Chapter 1: Grounded
Commander Kendappa’s eyes are hard and implacable as she tries to glare him into submission. Kurogane stares back, impassive, his mind already wandering to more interesting places. Her hand slams against the desk. He’s too prepared for it to jump.
“Fifteen counts of insubordination over the last week, Kurogane!” The commander may terrify the rank and file on a regular basis, but Kurogane has been military for far too long and seen far too much to properly sense the weight of her ire. Maybe if she hadn’t tried to frighten him into behaving just yesterday she might have a better chance, but he doubts it. “Ignoring safety regulations, breaking formation, unsanctioned maneuvers, uncharted flight paths—” A distinguished list to be sure. She cuts herself off, choked by her own fury. “Look. You are one of the most decorated pilots in the force, but none of that means anything if you can’t be trusted to follow fucking orders!” Her hand slams the desk a second time, swiping what he presumes to be his file aside and sending the small touchscreen clattering across the floor. He doesn’t pay it much mind.
He’s played this game too long to forget himself and roll his eyes at her, but it’s a near thing.
“Permission to speak?” He wonders. The commander considers him for a moment too long before answering with a gruff,
“The guy made a bad call.” Kendappa doesn’t have to hide her reaction. She sighs deeply, sagging forward in her chair to put her head in her hands. “He wanted me to fall back. But if I’d done that, the enemy would have been able to get a clear shot at the mining station. He couldn’t see that from where he was positioned. I had better information and I acted on it.”
“Commander,” he answers her exasperation with boredom, already ready to leave and be done with all of this. It wasn’t his fault they’d put him under the command of some nobody officer barely out of strategic training with zero actual combat missions under his belt.
“Why are you here?” Kurogane frowns, uncertain of her meaning. He has a feeling she’s not asking why he came to the office today.
“Because the Joint Forces have no idea what to do with their fighter squadrons now the war’s ended?” He tries, sardonic. She hasn’t rescinded his right to speak freely, and it’s something that frustrates the hell out of him daily. He’s used to running high priority, high risk solo missions behind enemy lines, not fending off baby pirate wannabes from local mining installments. He feels the difference keenly.
“An interesting take, but not what interests me. Why choose to follow this squad into Peacekeeping forces? You’re still young. You’ve fought long enough you’re well past due to take your leave. Why are you here, and not out there with a private sector job?” She gestures toward her window, vaguely indicating the vast stretch of colony visible outside. NH-0N, capital station of the many varied NH colonial systems and one of the most populous, claustrophobic space stations in the galaxy. Pretty to look at from space, he guessed, like a shining jewel in a sea of stars… on-station, it’s loud, mundane, and tangled in endless bureaucratic tape. After a year here, he’s still waiting for it to feel like home… he doesn’t think it ever will.
The commander clears her throat, still waiting for an answer he doesn’t know how to give her.
“I haven’t exactly got a resume of marketable skills.” He mutters, begrudgingly. Twelve years on a fighter squadron in the war and his list of qualifications is remarkably ill suited to civilian life. No formal education, no civilian work history, no family ties… and murder and aerial dogfighting aren’t typically the sorts of talents more legitimate employers look for.
“You’re a pilot,” Kendappa deadpans. “Any civilian fleet would bend over backwards to have you.”
“You’re kidding, right? There’s no way I can force myself to fly that slow. I’d cut their route times in half and be fired before the week was out.” His words swamp her in a fresh wave of frustration, her face falling back to her hands before she seems to come to some kind of decision.
“Alright then…. Maybe you understand the situation I’m in right now a little better than I thought. Kurogane, you’re a fantastic wartime pilot and a dear, dear friend. But when it comes to your place in this peacekeeping force…. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep arguing for you to stay.”
He came here prepared for another dressing down, but if she’s thinking of pushing him out with a discharge—
“Commander…” He starts, and stops, discipline stilling his tongue. He wants to rage at the very idea. It isn’t his fault all these peacetime colonials have no idea what they’re doing, or that he knows far more about the limits of their machines than the regulations, or that he’s fucking good at his job and petty captains find themselves jealous.
“I want to keep you here, but people higher up than me are starting to take notice of your bullshit, Lieutenant. If you’re serious about this job, I have to bring you in line. Visibly. Do you understand?”
“Yes Ma’am.” He barks back, though he practically burns with anger. He knows she’s right and he knows what she faces—the fucking politics of it all. He’s been under her command for nearly a decade and he trusts her by now to make these decisions. Doesn’t mean he has to like it. Doesn’t mean it has to be fair.
“Good.” Her tight jaw unclenches as she takes in his furious agreement. “So then, first and foremost, you’re grounded. Your ship is on lockdown. No flying missions until you’ve learned your lesson, at my discretion.” He can’t do anything but nod, limiting the murderous fury he feels to his grinding teeth and the clenching of his fists. No missions and no way off this crowded jungle of too much fucking humanity until the Commander thinks he feels good and sorry about it. And for what? For making the right goddamn call?
He’ll weather it all because he has no other choice, but he’s going to imagine punching the shit out of the smarmy commander-wannabe who reported him the whole time. If he didn’t have to worry about being discharged, he’d find the asshole and bust his face up for real.
He waits, phantom sensation of blood on his knuckles as he anticipates the second half. They won’t just ground him and leave him to his own devices—torturing him with forced shore leave. They must have assigned him latrines to clean or cafeteria duty or—
Kendappa looks far too smug as she flips a thin file-screen his way, one he hadn’t spotted amidst the mess she’s made of her desk.
“Since you’re going to be ground team for a while, I thought I’d put you on ground detail.” He reaches out and taps to activate the screen at her nod, disbelief warring with frustration as he struggles to comprehend the mission specifications inside. Kendappa watches his increasing annoyance with far too much enjoyment.
“You want me on personal guard detail for some Special Forces Asshole?” He can barely put the words together. This isn’t just a punishment, it’s a horrible idea. He’s already angry enough at greenhorn officers who wouldn’t know an AR from an SMG. They want him to babysit a desk-jockey Special Forces Virtual Intelligence specialist…. “Commander…”
“Don’t give me that look, Lieutenant. It’s a punishment, not a vacation. You’re going to guard the guy, ferry him through his investigation, and make our unit look good, do you copy?” His teeth grind hard enough to hurt but he swallows the frustration boiling in his chest.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he grouches, without a hint of appropriate decorum. He copies the file to his wrist-VI with jerky motions, wishing he could set the tiny screen in his hands on fire and forget the whole thing.
“Study up! You’ll meet him at the spaceport at 18:00 NHST tomorrow. Dismissed.” Kurogane whirls on a heel as soon as she says the world, not trusting himself to stick around and piss her off with his more-precarious-than-usual status. “Don’t forget you promised Tomoyo you’d come to dinner Friday!” she shouts after him. He can’t flip her off, but he’d like to think she can read it in the way he slams the door behind himself. By the way she laughs, he thinks she gets the message.
He doesn’t have a great opinion of the Federation Special Forces, when he has one at all. They’re a secretive bunch occluded by a bloated bureaucracy and far too many specializations. An SF officer might be part of anything from technological development and battle strategy to espionage and the ever-secretive Psy Ops. Kurogane had met the whole range. He’d escorted eggheads to their research stations across hot zones, followed the Commander to joint strategic meetings, and acted as an operative pilot in more than a few Top-Secret maneuvers. Every single one of the individuals he’d met from SF were distracted by their work and self-assured, most of them arrogant and unwilling to give Kurogane and the rest of the plebian Aeronautics Force the time of day. Except….
Well, on one of those Top-Secret Missions, he’d had to fly a tiny SF agent through a battlefield, her psychic powers ringing around the ship and plowing through the colony below like a wrecking ball. He’d been too focused on not dying to talk to her, but she’d seemed small and sad, bones as thin as a bird’s and youth written in every line of her frame. She’d thanked him demurely after they landed, but her handler had pulled her away before he could get his helmet off and answer.
There are rules about age limits in the Federation military. He should know; he’d had to lie to get around them. Apparently, no one ever told SF. With the war on and those kinds of powers… he wonders whether kids like that girl even got a choice. It doesn’t sit right—one of those memories that lurks in his head and waits to disturb him in the quiet spaces between assignments. Keeps him from falling in line and reporting psychic activity like a good Federation citizen is supposed to. Especially when it comes to…
Anyway—all of that to say, Special Forces riles a lot of his disdain and suspicion for a multitude of reasons. He doesn’t look forward to meeting whatever asshole they’ve landed him with, a blond-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy who smiles like an idiot in his ID photo. He’s supposedly a scientist on the Virtual Intelligence development team, but when Kurogane looks him up in the military database, his rank and specialization all turn up classified.
Bunch of SF bullshit he doesn’t care enough to look deeper into. He’ll just do his damn job, keep the overly-secretive egghead safe and hope whatever investigation he needs to do will end quickly. Maybe if he manages to get blondie off-station safe Kendappa will take pity on him and end this farce of a punishment. He just has to keep his head down and hurry things along. With any luck he’ll be back in the cockpit in just a few days.
Luck is, quite obviously, not on his side.
His already low opinion of his charge takes a nosedive when the asshole doesn’t make their specified meeting time.
It takes a couple of hours, threatening spaceport security staff and flashing his Peacekeeper ID and his mission files in a way he’s really not supposed to, but he gets access to the security feed at the arrival gate. And the external ground cam. And the cab company’s records. He barely catches the license plate of the cabbie that picked his blond up from the curb and bullies dispatch into divulging the idiot’s destination.
He plugs the address into his wrist unit and the search returns… A bar.
The fucker skipped out on meeting his guard detail and went straight to a goddamn bar.
Kurogane doesn’t know whether this guy didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to meet up, or if he simply forgot. Either way, by the time he steps into the Clover he’s nearly livid enough to scream, half-certain that the absolute ass will have left by now and he’ll need to chase him somewhere else. He squints into the dimly-lit atmosphere of the bar, blocking out the distraction of the nearly empty dance floor and the pounding, low-energy club music. Too early for many dancers yet, but there are a good number of bodies already lined up at the counter. He looks them over, annoyance building with each wrong face. Maybe the VI scientist just stepped in for a quick drink and went elsewhere?
He resigns himself to more needless detective work and storms halfway across the room towards the bartender before he happens to catch the glint of blond at a distant table, nearly hidden by the constantly shifting lights of the dancefloor. From this far away, he can’t see well enough to tell whether the thin figure seated in the corner is his man or not, but he switches up his path and heads over anyhow.
The closer he gets… That’s the guy from the dossier, no question. Blond hair and blue eyes and vapid smile as he chats up the stranger at his table, already surrounded by a scattering of empty glasses even though he can’t have gotten here too long ago. He looks the perfect picture of an irresponsible airhead, exactly the sort of asshole Kurogane’s been imagining since he got this damn assignment. And yet, something about the scene doesn’t sit right…
He figures it out a moment too late, at the lull between songs when he steps up and both idiot scientist and companion look his way. Classified rank or no, the man just got off a military transport. He should be in uniform. He’s not. He’d have to have specifically ducked off somewhere to change out of it—a strange thing to do if he were interested in chatting up strangers in the bar. Easier to land adoring bed partners in full dress, especially as an enigmatic SF officer, or so Kurogane hears. So if he’s not wearing it, he must have removed it for a reason. And if he’s here as an investigator….
Blondie’s companion stares at Kurogane with obvious discomfort, eyes catching on the decorations of rank and service pinned to Kurogane’s chest. The scientist himself graces Kurogane with a look that’s cold, calculated, quite sober and just this side of annoyed, before his vapid grin slides languidly back into place.
“Can I help you, Mr. Peacekeeper?” Shit. Alright, so apparently the VI scientist skipped out on his security detail to make some kind of clandestine meeting. Kurogane re-evaluates and tries to figure out how to work damage control from here. He tries not to feel too badly about bungling things—not his fault the ass didn’t see fit to let him in on the fucking plan!
“Sorry,” he tries to sound convincing, lets a little of his discomfort bleed through and glances awkwardly away. “You looked like someone I knew. My mistake.” He turns tail and heads for a table closer to the entrance, but the damage is already done. By the time he takes a seat to wait, blondie’s contact is already making excuses to leave.
…This whole assignment is bullshit.
Chapter 2: Followed
“Alright, Lieutenant, ready to recognize me yet?” The damn scientist, still clad in a casual, smart leather jacket and slim pants, sidles up to Kurogane’s post by the door balancing two drinks in each hand. He sets a pair down in front of Kurogane before he settles to perch on the chair opposite.
“Seems like that’s up to you. I’d hate to ruin your plans for the evening further.” He drawls, pointedly not picking up either of the chilled glasses within reach. Thin lips meet his sarcasm with a wry smile and a musical laugh he has to remind himself not to like.
“My plans this evening are flexible,” the jerk insists before flourishing one of his own cups and taking a long draw. Kurogane eyes the action with jealous disdain.
“I see. Was our meeting time flexible too?” He snarks, voice dry as the desert. He tries to bring every inch of his initial annoyance to bear on the man happily draining his booze across the table, to little avail. He’d come to this place expecting a flaky, irresponsible scientist more interested in drink than work. He’d found…. He doesn’t know yet, honestly. There’s a deviousness to this man—in his missing uniform and hidden rank, lurking behind his too-bright smile.
If this guy’s just a helpless VI scientist, Kurogane’s the fucking king of Earth.
“Well! That’s a little different. You’re helping on my investigation, aren’t you? Wouldn’t be much help if you couldn’t hunt me down,” he explains with a wink that definitely does not set Kurogane’s heart skipping awkwardly. “Though I admit; I thought you’d take a little longer to catch up.”
Kurogane wants to bristle at the idea he’s been led around as a test, but something about the way Fai talks… He says his piece with an easy smile, setting his glass back on the table with a gentle clink, but Kurogane’s instincts clock the whole thing as deception. He can’t help thinking maybe, just maybe, the scientist had actually wanted to shirk him entirely. Suspicion quells the anger still frothing in his chest.
“I’m supposed to guard you, Agent. That’s all. Investigating’s still your job.”
“Pff. ‘Agent.’ Please, call me Fai. And have a drink, won’t you? You stick out like a sore thumb.” And God if he doesn’t want to. Whatever that shit is, it smells good and he’d love to bury today beneath the weight of alcohol, but he knows it for a bad call. He didn’t see either glass poured, and he doesn’t trust his new charge as far as he can throw him.
“I’m in uniform and on the clock,” he snipes, rather than reveal any of his deeper worries. Fai meets his declaration with a moment of silent consideration, pinning Kurogane with a narrow-eyed stare as he turns a cup idly against the surface of the table.
“Suit yourself, Lieutenant,” he charms after a moment too long, downing the remainder of his first cup and reaching out to gather Kurogane’s to himself as well. “Though if you’re going to follow me around you might need to compromise those morals of yours. People will get nervous with you breathing down their necks.”
“People like your friend tonight?”
“Just so,” Fai takes a sip of one of the glasses stolen from Kurogane’s side of the table. The pilot watches, makes sure Fai actually drinks from it, and reaches out to take it back. Whatever. Fine. He wants a fucking drink anyway, and at least now he knows it’s not poisoned.
Fai watches him with a knowing smirk and doesn’t even pause, instantly fitting his empty hand with a different glass.
They pass a moment or two of almost-comfortable quiet, club lights still annoyingly pulsing around them and music just barely low enough to leave the buzz of humanity by the bar audible. Kurogane lets amber liquor slide over his tongue for the first time in a long time and god, he’s fucking missed booze.
“Alright, if that’s how this is going to go, then you might want to call me Kurogane.” He tries to affect more ease than he feels. The taste of alcohol soothes some of his reservations but only highlights others. Fai processes his name with a mischievous look that foretells nothing good.
“I might be able to manage that.” The agent agrees, all charm and smiles, and somehow Kurogane believes not a word of it. “So! now that less people are staring at the stiff Peacekeeper; I’ll take a wild guess that your files don’t say much about my investigation.”
“You’d guess right,” he agrees, one eyebrow raised. “Not that I think the details would make a whole lot of sense. I know how to use my wrist-VI, barely, and that’s about it. All that high-end military development shit is beyond me.”
Something strange passes behind Fai’s eyes then—a frisson of surprise? A moment of genuine confusion? Either way it flits away again in an instant, and Kurogane has to struggle to understand in the wake.
“Ah,” he allows, hiding the bitter twist of his mouth with another sip of alcohol. “High-end development indeed.” Apparently, he doesn’t intend to say anything more on the subject. Which is well enough, Kurogane supposes given the public setting, but he still feels at a loss.
“Like I said, details won’t mean much to me, but I do need to know… Well, SF or Joint Command decided you needed a guard detail for a reason. All I really want to know is: what the hell am I supposed to be guarding you from?”
“You know, I’ve been wondering the same thing.” Fai snorts, gaze sliding away from Kurogane and staring into the unreal, his carefully vapid expression twisting again into something dangerous and well-honed. The way he holds himself, the level of confidence he exudes… there’s more to him. More than a desk officer, that’s for damn sure. “You’re a fighter pilot, aren’t you? unless I’m reading those bars of yours wrong. You gonna protect me from the GSU warships?”
“War’s over,” Kurogane bites, trying not to think too hard about it. Fai just hums back, like he doesn’t agree. And what the fuck is that supposed to mean? “You think you’ve got whole warships chasing down your missing research?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think. I just have to wonder what command thinks. You’re a damn good pilot if your medals can be trusted. But like you said, you don’t know anything about tech or the case I’m chasing. Either command knows something I don’t, or someone doesn’t like you very much.”
He lands very close to the truth, and Kurogane works hard not to let it show on his face. He busies himself with his drink and doesn’t bother justifying Fai’s guess with an answer. This guy’s an investigator alright, and a devious one. “No guesses Kuro-hi?” The mutilation of his name sets his teeth grinding.
“Only thing I know for sure right now is you’re an asshole.”
Fai blinks at him in stunned confusion for nearly a solid minute of blessed silence before he bursts into laughter, honest and unrestrained.
“Got it in one, Kuro-sweetheart,” he agrees with a wide grin, far too gorgeous as he tilts his drink back and downs it. Stupid blond, sharp-dressed and too smart, and damn him anyway for pretending to flirt like this. Kurogane tries to quell every budding inkling of attraction he feels toward the jerk and wrestles himself back under control. ‘Sweetheart’ in-fucking-deed.
Fai sets his second glass down with a final slam a moment later, and Kurogane watches, something like worry niggling at his thoughts. Hadn’t the agent already been drinking when he arrived earlier?
“Oi, I’m your guard, not your babysitter. I’m not carrying your ass to your hotel if you drink yourself stupid.” Fai picks up the third glass with an easy motion that still seems somehow unaffected, quite obviously daring Kurogane to protest further.
“Good to know,” he concedes, before downing the whole damn thing in a single draw. Kurogane might be impressed if he weren’t lamenting such a waste of fine liquor. “Alright, Mr. Charming, why don’t you lead the way?”
Fai isn’t the sort of arrogant desk officer Kurogane expected when Kendappa had assigned this stupid mission. He’s something worse—too perceptive and superficially over-familiar, smiles and sharp edges, masks upon masks. Interesting. Frustrating.
Outside the noisy thrum of the bar, Fai makes no further mention of his mysterious investigation and Kurogane knows better than to ask. The scientist doesn’t shut up, he simply says little of substance. His mouth runs incessantly, spilling idle commentary on his journey or the state of the station. Kurogane does his best to ignore it.
They cut an easy path through the evening bustle of the station at night. In the spaces between bouts of meaningless chatter, the lights that line the footpaths and alleyways glint off Fai’s pale hair and skin, making him look deceptively pretty and ethereal. Kurogane tears his gaze away and focuses on the crowd that surrounds them. Stupid mission or no, his job rides on this assignment, and he’ll be damned if he fucks it up because the idiot scientist distracts him.
He notices their tail on the escalators down to the mid-level trains.
He might never have seen the guy, but something feels off, imagined pressure at the back of his neck like the weight of an enemy crosshair. A feeling he knows all too well. He searches the reflective chrome of the wall and catches sight of a familiar figure. Dark-haired guy, non-descript, thin, cap pulled low enough to obscure the face, but Kurogane remembers seeing him outside the bar and the street level transports all the same.
“—never really had this sort of thing on the Stations I’ve seen before. Mag lev and sublayer… Damn, it’s not capital of the region for nothing, is it?”
“Hmm.” Kurogane agrees, though he has no idea what to. Maybe the stranger just needs to travel the same way they do, but he really, really doubts that. The guy’s distance is too measured. Too… focused. He decides to test it. To the tune of Fai’s cheerful commentary, he guides them toward the wrong platform, pretends to check a map for a minute, and then doubles back toward the correct train.
It takes a few extra minutes and he doesn’t make it obvious, but the capped man follows them to both places.
Kurogane thinks first of the gun hidden at his hip, but he’s been on station at least long enough to know he can’t use it as a first resort. He starts reaching for his wrist unit instead. He can call it in. Unknown following them back to the hotel… If he leads Fai through the cars and winds station to station, they can try to lose him. Maybe make alternate arrangements at a different hotel just in case—
Fai’s hand rests over his before he can make a call, and Kurogane barely avoids throwing him into the path of the arriving train out of reflex. He smiles in the face of Kurogane’s dark look of reproach, but the expression doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Noticed our new friend, did you? Took you long enough.” He murmurs, the sound of his words disguised by the train’s arrival. He doesn’t let go, though Kurogane yanks once, leading him through the doors the instant they open instead. Cap-guy slinks into the next car over and pretends not to watch through the window that separates them.
“What are you doing.” Kurogane growls, frustrated and distracted by the warmth of Fai’s hand. His body can’t decide whether to panic or enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of contact, so it settles for a strange mixture of both. His instincts still scream that someone’s following and he really needs to do something about that, but the scientist’s grip holds firm as iron.
“Putting on a show, Kuro-jumpy,” Fai murmurs below his breath, the edge of danger bleeding through his thin smile. And then, at the moment the train begins to move, he lurches bonelessly forward, flopping into Kurogane’s chest unsteady as a drunkard. Kurogane has to scramble to keep him from hitting the floor or slamming into the broad windows of the train car. “Oh my. Great hustle,” Fai giggles, making no effort at all to recover himself.
“Fucking—” I’m going to murder you before this mission ends, Kurogane thinks, safe in the confines of his own thoughts as he puts two and two together. He may not have been paying much attention during their journey over so far, but Fai’s sober right now. Almost unbelievably so. Kurogane had wasted a good portion of his focus at the start of their march marveling at the straight line of Fai’s gait and the clarity of his speech after so many drinks. A constitution like that just wasn’t normal. And yet! “I told you I wasn’t going to carry your ass.”
“Aw, so mean!” Fai’s voice dips and rises, sing-song in a drunken imitation. The heat of his body burns like a brand against Kurogane’s side. He keeps his right arm wrapped around the blond’s waist, his left hand clenching the nearest bar. Fai’s head lolls forward, close enough Kurogane can feel each puff of breath against his bare neck. “Better for them to think this is a one night stand,” The agent whispers, just loud enough for Kurogane to hear over the rushing sounds of the train. “I’ll owe you one. Just make it look convincing, won’t you?”
He keeps his eyes pinned on the empty chair across the car, trying to ignore the trampled instincts and latent panic building with every second. This mission is Bull. Shit. When he gets through this fucking mystery investigation, he’s taking it up with Kendappa as a cruel and unusual punishment. God, he hasn’t been touched by someone who wasn’t trying to kill him or vice versa in…. a long-ass time. He really doesn’t know how to feel about that. But… he doesn’t know enough about the situation to do anything differently. He has no idea who cap-guy is, or why he seems so interested, or why Fai doesn’t want to scare him off. For now, at least, he has to play along.
“Alright, but I’m only helping you till we get to the hotel, got it?” Kurogane pitches his voice to be heard, answering both Fai’s teasing and his request with the same words. The blond laughs in response, a very convincing drunken affectation that sets their fellow occupants inching away uncomfortably.
“So you say,” he slurs with a wink, and act or no, Kurogane’s face floods with red.
Cap-guy still lingers in the corner of his sight, the barest glint through the window. He can’t afford to push Fai away or steal enough space to collect his composure. He grips the metal of the bar until the bones in his hand pop and tries very, very hard not to think about the feel of Fai pressed against his side. He’s starting to miss the baby officers and piss-poor pirates at this rate.
Fai plays up the drunk act (all too convincingly) right up until the hotel door slides shut behind them. He makes a miraculous recovery the instant they leave line of sight to the street.
“Sorry about that,” He apologizes, taking his own weight and prying gracefully away from Kurogane’s stiff hold. Far fewer people mill in the lobby than on the street outside, just a couple at the check in station and a kind looking young girl at the reception desk. No one so much as glances their direction, too busy and far away to listen in. “He shouldn’t follow here. Too much surveillance.”
Sure. Alright. Fine. Kurogane tries to gather the frazzled ends of his nerves and busies himself smoothing his uniform back in place. His thoughts reorder into something like sense. The last twenty minutes were a necessary evil and nothing more. Someone tailed them back to the hotel and it’s his job to keep Fai safe. His position rides on this working out.
Who chases them and why? He wants to punch some answers out of his damned charge, but he’ll have to wait for privacy. For now….
“Right. We’ll lose him here and move you somewhere else. I’ll call in a notice on our friend with the hat.” He starts reaching for his wrist-VI only for the fucking agent to stop him a second time. This time, Kurogane shakes his touch off with a sharp flick of his arm and a glare.
“Unfortunately not. That’s not the way I do things,” the blond says with his usual, falsely charming grin, and Kurogane’s known him for less than a day but he wants to strangle him.
“Some asshole followed you all the way from the bar and now an unknown individual or organization knows where you plan to sleep. You’re compromised.”
“Trust me,” Fai insists. Kurogane stares, dead-eyed and tries to indicate that he very much does not trust the strange, overly-secretive Special Forces agent. “…point taken, but you could at least trust that I know my own case. I don’t want them on high alert. You made them wary showing up at the bar, but they aren’t likely to try anything on-station. If they do… well, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
He grits his teeth at the teasing slight. He has so many questions—why let the watcher go? Who was he working with—did they know what Fai was? What did all of this have to do with a VI development leak?
“You’re moving hotels at least.” He tries to insist, but Fai sighs and shakes his head. One over-familiar hand darts out and taps at the bars pinned to Kurogane’s chest.
“Sorry Lieutenant, but no.” It’s a subtle way to pull rank, but it leaves a bitter taste in Kurogane’s mouth all the same. With Fai’s position classified and his files hidden away, he can’t even really be certain Fai has the authority to override him. Based on the dossier, though, Fai is the lead officer on the investigation…
The couple across the room finishes their business and turns away from the kiosk, chattering amicably among themselves. The whirring of their wheeled luggage resounds across the hard, false-marble flooring as they meander off, presumably to their room. Kurogane watches them go, scans the near empty lobby a second time, and makes his decision.
“Listen, asshole,” he hisses, leaning closer in a mockery of their earlier posture. “You might have the lead on this investigation, but I’m not under your command. My orders are to keep you safe. I don’t know shit about what you’re searching for or why or how. If you say it’s really, really that important to stay here, I’ll take your word for it. Just know, the instant anything happens, we leave. Even if I have to drag you out myself.”
Kurogane finishes the words, gritted through clenched teeth. He feels the lack of his own knowledge keenly. He’s not trained for ground missions really, but he knows a thing or two from watching other Peacekeeper operatives. Enough to know staying here for a bad call. He’ll bow to the guy’s case knowledge for now, but the way he sees it he has two choices; he can do what Fai wants, possibly fail the protection mission, and get fired, or he can disobey chain of command and be fired with less risk to the agent’s person. What’ll Fai do… write him up? Not like it’d be the first time.
Fai turns his face away, laughing humorlessly.
“..I start to see why they picked you,” he murmurs, almost too quiet to hear. “Alright. We’ll check in and bolt at the first sign of trouble. Is that alright with you?” That voice drips with false sweetness, and Kurogane rolls his eyes.
“Perfectly,” he doles sarcasm right back, motioning Fai forward towards the reception with an ‘after you,’ motion. The agent does as Kurogane bids with false grace, and Kurogane trails behind, lingering to scrutinize as much street as he can see through the glass of the door. Waiting for something to happen, for that follower to spring an ambush at last…
This night is going to suck, whether he sees combat or not. Honestly at this point, he’d welcome a fight. All of these pent up frustrations have to go somewhere. With any luck, they’ll follow his fist straight into an enemy face.
Chapter 3: Slipped
Kurogane is a pilot.
He is not an agent. He’s not a fucking ground officer. He’s still qualified to manage a guard detail because he kept up with his weapons training, and because CQC has saved his life in enough emergencies to stay permanently cemented in his head and his muscle memory. He knows how to protect someone. He has the instincts to keep a ward in his periphery and stay attuned to them throughout a fight.
He does not have experience with covert ops groundside. Working in Peacekeepers gives him a vague sense of the sorts of missions ground officers take, but he hasn’t perhaps paid as much attention as he could have. Even so. Even so. He knows for certain something about this mission just isn’t right.
For starters: he has never heard of a peacetime guard mission lasting longer than twenty-four hours which did not have a rotating shift of assigned watchers. Perhaps SF wants to limit the possibility of their jealously guarded secrets spreading among the rank and file, but it still strikes him as a liability. He can do a good forty or so hours without sleep. Maybe he could go longer in an emergency, but the room is booked for the week and not even Kurogane can push himself over a hundred and sixty hours and still perform anywhere near the realm of functionally.
He could manage on his own with access to a few cameras and some VI-assisted watch protocols during rest periods, but the assignment doesn’t afford him that kind of equipment. He’s tried forcing the issue by sending a request for access through the hotel security system, only to ping a rejection. He can appeal it and likely get his way, but that doesn’t solve his immediate problem, nor does it soothe the lingering worry over their mystery watcher. Failure to pre-approve access feels like another utterly careless oversight.
Add to that the fact that Command had seen fit to assign them a single room to share, and Kurogane starts to wonder whether they haven’t made his life difficult intentionally as part of his supposed “punishment.”
“Oh, I thought you’d be pleased, Kuro-paranoid,” Fai teases, rightly interpreting the disdain that washes over his expression as soon as the lights in their small, shared quarters flicker on. “Much easier to keep an eye out for me this way, isn’t it?”
“Not particularly,” he grouches back with a dark look. He doesn’t hate the idea of shared space—too much time spent in barracks and packed into hangar bays with squad mates to make him picky—he just doesn’t understand it from a tactical position. He can’t get a second angle on the street, can’t monitor floor traffic, can’t even get access to the hallway cameras. Separate rooms would actually have made his work a hell of a lot easier. The shared room only gives him extra access to the SF officer himself, not any danger that might be coming his way.
The thought surprises him—suspicion blossoms in his mind and conspiracy begins to sink insidious hooks in his understanding. SF has made it easier to watch Fai than to watch out for him, and perhaps that is the point.
Surely not though, right? Surely if they thought Fai were dangerous in some way or… he doesn’t know—a flight risk or something—they would have specified that in the report. They wouldn’t just tack Kurogane on and expect him to figure it out. Would they?
“Well that’s a terribly frightening face. Have I done anything to deserve it?” He shakes himself out of his own head long enough to focus on the blond. Fai lingers in the entryway, leaning all his weight against the hand pressed against the wall.
“Haven’t decided yet,” Kurogane blurts back before he can think better of it and tries to convince himself that Fai’s amusement doesn’t please him. “No, I’m—Command forgot to approve access to the hotel cameras. Not looking forward to trying to get it.” He pushes suspicion to the back of his thoughts. No sense worrying about it now. He has never received orders anyone wanted him to interpret before. He doubts they’d start now—it was just an errant thought.
He can’t forget it. Not completely.
Especially not when Fai scoffs, invades Kurogane’s personal space again to duck around him, and strides back into the hall with a murmured, “Is that all?”
The agent glances around to make sure no one wanders within sight and activates his wrist unit, a drab-looking, slightly boxier model that he’s kept beneath his sleeve before this moment. Kurogane spots the barest flicker of a person-shaped VI-hologram before Fai does something to switch interfaces and a holo-keyboard forms instead. He types faster than Kurogane can track, pauses to shoot Kurogane a wink, and simply points his wrist unit in the direction of the nearest camera.
“What are you—”
“It’s late, Kuro-nosy. Don’t want to wake up the other guests, do we?” Fai whispers conspiratorially. He waits a scant few seconds with his arm pointed toward the camera until a faint beep sounds. The blond looks back to the tiny screen on his wrist with a satisfied smirk and retracts his arm, waving it in Kurogane’s direction without pause.
He feels his own, military-issue generic unit hum briefly with alarm before cutting off. Anti-hacking protocols, he remembers, and Fai has just bypassed them utterly. Kurogane gapes as the hotel camera controls boot on his UI. Full access. Any view he wants.
Fai grins in his astounded face and spins back into the room with a spring in his step.
‘VI scientist.’ The dossier had read. Right. Of course. He should have known in SF circles that might mean goddamn hacker.
Well. At least this particular secret makes his job easier.
Once he picks his jaw up off the floor and stops feeling vaguely hunted for breaking into a hotel security system, Kurogane sets up his watch protocols. He triggers his alarm to sound if certain parameters are met, strips off his uniform jacket, and settles down to wait in a chair by the room’s window and balcony. Fai’s eyes follow his every move. He can’t help thinking that maybe, beneath the veneer of playful arrogance, the hacker—scientist—agent feels equally wary of Kurogane. He just can’t figure out the reason why.
“They gave us two beds at least,” Fai cajoles, “are you really going to sleep sitting up when you have your own place to lay down? What, do I smell bad?”
Maybe it says something that Kurogane has to think about his answer.
Maybe the stress of the night has gotten to him, or maybe he sees something in the way Fai looks: tense, untrusting. He wants to tell the truth. He wants to say, ‘Haven’t been able to sleep in a bed in a decade, actually. Got stuck in a bad spot, wound up used to passing out in a cockpit and at this point if I can’t see the skies when I wake up, I panic like a child.’
He doesn’t know this man. He’s started to think maybe Command wants him to protect the station from Fai rather than the other way around. He can’t say things like that. But he wants to. And that frightens him more than anything else.
“Need to see outside if I’m keeping watch,” Kurogane deadpans instead, and Fai huffs, rolling his eyes with exaggeration.
“So professional!” the agent sighs, shaking his head, before he glides his way to the room’s tiny bathroom. Kurogane does not correct him, and turns back to his anxious ritual, scanning the empty canvas of stars above the colony for approaching ships. Thanks to Fai’s slightly illegal assistance, he has every camera in the hotel and on its exterior scanning for cap-guy or signs of any trouble. He’ll be up for a while yet, too paranoid over their follower. Still, with the cameras on watch he can afford to indulge his old habit and maybe even catch a few hours of sleep.
Kurogane has never been a very heavy sleeper.
Even before the attack that destroyed his home, he distantly recalls a childhood spent always up with the artificial light, bothering his parents out of bed. The war only took his tendency to wake early and added a spatial awareness that bordered on paranoia. On one memorable occasion, he had passed out, exhausted and injured, in his cockpit on enemy ground. That might have been the end of him, except his instincts sent him launching into wakefulness the instant a combatant approached his position. He knows from experience: even halfway to bleeding out and in enough pain to send black dancing over his vision, he wakes on a hairpin trigger. Kurogane sets alarms because he likes to have back up plans. He almost never needs them.
So, when he wakes in the morning to artificial sunlight in his eyes and Fai suspiciously absent from the room, he knows immediately that something has gone very wrong.
Kurogane jerks away from the chair, awareness kicking him violently into action. He flips straight from sleep into adrenaline-fueled overdrive, heart beating like a hummingbird’s and eyes open wide. A pillow falls to the floor in his wake, one he definitely hadn’t fallen asleep with. So, not only has Fai somehow managed to leave the room (been kidnapped?) without waking him, he’d also snuck close enough to Kurogane’s person to slip a pillow behind his neck? That’s—
Impossible. It should be impossible. He almost suspects drugs or a tranq except he doesn’t feel any sharp pains or lingering dizziness. Nothing other than the usual ache of sleeping in a strange position. Still, the thought of an unknown like Fai invading his space while he sleeps just… makes him feel panicked. Like his skin is crawling.
He glances down at his wrist unit and checks the time. He hasn’t slept late by any meaning of the word, but his alarm should have sounded five minutes ago. He’s still got his earpiece in—he should have heard it go off. He knows he set it. And there’s no way he slept through it.
Kurogane rifles through his VI setup, finds his alarms all still set and silenced. Nothing makes any sense. He never had the blasted thing on silent in the first place. And if he had, he wouldn’t have forgotten to switch it off! What in the name of all things—
Fai is a hacker, he reminds himself. Kurogane heaves a deep, frustrated sigh. He feels some of the adrenaline flood out along with his breath, sinks back down into his preferred chair. Maybe he should still worry about the possibility of a forced exit, but he has a feeling Fai did this all on his own. With the cessation of panic, he begins to see more of the room. Light glares from the bathroom, switch left carelessly on. Fai’s suitcase, delivered by the spaceport, still sits messily strewn across the dresser. A small slip of paper provides a spot of bright contrast against the dark carpet.
Kurogane looks again at the tiny square of white paper. It stares mockingly back at him as he snatches it up, slightly crinkled in a way that suggests it might originally have been settled on his lap before he leapt awake.
You looked too cute to wake up.
Won’t be gone long. You can guard me all you like this evening. ;)
The words give him no comfort. Neither does the idiotic doodle of a cat Fai has artfully left beside his name.
For as much of an ass as Fai has acted these last… less than twenty-four hours, fuck—he isn’t actually stupid. He has someone out there interested enough to follow him to the hotel, and Command assigned a guard for a reason—he can’t afford to just waltz out toward breakfast (or whatever he’d really decided to do) with no backup. That’s the entire point of Kurogane’s assignment. He must know that. He’d demonstrated too sharp an intellect not to, lurking under all those bright smiles. He almost certainly knows.
What reason would he have to ditch his guard then, if not to do something Command might not approve of?
Kurogane feels it again—that suspicion that maybe he’s meant to be watching Fai rather than keeping him safe. This time he doesn’t push it away.
Well, he thinks, tapping away at his wrist unit and navigating back to the hotel camera system. He refuses to sit around and wait in the room for that idiot agent to make his return. Kendappa said guard him, and that’s what he’ll do. Even if he has to track him down every godsdamned day throughout the whole mission. Kurogane skips backwards through the camera feed until he catches sight of a familiar, lithe figure gliding out the hotel room door.
Fai catches the glint of the camera’s lens out the corner of his eye and turns to smirk at it—shoots it a cheeky, blown kiss that Kurogane just knows the jerk meant for him to find.
“Fucking asshole,” he growls below his breath, unwilling to admit the way his face colors. Whatever. Fai might think he’s hot shit, but if he didn’t have time to mess with the camera feed then Kurogane will find him soon enough.
Chapter 4: Singed
The thunderous expression that crosses Fai’s face when he spots Kurogane later that morning almost makes the hunt to find him worth it. Hadn’t been so hard, really—just a bit of extrapolating given morning train schedules and a little more bullying for camera feed access at the mag-lev stops.
He’d had the good sense to switch his uniform out for a plain black shirt and some jeans, which made intimidating mag-lev employees a little more difficult. But he still had his military ID and his Peacekeeper codes, and that seemed more than enough for most folks. (Something he decided to keep in mind in case he ever needed to go missing in the future.)
Kurogane catches Fai’s eye through the wide glass wall of the customs office—just to let him know he has back up, not to tease him or anything, honest—and wanders across the street to the café there. Black iced coffee helps him wake up for real. He flips the radio application on and half listens to the news playing in his ear as he settles into an uncomfortable patio seat to watch his asshole ward.
“…citizens are still advised to remain on the lookout for psychic activity and report any discoveries to the nearest Peacekeeping office.”
Kurogane ignores the usual droning of post-wartime radio and scans for Fai instead. He has a little trouble seeing clearly between the glare and the passing vehicles, but he thinks he catches a familiar flick of Fai’s sleeved wrist toward an unsuspecting customs computer system. His eyes narrow with suspicion. He knows from experience now that simply implying a military connection will frighten most folks into complying with an investigation. If Fai so much as flashed his SF ID, he would have no need to hack a single system.
…unless he can’t show SF’s hand like that. Maybe whatever VI tech they’re chasing, Special Forces doesn’t want anyone to know they’re involved?
