“See, we thought wrong. Both of us did. We, the two of us, me and that Drifter, figured if we threw ourselves headfirst into making Gambit work, everything would fall into place thanks to persistence. Things weren’t that simple. And we weren’t much of a fireteam.
“We’d gone into the Ascendant Plane expecting one thing and got a whole other. He wouldn’t tell me what the deal was. Not even when I pointed my cannon at him and told him he’d better ‘fess up, but… I should’ve expected mystery. The Drifter talks a lot, shows the proof to make you believe, but when it comes down to answering the questions he plants in your head? Doesn’t matter what you do. He won’t stop your wheels from turnin’. He’ll just grease ‘em up and let ‘em go ‘round and ‘round again.
“It’s enough to drive a man to some sorta edge, I’ll tell you that.
“But we went in. Him, ‘cuz he said he needed to check up on somethin’ or another. Me, ‘cuz I hate surprises. I didn’t want him draggin’ out another nightmare only to shrug it off later and tell me I shoulda known better. So I followed after him, claiming trust. And he let me.
“Only, we ran into something more than either of us bargained for…got separated from our Ghosts. Stranded in the Ascendant Realm.
Things snowballed from there as they got the tendency to.”
– A Renegade’s Observations of a Drifter
The Ascendant Realm was a maze within an abyss within a void within a maelstrom – and then somehow, it managed to cycle right back around to nothing other than a labyrinth. It smelled like a dust storm without the dust or a dying star without the matter, and it sounded like brown noise with an echo to it – and that echo meant there was something out there other than emptiness.
“What’re we looking for?” Shin asked, walking down a narrow platform. Nothing held it up; it simply was, craggy and thin and made for single-file lines, apparently.
“I got my own real estate in here,” Drifter said, gesturing widely to either side of them. It was a miracle he didn’t tip right off the side. “Has a nasty habit of gettin’ lost. Y’know. Stuff slips through the cracks in a place like this.”
Shin followed after him. A piece of the platform broke beneath his boot, tumbling down an unknowably long way. “Is that what we’re looking for? Your real estate?”
“You better believe it, hot stuff.”
Shin didn’t know whether that was a shot at his affinity for Solar or a comment to get under his skin. “And then what? What do you have in mind once we find it?”
Drifter stopped short. Shin nearly walked right into him.
“Once we find it…” Drifter trailed off, looking around. “The fog gotten any thicker to you?”
It was thicker. Shin hadn’t noticed since all he’d been focused on was Drifter’s back, but if he peeked around him, he quickly lost sight of the platform beneath their feet. One, maybe two steps forward, and it faded right into oblivion. They could’ve walked right off the edge.
“Yeah,” Shin said. He reached out, hooking a finger into Drifter’s belt. “Don’t take another step.”
“I’m not,” Drifter snapped. He looked over his shoulder at Shin. The shadows made his lightless eyes look even less chipper than usual. “Can you back up?”
“If I’m honest…” Shin glanced behind himself, at the impossibly thin pathway, at the dark below them. “Would rather not. Can you try turning around first?”
“I’ve barely got the space to put one foot in front of the other,” Drifter said dryly. “Might as well ask me if I can fly.”
Shin stayed silent for a long moment, then asked, “Can you?”
“You’re an asshole.”
It got a huff of laughter out of Shin, at least until he recognized that they really were stuck if he didn’t start putting one foot behind the other. He kept his hold on Drifter’s belt as he stepped back once, toe then heel. Shin wasn’t an acrobat by any means, but he could balance well enough not to fall off of this thing. Hopefully.
“How far in the Ascendant Realm are we?” he asked as he took another step. This was gonna be slow going.
Drifter hummed, shuffling backwards after Shin. “Who knows, everything looks the same. Hang on. Lemme…”
He reached up, palm out, as if to transmat something into his hand, but nothing came. Shin watched him repeat the gesture, then a third time, more frantically than the last. Drifter tossed another glance back at him.
