Warnings: misogyny, mentions of pedophilia.
Build Upon The Ruins
Kunikida wasn’t sure what he expected out of the following morning, but it wasn’t the friendly greetings that strangers gave him when he arrived in the mess hall. The people he could faintly remember being in the comm room during the previous day’s test drift were hurrying to point him out to the ones sitting around them, and the cheer spread like this, with people wishing him luck and even thanking him as he walked by them.
He was struggling to understand it. Yosano had told him that Double Black was a symbol of hope, and he knew that very well; he had considered it so as well during the years it was active. The few years during which humanity had felt giddy with victory and relief. But he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He hadn’t been the one piloting back then. Kunikida grabbed coffee and toast and hurried to the far side of the room, hogging the first free table he could find to himself and hoping no one would come toward him.
As far as he was concerned, the test had been a failure. None of these people knew how close he had come to squashing them under the feet of the machine in his hurry to try and fix his own past. Only Dazai’s forceful push out of the memory, and his own subsequent slip-up, had prevented it.
Kunikida watched absently as the hall filled, more and more people pouring into the room despite how early it was. The digital clock sitting under the war clock hadn’t even reached six. His eyes fell to the opening of the door under it when Nakahara Chuuya walked in.
He frowned when he took in his appearance. The few times he had been in the other man’s presence, Nakahara had been nothing but smartly dressed and composed; he had worn fitted three-piece suits and leather shoes, sometimes with a coat over his shoulders, his long hair always tied up. It was reminiscent of how their boss, Ozaki, dressed. Nakahara now wore only slacks and a white shirt, thin sneakers at his feet, hair down. The expensive wooden cane he seemed to favor had been replaced by a grey crutch.
Nakahara met his eyes across the room, and Kunikida had to struggle to remember that he was technically staring.
He turned his attention back to his tray and to the pot of coffee sitting by it, not embarrassed enough to blush but still unsettled. The sight of Nakahara brought with it the memories of Dazai’s that he had witnessed in the drift, a surge of affection that his mind recognized as foreign; it was almost strange to look at him and not feel his chest ache the way Dazai’s did.
“Is that coffee?” came a familiar voice.
Kunikida startled, head snapping to the side. Nakahara was standing beside him and peering at the pot eagerly. One of his subordinates, Tanizaki, was placing another tray full of food next to Kunikida’s.
“Chuuya,” Kunikida said, bewildered.
And then he coughed, face burning, and Nakahara laughed so loudly and sincerely that half of the heads in the room turned to glance at him. Tanizaki stared at him with wide eyes, only stepping away when Nakahara waved him off, and Kunikida opened his mouth again, sputtering, “I’m so sorry—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nakahara cut in. His grin was wide, showing teeth, easing some of the exhaustion on his face. His hand flew up to squeeze Kunikida’s shoulder briefly. “I did that too. And Dazai started calling Kouyou sister all the time rather than admit that the first was an accident, as if he’d planned it all along.”
“Still,” Kunikida said. He coughed once more into his hand, cheeks still uncomfortably warm. “That was inappropriate.”
“I don’t mind. Prefer it, actually. Call me Chuuya—there’s no need to ‘sir’ me when we’re on ground, this isn’t the army.” He patted the table, lips still curled up in humor. “May I?”
“Sure,” Kunikida answered weakly.
Nakahara—Chuuya sat down, setting the crutch across the table before twisting sideways to lift his right leg above the bench and rest it under the table. His face looked the slightest bit pained as he did; from this close Kunikida noticed that his hair was damp, probably from showering.
He poured himself some coffee from the pot and said, “I needed to talk to you anyway, so this is as good an opportunity as any.”
“What about?” Kunikida felt wary as he asked it, mind still stuck onto what he had seen the day before. He wasn’t sure he felt up to talking about it with anyone, let alone the person who had occupied so many of Dazai’s thoughts.
Chuuya’s smile turned softer. “Not the drift,” he answered. “Relax, Kunikida.”
Kunikida’s shoulders dropped a little at that.
“It’s about the mission. You and the rest of the pilots will be briefed later officially, but the rest of them already more or less know. You’re out of the loop since you only just arrived.” Chuuya took a sip of his cup, toyed with the eggs in his plate without eating any of it. His right hand didn’t move away from the top of his thigh; he was massaging it without looking, almost like an afterthought. “The reason we needed Double Black moving is because we’re going after the breach very soon,” he said. “Probably in the next few weeks.”
Kunikida looked up from Chuuya’s leg to stare at him in confusion. “I thought firepower didn’t work on the breach,” he replied.
“You’re right. It hasn’t worked until now because the breach closes up as soon as it spits a kaiju at us—everything we throw at it just bounces right back.” Chuuya’s face hardened, probably remembering unfortunate incidents that Kunikida had only ever heard from on the news but which he must have lived first hand. “Fortunately, it seems these bastards are done playing with their food. They’re going to start coming at us with everything they have, and that means the breach will stay open for a much longer time. Long enough for us to drop thousands of tons of explosives into it.”
It took a moment for the full implications of what he was saying to make sense in Kunikida’s head; when they did, his breathing hitched, and his hands stilled.
