Kurogane knows all too well what it feels like to lay trapped beneath looming tons of debris. He hadn’t needed Alcyone’s little reminder. It’s not something he can forget.
It all happened back around the start of the war, but it still feels too recent. He’d spent a few days slowly dying of thirst alone in a lightless concrete hollow. Arguably, the experience saved his life given the alternatives, but he’d never once felt grateful. He used to vacillate between wishing he’d died instead and wishing he could have pulled his mother in too. If he’d just been a little faster….
She pushed him in, of course. Her hands shoved him into the safe zone while death rained down from above, central colony systems obliterated and gravity running haywire. He’s fairly certain the last thing he saw before the dark set in was the sight of her crushed beneath a sub-layer wall, but sometimes he can write it off as a twisted fantasy.
He should have gone mad. Maybe he had, in some sense… He just lost it in a way the War could use. Turned all his grief and terror to rage—walked straight from the hospital discharge desk to enlistment with his blood burning hot, the sound of concrete grinding to dust beneath the force of its own weight still ringing in his ears.
He’d been three years too young for the enlistment cut off, but he’d always been tall for his age. All Suwa’s citizen data had disappeared with the destruction of its core systems, so he just… told the hospital the wrong birth year. Before he met the Commander, no one batted an eye.
Anyway. All that to say—he can’t sleep flat—can’t go back to that place, trapped blind beneath a mountain of concrete and the dead with too much air to breathe and not enough room to grant his own death wish. He made his peace with ceilings—he can stand to exist in a building or a room, but without windows or a clear path of exit he still gets nervous. He has thirteen years’ practice forcing himself to deal. Even the cockpit used to bother him at first, before he got acclimated to the windows and the glow of starlight. Of course, now, the jet feels more like an extension of himself than a tomb, but it took a while. He had to work up to it.
Still, somehow, when he first wakes up in the morning, he can’t always remember that he left the dark behind.
His back rests against something hard. Everything hurts, stale air like concrete in his lungs. Nothing but dim, orange light meets his eyes when he forces them open—not a star in sight and he’s—something’s wrong. Something’s—
Kurogane tries to force himself to his feet, but his head spins. Does he have enough room to stand? Is he trapped—
“Hey, hey, hey!—it’s okay! We’re okay.”
It takes him the better part of a full minute to recognize the agent. He stares, mind slogging through his usual mess of thoughts at half speed. Fai meets his gaze, clearly fretting. His blond hair has almost entirely escaped its lingering elastic. He’d been sitting at Kurogane’s side on the floor, keeping him propped up against the wall.
Right. This is his life now. Fai, and swirling galaxies of blue and white—insane battles between fairytale powers and apparently… whatever the hell this is. His ribs ache fiercely, and his shoulder feels far too hot to signal anything good.
“Where are we?” Kurogane manages to croak. He tries to rest his head in his hands, only to find his right arm re-bound to his chest by layers of neat bandage. Great. No wonder he feels caught.
“Smuggler’s tunnels under the Warehouse. Sorry. I knew you needed to sleep sitting up—I didn’t think about—”
“It’s fine.” Honestly, after finding himself pinned, he’d probably been in for a bad wakeup no matter what. Fai’s earnest concern is… pleasant? Doesn’t make his skin stop crawling or halt the all-consuming urge to make sure he has a way out, but at least having Fai there makes it all feel bearable.
Kurogane sags a little further into the agent’s side. Fai doesn’t push him away, and that’s… nice. He doesn’t have the mental faculty to try to figure out what comes next. He doesn’t have the energy to find an exit, but he has this. He holds his breath—rests his head on Fai’s shoulder before he can think twice.
He wonders whether the agent might tell him off, but Fai just sighs, brings one hand up to thread his fingers through Kurogane’s hair instead.
His heart twists in his chest, over-tired and over-burdened by emotions he doesn’t want to name.
“Go back to sleep, Kuro-sama. I’ll keep watch.”
His eyes slip shut without his permission on the next pass of Fai’s touch, too exhausted to resist the siren call of comfort. Fuck, he’s doomed. He thought Fai would kill him, but he’s already dead. What the hell is he going to do after the mission ends?
Kurogane falls back into the embrace of sleep and does not dream.
“Good to see you again, Agent…. What name are you using this time?”
