Build Upon The Ruins
Ozaki already stood between the glass walls of the comm room when Kunikida made it through the door, Dazai in tow. The fierce look she wore was mirrored by Chuuya’s expression by her side. Neither of them had looked so serious in his presence before.
She didn’t waste time on trivial greetings.
“This is the first double event we’ve faced,” she said as soon as the doors slid shut, facing the row of people Kunikida now recognized as pilots. He made his way to the left of the line, Dazai to his right. “One of these beasts is heavier than we’ve ever seen. Tiger Claw, Heartblade, Scarlet Wind, get suited up. You’re leaving now.”
Six of the ten of them walked toward the dressing room. One was a boy who couldn’t be older than twenty; he was looking at Dazai as he passed by them, and after Dazai nodded to him, his eyes rested on Kunikida for the briefest second in fleeting curiosity. Kunikida watched him until the shine of his strikingly white hair disappeared behind the doors.
“Double Black and Death Vine, you’re on standby,” Ozaki said then, eyes turned toward Dazai.
She wasn’t the only one looking at him. Chuuya’s eyes hadn’t left him, though he gave Kunikida a nod when he noticed him staring.
Then they waited.
Kunikida hadn’t appreciated the preparations it took to get a jaeger moving when it was himself stepping into the cockpit. With three of them deployed at once—a record, as far as he knew—not a head in the room was turned away from work. Chuuya left Ozaki’s side to stand at the front of the room, where the largest window opened to the width of the hangar. Kunikida felt Dazai fidget by his side as if he wanted to join him.
The thought grated at him, in light of the conversation they’d just had.
One after the other the pilots came out, first Tiger Claw, then Heartblade, once two of their respective pilots stopped hugging. The Akutagawa siblings, Kunikida thought. Neither of them showed any fear, either stepping into the cockpits via the bridges unfolding from the room or watching as it happened. Heartblade’s second pilot was a girl with blond hair; she stood by Akutagawa Gin dressed in deep blue and didn’t once touch her, but already their breaths matched in preparation for the drift.
Kunikida watched through a haze as Heartblade’s head dropped to attach to its body and Scarlet Wind took its place. This was the jaeger that had taken down the kaiju who killed Aya. Its pilots were strangers to him, a man and woman whose matching wedding rings he barely saw before their hands disappeared through thick pilot gloves.
He felt a weird sort of grateful toward them both.
“We’re lifting you now,” Chuuya said into the mic. From the screens displayed throughout the room Kunikida saw the six pilots nod. “We’ll engage the drift as you’re going—it’s probably going to be a bit bumpy until you touch down, but we don’t have time to calibrate it beforehand.” He paused before adding: “Good luck.”
The walls of the dock trembled from the jaeger’s departure. Thick steel cables pulled them up through the open roof of the hangar, one after the other, until the alcoves where they had rested were left bare, the soil crawling with unplugged lines and stained with fluid. People immediately converged to tidy everything up. From this far up they looked no bigger than insects.
“Initiating Heartblade’s neural handshake,” Tanizaki muttered.
Akutagawa and her copilot shuddered visibly. So did the two in Scarlet Wind once Tanizaki warned them.
Inside the fastest jaeger in the world, Tiger Claw’s pair barely even blinked—the boy with white hair was one of them. The line on Tanizaki’s screen that showed their drift was almost ruler-perfect, the time to stabilization less than two seconds.
“Even better than last time,” Kunikida heard Dazai say. “They really are going to break our record.”
His words were only addressed to one person; when Chuuya didn’t acknowledge them at all, his face fell into a quiet smile.
“A sad sight,” a man commented. He was sitting on top of a desk by Chuuya’s side and staring at the helicopters’ visual feedback with what seemed like plain disinterest. “Our two mark-four and our only mark-five… Are you sure you don’t want to send Death Vine instead, Ozaki?”
“Death Vine is our only remaining mark-two. It has too much firepower to risk on a simple attack,” Ozaki replied.
The man hummed. “I wouldn’t call this a simple attack, though, don’t you think? It’s a shame to sacrifice Tiger Claw on it. We’ll never be able to recreate such speed once it’s destroyed.”
“Shut up, Edogawa,” Chuuya snapped. “We’re not sacrificing anything.”
“Whatever you say, Nakahara,” Edogawa replied politely. “I defer to your expertise on wasting resources.” He gave Dazai and Kunikida a meaningful glance.
Chuuya’s hand tightened over the grip of his crutch. Next to Kunikida, Dazai exhaled softly through his nose.
Kunikida took his mind off the tension in the air to focus on the video feedback. The three jaegers were low above the sea now, dragging long shadows over the water. There was still no sign of the kaiju no matter where the cameras pointed; only the ocean, quiet, and behind it the ravaged line of the city.
They had been fifty kilometers away. With the time it took to get pilots ready, contact should be established any second. Kunikida couldn’t read the radar signals that Alcott was hunching over, but the tension he saw in her back made cold apprehension glide down his neck like sweat.
“Boss,” Dazai said beside him. When Kunikida glanced at him, he was looking around the room with a frown. “Where’s Yosano?”
This at least seemed to catch Chuuya’s attention. He turned back to look at them, blinking, searching the room as well. “How the hell is she not here?” he mumbled.
“Yosano-sensei is busy with something else right now,” Ozaki said. “On my orders.”
“What’s more important than this?”
“Nakahara!” Alcott called loudly.
Chuuya limped toward her immediately, staring down at the screen she showed him. “Fuck,” he said, before pressing a button on his earpiece and saying, “They’re underwater. Scarlet Wind and Heartblade, drop now.”
The videos were without sound, but Kunikida felt the jaegers’ impact against the sea through his body regardless.
Higuchi felt her station shake with the landing. The harnesses fit into the lulling weightlessness that separated the surface from the bottom of the sea, trying to keep the balance standing. She followed Gin’s instinct to step forward with their right foot for stability; it was a few seconds before they stopped feeling like Heartblade was about to fall sideways.
A quick glance at the screens told them that Scarlet Wind had landed with no trouble.
“Not bad for geezers,” she couldn’t help but say, thumb pressed deliberately over the communication line.
