A part of him has always known it would come to this. That it would fail, that he would fail. That part had been drowned out by the rush of power, a succession of victories, his understanding that he is smarter, stronger, more resourceful… Than whom? His cannot tell. He had ceased comparisons long ago. It felt ridiculous. Nobody could compare.
He knows he is his corporation’s property. His augmentations, his skills, his memories, his whole body—bought, nurtured, trained… He had always thought of himself as a tool, formed for a range of tasks, for a specific purpose. His clothes belong to Abundance. His health is by mercy of Abundance. His education, his apartment, his weapons, his subordinates… His time. His thoughts.
Until some of those things, the important things, were stolen. Piece—by—piece. Appropriately, by someone of the faction called the Vory. Thieves.
But not all had been stolen. And it didn’t last.
He is ruined. His mission a failure, the world collapsing around him…
They will pick his body apart. Remove and repurpose his augs, throw out the useless organic remains. Extract his memories to study them, dissect them like they are—
He barely gets to the bathroom in time. The edge of the seat bites into his head, retches wreck his body, tears streaming down his cheeks, his nose, a burning behind his eyes.
A hand on his back startles him enough that he hits his knee on the wall, turning around. His gun is— “Tosha?” His mouth is sour and hot.
The hand on his back moves to his side. It is Anton, black jacket and eyes like blood-soaked sand. Dark shadows under those eyes. Ridiculously long eyelashes. “It’s me,” Anton nods, as though Viktor doesn’t recognize him.
Anton helps him up.
There is not enough space for them in the bathroom. Never could quite fit together in the shower here either.
This tiny apartment is a place where Viktor goes to sleep, nothing more, and even then only in times he can’t stay in his office.
His former office now. His former apartment. He has to leave.
He leans on the sink, shivering, stomach spasming. The face greeting him in the mirror is positively green. His knees are trembling. The metal in his jaw feels icy cold, even though rationally Viktor knows it isn’t. The metal on his throat, his clavicles presses onto his airways.
He hangs his head, and tears run down his nose.
Anton opens the faucet, fills a glass—where’s he gotten it?—and holds it up. “Vitya.”
He tries to smile at the diminutive. So stupid. He can take care of himself.
He accepts the glass, warm from Anton’s fingers. Catches a glance of Anton’s knuckles, covered with dried blood. Got into a fight again.
Viktor accepts the glass, swishes the water in his mouth, trying to get rid of the sour taste, then spits it into the sink. Washes his face. With wet eyelashes, redness on his cheeks and nose, he is a mess. It looks like someone has stuck a wrong head onto the body clad in the ASC uniform.
He was dressing up for the Assembly, and so his armor is left on the bed. The armor always helped—not only protecting him, but reminding him to keep his back straight, his chin up. Now, without its shell, he feels naked against the weight of his jacket. Crumbling under it.
His gaze falls on the Abundance pin on his right lapel, and his stomach spasms again.
“How did you get inside?” he rasps. It’s easier to shift his attention away from himself. From all this.
Anton’s so broad his shoulders don’t fit in the small doorway of the bathroom. He doesn’t fit here—at all, and Viktor wonders whether he’s started hallucinating. Or whether it’s ‘Mother Abundance’ just trying to placate him, to lull him. Projecting Anton into his mind.
He’s sick at the thought that they might pick this, Anton’s image, the most private thing he has, to pacify him. To lie to him.
“I’ve never forgotten the code to your apartment.”
“I know the algorithm. And,” Anton lifts his hand with a jingle, “I still have the keys.”
And still on a keychain with a purple jellyfish. Most of glitter has already left it, and there are chips on the enamel, but it is still smiling the most ridiculous smile ever.
The thought that Anton has kept the keys and the keychain, and more, carried them everywhere, judging by the damage to the poor jellyfish… It makes Viktor’s eyes burn, and so, he looks away. “You shouldn’t have come. I’ve been—”
“Voted out. I know.”
Anton wraps a hand around his arm, nudges his shoulder with his forehead. They are together in the mirror, framed by the crooked metal frame like a photo. Viktor looks at them, at himself. There are many gray threads in his hair now. He looks more like technomancers—although by his age they are usually all white. If they live to it at all.
