Warnings: two separate descriptions of death—one child death, and one murder by strangulation.
Build Upon The Ruins
“Your wrist is fine,” Yosano said, taking off her glasses. “You can go back to punching things full force.”
Akutagawa only gave her a curt nod in answer. It wasn’t more than she expected out of him, and she didn’t take it as offense. Akutagawa was always spectacularly bad at letting anyone, even medics, take care of him.
The girl Dazai had hired as a cat sitter, of all things, stood in the opposite corner of the ward. Rashoumon was laying in her arms docilely. Akutagawa exchanged a few whispers with her as they both left—the girl nodded at Yosano before walking out of the door. Her name was Izumi Kyouka, if she remembered correctly. One of the pilot candidates.
Yosano sighed loudly once she was alone. Two days here, and she already felt exhausted, her back aching with it, her head thrumming. She eyed the locked drawer of her desk for a long second, thinking of the cigarettes she kept there. There were only about a dozen left, but she really felt like one. She had about twenty minutes before Double Black’s first test drift.
She didn’t smoke, but she pocketed the pack before leaving the wing.
The dock was still abuzz with activity from the move. The last five jaegers humanity possessed were all assembled now, all gleaming in the light except Tiger Claw—it still bore traces of its last fight only three days ago, and most of its body was darkened by soot. She walked quickly from the hospital to the labs, waving at Edogawa when she crossed paths with him but not stopping to talk. They had already had their celebratory reunion drinks. He was probably on his way to the comm room anyway.
Kouyou would already be there, she thought. Much as she enjoyed her presence, she was in no hurry to have to watch the test unfold.
She came to a sudden stop the moment she stepped into the labs and took in the sight that welcomed her.
She closed her eyes. Inhaled as deeply as she could.
“What are you doing,” she said flatly.
Kajii made a sound closer to a squeak than anyone human should ever utter, jumping around to look at her.
“Nothing,” he replied breathlessly.
Yosano glanced pointedly at the giant tube full of viscous something he was trying to hide behind his frail body.
“I’m conducting an experiment,” he admitted.
“What is it?”
“None of your business.”
Yosano stepped closer, and when he tried to stop her physically, she glared at him the same way she used to glare at Dazai.
Kajii whimpered and lowered his arms.
The thing in the tall glass tube was a lot more recognizable from up close. “Is that a kaiju brain?” she asked, disbelieving.
Kajii seemed to struggle for a moment between his intent to be secretive and his irredeemable need to gloat. “It’s a kaiju’s secondary brain,” he said, voice halway between resentful and proud. “The main one wouldn’t fit in this room at all.”
“What the hell are you doing with a kaiju brain at all? Hang on.” She peered closer at the glass. “Is it live?”
One of the brain’s tentacles moved to latch itself onto the glass with a disgusting sucking noise.
“Please tell me you’re just planning on vivisecting it,” she said. Her head was throbbing harder than before.
“I would never cut open such a beauty,” Kajii replied, offended.
“Then why the hell are you carrying a live kaiju brain around? Are you going to keep it around as a pet?”
It said a lot about Kajii as a person that he just looked considering, instead of appalled.
“It’s not a pet,” he answered with a shake of his head. “I’m trying to extract information from it.”
“Ah,” Yosano said. “Of course. You should’ve just said if you wanted to talk to one, Kajii. I’m sure I can convince Nakajima to bring you along the next time he’s deployed.”
“Please don’t,” Kajii whispered with obvious panic.
Joke aside, she really wanted to know. She was no stranger to kaiju parts resting in all corners of Kajii’s lab, but she had never seen him use brain parts for anything other than dissection. Certainly not an entire secondary brain, live and squirming. Kajii himself was red in the face in a way that suggested deceit rather than just embarrassment.
“Tell me what you’re planning,” Yosano ordered.
She technically didn’t hold any authority over him, but Kajii was more aware than most of how close she was to their boss, exactly, so he paled. “I-I can’t.”
“Come on.” Her voice turned sweeter as she approached him, making his face flush and glisten in the glaring yellow light. “I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as what I’m currently imagining.”
Fortunately, Kajii always took every bait.
“It is extremely bad,” he protested. “You could never have come up with something that cool.”
“No one’s ever tried it before.” His unease was shifting, now, turning into the kind of excitement that always loosened his tongue, and Yosano watched it happen with satisfaction. “Which is gigantically stupid, considering we’ve had the technology available for years.”
“Please do tell,” Yosano purred.
