He wished for the strength to respond to the familiar voice addressing him, but his own was trapped somewhere amid the searing blood rising thickly into his throat, the words clogged over, drowning in the waves of his own insides pouring out of his mouth. Toshinori lurched forward on his knees, the wretched sounds of his own rattled coughs echoing back at him from within the toilet bowl, a mockery of his weakness. Sweat blossomed across his brow in a thin sheet and ran in rivulets down the back of his neck. His hair clung to his face, his hands trembled where they clutched to either side of the bowl. The tiny bathroom teetered, the lights too bright, reflecting off the metal walls like liquid mercury. He coughed again, gagging on the sharp bite of copper he wished more than anything to forget the taste of.
Lung struggling beneath his mangled ribcage, he gasped in mouthful after mouthful of recycled oxygen. Tears leaked down his cheeks, hot and bitter. His body, wrung through with exhaustion, barely held itself up.
Yet still, he would not die.
Toshinori scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, wiping the blood and spittle from his chin. His voice was hoarse. “What is it, NANA?”
His ship’s A.I. system blinked up at him from the silver cuff he wore around his right wrist. The small screen there blipped, a violet soundwave rising and falling with the mechanical timbre of her tone. His one companion left in the universe, forged in soundwaves and numbers, running through the organs of the spacecraft he called home. No more than a voice made to mimic someone long dead, a manufactured intelligence, a circuit board made friend.
“I apologize for the interruption,” NANA responded. “But we are being boarded.”
Toshinori frowned, spine straightening where he laid slumped across the bathroom floor. “Impossible.”
“I’ve detected a small fighter craft docking against the starboard bay.”
“Stealthwing, though there appear to be no serial numbers located. Seems to be rogue.”
Not a fleet member. Not Tsukauchi or Torino, though even they wouldn’t have been able to find him with his shields in place. The wraith panels along Toshinori’s ship were made to avoid detection, their mirrored exterior reflecting the eternal starfields surrounding them, making him virtually invisible to the naked eye while absorbing satellite readings of anything within a thousand-mile radius. Not even the most advanced form of radar would have been able to see him, drifting silent in the shadow of a crumbling ancient moon.
And yet, he’d been found.
On weakened legs, Toshinori rose to his full staggering height, the long coat of oxblood leather creaking with his movement. “Show me.”
Upon his command, the cuff at his wrist ignited with light, projecting a holographic image of the security feeds stationed all along the spacecraft. Toshinori peered at the screen hovering in the air before him and reached out to swipe through each staticky image, focusing on the jagged black shape of a smaller craft nestled against the docking bay. No identifying serial numbers or markings, just as NANA had said. They seemed to have been painted over. A move that was not only heinously illegal but admiringly ballsy.
Eyes as blue as comet tails narrowed dangerously.
Oh goody. A criminal at his doorstep and he hadn’t prepared tea.
“Heat signatures?” He asked, reaching down to palm one of the pistols holstered at his thigh.
“One d-detected,” NANA replied, her voice suddenly breaking, warping, while the feed flickered before his eyes until the rogue ship could no longer be seen amidst the static.
“…NANA, are you okay?”
The bathroom lighting dimmed and brightened around him as though being fiddled with. Toshinori frowned at the ceiling while the A.I at his wrist struggled to remain conscious.
“Ap-p-proaching airlock… d-d-oor…”
His heartbeat quickened, worry catching his haggard voice. “NANA?”
“C-Commencing l-lockd…d… down…”
All at once, the ship plunged into darkness, and Toshinori cursed sharply under his breath. He was blind, deafened by his own rattled exhales in the choking silence of space as the ever-constant hum of the engines cut out. Carefully, he reached out, skimming fingertips along the walls until they sunk into the familiar grooves of what felt like the automatic door panel. Grinding his teeth, he dug his fingers in and forced it open, the sharp grate of metal sounding like rusted nails clawing across a chalkboard, alerting whomever had managed to override his security system to his exact location.
Outside, the winding metal arteries of the ship’s corridors awaited him, cast dimly in a veil of orange from the pulsing emergency lights embedded in the ceiling. It all looked too ominous this way, a looming maze of iron and darkness that had served as his home for nearly a decade now glaring back at him with threats in the shadows. Breath held, Toshinori paused with his fingers curled around his pistol, listening for the thunder of footsteps. For any sign that he wasn’t alone.
It was far too silent. Too still.
Had they even gotten passed the airlock?
As quietly as he could manage, Toshinori slunk down the winding corridor toward the bridge, intent on manually overriding the security system from the main control panel. There was a backup program installed that was specifically tied to his DNA. One that would reboot the vessel with a simple scan of his fingerprints and bring NANA back online again. Perhaps he could lock down the doors, trap whomever had stowed away on his vessel in a small section of the ship. Free of bloodshed, free of death, to await the arrival of Tsukauchi and the fleet. The last thing Toshinori wanted was an excuse to pull the trigger on a weapon he hadn’t fired in almost six years.
Pistol drawn, he slipped into the empty bridge, boots whispering against the metal grates in the floor. A tangible mixture of concern and relief fluttered in his belly when there was still no sign of his intruder. It wasn’t a substantially large vessel. He should have at least detected the approach of another human within his ship by now.
Before him, starfields glimmered endlessly through the monstrous curved window. A hundred trillion beacons framing the velvet dark silhouette of a nearby shattered moon. Toshinori slid into his Captain’s chair, despising the long stretch of blackened hallway at his back, at his inability to shut the doors. Gun at the ready, he pressed his palm against the activation screen on the control panel before him, waiting for the sensor to go off, for NANA’s voice to echo through the walls once more and bring his ship back to life.
One moment. Two moments. A stuttering sound from within the ship’s innards, a groan of metal, like the engines were struggling to take that one gasp of life but were being suppressed. Choked down by a virus in the mainframe. The screen beneath his palm blipped, a fragment of hope, then went out.
There came a sudden hot wash of breath against the shell of his ear. A whisper, in a dark unfamiliar voice.
Toshinori lit from his seat and wheeled around, but the hand grasping his pistol was immediately seized and wrenched backward at a nasty, crippling angle, twisting hard enough to drive a strangled cry from his lung. The gun clattered against the metal at their feet. Out of reach. No longer an option. The dark figure was fast, bringing his knee up hard to nail Toshinori in the stomach, striking him where it mattered, making him double over with a pained groan. Blood spluttered down his chin, thick and hot, painting him in red. He snarled and turned on his heels, catching the figure off guard long enough to bring his fist down across the side of his head.
The man staggered back against the control panel with a hard grunt, long black hair shielding his face from view. His strong chest heaved, yet he chuckled softly, the sound low and dark and quiet like this was all some secret little joke he was enjoying. The gray cloak he wore pinned his throat was tattered and worn like the ends had been clawed by an animal, leaving the fabric to drape asymmetrically from a pair of broad shoulders. Hands balling into fists at his sides, Toshinori lunged, but the stranger swung his leg upward in a graceful arc, silver-toed boot striking him hard across his jaw before he could be reached. Toshinori fell backward in a heap, blood spilling into his mouth from various sources. His lung. His lip. His nose. Stars glittered in his teetering vision. His skull sang with pain.
He’d grown too slow. Too weak in his deteriorating state. Six years of retirement had rendered him next to useless before some petty criminal.
Pillar of the Galaxy, indeed. He laughed at the title, now.
Teeth gritting through the agony, he tried so sit up, but found himself immediately pinned beneath the solid weight of the other man. The cold press of a knife blade found the underside of his jaw, pressing hard enough to tilt his head upward, forcing their gazes to meet lest he cared to be sliced from ear to ear. What peered down at him was a face cast in shadow, features undiscernible beneath the wild curtain of hair and the stream of dark blood glistening at his hairline.
The eerie gleam of a cybernetic eye, however, was unmistakable. A pinprick of red amidst the blackness silhouetted by the starfields at his back, glowing like the scarlet gaze of all those monster’s children were certain hid beneath their beds at night. Toshinori thrashed beneath the squeeze of the man’s strong thighs and was met with fingertips seeking out the scar at his side and pressing just enough to have him crying out in agony. Blinding pain and nausea rocketed through him. The stranger didn’t maintain the contact, however, seeking only to warn, not to maim.
“Impressive,” the shadow of a man spoke softly above him. “I had heard fables of how your punch could make the very stars collapse. Didn’t believe it until now.”
Toshinori dragged the heels of his boots across the floor and glared daggers, even as the blade pressed against his airways. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Just a delivery boy picking up his order,” the man shrugged. “Nothing personal.”
Toshinori could do nothing but watch as the butt end of the knife’s hilt came swinging down from above to snuff the stars right out.
Toshinori awoke on his knees, eyelashes caked over in dried blood running in a crackled stream from his hairline. Evidence of the blow that had knocked him out. With a low groan, he lifted his head, the dull throbbing at the base of his skull amplified by the movement. The room spun, even with his eyes closed, and his head lulled drunkenly as a result. Nausea rolled through his stomach. His neck felt heavier, somehow, like a weight was dangling from his throat. Like there was an icy, metallic hand pressing against his airway, seconds from crushing it. His shoulders were yanked back at a harsh angle, and he shifted painfully from one knee to the other, realization dawning as his eyes drifted open.
His guns were gone. His wrists were bound in iron shackles. There was a metal collar around his neck.
And this was not his ship.
A quiet panic settled just below the surface of his skin as he took in the room bathed in a wash of violet neon from the rows of lighting on the paneled metal ceiling. He was in the bridge of a vessel much smaller than his own, shackled to the wall just below the three iron steps leading toward the Captain’s chair above. They were in motion, soaring through starfields and plumes of intergalactic gases the color of turquoise and jade.
His heartbeat stammered, and the thing on his throat blipped in response like a monitor in a hospital room. Suddenly, the damn collar began tightening around his neck with a soft hiss, pressing hard. Constricting. Choking. Toshinori gasped, hands thrashing at his back in a burst of fear.
“I’d calm down, if I were you,” that dark, familiar voice bled through the room. Above, there was movement within the Captain’s chair. The turn of a head, a hand reaching to flick a switch on the control panel. “It’s monitoring your vitals to keep you in line. If your heartbeat or breathing quickens, it will know, and it will hurt you.”
Toshinori coughed, tears springing into his eyes as the sharp slice of pain in his chest.
“Breathe,” the figure spoke, almost soothingly. “You don’t want to trigger the electroshocks. Those really pack a punch, and I doubt your deteriorating state would be able to handle a few thousand volts shooting into that mangled thing you call a lung.”
A stream of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth, seeping through clenched teeth as he willed himself to calm. His chest rose and fell steadily, relief blossoming coldly as the collar loosened its grip.
Toshinori shook with supressed fury. “Fuck you.”
“Mm,” the Captain’s chair swivelled, revealing the bastard from earlier in a wash of violet light that cast him sharply in color and shadow. He was young, haggard and a little rough looking, but distressingly handsome nonetheless. Dark scruff dusted a sharp jawline as Toshinori was regarded with a bored, haughty scowl. That damn cybernetic eye blinked to life at the center of a nasty, jagged scar slashing him from brow to elegant cheekbone, the pinprick of red returning to cut into the marrow of Toshinori’s soul. “Flattering offer, but I’ll pass for now.”
His fingers balled into white-knuckled fists at his back.
“Who are you?” Toshinori asked, watching as the man rose and climbed down the steps toward him, the heels of his silver-tipped boots clacking hollowly like a blacksmith’s hammer strikes at a forge. Commanding, imposing.
How the hell he’d moved silently enough to catch Toshinori by surprise, earlier, he’d never know.
The figure drifted like black smoke, effortless and graceful, moving to lower himself into a crouch before Toshinori so they were properly face to face. The tattered gray cloak he’d worn before had been shucked off, revealing a tight black cotton shirt that plunged low enough to show off the soft scars marring a jut of clavicle. He smelled dark, like tobacco and leather and roasted coffee beans.
Toshinori hated him even more than he hated the obvious attraction he felt seething within.
God, he really had been alone too long.
“Who are you?” Toshinori repeated slowly.
“You,” the man had the nerve to smile, revealing rows of perfectly straight white teeth. “…are a difficult man to find, Captain Toshinori Yagi.”
He was avoiding the question.
“Ex-Captain,” Toshinori corrected. “Long retired.”
“The famed Pillar of the Galaxy, with three decades of impeccable service under your belt. Graduated top of your class at UA Star Academy. A gifted pilot and the best shot in all eight solar systems. Six years ago, you commanded the fleet that took down All For One and brought peace and prosperity to the stars. It’s an impressive resume, I must admit.” The cybernetic eye roved over his body before settling on his left side where his coat concealed the scar that brought that glittering career to a screeching halt. “Shame it was cut short.”
Toshinori’s jaw cocked. “Come a little closer and I’ll carve my autograph into your other eye, fanboy.”
The man’s gaze darkened despite his bored expression. “Now, who said I was a fan?”
He frowned and watched as the figure rose to move across the space, seeking out the coffee maker embedded into the wall. He keyed a code into the control panel, prompting a black stream of fresh, steaming espresso to pour out into the ceramic mug below. A mug with cat whiskers painted along the side of it.
Who the fuck was this guy?
“Those panels along the side of your ship,” the man began as he waited for his mug to fill. “Fascinating technology, I gotta say. Made it next to impossible to weed you out of the shadows where you’ve decided to mope your life away.”
Toshinori bit the inside of his cheek, rage spiking in a way that made the collar at his neck blip cheerfully in reply. The metal constricted just enough to warn, and he forcibly pushed his anger down. Pushed it all the way down as the younger man watched him with both hands stuffed into his pockets and a satisfied smirk dancing along his mouth.