“That’s right,” Chuuya said, looking at him. “We’re ending this war, one way or the other.”
“That’s…” He didn’t have the words. Crazy wasn’t fitting enough; desperate seemed truer but hurt a lot more to consider.
“We can’t keep living like this,” Chuuya continued, not needing or maybe not caring to hear what he thought. “We don’t have the money to build jaegers anymore. The coastal wall won’t last either. Any fool who’s ever fought a kaiju could tell you that.” His grip tightened on his leg. “The fuckers will tear through it like it’s nothing, so our best bet is to try and destroy their way into our world for good.”
Kunikida was no stranger to despair. Though he hadn’t thought on a large scale for two years now, ever since Aya had died in his arms, he could still appreciate what it meant.
One way or the other, humanity’s destiny would be settled very soon.
“Does it bother you?” he couldn’t help but ask, though he wasn’t nearly close enough to the other for this—no matter what the remnants of Dazai’s conscious said. “Not being able to fight?”
Nakahara Chuuya didn’t strike him as someone who enjoyed letting others do his job very much.
Chuuya huffed lightly. “It pisses me off,” he answered. “I went into this thinking I’d either see it through to the end or die trying, and instead I have to watch other people do it for me. But I don’t have a choice. This much is better than nothing.”
The question burned at Kunikida’s lips, weighed by the images that he had dreamed again in his sleep, of Chuuya laid like a corpse on the floor of Double Black’s cockpit. His tongue stung with salt from the memory.
Chuuya seemed to understand, because he patted his thigh and said, “Crush injury. Nasty thing.”
It made Kunikida’s face flush once more. “I didn’t mean to pry,” he mumbled.
“It’s fine. It’s not like it’s a secret or anything, especially to you.” Chuuya’s lips quirked with something a lot closer to regret than joy before he continued. “A kaiju destroyed my side of the cockpit. Got ripped from my station in one second. Half of my body got stuck under what’s essentially a wall of steel, though most of the weight went away when the thing scampered off. My right leg took the worst of it. For a while they thought they might need to amputate—I have Yosano to thank for avoiding that.”
His voice hesitated upon Yosano’s name; for a second he looked at nothing, silent with his thoughts, before shaking it off.
“Well, leg or no leg, I can’t pilot anymore,” he said evenly. “You need four limbs to move a jaeger—my right hand is fucked too, and I can barely walk as it is.” He pointed his fork toward Kunikida, plate still untouched. “Which is where you come in. And judging by yesterday’s test, you’re perfect for the job.”
It was the same kind of faith that Dazai had demonstrated, however reluctantly; and as always Kunikida rebelled against it, the thought that he was worthy of praise feeling like sandpaper on his skin.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” he replied.
Chuuya looked at him in silence. Kunikida made himself turn away from him to finish the toast he had taken and empty his cup of coffee until he could taste bitter dregs on his tongue. Even the thirst for actual water he felt after that couldn’t mask how ill-at-ease he was, how little he wanted to have anyone try to comfort him again.
Especially not this man.
He heard Chuuya sigh, and then the sound of the man’s fork falling onto his plastic tray. “Look, Kunikida,” Chuuya said. “I’m not going to ask for details. We’re strangers, you probably don’t want to talk about it with me, I don’t want to talk about it with you. I wouldn’t have wanted a superior officer trying to give me drift advice either.”
You’re wrong, Kunikida wanted to say, though he didn’t know what about. He just knew Chuuya felt like anything but a stranger; that his absence had been a wound in his side the moment his mind had linked with Dazai’s and Dazai had thought, reflexively, immediately: You’re not Chuuya.
“I’ll say one thing, though,” Chuuya continued lowly. “Whatever happened yesterday was on Dazai, not you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, confused.
He watched Chuuya sigh painfully, letting go of his grip on his leg to push his wet hair out of his face. He looked older than he was. His blue eyes were sharp anyway against the grey of the room, his voice sure of itself in spite of its rough quality.
“He’s the one having a crisis over it,” he said. “I bet he’s holed up somewhere with Oda trying to avoid thinking about it.” Kunikida’s mind flashed to the ill-shaven man he had glimpsed the day before, the one whose sight made Dazai feel something close to peaceful. “He hasn’t talked to you at all, has he?”
“No. I haven’t seen him.”
Dazai had been gone from the dressing room before Kunikida could even reach it, suit abandoned against an empty locker and spare clothes nowhere in sight.
“Yeah, well.” Chuuya’s fingers tapped softly against the table. “He’s acting like a kid because he knows I’m right. I’ll tell you where to find him so you two can have a chat.”
“I don’t think—”
“Actually,” Chuuya said, amused, “that was an order.”
Kunikida felt offense swell in him at the words, but though Chuuya was smiling again, his eyes were implacable.
“Yes, sir,” he said between his teeth.
Chuuya nodded curtly. “Dazai likes to talk big, but he’s not nearly as mysterious or scary as he thinks he is. You two need to figure this out, and fast. We can’t do this without Double Black.”