Kajii looked at her with suspicion for a second longer before relenting. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, but don’t you go and tell Boss Ozaki about it, all right?”
“I won’t,” Yosano nodded, planning to do just that.
If anything it would make Kouyou laugh. She hadn’t laughed in a while.
Kajii bit his lip, glancing between her and the kaiju brain—whose three remaining tentacles were now suctioning their way up the glass—and then he took in a quick breath and asked, “You know about the certainty of double and triple events in the future, right?”
“Of course.” She frowned. “You said the breach would have to stabilize to allow them through. It’s why we’re attacking in the first place.”
“Yes. Yes, I did, that’s true.” He cleared his throat. “None of this plan would be possible without me.”
“We’re all indebted to you.”
She risked a glance toward her wristwatch as he walked toward his desk. Ten minutes until she had to be in the comm room.
Her eyes snapped back to Kajii when loud metallic noises started ringing through the room; he was taking something vaguely familiar out of his largest cabinet, which appeared to only be half full of repulsive kaiju bits. When he set it on top of his desk, she recognized it. It was an early drift helmet. One of the models once used for testing people worldwide.
“Kajii,” she said, understanding freezing into her.
“Let me explain before you try to kill me,” he replied quickly.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s perfectly reasonable!” He pointed to the brain, his voice high with excitement and arrogance. “My numbers are right, but we need more than just that to be able to make the plan work—we need to know more about our enemy.”
“I’m going to kill you,” she seethed.
“Yosano,” he pleaded. “Listen. The kaiju aren’t the real enemy. They’re all clones of each other, you know that.”
It made her hesitate. “I do know that.”
“Yes,” he continued. “They’re engineered. We need to know who engineered them before we drop that bomb into the breach. We might never drop it at all if we don’t know more.”
She withstood his eager stare for a long second.
“And drifting with a kaiju is the best option you’ve got for that?” she asked.
“Yes,” he exhaled, looking relieved. “It’s the only option I have.”
Her breathing hitched, protest rising to her lips, but she didn’t have time. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. But not now. And certainly not on your own like you were planning to, you absolute madman. Do you have any idea what a drift can do to you with no one to monitor it?”
“Boss will never let me—”
She waved a hand, shutting him up. “I’ll talk to her. I need to go now anyway, they’re testing Double Black.”
“Oh.” He looked surprised. “Did they find new pilots?”
“Have you been living under a rock? Never mind, don’t answer that.” She sighed. “Dazai’s going back.”
He stared at her in confusion.
“But…” he started. “Chuuya-san can’t move a jaeger. I mean, I bet he could if he tried, but then the pain would knock him right out.”
Yosano’s lips thinned, mind flashing briefly to number of times Nakahara had passed out from the pain in the months following his injuries. He knew his limits now, and he was serious about the medication she allowed him to take—though not as serious as he could be about the non-physical kind of therapy he should be undergoing.
She couldn’t really blame him. None of them had the time or will to work through trauma. They wouldn’t until the world stopped ending.
If it ever did.
“Dazai has a new copilot,” she said lowly.
“You’re joking.” Kajii sounded more shocked by this idea than that of Nakahara trying to walk in a jaeger, cane and all. His mouth fell at the corners when he glimpsed her expression. “You’re not joking,” he amended, stunned. “Who?”
“Don’t know him. Nakahara just told me he picked one yesterday.”
There was no need for him to finish. She understood what he meant perfectly.
“The drift won’t be as strong,” he said after a moment of silence—it sounded almost defensive, and it made Yosano want to smile.
“Maybe not,” she agreed. “But we never needed the drift to be as strong as it was with Dazai and Nakahara to be able to move a jaeger.”
It was all that mattered in the grand scheme of things.
“Anyway,” she said, looking at her watch again. “I have to go witness that disaster happen. Keep sharp, Kajii—we might need you if the hangar explodes. And do not drift with that thing until I’m here to give you the green light.”
He only looked faintly guilty when he promised not to.
Yosano sneezed as she walked out of the lab. She often did. Something about the air there, maybe from the ever-presence of kaiju corpse, made fresher oxygen tickle at her nostrils every time she stepped away. She rubbed her nose and took the direction of the elevators. When she looked at Double Black’s silhouette again, she saw that the cockpit was already open.
It was comforting, in a way. For so long the sight of Double Black going into the fray meant victory.
The comm room was warm with human heat and voices, almost feverishly so. Edogawa was shooting orders in rapid-fire succession from his perch atop Nakahara’s desk; the girl brought in from the US base, Alcott, was typing at her station almost too fast for the bare eye to see; Nakahara himself was standing next to Edogawa, interjecting lowly every now and then, back straight and eyes alert despite his obvious fatigue.
