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Trace Italian

Chapter Text

It had been three days since the Irishman had seen any sign of animal life, let alone human, when spotted the hitchhiker. The road he was on was barely more than a dirt track, and for miles around there was nothing but sand. He felt like he was, fuck, in one of those fucking movies, where the guy tells his girlfriend he hates sand. Old movies now. Long time gone. That was when he saw the guy sat by the side of the track with his thumb out.

He had a sword over his shoulder and a round, soccer ball-shaped object at his feet. When he got closer, the Irishman realised it was a head.

What the hell, he had to slow down for that, right? He had enough guns taped around the car for one weird bastard with a sword to be child’s play. Had to at least find out what he wanted. Once he put a bullet in the guy, he could just leave the body there, no need to bury it. Eventually, a vulture would find it, and it’d be part of that, Christ, what was it? The Circle of Life, yeah, that. He was in a nostalgic mood today, it seemed. Maybe that was why he stopped.

“Need a ride?” he called to the man, who looked up at him with dark eyes, glinting with an odd light.

The man smiled, slowly, almost baring his teeth. The smile turned into a yawn. He stood up, and the Irishman realised he was taller than he’d thought, a long, lanky kind of bastard, but pure lean muscle all through, you could tell. He looked Japanese, at a guess, with long, straggly dark hair that fell across his face. One side of his head was buzzed short. He was wearing red faux leather from head to toe, including his boots. Oh, and the big fuckoff sword. That thing. Noticing the Irishman looking, the man gave another toothy grin, massive dimples out of joint with his general vibe. He gave the sword a few showy spins in one hand, and sheathed it in one fluid movement.

He still hadn’t replied, though, unless Face Journies counted. The Irishman felt the need to clarify; “You understand English, right?” His Japanese was rusty, but he was willing to embarrass himself, with nobody else around to witness it.

The man laughed. “I don’t understand anything.” He paused, then added quickly, “But yes, I speak English.” He had a strong accent, and he spoke slowly, purposefully, with a dramatic flutter of his fingers as he did. He gave little twitches with his hands and his face when he wanted to emphasise something.

“Alright, cool.” The Irishman nodded. He was bored, and honestly, bloody lonely about now, after this long in the car alone. “Pop the sword in the back, an’ I’ll let you ride for a little while. If you fancy the sound of that. No games, mind. You'll bite a bullet quick if you try messin’ me around.”

The man thought about it. It was obvious he was thinking about it, because he thought about it with his face - in fact, with his whole body, mulling it over for longer than it should have taken. You could be forgiven for thinking he was slow, but the Irishman could tell that was a facade. The stranger spoke slowly, and moved deliberately, but he had quick eyes, and besides, his hands had moved fast enough when he was toying with the blade. It didn’t take a severed head at his feet to tell you he was dangerous, though the presence of one did clear things up a hell of a lot.

“That sounds good,” the man said eventually, scooping up the severed head in his hands. He smiled apologetically. “Sorry, do you have bag for this? Need to deliver it to client.”

Another hitman. That was fair enough. It also meant he was unlikely to make a move without payment. Unless he was a total nut, but he didn’t seem one. No, he seemed perfectly aware of what he was doing, and that was what put the Irishman on edge.

“Hold on,” he said, fishing about in the back briefly, before tossing the man a cooler bag. “Stop it goin’ funny, yeah?”

“No, it’s okay,” the man said, as if it were obvious. “I actually embalmed it before I set off. Too many flies in desert. Don’t like.” His English was inconsistent, in turns fluent and broken. The Irishman figured he understood a lot more than he wanted to let on. “Thank you.” He put the head in the bag and zipped it, and tossed the sword on the backseat unthinkingly. Like it was some toy he didn’t need right now. “For the ride, too.”

“You got a name, pal?” The Irishman asked, as the guy got in the passenger seat, and started to adjust the seat.

“I have, yes,” the man replied, excited. “Do you?” He looked genuinely worried at the idea his driver might not.

The Irishman rolled his eyes. “Call me Finn.” Short, sweet. Easy to remember. Also the name of a notorious assassin known as ‘the Demon’ but that was neither here nor there. When asked, he tended to claim ignorance, and he had a youthful enough face to fool most people. He looked mostly innocent, without his work paintjob.

This guy? Didn’t. He had a fuckoff giant sword for a start.

“Nakamura,” the guy replied, leaning his head against the window. That answered the Japanese question.

“Where you headed to, Nakamura?”

The guy smiled, a glinting, wolfish smile. “The Trace,” he said, and Finn’s heart sank. For fuck’s sake.

He had to go pick up a total crazy, who believed in the fucking Trace Italian. Fucking hell.

Still, it’d kill the hours between here and the pub, if nothing else.

 

-

 

By the time they stopped in the evening, all he knew about Nakamura was that he didn’t talk much unless you prompted him, and that however strong his actual grasp on English was, he had a wry sense of humour that would probably have been much funnier if he didn’t laugh at all his own jokes. Despite this, he wasn’t frustrating. He actually seemed quite likeable regardless. Batshit insane, mind you, but the kind you could get along with, not the kind that you needed to put down like a mad dog. He was alright, in his weird little way. Not the worst company ever.

When they got out of the car, Nakamura yawned, stretching his long arms and legs like an overly dramatic cat. He was one of the taller Japanese guys Finn had met in his life, not to mention one of the weirdest motherfuckers he'd met in general. It was less the eccentricity than the calmness, how composed he seemed in his strange world. Made sense he was a Trace fanatic. Maniacs like that always had some cold steel inside of them. It was what kept them going.

“You hungry?” Finn asked. He'd been raised a good Irish lad, you had to be hospitable, even to fucking Trace wankers with fuckoff giant swords. “Got some instant noodles if you want.”

Nakamura scoffed. “I hate instant noodles. That is not Japanese…not good food. But I... appreciate it. You want to make me feel at home, right?”

Finn shrugged. “We're both a ways from home, to be sure. Though my home doesn't exist now. Flooded.”

“Likewise,” his travelling companion agreed. “Earthquakes, volcanoes…totally nuts. And the war.”

The war. That had made the world a wasteland. Still going on, in certain corners. It came down to factions, with their hired killers, duking it out. The assassins, for their part, tried to stay impartial. When not contracted to fight, they largely kept themselves perfectly civil, no matter what side or sides they were contracted with. If you understood perfectly civil to mean ‘rioted and went rogue only a couple of times a month’, you had it.

It really wasn't so bad anymore. Things had settled down, and Finn was making a tidy living from it. By the look of things, so was Nakamura.

“You over here on business too?”

Nakamura nodded. “Same line of work as you, right? I noticed all the guns in your car.” He pulled a face.

Finn gave a vague shrug, as he set up his portable stove. “I know how to use a knife, and I ain't half bad in a punch-up, if that face is your way of judging me.”

“Ah - no.” Nakamura gave an apologetic grimace. “Bullets hard to find. One day, they run out. I get ready for this.” He tapped the hilt of his sword. “Train hard with it.”

“I studied in Japan once,” Finn said. “We mighta crossed paths in the field way back.”

“Oh? You speak Japanese?” Nakamura's eyes glinted with mischief.

Finn groaned. “ A little bit. Not well .”

“Hey, that's good.” Nakamura gave a round of applause. “Better accent than my English.”

Finn shifted, embarrassed. “Nah. You're doing good. I think I'm harder to follow than you, very Irish and all. Hey, you ever need me to slow down, just tell me.”

“I'm good. Thank you.” Nakamura smiled, a genuine sort of smile, rather than the predatory grin he'd displayed thus far. “What flavour instant noodles?”

“Beef, I think.”

“I eat beef. Thank you.”

He complained the whole time he was eating. Finn had to threaten to shoot him to shut him up. Utterly unfazed, he laughed raucously, and Finn found himself laughing too.

He didn't mention the Trace. Didn't want to bring it up, or bring the mood down. He also figured that if he got to know his passenger better, said passenger would take being called a complete fucking loon more peaceably.

The Trace wasn't real, but it had killed enough people. If Nakamura wanted to join that list, that was on him. Finn wasn't about to argue. You couldn't argue with Trace wankers. They believed. Finn was almost jealous of their conviction.

So he said nothing. They kept on chatting inanely, and very little of importance was said by either. The darkness stretched on above them, and the world kept turning, while human life ticked down into its closing hours, heading toward a final exit.

No salvation. No hope. No Trace.

Only an ending coming nearer and nearer. Only finality and inevitable conclusion.

 

-

 

They set off early the next morning, as it started to get light. Nakamura kept yawning until about noon. He didn't like being cooped up much, Finn was learning, and he spent a lot of time adjusting his seat and manically winding the window up and down, sticking his head out into the wind like an excitable dog.

“Jesus, are you always this bad?” Finn glanced over at his passenger and frowned. Going stir crazy himself was one thing, putting up with this shit was an entirely different beast. He didn't want to fuck up the car right now.

“Only when I have an audience,” Nakamura replied, with a jackassed smirk.

Why wasn't Finn surprised? For fuck's sake. He just had to have offered a lift to the most dramatic, performative cunt this side of the desert. Finn rolled his eyes and kept driving, blanking Nakamura completely. If he didn't feed into the attention seeking, hopefully his passenger would just get bored and dial it back. And he did, to a point. He leant his head against the window and let his mouth hang open like a goldfish. Though he seemed relaxed, his fingers were drumming a rhythm on the seat that told you he was both awake and far more alert than he looked. Finn almost wanted to pull a gun on him to see what would happen, but he had more common sense than to start a fight for no gain. Even with the sword out of reach, Nakamura was so obviously dangerous. It'd be interesting to see him in action, but not so interesting that Finn desperately wanted to put himself in the firing line.

He'd wait for an opportunity to observe if one ever came around.

As it happened, he didn't have to wait long.

Chapter Text

They were passing through dangerous territory now, and both of them were on high alert. It was strange to see Nakamura go from pulsing with offbeat energy to…guarded, wary, on the lookout. Every couple of hundred metres there was a burnt out vehicle or upended truck. Some looked like they had been there a while. Others looked very, very recent. This area changed hands almost routinely. The road still had mines buried under the surface. But if you went off road, the sand got looser and it was harder to drive, and you were more vulnerable to attack.

What made the area truly dangerous, however, were the remnants of the more lethal weapons from the earlier stages of the war. Various companies sent scavengers out on contracts to retrieve parts of them. Finn had met a few of them, and they were universally not people to be crossed.

Evening drew on. Finn kept driving. He didn't want to risk stopping. They would get through the wreckage, and after that, it was less than a full day's drive to the pub. After that, he would part ways with this Trace fanatic, he had decided. The company had been nice, sure. But he went no further. He'd pick up another contract and head out again. Nakamura would carry on his pointless search, and probably die in the process, which was a shame, but inevitable.

Finn was a survivor. He didn't intend to get swept up in dumb fucking shit. He intended to make it through another day, another month, another year. Keep on going. No looking back.

“What's that up ahead?” Nakamura pointed at something through the front windscreen. Finn squinted.

There was movement. Something up ahead — fuck, mechs. It was rare to see a functional mech these days. Someone must have cobbled them together, repairing the broken pieces, and building themselves a tidy little army. Glancing around, he registered more of them, crawling out from the hidden places in the wreckage. None of them were overly large, the tallest probably about eight feet, but he recognised the workmanship. A sinking feeling made itself known in his gut.

He reached down by the side of his seat for his shotgun. There was a lass out there in sore need of a couple rounds to the gut. “I’m gonna try step on it,” Finn said. “But, in case shit hits the proverbial, there’s a gun under your seat. I know who fixed up these mechs.” Oh, did he know her. They went back. There was history.

All the way back to Ireland.

He’d fucking trained her. He knew what she was capable of.

“Out of the car!” A voice called out. A woman hopped down from an overturned school bus, with a detonator in her hand. Her long red hair was ridiculously well-cared for, considering they were in the middle of an actual wasteland. But then, Becky had always had her priorities, and as she’d said once, looking like a badass bitch was one of them. “Don’t make me ask twice.”

“Awright, Becky?” Finn called. He saw her tense, and her expression sour. She could glower for Ireland. If they’d still had Olympics, Becky Lynch could have competed in ‘death glaring’, were that even a sport. “Been a while.”

“That you, Bálor?” Becky scoffed. “You think that’s gonna make a difference? Really? Cute. Out. Now.”

Finn looked at Nakamura, who had reclined his chair back and closed his eyes, clearly intending to sit this one out. “Oi, none of that. I’m giving you a ride off my own back. You gotta pay your way somehow.”

“It seemed personal,” Nakamura replied, shrugging. “I thought I would leave you two catch up.”

“Who else you got in there, Finny boy?” Becky called, detonator in one hand, pistol in the other.

“Pull your weight,” Finn growled. Nakamura blinked, and gave an exaggerated sigh. He reached in the back for his sword. “That’s not gonna- get a gun.”

“Sword better.”

“No it really isn’t.”

“Sword cooler ,” Nakamura retorted, winding the window down and climbing out, onto the roof of the truck. Stood up top, he unsheathed the sword. Finn closed his eyes and waited for the shooting to start. Crazy, crazy bastard. Why did the dude he’d picked up on a whim have to be such a stark raving nutter? Why was this his life?

He heard Becky laugh. “You get yourself a fruitcake friend, eh Finny? Hey there, mate. Dunno if you know what year it is, but let me spell it out for you.” She pulled back the hammer on her gun, aiming it at the idiot standing up top. “Stand down, and you can walk away from this without me having to hurt a hair on your pretty little head. You copy?”

Nakamura yawned. “Can we do this in the morning? It’s late. Desert cold at night. Finn has instant noodles, you want?”

“They’re not yours to offer, you jammy little gobshite-”

“They taste like shit . You two, white people. Like that kind of thing. Just thinking.”

