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Origin of Symmetry

Chapter Text

Far away,
This ship is taking me far away

Far away from the memories
Of the people who care if I live or die 

Muse, “Starlight”

 

 

 

 

Ryou guides the ship with a single cold hand. The other is being squeezed between his thighs for warmth. He tugs at the wheel and the ancient Ki-97 Toryu swings gently port, over the first of the evening’s lights glowing in the apartments of the valley. The Kado River cuts through the center of the sphere like a strip of thick black velvet. The external mirrors of Colony YG0 have pulled back to allow for nightfall—later than is usual, to simulate the lengthening of days. Endless stars rise beyond the glass panels.

 

He docks with little trouble at North Bay, tethers the Toryu, and takes the seven-thirty shuttle into Domino City.

 

 

 

 

YG0, like many of its inhabitants, is old—going on two hundred. At sundown the birds erupt out of the trees—because they can feel the rattling of the glass and the creaking of the mirror panels, the subtle shifts in air pressure, it is said. It’s true that the air is stale, and that the ground shivers at times. But the wheels and gears are not grinding to a halt:  Upsilon Gamma Zero will not wind down for another eight hundred years. By then it will have been abandoned; rendered obsolete, a decrepit fueling station if it is to be anything at all, its inhabitants moved on to bigger and better things:  the Z and Alpha cylinders. There is a new Alpha in the Yunnan system, a city of millions.

 

Domino, by contrast, is a city of thousands—two hundred thousand, if the latest census is to be believed. There have been few births. Most parents and grandparents are long dead. And even the children have dwindled.

 

It is a lonely colony. The closest of its brethren, the smaller YT3, lies seven days away by ship or suit. Ryou, the transporter, former pilot, has done the distance in five.

 

 

 

 

The interior of Domino City’s second best izakaya is brightly lit, the walls sponged yellow. Business is steady and always good on weeknights. Monday through Friday, Honda Hiroto’s high school friends drift in and out, joining the other regulars at the counter. On Saturday nights, though, they take a booth by the window and stay until morning, and Honda brings the beers and sits down beside them. It has been a weekly tradition since before the war, and tonight Ryou is late.

 

The others are already there, gathered around a bubbling hotpot:  Mutou Yuugi, with his little legs dangling, at one side beside Honda; Jounouchi Katsuya, mechanic, and Mazaki Anzu, dancer, at the other.

 

Jounouchi is in the middle of some uproariously funny joke, Anzu and Honda enthralled, cheesy enka throbbing through shoddy old speakers; only Yuugi looks up at the sound of the bell. He smiles, gently—everything about Yuugi is gentle—and waves Ryou over.

 

Jounouchi breaks off. “Look who’s back in town!”

 

“Ehm,” Ryou tries, “it’s a bit, ah, hang on—"

 

He flounders a minute, looking for an empty chair to pull up and finding none.

 

“Oh, sit down,” Anzu says, laughing, and she hooks her arm around his and drags him down beside her. “We’re all friends here, we can stand being a little squashed—”

 

“Meat!” Honda shouts at the kitchen. Okay, boss, the kitchen shouts back. Honda slides a fifth beer across the table, grinning, and Ryou doesn’t register the movement immediately, almost lets it tip before he catches it.

 

“Welcome back, Ryou-kun,” Yuugi says seriously.

 

“Yeah, welcome back, and feel free to squash us some more,” Jounouchi says. “Hope you washed up—”

 

“Fresh as a daisy,” Anzu declares, her nose sudden and cold against the nape of Ryou’s neck.

 

“I always smell nice,” Ryou says, and It’s, erm, pear, actually, lamely, but Jounouchi leans in and talks over him:

 

“So, she’s got this Shadow Ghoul model named Teddy of all the goddamned things, never lets me near it, but she’s all over Yuugi, and I think he likes it—”

 

“She’s just a kid!” Yuugi protests.

 

“Oh, Ryou, you have to listen to this,” Anzu says. “Yuugi’s been unfaithful. Start over, Jounouchi-kun. He has to hear it from the beginning.”

 

Jounouchi starts over, flapping his hands. Ryou passes the beer bottle from one hand to the other, smiling at appropriate moments, and takes a good long look at all of them. Every time he comes back to Domino he is shocked by their faces—eyes and noses and chins stranger, harder, wider, never quite in line with his memory of them.

 

Honda and Jounouchi are a pair, eternally scruffy, apron and jacket slick and stained with vegetable and engine oil. Under the dirt and the ugly Medusa-knot of scars, the skin of Jounouchi’s face is tanned:  when he’s not at Yuugi’s shop, he’s at the southern pole scouting new customers, catching the brunt of the light. Everything about him is warm and boisterous, open; he’s spread out, long and lean, legs splayed, practically in Anzu’s lap. Ryou imagines civilian life is doing him good. The Jounouchi of five years ago was a stray, snarling and snapping at anyone who got close enough to be bitten.

 

Yuugi has done a better job cleaning himself up—he’s even wearing clean pants, though there is still a smear of grease on the underside of his chin. Spare keys to his grandfather’s shop dangle around his neck. He has not grown taller, but his face has sharpened, the schoolboy softness finally leaving his cheeks. By all accounts, Yuugi’s adolescence was painful, gawky, porn- and pimple-filled, and only recently passed, but to Ryou, Yuugi has always seemed wiser than his years. Since the war there has been a sadness in Yuugi, too, something that lingers quiet and solemn. They have all noticed it, and it discomfits them, as much as Yuugi tries to hide it.

 

Anzu’s hair is longer, and her face is rounder, smiling rosily. The engagement ring twinkles as she passes Ryou a bowl and chopsticks. It has been eight months since Yuugi proposed on the riverbank, twelve months since Ryou brought the small milky stone from Gamma Seven, a real pink seed pearl, no larger than a sliver of fingernail—

 

 

 

 

“Must be nice,” Anzu says. “Seeing the stars up close and personal—walking downtown in a big city!" She laughs. “I guess you don’t see shows when you’re on the job, though.”

 

Ryou smiles and says nothing. Anzu is wearing soft pinks and yellows and has a little charm bracelet on her left wrist—dangling silver ballet shoes. Thirty-six times she’s danced on the Domino Civic stage. A year from now, she will have had forty recitals on that little wooden platform, and then she will retire.

 

“Must be nice,” Anzu repeats, and sighs a bit, and fiddles with her straw. The pearl glows on her finger.

 

 

 

 

The new plate arrives, heavy and cold, red and green with beef and cabbage. They watch the boiling pot in silence; then Jounouchi and Honda lunge.

 

“Pig!” Honda says, subsiding.

 

“Sharrup—sharrup, you,” says Jounouchi thickly, cabbage trailing limply down his chin. He manages to swallow, although it’s a near thing, and finishes his story about Yuugi’s bratty blonde stalkerette, casting about with enormous sweeping motions that knock the napkin dispenser off the table.

 

Anzu collapses into folded arms. “I can’t breathe,” she says; Yuugi pats her arm with a besotted smile.

 

Jounouchi asks if Ryou has heard about the biggest news in the quadrant—the unrepentantly corrupt Jinrai Hattori has been taken into custody, denounced by colony and Coalition alike:  eighty billion yuan embezzled. Ryou nods. He remembers hearing about it, drifting in and out of sleep with the Toryu on autopilot, en route to Yunfeng.

 

Honda cuts in before Jounouchi can begin another story. “I heard from old Arthur a few days ago,” he says. “Remember that huge explosion on Gamma-gamma-twenty—killed some minor treasury official? It’s official:  Bakura was behind it.”

 

“Took them long enough,” Jounouchi says, incredulous. “Who the hell else could have done it?”

 

Bakura is a faceless specter to most, but for the past three years he has been a suspect behind a handful of high-profile attacks and assassinations across the Coalition. YG0 in its quiet pocket of space is in little danger, but elsewhere across the galaxy the heads of state tremble and double their guard. During a six-month lull it was thought he had been killed, but last January the attacks resumed, growing in frequency—always singular assassinations, always at the edge of Coalition territory, always creeping inward.

 

Bakura’s motives are totally unknown. The analysts have made him out to be a Marxist, a socialist, an anarchist, a fascist, a fundamentalist, a separatist, a communist, a terrorist, a torusist, a pirate, an anti-colonist—at the very least, a madman.

 

“I think I’ve met him, actually,” Ryou says.

 

There is a pause.

 

What?” Anzu and Yuugi exclaim, almost in unison. Anzu goes on. “How? No way!”

 

Jounouchi laughs. “No, definitely no way,” he says. “I can’t believe that.”

 

Ryou shrugs. He says, mildly, “I think I shot him down—during the war. You know." He toys with his bowl and waits for them to chuckle and move on, Ha ha, very funny, Ryou—

 

Anzu and Honda are looking at him, almost warily. Jounouchi’s laughter has taken on a nervous tinge. “Shit, man,” he says, wide-eyed. “Every time I see you, you’re so sweet and quiet. I forget what a scary fucker you really are.”

 

Yuugi laughs, soft, and everyone relaxes. “Come on, Jounouchi-kun—remember that time in the locker room—”

 

“Oh, stars, yeah,” Jounouchi says, slapping the table. “He shot the wall between—friggin’ singed Johnny’s—uh—bet Johnny still keeps his legs crossed!”

 

“It was an amazing shot,” Yuugi says. “I can’t forget the look on his face.”

 

“It was a good shot,” Ryou agrees. Easier than it should have been. He remembers the cold blasting his face, the sweat soaking his uniform. Two savage eyes behind the visor of an antique Ha Des—

 

 

 

 

It was two years ago, on Goryo, deep in the slums, four years since the war—

 

—The alleyway stinks of fish.

 

“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t remember?”

 

Mai is inside a low-roofed weapons storage, raising hell. Ryou can hear things smashing—Mai shouting, the owner’s voice climbing in a buzzing whine. It’s only their third run together, but he sees the wisdom of the pairing. Mai “Bloody” Valentine is all tumbling sunshine curls and sweet perfume and slick purple leather, but recalcitrants beware:  retired Second Lieutenant Mai shoots for the kneecaps.

 

The contact has begun to wail when Ryou notices him—red jacket slung over his shoulder, young and lean and hobbling like an old man down the street, his head covered.

 

A nervous thrill goes up Ryou’s back. The man falters at the mouth of the alley, and Ryou is beside him at once, propping him up.

 

“Careful,” he says.

 

Suddenly there is a knife pressing against his side, the cold of the blade radiating through his shirt.

 

Cold and easy, Bakura says, “Shot down during the war; leg’s never been the same. Still piloting?”

 

Ryou swallows hard. “Civilian now,” he lies. His heart is fluttering between his ribs like a bird in a cage. If the knife turns and slides, he knows it will slice through a lung. He will be dead long before Mai comes back. He imagines falling into the salt dust, choking for his last breath with Bakura’s foot on his face, Bakura’s heel grinding into his cheek.

 

He can’t move his arms. Bakura has him pinned against the mud brick of the alley wall.

 

Let me go, Ryou tries to say. “I killed you,” he says instead. His voice is shaking.

 

Bakura grins, dark and savage, more than a little mad. “I’ll never die,” he says. The knife slips up, a slow horrible arc, and comes to press against Ryou’s jugular. The edge has been warmed by his body. The hand that holds it—Bakura’s hand—is hot and dry, burning against Ryou’s throat.

 

I didn’t miss! Ryou thinks, hysterically. He should be dead. He should be—

 

Ryou swallows again, with a click. “Don’t,” he says finally.

 

Bakura gives a bark of laughter, drowning him out, and then he leans forward, crushing Ryou to the wall, and kisses him, mouth wide as though to swallow him whole.

 

“Murderer,” Bakura says, low, and Ryou cries out as the knife draws a thin burning line across his breastbone.

 

Bakura angles the knife for another stroke and Ryou groans a little now, on purpose, soft and pained, as he leans into the blade—Bakura’s lips part, the lidded black eyes flicker upward—

 

Ryou explodes backward into the wall, pulping his own shoulder against the mud-brick as he slams the heel of his left hand into Bakura’s wrist and digs the fingers of his right hand into Bakura’s chin—

 

And kicks

 

For a moment Bakura is bent double against the opposite wall. Then he straightens with deliberate care, licking the blood from the corner of his mouth. Ryou’s gouging fingertips have scored a line of five red satellites along his cheek and jaw.

 

The gouges distort and stretch as Bakura smiles.

 

“Civilian my ass,” he says, and then he is gone.

 

Ryou sags against the wall. The knife lies in the dust at his feet.

 

 

 

 

—Jounouchi takes the last piece of meat. “So you’re heading out again soon, I guess? Probably, huh?”

 

Ryou starts. “Oh—Saturday—next Saturday.”

 

“So we can keep you a few more days,” Yuugi says, smiling. The alcohol has turned him bright red. “You should stop by the shop sometime, Ryou-kun. Grandpa misses you; he’s always asking, you know, ‘Where did that Ryou fellow get off to? What a sweet, polite boy,’ and so on.”

 

Jounouchi chuckles. “Sweet boy? This guy is a killer! Mr. Ace Pilot!”

 

“I wanted to talk to Sugoroku-san,” Ryou says slowly. “Do you need a delivery boy? I’m thinking of quitting my job.”

 

General exclamations around the table.

 

“Why?” Yuugi says. “I thought you really liked your job, Ryou-kun—”

 

 

 

 

Ryou and Yuugi were colony babies—some of the last. They knew each other vaguely at Domino High School, but true acquaintance began in pilot training. They slept in the same corridor, flew in the same squadron, together always until a skirmish in the last month of the war, where Yuugi’s back was broken and Jounouchi blinded in one eye trying to protect him. Yuugi’s grandfather was quick to hire them—

 

Shanghaied us, more like, pervy old man, Jounouchi grouses each time, but cheerfully.

 

Yes, Grandpa, Yuugi never fails to add, and we’re very grateful.

 

The Turtle Shop sits by the river. At surface-level it is a basic repair shop; smaller ships are upgraded, parts replaced. Mutou Sugoroku, retired pilot and mechanic, builder and repairer of suits, keeps his renovated suits in a cavernous basement—the Cyclops, the Koumori, the ancient Kaiser. Sleeping giants.

 

 

 

 

—“It’s tiring,” Ryou says. He avoids Yuugi’s eyes.

 

“Getting old, huh?” Jounouchi says, with a sympathetic nod. “I understand. My head’s the same way. Hurts when the comets go by.”

 

“God and Buddha, take better care of yourselves,” Anzu admonishes. “You’re only in your twenties!”

 

“Well, that’s what happens, when you pilot,” Jounouchi says. “Body can’t take the stress. I’ll tell you what, Anzu-chan, you’d better go for Honda. He’s the real spring chicken, out of all of us—”

 

“Oh, no!” Anzu says, laughing again. “I wouldn’t. Never.”

 

“Hey,” Honda says. “I’m hurt. What does Yuugi have that I don’t have, huh? Is he radioactive?”

 

Jounouchi leers. “Radioactive in bed!”

 

Yuugi exclaims and socks him in the shoulder. “You jerk—listen, Honda-kun, I am eighteen times the man you will ever be. And I’m radioactive. And I glow in the dark. In bed. And—”

 

He ends up on the table, pounding his chest with a fist. Anzu has buried her head in Jounouchi’s shoulder, really crying with laughter, and Honda is doubled over, howling. It was a long, sleepless flight and Ryou is tired now, tired to his bones, but they are so bright and alive he can’t help staying, watching them.

 

It is one-thirty—nearly curfew—when he gets up to go.

 

“Well,” Jounouchi says, shuffling awkwardly, “have a good trip.”

 

“Thanks,” Ryou says. He feels distant, oddly wobbly—he flashes back to the interior of the Toryu’s cockpit, recalls the humming of the seat beneath him and sees his water canteen jammed in between the seat cushions. Too late to go back for it now.

 

“Take care of yourself,” Anzu says; “See you,” says Honda, and “Come by anytime. Drinks on the house.”

 

“Thanks,” Ryou says again.

 

“Listen,” Yuugi says, with another of his penetrating stares, “don’t disappear without saying goodbye. Have dinner with us on Wednesday—my place, seven o’clock. I’ll mention it to Grandpa—what you said.”

 

Ryou looks past him, over him. “Yeah, Yuugi-kun,” he says swiftly, and “Thanks,” a third time. “Good night,” he says to all of them. “See you later.”

 

Except for Yuugi, they have turned back to each other, Honda about to say something. Ryou slips toward the door.

 

Jounouchi’s voice stalls him. “You’ll be back for the wedding, right, Ryou?”

 

“I think so,” Ryou says, after a moment, and he walks out into the cool March night.

 

 

 

 

Ryou cashes a paycheck and spends most of the week using it up. Thicker sweaters are on the agenda. It is always too cold in space.

 

In the mornings he goes for a run—ten kilometers, slow and easy, following the river to the clock tower and back. He weaves around stationary objects, jogging leisurely circles around lampposts, and slips languidly between moving ones, brushing shirt sleeves and long unbound hair. Everything is perfectly in order, his arms and legs pumping with smooth, glossy movement. The growing pain of each breath keeps him from floating away.

 

Wednesday evening, at seven o’clock, he calls headquarters and goes to bed early. Thursday he reads files, from noon to midnight, and reviews the flight plans.

 

Friday afternoon finds him standing by his family’s grave plot, wondering what there is to say. It’s five p.m. and the mirror panels have yet to pull back. The Kado River murmurs in the background, golden in the sunlight.

 

The cemetery is quiet and deserted, sloping down gently toward the river. There are only family plots here, for the dead colonizers and their children—no bodies, only ash, or no ash, only names. Domino Temple prays for those who have been lost in space, so their orbiting bodies may find peace.

 

Since the war, it is not unusual to come across a “dead suit." Sometimes parts are salvaged. More often they are left alone.

 

Ryou’s father is probably among these, orbiting some star in the dead silence of space, if his suit hasn’t fallen into the atmosphere of some planet and burned away. It has been nineteen years since he broke formation and vanished into the Deva system, his trail swallowed up by gas clouds.

 

The official colony register lists the names and dates:  birth, death, missing in action, presumed dead. Mother-Sister-Father. In the cemetery, though, there is only the rounded stele overwhelmed by the larger granite monuments to its left and right, cut stone inscribed with red ink:  INOUE.

 

The ue is fading, and Ryou traces a finger through the grooves in the stone. The incense smolders in its plate, sweet and smoky.

 

Well, Amane-chan—

 

Well, Yuugi-kun will need a wedding present.

 

And:  Must speak to Brigadier Ishtar before I leave—

 

“I thought I’d find you here.”

 

ah.

 

“Yuugi-kun,” he greets, without turning. Artificial rain has left the grass damp and soft; Yuugi’s footfalls barely register as he comes closer. “How are you?”

 

“You didn’t come to dinner.”

 

“Ah—no. I’m sorry..." He adds something about the Toryu’s engine, a checkup, a meeting, and You know how it is...

 

Somewhat reproachfully, Yuugi says, “Grandpa and I could have done that for you, you know.”

 

“I know,” Ryou says. “I’m sorry—really. It slipped my mind...”

 

“I feel like—” and Yuugi sits down, folding in on himself, staring out over the river “—I feel like one day you’re just going to vanish." He’s still in his work clothes, tattered T-shirt and jeans and the ever-present garage keys. “I always felt that.”

 

“Yuugi...”

 

Yuugi goes on:  “You know, the war chewed me up. I’ll never be the same. But I can’t say it touched you. You were always so...”

 

“Calm?" Ryou smiles. “Well—”

 

 

 

 

The physician’s assistant has dropped her clipboard. Ryou stares at her. Six hours after the raid, and his hands have finally stopped shaking. He feels fine—not even tired. Nothing can possibly be wrong.

 

Major Ishtar materializes, presses something cold and flimsy into his right palm. “Corporal.”

 

Compact mirror. Ryou flips it open and looks, and then he snaps it shut and hands it back. He smiles; something creaks. “Major, there’s something wrong with your mirror.”

 

“Nothing wrong with my mirror, Corporal. You’re bleeding.”

 

“Just a scratch. Grazed my skull. The rest is—" Nosaka’s.

 

Here they come! Nosaka screams. Ryou remembers taking aim. He does not remember firing. What he does remember:  running like hell and the pain of every inhalation and the intoxicating joy of takeoff, the faint warmth and the burning blood on his face—and the cold:  the marvelous, empty cold of space, nothing but the titanium of his suit holding back the stars, holding him together against the brilliant fireball in the blackness—Mission accomplished, Nosaka!

 

“It’s all yours, Corporal,” Ishtar tells him. “Every last drop.”

 

“Ah,” Ryou says succinctly, stupidly. Of course it can’t be Miho’s. Miho Nosaka is dead. He feels the tremors in his fingers again. He squeezes his hands between his thighs. “But I’m all right, Major.”

 

 

 

 

—“Detached,” Yuugi says, frowning up at him. The red in his hair glints in the sun. “It was like you weren’t even there. But for the rest of us, the war—”

 

“I was scared,” Ryou says, low. “I was scared out of my mind.”

 

Yuugi flushes. “Sorry. That’s not what I meant. It’s just—how can I say it?—I feel like I’m still fighting to reach you, sometimes.”

 

“I’m right here, Yuugi-kun,” Ryou says finally.

 

Abruptly, Yuugi upends his satchel into the grass. Wrenches, greasecloths, a red pocketbook, and several lumpy paper packets tumble out as Ryou stares. “I forgot,” Yuugi says. “Sandwiches—from Grandpa. Have you eaten? ’M starving.”

 

Mutou Sugoroku is a little eccentric. Ryou takes a sandwich—thick with lettuce, and only lettuce—and turns it in his hands, staring at it.

 

Yuugi, about to bite, grins, sheepish. “Mutou house special.”

 

Sugoroku has never had anything good to say about Ryou’s father, who left behind a dying wife and daughter when he went to find Earth—

 

 

 

 

Maybe, Ryou suggests, he thought Earth could cure them.

 

Then he should have taken them along, the damned lugnut, Sugoroku grumbles, and Yuugi shushes him, apologetically. Grandpa.

 

 

 

 

—They eat as they walk from the cemetery, and Ryou gripes, among other things, about the Toryu’s heater. Nothing wrong with the navigation, he says; it runs as smooth as a cylinder colony, but it gets so bloody cold.

 

Yuugi does not have a very helpful diagnosis. “I’d have to see it,” he says, and laughs. “It’s probably getting old, like me.”

 

Ryou says nothing, smiles down at the plump boyish curve of Yuugi’s cheek.

 

“Say,” Yuugi says, as they come to the footbridge over Kado River, “there’s still time tonight. Bring it to the shop—Grandpa and I can have a look.”

 

“I’m taking a newer model out tomorrow, anyway,” Ryou says, maybe too quickly, and Yuugi’s smile goes flat. Shit. “Er—”

 

“Well, all right,” Yuugi says, looking away. “Next time.”

 

 

 

 

0300 GMT Saturday, Ryou pulls out of South Bay. The KaibaCorp Minotaur feels weird under him:  so small and light, practically a shell.

 

He gets his first glimpse of Baek two hundred and twenty-eight hours later, nose dripping and feet numb. It is no bigger than a two-yuan star chip, nearly blotted out by the light from its closest star, Šilla, and looks as though it could fit easily in the palm of his hand. The atmosphere is thin; as he gets nearer he sees every detail of the cloudless, mottled surface—rich yellows and barren whites, speckled with oases. A desert planet no larger than a Bernal colony, with all of three precious rivers running across its surface:  Baek, planet of the white dunes. Ryou can see the gray of the cities as he prepares for entry, clustered about those thin dark lines of blue. A monarchy grown from the wreckage of a colonial ship flying off course—an ancient world, civilization restarted.

 

The landing is unexpectedly rough, and he comes into the dock bruised and shaken. He pulls off his sweater and climbs out of the cockpit into dry desert heat, wondering at his trembling hands.

 

Baek is a riot of sound and light. A bazaar, overgrown, deafeningly loud, seeps into the dock grounds. A Maltese cat lazes beside a stall of fine ceramic ware; a young woman in filmy linens reaches out to examine a golden chain, her voice filtering thin and clear through the hubbub. Merchants and patrons hung with clattering bangles and beads haggle viciously in a guttural Baekan dialect. Pottery is kicked and broken; a minor brawl erupts.

 

There is no one waiting to greet him. Ryou lingers a quarter of an hour, rubbing sand from his eyes, and finally sets off alone, drawing his sweater up over his nose and mouth.

 

The package is a fat square of titanium, small enough and light enough to be carried with one hand. At most he expects precious stones, family keepsakes—nothing important enough to warrant a request for the protection of the Coalition.

 

All the same, he takes stock of his items:  the package, the sweater, the Leogun in his belt, the knife at his thigh—

 

 

 

 

The scars on his chest are pale and pearly, forming an untidy circle. Clothed, he does not remember them. But wiping the steam from the mirror in the mornings—in curling, nonsensical, finger-drawn patterns—he notices them anew and recalls the hot press of Bakura’s mouth, that long stinging first cut.

 

 

 

 

—The Bit-Atem, the House, the great palace of Baek, rises into view beyond a thick and towering mud-brick wall. One courtyard widens into another, the path surrounded by jeweled trees and segmented by huge, impressive gates, each glazed blue and emblazoned with golden lions, crocodiles, demonic birds. At every gate there stands a guard, and there are seven guards in all—one, Ryou thinks, for each heavenly guardian in the pantheon. He gives his name, states his business, and clears the security checks without trouble.

 

It is at the entrance to the court that the confusion begins.

 

“My lord,” the herald says, firmly, “that cannot be right. I have announced already an emissary of the great empire, some hours earlier. The Sun has deigned to speak with him. He kneels within.”

 

“I arrived at the time that was agreed upon,” Ryou says. “Am I to understand—”

 

“There cannot be two,” the herald insists. “He was properly met and escorted. I have announced him.”

 

“You’ve made a mistake,” Ryou says. He produces his identification and the titanium package, one in each hand. “Did the previous emissary carry these?”

 

“No,” the herald says, bewildered; “the card, yes, but he had something larger, a case—”

 

Adrenaline begins to flow.

 

“You’ve let in the wrong man,” Ryou says. “It’s dangerous. You’ve endangered the king.”

 

The man’s face drains of blood. He says something in Baekan; Ryou understands it to mean Liar.

 

“I’m not lying,” Ryou says. “Please! You’ve got to let me in.”

 

“No weapons—" The herald makes a half-hearted attempt to restrain him. Ryou slips past, puts both hands on the door and waits to be tackled. When nothing happens, he pushes.

 

The walls are lined with guards. The spears they hold are golden, ceremonial, wholly ineffective. Five people take center stage:  a lithe young man enthroned, the triple crown of Baek on his head; the two men and a woman beside him in shining robes; and the long, lean shape bowing before them on the cool glazed brick. Ryou’s breath comes to a rasping halt in his throat. He can’t move; he can’t speak. He sees, very clearly, Bakura’s dark hand slipping into the case, closing around the gun inside.

 

Šilla,” the herald shouts from behind him, “dur-šarrukin—”

 

The king rises to his feet; his viziers step forward—

 

B—” Ryou can’t draw the breath to shout. He reaches for the Leogun and the herald barrels into him from behind, seizing him around the waist and dragging him bodily backward.

 

Bakura’s arm sweeps out in a silver arc, blurring. Too late, Ryou follows the trajectory and realizes

 

The shot shakes the inner court like an explosion and sprays the king with gore; one of the two male viziers reels back and crumples. The entry wound is small, a neat hole in the forehead, but Ryou knows the back of his head has been blown away. The blood pools and trickles.

 

Commotion.

 

The king is on his knees, cradling the body, wailing; the woman vizier whirls, screaming orders. None of it matters:  Bakura is coming toward him. Ryou has his finger on the trigger—the shot goes wild as the herald knees him in the back and brings a hand crashing down on his wrist. The Leogun discharges again as it flies out of his hands.

 

Bakura is getting away.

 

The herald is aiming another chop. Ryou gets him around the neck and slams his head into the great golden door—once, twice.

 

“Your suits,” he says. His voice sounds strange in his ears, tinny and breathless. “Where are your suits?

 

 

 

 

They talk about finding Earth, late at night on the space station, polishing up their suits, running the soft cloth over the titanium until it gleams—staring out into the stars and the vague fog of the Deva system spinning in the East.

 

They talk about the stars they could see on home colonies, the planets. The memory of Earth—that bleak destroyed place—lingers. It’s been light years and the universe is only getting bigger, but no one can forget.

 

They trade theories:  There was never an Earth, only a collective memory, a myth. Earth has been swallowed up by the old sun. Or—there was no fiery doom, no holocaust; there are still humans on Earth, going about their lives. Jounouchi is in favor of dragons—that draws some laughter.

 

But the favorite among the cadets is that the Earth is empty but growing anew. Silence as they consider it; then smiling agreement. They are children who have grown up in planned cities, among machinery and titanium and concrete, who put themselves into suits to die for mining belts. Yes:  the Earth is blue and green, teeming with vines, with every plant they can remember or have read about or can imagine—growing over mountains, valleys, undersea trenches. Coral and jungles and the little green leaves in the spring, baby-soft, withering and blooming anew amid real seasons, flourishing in the pleasant heat of summer on Earth.

 

Ryou thinks of the cities, the people who couldn’t make it out in time. By now there are not even ashes.

 

 

 

 

The Baek suit—there is only one, glimmering faintly on its golden throne—is not an antique but an archaeological artifact. Ryou catches himself hissing with frustration as he checks the controls. It’s all manual, a giant mechanical sock puppet. The pilot restraints have rotted away. He’s never seen a model like this, but he can recognize the bulging reactor behind the pilot-seat, huge and inefficient, the complete lack of any flight mechanism. It is exactly the sort of machine Yuugi’s grandfather would give up a leg to restore—a bloody museum piece.

 

But it works. Ryou flips the switches, and the reactor comes to life with a deep, rich vibration. The cockpit glows red and hot. He wrenches the controls and powers it forward, one foot after the other.

 

The guards are sprinting across the courtyards, light ricocheting wildly across the steel of their ancient guns. They scatter when they see the suit—some throw themselves down, thinking their king stands before them, has come to fight for them.

 

Ryou clatters by:  left, right—

 

 

 

 

Left, right. The training dome dwarfs his suit. Ryou flexes his fingers around the controls and takes another step. His heart is somewhere in his throat, shaking his body with every beat. On the other side of the line Yuugi raises his hand, giant and steel-plated, in mock salute.

 

 

 

 

—“Bakura!”—

 

 

 

 

“Nice and easy, Mr. Inoue, Mr. Mutou!”

 

Yuugi yells, high-pitched and hilarious, and Ryou thinks of Yuugi’s little body, floating and lit with the green light of the controls—a glancing blow like a brush of the fingers, and Ryou waddles forward—

 

 

 

 

—The Necrofear pivots with a grace that makes him ache. Sunlight flares off the blackened vambraces, and then the machine is running at him, shaking the ground. Bakura howls, and the sound of it tears upward from the depths of the cavernous chest, hollow and inhuman:  screaming wind. Ryou brings his arm up just in time to block the first wild swing. The impact rattles his teeth; he digs in his heels and the Baek suit, miraculously, finds foothold in the sand, stops skidding.

