Title: Lone Crow
Word Count: ~5200
Characters: Karasu, Fukurou, Haruka
Pairings: Karasu/La'Cryma!Haruka, Karasu/Fukurou
Genre: hurt/comfort, angst, romance, friendship, character study
Contains: slash, het, sexual situations, canonical character death, traumatic grief, PTSD
Summary: Where Haruka saw a way forward, Karasu sees nothing but dead ends. Fill for the Round Two May challenge for HC Bingo amnesty (rare fandom: fighting, mental health issues). Thanks to thecert/certs_up for beta work!
They walk the same corridor, in different directions.
Flanked by an honor guard and handmaidens of the Lady Amamiku, Haruka is making her way toward the Reizu Simulator, the quantum computer that will only fully succeed in establishing La'Cryma's existence in the face of Shangri-La's onslaught when she dies to become one with it.
Karasu walks toward a day that wouldn't exist without her sacrifice, or so the Council says. But catching up to her had been Karasu's only motivation, and now it feels like his viscera are unwinding in a red trail that leads back to where they parted.
It hardly matters where he goes now, and Fukurou steers him back to the barracks through a static field of pain. Dragon Soldiers from another unit keep pace with them before and behind, Kuina at their head. Nobody speaks. It's the silence before a faceship falls to earth.
"You've always protected me, protected everyone," she had whispered against his ear, cheek pressed to his, and it's still the only thing he can hear. "Now let me protect you."
She'd made him promise.
There had been other words, too, words of love meant to comfort. Words and comfort both slip through his grasp like moonlight, like Haruka herself, like the air his lungs won't hold, and his hands clench on nothing, as ineffectual as he is.
"Steady," Fukurou mutters, a hand tightening on his shoulder in comfort and warning. The nearest soldier to his right shifts his grip on his shock stick.
It's much farther to the barracks than to the Reizu Simulator, and the inside of his uniform is clammy with sweat that has nothing to do with their pace. He promised her, Karasu repeats to himself again and again, he promised, he promised. As they pass through the spiraling corridor, hatches close behind them, one for each quarter mile. Karasu counts them. At the sixth, he begins to shake. When the eighth door slams shut against his back, the eighth barrier between him and Haruka, he spins, wrenching out of Fukurou's grasp, because she's dying, somewhere beyond his reach she's dying alone, and there has to be some way --
"Drop him." Kuina's voice is resigned.
The blow hits like the closing of a final door.
When Karasu wakes upside-down in the buzzing ambient pain of the isolation chamber, his first thought is that Haruka is dead. No emotion accompanies the knowledge, as if the chamber is holding his mind and heart as immobile as his body, but since it's not his first time here he knows that's not true. All that's left is a howling void, a stifled keening, and his lungs strain against the bonds holding him in place.
Eventually that dies, too.
* * * * *
"Karasu. Karasu. Dammit, Yuu, wake up."
He's not sleeping, but it's some moments before his eyes focus on Fukurou.
"Kuina gave me five minutes. I'm busting you out of here," Fukurou says, barely loud enough to hear through the chamber's electric interference.
Karasu blinks, slowly. "Why?"
"You think this is doing you any good? You think we don't need you out in the field?"
"It doesn't matter."
"The hell it doesn't. Why do you think Haruka --" Fukurou breaks off on a jagged breath, leaving Karasu no illusions that there might have been some last-minute reprieve.
This isn't happening. This can't be happening. It echoes through his body like a drumbeat.
Fukurou has turned away, tapping the chamber's datapad. The pressure in the air stutters, and the sudden lack of it sears his insides with panic, because it's the only thing keeping the chaos inside him from gushing out in a black flood --
As Karasu's body flops down, Fukurou catches him, and they sink to the floor. Karasu's ragged panting echoes through the empty hallway.
"Sorry, I know my knees make a shitty pillow," Fukurou says, startling Karasu into a laugh that breaks apart almost before it's begun. His eyes and throat burn.
"She's gone, Isami," he chokes out. "I couldn't save her."
"Yeah." Fukurou's head bows, all jocularity drained away. "She's the one that saved us."
* * * * *
Her death does not stop Shangri-La's advance.
