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On some level, none of this feels real.

He’s spent a whole week with the investigation hanging around his neck like a noose—leading him along with no pause for rest. Every day introduced new revelations and even more questions—new threats, new ways to worry. But they’ve made it to the end. They’ve found the mysterious “shipment,” and he’s a fifteen-year-old kid well on his way to escaping military service with a well-staged demise. They have more to worry about tomorrow, but the investigation itself is over. Nothing left to find. No official orders.

It’s the end of the war all over again. He keeps waiting for someone to jump out and reveal the deception. It can’t just be over, right? Is it really that simple? They hadn’t even had to fight anyone for it—just play into the Witch’s dramatics.

“Hold still!” Fai whines, already fighting through his third attempt to tape Kurogane’s arm in place and keep his shoulder stable. He’ll have to undo it to fly them home anyway, but he should probably still try to keep it bound while he can. He has limited but necessary range of motion with his right arm right now—won’t keep it for long if he jerks the damn thing in the throws of a nightmare and breaks it further.

“I haven’t moved.”

“Not you, the bandage.” The agent sighs, watching his third attempt pull loose and slip out of place. He still hasn’t even gotten his flight suit off yet. He’d spotted Kurogane struggling to lower his damn zipper and leapt to help, completely mortified that he hadn’t remembered Kurogane’s injuries while he chatted with his kid. “the end keeps falling. How the hell did Spider make this look so easy?”

He’s kind of cute—worried and only mildly frustrated as he leans toward Kurogane beside him on the loveseat, brow furrowed, blue eyes lit by the starlight of the room’s wide window. The Witch set them up in a presidential suite on the resort’s exterior wall. It’s easily twice as large as the place they shared in ‘0N, though he hasn’t explored further than the seating arrangement. No balcony this time, but for good reason—their view looks straight out into the depths of space. It’s almost as good as the view from his ship.

(It’s not the stars that distract him now though.)

“Damnit!” Fai’s attempt falls apart again. At this point Kurogane could just have done it himself with less trouble, but he doesn’t mind. He can’t help relishing the close proximity, Fai’s warm hands dancing feather light over his skin.

“You can’t keep the end from falling?”

“I can’t push on it hard enough to keep it still without grinding your shoulder into the backrest and I don’t actually like hurting you,” the agent grumbles, focused on his fourth attempt and holy shit he’s not thinking.

“…do you often forget you have telekinesis?”

Fai freezes in place for a full ten seconds as his mind visibly reboots, AI counterpart laughing at his expense over the earpieces.

You forgot we were in Unregulated, didn’t you.”

“Look, I’m…. tired,” he sighs, eyes lighting up one more time as the bandage rises on a wave of dancing color. His power casts a swirling aurora against the starry glass, falling light across his cheekbones that makes him seem somehow even more ethereal than usual.

Even with the supernatural assistance, Fai still can’t do as thorough a job as spider had, but he avoids jostling Kurogane’s abused bones and ends up tying off something structurally sound enough to work. “Alright. I think that’s as good as it gets.”

“Good enough,” Kurogane agrees, without testing it. He watches Fai smile and step away with a distant pang of absence.

“So, her plan is to stage a fight?” The agent wonders aloud and starts struggling with the latches at his boots.

“Fake the kid’s death as a casualty—make it look like we lost him in NH-1S clear on the other side of the system. Yeah.”

“Elegant.” He frees himself of the clunky footwear, kicking them free and flinging them carelessly into the room. Kurogane doesn’t have the energy to chide him for the childish antics. “How long do we have before we need to head back then?”

About a day.”

They pause, both trying to work through the math in their heads, because that sounds—way too long.

“The raid’s scheduled to start five hours from now…” Kurogane begins.

Well sure, but it’s a terribly protracted, difficult battle. And you’ll need to recover afterward, of course. Hospital lets you go, but you know how those outer system waiting rooms can be. You’ll be stuck waiting for a discharge for hours. Not to mention the runway mixup that messes up NH-1S’s launch schedule and doesn’t clear you for orbital entry until it’s sorted.”

Oh.

A day. A whole day with nothing hanging over their heads and nothing to chase them. He catches Fai’s eye, finds him marveling at the same idea. It’s too much and too little at once—they haven’t had more than a few hours of rest at a time all week, so to spend twenty-four doing nothing sounds ridiculously indulgent. On the other hand…

He doesn’t know what will happen after the reports are filed and new orders come through. He has no way of knowing where Fai will be assigned—whether the Commander might actually court-martial him for his actions. What if this is it? What if these are the last twenty-four hours they have together?

