Build Upon The Ruins
Dazai woke up with a smile, to the sound of the kaiju alarm ringing loudly through their room and to the unmistakable groan Chuuya reserved for nightly attacks. He was up in a second, rolling sideways out of the bed and then stretching his body up until his spine cracked pleasantly.
“Your bones are disgusting,” Chuuya said into his pillow.
“We can’t all be made of chewing gum,” Dazai replied. He grabbed the top bed’s metal railing with one hand and shook it until Chuuya glared at him with one sleep-crusted eye, hair in disarray, face still pressed onto the sheets. “Come on,” he said more gently. “They’re waiting for us upstairs.”
“Fuck,” Chuuya mumbled, but he was sitting up. He stared at the ladder near his feet for a second before deciding to forget it entirely and simply jump to the floor.
Dazai didn’t mind, despite the stupidity of it. Far from it. Chuuya’s sleeping attire consisted of underwear and a T-shirt, and even as he grabbed water from the fridge it was Chuuya’s legs he was staring at, unbothered.
Chuuya rolled his eyes when he noticed—he snatched the bottle from Dazai’s hands before he was finished and drained the last half of it, crumpled the plastic one-handed, and threw it into the trash. Then he walked into the bathroom with a glance that told Dazai just how aware he was of Dazai’s trail of thoughts.
Dazai was still grinning as he shoved himself into the first pair of clean pants he found and the previous day’s shirt. The screen above his desk was alight, running with numbers and orders and the automated summoning message. He read them while waiting, letting his mind adjust to wakefulness and his body to the Alaskan base’s cold.
“What’re we up against?” Chuuya asked, emerging from the bathroom. His hair was tied down on his neck, the sleeves of his own shirt pulled up at the elbows.
Dazai let his eyes drag along Chuuya’s arms as he answered, “Category three, about twenty kilometers off the coast. Almost as big as Hammerhead.”
“Only twenty kilometers?” Chuuya leaned closer to the screen, squinting. “How come they didn’t notice it sooner?”
“Because the mother of all storms is raging outside,” Dazai replied, and then he could only laugh as Chuuya groaned, “Fucking great.”
The base was thrumming with activity. People ran around with fear in their hearts, as they always would for as long as kaiju would attack; but Dazai knew that his and Chuuya’s presence for the last six months since they had flown in from Hong Kong had eased some of that. They were greeted with hopeful smiles, with grateful shouts. It made Chuuya stand taller as he walked. No longer hunched over like someone in hiding.
He couldn’t help but mirror it—couldn’t help but feel excited even against the odds they would face. In a few minutes there would be nothing separating him from Chuuya at all.
It was with this thought in mind that he let himself be dressed for piloting. He watched Chuuya peel off the shirt he had just put on so they could slide the black sleeves of the suit up his arms, and his eyes lingered on the evidence of strength that the flowers never masked. The muscles and sharp bones outlined cleanly by his skin.
“See something you like?” Chuuya commented. He wasn’t looking at Dazai, but there was the hint of a smile at his mouth, the whisper of heat on his voice.
“I always do,” Dazai answered lowly.
The spine of the suit clasped into place at his back, painful, wakening.
“If you’re quite done,” Kouyou said, stepping into the changing room. They both turned to look at her. “The conditions outside are terrible—this is more of a hurricane than a storm, lads. You might be fighting blindly.”
“Oh, is that all?” Dazai said mockingly.
“No,” she replied, unsmiling. “We’ve managed to alert most of the ships we knew of, but reports say one of them is still out. You are not to compromise the mission to save them.”
“Cold,” Chuuya let out.
His eyes flashed toward Dazai; the same idea flashed through both their heads.
By then Dazai barely needed any help to suit up or strap himself to his station. He let the aides do it for him anyway, knowing protocol as much as they did. Warmth was pooling inside him despite the cold of the base with every second that brought him closer to the neural handshake; he was so aware of Chuuya at his right, so conscious of every breath Chuuya drew in, that it felt almost as if they were already drifting.
“You guys ready?”
Dazai saw Chuuya grin as he brought a finger to the controls to answer, “Sasaki. How went the hot date last night?”
“Terribly,” she replied, dry as stone. “Now shut up and let me drown my sorrow by making sure you two don’t make our readings implode again, Nakahara.”
“You do that.” He glanced at Dazai, mirth over his lips, handsome even through the unappealing yellow of the helmet’s visor. “We’re ready.”
“Initiating neural handshake.”
Dazai was out of himself almost before the drift could jostle him the right way; he was meeting Chuuya the moment it took on, mind spreading around and in his, and Chuuya fit himself as he always did—right where Dazai’s mind opened into the shape of him.