“Is this really the time,” Hawthorne replied. He sounded like he was making his most infamous offended but prudish face, and she heard Mitchell snicker in the background in spite of the situation.
“Don’t take it too personally—I’ll take you over Double Black any day.”
“What did Dazai-san ever do to you, Higuchi?” Nakajima said tiredly. Akutagawa, as always, was silent.
“You brats need to stop treating this like a party—”
“Ichiyou,” Gin said, at the same time as Higuchi saw the shadow of the first kaiju move from the corner of their eyes.
They fell silent, focusing on the familiarity of the drift and of the jaeger’s awareness. Higuchi unfolded the blade embedded in Heartblade’s left arm at the same time as Gin took care of the right, and the circular saws started rotating, nice and easy.
Come on, she felt Gin think, elated, in-between the sharp sting of worry she felt for her brother still hovering above them. Come on, come on, come on—
The kaiju leaped out of the water.
They folded at the knees to brace for the impact, elbow curled around their middle. The beast grabbed them by the shoulders and made them swerve backwards, against the resistance of their left feet. Gin slashed their right arm so that the blade embedded itself into its flesh and drew first blood.
Yes, they both thought.
The scream the kaiju let out reverberated through the hull; it jumped back and around, trying to hit some imaginary blind spot, but cameras were everywhere. There was no blind spot when you stood as tall as a building. Higuchi felt the water around her middle as though she were standing alone in it, as though her skin were metal.
Scarlet Wind caught the beast at their rear with both hands, and its powerful thrusters dragged it away from them so that they could focus on catching sight of the second one.
“Where are you, baby,” Higuchi crooned, eyes flying between the readings she received. Gin was amused through it all, her own eyes roaming the deep waters.
The one that had attacked them was the big one. It stood tall and thick on its powerful hind legs, wrestling against Scarlet Wind a hundred meters away, like some sort of a giant monkey. Unhindered, Gin’s memories shifted to the first King Kong movie which she had seen as a little girl—Higuchi’s lips stretched into a smile.
“Like King Kong had sex with Godzilla,” she said, tightening her grip on the left arm’s calibration device.
“Hey, you were the one thinking it.”
“There it is,” Gin said flatly.
The shadow of the second kaiju emerged, fast, heading for their feet. Too fast to be followed.
Higuchi’s smile died when it made contact and dragged them down—she felt Heartblade fall backwards into the water with swears bursting from her lips. The weightlessness was back, and with it reduced movement. This was why she preferred being deployed on land, regardless of the risk to civilians.
“Saw!” she yelled sharply.
“On it,” Gin muttered.
Gin lifted the right blade while Higuchi put her arm down to push against the floor of the ocean. For a second they thought it had worked: the kaiju’s leather-skin split open against the edge of the saw as it swam off, spilling blue blood, giving away its position despite the murkiness that their heavy movements caused.
Not that it helped much. The kaiju moved at a speed she had never encountered. Its scrawny limbs looked ridiculous next to the mountain that had emerged alongside it from the breach, and which Hawthorne and Mitchell were still battling with their bare hands, but they made sense when seen in action.
“It’s too fast,” she gasped into the main line. “Nakahara, we need Tiger Claw.”
“They’re going to drop on top of it, just hang on for a bit.”
She didn’t have time to answer before Gin was moving the body up and then back, just in time to avoid the flash of sunlit claws that cut down the air where they had stood.
They couldn’t wait for Akutagawa and Nakajima’s drop. She felt Gin realize it the same as she did, and they raised their arms in tandem, legs flexing against the footholds and through the weight of the jaeger, before leaping forward.
They didn’t manage to grab the kaiju by the neck as intended; it slithered out of their grasp, its scales more slippery than any kaiju that they had ever fought. Higuchi caught it around the hips with the full of her left arm and pushed with Gin’s right until the saw brushed against where its stomach should be.
The kaiju opened its mouth and screamed.
Higuchi felt her mouth open as well, but she didn’t hear her own voice through the awful ringing that shook her, making her very bones vibrate. It was physical pain through sound, a kind she had never felt in her life, and it was all she could do not to hurl and vomit inside her own helmet from the violence of it. She fought against her bonds to escape it, chest heaving, sharp pain running through her limbs. She was almost out of air when it finally stopped.
Heartblade’s arms dropped like a puppet’s cut from their strings. The cockpit wavered in front of her burning eyes, making the nausea in her throat threaten to spill over, and it wasn’t until she breathed in with all her might and felt no one breathe with her that she realized the neural handshake was gone.
Gin was heaving too. Higuchi looked at her through her tears, saw her look back with confusion and horror.
Nothing moved except from their separate bodies.
“Nakahara?” she called weakly.
Silence answered her. Not even the emergency lights were on. She pressed on every button she could reach with shaking fingers, and not one of them gave a sign of working, every screen unlit, all static gone.
They were cut off completely.
“What the hell was that,” Chuuya breathed.
His fingers hadn’t left the side of his ear for a good two minutes. Kunikida watched with increasing tension as each of his calls to the deployed pilots failed to come back. Every screen in the room that was linked to the fight scene had blackened and turned silent.
“Are they all—” Alcott’s voice shivered into a stop.
It was the same question everyone was too afraid to ask.
Chuuya’s hand dropped to his side, fist closed. “No,” he said. “No, that was too fast—something’s blocking contact with us. We can’t power them anymore.”
The man named Edogawa was silent now, his face dark. Kunikida could hear the hitch in Dazai’s breathing next to him—could remember now, with stark quality, that the two boys piloting Tiger Claw were his students.
“Then—what are we supposed to do?” Tanizaki asked. Panic was emptying his face of blood, making his eyes look sickly pale in the light. “Did that kaiju do it? Was that what that scream was?”
“They’re adapting,” Ozaki said lowly. “That was a weapon made for us—they’re aiming to completely disable us.”
“Okay, but what do we do about it?” Chuuya asked loudly. “Do we send new choppers to retrieve them and power them back? It’ll take at least two hours to reroute Tiger Claw’s auxiliary, we don’t have that kind of time.”
Kunikida thought about the time they would lose doing it, thought of the destruction that two category four kaiju could bring in the hours it would take to put three jaegers back in condition, and felt light-headed with it.
