Atsushi couldn’t sleep on the mattress in his room.
It was only another notch up the scale of shameful things he had discovered after leaving the orphanage. He couldn’t sleep on a bed because all he had been allowed to sleep on through his life was a thin cot; he couldn’t eat in the mess hall, not while others were there to see him take food he didn’t feel he had earned; he couldn’t go see the resident doctor, Tanizaki Naomi, unless pulled there by force or authority.
The night that followed the drift test found him wide awake and jittery. He had enough of a blanket to put between his back and the floor and still roll over himself for warmth, but even the harshness of the ground wasn’t enough to soothe him. He didn’t entertain the thought of trying to sleep on the bed either. He stared at the ceiling, chest tight and eyes unblinking, and he found no sleep at all.
The stars had long risen over the bay by the time he decided to move. His window gave out to the sea, something he was more grateful for than he knew how to say. He had never gotten to appreciate the ocean this much before.
He knocked on the door left of his with shaking hands.
The door opened with violence. He hadn’t expected Lucy to be gracious about his arrival, and indeed she wasn’t, hair mussed and eyes rimmed with red.
“You better have a very good excuse,” she seethed, letting him in.
“I’m sorry,” Atsushi pleaded. “I just, I don’t really know anyone else here and I—”
“Yeah, whatever. Spare me.”
There was something comforting about Lucy’s state of near-constant irritation. Her room echoed it, filled to the brim with things Atsushi would not have enough of one lifetime to name—broken toys, rumpled clothes, bits and pieces of metal he thought must come from discarded pilot suits.
“So what is it?” she asked, falling atop her unmade bed. “And does it have anything to do with that spectacular black eye?”
She didn’t look like she had been sleeping either, but she must’ve have laid down at the very least. Her left cheek was still creased from her pillow.
“Sort of,” he replied.
“Who did you fight?”
He licked his lips, nervous. “Akutagawa.”
There was a pregnant pause.
“Akutagawa?” she repeated.
“He punched me first,” he said quickly, and the way she snorted told him all he needed to know about her trust in this statement. He swallowed, and before she could speak, he added, “I had my drift test today.”
Lucy looked at him in silence, obviously expecting him to continue. “So?” she asked, when it became obvious that he wouldn’t.
“So,” he replied. “I can drift.”
He wasn’t sure what he expected out of her reaction—if he expected a reaction at all—but Lucy showed no sign of surprise. She crossed her legs at the knee, smoothing the lines of the wide grey shirt she wore. The only light in the room came out of her bedside lamp, and it was an old-fashioned thing, with shades like a skirt. It dimmed it to an orange glow. It made the thick of her hair shine beautifully.
“I thought you might,” was all she said.
It wasn’t at all how he thought the first time he said the words would go.
“I’ve been suiting up pilots for almost two years,” she said impatiently. “You people, you have this thing about you. Don’t ask me to explain. Sometimes I can just tell.”
Atsushi dearly wanted to ask. Instead he mumbled, “I never thought I’d be able to.”
“Well, life works in mysterious ways and all that. Congratulations.”
“There’s nothing to celebrate.”
He looked at her again. Lucy rarely looked curious or invested in anything not related to herself, but he thought there was a glimmer of interest in her eyes. It was hard to tell with the shadows still roaming over the room.
“You just need to find someone to pilot with, now,” she said. “Then your whole life’s settled. You’ll be richer than most people here combined.”
“Akutagawa wants to—to test. With me.” Atsushi bit the side of his tongue and added, “For drift compatibility.”
She snorted again. “No surprise here. He’s been getting desperate.”
It had been hard to voice his refusal in front of Natsume and Akutagawa earlier, but Atsushi found it even harder now. The words felt like coughs refusing to get out; they constricted in his chest, taking all the room that his air should.
“I don’t want to pilot,” he admitted, and his lips stung with the confession.
The Headmaster’s voice was silent now. No need for his judgment when Atsushi was doing his own, when Lucy would do hers.
He hadn’t meant to befriend her, not really. If befriending was even the word to use here. He had arrived at the dock a week prior, numb with hunger and exhaustion; she had been the one to find him by the wide door of the hangar, hiding behind one of the wooden crates stacked outside the entrance.
She had listened to his stammering tale with anger twitching at her mouth. She had dragged him, almost by the neck, to meet Natsume. It was on her suggestion to the man that he had started working and living here.