Dazai breathed in slowly, like he only ever breathed when Chuuya’s lungs moved with his. Air tasted different in the midst of drifting. Like it was actually meant to make life livable.
“All right,” he said, body languid with heat, heart beating heavily. He opened his eyes. “Does this big boy have a name?”
“Fawk,” Sasaki replied. “Three point eight tons. I think it has feathers. It’s been moving slowly so far.”
“Piece of cake. You guys start working on the medal while we take care of it.”
“Arrogant bastard,” Chuuya muttered, fingers busy onto the main control panels. “Did you forget the part about the hurricane?”
“I did, in fact,” Dazai replied truthfully. “I had more interesting things to think about.”
Dazai let Chuuya pick at the memories of the last few minutes, of himself as Dazai saw him: soft face and wild hair as he woke, hard muscles running under painted skin. The ever-bright wonder of his mind melded into Dazai’s, braided together like threads in a tapestry.
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Chuuya said, but his smile was soft on Dazai’s lips.
Double Black’s head dropped to reattach to its body now that its pilots were in place. They couldn’t be lifted out in this kind of weather; they walked out through the giant doors of the base and directly onto the beach, then into the water. Every step pushed forth by them and every breath shared between them.
It really was a hurricane. Wind slammed into them from all sides, not enough to still them but enough to make moving harder. Their thighs started aching only five minutes in, and still the kaiju was nowhere to be seen. The rain and clouds made it too hard to see anything from cameras alone; they relied on readings, linked their sights together so that information flew between them both as if they shared one brain only. There was no delay to it at all. It was as easy as thinking on one’s own.
“There’s our boat,” Dazai murmured.
It shone bright on the radars despite its small size. A fisherman’s boat. No more than ten people aboard, probably.
“What are they even doing here in this weather?” Chuuya asked.
“Capitalizing on the fact that no one else is brave enough to fish right now. Or stupid enough. They probably went out before the storm and got stuck on their way back.”
“Who the fuck braves a hurricane and a kaiju just for fish…”
They fell silent as something else showed on the readings—something as big as an island, moving like no island could.
Chuuya deployed the blade wordlessly, fingers tightening over the right hemisphere’s calibration device as it would a real knife. He was used to handling knives. His life was full to bursting of memories of stabbing and memories of being stabbed, his body littered with scars. It was the kind of violence Dazai had never experienced but felt familiar with all the same.
They walked slowly through the screaming wind, legs heavy with the weight of the jaeger. Fawk kept swimming toward them leisurely, not deviating once, heading straight for the tiny boat. Once they were close enough, Dazai leaned forward with the full of their backs; he wrapped Double Black’s left hand around the width of the boat and picked it up—smiling curtly when the cabin became visible and he saw the terrified faces of the men holed in it—and then the kaiju stood on its legs and roared.
Chuuya stabbed it instantly through the shoulder. In the precious few seconds it took for the beast to recover, Dazai let the boat fall back behind them and toward the beach. Hopefully they’d find a way to make land without drowning in the process.
“Dazai,” Chuuya said.
“I know,” he replied.
The cannon heated up in his palm as Chuuya breathed with both their lungs. This time, when the kaiju threw itself at them, Dazai shot it through the stomach.
“I can’t see shit,” Chuuya said between his teeth as the thing squirmed away through the water. His breathing was deep and easy despite the tension Dazai could feel up his spine. He made his own back relax, his own shoulders roll, and the jaeger’s with them; Chuuya sighed from it, gratitude settling warmly in his stomach.
“We’ll be fine,” Dazai said then. “Just keep an eye on the signals—it doesn’t matter if we can’t see.”
“I never know if you’re confident or just stupid.”
“Maybe I’m both,” Dazai replied, thinking of nothing but the drift, nothing but the thrum and beauty of Chuuya’s soul.
Chuuya huffed. “This isn’t really the—Dazai!”
Dazai was not a second too late; Fawk’s beak-like face rammed into his arm instead of his side, but the clean snap of bone above his elbow wasn’t reassuring so much as overwhelmingly, sharply painful, and Chuuya shouted from it just as he did.
“Fuck!” Chuuya roared, furious like he only ever was when wounded. “You bitch—”
He took control away from Dazai entirely as Dazai tried to regain his focus; stepped back and sideways, brandished the blade in their right arm too late—Fawk gripped them by the shoulders and buried its hind knees into their ribs.
Chuuya’s anger sang through Dazai, smoldering, aching. He struck Fawk with their right elbow so hard that Fawk’s leather-like skin split open from it. The kaiju howled into the night, loud enough to be heard above the sounds of the hurricane.
“Are you okay?” Chuuya asked breathlessly as soon as Fawk ran off.
Dazai sucked in a breath before answering. “Yeah, I—I think it’s just my arm.”
