Warnings: death, violence.
Build Upon The Ruins
Dazai let the aide dress him this time.
Her name was Lucy. He knew it because he had let her place the plates onto him rather than snatch the things for himself, and he had asked her, under her wide-eyed stare. She was silent after that. Hands busy with making extra sure everything fitted him right, lathering lotion onto his bruised shoulder before it had to go back in after only hours. The twenty-odd people around them were equally silent.
Kyouka stood in a corner with Akutagawa’s awful cat in hand. The thing had no perception of severity—it hissed and squirmed in her hold, loud enough to grate at some nerves, until Akutagawa himself caved in and came near it to stroke its head with gloved fingers.
The clicks and snaps of the suits were the only sound after that.
Dazai didn’t look at Kunikida as he marched back into the room. Kunikida treated him the same. They stood silent near the bridges, and Dazai felt numbly grateful that Double Black would be armed first, by virtue of having never left the station at all. No one had replaced the cannon they had lost for lack of time. Not that it would matter much. In an underwater fight, it would mostly come down to blades and bare hands. On speed as well. The jaegers’ bodies were wide, but oxygen could only last them so long.
He did look at Chuuya before stepping onto the bridge, lips still burning from his almost-touch and from Kunikida’s words. There was a desperate tint to the way Chuuya’s face colored in the bright lights of the comm room; a sense of urgency he had stopped feeling himself when Chuuya had turned his back on him earlier.
Do you even realize how much you love him?
Of course he did.
“You can get in now,” Chuuya said.
His words were for the both of them—for Kunikida and Dazai—but his eyes were on Dazai, and Dazai’s were on him. Dazai nodded at him without word. He stepped toward the open hull of Double Black’s cockpit for the very last time.
He was attached to his station in under a minute. The last he saw of the quiet girl named Lucy was the bright of her red hair as Double Black closed; the shade of it was so different from Chuuya’s that he felt almost startled.
“Initiating neural handshake.”
The drift started as they fell to join the rest of the jaeger’s body. Kunikida was an open well of frustrated compassion, so entranced by Dazai’s own plight that his own were buried under it. They stabilized right as the head fixed itself to the body. It was their third drift in under twenty-four hours; Kunikida’s head hadn’t had time to leave him fully, and it wasn’t a second before the handshake took hold.
Dazai didn’t pay much mind to it. The relief of having won had faded in the morning. A record-nearing drift was of no concern to him now. He calibrated the right hemisphere unthinkingly, felt Kunikida do the same with more focus, and latched onto that rather than force himself into his own awareness.
Kunikida was sympathetic but not forgetful. The objective they were after was at the front of his mind. Dazai fitted himself to it until he too thought of nothing but the fight to come. Moving Double Black came easier then, even with how sore his body was. He read over the information relayed to them on their targets, kept an eye on the gauge of the oxygen tanks, came to a standstill alongside Kunikida’s legs as they waited for the others to be ready.
Death Vine was second after them, Steinbeck and Lovecraft entirely silent over the line. They were the ones carrying the explosives; Double Black would be running point, Tiger Claw handling defense. Heartblade and Scarlet Wind at the rear. The formation was unlikely to hold when faced with five kaiju and with the reduced mobility of underwater fights, but it was the best they could do.
It occurred to Dazai that he knew next to nothing about most of the pilots fighting alongside him now. He knew their names—Death Vine and Scarlet Wind he had fought with, back when Chuuya stood by his side—but he didn’t know them. Aside from Akutagawa and Atsushi, he hadn’t spent time with any of them on ground.
The thought tasted regretful.
“There’s no reason to,” Kunikida said quietly. “You did what you could. You can spend time with them later.”
Dazai looked at him from the corner of his eyes, not daring to move his head, and the jaeger’s with it. “You’re right,” he replied. “Forgive my sentimentality.”
Kunikida stared at him wordlessly, hesitation running through him. He was right about more things than he knew, Dazai thought. Insightful and kind in ways he had seldom encountered. It was a wonder he could be so wrong about himself.
“All right,” Chuuya said once all the jaegers stood alive. “The exact coordinates of the breach are with all of you. Don’t exhaust yourselves trying to run there once we drop you, they’re waiting for you anyway. Kick that bomb in and leave as soon as you can. Keep watch of your air once you drop below sea-level.”
He was silent for a second, the sound of his inhale audible through the mic.
“Good luck,” he added. “And come back.”
We will, Dazai heard through Kunikida’s mind, in surprising contrast with his dooming words earlier.
The walk itself was uneventful once the choppers dropped them. The Pacific was quiet, the sun high and faraway above them. The last two days had been nothing but this—sunlit expanses of calm sea, the winter cold but bright, Yokohama’s ruins shining under white dust. They walked past the corpse of the morning’s bigger kaiju, whose open belly swelled over the rolling backs of the waves and spilled blue blood into the water. It had crusted already.
