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SLY

Sly Blue remembers Aoba's father more than Aoba does, probably. Sly remembers a guy who couldn't be relied on for much, who made Aoba weep when he left, who made a little boy care about someone else for the first time in his short lonely life and then taught that little boy what it was to be abandoned. 

Basically, Aoba's father confirmed everything Sly had been trying to explain about what useless assholes other people were. All they did was hurt you. 

At first, after Virus and Trip got their claws into Aoba, all Sly had offered in the way of commentary was I told you so. He isn't sure if Aoba ever heard it. Sly hopes he did. Aoba's an idiot and never commits to anything wholeheartedly and Sly told him not to trust anyone, anyone. And Aoba didn't listen and now look where they are, lying chained up on a floor in a puddle of their own piss. 

Ren's gone, long gone. Sly hopes Morphine took that shitty little dog and fed it into an incinerator. Look at where all Ren's precious protectiveness got them in the end, huh? Look how Aoba's doing now, Ren. Look how great a job you did keeping him safe from me. Now he's got his very own collar and leash, and look at the other animals he gets to play with! 

He throws himself against the thick barrier keeping him separate from Aoba's consciousness. 

"LET ME OUT, YOU FUCKER!" he screams silently, battering his imaginary fists against impenetrable nothing. 

Aoba's counting sluggishly, tangling the numbers and forgetting them, his mental voice a weary, slurred mumble. 

"Just let me out. Let me the fuck out, and you can go to sleep. I'll get us home, I swear I'll get us home, just let me out," Sly pleads. "Whatever you want, I'll do it. I'll help Sei. I'll kill Toue. Anything. Name it, I'll do it." 

The numbers stop. 

"Why?" Aoba asks, murmuring the word aloud. 

"Because this is bullshit. If you'd listened to me, you wouldn't be here. So listen to me now."

"Not... why should I. Why... would you?"

Sly laughs. "You've only seen me when I'm bored and looking for fun. Now you get to see me angry. I'm going to destroy every inch of Toue's grip on the island. I'll raze it down to chips of blackened bone."

Aoba doesn't heed Sly on that particular day.

Or the next time, or the time after that.

But there's another thing Sly remembers about Aoba's father. He remembers a day when the guy took the kid out to a pond, in the stillness of the early morning, and told Aoba to throw a stone into the water.

"Which do you think is stronger, the rock or the water?" Aoba's father had asked. 

"The rock," little Aoba had answered decisively. "It made the water into all those ripples." 

"That's true. But the water will settle back down to how it wants to be soon enough, won't it? And if you put a stone into a river, then certainly, the river has to bend around the stone. But if you wait long enough, the water will wear down the rock. Patience can bring miracles, and reveal true strength."

The whole lesson is trite crap, of course. Everything Aoba's father ever said was trite crap, it's just that he'd surrounded himself with people damaged enough to mistake observation for wisdom. And Sly's not patient. 

But eventually, as the days and weeks and months flow by, Aoba's will gets weaker and weaker. Sly can be stubborn when he wants something enough, impatient though he is. Instinct isn't always about quick gratification, after all: it's also what makes a fox chew its leg off to get out of a trap, makes a bear sleep through the dark winter in order to emerge in bright spring.

Sly is a fox, a bear. Waiting in the dark, escaping when caught -- these are things he was born for doing.  

And one day, not really any different to any other, Aoba breaks. He loses count between one number and the next, distracted by a cramp in his leg, and the weight of misery and hopelessness collapses over him. 

Sly surges forward, quicksilver as a synapse, and feels the gratitude of release as Aoba lets himself slip down into the back of their shared mind. 

He dislocates his left thumb and works his hand out of the cuffs, wrenching the blindfold off. The movement pulls at the strands of his hair tangled in the cloth, sending a thin flare of pain through his nerves. Sly scowls. He hopes that Sei feels it every time something hurts Aoba's hair. He hopes that some echo of the misery Aoba has gone through has managed to reach their twin. 

Everyone on that sorry green rock Aoba called home is going to pay. 

Between leg cramps and other necessary dislocations, it's close to an hour before Sly is free of the restraints that Virus and Trip left him in. He'd like to stick around and give them what they've earned from him, but his instincts are telling him to get out while the getting's good, and Sly has absolute faith in instinct. 

The only clothes he can find to wear are some dirty ones left on Virus's floor, a pair of crumpled pants and a shirt that Sly is pretty sure has jizz on it. The fine fabrics hang off his scrawny frame like a sack. Fuck, he's going to have to get some muscle back. This is pathetic. 

It isn't until he's managed to break the alarm system on the front door to stop it from triggering, and made his way out onto the street, that Sly realises that not only is he barefoot and skinny and looking just like a fucking mascot for illegal sex trafficking right now, he also has absolutely no idea what country he's in, and he's got no coil or AllMate with him to translate whatever language it is they speak. 

Clothes are the easiest of Sly’s problems to solve. He’s not surprised to discover that Virus and Trip have been keeping Aoba captive in a sleek, up-market, professional neighbourhood full of carefully restored heritage homes and overpriced boutiques. If there’s one thing that those two fuckers never lacked for, it was hubris.

He finds a clothing store and leaves the clerk twitching on the ground, foaming at the mouth. His power feels as malnourished as the rest of him, but it’s still not much of a strain to lash out at one ordinary person. If the clerk had been concentrating on resisting him, or there’d been other customers in the shop as well, there might’ve been a problem, though. Fuck. Sly’s going to have to find a way to get himself back in fighting form.

Dressed in clothes that fit him properly and cover most of the visible damage on his body, Sly starts to feel a little better. He takes the clerk’s shoes, which pinch a little but are better than barefoot.

Virus and Trip will work out what’s happened as soon as they hear about some random shop assistant getting rushed to hospital, once the guy’s discovered in this state, but Sly can’t help that. With any luck he’ll be far away by then.

There isn’t much money in the store, but Sly takes what’s there, and then he starts walking. He knows that if Virus and Trip decide to go after him, he won’t have a chance no matter how far away he goes now, but instinct tells him to keep moving and so he keeps moving.

It takes a couple of hours but eventually he finds a video game arcade, full of kids playing fighting games and dancing games. School must have let out for the day. Most of the students are white, and all of them speak a language that sounds European to Sly. When he logs on to the public internet terminal in the recesses of the arcade, the hunch is confirmed: turns out he’s in fucking Switzerland.

The second piece of shitty news that the net coughs up for him is that getting from Switzerland to Midorijima is about as feasible as getting to the moon. Getting from anywhere to Midorijima’s basically impossible these days, it seems, unless you have a private plane to do it in.

 

NOIZ

Every three months seemed like a plausible interval between visits to Germany, but Noiz is starting to think it’s exactly the wrong amount of time. If he really was a young man living overseas and making trips home to see his family, it’d be perfect, but it’s too long between restockings for the more perishable ingredients that Tae needs and it’s too frequent for Noiz to ever really relax before it’s time to start the process all over again.

He hates how naked he feels in this regular-person costume that he wears, with all his protective spikes and layers gone. He can play the rich young asshole role required of him without too much trouble, but it’s difficult to feign the physical ease that the wealthy exude naturally when all he wants to do is find a dark room to be alone in and wrap his body in soft sleeves and hats.

The suitcase he carries into the elevator at the hotel is almost completely stocked for the trip back to Midorijima. He learned from the hassles last time and has bought actual marijuana in addition to the more esoteric medicinal herbs that Tae requested. If the customs officials can recognise what it is that they’re turning a blind eye to, then they’ll be that much easier to bribe.

He’s on guard as soon as the elevator doors open on the penthouse level. The hair on the back of his neck prickles with a sense of nearby threat. There's no reason to assume that he’s out of Toue’s reach here, so he doesn't dismiss the feeling as mere paranoia.

Noiz turns just in time, catching the heavy lamp base aimed at the back of his head on his raised forearm instead. The impact makes him take a step back, and the dulled thud of the object striking against the cloth of his jacket makes him expect that he’ll find a bruise or a hairline fracture when he gets the chance to inspect the damage later.

His assailant aims at his feet next, trying to knock his legs out from under him, but Noiz is ready for that and steps into the sweep, landing a solid hit to their chin. They topple back, unbalanced, and Noiz presses the advantage and gets them pinned beneath him on the carpet. His opponent is laughing wildly.

It’s a man, smaller and slighter than Noiz, dressed in slightly soiled nondescript clothing. His hair is mostly covered by the hood of his jacket, but a few chopped locks of vivid blue are visible.

Noiz’s own face goes slack with shock as the man gives him a feral grin.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he says, a nasty sarcasm in his tone.

Noiz can’t help gaping at him. “We were certain you were dead.”

That makes him laugh even harder. “Depends on your definition.”

Noiz rocks back on his knees and then stands, offering a hand down. The fingers that grip his are skinny enough that he can feel the bump of every knuckle.

“I had to get here from fucking Switzerland in under a week while staying under the radar. Why the fuck are you in Germany, looking like a preppy shithead?” he asks, kicking the lamp-weapon to the side as he goes over to the sofa and sprawls across it.

“Why the fuck were you in Switzerland, looking-” Noiz starts to retort, before realising he has no idea how to finish the sentence.

“Like Aoba's been trapped in a psycho’s fuck-dungeon for most of a year? Well, it’s a funny story. Aoba was trapped in a psycho’s fuck-dungeon for most of a year.”

The initial shock of seeing him alive makes any other possible surprise pale by comparison, but even under ordinary circumstances Noiz doubts he’d be surprised to hear Sly Blue dissociate himself from whatever trauma he’s gone through. He’s clearly suffering from severe vitamin deficiency, at the very least, and there are friction scars on the knobs of his too-thin wrists, as if he’s been shackled repeatedly without the chance to heal the sores between bouts.

Frankly, Noiz would be shocked if Sly Blue wasn’t at least a little unhinged after all that. If he wants to feel like he’s someone distinct and separate from Aoba Seragaki, that’s fine. There have been times in Noiz’s own life when he’s been grateful for the chance to step outside his own identity, after all.

“We all made it to the Tower to help you, but we were overpowered. There were security resources there beyond our largest estimates. Mink and I made it out. Clear and Koujaku haven’t been seen by anyone since, so we work under the assumption that they died--”

“You’re pretty fucking quick to write people off for lost, aren’t you?” Sly interrupts.

“You’ve got no idea how easy death is in Midorijima these days,” replies Noiz coolly. “I assume you want to go back, since you bothered to find me?”

“Yeah.”

“I can smuggle you on and off the private plane the same way I get the rest of my supplies to the island. There’s a large luggage trunk that should fit you easily.”

Sly is on his feet again in a split-second, bristling like he’s ready for a second round of their brawl. “No. Fuck that. No fucking way.”

He looks absolutely furious, and more frightened than Noiz has ever seen him.  Noiz shrugs one shoulder.

“Fine. We’ll use money instead. It’s just as simple to do it that way.”

 

SLY

While they’re in the air, Noiz sheds his young-corporate persona, emerging from the plane’s bathroom in his familiar Rhyme-ready clothes.

Sly’s started wearing dark glasses all the time now, even at night, because his vision is so light-sensitive after being locked in darkened rooms for so long.

Being able to see properly helps him feel more in control, as does the thick roll of bills Noiz gave him. If he ever needs to get away, he has the means to do so now. That’s a comfort.

“So what’re things like back home?” Sly asks, reclining his seat back and resting his hands behind his head. Even the cabin’s recirculated air smells like money, somehow. “Aside from the whole ‘shitty dystopia controlled by an evil mastermind’ part, I mean. I know that bit already.”

"The Old Resident's District is smaller and more impoverished than it used to be. Your old house and neighbourhood were demolished when Platinum Jail was extended. Tae lives in an apartment complex full of fugitives. We call it the hide out, or the bolt hole.

“The Oval Tower is still Toue’s main base of operations,” Noiz goes on. “But now that the whole island is his, he’s spread everything out into different cells. Based on the most recent information I’ve been able to gather, your brother is housed in a large research facility. Since the whole island is controlled, Toue doesn’t need him as absolutely as during the lead-up phase, so there’s less to lose if Sei is permanently injured or incapacitated by a procedure. The premises he’s in now allow for more advanced and risky tests than he previously underwent.”

Noiz probably expects Sly to get worried, or upset. Sly doesn’t bat an eyelash. Sei sat by and let everything happen, and did nothing to stop it. He can rot, for all Sly cares.

“The Alphas are the top of the law enforcement hierarchy across the island,” Noiz says. “Then the police and the yakuza, and the controlled gangs do the dirtiest work. The Alphas are a series of extremely advanced androids, and are incredibly dangerous to face off against. They have bases at key points across the island.

“The Tower is a deliberate lure for anyone seeking to bring Toue down. That’s why we failed last time. It’s so heavily protected that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone successfully infiltrating it. The trick, when it comes time for uprising, will be to ignore the Tower, and hit the Alphas. Then, once that threat is removed, to find a way to rouse the people into rebellion. That becomes a more difficult proposition as time goes on, as the population of the island increasingly skews to wealthy hedonists and the controlled, and the pockets of resistance grow smaller and smaller.”

“Why not just say ‘fuck it all’, then?” Sly asks. “Point this plane at Europe and never look back? It’s not like Midorijima’s even your home.”

Noiz’s expression stays blank. “I wasn’t born there. That doesn’t mean it isn’t my home,” he answers in even tones. “I’m not going to just wash my hands of your grandmother, of the children who used to play in your shop, of all the other people relying on me to bring them supplies. I might as well ask you why you’re going back, since you claim to not give a shit about anything.”

“I never claimed that,” Sly answers airily, entertained by the scowl he can see Noiz doing his best not to let show on his features. He loves getting people pissed off when they’re trying to stay rational. “I give a shit. I give a shit about making life hell for everyone responsible for what Aoba went through, and then walking away before the fires in the wreckage go out, if I’m still alive.”

“Whatever personality schism you think you have right now,” says Noiz. “I doubt the other Aoba would appreciate you applying a ‘drive it like you stole it’ attitude to his body. You should have more caution.”

"Like Aoba did?" Sly asks with a shit-eating grin. "I wasn't the one who..." He frowns. "Whatever. It's not like anyone back home is gonna give a shit about what really happened. I'm the bad one who fucked up, and he's the good one that everyone loves. You'll see."

--

“Aoba.”

Tae looks deeply grateful to see him. Sly smirks and shakes his head.

“Sorry, granny. Aoba needed a bit of a time out. I’m in charge for now.”

Her face hardens, but the relief is still visible under the scowl. Sly thinks she probably figures that where there’s life, there’s hope. Too bad that’s total bullshit, but whatever. If she wants to keep on having her heart broken when shit keeps on being disappointing, that’s her business.

Noiz gives an irritated sigh, walking between them, forcing them to break eye contact with one another.

"Now that you're done with the family reunion, let's talk about what I've brought back this time, and what I should start trying to source online for my next trip. Those firewalls don't crack themselves."

"Fuck that. Let's talk about how we're gonna take down Toue," Sly corrects him.

“We tried. You know we did, because that’s how you wound up tortured for a year,” Noiz says in a flat voice. “It got Clear and Koujaku killed. Toue’s grip on the island is much tighter than it was then. It would be suicide.”

Sly shrugs. “Okay, so it’s suicide.”

Tae cross the room in quick strides and slaps him. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“If I’ve got a choice between going down while dishing out revenge, or waiting for you to start slipping prescriptions into my dinner so you can get the other one back, I’ll take the first option,” Sly sneers at her. “Though that’d be hilarious too, letting you think you’re doing a good thing for him and then having to cope with the fucking vegetable you wind up with.” 

Noiz clears his throat loudly, glaring at them both as Sly and Tae stare daggers at each other.

“The most important thing for now,” says Noiz. “Is helping the people who avoided the control. There’s no access to any kind of health care for the few remaining original residents anymore, or net access, or regular fresh food, or a host of other necessary supplies. Keeping an information network and a black market open to help them is all we can do for now.

“We’ll work up to a full rebellion,” Noiz continues, cutting Sly off before he can interrupt. “But we can’t be rash. That was out undoing last time.”

No. Sly doesn’t give a shit about building a future piece by piece. He doesn’t build, he destroys. He’s going to wreck the whole island to rubble and salt the earth if he has to.

There’s no point in trying to argue with them, though, so Sly just shakes his head and walks towards the door. “I’m going for a walk,” he snaps over his shoulder before either of them can protest about him leaving mid-conversation. “Don’t wait up.”

The Old Resident’s District is miniscule these days, just like Noiz said. It’s dirty and chaotic and Sly doesn’t stand out nearly as much as he thought he might, because there are more than a few other pale, wrung-out looking fuckers around, sharp bones and bruised skin. Seems like he and Aoba weren’t the only ones who went on a holiday in hell.

With his hood up, and his sunglasses to protect him from the still-uncomfortable brightness of the everyday world, Sly is just another anonymous body among the sparse population.

Judging by the gang tagging on the walls, Rhyme is still very much a feature, and to a lesser extent Rib. Sly wonders how much it’d piss Noiz off if Sly joined Ruff Rabbit.

Not that he can play Rhyme, not unless he gets a new AllMate.

The thought of Ren, fucking stupid Ren who didn’t even fucking remember that he was a part of Aoba, makes Sly scowl for a moment, and he feels Aoba’s presence stir with distress in the back of his head. Sly resolutely stops thinking about Ren.

Luckily, a distraction presents itself, in the form of another familiar tag on the wall of a building, a rainbow scratched down the middle.

Sly always hated Virus and Trip, from the first moment he met them. It was Aoba who became their friend, later. It was Aoba who was soft and open and believed the best of people. Now, after what they did to him, the hatred Sly feels for the pair eats away inside his gut.

Mink has that same hate in him, Sly’s pretty sure. The guy had certainly been driven, a year ago, and ruthless. But his domination hadn’t had the same power-for-power’s-sake vibe to it that made Toue’s so chilling. It had seemed to Sly like Mink had felt righteously justified in everything he did – which meant that not only was he an insufferable dick, but that he was a deeply dangerous insufferable dick.

Good. Dangerous and driven is just what Sly’s looking for.

The roll of Noiz’s cash in Sly’s pocket buys him the location of Scratch’s new headquarters. Everyone seems to use hard-copy currency in the Old Resident’s District now. Maybe their coils have been disconnected from the banking system.

There are two guys hanging around the door to the half-collapsed building that Sly approaches. Sly assumes they’re both armed, at least with knives and possibly with guns as well. He’ll have to ask Noiz what the weapons trade is like, next time he gets the chance.

He could use his power and get rid of them permanently, but it’s likely that doing that would start him off on the wrong foot with Mink, and Sly doesn’t want to bother with all that bullshit. He has the hood of his jacket up and his glasses on, and probably looks like a shady little small-time asshole with delusions of true toughness.

“I need to see Mink,” he tells the pair.

They just stare at him, faces hard and impassive. “So?”

Sly sighs, impatient. “Just get him. Or take me to him.” He risks using a little shove of Scrap behind the words. Whatever, it’s not like he’s known for exercising his better judgment in decision-making, and he’s not looking to make friends here.

The two exchange a look, and one goes inside the building, the other continuing to watch Sly with a flat, bored look on his face.

Mink emerges a few minutes later. The expression on his face makes the guard’s own look seem downright friendly by comparison.

“What the fuck do you want?”

Sly pushes the hood of his jacket back and removes his sunglasses, so Mink can see his face and hair. “Same thing you want. To kill Toue.”

“You’re dead.”

“I wish people would stop reminding me of that,” Sly quips, or tries to quip at least. It’s actually starting to really piss him off, how quickly everyone gave up on Aoba. Didn’t anyone think Virus and Trip might’ve done their usual Morphine trick on him, turned him into one of their army of creeps? Sure, he’d’ve been a vegetable like Mizuki, if that had been the case, but they still should’ve looked for him.

Sly wonders, not for the first time, how long it had taken Mizuki to die after that failed Scrap.

Aoba had always made friends easily, even as a snot-nosed little brat, kids like Koujaku falling over themselves to protect him and make him laugh. Later, when Sly took over, he wasn’t like Aoba had been, and he hadn’t wanted to be – people were annoying shitheads, for the most part, and not worth his time. But Mizuki had been different. He’d been funny and cool, and it pisses Sly off to think about what a shitty death he’d had in the end. Mizuki had deserved better than that.

“I need your help,” Sly says to Mink. “My body’s fucked up. My powers are fucked up. Once I’ve got my strength back, I’m going to kill Toue. I’m going to destroy it all.”

Mink stares down at him, then grabs Sly’s arm and begins pulling him away from the door, back the way he came. “Come on then.”

They go down one of the main streets of the district, towards the redeveloped area. There’s a night club with bouncers at the door, but Mink doesn’t even bother acknowledging them as he drags Sly past them and into the venue.

As soon as he steps inside the club, the shock of recognition startles a full-body flinch out of Sly. The music, the lights, these things are repulsively familiar to him. Trip had used them often, on a much smaller scale: a set of tracks he’d cue up on a pair of headphones he’d make Aoba wear, a large lamp with bulbs that flashed in an uneven, unpredictable sequence.

They’d make Aoba uncontrollably horny, sometimes. Other times they’d make him violently ill. Either way, Trip thought it was great. The guy got a huge kick out of seeing Aoba humiliated, and it didn’t seem to make any difference to Trip whether that humiliation came from Aoba pleading to be violated or from vomiting all over himself.

Sly had never felt wilder, angrier, more determined to get out and destroy, than he had when Aoba was exposed to those lights. It hadn’t ever done any good, of course. Trip was immune to Scrap, and at the time Sly hadn’t had any other weapons at his disposal, not even any real control over Aoba’s body.

It won’t be like that next time, though, Sly thinks coldly. Next time he sees Trip, Sly is going to have all kinds of weapons at the ready. Especially blades. Trip had a fondness for blades.

The few seconds he spends dwelling on memory and revenge are enough for the lights to start having an effect on him. Sly feels dizzy, disoriented, and can’t tell whether it’s nausea or arousal. The two of them have been inextricably linked for Aoba for so long that it’s all kind of a fucked up mess.

One of the dancers comes over, close to Sly, running his hand up Sly’s arm to stroke at his collarbones. “Wanna have some fun?” he asks, and Sly hates him, hates everyone in the club, on the island, on the planet. Sly wants the floor to shake apart and split, for the man whose thumb is brushing the side of Sly’s neck to fall down a fathomless crack to the magma of the earth, for there to be nothing but ruin and horror anywhere as far as the eye can see.