“Where’s your Ghost?” Drifter asked suddenly.
Shin stared at him, uncomprehending, then held out his hand. He frowned when nothing happened, Jaren’s Ghost decidedly not here, no voice in his helmet explaining why. Dread settled in quick after that. He raised his arm, willing Light to spark and a spark to flame.
“We’re in too deep, Drifter,” Shin said, his voice hard. “I thought you knew where you were going.”
“I did!” Drifter insisted, “I do. Somethin’s changed, this isn’t right –”
A low groan shook the platform beneath them. Shin swayed with it, gripping Drifter’s belt like an anchor. Trusting Drifter not to tumble off the side was one hell of a gamble, but good luck getting Shin to let him go. The open space on either side of them felt smothering despite the openness. One wrong move, and they would fall and fall and fall. Whatever background noise had been there before was only rushing wind now.
“Renegade!” Drifter said, sharp, the word nearly swallowed up by the rolling thunder in the distance.
Drifter started to turn with his hand outstretched. Shin watched him pull free from his hold and twist around, as if Drifter was really about to reach for him.
And then something slammed into Shin’s side hard enough to throw him into thin air.
Everything went black.
Shin woke up to movement – something dragging him by the leg across rough ground. There was blinding pain shooting through his entire body, a splitting ache in his head, and something wet in his eyes, but who was keeping track, really?
“What…” he breathed, lapsing into a coughing spree. White sparks went off behind his eyelids with every wracking heave.
Whatever was dragging him stopped and he felt his foot drop to the ground freely, released. Shin blinked, raising a sore arm to rub at his eyes. His helmet was gone…somewhat gone, anyway. The visor had snapped clean off. That’d explain why that model was discontinued, he figured – that, or he just got hit that hard.
“You’re awake,” said Drifter’s voice.
If Shin wasn’t deliriously pained, he’d think he sounded relieved. He just kept wiping his eyes, squinting at the bleary smear of red on his fingers.
“Where’s the blood coming from?” Shin managed, dropping his head lightly back against the rocky ground. He grimaced at the nausea rioting in his stomach every time he so much as moved.
“Head,” Drifter said. Shin heard footsteps, then blinked again, and Drifter was standing over him. “Your head. Good news is you’re mostly intact. Took a fall, for sure, but…”
The more he talked, the more Shin’s head pounded. Shin fumbled at his helmet clasps, wrenching it off and throwing it elsewhere. He heard it clatter like it broke even worse than it already was. Good riddance. “And you?” he asked.
“Who, me?” Drifter scoffed, but now that Shin was a little more cognizant, he could hear that edge of strain. “Never been better. Just…hunky-dory over here.”
Shin turned his head slowly, squinting at him. Drifter stepped back, but Shin pushed himself up on an elbow.
“You…” Shin stopped. “Is that part of a Knight’s sword in your side?”
“No, I’m just happy to see you,” Drifter sneered.
Shin wondered how quickly he could knock himself unconscious again. “Seriously?”
“Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”
“I’ve got blood in my eyes, asshole,” Shin snapped. The world swirled around him, but he got to his knees and glared at Drifter. “The hell happened?”
Drifter pointed upwards, winced, then covered the chunk of sword in his side with his hand. “Once things went awry, rocks started flyin’ around. Not gonna pretend like I know why, but it’s not somethin’ unique to this corner of the Ascendant Realm.” Drifter took a labored breath, cringing as he shuddered. “Ah, shit…so you took a pebble to the face and fell down here. Lucky you didn’t just keep fallin’.”
Shin touched his brow, fingers coming away wet. “Pebble?” he asked, dry.
“A big pebble.”
Fine. Shin got himself all the way up onto his feet, swaying lightly. He willed away the urge to puke. “Okay. Big pebble got me. What about you?”
Drifter seemed pinned then, as if the Knight sword in his side was keeping him stuck in place and not simply making him look paler by the moment. “What about me?”
“Wh – you’ve got a sword in your ribcage, what the hell’s that mean?”