The area would be fed the magical life-bringing properties of it for the years to come. Kaiju blood was unkind to human flesh but a miracle for all other life forms. It was probably designed that way. Dazai envisioned, for the first time, a sea life brought back to pre-pollution grace; there was a sort of peace to be found in the idea that even if they failed—even if humanity was wiped out—Earth would still thrive with living things.
“I forgot to congratulate you, Nakajima,” someone said into the silence.
It took Dazai a moment to recognize the voice of Scarlet Wind’s pilot, Mitchell.
“What?” Atsushi replied.
“For your stunt this morning. You’re quite the romantic.”
There was a beat, and then Higuchi started laughing.
“Shut up!” Atsushi said shakily. Dazai didn’t have to stretch his imagination at all to picture the way he would blush, despite the situation. “Oh my God—Higuchi, shut it.”
“No way,” she replied. “Do you know how much money I made? I told you all these idiots would come around soon.”
“I hate all of you,” mumbled Akutagawa.
“It does seem to be a pattern among pilots,” Mitchell said pleasantly. “God knows what Death Vine get up to in their down time.”
“Nothing,” Steinbeck replied flatly.
It was banter born out of desperation. Their voices were thin not just from the static, but also from the knowledge that everything said now was meaningless in the face of what was to come. Dazai felt Kunikida’s startled worry, his confused amusement, even as they strained to move Double Black’s legs.
“Still,” Mitchell went on, softer now. “Tiger Claw’s obvious coming together isn’t the longest I’ve been made to wait for confirmation. Care to satisfy a lady’s curiosity, Dazai?”
Kunikida took in a weak breath, mind rushing with restlessness. But Dazai had spent years alongside these people, fighting with them if not befriending them, living in shared bases for weeks at a time. Much like himself, they felt the need for closeness. However late this camaraderie came.
They would be ending this today. One way or the other.
He was smiling when he replied, “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Mitchell’s answering chuckle was warm. In that moment, Dazai didn’t even mind that Chuuya was listening.
He kept an idle ear out for the rest of their chatter. He felt relaxed at last, taken by the focus of the fight rather than anything else. His body was too used to piloting to worry about much else. The ground’s worries were left to the ground; and Chuuya was part of the ground now, no matter that he would always carry him into the drift. Dazai couldn’t allow himself to jeopardize everything for him. It was a rough wake-up call, but one that felt welcome nonetheless.
They submerged a kilometer away from the breach, where the floor of the world suddenly dipped; their voices died to save the oxygen, their minds hardened, their eyes watched ahead for signs of the enemy.
Sunlight wasn’t enough to show them their path. Each of their steps raised dust, rock, corals; the jaeger’s powerful lights only shone so far away. Silence reigned underwater like it could not over it—Dazai could hear himself breathe, could hear Kunikida breathe in tandem, yet the tons of metal they moved like a second skin barely made any noise.
The kaiju found them first, long before they could glimpse the breach’s shining edges.
The first of them swam into Heartblade’s side in a rush. The jaeger fell out of sight, silent and slow, followed by the body of the shark-like creature; Dazai soothed Kunikida’s instantaneous panic by reminding them both of the vitals they could still read on the tiniest of all screens.
Then they stopped paying attention to the rest, because the greatest beast Dazai had ever seen stood before them on its hind legs. He didn’t need to check to know that this was a category five kaiju.
His and Kunikida’s minds aligned reflexively in the motions of the fight, deeper encroached than they had ever been. Their hands grabbed the kaiju’s in a hold, each finger felt by them both, right and left sides combined. They managed to make the beast plow backward for a single second; then it shot above them, kicking itself up on the ground, aiming for Death Vine’s explosive load.
Tiger Claw caught it.
Death Vine was the only one of them who could shoot underwater. Double Black’s cannon was still gone, Tiger Claw’s missiles hadn’t been replaced, Scarlet Wind’s thrusters could not be used to move like they did in open air. Heartblade only used blades at all. Lovecraft and Steinback were facing a third opponent, a category four with the body of an eel whose back ran with blue electricity.
“We need to take that one down first,” Kunikida said, at the same time as Dazai thought it.
It looked too much like the one that had disabled the others’ power.
They jumped to it blade-first, the satisfaction of seeing it tear through the kaiju’s side not enough to drag them into relief. The giant eel squirmed away as fast as it had come, barely avoiding the first row of bullets that Death Vine tried to spear it with.
They swerved Double Black back in position in front of Death Vine, Scarlet Wind standing at its back. Dazai’s legs were already shaking from the effort of moving underwater and the fatigue of the whole day. Kunikida’s weren’t in a much better shape.
