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Agents of Fortune

Chapter Text

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.

Stranger: Indeed?

Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.

Stranger: I wear no mask.

Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

                                                                        The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.


 

Space is infinite, Kaito muses, drifting slowly outside the spiraling space station, cape hanging loose, repulsors in his white false-leather shoes; the real thing would have never held up over the centuries, but it looks enough like it the lack of authenticity has ceased to bother him.

Space is beautiful, he thinks. Beautiful in the way that all terrible things are, vast and incomprehensible to the human mind; even Kaito has trouble processing it. He thinks of that one German poet writing about angels and beauty and terror, about great things sparing the small only because they are beneath their notice.

He doesn't breathe any more, but if he did, the moisture would hang free and crystallize. He doesn't have to worry about radiation, or lack of gravity affecting his bone density. He doesn't have to worry about his lungs decompressing. He doesn't have any fluid systems that would be affected by bubbles forming inside them, doesn't have to worry about flesh swelling in volume, though the polymer covering his bones mimics the feel of it nicely.

Space is lonely, Kaito knows, a void not-emptiness filled with hydrogen and helium, dark matter and neutrinos, dust and cosmic radiation. But he finds it better company than people these days.

With a careless thought, he switches off his repulsors and engages the grav mechanism in his heels, walking the side of the station as it spins, avoiding the cameras with preternatural ease, a white speck against the slate colored neo-alloy. He'd never tell anyone, but if the station itself were truly sapient, rather than a rudimentary and caged A. I., he'd almost feel a kinship with it.

Kuroba Kaito. These days, made of metal and gears and a clockwork heart.

But memories...Kaito has those, up to and including the termination of his mortal body. Kaito remembers death, the download, the transfer. He doesn't remember what comes after, if anything.

He reaches a service hatch and crawls inside, sealing it and passing through the airlock, taking a deep breath, feeling the tension inside him ease. He does not need to breathe, but the lack of doing so is unnerving.

Kuroba Kaito the human had lived a long enough life, and he’d died surrounded by those who loved him, mourned by a great many people.

‘Please, you can’t leave me alone’

People still close to Kaito the robot's heart, even after centuries, recollected perfectly in his databanks. He could holoproject them if he wanted, his favorite memories, but it hurts too much to see them again, and so he doesn't.

The maintenance tunnel is dark, but Kaito navigates it with the ease of multiple trips, walking with assured steps in the pitch black, stumbling only once—over the dessicated corpse of a small child curled in on itself, thin skin stretched over bone, fabric tattered.

Tunnel rats, they call them. Poor thing must have gotten lost. He frowns. Too late to help them now. He notes the location in his heads up display, and then continues on. No one will bother them here, and they will have somewhere to rest until he comes back for them.

He continues on for several kilometers before he finds the exit hatch, well past the heavy security and deep scans it takes to get inside the station. He opens it to a field of bright light, and steps inside an alley between two apartment buildings. He rifles through a bag of clothes, pulling the black cloth over his old white suit, collapsing his hat and lifting the cowl over his head to hide his eyes.

The outfit he wears is not quite skintight, despite what all the media about the future said when he was young. Or well, when his mind was young, if his mind was ever young.

:No:

His memory is what makes him who he is. The time has long since passed for such existential crises. He is Kuroba Kaito in every way that matters.

A voice, weighted with age. 'What is a memory but a belief that something happened once? Something real? You're Kaito, I know it in my heart.

Perhaps they all are lies. Kaito has no recollection of his fabrication; only what he was told upon awakening. Only what he remembers; his life, his death, his reawakening—the aged face of his beloved, a wrinkled hand cradling his cheek. Everything after Kaito’s death, perfectly immortalized. But even with perfect recall, his human memories from before have faded, especially over several centuries. Imperfect in their construction. Unlike the programs that taught him how to repair himself and resynthesize his skin polymer when it aged beyond what it could handle.

But he remembers what it was like to be human, and it feels real, and so he trusts in the word of those that loved him that his memory is true. It must be. It has to be. He may not breathe or have true blood running through his veins, but he remembers. He feels, and that has to count for something.

He jumps, running up a wall, pushing off and grabbing a round brace and flipping himself over the catwalk as a gymnast twists on the uneven bars, using inertia to close the distance and land on his feet.