Atsushi hadn’t really expected to find shelter so quickly, no matter what the scavenger had told him. This gratitude was not one he knew how to express.
He talked to Lucy because their rooms neighbored each other, because she had been the one to show him around, because with discovering freedom came the realization that Atsushi was bad at talking to people. Wrecked with anxiety at the best of times, struck with terror at the worst. Most of the workers here came from all over the world and communicated in English, which made things harder, considering that he didn’t speak a word of it. Lucy spoke Japanese. It was just easier.
And Lucy was angry, so angry, at everything and everyone. She looked how Atsushi thought he could have if circumstances were different: embittered by her lot in life and not afraid to show it.
Lucy was catharsis.
“We need pilots,” she said quietly.
“Pilots get hurt,” Atsushi replied.
At the end of the day, that was the crux of the matter. He was so very tired of hurting.
“So what?” Lucy was sneering now, lips curled over her ill-lined teeth. They gleamed in the low light. “We’re all gonna get hurt, pilots or not. Kaiju don’t discriminate.”
“I don’t understand how anyone would want to go against one.”
He felt frozen with fright at the very idea. Hayate had only had a window of a half hour to lay rampage over Yokohama, but Atsushi still remembered the imprints of its giant feet, the razor-like cuts that his wings had made through the bellies of buildings. He could remember crouching with the other children in the closest imitation of proximity, of solidarity, he had ever experienced; he could recall down to the trails of dust what the underground cellar of the orphanage had looked like that day, trembling with each of the beast’s steps.
Hayate was not one of Atsushi’s biggest nightmares, but he was a nightmare still. He couldn’t imagine having the will to face a kaiju in the flesh. Lucy didn’t mock him for that, at least.
Instead she clenched her hands into the rumpled blanket. “There’s no one on the track to replace Double Black,” she said. She cut him off before he could speak: “Shut up. I have contacts with other teams working on suit designs—all the candidates in San Francisco are matchless too. There’s no one.”
“Even if I tried,” Atsushi said, fear knotting in his throat, “I’d never be as good as Double Black.”
“No one will ever be that good anyway.”
Her voice had turned lower.
“Did you know them?” he asked, after a second of hesitation.
“Don’t talk like they’re dead.” Atsushi couldn’t quite mask the relief he felt at that; Lucy watched his face brighten and sighed. “I started in San Francisco,” she said. “They were stationed there at the time, so yeah, I worked with them.”
“What are they like?”
He knew his thirst for knowledge came through, he knew he must sound like no more than a rabid fan, but Lucy made no comment of it.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she mumbled.
Atsushi wasn’t above begging. He told her as much.
“Ugh, fine.” She pulled her legs above the mattress and sat cross-legged on it. Atsushi followed her wordless order to sit next to her, and the soft of the bed felt like a threat under his legs. Tension hardened the line of his shoulders. “What do you want to know?” Lucy asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I guess, what kind of people they are. If they’re nice in person.”
“Nice isn’t really the word I’d use, but they’re not too bad. Not the worst.” She didn’t sound very convinced. “Nakahara’s nicer than Dazai,” she mused. “He takes the time to make conversation and everything. Most of the time Dazai’s too busy talking to him to remember other people exist.”
“They’re both Japanese?”
“Yeah. Nakahara might be mixed, I’m not sure.”
Despite her reluctance, Lucy talked easily of Double Black. She had worked through three different iterations of the suits that its pilots wore; she had spent time with them, testing with them and observing them, and she had gleamed quite a lot even without bonding with them.
She told Atsushi about Dazai Osamu’s sharp words and off-putting attitude. She told him of Nakahara Chuuya’s blunt acceptance of it, of the way he parried word for word and move for move. She described the training halls of San Francisco’s base, where they would spar every morning under the watchful eyes of a number of idle employees; she admitted to the bets she had participated in—about who would win that morning or the next, in how many moves, in how many verbal jabs.
About whether Nakahara and Dazai were truly involved in the kind of relationship that their behavior hinted at.
She spoke, flushed and tentative, of the shameless way Dazai looked at Nakahara, of Nakahara’s answering looks, more reserved but no less meaningful. Atsushi thought her hesitance might be because she didn’t know what he would think of such a relationship. He had neither the strength nor the wish to tell her that he should be the last person to judge.