He’s provoking you, Toshi. Don’t give him what he wants.
“I was half intent on giving up altogether, until I realized that the only logical solution would be to seek out the brilliant mind who invented the idea in the first place. A renowned scientist who designed those wraith panels specifically to keep you safe.”
Toshinori’s blood went cold.
“David Shield,” the stranger grinned. “Hell of a guy.”
“MOTHERFUCKER.” Toshinori lunged forward with a roar, but the iron shackling him to the wall kept him in place like a leash on a rabid hound. The collar blipped loudly and locked itself around his airways, and he choked out his words. “If you touched him, I swear to God, I’ll—”
The sudden shock silenced him there. White hot, blinding his vision for one excruciating moment, it coursed like prickles of fire through his insides. Toshinori collapsed against the floor with a violent jolt, joints locking up in response. Blood pooled at the back of his throat as he rode out one sharp convulsion after the other, his teeth clenched. There was lightning in his veins. A raging storm in his lung. Electric and wild and agonizing. It lasted only a couple of seconds before the collar loosened its hold once more. Gasping wetly, Toshinori coughed and wretched out a mouthful of bile and blood all over himself. He writhed uncontrollably, the hot prickles dancing along his fingertips. Groaning, he trembled in the aftershocks as his fury was forced away.
All the while, the younger man watched from the other side of the room while his kitty cat mug filled with coffee.
Oh, Toshinori fucking hated him.
“If you’d allowed me to finish my sentence, hot shot, I would have explained that your little friend is perfectly safe,” he drawled out with a scolding click of his tongue like the conversation was boring him. “A little roughed up, I’ll admit, but safe. I may have brought up his wife and daughter in what sounded like a thinly-veiled threat, and the technology made to track you was practically shoved into my hands.” A snap of fingers. “Easy peasy.”
Toshinori’s eyes narrowed as he was approached in slow, languid strides. The silver point of the stranger’s boot was eased under his cheek, forcing his head to turn so their eyes could meet in a glare that crackled like the current that had violently coursed through him.
“I’m not a killer,” the younger man whispered, cybernetic eye gleaming. “Remember that.”
Toshinori allowed himself to be gently manhandled back into a sitting position against the wall, the younger man’s hands unnervingly careful when they hadn’t been anything less than cruel back on his ship. He stretched his long legs out in front of him, body aching, yet frowned as the stranger suddenly knelt between them while brandishing a folded-up tissue from his back pocket. He gestured toward the fresh blood and spittle drying on Toshinori’s chin.
Chest heaving, he growled. “Touch me and I’ll kick your fucking ass.”
“That so? And how would you manage that, I wonder?” The younger man tilted his head. “You can either swallow your pride and let me clean you up, or you can sit there for the remainder of the three-day journey with your insides clinging to your outsides.” He watched him beneath the dark fan of his lashes. “But pretty as you look covered in blood, hot shot, I want you presentable for the drop-off.”
Three days. He had three days to figure out a way of escape before this son of a bitch handed him off to… whomever it was that had orchestrated the kidnapping. Compliance was key in this. Compliance and patience. He needed to behave himself. He needed to make this criminal let his guard down.
Reluctantly, Toshinori eased the tension in his shoulders. “Fine.”
The stranger grunted softly in approval before leaning in and gently wiping the sticky red mess from Toshinori’s mouth and jaw, the touch startlingly intimate given the circumstance.
Compliance could wait.
Toshinori reared forward and slammed his head against the younger man’s skull, bashing with enough force to knock him back on his ass. Pain rocketed through his head at the contact, making his teeth chatter and his vision warp. The stranger grunted as he slowly righted himself. His dark hair was thrown wildly across his face, clinging to the rivulets of red that spilled between his fingers when he touched his nose. Toshinori couldn’t suppress a smug smile at the sight of it, even as that cybernetic eye glinted dangerously at him from beneath those bangs.
To his shock, however, the stranger only huffed through a smirk.
Like he was almost fucking impressed.
“I’ll give you that one,” he said while pressing the tissue to his nose to sop up the blood spilling forth in waves. It didn’t look broken, much to his disappointment.
Still, it satisfied Toshinori enough to know he wasn’t the only one hurting at the moment.
“You’ve lost your coffee privileges, though,” the stranger added, rising to lumber back toward his steaming mug. His voice was clogged and thick with blood rushing back down his throat, forcing his words to come out nasally behind the balled-up tissue. “And here I was being such a gracious host.”
“Oh, however will I cope?” Toshinori muttered bitterly and drew his knees up to his chest.
“Keep mouthing off and you won’t eat either.”
So, he was planning on feeding him? Toshinori should have felt at least a fragment of comfort at the knowledge that his kidnapper wasn’t cruel, but all he sensed was a hollow ache at his core that no amount of food would be able to fill.
He’d known for years that he would die long before his time, but he never imagined it like this, chained up like an animal. Helpless and undignified.
Red stained the stranger’s lips as he plucked that damn whiskered mug from its place and took one long, loud sip, eyeing Toshinori over the brim all the while.
Compliance was key, Toshinori thought as he returned the glare.
This was going to be harder than he thought.
Toshinori watched his kidnapper sleep, studied the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath the thin white sheet draped across his body, the effortless spill of his dark hair over his face. He, himself, couldn’t get a damn wink in, not with his shoulders bent backward and his lower spine pulsing with pain no matter how many times he shifted his position on the floor. He couldn’t lay down properly, not with the way he was shackled. He stretched out his legs, then folded them back in, then tucked them beneath his body to relieve some pressure off his back, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the son of a bitch was tucked nice and cozy in his bunk. A warm bed barely big enough for two embedded into an alcove in the farthest wall, over lit by the softest pale blue light as the ship drifted lazily through the starfields.
Sighing, he tipped his head back against the metal wall and clenched his eyes shut, mind scouring through every wild, reckless plan of escape. He envisioned bloodstained chrome gleaming black beneath neon lighting and an explosion of fire in his wake. He envisioned a lifetime of keeping the peace throughout the universe snuffed out as he set the barrel of his pistol between his kidnapper’s eyes and fired once. A reluctant move, but necessary. One he would not hesitate to take if opportunity arose.
I’m not a killer, the younger man had said.
Toshinori snorted to himself. “But I can be.”
A moment passed, and Toshinori was suddenly alerted by the softest blip in the silence, though this time it didn’t come from his throat.
It was his wrist.
Toshinori’s eyes snapped open, and panic set in quickly. “Shhhh!”
The son of a bitch shifted upon the bed with a gentle groan, but by some grace of fucking god didn’t wake. Toshinori’s heart rocketed through his chest, prompting the collar to begin its compressions, and he grit his teeth and forced himself to calm. Inhales. Exhales. Slow and rattled by the blood in his airways. He peered over his shoulder but couldn’t get his sights on the cuff that stored NANA’s backup system. Even being so far from his own ship, she had some form of power. A connection to her motherboard.
But, how long would that last?
“NANA…” he whispered as softly as he could, gaze locked on his kidnapper’s slumbering form. “If you can hear me, send out a distress signal to Tsukauchi and the fleet. Let them know my coordinates. Let them know I’ve been taken hostage.”
There was a moment of silence, and Toshinori almost thought he’d lost her somehow, until she spoke once more, volume lowered.
“There appears to be some form of wall around this vessel keeping my signals out, Captain. I cannot penetrate it.”
He frowned. “Wall?”
“A shield of some sort in the ship’s mainframe made to prevent transmissions from exiting the vessel outside of the main control center. It’s heavily protected, layer upon layer of encrypted keys to pass through. Coded alarm systems everywhere. It bounces my radio signals right back to me. I c-can’t…” her voice flickered, like the connection was wavering. “Can’t get through the blockage.”
Toshinori narrowed his eyes at the figure upon the bed who turned over with the softest whimper in his sleep, recalling the ease in which his own security system was dismantled and overridden.
“So, you’re a hacker, too…” he breathed. Earlier relief dampened like a blossoming flower being trampled beneath a boot, Toshinori cocked his jaw. He was on his own in this, it seemed. “NANA, can you scan the ship and pull up any information on it’s owner?”
“It will take time. This ship is overwrought with security.”
Toshinori watched the figure on the bed grow more restless by the minute, broken whimpers and slurred words passing his lips as he tossed and turned beneath the tangled sheet. His legs scissored, his hand swatted at the air before burying itself into his dark hair. In the soft lighting, he could see a thin sheen of sweat glimmering on the younger man’s furrowed brow before his face was pushed into the pillow, expression tightening with distress.
Just then, he startled awake with a gasp as loud as gunfire in the quiet. The younger man shot up in a sitting position, trembling fingers pressed against the vicious scar cutting across the hollow crevice that now cradled a cybernetic eye. His entire body shook, breaths ragged and quick.
Toshinori could only watch, despising the flutter of concern in the pit of his chest.
As if sensing his stare, the younger man turned his head and met his gaze through a curtain of dark hair. His cybernetic eye was not activated at the moment, leaving nothing but a gleam of black glass where the red pinprick of light once was. It made him look softer, somehow. More human.
No words were exchanged between them. Only a look. Cold and cutting and broken all at once. Snorting, the younger man laid back down upon the bed, turning his back toward Toshinori as he curled up tightly within himself beneath the sweat-soaked sheets. He looked entirely too small.
Hours later, when those soft snores filled the quiet once more, NANA’s voice returned.
“Captain, I did not find much embedded into the Stealthwing’s database besides an identification code belonging to a former student of UA Star Academy. Everything else is far too encrypted for me to access without being properly plugged into the system.”
Toshinori frowned sleepily. That made no sense. “…Go on.”
“The code was registered to a freshman named Shouta Aizawa sixteen years ago. He majored in interstellar flight and aerospace engineering with a minor in cybernetic technology. Aizawa was named top of his class at the time but dropped out of the Academy suddenly during his third year, mere months before he was set to graduate. There is no record of him anywhere after that and he has been since presumed dead.”
Toshinori stared across the room at the figure laying dreamlessly before him. An aspiring Captain. A star pupil attending the finest Academy in the galaxy. A school of promised glory and fulfilled dreams.
A school that had taken in a hero and spat out a villain.
A villain still attached to his student code after sixteen years.
“Shouta…” he breathed, testing out the name, tasting the flavor of its sound against his tongue. “What the fuck happened to you?”
The great Pillar of the Galaxy had been nothing short of a thorn in his side since the moment Shouta dragged his ass onboard. He was still as arrogant as he’d once been all those years ago on the holoscreens of Shouta’s youth, though it was a far subtler feature, now. A gentle cockiness shown in the tilt of his head or the curl of his smirk. No longer that ever-grinning beacon of interstellar justice and peace in a body the size of a fucking mountain, laughing boisterously before the fleet he commanded, swallowed up by cheers and the flash of a hundred cameras.
Though even now with his gaunt, willowy frame and crippling health, Toshinori grinned through bloodstained teeth while he matched every one of Shouta’s remarks with a clever retort of his own. His former strength had remained intact, it seemed, despite his shocking new appearance. The older man was unwaveringly smart-mouthed and recklessly bold given his vulnerable circumstance.
It really shouldn’t have been as attractive as it was. Especially not when he went out of his way to make his brief stay aboard the Stealthwing as irritating as possible.
Shouta lounged with one leg thrown over the arm of his Captain’s chair. A headache pulsed relentlessly at the base of his skull, the pounding forged by a combination of restless sleep and the phantom pain behind his eye socket. Pain that not even a coffee nor the half-eaten apple in his hand could suppress. Meanwhile, Toshinori had just finished belting out his third off-key rendition of Camptown Races from his spot shackled to the wall, baritone voice amplified by the ship’s metal interior.
Shouta dragged his hand down his face. “That collar should have come with a gag.”
“Kinky,” the retired Captain replied, folding one of those impossibly long legs up to his chest. He looked rough, like he hadn’t gotten a moment of sleep since he’d been taken. Still, those eyes blazed blue as the comet tails Shouta was so fond of. “Shall I segue into Old Man River, now?”
“I’d appreciate it if you did not.”
“And a one, and a two, and a—” He cut off when Shouta turned and pelted him on the side of the head with the half-eaten apple. “Ow!”
Shouta smirked victoriously, though the expression wavered somewhat as Toshinori filled the silence with a new sound. A string of deep, rattling coughs from deep within his narrow chest. They were thick and wet, clogged with blood that choked through each gasping inhale. He could see the pain wrenching through the other man’s face, his expression pinched, his head lowered as his body jolted forward with each cough. With his hands bound behind his back, he couldn’t muffle the sound, nor catch the mouthful of blood that sputtered out without warning to stain the red leather of his coat.
He’d heard rumors, obviously, after Toshinori Yagi slipped into the shadows of retirement six years ago. Rumors of a broken, withered body, too shameful to see the light. The battle against All For One at Kamino Station had been devastating. Shouta recalled watching it, white-knuckled and wild-eyed on the holoscreens of a smoky neon nightclub, the music silenced and the crowd sullen and hushed. A crowd of criminals, of thieves and assassins, android and human alike. A hundred sweat-soaked bodies of flesh and steel frozen in awe as the Pillar of the Galaxy strode out of the smoke with his insides spilling out between his shaking fingers. Blood-soaked, barely alive, Toshinori Yagi had lifted a single fist toward the stars in victory, his grin unwavering, before crumbling amid the heaps of twisted metal and dust.
The broadcast had cut out, then, and the Pillar of the Galaxy hadn’t been heard from since.