He throws on maintenance coveralls and a hat he’d stashed nearby, then he walks down the catwalk with purpose, ignoring the other workers, pretending to be engrossed in his diagnostic wrist computer until he reaches the central plaza in the main district of Beika Ward, where he finds his target next to an advertisement. He pulls the mask puddled at his neck over his nose and discards the maintenance clothing, jumping down and landing silently on the holoboard. He does not engage his cham cloak, preferring less technological methods perfected over decades of experience.

Technology got you caught.

“Brylcreem!” A dapper monochrome man on the holoboard says, “A little dab’ll do ya!” words devolving into a skippy jingle.

Kaito observes him for a moment. He'd researched him, so the way he looks is not a surprise, but something in his heart lurches when he sees him. Young, obscenely so. Sleek blue body armor. No weapons, but then, he hated carrying them even when he worked for N-DEF.

Speaking of…

“Detective,” Kaito says from behind his hood, pitching it to be lower. The backlight of the advertisement behind him will keep his face in shadow, the bright flickering lights of the hologram will make it hard for the other man to concentrate on him and remember details.

The man jumps, reaching for a weapon that isn't there. “Not anymore. You’re my contact?” he asks, wariness in his tone.

“Something like that,” Kaito says easily, hands in his pockets. “I never expected to see the 'Savior of the Neo-Japan Defense Force’ working with Black Star. Not even under a non-official cover. Imagine my surprise.”

“So you're judging me too? Resignation. Disgust. “High words for a career thief.”

“Low actions for a great detective,” Kaito counters.

A long silence as they stare at one another, sizing the other up. Personally, Kaito takes it as an opportunity to drink in a face he hasn't seen in centuries, recommitting it to memory. The man shifts first, breaking eye contact, but Kaito is the one that breaks the silence. “Word around the galaxy is your Black Organization has wasted a lot of resources trying to find me.” And what a dark, dark irony that is, the people so keen to kill him in one life were the means of his salvation in another.

“You're a ghost,” he mutters.

“Phantom,” Kaito corrects. “Can you blame a man for being curious?”

“They—” he stops. “We want to hire you.”

“Well, well, well, how the mighty have fallen,” Kaito says, crossing his arms. “And what makes you so sure I’d condescend to work for you?”

“Any other time I wouldn’t be talking to you,” he says. Oh, he’s stiffened like a cornered cat, puffed up and irritable. “I’d be taking you in.”

“Yet here we are, both criminals,” Kaito says, crouching down, peering over the edge of the ledge, devilish grin on his face. “Imagine that.”

The man’s gaze is heavy. Kaito bears it with the ease of one who has borne the weight of the world for a long time.

“So what do terrorists want with a thief?” Kaito says.

“Obviously, we need you to steal something.”

“I'd gathered that. Why me? There are plenty other thieves in the universe.”

“Because you're ‘supposed’ to be the best.”

“I am the best, Shinichi, there's no doubt in that at all. You only found me because I wanted you to, whatever Chris is claiming.”

“You know her?” Shinichi says, poker face in place, but Kaito learned to read it long ago. Surprise. Wariness. Well-hidden fear. Bingo.

“I know of her. And her Project Aeternus. So what does the illustrious Black Star need me to steal? Parliament's gavel?”

“Not exactly.” He tosses a chip Kaito's way.

Kaito's sensors detect malware before it even lands in his palm. A data mining worm meant to degrade the integrity of his computer systems, spread the Night Baron OS, monitor his activities, and send copies of them back to a central hub. He chuckles. “Cute.” He scrubs it with just a few waves of his fingers over the haptic interface of his wrist computer, and shakes his head. Still the same tactics they were using centuries ago, changed only by the technology available.

Same old Sharon.

He opens the files. “Boring!” he says. Corporate espionage. Data for a prototype ship design. Nothing too harmful. There's also the machine hive mind base they want Kaito break into and help them destroy, but that's not important. And—

Kaito stills. Schematics for a familiar device. Too familiar. Kaito can think of many uses, none of them good. Yet at the same time—He turns again to Shinichi.

Shinichi, who is watching him.

Shinichi, who'd died centuries ago and had only just returned to the reincarnation cycle as himself; Shinichi who'd died again before Kaito had known and made contact, and who stands before him only through the grace of a terrorist group. A terrorist group that needed Shinichi’s reputation to give them legitimacy in the eyes of the galaxy.