It was an hour later that he exited her room. He didn’t go back to his at all, just slumped against the wall between their doors and stared at the lone window of the hallway. It was easy to forget about the thrum of exhaustion weighing down his head and limbs; after all, Atsushi had ample experience with ignoring physical discomfort.
The burn on his forearm ached. The bruises on his face beat in time with his heart. Atsushi breathed quietly in the empty corridor, until he felt nothing at all.
He jumped when a cat walked past him.
It didn’t seem to have noticed him until then; after the gasp Atsushi let out, it crouched against the opposing wall and stared at him with glowing yellow eyes, teeth bared, hissing.
“Hey, kitty,” Atsushi said roughly.
The cat’s tail fluffed above its back.
It was obviously not a stray. Its fur was smoothed, shiny, completely black. Atsushi had sharp enough eyes to see the state of its paws and mouth despite the lack of light, and they were nothing at all like those of the cats who sometimes broke into the pantry of the orphanage in search of food. Those were animals with dry and skinny bodies, infested with fleas, losing entire patches of fur; that one wore a red collar around its little neck, and its claws and teeth looked cared for.
Atsushi crouched. The cat stuck itself further against the wall, looking on the very edge of aggression. “Who’s your owner?” he asked softly. He tapped his fingers against the floor, catching the cat’s attention, trying to lure it forward. “Come on, let’s go look for them.”
The cat didn’t move. It didn’t move for a very long time. Eventually Atsushi tired, legs aching through the numbness, and he lowered himself to the floor entirely. Faraway sounds were starting to reach him, people waking up for early shifts or going to bed after nightly ones. The cat paid no attention to them at all. Its eyes stayed fixed on Atsushi’s moving hand.
So Atsushi kept going. He slid his fingers from left to right, smiling when the cat’s eyes followed them. He hit his nails against the metal floor and chuckled when the cat’s tail twitched at the clicking sound. He moved himself closer to the animal inch by inch, crawling through the space separating them so slowly that he thought an hour must have passed like this—with him sitting cross-legged on the cold floor and the cat watching him like a beast about to leap.
“You don’t need to be scared,” he said, trying to make his voice soothing. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The cat did not understand him, but neither did it move away.
By the time Atsushi was close enough to touch, the cat’s tail was no longer raised in acute suspicion. Its ears flattened over its head when Atsushi reached out, but it didn’t try to scratch him. It didn’t try to bite him. All in all, the experience was a lot more pleasant than touching the strays who wandered near the orphanage; and this cat’s fur was so very, very soft.
Atsushi pet it as gently as humanly possible. He touched it with only the tips of his fingers, only on the crown of its head; he let the cat bend forward and touch its nose to his knuckles before trying again, this time with the full of his hand.
“You’re the cutest cat I’ve ever seen,” he mused aloud. “I wish you weren’t so scared of me, though.”
For all answer, the cat batted his hand away, clawless.
It didn’t bow its back when Atsushi ran over it with his palm. Its ears never perked. Still it didn’t move away, seemed pleased enough to wait here as Atsushi marveled at how soft it was, how little he had ever been allowed such gentle touch and how much he craved it, even from an animal.
Atsushi thought he might well have stayed here for hours, if the cat allowed him. In the end it wasn’t the footsteps that cut him out of the haziness, or even the coughing, but Akutagawa’s voice only.
“Rashoumon,” it whispered.
The cat bit the hand that had stroked it; Atsushi yelped and crawled away.
He had to blink hastily to clear his mind, and realized that the cat was moving away at last. It was trotting toward Akutagawa, who was standing a few feet away. Who was staring at Atsushi.
“What do you want?” Atsushi asked, too tired to try and hide his defensiveness.
Akutagawa waited until the cat was rubbing its head against his leg before answering. He bent down at the waist, picked up the creature, who nestled comfortably in his arms. “Rashoumon is my cat,” he said. “He escaped my room earlier.”
Atsushi sat still for a moment longer. His mind dragged slowly over the information, his body still caught in that dizzy sleeplessness, his palm still warm from stroking the cat’s—Rashoumon’s—fur. He stood up slowly.
“Okay,” he muttered.
Akutagawa nodded almost imperceptibly. Atsushi couldn’t help a flash of jealousy at the way Rashoumon purred in his arms; while Atsushi was petting him, and though his neck vibrated, he hadn’t made a sound.
