Well,” said the very old man who had introduced himself as Natsume. “I can say that I’ve seen worse material damage than this, but you’re cutting it close, lad.”
“I’m so sorry,” Atsushi replied numbly.
They were standing on the charred floor of what had once been Yokohama’s jaeger dock’s simulation cockpit. With his foot, Natsume nudged the blackened remains of what looked like a drift helmet.
Atsushi would have little interest in heartfelt apologies too, in his place.
“What happened?” Natsume didn’t ask so much as exhale the question, as if the effort of giving voice to words was too great to envision. There were dark circles under his eyes that had not been present any other time Atsushi had seen him; in fact, Natsume always seemed unfairly composed and healthy, despite his age, despite the end of the world.
“I don’t know,” Atsushi admitted, trying and failing not to ready himself for blows. He was pretty sure Natsume wouldn’t hit him, no matter that Ozaki might come back in person from the other side of the world to behead him, but old habits died hard. “I was just cleaning, same as yesterday, and then I, I guess I tripped on a wire? And then everything went…”
He didn’t know how to describe how quickly the fire had started and spread, spark one second and licking flames the next; Atsushi had rung the alarm, and he and several of the dock’s workers had managed to contain the disaster, but those few minutes had been enough to destroy the whole room.
The others were gone now. That was fair. Atsushi was the sole responsible, after all—he should be the only one to bear the punishment.
He gestured vaguely to the melted equipment around them and winced. His arm had caught against a piece of red-hot metal while he was trying to smother the flames, and it ached, now, the same way that the badly-healed scars over his belly did.
“This room was a disaster waiting to happen,” Natsume said into the silence. Atsushi tried not to move and not to breathe too hard. His lungs burned from inhaling too much smoke. “I told them time and time again that storing the drift gel here was a bad idea, it’s highly flammable. But did they listen to me?” Natsume shook his head half-heartedly. “No, of course not. Why listen to the man who invented drift technology?”
That shot through Atsushi’s mind-numbing fear somewhat.
“You invented it?” he asked, staring at the old man.
Natsume managed a brief smile, almost a chuckle, no doubt used to the reaction. Atsushi’s face burned with shame. He snapped his mouth shut.
“I didn’t invent it, really, only discovered it,” Natsume replied. “It was all about revealing that the human mind is a displaceable substance, so much so that some of us have the very rare ability to connect… well. It’s all very vast, all very mysterious still. Sometimes I regret engaging in the research in the first place.”
“Why?” Atsushi asked. His foot made an awful noise against the soot-stained floor when he moved it. “We’re winning, aren’t we?”
Natsume’s mouth thinned, and something pained went over his wrinkled face. It seemed to deepen every crease of his skin, to make him look even older.
It washed away as quickly as it had come, and he smiled at Atsushi again. “Look at me, chatting away like this,” he said. “You’re hurt, aren’t you, boy? I shouldn’t keep you away from Naomi-kun’s clutches any longer. The girl will have my head.”
“I’m fine,” Atsushi replied reflexively. Then, biting his lip: “I’m… I’m really sorry about the room. I’ll work, I’ll help with the repairs, just—” he breathed in weakly. “I don’t have any money,” he admitted.
“I didn’t imagine that the cleaning aide had three million dollars on hand, no,” Natsume said genially.
Atsushi choked before he could process the words, even as his mind raced to convert the sum into yen. He felt his face drain of all blood; he felt his cursed hands start to shake.
“I really don’t have any money,” he let out.
He had not even a dime to his name. The orphanage had expelled him the second he turned eighteen with only the clothes on his back for possession, and Atsushi had crawled his way to the jaeger dock after three days of fear-filled homelessness and a startling encounter with a scavenger named Katai.
“If you want work,” Katai had said, “it’s either the dock or the coastal wall.”
The coastal wall was a death sentence, and Atsushi had always wanted to see a jaeger up close. That had been six days ago. Atsushi didn’t even have his first paycheck yet.