It would be impressive if not for how pointedly he didn’t look in the direction of Dazai and his new copilot, all suited up by the door that would allow them into Double Black’s head in a minute. The way Dazai refused to look right back was just as sad.
“Hey,” Yosano said, brushing Kouyou’s hand quickly once she stood close enough.
“Hello,” Kouyou replied softly. “Sorry I missed you this morning.”
“It’s fine. You needed sleep.”
Kouyou had slept like the dead right through Yosano’s quickly-fixed breakfast and shower. It hadn’t surprised her, considering how long she had spent tossing and turning, anxious about the day to come.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about after this,” Yosano whispered, eyes fixed onto the tall man suited like Dazai was. She couldn’t see his face from here, but his hair was strikingly long. “I saw Kajii on my way—he wants to try something.”
“How dangerous is it?”
“Only potentially lethal.”
It made Kouyou laugh dryly. Naomi’s brother shot her a questioning look as he walked past, but thankfully, he didn’t linger. “After this,” she agreed. Then she added: “I’m worried.”
“About the test? Dazai knows what he’s doing.”
The entire point of this was that Dazai had extensive experience with piloting and wouldn’t let the jaeger fry up or collapse the way so many first drives had done in the early years. They had lost a lot of money rebuilding after tests—more than they had rebuilding after fights, at one point.
But Kouyou didn’t reply, face severe in the white light, so Yosano said: “Ah. The other elephant in the room, then.”
They both looked at Nakahara.
At least he seemed to be done steeling himself, or whatever it was he was doing while pretending to look at Edogawa’s work. His eyes were turned to the duo standing by the door.
Yosano couldn’t tell if his face was miserable or just serious, because Nakahara was always too good at not showing weakness. No matter that no one but him thought him weak for it.
“All right,” Nakahara said loudly, right as the clock shifted to two o’clock. The room’s attention snapped to him immediately. “Let’s get started, everyone.”
The pilot suit was exactly as heavy once put on as it looked hanging in the dress rooms. Kunikida’s had been fitted to his body measurements the night before, but he hadn’t had the occasion to walk around in it before making his way into Double Black’s cockpit. The hardest parts to manage were the large boots that would connect to the footholds and carry the legs of the jaeger, but the back and breast plates were unwielding in their own way. His chest knocked against them with every breath he took.
His and Dazai’s footsteps were loud against the steel floor of the machine’s head; for a second Kunikida stood still, gazing at the intricacy of panels and trapdoors and buttons littering every wall except for the wide screen. One of them he recognized as the nuclear core’s manual overdrive.
“I’ll take the right, if you don’t mind,” Dazai said. “Favorite spot.”
Kunikida looked at him, startled. “That’s fine,” he replied. “Whatever works for you.”
Dazai nodded and walked toward the station closest to the door.
He had been acting strangely since they met in the fitting room. Withdrawn. Nothing at all like the arrogant man who had dismissed Kunikida and all the others with mocking glances and biting words the day before.
Kunikida took his place at the left hemisphere, slotting the feet of the suit into the holds designed for it. A man who had introduced himself as Mark was busy harnessing him securely onto the station, asking him to move this way and that to make sure everything worked. He seemed cheerful.
It occurred to Kunikida then that Dazai probably had not stepped into Double Black for a long time. Maybe the forlorn look on his face was nostalgia, or surprise. Whatever it was, Dazai said nothing and didn’t look at him. He simply let himself be attached to the body of the jaeger. He barely needed his own helper’s cues to test the movements of the suit either—he was extending his arms and moving his legs and neck before she could open her mouth.
Mark and the woman left them a minute later. The sound of the cockpit closing shut and locking itself down was harsh into the metal-like silence.
Kunikida closed his eyes when the connecting gel coated his face under the visor of his helmet. It was unpleasant but nothing he wasn’t used to. The wide screen in front of him lit up in the shape of Double Black’s own visor, and through it they saw the large window of the comm room.
Nakahara bent over the front desk and picked up something from it—a mic. He looked very small in the distance.
“We’re ready to begin,” his voice came in Kunikida’s ear. “Kunikida?”
“Ready,” he replied.
“Go right ahead, Chuuya.”
There was a second of silence. “Good,” Nakahara said evenly. “Initiating neural handshake in thirty seconds.”
Kunikida heard the countdown start in his left ear, faint, too measured to belong to an actual person.
