Build Upon The Ruins (Chapter 2)

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Build Upon The Ruins
Chapter 2

Moving from base to base was a hassle in itself. Moving all of the world’s jaeger resources to one base was about fifteen times worse. Means of travel were scarce in the face of imminent doom; planes, which were already rare to begin with, had to be requisitioned entirely to move personnel and machines around. The jaegers went ahead by boat or train, stripped of their insides to make the weight manageable on water. Individual parts were lifted by helicopters. Everything had to arrive in a timely and orderly fashion.

Chuuya was in charge of overseeing that.

He was also in charge, less officially, of making sure Yosano didn’t lose an eye making sure her fragile and pricy equipment didn’t collapse and break during the trip. He was in charge of the Tanizaki siblings’ chronic inability to function without coffee for more than two hours. He was in charge of reassuring Akutagawa that yes, Rashoumon was safe in the animal compartment of their plane and wouldn’t get mistaken for stray luggage—as if the damn cat wasn’t loud enough that all who walked past his box thought he was getting viciously murdered in it. He was in charge of texting back and forth with Sakaguchi about the candidates for Double Black’s free pilot position, he was in charge of keeping Kouyou informed of every single development, and most of all, he was in charge of fucking Dazai.

“Get the hell out of my face,” he growled, slapping his cane across the seat next to him before Dazai could slip into it like he apparently intended to. “This is the angry disabled corner.”

“I’m here on a mission,” Dazai replied innocently. “It’s even Kouyou-approved.”

Chuuya’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

He let the cane fall back next to his knee when Dazai nudged it away, groaned when Dazai picked up the papers strewn across the seat to shove them upright between their armrests. Dazai sat down with a sigh once he was done.

“When was the last time you slept?” he asked, looking down the path and waving back at Nakajima, who sat at the front of the row. Akutagawa seemed to be in the middle of ripping the fabric off of his seat, he was clawing so hard at it.

“Does it matter?” Chuuya replied.

Dazai thankfully stayed silent.

There were several components to Chuuya’s current god-awful mood. First was the stress of the move. Second was the fact that his body was in more pain than usual because of it—his breath kept hitching from phantom breaks in his ribs.

Third was the fearful looks that the flight attendant had given the spread of tell-tale tattoos over his naked arms, as if the flowers were about to jump off his skin to poke her in the eyes. He would’ve worn longer sleeves if only the Australian summer weren’t so hot.

“I hate planes so much,” he muttered. “Fucking unreliable flying cans. Never know if you’re gonna land at all.”

“I can think of a couple things scarier than a plane that you’ve rode in, Chuuya,” Dazai said. Chuuya didn’t need to look at him to know he was grinning.

“Yeah, well, it’s different when I’m the one piloting the damn thing.” Little as he wished to step back inside a jaeger and subject himself to the no doubt excruciating pain of trying to lift a single limb, he’d take it over trusting someone to fly him anywhere. “This just means nine hours of no contact with anyone on ground,” he continued. “Like I have time for that.”

Dazai elbowed him lightly, but he said nothing as they took off.

At least the ascension went without trouble. Chuuya massaged his thigh absently, recalling a few painful past landings. His leg throbbed, but he couldn’t do anything about it for another two hours at least.

“You said you were on a mission,” he said a while later. The same scared attendant who kept looking at him like he was about to pull a blade on her had gone by their seats—she offered them a drink, and Dazai smiled lopsidedly at her, making her blush.

At least she looked less like she was about to do something stupid after that. Like try and attack him.

“Indeed,” Dazai replied. “Serious business.”

“Stop joking around. What is it?”

“I’m here to make sure you sleep.”

Chuuya stared at him.

“You’re fucking with me,” he accused.

“I would never,” Dazai lied. “I’m under firm orders to make sure you get at least five hours of it. Yosano-sensei says you’ve been wearing this shirt for the past forty-eight hours.”

Chuuya wanted to knock him across the head, or maybe yell in his face, but instead all he felt was fatigue.

“Fuck,” he breathed, letting his head fall against the back of his seat. He stared at the plain grey ceiling of the plane unseeingly. “I don’t have time for sleep.”

“Sure you do.” Dazai hunched over his backpack and took a black strip of cloth out of it. When he handed it over, Chuuya recognized a sleeping mask. “Everything’s already settled—you’re just being an idiot. And you’re fortunately cut off from all communication except the physical.” He smirked. “I think you’re a little overworked, Chuuya.”

“I’m not,” Chuuya mumbled, but he took the mask. It was better to put it on than to have to watch the exhaustion on Dazai’s face anyway.

He had an idea of the reason why Dazai looked like he hadn’t slept either.

The pressure of the mask felt good against his eyelids. His headache lessened, and with it the sharp pains in his chest. He shoved a hand against his side to press lightly on his ribs.

It’s in my head, he told himself.