He extracted his leg from under the table, wincing, before Kunikida could speak. His fingers shook when he picked up the crutch but his body didn’t waver once he was on his feet. He hadn’t eaten anything out of his tray aside from the coffee.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a while, Kunikida,” Chuuya said. He let the crutch rest against the bench so he could rummage through his pockets—he took what looked like a hair tie out of one at his front. Satisfied, he pulled up his hair with quick movements, balanced onto one foot. “I thought you might be the one he’d pick as a copilot from the start,” he continued, unhindered. “You’re similar in a lot of ways.”
“I don’t see it,” Kunikida replied tightly.
It made Chuuya laugh. “You wouldn’t,” he retorted. “Which proves my point exactly.”
Kunikida straightened up the mess in his plate, already feeling disgusted with the grease that the toasted bread had left over his fingertips. Rubbing at it with napkins didn’t help at all. He needed a new shower.
Chuuya watched him indulge the compulsion with no comment.
“I’ll talk to him,” Kunikida said once he was done. He pushed himself off of the bench as well, and it was different, to look down at the other—Chuuya felt infinitely taller than he looked. His short height almost came as a surprise, especially from this close.
He was, also, very attractive. Kunikida knew he couldn’t entirely blame Dazai’s own thoughts for noticing it this time.
“Thank you,” Chuuya said, never looking away from him.
And Kunikida knew it wasn’t his place at all—they were strangers, no matter that he had almost-glimpsed Dazai’s previous drifts, almost-felt the memory of Chuuya’s own mind. This connection had been one-sided from him, not something Chuuya agreed to, maybe not even something he knew had happened. Yet he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “I think you should talk to him, too.”
Chuuya closed his eyes, slowly, braced for a pain Kunikida thought was more than physical. The down turn of his mouth painted the same exact ache that Kunikida had felt through Dazai’s mind when their eyes rested on him through the screen of Double Black’s visor.
Yosano left the dock as the sun rose.
It was as much because she couldn’t have left earlier, considering she was monitoring Kajii for most of the night, as it was because she knew how Yokohama looked bathed in pink sunlight. She took the long way from the beach and into the unwalled city just to feel the crisp air drag shivers out of her skin, just to hear the seagulls and watch the light ripple onto the waves. Out of the skyscrapers that had once stood tall into the cityscape only one remained; it was there that she walked, amidst devastated streets that had stopped being built again.
So few people still lived here. Evacuation to the inland had been mandated by the government some months ago, but some inhabitants lingered still. She saw them walk in the early penumbra of the day. Most of them dug through the ruins to find anything worth selling or saving.
She had Kouyou’s card in hand once she reached the bottom of the black building. A woman by the door stopped her to look at it for a long time. Yosano didn’t fidget or fume, simply stood her ground despite the chill she could feel slithering under her clothes, and finally the woman put her fingers to her ear and talked into the mic hanging by her mouth.
“Twenty-fourth floor,” she told Yosano when she was done.
The inside of the building couldn’t have looked more different than the rest of the city. People ran from room to room, crossing the hallways at such speed that walking in a straight line was impossible. Kouyou had told her that the man named Fitzgerald had taken refuge here illegally, brought his men with him to follow the crux of the fight, now that all of the world’s jaegers had been stored in Yokohama. There was no police to chase him away, though. No one cared that a shady businessman conducted his illegal kaiju-harvesting in some destroyed city.
Yosano had to wait for a long time for an elevator to free itself, so long that she considered making the climb by foot, however tedious that would be. In the end she managed to squeezed herself between two women carrying kaiju feet bones with their bare hands and who looked at her with irritation when she knocked into what she guessed was a big toe.
The thought was disgusting, but not enough to deter her into leaving.
Fitzgerald’s office was easy to find. The twenty-fourth floor was mostly deserted, with solid wood doors at its end, opening into what looked like a wide conference room. The man who welcomed her at the door looked familiar. She examined his features while he looked over the card she still held, and his lips were stretched thin, lilting and amused.
“Come in,” he said at last. His English was accented.
She frowned at him. “Have we—”
Her words came to a halt, because a man walked into the room from another door at the back. Blond, blue-eyed, older than her by about a decade. He spread his arms wide open and said, “Welcome, representative of the jaeger program. What may I do for Boss Ozaki today?”
He patted the table next to him where viscous kaiju remains lay. Yosano felt her irritation flare at the thought that he was trying to gross her out as an intimidation tactic—she stepped across the distance between them and let her bag fall onto the tableful of body parts, satisfied when the equipment she carried clicked menacingly.
Fitzgerald—it could only be him—gestured at his lackey to close the wooden doors without looking away from her.
“My name is Yosano Akiko,” she said coldly. “I’m a surgeon affiliated with the jaeger program—I run the hospitals and medical teams in it. I’ve been sent here by Boss Ozaki to collect the debt you owe her.”
“And what debt might that be?” he replied, smiling.
“The one where she lets you have first digs at every kaiju corpse instead of taking everything away for study.”
Fitzgerald’s smile only grew. He dragged a chair toward him with bejeweled fingers and let himself fall onto it, not offering her a seat; he looked relaxed despite the height difference this put between them. As if he couldn’t imagine her posing a threat to him at all.