He startled badly when Natsume’s thin hand came to rest upon his shoulder, and Natsume eyed him for a second before letting go, no doubt sensing how little he enjoyed being touched. “We’ll put it up to an accident, Nakajima-kun,” he said. “That simulator was going to fall apart one day anyway, and it’s better that it did without seriously harming anyone.” He stayed silent for a second, thoughtful, before speaking again. “If you still want to help, I can put you in one of Oda-kun’s construction teams, assign you to the repairs. Though I’m afraid it’s not much of a raise compared to cleaning, salary-wise.”
“That’s fine,” Atsushi replied, stunned. He had expected to be fired and sued until every drop of his blood had dried, not to be offered to keep working. “That’s—thank you. Thank you so much!”
“You look like you just escaped the gallows, my boy,” Natsume mocked gently. This time Atsushi didn’t jump when the man’s hand pushed him gently toward the exit. “Surely you didn’t expect that we’d execute you.”
“There are rumors,” Atsushi muttered, thinking of everything that gossip said of Ozaki Kouyou.
Former criminal turned pilot turned handler of the entire jaeger program. Frightening woman, carried a sword at her hip at all times, able to pilot a whole jaeger on her own for more than ten minutes.
Natsume’s laughter held very little joy. “Ozaki-kun has far more important things to worry about right now,” he said. “Never fear.”
Atsushi wanted and didn’t want to ask. There was something here that he wasn’t getting, he was sure; something in the mournful way Natsume spoke, in the smoke-heavy air surrounding them. Shivers creeped up the singed skin of his forearms.
“Aren’t you mad?” he settled for, halfway toward the hospital wing. He flushed when Natsume looked at him. “It’s your technology and all. I’d be mad if someone destroyed something I spent so long building.”
“One simulation cockpit can be rebuilt, no matter how expensive,” Natsume replied. “I would rather the room burn down than you hurt yourself in it. And, frankly, this isn’t the worst news I’ve gotten this morning.”
“What do you mean?”
It was still barely seven. Atsushi’s shift started at six, right before the bunk of the dock’s inhabitants woke up and started roaming its halls; he had only had the time to clean three offices and mop one corridor before the accident. Atsushi couldn’t imagine something more drastic than the lone simulation room of the dock being utterly destroyed happening in this lapse of time.
Natsume looked as if he were deliberating with himself. The dock was lit with very bright yellow lights—it turned his skin pallid, washed him of living colors. “I might as well tell you,” he said eventually. “It’s not like you won’t hear about it within a few hours anyway.” He took in a settling breath. “Double Black fell during the night.”
Atsushi’s steps faltered.
Double Black was a not a name unfamiliar to any living human. Atsushi himself, cut off from the world as he had been his entire life, had heard of the miracle jaeger. Fastest machine in the world, with the highest number of kills, moved by pilots who refused public acclaim and chose to remain anonymous. Atsushi had clutched in his hands a broken toy made in its image. He had glimpsed, from the keyhole of the orphanage’s TV room, videos of its accomplishments.
“Fell,” he repeated. “As in… did it get damaged? Was there an attack?”
“A category three kaiju attacked the coast of Alaska during the night. Double Black managed to kill it, but both pilots were injured. One of them—” Natsume had to pause, his voice rough with emotion for the briefest second. “It’s unclear whether he’s going to survive his injuries,” he said. “Come now, boy.”
Before Atsushi could ask for clarifications, he was pushed through an open door. They had reached the infirmary.
“Naomi-kun,” Natsume called, and a woman with long black hair looked at them around the screen separating two beds. “Nakajima-kun got caught in the fire earlier—could you tend to him?”
“I’m fine,” Atsushi said.
“You have a third-degree burn on your forearm,” Naomi replied sharply, standing up from the chair she occupied.