It never helped, but it was what he knew he should do.

“You better wake me up in exactly five hours,” he muttered. “I need to brief you on the candidates before we land.”

“I can look by myself,” Dazai replied lightly. Chuuya heard a shuffling of paper by his elbow. “Top of the pile, right?”

It made the corner of Chuuya’s mouth shiver. “I know you’re lying, but in the miracle case you’re actually willing to work… look at the guy named Kunikida.”

“Sure.”

Dazai’s voice was even. As if he were discussing the weather. Chuuya turned his head toward the window, though he could see nothing anyway.

It took a while for him to fall asleep, despite the exhaustion. Chuuya tried to keep his mind busy with thoughts of the day to come: assembling back the last jaeger, forming the new comm team, finalizing the attack plan… meeting with the twelve-odd people Dazai would judge one after the other—meeting the person he would allow alongside him in the body of the beast. The one he would allow in his head.

He hadn’t let himself think about it too much when he discussed it with Kouyou. She had looked at him with affection and regret, had asked, Are you sure? and Chuuya had nodded, pushed forward, not let himself envy. Not let himself sink.

He already knew he would never drift with Dazai again. The frightening emptiness he felt at the thought was less because he wanted to be back in Dazai’s head than because he didn’t know how to soothe the wounds he knew he would find there. This shortcut was closed to him forever.

When this is over, he thought, as he often did. Then we’ll talk.

He didn’t know what they would talk about, or how. He just knew he could deal with the rest on his own until then.

“Sleep, Chuuya,” Dazai said softly.

It was its own kind of ache, one unrelated to trauma or injury. Dazai was sitting next to him and breathing next to him, and there was no danger around them, no burning terror through the tendrils of the drift—no sudden and excruciating silence, no amputated psyche—but he felt very far away indeed.

Chuuya slept.


Kunikida stood out like a sore thumb among the group that hopped out of the helicopter.

There were thirteen of them, men and women alike—boys and girls, really, because Kunikida didn’t think any of them was older than twenty except for himself and a gloomy-looking white man with black hair. He had introduced himself as Fyodor and nothing else as they went through the selection process.

The girl next to him, Izumi, was only eighteen. She had greeted Kunikida with a few clipped words but no animosity, and he had given her the same respect in turn. At least she had been quiet on the way to Yokohama’s jaeger dock.

“Follow me,” their instructor, Sakaguchi, intoned.

They had to hurry along the length of the heliport. Rain was pouring down onto the sea, and this high up the air was biting cold. The chill spread through Kunikida’s bones before they even reached the door. Inside was only warmer from human warmth and proximity. The large elevator shook under their combined weight, making a few of them look down warily. Kunikida watched Sakaguchi’s face for any sign of worry and, upon finding none, decided not to care.

“Where are we going?” one boy asked.

Sakaguchi took the time to push his wet hair out of his face before answering. “Meeting, then training hall,” he replied.

“Aren’t we going to look around first?”

“No time.”

The boy looked like he was about to protest, but the elevator stopped abruptly, and he had to lean on the shoulder of the woman beside him in order not to stumble.

Everyone stopped wanting to ask questions once the doors opened.

Kunikida had seen a jaeger in the past. In fact he had seen Scarlet Wind, specifically; he had watched with blurry eyes as it tore through the giant body of a kaiju not a kilometer away from the ruins of his school. And the memory was well-lived, as fresh in his mind as it had been six months ago, but even he couldn’t help his intake of breath once the wide hangar he had known was hidden behind the dock’s massive black walls appeared to his eyes.

None of the heads in the group were turned toward the ground as they walked across the length of the hall. They all watched the feet and legs of the machines, all lingered with bated breaths upon the silhouettes of ant-sized people working high on their bodies. One especially was unmistakable, even half-assembled as it was—Double Black stood at the very end of the hall like a great and silent statue. Fourteen gleaming medals adorned its wide chest. None of the other jaegers had any.

This was the one that two among them would pilot. Kunikida tried for a second to imagine himself moving it with his own limbs and mind, and though it was what he wanted, the perspective was humbling.

“Hurry up,” Sakaguchi called ahead of them. He sounded faintly amused.

They scrambled behind him.

Kunikida didn’t try and join the excited murmurs that sprouted around him as they walked through thinner corridors. Sakaguchi led them to a wide meeting room and instructed them to stand at the back in silence. The silence part was more or less respected, but Kunikida simply watched him join another man at the head of the room.

He was a short man, with long red hair tied into a high ponytail. One of his feet was perched atop a low stool, and with his free hand, he toyed absently with the silver pommel of a wooden cane.

The man raised his head once Sakaguchi was done murmuring to him. He watched over their group for a second, face unreadable. When his eyes met Kunikida’s, the corners of his lips lifted, so quickly that Kunikida thought he must have imagined it.

