The crowd is roaring. Block them out. Cuts are bleeding, stinging. Forget they’re there. His head is pounding, his ears are ringing. That doesn’t matter.
Breathe, Katsuki. In, out. In, out.
Smell the blood in the air. On the dusty ground. On his hands, on his chest, dripping off his chin. Taste the metal in his mouth. Feel the boiling heat cool and congeal on his fingers, under his razor claws, between his Alpha-sharp teeth.
Take the breath and move.
He whips his head to the side. Bottle-green glass flashes by his ear, slices a scorching line across his cheek. It shatters against the stone wall behind him, another mark on the bloodstained grey.
Katsuki leaps at the thrower, claws sinking into the sinew of his shoulder. The man shrieks, twists—Katsuki pulls him down, flips them into the dirt. One hand on the man’s forehead, the other digging talons into his chest until they click against bone, he pulls his prey apart. With a savage snarl his teeth close over the Beta’s neck and yank, flesh tearing free with an awful squelch.
He spits out jugular and bellows his victory, the crowd answering in kind.
The guards spill into the arena. They’ll take the body away, throw it in with the rest to be burned or however they destroy Katsuki’s conquests; they’ll clear the dirt, bury the blood, ready the room for the next victim.
They aren’t really victims. They earned this death. Katsuki barely has to glance at the sigil stamped by scars into the body’s chest to know he’s a murderer. That’s who Katsuki fights, week in and week out, that’s the filth that coats his tongue.
The crowd howling for him is judge and jury, but he is the inevitable executioner.
He’s been doing this for months. They wake him up, drag him from his room, throw him into the arena to earn his keep with blood and guts. He disembowels, rips limbs from bodies, saws through tendons—victory after victory against the dregs of the world, the criminals who deserve their fates.
His world blurs when he fights. He never knows what kind of skill his opponents have, what kind of weapons they’ll bring. They’re all given whatever weapon they last used, but that’s their only defense against him. Rusty knives. Empty guns. Broken bottles, like this one.
Murder with a broken bottle. Seems too accidental on the surface to warrant the crowd he drew, to need the cameras and stadium lights. He might like to know that story.
But it’s not his place to know. He’s meant to act. To carry out the only Orders he’s ever heard.
Kill them. Make it terrible.
He’s an Alpha. It didn’t bind him like they would’ve frozen an Omega’s veins, but it was carved into his skin, his bones. The Orders were seared into his psyche by hot metal, slicing whips, icy water.
They command his silence. He doesn’t need words, doesn’t need thoughts—all he needs are his teeth and claws. They command his rage. He is their weapon of justice, their righteous anger given form. They command his obedience, but only outside the ring. Inside, he does what he likes. The journey doesn’t matter, only the destination—he kills the people they set before him, and makes it terrible.
The guards take the body. He will bring them another.
More guards circle him. Katsuki is always tenuously lucid after a fight. If they move too fast, speak too loud, smell too afraid, he won’t hesitate. But they’ve learned how to deal with him—they wield the long poles with the braided metal cords, the loops just long enough to catch under his chin and cinch around his neck—he is animal, no conscience, no coherence.
He understands, dimly, why they stay so far from him. No one should come near him like this. No one should ever be faced with this feral force of nature.
Unless they deserve it, he tacks onto that thought. That, at least, has been drilled into his fragile mind. Unless they deserve it.
For the crowd, he bellows again, struggling against the choking pull of the wires. They stomp their feet and holler, they scream for more, more, more. Let him free, give him another foe, show them more, more blood more gore more glory.
He’s shoved into the frigid dark of the stone tunnels into the arena, the iron bars clattering down behind them. The roar of the crowd muffles, but the stands full of pounding feet give the cold walls an ecstatic heartbeat.
“Clean him up,” a guard barks. “Make it quick.”
Dragged along the corridor, into the shivered depths, past heavy doors and shadowed halls. Katsuki knows the route. They tried to confuse him in the early days, taking this turn and that one, blindfolding him and leading him around and around as if he would try to escape. They don’t bother with the charade anymore. They know he won’t run.
Why would he? This is his life. He kills them, and makes it terrible. There’s nothing else out there for him, nothing that sings to his soul like conquest does.
Outside the arena walls there’s surely something. There’s probably a city, where all the people who watch him fight live, and there’s certainly food, drink, talk. He’s never been there, though. There’s only ever been the arena.
In the blank night, at the edge of sleep, he can imagine incandescent lights spilling yellow over soft carpets and plush furniture, the flicker of a candle on a dining table, the hum of someone cooking as metal spoon hits metal pot.
Metal pole clangs off metal rods as a guard shoves him to his knees in a stone alcove.
“Hold,” comes the command, and Katsuki sucks in a breath. Water crashes over his head, ice shocks him—one bucket, two buckets, three dumped before he breathes. Exhale. Watch the blood wash down the grimy drain, see the liquid victory as it swirls beyond stone and into myth. The cleaning used to knock the air from him at first blow, the cold immeasurable to untested skin, but he learned so quickly how precious that breath is. In, and hold. Do not let go.
It’s brief and brutal, like everything else in this life. He’s never truly clean, no—just doused in winter, soul sizzling out, the fight sluiced from him. A particularly cruel method of humbling.
The Beta guards hoist him up, careful to keep their hands away, the wire loops cutting familiar tracks across his corded neck. Crystal beads of water cling to his knotted hair, little rainbows dripping down to soothe the burning marks, to melt the sore snakes of red into the constant dull ache that keeps him awake at night. The drying of them is precious to him. He can close his eyes and imagine himself evaporating, flinging his pieces into the damp air until all that’s left to his captors is dirt.
Captors. A strange word for the guards who house him, clothe him, guide him—such a savage name for the clockwork men of the arena. Betas bathed in scents of fear, hatred, and disgust, they’re the marked faces of time passing. The one with short-cropped curls, ah, must be Tuesday. The gaunt one that stinks of addiction comes on Thursdays. The crooked-teeth smiley one sinks a boot into his stomach as a goodnight on Saturdays.
The soft-handed one who smuggled in the antiseptic—the only one to ever touch him kindly—Katsuki hasn’t seen him for months.
Perhaps, one day, soft-hands will come to the arena. Smuggling is a crime, and crimes cannot go unpunished. If he sees soft-hands again, Katsuki will kill him, and he will make it terrible.
His cell is only two halls from the icy shower. The cold leaks from his bones and leaves him with an inevitable exhaustion, a feeling so routine he welcomes it like sleep; there’s a comfort in knowing there is no more killing to be done today, in the knowledge that only he will hurt when the night closes in.
He lets the criminals escape, really. Lets them out into whatever comes after. What kind of life could someone branded a murderer live in this world? What kind of life waits for those who take the ultimate decision into their own hands, that force it onto others? What kind of life could there be for people who kill?
No kind of life, and no kindness. Not for murderers. Not for killers.
A guard swipes a key card and the cell door clanks open, a high machinery whine piercing his sensitive ears. He doesn’t flinch. Weakness is for the ones that die, and Katsuki is the one who lives.
They push at the poles then yank them back at the last second, tripping him into a choke and cough, claws scrabbling bloody lines at his own neck. A button clicks, the wires relax; he gulps down air like a man starved for it and it saws in his lungs, painful and unwanted. He has to breathe to live, he knows. A pity he’s been commanded to live.