Becky cackled. “I like him. He’s funny. Shame, really.” She gave an apologetic smile. “See you around. And by around, I mean everywhere, ‘cause I’m blowing you cunts to kingdom come.” She pressed the detonator.

Nothing happened.

Laughter from on top of the car. Finn stuck his head out of the window to see what was going on. He saw Nakamura, with a little beeping piece of tech between his fingers.

“Signal blocker,” Nakamura chuckled. “Activated it just now. No detonation, no mechs. Just you. And me. And Finn, but he say ‘Nakamura, pull your weight. Earn your keep’. I do that.” He walked along the truck, hopping from the roof to the bonnet, and landing in a crouch, sword held out behind him. He glanced at Finn and nodded.

Finn laughed at the insanity of it all. This was a ridiculous plan. He had an entire guy, fuckoff giant sword and all, just perched on his car like some fucking ornament or like, a church gargoyle, except with a sword and waiting to strike. Becky Lynch had a gun, and was about to pull the trigger, so Finn did the thing.

He stepped on the gas.

Becky fired, and missed, the bullet glancing off the body of the car. She cursed, and ducked behind one of her useless mechs, still pressing the detonator. Infuriated, she cast it aside, and came back out with her gun, shooting repeatedly at the tires. She hit one, and the truck careened wildly, arcing toward her and crashing into the mech she had been hiding behind. Finn wrestled with the wheel, trying to get the car back under control.

Nakamura was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Finn thought he must have slipped off the bonnet and gone under the wheels. Then he caught sight of him, a few feet away, examining one of the mechs with what seemed to be real curiosity.

The sword sang, and the head came off.

Both Becky and Finn stared. Neither of them had expected that. So the sword was made of something very, very strong, and very sharp indeed.

“You don’t have enough bullet to waste,” Nakamura said, with the same slow precision as always. “I have enough sword to last all day. Special. Got it for Christmas. Santa.” He seemed completely sincere, flashing a grin that was reminiscent of a hyperactive child. Well, he did believe in the Trace, so Father Christmas wasn’t too much of a reach. “You seem nice. I like your hair.” Finn really, really couldn’t believe this guy. He was absolutely insane.

Becky lowered her gun. “How did you know I was out of bullets?”

“You didn’t shoot straight away. You hoped detonator would work instead. I figure not too many bullet left.” Nakamura shrugged loosely. “Are we done, now? Tired. Can’t be bothered chopping up all your mechs. You work hard on them.” He twisted his sword playfully in his hands. “Well?”

Finn got out of the car, levelling the shotgun at Becky. “I’ll put the stove on,” he said. He gave her an old-times sort of grin. “Fancy a cuppa?”

Becky was crazy, for sure, but not crazy enough to keep on a fight she knew was lost. Not when she knew she could get something out of it. Finn would have to keep an eye on any valuables he had lying around. He also knew if she got hold of any of the other weapons from the truck, she’d immediately begin her attacks again. So he didn’t want her anywhere near the car at all.

He put the stove on. He saw Nakamura smiling, that big grin with dimples that honestly made you want to kick him in the face. Bastard.

Still, you had to admit he’d handled that one well. Finn had figured he was good at what the pair of them did. He hadn’t expected him to be that good.

Of course the bastard was.

He put the tea on.

Nakamura, predictably, complained.

 

-

 

So this? Was awkward. Becky sat on one side of the stove fire, glaring furiously and picking at her food. Finn sat opposite, shotgun on his lap, watching her intently for any movement. Just in case he had to blast some lead into her. Meanwhile, either genuinely oblivious or playing the fool as always, there was Nakamura, grinning away with this blithe ignorance. He was humming cheerfully, but then, he was also polishing his sword. Once again, he was clearly far more watchful than he wanted to appear.

He was either ignorant of the awkwardness, or aware of it and revelling in it, when he asked chirpily, “So, old friends, right? Both Irish?”

“Doesn't mean we're friends, ya dumb cunt,” Becky snapped. “Jesus, Finn. Where'd you find this one?”

Finn sighed. “Picked him up yesterday. He's…a handful. Just giving him a ride far as the pub.” He fixed Nakamura with a look, daring him to say more. His passenger nodded, but stayed quiet.

“Fair enough,” Becky replied. “Just like you to fall in with some crazy Japanese. Hey, sword bloke, you ever hear of Bullet Club?” Now Nakamura looked interested, and Finn wanted to shoot Becky there and then, shut her up. Lot of people were still mad about the things Bullet Club had done. She pointed at him, chuckling. “He founded them.”

“They kicked me out a long while since,” Finn retorted, defensively. He looked at Nakamura, who was mouthing something to himself inaudibly.

“...Demon. That you?” He was frowning. Finn rested his hand on his gun, watching closely for the next move.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I'm the daft cunt who plays dress-up and cuts people's throats. If you got a problem with that, we can part ways here.”

After a moment, Nakamura laughed. “You are being very presumptuous. I don't much care about what happened in Japan anymore. Water under bridge.” He finished polishing his sword, and twirled it from hand to hand ostentatiously, then sheathed it. “What's the story with you two, anyway?”

“I taught her combat class,” Finn replied. “An’ this is how she repays everything I ever did for her. You're a grade A bitch, Becky Lynch.”

She scoffed. “Oh, sure, I'm grateful. Really appreciate your input. You taught me to survive, no matter what. That's all I'm doing. Right, mate?” She appealed to Nakamura. “I just thought you ought to know who you're running with. What he did in your country. That's all.” She flashed a grin at Finn. “I'm not doing anything you wouldn't, Bálor.”

She'd got him there. He wanted to claim the high ground, because he wasn't scraping through trash. But looking at Becky, you couldn't deny she was doing well. Just because she'd done it in isolation, cobbling together bots out of bits and pieces, you couldn't deny she was doing exactly what Finn had taught her. Surviving. By any means necessary.

“Don't think I got your name,” Becky was saying. “What was it he called you, Nakawhatsit?”

“Steve Jones,” Nakamura replied, deadpan. Finn shook his head, while Becky blinked, baffled. Nakamura burst out laughing.

“He thinks he's funnier than he is,” Finn said, by way of explanation.

“Getting that impression,” Becky agreed.

“Everyone's a critic. ” Nakamura pulled a face, which twisted through a few other odd faces. “Nakamura. Not Steve. Was messing with you.” He snickered like a child. “Am amateur comedian.”

Becky raised her eyebrows, but she was actually smirking. “Huh. And where are you headed to, after the pub, Nakamura? You off on your comedy tour?”

“Ha, no. Funny.” Finn tensed preemptively, clenching his fists and digging his nails into his hands. He knew what was coming next, and didn't want to hear it. “I'm going to find the Trace Italian.”

“You're fuckin’ with me,” Becky looked at Finn, and cackled. “Trust your fuckin’ luck, Finny boy. You found yourself a fuckin’ Trace wanker. That's just like you.”

“Leave it,” Finn warned, to both of them alike. “Let's drop the subject. Okay?” In his experience, it wasn't wise to antagonise anyone nuts enough to believe in the Trace. He'd seen just a little of what Nakamura could do. While he was certain he could dispatch the maniac in due course, he really couldn't be bothered.

“Just a job,” Nakamura replied, calmly. “No big deal.”

“Listen, son,” Becky waved a maddened hand. “You do you, right. Whatever. But it ain't good business sense to take a gig like that.”

Nakamura shrugged. “Maybe. But it's the job I've got. Good money.”

“Rather you than me,” Becky scoffed, but sounded grudgingly respectful. “When you're pushing up the daisies, that's on you.”

“We'll see,” Nakamura replied coolly. He gave a lazy smile.

“It's late,” Finn said. “I'll take first watch.” He eyed Becky. She flashed a sardonic smile his way. “I'll wake you in a few hours, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied, putting his sword aside and rolling over to sleep. “Night Finn, night Becky. Sweet dreams.”

“Night, pal,” Finn replied. He watched Becky coldly, and she scowled. She stalked off to the overturned school bus, clambering inside. Lights coming from the bus. Finn watched, gun in his lap, waiting.

Nakamura started to snore.

 

-

 

They took their watches, and the night passed peacefully enough. Morning came, with the dawn sunrise and with Becky waltzing up again, this time with beers.

“Mornin’, lads,” she called. “Fancy a spot of day-drinking before you head off on your merry way?”

“I could go for one,” Finn admitted. “Been good seeing you, Becky.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Becky shrugged. “Your friend's interesting.” She pointed at Nakamura, who was stretching, jumping up and down erratically, and shaking his whole body in turn.

“Yeah, well. He's definitely something.”

“You gonna just leave him at the pub? ‘Cause I know you, Finn. You're intrigued.” Becky passed him his beer; he took a hearty swig. “Have to do this again, sometime. Next time, it'll be you at gunpoint, though, I promise you that.” She offered him a toast. Their bottles clinked together.

“To old times sake.”

She choked on her beer. “You're getting sentimental in your old age, son. See you when I see you, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

She shuddered. “Pleasantries over. I almost had a lump in my throat. Enough of that soppy bollocks, aye. We're even, Bálor. We're done.”

“Sounds good to me,” he replied. Becky nodded, and walked off with her beers.

“Hey, Nakamura, you want one?” she called. Finn watched her, sipping his beer, and headed back to the truck.

They'd make the pub by early afternoon at this rate.

His part in this story would be over.

Assuming things went to plan.

Chapter Text

He was on edge for a while after parting from Becky, just in case she changed her mind about completely fucking them over. Nakamura was calmer today, nursing the beer Becky had given him. His attention was clearly occupied by something. Given that Finn likely had a few short hours left in his delightful company, he decided to ask the million dollar question. 

“Listen, man. You seem…I mean, weird as balls, but like, you're not dumb. You know the Trace Italian isn't…it's not real. So why-”

Nakamura whistled through his teeth. “Ding dong. You are wrong.” His eyes gleamed. “It's real. Got proof.” His fingers twitched and flickered, a thumb drive in between them. “Blueprints, coordinates. Proof the Trace is real.” A shiver ran down Finn's back, at the cold certainty in his passenger's voice. “Man I killed had it.” He fixed Finn with a serious look. “Mr Triple H hire me. He believe it's true. He pay me to believe it too.”

Finn stared. “Why are you telling me this?” 

Nakamura shrugged. “Bored. Why not? Nobody will ever believe you, and if you try kill me, I destroy the drive.” He put it between his teeth and bit down on it gently, before grinning and vanishing it expertly with a twitch of his long fingers. “Or you could come with. 50-50 split.”

Finn studied his passenger closely, trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. He seemed serious, but it was hard to tell with Nakamura. At least, he hadn't broken character yet. “Listen, Nakamura, buddy. I get that you're trying to be nice, I really do, but I'm getting by just fine. I ain't gonna throw my life away like that, okay? Not over this.” He wasn't about to let his personal reasons for skipping this one slip. He liked Nakamura, but not enough to walk with him into hell, or to spill his past carelessly to a man he'd known for two days. “Drop it, alright? We're almost at the pub, you'll find someone crazy enough to join you there. No doubt.”

Nakamura looked like he wanted to say something, but he chose to shut up instead. His fingers tapped an erratic beat on the door of the truck. They continued on in a sullen, stubborn silence. Finn fixed his eye to the fuel gauge, and to the road ahead. Just enough left to make it. He gripped the wheel with white-knuckle tension and pressed on. Briefly, he wondered if he'd upset Nakamura and whether he ought to apologise, but the other man seemed content enough. Not for the first time, Finn wondered how someone could go through what this guy presumably had and come out of it so…uncomplicated. So unconcerned. How did he do it? He made living look so easy, so care-free. Sure, some of that was an act, but he was getting the sense that Nakamura was just like this to a degree. And he didn't understand it at all. 

There'd be no time to find out, he figured, with the pub in sight now. He was almost ready to breathe a sigh of relief. His life would be back to normal momentarily. It was almost a shame. He'd miss the company, however weird it was. What could he say, Nakamura was a fun guy. 

The pub, as he knew it, belonged to a man called McMahon, who dropped by occasionally but largely left it to be managed by various employees. One of those managers was the man paying Nakamura for the Trace bullshit. Triple H. That made things interesting. McMahon himself had made his money in arms deals, and was a good man to know for putting you onto hits and contracts. He maintained a private militia, and paid well. As for the pub, the town around it might have been a ghost, but the pub was thriving. It ran on solar power, and received regular deliveries of necessary stock, from alcohol to bullets. War was the only real business in this corpse of a town. Business was good. 

That said, there were still a few farmsteads scattered around. Cattle, corn and potatoes, mostly. Come here at the right time, you could get yourself a prime steak. McMahon supplied the fertilisers that made the land remotely salvageable. Everyone owed that man something, whether they knew it yet or not, and the thing about Vince McMahon was that he expected his payment in full, always. No excuses. No exceptions. 

Fall behind on payments, and he'd draft up a contract of indentured servitude, and you'd have a bailiff over by the end of the week to claim your labour against the money owed. 

To an extent, it disgusted Finn, but he'd pretty much accepted it was how things worked round here. He pulled up outside the pub, and did his usual; rigged the truck to blow if anyone interfered with it. Nakamura watched from outside the vehicle with his cooler bag, waiting for Finn before they headed into the pub together. The doorman checked their membership cards, and grudgingly let them both in, through tacky, saloon-style doors. Finn smiled grimly at his companion. Nakamura returned the expression, and they both stepped in. 

Inside, there was a predictable amount of chaos. Finn focused on those he knew, the ones he had marked as dangerous people, to be avoided. For instance, the big man at the bar, with the wild beard and the haunted, horrifying eyes; he went by Braun Strowman, and he was a true monster among men. If half the stories of his brutality were true, he was someone to avoid. But he was off the books now, so pretty much alright aside from enjoying intimidating people far too much. Finn had drunk with him a couple of times, but those nights were a total blur. As it turned out, Strowman had the alcohol tolerance of several lesser men combined, and Finn was convinced if he weren't Irish he'd have died because of Strowman's sheer insanity. And of alcohol poisoning. 