Ugh! Kurogane doesn’t know. He feels utterly out of his depth with this shit. Maybe Kendappa needed a shitty mission to foist off on him, but tangling with Fai gives him the sneaking suspicion that he’s a fucking national security liability. He doesn’t have the training for this backroom, secret agent bullshit. Maybe Fai has a point, trying to ditch him at every turn.
Too bad for Fai he has his fucking orders. “Figure out what the hell is happening,” unfortunately didn’t make the report.
“In other news, police are still on the lookout for the recent culprits involved in the theft of research materials from NH-0N’s prestigious Genexcel Biomedical. The company’s Piffle District lab reported a security breach and the theft of highly valuable materials late last Friday night. Genexcel representatives offered the press no comment on the event or the nature of the material stolen. However, an anonymous source suggests the theft may have been related to research contracted by Federation military. More to come as—"
Kurogane slams the stop button and feigns nonchalance when Fai strides back out of the customs office, fully prepared to wait a few beats and follow from afar. He doesn’t have to bother. The agent walks right up to his tiny table, arms crossed and foot tapping.
“Did you miss my note, Lieutenant?” Fai spins a chair around backwards to sit on it, legs splayed irreverently. Kurogane takes a long sip of cold coffee and raises a single eyebrow.
“I told you last night, didn’t I? You’re investigative lead, not my CO.” He watches that same, horrible anger flicker across Fai’s attractive face and tries not to feel too smug about it. Fai masters the expression quickly, but frustration lingers like a tangible mist in the air.
“You realize you’re putting me in more danger, being here, don’t you?”
“I hadn’t planned on hanging around you in any obvious way.” Kurogane shrugs. “I was going to follow you at a distance all day and play stranger, but you ruined that when you sat down just now.” Fai sighs deeply, settling his elbow against the table, head on his hand.
“They got your face last night. Only way that would have worked is if you stayed much, much further away.” A lithe hand snatches the ice-filled cup from Kurogane’s grip, and only the pilot’s focus on their conversation stops him from reacting violently. Fai takes a noisy sip, mouth twisting in disgust as the un-disguised bitterness of black, iced coffee meets his tongue. “Should have pegged you for the type to drink it black. Ugh.” Kurogane yanks his cup back from Fai’s fingers with a vindicated smirk.
“You could go order something more to your liking instead of stealing mine,” he snipes. “Hell, if you do, maybe your mysterious watcher will think we’re meeting for a date.”
“Doubtful. You were supposed to be a one-night stand.” He could leave it there. He should leave it there. But something snide and vindictive in his head remembers the feel of Fai hanging all over him in the train last night, pretending to be drunk.
“So what if I was? Maybe you couldn’t get enough of me,” he blusters with confidence he doesn’t feel, takes a long sip of coffee just to disguise whatever the hell his mouth is trying to do. Is that… is he flirting? Shit, Kurogane realizes after the words escape, he is flirting. What a monumentally terrible idea.
Luckily, Fai doesn’t take him up on it. The agent only rolls his too-blue eyes.
“Oh, trust me, I’ve already had more than—"
Something loud tears through the mid-morning noise and rips any thoughts of banter away. The remnants of coffee and ice hit the ground. Kurogane jerks forward in a crouch, knocking the light-weight aluminum chair over behind himself and reaching down to his hip for the handgun concealed there. He turns toward the sound, every part of him kicking into overdrive, mind racing to determine the threat and find the best course of action. Smoke rises from the direction of customs, emergency alarms flipped on and blaring. Civilians and employees start streaming from the front entrance. Passersby run with them or stop to stare in a classic flight or head-light reaction. No combatants in sight. Quite a few people fleeing the scene, but no one particularly suspicious. And Fai—
Fai has adopted the same posture as Kurogane, crouched low, scanning the area, eyes narrowed in thought and not a glint of fear in sight. His hands twitch idly, like a soldier thinking about drawing a weapon.
Kurogane doesn’t care what the dossier says. VI scientist or no, there’s no way this asshole hasn’t seen combat.
He files the thought away—adds it to the growing pile of suspicions. He doesn’t have time to ponder it now. For a moment, he remembers the hazy sight of Fai tilting that hidden wrist-unit toward a customs office system and he almost entertains the thought… but no one could fake the look of startled alertness on Fai’s face. Whatever hack Fai had used, he doesn’t think it included an explosion.
“Okay, stay low and I’ll—” He doesn’t finish explaining before the damned agent tears forward, into the throng of fleeing employees and toward the smoking building. “Seriously?” Kurogane doesn’t have the time to pause and wonder how the hell he’s supposed to keep a man with the survival instincts of a gnat from harm, but he very much wants to. He grits his teeth and catches up, already glad he left his heavy uniform jacket behind this morning.
“Don’t put the call in yet,” Fai hisses, just as he falls in step at the man’s side. The statement comes so unexpectedly that Kurogane almost doesn’t understand him.
“Don’t put…” He has to dodge the nearly-orderly stream of evacuees—wide-eyed people in customs uniforms helping each other and visiting patrons find predetermined safety zones. Lucky none of them look too long at himself or Fai. “You really don’t get how colony systems work.” Kurogane blurts, stumbling to a stop just as Fai does. They duck behind a support beam and out of sight just beside an exit no longer in use, only slightly out of breath. “This is an official government building—it’s monitored. Call’s made automatically.”
“Well, that’s no good.” The agent shifts his sleeve aside and pulls up his odd interface faster than Kurogane’s eyes can follow. The same flicker of a person-shaped holo materializes before Fai flicks it away. “Fai, get the door and scramble the authorities, won’t you?”
“Got it!” A mirror of the agent’s voice chirrups back, and Kurogane feels his eyebrows inching towards his hairline. He’s known people with cutesy, character-based VI interfaces before, but he’s never seen one so quick or met someone narcissistic enough to have a VI replica of themselves.
It doesn’t matter—he’ll have to worry about it later because, did that guy just order a VI to hack the Peacekeepers en route?
“Hey, what the fuck are you doing?” The emergency door chimes and swings outward, opened by whatever code Fai’s little assistant fried it with. Kurogane catches Fai’s bare wrist before the agent can stride into the room and stops him in his place. Alarms ring violently out from the empty cargo entrance, making words nearly impossible to hear.
“I don’t have time to explain, Lieutenant. Fall in line,” Fai barks. Every iota of Kurogane’s being tenses with sheer resentment, but he grits his teeth and lets go. He has no fucking clue how illegally entering a government building fits in to Fai’s investigation, but he also can’t prove it doesn’t. Fai bolts inside immediately and Kurogane has to bite his tongue and follow.
“As your guard, I’d like to remind you that running into a smoking building is a phenomenally bad idea.” He has to strain to be heard over the wailing claxons as they sprint through rows of featureless crates toward the burning, smoking mass at the far end of the room.
Not a soul stirs inside other than the two of them. Orange emergency lights flood the area and cast strange shadows over the long rows of waiting cargo. Fai frowns at the flashing alarms and talks to his watch again. With nothing more than a casual wave, the sound cuts off and damn. Kurogane didn’t even know they made VI’s that useful outside of movies. Even if Fai is a hacker.
With the alarms cut, the whir of distant cargo machinery and the no doubt building chaos outside echoes strangely through thick walls. The twin smells of incendiaries and burnt plastic push Kurogane’s already frayed nerves to a razor’s edge. They reach the site of the damage, and Kurogane stares into the char, distantly relieved to see no human shapes among the debris. Smoke and heat both foul the air, but the explosion itself seems well-contained.
“Where the hell is everyone?” He finds himself wondering aloud, glancing in every shadowed corner with his hand permanently glued to his hip, wary of potential attackers. Fai doesn’t seem as concerned.
“These places are almost completely automated—probably only had one or two staff in the room when the bomb went off.” Fai kicks a scorched panel away to reveal a heavily damaged terminal. Its holo interface attempts to boot beneath his hand only to immediately falter. The blond swears, flicks something else at his wrist and activates a… scanner? So far as Kurogane can tell. Whatever it is doesn’t seem to help him. He tuts and scowls at the results.
“Peacekeeping forces arrive in approximately ten minutes.” Fai’s VI announces, still an eerily perfect, digital replica of the man’s voice.
“Right, Right. Okay.” The agent himself wastes a few seconds to pace in front of the smoldering crates. Once, twice. He stares at Kurogane for a full five more, eyes narrowed as he searches for something Kurogane can’t hope to guess at. He doesn’t have time to care. The fire is already waning low, but it hasn’t stopped. They have no idea what nascent danger might lurk in the remaining crates, or whether the flame could touch some errant incendiary. They have no business being here.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re here for, but you better find it fast. We don’t know if there’s more explosives planted. You should—”
“There won’t be. This is—I traced them back to this shipment and they knew someone would. This isn’t a terrorist attack, they just don’t want SF to find… something.” Fai bites his lip, gives the cargo bay one last good look, and starts taking off his jacket.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying not to burn myself too badly.”
Before Kurogane can process that particularly worrisome statement, Fai punches into the flame with a jacket-covered arm and knocks one of the badly damaged, four-foot square crates clattering down just beyond the fire. This insane stunt sets his leather jacket alight in several places, but Fai doesn’t pay it any mind. Just dumps the thing to the floor and pats out the embers caught in his hair with a wince. The unsuspecting crate lays where it falls, charred and screeching slightly, like an over-heated teapot. At least as a fully metal box, any flame clinging to it quickly starves.
“What the fuck.”
“Later,” Fai hisses back, already moving on to the crate’s badly damaged lock. He tries scanning it with his wrist unit, only to sigh and reach out with his bare hand-
Kurogane snatches his wrist from the air for the second time that day before he can think better of it.
“Do not,” he growls, “Touch the superheated metal, dumbass.”
He would understand if, in the panic of the moment, Fai had forgotten the crate was still hot. Those sorts of embarrassing mistakes happen all the time. But Fai doesn’t act embarrassed. He glares pure poison and yanks himself free with unwarranted strength for his slight frame.
“Do you have a better idea, Kuro-genius?”
“Better than yours.” The locking mechanism already looks damaged, but that metal is still hot enough to steam in the controlled humidity. Might even still melt rubber, but military-grade boots have thick soles for a reason. He steps over, takes a deep breath to control his aim and brings an axe kick straight down on the lock.
After all the damage it’s taken, the mechanism crunches satisfyingly beneath his heel, tiny shards flickering out and singing his pants. A second kick from the side flips the top off, revealing the scorched contents within.
“Done showing off?” Fai remarks without humor, surging forward to look inside. He gets an eye-watering dose of acrid smoke for his trouble and has to spend a precious minute choking. Kurogane only fairs moderately better, lungs tight and eyes watering. High ceiling or no, the smoke builds and they need to get out of here quickly for more reasons than one.
“Five minutes!” That blasted VI reminds, and Fai, still coughing, looks through watery blue eyes at the smoke-clouded contents. Kurogane’s curiosity gets the better of him; he edges sideways to escape the worst of the fumes, and barely manages a glimpse of—
Nothing. Nothing inside but char and ash. Maybe the barest hint of color. A scrap of fabric? Odd—the crate couldn’t have been very full. It hadn’t burned long or hot enough to vaporize a whole container’s worth of contents.
“Good,” Fai mumbles between coughing fits—the very picture of instant relief. He turns back to his singed jacket, kicks it until no fires remain and picks it up off the ground without minding the embers. “Ready to run?”
‘Run’ seems a generous word for the way they stumble, singed and choking, back to the emergency exit.
“Fai! Camera Loop!”
“On it.” It’s still weird as fuck to hear the agent calling his own name, but by this point Kurogane has a lot more on his mind. His thoughts race—why had Fai needed to see in that crate so badly? Why did he seem so pleased to find it empty? Why hide their involvement from the Peacekeepers? Who planted the bomb? What—
Fuck. His heart races wildly, adrenaline pounding in his veins, that same feeling of wild excitement he’s only ever gotten from high-speed dogfights. He has smoke in his lungs, feels the early twinges of tiny burns scattered over his lower legs, and absolutely no idea what’s going on, but fuck… He hasn’t had this much fun in years.
“They’re gonna find the busted crate and know someone was here,” he warns. Sweat drips down his face and they move as quickly as their strained breath will allow. Fai doesn’t look like he fares much better.
“Yeah—shit. You heard that, right?”
“One cargo bay camera malfunction, coming right up!”
He nearly trips, torn between running for the door and staring at Fai’s incredibly strange wrist-unit. Is that a VI, or a fucking comm link? He wonders, only to himself because no way the secretive agent will give him a straight answer.
“What’s your extraction plan?” He asks instead, trying not to let too much interest or excitement bleed over in his voice. By the way Fai laughs, utterly breathless, he doesn’t think he succeeds.
“Plan? This wasn’t exactly a ‘plan’ situation.” Fair enough, Kurogane supposes. The door looms into hazy view. It swings open before Fai can even wave his wrist unit, and they slip back out without a sound. Fai snaps as his feet touch the tarmac outside and the alarms flip back to life, audible for mere moments before the door slams shut behind them. “The…. Plan is…” He leans forward, hands on his knees, barely hidden from the nearby gathered crowd by a broad support beam. Fai takes a second to catch his breath, dusts off as much smoke and char as he can, and pulls a hair elastic free from his right pocket. He winds his fine, wispy hair into a loose ponytail while he talks. “The plan is, we make it two stations away without showing up on camera, ditch the smell of burning at the first opportunity, and buy real coffee. With cream and sugar as god intended.”
Kurogane rolls his eyes, but he can’t help the answering smile that threatens to make its way over his face.
“After you then, agent,” He snarks, thoughts of mag-lev camera feed and witness accounts firmly fixed in his head. He deeply, deeply doubts they can get away with this, reeking of smoke and slinking out of the explosion site with the police a bare minute away. But hell, if they wind up arrested, he can just point to his mission parameters. Far as he can tell, he hasn’t gone out of line yet.
Fai grins, sweat streaked, singed hair still visible and his left arm quickly reddening with what look to be a few more serious burns. He is utterly incorrigible and uncomfortably attractive.
Keeping this dumbass safe seems an impossible task, but shit, something messed up in Kurogane’s head might just start to enjoy it.
Chapter 5: Caught
In the end, they spent about ten minutes trying to rinse off as non-suspiciously as possible in the single stall family bathroom at the station with a little camera assistance from Fai’s… “VI.” Fai had buried his nice leather jacket in the trash with a long-suffering sigh, pretending not to wince every time his left arm moved the wrong way.
They need to figure out somewhere to go. A bathroom visit can only do so much, and the scent of smoke and ash clings to them like a bad lover. Kurogane thinks it over and convinces Fai they’ll stand out least in the Mining District, even though the noise of machinery and the heat of the many systems all operating behind factory walls both drive him crazy on a good day. He can endure it if necessary to decrease suspicion… doesn’t mean he has to like it.
Like a lot of ‘0N’s districts, “Mining District” no longer really fits its name. The oldest section of the station acts as more of a station repair and onsite manufacturing center now. A few small businesses dot the landscape, mostly to service the factory workers. Quarries still keep stockpiles and offices here, but the bulk of mining operations keep their staff on site at the asteroid mines these days. All told, it’s a miserable slice of the station with a lot of grime and a mostly undeserved reputation for muggers and rough types. Even smelling like a cargo-bay bonfire, they fit right in with the lunchtime rush.
“So, who set that off? Your friend from last night?” Kurogane wonders aloud as he leans against the exterior wall of a fast-food fusion shop and feigns interest in whatever the hell this place calls an empanada. Fai tsks disapprovingly and takes another long, noisy sip of his over-sweetened drink. (He doesn’t know why he thought Fai had been kidding about the coffee.)
“Unlikely. Not their style. Too careful—no collateral damage.” He has far less trouble scarfing down something calling itself a ‘classic, Sol-style burger.’ “Not that you should care. I thought you were leaving the investigating to me, Lieutenant?”
Scoffing, Kurogane hazards another bite of his supposed empanada. He doesn’t care, really. He just—should know what threats he needs to guard against, that’s all.
Of course, it might also help that he hasn’t felt that kind of rush outside of a flight mission since… ever? Certainly not since the war ended.
He tries not to think about it too hard and stares out at the busy street instead. Too much life stares back. The older architecture of 0N’s Mining District predates the station’s atmospheric emulation, leaving strange structural remnants of airlocks and oxygen filtration systems in the wake of progress. People stream around and between tightly packed buildings, rushing to lunch or home between shifts. Ads scroll between non-uniform panels of wall, partially obscured by the oddities of the old mining district. He can’t read all of them from here, but he sees the images often enough elsewhere to recognize them; a Genexcel Research Hospital ad, a bit for the new Layermax Systems VI, some sort of corporate anti-piracy insurance he’d never bothered to learn the name for, and a single flash of a quasi-legal advertisement for the Palace casino and resort.
The last one draws his attention for a moment, staring at the black and gold of its design. He hasn’t had to involve himself, but he knows the Peacekeepers have been trying to determine their own policy regarding Palace for the last couple of weeks. Gambling is illegal in NH systems, but Palace itself exists outside regulated space. No one can decide whether advertisement for it falls under encouragement to gamble, properly defined. He hears Kendappa complaining about it occasionally at their Friday dinners, but he has trouble paying much attention to the details. It’s all so…. banal.
Maybe the Commander has a point. Maybe he really isn’t cut out for Peacekeeper shit. He just… what the fuck else is he supposed to do?
“Alright,” Fai finishes his food with a flourish and tosses his trash into the nearby recycling. He keeps his burnt arm unnaturally still. Kurogane eyes it with a frown. Fai might not want to visit a medical office officially for clandestine reasons, but that could get infected. “Since we’re here anyhow, I did have a few things to look into, but I’ll need you to—why are you looking at me like that?”
“Maybe before you move on to anything else, we should—”
The somewhat unfamiliar sound of his own ringtone cuts Kurogane off. He looks down at the screen and spies the number for his Peacekeeping unit with a sinking feeling in his chest. Fai takes another long sip of too-sweet drink and raises a brow, daring him to answer it. He does, tossing the remains of his food towards the trash bin and accepting the call with a sigh. He remembers to route the audio to his earpiece at the last second. “Kurogane,” he barks as soon as he hears the line connect.
“Lieutenant. Glad you picked up; how is your mission going?” Kurogane looks from the blank screen of his wrist unit to Fai and back, uncertain of how much he should or can say, even to his Commanding officer.
“Well enough,” he hazards. “I’ll be able to send you a full description when it’s over, but I haven’t got a lot of time to write updates in the meantime.”
“Right. So, nothing interesting has happened? Nothing you need to report?” Kendappa sounds far too amused to be ignorant of recent events. Kurogane stares at Fai blankly, his mind racing to come up with a deflection. Fuck but he wishes he understood how secretive SF wants him to be.
“Mostly a lot of meeting with people and poking through records,” he half-lies, heedless of the look Fai shoots his way.
“Of course.” Kendappa laughs, “So you weren’t anywhere near the spaceport earlier today?”
“We were meeting a contact all morning.” Fai suggests sotto voce, having apparently hacked Kurogane’s phone well enough to divert the audio over his own earpiece. Kurogane spares him a poisonous glare for the invasion of privacy but relays the answer all the same. He’d never say it, but he almost welcomes a little coaching where the Commander is concerned. He has no idea what protocol calls for with potentially Top Secret mission details, even when his CO is the one asking.
“Was this contact close to the spaceport rail stop, or are they in the Mining District now?” She asks with the tone of voice that implies she already knows all the answers. Fai’s expression blanks out. He gives no outward indication, but that blond head has to be racing—tracking their steps, trying to figure out how she knows—
“Oh my god, did you use your own fucking rail pass?” Fai hisses, and Kurogane feels himself color with embarrassment. Of course he had! He hadn’t thought to do otherwise—he didn’t have anything other than a military-issue rail pass. How was he supposed to know he needed a fucking burner transport pass!?
Fai buries his face in his injured hand and mumbles inaudibly with frustration. A noise he can’t quite make out—something that almost sounds like laughter emanates from his uncovered wrist unit.
…surely not though, right? Must be a trick of sound—something strange carrying from the recycling facility across the street.
“Commander,” he starts, trying to come up with something to cover for his own mistake. “The location and identity of that contact are both protected information under—”
“Security Information Act, section 36B subsection…. six, probably.” Face still hidden, Fai rattles the line of legalese without hesitation. Kurogane repeats it without a clue as to the specifics.
“So, it seems like any records on your desk detailing our potential whereabouts should be classified accordingly.”
Kendappa snorts, actually snorts at him. He can hear her trying not to laugh over the line. “I’m sure they will be. And I’ll burn my phone when we’re done too.” He resists the urge to roll his eyes, realizes she can’t see him, and immediately indulges in the chance. “Honestly, I don’t care what this mission has you doing, Lieutenant. I just need to know whether any of your ‘contacts’ had anything to do with the fire at Customs. SF can play secret agents all they like, but when colony systems come under fire it’s no longer their secret to hide.”
The agent sets his empty cup down at his feet and sighs so hard Kurogane imagines he can feel the exhale of breath on against his bare arm. He decidedly does not linger on that thought.
“Fai, give me voice,” he grouches, and the line crackles for a moment with an odd static. Before Kurogane can rightly interpret that odd phrase, he hears Fai in dual-tone, both in front of him and in his ear. “Hello, Commander this is… well, I’m sure you know who this is. Obviously, I don’t know anything for certain about the incident today, since we were in a meeting at the time. But in the interest of station security I can give you a few educated guesses.”
“By all means, guess away.” Kurogane will never understand how the Commander can manage to sound polite and rightfully angry at the same time, but at least this time she isn’t directing it at him.
“There are certain groups capable of moving illicit goods on this station—some are very good at avoiding detection, as I’m sure you’re aware.” Fai tilts his head as he talks, makes a strange motion toward Kurogane that he chooses to interpret as a request to look for any eavesdroppers. He bends down to pick up Fai’s cup and uses the walk toward the recycling as an excuse to do so.
“I might have an idea. Your point?”
“One of those took something from a facility they shouldn’t have been able to reach. They must have been very good to get out, probably had lots of resources. Likely very paranoid as well. Maybe paranoid enough to erase any lingering evidence with timed, low-impact explosives and a minor cargo fire.”
“So that’s what it was.” Kurogane tries not to think too hard about what Fai does and doesn’t say, or how his story doesn’t quite match up with the information on his mission assignment. He scans the alley for any unnoticed listening devices and even glances at the trash and recycling when he drops Fai’s empty cup in. Nothing jumps out, but Fai’s paranoia feels contagious. He sweeps the street out front with narrowed eyes on the walk back.
“Can’t say for certain. It’s only a guess, Commander.”
“Hm. You wouldn’t happen to have any similar theories about the scrambled camera feed or the crime scene tampering, would you?” Kurogane fights back a wince and keeps his mouth firmly shut. He glances to Fai, sidelong, finds him just as casual and unbothered as before. It’s eerie, how easily Fai faces arrest-worthy accusations levied in his direction. Doesn’t even blink, before quipping,
“Unfortunately not. But I think you don’t need my take on the matter, do you?”
“No,” she laughs, “SIA, section 36B.6—That’s Methods and Sources, isn’t it? I’ll put it in the paperwork. You’d better wrap this hunt of yours up quickly. Unintended or no, more damage like this and I’ll have to take it up with command.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, Madam Commander.” Fai gives her absolutely no quarter. Damn, he must clean house at poker night. “I’ll do my best to finish as quickly as possible, but recent events have made things a little difficult. I might have to extend my vacation.”
“Is that so…. Kurogane?”
“Don’t think this gets you off the hook for dinner Friday. Bring your friend as a date. He can give me a few more theories in person, I’m sure.”
“Commander—” he starts to protest, all too aware of the way Fai stares, mouth quirked in a sly smile that looks far too attractive on his stupid face.
“Over and out,” she signs and the call ends. Fai waits for the line to go dead before he pushes playfully at Kurogane’s shoulder. He’s starting to get used the touch, almost. He only jerks forward a little, barely thinks about throwing Fai over his head at all.
“Your own rail pass. Seriously? They have temp cards for this shit!”
“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up.” At least he isn’t the only one making stupid mistakes this mission, he thinks, eyes catching on the raw red of Fai’s burns in the poor-quality light of Mining District. He doesn’t dare touch—too aware of the danger of infection—but when he snags the edge of Fai’s sleeve, he thinks he makes his point just fine. “That needs bandages.”
“It’ll keep till tonight.” Fai tries to push himself away, but he can’t quite mask his own wince when the fabric of his shirt rubs against the edge of a bad section. Kurogane watches, wondering whether the asshole he’s supposed to guard has some sort of weird masochistic, self-sacrificial streak. It would be just his luck if the guy did, right?
“Alright, if you don’t mind explaining to the hospital how you managed to burn yourself same day as the incident when I bring you in for infection, I’m sure it can wait.” He hears that strange noise again—almost laughter drifting from Fai’s wrist. The agent hits a button on his wrist unit with relish, the very picture of annoyance, and the sound cuts abruptly off.
“Fine, we’ll waste precious time mummifying me in a drugstore bathroom if it makes you happy. But after that, we’re headed to the quarry offices, got it?”
“Got it,” he agrees, and has to scramble to catch up with Fai’s long strides. Asshole. So maybe Kurogane makes some rookie mistakes as far as SF is concerned, but does Fai have to make himself so damn hard to guard?
(Would this mission be half as fun if he didn’t?)
Chapter 6: Unsettled
After Kurogane manages to fight him into accepting some antibiotic salve and a sleeve of bandages, Fai buys a cheap jacket from the drugstore and marches straight to the quarry shipping offices, as promised.
Kurogane can’t tell what causes it—maybe the fact that he helped break into (and out of) Customs has made Fai a little more comfortable. Maybe it’s the call from Kendappa and the knowledge that he has her very tentative agreement to ignore the illegal shit they get up to. Either way, Fai settles some—starts treating Kurogane like an asset instead of an unwanted babysitter. Unfortunately for Kurogane, this means he spends the remainder of the day alternating between bored and uncomfortable, watching Fai schmoose and flirt his way past dour office workers, lie his ass off to security staff, and hack his way into every system he manages to find an opening for. More than once, Fai has Kurogane playing lookout while he fights with a bit of code and adds illegal back doors to proprietary systems.
He consoles his own guilt with the knowledge that Fai really is an SF officer hunting down info for the good of public security, and he really could get into these same systems with a little more time to run the paperwork, but… well. His new status as accomplice makes him nervous. No wonder the Peacekeepers aren’t fond of SF as a rule, if they skip the red tape and act little better than criminals all the time. He guesses it doesn’t much matter what he thinks, as long as he does his best to keep Fai alive. Someone else can worry about the headache of moralizing later.
In any case, evening rolls through and the two of them find their way back to the hotel looking haggard and smelling strongly of drug-store deodorant spray. Kurogane checks the camera feed just to be sure, but he doesn’t catch anyone sneaking into the room during their time away. He does spot the maid walking to the door a couple hours ago, leaving again as soon as he catches sight of the “Do not Disturb” sign, but no other mystery figures appear at their room, their balcony, or any of the exterior windows. Still, Fai’s hacked enough feeds today to leave him nervous. He makes Fai stand in the hall and checks the room alone first, newly wary of timed explosives and sensor-dodging smugglers.
Fai tolerates this, barely. He gives Kurogane a full five minutes to conduct his sweep before he barges in without any kind of go-ahead, doesn’t bat an eye when the sudden intrusion and Kurogane’s already frazzled nerves finally goad him to draw his gun.
In that frame of mind, wary of an attacker behind every surface, fully focused on the sight of the room and scanning for any speck of dust out of place, he doesn’t recognize Fai’s sudden appearance in the doorway before he reacts to it and then he’s somewhere else. He’s stranded on a goddamned GSU wreck with a hangar full of ghosts. Lost half his fuel to that pot shot and if nothing pans out here he won’t have any hope of making his way back to allied space.
It’s an empty derelict, a half-exploded shell of a warship absent even its atmospheric controls. He hadn’t spotted any other ships nearby on any sensors and no one could survive here long, but he can’t help glancing in every shadowed corner as he passes, gun held too-carefully in his exhausted hands. Walking away from his ship feels like a death sentence, but there’s nothing else for it. He has to scavenge. There has to be fuel here, or he’s a sitting duck no matter what else happens.
A sense at the back of his neck—hair standing on end with dread, and that feeling that something is coming—he’s too slow to react. Sudden movement on his right and screaming pain in his shoulder, and he doesn’t know what the hell is happening, but he lines the shot up anyway. He brings up his gun, and—
“Nice work, Kuro-ban, seems very safe,” Fai deadpans, staring straight down the barrel of a standard-issue handgun without concern. Kurogane feels all the blood drain from his face. He spends a full minute stuck frozen in place, addled mind skipping on the grooves of his memories as he tries to put old demons to rest. Somehow his hands don’t shake as he lowers his firearm, but his heart pounds too loud in his ears.
(Later, much later, he thinks to worry about Fai’s non-reaction. Fai doesn’t have any reason to trust him. Fai seems like he understands combat—has to understand things like misplaced adrenaline and the danger of a startled soldier, but he still acts like he couldn’t care less. Stable people don’t look down the barrel of a stranger’s gun and smile.)
“It’s. Kurogane,” he grits, torn between the urge to apologize, frustration with his own mind, and anger over Fai’s careless impatience.
“I hadn’t forgotten.” The blonde’s self-assured smirk helps anger win out. He re-holsters his weapon, teeth clenched so tight that his jaw aches.
“I told you to wait. I could have shot you. What—”
“No one would have blamed you for it, I’m sure,” Fai laughs, slipping into his personal space and past his seething form with the practiced ease of someone used to operating in close quarters. “Don’t know about you, but I need the galaxy’s longest shower after today. Are you done looking the bathroom over for boogeymen at least?” Kurogane takes a deep breath and counts backwards from ten. He thinks very hard about the way his feet press against the floor, grounds himself in the feeling of his fists clenched shut and the texture of his clothes.
I am actually going to kill him, he thinks, too aware of the weight of his own firearm and the way his body buzzes in the wake of Fai’s fleeting touch.
“Be my guest,” he grits. The pretense of a good mood and any developing fondness for his charge both disperse like smoke in a hazy cargo bay. Fuck this job. Fuck the asshole agent determined to make his life hell, and fuck the war-time paranoia he just can’t fucking shake.
He listens to the sounds of Fai stepping into the shower and firmly quashes any budding worry for the wrappings still taped over too-pale skin. Kurogane’s his guard, not his goddamn minder. If he gets the thing infected it’ll serve him fucking right.
He can’t sleep.
Not that he even wants to with unwanted memories lingering so near the surface, but he can’t stop his thoughts racing for long enough to try. The day’s events replay on a constant loop and no matter how he struggles against it, he can’t stop putting his mind to Fai’s investigation. He keeps going over what he knows, what he doesn’t. A smuggling crew had taken ‘something from a facility they shouldn’t have been able to reach,’ or so the agent told Kendappa. But the dossier only mentioned an intellectual property leak, and no physically missing equipment.
Maybe that’s part of the key. For a shipment or a prototype to go physically missing from a secured SF research station—that had to be an inside job, right? And if so, maybe Command insists on this tangled version of secrecy to avoid tipping off potential collaborators.
He wonders what the thief stole. Originally, he’d believed the dossier’s claim about VI intellectual property leaks; didn’t make much sense to send a VI scientist to investigate otherwise. But then he’d learned Fai’s real skillset. A quick-witted hacker could fit the team roster of any investigation. He could very well be chasing VI tech, but it could be anything—weapon prototypes? Ion engine research? Literally any high security Special Forces development project could fit the bill.
Of course, he also knew the size of the crates in customs and the types of shipping offices Fai had looked through today. Standard four-foot cubic metal crates could hold a lot of things but offered only mild to moderate protections for smugglers looking to avoid scanning tech. A shipment like that full of weaponry would get caught and quickly. He would have said the same for explosives, except they’d obviously proved him wrong. Electronics could probably slide through if they looked innocuous enough. Fairly easy to hide a few computer chips amidst a shipment of something else, too, and who knew what kind of blueprints might sit inside.
Kurogane shakes his head and checks his ill-gotten camera access for the hundredth time, already settled in the chair by the window. He really shouldn’t spend so much effort thinking about these sorts of details. If he wants to hyper-focus, he should bend his thoughts towards the thieves’ explosive capabilities and the identity of whatever group Fai had met with Sunday evening. They’d taken the time to follow him here and Fai seemed to think they still had ways to watch, if his complaints at the café this morning had any merit. That has to come to something eventually, right?
Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have enough information to try to anticipate anything from them. Best he can do is—
Something’s not right. Kurogane straightens in his chair. He feels that uncomfortable sense of wrong ringing through his intuition, but doesn’t have a clue what sets it off. Wary, he scrutinizes the balcony for any out of place shadows. Nothing stands out. He looks up, searches the blanket of stars barely visible in the Station’s sky. A few ship lights drift at a meandering pace toward the spaceport, but nothing—
The sound of sheets rustling and the flutter of labored breath resound from the bed closest to the door and Kurogane stiffens in place. He turns slowly and glimpses Fai, tangled in his own bedding and hair damp with sweat. He can’t see the agent’s face, but he recognizes the sight of someone caught by nightmares well enough.
“Great,” Kurogane mutters to the empty air, his overactive instincts already calming as he realizes what set them off.
For a minute or two, he considers leaving Fai be with his dreams. Some vindictive part of him still wants payback for the near-shooting incident mere hours ago, and besides, it’s just a nightmare. He doesn’t think anyone touched by the war got out without at least a few to keep them company. So, Fai has his own. So what. Hell, he’s had bunkmates angry with him for waking them before, embarrassed that he’d acknowledged anything wrong in the first place. He doesn’t know Fai well, but he gets the idea the agent likes keeping his secrets locked up tight. He should leave it be—keep his nose out of Fai’s personal life.
It’s just… Fai thrashes again, and his head tilts back in Kurogane’s direction. Low light streams in from the window, perfectly framing the blonde’s tortured expression, and damn it all, he can’t just turn away. He knows that posture, the tight twist of a mouth that has trained itself never to scream—knows the idiot will wake up sore and strained for no reason at all, every step haunted by ghosts no one can put to rest. Maybe Fai deserves to suffer a little, maybe he doesn’t, but Kurogane doesn’t want to torture himself watching.
He stands but doesn’t wander any closer. Kurogane has enough experience on both ends of this situation to know shaking the dreamer awake for a bad call. He barks the agent’s name from across the room instead.
“Fai.” His voice sounds quieter than he’d intended in the window-lit dark. Fai doesn’t react, deep in the grips of his dream. He only twists further away, head and lower body jerking in opposite directions, still caught in the sheets, and that’s going to hurt when he’s awake. “Fai, wake up,” he tries again, louder, and starts reaching for the pillows left abandoned on his unused bed. Still no response. He can hear the agent’s breath from across the room, too quick and too shallow.
Well… so much for the easy way. He launches a pillow across the room, aiming straight for Fai’s center of mass, “Wake up.”
Two very unexpected things happen in that instant:
First, Fai’s wrist unit lights up and starts emitting a series of chirps that almost sound like noises of distress. Kurogane has never seen one do that before.
Second, before the amalgam of feathers and fabric can slam into Fai’s torso, he shoots bolt upright in the bed. His messily-bandaged arm lashes out, and—Kurogane can’t clearly see what Fai does in the dark, but the pillow slams into the far wall hard enough to bust open. Feathers explode outward in a slow fall of soft shrapnel, lightly coating the dresser and floor. “Huh,” he mumbles in surprise, suspicion reawakening in his mind. That was… odd. Really odd. The speed of his reflexes alone told Kurogane the supposed scientist must have some serious training, but to send it flying like that…
He’s not sure yet. He didn’t see anything, but he almost wonders…
Wide blue eyes lock on to his position, and in the light from the window they almost seem to glow. Kurogane doesn’t dare move. He knows how this feels from the other side—waits till he sees recognition on Fai’s pallid face to say another word. “You back?”
The agent processes his question just a beat slower than he should. Fai settles into reality at a glacial pace, tension easing first from his face, then his posture. Eventually he manages to tear his unblinking gaze away, breath evening to a more regular pace.
“Never left,” he croaks wryly. Fai frees his uninjured arm from the grasp of twisted sheets, presses buttons on the screen at his wrist until the odd chirping stops. A self-effacing smile meanders back into place on his face, but Kurogane can’t tell what he finds so funny. “Sorry about that, Lieutenant. Hope I didn’t wake you.”
“I wasn’t asleep. Nothing to worry about.”
“Hmm,” Fai hums noncommittally. He keeps his expression frozen in that uncomfortable grin. “Don’t think your pillow would agree.”
“It’s a pillow. It doesn’t get an opinion.” Kurogane’s candid response sparks a second of real laughter before Fai chokes it back. He looks… miserable. His mussed hair is soaked through with sweat, bandages tugged out of place and drooping. Fai can arrange his face however he likes, but there’s no mistaking the clammy, flushed skin, or the dark half-moons beneath his eyes. Kurogane feels maybe, a little bit, sorry for him. Maybe.
Ugh. Asshole agent making him feel sympathetic when he just wants to stay properly angry at his stupid, pretty face. Kurogane shoves his frustrations and suspicions firmly to the side and stomps toward the bathroom. Fai seems like he could use a few minutes to himself and Kurogane still has the camera feed monitored with the same VI rules and alarms as before. He can afford to give the agent some time.
He grants the blond a nod, shuts the door, and turns the shower on because he knows how to do that. He wishes he knew how to do more.
“You know,” Fai begins, voice firmly back under his control. “You don’t really have to do this.”
Kurogane finishes a final loop of re-adjusted bandage, resolutely does not think about the warmth of Fai’s pulse beneath the delicate skin of his wrist, and starts tucking loose ends into place.
“Oh really? Does that fancy VI of yours come with an extra pair of robot arms so it can wrap this up instead?”
“What?” He shocks another tiny laugh free from Fai’s tight composure and pretends not to feel satisfied by the sound. “No. I mean—thank you, by the way. You don’t have to help me with this stupid thing either.” Fai tries to gesture with the arm while Kurogane’s not quite done tying things off. He glares the agent back into stillness and focuses on getting the dressing right. He might not be a medic, but he has enough common sense to know second degree burns need covering, and Fai is a dumbass. Of course he has to— “But I meant, you don’t have to do any of this, Lieutenant.”
He gives his work one last glance, turns Fai’s hand left and right, and checks that he hasn’t gotten any of the loops too tight before he lets the arm go. Only after he frees himself from the distraction of physical contact does he allow himself to try to decode Fai’s rambling offer. He can’t tell for sure, but is Fai suggesting…? He crosses his arms and waits for the agent to explain.
“I know you don’t like me much. I haven’t given you a lot of reasons to, but still. This assignment doesn’t match your skillset at all, and you must be bored out of your mind just staring after me all day. No good sleep at night and nothing to do but wait for an attack that doesn’t come, I mean—surely you’d rather be doing anything else.”
“I’m not watching you out of the goodness of my heart, asshole,” Kurogane snipes, trying not to think too hard about whether or how much he might or might not like the guy. (He doesn’t. Mostly. Maybe a little? Shit.) “Like you said, I got assigned.”
“Pff, sure,” the blond huffs, “You’ve seen what I can do, Kuro-san. I could get you reassigned and back among the stars as soon as you can find me a Peacekeeper computer terminal.”
He wants a flight mission. He does. He misses the stars and the rush more than anything, and every day he spends grounded on this fucking rock grates at his nerves like a goddamn sanding belt, but…
He felt something earlier in the customs cargo bay—an excitement he’d only ever found before in battle. And even in the mess that followed, some kind of warmth had lingered. He hadn’t relished watching Fai work his way through the quarry offices, but it hadn’t mattered. He hasn’t had a partner or even a real squad in so long. Maybe he’s started to appreciate the stability, even when Fai pisses him off. Besides, he just knows there’s something… interesting buried in this investigation—something he itches to figure out. And Fai poses just as much of a puzzle. Kurogane hasn’t got him solved. He wants to. He doesn’t really know the guy yet, but he has a hunch that outside the constant diversions and smiling masks he might like what he learns.
He doesn’t know how to say any of that—it all feels too genuine.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t just hear you suggest you would hack HQ.”
“Come on!” Fai whines, rolling his eyes so hard his irises nearly disappear completely. “Fine. I could just do some old-fashioned lying for you then. Would that suit you better? You take a few days off, I do all the boring shit, and we just coordinate our reports. I’ll even use your rail pass.” Kurogane bites his tongue and resists the urge to defend himself. He’s never going to live that one down.
“You want me to pretend to go with you, and let you wander around station alone?” Honest incredulity colors his tone. “You’d put yourself in the hospital and get me court martialed in a heartbeat.”