“Your arm and our ribs. Fucking hell.”
Every breath they drew in hurt. Every movement of their shoulders and backs as well.
“Is it dead?” Chuuya said lowly.
“I can’t tell. Not without visual confirmation.” Dazai forced himself to touch the screen in front of him, mind hazy with pain from his arm. Already, though, the confusion was wearing off. He was too familiar with this sort of injury to be too affected by it. “Looks like it’s still moving,” he muttered, eyeing the bright yellow shape on the radar.
“How? Fucker already looks like Swiss cheese.”
“Aliens, Chuuya,” Dazai replied, but the joke fell flat in light of how serious he now felt. “Well, it’ll probably come in from the left. You should keep the sword up.”
“If I do that and it comes from the back we’ll be sitting ducks,” Chuuya replied.
It wasn’t a light-hearted counter. They could only use one arm now. Chuuya had grown cold with tension, body stretched like a rubber band, Dazai’s efforts from earlier gone. He kept the blade-arm down.
“It’ll come at us from the left,” Dazai repeated. His eyes never left the wide screen of the visor, the one that showed only snow and tall waves. “It knows we’re weakened there.”
He felt Chuuya struggle for a second more, protest burning at his lips. He was too used to Dazai being right, though. Too used to Dazai’s words becoming prophecy.
Too used to trusting Dazai wholly, with every fiber of their shared being.
He raised the blade. Pointed it to their left in preparation. Dazai charged the cannon much the same, though he couldn’t raise his arm. In those seconds he still reveled in the anger Chuuya felt on his behalf, the genuine worry that he was more hurt than he let on, so unlike anything anyone had ever felt for a lowlife like him; he warmed himself to them, soul soaked with a bond that needed neither words nor touch. Heart flush with the certainty that he was where he was supposed to be.
Fawk came in from the right.
Dazai could do nothing at all. The loaded weapon in his palm pointed at blurry flying snow, at unstoppable waves. The knowledge of it settled into him, sped up by terror and understanding, and his mouth was open with it—with a warning, with a scream, with Chuuya’s own fright threaded through his whole self, right as the kaiju’s raised fore leg struck down from the sky and sliced clean through them both.
He barely felt the violence of the hurricane that shoved through the hole it had opened. Fawk’s claws broke into the skull, its palm opening to encompass the right half of the cockpit, and then it flattened it onto the floor, taking everything.
Dazai never felt himself unload the cannon into the beast’s heart. He never heard himself scream because he didn’t scream at all—he moved with his mouth open on nothing as he butchered it, and even the rage, even the anger of two lives couldn’t mask the fact that his heart had stopped dead.
Fawk died in utter silence. The waves carried its corpse out and dragged the foot it had plunged into the head of the jaeger with it.
Dazai saw Chuuya’s body stuck under the metal; the broken helmet whose glass had opened his temple and spilled blood over the floor; his hair flying red over his closed eyes.
“No,” he said.
In the empty drift, he discovered agony.
“No. No, no, no no no—”
“Dazai? We can’t see Nakahara, what is going on—”
Dazai never answered—he begged, out loud and not, horror crawling up his veins more strongly than the pain of piloting alone did. His back screamed and his knees bent and his nose spilled blood over his lips, and still the only word in him, mouth and mind alike, was No.
“Chuuya,” he sobbed.
The jaeger trembled around him. The wall Chuuya was stuck under slid because of it—Chuuya dragged down with it, trailing blood over metal. He didn’t even twitch.
“We aren’t getting his vitals.” Her voice shook, but he couldn’t care, could barely notice it at all. “Is he breathing?”
I don’t know.
“Dazai,” Yosano,“is he still inside? What can you tell me?”
“He’s—” Dazai’s heart bruised against his ribs, empty and cold for lack of Chuuya’s beats. His back and head burned from the load of the single drift. “He’s, he’s stuck under—I can’t—”
“Okay. Okay. Dazai, listen, we can’t fly to you in this weather.”
He knew that.
He knew it the way he knew how to breathe; fleetingly, automatically, emptily. But breathing was of no importance when he couldn’t break out of his restraints to run to Chuuya’s side and make sure he was still—
“You need to bring him to us,” Kouyou said into the line. “We’ll have everything ready.”
“I can’t,” he said numbly.
He could barely keep the jaeger standing. He felt barely alive.
“You can. Please,” and it was her turn to sob, to shatter in a way he hadn’t known she could. “Please bring him home.”
Dead or alive, she didn’t say. Bring him home.
Dazai spat bile into the inside of the helmet. He had no air left in him, none at all. His soul burned from being torn open and his chest was still as a dead body’s; he was watching Chuuya when he pushed through all of it to take the first step, and he sobbed again as it jostled him, as he saw Chuuya shake from the wind and the sea and the motion.