“Thank you,” the man said loudly. Sakaguchi nodded; he put a friendly hand over the man’s shoulder after a second of hesitation, and then he left.

The stranger took his foot off of the stool. His cane’s contact with the floor was loud into the thick silence as he made his way toward them. All the chairs and tables of the room had been pushed against the walls, so nothing stopped him until he was standing only a few feet away.

“Now,” he said. “I’d trust Sakaguchi with my life, and I’m sure he worked all of you into the ground just to my liking—but there’s been a change of plans.”

He threw the files he was holding across the nearest table. Izumi jumped a little, shoulder hitting Kunikida’s elbow. She was so small.

“We only have one job opening,” the man declared. “So I’m expecting this selection mess to be finished within a couple days, instead of weeks. Maybe even today if we’re all lucky.”

For a second there was silence; then protests emerged, especially from the corner of the group where the youngest candidates had gathered together.

“What the hell?”

“I thought you needed two people to pilot a jaeger—”

“I’m not interested in what you thought,” the man cut in, though his mouth was twitching again in amusement. “I want twelve of you to be gone by the end of the day. You should be relieved—I know I am. This has been a pain in my ass for months now.”

“Who are you?” the one named Fyodor asked calmly. “And why change now? Two people are needed to drift.”

“Glad you asked,” the man replied. He rested his weight on his left leg and spun the cane against his palm, like an afterthought. “My name’s Nakahara Chuuya. I’m the second in command here, after Boss Ozaki. And the reason we only need one of you is because you were never being trained to work together—we selected you based on how likely you were to be drift compatible with one of Double Black’s original pilots.”

Quiet reigned once he finished speaking.

“I thought the original pilots were dead,” Izumi said lowly.

Nakahara huffed. “No. They’re both alive. One of them’s coming back into the field, and one of you,” he gestured toward them with a gloved hand, “is going to be his copilot. Sorry we tricked you. We only got confirmation yesterday.”

“Why can’t they just pilot themselves, then?” That was Tachihara, Kunikida thought faintly, though he couldn’t see the kid through the tight row of people between them. “If they’re both alive then why bother finding a new pilot at all—”

“Because Nakahara Chuuya is one of the former pilots,” Fyodor cut in. His words were flat, but his eyes were alight with interest. “And he obviously can’t.”

All heads turned to look at Nakahara again.

Nakahara himself only seemed mildly annoyed. “That’s classified information,” he said.

“I have my sources.”

“I see.” Nakahara spared another second to look in Fyodor’s direction, not exactly frowning but not far from it, before apparently deciding that he didn’t care. “Anyway. Now that you’re all informed, let’s get this show on the road, shall we? Unless you have further questions.”

His eyes met Kunikida’s with something akin to curiosity.

With the way he acted and talked, it looked like a challenge.

Kunikida opened his mouth and asked, “How are we going to know who’s right, outside of testing directly with the drift?”

Nakahara smiled at him, every handsome line of his face sharp with satisfaction. “Test-drifting in pairs blindly would be useless,” he answered. “Not to mention dangerous. I know you’ve all tested solo, but a true neural handshake is not to be taken lightly.”

He blinked, and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear.

“There are ways to figure out if you’re compatible with him,” he continued a second later. “And most of you probably are, though not enough to make a jaeger move.” He turned the cane in his grip before looking at Kunikida again. “All of this is vastly experimental—we’ve never had to find a new copilot for anyone before, after all. But when you’ve drifted with someone before, you can tell if someone else would be able to drift with you.”

The air felt chilled. Kunikida heard Izumi creep closer to his side, saw the way that Tachihara’s group tightened as if to keep warm. Maybe it was another proof of how weird it was that he had been selected at all among them—they were all young, as fit as he was physically and no doubt quicker-minded. And they looked scared.

He wanted to be here. He had carried that resolve with him for two years now. But he didn’t know why he was.

“I don’t know how Dazai intends to test you, exactly,” Nakahara Chuuya said softly. “But you should know something before I let him loose on you.”

There was a pink scar at his temple, splayed in the shape of a star, half-hidden under his hair. Like something had struck him there and broken glass-like over his skin. He leaned heavily on his cane as he walked, and his right hand shook when it picked up the papers he had left as if he were trying to carry a much greater weight.

Still, there was not a hint of shame or weakness on him. The room’s attention stuck to him with grace, and he handled it like someone who knew exactly who he was and where he stood.

Kunikida found that he had no problem imagining a man like that moving Double Black’s imposing body. Killing fifteen kaiju in fifteen fights. A record no one since him had approached, let alone broken.

“You can’t expect to drift with someone and leave any part of you a secret,” Nakahara said. “And Dazai will not wait for the drift. He’ll go after your secrets long before you can think of glimpsing his.”