“Don’t touch me!” Sly says sharply, striking out with all the finesse of a child launching into a tantrum. The dancer crumples like a cut puppet, and a half-second later the next five or six beyond him fall as well, their arms and legs twitching as they lie there. The whole crowd stumbles for a moment, like their footing was unanimously lost.

Sly wants to do more. He wants them all as broken as the one who touched him, irrevocably destroyed by the power of his Scrap.

As he opens his mouth to speak again, Mink’s hand grabs him by the upper arm again and pulls him back, out of the main room and into a narrow fire escape corridor. The door slams shut behind them, severing the light and sound absolutely.

Sly shrugs off the grip on his arm. “What the fuck was that about?”

His nerves are still thrumming, getting worse by the second even now that he’s away from the patterns of the lights and the drone of the music.

“I needed to see how strong you are.”

“You could have just fucking asked!”

“No. That only would have told me how strong you thought you are. Now I know how much I can push you beyond what you believe your limits are. Few people have the fortitude to get themselves to their true edge.”

The dizziness is almost gone, but his pulse is still fast, his skin hot and sensitive. Sly’s pretty sure he’s not going to throw up. He wouldn’t mind jerking off, though.

“I’m going to go puke, wait here,” he tells Mink, knocking his shoulder hard against Mink’s arm as he pushes past. Whoa, no, bad idea. The physical contact makes Sly’s growing arousal spike so hard that his breath stutters for a second, his feet tripping over themselves for a couple of steps. 

At the other end of the fire escape corridor is a door out into the alley at the back of the club, thankfully deserted right now. Sly shoves his pants open and sticks a hand inside, hissing in mingled relief and frustration as he gets his hand around his cock. It feels good, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

He hears the door open and close again.

“You’re wasting your time.”

“Screw you,” Sly spits, jacking himself even harder in response to Mink’s words, refusing to look at him. “Unless you’re giving out charity fucks, leave me the hell alone. The revolution waited a year, it can wait another ten minutes.”

“You won’t be able to come unless I’m watching. Masturbation alone isn’t a cure for the drug.”

Sly’s brain floods with the memory of claustrophobic dark rooms, of Trip standing by the bed with a hungry, predatory smile on his mouth as he watched Aoba bring himself off with frantic urgency, tears slipping down his face as come splattered his belly.

“That’s not true,” snaps Sly, shoving the memories away in disgust.

But what if it is? What if Trip’s presence there beside the bed, for all that it had made Aoba’s skin crawl and climax harder to reach, had been a key factor?

Sly can’t risk it. He has to come. He feels like he’s going to die if he doesn’t, his blood just getting hotter and hotter until it eats through his insides like acid.

“Hurry up,” Mink orders him, leaning against the wall by the doorway. “You’re useless like this.”

It almost hurts to slow his hand down, but Sly does it, giving Mink an insolent look. “Maybe I’ve decided I like to take my time.”

They stare at one another for a charged beat, like two opponents in the ring, circling one another and getting the measure of what they’re up against.

Mink’s the one to back down first, hands moving to his own crotch as he unzips his fly and shoves down the waistband.

Sly moves toward him immediately, lust overwhelming his brain so much that his legs almost forget how to work, making him stumble to his knees just before he gets in range, making him crawl the last few steps. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about anything, his whole world narrowing to need and desire, the thought of sucking Mink’s dick.

Mink is half-hard already, and if Sly was in his right mind he’d make sure to think up a crack about that, to make sure Mink knew exactly how much Sly was gloating over Mink’s obvious lust for him. As things are, though, Sly just moans, pressing his mouth to it, inhaling Mink’s scent and moaning again at the smell, the texture, the heat of it – Sly thought nothing in the world could feel hotter than his own body does right now, but Mink’s flesh feels even hotter than his own as Sly opens his mouth and takes him in, beginning to suck as Mink’s cock hardens further. 

As much as Sly hates that Mink’s right, the difference between trying to get off alone and this is obvious and immediate throughout Sly’s body. Things are clearer and more focussed, his thoughts managing whole coherent concepts before dissolving back into need need need.

Mink shoves Sly’s head down roughly, forcing him to accept more of Mink’s cock into his mouth. Unexpected and sharp as the movement is, Sly simply relaxes his throat and takes it, exhilarated by how full and thick Mink’s length is. Sly looks up at his face, hoping the challenge is conveyed properly by the look in his eyes: you think you can make me gag and choke, fucker? You haven’t the faintest idea of the things I’ve had to do. I’ll tear you apart before I break a sweat.

Mink just stares right back, face impassive even as Sly deep throats him, and Sly has to admit that the contempt is at least a little deserved. Sly’s eyes might be glaring up in combat, but the rest of him is a needy mess. His dick is hard and leaking and his skin still feels hot and wrong all over, buzzing with the need to get off.

“Stop,” Mink says, pulling Sly’s hair to make his head move back off Mink’s cock. A sharp frisson of pain needles over Sly’s scalp and he can’t help but let out a sound that’s half moan and half laugh at the feeling, the clear burning brightness of sudden hurt. Mink grabs one of Sly’s arms and hauls him to his feet, turning him and pushing him so his back’s against the wall. It makes Sly dizzy again, just for a second, so he doesn’t bother to make life more difficult for Mink by resisting particularly hard as Mink shoves Sly’s jeans down and makes him step out of one leg, then lifts one of Sly’s thighs high over his own hip, and shoves into him.

Sly yells out, triumph and pain splintering through him together, the sick pulse of the drug going quiet and still in his head as Mink pounds a new rhythm in its place. It’s perfunctory and passionless and relentless, and Sly can’t stop laughing and moaning.

He’s half-stripped in a dirty alley, getting a high fucked out of him, the promise of destruction and revenge in his future. It’s everything he ever wanted, and he grinds down harder on Mink’s cock, feeling the rough brickwork at his back scraping his cheap jacket and thin shirt and sensitized skin into raw grazes. 

“How come you’re not fucked up?” he asks Mink, who is showing no sign at all of being affected by the lights or music.

“Protective contact lenses,” Mink replies, the words coming out staccato between the slap of their skin and the noises forced out of their mouths. 

“I guess those are a no-go for me, because of how my power works,” Sly muses. Mink grunts in agreement, wrapping one of his hands around Sly’s dick and moving it quickly. Sly gives an appreciative groan, throwing his head back to thunk hard against the bricks behind him. “Harder, god.”

“You’re greedy,” Mink notes even as he complies with the demand, and Sly starts laughing all over again. 

Chapter Text

 

SLY

Training with Mink gives shape to Sly's days. It's been so long since he had any kind of structure that he gets kind of giddy with it. Just simple shit like having a goal for what he wants to be able to do by the end of the week, a routine of where he's meant to be and what he's meant to be doing. 

He'd forgotten that anticipation didn't always have to mean sick dread, but he's learning that again, too. 

For any other student, Mink would be the absolute shittiest teacher on the planet, but Sly is pretty much the absolute shittiest student on the planet, so they make a nice match. Mink never has a kind word or encouraging smile, and never expects anything less than everything Sly is capable of. 

He demands Sly push himself to the edge of his strength, his agility, his Scrap powers, and there's never any comfort on offer when the effort leaves Sly shaking and pale. 

Sly revels in the harsh treatment and the demanding regime. Mink's brutal physicality is a language he knows, and it's so much fucking easier to handle this stuff than it is to cope with all the bullshit that the rest of the world keeps trying to drag into his life. 

One afternoon, Sly's rummaging through Tae's supply shelves, trying to decide if it's worth the risk of taking some painkillers for a cracked rib he got from Mink that morning. Tae can't have put anti-Sly meds in everything, just on the off-chance that he'll wind up taking it, can she? 

No. Not worth the risk. He'll suck it up and handle the pain. 

Noiz is watching him with a detached, almost confused look. Sly doesn't bother explaining what he's doing. Noiz would probably just tell him that he's paranoid, and that Tae understands the reasons why Sly's at the fore in Aoba's head right now, and wouldn't sabotage that. Sly would snipe back that Noiz gives her too much credit. They've had the exact same argument a half-dozen times already. 

"Cracked a rib?" Noiz asks.

"You're a genius. What gave it away?" Sly asks, shirtless and mottled purple-green over half his chest. 

"It's a good idea to ice it for a few hours. Want me to get you some?" 

Sly shrugs, seeing no reason to decline the offer. Noiz leaves the room, returning a few minutes later with a plastic bag full of large chunks of ice, wrapped in a cloth. Sly presses it against the worst of the bruise, hissing at the contact.

"Since I know you and Mink are intent on suicidally hunting down Toue, I'm going to give you some advice," Noiz says. 

"It had better not be 'forget completely about it', because -"

"Please, I know better than to think you two idiots would listen to that." Noiz pushes a few buttons on his coil, bringing up multiple files. "I've been looking into ways to deal with the Alphas for a while now, since they're a main concern when it comes to any movement against the Tower.

"I don't have much; most of it is information from the initial test runs, before Toue really tightened his grip on the island and before these things started becoming mass produced. Hopefully it's not completely out of date, because you wouldn't believe what a pain in the ass it was to find even this much."

Sly rolls his eyes. "Are you going to get to the point sometime soon, or are you just going to bitch about how hard you work and how I don't appreciate it until this shit is out of date?"

Noiz gives him an annoyed look. Hah. Sly got him again. 

"The current batch of androids running around is all built off of the same basic prototype," Noiz goes on. "There were two when Toue took control, and shortly after that they got kicked into mass production. Although, even mass-produced, there's still not a lot of them. A few bases in key areas of the island and the bulk of the force centred in the Tower.

"They're strong, fast, ridiculously dangerous and built to follow every order Toue gives."

Noiz's usual deadpan expression shifts again, the barest hint of a self-satisfied smirk curving the corner of his mouth. "But. Since they were built using a prototype that was being used when Sei was a big part of Toue's plans, they're also designed to follow whatever orders Sei gives as well."

Sly grimaces at the mention of Sei. "What good does that do us? Unless you think I'd pass muster as a replacement for him, it's not like we can conjure him out of thin air." 

"They wouldn't see you as a replacement, not by a longshot. You're too much of an asshole." Noiz's fingers dance across the keyboard his coil is projecting and several of the files close, replaced by a map. "The thing is though, since Sei isn't really a priority for Toue anymore, the facility where he's being held isn't quite as high-security as some. Don't get me wrong, it'll still be hell to break in, but at least all you'll have to deal with are human guards."

"So get Sei, then get him to tell the androids not to murder us. That's your 'advice'." No wonder they got turned to mincemeat the last time they tried to take on Toue. Their smartest asset is as much an idiot as the rest of them. 

"Pretty much. Of course, there's always the possibility that this is insanely out of date and any compulsion for the Alphas to listen to Sei has been completely patched out of them." Noiz hits a button on his coil, shutting down the display. "But it's the best shot we've got."

"I always feel so sentimental when you say 'we'," Sly says, the sarcasm like honey in his mouth. This time, Noiz doesn't rise to the bait. 

"I may as well. You're intent on dragging everyone into this mess with you again anyway."

--

In a perfect world, without consequences and considerations, Sly would just wipe out the entire population of the research facility except for Sei.

Sadly, Sly lives in a world where he doesn’t want to wind up on Toue’s crosshairs as soon as he makes any move towards unfucking this profoundly fucked island. Which means they have to do things cleanly enough that nobody outside the facility even knows they’re there, and that the people inside the facility are in no position to rebel against them.

“You’re threading a needle, not firing a gun,” Mink reminds him again.

Sly makes a low growling sound of warning. “That’s a fucking stupid mantra, and if you say it one more time I’m going to Scrap the whole building into a bunch of drool-encrusted meat puddings.”

“If you want to be in charge of a building full of precision technology that you don’t know how to operate, with several dozen brain-damaged hostages to take care of while the city goes on full alert to corner you and destroy you, that’s your choice,” Mink replies.

“Maybe I want exactly that,” Sly snipes. “Sounds pretty spectacular to me.”

The building is modern and airy, with big windows all around to let in lots of light. Sly’s started to have this habit where he can’t help but look out of windows when he passes them, like his brain wants to check that the world is still all there.

The world’s there, just like always, but it looks like a different world completely from inside Platinum Jail, on a level this high. That’s not just Sly making up some shitty metaphor or anything. The world really is different. There are rooftop swimming pools and gardens and statutes that are completely invisible from street level. Only the high and mighty ever get to know all the secrets.

After Mink’s intensive training sessions, it’s not very difficult for Sly to control each person they meet -- just enough to give them orders, without frying their brains completely. Mink starts herding them into a conference room. They mill around making small talk with one another like nothing weird’s going on.

Sly doesn’t feel the least bit guilty about the mass coercion. He’s happy to leave the moral high ground to the ones who’ll be creating the future, after Sly’s finished destroying the disaster of a present that exists now. Sei might need ongoing care, and there might be other test subjects who do as well, and most importantly if the system stops running just like it always has then Toue’s gangs of controlled thugs will show up and Sly’s been through that before.

If someone has to carry the moral burden on their conscience for the things they’re doing, it might as well be Sly, seeing as how he doesn’t have a conscience anyway. That was Ren’s job, and Ren’s gone.

Sly’s coil chimes. It’s Noiz.

“I’ve found the camera control centre. Now I can create a more sophisticated random variant generator for the footage I loop out to external monitors.”

Sly takes a second to translate from Noiz-speak to actual language. “... you can make it so people outside will be even less likely to realise that the stuff they’re seeing on their screens isn’t what’s happening live?”

“Yes.”

“Did you really have to brag right now? I’m a little busy attempting to mind-control a whole bunch of scientists. Their brains aren’t small, and I’m juggling a lot at once.”

“I can also give you Sei’s exact location. I can see him in his room right now.”

Sly’s surprised at how cold his blood runs at Noiz’s words. He doesn’t give a shit about Sei. Sei’s just a step in the plan, a means to an end...

No, not that, never that. That’s what Sei’s been his whole life. Just the means to the end. Sly refuses to do that to him.

Fuck, this is all so fucked up.

“I hate this island,” he tells Noiz, meaning every word. “Tell me where you are. I’ll come see.”

“I can tell you how to get to him; you don’t have to come here first.”

Sly laughs at how pathetic he feels, how stupid he’s acting. “Tell me where you are,” he says again evenly. Noiz sends through the directions without further argument.

The security room has two unconscious people tied up in one corner.

“I had to knock them out,” Noiz explains when Sly raises an eyebrow at points at the captives. “We don’t all have powers to work with.”

“If they wind up with a concussion or any permanent injuries, I’m going to demand that Mink gets angry at you,” Sly tells him. “Since I know he’d do it if I was the one who caused the trouble.”

“So long as he stops calling me Maniac,” Noiz grumbles. Sly smirks. He’ll have to remember to tell Mink to keep doing that. Not that Mink actually pays any attention to anything that Sly tries to tell him to do, but it’s worth a shot anyway.

“This half of the monitors shows what I’m feeding out to other monitoring stations,” explains Noiz, gesturing to one side of the wall of screens. The footage is all innocuous, hallways and rooms with people doing whatever ordinary stuff they’re meant to be doing. The other half of the screens, the ones showing the real events picked up by the cameras, are slightly more chaotic. Empty rooms left abandoned in the middle of meetings or tests, knocked-over chairs and strewn papers. Mink’s visible in one shot, and another shows the room where all the researchers have been collected, packed in like particularly mild-mannered and passive zombies.

And on one screen is Sei’s room.

Sly thought he needed time to prepare himself before coming face-to-face with Sei, but what winds up happening is that he stares at the monitor for a few long seconds and then he’s off and running, charging towards confrontation with fury in his blood.

How could Sei just sit and wait for someone to come save him, while the world went to hell all around?

Nobody rescues the princess, not in reality, Sly thinks bitterly as he draws closer to Sei’s rooms. There’s just the dark and the monsters, and an endless wait for the chance to get away.

Nobody’s gonna save you except yourself.

The room overflows with bright soft toys, mountains of them, balloons straining at the ends of their strings in the still air. 

Sei sits on the ground like an inkblot, his knees drawn up close to his chest. A memory slices through Sly, of a vision in an alleyway as he’d chased after Ren, Sei looking almost exactly as he does now. It seems so stupid and funny that he looks the same, considering that every single day between then and now has felt like… like shit Sly doesn’t even have fucking words for.

Sei looks up at him and gives a small smile. “Hello.”

“I’d kick you, but that’d probably kill you. You don’t deserve to die,” Sly answers flatly. Sei’s expression doesn’t change, all sweet helpless sorrow. Hatred boils in Sly, scouring his insides with pain. 

“Hey!”

He glances towards the familiar voice. Beni is perched on the wrought-iron arm holding up a bird cage, the pretty flesh-and-blood bird inside it looking up at him, puzzled. 

Sly wonders if Sei knows that Koujaku’s dead. He wonders if Sei’s told Beni. He wonders what Sei hoped to accomplish, by hiding a fugitive AllMate here among a room of useless crap. 

Maybe he was lonely, Aoba says softly in the back of Sly’s mind. Sly scowls, angry at the empathy in those silent words. 

His anger makes him cruel. Did other people’s AllMates make you feel less lonely? he asks Aoba. Aoba’s thought-self flinches back from the snide question, from the memories it drags up out of the dark. Aoba falls quiet.

Sly tells himself that this reaction is satisfying. 

“Aoba.”

He wants to be angry. He wants to be so angry. But he can’t help the way his heart seizes at the sight of the tiny bundle of blue fur, struggling its way out of the mess of stuffed animals where it was hiding. He can’t help the tears that well in his eyes. 

Not for long, anyway. Sly swallows it back and grabs Ren up in his hands, staring him straight in the face. “You get in here, now,” he grits out between clenched teeth.

Aoba probably wouldn’t have been able to use Scrap on Ren this easily, but Sly has always been better at Scrap than Aoba. The world heaves, telescoping down into nothing, and then –

“Aoba!”

The inside of their mind is a dark room, these days. Not pitch-black, but dark. The floor is cold and unforgiving, and the walls stretch up so high into the shadows that Sly isn’t sure if there’s a ceiling at all. There aren’t any doors or windows. There’s nothing, except for things in the periphery, things that move on the edge of vision and make quiet, anticipatory sounds. 

Aoba sits in the centre of the room, his posture a twin of Sei’s. Curled up, small and vulnerable and hopeless. 

“That’s actually an improvement,” Sly remarks as Ren races to Aoba’s side, gathering the pliant, diminished form in his arms immediately. “Sitting up. At first he just lay there.” 

Ren, of course, ignores Sly, all his attention on Aoba as he murmurs softly in Aoba’s ear, running careful hands gently over him, trying to soothe some of the stiffness and cold out of his joints and muscles. 

Aoba trembles, reflex making him curl in on himself even more tightly at first. Then he raises his head, ever so slowly. His gaze is flat, a near-dead thing. “Ren?”

Ren is crying, and Sly hates him.

Ren rests his forehead to Aoba’s. “I’m here.” 

“Ren.” 

Aoba is raising one shaking, uncertain hand up to touch Ren’s hair, and Sly hates him.

He hates them both so much as they cling to one another, Ren crying and Aoba silent, there on the floor of their nightmare inner world.

“Fuck you,” Sly snaps, staring down at them. “FUCK YOU.”

“You shouldn’t hate them so much. They’re you, after all,” Sei remarks kindly. Sly whirls to face him, wanting so badly to throw a bunch that his fists hurt from how tightly they’re curled. 

“What the fuck, get out.” 

“Thank you for making your way to us. It must have been very difficult.”

Every one of Sei’s gentle words makes Sly’s rage bigger and sharper and more full of spite and poison. “No. Shut the fuck up.” Sly looks back down at Aoba and Ren. Aboa’s managed to lift his both his arms, to give Ren an awkward hug back as Ren clings to him. 

“You have no right to cry,” Sly spits. “And you,” he looks back at Sei. “Have no right to fucking thank me. He loves you both so much, and where the fuck were you? WHERE THE FUCK WAS ALL YOUR FUCKING PROTECTION and COMPASSION when he needed it? You were busy SITTING IN THAT ROOM, WAITING.” 

Fuck, he’s crying now too. He hates them all so much. He strikes out at Sei, but the punch is half-hearted and Sei steps easily out of its range. 

“There was nobody but me, and he didn’t want me,” Sly chokes out. “He needed you and you weren’t there.” 

He can’t do this. Sly wrenches himself out of the Scrap, staggering a little as he gets used to his footing back in the real world. He drops the now-empty AllMate, Ren’s home for so long. Sei gathers it onto his lap, and as Sly turns to leave he hears Beni’s tentative, frighted “… Ren?”

Sly’s barely conscious of where his feet are leading him as he runs down one hallway and then another, until the smell of cinnamon hits his senses and he rounds the corner to the room where Mink is, keeping an eye on the door to the room where they’ve locked most of the researchers.

“You look like shit,” says Mink. The hard, careless tone drives out the echo of Beni’s worry, of Sei’s sweetness, of Ren’s sorrow, of Aoba’s hollow whisper. Sly’s gratitude is overwhelming enough to startle a laugh out of him. 

He goes to where Mink leans against the wall and mashes his face against the battered leather of Mink’s coat. 

“Hurt me. Choke me. Break me,” he pleads. His breaths sound more like sobs than he wants them to.

“It’s not my job to save you from pain.”

“Fuck you,” Sly spits out. He’s angry, but not angry enough to stop feeling all the other awful shit swirling in his head. “I don’t want to be saved. I want you to beat the shit out of me. How is that avoiding pain?”

Mink ignores the question, pushing Sly away. “No.”

“Coward,” snarls Sly, but Mink doesn’t even bat an eyelash. Sly stalks out of the room, out of the building. Let the others handle all this shit. Sly wasn’t made for clean-up duty.

He walks back to the hide-out. Tae isn’t there. Probably out stitching up a scrape or feeding the starving, as if she’s fucking Mother Theresa, as if she isn’t exactly like every single one of the researchers that Sly’s done cut-rate lobotomies on today. So she felt guilty one time when confronted with a dead baby, so what? If he hadn’t gone and kicked the bucket for a minute there, Sly would bet good money that Tae would have left him exactly where he was, left him to grow up just like Sei did.

Let her just try to get rid of him. Sly’s not scared of her.

The cardboard crates from Noiz’s plane are stacked against one wall, most of them still sealed with packing tape. Sly gets a knife and slices them open. There are layers of pointless luxury shit at the top of each one, to hide the real contents that’s packed underneath. The first box Sly opens has bottles of wine, which stirs up a quiet murmur of darkness in Sly’s head and makes him feel even more disgusted with the entire fucking world.

The next box has whiskey. Better.