It's the final, vicious jest of a universe where the very air has gone gray. Karasu drifts down gunmetal corridors toward empty doorways as if he'll find something on the other side, only to realize he no longer knows where he's headed or why he was going.
In the midst of his wanderings, Ai hunts him down. He reverses course.
"Karasu, wait," she calls, as if she has business with him, as if he gives a damn about any of her condolences or explanations. It's not fair to hold her responsible, he tells himself. She was only the Amamiku's apprentice, with no more power over Haruka's fate than he'd had himself. (And as supposed beneficiaries of her sacrifice, weren't they all responsible?) But when the staccato tapping of her gait closes in behind him, he rounds on her in a fury.
"You said it was necessary." Karasu's fist slams into the wall, making Ai flinch, though she tries to hide it with a scowl. "You said it was the ONLY thing that--"
"It was never going to end the war," she snaps, and that shuts him up. "Haruka had the latent power to see all dimensions, all possibilities. She became our ultimate observer to fix our dimension in existence, so that Shangri-La can no longer unravel La'Cryma at the quantum level. But that doesn't mean they can't still send ships to take us apart piece by piece. We'll be fighting this war until Shangri-La realizes we're not giving up."
He stares at her, hollow-eyed. They've taken the life of the one bright being in this universe so that La'Cryma can continue struggling atop the ruins of civilization for all of time?
"You're telling me that Haruka had the ability to establish objective reality," he says, speaking slowly, because something is bubbling up through the colorless haze that he doesn't want to let out, "and this is what they did with it?"
Ai looks away. "The short explanation is that there's only so much a human mind chained to flesh can do against the sort of invasion Shangri-La is mounting. A body needs sleep, for one." Her eyes glimmer, and she blinks rapidly. "But when they first told me, I thought the same thing."
The grief in her face makes him unable to hate her. His voice cracks as he says, "How could you do it, Ai?"
Even as she wipes away tears, her gaze is steady. "In the end? Because Haruka wanted us to."
Karasu's eyes clench shut, trying to block out the terrible knowledge that's already painted him from the inside, because, in the end, that's why he let it happen.
"Do you want me to take you to her?" Ai asks gently.
He can't form words through the cacophony in his head, and he finds himself nodding.
* * * * *
Drowning. They drowned her.
Karasu lets his forehead fall against the glass. It's all that holds him up.
Incredibly, she looks peaceful. Like she might wake and turn to smile at him if he let his fingers stray across her cheek.
He sinks to the floor.
Time passes in a shivery blur until, having retreated to a discreet distance, Ai returns carrying a basket.
"They didn't let me recover too many of her personal effects," she says, handing it down to him. He knows. They reassigned Haruka's home almost immediately, which only made sense given how many people in the upper levels had substandard shelter. It hadn't been his, no matter how many nights he'd spent there with her -- the Council owns him, and his proper quarters are the room he shares with Fukurou -- but when Karasu patrols that level he still has to force himself to keep walking past it, watching lights flicker in the windows and hating its new inhabitants, whoever they are, with a ferocity that disturbs even him.
Ai lingers for a moment before leaving him be.
So few, the things Haruka had left behind. The tangible things, anyway. It would have been Dr. Mayuzumi who received them, if he'd managed to angle his way onto the Council as he'd planned instead of dying in an accident that wasn't.
If he'd secured a Council seat, would Dr. Mayuzumi have let Haruka die for the sake of this world?
Even in the mad rush of Shangri-La's first wave of attacks, she'd managed to keep tokens of her family and friends, though the concert ticket with "Dad <3 Save the date!" written on it in purple ink might have started out as the contents of her pocket at the time, like the lucky chick cell phone charm from Isami. He'd known about her mother's pastel drawing of a tabby cat, sandwiched between the pages of her junior high school yearbook with silly photo booth pictures of herself, Ai, and Miho, and a few of the letters scrawled with truly embarrassing sketches he'd sent her during his time in Tokyo.
He had saved nothing beyond Haruka herself -- fleeing through the streets in a crush of terrified humanity, running flat out until the breath shrieked in their lungs, her hand clasped so tightly in his that he could feel the fine bones grinding together. Never, ever letting go.