A long-deserved retirement after three decades of service to the eight solar systems, they’d called it, but Shouta knew better.
He hadn’t spent the last six years resting, if the blood dribbling down his chin was any indication.
He’d been hiding.
Slowly, Shouta rose and marched down the steps. Toshinori was still coughing, soft bursts through a closed mouth that rocked through his entire form. His eyes were clenched shut, and his ridiculous blond bangs clung to a fresh layer of sweat upon the creases of his brow.
“Come, now, I didn’t hit you that hard,” Shouta muttered as he knelt before the other man.
Those striking eyes opened just enough to cast him a seething glare beneath flaxen lashes, and an infuriating taste of desire suddenly lapped at Shouta’s insides, making his toes curl in his silver-tipped boots.
No. Not happening. Not when he had a job to do.
“Is your employer aware that you’re delivering damaged goods?” Toshinori grit out between coughs. A thick droplet of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth, and he tilted his head back with a shaky sigh, letting it run over the sharp angle of his jaw and down that long, tempting throat.
Shouta tried not to follow it with his eyes and failed. “I don’t have an employer.”
Toshinori chuckled. “Are you getting paid for your work?”
“Then you’re employed.” Toshinori smirked. “Or at the very least, your balls are in someone’s grip until you give them what they want. How’s it feel, by the way? A little constricting? Is your voice getting higher?”
Shouta narrowed his eyes. “You’re mouthy for a hostage.”
“Because I’ve got nothing to lose,” Toshinori turned his head and spat a wad of thick blood onto the floor, clearing it from his throat. “I’m a dead man regardless of how this plays out. You think I don’t know you’re delivering me to my end? Not many people in the galaxy would go out of their way to hire a skilled criminal to find me for no reason besides the opportunity to put a bullet between my eyes. Can you imagine the bragging rights that come with that?” He gazed thoughtfully out through the massive curved window above, and his voice softened. “I know my history. I know I have enemies in the spaces between the stars. You don’t spend three decades fostering peace and justice within the galaxy without rustling a few feathers.”
Shouta stared at him with a mask of indifference, despite the guilt wrenching through his insides. Guilt that he didn’t deserve to feel.
“So, tell me, Shouta Aizawa, what’d I do to piss you off?”
It was as though the oxygen had been sucked out of the room in an instant, the sound of his own name, a name he hadn’t heard anyone speak aloud in over a decade, cutting through his heart with a rusted blade. It was a piece of him he’d long ago pushed away.
How did he know? He couldn’t have known.
Shouta unsheathed the knife at his hip and pressed the cold edge of the blade to the underside of the older man’s chin, wrenching his head up as he snarled. “What the fuck did you just call me?”
The retired Captain only smirked, before Shouta heard the soft rattle of an iron shackle falling to the floor.
The punch came without warning, Toshinori’s fist practically whistling through the air to strike Shouta across the face. Stars exploded behind his eyes as he toppled backward, pain wailing through his jaw and blood gushing into his mouth from where his cheek had sliced across his back teeth. He groaned, vision warping, as the older man rose to his feet and rolled his shoulders with a pleased, yet painful sigh.
“H-How… the fuck…?” Shouta breathed, his knife somewhere out of reach.
Toshinori was wearing only one of the iron shackles, now, as the other had been sliced clean in half. He yanked the sleeve of his oxblood leather coat up just enough to flash a thin silver cuff Shouta hadn’t seen before. It had a screen that blinked back at him with soft violet light. “Unfortunate that you missed this when you captured me in the first place. It’s a handy little gadget. Comes with an emergency ion laser built right in.” He smiled pleasantly. “Had to sing extra loudly to make sure you couldn’t hear it working over the last hour.”
Shouta could do nothing but fall flat on his back and laugh breathlessly with blood on his tongue. “Son of a bitch.”
“Know what else it does?” Toshinori held the cuff up and a harsh beam of light emerged to sweep across Shouta’s body like a net being draped over his form, scanning him in one fell swoop. The Captain’s smirk was slow. “NANA. Assess.”
A robotic voice emerged from the cuff, then, soft and feminine. “The Eraser, noted as one of the most notorious hackers in the galaxy. Wanted in six of the eight solar system on fifteen counts of grand larceny, eight counts of kidnapping, and ten counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Reward for his capture and surrender to the fleet has been placed at three million units.”
Toshinori whistled low.
Shouta, however, clicked his tongue in disappointment. “Only three million? Your bounty is so much higher than that.”
“That’s an impressive resume, I must admit.” Toshinori commented while he lowered himself to the floor, that endless body folding gracefully into a crouch, and damn if Shouta’s eyes didn’t devour the sight of him. Sharp and blond and deadly, drenched in the pink neon kiss of the ship’s interior lighting. Especially those legs, the sinewy muscle bulging against the leather thigh holsters. The things Shouta would do between them if given the chance. “But, maybe you just needed to step up your game. Handing over the Pillar of the Galaxy would put a hell of a notch in your belt. Make you a damn hero in the galactic underground.”
Shouta snorted, the sound of that word making his insides curl. “Hero…”
He blinked once, triggering his cybernetic eye. The eye that was both a curse and a blessing as its activation sent a wave of familiar agony prickling into his skull, slithering through the wires plugged from his socket and into his brain. His burden to bear for what he’d done. Rows of red numbers roamed over the right side of his vision, assessing the distance between he and the retired Captain. Measuring his stance, his balance, the empty holsters at his thighs. Calculating, always calculating…
“The last thing I am, or will ever be is a hero,” he added darkly while lifting his head.
Toshinori’s gaze narrowed toward the red pinprick of his false eye. His voice was unbearably steady, and Shouta had a feeling he was keeping himself calm so as not to activate the collar. “But you wanted to be one, didn’t you? It’s why you attended the Academy. You wanted to be a Captain. You wanted to lead, to help people. To keep our galaxy safe.”
Shouta snarled, hands fisting at his sides. “How the fuck do you know that?”
Toshinori tapped the silver cuff at his wrist. “NANA detected your student identification code within the ship’s mainframe. You’ve locked this place down pretty tight, but that was the one thing you couldn’t keep from her.”
“Cute trick,” Shouta purred, low and slow. His eye zeroed in on Toshinori’s left knee, targeting. “Wanna see one of mine?”
Before the Captain could react, Shouta swung his foot outward and took Toshinori’s leg right out from under him. The older man landed hard on his left side, the side Shouta knew still bore the wounds of his final battle, and he cried out sharply in pain. Seizing the moment of weakness, Shouta struck, launching himself on top of the older man and pinning him down. His thighs clung to either side of his narrow frame, but Toshinori was fast, swinging the butt of his hand upward to strike the underside of Shouta’s chin hard enough to make his teeth knock together and his vision swim.
The world teetered in a sudden rush, long fingers latching onto the back of his hair and yanking hard enough to make tears burn behind his one good eye. Shouta found himself beneath the retired Captain’s now, one large hand pinning him by the throat while the other held firm to the back of his head. He wrenched and struggled beneath Toshinori, fingers clawing into the thick red leather of his coat. Hips bucking, blood staining his teeth as he bared them in a snarl.
Even in this body, Toshinori was a relentless force of unbridled power. He held Shouta down with ease while searching his face. Looking for something. Something Shouta would never give.
A single glimmer of goodness. One that hadn’t been charred and blackened by his past.
Like his name, it was another part of him he’d pushed so far down that Shouta wasn’t sure it existed, anymore.
“Get the fuck off me,” Shouta hissed, and Toshinori squeezed at his throat.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if need be,” the older man warned softly, leaning in close enough for those ridiculous blond bangs to flutter over Shouta’s cheeks. His calmness was unbearable. “You need to stop this, Shouta.”
“Don’t call me that,” Shouta grit through clenched teeth, chest aching.
“It’s your name. It’s who you are.”
“You don’t fucking know who I am.”
“You have nightmares…” Toshinori breathed. “What do you have nightmares about?”
Shouta seized the wrist at his throat. He could feel just enough of the silver cuff peeking out from beneath the sleeve of Toshinori’s coat. Subtly, gently, he sought out the bumps and grooves of the various buttons along the side of it and began pressing them in a sequential order that revealed itself in red numbers down the right side of his vision. His movements were feather-light, barely detectable, and he kept his stare focused ahead on the face of the man he’d stolen from the shadows to meet his inevitable doom.
“I dream of carnage and smoke and starlight being snuffed from the skies,” Shouta whispered, teeth grinding. “Is that what you want to hear?”
“I want to know what happened to you,” Toshinori replied.
Shouta smiled viciously, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I just told you what happened to me.”
Three. Six. Two. Five. One. One. Three.
Three. Six. Two. Five. One. One. Three.
Shouta repeated the sequence until the cuff blipped loudly, projecting a holoscreen between their faces with a single word blinking at the center of it.
“What…” Toshinori breathed, grip faltering around Shouta’s throat.
The A.I. spoke up. “Captain, I—"
Shouta tapped on the word, cutting her off while activating the manual shutdown he’d initiated. The holoscreen vanished in a blink, and the lights along the cuff went out, taking that goddamn A.I. with it. Too distracted by what he’d just seen, Toshinori wasn’t able to block the sudden fist that came hard across his jaw, knocking him back onto his ass.
Now freed, Shouta leapt to his feet, resentment seething below the surface of his skin. He prowled over Toshinori’s body, which now trembled as the collar around his throat began to constrict in response to a new wave of panic and fear and rage.
“What… did… you… do…” the Captain wheezed. “....to NANA…?”
“Severed the A.I.’s tie between your little fashion accessory and the motherboard to your ship,” Shouta sneered. “She’s fine. Just unable to reach you, or anyone for that matter. I’ve put her in a temporary stasis. Don’t want her making any unnecessary calls to the fleet before the drop off.”
Toshinori clutched at the collar pressing into his throat while a bruise began to bloom across his jawline. “B-Bastard.”
“I told you, hot shot. The last thing I am or will ever be is a hero.”
With that, Shouta kicked him hard across the side of the head, knocking the Captain right out.
“So, stop trying to save me.”
He regained consciousness to the sound of Shouta suffering another nightmare. It shouldn’t have bothered him as much as it did, not with the way his jaw was throbbing, and his lower lip felt swollen and tasted of stale copper against his teeth. Toshinori was shackled to all hell, again, though thankfully with his hands bound at his front this time. There were even iron clasps around his ankles, now, with a thin chain connecting them up to his wrists. It would be near impossible to make any threatening movement toward his captor without falling flat on his face.
Clever son of a bitch.
Slowly, Toshinori sat up, groaning with the dull ache that now assaulted his body at every waking moment. His head pounded relentlessly. He was starving, shaky, exhausted beyond measure, and yet his biggest concern was the sound of his captor battling with his own demons. He watched through hazy eyes as Shouta writhed and struggled upon the bed across from him, little whimpers and sighs dripping from that smart mouth. He was on his back, head turned away from Toshinori, skin glistening in the soft overhead lighting. His one hand was clutching the sheets hard enough to nearly tear the fabric from the mattress beneath, while the other was…
Toshinori’s eyes widened while his mouth ran inexplicably dry, realization striking like a fist into his gut. The collar around his neck blipped with a soft hiss, reacting to the sudden leap of his heartrate. It began to constrict, and Toshinori swallowed, forcing himself to calm, forcing his breathing to slow.
Oh God… Shouta was touching himself. Toshinori could see those deft, callused fingers wrapped around the curved length of his cock glistening wet in the light. Thick and heavy and beautiful, a spider-silk thin ribbon of precum leaking against the dark hairs on his stomach. He was stroking himself from base to tip at a lazy pace, breaths catching with each pass of his palm across his sensitive crown, and his back arced with a heady sound muffled against his pillows.
Fuck, he shouldn’t be watching this. Shouta probably still assumed he was knocked out. Toshinori swallowed hard and tore his eyes away, forcing himself to stare at something, anything but the sight of the younger man bringing himself closer and closer to the edge.
The rivets in the ship’s metal floor looked exciting. He’d look at those for a bit.
Still, nothing could distract him from those sounds. Those aching little gasps and whines, the barely-there whispers of ‘please’ and ‘yes’ and ‘more’ filling the silence of the Stealthwing as loud as a crack of thunder. Toshinori shifted, willing his body to do anything but respond the way it wanted to. It had been so long since he was in the presence of another human for such an extended period of time, longer still since he’d experienced any form of intimacy. His nerves sung, touch-starved and crying out for contact. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been kissed, the last time someone else’s hands roved over his body, the last time he heard a person’s delighted groans against the shell of his ear.
He shouldn’t want this. He shouldn’t want Shouta of all fucking people, no matter the attraction that had been simmering in both of their gazes since the moment they’d met.
Despite himself, Toshinori risked another glance and caught sight of Shouta’s hips canting off the mattress, fucking into his closed fist. Close, he was incredibly close. Toshinori could tell by the pitch of his voice and the arc of his spine and the now frantic way he ran his hand along his cock. Shouta’s head turned, face swallowed up by a curtain of long black hair. There was a glimpse of a pink tongue. A mouth falling open and teeth grazing over a chapped lower lip.
Then suddenly Toshinori was staring into a pinprick of red from beneath the wild mess of hair. A cybernetic eye gazing across the room at him, watching, realizing.
Shouta didn’t stop. God… Toshinori didn’t want him to.
Instead, his pace picked up, mouth falling open in a silent cry as he danced precariously on the edge of release. It took everything in Toshinori’s power to keep his breathing steady and slow, to keep his heart from kicking up. The shackles rattled as he balled his hands into fists on his lap, nails biting into the flesh of his palms.