“Death Vine,” he said. “We need to move toward the breach.”
“We still don’t know where the other two are.”
“I’m with Double Black on this,” Hawthorne replied. “Better to drop the explosives as quickly as possible and then finish them off.”
After a second, Steinbeck answered, “Fine.”
They moved slowly, surrounded by darkness. The breach shone brighter with every step they took. Dazai did not let his mind wander toward his students still caught in combat, with Higuchi and Akutagawa Gin having fallen out of sight so quickly. He kept their eyes alert for sight of the remaining category five while Kunikida managed their moves.
The eel-like kaiju tore through Scarlet Wind’s side within two hundred meters of the breach.
Dazai felt his heart stutter at the sight, felt Kunikida’s mouth open on panicked swears—it was poor relief to see the jaeger grasp the kaiju’s body between its palms and open its nearest thruster. The beast’s howls were lost to watery silence. Its skin turned red at the heat, splitting open and bursting with blue blood, and when it ran away again, Scarlet Wind’s legs stopped working.
“We’re stuck,” Mitchell said, panting. “Nakahara. We can’t walk anymore.“
Chuuya took a moment to answer. “Escape now,” he ordered.
Death Vine shot again at the eel. It howled, and squirmed, and fell lifeless onto the murky ocean floor. From the other side of the breach, the last two kaiju rose—and Dazai knew what Mitchell’s answer would be before she could say it.
He and Kunikida went at the category five first. It was a monstrous thing, more gigantic even than the one Tiger Claw was still fighting at their rear. The lower half of its body was made of powerful tentacles; it swam toward them faster than their opponent of the morning had, and it was all they could do to stop it with both arms. Their feet slipped backwards helplessly.
“We can still fight,” Mitchell said. The last of the category fours was hopping toward her, mouth wide open, sharp teeth gleaming in the colorful light of the breach.
“Needs must, Nakahara. You know it as well as we do.”
Her voice was peaceful. Filled with quiet resolve.
The thrusters that had warranted Scarlet Wind its name lit one after the other, making the water boil around them. The jaeger’s body glowed red with it. A beacon in the darkness.
“For what it’s worth,” she declared, all lines open, “I enjoyed fighting alongside all of you.”
She didn’t say anything to her husband. Those last words would be shared between their minds only.
The kaiju rammed into them with all of its strength, making Scarlet Wind’s upper half detach cleanly off its dead legs. The beast’s body tore open against the heat of the thrusters, skin melting off of it like burned plastic; and as it screamed out its last breath, it grabbed the jaeger’s skull with its hands and crushed it.
The first seconds of the drift were incomprehensible. The feeling of being gripped by the heart and the belly was so sudden that Yosano almost hurled from it. Nausea crawled up her throat, and she thought, Is that how the pilots feel? in the fraction of a second she was left to her own self. She couldn’t understand that they could find any pleasure in it.
Then Kajii’s mind touched hers, unfamiliar and bright in the dark of the handshake—and she barely had the time to glimpse it at all, to feel his emotions run through hers like quicksilver, before the kaiju brain overtook everything.
She dropped from impossible height and directly through the breach; she witnessed in too-fast flashes the faces of the kaiju’s creators, skeletal creatures with too many legs and eyes bent over wide tables and wired to one another. She didn’t understand any of it, not one second.
Their world was one of burned out colors and acid air. Its skies were yellow with chemical clouds that fell like dust onto the barren ground. She traveled through their history for eons, from destroyed world to destroyed world, witnessed the execution of countless peoples. The only physicality she could cling to was the burning in her eyes, from grief and pain alike. She tasted blood on her lips.
Yosano, someone said.
It took her way too long to recognize Kajii.
She grabbed the open hand he was shoving at her with everything she had. The embrace of his thoughts was a comfort now rather than a pain. She lost herself to human memories of him as a child and him as an adult—to mourning not unlike hers, to resolve she knew—before he shook her out of it.
She was following his lead as he treaded once more into the kaiju’s minds. This time he guided her in the right direction, his own head aflame with the awfulness of the experience.
She could understand why Nakahara had looked the way he did, now. The kaiju’s forays through her own brain felt like needles under her skin, like bugs’ feet crawling on her scalp. It felt unnatural, wrong—it felt like corruption.
Kajii reached the breach with a focus she wouldn’t have given him credit for. It still felt as though he were holding her hand. She stepped up alongside him, making him drop her now that she had regained her composure, and together they looked.
They saw the breach open and close like a throat between their worlds. This side of it looked much the same as theirs. They saw the kaiju’s masters breathe life into one of the creatures—she recognized it, with a jolt of fear, as Fawk—saw the mouth of the breach open at the contact of its feathered body, after flashing lights were done roaming it over.