Atsushi cleared his throat. “Well, I guess I’ll just…” He fumbled with the plastic watch Lucy had gifted him days ago, squinting through the low light to catch the time. “I have to—work. Yeah.”
He tried to take a step toward his room, but Akutagwa said, “Wait.”
“What?” Atsushi snapped.
He felt very little like accommodating this man with another talk. His bruised eye ached then, as if to remind him of whose hand had hurt him. Not even the strange, withdrawn look Akutagawa was wearing could spark more than vague curiosity.
“Enter the pilot program,” Akutagawa said.
Atsushi bristled, replied, “No.”
“It’s none of your business!”
“It is my business when the fate of the entire world is at stake,” Akutagawa shot back.
Gone was the heavy politeness; he sounded the same as he did when he had met Atsushi hours ago, the same as he did with disdain on his fine face before Atsushi had taken the test.
The same as he had right before striking him.
Atsushi’s fight against his instinct was a conscious, ferocious one. He stood straight instead of bowing, squared his shoulders rather than allow himself to flinch; this was the same thing, he thought, as watching the destroyed half of the orphanage after Hayate’s attack—stepping over broken walls and unearthed crops and feeling only vicious glee. Anything to go against the ones who had raised him to cower.
“You don’t care about the world’s fate,” he let out, teeth gritted and jaw aching. “I heard you in Natsume-san’s office—you just want to be a pilot. You only care about yourself. I’m not going to go back on my decision just so you get to be famous and rich.”
Akutagawa’s entire face scrunched with anger. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he murmured.
“You don’t even want me to be your copilot, you’d just take anyone at this point, wouldn’t you?” Atsushi’s chest burned, from the ever-raw scars on it and from his own pained breathing. He wished he could go back to feeling nothing but the cat’s fur; but Akutagawa was holding the cat, and Akutagawa acted as deterrent to even the thought of emptiness.
He felt only anger.
“You hate me,” he went on. “You hit me. Maybe I can drift, but that doesn’t mean I have to. It doesn’t mean I have to be willing to put my life on the line and enter any training program, and even if I did, there’s no telling we’d be compatible.” Akutagawa opened his mouth to speak, or yell; Atsushi cut him off by adding, “And even if we were, you’re the last person I’d want to partner up with.”
Atsushi heard the sound of Akutagawa’s teeth hitting together through the distance between them. In his arms, Rashoumon wiggled and meowed, and he licked the skin of his master’s wrist with his rough little tongue.
This, of all things, made Atsushi’s eyes burn.
“So you’re scared,” Akutagawa said. “Is that it? You’re too scared to pilot.”
“Yeah,” Atsushi replied in a soft breath. “Yeah, I’m scared, and I don’t want to do it.”
Akutagawa sneered. Atsushi pawed backwards at his door, looking blindly for the handle, and thought fiercely that Akutagawa could shove his opinion where the sun didn’t shine. He didn’t know anything about Atsushi or his life. He had no right to pass judgment of any kind.
Neither of them seemed willing to move first. Rashoumon dropped to the floor once more, yet Akutagawa didn’t pick him up. He stared Atsushi, and Atsushi stared back, poised either to flee or fight.
Eventually, Akutagawa’s face relaxed. Atsushi didn’t read acceptance on him, or even any kind of respect. When Akutagawa said, “You’re wrong about something,” his hand clenched down on the handle of his door reflexively.
“About what?” he replied.
“I don’t want to be a pilot to be rich or famous. I want to be a pilot because my sister is one.” Akutagawa didn’t seem willing to wait for Atsushi to find a way to react to that; he went on slowly, his voice thin from some sort of sickness. “I refused to enter the program when I was tested,” he said. “A year later, Gin was tested too, and then we weren’t given a choice. Two siblings being able to drift were too good an opportunity to pass up on—the former director of the program, Taneda, made it so we’d lose our jobs. He got Gin kicked out of her school. We had nowhere else to go.”
In the silence that followed, Atsushi felt out of the reach of words. His mind swam with nothing as he replied, “I thought they weren’t allowed to force people into joining.”
Akutagawa smiled thinly. “Many of the people in the program joined on their own, but in some cases, the jaeger program can and will put pressure on candidates. Some are given a choice between training or prison. They say Ozaki was like that, and Double Black’s pilots too.”