Come for me, he thought while staring into that glint of red light.
As though reading his thoughts, Shouta met his end mere moments later. The eye contact never wavered, not even as his back arced clean off the mattress and he clamped his free hand over his mouth to muffle the broken cry that bubbled forth. Toshinori’s stare cut through the darkness of the room, devouring the feast laid out before his starving gaze. Ribbons of white painted his kidnapper’s stomach, spurt after pulsing spurt pouring from that gorgeous cock. Shouta sounded absolutely shattered, voice cracking as he writhed and rode the waves of pleasure, and Toshinori would have given anything to have been the one to pull those noises from his throat.
Yeah, he was fucked.
A heavy, resounding silence gathered quickly between them, broken only by the steady rise and fall of Shouta catching his breath. A silence of unspoken realizations that would never come to light. Toshinori watched Shouta lay still for some time, arm dangling off the edge of the mattress, and almost wondered if the son of a bitch had fallen back asleep, until…
“How long have you been conscious?”
Toshinori swallowed, mouth too dry, voice too unsteady. “Long enough.”
Shouta laughed softly, though it wasn’t a cruel sound. He lifted his hand to rake it back through his sweat-dampened hair. There was a long pause as Shouta stared at the ceiling of his bunk, a moment where it was clear the criminal was putting his lust-muddled thoughts back in order. “I had another nightmare while you were knocked out. Couldn’t get back to sleep afterward. Decided maybe I just needed to try and exhaust myself.” He turned his head toward Toshinori. “I’d apologize for the accidental show, but by the look on your face, I have a feeling you weren’t entirely opposed to it.”
“Bold of you to assume I’m anything but disgusted right now,” Toshinori replied, not even trying to hide how little he meant those words.
“Your face is red.”
“Mm…” Shouta nodded slowly, then sat up as he tucked himself back into what Toshinori now realized were a pair of disastrously pink sweatpants. “Then I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.”
Toshinori’s breath caught. Fuck, there were pools of sticky white drying against the dark trail of hair running from the younger man’s chest to his stomach. He was pale and broad and scarred, so scarred, though not to the vile extent that Toshinori was. A dark, lonely part of him imagined running his tongue along that torso, lapping up the mess Shouta had created as he traced his hungry mouth over each fresh and faded mark. Shouta stood and approached Toshinori on bare feet, letting him absorb the sight before brushing past to disappear through a whirring set of doors. He could faintly hear running water on the other side.
“Fuck,” Toshinori muttered, bringing his shackled hands up just enough to push them through his blond hair. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck me sideways.”
Time passed at a crawl as the Stealthwing drifted high over a triad of ice moons that glittered with cities atop their surface, and Toshinori was nearly asleep with his face pressed against his knuckles when there came a gentle nudge of something warm against his shoulder. He looked up, startled to find Shouta extending a mug toward him that smelled heavily of a familiar sweetened spice Toshinori hadn’t experienced in years. His senses perked up. Cinnamon, clove, cardamom and ginger, each scent bolder than the last, and rare to boot. The monstrous greenhouse on Musutafu Station was dedicated to the maintaining of ancient Earthen agriculture, and some spices sat low on their list of priorities. Hot tendrils of steam rose from the mug, while Shouta cradled a second one in his other hand. The one with the cat whiskers.
“Tea,” the younger man grunted, nudging his shoulder with the mug once more.
Shouta sighed dramatically. “It’s not poisoned, you know.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
“Can’t collect a bounty with a corpse.”
Toshinori felt himself laugh, despite the implications of those words. Regardless of what he felt, of the conflict that raged through his mind each time Shouta even so much as gazed at him, they were still enemies, and he was still a prisoner. There was no denying that. Tomorrow marked the second day since he was stolen from his ship, and Toshinori could feel his inevitable end exhaling against the back of his neck, closer than he ever imagined it would be, making his hair stand and his hackles raise in defense.
He had accepted death long ago when All For One punched a hole through his side. Had accepted it and floated in secluded stasis for nearly a decade, vomiting a sea of red while awaiting its inevitable arrival. What right did he have to rage against his fate, now?
“Thank you,” he whispered as he took the offered mug. He sipped deeply, a grateful moan pouring from his mouth as the comforting heat settled in his stomach. His shackles rattled as he shifted into a less painful position on the floor. “Where the hell did you manage to find Chai?”
“Black market on Tattooin,” Shouta said as he gestured with his chin toward the ice moons drifting below them. The cityscape on Tattooin’s surface was a feeding ground for the criminal underbelly in the galaxy. “Paid nearly three hundred units for a small box. Worth it, though.”
“Mm,” Toshinori nodded and sipped again. Slower, smaller, wanting to savor the rare taste for as long as possible. He ran his fingertip slowly around the mug’s rim. “That where the drop off is taking place?”
Shouta’s expression remained passive. “Possibly.”
Shit. So, they’d arrived at their destination faster than anticipated. Days tended to fly by when you spent most of them unconscious, it seemed.
“You know,” Shouta spoke up as he moved to sit on the edge of the bed with his own tea. He gestured toward him with his kitty mug. “You put up less of a fight than I expected of the famed Pillar of the Galaxy.”
Toshinori snorted, the sound amplified by the mug against his lips. “That shiner you’re sporting says otherwise.”
Shouta touched the splotches of deep purple that had bloomed along his one good eye socket where Toshinori had struck him, spreading toward his swollen cheekbone like watercolor. He hissed as his fingers made contact. “Fair point, and kudos for aiming for my good side.”
He peered over the brim of his cup, studying that haggard, handsome face. “You have a good side?”
Toshi smiled into his tea. He shouldn’t have, but he did.
“Still,” Shouta frowned. “You’re not going to do much else to deter me from my mission, are you? The Captain Yagi I used to watch on holoscreens all those years ago would have had my ass bound and gagged and shipped to the fleet’s front door by now.”
“The Captain Yagi you used to watch is dead. I’m just the empty husk he left behind.”
Shouta’s shoulders straightened as though Toshinori’s words caught him off guard. Hell, he surprised himself with his own statement, six years of self-deprecating thoughts finally bubbling to the surface to spill from his throat like blood. His tongue stung like acid in the aftermath of speaking them, and he cradled his mug of tea close to his chest as though the warmth would offer some semblance of comfort. He curled his knees to his chest, wishing he were smaller.
Dark eyes narrowed. “This have anything to do with that coughing fit you had earlier?”
“Since when did this become a therapy session?” Toshinori grit.
“Since when did you have a death wish?” Shouta snapped right back.
Toshinori laughed at that, the sound hollow as he tipped his head back against the metal wall and smiled brokenly. “I don’t. But you can’t fight the inevitable.”
“Death is inevitable for us all,” Shouta stated.
“Yeah, well most people haven’t been watching theirs approaching in the rear-view mirror for nearly a decade.” Toshinori shrugged, gazing down at his reflection on the surface of his tea. What stared back was a gaunt, unrecognizable shell of the man he once was. “Someone paying you so they can put a bullet between my eyes doesn’t change anything but the date, Shouta. There’s no point in fighting.”
Shouta looked appalled at that as he set his mug aside. “So, you’re what? Just giving up?”
Toshinori cocked a brow at the harshness of the younger man’s tone. “Are you actually pissed that a kidnapping is going smoother than anticipated?”
“No, that’s not—” Shouta stopped himself. He pushed his fingers back through his hair, revealing that vicious scar in the pale light above him. With a sigh, he shook his head and flicked his hand dismissively. “Forget it.”
Toshinori watched as the younger man laid back down upon the soft narrow bunk with a huff, his back turned toward him with quiet finality.
“What.” He responded coldly without looking back.
Toshinori balanced the question on his tongue for a moment. “Can I sleep with you?”
Shouta’s head snapped around so quickly, Toshinori was shocked his neck didn’t break.
“N-No, not like—” Toshinori held his hands up, heat creeping up toward his ears. “I meant actually sleep. On the bed.” He stared at the shackles on his wrists and ankles. “I haven’t gotten a moment of proper rest since you took me, and call me selfish, but this could very well be one of my last night’s alive and I’d like to at least spend it in comfort.”
The way Shouta was looking at him with those dark, calculating, penetrative fucking eyes, he half-expected another apple to be thrown at his head for even asking such a thing.
Toshinori blinked. “What?”
“I said fine,” Shouta grumbled and rolled off the mattress to fetch what looked like a strange iron key from the control panel above. “But you’re sleeping between me and the wall. I don’t want you wandering around.”
Toshinori nodded, allowing the younger man to unlock the shackles at his ankles only, which granted him the power to stand and collapse against the mattress. The little bunk was shorter than expected, forcing him to bend his knees to accommodate his long legs, but he couldn’t complain. Not with the groan that tumbled from his mouth as his spine made contact with a softness so intense, he felt his every ache dissipate as he sunk further into the bed.
Shouta climbed in after him, easing himself unbearably close to Toshinori’s side. The pillows and sheets smelled of the younger man, of that dark heady scent that reminded Toshinori of tobacco and leather and roasted coffee. There wasn’t much room for either of them, and Shouta’s bare back was soon pressed flush against Toshinori’s right shoulder. He tried hard not to think of what had transpired in this bed only minutes ago. Tried hard not to think about how long it had been since he’d felt the warmth of another human laying at his side, his broad muscles and shoulder blades cast sharply in blue light, the mere heat of his skin through the red leather on his shoulder making Toshinori’s nerves buzz excitedly. Shouta was scarred there, too. All across his back. Deep slashes, burns, and pockmarks from old bullet wounds, stark and white against his already pale skin.
They laid in tense silence for a long time, neither of them sleeping as the ship drifted along the starfields. Toshinori stared at the ceiling of the bunk, his breathing rattling with each intake of breath, his only warning of an impending coughing fit in the near future.
“What’re you going to do with the money?” He heard himself whisper in the silence.
Shouta stiffened at his side. “Why would you even ask that?”
“I’m curious.” He tuned his head, and his nose was tickled by the ends of Shouta’s dark hair. “This Stealthwing of yours is a pretty old model, and incredibly small, too. The latest ones at least have a good three or four bunks installed to accommodate a crew, and I’ve seen nothing of obvious value anywhere. The cloak you wear is tattered, you fight with knives when the Tattooin black market could provide you with only the top fleet-grade weaponry in the galaxy. Yet the most expensive thing you’ve shown me thus far is a mug of Chai tea.”
“Your point?” Shouta growled.
Toshinori stared at the back of Shouta’s head. “You’ve done this before, if that three-million-unit reward on your head is any indication. With your hacking skills, you could probably get into the account of any mogul in the star systems within minutes and drain them dry.”
“I’ve done that plenty of times. Just ask Enji Todoroki.”
Toshinori shot up hard enough to nearly slam his head against the bunk ceiling. “That was you?!”
Shouta smirked smugly over his shoulder.
“That was nearly ten million units gone overnight by itself, and yet you have nothing to show for it?” Toshinori frowned. “Where does all the money you rack up go, Shouta?”
Shouta turned away sharply. “None of your business.”
“It’s a little bit my business when it’s my death that’s going to line your pockets.”
“If you don’t drop it, you’re sleeping on the floor again.”
Toshinori fell silent, biting the inside of his cheek to stifle his nagging curiosity about the young criminal laying beside him. Since they’d met, Shouta had presented him with a dozen reasons to consider him villainous, and a dozen reasons to consider him heroic. He was a contradiction, a puzzle with a thousand pieces and no picture to guide him.
But there was one thing Toshinori knew for sure as he settled back in against the pillows.
“…Shouta?” He whispered.
A heavy sigh. “What.”
“You’re not a bad person.”
A long pause of silence. A shift of legs against soft sheets. Then a chuckle, low and quiet and touched with an emotion Toshinori wished he could decipher. “Boy, that Stockholm Syndrome settled in quick, huh?”
He scowled, but said nothing in return, knowing Shouta was only going to keep deflecting for as long as it took. Defeated, exhausted, Toshinori sighed and let his eyes fall shut, letting the slow drift of the ship and the hum of the engines lull him into a false sense of security for a short while, knowing full well what awaited him on that ice moon below.
It was strange. He must have been far more sleep-deprived than he realized. In the few seconds before passing out, Toshinori almost thought he felt Shouta nestle back against him with a shaky sigh, and a soft, whispered…
Shouta awoke surrounded by a kind of warmth he didn’t deserve to feel. He’d turned over sometime in his sleep, tucking his head into the hollow of Toshinori’s throat and pressing close, so very close. Enough to smell the leather and sweat and musk of his searing skin, enough to listen to the wet rattles of his steady breathing and the thrum of his heartbeat in perfect contended rest. His arm was slung around the older man’s shoulder, hungry for his heat and touch in a rare stretch of hours where a nightmare hadn’t woken him for the second time. His fingers were buried in a wild nest of soft blond hair.
He should move. He really, really should…
Frozen, Shouta swallowed hard and allowed himself a few small, selfish moments of indulgence. Of feeling safe, warm, even desired. Things he had never known. Things that would never come to be. Not in this line of work. Not with him.
His eyes drifted up to settle upon the face mere inches from his own. Toshinori’s fine lines had been smoothed out in sleep, the creases formed by pain or anger no longer visible. He seemed recklessly, foolishly at peace here. Laying with his kidnapper like they were lovers. Guilt clawing at the tattered remains of his heart, Shouta suddenly reached up, wanting to run his fingers over the nasty bruise on the retired Captain’s jaw, to soothe what he’d caused.
He stopped himself.