The poker table also had three blokes he knew sat at it, scamming some fresh-faced newbies out of their cash. Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns. Known also as the Shield. Rollins spotted Finn and waved him over to join the game. It seemed friendly but Finn had seen them do some serious shit before now. Getting close to them was just putting yourself in the firing line later. He gave a polite half-nod, as if to say he'd be over later. Rollins opened his palms, and his smile was truly a vicious thing. What a lovely man. 

He recognised another guy too, who he'd seen around a great deal. It was a man with shoulder length brown hair, who carried his reputation on his shoulders with pride. He wasn't a tall guy, about Finn's own height, but he had an aura around him you had to respect. Nakamura evidently recognised him too, and he spread his arms open wide in a hug. 

The man’s face dropped. “Oh no. Oh fuck no, not you.”

“AJ! Hey! How are you, man?”

AJ Styles had the look of a man with many, many regrets. “Hi, Shin.” He allowed himself to be hugged, with great reluctance, and what seemed like a grudging fondness. “How've you been, buddy?” He glanced over at Finn. “Finn Bálor, in the flesh. Hey there. You hanging around with this one now?”

“Just giving him a ride,” Finn replied noncommittally. 

Nakamura - or Shin, apparently - nodded enthusiastically. “Finn's my new friend.”

AJ glanced between them and leaned in to Finn. “Word of advice, never let him sit behind you while you're driving.”

“Oh, that . AJ, you still upset?” Nakamura grinned innocently. 

AJ gritted his teeth. “You stabbed me in the back while I was driving. I nearly crashed the car. Also, you stabbed me.”

Nakamura frowned, then beamed broadly. “I told you, AJ, was an accident. ” He winked conspicuously at Finn, and tittered. AJ sighed heavily. “Sword slipped .”

“Whatever you say, man. You're lucky I can't be bothered holding a grudge.” He shook his head in tired bafflement. “Good to see you in one piece, anyway.”

“Ha, yes. Good to see you too.” Nakamura slapped AJ on the back, and the other man flinched. “I gotta go sort some business. Be right back.” He darted off to the bar, to get the attention of management. 

Finn shared a look with AJ, who seemed beyond tired. “Is he always like this, by the way?”

“Shin? Yeah. Literally always.” 

“What's that short for?” Finn asked, curiously. 

AJ stared. “You offered him a ride without knowing who he is?” 

“Yeah, you know. Driving for days. You run across some nutter with a sword, you think hey, may as well stop.” Finn pulled a face. “‘sides, he's good for a laugh, right?”

“Shinsuke,” AJ replied. “His name's Shinsuke Nakamura, and you literally can't take your eye off him for a second before something- oh God what is he doing? Is that a severed head on the bar?” Nakamura had produced the head from its bag and just placed it on the bar top. The barman recoiled, while Strowman started to laugh uncontrollably. Finn couldn't believe it. And yet, he really, really could. 

“Yeah…” he trailed off. “Jesus. He ain't half one for hogging attention.”

“Tell me about it,” AJ chuckled. “Still, when he's of a mind to cooperate, there's nobody better to have on your side. He just isn't always exactly…reliable, these days. You gotta watch out, round him.”

“It doesn't really matter now,” Finn began, watching the events at the bar closely. Triple H had come out and ushered Nakamura into a side office. The poker group also seemed to find the whole thing as hilarious as Strowman did. They were doing impressions of Nakamura's odd, jumpy mannerisms, and chortling about it, while the local babyface they were scamming shifted uncomfortably. After all, a man had just put a severed head on the bar. What wouldn't you be uncomfortable about? 

“Oh? You parting ways, then?” AJ, for his part, did actually sound interested in the situation. “Can't blame you. There's only so much Shinsuke Nakamura anyone can put up with. It's weird, though. I thought you two must have already met back in Japan. That's where I ran into him, you know, after they put the Bullet Club in my lap. He used to run CHAOS, you know? Before that, RISE. You worked for them on some contracts, didn't you?”

That…rang a lot of bells. “He didn't exactly hire me in person. It was all through third parties, like. And I was under a different name then, an’ I looked about twelve. Plus I don't exactly recall him using a fuckoff giant sword back in the day.”

“Got harder to get any ammo at all, if you weren't in the Club,” AJ explained. “So he started with all of that shit. Steadily got weirder and weirder. I guess that's how he deals with the war. It was rougher in Japan, on all of us, right? We're all what we became out there.” 

“I was an arsehole, back then,” Finn muttered. “They were right to oust me, when ya really think. Apparently I didn't even pay enough attention to other people to learn who ran the other merc outfits. You were the better man for the job.”

“Ousted me anyway,” AJ replied. “Lost a duel to Shin, actually, and the Club said they lost faith in my leadership. Course, that was just an excuse, Kenny Omega looking for his own opening. They threw me out without looking back. God, am I glad they did now though. I've got a good thing here, for far less work. Crazy world, though, where the guy who basically got you driven out of Japan calls you up to ask if you wanna partner. That's what happened, you know. Who knows why Shin does anything? Don't think even he does sometimes.” AJ gestured to the bar. “I'll buy you a drink. As one former leader of Bullet Club to another, yeah?” 

“Yeah,” Finn agreed. “Crazy world.” 

He was thinking how surreal it was, three ex-merc leaders, levelled to ordinary hitmen, and drinking in a bar like anyone else. That was evidence if anything that the war was petering out, skilled professionals reduced to scrabbling for whatever contracts were left. He let AJ buy him a drink, anyway. Japan was the past, and he bore no ill will to the man who'd replaced him. Like AJ, he was as glad to get out as anyone. 

The office doors opened, and Nakamura exited followed by tall, imposing, bearded man in a suit. Triple H had a solid reputation, that went back a long way. He'd been an enforcer for some time. Now, he was a manager. He shook Nakamura's hand firmly, and approached the bar, handing the barman a sign. The barman nodded, and put it up among a host of other Rules We Shouldn't Need To Have like ‘NO gouging eyes while on the premises’, ‘If you want to kill someone remember to take 5 mins to THINK about your own chances first’ and ‘Members ONLY NO EXCEPTIONS’. 

It read ‘All severed body parts MUST be kept in a bag at all times’.

“Did you have that printed just now?” Finn asked, maybe a little bit too entertained. 

A big, hefty hand slapped him on the back. Strowman was in a better mood than usual, or he just liked Finn enough to only wind him rather than actually paste him to the floor. “That's what they did when I tried to gouge out Baron Corbin's eyes. You were there, remember? You hit him with a barstool.”

“I was drinking with you that night, pal. I was present in every way except mentally.”

“Lightweight!” Strowman teased. Finn scoffed. 

“Mate, I had enough booze in me to fell a horse. You're a regular fuckin’ screwball if you think you're statistically representative of the general population.”

“True enough,” Strowman replied, proudly enough. “Hey, barkeep, drink for the good sir responsible for this signage.” He gestured to Nakamura. “On me.” 

Nakamura nodded eagerly, sliding onto a stool and flashing an innocent grin. 

“Don't encourage him, Braun,” AJ called. “He's bad enough as is.”

Strowman tried to fix AJ with one of his trademark Murder Looks, but AJ, in typical fashion, shrugged it off. He didn't let other people bother him with their bluster, on the whole. Finn had seen him lose his temper only a few times. He was practical and steady to a fault, so when his patience got tested, he was more likely to grit his teeth than lose his composure. But when he did lose it with people, there was only one word to describe him as, and that was fatal. To be around. 

“Bálor. My office.” Triple H didn't give the option of declining, just turned and walked off, leaving Finn to follow. He gave the others an aimless shrug; presumably this was about his recent job, potentially it might be regarding a bonus. 

Finn stood awkwardly opposite the manager's desk, while the big man sat down and began to count out stacks of million dollar bills. Inflation had settled now, but the currency was still hardly worth the paper it was printed on. 

“Hear you were a help to our boy Shinsuke,” Triple H said, not looking up from his counting. “It's much appreciated, from all of us here.”

Finn's mouth twitched into a half-smile. “Well, y'know. Just bein’ a good neighbour an’ all that. Do unto others.” He studied the manager's face carefully, trying to gauge a reaction. It was nigh impossible, with this guy. His poker face was legendary. 

“And it's appreciated. I've got an offer to make you. You don't have to take it, but-” He placed box after box of ammunition on the table. “There's this in it for you if you do.”

That was more rounds than Finn would come across potentially in the rest of his life. Whether or not the Trace Italian was real, money was clearly being thrown into this project. It was tempting. 

“What's the job?” Finn asked, keeping his tone carefully level. He didn't want to land Nakamura in the shit for telling him. 

“I know you have a history. I know that'll make it difficult for you. But we need someone else on the ground in this.” Triple H leaned over his desk. “I'm sure you've guessed already, this is about the Trace.”

“No,” Finn replied, immediately. “I won't.”

He saw the manager smile faintly. “I figured. That's why I'm not asking you to go with Nakamura all the way to the Trace itself.” Finn started to question immediately; Triple H hushed him. “Let me finish, Bálor. What I need from you is nowhere near that demanding. Just drive Nakamura where I ask, and after that it won't be your problem anymore.”

“You want me to kill him?” Triple H scoffed. “Sorry, that just sounded dead ambiguous.” 

“My bad. Let me elaborate.” The big man opened a file on his desk and produced a photograph. “I need you to find this man. You'll know him when you see him.”

“This a joke?” Finn pointed at the picture. The man's face was concealed under a decorative mask. “He's hardly gonna be wanderin’ around dressed for Halloween at all hours.”

“You'll know him,” Triple H stated matter-of-factly. “He's 5'6’’, and Mexican. Distinctive tattoos. Not hard to miss. We got some rough sketches what he might look like sans mask. He's a tough little bastard. Name's Rey. You're good at persuading people to work for you. I need you to get him to agree to this. Take him a contract, and get him to write his name. That's all we need you for.”

“Rey. Gotcha. What ya wantin’ the lucky bastard for?” At this point, Finn was genuinely curious about the whole thing. Where it was going. He knew he'd kick himself in the future but he wanted to know more. 

Triple H knew he'd got him, of course he did. He had Finn figured right off. “Sign the contract, and I'll let you have the file. Walk, you can take a box of bullets for your trouble, and another for your silence. But you sign-” He offered Finn the pen. “And it's all yours.”

Finn signed. 

He'd regret this, he knew it. 

Assuming he'd live long enough. 

 

-

 

He emerged from the office, Rey Mysterio's file in hand, payment neatly shut up in a steel briefcase. Nakamura seemed to have vanished, which was a little concerning. Finn caught AJ's eye quickly. 

“He's playing on the arcade machines with Sami and Kev,” AJ replied, gesturing broadly. Finn looked over - and yep, there his weird new buddy was, hitting up the fruit machines with two loony Canadians. “Gotta say, man, I'm pretty impressed. You got a skill with him. Shame you two are splitting here.”

“Well, not quite yet,” Finn admitted. “Little ways to go yet.” He raised the briefcase a degree. “Until the job's over.”

AJ seemed relieved. “Good. He needs drive, someone with that common sense to course correct when he gets all…you know.”

“Yeah. Any tips?” 

AJ scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. “He's really goddamn weird for one thing, just putting that out there. An’ his sense of humour sucks. Also he speaks better English than he lets on. In the field…he's smarter than he likes people to think. Real cunning. Stay alert, stay wary. You cover him, he'll cover you, though. And never let him sit behind you.”

“Yeah, ‘cause he stabbed you.” Finn snorted. “You guys are chill now, though? How come?” 

“I shot him in the gut and left him to die. Somehow missed anythin’ vital and he waltzed in here again month'n a half later. No point keepin’ on after that. See, with Shin, I figure it wasn't personal. I was just the person there, an’ he felt like seein’ what'd happen. If he'd been trying to kill me, he was more'n capable right then.” AJ sighed, casting a long, baffled look over at his sort-of friend, the man who had stabbed him. “Who knows with Shin? I sure as hell don't. Man's a goddamn mystery.” He paused, and pointed over at Rollins, who was grinning. “Think Seth wants a chat. I'll be over by the fruit machines too if you need me.” With that, AJ walked off to join the weirdo corner. 

Finn watched him go. That was one of the few people here who still had all his marbles. How AJ managed to stay grounded was beyond Finn. You had to admire that. Even if the jammy cunt had nicked your job way back when. No point holding grudges, though, when your main priority should be survival. 

Normally, when you wanted to survive, it was also good practice to avoid Seth Rollins. Bit late for that. Finn headed over, cautiously alert and on edge. 

The other two members of Rollins’ group were playing darts, while he sat there nursing his drink, a neat bourbon. The Irish in Finn was a little disgusted at the choice. Sure, supplies were running low, but they couldn't be completely out of good whisky yet, right? 

Mark that down as one more thing he'd never understand about America. Along with whatever that shit was they called cheese. 

Canned cheese and bad whisky. Unforgivable crimes. 

Of course, he said none of this to Rollins. “How ya doin’, pal? Leave that kid with anythin’, or bleed him dry, didya?”

Rollins laughed darkly. “He'll be fine. Taught him a valuable lesson about knowing when to cut his losses.”

“You're all heart,” Finn replied sarcastically. “What d'you want, Seth?”

Checking to make sure nobody was listening, Seth leaned in. “What did H say? He paid you well, obviously.” He indicated the briefcase. “Fancy sharing with the class?”

“Just backpay for the last few contracts,” Finn said coolly. “Why, you hear anything big in the works?” 