“We need to send Death Vine now,” Edogawa said.
“It won’t work,” Sakaguchi Ango replied from his corner of the room. “Death Vine is digital. It’ll stop working too if that kaiju does it again.”
“All the jaegers are digital, Sakaguchi. What are you suggesting, that we sit down and do nothing?”
“Not all of them,” Dazai and Chuuya said in the same breath.
The room fell silent.
“Double Black is analog,” Dazai said. His voice was calm—his eyes fixed toward Chuuya by the window, meeting Chuuya’s own silent stare. “A mark-three. Nuclear.”
He turned toward Ozaki within the next second.
“Send us in,” he told her. “You already know you don’t have a choice.”
She looked at him with the same implacable strength that Chuuya had used on Kunikida just this morning. “We need Double Black for the mission. We can’t risk you on this.”
“Ane-san,” Dazai said softly.
Ozaki’s eyes shivered at the corners, and suddenly the grip she had over her own wrist looked more defensive than professionally relaxed.
“Send us in,” he repeated. “And focus on rerouting Tiger Claw while we hold them off.”
“Can you?” she asked under her breath. “Can you really? This’ll be one jaeger against two kaiju, Dazai.”
“Of course,” Dazai replied. His lips lifted, his gaze brushing Kunikida’s and then fleeting beyond him, toward the one person he was really talking to. “It won’t be the first time I beat impossible odds.”
Ozaki looked at Kunikida, then, with a question in her eyes; and Kunikida found that he had only ever had one answer to give her.
Piloting was the reason he was here at all.
“Dazai,” he said a few minutes later, back still aching from the snap of the pilot suit closing shut.
“I know,” Dazai replied.
Their eyes met.
The room was abuzz once more. They waited for the bridge to Double Black’s head to unfold next to Tanizaki’s team, who were working at reestablishing communication with Tiger Claw and preparing to send another helicopter. Kunikida searched Dazai’s face for any hint of deceit, any clue that he would sabotage himself again. He found only resignation.
“Drift with me, this time,” he said anyway. “For real.”
Yosano hadn’t run so much in her life before.
She ignored even the thought of taking shelter in any of the public refuges that Yokohama’s remaining citizens were hurrying toward. She forced her way through the streets the opposite way that people were going, toward the beach—toward the jaeger dock—but she knew that she wouldn’t get there in time. Kouyou would have locked the place down the moment the kaiju were spotted.
She watched, panting, as their forces were deployed. Three jaegers lifted in the distance, visible now that the city’s skyline was but a dream; they shone in the sun the way marble tombstones did, and she could not help but think of the men and women piloting them, the boys and girls she had fixed over and over again through the years just so they could keep going back into the fray.
She wouldn’t be there to welcome them home this time.
The thought threatened to freeze her over the way Kajii’s convulsing body and Nakahara’s pain had the day before. Yosano stopped in her tracks, pain burning at her side, sucking in a mouthful of biting cold air. Her hand shook around the strap of her bag.
In the end she forced herself to move again. She couldn’t run now, so she pushed open the first door she found unlocked and sat behind the counter of an empty convenience store. Breaking open the glass window of a drink dispenser was child’s play—she took out palm-warm water and drank half of a bottle in one go. Her heart rate abated somewhat.
They had been so, so stupid.
Even after Kajii’s words about the kaiju functioning with a hive mentality, it hadn’t struck any of them that they would’ve felt the drift too. That they would retaliate. Yosano wanted to rage at herself, at the world, for the risk they had taken. Kajii knew of the plan, and now the kaiju knew it too. They had officially destroyed their only chance for the sake of one dangerous, idiotic experiment. And now the kaiju would be looking for the people they would have seen through Kajii’s own mind—for him, for Kouyou, for Yosano.
“Fuck,” she breathed out. It didn’t help much.
Everyone was in the dock except for her, and the kaiju would know to head there, she knew, with anguish growing inside her chest. The best thing she could do was remain hidden. She crawled further into the corner of the shop, keeping her eyes out for the glass door and what little sky and street she could see out of it.
It seemed like such a short time before she felt the ground shake in a terrifyingly recognizable way.
Yosano shut down all frightful thoughts of the pilots’ deaths before they could take shape. She watched the sunlit street from above the line of the counter, body hidden under it, trying to focus on what little she could remember of Nakahara’s own breathing exercises. She had never wished he were in her presence more.
Her entire body shook when the deep shadow of the beast fell anyway. She crushed a hand over her mouth to choke back her whimpers, closing her eyes as the first of four heavy, monstrous feet landed before the door.
The kaiju had moved slowly down the street. She heard windows break on the floors above hers now that it was here, as if it were busy peering through each of them. She didn’t know if it could smell her, if it could hear her; Kajii would’ve known—he would’ve been able to hide them better than she could hope to, with her whole self struck still with terror—but Kajii wasn’t there. She was alone.
The ceiling crumbled over the opposite half of the store, and she jumped, banging her knee against the foot of the counter.
The kaiju fell into a crouch outside the door almost instantly. It was all she could do to flatten herself onto the ground before it could glimpse her.
Her lungs stilled. She heard the sound of the door breaking apart, felt the air move as the beast breathed into the shop. Hot, sweet-smelling air, heavy with alien chemicals. Yosano watched with wide eyes as the kaiju’s foot appeared on the other side of the counter, patting around almost awkwardly. Shelves fell along its way. An old fire alarm started ringing, from its button being crushed by the kaiju’s flesh.
The kaiju punched around in answer, growling out of its wide mouth; when it made as if to draw back its arm and leave, it took the counter on its way, sending Yosano crashing into the wall at her back. She felt bone snap in her left arm when she landed—she screamed.
The kaiju roared.
Yosano crawled to her feet, not letting herself look back at it shoved its head into the building, making the entire structure tremble around her. She kept her eyes fixed onto the back exit and opened it shoulder-first despite the pain she felt at the movement; at the back had once been an alley, but whatever building had walled the other side was a ruin. She jumped over the rubble with the sound of the building crashing down in her ringing ears, with the shaking of the kaiju’s footsteps under the sole of her shoes.