Knowledge settled through them both with the strength of a million linked minds.
They blinked. Yokohama’s blue sky sprawled infinite over them.
“What,” Yosano rasped.
Then she rolled over to her side and vomited onto the sand.
There were hands on her back, soothing and familiar. Naomi, she thought breathlessly—feeling surprised that she was back into herself, rid of Kajii’s own thoughts and life.
“Why did you turn it off?” she coughed.
“You’re bleeding out of your eyes,” Naomi replied curtly. “And Kajii is seizing—”
Yosano didn’t let her finish. She jumped to her feet, groaning at the pain in her bound arm, and rushed toward Kajii’s fallen form. Fitzgerald was kneeling by him and looking eminently disgusted, even as he made sure he wasn’t choking on his own bile. She shoved him away with a foot so she could take his place and keep a hand on Kajii as tremors wrecked his body.
She could feel liquid on her face now. Warmer than tears. She wiped the blood off with the back of her sleeve and didn’t move away. If her eyes still stung, it was nothing she couldn’t deal with.
Kajii stopped convulsing much quicker than he had the day before. He lay still and shaky on the ice-cold sand, wet coughs tearing out of his mouth. Yet his eyes moved to meet hers the second he seemed to regain consciousness of himself, and the words he said were the ones on her own mind.
“We need to warn them,” he breathed.
The breach. They won’t be able to get in.
Yosano didn’t bother with making sure he was fit for transport. Kouyou would not notice communication from outside now, and neither would Nakahara. They need to reach them in person. She slung Kajii’s arm above her shoulders with her one good hand and hoisted the both of them to their feet, her own knees shaking from the effort.
“What are you doing?” Fitzgerald asked.
“Going back to the dock,” she heaved.
“Do you intend to drag him the whole way? It’s a twenty minute walk from here even without extra luggage.”
She glared at him, saliva still wet around her mouth, eyes no doubt red with blood. “What the fuck else do you suggest I do?” she spat at him. “This is an emergency, Fitzgerald.”
He looked at her in silence, appalled and offended at once. She stood tall through it in spite of how exhausted she was, down to her very bones.
“This is ridiculous,” he declared at last.
“If you’re going to try to stop me…”
Her words died as he took Kajii off of her, his other hand fiddling idly with a pager she hadn’t even noticed him taking out. A pager. She hadn’t seen one in decades. “I’ll drive you,” he offered.
A shiny black car was already running toward them. It came to a halt next to him, precisely, the door level with his body. The man who opened it from inside was old, his eyes kind as they rested on the three of them.
“Nice,” Kajii slurred uselessly.
Fitzgerald threw him inside without ceremony.
He turned toward Yosano, then, holding the door at the back open in invitation.
“Why?” she asked him. It came out breezy with disbelief.
“I told you,” he said lowly. “I’m a dreamer at heart.”
Yosano gulped in the cold February air. It ached inside her lungs. “You never thought the jaeger program was a lost cause,” she realized.
He smiled at her, the lines around his eyes deepening with it, making him look younger. It was the most honest expression she had seen him offer.
“Harvesting kaiju will only last me as long as humanity is here to buy,” he told her. “And if I have to choose between living alone with monsters and living free of them… I think the answer to that would be obvious to anyone, doctor.”
Double Black swayed forward with the strength of the explosion.
It was all Dazai and Kunikida could do to keep their hands linked with the kaiju’s; its tentacles had already wrapped around their middle in a suffocating hold, the pain of it roaring through them both and making their scarce air hard to find. Dazai unfolded the blade from his right arm as soon as Kunikida gave him the go, letting go of the kaiju’s arm so he could slice through the tendrils choking them.
The kaiju screamed, close enough to be heard through the water. It swam away with its remaining limbs and disappeared into the shadows.
Dazai’s fingers were on the comm line instantly. “Heartblade,” he called.
It took a long second, filled with static nothingness, enough to make fear shiver through him.
Then, finally: “We’re here. Got rid of one of them. We’re missing one hand, though.”
Dazai exhaled harshly.
“Scarlet Wind is—”
“We know,” Higuchi cut in.
Right. They all had access to the others’ readings. Mitchell and Hawthorne would have faded out of theirs like they had Double Black’s.
“Tiger Claw’s struggling against that category five,” Higuchi went on, her voice steady for lack of time to mourn. “We’re going to help them. You guys make sure Death Vine drops the bomb into the breach.”
“Okay. Good luck.” His fingers left the panel.
