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Stealing Polaris

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Oh dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you're going, I'm going your way;

 

 

 

Gentaro is used to desire.

All of its incarnations—hunger, envy, and hope, along with the rest of them—have occurred to him at one point or another, and have occurred to him far more often than they have to most. To glance at something that’s not his is his norm, because there’s so little that’s his to begin with, and to know that it’s something he cannot have is the resolution he had accepted.

Once.

Because desire leads easily to greed; so easily, for a boy with nothing to his name. In time the line between ‘cannot have’ and ‘want anyway’ blurred until it was purposefully erased with nimble fingers, deftly dipping into pockets whose owners didn’t resist, or holding knives against the throats of those who did.

There’s a certain privilege in having been born when he was, or so he’s heard. Those from hundreds of years ago could have only dreamed of traveling the distance light does, not yet with the means to soar past the clouds.

How lucky they are, they say, to get to touch the stars.

But only if you’re born into it, Gentaro would amend. That luck, like most other things, is not something he has a claim to either. And, like most other things, it has to be taken from luckier hands.

So often does he find himself staring at the sky, looking at the stars in the valleys between his fingers, losing himself in the illusion that he could snatch them from their perches with a simple clench of his fist.

It’s during one of these times, with his mind wandering and his hands empty, that his idle gaze catches on a glimmer in the midst of the crowd. To most it’s a sight that would be quickly forgotten, not knowing what it is they’re seeing. But to Gentaro, so familiar with the stars and all the forms they come in, what it looks like is an opportunity.

He straightens up from his languid position in the shadows, scanning the street for what he had seen, and he doesn’t have to do it for long. Whatever it is keeps catching the light, even if its owner is obscuring the rest of himself with a dark cloak. Whatever it is, it’s expensive—Gentaro has stolen enough trinkets to know.

Following the glimmer while remaining undetected is a cakewalk; rather, he’s more concerned with the stranger who seems to stands out despite his attempts to blend in. Something about his gait, continually running into people or bumping shoulders, as if he’s accustomed to others making way. Something about the way he carries himself, chin held high when his head ought to be bowed.

Gentaro doesn’t lose sight of him once.

The chance to strike comes when one of the moons subsides behind a lingering cloud and darkness falls heavier on the city, hiding the way Gentaro’s steps quicken as he weaves past everyone else until he reaches the stranger. Knocking into him right as they pass by an alley can be mistaken for an accident; unsheathing his blade and pressing its tip under the stranger’s chin, not so much.

“Struggle if you wish. The outcome will not change.” His voice had been stern, but it eases a little with a tease. “That’s a lie. You may get hurt, but wholly depends on your inclinations towards cooperation.”

To the stranger’s credit, he doesn’t as much as flinch in response. Not to Gentaro’s threats, and not to the knife at his throat. Simply, he asks, “What do you want?”

Good question. With the duller side of his blade, Gentaro flicks the stranger’s hood off his head in search of the glimmer, finding it soon enough in a series of golden beads clipped to the stranger’s hair. The translucent gem at the very end of it seems to be the source of the glimmer, reflecting faint moonlight even in this shrouded corner. Gentaro’s eyes widen a fraction as he recognizes its value.

Expensive indeed.

He toys with it as he next speaks, adopting nonchalance.

“I’ll take this, if you please. You may dislike the notion, but I assume you’ll dislike bleeding on the ground a lot m—“

“You can have it.”

Gentaro has learned to use his silver tongue too well to stutter, but were he more susceptible to it, he would have tripped over his taunting. Instead, his eyes narrow, the knife’s sharp edge poised to the stranger’s throat once more, no longer stilled by hesitation.

When the silence stretches, the stranger repeats, “You can have it.”

“I heard you the first time,” snaps Gentaro, increasing the pressure, though not deep enough to cut, not yet. “You’ll surrender, just like that?”

As much as the knife would allow, the stranger shrugs. “I don’t need it. I need you more.”

Again, Gentaro resists the urge to sputter. “May I remind you of the precariousness of your position—“

“I meant it. You’re perfect.”

“In all my years of thievery, never once have I been fought back with flattery.” Despite himself, Gentaro is amused, “Though as I’ve said, the outcome will not change.”

“But you said you were lying, weren’t you?”

The question catches Gentaro off guard, and it gives the stranger room to get a hold of the knife as well. Gentaro reflexively moves to slit his throat, but instead of trying to take the knife, the stranger merely shifts it behind his ear, slashing off the ornament and lifting it up to the solitary moonlight.

An invitation.

“Take it. It’s yours.”

Warily, Gentaro does, snatching it from the stranger’s grasp and vanishing it under his many layers. His grip on the blade slackens, just a bit. The stranger grins.

“Now will you listen to me?”

“You may have some of my attention.”

“I can talk better without this,” says the stranger, tapping at the knife’s hilt, and then it’s Gentaro’s turn to shrug.

“A pity. I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“You don’t have a knack for negotiation, do you?”

“I don’t find it necessary in my profession,” says Gentaro dryly, though he finally steps back, assured now that the ornament is in his possession.

“Thanks.”

“Talk.”

“Wow, no knack for gratitude either.” The stranger’s grin hasn’t left, and it stays as he starts, “I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I’m not from around here—“

“It’s obvious.”

“Okay, I guess I did know it.” His grin turns sheepish, which is ridiculous, given present company. So much of the situation is ridiculous, Gentaro realizes, that he doesn’t have a choice but to listen.

“I’ll be blunt: I’m on the run. From what isn’t important. I just need to be as far away from where we are as possible, but I’m not from around here and I don’t know where I’m going. You get the gist.”

Gentaro doesn’t dignify it with a nod. “I fail to see where I factor in.”

“I was getting to that.” For what seems like dramatic effect, the stranger pauses, then puffs his chest out when he says, “I want you to come with me.”

A laugh, soft and mocking, escapes Gentaro’s lips. “What do you need me for? I am but a lowly bandit—“

“Who got the jump on me,” interrupts the stranger. “I didn’t sense you at all. You were like a ghost.”

“A phantom,” says Gentaro, smile wry. He’s heard that before.

“Exactly. Just the sort of guy I need to guide me out of here.”

“And why, pray tell, would I agree to this?”

“I paid you, didn’t I?”

“I don’t remember striking a deal.”

“That’s why we’re doing it now.” The stranger motions to where Gentaro had hidden the ornament, beckoning. “Take a look at it again, and tell me it’s not worth a little trouble.”

For some reason, without due cause to do as he’s told, Gentaro does exactly that. It’s not sensible in the slightest, but he supposes he can humor the stranger before taking his leave.

Again, he lifts it up to the light.

It hasn’t changed in its brief foray in his pocket, but—he notices something else, this time. Apart from its apparent value is the way the gem seems to absorb light, reflecting it tenfold into a near-blinding shine.

This sparks a certain recognition in Gentaro’s mind, the ornament hastily hidden as he meets the stranger’s gaze. Gentaro clears his throat, putting on an unimpressed air.

“Nothing is stopping me from leaving you, nevertheless.”

“That’s true. But you’re not going to.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t. I’m betting on it.”

They share another silence and a weighted stare, neither heard breathing.

Gentaro is the first to exhale. “Do you have a name?”

The stranger laughs, as if surprised to have won. “Call me Dice. What about you?”

“Phantom will suffice,” says Gentaro. “That’s what everyone uses.”

“Fair enough,” says Dice, not subtle about the fact that he’s not using his real name either. “It suits you,” he adds, aggravatingly casual. “Well, since introductions are out of the way, can we get out of this alley? I’d rather be on the move.”

“It might help if you mention where it is you wish to go.”

“Oh, didn’t I already?” Dice barks out a laugh, too loud and too bright for the circumstances. “I guess I was busy trying to save my hide.”

He’s grinning when he announces, “Ever heard of Stella?”