At first he said nothing, just paced his breathing to the seconds that the high automated voice numbered for him. Then he heard Dazai shift in his station.
“Feeling all right, Kunikida-kun?” Dazai asked, non-committal.
Fifteen seconds now. “As well as possible,” he replied, keeping his irritation in check.
“Still stuck on your first impression of me, then.”
“You haven’t exactly given me reason to change it.”
“That’s fair,” Dazai muttered. “I do apologize for my attitude. Getting you angry was the fastest way to figure out if this could work, but I was a bit flippant.”
A bit? Kunikida thought wryly.
Dazai spoke again before he could say it, though. “I’m sure you’ll understand a little better after this.”
He didn’t sound happy about it at all. Not even in a mocking way.
“For what it’s worth,” Dazai said with surprising softness, “I hope this works. I think I could’ve enjoyed being partnered with you, if things were different. You seem like a good man.”
Kunikida’s mind protested the praise as it always did, as it always would; he looked at Dazai to reply but found Dazai looking ahead through Double Black’s visor—found, when he followed the direction of his eyes, that Nakahara was staring right back, holding the mic to his lips as if he meant to speak.
“Neural handshake initiated,” said the automatic voice.
Kunikida felt the familiar pull of the drift tug at the core of him, behind his eyes and mouth and chest. The feeling was usual enough at first that he steeled himself for the empty resonance that ruled all simulation runs with ease, for feeling distanced from his own body so that he could drive another—an empty—one.
All familiarity stopped there.
On the other side of the drift was something just as solid and alive as he was. Kunikida felt his conscious expand to brush it, and understood, when foreign reluctance struck him through the chest, that this was Dazai.
Dazai’s mind unfolded a second later through decision rather than acceptance, and then he was there, in Kunikida’s head, Kunikida in his.
He held his breath. Felt Dazai do the same in turn.
Keep calm, he told himself—and there was amusement there, not-his, telling him, Good advice.
He forced himself to pay no mind to the memories and feelings he could feel rush through his head. Men and women and children and places he had never visited but witnessed with the familiarity of old friends—a tall, ill-shaven man the sight of whom made warmth gather inside him—a house full of orphans he knew by name without meeting any of them.
There were so many. A whole life jotted precariously in place alongside his own, getting mixed up and mistaken. Kunikida bit his lip to ground himself and force his mind back in the now, in his body, in the heavy metal extensions of it that he could now feel through the jaeger’s own limbs.
He felt Dazai ground himself much the same, breaths deep and controlled. He could tell that he was being given the same courtesy; Dazai was seeing things from Kunikida’s childhood and life that Kunikida had forgotten—he quirked his lips at one of them, of Kunikida at school teaching his rowdiest classroom. Dazai let it slip away untouched when it left.
“Stabilized,” the voice said.
Kunikida was seeing through two sets of eyes when his eyelids lifted, and the sight that greeted them was that of a room full of people smiling. He followed the helpless pull of Dazai’s stare as it slid to Nakahara with all the ease in the world.
His chest throbbed with longing at the sight of him. More images unfolded, much starker than the rest—Nakahara’s back against the light of the hangar, his face against Dazai’s shoulder as he slept during the flight to Yokohama, hair mussed from the occasional jolts of the plane and falling softly over his forehead—Chuuya smiling at him over a table and suffusing warmth into his skin even as he agreed to do the one thing in the world he never wanted to—
Chuuya’s mind threaded into his until he couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
“Kunikida-kun,” Dazai said out loud.
Kunikida sucked in a loud breath as he snapped back into the present, every beat of his heart bruising his ribs.
“You all right in there?” said Chuuya. Said Nakahara.
“We’re good,” Dazai replied lightly—and Kunikida had no idea how he could breathe at all through the agony of fear and love that laced his bones at the sound of Nakahara’s voice. “Just getting used to each other.”
He had to breathe deeply for several seconds to settle back down. Even then the ache never left. It shone through the drift lowly, highlighting corners of Dazai’s mind that felt raw to the touch.
These weren’t his feelings to touch, though. Not his memories to browse. Kunikida focused on that thought until he felt physical again.
When he turned his head sideways, Dazai was smiling at him.
“I think we’re good,” Kunikida said, tearing away from the sight of him. He looked at Ozaki rather than Nakahara.
There was affection and regret there as well, but nothing like the sea of sheer emotion that her second-in-command elicited.
“All right. Ten seconds to stabilization, with some leftover mishaps. Not bad at all.” Alcott leaned toward Nakahara to whisper in his ear, and he nodded. “Try moving our friend here a bit.”