“I was under the impression that the rather large donations I’ve made to Ozaki’s hopeless cause settled that debt,” he said.
“All businesses are under obligation to donate to the program.”
“Ah, but not anymore, are they?” The sound of his voice grated at her like toothache. Yosano forced herself to stay composed as his shoulders shook in silent laughter. “But I have been very generous since you lot were defunded. I’ve always had a fondness for strays.”
“So,” Yosano replied, “you think of humanity’s last fighting chance as a pet project of yours.”
Fitzgerald eyed her indulgently. “Humanity doesn’t have a fighting chance anymore, Miss Yosano. I’d be a fool not to use that opportunity as a way to make sure I at least live my short life in riches.”
The man from earlier came to stand behind him, lips still curved around a half-smile, and Yosano finally recognized him.
“You’re one of the recruits,” she said. “I saw you leave—you were one of the candidates to be Dazai’s copilot.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he replied mildly.
“You know Fyodor?” Fitzgerald didn’t sound surprised in the least as he said it. “I guess this makes things easier. I did push him into applying when word got out that Ozaki wanted to take Double Black out of whatever dusty corner she shoved it in the past four years.”
“What for?” Yosano asked, all mirth gone. “So you could blackmail her a little more?”
“Not at all. Call it a child’s dream if you must. Double Black was my favorite jaeger back in the day, I thought I’d help.”
Judging by the way the man named Fyodor looked, he didn’t share those motivations.
This wasn’t what Yosano was here for. Regardless of what Fitzgerald and his ilk had tried, in the end Dazai had picked someone unrelated to them to pilot with. She turned away from Fitzgerald to unclasp the opening of her bag and took out the letter Kouyou had written.
Fitzgerald’s expression flickered into surprise for a second before he accepted it. He broke the wax seal on it with deft fingers, as if he had only ever lived using such obsolete methods of communication. His eyes roamed over the content of the letter for a long time.
Yosano shifted on her feet. It was hard not to look through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the room and admire how far the ocean spread rather than focus on the present situation. She wished the beaches were still safe enough to swim; she would’ve tried it if they were, regardless of the cold winter and the taint of kaiju blood.
“Tell me,” Fitzgerald said once he was done reading. She looked back at him, and he lifted the letter in her direction. “What does Ozaki Kouyou intend to do with a kaiju’s live secondary brain once she gets her hands on it?”
“That’s none of your business,” Yosano replied.
“I’m guessing it has to do with saving the world. Which would arguably make it everyone’s business.”
It made her smile, dry and mocking. “Like you said,” she drawled, “saving the world is a bad investment.”
He observed her for a moment. She stared back easily.
“Did you know,” he started, “that every part of a kaiju’s body sells?”
She didn’t know whether to answer him or not, but the decision seemed to be of no importance to him. He rose from the chair in one leap of his skinny body, crowding into her space just enough to reach the handles of her bag and lift it off the table. Yosano didn’t protest, though she watched him like a hawk, and he spared a second to smirk at her. He fidgeted with something under the edge of the table. The pan of wood where she had put down the bag parted in the middle.
The hidden compartment he had just opened was full of boxes, tubes, and drawers. Unlike the gory kaiju bits he had placed over the table and which she now realized were probably for show, these parts had been meticulously sorted and cleaned, wrapped and labeled and readied for selling.
He lifted a tiny silk pouch out of a drawer and handed it to her. When she pulled on the satin string holding it closed and looked inside, it was full of dark grey powder.
“Crushed kaiju bone,” Fitzgerald said. “Thought to bring good health and—” he smirked, “—to enhance sexual prowess. You are holding about ten thousand dollars’ worth of it in the palm of your hand, Miss Yosano.”
If he thought he could impress her with that, he would be sorely disappointed. Yosano had more experience with men making uncomfortable innuendos around her than she knew what to do with. She hadn’t grown up with money, either, even before another world started attacking hers. She had no greed for luxury.
She closed the pouch and gave it back to him. “Fascinating,” she said dryly. “I’ll stick to viagra, if you don’t mind.”
Fitzgerald took the time to place the pouch back and lock the drawer. He lifted a transparent box full of very recognizable liquid this time. “Kaiju blood,” he said uselessly. And then, pointing to various boxes: “Claws, meat, liver—everything a kaiju leaves behind sells.”
“What’s your point, Fitzgerald?”
“My point,” he replied, closing the compartment, “is that I have been selling and buying kaiju parts for as long as kaiju have been in our world—but this is the first time anyone wants to buy a live brain out of me.”
He turned to look at her again, and he wasn’t smiling anymore.
“There’s nothing to be done with a kaiju brain,” he said in a low, growling voice. “No magical fertilizing properties like with their blood. No superstitious health benefits. It doesn’t even taste good. But you don’t want a dead brain, do you? Even though it’s near-impossible to find one live, let alone keep it that way once it’s out of the body—so tell me, Yosano Akiko. Why does Ozaki Kouyou want one?”
Yosano didn’t answer.