Confusion etches itself onto Gentaro’s brow. “That’s a strange choice. There’s nothing on that planet but—“

“—criminals, gamblers, and general debauchery,” continues Dice with a flourish. “Exactly what I’m looking for.”

“It occurs to me that I’ve just bartered with a madman,” is all Gentaro replies with.

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Then you’re aware of the danger?”

“I’m trying to disappear. Danger will only help my cause.” Dice pulls the hood back over his head, as if to end the conversation. “Now can we leave?”

“After you,” says Gentaro, and the second moon surfaces in time to illuminate the triumph in Dice’s smile.

 


 

For all of Dice’s supposed perceptiveness, Gentaro is swift to surmise that he’s also magnificently obtuse. He had been observant enough to ascertain Gentaro’s skill—as Gentaro had done the same with him, under no illusions that Dice couldn’t have fought him off if he saw the need—but far too caught up in getting what he wanted to realize what Gentaro is truly after.

He turns his back to Gentaro with such abandon that Gentaro can’t imagine no one has taken both a literal and figurative blade to it, tempting in its broadness, its blind trust. He wonders if Dice had been born lucky in more ways than one, or if Dice just doesn’t give a damn.

In a nearby inn, they briefly discuss their plans, or more like, Dice’s flimsy excuses for them. Increasingly it becomes evident that he didn’t have anything resembling concrete ideas, only that Stella is the foundation he’s built it all upon.

“And this is where you truly wish to go?” says Gentaro, as if asking again might produce a different answer. Across the small table, Dice’s lazy smirk seems a permanent fixture. He’s been wearing it all night.

“For lack of anything better.”

“Pardon my presumption, but could it be that you didn’t think this through?”

“I’ve thought about it a fair amount. My options were to stay or go, and my gut told me to go. So I went.”

All of Gentaro’s suspicions basically confirmed: Dice’s only concern is the destination, and the means of getting there are entirely Gentaro’s to formulate. How they’d travel, the directions they’d take, who they’d have to speak to—all of it, in the palm of Gentaro’s hand.

Dice doesn’t care because it doesn’t change where they’ll end up, were Gentaro to lead him to the right place.

Or perhaps because he doesn’t know the way.  

Whatever the case may be, it seems Dice’s luck has run out.

They retire into their rented room, or at least Dice does, his hooded cloak strewn over a chair seconds before he falls asleep on one of the beds.

Gentaro supposes he’s had a long day.

As for Gentaro, he sits on the corner of the other bed, waiting for Dice’s breathing to even out until he’s certain Dice is deep enough in dreaming. After which he leaves the room through the window, wraithlike tendencies taking him up to the roof, closer to where the signal towers are.

The contact on his transmitter is one not often pressed, but each time has proved lucrative. Gentaro expects that this time will be the same.

That Iruma Juto answers immediately is not a testament to how happy he sounds at the other end of the line.

“Speak quickly, thief.”

“Is that any way to greet an old friend?”

“Friends don’t nearly cost each other their careers.”

Gentaro smiles, though he tries not to let it seep through his voice. Best not to provoke an officer of the law. “But friends do attempt to make amends. Lend me an ear, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“Unless my information is wrong—and you know it never is—your people are in search of something very important. And I, as a favor to my old friend, may endeavor to deliver it to you. At a price, of course.”

Iruma’s response comes after a period of dead air and static, where Gentaro had almost thought he’d dropped the line.

“Fine. Keep talking.”

“That’s what I like to hear.”

The rest of the conversation is brisk, with Gentaro filling Iruma in with details and agreeing to keep contact, rid of ceremony when it ends. Gentaro tucks his transmitter back into his layers, climbs down to the room, and returns to the sight of Dice blissfully asleep, blissfully unaware.

Had Gentaro a conscience, he might lie awake for what he’d just done.

Sleep takes him swiftly too.

 


 

Gentaro, though it may seem otherwise, is not oblivious to his own proclivity towards running his mouth. He’s even honed it to his advantage, to bargain or to stall if the situation called for it, weaving in and out of truths with the same ease he’d employ when scaling walls. Though he’s never short of anything to say, everything that leaves his lips is carefully chosen, tailored to make himself a profit.

At first glance, one might think Dice suffers from the same affliction, but the longer he spends in Dice’s company, the more it dawns that Dice simply allots less thought to words than he does to actions.

Not that he gives those enough consideration either.

They’d been together for a few days, drafting travel plans and pulling strings to stay under the radar—or, in Dice’s case, watching Gentaro do all these things with that self-congratulatory smirk, as if patting himself on the back for picking the right partner—when Dice’s carelessness reaches its summit.

It’s fortunate Gentaro sees it from his peripheral: Dice reaching out at a market stall for a piece of fruit none too subtly, with what Gentaro can parse are absolutely no intentions to pay for it.

His hand darts out, wrapping around Dice’s wrist to halt its trajectory, using the leverage to pull him away from the stall just as the merchant glances over.

“What do you think you’re doing?” It comes out like a hiss through Gentaro’s gritted teeth, his fingers around Dice bruising. “If you’re caught, the deal is off. Not even I can help once the regime gets a hold of you. Do you wish to be carted off to where you came from?”

“So you’re one of those people.”

“What?”

“You’re a pessimist.” Undeterred by Gentaro’s tight grip, he begins to laugh. “Who says I would’ve gotten caught?”

“He nearly saw you!”

“But you don’t know for sure.”

“Madman,” says Gentaro, letting go but not any less incensed. “It would’ve been a simple matter for me to take one, were you desperate enough. Why did you take the risk?”

“Well,” says Dice, with no ounce of shame. “I wanted to try it myself. You make it look effortless.” His grin is unbothered, though there’s something in his tone Gentaro can’t decipher when he adds, “I’m wrong about a lot of things.”

It’s not often that Gentaro is faced with a sentence he can’t respond to, so he just doesn’t. He only sighs, “Don’t do it again.”

The matter could've been settled there, had Dice the sense to leave it alone.

Gentaro now knows better to assume that he does.

“Teach me.”

“What could a lowly man such as I possibly have to teach—”

“The way you hide in the shadows. The way you move unseen.” The admiration in Dice’s voice is alarming, to say the least. “The way you take without anyone noticing… I want to learn how.” His eyes shine like Gentaro himself had put the stars in them. “I’m not what you’d call ‘good’ at subtlety.”

“You don’t say.”

“Is that a yes?”

“If it’ll keep you out of trouble,” says Gentaro, unable to help how the corners of his lips seem to lift. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice.”

It’s an arrangement that’s easier to agree to than put into practice. Having fended for himself for most of his life didn’t put Gentaro in the best position to look out for someone else or serve as any kind of mentor, even in what’s blatantly a criminal venture.

Dice, to his credit, is a fast learner, as if all too accustomed to private lessons; the problem lay not in his inability to follow instruction. More like how even with a hood over his head and his mouth kept shut, he seemed to exist to stand out.

Hardly a trait that befits a bandit of any kind.

“You take up too much room,” Gentaro tells Dice as the two of them survey the marketplace in search of a target. Though his gaze is focused ahead, robbing him of Dice’s reaction, he hears the affront present in Dice’s voice before he even speaks.

“I don’t see how insulting me is supposed to help.”

“It’s not an insult, but an observation. You’re someone who commands attention the moment you arrive. You’ll have to rid yourself of this quality to pull anything off.”

Dice huffs, though he doesn’t disagree. “Observations are useless without advice. So advise me.”

In the short time they’ve known each other, Dice has yet to run out of new ways to render Gentaro speechless. Deception is easy—what’s hard is withstanding the sincerity Dice wields as expertly as any weapon, the sincerity that he’s kindling in Gentaro whether he intends to or not.

How is Gentaro to explain that he’s unmatched in theft by striving to be nothing at all?

