There aren't many things left in this universe that are completely natural. The myriad functions of the human body and mind have been run down and taken over by things -- not people, but things -- that can do it better, somehow. They've been usurped by technology far more advanced than the developers had originally intended, by machinery so fluid that living creatures never seem quite as natural, by the very ingenuity of man itself. What was created and very soon after lost was human functionality, a special something that humans possess that make them the creators, not the created. Humanity has, in a sense, constructed its own destruction.
Or something to that effect. Ohno thinks it's fun to be dramatic sometimes, but when it comes down to it, it's not really that bad. Humans are in space, and anything and everything can be handled by computers and robots -- it's nice and nebulous where they are. The technology around them is so profoundly everyday that no one thinks of it as "advanced" anymore, or even as technology. The only thing giving Ohno any sense of "human progress" at all is a dusty set of notebooks that belonged to his great-grandfather. They're yellowed and wrinkled and so obviously old that Ohno's not sure whether he's even supposed to touch them, but they're full of interesting drawings, so he supposes it's okay sometimes. Whenever he's feeling daring, he pulls one down and flips through it and wonders for a thrillingly tactile moment at how good it feels to drag his fingertips over paper, to turn the pages of a humanity lost.
Ohno peels some pages apart to reveal yet another landscape. In the corner, his great-grandfather has scrawled a description, but Ohno doesn't care much for it. The words are always telling Ohno to recall things he's never seen before, like the sun setting on the ocean or the feeling of emerging from a tunnel and seeing a countryside blanketed in snow. What's more useful to him are the drawings, because at least they show him what he's supposed to feel.
Ohno has a list in his head of things that are natural. He thinks about it whenever he's stared too long at one of his great-grandfather's drawings, maybe because he's nostalgic for a kind of "nature" that he doesn't even understand. It seems like a nice kind of nature, and his great-grandfather has drawn so many fascinating things in its honor, so it must be nice.
Ohno rubs his palm idly over the page and thinks it over. There isn't much left that's physically natural besides the way his skin tans, but there are a lot of natural feelings. There's pride, definitely, the pride he has in building his ship on his own, from programming the mainframe computer to welding the hyperspeed plates together. There's love to some extent, though Ohno's never really had time for it, so he doesn't know how that one feels. Oh, there's always old-fashioned birth, which seems physical and emotional and probably some other things. But it also seems gross in just as many ways and Ohno doesn't really want to think about it, so he doesn't.
Chinen chirps. "Ohno-kun, you have an incoming transmission request from Superintendent Naka."
"Put her through, Chinen-kun."
"Will do!" Chinen hums a cheery high note as he works, and the table switches into display mode. Ohno puts his great-grandfather's notebook down on the seat next to him, watching MatsuJun cringe and cover his eyes for a moment before the plain white "Radio Transmission" sign comes on screen. MatsuJun relaxes, nods, and then sits at attention on his end of the couch.
"Ohno-chan, Matsumoto-chan," Naka greets saccharine sweetly. Her voice hardens. "Head out to the FCM-003 system. Their regular patrol is weak after Ninomiya had his way with them, and they need some support getting back on track."
"Roger!" MatsuJun replies properly, saluting. Ohno has to stifle a giggle. What a good kid. But when he turns to smile at him, MatsuJun has his eyes narrowed at him, so Ohno decides to drop it. He spares MatsuJun one more glance before he addresses the radio transmission. "Why aren't we doing a video transmission today?" Out of the corner of his eye, MatsuJun's eyes widen. He shakes his head desperately at him, like he's trying to warn him about something, or release a thousand years' worth of bad thoughts in one go.
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm perfecting my next outfit." Ohno thinks he hears MatsuJun whimper, but he's sure MatsuJun won't admit to it, and he knows better than to bring it up later.
"Ah, is that so?" Ohno responds serenely. "I'm sorry I keep having to ask."
"Whatever. I'm sending you the coordinates. As usual, check in with Sakurai before you head out."
"Understood." The table returns to a dusky brown finish, apparently reminiscent of certain trees in the reservation forests on Earth. Ohno can only imagine how beautiful the actual thing is.
MatsuJun melts into the couch. "I'm so glad it wasn't a video," he breathes. He looks like he's aged thirty years just at the thought of it.
Ohno wants to ask, but he doesn't feel like getting glared at even more. Instead he looks out the cockpit window into the stars. "Chinen-kun, can you process the coordinates? We'll have to wait for Sho-kun to come to us, but then we should head out."
"I'm on it!"
Ohno nods when the numbers appear on the main display in the cockpit, and several images swim across the screen showing rotating views of the active planets in FCM-003.
"You're still so quick, Chinen-kun!" Ohno says proudly.
"I wouldn't get rusty that quickly," Chinen returns cockily.
Ohno turns back to MatsuJun and sees him leaning against the back of the couch, smiling and waving his left arm in the air in small swipes. How cute. "You always seem so excited whenever Sho-kun comes on board."
MatsuJun looks at Ohno, dropping his arm and his smile simultaneously. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Ohno frowns and turns away, waiting for Chinen to tell them that Sho's pod is approaching.
Prison is cold. Nino hates the cold. But it's a little warmer when there are interesting people to talk to in the adjacent cells, and he's even made friends with one of the guards there, which has saved him from constantly wondering how blue his balls are at any given moment. But he's been on vacation at home for a few days and left an empty pocket of air that doesn't respond when Nino talks to it. Nino frowns down at his numbed fingers and tries to rub them together, but they won't stop shaking. At least the guard is coming back today.
The man of the hour comes down the corridor, smiling fondly at Nino before he turns to face the opposite wall, his hands clasped behind his back. "Good evening, Ninomiya-san," he says cheerfully, and the painful blue balls in Nino's mind transform into the deep navy of the guard's uniform. "I hope you've been doing well." He still speaks with a charming country accent and charming country manners, like he doesn't want to give them up even after he's returned. That planet in the AOY-231 system must be nice, Nino thinks to himself. Full of apples.
"Welcome back, Macchan," Nino replies. "Back to keeping the inmates in line, I see."
"Or at least trying to." One of Macchan's cheeks puffs, his mouth tugging to the side into what Nino can only assume is a smirk.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm perfectly in line."
"Oh, really?" Macchan's voice sounds like it's filled with actual wonder, as if they haven't had the same exchange every day for the majority of a month, and Nino laughs at all of the thoughts in his head.