“Matter of fact, I did,” Rollins replied smugly. “You walked in here, after almost six months absence, with Shinsuke Nakamura. Since he showed up, serious cogs have been turning. Which you'd know, if you'd been here. Now you're back too. C'mon, you're killing me.”

“Ran into him out in the arse end of nowhere. Gave him a ride this far. H asked me to drive him a little bit further.” Finn smirked. “Seth, you're talkin’ like a bloody Trace wanker. Mysterious plots and all that.”

“What's the file, then?” Rollins asked, trying persistently to snatch it. 

Rolling his eyes, Finn showed the photo of Rey. “You know anything ‘bout this customer?” 

“Oh, Rey? Sure.” Rollins tossed a peanut into his mouth. “It'll cost you, though.”

“Depends how good your info is,” Finn murmured, conscious of the eyes on them. Strowman, Reigns and Ambrose, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn… any one of them could overhear something. He wasn't so worried about AJ, knew he was largely reasonable, but any one of the others could see a way to make a quick million and decide the best course of action was to get Finn out of the way. 

“Heard he's got a farm out West,” Rollins replied. He grinned. “Tell you where if you give me the details on this thing. Nakamura's telling people he's looking for the Trace Italian to throw them off the scent.”

“Nope, that's it.” 

“Sure it is. That can't be all. You said it yourself, there ain't some grand conspiracy going on, and we both know that. C'mon Finn,” Rollins pleaded. He too was aware that if they talked for much longer, they'd start attracting attention. He was a total bastard, but evidently not ready to cut Finn out right yet. 

“Yeah, well. I thought it was bollocks too. Shows how much we know. They say there's proof.”

“Like we haven't heard that one before,” Rollins retorted.

“I think it's a crock of shit too. But they're chuckin’ a lot into it, so someone's gotta know somethin’. Plus H doesn't strike me as the kinda guy to fall for shit without some kinda evidence. I've thought about it every which way, an’ it's either a cover they're usin’ for somethin’ bigger, or the real fuckin’ deal.”

“Shit,” Rollins muttered. “Well you're fucking useless. You don't know jack.”

“I'll know more when we find Rey,” Finn promised. “Tell me what you know, an’ I'll consider it an investment, for further updates.”

“If it's worth that much to you, I want more than some scraps of info. I need down-payment now.”

Finn looked around quickly, and flicked the briefcase open. He took one box of bullets out. “This should cover that. Where's Rey hiding out at?”

“Farm out West,” Rollins repeated. “Near some two-bit town called Pennyoak. Town got bombed out few years back. Rubbed off the map.” He grinned smugly. “That do it for you?” 

Finn nodded. “Good enough. How'd you know ‘bout it?” 

“I'm a man of mystery.” Rollins leaned back in his chair with an air of self-satisfaction. “I helped bomb the town, of course. Used gas to flush the residents out, then blew ‘em up. Some of ‘em ran out of town and went hid at the farm. So we rolled up there, three armoured cars of us, and out comes this little fella in that mask you showed. He tells us we're on his land, and he's got every right as a homeowner to blow us all up. I laugh, Dean laughs, Roman laughs. We're absolutely dying, and then he tosses a grenade and takes out the first car. I mean, that threw me a little, but we opened fire. Little bastard got to cover. Second car drives forward, onto a pressure pad -” Rollins mimed an explosion. “Boom. So we stay where we are, shoot at anything that moves. We'd used our big toys on the town. The other cars had the rest of our shit, and they got blown up. Tiny motherfucker comes up under cover of night and disarms everyone. Paid us to get out of town. Normally I'd have buried him, but I had a feeling. So we came to an understanding instead. It was a crazy weekend.”

Killing the majority of a town was more along the lines of war crimes against civilians than a wild lads’ night out, but it wasn't Finn's place to judge. Everyone had done their share of sketchy things. Finn had founded Bullet Club, he really couldn't talk. 

Time was definitely up, at this point. Finn stood up, clapping Rollins on the shoulder. 

“Thanks, pal.”

“You better keep me in the loop,” Rollins warned. 

“Will do, brother,” Finn promised, and headed over to the arcade machines, where an exasperated AJ was trying to explain that these things were programmed so you would lose and not, in fact, sentient or malicious, and so putting a brick through one would just be property damage. 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Sami was saying. “But there's some inanimate objects that have got souls , and this one's a bastard.”

“That's not- Kevin, please can you get it through your friend's thick, ginger head, that breaking the fruit machine will benefit nobody.”

“It'll come out of our wages, Sam,” Kevin said, shrugging. “You really wanna do this again?”

The again there was worrying, but Finn didn't stick around to hear the rest. Nakamura had settled into a corner and was playing one of the joystick games, where you beat up enemies as Michael Jackson. Finn watched him play through it methodically. 

“You like this kinda thing?” 

“Uh-huh.Like Michael Jackson. Like videogames. This…wow. Awesome, man.”

Finn smiled. He was glad the other man was enjoying himself. His happiness was a  tad infectious. “I'm gonna be drivin’ ya a little ways along the road, you know that, right.”

Nakamura nodded, still focusing intently on the game. He didn't say a word. 

Finn watched him for a minute. “Meet you in the car tomorrow morning?”

“Sure,” Nakamura replied, tongue poking out of his mouth absent-mindedly. 

“I'll uh…see you then, then?”

“Yeah. See you then.”

Finn left. 

Chapter Text

There were some general chores that needed doing, things Finn needed to pick up: food, fuel, gas canisters for the stove, the usual kind of thing. Once those errands were run, he stopped for a chat with the bartender, a stout but imposing man nicknamed Samoa Joe. Decent guy. Bit of a temper. He clearly didn't much care for Nakamura's antics. The head on the bar was the cherry on top of a considerable cake of bullshit. 

“See, people laugh it all up,” Joe was saying. “But they forget what a dangerous beast they're dealing with. That's a man who taught himself proper swordplay for the sheer drama. He's a nasty piece of work. I keep saying this. Nobody fucking listens.” He looked at Finn firmly. “You be careful. Friendly warning.”

“Noted,” Finn replied, and downed the rest of his beer. 

He passed the rest of the evening quietly enough. Booked a room for the night and fell into a proper bed. He slept relatively well, nightmares notwithstanding. Gun by his bed, mind you. Knife under his pillow. Overnight, he heard a few gunshots and some scattered smashing noises, but he ignored them and snoozed through. If it was important, he'd find out soon. If not, it could wait until morning.

He was thinking over his plans. This job would be over soon. After that, he'd find himself a couple small-scale contracts. Head out to the ruins of New York, perhaps. Keep on surviving, like he always did. Roll with the punches, whatever came at him. Beyond that, it was futile to plan too far ahead.

The world was too dangerous for daydreaming. The world was too fragile to let go of the day-to-day for even a moment. 

Light had started to filter through the windows, and he was lying flat in bed with only these thoughts for company. Eventually, he hauled himself up and began to pace, distrust mounting. This whole thing stank. He hated that he was personally intrigued. The smartest thing to do would be to get in the car and drive. Learn the lesson Rollins had been giving that kid; cut his losses and run. Why he didn't was beyond him. 

There was a knock at the door. “Hey, Finn?” 

“AJ?” Crossing the room, Finn opened it. AJ was stood just outside. “What's up?”

“Wondering when you'd emerge,” AJ replied. “Sleep well?”

“Ish,” Finn shrugged. “Heard the racket downstairs. You know what that was about?”

AJ grimaced. “Nothing new. Ambrose and Rollins had a disagreement over God knows what. Sami put a brick through the fruit machine. Strowman smashed a glass over his own head to prove how tough he is. The usual.”

“And Nakamura?” 

“Kept on playing that weird game, until some of the glass from the one Sami broke got on him, ruined his high score. Then he took offence and they had a fistfight outside. I say fistfight. You ever seen Shin scrap? Gotta watch for them legs, knees. There's a pro-tip.”

Finn nodded. Sound advice. “He's alright?” 

“‘Course,” AJ scoffed. “Tough as nails, when it comes down to it. Got a sweet black eye. Then again, so's Sami. Saw Kevin earlier and he said two of his buddy's ribs were busted. Haven't spoken to Shin. Think he's probably alright, though.”

“Can't keep some people down,” Finn remarked. He was thinking of Becky. There was someone who never said die. People like that would inherit the earth. 

He scoffed down a couple of cardboardy granola bars, protein-rich and full of raisins. Then he brushed his teeth and headed to the car, where he found Nakamura, doing his erratic stretch routine. AJ was right about the bruise; his face was purple and impressively swollen. Despite this, he was all smiles, wincing a little at the pain. 

“You should see the other guy,” he said cheerfully. 

Finn shook his head in disbelief. “You really are completely spare. Funny in the head.” But he was smiling too, as he got into the car. “Hop in. We're headed West.”

His erstwhile partner-in-crime nodded. “We find Rey, yeah?” 

“Yep,” Finn replied grimly. “Then you and me part ways.”

“Awwww. Breaking my heart.” Nakamura did that odd, toothy grin he sometimes did, a little too wide to be a smirk, but absolutely void of any sincerity or anything but deepest irony. It was a little bit sharkish, when you weren't used to it. 

Joe's warning ran through his mind. He'd bear it in mind for future reference. Now, he started the car and began to drive. 

“If you were on any other road but the one leading to the Trace Italian, I'd stick around,” Finn assured him. “But this? No way, ‘kay? It ain't personal. You're pretty cool, all things said. I just…you get me?”

“Thank you for saying I'm cool,” Nakamura replied, almost glowing with pride. He switched tracks so abruptly it almost gave Finn emotional whiplash. “You don't have to explain, Finn. You don't like the Trace. If you want to tell me, you can. If not, I don't take it personal. You're nice. To me, anyway. I'll be sad when you go, but that's your call. You gotta do what's best for you.”

“Nakamura-” Finn began, wanting to explain, hell, there was a lot to unpack there, a whole suitcase of feelings he'd been completely unprepared for. “I don't know what to say-” You should hate me. I did a lot of bad shit back in Japan. I must have killed people you knew. Why are you fine with any of this? He opened his mouth to ask him these questions, but was cut off by a simple statement. 

“Call me Shinsuke. Or Shin. Whatever. First name terms now, man.”

That took the wind out of Finn's sails. He had nothing left to say to that. “You're a fuckin’ loon, Shin,” he said, shaking his head. And Shinsuke threw back his head and laughed. 

The car ploughed on through the desert, leaving waves of sand in its wake. 

 

-

 

They'd been on the road for four hours without incident, just constant driving, when they hit a spot of radio. Someone was broadcasting. It wasn't the usual distress signal either, it wasn't on one of those channels. Instead, it was a music show. Old classics, corny power ballads, and some staticky, fading-in-and-out rock tunes. It had been so long since Finn had heard any music, that it felt like some kind of out-of-body experience. True to established form, Shinsuke sang along. 

“Really, man?” Finn was surprised, more than anything, that the other man knew the words to all these old hits so well. He'd kind of assumed, erroneously, that they would listen to more of their own music. He knew that they had a thriving scene back in the day. Used to bop along to some of the more hardcore stuff when it came on. 

“It's Queen,” Shinsuke replied, point-blank. “They're universal , man .”

Finn couldn't argue with that. He joined in. For a moment, the world seemed sane again. Just two guys, headbanging along on a regular cross-country roadtrip. While it lasted, life was good. 

A few miles on, they passed out of range. The radio crackled uselessly, like some kind of wounded animal. Its absence left an aching hole in Finn's chest. 

After that, they lapsed back into silence. They ate tinned beans that night when they stopped; Shinsuke looked on in horror as Finn made some toast for his, and started to eat. 

“And you say I'm the crazy,” he scoffed. 

Finn took a massive bite of toast, beans going everywhere. “Dunno what you're talking about. This is cuisine. Fine-dining.”

Finn- dining,” Shinsuke quipped, shit-eating grin plastered across his face. 

            “I hate you. So fucking much.”

You're just jealous.” He snickered, while Finn groaned. 

“You are nowhere near as funny as you think.”

“I am to me,” Shinsuke said, and there was really no arguing with that kind of logic. Finn couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned what kind of person he was driving. 

He took first watch. 

There was a long way to go yet.

 

-

 

The town, Pennyoak, was a tiny dot on an old, backdated map. It didn’t exist on newer versions. Newer maps, though, had markers of radioactivity, no-go zones. So Finn was cross-referencing, hunting down that tiny, almost imperceptible name, and transferring it over to the newer map. They were in an abandoned gas station, almost a quarter of the way to their destination. The pumps had been looted, along with the rest of the place, but Finn was certain he’d stocked up on enough petrol to keep them going. He hoped, anyway. 

The one thing this place did have was candy. A few leftover packets of gummies the looters hadn’t bothered with, looking instead for useful nutrients. Shinsuke gravitated toward them, going through packet after packet, while Finn plotted their route at the counter. It was pretty funny to watch, a guy in all leathers, with a fuckoff giant sword over his shoulders, biting down impatiently on a lollipop rather than waste time sucking it.

“Right, I think I’ve got this,” Finn called. “There’s no real hubs of people between here an’ there, so we should probably be alright. There’s a river, an’ a bridge marked on the map, but who knows if that exists anymore. If the river’s dried out, or if the bridge is good, we can drive it, but if not, we gotta figure something out that won’t take us totally off course. You hear me, man?”

Shinsuke didn’t reply. He crunched his way through another lollipop. 

“You’re driver,” he said eventually, through a mouthful of candy shards. “Your call.”

Something else Finn was learning was that his passenger was not opposed to flat-out ignoring anything he wasn’t directly involved in or enjoying. This was frustrating when you wanted to plan just about anything, because his contribution would consist mostly of nodding and pulling strange faces, which you had to gauge the meaning of because all of a sudden, he didn’t speak a word of English. So that was tiring. 