 

“Bakura—”

 

Bakura screams again and brings the left arm of the Necrofear crashing down, and now Ryou has both arms over his head, bracing. The Baek suit is being pushed into the ground—

 

 

 

 

“I think I shot him down...”

 

Like hell!

 

 

 

 

—Almost on his knees. Any lower and Bakura will have free access to the back of his neck—

 

Like hell anyone could shoot Bakura down!

 

Ryou drops his arms—Come on come on yes!—and the Baek suit rolls left—and the ground ruptures where the Necrofear’s shining black foot hits it. Sand floods Ryou’s helmet in thick, hot, dusty clouds. No time to lie there choking—he rolls again and again, all the while blinking and fumbling for the guns—God in heaven there are no guns—nothing but his two slow meaty hands and an antique fucking ornamental sword

 

 

 

 

“Harder, Mr. Inoue; this isn’t a tea party; we are not shaking hands—”

 

 

 

 

—Mostly gold, and all two meters of it sing and warp as Ryou smashes it into the Necrofear’s legs, once, twice, shearing the blackened plates away—just enough of a pause to lurch to his feet, and then they are grappling, enormous metal fingers locked. Bakura’s hand on his wrist—tight—he can feel the bolts popping—makes it impossible to swing again.

 

He has to disable to Necrofear’s flight mechanism somehow—the reactor, even, if he’s lucky—has to get the Baek suit’s hand to the back of the Necrofear’s neck, deep into the wires—pluck them like harpstrings, delicately, just-so—no better sound than the wet electric squeal of dying machinery, but he can’t quite reach

 

The Necrofear dances nimbly back, the gadfly to the Baek suit’s brooding and ponderous weight, like Bakura isn’t piloting a two-ton pile of metal and circuitry, like it’s just Bakura, flying at him, larger than life. Ryou spits sand, shifts his weight, and drives the hilt of the sword into Bakura’s side with a shout—

 

He’s hyper aware:  of the rubbery quality of the controls beneath his hands, the relentless heat of the day and the oily smell of the machine and the reactor like a lit fire under his legs, the grit and the sweat burning in his eyes, the heartbeat of weightlessness as Bakura belts the Baek suit across the faceplate and the sharp, spicy copper of the blood—his blood—every sense overwhelmed before it all contracts, hurtling to a single white point:  the clean, precise pop as the bones of his right arm fly out of their socket and his own startled exhalation—

 

Bakura hits the Baek suit again and Ryou topples from his seat, tumbling into the left leg socket—broken wire mesh scores his face, draws hot lines across his shoulders—the leg control pedal strikes him like a kick to the ribs—

 

Blackness recedes:  Bakura is pawing at the Baek suit, oddly clumsy, trying to crush the bevor. The metal crumples like gold-leaf under the assault—

 

 

 

 

Wide open, Mr. Inoue!

 

 

 

 

Wide open—do anything—duck run crawl moveStop him!

 

He feels the weight of the Necrofear, insubstantial, flimsy, and shoves the control pedal with arm and foot, bracing his throbbing back against the hot metal plates of the leg socket—the knee of the Baek suit swings up and up and crashes into the Necrofear—again—again

 

The shriek of metal rending metal, and Bakura reels back—

 

Ryou presses his cheek into the side of the socket and kicks with his legs, fighting his way up with his left elbow, scrabbling for the controls, which are wet, slippery with sweat and blood and oil—the faceplate is bent to hell and there is sand everywhere, grinding down the gears, clogging his throat. He can’t see Bakura; he can’t see anything—

 

A buzzing whine in his ears, in his ribcage—uncomfortable heat—the beginnings of burns on his calves—

 

The reactor!

 

“No,” Ryou says, thickly, “no, no—shit—”

 

The controls scorch his hand, his face. He gropes for the release switch and the battered faceplate falls away, to shouts of alarm on the ground. Molten sunlight floods the chest cavity; sand and waves of red heat billow inward. The Necrofear is a glimmering black dot as it disappears into the atmosphere.

 

Bakura is getting away.

 

He loses his footing as he climbs from the cockpit, right arm dangling, useless. The air is icy as it streams across his face. It is possible he screams when he hits the ground, sucking blood and dirt into his mouth—

 

Blistered skin and blood sparkle absurdly—

 

—but soon enough it all goes white.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

You know that I was hoping
That I could leave this star-crossed world behind,
But when they cut me open,
I guess that changed my mind.

The Killers, “Spaceman”

 

 

 

 

In the last months of conflict the war progresses like tar, boiling slow and hot, skirmishes infrequent but bloody. The peace treaties are being drafted and discarded, but ceasefire is coming.

 

Four weeks before it all ends, Ryou is alone in the hangar, making minor adjustments to his suit controls. He has just disconnected from a videophone call with the medical bay and Jounouchi, who is up and about already, debonair with one eye obscured by bandages and jovially concerned about Ryou’s post-war prospects. He can ship home anytime, but he is waiting for Yuugi.

 

“Corporal." Polished black boots gleam in the starlight. Major—no, Brigadier Ishtar.

 

Ryou gives a smart salute. “Brigadier!”

 

“Put away those pliers and get down here,” Ishtar says, and waits until he has slipped down from the cockpit, but only just.

 

Briskly:  “I heard about that maneuver of yours at Durga Nine. Very impressive—”

 

Ryou blinks. “Thank you, Briga—”

 

“—daring, and stupid. I must confess myself pleasantly surprised, Corporal. It had never occurred to me that you might be mad.”

 

“Thank you, Brigadier,” Ryou says carefully, “I think.”

 

“I appreciate a slight penchant for deranged antics in all my officers." A sharp smile. “I understand that you are alone. Unattached, as it were.”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says. He has an idea of where this is going—Ishtar’s background isn’t exactly a Coalition secret—and he’s heard things—

 

Black ops, are the whispers. Saboteur.

 

“Inoue,” Ishtar says, quiet, “this war may be ending, but there will be others—wars with more than shiny space rocks at stake—”

 

Assassin.

 

“Brigadier,” Ryou begins, I’m not sure—and swallows, suddenly dry-mouthed.

 

“Balance must be maintained,” she says, and looks at him, blue eyes bright and keen in the shadow of the KaibaCorp suits, taking in every twitch of his mouth and fingers. “I think you understand.”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says; he understands.

 

 

 

 

The room is dark, smelling of charred earth. His throat burns like he’s been drinking sand. His face throbs; his bound legs itch, abominably; it feels like the skin has been flayed from the backs of his calves. His right arm has been inexpertly set and splinted—an oddly hospitable gesture, all things considered.

 

Blood drips from his nose and collects between his lips.

 

“Are you the man who calls himself Bakura?”

 

No, I am not, Ryou should say, two parts baffled, slightly indignant; that is the natural answer. They have yet to accept this as truth, but another earnest denial shouldn’t hurt—much. No, I am the man who calls himself Inoue fucking Ryou will earn him another thrashing—his jailors will surely resent the tone, whether or not they recognize the obscenity. The next question will be Then who are you?—to which there are so many responses and of which Well, who are you? will get his other shoulder dislocated.

 

“When I ask,” the young male vizier says (When Šilla’s man speaks, Ryou parses numbly), “you answer,” (literally:  everything in your heart you will let spill forth like water) and slaps Ryou, sharper this time, palm open and taut.

 

The vizier has never been gentle, but he usually leaves the more physical aspects of interrogation to his attendants. Today there is only the vizier, and behind him, quiet and still, is the Šilla himself:  the boy-king of Baek. Ryou feels sweaty terror—he’s not made of ice, after all, and it must look very suspicious indeed:  a high official murdered in cold blood, the imperial courtyards laid to waste, giant golden cult objects melted, and one white-haired pilot indistinguishable from another—a series of very unfortunate and nasty coincidences. He is weaponless, thoroughly incriminated, and tied to a chair in what is shaky Coalition territory at best, with no Brigadier Ishtar standing by to support his claims. But he must play the part.

 

“I’m a free citizen,” Ryou rasps. “You can’t hold me like this, it’s illegal, it’s torture—aaah—!"

 

Godgodgod shit

 

The man’s hand is like a flaming brand on his wrist, clamping down. His shoulder joint grates and grinds in the socket—sick awful feeling and Ryou bites his tongue and tries not to howl or vomit—or faint, for that matter—

 

“Kaššāpu, thing of evil! Speak!”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, choking. “Yes—yes, I understand. I’ll cooperate. Please, water—just some water, and then I’ll talk—I’ll talk—”

 

The boy-king watches them, sober and silent.

 

Please, Ryou thinks, stop him. The boy-king returns his gaze blankly. Fresh blue paint glistens, immaculate, about his eyes.

 

Are you the man who calls himself Bakura?

 

Ryou swallows and wets his throat with his own blood. Right, names—names

 

My name is Inoue Ryou, and I

 

My name is Inoue Ryou, and I’m radioactive—in bed!

 

“My name,” Ryou says, wetly but carefully, “is Inoue Ryou. I’m—I’m a pilot, security class three—a transporter—” or he was, had been, because the little titanium package was no longer on his person. If he were really what he said he was, HQ should have washed their hands of him already—

 

Total mission failure, check; extensive property damage, check; royal natives royally pissed off—good-bye and good luck, Mr. Inoue! May you die mysteriously in a shuttle fire.

 

What a shambles!

 

Now he must say, like a proper fool, My government will hear of this! and close his lips and keep them closed, and try not to get beaten to death—but the idea of Brigadier Ishtar going to war on his behalf ruins it; it is so ridiculous he actually laughs, a painful rattle of a giggle.

 

The vizier sways to his feet, dizzy with rage. “What’s funny?” he shouts, and belts Ryou across the face, so hard his vision blackens. “What’s funny, you little shit? Shimon is dead!" Another blow and the blood is hot in Ryou’s mouth, and his entire body reels backward, chair reeling precariously with him.

 

“Mahaado,” the boy-king says, meekly—meekly!—and it is enough. The vizier sits, breathing noisily, and Ryou shimmies upright in his seat, working his mouth and feeling hesitantly about with his tongue. Lovely, miraculous, very salty—

 

My name is Inoue Ryou, and despite all your commendable efforts I have yet to lose a tooth

 

Ryou shuts his mouth, and only opens it to scream, obediently, when they wrench his arm again, and then he babbles wet and careful nonsense:  I’m innocent, I did nothing, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, oh god Mother Amane Yuugi.

 

 

 

 

Early morning of the sixteenth day of the month Ner (1822 GMT, Monday, April), Ishtar pulls her tangled strings. His burns are dressed, his swollen arm manipulated and splinted anew. Food and drink are brought to him in the underground cell. His sweater arrives, carefully folded but shriveled, on a second tray. His battered I.D. is presented to him on a third. But the Leogun is lost forever, and Bakura’s knife with it.

 

The vizier glowers and makes a second apology, stiffly, and the boy-king watches, curious and intent, as Ryou swallows water.

 

The boy-king:  seventeen or eighteen, his slim oiled body overwhelmed by gleaming gold at throat and wrists and ankles. Yuugi, enthroned in his steel suit, isolated and glowing in the darkness—

 

“Our father the king has gone to the House of Dust,” the boy-king says, every word peculiar poetry, “and We are the last of the line. We fear and have feared assassins, this Bakura foremost among them.

 

“Forgive Mahaado his anger; he grieves. Since the passing of Our father, Shimon has been father and mother, brother and sister to us both. In the House of Dust he will stand once more at the side of Our father the king. It is good. Six days and six nights We will mourn him, and on the seventh day We will feast to his memory, and pour wine and water at the table of the gods; Shimon would want it so, though he was not a man of Baek.

 

“Exodia has returned to His temple and throne. The wounds are many—”

 

Exodia—the wrecked suit. Ryou winces.

 

“—but not beyond repair. The Forbidden One will walk again. But We are grateful, nevertheless, for what you have done. What you have brought to Us is the last of the symbols of Our royal lineage, the Millennium Eye. It is but a lump of metal, but with it—” and he glances at his vizier, who sits still but not quite chastened “—We quell at last the voices of dissent within the royal house.”

 

“The Eye joins its brothers,” the vizier says coolly. “Seven Millennium Items—the proof of blood. The coronation can now proceed.”

 

The boy-king smiles. “And it is seven and seven times We thank you, for the swiftness of your journey and the sincerity of your heart.”

 

The star Šilla is high overhead when Ryou crawls into the Minotaur and sleeps with arms and legs untied for the first time in weeks, eagle-spread and aching on the floor of the cargo hold.

 

 

 

 

After the Baek suit, with its linen-wrapped rubber controls, it is pure joy to watch every silvery ripple across the Minotaur’s touch screen as he punches in his access codes. But there is a discomfiting shudder as he leaves the atmosphere and the vulnerable feeling of hurtling through space in a disintegrating tin can. At least the video link works, though it takes some increasingly agitated poking with a screwdriver, and Brigadier Ishtar’s face appears disconcertingly pale and watery when the call finally goes through.

 

Well,” she says wryly, “he’s done a number on you, hasn’t he.”

 

“To be fair,” Ryou says, “it was mostly the Baekans." Officially it was mostly no one; officially, Ryou does not exist; this never happened.

 

You can go on, of course." Never a question—never a need for questions—but she looks skeptical.

 

Ryou doesn’t think about the bruises and burns and cuts, the sharp pain, the stupid, persistent cold, doesn’t let himself think beyond Remove tongue from roof of mouth; form words. “Of course, Brigadier.”

 

And the Minotaur is intact.

 

“For the most part,” Ryou says.

 

Oh?

 

“It—rattles." There’s a more technical term for this, he knows, lodged somewhere in the recesses of his mind, bright and shining and professional, but he’s tired, and he hurts...

 

Indeed. No, I suppose Kaiba has underestimated the destructive capacity of—sand particles." Her mouth twitches, and Ryou remembers that Brigadier Ishtar’s family were a desert people, three or four hundred earth years ago:  from infinite sand to infinite stars. “He assured me he had taken all possibilities into account.

 

Now he sees it:  he’s fallen headlong into another game between Ishtar and Kaiba, intelligence and technology moguls and their never-ending intergalactic pissing contest.

 

If Ryou is harsh, it is only because previous volleys have resulted in spontaneous combustion and near loss of limbs in combat situations. As this latest round involves Bakura, the unreadable, murderous, screaming lunatic, it can only end badly; probably bloodily. He entertains a brief, savage, surely drug-induced fantasy of Anzu crying over his body and Jounouchi looking bewildered, Yuugi blank-faced at the cremation. But no:  at the end of this there will probably not be enough of him left to ship back and burn.

 

Surely it’s not unreasonable that he would rather avoid blowing up in space. “Brigadier—”

 

Yes, you had better have it looked at." There is something like warmth seeping into Ishtar’s voice now. “It is Kaiba’s newest little darling, after all.

 

And Kaiba is Brigadier Ishtar’s newest little darling!

 

The Kaiba Corporation has been the source of all Ishtar’s gadgets and all Ryou’s ships, his first suit in the war and his second and third and the pretty red Minotaur he took out on Saturday, maiden voyage—they were the designers and builders of the final wave of colonizing starships, the engineers of the last exodus. Under Gozaburo Kaiba, they established bases in every cluster and supercluster. There was even an office tucked away in forgotten Domino.

 

But eight years ago, before Ryou knew anything about suits and reactors and desperate maneuvers, Noah Kaiba broke his neck in a lab accident; the Five, the Big Five, cleared their desks and retired into ignominy; and Gozaburo Kaiba fell thirty-two storeys from his office window and could not be resuscitated. Treachery, not suicide:  Isis Ishtar’s power stretches across the stars, and she and Seto Kaiba have signed their contracts in blood.

 

Kaiba—Seto Kaiba, boy-genius—doesn’t care much for legalities. He maintains a general disdain for the authority of the Alliance, so often toppled by a few well-applied, untraceable deposits—occasionally briefcases—of yuan here and there. But Kaiba does like successes, and he backs what he likes with toys and money.

 

He’s taken special, academic interest in this case—that much has been made clear by the gift of the Minotaur. Eight weeks ago in the briefing room, Brigadier Ishtar explained:  Murdering Maximillian Pegasus was easy enough—child’s play to kill a man who has drunk himself into a stupor. But there were only so many ways to infiltrate the man’s so-called Realm of Shadows, his Labyrinth, his Room of Paradoxes. Kaiba would very much like to know how he did it.

 

Ryou cannot imagine Bakura creeping like a thief in the night—he can’t see Bakura cutting the throat of a man who lies dreaming, unaware and thus unafraid. Wherever Bakura goes there will be ghosts, ghosts and howling wind, and fire and blood:  the so-called Realm of Shadows is now the Realm of Ash...

 

 

 

 

Ishtar’s voice shears knife-like through his thoughts. “I cannot overemphasize this, Inoue—you must take care. You are under special scrutiny.

 

KaibaCorp is always watching; they have always been watching. But special scrutiny—that’s code, and it means one thing and one thing only:  the Coalition, tracking his every move, breathing down Ishtar’s neck and his.

 

They’re nervous—understandably. If they’ve caught wind of the Baekan fiasco already, they must be shitting bricks.

 

No room for failure, now.

 

Ishtar does not seem particularly perturbed. “I think you’d better have yourself looked at, too,” she says. “Inoue. I’m pulling you from active duty.

 

The Minotaur seems to be shaking apart beneath him. He gapes at her.

 

“What—Brigadier!”

 

Her smile is vicious. “You’ve suffered grievous injury at the hands of this madman Bakura. A few months’ shore leave seems necessary. Mens sana in corpore sano. I’m certain you agree.

 

“Wh—Brig—” his voice cracks “—Brigadier, I am perfectly capable—”

 

Ye-es,” she says, considering him, “a short holiday will do you good. Somewhere away from prying eyes. You’ve always wanted to visit Cloud East.

 

“Holiday—prying—Cloud East—"

 

He stares unseeing at a corner of the screen. Oh. Oh.

 

You’re orbiting Baek now, I gather,” Ishtar says, with rapid military cadence, and Ryou snaps to attention. “Set course for East Quadrant, Epsilon Delta Zero—”

 

He translates and taps in the coordinates as quickly as the fingers of his left hand will allow, but something registers in the less deadened parts of his brain, a neon flash of alarm:

 

“Brigadier—?"

 

Yes, those are the coordinates,” Ishtar says. Her eyes gleam, burnished blue. “I believe you are acquainted with the sphere.”

 

 

 

 

The colony at East Quadrant, ED0, is whimsical in name and design but not entirely impractical. Twelve agricultural platforms surround a Bernal sphere like the horizontal ruts of a waterwheel:  flat, rectangular sheets growing rice and soy, where soft light from Šilla and intelligent human prodding ensure strong harvests six times a year. At the heart of the conglomerate is Ukiyo, the man-made satellite, the Floating City, and it bulges with gambling halls and whorehouses.

 

Since the war, the panels of Ukiyo have frozen into a sort of permanent twilight. What little repair money trickles from Coalition sources into the coffers of the magistrate and his yakuza affiliates, whose files Ryou has flipped through:  hundreds of archaic printouts which fill a cabinet at HQ on Gamma Seven. The whole sphere is crooked, home-sweet-home for “Bandit” Keith Howard, Kajiki “The Tsunami” Ryota, “Raptor” and “Weevil” and a thousand other petty criminals who got away.

 

Like Professor Titus Karita.

 

And Mai Valentine.

 

 

 

 

Ryou docks quietly—badly—at the southern edge of the city-sphere and doesn’t so much climb from the Minotaur as fall out of it, inhaling a curse. The panels are beginning to squeal—nearly dawn already—but the entire sector is otherwise eerily silent. Colossal mechanized arms load equally colossal cargo ships with cereals, and addicts lie dreaming and oblivious in the gutters between the machines. The conscious pay him no mind:  he blends right in with the ugliest of them, shivering in the darkness in threadbare shirt and sarong, and there are worse things to be seen on Ukiyo than blistered burns and arms in slings—and when one stumbles upon the very bad, or the very strange, better to pretend not to have seen it at all—

 

—Like the hulking blue-black flagship looming like an anglerfish in the distance, tethered with glittering titanium chain and accompanied by what can only be an entire flotilla of ugly little Coalition Wormdrakes, their boxy windows throwing hard red light out across the darkened bay.

 

It may not be very bad, but it’s certainly very strange, especially considering that someone—or a whole lot of misguided someones—has taken pains to disguise the ships as merchant trawlers, going so far as to wrap the big guns with the flags of various trading colonies. The camouflage fools no one. Small wonder Ukiyo has actually gone to sleep tonight, a thick, uneasy silence fallen over what Ryou remembers as a boisterous twenty-four-hour entertainment district.

 

Some of this uneasiness hangs over him and seeps into his skin. He would like to slip back into the Minotaur and take off immediately, double quick! but if the people of Ukiyo are sleeping, the soldiers in those tin-can Worms definitely aren’t, and he would not be departing inconspicuously so much as charging toward their flagship and kicking in the door. And hurling in a grenade.

 

One mutinous thought—

 

Brigadier Ishtar could have mentioned that she was sending him into the midst of one-bloody-hundred Coalition SOFs

 

Some holiday!

 

And then he snuffs it out, swallowing down his irritation. Being all-seeing and all-knowing, she must have her reasons—which he will root out in due time.

 

On Goryo, tossing him a handkerchief for the blood, Second Lieutenant Mai Valentine said:  Jesus H., kiddo, keep your head down. You may live longer.

 

 

 

 

Farther from the port and the sight of the black ships, the city is livelier, lit with flashing signboards. The smell of cakes and charred meat twines through the foul smoke of burning plastic, and there is thrumming music:  electric shamisen. People line the streets, fighting, laughing, singing, eating.

 

—Still, this uneasiness, floating like oil on deep water. Ready to burn.

 

Ryou lowers himself gingerly into a red plastic chair and orders congee. The vendor gives him a puzzled once-over, blinking at his swollen and bloodied face, and whirls away with the single yuan chip that Ryou presses into his hand. He returns seconds later with a bowl huge, hot, and steaming, flecked with little pieces of gelatinous century egg.

 

Ryou forgets everything except the bowl and the spoon and doesn’t remember until he’s scraped out every last bit of rice. It’s too salty, scalding the roof of his mouth—nothing like the lukewarm, sandy-sweet kachamak brought to him in the dark of the Baekan dungeon, evidently the food of kings.

 

“Good, eh, duckie?” the vendor says, approvingly, and Ryou returns to Ukiyo, darkness of a different kind pressing against his eyes.

 

“Yes—excellent, thanks." The recycled colony air is a cold relief against his tongue. He slides a few more chips than necessary across the counter and attempts a smile. “And a coffee, please.”

 

“No coffee,” comes the grunted reply, just as Ryou expects. “Tea only.”

 

“Oh, well, sure,” Ryou says. The skin of his face feels stretched. He dims the maniac smile. “Why no coffee?”

 

“Blockade,” says the vendor. “Damned if I know why.”

 

“But I got in all right.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” the vendor says, nodding at Ryou’s immobilized arm. “Look like you went for a dive without a ’chute, you do. What happened to you, eh?”

 

“Ehm,” Ryou extemporizes. “Bar fight.”

 

The vendor pulls tea from a tin can into a glass tumbler. “Yeah? Hope you gave good as you got, then, duckie!"

 

“Hah,” Ryou mutters. For a moment there is sand in his eyes again, the Baek reactor hot against the back of his neck. He clears his throat. “How long have they been there? The Worm ships.”

 

“Fortnight, give or take. Haven’t done nothing, just sitting there, soldiers don’t even come out. Magistrate goes in puffing, comes out yellow and shaking all over." The vendor turns a baleful eye toward the dock, pouring all the while and never spilling a drop. “Haven’t seen a flotilla this big since the war. Giving us all the screaming habdabs, they are."

 

Stranger and stranger—

 

“Surely it isn’t a blockade,” Ryou says. Ukiyo may be rotten to its hollow clockwork core, but it is spinning in solid Allied territory, and the Alliance would never starve its own. “The ships in the dock—they’re being loaded.”

 

The vendor scowls. “Yeah, and—mark me—that rice will rot in the hold. It don’t fit the dictionurry; it’s bloody weird, I’ll give you that—but it’s a ruddy blockade is what it is. They let you come in and they don’t pay you no mind, but they sure as hell ain’t letting you back out—”

 

He makes the final pull and slams the tumbler down. “Leastaways not ’til they get what they want, duckie—”

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter what Ryou wants, but if it mattered he would want these things, in this order:  a shower, a handful of red-and-white capsules, and a good long sleep.

 

What the Coalition wants, on the other hand—

 

On Ukiyo, Ryou thinks incredulously—Ukiyo?

 

There’s nothing on Ukiyo; only humans, small and soft and beautifully unaware, scraping out ant lives on an openwork metal planet. The Floating World. Whimsy and illusion.

 

I believe you are acquainted with the sphere.

 

Yes—Ryou is acquainted. He knows Ukiyo like the back of his hand, but a hand that perpetually surprises him:  with big fresh bruises, or the smaller pinker wrinkles in his palms, tiny triangular scars between his fingers, previously unseen.

 

His penultimate team gig was a retrieval, and it didn’t matter what he wanted then, either—

 

Titus Karita, Ryou thinks, and sees the data key again as though Mai is sitting beside him in the café on Gamma Seven, waving it under his nose, Ground control to Major Inoue, hello, anyone home?

 

Professor K., fifty-six, one hundred seventy-seven centimeters and one hundred kilos; black hair, black eyes, blocky chin, sharp beaky nose. Titus K., K-sensei, defector—but before all that, just Karita Tomohide, Sergeant. Big bully of a man but a good head on his enormous shoulders. Enlisted for the school money. Sparkling military career, then university, then Coalition think tank and a running start into politics; then scandal, then Ukiyo—

 

Then thin air—then nothing.

 

He stands beside the Minotaur and looks at the black ships. Blockade—what a dusty old word!

 

Titus Karita

 

It hits him like a bomb blast and accompanying shrapnel, what the soldiers and their officers in their flotilla must want, and he stands at the edge of the dock while the panels groan and the star Šilla casts dim light into black space and hates Brigadier Ishtar, simply hates her, because he knows what she wants, too.

 

Ishtar has her government contacts:  Shadi, who guards the Alpha colonies and adjusts them like weights in a scale; Odion, rooted deep in the shadows of Southern Quadrant leadership; and her own baby brother, as rumor goes, the warlord who dances on the borders of unknown Deva. She has these and more:  Seto Kaiba and the whole of his mercantile empire revolving in her hand—men and women working toward equilibrium in each quadrant of Allied territory, maybe even in Deva—maybe even beyond Deva.

 

But she’s picked Ryou to send into the maw of the beast. Take care.

 

If he fails, he’s a dead man:  dead and forgotten while Brigadier Ishtar continues, undisturbed, adding and subtracting, until a feather balances a lump of meat. Nothing devoured; nothing gained. And they all float on.

 

He has half a mind to refuse:  I won’t do it. I can’t.

 

Or shout:  You’re mad!

 

But if Ishtar is mad—

 

This whole adventure has been mad, utterly insane. Ryou remembers the heat, the Baek sand, the dank underground cell and—and Goryo, dust in his throat and Bakura’s hands hot on his skin—

 

One life in exchange for one shift, one tiny advantage. Of all Ishtar’s people, he is the most expendable. He is neither rich nor powerful, and he is alone. His job, his life—in the grand scheme of things, it’s not much to lose. Someday Yuugi, Jounouchi, Anzu and Honda will all be dead, and Ryou forgotten. He can die twenty years from now—or this week, this day, this hour.

 

And if he should, unthinkably, succeed

 

If he succeeds, all doors open, and the gas clouds of Deva can never stop him again.

 

God, if Ishtar is mad, then so is Ryou—stark and raving!

 

But he’s not mad enough to think he can do this alone.

 

 

 

 

The first time Ryou comes to Ukiyo, he’s just along for the ride, the satellite orbiting Mai and her new partner—very nice ring to their names, Valentine and Valon, Valon and Valentine—relaying messages from HQ while they play sex tourist and sample drinks. For a couple of days, it’s almost like a vacation.

 

Then their contact sours and Professor Titus Karita evaporates, and it all goes to hell in a dingy little bar on the corner. Mai does her thing with the kneecaps, and Ryou keeps his head down, but Valon gets himself shot through the neck. They stop the bleeding quickly enough, but it isn’t likely he will ever wake up again.

 

Ryou recites their report in dull clinical terms, second and third vertebrae shattered, brain stem severed, death instantaneous, and Mai corroborates, standing shoulder to shoulder, blank-faced, in Brigadier Ishtar’s briefing room.

 

It’s the end of Valentine and Valon, but Valentine and Inoue go on, for one last delivery that runs smoothly from start to finish.

 

“It’s been great, kiddo,” Mai tells him, three weeks before she disappears. “You know where to find me.”

 

 

 

 

He does, but she doesn’t look particularly pleased to see him.

 

“Well, of all the gin joints—” she begins. “Jesus H. Christ, Inoue.”

 

Ryou smiles, tentatively. “How is he?”

 

In the flickering lights Valon looks like a wax model, his closed eyes sunken, his hair a dark, limp stain on the pillow, surrounded by a rainbow of tubes and monitors. His chest rises and falls with robotic precision. His fingernails are yellow and unevenly trimmed, ugly beside Mai’s prettily manicured hands.

 

Mai sighs and gives the lifeless fingers a squeeze. “Same old. Sometimes I think he’s fucking with me—and if that’s the case I’m going to kick his lazy ass—you hear me, Val? I’m gonna kick your ass. Hey, Val, Inoue’s come to visit. Remember Inoue?

 

“Save it,” she says quietly. “I know you didn’t come just to say hi.”

 

Ryou looks away. “Sorry.”

 

“Save it, I said. We can talk somewhere else." She shoulders her bag. “Cutting it close, aren’t you, hun? Another ten minutes and I woulda been gone—okay, let’s vamoose. I’m thirsty.”

 

“Best wishes for your cousin, sir,” the receptionist tells Ryou, as they step from the clinic into the thin gray light of afternoon. “Miss.”

 

“Cousin, huh?” Mai says dryly. “News to me.”

 

“First cousin, once removed.”

 

“Har har. Hilarious.”

 

“Didn’t I show you the family tree?” Ryou says. It is unexpectedly easy to be frivolous, so he tries the smile, too.

 

“Oh, cut it out,” Mai says. “You’re not fooling anyone, Inoue. You look like shit.”

 

Ryou cringes and follows her ten blocks, down increasingly empty streets and through purple door-flaps into The Kunoichi, Restaurant and Bar—and evidently unauthorized Casino as well. There is a lull in conversation as players look up from their chips to take Mai in:  those red, red lips and that long blonde mane, the black bustier and that tight purple miniskirt, those big black boots, those legs, and finally the black thigh-holster and the Baby Dragon semi-automatic strapped to it. The glances they throw Ryou are few and passing, distinctly unimpressed and vaguely hostile.

 

The barkeep slaps a hand on his counter. “Hi, there, my pretty Peahen!”

 

“That’s Kujaku to you, buddy,” Mai snaps, terse but friendly. “Baijiu, two. Make it snappy.”