The shaking stopped for a single, weightless second; then the kaiju landed in front of her from its jump, and the debris she was running over rolled over and took her down.
Yosano landed on her back. This time the pain in her arm wasn’t enough to make her scream.
She looked into the electric blue eyes of the gigantic creature with the breath knocked out of her. It crawled closer, saliva dripping from its mouth, raising its arm to strike, and in that second all Yosano could think of was the footage she had seen only once of what had happened to Nakahara as he was swatted down like a fly.
All she could see was Kouyou’s stricken face when the line had come alive four years ago, after a minute of terrifying silence, to the sound of Dazai’s sobs.
She and the kaiju turned their heads at the same time when the rushing noise of flying helicopters reached them. Yosano looked at the silhouette of Double Black rising out from the open roof of the dock, unable to tear her eyes away from it even as the kaiju screamed again and then began running for the shore, leaving her alone in the dust and rubble.
Her terror vanished.
“He’s not going to answer,” Akutagawa said.
“Can’t hurt to try,” Atsushi replied between clenched teeth.
Akutagawa was right, of course. It didn’t matter how many times he tried to call the base, Tiger Claw’s power was completely down.
Atsushi’s mind still felt raw from the sudden drop out of the drift. He kept trying to reach Akutagawa and feeling solid nothingness instead; judging by the slightly confused look Akutagawa wore, strapped to his own station, he was facing a similar struggle.
At least they hadn’t been connected to Tiger Claw when it landed into the water. The jaeger was standing, by some miracle, even without their directive. It didn’t do much to appease him considering the occasional moans that the second kaiju let out from just outside the skull of the machine.
It had been running circles around them for at least fifteen minutes now. Not attacking, just watching.
“Damn it,” Atsushi said, letting his hand drop from the control panel. “I hate this so much.”
“I’m not especially enthusiastic about the situation either.”
Atsushi couldn’t help but twist his mouth into a smile.
“What do you think they’re doing?” he asked, staring up at the top of the jaeger’s head.
“Probably sending Double Black.”
Atsushi turned his head sideways to look at Akutagawa. “Really?”
“Why do you look so surprised?” Akutagawa muttered, looking back. “Whatever that thing did obviously jams all communication and power. Of course they’re going to send the only analog jaeger they have. And a temporary nuclear core for us.”
“That’s so cool! Does it mean we’ll be fighting with Dazai-san? I hope they reroute us before he finishes them off.”
Akutagawa just grunted.
Still, as much as Atsushi looked forward to seeing Double Black fight in person, the thought of sitting here waiting while a kaiju toyed with them was uncomfortable. A pilot’s station wasn’t meant to relax in either; there was nowhere to sit, and letting himself hang from the harnesses only pulled uncomfortably at his shoulders and back. The only thing he could do was stand still and bear the weight of the suit for as long as he could.
He brought his hands up once more, grabbing his helmet and pulling it off his head. His hair was already damp with sweat despite how little effort he had actually put into piloting.
“What are you doing?” Akutagawa said immediately.
“I can’t breathe with this thing on,” Atsushi replied. “It’s fine, they’ll tell us when we’re ready anyway.”
He started unhooking himself from the station under Akutagawa’s angry, then reluctant stare. Atsushi didn’t comment when he heard the other unstrap himself as well—neither of them enjoyed being still for long, especially tied up—and looked pointedly away to hide his smile.
“That’s better,” he sighed, kicking off the footholds. He slid a little against the floor of the cockpit as he stepped away; Tiger Claw had landed upright, but its head was bowed as if in surrender.
“What are you planning?” Akutagawa murmured, stepping off his own station.
Atsushi walked to the nearest wall with heavy, awkward steps. He banged against the skull of the jaeger as loudly as he could.
Outside, the kaiju roared.
“What are you doing,” Akutagawa hissed, hurrying to join him and tug him away from the wall. He misjudged the strength of the metal floor’s incline, though, and slid the last few steps, body impacting loudly against the wall. The kaiju screamed again, this time from much closer.
“Perfect,” Atsushi said.
“I told you to call me Atsushi.”
Akutagawa looked at him with deep offense. “Atsushi,” he spat, as if the name itself was repulsive to him. It had less to do with dislike than with the confusing mix of attraction and annoyance Akutagawa felt toward him, Atsushi knew, so he only smiled encouragingly in answer. “Tell me what you’re doing.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” He twisted the manual opening of the cabinet where they kept the emergency flare guns. “Just because Tiger Claw’s down doesn’t mean we’re powerless.”
“It does, actually, mean we’re powerless.”
Akutagawa took the gun Atsushi handed him, though, and his eyes were already wandering toward the trap door that led to the top of the jaeger’s skull.
Atsushi hit the wall again. The kaiju was very close, now; he could feel the water rock against Tiger Claw’s body, making it waver in place, as the beast swam around them.
“We have him where we want,” he said.
“There is no ‘we’. I had no part in this.”
“Keep telling yourself that, Akutagawa.”
Atsushi walked to the opposite end of the cockpit with heavy steps. The ladder leading to the top slid down its holding spot easily once he tugged at it, and he climbed it loudly and painfully, the suit’s weight slowing him down.
Akutagawa was climbing too when he reached the trap door. He opened it with glove-clumsy fingers, barely recalling all the drills that Dazai had made them go through years ago—he let out a satisfied breath when the thing finally unlocked.
The sun was bright outside, enough so that Atsushi had to blink to chase off tears. It was not the kind of day one would imagine an attack of this size happening; once, he had thought kaiju only crawled out of rain and night, as if the elements chose to frame their destruction accordingly. It would be a long time until he first moved a jaeger with his body and understood that humanity’s end happened no matter the weather.
Atsushi crawled atop the jaeger, pulled Akutagawa up after him, and finally they stood as tall as man could be. Looking down into the eyes of the monster.
The kaiju was surprisingly short of stature. Its limbs were scrawny, the skin of its back folded like an old man’s. Electricity ran along its spine and gathered in its mouth, and it was the same blue of its blood, which dripped out of its side from where Heartblade had cut.
It stood on its hind legs to peer up at them.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Atsushi asked.