“Nope,” he muttered, drawing away quickly. Shouta practically scrambled off the bed, ignoring the soft whimper of protest from Toshinori’s sleeping form, the curl of those shackled hands into the warm sheets where he’d once lain. He threw himself through the whirring bathroom doors and gripped the edge of the sink in white-knuckled hands. “Nopenopenopenope. Not happening.”
He splashed his face with icy cold water, shocking the desire out of his system like a knee to the gut.
He had a job to do. He couldn’t afford to second guess his decisions. He couldn’t afford to get attached. Not when he was this close to the biggest payout of his career.
Shouta showered, smoked three cigarettes, and had coffee brewing before the hour’s end. His hair had been thrown back into a low ponytail, allowing his bangs to hang in dark tendrils around his face. His scar ached particularly fiercely this morning, a punishment on its own, a reminder of what he was preparing for.
He donned himself from throat to foot in black, as per usual, throwing on a dark turtleneck that clung like a second skin to his form and shoving his shaking hands into thick leather gloves reinforced with layers of steel armor across the knuckles. Two pistols slipped into a pair of holsters at either hip, and his knife sat sheathed at his lower back, as always. Shouta reached for his tattered cloak and swept it on.
Every part of him was buzzing, like lightning dancing between each layer of skin. He’d done this countless times before. He had no right to feel nervous.
It was nerves, wasn’t it?
When he slipped back into the main chamber of the ship, coffees in hand, Toshinori was awake and seated on the edge of the bed. Those comet blue eyes found him immediately, sharp from a night of proper rest.
“You tied your hair back…” the older man murmured with an immeasurable softness that Shouta couldn’t bear to hear.
Toshinori’s gaze penetrated right to the marrow of his fucking bones. “Looks nice.”
Shouta ignored the comment and handed the Captain his coffee. “Here.”
Why had he made two? Why the fuck did he continuously make two? He’d never doted to his former prisoners like this. Since when did a kidnapping contain such luxuries?
Perhaps the quiet admiration and respect he’d always carried for the Pillar of the Galaxy had been a little less quiet than he’d anticipated. After all, Shouta attended the Academy all those years ago with the desire to protect others as Captain Toshinori Yagi had. And what a fucking joke that turned out to be. Here he was making his childhood inspiration a cup of coffee and allowing him to share his bed mere hours before delivering him to his death. What was he trying to do? Comfort him?
God, he was a fucking monster.
Shouta’s stomach lurched with self-loathing while he climbed up the steps to the Captain’s chair. Below, Tattooin glittered in the light of a nearby dying star, the cityscape crawling like black veins across the moon’s icy, barren landscape. Shouta knew those winding arteries and sinister shadows like they were pulsing with his own blood. He’d practically grown up there, soothed by the cradle of villainy when his dreams had fallen to pieces.
He could feel Toshinori’s eyes boring into the back of his head, and Shouta silently wished he had something else to throw at him.
Stop looking at me like I’m redeemable. Stop looking at me at all.
The Stealthwing’s A.I. blinked to life before him, it’s voice not nearly as human as the one that had come from Toshinori’s cuff. “Incoming transmission from Tattooin Sector Omega.”
Shouta sighed. “Proceed.”
A holoscreen took the place of the ship’s front window, and before long, Shouta was peering at the face of a long-time friend. He barely had time to brace himself, before…
“Hey heeeeeeeey, Eraser!” Hizashi Yamada, or Mic as he was known as in the galactic underground, bellowed like there was a fucking amplifier where his vocal chords should be. The sound of his voice made the entire ship vibrate. “Thought I caught that ol’ rust bucket of yours in my radar.”
Shouta rubbed at his temple. “Mic, could you dial it down a few notches? It’s early.”
“Early?!” Mic peered at him through the light blade visor he wore over his eyes, the neon pink glow of it blinking with soundwaves to the rise and fall of his voice with every word he spoke. It made the lustrous spill of his blond hair gleam like rose gold. “It’s 5 PM Earthtime, my dude, where the hell you been?” His voice lowered and he leaned in closer to the camera. “You still having trouble sleeping? You know, I do know a guy who could help you get—”
“Now’s not the time.”
“Alright, alright, sheesh…” Mic leaned back in what Shouta could only assume was a roller chair, considering the dramatic swivel he took right after. He could faintly hear the muffled pulsing of bass from the nightclub in the background of the video feed. “So, what’cha doin’ back on this side of the tracks, my man? Business?” One blond brow arced beneath his visor, and he smirked. “Pleasure?”
Shouta took a long sip of his coffee. “Business.”
“Bah, bold of me to assume you’d have fun for once.” Mic shook his head and tapped at a few controls off-camera, the keys clacking loudly. “Should I inform the Missus of your imminent arrival, then? I can only assume your transaction will go down at Sleepwalk3r.”
“Doesn’t it always?”
“Hm. Predictable to a fault.”
“Mic,” Shouta warned.
“Just sayin’…” Mic held up both gloved hands defensively, as though Shouta could somehow lunge through the holoscreen and shove him in a chokehold. “Midnight will get the Penthouse all hunky cozy for the trade. Will she have to lay down a few blood tarps or will this transaction be clean? Don’t want a repeat of what happened last year with that mob boss from Fukuoka Station. She had me on my knees for days, and not in the fun way.” He slung his arm dramatically over his face. “You know how hard it was to scrub that greasy bastard’s innards from all that velvet upholstery?!”
Shouta’s throat closed at the notion of spilled blood. He stared at his hands trembling around his favorite mug. For years, he’d taken part in hundreds of trades since joining the galactic underground, most of which involved a simple exchange of information for money in the back room of a seedy neon nightclub. Information only a hacker of his caliber could provide. Shouta had blackmailed and threatened countless moguls and crime lords, stolen precious artifacts and weaponry. His kidnappings never discriminated. He’d taken scumbag celebrities from their glittering, silk-lined beds just as easily as he’d snatched up the lowest nobody from the corridors of Musutafu Station.
And in the rare few times when a life was exchanged for a payout, Shouta had stood by idlily, counting his earnings while some rich asshole’s blood soaked the carpet beneath his boots.
So, why did this one feel different?
Easy, a voice in his head replied. Because the others had fought back, even though they deserved what they got.
“No, that’s…” he cleared his throat. “No. Clean transaction.”
“Gotcha,” Mic tapped a few more keys and grinned. “Meet up at the front doors?”
Shouta nodded before swiping his fingertips over the holoscreen to end the call. The starfields blazed before him once again, a hundred trillion judgemental eyes staring him down. He tore his gaze away, grip tightening around the mug in his hands until the ceramic handle made a crackling sound resembling the fracture running down what remained of his heart.
Something hot blazed at the center of him. Something terrifying. Something that made his anxiety spike and his pulse feel like a thunderstorm trapped in a closed fist.
“FUCK.” Shouta turned and whipped the cup across the chamber, letting it obliterate into a thousand coffee-soaked shards against the metal wall.
Toshinori eyed him warily from the bed. “…Everything okay?”
“Why the fuck are you so fucking calm?!” Shouta shouted.
The retired Captain merely pointed to the metal collar around his throat like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Shouta covered his face with both hands, laughing weakly, pathetically into the silence between them. What the fuck had become of him?
Shouta needed this fucking man off his ship and out of his life as soon as possible. He needed the warmth building high like magma at his core extinguished before it pulled him under.
And later tonight, when he returns to his Stealthwing with nothing but a pair of empty shackles in his grip, he’ll allow himself to mourn.
Toshinori was led through snow-dusted alleyways with the barrel of a gun pressed against the small of his back. Around him, crooked black buildings of tarnished metal and stone soared high enough to nearly pierce Tattooin’s dome of false atmosphere. His bootsteps crunched in a melody that kept time with Shouta’s, icy wind whipping through his hair and cutting across the part of his face that hadn’t been covered by the strange mask he’d been made to wear. Made from thick black leather and armor plating, it concealed him from below his eyes downward, making it somewhat difficult to breathe, and even harder to speak. Perhaps that was done purposefully.
The snow beneath them was a palette of wild color from the neon signs pulsing and buzzing on every structure. With a nudge to his back, Shouta forced him to turn left, leading him down a long stretch of road below a tangle of electric wire that stretched from one building to the next. Toshinori could hear shouts, laughter, the distant bark of a dog and the muffled beat of a baseline from a strip club nearby. The drifting scent of food in the air made his stomach gurgle, and ahead, a couple stood pressed against the graffiti-marked shipment door of a building, his cybernetic hand up her skirt as they kissed and rutted against each other in the icy night.
Toshinori dropped his eyes to his now unbound wrists. Shouta had removed the shackles before they’d disembarked off the ship, opting to control him using only the collar and the pistol against his spine.
Not that he’d put up much of a fight to begin with. The inside of his mask was beginning to scent heavily of copper from the blood rising up into his throat. His head felt bleary.
“You know,” he said, voice muffled. “The gun isn’t necessary, Shouta.”
“Shut it,” Shouta hissed, the oversized hood of his cloak thrown up to cover his head, shielding his face in shadow. His cybernetic eye glinted dangerously. He’d been on edge for a while, now. Even more so after that call from the obnoxiously loud blond with the light visor. He was like a cornered cat with its tail sticking straight up. “And don’t call me that. Not now. Not here.”
Toshinori frowned. “No one else knows who you are, do they?”
A long moment of silence passed between them, and Toshinori risked a glance over his shoulder. Shouta was staring off into the middle-distance, not really focused on anything at all.
“You told me last night that the Captain Yagi I used to admire is dead, and that you’re just the empty husk he left behind,” he murmured at last, voice low beneath the howl of wind cutting through the winding alleyways. “Well, the same goes for me. Shouta Aizawa has been dead and gone for a long time.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Shouta snapped his attention back to him. “Then you’re more of a moron than I thought.”
Toshinori heard the nightclub before he saw it. He could feel the pulsing baseline from muffled music reverberating down to the marrow of his bones, deep and rhythmic, keeping time with the absurdity of his calm heart. The club’s neon sign was a pale lavender glow against the surrounding snowfall, the calligraphic letters of Sleepwalk3r scrawled across the building’s front and side. There was a line of people, both human and android alike, waiting to get in through the front doors. Even from here, Toshinori scented sweat and booze and sex hanging thickly in the air.
He leapt out of his skin when the blond from the video feed was suddenly beside them without warning, throwing his arms around Shouta from behind and squeezing tight enough to make the younger man wheeze.
“Fucking hell, Mic, I have a goddamn gun in my hand. Let go.”
Mic laughed and set Shouta back down onto the snow. “Aw, bud, as if you’d ever shoot me.”
“…I have shot you. Recently.”
“Irrelevant, and healing great, by the way. Thanks for asking.”
Toshinori stood by quietly, studying the unfamiliar criminal before him. Mic had the longest hair he’d ever seen on either man or woman, shaved on one side while the other spilled like a curtain of rose gold silk past his waist. He was a touch taller than Shouta and just as young, with painted fingernails and a finely groomed whiskered moustache above his grin. But it wasn’t the gleam of serrated knives and pistols beneath the bulky studded leather jacket he wore that made Toshinori uneasy, or the fact that his canines had been sharpened to a point and festooned with amethyst studs.
No, it was the fact that Toshinori couldn’t see his eyes. Couldn’t see the truth behind those easy expressions and overzealous laughs. The blade visor wrapped around Mic’s face, obscuring his gaze with pulsing strokes of pink neon light, turned to face him, and a chill cut down Toshinori’s spine.
Mic whistled low while elbowing Shouta’s side. “My, who’s this delicious broomstick in red leather?”
Funny. Toshinori couldn’t remember the last time he wasn’t recognized in public. He supposed that’s what six years of seclusion after a devastating injury got him.
Shouta’s expression was difficult to read. “My side of the transaction.”
A slap of silence.
The mood shifted immediately, the tension as palpable as the vibration of the music nearby.
Mic ran his tongue over one sharpened canine. Fuck, Toshi hated that he couldn’t tell where the guy was looking. His voice darkened, all jokes cast aside in the presence of whom he now realized was a hostage. “There a reason he isn’t shackled?”
“The collar is enough. Besides, he’s not resisting.” Shouta grunted.
Mic grimaced and dropped his voice. “Shit, Eraser. You break him that hard?”
“This has nothing to do with me.”
With those last words, Shouta cast Toshinori a look that made his insides curl in a way that felt far too close to shame. Shouta’s eyes were mostly hidden beneath the shadow of his hood, but Toshinori could still feel the intensity of that gaze in the pinprick of red light bleeding through. It almost felt like disappointment, disdain, perhaps a touch of sorrow. Things Toshinori couldn’t begin to understand with the press of Shouta’s pistol at the small of his back, digging insistently.
Contradiction on top of contradiction. What the fuck did he even want at this point?
Mic clicked his tongue, which Toshinori now realized was pierced. “Well, might as well get this over and done with. Midnight’s got the Penthouse Suite all ready for ya.”
“You’re a peach,” Shouta murmured and nudged Toshinori with his gun. “Walk.”
Toshinori obeyed silently, following Mic through a side door and into the astounding wall of heat and color and pulsing energy that was Sleepwak3r’s main chamber. The room was filled with lavender smoke that danced across neon lighting and strobing beams. A wall of bodies writhed before him, slick with sweat and gleaming metal, glitter and crystals and cybernetics glinting in time with each grind, each sway, each step. Toshinori could barely soak it all in, his senses overcome as he was led across the dancefloor with Shouta at his back, the crowd parting for Mic without hesitation like a biblical sea before a saint. His hips and shoulders brushed across metal and flesh, he felt a hundred criminal eyes roving over his body, curious, cautious, hungry.
