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The Freedom of Falling

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Art by capree-sun!

Laurent hated the weird looks he got whenever he visited the control room.

Logically, he understood it: at thirteen, he was the youngest in the room by six or seven years at least, and was often mistaken for even younger thanks to his slender build and delicate features. On top of that, access to the control room was limited to the upper echelons of the base hierarchy; it was a place meant for the finest officers and technicians in the Ellosean Defense Corps, not children who looked like they’d shatter if someone bumped into them. From that perspective, it made sense that people would find Laurent’s presence odd — but only if they were new, which Lazar clearly was.

“Oi.” The lanky, sharp-eyed technician leaned forward until he cast a shadow over Laurent, who had claimed a chair for himself and was sitting in it cross-legged with a book splayed open across his lap. “What the hell is this little pipsqueak doing here?”

Laurent lifted his eyes but not his head, calm and fearless. “What are you doing here?” he asked, arching one delicate eyebrow. He’d never seen Lazar here before, and he was younger than most of the techs drifting around; despite the haughty tilt of his chin, he was clearly uncomfortable, not yet integrated into the well-oiled machine that was the control room.

Lazar opened his mouth to retort, but a sturdy hand came down on his shoulder before he could get a word out.

“This pipsqueak,” said Jord, a lean, dark-haired man with the four stripes of a captain glinting on his sleeves and shoulders, “is the Marshal’s son, so I suggest you pay him a little more respect, Officer.”

Lazar immediately flushed. “How was I supposed to know?” he snapped, jerking his shoulder to free it from Jord’s grasp. “He looks nothing like the Marshal.”

Laurent just shrugged, having heard that comment a thousand times before. Both Laurent and Auguste had inherited their mother’s pale hair and blue eyes; Laurent had gotten her build as well, svelte yet strong, while Auguste’s broad shoulders and powerful limbs mirrored their father’s. Typically, only those who had known their late mother were able to discern the boys’ heritage by looks alone.

“Some would say you don’t look like you belong here, either,” Jord said to Lazar, throwing a glance at the young officer like a dagger. “Until you’ve proven that you do, I would watch your mouth.”

Lazar’s face went from pink to scarlet. Without another word, he spun around and stalked off, heading in the general direction of his workstation.

Once he was out of earshot, Jord sighed, dropping unceremoniously into the empty seat beside Laurent. This close, Laurent could see the dark smudges under his eyes and the weary crease in his brow; he knew the captain was somewhere in his early twenties, but at that moment he could’ve passed for much older.

Lips pursing, Laurent marked his place with a hair tie off his wrist and folded his book shut. “Is something wrong?”

Jord blinked at him, surprised. “No, ‘course not. Why?”

“Everyone just seems so tense.” Laurent cast his eyes out the window, skimming across the glassy expanse of the ocean. On days like this, Marlas looked like a postcard: pearl-white beaches, ultramarine skies, sapphire-dark waves that caressed with the shore with a lover’s gentleness. It was hard to believe that such a halcyon view would soon dissolve into chaos; that the still, pellucid sea below would be stained with blood before the day was out.

At least, it was probably hard to believe for a lot of people. “A lot of people” did not include Laurent, who had practically grown up beside this very window, watching his father — and eventually his brother — wage war on the kaiju.

Jord chuckled. “I think ‘tense’ is just the usual state of being up here, kid. I’d be more worried if everyone was all happy and smiley and stuff, to be honest.” He gave Laurent a playful nudge. “Except you, of course. You can be as happy and smiley as you want.”

Laurent furrowed his brow. “Why?”

“Why?” Jord echoed, eyebrows lifting. “Because you don’t have a job up here — not yet, anyways. We don’t expect you to be all wound up like the rest of us.” His jaw tightened almost imperceptibly. “We’d be pretty messed up if we did.”

Laurent’s thoughtful frown deepened. “I wouldn’t feel something just because somebody expected me to,” he said, cocking his head. “Or not feel something.”

The smile Jord gave him was genuine, but obviously strained. “Good. That’s a good way to be, kid.”

“You don’t have to be tense, either,” Laurent added, setting his hands on top of his book and interlacing his fingers. “They’ve never failed a mission. That’s not going to change today.”

“You mean your old man and Auguste?” Jord’s eyes brightened noticeably at the mention of them, and Laurent smiled to himself, glad to have steered the conversation in a more cheerful direction. Jord gave a decisive nod as he said, “They are pretty damn— darn good, I mean.”

“Don’t worry. Auguste swears around me all the time,” Laurent said, trying not to look too pleased about it. “I know all sorts of words.”

Jord shook his head, grinning. “Even so, you won’t be learning any more from me. Sorry to disappoint you.”

Laurent smirked. “I think I’ll be fine without your help.”

“Yeah, I think you will too.” Jord stood, ruffling Laurent’s hair as he went. “I have to go check on things, but I’ll see you in a bit, all right? We can watch Indigo Star kick this kaiju’s—”

“Ass,” Laurent said, a mischievous edge creeping into his smile.

“Butt,” Jord corrected, feigning austerity. “I was going to say butt.”

Laurent only giggled and re-opened his book, winding the hair tie he was using as a bookmark around his fingers as he resumed his reading about the neuropsychology of Drifting. He was only about halfway through the book, which had been recommended to him by Paschal, a world-renowned Drift expert who also served as the base’s primary physician. Laurent wasn’t old enough to enter official training yet, but he wanted to know what he’d be getting into. If it was anything like the Test Drifts he’d done with some of Auguste’s friends…

Grimacing, Laurent shook off the thought and forced his attention back to his book. Thankfully, the title of the next chapter was enough to bring an instant grin to his face: The Ghost Drift.

That, at least, was something he understood.

Laurent squeezed his eyes tight and tried to center himself. It was Auguste who had taught him how to do this: how to give his consciousness a shape, how to bend and stretch it to suit his needs. While Drifting, most pilots tended to envision their minds as spheres; in order to connect with each other, they had to build a mental bridge between them, allowing the contents of each sphere to spill over into the other. But this wasn’t proper Drifting; this was different. Simpler. Laurent simply gathered a handful of thoughts (hello, excited, proud, I believe in you), stretched them out, and cast them like a fishing line into the dark nothingness beyond the edges of his mind.

Almost instantly, he felt the line brush against another consciousness, pleasantly warm and instantly recognizable.

Laurent. It was Auguste’s voice in his head, at once distant and startlingly close. What’s up? I don’t have long, we’re suiting up.

Laurent smiled. Nothing, I just wanted to say hi.

Their mental connection shivered like a plucked guitar string, and Laurent knew that Auguste was laughing out loud, even though he couldn’t hear it. We’re supposed to use the Ghost Drift for important things, idiot. It’s not like a cell phone or something.

It works like one, though.

Smart-ass. Laurent felt a phantom hand swat at his shoulder and marveled, not for the first time, at his brother’s mastery of the Ghost Drift. It had taken months for Laurent to develop the ability to transmit complete thoughts, and even longer to figure out how to relay abstract ideas and emotions; Auguste, on the other hand, had been able to do that from the start. After that, it had only taken him a few weeks to learn how to convey sensations: playful punches, pinches, hugs, et cetera. Even when they weren’t together, even when they weren’t touching, Auguste could trick Laurent’s brain into thinking they were.

Look who’s talking, Laurent retorted, glad that Auguste had taught him not only how to transmit thoughts, but also how to hold certain ones back. He loved Auguste, but his brother was cocky enough already;  overhearing Laurent’s hero worship would just inflate his ego further.

I’m not a smart-ass, I’m the smartest-ass. Laurent could hear/see/sense the smile in the thought. Wish I could stay and chat, but we’re starting the Drift any minute and Dad will get pissy if he figures out we’re using the Ghost Drift without permission.

Smothering a flicker of disappointment, Laurent held tight to the connection between them. Can we practice some more later? I want to learn how you send those physical sensations, like the one on my shoulder a minute ago.

Of course, Auguste replied. The message was accompanied by a ripple of mingled fondness and enthusiasm. We can do that as soon as the mission’s over.

Promise?

I promise.

Laurent nodded to himself, even though Auguste wasn’t there to see it. Good luck. Not that you need it.

We appreciate it anyway. Talk to you later, buddy.

Laurent reluctantly let the connection slip through his fingers, his awareness of Auguste fading as his brother gently but firmly shut him out of his mind. Laurent understood why he had to do it, but but that didn’t completely soothe the sting of it. It reminded him that even though he and Auguste had the Ghost Drift, Auguste’s co-pilot was their father, not Laurent — and even though Laurent wasn’t sure yet how he felt about his future as a pilot, he couldn’t deny a frantic desire to live up to the standard his brother and father had set.

If that was even possible.

Laurent sighed, slumping back in his chair and rubbing his weary eyelids. Later, he’d practice with Auguste and take another tiny step toward his goal. But for now, all he could do was wait.

After a few fruitless minutes spent trying to lose himself in his book again, Laurent sat bolt upright at a shout from the other side of the control room: “Target in range, sir!”

“Sir” referred to the man who currently occupied the Marshal’s chair: Laurent’s uncle, a sturdy, dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed beard and frosty blue eyes that could cut a man open with a single glance. Laurent knew his uncle’s real name, of course, but nearly everyone at the base knew him by his old Air Force call sign: the Regent.

Laurent could feel the Regent’s cold, heavy gaze upon him, but he studiously ignored it, looking out the window instead. He scrutinized the smooth, glittering water below, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary; the kaiju had probably come up on a sonar scan, or maybe thermal. Something below the surface.

“Two miles and closing fast,” said a smooth, low voice that Laurent immediately recognized as Lazar’s. “Advising immediate deployment, sir.”

The Regent’s voice was black velvet. “Give me the audio feed for Indigo Star.”

“Yes, sir.”

Laurent sat up a little straighter as the control room immediately filled with the sound of his brother’s voice.

“—be a fun one,” Auguste was saying, cheerful as usual. “So long as the teams from Marlas do their job. Who’s coming?”

“One point team and one auxiliary,” Marshal Aleron replied, underscored by the hum of Indigo Star’s engines. “Theomedes and Kastor in Red Fang, plus Damianos and Nikandros in Alpha Leonis.”

“Both of the Marshal’s sons are out at once?” Auguste’s voice was colored with surprise. “Doesn’t that seem kind of risky? I mean, I know I’m out here, but we’ll always have Laurent back at the base in case something goes wrong. What would they do?”

“Who knows.” The words came across as a verbal shrug. “The only thing keeping Laurent out of the field right now is his age, though, so we’ll have to figure out a plan of our own eventually.” A light chuckle. “I’m sure he’ll fly right through training.”

Auguste’s sudden intake of breath was barely audible, for a few awkward moments the feed fell silent. Then Auguste’s voice resurfaced, sounding oddly tentative: “You know, I’m not sure if Laurent really wants to be a pilot.”

Laurent went rigid, dread shooting through his veins like ice, but Aleron didn’t get a chance to respond before the Regent barked into his microphone, “Pilots, prepare for drop.”

“Acknowledged,” Aleron said, voice clipped.

Laurent could feel his pulse slamming in his temples; he counted seven frenzied beats before Auguste murmured, “Yes, sir.”

They fell quiet again, and Laurent exhaled heavily, not sure if he was glad or resentful that his execution had been postponed. How had Auguste known, anyway? Had Laurent somehow revealed it early on, when the Ghost Drift was brand new and he hadn’t yet learned how to pick and choose which thoughts he shared? Had Auguste read the faint apprehension in his expression as he moved through the Shatterdome, neck craned back to study the impassive faces of the jaegers they passed?

Laurent shook his head fiercely, forcing down the urge to reach for his brother’s mind and demand answers now. And it wasn’t just the when and how that he was worried about — he wanted to know why Auguste would mention it to anyone, let alone their father, a man who’d been a pilot his whole life and had raised his sons with the expectation that they would follow suit. Did Auguste think he was helping Laurent somehow? Did he not realize that he’d just thrown his little brother into the lion’s den?

Laurent wrapped his arms around himself, squeezing tightly as the roar of helicopter blades announced the arrival of Indigo Star. The jaeger’s shadow drenched the entire beach as six copters carried her into view.

“There she is,” Jord murmured as he reappeared at Laurent’s side, hands hooked into his pockets. “Our pride and joy.”

“Don’t you have a job you’re supposed to be doing?” Laurent asked, but there was no heat in it.

“Lazar’s taking care of it.”

“Why?”

The corners of Jord’s mouth quirked up. “Because I told him to.”

“I’m fine,” Laurent insisted, still avoiding Jord’s gaze. Outside, the midmorning sun gleamed on Indigo Star’s shoulders as the helicopters lowered her into the shallows. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“You know,” Jord said, ignoring Laurent’s comment, “I think your father will be glad you don’t want to be a pilot.”

“I never said I didn’t want to be a pilot,” Laurent said immediately, startled and sharp.

“You didn’t have to.”

Any response Laurent might’ve had to that was interrupted by a shout from Lazar: “Red Fang and Alpha Leonis are approaching the drop site!”

“Are their comms linked into ours?” the Regent asked.

“Yes, sir!”

“Excellent.” The Regent folded his hands neatly behind his back and watched with cool, professional interest as two more jaegers passed overhead, each one borne aloft by eight helicopters — an absurd amount, in Laurent’s opinion. If they needed that many, the jaegers were too heavy. Simple as that.

Even so, he couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer enormity of them; at the shockwaves that swept down the beach as the newcomers were dropped near Indigo Star. Both jaegers landed in deep crouches, just as any well-trained soldier would, before smoothly drawing themselves upright.

“You can see the people inside them,” Laurent said without thinking. “In their posture, I mean.”

Jord smiled. “You can’t see their names from here, so… Which do you think is which?”

Laurent narrowed his eyes at the two jaegers, nose wrinkling the way it always did when he was deep in thought. The jaeger on the left stood perfectly square, with its feet, hips, and shoulders precisely aligned; despite that, there was something loose and almost casual about its stance, as if it were a veteran instructor preparing to knock some rookies on their asses. The second jaeger, on the other hand…

It stood like Auguste did. When he was about to launch into a fight or even just a sparring session, Auguste left no room for misinterpretation of his intentions: he let his weight sink down into his knees and slid his right foot and shoulder just a touch ahead of his left, positioning them so he could easily pivot out of the way of an attack that was too powerful to block. He stayed light on the balls of his feet, never planting himself too firmly in one place, and kept his chin low to protect the soft column of his throat.

Laurent pointed to the jaegers as he named them: “The one on the left is Red Fang, and the one on the right is Alpha Leonis.”

Jord nodded in confirmation and approval. “How’d you figure it out?”

Laurent hesitated, teeth pinching his bottom lip.

“One of the jaegers has my brother’s fighting stance,” he said at last, flicking a glance toward Jord, “and Auguste told me once that he and Damianos of Akielos trained together as children. Back when… Back when Marlas and Fortaine were still one base.”

Jord just looked at him, steadily and silently meeting his gaze.

Discomfited, Laurent added quickly, “So I figured that the one with that stance is the one with Damianos in it. Alpha Leonis.”

Jord nodded again, but the gesture seemed absent, almost automatic. “Have you met him?”

  “Met who?”

“Damianos.”

“Oh.” Laurent stilled. “No. The base split when I was really young.”

He’d seen the young lieutenant on TV plenty of times, though. With his good looks and affable demeanor, he’d gained the media’s adoration within seconds of stepping onto the battlefield, and news reports on kaiju attacks often featured interviews with Damianos or, less often, his father. There was a warmth to him that his half-brother Kastor distinctly lacked, an effortless magnetism that reminded Laurent of Auguste. In a way, he could see why his brother and Damianos had been training partners. Why they’d been friends.

But a lot had happened since then. Their homelands, once cohesive halves of one nation, had torn away from each other for reasons that Laurent still didn’t quite understand, and the base they’d once shared had been split into two: Marlas for the Akielons, and Fortaine for the Veretians. After that, Auguste and Damianos’ joint training sessions had ceased — just like all other contact between Akielos and Vere.

The silence had held until a few months ago, when the rate of kaiju attacks abruptly tripled, rendering the algorithm used by all bases to predict upcoming attacks completely useless. Even with death tolls in the thousands and damage costs in the billions, it wasn’t until the kaiju razed Delpha — a region governed by Akielos but populated mostly by Veretians — that the two nations agreed to an uneasy alliance. Marlas and Fortaine still didn’t share training or meals or anything else of the sort, not like they’d used to, but they cooperated on missions when it was deemed necessary.

It made Laurent’s blood simmer to think that so many lives had been lost because a couple of headstrong leaders couldn’t resolve a petty dispute.

“I guess that’s not surprising,” Jord said, the words edged faintly with disappointment. “I wonder if—”

“Target in sight, over!”

Jord immediately abandoned his train of thought, eyes snapping to the window at the sound of Auguste’s voice over the speakers. Laurent scanned the horizon with bated breath, fingers locked around his knees.

“I don’t see anything,” he murmured, just as the Regent said sharply, “We have no visual, Ranger. Over.”

Auguste’s response was instantaneous: “I saw its nose above the water, sir, maybe two miles out. Over.”

Laurent’s brows furrowed. So far, the Ellosean Defense Corps had operated under the assumption that kaiju breathed through gills. If it didn’t need to surface for air, why would it risk being spotted before it could attack?

Jord grimaced, rubbing his stubbled chin. “Maybe it was a trick of the light.”

Laurent bit his lip but didn’t reply. The logical side of his brain was inclined to agree, but the other side — the stubborn, emotional side — wasn’t so quick to doubt his brother. He squinted out at the sea, cursing the cloudless sky as he was half-blinded by the sunlight glaring off the water.

“Sonar,” he heard the Regent say brusquely, and the room immediately filled with the clattering of keyboards.

A technician replied within thirty seconds: “Inconclusive. Something’s getting in the way of the signal — fish, maybe. Not big enough to be a kaiju.”

The Regent’s nostrils flared almost imperceptibly as he keyed his microphone. “Aleron, prepare to—”

“Damen, two o’clock!”

Laurent barely had the time to recognize Auguste’s voice before a mountain of black, scaly flesh erupted from the ocean, completely blocking the two Akielon jaegers from view as it lunged for Alpha Leonis with jaws gaping wide enough to bite her in half.

Shit,” Jord breathed — just as the brilliant red tip of a chain sword sprouted from the back of the kaiju’s head, releasing a waterfall of luminous blue blood.

“Thanks!” came an unfamiliar shout over the comm system. “I owe you one!”

“That’s Damianos?” Laurent blurted, looking to Jord for affirmation.

Jord nodded slowly, eyes wide open and full of awe.

Auguste’s voice echoed around them, breathless with adrenaline: “Don’t mention it! Go for the nose, we’ll take out the tail!”

“On it! Kas, cover me!”

“Right,” came a lower, lazier voice that could only belong to Kastor, Damianos’ half-brother and the Marshal’s older son.

Anything else the pilots might’ve said was drowned out by a guttural, earth-shaking roar as the kaiju tried to shake off Alpha Leonis, whose chain sword had gone clean through the beast’s throat and emerged from the nape of its neck. A noise that might’ve been a laugh came over the comms as Alpha Leonis twisted the sword like a key in a lock, and the sound of tearing flesh and crunching bone carried all the way to the control room — as did the tremor that rocked the beach when Alpha ripped her sword free, letting the kaiju collapse onto its stunted front legs. Kaiju blood foamed and steamed on the ocean’s surface as the kaiju furiously swung its head from side to side, arched nostrils flaring as it—

Laurent went still, Auguste’s words to the Regent ringing in his ears: I saw its nose above the water, sir, maybe two miles out.

And then later, to Damianos: Go for the nose, we’ll take out the tail!

“Eyes,” Laurent blurted, almost jumping out of his chair. “It doesn’t have eyes! If it’s hunting by smell, they just have to damage its nose—”

“—or at least get it clogged up with blood—”

“—then it won’t know where they are. They could—”

“—move a safe distance away,” Laurent said, grinning, “and finish it off with long-range weapons.”

Jord reached out and ruffled Laurent’s hair, beaming. “Even if it’s not what you decide to do, kid, you’d make a hell of a pilot.”

Laurent instinctively started to turn away — to hide whatever emotions flitted across his face before he could rein them in — but the kindness in Jord’s eyes made him pause.

“It’s… not that I don’t want to pilot.” He spoke slowly, reluctantly, picking his way through the sentence as if it were a minefield. “It’s just... When I... Whenever I try to… When I try to Drift with anyone else, I…”

“Can’t?” Jord said quietly, when it became clear that Laurent was either unable or unwilling to finish his sentence.

Laurent nodded, swallowing hard.

“And by anyone else,” Jord went on, “you mean anyone but Auguste, right?”

Another dejected nod. “I… I can get into other people’s heads, but no one else can get into mine. I don’t know why. It’s like, I feel their mind touch mine, and it—”

“Hurts,” they said in unison, making Laurent blink in bewilderment.

“How did you—”

“Auguste has mentioned it to me. Under the condition that I keep it a secret, of course,” Jord added quickly, raising his hands as if in surrender as Laurent narrowed his eyes. “As far as I know, I’m the only one he’s talked to about it.”

“About what?” Laurent demanded, glancing out the window to check on the status of the fight; Alpha Leonis had her sword jammed up one of the kaiju’s nostrils, and Indigo Star was in the process of hacking off its barbed, whip-like tail.

Jord’s teeth worried at the inside of his cheek. “I’m really not the one who should be telling you this.”

“Jord.”

The captain took a deep breath, eyes darting from Laurent to the window and swiftly back again.

Then: “Your Drift compatibility is almost zero, kid.”

Laurent stared at him, unspeaking. He waited for shock to crash over him. He waited for white nose to flood his ears and drown out everything but the thud of his heart, its slow, steady beat at odds with the chaos now whirling in his head. He waited to feel anything but cold, heavy resignation and the sense that, after months of waiting and wondering and worrying, the other shoe had finally dropped.

But nothing happened. He just felt… hollow.

“Hey,” Jord said, sounding almost tentative, “it’s all right. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you’ve gotta find the right co-pilot. And…” He lowered his voice, glancing around for eavesdroppers. “I’d rather have kickass instincts and low compatibility than be like Kastor. The guy can Drift with anyone, but he’s a shitty pilot.”

Laurent turned his blank gaze to the floor, silently processing those words. After sifting through his memories, his mind provided an image of Kastor: deep brown skin, hard, heavy-lidded eyes, and coarse black hair twisted up in a haphazard knot. Laurent must have seen him on TV, because Damianos was beside him, effortlessly outshining his brother despite their identical uniforms and similar features. Maybe it was Damianos’ smile — or maybe it was the glint in Kastor’s eyes, disdainful and calculating.

Kastor was the elder of Marshal Theomedes’ sons, Laurent knew; it was for that reason and that reason only that he was his father’s co-pilot. He wasn’t like Auguste, who likely would’ve earned his place alongside Aleron even if he hadn’t been the firstborn. And he wasn’t like Damianos, who had long since been tapped to be the next Marshal when his father retired.

He was like Laurent.

Laurent tried desperately to smother that bitter spark of a thought before it could catch, but his efforts only served as kindling, and his resulting frustration only fanned the flames. Was there really anything that set them apart? They were each the lesser of a pair of brothers, completely lacking the gifts their siblings had received in abundance: charisma, confidence, technical skill. The only real difference was that he’d seen the ice in Kastor’s eyes when he looked at Damianos, and Laurent knew he could never think poorly of Auguste, not even for a second.

“Laurent,” Jord said softly, but Laurent turned away, focusing on the scene outside the window.

“It shouldn’t be much longer,” he said, voice and eyes dull. “They’ve nearly disabled it now.”

Jord hesitated, looking like he wanted to protest the change of subject, but ultimately sighed and followed Laurent’s gaze. Indigo Star had successfully torn off the kaiju’s tail and now had it pinned with a chain sword through its flank; Red Fang, meanwhile, had a massive hand clamped on either side of the kaiju’s jaw, forcing its head back to expose its throat. Towering over them all was Alpha Leonis, phosphorescent blue blood dripping from her sword.

“Ready to finish it off?” Damianos asked over the comms, just as Lazar’s urgent voice rang out across the room: “Sir, I’m getting some weird readings...”

“Kill it,” the Regent said without pause, cool and calm. Outside, a muffled pop sounded.

Lazar’s voice rose: “Sir—”

The honorific had barely left his lips when it happened: a second kaiju erupted from the water like a demon exploding from the gates of hell, an unearthly scream pouring from its throat as it lunged for Indigo Star—

 Laurent sat bolt upright in bed, all the air shooting out of his lungs like he’d been punched in the solar plexus. Cold sweat plastered his t-shirt to his back and his hair to his scalp, and goosebumps immediately prickled along his arms as he shoved away his blankets and sheets with enough force to knock them off the bed.

“Fuck,” he breathed, curling his fingers into his hair and tightening his grip until it hurt. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

It took him a moment to realize that the pounding in his ears wasn’t all in his head; someone was actually rapping on the door to his quarters, their knocks quickening and crescendoing by the second. With an irritated hiss Laurent leapt off the bed, grabbed a dry washcloth to mop up the sweat on his face and neck,  and stalked to the door, not even bothering to look through the peephole before snapping, “What is it?”

“So rude,” replied an all-too-familiar voice, boyish yet lofty. “Is that how you would greet your uncle, Laurent?”

Laurent tossed the washcloth into the laundry hamper and yanked the door open a few inches, glaring at the young cadet standing outside. “Seeing as you are not my uncle, Nicaise, I don’t see why that matters.”

“I may as well be.” Nicaise examined his fingernails with clinquant blue eyes, unfazed. After a few beats of silence, he glanced up, a ghost of a smile hovering on his full, soft lips. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“No.”

Nicaise’s smile didn’t waver, but Laurent saw a muscle feather in his jaw. “I think you might regret it if you don’t.”

“Is that so.”

Nicaise just tilted his chin up, eyes steady and defiant and firmly fixed on Laurent’s. The staring match went on for several seconds before Laurent scoffed — just a huff of breath out his nose, barely audible — and turned around, leaving the door open behind him as he returned to the bed and tossed the covers over the sweaty imprint his body had left on the sheets. A casual backward glance confirmed that Nicaise hadn’t noticed; he was looking not at Laurent, but at the stark, unadorned walls of his quarters.

“It looks like a prison cell in here,” the cadet said, mousy brown curls shifting as he cocked his head disdainfully. “So boring.”