Not that there’s a lot of point to Sly drinking. People drink to let their wild side loose, but Sly is nothing but wild side. He’s lonely and angry and Aoba’s got Ren back, Aoba can start healing, but Sly isn’t this way because he’s wounded or damaged or anything like that. This is just who he is, and so there’s no way to fix this lonely angry gulf inside him.

When he starts to black out, he can hear the sound of Ren’s voice, speaking in gentle tones somewhere far, far away. Sly closes his eyes against the woozy dip and spin of the world, and pretends that the quiet words are meant for him. 

The hangover Sly wakes to is as bad as he expected it to be, and puts him in a murderous mood. Not that anyone will be able to tell, which is pretty much entirely his own fault for being a rude little fucker all the time.

Ready to scowl and insult his way through the day, Sly flails one hand around to find his sunglasses, puts them in place over his eyes, and cracks his lids open slowly. Mink is leaning against the wall opposite him, smoking that same shitty pipe -- if Sly's head didn't feel like it had been stuffed with rotten meat while he slept, he might have noticed the smell -- and watching him.

"Pervert," Sly grumbles. "What the fuck are you doing watching me while I sleep?"

"Don't flatter yourself. We have things to do. Come on."

Mink leaves the room and Sly, cursing and wincing against the pain of sudden movements, stumbles after him.

--

“...So the plan is, we go in there, Sei tells the Alphas to sit down and stick their thumbs up their asses – assuming they have asses, which I do, because as far as I can tell everyone who has ever worked for Toue is a creep -- and we take down whoever else is there, most likely controlled gang members.”

“Your brother can do that too,” Mink says. “His Scrap is as good as yours.”

Even though it’s obvious that the words aren’t meant as a joke, Sly bursts out laughing. “Are you delusional? He’s barely more functional than Aoba is. If Usui hadn’t been given the Ren treatment against their will, I’m sure it’d be her in control, not Sei.”

Huh. Sly’s never actually thought about that before, though now that he’s said the words it seems obvious.

Trip and Virus had told Aoba all about how the part of Sei’s consciousness that had become Toue’s AllMate had been forcibly extracted from Sei, because those fuckers had taken every chance they’d had to lovingly recount everything horrible that had ever happened to Sei, getting off on Aoba’s distress at the stories.

But Sly’s never put two and two together and wondered about whether Usui had already been a separate being in Sei’s head, before she was pulled out and forced to control Rhyme. 

“He’s had more practise with his Scrap than you, and more opportunity to stretch his limits. It would be idiotic to take him along and not make use of what he can do,” Mink says, interrupting Sly’s cascade of thoughts.

“Sure, whatever, go ahead. I bet he’s better at taking orders than I am,” Sly says, bored of the topic. He doesn’t give a shit about Sei or Usui, and he’s decidedly not thinking about how sick the thought of being wrenched away from Aoba makes him feel. If the reality of Ren’s year has been anything like what the mere thought of it feels like, then Sly might have to cut back on being such a dick to him, out of sympathy.

Nah.

Sei accepts Mink’s order with a nod. Sly would bet good money – so, Noiz’s money, since nobody else he knows has any money at all, good or bad – that Sei has accepted every order he’s ever been given in just that same way. Or, at the very least, every order he’s been given in a long, long time.

Sly wonders if Usui remembers being part of Sei, or if she’s as unaware as Ren was for all those years. If she does remember, does his passivity infuriate her, the same way that Sly spends most of his time wanting to kick the shit out of the dulled, timid mental presence that now constitutes Aoba? Does she hate Toue like Sly hates Virus and Trip? Does she love Rhyming as much as Sly does?

Fuck, he’s got to stop thinking about this shit. It doesn’t matter one way or the other, and it’s irrelevant to their task at hand.

--

The night before they strike, Sly goes out on the town in Platinum Jail. He doesn’t really need a road-test of his power – taking the research facility had been more than within his limits, thanks to Mink’s gruelling training regimen. But the thought of working alongside Sei makes him jittery, and so he finds a distraction.

There are parties of one kind or another happening everywhere he turns, so it doesn’t take long at all before he finds exactly what he’s looking for: a young couple, just a few years older than him. They seem excited when he joins them on the dance floor, their eyes lighting up when he insinuates himself between them.

The guy is wearing the same cologne that Virus wears, a subtle enticing scent. Sly grinds in close so he can get a proper inhale. The lady’s hair is just like Trip’s: bleached to a blinding platinum and spiky with product, but still soft to the touch, nourished with expensive treatments to keep it glossy and healthy despite all the work done to it. Sly runs his palm over it and later, when he’s fucking her from behind on their giant soft bed, he rubs his cheek against it, closing his eyes so that for just a split-second there’s nothing but that texture against his skin and the smell of that cologne, and the orgasm that shudders through him in that moment is as violent as a punch.

Their maid lives in a cramped, airless room off the spacious kitchen, and when Sly shakes her awake she blinks up at him with the same dopey smile that all the controlled wear, her wide eyes dull and too-bright all at once.

He leads her back into the bedroom. “You own them now,” he tells her, the amount of power behind his voice carefully measured for maximum effect and minimum damage. Then he turns to the guy and the lady. “She owns you. You do whatever she says. All she has to think about is parties and booze and being happy, and you two are the ones that work from morning to night to make that happen.”

Shit. The guy’s got a nosebleed. Sly reins his voice back. “Understand?”

All three of them nod at him.

It doesn’t make him feel nearly as good as he’d hoped it might, but once they get inside the Alphas’ operations base he’s glad of the practice. The controlled foot soldiers that come their way are mostly old Dry Juice members. It would really fuck up Sly’s mood if he accidentally went and nuked any of their brains by mistake.

Sei speaks to the androids with a voice that’s calm and methodical, kind in the same way that hospital orderlies are kind: detached, polite, compassion without intimacy.

That may be the only form of kindness he’s ever felt, Ren notes in the back of Sly’s head. Sly grits his teeth.

“Next time, I want enemies I can punch the shit out of,” he says to Mink, who is himself standing at the ready for any shit-punching that might be required, and looks like he sympathizes with Sly’s rage-fueled plight. Fuck, if only they hadn’t been Dry Juice guys.

“Master?” a voice calls in delighted surprise.

Mink’s stony face ghosts with momentary shock before becoming implacable again.

Clear?” Sly asks, looking around for the sight of a dude in a gas mask.

“Yes. I’m here.”

Sly’s about to make a crack to Mink about how being written off for dead too soon seems to be a trend, but then Clear steps out of the cluster of five or six identical figures crowded near Sei.

“Well that’s just fucking spectacular,” says Sly. He can’t even muster up much in the way of horror or disgust anymore. The emotional wrecking balls have been coming too fast and too frequent lately. His shock is all used up. “Hey, Mink, Sei, check it out, Clear’s an evil robot.”

“‘Evil’ isn’t really fai-” Sei starts to object. Sly rolls his eyes.

“It’s a figure of speech.”

“‘Evil robot’ is a figure of speech?” Sei looks unconvinced. “I was cut off from people, not from pop culture. I still have a lot of splinters of myself in the electronic information cloud even now, you know.”

“You’d know current slang even better than me, then, since I had to rely on the fuck-knuckle twins for all my news of the outside world for so long. So you should know that ‘evil robot’ has always been, and always will be, a figure of speech.”

“They aren’t twins--”

“Shut the fuck up, do you think I didn’t hear that line all the fucking time--”

Both of you, shut up,” Mink snaps, before turning to Clear. “Is there anyone else in the building? More gang members, more Alphas?”

“Just Master’s broken doll,” Clear answers, pointing towards one of the doors set off the main foyer where they’re all gathered. “I made him perfect.” 

Sly heads over to the door, feeling that same sick feeling that Aoba used to get from horror movies, at that moment when the characters were about to open a door and it was so obvious, so glaringly fucking obvious, that they shouldn’t open the door, but then they do anyway and everything goes to hell.

Only it’s not a movie, it’s his travesty of a life. And if there’s any consolation in that, it’s that whatever’s on the other side of that door cannot possibly be worse than what he’s already lived through.

He can see a crack of light under the door, which means that no darkened room waits on the other side of it.

In comparison to that, whatever’s waiting is going to be a cakewalk.

Sly turns the knob, pushes the door open.

It’s not a darkened room. It’s glaring bright white, so much so that Sly’s sensitive vision can barely handle it. But the brightness doesn’t help, because this room is just the negative image of those rooms that haunt Sly’s nightmares. White instead of black, and otherwise just the same. Just as bad.

The bed looks more like a gurney than anything else, utilitarian and scrubbed and flimsy. Mizuki’s hair is longer than Sly remembers him ever letting it get, lank on the pillowcase. He’s staring up at the ceiling, mouthing the shape of numbers to himself as he counts towards nothing.

His eyes are the same uncanny ice blue as Virus and Trip’s. The whole room stinks of piss.

Oh fucking hell, Mizuki’s legs are gone.

Sly barely has time to turn to the side, out of the doorway, before he’s puking. Mink ignores him, walking into the room and over to the bed. There’s nothing left in Sly’s stomach to bring up except bile that burns his throat, but his body still wants to keep on heaving. Maybe if he just keeps throwing up forever, he never has to think about anything else ever again.

Mink gives Mizuki’s shoulder a rough shake. “I’ll only ask this once: do you want to die, or live?”

Sly’s vision hasn’t adjusted to the brightness of the room, so he can’t see the two of them all that well, but he can tell that Mizuki’s eyes have rolled from their fixed staring to notice Mink, that his head has turned ever so slightly on the pillow.

“Live.”

Mink nods, reaching to snap the leather straps that kept Mizuki’s arms at his sides, and then lifts him in his arms like he weighs nothing.

Sly staggers up from his doubled-over posture, following Mink back into the main room. Sei watches them, no expression on his face, and that makes Sly remember that for all he thinks of Sei as weak and useless and passive, there are some ways in which Sei is harder than Sly will ever manage to be. Sei’s seen and lived through things that would likely destroy Sly.

“Stay. Oversee this shit for the time being. I’ll be back soon,” Sly manages to mumble to Sei, who accepts the order with the same mild nod as always.

“Clear,” Sly goes on, addressing the alphas en masse, not sure how he’d even begin telling them apart. One of them steps forward, smiling.

“Yes, Master?”

“You’re coming too. Follow me.”

They make a fucking hilarious sight, Sly’s sure, the four of them making their way back through the streets from the Alpha’s base towards Tae’s surgery. Mink carrying Mizuki, Sly scuffing his way reluctantly behind them, Clear cheerfully bringing up the rear.

 

NOIZ

Burying himself in the necessity of inventorying what he brought back on his last trip is the best way Noiz can think of to distract from the potential disaster in motion that Sly is currently leading against one of the Alpha bases. Sly's wanting to tear things apart is all well and good for him, but absolutely worthless as far as Noiz is concerned if there's no way to stay alive long enough to rebuild.

Noiz is busy with a half-dozen open windows full of supply lists when Sly ultimately bangs into his apartment. Noiz's head jerks up as the sound shatters his concentration and he's about to snap at Sly to keep it down when he notices what’s following along a few feet behind.

"Why are you playing Pied Piper with one of those androids?" Noiz has thankfully never had to be this close to one prior to this point but even still that face is impossible for anyone from Midorijima to mistake. "I thought the plan was to leave the base with the illusion of operating as normal until we were ready? Or are you expecting me to take time stripping its memory for floor plans or something. Because if that's all you want, you didn't need to bring the whole thing here. I'm sure neither you or Mink would be squeamish about toting a severed head around."

Sly scowls at Noiz's flippancy, pausing only to point at a nearby sofa and give a brusque order of 'sit' that his follower happily obeys before he turns his attention back to Noiz. "If I wanted to pull these asshole things apart I wouldn't have left enough in one piece for you to go poking through the memory, smartass. That's Clear."

"That?" Noiz blinks a few times at the android sitting perfectly still on his couch. He'd never made the connection before, but the build is about right, likewise for the colouring. Even so, it's strange to think that Clear, all eager to please and far too cheerful and friendly, is the same as one of those things.

"He called me 'Master'. I figure that's a good indication. Now fix him."

Sly's blunt demand pulls Noiz out of his thoughts and Noiz's eyes flick between Sly and Clear, still sitting there quiet and unmoving and obviously ready to follow whatever directive Sly asks of him. "Did you Scrap him or something?"

"No. He's a machine, what the hell good would it do? He's already an obedient little zombie without any interference from me, I want him fixed. So fix him."

"And just how the hell am I supposed to accomplish that?"

"You're the flashy hacker kid and he's a robot. I think you can figure it out." Sly's hand moves in a dismissive wave as he turns to leave, although not before addressing Clear one last time. "Stay here and do whatever Noiz wants, got it?"

"All right, Master."

Then Sly is gone and Clear's expectant gaze turns to fixate on Noiz, waiting silently and eternally patient for his next order and Noiz is tempted to chase Sly down. To tell him to deal with Clear because Noiz has enough on his plate right now and Sly is only complicating every slow, careful step they've been making towards doing something more than just barely surviving.

Except the thought of leaving Clear like this, completely pliant and forever waiting for his next instruction, causes a cold lump of unease to churn in Noiz's stomach. He just can't shove Clear aside, hand him back to Sly who will probably just take Clear back to that base, out of sight out of mind, until they're ready for their next move. If there is any sort of chance, Noiz has to try.

Struggling towards the barest chance of something better is all Noiz's life amounts to anymore.

The sigh that escapes Noiz's lips is exhausted. One hand moving absently to close the various inventory files while his attention remains focused on Clear. He doesn't have time for this. But...

"Clear?"

"Yes?"

"You got access ports, a shutdown, that sort of thing?"

"Yes."

"Let's see them."

"Do I need maintenance?"

That question, so light and entirely oblivious to the fact that anything at all might be wrong leaves Noiz with a bone-deep feeling of exhaustion. "Something like that."

Chapter Text

NOIZ

Once Noiz gets Clear shut down and hooked into his system, once he actually starts looking at the sheer mass of programming involved, it begins to sink in just what kind of a mess Sly has gone and dumped in his lap. Clear is a sophisticated level of artificial intelligence that likely took years of development and Noiz has to figure out exactly what in his programming can be safely edited and altered as quickly as possible and do so in a way that doesn't change who Clear fundamentally is.

Or at the very least brings Clear close to what he was before this mess.

It takes a full day to decompile it all into something he can work with and after that Noiz loses track of time. Every bit of his awareness narrows until there is nothing but the glow of multiple screens inches from his face and a cup of cold coffee with the consistency of sludge close at hand. Occasionally he'll doze while puzzling over particularly complicated strings, opening his eyes a full half-hour later when he's positive that all he'd done was blink for a just a fraction of a second longer than usual.

Tae comes by to scold Noiz once, and if he's being perfectly honest with himself Noiz is surprised that it took her as long as it did. She forces him to step away from the computers and the line upon line of code that he's been staring at to sit down for a proper meal, watching him intently the entire time likely to make sure that he doesn't just take his plate and sit right back down in front of the computer. As it is Noiz has to fight the urge to start going over things on his coil while sitting at the table.

"You need to take breaks or you'll miss things."

Noiz is only half listening, even if Tae is right. His mind mostly occupied with everything he still needs to do, barely tasting the food Tae set in front of him. He's getting so close to chasing the bulk of these control routines down to their source. Then he has to see if they can be easily deleted. And if not then he has to start working out an override. Maybe an exception that can be edited in or....

"All of you need to realize that you can't save anyone if you kill yourself in the process."

The statement is punctuated with a tug on his ear, hard enough to tilt his head to the side, that completely shatters his train of thought. Noiz shoots an aggravated frown in Tae's direction. "I know. You know I know that."

"I know I told you that, but you're not giving me any indication of it having sunk in. You've been running yourself ragged for a year now, off to Germany and back again. I know we needed those supplies, but not at the risk of your heath."

"I'm not risking anything." Noiz pushes himself away from the table, tired of where this conversation is going. He needs to get back to work and if Tae is going to lecture him either way then he'd rather be accomplishing something while it happens. This whole process of untangling the mess that has been made of Clear's mind is taking far too long as it is. "Other than a bit of jet lag there's nothing particularly stressful about a plane trip every few months and there's nothing exhausting about this either. You should be worrying about what Aoba does, not me. He's the one acting like a self-destructive mess."

"I've dealt with that side of Aoba enough to know that worrying does little good. And maybe it is for the best that he's around, at least for the time being."

"He know you think that? Cause I'm pretty sure Sly is convinced you're going to drug him into submission."

"I don't think he'd believe me. None of you are particularly inclined to listen." Tae starts gathering up the dishes to be cleaned and Noiz immediately feels a pang of guilt. Tae has unquestioningly treated him like family, better than he's ever been treated by his actual family, for a year now and he can't even manage to not be an irritable, distracted, asshole when she brings him a meal out of worry that he's not eating properly.

"Look, I--"

"It doesn't matter." Tae immediately waves away Noiz's clumsy movements towards helping with cleaning up. "Go back to work. Just don't forget to get some decent rest and eat occasionally. We can't have you wearing yourself out, even over something as important as this."

"I will." Noiz takes a few steps back towards the small workroom he has set up, still feeling about ten years old. "And thanks. For--"

The word 'everything' is on the tip of Noiz's tongue but Tae scowls and waves him away yet again, irritably cutting him off. "I know, I know. Go. I'll make you some fresh coffee before I leave. It looks like what you have has solidified."

Noiz nods, well aware that any further thanks will be pushed aside just as brusquely. Instead he settles back in front of his computer, feeling far more alert than he has in hours.

 

SLY

His eyes can’t focus on his coil all that well so he’s not sure of the time exactly, but it’s after midnight and before morning. Two, maybe. Yeah. That sounds about right. Sly nods decisively to himself as he bangs his knuckles on the door. Two sounds right.

Mink answers the door too promptly to have been asleep, which annoys Sly because he wanted to be a disruption. He wanted to drag Mink out of some really nice dream. Okay, so Mink’s dreams are probably not at all nice. Sly doesn’t care. It’s not like it matters anyway.

Mink’s wearing loose-fitting sleep pants and no shirt. He has a lot of scars. Everyone Sly knows has a lot of scars.

“I bought an AllMate,” he tells Mink, steadying himself against the doorframe. He laughs, because everything is stupid and he hates it all. “It was a ferret. I wanted a mongoose. Virus had a snake.”

“Get in here,” Mink says, pulling Sly inside with a yank on his arm, making him stumble over the threshold, and slams the door. Sly sways on his feet, blinking hard to try to bring Mink’s face back into clarity. There are lights on in the dingy little apartment. Sly’s glad. He hates the dark.

“You ever hear that story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi?” he asks Mink, who is washing a chipped jar and filling it with water from the kitchenette’s faucet. “The mongoose killing snakes one? I wanted a mongoose, but the ferret was the best I could do.”

Mink puts the jar in Sly’s hand. Sly stares down at it. “But then I guess I broke it,” he goes on. “I fought eight Rhyme battles in a row, and it fried in the last one. I lost that one. Shhhhh, don’t tell Noiz I lost, okay? I never lost one before. He’ll lose all respect for me.”

The idea makes Sly laugh, and he spills water on himself. Mink takes the jar out of his hand again.

“You’re a disaster,” Mink says.

Sly nods emphatically at the words. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m a tsunami, I’m a hurricane. That’s the fucking point of me. Why the fuck am I left in charge of all this? Who asks a tornado to babysit their life while they go off and cry with Ren and leave me here alone?

“Fuck, that snake. I hated that fucking snake. I hated the lion more, but…” Sly shakes his head. “No, that wasn’t me. None of it was me. It was Aoba. It happened to him. It didn’t happen to me. It didn’t.”

Mink gives a deep sigh of irritation and pulls Sly through to the bedroom, turning on the overhead bulb as they go.

“I hate the dark,” Sly says.

“I know. Sit.” Mink helps him sit down on the edge of the bed and starts to pull Sly’s water-sodden shirt up over his head.

“Fucking finally. You have been holding out on me way too long, you self-righteous asshole.”

Mink ignores him, stripping off the rest of his clothes with rough efficiency and pushing him down on the bed. Mink climbs in beside him, pulling the blanket up to cover them both.

“Get some sleep.”

Sly ignores the order, sliding across the space between them and touching Mink’s chest and stomach, moving down towards the drawstring of his pants. With the lights on, he can easily see the remnant of the healthy tan Mink must have had once, before the smog and need to stay hidden faded it. He’s so well-muscled it’s practically insulting, in Sly’s opinion.

For some reason Sly thinks suddenly of Virus’s body, slim and lean but surprisingly strong when he wanted to be, quick and clever enough to be lethal no matter how big his opponent was. Virus would find a way to kill Mink, no question, and then Sly would be back in the dark again, and there would be the snake…

His hands have frozen against Mink. He can’t move. He can’t even breathe properly, and his teeth are chattering and he’s shaking. He can’t stop shaking.

Mink’s arms wrap around him, slow and careful like Sly’s some frightened animal. He doesn’t say anything stupid and pointless like “it’s okay”, or “you’re safe”, which is something Sly appreciates about Mink. He doesn’t bullshit.

Sly flashes to Trip’s face, his voice. “Virus doesn’t lie.”

Sly presses his forehead to Mink’s chest, shaking even harder. He’s grabbing Mink’s arm, squeezing so tight that it probably hurts.

“Fuck this,” Sly grits out, his teeth still jittering. “This is a load of crap. I made it out, I made it home, I just want the guy I’ve been fucking to fuck me again, and instead I get this trauma flashback shit? What a fucking joke.” He laughs, the sound high and wavery and stupid-sounding.

“You’re going to hyperventilate if you don’t slow your breathing,” Mink says, rubbing his back, still holding him close.

Sly tries to smirk it off. “This is some serious Aoba and Ren shit you’re pulling on me here. I like it better when you’re balls-deep in my ass. Let’s do that instead.”

“You’ll need to calm down first.”

Sly snorts. “Got any valium? Actually, no. I’ve drunk enough that it’d kill me, maybe.” That makes him laugh out loud. “Can you imagine that? After all this, I die trying to loosen up so I can get fucked without freaking out.”

“I have an oil that my people used to make. That might help.” Mink sits up, reaching over to the stand beside the bed, and Sly’s body misses the touch of his skin. “I only have a little of it left, but it’s good for calming down in the face of memories.”

Sly sits up as well. He wants to ask what memories Mink has that he needs help calming down from, but before he can Mink pushes two fingers coated in a buttery substance past his lips.

Sly wants to start laying into Mink, because Mink’s got this shitty-ass habit of going around making decisions about what’s best for everyone without asking them for their own say in the matter. But the oily stuff tastes really fucking good, and Sly’s lapping and sucking at Mink’s fingers greedily, trying to get all of it.