“I long for the day you stop using that line,” Akutagawa replied, lifting the gun.
He shot the kaiju in the eye with terrifying accuracy.
The red trail of the flare was of no importance now. Atsushi sidestepped the stray sparks as the kaiju shrieked in pain, held himself balanced with the side of the protruding ladder, and shot the kaiju’s other eye as soon as it opened.
The beast fell backward; its body displaced tall waves as it hit, disappearing underwater. Its cries finally drowned out.
Atsushi glanced at Akutagawa with his mouth stretched into a wide grin. Akutagawa stared back with the same humor in his eyes. Right now, with his back against the sun and his hair pushed back from sweat and wind, he had never looked better.
The rushing sound of an approaching helicopter reached them. They turned their back to the sea to watch Double Black advance, with its fourteen gleaming medals, with the mind and body of their mentor in it—and Atsushi thought, across the tendrils of the drift that always clung between him and Akutagawa: We’re going to win this.
“Atta boys,” Dazai said, eyeing the pea-sized silhouettes of Tiger Claw’s pilots. He raised Double Black’s right arm in their direction, and saw Atsushi punch the air and cheer in answer.
Kunikida was looking down at the deep green waters, keeping watch for the kaiju. Dazai left him to it, focusing on the achingly familiar feeling of the drift. The urge to coil himself around Chuuya’s memories tore through him with every breath he took; he wanted to crawl deep into the space that Chuuya had inhabited and which now gaped open like a wound, as he had the first time he and Kunikida drifted.
Let it go, he repeated to himself.
Kunikida must be feeling everything he did, now, with how deeply they connected. It had only taken four seconds for them to stabilize this time. He never said anything, though, only let his compassion wash through them both and then away so they could focus on the task at hand.
All three of the shut down jaegers still stood, thankfully. None of the other pilots seemed to have tried anything except for Tiger Claw. The knowledge made Dazai smile.
“That was reckless,” Kunikida commented. “Did you teach them that?”
“Not that specifically, but I always did try to tell them to think outside the box.”
Kunikida shifted through quick flashes of Atsushi and Akutagawa’s training, following the trail of them back to Dazai’s own pilot days and then Chuuya’s.
They were falling down when Dazai felt Kunikida touch the first of Chuuya’s memories. He closed his eyes to it, letting their bodies and the jaeger’s distract him from it by flexing at the knee as they hit the water and then the ocean floor. He saw Kouyou and himself, much younger than he ever remembered being; felt Kunikida let go of it with no more than a brush.
“We need to plug them back in,” Kunikida said.
There was still no sign of the fallen kaiju. The second one was heading toward them from the beach, still too far away to try anything.
They lifted the heavy charge they carried in their left hand toward Tiger Claw; Atsushi and Akutagawa seemed to understand, because they climbed back down into the cockpit. A minute later the back of their jaeger opened.
Kunikida pushed the charge into one of the slots there and then stepped away; it wasn’t ten seconds before static rang through their ears and Atsushi’s voice exclaimed, “Dazai-san!”
“This will only last you a few minutes,” Dazai warned. “Tanizaki’s going to try to power you back up in the meantime, but you can’t move yet.”
“Can we shoot?” Akutagawa asked.
He huffed. “Then that’s all we need.”
“Do you want the big scary one or the one who can outscream Kajii?” Atsushi asked.
“I wasn’t aware we were obligated to share,” Dazai replied, grinning. “Catch up or we’ll take both.”
It was all so familiar. Dazai let the flow of the fight carry him, let his body fit back inside the jaeger’s and vice-versa; by now the drift ran no risk of wavering, and Kunikida must feel it too, because even he was letting Dazai’s confidence settle his nerves.
The kaiju that his pupils had shot chose this moment to surface again, two hundred meters away from them, swimming forward.
“All right, Kunikida-kun,” Dazai said. “Let’s go hunting.”
They started charging Double Black’s left-hand cannon; Dazai unfolded the right-arm blade, and it was almost as though Chuuya were doing it instead.
“It’s fast,” Chuuya said then, almost in a whisper. “Fastest we’ve ever seen.”
Dazai let his voice wash over him as he lifted his elbow. “Then we’ll be precise,” he replied.
The kaiju leaped at them.
It screamed as it did, current running over its skin, in the same way it had when disabling the others; but Double Black didn’t waver once in the face of it even with the headache that shot through Dazai and Kunikida both. They grabbed the thing by the crook of its gnarly arm, and Kunikida shot it, twice, dead in the heart.
This time the thing’s howl was one of pain rather than vicious rage; it squirmed in their hold, blue blood gushing through the wide hole that Kunikida had opened, eyes leaking the same from Atsushi and Akutagawa’s previous attack.
“Once more,” Dazai said.
Kunikida was charging the cannon again before he was finished speaking.
They didn’t manage to finish it off, though. They saw Tiger Claw’s chest pivot above its legs to aim backwards—its missiles fired close enough that Dazai felt Double Black swerve from the moving air alone, and one of them embedded itself into the hip of the second kaiju, right behind them.
“We need to take care of the one that can jam us first,” Kunikida said.
Dazai eyed the large body of the second kaiju thoughtfully.
“Dazai. We can’t run the risk of letting it disable Tiger Claw again.”
“We have some time,” Dazai replied. “Right now Tiger Claw’s working on nuclear for a few more minutes. This one looks like an easier target.”
He felt Kunikida’s outrage at his arrogance in his own throat; it was so reminiscent of Chuuya that he almost laughed with it.
Kunikida did let him turn them around and walk toward the biggest of the two kaiju. Tiger Claw was shooting again, the second of its three available waves of missiles, and this time one tore through the beast’s flank as if it were only paper. They started running towards it as it screamed and fell. Kunikida turned to the left to avoid being grabbed; Dazai lifted his arm and plunged the blade at its end deeply into the kaiju’s belly.
They would have finished it off if the fast one hadn’t grabbed them around the middle right then, its long tail coiling around Dazai’s right arm and then squeezing.
He shouted from the pain of it, feeling his skin cave in like the metal armor.
“I can’t dislodge him,” Kunikida breathed. “Shit—”
The bigger kaiju was squirming again at their feet, its ugly head peeking out of the water, beady eyes watching them greedily.