“Duly noted.” Laurent pulled the bed sheets taut and carefully tucked the edges under the mattress, smoothing wrinkles as he went. “Are you going to tell me why you’re here, or are you still waiting for an invitation?”

Nicaise crossed his slender arms over his chest. His cadet’s uniform was a little too big for him, and Laurent had no doubt that it was intentional: the extra fabric gave the illusion of a broader torso and shoulders, concealing the slender figure of a boy who’d yet to reach puberty. For all his fire and ferocity, Nicaise was still a child — an extremely precocious child, yes, but a child nonetheless. His beauty was like a butterfly’s, ethereal but ephemeral.

Laurent wondered how much longer Nicaise had.

“Nicaise,” Laurent said, with a sharpness that was intended for someone else. “Tell me.”

Nicaise pouted. On someone older, it would’ve looked seductive; on someone younger, it would’ve seemed childish. On Nicaise, it was… unsettling.

The cadet said, “I have a message from your uncle.”

Laurent distracted himself from that uneasy shiver that skimmed up his spine by arranging his pillows against the headboard. It took all of his willpower not to pause on the one that was still damp with sweat; the nightmare — the memory — still licked at the edges of his consciousness like dark water, chilling him to the bone.

Without looking at Nicaise, Laurent repeated, “Tell me.”

“He said that you are to re-enter pilot training.” Nicaise obviously noticed the way Laurent froze, because a slow smirk twisted his lovely features. “And that’s an order, not a suggestion.”

Laurent’s hands clenched around the pillow he was holding. For two glorious seconds, he let himself imagine that it not feathers and cotton he was squeezing, but his uncle’s throat. Then he came back to himself — or, more accurately, pulled away from himself — and pinned Nicaise with an icy stare.

“Surely my uncle knows that I will not obey that order.”

A light, musical laugh bubbled from Nicaise’s lips. “Oh, trust me, he knows.”

And he would likely take tremendous pleasure in punishing Laurent for insubordination. Laurent almost wanted to roll his eyes, but for once he couldn’t drown out his unease with bitter amusement. He knew it didn’t show on his face, but he still didn’t like the look Nicaise was giving him, sly and not a little diabolical.

Laurent set his jaw. His uncle’s ability to turn young boys’ insides rotten without so much as scratching their exteriors still sickened him, even though it no longer surprised him.

“When?” he asked, voice flat. Even if he had no intention of showing up, he was still curious.

“Dawn,” Nicaise replied, eyes gleaming with relish. “In the Kwoon Room.”

The Kwoon Room. So they wanted to find him a Drift partner. They wanted to see if a bird with clipped wings could still fly if they threw it off a high enough cliff.

“Now,” Nicaise said, heading for the door, “if you’ll excuse me, I have places to be.”

“Nicaise.”

The cadet paused on the threshold and looked back, lifting an eyebrow.

Laurent’s fingers flexed and straightened against the smooth sheets. “Be careful.”

Nicaise snorted. “I don’t think I’m the one who needs to be careful,” he said, and was gone, not even bothering to close the door behind him.

Laurent listened to the sound of his receding footsteps until they faded out of earshot, then consulted the alarm clock beside his bed. 1:13 AM. For his uncle and Nicaise to have been awake together at this hour… He didn’t want to think about the implications. Nor did he want to think about what would undoubtedly happen when dawn passed and he did not appear at training.

Training. He pressed his fingertips into his temples, gritting his teeth as a headache took root behind his eyes. He wasn’t sure why his uncle referred to it as re-entering training when he’d never actually been in the program in the first place. After the double event — after the Ghost Drift shattered, effectively shattering him in the process — he’d tried desperately to test into the piloting program, to do what his father would’ve wanted him to do. To honor Auguste. To prove that his brother’s efforts to teach him had not been in vain.

Except they had been. With a compatibility rating too low for the Drift analysts to even quantify, he’d been turned away and informed that he was ineligible to re-apply. Apparently, Drift compatibility was the one aspect of piloting that could not be improved with practice.

It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you’ve gotta find the right co-pilot. That’s what Jord had said six years ago, right before Laurent’s world came crashing down around his ears. At the time, those words had given him the tiniest flicker of hope; now, he knew it didn’t matter. He’d already found the right co-pilot. He’d formed the Ghost Drift. He’d proven that there was a difference between zero and near zero.

But that difference had been gone for six years now, and Laurent had no reason to believe that he’d ever return.

Moving on autopilot, Laurent smoothed the last few wrinkles out of the sheets, closed the door to his quarters, and sank to the ground at the foot of his bed, arms wrapped around his bent knees. The clock on the nightstand read 1:15 AM.

Dawn had never seemed so far away, but it was still far too close.

                                                                                                   

~~~

Damen was woken, as he always was, by the sound of a guard violently shaking the bars of his cell. For his first few weeks at the prison, the noise had always made him leap out of bed and into a fighting stance before he was even fully awake; now, six months later, he didn’t even twitch. He’d long since learned that the guards got a real kick out of provoking him, and he did his best to deprive them of the pleasure.

It was difficult sometimes, though, especially on days like this one.

“Hey, dumbass.” The bars shrieked and shuddered as the taller guard — Orlant, he’d learned — kicked them with one massive, steel-toed boot. “Wake the fuck up.”

Damen let his eyes slide open, but kept them locked on the damp concrete ceiling overhead. He remained flat on his back, hands folded on his stomach, legs stretched out before him. He was tall enough that his bare feet hung over the end of the cot, and his heels were going numb where they touched the frigid cement floor. He didn’t speak.

“Hey!” Orlant barked. “Answer me when I fucking talk to you, you dumb piece of shit.”

“You know, he might respond better if you stop insulting him for a minute or two,” said the other guard — who, Damen realized upon closer inspection, was not actually a guard at all. He was built like one, lanky and broad and covered in lean muscle, but he wasn’t wearing the right uniform. Where Orlant’s was pitch-black, padded with kevlar, and clearly designed by someone who prioritized function over fashion, his companion was dressed in what was undoubtedly a military dress uniform, midnight blue with bright filigree adorning the collar and cuffs. On his sleeves were the four stripes that designated a captain; over his heart was a starburst, delicately embroidered in golden thread.

Damen observed all this out of the corner of his eye, not daring to turn his head or body.

Orlant was glaring daggers at the unfamiliar captain, who ignored him, choosing to study Damen instead.

“I see he’s been able to keep up his muscle mass,” he said, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “That’s good. It would save us time. Stand up, would you?”

These last words were obviously directed at Damen, who was already sitting up, all thoughts of quiet defiance forgotten.

“Would save time for what?”

The captain’s eyebrows leapt to his hairline. “He speaks! It’s a miracle.”

Damen set his jaw as he propped up one leg, arm slung over his knee. “Answer the question.”

“Do what I said and maybe I will.”

“Don’t be so fucking soft on him,” Orlant growled. “Usually he never stands until we make him.”

Damen flinched internally at the reminder. If he let the thought linger for too long, he could still feel the white-hot pain that had lanced through his arms and core as he hung on the wall by his wrists, dangling like a broken puppet. When he’d stretched out his toes, they’d been just a hairsbreadth from the ground — so close but still too far.

Jord was staring at Damen as if he could read his thoughts. His green gaze was perfectly steady, cool but not cruel. Not yet, anyways, Damen couldn’t help but think, remembering the inexplicable malice in Kastor’s eyes as he condemned Damen for a crime he hadn’t committed. Trust was something he couldn’t afford these days.

“Last chance,” Jord said evenly.

Damen gritted his teeth, but curiosity got the better of him. He fought to keep his stiff, aching legs from wobbling as he rose, pushing his shoulders back and lifting his chin. I am Damianos of Akielos, second son and first lieutenant of the late Theomedes, rightful Marshal of the Ellosean Defense Corps base at Ios, innocent of the crime for which I have been convicted—

“Tall,” the captain mused, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Upper body looks strong.” He arched an eyebrow. “Are you sane?”

“Very much so,” Damen said curtly.

The captain nodded as if in agreement. “I’d ask if you’ve piloted a jaeger before, but I already know the answer to that.”

He hadn’t asked a question, so Damen didn’t bother with an answer.

“Do you think you could do it again?”

Damen looked to him sharply, aware that his disbelief must be written all over his face but not really caring at the moment. “Do what again?”

“Pilot a jaeger.” The captain’s expression remained neutral, but an odd twinkle had appeared in his eyes. “Drift. Make yourself useful instead of eating up tax money down here.”

A thrill shot up Damen’s spine even as he forced himself to ask, “What’s the catch?”

The captain smiled grimly.

“You’ll be meeting him soon,” was all he said.

 

~~~

                                                                                                   

 A simple shower had never felt so good.

Damen had to suppress a groan as scalding hot water pounded the tightly wound muscles of his shoulders and back, unraveling one by one the knots that had developed there over the course of the last six months. Washing off half a year’s worth of accumulated dirt and sweat felt like shedding an entire layer of skin.

He was still reveling in the sensation, eyes closed against the steam swirling around him, when there was a sharp knock at the door.

“Jack off some other time,” Orlant’s voice snapped, muffled by the door and by Damen’s disinterest in absolutely anything the guard might have to say. “We’ve got somewhere to be.”

Damen sighed, reluctantly opening his eyes and blinking water from his lashes. “When?”

“Now.”

That seemed unlikely, since Damen had glimpsed a clock on their way here that read 3:23 AM, but he didn’t want to test the limits of Jord’s generosity. Jord, as it turned out, was a captain in the Ellosean Defense Corps; when Damen had asked if that meant he served the Regent, Jord had wrinkled his nose almost imperceptibly and said, “I answer to Laurent,” which Damen noticed was neither a yes nor a no.

The mention of Laurent had caught him off-guard, and he still wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. He’d been training partners with Auguste of Vere when he was a teenager, back before their nations split apart, but had never met the Veretian lieutenant’s younger brother. He did know that Auguste had always spoken fondly of Laurent, describing him as a brilliant, bookish introvert who wasn’t much for Drifting but had an unparalleled strategic mind.

Damen did the mental math — if Laurent had been thirteen when Indigo Star went down in battle, then he was nineteen now. No longer a child.

He couldn’t help but wonder how much Laurent knew about the day his brother had fallen.

Damen sighed and turned off the tap, shaking the thought from his head and the water from his hair. He’d just barely gotten a towel around his waist when the door burst open and a scowling Orlant appeared on the threshold.

“Put these on.” His voice was thin, taut, and sharp, like the wire he was likely daydreaming about garroting Damen with. “Make it quick.”

The guard hurled a bundle of clothes at him, but Damen plucked it out of the air before it could smack him in the face.

“Thanks,” he said, desert-dry. “You’re too kind.”

Orlant just shot him a murderous glare and left as quickly as he’d come, slamming the door behind him.

Damen snorted inelegantly, shaking his head as he moved to the bench on the other side of the tiny bathing chamber. He turned the bundle over in his hands and was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t an inmate’s uniform; there was no trace of the prison’s insignia — a black circle ringed in gold, like a solar eclipse — or the numbers 52308, which had taken the place of his name for the past six months. When he’d first arrived, they’d tattooed the digits onto his wrist — just in case he ever forgot them, Orlant had sneered — and embedded a chip under his skin that brought up his number and profile when he walked through any sort of security scanner.

And the worst part of it was this: it wasn’t a randomly generated number. It didn’t indicate that he was the 52,308th prisoner to walk through the gates. No, it was his Ellosean Defense Corps serial number, the one that certified him as a defender of the Ellosean coast and a protector of humanity. It was something he’d worked hard to earn. Something he’d once been proud of.

Now, with those numbers inked permanently into his wrist, it felt less like a badge of honor and more like a brand: tangible proof that he didn’t belong to himself anymore.

Damen carefully avoided looking at the tattoo as he dried himself off and started pulling on the clothes, which must’ve been sized according to his measurements upon his arrival at the prison; no matter what Jord had said about Damen keeping up his muscle mass, he’d definitely lost weight during his time here, and the new clothes were a little roomier than he’d expected. He found that he didn’t really mind it, though — he’d be the first to admit that his old self had rather enjoyed showing off, but his current self liked having a layer of loose clothing to hide under. Damianos of Akielos liked to be looked at, but Damen didn’t want anyone’s eyes on him, at least not yet. Not until he could look at himself in the mirror without wanting to shatter the glass.

He was so focused on the way the clothes fit that he didn’t immediately recognize them for what they were: training gear. He experimentally took up a fighting stance, testing the way the loose, comfortable cargo pants and tank top moved with him. Despite his weight loss, the light jacket was still a bit snug across his broad shoulders, but he’d take that off before a sparring session, anyway.

The thought made him freeze. A sparring session. Jord had asked him if he could pilot again; if he could Drift again. And now he was dressed to train in the Kwoon Room, where Drift compatibility was assessed.

What’s the catch? Damen had asked, before he’d decided that a shot at getting out of that cell and returning to Akielos was worth almost anything they could ask of him.

You’ll be meeting him soon, Jord had replied, his voice and eyes brimming with dark humor.

Who exactly were they trying to partner him with? And what the hell had made them desperate enough to drag a convict — an Akielon convict, no less, charged with unspeakable crimes against the Veretian royal family — out of prison just to see if it would work?

“You know why,” Jord said when Damen asked him that exact question ten minutes later, steadily meeting Damen’s gaze across a plain metal table.

Damen couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat at a table without being shackled to it.

“I have ideas,” Damen said. None of them good, he resisted the urge to add.

“Let’s hear them, then.”

“This is all a trick,” Damen said flatly, “and you’re just trying to figure out what I’m willing to do to get out of here.”

The thought had crossed his mind — multiple times, in fact. It was entirely possible that they were just baiting him, and he was strolling right into their trap. His instincts told him otherwise, but sometimes a gut feeling wasn’t enough; before he took such an enormous chance on a total stranger, he wanted to know why they were willing to take a chance on him.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that,” Jord said, his voice surprisingly mild, “but you wouldn’t have let us bring you this far if you didn’t think there was at least a grain of truth in all this.”

“Is there?” Damen hated the lump that was trying to climb up his throat.

Jord studied him for a long few moments, pale green eyes boring into Damen’s. Damen held his stare, unfazed, as the captain searched for something in his face.

He must’ve found what he was looking for, because he finally said, “Yes.”

Relief settled in the pit of Damen’s stomach, warm as whiskey, as he leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. With a vague wave of his hand he invited Jord to continue.

Jord folded his hands on the table in front of him, fingers interlaced so tightly that his knuckles shone white. “There is a… situation at Fortaine,” he began, either ignoring or not noticing the way Damen stiffened at the mention of Marlas’ former sister base. “Our scientists believe that something is coming — something that’s not just bigger than anything we’ve dealt with, but smarter. Harder to fight. And after all the double attacks these past few years, we…” He hesitated, eyes flickering to the door behind Damen as if he expected someone to burst through it and accuse him of treason. Then, in a darker, wearier tone, he said, “We don’t have enough pilots. We just fucking don’t. They keep dying or quitting or getting so fucking screwed up in the head when their partners die that they can barely wipe their own asses anymore, let alone Drift. We need more people and we just don’t have the time to put a bunch of newbies through the whole program.”

Damen nodded slowly, unsurprised. “You need people who already have all the training.”

“Fuck yeah we do.” Jord’s eyes were starting to burn, melting away any pretense of neutrality. “With one exception.”

Damen narrowed his eyes. Was this the catch?

“There’s someone I know,” Jord said, jaw working as he averted his eyes. “Not much more than a kid, but he’s been through a lot of shit. Smart as hell. Needs a fucking attitude adjustment but so does everyone in that hellhole, really.” He met Damen’s gaze again. “He’s never piloted in his life.”

Damen could feel his temper rising, but he shoved it down, trying to remember everything his father had ever taught him about diplomacy. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked, somehow managing to keep his frustration in check (and his ass in his seat).

“Because he’s going to be thrown into a jaeger whether he wants to or not,” Jord said, the words edged with a raw anger that Damen knew wasn’t meant for him, “and I think you might be the only one who can get him through it alive.”

Damen’s unease was growing by the second. “Why?”

“Because his Drift compatibility is almost zero,” Jord shot back, as if he’d expected that response, “and yours comes in at 98%. That’s the highest ever recorded in the EDC’s database. If anyone at all can Drift with him, it’s probably you.”

Damen shook his head in disbelief, mind reeling. “You’re insane.” The cutoff for the jaeger program was 70% compatibility. If this guy’s score was near zero… “There’s probably no one who could ever Drift with him, let alone—”

“Someone did.”

The words ricocheted off the back wall like a bullet, and Damen went very still, taking in the frantic fire behind Jord’s eyes and the way the captain’s hands had clenched into fists.

“Someone did,” Jord repeated, softer this time, as he slumped back in his seat and gripped his temples between his thumb and forefinger. He stared at Damen; there was something almost wild about his expression, like he was prepared to tie Damen up and drag him to Fortaine by his ankles if that was what it took. “His brother did. They had the Ghost Drift.”

Jord’s use of the past tense made Damen’s blood run cold. Once forged, the Ghost Drift was an unbreakable, lifelong connection; if they no longer had it, then—

Realization slammed into him like a freight train.

“They had the Ghost Drift,” Jord repeated, apparently oblivious to Damen’s rising horror, “and they could use it better than pilots who’d been working on it for decades. And Auguste”—there it was; Damen resisted the urge to bolt from the room—“was your training partner. It may not be a direct connection, and Auguste’s compatibility was always better than Laurent’s, but if you could Drift with one of them then the odds are good you could Drift with the other. Maybe even connect with them as well as they do with each other.”

Laurent. Laurent of Vere. Auguste’s little brother.

In a voice that sounded nothing like his own, Damen said, “You want me to be Laurent’s co-pilot.”

“No,” Jord said, “I need you to be his co-pilot.” He leaned forward, voice lowering. “Look— I don’t know if you killed your father. I don’t know if you did any of the shit Kastor says you did, and frankly, I don’t care, because I might be one of the only people alive who knows what you did for Auguste.”

Damen went rigid, panic surging in his throat like bile. “How.”

Jord gave a little shake of his head. “Doesn’t matter.”

Damen’s fist came down hard on the table. “Yes,” he bit out, “it does.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Jord’s expression was hard. “All that matters is that he asked you to do something, and you did it. Nothing happened the way the Regent says it did. If I believed otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking right now.

“If you do this,” Jord said quietly, “I’ll make sure you get back to Akielos when it’s all over.”

If I’m not dead by then, Damen couldn’t help but think. If we’re not all dead by then.

“But if you say no, I’m not sure there will an Akielos to go back to. Or a Vere, for that matter, or a Patras, or a Vask.” Jord darted out a hand to grip Damen’s wrist, forcibly turning it over to expose the serial number printed there. “You could reclaim this. Take back what’s yours.”

Damen ground his teeth together. “Why would you offer me that?”

Jord released him, and Damen resisted the urge to immediately flip his arm back over. Instead, he forced himself to look at the tattoo, to recite the number in his head: 52308. It brought forth a rush of memories: when he’d first arrived at the prison, the warden had strapped him to a long, slanted table and ordered him to repeat his number until he was told to stop. If he’d failed to do so for any reason — if he refused, if he paused for breath, if he tripped over the words — the warden had shoved a cloth hood over his head and poured water down his face until he was choking and spluttering and struggling to stay conscious. Before then, he’d wondered why so many soldiers were afraid of waterboarding. By the time it was over, he’d understood perfectly.

Jord still hadn’t answered, so Damen roughly cleared his throat and repeated his question. Blinking, Jord returned his focus to Damen’s face, and Damen had a feeling he knew where the captain’s mind had gone — a suspicion that was confirmed when Jord set his jaw and said, “I’m not doing it for you.

“I was there, you know. I was in the control room with Laurent when everything happened. I saw Indigo Star go down. I heard Auguste’s last words before the Regent turned off his comm link. I’m the one who had to stick a syringe full of sedative in Laurent’s neck when the Ghost Drift shattered and he tried to kill himself.” His voice was almost a monotone — the kind that was born not from too little emotion, but from too much. “I don’t think he even knew what he was doing. He just wanted to ruin himself; wanted to ruin everything around him. He gave me these that day.”

Damen had been so focused on Jord’s face that he hadn’t noticed that the captain was pushing his sleeves up to his elbows, revealing faint, jagged scars that ran up the lengths of his forearms before vanishing under fabric. Some of the marks were shorter than others, but were mostly the same width.

“I don’t hold it against him,” Jord added, noticing the way Damen’s eyes widened slightly. “He… I know he wasn’t in his right mind. If he’d only gone after me, I wouldn’t have sedated him, but he started hurting himself, too. I couldn’t let that happen. His mind was already wrecked but at least I could protect the rest of him.”

Before he could stop himself, Damen asked, “So what happened to him afterward?”

Jord’s mouth thinned. “Medically induced coma. Six months. It was fucking awful to see, but Paschal said that’s what he needed. Something about letting neural pathways rebuild themselves and letting his brain sort through the memories of everything that happened.”

“Did he—”

“Remember everything?” Jord finished with a wry smile. “Yes and no. He remembered some of what happened, but not always how it happened. He knew the Ghost Drift was broken, but didn’t remember how it felt while it was breaking.”

Damen grimaced. “Maybe that’s for the best,” he said, because he’d seen Ghost Drifts break before, but he’d never met a victim who could still function afterward. Maybe in the absence of memory, the damage stood a better chance of being repaired.

“I’d say the same,” Jord said slowly, “if I thought he was telling the truth.”

Damen’s eyebrows shot to his hairline. “You think he could lie well enough to fool a brain scan?”

Jord shook his head, obviously frustrated. “That’s the thing. Laurent doesn’t lie outright. He tells half-truths, or he omits things. But Paschal did a scan while a tech asked Laurent questions, and nothing seemed weird — not weirder than expected, at least, considering the situation.

“But I know Laurent,” he insisted, glaring at the scars on his forearms as if they contained all of Laurent’s secrets. “More importantly, I knew him, and the kid who went into that coma isn’t the one who came out. He must remember something. When the Ghost Drift broke, I think something else broke, too.” He looked at Damen, eyes fierce. “I can’t help him. I’ve tried. So I need to find someone who can.”

“And you think that’s me?” Jord’s explanation had cleared some things up, but Damen’s skepticism was rolling back in like high tide. “Need I remind you that—”

“I know what you did,” Jord interrupted, “and so does Laurent. He just doesn’t know why. But if you can figure out how to Drift with him, if you can get into his head… he’ll be able to see for himself what really happened. And if you can’t do that, well. I guess earning his forgiveness wouldn’t really matter to you much in that case, would it?”

The words “what makes you say that?” leaped to the tip of Damen’s tongue, but he swallowed them before they could fall from his lips. Instead, he asked, “And if I fail? What happens to me then?”

“Then my men and I turn a blind eye while you run for Akielos.”

Freedom. The mere thought of it was like a cool breeze on a sweltering day; a breath of fresh air after minutes trapped underwater; a warm blanket on a freezing night. So many months and miles separated him from his beloved Akielos; from the base he was meant to be leading. Once he proved to be incompatible with Laurent, he could go home.

There was only one way he could answer that offer.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Damen had thought he was ready to see Fortaine again.

He was wrong.

“YOU’RE LOOKING A BIT PALE,” Jord observed, yelling to be heard over the roar of the helicopter blades as they circled above the base, waiting to be cleared for landing.

Damen just shook his head mutely, eyes fixed on the cluster of buildings below; on the turquoise sea that licked at the shore, restless and wind-tossed. After the disaster six years ago, Damen had been removed from his position at Marlas and recalled to Ios, where his father thought the Veretians would be less inclined to mount an attempt at revenge; his relocation was followed almost immediately by an official announcement from the Regent, who had taken over his brother’s position as Marshal of Vere following Aleron’s death at Marlas: there would no longer be any collaboration between Vere and Akielos, “for we would rather be killed than join hands with our killers.”

Damen had been forced to grit his teeth and obey his father’s order to avoid the press at all costs, even as the rumors grew wilder and the situation started to spiral out of control. Auguste was Damianos’s secret lover, some said, and Damianos killed him to protect his own reputation. There were multiple versions of that one, actually: Damianos fell in love with Auguste, and killed him when Auguste rejected his advances; Damianos killed Auguste when he tried to end their relationship; Damianos killed him out of jealousy when he found out that Auguste had been flirting with a young captain at Fortaine. No matter how the story was twisted and smeared and corrupted, one thing stayed constant: at the end of it, Auguste was dead, and Damianos was the reason why.

Coming back here was a mistake. Coming back here was going to get him killed.

“IF YOU’RE GOING TO THROW UP,” Orlant shouted from the pilot’s seat, “OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR. I DON’T FEEL LIKE CLEANING YOUR PUKE OUT OF MY ‘COPTER.”

Damen glared at the back of the guard’s head. If he ever actually did need to vomit, he was going to make sure he aimed for Orlant.

Instead of voicing that thought, he turned to Jord and said, “Does everyone know I’m coming?”

Jord squinted and cupped a hand to his ear, indicating that he hadn’t heard him.

“AM I GOING TO GET SHOT THE SECOND I GET OFF THIS THING?”

He knew Jord understood him that time by the smirk that unfurled on the captain’s lips.

“NOT IF YOU DUCK FAST ENOUGH,” he bellowed back.

Damen didn’t hesitate to flip him off. Jord just laughed, head thrown back so far that his protective headphones threatened to slip off.

“IN ALL SERIOUSNESS,” the captain called, fixing his headphones, “YEAH, THEY KNOW YOU’RE COMING, AND THEY KNOW YOU’RE NOT TO BE TOUCHED.”

“I’M SURE THEY’RE THRILLED ABOUT THAT.”

“OH, JUST DELIGHTED. BUT THEY’VE BEEN TOLD THAT ANYONE WHO FUCKS WITH  YOU WILL ANSWER TO LAURENT. NO ONE’S GONNA TAKE THAT CHANCE, NOT EVEN SOMEONE WITH A DEATH WISH.”

Damen blinked, trying — and failing — to imagine a nineteen-year-old intimidating enough to strike such fear into the hearts of seasoned soldiers. Even if Laurent was that terrifying, Damen couldn’t help but notice a hole in the plan.

“WHY WOULD THEY EXPECT LAURENT TO PROTECT ME?”

Orlant must’ve overheard him, because his sharp peal of laughter was audible even through Damen’s headphones. Perplexed, Damen looked to Jord, who just shook his head.