When Karasu lifts out the next item, a white garment like the black one she wore into the tank, something small and spiky rolls off onto the floor, and he reaches for it. It's the first, tiny crow sculpture he'd whittled out of scrap wood when he received his name, a lumpy, misshapen thing, but she'd insisted he give it to her rather than throw it out. She could watch him whittle for hours, sometimes longer than he cared to work at it. His chest tight, he sets it aside in favor of the last item in the basket -- the ragged shift she'd worn the day before and laid across the back of a chair for washing, when there was enough water.
For a long time he leans against the tank, breathing in Haruka's fading scent and hoping that through the cloth Ai won't hear him weep.
* * * * *
It's been more than an hour since the Ouroborous opened up across the sky. The helix that defines its circumference expands and contracts, shimmers and hums, but nothing emerges from the disc of distorted space it encircles, leaving the squadron of Dragon Soldiers to wait, watch, and sweat. The summer heat draws the reek of rotting flesh out of the rubble -- even now, after all these years -- a ripe stench overlaid with a chemical afterburn that sears the back of Karasu's throat. Fukurou catches his eye, his expression grim.
Too much time to look, to remember those who had died in the attacks, to associate specific ruins with their identity in the Hakodate that had been, before Shangri-La reduced them first to wreckage, then to slag and debris. And maybe that's Noein's intention.
It makes Karasu feel a little sick, now, to remember how imprisoned he'd felt here as a boy, conflating his mother's expectations with the city itself, only to find himself missing it terribly in his new school in Tokyo. He had barely begun reclaiming Hakodate as his home when Shangri-La invaded. But his room was where he'd filled notebook upon notebook with math homework that had to be perfect or he was squandering his future. The city was where he'd roamed with Isami and Miho and Ai and especially with Haruka, hanging out in the park, contriving adventures, watching the city lights come to life from Mt. Hakodate. He'd seen up close what was left of the mountaintop observatory -- twisted beams and pulverized glass. After that he'd stopped looking.
Until he'd gone aboveground with Haruka. She begged him to take her so she could see the sky, and she'd seen more than that -- tearing up at the gulls calling overhead, weeping in earnest over what was left of her childhood home, searching out the few places in the ruined park where spring flowers were pushing up through the soil. To her it wasn't a ruin, but something beloved that had been grievously injured and might someday recover.
Karasu stares around at the tumbled walls and shattered concrete and the twisted streetcar laying on its side not fifty feet away, its empty windows lined with bits of glass like broken teeth, and he wishes desperately that he'd never seen this wreckage through her eyes.
* * * * *
So long as the scientists aren't seeing to tests or repairs, Ai gives Karasu unlimited access to the room that holds the Reizu Simulator, and he sometimes spends hours curled up against the glass cylinder that is Haruka's final resting place, watching her still features and aching with the memory of her vividness. Her emotions carried all the way through her out to the tips of her fingers, lighting her steps with joy, pursing her lips with disappointment, or much more rarely, drawing her whole body tight with anger, and even that is something he misses -- she had never stood for any of his bullshit when he lapsed into sullenness, and he'd been a better person for it.
Everyone here has lost someone. Most have lost many someones. All of them, from residents of Hakodate to stragglers from abroad, have exchanged the places they called home for a hole in the ground. The citizens of La'Cryma are walking wounded. And yet, they do keep walking. Miho somehow manages to keep Lily fed, healthy, and (mostly) out of trouble. Ai, now the Lady Amamiku, ventures out to the upper levels every few days to tend to her aged parents.
For the soldiers it's different. There are breakdowns. Or perhaps it's just that civilian life provides fewer public opportunities for public dissolution. Still, the ones that survive go on as soldiers do -- sparring and drilling, playing cards and telling dirty jokes. Since this war consists more of waiting for the Ouroborous to appear than fighting what comes out of it, the listlessness Karasu treads through presents little problem for his senior officers as long as he brings his grim focus to bear in training and combat. But even though Fukurou lost every last relative to the cataclysm, he manages to live for their memory, speaking of them often, with fondness and without flinching.
After the death of her oldest daughter, Karasu's grandmother had found great comfort in the religious notion that the beloved dead become powerful kami who stay with the living and help them in their everyday lives. When she died, his own mother mouthed the same words, but the comfort had eluded her. It seems like the idea should be more comforting than it is. According to the Council, in a very real sense Haruka is still with them, establishing their existence through her observation. It's a ghastly sort of appropriate that they chose someone who took such delight in everything around her.
