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Origin of Symmetry

Chapter Text

Guess I sleep like the dark desert
Yawning the morn in the old den

Sin Fang Bous, “Advent In Ives Garden”

 

 

 

 

Tadaima,” Shizuka says. There’s no answer. “No—don’t take off your shoes, Ryou-kun—the floor isn’t clean." She locks the door but doesn’t slide the bolt home. “Hit the lights, please.”

 

Ryou finds the switch. The room is windowless, smaller than the Minotaur’s cargo hold and made smaller still by the pile of metallic junk that seems to be growing from the southern wall. There’s a fold-out poster of a starship on the wall, too:  a silver St. Joan gleaming in a darkened hangar. One threadbare pallet lies on the floor. It’s bitingly cold.

 

Shizuka sets her bags down on the kotatsu in the center of the room and hauls several pillows, a space heater, and an enormous thermos out of the mess.

 

“Bathroom’s downstairs and to the left,” she says, flipping the switch on what looks like a lantern out of a children’s story:  a squat black thing with a thin looping handle. It casts a dim circle of yellow light into the center of the room. She sets it on the kotatsu. The space heater rattles to life.

 

There are, Ryou notices, entirely too many shoes by the door. Black and red heels, obscenely high; they don’t look like anything Shizuka would wear. Right—on the large side too. The absent roommate’s, he realizes—work shoes?

 

“Have a seat,” Shizuka says, pulling an assortment of little metal instruments from her vest pockets. “It’ll warm up soon." She retrieves the radio from her satchel.

 

“Ah—yes,” Ryou says, dazed.

 

A cry of thirst, a heart with flowers blooming inside—just take my—

 

Shizuka turns the dial.

 

“—a good beat and a rusty rhythm,” a woman sings. “Respect! Boys, show me courage—

 

Ryou sits cross-legged by the heater and examines the pile. He spots several alarm clocks, two more radios, masses of tangled wires, several magazines, flat pieces of black plastic, graphite pencils, an ancient television set bleeding multicolored circuitry, a model starfighter and three toy suits—

 

“There should be some cups in there.”

 

Ryou counts four. He fishes two out from a nest of wires and sets them on the kotatsu. Shizuka fills them with hot water.

 

“Thanks,” Ryou says.

 

Chizu egaite,” Shizuka hums. “Shizumanai taiyou. There are spare sheets in the other room, Ryou-kun. Himitsu no rakuen."

 

The next room is even smaller, rectangular, one corner taken up by an old-fashioned red-lacquered wardrobe. A window on the far wall lets in a slit of gray light; the pallets and sheets are folded up beneath it. There are boxes stacked by the door. Garlic, one reads. Ryou peels it open:  canned vegetables. He goes to the wardrobe, opens it, and is greeted by a sequined wine-colored dress. The roommate’s again, he decides.

 

He falls asleep to the sound of Shizuka methodically dismantling the television.

 

 

 

 

Ryou wakes up to watery light and painful cold filtering in from an open door. He has no idea what time it is. He can hear Shizuka breathing somewhere to his right, soft and peaceful. There is a gun pressed against his cheekbone.

 

 

 

 

If it were just me, I’d be with you in milliseconds, I swear, Inoue. A year ago—definitely. To hell with the Coalition! and all that. But not now. I’m not flying solo anymore. I have people here. I can’t just take off and never look back.

 

 

 

 

“Oh, god,” he whispers.

 

“Yeah,” Mai agrees. “Oh god. Oh god is exactly right. I can’t fucking believe this. She brought you home? You let her bring you home? Oh, Christ.”

 

You’re her roommate,” Ryou says, in dull shock.

 

“Hell fucking yes, I’m her roommate,” Mai hisses. She doesn’t put the gun away. “I said I’d help you, Inoue, but you of all people should know these things don’t happen overnight. I worked as goddamn fast as I could. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you would do this. I can’t believe you would take advantage of—”

 

“What?” Ryou rasps.