“THEY DON’T,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “THEY JUST KNOW THAT LAURENT WANTS TO BE THE ONE TO KILL YOU, AND HE’LL PERSONALLY EVISCERATE ANYONE WHO GETS IN HIS WAY.”

Damen stared at him. “YOU DIDN’T MENTION EVISCERATION EARLIER.”

Jord just grinned. “WOULD IT HAVE CHANGED YOUR MIND?”

“PROBABLY,” Damen fired back, aware before he even said it that it was a bald-faced lie, and Jord knew it. “SO, LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. LAURENT IS GONNA KEEP EVERYONE ELSE FROM KILLING ME BECAUSE HE WANTS TO KILL ME HIMSELF, RIGHT?”

“RIGHT.”

“SO WHO’S GOING TO KEEP HIM FROM KILLING ME?”

“YOU, HOPEFULLY.”

“HOPEFULLY?”

Jord shrugged. “LAURENT DOESN’T ANSWER TO ANYONE.”

Damen blinked. “WHAT ABOUT THE REGENT?”

Jord’s expression abruptly shuttered, and when he spoke again, it was barely audible: “That’s… a complicated situation.”

Damen definitely had questions about that, but before he could ask any of them, their headphones were flooded with the voice of the air traffic controller below, notifying them that they’d been cleared for landing.

“FUCKING FINALLY,” Orlant hollered, and Damen barely had time to grip the underside of his seat for support before the helicopter dove like a peregrine falcon, plunging toward earth at a speed that threatened to smash Damen against the back window. Outside, sky and sea and the gray exterior of the base became one indistinguishable blur as one as they hurtled toward the landing pad.

“HOLD ON,” Jord yelled, just as Orlant yanked the nose of the helicopter back up and their speed seemingly went from Mach 5 to zero in the blink of an eye. Damen choked on air as his stomach, which had lurched into his throat during the dive, suddenly slammed back into its proper place.

Then, with almost laughable delicacy, the skids of the helicopter touched the pavement.

Damen exhaled heavily, shooting Jord a resentful look out of the corner of his eye. “Thanks for the warning.”

Jord shrugged, not even having the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry. I forget that other people aren’t used to it.”

As soon as it was safe to do so, Damen threw open the door and jumped down to the pavement, ripping off his headset as he went. Jord was close behind, landing with surprising lightness for someone so muscular.

“This way,” the captain said, gesturing to a door on the side of the nearest building. He set off at a brisk walk, nearly a jog, and Damen was forced to push aside any reservations he felt about marching right into an enemy base in order to keep from getting left behind entirely.

“I haven’t been here in a long time,” he admitted, and immediately wanted to kick himself. Of course he hadn’t been here in a long time. Officially, he hadn’t been to Fortaine since he’d trained with Auguste as a teenager; unofficially, he’d visited a couple times in the two years afterward, meeting with his former partner in secret to discuss the rift between their nations. But after everything — after Marlas; after Damen’s return to Ios; after everything went to hell — he’d never had a reason to come back to the Veretian auxiliary base.

Until now.

“I doubt it’s changed much since then,” Jord said, glancing over his shoulder, and Damen couldn’t help but wonder exactly how much the captain knew about him. Back at the prison, he’d mentioned being in Fortaine’s control room when Indigo Star went down; if that was true — and Damen had no reason to believe it wasn’t — then Jord had already been of reasonably high standing six years ago. Usually, only officers were permitted in the control room during a battle. But if that was the case, captain was an awfully low rank for someone who’d been an officer for at least the past six or seven years. Why hadn’t he been promoted at some point? If he’d been sent to collect Damen, someone obviously had faith in him and his abilities. What — or who — was holding him back?

Damen suddenly realized that someone was snapping their fingers in his face.

Hey. Earth to Damianos,Jord said, sounding exasperated but not angry. “I have no idea where your mind just went, but if you want to live through today, you should probably make sure it stays here for the next few hours.”

Damen nodded and tried to concentrate. After six months of sitting in a cell with nothing to do but think, the iron grip he’d once had on his own thoughts had slackened. If he was going to be Drifting with Laurent of Vere, that was something he needed to fix as soon as possible — but he couldn’t get ahead of himself. Before he could try to Drift with Laurent, they needed to confirm that there was even a chance that they’d be compatible — and there was only one way to do that.

Jord was still walking ahead of him as they approached a fork in the corridor. “The Kwoon Room is—”

“—this way,” Damen finished, brushing past him to enter the hallway on the left. He’d taken the same route when he’d been brought here to determine his compatibility with Auguste; it had been nearly a decade since then, but his feet knew the way like his lungs knew how to breathe. “Is he already there?”

Jord fell in step beside him as he consulted his watch. “Should be,” he said, expression indecipherable. “I guess we’ll find out.”

The way to the Kwoon Room seemed simultaneously longer and shorter than it had ever been before, and by the time they reached the familiar set of double doors, Damen’s heart was beating hard enough to crack his ribs. He unconsciously pressed a hand to his chest; twisted his fingers into the too-soft material of his shirt. Shivered as cold sweat beaded on the back of his neck.

“Here,” Jord said suddenly, holding out a hand, and Damen stared at the offering in his palm: a simple leather bracelet, just a wide band with a small, unobtrusive buckle.

“Take it,” Jord said, and Damen reluctantly did, winding it around his fingers to study it. There were no marks, no imprints, no inscriptions or embellishments, and that’s when Damen understood.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, wrapping the band around his right wrist and fastening it tightly. It was just wide enough to conceal the tattoo of his serial number.

“Don’t thank me. Just help him,” Jord said, and hauled open the doors.

Damen’s immediate thought was that they’d come to the wrong room. When Jord had described Laurent’s predicament, Damen had gotten the impression that he was an absolute last resort — that all other options had already been exhausted, leaving only him. He hadn’t come prepared for the sight that greeted him.

The ring was as he’d remembered it: a massive square of cushioned flooring, with no physical barriers to keep participants in bounds. The walls had gotten a fresh coat of paint since he’d last been there — but not too recently, if the amount of graffiti was anything to go by — but that didn’t surprise him. What surprised him were the three rows of rickety metal chairs set up against the far wall… and the fact that almost every seat was occupied.

“Keep walking,” Jord said under his breath, jabbing Damen in the side that the spectators couldn’t see. “Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them, don’t think about them. They’re here to give it a try, but they don’t have a chance in hell, do you understand?”

Damen somehow doubted that was true, but he followed Jord’s instructions anyway, pinning his eyes on the far wall as he walked to the last open seat: the final chair in the final row. Everyone else in the room fell silent as he passed, staring at him like he’d come from straight from a supermax Veretian prison.

Which he had.

Damen thought he could feel his serial number burning through his skin and into his bones under the new leather cuff.

Once he’d settled into his chair, carefully angling himself so there was no chance he’d brush up against the person next to him, someone in the front row finally spoke up.

“Who’s this?” a petulant, boyish voice demanded. It belonged to a slim, striking teenager with hazel eyes and a mop of dark, tousled curls, too young to be anything but a cadet. “I thought we were all here.”

“Are you an idiot?” someone else hissed. “That’s—”

“—none of your business,” Jord interjected smoothly, standing in front of the assembled group and crossing his hard, sinewy arms over his chest. “Where is he?”

As if in response, the double doors of the Kwoon Room banged open, and a hard, cold voice said, “I could ask you the same thing.”

It shouldn’t have surprised him so much, Damen thought, to discover that Laurent of Vere was beautiful.

After all, Auguste had been attractive, too — albeit in a way that only drew Damen’s admiration, not his affections. His former training partner had been broad-shouldered and athletic, like his father, with long, muscular limbs and smooth skin that turned golden brown after just a few outdoor training sessions in the summer. He’d worn his hair long, and though he usually kept it in a simple bun while training, he braided it meticulously before missions, unwilling to risk the possibility that the knot could slip loose during the battle. He’d been handsome; dashing, even.

But Laurent was something different.

The first thing Damen noticed about him was his size. Where Auguste had matched Damen in height, Laurent was at least half a foot shorter, his build willowy where his brother’s had been broad and powerful. But it was obvious that Laurent’s slightness didn’t not equate to weakness: his long-sleeved, high-necked shirt hid much of his skin but little of his form, hugging his well-toned arms and slim waist tightly enough to prove that he’d been anything but idle for the past six years. Even in training gear, he was a study in predative elegance.

“Jord,” Laurent snapped, and Damen’s gaze was automatically drawn to his lips: soft, full, and flushed, like he’d been biting them. “Where is Damianos?”

And maybe Damen had an unconscious death wish, because he didn’t hesitate for a second before he rose to his feet.

A heartbeat later, he found himself staring down the barrel of a sleek handgun.

He saw Jord move out of the corner of his eye, and relief bloomed in his chest — only to immediately wither as Laurent used his free hand to yank another pistol from his waistband and level it at the captain’s chest. Jord stopped dead in his tracks, hands raised in surrender, but he looked more frustrated than threatened.

“Laurent,” he said in a low, surprisingly even voice, “don’t.”

“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t,” Laurent replied, cocking the handgun he was now pressing into Damen’s forehead. His eyes were blazing, and Damen found himself wondering if they were actually a brighter blue than Auguste’s, or if Laurent’s paler skin simply set them off more.

“I asked you a question,” Laurent growled, digging in harder with the gun, and Damen realized with a jolt that the Veretian had been addressing him, not Jord. “Answer me.”

Damen didn’t bother to lie.

“There’s no reason,” he said.

Time seemed to slow. With startling clarity he saw Laurent’s index finger extend, reaching for the trigger on the gun he had on Damen; he saw Jord’s mouth form the word “no”; he saw his own face reflected in the depths of Laurent’s eyes. Then he moved. With one hand, he grabbed the gun, shoving it sideways so it was aimed at the back wall instead of his skull; at the same time, his other hand came down on Laurent’s wrist with bruising force, and the Veretian hissed with rage and pain as his weapon was torn from his grip. His movements were lightning-fast as he moved to transfer his spare gun to his dominant hand — but Damen was faster.

The spare pistol clattered to the floor as he caught Laurent in a headlock and pressed the handgun against his temple.

It took a few seconds for him to process the surrealism of the situation: Laurent was pressed impossibly close, his back warm and firm against Damen’s chest, and Damen could feel the moist heat of Laurent’s breath on his arm as he stood motionless within the constraints of the headlock. Damen was distantly aware of the sound of chairs overturning, feet pounding, and Jord yelling, warning the others in the room not to go any closer.

As the Kwoon Room doors banged open and shut, Damen leaned down and murmured in Laurent’s ear: “I said there wasn’t a reason for you not to kill me. I never said I didn’t have a reason to stop you.”

Then he tossed the handgun aside.

Laurent’s eyes followed the weapon across the floor as he chuckled faintly, his throat vibrating against Damen’s forearm. “You’re going to regret doing that.”

“Make me,” Damen said.

And so it began.

Laurent’s first move was almost painfully predictable — an elbow aimed at Damen’s solar plexus — and he dodged easily, twisting his body to the side as he caught Laurent’s arm with his free hand. Laurent retaliated by snapping one boot-clad foot up and back in a vicious kick. It was obviously intended for his groin, but Laurent’s balance was off, and Damen breathed a wordless prayer of thanks as it connected with his thigh instead.

He considered bringing up the fact that sparring rules required both participants to be barefoot, but somehow he doubted that Laurent would care much.

Even though the kick had missed its intended mark, it was still painful enough to loosen Damen’s grip, and Laurent wasted no time in slithering out from under his arm and leaping onto the sparring mat. His breath was coming a bit faster than usual, and his pale hair was mussed, but he’d yet to break a sweat.

Damen almost smiled.

Instead of launching another attack, Laurent stayed where was, bright eyes tracking Damen’s every move as he shed his jacket and threw it behind him. Unlike Laurent, he hadn’t been able to train properly in months, and his tank top was already sticking to his back with sweat — but the burn in his muscles was easily drowned out by the adrenaline humming through his veins.

Deciding he preferred to play by the rules, Damen kicked off his shoes before stepping onto the sparring mat. The padding was deliciously cool against the soles of his feet, its texture familiar and oddly soothing: rough enough to provide traction, but smooth enough that it wouldn’t tear open knees and elbows when they inevitably skidded across the floor. He rolled from the balls of his feet to his heels and back again, feeling the weight of steely blue eyes upon him.

When Damen looked over again, Laurent’s mouth was pulled into a thin, taut line as he unlaced his boots and placed them just outside the ring.

“Jord,” he said flatly, holding out a hand. As if he’d been waiting for the command, the captain tossed him a staff, which he caught without so much as a glance in its direction.

Without waiting to be asked, Jord fetched a second staff. He offered it to Damen, who accepted it with a grateful nod; instead of letting go, however, Jord tightened his grip on the staff and used it to pull Damen close enough to whisper, “Don’t underestimate him.”

Damen looked over Jord’s shoulder at Laurent, who spun his staff effortlessly with one hand and then the other, testing its weight.

“I won’t,” Damen said, meeting the captain’s eye. “Trust me.”

Jord nodded his approval and released the staff before striding out of the ring.

For Damen, watching Jord leave felt like discarding his last piece of armor; by taking the staff, he’d taken the fight into his own hands, too. The thought was at once worrisome and exhilarating: the former because it’d been months since he’d been in a proper fight, and the latter because he’d spent all that time craving one.

Because the way Laurent was looking at him — fierce and fearless, confident and cold — was strikingly unfamiliar, and Damen liked it. Over the past six months, he’d gotten used to being looked at with loathing; with disgust; with fear, usually masked by violence and vulgarity. The cruelty of the guards at the prison had been, for the most part, impersonal — sure, maybe they’d hit him a little harder or a little more often than the others, and he doubted waterboarding was widely practiced, but he knew that every single prisoner there had been tortured. He’d heard their screams. The guards had wielded their hatred like a hammer, attacking with maximum force and minimum precision, shattering and splintering without caring whether their victims could be reassembled.

But Laurent was different. For him, this was personal; this was the chance he’d spent six years waiting for. He held a staff, but his eyes were scalpels — Laurent was ready to cut Damen open, stitch him up, and rip him back open again and again until he was satisfied.

Until he felt that Auguste had been avenged.

As he studied Laurent’s face, a thought occurred to him — a thought that he instantly shoved deep into the recesses of his mind, trying his damned best to drown it even as it bobbed to the surface again and again.

Instead of letting it take hold of him, he lunged.

It didn’t surprise him that by the time he reached the place where Laurent had been standing a half-second before, his opponent was no longer there. What did surprise him was the empty air he encountered when he whipped around, and the white-hot pain that shot through him as Laurent’s staff slammed into the backs of his knees, dropping him to the floor. Instead of circling him, like most opponents would, Laurent had simply returned to his original position, leaving him with complete access to Damen’s unguarded back.

“One-zero,” Laurent said, stepping out of striking range as Damen got to his feet.

Damen wasted no time: he feinted a strike at Laurent’s right shoulder, distracting him long enough to take a swing at the left side of his ribcage. Laurent saw it coming and easily deflected the blow, their sticks slamming together with a deafening crack.

“How boring,” Laurent said said with unnerving calm, lean muscle standing out in his forearms as he pushed his staff harder against Damen’s, holding his ground despite his slighter stature. “I must admit I expected a better fight from a convicted murderer.”

Damen locked his teeth and leaped backward, making Laurent stumble forward as his counterbalance abruptly disappeared. The thud of his staff against Laurent’s back reverberated around the room.

“One-one,” Damen said lightly, making Laurent glare over his shoulder at him.

In a moment of daring, Damen used the end of his staff to gently lift Laurent’s chin, only to retreat when he saw the way the Veretian’s lip curled back in a snarl.

“How many points per round?” Damen asked, moving just out of Laurent’s reach as they prowled around each other in a slow circle. “I want to know if I should even bother pacing myself.”

Laurent’s answer was a wild but precisely calculated flurry of blows, each one aiming for a spot that Damen was forced to leave vulnerable while guarding against the last. Despite Laurent’s near-perfect accuracy, however, Damen met him strike for strike, and the percussive clack of wood on wood was so rapid-fire that it became difficult to discern the echoes from the real thing. It wasn’t until Damen came too close to the edge of the mat and was forced to dive forward that Laurent finally managed a clean hit.

“Two-one,” he said. His tone of voice was unchanged, but it didn’t escape Damen’s notice that his eyes had gone several degrees colder. “And there are four points per round.”

“Are you afraid you’ll lose if it goes on any longer than that?”

“I am afraid”—Laurent jerked his staff up to block Damen’s next strike—“of nothing.”

Damen risked standing still for a half-second to study him. It was true that there wasn’t the barest flicker of fear in Laurent’s eyes, but Damen remembered Jord’s assessment back at the prison: Laurent doesn’t lie outright. He tells half-truths, or he omits things.

“I’m not sure I believe that,” he said, just as he got his staff under Laurent’s and wrenched it upward with enough force to fling it from his hands. The whisper of it rolling across the padded floor was the only sound as Damen pointed the end of his staff at Laurent’s throat, leaving only a millimeter of empty air between smooth wood and equally smooth skin.

“Two-two,” Damen said, the words coming out on a rush of breath, but Laurent wasn’t listening — he was too busy latching onto Damen’s staff with both hands and yanking it out of his grip with enough force to scrape his palms raw. Damen hissed as it skidded through his fingers, but shook off the pain fast enough to throw himself to the floor; a millisecond later, Laurent’s stolen staff missed his temple by centimeters, passing near enough for Damen to hear the faint whistle as it cut the air overhead.

It was exhilarating.

Before Laurent could recover his balance, Damen kicked the Veretian’s ankles out from under him and grabbed the staff with both hands, seizing it back with the aid of Laurent’s downward momentum.

“Three-two,” Damen said with no shortage of smugness, laying his staff across the back of Laurent’s neck, but his opponent only laughed.

“They told me you always fought fair,” Laurent drawled, unable to stifle a sharp, pained breath as Damen pressed him into the floor with a knee on the small of his back. “I’ll have to inform them of their mistake.”

I fight dirty?” A spark of incredulous anger flared in Damen’s chest. “What about you?”

“I never said I didn’t” was the only warning Damen got before Laurent’s teeth sank into his hand, cutting deep enough to draw blood. The guttural shout that exploded from Damen’s throat was more shocked than pained, but it gave Laurent the opportunity he’d been looking for — he slipped from Damen’s grip like a fish slipping from a net and bolted across the ring, sweeping up his fallen staff and whipping it around too fast for Damen to follow, let alone evade. He was snarling before it even made contact with his shoulder.

When he charged, Laurent didn’t flinch — not even when their staffs smashed together with a force that sent Laurent skidding backward across the mat, muscles cording in his forearms with the strain of meeting the blow head-on instead of caving beneath it. Damen stared down at him, but Laurent didn’t waver; instead, he wrinkled his nose, turned his head, and spat out Damen’s blood as if it were poison.

“Three-three,” Laurent said through his teeth, maintaining both his eye contact with Damen and his white-knuckled grip on his staff. “Is that really the best you can do?”

Damen’s lips curled in a smile. “Hardly.”

After that, Damen didn’t have time to think anymore. The fight took on a lightning-fast beat, staccato and syncopated: hit, kick, block, hit, duck, roll, block, hit, over and over, never repeating the same exact rhythm but always staying in time. Trivial details escaped him until they ceased to be trivial — for instance, he didn’t realize that Laurent had finally broken a sweat until it kept him from getting a firm grip on the Veretian’s wrist, and he didn’t realize Laurent had been fighting right-handed until he abruptly switched to his left without a flicker of hesitation.

And he didn’t realize how soft Laurent’s hair was until he grabbed a fistful of it only to have it slip through his fingers like pinfeathers. It stole Damen’s attention for a fraction of a millisecond — long enough for Laurent to dart under his arm, pivot smoothly, and snap his staff up in anticipation of another blow. His shoulders hitched and fell sharply with each breath, and his pupils were blown wide with adrenaline, almost swallowing up all the blue in his eyes. Damen was bracing himself for another attack when someone spoke.

It wasn’t a particularly loud voice, but it was low and rich, and the sound of it carried effortlessly across the room: “Nephew.”

Those two syllables were enough to make Laurent go perfectly, utterly still — and Damen didn’t give himself a chance to consider what differentiated a opportunistic fighter from a cruel one before turning his staff horizontal and slamming it into Laurent like a battering ram.

Laurent went down hard, his staff thudding against the floor a half-second before his back did. In a heartbeat Damen was on top of him, knees bracketing Laurent’s slim hips, hands pinning his wrists above his head. Virulent blue eyes blazed up at him, narrowed to slits.

Breathless, Damen said, “That’s four-three.”

Laurent trembled almost imperceptibly as Damen stared down at him, still trying and failing to catch his breath. Something in his blood was singing, calling out a question—or perhaps an answer. Perhaps both.

He knew this feeling.

He knew the bright fire now smoldering behind his ribs.

He knew it far too well.

Furiously, deliriously, helplessly, he looked down into Laurent’s eyes and found the same fire glowing in their depths — stifled, yes, and tainted with enmity, but unmistakably there.

Laurent’s entire face contorted, and when he spoke, his voice was a strangled, awful thing: “No.”

“No,” Damen agreed in a hoarse whisper, his mind filling with images of Akielos: the wind-tossed sea, the pearl-white beaches, the cloudless sapphire sky. All the things he would’ve returned to in a matter of days if he’d proved to be incompatible with Laurent.

But he hadn’t.

Laurent suddenly wrenched a leg up between Damen’s, body uncoiling like a snake’s. “Get off me,” he hissed, trying and failing to slam his knee into Damen’s groin.

“Yield, Nephew,” called the Regent of Vere, who must’ve entered the room at some point during the fight. He was standing beside Jord in an exquisite military uniform, his unnerving half-smile partially concealed by a dark, neatly trimmed beard. He must’ve been the one who’d distracted Laurent earlier. “You know the rules.”

“Get off me,” Laurent snarled again, as if his uncle hadn’t spoken.

Normally Damen would’ve pressed for complete capitulation before releasing his opponent, but Damen could see something else buried beneath the loathing in Laurent’s eyes — something that made him let go and rise to his feet without protest, resisting the urge to offer a hand to help Laurent up. He knew it would be ignored.

Laurent stared Damen down as he stood, one hand rising as if to gingerly touch the base of his spine before freezing halfway there and dropping back to his side. Damen knew from the sound Laurent’s back had made against the mat that he’d be covered in bruises before evening came; Laurent, however, was silent and expressionless, not even hinting at the location or severity of his other injuries.

“Well,” said the Regent, narrowing cool, shrewd eyes that matched Laurent’s, “that was quite a show.”

“Was it, now,” Laurent said flatly, picking up his staff and giving it a hard spin. His breathing was starting to even out, but there was still a bright flush in his cheeks. “Does that mean we’re done here?”

Despite himself, Damen felt a little thrill race up his spine. They were compatible. They were compatible, and Laurent knew it, even if he wouldn’t acknowledge it out loud. Damen stole a glance at their thunderstruck audience; imagined the rage that would color their faces when they were ordered to leave before they’d even tried to spar with Laurent. There was no way anyone in the room could do what Damen had just done. Only he could face Laurent of Vere on a level playing field and prove himself as his equal. Only he could do this. He could feel it in his blood; in his bones.

But the Regent cocked his head, lips spreading in a dry mockery of a smile, and said, “I thought I raised you better than that, Nephew.” He swept his hand in a gesture that encompassed the three rows of spectators. “All these people rose at dawn just for you. It would be rude of us to turn them away with nothing, don’t you think?”

Acidly, Laurent said, “I think it was you who invited them, not me.”

The Regent gave a slow shake of his head. “You disappoint me, Laurent. After all this place has given you—”

“Finish that sentence.” Laurent hadn’t moved an inch from where he stood, but Damen still found himself wanting to backpedal, as if to escape of the blast zone of a grenade. “I dare you.” To Damen’s surprise, the Regent just smiled and strolled forward to meet Laurent, who didn’t budge even as his uncle’s long, calloused fingers fanned out across his cheek. Damen wondered if the other spectators could tell that Laurent was trembling ever so slightly.

When the Regent leaned forward, Damen did, too, but he was still too far away to hear what Laurent’s uncle murmured in his ear. He could only stand and watch as Laurent finally gave up a little bit of ground, taking a quick step away from his uncle, and responded; his voice was too soft for Damen to catch the words, but it was easy enough to guess the sentiment behind them: there was a promise of violence in Laurent’s clear blue eyes, glinting like the edge of a knife.

Apparently oblivious to the storm brewing inside his nephew, the Regent turned around and barked a command at Jord: “Cuff the prisoner and take him to a holding cell. If necessary, he’ll be retrieved after this session. If not, I expect him to be returned to his proper place before sundown.”

His proper place. The words made Damen’s stomach clench like a fist, and he found himself staring unabashedly at the Regent even as Jord approached to cuff his hands behind his back again.

Quietly, Damen said, “I won’t go back there.”

The Regent raked Damen up and down with his eyes, then curled his lip and told Jord, “He seems a bit mouthy. Put a gag on him if you wish, but leave him otherwise undamaged. I want him in good condition if we decide to use him.”

Damen’s answering snarl was calmly ignored, and the Regent didn’t spare Damen another glance as Jord herded him out of the room — but Laurent did.