“Roger that,” Dazai said.
It was nostalgia he felt when they both raised their arms, the command immediate through both their brains at once. Double Black raised its own in perfect tandem, its right fist coming to punch into the flat of its left hand loudly.
Kunikida heard the cheers of the comm room over the line, felt Dazai’s fondness and amusement and familiarity with the situation course through him bodily. He had heard all of this before countless times. Kunikida’s mind washed over with feelings of having fought and won, with memories of kaiju whose wide bodies he had only ever seen shrunk TV-sized but whom he could now recall tearing apart limb by limb.
“Very nice,” Nakahara said. His was grinning, but in a way Kunikida knew—Dazai knew—wasn’t genuine. “I think we’ve got everything we needed from you two. Just stay put for a while, Tanizaki’s gonna run some tests now.”
“Not going anywhere,” Dazai replied.
It felt like a promise rather than a joke.
The comm line turned off.
They brought down Double Black’s arms slowly. Kunikida stood still in his station, eyes roaming over the cockpit, letting Dazai’s deep knowledge of it instill inside of him. He knew what every part of it did now. How it all worked.
“You’re handling this surprisingly well,” Dazai said. “Nice thinking.”
Kunikida breathed out steadily. “It’s… different than I imagined.”
“Not quite the fairytale, huh?”
There was nothing surprising coming out of Dazai’s mouth; Kunikida could think with him as he spoke, after all, however little he understood of those glimpses by the time they ran off. It was as though he were speaking himself. Dazai’s body felt like an extension of his own, the way the jaeger did.
“It gets quite uncomfortable sometimes,” Dazai continued light-heartedly. It clashed somewhat with the deep longing Kunikida could feel hover around them both, the familiarity and differences from Dazai’s previous drifts—Dazai’s mind seemed to sizzle every time it relaxed into it and realized the one there wasn’t who it wanted. “It’s why I didn’t want a teenager. No one can help their mind dipping into the gutter from time to time.”
Inevitably, lewder images were brought up, from Dazai’s past and Kunikida’s own. Kunikida reflexively tried to hide them and failed, and only the easy acceptance Dazai let flow through to him allowed him to come out with nothing more than a red face.
That was indeed more than he wanted to know about anyone he wasn’t dating.
“Don’t worry,” Dazai said, amused. “You won’t remember all of it once the drift stops. There’s only enough room for one life in one’s own head.”
The regret Dazai felt at that was vivid. Ch—Nakahara’s face flickered behind Kunikida’s eyelids, and with it the unbearable yearning from before. It was steeped in fear.
Dazai stared at him in silence. He almost looked bored, yet his mind was reeling from what he knew Kunikida wanted to ask. It was braced as if for blows.
“Nothing,” Kunikida ended weakly. “Forget it.”
Dazai looked away.
The flux of thoughts and memories never stopped, not really. Not even without speech to anchor it. Kunikida felt Dazai drag the memories of his school again and watch them unfold passively, his curiosity genuine but distanced.
“A math teacher,” he commented. “I forget not all of us are criminals.”
Kunikida’s question got its answer before he could ask it—stills of years long gone, the knowledge of having run from the law and then straight into its grasp. These memories were associated with no regrets whatsoever.
He felt Dazai smile longingly even as he kept browsing through Kunikida’s mind, his touch delicate and respectful. He carefully didn’t approach Kunikida’s last memories of his mother, nor did he touch the gritty misery of his teenage years. Kunikida would be powerless to stop him if he tried; the fact that Dazai didn’t take advantage of it in spite of what he had said the day before made something shift in his impression of him.
“See,” Dazai said in answer, grinning. “We are getting along.”
Dazai felt no rancor toward him. At least not personally. If anything what he thought of Kunikida now was a quiet sort of respect, inevitable in the face of the unnatural proximity they were caught in. Dazai thought Kunikida’s thoughts and glimpsed Kunikida’s memories, and he didn’t deface any of them. He didn’t try to reach and hurt. He let them pass through and go.
It was more consideration than Kunikida was worth.
Dazai’s smile fell the moment Kouda Aya emerged through the tranquil flow of their thoughts, and with her the feeling of a chest caved in from grief and terror, the still-overwhelming guilt of having failed—
Dazai’s voice was very far from him. Kunikida’s breath caught, his broken ribs making agony spike through him even as he hunched forward to dig through the debris.
“I’m scared,” Aya wheezed, face marred with dust and blood, “sensei—”
“Just stay with me.”