The guards laugh, spitting at him and thwacking his sides with the rods, Betas reveling in the crunch and give of an Alpha body. He’s learned not to snarl, not to snap. He knows what kind of reward that gets him.
They rip new seams into his scarred back and let the door slam shut, sealing him in with their hateful echoes and sour scents for the long night.
The cell isn’t dark. No, it would be too kind to a creature like Katsuki to let him have the cover of darkness. It’s damp, but no water trickles in like some fairytale cavern; the air is stagnant and cold despite the summer heat he could feel beating down on him in the arena. He lives deep below the earth, in the catacombs, in the tombs. He lives with three claw-marked stone walls and one glass, not a scratch on it no matter how many times he’s found the courage to try.
Four inches thick and bulletproof, that wall. The heavy door is more a strip of iron, a pillar of unforgiving metal that bears the screechy marks of claws better than the glass does. It squeals upward when the guards swipe their keys and it screams down when they swipe again—the sounds of it are both a blessing and a curse. Shriek at night, and he’s done for the day. Sleep or something like it can come for him. Shriek in the morning, and the killing’s begun.
It’s a sort of alarm. Instead of music chiming to wake him gently, it screams, and he can’t muster the energy to scream back anymore.
Katsuki crawls to the little pallet in the far corner, tucked against the driest walls, claws slowly retracting as he forces himself to relax, to believe he’s safe, to believe it’s over. He collapses to the covered ground and tries to be comforted. The woven reeds are worn out and thin, barely more than a suggestion over the rough stone floor, but it’s something. He’ll take anything to fool himself, to push the illusion a little further.
When he shuts his eyes, he can imagine it’s not reeds at all. It’s a plush mattress that remembers his form, and blankets softer than clouds, and warmth that isn’t liquid life steaming on his hands. Bed, his subconscious supplies. It’s a bed.
He has never had a bed. Of this, he’s certain. He’s never laid on clean linen or laundered flannel or thick pads of softness that cradled his aches. What are those? It’s a bed, or part of a bed—a mattress. He’s never had a mattress.
There is only the arena. There is only killing them, and making it terrible.
But when he shuts his eyes, he can imagine it. Yellow lights. Rumpled bed. A voice, a laugh, a warm thrum in his chest.
Katsuki shakes his head violently, hair brushing stone, nose scraping the floor. Imagination, he recalls in a voice not his own, is a fighter’s weakness, and you are not weak. Only the weak are allowed to die.
Yes. Yes, of course. Imagining all the ways a fight could go wrong would stupefy him, slow his movements—he would react to conjured swings, anticipate beyond what his foe was capable of. Imagination was not needed to kill, so he had no use for it.
Why, in the bright hours he spent pretending it was dark, did imagination continue to plague him? It was always this way, with strange words for things he’d never seen yet could picture perfectly floating to the forefront of his mind in the moments between bloodsheds. He languishes in imagination, trying to imagine what it would mean to imagine at all, but understands nothing except the echoes of his Orders that inevitably come to soothe his troubled mind.
You will live.
You will obey.
You will kill, and make it terrible.
Alpha Orders, hissed to another Alpha, are worth only words. But the Orders did not come alone. Katsuki doesn’t have to imagine the whistle of the whip or the protesting pull of a back full of scars. He doesn’t have to imagine the sizzling of a brand or the phantom sting around the executioner’s sigil stamped over his heart. He doesn’t have to imagine the ice on his eyelashes or the first taste of water in days being used to nearly drown him.
Katsuki does not have to imagine death. He knows death intimately. He knows how to break, and how to be broken. He doesn’t need to imagine that.
The electric lights in the hallway flicker. Not a power problem—the arena never has power problems, running on generator after generator he can hear humming through the stands—but shadows, passing by his cell on an unfamiliar route.
No one comes down here, Katsuki knows, except for killers and the killed.
His cell isn’t the only one in this hall. There are more thick glass walls, diamond-clear and empty, lining the oppressive stone between here and the arena. Sometimes he passes cells on his way back from the ring and makes all the right savage noises at the occupants, only to meet their terrified eyes the next day on the sand. The guards always let him have a little leeway when they pass a victim—it’s the only time he isn’t beaten bloody for the snarls and snaps.
He’s never seen them throw someone in before. The cell across from him has never once been filled. It was always a grim reminder of what awaited him if he didn’t heed the Orders, and now, it’s being forcibly inhabited.
The guards have the long poles out. He can see them shouting—can’t hear a damn thing. The walls are too thick for sound to reach through, and the silence is nearly as terrible as the constant white light.
Someone short twists in their grip, legs flailing, hands scrabbling. Veins stand out in relief, the mark of strain, of desperation. The strain will die, the desperation will stay. Wild hair is matted with something dark. Water? Blood? Katsuki has no idea. The stranger has no claws, but bloody fingers; they must’ve been clipped. That’s common in his opponents—Katsuki is meant to hurt, not be hurt. Only friends get to hurt him. In his arena experience, only friends are capable of hurting him.
So he watches, astounded, as the captive manages to spin in the cord’s hold, grab the pole, and smash it into a guard’s head.
The tussle is brief but impressive. Fists fly, teeth are bared, blood is spilled. The pole is too long to handle effectively, especially when swinging it about by the neck; another guard catches the end and shoves the captive to their knees, bashing their face against the stone floor. A third guard swipes his key for the door, and they kick the captive inside as quickly as possible.
The metal door clangs down and silence reigns, but Katsuki can imagine the furious fists that surely pound against it.
He watches the injured guard get to unsteady feet, spitting globs of red onto the spattered stone. Their winces of pain are viciously satisfying. It stirs something in his stomach, like a match held to kindling. The blood on their hands—by virtue of not being his own—seems right. Seems... deserved.
Strange. The guards guide him through his day. They aren’t gentle, but then, neither is he. Is a feral animal treated with any kindness? No, and it shouldn’t be any different for Katsuki. Dangerous, unstable Alpha. Murderer.
He can’t imagine why he’d like their pain so much, except that it was just another mark of his menace. It’s proof that if he didn’t have the Orders, he would have found the arena without the executioner’s sanction—proof that no matter what he imagined, the arena would find him one way or another.
The other two guards jeer at their injured friend, thwacking the poles against the cell door and laughing at the safely neutralized occupant. A bloody hand slaps against the glass and curves like it still has claws, the prisoner shouting something and banging fists. The guards only find that funnier.
One of them—with red streaming from his temple—makes eye contact with Katsuki, propped up on battered hands to witness. He elbows his companions and gestures at the huddled Alpha in the corner, mouth making mocking shapes. Katsuki doesn’t know what they’re saying, but he bares his teeth. They laugh harder.
With a final taunting knock on the new tenant’s door, the guards leave the way they came, taking the handling poles with them and leaving the fluorescent night once more uninterrupted.
It occurs to Katsuki that a creature with that kind of savage fight in them might be slated to become an executioner, and the ghost of gallows laughter echoes in his ears.
The stranger’s hand relaxes on the glass when they realize the guards are gone. Streaks of rust dry in facsimile claw marks, and they’ll last longer on the glass than anything Katsuki’s thrown—lounging in filth, especially filth that reminds him of his purpose in life, is one of the charms of existence.
Slowly, Katsuki watches them turn around, hand changing from right to left as they lean back against the door and sink to the ground. What crime did this one commit? What sigil will he see on the sands tomorrow, burnt fresh and ugly in the afternoon sun? Will it be murderer’s blood that coats his tongue, or a drug runner’s, or a smuggler’s?