 

He grins at her. “Sure, sweetheart. To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”

 

“Old friend of mine,” Mai says, nodding at Ryou. “And he’s thirsty.”

 

“Hello, Thirsty Old Friend of Mai’s,” the barkeep says cheerfully, “I’m Jean Claude and I ask no questions." He rakes his eyes over Ryou once and whistles. “Phew, look at the state of him! Glad I ain’t your friend, Kujaku Mai!”

 

Mai’s flinch is almost imperceptible, but Ryou feels it:  a tremor in her fingers as she takes him by the elbow and steers him toward a corner table. Jean trails them, bearing a bottle and shot glasses.

 

“On the house, my sweet darling—”

 

“Go away, Jean—”

 

“Okay, okay, baby—” and Ryou’s hand twitches toward his belt as Jean whirls on him—a moment of complete teetering insanity when his fingers close on air and he thinks he will have to break Jean’s neck one-handed—

 

But Jean is grinning, albeit baring more teeth than strictly necessary for a friendly smile. “Listen, pal, I don’t know your relationship with my Mai, but—ow, goddamn!”

 

Mai rolls her eyes and swats him again. “Jesus H., Magnum—piss off!”

 

“Baby, you treat me cruel,” Jean says, but wisely retreats.

 

“Fuck,” Mai mutters. “I’m surrounded by nuts. Sorry, we can talk shop in a minute. Just—

 

“Val’s not doing so great,” she says. “His organs are going. Don’t think he’s gonna stick around much longer.”

 

“You could—”

 

“Transfer him?" Mai snorts. “Like I haven’t thought about it! A hundred hours to the nearest Alpha hospital—he wouldn’t make it, Inoue. Anyway, what are they going to do? Hook him up to some shinier machines? Keep him alive another fifty years, so he can spend it all lying there with his eyes shut?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says.

 

“Uuugh,” Mai says. “Never mind. Stop apologizing. What do you want? Oh—what the hell happened to you? Let’s start there.”

 

“Ehm—had a run-in with a terrorist." He scans the room. All clear:  they’ve gone back to their dice, and Jean Claude the jealous barkeep is busy wiping glasses. “I can’t say more.”

 

“Classified, huh?" Mai throws back a shot and wipes her lip with the back of a hand, and then the Iron Bitch is in his face, hissing, “Inoue, you’re nuttier than anyone else here if you think you can just show up, busted to hell and back, tell me nothing, and expect me to help you—”

 

“Karita,” Ryou says, desperately. “I—it’s—Karita’s involved!”

 

He’s showing his hand early—he’s putting it under the bloody microscope—but he needs her, has to interest her somehow. And Professor Titus Karita will do it. Karita, who got away and got Valon shot.

 

Mai’s face goes completely, carefully blank. “Karita,” she repeats.

 

“Y—" Ryou takes a small burning sip. Coward! “Yes.”

 

Mai folds her arms. “All right,” she says, settling back. “I’m all ears.”

 

“Karita’s here,” Ryou says, soft.

 

Mai doesn’t blink, but something like satisfaction glows in her eyes. “I knew it,” she says. “I knew it. Where is he?”

 

Shit. “Er—it doesn’t matter,” Ryou says. “He’ll be dead soon—if we don’t do something.”

 

“This coming from HQ?"

 

“No. Listen, Mai—” Ryou leans in, and this time she meets him halfway. There is no file between them now, no printouts or discs or guns—only their clenched hands and the green glass bottle—but it’s just like old times, as Mai might phrase it, familiar and soothing. The memory of cool competence simultaneously steadies him and makes his heart beat faster. “You’ve read his file—I think you remember the details better than I do—so you know that before Karita went underground, he was a Coalition soldier—”

 

“Sergeant,” Mai says, with a very hard smile. “God knows he never did anything to deserve it!”

 

“But he did, Mai,” Ryou says, quickly and breathlessly. “He did, and it’s catching up to him now. Fifteen years ago he led a squadron attack on a mining colony—an unarmed colony. It was massacre. Ninety-nine people were killed, but—” his heart is really pounding now; this isn’t some candyfloss tapestry of lies but the truth “—but one got away.”

 

“Ex-military personnel have been dying like flies,” Mai says slowly. Her eyes widen. “All the ones who were involved with—oh my God!”

 

“Yes,” Ryou breathes, reeling her in. “And Karita is next. The Coalition knows; they’ve caught on to the pattern. They’re here to guard him from—er—the one that got away. Karita’s here, Mai—he’s on that Wormdrake flagship, I know it. We can get him. We can finally—”

 

 

 

 

That son of a bitch is as good as ours! Mai cheers, and Valon laughs and toasts to it.

 

 

 

—“No,” Mai says. “Are you crazy?”

 

What? Shock straightens his spine. That’s not how this is supposed to go! He’s jolted back, he realizes, and he should really lean forward now and try to catch her eye again—

 

We have to do this, he should say. For Valon, Mai—

 

Are you crazy?

 

Instead he says, wavering, “Mai.”

 

“No,” she says. “Jesus H., Inoue. The Brig wants you to storm a Coalition ship—a Coalition ship—to break out a protected witness. And you just, what, saluted her? Yeah, okay, Brigadier, I’d be happy to risk life and citizenship for that worthless piece of shit Karita? Christ, Inoue, look at yourself! You’re in pieces!”

 

He inhales again and again, but the pathetic quaver in his voice doesn’t go away. “There’s more to it than that, Mai. Karita’s not—the objective. I thought—I thought I’d leave Karita to you.”

 

“Well, thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not gonna declare war on the whole damn Coalition. For Karita? That slimy bastard? Are you kidding me? No way, José!”

 

Ryou flashes on twenty different things to say, and says nothing, and imagines the white body of the Necrofear hurtling into starry space with Karita’s corpse stiff and bloated in its curled fingers.

 

“All right,” he says finally. “Okay. I’m sorry. I thought—"

 

Mai sighs. “If it were just me, I’d be with you in milliseconds, I swear, Inoue. A year ago—definitely. To hell with the Coalition! and all that. But not now. I’m not flying solo anymore. I have people here. I can’t just take off and never look back.”

 

“Okay,” Ryou says, numbly.

 

“Jesus—just quit, kiddo!” Mai exclaims. “Tell the Brig to fuck off like I’m sure you’ve been wanting to for the past century, and get on with your life!"

 

Ryou stares at her.

 

“What?” he manages.

 

“—hell, if you want to go out with a bang, I can shoot you—let Jean spread the news around, lie low here a few months until the Brig forgets you ever existed—four months, five—well, maybe a year—”

 

Must be nice.

 

It’s tiring.

 

I’ll mention it to Grandpa—what you said.

 

He can’t see himself back on YG0, handing Yuugi laser-saws and screwdrivers, biking parts from North Port to the Turtle Shop, stopping at Honda’s for chicken skewers twice a day—

 

Upending a box of bolts at Jounouchi and laughing at his ridiculous stories—smiling at Anzu when she comes to visit—

 

Sitting wedged in a booth every Saturday night, cheek pressed against cold window-glass, drowsing in his childhood bed and feeling the ache in his mended arm as the comets go by—

 

Mr. Ace Pilot!

 

“There are easier ways to commit suicide,” Mai says, too gently.

 

“This is bigger than me,” Ryou whispers. The smile twitches and wobbles and finally sticks, and he looks at her, smiling crookedly. Gorgeous, gorgeous Mai; she’s doing so well. “It’s fine—really, it’s fine, and it’s good to see you again. I just need a mechanic, and then—”

 

He stops. Mai’s fingers are cool against his lips, wet with condensation.

 

“Jesus, hon,” she says. “You make me feel like I kicked a puppy. Stick around a couple of days. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Girl, you know that I hate to lie to you
I’m afraid that it’s the one thing that I must do
’Cause secret identities are for the safety of you and me

How I Became the Bomb, “Secret Identity”

 

 

 

 

Mai taps two fingers on the side of her glass. Ryou nods, a slight dip of the chin; they’re being watched. It’s just a little bit cold where he’s sitting—cold on his face and neck and back, and his palms are slick. He keeps both hands very flat and still on the table.

 

“Windows to your left,” Mai says through a tight-lipped smile, “door twelve o’clock. Take your pick.”

 

“Door,” Ryou says. He forces himself to laugh, like she’s just said something incredibly funny. Valon is actually laughing; Valon thinks this is hilarious.

 

“Door,” Ryou repeats—

 

 

 

 

door. Ryou flails to his feet, jerks around—too slow, much too slow, Mai will think he’s gotten soft—

 

Blonde woman in a dirty lab-coat, pink jumper and jeans, short hair, surprised black eyes, clipboard, hand not yet uncurled from the knob. The nails are short and unvarnished:  definitely not Mai.

 

“Hello,” Ryou says lamely, sinking back down. She nods at him and steps on.

 

Valon awake was loud and boisterous, all smiles until someone pissed him off. Their first handshake was Ryou’s first handshake in years:  the smell of leather and oil threading through the cold and a warm strong hand finding his in the twilight, tugging him too close and squeezing until he feels awkward—the face is in shadow but in the outline of it he sees a flash of teeth and eyes—Pleasure. Can’t say I’ve heard much about you, but any friend of Mai’s is a friend of mine, how do you do? Mai, laughing, a sweet-smelling presence at his back:  Let go, Val, he’s gonna clock you.

 

He remembers the three of them working in silence, and he remembers Valon one night, setting aside a file, looking sidelong at Mai and never saying a word. But he doesn’t know how to deal with this Valon—Valon quiet and blank.

 

 

 

 

He sits there for hours, rubbing warmth back into his hands and knees and cheeks and kneading the burns to stay awake; Mai doesn’t show. The clinic grows quieter, cold and darkness bleeding in through the windows.

 

Ryou forces himself up before his legs get too stiff and walks back into the city-sphere, his shorts and singlet drawing stares, his teeth clicking and clacking. He enters the first bath house he sees, pays the full amount, looking down, away, unsmiling, desperate to leave the cold.

 

In a corner of the locker room, he fumbles at the laces of his boots with clumsy cold fingers and strips off his clothes and the sling. His torso flowers purple and green with bruises, and the skin of his legs is red, bubbling in some places and stretched taut in others. The water stings his calves, his lips, but old scars feel dead to the touch.

 

He brushes his teeth; he rubs his face and right shoulder with a cloth. He washes his hair and soaks in steaming water, listening to the grumblings of a pair of cereal merchants.

 

“—said they were booked through for the month. I don’t want to go back to the docks, I tell her I’ll live in a goddamn shoebox as long as it’s warm, I’ll pay a little extra—”

 

“What did she say to that?”

 

“She told me there wasn’t a micron of fuckin’ space left and then she shut the—”

 

 

 

 

“Door,” Ryou repeats. He can feel the blood beating in his kneecaps, in his wrists.

 

“Count of ten,” Mai says. “Nine...eight...”

 

Valon smiles.

 

Ryou very slowly and carefully leans back. His hands leave streaks of sweat on the table. On “two” he’s going to fall out of his chair, and on “one” he’s going to get a hand on his gun and roll and roll and get up shooting, and sometime between “zero” and never they are all going to get out the door and into a ship and far fucking away from this place.

 

Valon’s lips are stretched in a big, taut grin, and his face is bone white with—fury, Ryou realizes with a lurch.

 

Six, five...”

 

Four, Ryou thinks. Three.

 

“Fuck you, you motherfuckers!” Valon yells, opening fire, and actually kicks over his chair.

 

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Mai snaps, “that was completely fucking unnecessary,” and Ryou shoots at the next hand that moves, blows up a bottle of baijiu and puts a hole in the man holding it. Mai upends the table and she and Ryou duck down behind it. Valon dives left and vanishes behind the bar.

 

Ryou aims, shoots a man through the shoulder—keeps his head low. Hair in his eyes; he swipes it away.

 

 

 

 

“—figured I could stay with her for at least a few days, but she tells me she’s got a new girlfriend and doesn’t want any misunderstandings. Then I try Kenji’s and he says ‘Sorry, buddy, been full up for weeks,’ and then he tries to snow me with some bull—”

 

 

 

 

“Shit,” Mai says. “Valon. Hey. Valon. Oh Christ—”

 

 

 

 

He sinks down until the water scalds his lips.

 

“—have the magistrate by the balls.”

 

“The magistrate is an unscrupulous rat bastard. I bet they’re payin’ him off. He looks the other way and somebody out there lines his pockets with chips. Meanwhile it’s people like us, people on the ground, people trying to make a living, that’s who gets fucked over—”

 

 

 

 

He woke up in the cargo hold that morning with a big ringing bell in between his ears and his tongue filling his mouth like a dirty balled-up sock. He hasn’t been this hungover since Yuugi and Anzu’s engagement party—

 

Mai bending toward him—

 

 

 

 

’Night, Ryou says, fuzzy around the edges, warm at last, see you tomorrow, I know where to find you, smiles.

 

Fuck you, Mai says, fuck you, fuck Karita, and fuck the Brigadier too

 

 

 

 

Is he, Mai says. Is he, oh Jesus, oh Valon—

 

 

 

 

Ryou holds his breath, sinks lower. Closes his eyes.

 

 

 

 

He lingers in the coatroom and assembles a new set of clothes: two shirts from opposite sides of the room, which he shrugs on one after another over his singlet, a dockworker’s thick woolen gloves, someone else’s woolly green hat, and some unfortunate delivery boy’s hakama, too coarse to be comfortable. Finally:  a coat, blue and nondescript and worn at the elbows. On further inspection, it yields useful hidden pockets, some of which are filled with cash. Ryou adopts it gladly, shrugs it on like a cape. It settles on him, heavy, and transforms the freezing sprint back to the Minotaur into a brisk evening stroll.

 

Cocooned in darkness and warmth, bracing the wounded arm against his chest, he imagines Bakura—sharp teeth, a shock of red cloth—hiding among the junkies, biding his time.

 

They are both waiting:  Ryou for Bakura, and Bakura for—

 

Tinder, Ryou thinks grimly. Something to burn:  the coarse remnants of hair on Karita’s big balding head.

 

He doesn’t look at the black ships. He climbs into the Minotaur and shuts the hatch, and he sleeps. That’s the first day.

 

 

 

 

He buys breakfast from a stall by the docks—steamed rice cakes in a paper sheaf, round and white and tasteless—and eats it on the way to the clinic, tosses two pills down with it. He has painkillers for lunch. He waits until the curfew bell sounds at nine and the hallways of the clinic go dark. Mai doesn’t come.

 

She doesn’t come the third day, or the fourth.

 

“Friend of yours?” the blonde doctor asks, swooping in to help him tug the curtains shut.

 

Ryou thinks about it. He and Valon really don’t look alike at all.

 

“Yes,” he says, to Valon’s wasted arms. “Old friend.”

 

“Those yakuza pals of his,” the doctor continues, “I hope they aren’t friends of yours, too?”

 

Ukiyo contacts, maybe, though it doesn’t make sense that they’d be keeping tabs on Valon three years after they sold him out and saw him shot and cremated.

 

“Yakuza, really?” Ryou says, and opens his face:  wide eyes, wide mouth. Inwardly, he winces. If the doctor’s noticed him then someone else is bound to have connected some dots—someone much less savory—and he’s already been to the clinic three times too many.

 

“That’s right,” the doctor says. “I thought you might be acquainted, considering,” and she gestures at Ryou’s sling. “You have that looked at?”

 

“Yes, thanks,” Ryou says. By the royal physician of Baek, no less. “Accident on the docks. Slippery out there. Lucky—” he’s babbling now, but he can’t stop mid-sentence “—I didn’t break a leg, don’t you th—”

 

“They’re a nasty lot,” the doctor says. “Keep our beds here filled. Their striker’s the worst of them. Put a bullet between your eyes from miles away. So I’m told, anyway." She doesn’t look at him, lowers her voice. “On these docks there are never any accidents. Be careful, eh, sweetheart?”

 

 

 

 

He tries The Kunoichi, Restaurant and Bar next; Mai isn’t there, and Jean-Claude Magnum doesn’t ask questions, but he doesn’t answer any, either.

 

Walking back to the Minotaur, he passes a display of white dresses and two vampish red ones and feels punched in the gut with the memory—

 

Yuugi is getting married.

 

It feels ancient—news ten thousand light years past. He thinks about asking Mai for suggestions, straight-faced, deadpan:  I need guns and also a wedding present. He imagines bringing Mai to the wedding:  Ryou and alluring plus-one of mysterious origins. She’ll come in deep, skin-tight purple, make a toast like they’re all very old, very good friends; she’ll tell Honda the food’s great, tell Ryou to get her a drink, tell Yuugi she works in oh, this and that over a flute of cheap champagne or I’m in shipping, honey, ’s how I met Buster here. Anzu will ask her to dance and Jounouchi will fall madly in love—

 

Snap out of it, he thinks, focus, but can’t quite soothe the sharpness in his chest.

 

 

 

 

On the fifth day, Ryou leaves the sling in the cargo hold, ties his hair at the base of his neck, and goes for a walk. The smell of fermenting rice is thick and sour in the air. He looks at the ships from every possible angle, buys tall glass of hot, dark tea from another vendor, with which he swallows the last of his pills—“Rough night?” this one says, and Ryou smiles and shrugs one shoulder—and looks some more.

 

He’s gone an hour, maybe three. When he comes back there is a girl standing beside the Minotaur—a little wisp of a girl, in a yellow man’s shirt, dirty jeans and a bulky pink vest, with cinnamon-colored hair all down her back. She has her hands on the hull, slim fingers spread flat.

 

The first thing Ryou thinks is that he is completely fucked. The black ships fly out of his head; the Baek prison dissolves; he imagines a cold clean room where Ukiyo yakuza demand the name of his employer and break his fingers one by one.

 

He sidles closer. With any luck, she’s eight miles high and pumped full of hallucinogens, and a tap on the shoulder will be enough to—

 

“Hi,” he says. “Hi—hey." The girl doesn’t spook and she doesn’t reply, and everything sinks and tightens and goes cold between Ryou’s ribs as he realizes he may have to hurt her.

 

He bends until his mouth is level with her ear, and murmurs, “Something interesting?”

 

“Something interesting, hell!” the girl says, clear and sweet and utterly, dangerously sober. “Do you know what this is?”

 

“No,” Ryou lies. “What is it?”

 

She strokes the hull. “A Minokentaurus! KaibaCorp only released twenty last year, from their own factories, and only from Alpha Twelve and Thirteen—the propulsion subsystem is the most advanced in single-passenger civilian craft ever ever! You wouldn’t look at it twice, next to an Archer or St. Jeanne—I mean, it is pretty sleek—but the real beauty is in the propulsion. It’s still experimental so they’re phasing it in gradually...it’s a pity. It really is one of the best. I mean, if it were up to me—”

 

She turns, and Ryou meets her eyes, green-gray and strangely cloudy, and sees her pupils, small and black and sharp.

 

Everything stops.

 

“You don’t know?” the girl says slowly. “I thought this was your ship.”

 

“It is,” Ryou says, transfixed.

 

She smiles. Her smile is very pretty; she has a dimple in one cheek. “I thought so,” she says. “I thought I saw you get out, a few hours ago—”

 

He can’t look away from her, from her dirty, heart-shaped face and straggling red-brown hair. He flexes his good hand and looks at her until her smile becomes strained and nervous.

 

“So,” the girl says, fidgeting, “what do you say?”

 

Ryou blinks. “Sorry, what?”

 

She blushes beautifully pink. “I said, I knocked yesterday,” she says. “Couldn’t be sure you were still inside, but a lot of the merchants do it, and anyway there’s the blockade so you’re probably stuck here for—um, that is, I mean, I knocked yesterday and you weren’t in, so I thought I’d try again today." She bows. “Shizuka Kawai. Please treat me well.”

 

“Ryo—to,” Ryou croaks. He clears his throat. “Er. Hiroto. Honda Hiroto.”

 

“Honda-san." She beams at him. “Honda-san, can I ask you—do you need your ship looked at?”

 

In his peripheral vision, the docks start to move again; the noise of the shipyard rises to a roar in his ears.

 

“Looked at?” Ryou repeats.

 

Shizuka Kawai nods. “Uh-huh. Your ship may look fine on the outside, Honda-san, but there’s no telling what’s going on inside unless I crank it open and have a look. I promise you I’ll have it running smoother than it was when you bought it. We can talk about the money later. So...what do you say?”

 

No, thanks; thanks, no; sorry.

 

But he can say yes and make her happy; he can say yes and never see her again—

 

 

 

 

He wants to see her again—

 

 

 

 

—“Okay,” Ryou says. “Okay, sure.”

 

Yay!" Shizuka Kawai claps, delighted, and Ryou sees for the first time that her hands are dark with grease. She points at a curving line of buildings in the distance. “My shop’s by the warehouse at the far end, waaay over there; you can tether your ship in front. You’ll have to taxi low and close to the sphere—the Worms get nervous, otherwise, and when they get nervous, they get trigger-happy.”

 

“Okay,” Ryou says again.

 

“I’m there every day, seven to seven,” Shizuka says. “Come by any time. It was great meeting you, Honda-san.”

 

“Right,” Ryou stammers. “Yeah. Same here.”

 

She smiles at him and bows—Ryou jolts, bows back—and is gone by the time he straightens up.

 

 

 

 

Forty-eight hours pass. The circulated air in the sphere is now marginally less stale than air in the Minotaur, so Ryou assembles his files and takes them to the ruin of a much older warehouse overlooking the docks. Dock rats have long since stripped the place of all the metal and glass they could find and carry off; the wreckage is deserted. Ryou sets up shop on one of the larger dockside slabs of concrete. Mai has yet to make contact, but he isn’t going to ask around again; once is enough. Word will get to her eventually (creepy kid with white hair asking after you, Peahen), if she isn’t long gone and laughing at him, at Ryou and the Brigadier and the whole blighted venture, light years away on another colony.

 

Would she leave Valon behind? Ryou wonders. The thought rises unbidden and pathetic:  She left me, after all, and never looked back.

 

He thinks about spending every waking hour in the clinic. But there’s nothing to stop Mai from spiriting Valon away if she wants—and he’s drawn enough attention to himself already—

 

The mad recklessness of seven days ago has faded:  he’s going to need a small army to get inside the Wormdrake flagship, and for that, he needs Mai. But he doesn’t know how much longer he can afford to wait.

 

He’s still brooding when Shizuka Kawai appears in his peripheral vision, a pair of tattered sneakers and dirty jeans and the tips of thick black sausage-fingered gloves, startling him so badly he can’t stop the convulsive full-body twitch that follows. He closes the folder and waits until she’s in front of him and casting a vague shadow over his hands before he looks up. Over her shoulder, there’s a little merchant skipper tethered to the nearest bollard—and beyond it a sea of cargo ships—and the blue-black of the armada, indistinguishable from the blackness of space but for its gleaming red lights.

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says.

 

“Honda-san,” she says brightly, meeting his eyes. “Konbanwa.”

 

Muscles twitch in his legs. He sits up straighter.

 

“Fancy meeting you here,” she says. She hops onto the slab and draws her legs up under her. “Come here a lot?”

 

“Mm,” Ryou says, noncommittal. “Thought I’d spend some time outside.”

 

“And enjoy one of our famous Ukiyo sunsets?” she says, grinning. “I don’t see your ship parked outside my garage,” she adds. “I hope you weren’t lured away by someone else’s offer, Honda-san.”

 

“Sorry,” Ryou says. “I—it’s been busy, it’s been—I’ll bring it as soon as I can.”

 

“It’s fine,” she says, smiling at him. “You don’t have to—”

 

“I want to,” Ryou interrupts. “I will." And then, because he can’t leave well enough alone:  “As soon as I can,” he repeats. “I’ll bring it. I will. There’s something wrong with the engines,” he says, “so I’ll bring it in.”

 

“I’ll look forward to it, then,” Shizuka says, after a pause.

 

“What are you working on?” she asks.

 

“Contracts,” Ryou says, setting the files down and sliding them under his left boot. He counts to three and says, with what he hopes is an appropriate amount of curiosity, “What brings you here?”

 

“Oh—taking a walk,” she says. “To see the ships. This is one of my favorite spots, actually—great view, isn’t it? You can see everything from here. I mean, not everything everything. But most of the docks.”

 

Ryou knows. He’s been here before with Mai, running recon.

 

“There’s your Minokentaurus,” Shizuka says. “Just over there—that slice by the Yamata, that’s your ship. That Yamata has been here almost a month now.”

 

Almost a month. It’s been, unbelievably, four weeks since the clusterfuck on Baek. He’s been underground—literally underground—for most of that time. Bakura could be anywhere in the galaxy by now, Ryou thinks, rationally-speaking, but—Brigadier Ishtar seems to think so, and Ryou is sure of it—Bakura is here.

 

Ryou wonders if this is what people call a gut instinct—this sickening certainty, rising up to choke him. He’s here, and he’s had a three-week head start.

 

He’s frowning. He stops. “It’s quieter than I expected,” he says.

 

“Yeah,” Shizuka says. “It used to be a lot livelier, but now...well, no matter what everyone says, I think Worms are kind of cute—oh—when I say Worms I mean Wormdrakes, those boxy black ships out there. Everyone thinks they’re ugly, but you have to admit they’re pretty impressive in formation—but—yeah,” she says, leaning forward, talking faster, “there’s a problem with these Worms. Which is why I think the Alliance needs to upgrade—not that they’d ever listen to me, but Wormdrakes are ancient. They should have signed a contract with KaibaCorp yesterday! Can you imagine what a fleet of Minokentaurii could—” she’s turning pink “—oh, jeez, I’m sorry, I got carried away.”

 

“There’s a problem?” Ryou prompts.

 

“Well—not a problem, I guess,” Shizuka says, sheepish but warming to her topic again. “It’s just that Worms are slow—solid, but slow. They’ve built a space-wall with these, which is beautiful if you want to keep our cargo ships grounded. Cargo’s too big and slow to try to break out. But just think—if—let’s say hypothetically—a single-passenger lightcraft can make it around that wall, or through it, they aren’t going to be able to follow it for long. I guess they’re counting on firepower to make up for speed." She points. “They brought the big guns, see? Those are huge. You’d have to be crazy to try something."

 

Bakura, Ryou thinks, is crazy enough to try something. Ryou will just have to match him. And as long as Minotaur’s engine holds...

 

No:  even the Minotaur is too big to dart through any cracks that might exist; the Minotaur will make a big, beautiful, bright red target.

 

“Supposing everyone tried it at once?” Ryou suggests, hesitantly, because he’s a clueless civilian contractor who doesn’t know anything about frontal assaults on Wormdrakes in blockade formation—

 

He follows her gaze to the glowing red maw of the flagship.

 

“We-ell,” she says, doubtful. “I don’t know. You mean if every single ship in these docks just revved their engines and went for it? Maybe, but—no—these are merchant ships. They aren’t built for speed either, and none of them have the heavy artillery you need to match a Wormdrake. I think—you can’t break the Worm wall and you shouldn’t try to—what you need is something really fast. Something Fiend-class, maybe, with modified engines.”

 

“Like a Gremlin,” Ryou says, and bites his tongue—so much for the clueless civilian contractor.

 

“Like a Gremlin!” she agrees. “A Byser Shock could do it, too. You’d be gone before they could get a lock on you." She turns on him suddenly, dimpling, voice bright with approval. “You know your ships!”

 

“I,” Ryou says helplessly. “A little bit, I guess.”

 

“Have you piloted anything Fiend-class before?”

 

“Nnn,” Ryou says. “No. I’m a transporter. I—ehm. Cargo space. Is important.”

 

Smooth. He winces.

 

She’s going to ask him what he usually ships, and the only thing coming to mind is the Baekan’s little golden eye. A fresh burst of something like misery—

 

“There’s a stall closer to center-sphere,” Shizuka says instead. “The nasi lemak is delicious.”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, staring at her, and then, sharply:  “What?”

 

She slips nimbly off the concrete slab and looks up at him; she’s gone faintly pink. “I was asking if you’d like to have dinner, Honda-san,” she says. “That is, if you don’t have somewhere else to be. I know a good place. You can put your contracts in here,” she adds, patting her satchel. “It’s clean, I promise.”

 

“Oh,” Ryou says. The color in Shizuka’s cheeks is deepening to red. The back of his neck feels hot. He fumbles for his files, fingers dragging on concrete.

 

“Right,” he says. “Lead the way.”

 

 

 

 

That week Shizuka buys her dinner from various vendors between 1800 and 2200 GMT and knocks on the hull of the Minotaur on her way. She takes Ryou to a different stall each time—“since you’ve never been,” she says. (“Am I getting the tour?” Ryou asks. “Highlights—the abridged tour!” Shizuka says.)  It suits Ryou entirely; the last thing he wants to become is a regular of any kind—although, he notes with regret, the congee seller remembers him vividly and broadcasts it in booming tones when they pass his cart:  “Well, you look much better today, duckie!”

 

Over tumblers of hot soy milk, Shizuka tells him about today’s mystery of the exploding gasket, gestures with her hands at her favorite parts and doubles over laughing twice. Ryou has had ample practice listening to Jounouchi’s dock stories and knows exactly when he should laugh, but he’s disturbed, hours later, when one of her punch-lines resurfaces in his thoughts and provokes a smile.

 

“Being a mechanic is kind of like traveling, I think,” Shizuka says. “You meet all kinds of people. ’S how I met my roommate.

 

“You must have friends on the other side of the galaxy,” she says.

 

“Coworkers,” Ryou says, which is true enough.

 

The third night, sharing a plate of idlis, she asks him about his favorite delivery, and he tells her about the vast cityscape of an alpha cylinder, about the unbelievable quality of the starlight through clean glass panels, about the rooftop gardens with their curling vines, about the sweetness of strange flowers and red petals soft between his fingers like velvet. It’s pure fantasy, an amalgam of Gamma Seven and Alpha Sixteen and a painting he saw hanging in an alpha art gallery, years ago:  flowers bursting like supernovas in a green field.

 

Yuugi and company took it in with smiles and sighs; Shizuka looks blank and maintains a polite silence. It makes him nervous; he finishes the story without further embellishment and swallows down the rest of his drink. He supposes he might have been laying it on a bit thick and blames the pijiu, which is warm and foul and went to his head in minutes.

 

“You’re going to think this is weird,” Shizuka says, reading something from his face, “but I’ve never really liked flowers. Or the idea of—well—oh, god, you’ll think I’m crazy, but I’ve never really cared about Earth either.”

 

Ryou thinks that anyone else would have exclaimed. He waits.

 

Shizuka’s smile is wistful. “I like concrete,” she says, and the way she speaks makes Ryou think the pijiu has gone to her head, too, “and titanium and gears and cogs and screws. I like rewiring circuits, and I like the sound wires make when I cut them—snip! I like putting my hands into engines that are still just a little bit warm. I bought my first laser-saw when I was fourteen, and the sound of it turning on was one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard, and that red line of light is the only color I remember." She pours them another round. “I like Ukiyo. I like the way the panels creak and grind and squeal; I fall asleep listening to the whirring of the core. I dream about machines, Honda-kun, not flowers—kanpai.”