Fitzgerald creeped closer, uncomfortably so, until he was breathing down onto her face. He smelled like fresh mint. No hint of anything as human as sweat. This, of all things, made unease crawl up her back.
“You’re a doctor,” he said. “A surgeon. You aren’t the kind of woman who would be tricked by what I advertise—you know damn well that kaiju bone powder doesn’t do a thing for the human body. Which compels me to believe that whatever you want this brain for is far, far more dangerous than ingesting alien body parts to spice up your sex life.”
“Even if you’re right,” she said from the very tip of her lips, “what makes you think I’ll tell you?”
“Because so far you haven’t given me a single reason to let you have a brain at all.” He stepped away; she breathed in as deeply and as discreetly as she could. “I consider my debt to the jaeger program paid in full. And no matter how much I admire the pilots who protect us and offer me my livelihood, I’m not sure I quite like that Ozaki felt desperate enough to try and buy kaiju parts from me.”
Fyodor was staring at her, his beady eyes set deep in their sockets, the skin under them bruised by sickness or insomnia. Somehow, watching him was more unsettling than watching Fitzgerald and knowing that he potentially held humanity’s fate in his hands.
Sorry, Kouyou, Yosano thought, building up her resolve.
She dearly hoped that at least the truth would work.
“We need a live kaiju brain so we can conduct a drift with it and secure the conditions of our plan of attack,” she said. Fitzgerald’s eyes lit with either interest or disgust, she wasn’t sure, but she kept going anyway. “The kaiju function as a hive. Their minds are linked. We’re planning on destroying the breach in the near future, and we need to make sure we can get into the breach for that.”
Silence reigned for a moment after she was done speaking.
Fitzgerald said, “You want to drift with it?” with disbelief on his voice, at the same time as Fyodor declared, “You complete fools.”
Then the walls of the building started shaking with the sound of a very recognizable alarm.
Yosano froze in place, heart stopping dead and then rising up her throat. “No,” she breathed. “No, that’s impossible, it’s only been three days since the last attack—”
A woman ran into the meeting room, slamming the wide doors open in her wake. “Kaiju off the coast,” she announced between breaths. “Sir, there’s two of them. They’re heading for the port.”
The ground seemed to dissolve under Yosano’s feet. She had to catch herself with the table not to fall.
“Bring all the material in, get teams suited up for harvesting,” Fitzgerald said without missing a beat. “I’ll join you underground shortly.”
The woman nodded and left.
“You’ve already done it, haven’t you?” Fyodor murmured, his purple eyes burning into Yosano’s. “You idiots have already drifted with one.”
“What do you mean?” Fitzgerald asked.
“A hive,” he replied. “You said their minds are all connected. A drift goes both ways, doctor.”
Understanding snapped through her like a rubber band.
Fitzgerald was humming now. Uncaring. “Well, Miss Yosano,” he declared. “I don’t have a live kaiju brain on me, but if we’re lucky, you might get one by the end of the day.” The corners of his eyes dimpled. “If you stay alive long enough, that is.”
Rage and fear burned at her throat. “You can’t just throw me out—”
“I can and I am,” he interrupted coldly. “You’ve just brought more danger to humanity with your little experiments than we have ever faced before. Congratulations. I’m not risking my business for the sake of protecting some foolish scientists from their just retribution.”
He stepped closer. She wanted to pull a scalpel out of her bag and stab him with it.
“You can hide in a public kaiju shelter if you want,” he said in her ear. “Though I have to warn you—the last time Fyodor tried one, he came out of it more hurt than if he had stood in the kaiju’s path.”
Fyodor tugged back his sleeve nonchalantly. The skin of his arm was marred with scars.
“Good luck, sensei,” Fitzgerald said, walking toward the door. “Come find me once your jaegers are done taking down those monsters, and I’ll get you your kaiju brain. I just hope you’ll have enough pilots left to carry out your plan after that.”
“As your friend,” Oda said, “I think I should tell you that you’re being ridiculous.”
“I second that opinion,” Ango added tersely.
Dazai spread his body further onto the bed, watched the ceiling, and ignored them.
Ango and Oda’s quarters in the base were not far from the kitchen, which suited him well enough. He could wait until the morning rush was done with and then fetch his own food without meeting anyone he knew. If he ever felt like eating.
His stomach was cramped, but the thought of feeding it left him nauseated. It always happened whenever he had a really bad night.
“It’s not like I’m doing anything,” he said. “I didn’t know it’d be your day off. Sorry.”
“I’m always glad to spend my time off with you.”
“Don’t encourage him, Odasaku-san.”
Dazai’s lips lifted into a smile in spite of how little joy he felt.
He hadn’t been able to sleep at all after leaving Chuuya’s side. Every time he closed his eyes brought back the sound of him shouting in the lab and then the sight of him on his knees, unable to move from the pain. Each wander of his mind whispered with Chuuya’s voice, You need to let it go. Dazai had spent five hours awake with his thoughts before leaving his room to crash at Odasaku’s. He hadn’t expected Ango to be there as well, though he should have.
“How come you two get to share rooms anyway?” he asked. “They don’t even make pilots do that now.”