After a long moment of narrow-eyed contemplation, Katsuki decides he doesn’t care. No matter the crime, blood tastes the same: hot metal and wasted life. And if this is a new executioner come to replace him, then they fight too hard to have heard the Orders yet, and he’ll face death another day.
The stranger unfolds from the door and stands to take stock of their new, temporary quarters. The glass hides nothing. He’s short, with torn clothing in blacks and grey-greens, worn ratty by work. The black pants were loose, but now they’re sheared off at the thigh, threads drifting free where claws ripped uneven lines. The shirt is army green, stained with blotches of faded yellow and washed-out blue— paint, Katsuki recalls. There’s paint stains on the shirt, shredded at the hem and notched at the short sleeves.
No shoes. Scrapes on his bare knees betray how he fought for freedom. Welts rise on his wrists, twisting scars climb his arms like vines. This man is a fighter of utmost quality—a fighter used to fighting for everything.
He turns. Wild mats of hair were curls once, perhaps even curls this morning. Red drips off his fingers, splashes on freckled skin and dusty stone. The wicked lines around his neck from the braided cord, Katsuki knows how those sting and itch. Broad shoulders, muscled arms and legs, and, somehow, a soft jaw. It drops open when their eyes meet.
yellow lights rumpled bed warm laughter
They’re very, very green, and Katsuki is going to rip them out.
The stranger takes a step. His lip trembles. Then he collapses to his already injured knees, unable to keep himself standing. His eyes water, shiny tears streaking down his grimy face, and he makes some sort of sound—it might have been a word, but it’s not one Katsuki knows. If Katsuki could smell him through the glass and stone, the man’s scent would be a miasma of desperate despair.
A Beta, likely. The physique would fit an Alpha, but the babyface would’ve angled by now. Katsuki’s fought both—they die the same.
Hands press against the glass, eyes plead for his attention, that sound comes spilling out again as though the stranger physically can’t hold it in. Katsuki can’t hear him, can only see the shape of shivering lips and the fruitless clutch of declawed fingers. The man looks pitiful, pathetic, on the brink of wailing like a bereaved mother.
Seconds ago, he was fighting for his life. Now he looks broken.
In that instant, Katsuki understands. This is not another executioner. This is a victim, a criminal, who’s done something so reprehensible that he’s come to be broken before they’ve even set the brand of his crime to freckled skin. They’ve put him here to see what death looks like.
Katsuki is meant to play his part of animal, snarling at the prisoner until they meet in the arena. He will kill him, and make it terrible. And he will start the dying with fear.
Stranger doesn’t need a name. Stranger is enough. Stranger will die slowly, shaking from fright and blurred by tears, hiccupping for mercy under Katsuki’s killing blow as so many have done before him.
What would scare Stranger, Katsuki wonders, worse than simply seeing the means of his demise? Has he seen Katsuki’s executioner’s sigil, does he understand that Katsuki is the one that will snap his tendons, slit his throat, eat his heart?
Katsuki sits up. The aches fall from his skin like memory, movements almost dreamy as he gets to tough-soled feet and stalks to the glass, white light bleaching the moment to unreality. He looms over Stranger, even separated by eight inches of glass and five feet of hallway.
He knows Stranger can see the sigil now. He knows without hearing it the catch of breath, the realization, the lightning-strike comprehension. He knows when they change from seeing opponent to predator, and when they all inevitably accept that his teeth will be the last thing they feel.
Stranger weeps, open and constant, but his shoulders don’t drop. His hands stay up on the glass, fingers crammed into fists. He shakes like a leaf, but without his scent to confirm, Katsuki doesn’t know if it’s a cornered rabbit’s fear or not—it certainly doesn’t look like fear.
The sound again. Beneath hooded eyes Katsuki watches the shape of Stranger’s mouth, tests the syllables in his head. It could be anything, any word for what he knows or any knowledge beyond him, and to guess at it, Katsuki would require imagination.
New shapes, new sounds. A sentence, perhaps. A plea. Stranger shakes, cries, stares—Katsuki feels the snarl twist his mouth, lines scored deep into his cheeks, fangs bared with an inaudible hiss. This isn’t fear. What is it?
Stranger’s eyes rove all over Katsuki’s body. They see the sigil, but they don’t stay there; they catalogue musculature, count scars and bruises and scrapes, linger on burns and juts of skin where broken bone healed ugly. The tears never stop falling, but Stranger doesn’t even seem to realize he’s crying. He’s just staring at Katsuki and weeping at the sight. Stop it, he wants to say. Stop crying. This isn’t fear, so stop crying.
don’t cry, it’s okay, you’ll be okay
Katsuki stumbles backward as if he’d been kicked in the stomach.
Where did those words come from? Who do they belong to? Whose voice was that in his head, honey-sweet and soft as silk? It wasn’t his—couldn’t be his—would never be his. He’s never spoken like that in his terrible life, never been so quiet, so controlled. Crying is for the weak, a weakness in and of itself, he’s seen his prey break down in tears more times than he can count.
He’s never consoled them through it. Never said they’d be alright, never offered that platitude. He has only ever killed them, tears still slipping from lifeless eyes until every muscle locks and slacks again on the muddied sand.
It could be mercy, after a fashion, to stop the tears for them. To take away the weakness.
But he is not kind. Katsuki steps back, deliberately this time, and shakes his head to clear the stricken thoughts. Focuses on the Orders, dragged up from the depths like iron doors to keep the animal caged: you will live, you will obey, you will kill them and make it terrible. Nowhere in his Orders is kindness or mercy or the command to speak at all.
Katsuki stares through the floor. Glances at Stranger, now shouting silently at him, smearing blood across the window. Looks anywhere else.
How long has it been since he’s spoken?
Has he ever spoken at all?
He snarls, claws slicing out, slamming the heel of his palm into the glass as if it would do anything but hurt his hand. What is this? What is this? The pale screech of his nails grounds him. He can see Stranger watching him, see the shadows that cross his face, see the ideas form in his mind. How does Katsuki know what an idea looks like? Imagination is for the weak.
Stranger leans up on straining knees to glass not yet coated in his handprints and sets a still-raw finger to it, wincing. Slowly, so slowly, he drags out shapes—angles, curves, lines—his sounds given form, he writes in painful stretches.
Over seven shaky letters, Stranger gives him a look like angels were burned alive on his doorstep, and that horrific sight was easier to stomach than what Katsuki’s become.
Become? A silver, slithered voice in his mind, a memory of his handlers. Katsuki reads the scarlet word over and over, as if the more he looks at it, the sooner it’ll tell him its secrets. There has always been the arena. He hasn’t become anything—he was always this, the executioner, the killer, the contraband moving at the mercy of another. You were never anything but animal.
A growl is ripped from between his ribs, soothing the bubbling rage, an outlet for the horror building at his temples. He’s never had to read in the arena, only ever had to recognize the sigils, but he knows these letters instantly. He knows this word—tastes it like familiarity on his tongue. He doesn’t know what it names. Doesn’t know what it means.
Kacchan, Stranger writes. Kacchan.
lights bed laughter
Katsuki rakes his claws down the glass, pitted rumbles pulled from his chest, then turns his back on Stranger. That alone is an act of defiance. It doubles to hide the furrow of his brow and the tremor in his hands. That word, Kacchan— it’s like the ones behind his eyelids. He knows it, but not entirely. It’s familiar to him, which is strange, because it’s a gentle word. Katsuki, as a rule, does not have gentle words.
