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Build Upon The Ruins

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Build Upon The Ruins
Chapter 1

"One of these days," Chuuya told him, "you're going to get us fucking killed."

There had been nothing but humor and exhausted relief on his voice, nothing but heavy affection in his mind. Even back in the medical ward and in the process of getting dressed down by busy hands, surrounded by congratulatory shouts, the neural handshake felt like it lingered. In those days Dazai thought it would never leave completely. He thought he would wake up an old man one day and not need to extend so much as a hand to the bed above his to know Chuuya's every thought like they were his own.

It didn't matter how unlikely they both were to live that long—or that Chuuya's warning probably held more truth than all of his imagination.

He had given Chuuya's sweat drenched body a wordless leer as it unraveled from the black pilot suit. Chuuya had laughed from deep in his throat, and Dazai had felt it through his own ribs.

They had showered and changed, eventually. Gone to meet with their boss and to receive more official forms of congratulations. It was back when kaiju attacks were scarce enough that the construction teams had time to carve medals into Double Black's giant metallic breast, one for each enemy felled. Chuuya and him watched them add the twelfth kill in shades of green and gold. Those were the colors of Hammerhead's hide before its blood dyed it electric blue.

"New record, huh," Chuuya said around his straw.

Dazai hummed, chewing slowly on his food. Stew, with actual bread. Delicacies for victors. "And the first category three kaiju," he replied. "Not bad for social misfits, right? We're superheroes."

"Are you calling me a social misfit?"

Dazai grinned. If anything Chuuya was more of a social misfit than he was. He wasn't the one covered in hand-poked tattoos.

They had both been sitting on the edge of a balcony-corridor in Hong Kong's shatterdome, feet dangling into the void beneath them and meals cooling over their laps. Dazai didn't once turn his head to look at Chuuya beside him and knew Chuuya felt no need to either. The drift was still hovering between them.

"Kajii says things are gonna get tougher," Chuuya muttered.

"Kajii's a bit of a dreamer, isn't he?"

"Dazai." Dazai slurped loudly on his own drink, the corner of his mouth tilted toward a grin, and he heard Chuuya groan. "Don't get cocky. We can't afford to fail."

"Then we won't."

It was that simple. Kaiju were few and far-between; human wars had been abandoned to focus all efforts on fighting them; jaegers were being built faster than the monsters came, and they were winning. Double Black especially was winning.

Twelve kills in twelve deployments.

"We're not going to lose," Dazai declared, hitting his heel against the ledge of the balcony like a judge might his gavel. "You're adequate, and I'm a genius."

"How your inflated fucking head even fits in that helmet, I'll never know."

"It's just logic, Chuuya," and that was another kind of pleasure outside of the sheer rush of having Chuuya in his head—knowing that Chuuya had shivered at the sound of his name, knowing he'd be able to find the memory of it the next time they drifted. Knowing he'd gloat about it with no words and feel Chuuya's fond irritation run up his own spine hotly.

Dazai folded his arms above the thin barrier keeping them from falling and rested his chin on them. When he turned his head sideways, Chuuya turned his as well, meeting his eyes evenly.

"You should know my strategies never fail," he told him.

Dazai couldn't tell why this specific memory stuck to him in the weeks that followed his failure. It wasn't the words he said, because he had said them so many times and in so many different ways, both before and after the Hammerhead fight. It wasn't Chuuya's warning, because Chuuya had warned him just as often. It wasn't even that the food had been better that day than usual—or that Yosano tracked them down fifteen minutes later with a terrifying smile on her face and threatened to drag them both back to the infirmary by their scalp if they thought of escaping again before she was sure they were in perfect physical condition. Dazai was pretty sure they both remembered that scolding starkly.