Toshinori wondered what they would do if they realized the Pillar of the Galaxy, the man who’d spent three decades putting their friends and colleagues behind bars, was standing before them, masked and collared and willingly striding toward the chopping block.
The ceiling above the dancefloor was forged in carved one-way glass that glinted like crystal with an ancient iron chandelier set at the very center of it, dark and gothic and wildly out of place amidst the neon and steel. Ahead, a striking woman stood before a roped-off grand staircase leading toward the second floor, swirling a martini glass of ethereal blue liquid in her cybernetic hand.
Toshinori wasn’t sure where to set his eyes. She was wearing nothing but a long drape of sheer black gossamer that fell to her hips from the leather collar at her throat, breasts bare beneath it and cradled by an elaborate red harness that disappeared into a sleek pair of black leather pants. Her right arm was entirely cybernetic from the shoulder downward, while her hair was a dark mane pulled high atop her head in a ponytail braided through with fibreoptic strands that shifted color. Upon their approach, she lowered her red-framed glasses just enough to peer up at them with a striking pair of blue eyes.
“Well, well, Eraser…” she purred. “Been a long time since your shadow slunk into my club. My Penthouse was starting to gather dust.”
“Midnight,” Shouta nodded. “Thanks again for accommodating me.”
Mic immediately sunk into her embrace without a word, nuzzling and nipping at the patch of throat above her collar with his teeth. He locked his arms around her trim waist to hold her from behind, and Toshinori noted the twin gleam of silver rings on each of their left hands.
So, they were together. The sight of Midnight’s content sigh as Mic smiled sweetly against her ear made Toshinori’s chest clench and his gaze drop to the black slate floor between them.
Or perhaps that was just the blood rising higher into his throat. His breath was hot and stank of metal beneath his mask.
God, he needed to cough.
“The others have already arrived and are waiting upstairs,” Midnight said, her expression tightening. She ran her eyes up Toshinori’s body, perhaps a little too curiously, before continuing. “Gotta say, they’re not your usual breed of client, Eraser. I wasn’t fond of the look of their leader.” She shuddered. “He had a vibe.”
Shouta’s lips pressed into a thin line. “A criminal with a vibe? God forbid.”
“His was worse.” She fixed him with a look while running her fingers up over the side of her metal arm. “All those stitches holding his skin to his cybernetic parts didn’t sit right with me. I get enhancements just fine, but these felt more like self-mutilation. And he had this look in his eyes…”
Toshinori felt a chill climb up his spine. His collar blipped with a spike in his heartbeat, but it went unheard by the others with the speakers so close by. He didn’t bother trying to calm it, didn’t bother trying to ease his breathing and steady his pulse. With a hiss against his ear, the metal began to constrict.
“Wouldn’t know. We never communicated in person.” Shouta shrugged, but his voice felt distant. “Just though voice calls and messaging.”
Midnight sipped at her martini. “How did he sound?”
“Like a fucking whackjob, like everyone I deal with.”
Toshinori swayed a little on his feet and felt the press of Shouta’s gun dig deeper.
“If Eraser needs any help, he’ll call me immediately,” Mic said with a nod toward Shouta. He grazed his fingers over the hilt of one of his hidden blades. “Right bud?”
And with that, Toshinori was led with a nudge toward the second floor, Shouta pressing close to his back as they climbed the staircase together. Each step felt heavier than the last, and he was all but dragging himself forward. The upper level of Sleepwalk3r was far quieter, with soundproof black walls inlaid with diamonds and a rug of red velvet stretching down the length of a narrow hallway toward a set of double doors. Doors forged in an iron so black they seemed to swallow up the strips of neon light on the ceiling above. Would he ever walk out of them alive, he wondered?
Toshinori teetered and caught himself on the wall, the first cough rocketing up through his chest to spatter the inside of his mask in blood. He barely had the strength to grimace at the thick warmth coating his face when the collar was constructing dangerously with the threat of an impending electrical shock.
“Whoa, hey…” Shouta reached out and grasped his shoulders.
He clawed at the metal on his neck. “I c-can’t… fucking… breathe…”
“You need to calm down.”
He wouldn’t. Not when he stood mere feet away from the fate he’d been avoiding for nearly a decade. A fate he thought he’d accepted. A fate he assumed for so long that he was fine with.
No… he wasn’t fine with it at all. Not matter how much blood he choked on, no matter how much his broken, withered, exhausted body begged for rest, Toshinori couldn’t allow it. Not now. Not here.
“I d-don’t… I don’t…”
“Fuck. Hang on,” Shouta whispered and reached up to take hold of the collar pressing forcefully onto his airways. Beneath the shadow of the hood he wore, those dark brows were furrowed in worry. There was no mistaking it as Toshinori heard the younger man’s fingers move across the collar. He heard the soft click of keys being pressed in sequence, before there came a loud crack in his ears that made him jump.
Toshinori gasped wetly as air was forced back into his mangled lung.
The collar fell away to clatter onto the floor between them, leaving Shouta holding nothing but a microchip he must have pulled from the back. He watched Toshinori closely, open, defenseless, one hand extended in the air between them.
Compliance had been key, and it had formed a crack in the wall Shouta kept up between them. An attachment. A weakness.
Toshinori struck without warning, driving his knee up into the younger man’s stomach with enough force to take Shouta’s legs out from under him with the sheer strength of the blow. The younger man doubled over onto his knees with a breathless groan, barely having a moment to register what had happened before Toshinori seized the back of his hair in one fist and yanked hard enough to bend his neck back.
Shouta’s cybernetic eye was a blaze of red light boring into his own, and Toshinori glared down into it before sending his fist cracking against the side of his head. Despite being knocked flat on his ass, despite the blood dripping from his split lip and the pained heaves of his breaths, Shouta didn’t make any move to fight back. Not even when Toshinori wrapped one huge hand around his throat and lifted him up with such ease, his toes skated across the velvet carpeting before he was promptly pinned to the wall.
Tearing off his mask, Toshinori bore down upon his kidnapper, his enemy, fingers tight around his neck as he held him in place. There was blood spilling from Shouta’s mouth. His hair had come undone from the ponytail and his grip was weak around Toshinori’s wrist.
Still, he offered a bloodstained smile, and a string of words that struck Toshinori harder than any fist ever could.
“There you are…” Shouta choked out. “There’s Captain Yagi.”
Toshinori’s heart stammered freely without threat of punishment and his grip loosened just a little. He leaned in close, his blond bangs brushing across Shouta’s scarred cheekbone.
“I don’t want to die,” he breathed. “Not by you. Not by them.”
Shouta studied him carefully. “What about the death in your rear-view mirror?”
“If that’s the way I’m going out, I’ll fight until my body crumbles around me.”
Shouta chuckled softly, the sound vibrating against Toshinori’s grip. “…Good.”
Toshinori growled, hating the way his eyes roamed over the blood dribbling over Shouta’s lips, hating the way his gaze lingered, the way his stomach clenched with a familiar hunger that had plagued him since the night he caught the younger man touching himself.
Shouta wasn’t the only one who’d developed a weakness in his walls.
“Fuck, I hate you,” Toshinori snarled.
Shouta smirked slowly, his good eye hazy with something not unlike want. “No, you don’t.”
Toshinori huffed. Almost a laugh, but not quite. “No… I don’t. But I should.”
“Yes, you should.”
Their mouths met like everything else between them: chaotically and soaked in a layer of fresh blood. It was a vicious clash of lips and teeth, Toshinori’s hand remaining locked around the younger man’s throat while his own hair was clutched from behind, tugged sharply enough to make his legs shiver beneath his own weight. Shouta groaned deeply, that wicked, pliant mouth falling open to invite the sweep of Toshinori’s bloodstained tongue against his own. He tasted of copper and violence and stardust.
He tasted like the end and the beginning of all things.
Warmth slowly unfurling like a blooming flower in his belly, Toshinori drew back just enough to sigh in a breath of air. Shouta, however, had other plans, throwing his arms around his neck and yanking him down to claim his mouth once more with the sound of a familiar heady whimper spilling into the kiss. Dizzy, Toshinori pushed himself between Shouta’s parted thighs, lifting one up and around his hip before rolling his body forward in a single, desperate grind. Just once, just enough to have them both gasping against the wall.
They parted slowly, their mouths and chins and noses smeared in each other’s blood. Toshinori drew his hand away from the younger man’s throat and leaned down just enough to nip at the edge of his unshaven jaw, smearing red there in the shape of his lips. Their bodied heaved in unison with panted breath.
Shouta swallowed and curled his gloved fingers into the red leather of Toshinori’s coat, quiet, contemplative. Like there were a thousand words on his tongue. Suddenly, he pushed him away. “Go.”
Toshinori frowned, the haze of lust dissipating like smoke.
“Run,” Shouta whispered without meeting his eyes. “Get the fuck away from here. And me.”
Without a word, Toshinori reached down and ripped one of the pistols from the holster at Shouta’s hip, refusing to spend another goddamn moment on Tattooin unarmed. He turned away with sharp finality, but found his steps faltering before he’d taken even two. This was his chance at freedom, his chance of escape, and all Toshinori could do was stand in the middle of a nightclub corridor with the taste of Shouta’s blood on his tongue…
Stomach in knots, he threw one more lingering glance at the man who’d torn him from the shadows and reignited the spark he long thought extinguished, but Shouta wasn’t looking back, his head turned away, his jaw set. His fists shook where they sat balled against his sides.
“Toshinori,” the younger man breathed his name for the first time, and every part of him ached at the sound of it. “Please run.”
So, Toshinori did.
Shouta still had Toshinori’s blood on his face when he passed his fingertips over the palm reader and threw open the double iron doors of the infamous Penthouse Suite. The small, dimly lit kill room was situated directly above Sleepwalk3r’s dancefloor, with soundproof circular walls and a glass floor allowing them a perfect aerial view of the writhing sea of bodies and pulsating neon lights below. Already, the air within the Penthouse scented thickly of spiced tobacco and sweat, the cloying stench assaulting Shouta’s senses as he strode insistently toward the mini bar, ignoring the feel of a dozen eyes latching onto his form from the seating area.
Fuck, there was way more of an audience here than he thought there’d be.
“Rough night?” The lone figure lounging on the velvet couch spoke up at Shouta’s back, and he instantly recognized the snide arrogance rolling through that lazy drawl of a voice. The motherfucker who’d initially approached him with the deal.
Shouta poured himself a tall glass of whiskey, and when he shot it back in a single gulp, the blood stained the crystal rim like a lipstick print.
“You could say that.”
Six men, big as fucking houses, formed a semi-circular wall around the seating area behind him. They stood shoulder to shoulder, ropes of tendon and muscle and steel forming arms they each held crossed over their monstrous chests. These were cyborgs of the worst kind, their ghostly eyes dead and drained of anything that could possibly still be considered human. Personalities and morals exchanged for circuit boards and arteries dripping with oil rather than blood. Shouta’s stomach rolled when he noticed that the top halves of their skulls had been sliced clean off, replaced instead with gleaming glass domes to protect the exposed lump of pulsing brain tissue nestled in a tangle of wires and plugs.
Still, they weren’t what unsettled him the most.
It was the damn figure on the couch. A fucking kid, by the looks of it, no older than twenty-five and lounging with both arms draped across the plush velvet at his back. Midnight had been right about his eyes, deep-set and heavy lidded and unnaturally blue, but still sharp enough to puncture right through you with the gentleness of a serrated knife. The cybernetic parts of him were done in patches, like a man that had been broken apart and stitched back together in a Frankenstein monstrosity of flesh and steel. There were golden stitches holding his skin to the metal below his eyes. His lower jaw was forged in gleaming chrome, and the stitches on either side of his mouth holding it in place formed a crude extension of his crooked smile. The whole look seemed to extend throughout his entire body, if the metal of his neck and the stitches along the backs of his hands were any indication.
“Gotta say, I wasn’t expecting such a huge welcoming party,” Shouta spoke at last as he set the empty glass down onto the bar with a resounding clack.
The stitched boy on the couch tilted his head, letting his nest of wild black hair drift effortlessly over his eyes. He would have been handsome, once. “We are dealing with the Pillar of the Galaxy, are we not?” He asked, before taking another pull from the cigarette he held. Red smoke drifted from his mouth like weightless blood. “Can’t be too prepared.”
“Six men is a tad excessive, don’t you think?”
“Six was all I could be provided with. I wanted more.” He fluttered his long fingers through the air. “The Pillar’s strength is unsurpassed, after all, even after he retired from his commitment to this putrid cluster of nothingness we call our galaxy.”
So, not even they knew the extent of Toshinori’s injury and what it had done to his body.
“I must say, when you informed me that you had captured him, Eraser, I was impressed. That couldn’t have been an easy task.” The stitched boy tapped out his ashes onto the glass floor beneath them as he continued. “Do tell me how a meagre little runaway hacker accomplished the impossible all on his own.”
“Need I remind you that you were the one that contacted me? If I’m so meagre, then why hire me at all?”
The boy sighed heavily and tipped his head back against the couch like a bored child eager to go home. “Because, unlike me, my boss has taken an interest in your skills, Eraser. He’s fascinated by the way you acquire information and pit it against the strongest forces of our galaxy. How you can make entire empires crumble using nothing but a holoscreen.” He shrugged. “He thinks it can be of use to him for some reason.”
Shouta narrowed his eyes, fingers drifting across the handle of his pistol as he casually settled one hand against his hip. “I had assumed you were the ringleader in this arrangement.”
“Nah… Just a pawn in a king’s court, I’m afraid.”