Dazai sat deep in the shadows of the ninth floor balcony. This aisle of Yokohama’s base had once been used to stock jaeger parts until the rooms were full to bursting. Now the rooms were mostly empty, mostly unused; he had found a broken coffee machine in one and a working sink in another, and after that he had sat crossed legged against the wall and not moved.

He was almost level with Double Black’s cockpit from this height.

He let his eyes linger on the grey eyes of the machine and then down toward its chest. It hadn’t aged, not a bit. He hadn’t expected it to, but it was one thing to remember Double Black as it was the last time he had seen it—skull knocked open and breastplates caved in from the monster’s blows, the floor of the cockpit awash with seawater and blood—and to see it now, as good as new. It made his eyesight hazy. It made faint wishes materialize in his head as they hadn’t done in years; he almost thought he would turn his head aside and find Chuuya sitting by him, mind still encroached to the last dregs of the drift.

“You just planning on hiding here all day?” a voice said behind him, and though Dazai’s breath hitched for less than a second, it took no more than that for a grin to split his face in two.

“Just taking in the sight,” he replied. His shoulders eased out of the tense line he had kept them in since landing. He shifted on his backside until the ground felt more forgiving. “I haven’t seen my old friend here in a while.”

“Mmh.” The footsteps grew closer. A shoe nudged Dazai’s hip gently. “What about your actual, flesh-and-blood friends?”

He laughed before he could help it. Oda’s grip on his wrist was firm as he pulled Dazai to his feet and then further in, chests knocking together, arms squeezing around him tightly.

“Welcome home,” Oda said against his temple.

Dazai’s fingers fisted into the back of his shirt in answer.

They released each other eventually. Oda gave him a quick once-over and then looked away, unbothered by the way Dazai stared at him, committing change to memory.

There were new lines around Oda’s eyes. He was clean-shaven, his suit rumpled but spotless. He looked even more at peace than the last time they had been in each other’s presence, if possible.

“Four years,” Dazai mused out loud. “Ango’s been whipping you into shape.”

He got a rough hand rubbing against his scalp for his trouble. “Shut it,” Oda replied, once Dazai shook him off. “If you wanted to keep me lazy you should’ve stayed.”

“I wanted to keep you fun. You’re no fun when you work, Odasaku.”

The other smiled fleetingly. “It’s been a while since anyone called me that,” he said.

When Dazai turned to look at Double Black again, the smile on his lips was genuine.

They observed it for a moment, standing side by side. Oda leaned over the bannister to peer down at the machine’s chest. “They never did give you your last medal,” he observed. “Not that there’s any room left with all the others.”

“It’s fine,” Dazai replied, glancing down at the rows of shining plaques, each bearing the name of a fallen monster. “I’m not sure why they stopped doing it to the others, though.”

“Ozaki had a fit when they tried.”

Dazai made a face.

“Well,” he said slowly, “it’s not like it matters. The kaiju punch just as hard regardless of the medals.”

Oda nodded. He dragged a box of cigarettes out of his back pocket and lit one nonchalantly, exhaling the smoke toward the jaeger’s neck.

“I can’t believe you still have cigarettes.”

“I keep them for special occasions.” Oda’s mouth twitched when he looked at him over his shoulder. “Like when my best friend, who never calls, decides to visit.”

Dazai shrugged guiltily, crossing the space between them to stand by the bannister too.

The distance to the groundfloor of the hangar was immense. It was something he always forgot when he was in the pilot’s suit—how high he was, how small and breakable people looked from this high up. How one step in the wrong direction could make the difference between life and death when you stood in a jaeger.

One wrong decision almost had.

His lips thinned. “How are the kids?” he asked, as much to distract himself as because he genuinely wanted to know.

“Good,” Oda replied evenly. “Yu has a girlfriend. Sakura just started college.”

“College,” Dazai scoffed.

It got him the hint of a mocking smile. “Just because you dropped out the minute you turned sixteen doesn’t mean you get to make fun of my kids for pushing forward.”

“There were bigger things to think about than a higher education.”

Oda flicked his ashes off into the high fall of the hangar. “Yeah,” he said. “And it feels even more hopeless now. But I can’t blame them.”

Silence stretched between them. Easy and thoughtful. Dazai had long forgotten to care about the fact that he was, technically, an outlaw—had been since he was a teenager and running scam after scam in the streets of Yokohama alongside the man standing next to him.

He couldn’t imagine being a teenager now, with only five jaegers left to defend the world. He couldn’t fathom caring about college while knowing that only a thin wall stood between humanity and the breach.

“I heard you’re going to be riding again,” Oda said in the quiet.

He wasn’t looking at Dazai when Dazai glanced in his direction. Just staring at Double Black again. “News travel fast,” he replied, grasping the bannister.

It was ice-cold under his fingers.

“I saw Chuuya.”

“I figured.” Dazai’s smile was shallow, directed at no one. “Sent you to fetch me, didn’t he.”