He barely slept Thrursday night, passed out with a concussion for a few hours Friday, and then flew six hours straight to a Casino outside regulated space without a mapped route to follow.  His shoulder still sings a discordant refrain of constant pain despite the new sling, and his chest and ribs all sting with bruising. Hell, his arms are still cut up from Thursday and no way does he have the energy to re-dress them now. To say he feels like death warmed over would be uncharitable to death.

And yet, knowing they have exactly one day left… He can’t bear to close his eyes. He’s too afraid to waste a single second.

Alright, I’ve read enough manga to see where this is going. I’m out.” The AI’s exasperated tone shakes Kurogane from his desperate thoughts.

“Fai, please.”

Don’t you ‘Fai, please’ me. You’re the one looking at the Lieutenant like you want to pin him to the couch and—”

“You know what? Sure. Please, go amuse yourself at someone else’s expense for the—for the day.” Fai mumbles, hiding his red face behind one hand. Kurogane’s expression betrays him, corners of his mouth twisting in a barely restrained smile.

You don’t have to tell me twice. You’ve got the emergency protocol if you need me—I’m out. Don’t break him.”

The earpiece falls silent. He struggles not to laugh—certain the agent wouldn’t take his amusement well.

“So, does that mean you do want to pin me to the couch?”

“Ugh, hell,” Fai’s voice is strangled by his exasperation. He scrubs at his face in a nervous motion, takes a deep breath and straightens back up, hands flying to pry his earpiece away. “Sorry. Please don’t take him too seriously. He’s just relishing the opportunity to tease the hell out of me now he’s got another person to talk to.”  

The agent sets his earpiece down on a nearby dresser and starts tugging at the collar of his flight suit. He doesn’t bother taking it all the way off, just peels free of the sleeves and lets it settle at his waist so he can start unhooking his wrist unit. He’s still wearing Kurogane’s shirt underneath.

“That’s a shame.” The words escape without his meaning to say them, drawn forth by the sight of Fai’s pale neck in the starlight.  

Fai pauses, turns back to meet his gaze. He looks… well, beyond exhausted. But beneath the lines of tiredness, fear and excitement wage a war in his expression. A starburst of pink skin graces the hollow of his collarbone—the only visual indication that Kurogane has already almost lost him once. Blond hair drifts messily about his face, only barely restrained by his hair tie. Kurogane has never wanted anyone so badly in his life.

The wrist unit clatters against a sleek, hard-wood surface and Fai hazards first one tentative step in his direction, then another. Kurogane doesn’t dare look away.

“I should… probably take a shower,” the agent says, but doesn’t turn to go.

“If you want,” he agrees. Fai trips forward instead.

“We really need to sleep.”

“Probably.” Another foot forward, a few fewer inches between them. Kurogane can hear his own heartbeat in his ears.

“I’m a mess. I’m not—I’m not an easy person to care about,” Fai cringes as he talks, as if the words somehow reveal some deep, terrible secret finally capable of driving Kurogane away. As if Kurogane hasn’t already considered burning the whole damn Federation down to give him that café.

“That makes two of us.”

Fai’s knees brush his. Kurogane longs to reach up and tug him down, but he doesn’t dare—too frightened of scaring the agent away, or of pushing him towards a romance he might not want. He wants Fai, but he needs Fai to choose him too.

“You’re going to get sick of me.”

He thinks back to the first night—tracking the agent down to Clover, trying to convince himself he didn’t find anything attractive in Fai’s face beneath the dazzle of the lights. The suspicion and the wary days that followed, the cargo fire, the space walk, the gunfight in Piffle—all the injuries and oddities, all the confusion—the revelation of Fai’s powers and the absolutely mad battle at the warehouse, the flight from NH-0N—all of it. It all leads to this moment—to the two of them in the dark.

Fai annoys him—Fai takes his own safety for granted and treats laws and consequences like something for other people to worry about. He has an unfortunate penchant for teasing Kurogane within an inch of his temper and a stubborn streak a mile wide. He is also… kind, and terribly smart. Hasn’t managed to lose his sense of right despite the hand he’s been dealt. He’s incredible.