Better put, he remains undetected because he’s become so good at being nobody. No one that anyone would look twice at, no one special or of any particular worth. It’s something only fellow nobodies could hope to understand, but something about Dice seems like he’s willing to try.

“When we met, you called me a ghost. The comparison isn’t far from the truth.” He throws Dice a sidelong glance, meaningful in its brevity. “You’re too confident; you give others reason to look at you when you need them to look past you.” Gentaro directs his gaze back to the crowd, so full of interchangeable people blending in with and into each other, and thinks about how he’s managed to achieve becoming someone even less consequential. “If you want them to believe you aren’t there, you must begin with yourself. You must pretend you aren’t worth looking at until it becomes reality.”

He takes a deep breath, winded by his own unexpected honesty, and tries a smile to mask it. “Think you can manage that?”

Lowly, Dice whistles. “Sounds depressing.”

“Then, will you leave the thievery to me?”

“Not a chance.”

“This might change your mind.” Gentaro’s smile is more genuine when he takes something from under his layers, opening his palm to reveal a pair of commonplace dice. They don’t seem like the sort of object someone as affluent as Dice would own, but the sheer betrayal on his face says otherwise.

“How did you—!?”

“Your focus on the crowd was impeccable. Your awareness, not so much.”

“I didn’t feel a thing!”

“That’s the idea.”

For a moment, Dice is quiet, mouth quirked like he means to pout. But the moment passes, and Gentaro spots the crinkle of Dice’s eyes before he hears that laugh.

“You set me up. We were never going to find a target.”

“Don’t take it personally. I was illustrating a point.”

“All right, all right. I guess I can’t learn in a couple of days what took you a lifetime.” Dice holds out his hand, expectant. “I want those back, now. The god in them might get mad.”

“I think not. You wanted to learn how to steal, didn’t you?”

“You’re joking.”

“Currently, no.”

“Bastard!” is all the warning Dice gives before launching himself at Gentaro, who shoots his arm out of reach. But Dice is quicker than he seems and just as strong as his frame suggests, and soon he has Gentaro’s wrist pinned against the alley wall, amusement gone from his features.

“I want them back,” he repeats, close enough that the heat of his breath warms Gentaro’s cheek. Time stills and tension builds as they gaze upon each other.

Wordlessly, Gentaro unfurls his fist and reveals it empty.

Dice’s eyes widen, panicked, and as much as he loathes the realization, it appeals to Gentaro’s sympathy. He tilts his head towards Dice’s side, under his cloak.

“Check your pockets.”

Hurriedly, Dice relinquishes him, another bark of laughter resonating in the air as he takes the dice out from where Gentaro said they would be. His relief is palpable as his shoulders slacken, fingers sifting briefly through his hair when his gaze returns to Gentaro.

“You always take me for a ride.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?” says Gentaro, composure donned like yet another layer. “Come along. We’ll miss our ship.”

He walks on ahead, trying to banish the lingering warmth from his cheeks with Dice’s eyes on him, heavy as a galaxy.

 


 

It might seem obvious, at first, who it is that’s the bigger risk taker between the two of them. After all, it’s Gentaro who spends his days dancing around the law, and Dice who appears to have been at want for nothing, if the ornament is any indication.

But that’s the surface reading, a book left on a shelf after having been judged by its cover, or a jewel ignored after having been mistaken for coal.

Reality doesn’t follow a formula so conveniently.

Being in Dice’s presence clues Gentaro into habits of his that others won’t notice, unless they were watching him as closely as Gentaro had been. It’s the way he’d take his one of his beloved dice and press his mouth to them after they’ve boarded a ship—“A kiss from Lady Luck,” he’d say with his characteristic grin—or the way he’d stare when they pass certain places with something almost akin to longing, no matter the planet at which they’ve docked.

“Enlighten me,” says Gentaro after catching him in the act yet again. “What is it about such sordid establishments that interest you so?”

Dice whips around, blinking, as if shocked that Gentaro was able to surmise as much. “Nothing escapes you, huh?”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“I didn’t realize this was an interrogation.”

“Continuing to not answer the question…” A tease skips along Gentaro’s lips, partly hidden by his thick scarf, though he doesn’t doubt his amusement shows.

As if to accept his invitation to play, Dice relents with his own smile, shaking his head. “What can I say? I have a penchant for games. But you can imagine how much they don’t approve of that back at the—” Abruptly, he bites his tongue at what seems to be just in time. “You get my drift. Actually, don’t we have several hours to kill?”

Were it anyone else, Gentaro might interpret the sudden topic change as a flimsy distraction, but Dice’s eyes are shining in that familiarly alarming (or alarmingly familiar?) way that says he’s just thought of an idea.

And Dice’s ideas are as stubborn as they are outrageous.

“Don’t tell me you want to gamble.”

“Phantom, I want to gamble.”

Gentaro groans, already envisioning the trail of disaster that a Dice on the warpath would leave in its wake. “I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this.”

“Not even with the prettiest mouth in the world,” laughs Dice, reaching for the part of Gentaro’s that’s closest to him, which happened to be his hand.

Too stunned by the sequence of events to react, Gentaro lets himself be pulled towards one of the dens.

On paper or through hearsay, such places are already frightening enough for the average citizen, those who don’t happen to be degenerates, rejected from polite society. When they walk through the entrance, it’s clear that anyone who doesn’t have a knife on their person would be the outlier.

Gentaro, so accustomed to the opposite, dislikes the notion immediately.

But what frightens him more, after spending several minutes inside, is how unfazed Dice is by the underlying hostility of the atmosphere, as if he’s intimate with its inner workings, as if he’s done this before.

He seats himself at a table, with Gentaro standing on guard like a knight, without a second thought. The table falls silent at their arrival, the other players wary until Dice sets a bag of coins in front of him, silver spilling out with a clatter as if to announce, loudly, that he belonged there.

Continuing to not think about how naturally he’d slotted into a protective position behind Dice, Gentaro stays quiet as the cards are dealt and the noise resumes.

He doesn’t realize just how quiet he’s been until Dice glances over his shoulder up at him, gaze heroically averted from his precious game, if only for a moment.

“You don’t have to be a ghost for this one. You can join in.”

“Obscurity is a cultivated art form. I’m afraid it won’t be as simple to don it again, were I to draw attention to myself.”

“Suit yourself,” sighs Dice, and a helplessness about the way he says it—not with disappointment, exactly, but resignation—stirs a challenge inside Gentaro, as if he has something to prove.

“I was lying,” he says, briefly and terrifyingly spurred on by bravado he can’t say he usually has. “I’ll be at the next table over.”

He moves away as promised, and the weight of Dice’s gaze on his back is also familiar by now, too.

It would be another lie to say he’s a stranger to wagers, since the nature of thievery entails a perpetual element of risk that can’t be avoided. The more significant the mark, the bigger the danger of getting caught.

None of this means Gentaro walks into them blindfolded, if he can help it. The more calculated the plan, the lesser he has to leave things up to chance.

This is all a matter of survival, nothing more.

This is the opposite of what Dice is after, impossible to name.

He procures his own bag of coins and secures a spot nearby, confused about his own actions but curious enough that he stays seated. Not about the rules, or even the possible reward—he’d spent enough time as a wallflower in places shoddier than this to have learned the basics—but about what it is about the game that brings Dice to life the way it does.

From his animated hands, visible in Gentaro’s peripheral, to the volume of his laughter, bright with triumph when the dice rolls in his favor. At some point he acquires a cigarette, the scent of it wafting over to Gentaro’s table and shrinking the room further. How can he look so much like he fits in somewhere he’d never been?

(It’s not a reference to the seedy gambling den, or the other questionable dark corners he’d been bringing Dice to in their attempts to remain undetected.

He means at home, here, in the midst of taking risks.

He means the willingness to leap without knowing if there would be a soft landing.