“‘Bat’ will suffice.” Fai’s secondary source of answers—the reason he decided Alcyone could die—turns out to be the oddly composed woman with the tech focus. She’s tall and thin, curly hair pulled severely away from her young face and left half-down.
“Peacekeeping forces have completed their preliminary investigation and will soon disperse. You should be able to exit in the next thirty minutes without issue.” He lost his wrist unit to Alcyone’s final gambit, so he has no idea what time it is, but the color of the low light from outside has him guessing… Two? Three in the morning? Can’t have slept for too long then.
He hadn’t known what to think when he woke to find himself re-settled in an office two blocks away from the Warehouse, Fai leaning against a wall nearby and chatting merrily with someone he would have killed a few hours ago if he’d had time to line up the shot. His head still ached wretchedly, and he’d still been hung up on those last few thoughts—the sudden realization he has no idea what he’ll do without Fai. Transported to a strange place and confronted with stranger allies, he thought he might be dreaming, but no. Fai had noticed his wary posture and started explaining; she’s a well-respected double agent cooperating with SF.
Well… triple agent, apparently. In this case, she’d been working Alcyone’s pirate group, SF, and Palace’s little gang.
He’d missed a lot after the concussion knocked him out at the warehouse, but he hears it all second hand. Cat and her friend—a woman who went by “Spider” and kept a day job at the Mag Lev station—had offered them the promise of first aid and access to the secret passages by way of thanks for their rescue. He has no memory of it, but Fai assures him he has Spider to thank for the well-bound arm.
He still hasn’t figured out why Gambling Hall Palace has a smuggling system established in the middle of central, or what the hell they’re moving. But Cat had a set of illegal combat knives and he sincerely doubts Spider’s powers are listed on any registry. Seems like they’re not just ads and promotional merch after all.
They hadn’t had much time for discussion before Kendappa’s team zeroed in. Fai-the-AI describes how the agent woman, Bat, had opened the smuggling tunnels without a shred of remorse for any fallen pirates. They’d slipped away before Peacekeepers could spot them, Bat meticulously tampering with evidence and local camera feeds as an added favor. She’d walked Fai and Kurogane to a holding space and escorted her Palace comrades to safety before doubling back and routing them to this office.
He still doesn’t trust her. He can’t tell whether Fai does or not, but he gets the sense his agent doesn’t see much choice.
“I appreciate the help. Hopefully I didn’t throw too much of a wrench in your pirate operation...?”
“It is no matter. My time with them had reached an end. You saved me the trouble of finding a means of extrication.”
“Oh! In that case, I’m not sorry at all.” Fai grins. “You won’t have any problem selling me some information on her crew then, will you?”
Bat’s head tilts. For the first time since they’ve met, her perfectly bland expression shifts, sharpening to a searching gaze as she examines first Fai, then Kurogane. She flicks the air with a black-gloved hand, like someone shooing a fly. Abruptly, the ambient sound of the station cuts away, distant hum of transports and generators fading to silence. Her power drifts over every surface of the room, hard to see, but there—swirling like the rainbow patina of an oil-slick.
Kurogane tenses, poises to knock the desk over and stun her the moment she makes a move. He lost his gun in the last fight, but he’s not about to weather another psychic attack—
“Whoa there, Lieutenant. No worries, she’s not actually a destructive type. Just neutralizes sound waves.” The AI’s voice carries over his somehow still-intact ear-piece. He doesn’t know how without the wrist unit, but suspects he might currently have access to Fai’s audio.
“If the Federation requires more details on Reed’s human trafficking ring, they will receive them, but the one you’re looking for didn’t make his way to Reed’s clutches.”
Kurogane has no context for whatever the fuck is going on, but he can watch Fai easily enough; his agent is deep in thought, brows furrowed and eyes narrow as he studies Bat right back. He exhales heavily, folds his arms across his chest as he lets his head roll back toward the wall.
“She’s gotta be bluffing—we haven’t put out any feelers specific enough for her to know why—”
“It strikes me, suddenly, that you visited SF HQ last month,” Fai interrupts his digital counterpart. Kurogane waits to hear a snarky complaint, but the AI falls quiet.
Bat’s porcelain face twitches, lips ever-so-slightly quirked in a smile.
“However else could Alcyone still leave her love notes for Doctor Zagato? Though with her burned I will need to find a new excuse.”
Fai’s arms fall to his sides. He steps toward her, hands twitching like he’s the one waiting for the fight.
“Where did you send him.”