“I sincerely doubt that.” Kurogane somehow manages to speak around the chasm of want that tears its way through his core.

Fai falls into him like he can’t do anything else—a stray star captured by his gravity. Bony knees dig into the couch beside his hips, and Fai’s thighs cross his. One long-fingered hand skates across his good shoulder to tangle in his short hair, the other grasps at the couch to his right.

“This… could be the last time for something like this. Could be the only time.” Fai gives voice to the truth that haunts them both. Kurogane tilts his head to stare defiantly back, tries not to let the electric feel of contact wipe all thoughts from his mind. They’re so close he can feel Fai’s breath against his lips.

“So make it count,” he demands, begs, and Fai finally closes the last few centimeters that remain.

 


 

Fai takes half the cushions from the couch and stacks them into a reclining backrest on the bed for Kurogane to use. For the first time in years, he’s trying to sleep on a mattress. The veritable mountain of pillows keeps him upright, and the window is so wide he’ll be able to see it the moment his eyes open. He thinks it’ll work out just fine. He’d rather risk a panic attack than sleep on the couch alone anyway.

They have a fancy access key to the casino, courtesy of the Witch, but Kurogane has no intention of leaving the room. He doesn’t have a fondness for gambling, really. Might have liked to visit a bar, but that’s what room service is for.

He watches the column of the agent’s throat as Fai takes another long draw of overly expensive champagne and passes the bottle back. It’s barely 15:00 NHST, and they’re getting day-drunk off room service wine in bed. Kurogane doesn’t have a whole lot of consciousness left to spend, but he focuses all of it on Fai—on the way their bare legs tangle beneath the sheets, on the feel of Fai’s arm slung across his waist and the sensation of fine hair against his left side when Fai lies back down.

“It’s kind of inconvenient, really,” the agent sighs, continuing his explanation of psychic metabolism. He’s probably had about twice as much to drink as Kurogane and seems easily just as sober. “It renders alcohol almost meaningless. A lot of medicines too—base dose for a psychic looks like overdose for a lot of other people.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Kurogane’s voice rings exhaustion-rough. He takes his own swig of the bottle, just for good luck, and sets it down next to the two empty ones already lined up on the nightstand. His eyes slip shut and for just a second he lets himself breathe, bringing his left hand back down to thread his fingers in blonde.

Fai hums as Kurogane traces, presses himself as close as he can. It all feels so right—so comfortable. He doesn’t want to miss a single second of it, but he knows he won’t be able to cling to wakefulness long.

“Less than twenty hours left. You sure you want to hang out up here watching me pass out?” Might not see the kid again either, he doesn’t say, more than certain Fai already knows. He can hardly open his eyes, but he can feel the agent’s smile against his skin.

“Fai probably went to talk to him earlier. I’ll let him have his time. Besides. I’ll have plenty of opportunity to go visit after you fall asleep.”

“You’re not going to sleep?”

“I don’t have to fly us home tomorrow,” Fai declares, “I can pass out on the way back.”

He wants to argue the point; the bags beneath Fai’s eyes speak of deep exhaustion. He just… can’t. He’s too utterly depleted himself. Besides, it’s not like he doesn’t understand it—that draw to stay awake, to make the most of the time they have, no matter the cost. If he didn’t have to fly tomorrow morning…

“Fai,” he’s half asleep already, unable to stop his mouth from voicing the fears that keep him clinging to consciousness. “how’s this going to work, you and me?”

“Honestly? I haven’t got the slightest clue.” Fai laughs, but the sound rings frantic. “I—I’ll find a way to stay in contact. They can’t trace everything I do, and every time they send me out again, I’ll find a way to reach you, but…” He shifts, picks himself up until he can stare into Kurogane’s half-lidded eyes. “I can’t promise that’s not all it is. Just infrequent letters from the other end of the universe, wondering if you’re still okay.”

“I’d take that, you know, if it were all you could do.” He’d hate it, knowing that Fai was out there somewhere—putting himself in danger, fighting GSU cells and Pirates and chasing alongside his team of kids at the whims of Command. But to stay connected—to keep the hope of seeing Fai alive again…

Commander doesn’t need him on NH systems. Not really. If he gets kicked out, he could take a job that lets him travel, and maybe… through occasional twists of fate and the luck of the gods he might run into Fai again on some other Colony.

For Fai, he could cling to that vain hope.