 

She jabs the gun harder into his cheek. “You heard me.”

 

“Wh—oh—no,” Ryou says. He can feel his blood pulsing against the gun. “Mai!”

 

Shizuka stirs—she’s fallen asleep over the television, Ryou realizes—and mumbles in her sleep. Mai swears under her breath.

 

“I’m sorry,” Ryou whispers. “I didn’t know.”

 

“You get her any more involved in this shit,” Mai says, soft and dangerous, “and I’ll kill you.”

 

She holsters the gun and steps quietly away. Ryou hears the deadbolt sliding into place and the rustling of clothing, and then Mai comes back, moving quick and easy through Shizuka’s scattered debris. She slides into the empty futon beside his and settles down to sleep without another word.

 

Ryou lies as still as he can. He thinks, stupidly, This explains the shoes.

 

 

 

 

Shizuka is long gone—to the docks and the Minotaur and wherever it is spare machine parts are bartered and sold on Ukiyo—when Mai wakes him, all gentleness and contrition. He notes gratefully that she appears to be unarmed before crawling from bedroll to kotatsu, where breakfast is waiting:  two stale mantou, a vitamin pill, and as much boiling hot water as he can drink.

 

Mai tends the kettle in silence. Ryou looks around:  the junk pile hasn’t become any less chaotic overnight, fed now by Mai’s boots and various articles of black clothing.

 

“Yes, you can stay,” Mai says, when Ryou has bitten and chewed the last dry bit of mantou and felt it lodge somewhere in his esophagus. “And I apologize for the, uh, rough treatment last night—”

 

“No,” Ryou says, startled, “don’t worry about it.”

 

“—I was dead tired yesterday, and you surprised me. So. Sorry, Inoue.”

 

“It’s fine,” Ryou says. “Really. I wouldn’t have done it, if I’d known." Though he hadn’t had much choice in the end, had he, with his ship sitting gutted in a garage, and Shizuka watching him with steady eyes, waiting for him, maybe willing to forgive….

 

He shakes it off:  there are more pressing matters at hand. “Mai—the guns.”

 

“I did what I could, but they’re going to come slower than you want,” Mai says. “But when they do come—like I said, it’ll take a little effort on your part.”

 

“What exactly is it they—your people—want me to do?” he asks, warily.

 

Unexpectedly, Mai laughs. “The impossible,” she says. “They—” her eyes dance at him “—my people—want you to stand around and look menacing.”

 

 

 

 

Look menacing—in other words keeping a straight face while someone else does all the intimidating—all the heavy lifting, and heavy slugging, and heavy breaking—?

 

And hands clasped angelically behind the back, of course—

 

 

 

 

“But,” Mai says, “if you fork over that eight thou, I’m sure they can find someone else for the job." She looks at him, gaze sharpening:  “But I’m also sure you don’t have eight thou burning a hole in your pocket. So what the hell was that last night?”

 

 

 

 

Not my pocket. Seto Kaiba’s pocket

 

Kaiba wants Bakura because he wants Maximilian Pegasus’ secrets and the secret of his realm of shadows, all property now of the man who cut Pegasus’ throat and razed his empire to the ground—Kaiba would very much like to know—and Kaiba will pay the aforementioned eight thousand because eight thousand is loose change—

 

But Kaiba—the voice in his head is all Ishtar now, desert-dry—wants results, Corporal Inoue. And results you have not given him.

 

 

 

 

“She’s real cute, I’ll give you that,” Mai says. “But I didn’t think you swung that way, Inoue." She looks distant; they’re both remembering Valon now, Ryou knows. Then the dreamy distance focuses. “I didn’t think you swung at all, actually—”

 

He coughs. “This—the—headquarters wants this guy before the Coalition can get to him. They want him very badly. So they’re—”

 

“Bullshit,” Mai says. “If they wanted him that bad, they’d’ve sent over a whole damn team.”