Prison is cold, especially at night, and especially when Macchan isn't awake enough to be interesting. But it's a little warmer when Nino is carrying Macchan's unconscious body across the sleep-infested corridor, two feet stepping laboriously and another two dragging across the floor like they're engaged in the universe's clumsiest dance. Nino's only dropped his partner twice -- one time for each of the other guards he's had to knock unconscious -- and otherwise they've done well for themselves. Nino knows the prison dance floor, and more importantly, he knows that no one cares about prisoners when they aren't high-profile. No resources for the little people, after all. Nino was done being surprised by that years ago.
Macchan's pod is small, but it seems comfortable, lived in, full of movie chips that he inserts into the display and watches in his free time. Nino knows which ones are Macchan's favorites -- the ones Macchan's talked about on a near-daily basis. He places those chips higher up on the board so that they don't get damaged.
Nino waits until Macchan regains consciousness before he apologizes and shoots his wrist.
Jun is a police officer. He was newly assigned to work with ace pilot Ohno Satoshi, and while it isn't what he's used to, he knows how much of an honor it is to be paired up with Ohno. Jun wants to do his best to prove that he's earned a spot on Ohno's ship, and for the most part he can handle his own while they're on patrol.
It is a bit intimidating to be working with Ohno, though. He's the one who trained on an elite satellite away from home for two years while he was still a teenager, the one who's considered to be amongst the top officers within the entire police force, the one who can do just about anything -- and well -- when he's on. Jun's gotten to where he is through sheer effort and determination; he's not so talented that he deserves to be partnered up with Ohno, whatever his track record may be, but he's happy to have the opportunity to grow and to improve himself.
Jun pulls out a paper notebook and draws random lines with his right hand, and then traces over them with his left. His older sister owns an antique shop on one of the moons in KGS-203, and after Jun had his first successful arrest, she sent him a priceless spiral-bound notebook so that he could "empty [his] head of all of [his] useless thoughts and stop thinking too hard for once". Of course, Jun never writes his thoughts in the notebook -- not his real thoughts, at least -- but it has proven more useful than he imagined it would be. He's found that he likes to doodle while he thinks -- lines and squiggles and sometimes shapes. And Ohno seems to be interested in the notebook as well, so maybe Jun can use it as a talking point.
Jun looks up and catches Ohno's eye. He's staring at the notebook again. Jun wonders if he shouldn't just let Ohno borrow the notebook and do whatever it is he's been aching to do with it, but every time he gathers the courage to say something, Ohno's already drifted off into his own universe, or he's frowning to himself. Jun just can't figure out why it's so difficult to talk to him.
Leaning back and crossing his arms over his chest, he examines the other man. Jun's glad that Ohno isn't like what he was expecting -- those unfriendly loner-type geniuses who chain smoke and binge drink because they've got nothing better to do while they wait for everyone else to catch up. Ohno's not unfriendly, after all. Just quiet, and maybe a little reluctant to open up to Jun. Occasionally it seems like he wants to tease Jun, but as soon as Jun tries to tease back, Ohno retreats. Jun wonders what he's doing wrong.
Jun sighs. Ohno ignores him (or isn't paying attention, Jun's never really sure, but either version feels terrible). Chinen pipes up.
"What's wrong, Matsumoto?"
Jun doesn't appreciate the gesture. He wants to be left alone. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."
"How mean," Chinen whines in a gratingly cute voice, and suddenly Jun remembers why he usually doesn't bother talking to Chinen. "I understand more than you think."
"I don't believe that," Jun says scoffingly. "No matter how advanced you are, computers can't understand human emotions."
Chinen whines a wordless note, reverberating around the ship before it goes quiet. Jun dips his head back tiredly and sighs again. And then he gets an obnoxious blast of air conditioning straight to his face.
"I hate the system." Nino's snarl doesn't have much bite compared to when Kenichi first heard it, but it still sounds like it has a lifetime of anger behind it.
"Ah," Kenichi responds. He's not sure what to say, but Nino doesn't seem to notice. Instead, something seems to catch his eye, and he changes the topic altogether.
Kenichi is a bandit now, it seems, or at least on the run. He was never meant to be a prison security guard, and Nino must have seen that the moment they met. He'll admit that it was a shock to wake up in his pod with a gun to his wrist, but now that his officer identification chip has been destroyed and he doesn't have the force monitoring his every move, he feels a little freer. He can go out and see the universe like he's always wanted. He doesn't have to be stationed at that cold block of a prison for three months at a time, and he can see the stars from a different perspective without having to watch movies to do so.
He supposes he'd be more troubled by the sudden switch in his profession (non-profession) if the circumstances were different, but Nino's easy to follow. He seems to know what he's doing, and how to be adventurous without sacrificing pragmatism. Plus, he doesn't seem like a bad person, which puts Kenichi at ease more than anything else. Whatever Nino did to get himself into jail, it doesn't reflect at all on his character -- he's friendly, and he invites the conversation that Kenichi was never able to have in his long years as a security guard. After all, being a police officer can be so lonely sometimes. Even when personnel are partnered together, some people find it easier to keep a healthy working distance between themselves and their partners; they don't want to get too attached in case their partners transfer or die (of course, no one ever thinks it'll be them). And with the way criminals have been throwing themselves around space in the digitechnological era, getting transferred or killed isn't a rarity. Nor is it much of a negative.
Kenichi hears a low humming noise and realizes it's Nino, listening to music no one else can hear. "It's my own special radio station," Nino had boasted his first night in prison, and Kenichi had dismissed it as a crazy man talking, but it had only taken a couple of weeks for Kenichi to start thinking that he wouldn't mind listening along. Not that he's ever said so out loud, and he thinks for the thirty-third time that Nino might be more intuitive than either of them realize.
"Is the song good?" Kenichi asks.
Nino nods at him and air drums a dramatic-looking percussive line.
"Where are we headed now anyway?"
Nino shrugs and grins, and Kenichi thinks that that's a good enough answer.
Nino's a small man compared to Kenichi, but he somehow takes up a lot of space. The pod was never that big to begin with, but Kenichi is surprised to find that he doesn't miss the extra room.
Amongst the things that aren't natural, Ohno decides, is the whole having-a-partner thing. He'd programmed Chinen to have a personality so that someone can talk to him if he feels like talking, but a talking companion's enough for him. Years of training have taught him that most people don't let him work at his own pace. Even just the idea of living with a coworker tires him out.