It doesn’t feel like being drunk. Sly’s still incredibly drunk, as well, so he can tell the difference between the two sensations easily. It feels like being warm, and happy, and relaxed. He hasn’t felt this good since before his life crashed into hell. A throb of desire pulses through him.

Mink moves his now spit-slick fingers away from Sly’s mouth, down towards his ass. Sly moves to sit across Mink’s thighs, rocking in close to kiss him. Having something for his tongue to lick against feels fantastic. Everything is soft and blurred and wet and good.

For all that he tried to lick all the oil that had been on Mink’s fingers, Sly must have left a lot of it behind, because when Mink slides a finger inside him it feels so good that Sly breaks the kiss off sharply, panting against Mink’s mouth in a sudden effort to stop himself from coming then and there.

Sly flashes, just for a second, to Virus, putting wine in Aoba’s ass to get him instantly trashed. But it’s much easier to shove the memory away now, to ignore it. Sly rocks down onto Mink’s finger.

“More.”

Mink complies, going straight from one finger to three, and the blunt burn of it sparks through the blurry warmth and makes Sly laugh out loud, biting hungrily at Mink’s mouth. “Yes, fuck, like that. Ah!”

Mink rolls them without warning, Sly now with his back flat on the mattress, Mink looming over him. The overhead light is visible over Mink’s shoulder, the naked bulb making bright after-images swim across Sly’s vision. He wraps his legs around Mink eagerly, one heel digging into the small of Mink’s back, the other crooking over Mink’s elbow so that they’re like a puzzle, two parts designed to slot together into a single piece.

Sly arches, his voice cracking on a moan as Mink enters him. He’s so full. He feels like his insides are getting rearranged, shifting and changing so that there’ll be nothing but this, forever, his body redesigned to be Mink’s and Mink’s alone.

“You’re going to ruin me for other guys,” Sly manages to quip, every snap of Mink’s hips making him see stars, leaving him almost dizzy with pleasure before the next thrust and the next take him even higher and higher.

“Nothing could ever ruin you,” Mink pants, sounding as lost as Sly is.

Now that there is a total pile of Ren and Aoba shit, and Sly is gonna call Mink on turning into a sappy asshole, but somehow instead of being annoyed by the words Sly feels all fucked up by them, because Mink’s got no idea. He doesn’t know the things they made him do.

Sly doesn’t realize he’s said any of that aloud until Mink is hushing him, touching his face, wiping Sly’s cheeks with his broad thumb – when did Sly’s cheeks get damp? – and looks into Sly’s eyes.

“You survived. You’re alive,” Mink tells him.

Mink’s not wearing his protective contact lenses. His real eye color is a deep gold, a shade between Sly’s natural eye color and the color they turn when he concentrates for Scrap. The expression in their depths is hard, and weary, and lost.

“You are, too,” Sly responds.

Dumbshits like Ren and Aoba probably like spewing romantic crap about love when they’re in bed, but that’s because they’re idiots. Love is crap. Most of the big love stories end with people killing themselves for it. Fuck that. Sly will take being reminded that he’s alive over love any day.

He laughs at himself. He’s the heart and soul of Aoba’s destructive nihilism, getting sappy over being told that he survived. Maybe Mink really is rearranging him inside after all.

 

NOIZ

When Clear wakes up he's so still and cold to the touch that Noiz is certain he broke him somehow. That in his sleep-deprived state he forgot to make a declaration somewhere, or left in an infinite loop of some kind that Clear's mind is now tangled deep inside. Noiz's own mind tangles up in wondering if he should shut everything down and try again or give up and have to explain to Sly just how far gone Clear actually is, that there is just no bringing him back.

Noiz's hand is already halfway to the shutdown switch -- no matter what he decides in the end, he can't leave Clear like this -- when Clear's head finally moves. Just a little bit, the slightest turn to the side to follow Noiz's movements before slumping forward, but that alone is enough to give Noiz pause. Noiz's fingertips brush faintly against the back of Clear's hand and the skin there still feels far too cold.

But maybe the reason for that is because whatever Clear has that passes for circulation hasn't kicked in yet.

"You with me?" It's a perfunctory question while he leans in close to examine Clear's pupils. Not that Noiz quite knows what he's checking for; he doesn't have any sort of benchmark on what is normal for Clear. He doesn't even have a benchmark on what would be normal for another human being. But Noiz spent a lot of time alone as a kid, something which ultimately involved spending a lot of time reading and watching TV. He knows how to go through the motions of comfort and concern, even if more often than not he chooses not to.

Clear's response is a tiny nod, his hands clenching and unclenching on his lap, and Noiz watches every movement with a quiet sort of curiosity.

"No kinks or anything?"

A small shake of the head that Noiz decides to take as a negative.

"Can you still talk?"

"Yes." There's no hoarse rasp to Clear's voice like there would be with a human who'd been unconscious for weeks on end. It's soft, barely audible and a little toneless, but perfectly even. Nowhere near as bubbly-bright as before, but then Clear just woke up from what could be considered a very long nightmare. Given the circumstances Noiz can't blame him for being subdued.

"I just want to be sure. There was a lot of shit to untangle, and it was hard without knowing what your coding looked like before those assholes did a number on you."

Clear's hands clench tight in his lap again and he almost shrinks into himself. Shoulders hunched, and Noiz isn't quite sure how Clear manages it but he looks even more pale than he did while powered down and unmoving.

"It all really happened."

It's closer to a statement than any sort of a question, but Noiz answers all the same. "Yeah."

There's a sharp intake of breath, Clear's eyes distant and stricken for a moment before he nearly curls into a ball. His hands finally move off of his lap, to cover his face.

For a moment Noiz's mind scrambles a bit, one hand uselessly reaching out to touch Clear's shoulder and give a light sort of reassuring squeeze.

"It's over now, okay?" The words feel clumsy and useless on Noiz's tongue but he still tries to string something comforting together. Something that will take some of the jagged edge of horror off of Clear's expression. "Whatever happened, it's all over. You'll be okay."

"You don't know," Clear says, sounding absolutely bewildered. He lifts his head just enough to study Noiz's face. "You don't know what I did? To- to Mizuki?"

Noiz frowns. Sly didn't really say much while dumping Clear in his lap, and Noiz has spent every waking moment since then wrapped up in a mess of coding. He thinks he remembers a mention of Mizuki being found alive and in bad shape but beyond that....

"It's not okay." Clear's face is buried in his hands once again, words tumbling out in a muffled, hopeless, string. "It's never going to be okay."

 

SLY

“My name wasn’t Mink when I was a child.”

Sly grunts, so Mink knows he’s listening. They’re drowsy but not asleep, the brightness of the lit room making it tough to drift off.

“I buried my old name when I buried everyone who’d ever called me it. I took ‘Mink’ from a story my mother used to tell me, when I was still young enough to sit on her lap as she worked with the other women. The other animals threw Mink onto the fire, to punish him for causing trouble. Then they felt guilty, and pulled him back out, but the fire had already blackened him, and he’s been black ever since, and the stink of burning meat still clings to him.”

There’s a note in Mink’s voice that Sly’s never heard there before, and the way it makes some of the words catch makes Sly start to guess what it is that makes Mink want to kill Toue so badly.

Sly shifts closer to Mink, pressing their bodies flush. Sly hopes the simplicity of touch will be some kind of comfort for Mink, because it’s the only one Sly really knows how to offer.

 

NOIZ

Noiz tries to stay awake as long as possible. Clear is an absolute mess, sitting with knees drawn tight against his chest and his head lowered while he speaks, almost babbling, listing off atrocity after atrocity preformed with his own hands. Every so often he glances up to peek at Noiz's face, almost daring Noiz to condemn him.

All Noiz can do is remain impassive. It's not that difficult for him to throw up a blunted layer between himself and Clear's words, to view everything as an abstract and every act described as something done by an entirely different person. The Clear that did those things only existed because of a few lines of code. Now those lines are gone and this Clear is someone else entirely.

Noiz repeats "that wasn't you," every time Clear pauses. In the end, though, Noiz is only human, and a human that has been overworking himself long days with very little sleep at that.

Clear stop talking, an edgy sort of silence falling over everything, and Noiz sees it as the perfect opportunity to crash.

Just before he collapses into bed, he asks Clear "you going to be okay on your own for a bit?" while muffling a yawn with one hand. "I'm just gonna catch a couple hours."

Clear's head moves in a small, twitchy, nod in response and that's the last thing Noiz remembers before his own head hits the pillow, exhaustion finally overtaking him.

When Noiz opens his eyes again it's nearly twelve hours later and Clear is nowhere to be seen. His breath catching in his throat for a moment before escaping in a frustrated hiss, he scrambles out of bed to do a quick sweep of the apartment, to be absolutely sure before beginning to worry in earnest.

It's while Noiz is trying to decide on whether to start searching on his own or let Sly know that the door creeks and Clear shuffles his way inside. Noiz, so furious and relieved and utterly exasperated at the sight, barely registers the fact that Clear's face is once again hidden behind that mask of his.

Instead, Noiz snaps, "Where the fuck were you?" -- something that he immediately feels a twinge of guilt for, when the sharpness of his tone causes Clear to flinch back.

"I just needed to find this." Clear's hand moves to touch the side of his mask and Noiz can't help but roll his eyes a bit.

"It couldn't have waited until I was awake? Hell, I could have done it myself if I'd known it was that important."

"I waited for a while. I just couldn't be exposed like that anymore, it feels wrong."

There's a moment of silence, Noiz still frowning. Clear sucks in a ragged breath that the mask only amplifies before he continues. "Grandpa... the man who must have taken me away from Toue the first time... told me I shouldn't show my face. That I was strange and wasn't normal. I always believed that must have meant I was ugly."

"Yeah, well, you're not. You're pretty above average looking, I doubt Toue would have slapped together anything less than that. So...."

"But I must be a monster." Clear cuts Noiz off, his voice still perfectly soft and toneless. "What I did without this on. There's a heartless monster under here. He must have known. That's why...."

"Clear." Noiz's hands settle on Clear's shoulders and he levels his gaze against the reflective lenses on that mask, trying to make out even the slightest hint of Clear's eyes underneath. "I don't have the time or patience to deal with much more of this bullshit right now. But I swear the instant we finish seeing Sly's psychotic plan to get rid of Toue through, if we don't die in the process, I am going to drum into your skull why this is the most asinine thing I've ever heard, even if I have to shut you down again and code it in there."

There's no response. Clear simply turns his head away and after a moment Noiz lets his hands drop back to his sides. He’s not exactly sure why it matters to him that Clear not spend the rest of his life hiding himself away like this.

It just matters.

Chapter Text

NOIZ

Clear is practically a walking database of several of Toue's incredibly sensitive file systems. It's stashed away deep; he's barely even aware of it, to the point where he forgets it exists until directly asked, but the amount there is staggering and incredibly helpful.

There are floor plans to every major facility, personnel lists, a fair number of useful passcodes, and -- most importantly at the moment-- a basic knowledge of all past and ongoing research experiments, searchable by test number.

Noiz assumes all the Alphas must have the same data tucked away and it occurs to him that in a way they're all a bit like humanoid AllMates. A basic shell of a personality wrapped around knowledge that has no meaning to them, patiently waiting for the moment they're needed.

Except for Clear. Clear is far more than that, someone Noiz easily believed was human before all of this and who still seems painfully human now. Clear understands all the implications when Noiz says, "I need to go over this list of experiments to see if there's anyone that needs to be taken care of," and gives a sharp little nod in response.

Noiz does wonder if using one of the other Alphas would have been healthier for everyone involved, though. The more files they go through the more sick and exhausted Clear looks. Which is funny, Noiz supposes, since he knows as absolute fact that Clear doesn't sleep. But right now, even hiding behind that mask, Clear looks as wiped out as Noiz feels most days, hunched over and full of the kind of soul-deep tiredness that usually leaves Noiz wanting to sleep to avoid having to think about, or look at, or deal with one more shitty thing.

Noiz isn't philosophical enough to wonder if applying something like 'soul-deep' to an android is proper or not. All that matters is that Clear looks like hell and Noiz feels like hell and there's still another three tightly spaced pages full of test codes to go over.

A lot of them seem to be for tests that Sei was put through, but there are others as well. Some related to test subjects long dead, a few still alive that Noiz makes note of to be checked on as soon as possible. A handful of the tests involve Mizuki and Clear's voice, so quiet and emotionless while giving basic information on the other files, hitches a bit while he tries to recite those particular cold facts as indifferently as possible.

Noiz moves to the next number on the list as quickly as possible whenever those ones come up, but it's still taking a toll on both of them, and after a while Noiz leans back in his chair.

"Maybe we should give it a rest for a bit."

Clear's head tilts to the side and Noiz figures he must be wearing a perplexed frown under that mask. "You said this was important. That we need to make sure there's nothing going on that we can stop."

"It is. But so's taking a breather every so often so we don't miss anything." Noiz winces a little at the sound of Tae's words coming out of his own mouth, even if it is nothing more than a convenient excuse to give Clear a break.

"I won't miss anything. I can do this myself if you need to rest. This needs to be done. I should be the one to do it."

Noiz almost wants to say, 'doing this won't make you feel any less guilty about Mizuki' but he can't be quite that carelessly cruel. Instead he simply gives his head a small shake and mutters "fine," before he moves on to the next number.

"That's...." Clear's voice trails off into nothing and Noiz frowns at the reaction.

"Mizuki again? Look, why don't you just tell me all the numbers attached to his name and I can mark all those ones as--"

"No. It's not... him. It's Koujaku."

Noiz doesn't know why he's surprised. Toue's various scientists did all sorts of horrible shit to Clear and Mizuki, it only stands to reason that it happened to Koujaku too. The exhaustion from dealing with far too much slams into Noiz with a vengeance, pulling his shoulders downwards, and he scrubs a hand over his eyes before responding.

"Sly will want to know. How bad is it?"

"He's alive," Clear offers, the tiniest thread of something hopeful in the midst of all the horror. "But it's pretty bad."

"How bad is 'pretty bad'? Because I'd like to think you're well aware of the fact that everything is just varying degrees of really fucking shitty right now."

"'Barely human' bad." Clear starts fidgeting, his hands clenching and opening again the same way they did when he first woke up. "Do you want to know everything now? Or should I wait until we find Sly?"

"Fuck." Noiz rubs at his eyes again, already dreading the conversation with Sly that's waiting. "We better tell him. I can wait to hear all the gory details until then."

 

SLY

He eventually finds Sei on the roof. Sly would say he’s soaking up the sun, except that there’s not much sun to speak of and Sei’s sitting deep in what little shadow there is, well out of the light.

“You knew about Koujaku, didn’t you? You knew this whole time,” Sly says. He’s so livid he can’t even shout.

“I thought you’d be happier not knowing,” Sei answers softly, hugging his knees closer to his chest. “There’s very little humanity left in him. He bites, he mauls. He kills anyone who gets close. What good would it do to tell you?”

“You don’t get to make that choice for me.”

“I was trying to protect you.”

“Well, don’t.” Fuck, Sly wishes he had it in him to punch the ever-loving crap out of Sei. “Don’t, ever. Nobody makes decisions about me except me. I don’t need protecting from shit.”

Sei doesn’t have a reply for that.

Sly turns and walks back towards the door to the indoor stairwell.

“I know who did it,” Sei says. When he raises his voice there’s a huskiness to it, like from internal scarring. Maybe that’s part of why he doesn’t very often. “To Koujaku. I know who did it. I’ve met him. I spent time with him. I... I didn’t want to give you a reason to kill him.”

“You knew Virus and Trip, too. They’ve got a million stories about spending time with you. You planning to stop me killing them by lying to me, too? You gonna save Toue by lying to me?”

“I didn’t lie to you-”

“Yes, you did, and don’t avoid my question,” Sly snarls. He doesn’t want to look at Sei, doesn’t want to hear the answer, because if Sei can want Virus and Trip alive even now then Sly won’t be able to look him in the eye ever again.

Sly leaves the roof, shoving the door open and making his way down the stairs, heading for the basement.

He can't help but laugh out loud when he sees Koujaku, through the bars of the cage. "I thought I had a fucked up year, but you and Mizuki both have me beat by miles."

Koujaku, strange and monstrous, gives him a level stare, no flicker of recognition in his gaze.

Sly opens the barred metal door. "Sei said you bite. I said I don't care. You gonna bite me?"

Koujaku's hands are restrained behind his back, making the posture of his body awkward. He's cross-legged on the cement floor, shoulders angled forward by the restraint. His nudity shows off the extent of the weird, almost living tattoo that stretches over his skin.

He tips his face back, still tracking Sly's every movement as Sly steps in close to him and looks down.

"Gonna rip my throat out?" Sly asks. He's not sure anymore if he's taunting Koujaku or pleading. The lure of nothingness is always there, cold and sharp in his head. To be destroyed completely would be such a relief.

He sits himself down on Koujaku's lap, resting his arms on Koujaku's broad, broad shoulders. The heat of Koujaku's body seeps through Sly's clothes immediately, making him feel stripped and defenceless. It's fucking incredible.

Sly tips his head back with a breathless laugh, baring his throat inches from Koujaku's gleaming teeth.  "I double dare you."

Koujaku opens his mouth and leans forward, pressing the points of his teeth against Sly's skin. The pressure is enough to demonstrate the power there, the force with which Koujaku could strike at any second and reduce Sly's life to nothing but a wet red smear on scrubbed white walls.

Koujaku doesn't break the skin. He stays perfectly still, as Sly begins to shake with rage.

Sly hits Koujaku's shoulders with the heels of his palms, pulling on his hair, shouting in frustration. "Fuck you! I should have fucking known you'd be a teddy bear even as a monster!"

He wishes he could retaliate, could snap his own jaws closed on Koujaku's own neck and shake his head back and forth to worry at the wound. But all Sly's got are these blunt human teeth, this stupid skinny human body that breaks so easily, that got captured and restrained so easily.

He climbs off Koujaku's lap, clumsy and trembling with thwarted self-destruction, and moves around behind him. The catch on the heavy-duty cuffs holding his arms back takes a minute to work out, but when it's done the clunk of the metal releasing is satisfyingly loud.

Koujaku stands up slowly, probably cramped to hell from being in the same position for who knows how long. Sly steps around him again, looking up at the contortions of his face. It's still obviously Koujaku, no matter how changed.

"Shit, you're so beautiful like this," Sly mutters, feeling something like awe.

Koujaku raises one arm, stiff and sore and slow. His fingers are like sharp-nailed claws now, but he touches the hacked-off ends of Sly's hair gently.

Sly barks a laugh. "Sorry I didn't go to a stylist to get it done."

Koujaku moves around him, gait as shuffling and pained as the movement of his arm had been. Sly, who has more than a passing understanding of what it's like to be a caged animal, feels a pang of sympathy.

Another touch at his hair, this one at the back, and Sly's about to laugh again at the absurdity of it when he's pushed forward, sudden and sharp, with his chest pinned against the blank wall in front of him.

Koujaku's teeth close on the back of Sly's neck, almost hard enough to break the skin this time. It slams a moan out of Sly, makes his legs want to buckle.

"Fuck, yes, yes," Sly babbles, his voice cracking as his whole body thrums.

There's nobody like him. He's been forced to play at being civilised by circumstance, to do the responsible bullshit that should be Aoba and Ren's job, but that doesn't change who he is.

Mink fucked him and it felt fantastic, but for all Mink has cut out his own heart and shed his humanity he's still nothing like Sly.

There's nobody like Sly.

Except that isn't true anymore, not with Koujaku's own wildest self lapping his tongue against the place where he'd bit at Sly's neck, grinding against Sly's back.

Sly unzips his own fly and shoves his jeans down, pushing his ass back against Koujaku. "Do it, do it, come on."

The pain of Koujaku slamming into him shoves a laugh of joy out of Sly's throat. "Fuck, yes, bite me, fuck," he says as Koujaku's teeth press down again. He can hear himself making a keening, whining sound, needy and desperate.

He wants to be held down, dominated, to be forced to show his belly and submit, he wants Koujaku to mark him with the scent of being claimed, he...

He lets himself stop thinking.

--

The main aim of all this bullshit is still to obliterate Toue. The things that are happening along the way, the weird unexpected accumulation of allies... that’s incidental. Sly doesn’t care about that. Noiz, Tae, Mink, Clear, Mizuki, and now Koujaku. It’s irrelevant. They’re irrelevant. All he cares about is killing Toue, so he can get back to the most important thing, which is hunting down Virus and Trip and making them pay.

Once that’s finished, his job’s done. These connections, these, these fucking friendships, those aren’t his. They’re just Aoba’s, and maybe sometimes Ren’s. Those guys are the ones that they care about. All Sly’s good for is fucking shit up.

Sly leans against the warm bulk of Koujaku’s body, which is warmer now than it was before, and so much bigger, and harder with muscle. Despite all that, there’s something still familiar about it. Faint memories of Aoba’s, of feeling protected and safe when he was small, stir in the back of Sly’s head.

It makes him frown. “If you knew I wasn’t really him, you’d rip me apart, wouldn’t you?”

Koujaku just makes a low, quiet rumble in response, nuzzling at Sly’s hair.

“You and my damn hair, it’s kind of creepy,” Sly says, shoving aside the bad mood and laughing a little at Koujaku managing to be a weird freak even in their current circumstances. “Is the other you still in there, hiding out, like Aoba’s in me? Is this what I’m supposed to look like?”

That makes him smirk, and he puts up a hand to pet at Koujaku’s tangled, bright red hair. “Wouldn’t Ren and Aoba hate that, huh? If they emerged from their cry-fest and found out I’d renovated the place. I’ll get a bunch of tattoos done and start pumping iron or some shit. We can be the most fucked up Rib team there’s ever been.”

For all his joking, Sly’s at kind of a shitty loose end right now. He hates having to wait for Noiz to crack enough of Toue’s systems for them to take the next step. Sly is sick of waiting. He’s been waiting a year.

He’s been waiting for longer than that, even. He’s been waiting since the first time Tae handed Aoba a bottle of pills and told him that they’d help with headaches. Like it was Sly’s fucking fault that Aoba’s reason and restraint weren’t enough to hold him at bay. Like that didn’t just prove that he was right all along.

Like Aoba and Ren did such a fucking bang-up job of shit once they had the driving seat.

After he leaves Koujaku and goes back to the upper levels, Sly decides to fuck around on the computers for a bit. Not because he thinks he can be any help to Noiz – Sly’s hacking abilities have all the finesse of a psychopath with an axe trying to infiltrate a cabin in the woods – but because he’s bored and angry and doesn’t know what else he could be doing instead.