“Hey!” Fai balks, “I can take care of myself just fine!”
Images flash before Kurogane’s eyes—Fai refusing to call for backup when followed. Fai trying to touch a super-heated metal crate. Fai arguing against bandages in a dingy Mining District Alleyway.
Fai’s blasé face grinning from the other end of his handgun.
“You make phenomenally bad decisions, actually. Constantly.”
“Wh—I do not!” Fai mirrors his body language, wincing as he rests his injured arm wrong. He doesn’t seem to notice the irony. “Any trouble I get myself into, I can get out of.”
“You punched a fire.” Kurogane deadpans. Fai opens his mouth to argue, but even he can’t come up with a reasonable answer to that.
“That was an emergency,” he grumbles without any real conviction. Kurogane shakes his head in playful disbelief, smile threatening the corners of his mouth.
“Then I’ll make sure to be around for the next one.”
It comes out too soft, too fond the second it tumbles from his lips, but he can’t take it back. Blue eyes search him out and Fai stares, quiet terror written in the margins of his expression. Kurogane pays attention to that fear. He doesn’t know what triggered it, but he can read it easy enough and he knows better than to push. He offers a distraction instead. “Only a few hours left before they run the dawn lights. You might want to get what sleep you can.”
He picks up the remaining roll of bandages, wanders back to the bathroom, and starts reassembling the medical kit. His mind races with the few clues Fai has just handed him, but he can’t make them resolve into sense just yet. He wants them to. He’ll have to stick around for more.
Sorry, agent, He thinks, decision firmly made. He chooses this mission for better or worse with stubborn certainty, fully knowing he’ll probably regret it. Not getting rid of me that easy.
Chapter 7: Led
Fai doesn’t end up going back to sleep. He loses the haunted look quickly enough, but a nightmare like that’d keep anyone awake. Kurogane doesn’t blame him.
Whatever little sleep Fai manages, Kurogane gets less. Maybe he nods off for about twenty minutes just before dawn, but he doesn’t stay under for long. He can’t help it. His head still swims with speculation and the frustrated aftermath of a flashback. Besides, if he fell asleep, Fai might try to ditch him again and he doesn’t feel like spending another morning hunting the asshole down.
Fai does try to ditch him anyway, but with Kurogane still awake he doesn’t have as much time to disappear. He makes a token attempt to flee while Kurogane throws on a new change of clothes in the bathroom. Even spends a little extra effort to mess with the camera feeds, but Kurogane has the measure of him now. He rushes down three flights of stairs to the lobby and even manages to beat the agent to the street outside.
He tries not to look too smug when he holds the front door open for his runaway agent, but the answering exasperation on Fai’s face suggests he doesn’t succeed.
“If I really wanted to disappear, I could, you know.”
“I just can’t have you alerting everything in the damn Station, throwing your military ID around like an amateur trying to find me if I did.” Kurogane’s sense of accomplishment deflates just a touch. Ah. He hadn’t actually thought about that.
“Sounds like your life would be a lot easier if you let me do my damn job, then.”
“You’d think that,” Fai sighs, and finally steps through the open door. “Alright, Kuro-nosy. If you really want to sniff around that badly, I won’t stop you. You’re going to be bored out of your skull, though.”
The agent starts walking. Kurogane hesitates for just a moment, not certain whether he’s supposed to follow at a distance, but Fai rolls his eyes toward the false sky and grabs him before he can fall back. Thin fingers snag the bunched fabric of his long, messily-rolled sleeves. Kurogane quashes the unhelpful instinct telling him to break them and lets Fai pull him along.
“You’ve already thoroughly ruined my cover, Lieutenant. No sense playing subtle now.” He feels at least a little guilty for the frustration Fai exudes… just not enough to apologize. Not his fault the asshole never saw fit to explain anything or include him in any way. He’d had to catch up the only way he knew how, and it’s not like he’s had training for SF’s clandestine bullshit.
So, he doesn’t respond—just lets the warmth of Fai’s hand guide on like a lodestone. Quiet hangs between them, comfortable as they press through the morning bustle of Central NH-0N. Too comfortable. Kurogane fights the urge to sink into it and forces his thoughts back to the mission instead.
“Wanna give me any hints on where we’re headed?”
“Not particularly.” He almost expects the caginess at this point. It’s kind of… no. No! He is not allowed to find Fai’s overly secretive bullshit endearing.
“You know, you make my job far more difficult than it should be doing things this way.”
“Not, ‘good!’ It’s—it’s fucking sabotage. I could have maintained your cover better. I could have—shit, if I had advance notice where we’re going, I could requisition building blueprints for you. At the very least I could do my job and familiarize myself with emergency evac procedures for that sector—”
“Alright, Kuro-jumpy,” Fai scoffs, “and you’re going to get ahold of all that without flashing your military credentials once, huh?”
“Well... Sector evac procedures are public knowledge.” But for anything more substantial…. Yeah okay he takes Fai’s point. The agent laughs at his disgruntled expression and tugs Kurogane so close that they brush against each other with every step. Damn it—that’s distracting, but at least standing nearer to Fai keeps him further from the throng of bodies funneling toward the mag lev rail entrance.
“Think of it this way. I’m just keeping you from indulging in unhealthy paranoia.”
“Unhealth—! Agen—Fai,” Kurogane doesn’t squawk, but the sound he emits lands somewhere close. He glances through the crowd for listening ears and lowers his voice. “We literally encountered an evac situation yesterday.”
“And what do you know? We didn’t need the official sector policy to get by,” Fai teases, already in a better mood as he steps them both on to the down escalator. He reaches up with his injured arm and playfully tilts Kurogane’s glare away from himself with an over-familiar hand—back toward the flow of traffic and the approaching train platform instead. “Besides,” he hisses a scant inch from Kurogane’s ear, nearly too quiet to hear over the dull roar of humanity. “If you’re having trouble, so are they.”
He takes…. Far longer to understand the implications of Fai’s words than he likes. By the time his stumbling brain catches up, Fai has already frog marched him to a fare box for a temporary pass. Latent paranoia wakes beneath his skin like a sentient thing, crawling through his nerves. Real or imagined, the familiar sensation of enemy eyes on the back of his skull settles firmly in place. Damn it, he’s been so caught up in Fai he hasn’t been keeping up with his job. He shakes Fai loose from his sleeve before he does anything else, clenching his jaw and trying not to let too much show in his face.
“Your friend from the other day?” He asks, pretending to focus on the fare machine. He hadn’t spotted a familiar cap at all on the way in, but the existence of makeup and wardrobe changes make it a poor indicator. Fai hums noncommittally.
“Friend of a friend, I think. Couple of other guests besides, but I don’t think they know each other. It’s shaping up to be a regular party.” More than one watcher; not all from the same group, Kurogane translates, firmly quashing his building frustration.
“When did you pick them up?” How long have we been followed, he tries, and hopes his abortive attempts at double-speak make some sort of sense. Fai chuckles and scrolls through fare options for him. The agent has far less trouble multi-tasking than he does.
“Met a couple of them while I was out yesterday. Too bad we parted ways before I found you. I could have introduced you.”
“Yesterday,” Kurogane hisses, indignant. “When were you going to tell me?”
“I wasn’t. Do try to keep up.” Fai charms without missing a beat. He finishes tapping at the fares and shows Kurogane the resulting screen. It flashes in eye-rendingly bright green, ‘Select payment option.’
He hits “credit” with far more force than necessary and tries to glance around the echoing platform without making it obvious. He can’t be sure, but there’s a girl in a massive long-sleeved sweater lingering at the base of the escalator, ostensibly to fiddle with her cutesy wrist unit. A young couple dawdles indecisively over their options at fare kiosk two down from Kurogane. A businessman near the bathroom entrance carries on a lively phone conversation on an older, hand-held phone. A young man with an old world instrument has just opened his case and started setting up to busk—nothing strikes him as obviously insidious, but any one of these might be stalling to see which way Fai goes.
“How many guests are showing up today?”
“Three, I think, but one of them’s something of a wallflower.” Kurogane reaches for his wallet as he tries to unscramble that one. ‘Wallflower’? what’s that supposed to—“Please tell me you have a cash card, or something not tied to your real name you can pay with.” Fai interrupts his train of thought to chide. Kurogane bites into his own cheek until it bleeds. “Wow, you are really bad at this,” the agent laughs, navigating back to payment select and doing something with his wrist unit that makes the screen flicker for just a second.
Kurogane decides he doesn’t need to know whether Fai just stole a week’s worth of train rides from a fare machine and picks up the newly printed card without a word.
Sweater Girl meanders past the turnstile at a snail’s pace, only to pause again on the other side. He’s fairly sure he has her made. The couple at the kiosk clearly aren’t paying attention and the kid with his instrument is actually playing. Still not quite sure about Noisy Phone User, but neither he nor the girl stand close enough to hear anything he says.
“Trains have set routes. Too easy to follow. We should head back up and take a cab.” Fai pats his hand with an absent fondness, as if he were a slightly dim child, before he resumes his hold on Kurogane’s sleeve. He tugs until Kurogane falls back into the same, too-close lockstep and bustles toward the turnstile. The businessman’s phone call mysteriously ends the second they step past the gate. Fai leans in further and masks his mouth to whisper,
“I’m not trying to lose them.”
“Didn’t you just say you wanted to make it harder—”
“For any of them to head me off, yes.” Fai smirks. His eyes glint, flint hard and dangerous. “Every person trailing behind me is one less standing in my way.”
Well. That’s… a philosophy. Certainly not one any pilot still living ever followed.
“Thinking like that gets you shot in the back.”
“Lucky me I have you here to watch it then,” he snarks, and meanders toward the orange line platform with all the focus and precision of a falling leaf. Kurogane measures a deep breath, tries counting to ten, forwards and backwards and then… he gives up.
He could make it a fight, but Fai will just cite his investigative authority again. Hell…. Fai offered to put him on a different assignment last night, and with all the backdoors and overrides he’s watched Fai manipulate, he believes the man could do it. If he pisses Fai off enough, he might just find himself with a new set of orders, and then what? Kurogane might be a total fish out of water on this guard detail, but he doesn’t believe for a second that any of his co-workers could do better, and some strange, stupid part of him has started worrying for Fai’s continued survival.
Fine. Whatever. They’re just letting the whole damn Neighborhood Watch track them across the station and back, apparently. Great. Kurogane keeps his peace and resigns himself to Fai’s methods and his empty chatter both.
He has no idea where the hell Fai means to lead him, but he guesses that’s the point. Doesn’t mean he has to enjoy doubling back and circling the same paths two or three times over. Of course, admittedly, the half-second of utter frustration he glimpses on sweater-girl’s face when Fai turns on his heel and pretends to be confused by the map is hilarious. Kurogane stifles even the threat of a smile. He doesn’t want to reinforce this kind of behavior. Not even when business guy copies her expression later, while Fai “looks for a bathroom,” for a solid stretch of ten minutes.
He almost doesn’t find the third watcher at all until he notices the glare of intense annoyance one middle-aged woman at the coffee kiosk shoots Fai’s way while he paces back and forth between Orange and Green train platforms. Fai catches him clocking her and flashes the most evil, self-satisfied grin Kurogane has ever seen.
Alright, so maybe it is a little funny. Kurogane swallows hard to keep the laughter bolted down and tries not to dwell on all the ways this is about to go wrong.
“Well,” Fai announces, staring up at the multi-story storage unit perched on the very edge of New Spirit district. “Not here either.”
“What’s not here?” the agent blinks, turns slowly to glance at Kurogane in surprise. What, had he not realized he was thinking out loud?
He figures Fai will ignore his questions again, but the agent surprises him.
“What I’m looking for. It isn’t here. Didn’t think it would be, but still.”
“How can you tell?” Fai just winks, and there they go—back to the more familiar ground of occlusion and avoidance. Kurogane exhales sharply through his nose and follows his charge through the wide front door of the storage office.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time in New Spirit, so he can’t say whether or not “New Spirit U-storage” typifies its sector. From what he gathers between ad placements and snatches of Peacekeeper gossip, it’s a trendy sector populated mostly by medium income housing, restaurants and entertainment, and a smattering of goods and services to make locals’ lives easier. The storage unit Fai conducts him towards should fall firmly in the latter category, but its placement strikes him as… strange, given New Spirit’s residential bent.
Its structure reaches right out to the edge of the sector, granting it access to atmospheric exit and direct-from-orbit shipping. Lots of quarry warehouses in Mining District have the same features but… those warehouses need to enable easier movement of massive, heavy ore shipments. Not furniture and personal effects…
It’s…. it’s probably nothing. Customs maintains a firm hold on all incoming goods. Nothing makes it in or out of orbit without passing through the spaceport first, with or without access to orbital shipping lanes. …but if he were a smuggler interested in avoiding red tape, maybe a place like this would make the most sense to try his luck with first.
Whatever. He can’t be the first Peacekeeper to notice the oddity. Someone must have investigated it by now. Doesn’t matter to Kurogane. With his usual array of missions, he doesn’t personally have any reason to care unless pirates start trying to strafe orbital shipping carriers again.
“Alright, so it’s not here,” Kurogane grouches while they glide in to the office area. He can scarcely force himself to look it over. Over the last two days, he’s seen enough white-washed sterile shipping offices full of tired, overworked staff to last a lifetime. “Why are we then?”
“Oh come on, Kuro-silly,” Fai tuts, leaning far too close to murmur at Kurogane’s side. He can feel the heat of the agent’s breath against his neck with every word. “You know it isn’t as simple as that. The shipment isn’t here, but there’s more to find in the space it should inhabit. Was it ever here in the first place? Did it move recently? Where was it shipped from? Where is it now?—so many unknowns. Besides! We have our entourage to think of.”
The ‘entourage.’ Right. Kurogane chances a glance behind himself and tries to spot their temporary “friends.” He finds Sweater Girl first. She seems like an amateur—stuck too close behind them all the way from Central station. Even if Fai had never said a word about his watchers, Kurogane would have noticed her. Her skin pales a few shades as she gets a good look at the office front and she darts away while he watches, fingers flying across her too-cute wrist-unit interface. Interesting.
He doesn’t see Mr. Phonecall, but he thinks the asshole traded off with an older vagabond somewhere mid-line. Either way, he glimpses neither man. Maybe they’ve already peeled away.
The woman from the café… She outpaces Fai’s other watchers easily. He doesn’t know what method she’s using to follow them. She keeps disappearing, once for a whole thirty minutes of walking through New Spirit, only to reappear the next time he rounds a sector block—it’s uncanny. He doesn’t see her at the moment, but without understanding the source of her capabilities, he doesn’t know whether that means anything.
He wants desperately to ask Fai who they are, or why they’re so interested in the investigation, but he knows even if Fai feels like explaining they can’t talk out in the open like this. He has to rely on what little he can put together for himself. And with the few clues he has…. Yeah, he’s got nothing.
“Welcome to U-Storage. C-can I help you?” The timid sounding young man currently manning the counter interrupts his thoughts. Kurogane’s gaze returns to the monotony of white office space. He stares the tall, auburn-haired desk-worker down. A pinned nametag on the guy’s front collar reads “Ascot” in blocky letters. He blinks nervously back behind long bangs.
“You certainly can,” Fai simpers with a winning smile, and Kurogane steps back to lean against the wall and wait. He’s learned the drill after yesterday’s office visits. Fai talks a mile a minute and distracts or charms the front desk staff while his VI gathers whatever it can from nearby computer systems. Then, Fai will either leave to try elsewhere, or he’ll scheme, hack, and flirt his way into a restricted area.
(Kurogane will never admit as much, but the way Fai reads people and plays them without hesitation both impresses and terrifies him)
In less than ten minutes, Fai convinces poor Ascot that he’s a customer who hasn’t visited in years, here to check on a few things he wants to bring over to a new apartment. “I still have the code to my personal unit, you see, but you know how moving is. I can’t find the damn building access card anywhere.” Ascot charges a moderate card replacement fee, which Fai… probably pays? And before Kurogane can even start to relax, they’re off again, strolling through the previously locked doors without issue.
“You are a menace,” he declares, already scanning the hallway for points of entry and potential camera placements. A simple layout meets his scrutiny. Storage doors line both sides of the hall, monotony broken only by a broad elevator at the center of the street-side wall. Far in the distance, the corridor veers sharply to the right. He theorizes it might lead to the orbital shipping access area. Most places with orbital shipping have to maintain giant cargo bays capable of receiving and launching orbital rockets. This building only has twelve stories. Like as not, it has an orbital cargo entrance on each floor.
Kurogane finishes his evaluation, glances back to Fai and finds the blond beaming at him mischievously.
“I am not A Menace! I’m…” he looks back down at his wrist unit, which helpfully chirps,
Must be the sleep deprivation, but Kurogane can’t help smiling even as he scoffs at the stupid joke. And yeah, that “VI” still has him wary, but he doesn’t know enough about programs to know why. No sense worrying over it.
“Alright then, Okiura. Where to?”
“Good question.” Fai stares down the hallway, leading Kurogane towards a wide elevator at its midpoint. “I’ve stalled for you enough; finished decrypting that data yet?”
“So bossy.” Fai-the-VI sighs, and he—he’s already decided not to think about it. He won’t—is it programed to complain? “I hope you recognize how much trouble that was. I had to overclock all my processing units to estimate the parts that burned off. I’m going to need maintenance.”
“Wow, you’re talkative today,” Fai muses, gaze flickering from his noisy wrist unit to Kurogane’s determined disinterest. That’s a tell if he’s ever seen one, but—Nope. He’s not. Going to think. About it.
“I have to get my fun in before you silence me again,” the program sasses, but Fai’s wrist unit screen interface lights up with marching lines of text anyway. The agent looks like he wants to argue, but whatever he reads distracts him before he manages the words.
“Okay,” he mumbles, “tenth floor.” Fai hits the button to call the elevator and they wait for it in silence. Not a soul stirs in the empty hall. Nothing so much as chirps, but Kurogane can’t help looking over his shoulder every other breath all the same. Maybe it’s the incomprehensible wrist unit, or the stress of sneaking around, or the knowledge that factions with unknown intentions know exactly where they are, but… unease sinks deeper into Kurogane’s bones with every passing second.
Hunted, he realizes as they file into the enclosed space of the elevator. Feels like something’s looking for them.
“Was the data too corrupted to narrow it down to a specific unit?”
“That thing was burnt past all recognition. You’re lucky I managed to extrapolate the goddamn building.” They must be talking about the kiosk at customs. He vaguely remembers Fai scanning it what feels like an eternity ago, but it had only been yesterday.
The elevator walls loom too close, and Kurogane hasn't had trouble with enclosed metal spaces in a while, but with his instincts singing danger he feels like a mouse caught voluntarily in a trap.
“Fa—Okiura.” He interrupts, barely remembering to use the fake name just in case. Fai’s paranoia is wearing off on him, and he has more than enough of his own. “Keep your head on a swivel up there. Something’s…. I don’t know, just—”
“Ah.” The agent agrees, tossing a smile of reassurance in Kurogane’s direction. “Wallflower’s still following us then.”
“The middle-aged lady with the long, dark hair?” The one Kurogane couldn’t figure out, who kept disappearing and turning up without pattern. “She’s Talented.” He says it with a capital letter, and Kurogane is struck by the distant memory of buzzing power caged in the form of a tiny girl.
“Psy—?” he starts to ask, but Fai elbows him lightly with his bad arm, winces, and holds a finger to his lips.
“We’ll worry about her later. Fai? You know what to do?”
“Yes,” the VI manages to imitate exasperation with perfect accuracy. “I’m not stupid, Y—”
The elevator doors chime and the digital voice cuts itself off. Fai shoots it a poisonous glare for reasons Kurogane doesn’t currently have the mental energy to examine. Whatever that… “Wallflower” woman could do, Kurogne can’t shake the feel of impending doom. He follows the agent out of the elevator onto floor ten completely on edge. His hand drifts to his side, fingers itching to draw his handgun just for something to grasp.
Tension hangs in the air, but if Fai feels any of it, he grants no indication. He simply heads to the furthest end of the tenth floor and starts systematically scanning every single lock door too door.
“Keep an eye out,” He hisses needlessly at Kurogane, and focuses entirely on whatever the hell he’s doing. Kurogane does, wandering in the opposite direction towards the bend in the hall and, in theory, the entrance to orbital shipping. They work in silence—Fai scans his way down three fourths of the hall before the muffled sound of a distant conversation reaches Kurogane’s straining ears. He can’t make out what they’re saying, but he hears more than one distinct voice, barely echoing around the corner. The sound doesn’t move as he listens; they must be standing still. He turns on a heel and tries to catch Fai’s attention.
“Shit. You might have been right. This one goes to one of their shell companies.” The VI announces. Its soft, digital tone doesn’t carry, but with unknowns around the corner and a potential rogue psychic to look out for, Kurogane doesn’t think they should push their luck.
“Damn it,” Fai swears. “Alright, open it.”
“Hey,” Kurogane whispers, unable to catch Fai’s attention with his noiseless gestures. “There’s someone here. Around the corner.”
“Interesting,” Fai acknowledges his warning, but he lowers his voice so far Kurogane can scarcely hear it. Abandoning the locked door, he taps something at his wrist, snags Kurogane’s sleeve again without warning, and steps silently towards the echo of muted sound.
Sure, why not, Kurogane thinks, slowly growing numb to Fai’s foolhardy decisions. Just walk toward the danger. That’s going to turn out well.
Chapter 8: Suffocated
“Cat, come on. This is ridiculous even for you.” Just as Kurogane thought, the end of the hall opens onto U-storage’s Orbital shipping area. It’s a cavernous, twelve story room with a wide balcony “shelf” on each floor. Containers dot each level in varying states of loading completion. Giant machine arms, obviously intended to lift and place shipping containers, remain humming and folded near the ceiling. He assumes they must respond to the control kiosk, its interface illuminated near the door.
“It is not! Listen, Dou—”
“Ugh, fine, Arrow. I know what I saw.” Cat and Arrow both stand on the tenth-floor shelf, arguing loud enough to carry. A half empty shipping container blocks Arrow from view, but Kurogane catches a glimpse of Cat before he follows Fai, darting away from the exit to crouch behind a thick, spooled chain. It’s fucking Sweater Girl, no question.
Arrow snarks something in return too soft-spoken to make out from this distance. Kurogane watches Fai’s face and sees the exact instant he makes the terrible decision to creep closer.
No—! he’s too slow to snag Fai’s wrist before the agent dashes soundlessly forward and slips into the empty crate just next to Cat and presumably Arrow. This is a bad idea. This is an absolutely, phenomenally bad idea. Kurogane takes a deep breath, holds it, and sneaks after Fai as quickly and quietly as he can. He feels like a lumbering elephant in comparison to the silent way the agent moves, but if Arrow or Cat hear anything, they give no indication.
“I followed them here! I saw them come in! It’s the tall, dark haired guy!” Kurogane nearly trips into the open container. Fai only just manages to steady him in time. He lets Fai’s hands tug him into the shadows beside a few smaller, unidentified boxes and a crumpled heap that might be a tarp. “He’s definitely the same guy Spider saw bossing people around at Central station. He’s a Peacekeeper. I know he is.”
The wordless look of “told you so” Fai stares him down with almost physically stings. Kurogane looks at literally everything else he can to avoid the man’s eye. Not much to see inside a shipping container, though. It’s dark. There are boxes. (Shit. He needs to get out of here. There’s not enough space, not enough—)
He clenches his jaw till it hurts and remembers to exhale. He’s fine.
“Cat.” This close, they can hear Arrow’s calmer voice clearly as he deadpans, “The station hasn’t even decided whether or not to ban the ads yet. Do you really think the Peacekeepers are planning a secret raid on our promotional materials?”
“No!” She hisses, sounding very much like her namesake. “I don’t give a shit about the stupid merchandise. I’m worried they might know about—”
“Shh. Do you feel that?” Arrow’s voice cuts through the quiet, his footsteps trailing somewhere to the right. Kurogane should worry about the approaching unknown, but he can’t, because he does ‘feel that.’ The discomfiting malevolence still hanging over them like a pall intensifies to a wailing crescendo, overwhelming him and interrupting Kurogane’s ability to focus on anything at all. He reaches for his weapon, certain something has him in the crosshairs and then—
He forgets himself.
It’s the strangest thing. Power creeps through his head like a wave of white noise, sweeping everything outside of itself away. He can still see, he’s still conscious, but nothing makes sense.
At his side, he feels Fai tense, but he can’t rearrange enough lines of logic to understand why. The fragments of his mind break apart, thoughts suddenly the wrong shape to fit together. Kurogane blinks placidly, barely able to understand the glimpse a feminine figure near the entrance, back through the open container door. That’s interesting. Should he worry about that? He feels like he was supposed to care, but he can’t remember why.
Fai lunges for the entrance, mere moments too late. Long, dark hair shifts across the stranger’s shoulders as she reaches up and presses something on the crate control panel.
The vision of her smirking, painted lips shutters behind the swing of a closing door, and with nothing more than a single key touch, he and Fai find themselves locked inside.
“What a bitch,” Fai rasps in the dark.
“No kidding,” his familiar VI agrees, and Fai’s wrist unit lights up like a flashlight. Pale, white-blue light illuminates the crate interior, casting strange shadows on the thick metal walls. Fai rushes to the door release, trying it forcefully to no avail. It locks digitally from the outside.
Kurogane can’t do anything but watch. Cut off from the source, he no longer feels like he can’t think in a straight line, but his head still rings with… whatever the hell just happened. He tries to move, but his limbs don’t respond to his wishes. What was—what was he supposed to be doing?
“Come on, Lieutenant, I need you to snap out of it. It’s just a little mind trick. Surely you’ve seen it before.”
No. He hadn’t, actually. Outside that single mission with the little girl, he’d had zero contact with the psychic side of the war. Most pilots had avoided it, he thinks. Shit, did ground units have to deal with people like Wallflower all the time? Someone who could reach into people’s heads and scatter thoughts like a mental frag grenade? “Lieutenant!” Fai shouts, and the urgency in his voice finally pushes Kurogane away from that strange, distant headspace.
“Sorry,” he slurs. Even his mouth feels numb—like waking from a deep sleep. “Just—give me a second.”
The container resounds with a bang, metallic thudding on either side before the floor begins to move. Fai manages to keep his feet, but Kurogane knows better than to try. He takes a knee, leans hard against the vibrating wall.
“I don’t think you have a second.”
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Fai paces, impossibly even-footed as the cargo crate swings. Impossible to hear anything from the exterior given the level of temperature and pressure control necessary for orbital shipping, but Kurogane judges from the sway of the floor that Miss Wallflower has them caught by a crane. “Come on, Lieutenant, pull it together. Can you shoot the locking mechanism?”
“I can hit it, sure,” he scoffs, adrenaline numbing him to his own panic, “and then the bullet will ricochet off the orbit grade metal and probably kill one of us.”
“Great. Well, that’s a fantastic plan B. Fai, can you—”
“Working on it,” the VI blurts back. If Kurogane didn’t know for a fact it’d be impossible to get reception inside a shipping container, he would have mistaken the program for a real person. “We really need to figure out that wireless signal upgrade. I can just—barely talk to the lock on this thing.”
The container hits something and jerks to a stop, interior walls resounding with the force and enough noise to vibrate their goddamn bones. Kurogane shakes his head, but his ears don’t stop ringing, even as the vibrations fade.
For a blessed second, everything stays still. If he were less paranoid, he might think they’d come to a stop.
But within the space of a few breaths, the ground starts tipping. Smaller boxes start sliding first as the floor increases in incline. The ground shifts, steeper and steeper at a consistent pace and Kurogane knew this was a bad idea, because from what he can put together, the fucking container’s loading up to launch.
“Fai!” The agent sounds increasingly panicked. Kurogane can’t blame him, but he doesn’t have the luxury of doing the same. Most of the shit trapped inside with them hasn’t been bolted down yet and these containers go completely vertical to load on their shuttles properly. He dodges a falling crate, doesn’t watch it slam against something smaller somewhere behind them. Instead, he keeps his eyes trained on the looming boxes still stuck by friction up above. He barely pulls Fai out of the way when one skids rattling towards his knees. “Any second now would be—!” The blonde’s voice cuts off with a yelp as the ground finally hits too steep a grade to stand on and they slide down the increasingly vertical surface toward the still locked door.
They land mostly intact—even keep to their feet, balanced atop shifting boxes and debris. Unfortunately, the last of the heavy boxes finally unglues itself from place and starts tumbling down. Kurogane sees its trajectory, knows he can’t get himself and Fai out of the way in time. He just—reacts. Heart racing, he yanks Fai to his chest and shields him against the wall instead, barely able to bring one arm up and cover the back of his head in time.
The crate avoids squashing them both on its way down, but Kurogane catches one falling corner across the shoulders for his trouble. His mind blanks beneath the bright, blinding agony, and that’s going to be a fractured scapula if he’s ever felt one, but at least it’s not his spine or Fai’s head. He can’t afford to think about it now. He has to—
Everything around them hums with a resonance that soon escalates to a roar, and with scarcely a moment to regain their breath they rocket upwards, pressed to the floor with acceleration. They don’t speak—can’t, really. It takes all of Kurogane’s focus just to keep his body locked in place, keep Fai safely pinned to the container wall. The boxes under their feet shift, debris jostling as they no doubt rocket far past New Spirit U-storage and out into orbit. Kurogane weathers a few more new bruises and keeps himself in the moment, not daring to think about what might happen next.
It feels like forever, but really, it only takes the space of a few minutes before the horrible sound of a roaring engine peters to a stop. The floor falls away as the Station’s gravitic field loses the last of its hold, and in the strange light of Fai’s wrist unit they drift among the un-secured cargo like gently swirling particles of a snow globe.
Kurogane holds perfectly still, hand pressed tight to the flat of Fai’s back as his mind struggles to process—so keyed up he doesn’t even realize he’s supposed to let go until Fai taps at his arm, just once. Right. Kurogane forces the uncooperative limb down and away and tries not to think about the screaming ache that stabs through his nerves as he moves it.
“So…” Fai-the-VI shatters the silence, startling both human occupants of the unfortunate space-faring shuttle. “The good news is, I got the door unlocked! Bad news is… you probably shouldn’t open it.”
“Well,” Fai announces to the floating dark, “Fuck.”
And yeah, that about sums it up.
Fai and his virtual self argue over… velocities and collision vectors, and whether or not they can afford to let the shuttle drift until authorities notice. He gathers from their… very lively discussion, that they have an hour or two to hope that peacekeeper forces spot the unmanned, unscheduled shuttle drifting off course through the orbital lanes before they veer into one of NH-0N’s main communication satellite hubs. Both Fai and his VI agree on this point but can’t come to a consensus on what to do about it.
Kurogane thinks he has an idea… just not one he likes much.
They start another round of arguments, rapid fire, too difficult to parse with pain radiating from his shoulder like a mini sun, lack of sleep tugging at his eyelids and the drowsy aftermath of adrenaline rush weighing on his every limb. He’d chide his companion for wasting oxygen, but if they’ve only got a couple of hours anyway it won’t matter.
“You know,” Kurogane interrupts whatever Fai means to say next, floating somewhere above the agent’s wispy blond hair. Fai looks up, craning his neck to see Kurogane folded and “sitting” on the ceiling. “When you offered to get me back to the stars, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
The wrist unit fuzzes with a strange sort of static he imagines might serve as a snicker. Fai only stares, flabbergasted expression immensely more amusing from upside down.
“We are trapped in a tiny metal box, hurtling on an unstable orbital path that will only end upon our collision with an important telecommunications satellite, and now is the time you finally find a sense of humor.”
“Is there a better time?” He jokes back, uses the surface beneath his feet to flip around and push away. He trails a hand on the wall to slow his descent and slides to a halt across from his unhappy companion with practiced ease, ignoring the glare Fai spares him.
To his surprise, Fai had proven remarkably bad at Zero-G movement. He didn’t seem to know the first thing about controlling his momentum in a frictionless environment, and that—well. It’s funny. But also, confusing—Special Forces or no, he doesn’t think anyone can get out of basic without Zero-G training.
Doesn’t matter now. Won’t matter, if he can’t get them out of this. He doesn’t trust the Peacekeepers to save them. Whether or not his co-workers are incompetent doesn’t matter. The moment someone notices the shuttle’s trajectory, tries and fails to hail a driver, and realizes it’s not going to stop? Yeah, they’ll shoot this thing first and ask questions later.
He glances at his own clothes, suddenly glad for the long sleeves. He unrolls them, heedless of any complaints from his damaged shoulder, but he’s too tall. The hem can’t cover his hands. Kurogane remembers the tarp floating through space with them and makes for that instead.
“What are you doing?” Fai watches him navigate in Zero-G with no small jealousy, blue gaze skeptical as Kurogane fishes the mass of treated canvas from the rest of the debris. He examines it in the limited light, hoping it won’t just melt into his skin. Doesn’t look like it will…
“Trying not to burn myself too badly,” he echoes Fai’s unhelpful explanation from yesterday, heedless of the wary stare he earns for himself. Kurogane can’t just tear the damn thing, not without gravity and leverage to help him at least, so he fishes around his pockets and frees a standard issue knife instead.
In the suspicious quiet, the sound of ripping fabric seems to echo as his knife glides easily through the warp of the canvas. Kurogane frees two long, wide strips and starts wrapping his hands and wrists, careful not to obstruct his unit’s screen. His right shoulder does not want to cooperate, but he makes it work.
“Hey, Fai2.0,” he calls. Fai-the-agent’s face flickers through a gauntlet of expressions far too complicated for him to sort through with his shoulder blaring over his every conscious thought. The wrist unit speaker buzzes back to life.
“You said you got the container door unlocked. Are you able to open the shuttle doors from here too?”
“N-ooo,” the digital voice drags out the word, emoting just like a real person, and…. Son of a bitch, he’s just going to have to admit to himself that’s a bona fide illegal AI, isn’t he. “I could hardly reach the lock just on the other side of the door. I’d need to be closer to mess with the shuttle cab. Why?” He ties a make-shift hand-wrap off with a tight knot. He can worry over the implications of SF officers carting illegal tech around on NH systems and his status as a Peacekeeper later.
“How quickly could you get the door open?”
“I—don’t know. Uh. If it’s a standard cab and that bitch didn’t do anything strange to it…. Three seconds?”
“Kuro-crazy, what are you planning?”
“Great,” Kurogane ignores the blonde’s questions, folds his knife back into a closed position and tosses it Fai’s way. He watches the agent scramble to catch it, flips a second time and starts shoving his way up toward the container door. “Do you need to be on Fai’s unit, or can you operate from mine? I could pull down my firewall if you need to—”
“Don’t bother, I’m already here.” The voice resounds from his own unit instead and Kurogane is not at all surprised. He figured Fai might have set up a backdoor for himself when he tossed Kurogane the hotel camera access.
“Lieutenant!” Fai barks, accidentally throwing his weight too far forward and taking a spin towards the wall before he can stop himself. “Ugh! Damnit—fucking Zero-G—” He stops twisting eventually, perching with two limbs pressed in a corner like a human joist. Kurogane can’t help but find it a little endearing, and he knows—yeah. He has to be the one to do this. Fai can’t navigate quickly enough to live. “What the hell are you doing?” he growls, the vitriol in his words somewhat muddled by the hilarity of his predicament.
“Saving your ass.” Kurogane keeps his tone blasé and tries not to think too hard about what comes next. He’s done this before… once. Landed himself in the hospital for… fuck, way too long. But he doesn’t see another way out for them. “Now listen, I’m going to count to five. On five, I’ll open the container door.”
“You should be fine,” he shouts over Fai’s worried exclamation, “Because these things all have pressure leak protections. Stay near the furthest end from the front, make sure you have as little air in your lungs as possible, and don’t breathe in until the door is shut again, understand?”
“No! I do not understand!” the agent’s eyes glitter with his anger, strange pale-blue light of his wrist unit making him look like a ghostly apparition. “You can’t go out there, have you lost your mind? You’d be dead in—”
“Fifteen seconds. Roughly. Or, well—it takes a minute and a half to actually die, but you pass out in about fifteen seconds and without a rescue that’s as good as dead.” Kurogane rattles off, watching that unknown fear from last night creep back into the edges of Fai’s expression. Strangely, the sight of Fai’s terror only pushes his own further away.
“Holy shit,” Fai-the-VI chirps from Kurogane’s wrist, and wow, that’s going to take some getting used to. “You’re batshit insane. No wonder they picked you to babysit us.” An interesting choice of words. He’ll have to keep them in mind if he makes it out of this alive.
“You can’t—” Fai takes a deep breath and masters his face and emotions both, “Lieutenant, you will remain inside the vehicle. That’s an order.”
“Sorry, agent. The Commander will tell you, I’m not very good with those.” Fai stares, like he can’t believe this is happening. “One… Two…”
“Don’t forget you can—” He distantly hears the AI’s voice murmuring from Fai’s wrist, but he can’t focus on the words. He has only so much left after the shoulder fracture and he needs every iota of his strength to get through this. It’s going to really, really suck.
“Four…Five.” Kurogane exhales every particle of air he physically can before he hits the release. The door doesn’t open as wide as it should thanks to the AI’s precision control, but he doesn’t have time to stick around and see it close. He’s out and off, very, very carefully swinging himself into the abyss with nothing to cling to but the container’s exterior handholds.
Fifteen seconds. Fifteen seconds are all he has before he’s as good as dead, maybe less than that if he’s unlucky. He can already feel the bruises forming as his blood deoxygenizes, tries to flee his veins. One hand over the other, climbing toward the cab, and he fucking hopes the AI managed to unlock it because the light of the distant star bears down and the metal beneath his hands radiates enough heat to burn at a touch. The tarp-wraps probably do something but not much. Pain with every drifting motion forwards, but he has no other recourse.
Six seconds passed and he can already feel himself going sluggish. His vision isn’t working quite right—the blanket of stars swirls with every blink of his burning eyes, streaking trails of white and blue dancing over everything. He doesn’t stop to wonder at it—doesn’t have the time. He can’t feel the burn of the sun against his neck any longer. Is he already losing it? He can’t—not yet. He has to get to the shuttle cab. He has to—
Nine seconds. Kurogane powers through on nothing but stubborn willpower and the idea that he knows he can do this—he’s done it before. He has to do it now. He reaches the top of the container—grips the door handle—please, AI Fai—and then—
He’s not sure.
He remembers feeling the door move under his hand, but whatever happened afterwards does not register. He simply… looks up and finds himself gulping for air in the driver’s seat of a cargo shuttle. Whether he passed out, or oxygen starvation left a blank spot in his memory, he can’t say for sure. He doesn’t think it particularly matters.
“Lieutenant,” the familiar digital voice calls, “You need to snap out of it. I can’t pilot for you. Your wrist unit doesn’t have enough processing power.” He sounds properly disgusted with the situation. Kurogane wastes precious air to laugh.
“Yeah? That’s too bad,” he gasps, whole body smarting with pain. He forces his arms to move, brings his hands to the controls. Behind clumsy wrappings, the burns cracking his palms hurt bad enough to bring tears to his eyes. Fuck. He’s not going to be able to hold the fire-punching incident over Fai’s head any longer, is he?
Still, bad as it is, it could be worse. Could be a lot worse. He can still see, and his tongue doesn’t feel like it boiled. And aside from his hands, he can’t actually feel the full body burn he expects. That’s… Had they been closer to atmosphere than he thought? Had the distance from NH-0N’s star simply saved him from a worse dose of sunlight?
“Still here, mostly,” he reassures the voice, takes a deep breath, and starts figuring out the controls. Doesn’t look much like his ship, but he knows enough about flight systems in general to get the gist. He thinks they’ll be just fine from here, as long as— “Did the cargo door close properly?” Kurogane can’t help asking, because, Is Fai okay? Sounds too personal. The voice at his wrist hears it anyway.
“That idiot is fine,” he grumps, “but thank you for looking out for him. He’ll never say so, but you’re… not terrible.”
“High praise.” Kurogane tries not to laugh. Laughing hurts too badly, and shit, maybe Fai had a point about his backwards sense of humor.
He makes sure to flip on the comms first and tune to the most common hailing frequency just in case. Then he tries to press the auxiliary engine switch…
His shoulder absolutely refuses to rotate in that direction and Kurogane’s vision blanks for another precious second.
“Tell me what button you need pushed, and I can hack it. You’ve got enough processing power here for simple tasks like that.” The voice on his wrist chides. Kurogane keeps still and breathes through his nose until dark spots stop dancing in front of the controls.