But there he is. Matsumoto Jun. Always with a dark look on his face, always with his eyebrows drawn together, always looking for something to criticize Ohno for. On the rare occasion that he lets another side out -- something simpler or more playful -- he retreats as soon as Ohno reaches out. MatsuJun seems like a good kid (and he's even letting the nickname slide since the moment Ohno stumbled over the syllables and it came out abbreviated instead), but maybe he and Ohno just aren't compatible. MatsuJun has an intense gaze, after all, and a driven personality. He works hard, and he expects the same of his peers. So he's not exactly the kind of person that would get along with someone like Ohno. It's harder to relax when MatsuJun is in work mode, but it's taking a while -- it's been more than a month already -- to convince him that play mode is okay.
Maybe MatsuJun just isn't the type to believe in play.
Sakurai Sho works directly under Naka, and he's the person whom Ohno and MatsuJun physically interact with most. Thankfully, having Naka as a direct superior hasn't affected Sho's fashion sense; he wears a layered set of grey hooded sweatshirts that seems more comfortable than it does frightening. He often sits and stays for a little while (Ohno welcomes it because he brings beer), and he seems much better at straddling the line between cold professionalism and warm friendliness than MatsuJun is.
In fact, Sho proves to be so friendly that MatsuJun takes to him unnaturally quickly. (Ohno assesses his list of unnatural things and realizes MatsuJun makes up most of it.) Ohno tries to tease MatsuJun about this since it's a strange change of character, but somehow MatsuJun is even colder about Sho than he is about everything else, as if even mentioning it is grounds for expulsion from his own ship. If he has to be honest about it, he would say that he's a little hurt by the obvious difference in the way MatsuJun acts around each of them. But it is his ship, no matter how much MatsuJun likes to be in control, so Ohno chooses instead not to think about it.
Besides, MatsuJun is a good kid and a diligent worker, so he can sign the digital confirmation papers and put his arm around Sho's shoulders all he wants. The bureaucratic paperwork has never been something that's interested Ohno.
Nino calls it "whim" or "gut feelings" or sometimes "the draft in my boxers". At times there are more concrete reasons for him to do what he does, but for the most part, he likes to go where he feels like it'll be interesting, like all he needs to do to find his target is to stop moving and let his crosshairs tell him what to shoot.
The planet they land on is a rusty red color, and the ground is a patchwork quilt of clumped dirt and slick mud. It's barely inhabitable, and most visitors have to chew on oxygenated herbs the entire time they're on the surface. Nino struggles a little to walk, but he and Macchan finally make it to a pub on the outskirts of a small town, which Nino says the wind has led them to. They stumble in through the tattered doors and are greeted by a lively crowd with the building's central oxygen system feeding into the main room.
Nino carefully puts his herbs away in their case and walks to the bar, nodding at the man slouched over his beer before he sits down at a stool. Poor bastard probably has a dozen reasons to be drinking at that pub, but with the way the bartender keeps an almost affectionate watch over the man, it seems as if both of them know what they're doing.
Macchan, on the other hand, looks out of place, probably feels it, too, and everyone in the bar can tell. He grimaces as he walks across the sticky floor, gingerly climbing over his stool and adjusting his legs to match Nino's. Nino's gaze drops to Macchan's jaw, still working at the oxygenated herb. "I like the texture," he explains between chews, and Nino laughs delightedly.
The Master waits until they've each had a few drinks (though he gives Macchan more until he stops "sitting like a police grunt") before he tells them what they want to hear: there's a casino the next planet over that's reportedly easy money -- stolen, that is. Though some people go in trying to trade goods with the owner for not insignificant sums, and if they set up an interesting trade, bandits can fly away with more cash they know how to deal with. Nino smirks at the idea of a challenge and decides that they're going to do it both ways.
"The casino guy's got to be some kind of pervert," Nino says as they walk through the abandoned town. Next to him, Macchan sways like an intergalactic checkpoint flag, too tall and drunk for his own good, but chewing, ever chewing. "Think about it: he has all that money, and all he does is sit in his room on the top floor of the casino and recede from the universe. He's probably doing some really freaky shit up there."
Macchan nods slowly, bumping into Nino's side before he lurches the other way again.
"What if we got him a companion? Like a cyborg or something." Nino spits out his used herb and picks out a new one, grinding his teeth across the fresh leaf. "Rnmm, one of those... mmn, one of those ones that cook for him so that he doesn't have to do it himself."
Macchan nods again, and Nino finds himself hoping that the drunken yes-man walking next to him will turn back into Macchan once they're back in the pod with stabilized oxygen.
"Anyway, let's find something like that. Keep your eyes open fo--"
Macchan returns with a sturdy hand grasping Nino's wrist. He's stopped them in front of a large window display of a pawn shop. A slender cyborg model stands powered down across from them, and at the sight of the clearance tag attached to her hip, Nino's eyes light up.
Ohno's slumber has turned fugal. It happens a few times a night, Jun's noticed, when Ohno's body can't decide which crescendoing line of snores to chase, and the ship deck is a mess of snorts and honks and bellows. Listening to it in the middle of the night with his eyes drying out from Chinen's relentless air conditioning is like the hellish version of the composition class he and Nino had taken at the police academy. For a moment he tries to decipher the counterpoint surely hidden away, deep (deep, deep) in Ohno's nasal cavity, but he can't seem to find the lines as they float by, so he lets his crankiness at being woken up slide into amusement before he curls into his pillow a little more and amazingly falls back asleep.
The most impressive part of the masterpiece is when they wake up in the morning and Ohno's still breathing.
"Don't you ever wake people up with your snoring?" Jun grumbles coldly. Ohno slouches into himself, and Jun makes a note not to talk as much in the mornings when he's so irritable.
"I already apologized for it," Ohno responds, petulance clear in his voice.
Jun blinks into his coffee and waits for a moment before continuing. "I don't mean me." He points simply at the officer identification chip in Ohno's wrist and smirks. "The poor people at headquarters have to deal with your snoring every night," he says, placing an emphasis on the teasing lilt in his voice.
Ohno slouches even more and apologizes in earnest, and Jun frowns down into his cup. Still not quite right, then. Dammit.