Dazai thought, Cooling agent.
Kunikida’s breath stuttered. His mind ran through several reasons why it would be a bad idea. In the end he simply swore and opened the reservoir at Double Black’s right elbow.
The kaiju tried to scamper off the moment the cold hit it, but Dazai grabbed the end of its tail despite the crushing pain running through his shoulder and forced it still until it took effect. When it did, when the flesh under his palm felt solid as a rock, Kunikida punched at the base of the tail. It broke apart around them.
Dazai breathed in harshly, the pressure finally gone.
“Let Tiger Claw finish off the big one, the other’s swimming toward the city—”
“Got it,” Dazai replied, moving his legs again.
“Akutagawa,” Chuuya continued. “How many more shots do you have?”
“Two if you count the core. Nakajima can use the claws as soon as you allow us to move.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Just aim for its damn heart.”
“Understood,” Akutagawa answered darkly.
Dazai and Kunikida heard the kaiju’s roars die for good after the third round of shots.
The one they were pursuing was badly wounded, but no less fast for it. The skin of its back had extended in a way too reminiscent of wings for Dazai to feel settled; he pushed himself harder, felt Kunikida push back, until they were running at a matching speed.
“Chuuya,” Dazai panted. “This thing looks like it can fly.”
There was a pause. “There’s never been a flying kaiju before,” Chuuya replied. “Their bodies are too heavy for that.“
“There’s never been one who could disable jaegers either,” Kunikida grunted. “And this one is lithe—it really looks like it might be able to fly.”
Only a hundred meters now. The kaiju had reached the beach, was turning in direction of the black dock at the very end of it, and Dazai felt his heartbeat shake through him painfully.
“We won’t let it reach them,” Kunikida breathed, in and out of the drift. “Dazai.”
Dazai bent at the knee, feeling Kunikida bend as well, and they jumped across the rest of the distance.
The kaiju growled and struggled the second they landed on it, its slippery hide almost impossible to hold. Dazai slashed the blade in his right arm across its back, opening blue welts along its spine but not stopping it.
The beast turned around all at once. Kunikida was in the middle of charging the cannon again and didn’t stop it in time—the kaiju’s claws dug into the palm of Double Black’s hand and ripped the weapon off entirely.
Its hind legs wrapped around them at the waist, making them fall back. It rolled its shoulders until the full length of its wings extended by its side, much larger than it was.
Then it lifted them off the ground.
“The cannon’s gone,” Dazai said, teeth clenched. “It’s holding down my arm too—”
The ground was already so far away. They both watched with bated breath as the kaiju took them higher and higher, until they flew above mountaintops, until the air in the cockpit thinned to the point of unbreathable and the emergency oxygen supplies came to life.
“You can’t take a drop from this distance,” Chuuya breathed through the now-staticky line. “You need to find a way to bring it down.”
It was easier said than done. Dazai didn’t reply, mind running through half-thought ideas twenty a second, body soon to be weightless from lack of gravity.
It was Kunikida who found the way out.
Dazai saw it unfold through the other’s head only to be dismissed for the risk it would pose; he grabbed onto it immediately.
“No,” Kunikida said.
“Have some faith in me,” Dazai replied.
They looked at each other for the first time since the drift had started.
Kunikida’s face was red through the helmet, gleaming with sweat. The fatigue was starting to get at the both of them—Dazai hadn’t eaten anything, had barely slept at all, and Kunikida wasn’t as used as he was to the deceptive lightness of the station, to the false equivalency of the jaeger’s strength and their own.
“It’s our only shot,” he added. “Have some faith in you, Kunikida-kun.”
Kunikida’s acceptance tasted like fear. Acrid, biting, at the back of their throat.
Dazai freed his mind of it as he extended the sword again. He closed his eyes, letting Kunikida see for the both of them, letting memories of Chuuya’s own mastery of Double Black’s blade flood him until he couldn’t help but smile from it. It was Chuuya who kept the arm extended as Kunikida made them rotate the way Tiger Claw had earlier; Chuuya who withstood the pain of their almost-dislocated shoulder like he withstood the pain of his leg, the pain of his loss.
Now, they thought.
Double Black’s feet hit the back of the kaiju; the second its grip slackened on Dazai’s arm and pain rushed up his shoulder, he slashed sideways with the sword, opening the belly of the beast, making its guts fall out.
It dropped them immediately. The instant that followed was spent still and suspended. Then Double Black started rushing toward Earth, and Dazai felt his heart rise up his throat and make him gasp.
They hadn’t been prepared for the heat of it. The fact that the dead kaiju fell alongside them was poor consolation when sweat coated them and alarms started ringing about overheating—Kunikida opened the second and last of their cooling reservoirs once his wits had returned to him, but it was barely enough to keep the jaeger from catching on fire.
“Dazai,” Chuuya said.
“It’s okay,” Dazai replied quickly, heart beating off-tempo. “It’s okay, Chuuya, we won’t die.”
The sound of Chuuya’s pained breaths was almost soothing.
“You’ll have to—”
Chuuya exhaled deeply. “We’ll tell you when,” he said, voice slightly less shaky. “Don’t miss.”
“We won’t,” Kunikida replied.
The mountains came back into sight. Wind screamed around them, and the corpse of the kaiju took some distance from them, lighter and more flexible to its whims. Dazai followed the instructions that Alcott was sending them, moving Double Black in tiny little thrusts so it would land on the beach and nowhere else. Kunikida was doing the same on his side.
“Now!” Chuuya said.
They opened the core of the machine and turned on all the thrusters.
It wasn’t enough to stop them, only to slow them down; Dazai’s head hit into the back of the station from the backlash, and during the seconds it took from then and until Double Black crashed into the sand, everything swam in his sight. His mind was so far encroached into the drift that he barely felt the physical impact of landing at all.
The silence that followed felt like eternity. Kunikida was holding his breath, shocked by his own continued living. It was a familiar feeling, as much as the shadow of crushing relief that now loomed over them. It broke through when they heard the kaiju land fifty meters off of them and saw it stay down, intestines spread like ribbons around it.
“Are you conscious?” Chuuya asked.