Atsushi almost jumped when something touched his leg. He found Rashoumon when he looked down and was too stunned to think of taking the opportunity to pet him again.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of Heartblade,” Akutagawa said lowly.
“Yeah,” Atsushi replied, looking back at him. “The new jaeger.”
Akutagawa nodded. “My sister pilots it, alongside a woman she met in training.”
“So you two aren’t…”
“No.” Akutagawa took a deep, wheezing breath. He rasped a brief cough into the back of his hand. “Gin and I aren’t compatible, against all expectations.”
Atsushi didn’t know why the words made something constrict in him, tightening in the space of his chest. He didn’t know why the usual jealousy he felt upon hearing of family was tinged with compassion.
“I don’t want her to risk her life alone,” Akutagawa said, looking at him intently. “If there’s even a slight chance that I can be by her side and help her, I want to take it.”
Atsushi’s hand dropped from the handle of the door. “I can’t—”
“And there’s something else you’re wrong about,” came the cutting reply. “A day ago, yes, I would’ve taken anyone. But now I know you’re the only one I can pilot with.”
“You don’t know that,” Atsushi retorted. “You can’t know that.”
“I know you can drift with anyone, like Ozaki’s former copilot could.”
Atsushi bit his lip until blood seeped through his dry mouth, heavy copper on his tongue, warm and repulsive. The taste was familiar enough to be nauseating.
“I have done more simulation drifts than anyone alive,” Akutagawa said roughly. “I have tested alongside more people too, from most to least likely to be compatible with me, from every kind of background there is. All with different personalities. People I loved and people I hated and people I did not care about one way or the other. I can’t drift with anyone.”
“You can’t know that,” Atsushi repeated weakly.
“I can,” Akutagawa replied. “I’m so familiar with drifting by now that I can tell. I’m a rare case, someone who can drift, but never with anyone else. I’ve done so much research—even people who don’t find good enough matches at least manage to connect with others during tests, but I can’t. Whenever I try, the backlash destroys the equipment.” He breathed in once again, this time shakily. “My only shot at it is someone like Fukuzawa Yukichi,” he continued. “Someone like you.”
It made sense, Atsushi thought fleetingly. Everything Akutagawa had said made sense, except for the fact that there was no proof at all that Atsushi could do what he said.
Except for the fact that the thought alone of ceding to Akutagawa’s wishes felt like following the path that the Headmaster had laid out for him.
Nausea burned him from stomach to throat, spread bitter over his tongue, mixing with the aftertaste of blood. “I can’t,” he said. He fiddled with the door once more, pushing it open without looking—and Rashoumon had fallen asleep on his foot and dug his claws into his leg when he moved, and Atsushi felt none of it at all.
He didn’t look at Akutagawa’s face as he slammed the door shut. He didn’t say, I’m sorry.
Atsushi spent the hour before his shift entirely restless. He didn’t try to sleep, either on the bed or the floor; he stood under the shower for the better part of that time, heedless of the guilt gnawing at him for abusing rights not his.
There was no one to punish him for it, he told himself. Time and time and time again.
Dawn had come slow and golden over the dock, threading the cold metal walls with yellow veins, making the space of its wide halls shine redly. Atsushi minded very little of it as he walked toward the simulation room. The last dregs of that beautiful light were gone before he even reached it.
The team he was supposed to work with was already here. Atsushi slouched, trying to make himself unnoticeable, but one man at the side turned toward him the moment he was within hearing range—and then Atsushi had much better things to think about than his lateness, the aches on his body, and Akutagawa’s plea.
“You’re Nakajima, right?” the man said, looking over the tablet he was holding.
The plain grey overalls that all other members had donned fit him nicely at the shoulders and the hips; every word had come out of his mouth with a hint of warmth, with some agreeable laziness; the sun was still low enough over the horizon that it shone directly through the window of the office that neighbored the simulator, and in its light, his hair looked like fire.
Atsushi felt blood rush up his face, felt it spread horridly from ears to neck. He stammered, “Yeah, yes, that’s me.”
His clothes were too warm on his skin, stuffy, sticky. He thought he might start breathing out vapor.