Kunikida had kept watch around them while he was talking, cameras and lights aimed at the opaque dust floating everywhere. There were still three kaiju to take care of, two of them more powerful than they had ever seen. With Tiger Claw and Heartblade busy with the category five at their back, and Death Vine almost out of ammo, the bulk of the fight would rest on Double Black.
One jaeger against two kaiju, for the second time that day.
“Let’s move,” Kunikida said under his breath.
Dazai didn’t have to be told twice. They fell aside Death Vine in the eery, murky silence of the ocean. All fish were long gone from the scene of the fight; everywhere around was only water and dirt, and the bright, alien light of the open breach.
Dazai’s heart rate didn’t spike as they made their way to the edge, almost close enough to peer inside. The breach didn’t look any different now than it had years ago when they still tried to bomb it fruitlessly.
Doubt hovered at the confines of his mind.
“It’ll work this time,” Kunikida said. “You heard the briefing. The breach had to stabilize to let out these monsters, we just need to drop in the bomb.”
“Yeah,” Dazai replied.
He didn’t have time to say more, because the last of the category fours swam toward them. They only just had the presence of mind to put themselves in the path it was taking toward Death Vine rather than avoid it. Dazai raised the blade-arm and shoved it under the monster’s belly; it sliced open its skin, but not deeply enough to slow it.
The beast swerved around them with grace, blood pouring like vapor into the water. Its feet grabbed Death Vine’s right arm.
“Fuck,” Dazai let out, “Kunikida—”
Kunikida was closing his fist and punching forward before he could finish, and the blow wasn’t enough to maim in any way, but at least the kaiju ran off once more.
“Chuuya, we need to drop the bomb now.”
Dazai stilled. That had been Kouyou’s voice.
“Boss?” Kunikida asked.
Kouyou replied after what felt like hesitation. “We’re waiting for confirmation first.”
“Confirmation on what?”
The shout had come out of the both of them, but Kouyou didn’t get to reply. The category five rammed into them from the back, teeth open on the top of Double Black’s skull, making the sound of bending metal echo through the cockpit.
For a second the situation was so strikingly, achingly familiar that Dazai froze; it was Kunikida who saved them by raising both of their arms and plunging the sword into the kaiju’s shoulder. It ran off once again.
Dazai breathed out, shaken. The drift was alight with memories—Chuuya stuck under metal and Chuuya comatose in a white bed and Chuuya sweating, crying, bleeding through months of physical therapy—
His mind snapped back to the present.
“It’s not dead yet,” Kunikida continued loudly. He was panting—it took a moment for Dazai to understand that it was because their oxygen reserves had been compromised.
Red light shone through the cockpit, alarms ringing out. Kunikida only had a few minutes left.
“We need to drop the bomb now,” Dazai repeated, silently ordering Kunikida to stop talking. He felt the other’s agreement through himself—strengthened himself with it, tore himself away from the fear. “Ane-san, we don’t have time.”
“Tiger Claw and Heartblade just killed the other one. They’re twelve hundred meters behind you, if you just wait—”
The ocean floor exploded under them.
Double Black was sent flying up, almost high enough to reach sunlight again. The perspective would have been comforting if not for the fact that they couldn’t get back down in time to help Death Vine.
Dazai watched with wide eyes as both kaiju zeroed in on the remaining jaeger. Steinbeck and Lovecraft stopped them the best they could, firing round after round of the last of their ammunition, opening holes into the kaiju’s bodies; they lost an arm and kept shooting, lost a foot and kept standing, and the kaiju went again and again, relentless with the sort of rage only known to the dying.
“Drop the bomb!” he yelled into the line, shoulders and thighs burning through the effort of carrying the kaiju down. They landed atop the biggest of the two beasts, stilling it just enough to give Death Vine some space, and Dazai spoke again. “Just drop it—”
“Don’t drop it!” Yosano’s voice shouted.
Death Vine’s left leg was ripped out of its socket. The category four swam away with it almost giddily, its eyes fixed onto the load strapped to the jaeger’s chest as if looking at a meal.
She sounded breathless and pained, with a different panic than the one she demonstrated when faced with the unknown. Dazai heard the air she sucked in and almost felt it in his own body. “Don’t drop it,” she repeated hurriedly. “The breach won’t open for anything except kaiju.”
“What,” he said.
It was Kajii who answered, almost voiceless with exhaustion. “The reason we haven’t been able to attack the breach is because it—it scans them as they go in. It only opens to the kaiju’s bodies’ signature. If you drop the bomb now it’ll only bounce back like it always does.”
The category five’s giant body struggled under their hold. Dazai tightened his grip on it with all the strength left him in, acutely aware of Kunikida’s lowering hold on the drift, his mind parsing away with every second his oxygen flew out. Dazai himself wouldn’t be far behind.