 

 

 

 

On the tenth day, Ryou goes to a nicer bathhouse and borrows a nicer pair of pants to replace the hakama:  the lower half of a dark blue tracksuit. When he returns to the docks at dusk, hurrying so he won’t miss Shizuka, he finds Mai waiting in front of the Minotaur with her hands jammed in her pockets.

 

“Jesus, where have you been?” she shouts. “Took you long enough, Inoue—it’s fucking freezing!"

 

“Mai,” Ryou says, blank.

 

“Nice coat!” she shouts.

 

Mai’s jacket is deep plum purple, slick leather, and very tight across her chest. No thigh holster this time:  if she’s carrying today, the gun is extremely well-hidden. Her hair is loose and tumbling around her shoulders; the Minotaur is glossy and red behind her. She looks like a page out of Classic Starships.

 

She pushes off the side of the Minotaur as Ryou comes closer. “Where’d you go?” she says again, breathing on her fingertips. “Fuck, it’s cold today.”

 

Ryou finds his voice again. “How did you—”

 

The baijiu.

 

“Nice ship, too,” Mai says, patting the hull. “Bet it flies smooth.”

 

“You followed me,” Ryou says. “The first night. You—”

 

“Well,” Mai says, “something like that." She smiles, all teeth. “Now we both know where to find each other—isn’t that nice?”

 

Ryou glances at the Minotaur over her shoulder. He won’t know she’s been inside until she tells him.

 

“Hungry?” Mai says, ruthless. “I want to introduce you to a friend of mine.”

 

 

 

 

They take a shortcut through the entertainment district and end up in a night market that bridges the whorehouses and center-sphere. Lanterns are strung up along both sides of the street, casting dim orange circles of light over the little shops and colorful outdoor clusters of plastic chairs and tables. Groups of men and women in heavy coats are eating and drinking and laughing. The air is smoky; steam rises from the pots of open-air stands. Overhead in the distance, three glowing high rises of intricate design unfurl into the gray dusk.

 

Mai laughs at him. “Sorry, kiddo,” she says. “Woulda come back sooner to see the look on your face, but I had business.”

 

Ryou looks at his feet, at the scuffed toes of his boots, and presses his tongue against the back of his teeth. Still laughing, Mai leads him to Baba-Nyonya, where a girl with messy cinnamon-colored hair is sitting outside at a blue plastic table, sipping barley water.

 

She looks up and around and smiles at him, and waves, and Ryou feels his mouth twitching and just barely manages to avoid waving back. He’ll say hello just as soon as Mai isn’t looking.

 

“Kujaku-san!” Shizuka calls. “Over here!”

 

Ryou’s stomach plunges very unpleasantly toward his feet.

 

“Hi, kiddo,” Mai says, with a flutter of her hand. “Sorry I’m late.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Shizuka says. “I just ordered—nasi goreng for all three of us, is that okay?”

 

“Sounds delicious,” Mai says.

 

The smile Shizuka gives him is wide with delight. “Hi,” she says.

 

Nausea bubbles up.

 

“Here’s the friend I was telling you about,” Mai says. “Inoue, say hello to the best mechanic in Cloud East. Shizuka, this is Inoue Ryou—old friend from the squad.”

 

For about a tenth of a second, Ryou thinks about lying. Maybe Mai will go along with it. Maybe Mai will ask him what the hell he’s doing and blow out his kneecaps—maybe Mai’s had this planned all along, so she can watch him hang himself with the threads of his own lies.

 

Mai elbows him none too gently in the side.

 

“Ryou,” Ryou says. He tries to smile. “Inoue Ryou. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Shizuka Kawai,” Shizuka says, after a beat. That dimple again. “Nice to meet you.”

 

 

 

 

Ryou’s first suit weighs three tons; it squeals and shudders and has a padded cockpit for the lurches and tumbles; it is beaten and dented and scratched and seats as many as fifteen cadets a day. It is one of the older models, of a line recently extinct:  the unfortunate and much derided Käfer, “Maneater” in certain circles, for its general inclination toward to system failure and meltdown at critical moments. By the time Ryou sees his first firefight, the Maneaters have been phased out; he buckles himself into a gleaming new Uraby, and on another occasion jams himself into the seat of a half-smashed Battle Ox, nudging a dead pilot’s hands from the controls.

 

In a wing of mostly Oxen, Urabies, and the occasional Megami suit, Mai’s Harpy Lady becomes legendary overnight. The suits arrive from KaibaCorp plants in grey and brown and camouflage black, but some pilots embellish, streaking color across titanium, spray-painting symbols, gluing decals, stenciling numbers, letters, names, profanity. To many the suit becomes an extension of the body, a new pair of arms or legs in need of some kind of personal touch or at the very least another stripe of war paint; to Ryou, the suit is an exoskeleton for the pale fleshy body within, and he cannot see the logic of stamping targets onto his armor.

 

But Mai’s customizations are marvelous and ostentatious:  a gunmetal blue paint job, the samurai helmet with its brilliant red mane, the yellow diamantine sabatons and gauntlets with talons strong enough to pierce titanium, the rattling armor skirt of individual spearpoint pieces, the sharp purple greaves, the flaring ailettes and their matched set of wing decals. And that Harpy scream—!

 

 

 

Ryou thinks this can’t possibly be the same suit of cadet legend, this puppet lying gutted and dismembered across the concrete floor of the garage. But there is the famous red mane matted and tangled, the same gunmetal blue chipped and tarnished, the ailettes snapped, the greaves severed and laid out beside the body of the suit.

 

“Uh-huh,” Mai sighs. “Sad, isn’t it? We’ve been gutting it for parts since—oh, I don’t know. Hello, my Harpy.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says.

 

“Yeah, well.”

 

Mai looks tired. Ryou watches as she scrubs a hand over her eyes, smearing mascara, and wonders where she’s been.

 

Shizuka’s repaired radio stops playing bubblegum pop and blares some kind of trumpet salute. “Later on in the hour, our very own Zygor’s gonna clue you in on some of his favorite recipes for fry-ups, cocktails, mocktails, puddings, and more! It’ll give you an idea of what to do with all this goddamn rice. But first the news.

 

Outside, Shizuka has stopped walking circles around the Minotaur and is inside examining the engines—

 

 

 

 

“Oh my god,” Shizuka says, stopping dead. “Oh my god! That’s your ship?”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, after a moment’s hesitation, surprised.

 

“Do you know what this is?” Shizuka says, as they reach her. “A Minokentaurus! KaibaCorp only released twenty of these last year—how did you get your hands on this? Fantastic,” she murmurs, and reaches out to stroke the blistered red shell.

 

“Like your surprise?” Mai says. Ryou glances at her:  she’s smiling.

 

“I love it,” Shizuka says. “Kujaku-san! Why didn’t you say?”

 

“And ruin the big reveal?” Mai says. “So, think you can fix it?”

 

“Oh, definitely,” Shizuka says, patting the hull. “Let me guess,” she says, looking at Ryou, and he can’t stop himself from shifting uneasily backward, “engine troubles?”

 

 

 

 

They’ve all been lying through their teeth, Shizuka best of all. He’s grateful for it, in a way, but it gives him pause:  something not quite right. Ryou reassesses. He’s seen Mai shooting to kill and Shizuka pink-cheeked and grinning over a new set of screwdrivers, about as vicious as a china doll, so how is it harmless Shizuka and deadly Mai ended up eating plates of fried rice together in companionable silence under orange lanterns—?

 

Unless Mai’s weak to dimpling smiles and sweet cinnamon hair—just like he is

 

Unless Shizuka is just as deadly.

 

“Listen, about the guns,” Mai says, low, “I talked to some people. They’ll do it—for a favor.”

 

“What kind of favor?” Ryou says.

 

“I’ll let you know."

 

“I have limits, Mai,” Ryou says, and then winces. It sounds pompous—a preposterous attempt to threaten.

 

 

 

 

“Well, Mr. Inoue—”

 

Mai grins as he tenses and turns.

 

Shizuka is wiping her hands on a greasecloth. “I don’t know what you did,” she says, clipped and unhappy. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

“Can you—?” he says.

 

She swipes the cloth over her knuckles, fingernails, wrists. “Yes,” she says finally. “In all seriousness, Inoue-san, we’re looking at multiple part replacements. It’s going to cost you.”

 

“I can pay,” Ryou says.

 

She looks at him, sizes him up—

 

“Eight thousand,” she says, flatly, and Mai makes a sound like she’s choking.

 

“Okay,” Ryou says.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Mai says, under her breath.

 

The radio breaks the silence. “—nine-oh-five and all’s reasonably well—”

 

“Damn,” Mai mutters, stepping back. “Gotta go. Later, kids—have fun and don’t stay up too late."

 

She spins around at the warehouse doors, the gray-black sky huge behind her:  “Dockside, same time, forty-eight hours, Inoue. Bring your shopping list.”

 

She’s gone. Ryou breathes in and out.

 

—moves into its eighth week,” the radio bubbles. “We’re all on the edge of our seats about this, Bonz included! Whatever happens, ’s gonna be a real riot—

 

Shizuka turns the radio off with a click.

 

“You could buy a new ship with that money,” she says, just as flatly as before. “Forget the eight thou. I’ll do it for two.”

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says.

 

He stops at the sudden glint in her eyes.

 

“So,” she says—

 

 

 

 

“So,” Shizuka says, with cheerful unconcern, “Kujaku-san says you have a job for me.”

 

Ryou feels small and cold and sick. “I need,” he begins. “My ship. I—”

 

A laughing couple jostle their table, trying to squeeze by. Shizuka stands up and pulls in her chair to make room.

 

“What’s the matter?” Mai murmurs. She’s enjoying this. “Don’t tell me you don’t know how to talk to pretty girls—”

 

 

 

 

“What’s your real name?”

 

Ryou estimates he’s been through twenty interrogations in his short career; he could go through another hundred, he thinks, and they would never be anything like this one. He swallows. “Kawai-san, I’m sorry.”

 

“That’s a weird name. I think I liked Hiroto better.”

 

“It really is Ryou,” Ryou says. “Inoue Ryou. I’m sorry. I didn’t think—I didn’t know—”

 

“Mm,” Shizuka says, and Ryou shuts up. “Okay, then, Inoue Ryou-kun, I have a few more questions. Are you really an old friend from the squad?”

 

“Sort of,” Ryou says. “We were on the same side and—and everything.”

 

“And you really transport things?”

 

“Yes." He closes his eyes. “Sometimes.”

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“There’s—something I need to pick up,” Ryou says. Someone.

 

“Does Kujaku-san know about it?”

 

Probably, Ryou thinks. He meets her gaze and holds it. “Yes.”

 

Shizuka sighs. “Last question. Do you have a place to stay?”

 

“I,” Ryou says. “My ship—”

 

“No,” Shizuka says. “I mean a room.”

 

“I—I’ll find a place." He’s seen at least two twenty-four hour bathhouses in center-sphere. They’re full up, but there’s always room for one more. In the worst case, he’ll go to the clinic, where the bars on the windows are loose and the night guard is lazy—

 

“Don’t bother,” Shizuka says. “There isn’t a vacant room on this sphere. There probably won’t be for—umph—weeks!" She tosses the radio into her satchel and heaves a toolkit after it. “I have a spare bedroll at my place, though.”

 

“You’re—”

 

“Telling you to sleep over,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, Ryou-kun. I just want you where I can keep an eye on you.”

 

“What,” he says feebly. “What about your roommate?”

 

Shizuka frowns at him. “Why would she care?”

 

“I could—I could be a psycho killer,” he says.

 

“So could I,” Shizuka says. “This is Ukiyo, in case you hadn’t noticed." She swings the satchel up over one shoulder. “Coming? Can you get that bag?”

 

“Kawai-san,” Ryou says, “thank you.”

 

She waves him off. “Don’t worry about it, Ryou Hiroto Honda Sorry.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Guess I sleep like the dark desert
Yawning the morn in the old den

Sin Fang Bous, “Advent In Ives Garden”

 

 

 

 

Tadaima,” Shizuka says. There’s no answer. “No—don’t take off your shoes, Ryou-kun—the floor isn’t clean." She locks the door but doesn’t slide the bolt home. “Hit the lights, please.”

 

Ryou finds the switch. The room is windowless, smaller than the Minotaur’s cargo hold and made smaller still by the pile of metallic junk that seems to be growing from the southern wall. There’s a fold-out poster of a starship on the wall, too:  a silver St. Joan gleaming in a darkened hangar. One threadbare pallet lies on the floor. It’s bitingly cold.

 

Shizuka sets her bags down on the kotatsu in the center of the room and hauls several pillows, a space heater, and an enormous thermos out of the mess.

 

“Bathroom’s downstairs and to the left,” she says, flipping the switch on what looks like a lantern out of a children’s story:  a squat black thing with a thin looping handle. It casts a dim circle of yellow light into the center of the room. She sets it on the kotatsu. The space heater rattles to life.

 

There are, Ryou notices, entirely too many shoes by the door. Black and red heels, obscenely high; they don’t look like anything Shizuka would wear. Right—on the large side too. The absent roommate’s, he realizes—work shoes?

 

“Have a seat,” Shizuka says, pulling an assortment of little metal instruments from her vest pockets. “It’ll warm up soon." She retrieves the radio from her satchel.

 

“Ah—yes,” Ryou says, dazed.

 

A cry of thirst, a heart with flowers blooming inside—just take my—

 

Shizuka turns the dial.

 

“—a good beat and a rusty rhythm,” a woman sings. “Respect! Boys, show me courage—

 

Ryou sits cross-legged by the heater and examines the pile. He spots several alarm clocks, two more radios, masses of tangled wires, several magazines, flat pieces of black plastic, graphite pencils, an ancient television set bleeding multicolored circuitry, a model starfighter and three toy suits—

 

“There should be some cups in there.”

 

Ryou counts four. He fishes two out from a nest of wires and sets them on the kotatsu. Shizuka fills them with hot water.

 

“Thanks,” Ryou says.

 

Chizu egaite,” Shizuka hums. “Shizumanai taiyou. There are spare sheets in the other room, Ryou-kun. Himitsu no rakuen."

 

The next room is even smaller, rectangular, one corner taken up by an old-fashioned red-lacquered wardrobe. A window on the far wall lets in a slit of gray light; the pallets and sheets are folded up beneath it. There are boxes stacked by the door. Garlic, one reads. Ryou peels it open:  canned vegetables. He goes to the wardrobe, opens it, and is greeted by a sequined wine-colored dress. The roommate’s again, he decides.

 

He falls asleep to the sound of Shizuka methodically dismantling the television.

 

 

 

 

Ryou wakes up to watery light and painful cold filtering in from an open door. He has no idea what time it is. He can hear Shizuka breathing somewhere to his right, soft and peaceful. There is a gun pressed against his cheekbone.

 

 

 

 

If it were just me, I’d be with you in milliseconds, I swear, Inoue. A year ago—definitely. To hell with the Coalition! and all that. But not now. I’m not flying solo anymore. I have people here. I can’t just take off and never look back.

 

 

 

 

“Oh, god,” he whispers.

 

“Yeah,” Mai agrees. “Oh god. Oh god is exactly right. I can’t fucking believe this. She brought you home? You let her bring you home? Oh, Christ.”

 

You’re her roommate,” Ryou says, in dull shock.

 

“Hell fucking yes, I’m her roommate,” Mai hisses. She doesn’t put the gun away. “I said I’d help you, Inoue, but you of all people should know these things don’t happen overnight. I worked as goddamn fast as I could. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you would do this. I can’t believe you would take advantage of—”

 

“What?” Ryou rasps.

 

She jabs the gun harder into his cheek. “You heard me.”

 

“Wh—oh—no,” Ryou says. He can feel his blood pulsing against the gun. “Mai!”

 

Shizuka stirs—she’s fallen asleep over the television, Ryou realizes—and mumbles in her sleep. Mai swears under her breath.

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou whispers. “I didn’t know.”

 

“You get her any more involved in this shit,” Mai says, soft and dangerous, “and I’ll kill you.”

 

She holsters the gun and steps quietly away. Ryou hears the deadbolt sliding into place and the rustling of clothing, and then Mai comes back, moving quick and easy through Shizuka’s scattered debris. She slides into the empty futon beside his and settles down to sleep without another word.

 

Ryou lies as still as he can. He thinks, stupidly, This explains the shoes.

 

 

 

 

Shizuka is long gone—to the docks and the Minotaur and wherever it is spare machine parts are bartered and sold on Ukiyo—when Mai wakes him, all gentleness and contrition. He notes gratefully that she appears to be unarmed before crawling from bedroll to kotatsu, where breakfast is waiting:  two stale mantou, a vitamin pill, and as much boiling hot water as he can drink.

 

Mai tends the kettle in silence. Ryou looks around:  the junk pile hasn’t become any less chaotic overnight, fed now by Mai’s boots and various articles of black clothing.

 

“Yes, you can stay,” Mai says, when Ryou has bitten and chewed the last dry bit of mantou and felt it lodge somewhere in his esophagus. “And I apologize for the, uh, rough treatment last night—”

 

“No,” Ryou says, startled, “don’t worry about it.”

 

“—I was dead tired yesterday, and you surprised me. So. Sorry, Inoue.”

 

“It’s fine,” Ryou says. “Really. I wouldn’t have done it, if I’d known." Though he hadn’t had much choice in the end, had he, with his ship sitting gutted in a garage, and Shizuka watching him with steady eyes, waiting for him, maybe willing to forgive….

 

He shakes it off:  there are more pressing matters at hand. “Mai—the guns.”

 

“I did what I could, but they’re going to come slower than you want,” Mai says. “But when they do come—like I said, it’ll take a little effort on your part.”

 

“What exactly is it they—your people—want me to do?” he asks, warily.

 

Unexpectedly, Mai laughs. “The impossible,” she says. “They—” her eyes dance at him “—my people—want you to stand around and look menacing.”

 

 

 

 

Look menacing—in other words keeping a straight face while someone else does all the intimidating—all the heavy lifting, and heavy slugging, and heavy breaking—?

 

And hands clasped angelically behind the back, of course—

 

 

 

 

“But,” Mai says, “if you fork over that eight thou, I’m sure they can find someone else for the job." She looks at him, gaze sharpening:  “But I’m also sure you don’t have eight thou burning a hole in your pocket. So what the hell was that last night?”

 

 

 

 

Not my pocket. Seto Kaiba’s pocket

 

Kaiba wants Bakura because he wants Maximilian Pegasus’ secrets and the secret of his realm of shadows, all property now of the man who cut Pegasus’ throat and razed his empire to the ground—Kaiba would very much like to know—and Kaiba will pay the aforementioned eight thousand because eight thousand is loose change—

 

But Kaiba—the voice in his head is all Ishtar now, desert-dry—wants results, Corporal Inoue. And results you have not given him.

 

 

 

 

“She’s real cute, I’ll give you that,” Mai says. “But I didn’t think you swung that way, Inoue." She looks distant; they’re both remembering Valon now, Ryou knows. Then the dreamy distance focuses. “I didn’t think you swung at all, actually—”

 

He coughs. “This—the—headquarters wants this guy before the Coalition can get to him. They want him very badly. So they’re—”

 

“Bullshit,” Mai says. “If they wanted him that bad, they’d’ve sent over a whole damn team.”

 

A whole damn team—in other words, not you, Inoue.

 

“It’s sensitive—”

 

Bullshit,” Mai says again. “You’re expendable. Who can we throw away today—?

 

Pain blooming in his chest—but a muted ache, dulled now like all his various hurts—and tightening into frustration. He doesn’t understand why she won’t let it go.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. Live or die, the stars and planets will keep on turning. But he supposes stars and planets have stopped turning for Valon.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he repeats. “Is there anything we can do today?”

 

“Nope,” Mai says, shaking the last few drops of water into his cup. “You can sit pretty. Or go for a walk. It’s my day off and I’m going back to bed.”

 

 

 

 

She sleeps until Ryou comes back from the docks, and she sleeps through dinner:  Shizuka, arriving with parcels of fried rice noodles, says, low, “No, don’t wake her,” and sets aside a packet. Ryou bends his head over his files for what seems only a few moments—

 

—and jumps as Mai throws his boots down in front of him. “Boooring,” she drawls. “Let’s get a drink, yeah? I’m thirsty. Shiz’-chan, wanna come?”

 

“No thanks,” Shizuka says, without looking up from the television. “I’m finally making progress with this wiring.”

 

Mai shrugs. “All right. Coming, Inoue?”

 

“Er—I should really—" He breaks off at the look in Mai’s eyes.

 

“What is it?” Shizuka says, low.

 

Mai is already moving toward the door, swearing under her breath. Ryou follows. He feels sleep-heavy and sick, not at all ready to tackle anyone.

 

Mai signals with her right hand. I’ll handle it.

 

Ryou nods. Right, he thinks, where is Mai’s bloody gun—

 

He kicks open the door and Mai lunges. There is a brief scuffle and she straightens with the eavesdropper in a blood choke. A boy with black hair:  bent backwards, eyes bulging, red-faced, and—what?—clutching a toy suit shaped like a monkey.

 

Ryou’s presence seems to upset him more than the chokehold. He stares at Ryou. Ryou stares back. The monkey hangs limply between them.

 

“Ryuuji,” Mai says, releasing him. “I should have known.”

 

“Good evening to you, too, fuck,” Ryuuji says. He rubs his neck. “Hi. And you are?”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, slowly. “Inoue Ryou.”

 

The green of Ryuuji’s eyes seems to sharpen; Ryou meets his stare with what he hopes is a neutral smile.

 

“I was. Ehm. Just leaving. With, um. With Mai.”

 

“Were you?" The boy smiles just enough to show his teeth. “Run along, then.”

 

“Oh, give it a goddamned rest, Ryuuji,” Mai says. “Ryou, this is Otogi Ryuuji, who seems to think he lives here. He’s useless.”

 

“What? I complete you, Mai,” Otogi Ryuuji says. “It hurts me to hear you say that.”

 

“What do you want?” Mai says, long-suffering. “It’s past curfew.”

 

“Like anyone really cares. Is Shizuka here? It’s Tristan, he’s blown a fuse or something." He brandishes the monkey.

 

“This couldn’t have waited until morning?”

 

“I guess I panicked,” Otogi says, grinning. He raises his voice. “I think he’s dead.”

 

“What?” Shizuka exclaims. “Otogi-kun, this is the third time—bring him here, let’s have a look.”

 

Otogi smirks—the smirk is directed entirely at Ryou—and brushes past, robotic monkey in tow.

 

“Uuugh,” Mai says, rolling her eyes. “I rue the day I let this kid in my house.”

 

“Mai,” Ryou says, slowly, “is that—”

 

“Huh?” Mai says, distracted. “What’d you say?”

 

Ryou hesitates. He looks out into the gray dusk, at billboards flickering pink and orange while the Worms rise like an enormous black wall in the distance.

 

A sudden burst of green light illuminates Mai’s face and makes them both twitch.

 

“Oh, hell,” Mai says.

 

“What is it?” Ryou asks.

 

Mai pulls back her collar to reveal the communicator hanging around her neck, flashing green in a sequence of long and short pulses.

 

“Business,” she says, pushing past him and heading back inside.

 

Ryou turns. Shizuka and Otogi are seated at the kotatsu, the monkey spread-eagled between them, its stomach pried open, wires spilling out like intestines. Ryou begins to step inside—and stumbles over Mai’s heels, lying discarded in the doorway.

 

“Wh—”

 

Mai strides out of the next room—black boots now—pulling her hair into a long tail. As her jacket lifts, Ryou catches a glimpse of the Baby Dragon, a dusty stripe of orange in its side holster.

 

“Gonna have to take a rain check on the bar crawl, Inoue,” she says, nudging the heels out of the way.

 

“Sure,” Ryou says. “But—”

 

“Cover for me,” Mai whispers. She raises her voice. “Yo, Shiz’-chan, I’m heading out!”

 

“Oh—okay! Have fun!" Shizuka doesn’t look up; neither does Otogi, Ryou notices, whose eyes are intent on Shizuka’s face.

 

“Where are you going?” Ryou says.

 

“Downtown,” Mai says. She sounds irritated. “Someone’s stirring up shit. And it was my day off, too—look, just sit tight. I won’t be long." She starts to move.

 

“What about Otogi?” Ryou asks.

 

“What about Otogi?” Mai says. She grins, sudden and wolfish. “Oh, are you worried? Keep an eye on him if you’re worried. Ta, Inoue.”

 

“Mai—”

 

The door slams.

 

“Oh—you aren’t going, Ryou-kun?” Shizuka says from behind him.

 

Ryou-kun?” says Otogi indignantly.

 

“No,” Ryou says. “I have a—I’m—uh, I need to map my next route.”

 

“Aw, you’re going to work?” Shizuka says. “I think I’ll be able to finish up the TV tonight. We can watch The Fire Princess of Tsurugi if you don’t mind waiting a bit.”

 

Fire Princess—what about those Morning Maiden tapes I got you?” Otogi says.

 

“Morning Maiden?" Shizuka makes a face. “Really?”

 

“Fire Princess is so melodramatic and predictable,” Otogi says. “All that ‘heart of the magic’ crap—yeah, right! Someone’s cheating. You know what I mean, Ryou-kun?”

 

“I—”

 

Shizuka interrupts. “I’m not refurbing the TV so we can watch Morning Maiden—”

 

“What do you have against mindless fun?”

 

“What do you have against shows with substance?”

 

They’re smiling at each other—

 

“I’ve,” Ryou says. He raises his voice and hears the sound of it humming in the hollows of his skull, against his forehead and cheekbones:  “I’ve never seen Fire Princess before.”

 

“Yay!” Shizuka says.

 

“Ugh,” Otogi groans.

 

 

 

 

He dozes off while the Fire Princess of Tsurugi and her trusty robotic monkey sidekick are being besieged by suit-mation robots in an abandoned missile factory—soft gentle damp is all around him, the sound of Otogi and Shizuka bickering, laughter surrounding him, and he’s sinking, lower and lower...

 

“I’ll never die,” Bakura murmurs—there is no knife at his ribs now, only Bakura, the black eyes and parted mouth. Ryou laughs, leans back. He can feel the warmth of Bakura through his flight suit, the imprint of Bakura’s fingers.

 

“You’re mine now,” Ryou says.

 

 

 

 

He jolts awake, gasping and disoriented. Quick check:  Otogi and Shizuka are dead to the universe. Slowly he untangles himself from Otogi’s sprawling leg.

 

 

 

 

Bakura, standing beside him in the hangar after a battle, pushing him down and licking a hot circle at the center of his chest

 

 

 

 

God!

 

He fumbles for the tea kettle—drinks a cold and acrid mouthful, gargles and swallows. He creeps to the slit window and pushes his cheek against the cold panes. Minutes click by. He has lost track of time, only knows it must be late from the gritty pain of every blink.

 

The knowledge that Bakura lives and will continue to live, in this galaxy or the next, lurks heavy at the back of his mind, displacing fantasies of Earth—dammed up knowledge, but there are cracks; Bakura is already seeping into his every thought. They have been bound together by some scheme of Brigadier Ishtar; they will meet again and again until one of them is dead.

 

Ryou wonders if the novelty of their acquaintance will someday grow blunt and dull, if encountering Bakura will someday be as easy and routine as—as Saturday nights with Yuugi and company. Hello again, Bakura, you’re looking well, and please put down that knife

 

There is no excuse for what he imagines next, except perhaps that it has been a long three months:  he thinks, dazedly, about bringing Bakura to Yuugi’s wedding—in handcuffs, maybe. Jounouchi-kun, this is Bakura, I’ve shot him down again.

 

He feels his mouth twist and then clears his throat, embarrassed. But the little flat is entirely silent, save for the sound of Otogi and Shizuka’s soft sleeping breaths, and Mai does not appear in the doorway, a laughing silhouette, and, with a new blush burning high in his cheeks, Ryou creeps back to his futon and closes his eyes.

 

 

 

 

Good morning, Ukiyo!

 

Ryou, tumbling through cold wet clouds toward the jungles of Earth, returns abruptly to the present, where he is flat on his back on the floor with a sheet pulled up to his chin. The left side of his face feels swollen and hot; his mouth is dry, and everything else is stiff and sore and prickling with cold. Mai’s black boots come gradually into focus.

 

—put a date on the Hattori trial, first of September—I expect they’ll order the wanker back to his estate on Alpha Four under heavy guard. Donno about you, Bonz, but I certainly hope—

 

“’Morning,” Mai says.

 

Ryou raises himself carefully to one arm and sits up in gingerly and creaking increments. Various muscles protest.

 

“Sorry,” he says, and pauses at his voice:  hoarse and low, the voice of a stranger. “Stiff.”

 

—as always respectable folk are cautioned to keep their pale, law-abiding arses indoors—”

 

Never have any fun that way—

 

You got it, Zygor. Sod respectability, yeah?

 

Fuckit!

 

Anything to add, Bonz? Anything? Anything at all?


Crackling radio silence.

 

“When—” There’s something in his eye—he rubs at it with a knuckle and fights back a yawn. “When did you get back?”

 

“No idea. Bugfuck AM.” Mai lowers herself to the ground with a groan and stares up at the ceiling with red-rimmed eyes. No makeup now. She’s wearing a T-shirt and last night’s black jeans and the green communicator around her neck—it’s an older Orichalcos model, he sees now, etched and dented, and hanging beside it—oh, fuck—Valon’s ring. It’s a heavy signet ring, ornate, ostentatious. He remembers Valon laughing as he explained the joke:  an orphan’s family crest, a coat of arms for a dynasty of one.

 

Mai has probably been wearing it all this time, Ryou realizes—dangling between her breasts, tucked under her shirts and her corsets—

 

Did Valon give it to her, he wonders, or did she pull it off Valon’s finger and put it in her pocket, that night in the bar? Did she take it from his wasted hand, in that clinic, sometime in the three years since?

 

Mai shifts; the green inset stone spins and flashes.

 

She is still talking, a low continuous murmur. He drags his eyes upward. “It was supposed to be a routine run—a couple hours at the most. This fucking blockade.” She sighs. “Wish I could sleep.”

 

“You have time,” Ryou says. Shizuka has gone to the docks already, it seems, but he’s sure it’s still morning—

 

Mai shakes her head. “Too fucking wired right now.” Breath. “What about you, huh, Inoue?”

 

“Me?” He tries to kill the second yawn, too, but it pries his jaws open, wider, wider, squeezing tears from his eyes. He wipes them away with his sleeve. “Sorry—”

 

“Yeah, you." She knocks their shoulders together, companionably, grins. Her lips are chapped, pale without lipstick. “You look tired. Late night?”

 

Pieces of another dream, faded now, slot neatly back into place. Ryou can feel the blush working its way, red hot, into his cheeks.

 

“I didn’t sleep well,” he says.

 

“Too bad. Not because of this moron here, I hope,” Mai says.

 

Ryou follows her gaze to the prone snoring body beside him, hair unbound now and ink-black against the bedroll—this moron here—

 

 

 

 

Otogi awake is tall and lithe, dressed in black and red, with a sharply handsome face and inky black hair tied back in a high ponytail. Gray light snags on various adornments:  a red headband, quirky earrings in the shape of dice. But what catches Ryou’s attention and holds it is the tattoo:  a single black line, running smooth and sharp down his left cheek.