Maybe it was just the sight of Chuuya himself, bruised from the neck down because Double Black had swerved dangerously after taking a hit on the side of its body that he controlled. The orange light above them falling so gently on his face. The fact that Kouyou had tied his hair into a bun that Chuuya hadn't had the energy to dislodge yet. Dazai's eyes kept following the rarely-seen curve of his nape and he kept thinking, faintly, that he wanted to touch it—thinking, faintly, that Chuuya would be able to find that memory and gloat right back.

Maybe it was the fact that he never did touch Chuuya's nape. Not that day, and not any other day until Double Black fell.

Whatever it was, Dazai thought about it every day. He lay in one of the infirmary's beds with broken ribs and a broken arm, turned sideways as far as he could to watch Chuuya's unconscious form on the other side of the room, and he thought about it. He replayed every second of it behind his eyelids as he slept. He tweaked the details of it from the day he woke up to the day Chuuya woke up, fitting his own breathing to the pace of Chuuya's, searching for any twitch of Chuuya's body, any sign that he would crawl out of his coma and look at Dazai with recognition in his eyes.

In the dreams he created during the two weeks Chuuya slept, they weren't sitting five feet apart. Dazai imagined them thigh-to-thigh in front of Double Black's giant body, watching laughing men carve a fake medal into its chest, high from victory. He imagined Chuuya's warmth against his side fighting off the chill of the dome more efficiently than the food had. In his mind Dazai never said those words that Chuuya warned him against; instead he lifted a hand to tuck a stray strand of Chuuya's hair behind his ear, and then he rested his palm over Chuuya's nape and felt Chuuya's goosebumps against his fingers.

Dazai didn't know why he kept thinking about it, but he twisted the memory around until he could convince himself he had felt Chuuya's neck fit into the soft of his hand. It was barely any help—like burn balm around the edges of an open wound, or band-aids on spilled guts. But Dazai wanted to fool himself into thinking he could still carry a bit of Chuuya in him like this, if he could never have him in his mind again. Warm skin and soft hair in the hollow of his palm.

 


 


 

In the pseudo-military hierarchy of those who piloted jaegers and those who ordered them around, Ozaki Kouyou was, to the great displeasure of most world leaders, at the top of the food chain.

Some of the spite was because she was so damn clever. Most of it was because she was a woman. More rarely now, protest of her authority came from those who couldn't see past the fact that she used to be a criminal until she was found to be able to drift and pilot. The irony of it was sweet. So many of the world's prized jaeger pilots used to live outside the law—Dazai included.

Dazai had met Kouyou when she still walked around between kaiju attacks wearing silk and sword. She and her copilot Fukuzawa made a right sight next to all the men and women in uniforms of Yokohama's jaeger dock, where Dazai had undergone his own training. Now Fukuzawa was no more, and Kouyou wore suits, but she kept her hair up with silver ornaments and her lips painted a garish orange.

"We're getting shut down," she announced in stead of a greeting when he stepped into her office. She gestured to the chair in front of her desk, and Dazai sat in it obediently.

"Well, it's nothing we didn't expect," he replied.

"You could stand to show more concern over humanity's imminent end."

It made him smile tightly. Dazai had never cared about humanity even as a pilot, and they both knew it. "There's still the coastal wall," he said, accepting the tea she poured for him. He blew gently on it before taking a sip. "How's that going, by the way?"

"Tragically," Kouyou replied dryly.

They drank in silence for a while, Kouyou looking troubled, Dazai fighting the sweaty discomfort of the Australian weather and trying to think of any good reason she could have summoned him. The tea settled his stomach but didn't help with the sweat.

"We'll be leaving for Yokohama tomorrow," Kouyou said into her cup. "All the remaining jaegers have been moved already, we just need to take Tiger Claw there with us."

"I still hate that name."

It tore a tiny smile out of her, which Dazai counted as a point in his favor. "It's already taken to the public," she indulged him. "Even your schemes can't sway them now, Dazai-kun."

"Fair enough," Dazai replied, leaning back in his chair, cup secure in his lap.

"Still," Kouyou continued more softly. "We're woefully underarmed."