He means to really ask: what happened to me, that I can’t be like him? )

At some point, Gentaro glances at his own cards and realizes he’s losing.

It shouldn’t be as surprising it is, since he’d been paying attention to something else entirely.

The table’s other occupants looks at him and his now-emptied bag, and he’s asked, somewhat derisively, if he had anything else to bet. Of course, his purpose to these people starts and ends with the boldness of his gambits, but with nothing to put forward, he’s at a loss and nowhere close to an answer.

No—not nothing. Not quite.

Under his layers his fingers clutch the hilt of his knife, carved from pearls from the Earth’s ocean, unique in all the universe, and he thinks himself insane. Surely he wouldn’t go this far. Surely this madness has reached its limit. Surely he wouldn’t dare.

A roar erupts from the next table, Dice’s voice cutting through the din and declaring his victory. He doesn’t sound like a man on the run, a man who’d left everything behind to start over from scratch.

He sounds like a man who’d just won the world and then some. More than that, it’s as if no one could steal the joy of that one moment, however fickle fortune tends to be.

Gentaro bets the knife, and is subsequently dealt a bad hand.

He can only stare, dumbstruck, as it’s plucked from its spot and passed around with nods of approval. Someone leans over to whisper in his ear, their amusement snide.

“Better luck next time.”

His throat feels rough and dry, like he’s swallowed a mouthful of sand, but his eyes feel like he’s opened them under saltwater.

It shouldn’t be as devastating as it is. He could get a different one, an ordinary one, for it had always been a liability for someone who ought to be nobody, and if he really wanted to, he can always just pilfer it back later, were he to commit the dealer’s face to memory.

But none of that matters, when it dawns too him too late that he’s still capable of sentiment after all.

“Not so fast.”

Suddenly, he smells smoke approach, and the rest of Dice follows, slamming a bag of coins and assorted valuables on the table in front of Gentaro.

“I reckon I’ve had the best luck around here tonight.”

His winnings clatter and spill, sparkling in the dim light.

“So, all of this,” says Dice, a hand on Gentaro’s shoulder and a grin like a provocation on his face. “For that knife. What say you?”

Gentaro would’ve balked, had he less control over his composure.

“Dice—”

“What say you?” repeats Dice, simultaneously interrupting him and staring the other gamblers down. For a second, the room seems bereft of oxygen.

And then the dealer smirks.

Just like that, another round begins.

 


 

Their little makeshift games aside, their journey tends to align itself with routine. They board ships through hidden entrances, the crew paid silent with Gentaro’s handiwork from the times they’ve docked. During nights spent on solid ground, they rent a room for two like they always have, keeping a cautious distance between their beds. When they have to board in mornings or afternoons, both hood and scarf are kept upright to obscure their most recognizable features, just to be safe.

But the days they spend on the ships seem to exist in a liminal space, hidden away in a small cabin as if the world is narrowed to only the two of them, with nothing to do but memorize each other’s faces.

Sometimes they’d tease each other. Often, Dice would laugh first; always, Gentaro would follow close behind.

They don’t speak of the gambling den.

Granted, they don’t speak of many things, the most important details left out of their respective stories, yet that night seems to remain solely in their minds. Frequently thought of, but never given breath.

Not Dice’s lucky streak, not Gentaro’s incomprehensible whims. Not the way Gentaro had watched him the whole time, and not the way Dice had appeared just when he needed to, as if he had been watching Gentaro in the spaces where Gentaro had looked away.

They don’t speak of it, but the proof it had happened is a constant presence, held up to unsuspecting throats to fund their travels, or brought out in quieter moments to peel a piece of fruit, shared between them two.

Gentaro brushes his thumb along its smooth hilt now, remembering how his stomach had sunk at the thought of never touching it again. Dice will never know how long it’s been with him, his only companion and a touchstone in a way of life so transient. He won’t know that it’s the only thing Gentaro has kept out of everything he’s stolen, and will likely be the only thing left of him when he’s gone.

Dice won’t know because he won’t ask, and Gentaro won’t tell him, and it settles between them for the rest of this voyage like crown jewels nested in a glass case, surrounded by guards; an open secret, displayed but forever untouched.

What’s another secret among many?

At present, Gentaro eats the fruit alone, with Dice having wandered off without divulging why. The repetitive motions of the task lulls him into a mild trance—he scrapes the skin off, cuts a piece off, pops it in his mouth—that he nearly jolts, the knife slipping out of his grip, when Dice sticks his head into the room, excitement radiating off him as it would off a child.

“Are you busy?”

Gentaro shoots him a glare, unimpressed. “Yes. Quite.”

There goes Dice’s grin again, undeterred. “Get up. I want to show you something.”

“May I remind you why we’ve been so careful to—”

“No one will find out,” says Dice, as if it’s in any way reassuring. “Trust me.”

“Oh, but I don’t.” Gentaro stands nevertheless, sighing to himself as they close the door behind them. They weave through the ship’s winding halls, somehow without encountering anyone else.

“Dice,” says Gentaro, but Dice only glances at him over his shoulder, a finger pressed to his lips in a silencing gesture.

As if he’d read Gentaro’s mind, he says, “I may or may not have bribed a couple more from the crew to stay out of our way.”

“Stay out of our way for what?”

“You’ll see.”

“And where exactly did you learn to do that?” Gentaro’s tone remains detached, but he’s smiling and he knows Dice can hear it in his voice, if his hushed laughter is anything to go by.

“I learned from the best.”

He leads Gentaro quietly the rest of the way, stepping back when they reach a ladder and motioning for Gentaro to go first.

Were it weeks and weeks ago, Gentaro would realize Dice’s intent and hastily take his leave, heart pounding to the beat of sirens in his head. But were it weeks and weeks ago, even Dice wouldn’t have entertained such an idea, or used such elaborate means to act upon it.

This is a moment that can only happen now, after all the sharp laughter, the soft knives.

Gentaro climbs the ladder, aware of its finish line. He doesn’t lift his eyes until Dice has climbed up too, waiting until Dice has looked up to do the same.

On the observation deck, spaceglow bathes them both in shades of blue, the silver of starlight catching in Dice’s eyes as he lets out a low whistle.

“What a view, huh?”

“That’s one word for it.”

Gentaro didn’t know that grin could get any brighter; Dice, as ever, proves him wrong.

“You like it?”

“It… would be hard not to.”

“Good. We’re always so cooped up, I figured a change of pace was in order.”

“A change of pace indeed.”

Dice is still smiling, but it takes on slight concern when his gaze flickers over to Gentaro. “You all right?”

“I…” Exhaling, Gentaro averts his eyes from the way Dice’s shine, a sun where the sun isn’t in sight. “You’ve robbed me of my words. I demand an apology immediately.”

“You seem pretty chatty to me.”

“Thank you.”

Gentaro is reminded of the time he’d taken the dice from him, the way his features open up in surprise. Dice stares at him, incredulous and delighted all at once.

“What was that?”

“I’m not about to repeat it.”

“I thought I’d give it a shot,” laughs Dice, his voice so gentle it has Gentaro aching for reasons he can’t fathom. “It paid off, didn’t it? I wasn’t sure if you even liked the stars or not, but that was worth a shot too.”

Dice still isn’t asking. And if he never has, then he never would, Gentaro’s certain, so ready to accept Gentaro as he is that it’s difficult not to feel unworthy.

Dice isn’t asking.

Gentaro decides to tell him anyway.

“It’s complicated.”

“What is?”

“My opinion on the stars.”

“How complicated can it be?”

He looks at Dice, watching him so intently and without judgement—just desperate to understand. Honesty flows out easier with the guarantee it’d be received with such open hands.

“They say we’re lucky to have the stars close enough to reach.” A pause to breathe in, as if he’s inhaling stardust, giving him courage to speak truthfully. “But that hardly applies to everyone. Not everyone has the means to board a ship and sail away to wherever it is they wish. Not everyone can leave their home planet. Not everyone can be free.”