 

A whole damn team—in other words, not you, Inoue.

 

“It’s sensitive—”

 

Bullshit,” Mai says again. “You’re expendable. Who can we throw away today—?

 

Pain blooming in his chest—but a muted ache, dulled now like all his various hurts—and tightening into frustration. He doesn’t understand why she won’t let it go.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. Live or die, the stars and planets will keep on turning. But he supposes stars and planets have stopped turning for Valon.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” he repeats. “Is there anything we can do today?”

 

“Nope,” Mai says, shaking the last few drops of water into his cup. “You can sit pretty. Or go for a walk. It’s my day off and I’m going back to bed.”

 

 

 

 

She sleeps until Ryou comes back from the docks, and she sleeps through dinner:  Shizuka, arriving with parcels of fried rice noodles, says, low, “No, don’t wake her,” and sets aside a packet. Ryou bends his head over his files for what seems only a few moments—

 

—and jumps as Mai throws his boots down in front of him. “Boooring,” she drawls. “Let’s get a drink, yeah? I’m thirsty. Shiz’-chan, wanna come?”

 

“No thanks,” Shizuka says, without looking up from the television. “I’m finally making progress with this wiring.”

 

Mai shrugs. “All right. Coming, Inoue?”

 

“Er—I should really—" He breaks off at the look in Mai’s eyes.

 

“What is it?” Shizuka says, low.

 

Mai is already moving toward the door, swearing under her breath. Ryou follows. He feels sleep-heavy and sick, not at all ready to tackle anyone.

 

Mai signals with her right hand. I’ll handle it.

 

Ryou nods. Right, he thinks, where is Mai’s bloody gun—

 

He kicks open the door and Mai lunges. There is a brief scuffle and she straightens with the eavesdropper in a blood choke. A boy with black hair:  bent backwards, eyes bulging, red-faced, and—what?—clutching a toy suit shaped like a monkey.

 

Ryou’s presence seems to upset him more than the chokehold. He stares at Ryou. Ryou stares back. The monkey hangs limply between them.

 

“Ryuuji,” Mai says, releasing him. “I should have known.”

 

“Good evening to you, too, fuck,” Ryuuji says. He rubs his neck. “Hi. And you are?”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says, slowly. “Inoue Ryou.”

 

The green of Ryuuji’s eyes seems to sharpen; Ryou meets his stare with what he hopes is a neutral smile.

 

“I was. Ehm. Just leaving. With, um. With Mai.”

 

“Were you?" The boy smiles just enough to show his teeth. “Run along, then.”

 

“Oh, give it a goddamned rest, Ryuuji,” Mai says. “Ryou, this is Otogi Ryuuji, who seems to think he lives here. He’s useless.”

 

“What? I complete you, Mai,” Otogi Ryuuji says. “It hurts me to hear you say that.”

 

“What do you want?” Mai says, long-suffering. “It’s past curfew.”

 

“Like anyone really cares. Is Shizuka here? It’s Tristan, he’s blown a fuse or something." He brandishes the monkey.

 

“This couldn’t have waited until morning?”

 

“I guess I panicked,” Otogi says, grinning. He raises his voice. “I think he’s dead.”

 

“What?” Shizuka exclaims. “Otogi-kun, this is the third time—bring him here, let’s have a look.”

 

Otogi smirks—the smirk is directed entirely at Ryou—and brushes past, robotic monkey in tow.

 

“Uuugh,” Mai says, rolling her eyes. “I rue the day I let this kid in my house.”

 

“Mai,” Ryou says, slowly, “is that—”

 

“Huh?” Mai says, distracted. “What’d you say?”

 

Ryou hesitates. He looks out into the gray dusk, at billboards flickering pink and orange while the Worms rise like an enormous black wall in the distance.

 

A sudden burst of green light illuminates Mai’s face and makes them both twitch.

 

“Oh, hell,” Mai says.

