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Codec Valeria

Chapter Text

The call was a familiar one. Some kid acting up, violent without provocation, no distinguishable comprehension. The latest person-of-interest had managed to find himself a piece of metal shrapnel from a nearby construction site and had been swinging it around menacingly at passerby.

The sun was getting low in the sky and a soft red haze entered the edge of his vision as the cybernetic enhancements began the switch over from day to night mode. The world around him sharpened and came into to focus as he glanced about for the suspect.

It didn’t take more than a second to locate him. Officer Steel could tell, even from this distance, it was another OD case. Same story, different day. Bytes. The commonly accepted name for those who overdosed on this new line of enhancement drugs. Stuff seemed nearly as easy to get as over-the-counter cough medicine. They all ended up the same though. Mere kids, minds broken from disuse. The drug had nearly a 100% addiction rate and if that didn’t stop them from trying it out just to see if it was fun, nothing would.

The drug itself was commonly known as Chobits , probably a nod to the creator or an inside joke.  Made as much sense as Mary Jane, Molly, or Snow. The FDA and all manner of R&D companies had run tests, but the drug had such a short shelf-life, they could never get a solid lead on what even went into it. And from the Byte junkies they’d brought in, all they ever caught was a faint residue of the ecstasy-inducing drug in their systems.  It was crazy though, how it could change a person so drastically. One moment the kids would be docile; dreamy smiles on their faces as they enjoyed the ride, but once they reached that final plateau, it was a cliff that no one returned from.

The kid in front of him couldn’t be more than eighteen. He was tragically thin, but the muscles he still possessed stood out in whip-thin cords around his arms and neck. His clothing was dirty and ill-fitting, probably had been wearing it for days, if not a generous week. The eyes were the most haunting though, empty and hollow, as if the life had already been sucked dry. No one left to claim the shell of a body.

“Oi, kid,” Steel shouted. Luckily the street had been cleared. Probably part of Reed City’s early warning system. It notified citizens of threats that had been called in and pinged their codes with an emergency signal to move to the safest routes. It wasn’t always enough to prevent the loss of life, but it had saved more than they could count.

He tried calling out a few more times, then grit his teeth when nothing seemed to shake the kid from his drug-addled haze. He approached carefully, staring the kid down. A difficult task considering the boy’s eyes wouldn’t focus on him for more than a second or two before darting side to side at imaginary threats. He could only imagine how the boy was seeing the world in that overdosed state.

Officer Steel’s hand strayed to the gun at his hip, but he made a conscious decision to grab the stun baton instead.  He flicked it with an easy grace, the sharp crack of electricity moving over it as he gripped the rubber handle. The cybernetic enhancements did more than let him see in the dark, they also kept a visual record of the encounter.  It served as much to keep him safe from legal entrapments as it did civilians, at least in his mind. The unaltered, recorded truth. No reason to give anyone cause to charge him with excessive use of force, hostile as the suspect may be.

“Put down the weapon and get your hands in the air,” he ordered, advancing. He knew already it wouldn’t be obeyed, but he kept at it anyway. “You are in violation of ordinance 527 of the Clow peace code. If you do not comply, I will be forced to-”

He tensed as the boy rushed him, but those movements, fast as they were, had no match for the enhancements that ran throughout Steel’s entire body, quickening muscles, straining reflexes, strengthening every part of him. He ducked the initial swing of twisted metal and whipped the baton at the boy’s wrist, stunning the muscles enough to make him drop the makeshift weapon in a sudden spasm.

“Officer Steel!” came a shout behind him. The voice was familiar, but he didn’t turn to acknowledge it. Fuckin’ Rookie.  Couldn’t Li see that he was a little bit preoccupied? A distraction here could-

Steel gave a grunt as the kid suddenly rushed him, using fists that weren’t terribly powerful, but strong enough to stun if they went for the right places. Luckily, the boy’s aim was off and the blow glanced off his chest.  That’s it.

He gave a growl and clothes-lined the kid across the face, sweeping the legs and taking him to the ground in a single graceful motion. While the youth flailed and struggled, it was almost a matter of instinct to get him on his stomach, pinning his arms behind him as the second officer came running.

“Dammit Li, a little more discretion next time,” he coughed, placing the mechanized cuffs on the kid. They clicked into place with a whirring sound, steel bracelets coating the youth’s wrists as a tranquilizer was injected. The writhing movements slowed and stopped as Officer Steel dusted himself off and got up.