“Thanks for your help,” he muttered sarcastically. 

“No problem.” Shinsuke beamed, faux-innocent. Honestly, for all that Finn found the guy entertaining, he really wanted to run him the fuck over with his car sometimes. 

“Lazy bastard,” Finn muttered. He finished up the plans regardless of the lack of help. “We'll figure out about the river when we get to it. Even if we have to make a raft.” Shinsuke grunted, from behind one of the shelves. “You done stuffing your face yet? We gotta get moving. It ain't safe to hang around places like this too long.”

Silence. Bloody typical. He started to fold his maps up, when he heard footsteps. He tensed. 

Two sets. Definitely more than one person. Finn reached for his shotgun. 

“Awright, who's there?” He pumped the shotgun loudly. “Come on out.” 

Quiet, then a female voice called out; “We'll kill your friend. Put the gun down.”

“Easy, there,” Finn said gently. “We can figure something out.” 

“Gun, down,” the voice reiterated firmly. “We can see you.”

He looked up, into the camera, and cursed his own stupidity. He should have got them in and out quicker, soon as he had the map he needed, with Pennyoak on. He should have checked the place out. This was on him for not getting it sorted. 

“Who's we?” he asked, setting the gun down on the side. “Okay, done. What do you want?”

Hushed whispers. Handcuffs slid across the floor. “Put these on.”

By now, he had identified two voices. Both young women. One of them was slightly calmer than the other. This was the woman who'd made the initial threat. The second, who had spoken a little more, the most recent sets of instructions, sounded a little bit excited. At the very least, hyped up on adrenaline. 

“Movin’ a bit fast, don't you think ladies?” Finn laughed nervously. “I'd love to help you girls, but I'm gonna need to know you ain't bluffing me. My buddy, he alright?” 

“Sedated. Pretty heavy dose. He's fine.” The first voice said. 

A screen flickered on above Finn's head. He saw an unconscious Shinsuke, visibly breathing. His eyes were wide open, but rolled up. The veins on the side of his neck were an unhealthy blue. There was a knife being pressed into his throat. 

“Jesus. What's to say you haven't just poisoned him?”

“Who do you think we are?” the second voice called out. “Murderous lunatics? Put the handcuffs on already.” 

It seemed to Finn he had a clear choice. He made it right there and then. Took the handcuffs, put them on. Clicked them shut and showed them up to the camera. 

“There we go. You can come out now.”

There was this one, long moment of hesitation, then the screen flickered out. A woman with a tranq gun, and vivid purple hair stood there. She gave an apologetic smile, mouthed the word sorry, and pulled the trigger. All of this so quickly, Finn could do nothing, but fall to the floor clutching his neck. 

For fuck's sake.

Chapter Text

He woke in darkness, on the cold floor of the gas station bathroom. He'd been handcuffed to a pipe. 

His head was killing him. 

“Hey, you're awake,” a low, familiar voice croaked. Shinsuke was sat on the floor a few metres away. The wall was covered with etched tally marks. “I make a mark for every day. You've been unconscious for, huh, looks like months.”

For one, not brief enough moment, Finn almost believed him. Then he saw that shit-eating grin, in the dim-light of their prison, and groaned. “You are such a knob.”

“I don't understand, so I'm just gonna pretend it means good thing. What you say, really, ‘thanks, Shin, for keeping track of the days for us. You're a true friend’.” 

“Cut the crap,” Finn hissed. “How long have I been out for real?” 

Shinsuke shrugged. “Only woke up a minute ago myself. Checked you were okay, then decided to do sweet prank. You believe me, for a second, right?” 

“You really are the worst,” Finn muttered. He manoeuvred himself to a sitting position, arms buckling underneath him, but managing to support his weight. “This is on you. I coulda walked an’ let them kill you, ya know. Bloody shoulda too ‘n all.” He pointed a warning finger at his travelling companion. “Why the fuck did you let this happen?”

“Oh, you know. Thought it would be good bonding experience.” Shinsuke’s tone was bitter and irritable. In the darkened room, his fading bruises from the fight a few days previous made it hard to gauge his expression, masked as it was in swollen purples. But Finn knew he’d definitely struck a nerve. He noticed a livid stain on the wall; he noticed fresh blood on his travelling companion’s knuckles. As annoyed as Finn was, he realised that was nothing compared to how furious Shinsuke was with himself.

“I shoulda scouted the place better,” Finn admitted. Not quite an apology, but close enough. “Ain’t all on you.” 

“I got us caught,” the other man replied. 

“They had tranq guns, Shin, and cameras. Probably had eyes on us for miles. We couldn’t have done shit.” Finn was talking to convince himself as much as Shinsuke, and he knew it. “Don't beat yourself up about it, pal. We gotta figure out our next moves.” He surveyed their surroundings grimly. It was silent outside. Too quiet by far.  “Looks like they've left us to die. Which only gives us one option.” He paused, giving Shinsuke time to catch up. Understanding hit him, and he beamed broadly. On the same page. 

So Finn thought, as he laid out their plan verbally, “Escape.”

At the exact same time as Shinsuke said, far too enthusiastically, “Cannibalism!” 

“What?” 

Shinsuke nodded sagely. “To survive, we will be forced to eat one another. Like plane crash. You only need one arm, right, Finn?”

“That's not what I- I like both my arms, thank you. I'm talking about getting out of here.”

“Oh, right,” Shinsuke sounded downcast by this prospect. “Gotcha.”

“Little worrying how keen you are to eat people, Shin,” Finn said, through a gritted-teeth forced smile. 

“Cool story though.”

“I think keeping both my arms and escaping in one piece is a cooler story, actually.”

“Is it? Are you sure ?”

Very .”

They were interrupted by a laugh. The door opened to reveal a young woman. When his eyes had readjusted to the sudden light, Finn could see she was dressed in bright clothing -- colourful tassled trousers, and a sun-faded t-shirt. She had a pair of tech goggles pulled up on her forehead. Her brown hair was scraped back into a practical side-ponytail, and she had a headband to keep it out of her eyes. 

“You guys are wild. You really thought we just left you, huh? What kind of monsters do you think we are?”

Finn studied her. She wasn't tall, and was fairly slight. Must have been strong, though, to get them both into the bathroom with her friend. “You attacked us.”

“It's just business,” the woman replied, upbeat. She leaned down to look at Shinsuke, who had said nothing, retreating into himself. “Hey, sword dude. What's with the sword?” 

“No English,” Shinsuke muttered darkly. 

The woman blinked, confused. “I just heard you, you speak fine-” 

Shinsuke fixed her with a glare . “Hearing things. No English.” The air in their improvised cell was getting decidedly chilly. Shinsuke began to slide his cuff up the section of pipe, hauling himself to his feet, legs shaking like a baby deer. He started to smile slowly, no different from his ordinary smiles, but there was an unhinged look in his eyes. Like he didn't care what happened next. Slowly, he licked his lips. 

The woman wasn't frightened. “Do you want me to taze you?” she asked, folding her arms. “Because I totally will taze you. And it'll hurt a lot, because I modded this bad boy myself.” She waved the taser in her hands, and stepped back, putting distance between herself and her captives. “So? Do you want me to taze you?” 

Shinsuke scowled, flopping to the floor with a huff, and Finn spoke up quickly. “No, it's okay. He's just groggy from the anaesthetic. Needs some coffee, right Shin?” He smiled. The smile was not returned. “There's some instant in the car.”

“I know, we found it already,” the woman replied brightly, but still visibly wary of them. “Along with your booby traps, guns, a tonne of bullets…and a nice little file. Made interesting reading.” She met Finn's eyes plainly. “That's why we kept you alive, didn't trade you in to the militia either. You got useful info. So, we'll make you both your coffees, and you boys will play nice and tell us what you want with Mysterio.”

“That's your play?” Finn could work with that. He could maybe even talk them into freedom, if only Shinsuke felt like behaving. “Sounds reasonable. Wanna unchain me an’ talk about this outside, like civilised people?” 

The woman laughed. “I'm not dumb. We can talk to you just fine like this. If anything whatsoever happens to me, my friend will radio the local gangs, see if anyone wants your blood. They'll come and collect, and they aren't so nice as me. Seriously, it doesn't have to go bad.” She was chewing her lip, nervously. Finn figured something quickly. 

She'd probably never killed. Maybe in self-defence, okay. Definitely not in cold blood though. She was a basically decent person, getting by. Making a living. 

“Your purple-haired friend, yeah? With the tranqs. Am I right in thinking she's the chemist here? You're the techie.” The young woman nodded reluctantly. “Gotcha. Sounds a good partnership. Let's cut a deal. I'll talk if you let me out of here. You can lock me up again after, but I won't say a word until you let me out, y’hear?”

The woman hesitated, but nodded. “That sounds fair. Sword guy stays in here, though.”

“Sword guy has a name,” Shinsuke muttered. 

“Sword guy didn't speak English a minute ago,” she pointed out. “And I only need one of you. Irish is cooperating.” 

“Finn,” Finn corrected. “I'm Finn, he's Shin. Finn Bálor, and Shinsuke Nakamura.”

“See?” The woman tossed Finn a set of keys. “Only you. You try anything, I give you a zap.” She pressed the buttons on the tazer, and the electricity crackled ominously. 

“Just try it,” Shinsuke hissed, and started to grin again, once more getting to his feet. Out of his cuffs by now, Finn went and put a hand on his shoulder, trying to get him to sit back down. 

“It'll be fine. I'll deal with it. Okay? Just stay mellow, and I'll be back for you.”

Shinsuke eyed him warily, but sat back down. Finn gave an awkward smile and followed the young woman out back into the gas station proper. 

“Didn't catch your name,” he said, conversationally. 

“Oh, me?” When she smiled, it looked genuine. And not in a murderous way. “I'm Bayley.”

“Nice to meet you,” Finn lied, but he was only half lying. She seemed nice. 

He watched her lock the door again, leaving Shinsuke inside, and couldn't help feeling that, even though this was the smart play here, that he was making a mistake. Going soft, he must have been. 

He should cut and run now. Fuck Shinsuke. He could find his own way out of this mess. 

That was the worrying thought here. 

Because he just might take out anyone in his way when he did. 

 

-

 

He followed Bayley through the gas station and out back. Obscured by large dumpsters, there was a hatch through to some sort of basement. Bayley tossed him another key, prodding him in the back with the taser and nodding. 

“Go on, then,” she ordered. Resentment curled in his stomach, but he obeyed. It occurred to him, as he walked down the stairs, Bayley just behind him, that he might have just passed up his only chance to get out of here cleanly. Why was he holding off? He still had -- yes, he still had a knife concealed. So why wasn’t he doing anything?

He figured he was curious. The Rey Mysterio file had told him nothing about why they wanted this guy in on their schemes. It had told them he was a slippery little bastard, not to be trifled with. It said very little on the man himself beyond his record; which Finn had to admire. You didn’t meet many people, for example, who’d survived the siege of Miami. Or the stunt he’d allegedly pulled at that farm out West, which wasn’t in the file. Finn wondered if it were even true. Rollins wasn’t exactly known for honesty. It was entirely plausible he’d made the whole thing up to try and get info. But still, something about it rang true, and Finn’s instincts were normally good. He was inclined to believe Rollins on this one.

None of which answered his question. 

The basement room was more like a fortified bunker turned science lab, half devoted to screens and circuitry, and the other half full of test tubes, glass beakers, shit Finn wouldn’t even pretend to understand beyond knowing that this was where the knockout drug they’d been captured with was made. And there was the purple-haired woman, lab goggles up on her forehead, chewing on a pen. Weirdly, that was what made Finn scoff the most. Not the secret lab under the gas station, that could be believed, but that someone out there still had a working pen? Now that was unrealistic.

The woman was flicking through the Mysterio file, making notes on every page. Meaning she knew something. On hearing their footsteps, she glanced up, before recoiling and scrabbling for the tranquiliser gun. Now calmer, she levelled it at Finn coolly. 

“What the hell were you thinking, Bayley?” the woman hissed. She glared at Finn. “I don’t know what you did to weasel your way in here, but you stay back. I’ve got poisons here that could kill you in minutes.” 

“Like the chemistry set,” Finn replied. “Impressive. Listen, I’m not here to cause trouble-”

“Bullshit!” the woman retorted, pointing at the file with no small degree of urgency. “You’re looking for him. Why would you be after Rey if you weren’t trying to start shit? Hasn’t he done enough? You people should give him a break.”

“Sasha, calm down,” Bayley said, going to her friend’s side. “He’s willing to talk.”

Sasha looked dubious. “Where’s the other one?”

“Locked up still,” Bayley replied. “Not feeling so cooperative.”

Sasha nodded. Her expression wasn’t quite acceptance, still guarded, but it was a little less wary. Finn could work with that. “You’re going to talk?”

“If you’ll answer some of my questions, for sure.” Finn assumed his most agreeable tone, just your average, friendly kind of guy. Regular and ordinary. “Don’t worry, nothin’ much. Just, well, thing is, they didn’t tell me too much about the gig. I know we’re looking for Rey, and Triple H, you know the guy, he said the file would explain why. Now, I can do the maths. Rey’s smart; he’s still alive for one thing. He’s got somethin’, I really couldn’t hazard a guess what, but it goes back to the Trace Italian.” He looked to the young women expectantly. Their expressions had dropped, and they were exchanging a very obvious Meaningful Look, which they hadn’t even tried to hide. Good. This was going well. “I just wanna know what I’ve landed meself in. Really.”

“Is that true?” Sasha asked dubiously. “Why take the job if you don’t know what it is?”

“The ammo in the car,” Bayley said, realisation dawning on her. “Sasha, he’s just a pawn. They didn’t tell him anything.”