“Aya—just, just hold on, I’m taking you to the hospital, okay? Just breathe.”
“Dazai, what’s going on?”
“He’s chasing the RABBIT! Kunikida-kun, listen to me.” A jolt in his elbow, caused by a mind not his own even without touch—”They’re just memories. You think you’re back there, but you’re not. It’s only a memory.“
The kaiju had torn through the ceiling of the school’s underground hideout in one try; Kunikida remembered the screams of his students scurrying to run back into the corridor and then out, he remembered watching their heads pass by and feeling relief at each of them he found alive and moving, despite the awful pain ringing through his chest.
Then, Aya’s voice, from under the rumble, her face under all the dirt and the blood running out of a cut in her head. Gushing out of her mouth. The steel pipe that had torn into her side.
“Kunikida-kun,” Dazai said, grieved with the same loss Kunikida was feeling again, “It’s over. There’s nothing you can do to save her.”
I can, he thought fleetingly. I can run.
His legs were long and heavy, his steps immense. He could get to someone in time.
“Chuuya, you need to turn everything off. He’s going to jump.”
“Shutting down the drift now could—”
“I know the risks! Just do it, I can’t hold him down for long.”
Kunikida was aware of the weight holding his legs to the ground and struggling to keep him still, to lower even the arm he cradled Aya’s bleeding body with.
“Kunikida-kun,” the voice said, breathless from the effort of keeping him grounded, “you’re not there. It’s already done. I know—I know it hurts, but there’s nothing to be done. She’s already dead.”
“No,” he said.
A breath, and then: “I’m sorry for this.”
It wasn’t Aya’s washed-out face in his arms anymore, but the picture perfect memory of a man, pushed forth by the otherness in his own head. Grief turned to cold rage, and Kunikida’s formerly gentle hands now folded around the stranger’s neck, thumbs digging into his trachea with all the strength of his shoulders.
Kunikida tried to pull back instantly, confusion losing to panic as the man turned redder and redder. He could feel his entire body struggle under him, his palms twist under the pressure of his knees.
Stop, he thought, nausea and shock creeping up his throat, stop—
The man’s lips were blue. He had stopped squirming. Dazai kept suffocating him anyway, long past the time he was dead, with blood pooling under his thumbs’ nails from the man’s skin tearing open. When he rose from his knees, an eternity later, he felt only satisfaction.
“We have to unplug you.”
“Do it,” Dazai said coldly.
His mind was slipping now. From cold fury to cold abandon and then cold fear. Dazai wasn’t standing in a room of the orphanage with a corpse under his knees anymore; he was in the cockpit of Double Black, but he was strapped to the left, and to the right…
To the right the skull of the machine was open. Wind slapped at the busted plates of his suit, waves crashed onto the metal floor, and then the clawed foot of Fawk lifted at last, from where it had struck down and taken everything in its wake.
Under the folded metal that had once been part of Double Black’s armor lay Chuuya. Body twisted around in a parody of the way he slept, helmet broken, wet hair shaking into the tempest wind. Some of it stuck gently to his face, drenched in his blood.
Dazai had never known fear before he had to see him like this through the agony of keeping the jaeger standing. He had never known what it was like to pray until he thought, No, and felt only emptiness call back instead of Chuuya’s soul.
All the lights in the cockpit shut out, and Kunikida was snapped back into his own body.
He groaned through the headache that immediately struck him blind. Shrugging out of the helmet at all was a struggle, but the air he gasped in once it was off made up for it, made him aware of the wet residue of the gel over his skin as well as his own tears. He rubbed them off with the gloves of the suit and looked to his right, straining his neck until it ached.
Dazai was in the process of unhooking himself from the station with practiced hands, body twisted away from Kunikida. He ripped his feet out of their bonds and pushed the helmet off of his head. When he ran a shaking hand through his own hair, Kunikida felt his scalp tingle.
He was out of the door the second it opened, before Mark could even get close enough to Kunikida to help him get down.
Kunikida stayed in the shower for an hour.
He let the scorching water beat down his body until he was completely red. The steam felt like smoke in his lungs, uncomfortable but not enough to chase the taste of seasalt and the chill of the hurricane. Once he stepped out, numb with heat, he washed his hands seven times.
It still wasn’t enough. Grimy dust stuck to his fingertips with everything he touched. Blood had crusted under the nails of his thumbs.
The dining room he had been shown to the day before was deserted when he arrived. Kunikida opened one of the large fridges he found in the kitchen and eyed the food stored inside that he knew he had free access to as a pilot; the thought ached, and he still felt nauseous anyway. He left without eating anything.