So why does this world feel like a simulacrum made of ash and dust?
"How do you do it?" Karasu asks one evening as Fukurou flops down on his bed.
"Huh?" Fukurou grunts, rubbing his eyes.
"How do you keep going, the way you do?"
Fukurou raises his head up and blinks at him. "Well, I can hardly let that asshole Atori have all the fun. But seriously, I know what you're asking, and you may not want to hear it, but it's because Haruka gave us all another chance." Karasu almost manages not to feel pain, hearing him speak her name. "So I figure it would be pretty damn ungrateful not to keep fighting for Ai, and for Miho and Lily, and even for you, even though you don't need me to wipe your ass anymore, most of the time." He ignores the upraised middle finger Karasu shoots him. "Someday we're going to win. We're going to kick those bastards back to Shangri-La. And anything I can do to help make that happen, I will."
Karasu gazes into nothingness with an exhaustion that goes beyond fatigue or despair, trying to picture what winning will look like, feel like, without Haruka.
But he's shamed by Fukurou's words -- moreover, he knows the truth of them, and he lets war grind his edge into something keen and deadly. The discipline of it isn't comfort, but it is something to rely on when fatigue and lassitude set in, and that in turn makes him a weapon that can be relied upon. There are promotions, surgeries, and the ordeal finally pays off when he's given the power, along with Fukurou and a handful of others, not just to chip away at the invaders from Shangri-La or herd them back through the Ouroborous, but to rip them apart from the inside with the power coiled around his fists. The ferocity of flight, carving through a faceship's shield with the force of momentum -- it's exhilarating and physically torturous and the closest he's come to purpose in years. He unleashes his wires, wrenches them back, and the monstrous faces that fill his vision begin to cave in on themselves. Even as the threads anchored in his body strain and threaten to tear him apart, he takes a savage satisfaction in it.
When the Ouroborous closes and the fighting stops and the adrenaline drains away, leaving him cold and trembling in a ruined landscape among other trembling figures he no longer recognizes, he feels as though he's voided everything that makes him who he is, or maybe that something else has swallowed him up. He wonders what Haruka would make of him now, wild-eyed and bloody-handed.
You're Yuu, he hears her say, and there's encouragement in her voice. You'll always be my Yuu.
Karasu does not break down. He knows that if he does he won't be able to get back up.
* * * * *
The blood thundering in his veins drives Karasu scrambling over heaps of bodies toward the portal back to the underground city. Back to Haruka, whatever it takes. All around him in every direction are dying soldiers he does not recognize, peaceful parodies of Buddha statues with doll-like features and empty eyes and blood-slick mouths and chins. He's almost sick with terror as their limbs lurch beneath his hands and feet, because he may be the only one left alive, and somehow he has to get back to her, but the realization is creeping over him that he doesn't know the way --
Karasu jerks awake with his heart trying to hammer its way out of his chest. Letting out a shuddering sigh, he rolls over to pull Haruka to him, but his arm only tangles the sheets, and reality sinks into him like a length of sharpened steel. One nightmare into another.
He punches the pillow and burrows his face into it, trying to get his breathing under control. Breathe in, breathe out, mildew and unwashed hair -- how did she ever stand lying next to him in his miasma of fear-sweat? Back then, when he still had something to lose, the terrors came more fiercely, to the point where he could smell charred flesh, but she'd never hesitated to rock him against her and murmur soothing nonsense words and lay kisses on his brow, sweet as honeyed tea, or press them to his mouth, where they might deepen into something rich and molten and just as much a comfort. Sometimes, afterwards, he'd been ashamed of his weakness, until Haruka leaned into him and laced her fingers with his.
And sometimes Karasu had been the one to wake with Haruka's face buried in his shoulder, her breathing sharp and scared. At first she'd tried to laugh off the dreams ("I was trying to stop you from blowing up Hakodate dam. Pretty strange, huh?"), but he quickly gathered it wasn't their content that disturbed her. Once she was pulled awake gasping by a dream of endless sky over endless rippling grass, but when, baffled, he said that sounded nicer than their current circumstances, she huddled against him and shook her head fiercely. "No, it wasn't. Not at all. You don't understand, Yuu -- that's all there was. It didn't feel like a dream. It felt like I was standing right there, with the grass blowing around my ankles."