“Yeah. He gave me a list of your old hideouts.”

It made him chuckle, made him taste bitter at the back of his tongue.

“I’m not going to ask about you two,” Oda continued in the same tone—with the same understanding. “He looks like he knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure you do, though.”

“Have I ever been sure of anything?” Dazai asked lightly.

Oda only looked at him, fond and sad, and it felt more piercing than anything Kouyou could hope to manage. “You have,” he replied simply.

He straightened his back, then, and rolled his neck around until the sound of his vertebrae cracking could be heard through the silence. He sighed some of the tension out after that and turned to face Dazai again.

“C’mon,” he said, “we’ve been delaying long enough. I’m sure you partner’s done putting the fear of God into your prospective copilots by now.”

“He is rather terrifying,” Dazai agreed, falling into step with him. He breathed in the deserted silence of the floor for a second, readying himself for the bustle of noise and activity of the lower levels.

“He’s not that scary.” Oda opened the door to the stairs. His voice was loaded with sympathy. “Not when you talk to him.”

Dazai didn’t grace that with an answer.


The training hall was one of the widest rooms in the dock. When Dazai had last been here, almost every corner of it was full of trainees and otherwise work-out inclined personnel, all equipment occupied in the down hours of the day. Now the matted floors were mostly bare, some of the running mills and weight benches rusting a little. The familiar smell of sweat and detergent still hovered.

Chuuya stood a few feet away from the door. He and the group of misfits he intended to make Dazai interact with had all left their shoes in the hallway, and it was a little funny, seeing him so seriously dressed in a suit, coat hanging over his shoulders and hair tied up business-like—standing in his socks. Almost none of the others wore environment-appropriate clothes either.

That was okay. Dazai didn’t expect any of them to satisfy him enough to necessitate a hands-on approach anyway.

Dazai slithered out of his boots at the door, divested himself of his jacket and waistcoat, loosened his belt by an inch. All eyes turned to him once he set foot onto the mats.

“You took your sweet time,” Chuuya said to him, before glancing back ahead.

“You should’ve sent Ango if you wanted me to be serious about this,” Dazai replied evenly.

“I do want you to be serious about this. Sakaguchi was busy.”

“Of course.”

Chuuya looked better than he had when they stepped onto the plane, at least. Dazai was glad to have let him sleep seven hours instead of five, though the scolding that followed his waking up had been harsh. The bruise-like bags under his eyes were less pronounced.

Dazai tore his eyes away from him to finally glance at the thirteen people gathered a few meters away. They stood close together, quiet now but no doubt about to become louder with the words he could feel forming in his head.

He dismissed seven of them at first glance.

“Welcome to Yokohama’s jaeger dock,” he said in his friendliest voice, smiling widely. “I’m sure you’re all as anxious to get this over with as I am, so let’s not take more than an hour or so, all right? Then you can all go home.”

He felt Chuuya’s glare burn at his nape from the assumption that he would send all of them away, but he didn’t turn back. If he couldn’t find anyone satisfying enough to step into the head of the machine by his side the way Chuuya had once, then he didn’t want anyone. It wasn’t worth the risk.

They both knew it.

“My name is Dazai Osamu,” he continued, standing still, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “You may call me Dazai. Though I’m not sure most of you will be here long enough to do that anyway.”

Most of them bristled with indignation—but no one said a word.

Dazai’s smile turned fleeting. Less kind. “If I’m unlucky,” he went on, “one of you will have what it takes to pilot with me. As you can guess, I’m not ecstatic about the prospect.”

“Why?” a woman asked. She was one of the few who had slouched in disappointment and distrust the moment he had opened his mouth.

“That’s a good question,” Dazai nodded. “Short answer: I don’t want to pilot again.”

“What’s the long answer?” another questioned immediately.

“What’s your name?”

“Fyodor.” He didn’t volunteer a last name. Under the yellow lights for the room, his eyes glowed almost purple.

“Well, Fyodor,” Dazai drawled, “the long answer is none of your business.”

The tallest of them all was a man with blond hair standing at the very back. Dazai was looking in his direction as he finished speaking, and though he didn’t move, his face clenched in anger, too stark to be smoothed over in time.

“Have any of you drifted with someone before?” Dazai asked.

He wasn’t surprised when no one came forward saying yes.

He let out a hum. “It’s a singular thing, the drift. I haven’t kept up to date with everything the media used to say about it when the technology was finalized—back when they still made jaeger and kaiju toys and stuff.” That had stopped shortly after Double Black went inactive, he recalled. “There’s a few things you should know before stepping foot into a jaeger.”

Fyodor observed him with cold curiosity. The man with yellow hair with hot fury. Between them stood a girl, short and quiet, and she looked like she was drinking every single one of his words in and carving them to memory. There was no blank admiration on her face. No fear either.