Either the man didn’t notice his horrid blush or chose not to comment on it, for he nodded, touched something on the screen of his tablet, and slid it into a pouch hanging from his waistband. “I’m Oda,” he said. His hand flew up, gesturing toward the third door in the room. “There’s a suit your size in there, go get changed. We’ll start in five minutes, Tachihara’s still not here.”
Atsushi obeyed with a mortified squeak.
It was hard to focus on anything other than how good Oda looked even with soot staining half of his body, but Atsushi managed. He was used to menial tasks like this; he found the physical effort of moving rubble around and listing everything he found intact enough to be saved soothing, more so than cleaning had been.
His hands and forearms were soon streaked with black. Atsushi made sure not to rip away the bandage covering his wound and kept going.
The group he was with was surprisingly loud. The one named Tachihara, especially, kept talking through the morning, and didn’t seem to mind that Atsushi and Oda barely ever responded. Another played some music out of an old-looking radio; the last entertained Tachihara with gossip that Atsushi could barely follow. He didn’t know any of the people they were speaking of.
He expected them to talk about Double Black, as everyone had been wont to for days; strangely enough, they seemed to skirt around the topic without ever mentioning it.
The reason why became obvious when they all paused for lunch.
Atsushi’s body was vaguely sore by now. He felt the lack of sleep more acutely than he had upon playing with Akutagawa’s cat, and his back tensed like a steel cable when he finally sat down at a table. The breath he released then was accordingly painful.
He still wasn’t used to eating in the mess hall. He would’ve preferred to find a corner in which to go through his ill-earned food alone, but Tachihara had looked at him expectantly when he sat down, and Atsushi had felt that he had no choice. At least Oda was eating with them too. Atsushi wasn’t selfless enough not to enjoy that fact.
“So, Oda-san,” Tachihara said barely five minutes into the meal. There was some tightness to his voice, some apprehension maybe. “Not that we’re not delighted to have you here, but…”
“You want to know why I’m not in Alaska,” Oda cut in, tranquil.
Tachihara pulled a face. Atsushi stared at his food and tried to find the will to lift any of it to his mouth. His stomach was squirming, though he hadn’t eaten in almost a day.
“I’m needed here,” Oda went on. “They’ll be bringing in Scarlet Wind and Double Black to Yokohama. I need to get started on repairs for both.”
Most of the others exchanged careful glances.
“They’ll be deploying Double Black again…?”
“I mean, if they can find other people to pilot it then—”
“Never mind that,” Tachihara cut in, waving stained chopsticks close to Atsushi’s face. The fact that Atsushi didn’t jump off the table in reaction was testament to just how tired he was. “Oda, you’re Dazai’s friend, right? Shouldn’t you be with him?”
Dazai—that was the name Lucy had mentioned. One of Double Black’s pilots.
Atsushi risked a glance sideways. He found Oda looking down at his coffee, rubbing his thumb against the rim of the thermos’s cap, which he was using as a cup of sorts. “Dazai’s going to be fine,” he said eventually. “Yosano says his injuries aren’t so bad. But he’s not answering my calls, and I don’t think he wants to see me now. Or anyone.”
“Anchorage is a fucking desert,” Tachihara said, shaking his head, talking in Atsushi’s direction. “The base is awful, no one likes being stationed there.”
“It’s one of the best strongholds we have,” Oda replied quietly. “Not a single kaiju’s crossed the miracle mile since it’s been built.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that no one’s ever there. It can’t be good for Dazai, being alone while Chuuya-san’s still…”
Oda brought the coffee to his lips. He drank most of it in one go, the rest of his food laying untouched in his tray. As he bottled the thermos back up, he said, “If Chuuya doesn’t make it, then it won’t matter whether Dazai’s alone or not.”
He excused himself softly and left the table, taking his tray with him.
Atsushi spent less time staring at Oda during the afternoon than he did thinking on his words. He went through the back-breaking motions of clearing out the room he had destroyed, speaking only when spoken to, ignoring the stretching ache of the wounds on his arm and chest. He stained his skin black and grey with ash. He streaked his forehead and hair with it, every time he rubbed the sweat off of it.
Natsume, Lucy, Oda… even Akutagawa, who seemed to have so little respect for so many people, spoke of Double Black’s fall as they would a personal loss. Atsushi understood that pilots were popular, he understood the necessity of jaegers and what it meant to see one prevail over a kaiju; but he had not realized until coming to the base—until seeing the grief so bright on Natsume’s face—how much of that was love, not just admiration.