He has life. And obedience. And killing.
His defiance is completed when he lies down against the far wall of his cell, back to Stranger, and shuts his eyes. Death comes to everyone they set before him. It will be no different when they meet in the arena. Katsuki will kill him, and make it terrible, no matter how many imaginary words Stranger writes for him. No matter how gentle the sound.
When he sleeps, the animal dreams of man, and Katsuki dreams of Kacchan.
He wakes because the lights change.
The guards have returned. Not the same ones as last night. Today there are five of them instead of the typical three—dread sinks leaden in Katsuki’s gut. Have they come for diversion as they’ve done before, hitting him with steel and fists or spitting at his shivering bulk? Is there some new substance they’ve hidden in his food, excited to watch the spineless Alpha spin in idiotic circles, drugged out of his mind? Will this hurt?
His questions have no answers, because they aren’t here for him.
It takes all five guards to subdue Stranger, even weak from injuries and dizzy from blood loss. His fingers had caked to rust at some point in the quiet hours, but they rip open anew as he rakes empty threats across arms and eyes; his bared teeth aren’t Alpha-sharp, but they’re razor enough to take chunks out of clothing and nick clumsy skin. Stranger fights.
They drown him in metal, hands wrenched tightly behind his back and cuffed, three long poles cinched around his neck to drag him as he grinds his heels. Katsuki hasn’t needed the poles for the walk to the arena in a long time, but Stranger is spirited; the whole time, he fights. No matter how hard they hit him, no matter how much blood they draw, Stranger fights and bites and screams.
A guard slams a gloved fist into Stranger’s stomach, and Katsuki lets out a growl so vicious it rattles stone.
He’s frozen in shock. Why did he do that? Stranger goes limp, bile leaking from his bloodied mouth, and Katsuki’s entire body reacts—anger scorches in his veins, fury heats in his face, his chest, his palms—he’s off the floor and at the glass in the span of a blink.
don’t touch him
The guards haul Stranger through the door, trailing red into the hallway, marring the tiles as Katsuki isn’t allowed to. It’s a struggle to get him upright, to get him to walk; they aren’t actually supposed to choke him to death with the cords. Death is Katsuki’s job.
Is it time for the arena? Will Katsuki meet Stranger on the killing field? Will it be terrible? The moment must be approaching, he can feel the confrontation hurtling toward him like a bullet—he can smell the fear, hear the roaring crowd, hear himself roaring back.
What does the hall smell like, Katsuki wonders? It’s probably drenched in Stranger’s scent, cut jagged by the guards who always stink like disgust and venom. It’s probably a mess of fear and hatred and the clarity of oncoming death. It’s probably—
cool mint ozone pine forest
Katsuki claps a hand over his nose. His claws prick his cheek. He wasn’t aware they were out. The memory of that scent was—it was so strong—it was right there in his mind, no imagination required to conjure the smell of a stranger. How does he know what Stranger smells like? How did he know so immediately, so clearly?
How does he know what a forest is? There’s no forest in the arena, and there has only ever been the arena.
The guards saw the bloody word on Stranger’s wall. They jeer, poke, kick and cackle. It’s so funny to them, so entertaining for some reason—Katsuki traps another involuntary growl behind painfully gritted teeth.
One guard leaves the four to their struggles and gets in Katsuki’s face, tapping a mean finger against the glass. Not even that makes a sound inside the cell. A horrible grin, a mocking set to his shoulders, the heartless tap-tap-tap of a single nail. The guard is streaming words as though he has an excess of them. Katsuki doesn’t appreciate the inaudible tone.
Then the guard gestures at Stranger with more harsh words, eyebrows ticking up sadistically, head tilting in a clear taunt. At his wave, another fist smashes into Stranger’s spine, knocking him to his battered knees.
Katsuki’s throat squeezes, unused to working that way, itching with the singular word eked out of him by Stranger’s silent whine of pain. He’s heard countless criminals use it, beg with it, beg for it—he’s never heeded it, never needed it, never known it to work. It’s a useless word.
The guard’s face falls slack. Surprise tenses his shoulders, then his every malicious inch increases tenfold. The disrespect becomes outright derision. He steps back, waves at the other guards again, and they start the labor of dragging Stranger away to the arena, where Katsuki will kill him. And he will kill him, despite the words exchanged; he’ll end this life and send him into the next, where, hopefully, they’ll never meet again.
Over his shoulder, Stranger gives Katsuki a wide-eyed, fearful look that cracks whatever’s left where his heart should be. Then they’re out of sight.
Katsuki knows that word will come back to hurt him. That single word—that unordered moment of weakness—that’ll be seared into his flesh until he’s forgotten what it means. He will hurt, and hurt, and hurt, until he stops saying stop, because it never does. Only when he stops wanting to stop will it finally end.
That’s how they keep him in line. They take the word and twist it until it’s nothing. They take Katsuki and twist him until he’s nothing.
But that’s fine. He was never anything but animal. Perhaps he can mollify them some by killing Stranger in truly spectacular fashion. They’re kinder when he’s done a good job.
Not kind. Just kinder.
He waits. And waits. He stands there, sits there, lays there in his cell for hours with the white of fluorescents and the numbing silence. He almost starts forgetting what happened—he might’ve lost the strange events to time if his routine hadn’t been so broken. He’s supposed to be in the arena, killing for a crowd, spilling blood onto the sand, but he’s not.
No, he performs double on holidays.
No, they don’t make mistakes here.
Maybe Stranger killed a guard. That thought shouldn’t be so pleasant. It’s tinged with a little horror, sure, but only the absent kind. A killer isn’t upset about killing.
He might’ve forgotten the whole thing, if the cell across from him didn’t have KACCHAN scrawled scarlet across the window.
Katsuki leans in the exact center of the far wall. He counted the steps from side to side to measure his confinement in the early days; he makes his movements precise when he needs to remind himself of reality. He is alive. He is obedient. He kills them and makes it terrible.
He sits in the center and traces meticulous letters on the floor, because he wants to add guards to the ‘them’ he kills.
K. Like Katsuki, like kill—that one’s simple. He’s allowed to know that one. A. The second letter of Katsuki, that’s also fine. It’s A for arena. But the Cs, the H, the N? He breaks the word into pieces, hoping the parts will sum into a whole before it drives him insane.
But, of course, in order to be insane, he would have to possess a modicum of sanity.
He stares at it. Stares until the letters swim. He can’t imagine what it means, but it never stops being soft—even written in blood, it looks so gentle, so kind. Something tells him it was always kind.
Silently, he makes the shapes with his mouth. Ka-cchan. Not particularly difficult, and certainly not earthshaking. So why is it sticking in his mind like he can hear it said?
He licks his lips. His heart flutters, his hands tremble. He opens his mouth.
“Ka—” His thoughts break like waves on the hard shore of a voice not his own. He’s so loud! So clumsy with his tongue, making such silly sounds! You don’t need sounds like that, do you, puppy? No, of course you don’t. You’re a warhound. An animal. Dogs don’t speak. But he forces himself to go through with it, to finish what he started: “—cchan.”
Barely a whisper. Barely a creak. So close to silent he might not have said anything at all. But it took so much strength to say that it feels like the glass walls have shattered, rained icy-sharp over his shoulders, and lodged their edges in his skin.