Please, he thought, with every agonizing step. With every breath of salted air. Please.
He walked twenty kilometers alone in the body of the jaeger, easing into every movement so that blood would stop spilling out of the wound in Chuuya’s head and being washed up by the sea. Chuuya’s face was pale. He didn’t move at all. Dazai kept searching the drift anyway for any sign of him; coldness answered back every time, crueler than physical pain.
“You’re almost there,” Yosano said in his ears, voice thin. “We have teams ready on the beach. Whatever you do, don’t move him, okay? Don’t try to pull him out. Wait for the—”
Dazai was struggling out of the harnesses the moment Double Black’s feet came out of the water. He ripped himself from his station with Chuuya’s name bursting from his lips, tearing the spine of the suit off painfully, shaking his broken arm—he ran across the slippery floor with the suit’s heavy boots and fell to his knees alongside Chuuya’s left side, the side of him not caught under debris.
His left leg looked broken. His shoulder dislocated. The rest of him was hidden under metal, completely stuck. Dazai tried to hover his shaking fingers above Chuuya’s mouth, but the strength of the wind made it impossible to know if he was breathing at all.
He didn’t try to touch his neck. He circled his fingers around Chuuya’s wrist, pulled off the glove he wore finger by finger. Then he pressed his index into the crook of it, against ice-cold skin. Against heart-shaped petals.
The pulse he found there traveled through his own chest.
Dazai cried without daring to move. He waited for the medics to climb the side of the jaeger without feeling anything except for that slip of living skin, that inch of feeble hope. He spilled tears over the blood he was kneeling in and let Kouyou’s calls go unanswered. He counted each slow beat of Chuuya’s heart against his fingertip. He let the searing emptiness in his mind soothe itself with it until the wound there felt a little less raw.
He refused to leave Chuuya’s side, not even as he was being freed of the fallen wall and carried to a stretcher on the crane standing outside, not even as he recoiled from the sight of his mangled right leg; he stayed with him all the way to the only hospital still standing in Anchorage and had to be restrained so Chuuya could be sent to surgery alone, despite his own broken bones.
It was Yosano who sedated him. Who held his hand with her shaking ones until he lost consciousness. Who swept the hair out of his face and promised him that she would try her best with tears in her eyes.
Please, Dazai thought for the thousandth time, standing at the cusp of sleep. I can’t lose him.
Dazai had been sure of very few things in his life.
One of them had been his own death, for as long as he had been old enough to appreciate the concept for what it was. He knew he would live his life leaving very little behind himself as proof of his existence. He grew even surer of it at fourteen years old, when the first kaiju made land in San Francisco and set the world’s panic afire.
He wasn’t sure how long he would survive. Even after meeting Oda and experiencing being valued and loved for the first time, the certainty of death clinged to him like a ghost. Dazai went through the motions of life and did not feel human, or good, or bad. Morals’ hold on him was thin; Dazai followed his heart not out of its goodness, but out of what would lead him to the path of least pain.
Dazai’s second absolute and all-encompassing certainty was found in the drift, in Chuuya’s open mind, in his twin thirst for belonging. He knew the word for it and never spoke it, because there was no need to.
There had never been any need to.
Two days after Chuuya woke up, the day after his last surgery, he found the very last thing he was sure of.
“They found a match for Akutagawa,” he said, balancing a tablet into the crook of the cast than ran up to his shoulder.
They had been moved back to the base after the first round of surgeries—after Yosano had kept Chuuya alive, as promised.
Chuuya’s answer came raspy and tenuous. The only part of him not cast or bound in some way was his left arm. Right now his fingers were splayed onto the sheets, and it looked like he wanted to make a fist out of his hand, to grab the blanket and externalize the pain that even morphine couldn’t dull, but didn’t have the strength for it.
He said, “I knew that. Higuchi… something.” He blinked slowly. The plaster on his left temple moved with it. “Angry blonde chick.”
“The other Akutagawa,” Dazai replied, lips twitching. “He’s compatible with a boy from Yokohama. They tested them on that mark-one they still have there—incredibly strong drift, according to Kouyou. Apparently they’re making a whole mark-five just for them.”
The screen of Dazai’s tablet was open to world news. It had been seventeen days since Fawk’s attack; by now the novelty of it had evaporated, but still his eyes occasionally fell onto a picture of Double Black standing still on the Alaskan beach, with the headline, Winner Jaeger Out of Commission?
“We’re both officially dead,” he hummed, scrolling through older articles. “Congratulations. I would’ve brought flowers if I’d known.”
Dazai took his time to look sideways and back at Chuuya’s flushed, sweaty face. His hair looked almost orange under the glaring white light. It stuck to his forehead limply.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Dazai replied lightly.