“Is that how you define freedom? Having the means?”

“It worked for you, didn’t it?”

“Barely. Not if I was alone. Not if I never met you.”

“May I remind—”

“I don’t need a reminder of how your knife felt against my throat.” There’s no trace of a grudge in Dice’s tone as he touches his neck, absently. “I remember it well enough.”

“I would hope so; heaven forbid I’m forgettable.”

“Are those the words of a ghost?”

“Maybe. Why else would hauntings happen, if not to be remembered?”

“And maybe if you weren’t so busy picking pockets, you could’ve been a poet.”

“I doubt your jurisdiction extends to poetry, Your Majesty.”

It’s a victimless bomb, as far as history concerned. No kingdoms overturned, no debris—just glass smashed in, and one less secret to keep.

Pointedly, Gentaro doesn’t glance at Dice in the silence that stretches on, doing so only when he finds speech again. He has enough dignity not to sputter, however tempting it might have been with his pretense unveiled.

“So you just let me make a fool of myself this whole time, huh?”

“You’re perfectly capable of doing that without my help.”

“If you figured it out, then—“

“No one else knows your secret.”

“How are you so sure?”

“No one else has seen this.” From under his layers, Gentaro retrieves the  hair ornament, holding the gem at its tip between thumb and forefinger. He gives it to Dice to inspect as he continues, “This crystal is native only to a minor planet the royal family owns, and only their—your—jewelers would have access to any existing samples. Unless they end up on the black market, of course, which is what sparked my recognition. Before you ask, no, nothing about you indicated you were a trader rather than its original owner. And with rumors of the boy king’s disappearance making rounds—“

Gentaro trails off, letting Dice surmise the rest. He’d been running his thumb over the beads while Gentaro spoke, his frown almost petulant whenever he’d touch the gem that so easily gave away his charade.

He hands it back to Gentaro with a notable finality, as if glad to be rid of it. “Bet you’re wondering why I ran.”

“Not particularly.”

“Really?”

“No,” admits Gentaro, taking the ornament and tucking it back under his clothes. “I’m deathly curious.”

“I guess anyone would be.” Dice breathes in as if he’s summoning more than just air from his lungs, perhaps to better tell his tale. “I—“

“Dice,” says Gentaro, both lying and meaning it when he adds, “You don’t have to.”

“You took my secret like a man would to his grave. I owe you this much.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I owe you the boy king’s story. Or maybe I owe it to myself to come clean to someone else, leaving everything in disarray as I did.” The smile Dice wears is something Gentaro’s never seen from him—a little rueful, a little resigned.

“I was never meant to be crowned this early, or at all. I won’t bore you with the details.” And he doesn’t have to; the untimely death of the former king driving the former queen mad is common knowledge across worlds. “Everyone in court was aware of this. If they weren’t trying to manipulate the kingdom through me, they were after the throne.” Dice smirks as if to himself, and it wouldn’t astonish Gentaro to learn Dice is doing this for his own benefit as he is for Gentaro’s. “You probably noticed I don’t have a knack for politics. It was only a matter of time until my mother’s fate befell me as well.”

The queen mother, slain whilst asleep in her own chambers; the people drew their conclusions.

“It was dark, and I was unarmed, but I fought him off. I escaped that very night with barely an idea of where I wanted to go, and I never looked back. At least, not until now.” He seems to return to his bearings then, his smile less vacant when he looks back at Gentaro. “You found me the next day. The second person to hold a knife to my throat in the span of twenty four hours.

“But despite everything, I think luck had been on my side.”

When Gentaro doesn’t instantly respond, Dice muses, “No hard feelings if you were to turn me in. Or, maybe a little bit. Maybe a lot.” The grin is back, despite everything. “So, what will you do now?”

“The same thing I meant to,” says Gentaro, finally. “I’m taking you to Stella, as promised.”

“Even after what you’ve just heard?”

“Nothing in our contract has changed. I already knew, remember?”

As he should’ve expected by now, Dice throws his head back and laughs. “Even when I think I can predict you—well, I can’t.”

“That’s what makes it such fun, doesn’t it, Dice?” Gentaro emphasizes this name, the one Dice had chosen for himself rather than the one he’d born with, that he’d abandoned.

The gratitude on Dice’s face is unmistakable.

“You know, compared to what you’re doing for me, a couple of beads and a measly view seems pretty cheap.”

“That’s not true.” Gentaro tilts his head towards the vastness above them, pointing at a particular spot to direct Dice’s gaze. “The northern star.”

“What about it?”

“I’ve never been so close to it before. I never had a reason to be.”

Dice, painted in broad strokes of starlight, seems a constellation in himself. “Close enough to steal?”

Gentaro smiles, a comet that’s fleeting in comparison. “Exactly.”

 


 

In many ways, everything has changed. Gentaro, despite being a liar at his core, has to admit that things between Dice and himself are not as they were in that alley where they met. With Dice’s charade lifted, so has a weight from his shoulders, and these days he holds his chin higher than before, befitting the title he once had.

Not that he’d been any good at pretending otherwise in the first place.

On Gentaro’s end, he’s glad that the things he has to hide from Dice has lessened. When their gazes tangle on accident, it’s almost tempting to be honest and let them stay like that.

He’s not lying as much as he had been—not that he’s any less of a scoundrel for it.

Because in the way that matters most, one thing has remained the same.

On the nights they dock, with Dice sound asleep, Gentaro still slips outside, and still puts Iruma on the line.

It can’t be helped, he tells himself; he’s too far along in the lie to grind it to a halt.

“We’re spending another two days here,” he says into the transmitter, silently thankful that there’s too much light pollution in their area of the port town to see any stars. “Your base will be our next stop.”

“We’ll be expecting you,” says Iruma, more good-natured than he had been in earlier conversations. Gentaro suspects it’s because his jackpot is in the horizon.

“I’d hate for my efforts to have gone to waste if that weren’t the case.”

“Testy, aren’t we? You’re certain he doesn’t suspect anything?”

“Not a thing.”

“Well, keep in touch.”

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” Gentaro ends the contact at that, unceremoniously tucking the transmitter back under his clothes. He cannot be so dismissive of the fact that he’s delivering Dice right into enemy hands, soon to be used as a bargaining chip against his kingdom, even after what Dice had told him.

Even after everything.

He turns around to head back inside and stops, dead in his tracks, because Dice is right at the entrance to the balcony, staring at him with an expression that, Gentaro is disconcerted to note, unreadable.

“You’ve been doing that a lot,” says Dice evenly, leaning against the doorway. “Sneaking off to make calls.”

“I wouldn’t call it sneaking,” says Gentaro, his pulse like fireworks in his ears. How much had Dice heard?

“Got a sweetheart waiting somewhere?”

“What?”

“I asked if you had someone to come home to, when all of this is done. Not that it’s any of my business, I guess.”

“No.”

“No sweetheart?”

Gentaro clears his throat, the transmitter seeming to burn against his skin. He can’t tell if it’s the device or his skin that’s overheating. “I was making arrangements for our final voyage.”

“Make sense. Since you’re done, though, don’t stay out in the cold.”

Dice turns and walks back in, without, Gentaro realizes, expectation for him to follow.

After that, the hours seem to crawl on all fours, and he doesn’t get a wink of sleep throughout the night.

The unease sticks with him when Dice wakes and they depart from the inn to search for supplies, all throughout the day as well. Paranoia strikes when Dice seems to refuse to meet his eyes—not when they eat, not when they converse as they walk, if they converse at all.

He braces himself for a confrontation as dusk falls, hand ready to reach for the hilt of his knife at a moment’s notice.

He wonders if he can hold it up to Dice’s throat, despite everything, much less make the decisive cut.