He’s vibrating, alive with the sound, his heart pounding in his ears. It’s like the rush of victory—every molecule hums with it, a chorus of Kacchan down to his marrow. He hasn’t heard his own voice in... he has no idea how long. Months? Years? He’s only heard the Orders, the stadium crowd, the pleas of his victims.
He still doesn’t know what Kacchan means, but he feels so vividly alive just from saying it that it almost doesn’t matter.
The lights change. They’re back.
Katsuki pushes harder into the stone as if he could melt into it without witnessing this march. The shadows move faster, easier than they did when they left—did they take Stranger to a different executioner? Was he brought before the roaring crowds and faced with a real animal? Is his fate worse than anything Katsuki could enact?
Is the tightness in his chest from being denied a kill, or from the ability to worry that he thought dead and buried?
There’s only two guards. That doesn’t bode well—maybe Stranger really did kill one. If he had, there’d be ten guards with him now, so whatever happened, they think they’ve completely neutralized the threat. Dangerous idea, Katsuki thinks; Stranger isn’t someone they should turn their backs on. The unwarranted thought doesn’t even surprise him now. It just seems like the truth.
They toss Stranger’s body into the cell like trash in a bin. They don’t jeer or laugh or tease—they just drop and go. Exhaustion, maybe? Or realizing there’s no fun to be had?
Stranger lies, back to the window, where they dump him in the middle of his cell, unmoving. Just unconscious. The shallow rise of his chest is strained but there. He’s been unburdened of his shirt, and the pants are more damaged than when he left: he’s been fighting for a long time today, and at some point, they pushed him too far. Oblivion came for him.
Katsuki stays very still. His vision blurs, tilts down without moving as though his body is seeing double; he feels everything and nothing, needles in his extremities and the lack of air. Is this how his prey feels in the arena, cornered and alone, so overwhelmed and afraid they freeze? Is this how they feel when they realize they’re looking at the vacant, remorseless reaper?
They didn’t take Stranger to the arena. They took him somewhere crueler.
It drapes over his shoulders, slashes over muscle, snakes shiny red over freckles seared to nonexistence. The sigil of his crime. Disorganized, messy, so raised in relief that it must’ve been relieving when he passed out from the pain—the collar of brands must go all the way around his neck, maybe even down his chest in one unbroken line of agony.
Murderer. Conspirator. Arsonist. Kidnapper. Blackmailer.
They’ve given him every mark. They’ve blamed him for everything. That can’t all be his—one man couldn’t have committed all these crimes—they’re pointing fingers, they have to be. He’s a scapegoat, a lie, he doesn’t deserve this, he didn’t do anything wrong, he’s innocent, all he wanted was freedom and change and Kacchan tried to tell him, tried to tell him he’d be caught, that they’d be caught and this would happen, he’d be hurt and he can’t let him be hurt—
Katsuki whirls for a corner and vomits.
What’s going on? What is this? What is he hearing, remembering, what is he—is he imagining? He must be imagining it, the different world where he has something to protect, where he has personhood. Where he’s Kacchan. Not a gentle word for something, but a name. He is animal, he is animal, he is animal—he bangs his forehead against the cold stone over and over, trying to force the truth.
He slumps back down, away from the filth, panting as he stares through the glass divide separating them. Stranger’s rolled slightly while Katsuki wasn’t looking, more of the wretched collar revealed as burnt lines and bubbled flesh. His profile is barely visible, an ear, sweat-drenched hair, and something black and hard where the soft jaw should be.
Katsuki can’t do anything but turn and heave again.
They muzzled him.
Day three dawns, and nothing happens.
Katsuki knows it’s day three only because of the meals, on their regular schedule despite the atrocities of day two. He slept—fitfully—and dreamt of places he’s never been, people he’s never seen, words he’s never heard. He dreamt of beds and radios and kindness. He dreamt of his hands cultivating peace instead of wreaking havoc.
Even in slumber, he can’t escape the plague of imagination. How does he make it stop? How does he go back to the monotony, the ease of wake, kill, eat, sleep? How does he miss that nightmare? Why can’t he let go of the phantom feeling of a bed?
Why can’t he stop thinking about Stranger and his imaginary word?
No one’s come for them yet. They’ve just been watching each other. Katsuki was awake when Stranger roused, faltering under the onslaught of sensation; he saw the baby-deer movements as he tried to sit up, tried to remember where he was and what had happened.
Stranger had gotten all the way sitting upright, arms shaking with the effort, before collapsing against the glass. Back to Katsuki, he’d folded in on himself, fingers exploring the new additions to his body. It didn’t take imagination to know that Stranger had cried until he couldn’t cry anymore.
Only when all the tears were gone did Stranger turn around. Over the muzzle, all Katsuki could see were his eyes, but he looked—tired. Exhausted. Broken. There wasn’t a word strong enough, or at least a word that Katsuki knew, for how defeated Stranger was. How crushed. How conquered.
He would wear those scars until his body rotted away, and they both knew it.
Unconsciously, Katsuki brushed his executioner’s sigil, corded lines in faded pink marking how long he’d been a fighter. He could dimly recall the pain—the sting, the sizzle, the smell—and how he’d howled. It was nothing compared to what Stranger had gone through. It was comparing a bee sting to being flayed alive.
Maybe it would’ve been better if they’d flayed Stranger. That wouldn’t be as demeaning, as condemning as the dozens of criminal sigils. It wouldn’t be the first thing he saw in the mirror every morning, reminding him of every trial he’d been denied or the crippling weight of sins not his own. If they’d flayed his back, then he might at least be able to lie on his stomach, instead of sitting ramrod straight with pain on every side.
Whatever Stranger saw in Katsuki’s face found more tears. He wept like the first night, when he broke just to look at a killer, but with none of the determination. None of the defiance. Katsuki could feel it echoed in his bones how little hope was left in Stranger—whatever they’d done had taken more from him than withstanding brand after brand.
Katsuki was familiar with the way pain and words coupled. Perhaps they’d done something like that to Stranger. Maybe they’d given him Orders too.
What would his Orders be, Katsuki wondered? Katsuki was commanded to live, and obey, and kill terribly. If Stranger wasn’t an executioner, then why waste Orders on a criminal? But the breaking went deeper than sigils, and that equated with Orders in Katsuki’s mind.
He might’ve been Ordered to live. He might’ve been Ordered to die. He might’ve been Ordered to kill Katsuki, then kill himself. Anything to make the arena a little more entertaining for the masses.
Maybe he was shown the sands. Maybe they played Katsuki’s kills for him while they tore into his flesh. Maybe they told him, in great detail, how Katsuki was going to carve out his eyes and rip out his throat and eat his heart.
raar, here i come, big bad alpha, gonna eat your heart out
stop, kacchan! no! let go! h-hey, not fair, haha!
The momentary imagination didn’t send him reeling this time. He was almost prepared for it, almost expected it to wash over him; Stranger made it happen, sent him visions of a reality that might’ve been his if he hadn’t—if he had just—if he weren’t an animal, who killed in the arena and made it terrible.
Delusions. That’s all. Maybe some new kind of test, sent by his handlers to see how well he listened to his Orders. The last time he disobeyed, he spent agonizing hours strapped to a rough-hewn block, time and space blurring as a whip split lines across his back. He only had to obey, you see, and then everything would be alright—there was no need to hurt him if he’d just listen.