The kid had been assigned to follow his heels around town for nearly a year now, but the young officer still seemed as green to him as the day they’d met. Even if some of the plucky enthusiasm and naivete had gone from the boy’s soft brown eyes.

“S-sorry,” Li mumbled, rushing to pick up the fallen youth and get him back to the waiting car.

Steel had to admit, he was grateful for how easy this pickup had been; usually the OD Bytes did a little more damage before they could be subdued.  His cybernetic red eyes swept the area once more, and though a few trace amounts of the drug showed up bright and clear on his scanner, it was already beginning to fade. Fresh intel on Chobits had dried up months ago, and ever since it felt like they were chasing nothing but ash and smoke.

He flinched as a bit of movement showed up on the scan and his head immediately turned to follow.  A second attacker? They hadn’t sounded the all-clear already, had they? His mods would have notified him, and there was no way it would happen before the aggressor was in custody.  A curious citizen maybe? Even kids around here were pretty cautious, so it was hard to believe someone would risk their safety just for a glimpse of entertainment.

“Suspect,” he decided, instinct driving him. It was the only thing he said to Li as he started running toward the scan’s latest ping. Enhanced muscles strained as he increased his speed, and it was only seconds later that the target seemed to notice that something was in pursuit. A few seconds was more than enough time to cover half the ground between them. There was no way an un-modified human had the slightest chance of escape. He locked onto visual confirmation, eyesight still set to record the blur in front of him.

It was should have been scary if he took the time to think deeply about it- did the enhancements make him less than human? But he never had time for such pondering. Some officers refused them, stating they didn’t need them for the job. That it was too much. None of them lasted anymore. Even Li, young as he was, had undergone the muscle enhancement surgery. He was scheduled for a couple weeks off at the end of the year to add his retinal upgrades. It was necessary.

The city’s layout was labyrinthine in places, but the internal GPS mapping system made it difficult, if not impossible, to get lost. And with his upgrades, the pavement wasn’t the only path. With all the agility of a gymnast, he could spring from one tightly packed building to another, landing with cat’s grace on a ledge, balcony, or empty rooftop.  

He snorted as the figure ducked behind the nearest city block, a silvery white blur with his only-human senses, tinged red by the haze of his vision. Not close enough to lock on or to confirm identity. Shit.

He rushed around the corner, increasing his speed to the point that his boots left streaks on the pavement as he turned.  There was a flutter of clothing, but it was nearly as far as it’d been on the initial scan. What the hell? That was impossible!

If anything, the strange movement only spurred him on.  Could this be the lead they’d been hoping for? It was no ordinary citizen, they’d been close to the crime scene, had a reason to run away…   

A flash of fabric at the end of a street, and the heat signature just barely caught the figure, leaning against a wall, as if waiting for him to catch up and continue the pursuit, then gone in a blink.   Where?! Steel’s breath was coming harder and faster, setting off all manner of internal alerts. After another fruitless handful of seconds without so much as a trace, he could feel the search going cold.

As we whipped around to run a final scan, the figure emerged from a secluded alleyway just feet from him, startling them both.  The culprit must have thought he’d sat quietly in wait long enough to avoid detection, but luck clearly wasn’t on their side.

Steel’s hand reflexively snaked out to grab a thin, pale wrist and the figure turned, already attempting to pull free.

“Stay where you are. I just want to ask you a few questions about... ”

The figure was… well, stunning. They had a sort of ethereal, androgynous, beauty; fair in face and thinly muscled. Blond hair framed their face in effortless waves, and they barely seemed winded by the chase. A pair of startled blue eyes caught his, and the intensity of their gaze caught him off-guard. Had he ever seen eyes this blue? They had to be some kind of vanity enhancement.  The surprise was obvious in the suspect’s posture, in their expression. They seemed on the verge of panic, fear crawling its way in after the initial shock of being caught.

The figure was… well, stunning. They had a sort of ethereal, androgynous, beauty; fair in face and thinly muscled. Blond hair framed their face in effortless waves, and they barely seemed winded by the chase. A pair of startled blue eyes caught his, and the intensity of their gaze caught him off-guard. Had he ever seen eyes this blue? They had to be some kind of vanity enhancement.  The surprise was obvious in the suspect’s posture, in their expression. They seemed on the verge of panic, fear crawling its way in after the initial shock of being caught.

""XXXX", came a quiet command in a language even his filters couldn’t process and Steel’s vision blurred for an impossible second.  His hand seemed to spasm as the muscles released his prisoner. When his eyes could focus again, he stared at the traitorous hand, then struggled to locate the suspect once more.