Somehow, without even looking back, Damen was sure of that.

 ~~~

                                                                                                    

The holding cell was nicer than the veritable closet Damen had lived in at the prison, but it still made him want to punch a hole through something.

Before his captivity, Damen hadn’t minded tight spaces; if he had, he never would’ve been a pilot in the first place. But now… Now the dark, dank walls felt like they were closing in on him, drowning him in his own shadow, and he could feel his hammering pulse in the pit of his stomach as he paced lopsided figure-eights around the room. He wondered if his newly acquired claustrophobia would follow him into the cockpit of a jaeger and had to suppress a pang of nausea at the thought.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed before the thud of footsteps on the concrete floor heralded the arrival of Jord, who wore the same clothes as before but a wildly different expression: exhaustion lined his face and hung heavy on his shoulders, but his eyes were aglow with quiet triumph.

“Don’t look so surprised,” he said, unhooking a ring of keys from his belt and inserting one of them into the lock. “I did tell you that they didn’t have a chance.”

The faint scrape and click of the pins sliding back was sweet music to Damen’s ears, and he didn’t even wait for the door to open fully before darting out. Escaping the cell was like shedding a straitjacket, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he shook out his limbs and rolled his neck.

“Sorry,” Jord said, reattaching his key ring and leaning against the wall. “I didn’t know he was gonna put you in here.”

Damen shook his head. “It’s fine.”

Jord arched an eyebrow. “If you say so.” When Damen didn’t say anything else, he pocketed his hands and indicated the nearest staircase with a jerk of his head. “Come on. They’re putting you in the room next to his.”

“I won,” Damen guessed, voice dark.

The corners of Jord’s lips quirked up. “Everybody else lost,” he said, glancing at Damen over his shoulder. “I’m not sure that’s the same as winning in this case.”

“At least I’m not dead.”

“Yet.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Damen said, rolling his eyes as they emerged into a long, straight corridor. The lights had been dimmed, which meant it was probably evening.

Damen grabbed Jord’s sleeve, making him jump. “What time is it?”

Jord shook him off to check his watch, squinting at the dark face of it. “10:39 at night. Why do you— oh.He broke off mid-sentence, as if he too could hear the Regent’s words ringing in his head: If necessary, he’ll be retrieved after this session. If not, I expect him to be returned to his proper place before sundown.

“Yeah,” Jord said, his smile faint but sincere. “You’re here to stay for a while, at least. I know you wanna go back to Akielos, but…”

The mention of Akielos was like a punch to the gut, and Damen set his jaw, fighting to keep his expression neutral. Jord seemed to notice his discomfort and quickly changed subjects.

“Laurent’s on the ground floor,” he explained as they walked, waving off the occasional question or greeting from the rangers they passed. “He was on the third floor as a kid, but after Auguste…” He trailed off, letting Damen silently fill in the blanks before continuing, “He got kind of paranoid.”

Damen just nodded, understanding that impulse all too well: the need to be as close as possible to a quick escape route, no matter how secure the building seemed to be. It was oddly comforting to know that if he ever needed to get out of this place, there wouldn’t be elevators and staircases in his way.

“Ah,” Jord said, finally coming to a stop. “Here we are.”

They were standing in front of a pair of nondescript doors, both covered in flaking gray paint and stamped with their respective numbers: 101 and 102. If Jord was as surprised as Damen was that Laurent was willing to share a wall with him, he didn’t say so out loud.

“Are they rooms connected?” Damen asked, staring at the doorknob without reaching for it.

To his chagrin, Jord nodded. “The door between them has a lock on it.”

“Good,” Damen said, though he doubted Laurent would let a simple lock stand in his way if he decided to actually kill Damen — or try to, at least. Damen was out of practice, but he wasn’t helpless.

He turned to Jord, who read the silent question in his eyes and pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. It was smaller than the one he’d used to open the cell door, and contained only three keys instead of several dozen.

“One’s your room key,” Jord explained, dropping the ring into Damen’s expectant palm. “Another’s for the trunk under your bed, and the last one will get you into the Kwoon Room. Official practices in there go from 7 AM until 9 at night, but you’re free to use it any other time.”

Damen curled his fingers around the keys, squeezing until the pressure of the metal teeth against his skin became a faint, pleasurable sting. “I’m allowed to come and go as I please?”

Jord pursed his lips. “You can’t leave the building without an escort,” he said with an apology in his eyes, “and the Shatterdome’s off-limits until you’re told otherwise. Aside from that, though, you can go wherever, so long as you’re where Laurent wants you to be when he wants you to be there.”

Damen set his jaw. “Of course.”

“Speaking of which…” Jord nodded at the door to room 102. “You two should probably get acquainted before he changes his mind.”

It was a warning wrapped up in a casual comment, and Damen inclined his head to express his gratitude. Jord returned the gesture before heading back in the direction they’d come from, disappearing around the corner without so much as a backward glance.

Once he was gone, Damen reopened his fist and studied the keys he’d been given. Jord — or maybe someone else — had labeled them 102A, 102T, and KR, which at least saved him the trouble of trying out each key in each lock until he figured out which was which. Part of him resented it, though: if the keys had been unlabeled, trying them out would’ve given him a valid means of stalling until he was ready to face Laurent again.

Because talking, Damen had decided, was very different from fighting. It was harder. He could train his muscles until they felt ready to melt off his bones, but a silver tongue was more difficult to hone; it required constant use to stay polished, and Damen hadn’t utilized his in a long, long time. Laurent’s, on the other hand, seemed to be in prime condition.

Damen took a deep breath. Now that the high of the sparring session had worn off, his healthy wariness of Laurent had returned in force, and he took several seconds to brace himself before selecting the key labeled 102A and pushing it into the lock.

The first groan of the door’s hinges was answered by a smooth, lofty voice, now all-too-familiar: “Finally. I was beginning to think you’d gotten lost.”

Damen bit his tongue as he slipped inside, careful not to turn his back on the room, and leaned back against the door to close it. A quick assessment of the room revealed nothing of note: just a bed, a desk, a dresser, and dull metal walls.

And Laurent.

The Veretian boy — man, he corrected himself — sat perched on the edge of the mattress. His posture was carelessly elegant — one long leg draped over the other, hands interlaced and resting primly on his knee — but there was nothing careless about his expression.

“I thought perhaps they’d sent you back to prison by mistake,” Laurent said, his stare boring into Damen’s face with such intensity that he couldn’t help but stare back. The tilt of his head and the gleam of his eyes reminded Damen of a panther regarding its prey.

Damen’s tongue finally got away from him. “You seem disappointed.”

“Maybe I am.”

“You could’ve shot me,” Damen said. “Back in the Kwoon Room. Why didn’t you?”

Laurent’s brows lifted. Then, with the slow deliberation of an adult addressing a child, he said, “You disarmed me before I could.”

Damen’s mouth twitched in annoyance. “You had plenty of time before that.”

“Did I?”

Damen chucked his new key ring at the bed. It hit the edge of the mattress and bounced past Laurent, who made no move to catch it.

“Yeah,” Damen said after a pause, giving Laurent a long look. “You did.”

“If I cared about the opinion of someone like you,” Laurent replied, “perhaps that would trouble me. As things are, however…”

Damen scoffed, folding his arms over his chest. “You’re a real charmer, you know that?”

“Sorry, did I offend your delicate Akielon sensibilities?”

“I have a feeling you offend everyone’s sensibilities.”

Laurent’s blue eyes were glacial. “I don’t care.”

“Clearly.”

Instead of retorting, Laurent rose to his feet, unfolding his long, lithe limbs with his usual predatory grace. The gleam in his eyes was unmistakably dangerous, but Damen couldn’t bring himself to move as Laurent crossed the distance between them in a few fluid strides.

“In case it wasn’t clear at first,” Laurent said, so close Damen could feel the heat of his breath, “I’m not here to make friends with you, and you are not here to make friends with me. Nod if you understand.”

“I understand perf—”

“I said nod.”

Damen snapped his mouth shut, furious, but gave a quick jerk of his head.

“There, that’s better.” A smirk curled briefly on Laurent’s lips, there and gone in the blink of an eye. “Now. You know who I am, correct?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Damen nodded anyway, crushing the inside of his cheek between his teeth until he tasted blood.

“And I know who you are,” Laurent said, “so there’s no point in pretending that this arrangement is going to work.” He flicked a hand dismissively. “Not when we’re alone, at least.”

“Not when we’re alone?” Damen echoed, incredulous. “What does that me—”

Laurent slapped a hand over Damen’s mouth, making his cheeks smart from the impact of skin on skin.

“I mean,” Laurent said, voice dripping venom, “that when any of my uncle’s eyes or ears may be around, we are partners.”

Laurent must’ve seen the flash of disbelief in Damen’s eyes, because he pressed his palm harder against Damen’s lips. It took all of Damen’s considerable willpower not to bite him.

“We will train as partners do,” Laurent continued, eyes narrowing to icy blue slits, “and if Jord is correct in his affirmation that it’s possible, we will Drift. I will do what’s expected of me. You will do what’s expected of you. Until my uncle decides that I’ve fulfilled my duty — or until I say otherwise — that is how it’s going to be. Do you understand?”

Damen scowled, and Laurent dropped his hand with a roll of his eyes.

“Is that too complicated for you?” Laurent said, frost coating the words. “I don’t see how I could simplify it any further.”

Damen glared, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist as if he could somehow scrub off the sensation of Laurent’s hand against his skin. “Why would you want anyone to think that we can stand each other?”

Laurent’s lips thinned. “I’m not going to enjoy this any more than you are.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Just because you asked a question doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the answer,” Laurent said curtly, stalking back to the bed and reclaiming his spot on the edge of the mattress.

“If you want me to pretend to tolerate you,” Damen said through his teeth, “the least you could do is pretend to be tolerable.”

Laurent just crossed his legs, arching one brow as if to say are you done?

Damen was not done, in fact, so he quickly continued before Laurent could start running his prissy, pretentious mouth all over again: “In case no one ever told you, co-piloting requires a close bond,” he said, refusing to let himself flinch as the memory of Nikandros welled up in his mind like blood from a fresh wound. “Test Drifting is one thing, but being partners with someone is something else entirely. You can’t fake that kind of connection. If you think you can fool the Drift techs—”

“I know what your Drift compatibility is,” Laurent said coolly. “You should have no issue forming the neural bridge.”

“A neural bridge goes two ways,” Damen seethed, “and don’t forget that I know what your Drift compatibility is, too.”

Damen was almost certain Laurent flinched, but when he studied the Veretian’s face, he found no trace of anger or apprehension. Just solid ice.

“I am fully aware of how the Drift works,” Laurent said, lowering his voice but not softening it, “and if you try to lecture me on it, I’ll ship you back to whatever hellhole they pulled you out of.”

Damen’s response was instinctive and thoughtless: “Fuck you.”

There was a sudden blur of motion; then Laurent backhanded him so hard and fast he saw stars. Damen put a hand to his stinging cheek, though the shock of it was sharper than the actual pain. Outside of training, no one had ever raised a hand to him. Not even once.

He heard his own breathing turn ragged as he strained to keep his anger in check. If he hadn’t been compatible with Laurent, Jord had been willing to send him back to Akielos, but he doubted the captain would be so merciful if that incompatibility was a result of Damen breaking Laurent’s neck less than twenty-four hours into their “partnership.”

“Do that again,” he said softly, “and you will never Drift with me. Got it?”

“It’s amusing,” Laurent said, “that you think you can tell me what I will or won’t do.”

“I think you’re desperate,” Damen shot back, “and if I’m your last chance, you’re not going to throw me away if you can help it. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Laurent’s expression hardened further. “I will always have more chances.”

“Would you bet your life on that?”

“Yes. Long before I’d bet my life on you.”

Damen wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it was hard not to recoil at those words. Nikandros had never hesitated to place his life in Damen’s hands, just as Damen had never hesitated to return the favor. That’s how it was supposed to be: as soon as two co-pilots stepped into the Drift together, they swore an oath to protect each other, even if it meant sacrificing life or limb. That trust served as the foundation for the neural bridge. Without it, the connection was doomed to collapse into the unnavigable darkness of the in-between.

Laurent’s scalpel-sharp voice abruptly cut into Damen’s reverie: “Don’t look at me like that.”

With tremendous effort, Damen swallowed the acerbic words bubbling on his tongue and settled for the shortest, simplest reply: “Like what?”

“Like I hurt your feelings,” Laurent said, mouth tilting disdainfully. “Or are you really going to try to tell me that you’re willing to put your life in my hands the way you want me to put mine in yours?”

Damen closed his mouth as all his pre-prepared responses scattered in his mind like windblown leaves. No, he wasn’t going to try telling Laurent that. He could never tell Laurent that. For an Akielon to give himself to a Veretian in that way, and vice versa… it was unthinkable. Maybe they’d met seven years ago—

Laurent said, “That’s what I thought.”

“This is never going to work.” Damen fixed Laurent with a dark, level stare. “I hope you know that.”

“I know that your thick skull would cause me a lot less trouble if I put a bullet in it,” Lauren replied, “but you’re still alive. Does that answer your question?”

It did, and it must’ve answered some question of Laurent’s as well, because he got up and strode for the door. Damen stepped out of the way, but Laurent still shoved a hand flat against his chest; after Damen wedged his fingers under the Veretian’s, it only took him a second to figure out why.

“I suggest you keep these to yourself,” Laurent said without looking at him. He pulled his hand away, leaving Damen to hold his key ring against his heart, and wiped it on his pants as if he’d touched something slimy. “You wouldn’t want the wrong people to get ahold of them.”

And with that, Laurent was gone, leaving the door wide open behind him.

Damen stayed exactly where he was, waiting until the sound of Laurent’s feather-light tread faded into silence. When he was sure the Veretian was gone, he shut the door and latched it; then he went to the door that connected his room to Laurent’s, taking the time to double- and triple-check the locks before he finally approached the bed. The sight of the soft mattress and plush comforter was tantalizing beyond belief, but the memory of the man who’d been sitting on it only minutes before made him hesitate.

I know that your thick skull would cause me a lot less trouble if I put a bullet in it, but you’re still alive. Does that answer your question?

Those words — and the blue eyes of their speaker — burned in Damen’s mind like a torch in the night, and he found himself trying to recall everything he’d been told so far about Laurent, every little tidbit of information that might help him navigate this hostile, uncharted territory. Instead, however, his mind snagged over and over on something else — something Jord had said right before they left Chastillon.

I know what you did, and so does Laurent. He just doesn’t know why. But if you can figure out how to Drift with him, if you can get into his head… he’ll be able to see for himself what really happened. And if you can’t do that, well. I guess earning his forgiveness wouldn’t really matter to you much in that case, would it?

There were so many ifs in those few sentences. If Damen could figure out how to Drift with him. If he could get into Laurent’ head.

Not if, Damen thought folding his fingers around his key ring and squeezing tight. When.

Then he collapsed on top of the covers and, for the first time in six months, fell asleep instantly.

 

Chapter Text

Damen woke with a scream on his lips and the memory of cold, cold water in his lungs.

He pressed a hand to his heaving chest as he gasped for air, digging in with his fingernails until the pain was intense enough to be a lifeline, tethering him to reality. In hindsight, the nightmares shouldn’t have come as such as surprise; at the prison, he’d never slept deeply enough to dream, but things were different now. From now on, he’d have a bed. He’d have blankets. He’d have a training regimen to run him into the ground and leave him so exhausted that not even his ever-swirling thoughts could keep him awake once his head hit the pillow.

He no longer had to face the horrors of Chastillon during the day, so they’d crept into his sleep instead — simple as that. They were just nightmares now, figments of his imagination fueled by six months of memory. Sickening, but intangible. Harmless.

Even so, it was a long time before he felt steady enough to swing his legs over the side of the bed. When his feet touched a threadbare rug instead of freezing concrete, he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sensation — then closed his eyes, humiliation heating his cheeks even though no one else had seen what happened.

Had those six months in Chastillon really damaged him so much?

Was he really that fragile?

He shook his head to clear it and dug his knuckles into his eyelids, doing his best to scrub the sleep from them as he tried getting up again. This time he succeeded, and though it was a pitiful thing to be proud of, the tiny bud of triumph that bloomed in his chest was enough to carry him to the dresser on the other side of the room. He wasn’t particularly surprised to see that the drawers had been stocked with training gear, most of it black or blue, all of it marked in one way or another with a familiar starburst. It turned Damen’s stomach to look at it, but the clothes Jord had given him yesterday were already starting to feel grubby. After spending six months in the same outfit at Chastillon, he was willing to sacrifice an iota of pride if he meant he could feel clean.

He’d just pulled on a black t-shirt and loose gym pants when there was a sharp rap at the door. When Damen didn’t immediately answer, a flat, unfamiliar voice intoned, “Open the door this instant or I shall fetch Lieutenant de Vere.”

It took a second for Damen to realize that by Lieutenant de Vere, the visitor meant Laurent. It was easy to forget sometimes that there were more than just pilots in the Ellosean Defense Corps; it was possible to rise into the upper echelons without ever standing in the cockpit of a jaeger. It was a well-known fact that Laurent’s mind was as sharp as his tongue, and their cause needed strategists as much as it needed pilots.

He wondered, not for the first time, why it was so important that Laurent become a pilot.

There was another heavy knock at the door. “I will not warn you again, Damianos. Open this door.”

Damen swallowed the resentment rising in his throat and crossed to the door, bending slightly to look through the peephole. His visitor was standing too close for him to make out anything beyond a thin, likely masculine torso and a deep blue uniform with a starburst on the breast pocket; they did seem to be alone, however, so Damen opened the door with only minimal hesitation.

A hand immediately flew at his face, aiming for his already-bruised cheek, and Damen hissed as he jerked out of the way just in time.

“Don’t touch me,” he growled, bristling as he regarded his visitor with unconcealed malice.

“Then don’t waste my time.” The man who now stood framed in the doorway was tall and bony, with a narrow face, aquiline nose, and dark, beady eyes that sparked with irritation; his thinning hair was combed back over his scalp, which only emphasized how little of it remained. “You are not here to enjoy the accommodations. You are here to work.”

“You’re taking me to Laurent, then?” Damen asked. Unease twinged in his chest, but it wasn’t as fierce as he expected.

To his surprise, the man shook his head, annoyance thinning his already-thin lips. “You are to be examined by Dr. Paschal before you begin your training with Lieutenant de Vere.”

“Now?”

“Yes,” the man snapped, “now.”

A minute later Damen found himself moving briskly down the hallway with the beady-eyed man — Radel, according to his shiny gold nametag — hot on his heels, occasionally ordering him to go left or go right or keep straight. Personally, Damen thought it would’ve been much more efficient for Radel to lead the way, but apparently the man didn’t trust Damen not to jump him from behind and break his neck.

Damen had to admit that it would’ve been tempting, but he wasn’t that impulsive.

The walk to the medical bay was longer than Damen would’ve preferred — not because he minded the distance, but because it gave more of the base’s personnel a chance to stare at him and spit at him and whisper about him behind their hands. Some didn’t bother to whisper, hurling their insults and assumptions at him at full volume. At one point someone flung a styrofoam cup at his chest, and he had no choice but to grit his teeth and keep moving as boiling hot coffee soaked his shirtfront, scalding the skin beneath.

At least he was already scheduled to meet with a doctor.

When they finally reached a closed door spray-painted with a giant “I” for “infirmary,” Radel pounded heavily on the metal and barked, “Paschal! I’ve brought the Akielon prisoner.”

“Send him in,” a vaguely familiar voice replied. Radel opened the door and waved Damen through; when he tried to follow, however, the same voice — presumably Paschal’s — added, “Alone, please.”

Radel curled his lip, but didn’t argue. He turned sharply on his heel and stalked out, slamming the door behind him with enough force to make the hinges rattle.

“Don’t pay him too much mind.”

It took Damen a moment to find the source of the voice, as a cursory glance around the room revealed nothing and no one. Then a head popped up behind a table near the back of the room; a pair of keen brown eyes landed on Damen, and a faint, inscrutable half-smile appeared on the doctor’s freckled, surprisingly youthful face.

“Damen,” he said, straightening, and Damen realized suddenly why Paschal’s voice had sounded so familiar.

“We’ve met before,” Paschal said, as if he’d read Damen’s mind, “though not many times, and it was a long time ago. You were still training with Auguste at the time, if memory serves.”

“Memory does serve,” Damen agreed, pausing beside the first of the many metal exam tables that lined the walls. Some were bare; some were covered in sterile paper; most were piled with Drift apparatus, not well-organized but not quite messy, either. “You… look the same.”

Paschal walked closer, eyes passing over Damen in a clinical once-over. His gaze softened with something that was not quite pity as he said, “You don’t.”

Damen shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, I was just a kid back then.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Instead of explaining, Paschal pointed him to a table near the back of the room. “Please sit. I’ll be there in a moment.”

Damen did as he was told, keeping one eye on Paschal as he approached the exam table and, after a split second of hesitation, sat down on the edge. The doctor was probably in his mid-thirties,  but looked distinctly younger; his eyes and hair were both chocolate, startlingly dark against skin so pale that it made Damen wonder when the man had last been outside.

“How are you feeling?” Paschal asked, glancing over his shoulder at Damen as he gathered his tools.

Damen blinked in surprise at the question; no one, not even Jord, had asked him that since his departure from Chastillon. “I…”

“Don’t leave anything out,” Paschal added. “I’m well aware of what places like Chastillon can do to a person.” He shot Damen a significant glance. “This may be my country, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything that happens in it.”

Anger sparked in Damen’s chest. “Then why don’t y—”

“Why don’t I do something about it?” The doctor’s voice was cool but not unkind. “If you think it’s as simple as that, you’re not nearly as intelligent as I thought you were. Shirt off, please.”

Damen bit his tongue to stay silent as he peeled his shirt up and over his head, grimacing at the way the fabric stuck to his chest. Paschal’s expression darkened when he noticed the patch of angry pink skin where the coffee had soaked through and burned him.

“Do you know who did it?” he asked, immediately heading for a nearby sink to soak a towel in cold water.

Damen shook his head wordlessly, accepting the cold compress with a brief nod of thanks. The sharp pleasure-pain of the freezing cloth against his hot skin was a welcome distraction from Paschal’s questions.

“I take it you didn’t fight back.”

Damen glanced up sharply. “What makes you say that?”

Paschal gave him a droll look. “You’re still conscious.”

Damen arched an eyebrow. “You don’t think I could take them on?”

“I think that you’ve spent the last six months in prison, deprived of food, water, exercise, and rest for longer than any human being ever should be,” Paschal said. “We won’t know for sure until I finish my examination, but I doubt you’ve escaped all that without any complications. It’s bad enough that you sparred with Laurent yesterday. I’d hate to see what an angry mob would do to you.”

“You’d probably be the only one.”

Paschal blinked. “What?”

Damen pressed the compress harder against his skin. “You’d probably be the only one who’d hate to see that.”

Paschal pursed his lips but didn’t immediately reply. He took advantage of the pause by resting his stethoscope between Damen’s shoulder blades and checking the rate of his breathing against the clock on the wall; Damen forced himself to keep still, inhaling and exhaling as deeply as his weary lungs would allow. After a long minute, Paschal withdrew, removing the stethoscope buds from his ears and regarding Damen with an indecipherable expression.

“It’s a shame,” he said at last, “that you and Laurent have so much bad blood between you.”

Damen averted his gaze. “What makes you say that?”

“In another life, I think you two could’ve been… close.”

Damen choked out a bitter laugh, but otherwise didn’t respond. Paschal seemed to accept that the conversation was over, because he pulled a familiar headset from his bag and offered it to Damen.

“Time for the fun part,” he said.

As Paschal booted up the screens embedded in the wall beside the table, Damen idly ran his fingers over the headset, trying to remember the last time he’d worn one. Once a ranger had a steady co-pilot and completed five consecutive missions without issues, they were only required to come in for a Drift test twice a year. It was mostly used as an assessment of the pilot’s mental health; any “hot spots” on the scan would alert the analyst to consistent imbalances in the Drift. There had never been any issues when Damen was partnered with Nikandros, and he knew there wouldn’t be any issues now — it had been too long since he’d Drifted for there to be any sort of imprint on his consciousness.

At Paschal’s cue, he let muscle memory guide him as he slipped the headset on and placed the electrodes accordingly.

“I’m sure you’ve done lots of Drift tests before,” the doctor said, punching commands into his computer. “The process is the same as usual, but you should be prepared for it to feel a little different from what you remember.”

Damen started to furrow his brow, then hastily smoothed it as the movement tugged at one of the electrodes. “Why?”

There was obvious unease in the glance Paschal threw him, but his voice was even and clinical as he said, “Drift abnormalities are common in victims of severe psychological trauma.”

Damen’s whole body jolted like he’d been struck. “I’m not—”

“That’s a discussion for later.” Paschal’s expression brooked no contradiction. “I just want you to be prepared in case things feel off. Are you ready?”

Damen opened his mouth, wanting to press the issue, then closed it with a frustrated huff. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“Are you comfortable?”

I was until you mentioned severe psychological trauma. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Paschal flipped a few switches. “Let’s begin.”

Damen closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply as the electrodes started to warm up against his skin. For most people, Drift tests were infinitely easier than actual Drifting. They didn’t require you to seek out another person’s consciousness, form a bridge, and establish a two-way connection that didn’t overwhelm either party involved; it was more akin to popping the hood of a car and poking around inside. In a way, you just had to mind-meld with the computer. The good news was that there was no technology sophisticated enough to project images directly from a human brain, so the actual contents of the pilot’s memories remained private.

The bad news was Damen didn’t particularly like mind-melding with a computer. If given a choice, he’d much rather Drift with another person — someone with an actual stake in things, someone who had to give back as much as they took. Drift tests had always made him feel… exposed. Violated.

But this one didn’t make him feel that way.

This one made it feel like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his skull and splattered its contents all over the walls and floor.

He was used to the cascade of memories that washed over him whenever he entered the Drift; he was used to it being soft and tepid, sliding over and off him like the ocean did when he surfaced after a dive.

He was not used to feeling like he was drowning; like he was on fire; like he was being crushed to death by a mountain made of his own memories. He saw it all—

felt it all—

heard it all—

smelled it all—

tasted it all at once.

The waterboarding—

the cell—

the stale, rotten food—

the filthy clothes—

the isolation.

The reek of his own blood.

The searing pain of a tattoo needle against his wrist as he thrashed in his restraints, screaming around the sour wad of fabric crammed between his jaws—

Then, before he could recover from the initial onslaught, a fresh wave came crashing over him— his father’s face, still and wan in death; the bright, savage slash of his brother’s smile as Damen was beaten bloody by his own men; the sting of steel on skin as shackles bit deep into his wrists and ankles—and beyond that—

A young, handsome face smudged with blood and grime and despair, full lips shaping words that Damen would’ve given anything not to hear; the weight of a gun in his hand; the shock of the recoil, traveling all the way from his fingertips to his shoulder as his ears rang and his stomach turned itself inside out—

“Kill me,” he heard someone crying, and it wasn’t until they repeated themselves a dozen times that Damen recognized the voice as his own. “Kill me, kill me, please kill me—”

Pain burst in his cheek, and then—

Suddenly, stillness. Silence.

Slowly, Damen became aware of a cold, hard surface beneath him — not the exam table, but the floor. Paschal was crouched over him, arm cranked back in preparation to deliver another slap; once he saw that Damen was responsive again, he immediately dropped his arm, a sigh of relief shuddering out of him. His other hand rested on his thigh, clutching the tangle of plastic and wires that had once been the headset.

Damen closed his eyes. Dragged air in and out of his lungs. Willed the unbearable throbbing in his skull to reside.

“Don’t try to stand,” Paschal warned him, scooting back a few inches so Damen had room to sit up. “I won’t be able to catch you if you fall.”

Damen tried to scowl, but it immediately turned into a wince as white-hot pain lanced through his head. “Shit.”

“Don’t panic.” Paschal reached out as if to squeeze his shoulder, but wisely withdrew upon seeing Damen’s expression. “The first time Drifting after a traumatic incident is always the hardest. Now that you’ve been through all those memories again, you should be able to hold them in check next time.”

“And if I can’t?” Damen couldn’t help but ask.

Paschal met his gaze steadily. “Then we’ll keep trying until you can.”

“Right now?”

“Only if you feel up to it.”

Damen nodded once, sharply. “I do.”

A light passed behind Paschal’s eyes, a sparkle that Damen was tempted to call hope.

“I’ll go get a new headset,” he said.

 

                                                                                                    

 

It wasn’t easier the next time.

Or the time after that.

Or the time after that.

On the fourth try, however, he was able to stave off the memories long enough to stabilize himself in the Drift and linger there for a few minutes, trying to get a feel for it again after six months away from it. It was awkward and strenuous, but the discomfort was familiar in a way: it reminded him of his days as a cadet, back before he figured out how to keep his emotions from spilling all over the place while he formed the connection.

He still hated it — and a large part of him was still tempted to beat his head against a wall until his brain started to work properly again — but it was a step in the right direction.

By the time Paschal decided that Damen had reached his limit for the day, it was nearly nine in the evening, and Damen’s head felt like he’d spent the entire afternoon punching holes in it with a hammer. Despite that, he still protested vehemently as the doctor shut down the computers and set about removing Damen’s headset.

“One more time,” he insisted, leaning out of reach to keep Paschal from peeling off the electrodes. “Please, I think I’ve almost got it.”

Paschal’s eyes were sympathetic, but his voice was firm: “Drift rehabilitation will take more than just a day.” At Damen’s bitter expression, he added, “You’re making good progress, though — better than anyone expected, I’d say. You’ll be Drifting with Laurent in no time.”

“You really think that’s possible?” Damen asked, throwing Paschal an inquisitive look.

“I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be,” Paschal replied, expression turning thoughtful. “They sent me footage from your sparring session yesterday, and there’s no doubt that you’re the only candidate who could even begin to hold their own against Laurent, let alone best him.” He sighed. “The Drift is about equality, and Laurent can’t hold himself back just so his co-pilot can feel like they’re on even footing. He needs someone who can keep up.”Damen understood that feeling all too well. Before Nikandros, only Auguste had been able to match him in skill and strength; unlike Laurent, however, Damen was flexible. The moment he entered the Drift with someone, he could adjust his style to complement theirs.

He wondered if that was something Laurent couldn’t do, or simply wouldn’t do.

“Speaking of keeping up,” Paschal said, breaking Damen from his reverie, “that’s something you won’t be able to do if you don’t get some rest.” He folded his slim arms over his chest. “I took the liberty of contacting Laurent about the trouble you encountered on your way here, so it shouldn’t happen again. I trust you can find the way back on your own.”

Damen’s stomach lurched; the idea of Laurent thinking he needed — or wanted — protection was enough to fill his throat with bile. “You didn’t need to do that.” “I know,” Paschal said simply, and turned away to shuffle some papers into a folder. “I’ll see you here tomorrow at noon.”

Damen knew a dismissal when he heard one, and he didn’t hesitate to slide off the exam table and head for the exit.

The walk back to his room was, as Paschal had predicted, uneventful; this time, the only things thrown at him were hostile glances. Despite his pounding headache, he kept his shoulders back, his chin high, and his eyes forward until he reached the door to his quarters. He started to unlock it, but found himself distracted by one of the other keys on the ring: the one labeled KR.

Jord had said that the Kwoon Room was free for use after 9 PM, and it was nearly 10 now.

Damen briefly debated with himself; his skull still felt like it was too small for his brain, but his body was humming with restless energy — energy that wouldn’t let him sleep until it was spent. What he really needed was to go for a run, but if he couldn’t leave the base, he’d have to settle for the next-best thing.

With his mind made up, Damen turned on his heel and headed back down the hall.

 

                                                                                                    

 

When Laurent let himself into Damianos’ room at half-past eleven to find it dark and empty, he immediately whipped out his phone and called the only number he had on speed dial.

Jord answered after four and a half rings, sounding disgruntled: “Yeah?”

“Where is he?” Laurent asked without pretense, slipping from Damianos’ quarters and locking the door behind him.

There was a faint rustling on Jord’s end of the line, drowning out the murmur of someone’s voice; after a few seconds, the background noise faded and Jord said, “Damen, you mean? Is he not in his room?”

“Do you think I’d be calling if he was?”

A muffled snort. “Guess not. Have you tried the Kwoon Room? You told me to give him a key for it.”

Laurent had told him to do that, but he hadn’t expected Damianos to utilize it so soon, especially considering the report Paschal had given him earlier. Laurent could guess how Damianos must be feeling. His first Drift test after losing Auguste had utterly wrecked him — or so he’d been told. They’d had to sedate him for a day and a half afterward, and his memory of the incident was blessedly blurry.

That didn’t mean he had any sympathy for Damianos, though. If anything, the thought of Damianos having to deal with that sort of pain made satisfaction swell in his chest.

How does it feel, he wanted to ask, to have your whole world ripped away from you?

How does it feel to have your only safe place become your personal hell?

He wanted to see Damianos flinch as those words caught in his skin like fishhooks — but it was a desire Laurent couldn’t indulge. There were some weaknesses he could only exploit by revealing his own, and it was far too early in the game to be so careless with his cards.

“I’ll check,” Laurent said. He hung up without waiting for a response.

Phone stowed safely in his pocket, he moved swiftly and silently down the corridor. There weren’t many people up and about at this hour, but the few he didencounter tracked his every movement with apprehensive eyes, tense shoulders climbing toward their ears are they tried to feign ignorance of his presence and instead confirmed their acute awareness.

Laurent wanted to scoff. He knew exactly what they thought of him, and he knew exactly why.

No one lost the Ghost Drift and came out of it with all their mental faculties intact.

But Laurent had — and to everyone around him, that was somehow even worse.

He lost the most important person in his life, they whispered, and he barely batted an eyelash.

Frigid, they called him.

Emotionless.

Soulless.

A sociopath.

Maybe he was—or maybe he was just insane. That was the belief of a minority at the base who’d either witnessed his breakdown in the control room six years ago or heard misshapen half-truths about the “episodes” that had led to his medically induced coma.

Not that it was common knowledge that he’d been in a coma. Most people thought he’d been abroad, training at some isolated base where communication was restricted by distance and weather. Supporters of the sociopath theory used his six-month disappearance as evidence: if he felt anything at all, how could he abandon his friends and family after such a tragedy? What kind of person does that?

He could read those unspoken words on the faces of the people he passed. Could sense their fear; their wariness; their dislike.

The weight of their stares dragged at him, but he didn’t slow down until he reached the Kwoon Room.

He wasn’t surprised by the faint stripe of light under the door, or by the soft shuffle of bare feet coming from within. He was also wasn’t surprised to hear the occasional grunt of pain; the effects of a bad Drift test were akin to a severe hangover, and Damianos had suffered through over a dozen of them. Laurent was surprised that the man was still conscious, let alone capable of training.

Unable to contain his curiosity, Laurent opened the door a crack and peered inside.

Damianos stood alone in the center of the ring, broad shoulders heaving as he paused to catch his breath. His jacket had already been discarded; the powerful arms that had caged Laurent so easily during their sparring match were already gleaming with sweat, and the strikes Damianos was practicing didn’t look as crisp as they had when Laurent was on the receiving end of them. Critiques scrolled through Laurent’s mind at the speed of light, but for once he kept them trapped behind his teeth. To speak would be to give himself away, and he had no interest in dealing with a Damianos who knew he was there; a Damianos who believed himself to be alone was far more compelling to watch.

Fortunately, Damianos was facing the opposite wall and showed no sign of turning around anytime soon. His staff slashed the air in front of him over and over, battering an invisible opponent; he practiced defensive moves as well, ducking and rolling in anticipation of imaginary blows before swinging up to knock them aside. It was at once perplexing and intriguing, like hearing only one side of a phone call or half the dialogue of a play; like reading the answers to a test without knowing what the questions had been.

Laurent narrowed his eyes. Except…

Except Laurent knew that sequence of moves. He’d practiced it countless times himself. The defensive maneuvers were familiar, too — he knew the attack pattern they were designed to counter.

And he knew who he’d learned it from.

Who they’d both learned it from.

In deathly silence, Laurent watched as the man he hated more than almost anyone else in the world sparred with the ghost of his brother.

If he really concentrated, he could almost see Auguste there in the ring — could almost see the glint of the overhead fluorescents on his wheat-gold hair, could almost see the quicksilver flash of his smile. He could almost hear his brother’s deep, rich laughter as he danced around Damianos with his favorite mahogany staff in hand. He could almost imagine that Auguste was really there— that he was about to walk over and ruffle Laurent’s hair and ask if he wanted a rematch against Damianos.

Laurent’s fury was a frigid, slow-spreading thing, a chill that pooled in his chest and seeped into his veins like liquid nitrogen. For a fleeting moment, he considered stepping forward, retrieving a staff from the rack on the wall, and challenging Damianos to a real fight. No rules, no boundaries, no winner or loser at the end: just a corpse on the floor and the one who’d put it there.

Then he came back to himself. He uncurled his hands from the tight fists they’d formed, ignoring the red, stinging half-moons his fingernails had dug into his palms.

Soon. But not yet.

Taking care not to make any noise, Laurent eased the door shut.

“Spying on the prisoner?” chirped a bright, lofty voice from behind him. “How naughty.”

“Not as naughty as sneaking up on your superiors,” Laurent replied, turning to face Nicaise. “Though I’m not sure it counts as ‘sneaking’ when you do such a poor job of it.”

Color bloomed across Nicaise’s fair cheeks, dark enough to hide his sprinkling of freckles. Then he recovered his composure, crossed his slender arms, and declared, “You didn’t notice me. If you had, you would’ve said something.”

Laurent arched an eyebrow and leaned back against the door. “You seem very sure of yourself.”

“I’m sure that you don’t want your uncle to know about what I just saw.”

Laurent arched a brow. “What makes you say that?”

Nicaise’s laugh was silvery and gossamer-light. “I thought you were smart, Laurent. Is ogling the most hated man in Vere really the best thing for you to be doing right now?”

Laurent snorted. “I’m almost impressed,” he said, desert-dry. “Most people who make such gigantic leaps of logic end up breaking their ankles on the landing.”

To his surprise, Nicaise didn’t even flinch. Laurent noticed belatedly that the boy was wearing pajamas: a loose button-down shirt and pants, made of pitch-black silk that set off his creamy white skin. Laurent rapidly shuffled puzzle pieces around in his mind, but somehow couldn’t get them to fit together.

Nicaise must’ve read the confusion on his face, for his smirk widened.

“Your uncle didn’t tell me to ask you about all this, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said, flicking imaginary dust from his nightclothes. “I don’t think he’s noticed what I’ve noticed. I’m just supposed to bring you to him.”

Every muscle in Laurent’s body went rigid. “What does he want?”

Nicaise smile was razor-sharp and hard as a diamond.

“That’s for me to know,” he said sweetly, “and you to find out.”

 