But Stranger summons this light, this laughter, this forgotten joy to Katsuki’s mind, and despite knowing the barbarity of punishment, he finds himself unable to look away.
Stranger puts hands on the glass, muscles feathering as each movement cracks the collar of scabs; his brutalized fingers rest on Kacchan’s letters as though he can will them to melt the walls and free him. He never looks away from Katsuki, ignoring snarl and howl and whimper alike, head wobbling like he’s trying to speak through the muzzle’s gripping plastic. Perhaps he’s promising to melt the walls and free them both. Perhaps it’s a last prayer.
Katsuki sits directly across from him, as close to the windows as he can cram his misshapen pile of sinew. Stranger watches, curiosity needling slim beams through the thunderclaps of grief; god-rays of wonder focus on Katsuki, heavier than light and more crucial than heat. The watery hope pooled between them is what spurs Katsuki on. It drives him to take risks, to gamble for knowledge, to understand who Stranger is and why he draws out such imaginative images without even trying.
Katsuki puts his hands on the glass, placed as precisely parallel to Stranger’s as possible. Maybe the motions will help him understand. If he could just hear Stranger, if he could smell him, taste the meaning in the air—that might help. If he could have storm and forest on his tongue, he might know what they are.
He can’t have that. Not until they’re facing each other, just like this, under the arena lights. They’ll look the same—defeated before they ever set foot on the sand—and yet so different. Katsuki will have no space to imagine, no time to breathe in cool, clarifying mint; Stranger will have no space to run, no time to hide. They’ll fight, and it will be terrible.
It won’t even be a victory. They’ve taken all the challenge out of Stranger. No claws, all pain, spirit shrunken into cowardice. Is that even entertaining? Would that even draw a crowd? Who wants to watch a summary execution when they could have left him a real fight? He may be an executioner, but half his job is entertainment, and everyone knows it.
Some days, Katsuki feels like these glass walls. Invisible, impermeable, bulletproof; witnessed, vulnerable, fragile. He can see without sound or scent or touch, and watch nothing happen while the world spins into something unrecognizable. He bears no marks of time, only of weathered pain, and though he can measure days, he forgets their passing as easily as the ocean forgets a ship.
Stranger moves his hands, just to put them in his lap, and freezes when Katsuki moves with him.
They test the synchronization. Slow, easy things, wrists rolling instead of damaged shoulders and toes wiggling instead of injured fingers. They spend an eternity matching, moving, communicating. Their existences are experienced. They aren’t ideas, or imaginary, or even predator and prey; they’re identical animations, changing each other little by little with every frame.
Stranger’s shoulders jump—the pain creases his eyes closed—but it’s no spasm. The bitter laugh rings silently in Katsuki’s ears. Stranger puts his forehead against the glass, Kacchan’s letters flaking rust off onto his curls. Fingers curl around the edges of the muzzle.
He crumples in on himself, trying to drag the plastic off his face, and it’s like Katsuki can hear him. He can imagine he hears him.
You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know me. I can’t do it.
Katsuki taps the glass with his nails, waits for Stranger to look at him again. With effort so monumental he shakes with the force of it, he opens his mouth and speaks. “Stop.”
Stranger’s despair blows out like a candle, reduced to shocked smoke.
“Stop,” Katsuki says again, gesturing at his face. Stop pulling on the muzzle, he says with his eyes. You’ll only hurt yourself. “Stop th-at.”
Somewhere in his fragmented consciousness Katsuki is embarrassed by the broken words, but Stranger can’t hear him, can only see the shapes, and he’s crying again—hands back on the glass, jaw straining against the black in a spill of sound Katsuki imagines and imagines and imagines.
You spoke, you spoke, oh my God Kacchan you spoke! Do you know what you said? Can you say something else? God, I wish I could hear you, I need to hear you—
Stranger’s voice is so clear in Katsuki’s mind. Why? Is that just more imagination? How would Katsuki have such a perfect rendition of something he’s never heard just available for the conjuring?
Unless, of course, he’s heard it before.
There is only the arena. There is only the arena. There has always been only the arena.
Katsuki closes his eyes. Feels every particle of the deep breath he takes, straining his lungs to bursting, exhaling slowly. His lips part, tremble, press and part again. “Kaa-ch-an.”
The two syllable word turned into three, but it gets the point across. Stranger presses his forearms, his knees, his muzzle to the glass, tears streaming so freely that they wash straight through the bloody letters as if they’d never been written at all.
Yes, Kacchan, that’s right, you know that name, it’s your name! Do you know who I am? What’s my name, can you say it? Can you say D—
His mind screeches to a halt, paralyzed by the sharp echo of a whip cracking. His blood freezes and thaws, his back ruined by shooting-star scars pulses with pain, his sigil burns anew. Every hurt they ever inflicted rolls through him again, nausea climbing up his throat.
He almost had the name. He almost said it. He almost knew. And now he only knows that they took it from him.
He’d forgotten. He had to. He still doesn’t remember, and he won’t—it’ll cause too much pain, for both him and Stranger. They’re not meant to know each other. Man and animal are not equals.
Stranger’s palms lay flat on the window, his bottle-green eyes begging for more words, watching Katsuki fight himself without an ounce of power. It takes no imagination to see the silent chanting, you know me you know me you know me. Stranger’s been making those eyes at Katsuki since day one.
The lights change with the shadows of at least a dozen guards, the strips of steel glittering in their hands ready to catch and hold and guide. Six of them brace at Stranger’s door. Six more flank Katsuki’s window.
It’s time. They’re going to the arena.
Stranger still lashes out, still tries to overpower them, and is still caught in the end. The effort is feeble compared to the spitfire they threw in, labored and weak, sigil scabs fracturing when he moves, red running down his chest. He submits to the cords with closed eyes. Katsuki understands. If death cannot be met with dignity, it should be met truthfully.
They walk him up the hall, toward the first turn to the arena. Only when they’ve shut the cell door behind them do Katsuki’s guards start opening his. Do they simply want to insure the fight happens in the arena, or are they worried that they can’t control two beasts at once? Is there no trust in Katsuki’s Orders? He hasn’t needed the poles to get the arena in ages, but here they brandish the cords. What’s changed?
The door slides open, and he recognizes one of the guards from yesterday. He had them hurt Stranger. He mocked Katsuki for caring. He took Stranger away, to the cherry metal and the pain, to the eternal marks and the shame.
He’s holding something viciously spiked and orange.
The same echoed whip-crack stops Katsuki from tearing this guard’s throat out as he approaches, all venom and smiles, and reaches for Katsuki’s neck. A click. A weight, thick and tight. Cold metal locked over the cord lines, pressed flush with the barest hint of choking.
Katsuki shuts his eyes again as a shudder wracks his bones, tastes bile on his teeth. They’ve collared him, and he let it happen.
“Come on, puppy,” the guard chimes, unable to smell the revulsion pouring off Katsuki in waves. “You don’t usually need a leash, but you’ll need to get used to the collar, huh? Looks good on you. Don’t scratch at it.”
They don’t say it, but every guard smiles, as if they’re all in on a particularly funny joke. Katsuki can taste their ill humor, their derision; their scents are snakes stuffed up his nose, clogging him with loathing.
He gets to his feet, claws carefully sheathed. This unblooded danger is when the guards are at their most finicky, most trigger-happy—they’ll string the cords around the collar if he so much as breathes wrong. His nostrils flare, trying to dislodge the stench of them. Storm and forest, he reminds himself. They’re taking him to the arena, where he’ll see Stranger again, and learn of storm and forest.