Chuuya glared at him as hard as the unfocused quality of his eyes allowed. He gestured to his legs faintly with his hand and said, “I can’t pilot anymore.”
Yosano had saved his leg for now, but she didn’t know if he would ever be able to walk again. She didn’t know if it would get worse and need to be cut off. The wounds on the rest of him were less severe—broken bones, lacerations, marble-like bruising—but the leg had been crushed under the weight of the kaiju’s foot and then stuck under metal for several minutes. Physical recovery would take months, maybe years. He would never regain full mobility, and he would be in pain his whole life.
“I know that,” Dazai said.
The truth of it was branded into him.
“So,” Chuuya continued, unrelenting. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” Dazai leaned back into the armchair, let the tablet fall to his knees. His ribs ached with the movement, albeit a lot less sharply than two weeks ago. “I guess I’ll stick around. It’s not like you’re going anywhere.”
For a moment Chuuya was silent. Still enough that Dazai thought he must have dozed back into sleep again, like he had been doing ever since waking up, and the thought was a mixed blessing.
Sleep would mean that he wasn’t in pain. Which was good. Sleep also reminded Dazai of the days he had spent waiting for him to wake up and hoping he would still be Chuuya.
Instead, Chuuya fisted his one free hand into the collar of Dazai’s shirt and pulled him down with surprising strength.
“What are you—”
“Shut up and listen to me,” Chuuya growled.
Dazai stilled under the weight of his stare. Hunching over the bed like this pulled at his shoulder and ribs, made his body protest with angry flares of pain—but it was nothing at all compared to the deep frown of Chuuya’s brows, the damp pallor of him, the shaking in his fingers.
Dazai could have freed himself, but that would have meant hurting him more, however fleetingly. The thought alone made him want to hurl.
“I’m going to walk,” Chuuya said, teeth clenched on agony. His shoulders had arched off the mattress so he could lean closer. “I’m going to walk, and I’m going to work with ane-san to run this fucking thing.”
“So you’re not allowed to just sit here and brood. You’re not allowed to do nothing—” Chuuya gasped when his shoulders dropped back onto the bed. His hand still grabbed at Dazai’s clothes weakly. “Dazai,” he panted, “you’re not allowed to blame yourself.”
Dazai’s chest burned.
Chuuya’s hand fell. His face was completely tense now, the heart monitor beeping frantically. “I’ll walk,” he repeated. “I don’t give a shit how long it takes me to get there. I don’t care about the pain. So don’t you dare think this is your fault.”
Don’t you dare give up on me.
Chuuya had lived his whole life in spite of other people. He had climbed above the limits that others said he couldn’t reach. He had fought and struggled and bitten his way through everything like a wild animal, ignoring his own desperate need to be loved so that he could never be hurt. And those memories may be closed off to Dazai forever now, the knowledge that he could give Chuuya what he wanted out of his mere human reach, but—
“Okay,” he said. He never looked away from Chuuya’s eyes. He never touched his shaking hand. “I won’t.”
The promise was easily made. Dazai couldn’t imagine any world, any iteration of himself, giving up on Chuuya.
Of this he was surer than anything else.
Chuuya smiled at him, drunk off exhaustion and the powerful painkillers coursing through his body. “I’m glad,” he slurred. His eyes closed with a sigh as he started to slip off. “I’m glad it was me instead of you.”
Harvesting a kaiju corpse took more time than Yosano would’ve thought. Fitzgerald actually looked busy. His mouth was constantly pressed against the surprisingly old-fashioned walkie-talkie he used to communicate with the people now walking through the kaiju’s entrails, examining what could be saved. He gave orders left and right, never sat down for a minute, didn’t change out of the fine clothes she had sullied.
“You’re in luck,” he had told her a few hours ago. “Secondary brain looks fine and kicking.”
She had only graced him with a nod.
Her arm was in a sling now, not plastered yet because she hadn’t gone back to the dock. Naomi came to her instead after checking on all the pilots, and the girl’s scolding had been something to be proud of, but not enough to drag Yosano back—she could stay out with just some painkillers. She needed to see this to its end. It was past noon already. Afternoon stretched into the winter sky, pale blue and cloudless, and Yosano waited.
At three o’clock, they finally dragged the brain out of the beast’s open belly.
Kajii showed up almost like clockwork, with some people from Tanizaki’s team carrying drift equipment behind him. The sight of him struggling to run on sand snapped Yosano out of her lethargy.
“What are you doing here?” she asked when he reached her.
Kajii panted, knees bent and hunched forward. He gulped in mouthfuls of cold air before straightening up. “I need to drift with it now,” was his answer.
“Why? The brain’s fine, you can keep it for—”
“Yosano,” he cut in lowly. “They’re already here.”