“And where is your boss now?”
“Recuperating.” Slowly, the stitched boy rose from the couch and tossed the butt of his cigarette aside to burn a hole into one of the lush carpets. Midnight wouldn’t be too thrilled about that. When he approached, the tattered ends of his long purple coat billowed out behind him. “He took a nasty hit a few years back from the famed Pillar, himself, and hasn’t quite bounced back.” A chuckle, dark and low. “Then again, I can’t imagine the Pillar is feeling any different with the hole my boss punched into his side.”
Frost settled on Shouta’s bones, though his expression didn’t betray it. It couldn’t have been what it sounded like.
“And your boss is…?”
“You know exactly who I’m talking about, Eraser.” The crooked stitched smile appeared again. “The entire fight at Kamino Station was televised, remember? Like a fucking reality show.”
Shouta kept his expression passive, despite the buildup of fear and rage and regret dancing in the pit of his stomach. This was far, far bigger than he thought it would be. No wonder the bounty had been so massive.
God, he hoped Toshinori was as far away from here as he could get.
Shouta returned to the mini bar and reached for the whiskey, praying the tremble of his hands wasn’t evident in the way he filled the glass. “You know, my transactions normally don’t involve such idle chit chat.”
“Well, my transactions normally don’t involve one half of the party arriving empty handed. But, there’s a first time for everything.”
It was then that the wall of muscle and steel behind the couch began to move, splitting down the middle to surround Shouta and the stitched little punk on either side. With a blink, he activated his cybernetic eye, a column of red text and numbers filling the right side of his vision as each brute was carefully assessed. Two moved to loom by the double doors of the Penthouse, blocking the only way in or out of the room. The remaining four hovered at their commander’s back, and Shouta quickly took note of their heights, their mass, measuring the vile combination of muscle and machine constructing their bodies and how that would assist them in blinding speed and strength.
All in all, the final calculations weren’t promising.
He needed help. He needed help immediately.
Throughout the Penthouse lay a series of hidden cameras, both for security purposes and to gather video evidence of every business transaction that took place within these walls. Nothing spelled blackmail like footage of an assassination or kidnapping being planned. They were all masterfully concealed from everyone. Everyone, of course except the one person that had installed them here in the first place. Shouta sought one of the cameras immediately, staring at the microscopic lens inlaid into the dark glass of an old tequila bottle, praying that Mic had slipped away into Sleepwalk3r’s control room to monitor the transaction as he often did.
Whiskey in hand he turned to come nose to nose with the stitched-up brat. The boy clicked his tongue of flesh within his metal mouth. “So, where is he?”
“No idea,” Shouta told him calmly as he sipped, hoping the state of his bruised and bloodied face would further sell his tale. “Bastard overpowered me the moment we docked. I was knocked out in a single punch, and by the time I came to, he was gone. Probably jumped on the first ship he could find.”
There. A crack in that arrogant, flippant façade. A flash of fury in impossibly blue eyes. It was only there a moment, before that easy smile returned. The boy suddenly reached up and ran a single finger down the front of Shouta’s cloak, right over his heart. “Mm… you want to know what the Pillar’s most distinctive feature is, Eraser?”
Shouta’s brow cocked, and he didn’t answer, even as his flesh crawled.
“It’s his height,” the boy continued. “There are very few people in all eight solar systems who tower well over seven feet without cybernetic enhancements. So, imagine my surprise when I heard that you not only escorted a striking blond into the club at gunpoint who naturally matches that description…” He grinned gleefully. “…but you let him run free after sticking your tongue down his throat right outside this room!”
Shouta’s eyes widened and he took a small step back. “H-How…”
“I have eyes everywhere, Eraser,” the boy hissed as he began to circle him slowly, his fingertips dancing along Shouta’s shoulders as if they were piano keys. “Imagine… throwing away the best possible opportunity of your pathetic little career, and for what?” He laughed cruelly, the sound pressed against the shell of his ear. “Don’t tell me. You fell in love with the crippled old fuck.”
“No,” Shouta growled, a little too forcefully, like he was trying to convince more than just the enemy in the room.
Unconvinced, the boy sneered and turned toward the two hulking cyborgs at the door. “Find him. Beat him and break him into pieces if you must but drag that mangled old husk back here alive. The boss wants to finish what he started, himself.”
Shouta’s breathing quickened, panic settling in fast at the put of his stomach and the tips of his fingers around the whiskey glass, numbing him. Icy cold and blisteringly hot all at once. He clenched his eyes shut, listening as the two iron doors were thrown open and those thundering bootsteps faded into the chaos of the club below.
“The Nomu were specifically designed and created for the capture and transportation of the Pillar of the Galaxy,” the boy drawled on like he loved the sound of his own voice. “They are his physical equals in every way. The perfect combination of man and machine to match the Pillar’s reflex speed, endurance, and stamina. Imagine how easy it will be when they come face to face with what I was told was no more than a deflated skeleton barely able to hold himself up.”
This kid was talking out of his ass. Shouta knew Toshinori’s strength first-hand. Knew the impact of his blows, the whistling speed of his movement, his calculative mind and manipulative tactics. Despite the difference in his size, he was still every bit the Pillar he once was.
Even still, as he cast his eyes over the four remaining Nomu towering over him, Shouta couldn’t help the worry clawing at his heart.
“Now…” the boy tapped at his lower lip in thought as he looked Shouta up and down. “What to do with you.”
Shouta focused his cybernetic eye on the closest Nomu to his right, scanning, calculating, searching for any flaws in its construction. Needless to say, there really weren’t many. Except, of course for the exposed vital organ glinting wetly beneath a dome of bulletproof glass.
But, Shouta knew bulletproof did not mean indestructible.
“I can’t help but wonder if that three-million-unit reward will still apply if we deliver you to the fleet in piec—”
Shouta shut the little bastard up mid-sentence by driving the hand that had been clutching the whiskey glass right across his face, shattering the crystal against his chrome jaw until his hand was soaked in a mixture of booze and fresh blood. The boy staggered backward, caught off guard, and Shouta whipped out his pistol fast enough to blow three bullets against the head of the nearest Nomu. The glass dome crackled and splintered with the impact of each shot, though it still wasn’t quite enough if the calculations skimming down Shouta’s vision were any indication. Not enough to derail the fucking beast of a creature from lunging forward and seizing him by the front of his shirt to fling Shouta clear across the room as though he weighed nothing. He collided with the curved wall hard enough to drive the air from his lungs, feeling as though every organ had ruptured upon impact. Pain sunk through his spine and skull. His vision blurred, yet still, teeth gritted, he dragged himself back to standing and glared through his mess of wild dark hair.
As he stared down the snarling stitch-faced boy and the four massive cyborgs at his back, he thought of Toshinori and Toshinori alone. He thought of the blaze of those comet blue eyes, the warmth of his body in the waking hours, and his words exhaled against the back of Shouta’s neck.
You’re not a bad person.
Hand closing around the handle of his pistol, Shouta vowed to live up to that.
The Nomu with the crackled skull dome came at him first, swinging one hefty fist which Shouta immediately dodged. He ducked beneath the Nomu’s arm, only to be met with a second creature out of nowhere, seizing him by his left arm and twisting with so much force that Shouta felt the entire thing pop right out of its shoulder socket. He screamed, blinding pain rocketing through his entire being. His stomach lulled, bile rising high, vision darkening from all sides. Swallowing it down, Shouta wheeled in the creature’s grip and shoved the barrel of his gun against the underside of its fleshy jaw. One. Two. Three. Four bullets. Right into its head. Brain matter spattered across the inside of the bulletproof dome.
And down it went, releasing its hold on Shouta’s useless arm as it did so.
Three to go.
A fist with all the speed of a train drove into his back from behind, and Shouta swore he felt the impact crackle all the way up his spine. Legs giving out, he crumbled to the glass floor with the weight of the first Nomu overtop him, pinning him by his throat. Shouta choked, thrashing violently beneath that impossible weight, that impossible hold, as the stitched boy hovered at the edge of his warping vision. Beneath their bodies, he could feel the glass floor crackling, like too much pressure on the surface of a lake that hadn’t frozen right through.
Sneering, Shouta spat a wad of blood up into that blank, ghostly face. The Nomu had no reaction but to lift him by his throat and slam him down hard against the glass, once, twice, each hit driving air and blood up from his lungs.
Each hit forcing those hairline cracks to spread further outward from their bodies.
Below, the music thrummed on. The base pounded. Each pulse sending vibrations through the weakening glass beneath them.
“I gotta say, Eraser, you disappoint me,” the kid sighed while lowering himself into a crouch. His cheek was sliced up from the crystal that had struck him. “All this for some washed up retired Captain. It’s a little sad, don’t you think?”
Blood sputtered from Shouta’s mouth as he felt his windpipe collapsing beneath the hand at his throat. Out of the tail of his cybernetic eye, he watched the cracks in the glass floor disappear somewhere beneath the kid’s boots.
The double doors suddenly flew open with a resounding crack.
The Nomu holding Shouta down turned its head at the sound of Mic’s startling voice and was immediately blown away. One last bullet, right through the weakened structure of its dome. Sparking wires and brain matter rained down upon Shouta’s face, but he was too relieved by the pressure being lifted off his throat to care. Wheezing, he rolled the lifeless hunk of meat and metal away and lurched onto his knees just in time to see Midnight tearing passed Mic’s shoulder to launch herself at the Nomu closest to her.
Three more gunshots sounded off like thunderclaps in the small room, followed by one more hefty corpse collapsing hard onto the crackling glass floor.
One down. One to go, and Shouta barely a chance to even process the scene before him. Midnight’s cybernetic hand shattered the glass skull of the final Nomu as easily as if it were no more than an eggshell in her grip. With a sneer, she tore the brain clean out, bloodied circuits and bits of spinal cord still dangling from the writhing mass before she tossed it aside to land wetly at the stitched little brat’s feet.
Mic whistled low from the doorway and moved to rest what looked to be an ion rifle against one of his shoulders. “Damn, baby girl.”
Shouta’s eyes drifted closed for the briefest of moments, pain and blood loss dragging at his limbs, at his last remaining scraps of energy. One moment, one brief little moment where he allowed his guard to fall, and he was suddenly seized by the back of his hair by an iron grip. He hissed, neck wrenching back far enough for stars to explode behind closed eyes. The familiar kiss of what felt like a small knife blade pressed itself against his throat, and Shouta glared through his bangs at the wild, impossibly blue gaze of that punk ass little monster that didn’t even have a name.
“Hey, now!” Mic swung the rifle around and took aim. Shouta knew how much of a good shot he was, but he also didn’t doubt the reflexes of one of All For One’s little cronies. “Let’s not be too hasty, kiddo. I can blow your damn scalp clean off. Make you look like all your little friends, here.”
“You can try,” the boy sneered. “Can’t promise I won’t sever his artery, first.”
Midnight’s thigh-high boots clicked loudly against the glass floor as she made a move to approach. Shouta cleared his blood-clogged throat loudly, faltering her steps. Across the valley of weakened glass, he met her eyes and gestured downward with the smallest tilt of his chin. If Mic followed his gaze as well, it didn’t show behind the visor he wore, but in the slight lowering of his rifle.
Midnight caught on immediately, stepping backward while tutting toward the stitch-faced punk like a disappointed schoolteacher. “You made a mess of my Penthouse.”
“You can send me the dry-cleaning bill after you let us walk out the front doors,” the kid growled, fist tightening in Shouta’s hair.
“Can’t return home to daddy empty handed?” Shouta smirked as blood dribbled from his hairline and over his cybernetic eye.
“Empty handed? Hardly.” The boy leaned in close and dropped his voice to a dark whisper that curled against his ear. “Remember, Eraser, I still have two players in the game. And they’re out there right now, hunting down that emaciated carcass you like so much. Why, I bet they’ve found him already. Can’t imagine that your dear Captain runs very quickly with half his organs missing.”
Shouta’s jaw clenched, fear lapping at his mind.
The knife slid sweetly across the underside of his jaw, the tip dragging and breaking skin. Not deep enough to kill. Just enough for Shouta to feel a warm wash oozing down his neck. “Now, be a good little bitch and tell your friends here to back off.”
A single gunshot from an ion rifle echoed through the Penthouse, yet not a drop of blood was spilled.
“You missed, asshole.”
Mic hummed. “Did I?”
Shouta braced himself while the world fell away in slow motion in a rush of exploding glass. The grip on his hair loosened, the knife slipped away, and he was blinded in a snowstorm of shards as he and the kid plummeted a full three-storeys onto the unsuspecting nightclub below. The chandelier struck the floor first, sending patrons scattering while their screams sounded off above the music. Furniture followed suite, velvet couches tumbling through the sea of glass to snap one of the VIP tables in half. Shouta did his best to prepare himself for impact, tucking his legs up tight and rolling as soon as he made contact with the marble dancefloor.
His dislocated shoulder hit the ground hard, making him cry out in agony as he tumbled over himself like a ragdoll. There was glass everywhere, cutting against his cheeks and sinking into his hair. He couldn’t make sense of his surroundings, of the state of his body, of where the little brat had fallen when there was music pounding in his ear and flashes of neon assaulting his teetering vision. Groaning, he lay in a bloodied heap as the panicked crowd whirled around him in a rush to get to the doors.
Blood filled his vision. Filled his mouth. He thought of tissues swiping across red-stained lips. He thought of those lips against his own, sweeter than he deserved, tasting of life and death at once.
Shouta needed to get up. He needed to find him. Help him.
This was his fault.