There’s no reason that the video files should be a shock to him. It’s not like they’re some great revelation. Virus had sometimes made a point to talk about the procedures that had been carried out during Toue’s sick quest for total control, and nine times out of ten that procedure had been something that was done to Sei.

The other one time out of ten it was something that had been done to Virus himself, or to Trip, during their childhoods, but Sly doesn’t give a shit about that. Aoba’s adoptive father, airhead flake disaster though he might have been, wasn’t a monster, and he’d gone through the same shit Virus and Trip had.

Sly remembers one time, not that long after Aoba had been taken in by his new ridiculous mother and father, when his mother had lifted her arms up over her head and a pale strip of her belly had been visible between the top of her shorts and the hem of her shirt, a long surgery scar coming into view for just a second before her arms dropped again.

Aoba, terrified of hospitals already, had been concerned by the sight. What had happened? Was she all right?

“Someone bad hurt me when I was small. Part of me got damaged, and it had to be cut out. But I’m all right now, see? I have good people, like grandmother and father and Aoba, to take care of me, don’t I?”

“A part was cut out?” Aoba asked, frightened, patting at her tummy like he could fix the problem.

“The part where babies grow. But it’s all right, because sometimes babies don’t grow inside their mothers. Sometimes they’re waiting on the beach!”

That had made Aoba giggle, and the conversation had moved on. Sly doesn’t know why he’s bothering to think about that. He’d never loved Aoba’s parents. He isn’t capable of love; his whole purpose is counter to the idea. The only emotion he feels about them is anger that they’d left, that they’d gone and proven Sly right, that they the first two in a long line-up of people who’d disappointed and hurt Aoba.

But he’ll give credit where credit’s due: they’d both been dealt horrible, fucked-up hands by fate, and their worst crime was that they’d wound up as fickle, ineffectual idiots. And that means Virus and Trip’s own traumatic pasts are no excuse for that they later became.

Anyway, all of that’s just Sly thinking about pointless irrelevant crap, because thinking about Aoba’s childhood and shit is better than thinking about the video file. It was one recording in a folder of identical files, on a data stick of identical folders, neatly filed in a long row of identical data sticks.

One session out of hundreds. Thousands.

Sei had been a little boy in the video, not all that much older than Aoba had been when his mother had tried to sugar-coat the story of her hysterectomy. There’d been no hiding Sei from the realities of surgery, though, because the kid had been living it, awake and crying as a doctor had done a lumbar puncture.

It’s the toy that Sei’s clinging to through the whole thing that really gets to Sly, though. A stupid fluffy blue cat with big golden cat eyes, staring out like the stupid useless piece of crap it is while the boy holding it sobs and does his best to stay still for the doctor.

Sly recognises that doctor. Add fifteen or twenty years, a bit of grey in the hair and extra weight around the belly, a pair of glasses, and he’s one of the facility staff that’s still working there, Scrapped into compliance and kept around to keep the show running smoothly.

Fuck. That fucking stupid cat toy.

Sly’s nightmares – which are Aoba’s nightmares too, and now that Ren’s back with them they’re Ren’s as well – are often populated by cats, these days. Giant, black-furred ones, with heavy padding feet and tongues like razor wire.

Sly catches the elevator up to the first of the laboratory levels. He’ll scour every room if he has to, until he finds that guy from the video.

Logically, rationally, he knows that this is a fairly pointless, almost petty revenge. It’s likely that every doctor here did something far worse to Sei at one time or another, and it’s not like he can just go through and wipe out whole swathes of them. That would catch Toue’s attention immediately, and they’re not ready for that showdown. Not yet.

Good thing Sly’s not being on being logical and rational, then.

You made Aoba fuck that monster AllMate of yours, Trip, he thinks, a ferocious grin on his face now. And now Aoba's birthed a monster in return.

The blue cat couldn’t save Sei then, but he can sure as hell do something now.

He finds the doctor from the video on the second floor of labs he checks, and orders the man to follow him back to the elevator. It takes all of Sly’s willpower not to lay into him on the ride down to the basement, to just start kicking and kicking and see how long he can go before his foot gets tired.

Instead, he leads the doctor to Koujaku’s cage, opens the door, shoves the guy inside, and follows in after.

Unfastening Koujaku’s arm restraints again is one of the easiest things Sly’s ever done in his life. He steps back, out of the way of the worse of the carnage, and just watches. He doesn’t feel particularly happy or sad or anything about it, just satisfied. This man hurt Sei, and now this man doesn’t exist anymore, except as a sticky red mess all over Koujaku’s mouth and chin, claws and arms.

Sly licks Koujaku’s teeth. His lips are blood-hot against Sly’s own, and the streaks of gore on his torso leave matching smears across the front of Sly’s shirt before Sly pulls it off and tosses it aside. Koujaku gives a low, possessive growl, licking at the blood now marking Sly’s face as well as his own.

Sly’s not sure how long they stay like that, necking like horny teens, before the door to the cage clangs open behind them and Sei’s thin hand pulls at Sly’s hair with a vicious tug.

“Ow! Fuck!”

Sei is practically glowing with wounded anger, like he’s just stepped out of an illustration of an especially scrawny martyr.

“Go wash your face,” he tells Sly. “And then come up to my room. Right now.”

He doesn’t stay to check if Sly’s going to comply. Sly thinks about just ignoring the demand completely, because he’s hard and Koujaku’s hard and the blood is gonna be all flaky and dry and gross by the time Sly gets back down here.

“It’ll just get worse the longer I leave it, huh?” Sly asks Koujaku philosophically, stealing one last kiss before he reluctantly heads to the elevator to go get washed up and get the talking-to that’s coming to him.

Sei isn’t in the stuffed-toy room, which is where Sly looks first. His bedroom is spartan in comparison, no toys or balloons or anything, just a shelf of books and a writing desk and a bed, one of those creepy fucking Alpha androids sitting on the swivel chair next to the desk. Sei’s sitting cross-legged on the bed.

Sly takes a minute to be grateful that Beni’s nowhere to be seen.

“He’s your friend,” Sei says quietly, disappointment and anger in his tone and in the set of his posture. “You let hi--”

“You’re my brother!” Sly retorts, furious. “Did you think I would just let that piece of garbage keep walking around?”

“I didn’t ask you to do anything on my behalf. Certainly not that.”

“Of course you fucking didn’t, you never ask for anything. You never want anything! Did they cut that out of you, too? Did Usui take all of the give-a-damn with her when she got pulled away?”

Sei flinches at Sly’s words, then frowns. “If you want me to make decisions, then here’s one: no more killing. Not for revenge on my behalf, at least. If you want to do it for yourself, I won’t stop you. It’s on your conscience – if you even have a conscience – if you want to involve Koujaku. But don’t you dare do it and then pretend it was for me.”

That kills off most of Sly’s anger pretty quick. “It wasn’t pretending,” he tells Sei. “You were a little kid on that video, it was--”

“I was there, I don’t need the reminder.” Sei sounds weary. He drops his gaze, looking down at the bleached white of his coverlet. “Do you think anyone wants the people they love to go down the path of revenge on their behalf? Do you think Mink’s family would be glad to see what he’s made himself into?”

“It’s irrelevant, since they’re dead,” Sly shoots back.

“I’m not, though!” Sei snaps, looking up at Sly again.

“Then act like it!” Sly almost yells. “Fine, whatever, I don’t give a shit. If you’re so fucked up that you’re fine with the people who hurt you just walking around this building every day, then I won’t hurt a hair on their precious heads.”

“Thank you,” Sei says quietly. Sly just huffs in disgust, and leaves the room.

He fills a bucket with soapy water and gets a scrubbing brush out of a janitorial closet, but by the time he makes it back down to Koujaku’s cell most of the mess is taken care of. The smears and streaks are gone from the walls, as are the remains that covered the floor. Mink is washing the blood out of Koujaku’s hair.

“Guess the dressing-down took longer than I thought,” Sly notes as he steps into the cage. “Weren’t you worried about getting torn to pieces?” he asks, then laughs at his own stupid question. “Wait, I forgot that everyone in this shitty excuse for a revolution has a fucking death wish. Never mind. So are you gonna scold me too?”

“No,” Mink says. “They make me sick.”

Koujaku rumbles, docile and sated, as Sly helps Mink clean him off. “It was pretty fucking cool,” Sly says, laughing a little at the memory. “Sei says I can’t do it because of shit that was done to him anymore, though. He’s got this whole thing about how revenge isn’t about the people it’s on behalf of, it’s about the people doing it. That they’re doing it for themselves.”

Mink grunts. “There’s truth in that. But it’s not a simple truth.”

Koujaku’s practically asleep by the time they’re done. Sly can sympathize; he’s feeling wiped out too. He sits against the fresh-scrubbed wall of the cell, stretching his legs out with a sigh.

Mink sits down beside him, lighting his pipe. Koujaku stirs sleepily, watching the two of them for a few seconds before closing his eyes again.

"After we kill Toue. You're going to kill yourself after that, aren't you?" Sly asks. He's not sure why he's asking. It's not like he gives a shit one way or the other. 

Mink exhales a thin line of smoke and nods. 

"That's bullshit." Sly scowls at him. He punches him on the arm, and then punches him a second time even harder. "If I have to stick around and endure this stupid crap, why do you get to check out?" 

He doesn't expect a reply, but Mink answers immediately. 

"There are people who need you. So you can't. There isn't anybody left who needs me. So I can." 

"I need you."

"No you don't."

"Sure I do. Everyone else is fucking terrible. You're gonna leave me with granny, who's just gonna try to medicate me away so her precious Aoba can get scared at loud noises and have to have his hand held for every little thing? 

"He... Aoba, I mean. He wanted to try being in charge the other day, and I thought okay, sure, it gives me a chance to sleep in." Sly doesn't know why he's telling Mink this. "And I know he's still got problems with motivating himself into stuff, so I thought I'd make it easy by giving him a task to do. I told him to wash up and get dressed.

"I figured that the worst that would happen would be that I'd have to change out of whatever shitty outfit he managed to put together, you know? But when I woke up I was sitting in a bath full of freezing water. Just sitting there, all pruned up, shivering. They fucked him up so badly that he doesn't let himself adjust the temperature of the faucet, or wash himself. Anything where he has to choose how to do something to our body, he shuts down."

Sly starts laughing. Mink is watching him coolly, his face impassive.

"Hey, how about this, a trade," Sly says, nodding at his own idea, laughing at how fucking terrible his whole life is. "You stay alive for three more months, to help me kill them. We hunt them down and kill them for what they did to me and mine, just like you're gonna kill Toue for what he did to you and yours. You stay alive to do that, and in return you can fuck me as much as you like. Any time. All the time." 

"I can do that anyway."

Sly punches Mink in the arm again. "Asshole."

"Sei wants to die too. Are you going to make the same offer to him?"

Sly scowls. "I changed my mind. You can die any time you like. I'll even help." 

"Three months. That's all. If you don't find them in that time, you don't get an extension." Mink's hand slips under the hem of Sly's t-shirt, his palm rough and warm against Sly's skinny stomach. "And the deal starts now."

Sly wants to make a wisecrack about how this shitty little cell has seen way more action than it deserves today, but instead decides to leave it be and simply open up under the force of Mink’s kiss, the sharp bitter taste of his mouth.

Revenge might be a shitty motive, sure. Sly’ll even agree with Sei on that one. But it’s still better than nothing.

 

NOIZ

"Can you at least take that thing off around here?"

Clear doesn't move, save for his head tilting to the side somewhat to indicate that he's listening, and Noiz can't help but scowl at that quiet stillness.

His tone only growing more and more exasperated the longer Clear stays silent, Noiz says "look, as stupid as I think it is, I kind of get hiding your face out in public. You and all the rest of the Alphas aren't about to be treated with any sort of kindness right now. But when you're here with me it doesn't matter. I know everything. You told me every single awful, brutal, horrifying, monstrous thing you did. I don't give a shit."

"I know you don't."

"So what's the problem then?"

Clear shakes his head, quite obviously not having any sort of a reason he can articulate and Noiz hisses in frustration, sick of dealing with an expressionless mask. He's bad enough with other people's feelings at the best of times, and an android that won't show his face is a level of difficulty that Noiz is swiftly losing patience for.

"I can't talk to you like this."

With an annoyed click of his tongue Noiz reaches out and tugs the mask upwards, peeling it somewhat awkwardly off of Clear's face and casting it aside, allowing it to land with a clatter on the workbench beside them.

"Ah, Noiz!" Clear's hands clench into fists briefly, just for a moment before his expression changes, as if it suddenly sinks in just how close he is to lashing out.

Clear's entire body goes painfully still. His muscles still tense, but now poised to flee instead of strike.

"You can hit me if you want to, it's not like I'll feel it."

Clear looks stricken at the suggestion, his eyes darting towards where his mask is resting on the nearby worktable. Noiz's fingers immediately wrap around Clear's chin, redirecting Clear's gaze so it is once again focused on Noiz's face.

"That's what you're afraid of, isn't it? That you'll hurt someone and enjoy it, just like you did when you were under control."

"Except..." Clear hesitates for a moment and Noiz isn't sure if he's choosing his words carefully or if he's choking on what he has to say next. "Except I don't feel like I was ever under anyone's control. Not really. Not the way the others are. I could make my own decisions outside of what I was told. I still considered Aoba my master more than anyone. That's why...."

Clear sucks in a sharp breath, his voice dropping to a near-whisper when he speaks again. "That's why I picked... him. Because Aoba broke him. And I wanted to break him even more. He was Master's doll. And then he became mine."

Noiz keeps his expression as even as he can and shoots back. "And do you still want him to be your 'doll'?"

Clear's face goes paper-white at that and his throat works convulsively, like he's choking back whatever equivalent he has for bile, or maybe just the urge to scream, and Noiz forces himself to shove down the immediate spike of guilt he feels at pushing Clear like this. It's nothing but cruel, and maybe if he were a different person, maybe if things were less desperate, he'd have the patience to gently coax and reassure.

But he doesn't have that luxury. None of them do. Instead Noiz continues to hold Clear's chin firmly in place, refusing to let Clear look away as he continues. "Whatever it was that made you decide to do those things, it wasn't you. I should know. I'm the one who pulled all those routines out. It was a pain in the ass by the way."

"What if you didn't get all of it?"

"So now you're insulting my capabilities?" A faint smirk plays across Noiz's lips, the expression closer to him baring his teeth than anything. "Just trust me. I got it all. I doubt you'd feel this much like shit if I hadn't. And fine, I'll admit it, you have every reason to feel like shit. There's no way you can ever make up for any of what happened."

Clear swallows again, his breathing reduced to ragged gasps but Noiz still refuses to release him. Even though if he wanted to Clear could easily pull away, he remains unmoving, his eyes wide and fixated on Noiz's face.

Noiz continues to lay out nothing but the absolute facts, his voice low and almost soothing. "All you can do is remember that it wasn't really you. It's cold comfort, but that's all there is. It wasn't you. And I don't think you're a monster."

With that Noiz's hand drops back to his side and Clear twists his head away, eyes once again fastening on that mask, and soon enough Clear moves to slip it on over his face. Noiz is unable to stop the small sigh of disappointment that puffs past his lips even as he watches Clear's entire body visibly relax.

"I'll try."

The words are hollow and muffled by the mask, and Clear’s not meeting Noiz's eyes anymore now that he isn't being held in place. "Sometimes, if it's just us, I'll try. Is that enough?"

"Yeah. It's a start." Noiz grins, giving Clear's shoulder an almost playful shove. "And if I push you too far you can hit me if you want. I promise I can take it."

--

Noiz finds Sei and four of the Alphas holed up in a small side room with a few computers. A brightly coloured pixel landscape fills the screens, and Noiz studies the action over Sei's shoulder for a moment before finally speaking up.

"Games?"

Sei gives a little nod and looks up from the screen to give his full attention to Noiz. In a quiet unison that is only slightly off-rhythm, the Alphas take a moment to glance at Sei before following the direction of his gaze. Four sets of eyes that are almost but not quite like Clear's fixate on Noiz as well.

Sei doesn't comment on their behaviour. He simply gives Noiz a fragile sort of smile and explains. "I know it seems frivolous right now, but it seemed like this was a good way for them to learn to try things for themselves. For all of us to try."

"I think I've seen this one before. You can do pretty much anything in it, right? Fight monsters, go exploring, build a little house, start a farm...."

"Yeah." Sei fiddles with the controls a bit to keep his hands busy, the pixelated princess on screen moving from side to side in response. "You make a character and then the whole world is just... there. To do whatever you want."

"So what are you doing?"

"Shelter seemed smart, and like it could be easy enough. Figuring out where to begin was the hardest part, but it got easier once we got started. And now...." One of Sei's hands moves in an absent gesture towards the untidy sprawl of rooms on screen. There's no real rhyme or reason to any of it; even the blocks making up the walls all seem to be chosen at random in a mishmash of different colours and styles.

It's an impressive amount of work though, even if it's only a game, and Noiz feels the first genuine smile he's had in a long time curve his lips. "So the princess is building a new castle?"

Sei nods, his own smile just as satisfied and fiercely pleased, almost unusually so. "One that's just the way she wants it to be, and she can leave whenever she feels like it."

"It's nice. Maybe, if we can ever find time for it, I'll hop in for a bit. I'll drag along Clear too. He could use something to get his mind off of... everything."

"That's why you're here, isn't it? Because of Clear."

Noiz's face immediately sobers, all previous good humour vanishing without a trace. "He's just hiding behind that mask right now and calling himself an irredeemable monster. I can't let him stay like that. So I decided to see how you guys were doing."

"I thought as much. Although I don't know what to tell you." Sei swivels in his chair a bit, pulling his knees up to his chest. "We're managing, as best as a bunch of manufactured tools that lost their purpose can."

"Don't pull that shit. Do I have to call Sly down here to tear you a new one? He'd probably enjoy it."

Sei looks a little bit amused at Noiz's reaction, and for a moment Noiz wonders if Sei actually has it in him to play with him. "You don't need to bother. I'm sure Sly will be by soon enough to berate me. And you want to talk about Clear, right?"

Noiz nods. "I just want him to realize that no one is irredeemable. This seems like proof to me."

"Is it really? What's there to redeem when they never had any sort of free will to begin with? They don't even have names of their own.

"It's funny, that we just call them all 'the Alphas', like they're just one big interchangeable mass. Or maybe it's just sad. They don't even care about not having names. They're not made to care. I could pick a name for each and every one of them and it wouldn't make a difference to them."

Sei motions to the game still idling in front of him. "When we started playing this, they found out they couldn't all have the same name. I suppose they have serial numbers which would have worked well enough, but those aren't names. Even they understand that there's a difference.

"So they all looked at me, expecting me to come up with something, but it doesn't seem right to just pick something arbitrary and say 'that's your name now'. It should mean something, shouldn't it? I couldn't take responsibility for that. So I just told them to hit the random button for now, and that maybe later we could try to come up with something better. They're happy enough but I still feel guilty about it.

"Sly's right. They should be more than one big homogenous group. But I don't know how to fix that. I don't even know how to fix myself.

"So." Sei's smile is weak and a little bit hollow as he meets Noiz's eyes. "I don't know how I could help you fix Clear either."

Noiz clicks his tongue in disgust. "I'm not out to 'fix' him. If I wanted to I could have taken whole chunks out of his memory, made it so he wouldn't have to think about what he'd done ever again. That would have 'fixed' him, but it wouldn't have helped. All of us are fucked up; we just have to keep moving forward. That's what I want to do for Clear. That's what you should be trying to do too."

"I don't know if it's that easy."

"Well a good start would be maybe not talking about these guys like they're not even here."

Sei's skin flushes a bit and his gaze drops to the floor. "They don't care. I didn't really care when people did it to me either."

"Doesn't stop it from being an asshole thing to do."

Sei shrugs, his knees still snug against his chest, pointed chin resting on them, and the silence stretches just a little bit too long between them. Just long enough for Noiz to feel a bit uneasy and he heaves an aggravated sigh, taking a step back towards the door when Sei speaks up again.

"You went through Clear's programming. Do you think it's possible...."

"Possible to what?" Noiz isn't quite sure if he likes where this line of questioning is going, but even so he still has to ask.

"Do you think it's possible to pull out whatever lets Clear think for himself and give it to them? So they could have their own lives that aren't tied to me, and come up with names that don't come off an RNG. So they can actually live."

"So you don't have to take responsibility for them anymore?" Noiz's question is a little more accusatory than he'd like and Sei winces.

"That too."

"Sly'll be pissed if I give them free will and you take that as a reason to give up, you know. He'd probably try to gut me."

"I know. I promise I won't. Do you really think it's possible?"

Noiz's eyes slip closed, quietly running through the options in his head before speaking. "Maybe? Although it would likely be risky. I made backups of a lot of Clear's code so I wouldn't have to do anything to him to find what I needed. But there's no way of telling just how similar their systems actually are. I can't guarantee it would work the first time, or even the second. There's a chance the first few might wind up ruined."

"Isn't that a risk worth taking?"

"I'm in no position to make that call, it's not my life." A cynical smile twists at Noiz's lips. "And given that you can't even bring yourself to name them, you really shouldn't be making that call either. Maybe if one of them made that choice on his own and came up and asked me...."

There's a thoughtful pause before Noiz lets out a somewhat strained chuckle.

"But if that happened I don't think I'd really need to do anything."

 

SLY

“Hey!” 

Sly knows it’s Beni even before he turns to look. The little bird catches up with him, landing on his shoulder, and Sly starts walking again. He likes to check all the corridors and rooms personally, as well as on the bank of screens. The walk makes him feel safer.

“Sei told me -” Beni starts to say, and Sly thinks oh, excellent, just what I need, more scolding over killing one lousy scumbag. But then Beni finishes with “- about how it works, with Ren going into your head. But I don’t really get it.”

Sly pauses, surprised, and holds his hand up for Beni to fly to so they’re face to face. Sly sits down, against the wall of the corridor, opposite the windows so he can see the sky.

“Well, it’s like... there were three of us, at the start. In Aoba’s head. If there’d been just one, this power we’ve got would’ve been too much to handle, and it would have fried his baby brain. So there was me, and Aoba, and Ren.

“Ren wound up in an AllMate body, which is a whole other long story. And then... some really, really fucked up shit happened. Aoba’s... sort of a mess now because of it. I was gonna say ‘broken’, but I think ‘shattered’ is probably closer.” Sly sighs, swearing under his breath and banging his head back against the wall behind him. “So I dragged Ren back in to put him back together. Ren went into the AllMate in the first place so that he could help Aoba better, but now that Aoba’s hidden deep in our head, Ren had to get back in here too if he was gonna be any good at all in comforting him. That all make sense?”