There were only four active jaegers left. Kouyou didn't allow morale to fall, stood for no speculation of doom and despair, but she was too smart not to understand that with no money to keep repairing what was broken, let alone build anew, they would soon be sitting ducks.

"Are you excited to go home?" Dazai asked, looking down at the desktop. It looked as carefully disorganized as Chuuya's. "We haven't been in Yokohama in a while."

She snorted. "As excited as I'll ever be to bring the destruction back there."

"Better one city than the rest of the world."

"And what of the rest of the world once the kaiju are done killing the rangers we have left?" she asked heavily.

He met her eyes under his lashes and brought his tea back to his lips as he spoke. "There's still the wall," he repeated.

Kouyou watched him for an uncomfortably long moment, unreadable, looking much older than her thirty years. Dazai was reminded of the day Fukuzawa had died and the way she had looked for months afterward, all of her single-minded focus turned toward making sure she could lead them even if she couldn't fight alongside them.

Kouyou was a terrifying woman. He never appreciated it enough until he was the target of her intent.

"Dazai-kun," she said, and Dazai's spine steeled at the sound of her voice reflexively, "Double Black is in perfect fighting condition."

He said nothing.

"I know you don't want to go back," she continued. He didn't know what was worse between the edge of command in her tone or that of her deep empathy. "But we can't afford to let a jaeger stand unused just to spare you."

"I can't go back," he replied conversationally, meeting her eyes and then looking at the windows behind her.

What was left of Sydney sprawled like a painting under her office, gutted buildings and spilled stone littering the beaches as far as the eye could see. Behind them stood only the wall, awfully thin, completely useless.

"My copilot can't fight anymore," he went on. He set the cup back onto her desk and shrugged, apologetic. "I can't pilot it on my own. Well, I can, but that didn't turn out too well for the both of us when we tried, did it?"

It was a cheap jab, and Kouyou was above getting hurt by it. If anything her expression turned more pitying than before. Dazai let himself smile coldly in answer.

"You'll find a new copilot," she said, in her brisk marshall voice. "I'm deploying Double Black again, whether you want to or not."

"You can't make me pilot it."

"I can throw you out if you refuse."

Dazai's grin thinned. "Chuuya will leave if I leave," he threatened.

"Yes," she replied sadly. "Which is why I know you won't force him to make that choice."

Her stare was implacable, hardened by grief and by years of having to enforce orders that the people in her command should have followed with no question. Dazai held it for as long as he could before looking away, and he tasted metal on his tongue, sharp and bitter.

"I can't pilot with anyone but him," he said.

"You can." Her expression softened unbearably—he clenched his teeth. "It won't be the same. It won't be as easy. But you can."

He couldn't.

Dazai hadn't had anyone in his head since the day he felt Chuuya be torn away from him. He tried for a second to imagine anyone settling into the gap there that had never shut down—tried and recoiled almost physically, nausea swelling in his throat.

"I can't," he said. Keeping his voice even was a struggle.

"Dazai-kun," Kouyou said softly, as if she were still the woman that Dazai had come to view as a sister by virtue of Chuuya seeing her as one—as if he still had a right to the memories these two had shared before he met them and which he had browsed so greedily, taken for granted, taken for his. "I've let you off for the past four years because I understand. God knows sometimes I wish…" she didn't end her thought, but he didn't need her to.

Dazai eyed the back of the photograph she kept among her papers and pens. It was tiny thing in a white frame. He knew Kouyou stood in it with a hand around Fukuzawa's elbow, her other arm spread around Chuuya's back, Chuuya's wrist resting on Dazai's shoulder. Posing for that picture was one of the few times Dazai could remember seeing Fukuzawa Yukichi smile.

He wondered if Kouyou woke up at night with grief paralyzing her, with her mind an open wound, and how she dealt with it with Fukuzawa dead. He knew he wouldn't be alive if Chuuya had died.