“What about the Trace Italian?” Sasha asked, unrelenting, arms folded. 

Finn shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just driving Shin far as Rey’s. Then it’s their problem.” He felt the women’s eyes boring into him and shifted. “I do know one other thing. I was asked to set up a deal, persuade Rey to work with us on this job. I may not know all the details, but I know the plan hinges on Rey being alive, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Sasha still seemed cautious, but Bayley looked persuaded, pulling her to the side and whispering something quietly. The purple-haired woman frowned, and then sighed. She turned back to Finn. “Okay. We’ll come with. Just to make sure you don’t pull anything funny. Rey Mysterio’s a good man, better than you by far. If anything goes south-” she produced a jar of darts, and shook them ominously. “You’ll get acquainted with these bad boys. You’ll be dead before you hit the floor.”

“Sounds fair to me,” Finn replied. A flash of movement on one of the camera screens caught his eye, then he saw it cut out. He considered saying something, but didn’t need to; an alarm rang immediately after, and both women turned. If he’d wanted to take them unawares, kill them, make his escape, he could have. But he didn’t see the need. 

“Oh shit,” Bayley was saying. “He’s taken out the cameras!”

Sasha fixed her gaze on Finn, and went immediately to her darts. There was one in her hand, and Bayley was barely holding her back. “You distracted us so your friend could escape. You scheming bastard. Was any of that shit you fed us true?”

“Sasha, this wasn’t his fault-” Bayley pleaded. 

“Bullshit it wasn’t! They probably planned this, didn’t you? You should have run when you had a chance.”

Finn was really, really not enjoying his day. He was beyond pissed off, and this stunt from Shinsuke didn’t make it any better. “He does what he wants. The plan was I come talk to you, get us out, and we head back on our merry way. But he can’t even follow that without...God, I’m sorry. Give me my gun, and I’ll head upstairs and talk to him.”

“Why the hell would we do that?” Sasha asked, furiously. 

Bayley produced his pistol and handed it to him, as Sasha protested. There was a time, Finn thought, when he’d have shot the both of them through the skull and wouldn’t have lost any sleep over it. But he wasn’t that person now. He wasn’t sure what kind of person he was, or what call he’d make when he had Shinsuke in range. 

“Cover me with the tranq gun,” he told Sasha. “Just in case.”

“Fine,” Sasha replied, stubborn look on her face. Bayley switched out her taser for a full-on cattle-prod. 

Shinsuke’s sword was leaning against the wall, along with several knives. Finn counted them, and ran it against a mental tally he’d kept in his head. He came up short. So the guy still had a few blades. Great. 

Finn checked his gun. He’d have around twenty shots. That was more than enough for dealing with an unarmed man. Or even for a man with what, two, three knives tops? Plenty. He climbed the stairs, followed by the two women. Sasha seemed put-out by the situation, but Bayley was definitely excited. She was practically bouncing on her toes, skipping steps. Finn saw Sasha look at her friend and smile faintly. There was her soft spot, her weakness. If it came to it, he knew who to target, how to manipulate them into helping out. Not that he wanted to. That wasn’t his play here.

He hoped it wasn’t, anyway. 

Stepping out into the sunlight, he blinked, adjusting his eyes from the faint, flickering tube lights of the lab basement. He was on the immediate alert. 

“Where is he?” He looked back to the women. Bayley pulled her goggles down and was quiet for a few moments. 

“He’s just broke the camera out front. I’ve got a backup...he’s going to the car.”

“No he ain’t.” Finn gritted his teeth irritably. “That’s my bleeding car.” He started to run, rounding the corner. 

Shinsuke had already got into the driver’s seat, and was fiddling with the ignition. “Oi!” Finn yelled after him. The loony motherfucker cast him a disdainful look, and kept on trying to start the car without the keys. “Don’t you fuckin’ dare, Shinsuke!”

A mad grin crept across his colleague’s face, as if those words had sealed the deal. The car started with a roar, just before Finn could reach it. Finn looked at the gun in his hand in horror. For fuck’s sake. Was he really going to have to shoot at his own car? Was that the position Shinsuke was putting him in? He couldn’t risk damaging it permanently, not with vehicles so hard to come by. That was his car . Still, nothing was sacred, was it? He shot the right mirror, a warning. It came careening off into the sand. 

The car arced around, so it was facing Finn. Oh fuck. His stomach sank. He had one decision to make, and he knew what he’d have to do. It was him or Shinsuke, it had come down to that so quickly. Finn intended to survive, simple as. 

The car accelerated toward him, and he aimed. Only to realise that, for all his batshit insanity, the asshole still had a brain somewhere, and he’d ducked. Finn darted out of the way just in time, managing to sidestep before the passenger door swung open and floored him. A pair of hands pulled him into the car by his collar.

He’d managed to keep hold of his gun. Intuitively, he moved, and that was how they got there, with the gun pressed directly under Shinsuke’s chin and Finn’s finger buzzing over the trigger. 

Shinsuke stopped the car, blinking in confusion. He seemed genuinely baffled by his predicament. “Hey! This is how you thank me for rescue?” 

That took Finn off guard. “Rescue?”

Shinsuke nodded sincerely. “Rescue. I rescue you from those weird, scary chicks.” He shuddered. “We continue mission.”

“I had it covered!” Finn hissed. “Besides, you were accelerating right towards me. The fuck else was I supposed to think?” 

“Rescue,” Shinsuke replied, like he were talking to an idiot. “Obvious.”

Finn sighed. He couldn’t argue. You couldn’t shake that kind of certainty. He was really, really tempted to just shoot Shinsuke and be done with it. But he didn’t. “The weird scary chicks know Rey, Shin. They’re gonna help us out. I talked them round. Like I said I would, if you’d listened to my plan.”

Shinsuke shrugged. Finn noticed the cuff still untouched on his hand. So he’d worked the piping loose, presumably, rather than picking the cuff. Ingenious. “Your plan, lots of holes. Biggest hole, it’s boring . My plan, great fun.” Shinsuke sighed, and the bluster seemed to fall away. “Didn’t trust them not to kill you. Trusted you to stay alive long enough for getaway.” He shrugged again lamely. “Never mind. We get caught again, yeah?” He gestured at the women who were approaching the car with their tranq gun and cattle prod at the ready. 

Finn shook his head, holding up a hand to keep them at bay. “They’re gonna come with us, okay? Two more road trip buddies. We’re cool with them now.”

“Oh, okay,” Shinsuke replied absently, yawning. “Can I get my sword back now?”

Chapter Text

Finn was on edge. For the sake of this uneasy alliance, he'd been forced to do the one thing AJ had told him not to. He'd had to let Shinsuke sit behind him. 

Sasha was riding shotgun; she had insisted upon it. Similarly, she ruled that Bayley had to sit behind her, to keep an eye on the resident weirdo, who in turn was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. Instead he was making faces in the rearview mirror, puffing his cheeks up and pushing the air out again with his hands. Loudly. Driving everyone else nuts. 

Nobody was keen on him having immediate access to his sword, least of all Finn, sat directly in front of him in prime stab zone. This had caused him so much earache, that he almost wished he had been filleted like a sodding fish already and put out of his misery. 

“Guyyyyys c'mon ,” Shinsuke drawled. “Can't use sword in car anywayyyyy . Too cramped. Sprain your elbow.” His measured nod suggested he'd definitely found this out through experience. “Stab someone in car, you use knife.” 

“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Finn was still in a foul mood with the other assassin, and his voice was tinged with bitterness as a result. 

“Yeah!” Shinsuke nodded proudly. “ Pleeeease can I have my sword back, Fiiiiinn . Promise not to…cut your head off while you driving. Even though it look so awesome if I do.”

“No sword,” Finn replied firmly. He felt too much like a parent. Of an unruly 6'2’’ killing machine. For fuck's sake. 

“Why do you have an actual sword?” Bayley piped up. “I know bullets are hard to come by these days but it still seems a little…extra.” If that wasn't the aptest description of Shinsuke, Finn didn't know what was. Extra motherfucker. 

“Aesthetic,” Shinsuke replied, with a flash of his wolfish grin. “Looks cool, does job. And best thing, yeah, I'm Japanese. What do white people think? They think ‘oh, scary Asian man with big sword chop us up, run away’. I get to scare all the dumbass racists shitless.” He snickered childishly. “Fun times.”

“Huh. That's like, surprisingly thought out. You're actually pretty smart.” Bayley looked taken aback by this. That was the normal reaction when you realised just how cunning and intelligent this guy was under all that bullshit. He'd run two merc crews, you had to remember that. Everything he did, even the goofball act to throw people off, was for very specific reasons. 

He was dangerous. 

Finn really hated having him sat behind. 

So far, Sasha had been relatively quiet. She was minding the sword, which looked comically large next to her. It didn't seem like she was sulking, more lost in contemplation. Weighing up the shitshow situation she'd wandered into. Finn sympathised. He, too, longed for a couple of days ago, when things had made a lot more sense. You know, when the world was just ending, and the Trace Italian wasn't real, and he didn't have a known backstabber sat directly behind him, in prime stab position. That stuff. 

“Pull over,” she said, after a while. “I'll drive the next stretch.”

“Finn doesn't like people driving his car,” Shinsuke yawned. “Right, Finn?” 

“Yeah. Right,” Finn agreed. 

“You need to pull over,” Sasha insisted. “Bayley. Tell them.”

“Tell them what?” 

“You know,” Sasha hissed. 

“Ohhh,” Bayley replied. “That. Yeah, Sasha needs to drive.”

“Oh, okay,” Shinsuke replied. “That definitely sounds super duper legit. I buy that 110 per cent .” His tone wasn't sarcastic, but his exaggerated wink to Finn in the mirror was beyond sassy. He was ridiculous. 

“Wanna fill us in?” Finn asked. “For the rest of the class?” 

Sasha sighed. “The bridge. It's controlled by the local militia. Which is the Flairs.”

“Hold up. You're fucking with me.” Finn shook his head. “You're telling me Ric fucking Flair owns this bit of land, and we're just driving on in like-”

“Listen to me for five minutes, will you?” Sasha rolled her eyes. “Not Ric. Charlotte. But sure, she's got all her daddy's resources, foot soldiers-” 

“Ammo,” Bayley finished.

“No feckin’ shit,” Finn sniped. “Ric's a bloody arms dealer.” He glared at Sasha. “You coulda told us sooner.”

“I was forming a plan,” she retorted. “I've got one now.”

“I trust her!” called Shinsuke cheerfully. “Her hair’s cool. We should believe everything she say ‘cause she got a look going on.” His eye-roll was something else. Nice to know he was taking this seriously. Somewhat, anyway. As much as he could. “Do you dye it or does it grow that colour?” 

“Do you have to act like a child about everything?” Sasha asked, impatiently. 

“No,” he replied. “But I want to.”

Finn pulled over. “The plan. What is it?” He didn't like being out of the loop. He couldn't go with the flow like Shinsuke did. He needed to know. 

“Can I guess?” Shinsuke lit up like a kid at Christmas. He thought about it for a moment, then spoke slowly, as if reciting something important and not talking utter shite. “We turn Finn into a Mad Max figurehead and charge their base, find a guitar flamethrower, die historic on Fury Road?” They stared at him. He shrugged. “Good movie. I like old films.”

“Yeah, no,” Finn said quickly. “Ignore him. He's attention-seeking. Like a cat pushing shit off of furniture.” Shinsuke grinned. “We'll tase you and put you in the trunk if you don't put a sock in it.”

Bayley nodded seriously. “If you even fit. How are your legs that long?” 

“Bones,” Shinsuke answered, very seriously. “Calcium.”

“Shinsuke. Shut up.”

A flickering, broken lightbulb smile. “Try it. It'll be fun , Finn. Fun Finn fun.” 

Anyway, ” Finn ignored him. “Sasha?” 

The chemist nodded. “We have a travel permit, we take medication over to the settlement on the regular,” she explained. “We can get the car across the bridge, and meet the two of you on the other side.”

“How do we get across?” Finn asked, unconvinced. “Swim?” They would have to leave a lot of weapons if that were the plan. He didn’t want to be so vulnerable, especially in an area he didn’t know.

“Surf,” Shinsuke suggested. “Catch some waves, man.” His exaggerated Californian accent was atrocious. Bayley laughed at it though. Suddenly, his grin fell away and he looked serious. “So we go under the bridge? Like Spiderman?”

“That’s...yeah. That’s right,” Sasha sounded surprised. “There’s a path just before the checkpoint, you guys can head that way. Bayley set up the alarm system so she can short it out without them knowing, can’t you?”

“Do you even have to ask? I’ll put the cameras on a loop too,” Bayley said, opening a case by her feet and producing what looked like a laptop, attached to some solar cells. “You guys should be fine. Just don’t touch anything obvious, don’t make too much noise-” Here, she cast a long look at Shinsuke, who tried to look innocent, twiddling his thumbs and whistling. Bayley clearly wanted to look incredulous but couldn’t keep it up, and snorted. “Don’t start any trouble.”

“Me?” Shinsuke pouted. “I never start trouble. It’s Finn who does all the bad things. You should tell him to behave.”

“Okay,” Bayley replied cheerfully. “Finn, behave.”

“Will do,” Finn said. “You want us out of the car now?”

“If you don’t wanna get caught, obviously.” Sasha pulled a face. “I’ll mark a meeting spot down on your map, we can catch up there.” She met Finn’s eyes firmly. “Don’t worry. I keep my promises, okay?”

“I was gonna say. You skip out on me with my car, you’re opening a whole can of worms you don’t wanna see.” He half-laughed. “I don’t like this still, but I can’t see any alternative. Not enough room in the trunk, with all the fuel we need for the rest of the journey. Besides, I can’t see any Flair being careless enough not to check the vehicle thoroughly. You’d know. What’s Charlotte like?”