Atsushi had to contend with her for fifteen minutes, uncomfortable both with her clinical way of handling his wound and with the concept of having his wound handled at all. He felt numb with it by the time she gave her the green light to go, with firm instructions about how to care for the burn. He navigated his way back to the room he had occupied the past five nights feeling dizzy.
Natsume was long gone.
If Atsushi were to reflect on his life as a whole, he wouldn’t have much to say. Either his biological parents had abandoned him or they were dead; either way, he had wound up on the steps of what must be Yokohama’s worst orphan home.
He had lived soberly. He hadn’t always had food. He had managed to attract the ire of every single person living there somehow, and he bore every mark of it on his body, hidden under threadbare clothing. Atsushi woke up from nightmares every night and he spent every day trembling. He hadn’t managed to breathe easier after leaving, because he had realized that for all the hatred he held toward the place that had shaped his growth, it had still been a place. It had still been a roof over his head.
It wasn’t much of a tale compared to that of aliens attacking humanity.
The morning after he burned down the simulation room, Atsushi met Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.
It wasn’t the first time he saw Akutagawa. Atsushi didn’t have much as far as talents were concerned, but he was good at feeling the atmosphere of a place. It had taken him no more than a day to figure out how to go around the dock. It had taken him only three to sort the people living there into separate categories, and to understand which he was supposed to interact with and which he was not supposed to.
The only jaeger currently held at the dock was only half of one—the bust and head of an old machine that had never really managed to work. It was one of the early attempts at building the weapons, and it had never gone out to fight, but its drift set up served to test prospective pilots.
Yokohama’s jaeger dock was a place where pilots trained. And Akutagawa, conspicuous as he was when he roamed the lines of the hangar, was someone Atsushi was not supposed to interact with—a pilot candidate.
So Atsushi recognized Akutagawa’s back as he approached Natsume’s office. He knew the color of his hair and the stature with which he stood. He flattened himself to the wall right outside the open door, anxious about whether he should leave despite having been summoned or whether he should stay where he was.
He tried his best to make himself invisible. He could do nothing about the fact that he had very good hearing.
“… need to test me again.”
“I can’t, Akutagawa-kun,” Natsume was saying.
Atsushi heard Akutagawa take in a racking breath, almost as if he were smothering a cough. His voice was very breezy; its pitch lower than any he heard around the base so far.
It wasn’t an unpleasant voice.
“You know my scores,” he said. “You can’t afford not to test me again.”
“I do know them. You’re the best we have, not just at this base, and your dedication is immensely appreciated, but there’s nothing more either you or I can do. I’d advise using the time we take to rebuild the simulator to consider your options.”
“There must be someone.”
“We’ve tested you with every single candidate we currently have, lad. There’s no one.”
The following silence was fraught with tension.
“Then I will wait for new recruits to arrive,” Akutagawa said blandly.
Atsushi thought Natsume must have sighed, then. He watched the light muddy itself to orange on the steel wall opposite him, heard the loud shriek of a chair being dragged across the floor.
“You can’t force compatibility,” Natsume said. “No—listen to me. We’ve had great candidates in the past, amazing potential that never found a match. I think it’s time for you to consider that it might be the case for you.”
“You found someone for Gin,” Akutagawa replied. “A complete stranger.”
“Gin-kun has normal compatibility levels. It’s not your case. Do you know how unlikely it is to find a match for candidates who can’t drift outside of naturally high compatibility?”
Akutagawa took a slow breath. “It’s been done before,” he said. “You told me that Dazai-san—”
“Dazai-kun was in the same situation, that’s true, but what happened with Double Black was a once in a lifetime occurrence. We’ll never achieve that level of compatibility with anyone again, and it would be madness for you to hang on to that sort of hope. My boy…”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“I think you need to.”
That was definitely not a conversation Atsushi was supposed to hear. He pushed his back closer to the wall, acutely reminded of the number of times he had hidden himself in plain sight that very same way.