Dazai breathed out, forcing Kunikida to do so as well.
Then he laughed.
It racked through every one of his aching muscles, pulsing in his throat, flushing his face. He felt Kunikida look at him in confusion and didn’t take the time to look back—he took off his helmet, cutting the drift short, letting himself fall back into his own body.
“Yeah,” he said breathlessly. “Be a dear and get me something to eat when we’re back, Chuuya.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Chuuya replied, but his smile was audible.
They’re all alive. No major injury.
Yosano didn’t take her eyes off of Kouyou’s message as she walked toward the dock.
Double Black’s landing had shaken the ground again. Some of the buildings damaged by the kaiju’s foray into the city fell over when it did, and she had to be careful to stay away from walls altogether lest they crumble onto her; but she walked anyway, broken arm hanging limp by her side, step after step through the ruins.
Pain was a long place away from her thoughts. The sun shone through curtains of dust around her, bright and cold. A winter’s sun. She made her way to the beach, following the hesitant line of people who were gathering there.
A group of men and women in full-body protective suits ran past her, at one point. Fitzgerald’s goons hurrying to gather what could be saved of the kaiju’s remains.
She tightened her grip on her bag and walked faster.
Fitzgerald himself was standing by the corpse when she arrived. Double Black was in the process of being lifted, its right hand flayed and its torso caved in from the impact but otherwise undamaged. She was here for it, though; she knew that Dazai and Kunikida were fine, that all of them were fine. She knew she’d be able to make her way back to the dock with ease, knew without needing to ask that Kouyou would be with her when she went to sleep that night.
Yosano dragged herself toward Fitzgerald. A few people tried to stop her, relenting when she glared at them. After that her path stayed clear.
Fitzgerald only noticed her when she was right by him.
“Miss Yosano,” he said, stepping back. His eyes roamed over her, and she wondered for a fleeting second at the sight she must make—one-armed, dirty, skirt torn, bleeding out of numerous cuts. “What a pleasant surpr—”
She punched him across the jaw.
Fitzgerald fell with a cry, and Yosano didn’t grant a single glance to the group of furious people who tried to approach her with blades or guns in hand—she shook open her bag, took out the old bonesaw she carried around precisely for this, and put her right foot on Fitzgerald’s squirming head.
He stilled. His people stopped in their tracks.
“My,” she drawled, satisfaction sweet on her tongue. “That looks like a nasty bruise, Fitzgerald. Mind if I take a look?”
He swallowed, neck shaking with it. “There’s really no need—”
She pushed down with her foot. He sputtered as sand dribbled into his mouth and moaned pathetically.
Yosano saw some movement from the corner of her eyes. When she turned her head to look, she found Fyodor standing a few feet away, staring at them with bored eyes.
“Not going to stop me?” she asked him.
He looked at her for a second before shrugging, lips curved into a small smile.
“Do what you want, sensei,” he said. “I’m only here to observe.”
“Suit yourself,” she mumbled.
The blade of the saw, blunt as it was, came to rest near Fitzgerald’s ear.
“Okay,” he breathed in panic—her satisfaction only grew as he coughed again, lips cracking open in the cold soil. “I’m—sorry. For throwing you out.”
“Were you hoping I’d die?” she asked sweetly. “You really have a low opinion of me.”
“I wasn’t thinking—” she stepped harder, and he cried out. “Fine! I’ll get you your brain, just get off me so I can tell my teams!”
She kicked him in the belly for good measure before she let him go.
He picked himself up with shaking arms, spitting at the ground to get rid of the sand in his mouth. There was a trail of saliva on his chin when he stood up, and his once-neat suit was now filthy, stained blue by the blood-soaked beach.
“Good lord,” he breathed. “Do you treat your husband so roughly? Or are all men driven away by your violence at first sight?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Yosano replied, resting the saw on her shoulder. “Ask my fiancée the next time you see her. Which might be in a while—keeping the jaeger program afloat is one busy, busy job.”
Fitzgerald’s face was almost translucent in the cold winter light.
Cheers welcomed them back, loud and bright in the halo of the comm room.
Dazai let his chest fill with them until the air he breathed felt warm. He took in the smiles tearing each face apart, the sweat on Atsushi and Akutagawa’s brows. Kunikida was stolen from his side the moment he stepped in beside him, his surprise shining through the familiar awareness that followed successful drifts.
For a while Dazai himself was cornered by Tanizaki Naomi. In Yosano’s absence she was the highest-ranking doctor of the dock, and she asked question after question, until he finally managed to reassure her that no, nothing felt so much as sprained, he was just a little sore.
He expected Kouyou to step in in her stead when she was done, but not the words that left her mouth.
“I’m proud of you,” she said.
Dazai stared at her for a long second, not knowing how to reply.
Kouyou and him had been close, once. From the day she had lost Fukuzawa to the day Dazai had stepped down as a pilot, she had been something like a friend. Drifting with Chuuya blurred the lines of what was his and what wasn’t until he didn’t care to know at all—Kouyou had been his sister, for several years, because she was Chuuya’s.
He swallowed. “I only did what you asked me to.”
“No,” she replied, and her eyes were understanding. “You did much more than that.”
Some small, lonely part of him swelled at the praise, at the way she looked at him, warm and affectionate. The part of him that had renounced family for as long as he cared to remember. He nodded at her almost hesitantly.
“Where’s Chuuya?” he asked then, unwilling to prolong the moment.
Kouyou chuckled. “I think he’s gone to get you food, actually.”
“Works every time,” Dazai huffed. The fact that his stomach growled right then only served to make her laugh.
None of the pilots had gone to get changed yet. Euphoria bled through the air of the room, made them stick around in their suits in spite of the discomfort of it. Dazai watched with a smile as Atsushi told Tanizaki about what they had done before Tiger Claw was powered back.
“It was stupid,” Akutagawa cut in, leaning heavily against Tanizaki’s desk. “The next time you do that will be your death, Nakajima, either because the kaiju will stomp on you in its rage or because I will.”
“Akutagawa,” Atsushi replied in a low, serious voice. “You talk too much.”
He hooked his fingers into the collar of Akutagawa’s suit and pulled him down into a kiss.