“Phantom,” says Dice, seemingly out of nowhere, as they’re passing an alley. This is it, he’s about to—

“Take me for a drink.”

Gentaro’s hand stills under his clothes. Dice doesn’t wait for a response.

“It’s the last time we can, isn’t it? Are you against the idea?”

“I’m against all your ideas,” says Gentaro, falling back on their usual banter. “But this one is not so terrible. Do you have a preference?”

“A drink’s a drink.”

And so Gentaro leads the way, as if in a haze, to a nondescript tavern near their inn. Inside it’s dimly lit and smoke-filled, a handful of musicians in the corner playing to a largely indifferent crowd.

Hardly fit for a king.

Gentaro might take him elsewhere, were it not also the last time Dice can play the part of a commoner before he becomes a pawn again.

“I can’t be the only one, you hear me?” says Dice, once seated with a half-empty glass in hand. He glances meaningfully at Gentaro’s currently untouched beer. “You better be right behind.”

“Then who will escort you back to the inn?”

Dice scoffs, knocking back another fourth of his glass. “I don’t need escorting.”

“That’s yet to be determined. Such is in the nature of kings.”

“Enough poetry. Drink.”

Reluctantly, Gentaro does, matching the contents of Dice’s glass before he puts his own down. When he looks up, Dice is grinning like he hasn’t done all day.

“Damn.”

“Don’t be so impressed,” says Gentaro, licking his lips. He isn’t oblivious to the way Dice’s gaze follows the movement of his tongue, and in that moment feels both relief and dread at the realization that he hasn’t been found out, against all odds. “You’ll run into others far more resilient with their liquor. On Stella.”

The word stings his mouth—as it should. He presses on.

“Have you any idea what you’ll do once there?”

“I thought you didn’t think much of my ideas.”

“No, but they’re amusing enough.”

“I give an inch and you take a mile,” says Dice, and there’s that laugh Gentaro wants to bottle up and save for later. He swirls the beer left in his glass before swallowing the rest, speaking only when it’s finished. “I’ve only heard rumors about it. I don’t actually know what’s in store when we make land.”

“Doesn’t that scare you?” asks Gentaro, though he already knows the answer.

“Hell yes, it does. But that’s part of the fun.” Without looking away from him, Dice motions at the barkeep to bring another glass. “What do you know about it?”

“Not much more than you. Only that it’s a pit filled with the most wretched individuals this side of the universe, but it’s too late to ask you to reconsider, so we may move on from this conversation if you wish.”

“All right. What about you? Where are you headed once you’re rid of me?”

Gentaro doesn’t flinch, but his nerves twitch to accommodate the blow of it. “You don’t have to phrase it like that.”

“Were you telling the truth earlier?” asks Dice, suddenly. Gentaro is about to scramble for a clarification, an excuse, when Dice continues, “No sweetheart?”

“Do I seem like the sweetheart-having type?”

“Hey, it takes all kinds.”

“It’s quite embarrassing, you know, that you’re having me repeat that I don’t.”

“Just making sure.”

“Are you always so nosy when inebriated?”

“Maybe.”

“The makings of a tyrant,” says Gentaro, his eyes on the curve of Dice’s throat as he takes another swig. Dice wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, one of his more undignified habits.

“It’s a good thing I’m not taking the throne, then.” If there’s sadness at all to be found in his grin, Gentaro doesn’t see it. “I guess I’m not getting anything out of you, drunk or not.”

“You might have, had I any idea either.”

“You don’t know where you’re going?”

“I suppose I never really do, save for where the marks are easy and the pockets overflowing.”

“Fair enough.” Seemingly satisfied, Dice redirects his attention towards the musicians, ignored for the most part until now.

“Don’t you fellows have anything more interesting in your arsenal?”

The tavern’s other occupants shout their assent, and just like that, Dice has the whole place roaring in a flurry of noise and alcohol.

Just like that, the rest of the evening passes in a blur.

It must be past midnight when they stumble outside, smelling of smoke and sweat and more than several sloshes of beer. Dice stretches above his head as they walk, sated.

“I didn’t know you could sing,” says Gentaro, recalling the raucous shanties Dice had stirred from the slurring crowd.

“I can dance too, if you want me to show you.”

“In the middle of the street?”

“Why not?”

“You’re a madman.”

“You keep calling me that.”

“Because it’s true.”

“I guess there are worse things to be,” says Dice, and Gentaro, tipsier than he thinks he is, absolutely misses the way he’s being looked at as he laughs.

“If you think of anything, feel free to t—“

He doesn’t get to finish the thought.

Without warning, Dice pushes him into an alley Gentaro didn’t even realize they’ve passed; and with little room for Gentaro to react, Dice shoves him against the wall.

Dice, predictably, tastes like beer. Not so predictably, he kisses like a dream.

Or he would, if the press of his lips and the touch of his palms on either side of Gentaro’s throat didn’t have an undercurrent of desperation Gentaro doesn’t understand.

“Stay with me.”

“Dice—“

“I’ve left everything behind. I’m not a king, and I don’t have anything to my name. I have nothing to offer you.”

None of this planet’s moons are out tonight. There’s nothing illuminating the scene, save for the paltry lamplight that barely reaches the alley, so Gentaro can’t see Dice as much as hear the longing in his voice.

“Stay with me anyway.”

“Do I seem like the staying type?” says Gentaro, mostly to Dice, partly to himself.

Against his lips, as Dice bites down lightly, Gentaro feels him grin.

“Not by a long shot. But don’t let that stop you.”

“I must say, I’m nearly swayed, almost there—“

“Don’t,” says Dice, after interrupting him with another kiss. There’s nothing else to feel but his hands, warm on Gentaro’s skin; nothing but the muscle in his chest, thumping in the spaces between Gentaro’s own heartbeats. “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”

“I meant it,” says Gentaro, none too surprised than himself to realize that he did. “I’ll stay with you. On Stella. On wherever.”

Lowly, Dice exhales, breath like a breeze on Gentaro’s cheek. They can’t seem to stop kissing, with Dice speaking as Gentaro presses one after the other against his lips.

“Even in a pit filled with the most wretched individuals in the universe?”

“Why, if that were true, I think I’d be right at home.”

And there goes the laughter Gentaro no longer has to bottle, free-flowing around him like a barrel gushing wine.

 


 

His decision is not instantaneous.

This he realizes belatedly, however obvious it might’ve been from the outskirts. What his heart already knew, his head has taken a while to catch up to.

Tonight they’ve foregone separate beds, fitting themselves into the same small mattress and exchanging space for warmth. Tonight, Dice sleeps undisturbed, so that there would be no threat of interruption if Gentaro were to call Iruma again.

Instead, Gentaro remains where he is.

Tonight, watching Dice surrender himself so completely to  being vulnerable with Gentaro’s knife so close by, Gentaro makes his choice.

In the morning, he rouses Dice gently, though he’s slept very little himself.

“What time is it?”

“Time to leave.”

Dice, still drowsy, glances at the window, where dawn hasn’t yet spilled. He’s awake enough to ask, “Isn’t it too early?”

“We’re catching a different ship. It’ll take us there faster,” says Gentaro, setting Dice’s rucksack  on the bed and slinging his own over his shoulder. “Come. We must board before sunrise.”

Though he doesn’t seem without his questions, Dice doesn’t voice any of them aloud, yawning as he and Gentaro take to the streets. Seeming not entirely aware he’s doing it, he reaches for Gentaro’s hand and squeezes.

Gentaro, rendered motionless for a moment, stares. Dice grins, though with a hint of uncertainty.

“This all right?”

Another moment passes. Gentaro shifts their fingers to entwine, and squeezes back.

“Of course.”

He doesn’t have to be perfect, he thinks. He doesn’t have to change himself into someone unrecognizable. He doesn’t think that’s what Dice expects.