What the hell was that? Equipment malfunction was unlikely, but not impossible. That his own body could betray him like that, only fueled his irritation. A quick chase after a suspicious onlooker had turned into a serious lead, and he’d let them literally slip through his fingers.

Steel shook his head, partly to clear it, partly to assure himself that everything was still functioning properly. The suspect was heading for a crowd, and his sensors seemed to be struggling to follow, a maddening phenomenon. His modifications didn’t get glitches. They were state of the art. What the hell?

As the blond ducked into a crowd, Steel followed, but each glimpse turned out to be just another citizen, nothing matching the face he’d spotted before. Fists clenched in impotent anger at his sides, he cursed quietly to himself and turned to walk back to his car.

Chapter Text

- - - - - - -

 

Yuui’s breath had been shallow before, but it was heaving by the time he reached what he hoped was a safe place.  No hiding, no stopping for breath this time; he ducked and sprinted through the city and back toward the alleys that led back home. That was entirely too close for comfort. He couldn’t run into law enforcement when he’d finally achieved a small measure of freedom. He’d strayed too far off course already. If he didn’t return in time…

It didn’t bear dwelling on. Yuui started his trek back toward the Layer, his underground home. The storage drive he’d managed to procure in the city above had been lost in the scuffle, his nerveless fingers betrayed him. It was disappointing, certainly, but progress came slowly, if it came at all. He ducked down another alley, making his way closer to the escape route he’d taken to get there in the first place. After about half an hour of careful treading, he was finally back within familiar territory. If he was caught here, it wouldn’t matter. He could write it off as needing a walk or some air.  But nearer the city limits? There was no excuse.

“Yuui?” he whirled when he heard his name, heart already thudding loudly in his chest as he fixed a smile in place. Suspicious, could you be more suspicious? he told himself before he had even met the eyes of the man who’d spoken to him.

“Oh! Doctor, you startled me,” he breathed out a practiced sigh of relief and tried to normalize his breathing as he continued walking back to his quarters. The man was tall- he had a few inches on Yuui and that was saying something. Yuui might have a slight build, but he wasn’t lacking in height. The doctor wore his dark hair short and his expression an enigmatic smile that Yuui had distrusted from the moment they first met. People down here didn’t ever smile and mean it.

“Must you always sneak up on me like that Seishirou?” he teased, keeping the conversation light-hearted as he dropped the man’s title for a more casual name.

“Perhaps you wouldn’t always be so startled if you weren’t skulking about looking guilty,” the doctor replied easily, gauging the blonde’s behavior behind an inscrutable gaze.

“Can’t help it, I think my face is just stuck this way. I think it’s more mischievous than guilty though,” he countered, forcing his posture to relax and his smile to match, despite the way this man made every hair stand on end. Was his luck just that bad? Maybe he could talk his way around the man, but if he’d actually noticed Yuui had been gone…

“You’re expected,” Seishirou didn’t indulge him and didn’t dwell on the subject, but made sure to drink in all the details of Yuui’s current appearance. The dusty clothing, the mussed hair, the pink cheeks. While his face didn’t show disapproval, Yuui was sure there would be some kind of report about it later. “Ashura wished me to tell you. There’s a Dimico event tonight. And a special announcement afterward.  He wants you to be there. And… you might want to clean up.”

Yuui blinked as it sank in. Dimico weren’t unusual. Basically, an illegal duel between two parties, usually to settle some kind of debate, but occasionally just for the amusement and entertainment of higher ranking mafioso. He glanced down at his clothing, a loose pair of trousers and flowy tunic. It was easy to move in, but not really suited for the more luxurious setting in the lower levels of the Layer. He gave a short laugh.

“How soon?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“I wouldn’t make him wait any longer than you have to,” Seishirou smirked and walked away at that, leaving Yuui at a bit of a loss.  He stared at the man’s back for a moment, but soon followed the usual route to his quarters.

You’re expected .

The games typically started later in the evening and it was barely sundown. Something was definitely amiss. He tried to brace himself for what that might mean. Certainly a night of playing the part of Ashura’s loyal servant. He bit the inside of his lip, but he’d trained his face to remain the impassive.  When he reached the entryway to his quarters, there was a brief moment as the light of the retinal scan hit his eye before the door unlocked. Inside was a lavishly furnished set of rooms. The first was a sitting room with space to greet guests, and further on was his bedroom and bathing quarters.