Dazai knew, in that moment, that if he had to pick someone it would be one of these three.

“The first,” he started, “is that kaiju are exactly as big and terrifying in a jaeger as they look from the ground. If you think for a second that you’ll be safe inside the cockpit, then it will be your doom.”

“Fawk,” the girl said. Her voice was soft.

Dazai could almost fool himself into thinking he felt the way Chuuya tensed behind him.

“Exactly,” he replied evenly. “A kaiju can and will rip apart the strongest armors created by man with its bare hands. Codename Fawk had very sharp claws. It only took it one blow to rip apart Double Black’s head.”

Fawk’s claws had sunk into it like it was just butter. Sunk into the head and sunk into the drift and crushed Chuuya’s body under alien flesh and metal. He didn’t share those details with the group because he wouldn’t know how to try, and because they weren’t necessary.

“But they’ve got stronger jaegers now, right?” a man with red-dyed hair asked, switching to Japanese, maybe in the hope of gaining Dazai’s approval. “Stronger alloys. Diamond reinforcement. They replaced sixty percent of Double Black’s body with those last year.”

“I have no idea about that,” Dazai lied, feeling some satisfaction at the incredulous way the man stared at him. “I just know that the kaiju keep coming out bigger and stronger, and making yourself big enough to fight back doesn’t mean you’ll win.

“The second thing you should know,” he said before anyone else could speak up, “is that whatever you’ve been taught about drifting will be completely useless once you actually do it.”

“This is stupid,” the redhead said. “What’s the fucking point of teaching us anything, then?”

“They do try so hard to teach that. But it’s not something you can learn. I’m sure you gathered that on your own,” Dazai added.

Redhead glared at him.

Dazai turned sideways, looking at the pile of rotting training equipment to his left, letting Chuuya’s silhouette emerged in his line of sight.

“A neural handshake is uncontrollable,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how stable it is. It doesn’t matter that you’re focusing on making thousands of tons of metal move. You’ve never known what it’s like not to be able to stop your thoughts until you’re aware that someone else can think every one of them with you.”

He almost wanted to go on—it’s the worst feeling in the world. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

“We all get intrusive thoughts, sometimes. Shameful thoughts. Thoughts we’re infinitely glad no one but us can see. If you ever drift with me, or anyone else, you can say goodbye to that. The more you try to hide something, the easier it is for the other to see. It’s essentially letting go of any privacy you ever thought you had.

“I’ll know if you kicked a puppy when you were five. I’ll know if you murdered someone.” It made him smile briefly, before he continued, “I’ll know if you’ve ever jerked off to something you shouldn’t have.”

He couldn’t resist looking at Chuuya then—and Chuuya was looking back, unsurprised, the threat of a smile fluttering around his lips.

Dazai looked away with longing burning in his throat. The panic pooling around his heart was stronger, though.

“Speaking of which,” he said, distraction and need alike, “how many of you are under twenty years old?”

It took a moment for them to realize he expected them to answer. Eight of them raised hesitant hands up.

“Really,” he muttered.

“Needs must,” Chuuya replied darkly. “It’s not like we get many volunteers.”

The young were always more prone to making brash decisions.

It didn’t matter. Dazai didn’t think Chuuya meant for him to pick a teenager anyway, no matter how their simulation results looked. “You can go home,” he declared. “Thank you for participating.”

He stood bored and silent through the rise of protests, through the indignant voices barking about months of training and dedication and effort—until at last they seemed to realize that he really, actually didn’t care.

“Fucking prick,” the girl from earlier muttered, walking past him and toward the exit.

He was left with five people standing in front of him, two of which he already knew wouldn’t do. “You,” he said, gesturing to them, “can go as well.”

They did so looking potently offended.

Dazai took his hands out of the pockets of his slacks and walked closer to the remaining three. His eyes were fixed onto the girl. She withstood his stare easily in spite of how much taller than her he was.

It felt familiar. In a good way. However—

“You’re not twenty,” he said.

“I’m of age for the selection,” she replied.

He gave her a more genuine smile than he had allowed out of himself since leaving Oda’s side. “What’s your name?”

“Izumi Kyouka.”

“Izumi Kyouka,” he repeated. “You have a good reason to be here, I suppose.”

She nodded. “The kaiju called Hammerhead killed my family,” she explained, as if she expected and was absolutely prepared for the possibility that he might discover it on his own, and didn’t care. Dazai couldn’t help the approval he felt at that. “I want to be a pilot so I can take revenge.”

“Revenge isn’t a good enough reason to pilot.”

“Saving people isn’t the reason you pilot either,” she accused. “You don’t care about that.”

He chuckled. “Indeed. You caught me. But revenge is a bad reason to pilot.”