The noise stilled around them for a second; then Tanizaki squeaked, and Kouyou said, “Oh my,” and satisfied laughter spilled out of Higuchi’s lips.
Dazai watched it from a distance, literally and otherwise. The room fogged around the sight of his students’ embrace, and relief left him to make room for an ache he didn’t know how to name. He blinked slowly, steadily, as they separated.
Then he couldn’t look at all as the high came down, as they opened their eyes again.
“I’m going to get changed,” he said. Kouyou glanced at him with surprise in her eyes, but he didn’t stay long enough for her to question him.
The weight of his suit had become suffocating. The cheer of the room only enhanced it—the sight of Atsushi and Akutagawa looking at each other with understanding too deep for words, too graceful for mocking, burned in his lungs alongside the warm air.
He found the dressing room perfectly empty. Dazai knew he should wait for someone to come dress him down, lest he risk damaging the suit, but he had been in and out of it enough times by now to know how it was done. He freed the spine of it with a wince, gasping in a breath when the plates around his chest loosened. His shoulder was still tender from the kaiju’s hold. He peeled the sleeve off of it carefully; there were red marks all over it, ones that would bruise a deep purple within a few hours.
It was nothing he needed medical attention for. He let the top half of the suit fall onto one of the benches with a sigh, closing his eyes, breathing deeply.
His eyelids lifted only just enough to allow light.
Chuuya stood at the entrance of the room, one hand over his crutch, the other holding a plastic bag. He met Dazai’s eyes for a silent second before limping further into the room. The bag came to rest next to the suit.
“Got you food,” he said uselessly. His eyes were on Dazai’s bruised shoulder as he straightened up. “Ane-san said you ran off like an idiot.”
“She’s never been right about me a single time in her life,” Dazai replied.
Chuuya’s mouth twitched. “I’d be inclined to believe that if I didn’t know you haven’t been right about her a single time either.”
“Too many words, Chuuya. Spare me, I just killed a kaiju and a half.”
“I’m not going to baby you,” Chuuya said, rolling his eyes. “This was hardly the toughest fight you’ve been in.”
“I just dropped from—you know what, never mind. You tyrant.”
It made laughter shake through Chuuya’s frame, brought forth by exhaustion and relief more than actual joy. His face looked almost pained from it. His hair had slipped out of his tie in numerous places now, especially around his ear, from messing with his earpiece. He had to bring his hand up to push it out of his face as his mirth left, softening into a smile.
Every second of it traveled through Dazai’s chest, familiar and forgotten at once. He hadn’t realized how parched he was for the sound of Chuuya’s laughter until then.
“Heard about Nakajima and Akutagawa,” Chuuya said, stepping closer, leaning back against one of the tall lockers. It seemed to relieve some of his tension; the lines of his face eased, and his grip on the crutch turned lighter. “Too bad I missed it,” he added, staring somewhere at the floor. “I’m pretty sure Higuchi is collecting about a full salary’s worth in betting money right now.”
“I don’t bet on stuff like this,” Dazai replied. “It’s rather in bad taste.”
Chuuya snorted. “Right. I’m going to pretend I don’t know you had every bet about us rigged and monitored.”
Dazai’s chest ached, ribs to lungs to heart, and Chuuya’s smile faded. The silence around them thickened.
Chuuya shifted back onto his feet, crutch secure against his forearm. He seemed to hesitate before taking another step toward Dazai—and Dazai didn’t move, not even to breathe; when Chuuya’s fingers ghosted his shoulder, barely enough to touch at all, he felt it through his every bone.
“Is that gonna be fine on its own?” Chuuya asked lowly. His hand still hovered close.
Dazai blinked. “Yes,” he managed to reply. “It’s just bruises.”
Something fragile went over Chuuya’s face. He looked up as he spoke again, and Dazai could not have looked away from him if he were about to be stabbed or shot, if he were about to drop down from the edges of the atmosphere again. Gravity had no pull at all next to that of Chuuya’s eyes.
“You did good today. I probably shouldn’t have—” Chuuya bit his lip. Released it. “I feel like I’ve been a little hard on you,” he said.
“Why?” Dazai replied. The sound of it came hazily to his ears.
Chuuya smiled hollowly. “I pushed this whole piloting again thing on you. I didn’t realize what it would mean until…”
He trailed off, looking perturbed.
Dazai took a step forward, and he didn’t know at all what he wanted to say or do—if he wanted to say anything at all—but Chuuya’s next inhale hitched, and he looked up once more, and none of that seemed to matter.
His fingers dragged against Dazai’s shoulder, dipped under the strap of his tank top. He didn’t close the hold with his thumb or touch anything more than this.
His hand was shaking.
“I wish,” he let out, and the way he looked then was the same as the very first time.
Face warm, chest tight with heart-deep yearning. The scar at his temple shone in the muted light. Dazai let his eyes trail down the shape of it until they reached his lips, and Chuuya leaned in with the same breathless shiver that he could feel between his shoulders, between his ribs. It was the sort of longing made solid by the years; the sort of aching hope whose heart beat like a living thing.
“Chuuya,” he whispered.
Chuuya’s fingers spasmed against his skin. If he had breathed, then, Dazai would have felt it on his own mouth. He would have sucked it in, cradled it into his own lungs. He stood hanging by the sheer promise of it, by the fingers hooked into his clothes and the bare brush of Chuuya’s lips against his.
Their eyes snapped back up at the sound of incoming voices. Dazai witnessed the breadth of true despair in Chuuya’s in that single second, before shaking resolve took over and he let his hand fall once more, taking all the warmth of Dazai’s body with it.
He stepped away. Dazai let him.
“You should get some rest,” Chuuya said roughly. “Kouyou will want all of you ready for the breach by the next attack.”
Dazai didn’t have words left in him to answer. He nodded, though Chuuya wasn’t looking at him anymore. Chuuya seemed to feel it all the same. His shoulders shook once; the grip he had over his crutch drew the blood out of his knuckles.
He left as the other pilots came in, limping between them all, muttering thanks when they fell sideways to let him through.
All the air in the room was left stale in his wake. Dazai took it in anyway. Lungful after lungful of nothing worth living for.