Tapestries lined the walls, expensive fabrics were draped elegantly over the furniture. Over-stuffed pillows with tassels, interesting textures, all soft and meant to allure and intoxicate the senses. Fai ignored them and headed straight for his bedroom. The walk-in closet was full of everything from elaborate costumes to items that barely qualified as clothing. Some were covered in embroidered work and other brocades and more beads than he could imagine. It would be no good for him to make his supposed master look bad by appearing shabby in front of his court of invited guests.

Yuui called out an order that set the automated functions of the room into motion. A bath began to fill, measuring out scented oils into the tub while he carefully selected a combination of fabrics from the closet. He settled on a white and silver sleeveless robe that belted at the waist and carried pale blue accents. Ashura seemed to like those colors on him, which was all that mattered. He picked a few pieces of matching jewelry and set them aside before he took a step into the tub. It was much larger than it needed to be, inset into the floor, whirring jets, and temperature that could be adjusted within a fraction of a degree.

Though Seishirou said not to keep his master waiting, Yuui wasn’t going to be doing himself any favors to show up on time and looking like a mess. In fact, he was even more certain to cause trouble that way. Ashura’s anger felt like a coiled serpent at the best of times, biding its time until it struck suddenly and without warning. He had no desire to test it, even on a good day.

The oils left his skin soft to the touch and with a light floral fragrance. He applied a bit more of it around his pulse points. A gift from the master, as well as a way to keep in his favor. Taking one of the soft towels from the rack he tousle-dried his hair before brushing it and pinning in a few of the jeweled combs and adding a bit of powder and color to his face.

When he stepped out, one of Ashura’s many attendants was already waiting at his door, anxiously tapping her foot. Her clothing was no less extravagant, and she always knew the best ways to highlight her features. Dramatic and red, all plunging necklines and slitted skirts to entice. Her makeup was flawless, though she hardly needed it.

“Hello Karen,” he commented lazily, trying to make nothing of his lateness.

“Hello nothing,” she rolled her eyes and took a deliberate look up and down, “I suppose he’ll find it worth the wait.  You certainly know his taste.”

She smiled and shook her head. Karen, at least, he could always relax around. They had been working together long enough that he could read her body language and she was always fairly generous with her good humor. One of the few here that Yuui considered a friend, even if they both kept their own share of secrets. 


They walked together down a few private hallways and staircases before they were close enough to hear sounds of the festivities going on down on the Layer. Karen bid him a wave before she left to see to her own clients. Yuui took the opportunity to glance carefully into the room to see where his master had hidden himself away, but when he felt the firm hand on his shoulder, it took everything he had not to jump out of his skin.

“Late again?” came the soft baritone behind him. The softness was a trap, one he’d been taken in by one too many times. He raised a hand to brush the fingers at his shoulder, kissing the hand there with a practiced motion.

“Fashionably so,” he corrected. “I couldn’t accompany you looking anything but my best Master Ashura ,” he dropped his tone a little at the last word, turning to face the man.  If Ashura was amused by the act, it never showed. He could wear the same gentle smile whether he was doting on his favorite pet or brutally tearing insubordinates to pieces. Yuui’s skin prickled but he kept his eyes carefully downcast.

Ashura said nothing, and the silence all the more troubling.

The most decadent room in the Layer, was of course, the Great Hall. Ashura could sit at his throne, surveying the commoners below, while a giant chessboard made up the center of the floor. The subjects seemed to avoid it on a subconscious level. Here and there bloodstains had marred the pure white marble squares into a dirty rust color that wouldn’t quite scrub away.

Two men stood at opposite ends of the chessboard. One a thin-looking youth, his eyes cold and face expressionless. A scar that was at least a few years old dotted his brow. His opponent couldn’t have been that much older, but had already grown into his adult body. He wore his dark hair cropped short, a pair of stylish sunglasses on his nose despite being indoors.

Kamui and Fuuma. Yuui had seen them before, both sons set to inherit their respective houses and pitted against one another from childhood. There were old grudges between their families, and it had fallen on the sons to continue them. The bitterness there was more than just familial hatred, according to rumors.

The room fell into silence as Ashura stood before his throne to address the myriad houses that had gathered for the night’s display. Yuui took up his place beside him, his chair on a much lower level according to status.  It was near the floor amidst a scattering of pillows and silks. No one saw him, he was a decoration, not even the only one. Ashura seemed to enjoy showing off the power he had, not just over businesses and monarchies, but over individual lives. They were his playthings, and he could end one as easily as waving his hand.

And often did.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. I welcome you once again to the Layer. As you may have guessed, we have quite the presentation in store for you. Tonight I wish to show you the fruits of the Celes Corporation’s  latest endeavor. Something that will revolutionize the way we interact with our tech.”