~~~

 

After Damen’s first day of Drift rehabilitation, Laurent disappeared for a week.

On day one, Damen assumed the lieutenant was just busy. On day two, he wondered if Laurent was carrying out some task for his uncle; despite the obvious animosity between the two men, Damen figured that Laurent must do something for the Regent in order to maintain his rank and keep his freedom — though he didn’t allow that thought to linger. He’d never given much thought to the rumors that the Regent had… unsavory ways of keeping Laurent under his thumb, and he wasn’t going to start now. Laurent acted like a spoiled princeling, not a prisoner.

He spent days three through six buried deep in his new training regime: cardio (i.e. running through the corridors in the smallest hours of the morning, when he was least likely to encounter other people), sparring with Orlant and some other guards (usually while clad in weighted gear so he’d be prepared for the bulk of Drift suit), and struggling through Drift test after Drift test in his afternoon sessions with Paschal.

Even with his crowded schedule, however, the absence of a certain pale-haired, icy-eyed smartass didn’t escape his notice, and at the end of day seven he went to the mess hall in search of answers — or, in other words, in search of Jord.

The cafeteria was gigantic — it had to be, to serve the entire base — and Damen spent a solid ten minutes squeezing between rickety metal tables and squinting around the room before he finally found the captain at an otherwise deserted booth tucked in a relatively quiet corner. At the sight of Damen, Jord’s eyebrows shot to his hairline.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in here,” he drawled as Damen approached, gesturing at their surroundings with a half-smoked cigarette. There was a strange quality to his voice, and sleeplessness was smudged around his eyes like charcoal. “What brings you to this fine dining establishment?”

Damen flicked a glance at the seat across from Jord; when the captain nodded in curt, silent assent, he gingerly slid into it, wincing at the ache in his muscles. He knew the pain meant his training sessions were serving their purpose, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

He was sure his discomfort was written all over his face, but Jord didn’t remark on it; he just leaned back and took a long drag of his cigarette, one brow cocked expectantly.

Damen set his hands on the table in front of him, staring at the lurid bruises on his fingertips.  Physical pain makes for a good anchor, Paschal had told him on his second day, dropping a thumbtack into his palm; if you get stuck in the Drift, prick your finger with that and it should help you come back. The technique had worked well, but he’d had to employ it more times than he would’ve preferred.

“You’re stalling,” Jord said, blunt as ever.

Damen darted an irritated glance at him, but didn’t — couldn’t — deny the accusation.

Finally: “I haven’t seen Laurent around.”

Jord hummed around his cigarette, and his next words came out in a spill of smoke: “Neither has anyone else.”

Damen would’ve believed Jord’s mild, unconcerned tone if it weren’t for the ashtray by his right hand, which already held the crushed remains of at least half a dozen cigarettes. Damen narrowly stopped himself from wrinkling his nose.

“Where is he, then?” Damen asked, watching delicate wisps of smoke spiral up toward the ceiling. “Is he still at the base?”

“Even if I knew, I’m not sure I would tell you.”

Damen blinked, caught off-guard. “You don’t know?” he asked, ignoring the second part of Jord’s sentence for the time being.

Jord tapped ashes off the end of his cigarette, lips twitching in a scowl. “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“That was rhetorical,” Damen said sourly, waving away Jord’s next puff of smoke; the smell of it was a bright burn in his nostrils. “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?”

Jord’s voice sharpened. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Excuse me?”

Jord glared across the table as he reached into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He used the smoldering remains of his current cigarette to light a fresh stick, putting the latter between his lips and grinding out the former in the ashtray. He pulled at it for a few long seconds, not taking his eyes off Damen.

“As far as I know,” he said at last, the words low and wreathed in smoke, “you were the last person to see him.”

Damen gave an emphatic shake of his head, disbelieving. “I haven’t seen him since the night before I started with Paschal.”

Plainly, Jord said, “I don’t believe you.”

“I wouldn’t li—” Damen started hotly, but Jord cut him off almost instantly.

“The last time I heard from him, he was looking for you.” Damen felt the flick of the captain’s eyes over his face like the slash of a knife. “The night after you say you saw him last, you weren’t in your quarters, so I told him to look for you in the Kwoon Room.”

Damen went perfectly still.

Jord asked, “Were you there?”

“I didn’t see him,” Damen said quietly.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“It’s the only answer I have,” Damen shot back. “I was there, but I didn’t see him, I didn’t talk to him, and I definitely didn’t hurt him, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“I’m not implying anything,” said Jord flatly. “I just know that Laurent is gone, and the last time I had contact with him, he was looking for you. If you ask me, Damianos, I have a pretty good reason to be suspicious.”

“If you’re so sure I did something to him,” Damen growled, “then why wait for me to come to you?”

“Because he’s trusted you from the start,said a silky voice from behind Damen, droll and familiar, “and he was scared of finding proof that he’d made the wrong decision.”

Jord was up and out of his seat in the blink of an eye.

“Laurent,” he said, voice ragged with relief.

Damen didn’t move or speak. He could hear Laurent’s steady breathing; could feel the weight of his stare. Jord shot him a look that was at once an apology and a warning, but he ignored it.

The soles of Laurent’s boots clicked against the floor as he took another step forward.

“Hey, sweetheart.”

Damen knew the words were directed at him, but he held his tongue, even as Laurent’s voice poured over him like poisoned honey: “Did you miss me?”

Click. Click. A shadow fell across Damen; across the table in front of him.

Coolly, Laurent said, “I asked you a question, 52308.”

Damen whipped around, a hot retort already on the tip of his tongue— but stopped short when he found himself practically nose-to-nose with Laurent. Instead of retreating, as every fiber of his body was screaming at him to do, he just leaned forward until their forehead nearly touched. Until he could feel the heat of Laurent’s breath on his lips.

“Don’t ever,” he said, soft as the golden lashes that fringed Laurent’s eyes, “call me that again.”

Laurent didn’t flinch; didn’t try to put any space between them. “I don’t think you’re in a position to be telling me what to do.”

“If you want a competent co-pilot, I don’t think you’re in a position to be telling me what to do, either.”

Laurent’s eyes were steel-bright. “You’re coming with me.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re coming with me,” Laurent repeated, harsher this time, “right now. Get up.”

“Laurent,” Jord said, leaning forward over the table, “what’s going on?”

There was a slick, metallic snap, and a switchblade flashed silver between Laurent’s fingers. Damen forced himself to stay still as the tip of the knife dented his Adam’s apple, pressing hard enough to sting but not to break the skin.

“Does Paschal need to check your hearing?” Laurent asked, the words coated in frost. “Or do you truly lack a self-preservation instinct?”

Damen wrapped his hand around Laurent’s and squeezed it hard, a silent warning. “Where have you been all week?”

A flash of something — pain? Disbelief? Anger? — crossed Laurent’s elegant features. “I was busy.”

“Busy,” Damen repeated, arching an eyebrow. “Doing what?”

“I don’t see how that’s any concern of yours.”

“As your partner, I think it is.”

For a split second, Laurent just stared at him, incredulous; then, with a muttered curse, he turned sharply on his heel and started weaving his way toward the exit.

“If you don’t come with me,” he called without looking back, “I’ll assume that you wish to go back to Chastillon. The choice is yours.”

Except it wasn’t, Damen thought bitterly. Not really.