 

 

 

 

“No,” Ryou says. “It was fine. We—we watched TV.”

 

“He can be a pain in the ass sometimes,” Mai says. There’s a but in there somewhere, Ryou thinks. Mai isn’t looking at him; she’s watching Otogi’s face, smoothed in sleep, and the pink mouth parting in snuffling breaths, breathing shallowly through her own mouth. Ryou can’t parse the look in her eyes, but he thinks it must be some parts fond.

 

Asleep, Otogi’s looks are softer, but the tattoo remains starkly black and angular against his skin.

 

“Mai,” Ryou says quietly, “what’s a duke of the Black Crowns doing on Ukiyo?"

 

Never mind Ukiyo—Ukiyo is the part that makes sense—what’s a duke of the Black Crowns doing sleeping on your floor?

 

Mai is silent. Then she sighs, resigned. “I told him to cover up that fucking tat if he wanted to stay out of trouble. Yeah, I noticed you noticed." Pained:  “Jesus, Inoue, couldn’t you tell I didn’t want you to bring it up? No, don’t you fucking apologize.”

 

He should leave, he knows—get out before he sucks them any further into this operation. A new place to sleep, a new mechanic. It won’t be too hard to do, and Mai will help him, because she wants him gone—out of her life before he and the Brigadier can tear this incarnation of Mai Valentine and her people to shreds.

 

He tells himself it won’t come to that.

 

“Anyway,” Mai says, “I never asked him. You don’t ask.”

 

“Lying low,” Ryou suggests.

 

“Starting over,” Mai says. She pins him with a look. “You know exactly what he’s doing here—no, don’t bullshit me! I know what went down on Alpha Twelve last year. The poor kid has nothing left.”

 

He meets her eyes, startled, and then looks away. “You’ve been keeping tabs on—on me?”

 

“I’ve been keeping tabs on the whole damn outfit,” Mai says. “I like knowing what the Brig is up to—so I know when it’s time to pack up and run like hell.”

 

 

 

 

“What is it?" Mai’s voice issues, muffled, from a tangle of sheets. “What is it she wants so bad, huh? Come on, Inoue. You can tell me. Dead women tell no tales, and all that.”

 

Only her left foot is visible, toenails short and lacquered red.

 

“Not ‘what,’ Mai,” he says. “ ‘Who’—”

 

 

 

 

He borrows Honda again. Honda Hiroto—silent apologies to the real Honda, light years away and probably closing up for the night—is on Ukiyo on unspecified business, looking for a man he used to know:  a man in red, a man with the same white hair. Might have touched down a month ago, three weeks ago, give or take.

 

He doesn’t ask too many questions, but he hangs around, watches. Ryou wants to know about the black ships and Karita’s exact whereabouts onboard, but Honda doesn’t ask. Honda doesn’t leer or swagger (the way Valon did); he looks a little sick, actually, thin and stooped and shaky. His eyes are sunken in his skull and there’s a bruise healing green-yellow on his cheek. The gray light washes him out, makes him fade, and the only thing anyone can remember about Honda Hiroto after a few hours is the white hair, or maybe the way he kept one arm tight to his chest, the hand immobile, curling under like a claw.

 

Honda doesn’t press. He haunts the docks until everyone else heads inland for supper, and then he disappears.

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t make sense—

 

No one’s seen Bakura. That makes sense:  hair dyes, haircuts, costume changes—all par for the course.

 

What doesn’t make sense is the gut certainty that Bakura will look exactly as he did in the throne-room of Baek—

 

And the certainty that Ryou will know him at once—

 

 

 

 

In the end, it’s Inoue Ryou, dockworker and all-around nice boy, stopping at a stall to buy his mates dinner, with his white hair hidden under a beanie and his arm hidden under his coat, who gets Honda Hiroto his first big break.

 

The vendor likes nice boys like Ryou. She clucks over the bruise.

 

“Docks,” Ryou says, by way of explanation, with a small, rueful smile.

 

“Got clocked by one of those arms, didn’t you,” the vendor says, shaking her head. “Could have had your skull knocked in! Safety violations like mad!"

 

He watches her scoop idlis from a steaming vat:  one, two, three, four, f—

 

“I hope you weren’t out there when that suit crashed. ’S a wonder your mum didn’t make you quit then and there!”

 

Nice-boy Ryou jerks into alertness, feels his heart thunder to life inside him—and fades away altogether. Just Ryou now, mouth parting, good hand clenched.

 

What—?”

 

She takes the sudden sharpness of his voice for shock—which is close enough, really. “That’s right,” she says. “Right out of space! Big white monster—it’s a miracle only a few people were hurt. You didn’t hear about it?”

 

 

 

 

Big white monster—

 

Honda Hiroto was asking all the wrong questions!

 

 

 

 

She takes his silence for shock, too, nods kindly at him. “Listen, beti, you want safer work, you take the shuttle and go find my brother-in-law on Platform Six. Ashvin Ajith. It’ll have to wait until this mess with those Worm ships is over, of course. But a nice boy like you, you’ll get the job, no trouble—”

 

He barely hears her.

 

Right out of space—big white monster—!

 

“So you won’t have to worry about coming back to your mum with your arms and legs all broken to bits. Ashvin runs a safe platform—worst they had was a few fingers lost in the threshing, and that was two, three years ago—you look into it, beti.”

 

The niceness reinstates itself. “Thank you,” Ryou says politely. “I’ll think about it.”

 

“Good boy,” she says, smiling. She bundles and binds the packets of idlis with deft fingers. “Here you go—”

 

Big white monster—

 

 

 

 

The Necrofear!

 

 

 

 

Oh, but this doesn’t make sense either, that a suit like the Necrofear—big white monster—could have evaporated into thin air. But it has.

 

 

 

 

The warehouse is cavernous at dusk. He ducks under the half-shut rolling door, into the gloom. There is a light at the far end, bouncing and twitching, glinting off the scattered pieces of the dismembered Harpy.

 

“Kawai-san?”

 

“Over here!” she calls, and then a small pale hand flits into the jumping light, waves. He hurries toward it.

 

Shizuka is sitting at her workbench, pushing at a tiny square of metal with a set of pliers. The light is emanating from her headpiece:  a flashlight strapped to her forehead like crude spelunking gear.

 

“Kawai-san, it’s—” he hesitates “—it’s Ryou.”

 

She doesn’t turn around. “What’s up?” she says, bending close to inspect her handiwork.

 

He sets the idlis on the concrete by her right foot. “I brought your dinner. Uh—I’m not interrupting, am I?”

 

“Mm.”

 

“Er. Question for you." He feels like he’s breathing down her neck—he wishes she would turn and look at him. His tongue feels clumsy in his mouth. “When you stripped the Harpy Lady down for parts—did you sell any of it?”

 

Murmured:  “Sure we did—that was the whole point, Honda-san." She pushes hard with the pliers; Ryou cringes. “The motherboard, the optics, the brakes—lots of stuff. People will pay a lot for suit components.”

 

“Because suits are rare—in these parts—?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“So if someone else gutted a suit and sold the pieces, you’d take notice—right?”

 

“Mmhm.”

 

Right, then. “Kawai-san, I need your help.”

 

“Oh?" She swivels around. “What—” the else hangs unspoken between them “—do you want?”

 

“Have you seen anything unusual? In the last few weeks?”

 

He has her attention now, at least. “Hmm,” Shizuka says, setting the metal square down. “Last few weeks, huh? Well—okay, strictly speaking, it’s not legal, so we don’t go around announcing all the new stuff. You have to know the right people—get the right messages. Or send the right messages. Like a fairy market."

 

Fairy market—?

 

Never mind! “Do you? Know the right people, that is?”

 

“I am the right people,” Shizuka says, dimpling beautifully up at him. “Kidding. I’m not a big name yet—which is a good place to be, on Ukiyo. Siegfried and Leonheart—I know—those aren’t their real names—Siegfried and Leonheart come to mind first, because they’re flashy. But almost anyone will do it, for the commish. It’s a lot of money.”

 

“But if you wanted it done well—professionally—quietly—”

 

“Then you’d want Solomon. He’s the best." She beams at him. “For now.”

 

“Not his real name either?”

 

“Probably not. I go by ‘Serenity,’ in case you’re wondering—" She seems to catch herself. “Why’re you asking, anyway? Don’t tell me you have a broken suit lying around—reactor trouble this time? Does Kujaku-san know?”

 

“She doesn’t. And I don’t. But word on the street is someone else does—did,” he corrects himself. “The white suit that crashed last month—did you hear about it?”

 

“Hear about it? I heard it,” Shizuka says. “Heard it, felt it, but didn’t get to see it—they blocked it off and it was gone the next day, like—" Her eyes widen. “Oh...”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says. “Like someone chopped it up and made it disappear...”

 

“—and sold it piece by piece,” Shizuka finishes. “And you want to know if I’ve seen the pieces.”

 

“Yes, that’s part of it,” Ryou says. “I also want to know if you know who sold them. Solomon, then?”

 

“No, not Solomon,” she says softly—almost dreamily. “Hang on—" She stands abruptly, pivots, and darts into the shadows, throwing up a wobbling beam of light into the dusty air—then nothing.

 

Ryou stares into the darkness.

 

“It’s funny—" Her voice ripples back to him. He hears her rummaging through spare parts. “I was so disappointed...when I heard the suit was gone. I asked everyone about it—all the dock vendors." Bang! “But since I’d never seen it—how wrecked it might have been—I assumed the pilot had taken off the second they figured out everything was in working order—to avoid any trouble, right? I never thought—” bang! bang! “—here it is—”

 

Here what is?

 

“Here—” Shizuka says, and then he sees her again, stepping over a pile of junk, the headpiece casting eerie shadows. She’s holding out a smooth, adularescent white disc—like an overgrown fish scale. It flares as she rotates it, throwing light into the gaping darkness of the warehouse. “A piece like this, you mean?”

 

He frowns at it. “What is it?”

 

She smiles. “Yeah—I didn’t recognize what it was at first either. It’s a heat tile, but not like one I’ve ever seen before. Popped up for sale about a month ago, along with a few other bits and bobs. I’ve been meaning to take it apart.”

 

“Who—?”

 

Her smile dims. “Well—that’s the thing, I don’t know, actually. Picked it up at one of the regular shops, but I didn’t ask about provenance—it’s not polite, you know?”

 

“Can you trace it?"

 

“Sure,” Shizuka says, “I can trace the seller. If that’s what you want me to do. But, Ryou-kun, you have to tell me why.”

 

He looks at her, at the hard set of her jaw, and nods.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

I’ll build a house inside of you
I’ll build in through the mouth
I’ll draw three figures on your heart.  

Wolf Parade, “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son”

 

 

 

 

Their prisoner isn’t talking—yet. But he’s out of stories now, mangled his last cover, and he’s staring up with belligerence in his eyes and nary a sentence in his mouth.

 

Ryou hates when they go silent. He’s done it before, in the beginning, gone to a place deep in his head and bitten the insides of his cheeks until they were swollen and bloody, and now—with the scars of experience on his body—he babbles obligingly, although he also makes it a point to avoid getting caught. Standing in the background in this dingy warehouse with his feet firmly planted, his face in shadows, the wasted arm crossed painfully behind his good one, he thinks about the prison guards of the Baekan palace, and wonders what he looks like to Jeong Joon Ho sweating it out in the hot seat now, where Ryou should be sitting with tied-up hands and a bleeding nose.

 

“Go on, tell us—there’s a love.”

 

But Alister doesn’t look anything like the Baekan vizier, Mahaad, who was tall and muscular and beautifully adorned where Alister and Alister’s red hair have all but disappeared, though his face and skeletal hands gleam like half-moons in the dark. The fingers of these hands are curled carefully on either side of the unfortunate interrogee, and Alister is leaning far forward, his long white face immobile, his gray eyes dull and fixed.

 

“Don’t do this to me, June old boy,” the white face whispers. “Know you can make me happy, Joony—just say the words. Let you go free if you make me happy—free as a bird, yeah, Jeong Joon Ho? You understand, don’t you?”

 

June seems to be considering. His is the kind of loyalty bought by the size of illicit bonuses and maybe the sad little thrill one gets from pawing the boss’s best boy from time to time—yeah, Alister’s seen him—lovely little boy, isn’t he. But he’s blown now; he’s in a real fix, is Joony boy. The Big Man wants blood, Joony. Alister keeps on whispering, while the white face presses impossibly closer without ever touching, the dull eyes do not blink:  Jeong Joon Ho is a clever customer, isn’t he? Bully for him if he makes it back in one piece, but if he doesn’t—and he won’t—his pal the Xinfeng laoban will hardly move stars and planets to have him returned. Time to make a deal, innit? Yeah, Joony?

 

He’ll talk, Ryou thinks, wills it with his teeth clenched. He’ll talk now and there will be no need for further convincing, for Ryou to hold his arms down while Alister goes at him with a scalpel or knife.

 

Yes:  Joony boy swallows—Ryou sees his throat bobbing in the dark—and he slumps, and the white hands lift, and Alister steps back—

 

He’ll talk

 

He screams.

 

Ryou jerks and stares at him in total bewilderment. No one’s touched him—no one’s even come close; Alister, in fact, is still backing away. Then he sees the blood.

 

For a beat everyone stands in frozen confusion, except for June, whose scream chokes off into whimpering; Alister’s two thugs exchange glances, and the big blond one starts forward, flexing, and stops, obeying the sharp motion of Alister’s hand.

 

Ryou steadies his own breathing under the shivering, ragged sound of June’s breaths, curls and uncurls the fingers of his good hand.

 

Finally, Alister swears; it sounds punched out of him. “Was that necessary?” he says, struggling for smooth contempt and sounding shaken instead, and Ryou turns to see Mai. No—not Mai:  this is the Iron Bitch, through and through, and the muzzle of her Baby Dragon is still glowing.

 

“Out,” she says.

 

“Fucksake, I was about to break him,” Alister protests.

 

“I don’t care,” Mai says. “You are wasting my time, you are wasting the boss’s time. All of you:  Get out."

 

Alister swears again. “Woman—”

 

Mai ignores him. She strides toward June, who cries out at the sight of her, and grabs him by his hair, jerking his head back and pressing the Baby Dragon to his groin. She croons into his ear; he sobs.

 

“Inoue,” Mai murmurs, “get out and close the door when you go.”

 

 

 

 

Mai—just Mai now, her footfalls soft, the rigid set of her shoulders gone—emerges some thirty minutes later, the Baby Dragon holstered and not a hair out of place. After a confirming nod from Alister, Alister’s thugs shoulder past her and go to deal with the—body, Ryou thinks, unable to shake his uneasiness—It’s too quiet in there.

 

The door closes, and Alister snarls.

 

“That was my bloody interrogation.”

 

“Really?” Mai says. “Looked like you were about to ask him to dinner. Thought I should cut in before you did something you’d regret.”

 

“Fuck you,” Alister says. He shrugs with his hands in his pockets and Ryou envies the ease of the movement. “No reason to shoot the poor bastard.”

 

They step into the darkened street together. Ryou feels rather than sees Mai and Alister fall into line in front of him. They walk—quickly, but taking care to soften the ringing noise of their heeled shoes on concrete.

 

“We’ll have to shift the goods,” Mai’s voice says coolly.

 

“Never mind the goods,” Alister says. “What was that all about? Poor bastard,” he says again. “It wasn’t fair.”

 

 “Since when do you care about playing fair?” Mai says.

 

You do,” Alister snaps. “You should. Valon always—"

 

“Not that again,” Mai groans. “Lay off, will ya? Valon’s out of it. What Valon thinks doesn’t matter.”

 

Alister sucks in a long breath; Ryou, standing beside him now, sees his chest swelling with it under a sudden shock of lamplight. Then he blows it out, and changes the subject. “Well, we can’t do nothin’, not under the noses of that bleedin’ armada.”

 

Mai breathes out too. They enter a better-lit side street; the guns go away, Alister slouches and Mai tucks her hand into the crook of Ryou’s good arm:  three friends out for a midnight stroll.

 

 

 

 

Alister peels off first, saluting his farewell (“Later, Loudmouth—cheeribye”) as he disappears into a brawling crowd on a street of brothels. Mai, arm slung around Ryou’s shoulders now, draws them both to a stop in front of The Kunoichi, Restaurant and Bar. The door is slightly ajar:  Ryou hears faint music over a low continuous hum of voices.

 

“Thirsty?” Mai asks. She squeezes his shoulders, says companionably, “C’mon, have a drink.”

 

They’re standing cheek to cheek. Mai’s is warm and powder-soft. Ryou thinks he can feel a pulse beating; he’s not sure whose it is.

 

Valon’s out of it. What Valon thinks doesn’t matter.

 

“C’mon,” Mai says again, cajoling.

 

Ryou wants to return to the apartment, wants it almost painfully:  to sit beside Shizuka and Otogi in the flickering, freezing light, his ears full of their banter and their laughter. He follows Mai through the door.

 

“Baby!” Jean Claude shouts. “Oh,” he says next, with stagey disappointment, “you brought your friend.”

 

“Hi, Jean,” Mai says. “Cold out tonight.”

 

“Fucking cold,” Jean Claude replies, and then he leans down and says loudly, “I think you’ve had enough, buddy. You too. Scoot. Go on!" To Mai again:  “Sit down, baby, lemme warm you up." He taps the newly-empty places in front of him.

 

Mai takes the leftmost with a sigh. “Thanks, Jean.”

 

“Anytime, my darling,” Jean Claude says, passing her a steaming glass of clear liquid. “How ’bout you, buddy? What can I get ya? Lemonade? Milk?”

 

“Jean,” Mai says. “Get him a beer.”

 

“I was just asking." Jean-Claude comes back with a green bottle and sets it down disdainfully. “Past his bedtime, looks like.”

 

Jean,” Mai says. “Fuck off."

 

Jean Claude smiles. “You need me, you holler, sweetheart."

 

 

 

 

Mai drinks and drinks and says finally, dreamily, “Alister doesn’t even like me, you know. Hates my guts.”

 

“Yes?” Ryou says.

 

“Hates ’em,” Mai says, smiling at Ryou over the top of her glass. “Shoot me in the back any day. But he can’t now. Know why?”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, and relents and says, “No. Why?”

 

“Valon,” Mai says with triumph rich and warm in her voice. She slaps her hand on the countertop, rattling glass. “That’s right. Valon. Alister’s head over heels in love with Valon. See it ten parsecs away. Pathetically in love with him. So Alister’s watching my back now, ’stead of shooting it. ’Cause Valon said I’m good so I must be good, and Valon’s as good as dead so there’s no arguing with him. Is there. Alister’s a royal fucking headcase. Gets on my fucking nerves.”

 

“Why did you shoot him, Mai?” Ryou says quietly.

 

Mai looks at him. Her eyes are wet, glowing. “I hate skunks,” she says.

 

Jean Claude reappears with another glass. “This is the last one, babe,” he says. “Closing soon.”

 

Mai gives an absent nod.

 

Jean Claude doesn’t move off yet. “Go home and get some sleep,” he says, “and don’t let me see you here again tomorrow.”

 

 

 

 

There are more people milling about in the frozen twilight. It must be near to morning, Ryou thinks, or the vague half-light that passes for dawn on Ukiyo. There are people gathered in clusters about slow-burning fires, warming themselves and talking. Their voices are angry and their noses and cheeks red. Walking by them, Ryou feels like a ghost. Even Mai’s hair has been reduced to gray translucence.

 

For a moment Ryou misses the sight of her—of Mai out of the gray twilight, grinning at him over a green-painted café table, eyes and skin and hair golden during a long afternoon in an Alpha colony:  Mai before Ukiyo; Mai before Valon.

 

“Don’t,” Mai says suddenly. She sounds soberer now, and quieter.

 

“What?” Ryou says.

 

“Don’t put me on one of your fucking pedestals,” Mai says.

 

“I didn’t know I had pedestals,” Ryou says.

 

“Jesus. Don’t play dumb. Valon was wrong about me and so are you. We’re all skunks in this business and I deserve a bullet in the knee as much as the next skunk. Stop thinking I need to be rescued or brought back to civilization or wherever the fuck you come from. I belong here.”

 

“Okay,” Ryou says.

 

“You’re so goddamn colorless,” Mai says. “All that time we worked together running errands for that bitch, I never knew what the fuck you wanted. I don’t think you know."

 

Her voice rings down the street, but no one turns to look at Ryou or Mai as they stand facing one another, Mai visibly pale with fury, even in this dim light, and Ryou staring at her.

 

“I know now,” Ryou says. He says it breathlessly. His face heats, high on the right cheekbone, like she’s hit him. “I know now, Mai.”

 

“Bullshit. You’re the hollowest of hollow men. You give me the creeps.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t fucking apologize. Why don’t you get mad for once. Defend yourself. Jesus H. Christ.”

 

She stalks ahead. Clouds of breath billow away in the air:  Ryou breathes them back in and closes his mouth, burrows more deeply into his borrowed coat.

 

 

 

 

He jerks awake, rumpled and gasping in the shock of cold that awaits him outside the blanket. For a moment he thinks the sand of Baek is in his eyes again, and he closes them tightly, against the dry grittiness. Cold blasts his eyelids.

 

Shizuka’s voice registers.

 

“Ryou-kun, I found it,” she says.

 

“You—traced it?” Ryou says, dragging himself upright. Hair falls over his eyes and he pushes it away—and brushes Shizuka’s hand. He blinks. “The tile?”

 

Shizuka draws her hand back. Her cheeks are pink.

 

“Yeah,” she says, soft. “Want to go now?”

 

He bites down but can’t control the chattering of his teeth. “Yes—” half-staggering, half-crawling to his coat and pulling it on in several small, jerky movements “—yes, but—Otogi?”

 

“Went home an hour ago. Don’t worry, he won’t come prying. He has work to do, too.”

 

“And—” casually, oh, casually “—Mai?”

 

He doesn’t dare look at Shizuka. But she says, peaceably, “Not back yet. But I know where to find her.”

 

“Don’t,” Ryou says. “I mean. Not yet.”

 

Shizuka nods. “I know."

 

She pours steaming water into a family-sized thermos, rearranges the gadgets on her work desk, packs a satchel, and finally putters around the edges of the pile of machines, making a vague attempt to organize them, while Ryou laces his boots.

 

“Have you eaten?” he asks, stalling for time. “Breakfast—er, lunch?”

 

Shizuka says, “No, but I know a good place by the docks.”

 

She smiles at the dumbfounded look on his face. Slowly, beautifully, relief blooms in Ryou’s chest. He smiles back.

 

 

 

 

It’s mid afternoon, but where Baek would have burned him red and YG0 warmed him with mellow sunshine, Ukiyo covers Ryou with a cloak of gray gloom. The light is, if anything, murkier, as Shizuka leads the way down the docks. At least he is fed now, and the taste of curry in his mouth is a lingering, pleasant heat, a buffer against every cold breath.

 

Shizuka seems to be in high spirits. Business has never been better, as several of the grounded merchants in her section of dockside have decided to have their ships serviced—she may even have the money for a billboard in center-sphere, if this keeps up.

 

But when she glances back and scans the crowds, the look in her eyes is wary, and Ryou knows she feels it too—perhaps more acutely than he does—the simmering discontent radiating through the docks.

 

Shizuka says, “It’s kind of scary, isn’t it.”

 

“Yes,” Ryou agrees.

 

“A lot of people on Ukiyo are unhappy,” Shizuka says, quietly. “Normally, I mean. But now they’re all unhappy about the same thing. And there’s nothing to do—nothing to do but stand around—”

 

“While their goods rot,” Ryou says.

 

“Yes—” Shizuka hesitates. “It’s more than that, Ryou-kun—it’s not all about the money.”

 

“The blockade has to be lifted soon,” Ryou says, and as he says it his eyes sweep the docks, looking, looking, for a glimpse of red cloth and white hair.

 

“Fuck off, Coalheads!” someone yells—and the tension dissipates for a moment as people laugh and curse.

 

“There it is,” Shizuka says, pointing. She sounds relieved.

 

 

 

 

The warehouse next door is busy; a man shouts through the noise of metal tearing through metal (“Power saw,” Shizuka says; “salvage, probably—cutting up a hull”). But their garage is silent.

 

Uneasiness bubbles up, cold and oily in Ryou’s throat.

 

“Wait here,” he says, stopping just in front of the rolled-up door.

 

You wait here,” Shizuka says. “You don’t know the lingo. You’ll spook him.”

 

Ryou bites the inside of his cheek as he reaches back—his palm brushes the cold metal edge of the wrench in his coat pocket. He curls his fingers around it.

 

“Together, then,” he says. “And stay close.”

 

 

 

 

The garage is small—much the size of Yuugi’s garage on YG0. This must be, Ryou thinks, what Yuugi’s garage looks like after closing—dim and dark, quiet and close.

 

He can see it, though:  the hulking body of the Necrofear stretched out on the ground in front of him as a man bends over it to remove its mechanical heart. The reality, of course, is that the Necrofear will have vanished already, its eyes plucked, the sum separated into its parts and every last part harvested and sold.

 

But there will be a trail to follow, now.

 

“Hello—hello—hello—?" Shizuka’s voice echoes into the darkness. “’Scuse us—hey, can you turn on the lights? Hello?”

 

To Ryou, she mutters, “I know working in the dark cuts costs big-time, but this is ridiculous—” click “—there, that’s better.”

 

The flashlight cuts a dusty blue line through the garage. Shizuka flicks the light skillfully over storage bins, a pile of robotic limbs, and the wires and cords that hang low and tangled like the tendrils of some strange plant.

 

“Maybe he’s out to lunch,” she says, darting ahead. “Let’s find the light switches—we can have a poke around before he gets back!”

 

“Wait,” Ryou wants to say, but his throat seizes up and no sound comes out. He tries again. “Wait, Shizuka—”

 

She’s only a few feet ahead, pointing the flashlight at a switchboard. “That’s weird,” she says. She swings the flashlight down and around and presses the buttons one after another.

 

He can feel her eyes on his face, even though he can’t see them, and imagines they must be wide with curiosity.

 

“Weird,” she says again. “A power cut—? Where’s his backup generator?" She snorts. “What’s with this guy—”

 

The wrench is slippery in Ryou’s fist.

 

“No,” he says.

 

Shizuka hums, inquisitive. “No what?”

 

 

 

 

“On these docks there are never any accidents. Be careful, eh, sweetheart?”

 

 

 

 

“No,” Ryou says. “It’s not a power cut.”

 

What have I done, he thinks, and Get out get out get out

 

Shizuka makes a noise then—a triumphant cry that chokes off into a moan, and the beam of light trembles in the air.

 

“Don’t look,” Ryou says. “Don’t look.”

 

She ignores him; the light shifts as she squats down.

 

“Oh,” she says softly. “Oh—" And softer still:  “Kami-sama.”

 

Ryou closes his eyes, but when he opens them the shape is still there:  a shadow spread-eagled on the concrete and a darker stain splashed around it—the body.

 

The body

 

He squeezes the wrench, once, pressing cold grooves into his palm, before slipping it back into his coat pocket.

 

“Shizuka,” he says. He tries to say it sharply and fails. “Are you—?”

 

“I have to—sorry—” Shizuka murmurs, and she drops the flashlight and pushes past him. He lets her go. The garage is empty; he knows that now.

 

He retrieves the flashlight and angles it down.

 

It’s always jarring, the realization of how much blood a human body can hold. Arterial spray down the front of the dead man’s body—

 

So he has another knife

 

The dead man’s shirt has been cut away. There are burns on his chest—small, round cigarette burns and several larger patches of blisters and skin burned away from flesh. Bruises interlace under the blood. The skin looks raw and pulpy.

 

Ryou shines the light on the dead man’s hands and sees—

 

God—

 

Death came swiftly—he came from behind, jerked the head back and cut—but by then the dead man would have been begging for it, screaming even—

 

And unheard over the sound of salvage next door. How long? Ryou wonders. How long had Bakura kept him alive while he flayed skin and flesh from bone?

 

He might have been there, Ryou thinks—been there all that time, been there while Shizuka walked by and bent her head to the door and listened, and Ryou slept—cutting a man to pieces and reveling in his cries—

 

The scar on his chest burns and burns and burns.

 

 

 

 

Shizuka has probably gone, Ryou thinks, and he can’t blame her for it—but as he emerges from the garage, blinking and dazed, he sees her—sitting just outside with her knees pulled tight to her chest, staring out over the docks.

 

“Shizuka,” he says.

 

She stands up slowly. Her eyes are wide and glassy.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I panicked. I’ve never—I mean—not like that." As she speaks she presses her fingers against her throat.

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou says. “I should have come alone. I shouldn’t have brought you.”

 

She doesn’t quite laugh. “I brought you, remember?”

 

“I put you in danger.”

 

“Yes,” Shizuka says. “I was in so much danger. He could have jumped up and attacked me at any moment—he—oh, god—" She takes a deep breath. “So—our salvage man’s dead. Back to square one.”

 

“No,” Ryou says. She doesn’t seem to understand. He tries again. “No. You’re out—you’re stopping. You’ve taken too many risks already—if he finds out you’ve been trying to track him—”

 

Shizuka flares up. “I didn’t go around waving that heat tile in the middle of the docks, shouting questions about a mysterious suit to every person I met—I’m not stupid! And they’re good people—good people—none of them would sell me out to any off-’netter who came around asking!”

 

“People can be made to talk,” Ryou says. He feels molten, fierce. “You saw what happened to the scavenger. He can do worse—he can do much worse—”

 

“Yes,” Shizuka says, subsiding. “Yes, I saw. Cruel—cruel." And then, maddeningly, she says, “That’s why I want to help you.”

 

Please,” Ryou says, please, he’ll burn you, but she shakes her head.

 

“That man was one of my kind,” she says. “He didn’t deserve a death like that. I’m in.”

 

Ryou breathes in. “All right."

 

 

 

 

Together, Ryou and Shizuka turn the garage inside out, examining every speck of dust, every bit of ash and garbage, but there is no trace left of the Necrofear. They leave the dead man lying where he fell and return to center-sphere.

 

Shizuka wants to tell the people in the warehouse next door.

 

“So there can be a cremation—something—they must have been on friendly terms, you can’t set up shop here without getting to know your neighbors—”

 

Ryou says, “The fewer people who know, the better—the safer they will be." Mercifully, she seems to agree. He adds, “I’ll take care of it tonight.”

 

Shizuka glances at him, startled. “You mean—you’re going back to that place?”

 

Her surprise surprises him. “I have to,” he says. “In case—”

 

“In case he comes back,” she finishes.

 

“Yes."

 

This is Bakura’s MO, Ryou knows. Death—then fire.

 

Ryou looks back to his files, spread out on the floor in front of him. A request to HQ for further information about Karita’s squadron some months ago returned with a list of names, many of which tally with a list of Ryou’s own keeping, of those recently dead at Bakura’s hands. A mineral baron named Kalim, found dead in one of his mine shafts after an explosion. Commander Akh Nadin, whose private security firm Bakura must have infiltrated, before he cut Nadin’s throat and set his offices ablaze; Alex Blackheart, “Heixin” to his friends and “BURNED ALIVE!” to writers of sensational news articles. There are other names, of course, on this list of dead—names of people who never came near Karita’s squadron:  Baek’s murdered priest Shimon, whose burning Ryou interrupted, and Maximilian Pegasus, who died in his bed—died of fear, it seems, before his kingdom burned to the ground around him.