“I know you want this more than anything,” Natsume went on. His voice was so kind that even Atsushi felt the ache of it. “And it’s not your fault. It’s nothing anyone can control. But I’ve already invested more time and money on you than any candidate I’ve ever had, and I’m sorry, truly, but there’s simply nothing more I can do.”
Silence hovered, thick and fruitless.
“I’ll wait for the simulator to be rebuilt and resume my training,” Akutagawa said cooly. “Good day, sir.”
He strolled out of the room, turned sharply, and almost walked into Atsushi.
Atsushi flinched back immediately, breath catching in his throat out of nothing but habit; but Akutagawa only glanced at him for a second, looking disgruntled but not otherwise angry. His eyes were grey. Atsushi hadn’t had time to notice that before.
“Ah,” Natsume said, seeing that they were both standing still at the entrance of his office. “Come in, Nakajima-kun. You’re here to know where you’re to be posted, right?”
“Um, yes,” Atsushi replied.
He tore his eyes away from Akutagawa’s face to look at the old man, but when he tried to step into the room, something gripped him by the arm.
“Nakajima,” Akutagawa echoed. He was staring intently at Atsushi when Atsushi looked at him again. “Nakajima Atsushi?”
“Yes,” Atsushi said. “That’s me.”
He didn’t have time to question why Akutagawa knew his name. The fingers wrapped around his arm tightened, sending burning pain through the bandages wound tight around the place where his skin had burned.
Akutagawa punched him across the jaw.
Atsushi saw the blow coming because he was too used to being hit not to, but it came as such a surprise that he froze, unable to react in time. He barely heard Natsume’s shout of concern through the buzzing in his mind, barely felt the pain of the impact in the face of his immediate terror. His shoulders hit the wall with more strength than before, the back of his head banging sharply against it, shooting blinding pain through his forehead.
“That,” said Akutagawa’s voice, cutting through the ringing of Atsushi’s blood and fear, “was for destroying the simulator, you pathetic scum.”
“Let him go—Akutagawa-kun! Drop the poor boy, good lord—”
Akutagawa sneered at him, the fine features of his face twisted into loathing. It was nothing but the same way Atsushi had been looked at all his life; Akutagawa’s black hair could have turned to grey-streaked brown, his jaw could have widened to fit that of the Headmaster, and in that second Atsushi would not have been able to tell the difference.
Something close to despair tightened where his guts had iced over. He felt very small, very inconsequent. He felt like a child trapped in a bricked cellar, hunger screaming through him, fingers numb to the cold.
Except that the cellar was a wide hallway; except that its wall were not stone, but steel.
I’m not there anymore, Atsushi thought.
He closed his shaking hands into fists and punched right back.
“This is unacceptable behavior,” Natsume was saying now, for what felt like the thousandth time. “Especially for you, Akutagawa-kun. Assaulting personnel like this… you’re lucky Ozaki-kun is still in Anchorage. Very lucky indeed.”
Akutagawa, seated next to Atsushi on a chair of the infirmary, said nothing. Atsushi dearly hoped that his split lip hurt too much to speak at all.
“And you, lad,” Natsume went on, looking at Atsushi. “I never expected you to stoop to this level. I’m wondering if I should fire you after all.”
“Do it,” Atsushi muttered. The words tasted bitter on his tongue. “I’d rather work on the coastal wall than stay here a minute longer.”
“A useless contribution to a useless endeavor,” Akutagawa drawled, proving that unfortunately, his mouth worked just fine. “It seems fitting, for worthless trash like you.”
“I’ll punch you again, asshole.”
“No one’s punching anyone,” the woman from the day before, Naomi, cut in. She gave a vicious twist to the new gauze she had tightened around Atsushi’s arm, killing his next insult in the making. “Never mind Ozaki—if Yosano-sensei was here, she’d kill you both herself. Like I don’t have enough work on my plate trying to keep the program organized with everything that went down yesterday, now I have to deal with hotheaded idiots brawling in the goddamn corridors.”
Atsushi didn’t know who Yosano was, but judging by the face Natsume was making, he was ready to believe her words.