“You’re still too sweet, Lieutenant,” Fai sighs, but this time, he seals the words with a careful kiss. The angle is awkward, but it doesn’t matter. Kurogane wants to reach out and hold him close, but at this point he can barely open his eyes. He can’t stop Fai from slowing and pulling away, his own heavy head falling to Kurogane’s lap.

“You’re the only one who calls me that, you know.”

“Lieutenant?”

“No, ‘Sweet.’”

“Well! Obviously everyone else in the universe is blind.” Kurogane snorts. He’s pretty sure Fai’s biased. Kurogane is a combat vet responsible for easily several thousand pointless deaths. He doesn’t feel right unless he’s fighting—longs for the adrenaline of battle so badly that in his darker moments he wishes the War never ended. But Fai still calls him “sweet,” like the word has any meaning.

He doesn’t know about that. Doesn’t know if they’ll work out—or whether he can handle a life spent writing letters to the man he went and fell in love with over the course of a week. But he knows…

“Fai.”

“Yes, Kuro-koi?”

“I’m glad I met you.” No matter what comes after. The agent’s eyes widen, before he turns away, hiding his face back in the space at his side.

“Me too,” he murmurs, quiet and afraid in the star-lit dark. Kurogane lets his arm fall across thin shoulders and loses himself to sleep.

 


 

Sunday

 

Time passes, as it is wont to do. Their twenty-four hours whittle down to nothing in what feels like the blink of an eye, and before Kurogane can find his balance they’re back in the hangar bay, prepping for launch.

“I’m going to miss you, kiddo.”

“Please don’t call me that.” Watanuki endures Fai’s goodbyes with barely contained annoyance. He looks for all the world like a cat ready to bolt, but when Fai wraps him in a final hug, he doesn’t try to duck away. “Alright, fine. I’ll miss you too, I guess.”

Kurogane finishes up with refuel and safety checks almost too soon. He locks the fuel panel into place and hits the hydraulics to open the cockpit before he turns back to Fai.

“Ready to go?”

“No,” the agent pouts, but he lets Watanuki go with a sigh anyway. “Last chance. You’re sure you want to stay, right?”

“Yes! Oh my god.”

And you know how to get ahold of me if there’s an emergency—if the Witch does anything you don’t like. Because—” the AI’s voice echoes out of Fai’s wrist unit, only slightly muffled by the fabric of his flight suit.

“Yes! Please, just. Get in the plane, Sergeant,” Watanuki gripes, embarrassed by the twins’ affections. Fai dares to ruffle his hair and ducks away from the wild swing the kid aims his way. With a laugh, he vaults up to the cockpit, leaving Kurogane standing awkwardly by Watanuki’s side.

He feels like he should say something. Watanuki is the ending—the mythical shipment and the person who started it all. If he’d never decided to leave SF, Fai and Kurogane might never have met. He has to say something, right?

“Congrats on being dead.”

Probably not that.

Watanuki pins him with a bewildered look.

“Thanks? I think?” Kurogane can hear Fai-the-AI laughing in his ear. “Yuuko—The Witch showed me the reports this morning. They looked pretty convincing, so don’t fuck it up.”

“Fuck up? Me? Such language, Kimihiro! Your commanding officer is disappointed.” Fai warbles, voice switching to radio mid-sentence as he pulls his helmet into place.

“You’re not my commanding anything! I’m dead now!”

“And we’ll make sure it stays that way.” Watanuki huffs in the face of his answer, arms crossing over his chest. It’s not the strangest conversation Kurogane has ever been party to, but it certainly makes the list.

He shakes his head, takes the quiet as his cue to get going. Keeping his right arm as still as he can, he manages a one-armed pullup and lifts himself up to the cockpit. Fai stares after him and looses a wolf whistle while he fusses with his own helmet. He rolls his eyes, hides his burning face behind the dark glass of his visor.

He has no idea what awaits them on station. They might still wind up made. He’ll still have a lot of punishment to get through before the Commander’s satisfied and he can go back to the air, assuming she doesn’t outright discharge him. Fai could end up recalled to SF HQ tomorrow, might be assigned to a station hundreds of lightyears away. He might never get free of the constant demand for compliance. Not without finding a way to help his team. And yet.

He starts takeoff procedures, the engines roaring to life, Fai and his AI twin bantering playfully over the airwaves and for the first time in a long time, he feels like things might be okay.