Yosano stared at him, words swept out of her.
“But,” she said. “The alarm—it’s only been…”
He crept closer so that none of the people gathered around would hear him. She bent toward him, heart beating wildly. “We didn’t sound the alarm because they’re not attacking,” he explained in a whisper. “They’re guarding the breach. Not getting out of the water.”
Her breathing hitched. “So they really know what we’re planning,” she said.
“Shit.” Yosano rubbed her face with her free hand, feeling weak in the knees. “How many?”
He made a face before answering, “Five.”
One for each jaeger they had left.
“Two of them are too big to be category four, we had to call them fives,” he continued lowly. She had never seen him look so serious. “The first ever. They’re waiting for us, Yosano, I have to drift and confirm now. Boss is already strapping the explosives to Death Vine. They’re sending everyone out again in a few minutes.”
Dazai would not have slept during the night, not after seeing Nakahara collapse. He had to have already tired himself out fighting this morning—she dearly hoped that he had taken the time to eat and sleep since then, and Kunikida as well.
The difference it would make would not be consequential, she knew. The outcome the odds pointed to gripped tight in her guts.
Kajii made his way toward the gigantic brain that Fitzgerald’s employees has just finished encasing in a fluid-filled glass. Yosano followed him with heavy steps, feet cold through the leather of her shoes because of the sea-wet sand. It was still stained blue by the kaiju’s blood, and the torn hem of her skirt looked green with it and with the white dust of the city. By the time she reached the brain too, Kajii was already setting up the equipment under Fitzgerald’s skeptic eyes.
“Wait,” she said.
He stopped halfway through putting the drift helmet on his head.
“Hang on, Kajii,” she went on. “You can’t—you had a seizure last time. It’s too dangerous for you so soon.”
“You think I care about my life?” he replied, and she stilled at his tone as much as his words.
Gone was the light-hearted disregard, the lack of true devotion. Kajii looked angry with the sort of urgency that only came out of caring.
“I lost everything to these monsters,” he said, voice low. “If I can help us win then I will. I don’t care if I die.”
“Don’t fucking say that,” she growled.
His eyes widened as she approached—she slapped the device away from his side and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him close.
“You have a second helmet in there, don’t you,” she said.
“Good.” She released him. “Go get it. The neural load is too much for one person, I’m doing this with you.”
There was a pause.
“Don’t act so surprised,” she drawled, though her heart was racing up her throat with shaking fear. “I’m a doctor, I’m not about to just watch you fry your brain when I’m perfectly capable of helping out.”
“Sensei,” Kajii said in a high voice. “You don’t even know if we can drift together.”
For ten years now she had been involved with the jaeger program. She had fixed every single person now gathered in Yokohama in some way. She knew all of them by their wounds if not their names; she knew Kajii, had known him for years. She had ended and started her days in his labs for the simple pleasure of watching him fumble around, trying to help outside of the direct fight. For the simple rush of arguing with him.
Kajii seemed to come to the same conclusion himself. He mumbled, “I’ll go get the second helmet.”
She was thinking of Kouyou when she put it on—of her strength and resilience, of the relationship they had nurtured in the face of certain doom, of the sun’s shine on her naked back when she woke up in their shared bed.
When this is over, she thought, I’m going to marry her.
Whether they won or not. Whether ten pilots came back or none at all.
“I can’t believe I’m going to share minds with a medical doctor,” Kajii muttered, grasping the switch with sweaty hands.
Yosano smiled thinly. “How about sharing minds with a friend?”
“Sensei,” he gasped. “Was that a Lord of the Rings reference? I might just fall in love—”
She rolled her eyes, took the switch from him, and activated it herself.
Kunikida found Dazai asleep in the second floor’s TV room, body thrown across one of the couches and face pressed into the back. He stood for well over a minute not knowing how to move, struck by how vulnerable slumber made the other look. Even having seen more of him than was strictly human, Dazai still felt like he did two days ago. Fickle and fleeting. More mocking spirit than person.
Only tethered to him by a promise to another.
In the end he shook him by the shoulder, feeling only slightly guilty at the way Dazai struggled to stay asleep. Kunikida’s own body still screamed from the morning’s fight. One nap wasn’t enough to erase the strain of moving a jaeger, or the fear of dropping down from the limits of the sky.
“What…” Dazai slurred.
“Sorry,” he said without heat. “We’re getting deployed.”
He saw confusion in Dazai’s eyes, in the still-lax lines of his face. Then, as fast as it had appeared, it made way to alertness.
“It’s only been—” he checked the time on the unlit TV’s screen, “—eight hours. It’s only been eight hours.”
“There are five kaiju guarding the breach,” Kunikida replied. The reminder sent electric shocks down his spine.