He hadn’t realized, coming here, that although there were people one was not supposed to talk to, the jaeger program housed the same names all over the world. They came and went where their strength was needed; they met each other and left each other and met again.
He thought of the scavenger Katai. He thought of his words to him, as he recommended offering his services to Yokohama’s dock: You look like you need a family.
“I don’t,” Atsushi said under his breath, crouching down to try and push melted metal out of the way of the pilot station footholds. It didn’t give, and so he hissed, “I’m fine on my own.”
“This looks too heavy for one person.”
Atsushi jumped, his grip slipping, a shard of glass cutting a single line across his palm.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Oda, who was watching him with faint curiosity.
“What for?” Oda asked.
“Just… just sorry.”
His hand was bleeding. Atsushi eyed the size of the cut, the traces of dust and ash on his skin, and decided against trying to suck it clean. He pressed the cut against his side to wipe the red drops away.
Oda watched him do it thoughtfully. “Take a break if you need to,” he said. “We’re mostly done for today.”
“I’m fine,” Atsushi replied immediately, face burning. He tried not to stare too much at the open collar of Oda’s overalls and the skin exposed there that gleamed from the day’s efforts. “I’m really fine.”
“I didn’t say anything this morning because you did well, but you look exhausted, kid.”
His concern seemed genuine, though Atsushi wished he wouldn’t call him kid. He licked his lips quickly and explained, “I can’t stop now. It’s, it was my fault the room burned—an accident while I was cleaning—I have to help repair it.”
For some reason, Oda smiled.
Atsushi’s heart bruised the inside of his ribs.
“Don’t worry,” Oda said, patting the pilot station next to them with something near affectionate. “It’s not the first time this thing gets a bit roughed up, it’ll be fine in no time.”
“Natsume-san said it cost—”
“I wouldn’t believe everything that old man says. He likes getting his laughs.” Oda paused and sat down atop the burned-down something Atsushi had been trying to move. “It’s expensive, but we won’t have to spend that much fixing it. Not like it’s going into battle—no need for the real expensive stuff that jaeger cockpits are made out of.”
“Oh,” Atsushi let out. “That’s good, then.”
The silence that followed was perhaps not as awkward as one would have expected. Atsushi stood, wavering slightly on his feet; when Oda made as if to move and make room for him to sit, he crouched down and settled on the floor. He didn’t think he could sit so close to the man without turning to ash himself.
“You’re new here, aren’t you,” Oda said quietly. “Where are you from?”
“Yokohama,” Atsushi answered. “I used to live at an orphanage near the outskirts.”
Oda smiled once more. “I see.”
Feeling patently awkward, Atsushi shifted on his behind, trying not to think of the stains that it would leave on the borrowed clothes. “You said it’s been destroyed before…?” He gestured to the fake cockpit around them.
“Not that completely, but yeah,” Oda replied. “About four years ago. I’d just started working here. Dazai broke it on purpose.”
“Oh, right.” Oda blinked slowly. It was only then that Atsushi noticed the imprint of insomnia on his face, the bags under his eyes that looked almost like bruises. “He’s one of Double Black. I think he was trying to get me a better job at the dock, since I was pretty much just carrying stuff around. Recommended me for the repairs, made it look like an accident and everything.”
He seemed lost in his thoughts for a second. Atsushi spent it wondering at this Dazai person, from what Lucy had said to what he had overheard from Natsume. From Akutagawa’s hard-earned respect to Oda’s quiet worry.
“Tachihara-san said that you’re his friend,” he said carefully.
Oda took a moment to answer. “I am.”
The simulator was a cramped thing, much smaller than a true jaeger’s head, only fit to house a couple people. In that proximity, with the crisped walls half-hiding them from view, it seemed even sound was having a hard time reaching them. Atsushi had to lend an attentive ear to hear Tachihara’s chatter outside, to feel the vibrations that the others’ moving caused.
“Is he gonna be okay?” he asked softly. “Your friend.”
Oda didn’t seem like the person who showed strong emotions. Though his mouth laxed into smiles easily enough, now that Atsushi was speaking, though his demeanor was peaceful, there was a severity to him. Some hardness to the lines of his handsome face. Some brand of a rough life in the shadows marring him.