“There’s an ignition trigger on panel A-7. Gotta flip it for access to—”
“Auxiliary engines engaging.”
“Thanks,” He mumbles, not used to working with any kind of co-pilot, let alone an illegal AI. He tries to put it out of his mind, sliding it aside with all the aches and pains wailing for his attention. Fly first, hurt later. A few more flipped switches and he’ll have the shuttle nicely back in a proper lane. He just has to figure out—Just has to think past everything needling at him long enough to determine—
Ugh. Fuck this.
“Hey, you’re a computer, right?”
“How nice of you to notice.” He doesn’t know how the AI manages to voice sarcasm so well, but it really copies Fai’s annoyed and joking tone with terrifying accuracy. He wonders how they managed that. Did Fai record himself to give the program audio samples? Kurogane has no idea how AIs are made, actually. No one is supposed to know.
Doesn’t matter, not the point—
“So you can figure out, based on whatever the hell you two suspect about various cargo carriers and how much oxygen Fai has left to breathe back there, where the fuck I should land this thing, right?” The digital voice doesn’t answer for a spate of seconds, and Kurogane starts to grow nervous, hyper aware of his own ragged breathing and the agony of… everything right now. He should just pull himself back into the moment and figure this out on his own. Since when has he depended on anyone other than himself? He has to keep going. Has to be strong enough to—
“Kuro-dummy, VI’s don’t suspect things. They estimate probabilities.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, next time I see a real VI,” because really. The voice at his wrist expresses emotions, and has picked up Fai’s ridiculous nicknaming habits, and Kurogane isn’t actually dumb.
“Oh no,” the AI whines, “I like you.”
Why is that an ‘oh no’ situation? he thinks wryly to himself, even as he rolls his eyes. This digital version of Fai somehow manages to act even more petulant than the agent himself. Maybe it’s a side effect of digital intelligence?
Maybe none of that matters right now, and at this rate he’s going to pass out before he figures out a way back to Station.
“Just—tell me where to go, dumbass,” he masters his distracted mind enough to demand. With a simulated sigh, Fai-the-AI does just that.
Chapter 9: Injured
He worries a little how Fai will fare when the cargo shifts again at re-entry. He needn’t bother. Fai busts out of the container before he even completes landing procedures, and Kurogane has to hurry and cut the stabilizers before Fai walks straight into blasting heat. He finishes powering down, glances at the agent standing livid just outside the cab window and… nearly passes out then and there.
“Whoa! Hey, big guy, you have to get out of here first. Nap after.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, and disengages the cab door. Maybe there’s something to this co-pilot shit. It’s nice, someone there to keep him from losing it.
“Of all the idiotic, hare-brained schemes I have ever seen—” Fai’s rant washes over him without registering. “I can’t believe you. The both of you. You could have miscalculated and launched your idiot self to the stars—you could have—!”
Kurogane doesn’t so much step away from the cab as pour out of it, every inch of him protesting the movement as he stumbles to the ground. Fai cuts himself off with an amusing squeak of surprise, fumbling to catch the pilot before he slams into the tarmac. They both wince when Fai’s bandaged arm braces Kurogane’s bad shoulder and damn, they’re a matched pair, aren’t they?
“You can rant at us later. I don’t think he’s paying attention right now anyway.”
“Shit. The landing was so smooth, I thought—”
“Yeah, he’s a damn good pilot with the pain tolerance of a god, but he’s just been barely holding it together.”
“’m right here,” he mumbles. Neither Fai pays his protest any mind.
“He….He should go to the hospital.”
“He should, but what if—?” Right. The hospital. And medical leave. And mission reassignments. And maybe some other Peacekeeper tied to Fai—someone who takes exception to his “VI” friend. Illegal or no, the AI saved their asses up there, and Kurogane’s not about to betray that debt. Besides, he’s starting to get the hang of some of Fai’s clandestine operation logic. If Fai wants fewer people notified about military involvement in his investigation, admitting Kurogane to the hospital under his Military ID will help him not at all.
“I don’t need it.”
The voices arguing over his head pause, both communicating utter confusion through their silence.
“You don’t—Lieutenant. You can’t stand, and you are so covered in bruising, you are actually purple. You’ll forgive me if I disregard your opinion on the matter.”
“Didn’t burn though.”
“What?” the digital voice splits, playing over both unit speakers in synch, and wow that sounds odd.
“Last time, I fried like bacon in a pan. Hands are pretty fucked up, but somehow the rest of me’s not. And that’s the part—that’s the only part that really needs a hospital. Breathing’s okay. Heart rate’s… good enough. Bruises—they heal.” He doesn’t mention the possibility of star radiation, or his fractured shoulder. Radiation’s one thing, but they’d just put the shoulder in a sling anyway. He can do that himself. “Even the bruises aren’t as bad as they should be. Kinda weird, actually.”
Fai’s silence strikes him as suspicious, but the AI’s answering screech of, “What do you mean, ‘last time?’” keeps him from dwelling on it too long.
In the end, Kurogane’s firm insistence wins out. He promises they can take him to a hospital if he shows any signs of a fever, the same promise he extracted from Fai yesterday. With a pinched expression of concern, Fai pulls him stumbling from the nearly abandoned shipping yard of an asteroid mining conglomerate slated to dissolve this year.
They parody the act they played Sunday night, this time with Kurogane hanging off Fai like a man who’s had too much to drink. His hands are a mess, but no one comes near enough to get a good look at the burnt canvas or his wounds beneath. Long sleeves hide his violently abused skin for the most part, but the burst veins in his face have no cover. He slumps forward, keeps his brow pressed to Fai’s shoulder as much as he can instead and tries very hard not to focus on it.
Somewhere in the back of his head, he can’t help thinking… if Fai wanted to, he’d have no trouble ditching his assigned watcher now. Kurogane can scarcely keep himself balanced, half-upright in the corner of the mag-lev train. Fai could just leave him behind, drop him off for some Good Samaritan to find and disappear in the meantime. He doesn’t. Instead, he spends all his effort trying to keep Kurogane conscious and away from further injury.
He can’t trust it. He hasn’t trusted anyone except maybe the Commander since his home got blasted, but… more and more, he wants to. He wants to lean in and let it be real, rest his weight on someone else’s shoulders out of more than just necessity. Wants Fai’s hand at his waist to mean something more than an easy cover.
Maybe that spacewalk scrambled his brain. Kurogane takes his alien loneliness and bundles it back up, shoves it deep under the pain of his body. He can focus on that. Far safer.
“If you ever try to tell me I make bad decisions again, I will know to ignore your opinion.” Fai grouses, somewhere between the train and the hotel. Kurogane laughs, and that still hurts. He can’t tell if his lungs are messed up, or the shoulder is worse than he thought.
It was an emergency, he thinks, a mimicry of Fai’s argument not even a full day ago. Too bad he doesn’t have enough energy left to pick his head up and give voice to the joke.
The agent isn’t strictly wrong though. Kurogane hasn’t played this mission very smart. He should have reported Fai back to HQ for at least a dozen different things and he hasn’t. Shouldn’t have put so much aside just because this investigation is the most interesting thing to happen to him since the war. Never should have followed the idiot into an open shipping container at the very least. Maybe he could have taken Wallflower out from the sidelines and radioed for help with the shuttle.
Thing is… except maybe for that last one, he doesn’t regret a bit of it.
He really is losing it.
“Come on, not much further,” Fai coaxes, easing Kurogane through the hotel hall toward their room door. The memory of danger unsticks his throat and he tugs at Fai’s good wrist, slowing their pace to a crawl.
“You have to—they know we’re staying here. Did you check the room?”
“I’m watching the camera feed, but it’s fine, Kuro-paranoid. They thought they killed you in the shuttle. They won’t bother to double kill you at the hotel.” Oh. His thoughts fixate on the new information, distracting him as Fai fiddles with the room key. Unless the AI has something wrong, that made Wallflower part of whatever group followed Fai to the hotel Sunday, and therefore not whoever had planted the explosives in Customs.
Fai had called the mess at the spaceport “too careful” to match the followers’ MO. Wallflower’s little attempt to crash a cargo shuttle into a communications satellite certainly hadn’t been. Does Kendappa know about this group? Have they been causing trouble station side this whole time and Kurogane, tied up with anti-Piracy flight missions, had never known?
And what did the whole thing have to do with Cat and Arrow, complaining about Peacekeepers at New Spirit U-Storage?
“…think he’s going into shock?”
“I’m downloading a health app to his machine—see if I can’t get his blood pressure and heart rate, and we’ll figure out where to go from there.”
“I’m fine.” He interrupts their fretting with a growl, only to realize they’ve already made it in to the room without his noticing.
“No, you really aren’t.” Fai tugs at his unmoving form, trying to guide him toward the bed, “Come on, Lieutenant, if you pass out standing up again I will take you immediately to the hospital.”
“Not a good idea though, right? Showing your hand like that with official records. Might get assigned a guard smarter than me.” Fai stares, gaze calculating as he doesn’t answer. “Figured.” Kurogane shakes Fai’s hands loose, digs deep for the last of his strength and stumbles his way to the chair.
The agent exhales with exasperation, face pressed to his hands.
“The bed, Kuro-san. Hospital or no, you’re not keeping watch tonight.”
For a second, he thinks about ignoring Fai’s frustrated concern. He doesn’t have to answer. He can play it off just as cagey as Fai does—roll his eyes and lean back in the seat and say nothing. But with every inch of him smarting, the chair proves a little more difficult to fold himself into than he hoped. And he is so tired, he just doesn’t care.
“I’ve already got enough problems to deal with. Last thing I want to do is add a nightmare to the list.” Fai’s expression suggests he doesn’t understand. Kurogane can’t hold his hand through it right now. He leans hard on the armrests as he tries to bend at the waist and feels something rip amidst the screaming pain of his hands. Warmth trickles between his over-sensitized fingers. Well. That’s not great.
“Sorry, I don’t—”
“Agent, I haven’t slept lying down without waking up to a panic attack in a decade.” At least, not without being rather heavily sedated, but that’s a whole other problem.
“Oh.” Fai fumbles, clearly out of his depth. It’d almost be funny if it weren’t so sad—both of them so incredibly awkward with human connection and stuck with each other anyway. He would laugh, but he’s too busy trying to sit in a goddamn chair.
Kurogane bites back a groan as his shoulder finally settles against the backrest, and that sucks, but he knows it hurts far less than lying flat. Every bit of him that presses against the chair throbs dully with the pain of a bruise, but he can deal with that. Only the shoulder and his hands keep stealing his breath away.
“Download finished! And… wow, your heart rate’s fast.”
“Not surprised,” he grunts, “Shit hurts.”
“I bet. Hey, Secret Agent, you probably ought to grab the first aid kit. He wasn’t kidding about the burns, but I think something’s up with his shoulder too.” Fai doesn’t need to hear it twice. He takes the exit offered, racing for the bathroom in a frantic state Kurogane could almost find endearing.
“Traitor,” he grumbles to his disembodied companion.
“Yeah, yeah. You could have said something yourself.”
“Didn’t see the point.”
“Of course not.” He wonders how a digital voice can manage to convey disdain so well. “Here. I’m setting this up to throw an alarm if your vitals go way out of wack, but I do still have an actual job to do. This storage data won’t analyze itself.” Fai-the-AI makes it all too easy to think of him as a person. He can picture the distant concern and frustrated worry on a copy of Fai’s face. Still, he has trouble comprehending the idea of a person trapped in wires, whether that voice echoes from his wrist unit or the agent’s. “He can interrupt processing for help if you two somehow manage to get into trouble in the meantime, but otherwise, I’m out for a while.”
“Got it—Thanks.” He mumbles. The AI doesn’t respond, leaves him feeling a little silly talking to thin air.
He doesn’t know what to do with himself in the quiet. Maybe he drifts for a while. He sits with his whole everything smarting—the late afternoon sky a clear, simulated blue, and loses track.
When he comes to later, it’s to screaming pain as Fai tries to tug burned, wrapped canvas free from ruined skin.
“Sorry! Sorry—shit” The agent sounds ready to bolt with anxiety, and his hands shake when they reach out for the rags again. Kurogane bites back another shout—hadn’t been aware of the first one—and tries to focus on something, anything else. “I know literally nothing about first aid. I have no idea what I’m doing, please stop me if I hurt you too badly.”
“’S fine,” Kurogane slurs, jaw clenching as Fai peels another bit away. He cracks an eye open to peer at his aching left hand, glad to see most of the wrappings unraveled and only the tail end remaining. His right palm, however, is still fully covered. Damn. Would have been nice to black out through that. Fai tugs again, gentle but insistent and Kurogane’s breath catches as it tears away. “Guess you never have much reason to patch yourself up then,” he gasps through gritted teeth, desperate for something to focus on.
“I don’t have a tendency for injury, no.”
“Hard to believe—” Another inch of fabric, another few drops of blood on the carpet. Fai’s face pales impossibly white, and it would be hilarious if it didn’t hurt so badly. “—with our track record the last two days.” A final yank, and the wrap falls to the floor. Kurogane keeps his breath even and closely measured, carefully refusing the instinct to clench his injured hand in a fist and hide the damage from view.
“Fuck,” Fai whispers to no one, fingers tracing the very edges of the damage, from the side of Kurogane’s thumb to the marred, bruise-mottled skin of his wrist.
“Sorry. It’s not pretty, huh?”
“That’s not—” the agent chokes, abruptly furious. He nearly stands from his seat—a desk chair, Kurogane realizes belatedly. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking if we waited too long to do something, HQ’d realize a rogue ship with no driver was going to strike a satellite and blast us out of the sky.” Kurogane doesn’t know how to deal with the worry of others. He’s not used to having it.
“Then why not send me? It was my mistake to pay for—I should have known Alcyone would try something—I shouldn’t have been so stupid as to give her the opportunity.” Even tripping over his own thoughts with exhaustion and barely conscious, he catches the name. Takes him a while to put two and two together and realize she must be Wallflower.
“Right. So I should have sent you out to open space as our only hope when you couldn’t even figure out how to cross the container?”
“That’s only because—!” Fai starts, but thinks better of whatever he’d wanted to say. He exhales in a rush, throwing his weight so hard into his chair that it threatens to tip backwards for a moment. “Great, okay, so I’m just the incompetent Zero-G novice too stupid to outplay Alcyone,” he fumbles with an antiseptic wipe, tugs Kurogane’s hand into a more convenient position and starts to clean. The pilot shuts his eyes tight against the burn, keeps his mind focused on the words—the words— “If that’s what you think of me, why are you still here?”
“Where was I going to go?” He laughs, and reigns in the sound when it threatens to transform to something else.
“The hospital maybe! Or a doctor—or any place, far, far away from me!” Kurogane’s teeth carve another wound into the flesh of his cheek before Fai finishes cleaning, and he can breathe. He tries to bend his mind away from the sensation, desperately wishing he’d thought to ask for pain killer first.
Fai won’t meet his eyes when he puts the wipe down and reaches out next for gauze and a clean roll of bandages.
“Hey,” Kurogane forces his voice back under his own control, breath ragged. “Yeah, walking into that crate was pretty dumb. But if you’re stupid, so am I.” The agent freezes mid-motion, as if the idea honestly hadn’t occurred to him. “As far as that goes, we’re both idiots. We both knew she was there. Maybe I didn’t really understand her brand of… Talent. But I made that decision just as much as you.”
Fai scowls, his wrapping clumsy, “It’s not the same.”
He judges from the stiff line of Fai’s lips he won’t get an answer—didn’t think he would. Somewhere behind the pain, he starts to form his own theory, but… it’s too wild to give voice to. Maybe with his thoughts clear of agony he’ll realize it for a farce.
The agent works in frustrated quiet, messily wrapping the hand according to no method Kurogane’s ever seen. He keeps his silence as he sets it aside and tries to reach out for the matching injury of his right—“Shit,” Kurogane hisses before he can stop himself, shoulder lighting up like a blaze as the arm moves just the wrong way.
“What did I do?”
“Nothing—just, I messed up my shoulder. It’s fine; finish with this first.” He has difficulty finding the words, right arm held stiffly out front. He can’t bring it closer to Fai, so the agent scoots his chair instead, and suddenly Fai’s face hovers right in front of his own.
“Right. Fai mentioned. When did you find time to ruin your shoulder?” His fine blond hair, barely restrained in a low ponytail glints white-gold against the artificial sunset. Blue gaze hard as steel, soft white light—something about that stirs a memory of his failing vision—swirling stars, blue and white in the bruising embrace of space, but that’s—
It’s just a stray fantasy.
“Lieutenant? Did you drift off on me again?”
“Falling crate,” he snaps back to reality enough to say. He doesn’t want to lose too much of his sense staring at Fai, but welcomes the distraction as the rag on his right hand unravels, sticks. “Before the launch.”
“When was—” The agent’s motions still as he plays the memories through in his head, and Kurogane watches the instant he realizes. Fai winces with his whole body, guilt twisting his expression into something bitter and full of self-hate. “When you pushed me out of the way. You shielded me, didn’t you?”
“I guess.” He hadn’t really made a conscious decision to do it at the time, just moved because he’d had to. He doesn’t think it deserves mention. Certainly He didn’t do anything to deserve the glare Fai pins him with.
“I could have—” Fai starts and stops again, full to bursting with anger over secrets he can’t tell. With every aborted complaint, Kurogane’s insane theory tilts ever closer to something rational. “Look, I appreciate you sticking your neck out for us, but there’s no way this ends well. I… My offer to get you a reassignment still stands.”
“That’s nice; I don’t care.”
“Why.” Fai hasn’t resumed his attempts to remove torn canvas from Kurogane’s right hand. That’s fine. Won’t hurt as much if he knows when the pain will come anyway. He busies himself with the attempt, bandaged left hand clumsy and every touch like pressing his fingers to a pin-covered board.
Because I don’t know you yet, but I don’t want you to die, and Because this mission is the first thing to make me care about anything since the war ended both slide firmly in the mental trash. He clenches his teeth and tears away a loop of fabric, scattering a new spatter of blood against Fai’s light jeans. The agent turns vaguely green and stills his hand.
“You’re hurting yourself,” Fai chides, pulling Kurogane’s fingers free, and that—that’s it.
“Because you’re the kind of guy who gives a shit when you have no reason to.”
Wide blue eyes drift to meet his in the fading red light, ever-present terror rearing its ugly head again, but Kurogane doesn’t care to dance away from it this time. “Command wants you watched, right? That’s why they set this mission up so backwards—that’s why they didn’t bother giving me any information about your investigation. My assignment is supposed to be you, and we both know it.” Fai’s gaze shutters. He turns his focus back to the bleeding hand still held between his own.
“So, what, you think I should be watched at cost to yourself?” Of course, he takes it the exact wrong way. Kurogane tries to growl in annoyance, has to cut himself off when it threatens to transform to a yowl as Fai resumes his task. Another loop of torn tarp winds down. Not too many remaining.
“No. I want to know how they fucked up.” Fai stills, tries to process, tugs gently again. Kurogane grunts and does not bite through his tongue—fuck that’s a bad one—
“I don’t think I understand.”
“You’re a hacker, or maybe the AI is. Doesn’t matter which. You have limitless destructive potential at your fingertips. You could commit grand larceny with the press of a few keys, but you haven’t even tried. Could have done it a lot easier if you bothered to hide any of it from me, but you handed me the camera access instead.”
“Well,” Fai’s breath sounds strangely quick, “I mean, you don’t know that I haven’t been draining bank accounts.” Another slow pull, another tearing pain. Kurogane nearly gags on his next argument—it’s fine, he’s fine, it’s—
“You were worried about the comms satellite, worried about me—”
“Any decent person would worry!”
“Any decent person, sure! But even a decent person with a babysitter hung around their neck like a collar and leash might take the chance to be rid of them.” He chokes as Fai fumbles the next loop, cuts him off when he scrambles to apologize, “If you wanted easy, you could have left me on the fucking train. Someone would have found me—you could have disappeared just like you promised, no one to look for you for a couple days at least, but you—”
“I wasn’t going to leave you there when it’s my fault you’re hurt in the first place!”
“And that’s exactly it! I don’t know jack shit about you, agent, but I know you’re a good person, behind all the games. You’re a good person, and you care about this investigation. You don’t care about making reports or following rules, or even your idiot self, but you care about whatever it is you’re chasing. My gut says you’re right to.”
Fai stares, chest heaving. His hands move on automatic and the last of the charred tarp falls to the floor to stain it. Kurogane scarcely feels it beneath the adrenaline of his argument. Maybe he says too much—assumes too much, he just can’t bring himself to care. Fai clearly doesn’t feel comfortable with the subject of conversation, but instead of running away, he’s still trying to help. Conviction settles in Kurogane’s head like a tangible thing.
“Command can kiss my ass, I want you to succeed, not them.”
He can’t tell if the agent wants to cry or scream, but eventually Fai tears his gaze away, throat jumping as he swallows it down. He reaches out for an antiseptic wipe.
“You’ll get yourself court martialed with talk like that,” He mutters, but his hands still move gently, trying to clean the wound causing the least pain he can. Care gives him away.
“I’m well on my way to a court martial anyway.” Kurogane blurts before he can stop himself. Almost grins at the startled look Fai tosses his way. “Told you to ask the Commander, didn’t I? I’m not very good at following orders.”
He takes the sound of Fai’s startled laughter—overwrought and exhaustion drunk—as a victory. Holds it close in his thoughts until in the wordless quiet, the pain of his shoulder finally takes him under.
He dreams that night, or thinks he does. Sees Fai out on the balcony beneath the stars, just on the other side of the window. The agent’s wrist unit projects a smaller figure beside him, a flickering hologram of digital blue. Behind them both, the door remains open to let the cool night air through.
“If you didn’t want him injured, you could have just told him,” the AI states very matter-of-fact, his projected form pretending to sit, cross-legged at the railing. Fai stands, elbows on the handrail beside his copy, his forehead wresting against folded hands.
“Yes, I know, I just—if we’re wrong about him, and he’s playing us...” His hands bounce, dashing his own forehead once or twice in an anxious tell. “If SF so much as hears me breathe wrong…”
“Oh, I’m not suggesting you should have told him. I’m just saying I don’t see why you’re so upset now. He got hurt; you kept your secrets. Isn’t that the choice you made?”
“Yes!” Fai whines, straightening his spine and shouting it to the sky before he turns on his smaller companion. “Or, No? I don’t know—I didn’t think about the shuttle exterior being hot. I didn’t realize he’d fractured his fucking shoulder. I thought—maybe leave the bruising and the oxygen deprivation and he’ll be sore and none the wiser, but no. Once again, I am an idiot—”
“Hey, chill out. You can self-flagellate later,” the program has no mercy. He folds his arms across his holographic chest and leans forward. “So, you feel guilty then. What are you going to do about it?”
Distant, barely conscious, Kurogane wonders what sort of expressions they make. He can’t see their faces, both figures staring out toward the sprawling station. He’s too far away to hear the way Fai sighs, even through the open door, but he sees it from behind. He watches Fai lean forward, bend himself against the railing until all his weight rests on it, tip back to his feet.
“I guess, I’m going to find something to fix it.”
“Do they even have anything like that on this station?”
“It’ll cut into your time to find the kid.” Fai winces, as if physically pained. If Kurogane weren’t dreaming, he might need to think about that statement, but he is, so he doesn’t.
“I know, I just—I’ll do both at the same time.”
“Yeah, alright hotshot. Are you going to end piracy single-handedly while you’re at it?”
“Come on,” the agent whines like a child, “have at least some faith in me, Fai!”
“I’m a computer program. I don’t have faith. I have a database of past outcomes and the ability to process posterior likelihood estimations.” The blonde turns his head to the side, letting barely-conscious Kurogane catch his exasperated expression in profile.
“You’re hilarious,” he deadpans.
“Don’t look at me. You’re the one who programmed my sense of humor.”
It’s a strange vision—stranger because it doesn’t end. Just lets Kurogane fade in and out of awareness with two versions of Fai bickering back and forth like siblings. His head is too drowned in shock and weariness to make the specifics really stick, but he holds on to something of it in the end—knowledge that Fai really cares, really needs to find his missing shipment, and really has some kind of secret to hide. (So honestly, nothing he didn’t already know.) Kurogane settles in to the star studded dream and drifts away to the soothing sound of a voice he already likes too much.
Chapter 10: Healed
So this is where I stop posting for the night. We're about half way through the fic so far. Hope you're enjoying! Please leave a comment if you can--I'll need the cheer-leading to get through the very tail end. ahahaha.
chapters 11-20ish are already written! only the last two chapters remain unfinished. With the luck of the gods, I may yet complete them before midnight PST on the 23rd, but we shall see.
Wish me luck!
“Hello, sunshine!” Kurogane stumbles to awareness a full minute after his body has already decided to sit ramrod straight in his chair, echoes of something he can’t remember pulling at his thoughts. “Hmm. Your heart rate says ‘awake,’ but your face says ‘please, Fai, five more minutes.’” He can still feel… far too much. The bruising has settled in, always worse on the second day, and his burns and fractured bone make him immediately aware of their existence.
Right. All injuries, because yesterday he’d gotten hurt guarding—
Fai! That asshole will abandon him if he can’t get up fast enough. Maybe he already has. Kurogane fights to stand, left hand flaring with agony beneath clumsy bandages as he pushes against the armrest. He nearly falls before he realizes only one limb responded to his demands and—oh, his right arm has been taped in a messy sling. Did he sleep through that? That’s… “Whoa! Hey, what are you doing?” He’ll injure himself less if it stays pinned up, but the imbalance makes standing more difficult. He needs to catch up—has to—
“Kuro-dummy! Cut it out!” The voice at his wrist finally registers, only slightly muffled by the way white bandage keeps the arm still against his chest. AI Fai? “You’re going to hurt yourself again, and hand Him something else to feel guilty over.”
“Feel guilty…?” why does that strike him as familiar? There’s something there—a memory tangled at the edge of his mind. A dream maybe? Must have been. “Where’s the agent?” He wonders aloud, twisting in the chair to try to see the room behind himself. It looks exactly as he’d left it, Fai’s personal effects strewn about, the feathery fallout from Fai’s violent awakening…. A second pillow sits out of place on the floor, shaken free by Kurogane’s attempts at motion. Fai must have put it behind his neck again.
Shit… he still doesn’t know how he keeps sleeping through that. Is he losing his touch?
“Nowhere you need to worry about. Just running errands.”
“How is that not something for me to worry about? It’s literally my job description to worry where he goes.”
“Alright, fine. Worry as much as you want, but if you meant anything last night about wanting to help, you’ll stay put today.” That sounds… ominous. Kurogane tries to put it out of his mind. The decision to trust Fai over command slotted into place in his head yesterday and hasn’t left. Besides, he doesn’t think he’d be able to stumble far in this state anyway.
“How long ago did he leave?” Even his voice sounds weaker than usual. He has to force the words to surface.
“Just a minute or so.” Right before he’d woken up then. Maybe he still has time to—
No, no…. he’s trying out this “trust” thing.
“How long will he be out?”
“Not sure yet! He’ll probably be back before dark? As long as he keeps within range of an online hub I can give you updates, but that’s all I know for now.”
Alright. One day bedridden—or chair-ridden—for Kurogane. He should… he doesn’t know. What should he do from here? Can he do anything? Is there some sort of expected protocol? He could start looking into layouts and records if Fai needs, but certainly won’t have as much luck as the AI Fai apparently left behind to watch him.
Outside, the balcony and the simulated sky both hold no answers. He pushes his feet against the ground and kicks awkwardly until he faces sideways, able to look out the window or at the hotel room door at will. Fuck, even the bottoms of his feet are bruised. His boots couldn’t save him from the vacuum of space. “Easy, easy there!” the voice alarms, sounds honestly concerned. Kurogane can’t blame the AI completely. Even that little bit of movement exhausts him. He has to stop and catch his breath after, head drifting awkwardly to the side where the pillow should have been… Kurogane reaches down and uses far more effort than he expects to lift it with a frown.
“It’s a pillow,” his new personal commentary specifies unhelpfully, “You don’t have to glare at it like it killed your best friend.”
“Unless your best friend was murdered via pillow during the war, in which case, please, continue venting your traumatic frustrations on its feathery person.”
“Fucking hell,” he grits, left hand pulling at stuffing in his annoyance. He lets go when he notices, smooths the fabric and flings it back behind his neck where it belongs with a glare. “You’re just as much of an ass as he is.”
“Hmm. Well, we’re the same person, aren’t we?” Something petulant in that digital tone gives him pause. He doesn’t have the energy to figure it out right now—just slides it to the side. Another fragment of the oddness that perpetually surrounds these two.
He tries to let the awkward quiet ride. He has nothing to do. No one to contact, nothing he can use to help Fai from here… he realizes belatedly that Fai has even taken his earpiece away. It sits perched on a hastily cleared corner of the feather-dusted dresser. Every part of him touching the chair complains noisily with the ache of a bruise and his hands hurt badly enough to stop his breath if he thinks about them too long. The shoulder mostly just feels hot, unless he tries to move it.
He has got to find something else to focus on.
“How did your data analysis go?”
“Data analysis?” He mirrors Kurogane’s words in apparent confusion, but calculates an understanding faster than most conversation partners would. “Oh, the U-storage info… yeah it went…. Okay-ish.”
“What does okay-ish mean?” The AI plays a noise over his speaker that sounds like a huff of air. Why does he bother to do that, when he doesn’t have physical form to breathe?
“It’s like…. Well, we couldn’t trace the exact shipment we need. But He has a hunch on who might have taken it. We were hoping a look around could confirm it, but… we’ve just got a slightly better maybe and an address for a shell company we were hoping to check out anyway.” Figures.
“So, the whole space-jaunt was totally pointless.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” he hazards, “We know Alcyone’s involved now. We weren’t sure where she’d gone after the war—used to be SF. They’re on the lookout for her. And… I don’t know who “Cat,” and “Arrow” were, but if stuff with the pirates doesn’t pan out—“
“Palace,” Kurogane blurts, just as the word “pirate” registers in his mind. He’s so used to fighting the idiots eking out an existence in derelict mining stations, hiding among the asteroids, he hadn’t even dreamed any organizations had snuck down to NH-0N proper. He didn’t think security would have let them… but with that woman’s psychic powers… If they have ex Psy Ops filling their ranks, no level of security will stop them.
“Arrow said… something about station not deciding yet whether to make their ads illegal. That’d be Palace. It’s a gambling resort outside regulated space. Commander complains about them all the time.”
“Gambling, huh?” The AI muses. Kurogane watches with distant interest as his unit’s screen lights up, starts flickering through images he can’t see with the sling in the way. “I’ll make sure He knows. Thanks, we wouldn’t have figured that out on our own.”
“Nice to know I’m not completely pointless.” He grumbles, still frustrated with his own lack of knowledge and his current physical state. He can hardly turn his fucking chair around. He’s not liable to be able to help Fai much outside of this useless speculation. Not today and maybe… not tomorrow either, if he’s perfectly honest. Hell.
“Touchy, touchy!” Kurogane rolls his eyes at the AI’s teasing. And really, how had they ever expected to keep their little tech secret when he talks and emotes the way he does? He closes his eyes, tries to rest against the pillow without feeling the distant ache of his neck where the weight of his head presses down. Damn it. It’s going to be a miserable, miserable day. He just hopes if he gets enough rest he can feel functional again soon.
Another dream—another mess of color and conversation tossed over his head as he watches, silent and exhausted.
“I still can’t believe you actually found some.” The AI notes as Fai messes with something on the dresser. Kurogane can’t quite make out the objects he fiddles with but he can see the tattered remains of brown paper.
“I told you to have a little faith in me.” Fai brushes a wave of feathers out of his way and adjusts whatever he’s working on, soft click of plastic on plastic resounding through the small room.
“I have adjusted my usual calculations of your success rate accordingly.”
“Fantastic,” his voice drips with false enthusiasm. “Now use those math skills and tell me how much I can actually give someone like the Lieutenant.” Kurogane blinks, word sparking something like recognition. He’s usually the ‘Lieutenant’ they mean, right?
“Not much. About as much as Sakura-chan might need.” Fai hums in acknowledgement and Kurogane’s head struggles to keep up with his hearing. What are they doing? He’s still dreaming, right? He doesn’t have enough line of sight to see the objects Fai holds, but he thinks he might see a distant syringe rolling towards his forgotten earpiece. Is this a dream? Maybe it isn’t. Maybe he should—
The AI pauses, holographic form flickering into existence in a beam of light from Fai’s wrist. He turns the image to face in Kurogane’s direction before he says, “Hey, are you sure he doesn’t have any kind of powers?”
“Yes, why?” The agent doesn’t pause his movements. Kurogane watches as he lifts a small vial of… something—glowing and purple. He notes it distantly, some sleeping part of himself slowly wakened by new wariness. What is that?
“Heart rate is up… I think he might be awake.”
“Are you serious? I was sure I—” Fai whirls around, and wide blue meets squinting, barely aware red. Kurogane lists in the chair and tries to figure out what the hell is going on. The room feels like it’s caught in a tailspin, swirling verticality every time he makes the mistake of blinking. “Hello, Kuro-sleepy. Close your eyes and sit still, won’t you?” Fai sets the mysterious purple vial down and reaches for the escaping syringe instead.
The alarm building in his head escalates to a crescendo and Kurogane struggles to move, limbs caught in the final horizon of sleep and weighed down by injury. He knows something isn’t right here—there’s something he should do, try to move, get away? …but even the act of thinking feels like trying to force his way through a mire.
“What’s—” he tries to force the words free, but his mouth keeps them trapped.
“Sorry. I know this must seem terrifying, but I promise, you’ll feel better when you wake up,” the agent soothes. He leans in close, and jabs Kurogane’s upper arm with the needle. Something in Kurogane’s head knows to be worried about this, but he already has trouble forcing the slightest movements. He can’t even feel the syringe in his upper arm, let alone stop it.
Fai monitors the fluid inside carefully—halts the process before it can fully deploy. “I’m not willing to risk your health with any more than that,” he mumbles to himself, tossing the needle into something that clatters when it hits.
Kurogane watches, because that’s all he can do—keeps his eyes focused on Fai, his only anchor in the swimming backdrop of the hotel room. Watches as Fai steps back and resumes whatever he means to do with the purple vial. The drug in his veins—sedative? painkiller?—tugs at his consciousness like the edges of an undertow. He clings to wakefulness with every fiber of his being. He has to—he can’t—
“Heart rate’s going back down, but… are you sure he doesn’t have powers?” Fai-the-AI’s voice resounds from his wrist unit, strange and dreamlike with his holoform still projected in place on the dresser. His physical counterpart only huffs.
“Alright then; low dose should work. Just be careful; I’m not sure how good Genex got at making this stuff.”
“It works just fine. I tested it out on myself earlier.” The words start to wash over Kurogane’s head. Only every other one still makes some kind of sense. Genex and dosing and… he doesn’t know. He just has this feeling that something bad will happen if he can’t move. Move, move, move, he demands, and his left-hand twitches slightly. Damnit.
“You tested—what if it had been a bad formula?!”
“Then I certainly wouldn’t want to use it on the Lieutenant,” Fai returns as he spins around, glowing vial finally loaded in its own, stranger syringe. “Fucking hell, Kuro-san how are you still awake?” To be fair, Kurogane doesn’t know either. Every blink feels like a battle in a war he can’t win. The agent just shakes his head, his smile fond and sad and that worries Kurogane far more than the glowing purple liquid somehow. It’s too genuine—too real, and he can’t help thinking—
“We’re not done talking about how absolutely stupid you are, but If you still want to make it in time to disappear, you’re going to need to hurry.” Fai sighs in response and kneels next to Kurogane’s chair. He finds a vein in the arm Kurogane keeps desperately trying to move and presses the needle in. Those pale hands, so clumsy with bandages and rudimentary First Aid, have no trouble with injection, and even with his mind slipping through his head like a sieve Kurogane can tell that’s strange.
“There you go. Hopefully this will make up for the mess I put you through.” Fai takes the vial away again before it can fully empty, starts moving to stand, but—
Whatever that shit is, it acts fast. Kurogane can tell beneath the quicksand of sedative or painkiller that something uncomfortable is happening, he just can’t separate enough sensation to figure out what. He can see the tragic, apologetic smile on Fai’s face, and that more than anything finally gives him the burst of adrenaline he needs to reach out and grasp weakly at Fai’s sleeve before he can turn away.
“Don’t.” Kurogane barely manages the single word, but Fai stares as if he said something much more impressive. Don’t go, don’t disappear, don’t do anything stupid—? He doesn’t know which one he means to demand. His instincts only scream that he has to keep hold. He has to keep… fighting…
“Sorry, Lieutenant.” Fai leans down and slowly pries Kurogane’s bandaged hand free. His touch lingers at Kurogane’s wrist. Near paralyzed, he can’t feel pain or the distant sensation of glowing purple, but he still feels the warmth of Fai’s hand on his bare skin. “You were sweet, trying to keep me safe, saying all those nice things. I want to trust you. I really do. I’ve just got too much at stake.”
Every word sinks his heart deeper, but he can’t do more in response than blink. The effort of movement had taken the last of his strength and he can’t keep his eyes open well enough to see.
Fai arranges Kurogane’s arm in a more comfortable resting position, brushes a long strand of bangs away from his face. “Take better care of yourself, won’t you Kuro-mu? It’s only been a couple of days, but I think I like you. Maybe in a kinder life, we could have—"
Kurogane can’t stay awake long enough to hear the end of that sentence, but he knows the sentiment well enough. He feels its echo himself.
Chapter 11: Ghosted
Question: how many chapters can I upload before I run to work?
The next time he wakes, he opens his eyes to a room lit by false-sunlight. His head aches with the distant, cotton-lined muzziness of a slight hangover. Where is he? What was he doing? Hunger gnaws at his stomach and he shakes himself into awareness, forces his limbs to cooperate as he sits up in his chosen chair.
He remembers his injuries a half second too late to stop himself from pushing against the armrests, cringes in anticipation of pain, and then….
Feels nothing more than a dull, mild pang.
Kurogane stares at his own hands, finds both palms covered in new, pink skin. He rolls his shoulder, suddenly sling-free and tries to process. What…? Moving it aches distantly, like a bad joint before rain, but it doesn’t hurt like it should. Feels like it healed a month in the time he’s slept and how in the actual hell…?
His memory floods with the image of a faint, purple glow, and he scrambles to his feet. The not-dream and Fai and needles, and—! His muscles hurt only dimly as he starts to pace, all but the worst of the bruising utterly gone. What the hell was that stuff? Frantic to understand, uncertain of his own sanity he searches the room. He can’t find any of Fai’s effects, but the damned feathers remain. Kurogane locates his earpiece among them and hooks it back into place, already moving on. Maybe if he checks the trash?
No dice. The room’s plastic bin contains tattered and bloody bandages and the utterly disgusting remains of his makeshift tarp hand wraps. Fai hadn’t left any clue of his own presence behind save another white page folded on the unmade bed.
Kurogane sits on the foot of his mattress and grabs the damn note, rubbing at the dull pain building between his eyes. Whatever that shit was, it doesn’t stop him feeling the aftereffects of the drug cocktail Fai had tried to put him under with. Judging by the headache and the terrible taste in his dry mouth, he’d guess morphine might have something to do with it. He puts those sensations aside and focuses on Fai’s looping handwriting.
Take it easy the next couple of days, but hopefully you’re feeling much better. You’ve still got a hotel room through the end of the week. Might as well enjoy yourself!
Thanks for everything.
Utterly unhelpful, and he’d signed it with another of those stupid cat drawings. Kurogane rolls his eyes and crushes the page into a ball just for something to do. He doesn’t know what to think—what to feel. He wants to say Fai betrayed him, but the ass had also apparently wasted a miracle drug on him to make up for the spacewalk incident, and seriously what the hell? He’d never known anything like the purple stuff even existed, but he doesn’t know half the shit Special Forces gets up to, so maybe he shouldn’t feel so blind-sided. He’s just—
Kurogane wracks his memory of that last conversation, but he’d been quite heavily under the influence. He has only bits and pieces. He almost remembers… the AI said something about Genex, right? Genexcel, the biomedical research group? If the purple shit came from there it might make marginally more sense, but that suggested Fai stole or otherwise weaseled high-profile research out of a government-backed biomedical lab. Fai wouldn’t—
…who is he kidding? Fai would absolutely do that.