Dazai looked at him in silence.
Eventually he pushed himself upright, his right shoulder shaking slightly. There were dark bruises over it from earlier, where the kaiju had squeezed them with its tail and then held them down. Dazai dragged fingers over his face. They lingered on his mouth for a second too long.
“Let’s go,” he muttered.
He grabbed the plastic bag that had been sitting on the low wooden table next to him. There was food in it. He ate it on the way to the comm room, mechanically, silent except for the sound of his footsteps.
Kunikida didn’t know how to start a conversation then. He didn’t want to either. Ozaki’s face as she had caught sight of him and sent him to fetch his copilot had spoken truer than her words, had left him shell-shocked with knowledge.
This was a suicide mission.
They were among the first to reach the room this time. The eight other pilots trickled in within the next minutes, looking a mix of disbelieving and resigned. Akutagawa Gin was still in her sleepwear. This time, she was holding onto her copilot’s arm.
“What’s going on?” the boy with white hair, Nakajima, asked.
Ozaki sat in front of them at the opening of the room. There were as many people as this morning, all of them still and silent. Chuuya was nowhere in sight, because he had been walking down to get changed when Kunikida had crossed his path, face hard with resolve.
“We’re attacking now,” Ozaki said.
Something bristled through all of them, as if they all shared one drift.
It was Steinbeck who had asked the question. His copilot stayed silent.
Ozaki’s fingers tightened in her lap as she replied, “There are five kaiju guarding the breach. Two of them category fives.” Kunikida felt goosebumps rise along his arms. “They know what we’re doing, and they’ll attack first if we don’t. Now is our only chance.”
She looked at each of them in turn, and Kunikida had never seen her look less than composed before, much the way Chuuya was; but her eyes shone with the sort of anger reserved for the desperate. The sort of hopelessness driven into the wild.
“I used to pilot, once,” she whispered furiously. “I know, as well as all of you, what I’m asking of you when I send jaegers into the field. I’m aware of what I might lose. What you might lose.”
Her hands opened; a picture sat in them, the paper crumpled from her hold but recognizable all the same. Ozaki and a man he didn’t know, and next to them Dazai and Chuuya. Younger than Kunikida had known them. Bright-faced and smiling.
Next to him, Dazai didn’t move at all.
“Twice now I’ve had to watch people I care about fail to come back,” Ozaki continued. “Once by feeling my partner and friend die while our minds were still linked. I still wake up today crying for him. Trying to help him. I will always be haunted by what I could have done to save the life of the man who once greeted me with a smile and offered me his company for nothing in return.
Fukuzawa Yukichi was my friend and mentor. He was one of the pillars I leaned on to keep living and hoping.” She smiled hollowly, looking at the picture. “He was the best man I have ever met. He fought selflessly, just because he could. And he saw me, a criminal, someone who had never in my life care about humanity, as something worth saving too.”
Her thumb stroked the man’s face gently.
“I have watched countless pilots fall. I have sent many to their deaths.” She lifted her head. “I remember and mourn every single one of them,” she said, meeting their eyes in turn. “This may seem hopeless—it may all seem useless—but I have never sent someone into the field whom I didn’t believe in and care about.
I’m sending you out now because I know you can do it. I’m saying all of this because I know some of you might not come back once all is done—might not get to live in the free world you created.” She breathed in heavily. “And I want you to know,” she added, “that if that is the case, I will never forget you. For as long as I live. I will never allow the world to forget that you lived.”
Kunikida’s ears rang with the sound of her voice, with the finality of it. He felt her promise settle along his shoulders and loosen something there that he hadn’t known existed.
Ozaki straightened in her seat, pushing herself up against the arms of the chair. “Now,” she said. She slipped the picture into a pocket of her slacks. “Take ten minutes to yourselves. Say goodbye, or good luck. Hug your loved ones.” Her eyes dragged to Kunikida’s left, where Dazai was standing still. “Then get suited up and help me cancel the goddamn apocalypse.”
Almost everyone left with her, dribbling out via the open doors, rushing to talk or falling utterly silent. Kunikida stood in the midst of it with his back to the door and his mind empty of all thought. He didn’t have anyone left to say goodbye to. His family was long dead, his students gone and forgotten, Aya just another ghost haunting his every dream.
He didn’t need to say goodbye to Dazai either. Dazai would be with him all the way, whether they made it out or not. The fact that Kunikida even entertained the thought made surprise flare through the blurry confines of his mind.
He turned his head to look at Dazai, to see the face he was making—and found Dazai walking toward the dressing room with his hands in his pockets.
“What are you doing?” he asked, grabbing him by the elbow.
Dazai looked at him over his shoulder. “Getting suited up,” he answered.