He smoothed the hair back from Haruka's face and said, "Well, if you were there, that's one nice thing about it," drawing a hiccupping laugh from her, and with his arms tight around her, she'd eventually fallen asleep with her face tucked into the crook of his neck.
Now, not for the first time since Ai had told him about Haruka's abilities, he wonders what she might have seen and taken for dreams. What might have gone differently if he had recognized the tenor of her worries as something more than the aftermath of a nightmare.
Back then, the bridge their bodies formed felt like the only solid place in the universe, and now he's falling through dead space. He would go to the Reizu Simulator, but he doesn't think he can bear the sight of her body submerged, not with the memory of the living, laughing Haruka so strong in him. How her eyes shone as she leaned in for a kiss. How his pushing up inside her made her gasp, eyelashes fluttering down and teeth catching her lower lip. How she could push him over the edge with no more than a hand on his chest and a few breathless words ("I love the sounds you make, Yuu.")
On the other side of the room, Fukurou's breathing is deep and slow and dead to the world, and Karasu rolls onto his side to take some of the pressure off his erection. He doesn't want this, he wants Haruka, but fever and nausea and need are swallowing him whole, and he'll do anything to get back to sleep if it means he can just stop thinking.
But Haruka had liked to watch him, and his utilitarian strokes just remind him of the first time they had gone beyond kissing and pressing into each other on her unmade bed. Shy and eager in equal measures, she had wanted to see how he touched himself before she tried it. Sitting flush against him, her eyes were wide as she watched him comply, embarrassed and swimming in the scent of her and straining against his own skin, before her fingers closed over his and things had gotten rather out of hand.
His own hand moves faster. Is she watching him now, somewhere? Seeing everything that is and touching nothing, or just… gone? He doesn't know which is worse. Either way, locked behind water and glass, victim of her bravery and his cowardice. Was there really nothing he could have done? Good little soldier, following orders, unable to take initiative even when it came to Haruka's life --
It's all wrong, and he rolls face down, breathing like an engine and still painfully hard against the mattress, but this isn't working, none of this is working. He can't even recall the touch of her hand, and the thought twists his insides, because he's losing her, losing a little more of her each day.
With a sigh and a creak of springs, Fukurou lurches off his bed, and Karasu goes still and cold, even in the humidity of his sheets. Mortified, he concentrates on stilling his diaphragm, waiting for Fukurou to shuffle off to the bathroom so he can catch his breath again. Instead, Fukurou's footsteps come to a halt at the side of Karasu's bed.
"Sorry for keeping you up," Karasu croaks, his face burning, and hopes Fukurou will let this be the end of it. So of course he just stands there, scratching the back of his head.
"Do you, er, want me to wander on downstairs while you finish up? Would it help if you borrowed my lucky chick?"
He still has one of those? flits across Karasu's mind, and then words are pouring out of him like someone knocked over a bottle. "I don't think I can. It's eating me alive, not having her here. I don't mean just sex. It isn't right for me to need her like this when--"
"Yuu." Fukurou settles on the edge of the bed and lets his hand fall low on Karasu's back, startling his eyes open. "Do you want me to lend you a hand?"
It takes a moment for Karasu to realize what he's asking. It takes another to realize that yes, he does, very much.
Nodding, he rolls over onto his elbows, and Fukurou's hand travels to his stomach, circling in a kneading motion that leaves him almost frantic before it moves lower.
Fukurou's grip is warm and practiced, safe and sure -- a landing, all that's keeping him from spinning off into some yawning abyss. Karasu levers himself upright so he can rest his forehead on his friend's shoulder, hanging on as that calloused hand wrenches hoarse sounds from his throat. He had already worked himself up so far that it's not going to be long, and he's beyond gratitude, beyond anything but relief, even as both their movements are winding him like a spring. A few more shocky thrusts and the wire sings, then snaps.
He falls, but there's ground beneath him.
When Karasu can think again, he's still leaning into Fukurou, inhaling his sweat, fingers digging into the muscles of his arms. Startled, he pulls back, and Fukurou pats him awkwardly on the shoulder with the hand that isn't a mess.