There was a smaller common room at the end of the corridor where his dorm was located. More of an opening in the wall than a true confined space. It had taken him some time to remember his way around, but he found it now, just as empty as he had hoped. The TV’s screen was black and the remote nowhere in sight, so he just let himself fall into one of the couches.
A minute later, something heavy slammed onto the low wooden table.
He jumped, heart rising his in throat—and then there was someone sliding into the free space next to him, a soft sigh, heeled boots settling atop the table, a long black skirt falling over their hems.
“So,” said the voice of the vaguely familiar woman who had just sat next to him. “We haven’t been properly introduced yet. Kunikida, right?”
He looked at her properly. She was smiling, her glasses a little dirty, her makeup a little smudged.
“Yosano Akiko,” she said. “I’m the head doctor around here. You come to me if you get so much as a weird-looking bruise, got it?”
It took him a while to realize that she had extended a hand forward and expected him to shake it. He did so slowly, mind still hazy from the drift and the shower. When he tried to pull it back, Yosano didn’t let him.
She eyed the rubbed-raw skin of his knuckles pensively. “This happen often?” she asked.
His lips parted with some difficulty. “It’s nothing.”
“Mmh. You’re bleeding a bit.”
Her foot hooked into the handle of her bag to bring it closer. She rummaged through it for a second before taking out an opaque bottle of what he thought might be disinfectant. The familiar sting against his fingers confirmed it a moment later.
“What do you carry in that?” he asked, nodding toward the bag. Something metallic kept clinging every time it moved.
“The usual. A couple scalpels, a couple bonesaws.” She smiled at him sharply. “Just as a reminder that I never want to use them on you.”
There was a pause.
“You’re joking,” he realized.
It made her laugh, brief and loud in the otherwise quiet room. “Yes, I’m joking, Kunikida.” She threw him a lopsided grin. “You’re a bit of a straightforward guy, aren’t you? Dazai and Nakahara always backtalk, I forget what it’s like to be around normal people.”
She released his hand at last, throwing the cotton into a trash can a few feet away from them. Somehow, Kunikida’s fingers felt less soiled after that.
Yosano leaned into the couch with a sigh. She didn’t look like she was in a hurry to move anywhere. Her hand dug into a pocket of her skirt that he hadn’t noticed was there, and she took out a crumpled pack of cigarettes.
“I didn’t know people still had cigarettes,” he said, surprised.
She hummed, sticking one between her lips. Her fingers dragged a matchbox out of the pocket next, and she cracked one against the rough side of it habitually. The flame shivered against the end of the cigarette with a small papery noise. She shook it off with a flick of her wrist.
“I keep them for special occasions,” she replied. “Whenever something good happens.”
Kunikida thought of the people working on powering Double Black back up while he sat here uselessly and said, “I don’t think anything worth celebrating happened.”
Yosano smiled softly around her next exhale. “Seeing Double Black move is always worth celebrating, Kunikida. I don’t think you realize just how much hope is associated with that big pile of junk. With you for being able to pilot it.”
Kunikida had nothing to say to that.
Yosano smoked slowly, letting the silence spread between them. It wasn’t uncomfortable. The smell of tobacco was rare enough to be comforting, familiar despite the inevitable burn of it down his throat when he inhaled it. It was a memory of better days. Kunikida’s back fitted itself deeper into the curve of the couch, and his hands relaxed in his lap.
“Wanna talk about it?” Yosano asked quietly.
“About what?” he replied.
“The test earlier.”
There was nothing to talk about, really. Kunikida felt drowsy with the aftermath of the flashback; his stomach ached at the reminder but he knew he could sleep it off.
Strangling a man to death, watching Nakahara bleed out—those would be harder to overcome.
“I didn’t expect it to be so…” he paused, looking for the right word. “So literal.”
Dazai had been right; most of the flashes he had glimpsed of the other’s life were gone from his mind the way dreams dissolved. All except for the ones he had lingered on. But he could still remember the feeling of it in detail: being in his own head, and then not, and then somewhere in the middle with Dazai around him.
“You lot often say that about drifting,” Yosano replied. “I’ve sat through countless attempted recollections of it—between those who can’t shut their mouths about how it feels and those who’d rather die than try and describe it.” Her mouth softened. “Dazai’s part of the latter.”
That didn’t surprise him at all.
“Well. The important thing is that it worked.” She flicked the filter of her cigarette, making ashes fall onto the concrete floor. “And from what I saw, it worked well, until you slipped.”