“They allow couples to do it,” Oda answered plainly, making Ango choke a little on his own breath—Dazai glanced at him, satisfied to find him crimson-faced.
“Thought so,” he grinned. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Oda said. He didn’t even look up from his tablet.
Ango stared at Dazai with something akin to wariness, or maybe sheer terror. “I, er, I didn’t know if you…”
“You thought I’d mind?” Dazai rose to a sitting position and crossed his legs above the blanket. “Why?” he questioned. “I always knew Odasaku was sweet on you. Took him long enough to make a move.”
“You’re one to talk,” Oda said under his breath.
Ango looked between the two of them in the silence that followed, face still flushed, breathing deeply to gain back his countenance.
“Well,” Dazai said, keeping his smile in place. “You could’ve told me sooner.”
“I would have if you had called.”
“Speaking of which, didn’t you say you wanted to call your kids?”
“Not doing that with you around. They’ll just ignore me to talk to you.”
“I can’t help that I’m the cool one,” Dazai said around his laughter. “I do miss them.”
He hadn’t had the occasion to talk to Oda’s children in more than two years. The only time he had seen Oda after Double Black fell was when he had gone to San Francisco to start Atsushi and Akutagawa’s training. Oda had been stationed there for a few weeks, building Tiger Claw from the remains of an old mark-two.
They could never choose where they would be needed, pilot or not. Oda worked on jaeger construction. Ango had been in the program as an instructor before Dazai was forced into it and Oda chose to join him. They could never spend more than a few weeks at a time together, either three of them, because personnel was constantly being moved from base to base depending on the world’s needs. All of them being concentrated in Yokohama was a sweet sort of irony. Here to see the world end, but finally allowed to share quarters.
It was also jarring. Even with the entire world’s strength gathered in one place, the dock was less crowded than when Dazai had trained.
“Dazai,” Oda said. Ango had disappeared into the bathroom to try and fix his bed hair. “You really are being an idiot.”
“Can’t a guy brood in peace?” Dazai replied lightly.
“Not if you won’t tell me what you’re brooding about.”
Dazai couldn’t tell him. He could barely revisit Chuuya’s words at all to try and untangle what he had meant by Let it go.
“Chuuya fell pretty badly yesterday,” he said instead.
Oda’s head lifted, his eyes turning to Dazai. “Is he okay?”
“Sure. You know him—he walked it off like it was nothing, even after puking his guts out.” Dazai’s legs unfolded, feet peeking over the edge of the mattress. “He’s probably still walking around right now while in horrible pain.”
“If you want to convince him to rest you’re talking to the wrong person.”
“What’s with this, Odasaku,” Dazai said lowly. He picked at a loose thread in the stitches of the bedspread with his fingers.
“What’s with what?” Oda replied.
“You being pushy.”
Oda took his time to answer. He turned off the tablet and rose up from his chair to walk toward the kitchenette. There was still hot coffee in the pot, and he poured all of it inside his now-empty mug before turning around again.
“I don’t know, Dazai,” he said. He was leaning against the counter, mug halfway to his lips. “The world is ending. It’s a little sad to see you like this and to remember how happy you were a few years ago.”
“I’m always happy.”
“No,” Oda replied bluntly. “You weren’t happy when we met. You were happier, at one point, then you were miserable again when you got arrested.”
He tastefully didn’t mention the reason why Dazai had been arrested. Oda drew a line at murder that Dazai felt no need to, considering the circumstances; and though he knew that his friend was grateful that the kids had come out unharmed, he also knew that he would never be forgiven for taking that man’s life.
Dazai had made his peace with it. He didn’t need Oda’s forgiveness, only his friendship.
“But then you really were happy as a pilot,” Oda continued. “For years. And I think you’re denying yourself this happiness now because you’re scared.”
“I didn’t know you were this good at psychoanalysis,” Dazai replied lightly. “You should consider a change in career.”
Oda sighed for a long second. “The world is ending,” he repeated, and all he looked at the prospect—all he seemed, looking at Dazai—was accepting. “If you don’t let yourself have what you want now, then it’ll be too late.”
Dazai couldn’t have what he wanted, though.
He could never again have the comfort and warmth of Chuuya’s mind around and in his, fitting alongside his as if it were always meant to. He would never be able to express what he felt in return in a way that matched this one.
“Dazai,” Oda said, expression soft with understanding. “Chuuya is alive. He’s right here, with you, every day. You two are the only ones stopping yourselves from understanding it.”
Someone knocked on the door.
The awareness of it made its way slowly through Dazai’s mind, having to sidestep Oda’s words and their implications, having to jump over the anger and fear they elicited. It was Ango who moved from the bathroom and toward the door to open it, and Dazai was too coiled in his own thoughts to understand that the other man had been eavesdropping.
The sight of Kunikida standing in the hallway was sobering.
“What are you doing here?” he heard himself ask.
Kunikida didn’t hesitate to reply, looking at him with serious eyes. “I came to talk to you.”
No, Dazai thought.
“Perfect,” Ango said before he could voice it. “Dazai-kun, you’ve been interrupting my rest day for long enough—get out.”
“Odasaku,” Dazai whined out of habit.