Atsushi thought, without knowing at all, that was he showed then was the strongest sorrow.
“I hope so.”
That night, Atsushi dreamed.
He felt an animal’s warm fur between his shaking fingers. They looked much smaller, much thinner than they did now; and the steely room he inhabited at the dock was gone, faded into the much more familiar darkness of the orphanage’s cellar.
He felt the cold dirt under his aching back. He felt the burn of the whip and the sting of the stick. His ears were abuzz with the Headmaster’s incoherent voice, his chest ablaze with the memory of a red-hot stoker, his heart swollen with despair. It fit as a knot inside his throat; it smarted at the crook of his neck like a blade cutting through skin.
Please, he remembered thinking. Enough. Enough. Enough.
And now that all of it was gone, now that he was free with no idea what to do with freedom, he knew what his mind asked. What his heart truly must know.
He stroked Rashoumon’s fur with one hand; with the other, he pushed himself off the ground entirely.
Atsushi shot up toward the sky like a rocket, until he fingers touched clouds, until the black cat was gone. He stepped toward the sea with immense legs, with a body like a titan’s; he waded through blue water in search of the monster to kill.
He found it.
He woke up with a start over the hard floor of his room, heaving and sticky with sweat, the dream-kaiju scorched behind his eyelids like the afterimage of the sun.
Ten minutes later, he knocked on the door of Natsume’s office.
“Nakajima-kun?” Natsume mumbled, looking at him over smudged glasses. He picked them off his nose entirely, rubbed the corners of his eyes. “What time is it? My office hours are long gone, you know—”
“Is there a way to test what Akutagawa said about me?” Atsushi cut in.
Natsume looked at him sheepishly.
Atsushi swallowed. “That thing,” he tried, “about being able to drift with anyone. Is there a way to test that without… without telling him?”
“If you enter the training program, any and all testing you do will be private,” Natsume answered.
Atsushi bit his dry lip, cracking open the wound he had dug there earlier. The taste of blood smeared over his tongue once more.
“I don’t want to enter the program,” he whispered.
Natsume sighed. “Then I can’t test you any more, my boy.”
Atsushi swallowed. Natsume waited him out, more politely than needed considering that Atsushi had bothered him in the middle of the night. That he looked nowhere near sleep was no excuse at all.
“If I knew for sure that I can drift with him,” he said haltingly. “Then maybe.”
“There’s no way to know for sure.”
He clenched his fist. “Please,” he breathed, “just one test. One test you can do to check if what he said is true, and if it is then I’ll do it. I’ll enter the program.” Seeing the face Natsume made, he spoke again: “And if it’s too much then I’ll pay for it, I’ll pay you back—I just need to know.”
“Price is not the problem,” Natsume replied tiredly. “In fact it would cost me very little aside from time, but though it is possible, it necessitates breaking into the privacy of several of our pilots. I can’t do this without asking for their consent, least of all for someone who isn’t a trainee.”
“Akutagawa said he can’t drift with anyone,” Atsushi said. “Do you think that’s true?”
Natsume looked at him for a long time before answering, “I do.”
Pity spread like ice through Atsushi’s beating heart.
“Okay,” he said. The words hanged to the edge of his lips; they felt in his mouth the way nausea did. “I’ll enter the program.”
Only good enough in the service of others, the Headmaster prophesied.
Natsume beamed at him. “Wonderful! Though, this is usually done via Sakaguchi-kun and during his office hours.”
“Can you test me now?” Atsushi asked.
He thought if, if he left now, that he would never come back. He thought whatever foolish courage had won over his fear, had won over his spite, would seep out of him like the will to live had all those years ago.
He thought he would go back to being laid out on the floor of the cellar, bleeding through his clothes, with no one to hear him weep.
“Not immediately, but—”
“I’ll wait,” Atsushi said. “Please, I need to do this before Akutagawa knows.”
Natsume’s hold on the frame of the door weakened somewhat.
“I’ll send the requests now,” he replied, “but I won’t know for sure until morning. At the least. I suggest you take that time to fill out the forms I’m about to give you, to spare Sakaguchi-kun some trouble.”
Atsushi took them without even looking at them. He didn’t reply to Natsume’s gentle Good night, didn’t say anything at all as he stood in front of the closed door and tried not to think too hard on what he had just done.
His hand curled around thin air. He wished Rashoumon were here.