It took a moment for Kunikida to understand that he wasn’t joking.
“No you’re not,” he growled then.
He released Dazai to step closer, the way he had upon first meeting him—and he couldn’t believe, now, that it had only been two days. Dazai felt like a lifelong acquaintance; his life part of Kunikida’s own.
“We might not come back from this,” he said between his teeth.
“So what?” Dazai replied easily. His slouch was deceptive. He never turned to face Kunikida fully. “It’s no different than any other fight. I’m always prepared for the possibility that I might die, Kunikida-kun.”
“The odds are different now. Even you’ve never fought five kaiju at once.”
“Are they,” Dazai replied darkly.
Kunikida inhaled through his nose until he felt his tension lessen. “Chuuya is in his room right now,” he said. “I saw him when I was looking for you.” Then, after a second: “You have enough time to go talk to him.”
Dazai’s mouth twitched in something so unlike joy that all the air in the room seemed to cool at once.
“I wonder, Kunikida-kun,” he said coldly. “Why do you care so much about this? Drifting with you is like swimming in self-hatred. You’ve spent the last two years absorbed by guilt for something you think is your fault, when any moron could tell you that Kouda Aya’s death wasn’t any more your doing than if a plane you weren’t even on had crashed.”
He breathed in. Took a step forward. Kunikida didn’t move back, ears burning with the flow of Dazai’s voice, heart slowing down to a deathly rhythm.
“You couldn’t have saved her,” Dazai said, face twisted into sympathy. “You loved her, she was your favorite student, and you did everything you could. But you couldn’t have saved her with how badly she was injured. Not even if you’d been running in a jaeger.” It was his turn to grab Kunikida by the arm, and Kunikida almost flinched. “You were with her until the end. She died in the arms of someone who cared. It’s more than enough, Kunikida-kun, you have nothing to blame yourself for.”
“Enough,” Kunikida exhaled.
Dazai dropped his arm and stepped away.
He didn’t leave as Kunikida fought to regain his composure. He said nothing of the tears gathering in his eyes, of the well-visited memory of Aya’s voice he must now was now playing through his mind. His presence was a comfort and a pain both.
“You think you can help yourself by helping me,” Dazai said eventually. “But you’re wrong. It won’t help either of us.”
“I’m not,” Kunikida spat back.
At least Dazai showed some surprised at that.
Kunikida dug his nails into the back of his left hand. He wished he had the time to shower once more and erase the slick taint of blood he could always feel there. “I’m trying to help you,” he said, “because drifting with you is the equivalent of making myself go through torture every single time Chuuya so much as crosses your mind.”
All the time. Every single second of both drifts they had gone through. Chuuya was as present in the neural handshake as Dazai himself, alive and breathing in the drift through the magnitude of Dazai’s feelings.
“And it doesn’t have to be,” Kunikida continued, under Dazai’s wide eyes. “You’re terrified of losing him, but he’s right here. He’s not dead, he hasn’t left you—he’s right here. If you don’t talk to him now and the mission goes…”
He couldn’t get the words out. The perspective itself was an aberration. It went against nature.
“Why do you care so much?” Dazai asked again, bewildered. “This morning it was all you could think about. I barely even saw Aya. I don’t—I don’t understand.”
He looked so genuinely lost. As if he couldn’t fathom anyone caring this much now that he had lost access to the proof that someone did. And Chuuya did; he did every time he said Dazai’s name and every time he met eyes with him, in every one of those shared glances that made the world fade out and left Kunikida feeling as though he were witnessing something too private to exist.
Kunikida’s chest felt swollen with pity. His throat tight with understanding.
“Dazai,” he said gently. “Do you even realize how much you love him?”
Familiar tapping reached them then, echoing against the walls of the empty corridor. Chuuya walked into the comm room with his wooden cane in hand and dressed up for battle, suit and shoes and tied-up hair. Nothing like the vulnerable sight he had offered just this morning. He came to a startled stop at the sight of them.
Love was the way Dazai’s eyes broke away from Kunikida’s to look at him instead, pulled by inescapable force. It was the immediate softening of his features, making him look closer to the teenager Kunikida had glimpsed on Ozaki’s photograph; the soul-wide want Kunikida knew was now making every cell of him shudder.
If it wasn’t love, then nothing on Earth could be.
Dazai stared at Chuuya, and Chuuya stared back, and the space between them shook with unvoiced yearning.
“I can’t,” Dazai said.
Kunikida could not feel angry at him anymore. Not even as he walked away. He looked at the floor rather than subject himself to whatever sort of new pain would be painted on Chuuya’s face now, whatever sort of new regret Dazai would carry to the drift. The door of the dressing room closed with a click, cutting through the silence.
He knew better than most just how much fear could sour.