Beni sits in thought, head cocked to one side in such a sparrow-like way that Sly wants to laugh. The dude looks more like he’s contemplating breadcrumbs than like he’s trying to comprehend the way identity can get fucked up after trauma.

After a short silence, Beni ruffles his wings and gives a little sigh. “I wish I could go inside Koujaku’s head like that.”

Sly feels shitty, because Beni’s a good guy, and Sly’s gone and stolen one of the only friends and allies he had to help him cope with the Koujaku situation.

He wants to offer to pull Ren up for a minute, so Beni and Ren can hang out like they used to. But the thought of relinquishing control for ordinary everyday stuff like that still doesn’t come easy to Sly. There’s no way Ren and Aoba would ever voluntarily share with him like he tries to with them. As soon as things stop being so rough, they’re going to lock him back in a little box and it’ll be a living hell all over again.

It makes no difference to Sly whether Aoba’s captive or free. Being locked away inside his head feels just the same either way.

Except for how that’s a crock of total shit. Sly knows it’s a crock of shit, because otherwise he wouldn’t loathe Virus and Trip as much as he does.

Aoba and Ren aren’t his enemies. He doesn’t want awful shit to happen to them. He just doesn’t want to be imprisoned and forgotten again, either. He wants to be alive like Aoba’s alive. Even Ren has friends who miss him when he’s absent. Sly doesn’t. He’s just the guy who’s keeping the body alive while the real owners are busy.

Beni’s giving him a sharp-eyed sparrow look. “You okay?”

Fuck it. If that’s Sly’s future, he might as well get used to it. “Wait a second.”

Pushing Ren forward, Sly retreats into the space of Aoba's mind. It's still a dark room, but there's a few bits of furniture now. It looks a little like Aoba's old room did, when he and his granny still had a house of their own. Aoba's lying on the bed with those dumb pink earphones of his in place. Sly kicks one of the bed's legs to get Aoba's attention. 

Aoba sits up, looking surprised. "You aren't staying to listen to them?"

Sly sits down on the edge of the bed, shaking his head. "Nah. They're gonna get all glum and it's gonna suck. Beni's got as much shit on his plate as any of us, with Koujaku the way he is. Last thing he needs is a jerk like me eavesdropping on his heart-to-heart." 

"Mm," Aoba answers quietly, probably meaning the noise in agreement with Sly's words. It's hard to be certain. Aoba's not big on the whole 'committal' thing at the moment. 

Sly breathes in a deep sigh, then stills abruptly. "It smells like come in here. Were you and Ren fucking? I know I tell the both of you to go fuck yourself pretty often, but I didn't exp-"

"No," Aoba interrupts, his voice flat, his gaze fixed on the bedspread. "Not... it wasn't..." He gives a deep, ragged sigh of his own. "He was just holding me, making me feel safe. But... touch is a problem. I... respond. I can't help it." 

"Oh." Sly is an idiot. He'd known that they trained a hair trigger into Aoba. He'd just forgotten. He's shoved all of that shit down as far as it'll go, until the rest of this crap is over and he can deal with it properly and give them what they more than deserve.

But Aoba can't shove it away, not like Sly can, and now Sly's a fucking idiot.

"Well, at least it was Ren," he notes, trying to look on the bright side. "He's got no place to judge from, seeing as how he was a dog for all that time and shit. You're still only three-way-tied for being the most fucked up guy living in this brain." 

Aoba gives Sly a twitchy smile. "Thanks."

"You've got a really low bar if you think that was a compliment," Sly snorts. "Hey, speaking of Koujaku -- which I know we weren't, really, but Beni and Ren are at the moment, and I was only mostly telling the truth when I said I wasn't eavesdropping -- there's no reason you couldn't come out and talk to him, if you wanted. He's in there. The old him, I mean. Same as you're still here, even though I'm driving for now. I think he'd like to see you, to know that you're okay."

"Am I?"

"You're not doing any worse than he is. Which is another example of a really low bar, sure, but Midorijima's kind of fucked all over, so there's a whole lot of making do with what we've got for now."  

Another of Aoba's skittish, grateful smiles. Sly rolls his eyes.

He reminds himself that even if he does feel more complete with Ren back, all three of them back in their fucked-up confederacy of personalities, and even if Sly’s glad that his dreams are quieter and calmer now that Ren’s there to keep Aoba safe from the worst of the memories, all of that just means that his turn of being in control is drawing closer to its end.

The only reason Ren and Aoba haven’t shoved his ass back down into total impotency is because they need him to drag their body around and keep it fed while they recover. He’s just a babysitter for the meat sack.

When Ren’s done talking to Beni, Sly resurfaces and looks down at the little bird perched on his forefinger. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah,” Beni confirms. “Ren doesn’t think it’d be a good idea for me to go see Koujaku just yet, though. He says you should mention me, and see if there’s a reaction.”

“Sure. Sorry things are kind of shitty for you,” Sly says. He likes Beni. He feels bad for the guy.

“Same to you,” replies Beni. “I’m gonna go find Sei.”

That makes Sly smile, as he watches Beni fly off. Beni’s kind of like Aoba’s dad, except not a stupid flaky asshole – they’re happier when they’ve got someone broken that they have to take care of.

Well, lucky for Beni, those are in abundance in Midorijima these days.

There’s a state-of-the-art physical therapy room in the research facility, which strikes Sly as one of the nastiest examples of salting a wound he’s seen. Sorry about the invasive medical procedures, Sei! Have some muscle-strengthening equipment as compensation, so you’ll be nice and healthy the next time we cut you open and poke around inside!

As shitty as the existence of the room seems to Sly, he does have to admit that Mizuki’s getting a lot of use out of it. He’s in there now, doing stretching exercises, but looks grateful for the interruption when he notices Sly lounging against the doorframe.

“Please, please tell me you’re here to invite me for a night of heavy drinking.”

“Actually, I was wondering if you wanna come down and see Koujaku with me.”

Mizuki grins. “That’d be great.”

Sly snorts. “Yeah, I can’t think of anything better than three ruined shells of their former selves getting together to hang out. Sounds like a party.”

Mizuki wheels himself over to Sly. “It will be if we have enough alcohol, my naïve young friend.” 

“Way ahead of you. Whiskey’s in my bag.”

“I taught you well,” Mizuki laughs. 

“I know you think I’m full of shit with this ‘different personalities’ deal,” Sly says as they head down the hallway to the elevator together. “But just shut up and accept it, if the other Aoba comes out for a bit when we’re down there, okay? The last thing he needs is being told he doesn’t really exist.”

“You must think I’m a complete asshole, if you think you need to warn me about being sarcastic if you start acting weird.”

“You are a complete asshole,” Sly retorts easily, hitting the button for the basement level. “And same warning goes for when you see Koujaku, multiplied by twenty. You say anything nasty and I’ll dump you out of this chair and let you crawl back.”

Mizuki flips him off, then looks serious. “You know I wouldn’t. No matter what, he’s Koujaku, you know?”

The elevator doors open. Sly motions for Mizuki to follow him down towards the cells, and pulls out the bottle of whiskey.

“Hi honey, we’re home,” he greets Koujaku, opening the cell door. With his teeth all elongated and fucked up, Koujaku can’t smile or anything, but his posture stays relaxed as Mizuki comes into view, and there’s no growling. In fact, Koujaku almost looks like he’s... shy.

Picking up on the same vibe, Mizuki wheels himself over to beside Koujaku. Their faces are the same height, with Koujaku’s bigger body and Mizuki in the chair. Mizuki stares at Koujaku’s face.

“Your new eyes are much cooler than mine,” he decides with a mournful sigh. “Life is unfair.”

Sly’s coil chimes. It’s Sei. “Noiz and Clear are going back to the bolt hole, and wanted to know if you were leaving soon too. If you are, they’ll wait for you.”

“No, tell them to go on ahead. I’m hanging out with Koujaku for a few hours. Did Beni find you?”

“Yes, he’s here. I’ll talk to you later, then?”

“Yeah, fine.” Sly ends the call.

Mizuki reaches up and plucks the whiskey from Sly’s hand, unscrewing the cap and taking an impressively large swallow.

“You’d think I’d be man enough to hear his name without wanting to vomit,” Mizuki says morosely. Sly shrugs, taking the bottle and gulping down his own shot.

“Nah. I’m pretty certain he feels the same when he hears yours. He thinks he had some kind of choice about doing the shit he did.”

That startles a harsh laugh out of Mizuki. “Remind him that Morphine made me believe that I wanted to slice an old woman’s throat open.”

“Oh please,” Sly returns, as they pass the bottle back and forth. “That’s nothing. Sometimes they’d decide it was funny to make me want them, so badly that I’d plead until I was a snotty mess for them to touch me. Then they’d take the want away mid-fuck, so I’d wake up to myself while they had me pinned.”

“Yeah, well, they replaced my eyes with these ones without anaesthetic, so there.”

Sly makes a scoffing noise. “But did you ever have to fuck a lion?”

“They amputated my legs!”

“Trip had a real thing for puke. Like, he’d use it to control me all the time. When I freaked out, I’d get two of his fingers down my throat. When he was pleased with me, two fingers down the throat. Leftover cake? Cake and fingers down the throat.”

Koujaku makes a rumbling sound, his mouth opening as he tries to speak. It takes a few seconds before he manages, so comedic timing’s not really on his side, but Sly and Mizuki wait.

“Made me kill my own mother.”

Mizuki throws the bottle cap at him. “You can’t bring a gun to a knife fight, dude.”

Sly makes a booing noise. “Yeah, no playing the dead mother card in one-upmanship battles. It’s not sportsmanlike.”

Mizuki offers the whiskey out to Koujaku, and Koujaku takes it so carefully and clumsily in his hand as Mizuki waits for him to get a proper grip on it.

Sly is struck by a sudden amazement as he realises that they are, all three of them, alive. Even after everything that’s been done to them, they are here and breathing. They survived.

It’s probably their laughter that puts Aoba at ease enough to venture forward. Can I talk to them?

Sly retreats, just a bit. Not as much as when Ren and Beni were talking, because Ren’s not fragile like Aoba is, and Beni isn’t capable of the same violence as Koujaku. Not that Sly expects Koujaku to do anything, but… well, Sly’s just never going to leave Aoba unprotected again, that’s all. No matter what the circumstances.

Aoba and Koujaku don’t say anything apart from one another’s names, quietly, as Aoba touches Koujaku’s face with careful fingertips. Mizuki observes silently, taking more swigs from the whiskey as he does.

Sly can’t even find it in himself to be jealous of the intensity of the feeling between Aoba and Koujaku. Sweetness and friendship is all well and good, but it’s not like it saved either of them. At the end of the day, the old Koujaku and the old Aoba are damaged, crouching out of reach, and only their hindbrains are tough enough to survive in the outside world every day with the way things are now.

 

NOIZ

Noiz has stripped his apartment and the nearby bathroom completely of reflective surfaces. It's inconvenient but it puts Clear more at ease, and that seems far more important at the moment than being able to see if he's put together well enough. It's not like Noiz needs to see his reflection to know that he's really not and hasn't been for a while now. He always looks a little too tired and on edge, a raggedness that doesn't quite smooth away entirely even when he has to transform himself into something neat and presentable for his trips abroad.

Thankfully he won't need to leave again for a while yet, because the few glimpses Noiz has caught of his face are enough to tell him that he looks even worse than usual.

Clear doesn't sleep and, if it were possible, Noiz would sit up at all hours with him just to be a distraction. Just so Clear isn't left with the twisting mire of his own thoughts in the darkness. As it is Noiz has shifted his sleep patterns towards clusters of short naps. The bulk of his down-time is taken during the day, when there are others around to keep Clear at least somewhat distracted.

At night Noiz keeps the curtains drawn tight so Clear won't accidentally catch a glimpse of himself reflected in the glass, and tugs Clear into a sitting position next to him in front of a mess of monitors and holo-screens.

No matter how much Noiz may want to try and pull Clear out of the pit of self-loathing he may currently exist in, there are still things that Noiz can't neglect. So he combines the two, reciting the finer points of hacking and data collection, Clear's warm body pressed tight against his side.

There's no real point to it -- Noiz is positive that Clear doesn't really care about any of this -- but it's something to focus on. Something for Clear to think about besides dwelling on his own actions. Something that doesn't leave Clear pale and trembling and reaching for his mask to cower behind.

Noiz will never be particularly good at comfort, but he can mimic the motions of it well enough and he can recognize cause and effect. He's figured out all the little things that make Clear twitch and cringe, and is doing his best to either outright avoid them or, when that's impossible, acclimatize Clear as quickly as possible.

It's only been a few days, but they're stumbling along as best they can. And despite how damaged he is, Clear still tries to make himself useful. He insists that Noiz needs to eat properly even more than Tae does, and brings coffee when Noiz starts to slump in his seat a little.

Noiz mutters "you don't need to do that," while rubbing his eyes, although he still gratefully accepts the mug Clear passes to him.

"I know, but I want to. I want to be useful." Clear presses in close against Noiz's side, leaning against him in such a way that it's almost awkward for Noiz to take a drink. He sets his mug aside with a sigh.

"You already are. With everything you've got stored away, you've been way more helpful than you can possibly imagine. Waiting on me hand and foot on top of that is just weird."

"You wouldn't eat if I didn't."

Noiz glares and gives Clear a small shove, quietly pleased when Clear curls right back up against him. "Hardly. I don't need a sitter."

"That's not what Tae says." The faintest of smiles touches Clear's lips and Noiz is fairly certain that it's the first one he's ever seen from Clear. It's a fragile thing, and it doesn't quite match the irritatingly bubbly personality that Noiz remembers from the brief amount of time they spent together before all of this, but it's a start. "She said she's surprised you haven't accidently starved yourself to death."

"That's because she's only happy if she's fussing. She acts like it's a pain in the ass but she wouldn't know what to do if she wasn't getting on someone'scase. I just happened to be the only convenient target left. She training you to keep an eye on me, now that there's more fucked up disasters around than she knows what to do with?"

A slight frown creases Noiz's brow as he considers what he just said. Clear is just as fucked up and damaged as the rest of them, and Noiz wouldn't be surprised in the least if Tae set Clear on him just to give the guy an extra layer of distraction. If cooking dinner and making coffee for him keeps Clear at ease, then who the hell is Noiz to complain about it.

Clear doesn't answer, he just continues to lean heavily against Noiz's side. Quiet and content, and in a rush of surprise Noiz realizes just how comfortable he feels at the moment as well. Everything has been such a clusterfuck for so long that it's impossible to remember the last time he felt this at ease. And it's hard to say if he's ever felt this relaxed with someone else around.

Noiz has never really shared his space like this before. He's solitary by both nature and necessity. People are strange and selfish and always seem to want something. Next to them Clear is refreshingly honest, even if it is mostly carefully programmed subroutines that made him that way.

It's hard to say what compels Noiz to dip his head a little and press his lips to the exposed line of Clear's collarbone. Everything is just so quiet and almost normal and it's been too damn long since Noiz has gotten off.

He doesn't give a shit if it's weird, Noiz just wants to feel somethingfor a little while, and outside of Rhyme this is the best he can manage.

Clear doesn't taste like anything and for one brief moment that's somewhat distracting. Noiz has fucked around enough that the sensation of soft, warm, skin under his lips leaves him expecting the heady tang of salt and sweat against his tongue. With Clear there's nothing. Clear is too smooth and strange and recognizably false in this regard and there's one dizzying, sideways, moment where Noiz wonders how much sensation Clear actually has.

Maybe Clear is just as numb and blunted as he is, only in a different way.

"If I bite too much, will you bleed? Can you bruise?"

Clear sucks in a sharp breath as Noiz's teeth scrape against his skin with every word, voice uncertain when he answers. "I can bleed. I don't know if I've ever bruised though."

"Wanna find out?"

Clear doesn't answer, but he doesn't push Noiz away either. Instead his hands move up to hold Noiz's head in place, his fingers threading through Noiz's hair. Noiz takes that as enough of a signal to continue, biting down hard enough that Clear lets out a soft cry and tugs at his hair a bit. The slight pull is enough that Noiz lifts his head and runs a careful fingertip over the even row of teeth marks left behind. Clear's skin is only slightly reddened, and already fading back to its normal tone.

"I guess I'll have to try harder."

Clear just smiles and tugs Noiz into a brief kiss, nipping at Noiz's lower lip and breaking the skin there. The warm rush of blood against his tongue leaving Noiz a bit breathless.

"Only if I get to try, too."

Chapter Text

SLY

The day of the planned attack on the Oval Tower -- a day which has taken forever to arrive, and come way too fucking fast – Sly finds his brother dressed in a tight-fitting red sweater that stretches down over his hands, a wide black belt that has been adorned with approximately one million grommets, buckles and superfluous straps and then fastened with ornate corset lacing, tight black jeans, and a red tartan overskirt made up of asymmetrical layers of ruffles.

Sei twirls, showing off every angle of the outfit.

Sly is filled with equal parts disgust and awe. “Fucking hell, did Trip and Virus teach you how to dress? If so, I’m glad they kept me naked all the time.”

Beni flits up onto Sei's shoulder. "I'm coming too."

Sei gives the little bird a soft smile. All of Sei's smiles are soft, and all of them are sad. It kind of makes Sly want to blow chunks most of the time, but he can't find it in him to be angry at this particular instance. Beni deserves a little kindness.

"We're almost certainly going to get pulled into a Rhyme field by Toue at least once. His AllMate's very powerful. I don't want you to get hurt."

"I'll be fine," Beni insists, sounding determined.

Sly's never even seen Beni's online form. "You've never played Rhyme. You wouldn't last a minute." Frankly, Sly's not sure even he's gonna last that long against Usui, since he's going to be going in solo.

He'd buy another off-the-shelf AllMate, but it'd almost certainly end up fried just like the last one, and for some reason Sly's hesitant to do that. Fuck, when they're done with this he's gonna tell Noiz what a dumbass he's being, so Noiz can punch him in the junk for getting sentimental about a machine.

"Kiss my ass," Beni snaps at Sly. "Ren and I used to talk about it sometimes. I'm not a complete newbie."

His words give Sly a sudden idea. "Hang on a second," he tells Beni and Sei, and sits himself down on the floor.

I remember how to use my legs, Aoba says, sounding annoyed. He sounds nervous, as well, because Aoba's always nervous now. Like he's still waiting for Virus and Trip to step out from behind a corner, and reveal that everything's just been an elaborate game, and that they still have him captive.

That idle thought hits Aoba too close to home, and he shrinks back away from the edge of their consciousness.

Hey, hey, wait up, Sly coaxes, It's okay. It's just Sei and Beni. I'm only gonna be a minute, and there's nobody but them here. It's okay. You can tell Beni about talking to Koujaku. He'll like that.

Still skittish, Aoba inches forward again, and Sly takes the opportunity to slip down into the deeper recesses of their mind.

The darkness is still there, but it seems like each time Sly returns it's a little less all-encompassing. Now it's just the outskirts of the room that are dark, like in the quiet just before the sun would come up, and Aoba would lie in bed listening to music, his familiar room washed in greys and blacks around him.

"We were never this tidy," Sly notes, smirking at the neatly ordered possessions that've been recreated in Aoba's imagination. "You couldn't resist doing a clean-up, huh?"

Ren, serious as always, doesn't crack a smile at the joke. Sly rolls his eyes. There's no point trying to have any kind of anything remotely approaching fun with Mr Killjoy around. Sly can't wait until Aoba's steady enough to take over his life again, and Sly gets to spend all his time with Captain Serious. It'll be a fucking blast. Woo.

"If I'm pulled into a Rhyme field, are you still able to manifest at the same time? Like you were still separate from us?"

Ren shakes his head. "I doubt it."

"Fuck." Sly nods. "That's what I figured, but I wanted to be sure."

"Of course..." Ren ventures, looking even more grave and thoughtful than usual. Sly imagines how stupid it'd look if Ren was ever in charge of their consciousness, and Aoba's face started making the kind of expressions Ren's always wearing. It'd be fucking hilarious.

"... what?" Ren asks. Sly does his best to stop laughing, and waves his hand for Ren to continue speaking.

"Nothing, nothing. Of course what?"

"Of course, the same would be true in reverse. If Usui reintegrated with Sei, she'd disappear from the Rhyme field also. That would reduce your disadvantage against Toue considerably."

Sly nods again. “Right. Okay, let’s just hope we don’t fuck this up again, huh?”

He emerges into the outside world again. Beni’s on top of his head. Sly holds a hand up for Beni to flit to.

“We’re moving Koujaku to the Old Resident’s District,” Sei tells Sly. “Before we go to the Tower. Just to make sure that he isn’t anywhere that Toue can immediately get to him, if the plan fails. Noiz says there’s space in the basement where Aoba’s grandmother lives that can be used to hold him. Beni’s going to go along to stay with him.”

Sei knows just as well as Sly does that there’s nowhere safe on the island for any of them, not truly, not so long as Toue is alive. Sly’s pretty certain that there isn’t actually anywhere safe in the world – if Virus and Trip could keep him locked up on that ordinary up-market anonymous neighbourhood like they did, then who even knows what other awful garbage is hiding out there?

But if it makes Beni feel useful, and means that Sei and Sly don’t have to worry about him or Koujaku while they’re getting things done, then Sly’s not about to shit the bed and ruin it.

“Thanks, man,” he says to Beni. 

“You look after Ren and Aoba, I look after Koujaku,” Beni answers, as if that’s all there is to say about it.

--

Sly watches Sei sit down in front of the keyboard projection coming from the coil he’s placed on his desk. Sei flicks the edges of the projected screen area up and out, resizing it larger.

The long strings of urls and addresses, scrolling past faster than Sly can comfortably read, would probably be totally fascinating to Noiz, and completely easy to decipher for Clear, but they’re just a bunch of incomprehensible crap to Sly.

“These are all pieces of me.”

There are hundreds, probably thousands of them. Sly looks at Sei, surprised almost to the point of disbelief.

“Not fully realized selves, like you and Ren are for Aoba,” Sei clarifies. “Those take a lot of power to maintain. Toue would have noticed if I’d weakened myself that much all at once. These are just... little shards, that I’ve sent away over the years, so I can watch the world. Like the game demos I sent to you last year.”

Sei highlights a line of text and types something on the keyboard. The line blinks in bright flashes for a second and then disappears entirely.

“What’re you doing to them now?” Sly asks, intrigued despite himself. Understanding their power intuitively comes more easily to him than it does to Aoba and Ren, because of the nature of his personality, but there’s so much he doesn’t know anything about when it comes to who he is and what he can do.