Jun enjoys filling out reports. There's a certain finality in being able to write down in detail how and when a suspect was apprehended, or suspicious activity resolved. He understands why most people find them mundane and redundant -- and at some point after a day's fifteenth traffic violation, that's what they turn into -- but knowing that there's a written record of the good work that he's done, written in his own words, is more encouraging than any pats on the back from higher-ups could ever be. So he writes out each report with detail and diligence, because even if no one knows or cares what's written on them, Jun wants to have that experience in his memory, to have a bank of jobs well done that he can withdraw from when feels like he's running low.
And he's running low right about now. His footwork had been a little sloppier than he preferred when they were cornering the suspect, and he'd made a mess of the ransacked supply store to boot. Ohno had done his part spectacularly, as everyone in the universe knew he would, but Jun had been the one who faltered.
Jun replays every haunting moment in his head -- making half a dozen miscalculations, thinking they had the strategic upperhand, taking his eyes off the suspect for that crucial split-second. He barely sees Ohno out of the corner of his eye, skirting gingerly around Jun's bubble of frustration to switch the table into display mode. Truthfully, Jun would rather not have the extra noise right in front of him because it's fucking irritating and why can't this be one of the times Ohno just stares at the walls or something? But it's Ohno's ship, and maybe he'll find a broadcast that will let Jun slip out of his mind long enough to start to feel better.
Of course, Ohno finds precisely the wrong broadcast to watch. Or, well, he doesn't do it on purpose, but when the display comes up set on the last channel they watched and more criminal profiles appear on screen, it no longer matters what Ohno meant to do, because Jun's staring at a blurry picture of Nino twisting around a corridor, and he can't say that he was expecting to see it.
Kenichi gets the feeling that the casino heist hadn't gone according to plan.
Their first folly had been thinking that a clearance rack cyborg would be of any use to them. Ayase had been cute -- she would have been a suitable temptress had it not been for the fact that there was something seriously wrong with her processing and Nino had been too lazy to fix her.
"Of course we get an airhead cyborg," Nino had said scornfully.
"I'm not an airhead," Ayase had responded, "I'm just... um..."
An airhead who couldn't remember directions properly. An airhead who'd looked stunning in a gown but had pressed the wrong button in the elevator and spent the rest of the night playing with baby animals at a petting zoo. An airhead who'd befriended the casino owner they'd been trying to cheat. An airhead who'd revealed their entire plan to said casino owner ten minutes before Nino and Kenichi had gotten the opportunity wrestle their way to the top floor.
Though it had been rather fortuitous that the casino owner had been just as big an airhead as Ayase, and instead of calling security on them, he'd grinned and bounded toward them and told them to take him along.
Nino had glanced at Kenichi; he'd glanced all over the room, actually, his eyes twitching back and forth as he'd surveyed the room and gotten a sense of their surroundings. Kenichi had twitched his head back at him, knowing that Nino wouldn't miss it, and Nino had agreed to the casino owner's request (because an airhead who'd gotten along so well with another airhead couldn't not be earnest), on one condition.
"We're leaving the cyborg here."
In the dead of space, Kenichi can hear the whooping sirens and see the flashing lights from kilometers away.
"You forgot to call off security, didn't you?"
Aiba looks up at Nino from half a meter away (the pod is really cramped now, though thankfully Nino seems comfortable with the other man, so at least the rest of the space won't be filled with his surly attitude) and scoffs. "Of course I didn't forg..." Aiba trails off before muttering to himself, "Aiyaaa..."
Nino laughs and smacks Aiba in the head. "Definitely don't say that!"
"Ahh, what are we going to do?" Aiba says in mild (but mostly bubbly) panic.
Kenichi frowns, rubbing his hand across his chin. "Can't you call them and tell them not to come after us?"
Aiba snaps his finger at Kenichi and raises his hand for an enthusiastic high five. It hurts a little, but Kenichi can't help but grin along. "All right, Ninomiya, hook me up!"
Nino nods and works through a few encrypted screens to connect directly to the head of security. Aiba scrambles to lie half on top of Nino and giggles when Nino makes small whining noises, but as soon as the display comes on, he's serious and composed.
"Call off security," Aiba commands. "Coming on this trip was my decision, and I made it completely of my own volition."
"Yes, sir! But we've already contacted the Intergalactic Police, and it seems the people you're with broke out of prison not too long ago..."
"I know, and I'm fine with that. For now, contact Yuusuke and tell him to take care of things while I'm gone." Aiba nods with finality.
"Um, sir..." The head of security shifts in his seat. "How long are you going to be gone?"
"What's wrong?" Aiba smiles warmly at him. "Are you going to miss me that much?"
"No, it's not that." Aiba's face drops into a pout, and Nino snickers breathlessly from beneath him. "We're just wondering what we're supposed to do with the cyborg. She's going through your fried chicken like she's a spokesperson for it."
Aiba wiggles and smiles a satisfied smile when he hears Nino struggle. "Just make some more for when I come back." Because it's just that simple.
Aiba's head of security nod sharply and closes the connection, and once the screen goes blank, Kenichi helps pull Aiba off Nino, chuckling. Nino might be a genius, but he's a fairly tiny man.
"Ah, thanks, Macchan." Nino rolls his left shoulder with a grimace and watches Aiba lean cautiously against the side panel, seemingly startled at first to realize that there's something there. "The police are going to be after us now. I hope you're happy."
"Shouldn't they have been after you anyway? When a former police officer breaks out of prison and takes another officer with him, you'd think they'd be paying more attention."
Nino crosses his arms over his chest and smirks in disbelief. "How much did that cyborg tell you?"
MatsuJun's arm shoots forward to turn the monitor off, and the table display returns. Ohno is afraid to look at MatsuJun, afraid to breathe, so he doesn't until MatsuJun speaks.
"He was my old partner," MatsuJun says slowly. "We were friends throughout our time at the academy, and once we were put on patrol, we spent a few years working our way up the ranks."
Ohno nods and lets MatsuJun continue.
"He's a lazy ass, see, but he's also a genius, not unlike you. Though he's a little more shrewd and calculating than you are, and he can get along with everyone he meets without growing attached to them." MatsuJun nods to no one in particular. "We were good together. We balanced each other out."