 

The scavenger’s work-name was Reshef, Shizuka tells him. That’s all she knows, all she could find out. She wishes she knew more.

 

No, Ryou says, thank you. You’ve done more than enough.

 

Reshef—dead Reshef—was not in Karita’s squadron. He is not in any of Ryou’s files, or Ryou’s records. He is not, Ryou thinks, supposed to be dead.

 

The memory of the scavenger’s pulverized body settles on him, heavy.

 

He didn’t deserve a death like that—

 

It was murder—cold-blooded, coldly calculating—what was he thinking? They had all been murder, all those deaths—premeditated—diabolical—blood on Bakura’s hands.

 

And on mine

 

I should have killed him on Baek!

 

Ryou sighs, closes his eyes, passes a hand over his face.

 

 

 

 

In the side room, where Mai’s dresses hang, in the box labeled Garlic, Ryou finds a spare Baby Dragon and a KaibaCorp boomstick. He tucks the stick into his boot, against his leg, and straps the Baby Dragon to his right hip, for a cross-body draw. His pockets are heavy, weighed down with Shizuka’s flashlight and the borrowed wrench.

 

Shizuka looks up as he comes into the main room. She’s tinkering with something, a tiny blue chip. She pushes it aside.

 

“You’re going?” she says.

 

Ryou swallows. “Yeah." He meant to wait for Mai, to say something—last words, his mind supplies unhelpfully—but he can’t wait any longer.

 

She looks into his eyes. “Be careful,” she says, and Ryou smiles for her—

 

“I’ll be fine,” he says. But his hands tremble as he closes the door.

 

 

 

 

Ryou takes cover beside the dead man’s desk, behind crates and pieces of unknown machinery. He paces to keep himself warm and stop his teeth from chattering. The rubber soles of his boots are noiseless on the concrete. He keeps his eyes on the door, unseeing—in the darkness, images form and dissipate and swim before his eyes until he’s sure he must be dreaming:

 

Shizuka, her small body curled in on itself, watching the door, biting her lip, waiting for—not his return, but Mai’s—

 

Bakura, walking down the street toward him—cloaked in red, brilliant in the half-dark. He blends into the night crowd. He walks slowly. He looks ahead. No one pays him any mind—but to Ryou’s eyes he shines like a beacon—until he blinks, and the light extinguishes itself, and Bakura fades—

 

Darkness; the dim outlines of the garage door. Then Jeong Joon Ho’s eyes, filled with pain, his open, gasping mouth—

 

Mai looking down at him, contemptuous—

 

Reshef dead on the ground, his face and chest bubbling with burns.

 

A poor burial for Mister Reshef, entombed in his dark garage, frozen stiff on a concrete floor littered with treasures fit only for salvage rats—

 

Something red flutters in the corner of Ryou’s vision—his only warning. Pain explodes through his skull, obliterating him.

 

 

 

 

There are stars bursting in his vision. He smells blood.

 

A shadow looming over him—a shadow looming, but his hands are free.

 

His heart stutters, skips, resumes—god—oh god, oh fuck

 

Shallow breath. His hands are free, and he can feel the gun beneath him, digging into the small of his back. The strap has come loose, but the gun is there—the gun is there and his hands are free.

 

Ryou vacuums air into his lungs and strikes out with his good hand clenched tight, with a fist meant to break and hurt—he kicks hard, propelling himself backward—

 

The pale and fleshy grub without his armor, vulnerable and painfully slow—

 

Don’t panic—don’t panic—get out get out get out—

 

But in the next moment he is sitting upright, gasping again, and the gun is in his hands. He hits the safety and the red laserlight cuts through the darkness.

 

Bakura’s mouth curls.

 

He can barely keep his hold on the gun, let alone steady his aim. The laserlight jumps wildly, scanning Bakura’s forehead, chin, chest, the wall behind him, the raised white scars on Bakura’s whiter face.

 

“Bakura,” he says. His voice is almost gone. “Enough, Bakura—”

 

Bakura looks at him—frowns—“No.

 

“You’re trapped—”

 

 

 

 

No, he thinks, even though the gun glows dusty orange between them—I’m trapped—the trap has closed—

 

 

 

 

No matter how much he inhales he can’t seem to fill his lungs to capacity. Bakura swims before his eyes:  a vision. “Enough,” he says again, louder. “Enough of this. I’ll shoot—I will shoot—”

 

“Are you promising a painless death?" Bakura’s voice is low, so low, he can barely hear it over the pounding of the blood in his ears. “What about him?”

 

“What?”

 

Bakura moves, blurring before his eyes. Ryou lands one hit with the butt of the gun before he crashes into the ground again, the breath blown out of him before he can cry out, his teeth rattling in his skull as he slips down—but Bakura catches him—

 

“You can’t kill me,” Bakura hisses. The gun skitters across the concrete as Bakura kicks it away from Ryou’s groping hand. “Not the way you killed the mech.”

 

“Bakura—” he can’t breathe—he can’t breathe “—what—no—”

 

“No one,” Bakura says, “can kill me." Ryou chokes and lies still, and Bakura’s voice flows over him like the swimming darkness. “No one can kill me,” Bakura murmurs, slowly, steadily, and there is a strange flatness to his voice, as though he is chanting a rhyme learned in childhood, a dark litany:  “I will come back—I will come back, again and again—I will be deathless, I will be eternal—”

 

Fuck—

 

“I will drag them into a world of shadow and nightmare—”

 

Bakura’s voice fills Ryou’s ears, rhythmic and unending. This isn’t happening—I’m dreaming—I’ve lost my mind—I’m asleep—he’ll kill me this time, I know it—

 

“—I will burn their treasure houses and their empires—”

 

Listen to me, Bakuraghk—”

 

Bakura’s eyes settle on his face. The mouth stretches wide into smile—a confiding smile, but one edged with madness—and bleeding—I did that, Ryou thinks, dazed.

 

Blackness presses down on him. Not a dream, then, but no nightmare either. The world turns and shifts and reforms in perfect clarity:  a fight for his life.



He brings his knee up, follows with a fist—

 

Bakura swears; the pressure on Ryou’s chest lifts, and he rolls frantically to one side, wrenching his arm. He rocks up to his knees, ducks the hands reaching out to throttle him, strikes blindly at the sharp white teeth, still bared in that mad smile.

 

Heartbeat—on his feet—run!

 

Bakura stands in the warehouse door, a looming shadow. Ryou doesn’t like his chances. The only way to go is deeper into the warehouse, into the piles of machinery. He sprints past the body of Reshef, dives over the desk, exploding headlong into a mass of crates—

 

Little one,” Bakura says. Dragging footsteps. He’s giggling. “There’s nowhere to go.”

 

Fuck, fuck, fuck

 

The laserlight is on his hand

 

Bakura has the Dragon!

 

It’s dark, but Ryou can just make out the control panel for the lifts, the huge hydraulic claws that dear departed Reshef must have used to transport his quarry to the dissecting floor.

 

He scrabbles over the mountain of scrap, cutting his palms and forearms open on protruding metal and plastic, flinging himself forward and landing bodily on the panel with a gasp—

 

The warehouse roars.

 

 

 

 

Rain, Ryou thinks, a rain of fire

 

 

 

 

Red and orange sparks burst overhead like fireworks. The massive hanging claws dislodge from their hangars and come shrieking down from the sky, blasting into the crates and turning Reshef’s piles of scrap into shrapnel.

 

Bakura shoots five holes in the panel, but all this achieves is a profusion of crackling electric sparks. Ryou slams his hands down on the remaining buttons and switches—the claws go haywire, swinging, swooping, flailing overhead, sending two tons of metal and jagged scrap in every direction—

 

One of the claws lands a direct hit, sending Bakura flying, knocking the gun from his hands. Ryou slaps the panel in delight—

 

And the machinery comes crashing down from the ceiling with a shriek of rending metal, bringing most of the warehouse roof with it.

 

 

 

 

“Ryou, come inside,” his mother says.

 

Ryou hears her, the weak silver of her voice glimmering like interplanetary dust in his ears, but his feet stay planted on the concrete balcony. The glow of light from the apartment window is weak. He can’t tear his eyes away from the clusters of stars shining through the mirror panels:  the flat bands of gas and plasma, the tails of meteors, the individual unwavering pinpoints of light of the distant planets, and beyond them, the arcing red bow shocks of ancient nebulae, millions of light years away. And between all of this, further out still, lies the dense blackness of the void.

 

His father is out there somewhere, blasting through that darkness.

 

Amane now, bell-like:  “Ryou-’nii—

 

 

 

 

Gasping, Ryou rockets up from beneath a mound of junk. He is miraculously unmangled, having been shielded by the remains of Reshef’s workstation. The warehouse is in tatters; Reshef’s body has been obliterated by the fall of the hydraulic arms. Portions of the panel are on fire, and the fire is spreading. Ryou steadies himself on his hands and knees, head and ribs singing with pain.

 

His nose is bleeding. He lets it bleed.

 

Bakura is gone.

 

 

 

 

The sight of the sphere beyond descends on Ryou’s vision like a gray veil, jarringly colorless after the sunset vividness of the flames. Even the klaxons seem dulled in Ryou’s ringing ears, already half-deafened by the noise of the warehouse’s collapse. People are shouting, their mouths opened wide, eyes staring and white, but Ryou can’t hear them. A fire team arrives in jackets emblazoned with something other than the magistrate’s crest; it seems the yakuza have their own fire control crews on Ukiyo. Ryou slips through their cordon, chin tucked, eyes downcast. The recovered Baby Dragon, a little worse for wear, is bulky under his jacket.

 

It’s a long walk back to center-sphere, made longer still by a new limp. Recriminations chime in his ears like bells. If only he’d been faster. If only he’d been steadier.

 

If only—

 

Shizuka throws her arms around him when she opens the door, rests her head on his shoulder and holds him, blood and machine grease and all, accepts his weight as he leans against her.



“Thank goodness,” she says, muffled. 



“I couldn’t stop him,” Ryou says into her hair. He says, “I burned down the warehouse.” The breath he draws catches, rattles in his chest. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” she says.

 

“But—Reshef—”

 

“You did the best you could,” she says, reaching up, stroking the bones of his cheeks with the cold pads of her fingers, so gentle and careful against the freshly forming bruises. “Who knows? Maybe he would have appreciated it, being sent up with all of his scrap and gadgetry—”

 

Ryou realizes he’s just standing there, letting her pet him, and draws back, clearing his throat—



“Kujaku-san is back,” Shizuka says. “She came back last night. She’s still asleep.”



He wonders at the softness of her smile. Then he goes into the next room and lies down beside Mai, and goes to sleep.

 

 

 

Memories of the last four weeks careen around Ryou’s skull like a demented carousel. He sees green glass sliding down the bar, leaving a slug trail of condensation; he sees Jean-Claude’s maddened white smile and the drained corpse-gray of Mai’s face and Valon’s wax-yellow hands across a soiled coverlet. Shizuka’s small fingers dive into a rainbow maze of wires that spread across the docks like veins, igniting every ship they touch; her clouded eyes are all-seeing and all-knowing. The Minotaur lies gutted, peeled open, in her garage, pinned beside the Harpy skeleton like a lepidopterist’s prize—

 

Overhead, Otogi’s tattoo drips, drips, drips down his cheek, a line of pure black ichor, each droplet ten thousand times more potent than blood—

 

Mai’s voice echoes between his ears.

 

Jesus H., Inoue. The Brig wants you to storm a Coalition ship—a Coalition ship—to break out a protected witness. And you just, what, saluted her? Yeah, okay, Brigadier, I’d be happy to risk life and citizenship for that worthless piece of shit Karita?

 

The Harpy scream now:  Christ, Inoue, look at yourself! You’re in pieces!

 

 

 

 

There’s more to it than Karita, Mai. Karita’s not the objective.

 

 

 

 

Ryou opens his eyes. He has no idea whether he’s slept or not. The little room is close and dark:  the huddled shapes of Mai and Shizuka, curled in sleep, flank him on either side, cozy in their pallets. Ryou’s body aches. His heart is hammering in its cage.

 

Professor Titus Karita is about to come up in the galaxy. His trampled star will rise again. He is disgraced no longer—no, he is everything now, to Ryou and to the Brigadier, to the whole of the Coalition—

 

This time, Ryou will set the trap. He will pin Karita the worm in its mouth, in the mouth of the Wormdrake flagship, dangle Karita at the center of the six rotating platforms of this dull gray world.

 

And Bakura will rise to the bait.

 

And Bakura will come to him.

 

The jaws of the trap will close and swallow Bakura down, worm and all.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

You are a fever, you are a fever
You ain’t born typical 

The Kills, “U.R.A. Fever”

 

 

 


Assault sims again. Yuugi’s name floats at the top of the boards for weeks. His round face is blank, mouth relaxed—tap tap tap—wiping out simulated legions in record time. His every gesture in the greenlight is compassionate, measured, and devastating. The officers have never seen anything like it. They may never see anything like it again.

 

Ryou never bothers with strategy. His name is buried in the rankings, but it doesn’t matter:  he and Nosaka are Yuugi’s aces, the cards up his sleeve that he fans out, with uncharacteristic verve, and flings into the starlit void. They move where Yuugi directs.

 

Tap tap tap tap

 

Holes open up in enemy armor under their targeted fire, furling outward like blossoming flowers, taking limbs and lives.

 

 

 

 

It begins with an explosion that shakes the sphere.

 

Ryou is drinking hot water under the kotatsu. At the first sphere-shifting eruption, the rat’s nest of ancient gadgets in Shizuka’s apartment shudders and collapses above him, spreading outward, a wave of junk. Ryou drops the vacuum flask and leaps to his feet. 

 

Another series of huge, hollow booms in the distance—one, two, three—

 

Four, five!

 

“What the fuck—” Mai comes tearing from the back room, wild-haired and wild-eyed, Baby Dragon in hand. Her underwear is full of holes. “What the fuck was that?”

 

Six! She shoves Ryou away from the door.

 

“Oh fuck!”

 

The docks are on fire. Even at this distance, even through this perpetual gloom, they can see the flames, the black billowing smoke.

 

Ryou stays down, hunting through the nest. He finds Shizuka’s radio at the edge of the detritus. It’s too badly tangled to remove; he leaves it where it is and flips the switch. Mai has jammed on her boots and sprinted outside; he can hear her footsteps pounding up the metal stairs to the rooftop.

 

The radio erupts with screams.

 

—is it, motherfuckers, do or die! Innit—

 

Hoarse agreement over the surging voices:  “It is, it is, it is—”

 

That’s right, Bonz! Wow. Well, you heard it, folks. Straight from the skull’s gaping maw. We want those ships gone. We want compensation for our rotting rice. We want a seventh platform and we want the magistrate to sit on it and think about what he’s done! Get out there and show those Coalheads we mean business! Burn it all down!

 

“But for those of you staying in today, let’s talk barricades.

 

Good plan, Zygor. We’re talking your bulwarks, your pavement slabs, your overturned transports, your barrels, your bricks, your dead engines, hell, your live engines, your hydro-lifts, your—”

 

The front door bangs open again—another resounding bang! as Mai tosses her gun into the sink and kicks the door shut behind her. She charges past Ryou into the back room and reemerges in record time, fully dressed, in boots and padded Kevlar, a hairband in her teeth, her arms loaded with weaponry. She kicks a spare set of gear across the floor toward Ryou.

 

He gapes at her. “Mai—”

 

“You’re coming with me,” she says. Ryou grunts as she slams an armored Black Brutdrago against his chest, bulbous and gleaming.

 

“What—where did you—”

 

“An advance,” she snaps. “For services yet to be rendered. Get your boots on, God damn it.”

 

The Orichalcos pendant around Mai’s neck is strobing green, alternating long and short bursts. Mai doesn’t seem to notice.

 

Ryou sets the Brutdrago aside to shrug on his vest. “Your communicator—”

 

“Fuck my communicator,” Mai screams at him, “where’s Shizuka?”

 

The bottom drops out.

 

Ryou stares at her, stricken. “She—”

 

 

 

 

Three days ago, crouched on the wide concrete floor of Shizuka’s warehouse—

 

“What are you making?” Shizuka asks.

 

Ryou jolts, rattling the pan. He is using the Harpy Lady’s remaining cannon arm, pointing it at a pile of scrap. He’ll pour the resulting titanium dioxide into one of the emptied vegetable cans. A white layer.

 

He casts a guilty look in her direction. She’s standing behind him with her arms folded, her clouded gaze bright and curious.

 

“Uh,” Ryou says. He flounders. “A…cake?”

 

The corners of Shizuka’s mouth quirk upward. “You know,” she says, eyes sparkling, “I keep a few decent cake ingredients in the back.”

 

“You do?” Ryou says stupidly.

 

“Yup,” she says, cheerful, and starts ticking things off on her fingers. “Red phosphorous. Glass and carbon fibers…the aluminum-coated kind. Come with me. I’ll make you the best anti-infrared cake you’ve never tasted.”

 

 

 

 

That’s why I want to help you, Shizuka says.

 

I’m in.

 



—“If you’re just tuning in, this is Sid, Bones, and Zygor, broadcasting live from Red Warehouse Six, Dock East. The whole sphere’s on fire, and we’re ready to watch it burn!

 

That’s right, Sid. You heard us, Ukiyo. Put on your dancing shoes, grab your best girl and your nail-studded bats. Come on down and join the party. What d’you say, Bonz? Whaddaya say?

 

Ghoulish laughter.

 

Click.

 

“She’s on the docks,” Ryou says, pushing the radio back into the nest. The words drag in his throat; he forces them out. There is no going back now.

 

“Why?” Mai demands. “Why? It’s her day off. It’s her fucking day off.”

 

Ryou takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders.

 

“She’s with Otogi,” he says.

 

“What the hell?” Mai shouts. “What is it, a date? Today of all days! Otogi, that cheapskate, what kind of useless S.O.B. takes a girl on a date by the docks—”

 

Ryou swallows. “No,” he says. “They went dockside because I asked them to. I needed—”

 

Mai lays him flat with a single blow.

 

“I’m going to kill you,” she murmurs, cold and dull, as she looms over him. “Just as soon as we get her home. Jesus H. Christ, Inoue, if even one hair on her head is singed, I’ll cook you alive on the Harpy’s lowest cannon setting and blast your ashes into the nearest star. Capisce?”

 

Ryou nods, mute. His nose is bleeding again. He zips up his vest. Mai hauls him to his feet. They sprint for the docks.

 

 



The billboards have burned down to their skeletons. Embers curl around the golden names of Siegfried and Leonheart as their images lie trampled in the streets. The food stalls are abandoned, chairs bent and snapped, plates of food shattered on the ground. Some of the fires in the barrels have gone out; others are burning brightly, fed by rice and scrap, sending noxious, choking black columns of smoke into the air. Lights flash on the platforms beyond the Worm wall, which is itself shivering, groaning, undulating. The Wormdrakes are waking, returning to life, but the platforms above have ground to a halt. The platformers have received the signal; they are shuttering their grow-sheets from the weak light of the star Šilla. They are halting production.

 

Ryou and Mai turn a corner and slam into the crush of shouting, chanting people, sweeping irresistibly forward to the world’s edge. Mai’s pendant continues to flash, a lone green beacon in a sea of gray.

 

 

 

 

Shizuka’s warehouse is barricaded shut. Mai fights her way through the throng, shoving, kicking, swearing, dragging Ryou after her. They come through a side door. Mai has a spare set of keys. Her hands are shaking so badly she can’t use them. She pushes them at Ryou, already shouldering her gun; Ryou gets them in on the third try.

 

“Shizuka!”

 

The warehouse is quiet and dark. No signs of life. Mai plunges recklessly onward, shouting for Shizuka. The roar of the fires and rioters and the thousand-Worm wall soon drowns her out. The noise is overwhelming, relentless, beating against their eardrums like the fuel-wasting engine-hum of a huge light year transport.

 

Ryou, lingering by the door, finds the light switches with trembling fingers. The lamps hum on one by one, illuminating the warehouse in quadrants.

 

The swivel chair by Ryou’s dissected Minotaur lets out a squeal as Otogi gets to his feet.

 

He’s pulled his hair into a tail and is keeping his bangs out of his eyes with a crimson band. He’s carrying a miniaturized Yaranzo cannon, tattooed at the mouth and body with the sharp, spider-clawed Black Crown insignia in red and black, a little worse for wear. He wears a jumble of black cubes in a transparent plastic canister at his belt—Dimension Dice. Explosives. Ryou decides not to ask.

 

“You took your sweet time,” Otogi says. “Whoa! Mai! Hey, watch the dice—”

 

“Where’s Shizuka?” Mai demands, pinning Otogi to the seatback with her forearm.

 

Otogi frowns. He removes Mai’s fist from his collar and straightens it primly. “What are you yelling about?” he says. “Shizuka isn’t here. I left her in my apartment, just like Ryou said—”

 

 

 

 

Four days ago, standing in the trash-stuffed courtyard of the apartment complex, warming themselves by a barrel of burning garbage—

 

“You’re like a bad penny,” Otogi says. “Following me to the ends of the universe. What even is a penny, anyway.”

 

Ryou, alternating between blowing on his bare fingertips and holding them over the fire, murmurs, “This isn’t about the Black Crowns.”

 

Otogi looks at him. The green eyes, adorned with their black kohl and sharper black tattoo, shine and glare in the half-dark. “Isn’t it?”

 

“I’m chasing a ghost,” Ryou says. “I could use a ghost’s help.”

 

“And in return?” Otogi says. “What can you—” the possibly is left unsaid “—give me?”

 

“Only my word,” Ryou says. “It’s not worth much.” He manages a creaky smile. “But I’ve suffered so many head injuries in recent months—who’s to say what I’ve seen is real? I might have spent all my time in Cloud East hallucinating.”

 

Otogi scoffs. “I don’t care about that,” he says. He jabs at the tattoo. “Look at me. I’ve got a target on my face.”

 

Ryou stares at him through the smoke. “Then what do you want?”

 

“I want Shizuka,” Otogi says. He gulps; Ryou sees his throat working. “I mean—I want her safety.”

 

He can’t guarantee anything, not even his own life, let alone Shizuka’s. But he won’t say that. Better to let Otogi continue believing in Ryou’s glittering omnipotence. Maybe he’ll start believing in himself too, in Inoue Ryou:  the spaceman with all the answers. The lying, rotting, plotting spark that should have been lost to the void, should have extinguished itself years ago at the controls of a borrowed suit.

 

“We both want the same thing,” Ryou says. “That’s good. Listen—”

 

 

 

 

Mai doesn’t say a word. She whirls on Ryou and throws him into a junk pile. Otogi breaks off with an exclamation; Ryou tumbles head-over-arse with a choked off gasp. He lands hard.

 

Mai advances. She’s going for her thigh holster. Her voice is anguished.

 

Youson—of—a—bitch!

 

“Wotcher,” Alister calls from the doorway. “Watch it, Loudmouth. That’s my buddy you’re beating on. If he springs a leak, you’re on the hook.”

 

“Charges went off without a hitch,” says Alister’s companion, a huge blond-haired man wearing a Guardian gun around his neck. “All six.”

 

The padded vest has protected Ryou from the worst of the scrap. He straightens, brushing himself off.

 

“Great,” he says. “Thank you.”

 

Mai’s legs give out. She sits down in the chair. “Alister,” she says. “Rafael. What is this? What the fuck—”   

 

“Who are you?” Alister asks Otogi. “Another old pal from the squad? Where’d you serve, then, the toddler division?”

 

Otogi bows. “Duke Devlin,” he say smoothly. “At your service.”

 

Alister’s long, mournful expression doesn’t change, but his eyes narrow. He squints at the tattoo. “A long way from home, aren’t you, you nine-life little bastard?” he says.

 

Otogi grins. “Not as far as you’d think. Don’t worry,” he adds. “I’m not a scout. We don’t have any interest in Cloud East.” His grin stays open and easy as he extends his hand. “The King is dead. There won’t be another. The Black Crowns are finished.”

 

Alister takes his hand and shakes it after a moment’s hesitation.

 

“Nice friends you’ve got, Whitey,” he calls over his shoulder. Then he turns to Mai. “Well, well, Miss Loudmouth,” he drawls, stepping toward her, coming so close that he’s standing between her legs. “Not so loud after all, are you? You’ve been keeping secrets.”

 

“Jesus H., Alister,” Mai says, glaring up at him. “Black Crowns, black ops. What was I gonna do? I had to keep it tight. You’d’ve had ’em both shot.”

 

Alister bends over her, hands gripping the arm rests. Mai’s eyes go wide.

 

“Oh, no, my Peahen,” Alister whispers. “No, no, no. I didn’t mean them—” 

 

 

 

Five days ago. A cold morning on the docks. Smoke and steam rise from the warehouses and the storage containers, sifting through the gray air. Ryou stirs his spoon through souring congee and waits.

 

“Oooh, duckie,” the vendor says, as a shadow falls over the stall. “You do get around.”

 

Ryou ignores him. He pulls back a chair for Alister.

 

“Bleedin’ hell, Whitey,” Alister drawls, ignoring the gesture. His long white face rises overhead like a crescent moon. “What happened to you?”

 

Ryou grins ruefully up at him. “Long story,” he says. “Thanks for coming.”

 

Alister shrugs. “Plenty of time on my hands. Been slow, innit, what with those fuck-off massive Worms and their—”

 

“Mai says you knew Valon.”

 

Alister’s hands clench at his sides. His face blanches, yellowing around the cheekbones.

 

“So what if I did?” he says, guarded.

 

“I was there,” Ryou says. Alister sits, gangly legs folding as though their ligaments have been cut. “I was there when it happened.”

 

 

 

 

Karita’s here, Alister. He’s been here all this time.

 

I thought you’d like to see him.

 

 

 

—“I meant that rat bastard Karita.” Alister’s smile is cold. “Why didn’t you tell me, Mai?” He gestures viciously in Ryou’s direction. “Were you planning to go hunting without me? With him?”

 

Mai is breathing fast. She says, quickly and quietly, “Alister, we don’t do this. We don’t get off on our own revenge fantasies. We don’t—no, no, Alister, fucksake, listen to me. Don’t do this. Dartz won’t—”

 

Alister says, “What Dartz doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

 

“Alister—”

 

“I ain’t gonna tell,” Alister says, soft. He sweeps his arm out, indicating the two dozen or so Doma members waiting behind him. “Valon’s best boys and girls, they were. Are you gonna tell, boys and girls?”

 

“No, boss,” they say.

 

Alister nods at Rafael. “And you, Raf?”

 

“Secret’s safe with me,” Rafael says. His voice is so deep it vibrates in his chest. “Cross my heart, et cetera.”

 

“Rafael!” Mai tries to stand, but Alister won’t let her.

 

“Look at it this way, Peahen—we’ll be doing the big boss a favor. We’re cleaning up the docks.” Alister’s smile drips poison. “Just a spot of pest control.

 

“God damn it, Alister—” Mai struggles against him. “Look at him, look at his fucking dead eyes. He’s playing you, you fucking moron! Those are Coalition Wormdrakes you’re setting yourself against. It’s a fucking trap! You—”

 

Alister’s voice is jagged. “Shut the fuck up,” he says. “You’re so bloody noisy. Shut the fuck up and listen to me, Kujaku Mai, for once in your worthless snake life, just be quiet and listen. I love Valon. I love him a damn sight more than you do, it seems. He’s dying. I’ll light his way. Every traitor a beacon. I’ll spin their bodies into the sky myself. I’ll start with that rat bastard.”

 

Mai breathes out. “Alister.”

 

He’s stepping back, pulling away. “You can fly us out there and avenge him,” he says, shouldering his equipment. “Or you can stay here and hope one of us doesn’t send a bloody bullet through your thick skull—”

 

The concrete beneath them shudders and sings. The air cracks with the sound of five hundred Wormdrake doors slamming open onto the docks. Jackboots outside. The tenor of the chanting changes, ripples. There are screams.

 

The bodies inside the warehouse freeze. They can all hear it now, rising above the noise of the mob:  the growing hum of cannons charging.

 

“They took the bait,” Alister says. He shakes his head and spits. “Coalheads. Imbeciles.”

 

Rafael draws the massive Guardian and holds it cross-body. “That’s our cue. Soldiers of Doma! With me!”

 

Alister catches him by the arm. “Hey,” he says. “Careful out there.”

 

“Careful yourself,” Rafael says. “For Valon.”

 

“For Valon,” Alister says. “Yes.”

 

Rafael turns on his heel. “Move out!”

 

Wordless, Otogi steps up beside Ryou and hands him the smoke bombs. Shizuka hasn’t bothered to remove the labels:  the cans still read Sweet Corn and Tomato

 

 

 

 

Twelve hours ago.

 

“Just sit tight,” Otogi says. “Okay? Promise me you won’t try to come out. No matter how crazy things get. There may be explosions—”

 

Shizuka smiles at Ryou over Otogi’s shoulder. “Well, obviously,” she says.

 

“—just ignore them. Listen to Sid. Just stay here and listen to Sid. They’ll tell you if you have to run, and where to.”

 

But Sid, Bonz, and Zygor are off the air, for now, gone silent. They have no idea what is to come. The radio is playing jazz instead, frenzied cadences chasing themselves around and around in crazy octaves and discordant keys.

 

Otogi looks heartsick, eyes hollow under their black paint.

 

“I’ll come find you,” he says. “After—after it’s over. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Shizuka says. Her voice is quiet. “I’ll wait for you.”

 

“We’ll keep your warehouse safe,” Ryou says.

 

“Never mind my warehouse,” Shizuka says. She’s holding Tristan the monkey in the crook of one arm and squeezing both of Otogi’s hands in her own. “Take care of yourselves.”

 

She stalls Ryou at the door. “Ryou—look after him.”

 

“I will,” Ryou promises.

 

“Look after Mai—”

 

 

 

 

Mai hasn’t moved from Shizuka’s chair. The Baby Dragon is across her lap and her hands are resting loosely atop its dull orange body. As Ryou passes by, she grabs him by the edge of his vest and hisses, “You set me up—you son of a bitch!”

 

“I have to bring him in, Mai,” Ryou says. I will. “I can’t wait any longer.”



“Fuck you, Inoue,” Mai says. “Fuck you—”



Ryou repeats, feeling cold, “I can’t wait.” 

 

“Have you made your decision, Peahen?” Alister says, pulling twin KC-1 Craytons from their holsters. They’re polished to a mirror sheen, glowing as starkly white as the taut hands holding them. An ostentatious choice.

 

Mai’s face is stony. She stands. “For Valon,” she says, and Alister smiles.

 

“Beltane,” he says. He spins away from them, raising the Craytons high into the air. “Sound the hunt—”

 

 

 


Twenty-four minutes ago—

 

His hands are slippery against the Brutdrago. He has Otogi following closely behind him, in part to keep his promise to Shizuka, and in part because he doesn’t like the thought of leaving his back unprotected anywhere in the vicinity of the Iron Bitch. If a bullet doesn’t get him first, the sheer burning force of her vengeful gaze will kill him.