 

“What is it?” Ryou asks.

 

Mai pulls back her collar to reveal the communicator hanging around her neck, flashing green in a sequence of long and short pulses.

 

“Business,” she says, pushing past him and heading back inside.

 

Ryou turns. Shizuka and Otogi are seated at the kotatsu, the monkey spread-eagled between them, its stomach pried open, wires spilling out like intestines. Ryou begins to step inside—and stumbles over Mai’s heels, lying discarded in the doorway.

 

“Wh—”

 

Mai strides out of the next room—black boots now—pulling her hair into a long tail. As her jacket lifts, Ryou catches a glimpse of the Baby Dragon, a dusty stripe of orange in its side holster.

 

“Gonna have to take a rain check on the bar crawl, Inoue,” she says, nudging the heels out of the way.

 

“Sure,” Ryou says. “But—”

 

“Cover for me,” Mai whispers. She raises her voice. “Yo, Shiz’-chan, I’m heading out!”

 

“Oh—okay! Have fun!" Shizuka doesn’t look up; neither does Otogi, Ryou notices, whose eyes are intent on Shizuka’s face.

 

“Where are you going?” Ryou says.

 

“Downtown,” Mai says. She sounds irritated. “Someone’s stirring up shit. And it was my day off, too—look, just sit tight. I won’t be long." She starts to move.

 

“What about Otogi?” Ryou asks.

 

“What about Otogi?” Mai says. She grins, sudden and wolfish. “Oh, are you worried? Keep an eye on him if you’re worried. Ta, Inoue.”

 

“Mai—”

 

The door slams.

 

“Oh—you aren’t going, Ryou-kun?” Shizuka says from behind him.

 

Ryou-kun?” says Otogi indignantly.

 

“No,” Ryou says. “I have a—I’m—uh, I need to map my next route.”

 

“Aw, you’re going to work?” Shizuka says. “I think I’ll be able to finish up the TV tonight. We can watch The Fire Princess of Tsurugi if you don’t mind waiting a bit.”

 

Fire Princess—what about those Morning Maiden tapes I got you?” Otogi says.

 

“Morning Maiden?" Shizuka makes a face. “Really?”

 

“Fire Princess is so melodramatic and predictable,” Otogi says. “All that ‘heart of the magic’ crap—yeah, right! Someone’s cheating. You know what I mean, Ryou-kun?”

 

“I—”

 

Shizuka interrupts. “I’m not refurbing the TV so we can watch Morning Maiden—”

 

“What do you have against mindless fun?”

 

“What do you have against shows with substance?”

 

They’re smiling at each other—

 

“I’ve,” Ryou says. He raises his voice and hears the sound of it humming in the hollows of his skull, against his forehead and cheekbones:  “I’ve never seen Fire Princess before.”

 

“Yay!” Shizuka says.

 

“Ugh,” Otogi groans.

 

 

 

 

He dozes off while the Fire Princess of Tsurugi and her trusty robotic monkey sidekick are being besieged by suit-mation robots in an abandoned missile factory—soft gentle damp is all around him, the sound of Otogi and Shizuka bickering, laughter surrounding him, and he’s sinking, lower and lower...

 

“I’ll never die,” Bakura murmurs—there is no knife at his ribs now, only Bakura, the black eyes and parted mouth. Ryou laughs, leans back. He can feel the warmth of Bakura through his flight suit, the imprint of Bakura’s fingers.

 

“You’re mine now,” Ryou says.

 

 

 

 

He jolts awake, gasping and disoriented. Quick check:  Otogi and Shizuka are dead to the universe. Slowly he untangles himself from Otogi’s sprawling leg.

 

 

 

 

Bakura, standing beside him in the hangar after a battle, pushing him down and licking a hot circle at the center of his chest

 

 

 

 

God!