“Until I slipped,” he repeated. His voice was heavy with guilt.
She eyed him kindly. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said. “You’re not the first. And Dazai got you out of it before you could hurt anyone.”
“I think—” He stopped. He wasn’t sure if he should say it, but Yosano was waiting expectantly. There was no judgment on her face when he glanced at her. “I think he was the one slipping toward the end.”
Yosano brought the cigarette to her lips again. The ember’s glow shone against her painted fingernails, and when she exhaled, it was without much air. Smoke hovered before her face gently. “Treated you to a peak of the big incident, did he,” she murmured.
Thinking of anything aside from the drift-bright memory of Aya dying in his arms had been impossible since the moment Kunikida had felt his mind come back to him. Somehow, though, the equally bright memory of Nakahara lying still and silent under torn sheets of metal came to him easily. His chest shivered from remembered terror.
“What’s,” he started. His face flushed, but he made himself say it. “Um. What sort of relationship do they have? Dazai and Nakahara.”
Yosano snorted loudly—Kunikida felt his face burn. “That’s the million dollar question,” she said, grinning. “There were several bets running at the time—I’m pretty sure they knew about it too. Competitive idiots. No one did figure out if they were together before Nakahara got hurt.” Her tone turned whimsical. “But they were something all right.”
They still were. He thought he would’ve known from seeing the way they moved around each other, even without having felt Dazai’s longing grip him by the heart. Everything Dazai did had Nakahara in mind; everywhere Nakahara looked kept Dazai in sight.
Yosano rubbed the filter of her cigarette between her fingers until the remaining ashes fell out, then slipped the stub into the plastic wrapper of the cotton she had used on him earlier. “We don’t really know the long-term psychological consequences of drifting with someone,” she said softly, looking at the unlit TV ahead. “Pilots die young. Those who aren’t dead are still fighting. It’s not like there’s therapy for that. Humans figured out a way to make people mind meld by sheer luck, and promptly decided to shove those who could in giant robots and make them fight to the death.” She smiled unhappily.
Kunikida could remember such speculations in his youth, when jaegers and pilots were no more to him than some faraway spectacle he never thought he’d be a part of. When TV stations held long debates on jaeger technology and how ethical it was.
No one had time for ethics now.
“It’s a funny thing, the drift,” Yosano continued. “You don’t need to do it yourself to realize it. Do you know why they call it a neural handshake?”
“It’s like linking hands to make yourself stronger,” he replied. “Two people are better than one. Strength in unity and all.”
“Yes.” Yosano crane back her head to stare at the ceiling. “I like to think it’s also because the drift is a greeting.”
“What do you mean?”
She was silent for a moment, gathering her thoughts.
“We all know not everyone can drift,” she started. “In fact most people can’t. It could be genetic, it could be luck, there’s plenty of theories. But don’t you think it’s weird, that not everyone who can drift can drift together?”
Kunikida frowned at her, not knowing how to answer. He had never really thought of it. From the moment he had decided to use the rest of his worthless life to try and save people, he had focused on nothing else. His instructors had told him that compatibility varied, and he had accepted it as law.
“For some people it makes sense,” Yosano continued, taking his silence for the admission it was. “Long time spouses. Childhood friends. Siblings, twins especially. It makes sense that people with an already deep understanding of each other might be able to link minds.” Her mouth twitched. “And yet we tried to put the Akutagawa siblings in a jaeger together and ended up destroying the first mark-five prototype. They can drift, just not with each other—weird, right? It’s not like they aren’t close.” She let out another sigh before turning to look at him again. “And then sometimes you put strangers in a machine that links their heads together, and it works so well that the strangers don’t want to come out of it.”
“Is that what happened?” Kunikida asked. “With Dazai and Nakahara?”
Yosano’s face softened into nostalgia. “Yeah,” she replied. “They barely knew each other. Hated each other, actually. But then we strapped them in place and more or less forced them to drift,”—her expression darkened at the memory—”and it was like they were made for it. The numbers were off the charts.
“It’s why I call it a greeting,” she went on, looking years back into a past that Kunikida had been shortly privy to, one he had no right to but felt the need to know. “Sometimes it’s not about being stronger or reducing the jaeger’s load on the brain. Sometimes it’s just watching two people meet for the first time in a way most people can only guess at. You could call it luck, you could call it fate…” She blinked slowly, lips soft on her smile, as if the memory alone was enough to bring her joy. “Whatever it is, these two understood it perfectly.”