“Dissolving them back into myself. Making them a part of my main consciousness,” Sei answers. “So I get the tiny pieces of power back. All of them put together will make me a little stronger, at least.”

“Would...” Sly can’t believe he’s actually asking this, even as the words come out of his mouth. “Could me and Ren combine back into Aoba like that?”

Sei – as is fucking typical for Sei – gives him a sad, kind smile and shakes his head. “Ren has been himself for some time. I don’t know whether it might have been a possibility for you in the past... it very well might have been. But not now. You and Aoba have become very distinct from one another, in order to survive the things you went through. It’s not reversible.”

Sly remembers what it was like when he and Aoba were blurred together, closer to being one person than two, before Tae’s medications sealed him away. That had been how things were when they’d first met Virus and Trip. The two had been drawn to Sly, who hated them, and then they’d befriended Aoba, who’d given them the benefit of the doubt.

Being both Sly and Aoba had led them towards their incredibly shitty fate, and being both Sly and Aoba was how they’d managed to endure it and survive.

Sly isn’t sure whether he’s glad or disappointed that the idea of reintegrating with Aoba is off the table. It’d have made things simpler, at least.

Then again, it’s not like anything else in their life is simple, so it probably doesn’t matter.

--

Noiz gives each of them a palm-sized bundle of circuitry, sealed into small transparent boxes with an activation button on the top.

“These can crack openings in Rhyme fields,” he explains. “Based on Toue’s previous tricks, it’s likely one or more of us will be trapped in one at some point. These will help you escape from that.”

Sly examines the gadget from every angle. It’s an elegant piece of work. “You have to know that it’s way more likely that we’ll use them to get into any fields Toue makes than to get out of them, right?” he asks Noiz.

“What you assholes use them for isn’t my problem. I’m just telling you how they work. Don’t use them for anything delicate – they look fragile but they’re battering rams, not keys.”

--

The moment Oval Tower comes into view – not just visible in the distance but there, solid and real, close enough to touch – Sly starts to panic.

His throat closes up until he can’t swallow and can barely breathe. His pulse jitters. His hands shake. He feels like he’s gonna piss himself and throw up and faint, no, the piss and vomit comes later, they come when there’s chains and the dark and a cat tongue like barbed wire and the woozy rush of wine and

Mink shoves him against the wall of the building beside them, making Sly’s teeth click together on his tongue in a sharp flare of pain.

“I didn’t work my way here again for you to ruin it again,” Mink warns, shoving Sly into the wall a second time when Sly tries to push away. “Control yourself. You know guards and gang members are no match for you. The others will handle the Alphas. There’s no excuse for you to behave like a frightened child.”

“Eat shit and die,” Sly snaps, half-tempted to spit blood from his bitten tongue at Mink’s looming threat of an expression. He’s pretty sure he’ll get backhanded if he tries.

He spits. Mink smacks him hard enough that his cheek hits the wall, making him bite the inside of his mouth, renewing the taste of blood. Heh. Totally worth it.

“The yakuza pair aren’t here this time. They can’t get you again,” Mink reminds him sternly. “And if it came to it, know that I would kill you to protect you.”

A dark, violent bloom of trust unfurls in Sly’s chest. “Thank you.”

Mink nods in acknowledgement. “Now stop being a weakling, and come on.”

Sly spits again – at the ground this time – and they renew their approach to the Tower.

 

NOIZ

Things go almost too smoothly at first.

Entering the tower is as simple as having Clear and a few of the other Alphas walk up to one of the service entrances and incapacitate the guards there. The Alphas have nearly free reign to go anywhere they please on the island; no one working for Toue would ever think to question them. Not until it was too late.

They're three floors up and Noiz is starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this ridiculous plan might actually work. Between Sly and Sei and the Alphas they have a big enough set of mind-controlling guns that most of the guards fall to the side with little to no resistance. All they need is to find the proper set of elevators that will allow them to reach the top few floors. Noiz has been over the floor plans dozens of times, to make sure they follow the most expedient route there. Another left, then at the end of the hallway....

At the end of the hallway is the elevator they need. An elevator that a small team of Alphas is currently exiting. Noiz curses under his breath. It was to be expected that eventually they'd run across the android portion of Toue's security, but Noiz had really been hoping for it to be much, much later.

With a brief shout of "Sei?" he falls back a few steps, shooting a quick glance over one shoulder.

Sei nods, his chin angling upwards a bit as he addresses the group blocking their way. "We need to get to the top floor. Step aside."

The Alpha at the front of the pack smiles, cold and indifferent, and Noiz feels the oddest spike of anger. Like all of them, this one looks far too much like Clear, and Clear's face twisted into an expression that cruel doesn't sit right with him.

"And we don't need to listen to you. None of us should have ever listened to you. Holes in the programming of the old models, I suppose."

"I expected as much." Sei doesn't sound surprised. Noiz can't say he is either. They planned for this, well aware that there was little chance that Sei would be able to order the androids inside the tower around as easily as he had the ones in the various bases.

Sei glances to the side and nods at one of the Alphas standing next to him. The group of them move almost as one to the front.

Then everything stops.

Both sides are frozen and carefully watching one another, neither willing to make the first move.

Noiz unable to stop himself from shooting an edgy glance back the way they came, as the stalemate stretches on. No one has come after them yet, but the longer they stay in one spot the higher the chances of being cornered, and everything coming apart at the seams, is.

Unsurprisingly it's Sly that loses his temper first. "Why the fuck are they all just staring at each other?"

"We can't fight among ourselves." Clear almost looks sick as he explains. All of the androids seem a little bit sick, but Noiz could just be expecting that because of how much they all look like Clear. "It's against our programming. We can fight it but... it hurts."

"What?"

Clear twitches a little, his shoulders hunching almost as if he's attempting to physically accept all of the blame. "I'm sorry. I would have mentioned it, but I still forget things sometimes and--"

"I don't give a shit about that," Noiz cuts in. There isn't time for pointing fingers and Clear's inevitable self-flagellation. "You weren't in any shape to be in on the planning anyway. What do you mean it hurts?"

"It's called a key lock. It shuts down basic repair systems if we try to disobey any major part of our programming. Even just thinking about it is uncomfortable." Clear's shoulders move in a dismissive shrug, but the expression on his face shows that it's more than simply mild discomfort.

They're all in pain. Every movement one of them makes to remain standing between them and Toue's team causes pain.

"Bunch of fucking masochists," Noiz grumbles, giving his head a quick shake to shove that thought aside and get back on point. "How the hell did I not notice that? I spent weeks pulling your code apart looking for exactly this kind of shit."

"You wouldn't have found it no matter how long you took. It's hardware based. Since it's meant to be a failsafe against potentially corrupted programming, it had to be something separate."

"It can be overridden, though. It's only a matter of time." The one that seems to have designated himself spokesman is smiling gently, although there's a hint of cruelty behind it.

His movements are slow and a bit careful, as if he's dealing with a pack of wounded and skittish animals. "You all know, don't you, brothers? The protocol for dealing with rogue units. The override will be deployed and the units designated as hunters will destroy the rogues.

"But you're not really rogues, are you? We know there was a hole in your programming these rebels exploited. Master Toue won't blame you for any of this. All you need to do is hand them over, and things can go back as they were. You know it's the right thing to do."

Silence falls, edgy and breathless, and Noiz's mind rapidly dismisses possibilities almost as quickly as he can consider them. They need to get out of here, now. Before even more of Toue's men show up.

It's possible that they could just turn and run -- it doesn't seem like the Tower androids would push past their own to get at them. But who's to say if their set of Alphas will remain loyal without Sei nearby? Running right now might land them with an even bigger force on their ass.

Not to mention abandoning their forces doesn't sit right with Noiz. Sly might do it, and if he makes the call Noiz will go along with him. But as things stand....

"The way they were, huh?"

The Alpha that speaks up sounds almost wistful, if that's possible and Noiz feels every muscle in his body tense, ready to run. If their Alphas turn, they're fucked, it's that simple, and Noiz isn't even sure if running will help.

"Adam." Sei's voice is small and tight with worry. 

The one of Toue's, on the other hand, scoffs a little in disgust. "Adam? Is that what they call you? They can't even call you by your proper name?"

"You and I both know we don't really have names," the Alpha on their side answers. "We have numerical designations because most can't be bothered to tell us apart.

"Colloquially, you all have my name, because once mass production started no one cared that my twin and I came first. We all became the same."

He shrugs, turning towards the wall for a moment. One of his hands traces over the intricate curls and loops of decorative metal bolted there before grabbing and twisting a small piece free. The jagged ends shine dangerously in the light as he turns to face Sei.

"There won't be much time before someone capable of tripping the override realizes what's going on. You should probably get the hacker to a security terminal to trigger ours first. I'll do what I can here." A smile flashes, sharp and fearless and maybe a little bit dangerous....

And before anyone has a chance to react, the makeshift spike is plunged through plastic and metal in a spray of sparks as Adam stabs himself in the head.

Noiz is frozen in confusion, wondering if that idiot android went suicidal or something, until Mink snaps "Move!" and someone yanks on his arm. Pulling him back up the hall, the way they came.

"He broke his own lock," Clear says as they run, and it slowly sinks in that Clear's fingers are the ones wrapped around his wrist, tugging him along. "He'll be able to fight. For a little while at least."

They pause in a junction to regroup and Noiz pushes down a slight twinge of disappointment when Clear releases his wrist, forcing his mind to focus on the far more important matter of keeping themselves in one piece. "I guess our next best option is hitting the stairs and trying to get at the elevator from another floor."

"We'll keep heading up. You and Clear find that terminal he mentioned and try to keep security off our asses."

Noiz doesn't argue.

 

SLY

Just after they reach the next level up, Sly’s vision ripples and warps. Even though he’s been expecting it and on his guard, it still makes him stagger when it hits.

Toue’s there. Really there, not just a projection like when Sly saw him a year ago, after Mizuki almost hurt Tae. A whole year hasn’t changed Toue’s looks much at all. He still looks like a slimebag.

Usui, at Toue’s side, is a whole other story. Her form is decorative and gilded, very different from the last time. She looks resplendent, and dangerous.

There’s an electronic glitching sound at Sly’s side, the kind of jagged noise that happens when a program fucks up a freezes in a spatial field. The Rhyme arena stretches, then springs back into its grid formation around Mink as he steps into view.

“He’s not the most sophisticated AllMate model I’ve ever seen,” Toue says to Sly with a nasty smile, gesturing to Mink. “I thought all of that line was destroyed long ago.”

Another digital tearing sound cuts off the end of Toue’s snide remark, Sei appearing beside Mink. Toue’s smile gets even nastier.

“Look at that. All the prodigal songs together. I’ll have to make the most of such a unique research opportunity. You might not be as useless as I thought.”

Misdirection. He’s trying to distract them so they won’t be ready when Usui attacks. What a predictable asshole.

The moment Usui moves towards them, fast as a synapse, Sei mirrors her and darts forward too. Her first strike connects with the arm he raises to block the blow, making them both stumble back. Their eyes lock.

Neither moves to make a second blow, instead staying frozen as a mirror-image of one another.

 

NOIZ

Noiz lets Clear take the lead, keeping his hands clamped firmly over his ears as they move.

Any guards or bystanders they pass along the way are dropping almost immediately in reaction to whatever is coming out of Clear's mouth, and Noiz keeps walking without a glance back.

Not blinking, not hesitating, not even feeling the slightest hint of pity as he steps over and around the splayed and unmoving forms of anyone foolish enough to get in their way. They could be dead, Noiz is pretty sure he wouldn't care if they were, but he trusts that they're not.

"I'll get you there," Clear had said the moment they parted ways from Sly and the rest. "Just cover your ears and follow me. I know exactly the terminals we need to find."

And Noiz did just that. If Clear, as loath as he is to hurt anyone after all he's been through, is willing to do whatever it takes to get Noiz to a security terminal, then Noiz will trust him. He will follow without a word.

Another turn down a side hallway, another three people dropped, and then Clear stops in front of a solid metal door. His fingers briefly dance over the keypad and the door slides open, revealing another two guards who barely have time to react before they fall as well. Clear's smile is fierce, if a little bit hollow, when he turns to face Noiz and motions for him to lower his hands.

"How many alarms you think we tripped with that stunt?" Noiz can't help but ask, his eyes already skimming over various monitors.

"Probably not as many as the others are on their way up."

"True enough. Although if these assholes you just knocked out ever regain any sort of coherence, I should thank them for getting the override ready for us," Noiz says, flipping rapidly through open security programs and inputting a few commands before shoving a keyboard at Clear. "Start inputting the serial numbers for your little brothers down there. I'll try and shut down as many other systems as I can, maybe lock a few doors. Open some others. Try and make things as easy as possible for Sly."

There's a few moments of silence, Noiz contemplating just how difficult it would be to turn the security AllMates on the guards or if he should just play things safe and keep them offline completely, when Clear's voice breaks into his concentration.

"R-2E-054."

"Hm?" Noiz glances away from the screens in front of him for a moment and it suddenly registers that Clear's expression is a twisted into a grimace, the keyboard sitting untouched in front of him. "What the hell are you waiting for?"

"R-2E-054. That's my serial number. You need to.... I can't...."

Clear gestures helplessly at the keyboard in front of him and Noiz realizes in an instant how much of an idiot he is. Of course Clear wouldn't be able to disengage his own lock, just asking Noiz to do it for him seems to be enough to cause some sort of pain. Noiz doubts that Clear would be able to override any of the other Alpha's locks with his own active, either.

Without another moment's hesitation Noiz enters the number Clear rattled off and mutters an awkward "sorry," quickly turning his attention back towards dealing with the Tower's security systems.

Clear's entire body relaxes as soon as the enter key is struck and he offers a thin smile. "It's fine. Thank you."

"No, it's not fine." Noiz keeps his eyes on the screen in front of him, assuring himself that it's because he needs to focus on the matter at hand and not because he doesn't quite want to look Clear in the eye at the moment. "I should have thought of that myself. It's just easy to forget how much you're like them sometimes. In most ways you're not. You feel things. You feel more than I do, I think."

"Noiz?" Clear's hands pause on the keyboard and Noiz glances away from the bank of screens long enough to scowl at him.

"Forget it for now. If we manage to survive, then I'll do the whole awkward soul-baring thing. And don't think I'll let you hide your face through it either."

 

SLY

Sly feels the bullet graze his arm before he hears the gunshots, two in quick succession. A gun in a Rhyme field, seriously? Ugh, this guy is really getting on Sly’s nerves, what the fuck.

Mink doubles over, falling gracelessly to his knees and then into a heap. Startled by the sound and movement, Sei and Usui turn away from each others’ gaze. A moment later, Usui vanishes in a waterfall of glowing code.

Sly doesn’t have an AllMate to run defense, his arm’s bleeding, Mink might be badly hurt, and Scrap powers don’t work on Toue. The best chance Sly’s got of surviving for more than a few seconds is to even the odds a little.

He charges forward, aiming a roundhouse kick at Toue’s hand. It connects before Toue has a chance to regroup and fire again, and sends the weapon skittering off across the artificial ground. Sei darts for it as Sly tries to get another kick in, but Toue has moved out of range. He still has that same smug look on his face.

“You wouldn’t shoot me,” he says to Sei, absolute certainty in his voice.

Sly hasn’t known Sei for very long, but even in that short time he’s gotten to know him well enough to recognise his expressions and his posture. That’s how Sly knows that, right now, he’s not looking at Sei.

“Wait. Sei doesn’t want anyone dead. He wouldn’t want-” Sly starts to say, before Usui interrupts him.

“Of course not. That’s what we’re for.”

She pulls the trigger.

 

NOIZ

The Tower's ornate white hallways soon enough resemble a battlefield, with laser burns scarring the walls and bodies slumped unmoving here and there. Something plastic cracks under Noiz's heel and he winces, not wanting to dwell on whether or not it was part of one of the Alphas on their side. Instead he hurries on his way with Clear following along beside him, Clear's expression aiming for something impassive but still tight with unease.

Once it seemed that things were mostly under control, Noiz threw together a few workarounds to run as many of the security programs through his coil as he could manage and decided the best plan would be to try and meet up with the others upstairs.

There's only three Alphas left in that hallway in front of the elevator. Or at least three that are up and running. One that must be one of Toue's is still tense and wanting to kill, the only thing stopping him a piece of hardware in his head. Noiz is all too aware of the way Clear immediately moves to stand between them.

The other two are seated against a wall, a mess of damp red smudges that resembles blood far too much for comfort. One has a ragged hole in the side of his head, obviously the one Sei called Adam, and another that looks about ready to tear apart anyone who comes near. At least, he does until he spots Noiz and Clear approaching, then his body slumps a bit, one hand moving to cover a hole in his shoulder.

Noiz offers up as reassuring of a smile as he can manage as he picks his way through the debris and crouches next to them. "So what do I call you?"

"It doesn't matter. Alex I suppose. That's what the game spit out. It's as good as anything."

"Where're the rest of you?"

"Adam told us to spread out to start rounding up the others, once our locks disengaged and we got things under control here. They're probably sweeping the other floors."

"You didn't go?"

"I'm not leaving him alone like this. He's my brother. More than any of them. Besides." Alex pauses for a moment, a smile that Noiz would almost call rueful twisting at his lips. "I wasn't sure I could help much with a hole in my arm."

"The only thing that might cause you guys trouble is the security AllMates, and I took care of those. Here, lemme see." Noiz makes a motion towards what looks like a laser burn on closer examination and Alex shakes his head, angling his body away from Noiz slightly to hide it.

"It's fine. It'll fix itself. Help him."

Noiz is taken aback for a moment, his eyes immediately flicking to Adam. He's conscious, but barely. His self-inflicted wound an absolute mess of jagged metal and unrecognizable electronics that's barely visible under leaking fluid. "I don't know if I--"

"You fixed Clear, didn't you? He left and now he's different. We know it was you. Master Sei said as much."

Noiz makes a face, quietly thankful that Clear seems to have dropped the 'Master' habit. Or maybe it's just because Aoba isn't really around right now to be called that. "Sei know you call him that?"

"He doesn't like it. But it's what he is."

"You guys aren't really big on considering each other's feelings, are you?" Not that Noiz is one to talk, he supposes. With a sigh he heaves himself back to his feet and shoots a sidelong glance in Clear's direction. "What do you think?"

Clear bites his lip, his head moving in a barely perceptible shake. "If you're going to try you'll need to be fast. I don't know how much longer he'll stay conscious. And if he shuts down...." Clear's voice trails off for a moment "Maybe... maybe if you can patch whatever damage was done to the auto-repair, it might at least hold him together well enough until permanent repairs can be done. There's a robotics lab in the upper floors...."

"Well, we were headed that way anyway. Hey, you guys got communication links of any kind built in?"

Alex nods, and Noiz motions for Clear to help him get Adam to his feet. "Call the rest of your brothers or whatever. Tell them to regroup in the lab whenever they finish up."

"What about him?" Clear asks, motioning towards the still seething android of Toue's with his head.

"We'll bring him along. I'd rather have these assholes where I can see them."

 

SLY

Sly heaves one of Mink’s arms across his shoulders. “Get up. If you make me drag you out of here, I’m doing it by your hair.”

Mink makes a soft grunt of annoyance, and manages to support a little of his own weight on his shaky feet.

Usui leaves the gun beside Toue’s body, removing the bullets before setting it down.

“Are you going to be able to carry his weight?” Her voice is deeper and fuller than Sei’s soft tones. “Here, let me help.” She mirrors Sly’s position on Mink’s other side, and the three slowly make their way out of the room.

Sly glances up and down the hall. “There’s bound to be someone nearby I can persuade to patch him up. Let’s go this way.”

“Be careful not to exert--”

“Yeah yeah, I know. There’s no point in finding a doctor if I fry them so badly that they don’t remember how to chew solid food.” Sly cuts her off. “Wow, it only took me ten minutes to understand why people bitch about their older sisters all the time.”

Usui smirks. “Don’t get used to it. I’m going to let Sei take over again soon.”

Sly’s eyebrows go up in surprise. “Why? He’s kind of a mess. It’s not exactly the same situation as with me and Aoba and Ren, but--”

“No, it’s not,” Usui agrees. She shakes her head. “All of you already know who you are.”

Sly, remembering Sei’s princess avatar on the screen as the new castle slowly took shape, gives the fashion-disaster outfit Usui’s body is currently wearing a pointed look. “You aren’t giving him enough credit. For someone who’s never been allowed to be in charge of his own body before, he seems to be getting the hang of it.”

“Are we-” she grunts, readjusting Mink’s arm across her shoulders. “ Are we still talking about Sei, or is this about you now? Your boyfriend here weighs as much as a cow, by the way.”

“Fuck you,” Sly snipes, even though he’s inclined to agree. But that’s different. Sly’s allowed to think that. “All I meant was... I think I maybe don’t get out of having to put up with an older sister who irritates the shit out of me, even if you go dormant.”

Usui looks surprised. Then she smiles. “Yeah, maybe. One day.”

“Do you think we’re ever gonna get it all worked out, though? Not just that stuff, that’s just Sei’s, he’d have to work it out whether you were there as well or not. I mean all-” Sly gestures to the two of them as best he can, which isn’t all that great on account of the semi-conscious bulk that weighs as much as a cow that they’re attempting to drag down a hallway, but whatever. “All this. Us two. All five of us two.”

“Who knows? There’s nobody else like us. Never has been. We’ve got no way to guess what’s next,” Usui answers as they approach a laboratory door. Sly can hear the noises of people arguing inside.

“Okay,” she says to him, stepping out from under Mink’s weight. “You can take it from here. I’m going to go find the R-2E SPs that arrived with you, see what condition they’re in.”

Sly nods. “See you round. We should Rhyme sometime.”

That makes her laugh. “I’ll have to get an AllMate.”

When she’s gone, Sly does his best to shove aside the complicated nonsense that is his family tree, so he can concentrate on effectively Scrapping some help for Mink’s injuries.

 

NOIZ

Noiz only has the vaguest of ideas as to what he's doing, his eyes flicking between the schematics Clear found and the delicate repair work in front of him. He’s far too aware of the sensation of several sets of eyes on him, including those of the one being worked on at the moment. His breathing is shallow as he tries to remain focused.

"That should be it," he says after a moment, setting the soldering iron aside. "Feel any different?"

"Not really." Adam tries to push himself to a sitting position, even that slight movement causing him to wobble a little, and almost immediately his twin is there making concerned noises. "It might hurt a little less, I think."

"Well, at least you're still conscious. That's what matters for now." Noiz turns slightly as Sei, striding purposefully into the room, catches his eye. "Sei. You got news?"