"We've lost three jaegers in the past six months, and twice as many pilots," Kouyou said. "We're gathering what we have left in Yokohama and using every bit of money we can get our hands on to go after the breach." He startled, the obvious protest already at his lips, but she waved a hand between them in dismissal. "You can be with us or you can leave, but know that I'll be using Double Black either way, even if I have to put a duo of hotheaded fools with no experience to die in it. It's your choice."

He was saved from answering by the alarm that started ringing through the base.

Kouyou's back straightened under the sharp lines of her suit. She took her fingers away from the handle of her cup and left it mostly untouched; a moment later someone was knocking on the door of her office and entering in a hurry, and Dazai stood up and stepped aside.

"Category four kaiju forty kilometers off the—oh, hi, Dazai-san," Tanizaki let out, panting. For a second his eyes flicked between Kouyou and Dazai, before he decided to apparently leave anything Dazai-related for later questioning. "It's a big one, boss," he told Kouyou. "Heading straight for us."

"Get Nakajima and Akutagawa suited up," Kouyou said, hand over the communication lines—Dazai heard the static quality of Chuuya's voice reply, "On it," and decided to take it as a cue to leave.

"Dazai," Kouyou called.

He stilled, one foot out of the room and one foot in.

"You don't have to do it for humanity if you don't want to," she said, gentle as a steel trap. "Do it for something you care about. Do it for Chuuya."

His grip faltered on the frame of the door. "That's cheating, ane-san," he replied.

Her gaze softened at the nickname, but not her resolve. "You have the rest of the day to decide. Either pack your bags and leave or come with us to Yokohama and fight."

 


 

Dazai heard the sounds of Tiger Claw being deployed echo through the entire base as he walked to the communications unit. Tons of metal being moved around and lifted by choppers did not do so without noise; the walls shook with it no matter how sturdy they were, and in corridors plated with steel, it was like feeling the world vibrate.

Everyone he passed by exhaled a collective sigh of relief once the machine took off.

Dazai exchanged a nod with Yosano when he entered the room. She always came here when jaegers were deployed—she liked to know the sorts of injuries she'd have to treat in advance, something she'd taken to doing very early on. Dazai didn't talk to any of the busy workers in the place who were watching over all of Atsushi and Akutagawa's vitals, just slithered up the room all the way to the wide window overseeing the hangar, next to where Chuuya stood.

Chuuya himself only gave him a glance of acknowledgement before looking down at the screens again. Dazai smiled and took over the mic.

"Feeling good about this, boys?" he asked.

"Dazai-san?" That was Atsushi.

"The one and only." He grabbed the tablet Chuuya handed him and glanced over the numbers on it. It was easy enough to focus on the task at hand rather than let Kouyou's threats linger in his head. "Looks like you're about to break a new record. Four point five thousand tons, this baby is."

"Is it the biggest yet?"

"Yes," Akutagawa replied. "The previous record weight observed was—"

"You know you don't have to say it, right, I can hear you think loud and clear."

Some of the heavy tension in the room lessened at the sound of their chatter. Dazai saw Chuuya's grip on his cane relax until his knuckles weren't so white anymore, and he straightened up, letting the tablet fall onto the desk as he did. Chuuya raised his free hand, and Dazai put the mic in it.

"Let's get to work," Chuuya said. "We've managed to bring back all the ships we knew of, so unless this thing reaches the wall, you don't have to worry about casualties." He smiled, feral, still like the criminal he'd once been. "Go all out, kids."

"Roger that," Akutagawa answered, voice wispy with excitement.

"And come back in one goddamn piece!" Yosano yelled from her end of the room.

The comm shut off to the sound of Atsushi's laughter.

Dazai let himself fall into a chair, swerving it around until he faced the room once more. Tanizaki had joined them—he gave Dazai a thumb up before sitting at his own desk.

Chuuya's cane hit the foot of the chair. "Get up," he said lowly. "Stop acting like your job's done already."