Ugh. Great. So, Fai probably stole an experimental drug and used it on him. Fai’s missing from the room, likely disappeared into the underworld. More convenient for him if Command doesn’t assign a new watcher, so he probably hasn’t reassigned or reported Kurogane injured yet. This stupid note probably contains coded instructions to stay put and play along—keep pretending he has Fai on guard until the week ends…
Fuck that. He no longer feels like his arm wants to tear itself off, and he has a job to do. If Fai’s still on the station, he needs to find him. If he’s not… well, he’ll worry about what to tell Kendappa after he gets to that point.
He checks his wrist unit, just to make sure Fai hasn’t tried to paralyze him by taking out his access to the net or anything like that. Everything seems normal, except for the new addition of a health-monitoring app, but if either Fai left something nasty behind the code, he won’t be able to tell until it strikes. He does, however, note with vague annoyance that he no longer has camera access.
Well, that makes things more difficult, but not impossible. The AI let it slip that Fai was investigating the on-station piracy group including Alcyone. The next step was to look into the shell company that had a tenth floor locker at U-Storage, right? So, he just has to press the dorky-looking U-Storage attendant for the identity of that unit’s holder, and—
Unless him pushing the attendant around and showing back up at U-Storage shows too much of Fai’s hand... The pirates might still think they’d managed to kill Fai, depending on what the news had picked up. If he wanders around their turf he might give them more information than Fai wants, and if he pokes into their shell company in any official capacity, he’ll alarm them for certain. He just can’t think of another lead that doesn’t involve putting out a fucking APB on his missing charge and getting him into trouble with SF and Command both
Alright…. Alright, he just has to think. The last few days, he and Fai have infiltrated an explosion site and an unmanned shuttle on a collision course. A lot of shit happens on this goddamn rock, but very little ever reaches the same scale. If Fai’s already up and moving around, odds are he’ll make the news eventually and maybe Kurogane can go from there.
He rushes back to his feet, ignoring the dull throb of his morphine hangover as it protests the motion. After the agony he’s weathered the last two days, he can barely feel his headache. He doesn’t care to find the remote, so he hits the buttons manually instead, starts flicking through the poor quality images at speed until he finds one that looks like news.
“—new Zero-G stellar brew! Our patented, gravity-free brewing system makes for the best tasting coffee you’ll ever—”
“—that’s why we scored first in safety and quality exams for the last five years in a row. And why we’re the number one supplier of Mag-Lev metals station-wide. Foundation Asteroid Mines: Working hard to keep NH-0N on track.”
Commercials, commercials… Kurogane almost never bothers to look at Television. This past year, he’s spent all his time flying missions with the occasional break for a drink or a visit to the Commander’s place. He doesn’t know enough about station TV to even guess which channels show the news. He keeps cycling through a brace of children’s shows and a documentary on the old Sol system before he finds—
“—more to come at five. In other news, NH-0N’s spaceport expansion, which planned to extend the atmospheric ring and add capacity for at least ten more shuttles at a time, is slated to continue after the explosions that rocked customs on Monday.” There! News. Kurogane lets the digital personality drone on and drops back onto the bed. His shoulder protests when the mattress bounces slightly, but he can ignore it with ease. He skims the details on the spaceport, political developments, and a pointless human interest piece that doesn’t bother to hide its propagandist intentions. Come on. There has to be something…
He almost gives up and decides to storm New Spirit, alerted pirates or no, when the screen flickers to a still image of the Piffle District.
“Peacekeeping forces in Piffle reported the mysterious return of most of the stolen Genexcel Biomedical research material to an empty reception station late last night. The highly valuable research, rumored to be part of a long-running Federation contract, had been missing since last Friday. Genexcel representatives were not available for comment on the nature of the materials or the manner of their disappearance, but they did reach out to warn citizens not to interact with any lost specimens that may have found their way into colony markets.” The camera slides away to focus on a nervous intern, his face pinched with worry behind the microphone.
“I should hardly need to remind you that a-any time you come across unknown drugs outside a medical practice, you should report them to the proper authorities,” the kid stutters. He doesn’t even look old enough to walk into a bar, let alone serve as the Genex press conference fall guy. “But in particular, the specimens taken were research only. Not yet suitable for human use! So please—”
Kurogane rises and hits the off switch in a single motion. He doesn’t know anything about this shit, but he knows better than to trust the news at face value. Fai had those research specimens one way or another, and he returned them to Piffle sans the ones he’d used. He can’t have stolen them in the first place because he hadn’t arrived on station before Sunday, but he’d found them. And returned them. Which put him somewhere in Piffle district last night. That’s….. something right? It’s a huge fucking district with too many tech companies and research firms to count, but at least he knows Fai went there.
He hasn’t spent nearly enough time with Fai but he thinks he has an idea of the way the guy likes to operate. The agent could have dropped off the Genex research at any Peacekeeper station on any desk, but he’d gone to Piffle anyway, and Kurogane has a hunch it wasn’t out of concern for transport costs. The shell company has to be in Piffle.
If he can get a list of tenth floor patrons at the storage place and cross reference it with headquarter addresses for any commercial entities, then maybe…
That’s a nice, general ask, right? Shouldn’t alarm anyone too badly… He redirects audio to his earpiece and quickly searches the number for New Spirit U-Storage.
“Yes? Hello, this is Peacekeeping officer… Souma from Central office. I’m investigating reports of an unscheduled launch from your facility last Tuesday and I’ll need you to answer a few questions.” The thrill of the chase alights in his veins, and just like that, he feels alive again. Blindly fumbling towards Fai’s unknown shipment, no idea what he’s doing, and the Commander will kill him if she ever learns about any of this, but his mind is made. He’ll finish this fucking mission or die trying.
Piffle District serves as the station’s most affluent district, crowded mostly by tech giants, research conglomerates, banking headquarters, and a peppering of upper-class residential areas and services. Its strangest feature is the currently under-construction theme park, Piffle World, lining the edge of the sector just between Piffle and Central. In a rush of post-war euphoria and scrambling to get ahead in the race for new investors, several aforementioned tech, research and banking companies pooled their money together to build it as a future “wonderland.” Of course, the unfinished theme park needs orbital shipping access, in order to move the high volume of metals required for its construction.
Surprise, surprise: One of the companies listed on U-Storage’s list of tenth floor patrons is a small logistics and consulting unit with a corporate address right next door to Piffle World’s orbital access corridor. Kurogane starts to see why Kendappa won’t stop complaining about lack of anti-smuggling cooperation on NH-0N…
He doesn’t share Fai’s policy on followers, but he doesn’t spot any tailing him through the street level transports today. With any luck, he can keep things that way. He’s starving on the ride in, but he doesn’t have any kind of false-ID bank account, and he can’t buy anything without leaving his name behind. He’ll live, for now. He can worry about food later. He’s lasted longer on less.
The early afternoon lull that meets him when he steps foot on Piffle’s shiny surface still teams with people, dashing to meetings and strolling leisurely in the well-regulated temperature. Kurogane tries not to slump, keeps his burn-scarred hands deep in his pockets and avoids drawing any attention to the faded bruises. He does not fit in to this crowd, in any way. He’d done his best to mockup a nicer outfit with the few clothes available in his duffel: Dark T-shirt, plain navy slacks he hopes no one recognizes as military uniform, and a collared canvas jacket.
Kurogane marches toward the ominous, half-constructed skyline of Piffle World with his instincts screaming. Every wary glance of the well-dressed strangers he passes feels like sunburn on the back of his neck and his healing hands itch for something to do… but nothing happens. He walks all the way to Infinity Logistics without issue and without suddenly developing a plan. He doesn’t know whether he has any chance of catching up to Fai, or what to say if he finds him. He knows in his bones he has to get there, but that doesn’t leave him any tips on what to do after he arrives. The unassuming façade of the pirates’ little shell operation looms into sight all too soon, and before Kurogane figures anything out he finds himself leaning against a light fixture across the street.
He takes a page from Cat’s book and flicks through the interface of his wrist unit, trying to stall for time without looking too suspicious. Alright. He could go inside and ask around… pretend to continue investigating the shuttle launch? No, Fai said this group knew his face. They’ll figure him out too fast. But then, they probably know Fai’s face too. So, if he were Fai, he wouldn’t have used the front entrance. Might have tried his luck spying from a distance and sneaking in later…?
“Damn signal,” Kurogane grumbles as he turns in place, pretending to search for a stronger link to the net. He scans the second-floor windows and the figures barely visible behind any nearby glass storefronts. He looks each one over meticulously, eyes peering even as his hand makes a mess of his wrist unit UI.
With any less focus, he might have missed the dark-haired, well-suited man who strolls out the Infinity office, briefcase in hand. “Yes, I know!” the gentleman shouts into his old-fashioned, hand-held device and Kurogane instantly recognizes Noisy Phone User from Tuesday morning. Kurogane uses the man’s reflection in storefront glass to watch him storm across the main street and into a nearby alleyway.
…He doesn’t have any evidence that the guy will lead him to Fai. None whatsoever.
He follows anyway. Better than standing out here in the open where any pirate crony might spot him.
“Yes… No… Yes…” Noisy sounds a lot less confident than he had the other day. His voice rings about an octave lower and Kurogane surmises he’s legitimately on the phone with someone this time. “I’ll round up the… …and head your way.” The pilot strains to hear, but the intermittent noise of the busy walk-ways makes his task hard. He can’t creep close enough to really listen without getting himself spotted. Round up what? “Yes, I understand. I will talk to her after. Perhaps… …sooth some frustration. Yes. On it.”
He leans against a conveniently placed column and turns around just as Noisy pulls his phone away and hits end. The meek-looking, utterly normal businessman takes a deep breath and steps sharply to the right. Kurogane checks to make sure he has no watchers himself and follows, close as he dares.
“I don’t care what you have to do! We need all hands on deck. There’s an… acquisition we’ve been after for a while now. Finally found it on market, but.... Let’s just say we won’t be able to buy it without significant negotiations.” Noisy steps into a dark alley. Piffle district doesn’t have street grime, but the expensive real-estate lends itself naturally to the sector’s claustrophobic feel. The chrome-fronted buildings on either side of the alley Kurogane follows his quarry down stretch so high that they almost block out the artificial light of simulated atmosphere. “Yes, that acquisition. The one you obviously failed to purchase the other day. Now we’re out two sales, and if we don’t finish this one…” He focuses on Noisy’s increasingly livid double-speak, keeps out of sight in slender doorways and behind outcroppings and—
Almost has a heart attack when his earpiece suddenly floods his hearing with static before it flips on of its own accord.
“What the flying fuck are you doing here, Lieutenant?!”
Chapter 12: Shielded
He can’t follow Noisy and talk back to his friendly neighborhood AI at the same time, but he can duck behind a conveniently sequestered dumpster and start typing. He flips open a new note, oddly pleased to hear the disembodied voice muttering at his ear.
Where is Agent F?
“Nice to see you too,” the program grouches, sounding properly affronted. Okay, fair enough, but Kurogane doesn’t exactly have a lot of time for pleasantries here. He peers around the edge of the dumpster, trying to make sure Noisy doesn’t drop into an unseen corner and step out of sight. “I’m not telling you where anything is until I’m sure you didn’t have something to do with this.”
Smthng to do with what? He types back, fast as he can, before dashing quietly after Noisy’s retreating back. The well-suited office worker has his phone pocketed by now and has started half-jogging through narrow alleyways. Kurogane has his work cut out for him trying to follow, even without the occasional passerby blocking his path. Skirting around them without drawing notice proves especially hard. He has to keep reminding himself to stay calm and act like this is normal—act like he’s just going on his way and No one should have any reason to suspect—
“How did you know to come here in the first place?”
He throws himself sideways into a crevice, barely remaining out of sight as Noisy turns on a dime and knocks at a broad, steel door. A high tech id scanner fizzles to life, skipping lasers over his frame before the red light on the locked door switches to green. The dark-haired businessman slips soundlessly inside.
Kurogane tries to calm his already elevated heart rate and steps away from the door Noisy disappeared through. He knows where it is; no sense leaving himself open for others to find while he argues with an irascible AI. His headache decides to play a rousing encore behind his eyes as he types.
Drugs returned to Piffle district. Infty is only tenth floor U-Store patron with Piffle address. Did the math. He waits to hear Fai-the-AI’s uncertain hum before he deletes it all.
“Okay… why were you tailing that guy then?”
He was watching Agent b4. Saw him leave Infty. Thought he might know something.
“Wait. Wait, wait, wait—you saw him leave Infinity?” Kurogane deletes the last line again and puts another block of distance between himself and the locked door. He marks its location on his mental map—leans as casually as he can against smooth cement next to the back entrance of a smaller credit union before he raises his wrist and presses his free hand to his earpiece in a classic phone conversation pose.
“Cute. Answer the question.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So you’re sure. He came out of the building at 3010 Carnival—”
“I am absolutely certain.”
“Well… shit. I guess that explains how the GS-Useless put us in Piffle, but that means...” Kurogane’s mind goes blank as he tries to understand the words played in his ear. His thoughts drift all the way back to the sight of Fai at the bar talking about warships, humming like he knew something Kurogane didn’t…
“Sorry, I think we have a bad connection. Did you just say…?”
“Yeah. GSU. Sort of. They’re—you know what? I think I believe you. Start walking. Take the first left.” His feet follow directions on automatic, but he doesn’t know what to think. He lets the digital voice guide him through a tricky series of alleyways and around an investment firm courtyard. “Officially, the war’s over. Unofficially? Federation SF and GSU Covert Ops left splinter cells seeded in just about every colony and station in controlled space, and a few outside of it. Take a right—not that hard of a right!” Kurogane weaves a middle path, starts winding down a ramp into the sublayer. Great. He usually tries to avoid the sublayers, but he hasn't got much choice. He keeps walking. Sounds of distant transports, humming along in the highways below, echo out from the dark. “GSU’s folks got stranded for the most part after the treaties were signed. Some of the cells disbanded, but others… found ways not to. Had enough resources or maybe the right placements— Here. Stop. I’ll tell him to let you in.”
They halt in front of an older door, still Piffle-clean, but starting to show wear in places. It sits tucked into the cement wall of the first sublayer amidst a cavernous, orange-lit space that appears at first glance to serve as some sort of parking lot. Very few personal vehicles dot the allocated spaces. For the most part, it’s suspiciously empty.
As he watches, the door-knob turns, metal creaking as it slides open, just an inch or two. For a split-second, he wonders whether the AI means to lead him to an ambush… but he stamps the thought out before it can take hold. He doesn’t have a choice. He has to trust. He pushes the door open the rest of the way and walks forward.
He finds…. Some sort of parking office. A tiny room, ringed with data servers and cleaning supplies, serviced with a bulky computing unit, small desk, and even a narrow cot. And seated upon it, hair slicked back with sweat, streaked with blood and brandishing Kurogane’s missing knife, he finally spots Fai.
“Hello, Kuro-wan.” The agent charms, voice tired. Kurogane can only guess he hasn’t slept since… fuck, has Fai slept at all since Monday night? “Well done sniffing us out. I’d say ‘nice to see you,’ but I was hoping you’d stay put.”
“Yeah, well…” he mumbles, distracted as he takes the agent in. He wants to tell his idiot charge off for the way he left, but... As Kurogane looks, his anger takes a backseat to worry. Most of the visible blood coats his knife and Fai’s hands, but he spots a few bullet grazes or maybe knife gashes near Fai’s upper arms and what looks like a full bullet wound at his left calf. A cleaning rag has been sacrificed to serve as a make-shift tourniquet for that leg. Several more sit soaked through beside it. “Doesn’t look like me ‘staying put’ did you any good.”
“Not sure about that yet.” Fai’s smile takes on a terrifying quality as he raises the knife higher.
“It wasn’t him. Seishirou was at Infinity—bastard’s playing both sides.” The AI’s words register slowly, Fai so clearly exhausted that Kurogane can watch understanding dawn in his expression. He lets the knife fall back to the bed but doesn’t loosen his grip.
“You ran out on me for less than a day and you already got yourself shot?” Kurogane growls, bustling forward as soon as he thinks the injured agent won’t stab him for it. He kneels down and pulls deeply ingrained memories of bullet wounds and field medicine to the fore. Kurogane didn’t really see a whole lot of these wounds firsthand; piloting meant exposure to explosions of a much more destructive variety. Still, his lessons are hard won and difficult to forget. He prods the offending calf muscle, a little worried by the pallor of Fai’s skin beneath his torn slacks. It’s not gushing blood any longer at least, but if there’s a hemorrhage under the skin…
“Ha!” The agent’s laugh hides an agonized gasp, knee trembling with restrained pain. “Not to sound too cliché, but you oughtta see the other guy!”
“Sure,” he agrees, distracted by his rudimentary analysis. He checks the opposite side, gratified to find an exit wound. “High caliber? Someone wants you dead. Least it went all the way through.” And didn’t hit bone, or a major artery. He glances from Fai’s slightly woozy visage to the AI projected beside him. “What the fuck happened?”
“Does it matter? Got cornered in an alleyway by a GSU cell. Fought them to a standstill and ran.”
“Yes, it matters! If there’s a terrorist cell on station, Command needs to know! And for that matter…” The longer he thinks, the stranger and stranger this whole situation becomes. “You got shot at. In fucking Piffle. Why aren’t Peacekeepers crawling over every inch of this place?” He glances again at the desk and the small set of cleaning supplies. No First Aid kit—nothing sterile enough to serve as a bandage. Fucking hell….
“Oh, come on, Lieutenant. The only thing a covert agent hates more than the enemy are the authorities,” Fai jokes with a smile, explaining exactly nothing except by implication, as usual. Kurogane frowns and tightens the makeshift tourniquet, just in case. He could try ruining his jacket to wrap something over it, but the heavy canvas won’t lend itself well to absorption or mobility. “They’ve been patient, waiting to find me alone. ‘S why I was trying so hard to move without notice. I guess Seishirou’s the one who ruined it, but for a while there I was worried you—”
“Of course I didn’t.” Kurogane snaps, though he guesses he gets the uncertainty. He trusts Fai enough to do what he thinks is right. But if that idea of right ever came into conflict with Kurogane’s goals? Well….
He understands the agent’s worries well enough. “Fucking—if they wanted to catch you alone so bad, and you knew, why didn’t you stick with me?”
“I tried. You got hurt.” Fai mutters, at the same time as his AI’s “That’s what I said.”
“Yeah,” Kurogane realizes, voice distant. He stares at Fai’s leg, thinks of the hazy—drug-addled memories of last night. Fai pulled the syringe out early and hadn’t thrown it away. It’d need a new needle, but… “You kept some of that research shit, didn’t you?”
“No,” Fai whines, but his AI betrays him again.
“I told you, you should use it on yourself! You don’t know when they’ll find you, and if you’re still set on this stupid decision, you’ll need everything you have to defend yourself.”
“I’m not—!” Fai starts to argue, stares down at Kurogane as if he’s just realized his guard is still here.
“Seishirou is playing both sides. Alcyone probably recognized you. There’s no point keeping secrets.”
“But there might be! And I won’t risk—” Fai shuts his eyes tight, breathes deep with thinly controlled rage, and shifts the knife aside to hit something on his wrist unit. Whatever Fai-the-AI intends to say next dies before the sound leaves his speaker, tiny hologram shuddering off with an electric zap.
“Oh, he thinks he’s so smart,” The AI’s voice whispers, back in Kurogane’s earpiece again. “Fine, I’ll hang out on your inferior unit where at least people don’t turn my voice off on a whim.” And wow, does he not want to get in the middle of this.
The agent brushes Kurogane’s hands away and adjusts his grip to hold the knife back-handed. He closes his eyes for one second, two… then with a single, calculated motion, he stands up. Fai’s face blanches white with the pain of it, but he makes no sound.
“I’m fine,” he announces. He does not look fine, but they’re currently trapped in a parking office with a GSU spec ops team waiting to raid their location. If Fai wants to push for functionality, now’s as good a time as any.
“Sure,” Kurogane agrees, trying to ignore the AI’s angry muttering in his ear. Not all of it comes out in Common language. He wants to argue about the meds, but Fai seems in a stubborn state and his leg isn’t bleeding very heavily right now. Worst come to worst he’ll just wait for the agent to pass out and ask his AI friend for help finding the purple vial. He has more to worry about at the moment. “Noisy—your Seishirou? Guy was talking about rallying a final push to… acquire something. I assume they meant you.”
Fai’s face blanches impossibly further.
“He said ‘acquire?’…interesting.”
“Something like that. Could have been double speak for elimination. Who knows?” Fai hums in a way that suggests he doesn’t agree. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. They’re coming after you. En mass. The three of us might not be enough. If we call for back up—”
“No. Absolutely not.” Fai insists. His tone brooks no argument. Kurogane huffs through his nose and feels that headache pound just a little harder. Of course not.
“He won’t explain, but it’s like this. Someone else’s life might depend on whether or not the authorities learn what’s really going on on this station. Consider it a Schrodinger’s hostage situation, if you will.” He blinks, wasting a second to try to process the AI’s helpful commentary. How the hell does that factor in to everything Fai’s—
No, no time to question it. That’s… he can ask Fai what the hell his AI means later.
“Alright, fine. Then we need an exit plan and we need it five minutes ago.” His charge stares into the middle distance, clearly trying to think through a plan and having trouble.
“We’re in a fucking parking lot,” Fai-the-AI hisses. “Get me a damn car and I’ll get you both a getaway, not that He deserves it.”
That sounds… highly illegal. As a Peacekeeper, he can’t conscience grand theft auto in the name of an escape. But as a soldier used to fighting for his life and weighing even the lives of others against a cause….
“Your… uh… VI friend says he can hack a car.” Fai stares, vacant blue eyes darting towards Kurogane’s mouth, then his earpiece. He shakes his head, exhales slowly from his nose.
“He’s talking shit about me, isn’t he.”
“Is that really your main concern right now?” Kurogane deflects, even though the AI definitely indulges in something that might uncharitably be called “talking shit” every other second. Kurogane gets the sense the poor guy doesn’t get a lot of time to talk to people outside of Agent Fai.
“No, no, you’re right. Hotwiring it is.” Fai limps to the door, pushes it open with an un-expected swing of old hinges and Kurogane has to scramble to keep up.
“Not so hot without your little fire team, are you, Blondie?” Kurogane curses as another silenced shot glances across the chassis of the car at his back. He hunches as low to the ground as he can, shifting his own handgun in his grip.
Of the four vehicles parked in this portion of Piffle Sublayer One, the AI had deemed only one suitable for their needs. But checking each car took time they didn’t have, and hacking takes considerably more. They make it only part way through the process before the garage entrance echoes with footsteps and just like that, they’re pinned behind the vehicle by enemy fire.
“It’s hard to compensate when you’re used to working with others! But I suppose you’ve already learned that lesson yourself, Shougo-san. How was your team after Hanshin?”
“Shut the hell up.” Accompanied by a bevy of wasted rounds and scolding from fellow GSU operatives. It is the most talkative, bullshit firefight Kurogane has ever seen. Wartime memories sit on the periphery of his thoughts with every shot, but the pure insanity of the way the agents act keeps him grounded in the present.
Ten or so bodies block the street entrance; Kurogane hadn’t gotten a chance to look them over before the shooting started. He’d heard the first approaching enemy and tugged Fai to the ground on instinct, just in time for a silenced rifle round to sail overhead. He can’t get an opening to peer over the car’s trunk and return fire with so many guns trained their way, but he keeps a careful watch on his nine-o-clock, waiting for any asshole foolish enough to attempt circling them.
At his side, Fai laughs below his breath, sitting on the ground to accommodate his bad leg. His breath is shallow and quick in a way Kurogane mislikes but can’t afford to focus on. The AI remains silent, all processing trained on breaking down the car’s firewalls without a pre-programmed method of doing so while Fai works manually on the nearby cameras and power supply. Kurogane gathers from the near-familiar banter bandied across bullet casings that Fai had quite a deal more visibility in the ground portion of the war than Kurogane ever imagined.
Silenced guns, attempts on both sides to limit camera tracking, and he swears he heard one of the GSU bark something about orders to scramble Peacekeeper reports on standby. Even shots in their direction avoid scattering too far and leaving damage in the walls. Never in his life has Kurogane seen a firefight so determined on both sides to avoid notice.
“Laugh all you want, Kitty-cat, but you’re on our turf this time.” Seishirou’s voice oozes like poison honey as he jeers, all traces of his business-like persona wiped clean, and damn, that’s uncanny. Fucking secret agent bullshit. “Do it.” Kurogane ducks another round, watching as it sheers through metal and embeds itself in the far cement wall. Fuck. They’re upgrading to armor-piercing ammo, and…
“Kitty-cat?” he hisses, sheer absurdity getting the better of his good sense. He’s pressed against Fai’s form, Hip to shoulder, heart thudding in his ears with adrenaline, and the idiotic name still breaks his concentration. Fai only shrugs in answer, as if he has nothing to do with the moniker. (Kurogane remembers several doodled cat-signatures and thinks he has an idea what might have happened.)
“Getting careless there. You’re leaving a lot of clean up for yourself,” the blond agent shouts, fingers flying over a holo-keyboard interface he doesn’t even bother to look at.
“We’ll manage,” an older woman’s voice fires back. He doesn’t recognize that one and they haven’t used her name yet, but she grazed his shoulder with a low caliber when they first arrived. Alright. Ten? Combatants, all armed, at least one with Armor-piercing ammo. He thinks one of them had to break off and fight against Fai with the Tech BS, so that leaves nine to contend with. If he can just—
Instincts howl in alarm, and Kurogane yanks Fai sideways just before an armor piercing round exits the driver-side door with the wailing screech of torn metal. Slow rate of fire, powerful shot—has to be a long-range rifle. They’re out of fucking time. He needs an opening and they need the car started now. None of this will mean anything if enemy fire destroys the engine before they manage to turn it.
Kurogane releases his death-hold on Fai and tears his jacket off instead. He only has one chance at this—needs to make it count.
“No, don’t—” Fai’s instructions only lend credence to his ruse when Kurogane tosses his coat forward as a decoy. Gunfire riddles the fabric the instant it comes into view, loud and close enough to set his ears ringing, silenced or no. In the chaos Kurogane has the barest opening he needs. He bounces up with shots still raining down, rising so fast he pulls something in his thigh, but he can’t let it slow him. Just enough time for a single round before the enemy’s focus resets.
Any of the longer barrels pointed their direction might contain the ammo he needs gone. No time to figure out which is which in the split-instant he has to aim. He picks one, holds his breath, and pulls the trigger, his own un-silenced handgun near-deafening in the echoing chamber of the garage.
Kurogane doesn’t stick around to watch the follow-through. He drops back to a knee hard enough to bruise it, feels another bullet trace a burning trail that barely misses his temple. Fuck, that was close.
“Son of a Bitch,” He hears one of the GSU operatives swear, no doubt discovering Kurogane’s true goal as the armor-piercing rifle clatters to the ground. Got lucky on that one. If the idiot hadn’t aimed for Kurogane’s coat he never would have had a clear shot on the receiver.
“Well, the whole fucking neighborhood heard that,” Shougo growls, and his compatriots erupt with chatter.
“You got a newbie with you, Kitty?”
“Neat trick, asshole.”
“Fucking hell: now I have to work double time on scrambling these reports. Does no one appreciate how hard it is to—”
“Hush.” Seishirou barks, and the noise halts. Kurogane chances a glance at Fai and finds him blinking back, clearly shocked. This time, Kurogane shrugs. Not that big of a deal, he’d just— “Get the door.” At the far side of the garage, the exit down to sublevel 2 and Piffle’s transport system groans and begins to shutter. Well that’s…. unideal.
“Fai?” He hears the blond agent hiss, and the speaker on Kurogane’s unit statics to life.
“Car’s ready.” The digital voice is barely audible over the soft click of the vehicle unlocking. “Oh, damn it. When did they mess with the exit?”
“As you can see, we have you surrounded. Next time that gate opens, our remaining crew will be waiting on the other side, and they have a lot to say to you.” Kurogane doesn’t dare look, but he can hear the slimy smile in Seishirou’s voice. Next time the gate opens, hunh? Kurogane’s mind races. What if he…? “You’re only prolonging the inevitable. But if you give up and come quietly, we’ll promise to spare your friend.”
Kurogane glances up at the car doors, now unlocked. He won’t be able to get them inside without alerting team GSU, but maybe he can move fast enough it wont matter. Windows are already shattered, but glass wounds are a secondary concern with guns still pointed their direction. Fai’s leg makes him a liability. He won’t have an easy time sliding from driver’s seat to passenger’s. But if Kurogane puts him in the back seat…
“Don’t you dare.” The AI’s angry warning reaches him just in time. Fai has his feet back under him, he’s holding his hands up—like he means to surrender.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Kurogane throws an arm around his idiot charge and tugs, nearly gets a knife in his hand for his trouble. Fai stops his instinctive movement at the last second, only just spares Kurogane another scar. “It’s my job to protect you, not the other way around,” he hisses at a whisper, just behind Fai’s ear as the furious agent tries to jerk free in vain.
“Don’t be an idiot. They’ll get behind us eventually and then—”
“By all means, take your time! But I can promise the ones coming through that door won’t be as merciful as I am.” Fai struggles harder as Seishirou muses. Can that asshole please shut his damn mouth?
“He’s a fucking liar and he always has been. He’s not going to do what he says. You need to give up on staying hidden and—” Kurogane doesn’t wait to find out what the AI might reveal. No time to. He holsters his gun, braces his left arm behind Fai’s knees and lifts him in a move that sets his barely-healed shoulder smarting. “What—”
“Shit!” Fai yelps, wide-eyed as Kurogane sweeps the back door open and shoves Fai into the floorboard.
“Start the car,” he grunts, and prays AI Fai will listen. Seishirou’s crew has already started firing again, all wary of whatever plan he might have. He throws himself in the driver seat and barely ducks a round whizzing through the busted passenger window.
“Sure thing Kuro-crazy!”
“The door,” Fai gasps, clearly in pain from the rough handling. Later. He has to worry about it later.
“It’s fine. Fai 2.0, I need safeties overridden and you’re going to have to keep an eye on power routing if any wiring is damaged. Hold on!” Kurogane barks, trying to stay as low as he can against the steering column. He has to shout to be heard over the noise of gunshots while the car hums to life. He hits the gas and swerves out of the parking space, performs an insane turn to pick up speed that pins him back against the seat. It’s a ground vehicle, not a plane, but he’s never been uncomfortable behind a wheel.
“Take him out!” He barely hears Seishirou roar, and a lucky shot blasts the front window, leaving a clearly recognizable bullet hole in the more shatter-resistant glass.
“Okay, but that’s a military-grade door, you can’t just—!”
“Trust me!” Kurogane shouts back and fights a grin off his face. He knows exactly what a door like this can take. The garage whirls by in a blur, rifle shots pinging off the walls beside them. He slams the breaks and turns the steering column hard, sends the car drifting front passenger corner first into the center of the door and punching through it like a strangely-shaped arrow flying sixty miles an hour down an exit ramp.
The flood of euphoria this maneuver earns him doesn’t last long. His head rings with warning and before he can react he sees Fai spring up in the back seat and throw his arms wide in a pose that’s almost familiar.
“Idiot, you’re not—!” The AI’s voice barely registers through Kurogane’s horror as he watches Fai take a sniper round to the shoulder clearly meant for the back of Kurogane’s skull. The agent’s body jerks with the blow, slamming into the back of the driver’s seat where he stays slumped, hands falling limp at his sides.
Kurogane has to keep his head on straight and drive, so he doesn’t see whether the round makes an exit or whether Fai’s even still breathing.
“You stubborn, self-sacrificial asshole. Don’t you dare die on me now!” The AI’s voice still rings out from Kurogane’s wrist unit, apparently still silenced on Fai’s, but he can’t afford to listen to the increasingly desperate pleading of an all-too-human program. He needs to get them as far away from GSU and their backup team as he can. He can worry about everything else later. Heart in his throat, he floors it down Piffle Sublayer corridors. The sound of gunfire quickly fades to nothing in their wake. Fai still has a vial of that purple stuff hidden somewhere. He has to believe in that and keep his cool.
Kurogane eyes the blond hair fluttering in his rearview and makes a hand-break turn to the tune of Fai’s frantic AI. Damn it. If Fai just took a kill shot meant for him, he’ll—
He doesn’t know. He grits his teeth and swerves onto the highway, cutting around other cars and wondering how long he can keep speeding before the Traffic team gets called in. Maybe another few miles if he really wants to risk it.
Kurogane turns his feelings off and focuses on the road.
Chapter 13: Terrified
what the hell is chapter length consistency?
Kurogane has only lived on-station at NH-0N for a year. He does not have as much familiarity with its sprawling sublayer highway system as he might like. Fortunately, he does have a terse, hyper-intelligent AI tapped into advanced satellite mapping with access to Peacekeeping radio scanners.
“Take the next exit for New Spirit. We’ll turn up in a construction zone not too far from main walkways. It’s past work time, we can ditch the car there and take a look at—the damage.” He can’t bring himself to mention Fai, but the air of terrified anger never fades. Kurogane shares the sentiment.
He takes the turn as instructed, trying not to listen for the barely-there sound of Fai’s breath just behind his shoulder. He follows directions and speeds as much as he can without drawing notice. As promised, the AI leads them to an empty parking area back on Sublayer One. It’s an open-air space, left without its ceiling to facilitate construction. Gated, but not by anything fancy. Kurogane plows through the flimsy, chain link fence at the entrance and slides into a spot next to a pile of unused steel beams without issue.
“Good, get him out on the ground. Vial’s in a compartment on his wrist unit. I’m hitting the password for you now. Do not drop it.” His shoulder complains with a worrying ache as he lifts Fai gently as he can from the back seat. Glass shards scatter the pavement. A few caught in Fai’s clothes leave marks over his bare arms, but he doesn’t have the luxury of caring. He gets Fai mostly flat and reaches out for the unfamiliar wrist unit just as its extra compartment springs open.
There it is—the same shade of glowing purple he only half remembers from a distant dream. With the false sunset casting light over everything and absent the drugs, he can even read the logo etched into the side. Genexcel, of course.
Fai himself… doesn’t look good. He’d been pale before, but he‘s paper-white now, blood streaming in a constant flow from the wound at his shoulder. Looks like the bullet bounced off Fai’s scapula and tore a path through the flesh and muscle from arm to neck, finally exiting just beneath his collar bone. Went all the way through, but not in any good way. Very well might have nicked an artery. Some miracle has kept him from bleeding out by now, but that’s a hell of a lot of internal damage and hemorrhaging. If this Genexcel shit didn’t exist….
He doesn’t have the time to think about it.
“More of an applicator gun, but yeah. Jean pocket, front right. Hurry—too much longer and he won’t have enough blood left for a healed body to run on.” Kurogane doesn’t need to be told twice. He locates the strange device and slides it free. He’s too worried to feel awkward about reaching into Fai’s pockets for anything. “Should be pretty self-explanatory. Just slide it in place. Changed the sharp out this morning just in case we found the…. well.”
Kurogane tries not to let his curiosity distract him from what matters. Vial, applicator, vein, in that order. He’s never had to inject anyone with anything before. Aren’t most injections just straight into muscle or fat? Why does he need to find a vein anyway? All he has are second-hand understandings based on wartime blood drives and yearly physicals. What if—
Fai’s arm jerks beneath his hand and nearly gives him a heart attack.
“D-don’t—” the idiot stutters. Kurogane ignores his protests, teeth gritted firmly closed. He stops wondering whether his charge is actively suicidal and accepts it as fact, pushing the weakened limb back into place where he can examine it.
“So help me, you jerk, you’re going to let the good Lieutenant save you or you will find out how a computer haunts a ghost.” At least he has one Fai on his side. Kurogane tries to copy the move Fai pulled last night, stretching the thin skin at the bend of Fai’s elbow.
“—but—what if he…?” the asshole jerks his arm away again. How is he even conscious at this point?
“Yeah? What if he does? How exactly are you going to get him medical care if you don’t live long enough to find him? Hold fucking still.” Fai stops trying to fight as the words register, expression twisted into as resigned a face as he can manage with his heart trying to pump his life from his body.
Kurogane doesn’t let the new information sink in just yet. He has to focus on this first—that’s a vein, right? No… just a dried trail of blood—because the implication of the AI’s rant….
There are lots of reasons to search for people. Fai-the-AI could mean anything by the word “find.” No real reason to just… assume Fai’s “stolen intellectual property” taken from a high security SF base might be a person… is there? Could the ‘Schrodinger’s hostage’ AI Fai mentioned before be…?
“There! That’s it, Kuro-sama. Just pull and hold till all the liquid’s gone.” Back in the moment, Kurogane squeezes with purpose and the mechanism fires. He has no idea what he’s doing but the AI doesn’t object, so he keeps still, watching the violet glow slowly drain.
“All of it?”
“Yeah, he’s uh… done this a few more times. Needs a much heavier dose than you.” And how has he gotten access to the strange miracle drug more than a few times anyway? No—no, more SF bullshit to figure out later.
The last of the drug bottoms out and Kurogane pulls the applicator carefully away.
“What do I do with—?”
“Pocket it; it has your fingerprints. Just do it quickly—you’ll need to hold him down. Speed healing hurts like a bitch, and without any painkiller…”
Right. He’d thought the morphine overkill last night, but judging by the way Fai’s jaw clenches, it served a sorely needed purpose. He does as he’s bid, stowing the strange device and throwing his weight against Fai’s trembling form.
“You could have warned me sooner,” Kurogane hisses, unnerved by the way Fai twitches and jerks and resolutely does not scream.
“Would you have rather watched him die instead?” The AI snaps back with equal vitriol. “It’s fine. He’s used to it.”
It does not look fine. Kurogane doesn’t consider himself an empathetic person, but Fai’s tortured expression, the way he gasps for breath, the unconscious spasms that rock his form… He finds it hard to watch. Even harder to look at the uncanny way the flesh and skin of Fai’s neck moves beneath torn fabric, knitting together center outward right in front of his eyes and holy shit. Did his hands look like that last night?
“Hn—sorry!” Fai manages to whine, gasping in a mockery of a laugh when his knee hits Kurogane’s hip hard enough to bruise.
“You’re not gonna hurt me.” He soothes, shifting his weight to get a hand behind the agent’s head. “Kick as hard as you want, if it helps.”
“It doesn’t! Nn—fuck.” Another particularly violent shudder works its way through Fai’s spine, skull bashing back against Kurogane’s palm. “H-hate this stuff.” He winces again, exhaling in quick, controlled bursts.
“You’re almost done, idiot. If you avoid getting shot in the future, maybe you won’t need the nano-repair.”
“’s a lie,” He slurs, but his voice sounds stronger by the second. “I’ll screw up again somehow.” A little color even returns to his face, flushed and high on his cheeks, but still there.
Blue eyes flutter open, trembling limbs slowly lose their tension and before Kurogane can process anything he finds himself in a rather compromising position. He rests most of his weight on his elbow and on the agent’s chest to hold him still, right hand cupping the back of Fai’s skull, face really far too close and he kind of wishes he could just—
“Hey,” Fai pants, alive and stupidly attractive and holy shit, Kurogane needs to get his act together. His hands are still wet with the man’s blood for fuck’s sake. Now is not the time.
“You alright?” he masters himself enough to ask. Fai looks…. Exhausted, but he still forces his features into a smile.
“Good as I can be, I guess.”
“Great.” Kurogane detangles himself from Fai’s person, pressing his left palm to the new, pink skin at Fai’s collarbone instead. “Don’t do this shit again, got it? Leave the protecting to me.”
He feels it when Fai sighs, beneath his hand and in the warm rush of breath that brushes his cheek. Long fingers pry his own away, and the agent shifts, leveraging himself up in a sitting position against the abandoned car.
“You’re still too sweet, Lieutenant.” He charms with that same, sad smile from last night in a hazy dream, and Kurogane takes that for a resounding ‘No way.’ Asshole. Fai stares into the open car and reaches inside, re-pockets Kurogane’s knife. “Where are we?”
“New Spirit backlot in the third ring. About five blocks from the Storage place, actually. Also? Turn your fucking silence off—I need to yell at you.”
“Pass,” Fai singsongs, head lolling back against the shredded vehicle. His AI’s nasty muttering in Kurogane’s earpiece resumes instantly. Kurogane finds himself agreeing on a few of the finer points. “No time for that. We’ve got more data to look at tonight. Need to figure out where to visit tomorrow. Might even pass out for a few hours if I’m lucky.”