 

He fumbles for the tea kettle—drinks a cold and acrid mouthful, gargles and swallows. He creeps to the slit window and pushes his cheek against the cold panes. Minutes click by. He has lost track of time, only knows it must be late from the gritty pain of every blink.

 

The knowledge that Bakura lives and will continue to live, in this galaxy or the next, lurks heavy at the back of his mind, displacing fantasies of Earth—dammed up knowledge, but there are cracks; Bakura is already seeping into his every thought. They have been bound together by some scheme of Brigadier Ishtar; they will meet again and again until one of them is dead.

 

Ryou wonders if the novelty of their acquaintance will someday grow blunt and dull, if encountering Bakura will someday be as easy and routine as—as Saturday nights with Yuugi and company. Hello again, Bakura, you’re looking well, and please put down that knife

 

There is no excuse for what he imagines next, except perhaps that it has been a long three months:  he thinks, dazedly, about bringing Bakura to Yuugi’s wedding—in handcuffs, maybe. Jounouchi-kun, this is Bakura, I’ve shot him down again.

 

He feels his mouth twist and then clears his throat, embarrassed. But the little flat is entirely silent, save for the sound of Otogi and Shizuka’s soft sleeping breaths, and Mai does not appear in the doorway, a laughing silhouette, and, with a new blush burning high in his cheeks, Ryou creeps back to his futon and closes his eyes.

 

 

 

 

Good morning, Ukiyo!

 

Ryou, tumbling through cold wet clouds toward the jungles of Earth, returns abruptly to the present, where he is flat on his back on the floor with a sheet pulled up to his chin. The left side of his face feels swollen and hot; his mouth is dry, and everything else is stiff and sore and prickling with cold. Mai’s black boots come gradually into focus.

 

—put a date on the Hattori trial, first of September—I expect they’ll order the wanker back to his estate on Alpha Four under heavy guard. Donno about you, Bonz, but I certainly hope—

 

“’Morning,” Mai says.

 

Ryou raises himself carefully to one arm and sits up in gingerly and creaking increments. Various muscles protest.

 

“Sorry,” he says, and pauses at his voice:  hoarse and low, the voice of a stranger. “Stiff.”

 

—as always respectable folk are cautioned to keep their pale, law-abiding arses indoors—”

 

Never have any fun that way—

 

You got it, Zygor. Sod respectability, yeah?

 

Fuckit!

 

Anything to add, Bonz? Anything? Anything at all?


Crackling radio silence.

 

“When—” There’s something in his eye—he rubs at it with a knuckle and fights back a yawn. “When did you get back?”

 

“No idea. Bugfuck AM.” Mai lowers herself to the ground with a groan and stares up at the ceiling with red-rimmed eyes. No makeup now. She’s wearing a T-shirt and last night’s black jeans and the green communicator around her neck—it’s an older Orichalcos model, he sees now, etched and dented, and hanging beside it—oh, fuck—Valon’s ring. It’s a heavy signet ring, ornate, ostentatious. He remembers Valon laughing as he explained the joke:  an orphan’s family crest, a coat of arms for a dynasty of one.

 

Mai has probably been wearing it all this time, Ryou realizes—dangling between her breasts, tucked under her shirts and her corsets—

 

Did Valon give it to her, he wonders, or did she pull it off Valon’s finger and put it in her pocket, that night in the bar? Did she take it from his wasted hand, in that clinic, sometime in the three years since?

 

Mai shifts; the green inset stone spins and flashes.

 

She is still talking, a low continuous murmur. He drags his eyes upward. “It was supposed to be a routine run—a couple hours at the most. This fucking blockade.” She sighs. “Wish I could sleep.”

 

“You have time,” Ryou says. Shizuka has gone to the docks already, it seems, but he’s sure it’s still morning—

 

Mai shakes her head. “Too fucking wired right now.” Breath. “What about you, huh, Inoue?”