Ignoring the touch of Jord’s hand at his shoulder, he got up and followed Laurent out of the room.

~~~

 

It didn’t take Damen long to figure out where they were going.

Laurent moved fast, but thankfully Damen’s legs were longer, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to keep up. People gaped at them as they went by, and he could hardly blame them: it wasn’t often nowadays that one could see an Akielon and a Veretian walking side by side. Or rather half-jogging side by side.

“Paschal hasn’t cleared me to Drift with another person yet,” Damen pointed out as they turned down a corridor lined with solid steel doors, each one emblazoned with a number. Most bore screens lit up with the message DRIFT IN PROGRESS, but Damen could make out one that read VACANT near the end of the hall.

“I don’t care,” Laurent said flatly, not even sparing him a glance.

“And if I fall out of the Drift and end up mentally crippled for the rest of my life?” Damen asked, oozing sardonicism.

“Then we put you out of your misery and find someone else.” Laurent’s shoulders were drawn low and tight; every graceful line of his body was pulled as taut as a bowstring, and Damen suspected that if he tried to touch him, tried to get him to turn around, he’d end up with a knife in his throat.

Still, he couldn’t seem to resist needling the young lieutenant: “And if you fall out of the Drift and end up mentally crippled for the rest of your life?”

That got Laurent to whip around, his petal-pink mouth twisted up in a snarl. “Is that what you’re hoping for, then?”

Without thinking, Damen immediately answered, “No.”

He thought he saw surprise flicker across Laurent’s face, but it was swiftly replaced by scorn. “Right. I forgot that beasts like to play with their food before they kill it.”

“You do seem fond of doing that, yes.”

Laurent spun back around with a scoff, stalking over to a door marked VACANT. After deactivating the lock with a keycard he produced from his pocket, he shoved it open and gestured inside. “Go.”

Seeing no point in disobeying, Damen did as he was told.

The Drift chamber Laurent had chosen was pretty much like all the others Damen had seen throughout his life: small and square, with whitewashed walls and a matching floor. In the middle of the room was a circular, slightly elevated platform upon which the Drift pod rested. Off to the side was the control booth; it was sealed off from the rest of the chamber, but its exterior was made mostly of windows, so the technicians within could easily keep an eye on their charges. At the moment, the booth held only a single occupant: a lanky, sharp-eyed man wearing a technician’s uniform and a disgruntled expression.

“You’re late,” he barked, leaning out of the open door to glare at them both.

Damen was all too happy to glower back, but Laurent just shot the technician an icy, unimpressed look and said, “Blame the barbarian. He wasn’t where he was supposed to be.”

Damen made an indignant noise at the accusation, but Laurent silenced any further retorts by hurling a circuitry suit at his face. He caught it just in time; the texture of it was achingly familiar against his skin, flexible and soft, like neoprene. He resisted the urge to press his nose into it and see if it smelled as familiar as it felt.

“Put that on,” Laurent ordered, his voice underscored by the rustling of fabric.

Damen turned toward the sound— and immediately started at the sight of Laurent already stripping off his clothes. His shirt was partway over his head, hiding his face, and Damen couldn’t help but seize the opportunity to study his so-called partner’s physique.

Laurent was incredibly fit — Damen had deduced as much during their sparring match — but not, it seemed, at the cost of grace or elegance: as he moved, lean muscle rippled under skin as pale and smooth as marble, and as his shirt slipped up over his shoulders it revealed a powerful upper body undoubtedly honed through years of intense training in the Kwoon Room. Defined collarbones curved gently inward toward the hollow of his throat, which in turn led up into a graceful neck, which in turned yielded to a clean-cut jaw and a sharp chin—

“You’re staring,” Laurent said, stone-cold.

Damen’s gaze finally reached Laurent’s eyes, which were narrowed to slits and icy enough to give a man frostbite from across the room. Suddenly, his state of undress felt like a dare; a taunt. But Damen couldn’t help but detect a glimmer of unease in that steely gaze. As if he wasn’t sure what Damen was going to do. As if he was running through all the possibilities in his mind and devising a plan on how to evade or retaliate.

It was that tiny glimpse of insecurity that made Damen silently turn around, tucking his barbed retort under his tongue for later use. As he started to wrestle his shirt over his head, overworked muscles complaining all the way, he could feel Laurent’s eyes on the back of his neck like the press of a blade.

“Now who’s staring?” he couldn’t help but say, setting his shirt aside. He felt uncomfortably exposed; goosebumps prickled over his bare arms and down his spine. He knew he wore his time at Chastillon on his skin — especially on his back — and while we wasn’t exactly thrilled to show off those scars, there was no use in trying to hide them. It wasn’t like Laurent didn’t know where he’d spent the last six months.

“Lazar,” Laurent said flatly.

Damen paused. “What?”

“Lazar is staring,” Laurent repeated, “and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stop. Right now.”

Finally catching Laurent’s meaning, Damen swiveled toward the control booth, where the sharp-eyed Drift technician was hunched over a computer. He was staring determinedly at the screen, but his high cheekbones were stained scarlet, and his features were scrunched up in a slight scowl.

Interesting.

Deciding not to press on that nerve, Damen turned back to the wall and started on his belt buckle. As soon as he shimmied his pants down his legs, he stepped out of them and into the Drift suit, tugging the sleek black material up to his neck and shoving his arms through the sleeves. The lining of the suit clung to him like a second skin, hugging every curve of muscle and ridge of bone. It fastened up the back, which meant…

“Come here.”

Laurent spoke stiffly, as if he despised the words even as they came out of his mouth, but he didn’t take them back. Damen reluctantly turned to find Laurent already facing the other way; the back of his suit hung open, revealing a broad V of unblemished white skin. Damen remained exactly where he was, wondering if he was somehow misinterpreting.

“You want me to…”

“Yes,” Laurent interrupted, impatient. “Preferably within the hour.”

It took a few more seconds for Damen to convince his feet to move; it wasn’t often that he voluntarily moved closer to Laurent, considering how the risk of death — or at least severe bodily injury — seemed to increase with his proximity to the Veretian lieutenant. The idea of putting his hands on Laurent outside the context of a fight was even more ludicrous, but… Laurent remained perfectly still as Damen approached, his switchblade nowhere to be seen.

“From bottom to top,” said Laurent curtly, as if Damen had never put on a Drift suit before.

He said, “I know.”

“If you know, then get started.”

“Have you always been like this?” Damen couldn’t help but demand, pinching the first button between his thumb and forefinger and pulling it through the corresponding slit.

Laurent paused. “Like what?”

“Like…” Damen made a frustrated noise as he fastened another button, then another. “A spoiled brat.”

A faint, wry laugh vibrated through Laurent’s chest; Damen felt it in his fingertips. “Is that all you’ve got?” he asked, regarding Damen out of the corner of one brilliant blue eye. “I’m almost disappointed.”

Damen scoffed under his breath. “Would you like to hear more? I’m sure I can come up with something.”

“Oh, by all means.”

There was a dangerous edge to Laurent’s voice now, like a knife pushing up through a sheet of silk, and Damen wisely chose to keep his mouth shut as he continued his work. Unfortunately, without conversation to distract him, he found his attention drawn to things he would’ve much rather ignored: Laurent’s skin, for example, separated from Damen’s own by only a paper-thin layer of material. It was pale as a pearl and, as he learned when he accidentally brushed a fingertip against it, just as smooth.

(Laurent didn’t react when that happened, but Damen still took great care not to let it happen again.)

“I hope you’re almost done,” Laurent sniped, as if he couldn’t feel that Damen had nearly reached the nape of his neck. “We don’t have all day.”

Damen resisted the urge to point out that it was already night, choosing instead to finish his task as swiftly as possible and practically leap out of Laurent’s personal space. Right now, he decided, remaining close to the lieutenant would be like offering his wrist to a cobra after provoking it; if he got bitten at this point, it would be his own fault.

But Laurent just turned around, folded his arms, and gave Damen a distinctly unimpressed look.

“Well?” he said, when Damen didn’t immediately react. “Turn around. Unless you’d rather Drift with your ass hanging out of your suit.”

“The opening doesn’t even go that far down,” Damen retorted by reflex, more than ready to retreat or perhaps ask for Lazar’s help, but Laurent didn’t give him a chance — in a few fluid strides, he closed the distance between them and reached up to give his shoulder a rough push.

The voluntary contact, aggressive though it was, came as a shock; more shocking to Damen, however, was his own response: in compliance with the unspoken command, he turned around.

Almost instantly, he felt the warm weight of Laurent’s hands at the small of his back.

“Fucking brute,” the lieutenant muttered; Damen felt the material of the suit pull taut around his sides as Laurent drew button to buttonhole and vice versa. “I’m impressed we have a suit that fits you.”

“They stretch,” Damen said, which — all right, maybe that wasn’t the sharpest of comebacks, but Laurent didn’t immediately snort or cut him down, so he let himself have a little bit of credit.

After an eternity — or perhaps just a few seconds — Laurent said, “Lucky for you.”

Damen stayed quiet, waiting for Laurent to verbally eviscerate him in earnest, but the lieutenant didn’t speak again. He was much more efficient than Damen had been, his fingers dancing nimbly up Damen’s spine; on the rare occasions when skin brushed skin, it was fleeting, as clinical and impersonal as Laurent himself. Damen fought the urge to tense up, all too aware that Laurent would notice instantly — and would probably view it as a victory.

“I hope you’re almost done,” he said, because he apparently had a death wish.

Laurent answered that with a sharp pinch to the back of his neck, making Damen yelp. “Hey!”

“I’m done,” Laurent said, sauntering away in the direction of the Drift pod.

Damen threw a resentful look at the back of Laurent’s head as he reluctantly followed, rubbing the sting from the nape of his neck with one hand.

Finally,” Lazar griped, marching out of the control booth with a bulky black box under each arm. “Some of us would like to get some fucking sleep before morning drills, you know.”

Damen cut him an irritated glance, but Laurent ignored the technician in favor of stepping up into the Drift pod — the left side of the Drift pod, Damen realized with a jolt. The side meant for the non-dominant pilot.

“Laur—” he started, but at that moment Lazar’s shoulder connected solidly with his, knocking him off-balance and effectively shutting him up.

“I wouldn’t say anything if I were you,” said Lazar in a low voice, shoving one of the boxes at Damen’s chest. “Unless you want to die, in which case, carry on.”

Damen scowled and adjusted his grip on the box. “I just wanted to check if he was su—”

“He’s sure,” Lazar said shortly. “Now shut up and get in position.”

Damen gritted his teeth and forced himself to move on. The Drift pod loomed before him, a siren made of glass and metal and machinery, singing promises, steadily luring him toward what could be either death or paradise. He wanted—he needed—to get inside. He needed the Drift; needed the feverish freedom of it; needed the sensation that his very essence was being unraveled and re-woven, his soul inextricably entwined with another. He wanted to walk through someone else’s memories and lead them by the hand through his own. He wanted…

With one foot on the Drift platform and one foot on the floor, he paused. On the left side of the Drift pod, Laurent stood with his chin high and his eyes forward; the slim, adroit fingers that had so deftly fastened Damen’s suit were now separating Laurent’s own hair into tidy sections, guiding them over and under and through each other with mesmerizing speed and precision. The sight struck Damen as oddly familiar, almost nostalgic, and it took him a few seconds to realize why: Auguste had done the same thing before every mission. Laurent’s hair was lighter than his brother’s had been, and wasn’t quite as long, but the braid — and the care with which he assembled it — was the same.

“Well?”

Laurent spoke without looking at Damen or pausing in his work. Strands of his hair flashed between his fingers, pale and bright, like corn silk. Behind him crouched Lazar, who was unpacking the contents of the black box and arranging it neatly on the floor.

Damen blinked in surprise at the sight. “Armor?” he asked, skimming his eyes over the polycarbonate breastplate, vambraces, and leg guards that had been laid out so far. “I thought this was just a test Drift, not a sim.”

“That’s correct,” Laurent said without inflection. Having finished with his braid, he now stood with his arms lifted and spread, giving Lazar the room he needed to attach the breastplate and backplate. The magnets inside the circuitry suit and armor allowed the two layers to snap together with ease.

Realizing that Laurent was in fact going to force him to ask the obvious question, Damen sighed and asked, with exaggerated enunciation, “Why?”

A beat of silence; then Laurent finally deigned to meet his eyes.

“Because I am not accustomed to it,” he said. There was nothing defensive about his tone; it was merely a statement of fact, an empirical observation. “And I must be, if I am to enter the field.”

Damen paused, carefully weighing those words. Just how soon was Laurent expecting to see battle? In a few months? A few weeks? He thought of Laurent’s recent absence from the base and wondered, not for the first time, exactly what had drawn him away for so long.

Regardless, it would be foolish to instigate an argument over something so simple.

“All right,” Damen said, and knelt to begin unpacking his own armor.

For a fraction of a second, Laurent’s eyes shot wide, as if Damen’s acquiescence were a blow that had caught him off-guard; then, in the blink of an eye, the lieutenant’s face became a clean slate once again.

Damen did his best to ignore both Laurent and Lazar as he donned his own armor, which proved to be a difficult task to perform unassisted. He felt Laurent’s eyes linger on him for the briefest of moments, then slide away — to where, Damen had no idea, but he didn’t let himself check. Instead, he focused on the familiar weight of the armor; on how good it felt to be back in this uniform.

Except, he reminded himself sharply, this wasn’t his uniform. His uniform was tailored perfectly to his proportions; it wasn’t so tight across the shoulders, and the armor didn’t fail to cover the full breadth of his chest. Its accents were not blue, but scarlet. And it bore the seal of his country: a roaring lion’s head, emblazoned across the breastplate in brilliant blood-red.

He was not here to have fun, or to play games, or fulfill his craving for the kind of connection he hadn’t tasted in over six months. His goal was stark and simple: survive, then escape.

The polycarbonate armor suddenly felt a little heavier than before.

“Come on.” It was Lazar’s voice that summoned him, clipped with irritation. “You know the drill.”

Jaw set, Damen stepped up onto the platform and let muscle memory guide him into position: feet shoulders-width apart, arms loose at his sides, spine straight. He sensed rather than saw Lazar approach from behind, a spinal clamp in his hands.

“Sit still,” the technician warned as he moved closer. “These things will zap you if you’re not careful.”

“Trust me,” said Damen, who’d had his fair share of mishaps with spinal clamps as a cadet, “I know.”

Despite the nameless yet fervid energy crackling under Damen’s skin, he managed to stand motionless as Lazar worked. As soon as the clamp made contact with the circuitry suit, a faint shock raced up his spine; then familiar sensation was more pleasant than painful, and he settled into it with a sigh.

Out of the corner of his left eye, Damen saw Laurent stiffen.

“I closed the circuit between the clamps,” Lazar said, moving to stand in front of them. “Does anything feel off?”

“It…” Laurent hesitated, eyes flickering toward Damen and then away. “No.”

Lazar gave a little nod of acceptance before raising his eyebrows at Damen, who shook his head.

“Good.” Lazar hopped down from the platform. “I’m going to grab the helmets. Try not to kill each other while I’m gone.” He eyed them. “No fucking, either.”

Damen choked on air as Laurent said flatly, “I think the suits would make that a bit difficult, don’t you?”

Damen wasn’t sure if he was talking about killing, fucking, or both.

Instead of asking, he said, “So. Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or am I supposed to guess?”

Laurent’s eyes slowly slid his way. “This may come as a surprise to you,” he said, as if he were speaking to a kindergartener, “but we’re here to Drift.”

Damen wasn’t going to gain any ground by fighting sarcasm with sarcasm. “You know what I’m talking about.”

Laurent let out a soft huff of air through his nose: not quite a scoff, not quite a sigh.

“My uncle,” he said, the words crisply enunciated, “has requested that we speed up the training process.”

Damen said, “Requested.”

Laurent’s voice was just as flat. “Yes.”

“Does that request have anything to do with where you’ve been for the past week?”

The only outward sign of Laurent’s unease was the brief, irritated twitch of a brow. “Tell me, can you Drift without a tongue?”

Damen rolled his eyes and was saved from responding by the return of Lazar, who tossed one helmet to Damen and another to Laurent; Damen caught his against his chest, surprised, while Laurent plucked his from the air with one hand.

Show-off, Damen thought, but wisely didn’t say. After combing his slightly overgrown hair back from his face, he slid the helmet over his head, pushing down until it locked into place with a soft hiss. Cool, sterile air kissed his face as oxygen immediately began flowing from a nearby tank; though there was no risk of flooding or depressurization in a practice pod, they were still outfitted with breathing apparatus, just so cadets could get acclimated to it.

Next to him, Laurent stood stock-still as Lazar secured his helmet for him. Damen could see their mouths moving in hushed conversation, but until the helmets’ comm systems were activated, he wasn’t going to be able to hear anything that went on around him. The temporary sensation of deafness frustrated him in a way it never had before — then again, with Nikandros, he’d never had to worry if his co-pilot was conspiring with the technician to kill him and make it look like an accident.

He quickly forced that train of thought off the rails, giving his head a fierce shake to clear it. However much Laurent hated Damen, he needed him even more; that much, at least, was clear to him, even if everything else about the lieutenant was an utter enigma.

As he wrestled with his thoughts, Lazar stepped out of the pod and returned to the control booth, where he immediately located and donned a pair of beat-up headphones. A beat later, his voice flooded the interior of Damen’s helmet: “Pilot 1, do you copy?”

“Yes,” Damen replied, the warmth of his own breath bouncing back at him.

“Pilot 2?”

Laurent’s voice was even, if a bit quiet: “Yes.”

As Lazar ran through the usual system checks, Damen idly flexed his fingers, which felt naked and cold in the absence of the gauntlets he normally wore while piloting. It wasn’t as if he needed them for Drift practice, but it was still an odd sensation, a flash of dissonance in an otherwise familiar song.

“Pilot 1, are you ready?”

“Affirmative.”

“Pilot 2?”

“Affirmative,” was Laurent’s terse reply.

“All right.” The hum of the spinal clamps increased in pitch. “Engaging pilot-to-pilot protocol. Initiating neural handshake in fourteen, thirteen…”

Damen closed his eyes, as was his habit. Somehow he doubted Laurent was doing the same.

“Twelve, eleven…”

Underneath Lazar’s voice Damen could just barely make out a soft shushing sound; it took him a few seconds to realize it was the sound of Laurent’s breathing, quick and slightly labored. Not a good sign, he thought, bracing himself. If Laurent was uncertain, if he hesitated…

“Six, five, four…”

Against his own better judgment, Damen murmured, “Laurent.”

“Shut up,” Laurent bit out, as Lazar continued, “Three, two…”

Damen said, “If you’re not—”

“One. Neural handshake initiating.

When the first bright wave of memories swelled before him, burning like a sunrise against the backs of his eyelids, Damen sucked in a breath and dove.

Back home, Drifting had been like swimming. He’d grown up in Ios — the jewel of the Akielon coastline, a sparkling city by the sea — and had taken his very first steps on the beach, his tiny feet barely making imprints in the sand as he toddled about, pausing only to grab fistfuls of the pearly white foam left behind by breakers and smear it all over his father’s perfectly pressed trousers. By the time he was six months old, he was paddling around in the shallows with Kastor at his side, making sure his head stayed above the surface. He loved the ocean — his childhood nurse had suggested once that he had saltwater in his veins instead of blood.

Then he’d Drifted for the first time, and that opinion changed: his heart pumped relay gel, not seawater. It was, they joked, the only sensible explanation for his impossible sync scores and sky-high Drift compatibility. He took to piloting the same way he’d taken to the sea: with an ecstatic fervor that only intensified with time and training. He loved it; lived it; breathed it. He spent his days on his official regimen — sparring, Drifting with various partners, sitting in on EDC council meetings with his father — and his nights practicing in the Kwoon Room, at first alone, and later with Auguste.

There had been talk of setting them up as co-pilots; they’d been equal in age, ability, and passion, and their natural friendship provided a solid foundation for the Drift. Then the alliance between Akielos and Vere disintegrated, and so did the potential of an official partnership between them — though their friendship persisted as best as it could, stretched between surreptitious midnight meetings that did nothing to discourage rumors of a relationship between them. There was no truth in those allegations, but it provided a good cover for what they were really doing: trying to work out what the hell went wrong between their countries, and what could be done to fix it.

“Someday we’ll end all this,” Auguste had murmured once, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the unlit Kwoon Room, eyes locked on the map they were studying by the glow of a flashlight.

“End what?” Damen had asked, leaning forward, elbows braced on his thighs. There were so many things that needed to end: the war on the kaiju; the war between the different factions of the EDC, torn between the continued use of jaegers and the construction of a trans-oceanic wall; the war between Akielos and Vere, at turns ice-cold and blistering hot as the countries’ focus shifted from monstrous foes to human ones and back again.

Auguste hadn’t gotten a chance to answer; at that moment, they’d been discovered by a Veretian officer and promptly dragged to their respective fathers.

Damen hadn’t known then that it would be the last time they spoke privately before that blood-soaked day at Marlas. He could see it crystal-clear: Auguste, drenched, shivering, streaming water, streaming blood.

“Damen, please—”

Damen surged up from the depths of his sea of memories, shattering the surface with a gasp that threatened to rip his lungs from his ribcage. He’d been used to it, once — the process of reliving his life in the space between heartbeats — but he’d discovered in that harrowing first session with Paschal that he couldn’t swim as well as he once had. Or maybe it was the water itself that had changed, no longer simple and smooth and welcoming but storm-tossed, fathomless, murky as a night without stars. What it was, Damen couldn’t—wasn’t sure if—

Be still.

Damen froze. The voice was familiar, so agonizingly familiar, and—

Be still, the voice repeated. Don’t struggle, that’s how you sink. The water will carry you. But you have to let it.

The memory was laced with the tang of sea salt and the whisper of water against sand; with the heat of the summer sun on his bare back; with the awareness of a presence beside him, sturdy and strong, unmoved by the tide. It was a memory he hadn’t known to cherish until just six months before.

Just float.

When was the last time he’d heard Kastor speak so softly, so fondly?

Once you learn to float, you can learn to swim.

Damen tried to slow his breathing: in through his nose, out through his mouth, over and over again.

Until then, you just have to let the water take you where you’re supposed to go.

The memory of Kastor faded, and Damen opened his eyes. Gone were the blank walls of the practice chamber, replaced by his own mindscape: a sphere full of swirling, sunlit water, familiar as his own voice and almost as easy to manipulate. Once, navigating it had been as simple as breathing or thinking; now, he could sense dark, twisted memories circling him like sharks, nipping at his feet, at his sides, trying to wrench his attention away from the task at hand.

Whatever you do, Paschal had warned him during one of their sessions, don’t let them pull you under. They can’t take away your control unless you hand it to them, got it? Keep your head up. Keep breathing.

So Damen did. He stood on the tips of his toes, which kept his head and neck above the surface, and combed his fingers through the tepid water, flashes of emotion chasing each other like heartbeats as memories brushed by: joy, grief, confusion, hope, love. He didn’t let any of it linger; didn’t pause to analyze the past. He couldn’t afford to, not now. Possibly not ever.

A chill suddenly skimmed down Damen’s back, and he instinctively turned to find himself face to face with an iron wall, cutting off the passage that would normally lead to his co-pilot’s mindscape.

Damianos.” Lazar’s voice was distant, muffled, as if Damen were deep underwater and the technician was shouting from the shore. “What’s happening in there?”

Instead of answering, Damen reached out and pressed his palm flat against the metal. The cold of it shot straight to the marrow of his bones, but he didn’t flinch; he had long since grown accustomed to Laurent’s chilly, guarded demeanor, and the wall was no more than a manifestation of that.

If this was what other pilots had faced when they tried to Drift with Laurent, it was no surprise that the lieutenant’s Drift compatability was abysmal.

But Damen wasn’t just any pilot.

He leaned more weight into his hand, as if the man on the other side could somehow sense the increased pressure — maybe he could — and called, “Can you hear me?”

A flare of heat against his palm: not soothing, but searing. A defense mechanism. Damen wanted to roll his eyes, but he supposed it was a small victory that Laurent had acknowledged him at all.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Damen said, experimentally lifting his other hand to rest it against the metal. A hot spark of pain pricked his skin, but it was quick to recede. “You’re not usually this quiet.”

He knew Laurent was on the other side, listening; he could feel the other man’s presence, a subtle but undeniable quickening in his blood. Their consciousnesses were so close — quite literally pressed together — but had not yet merged.

Gazing at the wall, Damen found himself remembering the things that Jord had told him back at Chastillon — things that Laurent would probably kill the captain for telling him.

I’m the one who had to stick a syringe full of sedative in Laurent’s neck when the Ghost Drift shattered and he tried to kill himself. I don’t think he even knew what he was doing. He just wanted to ruin himself; wanted to ruin everything around him… His mind was already wrecked but at least I could protect the rest of him.

  I knew him, and the kid who went into that coma isn’t the one who came out. He must remember something. When the Ghost Drift broke, I think something else broke, too.

And finally: I can’t help him. I’ve tried. So I need to find someone who can.

Help. That was what Laurent needed. That was what he’d been deprived of all this time. And even if he was cruel, even if he was cold and uncaring and selfish… Damen wasn’t. He wouldn’t let himself be.

Softly, he said, “Everyone has bad memories, you know.”

This time, the flash of heat was enough to send him stumbling back. He knew he couldn’t be physically harmed within his mindscape, but he couldn’t help from glancing down at his hands, half-expecting to see furious red welts there and breathing a little sigh of relief when he found none.

Swallowing his frustration, he returned to the wall, not daring to touch it again quite yet.

“That came out wrong, I think.” He spoke slowly, holding out the words like an olive branch. “I—I wasn’t trying to say that what you’re feeling isn’t… justified. Only that… that…”

What was he trying to say? He chewed his bottom lip and stared at the wall before him, wondering what it would take to bring it down — or at least create an opening big enough for him to slip through.

He thought back to some of his first Drifting sessions in his teen years. Figure out what you want, his father had told him, and what you’re afraid of. Then take those things and throw them out the window. They’re what’s going to keep you from forming a connection. Your focus should be on your partner, and theirs should be on you. You can worry about everything else after you establish the connection.

What did Damen want? To get this over and done with. To get back home, confront his brother, and find out who really killed his father.

What was he afraid of?

Almost automatically, his right hand moved to wrap around his left wrist, where the tattoo of his serial number remained covered by the leather cuff he’d received from Jord. Two murders had earned him that tattoo: one that he’d truly had no part in, and one that…

Could he really be so afraid of something that had already happened?

Or was he afraid of no longer being the only one in the world who knew the truth?

(Well, the only one besides Jord, if the captain really knew as much as he claimed.)

Take those things and throw them out the window. Your focus should be on your partner.

Taking a deep breath, Damen once again pressed his hands against the wall, fingers splayed wide.

“You have things you don’t want me to see,” he said, leaning his forehead against the metal. “That’s fine. I have things I don’t want you to see, either. But I’m going to show you anyway.” He added, “If you’ll let me.”

The iron warmed under his palms, enough to make sweat bead on his skin but not enough to burn him. He supposed that was the best he could hope for, and hesitated for only a few seconds more before squeezing his eyes shut and reaching into the depths of his mind.

The memory he sought came quickly to his fingertips, as if it had been waiting to be summoned, and swelled around him until he was there again: the tiny, dank room in Chastillon where he’d lain for hours on end, coughing out his serial number again and again in between mouthfuls of sour water. That familiar slanted table loomed before him, and he knew the figure sprawled across it to be his own, even though there was a burlap sack over its head. Prowling into the room was tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in the austere gray uniform of a warden; the prison’s insignia, a black circle ringed in gold, was stitched into his breast pocket.

He carried a full bucket of water in each hand. The sound of stray droplets splattering the floor was as loud as gunfire in the cramped, quiet space.

“So. They actually did it.”

The voice belonged not to Damen or the warden, but to Laurent. Damen looked up with a start to see the young lieutenant standing across the room; he was leaning against the wall, his posture insouciant, a portrait of princely elegance even in his bulky Drift suit. With his hair braided back so tightly, the angles of his face looked even harsher, his cheekbones sharp as knives under cream-colored skin.

Damen had allowed countless different pilots to walk inside his mind, but this wasn’t Nikandros, who merely blended into his memories like he’d been there from the start, or even Kastor, who, on the rare occasions when he did Drift with Damen, merely watched with near-perfect impassivity as the past unspooled before his eyes. This was Laurent, and the sight of him was like a splash of color in a black-and-white movie: jarring, out-of-place, striking yet unsettling.

Laurent was the brightest thing in the room, and even as his past-self began to buck and thrash under the first torrent of water, Damen couldn’t take his eyes off him.

He heard himself speak: “What do you mean, ‘they actually did it?’”

Laurent met his gaze steadily. “The guards at Chastillon are technically on my uncle’s payroll, not mine. I wasn’t sure if they’d follow my orders.”

My orders.

Damen’s ears filled with white noise. “What are you saying.”

Laurent crossed his slim arms over his chest. “I gave them orders,” he said matter-of-factly, “but I didn’t know for sure if they’d been carried out. Now I know.”

Red licked at the corners of Damen’s vision; he tried and failed to blink it away. “You—you ordered them to—”

Damen’s past self jerked half-upright on the table, a hoarse scream tearing from his throat: “52308! 52308! PLEASE!”

Damen’s wrist burned. Everything burned: Laurent’s words were a spark thrown into the black oil of Damen’s thoughts, and the resulting flame reduced common sense to ash.

He lurched forward, hands outstretched, groping for— what? Something to steady him? Something to throw at Laurent’s head? Maybe he was reaching for Laurent himself — for the soft, vulnerable throat currently protected by his helmet. He didn’t realize just how close he’d gotten to the lieutenant until long, slender fingers wrapped around his wrists, trapping them in an iron grip.

“Oh, no. I don’t think so,” Laurent said, shoving him away, but that only deterred Damen for a split second. Almost immediately, he was back within arm’s length, catching Laurent’s unwilling fingers in a hold that was anything but gentle.

He could pull out of the Drift now — probably should pull out now, considering how his temper was trying to slip its leash — but he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Not without completing the neural handshake at the very least, and for that, there needed to be some degree of… mutuality.

Laurent’s hands were startlingly cold as Damen gave them a sharp squeeze.

“Your turn,” he said. His voice came out low and rough, filtered through the lump of rage in his throat. “Show me something.”

The look Laurent shot up at him was lethal, and a frustrated growl tried to worm between Damen’s teeth.

“It doesn’t have to be your darkest secret,” he said as the scene around them started to dissolve, melting into the darkness of the in-between: the nothingness that lay between their mindscapes, neither past nor present, neither here nor there.  They weren’t supposed to linger too long on any particular memory; chasing R.A.B.I.Ts — random access brain impulse triggers — could have disastrous consequences, and Damen wasn’t taking any chances. “It just has to be something. A few seconds, anything—”

Laurent’s grip suddenly turned crushing, fingers digging into Damen’s with enough pressure to bruise. Damen’s breath caught as the in-between started to yield to brightness: a familiar brightness, pale and stark, broken here and there by silhouettes that were sharpening and solidifying by the second.

It was the control room at Fortaine.

Laurent dropped Damen’s hands as if he’d been burned, but their surroundings remained intact, even as Laurent’s chest heavily rose and fell beneath his breastplate. His blue eyes darted about the room until they fell on a nearby chair, where a boy with brilliant golden hair sat with his legs crossed neatly beneath him and a book spread open across his lap.

Damen was so riveted by the sight that he barely noticed when a lanky, oddly familiar figure walked through him, moving briskly toward thirteen-year-old Laurent. The boy seemed blissfully ignorant of the newcomer’s approach; his eyes — just as blue then as Damen knew them to be now — flicked steadily across the pages before him, drinking in every word.

“Oi.”

The figure, whom Damen now recognized as Lazar, was looming over Laurent in a way that made Damen wish he could march over, pick the technician up by his collar, and toss him out of Laurent’s personal space. The intensity of his desire to do so only increased as Lazar demanded, “What the hell is this little pipsqueak doing here?”

Damen was utterly unsurprised when past-Laurent lifted his eyes from his book, raised an eyebrow, and replied, “What are you doing here?”

Before Lazar could return fire, a man with dark hair, a lean build, and kind eyes approached him from behind, clapping a hand on his shoulder with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Even if Damen had never met Jord before, he would’ve liked him just for that.

“This pipsqueak,” Jord informed Lazar, “is the Marshal’s son, so I suggest you pay him a little more respect, Officer.”

Lazar bristled. “How was I supposed to know?” he demanded, voice sharp with indignation. “He looks nothing like the Marshal.”

Damen realized with a start that he was right. He’d seen Aleron of Vere plenty of times before his death, and Laurent bore little resemblance to him. He must’ve taken after his mother, Hennike, who’d died along with her co-pilot in a kaiju battle a few months after her younger son’s sixth birthday.

Jord was telling off Lazar, but Damen didn’t process any of the words; his focus was on past-Laurent, who was doing a poor job of concealing his satisfaction at seeing Lazar taken down a few pegs. His eyes were lucent, his lips hovering on the very edge of a smile as he worked a hair tie off one slender wrist and used it to mark his place in his book.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, but Damen never learned the answer, because at that moment the scene blurred and time seemed to lurch forward: figures became no more than streaks of color racing by, their voices dissipating into white noise, high-pitched and strange.

Damen wheeled around just in time to see present-Laurent’s knees buckle.

Whoa.” Damen was there in an instant, arresting Laurent’s fall with an arm hooked under each of his shoulders; Laurent’s feet were already scrabbling for purchase, desperate to support his own weight again — desperate to get away from Damen.

“No, no, no, no, no.” Laurent’s voice was thin and breathless, his chest heaving violently as he tried to stand and ended up stumbling back against Damen. “Please, no, please—”

He was still gasping for air when the scene suddenly came back into focus, progressing in slow motion now instead of double-time. All around them, people were running, limbs dragging as if they were submerged in water; their mouths were wide open on unheard words, their voices replied by a dull, all-encompassing roar that poured into Damen’s ears and smothered his thoughts.

Outside, a massive kaiju was rearing up from the waves, its scythe-like claws buried in the chest of the bright blue jaeger called Indigo Star.

Behind it stood a familiar red-and-gold silhouette: Alpha Leonis. Damen couldn’t see his past self and Nikandros in her Conn-Pod, but he knew they were there — knew they were staring out at the carnage with wide, unblinking eyes, sick with horror as they watched their former friends plunge into the waves with their gutted jaeger.

“No,” Damen whispered, knowing what was coming.

His eyes found past-Laurent just in time to see him double over, jaws gaping on a scream that Damen was guiltily grateful that he couldn’t hear. Jord flew toward him, arms desperately outstretched, but he didn’t get there in time: past-Laurent hit the floor and immediately began to convulse, back arching, head snapping back, limbs thrashing—

Then Damen felt it, too.

Pain like dynamite exploding inside his ribcage, shredding his insides. Pain like a bolt of lightning shearing through his skull. Pain that replaced his blood, scalding the insides of his veins, boiling beneath his skin. Pain like he’d never felt before or would ever feel again.

Pain that sent him careening out of the Drift, dragging Laurent with him.