“It’s not the whole sword,” Drifter argued, shifting uncomfortably. “It’s barely the tip of it. Broke off, y’know.”
“Yeah,” Shin said slowly. “Let’s try this again. Why d’you have the tip of a Knight’s sword in your side?”
Drifter shifted his weight again, wincing when he leaned too far to his defunct side. Now that the world had stopped closing in on Shin’s eyes, he realized Drifter’d lost his robe, leaving him with the top underneath it – and a hell of a tear in the side, showing off the wound that oozed around the uneven bit of Hive sword.
“…Ran into some Hive on the way down to you,” Drifter said finally. “Fought. Won. Got this as a neat souvenir.”
The way he was talking around it – and the fact that he’d been dragging Shin away from somewhere instead of keeping them in one place – made Shin think that ‘on the way down’ meant something different. Sounded more like he’d been making a final stand over Shin’s unconscious body.
He kept that insight to himself and said, “What’re you gonna do about it?”
“What’re we gonna do about anything?” Drifter shot back. “We can’t get back up to the portal in this shape. Don’t got any Ghosts, traitorous bastards that they are.” Shin looked at him funny, but Drifter kept going. “This might be it for us, pal. How’s that for a kick in the teeth.”
Shin stayed silent, looking up and around. The odd fog in the Ascendant Realm kept him from seeing much more than ambiguous shapes and vague hints of platforms in the distance, but Drifter was right. They couldn’t make it up a hill right now, let alone hike through an impossibly hostile plane.
“Well, if we’re gonna die for good here,” Shin said, “I just want you to know somethin’.”
Drifter glanced up at him, slowly helping himself down into a splayed-out sit. “Yeah? What’s that?”
Shin smiled. It hurt. “I think you’re a real fuckin’ asshole.”
The barking laugh in response must not’ve felt anywhere near good with that piece of sword in him, but Drifter only wheezed about it. “Fuck. Y’got me there. Ah, guess that just makes us two of a kind, brother. I like the honesty. Keep it up.”
Something stung at Shin at that, but he didn’t have the capacity to analyze it. He’d mull that over later, but for now…Shin sat down, then let himself lay all the way back against the cool stone. Everything here was bone-chillingly cold and well on its way to soaking right through his gear, but the cold was nearly a relief from all of the aches and pains in his body. Nearly. If he died like this, he’d never forgive himself. Jaren would’ve been disappointed. Yor…
Well. There was something poetic to it, after all.
Drifter didn’t go quiet though, not that he ever needed a reason to hear his own voice. “Reckon the Hive got any nasty diseases I need to be worried about?”
Shin stared upwards. “Plenty.”
“Like cat scratch fever, but worse.”
He didn’t honor that with a response.
“Hey,” Drifter continued, “Would y’shoot me if I started frothin’ at the mouth and tried to claw at ya like a rabid Thrall?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“Aww, thanks,” Drifter said, mocking.
Something trembled in his voice, just enough to make Shin turn his head to look. Drifter was peeking down at his side, brows furrowed tight together and hands shaking, violently enough that Shin could see it even in the shifting dark. When Drifter noticed Shin’s scrutiny, he tensed up all over again.
“Could yank it outta you,” Shin suggested, unsettled. “Sure would put a fire under your Ghost to find us.”
“You sure about that?”
“It must like you enough to put up with you this long.”
“Got a better idea,” Drifter said, shifting gears. He grinned, his teeth bright in the shadows. “You could take my mind off the pain, y’know. Gimme somethin’ else to think about.”
Shin considered, then pushed himself up onto an elbow. He pretended not to notice Drifter sitting up a little straighter. He closed the little space between them, getting a hand on Drifter’s shoulder to steady himself as he climbed into his lap. Shin felt like he was going insane. This wasn’t the first time they’d…touched, this wasn’t even close, but of all things, right now, Shin was playing at this old, old want, and he might as well be freefalling again.
“Oh,” Drifter breathed, surprise in his voice, in the way his eyes widened.