“Her father’s daughter,” Sasha replied, at the same time as Bayley interrupted and said, “Dangerous.”

Finn took this in. Right. He knew Ric by reputation. Knowing this about his daughter now, he knew this would be more difficult than it sounded. If she’d just been a spoiled heiress, it’d have been much easier. God, he would have really appreciated it if Sasha could have just told him what was up from the get go. Maybe she wanted to observe him, to build some trust first. Maybe she wanted to foster some dependency so she’d be necessary for success. Whatever. He didn’t like it. 

He gathered up a bag full of guns, just in case. And some food. Because they didn’t know how long it would be. If things went wrong, the last thing Finn wanted was to be stranded in the desert with nothing to eat or drink, and Shinsuke Nakamura suggesting cannibalism, again. Nope. 

Speaking of, the other assassin had got his sword back from Sasha and was toying with it, spinning it round in a series of flashy moves. Apparently satisfied with his own drama for now, he then sheathed it on his back. For now, anyway. That done, Sasha now handed Finn the map, with a meeting site marked, and two little stick figures drawn on. The one with the ponytail was waving. Bayley leaned out of the window and did just that. It made Finn smile. 

“We’ll see you in a couple days, ‘kay?” she said. 

“Luck willing,” Finn replied. “Look after my car, okay?” He glanced around. “So we just head that way?”

“Yep!” Bayley beamed. “Break a leg. Or don’t. There’s tripwires. Be careful.”

Sasha started up the car again. She leaned out the window to say something, but thought better of it, and just waved instead. They set off, quickly becoming a cloud of dust in the sunset. Once again, Finn was alone with a total maniac. Walking. 

They had a few hours until nightfall.

Great fun.

 

-

 

They walked cautiously, wary for traps. Aside from a few narrow escapes, that front was a mild annoyance, really. Especially when Shinsuke took to pointing at random bits of undergrowth and yelling ‘tripwire’, before collapsing into hysterical laughter. That wore out fast, but of course that didn't stop Shin. He did what he wanted. AJ had said his sense of humour was a bit different. Finn couldn't say he hadn't been warned, though that didn't stop him wanting to push Shinsuke into the gorge to end this boy-who-cried-wolf bullshit.

What a prick.

“You’re a real prick, y’know that, Shin?” Finn said the fourth time it happened, only to be hushed abruptly. A sudden sincerity flashed in Shinsuke’s eyes. That was what sent Finn to his guns. If Shinsuke was taking this seriously, it had to be something. 

On the track just below them, beneath a rocky outcrop, there were voices. 

At his companion’s behest, Finn crouched beside him, nothing but a ragged group of shrubs for cover. He had his weapon ready, cocked. Shinsuke’s hand was on the hilt of his sword, face set in grim determination. The air felt colder, almost, when he got like this. All the manic energy was gone, and the absence left behind chilled Finn to the bone. His colleague was dangerous. Briefly, he met Finn’s eyes, and flashed one more little grin. A nothing-smile, so fleeting, then gone. 

The voices were loud, unthinking. They didn’t care who heard them. “Man, why we gotta check South? I thought we been this way already.” Male. African-American. 

“Uh, no, idiot!” Female. Highly-strung. With a similar petulance. “That was the North side. Do you like, not understand compasses?”

“Ain’t they that shit you draw with in shop class?” Finn stifled a smirk. “But we checked South already, I swear.”

“Duh, on the other side of the river!” the woman pointed out. 

“Ohhh I getcha now. We gotta check both sides!” 

“That’s what we do literally every day, Truth. Every day. Why would today be any different?”

“No idea.” 

Finn peeked his head out a little, and saw the two of them. The man was relatively tall, shirtless except for a black leather jacket, and wearing shorts. He had dark skin and dreadlocks. The woman was pretty, and still fairly dolled up for this part of the world, tanned, with a noticeable pout. She wore her brown hair tied up. Her clothing was practical; combat pants and a tank top. Both were armed with assault rifles. Delightful. 

He edged just a little further to the edge, ready to put the pair down, when he was stopped. Shinsuke had blocked him with his elbow, and was smiling lazily. In the time Finn had been with him, that smile had never precipitated anything good. 

“Don’t worry, I got this,” Shinsuke said calmly, so quiet he was scarcely audible. “Got a plan.” 

It was about time he did something constructive, Finn figured, though all his plans so far had been abysmal and/or cataclysmically de structive, so he decided to let this one go down. There was something to it, the insanity. It worked out in the end. 

Shinsuke took a long, deep breath, and jumped from the overhanging ledge, hitting the guy called Truth in the jaw with one long, rangy leg and laying him out. In an instant, the sword was drawn, and levelled directly at Carmella’s throat. It happened so fast, and so sudden, no sound was made until the lady decided, for some batfucking reason, to scream. 

She was shrill, and above all else loud. You could have heard her in what was left of County Wicklow. And in the gorge, sound carried. So Finn did the rational thing, and knocked her out with the butt of his gun before any else came calling. Hopefully, nobody had heard that. He glanced up at the bridge, still a little away, ideally out of earshot. Who knew? One had to fucking hope, here. Hope and pray.

“Right,” Finn began, turning to the guy, to find he was out cold. “He’s unconscious?”

“Knee to face,” Shinsuke drawled. “Does that.” 

Finn scowled. He’d been hoping to get some information out of one of their captives, otherwise there was no point in all this, in even keeping them alive. “Then he’s useless until he wakes up. Both of them are. We should throw them into the river and be done with it. They seem mentally inept, hardly a stretch to think they fell.”

“Haha yes,” Shinsuke snickered. “Would be funny. Would be funny to chop their heads off and throw them at Miss Flair too. But I have plan, see. Good plan. Rhymes with ‘human shields’.” He yawned, and started to pick earwax out with his little finger. Completely disgusting. “Then we chop off their heads, with sword. Cool plan, or cool plan?”

It actually wasn’t an awful plan. Colour me surprised , Finn thought, and clapped his colleague on the back. “Cool plan, Shin. I’m in. If I don’t like where anything’s going, mind, I get to veto it right off. Clear?”

God, that grin. The shark one. The one that raised the hairs on Finn’s back involuntarily. “Crystal.”

Finn ignored him, giving only a nod in acknowledgement. You really had to, at a certain point. He set about removing their captive’s weapons and ammo, passing Shinsuke one of the assault rifles, which the other man immediately turned his nose up at and slung headlong into the gorge. Idiot. Finn shook his head, taking the other gun and strapping it to his own back. Might come in handy, and he wasn’t a stupid Trace wanker with a fuckoff giant sword. Their two prisoners were now propped against the rocky wall. Whoever came round first was in for a rude awakening, that was for sure. 

The first to wake up was the man, who his partner had called ‘Truth’. He blinked awake hazily, clocking his situation and putting his hands up with an awkward smile. “Guess I oughta say oops about now?” He gave a nervous kind of chuckle, but aside from that, he didn’t seem too worried. “How’s it hanging, homies?” 

Finn stared. Was he severely concussed, or did he just lack the brain cells to realise his predicament? It didn’t really matter. What mattered was Finn held the gun. That in mind, he replied, “I’d worry more about yourself, mate. No games, or you’ll be taking a little trip, got it?” He gestured over the edge of the cliff. Truth followed with his eyes, and nodded. It was a little unsettling, how unafraid he seemed. Something wasn’t right.

He tried to get Shinsuke’s attention, but of course, his buddy was off being a total motherfucker, staring over the edge of the cliff and absently toying with his sword. Bitch. More than that. He was actively endangering them in the field, that was what he was. Finn was fuming.

“Oh yeah, I copy.” Truth got to his feet, still rubbing his head and wincing. “Yo, what the fuck did you do? Feel like my head got turned inside out.” 

Finn didn’t have time to answer, before Shinsuke piped up instead, without turning around. “Knee to face.” His voice was oddly toneless. This was the second sign something was wrong. Normally, he felt like Shinsuke would be grinning in a situation like this, eyes glinting madly, manic as anything. But he wasn’t. And that felt wrong.

“Man, what the hell are your knees made of? Concrete?” Truth was incredulous, making a show of his outrage. Finn was a pro, though, he saw through it. He saw the man weighing them both up, studying them like a seasoned opponent. Not like someone being held hostage, who had been disarmed and was looking for a way out. Like someone who still held some of the cards here.

He stepped back just before the small, curved knife could pierce his ribs, moving the gun to deflect it, knocking it from the man’s hands. He raised the gun, aiming at the man, who threw his hands up casually. Of course. If Finn fired in the gully, it would echo. It would give them away. Even an idiot knew this. You’d have to be stupid to gamble your life against a gunman on a cliff edge, on a chance like that. Something Finn had learnt from hanging with Shinsuke was this: sometimes being stupid was the smart play. Clearly this was a lesson Truth was familiar with too.

“No games, I said,” Finn hissed. “I’ve been travelling with this one long enough to see through bullshit when I see it.” He indicated Shinsuke, who at long fucking last seemed mentally present again and flashed a cocky grin. “Try and stab me again, I’ll let him gut you. You wanna gut him, Shinsuke?” 

Shinsuke nodded. “Make his insides out sides, haha yes. I like that.”

Truth seemed to realise the game, as it was, was up. “You ain’t killed me yet,” he said, voice wavering slightly. “You need me alive.”

Finn laughed. Shinsuke followed suit. “We don’t need you. Shin here just thinks it’d be fun to use you as a human shield.”

Shinsuke beamed. “Yeah! Human shields are fun. But gutting people is also fun, so-” he swung the sword, and out of nowhere, lunged . The sword grazed against Truth’s cheek. “Behave. Or I change my mind about not killing.” 

Sometimes, having a crazy swordsman on your side paid off. When you needed to scare the shit out of someone, lunacy was always helpful. You could never predict what a madman would do. In Shinsuke’s case, it was a catch-22. He was, by large, faking crazy. But the way he faked crazy was in itself totally crazy, making him crazy for real. Or something. Either way, crazy or sane, the impression had been made. Truth wasn’t going to fuck around with them anymore.

Leaving Shinsuke to leer menacingly at hostage #1, Finn knelt down to wake up hostage numero dos, shaking her by the shoulders. She came around, groggy at first, but when she realised her situation, her eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. He didn’t give her chance to scream. Just clapped a hand across her mouth. Yeah, he’d learnt. His ears were still ringing.

“You scream, and I’ll cut you a new smile across your throat with your boyfriend’s knife,” he warned, picking up Truth’s knife to point it menacingly. “Got it?” 

The woman nodded. Slowly he moved his hand away -- and immediately regretted it, when she started talking. “Okay, so like, first of all, he is not my boyfriend, we are collaborative partners and associates in surviving. Second, oh my God, you are Irish, that’s so cute, I just love your accent. Third-”

“I really don’t care,” Finn interrupted. “Shut up.”

“I care,” Shinsuke chimed in. “I’m sure it’s very, very important.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t. And I say she shuts up, or I tape her gob shut.”

The woman pouted. “That is so rude,” she said, folding her arms. Finn rolled his eyes, and hauled her to her feet. They needed to get moving. Only so many hours in the day, and all. If they made it a little further before dark fell, they could find themselves some cover and properly question their prisoners. Why weren’t they scared? It couldn’t just be stupidity. For sure, the lady talked like an airhead, but she held herself with the ease and practice of a trained professional. And Truth didn’t remember compass points but he still seemed way too jovial for a captive. 

And then there was Shinsuke, who was acting odd even for him, staring oddly into the middle distance, casting glances at the other side of the gully. Finn didn’t like being on the back foot. He preferred it when people shared what they knew with the class and didn’t gamble with lives just to be a mysterious bugger. Unless…

Shinsuke didn’t want their prisoners to realise he’d cottoned onto their game. He was whistling innocently, sword across his shoulders, cheerful spring in his step. But his eyes were hardened and most importantly, he wasn’t smiling.

Something was very, very wrong about this picture. 

“Hey, Shinsuke,” Finn called. “There’s this Japanese phrase I remember, but I forgot what it means. Can you give us a hand?”

“Sure,” Shinsuke grinned. “Aww, you trust I tell you truth. That must mean we good friends now.”

Finn scoffed. “ Are they fucking with us or what ?” he asked, in Japanese, making a show of stumbling over his words. Impressed, Truth applauded.

“Yo, dude, you on some anime shit! Nice! You ever see that old one about Boruto’s dad? I used to get high to that stuff back in the day.”

He didn’t understand. Good. His female partner was huffily ignoring them still, and showing no interest in the conversation. Even better. Shinsuke smiled.

“Ah, you use wrong verb,” he replied. “You should say this instead-” 

He spoke, and it took every ounce of Finn’s self-control to stop himself from tensing up. .

What he’d just said was very, very bad. 

They’re wearing earpieces. ” 

Fuck.

Chapter Text

'They're wearing earpieces.' And fuck, they were. Obscured by their long hair. Which meant there was someone on the other end. When Shinsuke had been staring vaguely at the other bank, he'd been looking for snipers. These were all things Finn should have thought to look for and yet he'd been distracted, off his game. 

He'd been stupid. He'd put them all in jeopardy. Idiot. He cursed himself mentally in three languages, trying to remember the Spanish for 'fuckhead' so he could make it four. 

Just, barely, he held himself together. Didn't let any of this show on his face. "Thanks, pal. How's my accent? Any tips?" What do we do now? What's our play here? Please tell me you have a plan.

"You have good accent. Trust me." Shinsuke said cheerfully. He started to hum a low tune, starting slow and building in tempo, while his fingers twitched reflexively, tapping a beat on his sword hilt. 