“Then,” he said, head fogged with exhaustion and what he barely recognized as hopelessness, “then what, what do we do?”
“You have to make it think you’re a kaiju. You need to drop in with a kaiju in good enough shape to be recognized by the breach.”
The category four shoved its foot through Death Vine’s defenseless middle.
Dazai watched the blurry silhouette of it through the darkened visor, through the dust and the green water. The foot came out through the other side of the mark-two’s body, and its knee dropped to the floor of the sea, arm hanging limply by its side.
There’s no way, Kunikida thought through him, his despair thick as honey. There’s no way they’ll make it.
Dazai swallowed. “There is a way,” he said.
His eyes flew to the gauge of Double Black’s overheating core.
“Death Vine,” he called through the line, ignoring Chuuya’s voice. “No—Steinbeck. Lovecraft. Can you hear us?”
It took a while. Dazai let the moment pass, past the point of physical pain now; his shoulder burned from the strain of this morning, his head was starting to ache as Kunikida faded and the drift weighed on him more and more. Still, his hold didn’t relent. The kaiju in his arms squirmed and fought and roared, dragging them away from the breach, closer to Death Vine’s mangled armor.
Eventually, Steinbeck replied. “I can hear you.”
‘I’. Not ‘we’. Dazai’s chest tightened with misery.
“We don’t need the bomb,” he said. “Double Black is enough for the job.”
“Dazai,” Chuuya breathed. “What are you saying?”
“Double Black is nuclear. It’s a bomb in and of itself. I can take this kaiju with me, make the core explode once we’re in the breach.”
“You’ll need to escape before—”
“That’s fine,” he replied, heart beating in his throat. “Our escape pods don’t look damaged. Just cut the drift as soon as we’re in. Steinbeck…”
He heard the breath Steinbeck took in, the weight of the solo drift on him that Dazai had experienced once before. He would be feeling the same all-encompassing pain that Dazai had. The loneliness and the raw edges of his own mind, so small and insignificant now that its match had vanished.
“Nakahara,” Steinbeck said, “tell Tiger Claw and Heartblade to retreat now.”
They all heard the confusion of the remaining pilots’ voices, as Chuuya relayed the order. Dazai could almost see him. Hunched over a table, tense through his whole body, eyes dark with helplessness and fury.
Now, more than ever, Chuuya would wish he were the one in the midst of battle.
Tiger Claw and Heartblade disappeared from Dazai’s own signals. He undid his hold around the category five kaiju’s middle to grab it by the neck instead and start his long, slow way across the two hundred meters separating them from the breach. He felt Kunikida follow his motions even half-gone as he was, all the air knocked out of him until only the very last dregs of the oxygen tanks remained.
“Thank you,” Dazai said as Death Vine faded back into the dark, the last kaiju’s silhouette turning around it like a child circling a toy.
“I’ll wait until you’re in the breach,” Steinbeck replied coldly. “Just… make sure you finish this for good, Dazai.“
He cut the line before Dazai could answer.
Dazai started cutting into the kaiju’s neck as they neared the bright borders of the breach. The kaiju howled and struggled, but Dazai’s grip was inescapable. Its too-wide body stretched in a last effort to kill before it died; the last of its tentacles wrapped around Double Black’s hips, squeezing the air out of its pilots once more.
It was useless, though. They were already too close. Dazai felt Kunikida’s last full breaths go into flexing their knees together, the brunt of his mind already gone, misty fragments of memories vanishing as Dazai glimpsed them. They jumped into the breach.
Through the opening above them they saw the ocean ripple, dust and kaiju blood and metal flying away with the strength of Death Vine’s explosion. The last kaiju stilled in their arms at last.
The breach stayed open.
Dazai felt the drift vanish as they fell; Kunikida had been so faint beforehand that with the extension of awareness that remained, more psychological than real, it was as though he hadn’t left at all.
The walls of the breach were the same color as its edges in their world. Running lines of yellow and blue light, red sparks that gave off no heat. It looked like the very heart of fire.
“Kunikida-kun,” Dazai said. Breathless from more than just relief. “It’s done.”
Kunikida looked at him, half-unconscious already. The breaths he was struggling to draw in stained the glass of his helmet with mist, here and gone just as quick to the rhythm of his panting. Dazai unhooked himself from his station with surprising ease. It wasn’t until he was pushing himself off of it that he realized it was because Earth’s gravity was gone.
He had little training for zero G situations, but it didn’t matter. His stomach didn’t churn as he pushed himself in Kunikida’s direction, maybe from the fatigue, maybe because saving humanity erased all bodily concerns once and for all as a reward.