“You’re one to talk about being useless,” Atsushi shot lowly, once Naomi had stepped away from them. “Mister failed pilot candidate.”
It was a low blow, not something he had the right to hold over anyone, but it was worth it if only for the way Akutagawa’s eyes widened. It was worth seeing his jaw tense, seeing him grind his teeth in fury.
Let him feel every bit as helpless as he had made Atsushi feel.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, cleaning boy,” Akutagawa seethed. “I don’t supposed you’ve ever achieved anything greater than setting millions of dollars’ worth of equipment on fire with your incompetence.”
“Oh, and you have?”
“Enough,” Natsume interrupted.
There was no geniality in his voice this time. No benevolent elderly tones. Standing with his back straight, glaring at them with cold eyes, he truly looked the part of a commanding officer.
They both fell silent.
“Akutagawa-kun,” Natsume declared, “I won’t allow you to resume training. Take a week to think about whether you want to stay in the program to work or leave, but I won’t spend more money on you with no evidence that you can ever pilot.”
Akutagawa looked like he had just been punched again. His face was less handsome marred with bruises, less likely to make Atsushi stop in the trail of his own thoughts, but it was still sort of heartbreaking to see him like this after the conversation Atsushi had stumbled upon. His skin had turned ever paler.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
His voice seemed very far away.
Atsushi stared at him, resisting the urge to bite his own swollen lip in nervousness. “I don’t get it,” he let out. “What’s so great about being a pilot? You’d be risking your life every day.”
He could understand the admiration for pilots, he could understand the need for them, but he couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be one. Atsushi had never seen a kaiju in person, though Yokohama had been ruined once already; he had crouched under the floorboards of the orphanage while the beast crushed the city beneath its feet, and he had emerged into the setting sun after it had been killed and witnessed the carnage.
He couldn’t imagine wanting to face a monster like this.
“Of course you wouldn’t understand,” Akutagawa scoffed. There was still anger in his voice, but Atsushi thought that it wasn’t directed at him this time.
This anger smelled of frustration. It stemmed from hopelessness.
“You can’t even drift. People like you are only good enough to clean up after pilots.”
“You don’t know that,” Atsushi gritted out, annoyed once again.
Akutagawa snorted. “You wouldn’t be working here if you had anything worthwhile in your life—”
“No, I mean, you don’t know that I can’t drift.”
There were three pairs of eyes looking at him in confusion. Atsushi felt himself blush.
“Can you?” Akutagawa asked, raising one sparse eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” Atsushi mumbled defensively. “Never took the test, did I.”
For a moment, no one spoke.
Then Akutagawa said, “What do you mean you never took the test?” at the same time as Natsume asked, “You are eighteen, aren’t you?”
“No—I mean, yes I’m eighteen,” Atsushi said, stumbling over his words. “It’s just, I only turned eighteen a week ago, and the place I lived in kinda threw me out so I was just… I guess finding someplace else was more important? I mean—” he swallowed, digging his fingers under the plastic chair until his knuckles ached, “it’s not like the chance of me being able to do it is very high, right? What is it, one in ten thousand?”
“Sometimes less,” Natsume said slowly.
He was peering at Atsushi more attentively now. Akutagawa groaned when he noticed. “Please,” he said. “You can’t be serious.”
“Drift-testing is mandatory, Akutagawa-kun.”
“Do we even have the equipment for that, or did that idiot burn them down as well?”
“Hey,” Atsushi said weakly.
“We have the necessary,” Natsume said. “I guess we could take care of it now. It’ll only take a minute.”
“You don’t have to,” Atsushi replied immediately. “Aren’t you busy, with the trainees and all?”
Proving Akutagawa wrong was well and fine, but being proven an idiot in front of him was a lot less appealing. The worst thing was that Akutagawa noticed. His lips stretched into the poorest imitation of a smile that Atsushi had ever seen.