Oh, yeah, very confidence-inspiring. Ta very much, mate

Then again, AJ had said Shin was good in the field. And Shin had, twice now, including earlier, asked Finn to trust him. Maybe it was time he'd earned a little faith. Looking at him, and the confident spring in his step, it seemed like he had a clear plan in mind. Finn's head was pounding and right now he just wanted to hurt someone, so it was a weight off his shoulders that Shinsuke was willing to actually do something beyond going with the flow. Hadn't he led not one, but two merc gangs? It was a mistake to underestimate him, yet it was one Finn kept unconsciously making. He had to remember that he only thought he knew Shinsuke. Whoever he'd been in Japan was a different beast altogether. 

"Hey, that's pretty catchy," Truth was saying, in response to Shin's humming. "You make that up off the top of your head?" 

"It's my theme song," Shinsuke replied, that vicious grin was spreading across his face preemptively. If Finn had had any doubts, now he knew Shinsuke definitely had one of his crazy schemes up his sleeve. 

"You are like, so cool," Carmella interjected. "Like, your style is impeccable. Where do you get your clothes?" 

Shinsuke yawned. "Killed a guy who was right size. You do that, yeah? Kill someone, realise heyyyyy nice outfit, man, I know someone that'd look good on - me!" 

Carmella pulled a face. "That is the most disgusting thing I ever heard." 

"Is not. Is like a thrift store. Recycling." Shinsuke flashed a grin at Truth. "I like your jacket." 

Truth recoiled. "Oh man, why would you even say that? Now I'm stress sweating! Mella, baby, if he guts me for my jacket, promise you'll avenge me."

"I won't gut you," Shinsuke said sincerely, and Finn could see where this was going, but let him continue because he wanted to watch their hostage shit himself in fear. "Ruin the jacket. Would chop head off instead, obviously."

"Oh, obviously ! You're a maniac!" 

"Yup," Shinsuke replied blissfully, and stopped in his tracks suddenly. They were perhaps one hundred metres from the bridge, now. With one hand, he put his sword across his shoulders, casually reminding them he was ready to strike at any time. He extended the other hand to Carmella. 

She blinked in confusion. Rolling his eyes, Shinsuke moved her hair with the sword, ignoring how she flinched, and took the earpiece from her ear. It was small, no bigger than a pea and translucent so you'd have had to be looking for it to spot it at first glance. 

"Konnichiwa~" he sang into it, and then suddenly, with no warning, placed it into his mouth and bit down hard until the thing crunched. He spat it to the ground and extended his free hand toward Truth now. The man didn't hesitate before handing his earpiece over. Shinsuke passed it to Finn, saluted, and then stepped over the cliff edge, as their hostages cursed in shock. 

"What the fuck? " Carmella's shrill voice went right through Finn, and he winced. 

"Crazy motherfucker-" Truth was shaking his head in disbelief. 

Finn didn't bother looking. He knew Shinsuke would turn up again like a bad penny. Attention-seeking bastard just likes the drama . He'd told Finn to trust him. Finn would see where that took them. 

He put the earpiece in. 

"R-Truth, listen carefully. Tell Japan and Irish we have their friends," he heard a cold female voice say. "We'll arrange a hostage exchange for you and Carmella instead."

"Instead of what?" Finn asked, keeping his gun aimed at the two captives. "The trap we were about to walk into? Sorry, Finn Bálor speaking. Am I talking to Miss Flair?" 

"This is she," Charlotte Flair replied. "I'm glad I don't have to introduce myself. That would be awkward. I assume you're in a position to negotiate for your associates?"

"Aye, I am. You said you're open to a trade? Two for two?" 

"That's right," Charlotte agreed. "The chemist and the engineer for my two employees."

"And you'll let us go on our way afterwards?" He heard her hesitate. "Give us some assurance."

"I'll release one hostage if you do the same. We can arrange your passage through once you've shown your willingness to cooperate." 

Finn didn't trust that easy, but he didn't exactly have much wiggle room. "Alright. I'll send Mr Truth your way shortly. Does that work for you?" 

"Certainly," Charlotte's voice was curt, but polite. "We'll conduct the first exchange by the road. Then we can arrange passage for you across the bridge. There's no need for things to get ugly."

"I quite agree," Finn lied. He didn't know much about Charlotte, but her old man wasn't someone to be taken lightly. You'd have to be an idiot to take her words at face value. 

If Shinsuke wasn't the melodramatic piece of shit that he was, he'd have kept hold of the other earpiece and he'd know the current situation but of course, the man had to make everything into an elaborate performance. Mind you, dealing with Flair, that unpredictable element might be their saving grace as much as it might otherwise have been their undoing. That was Finn's hope, anyway. C'mon, Shinsuke. Deliver. 

Grimly, Finn aimed at the two captives. "Your boss must really like you both. She's gonna trade. Make no mistake though, you aren't safe yet. I ain't too attached to the lasses we're tradin' for, so there's no certainties, no promises. Any funny business, I shoot." 

Both R-Truth and Carmella nodded vigorously. For once, they had the combined sense to keep their mouths shut. That was what they called a Christmas miracle. Except it wasn’t Christmas. Fuck, Finn had no idea what date it was whatsoever. Not that it mattered. If this thing went tits up, little baby Jesus’ birthday would be the least of his concerns.

He cast one long look back at the cliff edge and gritted his teeth. I’m counting on you, Shin. This better be worth it.

Then he started walking toward the road.

 

-

 

His car was, thank fuck, in one piece. Not a scratch on it, at a glance. He was never, ever letting anyone else behind the wheel again. Ever. 

Bayley and Sasha were on their knees, four armed militia semi-circled around them. Two more stood guard on the bridge. Yeah, these odds were so unfathomably shit. You may as well take a skinny dip in offal then jump in a shark tank. Except there weren’t any sharks anymore. So this was worse. 

Bayley was trying to warn him of something, but her mouth was taped shut. Probably trying to tell him it was a trap. Despite what he’d said earlier, Finn felt a grudging fondness for her, and he hoped he could get them all out of this alive. After this, he was done. No more lunatic jobs for Triple H. He’d settle down. Take up homesteading, maybe. Not fucking likely. The chances of that were about as high as the chances of getting out of this one unscathed. He met Sasha’s eyes. She shook her head, warning, only reinforcing the feeling in his gut. Oh, he knew. He knew. He told himself he was only doing this for the car, and the precious resources it contained. Otherwise, he’d cut and run. 

Now he turned his attention to the threat at hand. With the sun setting in the background, her hair was lit up like a lion’s mane. Charlotte Flair, every inch her father’s daughter. Tall, statuesque, with a very particular nose, there were no prizes for picking her out from the rabble. There was a certain regal authority she bore that made that clear, if her very appearance alone wasn’t enough. Finn inclined his head respectfully, then gave R-Truth a shove forward without warning. Wordlessly, Flair jerked her head, and two of her grunts pulled Sasha to her feet, one of them cutting her hands loose. The hostages each began their slow walk to an unmarked midpoint between them. All the while, Finn kept his eyes carefully fixed upon that woman.

“Where’s your partner?” she asked, surveying the scene, clearly, vividly on edge. 

“Went separate ways,” Finn replied levelly. “He didn’t fancy taking on you or your family. He split.” Finn frowned. “We had a deal. You made that with me, not with that chickenshit bastard. I’d hope you can still honour that.”

“Why do you need to cross the bridge?”

Finn shrugged. “Work. I don’t get paid to know why, Miss Flair.” He risked a glance at Sasha, who had reached that unspoken midpoint and was about to step over it.

Several things happened at once. Charlotte Flair moved a hand, her soldiers raised their guns at Finn and started to step forward. Finn readied himself for the worst, for the shooting to start. But it never came. Because Charlotte, Flair that she may have been, had made one gross miscalculation.

She had kept her back to the cliff.

Shinsuke surged forward, eyes glinting with wild insanity. In an instant, he was behind Flair, blade to her throat, ear-to-ear grin on his face. Flair’s men turned in an instant, guns trained on the swordsman, but he only tutted warningly and pressed cold steel into Charlotte’s throat. 

“Took ya long enough, arsehole!” Finn called out. He was grinning despite himself. Charlotte bloody Flair  was at their mercy. From what he’d seen of Shin, mercy was not a strong point of his.

“Stopped for a nap,” Shinsuke replied, yawning leisurely like some great wild cat. “Got here, didn’t I? ‘Thank you, Shinsuke,’ you say. ‘No problem, Finn,’ say I. ‘You trust me more now, yes?’ Then,” he continued, very seriously. “We fistbump. Sun sets behind us. Beautiful moment. Bonding. We are...bros.” Finn ignored him.

“You can’t hurt me,” Charlotte stated. “You won’t make it away alive. Stand down, Mr Nakamura.”

“Ha! Finn, she knows my name!” Shinsuke gave a barking laugh. “Then you know, I don’t care . Call my bluff, Little Miss Flair, sword move fast. This distance, I cut off your head before your pets shoot. Fall down under rain of bullets. Very...dramatic. You know anything, Miss Flair, daddy teach you anything, he tell you there is nothing Shinsuke Nakamura love more than being crazy and dramatic. So. We cross bridge now, blah blah blah, you let us go, whatever. Don’t care.” Again, he yawned. “Tired. Need a nap for real. Your turn, Finn. I’m bored now.”

Of course he was. Of course. Only he could confidently declare boredom in a situation like this. What a fucking problem . Rolling his eyes, Finn stepped up. 

“We’re gonna get in the car. You too, Flair. Nobody is gonna follow us, you hear. Let’s say three hours. After that, I’ll be a bit more understanding if you decide to get on our arse. We clear?”

Crystal ,” Charlotte hissed, with a cold fury Finn had never seen the likes of before, from anyone. She hated being outplayed. 

Nobody lowered their guns much, but everyone piled into the car unimpeded, Charlotte in the back middle, in between Shinsuke and Bayley, a prisoner from both sides. Finn didn’t want to think how her old man would react to this whole thing. Making an enemy of Ric Flair had very much not been on today’s to-do list but that was how the cards had fallen. As always, he’d work with it. And blame Nakamura for whatever went wrong.

He put the car in gear and they were off.

 

-

 

Tense silence.

“So,” Flair began, her tone pointed. “An Irishman. A medic. A chemist. And you.” She glared at Nakamura. “Inoki’s student. What could possibly bring all four of you together?”

Finn’s head jerked at that name. “You worked with Antonio Inoki directly?” He couldn’t disguise his amazement. That man was the biggest name in their business on the other side of the Pacific. Rumours of corruption and cold-blooded murder had dogged him for years.

Charlotte laughed. “He didn’t tell you? He was Inoki’s protege. The favoured son. Before he went insane. What a disappointment you turned out to be. How far you’ve fallen.” She turned her attention to the women now. “And you two. I thought you had more sense than this. Throwing your lot in with maniacs. It will be the death of you.” I will , she meant. If she got her way, they’d be crow feed by dawn. 

“Just shut up,” Sasha snapped. “None of us wanna hear it, so shut your damn mouth.”

Charlotte smirked. She’d hit a nerve. For all that Sasha and Bayley were skilled, they’d never been called upon to hide their emotions like this before. Meanwhile, Shinsuke showed no sign of even listening. He was tracing patterns on the window, his long, elegant fingers tapping a rhythm. His expression was unreadable, even to Finn.

“What’s your stake in this, Irish?” Charlotte asked. “You didn’t even know who he really was? Why involve yourself?”

“I’m just the driver,” Finn replied curtly. “I won’t be involved in any of this much longer. I finish up, and that’s it. I don’t care what these lot do. I don’t care who they are. I have my job. That’s all there is to it.”

Charlotte shook her head. “You’re too smart for that to be true. You’ve wondered, haven’t you, about all of this? Now. What’s the job?” She was talking to herself now, just filling the quiet. “You needed to cross the bridge. Which means…” Realisation and shock hit her in equal measure. “ Oh . You’re going to Rey’s. So you’re-”

“I said shut up, already. You leave Rey Mysterio out of this.”

Charlotte’s smile grew, into a lean, predatory grin. “You’re on a wild goose chase for the Trace Italian.”

“You don’t believe it exists?” Finn asked curiously.

She laughed. “I know it exists. But you’ll never find it.”

“What if we had coordinates?”

“Useless,” Flair chuckled. “Utterly useless. They might show you where it’s been, if you’re lucky, even, you could find a trail. But nobody’s caught it. It’s a fata morgana. However close you feel you’re getting, it is always, always, just that bit out of reach. That’s when you die.”

Finn felt a chill run up his spine. He understood what Charlotte was saying. He just didn’t want to. “You’re saying it moves. It... moves ?”

In the rearview mirror, he watched her nod, and cursed. That was why the person he’d known had never found it. That was why it had only brought death. That was why Finn hated this thing, and that was why he’d be out of it as soon as he could. Soon, so very soon.

The Trace Italian was mobile. Whatever coordinates they had might be a dead end. He looked to Shinsuke, trying to gauge his reaction.

His erstwhile companion only smiled. “I am crazy, Miss Flair. This is my idea of fun.” He hooted with laughter. “Chasing the impossible, Finn! The end of the rainbow!”

Wasn’t there supposed to be a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow? Was this Shinsuke’s weird way of inviting him to continue their road trip? Probably. Finn said nothing. He liked Shinsuke, dammit, but he wasn’t ready to throw everything away, throw his life away, on an impossible quest that would likely kill him. Still, the man’s enthusiasm was pretty infectious. It was...actually tempting. There was a part of him that wanted to see this through. He’d made an enemy of the Flairs. What else did he have to lose?

“Alright. I’m in.”

Shinsuke beamed, with that specific smile Finn was learning to tell came just before he told a truly terrible joke. Oh no .

“Hi, in. I’m Shin.”

For fuck’s sake . He watched his colleague collapse into laughter and rolled his eyes. But the irritation was more fond than genuine.

They were friends.

Having friends could get you killed.

But what did Finn have to lose?