He seems determined to completely ignore his near-death experience and the traumatic healing that followed. Kurogane can’t get over things so quickly but he knows better than to push Fai. He tries to compartmentalize it for later, keeps an eye on the rise and fall of the agent’s chest and forces his head to follow the conversation instead. He collects himself. Stands up.
“When’s the last time you ate?” Fai’s confusion stops him from answering faster than the digital voice whispering in Kurogane’s ear.
“Not since the burger in Mining district. He’s a moron.”
“Kuro-hen. I really don’t think that’s relevant to—”
“No. Shut up. Can you stand?” The clear dismissal sets Fai wincing, but he tries to pull himself to his feet anyway. His knees buckle before he can rise to his full height. He forces himself upright despite the protests of his body, nearly faints when his substantially lessened blood floods away from his head. Kurogane rushes forward and takes the agent’s weight as he sags, eyelids fluttering in a struggle to stay conscious. “Miracle healing or no, you need blood to live, dumbass. And you’ll need food and drink to get that back.”
“Fine! Alright, point made. Food first it is,” Fai laughs, but none of it seems very funny. He flops an arm across Kurogane’s shoulders and leans harder into his side. Looks as if they’re in for a third rendition of the drunken date act on the train…after they find some way to wash off all the gore. “I want pizza.”
“Sure. Pizza. We can call room service when we get back, and you can fucking rest.”
“No promises.” Fai grins, blood-streaked and genuine for once, far too attractive right at his shoulder. This man almost died for him today, and Kurogane still has no idea what to do with that, but every time he catches a glimpse of Fai’s real face beneath the masks he slides a little further toward something that maybe, might be—
He revises his understanding of this mission. When things started, he’d been certain that eventually, Fai’s antics would overwhelm him and he’d kill his charge in a fit of rage. Now he knows the truth; that Fai will be the death of him instead. Might kill him of worry, or with the casual warmth of a true smile at the thought of something inane like pizza. In short: Kurogane is doomed. (He resettles the agent’s weight against his side and doesn’t mind all that much)
Chapter 14: Fascinated
The answer was four. Four chapters.
At minimum five more on their way after work.
God, I hope you like this ahahaha
He has no idea how they make it back to the hotel without every Peacekeeper in the station coming to question them, but somehow they blunder through. They wash off the worst of the blood with a hose in the construction area, probably usually used for mixing cement. Fai’s mended wounds all rinse clean, but Kurogane’s various gouges and shallow gashes are a lost cause, not to mention their blood-drenched clothing. At least they both wore dark colored shirts, he supposes.
They don’t bother stopping at a pharmacy or trying to duck into a department store to look even marginally less suspicious. Fai’s nearly drunk with blood-loss, and post-adrenaline exhaustion doesn’t treat Kurogane much better. They just want to get somewhere away from prying eyes and crash.
Twilight and peoples’ general tendency to want to ignore trouble both work in their favor. Almost frighteningly so; any time a passerby so much as stares too long, all Kurogane has to do is glare menacingly to turn them away. No wonder criminals slip under the Commander’s radar if citizenry are this easy to cow… They trip through the mag-lev system without issue and stumble back to the hotel room as the last of the artificial sunlight dims to nothing. Fai-the-AI checks the hotel camera feed at a distance and declares it clear, removing any worry of explosion or ambush.
Anxiety rides high as Kurogane guides a still-listing Fai to sit on the bed. Something bothers him, whispers worry in his ear. Maybe after the last few days he just can’t believe they made it back to the room without something insane happening. On some level he’s still keyed up and looking for trouble, just waiting for the next gunfight. Feels almost like… almost like the war never ended.
He guesses it hadn’t, really. At least not on the agent’s level.
“I’m ordering that pizza. Both of you look like zombies. Kuro-chi, you wanna go clean up some? At least one of you has to look presentable enough to answer the door and mister I-need-to-disappear here stowed his extra clothes in a rental locker.” The AI’s sarcastic tone droning out from Kurogane’s wrist unit seems less and less strange. Funny how quickly he’s gotten used to this… how much of the insanity he really doesn’t mind.
“I think I’ve got at least one set still clean if you want it. Not sure it’ll fit though,” he offers. The look Fai pins him with in return, warm and fond, more than makes up for his embarrassment.
“Might as well. Thanks, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, sure.” He finds his last shirt and a buried pair of jeans beneath a spare uniform in his duffel, sets both down on the bed beside Fai and takes an undershirt and the uniform slacks for himself. Not fashionable by any means, but he hasn’t got much choice. Everything else he brought is soaked with blood, charred by solar rays or absolutely reeks of cargo-fire.
He tries not to get fresh blood on the clean(er) clothes as he makes his way to the bathroom, the first-aid kit and the shower.
“In all seriousness though, I mean… Thanks, Kuro-san.” Something in the agent’s voice gives him pause. He freezes in the doorway, drops fabric to the tile floor. “I still think you’re crazy for sticking around, but without you… the shipment might have been lost for good. So as much as I hate to say it... Thank you. For all of it.” Red colors Kurogane’s face. He tries not to look too defensive as he glances away.
“It’s my job,” he deflects, though they both know it for a lie. Officially, he should have reported Fai AWOL and hunted for him with an entirely different intention. He couldn’t do that. Not with so much mystery still in the air… not when he’d started wondering just what Command wanted swept beneath the rug.
“If you say so.” The agent picks up his borrowed set of clothes, eyes far too knowing as he stares Kurogane down. “Go clean up, Kuro-san. There’s pizza on the way!” He swerves from sincere to false-cheer in an instant, back to his usual smiling masks. Kurogane shakes his head and shuts the bathroom door behind him.
“You know, if your GSU friends have access to sniper rifles, the balcony isn’t a great place to sit.” He protests, stepping out towards the railing in Fai’s wake. Shower water clings to his hair and to the bandages that hide his new wounds.
The agent laughs, beautiful enough beneath the starlight to steal Kurogane’s breath and his good sense both. His shirt doesn’t quite fit, neckline sliding off Fai’s shoulder and shifting indecently when the blond darts forward and steals the box of pizza from Kurogane’s nerveless hands. Holy shit he needs to get his act together.
Fai perches on the hotel room’s desk chair, which he has somehow managed to drag outside despite his obvious exhaustion.
“No way! Too much trouble for them.” Food acquired, he settles down and actually sits, fighting to open the box. “They could snipe me if they wanted, but then what will they do with the body? How will they cover it up? Who can they pin it on? Nah—far too difficult to get at me here without tipping their hand. We’re fine.” He muffles his last few words with a slice of pizza, biting into it with the ravenous hunger of someone who hasn’t eaten for a few days.
“How do you know they haven’t figured all of that out already? They could have. And don’t eat that too fast. You’ll make yourself sick.”
“Worry, worry, worry! Calm down Kuro-anxious. Have some pizza. It’s good for you.”
“That’s not—” Kurogane stops himself before he accidentally starts an argument over the nutritional value of room service pizza, and sighs with defeat instead. He doesn’t feel like dragging the heavier chair out, so he just drops to the ground beside Fai, blocking him from sight of the high-rise next door just in case. The balcony tiles radiate with soothing cool, comforting as he rearranges himself until he can sit with his back pressed to sliding glass. He bends a knee and rests his arm against it.
Fai doesn’t bother to comment on his positioning—only grins wider and wordlessly offers him a slice by nearly shoving it into his face. Kurogane takes it with a very half-hearted glare.
“It’s good, I promise. No poison or anything!” The agent cajoles, already starting his second piece, and he’s definitely going to make himself sick. Kurogane is far too tired and hungry to deal with any of it. He picks the cheese off and plops it back in the box, completely ignoring Fai’s curious stare as he tears into the admittedly decent remains.
Fai seems more invested in eating than asking questions, though he clearly wants to. He piles Kurogane’s discarded cheese on top of his own slice instead.
They eat in silence for a few minutes, somehow comfortable despite the quiet. Maybe they’re both just too exhausted to care. Starlight paints the nighttime sky, though the streetlights below render it harder to make out. Like that, choking down food with the rush of the colony zipping ceaselessly below…. They’ve just escaped a firefight and nearly died in more than one way. Kurogane has high profile stolen medical research with his fingerprints all over it still laying on the hotel bathroom floor and fuck knows what will happen if they properly examine the abandoned car in New Spirit. But here and now, somehow he feels more at peace than he has since…
Well. He doesn’t want to think about that. He pulls his thoughts back into order—tries to focus.
“Alright,” he breaks the peace to muse, just as Fai finishes the last of the pizza and sets its box aside. “When are we telling the Commander about Seishirou’s group?”
“Ah.” Fai winces, wipes his hands on the borrowed jeans, and damn it. Grease stains are so hard to get out. “I know it’s not ideal but… not until after I find the shipment. I’ll leave her a full reporting of all of it after that, but right now I’m worried about possible… retaliatory measures. It has to wait. We can write it off as my investigative discretion if they somehow cause an incident or if command comes down on you for it, but—”
“Right. AI-Fai said something about a hostage.” The agent stills mid-motion, a clearer tell than any that Kurogane has stumbled on to the truth.
“He did, did he?” Fai grouses, throwing a dirty look back into the empty room where his wrist unit sits abandoned atop his bed. “Sorry, Lieutenant. You’ve helped us more than I can say, but I can’t explain it to you. There’s too much at stake.”
“Figured you’d say as much.” He doesn’t need Fai to explain. That refusal to answer is as good as a confirmation. Possible hostage in the way, keeping Fai from reporting everything. More than likely given context clues that this hostage is the “shipment” SF sent Fai chasing.
That possibility suggests a lot of implications he doesn’t like… he’ll just have to stick around and see this thing through to the end. No reason to expect the worst. Maybe a high profile scientist was kidnapped, and SF wants the whole thing kept on the down low. No particular reason to think of that tiny girl he’d ferried over a battlefield.
“Sorry. I know you have a lot of questions.”
“A fair few, yeah.” So many. How does Fai know about that Genexcel shit and where did he learn about it? Why do GSU agents recognize him on sight? Why doesn’t Command trust him? Why does he seem to have zero concern for his own safety? Where the hell did he get or make an AI? “None you’ll answer though.”
Fai grimaces, leans a little further back in his chair, but offers nothing in his own defense. Frustrating as always, but his silence changes little. Kurogane wishes he could see more than the barest truth of the agent, but he supposes he doesn’t really need to. Fai is, at his core, someone good. He has faith in that—doesn’t require anything more.
He just wants more. Fai is a puzzle that fascinates him—combat ready, handy with a knife, far too involved with the covert side of the war for Kurogane’s comfort, and yet he’d somehow skipped zero-grav training. All his secretive SF bullshit—the AI and the mystery drugs and his hidden rank and designation—he doesn’t have the context to make it make sense. Obviously, Fai has some serious skill with technology, but top researchers don’t take espionage missions on the regular; they’re too valuable a resource. He’d have to be an operative of some sort, but that doesn’t…
Wait. Actually, now that he thinks on it…. Hadn’t one of the GSU said Fai had a “fire team?” As SF, that could put him in—
Kurogane stares with narrow eyes as the mystery clicks into focus. That… that makes a lot of sense, actually. Fai’s tendency to plunge headfirst into danger like he thinks he’s invincible—the uncaring way he’d reached for super-heated metal, as if he didn’t think it could hurt him. He’d clocked Alcyone and knew her by name. He apologized for Kurogane’s injuries as if he thought… as if he should have been able to prevent them.
Command wants him watched, but no matter Fai’s disobedience they can’t afford to burn him out entirely. Psychics are a huge investment, after all.
“What?” Fai buckles beneath his peering gaze, clearly uncomfortable, but Kurogane can’t look away. Maybe he could write it all off as a fantasy—maybe Fai just involves himself with SF’s Psy Ops and has no powers himself, but he knows that’s not it. He’s been marking down the clues, trying to write off this wild idea for days, but he sees it now. Fai had launched a pillow at the hotel wall hard enough to burst it. That alone should have given him pause.
Fai had protected Kurogane from solar radiation with a corona of blue and white. He thought he’d been hallucinating then, but he hadn’t, had he?
“Seriously, do I have sauce on my face or something? I’m not usually that messy of an eater, but—"
“You could have shielded yourself from that bullet today, couldn’t you.” It’s a revelation and an accusation in one. That image—the instant Fai had taken a shot meant for Kurogane—it’s frozen in his mind’s eye. He can see it perfectly, and he knows that pose—the way Fai sprang up and held both hands out like a Psy-Ops shock-trooper throwing out a barrier. Except he hadn’t.
Fai’s false smile freezes on his face, nearly manic as his thoughts visibly race behind his wide eyes.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he tries to deflect. His voice gives no indication, but Kurogane has an easier time reading people than most. He can see the lie in the frozen tension of Fai’s body—in the way he takes too much care not to show a single tell.
“Sure.” Kurogane lets sarcasm color his tone and tries not to feel too guilty for the mounting panic behind Fai’s expression.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to lie and hide someone’s special abilities away. Discovery by the government earns anyone found a lifelong job with the military regardless of any personal feelings on the matter. Judging by the kid he’d met during the war, Kurogane guesses they don’t have many compunctions about enlistment age either. He’d never thought that was right—had never once bought into the official instruction to report all psychics to Command.
But Fai was already part of an SF strike force, if GSU comments could serve as any clue. Why would he hide himself to the point of self-destruction?
Several of AI Fai’s more incensed comments suddenly make a lot more sense to him in context.
“Look,” Kurogane offers, “Just get one thing straight, and I drop it. If you’re hiding for some reason, I get that. I don’t have to bring it up ever again. But you had better never take on avoidable injuries just to keep things hidden from me. Do you understand?” He can’t abandon the terrifying idea that Fai had nearly died on his behalf in a way he could have very easily prevented if he hadn’t feared Kurogane’s notice. If that were the only reason—
Fai laughs, as if he doesn’t know how else to react.
“That’s your concern?”
Of course it is! He’s watched a lot of people die, but as a pilot he doesn’t usually see his colleagues go up close. He can’t get it out of his head—the way Fai’s breath had sounded, too quick, too weak and barely audible over the noise of the road even in the silent cab. He won’t ever get over the cooling warmth of Fai’s blood on his hands—far too much—or the way it had felt to hold the man down as he shook in agony. And if every single bit of it had been entirely preventable?
“Do you understand, or not, agent?” Kurogane snaps, anger twisting his attempts at placidity. Fai only sighs and looks away.
“I still have no idea what you’re talking about, but on a totally unrelated note…” His blue eyes slide back to meet Kurogane’s earnest red, smile gentling to something less forced. “I begin to believe you aren’t the type to tell tales.”
Kurogane hears what the agent doesn’t say—that it’s not fear of Kurogane knowing that keeps him hiding, at the very least.
It’s enough for now. Kurogane exhales through his nose and tries to pack his feelings back and away. Another tiny portion of the mystery of Fai combed through, but it doesn’t change anything. Ultimately, he only needs to keep Fai alive throughout this investigation. If Fai is determined never to reveal his hand for whatever reason, then Kurogane can’t factor any potential skills into his guarding detail.
“You know what?” Fai muses in the quiet, “I am way too sober for a day like today. They didn’t have any champagne on that room service menu, did they?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Kurogane deadpans. He has enough demons and memories haranguing his thoughts to consider downing a bottle himself, but Fai isn’t thinking. “You nearly went into shock for blood loss a few hours ago. No, you may not have any blood-thinner.” Even outside any meta-human abilities, Fai remains the largest vector of danger to himself. Honestly.
Fai pouts, and just like that, they stumble onto more comfortable ground.
“But Kuro-meanie, I’m thirsty!”
“Then go get—” he glances at Fai’s form, slumped into the desk chair, and sighs. “Then I’ll go get you some fucking water.”
Standing proves a difficult task, but Kurogane manages. Pushes against the glass to find his feet, frowns at the handprint he leaves behind. Fai huffs dramatically at his retreating back, but doesn’t stop him. He slides the hotel room door open and stomps his way toward the bathroom sink, head buzzing with too many thoughts.
His hands move through rote motions, filling one glass, moving on to the next. So, Fai’s psychic. That shouldn’t matter, right?
It doesn’t, really, except that it makes Kurogane think too hard and too long about all the worst facets of Federation military.
It shouldn’t matter, except that now Kurogane feels even more curious about AI Fai and Command’s hostile posturing towards the agent.
It has no relevance at all, except that tomorrow is Friday.
Kurogane swears as the glass spills over. Exhaustion-numbed limbs nearly drop it as he sets it down on the counter, heart skipping a beat.
Tomorrow is Friday. And the Commander has unknowingly invited a Psy Ops agent for dinner with Tomoyo….
Chapter 15: Untethered
This one will, on editing pass after all the deadlines are over, probably wind up broken into two chapters and heavily edited. Until then, I hope you excuse the mess/can forgive the awkwardness. It picks back up at the end, I promise. ;)
He tries to think of a way out of it but can’t come up with anything that would work. Any standard excuse he gives the Commander, she’ll just take as his usual bellyaching and demand his attendance. He could probably drop her a hint about Fai and win an out, but that would betray the agent’s hard-won trust.
He’d have an easier time convincing Fai they shouldn’t go, but what the hell excuse does he make? Kendappa wants him to come as an informal method of oversight and avoiding her will almost certainly land Fai on worse terms with the Peacekeepers. Both of them are perfectly aware of this fact. No protest he might offer would outweigh the possible detriments of drawing the Commander’s ire.
Maybe he just needs to wait until tomorrow to worry. Given their track record this week, the insanity of Fai’s investigation could swing into play and make any dinner plans impossible. They’ve been stuck in enough crazy situations that perhaps he has no reason to worry. For all he knows, they could be trapped in a satellite, hurtling out of orbit by dinnertime tomorrow.
He tries to put it out of his thoughts. He has to take Fai and his investigation both one thing at a time. For now, he just needs to get the idiot some water to drink and try to convince him to rest off all the blood he’s lost.
They’re both utterly exhausted, both stubbornly awake on the balcony for reasons neither dares say aloud. Even with the secrets hanging unspoken between them, it’s all too easy to fall back into something strangely comfortable. Kurogane doesn’t understand it, honestly. He’s known Fai less than a week, and the man rides his last nerve, but the agent is also…. Kurogane starts to have an easier time, separating out the meaningless drivel from the truth, seeing the attempts at self-protection beneath the teasing and the lies.
Kurogane spent more than a decade fighting alongside other soldiers. He made other friends. Hell, he’d somehow managed to worm his way into the Commander’s good graces, but he’d never…. He’d never really felt evenly matched. Fai laughs along as he regales old war stories in the dark, chimes in with his own heavily edited tales, and somehow makes him feel just that.
He watches a distant ship drift in a wide arc over the horizon and thinks maybe he doesn’t need to worry so much about tomorrow. Maybe he has the right measure of Fai—someone who’d do the right thing. If he doesn’t…
Well, he knows well enough where his real loyalties lie. He can carve his own heart from his chest if need be—just hopes it won’t come to that.
Fai passes out first—halfway through a wild story about escaping a GSU facility on the Solar side of controlled space by challenging his guard to a drinking contest. He’s only just getting to the good part—trying to remember how he’d disabled the alarms—when he drops off, head lolled back in his chair.
“Idiot,” Kurogane mumbles, but he doesn’t think he means it anymore. He leaves the water glasses where they lay and carries Fai to his bed.
He wakes that morning from a nightmare, because of course he does.
Kurogane tears into awareness with a scream he strangles in his throat before it can escape. He lunges forward and nearly bashes his head against the wide glass of the hotel window, still settled in the damn armchair. The sounds of screaming metal and deafening explosions fade into nothing, making way for the persistent low roar of air-conditioning and his own ragged breath. Fucking dream. Kurogane picks himself up and leans shoulder first against the balcony door, face in his hands.
No real surprise, a dream like that after yesterday, he supposes. They’d seen enough action to send his head to all the wrong places, snapping memories and fears together to build an impossible nightmare. He’d gotten the dubious pleasure of watching Fai take another round of shots, but the logic of dreams had relocated everything to his childhood home. He’d had to watch, helpless to keep the agent from bleeding out as everything fell to ruin around them, GSU warships screaming through the burning atmosphere overhead and flattening every standing structure in sight.
Stupid, really, but dreams don’t need to make sense. He stares out at the clear sky of dawn and tries to wrestle his breathing back under control before he fucks up and wakes Fai.
…assuming the agent hasn’t run out on him already.
He spins on a heel—certain he’ll find the room empty. He’d thought when he dragged Fai back to the hotel yesterday, maybe the agent had finally understood they should stick together. But what if…?
The rare sight of Fai’s slumbering form meets his examination, still messily splayed on his own bed right where Kurogane had left him just a couple of hours ago. Kurogane sags back against the balcony door in relief, heart still beating painfully fast in his ears.
What is he doing? Why does it matter so much? He watches the rise and fall of Fai’s chest and almost feels confused by just how much the sight soothes him. This level of worry, to the point of Fai’s inclusion in his damn nightmares—this isn’t just about keeping his place on the Peacekeeping force anymore. Hell, he doesn’t even know if he cares about the job at this point. He’s already put his position in jeopardy for the agent’s sake more than once.
“Are you okay?” the AI’s voice filters quietly in through Kurogane’s earpiece, apparently finally finished with whatever digital task he’d set himself to earlier. Great. The pilot’s face flushes with color as embarrassment overrules his nerves.
“Perfect,” he grits as quietly as he can. He storms to the bathroom and tries to get his head on straight.
No sense trying to sleep any longer, even with his eyes sore and his neck aching for lack of rest. Today’s Friday, and if things go wrong tonight… He doesn’t want to think about it.
Counter to every expectation Kurogane has after the last week of investigation, nothing strange happens all day as they look into a series of shady holdings across Central.
Well, nothing strange relative to an agent’s normal, he supposes. They pick up and lose a few tails throughout the day—at least one of them recognizable from the GSU shootout yesterday, but nobody makes a move. The assholes just watch, setting Kurogane right on edge and keeping him distracted throughout the day. Between the constant feel of eyes on his neck and the lingering panic of a bad night’s sleep, He doesn’t make for good company.
At least Fai doesn’t try to argue against his presence or force him to stay behind. Instead, they fall back into the shipping office routine. The agent charms every secretary and desk attendant they meet and looses his AI on unsuspecting records systems. Kurogane only needs to stand to the side and glare menacingly at anyone who stares too long. Easy enough. It’s certainly no flight mission but he doesn’t hate it. He only wishes he understood what the fuck they were looking for or why.
“Another dud?” Fai sighs just as they round the block behind some place called Green Drugstore. No watchers trail behind them at this point, but Kurogane can’t decide whether that means anything good. He glares back at the shop instead. That pharmacy had looked perfectly legitimate, but if Fai’s research brought them here they have to have some kind of piratical connection. He doesn’t like the idea that Alcyone’s group can so easily make connections with on-station business. Especially so close to Peacekeeper HQ.
Fuck, he’s going to have a hell of a time reporting all of this after Fai’s hunt ends…
“Looks like it,” the AI’s tone matches Fai’s disappointment note for note. “Honestly, they’ve got to know what you’re looking for by now. Odds are, any trace we could find has been wiped completely.”
“Assuming they even have the shipment in the first place,” Fai sighs, leaning back against the smooth concrete of the alley. “This is getting us nowhere. Let’s use the data you gathered today to try to back-trace main warehouse locations. I’ll dismantle them one at a time if I have to.”
“Wait, we’re doing what now?” Kurogane barely catches Fai’s words, almost can’t believe what he hears.
“Not up for a bit of a fight, Lieutenant?” The agent grins, sharp and dangerous before he relents, “You don’t have to come along if you don’t want to be involved, but I’m running out of time.”
“That’s not the issue.” Kurogane doesn’t make a habit of running Peacekeeper ground missions, but even he knows they don’t normally send single agents alone to storm organized crime holdouts. “Obviously, I’m all for removing them—taking out pirates is more than half my job—but not on their own turf without any kind of back up. Do you know what kind of weaponry they have access to? How many members they keep guarding each stronghold? Anything?”
“You would be facing long odds. If not in the first warehouse, then the second. And if they call in Alcyone or someone else like her…”
Fai looks as if he’s swallowed a lemon. Desperation oozes from every line of his tense form, and Kurogane knows he has to say something fast or loose the agent to another disappearance.
“Look. Commander wants to talk clandestine shit with you anyway. We’re close enough to dinner time. Just—drop her a few hints. Maybe you can arrange for some convenient raids in key locations without any official documentation. Might even let you look through more than one warehouse at a time.”
“Maybe,” Fai doesn’t quite agree, but his gaze goes distant as he thinks it through. “It’s not as simple as staging a few raids, but at the very least, if we set up checkpoints and arrange for targeted blackouts, that might…” He doesn’t bother to complete the thought—simply starts moving towards their appointment, new plans spinning in his blond head.
They catch a surface-level transport to the Commander’s apartment. Kurogane has no idea what the hell happens next. At least he managed to keep Fai from storming a pirate stronghold without any kind of plan, but he’s not sure whether that stay will continue after dinner. He tries not to think too far ahead, keeps a wary eye out for any followers, unwilling to lead them to the Commander’s door, but none show. He thinks they lost the last of their watcher crew before Green Drugstore.
Doesn’t matter—none of it will matter if things go sideways at the Commander’s place tonight. He can’t help but think of all the ways for everything to fall apart. Fai could prove untrustworthy and hurt the closest thing Kurogane has to family. The Commander could finally take exception to their trail of chaos and try to reign them in the wrong way.
This is about to suck.
“You look like shit.” Kendappa meets them at the front door, still dressed in her uniform blues. Her peering gaze drifts from the bags beneath Fai’s eyes to his sagging neckline, to the white bandages still prominently wound around Kurogane’s arms.
“Nice to see you too, Commander.” He agrees, mildly irritated when she takes the opportunity to laugh at his expense.
“Get inside, both of you. Hope you like spaghetti.”
They step into a dimly-lit genkan, specially fitted for the Commander’s usual military visitors. “Shoes off, weapons up.” She orders absently as she marches back toward the kitchen. Kurogane complies, fully used to this treatment. Commander has been bullying him into “family dinner” since she figured out he lied about his age on his enlistment forms. Fai… doesn’t seem so certain. He stares as Kurogane locks his handgun and stows it in its place.
“What?” Kurogane blurts, uncomfortable beneath the agent’s stare.
“Going in without a single weapon. You trust her that much?”
“Several times over.” Fai thinks this through, fingers blanching as they dig into his forearms with nerves. Eventually, he relents and pulls Kurogane’s old knife free from its place hidden by his hip.
“I’m going to want that back eventually, you know.”
“And leave me without anything to remember you by? How cruel, Kuro-min.” Fai teases, mood flickering capriciously as he leaves the weapon behind and flits toward the apartment proper. Kurogane frowns…at the nickname, of course! But also at the idea that… well, when all this is over… will he ever see the agent again? He hadn’t actually slowed down enough to think about what comes after the end. He’d just—
“If you two are finished whispering in the coat room, we do have business to discuss. Tomoyo, you’re in charge of the noodles.” Commander stalks from kitchen to living room, and Kurogane’s heart leaps to his throat. He thought he’d have more time—maybe find a way to keep Fai and Tomoyo from ever seeing each other.
“No problem!” Instead, the girl appears in the kitchen archway, smile wide as she scampers for a slatted spoon.
Kurogane glances from her to Fai and back again, but the agent doesn’t seem to take notice. He just maintains his path toward the commander and the living area. Oh, okay. Good. Maybe Kurogane just doesn’t understand how this whole psychic thing works—maybe they can’t just recognize each other on sight and the whole time he’s only worried for nothing.
“Don’t fret so much, Kurogane. Everything will be okay,” Tomoyo tells him with a sly look as he passes, and somehow that has an effect. Fai freezes in place—whole body stiff, face carefully blank as he tries to process.
What the hell. Why did her simple reassurance trigger a reaction when nothing else had?
No, he’s done trying to figure out the supernatural shit. He steps up and hooks a hand in Fai’s loose collar to drag him forward, mindful of the way the agent lashes out on instinct before his higher thoughts kick in. Kurogane blocks a fist flailing for his midsection and starts walking.
“Later,” he grouches, worried they might have hit a turning point, but Fai falls in line. He brushes Kurogane’s hands away, straightening his shirt as best he can with a huff of playful disdain.
“You could have warned me,” Fai whines. He tugs at his own neck, but his eyes slide back toward the kitchen.
“Lieutenant! Agent! Front and center. We haven’t got all night.” Fai pins him with a lingering look that threatens to take him apart, those blue eyes staring straight to his core. He doesn’t know what the agent searches for—doesn’t know if he finds it when he finally looks away. Kurogane keeps his peace and tries not to dwell as he follows Fai to the parlor.
Commander’s tastes run toward traditional, with a hint of modern flare. She doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, but she and her sister both have an eye for aesthetics. As a result, her apartment is all sleek lines and dark wood floors, soft cushioned seating around a central, low coffee table. In total, it comes off simple but expensive—just a little too perfect to feel cozy.
(She keeps a single wall scroll, a haiku written in calligraphy alongside an ink painting of an old, Sol-system flower that makes him think about his mother when he stares at it for too long. He tries not to look often.)
“Come in, take a seat. It’s just an informal dinner between friends, after all. No need to stand on ceremony.” They settle into the couch opposite the table from Commander Kendappa. It sinks as they sit, leaving Kurogane and Fai sharing personal space, pressed together at the hip.
He still feels hyper-aware of the sensation, but after the last week of insanity, he’s far too exhausted to do anything about it. The contact stays. He tries to pretend it doesn’t matter.
“Nice to finally meet you Madam Commander,” Fai charms, reaching across the table to shake her hand. His shoulder brushes Kurogane’s arm, warm even through the bandages and fucking hell he is so doomed. “The Lieutenant speaks highly of you.”
“Does he? That’s a surprise.” She glances his way, smile far too wide as she takes in their seating arrangement and Kurogane’s attempts not to react. “Wish I could say the same of you, but I haven’t seen or heard a peep from the Lieutenant since Monday.”
“Sorry to say that’s my fault. Better for the Operation to keep reports to a minimum until I finish up. I hope you won’t think badly of him on my account.” Watching the two of them flash false-smiles back and forth is like waiting for a slow-motion ship collision.
“Please, no worries at all. I thought as much. That’s why I insisted on dinner tonight. We can chat off the record. No listening devices, nothing official in the paperwork—just some time to get to know each other.”
“She’s telling the truth about the bugs at least. Nothing putting off a signal nearby except the home computers, and they’re benign.” Somehow, Kurogane manages not to jump at the sound of the AI’s voice in his earpiece, but it’s a near thing. Fai’s countenance doesn’t falter for an instant. He doesn’t know how the agent does this shit all the time.
“I’d like nothing more.”
“Excellent. First things first; Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? Kurogane doesn’t usually last this long on partnered missions and I’m just dying to know who finally managed to catch his interest.”
“Commander. Please.” This shouldn’t feel so much like bringing a boyfriend to meet his family, but it does. Kurogane tries valiantly to keep his cool and resolutely does not look Fai’s way to watch him laugh.
“Not much to say on that front, I’m afraid. I’m not very interesting.”
“Not at all? You’re a Classified in Special Forces wandering around the Capital of NH systems with no backup, handler, or SF base in the nearest six stations that we know of. You don’t think that warrants interest at the very least?”
“It’s all very exciting on paper, but I assure you, the truth is quite boring. This investigation aside, I spend most of my time locked up in a VI development lab. I’m currently devising methods of encoding learning systems to better watch camera feed data without human input.” Kurogane has no way to tell whether Fai is lying. His answer comes quickly and without hesitation, but a secret agent has a lot of practice generating falsifications on demand. Kurogane already knows Fai spent most of the war on the ground. He just doesn’t know whether Fai’s peacetime occupation actually includes VI lab work.
“If you say so. Next order of business then. Kurogane. Do you mind explaining what you were doing at the U-Storage in New Spirit?”
Panicked, Kurogane glances to Fai. The agent’s blank face gives him zero answers.
“We’ve been in and out of a lot of places. They start to blur together.”
“I suppose that’s fair, but this one’s a little different. We called to investigate reports of an unscheduled launch from New Spirit, just in time to discover that Officer Souma had already asked for the information we needed.”
“Officer Souma is very thorough,” Kurogane hazards, already certain he’s lost.
“She is! She has also been out at a conference three systems away all week. I marvel at her ability to work long distance without contact with HQ.” Ah. Well. He hadn’t known about that, in his defense.
“So that’s how you figured out Infinity’s address.” The AI warbles, unheard by all but himself and presumably Fai. The agent watches his discomfort and looks as if he might burst into laughter at any second.
“Well, since we’re being candid,” Fai starts, grinning at the commander’s nod of agreement. “Lieutenant. When I chided you for throwing your Peacekeeper credentials around for information, did you just decide to start throwing other peoples’ instead?” Kurogane doesn’t dignify that with a verbal response. He sighs and turns away to the tune of Fai’s laughter. “Sorry. Yes, we’ve been looking for a shipment, as you know. I traced it to that U-Storage from a certain cargo bay we definitely never visited. Your Lieutenant helped me find an address for the next office to check.” He very carefully doesn’t link them to the launch itself with his half-truth.
“I see. And when are you planning to hand me a report of all the locations apparently connected to the Customs bombing?”
“Are you going to talk about work the whole time?” Tomoyo chides, traipsing into the room with a tray full of food and place settings. She places it on the coffee table with a pout he knows is manipulative, but Kendappa drops her questions all the same.
“Of course not.”
They try to put everything aside and pay attention to the food, but all parties involved know it for a farce. The Commander and Fai both smile at each other like predators waiting to strike. Commander makes comments about station events, pointedly implying just a little too much about their investigation. Fai dances out of her reach every time with a quip and a turn of phrase, happily in his element.
Tomoyo winds up settled daintily between Fai and her sister. She continuously tries to lead the discussion toward personal details like latest fashions and favorite foods, frowning every time they linger on station events too long. Try as she might, her attempts never seem to stick. He can see her getting frustrated.
Kurogane catches her eye, mischievous as she watches Fai and the Commander banter about post-war demilitarization programs. She looks… far too self-satisfied. Kurogane braces for something terrible and—
“Would you pass me the cheese, please, Sergeant?”
Almost without thinking, Fai reaches over and sets the requested item in Tomoyo’s reach. The table goes immediately silent. Commander glances from Fai to Kurogane’s cringing expression to Tomoyo and back, putting the pieces together just as he had last night. Sergeant is a non-commissioned combat rank, even in SF. And most combat personnel in SF are Psy Ops.
“How the hell did she—”
“Sounds like you knew a little more about me than you let on.” Fai tosses one of his more vicious smiles in the Commander’s direction, but gives no other outward indication that anything is wrong. It’s a lie; Fai has to see the shock in the Commander’s face. He has to know Tomoyo figured it out using other talents, but he’s covering for her. Kurogane could collapse with relief.
Also, Sergeant? That asshole has been pulling rank on him completely without any justification. He’s not even commissioned. Without operational discretion, Kurogane would outrank him easy, even if only because of their differing organizational technicalities.
“Can’t blame me for digging, can you? You’ve been monopolizing my best pilot all week.”
“I suppose that’s fair. Maybe next time you don’t share with Miss Tomoyo, though.”
“Of course.” Kendappa agrees, seeing the olive branch offered. “I’ll be more careful with the files I take home. She’s nosey at the least opportune times.”
“I feel like I’m missing something.”
“Oh, are we complaining about each other now? I see. In that case, Fai, you should know, Kurogane has zero fashion sense and a rather unfortunate intolerance for dairy,” Tomoyo stage whispers, unfazed by her casual reveal as she drowns her own pasta in parmesan. Kurogane doesn’t know what game she’s playing, but he knows his part in it well enough.
“You’re going to make your stupid self sick with that sawdust.” He has to reach around Fai to snatch the shaker straight from her hands. Fai’s heartbeat pounds hard enough that Kurogane can feel its rhythm through his skin, a rapid tattoo in the space where their shoulders meet. He pauses—tries to ask whether Fai is okay without words, but the agent won’t meet his eyes.
“I’d already figured out the bit about the fashion sense,” he deflects instead, tugging at the shirt he borrowed and—come on, he’s not that bad, really…
Tomoyo giggles coquettishly into her napkin. Even the Commander hides a smirk behind another large-bite of spaghetti. Great. At least they can all agree to laugh at his expense.
“I’ll have something else ready for you to wear by the time you get back then.” Tomoyo decides with a wide smile, her violet eyes backlit with a power they all pretend not to notice.
“Ooooh.” Well. Most of them. “Okay now I get it. Come on. I can’t sense these things for myself—I’m digitally disadvantaged. Throw me a few lines of double speak every once in a while why don’t you?”
“Get back from what?” Kurogane needn’t bother asking. In the same instant, Fai and Tomoyo both turn to stare at the same point in the middle distance, as if listening to a music that only they can hear.
“Shit,” he hears Fai hiss, immediately setting his food down and jumping to his feet. Kurogane follows suit with a worried glance toward the Commander. “They have to have noticed you. They’ll find you in a heartbeat if they haven’t already unless…” Fai’s jaw clenches, tiny muscles at his neck and collar tightening with nerves as he fights to come to some decision. “Do you know where he is?”
“Tomoyo, don’t—” Kendappa tries to bark in time, but there’s little she can do when the kid puts her mind to something. Tomoyo’s hair floats slightly as she ponders Fai’s question with intent, violet eyes glowing bright enough to cast reflections against the glass bowls and cups of water.
“Not exactly, there’s a lot of interference. I know he’s not on station though.”
“Good enough,” Fai agrees, and without a single word of warning, he lights up like a beacon.
Fai’s blue and white energy blankets the whole room, swirling like an aura of stars that lingers behind Kurogane’s eyelids every time he blinks. It’s his “hallucination” from the spacewalk exactly, and he’s not at all surprised. Still, he’s never stood this close to the nexus of psychic power before—especially not something like this. He can actually feel it—a vibration that travels from Fai’s bones to his in the scant centimeters that separate them.
“What the hell are you doing, Agent?” Kendappa demands, just as lost as Kurogane while Fai turns gravity off. He doesn’t answer—too focused on whatever the hell he’s doing. Fai lets them all float, completely weightless for a handful of seconds, his eyes like two blue suns. Tomoyo laughs somewhere to the right, but the light makes it hard to see. She must be enjoying their sudden state of weightlessness—furniture drifting away from the floor. The coffee table bumps gently into Kurogane’s shin and starts sliding in the opposite direction.
“He’s hiding a needle in a haystack!” Tomoyo sounds perfectly composed, if far too amused for this situation. A whole cup’s worth of water drifts dreamlike across his view. “Or perhaps a needle in a needlestack is more precise.”
“Perhaps,” Fai breathes, and his bright eyes flutter shut. Everything settles back into place, slow and tightly controlled. Dinner slides back into a variety of containers, feet touch the floor and the flare of blue-white fades away just as the couch hits the ground with a soft, final thump. “Don’t try to Look anywhere else this week, just to be safe, got it, Princess?”
“Agent, Lieutenant. We’re not done—“ the Commander demands, but Kurogane knows something has just changed in a major way. He could follow Fai or follow her orders, but not both. And he thinks… well, he trusts Fai and Tomoyo with his life… He trusts Kendappa too, but she doesn’t have as much information and hasn’t he made a point of ignoring orders lately? Maybe she should expect it.
“I know, I know—full reports at the end, I promise. Just—something came up.” He’s winded. Kurogane has no idea what Fai’s capabilities include or how much effort they demand, but he understands suddenly why Fai had never bothered learning Zero-G movement. Fucking Telekinesis. And apparently a hell of a lot of control. He hadn’t spilled a single drop of marinara sauce with his little trip.
“Trying to access local cam feeds…. Where am I looking?”
“We’re heading… maybe three or four blocks toward the Space port. If you don’t hear from us in an hour, you’ll probably want to call for back up.” Fai admits, answering his AI at the same time, rushing for the door. Kurogane sticks close enough to see the way he trembles slightly with every step. Shit—should they really be rushing toward a fight?
“On it. Relaying through a local network for a signal boost. Standby.”
“I have something you should take with you, Sergeant!” Tomoyo chirrups, heedless of her sister’s glaring. She slingshots back to the kitchen and starts rummaging through cabinets and drawers. Kurogane can’t pay attention to her. He’s too busy scrambling after Fai—uncertain of what they’re doing or why, only knowing for sure that Fai’s trying to protect Tomoyo in some way. He can’t help but be grateful for that.
Kurogane hands Fai the knife and starts strapping his gun back into place. They move around each other as if they’ve always known how.