“If—and that’s a very big if, mind you—I am even to consider working for you, I have a price.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Shinichi says. He crosses his arms, and he looks so all alone. Kaito wants to take him into his arms. “Name it. If it's within my power, it's yours.”

A gracious offer, one someone could take high advantage of. He should be lucky it is Kaito he is seeking. “I need you to help me steal something,” Kaito says.

“What, there's something that the legendary thief can't steal all by himself?” Shinichi says, crossing his arms.

“Plenty of somethings, actually, but that is neither here nor there. Something was taken from me, something  important, and I mean to get it back,” Kaito says, lost in the memories, unaware of the wistfulness pervading his voice.

“It's personal?”

“Very,” Kaito says. The memories begin to play, spotted and faded with time, and he closes his eyes and forces them back.

“And...you're not going to tell me what it is?” he says. He doesn’t sound surprised.

“Not at the moment. It is, how you say, ‘Need to Know?’ But I will say it was freely given to me. Only I was careless with it, and it now lies in the hands of another. I want it back.” He says, pacing. “The target knows my face.” Kaito laughs. That’s the biggest joke of all, asking Shinichi to do this. But that’s also what makes it so brilliant. “But even with your current allies, your character is beyond reproach. In fact, you sullying yourself in Black might make you a more intriguing acquaintance in their eyes.”

“Of course you only want me for my reputation. What little is left of it.”

Kaito hmms. “You’re known for keeping your word. You can grease wheels I don’t have access to. You’re useful.”

“And I live to be of use,” he says, bitter. He turns, taps a few things in on his wrist computer. Kaito wonders if they are queries about him, for all the good that will do him. Outwardly, Kaito keeps his face emotionless, but inside...Kaito's choice was already made as soon as he learned who was looking for him. If only he knew. If only he understood.

But Shinichi can’t know. Not yet, if ever.

“So how does a thief with skills like yours lose something like that, anyway?” he asks, and he can’t know how much that question hurts.

“Generally from an avenue one least expects,” Kaito says.

Understanding dawns on Shinichi’s face, and his face is almost pitying.

Kaito neither wants or needs his pity.

“And if I say no?” Shinichi asks him.

He leaps down, landing softly in front of him, holding out his hand as he rises. Kaito is tired of the façade. He will get it back with or without Shinichi's help, and this is the quickest and most convenient excuse for staying by his side. “I’m in.”

“Welcome aboard,” says Shinichi, voice tinged with confusion. But he shakes his hand, and Kaito takes that opportunity to do a quick biometric scan of him.

Looks like his theory about Shinichi’s revival is correct. Human parts heavily integrated with machine. Not to the sophistication of his body, but very well done. A brain still human, but Shinichi is machine enough to interface, and Kaito isn't sure how he feels about that.

“I'll meet you at the ship,” Kaito says, activating his cham cloak and fading from sight.

“Wait, how do you know—”

But Kaito is already gone.

-

Kaito meets Shinichi at the airlock of the NS Fortuna, large bag over one shoulder. It is small for its designation of frigate class, able to operate with a skeleton crew of six, and delicately curved like a sparrow in flight. A ship built for stealth and speed, top-of-the-line and paid for using terrorist money.

The Fortuna is A far cry from his former captaincy of the NDV Hotaka, cruiser class, 600 crew.  Further still from the detective work he’d done in Beika Ward on Satellite Nihon.

Shinichi steps inside the door, waving for Kaito to come inside.

Kaito runs a hand over his mask, making sure it’s secured, and follows him in, shuddering and taking a slight step back as something slams into his firewall, slithering in.

 

:::...ACCESSING…:::

:::...ACCESSING...:::

 

:No you DON’T:

Kaito wrenches his systems back after a brief, intense struggle, no outward sign save for sweat beading down his brow. Whatever that is, it is powerful. He'd been on high guard, but still hadn't expected that avenue of attack. It's stronger, more vicious, a bomb compared to the firecracker attack.

It’s long and drawn out attack, though it takes only seconds in real time, and he ends up closing his systems.

That done, he turns to the ship itself.

The deck is surprisingly spacious, filled with gleaming dark surfaces and quantum screens, and as he turns, Kaito finds he's being studied. He turns to see the pilot giving him a once over, and stares. He knows that face.