“I’ll watch,” he said, as if his intentions weren’t already crystal-clear.
It turned out that Natsume was not too busy, in spite of the fatigue that Double Black’s fall kept tight around his eyes. They walked to a storage room full of worn-down drift helmets, and Natsume dug through the chaos there to find what looked like a prosthetic arm made of metal and plastic. Parts of it had chipped away over time.
Atsushi didn’t think it coincidence that most of the people they crossed paths with wore similar traces of stress on their faces. He didn’t think it chance that Akutagawa had chosen now to try and force the man overseeing the entire training program to test him once more, however hopelessly. Since the news of Double Black’s fall had broken into the open the day before, the whole world seemed a little less bright. Atsushi hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask if what the newspaper he had nicked from the mess hall said was true—that both pilots had died in the attack.
He hoped they hadn’t. Double Black had been the ones to save Yokohama when the city had been brought to ruin; Atsushi felt grateful toward them, and he had thought, faintly, that maybe coming to work at the dock meant that he would be able to express this gratitude to them in person one day.
It was a foolish dream, a childish sort of musing, but the thought had been a comfort.
“Sit down, my boy,” Natsume said. He was bent over a machine that looked a little obsolete, busy plugging one of the helmets into it with various cables.
Atsushi met Akutagawa’s eyes nervously. “I, um. I really don’t think this is—”
“The law doesn’t allow exceptions,” Akutagawa whispered roughly. He was obviously enjoying this. “Natsume-sensei is already using his precious time to test you, Nakajima.”
Atsushi clenched his teeth and sat on top of the sturdiest box he could find.
Whatever Natsume was preparing didn’t take long to be ready. He sat the robotic arm next to Atsushi and a slightly dusty helmet at his other side; then he said, “Push back your hair, please,” distractedly, and dipped a paper towel into a jar full of drift gel.
Atsushi obeyed. The gel was cold on his forehead, but not enough to be uncomfortable. It was just a little slick and sticky. The helmet was heavier, once put over his head. It was a little too big, and it fell forward, the attaches meant to rest over his brow almost poking him in the eyes.
“All right,” Natsume said, once he had fixed it in place. He fiddled with a remote of some kind and then looked back at him, not very expectant, and Atsushi sat completely still through the brief shock he felt between his eyes and ribs—it wasn’t nearly uncomfortable enough to make him cry out in either pain or surprise. “Try to move the arm next to you.”
Atsushi looked between him and Akutagawa—who now seemed more bored than usual, leaning against the wall opposite him and sneering softly—and then turned his head toward the appendage sitting next to him.
He curled its fingers slowly, one by one. It was a bit of a strange experience to move something not linked to his own body, but Atsushi found that it made for an interesting feeling. Or lack thereof.
“Cool,” he let out, when the fake arm’s thumb and index pads rubbed against each other with faint clicks of metal on metal. He couldn’t help but expect physical sensation to go along with the sight, yet there was nothing at all. It made something akin to carsickness curl just under his heart. “What do I do next?”
No one answered him.
Atsushi looked back at the other two men—and almost yelped at the way they stared at him. Natsume’s mouth was hanging open, and Akutagawa…
Akutagawa had pushed away from the wall entirely. Gone was the annoyance, the anger from before; Atsushi thought that the spark in his lifeless eyes was disbelief. He thought it might be excitement.
“What?” he stuttered, defensive.
“You can drift,” Akutagawa said.
He sounded very nearly stunned.
“What—but,” Atsushi looked at Natsume, “I thought I needed to be tested?”
Natsume closed his mouth at last. “That was the test, Nakajima-kun,” he said. “Can’t you feel it?”
“The drift, my boy.”
Akutagawa took a step forward, following the movements of the fake arm with his eyes and then looking at Atsushi again. “It feels like you’re out of your body,” he explained roughly. “Like you know it belongs to you, technically, but it’s still distant.”
“I don’t feel any different than usual,” Atsushi replied.