Returning to reality was like hitting freezing water after a long fall: the mental impact was shattering, and Damen choked out a gasp as his eyes ripped open. His vision was hazy, alternately doubled and tripled as he blinked, but he didn’t need to see clearly to lock onto a splash of golden hair and lunge for it.

Laurent’s name made it past his lips just as the lieutenant collapsed into his arms, thoroughly unconscious.

Damen was distantly aware of the sound of running footsteps as he sank slowly to the ground, but he ignored it — ignored everything except the bloodless face, trembling limbs, and labored breathing of the young man slumped in his lap. He didn’t remember taking off Laurent’s helmet or his own, but at some point they’d both been cast aside, and one of his hands was cradling Laurent’s cold, cold cheek with a care and tenderness that he had no explanation for.

“Get Paschal,” he heard himself shout, the words ricocheting off the walls: get Paschal, get Paschal, get Paschal.

In his arms, Laurent was still as death, even as a frantic pulse flickered in his throat.

Damen would have no memory of it later, but eventually the physicians would inform him that he’d been murmuring to Laurent when they arrived, repeating a single phrase over and over:

“I’ve got you,” he whispered, clutching Laurent to his chest. “I’ve got you.”

Chapter Text

Damen woke up in the infirmary with no memory of how he’d gotten there.

At first, blinding panic swept through him, spurring his heart into a gallop; then, slowly, piece by piece, he came to recognize his surroundings: walls the color of eggshells, dull tile floors, a sturdy oak door left open just a crack. Damen was slumped in a cheap recliner with an elbow braced on an armrest and his chin cradled in his palm, his body stiff and aching from falling asleep upright. His armor and spinal clamp had been removed, but he noted with a sigh of relief that he still wore his circuitry suit; someone had clearly been trying to make him as comfortable as possible after—

He abruptly stilled, eyes sliding up to settle on the hospital bed before him. For some reason — wishful thinking, perhaps — he’d passed right over it in his initial assessment of the room, but now he couldn’t look away. It took up nearly half the room, the enormity of it almost laughable compared to the slightness of its occupant.

Its occupant. A breathy laugh slipped through Damen’s dry, cracked lips. Even in his semi-conscious state, it seemed his brain was still trying to skirt the truth, just as it had when he’d first woken up in a holding cell after his brother’s betrayal. As if delaying the blow might soften it, make it easier to bear.

It wouldn’t. He knew that from experience. So, with a hand planted on each armrest, he shoved himself to his feet, swaying there for a few uncertain seconds before he found his resolve and soon thereafter his balance. Then, on weak, wobbling legs, he approached the bed.

He made it as far as the footboard before muscle fatigue and vertigo forced him to stop, panting for breath as he silently cursed himself for tumbling headlong out of the Drift instead of easing himself out of it — easing them both out of it. Doing what he’d done was a recipe for psychological trauma, and he’d never — not even as a hopelessly green cadet — done such a thing before, never taken such a flagrant risk or acted with such brazen disregard for his partner’s life. If his father had been there to see it, he wouldn’t have hesitated to revoke Damen’s right to pilot.

But it didn’t matter what his father would’ve done, Damen realized with a bitter pang, because his father was dead.

But Laurent was not.

Damen sank to his knees, breaths shuddering in and out of him as he used the side rail to drag himself closer to the head of the bed. Laurent didn’t stir; the monitor that tracked his heart rate continued to beep steadily. The lethargic pace of it made Damen’s stomach twist, but at least it was consistent. At least his heart was beating at all.

Finally, he reached the headboard.

The thing he noticed first was the thing he always noticed first when he looked at Laurent: his eyes. They were closed now, their lids ash-white and paper-thin, translucent enough to reveal the delicate filigree of veins beneath the surface; under them, his eyes were restless, darting, as if his mind was still trapped in the Drift. Maybe it was, in a way. Maybe he was reliving that hellish memory over and over again, trapped in an endless cycle thanks to Damen’s stupidity—

“It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

Jord’s voice was soft, as were his footsteps as he entered the room. Instead of coming immediately to Damen’s side, he fetched the old recliner from the corner and rolled it closer to the bed, taking care to make as little noise as possible. The gaze he trained on Damen was kind but unyielding.

“Let me help,” he said.

Damen could only close his eyes and nod. A second later, Jord hooked his arms under Damen’s shoulders, pulling upward as Damen’s feet strained to push off against the floor; after a brief struggle, he managed to collapse back into the recliner, face hot with embarrassment as he stared fixedly at the floor.

“Thank you,” he mumbled, fingernails digging into the padded armrests.

“You’re welcome.” Jord slipped his hands into his pockets at he circled around to the other side of the bed, his eyes locked on Laurent’s face. Instead of his usual uniform, he wore simple jeans and a loose black t-shirt, both smudged with various shades of paint. None of the stains looked particularly fresh, though.

As if he sensed the weight of Damen’s eyes, Jord looked over at him. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t frowning, either; part of Damen wished he’d glare, wished he’d lock the door and cuss Damen out until he crumbled under the assault, but the captain did no such thing.

Instead, he repeated, “It wasn’t your fault.”

His expression was too honest, too earnest, and Damen had to look away. With nowhere else to go, his eyes settled on Laurent. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that looking at Laurent while he was awake was like gazing directly into the sun; looking at him while he was unconscious was much the same, except there was a sheen of cloud obscuring the view.

Damen wished the clouds would pass.

He could feel Jord watching him, obviously expecting a reply, and he tried to swallow the dry lump in his throat.

“How do you know?” He slumped forward, elbows digging into his thighs, fingers gripping his knees. “You weren’t there.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Jord agreed, pulling a tightly folded square of paper from his pocket, “but Lazar was. He told me what happened.”

Damen eyed the piece of paper. “What’s that?”

“Why don’t you take a look?”

He tossed the square in a neat arc over the bed; Damen, by some miracle, managed to catch it without fumbling. With shaky fingers he opened up the folds: one, two, three, four, until he held a full sheet of paper in his hands. The header, typed in bold, all-capital letters, read RESULTS OF DRIFT TEST BETWEEN PILOTS 52308 AND 52212.

With a knot slowly tightening in his chest, Damen read the report slowly. Carefully. Repeatedly. When he failed to make sense of it after five attempts, he looked up at Jord and said, “That’s not possible.”

Jord rested one shoulder against the wall and said, “The tech doesn’t lie.”

“But technicians can make errors.”

Jord shook his head. “Not Lazar,” he said firmly. “He’s meticulous, always has been. Those results are accurate.”

Damen whispered, “You’re sure?”

Jord said, “I’d stake my life on it.” He nodded to the paper in Damen’s hand. “For roughly eight seconds, you and Laurent were in perfect sync.”

“Near-perfect,” Damen instinctively corrected, having been taught in his youth that perfect synchronicity was a myth, a fantasy chased by cadets who didn’t understand the complexity of the Drift.

But Jord’s eyes were hard with certainty. “No. Perfect.”

Damen squeezed his eyes shut. “That’s not possible,” he said again, but even as he spoke he could feel echoes of the pain he’d experienced in the Drift — pain that had belonged not to him, but to Laurent. He’d never felt anything like that before: not with Nikandros, not with Kastor, not with Auguste. For just a moment — eight seconds, if Lazar was indeed correct — the wall between Damen and Laurent had been blown to dust, and there had been absolutely nothing separating one man from the other.

The idea was utterly terrifying.

“He’s going to be okay, you know,” Jord said softly, breaking Damen from his reverie. “He just has a lot of sedatives in his system right now.”

Despite himself, Damen felt one of the knots in his chest unravel. “Oh. He’s not—”

Jord shook his head. “It’s not like last time.”

Damen gave a slow, silent nod. Now that some of his worries had been assuaged, it occurred to him that Laurent looked remarkably peaceful — more peaceful than he’d ever seen him, really. Sleep had thawed some of the ice from his expression, softening his mouth and smoothing out the crease that often appeared between his brows; the tension was gone from his jaw, too. His hair had been released from his braids and spread neatly across the pillow, a soft fan of glittering gold. He was…

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Jord began, inadvertently cutting off Damen’s thought before he could finish it, “what did he show you?”

Damen pressed two fingers into his left temple, trying to ward off the headache budding there. “I think you probably know.”

Jord smiled faintly. “When it comes to Laurent,” he said, “I try not to guess at anything. Trying to predict him is like trying to predict the sea.”

The corners of Damen’s mouth quirked up. “Fair point.”

Jord snorted. “I’ve known the kid since he was eleven. It’s more than a fair point,” he said, “it’s a fact.”

“He showed me Auguste.”

Jord immediately sobered. “The day he…”

“Yes.” Damen gave him a long, steady look. “You were there.”

“I told you I was, back at Chastillon. Did you not believe me?”

“No,” Damen said honestly, “I did. I just didn’t realize how well you knew him.”

Jord’s smile had a rueful tilt to it. “I was closer to Auguste,” he admitted, eyes softening with a memory that he didn’t reveal out loud, “but I considered Laurent a friend, too, even when he was just a kid. I still consider him a friend, really. I’m just not sure he’d say the same thing if you asked him.”

An idea flickered along the edges of Damen’s thoughts. “How close were you to Auguste?”

Jord gave a slight shrug and murmured, “Quite.”

There was a hint of color along his cheekbones, and Damen fought to keep his expression neutral as another puzzle piece clicked into place.

Damianos killed him out of jealousy when he found out that Auguste had been flirting with a young captain at Fortaine. That had been one of the rumors that spread after the Battle of Marlas — but somehow, Damen had never wondered about who that “young captain at Fortaine” might’ve been. It had never occurred to him that the rumor might be half-true.

In a strange stroke of luck, he’d discovered the answer to a question he’d never thought to ask.

“I’m sorry,” Damen said before he could stop himself.

Jord’s hazel eyes were calm. “If you’re apologizing for what I think you’re apologizing for, don’t. Please,” he added, when he saw that Damen was about to protest. “I told you before that I don’t hold it against you. I still don’t.”

Damen swallowed, darting a glance toward the bed. “What about him?”

“You’re the one who’s been inside his head,” Jord replied, a note of amusement in his voice.

Damen huffed softly. “If anything, I understand him even less than before,” he confessed, suppressing a groan of pain as he sank back into his chair. “Before we synced, there was this… giant wall between us. I got burned whenever I tried to touch it.”

“That definitely sounds like Laurent,” Jord murmured.

“Does it?” The words came out bitter. “I wouldn’t know.”

Laurent’s voice filled his head, unbidden: So. They actually did it.

He told me,” he blurted out, before Jord could say anything else. “He told me he’s the one who had me tortured at Chastillon.”

A shadow passed behind Jord’s eyes. “Yes.”

“Did you know that?” Damen couldn’t help but demand, hands curling into frustrated fists, nail biting into his palms. “When you came to get me from Chastillon. Did you know what he’d done?”

Jord said, “Yes.”

Damen’s teeth clenched. Jord met his gaze; Damen searched the captain’s face for the slightest flicker of defensiveness, but found none.

Quietly, Damen said, “You expect me to co-pilot with someone who had me tortured?”

“I don’t think this is the best place for this conversation,” Jord replied, just as soft.

“You expect me to be able to trust him with my life after all the bullshit he’s done to me? You expect me to forgive all that?”

“Do you expect Laurent to forgive you for what happened to Auguste?”

Damen snapped his mouth shut; opened it. Closed it again.

“That’s not the same,” he said, his voice coming from someplace low in his throat.

“Isn’t it?” Jord’s eyes were alight. “Your circumstances vary, but you both have good reasons to despise each other. What would you do,” he said, “if someone put your father’s killer in front of you, right now, and said you could do whatever you wanted to him with no repercussions? Can you honestly say you’d just walk away?”

Through gritted teeth, Damen said, “If you asked my brother, he’d say I was my father’s killer. And you said back at Chastillon that you weren’t sure if you believed him or not.”

“I wasn’t sure then,” Jord agreed, “but I am now. You didn’t do it.”

“Yeah? What makes you say that?”

Inexplicably, a ghost of a half-smile hovered on Jord’s lips. It was humorless and thin, but undeniably there.

“In the Drift,” Jord said, “Laurent told you what he did to you. You could’ve left the Drift right then and there — hell, pretty much every pilot I know would’ve been out of there in seconds. But you stayed. You stayed and you helped him confront a memory that he has every reason to run from. And when he started to chase the R.A.B.I.T, you got him out of there. You took the brunt of the mental impact when the two of you fell out of the Drift. You protected him, Damen.

“I don’t know how much you remember from last night, but they could barely tear you two away from each other. Laurent was a wreck, barely conscious, and when all the doctors came rushing in he nearly had a panic attack. If they’d touched him too soon, he probably would’ve broken down. But you didn’t let that happen. You kept them away from him until Paschal got there, and when Laurent wouldn’t let go of you, you carried him to the infirmary. They weren’t able to separate him from you until he was sedated.

“After that, they took him away to run some tests, make sure he was going to be okay. It took four rangers to keep you from following him. You wouldn’t eat, drink, or allow yourself to be checked over until we brought you here, and I’m pretty sure you swore you wouldn’t sleep until they brought Laurent back, but I’m not sure how well that went for you. The point is…” Jord blew out of a breath. “A man who would do so much to protect someone he hates could never be capable of killing someone he loves.”

Damen stared at him, lips parted. There was no way he’d done all of that. There was no way—

“You can check for yourself,” Jord said quietly. “The back of your neck. He dug his nails in when we tried to separate you.” He grimaced a little. “Sorry about that.”

Swallowing hard, Damen lifted a hand to the back of his neck. Within seconds, his searching fingertips found a scattering of raised welts, deep enough to sting but not to scar. He tried to imagine it: Laurent, half-conscious, clinging to him with a desperation so feverish that only sedatives could break his hold. Damen expected his imagination to fail him, but instead it readily provided an image, a memory: a lean, light weight in his arms; the bright burn of nails scraping the back of his neck; the silken brush of blond hair against his throat as a face pressed into his shoulder.

Run, he remembered Paschal shouting. Get him to the infirmary as fast as you can, we’ll be right behind you.

And he’d run. The muscles in his calves and thighs smoldered with the memory of it; he’d sprinted the whole way with Laurent cradled against his chest, doing his best to jostle him as little as possible without sacrificing any speed.

He’d done that. For Laurent.

“I—I don’t—the Drift,” Damen managed to get out. He sat hunched over in the recliner, arms wrapped tightly around his midsection as if to keep his insides from spilling out. “It happens all the time. Temporary, intense bonds between Drift partners that wear off once they disconnect. Once they stabilize,” he hastily amended, since it was obvious his concern for Laurent had outlasted the Drift itself. “It’s a common phenomenon.”

“Then leave.”

Jord’s voice was as mild as ever, but Damen could sense a challenge in it. A warning.

Damen narrowed his eyes. “What?”

Jord crossed his arms; his half-smile from earlier was gone, replaced by an inscrutable expression that made Damen instinctively check where the exit was.

“If that’s all it is,” the captain said, “a temporary bond, a common phenomenon, then leave. The door’s open. It was open when I got here, in fact.” He nodded sharply at the door in question. “You know the layout of this place. You know there’s a tunnel from the boiler room that could get you under the border fence and into Marlas in ten minutes or less. So long as you were quick about it, you could’ve been home by now. So why aren’t you?”

Damen almost bared his teeth. “You said it yourself. I took the brunt of the impact when we fell out of the Drift. I can barely walk, let alone run,” he said, “and I had no way of knowing if the tunnel was still open. Auguste always said it was only a matter of time before the wrong person found it and blocked it off.”

“You’re saying that’s not a chance you would’ve been willing to take?” There was a note of something approaching disdain in Jord’s voice now, and it stung more than Damen was willing to admit. “You know you’re Laurent’s only chance now. You know they wouldn’t have killed you, not even if they found you trying to escape. You would’ve had nothing to lose.”

“I couldn’t know that for sure. I still can’t. Why should I trust a Veretian?”

Damen spat those last six words without a second thought. Even before Jord’s features hardened, he wished he could take them back.

“I didn’t—”

“No,” Jord interrupted, clipped and cold. “No, I get it. Akielons and Veretians, enemies till the end. We would rather be killed than join hands with our killers, that’s what the Regent said, right? Fine.”

He stalked around the bed, and for a split second Damen tensed; then he realized that Jord was headed for the door, not him.

“Fine,” Jord repeated, pausing on the threshold. “Think what you want. But the tech doesn’t fucking lie, Damianos.” The glance he threw over his shoulder was ice-cold. “For eight seconds, you trusted a Veretian more than anyone else in the world.”

And then he was gone, the sound of his footsteps rapidly retreating down the hallway.

For a moment, Damen sat frozen, a familiar voice ringing in his ears: not Jord’s, but his own. Why should I trust a Veretian?

Where had those words come from? After Akielos and Vere had split apart, Damen had been the only Akielon to maintain communication with anyone across the border; he’d used the boiler room tunnel at least once a week to enter Fortaine, where he and Auguste had spent countless hours discussing possible solutions to the conflict, often staying up until the first light of dawn chased them back to their respective homes. Damen hated the Veretian commanders — first Aleron, now the enigmatic, apparently nameless Regent — but the people they ruled over were, for the most part, innocent of their leaders’ crimes. Veretians could be good; Auguste was proof of that.

And Akielons could be cruel. Damen had seen proof of that, too.

Why should I trust a Veretian? Because Jord — a man who truly had no reason at all to help him — had freed him from hell. Because Paschal was helping him piece his fragmented mindscape back together, and so far had shown him nothing but patience and warmth along the way. Because Laurent…

He stopped himself there. Laurent was cruel. Laurent was the son of a man whom Damen and his father had hated. Laurent was the Regent’s first lieutenant. Laurent had used his mindscape to burn Damen; Laurent had ordered the guards at Chastillon to torture him until he could barely remember his own name. Laurent had chased the R.A.B.I.T., risking both of their lives.

Damen stared at the young man in the hospital bed. At the fine blond hair; the bruised eyelids; the bloodless cheeks; the beautiful mouth; the delicate brows; the elegant hands that lay limp at his sides, long fingers gently curled against the snowy sheets. Those hands had touched the bare skin of Damen’s back. Those short, ragged nails had dug into the nape of Damen’s neck as Laurent clung to him like a lifeline. If Damen just reached out a little bit, he could…

So long as you were quick about it, you could’ve been home by now. So why aren’t you?

Damen’s thoughts froze in their tracks. So did his hand, which had apparently decided to reach for Laurent’s without Damen’s permission. He squeezed his eyes shut; at some point, his breath had turned shallow, barely brushing his lungs before it rushed back out.

You know they wouldn’t have killed you, not even if they found you trying to escape.

Damen believed that, and if Jord said the boiler room tunnel was still open, he believed that, too. As far as Damen knew, the captain had never lied to him. Why would he start now? He wasn’t like Laurent; wasn’t the type to take pleasure in deceiving others.

Akielons and Veretians, enemies till the end.

Cautiously, Damen grasped the recliner’s armrests and pushed halfway to his feet, testing whether his legs could bear his weight. They could, if only barely. He stood; swayed; steadied. He could’ve sworn he saw Laurent’s lashes flicker, but the lieutenant didn’t otherwise stir.

For some reason, Damen felt the sudden urge to apologize, even if Laurent couldn’t hear it. But what was he apologizing for? For not leaving the Drift before Laurent had a chance to chase the R.A.B.I.T.? For forcing Laurent to show him a memory? For Drifting with him at all? For coming here in the first place?

It wasn’t Damen’s fault that Laurent had chased the R.A.B.I.T.; he knew it wasn’t, just as he knew it wasn’t his fault that Laurent had shown him that memory when he could’ve chosen quite literally anything else. And Damen hadn’t had a choice but to Drift with him. Laurent had made it very clear that he wasn’t asking, he was ordering. And at the time, Damen hadn’t been able to see a way out of Fortaine that didn’t require playing along with Laurent’s games for at least a little while.

And if, for just a few moments, Damen had wanted to Drift with him… He couldn’t be blamed for that, not when he’d been deprived of the Drift for six months after years of using it on a daily basis. It was only a natural response.

And if some part of him wondered what it would be like to take his time with Laurent — to earn his trust, to someday touch that iron wall without getting burned…

Damen spun away from the bed so hard and fast that he stumbled, catching himself with a hand on the back of the recliner. This was what Laurent did, he told himself. He didn’t even need the Drift to get into other people’s heads: he did it with words, with serrated glances, with stone-cold beauty that was like a knife to Damen’s throat every time their eyes met.

He was dangerous, and Damen needed to leave before Laurent made him forget that.

Home. He was going home.

He was out of the room and halfway down the hall before he paused to glance down at himself. A circuitry suit wasn’t really the best attire for a furtive getaway, but he doubted he’d be able to find a decent alternative in enough time; he’d just have to move as fast as he could and hope for the best. He knew how to get to the boiler room from here, knew that the trip would normally be about four minutes long but would probably take twice that in his current state.

He wondered if Jord actually expected him to leave. If he did, and he’d told the Regent’s men as much, then the time Damen had to escape would be reduced by half, perhaps even by three quarters. But if he hadn’t….

I answer to Laurent. That’s what Jord had said when Damen asked about his allegiance. And Laurent was unconscious, so Jord most likely had no orders — unless someone clever had noticed that convenient loophole and given him commands in Laurent’s stead.

Damen was wasting time. Jord had suggested he wasn’t willing to take the risks necessary to attempt escape; Damen was going to prove him wrong. He made his way down the corridor on sore, wobbling legs, letting the wall bear some of his weight whenever his knees threatened to buckle. The hallways seemed deserted, which should’ve relaxed him, but it only served to unsettle him further. He didn’t spend enough time in the med wing to have a sense of how much traffic passed through it on a regular basis. Was it always this quiet, or had someone cleared the area of personnel? Was he about to walk into an ambush?

He turned a corner, braced for the worst, but the next corridor was as eerily empty as the last. Something — fear? Instinct? Paranoia? — begged him to stop where he was, to turn back, but he forced himself to keep moving. He was already drenched from head to toe in cold sweat, and he breathed a silent prayer of thanks for the moisture-wicking material of the circuitry suit. He wondered — perhaps a bit belatedly — if he’d taken any serious damage when he and Laurent had fallen out of the Drift. The physical ramifications were to be expected; it was his body’s way of simultaneously informing him that he’d fucked up and warning him not to do it again. But this strange, feverish sensation, this sluggishness, this intermittent vertigo… He didn’t recognize it, didn’t understand it. It was like someone had stuck him with a tranquilizer, but underestimated how much they’d need to bring him down.

But he didn’t have time to worry about that right now.

He forged onward. Miraculously, his luck held: he turned a third corner, a fourth, a fifth, and encountered no one. Much sooner than he’d expected, he found himself standing before a thick, heavy door with BOILER ROOM stamped across it in faded red paint. The circular handle resisted at first, but when he threw his weight into it, it yielded with a high whine of complaint. Rust crackled like embers in a fireplace, flakes of it drifting to the floor in a fine red mist as, with one last glance over his shoulder, he hauled the door open.

He slipped inside as quickly as he could, confident from the state of the door that there would be no surprises awaiting him downstairs, and dragged it shut behind him. It closed with a low, resounding whoom, a sound that he felt in the pit of his stomach — and continued to feel, even as he started to gingerly pick his way down the steps, gripping the railing with his left hand as his right groped the wall for the light switch he knew for sure was there.

At last, a muffled click told him he’d found it; the sparse bulbs overhead popped and sputtered for a few seconds, as if considering mutiny, before reluctantly doing as they’d been bid. A faint glow spilled down the steps, turned almost bloody by the thick layer of dust that coated the bulbs. Galvanized, Damen managed to scramble down the rest of the stairs with something resembling haste, his boots — which someone had kindly restored to his feet while he was unconscious — scraping softly against the concrete floor.

The rusty shimmer of the bulbs just barely reached the opposite wall of the room, chasing the shadows from the shelves of the ancient bookcase that leaned against it. It was just the same as Damen remembered it: tall and a bit lopsided, practically overflowing with random tools and stained, tattered operation manuals for machinery that had long since gone defunct. It had been Damen’s idea to use the bookcase to hide the tunnel’s opening, but Auguste had been the one to gather the old tools and manuals and stuff the shelves with them to make it look a little less incongruous.

Won’t that make it harder to move? Damen had asked, but Auguste had shrugged off his concerns with his usual rakish grin.

I’ll manage, he’d said. And he had.

Damen would, too.

He crossed the room in a few awkward, scuffling strides, gritting his teeth the whole way, and let muscle memory guide him into the necessary pose: right knee and right shoulder pinned against the side of the bookcase, hands pressed flat against the wood, left leg deeply bent and firmly braced, ready to push. His muscles were already turning to liquid at the mere memory of the bookcase’s weight, but he didn’t balk. He firmed up his stance, bent his knees—

And hit the floor with a strangled gasp, elbows cracking against the concrete as his full weight collapsed onto them. Violent shivers wracked his frame as a brutal chill crashed over him, crashed through him, as if he’d plunged straight through the surface of a frozen lake and into the dark, frigid blue beneath. It hurt. It was like being born, torn too early from his mother’s womb. It was like being ripped without warning from a deep, supernal sleep.

The strange feeling from before — the inexplicable urge to return to the hospital room — was back, but now its intensity took his breath away: it flooded him with freezing fire; it pushed and pulled at him as the moon does the tides, not asking but demanding, not suggesting but insisting: go back, go back, GO BACK!

Panic. It was panic rushing through his veins, coating his tongue, crystallizing in the marrow of his bones. Panic and rage and protect, protect, protect—

“Laurent,” Damen whispered, and took off running.

 

Chapter Text

Damen had never run so fast in his life.

He didn’t think or pause or hesitate: he just ran. Across the room, up the stairs, out the door, and down the hall, quicksilver made flesh. Why hadn’t he moved this fast on his way to the boiler room? Why hadn’t his thoughts been so clear, so quick, so laser-focused? He couldn’t remember what pain felt like, or fatigue. His blood was pure adrenaline. His veins were live wires, twisting and sparking under his skin.

His body was no longer following his orders; it didn’t need them. It knew where he needed to go, and it took him there at a speed that reduced everything around him to a mere blur — everything, that is, except the door at the end of the hall. Laurent’s door. The door Damen knew he’d left open; the door that was now closed.

He kicked it open. He heard the lock shatter, but he didn’t care: within one second, he registered that a wiry, unfamiliar figure was standing beside the bed, looming over Laurent. Within two, he was lunging for them, hands stretching toward the stranger’s neck as white-hot fury blotted out everything else in the world—

And then the unknown man stumbled.

Damen skidded to a halt, watching in disbelief as one of the stranger’s knees hit the ground, then the other. Scarlet liquid splashed the floor. The tang of old copper thickened the air.

Suddenly the man twisted toward Damen, revealing the bright red smile slashed into his throat, widening by the second as the blood poured and poured and poured.

“Help—me,” he choked out, trying to haul himself across the floor. He coughed, and Damen recoiled as blood speckled the toes of his boots. “Help—”

“Don’t,” said a cool, all-too-unfamiliar voice, as if sensing Damen’s indecision.

Damen sank his teeth into his lower lip, unable to take his eyes off the man on the floor. Blood was pooling darkly beneath him, spreading out in all directions; the sounds he was making were thick, guttural, more animalistic than human. His darting eyes strained upward to meet Damen’s, fiery with betrayal.

“Why—” he squeezed out, and died.

Damen had witnessed death before, but it was still jarring: the sudden slackness of the man’s limbs, the sudden dimness of his eyes. His chin met the floor with a soft thud, sending ripples through the fast-growing puddle of blood. His short, sandy beard was slowly turning red.

Finally, Damen looked up.

Laurent, who was kneeling in the middle of the bed with a stained switchblade in one hand, looked back.

After an eternity, Damen took a hesitant step forward. “Laurent—”

He saw the way Laurent’s entire body tensed, saw the way the lieutenant changed his grip on the knife, but for some reason Damen didn’t move — not until Laurent suddenly sprang from the bed and lunged, the blade sparking like a star in his hand as it swept toward Damen’s throat.

Damen shouldn’t have been able to recognize the move as a feint. He’d fought Laurent only once before, and that wasn’t enough to learn someone’s style to the point of being able to predict them — but somehow, he knew. He knew, and so he waited, watching the knife shear through the air.

When the blade suddenly changed direction, arcing downward toward Damen’s stomach, he was ready.

Just as Laurent slammed into him, he caught the lieutenant’s wrist in an iron grip. Glacial blue eyes sliced across Damen’s face; impossibly, Laurent seemed to have already regained his composure: his features were unreadable, his mouth taut.

“Let go of my arm,” he said. Cool. Crisp.

“Drop the knife,” Damen replied just as evenly, tightening his fingers around the fine bones of Laurent’s wrist.

“If you do not let go of my arm, it will not go easily for you.”

Thinking of the dead man’s slashed throat, Damen took the safe route: he dug his finger into a pressure point along Laurent’s slender forearm, and the switchblade clattered to the ground, thankfully in a spot that the blood hadn’t reached. As soon as it hit the floor, he let Laurent go and backed up out of range. He wouldn’t have put it past Laurent to have a second knife somewhere on his person.

But no: Laurent backpedaled, too, a flicker of wariness passing behind his eyes like a shadow. He didn’t go for the knife, but it was clear from his expression that he wasn’t sure if Damen would show the same restraint.

His pallid cheeks were dotted with blood that wasn’t his.

With icy calm — feigned calm, Damen knew without knowing how he knew — Laurent said, “You seem to vacillate between assistance and assault. Which is it?”

“I wish I knew,” Damen replied.

Surprisingly, Laurent seemed satisfied with that answer; Damen, however, had more to say:

“I’m not surprised you’ve driven a man to try and kill you. I’m only surprised there weren’t more.”

“Perhaps there were more,” Laurent said, the words flicked from his tongue like darts. Their barbed tips pierced Damen’s skin and stuck there, hot and stinging, as Laurent’s meaning sunk in.

“No,” he said, his voice low and a little rough. His sprint from the boiler room had scraped his throat raw; somehow, he hadn’t noticed that until now. “No one sent me. I’m just”—he broke off for a moment, inexplicably frustrated—“I’m just here.”

“Awfully convenient timing,” Laurent drawled. “Are you sure you don’t want to join in? Sure you don’t want to make a run for it? After all, how could you be expected to trust me with your life after all the bullshit I’ve done to you?”

You expect me to be able to trust him with my life after all the bullshit he’s done to me? You expect me to forgive all that?

Damen’s breath snagged in his throat. “You were awake.”

Laurent’s eyes blinked wide — a split-second, surprisingly vulnerable gesture — before regaining their frozen cast. “No.”

“You were,” Damen insisted, anger rising like bile in his throat, but then Laurent cut him a glare so ferocious that Damen found his temper checked by curiosity — by confusion.

“No,” Laurent repeated, grinding the word out through gritted teeth, and Damen realized that they were no longer talking about the same thing.

“Laurent,” he said, wondering how many times he’d said that name over the past twenty-four hours, wondering if he’d ever get sick of the way it rolled off his tongue, the way it moved so smoothly from the front of his mouth to the back.

Laurent said, “You were leaving.”

Damen resisted the urge to lower his eyes. “Yes.”

“Why did you come back?”

He said it more like a statement than a question, as if he already knew the answer and dreaded hearing it spoken aloud.

Damen’s mouth was bone-dry; his heart beat frantically against his ribs, a trapped hummingbird desperate to escape its cage.

“I don’t know,” he whispered.

Laurent stared at him for a moment, unspeaking; then he was stalking forward, eyes burning, brows pinned low on his forehead, and Damen could do nothing but stand rooted to the spot as Laurent snatched both of Damen’s hands in his.

Instead of winding their fingers together, however, Laurent just used his grip to jerk Damen’s forearms up so they were parallel to the ground. Then he let go, brushed his hands off on his pants as if he’d soiled them, and started rolling up the sleeves of the loose cotton shirt the hospital staff had put him in.

“What are you doing?” Damen finally asked, unable to take it anymore.

“Shut up,” said Laurent flatly, tucking the bunched-up material around and into itself to keep it from falling back into place. Then he held out his forearms, palms-up, revealing rows upon rows of jagged pink scars. “Put your arms on top of mine.”

Damen forced himself not to stare. “Do you want me to roll up my—”

“No. You’re wearing a circuitry suit,” Laurent said, staring at him as if he was an absolute moron.

“Okay, so—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Laurent spat — then he shoved his forearms under Damen’s, skin pressing hard against skin, and the world ended.

At least, Damen thought it did.

Everything was fire. Everything was ice. Everything was pain; everything was ecstasy. His vision blurred, then fractured, shattering the hospital room into a dizzying kaleidoscope of color and light. Every one of his nerve endings was on fire. Every one of his pores was gushing sweat. He was crumbling, dissolving, falling—

Breathe.

The voice didn’t come through his ears; it came directly into his mind, fired across the shimmering, smoldering connection that he felt like a brand on his soul, stretching away from him, across the in-between, and into something else. Someone else.

Breathe, the voice repeated, and Damen did: one deep breath, then a second, then a third. It ached, but he could feel the splinters of himself starting to coalesce, piecing his mind and body back together.

The world began again.

Then Damen's vision cleared, and he saw himself.

Saw himself through the eyes of someone else — someone standing in front of him, looking into his soul — and felt a strange sort of amazement; a warmth; a spark of something tangled up with confusion and denial and anger, a hurricane inside his chest.

Then he was shot back across the connection like a bullet from a gun, skidding and tumbling, head over heels, heels over head, until he landed back in his own mind with a jolt that brought him to his knees — and Laurent with him, his fingers curled tightly around Damen’s elbows.

Laurent looked up at him, slim shoulders heaving. His face was utterly devoid of color, making the dark circles under his eyes stand out in stark relief. Sweat was slowly darkening his hair from pale gold to ocher.

Damen waited for the echoes of Laurent’s emotions— the hurricane of amazement-warmth-confusion-denial-anger — to fade, but they didn’t.

“Let go of me,” Laurent murmured, but it sounded perfunctory, an automatic response to physical contact with another human being.

Damen wrapped his arms around Laurent’s shoulders and held on with all his strength.

After what seemed to be an endless pause, Laurent did the same.

It wasn’t a gentle embrace, or a tender one; it was tight, almost bruisingly so, and Damen’s lungs protested at the shortage of air, but he didn’t dare let go. If he let go, if he loosened his grip, Laurent would leave and never come back.

And that wasn’t an option. Not anymore.

Damen took a shallow breath. “Was that—”

“No.”

And then Laurent was shoving him away with both hands and scrambling to his feet, leaving Damen to fall back onto his elbows with an undignified yelp.

“Hey, wait!” he barked, lurching upright, but Laurent was already on his way out the door, pausing only to point to something on the floor and say without inflection, “Take that to Paschal. Don’t follow me.”

And then he was gone.

Damen stared at the newly vacated space in front of him, resisting the temptation to pinch himself, or perhaps to scream; instead, he lifted a shaky hand and wiped the sweat from his brow. There was no way this was reality. There was no way he’d actually—no. This was a dream. He was still unconscious. Soon he’d wake up in a hospital bed with a brutal headache and chuckle at the sheer outlandishness of his own imagination.

Even so, he couldn’t help but crawl forward on his hands and knees until he could curl his fingers around the object Laurent had indicated: a long, slender syringe filled with pale blue liquid. He glanced to the left, at the cooling corpse in its thick puddle of blood, and wondered exactly what that liquid would’ve done to Laurent if he hadn’t been able to pull his switchblade in time.

Take that to Paschal, Laurent had said.

Damen could manage that much, at least.

Maybe he’d wake up along the way.