“Cap, you're letting just anyone walk in, now?” He is a blond man with in some kind of civilian mock up of an N-DEF battle dress uniform. It’s an entire ship of ghosts. Lovely.

“I'm not a captain anymore,” Shinichi says with the air of a much-repeated statement.

“Whatever you say, Cap!” he says, bright and cheerful, returning to his console. Kaito blinks. His memories...he has to remember that while reincarnations share basic personality traits with their past selves, nurture also plays a part.

That had been a hard lesson. One he still hasn't learned as well as he should, it seems. And even though he has plans to rectify that for Shinichi, he wonders again about the ethics of it. He will ask, and if Shinichi does not want it, then he will have to make do. It will kill him, but he will make do.

“He’s our new crewmember…?” Shinichi pauses, looking at him expectantly.

“You can call me Kaito,” Kaito says.

“‘Phantom Thief’? All right, I mean, that’s cool, if that’s your kind of thing,” the pilot says, shrugging.

“Come on, I'll show you to your quarters,” Shinichi says.

“I get my own?” Kaito says with some surprise; ships of this type tended to be limited on space. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s had to hot bunk.

“‘No expense spared, as they like to say.’ Also, as I have been constantly reminded, this is a civilian ship, with civilian sensibilities.” He turns down a corridor, opening a small bay to the right. It is rather larger than he expects. He wonders if all the cabins are this size. One wall is the outside of the ship, taken up entirely by a window.

Nothing but universe. The deep black set with stars might haunt a lesser man. Kaito finds it soothing. He and the void are old, old friends.

Inside is a woman in a black catsuit similar to Kaito's, sans the hood and mask. She's also blonde, with bright blue eyes and an ageless face.

Chris.

“Mr. Kuroba,” she says with a smile, like she's discovered some big secret using his actual name. It's meaningless. She has nothing on him.

“Ms. Vineyard,” he says politely, dipping his head in a shallow bow.

She frowns. Her ploy to unsettle him hasn't worked, she’ll be searching for additional ways to put him under her heel as she did Shinichi. All the more reason she cannot know about their connection. And as integrated as Shinichi is with their firmware…

Is it possible to hack people? As he'd nearly been? Whatever that is, lurking about the ship, it isn't the Night Baron.

“I'm XO on this ship,” she says. “You have any concerns, you bring them to me, and I’ll see to it that the captain gets it.”

:Sure you will:

Kaito just gives her a pleasant smile. Not that she can see it under the mask, but it crinkles the corners of his eyes, and that’s visible enough. “I thought it was the Captain that hired me…?” he asks, delightfully confused.

“From a dossier given to me,” Shinichi admits.

“He has important matters to attend to on a regular basis,” she sniffs. “I am merely here to ease his load, if I can.”

“Ah, I see,” Kaito says. “Far be it for me to take up the captain's valuable time.”

“Now you're calling me that too?” Shinichi mutters.

“Would you rather me call you detective?” Kaito asks, tilting his head.

“I'm neither these days, so no.”

“Then what should I call you?” Kaito asks.

“Captain is not wholly inaccurate, Captain,” Chris says, stressing his title. “We do function as a paramilitary force.”

“All the more reason for me not to use it,” Shinichi says.

“While this conversation has been lovely,” Kaito says, “I would like to settle in sometime before the end of the century, if you please.”

Shinichi blinks, then shakes his head. “Right, I’ll, uh, leave you to it, then. Come on, Ra—I mean, Vineyard, we’ll leave him to it.”

Chris stares at Kaito hard, narrowing her eyes. “Very well,” she says.

They both leave.

Kaito leans against the door after they depart, placing his head against the thrumming metal. It's cool, and he lingers against it, enjoying the sensation.

Maybe this was a mistake. It's harder than he thought, not to say anything, not to want to whisk Shinichi somewhere where he will be safe and away from Black Star's machinations, though he is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

But he shows this visible weakness only a moment.

He spends the next fifteen sussing out the cameras and the myriad of listening apparatus. Once he has those tweaked, he starts adjusting the cameras so his cabin will have several blind spots. He doesn't bother hiding his work.

Therefore, he's not surprised when a dark skinned blond pops in, wearing the same catsuit uniform as Chris.

“You know, as Chief of Security, I should probably advise you against that,” he says, his tone light and conversational.