"But my job is done," Dazai protested, looking up at him. "I have utter faith in my little students."

"Your boy wonders are good, but they're not that good. This is still the heaviest piece of shit we've had to deal with yet."

"Language," Kouyou said, entering the room.

They stopped looking at each other to look at her instead—and Dazai looked away quickly, once he noticed how she stared between the two of them and then at Dazai, heavily.

After that was just any other day.

He kept his hands easy and open over the arms of the chair, glancing between the many screens that either showed the front of Tiger Claw or its back, or Atsushi and Akutagawa themselves in the head of the jaeger. He observed the strength of their drift, higher with every deployment, crawling closer and closer to the kind of stability only observed between two unrelated individuals when he and Chuuya rode. It was only a matter of time before that record was broken too.

He saw Bull, the aptly-named kaiju, rush headfirst into the belly of the machine; he held his breath alongside the other people in the room from hearing Atsushi and Akutagawa grunt in pain, watched with tightly-controlled nerve as the fastest jaeger in the world outran the monster to plunge sword-like hands into its spine time and time again for what felt like hours. Through all of it Atsushi and Akutagawa were silent. Connected at a level too deep to need words.

Finally, Bull went under, and didn't come back up. The sea around it bled into a sickly blue.

"He's down," said Akutagawa.

Chuuya didn't answer until he got a confirming nod from Tanizaki. "All right," he said. "Now get the fuck back home."

His grip stayed harsh on the pommel of the cane despite the cheers and sighs echoing through the room, not relaxing even when Atsushi and Akutagawa started listing their injuries to Yosano over the comm—bruises, and maybe a sprained wrist, nothing bad at all. But Dazai knew it wouldn't soften until Atsushi and Akutagawa were safely out of the jaeger. He spread his own fingers in his lap, left his shoulders lax, eased his own limbs out of tension meticulously, as he would have years ago when Chuuya could feel him do it.

Chuuya couldn't feel him do it now. And so Dazai watched his hand whiten, still as stone, and didn't try to extend his own to touch it.

 


 

Once upon a time kaiju attacks had been rare enough that one took an entire day, sometimes an entire week, out of any base's schedule. Nowadays it took less than an hour for life to resume and work to pile up. By the time Atsushi and Akutagawa were being seen to by Yosano and Tanizaki Naomi, lunch was being served again in the mess hall.

Dazai was stopped from avoiding going there by Chuuya's hand around his wrist.

"Not hungry," he said.

"Do I look like I give a shit?" Chuuya replied.

Dazai could free himself easily, but not without risking hurting him, so he didn't. He let Chuuya push him in direction of the farthest table, thanking Tanizaki when he brought the both of them food a minute or so later—though Tanizaki had put less of it in Dazai's plate than Chuuya's. He was probably mad that Dazai hadn't just gone to fetch his own meal.

"You weren't around this morning," Chuuya said, putting his cane on the table next to their trays. Some of the tense lines on his face eased after he sat.

"Bad day?" Dazai answered mildly.

"We got attacked after less than a month. Of course it's a bad day."

"I can sneak some painkillers out of Yosano's office if you want. By painkillers, I mean weed, of course."

"She'll kill you," Chuuya replied, but he was grinning. "And stop trying to avoid this conversation, bastard, I know you talked to Kouyou this morning."

"She did invite me for tea," he mused. "Lovely woman. Lovely suit."

Chuuya stared at him with very unimpressed eyes. He reached for the pot of water next to them, and this time only Dazai's quick reflexes prevented its content from spilling over when tremors started halfway through pouring it into their glasses—he braced his own palm against the other side of the pot until Chuuya set it down.

"Shit," Chuuya said. He flattened his hand against the tabletop, but the tremors didn't stop.

"Should I—"

"It's fine. Just give me some water, I'm parched."