Someone grabbed his shoulder. Shouta jumped out of his skin and yanked his knife from its sheath in immediate response, swinging it upward where his wrist was caught in a firm grip.
“Whoa, hey!” Mic’s face appeared above him, visor pushed up to sit on his head so that Shouta was now able to see those big green eyes. “It’s me, man. It’s me!”
Shouta grunted. “W-Where’s… the fucking kid?”
“Took off. Forget about him,” Mic scolded as he gently eased Shouta into a sitting position. “Dude, easy. You’re beaten to all shit.”
“Fuck,” Shouta shook him off and clambered unsteadily back onto his feet. Around him, the nightclub swayed. “Can’t let him… escape. I need…”
“You need to sit down.” Midnight was suddenly there, too, sweeping between him and the doors.
Shouta glared at them both, chest heaving. “I need to do this. I can’t let them get him.”
“Get who?” Mic asked softly. “Eraser, you’re not making sense. What the fuck happened up there? Where’s that blond guy you came in here with?”
“I don’t have fucking time to explain.”
“Okay… okay…” Midnight soothed, placing her warm hand on the curve of Shouta’s dislocated shoulder while long fingers of blood-soaked steel gripped tightly to his arm. She pressed close, smelling of rosewater and clove. “Take a breath and think of kittens.”
Shouta cast her an odd look. “…What—”
POP. Went his shoulder. Right back into place.
Shouta’s knees would have given out under him if Mic hadn’t caught him around the middle to keep him steady. His vision went white. “F-Fucking fuck! Could have fucking warned me!”
“I said think of kittens. What more do you want?”
Mic rubbed at his back. “You need to get that shoulder in a sling, bud.”
Once he was sure he wasn’t about to vomit all over the nightclub floor, Shouta shoved passed them in a blooming burst of newfound energy. Now wasn’t the time to worry about himself. He’d sew the wounds shut, he’d sop up the blood, he’d add one more, two more, ten more scars to the chaos of his body.
Ignoring their shouts of protest, Shouta curled his fingers around the hilt of his knife and disappeared through the panicked crowd and out into the neon-soaked tundra.
He was being hunted.
Wind howled mournfully from filthy grey skies, cutting through the narrow winding alleyways of Tattooin’s market district. The frozen ends of his leather coat snapped and creaked in the billowing gusts like a flag, cutting through the fabric of his dark turtleneck like a thousand poison-tipped needles. Crouched low behind a stack of discarded boxes pouring from an overturned garbage bin, Toshinori watched the two hulking figures lumber into the alley he was in, the snow crunching loudly beneath their bootsteps.
It was a gruesome mashup of flesh and tendon and steel. Snow dusted across domes of thick glass showcasing exposed brains. Ghostly white eyes sunken into lifeless faces peered through the shadows in search of him. He’d only ever seen that level of vile mutilation once before. In the man turned machine that had driven a hole into his left side six years ago.
Devoted copycats or something worse? Toshinori didn’t want to know.
His breath was a white plume of vapor pouring from his lips as he brushed his fingers across the pistol holstered at his thigh. Each shallow inhale felt like an icy blade driving between his ribs, beckoning blood higher into his throat. The cold was no good for his one remaining lung, and Toshinori was quickly missing the leather mask Shouta had made him wear before leaving the Stealthwing. He began to wonder whether it was ever a disguise at all.
What the fuck had this whole thing turned into?
Toshinori had no time to delve into dark thoughts, to worry for the man that had stolen him away and offered him as much kindness as he had brutal intent. He had no time to battle with the conflicting feelings, no time to run his tongue over his chapped lower lip and taste Shouta’s blood still lingering on his frozen skin.
Later. Once he was safe and warm and far the fuck away from here, he would do something stupid. Later, he would take the time to miss him.
Toshinori was dragged from his inner ramblings when at last he took notice of the sheer silence of the alleyway around him. Save for the whistle of wind cutting through the spaces between the buildings, the world was still. Far too still, in fact, when only moments before he had been listening to approaching bootsteps in the snow.
His heartbeat was a volcanic roar in his ears.
Something wasn’t right.
With a sound that was nowhere close to human, the massive overturned garbage bin he’d been crouched behind was suddenly hefted off the ground with insurmountable ease. Startled, Toshinori fell back, eyes widening as he watched one of those dead-eyed creatures launch a thousand pounds worth of twisted metal and trash clear across the snow-dusted alley, exposing him to the wrath of their fists of flesh and iron. Cursing sharply, Toshinori rolled out of the way to avoid the crushing blow of a punch, then leapt up onto his feet just in time to dance away from another whistling swing. He dodged and ducked and skittered backward against the slickened ground, barely having time to think of a counter. His heartbeat was deafening. His lung shrieked with each panicked inhale.
Fuck, these things were fast.
But he knew he was faster.
Or… he used to be, once. Before he’d been reduced to nothing. Had he even the strength and stamina left in this withered old body to fight back?
Only one way to find out.
Toshinori swung his left fist with all the force his body could muster, striking the side of a glass-domed skull hard enough to run a deep crack down the center of it. His knuckles sung with the impact, shooting spears of pain up his arm and into his shoulder, but he didn’t allow himself the time to even wince. While the first one staggered backward into the snow, Toshinori pivoted on the heel of his boot and shoved his pistol right into the wide, gaping mouth of the second.
His hand was utterly engulfed, and the creature bit down instinctively with a snarl, teeth sinking into the thick red leather of his sleeve. Not yet enough to puncture, but enough for Toshinori to feel as though his delicate wrist bone was trapped in an iron vice. He hissed, seizing the fucker by the collar of his jacket to hold him in place before firing three shots right up through the roof of its mouth. Brain matter splashed across the inside of the dome and the thing fell heavily, bringing Toshinori tumbling down right along with it.
“Shit!” He snarled out.
The fucking metal mouth was locked around him, and the first guy was approaching fast.
Thinking quickly, Toshinori grabbed the damn thing’s lower jaw and began to pull. Teeth grinding, he reached deep within himself, scavenging through the ashen remains of his past life and drawing forth the embers of strength he long ago thought snuffed out. But even dying stars on the brink of collapse still blazed with their own light, and when given enough pressure, they formed one of the most cataclysmic, sky-altering events in the universe.
Captain Yagi may have been a star long dead, but Toshinori was a supernova.
He didn’t realize he was roaring until he tasted the blood rising high into his ragged throat. Didn’t realize he’d torn the fucking creature’s lower jaw clean off in a shower of black oil and bone until he staggered backward with his hand now freed and his pistol intact.
Didn’t realize the first asshole was upon him until it was too late.
Toshinori was launched clear across the alleyway as though he were nothing more than a ragdoll, back striking the wrought iron rail of a fire escape with such force that it bent the metal while forcing blood up from his mangled lung. He saw stars. He nearly blacked out right then. Ears ringing, Toshinori collapsed to his knees, coughs surging through his chest to spatter the snow in red. His fingers curled furiously into fists. Tears sprung into his eyes to freeze like crystals against his lashes. The thing was coming at him at the speed of a bullet, and Toshinori rose on trembling legs while blood spilled from the corner of his mouth. He lifted his fists, readying himself for the blow.
It was as though a piece of the night sky had torn off and plummeted to the ground. A shape, black and jagged, dropped from the rooftops above and onto the monstrous shoulders of the beast, and it took Toshinori a moment before he realized what it was he was looking at.
His heart did something ridiculous in his chest.
Shouta had his strong thighs locked around the damn thing’s neck, halting its advance toward Toshinori with a staggering roar. The creature barely had a moment to register what had happened before the glint of a knife blade sunk itself through the deep crack Toshinori’s fist had made in the glass dome. It shrieked, thrashing in the brief second before its brain was skewered down the middle, and if that wasn’t enough, Shouta twisted his body and used his thighs to snap the fucker’s neck with a loud and nauseating crackle of spinal cord and bent steel.
Toshinori’s eyes widened.
Wrenching his blade from the glass, Shouta leaped off the creature’s shoulders while it toppled lifelessly to the snow. When he landed, however, it was without grace. His entire body teetered dizzily, and he caught himself against the wall with one hand, chest heaving with panted breath. Toshinori frowned, taking note of the blood caked throughout Shouta’s hair and down his neck. His face was a wreck. His mouth still bore the scarlet stains of their kiss. The younger man could barely hold himself up, yet when his eyes lifted to peer across the snow dusted alley, the strength of that mismatched gaze was unwavering.
Something shifted between them, then. Something that Toshinori felt dancing along the hairs that lifted across the back of his neck. A hum of energy, a crackle in the space between their shared look like air before a lightning strike.
I’m not supposed to be glad to see him.
Shouta opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was cut by the blast of a single gunshot echoing through the alley.
Toshinori watched in wide-eyed horror as a burst of red suddenly bloomed through the fabric of Shouta’s tattered gray cloak, spreading fast and staining the younger man’s gloved fingertips as he reached down and touched the wound in muted shock. He looked up at Toshinori, blood spilling over his lips before his legs gave out under him.
“NO!” He rushed forth, catching Shouta before he could hit the ground.
Toshinori cradled him close, arms circling protectively around his enemy’s body as he stared down the narrow stretch of alley at the figure donned in a tattered purple coat. A boy, a mere fucking boy beneath a mangled patchwork of stitched flesh and gleaming chrome, lowered his pistol in satisfaction.
God, those eyes weren’t human.
“I’ll see you soon, Captain,” were the only words he spoke before the kid was gone, slipping into the shadows between the pools of neon light.
Toshinori wanted to race after him, to tear those stitched-up pieces of him apart, but then a trembling gloved fingertip brushed across the bruise on his jaw, grounding him in place. Right here. Right in this alley. He looked down at the light fading from Shouta’s dark eye. Toshinori’s hand closed around the bullet hole, hating the heat of the blood gushing through the spaces between his fingers.
“Y-You need…” Shouta said weakly, his throat clogged. “…t-to… go.”
Toshinori shook his head stubbornly as he applied more pressure to the wound.
“Toshi…” Shouta whispered, and oh god the sound of his name, his fucking nickname of all things, spilling out from between those blood-soaked lips made him nearly sob. “T-Take my ship… Take it and get the f-fuck… out of here… P-Please.”
“No,” he growled. “I’m going to get you help, okay? I’ll find us some help.”
“L-Leave me. Leave… You can’t let them c-catch… you.” Shouta hissed. “You c-can’t… it’s… All F-For One…”
Toshinori’s blood ran cold.
Of course… that boy. Those fucking things that had hunted him down. What else would a narcissistic cybernetic warlord surround himself with but devout followers of flesh and steel? His mutated mirror images.
And to think Toshinori had nearly surrendered himself to their hands.
“I didn’t know…” a tear glinted in Shouta’s good eye. “I d-didn’t… I never would have…” He whimpered, turning his head to press his temple against Toshinori’s chest. His bloodied fingers curled into the fabric of his turtleneck, weakening by the second. “…M’sorry, m’sorry…”
“Hey, hey, shh,” Toshinori soothed. Now wasn’t the time for it. “Shh, none of that. You just focus on staying awake, Shouta. You got that? You stay awake.”
Shouta shook his head weakly, eyes drifting closed.
“Shouta, don’t you dare fucking die on me you stubborn little prick,” Toshinori growled, panic gripping at his heart. He frantically looked around for any sign of movement, any sign that someone could be nearby. He could hear the distant sound of voices, the roar of ships overhead, music pouring from the doorway of a nearby tattoo parlor. He needed a doctor. He needed help. Oh god, he needed help. “I’ll kick your fucking ass, you hear me?”
Shouta chuckled faintly against his chest. “I h-hear you…hot shot.”
Toshinori’s head snapped up just in time to behold two figures skidding into the alleyway before he was staring down the barrel of a fully charged ion rifle.
“Whoa, hey!” Toshinori yelped. “Hey, easy!”
Mic snarled, amethyst canines glinting dangerously in the neon lighting. “The fuck did you do to him, you piece of shit!”
“I’ll blast your fuckin’ head off you—”
A bloodstained glove lifted between them, silencing the violence before it had a chance to escalate.
“Mic, don’t,” Shouta breathed. “…he’s… good. He’s Cap-Captain Yagi.”
Both Mic and Midnight’s eyes widened in mixture of fear and awe he hadn’t seen in nearly a decade.
“No way, man…” Mic frowned, brow furrowing. “No fucking way you’re him.”
“I’d show you my I.D. but my hands are a little preoccupied keeping your friend from bleeding out, here. We don’t have fucking time for chit chat.” Toshinori snapped, and he felt himself hold Shouta just a little tighter, just a little closer. He didn’t like the rattle of his struggled breaths, the shake of his limbs. “Please, we need to help him.”
Midnight’s jaw cocked, clearly not thrilled with being told what to do by the man who’d spent his career putting people like her behind the bars of Tartarus. She glared over the red frame of her glasses. “We take him alone.”
“Fuck that,” Toshinori grit. “I go where he goes.”
What the fuck was he saying?
Shouta made a soft sound in his arms, and Toshinori’s eyes clenched shut. His hand was being drowned in fresh blood. He didn’t have time. Shouta didn’t have time. There was no time.
“Please…” he breathed, his shoulders sagging with exhaustion. He was so tired of fighting. “Please.”
After a beat, Mic clicked his tongue. “Fuck. Okay, I might know someone that can help. She’s not far from here.” He stared at Toshinori pointedly through the pink flashes of his blade visor. “You keep your damn mouth shut the whole way there, you got that? And once Eraser is safe, you got a fuck ton of explaining to do, big guy.”
“Alright then,” Mic slung the rifle over his shoulder. “Follow us.”