 

“Me?” He tries to kill the second yawn, too, but it pries his jaws open, wider, wider, squeezing tears from his eyes. He wipes them away with his sleeve. “Sorry—”

 

“Yeah, you." She knocks their shoulders together, companionably, grins. Her lips are chapped, pale without lipstick. “You look tired. Late night?”

 

Pieces of another dream, faded now, slot neatly back into place. Ryou can feel the blush working its way, red hot, into his cheeks.

 

“I didn’t sleep well,” he says.

 

“Too bad. Not because of this moron here, I hope,” Mai says.

 

Ryou follows her gaze to the prone snoring body beside him, hair unbound now and ink-black against the bedroll—this moron here—

 

 

 

 

Otogi awake is tall and lithe, dressed in black and red, with a sharply handsome face and inky black hair tied back in a high ponytail. Gray light snags on various adornments:  a red headband, quirky earrings in the shape of dice. But what catches Ryou’s attention and holds it is the tattoo:  a single black line, running smooth and sharp down his left cheek.

 

 

 

 

“No,” Ryou says. “It was fine. We—we watched TV.”

 

“He can be a pain in the ass sometimes,” Mai says. There’s a but in there somewhere, Ryou thinks. Mai isn’t looking at him; she’s watching Otogi’s face, smoothed in sleep, and the pink mouth parting in snuffling breaths, breathing shallowly through her own mouth. Ryou can’t parse the look in her eyes, but he thinks it must be some parts fond.

 

Asleep, Otogi’s looks are softer, but the tattoo remains starkly black and angular against his skin.

 

“Mai,” Ryou says quietly, “what’s a duke of the Black Crowns doing on Ukiyo?"

 

Never mind Ukiyo—Ukiyo is the part that makes sense—what’s a duke of the Black Crowns doing sleeping on your floor?

 

Mai is silent. Then she sighs, resigned. “I told him to cover up that fucking tat if he wanted to stay out of trouble. Yeah, I noticed you noticed." Pained:  “Jesus, Inoue, couldn’t you tell I didn’t want you to bring it up? No, don’t you fucking apologize.”

 

He should leave, he knows—get out before he sucks them any further into this operation. A new place to sleep, a new mechanic. It won’t be too hard to do, and Mai will help him, because she wants him gone—out of her life before he and the Brigadier can tear this incarnation of Mai Valentine and her people to shreds.

 

He tells himself it won’t come to that.

 

“Anyway,” Mai says, “I never asked him. You don’t ask.”

 

“Lying low,” Ryou suggests.

 

“Starting over,” Mai says. She pins him with a look. “You know exactly what he’s doing here—no, don’t bullshit me! I know what went down on Alpha Twelve last year. The poor kid has nothing left.”

 

He meets her eyes, startled, and then looks away. “You’ve been keeping tabs on—on me?”

 

“I’ve been keeping tabs on the whole damn outfit,” Mai says. “I like knowing what the Brig is up to—so I know when it’s time to pack up and run like hell.”

 

 

 

 

“What is it?" Mai’s voice issues, muffled, from a tangle of sheets. “What is it she wants so bad, huh? Come on, Inoue. You can tell me. Dead women tell no tales, and all that.”

 

Only her left foot is visible, toenails short and lacquered red.

 

“Not ‘what,’ Mai,” he says. “ ‘Who’—”

 

 

 

 

He borrows Honda again. Honda Hiroto—silent apologies to the real Honda, light years away and probably closing up for the night—is on Ukiyo on unspecified business, looking for a man he used to know:  a man in red, a man with the same white hair. Might have touched down a month ago, three weeks ago, give or take.

 

He doesn’t ask too many questions, but he hangs around, watches. Ryou wants to know about the black ships and Karita’s exact whereabouts onboard, but Honda doesn’t ask. Honda doesn’t leer or swagger (the way Valon did); he looks a little sick, actually, thin and stooped and shaky. His eyes are sunken in his skull and there’s a bruise healing green-yellow on his cheek. The gray light washes him out, makes him fade, and the only thing anyone can remember about Honda Hiroto after a few hours is the white hair, or maybe the way he kept one arm tight to his chest, the hand immobile, curling under like a claw.