 

The Wormdrake flagship looms large in the distance. Ryou’s heart sinks at the sight of it. There is so much space to cover—

 

The jackboots and armored uniforms of the Coalition soldiers are no deterrent to the civilians of Ukiyo. They are throwing everything they have—literally—pots and pans, tons of garbage and scrap, and bags and bags of stinking, putrid rice. The mechanics on the sphere have improvised trebuchets.

 

“Get the fuck out of our sphere, you bandits!”

 

“Fuck off!”

 

It will take another ten minutes for the cannons on the Wormdrake flagship to charge fully, and even then, Ryou can’t imagine the Coalition would dare fire on an unarmed colony. They’ve gone that route before, and in so doing, created demons. Created Bakura.

 

Then again—

 

Doma aren’t the only group on the docks today. Ryou can see the bright neon tips of shock-spears and boomsticks bristling through the crowd. There are men and women with earpieces and flashing indicators on their necks and wrists. There are men and women with wooden bats and slicked-back hair.

                                                                                                

Alister catches his eye. He indicates a Wormdrake ship on their four, raises an eyebrow. Someone has started a brawl just outside the airlock. There’s only one soldier left guarding the mouth.

 

Ryou’s heart begins to pound. He nods.

 

“On my count,” he murmurs to Otogi.

 

“You’re crazy,” Otogi says, in open admiration. “Lead on, Captain.”

 

 

 

 

Five.

 

 

 

 

“Shoot to impair,” Ryou tells Alister. The vendor is peering at them curiously, but he’s too far away to hear. And his congee is about to boil over—

 

“I won’t make any silly promises,” Alister says. “My happy boys and girls, they’re good, but they’re not that good. They can control their aim, not their tempers. If the Coalheads are shooting to kill, then so are we.”

 

“They’ll be using stunners,” Ryou says.

 

Alister’s left eyelid droops a bit in surprise. “That a fact?”

 

“A hope,” Ryou says. A hope that the universe will remain sane, though he and Bakura have gone mad.

 

“It’s a battle, all right, Whitey?” Alister says. “I won’t tell ’em to pull their punches. I can’t. They wouldn’t listen. But I hear you. Eyes on the prize. This is a snatch job, pure and simple.”

 

 

 

 

Four.

 

 

 

 

“And Mai,” Shizuka says. “Please—look after her, too.”

 

“I will,” Ryou says. “She’ll never forgive me for this.”

 

“I’ll work on her,” Shizuka says, smiling bravely up at him. “Give it a few months.”

 

“Shizuka—” He swallows. “I’m not—whatever you think I am, I—”

 

He wants to tell her there’s nothing noble here, no shining golden core. It’s all filth.

 

“You’re a lying, spying saboteur,” Shizuka says; her words are brutal body blows, but her eyes are kind. She embraces him. “I know. You’re still my friend.”

 

He kisses the top of her head.

 

 

 

 

Three. Two—

 

 

 

 

“There’s a whole planet out there just for us,” his father says. “Chase it, Ryou. Find the fastest ship you can. Take off and never look back. Grasp that green world in your hands.”

 

 

 

 

One—”

 

They swing around the right flank of the crowd. Rafael materializes behind the remaining soldier and puts her into a choke hold. As the soldier goes limp, Rafael scans the docks slowly, a full head and shoulders above the chaos, looking for all the world like a man waiting for a tardy friend.

 

Alister is that friend. He has divided his troops into eight teams of three. Three teams stay on the docks to cover their hijacking of the Worm ship. Led by Alister, the rest pile inside, followed closely by Ryou, Otogi, and Mai.

 

The Doma teams sweep the cockpit, disarming and stunning the remaining pilot and engineer. They leave the bodies where they fall.

 

“Mai,” Ryou says. The Worm controls are a two-handed affair, and he doesn’t feel up to it, not now, not yet. And he wants her to sit where he can see her—

 

She slides into the pilot’s seat, still stony, still silent—

 

“What the fuck,” she says, “these controls are bullshit! Give me a suit any day, fuck—”

 

She eases them up and out. The Worm drifts, rotating lazily into space, as though its tether has slipped its knot. The docks spread out below them, dreamlike and hazy. The light has changed—it’s warm and sepia-toned now—Ukiyo suffused with the light of bright and impossible summer sunshine—Ukyio lit by the growing glow of the Wormdrake cannons. Ryou meets Otogi’s eyes and sees the same horrified realization reflected there.

 

The Duke of the Black Crowns buried his father in the northwest quadrant of Alpha Twelve, reduced last year to a smoldering ruin by a Coalition cannon volley.

 

“Six minutes until full charge,” Mai says, reading the countdown off her control panel. “Do you think they won’t use it? You’ve put your faith in a puppet,” she tells Alister. Her voice is loud, merciless. “He’s a gun, not a strategist. Did you think they wouldn’t turn the cannons on us? Huh? On this sphere of skunks and snakes? Smugglers, rioters, and looters! What a stand-up gang! What use are we to the Coalition? What good do we contribute to the galaxy? Pest control, huh? They’ve fired on their own Alphas before, genius.

 

“Just fly the bloody ship,” Alister snarls. “You fucking Loudmouth.”

 

“Give me a team,” Otogi says. “I’ll wipe those cannons out.”

 

“Brilliant initiative, your grace,” Alister says, with deadly delight. “Take two.”

 

Mai, rolling her eyes mightily, plugs in the remaining coordinates and commands. They spin gently into the open hangar of the Wormdrake flagship.

 

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing,” she tells Ryou.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says.

 

“You’re not sorry at all,” she says, flatly. “But that’s okay, you know, kiddo? I don’t know why I’m surprised. Should have seen it coming. Maybe I did. I’ve said it before:  we’re all skunks in this business.”

 

“Yeah,” he says.

 

“So do your worst,” she says. “And watch your back from now on.”

 

The moment the airlock slams open, Ryou slings his vegetable cans out into the hangar. Clouds of opaque white smoke burst outward, filling the hangar with infrared-eating fog. He feels, rather than sees, Alister’s teams of fighters rush out behind him.

 

“Fan out,” Alister directs, in a harsh whisper. “You find Karita, you sit on him until I get there. Ginzo and Lute units, follow the duke and ruin those cannons. And then maybe we can get some fucking product off this sphere. Dig?”

 

“Got it, bossman,” one of the footsoldiers rasps back through her mask.

 

“Ta,” Alister says, “Peahen, Raf, with me. Let’s do this,” and then he, Rafael, and Mai are stepping off into the fog.

 

Otogi’s hand is momentarily heavy on Ryou’s shoulder. He’s drawn the bandana down over his nose and mouth. After another moment, he also vanishes.

 

Ryou is alone—

 

 

 

 

—well, not alone, not really. KaibaCorp’s Roland Isono says, into his ear, “Follow the wall and take the service ladder to the second landing. The holding cells are adjacent to the canteen and sickbay.

 

There is a murmur in the background.

 

I agree, sir,” Isono says, “It is a poor design choice,” and Ryou realizes that boy-genius Seto Kaiba is in attendance today, pacing a groove in his control room floor as he monitors his people and his very risky, very expensive investment.

 

“Roger that,” Ryou says. “Bypassing the first airlock.” Has Kaiba flown in Brigadier Ishtar for the occasion? How many ears are trained on him now, straining for the sounds of victory?

 

Champagne at the ready—

 

God, he hopes not!

 

Good,” Isono says. “Forward twenty meters. On your left.

 

He stumbles over the prone body of a Coalition soldier in the spreading white fog. Dead? Unconscious? There’s no time or reason to check.

 

Stop,” Isono says. “I have a visual on—

 

“Can you see me?” Ryou says, freezing in place. Ears and eyes.

 

Of course,” a cold, sharp voice says—Kaiba. A chill runs down Ryou’s back, a long strike down the right of his spine from earpiece to tailbone. “Wormdrake eyes are trained on the sphere. I’ve intercepted the thousand-eye composite view as well as the internal security feed images. We are all-seeing and all-knowing.” Grudgingly, the voice continues, “The hangar and first corridor are obscured by your smoke canisters, but we have full visuals on airlocked areas. Go ahead, Isono.

 

Thank you, sir. Yes, sir. As I was saying—I have a visual on Titus Karita. I repeat:  I have a visual on Titus Karita.

 

At this announcement, Ryou’s entire body goes hot, shot through by a fierce, surging joy. So he wasn’t wrong:  Karita is here.

 

Cell B14,” Isono says. “Resolution is poor, but he looks nervous.

 

Another soft murmur in the background, and Isono replies, “Apologies, Mr. Inoue. That was baseless speculation on my part.

 

“Understood,” Ryou says. “Bypassing second airlock.”

 

The Wormdrake internal door security protocols are apparently not very good either. The background murmuring sounds increasingly contemptuous as Ryou uses a basic KaibaCorp keyjammer to obtain and enter the next code.

 

Semper prorsum, the Brigadier would say—

 

                              

 

 

Perfer et obdura. The morning after the destruction of Reshef’s warehouse, and his latest beating at the hands of Bakura, Ryou makes contact with Brigadier Ishtar. He does it lying down on the floor of the Minotaur—not that she can see him anyway, now that the video link has well and truly kicked it, but it never hurts to be on the safe side.

 

At last,” she says. Honeyed triumph. “There were some concerns here that you might have gone rogue.” Her voice lightens. “I explained that you were merely lying low. ‘Gone to earth,’ as we used to say, in days gone by.”

 

Ryou doesn’t know how to respond. He waits in a somewhat strangled silence until Brigadier Ishtar relents and chuckles to herself.

 

Tell me, Inoue. What do you need?

 

 

 

 

Ryou thinks about Yuugi, suddenly, abruptly, unbidden:  Yuugi, glowing green, as his kills pile up. His name jumps higher and higher on the boards. Behind the glass, the officers have taken notice; they are looking back and forth between the screens and their clipboards. Yuugi is oblivious to it all, eyes glazed, fingers commanding legions:  the little puppetmaster on his throne.

 

But there are strings tied to Ryou’s limbs, wire bonds drawing beads of blood from weak flesh. A wind-up key in his back.

 

He marches on.

 

 

 

 

Thirty seconds ago—

 

The flagship shakes beneath him. An alarm begins to blare, insistent and piercing. Otogi and his crew must have reached the control room.

 

“Approaching cell block B,” Ryou says. He’s breathing faster now into his mouthpiece. He hopes Isono et al. won’t comment.

 

They don’t.

 

Hang on,” Isono says. “Wait a moment. There’s someone—

 

Fuck me,” comes Kaiba’s voice dimly and distantly.

 

Ryou’s lungs seize in his chest.

 

 

 

 

 

Bakura has swapped his red cloak for black Coalition riot gear. The whole suit is too large, the shoulders comically padded and wide. He’s so strangely diminished in proper lighting, Ryou thinks—small and slim and stooped, tilting to one side.

 

That’s not so odd, all things considered. Karita, in prison blues, trapped in the crook of Bakura’s arm, is struggling for his life. Bakura is holding him with a knee in his back.

 

Karita’s huge hands claw and scratch at the thick black material of the Coalition jacket.

 

“Hell of a party,” Bakura says, with a white flash of teeth. He—or his borrowed uniform—is bleeding. The blood is running freely down his dangling left arm, dripping onto the tile by his heavy black boots and Karita’s slipper-socks. Maybe the boots are too large, too. Maybe they will impede Bakura’s escape.

 

There’s certainly a party going on in Ryou’s ear. He can hear Isono squawking, Kaiba shouting something—commands? Demands? Does it matter?

 

No.

 

He pulls the earpiece out and lets it dangle over his shoulder.

 

“Bakura,” he greets. The smoke is drifting in around his ankles, sifting through the gaps of the broken airlock. In another sixty seconds, his vision will be obscured.

 

There is nothing mad about Bakura’s stare now. He looks at Ryou with narrowed eyes.

 

“Come to put me down?” he says. “Hasn’t gone so well for you before, has it? Give up, little Coalition soldier. Run away while there’s still breath in your lungs. There is honor in this defeat.”

 

Is there? Ryou thinks, looking at him. Bakura’s face, what he can see of it under the riot gear, is sweating. He’s human after all.

 

Ryou mutes his comms unit. “I didn’t kill your mech,” he says.

 

Bakura’s mouth curls. “Liar.”

 

“I assumed you did,” Ryou says. “To keep him quiet. Or to light the way for your Necrofear, laid to rest in the scrapyard—they have that tradition, don’t they, on Kul Elna? Had, I mean. Was I wrong?”

 

 

 

 

On these docks there are never any accidents, Ryou remembers, the yellow-haired doctor’s voice drifting back to him, but there are also many, many yakuza. Reshef was a scavenger, a salvage rat. He would have been in contact with several groups. Who knows what kind of turf war Ryou and Bakura stumbled across?

 

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong scrap.

 

 

 

 

Bakura doesn’t reply. He’s frowning.

 

“My name is Inoue Ryou,” Ryou says. “I’m not here to shoot you down. I’m here to recruit you.”

 

 

 

 

“What is it she wants, huh?” Mai again, echoing distantly through his memory. Friendly, companionable Mai in her nest of blankets, makeup smudged, a teasing smile on her lips while Ryou gnaws at the puzzle that is Otogi Ryuuji, so far away from home. Red toenails, red mouth.

 

“Not what, Mai,” Ryou says. “Who.”

 

Brigadier Ishtar has promised Bakura to Kaiba. They’ll pick his brains about Pegasus’ realm of shadows.

 

“No, that isn’t right,” Mai says, lurching upright. She’s staring hard at him. “Forget Kaiba’s eight thou—it’s the Brig’s pocket on fire. Isn’t it? HQ didn’t send a team because HQ doesn’t care—or because they don’t know, period. But the Brig cares. But—oops! She’s killed off every last one of her officers. She’s burned through every single one of the war crowd, all her handpicked recruits—and you’re the only one left, aren’t you, after Valon and I…bit the dust. And then there were none.

 

“What?” Ryou says. “No.”

 

“I told you, kiddo,” Mai says. “I’ve been keeping tabs on the whole damn circus. I know who’s dead, who’s missing, who’s retired. Christ, Inoue. Haven’t you been paying attention? You’ve been running on a skeleton crew.”

 

She’s right, he realizes. Brigadier Ishtar staffed the operation on Alpha Twelve with Alliance plants. He’d assumed there was some strategic reason for it, but now—

 

If Kaiba wants to know Bakura’s mind, then Brigadier Ishtar wants the man himself. She needs new blood. Who better than the man who has slipped like a ghost through the protections of all the governments of the galaxy? 

 

Ex-military personnel—who cares how many have died, and how many more Bakura may want to kill? They weren’t Ishtar’s people.

 

A small price to pay.

 

Will Ryou be the last starchip, thrown in to sweeten the pot?

 

“The ship’s sinking,” Mai says. “Better bail out while you can—”

 

 

 

 

The ship is sinking, and Ryou is ready to drown, eager for it. He reaches out with a steadiness he doesn’t feel. “I’m here to recruit you,” he repeats, while Bakura stares and stares.

 

And laughs. He throws his head back and roars with laughter. The blood drips faster and faster.

 

Strangling in the crook of Bakura’s right arm, his big bald skull and thick-boned face the color of a blood boil, Professor Titus Karita manages to gasp out, “Help me—reward—gnh—”

 

“Recruit me,” Bakura says. “Recruit me. That’s rich.”

 

“What do you need?” Ryou says. “Ships? Suits? Weapons, money, safe passage. We can give these things to you.”

 

“What I need,” Bakura says, low and dark, “is to cut the heart from this murderous bastard’s chest.”

 

Karita wets himself, slowly, the stain spreading across his trousers.

 

“Go ahead,” Ryou says, and wonders at the coolness of his voice. The single alarm has been joined by several others, rising to a fever pitch. He hears explosions in the distance:  Otogi’s Dimension Dice at work. “I’ll cover the door.”

 

Ryou turns his back to them. In the polished surface of the airlock, he can see a warped reflection of Bakura, freakishly elongated, looming over the squat and bulbous blue body of the doomed Karita. A silver knife snaps into the palm of his dangling left arm. The muscles grow taut. The arm draws back to strike, its reflection in the door sinuous, viper-like.

 

“Wait,” Karita screams, eyes bulging. “Wait, wait—I know you. I know you! Inoue—it’s Inoue! Your father—”

 

Ryou’s breath shrivels in his throat.

 

With a single brutal movement, Bakura flays Karita open from sternum to groin.

 

 

 

 

“Titus Karita,” Valon says. His voice has gone hard and tight. Ryou looks up in surprise, glances quickly at him:  he’s glaring down at his files, white-knuckled. “Real piece of work. But someone’s been protecting him. Every time we get close, he just slithers away and sets up on another colony. Fuck! All those poor kids—”

 

“We’ll get him this time,” Mai says. “Valon. Look at me, hon. We’re gonna gut that bastard.”

 

“I’ll drink to that,” Valon says, more lightly. He raises his glass, taps it against the long green neck of Mai’s bottle.

 

 

 

 

“Oooops,” Bakura drawls, straightening. Arterial spray has drenched the left side of his body. His eyes are shining with a red mist. “Too late. Friend of the family?”

 

Ryou is a statue fused to the cellblock floor, and his foundations are crumbling beneath him.

 

“What is your answer?” he says. His teeth are chattering.

 

“I don’t need you,” Bakura says. “I don’t need your guns, your ships, your money, your safe passage. Fuck you. That’s my answer!”

 

He throws Karita’s body aside. It lands with a wet squelch.

 

“Get out of my way,” Bakura says. His fingers twitch around the hilt of the knife, slippery with blood.

 

“N-no,” Ryou stammers. He gasps, gulps. “No.”

 

Bakura grins. “Then die,” he says—

 

 

 

 

Ryou snaps his outstretched hand back to his side. The Brutdrago swings up in a heavy black arc—slow, slow—too slow

 

 

 

 

He shoots.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Time on your side it'll never end
The most beautiful thing you can ever spend
But you work in a shirt with your name tag on it
Drifting apart like a plate tectonic

It don't matter to me
All I wanted to be
Was a million miles from here
Somewhere more familiar 

Kaiser Chiefs, “Oh My God”

 

 

 

 

The fire burns over Ukiyo, leaving bodies in its wake. The people of the sphere don’t get their seventh platform, or the magistrate’s head, but the blockade lifts.

 

The Wormdrakes have no real power now that their cannons—the big guns—have been silenced. A number of the smaller ships were dragged down, too, turning the blockade into a moth-eaten patchwork. Cargo ships take off one by one, boosting through every available gap. Some collide with the burned-out shells of Worms, sending them spinning off into the blackness of space.

 

Seven days after the maelstrom, the remaining Worms power up their engines and make the jump back to the Coalition Alphas.

 

The skies over Ukiyo are still black, but now they can see the stars. The wreck of the flagship circles the sphere, its broken outlines glowing in the milky, ghostly light of distant Šilla. A new satellite.

 

 

 

 

There have been casualties. Six of Valon’s best boys and girls never left the flagship, and six more are badly burned, along with Otogi, who spent the last of his Dimension Dice in a wild scattering throw, blowing up the Wormdrake cannons and blowing himself and the remnants of his team backward through a wall—

 

Doma’s striker—put a bullet between your eyes from miles away—has had to hang up her rifle:  Mai has been shot through the shoulder.

 

 

 

 

Ryou asks Shizuka, since he can’t ask Mai. “Did she do it on purpose? Did she—”

 

Shizuka’s eyes are red-rimmed and swollen, as though she’s been crying, though it could just as well be from the heavy black smoke permeating the sphere in recent days. They’ve all had to go around wearing makeshift or purchased air filtration masks.  

 

“She said she was tired,” Shizuka says.

 

Ryou remembers the relief he felt at the news, all-enveloping, knee-weakening, and hates the cowardice that feeds it. She can’t put a bullet in his back now. Not for several months, anyway.

 

 

 

 

Casualties—

 

There have been power cuts across the sphere. Valon’s clinic has had to switch to manual respiration several times. They’ve managed to get back on a reliable source, but the damage is done. He’s fading fast, Alister says. A matter of weeks now, not months.

 

It’s time, Alister says.

 

He died long ago, Alister says, too. He’s probably laughing his arse off at the both of us.

 

Mai hasn’t been back to see Valon since the riot; Alister goes alone to pull the plug. A few days later, Ryou finds him in the heart of Doma territory on the destroyed docks, sunning himself on a piece of overturned rubble. His eyes are closed under the dim gray light and there are slow tears leaking down his white face.

 

Ryou can only apologize, bowing lower and lower. He had no idea Bakura would manage to spirit himself on board, just hours before the conflagration. He had no idea the KaibaCorp schematics he’d provided to Alister were years out of date, that the cellblocks in updated Worm flagships had been relocated—

 

There was nothing left to do with Karita’s body except leave it to burn.

 

“Stands to reason, I s’ppose,” Alister says. “A rat bastard like Karita was sure to have other enemies.” He raises himself up on one elbow and stares at Ryou with his tired, watery eyes. “He really gutted him, huh?”

 

Ryou mimes the motion, dragging his index finger from throat to groin. His belly flutters.

 

“Hey,” Rafael says. His huge body picks its way across the torn-up concrete with all the grace of a prima ballerina. “We’re loaded up. You ready to go?”

 

Ryou is wearing Mai’s Baby Dragon on straps around his chest and back. He’ll never be as good a shot as Mai, but he’s a faster pilot. Doma’s striker is going on a flying holiday, shifting product from platform to platform.

 

“Ready,” he says.

 

 

 

 

He rents a room on the sphere. Now that the blockade has been lifted, housing is easy to find. Prices are low, and he pays in chips—no trail. Bakura is gone, and so is Ryou, for the time being, should the Coalition come looking.

 

The Doma group have given him a Buster Pyle for his delivery runs. It’s duller than the Minotaur and almost as fast, though twice as rickety. In any case, the Minotaur is grounded now, lost to him. He’s failed Kaiba and must give up his toys.

 

So:  Ryou spends one of his rare days off buffing and polishing his old ship to a mirror gloss in Shizuka’s warehouse. It takes him a good four hours. A long farewell. The Minotaur has never looked more beautiful, shining bright cherry and chrome. Otogi, slathered with burn cream, skin blistering down the left side of his face, stares at the ship as though hypnotized.

 

“Your payment,” Ryou tells Shizuka. “Sell it, gut it, do whatever you like. It’s yours now.”

 

She lets out a garbled shriek and practically tackles him. Ryou falls backward with a gasp; Otogi doubles over laughing.

 

“Don’t fly out too far,” Ryou warns her. “Kaiba’s watching.”

 

“Let him,” she says. Otogi is still cackling above them. She squeezes Ryou tight, until he wheezes. “Thank you—thank you! Does this mean you’re going to stay?” Then she looks up, shy, and her smile slips.

 

Ryou wonders what kind of expression he’s making.

 

“For a little while,” he says.

 

He’s sphere-bound at least another few weeks, until Doma’s striker returns, until everyone has had a chance to heal.

 

 

 

 

The Wormdrake alarms are so high and shrill—

 

Come in. Come in. Inoue—”

 

Ryou replaces his mouthpiece with remarkably steady hands.

 

“I’m here,” he says.

 

Kaiba again. Ryou imagines him shoving Isono aside, lunging in toward the mic:  “We’ve lost visuals. What kind of trigger-happy idiots did you pull in for this job? They’ve blown up the entire feed—

 

Well done, Otogi!

 

Kaiba is still talking. “No finesse. Tch! Answer me—do you have him?

 

Ryou thinks the Brigadier will understand. Wherever she is now, waiting beside Kaiba in the war room, or reviewing the audio and transcripts later at her leisure—she’ll understand. She’ll probably even laugh out loud.

 

“Karita is dead,” he says, with deliberate obtuseness.

 

Fuck Karita,” Kaiba shouts. “I don’t give a shit about Karita. I’m asking you if you have Bakura

 

Ryou looks down at the bodies. Karita has bled out his body’s volume of blood on the floor. It’s congealing. It looks like jelly.

 

As for Bakura—

 

“I missed,” Ryou says. “He’s gone.”

 

Shit!”

 

As Kaiba starts to curse him, Ryou removes the earpiece again. He takes off the mouthpiece and cracks it under his heel. And then he kneels down.

 

 

 

 

—The apartment is dark. He can just make out the huddled shape at the back of the little room, lying sullenly on its side.

 

“How’s your leg?” Ryou says, setting his bag down by the door. He throws the bolts home without looking, his gaze fixed.

 

The slumped body shifts—signs of life. Then Bakura is looking up at him with his narrowed black eyes.

 

“Better,” he says. “No thanks to you.”

 

 

 

 

“Missed?” Bakura grunts. “I wish you had, you fucking bastard—fuck—”

 

Ryou aimed wide, deliberately, but the Brutdrago’s blast radius is huge. It’s taken out part of the floor—Ryou can see the hangar through this new jagged metal mouth, meters below—and part of Bakura’s left calf. Bakura lies at his feet, his face contorted, breathing hard through his nose, gripping his leg in an attempt to stem the bleeding.

 

The detonation has knocked Bakura’s knife out of his hand. Ryou uses it to cut off the sleeve of the oversized Coalition jacket, ties the sleeve above Bakura’s knee as a tourniquet.

 

His ears pop. The Wormdrake flagship is depressurizing rapidly.

 

“Can you stand?” Ryou says.

 

“Time to blow this scene, huh?” Bakura mutters. “Get everybody and the stuff together—”

 

“You’re my cargo,” Ryou says. He pulls one of Bakura’s arms over his shoulder, braces. Bakura’s entire body is trembling. He swoons a bit as Ryou hauls them both upright, sagging forward with a low gasp, and Ryou catches him, supports him. His heart is beating so hard in his chest that he’s sure they can both hear it, a dull bass booming beneath the bright screaming of the alarms. “Easy. Lean on me—”

 

 

 

 

Ryou makes dinner:  rice and pickles and a single precious egg. Ashvin Ajith on Platform Six was more than happy to gift an entire basket to Ryou, who is not a nice boy anymore, no matter what Ashvin’s sister-in-law on Ukiyo thinks. He’s not a nice boy at all, but Ashvin hands the eggs over anyway, staring wide-eyed at the Orichalcos pendant around Ryou’s neck, the Doma insignia emblazoned across the chest of his padded armor.

 

He feeds Bakura using a bowl and a pair of steel chopsticks.

 

“Stop grinning,” Bakura says, between mouthfuls. “It’s creepy.”

 

“I’m just happy you’re eating,” Ryou replies.

 

“I’m fucking hungry, of course I’m going to eat,” Bakura says. There is a grain of rice stuck to the corner of his lip. Ryou knows better than to reach toward those teeth with his bare fingers; he uses the tip of one chopstick to nudge the grain back into Bakura’s mouth. Bakura licks after it, still boring a hole into Ryou with his eyes. “You were gone for three days.”

 

“You were counting,” Ryou says, and smiles again. He washes the implements in the sink and says, “I brought more painkillers. Do you want them?”

 

“No,” Bakura says.

 

“Vitamin pills?” Ryou fishes around in his bag and retrieves the rattling capsule.

 

 “Fuck you,” Bakura says. “How long are you planning to keep me here?”

 

“Until you agree to my terms,” Ryou says. “If there’s nothing else, I’m going to go to sleep.”

 

“Bathroom,” Bakura says.

 

 

 

 

Sneaking Bakura off the flagship turns out to be easy. In the chaos of the evacuation, no one even notices Ryou struggling through the hangar with an extra body around his neck. Bakura’s face and hair, too, are obscured by the red mask of Karita’s blood. He gets Bakura onto a shuttle, eases him down by the controls, and blasts them toward the sphere.

 

The Doma group’s physician—another one of Valon’s best—treats Bakura’s leg and doesn’t even ask about the restraints.

 

At first, Ryou can’t fall asleep, not with Bakura looming in front of him like a dark and terrible beast, the monster at the end of the maze. He doesn’t dare. He braces himself against the front door with Mai’s Baby Dragon trained on Bakura’s chest, until seventy-two hours have elapsed and even Bakura is asleep and the walls are running down his vision, dripping with honey and blood, and he crashes down right there by the door and sleeps for an entire day.

 

Now he falls asleep at once and wakes up with his blood thrumming in his veins, delighted and surprised each time to be alive.

 

And there are other surprises, chief among them the strange tranquility of their arrangement. This is the pattern of their days:  Ryou runs product for the Doma group, ricocheting between platforms and huge Leviathan transports; on his days off, he helps Shizuka at her shop, joins the mech guild as it rebuilds the docks. He brings dinner home, or cooks it, feeds Bakura morsel by morsel, holds a drinking glass to his lips. He sponges Bakura clean, brushes his hair, empties the clinic’s stolen kidney dish of waste—

 

Sometimes Bakura shouts at him, insults him, tells him terrible stories about war and fire and death. Ryou listens closely, notes it all down. There’s a crack somewhere. He’ll find it.

 

“Landlord,” Bakura calls Ryou, sarcastically, as Ryou sits by the door and studies his files. “Hey, landlord!”

 

“Don’t call me that,” Ryou says, turning a page.

 

So then—

 

Ryou,” Bakura says, and Ryou hates the sound of his name in Bakura’s mouth, being turned over and over. It feels like his ears are being licked. He’s standing on the other side of the room, but Bakura’s voice is hot against his skin.

 

He slams the file shut.

 

“Goodnight,” he says, thin.

 

Rinse and repeat.

 

 

 

 

Bakura grows soft and pale in captivity, and Ryou worries about him the way he used to worry over a small potted plant Anzu gifted to him, wondering if it was overwatered or looking too droopy. The plant is dead now, dead several years over, but the worry and guilt remain. Once the skin of Bakura’s calf has knitted and scarred over, Ryou starts to manipulate Bakura’s leg for him, rotating the ankle, stretching, warming, and massaging what is left of the muscles. It’s not much in the way of physical rehabilitation, and it will take some time before Bakura can walk again. Time and real medical or mechanical intervention, not—

 

Not whatever this is, Ryou thinks. He can feel the heat of Bakura’s gaze on the top of his head as he rubs, as real and tangible as the knotted flesh under his fingers.


Bakura grunts.

 

“Are you okay?” Ryou says. “Does it hurt?”

 

An idiotic question, which Bakura doesn’t bother to acknowledge. Instead, he says, in a voice like a caress, “Just wait until I get my hands on you.”

 

Ryou pulls away.

 

Nevertheless, it’s the most beautiful month of Ryou’s short life. For the whole of a month, this beautiful month, everything goes well. Bakura’s leg heals; Ryou’s bruises yellow and vanish; their hair grows long.

 

 

 

 

On the thirty-second day, he comes back from the docks, swinging a bag of soft steamed mantou. He will serve them with stewed soy pieces and leeks. Bakura has been quiet, this week. Maybe he will let Ryou feed him with his fingers.

 

“Hey, landlord,” Bakura says. “Stop that stupid humming and come here.”

 

Ryou sets the soy-leek filling aside. He crosses the room in a few strides.