Oda buried his face into his mug. “M’not picking sides.”
Dazai jumped off of the bed, whispered, “Traitor,” in Oda’s direction, and let Ango slam the door shut behind him once he was out of the room.
It was just Kunikida and him in the empty corridor.
Dazai looked at him from the corner of his eyes, taking in the neat fit of his clothes and the almost-aching cleanliness of him. He knew Kunikida struggled with it—many of the more recent memories he had let run through him while they drifted had featured his anxiety about it, his brutal hygiene and tidiness. It was probably the reason he had almost been rejected from the training program, as Chuuya had mentioned. Obsessive-compulsive disorder was a dangerous thing to bring to a neural handshake.
A few years ago, he wouldn’t have made it at all. There were many more loopholes now that recruits were hard to find.
“Come on,” he said, interrupting Kunikida’s own staring. “Follow me.”
He turned toward the mouth of the hallway, and Kunikida followed him after a second of hesitation. He fell in next to him and matched the pace of their steps together.
“How did you find me?” Dazai asked.
“Chuuya-san told me where you’d be,” Kunikida replied.
It was nothing more than Dazai expected, and the temptation to smile was real despite the tension they shared. Chuuya had once had a whole list of places Dazai liked to hide in when he was needed. He’d pinned it to the outside of their bedroom door, at one point, just so people would stop asking him.
Kunikida seemed to hesitate before speaking again. “That man with Sakaguchi… he’s your friend, right.”
“Yes. Odasaku and I go a while back. We’re both from Yokohama, actually.”
Oda and Ango’s quarters were on the third floor. The hallway they were in opened to a wide balcony, leading to stairs and elevators and more storage room than they needed now. The dock had been designed after Hong Kong’s well-known shatterdome, where Dazai had spent most of his active pilot life. He was more surprised than not that the world’s efforts had been directed to Yokohama rather than Hong Kong—Yokohama had been used mostly to train pilots, never to house them for long. The breach was only slightly closer to here than it was to the shatterdome.
Dazai walked to the very end of the balcony before sitting down over the ledge and letting his legs fall through the wide space under the bannister. He glanced up at Kunikida, who decided to follow him and sit as well, though not before spreading his jacket over the dusty floor. The distance between them was comfortable enough.
“You wanted to talk,” he prompted.
Kunikida threw him a thoughtful look. “I didn’t think you’d accept.”
“Ah, well, I’ve had enough of getting scolded for one day, I think. Besides, I can guess what this is about.”
“Yesterday—” Kunikida paused, mouth twisting unhappily. When he spoke again, though, his voice sounded surer. “You showed me that memory on purpose.”
“I did,” Dazai admitted easily. “You were about to try and make Double Black jump in the middle of the hangar—I needed to shock you out of your flashback, and considering how morally upstanding you are, I thought murder might do the trick.”
He didn’t need to look to know that Kunikida had shivered. At his tone if not his words. Dazai never spoke about this part of his life much, but it wasn’t one he was afraid to face. It wasn’t one he felt remorse about either.
“I am sorry, though,” he continued more gently. “Ideally you would’ve stumbled on the memory from a distance, not lived it like that. That’s one trauma I could’ve spared you.”
“Why did you kill him?” Kunikida asked lowly.
Dazai turned his head toward him. Kunikida’s eyes were a little bloodshot from lack of sleep, though he seemed to have grabbed a few hours of it at least. More than just accusing or disgusted, he looked confused.
Dazai smiled hollowly. “He wasn’t a good man,” he said. Kunikida’s face darkened with outrage, so he went on, “Back then Odasaku was working at a shelter for orphans, namely orphans whose parents had died in kaiju attacks. He’s adopted a few of them since then.”
“Sakura,” Kunikida muttered. “And Shinji. And…”
“Yu, Kosuke, Katsumi,” Dazai finished. That was surprising. “You remember a lot.”
“Not all of it.” Not enough, was left unsaid.
It was a feeling Dazai could share, though not about Kunikida.
“A lot of people took advantage of small businesses and charities in light of the attacks,” he recalled. “Lots of yakuza terrorizing shop owners. Fraud, threats of arson, money laundering… the government turned a blind eye to it because most efforts were, understandably, focused on what to do to stop giant monsters from killing us all.” He chuckled. “That’s never stopped criminals from being criminals, though. There was a proper mafia group on the rise. The man I killed was their boss.”
“You were a criminal too,” Kunikida said.
Dazai nodded. “I’d been mostly homeless since I was sixteen. Ran away from home, made some contacts. I ran scams on people—it was fun while it lasted. I settled down a bit when I met Odasaku, because he didn’t like what I was doing, and I didn’t want to disappoint the first friend I’d ever made. I started helping around the shelter. Never got paid for it, but they let me crash and eat there. I guess they thought I must be a kaiju orphan too.”
Kunikida didn’t ask about Dazai’s family. It wasn’t because he already knew, because those memories were long buried and forgotten; Chuuya had only seen them the very first time they drifted together and never again brought them up. There was little chance of Kunikida ever glimpsing them. The courtesy didn’t go unappreciated—Dazai let himself smile, however briefly.