 

Honda doesn’t press. He haunts the docks until everyone else heads inland for supper, and then he disappears.

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t make sense—

 

No one’s seen Bakura. That makes sense:  hair dyes, haircuts, costume changes—all par for the course.

 

What doesn’t make sense is the gut certainty that Bakura will look exactly as he did in the throne-room of Baek—

 

And the certainty that Ryou will know him at once—

 

 

 

 

In the end, it’s Inoue Ryou, dockworker and all-around nice boy, stopping at a stall to buy his mates dinner, with his white hair hidden under a beanie and his arm hidden under his coat, who gets Honda Hiroto his first big break.

 

The vendor likes nice boys like Ryou. She clucks over the bruise.

 

“Docks,” Ryou says, by way of explanation, with a small, rueful smile.

 

“Got clocked by one of those arms, didn’t you,” the vendor says, shaking her head. “Could have had your skull knocked in! Safety violations like mad!"

 

He watches her scoop idlis from a steaming vat:  one, two, three, four, f—

 

“I hope you weren’t out there when that suit crashed. ’S a wonder your mum didn’t make you quit then and there!”

 

Nice-boy Ryou jerks into alertness, feels his heart thunder to life inside him—and fades away altogether. Just Ryou now, mouth parting, good hand clenched.

 

What—?”

 

She takes the sudden sharpness of his voice for shock—which is close enough, really. “That’s right,” she says. “Right out of space! Big white monster—it’s a miracle only a few people were hurt. You didn’t hear about it?”

 

 

 

 

Big white monster—

 

Honda Hiroto was asking all the wrong questions!

 

 

 

 

She takes his silence for shock, too, nods kindly at him. “Listen, beti, you want safer work, you take the shuttle and go find my brother-in-law on Platform Six. Ashvin Ajith. It’ll have to wait until this mess with those Worm ships is over, of course. But a nice boy like you, you’ll get the job, no trouble—”

 

He barely hears her.

 

Right out of space—big white monster—!

 

“So you won’t have to worry about coming back to your mum with your arms and legs all broken to bits. Ashvin runs a safe platform—worst they had was a few fingers lost in the threshing, and that was two, three years ago—you look into it, beti.”

 

The niceness reinstates itself. “Thank you,” Ryou says politely. “I’ll think about it.”

 

“Good boy,” she says, smiling. She bundles and binds the packets of idlis with deft fingers. “Here you go—”

 

Big white monster—

 

 

 

 

The Necrofear!

 

 

 

 

Oh, but this doesn’t make sense either, that a suit like the Necrofear—big white monster—could have evaporated into thin air. But it has.

 

 

 

 

The warehouse is cavernous at dusk. He ducks under the half-shut rolling door, into the gloom. There is a light at the far end, bouncing and twitching, glinting off the scattered pieces of the dismembered Harpy.

 

“Kawai-san?”

 

“Over here!” she calls, and then a small pale hand flits into the jumping light, waves. He hurries toward it.

 

Shizuka is sitting at her workbench, pushing at a tiny square of metal with a set of pliers. The light is emanating from her headpiece:  a flashlight strapped to her forehead like crude spelunking gear.

 

“Kawai-san, it’s—” he hesitates “—it’s Ryou.”

 

She doesn’t turn around. “What’s up?” she says, bending close to inspect her handiwork.

 

He sets the idlis on the concrete by her right foot. “I brought your dinner. Uh—I’m not interrupting, am I?”

 

“Mm.”

 

“Er. Question for you." He feels like he’s breathing down her neck—he wishes she would turn and look at him. His tongue feels clumsy in his mouth. “When you stripped the Harpy Lady down for parts—did you sell any of it?”