Oh. Oh. Kurogane feels slow. The “shipment” that disappeared from SF couldn’t have left without inside help—might have been a person. Bat could have—
He stands despite the pain it causes, takes his cues from Fai in this.
“I didn’t send anyone anywhere, but your protective response is charming.” Finally, her mask shatters, mouth twisting into a real smile for just a moment. Without her stern stare, she looks terribly young. “You must be a good team leader, so worried on his behalf. I’m almost jealous.”
“Xing Huo,” Fai demands. Her fleeting expression bleeds back to nothingness.
“He didn’t want to be there, and I’ve never agreed with the Federation’s draconian recruitment practices. I handed him a set of coordinates and told him how to make the right contacts. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“You let him out alone?”
“I let him make the choice himself. He knew his own risk.” Fai brings his hands back up to cover his face. Kurogane wishes he understood more than half this fucking conversation, but his usual AI commentary doesn’t seem interested in contributing.
“He could be literally anywhere. Anyone with the slightest sense would have found him before—”
“If you must know, he arrived exactly as he intended,” she taps at her wrist unit. “four days ago.”
“He already…. Xi—Bat. I need those coordinates. What do you want in return?”
“Already sent.” She finishes her business and folds her gloved hands demurely at her waist. “They’re expecting you. Now. If you’ll excuse me? I have an information network to tend to.” And with a curtsy, she marches to the door behind the counter, her strange power bursting like a bubble as she leaves. The usually unnoticeable hum of the station filters back into the room.
“Hey... these coordinates are for—”
“It’s fucking Palace, isn’t it.” Kurogane sighs, not because he understood either Agent, but because he knows by now how the universe works. Their people have shown up too many times, and knowing Bat works with them too…
“Yeah... it’s fucking Palace.”
“Fantastic.” Fai huffs, collapsing back against the reception desk. He takes a seat on its surface, totally without regard for any objects he sends scattering to the floor. “Alright, fine. We’ll worry about official filing later. I need to get over there first. If I book a commercial flight out to the Rim, I should be able to find a private cruiser headed to Unregulated. I just need to—”
“Why the hell would you do that?” the agent jerks at the sound of Kurogane’s voice, shock bleeding to anger on his tired face. Kurogane steps closer.
“What—I’m not leaving him out there unless I confirm he’s okay.”
“No, go get your kid, that’s not my point.” He hazards a guess based on Bat’s words, the way Fai acts and the way he treated Tomoyo. Fai doesn’t even think to correct him. Bingo. “Why are you talking about commercial flights to the Rim?”
“There aren’t any flights from a Capital station to Unregulated Space unless I can arrange something less than legal, and I don’t have the time or contacts here to—” He’s got to be tired. Maybe that’s why he’s totally missing the point. Kurogane closes the distance, holds out his hand for Fai’s. Confused, Fai takes it.
“Sorry, have we met? Name’s Kurogane. I’m a fucking pilot.”
Fai’s jaw drops as they shake hands, and the AI starts cackling with laughter.
“Hell yeah, you are!”
“But—” Fai sputters. His pulse flutters, too fast beneath Kurogane’s fingers “You can’t just take your plane out of the hangar... can you? Surely not—you’d be going AWOL with military tech. They’d crucify you the instant you step foot back on station.”
“Not if I have a flight mission. Let’s say… escorting Investigator Fluorite to Palace regarding a recent warehouse disturbance.” Blue eyes stare, wider with every word. “Unless you weren’t serious about that offer to reassign me?”
“No! I mean—I was. Serious. I just—" Fai can’t seem to collect himself. He takes a deep breath of calm and laughs, shifts until he can hold Kurogane’s hand more firmly. “I look forward to working with you, Lieutenant.”
“You’ll need to drop by Peacekeeper Central so I can access their secured computing system, but that should be a breeze. No one pays attention to the routine mission rosters.” Well… usually, no one pays attention. But Kurogane has a feeling his Commander will definitely notice. Especially since he’s lost his wrist unit and hasn’t bothered to contact her since they ran off to a lethal firefight with her protest at Friday dinner…
Fai watches the front window until they can’t see a single Peacekeeping officer in sight, and leads the way, hand still wrapped around Kurogane’s.
If they make it back, Kendappa is going to skin him alive.
He holds Fai’s hand tighter, gratified by the smile the agent flashes over his shoulder.
Worth it, he thinks.