Dazai obliged, filling their glasses himself. Chuuya downed his like a drowning man, irritated as he always was when the muscle weakness acted up, but he didn't look like he was in too much pain.

"You okay?" Dazai asked anyway. It came out more softly than he intended.

Chuuya watched his face for a second too long before answering, his own mouth slipping into a small smile. "Yeah," he replied. He put his shaking hand in his lap where Dazai couldn't see it. "I'm okay."

Dazai focused on his plate after that. It was easier to pretend his face was flush from the steaming potatoes in it than because he hadn't seen Chuuya smile at him like that in a while.

They ate in silence, surrounded by the high mood that always followed wins with no casualties. The war clock up on the wall had been set back to zero the moment Bull was confirmed dead; many people in the room kept glancing at it in relief, hoping for days and weeks with no new attack.

"Dazai," Chuuya said lowly. His eyes were somber when Dazai looked back at him, enough to make him put down his fork. "What did you tell Kouyou?"

And then Dazai recognized the strain in Chuuya's behavior for what it was: guilt.

"You're the one who put her up to it," he accused.

The guilt disappeared immediately, and Chuuya clicked his tongue before answering. "Yeah, I did. We need you out there in the field."

In a way, this was easier. Chuuya was easier to argue with than anyone else Dazai knew.

"No one needs me," he replied, crossing his legs under the table, making sure not to hit Chuuya's in the process. "Kouyou said it herself—she can put any compatible pair of idiots she wants up there."

"Sometimes I really can't tell if you're stupid or just fucking delusional," Chuuya hissed, voice going lower but no less angry. "Of course she can't. You can't just put newbies in a jaeger and hope the jaeger doesn't collapse on them."

"It's what they did with us."

"Yeah, because they could afford to!"

Some heads turned their way. Dazai waved a friendly hand at those he recognized, making most blush in embarrassment and look away, while Chuuya swore under his breath and gathered his calm back.

"It was different back then," Chuuya said once all the onlookers were taken care of. "We kept building more and more machines. We kept training pilots. We had money. Now we don't have any of that. If you think Kouyou will risk anyone except you stepping into Double Black then you're dumber than I thought. It's either you or no one, Dazai."

"Well, that's too bad," Dazai replied coldly, "because I don't have a copilot anymore."

Meeting Chuuya's eyes in that moment felt like staring directly at the sun. Dazai saw his words worm their way through Chuuya's mind, saw Chuuya clench his jaw against the same ache that he always felt in his chest, the gape where he should be but wasn't—would never be again—and he didn't look away.

Chuuya inhaled deeply. His words were quiet when he spoke again. "You can find a new copilot."

It hurt infinitely more coming out of his mouth than out of Kouyou's.

"Do you really think that, Chuuya?" Dazai murmured. "You've been in my head. You know how I am. Do you think anyone out there can handle me?"

"Any moron could handle you."

Dazai's lips twitched despite themselves. "One sure did," he agreed.

He saw the struggle not to smile on Chuuya's face easily, though Chuuya's lips never moved one way or the other. His satisfaction died when Chuuya's hand reemerged from under the table and crossed the distance between them, gripping his wrist. It wasn't shaking anymore.

"If I could," Chuuya said. He stopped to breathe in, to look into Dazai's eyes as if to make sure Dazai heard him, regardless of how short the distance between them was. "If I could, I'd be up there with you in a second. You know that."

"I know," Dazai managed to reply.

"Hell, I told Kouyou I would if she didn't find anyone else—"

"Of course you did," he cut off, not wanting to hear more because the thought alone sent spikes of agonizing fear through his chest, almost enough to make him suffocate. He swallowed all of it down with a smile and gently tugged his arm out of Chuuya's weak grip. "Fortunately for us both, she'd lock you up in the bunker if you tried."

Dazai would gladly help her with that.

Chuuya huffed. "Not like I could lift a finger of that thing anyway with my body the way it is," he mumbled.