His body always felt distant from him. It generally helped with the pain and the insults, even if it made him a little clumsy and inattentive. He couldn’t hurt as much if he wasn’t feeling anything, after all.
“You have remarkable control,” Natsume commented, staring at the arm with rapt interest. “Usually people only manage to make it twitch a bit… can you turn the wrist around?”
Atsushi turned the wrist around, confused and wary. He felt a surge of pride at Natsume’s chuckle, at the words he murmured that sounded like, A natural. There was a light in his eyes that made Atsushi want to squirm in his seat, that made his chest ache for more of his approval.
He had never been called a natural at anything before.
The feeling of pride died when Akutagawa turned to Natsume and ordered, “Test me with him.”
“Hang on,” Atsushi protested.
Akutagawa didn’t even look at him. He just kept staring at Natsume, eyes afire and mouth shaking.
Natsume’s lips thinned again. “I can’t,” he said. “Nakajima-kun has no training, Akutagawa-kun, we don’t test neural handshakes until at least six months in the program.”
“Then I’ll wait—”
“No. I will not spend another year’s worth of resources on the vague hope that Nakajima-kun might possibly be a match for you. Tests are dangerous and costly—you’ve already destroyed a whole jaeger with one. We’re lucky the damage you did to the rest was minimal.”
Akutagawa’s breathing sounded like a wheeze in the silence that followed. It seemed all of his excitement had vanished now to make way for palpable frustration, and Atsushi shifted on the box, protests drying on his tongue, anxiety crawling up his back.
Akutagawa took in a calming breath. When he spoke again, his words were very measured.
“You just said so yourself,” he said. “He’s a natural. He doesn’t even notice the drift, he wouldn’t let it waver.”
“This is pure speculation,” Natsume replied, but his tone was less firm.
Akutagawa stepped toward him again, hope glinting in his grey eyes. “He might be one of those who can drift with everyone,” he insisted.
Natsume’s face turned to stone.
“There’s only been one such recorded case in the world,” he replied. “How do you even know about it?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does when it concerns pilots’ classified information,” Natsume snapped. “Ozaki-kun will not be happy to learn that you’ve been digging around in Fukuzawa Yukichi’s file. For God’s sake, the man has only been dead for a year, show some respect.”
Atsushi ripped the helmet off of his head before either of them could speak again, halting whatever Akutagawa wanted to retort. He breathed tightly through his nose and mouth, trying to ignore the fear solidifying in his heart. His whole chest felt made of granite.
“I don’t want to be a pilot,” he said shakily.
Natsume and Akutagawa stared at him wordlessly.
In the end Akutagawa reacted first. “What do you mean, you don’t want to?” he spat.
“You were only a minute ago goading me about being able to drift, and now you—”
“I’m sorry,” Atsushi cut in, and his jaw was so tense that his entire skull ached, but he didn’t relent.
He put the helmet back down. Next to him on the box, the fake arm had fallen lifeless once again. He looked at it while he tried to control his breathing and to forget the way they had both been talking about him as if he wasn’t there.
It was funny how quickly habits could go. Atsushi had been talked about like this his entire life, but after a week out of hell, he couldn’t stand the thought of sitting a minute longer feeling like an object instead of a person.
“I don’t care about you being sorry,” Akutagawa said through gritted teeth. “I care about being able to pilot.”
“We can’t force you, lad,” Natsume said placatingly. “But I have to ask if you’re sure of your decision?”
“I am,” Atsushi replied without looking at him.
In the recesses of his mind, the Headmaster’s voice rang like a deathbell—Filth like you is only good in the service of others.
Not anymore, Atsushi told himself, as he had told himself every hour of every day since being shoved onto the unforgiving cement of Yokohama’s leveled streets. Never again.
“I’ll just,” he stammered, “I’ll just go. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
He left with silence weighing on his back. It made the whip scars over it flare with remembered pain; it made the burns on his torso tug and chafe, made his heart thicken with guilt.