~~~

“Shut the door and lock it behind you,” Paschal said as soon as Damen walked into the infirmary, already making a beeline for him with one gloved hand outstretched. “Give me that. Now.

Damen blinked in bewilderment, but did as he was told, gingerly handing over the syringe as if it were a live grenade. “How did you—”

“Laurent contacted Jord.” The doctor had already thrust the syringe through the top of an empty vial and was rapidly expelling its contents, watching the liquid slosh against the glass with narrowed eyes. “He explained what happened.”

Damen nodded slowly, wondering what the hell Laurent had said to explain why there was a dead ranger on the floor of his hospital room with his throat slit from ear to ear. “Did he say anything about…”

“About what?” Paschal asked, glancing up at him without pausing in his work.

Damen gave a slight shake of his head. “It’s nothing. It’s just…”

“If it’s not an emergency, it can wait,” Paschal said, a rare impatient edge coming into his voice.

Damen’s tongue felt heavy and unwieldy in his mouth, as if it’d been dipped in sand.

“What does it feel like,” he said, “when you form the Ghost Drift with someone?”

Paschal went still.

Damen waited; with every second that passed, his ribs squeezed tighter around his lungs, slowly bleeding all the air out of him. Aside from the soft, shallow scrape of his breath, the room was silent — almost impossibly so.

Finally, Paschal said, “Why do you ask?”

Damen opened his mouth to speak, but no words came to his lips. How could he describe it, he wondered, without sounding like an absolute madman? He touched me, and I felt what he felt. I saw what he saw. There was a bridge between us, and I crossed it.

And that wasn’t even the half of it. There was still everything that had happened in the boiler room: the seizure, for lack of a better word, that had laid him out before he could open up the tunnel. The sensation of snapping awake, even though he was already conscious. The unshakable compulsion to go back to the hospital room. The panic he couldn’t explain; the rage he couldn’t justify; the frantic protectiveness that he had no reason or desire to feel.

And on top of all that, there was the rush of adrenaline-fueled clarity that had restored his strength — more than restored it — and carried him all the way back to Laurent.

Paschal’s shrewd brown eyes raked back and forth over Damen’s face, ablaze with urgency.

“Tell me everything,” he said.

~~~

Laurent yanked his bedroom shut behind him, slammed the bolt home, and slumped back against it, trying to remember how to breathe.

His muscles were liquid; his bones gelatin; his blood magma. He was a marionette, helplessly dangling, and the click of the lock was the blade that sheared through his strings: in excruciating slow motion he fell, silent and wide-eyed, knees yielding to the tremendous weight that pressed down on his shoulders like a pair of invisible hands. The floor leisurely rose to meet him; as soon as he reached it, he condensed, pulling his legs and arms in as close as he could as if he could somehow hold his crumbling reality together.

A smell like old pennies made him look down at himself; at his white cotton nightclothes, speckled here and there with scarlet. Cutting someone’s throat was a messy affair, he thought distantly, brushing a fingertip over one of the larger splotches. He’d gone right for the man’s carotid — it was more efficient to slice an artery rather than a vein — and blood had sprayed like juice from a crushed grape, dark and hot as it misted Laurent’s cheeks, neck, and shirtfront.

He wondered if it was supposed to disgust him. He wanted to wash it off, of course, but only because the sticky, unpleasant texture of it was starting to make him feel grimy and unclean; it didn’t sicken him, didn’t bring on the feverish flush of shame he’d heard veterans of the Akielon-Veretian War talk about in such harrowing detail. There had been a direct threat to his life, and he had eliminated it: simple as that.

And yet…  He couldn’t shake the feeling that if it had Damen who killed that man — if things had been different, if Laurent hadn’t been armed, if Damen had gotten his broad, powerful hands around the assailant’s neck and snapped it like he’d clearly been planning to do when he first barged into the room — the Akielon would still be thinking about it. He’d be sitting alone somewhere, up to his neck in a sea of guilt and second-guesses, hands pressed to his ears as the sound of cracking bone played over and over again inside his head like a sick, broken record that he couldn’t bring himself to remove from the turntable.

But that hadn’t happened. Laurent had been armed. Damen had halted in his tracks before he even got close enough to touch the man. He hadn’t gotten his hands dirty — though Laurent had noticed bloodstains on the toes of his boots. He’d need new ones.

Maybe Paschal would give him some.

Laurent knew that Damen was in the infirmary now. He was certain of it: not because he’d given Damen an order and presumed it would be followed, but because he could sense that the Akielon was there. He’d never known how to explain the feeling to Auguste, this peculiar, unfailingly accurate awareness of another human being’s existence; it was like having memories of the future, recalling images he hadn’t yet seen. He knew that if he stepped out into the hallway, he’d see a corridor that stretched for a quarter mile to the left but ended in a sharp corner twenty feet to his right; he could point out with his eyes closed where matte gray spray paint had been used to blot out unsavory bits of graffiti. In the same way he knew all of that, he knew that if he went to the infirmary right now and threw open the doors, he’d see Damen standing beside Paschal’s worktable, talking with the doctor as he analyzed the contents of the syringe that had been meant for Laurent’s inner arm.

He didn’t know what they were saying, but he could guess.

Laurent’s stomach gave a sudden twist, and he eased himself down so he was lying on his right side, back pressed to the door, legs drawn up slightly. He tried to swallow against the nausea, but he didn’t have enough saliva to manage it. He tried and failed to remember the last time he’d had anything to drink.

Water. That’s what he needed — but his body seemed to have no interest in helping him acquire any. He turned his cheek against the cold floor and did his best to breathe evenly: in… out. In… out. In… He choked on the next exhale, and the sound that broke from his lips was half-cough, half-sob. Childhood instinct made him reach for the connection he’d once had with Auguste, but self-awareness stopped him. Once, reaching for the Ghost Drift had been like dialing a disconnected phone number: he could try to call it, but there was nothing and no one at the other end.

Now the number belonged to someone else — and Laurent wasn’t sure what he’d do if that someone accepted the call.

Laurent wondered if this sort of thing had ever happened before; if someone had ever formed the Ghost Drift with more than one person in their lifetime. He doubted it, considering the number of pilots who resided permanently in the psychiatric wing, rendered crazed or comatose by their partners’ deaths.

And then there was Laurent, still up and about. Still sane. Still able to Drift, even if he was terrible at it.

Frigid. Emotionless. Soulless. A sociopath.

Maybe the gossip-mongers had been right from the start. Normal people didn’t survive losing the Ghost Drift. Normal people didn’t slit throats without batting an eyelash. Normal people didn’t form a second Ghost Drift with the person who had destroyed the first.

But Laurent had.

He squeezed his eyes shut, jaw working restlessly, fingers tracing up and down his scarred forearms as if he could rub the scars out of existence. He knew by touch alone how each wound had been made: some with a razor, others with a dull pair of scissors, the rest with his fingernails. For the first few days after he’d lost Auguste, he hadn’t been able to control himself; the severance of the Ghost Drift had activated some sort of self-destruct protocol inside his brain, and his body had been all too willing to destroy itself. He’d used whatever tools he had at his disposal to tear his skin open. His stomach had rejected any kind of sustenance, liquid or solid, and the flesh had steadily melted off his bones until the doctors were forced to strap him to a hospital bed and force nutrients into him intravenously. He’d poured what little energy he had into sobbing, screaming for Auguste, and shrieking curses at the doctors who were doing everything they could to keep him alive when all he wanted was to be dead.

Laurent could still remember the sorrow that had filled Paschal’s eyes as the physician sat at his bedside, meticulously cleaning out his wounds, rubbing them with salve, and wrapping them with soft, snowy gauze thick enough that Laurent could rest his arms on the bed without the pressure making him dizzy with pain.

Those cuts were all scars now, never to be reopened, but the agony remained as fresh as the day it had been inflicted: not just in his flesh, but in his mind as well. It was his burden to bear — his punishment for not stopping his brother from going out into the field that day. Jord swore up and down that there was nothing Laurent could have done, but that just didn’t seem possible: what was the point of a bond like the Ghost Drift if they couldn’t use it to help each other? What was the fucking point?

At some point Laurent must’ve slipped into some sort of fitful half-sleep, because he didn’t sense Damen’s presence outside his door until only a split second before he knocked.

“Laurent,” said the Akielon’s low, all-too-familiar voice. “Let me in.”

A raspy, half-hysterical laugh tried to bubble up in Laurent’s throat. Despite Damen’s occasional moronity, Laurent would’ve expected him to have figured out by now that Laurent didn’t let anyone in, not ever, not anymore. Not into his room, not into his head, not into… Anything else.

“Laurent, I know you’re in there.” To Laurent’s surprise, Damen didn’t sound angry or accusatory; only tired. “Let me in. We need to talk.” A heartbeat of silence. “Please.”

Slowly, shakily, Laurent pushed himself up onto his knees.

“There’s a door between our rooms,” he said, as tonelessly as he could manage. “I gave you a key.”

There was a muffled creak; Laurent imagined that Damen was leaning against the door, forehead pressed to the metal, just as he’d leaned against the soaring walls that Laurent had long since erected around his mindscape.

After a while: “Jord gave me a key,” Damen said, letting out a sigh that was audible through the door. “That’s not the same thing.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No.” Tempered steel. “It isn’t.”

“So you’re waiting for me to open the door,” Laurent said dully. “Is that it?”

“You could say that.”

“You’re going to be waiting a long time.”

“Well, then.” Fabric rustled against metal, and Laurent knew that Damen was sliding down to sit against the door. “It’s a good thing I have nothing better to do right now, yeah?”

“I thought you were going home.”

Damen chuckled wryly. “I thought I was, too,” he said, “but then this one smartass I know tried to get himself killed, so I figured maybe I should stick around for a while.”

“Last time I checked,” Laurent said coolly, “I’m the one who took care of that, not you. And I didn’t ask for your help.”

“You did something,” Damen shot back; the bright flash of temper streaked the backs of Laurent’s eyelids with burning red. That was new, the colors. He’d never experienced that with Auguste. Would he have, if they’d had more time to hone the connection? Or was this something unique to his bond with Damen?

“I felt it,” the Akielon was saying now, voice rising slightly. “When you woke up, I felt it. Your fear, your anger, your pain — everything.” There was a faint tremor in his voice. “I know you — or I know enough about you, at least. You don’t give away anything you don’t want to. Not even in your thoughts. Not even through the Ghost Drift.”

Laurent couldn’t help the way his whole body jerked, his elbow banging audibly against the door.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much how I reacted, too.” Damen’s voice was colored with bitter mirth. “Good to know we’re on the same page.”

Laurent gritted his teeth. “You’re awfully chipper right now,” he said, cradling his bruised elbow against his side. “May I ask why?”

The laugh that came through the door had a slightly hysterical edge. “I don’t know, because it’s better than panicking?”

Laurent paused. Then, quietly: “What did Paschal tell you?”

A soft intake of breath, barely audible. “That the stuff in that syringe is the same chemical they use for lethal injections in Akielos.”

Laurent curled his lip. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know it’s not what you meant.” Damen’s voice—which was starting to fray at the edges—dropped to a whisper. “You act like it doesn’t even bother you.”

“Like what doesn’t bother me?”

“Someone trying to kill you in your own home.”

That coaxed a strangled laugh out of Laurent. “And here I thought you of all people might understand.”

Damen’s flicker of  disbelief shivered down the bond between them, a fleeting chill, silver-blue. “Me? Why?”

Laurent almost groaned; this was the man he was stuck with for the foreseeable future?

“Kastor?” he said, dripping sardonicism. “You know, your brother who sold you out to us and left you to rot in Chastillon while he became Marshal of Akielos?”

Laurent practically heard Damen’s expression shutter. “He’s why I have to get home.”

“To kill him?”

“No!” Laurent felt Damen’s horror, a starburst of cool green. “To find out what happened. And why.” A swirl of sorrow entered the mix, pale purple. “And what I can do to fix it.”

Laurent arched an eyebrow, even though Damen couldn’t see it. “You don’t think killing him would fix it?”

“He’s my brother!”

“So? He betrayed you.”

“What if you were in my place?” Damen snapped. “Could you kill Auguste?”

Fury lanced through Laurent like lightning, and when he spoke again, it was through gritted teeth.

“Auguste,” he growled, “would never have done something like that to me.”

To Laurent’s astonishment, Damen’s anger didn’t flare; instead, it guttered, a candle caught in a draft. Red yielded slowly to lavender, and Laurent found himself letting out a long breath, as if his own tension was melting away with Damen’s.

“You’re right,” Damen said, surprisingly soft. “He wouldn’t have.”

Laurent’s answering laugh was little more than a huff of air.

“So we actually agree on something,” he intoned, leaning one shoulder against the door. “Who would’ve thought?”

Damen chuckled faintly. “Certainly not Jord.”

“And certainly not my uncle,” Laurent muttered.

Damen hummed in what might’ve been agreement. Laurent was all too aware of what the Akielon was doing—what they were both doing, if he was being entirely honest with himself. They were dancing circles around the elephant in the room, as if by ignoring it they might make it disappear, but it wouldn’t. Neither would the blood on Laurent’s clothes, the corpse he’d left in the hospital room, or the sparkling thread of awareness that bound him to Damen, unimpeded by the thick metal wall between them.

It seemed that Damen himself wouldn’t be disappearing, either. At the moment, the way Laurent wanted to feel about that and the way he actually felt about that were not quite in alignment. And by not quite, he meant not at all.

Laurent was jolted from his reverie by the sound of Damen’s voice: “You’re calmer than before.” 

He was. “Am I?”

“Yeah.” The Akielon sounded almost awkward, like a middle schooler trying to compliment his crush for the first time. “I—I don’t really know how to describe it, but… When you’re mad, it feels cold, really cold, but when you’re anxious or embarrassed or something, it’s hot. Not in that way,” he hastened to add, “I’m talking about literal heat. Like I had the sun beating down on me wherever I went.”

Compared to that, perceiving emotion as color seemed utterly delightful. “What am I now?”

“What?”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “What temperature am I now?”

“Oh.” Damen seemed to ponder that for a second; his embarrassment was a warm shade of pink, the same hue that Laurent had seen in his cheeks a few times before. “Lukewarm, I guess.”

Lukewarm. Laurent couldn’t suppress an elegant snort of laughter.

“Hey,” Damen protested, “you asked! It was either that or tepid, which would you prefer?”

“Lukewarm”—another snicker—“is just fine, thanks.”

Damen huffed, and Laurent’s mouth curved in a tentative smile—one that vanished almost instantly, washed away by guilt. How twisted was it, to find even a tiny glimmer of happiness in a bond that should never have existed in the first place? What would Auguste say if he could see him now?

Damen asked, “What are you thinking?”

Laurent pulled his knees closer to his chest and tightened his arms around them. “Why do you ask?”

“I just got a chill.”

Shit. The damn connection was even more sensitive than he’d initially thought. Laurent closed his eyes, let three heartbeats pass in silence, then opened them again.

“If you expect me to apologize,” he said, “you’re going to be disappointed.”

Damen scoffed. “Somehow I doubt you’ve ever apologized for anything in your entire life. Luckily for me, though,” he said with bitter humor, “I was not expecting an apology.”

Curiosity piqued, Laurent asked, “What were you expecting, then?”

Damen was quiet for a few seconds; his emotions were a muddy swirl, as if an artist had rinsed out their paintbrushes inside the Akielon’s head. At last:

“I never know what to expect,” Damen murmured, “when it comes to you.”

Something twinged in Laurent’s chest at those words, and he finally found himself staggering to his feet. Without giving himself a chance to reconsider, he slid back the deadbolt, gripped the door handle, and jerked it open.

Damen, who had indeed been sitting just outside, leapt to his feet, something flashing behind his eyes that Laurent was too afraid to name.

Laurent shoved down the wave of self-loathing surging within him and met Damen’s gaze.

“You’re right,” he said. “We do need to talk.”