He thinks, too, of how he’d changed their trajectory so that he could keep a part of his promise—they wouldn’t land on Stella, not yet, but at the very least he wouldn’t be leading Dice into a trap.

Stay with me.

He doesn’t have to be perfect.

He just has to be a little less wretched than before.

Getting on the ship is a painless affair. The farther they get from the kingdom, the less there is a need to hide, and Dice takes full advantage of the fact. He takes to roaming the corridors ‘to stretch his legs’, and to exploring what dark corners there are—and there’s a lot of them—with Gentaro in tow.

Sober, his kisses are sweet, stealing them from Gentaro’s mouth with an ease he had never managed to pull off with trinkets. Unbidden, his laugh is sweeter, tucked into Gentaro’s hair for only him to hear.

This journey is shorter than the others.

Days later, the ship docks, and though Gentaro’s still at a loss for how to explain why their destination is not what he said it would be, it turns out that he should’ve been worrying about something else.

It’s as they’re descending the ramp that he hears a familiar voice, one whose obnoxiousness is rivaled only by the way it carries across a room:

“There!”

The crowd is forcibly parted by a dozen or so men, clad unmistakably in military uniforms, allowing neither of them time to react as they’re both grabbed and pulled apart, arms held behind their backs.

Dice catches his dumbstruck gaze, but there’s no such surprise to be found in Dice’s suddenly cold eyes. Almost as if—

Iruma walks towards them, smirk as sharp as his tailored suit. He addresses Dice first, a hand to his chest as he bows, compulsory as it is mocking.

“Your Majesty.”

“You know, I didn’t think pigs would look the same on every planet.” Dice speaks and it chills the air and Gentaro’s spine, all at once. “But here you are.”

Irumas’s smirk grows. “You’re not going to struggle, then.”

“I’m an idiot, not suicidal.”

“A shame we had to meet under such unfortunate circumstances. I have a feeling we’d get along terrifically otherwise,” says Iruma, motioning at the guards to start pulling Dice along. He waves dismissively in Gentaro’s direction.

“Let go of that one.”

Roughly, Gentaro is relinquished, shock rendering him helpless as Dice is led away, one particular guard rougher with him than was necessary. Rooted in place, he can only shout Dice’s name.

It earns him a glance, and a smile that isn’t a smile twists Dice’s face. There’s no sweetness left in his voice when he says, “You were too good to be true anyway.”

The guards move on ahead, and numbly, Gentaro falls into step with Iruma behind them.

“‘Not a thing,’ hm? He’s smarter than what your reports implied.” When Gentaro doesn’t respond, Iruma continues. “You had me on edge there, changing your course so suddenly. If I didn’t track down your transmitter’s signal, we wouldn’t have found you. I’d like to think you were just throwing him off your trail.”

“Where are you taking him?” is all Gentaro replies with, his gaze on Dice’s retreating back—held stiff but proud, dignified even in chains.

“He’ll have to be kept somewhere inconspicuous, since we aren’t on base—no thanks to you, I might add. The local police force have suggested the observatory, which isn’t ideal for such a valuable hostage, but it’ll have to do before we enact the transfer tomorrow evening.”

Gentaro feels Iruma’s eyes on him, and with great effort Gentaro tears his own away from Dice to meet them.

Iruma’s mouth is still infuriatingly quirked.

“Quite a favor you’ve done for me, old friend.”

Gentaro would wring his neck if he could.

“I did wonder what was going through your mind, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now. You delivering their king to us may turn the tide of this war just yet. Marvelous work, for a thief.

“And before I forget.”

Iruma stops right before entering the vehicle they had shoved Dice into, digging out something from his coat pocket and tossing it to Gentaro.

“Here’s your gold star.”

He laughs, and Gentaro still hears the sound as he looks at the object in his hands. It’s a small drawstring bag, the kind that’s used to hold coins, and inside—

I meant it. I’ll stay with you.

—a smattering of crystals, known for its rarity, matching the hair ornament that’s burning through his layers.

 


 

This planet’s rocky surface makes for a bumpy ride, as if the ground beneath is comprised only of gravel, roadwork forever left unfinished. Gentaro will be glad to take his leave from it, when he’s able.

Which is coming sooner rather than later.

Ghosts are never meant to stay in one place too long. Were they to forego moving on, they risk becoming an echo of themselves, tethered to their regrets.

Gentaro glances out the window, the urge to be among the stars again so great that his shoulder blades might sprout wings to fly there.

The past must die—or so Gentaro believed.

They pass by the port, onward to higher terrain. The supply truck’s driver is silent for most of the drive, but he speaks when the observatory’s winding spire is in sight.

“Don’t know what you’re hoping to steal from there,” he says, his glance at Genaro probing and curious. “Nothing in that place but rocks and stardust.”

“True value lies in unexpected things.”

“Sounds like a bunch of bullshit.”

Gentaro laughs, quiet, wistful. “Maybe. I’m a collector. A specialist, if you will.”

The driver snorts, dubious. “Thieves got hobbies too?”

“I wouldn’t call it a hobby.” Gentaro thinks of the way planets orbit the sun’s golden crown, drawn in by its unrivaled gravity. “More like a compulsion.”

“Crazy talk.”

“Are you calling me a madman?”

“That’s right.”

Though it aches a little, Gentaro smiles to himself. He opens his mouth to reply, but the driver shakes his head to silence him.

“Time to hide. Good luck on that collection of yours.”

The driver holds out his palm, which Gentaro is quick to press a crystal into.

“There’s more of that to come.”

“Bit of a gamble in saying that, don’t you think?”

“What’s life without a little risk?”

With that, Gentaro makes himself scarce amidst the cargo. Sitting in the darkness, uncomfortably conscious of his own breathing, all he can do is wait for the inspection to be over, for the voices to subside, for the truck to be let through.

A minute passes. Two.

He hears the driver making small talk with an impressive absence of nerves.

The clock in his head ticks by.

And then—forward movement, finally.

He exhales, but it’s no reprieve, his mind already set on what he has to do next.

Once inside, he’s to disappear into the shadows, as thieves are wont to do. All buildings are different from one another, but they’re the same in one significant way: there will always be a room where valuables are held.

All he has to do is find it, but that’s simple enough to surmise as well.

Wherever’s most heavily guarded.

His knife will do the rest.

The plan is sensible, methodical, the steps leading into each other in a pattern that’s easy to follow. If he kept his wits about him, nothing would go wrong.

Until, inevitably, something does.

A search of the place narrows the holding room to the heart of the observatory, except—

Gentaro’s blood slows.

There’s no one there.

No Iruma, no armed soldiers. No Dice.

No one but a solitary guard.

At least it’s a face he recognizes; a face that had been present at the capture, which gives him a lead to start with.

Deliberately, he lets out a breath, not so loud as to attract more security, but noticeable enough to rouse the guard’s suspicion.

Soon enough, the guard steps into the shadows.

Gentaro has a knife to his throat in an instant.

“Where is he?” His whisper is fiercer than he intends, giving too much away. The guard swallows lightly against his blade, but he doesn’t relent.

“You’re the thief.” Gentaro supposes the recognition works on either side. “Commander Iruma was a fool to trust you.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“You’ll never reach him.” The guard bares his teeth, jeering. Gentaro realizes now that he’d been the one that had handled Dice so harshly. “You’ve lost your king.”

“Never underestimate what a thief can steal,” says Gentaro, and it’s tempting to let the blade dig in, knowing the guard won’t give him anything else.

He flips the knife in one swift motion instead, slamming its jeweled hit against the side of the guard’s head.

The guard slumps, and Gentaro lets him crumple into a heap on the floor. Panic threatens to sink in, but Gentaro fights it—there’s too much at stake to lose his composure now.

Breathe.

Think.

You’ll never reach him, the guard had said, so sure of himself.

Reach, he’d said.

Not find.