“I’m a pariah,” he says, and it sounds… He doesn’t know how it sounds. There is a mix of feelings and sensations: the fluttering in his stomach, the weakening in his knees. “There is only one way how this will end.”
“Ever the tragedian, my dear,” Anton murmurs. Their gaze meeting in the reflection.
“Haven’t you had your own hand in my…” Ruination. Fall. “In this?”
“In bringing down Colonel Watcher, the Director of the ASC, and his empire of fear and corruption? Without doubt. Did I give aid to our mutual young friend so that he could do it more swiftly? Of course. But you… You, I never wanted to ruin—except in certain context that would involve a bed or something else suitable.”
This is ridiculous. Anton is ridiculous, and Viktor wants to kiss him… But Anton is wrong. Viktor looks at himself again. The crude plating covering his throat. “You are wrong. I’m only Colonel Viktor Watcher. Nothing else.”
He remembers what kickstarted his ambition. Lieutenant, captain, major, colonel… Rise up to get away: the higher ranks weren’t under constant surveillance. But the price is giving himself over to the ASC completely. They will take his memory apart. All of it. Everything. Tosha.
Anton’s hand grips his arm. “You are—”
“You should leave.” He needs Anton to leave. Before things are turned into dust.
Hurt ripples over Anton’s face, but so fast Viktor doubts he hasn’t imagined it. With years, Anton has become better at controlling his emotions, his face, his voice, his words.
“Give me a solid reason, and I might even consider it,” Anton says, voice like steel. Both of them are cold metal and sharp edges—or used to be. Viktor feels dull and brittle.
“Because… because there is a bomb,” Viktor whispers. His jaws are numb, and his insides are turning into icy water.”
Anton’s face falls. “What. What are you talking about, what bomb? In the apartment? I shall—” Anton releases his arm and reaches to the communicator on his wrist, but Viktor catches his hand. He can barely see through a blur over his eyes.
“No. In me.” He lifts Anton’s hand and presses it to the base of his skill, to the cranial port that he learned to hate and then learned to love Anton’s touch to it. “Here.” He has forgotten when he cried so much. Not even when they had the first fight with Anton, years ago. “When I proved to be valuable. It’s under the port. They can extract enough data from my brain even if they detonate it… Tosha.” Words tumble from his trembling lips like tears from his eyes. He grips Anton’s hand, brings it from his neck to his heart where it’s beating without the shell of the armor. “Leave. I don’t want you to see any of it.”
Anton tears his hand away, and for a moment Viktor thinks Anton will leave. Viktor’s gun is in the bedroom, too, and he knows how to deal the most damage to make his brain nearly unrecoverable.
But then Anton growls, and the flutter of hope in Viktor’s stomach dies. “Нахуй это. Like fuck am I going to leave you.” He presses the communicator. “I’m calling Dandolo. He has the best surgeons. We’ll get it out.”
“He’ll shoot you on sight!”
“Oh good. Less trouble then.” Anton grips his chin with his thumb and forefinger. Viktor tries to blink his tears away, to turn away. “Look at me,” Anton says, low and urgent. “Look. We are either making it out of this together—or not at all. Понял?” Anton releases his chin before he can say anything, tears the pin off his jacket, then flushes it down the toilet.
Anton is the angriest Viktor has ever seen him, a frown, and a stubborn resolution to his tin lips. The tip of his left ear has a tiny bit missing—a stray bullet, from ages ago.
Viktor’s heart is racing. “Tosha,” he says, and his voice is wet, “that pin has a tracker.”
Anton rolls his eyes. “Good. Perhaps they will inspect the sewage system at last.”
Viktor feels his face crumble. “Please leave,” he whispers, even as he draws his arms around Anton, claws at the leather of his jacket. “Tosha.”
“No way. I already called Dandolo.”
“I hate you.”
“I’m too old for running away.”
“I’m planning on you annoying me for half a century more at least.”
They touch their foreheads together. The wetness on Anton’s cheeks is not from Viktor. This place is small, but, pressed together, they are not taking a lot of space.
Somehow, Anton’s hands have found their way under his jacket, his vest, his shirt, hot as ever.
“Together?” Viktor breathes out into the tiny space between them.
And the arms around him tighten. “Or not at all.”