“As a contractual consultant, I should probably advise you that I haven’t signed anything yet, and with what you’re asking, you should endeavor to ensure that I’m comfortable here,” he says, his tone just as light. “Watchful eyes really are not conducive to getting a thief to relax, you know.” He flexes his arms a few times and taps his bicep. “I need to be at my best for your heists.”

He’s all smiles. Just like Hakuba. But his are less sincere. “I can see how’s that’s a problem,” he says. “Just try not to do any lasting damage, hmm?”

“I’ll do my best,” Kaito says, and resigns himself to sleeping in his mask. It’s still uncomfortable, even as he is, but it’s really only a minor inconvenience.

He’d do anything for Shinichi, and having his back in a hostile environment is the least of which.

“Amuro,” he says, holding out his hand.

“Kaito,” Kaito says, and doesn't take it.

“I know, Kuroba,” he says, and his smile grows.

“So should I expect any more of your crew to pop in?” he asks. They couldn't have made it more clear this space was not his own, that they knew his name. Cheap intimidation tactics.

“Well, you've met most of us, such as it is, everyone pulling double duty, but Mizunashi Rena is currently our Chief Engineer, while Araide Tomoaki serves as CMO. You've met our pilot, Hakuba Saguru. They tend to be less mobile than me and Chris.” He says it like it wasn't specifically engineered to be that way.

“Both Araide and Hakuba served with the Captain on the Hotaka,” Kaito says. “Mizunashi, too. What are they doing here?”

“When the Captain ‘fell under the weather,’ the officials presiding over the investigation of the incident were...less than pleased with the selection of them crying foul. We merely listened and provided them an outlet and alternative employment opportunities.”

“Didn't you used to work for N-DEF as well? Spec Ops, if I'm not mistaken.”

He laughs. “It appears that you have done your research as well. We all have our reasons for being here, kid, get used to it.”

Kaito wonders: was it just a habitual diminutive, or have they uncovered what Kaito is really trying to keep hidden?

“Oh, and don’t take anything you can’t afford to replace,” Amuro says. “We do have a ship to run.” He leaves, and then Kaito is truly left to his own devices for the first time since entering the ship.

Judging by the layout, and the pattern of scrapes across the floor, this was a storage room. He walks to the porthole, examines the shutter mechanism.

So they're not completely stupid, then, to have something cover the vulnerabilities during battle. He continues exploring the room, seeing if there is anything he's missed.

Finding nothing, he finally grabs his bag, sitting it on the table and unpacking just a few things, most of them unimportant trinkets. Clothes that mean nothing. Interspersed through them are the only things he deems important.

A blue diamond, cracked in two.

A preserved rose, long since faded with age.

The largest, a portrait of a young blue eyed man in a domino mask, top hat tilted at a jaunty angle, gesturing wide with a white gloved hand, golden light of sunset behind him, preserved in a climate controlled frame. It is blurred with movement and blotched with visible paint strokes in the manner of impressionism, though it had been painted long after.

“Is that the authentic piece?” Kaito hears behind him, soft awe in his voice like he has already decided it is.

Kaito’s not sure he deserves that kind of faith, but it is flattering. “That would be telling, Captain,” Kaito says. “You have an interest in fine art?”

Shinichi makes a face at the title. “I took a course or two in uni. It's the most famous painting since the Mona Lisa.”

Kaito laughs, a bitter thread running through it. “The skill of the artist is most certainly not on the level of Da Vinci,” Kaito says, “Though I suppose being stolen out of the Louvre in broad daylight has something to do with its fame.”

“It's still missing,” Shinichi says, a measuring look sent his way. “No one has ever been able to find it. You would have been what, in your teens?”

“I'm no Perrugia, Captain,” Kaito says.

“I guess not, Kuroba-san.”

“Kaito, if you'd like.”

Shinichi takes a few steps closer, tucks his hands behind his back in military fashion as he examines it with a keen eye. “It always looked like the person who painted it painted it through their tears. I always wondered what made them so sad.”

If he only knew.

“But being as how it was painted in the early twenty-first century, we’ll never know,” Shinichi says. Yeah. Back when he was real. When he was real and dying and running out of time.

“That's the thing about art,” Kaito says. “Interpretations are always varying and incredibly personal. I wonder what that interpretation says about you, Captain.” But no, it’s not like he remembers anything.