Gentaro’s thoughts flash to the structure of the observatory, how it’s built to reach for the heavens, its silhouette in twin moonlight seeming to have an arm outstretched towards the sky.

The spire.

With ravines on either side, he will have to climb.

Fortunately, it’s exactly what’s in a wraith’s repertoire.

 


 

Compared to what’s waiting for him at the top, scaling the wall comes to him as a second nature. It’s only a matter of one foot after another, of feeling around, unseeing, for something to grab onto. Nothing he hasn’t done hundreds of times before.

It takes an hour, or less; it takes an eternity.

He slips through the last window there is, his footfalls barely making a sound as he lands.

When his eyes adjust in the dark, he comes upon what he’s been looking for.

“Dice,” he says, lungs stuttering at the sight. Hands bound behind his back and head bowed, Dice is hunched over on the floor, seeming so small with the observatory’s large astronomical clock looming above him.

Gentaro steps forward, wondering if he needs to be awakened, but then Dice shifts and does the impossible.

He laughs.

It’s not bright, not like the sun; it’s more like finally spotting Polaris in the black expanse of space after days upon days of aimless wandering.

Like the promise of a way home.

“What took you so long?”

Hardly a second passes before Gentaro’s crouched in front of him, hands trembling as they make land on either side of Dice’s face.

And then they tremble still at what he sees.

“Who did this to you?”

There’s a supernova of a bruise on Dice’s cheekbone and a scabbing cut on his lip, both from what appears to be the same blow.

“Someone got a bit too eager about shoving a king around,” says Dice, as if amused by it, and Gentaro knows instantly who it had been—wishing, quite violently, that he had slit the man’s throat after all.

“I mean, former king.”

Gentaro brushes a thumb gently along Dice’s lip, as if to memorize the shape of his smile with his fingertips. “How did you know I would come?”

“I didn’t. I hoped you would, though.”

“You could’ve left me,” says Gentaro, his tone helpless, imploring. “While I wasn’t watching, you could’ve escaped. You’ve been around me enough to know how.

“If you’d known the whole time—“

“You kissed me back, didn’t you?” To punctuate it, Dice presses his mouth to Gentaro’s palm, grinning, always grinning.

“I don’t understand.”

“I did plan to leave, but I figured one night to say goodbye wouldn’t hurt. You really did a number on me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Bet you are.”

“I tried to change the course—“

“I got that.”

“But why did you stay?” A question that Gentaro had asked himself, continuously, since Dice was was taken from him; a question that’s left him at a constant loss, unable to comprehend what madness would possess a man to give up his freedom.

Again, Dice laughs, inching closer and closer to that familiar brightness. “Like I said, you kissed me back. So I took a chance.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“A gamble rarely does.”

“Idiot,” says Gentaro, choking on it. He blinks back the sudden dampness of his eyes as he reaches around to pick at the lock of Dice’s cuffs, only for Dice to show off his wrists, childishly proud.

“Bastard was too busy knocking out of me to notice,” he says, holding the key up to the light for Gentaro to look at. “Better watch your back, Phantom. I can give you a run for your money now.”

“Gentaro.”

“What?”

“It’s not ‘Phantom’.” There’s no hesitation in the way Gentaro tells him, so careless with his secrets like he never imagined he could be with anyone else. “My name—my real name, is Gentaro. If we don’t make it out of here, I thought you should know.”

“Well, Gentaro.” Dice lets the word roll off his tongue languidly, with time they don’t really have, as if to savor the sound. “You should’ve saved it for when we do make it out, but I’m not complaining. What’s the plan?”

They gaze at one another then, trust that Gentaro doesn’t feel he deserves evident in Dice’s eyes.

For a moment, he closes his own, thinking once more of where they’re currently suspended, with an endless void above and an unforgiving fall below.

It’s not a flawless plan, not by a long shot; many, many things can go wrong, with so little room for everything to go right.

But the astronomical clock hangs over them, showing him all the places they could go in the galaxy if they can pull this off. The painted stars gleam at him in a challenge, a dare.

He opens his eyes and tugs Dice up to stand. As he retrieves a length of rope from under his layers, he watches Dice’s eyes widen with realization.

It’s his turn to laugh—with relief, with amusement, with hope.

“Are you afraid of heights, Your Majesty?”

 


 

Being such a ways away from the sun takes some getting used to.

In what can only be described as a perpetual state of dusk, the last few planets they’ve visited puts Gentaro right in his element, with all their dark corners and unsuspecting pockets. A thief’s paradise.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, he takes full advantage, situating himself in an alley that provides an adequate view of the marketplace.

“What do you think of that one?” he asks, his gaze idle on a man wearing what’s no doubt an expensive suit. “No? Too easy?”

“I think you’re knee deep in a bad habit,” says Dice, though it doesn’t hold much weight as an admonishment from someone who frequently makes pit stops at gambling dens. “The crystals will last us a lifetime; you don’t have to resort to this anymore.”

“A wise man with a penchant for games once enlightened me on the importance of chasing thrills here and there.”

“A wise guy, you mean. Anyway, have you ever considered using those sticky fingers for the greater good? A 'steal from the rich, give to the poor' sort of thing.”

“Do I seem like the heroic type?”

“Sure you do. You were plenty dashing back there, rescuing me from my tower.”

With his ears burning and no retort available, Gentaro mutters, “You’re insufferable.”

Dice grins and Gentaro sees it in full, with that hooded cloak of his abandoned several planets ago. “You must have the worst luck in the universe then, having me for a travelling companion.”

It was said in jest, but Gentaro can’t help but think of how untrue it is, with everything they’ve managed to do since their escape months prior. To have secured Dice’s freedom from both kingdoms that sought to use him, to have put enough distance between them and the war—Gentaro had even begun to consider that there really must be a god in those dice after all.

Not that they haven’t run into setbacks.

The reality of Stella, for instance, is still a difficult thing to believe.

“What do you mean there’s no such thing?” Dice had demanded, after Gentaro had relayed the news.

“Exactly that,” Gentaro had said, on edge himself. “The ‘Stella’ we heard about in our galaxy, that we were convinced existed, is nothing more than a legend in this one, where it’s supposedly located. I suppose it adds up; a land of pure lawlessness and debauchery can’t possibly sustain itself.”

They’d fallen silent then, similar to how they’ve both quieted in the present, their minds seemingly focused on the same thing.

“What do they say here, then?” is what Dice had said, afterwards. When Gentaro had asked for a clarification, he had amended, “What do the legends say?”

“Nothing good, I assure you.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“They say it’s a planet made entirely of ice.”

“A winter wonderland.”

“They say it’s inhabited by a mad scientist who performs experiments on every visitor that makes land.”

“A man ahead of his time. Go on.”

“They say no one who’s ventured in search of it has ever returned.”

“Then we’ll be the first.”

“Dice.” Gentaro’s heart had begun to pound, listening to him. The worst thing, the best thing, is that it hadn’t been from fear. “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s not like we have anywhere else to be.” Dice had pulled him in by the nape until their foreheads rested against the other’s, until their lips touched when he’d speak. “We’re free, Gentaro.

“Don’t you want to know what’s out there?”

Not particularly. Gentaro had thought in response. Everything I could ever want is right here.

Out loud, he’d said, “Then I suppose it’s your turn to take me away.”

“Hey,” says Dice, gently prying him from his reverie by pointing upwards. “It’s out.”

Gentaro lifts his gaze to the sky, where the northern star has finally become visible—humanity’s oldest navigation tool, and a guide as good as any.

In his peripheral, Dice’s hair ornament catches its light.

“Come,” says Gentaro, reaching down to take Dice’s hand in his. Along Dice’s knuckles he presses a smile, or perhaps a kiss.

For good luck, and then some.

“We wouldn’t want to keep the mad scientist waiting.”

 

 


Two drifters, off to see the world,
There's such a lot of world to see.