Shin lowered his mouth to Drifter’s and kissed him, easing his tongue between his parted lips and feeling out his mouth – dry, tacky, not exactly the nicest kiss in the world, but they weren’t the nicest men, either.
Shin lightly felt out the edge of Drifter’s wound as he bit his lower lip. Drifter hissed at the teeth, twitching, then doubly so when he felt Shin’s fingers.
“‘Scuse you,” Drifter huffed, suspicious now. Rightly so, too. “What’re you doin’?”
“Takin’ your mind off it,” Shin muttered against his mouth.
Shin reached down fast to grab the knife on his hip, then stuck it between Drifter’s flesh and the hard, craggy side of the Knight’s sword. To Drifter’s credit not a sound escaped him, but he did go rigid as a bowstring. It wasn’t even a particularly long knife; Shin had taken out the shortest one he had, meant more for the field than combat. He kept it there for a moment, hand still on the hilt as he leaned back, watching Drifter impassively.
“Just when I think you can’t get any meaner,” Drifter gritted out. He jerked as Shin shimmied the knife in deeper. “Fuck. I used to think I was the cruelest sonuva bitch on this side of Jupiter, but there you go, provin’ me wrong.”
Shin almost smiled about it – if only you knew – but then Drifter grabbed his wrist, stopping him from moving the knife anymore. Shin watched him closely, then leaned in and pressed his lips to him again, at first hard and firm, then letting his mouth soften out into kinder, forgiving kisses. Drifter’s grip eased up slowly, and the second Shin saw an opening he took it, digging the blade against the Knight’s sword.
Drifter did gasp that time, almost shoving Shin off of his lap, but Shin stayed. “Let me,” he insisted, gritting his teeth. He didn’t let go of the knife.
“This ain’t how surgery works,” Drifter snapped at him, hoarse.
Shin kissed him silent, angling the blade until he felt it catch against the Hive piece, muffling every one of Drifter’s pained breaths with his lips, licking into his mouth whenever Drifter gripped at his back too tightly. The worst part was that Drifter kissed back, and he kissed back well. Shin wondered if he really was taking his mind off of it. Shin wondered, deliriously tempted, if he’d be allowed to kiss him like this again later, when there weren’t any strings attached.
He pulled the sword tip out of Drifter’s side in an easy slip, knife following. Drifter choked down a strangled noise, then clutched at his torn-open flesh, swearing up a stream of curses.
“We’re done,” Shin said against his lips, then smiled there. “You’re a terrible patient.”
“You’re the fuckin’ worst doctor,” Drifter managed. “Thought you weren’t supposed to remove the thing keepin’ somebody from bleeding out.”
“Yeah.” Shin set his knife to the side, then unclasped his cloak and looped it around Drifter’s back. He tied the cloak tightly in place over the gash. “But you won’t bleed out.”
Drifter gave him a look, weariness painted across his face. “Really.”
“Mhm.” Shin finished, then glanced at his blood-wet hands. No way of knowing what red smeared there was his and what was Drifter’s, all of it intermingled. Shaking his bleary head from the momentary diversion, he picked up the piece of the Knight’s sword, showing it to Drifter. “Wasn’t that deep in there.”
Drifter gave a little, “huh,” before taking the piece and pocketing it. Shin raised his eyebrows. “Souvenir,” Drifter reminded him.
Right. Shin started to get off of his lap, but Drifter caught him by the hips, keeping him in place.
“Wait,” Drifter said hastily. He licked his lips. Shin felt distinctly bewitched by the flash of tongue. “Y’know, I’m still hurtin’, pal. Why don’t you, uh…keep me distracted? ‘Til our Ghosts get here.”
“...What kinda distracted?”
Drifter’s hands tightened around Shin’s waist. “You went ‘n stabbed me pretty bad, Renegade,” he said, hushed. “Think I deserve you kissin’ me better after that.”
Shin kissed him as if he’d never have the chance to kiss him again.