 

“What do you need?” he says. “Is your leg bothering you?” He follows Bakura’s gaze downward and chokes.

 

“How embarrassing,” Bakura says. His voice is loud and casual. “I’m all pent up. Any chance of a call girl? Or boy, I’m not particular. This is the Floating City, isn’t it? Hey, my eyes are up here, you know.”

 

This must be a new tactic. If Bakura is trying to embarrass Ryou into letting him go, well—

 

Ryou kneels, mechanically, and rolls up his left sleeve.

 

“What are you doing?” Bakura says. “You—”

 

“I’ll help,” Ryou says. “I can’t let you go, so—” Bakura’s cock is hard and hot in his hand. It’s thicker than his own, he thinks. The shaft twitches as he curls his fingers around it.

 

He strokes upward—Bakura hisses.

 

“You’re an unconventional kind of honeypot,” Bakura murmurs, as Ryou works him, slow and careful. His face is burning, but he refuses to admit defeat. “Come here. Come closer. I won’t—ah—try anything, you’ve got me by the balls, haven’t you? I wouldn’t dare. Oh, fuck. Fuck. Come here, damn it—”

 

Ryou creeps closer, lets his arm bend. Bakura’s breath is momentarily damp and sour against his lips, curling white into the air; Ryou sucks it into his lungs as he inhales in surprise. Then Bakura folds forward, slamming his forehead against Ryou’s shoulder.

 

“Fuck,” he says again, muffled.

 

“Is this good?” Ryou asks. “Tighter? Faster? Tell me.”

 

“Don’t you know what to do?” Bakura says. His voice is like gravel. “You’ve got one of your own, haven’t y—ngh—yes, faster. Just like that—”

 

Ryou obeys. He can feel Bakura’s muscles tightening under his other hand, splayed across Bakura’s left thigh. Bakura’s legs fall open; his hips jerk; his back arches. He’s squirming under Ryou’s hand. Ryou, nuzzling in closer, breathes in the smell of him:  bitter ash and sweat.

 

“Is this good?” he repeats. Bakura half-laughs, half-groans, and curses him.

 

He bites down on Ryou’s shoulder as he comes, hips stuttering, thrusting rapidly into the wet circle of Ryou’s fist. He’s panting. Ryou is breathing a little faster, too, remembering the bright, sharp pressure of Bakura’s teeth on his collarbone.

 

After, Bakura leans back against the wall, tilting his head up, still breathing hard. Ryou finds a towel. He cleans Bakura up and tucks him back into his pants.

 

“You some kind of pervert?” Bakura says, watching him through lidded eyes. “Is this what you meant by recruit—”

 

“No,” Ryou says. “I just thought—” He’s impressed with himself. He examines his hand, flexing his fingers.

 

“Untie me,” Bakura says. “Let me return the favor.”

 

“No, thank you,” Ryou says, scrambling away, scrambling to his feet. “I’m—there’s no need. As long as you’re satisfied—”

 

“Landlord,” Bakura says, cajoling. His gaze is dark. “Ryou—”

 

Ryou washes his hands, sweeps up his bag and his coat, runs out the door.

 

 

 

 

This is the pattern of their days. Ryou runs product for the Doma group, works on the docks, brings food back—

 

Jerks Bakura off. Leans into him as he comes. Lets Bakura nose at him, bite at his jaw, whisper in his ear.

 

And Ryou ignores him—ignores him

 

“Untie me,” Bakura says, for the hundredth time. “Go on, yadonushi. I’ll make it worth your while.”

 

“No,” Ryou says, and Bakura bangs the back of his head against the wall and growls in frustration—

 

 

 

 

“Are you okay?” Shizuka asks, as Ryou drops a whole crate of scrap, his whole body suddenly going stiff with the memory of Bakura’s teeth on his earlobe.

 

“What? Oh,” Ryou says. “I’m fine—”

 

 

 

 

The platforms turn; the sphere spins. Comets go by. He corkscrews the Buster Pyle unscathed through a dogfight with a rival group, sets fire to a warehouse, guards the door as Alister interrogates another captive. Otogi teaches him a cardgame called Strike Ninja. Shizuka buys a billboard center-sphere, and Otogi buys her thirty seconds of ad space on the radio.

 

‘—wear and tear, come to Serenity!’ Hmm, Serenity, sounds cute, doesn’t it, Bonz? Bonz is nodding, listeners, you just can’t see it. Okay, Sid, let’s do the news—

 

Cheers, Zy. There’s all kinds of bollocks going on off-sphere. If you think the Floating City is corrupt, listen to this! Disgraced politician Jinrai Hattori—

 

“No, leave it on,” Shizuka says, stalling Ryou’s hand. “They’re always so funny about off-sphere news.”

 

“Because they don’t give a shit about what happens off-sphere,” Otogi says. “It’s like they don’t even realize these events are linked.”

 

“Shh, Otogi-kun!”

 

“Aw, come on, we’ve been through so much together,” Otogi complains. “Otogi this, Otogi that. I’m your patron now, Shizuka. Can’t you at least call me Ryuuji?”

 

They’re smiling at each other—

 

Ryou turns the volume up. “Sounds like a staycation—”

 

 

 

 

The pattern tears. One Saturday, returning from a successful run, Ryou opens the door and sees the restraints lying abandoned at the center of the room. The world expands, teeters, sucks back to a pinpoint—

 

 

 

 

The apartment is empty—it’s all over—

 

 

 

 

He lets out a cry of pure relief as Bakura slams him into the ground and pins him.

 

“Don’t try to run,” Bakura says. His knee digs into the curve of Ryou’s spine. “I’ll snap your neck.” He strips Ryou quickly and methodically while Ryou lies frozen beneath him, barely daring to breathe. He can’t let this moment shatter. He can’t close his eyes, not even to blink—the fear that Bakura will vanish is overwhelming, paralyzing. Above him, Bakura is mumbling obscenities. “Damn, you’re a tease. Why’d they send you to kill me? We could have started with this and saved a couple hundred bullets—”

 

He drags Ryou back inside and locks the door, the foot of his injured leg resting against the back of Ryou’s neck. Ryou has just come in from the cold, and Bakura’s skin is burning hot, a furnace at his throat.

 

He wheezes. “Bakura—”

 

Bakura ignores him. He flips Ryou roughly onto his back, licks his way down Ryou’s chest, and then takes Ryou into his mouth.

 

Ryou gasps—it’s so hot and wet and soft

 

He doesn’t know what to do

 

Bakura is gripping his wrists, keeping his hands pressed down at his sides.

 

“Do you like it?” he says, coming up for air. “Make a little noise for me if you like it. Kick me in the face if you don’t. Hey. Hey. Are you a dead fish?”

 

“Don’t eat me,” Ryou gasps, idiotically. “You’re going to eat me. You’re going to—oh, god—”

 

Bakura digs his fingernails into Ryou’s flesh and drags, breaking skin. Ryou cries out and bucks, unable to stop himself.

 

“Oh,” Bakura says, “I see—”

 

He digs his fingertips in harder as he swallows, rubbing the head of Ryou’s cock against the back of his throat. Half-moon welts are going to form down Ryou’s legs and buttocks, he’ll see them tomorrow, the marks of Bakura’s fingers and teeth on his body—

 

 

 

 

Lie back and think of

 

 

 

 

He can’t think, he can’t think at all. His body is a string about to snap. He comes down Bakura’s throat, sobbing for breath.

 

He expects Bakura to lunge up and strangle him afterwards, but Bakura straddles him instead, laughing as he flattens Ryou’s arms to the ground with his knees. He curls over Ryou, kissing him until he grows faint and dizzy, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood—

 

“Not going to try to escape?” he says. “How obedient—”

 

“Bakura,” Ryou gasps. His lower lip is swollen, stinging, burning hot. His hands are going numb under Bakura’s shins. He grips Bakura’s bare calves, one full, one scarred and wasted, and chases the taste of himself on Bakura’s tongue.

 

Then Bakura leans back, still laughing, and tugs lazily at his own cock until he comes on Ryou’s face.

 

 

 

 

Ryou wakes up alone, stinking and sticky. But when he struggles from the pallet, heart bursting with the certainty that he has ruined everything, destroyed everything with his carelessness, he sees Bakura.

 

He’s sitting cross-legged by the little electric burner with Ryou’s jacket draped over his shoulders. The cold morning light throws a bluish cast on his numerous scars. He’s wearing Ryou’s gun, too.

 

Just the gun and the jacket. Nothing else.

 

Ryou swallows.

 

Bakura pats the space beside him. “Let’s talk transport, shall we, landlord?” he says. “And no more restraints, I think, unless you’d like to wear them—”

 

 

 

 

He does wear them, a little later, and lets Bakura fuck him until he screams.

 

 

 

 

“I thought you were a cadet,” Bakura says. His hand is like a brand on Ryou’s left arsecheek. “You never fooled around?”

 

“In the middle of a war?” Ryou mumbles. Bakura called him a honeypot. He knows what that means and what it entails, and it’s so much more Mai’s speed than his. “Why? We were no better than corpses.”

 

Bakura whistles. “And I thought my outlook was grim.”

 

Ryou rolls onto his back with difficulty, feeling the ache in his shoulder as he settles on the cold floor. Even after everything they have done, he still feels a nervous thrill about it, about exposing his belly to Bakura. Bakura watches him swallow.

 

“Is this satisfactory?” Ryou says.

 

“This?” Bakura says, with a crude gesture at Ryou’s cock.

 

“You know what I mean,” Ryou says. “Will you—”

 

“They ask a lot of you in the service,” Bakura says. “Anything for your masters, is it? Your life, your breath, your body—”

 

“This doesn’t have anything to do with them,” Ryou interrupts. “This is—a separate offer.” He can hear his voice, soft and strained and embarrassed, and looks away. “Though I would—I would like it—very much—if you would agree to sign on—and stay—and work with me, instead of against me. We would save a lot of time,” he adds, glancing back at Bakura, noting the dumbfounded expression on his face, “and a couple hundred bullets.”

 

“And if I refuse?” Bakura says.

 

“I’ll hunt you down again,” Ryou says.

 

“In that case, I’ll kill you right here,” Bakura says.

 

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Ryou says. “And—”

 

“And?” Bakura says, not quite a sneer. Ryou wants to touch him, to stroke the mass of scars on his cheek.

 

He settles for squeezing Bakura, just a bit, with his thighs. He can feel the breath swelling Bakura’s lungs. Then, almost as though he can read the thought in Ryou’s eyes, Bakura reaches up and does it himself, pressing his fingertips into the scar, pulling at it, distorting the right side of his face as he frowns.

 

“I don’t think you can,” Ryou says. “You can’t, can you? You’ve had so many chances. Just now, for one. And that night in the warehouse. You aimed at my hand. My hand,” he repeats, wiggling the offending appendage behind his back.

 

Bakura looks at him, considering. “You’re a damned nuisance,” he says finally.

 

“You, too,” Ryou says.

 

“Pest.” Bakura’s fingertips slide up Ryou’s sides, slowly and reluctantly, almost as though he can’t help himself. “You cracked my ribs on Baek.”

 

Baek!

 

Heat and sand and the Necrofear, little more than a black speck in the atmosphere, disappearing before his eyes and his single grasping hand—the singing, warping crash of that ancient sun-bright sword

 

“You dislocated my shoulder,” Ryou retorts.

 

“Then you shot a hole in my leg,” Bakura says, continuing as though he hasn’t heard. “And now I’m your prisoner,” he adds, even though Ryou is the one with his arms tied together. His fingers stop at Ryou’s chest and trace the pattern of raised scar tissue. “This healed well. Too bad.”

 

Bakura’s fingernails begin to gouge, and Ryou breathes in sharply.

 

“Should I cut it open again?” Bakura muses. Ryou says nothing, and Bakura glances up at him, eyes darkening, mouth parting. “Should I—Ryou?”

 

Brigadier Ishtar must have known all along—about this, about Ryou, about his inclinations. His feelings. She must be laughing in her high tower.

 

“Do it,” Ryou says. “Do it, yes—ah—”

 

 

 

 

Bakura is much more precise this time, so much more careful with the curve of the circle, even though his hands are shaking—his entire body is shaking with the effort of keeping still, buried to the hilt in Ryou’s arse while Ryou moans beneath him and tries not to writhe too much—

 

He can’t bear it, the sting and the slow-sweet drag. He can feel Bakura in his throat. His head falls back, thumps against the floor.

 

“Sorry—sorry,” Ryou gasps. “It’s just—you’re really—you feel so big, inside—I can’t—I can’t—”

 

“Are you doing this on purpose?” Bakura says, swearing.

 

Nngh,” Ryou says.

 

Bakura swears, again, loud and vehement, and throws the knife to the side with a clatter. He sweeps Ryou’s legs up over his shoulders, the angle both brutal and—and perfect—and fucks him into the floor.

 

 

 

 

The world looks different when Ryou finally leaves the apartment, a full two days later, limping and sore and—ravenous, hollow with a hunger that no food can touch. There’s blood on his coat, blood in his hair. It’s a common enough sight on Ukiyo; no one pays him any mind. He’s missed a scheduled drop and lost the Baby Dragon, but he looks so pathetic Alister doesn’t even try to hit him.

 

It doesn’t matter, anyway—

 

“Go home,” Alister says. He holds out a hand. “I’ll be having that Orichalcos rock back now.”

 

Ryou looks at him through swollen eyes. “Mai?” he says. “She’s—”

 

“Waiting for me center-sphere,” Alister says, smoothly. “And I don’t fancy my chances if I’m late. Come on, hand it over.”

 

Ryou does. He returns the padded vest, too, even though Alister tells him to keep it. It hurts to lift his arms above his head; he forces the movement, hissing through his teeth. When he straightens, he notices Alister looking at him with something approaching concern.

 

“Keep the Buster,” Alister says. “All right, Whitey?”

 

“Really?” Ryou says. You didn’t even get a chance to see Karita alive, he thinks. You didn’t even get to see his body. And yet Alister trusts him, believes him—is behaving as though he is grateful

 

“Yes, bloody really,” Alister says. He claps Ryou on the shoulder just to see him wince. “You know what they say. ‘Pyle o’ junk’—”

 

Rafael takes the vest, accepting it solemnly into his outstretched hands, and steps back. It looks tiny cradled in the crook of his arm.

 

“Pleasure doin’ business,” Alister says. “I hope we never meet again.”

 

 

 

 

Ryou washes most of the blood off at a bathhouse before returning to the docks, but Shizuka still cries out when she sees him. She starts to throw her arms around his neck, then stops and thinks better of it. Ryou hugs her anyway.

 

“What happened?” Shizuka says. “Was it—did Mai—”

 

So Alister was telling the truth:  Doma’s striker really is back, and Mai is staying, to shoot, maim, and maybe even kill under the thumb of distant Dartz. I can’t just take off and never look back, she said, a lifetime ago. I have people here.

 

Is she staying to watch over Valon, even in death? To be as close to him as she can, to live out her days in the sphere where he breathed his last? Ryou flew his ashes out to Platform Three at Alister’s request and buried them in a quiet field.

 

Maybe now she’ll wear his ring on her finger for all the sphere to see.

 

Maybe it has nothing to do with Valon, no more than stardust now, avenged by a man who didn’t even know him.

 

People

 

Ryou strokes Shizuka’s hair. She’s alive and whole, cinnamon and black oil, a miracle in his arms.

 

“No,” he says. “But it’s okay. It’s okay.”

 

 

 

 

There is nothing left in the apartment when he wakes up, alone again, but so calm, so steady that he wonders for a moment if he died in the night, if his heart really burst under the strain of it, heaving and crying out under Bakura’s body. But he’s alive—he’s alive, and the apartment is empty. Bakura has wiped it clean. He’s taken the food, the gun, the restraints. The manila file, stuffed with all of its notes and observations. Everything.

 

All that remains is a bloodstain—

 

 

 

 

You’re mine now, Ryou says, lightheaded, delirious, and Bakura’s laugh fills his ears. He smears a hand across Ryou’s torso and watches as Ryou brings it to his lips, kisses it.

 

Yes, he says.

 

 

 

 

—A bloodstain, and Ryou, and a set of coordinates.

 

“It’s okay,” Ryou says again, fiercely, and it is. It will be. He’ll live off the memory of that one word. The wound on his chest burns and burns, setting him alight from within. Over Shizuka’s shoulder, the multicolored hulls of ships sparkle like starlight on ocean waves. Even the dullest gray concrete seems to be shining. Beyond the clouded and creaking mirror panels of Ukiyo, the blackness of space is glittering, enticing, endless.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

So you were born in an electrical storm
Took a bite out the sun
And saw your future in a machine built for two

Now your rays make me kind of go crazy
Shock and awe and amaze me

OK Go, “Do What You Want”

 

 

 

 

YG0 is easing into its autumn panel configuration, drawing its days shorter and shorter, but the colony spreading out beneath Ryou is soft with summer greenery and gentle pastels, as pretty as a bauble. The black velvet of the Kado River wraps around the sphere like a mourning band. Ryou glides down into his docking port in South Bay and looks around at the gleaming new surfaces in surprise. There are designated berths for one-seater lightcraft and even Centaur transports now. This is Alpha tech, Ryou thinks, with budding wonder. Maybe YG0 has some life left in it after all. The young people of the sphere, the Yuugis and Jounouchis, will not let it die.

 

Speaking of—

 

“Wow,” Jounouchi shouts. As soon as Ryou releases the hatch, Jounouchi is on him; he all but drags Ryou from the pilot’s seat, folding him into a hug and crushing Ryou’s flight suit in the process. “A Buster! Damn! Did they demote you?”

 

“Jounouchi,” Ryou says, allowing himself to be squeezed. “I’m back.”

 

“Welcome back,” Jounouchi replies. “Like the new digs? Renos finished last month. I helped. Aren’t they pretty? Hey, did you hear? About Bakura? Whoa, careful! Flight legs, huh? How long was the trip this time? Come on, let’s get some food in you—”

 

 

 

 

Ryou leaves Ukiyo one cold morning in summer, unsure of the exact date or time:  the Buster’s calendar is, predictably, busted. He thinks it must be late June.

 

Shizuka and Otogi come to see him off, arriving hand in hand on the docks just as he finishes loading the last of his supplies. It will be a long journey.

 

“Mai’s working,” Shizuka says, as though that’s the only reason she hasn’t tagged happily along. “She said—”

 

Good riddancefuck younever again—

 

“She said to keep your head down,” Shizuka says.

 

Ryou stares at her, feels the tears coming abruptly into his eyes.

 

“I will,” he says, blinking them away. “Tell her I said thank you—and goodbye.”

 

Shizuka throws her arms around him, and, standing on her tiptoes, winds her hands into his hair, kisses his cheek with her chapped cold lips. He lets her, bitterly resisting the desire to hold her and instead, gently, touches the top of her head. Then he steps back and watches as the gloom turns the bright cinnamon of her hair to ash.

 

“Thank you for everything,” he says. “Be well.”

 

“So that’s how it is,” she says softly. “Come back whenever you can, Ryou-kun. You’ll always have a mech in this quadrant.”

 

 

 

 

He flies past Baek, boosting straight through its orbit, too fast to get a proper look. He leaves it behind, a slow-turning jewel in the distance.

 

 

 

 

Wedding preparations are in full swing. It’ll be the first wedding ceremony in Domino in a decade, and all the older inhabitants are excited. They volunteer food and fabrics, and they demand a neighborhood-wide reception in the central park in return. But even though Jounouchi, Anzu, Yuugi, and Honda are meeting almost every single day now, building and setting up the pavilion, putting the finishing touches on catering details, they still drag Ryou to the izakaya on Saturday for the usual meetup.

 

On this night, it is Jounouchi who is running late. They start without him, with a round of beers and a bit of lighthearted grousing about an obasan who really, really wants Anzu to wear red.

 

“I mean, what year does she think it is?” Anzu says, laughing. “She’ll be wanting a palanquin next—”

 

Ryou drinks his beer with studied carelessness. The injury to his shoulder has healed to the extent that it is no longer apparent, but he’s started to favor his left arm, and it feels too awkward to try to switch back now. He hopes they don’t realize. He doesn’t want to see the concern in their eyes.

 

Yuugi notices all the same.

 

“The offer still stands, you know,” he says, with a furrow starting in his little brow as he looks determinedly away from Ryou’s right arm, resting so casually on the table. “The job. And it wouldn’t just be deliveries. Grandpa’s arthritis is really starting to bother him. We could use another pair of hands at the garage—”

 

“Meat!” Honda shouts at the kitchen, “and lots of it, The Stomach has arrived,” as Jounouchi blows through the door in an oiled jacket, drenched with rain.

 

“Only one cloud in this whole damn sphere, and it decides to let loose on me,” Jounouchi grumbles. Anzu produces a handkerchief and wipes at his face; Honda, snickering, wraps him up in a tablecloth.

 

“Think about it, okay?” Yuugi says quietly, and drops the subject.

 

Hours later, Ryou lies in his childhood bed. It’s still raining, even as the panels shift to create pre-dawn light. He listens to the pitter-patter outside the window and stares at the ceiling—

 

 

 

Did you listen to the transmission?” Brigadier Ishtar asks. The video link on the Buster Pyle is hopelessly outdated, and her visage is stretched comically wide across the small screen, shot through with static. “Mirabile auditu.

 

Jinrai Hattori will never come to trial. His tracker stops moving, and the government of Alpha Four, fearing an escape, send an investigative team to find him. They follow the static signal to the burned-out heart of his topiary maze and locate the tracker—and the two broken halves of Hattori’s body—submerged in its fountain.

 

Footage from a surviving camera reveals a maintenance worker limping from the grounds, doused in red.

 

“I just need a little more time,” Ryou says. “Please.”

 

Oh?” she says. “Well, since you asked so nicely—

 

 

 

 

In the end, Ryou comes to the wedding alone. It’s hard to tell, though:  the whole neighborhood is here. Yuugi and Anzu are married on the bridge over the Kado River, clasping hands and staring into one another’s eyes.

 

The reception is held on the grass. Anzu and Yuugi dance to their favorite songs, and the neighborhood roars its approval.

 

Afterwards, they return to Honda’s izakaya for a private reception. Just the five of them—Sugoroku Mutou has gone to bed. Ryou has already gifted the happy couple a pair of matching rings, but he has one more item to share. He slides the box across the table, and Yuugi and Anzu unwrap it eagerly— 

 

“What the hell is that?” Jounouchi says, loudly, laughing. He’s more than a little bit drunk.

 

Tristan the monkey has spent the entire journey restrained in plastic. Ryou pushes a switch and the robot powers up with a burbling beep, eyes glowing blue.

 

“My friend made him,” Ryou says. “You would like her, Jounouchi-kun. She’s a mech, too.”

 

“Hmm,” Jounouchi says, distracted.

 

“It’s so cute!” Anzu says, picking Tristan up. The robot dangles and chirps at her.

 

“Thank you, Ryou-kun,” Yuugi says. “Er—what—what exactly does it do?”

 

“I thought the shop could use a mascot,” Ryou says. “His name is Tristan. You can program him to perform simple tasks.”

 

“Hey,” Jounouchi slurs suddenly, grabbing at Honda with both hands, “hey. Hiroto. It kind of looks like you—”

 

 

 

 

Yuugi and Anzu leave for a honeymoon on Alpha Two, folding themselves into a cute little Kuribo two-seater—another wedding present, a joint refurb effort by Jounouchi and Grandpa Mutou. It’ll be the first time Yuugi has piloted any long distance since the war.

 

The day before their departure, Ryou leans against a bollard across the street from the Turtle Shop, jacket zipped to the neck in the growing autumn chill, and waits until Yuugi comes out for a tea break.

 

“I’m turning it down,” Ryou says. “Your offer. I’m sorry.”

 

“I kind of figured,” Yuugi says, sadly. “This is goodbye, isn’t it? Be careful out there, Ryou-kun.”

 

Ryou smiles at him. “Take care.”

 

 

 

 

Ryou visits Jounouchi at the shop, eats curry with Honda, tends to the family plot. He runs his ten kilometers and cycles machine parts between the poles. Sleeps like a dead man. He flies a transport mission or two, taking the orders from HQ, not Brigadier Ishtar.

 

And then, on the appointed day, he and his Toryu leave YG0 for good.

 

 

 

 

The defunct, desolate, devastated mining colony, Kul Elna, lies far beyond the Yunnan system. It appears as a red dot in Ryou’s tracking system, and stays red in his vision, even as he powers closer. Eventually, he cuts the engines and lets the Toryu drift into its orbit, and he and Kul Elna spin recklessly around a dim white star.

 

There is no atmosphere. The people of Kul Elna survived under a series of domes, digging ever deeper into the heart of their asteroid. Every single dome is shattered now, projecting jagged, clouded fragments that resemble climbing crystals straight up into the void. The asteroid’s huge red body is gouged and torn, a memorial to the Coalition weapons that raked across its surface, vaporizing inhabitants and punching holes in all livable environments.

 

There may still be corpses, or shadows of them, frozen in their final agonies.

 

He lands quietly, suits up, and steps out into the red desert.

 

 

 

 

The systems aboard his Toryu calculate Kul Elna’s sidereal rotation period to be thirteen-point-three-eight hours. Ryou seems to have arrived at dawn, though he can’t really be sure. There is no change in the quality of light. Like Ukiyo, Kul Elna is trapped in darkness.

 

In this frigid darkness, surrounded by countless stars but being drawn irresistibly toward the core of a dying sun, the people of Kul Elna instead looked inward, downward. They built shrines to a monster:  a half suit, half serpent creature, whose fanged tail was said to weave together the very fabric of their existence.

 

One of these temples has survived almost intact, though decades of neglect and hurtling space-debris have taken their toll, cracking the roof open like an egg and carving a chasm through the towering front steps. There are no bodies here, but he is following the countless footsteps of immeasurable worshippers, preserved in the dust.

 

Gravity is almost nonexistent on Kul Elna; Ryou takes a running leap and bounds over the gap with ease.

 

 

 

 

He sees the suit first, a Spirit Reaper, slim and sturdy, built for long distance boosting, powered down in a crouch. It’s taken heavy damage. It won’t fly again.

 

The sight of it fills him with a potent disbelief, so dizzying that he has to crouch down, too, mimicking the Reaper in an effort not to float away. Bakura grounded his own suit, wore it down to a skeleton just getting to Kul Elna, with nothing but blind faith, faith in Ryou, in his punctuality, in his promise—

 

He blinks rapidly to clear his visor before it fogs over.

 

The only wall left standing is carved with reliefs. A central figure, Kul Elna’s serpent god, towers over everything else, stern, its thick tail with ten thousand individually chiseled scales swooping into an impossible ouroboros behind a heavily muscled body. The shoulder thrusters of a standard suit have been stylized into wings, one on either side of the angular, helmet-shaped head.

 

The god’s chest is emblazoned with a symbol, a ring. It has a wide, glaring eye at its center and is surrounded by five streamlined arrows outstretched like fingers, and Ryou knows it, knows it intimately. He can feel it throbbing on his own chest.

 

He steps closer.

 

There’s no sound on Kul Elna, either, no crunching noise to give away Ryou’s presence, but all the same, the figure kneeling in front of the wall stirs.

 

It turns—

 

“Bakura,” Ryou says.

 

Bakura’s smile burns through him like an explosion, leaving nothing but ash in its wake.

 

 

 

 

 

“Diabound,” Bakura says. Ryou is lying on the floor of the Toryu, his entire body glowing with warmth and pliancy, arms and legs entwined with Bakura’s. In the months of separation, Bakura has grown lean and dark, touched by the light of a hundred stars. “The name of our god.”

 

“Diabound,” Ryou repeats, testing it. It feels ordinary on his tongue, doesn’t burn his mouth or make him shiver, but Bakura says it with such reverence. Bakura’s tireless pursuit of his enemies makes more sense now that Ryou knows the truth:  that Bakura is a fanatic after all, the follower of a dark god, and not a god himself.

 

“This symbol,” Ryou says, touching his scar. “I saw it on the carvings. What does it mean? Why did you—draw it on me?”

 

Bakura doesn’t answer this time; he rolls over, presses their bodies together. “Let me ask a question of my own,” he says, pinching Ryou and grinning at his gasp. “What do your masters say to my conditions?”

 

Ryou arches beneath him. "They agree—"

 

 

 

There are more deaths to come, Ryou knows. Sacrifices to Diabound, on the surface, but really vengeance for Bakura, for the ten year old child who fled into his colony’s mines and tumbled deep into a forgotten vein, and survived, reemerging into a world of shadow and nightmare. The destruction of Kul Elna—little more than a weapons test for the Coalition—was sanctioned and aided by many. Shimon and Akh Nadin signed off on the charge. Jinrai Hattori looked the other way. Maximilian Pegasus provided financial backing and supplied the suits; Titus Karita commanded the attack; Heixin and Kalim were his left and right squadron leaders.

 

And Shadi, Brigadier Ishtar’s own Shadi, developed the weapon.

 

 

 

 

Does she know? Ryou wonders. Has she realized, and is she afraid of the monster Ryou has hunted down—the composite monster that Ryou has become?

 

Will she be waiting for them with weapons drawn?

 

Or has she already subtracted Shadi from his own scale, and found that Bakura’s weight is enough to keep the balance?

 

 

 

 

They leave the Spirit Reaper extinguished on Kul Elna, still bowing its head to Bakura’s god, and hum steadily toward the nearest Alpha, toward Brigadier Ishtar, toward Shadi and the unknown future.

 

“The symbol,” Bakura says suddenly. Ryou looks up from the flight plan. Bakura is gazing at him, eyes dark and inscrutable. “It’s just an emblem. Whatever logo was stamped onto that first suit—”

 

“So you know it was a suit,” Ryou says, surprised.

 

“My people weren’t idiots,” Bakura says. “We were isolated, not ignorant. We didn’t start worshipping the broken body of a crashed suit, thinking it was a fallen god or something. We knew what it was from the beginning. I don’t know shit about the snake bit,” he admits, “but a suit can be many things.”

 

“A weapon and a myth,” Ryou says, remembering Exodia.

 

“A tool,” Bakura says. “And a guardian.”

 

“Then—”

 

He’s clothed now, but he can feel the heat of Bakura’s hand radiating through the layers of fabric, as Bakura presses his open palm to Ryou’s chest. Ryou reaches up and clasps Bakura’s hand with his own.

 

“Then,” he says again, softer, “what does it mean?”

 

“It’s a signpost,” Bakura says. “A beacon.”

 

“To light your way home?”

 

Bakura kisses him, open-mouthed, bending him back over the console. “No,” he says. “To guide the way forward.”

 

“Why the five arrows, though?” Ryou says, because he can’t leave well alone. Starlight glimmers on Bakura’s face, turned toward him, beloved and terrible to behold. He brushes his hand over the netted scars. “They’re all pointing in different directions. Pretty terrible signposting, I’d say.”

 

Bakura rolls his eyes.

 

“I don’t know,” he says. “Ask the suit designer.”

 

“Visual balance,” Ryou suggests. He boosts himself up onto the console, one-armed, and lets Bakura slide between his legs, and holds him there, so dear and so close. “Symmetry.”