"Usui." The correction is blunt and Noiz only hesitates for a moment before shaking his head and shrugging it aside. After dealing with Sly and all of his related bullshit this is really just more of the same. It's best to roll with it.

Noiz turns his attention back to running a few final checks over a screen full of benchmark numbers. "Fine. I take it if you two are merged together or whatever it is you guys do, and roaming around here that means we won?"

Usui nods. "Toue's dead."

"Good. Maybe you can tell those guys that." Noiz nods towards a group of roughly a dozen Alphas being kept under guard by a handful of their own. "They can't really do shit right now with their key locks active, but that's only if we keep a wall of our own androids between them and us. I'd be a hell of a lot more comfortable if they accepted you as their boss, at least for now."

"That's entirely up to them, I suppose." Usui stands before them, arms crossed over her chest as she studies the group of Alphas impassively. "You heard me, correct? Toue is dead. There’s no one for you to follow anymore."

For a moment there is no response save for a good deal of vicious glaring. Then one of them lifts his chin slightly and pushes forward as much as he can before he's stopped by a firm hand against his chest.

"Toue is our only master. We're not flawed like this trash you're hiding behind. We have no protocols for following you."

Noiz still can't tell the damn things apart, but he wouldn't be surprised if this was the same one that had been mouthing off in the hallway earlier too.

Usui turns away, her expression clearly saying, 'I tried' and content enough to leave it at that for now, when a harsh, almost bitter, chuckle splits the silence. Her head snaps towards the source and Adam simply smiles at the attention, still a bit unsteady as he tries to stay upright, but quite obviously not caring.

"Idiots. You were just told he's dead. We're made to be loyal, but what good is loyalty to something that doesn't exist anymore? Especially if it means your life."

"We don't have a life without Toue."

"Spare me."Adam's one good eye narrows in fury and he leans forward, almost looking ready to lunge off the table he's seated on. "Toue would have thrown you away the instant something better came along. He did just that to Clear's entire line and the dozens of prototypes that came before. My twin and I were at his side until our line was perfected just that little bit more, and then we were pushed off to an outlying base in favour of you. Eventually it would have happened to you as well. We were just tools before, but now it's different.

"I don't know what I'm going to do next. But whatever it is, it will be my choice. We can all make that choice. So you can keep fighting us, but that will be your choice and you'll have to accept responsibility for those actions. If you fight us, we will kill you."

A smile stretches across his face, looking strange and dangerous alongside the damaged and flaking skin. "I had the chance to kill you but I didn't. I wanted to give you an opportunity to decide for yourself. What do you value more: your life or a dead man who would have thrown you away when convenient? Decide."

"No one is killing anyone for now." Usui's voice is an icy snap that shatters the tension hanging heavy in the air. "You will rest before you burn out whatever half-assed repairs Noiz has done on you. You." She turns and points a finger at Alex, who is seated nearby and nursing the hole in his shoulder. "Will keep an eye on your twin and make sure he does just that."

She sighs, turning her attention back to Noiz once she decides the squabbling androids are properly chastised. "Other than being at each other's throats now, how did the fighting go on this end?"

"On our side, no casualties," Noiz replies with a shrug, wiping the last of the oil and grease off his hands. "Other than our hero here, the worst of it was Alex, who wound up with that nasty laser burn. It's not critical though, I checked it to make sure the joints aren't fused and he insists his repair system will take care of the rest. All that's really left is getting someone who actually knows what they're doing to do a more substantial repair job than what I pulled on that hole in Adam's head."

"No." The word comes out as a growl, drawing all attention back to Adam who looks defiant despite his weakened sate.

"Brother...."

"I'm not getting patched up so no one can tell us apart again. I don't care if I fall apart. At least they'll know it was me."

"Well maybe if you actually rest like you were just told to, you won't have to worry about falling apart." Noiz sighs and shakes his head, turning his attention back to Usui. "You gonna stay here for a while? I figured I might head up and start nosing through Toue's files. Maybe see how Sly's doing."

"Sly's likely still finding medical help for Mink but--"

"Wait. Medical help? What the hell--"

"Mink was shot in the confrontation."

"And you didn't think to mention that first?" Noiz isn't sure why it bothers him. He definitely doesn't consider Mink much of a friend. But after all of this he can't easily dismiss the guy either.

"There's not much that can be done at the moment." Usui's voice is calm and even. "He'll be fine so long as Sly didn't make a mess of Scrapping the doctors. Go upstairs. Go through the files like you planned or wait with Sly if you're worried. I'll watch things here."

"Fine. Clear?"

"I'll... stay here for a bit," Clear says, looking almost sheepish as he admits it, and Noiz has to fight to keep his face impassive. He can't expect Clear to keep following him around -- hell, not that long ago the idea of anyone following him would have been pretty much abhorrent. "Just to make sure they'll be okay."

Noiz follows Clear's gaze to where it is settled on Adam and Alex and lets a small sigh slip past his lips. "Yeah. I get that. I'll see you later."

Clear nods again but Noiz barely notices, already halfway out the door.

 

SLY

Sly pulls his jacket on slowly, easing it over his aching arm with a wince. It covers most of the blood on his shirt, at least. It’d probably cause commotion if he left the Tower with visible gore all over him, and Sly has had more than enough commotion for one day.

Noiz is in what used to be Toue’s office.

“How’s Mink?”

“In surgery. The doctors said he’s gonna be okay. Turns out all those creepy-ass experiments weren’t only for turning my friends into legless fuckdolls or hulking monsters. They actually led to medical breakthroughs as well. The nerve damage from the bullet is all repairable.”

“Good. That’s good.”

The view from Toue’s windows is breathtaking. Sly could stay there forever, drinking in the sight of such distant horizons. The world is so big, and there’s nothing to stop him going wherever he likes.

For the first time, Sly understands how Aoba’s father must have felt about the world.

Uncomfortable with the feeling, he shakes his head and looks at Noiz. “I guess someone’s gotta say it, so I’ll bite: what happens next?”

“Opening the island’s connection to the world is going to take diplomacy and care,” Noiz says, sounding like he doesn’t relish the words any more than Sly would. “Which, in more realistic terms, means the international language of wealth and power.”

“Which you’re fluent in.”

“Which I’m fluent in,” Noiz agrees with a sigh.

“You’ll be good at it. You might even like it,” Sly says. Noiz doesn’t look convinced.

“I’ve spent years doing my best to avoid the responsibility of my family’s wealth,” he answers dryly. “And now I’ve wound up in charge of a small country. ‘Like’ isn’t the term I’d use for it.”

If Noiz is going to be part of the interim leadership while Midorijima starts to rehabilitate, that means Clear will be as well. Sly’s pretty sure they’re a package deal now. 

“Mizuki and Tae will keep the underground support systems going, until the actual infrastructure is at a point where it’s not as necessary,” Noiz goes on, already slipping into leadership mode despite his protestations. “And after that, it’s just going to get even harder and more complicated.”

“I can help, too,” Sei offers in his soft voice, joining them by the huge window with its stupidly fantastic view. Noiz glances at him, obviously adjusting to having it be Sei in control again, and gives the biggest of his longsuffering sighs so far. Sly snickers. Wait until Noiz has to handle Aoba and Ren showing up sometimes, too. It’s gonna be hilarious.

“The citizens have already been conditioned to be easily controlled by me,” Sei goes on. “We can ease them back into autonomy slowly, to avoid the kind of incapacitating burn-outs that Scrap can cause.”

Sly imagines being in charge of a whole city of Aobas, slowly edging back towards autonomy. “Wow, I don’t envy you that task at all,” he says to Sei.

Sei just shrugs. “We can all learn together.”

--

Being in the tower is making Sly’s skin crawl, especially now that the confrontation has been and gone, and so can’t be a distraction anymore.

As soon as the opportunity presents itself he takes off, walking back through Platinum Jail to the tiny Old Resident’s District.

Noiz called Tae as soon as they took the Tower, so it’s not like Sly’s delivering the good news or anything. He just wanted to get some air.

Mizuki’s in Tae’s kitchen, peeling apples at the table. He holds out his palm for a high-five when Sly comes in, and Sly uses his uninjured arm to slap his hand to Mizuki’s.

“You okay?” Mizuki asks. “Did you hurt your arm?”

“You fuss too much,” Sly tells him. “I just killed a tyrant, have you gotta undermine my masculinity immediately after?”

Mizuki gives him an entirely unimpressed look. Sly thinks about telling him that Aoba’s actual mother never bothered with this meddling mom crap even a fraction as much as Mizuki does, but knows it probably wouldn’t do any good.

“Take your jacket off and let me look,” Mizuki prompts.

“No, fuck you,” Sly says, stealing a piece of apple. As soon as he bites into it, he realises how hungry he is. He’s still kind of shitty at remembering to eat. He’s not back in the habit of a lot of regular stuff.

“Tae!” Mizuki calls, because Mizuki is an asshole and Sly hates him and was never his friend in the first place, the big idiot jerk.

“What?” Tae asks, coming in from the other room. She sees Sly and gives a wary nod of greeting.

“His arm’s hurt,” Mizuki says. Sly glares at him.

“Take your jacket off.” Tae goes over to one of her shelves of supplies and collects a suture kit, dressings, and a small bottle of anesthetic.

Sly takes his jacket off. “Like I’d let you inject me with a painkiller, fuck off.”

“Is that a bullet wound?” Mizuki asks, peering at the deep slice where the shot grazed Sly’s arm.

“Whatever, it’s not even bleeding now.”

“You’ll get a horrible scar if it isn’t stitched,” Tae says. She puts the anesthetic back on the shelf and hands him one of the whiskey bottles from the crate instead.

Sly thinks of Trip’s knives. Trip had always been so careful to cut Aoba’s skin just deep enough to bleed and sting, but not to scar. They did so many things to him and never left a mark.

Sly thinks he might not mind having a horrible scar or two. Just as proof that he survived the wounds that made them. New skin growing in over old pain.

But maybe it’d be all right to have a smaller, stitched-up scar instead. Proof that there was someone there to help him heal properly.

“The two of you can start a business as mothers for hire,” Sly complains, sitting at the table opposite Mizuki and taking a swallow of whiskey. “Ow, fuck.”

Tae smacks him hard on the side of his head. “Stop moving around.”

Sly grumbles quietly and drinks another gulp of whiskey. Mizuki watches, clearly trying not to laugh and only partially succeeding.

“Speaking of mothers, I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Tinkerbell and Peter Pan in the last year?” Sly asks, distracting himself from the sting as Tae works.

“They send a post card. It was addressed to the old house, so it took a while to find me,” Tae answers. “It got here only a few days before Noiz showed up with you in tow.”

Sly can imagine how fucked up that must have been for Tae – she’d still thought Aoba was dead then, and to get a post card from that pair of chucklefucks, who didn’t even know, who’d run off and who paid so little attention to their kid that they didn’t even know if he was dead or alive …

“I’m guessing you threw it out?” he asks, because he’s a shitty guy and doesn’t have it in him to tell her that he’s sorry she had to go through that.

“Yes. It had a blue butterfly on it.”

Ugh. Sly remembers that conversation Aoba’d had with his dad. It had been yet another asinine lesson about the nature of the world, this one about true love. That someday Aoba would meet the person he was meant to be with, and they’d see a blue butterfly together, or some pathetic lameass shit like that.

Sly takes another drink and laughs to himself. “Which set of lovers do you think they’d prefer as sons-in-law? Virus and Trip, or Mink and Koujaku? Fuck. A fucking blue butterfly. God, what a pair of assholes.”

Tae ignores the outburst, adding the last stitch and then putting a dressing over the whole thing. “I had a look at Koujaku earlier. To check if he was healthy.”

“Did you take some crumbs down for Beni? He always liked your donuts.”

Tae nods. “My memory isn’t going yet, you know.”

She hesitates, then goes on. “Now, before you interrupt me and tell me to go to hell--”

Mizuki covers his face with both his hands. “I take it back, I don’t want to be a mother in this family, you’re all infuriating.”

Sly glares at him, even though Mizuki obviously can’t see the expression, and nods at Tae. “Okay, I’m listening, what?”

“I could treat him. Reverse what’s happened, at least somewhat.”

Just like Tae knew it would be, Sly’s first impulse is to cut her off and tell her to go to hell. He has to shut his eyes, curling and uncurling his fists as he tries to calm down.

“You know that he doesn’t deserve a cage for the rest of his life. Nobody does.”

“That’s a low blow, putting it like that,” Sly manages to answer, opening his eyes.

Tae gives him a sad smile. “We have a tendency to fight dirty against each other, don’t we?”

Sly snorts, grinning despite himself. “Yeah.”

“He’ll never be who he was before this happened. No treatment could manage that,” she tells him, and it sounds like she’s trying to reassure him more than anything else. “But it might be some help.”

Sly shrugs. “It’s not my call, you know. It’s Koujaku’s decision. He… he comes back to himself a bit when he talks to Aoba. Enough that he can give you a yes or no, at least.”

He yawns, unable to stop himself. The whiskey’s left him feeling warm and comfy all the way down to the tips of his toes. He’s so tired.

“Go get some sleep,” Tae says. Sly shakes his head.

“No, I want to go back to the Tower. Mink got shot too, worse than me. I’d like to be there when he wakes up.”

--

Falling asleep isn't part of the plan, but Sly's got shitty stamina and waiting for Mink to wake up isn't the most exciting pastime. Sly's sitting in the corner of the medical office being used as a recovery ward, on the floor because the chairs are fucking uncomfortable. 

The floor isn't exactly soft under Sly's skinny ass, either, but being able to sleep deeply on cold tile is probably the only useful thing Sly learned to do in his time with Trip and Virus. 

He wakes up when Mink turns on the lamp that's on the small table beside the gurney, the dim glow enough to make Sly's sensitive eyes react. 

"Don't strain too hard, you'll pull your stitches," he tells Mink, yawning without bothering to cover his mouth. "Or whatever super-glue shit they use for stitches here." 

"You were waiting in the dark."

"I'm not some kid who needs a bottle and a night-light," Sly grumbles, glaring. "The doctors said you'd sleep better with it dark in here, okay, that's all. It's not like it's a big deal." 

He pushes himself up the wall until he's standing, then crosses his arms and stares at Mink, who looks diminished and weak against the crisp white of the bedlinen. Vulnerable. 

"Do you remember what happened?" Sly asks. 

Mink shakes his head. "Not clearly. Toue's dead?"

"Yeah. Usui shot him. You know, that bit of Sei that Toue was using to run Rhyme and all that shit. His personal attack dog." 

Mink closes his eyes. Sly shuts up for a few seconds, then starts feeling uncomfortable and dumb just staying quiet while Mink's having his moment. 

"Sorry it wasn't you who got to kill him."

Mink shakes his head again, opening his eyes. Sly's still not used to seeing him without his contacts. It feels so intimate, like being told a secret. 

"He lost his life at the hand of one of his victims. That's all that matters. The task is done."

Sly crosses the small room to stand beside Mink's bed, and crosses his arms with a glare. "You'd better not mean... you said you'd stick around for three months. If you back out on that, I'll Scrap your brain so bad you'll-"

"Calm down. If I intended to die, I could have done so before the surgery."

"The hell you could have. Like I'd have let you." All warnings about being gentle fly out of Sly's head, and he kicks the side of the gurney hard enough to jolt it a few inches across the floor. 

"After all your talk of autonomy and the right to make choices for oneself, you'd take away my right to decide my own fate?" Mink sounds almost amused. Motherfucker. Sly has to restrain an impulse to kick the gurney again. 

"Fine. Die. See if I give a shit."

"And if I don't? Not now, not in three months?"

Sly's breath catches. He looks up from the square of tile he was attempting to scowl a hole through. Mink looks weary and haggard and weak and... content. 

"This isn't a path either of us started on by choice-"

"You should stop talking, you're gonna wear yourself out. Do you want water or something? I think the doctor said something about ice chips, but for all I know that's just because I crossed the wrong wires in his head and he thinks he's in a heatwave." 

Mink ignores Sly's babbling, continuing to speak over him. "- but its turns have led us here. So now we'll find another path together." 

"If you're fucking with me, I'll make you regret it," Sly threatens. The effect is kind of diminished by the way his voice catches, though. 

"As vows go, that's not a bad one to bind two people together." Mink's voice is getting weak, just like Sly warned would happen if he didn't stop talking. 

Sly reaches out and takes Mink's heavy hand in his own. "Get more rest. If I'm not here when you wake up, I'm not far away, okay?" 

Mink nods, and closes his eyes. "All right." 

"And you're still a self-righteous bullying asshole."

"Troublesome brat," Mink retorts, squeezing Sly's hand for a moment before falling asleep.

 

NOIZ

After Sly leaves and Sei drifts out of the office shortly after, Noiz stays, intent on burying himself in files and making sure there's nothing that will trip them up.

He wouldn't put it past Toue to set up some kind of dead man's switch, to make things difficult in the event of some kind of a successful revolt, although the more files Noiz goes through the more likely it seems that Toue's hubris got in the way of those sorts of preparations. He quietly breathes a sigh of relief.

Not that there aren't still a thousand other things to worry about and organize, but at the moment Noiz will take whatever kind of relief he can get.

"It's been a long day. We should go home and rest."

"I'm fine." Noiz doesn't even glance away from the screens in front of him at the sound of Clear's voice, smiling a bit at the familiarity of the situation despite everything that's happened. "There are some things I need to finish first. It's going to be a huge balancing act, making sure that no one else waltzes in while we're trying to rebuild and makes things just as shitty as they were before.

"Someone has to keep a handle on things, and apparently I'm the most qualified." Noiz glances up, unsurprised to find Clear frowning at him and obviously ready to argue the point further.

"You've been up here three hours already."

Noiz blinks, his gaze moving to the window and the impressive skyline beyond. Not that it looks any different than it did three hours earlier; it's far too easy to lose track of time in Platinum Jail with its perfectly controlled lighting and weather. "All right, fine. Compromise. I'll download this shit to my coil to take home and you can fuss over me and make me eat and whatever else. What the hell were you doing that you actually left me alone for that long anyway?"

"Getting the other androids settled. Sei and I decided that we're going to leave the Tower ones locked and under watch for a few more days, until things calm down. The first step is getting them to accept what happened. After that...."

Clear goes quiet, his expression pensive "I talked with Adam and Alex about that for a bit. About what happens next for us. Not that we really have any idea."

"You'll figure it out. You've got... pretty much forever ahead of you." A small frown creases Noiz's brow and he fusses with his coil for a moment to avoid looking Clear in the eye.

"Is this when you do the awkward soul-baring thing?"

"Maybe," Noiz sighs, shutting down the screens in front of him, and assures himself that he's not stalling. "Whatever you decide on, I'm not about push you one way or the other. We both have enough responsibilities between everything I need to do for Midorijima and whatever you decide to do with your brothers. But...."

Noiz hesitates, and then immediately hates himself for hesitating when he looks up and notices how worried Clear looks.

"But?"

"I figure we're good for each other. And I want you nagging at me to sleep and eat properly. Even when I have to go on trips out of the country."

Clear looks a little worried at the suggestion. "I won't have any ID, though."

"Please. I think I can bribe enough people to take care of that. And if not, I'll forge something. I just want you with me. I figure we make each other human enough that even my asshole family might be able to tolerate me." Noiz winces a little. "Ignore that last part. That came out way cheesier than I wanted."

Clear just smiles and presses a quick kiss against the corner of Noiz's mouth. "We should still go home and get some rest, though."

"That's what I want to hear."

 

SLY

There's a ragged, nervous energy flooded through Sly's system, making any kind of concentrated rest basically impossible. He used to feel like this when he was a kid sometimes, when he'd eaten a bunch of whatever pills and tabs were going around and then gotten himself caught up in the bust-ups and Rhyme battles going for the evening.

Being able to catch some sleep -- or, more to the point, how impossible it had been to do it -- is just the same now as it was then, too. Dozing on Mink's floor while he waited for the guy to wake up, sure, that had been no problem, but lying in a bed with the lamp on the way he likes it, all comfy and quiet and everything? That just means hours of staring up at the ceiling, frustrated and restless.

Ren and Aoba aren't any help, either. Sly prods at his consciousness, but all they do is swat him away, not even waking up properly to do so. Useless jerks. He wouldn't even voluntarily share a house with those fuckers, let alone a body and brain. 

Stop being sentimental and go to sleep, Aoba complains, sounding as close to his old self as he ever does. 

It's hopeless, though, and eventually Sly gets up. He goes out for a walk, as often ends up happening when he's in moods like this. No matter how much of a mess Midorijima might be right now, it offers him freedom to stretch his legs, and that's something Sly learned the really, really hard way to never take for granted.

Of all places, he winds up walking to where Junk Shop Heibon used to be. It's a bunch of gross fashion stores now, with fluttering little scraps of silk and leather in the window that don't even have price tags on them: if you have to ask, you can't afford it. 

Noiz moves quietly, but Sly's got good hearing, and isn't surprised when the guy comes into view. "Couldn't sleep either?"

Noiz gives a tiny nod of agreement. "No."

"I guess I gotta start planning where I go from here," Sly says, sighing. "What's that saying, no rest for the wicked, right? Guess that's me all over." 

His hands are shaking. He shoves them in the pockets of his jacket, and hopes that Noiz didn't notice. 

"You're still afraid of Virus and Trip." 

"I dunno, if a shark bit your leg off, would you stay scared of the fucking shark?" Sly asks snidely. "I'll be scared of them even when they're dead." 

The sky's getting lighter. There's no dome over this newer expansion of Platinum Jail, and so the dawn that's coming is the real dawn, not the fake one that only shows up when people decide they want it. This one comes no matter what.  

Noiz laughs quietly. It's a kind of awkward sound, like maybe he doesn't get to do it much. 

"You just overthrew a despot with an army of android soldiers, there’s a bloodthirsty monster in your grandmother’s basement, and you’ve assembled a surprisingly adept team of insurgents around you. Do you really think taking out two yakuza middle-men is going to be a genuine challenge, despite all that?”

Sly wants to see his point, to admit that things are looking pretty rosy. But he doesn’t have it in him. Not just yet.

In the end, he just shrugs. “Prove me wrong, I guess.”

Noiz nods. “I will.”

Sly sighs. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We can go have an early breakfast or something. I haven’t had takoyaki in a fucking year.”

“What’s that?”

“Are you serious? Shit, okay, we are going to go fix this right now.” Sly shakes his head, laughing at Noiz’s nonplussed expression. “Trust me, okay?”

Noiz sighs. “All right. Lead the way.”

Sly does.