A single step from the doorway, he stops. Breathes in. Does it again.
Under the Beta rank there’s something sparkling, popping in his lungs like clean air and springtime. Like electricity and water. Like winter and wood.
Mint. Storm. Forest.
They push him into the hallway, stupefied. Blinking rapidly. Breathing. “What’s the matter, puppydog?” The guard taunts, jabbing a finger into his back. “Don’t like the weight of your sins?”
Mint. Storm. Forest.
Lights. Bed. Laughter.
His pupils dilate. He knows this scent. He knows it better than pain, better than killing, better than the arena. He knows it with his entire body, with every scattered piece of his mind and soul, with every breath he takes he knows it. He knows it like he knows Kacchan is a name.
Stranger knew the name. Stranger knew it was gentle and kind and caring. Stranger knew it was a too-soft title for the beast that owns it.
Stranger knew he was Kacchan. And Kacchan knows Stranger.
“Stupid dog, do you know how important this is? Quit standing here!” The guard kicks him forward. “Go!”
Kacchan slashes his throat open.
The other guards start shouting, surrounding him, flinging the poles at him—he ducks and weaves, snarling and snapping without repercussion, grabbing the metal and hurling guards against the walls. He claws up arms, sinks teeth into shoulders, chucks them into each other until six guards are a mess of bodies on the floor. Killing is artless, and Kacchan is not a painter; red splotches the stone canvas senseless.
They put him in the arena. They gave a killer license to kill. What did they expect?
Were he in his right mind—or the mind that was right before—he might cover his tracks. He might’ve dragged their bodies into the cell and slammed the door, the sound akin to satisfaction as he stood outside the cage and looked in. He might’ve had a crisis, some kind of screaming moment where his Orders reassert and he crawls back into the cell himself.
He can smell the storm. The trees bending in the wind. The crisp mint morning. The soft-shaded yellow lamp on the bedside table and the blankets fresh from the dryer. Stranger’s scent saturates him in imagination, in—memory. In memory.
The arena. They took him to the arena. Katsuki knew the way. Kacchan sprints through the halls, past the icy alcove, past the empty cells, following the trail of blood-spattered stone to the iron jaws over the tunnel exit. He clangs into the bars, claws sinking into his own palms as he rattles the metal and snarls.
Stranger’s been hoisted onto a pedestal in the center of the arena sands, hands bound behind his back, on his knees before a completely packed stadium. Not a single seat stands empty except for those with standing occupants, howling down at him and hurling food and bones into the ring. The guards have barely finished restraining him—Kacchan dispatched his guards in seconds, so it’s been only minutes since they took Stranger away.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice says, louder than God; the speakers pulse with the sinuous sound. “Welcome to the Arena.”
Pounding feet, waving hands, screams.
“You know what the show is, but allow me to remind you,” the voice continues. A man—no one Kacchan recognizes—stalks forward from the sidelines, gesturing at Stranger’s shivering form. He’s holding a mic. “After years of bloodshed and war, the rebellion has finally made its fatal mistake!” He climbs the two stairs onto the dais and wrenches Stranger’s head up by the hair. Kacchan growls. “He who bereaved mothers and killed fathers, who stole rationality and replaced it with insanity, look how this Omega bitch kneels for justice!”
Stranger’s still muzzled, his profile broken by the black crushing over his nose. Rotten fruit splats on the edges of the dais and he flinches.
The announcer shoves his head to the floor, bending his arms unnaturally; the brands around his neck must be shrieking in protest, cracking with fresh blood. “Show your remorse and bow to the world! Embrace your level beneath us all as the criminal you are!”
Stranger must make a noise, because the announcer crouches, leaning the mic against the muzzle. “What’s that? An apology? You want to repent for your sins against the nation?” With a sinister laugh, the announcer straightens and throws his arms wide to the baying crowd. “Shall we grant him that chance, my friends? Should we let the dog say he’s sorry?”
Kacchan tries to pry the bars out of the ground with sheer strength. The smell of storm and forest is fading in the midst of so many scents, lost in the miasma. He needs to get to Stranger’s side and breathe in the sun and sky and rain. He needs to get this man’s hands off him at all costs. He needs to save him.
The announcer glances at the tunnel entrance and grins. He doesn’t seem to register that there are no guards—he only sees Kacchan’s twisted scowl and vicious claws without the warning splashes of red. “Why deny him? I think there’s a wonderful way to let him apologize. He should know what he’s inflicted on us, shouldn’t he? He should feel that pain of seeing your loved ones taken and twisted right before your eyes!”
An absolutely deafening roar of approval.
“Our very favorite pet,” the announcer coos, tilting Stranger’s chin toward the tunnel, “has come to say goodbye to his bitch.”
With a click drowned by the crowd but felt in his bones, the announcer unhooks Stranger’s muzzle and puts the mic to his mouth, catching the immediate gasp: “Kacchan, don’t!”
The rest of his words are lost as the announcer laughs, retreating to the opposite tunnel, and the crowd laughs with him.
Once the announcer’s gone, the tunnel bars jolt upward and Kacchan’s through. His bare feet touch cool sand. He dimly realizes it’s nighttime, that the arena is lit by dozens of fluorescents at the four corners of the stands, that the littering of thrown trash is all makeshift weapons he’ll be allowed to use. He catalogues the world he knew as he pelts across the ring, vision narrowing to Stranger’s shining eyes spilling relentless tears.
“Eager to perform,” the announcer shouts, safe behind the opposite tunnel’s bars. “And with the bitch all trussed up, it’s Thanksgiving in August!”
Stranger struggles, pulling desperately at the restraints, legs kicking as he scrambles away from Kacchan. “Please, you know me, I know you do, I know—”
Kacchan launches onto the dais, raises a hand—Stranger looks up at him, fear in every tense muscle and a scent like home—and slices right through the ropes at his wrists.
“Words have no effect! Our Katsuki wants a challenge, doesn’t he? Let the prey run around a bit, what a sporting animal he is!” It’s confident on the surface, but the announcer can’t have the crowd know that’s not part of the game. “Let the rabbit tire himself out on the sand! Give us a show, entertainer! That’s an order!”
It rolls up his spine. An order. Not an Order, but he’s bound to obey all the guards—anyone, really, except the criminals begging him to stop. He is animal, smelling the outside world for the first time again, and remembering that animals aren’t meant to be caged.
“Kacchan,” Stranger says again, voice soft but body trembling. He’s afraid. Afraid of Kacchan. Afraid of what he might do, what he might not be able to stop—he’s still crying, still leaking a scent of storm and safety—and everything about that fear is wrong.
“Stop,” Kacchan says. It comes out harsh, biting, brutal, and Stranger instantly stops crying. The tears just... stop. The shaking stops. The words stop. Just shock on his face, just a flash of elation in his scent.
“You know me,” Stranger croaks like it hurts. It might. Kacchan doesn’t know the extent of what they’ve done. “I’m not gonna hurt you. It’s okay. You know me, you don’t have to Order me—”
Kacchan recoils. Order? He gave an Order? No, he didn’t, that’s not true. He’s heard Orders, he’s had them, he’s never given them—animals don’t give Orders to their superiors. Warhounds obey, they don’t talk back. Nothing but animal.