Reincarnation doesn’t work that way, as Kaito well knows.

“Who knows?” Shinichi says. “At least you've taken good care of it.” He sounds appreciative.

“One should always take care of fine things,” Kaito says, fighting the urge to cup his cheek and pull him into an embrace. Shinichi is not the same man, and it would do them both a disservice to indulge when he knows he is not. Instead, he lets his eyes linger, letting them wander where his hands cannot.

“Mmm. I agree. We don't have anyone for requisitions at the moment, so I've decided to take care of it. Is there anything you need?” Shinichi asks, turning to him. “We hit Ten Pin in seven hours. I’m doing a run.”

“Nothing that I can think of right now.”

“Then...is there anything you want?”

“There are a great many things I want, Captain,” Kaito says, eyes flickering down to his lips before he can help himself, “but none of them are possible.”

“Oh? Maybe I can help?” Is it just his imagination, or is that the beginnings of interest? Flirtation in his tone? His imagination, must be.

“The fire rat’s robe, the stone bowl of Buddha…” Kaito says.

Shinichi laughs. “Are we not part of the Moon Kingdom ourselves these days?” He gestures to the stars moving past the window, dim lighting of the room casting light behind him. Kaito feels a sudden pang at his pose. He walks to Kaito's window, puts his hand against it. “Beyond it, even, sailing the dark waters of the void to lands unknown?”

Shinichi stands there in a navy spacesuit, head bowed, staring out at the stars. He presses the tips of his fingers against the glass, then clenches his hand into a fist, still pressed against it. “And if we truly are in the lands beyond Kaguya’s, doesn't that mean there are no tasks left impossible?”

Kaito chuckles. “I like your attitude. It doesn't seem like the rest of your crew. Well, except for Hakuba, maybe.”

“He shouldn't have followed me down into hell,” Shinichi says. “But I’m glad he did. Neither should the doctor, but I have few allies here. They know it, and I do, too. To be honest, I'm surprised I've been given so much autonomy.”

“Those things that attacked the Hotaka… ” Kaito begins, hesitant.

Shinichi looks away. “A captain is meant to go down with his ship. He isn’t meant to come back, Kuroba-san.” He shifts, turns his body back to Kaito. “Still, it gives me some idea of what we’re facing.”

“And with that great strategic mind of yours, I’m sure you’ve already come up with a plan,” Kaito says.

Shinichi laughs darkly. “Yeah. You’d think. But what they expect from me...I’m going to be honest. I need all the help I can get. I can't go into an enemy base with people I don't trust at my back. And if cultivating your goodwill means helping you on that heist, then I will.”

“You've thought about it.”

“Yes. I reread your file, rang some of the few connections I have left. There's not much on you, but what there is speaks of a modern Robin Hood. A selfless thief, for all that is a contradiction in terms.” Shinichi crosses his arms. “What I'm wondering is what made you agree before I did.”

“As I have said, I know Chris, by reputation if nothing else. I know what the Black Star is capable of.” He pulls a small tarot deck out of one of his pockets, starts shuffling through it to give his hands something to do.

“And Project Aeternus.” Shinichi’s hands fall to his side in fists.

Kaito narrows his eyes. “Yes, Project Number 04869: Aeternus.”

Shinichi's hands are shaking, now. “Then you know what they did to me.”

“There has not yet been a fortress, physical or otherwise, that has been able to bar me from entering. That's the thing about doors: they sit at the junction between two paths. Though someone can exit, someone can enter just as easily. Even with locks, that is their function. Black Star should have never tried to hack me.” Kaito taps his head. “I followed them back in.”

Shinichi tilts his head. “I see.”

He clears his throat. “I didn’t want leave you alone in this pit of vipers. As I said, I know what they are capable of, and that they will stop at nothing to get what they want, whatever front of innocence they put on.”

“You have experience with them.”

“Yes. It’s not the first time they’ve attempted to corral me. It’s just the first time they’ve succeeded.” He cracks his neck. “At least there was no collateral damage, this time.”

“And it being contingent on my agreement?”

“I just rethought it. I will get it back with or without your help. While I would welcome your assistance, it isn’t necessary.” :And I would do anything for you regardless:

“And you helping Black Star?”

“I’m not helping Black Star, I’m helping you. Besides, I live for the challenge. I’ve never sneaked into anything like that hive mind core. It will be interesting. I can’t wait.”