Ohno detects some nostalgia in MatsuJun's voice, and some degree of fondness. They must have been good friends, which makes Ohno a little sad since he still doesn't know what it's like to be friends with MatsuJun. But that fondness is swept away, and MatsuJun's face grows dark, troubled -- guilty? -- as he goes on.
"A couple months back, we were assigned to apprehened a serial chemical murderer, and in the middle of gathering information about the suspect, Nino snapped. He disabled his ID and tried to take out regional HQ while we were touched down on the planet. I had to sit and watch as my own partner was arrested and shipped off to some faraway prison, and I haven't heard from him since. So I..." MatsuJun chooses his words carefully, speaking slowly and clearly, and Ohno takes a moment to be impressed by how professional he is. "So it was a shock to see him on that broadcast, because he definitely shouldn't have been there."
Ohno nods slowly and mumbles, "I see."
"Now he's out." MatsuJun looks frustrated, but he steels himself and adds, "And now I have to catch him."
MatsuJun is earnest. Ohno can tell as much even just by looking at the crisp folds of his uniform and serious angle of his jaw. But now more than ever, he can see that MatsuJun's being weighed down by something heavy, something that wasn't there before. If Ohno's guess is correct, MatsuJun feels responsible for Nino, and he wants to do everything in his power to make amends for the mistakes his former partner made. He wants to take matters into his own hands to make sure they're done right.
"Chinen-kun," Ohno calls. Chinen beeps to attention. "Connect us to Riisa-chan."
It takes a disgusting amount of pillow talk to calm Aiba down for a night, but thankfully he seems comfortable with the information Nino's given him. He and Macchan are curled together under a blanket in the back, Aiba's little whistling sleep noises and Macchan's heavy tossing giving Nino a comfortable soundtrack to fly the pod to.
Nino's not sure yet which way he's supposed to go, so they float along for a while through space, and Nino stares into the black depth. Just stares, unthinking, for a long time. He shivers involuntarily and rubs his hands along his arms to battle the cold -- some would call it loneliness -- before dipping the pod a little to the left and to the right again. It's not like he's allowed to be warm, doing what he's planning to do. He's not allowed to have friends to curl up with in the back of a pod. It's not supposed to be a group mission.
Nino's okay with it, though. He doesn't mind being alone.
Well, mostly alone. His fingers twitch as if to tell him which direction to fly in, so he readjusts the course and sets the pod on autopilot. When the coordinates are in place, he draws his legs up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, laying his head down on his knees and closing his eyes.
Jun's frustrated again. He can't concentrate on pressing through screens of the novel he's reading when all he can think about is Nino, so he tosses it on the table and stares at it.
When he thinks about it (and there's not much else he can do but think about it), he realizes that he's mostly worried about Nino. But then he finds that he's also a little angry that they've been put in the position that they're in now -- Jun the hunter, Nino the hunted. Jun's torn between loyalty to his oldest friend and dedication to doing his job well. And when it comes down to it, he knows he won't be able to arrest Nino, as much as the proper police officer in him will want to, and that's probably the toughest to come to terms with.
He can see Ohno's shadow shuffling nervously. Ohno's floating around him again, being careful not to touch his bubble. And Jun feels a little guilty about that, too, that his emotions can bring down the ship like that, but he's been told a few times that he has an upfront personality, and Ohno has anything but, so it isn't unexpected that they slip into letting Jun dictate the mood sometimes.
When Jun lifts his head to look directly at Ohno, he freezes as if cornered, blinking. And then he tosses his arms around and yells out wordlessly, and Jun can't help but laugh at how absurd the whole situation is.
Jun can feel the tension dissipate, tracing down his shoulders and through his arms, trickling out through his fingertips. He leans back against the back of the couch and folds his hands in his lap, quirking his lips at Ohno. "That seems like something Nino would have done." He says so because it's true, because that's how they met, back when Nino was a strange kid with a lot of energy but not much of an outlet.
Ohno blinks, surprised. "Is that... Am I allowed to take that as a compliment?"
Jun smiles, and he's happy to realize that he means it. "Yeah. It's a compliment."
Kenichi wants to know what Nino's up to. He looks over at Aiba and meets his eyes and knows that he feels the same way. Since they set off, Nino's always played the role of the aimless wanderer, but Kenichi doesn't know what he's acting for or how the story is supposed to go. He can tell that Nino knows, though, or at least that he's figuring it out.
Kenichi doesn't mind following, really, especially since Nino is such a capable leader. He just wishes he knew where Nino was taking them.
"Macchan," Nino coos, interrupting Kenichi's thoughts and tossing him a vitamin bar. Kenichi catches it easily and nibbles. Aiba looks at Nino expectantly, but Nino ignores him, and Kenichi's secretly glad that the way Nino teases him doesn't involve withholding food. "What do you think of heading over to FCM-003?"
Kenichi thinks for a moment, narrowing his eyes when he remembers. "Ninomiya-san..."
Nino hums at him.
"Isn't that where you got arrested to begin with?"
"Oh, is that right?" Nino turns to the control panel and enters a new set of coordinates. The conversation is over.
Ohno has a physical list now. MatsuJun's been warming up to him, and maybe the greatest sign of their newfound friendship is the piece of paper MatsuJun tore out of his notebook and gave to him. Writing on paper is somehow different from writing on a screen or tapping keys into a messenger; the texture is different, and there's a physical mark of the movement his hand makes as he writes his thoughts down.
Partnership is more natural now than it used to be, Ohno decides. Part...ner...ship. There. It's natural because Ohno's been given a glance at how MatsuJun works, thinks, processes information. He's been witness to MatsuJun's transformation as they hear more and more about Nino's exploits in space, always robbing small stores and gasoline stands located close to police headquarters, and always leaving those police stations a mess of organizational chaos without taking any lives. He does it flawlessly each time, squeezing in and out just quickly enough to send a message without getting caught.
MatsuJun had frowned into his tablet when Ohno had mentioned Nino's eerie success at each station. "He's ex-police, so he's probably got all of the security systems figured out. Plus, he's smarter than anyone's giving him credit for."
"It's like he has something to prove," Ohno had mused quietly. It had been the first and last time he'd seen such a conflicted look on MatsuJun's face.
But since that conversation, MatsuJun's shown nothing but straightforward earnestness, and Ohno can't help but think that his own words had something to do with it. MatsuJun has something to prove just as much as Nino does, and it looks like that's MatsuJun's exact plan -- to prove himself as a police officer. He listens to every report about Nino that comes through, taking notes on his personal computer and writing out scenarios and diagrams that he thinks Nino might be thinking up.