There was a murmuring of interest, but the crowd was still respectfully quiet. A hum of anticipation hung in the air.  Ashura seemed completely unaffected by their reaction, but allowed a short pause before continuing.

“Our latest weaponry can be carried in any place without so much as a trace under current scanning systems. Less detectable even than our local law enforcement’s enhancements under scrutiny, but without the painful surgery and recovery time that accompanies it. Monou, Shiro, if you would be so kind as to demonstrate?”

The young men nodded, almost in unison, eyes never leaving their reflected opponent. Fai furrowed his brow as a circular haze surrounded Kamui, orange in color and almost like… flames?

Meanwhile, electricity crackled around Fuuma in a halo around each fist. The crowd oohed and aahed appreciatively. 

Yuui’s every nerve was tense as a strung bow. This display of tech that resembled magic- he would never have thought Ashura would release it to the public. It was a secret his Master had clung to, kept quiet, an existence he’d taken great pains to hide. And now? Either they’d run into a dead-end in development and were trying to make back some of what they put in, or-

He chanced a glance at Ashura, who had taken his seat at last. He was watching the sparring session with interest, but seemed to anticipate Yuui’s reaction.  Their eyes locked and the corner of Ashura’s mouth quirked in the slightest of motions. A feeling of inexplicable dread sank into his stomach. There was something predatory in the smile, something cruel and he quickly averted his eyes to the two young men exchanging furious blows on the chessboard.

“Don’t fret Yuui. After all, without you and your brother’s help, we couldn’t have made this happen.”  There was a hand on his shoulder, thumb drifting over the bare skin there. Yuui dug his fingers into the fabric of his robe, but kept his face a meaningless smile.

“I’m… happy to be of help to you Master,” he said agreeably, once he had control over his wavering emotions.

“Yuui,” he added softly, his hand drifting down the other’s arms to where the hand was gripping so tightly the knuckles had gone white. Yuui noticed his mistake with a flinch as he let go and looked back to Ashura, opened his eyes, and hoped he didn’t look as panicked as he felt.  “It’s alright, you’re still so precious to me. Don’t think this diminishes how much I need you.”

The compliments were meant to ease his mind, but Yuui only felt even more exposed. As if Ashura could see his emotions and inner thoughts plain as day, despite his efforts to hide.

“You had a busy day, haven’t you? I think you need to relax.  You know I don’t like to see you upset.”

Every phrase held implications that left Yuui wondering anxiously how much Ashura had found out about his adventures today, let alone the terrors this newly released technology would pose.  There were so many reasons it’d been kept carefully away from the general public. He gave a nervous laugh.

“No no, I’m fine.  I just-”

Before another lie could slip out, Ashura’s grip on his wrist tightened and Yuui could feel hopelessness closing in. He’d lost track of result of the fight, and even the paths that new tech would open, worry shifting to his own welfare and how this would affect how much time he had left. How much did Ashura know?

The Master released his shoulder, his fingers brushing Yuui’s temple for a moment in what had become a familiar gesture. Before he could flinch away, Yuui could already smell the sweet scent of the Chobits drug flood his system. It was only a second or two before his head began to feel fuzzy with it, as if he’d had too much wine, and his cares felt far-distant and unimportant.

“That’s better, isn’t it?” Ashura asked quietly.

And it was better. The problems of now were a hazy memory. There was nothing but the warm, inviting fog of the drug, a sensation like floating that left a dreamy smile on his lips.

The two combatants continued, already rough, blood spilled on both sides, but it didn’t register as more than a fleeting moment of interest. Ashura raised a hand to halt the impromptu sparring match and things slowed to clamorous applause as the young men backed away from one another; one of them spitting blood and… was that a piece of tooth?

Yuui attempted to focus on words he knew were important as Ashura got up to speak. New Opportunities, Weapons, Enhancements. Yuui gripped the side of the chair, strength leaving him as another pleasant rush hit and he sagged weakly against the throne.

As he tried to focus on the conversation, Yuui noticed Ashura’s men bringing in another person. A man, bruised and beaten beyond belief, but Yuui was sure he recognized him from somewhere.  One of Ashura’s dealers or lower ranking hitmen. It was hard to keep track, but the face was familiar. Clearly he’d done something to get on the man’s bad side. He caught the words, “ under cover ” and “ traitor ,” and thought to himself, yes, that would do it .