The hall was emptying itself now. Meals were always a quick affair in all the jaeger bases that Dazai had lived in. People were never short of work. Relaxation happened behind closed doors, in smaller committees, in bedrooms and empty hallways and the occasional TV room. Dazai watched the tables around them become deserted and people starting to clean the floor, and he knew Chuuya's good leg would start twitching under the table soon, eager to get back upstairs.

"So I'm just supposed to allow whatever bright-eyed idiot Kouyou picks inside my head," he said at last. "Just like that. Drift and fight."

"Not just any bright-eyed idiot." He looked at Chuuya with an eyebrow raised, and Chuuya raised his in answer mockingly. "I'm the one who convinced her to kick your ass in gear—did you think I'd let anyone else supervise the candidates?"

"I guess not," he replied slowly.

Doesn't it bother you, he wanted to ask, the idea of someone else in my head? But he wouldn't know how to react even if it did bother Chuuya, so he cut that line of thought in the making.

Such sentimentality had no place between them anymore.

"Look, Dazai…" Chuuya worried his bottom lip between his teeth for a second, a surprisingly childish gesture for someone going on twenty-seven, but one he had never managed to get rid of for as long as Dazai had known him. Eight years now. "It's not like you've been idle or anything. Akutagawa and Nakajima are better trained than any of us were at that age, thanks to you." He nodded his head. "But we're desperate. I don't especially want you out there when I'm—"

He didn't finish his sentence. Dazai watched the leftover food in his plate wordlessly.

"You're the best pilot we've ever had," Chuuya said finally. "Sometimes I could've sworn you were suicidal, but… You've never lost a single fight. Fifteen deployments, fifteen kills. No one's ever done that before."

Fifteen deployments, fifteen kills, and one terrible, terrible mistake.

"We're going after the breach with everything we have left," Chuuya continued, tension stark in his voice and in the line of his shoulders. "We can't do this without you."

Dazai spread his hands widely over the sides of his tray and asked, "If I left, would you come with me?"

The way Chuuya stared at him felt like shackles around him, trapping him in a single still second, like gravity had lifted everywhere but under his seat on the wooden bench.

"No," Chuuya lied.

Dazai turned sideways. His legs lifted up and above the bench to rest on its other side, turning his back to the table. He pushed himself to his feet and stretched his arm above his head, feeling the weight of Chuuya's eyes on his nape all the while.

"So," he said, staring unseeingly at the empty corner of the hall. "Got your eyes on any specific candidates?"

He heard Chuuya stand up with more difficulty. He relented on the turned-back treatment once he realized Chuuya was trying to carry both of their trays one-handed—he rolled his eyes and took them from him, ignoring the glare Chuuya gave him and walking toward the exit. Haruno took their trays with a quiet word of thanks once they reached the door.

"I have one guy in mind, though you'll have to run through them all, of course," Chuuya said amidst the sound of their footsteps and the louder tapping of his cane on the floor. "Perfect simulation scores, excellent martial artist. Stubborn as a fucking mule."

"Sounds familiar."

"Heh. You're going to hate him."

Dazai pressed the button of the elevator with a smile tugging at his lips. "Like I said," he replied. "Sounds familiar."

It wasn't until the doors closed behind them that Chuuya let his shoulders drop and some of his fatigue show. He, too, looked older than he was. The harsh white light made his face look ill and washed his hair of all color. Chuuya leaned against the wall, dropping his cane into the corner so he could tug his hair free and then tie it again properly. He looked up at Dazai when he was done and whispered, "Thank you."

Such heavy words.

Dazai looked at the door to his left. "You're wrong, by the way," he started.

"About what?"

His smile felt hollow. The elevator stuttered into a stop on the tenth floor, and Dazai stepped out first, letting Chuuya fall in line behind him.

"We killed fifteen kaiju," he said lowly. The sound of it was almost drowned by the habitual rush of voices and beeping and hurried steps. "But I lost one fight."