Karasu's head is still buzzing as Fukurou gets to his feet, but he manages to say, "If you want, I can, uh…"
"Nah, I'm good," Fukurou says, already angled so that Karasu can't see whether that's true. "Sleep well, old friend."
"Sleep well," Karasu echoes. For some minutes he lies in bed wondering what the hell just happened, but the drowsiness settling into him makes it difficult to wonder long.
The room is cold, but the blankets are warm, and Haruka is glowing in his arms. He tucks her head under his chin, unable to think of anything more wonderful than the smell of her hair. Still, a lingering melancholy pulls at him.
"Are you happy, Haruka?"
She laughs and snuggles against him. "What kind of question is that?"
"This isn't exactly the way we thought life would be when we were growing up."
"You're here with me, though. And that makes me happy."
Maybe that's the strangest thing of all -- that Haruka would find a portion of her happiness with a moody tech-turned-soldier, even one who is also her childhood friend -- but he holds that, and her, as close as he can.
Karasu wakes with empty arms.
Wiping grit and moisture from the corners of his eyes, he pulls himself upright. The room is dark -- it's sometime before first call -- but since he doubts he'll be able to sleep more tonight, he might as well clean himself up.
In the low light, he catches sight of a tiny object on the pillow next to him. Fukurou's lucky chick cell phone charm.
The beaded charm rolls in Karasu's palm, its cheerful bird face peering up at him, and a smile pulls at his lips. He whispers, "Thank you, Isami."
* * * * *
As always when flying aboveground, Karasu keeps his inner eye open for the quantum distortion that precedes Shangri-La's incursions even before the appearance of the Ouroborous, but most of his attention is on the ground, searching out the park where he and Haruka and their friends had whiled away so many long summer days. The breadth of the destruction makes it difficult -- so much crumbled concrete, broken wood, twisted metal. Even by the time of Haruka's death (one day short of four years), many buildings, or portions of them, still stood, but Shangri-La's increasingly devastating weaponry had seen to most of them. He wonders if he's being foolish, but his eyes continue to strain for landmarks, or remnants of them.
There, concrete steps, and the corner of a planter. The wind is cold in his hair and cloak as he swoops down.
With fewer structures to fall on it, the park has a handful of relatively undamaged areas, though at least one blast has bisected it in a charred path the width of a city street. The trees that still have branches are putting out buds that aren't yet leaves. Karasu wonders if they'll be able to withstand the atmosphere, and he pictures cherry blossom petals clinging damply to the fractured ground.
He moves pieces of a broken bench to find them -- sharp points of white and yellow and purple poking up through the ash-gray dirt. Crocuses, Haruka had said. The few that have fully emerged are already shriveling a little around the edges. He wonders how long they will last (or be left alone) if he leaves a bouquet of them in a cup of water by the Reizu Simulator.
As his fingers brush a stem, he remembers asking her, "Do you want to take some back with you?"
"Well, down there they'll just die." Her hands had smoothed down the dirt around them like she was tucking in a child. "The park will need flowers, when we come back to it."
In the end she'd taken one. So does he.
* * * * *
Although vengeance maps his veins in lines of reizu fire, Karasu doesn't know if he'll ever again be able to believe in reclaiming this world as Haruka did, as Fukurou does. But to defend its bones, to look after it as one cares for the grave of a loved one -- most days, that he can do.
With salvaged wood from the ruined city, he takes up his carving again, digging out the forms of wing and beak, finding the suggestions of feathers in grooves and whorls. He cuts away everything that is not the crow, everything that is not Karasu, because the soldier is what he must be now, for Haruka's memory, for the sake of the future she had wanted.
And maybe, somewhere, she's still watching him whittle.
The door opens, and Fukurou sticks his head in. "Headed to the mess hall. Want to come?"
"You go ahead." Karasu chips at the edge of what he hopes will turn into a wing.
Coming over to stand behind him, Fukurou watches him work, then puts a hand on Karasu's shoulder and says, "Crows flock, you know."
Karasu meets his eye and scowls. "And owls are supposed to be wise."
Fukurou snorts, but stays right where he is, and in the end, Karasu heads out with him to join the others.