He saw her jaw clench, her hand spasm at her side as if she wanted to curl it into a fist. Dazai had no doubt that she was compatible with him, perhaps even more naturally so than the two men standing behind her. He knew he would be able to make Double Black move with Izumi Kyouka in his head.

But she was just a kid. The same age as Oda Sakura, who was starting college.

“Kyouka-chan.” Her face flushed a little at the familiarity, which made something fond spread warmly through his chest. “I’m not going to pilot with you, but you’re not going home. I want you to wait for me outside—there’s a room with couches and a TV two doors down, maybe even coffee and food, if you’re lucky. Help yourself to anything you want. I’ll talk to you shortly.”

She stared at him with an edge of despair for a second longer before relenting. Dazai watched her walk away; he caught the look that Chuuya gave her as she went past him wordlessly.

Chuuya never looked better than when he approved of something. The still-tired lines of his face eased into softness for the barest second, and Dazai felt warm in the neck, giddy even with the knowledge that nothing would come out of it.

“Okay,” he said, turning back toward the two men left. Fyodor, and the man with yellow hair. “If I’m correct, I’m not going to like one of you, and the other isn’t going to like me.”

Fyodor gave a thin smile. The other man scowled.

“It seems we’re in an impasse,” Fyodor said tranquilly.

“Not at all,” Dazai replied in kind. “Liking someone isn’t required to pilot with them. It might even make it easier. Nothing to be ashamed of when the other side hates you anyway, don’t you think?”

The man with yellow hair spoke, at last. “You said you would be unlucky to find a new copilot.”

His voice was deeper than Dazai expected, but no less accusatory.

“I did,” he agreed. “I don’t want to pilot again.”

“Why?”

“None of your business.”

The man seethed, teeth bare, chin high. “I understand that Nakahara can’t pilot due to past injuries,” he said. “I can respect that. But you’re not injured.”

“That’s true,” Dazai replied, frowning.

He was pretty sure his and Chuuya’s names and statuses were classified information. The way Fyodor looked at him, boastful, told him more than he liked to know about that. Chuuya’s lack of a reaction even more so.

“Then why?” The man stepped forward, leaving Fyodor behind to crowd into Dazai’s space. He was taller than him by a couple inches, and broader too, shoulders wide, arms thick under the deceptive softness of his shirtsleeves. “Why wait four years to pilot again?”

His anger felt personal and not at once. Righteous in a way Dazai had seldom encountered.

Dazai looked up at the man under the longer strands of his hair that always swept over his forehead. “None of your business,” he repeated.

The look he was given was one of honest disgust.

“You’ve been standing here doing absolutely nothing to test us, nothing to let us prove ourselves,” the man went on roughly. “You’re acting like this is a game. I’m having some trouble believing you’re one of the guys who once killed fifteen kaiju in fifteen deployments.”

“He has been testing us,” Fyodor interjected softly. Dazai and the man glanced at him in tandem. “This was never about training results or abilities. He’s trying to figure out how compatible we are.”

“Well I don’t like it,” the man replied hotly. He shoved an accusatory finger into Dazai’s chest as he turned back, eyes dark, voice low. “You were right. I don’t like you. What are you trying to achieve?”

Keeping his lips still instead of smiling was a struggle, but Dazai managed. “Why don’t you take a guess?” he asked. Mockingly so.

He barely avoided the first blow.

It was testament to Fyodor’s understanding of the situation that he didn’t cry in outrage or try to stop his fellow candidate from hurting what was, in all due forms, a superior officer. Or maybe to Chuuya’s understanding of Dazai that he never said a word either. Dazai sidestepped the man’s first punch, feet catching gently on the ratty mats of the hall, and had to crouch and roll away to avoid the second.

The other’s fist few so close to his cheek that it stung anyway, hot and dry.

“You could’ve been piloting all these years,” he was saying, breaths deep and even in spite of his irritation. “We all thought the reason Double Black wasn’t being used was because its pilots were dead—but you’re here, and you’re fine, and you’re—”

This time, the blow landed, harsh, into the arm Dazai used to block it.

“I’m what?” he prompted.

The man’s face whitened with rage.

His leg thrust out too fast for Dazai to do more than jump over it. The man followed up with a punch that turned out not to be a punch at all—Dazai raised his bruised arm to block again, and instead found his wrist caught in a grip too strong to dislodge in time to avoid being pulled forward and slammed belly-first onto the mats.

The impact knocked the breath out of him. The man twisted his arm behind him until it hurt sharply with the threat of a snapped bone, digging one knee into the small of his back.

“You could’ve been piloting all this time,” he told Dazai, his victory not enough to erase how completely he despised him. He didn’t sound satisfied at all. “You could’ve been saving lives. Give me one reason I should allow you into my head, you selfish bastard.”

Dazai arched his neck until he could look toward the door. Chuuya met his eyes, silent.