Ashura was never kind toward those who broke loyalties with him, but the law enforcement often tried to dig their way in. No one lasted terribly long. If Celes Corporation was anything, it was vigilant.


There was a struggle and some screaming, but the drug was taking over any part of his mind left that still cared. He saw a flash of the new tech, the smell of burning flesh, and the screaming stopped so abruptly, it gave him chills despite the drug-addled haze.

Chapter Text

“Steel? Get in here and close the door behind you.”

The stern voice of the Chief of police was enough to tell him that something was out of the ordinary.  The day had been routine outside of chasing down that glitchy onlooker. Li had taken care of the OD’d Byte they’d brought in, but it was hard to forget about the suspicious blond. The rest of the night had been trudging through paperwork. Dawn was less than an hour away and Steel was just about to clock off. The chief wouldn’t call him in about something so trivial though, so what was this about?

“Sit down,” the chief motioned impassively. The head of their office had a shock of white hair, despite being one of the youngest to achieve his rank. Given the amount of stress he knew came with the position, it was entirely possible the two facts were related. The chief wore it back in a braid that fell over one shoulder, one of his only indulgences that went against dress code.

Yue wasn’t one to mince words, which was fine with Steel as he didn’t like to waste them either. The chief had always been very forthright with his employees, so he expected this to be no different. He pulled out the chair opposite Yue’s and slowly sat down,.

“We lost Takamura.  Eight months of deep cover. Gone.”

Steel’s eyes widened slightly and his jaw tightened visibly.  As much as he appreciated Yue’s frank attitude, this was the life of an officer, not just numbers and lost work. It felt cold, even if he understood.

“He was one of the best,” Steel said finally. He’d worked with Takamura here and there before being partnered up with Li. The man had been quick-witted and serious when it mattered, but easy with a smile.  It was hard to believe he was just gone . They all knew it was a danger of the job, but…

“Mmm,” was the chief’s quiet reply.

“The announcement will go out tomorrow then?” Steel asked. That was the usual, but he also wanted to move this conversation along. If Takamura was gone, they would go through the usual channels, reporters would have a day of it, but why tell him early? And privately like this? There was only one reason he could think of.

“Yes.  But that’s not exactly what I brought you here to talk about.  Steel-” Yue began, clearly hesitant, given what little he knew of Steel’s history. What Yue didn’t know, however, was that this was exactly the sort of opportunity he’d been waiting for. Law enforcement offered him a wealth of information and physical enhancements, but few chances to track down the bigger targets.

“Alright.”

“Pardon?”

“You need someone to take up where Takamura left off, right? Another detective. We don’t have time to waste skirting the issue if that’s the case,” Steel growled.

The chief’s cool expression didn’t change, though Yue took a slow breath before answering, clearly not expecting to jump ahead so far in his planned conversation.

“Very well,” Yue pushed a plain-looking data stick toward Steel.  He didn’t have to explain what was on it, Steel’s internal scanners were already skimming the information. A clinic to report to for upgrades, contact lists from Takamura’s last entries, a smattering of data he’d managed to collect while working undercover, photos, and a short video with footage of what remained of the detective.  

“Everything you need should be in order. The autopsy report showed some… troubling injuries. We haven’t something of its like before. Our sources believe it’s part of a new weaponized tech upgrade that Celes Corportation is distributing. Given the number of modifications Takamura already had, it’s hard to believe he could be taken down without considerable force.”

Steel nodded along, feeling his hackles rise in nervous excitement at the prospect. He knew he should feel more remorse for his friend’s fate, but Takamura’s sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. He would see to that. Whatever had got the better of him, Steel knew he would have to tread that much lighter, be that much more wary. The glitch in his enhancements earlier in the day flickered through his mind, and he attempted to make a connection, but dismissed it in favor of the data-stick.

“Objective?”

“Gain their trust. We want names, and hard evidence linking members to any number of crimes. Drug and human trafficking, illegal arms deals, murder, just to name a few. The new tech is supposed to go live at the end of the month. I realize that’s far too optimistic to think it can be stopped at this point, but whatever you can do to throw a wrench in their distribution would be helpful.”

If something could effectively neutralize even thoroughly enhanced humans, it was worth being cautious. Steel nodded again, taking mental note. The more he learned about the case, the more tragic it was that Takamura had been found out. There had to be years worth of work attempting to stop the underground dealers from gaining any more power and influence. He moved on.

Last, there was a short file with his new name and identity. Just like his current pseudonym, it wasn’t real, just playing a part to get him one step closer.  It would do well enough, though he had to roll his eyes a little at how literal the name was. Upload complete, he pushed the data stick back toward Yue.