Maybe because Dazai already had eight years of knowing what falling out of gravity felt like. He only needed to meet Chuuya’s eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said, replying to the faint hum of fear he could feel across himself and Kunikida. He caught himself on Kunikida’s station deftly. “I’m sending you away now. The pod has enough air for you to reach sea level, you’ll be fine.”
“You,” Kunikida wheezed.
Dazai smiled at him. “It’s just falling, Kunikida-kun,” he replied. “Anyone can fall. It’s done. You just relax and go home.”
Kunikida said nothing when Dazai pressed the button of the emergency exit. He leaned down into the moving seat, eyes fixed onto Dazai’s, and the lack of breathing air wasn’t enough to quench his immeasurable compassion. Dazai felt his reluctance and fear right as Kunikida discovered them, no matter that the neural handshake had already faded.
“You’re a good man,” he whispered, too low to be heard, knowing that the remaining tendrils of the drift would carry the message anyway. “One of the best I’ve ever met.”
Kunikida’s hand tried to grab his as he ascended toward the top of Double Black’s metallic skull. Dazai caught it and squeezed it briefly.
You did a great job, partner.
Kunikida was unconscious before the exit pod was done swallowing his still body.
The ejection came with no sound and no jostling. One second he was there, and the next he was gone.
“Chuuya,” Dazai said next.
It took a moment for the comm line to sparkle in his ear, faintly, a whole universe away—but when Chuuya replied, “I’m here,” Dazai felt it as if it had been whispered onto his neck.
He felt warmer with it. He carried the sound of Chuuya’s breathing over the line as his numb fingers played with the flickering controls. Tension had seeped out of him the moment the last kaiju had died; when the system refused to answer, too damaged by the beast’s teeth, the only thing he felt was wry amusement.
It seemed like fitting justice. Like the logical continuation to his life. So close and never enough.
He pushed his body away from Kunikida’s station and toward the manual valve of the nuclear reactor. “The automatic override is down,” he said calmly. “I have to activate it myself.”
A second, and then: “Just hurry up.”
Dazai nodded, though no one could see him.
He had never realized how wide the space inside Double Black’s head was. He had never been alone in it before. Even when he kept the structure of the giant’s body standing through sheer strength of will, Chuuya’s lifeless body crushed and bleeding out at his feet, a whole half of the skull ripped open by the kaiju’s claws… the cockpit had always felt tiny. Crowded. Like the inside of his own mind.
“You know,” he said as he floated toward the trap door, “I think I’m gonna miss this big pile of metal.”
“Save your breath.”
What for? he thought fondly. “I wouldn’t have met you if not for it,” he continued. “So I’m grateful, in a way.”
Chuuya didn’t answer. Dazai listened to the sound of his breathing through the static, almost as shallow as his own. He spoke again when his hands finally reached the bottom of the trap and started pulling up. “It’s weird. I don’t think I’ve been this far away from you in my entire life.”
“Stop wasting your oxygen.”
“I never believed in fate, growing up,” Dazai continued. The door wasn’t bulging yet, and he frowned thoughtlessly at it. “You know it. I was a miserable kid in a miserable world—why the hell would I think there was anything waiting for me out there?”
He heard the sound of Chuuya’s body moving. Maybe to lean further over his desk, spine sharp under the layers of his clothes. Maybe to grab more tightly at his cane. The image of it was perfect down to every strand of hair, every pore of his skin. Dazai’s eyesight faded to blue as if he were meeting his eyes.
“I never believed in it,” he said. “Fate, soulmates. The grand destiny of things. Until I met you.”
“Dazai,” Chuuya replied shakily. “Just activate the reactor and go.”
He had said come back earlier as they went into the fray. He didn’t say it this time, just as Dazai had never replied he would. Just as they had never said all the things they needed to.
As he was now, stranded between worlds, alone in his own body and his own mind, with Chuuya’s voice beating alongside his heart… Dazai couldn’t understand why.
There was no fear anymore.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have time to leave,” he said.
He smiled in spite of the agonized breath Chuuya sucked in. The door budged under his efforts, not enough to grasp the lever behind it, not yet. Double Black fell closer and closer to the world of their enemies, farther away from Earth, from Chuuya, but Dazai felt no hurry. His head was so very light with the absence of everything that had kept him shriveled up and terrified. So very clear.
“I’m doing this for you,” he told Chuuya.
Tranquility and acceptance and joy—those he could feel, more brightly than he had in years, shining now that the abject terror was gone. The slow and sure knowledge of what was about to happen made all worry pointless.
“I don’t care about humanity. I don’t care about saving the world. But saving you…”
“Turn on the damn thing and leave!”
“I never realized it like this before,” he continued. “I was never fighting to save the world. I was fighting to save you.”
He felt so absurdly, so completely foolish for not having said it earlier.
“You being alive—it’s the only thing I want. I don’t need anything else.”