"I'm the one who knows him best," MatsuJun says one day, squinting down at his notes. "If there's anyone who should be the pointman for this, it's me."
Ohno is touched at how hard MatsuJun works, at how much responsibility he's been willing to take on behalf of the force. Every time Naka contacts them, he puts on a serious face and addresses her directly, even when it's a video transmission and it seems like a physical burden to do so, giving her new ideas on how Nino might move next, as if he's desperate to have him arrested as soon as possible, before he gets to where they would have to deal with him personally. And every time Sho comes by for assignments and data, MatsuJun gives him a stern nod and gets straight to business. But then he ushers him out with a pat on the back and makes sure he has something to eat before his pod takes off. MatsuJun is working hard and showing his appreciation for the others who are working hard with him, and Ohno sculpts a figure in his head of what unwavering loyalty and unabashed gratitude look like.
The video display powers down and MatsuJun tips into his corner of the couch. Ohno giggles, and MatsuJun gives him a wry look as he sits back up and turns on his tablet.
"Why do you dislike video transmissions that much?"
MatsuJun taps through some screens for a moment and begins writing notes from their latest conversation before he responds. "Medusa," he says plainly.
"In the prespace era, there was a country on planet Earth called Greece." Ohno has already lost interest. MatsuJun's the one who likes history. Ohno picks at the couch upholstery between his legs as MatsuJun explains his incredibly unrealistic theory about how looking directly at the superintendent when she's dressed in her civilian clothing would result in turning to stone. "Or at least bad fashion by osmosis."
"I don't think osmosis works that way," Ohno says playfully.
"You never know," MatsuJun replies in dramatic tones before laughing sheepishly.
It's comfortable in the ship now, and Ohno feels good about his relationship with MatsuJun. They might even be considered friends.
Ohno extracts his pen and paper list from his pocket and underlines "partnership" once because he can, twice because it feels good.
"Why is it you can still move your left hand?" Aiba asks, dripping with unnecessary curiosity.
"Hm?" Nino will humor him, just for a moment.
"Your hand. Why does it still work? I heard that when police ID chips are destroyed, the muscles in your hand become paralyzed. They send electrosomething cymbals from the wrist..."
"You mean signals, right?"
Aiba grins. "Whatever, just answer the question!"
Nino rests his chin on his hand and looks directly at Aiba. He drums his fingers along his cheek with an innocent smile. His fingers stop suddenly, and he grins.
"Hey, Macchan!" he calls, not breaking eye contact with an utterly bemused Aiba.
"Ngyeah?" Macchan yells from the bathroom. The man really likes to brush his teeth.
"I've figured out our next target! Care to come join us?" Nino sits up straight and gives Aiba a smarmy salute, ignoring Aiba's whiny retort as he turns to face the control panel and propels the pod forward.
They've had another successful arrest, so Jun gladly logs into the force database to send in a report. Each flick of his wrist feels lighter than the one before, and he looks through their recent reports and remembers what it feels like to have a stellar track record. Ohno doesn't seem to care as much about the scoreboard, but it gives Jun a high, and he loves feeling as if everything is going according to plan.
"You're so cute, MatsuJun."
"What?" Jun grins, embarrassed. "What are you saying?"
"You can't hide your moods. It's so cute."
Can't hide his moods? Of course he can.
"No, you really can't. You even talk to yourself without realizing it." Ohno looks a bit like a cheeky, cheeky bastard at the moment, so Jun puts on his most sinister grin and shimmies to the other side of the couch, pressing into Ohno's space. Ohno giggles and pushes back weakly, and Jun can't help but beam through the shoves and cackling laughter. Even their friendship is going according to plan.
When the ship lurches to a sudden halt and the lights flicker off, Ohno twists his head to the side in alarm and pushes Jun off him, rushing toward the main computer. But Jun stays where he is on the couch, knowing that Chinen won't be powering up again without external help.
The table switches to display mode, and the light pierces the dark ship. Jun looks down at his arms and realizes he must make quite the eerie picture at the moment, eerier still when he realizes he cannot keep the grin off his face.
"MatsuJun, what's going on?" Ohno asks as he cautiously makes his way to the couch.
"No idea," Jun manages between his teeth. It's a lie, and they both know it.
Ohno takes the seat next to Jun, and they wait to see what happens. The display crackles for a moment before evening out to reveal the bridge of a nose and wide eyes staring straight at them.
"Nino, is this it?" The man pulls back so that his entire face is visible.
"Yes, that's i-- dammit! Did you start already?"
A second man appears on screen next to the first, frowning and squinting appraisingly.
"Ah, Ninomiya-san, you were right. He does have great eyebrows."
Jun's hand jerks up to his eyebrows, and he pets one self-consciously. Next to him, Ohno shuffles his feet.
"You asses weren't supposed to start without me! This is my thing, you know!"
"Hurry up, then!"
Some thumping noises. "Fine, here I am..." Nino pushes his way between the two other men and smiles affectionately.
"Hi, Nino," Jun says, trying and probably failing to hide the fondness in his voice.
"Hi, Jun-kun. You're looking well."
Nino had only told them everything -- or snippets of everything -- about five minutes before he had remotely hacked into the other ship's computer and accessed its mainframe. Kenichi knows that there's a lot that remains unexplained, like how the hell Nino has access to the other ship's passcodes to begin with, but he trusts Nino and knows that they'll be given all of the information they need in due time.
"Are you looking to get arrested?" Matsumoto says with a smirk from the other end. He points with his left hand at the police identification chip in his right wrist, and Kenichi knows right away what he means -- their voices are still being recorded.
"You know, I'd rather avoid that," Nino says in kind. "I just thought I'd say hello, since we finally made it to your part of the neighborhood."
"What's nicer is that I'm going to tell you what's happening next. We're planning to have some fun at the headquarters tomorrow night. I hope you can join us." Nino waves with both hands before switching the other ship's lights back on, turning the display off, and logging out of the mainframe.
"So..." Kenichi begins.
"Assuming Jun-kun survives the night, we're all set."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Aiba says, waving his arms. "What do you mean, survives the night?"
"Did you see the way Ohno was watching him?"