“This man, Mori Ougai…” The name felt like acid on his tongue regardless of the years. “He tried to do the same thing at the shelter,” Dazai said. “Forcing favors in exchange for protection by his mafia group. Except he didn’t want money in exchange—he wanted the kids.”
Dazai didn’t look at Kunikida in the time it took for him to understand. He let the other’s revolted intake of air wash over him, let his own nausea settle after flaring, until he didn’t feel like he was at risk of spitting bile over the side of the balcony. Only then did he pick up where he had stopped.
“I was just a petty delinquent, a little screwed in the head, but I don’t tolerate pedophiles. And Odasaku was getting desperate, trying to keep Mori away despite the incidents he caused to put pressure on him.” He breathed in. “So I killed him. Lured him to the orphanage, knocked him across the head with a stone and choked him to death while he was down.”
The glance he risked in Kunikida’s direction revealed him pale-faced and torn.
“So there you have it,” Dazai concluded. “Objectively the worst thing I’ve ever done. But I don’t regret it.”
Kunikida’s face tensed, eyes flickering between Dazai’s face and his hands. “I can’t condone murder,” he said eventually. He almost sounded sorry about it.
“That’s fine, Kunikida-kun,” Dazai replied. “I don’t expect anyone to, especially not someone like you. You remind me of Odasaku a lot.”
Kunikida flushed abruptly, making Dazai smile. They both knew how big a praise that was, coming from him.
“I—” Kunikida paused, lips thin, fingers clenching in the fabric of his jacket. He swallowed before continuing. “I also wanted to apologize. For showing you…”
Kouda Aya flashed through Dazai’s mind, the memory of her death far overwhelming that of her life. She had died suffering, cradled in the arms of her teacher as he ran through the rubble of the city to try and reach help, despite the broken ribs he himself suffered.
Dazai had expected guilt to be Kunikida’s motivator the moment he figured out that the man had enrolled because he failed to save someone. He hadn’t been prepared to see someone Kunikida considered a prized pupil die so cruelly as the man tried to save her. Guilt and self-loathing had been paramount in Kunikida’s mind in the minutes they had been linked, lurking under the wonder caused by the man’s first neural handshake like disease under his skin.
“You don’t need to apologize,” Dazai replied.
He didn’t try to convince Kunikida that what he had seen hardly seemed like his fault. Kunikida would not accept it, and Dazai felt no inclination to try and heal someone else’s wounds when his still ached so strikingly.
“We need to be able to work together,” Kunikida said in the silence. He glanced at Dazai with apology in his eyes, and Dazai knew without asking what he was about to add. “Chuuya-san told me about what happened to him.”
“And I showed it to you,” Dazai replied evenly.
Kunikide breathed in. “Are you two…”
Dazai shifted on his backside. He brought one of his legs up, foot catching over the edge and toes hanging above the three-story drop, and put his chin above his knee.
“When you drift, you feel like there’s nothing to talk about,” he said. He could feel every heartbeat that his thigh pressed into his chest as if trying to contain them. Sun filtered in through the high windows of the hangar; Double Black’s medals caught it and sent it back over the roof and walls, fracturing light into color. “Nothing at all. And we never took into account that you wouldn’t just be drifting with me—you’d be drifting with Chuuya’s memories too.”
“I didn’t see anything from him,” Kunikida replied, confused.
“That’s because I hid it from you.”
Kunikida stared at him.
“Sorry,” Dazai said half-heartedly. “You can ask me about my past if you want, but this is one thing I’m not willing to share.”
“Is that why the drift was so shaky?” Kunikida’s voice was a growl, now, like it had been in the training hall. Steeped with righteous anger.
“Yes,” Dazai answered, looking back at him. “It’s why we both started slipping.”
He barely had time to push himself to his feet before Kunikida was in his face, gripping him by the collar, breathing down on him.
“You said we’d be giving up on privacy and secrets,” he hissed. “You told me it was impossible to hide anything from each other.”
“I lied,” Dazai said, smiling.
Kunikida shook him once, and Dazai felt light-headed from it and from his empty stomach. “You’re risking everything for the sake of—” he paused, shocked and furious. “Dazai,” he said. “It’s not worth it. I don’t like it, I don’t want to invade his privacy like that, but there’s bigger things to think about.”
There wasn’t. Not for Dazai. Judging by the way Kunikida’s eyes widened, grip slackening onto Dazai’s collar, he was starting to understand it.
“Look,” Kunikida said. He stopped holding him up after another second. “I know you’re in—”
“Don’t say it,” Dazai cut in, all of his blood turned to ice.
Kunikida glared at him in disbelief. He opened his mouth again.
What he tried to say drowned in the noise of the kaiju alarm that started ringing then; Dazai felt his back straighten with it, felt his mind slip very far away from the words he knew were burning in Kunikida’s mind and to year-old reflexes, to always-present memories. Hunger and fatigue vanished in the face of danger.
“Pilots to the comm room,” Kouyou’s voice boomed over the dock-wide speakers. “Two category four kaiju were just spotted fifty kilometers away from the coast.”