Earth would thrive anew with life and it would thrive still with Chuuya, and those were all the reasons Dazai piloted at all. They had always been.
“Don’t you dare,” Chuuya cut in. Snarl and tooth and nail, like a feral, hurt animal. “Don’t say another word.“
The door opened.
Chuuya took in another trembling breath, one that Dazai felt shake through his chest, where he had carried Chuuya with him from the moment they had met. In and out of the drift.
“I’m so stupid,” he said. His voice was thin from lack of air, but he could barely feel his lungs suffocate next to the elation of what he now understood. “I never needed the drift to talk to you at all.”
Whatever Chuuya tried to reply broke into a wordless moan.
“I love you,” Dazai said, grabbing the lever. “I’m sorry for being such a coward.”
They were the easiest, truest words he had ever spoken.
“I love you.”
The comm room had emptied the moment Dazai had said he needed to use the manual override.
Whatever it was out of—deference, respect, early celebration—Chuuya cared very little. He listened to Dazai’s words with numbness coursing through him, shaking over the dashboard in a way that couldn’t be caused by pain and tremors alone. It was a distant sort of ache. Like standing at the very edge of realization and refusing to look, knowing that only a precipice stood on the other side.
Chuuya would’ve welcomed the pain tenfold, welcomed the constant trembling of his limbs with open hands and an open heart, instead of feeling the way he did now.
“I love you,” Dazai said, and Chuuya’s heart split open and bled.
“No,” he replied. He dropped his cane to lean over the desk and pressed the mic against his lips, as if he could slither his soul through to where Dazai was and scream it in his face instead—”No. Not like this.“
Not like this. Never like this.
But Dazai didn’t listen. He didn’t stop. He laughed over line, the sound of it faint, not enough to breathe sunlight though Chuuya’s chest as it had so many times before.
“I love you so much,” Dazai repeated, bright with absolute honesty. “I never thought it was possible to love someone like that.”
Chuuya keeled over the desk, legs giving out, falling to his knees. Even the pain of hitting the floor wasn’t enough to gap the hole that loss was already digging in him. His eyes burned without end, wet tears trailing hotly over his face, and his leg was nothing at all against the fire crawling up his neck.
“Please,” he rasped out. “Please, don’t—”
His throat closed up before he could finish.
Dazai’s voice was gentle and open, a voice Chuuya had craved to hear again for years without allowing himself to.“We both figured it out the first time we drifted, didn’t we?”
Chuuya closed his eyes, and wept, and grieved.
Dazai went on, unhurried, smoothing over the countdown that had started ringing on the biggest of the screens. A balm and an open flame both. Speaking of a love greater than they both felt the right to.
Chuuya didn’t need his words to think again what he had thought at eighteen—opening his soul to that of a stranger, wary and angry and then full of wonder. Like finding the last piece of a long-forgotten puzzle. Like opening his eyes and realizing what he had thought to be green was blue, what he had thought to be true was a lie all along.
He remembered understanding that he had been living wounded; he remembered what it was like not to feel pain for the first time.
Hello, they both thought, then and now. Dazai smiling, Chuuya wrecked with sobs. It’s so good to meet you.
I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Dazai said with endless truth on his voice. “I wouldn’t change anything. If I could do it again, have a different life, I’d just end up running to you all over again. I don’t think I’m capable of living any other way. I’m getting in the pod now, but…”
Fifty seconds to core meltdown, the countdown said.
“Chuuya,” Dazai murmured. “Thank you for existing in my lifetime.”
Chuuya curled in on himself until his forehead touched the floor. His leg screamed from supporting his weight, his body thrummed with pain from the memory of being ripped apart—and he thought he would take it all, that and the agony of recovery, take it all over again thousands and thousands of times, so he wouldn’t have to suffer through having to speak what he must.
“I love you too,” he cried, lips pressed onto the mic. His chest heaved, every breath loud and bruising, and his tongue seared with each word as if they were his last. “Of course I do.”
This time, Dazai’s laughter felt warm. It ran liquid through Chuuya’s veins. It settled in Chuuya’s heart as if drawn in by the piece of his soul that had never left at all.
The line died when Dazai’s pod flew out of the jaeger’s body.
Chuuya counted every second between then and the destruction of the breach. The three-dimension model of it that sat on Alcott’s desk crumbled into light dust, and he heard cheers and howls through the closed doors of the room, from where everyone had gathered to watch the world be freed. He didn’t move.
He counted the seconds, chest hollowed out and lungs empty. Kneeling paralyzed on the floor of the deserted room. There was no room left for anything but grief, no space between ribs for something like a heart; Chuuya heaved, fractured time slipping out of his grasp, the raw edges of the drift seeping blood once again.