“Found them. Alcyone’s crew—just barely caught her profile before she disabled the cams outside the grocery near Customs. Cross-referencing with our warehouse data and… yeah. They don’t have a single base out there that we know of. Whatever they’re up to, it’s not their norm.”
Well at least they aren’t rushing to a stronghold. And Fai has already asked Kendappa for an emergency back up, so… maybe this is as much concession to safety as Kurogane could have hoped for.
“Here you go!” Tomoyo appears in the entryway, elbowing Kendappa aside to pass Fai a plastic bag full of beautifully decorated cookies. Fai tears into it without fanfare and shovels one in his mouth with a brief nod. Tomoyo takes pity on Kurogane’s baffled stare. “Our, ah… abilities burn a lot of calories.”
“Full report, I promise!” Fai shouts behind himself as he gets the door back open, words muffled by baked-good. Kendappa pins Kurogane with a poisonous glare, her arms crossed, fingers tapping at her bicep.
“Lieutenant… this mission doesn’t look like it falls within the parameters we originally discussed. You’re enjoying this way too much.”
“No time, talk later,” he finishes lacing his shoes and dodges her disdain with a half-hearted salute, Tomoyo’s delighted laughter trailing in his wake as he catches up to his errant agent. Fai powers through his second cookie, and the unnatural pallor of his skin already looks a shade closer to normal. They charge on—through the hall and into an emergency staircase, leaping whole flights at a time with only a hand on the banister and basic free-running knowledge to keep him from breaking an ankle. Kurogane can’t help the grin that threatens to escape, adrenaline racing through his blood as Fai leads on. Kendappa might just have a point.
Chapter 16: Pinned
I hope someone reads this, because I am SO happy with this chapter and I have this terrible sneaking suspicion that no one will get far enough in to see it.
Fai sets a breakneck pace through the walkways and back alleys of Central—hurtling through a maze on a path Kurogane can’t predetermine. Every hundred steps or so, he flings out a spike of power—harmless feats of telekinesis in miniature, too small or quick for any passersby to catch. Shop signs swinging in a false wind, open windows slamming shut, a pebble of concrete spinning into the street. Fellow Pedestrians stare after them occasionally as they race past, but the crowd thins the further they run. Central has a vibrant nightlife, but the offices and government buildings more common near the Space Port don’t participate.
“You give up on ignoring your skillset?” He can’t help wondering, as they round an ugly, yellow-tiled building exterior into an empty alleyway.
“I couldn’t show my hand if there was a chance our… potential hostage might suffer for it. Your princess gave me an out and put herself in danger doing it. So now I’m…” He cuts himself off as their path dead-ends, pausing momentarily to look at his wrist unit and the strange map depicted there.
“We’re leaving a trail,” the AI jumps in to explain, “Most Psychics can feel powers go off, but details are hard to read. If he makes a big show and uses himself as bait, he can hide Miss Tomoyo’s search. At least I assume that’s your logic. Combatants last spotted one more block. Keep right to avoid the cams.”
“Got it.” They head off again, top speed. Fai spends his next bubble of power to float his half-empty bag of cookies into Kurogane’s chest. “Hold these, will you?”
“I’m not your damn minder!” Or so he says, but he doesn’t drop them.
“Gotta admit, I can’t help but be curious. How long have you known about her?” Fai gasps for breath between words, their shoes pounding hard and loud on the pavement.
“What do you mean, ‘Known what?’ Obviously, he’s asking about—oh. Oh!”
“She’s a fucking kid, alright? She deserves a childhood, and after that, she deserves to make her own decisions. I don’t know shit about anything that might threaten that for her, and neither do you.” He’s trying to keep up, starting to get tired as they fly through the alley, but he spares a glance at Fai all the same. The agent is smiling again—a real smile—soft and so honestly pleased he nearly trips at the sight.
“Damn it, Lieutenant, stop making me like you more.” The AI whines. Fai laughs.
“Suddenly, I don’t remember what we were talking about.” He commits to the lie, still grinning and damn it all, Kurogane believes him. He’ll keep the Commander’s worst-kept secret. “Completely unrelated of course,” Fai continues, dodging a pole that ends at waist height with an artful spin and launching up a short cement staircase. “But certain pirates and other undesirable groups like to poach young people. Even better at finding marks than Federation scouts. Anyone worried about a kid under the radar should probably keep that in mind.”
“I’m sure they will.”
“We’ll send a damn dossier when this whole thing blows over. Combatants last spotted passing the corner one hundred feet to your right. Might want to cut the chatter.” The AI’s directions lead straight to a warehouse, to no one’s surprise. “Can’t tell if they stuck around, but I know they walked past this intersection at the very least.”
“No, I can still feel things flaring in there. Pretty sure it’s a fight.” They draw to a stop, take a moment to catch their breath before they try to determine the best way to approach. The warehouse looks unassuming enough, if over-large. It easily outsizes some of the stockpiles they’ve already visited in Mining District. Not a soul stirs in the area nearby and if someone is indeed battling within, Kurogane would never have guessed. He can’t hear any of the usual sounds of combat. “Any estimate on numbers?”
“They were fairly decent at avoiding cameras but based on spacing I can guess. Maybe eight to twelve?”
“Alright,” Fai laughs, “Not a problem.”
“Twelve on two is ‘not a problem?’” Kurogane wonders, voice dripping with playful sarcasm. He busies himself with the damn bag of snacks, looses the air from inside and compresses it small enough that it might fit in his pocket. He can’t afford to toss it aside if Fai needs them later, but he has to keep his hands free.
“If you were in your fighter jet, would you worry about your odds against a dozen footsoldiers?” Point taken. True enough, he has seen what a high power psychic can do—potentially more devastating to personnel than a lot of conventional WMDs with a whole lot more structural control. Command covets them for a reason. Still…
“You’re that sure they don’t have a power to match you?”
“No. But at this point I don’t have time to care. Alcyone knows something or she wouldn’t have bothered with the murder attempt. She’s the last lead I have and if I can catch her off her home turf, I have to try.” He stares through the walls of the warehouse, presumably following spikes of power use that Kurogane can’t see. “Fai, Points of egress?”
“Official blueprints say front and back door only, but I’ve got readings on electronic signals below. They’ve got a basement hidden here that didn’t make the plans. Might have a few smuggler’s passages to go with it.”
“Keep your focus on the Lieutenant, then. I’ll bust the front open.” He stretches his arms out, rolling his neck. “Fai can pop the lock on the back door to let you in, Kuro-sama. Honestly, I’d rather you stayed behind, but if Alcyone manages to pull something I can’t deal with, we’re going to need your aim.”
“You want me to sneak around and hide the whole fight?” It rankles, but Kurogane understands the logic.
“It gives us the best chance for success we’re going to get, so yes,” Fai shoots waspishly back. He can’t pull rank any more, but he looks like he’s thinking about it. “After you’re in, Fai will focus on terminals and systems—see if we can’t figure out what this place is or why the pirates are hunting here. I’ll try to end things as quickly as possible, but if something goes wrong…”
“I’ll be there.”
“I’m starting to believe you.” Fai beams, one last fleeting glimpse of genuine affection that allays his fears and sends his heart skipping. He thinks about the distance between them—how they’re rushing into an unknown danger with lives on the line. Fai’s right there, just within reach. What if he fucks up and never sees the agent again? What if something goes wrong and he never stops wondering whether they could have been—
He doesn’t have time to finish the thought. Something hits the warehouse wall hard from within. Fai jumps, takes it as a signal to start running for the front door. He throws Kurogane a nod, motioning towards the back, and just like that, the moment slips away.
Doesn’t matter, Kurogane decides, tearing across pavement to get into position in time. He refuses to come away from this with any regrets. They’re both coming out of here alive, damn it. If the universe has other plans, it can kiss his ass.
He’s seen a few psych encounters before—very seldomly, and usually from far too high in the air to view anything in detail. Tomoyo’s powers never included much outward manifestation, but he’s seen colony surfaces light up with flickering dome barriers and completely incomprehensible explosions across Solar and Federation space alike.
He’s never seen anything quite like this.
Fai synchs his entrance to his AI’s command, slamming the two-story warehouse doors open hard enough to knock them free of the hinges just a half second before Kurogane slips through the back door. The sounds of a fight cease for a single, surprised instant as every other eye in the room falls on Fai.
Kurogane uses the time he’s given and darts into the shadows, tucking behind a cloth-covered crate. He keeps his gun at the ready, chest high—heart pounding while he tries to figure out where to go next. He has to get his bearings—find the layout.
The large, mostly empty space reminds him a little of U-Storage’s launch bay. Construction materials and the debris of a wild fight both line the space along the walls, making Kurogane’s path perilous in the shade of the second floor catwalk up above. At its center, the room stretches up to the roof, granting enough height for the cranes and other building equipment stored inside. Nine plainclothes combatants dot the landscape Kurogane can see, five with firearms. Before Fai’s entrance, they had apparently been attempting to over-power two vaguely familiar young women. Cat, of course. He’d almost expected to see her somehow. He doesn’t remember where he’s seen the blonde she hides behind before though. He certainly doesn’t recognize the golden barrier that shields them, patterned by fractals of energy that spiral like a spider’s web.
It’s a lot to take in at once. He has the barest instant to try to decipher the scene and find a position to wait from. Fai draws all the attention, floating across the warehouse floor. Every other weapon in the fucking room takes aim at Fai’s head. Kurogane’s stomach refuses to stop summersaulting with worry, but the agent doesn’t even flinch. He simply stares back with the same level of disinterest he’d shown Kurogane what feels like an eternity ago, blinking carelessly down the barrel of a gun. That makes more sense now. Barriers—Fai can do barriers, right? And now that he’s not worried about hiding he won’t stop himself from—
A bevy of shots rings out through the night, every one aimed true, and every one utterly useless against the starry shell of Fai’s power. His smile is a terrifying battle-mask as he sends lead ricocheting back towards his would-be assailants, brings his hands back together in front of his chest in a move that shatters his own shield and compresses it outward in a wave of force.
Chaos reigns. Guns and bodies hurtle toward the ceiling in a cacophony of startled shouts and clanging metal as those without any kind of psychic defense lose the fight before it even starts. “Who the fuck is that?!” and “The Witch sent backup!” both carry over the noise, barely. He scarcely has time to register the words. Too much power for Kurogane to track sets the whole warehouse alight with flashing color. He can’t count the number of heavy objects in flight, or decipher the mix of flames and… lasers? That take the place of conventional ballistics.
Five assailants remain, that Kurogane can see. Two keep their efforts trained on the women beneath the gold spider web, hacking away at the barrier. The rest focus on Fai. He recognizes Wallflower—Alcyone in their midst, body wreathed in dull crimson the same shade as her lipstick. She stops a flying steel beam from slamming into her skull with a flash of power that halts it dead and a far-too-satisfied grin. It falls, bent to the shape of her form, as she spins a handgun carelessly through her fingers.
“I’d been wondering who might show up! How fortunate! I’ll catch all three of you at once.” She’s barely audible over the roar of the fight. Fai doesn’t pause to pay her any mind. He waves a hand, makes it look effortless as he obliterates a mint-swirled enemy barrier and crushes two weaker opponents to the floor. The stream of fire sputters and dies out.
“Don’t get distracted. She’s way too confident for someone who just lost most of their attack squad, and if I’m judging that electronic signal right they have a—shit.” The AI sounds increasingly panicked, which suits Kurogane not at all. He starts making his way, silent as he can through the cluttered edges.
“What am I looking for?” He whispers, hoping desperately the AI can hear him. A stray laser glances off the golden dome and singes his brow as it burrows into the wall. He barely ducks the whiplash of electricity that follows. Holy shit, this is insane.
“Have you ever seen a Tessla coil? It looks like that. You have to find it. Now, before she—”
The change is instantaneous. Fai drops solidly back on his feet, no longer drifting through the air with power. The gold barrier sputters into dust, all lasers cease. Every psychic in the room winces. Even Fai spares a moment of weakness, fingers tangling in his hair and teeth gritted tight against what looks like a painful headache.
“Got you,” Alcyone lilts, clearly ecstatic despite her own grimace of pain. He supposes she has reason to. With all powers nullified, she’s the only one left with a firearm.
…except for Kurogane. Fai was right. If he stays hidden and plays this right, maybe he can swing the tide back in their favor.
Laser and Lightning both shift tactics, drawing hidden blades from their clothes and moving to overtake the Palace duo. Cat changes gears too, arming herself with a set of knives and taking point for her blond friend.
“Come on, jerks. Powers or no, bet you my claws are sharper!”
He rounds a corner, gets a new angle and notices a woman he hadn’t seen at first glance. She steps out from the shadows opposite his position, takes up one of Fai’s familiar poses and starts flickering through wrist unit interfaces at her boss’s side. Hopefully, she’s not radioing backup.
“Without the sound barrier, Station Law Enforcement arrival likely. I recommend you wrap up quickly.” She doesn’t bother looking up as she talks. Probably scrambling reports.
“…It’s not on this floor. You’ll have to get to the stairs and look there. Hurry. His powers don’t play nice with restraints.” The AI doesn’t have to tell him twice. He steps as silently and quickly through shadow as he can. The stairs up are across the room to the left, just past the knife fight between Pirates and Palace. “I have no idea how she managed to sneak one on station—they’re a fucking limited military resource. Must have taken it with her when she went AWOL.”
“I thought I recognized you. One of the Flourite twins, right?” Alcyone purrs, stepping away from her assistant and sweeping around Fai in a wide arc. Kurogane can’t afford to pay attention to her monologue, even if the word “twin” sends his thoughts skipping. He doesn’t have a path to the stairs without drawing the attention of Cat and co.’s assailants. He needs a plan… “Which one are you again? It’s ever so hard to tell you apart.” She pauses to laugh, like a comic book villain. He hopes Fai’s taking advantage of her showmanship, but— “Or at least it was, until the spare died.”
What the fuck.
No, no. Kurogane closes his ears to it and forces himself not to look to Fai. He can’t afford to think about it now—plenty of time to process the implications of all that later. (What does it mean, for the AI and Agent to take the same physical appearance now? “We’re the same person, aren’t we?” AI-Fai had asked once, terribly bitter and now he wonders—)
In his distraction, Kurogane makes a misstep. He clips a low shelf with his knee, and sends a small cadre of thin rods scattering over the floor. They go rolling into the light, but the knife fighters are all far too busy to notice.
Hiding behind her ferocious friend, however, the blonde lady hears. She catches his eye, her own widening with recognition, and she… nods.
Still uncertain, hoping this won’t cost him everything, he nods back.
“Honestly, I’m just surprised you remember that much, Alcyone. You never were one for the details.” Hard to hear Fai over the noise of Cat yowling at Laser and Lightning, but he can’t help but track the sound of the agent’s voice—like he’s tuned to it. “Do you think that’s why you and Zagato never worked out?”
“Be silent!” She roars, firing a round in Fai’s direction. Kurogane can’t stop himself from looking, head stuck on the replay of a nightmare even if he knows better.
He barely gets the chance to see that Fai is alright (Seething with rage but uninjured, armed once more with Kurogane’s knife) before Cat’s friend throws him for a loop. She sticks to Cat’s shadow, darts beneath Cat’s next slash and lassoes the sash at her waist over Laser’s unsuspecting neck.
The pirate struggles against fabric with one hand, flailing wildly with the other while Cat keeps Lightning distracted. Blondie has an easy time redirecting his motion and spinning him, choking and unable to speak, straight towards Kurogane. Laser stares, wide-eyed as Kurogane disarms him and chokes him out. Safer to kill him, but Fai needs information and he doesn’t know how many Pirates lived through Fai’s earlier demonstration.
“You can’t kill me, Alcyone. What a loss of profit that would be! I’d hate to be the one to explain to your boss if you fucked up and murdered a potential acquisition.” Fai won’t stop fucking provoking her—has to be biding for time, but he doesn’t sound quite right. There’s a strain in his voice—something like congestion.
“Don’t tempt me, Fluorite.”
Kurogane frees Blond lady’s sash and waits, now that he understands what she wants. Cat dodges a swipe that should have gutted her with uncanny flexibility, and Blondie trips the asshole on the follow-through, sending him stumbling into Kurogane’s path. He punches the man’s jaw hard before he can shout and Lightning goes down like he’s made of glass.
“Where’d he go?” Cat chirps, her shout muffled by her friend’s palm when her eyes find Kurogane in the dark.
“Bind them,” Kurogane mouths to Blondie, doesn’t wait around to see if she follows his instructions before he darts for the stairs.
“Come on, come on…. He’s not gonna last a whole lot longer with the Cage up, Lieutenant.”
Unlike the shade of the first floor, the second floor offers no cover. Only chance keeps the final, well-armed pirate perched along the walkway from glancing in his direction, and of course, the device AI-Fai described is sparking merrily just beyond him.
Son of a bitch, that’s fucking cap guy.
He doesn’t have time to care. There’s an order to this. Device is highest priority, but that guy has an assault rifle and with powers out, Kurogane has more latitude to remove other threats. Second floor pirate first, then the device—fast as he can. He’s a sitting duck for any psychic as soon as the… Cage? Falls. But the AI’s increasingly frantic pleading lets him know he can’t afford to worry.
“Shoot it, before it’s too late!”
Sniping with a handgun isn’t ideal, but the Pirate’s not so far away, and he has enough time to line up the shot. Much easier than hitting a rifle receiver in motion, that’s for sure. The first shot rings out, deafening in the echo-chamber of the warehouse, and finds its mark. He doesn’t wait for the body to hit the ground before he pulls the trigger a second time, and after that... things go a bit sideways.
A second crack in the silence, the shatter of delicate glass and the sound of power humming back into full force. He doesn’t have the sense for this shit, but he can feel it on the air—not quite a smell. Sharp, present—like ozone.
He thinks to find cover but he doesn’t have enough time to get back down to the first level. Alcyone has already spotted him anyway, her eyes burning like the bleeding pits of hell as her powers flood back. Fai… doesn’t look completely conscious. He’s stuck in a daze, red in his hair. Is that blood? When—?
“Come on, dummy! Pull it together. Don’t look in her eyes she’s got—”
Not enough time. Kurogane takes aim at Alcyone next, even knowing he hasn’t got a chance of hitting her. He tries anyway—starts to pull the trigger--
Alcyone screams. Her newly restored power rides the sound of her voice, slamming into the catwalk and tearing the whole thing free. Kurogane’s gun flies from his hand and he hits the wall hard, spine first. Shooting pain rocks his skull, and that’s a goddamn concussion, but he doesn’t have time to dwell. He needs to brace for impact, but he has no defense against the shattered remains of the second-floor walkway as it pins him there like an insect, crushing him against concrete and steel. At his left, his wrist unit sparks, sends a jolt of electricity through his arm that can’t be good. He spares a thought to worry for AI Fai as the pile of debris builds, heavier and heavier until he can hear his own bones creaking. Fucking hell, he’s pinned, and he can’t—
“Don’t worry—it’s going to be okay. Any second now.” He can still hear the digital voice, so the program must be alright. That’s good. Maybe he can make sure Fai gets out? Because at this point, Kurogane doesn’t have a lot of hope for himself. Present and past blurs together. A twisting section of railing presses down hard, and his barely-healed shoulder gives way with a sick crunch. He does not cry out. He refuses to give her the satisfaction.
“Lieutenant!” The world narrows down to an event horizon of pain. He can’t feel anything except to hurt—can’t think around what’s happening long enough to find a way out. He’s going to—
Even on the verge of passing out, he still hears Fai’s voice. He watches from the perfect vantage as the agent throws Kurogane’s standard issue knife straight through the soft tissue at the back of Alcyone’s skull. Distracted with her temper tantrum, she doesn’t notice in time to defend herself.
Simple, clean. No fancy powers necessary. Alcyone falls just like her subordinate, a tangle of gore and long hair. Blood red power fades and flickers out, gravity switches directions and before he can differentiate up from down he finds himself back on the warehouse floor. Blue-white drifts across his form and leaves him wheezing at Fai’s side, more than a little delirious.
“Hey,” he mumbles.
“Hi.” Fai frowns worriedly back. That is dried blood caked at his left ear. Kurogane wants to wipe it away, but his right arm refuses to move. He turns his head to glare at it and catches sight of the dead woman lying nearby.
“I thought you needed to ask Alcyone some questions?”
“Saw someone else I knew. You were in danger… plan changed.”
“Oh.” He can’t think deeper on the words at the moment, but he likes the idea Fai had been worried over him somehow. He’s… they… need to do… something.
“Are you okay?” Fai asks, eyes moving over Kurogane’s face with naked concern.
“Fine,” he lies. “You?”
“Great.” Also a lie. Dried blood aside, the agent is shaking and pallid. He has that clammy, sallow look from after his dinnertime display, only ten times worse. Kurogane has something to fix that, right? He has—
With his left hand, he digs clumsily through his pockets, still sprawled flat on the ground. Fai stares, utterly baffled as Kurogane hands the cookies back. They are quite squashed by this point, but he knows the calories matter far more than the presentation.
“Eat those,” he demands, and, task completed, promptly blacks the fuck out.
Chapter 17: Informed
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.
Chapter 18: Connected
ALRIGHT. so this is the end of completed chapters so far. In theory, two to go.
I know i can get one done tonight for sure. not 100% certain about two, but i'm doing my best.
Please send me encouragement. I love you all
Peacekeeping forces in NH systems are a strange, piecemeal solution to post-war demilitarization efforts. After the war, the original Police of NH still needed a military wing to cooperate with in order to assure orbital security, even without the threat of GSU air raids. So, Federation Command had simply reappropriated resources, de-militarizing units of ground and air forces to fill the needs of more localized security. Functionally, they act as a combination police force and national guard, but their facilities reflect this marriage of convenience. Central Peacekeeping Station inhabits the space of the old NH Police Headquarters. All offices remain there, and it has a garage with access to street and sub-layer transport at every level. It does not have a hangar bay.
Peacekeeping flight forces operate out of a decommissioned military base on the very fringe of Mining district. This fact affords Kurogane more than a few advantages. For one thing, far fewer officers spot himself and Fai prepping for a last-minute mission at four AM on a Saturday. Central office never sleeps, but Flight squad doesn’t have as much to keep them busy. There’s a team on call in the old barracks at all times but barring an emergency they don’t wake till five. Only the standard ID checkpoint guards stare curiously as they double time it toward the fighter jets.
They also have almost zero chance of Commander figuring out what’s happening before they can leave station.
He and Fai draw a little side-eye for their disheveled appearances and lack of uniform, but the fingerprints and retinal scanners prove their IDs without issue. Fai’s status as an SF agent quells any major curiosity they might have garnered. Seems most people share Kurogane’s original flippant disdain for Special Forces’ bullshit.
He still hurts all over—the shoulder is a problem, and he feels a little uncertain about the state of his ribs, but Kurogane’s flown through worse before. At least this time, he has a co-pilot.
They book it to the lockers and toss on flight suits in the empty dressing area. Spider’s bandaging work proves a little too good. Fai has to cut him free so he can force his arm into its sleeve. He watches warily as the agent slides a familiar knife from his belt. When the hell had he…?
“You took that thing with you?” He half-laughs, trying to distract himself from the ache when Fai pulls his bandages forward and slips the knife beneath.
“Of course I did. It’s mine now.”
“Ha. So you’re just going to make me—fuck.” Fai pulls at the wrong thread and his shoulder grinds against itself. He swallows the pain, tries not to feed into the guilt he can already catch at the edges of Fai’s expression. “—Have to ask for a whole new kit at the same time.”
“Sorry.” The agent shears through the last of the bandages and lets them fall where they will, brushing them gently from Kurogane’s throbbing shoulder as he stashes the knife back away. He looks awkward in a flight suit—not enough weight or muscle to fill it out. That doesn’t seem to matter to Kurogane’s idiot heart. “Do you need help with the sleeves?”
“Maybe,” he means to sound petulant—doesn’t like admitting when he needs assistance of any kind—but the words come out too soft. He can’t look away from Fai, heart thudding in his chest as the agent’s hands brush his waist, the skin of his wrist… Fai tugs his arm gently, careful not to cause any more pain than he has to, but it’s a bad break. Kurogane loses his balance, winds up clutching Fai’s shoulder with his good hand to stay standing.
“Shit, I’m sorry—”
“It’s fine,” he huffs, and he means it. Fai stares, for once, free of any smiling masks. Too many seconds tick by and he breaks his gaze, tugging Kurogane’s collar into place.
“I still don’t understand you, Lieutenant. I got you hurt again and you’re still—”
“Not much to ‘understand.’ I told you before, I want to help. And a busted shoulder’s not going to stop me.”
“No, I guess not.” Fai tugs the zipper up from his waist, leaves his hand lingering uncertain at Kurogane’s neckline. With his right, he brushes one of the loose bangs away from Kurogane’s face, traces the line of a burn he hadn’t even noticed at his temple. “I should have saved more nano-repair. If you hadn’t wasted it all on me—”
Kurogane can’t stand to hear that kind of talk. All he can think about is Fai—how charming and beautiful and powerful he is, how much he cares about this mystery kid, how he’d run toward danger to keep Tomoyo safe. Stupid, brilliant, gorgeous man. Somehow blew into Kurogane’s purposeless life and made him feel real again. That person matters far more than his fucking shoulder. He can’t bear to hear Fai talk himself down.
It feels like the most natural thing in the world to shut him up with a kiss.
The reaction is instant—Fai meets him where he stands, kisses back sweet and slow, doesn’t leave him wondering whether he made a mistake. He slides his left hand from Fai’s shoulder to cradle the back of his neck, fingers brushing against the whispy strands at the base of a blond pony-tail. Fai’s hand clutches at his lapel, tries to pull him impossibly closer.
He wants to push for more—wants to lose himself in Fai and forget this mission might end today, but he knows better. Kurogane leans away as they break for air, leaves their brows still barely touching. Fai’s eyes slip back open—a fathomless sea of questions. He could happily drown in them.
“I’m just fine, alright? I’ll get you where you need to go.” He should back away. He should finish prep for takeoff. Still hasn’t found a helmet in Fai’s size yet. Just—a few more seconds. Maybe he’ll let Fai move away first.
“That’s not fair,” the agent murmurs, voice kiss-rough and fragile in the quiet of the empty room. He still hasn’t let go of Kurogane’s collar.
“You—giving me this now, when…” when they have no idea what happens next. Palace might be a trap waiting to spring, or it might not. Either way, if Fai finds the kid he’s looking for, the investigation ends. And after that… “What is this. What do you want it to be?”
“Not sure yet,” he admits, mouth twisting in a wry smirk. He’s been flying by the seat of his pants since he wound up on this detail. “Figured I’d let you decide.”
“I mean… if you don’t want anything… it doesn’t have to be anything. But if you do… I don’t know.” ‘I would take anything you deigned to give me’ sounds far too desperate. “Long distance relationships are a thing.”
For a few, heart-stopping seconds, silence reigns. Shit. He’s royally fucked up this time. He pushed too hard—Fai was just caught up in the moment, didn’t mean anything by it and he assumed too much. What is he doing, distracting them both this way? He sighs, tries to pull away before he can make this more embarrassing than it already is. “Sorry. I’ll just—”
This time, Fai cuts him off mid-word. The agent sets his head spinning with a quick but passionate kiss, delving into his mouth, crashing into him hard enough to force him backwards a step and oh. That’s—
“Just in case I don’t get the chance after we land.” Fai pants, beaming and out of breath when he pulls away. He releases Kurogane’s firmly crushed neckline and smooths it out with his fingers. “I’ve never done long-distance before. Can’t promise I’ll be any good at it.”
“Me neither,” Kurogane grins. He’ll have to get a new wrist unit for sure. He lets go of Fai’s hair, tries to brush some of it back into place. They’re getting carried away. Right. Helmets. And Palace. And maybe an ambush. He knows they have a lot more to face, but he feels stupidly invincible right now.
His earpiece shrieks with a terrible noise of feedback. Kurogane and Fai both spring backwards, clutching at their heads.
“Hello. This is your friendly neighborhood sentient computer. Just a couple of notes. First, you two are scheduled for takeoff in five minutes, so you may wish to hurry. Second, please warn me in the event of another shameless display like that, so that I can reroute all processing power to minesweeper for the foreseeable future.”
“Fai, I’m going to upload you to a washing machine.” The agent yells, still massaging his right temple, face bright red with embarrassment. Kurogane feels his own cheeks burning, but he can’t say he minds all that much. His mouth still tastes like sugar cookies.
Five minutes. They’ve got a flight to catch.
For all his body complains, they manage a smooth takeoff, right on time in the early morning hours before the dawn lights kick in. He waits, sure that they’ll get a hail from Commander Kendappa at the very last second before they leave orbit, but his comms remain silent. They actually fucking get away with it.
Take off and orbit out of the way, they still have a long flight to Palace. NH-0N may be its nearest Capital system, but it’s not close to Unregulated space by any means. Even with FTL engines and a long range, high-speed ship they won’t make it there before ten NH standard time at the earliest. About Six hours—assuming no strange solar winds or unexpected gravity pools—just barely close enough that he won’t need to find a way to stop and re-fuel.
Kurogane probably isn’t fit to fly, especially with a concussion only about six hours old, but he doesn’t care. His right side is a mass of hurt, but he’s not experiencing lung pain, so he figures he’ll be alright. He can get it back in a sling after… whatever they’re hurtling toward plays out. He has Fai-the-AI and autopilot to make up for his weaknesses on that side in the meantime and he’s back in the stars for real. He feels like he can actually breathe for the first time since that last shitty anti-piracy mission. Between the excitement of finally making it out of NH systems and whatever the hell he may or may not have started with Fai, he’s on fucking cloud nine.
He pulls into a tight roll and buzzes an unoccupied asteroid just for the thrill of it.
“Wahoo!” Fai’s excited calls echo over the helmet speakers every time he sends them in a dive or pulls a tight curve. Slingshotting off a gravitic field in FTL earns him a surprised shriek that turns into full-fledged laughter. “And here I thought those bars of yours were just for show!”
“Not hardly,” he scoffs. Re-setting their orientation to prep another jump through the next spate of empty space. “This is easy mode. We’ve got an undamaged ship, enough fuel we don’t need to plan coasting sections, and no one’s shooting at us. Bars are for living through the really dumb shit.”
“Zero G means you keep your inertia. Cut engines at the end of an FTL jump, and you can coast near light speed until something pulls you off course. Makes travel time longer, but you can stretch fuel so far that way it doesn’t matter—just need enough for quick FTL bursts.”
“That’s insane,” The AI contributes helpfully, and Kurogane shrugs—ow. Okay, mistake. No shrugging.
“Saved my ass more than once.” He glances down at the mapping interface, makes sure he’s not cutting any corners too close, and fires the next round of FTL. He’s not exactly using standard routes of travel, but there’s no well-known direct route from NH-0N to Palace he can follow. Just needs to keep his head on a swivel for the next few hours. Especially during jumps.
An unknown gravity field flags on screen and Kurogane corrects course. No asteroids or systems out here on record. Could be a pirate ship or a derelict. Doesn’t matter; as long as it’s alone, he doesn’t need to care.
He brings them out of FTL again in a roll and earns another laugh from Fai.
“So this is what you spent the war doing, Kuro-crazy? Fancy flight tricks, long range trips on uncharted routes, scouting paths behind enemy lines. How glamorous!”
“Yeah. Real glamorous.” He deadpans, trying not to think too hard about the missions he took. He loved flying, but his mission selection criteria weren’t pretty. He’d started with ‘Which mission lets me kill the most GSU?’ spent a few years trying out, ‘Which mission will get me killed?’ before he’d evened out and finally settled on, ‘What can I do that no one else can?’ “What about you?”
“Well, obviously you saw a lot of time working covert action, but you had a fire team, right? Did Command bounce you between covert and front line?”
“Ah.” They start drifting a little too far towards a nearby dwarf star system. Kurogane engages stabilizers and adjusts accordingly. He wishes for the first time that his jet had side-by-side seating instead of its typical two-row arrangement. He can’t turn around far enough to look at Fai’s face, and the silence makes him nervous.
“Sorry. The war’s a sore spot for a lot of people. You don’t have to say if you don’t—”
“No, it’s fine, it’s just… I still need to figure out how to talk about it.” Fair enough, he supposes. SF and Psy Ops still have their secrets, whether Fai trusts him or not. Maybe this is just a confidentiality thing and he’s not supposed to know— “Why did you enlist?”
That catches his attention. Kurogane frowns, not sure he likes where this is going. He tries not to think about it too hard—keeps a steady eye on the rushing stars outside as he answers. Maybe it’s better for Fai to know if they’re going to be… a thing, anyway.
“Pretty standard reason. I wanted revenge.” He hadn’t cared about Federation or Solar politics—or the resource jockeying that led up to their conflict. He didn’t give a shit about governments or morality—Actually, the Federation falls on the wrong side of that line more often than he likes. He’d just wanted to hurt the people who killed his parents.
“Did you get it?”
“Not really. Not in any way that matters. Killed a lot of people. Didn’t bring anything back.” He doesn’t ask why Fai enlisted. He has a feeling the agent didn’t get much choice.
“How old were you?”
“That’s a trick question.”
“Young. Why?” He hears Fai exhale over the comm, feels the agent’s helmet come forward and press into the back of his headrest.
“Because if you want to talk about my team, it’s…. Psy Ops isn’t a nice place. There’s no legal protections on people with powers—less now more than ever. They ‘recruited’ us when we were ten, before the war even started.”
Shit. He’d suspected as much, but it still makes him feel sick to hear. He hadn’t fought to defend the Federation. He’d fought to kill, maybe later because he wanted to make Kendappa proud, but he still feels guilty on some level for protecting the nation with a policy like that.
“Obviously, we didn’t want to be there. Many don’t, and it’s hard to control people with powers on a macro scale, so they… get creative with motivation. They give us teams, let us learn to care about each other so they have hostages they can use if they need to keep us in line.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yes. And highly confidential, and if you ever breathe a word of it to anyone, my team is on the line, so…”
Kurogane struggles to think of something to say but flying distracts him. He spots a derelict warship just in time to avoid crashing into it, has to strain his shoulder throwing the ship in a vertical dive to avoid it. Fucking thing—still careening through space at its last velocity with nothing to slow it down. Why the hell is its camouflage unit still functional anyway? He tries to shake off the adrenaline rush and brings the ship back to a better course. Hopefully he’s not about to find a damn battlefield.
Fai doesn’t comment on the near miss so Kurogane doesn’t bother apologizing for it.
“So this kid you’re looking for. He’s one of your…?”
“Yes,” the agent sighs. He sounds so tired. “You heard what Alcyone said. They killed my… One of us died. I wasn’t very interested in following orders after that. Convinced myself I didn’t care about anyone or anything else—they could give me teammates if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to do anything for them. It worked for a while. Frustrated the hell out of them till they figured out I had a weakness for kids.”
“He’s Tomoyo’s age, isn’t he.”
“Just about. He was seven when they assigned him to me.”
“Fuck.” He understands Bat a little better—he would have sprung a kid out of Psy Ops in a heartbeat. “Why are we chasing him down then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you want him to be able to leave? Like Bat said.”
“I do, just…it’s complicated.”
“Not that complicated. He’s one of five kids they’re holding over our heads. The other four suffer if we can’t at least make our search look convincing, and he’s also…”
“His powers are a little different. He can’t not use them. He puts off signal at all times and he kind of… passively recharges other psychics. He’s easy to find, and if the wrong person got ahold of him… Psy Ops sucks, but there are worse places to be kept.”
“Right,” he sighs. Another ship like theirs, wingless and missing its engines, goes spinning past on the leeward side. Great. They’ve found a battlefield for sure. “Fai 2.0, can you put your systems on proximity alarms? We’re likely to come up on a lot of debris.”
“Sorry. Really killed the mood there, didn’t I.” Kurogane manages to stop himself from committing the mistake of shrugging a second time.
“No, I mean. It’s nice.” Wrong word, wrong word! “Or—fuck. That shit with the kids isn’t nice at all. Just—I keep trying to figure you out, but I’ve learned almost nothing. It’s good to know you can tell me some things.”
Fai stays silent for a while after that. Kurogane has to focus on the potential minefield waiting in front of them, so he scarcely notices. He has to rely on the AI more than he’d like, but he weaves them through well enough. He winds up throwing the ship in a wild loop to avoid another cloaked cruiser at the last second, but nothing really crazy happens. No collisions. The broken skeletons of ship debris appear less and less and with a sigh, he decides they’re probably out of the worst of it.
“It’s not… pretty.” The agent breaks the quiet of the comm channel to say, and Kurogane’s head has to scramble to remember what they were just talking about. “SF, the kids, the missions they send me on. I don’t—Are you sure you want to get involved with me? We don’t have to follow through with this. You can drop me off at Palace and forget you ever met me.”
“You asked me how old I was when I enlisted. That’s the truth.”
“Isn’t the minimum age requirement for enlistment—”
“Sixteen? Sure. But everyone who knew me was dead and colony ID systems were gone. I lived in a tiny, middle of nowhere sector on an NH station that happened to exist close to a rare mineral mining operation. GSU wiped it completely off the map. I didn’t have anything left. I wanted to kill them, so I lied. I’m twenty-seven. My official paperwork still says I’m thirty.”
Fai doesn’t have an answer or doesn’t see what he means to say, so he continues. “I fought through most of the war—maybe not as long as you, but I saw some pretty shitty battles and I still get night-terrors. I’m in Peacekeeping because I have no skills and no experience outside warfare, and when I lose that, I have no idea what I’ll do. You sure you want to get involved with me?”
“That’s not—” the agent tries to protest, but quickly deflates. He laughs, but the sound is wary—just this side of frantic. “Well, we’re a right pair, aren’t we? I had to be threatened into participating, but they couldn’t have kept you out if they’d tried.”
“Sounds like it.” He waits until he’s certain they’ve made it through the last of the battlefield debris before he starts prepping another FTL jump. Shouldn’t be anything from here to the fringe of Federation Rim space. Maybe it is a little funny. Even now, Fai can’t get free of SF and Kurogane doesn’t want to leave his unit. It’s strange to recognize the possibility of retirement as a privilege some don’t have. “If you could quit—if they’d let you. What would you do?”
“It’s stupid,” Fai sighs.
“Surely not. Come on, if you could do anything. Anything at all.” He adjusts the ship’s angle, brings it in line with the trajectory he has in mind. He can’t see, but he can almost feel the way Fai slumps back into his harness, embarrassed by the question.
“I want to run a café.”
Kurogane blinks, a little blindsided by the simplicity of the answer. It sounds so… domestic. Hard to imagine a life without the mad rush of adrenaline, but for Fai… he can see it. The way Fai knows perfectly what people want and how to charm them—the easy way he draws people in. “I know—it’s dumb, but.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Doesn’t matter either way. It’s just an errant thought.” But it isn’t, is it? Fai had known his answer—it’s a dream. Something he could have had if he hadn’t been born with his powers, and that’s…
Usually, Kurogane doesn’t think much about SF or Psy Ops. He does his part to keep Tomoyo safe and ignores any mandate to report psychic activity, but otherwise he takes no action to change things. Fai makes him want to.
Hell. All he knows is warfare and he spends so much time sniping pirates that he has a half-decent understanding of the way they work. Maybe when Kendappa finally discharges him, he’ll go full AWOL. Steal his own ship and carve a path right through the middle of SF. If he destroys their central systems, maybe he can take out all personnel data. Give someone else a chance to lie about their life.
It’s a half-decent retirement plan, all things considered. He hits the FTL drive and brings Fai another jump closer to his kid.
Chapter 19: Outclassed
hmmmmmmm not pleased with this chapter--this will also likely receive a re-do on second pass after scoring is over.
Need to crash. Gotta finish 20 late. Sorry friends!!! T_T
“Oh look! They have a valet.” Fai’s mood picks up a few hours after his dark revelations, and by the time they arrive at the casino, he’s on a second wind of excitement. Kurogane’s aching head and the constant throb of his shoulder don’t allow him the same luxury.
“We cannot valet a fighter jet.”
“You don’t know that.”
“We can’t legally valet a fighter jet.”
“We’re in Unregulated. Who cares!” Kurogane sighs and coordinates a landing away from the valet satellite strip, to much whining from the peanut gallery.
His monitors all greenlight with breathable atmosphere outside as he completes landing procedure. No worries there. He powers up the hydraulics and opens the cockpit to the casino air, hitting the series of releases at his chest to de-pressurize the flight suit and free himself of the clunky helmet.