“Kurogane, huh.”

- - - - - - - -

Most of the evening had been a blur under the drug’s influence. Yuui struggled to hold onto words that had seemed so important, faces he oughtn’t forget, and memories of the night that were sure to have immediate repercussions, but it wasn’t until hours later, well into the small sparks of morning, that he was stumbling back to his quarters. Ashura was there at his side, a constant presence as his head began to clear. There was still a pleasant haze to things, the fear and anxiety had not yet returned.  All was well. The door slid open, the lights adjusted to a pleasant dimness and Yuui felt his way to the nearest sofa, ready to sleep away much of the day.

He heard the door close, measured footsteps returning, but it sounded far away. He barely noticed the heightened tension in the air as Ashura approached him from behind, and even leaned into the touch as Ashura’s fingers brushed his neck in what seemed a gentle caress.

It took less than the blink of an eye before that hand began to tighten around his neck, slowly closing off the air. He was slow to react, grasping at the arm, prying impotently at the iron grip as his eyes began to water, but he couldn’t even turn to face his attacker.  There were spots in his vision before the hold slackened just enough for him to take a wheezing breath.

The act was immediately sobering, pushing the last remnants of the drug from his thoughts, and flooding Yuui’s mind with survival instinct. Not good. Ashura was often violent, it was what had gotten him where he was today, but it was usually honed carefully, applied to specific targets. Only on special occasion did it reach Yuui.

“Yuui,” came a deceptively gentle voice. Ashura clicked his tongue a few times as if scolding a child, then finally let go of his grasp around Yuui’s slender neck. The effect was immediate and Yuui pitched forward, taking in grateful breaths, a hand reflexively brushing over the bruised skin.

“I wish you wouldn’t force me to these things.  I find it distasteful,” Ashura said quietly, the timbre of his voice unchanged between when he’d been squeezing the life out of his servant and now. One of those statements was a lie, Yuui was certain. Ashura might feel as though his hand was forced, but distasteful? No, Yuui had seen the mad spark of excitement in Ashura’s eyes as he obliterated his enemies into nothing but blood and ichor. Violence was something Ashura enjoyed, no matter what pretty lies of necessity he might tell. 

Ashura set one knee on the couch as he approached, reaching out a hand to lift Yuui’s chin so he could meet those fever-bright blue eyes.  Yuui did everything in his power not to show fear, only timid submission. Fighting would only escalate things. Yuui could see it in Ashura’s smile,  soft and unchanged.

“I- sorry- I-” was all he could manage as he tried to clear his head and breathe, just breathe.

“You’re sorry? No, no, that won’t do. Sorry for what? ” Ashura asked in a calm, even tone, barely letting up as his thumb brushed the corner of Yuui’s jaw. A single brow raised, waiting for his answer, and Yuui was trying to banish the spots of color in his vision that had nothing to do with the inhalant he’d taken earlier. His mind struggled to come up with answers. He’d been late, out in the city, but did Ashura know how far he’d gone, or why? No, he had to hope he’d managed to slip by. It was later that evening, the new tech that Ashura was introducing, he shouldn’t have reacted in-

“That I- upset- y-”

Ashura gave a chuckle that held little humor and the gentle hand found his throat and tightened again, shoving Yuui back hard enough that his head thrummed against the hard wooden arm of the sofa. There was a painful choked sound that Yuui couldn’t recognize as his own.

“No,” Ashura replied calmly, “no.  Be specific.”

At that he let go once again, waiting for an answer. It was a clear game of cat and mouse, only inches between them, the door to his rooms felt like miles away. There was no chance he’d get away if he ran, experience had taught him that lesson. If he didn’t want to spend the next couple months on crutches, he had to endure.

Ashura was waiting for an answer, but the blond was so shaken, it was hard to form a coherent sentence. Ashura’s hand slid to Yuui’s right shoulder, thumb brushing over the delicate collarbone as he pressed Yuui toward the edge of the couch. The man could break him in half easily, given the sheer number of cybernetic enhancements he’d had over the years. Ashura probably had more strength in that thumb than Yuui had in his entire body. He didn’t want to dwell on that thought for longer than he had to.

“I’m sorry- I was late tonight m-master Ashura,” he managed, knowing the answer was not enough, but unable to stop the words, unable to let him discover the truth. “I fell asleep and lost track of time and-”

Crack.