“I missed you,” Stranger chokes out. He’s barely audible over the crowd, stomping and screaming for blood to spill, or the announcer, trying to spin the moment into suspense. Clawless fingers reach up, brush Kacchan’s cheek. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You needed me and I wasn’t there.”
Kacchan’s lips twitch, baring teeth. “Stop,” he rasps, but he doesn’t mean it and Stranger knows. The fingers slip higher to cradle his jaw, matched on either side. “Stop. Stop.”
“I know,” Stranger whispers, pain forgotten as he cups Kacchan’s face. “You needed it to stop. It’s okay, you did so good. You fought so long, you did so good, but you needed it to stop. You needed to stop.”
“Stop,” Kacchan stutters, vision blurring. The crowd fades into the background, the speakers sound like they’re underwater. Stranger just looks at him with that soft, sad expression, thumb running over his cheek.
A single tear splashes onto Stranger’s sigils, and a whip lands on Kacchan’s back.
He crumples under it, howling in pain. The arena comes flooding in, every sensation overwhelming, the hiss of the whip coiling for another strike louder than anything else. Arms close around his head protectively, scored by a feral growl torn from deep in Stranger’s chest.
“Seems like the dog needs a bit of encouragement!” The announcer says from a headset, readying the whip with a sadistic smile. “Aren’t sentimental puppies just the cutest? Shame he’ll have to be disciplined for it. How about we make the message a little louder this time, folks? Let’s have the rebellion die at its own hands, one more time!”
Stranger pulls Kacchan’s head up, make him meet clear greens with his own hazed-by-pain. “Kacchan, can you stand? Can you walk?”
“Stop,” he mutters nonsensically. The arena spins, clockwork ticking out to the beat of his heart, faces blurring into one roaring, roiling mass, begging for blood. Stranger’s grip tightens slightly.
“God, I—we have to go. Kacchan, we have to go. I won’t let them put you back in a cage. C’mon, Kacchan, get up.” Stranger pushes at him, but he can’t get his limbs to cooperate, laid flat by just the sound of the whip and the promise of more. He can’t do it again, Stranger, don’t you understand? He won’t survive more torture. He won’t.
Stranger looks around frantically, then grits his teeth. “I’m so sorry about this, Kacchan, I know this’ll be awful, I’m so sorry. You know I love you. You know, through all this, I know you do, so you have to know that I’m doing this to get us out of here. Kacchan, get up.”
There’s a timber to the words that wasn’t there before. It spikes through Kacchan’s veins, arrows into his bones, squeezes at his heart and throat; he blinks, and he’s standing, panting from the effort. Wild eyes can’t focus on any one thing, but Stranger’s got hands on him, pulling himself up by Kacchan’s arm.
“Okay, Kacchan, I can—” Stranger winces, glares at the announcer addressing the crowd, “—I can walk. We’re getting out of here. When I say, you need to take that whip away.”
“I know you hate it,” Stranger soothes shakily. Color drains from his face the longer he stays standing. “I know you don’t wanna go anywhere near it, but you have to. I can’t take it, my shoulders won’t let me move fast enough to grab it. You have to get it away from him.” Kacchan shakes his head vehemently, takes a step backward. Stranger grips his arm. “Get the whip.”
The different voice again. Kacchan goes blank, moves without thinking, completely unconscious of the pain across his spine. Twenty seconds later he’s holding a whip and standing over the dead body of the announcer, defeated features slack in surprise.
He spins, looking for Stranger, but he’s right there at his elbow, holding on tightly for balance. “Thank you,” he murmurs, gently uncurling Kacchan’s fingers from the weapon and letting it drop to the sand. “Thank you, Kacchan, you’re doing so well. I know you didn’t want to. Thank you.”
“Stop,” Kacchan says.
“Soon,” Stranger replies, exhaustion dripping off his scent. Kacchan can tell he means it, can smell that he hates this—whatever this is. Stranger isn’t an Alpha, with no innate power behind his words to turn them into Orders, but even true Orders didn’t have this kind of effect on Kacchan. Who is Stranger? Why can he exert this kind of control over Kacchan when the arena’s control took weapons and water and whimpers?
The crowd bellows. Guards start filling in the gaps, clamoring up against the far tunnel entrance. No one stands in the one closer to them—Kacchan’s never come in that way. Neither, to his knowledge, have prisoners.
Stranger crouches with a groan and pulls a small remote from the announcer’s pocket. The tunnel’s bars start lifting. Both of them. “Kacchan,” Stranger says seriously, wasting precious moments as the guards scramble onto the sand. “Do you trust me?”
With no words and no imagination, Kacchan just nods.
“One last time, I promise, but it’s faster if you can’t feel it.” Stranger puts hands on Kacchan’s shoulders, pain creasing lines into his young, soft face. “Pick me up and run for our lives.”
Kacchan dimly remembers the other Orders. Right. Left here. Wait, I have the remote, okay go. Up the stairs. This corner, through those doors. Run until the riverfront. That one, go inside that one. Then he’s inside a huge, shadowed warehouse that stinks of fish and salt, and Stranger is sitting on a dusty cot in the corner.
“Don’t panic,” Stranger says instantly, hands up. Imploring eyes and Kacchan’s complete confusion stop him from tearing the place apart looking for answers. That, and his back screams in protest of all the exertion. He takes a single step toward Stranger and collapses to his knees, inches from bare feet.
Those hands cup his jaw again, unheeding of the snarl contorting Kacchan’s face. “It’s okay,” Stranger whispers. It’s loud in the silent dark, but—Kacchan realizes it’s dark. Real dark of nighttime. No fluorescents. Just a yellow lamp at the head of this cot, illuminating nothing but Stranger and this spot of the warehouse wall. “You’re out, Kacchan. You’re safe now. No more arena. We got out.”
What did you do to me? Kacchan tries to scream it with his voice, but all that comes out is a pitiful squeak. Stranger seems to read it in his eyes.
“I... I’m sorry. I had to get us out of there. I couldn’t let them take you again. This is a slow process, and we needed quick solutions.” Stranger leans forward, elbows on his knees, staring down at Kacchan with all the love in the world compressed to two bottle-green irises. “I had to use Orders. I’m so sorry. I won’t do it again. Never, okay? I know what they did to you and I won’t ever let them do that again.”
“How,” Kacchan whispers. Stranger’s eyes dance with hope and grief at the new word, excited by the progress and crushed by the need for it.
“Alphas can give Orders to anyone. You know how to do that, you Ordered me to stop in the arena.” Stranger holds onto Kacchan’s head as he jerks, repulsed by the very idea of Orders leaving his lips. “When Omegas are mated to Alphas, they become immune to other Orders. They also gain the ability to Order their Alpha.”
Kacchan waits for the understanding to come, for imagination to play some haunting refrain as it always does for Stranger. It doesn’t. His mind is mute. Even surrounded by the smell of mint and storm and forest, he can’t come up with any answers.
“No one can tell me what to do except you, Kacchan,” Stranger murmurs, a tinge of sadness to it. “And I’ll never Order you again.”
He grabs Stranger’s wrists, claws pricking against freckles. The room swirls. The light blurs. His throat works around the sound, itching until he coughs it out. “St-ran-ger.”
Stranger gasps softly, tears falling again. “No, Kacchan. I’m not a stranger. You know me. I’m Midoriya Izuku, co-leader of the People’s Rebellion.”
Kacchan shakes his head in the hands that still hold it.
“I’m your mate. I’m your Deku.”
His world shatters like glass.