Fai doesn’t have as much practice. He fumbles the release until Kurogane reaches over and does it for him. The helmet slides free and there’s Fai—smiling sheepishly back at him. He wants to kiss him again, still craving the feeling after hours of long flight, but he knows better. They’ve got a job to do.
“Come on, this could still be some kind of trap. We’re in unregulated alright, and I don’t even have a firearm. We’ll need to be careful.” He strips his gloves off next. Has a little trouble maneuvering his right hand well enough to remove the piece of suit from his left. This time Fai reaches over and helps him get free.
“Kuro-san,” he catches Kurogane’s gaze, eyes begging him to listen. “I’m not leaving him anywhere unsafe without a fight. Even if it’s one I can’t win. Even knowing you might get caught in the middle, I… This is your last chance to walk away.” Kurogane hears the real offer wrapped inside. It’s that same question—are you sure you want to get involved?
“What kind of guard would I be if I did that?” Yes. He’s sure now. More certain than he’s ever been.
Oh—there it is again. That fleeting, soft smile on Fai’s face—open and yearning, so honestly pleased. He wants to see it every day for the rest of his life.
“Are you two going to kiss again? If so, please hurry up and get it over with. We’re supposed to be worried about the kid.”
“Right!” Fai springs into motion, face red, and Kurogane follows suit.
“More seriously though. Later, I will give you all the privacy you could ever want. After we find the slightly unstable teen psychic.”
“Yes, thank you.” Fai stuffs his gloves inside his helmet and tosses the whole mess in his seat before he vaults over the side. Kurogane has a harder time using only his left arm, but he manages, if a little less gracefully.
“Like. We can develop a full on sock-on-the-door protocol if you want. I’ll code you an app for it. You can just load it up and switch it on any time you—”
“Yes, thank you, Fai. I get it!”
They really do act like siblings. Kurogane can’t help the tiny smile that escapes him as he locks the jet back up, but the humor tastes bitter-sweet. He can see tragedy in the background too well—the agent either finding or making an AI to replace a dead twin…. He never had seemed like someone narcissistic enough to name his creation after himself. And Fai the AI has never once called him by name. Kurogane wonders—
Doesn’t matter. He knows the agent’s measure—understands the core of him. Names are secondary in the face of that. Besides. He’d left more than his real age behind when he’d signed his own ID papers, hadn’t he? The agent is “Fai” until he wants to be otherwise, easy as that.
“Alright,” he interrupts the twins’ sniping after the jet is properly locked down. “We’re good to go. Lead the way.”
The Palace Casino and Resort is, indeed, every bit the sort of place it advertises on station-wide billboards and promotions. It operates like a mini-station of its own—one composed of a single sector.
All levels of the hangar bay funnel into a single, huge room, lavishly decorated and embellished end to end in black and gold decals. Along the far side, resort check in stations line the wall, with a well-guarded and monitored checkpoint serving as the structure’s main entrance at the center. Rows of well-dressed workers process visitors through the hotel by first checking them at the door, almost like a version of NH-0N’s customs. People in a mix of clothes all mingle in the giant lobby, laughing and excited. Palace’s ads showcase it as a fantasy-land of wish fulfilment, and this promise pours from every detail. In total the effect amounts to something… otherworldly but ultimately overwhelming. Even if Kurogane hadn’t already felt paranoid that an attacker had lured them here to spring some final trap, the place would make him wary.
He doesn’t know what to expect. No one meets them at the jet when they land. The hangar sports such a variety of other ships that even their fighter doesn’t draw attention. They walk into the front gates unaccosted.
“Any sign of him?” Kurogane asks, his back kept firmly against the wall. He doesn’t like this—so many people and none of them familiar. Any one of them might harbor a trap, waiting to spring.
Fai’s brow furrows with effort. He rubs at the ridge of bone above his eye, looking nearly pained. “Maybe. I’m getting a lot of power use here, but…”
“It’s Unregulated Space.”
“Yeah. As long as people can defend themselves from kidnappers, they don’t have as much reason to hide.”
Signal buried behind signal…. He’s heard of that before. Isn’t that how Fai masked Tomoyo?
“So in other words… your kid found a needlestack to hide in.”
Fai stares, as if this thought honestly hadn’t occurred to him yet. His mouth quirks in a half-grin that’s almost hopeful. “Maybe. I want to talk to him to make sure and I don’t know where to...” Fai paces, narrowly misses jostling an older man just waltzing in from the hangar bay wearing a flight suit patterned to look like a tuxedo. At least they don’t stand out too badly among the arriving crowd. “Xing Huo—Bat. She said people would be expecting us here. So stupid, I didn’t even think to ask who.”
“Wow! Okay rude!”
“Fai?” The agent calls out to his AI while Kurogane keeps a wary eye on the crowd.
“It’s nothing-just a… someone jacked your unit for a second to leave you a message.”
“What!?” He shuffles, frantic to get the loose sleeve of his flight suit out of the way to let him access his wrist unit.
“Stop panicking, I’m fine. They didn’t even try to touch my code. Just left you a note, Like I said.” Kurogane scans every passing face, but not a single one looks out of the ordinary—or rather, everyone here looks out of the ordinary, and no one breaks that strange mold. No one seems suspiciously focused on their tech or sneaks covert glances in their direction. He doesn’t see anyone who could have—
The Witch welcomes all who have a wish to grant.
Speak to the twin butterflies and request the room of the Traveler.
Hitsuzen is the key to our meeting.
“Alright. We have mysterious instructions and a password. Great.” Fai’s UI projects a red note, complete with digital stationary. Aside from the color, it perfectly matches the surrounding décor. It disappears when Fai swipes it aside, bursting with a holo-display of red butterflies. Over the top—just like this whole damn resort.
Whimsical as the instructions look, they don’t leave much to interpretation. The “twin butterflies,” seem likely to be the two young receptionists at the far left of the reception row, identically dressed in elaborate dresses themed with said insect.
“Someone here has a flare for the dramatic,” The AI snarks, “That kid is absolutely in his element.”
“Come on, not right now,” Fai snaps back. He looks clearly frazzled, shaken by the idea that someone could have hacked his unit. That strikes Kurogane as a little hypocritical considering the twins’ usual MO, but maybe with the AI to worry about he has a lot more to lose.
He watches the agent take a deep breath, retie his helmet-tousled hair and slide the smiling mask back in place. “Let’s meet this Witch, shall we?”
The password works exactly as they expect it to. The butterfly girls hand them a room key and lead them down a series of twisting corridors and through hidden back doors and elevators. They walk for what feels like a mile at least, always turning to wind through another portal, another tiny, intricately decorated space until Kurogane has no hope of ever finding his way back to the lobby alone.
He has no idea what he’s doing. He could be marching toward his death, but he has determined to see this thing through. The descent through layers of structure, all utterly without windows of any kind, keeps him teetering on the brink of panic at any moment. He keeps his jaw clenched shut, eyes focused on the back of Fai’s head, and kind of…. Checks out.
By the time he registers the world around him again, they’ve come to a completely different space—broad, dark wood doors threaded with engraved butterflies and spider lilies.
“Welcome!” the receptionist girls bow, doors slide open. Shaded by a wide, stylized window in a lavish lounge stands the figure of a woman—draped in beads and fabric, wires trailing from her drooping sleeves.
“You’re late, Agent,” she drawls, wine-red eyes aglow with power. The sight sets him tensing all over again, waiting for some otherworldly effect to go off, but nothing happens. She flicks a hand, but the motion merely serves as a signal to send her receptionists away. “I thought you’d catch up days ago.”
She sounds awfully familiar for an unknown psychic hiding out in the bowels of a casino. He hasn’t got a clue who she is, or why—
“Oh come now, sweetheart. Doctor Ichihara is dead. I, am The Witch.” Fai startles beside him, and it takes him a moment to figure out why. She hadn’t been answering the agent. She’d been talking to the AI.
In the end, it’s almost anti-climactic.
The kid doesn’t look like much. He’s reedy and tall with dark hair and distant blue eyes that glow with a dim light—like a cat’s in the dark. Only Fai’s mention of his powers—that they never turn off—keys Kurogane in to the deeper meaning behind that strange glow.
Still, when the Witch slides the door to the kitchens open with a flourish and reveals him, kitted out with an apron and brandishing a spoon at—is that Arrow?—Fai’s knees nearly buckle out from under him.
Kurogane has to scramble to catch the agent, wincing when he jostles the damn arm. He thinks he understands. All the injuries and the stress—all the maddening hours spent wondering, and his kid is… he looks perfectly fine. Irritated, maybe. Judging by the way the kid shouts, he might have a vested interest in tossing Arrow out the nearest station vent. But Palace hasn’t harmed a hair on his head.
Fai stares, voice caught in his throat. He turns from the scene in the kitchen back to Kurogane, almost like he wants to ask for permission.
“Don’t look at me, Go!” and Fai does—stumbling forward on legs numbed by shock and relief. The kid turns to see him at the last second, strange eyes widening and mouth falling slack with surprise before he launches into a list of questions and demands. Fai answers every single one.
Kurogane watches their reunion from afar, trying not to feel too much like an outsider looking in. Even the AI flickers into holo-form to greet him, projecting out onto the kitchen counter and blindsiding the poor kid with good-natured ribbing and his own mountain of inquiries.
“Aw. It’s just too cute. Watanuki looks so happy.” Kurogane glances from the Witch to the kid, stiff as a board as Fai tries to hug him without crying.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Oh, absolutely. He’s not even trying to hit anyone with the spoon! He’s ecstatic.” The Witch croons, hand resting on her cocked hip as she leans languidly in the doorway. Like Watanuki, her eyes never stop glowing, but they burn several shades brighter. Tiny holo interfaces pop up and disappear about her person every few seconds, little bursts of information reaching out to her powers and receding.
Techno psychic, The AI had called her—a biological person capable of interfacing with the digital world with more ease and control than even an artificial one could. Even AI Fai can’t manipulate electronic systems without a wireless interface, but she can. She had been an absolutely invaluable asset to Federation forces in the early phase of the war…. Which was apparently why she had staged her own death and built a life more to her liking in Unregulated.
She’s the queen and master of this place and looks every bit the part. Every inch of it lights up beneath her touch—sometimes literally.
“Well,” she hums, distracting Kurogane from his distant thoughts. She wanders back toward her lounge room, slipping languidly onto a fainting couch and motioning for him to take a seat, “Give them a little privacy, won’t you? I’m sure they have a lot to talk about.”
He doesn’t want to lose sight of Fai, but he can hear the unspoken demand in her tone. This whole station is the Witch’s playground, and if he wants to keep himself and Fai safe, he’ll have to play her game, at least on some level. The Witch waves a second time, pouting, and Kurogane reluctantly follows. “Much better! Now let me get a good look at you.” She stares, eyes narrowed and star bright, hands folded at her chin.
“Let’s see…. Kurogane… NH systems, Peacekeeping, Flight Squadron… Aha! There you are.” His personnel file appears in holo miniature by the Witch’s side as she talks, and she starts reading, comparing him to the photo on his ID. They are more than six hours deep space flight travel from NH-0N and she still managed to find his file in less than a handful of seconds. How in the actual hell.
“Do you usually illegally browse through military personnel files in front of the people they pertain to, or am I a special case?”
“Come now, sweetheart,” she laughs, sending the holo-file spinning in the palm of her hand, “You’re not in Regulated space right now. Why should I care what’s legal?”
“I don’t know. Common decency? Concern for the continuation of your ‘0N Ad campaign?”
“Please. Decency and I have never met. And Gambling only needs a strong word of mouth to survive. I don’t need to worry about anything you could do to me.” The Witch snaps, and his file flickers out. She lolls forward, trails half-off the couch she sprawls over to rest her elbow on the surface of the low table nearby. “We don’t usually allow Federation military types in to see the personal levels. I needed to see if you were trustworthy.”
“How do you gauge that?”
“Information is my game, Lieutenant. I can guess. How many promotions have you applied for? How many people have you reported? What are your tendencies as a rule-breaker, and what sorts of investigations have you drawn? It’s easier than breathing.” He tries not to let on how unnerved he feels, but he wonders if she can see that too. She’d certainly earned her name.
“Listen. If this is all some kind of shovel talk to get me to forget I ever saw the Kid, you don’t need to bother.”
“We’re in Unregulated space. Report worthy-offenses can’t exist by definition.” He falls in line with her earlier logic, and earns himself a snort of laughter, “besides, I’m not interested in helping the Federation Shanghai children to fill their ranks.”
The Witch stares, her red eyes boring into his until, slowly, her wicked smile gentles.
“In that case, I do have something for you to report.” She shifts her weight to free her hands and lazily turns her palm over. On it, she projects a mission report—written in his name, even using his verbal ticks and the sort of grammar mistakes he tends to make when he’s over-tired.
He reads it, even though it makes his skin crawl to think she can imitate him so well within the span of a few moments. It’s a good story—records how he and Fai had flown to a nearby NH system tracking Watanuki through the black market only to lose him in a raid gone bad.
“This looks… fine. But won’t SF know something’s up? NH systems are fairly quiet aside from ‘0N. A pirate raid would have drawn a lot of attention.”
“And it will draw a lot of attention. In about six hours.” He must be over-tired. It takes him a full ten seconds to catch her meaning.
“I told you, didn’t I? Information is my trade, and people pay me in favors. Arranging a staged raid in NH is nothing. Bat will make sure you turn up on local cameras and that your jet has landing records. No one need ever know where you actually were. As long as you play along, of course.”
It's a big risk. Her contacts might not come through. She might not have them in the first place. SF could catch them in the lie and after that—well he doesn't rightly know. Would Fai's other teammates wind up in the line of fire? Either way, he'll have to fake their direction on the way back home—loop behind NH systems and come in from the opposite side. It'll take more gas unless he pulls some coasting bullshit... which he thinks he can do.
Still. He said he wasn't interested in sending children to Fed Psy Ops and he meant it. He'll talk to Fai later to make sure the Kid wants to be here, but...
“Play along with what? We're still in the ship on our way to NH-1S at the moment.”
“Good boy,” she laughs, crushing the projection of her falsified file in a shower of sparks before she rises to her feet, neckline sliding precariously to one side. “Well! It seems you have some time on your hands, Lieutenant. I have the pieces set in motion, but you can’t return to base until tomorrow. What say you find your agent and visit my resort. Maybe even go put that room key to use?”
He’s so exhausted, he doesn’t even catch the innuendo. He’s thinking dreamily of the possibility of sleep when he nods and excuses himself, bewildered by the way she laughs when he leaves. Her meaning doesn’t hit him until a full thirty minutes later, after he’s already gathered Fai from the kitchen and started the winding walk back to the main hotel rooms.
He tries to facepalm with the wrong arm and just winds up wrenching his shoulder, leaving him red-faced and cursing himself for an idiot. Yeah, he definitely needs to sleep.
“Kuro-sama? Are you alright?”
“Fine,” he sputters, trying not to think too hard. Fai shoots him a worried glance, but jumps right back into his tale, regaling Watanuki with a far more exciting embellishment on the warehouse fight against Alcyone.
At least he doesn’t have to worry about the walls pressing in. Exhaustion, relief, pain and embarrassment keep him grounded in reality the whole way back.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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…
“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.
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.
OH MY GOD IT'S DONE.
holy shit, ya'll. 68k. I'm fairly certain this is the longest thing I've ever written.
In theory, it's lacking the epilogue. I figure I'll get that up after scoring for the olympics. Annnnnnd the optional, separately posted sex scene, which I am DEFINITELY writing, but like..... probably next month.
In theory, this has a sequel that goes into the other kids and escaping SF. It's a real Tsubasa family story, but who knows if that will ever make it to paper.
I hope you guys liked this wild ride. It's not perfect, and it feels rushed to me in spots, but damn if it isn't done, and that feels good.
Please talk to me! leave me comments! I have WAY too much world building in this one and like... so many stupid errata/trivia I could answer as to what characters are doing or why.
Come vote in the KuroFai olympics until Sept 30, and check out our other Fics! head to https://kurofai.dreamwidth.org/
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Chapter 21: Epilogue: Renewed
A new rhythm of life proves better for them both, but he hopes it can keep changing.
Voting for the KuroFai Olympics is ended. Congrats Team Sea! But this means I can put the Epilogue up without feeling like I'm messing with scoring. Thanks again to everyone who popped over to vote!
Six Months Later
Edonis systems are an older swath of smaller stations strung along a narrow strip of space between the Federation of Inter-Stellar Colonies and the Greater Solar Union. During the early war, they’d been little more than a combat zone. After GSU had fallen back, they’d become a perpetual staging ground for Federation sorties. Hadn’t looked too different in either case—crumpling buildings crawling with soldiers running every which way, cowed citizens hiding in the shadows and praying for a way out.
He’d been here more than a few times during the worst of it. Saw one or two stations go completely dark; GSU got a little more careless with structural stability when they realized they could take out Federation military assets. He hadn’t really thought about what things might look like with the War over and rebuilding efforts pouring in. Hadn’t been expecting much when he picked up this assignment—maybe a few stubborn companies and trading houses—he’s pleasantly surprised
Edonis’s Capital system, Outo, certainly hadn’t escaped the worst of the damage, but when Kurogane touches down in the private vehicle hangar bay of its new, fully functional spaceport, he can scarcely tell. Not two years since the end of the war, and the place looks like a perfectly thriving station. Kurogane doesn’t trust it.
He uploads the survey data from his latest trip as he finishes landing procedures, frees himself of his helmet and makes sure all his fuel calculations had been accurate. Hadn’t made bad time, honestly, but he still thinks he could get it shorter if he had to. He could have skirted way closer to the asteroid belt near CL systems. He just figured the civilians back home might not appreciate it on the reports. Still… if they need a quick getaway? He knows how to route the return trip.
Popping the entrance open, he grabs a change of shoes from the storage space behind his seat and leverages himself out of the cockpit. He’s still divesting himself of the flight suit when his wrist unit starts ringing.
Kurogane sighs at the damn thing. Seriously, they got his fucking data, right? Why do they always call to confirm? He finishes shrugging off the extra layer and gets everything packed away in the jet before he bothers calling them back.
“Did you need something?”
“Nice to hear from you too, newbie.” Geo thinks he’s charming. He is not. “Just got your data. The hell are you doing in Outo?”
“It’s the last stop on my list before the return trip,” Kurogane grouches back blankly, “Or didn’t you read the assignment?” He leans back against his ship as he talks. It’s a little broader than the fighter jet, and that’d taken him a little while to get used to, but he had a lot of flight time over the last several months to learn it.
“Alright, wise-ass, yes, that’s not what I meant. How the hell did you make it from CL-0W all the way out to Outo in under five hours?”
Well, he’d ignored the civilian warnings around that former battlefield and threaded a needle between it and the asteroid belt with a slightly risky FTL jump. But he can’t say that. He’s not interested in getting yelled at over a long-distance call right now; he has better things to do.
“You’ve got the data, don’t you? I flew.”
“Wow, you are such a dick sometimes. You’re lucky you’re so good at your job, Newbie.” He doesn’t need to dignify that with a response.
“Do you have a reason for calling, or not?” He fiddles with his earpiece, itching to finish up and get out of here. He needs to check his messages and make sure… make sure things are going to work out.
“Fucking hell, yes! Alright. Look, The thing is—the version of the assignment you picked up was a mistake. Eagle was supposed to cut out the Edonis part of the trip.” And he had, but Geo doesn’t need to know that.
Kurogane has gotten a little better at using the small suite of hacking programs Fai left on his new wrist unit over the last few months. Still doesn’t know how the fuck they work, but it hadn’t been hard to upload one of Fai’s backdoors on his new boss’s computer and gain access to the assignment roster.
He’s also gotten better at lying.
“Well, I’m here now. What do you want me to do about it?”
“I just wanted to warn you, asshole. Guess it doesn’t matter much to a combat vet like you, but there’s been reports of a lot of trouble out there lately. Some kind of terrorist cell. Eagle didn’t want to risk anyone getting caught up in an incident.”
“Good to know. I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Yeah, you better. You damage your ship and we’re taking it out of your next paycheck.”
“Sure. Fine. Are you done?” Geo hangs up with a muttered curse and Kurogane follows suit, quickly flicking through his UI to find his unread messages.
Maybe he shouldn’t antagonize them so much; he does like this job. Vision Survey Systems had made him an offer before his military retirement had even finished clearing. Apparently, the civilian sector was desperate for people to scout new routes of travel and find safe passage among the wreckage the war had left behind. Major trade routes still hadn’t re-opened because of floating battlefields and lingering mines. They needed pilots capable of avoiding such hazards to find new ways through and around.
Kendappa had been insufferably right—There really had been work in the civilian sector more suited to his skills. And sure, they complain about his cutting corners and submitting paths that mandate tight, corkscrew rolls or gravity-well slingshots, but even if no one can follow him, his survey data still counts for something.
He skims through message headings. Souma forwarded him an article she found interesting, there’s four increasingly angry notes from Geo about the route mixup, and a single message from Tomoyo. It reads only,
Have fun! Say hello from me.
We’ll miss you next week!
That… sounds ominous. The return trip should take a few days at worst. What…?
Kurogane has no idea how far her powers stretch. He used to think she could only See things nearby, but he starts to wonder. She sends him notes every once in a while, pushing him subtly this direction or that. Edonis is quite a ways from NH-0N, and the fact she still saw something… Maybe he should ask Fai about her if he gets the chance.
If this works out.
He starts to step back toward the hangar entrance and the rest of the colony when his wrist unit chimes one last time—at first it looks like garbled nonsense, but the encryption key kicks in and decodes the words quickly.
Office across the street, main level. Room E4. Try not to smile for the camera.
He hasn’t eaten yet today. Please come tell him he’s a dumbass. Maybe he’ll actually listen to you.
Memorizing the room number, he deletes the AI’s message with a sense of worried excitement. It’s been at least a month since the last time they managed to contrive a way to meet, and even then, they’d barely had an hour to linger in the pleasure of each other’s company. The infrequent notes are nice, but sometimes he misses Fai so much he feels like he can’t breathe. Stupid, to wind up so attached with barely a week between them, but, well, he had.
Kurogane double-times it out of the spaceport, heart singing in his chest.
Camera dodging still hasn’t quite made his list of skills, but he likes to think he does well enough as he powerwalks through the long hallways of the office building. He has no idea what Fai told the receptionist, if anything, but he supposes he doesn’t need to know. He reaches the assigned room, takes a deep breath, and lets the door swing wide.
They’ve only met like this a handful of times since that first, frantic week. He still hasn’t begun to take these stolen hours for granted—doesn’t think he ever will. He savors every note from Fai in the scattered moments the agent manages to wrest away from prying eyes, but he can’t help wanting to see him—to know for sure that he’s here and real and safe.
“Fancy meeting you here, handsome.”
It should frighten him, how quickly the sound of Fai’s voice puts him at ease. Kurogane glances to the right, watches the agent stroll into view as the lock clicks quietly into place behind them.
“Dumbass,” he huffs, voice far too fond to contain any real censure, “you’re the one who invited me.”
“What, Me? Are you sure? Certainly not. I haven’t been tampering with any communications or suggesting minor acts of corporate sabotage recently. I have no idea what you’re referring to.” Fai teases as he strolls in Kurogane’s direction, hand trailing over the back of a row of office chairs with every step. Kurogane can’t help but roll his eyes at his agent’s antics, even as his heart beats an elated staccato in his hopeless chest.
“Just—come here.” He reaches out without a second thought—feels the world shift back on its proper axis the instant Fai folds, laughing, into his arms. Kurogane rests his left hand at the small of Fai’s back and uses his right to reach up and cradle his idiot’s blond head. Fai clings in return, hold so tight his grip is nearly bruising.
“Is it crazy to say I missed you?” Kurogane can barely hear the words, spoken like a prayer into the fabric of his shirt. Maybe. They last managed to make time to meet a month ago—Not so long, but they’d only had the better part of a half hour for these desperate affirmations before Fai’s mission whisked him away again. Feels like years.
“If it is, I’m crazy too.”
“Sap.” Fai sighs, and pulls away just enough to grace Kurogane’s jaw with a kiss.
Only for you, he thinks, trying to keep his mind away from the sensation of Fai’s lips against his skin. Too many windows in this damn conference room.
“Sorry for the venue,” Fai seems to read his mind, mouth tilted in a sinful smirk. “Not enough time for other arrangements. At best we have an hour or two, but at worst… I don’t know.”
“It’s not, but I know you’re too stubborn to say so. I’ll make it up to you next time.” Kurogane has to work very hard to keep a cool head when the asshole winks. Stupid, attractive, beloved man. He deliberately loosens his hold, fully knowing how much he wants the opposite.
“Look, that’s not... I’m just here to see you. You don’t have to—” He lets his right arm fall to rest at Fai’s waist. Or at least, he starts to. Along the path of Fai’s spine, his fingers brush something that sends a wince flitting over the man’s face. “Shit, are you okay?”
“Fine! I’m fine, Kuro-hiya,” Fai titters with a fond smile, but pain still lines the corners of his expression.
“Just bruised! It’s nothing, I promise.” Kurogane stares, eyes narrowed. He wishes he could just believe that, but he remembers the sight of Fai’s burned arm and the feel of his blood all too well. Fai correctly interprets his skeptical look, and tuts, “If you must know, I got knocked into something a little unexpectedly yesterday. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Course not.” Frustration leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. It doesn’t get any easier, worrying about Fai. He hasn’t shown up to any of their few meetings in truly bad shape, but every new scar and scrape makes Kurogane ever more aware of the dangerous life Fai leads. Part of him worries that one of these days he’ll show up just to discover Fai’s gotten himself killed in some wild psychic showdown.
He stares his partner down, tries to put the sense of helplessness away. Fai’s stuck with SF for as long as they hold those kids over his head, and unless Kurogane can figure out some kind of plan…
He doesn’t know yet. He’s still working on it.
“Do I even want to know what they have you two doing out here? There’s a travel advisory out for the whole damn territory.”
“Probably not,” Fai laughs, and the sound rings hollow. “Civilian companies coming too close to military tech. A little destabilization here, a little blackmailing there… nothing pretty.”
“And nothing that should have been capable of catching you off guard.” Kurogane finds the edges of this mysterious bruise with the press of his hand, tries not to panic when Fai grimaces again. Hard to keep his head on straight with worry burning a hole in his thoughts.
“Well, that would have been true, if the GSU weren’t interested in sudden technological developments as well.”
“Another splinter team?”
“Eh…. Maybe something a little more advanced this time.” Other psychics. A counter-tactical force. Something chasing Fai from station to station throughout Edonis systems, causing enough damage in their wake to look like a spate of terrorist activity. “Look, it doesn’t involve you, Kuro-mu. Does it matter?”
Kurogane’s eyes slide shut and he presses his brow to the top of Fai’s head, thinks through a silent prayer to no one. He hates this worst of all—feeling cut out, unable to help. He wants to scream at his idiot. Of course it involves him. Of course it matters! If something were to happen, how can he trust that fucking SF will be there to back Fai up? And if the worst should happen…. How else will he know where to start looking for revenge?
Sure it never brought anything back, but if he lost Fai, he thinks… He’ll lose himself to that madness all over again. Easily.
“…Alright, fine. So you’re stuck in the middle of something unpleasant. Have you been taking care of yourself?” This time, Fai’s laughter sounds genuine. He shifts beneath Kurogane’s bowed posture, moves just enough to press another warm kiss to Kurogane’s cheek.
“Such a worrier!”
“I’m not kidding. Your AI said you hadn’t eaten today.” Fai rolls his eyes.
“Oh, please, he just hasn’t been keeping track.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
“Yeah? And what about you then?” That blue gaze sharpens, flint hard, as he glares up from the circle of Kurogane’s arms. “You got here awfully quickly. Didn’t expect you’d make it for another hour at least. What kind of risks are you taking in that little survey craft of yours, Mr. Ace Pilot?”
“None I can’t handle,” he mumbles back. Sure, that jump would have been a stupid move for most people, but he knew what he was doing. He could have cut it closer! “Besides! That has nothing to do with you remembering basic needs like eating.”
“Jerk. Alright. I promise to find something as soon as we head out. Happy?” Fai’s own grip tightens, arms pressed to Kurogane’s back as he plants his face firmly in Kurogane’s chest. The pilot sighs, content to let him hide there. ‘Happy’ is an interesting word. He doesn’t know if he’s learned it yet. But he knows he’s a better man with Fai near—knows why he made the changes he did, why he finally took Kendappa’s advice and stopped hanging on to a career he never wanted.
He just hates that Fai can’t do the same.
“Better,” he agrees instead of voicing all that. He keeps his arms high across Fai’s shoulders and holds him tight as he dares. Not enough time left to spend it all stuck in his own head.
Eventually they both tire of standing. Kurogane pulls two office chairs away from the windows, back to a safer corner against the wall, and they spend an easy hour side by side, catching up on the last month. Fai can’t give him much better than heavily edited tales about training with his team. It doesn’t matter—he can read between the lines easily enough to pick the important parts free of Fai’s silly elaborations, shaking his head all the while.
In return, he talks about the places he’s been lately, his new coworkers and their annoying antics. He’s not used to driving a conversation, but Fai doesn’t seem to mind the rough edges. Just pushes him further—pesters him for more and drinks down every detail.
“I don’t know. Uh… Two? Three districts? Had four before the war but they got almost totally spaced in the third stage.”
“Yes. We were there for that. It wasn’t a great time,” Fai sighs, and Kurogane can hear the bitterness buried behind the words. Easy to forget that Fai had been pushed around as a front-line wrecking ball whenever it suited SF throughout the worst of things. He squeezes Fai’s hand once, just enough to remind his idiot he doesn’t need to dwell. “Nice to hear they’re rebuilding though. They already have enough people for two districts? That’s impressive.”
“Not that impressive when you consider GSU’s repopulation policies. Kendappa was saying something about—“
“You know I hate to interrupt, but…” Kurogane’s not the only one who jumps when Fai’s wrist unit lights back up, his digital twin’s voice playing bright and cheerful over the speaker. “Got a tip from the nice secretary on the last system—there’s a ship full of operatives headed your way. We need to get off station five minutes ago.”
“I was afraid of that,” Fai sighs. He leans further into Kurogane’s side, stretches to kiss the worried frown of his mouth. Kurogane can sense the longing pouring from every inch of Fai’s being—feels it mirrored in his own when Fai pulls away. “I suppose I’ll just have to go back to missing you for now, Kuro-sama.” And hell, if that doesn’t sound like the absolute worst thing in the world. He can’t—
He oversteps, maybe, but Fai doesn’t seem unwilling when Kurogane reaches out and tugs the agent into his lap. His shoulder aches with the strain—never completely recovered after his abuse six months ago but he doesn’t care. Any reservations he might have had about the room’s wide windows fall to the wayside. Fai’s weight settles across his thighs, too damn light, and he pours every bit of his yearning into the motion when he leans into Fai for a much deeper kiss.
The agent meets him with equal enthusiasm, moves forward too quickly and makes the whole thing messy. They both miss, Kurogane’s open mouth pressed hot against the side of Fai’s devious smile. The sound of his laughter only distracts Kurogane further. He burns in the best of ways, caught alight as he improvises a trail of kisses back to the center of those lips.
Fai meets him move for move, draws him deeper, both arms wrapped tight around Kurogane’s chest. Cold fingers press against his spine through the fabric of his shirt—like Fai needs to keep himself anchored, keep believing this is real when his head tilts back and their mouths slide together. They lose themselves to it, sweet and slow and desperate. They shouldn’t be doing this. They have other things to worry about, but Kurogane can’t—shit, he doesn’t want to let Fai go again.
Eventually, the need for air overpowers their passions and they drift apart. Not far, and not fast enough. They need to get moving, he knows that, but right now he can’t stand the very thought. He presses his brow to Fai’s, tries to find his wits again.
“Damn it all, I don’t want to leave you,” Fai whispers amidst the quiet of their heavy breathing.
“So don’t.” He leans back, perfectly positioned to watch the way want and worry both battle for dominance in Fai’s expression, too kiss-addled to find his usual masks. He knows worry will win—Fai would never abandon his team—not even for Kurogane. But he also knows…
“Kuro-sama, I… If I don’t report in, they’ll—”
“Not what I meant. Take me with you.”
He also knows that Tomoyo always chooses her words wisely. We’ll miss you next week! She’d said in a carefully timed message, and he’d begun to wonder.
“You can’t just… You have a job, and you’re not military anymore, and…” He gets the rare privilege of catching Fai off guard, flustered, tied up in knots. He knows the man well enough now to hear the hope buried beneath his dismissive tone.
“Hmm. I do have a job. I happen to be a pilot. Accidentally wound up landing in a zone with a travel advisory for terrorist activity against the company’s better judgment. It’d be pretty hard for you to find a commercial flight on a quick turnaround when the whole damn system’s on high alert, but isn’t that why those old wartime requisition laws still exist? Be a shame if you had to invoke temporary impressment on a civilian jet to get away.”
“I…” Fai searches for an argument against it, wheels turning in his thoughts. Kurogane thinks he understands the feeling. Good things happen so rarely; sometimes he has trouble believing they actually exist—that they can actually happen to him. Fai makes him want to.
“Well, hell,” the agent finally swears, words caught on disbelieving laughter. He releases his death grip at Kurogane’s back, lifts his hands to frame Kurogane’s face instead. “You’re so sneaky, Kuro-rin! You were wasted in Peacekeeping.”
“Wouldn’t have met you if I hadn’t been.” Kurogane murmurs, wisely choosing not to bring up the rail-pass incident. It really isn’t fair how easily Fai’s smiles get to him—the real ones. Asshole has no business being so attractive or making him feel so damn sentimental. He tries to close his eyes to it but only winds up leaning into Fai’s touch. The agent’s weight shifts forward, Kurogane anticipates the feel of his lips like the next step in a dance he’s always known.
“Oh, well in that case—"
“Please don’t start kissing again. In fact, I’m putting a moratorium on gross organic displays of affection until we manage to get away from the quickly approaching spec ops taskforce.”
Fai springs away at the sound of the AI’s annoyed tone, jumping to his feet so quickly that Kurogane almost wonders whether he hadn’t accidentally used a touch of psychic power.
Right. GSU operatives. Some kind of research sabotage. Fai needs to get off station.
Kurogane pulls himself back to standing, rolls his neck and shakes the stiffness out of his legs. He’s already flown more than a few hours today, but he’s more than happy to climb right back in the cockpit. Especially if it means more time with his favorite idiot.
“You need a lift, Agent?” He calls, unable to hide the smile on his face as he reaches out to unlock the door.
“It seems that I do.” He holds the door wide. Fai pantomimes a bow of thanks with a raised brow he can’t help but roll his eyes at, and they dart back into the winding halls of the small office together.
Falling into step at Fai’s side feels so easy—so normal. Almost as if he’d never left. He half expects to find one of their old tails trialing behind them as soon as they make it back out to the concrete of the station proper, but if any exist, none make themselves obvious. They book it all the way back to the spaceport at a brisk walk, Fai prattling on in his empty way. Somewhere, Kurogane started to find it more soothing than annoying, not that he plans to tell Fai. The agent works through a litany on the differential merits of standard wrist unit VIs as they make their way through the relatively lax security and into the private docking area proper.
He still hasn’t stopped for food, not that they have the time… When they make it off station Kurogane will make sure Fai remembers to take care of his idiot self, damn it.
“Really, you’d think they’d learn. Layermax VIs haven’t been built to compete with the Omnatics models. They weren’t in competition until the trade ban lifted last year, and the jump in processing power with the switch to Omnatics is—”
“Sending a formal request for expedited exit to the aerospace authority on your behalf, brother dearest. Using your codes so no one asks questions.”
“Using your own codes? Perish the thought.” Kurogane jokes, gratified by the amused look Fai shoots his way as they pick up pace, racing toward the hangar he’d abandoned barely an hour ago.
“I’m kidnapping you, Kuro-sama. Needs to look official if anyone decides to go searching.”
They make quick work of the short distance remaining. Whatever the Ai does gets them a set of greenlights faster than Kurogane’s ever managed since he started flying civilian, and before he can think twice, he has the survey jet warming up. System check complete, all fueled up… it’s all so easy. He almost can’t believe any of it is real.
“Combatants arriving in approximately four minutes.”
“We’ll be gone in two.” He finishes pulling his own flight suit on with old practice, stores his more station-appropriate shoes back in the storage compartment, and wrests the spare flight suit free of its place hidden behind the emergency kit. “You haven’t forgotten how to put this on, I hope?” He jokes, spirits running high. Fai rolls his eyes and takes the bulky thing from his arms. He doesn’t start throwing it on immediately—only frowns a moment in Kurogane’s direction as he retrieves his helmet. “Something wrong?”
“No, just.” He huffs. His hands twist in the bulky fabric of the space-proof suit. “Last chance, Kuro-sama. It sounds fun, getting to hang out, but this won’t be a nice time. Pretty dangerous—lots of running. Probably a little combat, and none of it for a good cause. Can’t promise they won’t try to shoot us out of the sky when they catch up. You sure you want in?”
Kurogane can see the worry threaded in Fai’s frame, can hear the same question in his voice, over and over and over again. On one level, Fai just can’t believe he cares enough to stay involved. He can’t stop asking whether Kurogane’s sure—whether he knows what he risks. On another…. Yes, the path they walk just to see each other is a dangerous one. Yes, he hates SF worse with each passing day, and the thought of helping them complete mission objectives doesn’t sit well in his conscience. Yes, he appreciates his own newfound freedom from military life, hadn’t realized how much it would mean to him or how much better it could feel until he’d gotten away. If SF catches wind of their relationship or decides he’s too close to Fai, they could find a way to drag him back in again. He doesn’t like the thought of that. So, for more than a few reasons, he has good reason to walk away. Fai sees that clearly.
But Kurogane also loves the agent, fiercely and far more than he ever feared or hated Special Forces. No matter how he tries, he can’t get that fact to stick in Fai’s blond head.
“Put the damn suit on, Fai,” he grouches. Fai blinks, still uncertain for a second longer. Understanding dawns on him like a slow thaw, and he huffs, starts toeing off his shoes and stepping into the jumpsuit with an expression of fond disbelief.
Kurogane wishes he knew how to convince Fai, for once and for all, that he means what he says. Maybe someday the agent will take him at his word every time he promises to help. He might even eventually learn to ask for help, and know Kurogane would freely give it, but those days feel a long way off. He doesn’t think Fai will learn to trust much of anything while he’s stuck with SF.
That’s the new end goal, right? The new dream for him to fight for—the new purpose. Kurogane has his job, his place free of the war—things he never even knew he wanted. He wants Fai to have that too. He wants to hand Fai his damn café on a platter. He just doesn’t know how. Not with the threat of teammate hostages held over the man’s neck like an executioner’s blade.
“You’re making a terrible decision, but I’m far too weak to stop you,” Fai charms as he zips his suit all the way up, starts fascening the latches beneath his chin. Kurogane waits for him to finish and settles Fai’s helmet unceremoniously into place over his unsuspecting head. Fai yelps at the sudden change of light, confusion echoing over the radio. “Rude!”
“You’re not weak, asshole. Get in the jet.” He sputters a few extra moments but climbs into the second-row seat without any further protests.
After the last few months, Kurogane knows the shape of Fai’s self-hate better. He doesn’t have much success driving it away, but he’s learning how to argue with it. At least a little.
“Your two minutes are up.”
“Yeah, yeah. I figured. We’re cleared for takeoff?” He climbs in after Fai, his own helmet sliding easily into place. The suit pressurizes and his sinuses pop with a quick jolt of pain that starts to ease immediately.
“You’ve been green for a while now. Get the hell out of there.” And he does.
So, yeah…. It’s not perfect. The fact that they even find chances to see each other at all means a hell of a lot, but Fai stil has his secrets and a legion of nightmares behind every false smile. Kurogane risks everything trying to keep up with SF missions without the security of a military ID to back him up, and he has more than enough of his own share of bad memories to weigh him down. Nothing is stable or safe. They might not work out forever, but it’s still… He wants them to work more than anything. He wants to get this right for real—spring Fai and his kids free of the Special Forces trap. Someday, he’ll think of something, but until then… As many stolen hours and breathless kisses as he can wrest for them both.
It’s not perfect. But it’s enough.
They skate under an incoming shuttle at a distance far closer than standard flight regulations allow, and AI Fai confirms what he already suspects: that the unmarked shuttle belongs to the GSU. Kurogane hits the FTL engines just on the other side, buffeting the enemy with the force of their jump and flooding the airwaves with the sound of Fai’s laughter. And with that, more than anything… it’s enough.