 

Murmured:  “Sure we did—that was the whole point, Honda-san." She pushes hard with the pliers; Ryou cringes. “The motherboard, the optics, the brakes—lots of stuff. People will pay a lot for suit components.”

 

“Because suits are rare—in these parts—?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“So if someone else gutted a suit and sold the pieces, you’d take notice—right?”

 

“Mmhm.”

 

Right, then. “Kawai-san, I need your help.”

 

“Oh?" She swivels around. “What—” the else hangs unspoken between them “—do you want?”

 

“Have you seen anything unusual? In the last few weeks?”

 

He has her attention now, at least. “Hmm,” Shizuka says, setting the metal square down. “Last few weeks, huh? Well—okay, strictly speaking, it’s not legal, so we don’t go around announcing all the new stuff. You have to know the right people—get the right messages. Or send the right messages. Like a fairy market."

 

Fairy market—?

 

Never mind! “Do you? Know the right people, that is?”

 

“I am the right people,” Shizuka says, dimpling beautifully up at him. “Kidding. I’m not a big name yet—which is a good place to be, on Ukiyo. Siegfried and Leonheart—I know—those aren’t their real names—Siegfried and Leonheart come to mind first, because they’re flashy. But almost anyone will do it, for the commish. It’s a lot of money.”

 

“But if you wanted it done well—professionally—quietly—”

 

“Then you’d want Solomon. He’s the best." She beams at him. “For now.”

 

“Not his real name either?”

 

“Probably not. I go by ‘Serenity,’ in case you’re wondering—" She seems to catch herself. “Why’re you asking, anyway? Don’t tell me you have a broken suit lying around—reactor trouble this time? Does Kujaku-san know?”

 

“She doesn’t. And I don’t. But word on the street is someone else does—did,” he corrects himself. “The white suit that crashed last month—did you hear about it?”

 

“Hear about it? I heard it,” Shizuka says. “Heard it, felt it, but didn’t get to see it—they blocked it off and it was gone the next day, like—" Her eyes widen. “Oh...”

 

“Yes,” Ryou says. “Like someone chopped it up and made it disappear...”

 

“—and sold it piece by piece,” Shizuka finishes. “And you want to know if I’ve seen the pieces.”

 

“Yes, that’s part of it,” Ryou says. “I also want to know if you know who sold them. Solomon, then?”

 

“No, not Solomon,” she says softly—almost dreamily. “Hang on—" She stands abruptly, pivots, and darts into the shadows, throwing up a wobbling beam of light into the dusty air—then nothing.

 

Ryou stares into the darkness.

 

“It’s funny—" Her voice ripples back to him. He hears her rummaging through spare parts. “I was so disappointed...when I heard the suit was gone. I asked everyone about it—all the dock vendors." Bang! “But since I’d never seen it—how wrecked it might have been—I assumed the pilot had taken off the second they figured out everything was in working order—to avoid any trouble, right? I never thought—” bang! bang! “—here it is—”

 

Here what is?

 

“Here—” Shizuka says, and then he sees her again, stepping over a pile of junk, the headpiece casting eerie shadows. She’s holding out a smooth, adularescent white disc—like an overgrown fish scale. It flares as she rotates it, throwing light into the gaping darkness of the warehouse. “A piece like this, you mean?”

 

He frowns at it. “What is it?”

 

She smiles. “Yeah—I didn’t recognize what it was at first either. It’s a heat tile, but not like one I’ve ever seen before. Popped up for sale about a month ago, along with a few other bits and bobs. I’ve been meaning to take it apart.”

 

“Who—?”

 

Her smile dims. “Well—that’s the thing, I don’t know, actually. Picked it up at one of the regular shops, but I didn’t ask about provenance—it’s not polite, you know?”

 

“Can you trace it?"

 

“Sure,” Shizuka says, “I can trace the seller. If that’s what you want me to do. But, Ryou-kun, you have to tell me why.”

 

He looks at her, at the hard set of her jaw, and nods.