“So that’s your reason for being here,” he said breezily. It was hard to breathe with his chest crushed under the other’s weight—even harder with the way Chuuya looked at him. “You tried to save someone and failed.”

The knee dug further into his back.

Anyone else looking at Chuuya now would’ve thought him indifferent, perhaps; but his grip was tight on the cane even if the gloves masked the yellow-white tint of bloodless skin under it. He looked ready to bolt into a run. It was that thought, ultimately, that caused Dazai to bow his head again.

He let his cheek drag painfully against the mat so he could look above his shoulder and at the man holding him down. “What’s your name?” he asked.

The face above his was livid with fury. “Kunikida Doppo,” he spat out. “Write that down into your little papers when you throw me out too and go back to letting the world die, Dazai.”

Perfect simulation results, excellent martial artist. Stubborn as a mule.

Disappointment gripped Dazai by the neck. He felt breathless in so many ways. Nauseous with it.

“I’m not throwing you out,” he said. “You’re my new copilot.”

Kunikida’s eyes widened; his grip slackened only just enough for Dazai to twist out of it quickly and push Kunikida down in his stead. Kunikida yelped at the shock, then fell silent when Dazai’s hand wrapped around his neck and squeezed warningly.

He never stopped glaring, though. Never stopped meeting Dazai’s eyes with that same holy anger.

Dazai released his grip with a sigh. He stepped off of Kunikida’s body and said, “I need a nap.”

“Then go take one,” Chuuya answered. His tone was almost convincingly disinterested. “We won’t be ready to test until tomorrow anyway, no one needs you.”

“Harsh.”

“That’s it?” Kunikida called, bewildered.

Dazai glanced back at him. He was still sitting on the floor, looking shell-shocked. “That’s it,” he replied. “Congratulations, Kunikida-kun. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

He scoffed dismissively—it almost made Dazai smile despite the ache in his heart.

Kunikida would understand more about Dazai than he ever wished to very soon. And Dazai would have no choice but to know him right back.

“Go wait where I sent Kyouka-chan,” he said. “Ango or someone else will come by to give you the grand tour and show you to your rooms. You,” he told Fyodor, who was watching everything unfold with utter boredom on his sickly pale face, “are free to go.”

“Thank you for considering me,” Fyodor replied. His odd-colored eyes met Dazai’s cooly.

Dazai’s back ran with shivers.

The door closed behind them with little noise. The padding on the floor had always muffled its sounds for as long as he could remember. Dazai stared at it thoughtlessly for a while. He didn’t know if the ache blooming over his forehead came from the lack of sleep, the trip from Sydney, or from Kunikida’s rough handling.

“I’m glad it wasn’t that other guy,” he said lightly, turning face Chuuya. “Gave me the creeps.”

“I didn’t think he’d be strong enough anyway,” Chuuya replied. He was looking down at Kunikida’s file in his hand, but his eyes weren’t moving. “Genius IQ, mediocre physical. I’m pretty sure he’s been hiding some sort of health condition too.”

“How the hell did Ango miss that?”

“Shut up.” Chuuya rolled his eyes but still didn’t look at him. “Sakaguchi works almost as much as ane-san does, he’s allowed to make mistakes.”

“Mad, the lot of you.”

The joke flew over Chuuya’s head entirely. Dazai felt very little like laughing too.

“Well,” Dazai murmured, “you were right. Kunikida is very compatible with me.”

“I told you he would be.”

“Drifting with him might even be as easy for me as it was with you.”

Chuuya didn’t flinch. He didn’t shudder or let his breathing stutter. His head turned sideways, eyes meeting Dazai’s, showing absolutely nothing, and Dazai felt misery coil tight in his belly. He felt it run up and settle like pressure behind his ribs. His mind slid helplessly toward thoughts of reaching out with his hand to brush the faint star-shaped scar sitting at Chuuya’s temple.

Maybe he would know what Chuuya thought if he did. Feel it at the tip of his fingers.

“How did you know?” he asked instead.

Chuuya breathed carefully before answering. “His psych eval.”

“Are you even allowed to look at that?”

“Who’s going to stop me?” Chuuya said wryly. “You’ll know him better than any therapist soon enough anyway.” He looked away. Stepped away. Then he added, “Kunikida almost didn’t make it into the training program.”

That was surprising.

“It’s not for lack of effort or dedication. His physical scores are the best, he’s dreadfully accurate in simulations, he’s more than smart enough. But he has some issues.”

“What issues?”

Chuuya gave him a joyless smile. “You’ll just have to find out the hard way,” he replied.

He started walking toward the exit, a little gauchely, because soft mats were more difficult to navigate with a cane than hard floor. Probably also because he hadn’t sat down to rest his leg since the moment he stepped out of the chopper and into the dock.

I don’t want to find out, Dazai thought, following in his steps. I never want to know.

There had only ever been one person he wanted to know that way. Only one person he had wanted to know him that way.

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