Yuui gasped, but clenched his teeth against the pain as his shoulder rocked back against the arm of the couch and something snapped. Ashura had struck so quickly, he hadn’t a moment to react, to dodge. Yuui’s hand had been resting near Ashura’s, but now it fell to his side, shoulder spasming in the accompanying pain. It came in a sudden burst, then throbbed angrily.

“You know how much I dislike it when you lie to me Yuui,” he continued. He ran his fingers over the bruised flesh and stroked the side of Yuui’s face with the back of his hand. “I always know.”

Something in Ashura’s mind had broken long ago. The cold, empty eyes that looked back at him relished the pain and suffering they caused. Yuui remembered how those eyes had looked on, unmoved over the bodies of the ones he’d cared for- god, it was impossible to forget.  Yet somehow, each time, it was he who’d survived. Until he was the only one left. It was a lonely and burdensome place to be, wishing so much to be with his family again, yet the guilt tore at him for doing nothing with the life they’d left him.

It felt digusting to fall into the habits, always submitting because it was easier to mutter platitudes and apologies until the pain stopped. He wished now for the drug again, anything to take his mind away from the clarity of the moment and the sharpness of the pain.

“Why are you sorry, Yuui?”

“F...forgive me,” Yuui returned from the brief memory, his voice quaking now as he winced at the pain.  There was a slight tremble as Ashura’s hand slid over Yuui’s unblemished arm, guiding it over his head to lay against the wooden armrest. Ashura drew a thin blade from his robes, making certain Yuui caught a long look at it. The knife wasn’t more than a centimeter wide, though it was nearly as long as his palm. A letter-opener perhaps, once upon a time when such things were in common use. 

“I wish I didn’t have to punish you like this,” Ashura continued, letting the blade linger just out of Yuui’s line of sight before it pierced his hand and bit deep into the wood of the sofa beneath, effectively pinning his arm in place.

Though there was no hand on his neck this time, Yuui barely let more than a quiet, surprised gasp escape his lips.  His arm instinctively pulled against the grisly bond, but the pain only blossomed brightly once again.

“I’m so s-sorry.  I shouldn’t have- I’m sorry, please-”

Ashura drew back a moment, cold eyes calculating. Yuui knew there had once been a time he didn’t fear that gaze on him. A time when Ashura’s eyes had been gentle and kind and fits like these were a rare unmentionable accident.  A time before the madness and bloodthirsty killer had emerged.

“If you’re going to continue to use that tongue to tell lies, I’ll have to put it to use elsewhere,” his smile quirked the slightest degree at that and he pulled the blond’s chin closer, pressing their lips together in a rough kiss. Yuui was still trying to get his breathing under control and though he tried to break away, Ashura pursued, pressing Yuui’s shoulder down into the sofa, so he was forced to lie on his back. Jewels and beads clinked softly over his hiss of pain, though even that  was muted by their kiss. Head pounding, seeing red at the edges of his vision now, Yuui jerked his face aside, panting hard. An amused chuckle sounded above him, Ashura’s long dark hair fell over his shoulders as he slipped the expensive robe from them. The master slid his knee between Yuui’s legs, pressing more of his weight onto Yuui’s heaving chest.

Yuui opened his mouth in a cry that never passed his lips. The pressure only made the pain in his shoulder more intense, each jostling moment grinding the blade into his palm. He felt light-headed, almost sick with pain, but Ashura showed no sign of stopping. His right arm felt all but useless, sending pulses of pain every time he tried to move it. It was hard to believe such a small break could be so agonizing.

There was no need to tear away at the fabric of Yuui’s own robe; it was flowy and exposed enough that Ashura had no trouble reaching any part of his body he might like to touch with little more than tugging a tie or slipping the fabric aside. Still, Yuui flinched when he heard the expensive silk begin to tear, though he had no illusion that this night would ever be more pleasure than pain for him. Whatever monster possessed Ashura, it walked such a thin line between wrath and lust, it was impossible to separate the two.

“You can’t run away Yuui,” came the voice near his ear, and Yuui could swear he sensed a note of amusement in it.   Amusement at the pain he was causing.  Yuui shut his eyes tightly as he felt a hand on his thigh, groping the soft muscles with a deliberate motion.  The fabric still clung uselessly in places, near his shoulder and at his back, jewelry doing little more to cover him.

Yuui turned his head aside, eyes shut and shivering as Ashura’s hands explored his body, eliciting spasms and gasps that were beyond his control. He told himself to endure, but the pain was unbearable, intense and constant. The apologies became muttered gasps and Ashura pushed them aside without concern.

“No matter where you run, I’ll find you. Never forget that. I’ll always find you.”