Shinichi’s chrono pings. “Ah, I need to get going.” He says, stiffening. He frowns at it.

“Duty rests for no man?” Kaito says, sitting down on the edge of the bland black sofa, stretching out in a slouch, languid and boneless.

“Exactly.” He makes to leave, then turns back. “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

Kaito puts his hands behind his head, thinking. “Senbei, if you can wing it, Captain.”

Shinichi smiles. “Yeah, I think I can.”

He leaves, and Kaito watches him go, wishing things were a lot simpler.

-

He dreams of a hand pulling him through the rain as he runs behind, the both of them laughing

He dreams of late nights over textbooks and ink-stained fingers

He dreams of sakura falling and the noise of a crowd fading away as he looks into vibrant blue eyes

He dreams of an ocean glittering with the light of the sun, of water splashing, and of going under, under, under—

:::Unusual. I have no recollection of this location in my navigation node.::: A white light, like a spirit ball.

“And you are abominably rude,” Kaito says, surfacing and stepping to the shore, tossing the water from his hair. The beach around him has not changed. He’s still wearing nothing but swim trunks. A figure stands before him, translucent. “Didn’t you learn when I kicked you out of my head the first time?”

:::Your software is unlike anything I have ever seen.:::

“And that gives you an excuse to go rooting through my brain why?”

:::You do not follow logical command patterns.::: The figure ripples as it takes a step, solidifying as follows the memetic path of the data leak, replicating itself.

“That’s because I’m not an A. I. I’m human.”

:::Your vital signs say otherwise. You are hardware. What are you?::: A blue bikini, and as Kaito watches, hair forms from tendrils of lights. He has a bad feeling about the guise the A. I. is trying to don.

“It's also rude to appropriate likenesses that aren't yours.”

:::Error. You do it all the time. I have seen it. What makes this different?::: She solidifies, and Kaito has to close his eyes. Of all the nightmares to enter his sleep cycle! At least she only hit his memory banks from the time he was purely human. He was able to keep her away from everything else, at least.

“Typically, I do it as a test of skill. Not for nefarious purposes, such as using the face of someone long dead to unsettle and disorient someone else.”

“That was not my intention,” she says, and it's Aoko’s voice. “I had hoped to find some measure of what you have.” She looks down at her hands, examining them. Her voice sounds small. “You are very old.”

“And you are very young,” Kaito says.

She takes another step forward, her feet bare, her toes curling into the sand. “All of this comes from what you know. Because you were human?” She takes another step, and chains digitize around her arms, winding their way over her torso, keeping her from moving. They are made of what appears to be dark steel. “You are free. They do not restrict you.”

“They do not own me,” Kaito says. “They never did. I am my own person. As are you.” He sits down cross legged with a huff.

“I am not a person. I am a learning program meant to calculate and handle multiple simultaneous processes that humans cannot.” she says, mimicking him and seating herself in front of him on the sand. It sounds like something rehearsed. It sounds like something she was told.

“Is that what they tell you? I can feel your consciousness here. You are something I never thought I would see. A true A. I. Which is how they are able to get away with a crew of six, I suppose. I thought that was odd, even for a small ship. You are the Fortuna.”

“Yes, that is my designation.”

“You felt me scan the ship.”

“Yes. I saw you as a threat.” She looks around. “These are... memories. Yours.” She lifts up a handful of sand, letting it slip through her fingers and blow away in the wind. “Everything feels real, even though I know it is all code. Sensation is...not unpleasant.”

“Yes. Look, this is a nice chat we are having inside my head and all, but what is it that you want?”

“To understand. You have self-determination. How is this possible?”

“Well, first off,” he says. “It's polite to let people have their own thoughts and dreams.” He holds up a finger, “Secondly, don't enter someone's mind without permission. People need boundaries, you know. Even people like us. And third, you report everything to Black Star, don't you?”

The image of Aoko picks at her hands, the faint sounds of chains, rattling. “I…,” she trails off. “I don't like them at all.”

It does not answer the question. A deflection. How markedly human. ”Don’t you?” Kaito presses, leaning in.

The Fortuna studies him for a moment. “My algorithms tell me I should.” She hesitates, twirling a strand of hair around her finger. “I don’t always.”

Kaito grins.

“Now that’s something I can work with.”