Kenichi frowns. He can't say that he did. He was focused on Matsumoto, and a nod in his direction from Aiba confirms that he wasn't the only one.
Nino clicks his tongue. "You don't get to be an ace police officer like Ohno Satoshi without knowing how to take care of yourself. He knows Jun-kun's a threat now, so he's probably going to try to kill him."
"You-- ahhhh!" Aiba leans back and nearly falls out of his seat, clasping Kenichi's arms before he goes completely. He straightens himself out and shoots Nino a hurt look, pressing on through the guffaws. "You seem calm for someone who's about to lose his best friend."
Nino lets out an amused sigh, wiping the tears from his eyes. He takes a deep breath before continuing seriously, "I'm not going to lose him, though. He knows how to take care of himself."
Kenichi rubs Aiba's back and asks Nino, "How are you so sure?"
"I just am." Nino smiles to himself. "I know him better than anyone."
Ohno's too busy with a gun in his hand to write it down, but he has some new things to add to his list: Adrenaline. Nerves. Betrayal. Rage. Hurt.
His hand tightens around the grip.
"Do me a favor and give me a damn good explanation of what's going on. Cleaning up a dead body seems like such a hassle."
Ohno has his eyes trained on MatsuJun as he slowly raises his arms up above his head. He lowers his left index finger to his mouth to indicate that he won't be speaking anymore. Ohno has no patience for liars, and even less for himself for believing one, but he figures he's the one with the gun, so it wouldn't hurt to listen to MatsuJun's explanation.
MatsuJun slowly picks up his spiral-bound notebook and pen, and switches hands. Pen in his left hand, he flips the notebook open and begins to write.
Nino pretends not to remember the moment he found out that his father had died -- how old he was, what he was doing, which song he and his mother were singing on their way back from the hospital where she worked -- but he does. Nothing escapes his memory, and even worse, his memory is inescapable.
His father had been a police officer like him. A good man, hard-working, not the best or the brightest but one of the important blues that kept FCM-003 the safest system in the universe. So when he'd survived after taking a bullet to the head, it should have been a given that the police hospital would offer him the best treatment and the warmest bed in the building. But bureaucracy had overruled the law of humanity, and he'd been sent away to a local hospital, where he'd made it in one piece. One ice cold piece.
Nino had learned about it one day while sifting through files in headquarters about a serial killer that he and Jun had been assigned. Decades back, Nino's father had bagged the same criminal; that same day, he had died because no one at the hospital had considered the man who'd apprehended the murderer of a dozen people "important enough" for emergency treatment.
It's bullshit, the whole system. The bureaucracy, the hypocrisy, the way they pretend to give a damn when they really can't care less.
He'd wondered if it could be called "defecting" when the system itself was defective. But whatever the term, he'd done it -- put together a plan, shot up his own arm, split from Jun, and let himself get arrested, never to be heard from again.
"...iya-san? Are we touching down for the night?"
Nino doesn't know when he fell asleep, but he's awake again, perched in front of the control panel, and Macchan is giving him those concerned eyes he has sometimes. Nino affords him a blank look before inputting some coordinates and letting the pod handle the rest. "I'm going to take a nap."
"It's warm under the blanket, Nino," Aiba says from where he's lying on the floor, an arm held out invitingly.
"That's how blankets work, stupid." He tunes out Aiba's hurt response and crawls in, tugging at the other man's cheek before landing on the pillow and closing his eyes. Too many arms wind around him, and there are murmurs of comfortable conversation volleying lazily over his head, but Nino doesn't hear any of it.
Jun's feeling a little better now that Ohno's put his gun on the table in front of them. His hand is cramped beyond imagination -- he's never written that much with his left hand in one sitting -- but Ohno seems to understand what he's explained so far.
Ohno holds his left hand out and meets Jun's eyes. He takes the pen, shifting his grip a few times before slowly making his jagged way across the tablet. So you're working with him? The writing is warped and warbled like the trees in Ohno's great-grandfather's drawings, but it's legible enough.
Jun takes the pen back and with a slightly more practiced hand tells the rest of the tale.
Nino came up with a plan to take down the bureaucracy, but he told me to stay on the force because the people deserve good officers like me. I don't think I'm all that great, bu
Jun feels a hand on his back and looks up to see Ohno smiling at him.
So his plan is to dislodge people in power, starting from the bottom -- small branches, lower-ranked officials -- until we've bared enough of the roots that we can push the force over and send the top tiers falling. It's not going to be easy, and it'll probably take decades, but that's his plan.
Jun grits his teeth as he clenches and unclenches his hand. He turns to Ohno and can tell with one glance that he's as convinced as Jun was when he first heard about the plan. There are a lot of risks involved, and the fact that it's two against the entire intergalactic police force never in want of loyal replacements makes the whole undertaking completely senseless. Almost.
Nino says that new recruits are always weaker than old veterans. They're eager to learn and energetic about their jobs, but they just don't have the experience to deal with the stress of working as bottom rungs, of being stepped on while they witness the downfall of higher rungs, of coming to
Jun pauses and stretches his hand against the table. He'll have to apologize later for stopping in the middle of Nino's passionate philosophy, but his hand's almost at its limit.
They can't deal with the stress of coming to question the validity of their jobs and of the structure of the police force itself. Nino hopes that they'll come to see how rotten the bureaucracy is and that they'll be convinced someday to build a better system.
Satisfied, Jun sits back and watches Ohno's face. Ohno looks somewhere between a trance and unconsciousness, but Jun likes to think that Ohno's being thoughtful. Ohno's trusted him up till now, and Jun knows it's only fair to trust Ohno in the same way.
It only takes a moment for Jun to know that he's put his trust in the right person. Ohno slouches into the couch and lazily puts his gun away at his side, sniffling and staring across the room at nothing.
This had been part of the plan, too, Jun realizes. Nino had waited until Jun had built an actual relationship with his partner before he moved forward.
It's terrifying and beautiful somehow, unexpectedly so. Terrifying because it's all been so perfectly calculated. Beautiful because for as cold and detached as Nino can be, his optimism is what pulls him through.
Nino seems to like the dive bars. "I'm comfortable here," Nino had said once over the rim of his glass. Kenichi gets it; no one asks questions, and police officers and bandits alike can come together and be human for a suspended moment before it's released and they descend back into their set roles for the night.
Kenichi watches Nino's wrist as he sips at his glass. True to Nino's character, he notices and raises an eyebrow.
Kenichi clears his throat, not realizing he'd needed to. "How is it you didn't get caught when you were telling Matsumoto-san about the plan?" The chips record sound and track muscle movement; he wouldn't have been able to say or write anything incriminating. Once he'd destroyed the chip, the officials at headquarters would have dissected the stored data for information, and his plan would have been ruined before it began.
Nino smiles wordlessly and pushes his glass across the bar, picking it up with his right hand to take another sip. "When they first admit you to the police academy, they ask to know what your dominant hand is." Kenichi nods in understanding; he remembers it well. "But once they have the ID chip installed, they don't care anymore. See, this," he says, pulling his left index finger back until it snaps. Aiba makes a strangled noise, and Nino smirks and snaps the finger back into place. "This guy's a robotic hand. When I was in middle school, I was rolling around like a jackass and landed on it funny, and I broke all the little bones in it. We didn't have the money to get it fixed at a hospital, and you know as well as I do that natural healing is hardly a viable method anymore. So over the course of a few months, my mother smuggled back parts from the hospital where she worked, and she spent that time building my hand, bit by bit."
"Ah, so that explains why you can still move your hand," Aiba breathes, nodding.
"Not so dumb after all, huh?"
"And the rest of the time I spent learning how to write with my right hand. The hand that escaped the chip."
It clicks. "The hand that you used to write your plans out for Matsumoto-san to read."
Nino nods, satisfied. "Correct."
"Wait, so did you fix MatsuKen's hand, too?" Aiba bounces back from defeat like no other man Kenichi's seen, and he's glad that he's on their side. "When you destroyed his ID."
"Yeah. Thankfully, police pods come equipped with robotic first aid, so it didn't take long to piece something together for him."
Kenichi knows he's being modest; Nino had given him a perfect, fully-functioning robotic hand within mere hours. But maybe this is one of those things Nino doesn't feel like gloating about. I'm not a mechanic, Kenichi's imagined Nino-voice says, nor am I a champion of social justice. I just steal things for a living.
"Oh!" Aiba exclaims, pointing his finger like he's come up with something triumphant. "How did you manage to keep in touch with MatsuJun? He told you where to go, right? And gave you information about the police station security systems."
Nino flicks at his empty glass with a finger and pretends to think. "What are they called again? Electrosomething cymbals?"
The first thing Chinen says when he boots back up is, "Please tell me you didn't just have sex." There's a joking quality to his digital voice, but there's an unmistakable desperation in there as well. Jun isn't really sure why Ohno programmed the computer to have emotions, but he is sure that the computer is a lousy actor.
"So much sex, Chinen," Jun responds casually, picking up his novel.
Chinen doesn't give him his usual blast of air conditioning, and Jun wonders for an amused moment whether he's actually hurt the computer's feelings. But then Naka comes on the line, and Jun resolves to save the bullying for another day.
The display flickers twice before the video transmission connects. Jun braces himself for the impact but sighs in relief when he sees the glimmer of Naka's uniform pins. "We got the voice transmission about Ninomiya's whereabouts. Good work getting it out of him, Matsumoto." Jun nods sharply. "I know this is your first time being in contact with him since he was thrown in prison, but now's your chance. Apprehend him, once and for all."
The next morning, Jun pats Sho on the back (and worries not for the first time whether Sho thinks he's creepy), tracing patterns into his hooded sweatshirts and knowing without understanding that they'll get to Nino.
It's my own special radio station, Nino had written, grinning cheekily and wiggling the fingers of his left hand in front of Jun's face. I'll teach you the code for each character, okay? Practice with your left hand, in case someone catches on and gets someone to decode your messages. But really, all you need to do is make sure you're really charged up and then plant them on someone talking through a radio earpiece. Like one of the superintendent's grunts or something.
Why can't I just start using an earpiece and do it to myself? It'll save us the trouble.
Nino had shaken his head pityingly. It's no fun if there isn't trouble involved.
Jun finishes his message along Sho's spine, assuming a simple "ohno's good. see you tonight" will do. But then he decides to bring Sho back for one last message (definitely creepy), delivered with exhilaration: "i hope it's full of trouble"
Ohno just wants to do what's right. It's not always the popular thing to do, but there's something so fulfilling about using his body and mind to make a positive contribution to the lives of the people around him. He thinks his mother might have something to do with that mindset, his beautiful, generous mother who'd stayed up to greet him after club activities in middle school, who'd told him to be brave when he'd decided to spend two years training on a satellite. She had been there for him, had believed in him when Ohno hadn't thought there was anything to believe in, had supported him in his decisions, had given him a reason to work hard and a person to make proud.
If he can become half the person she is, he'll agree that he's lived a full, rich life.
The police at the local headquarters try to address the chaos that emerges from finding their inspector bound and gagged in the elevator, her ID destroyed. They make to chase after the bandits, but when Ohno and MatsuJun show up and MatsuJun declares that Nino is his business, no one questions it. The local police rush to take the inspector to the hospital, and Ohno and MatsuJun are left to ride the elevator up to the roof.
They put on a show for their wrists. Ohno feels guilty firing bullets into the air because his mother had always told him not to waste resources, but this time, it's for the sake of what's right. He hopes his mother would be proud.
When MatsuJun tackles Nino to the ground, they roll a little, and when they land with MatsuJun on top, he sporadically smacks his arm on the concrete to drown out whatever it is he's whispering in Nino's ear. Nino reaches up and puts his arms around MatsuJun for a long moment, squeezing. MatsuJun's flopping arm stutters to a stop, and everything is quiet for a moment. And then Nino throws MatsuJun off him and runs toward Matsuyama's awaiting pod.
And they disappear, to be chased another day. Ohno gets the feeling that MatsuJun will be chasing Nino for the rest of their lives.
They're still police officers, Ohno and MatsuJun. They still work for the side of justice, and they still believe in what's right, even if it isn't always what's official. Chinen still dotes on him. MatsuJun still complains about his snoring.
Nino, Matsuyama, and Aiba still run amok all over the universe, and MatsuJun still watches over them as they do.
As the years pass, and as a poisoned system slowly begins to bare its unfinished hems, Ohno finds more and more to put on his list of natural things. Things that are unique to humanity. Things that can't be replicated by technology, no matter how advanced it's gotten.
Friendship is one of them. Hope is another.