o1 – hunters and the hunted

A fairy tale:

Once upon a time, man reached for the heavens and cracked open the sky. In the aftermath, the world came to an end.

And then? One by one, the Gods fell tumbling down.

(Each took revenge where they saw fit.)

But, the mortal realm was so dark—so corrupt—that it contaminated even the Divine. Turned them into monsters, and wraiths. Demons, and beasts with an endless hunger

—Viruses.

And so, the infection spread.

♛♛♛

He’s cut it stupid-close. Closer than he ever has. Four years using every trick he’s ever learned, months spent working over every two-bit drug dealer and political malcontent locked out of the City proper, the gutter-trash and con-men too docile and fat to rebel—and it’s almost for nothing. It’s almost blood in his mouth and a bullet to the back of the skull; four years spent laying all the groundwork Baotomi needed to pull off his rebellion, and it still feels like not enough. Like too little, too late; kiss your ass goodbye for trying.

We can’t wait any longer—you know that,’ Shinra thinks as he runs, chest heaving, lungs burning with effort, ‘They’ll understand.’

Four years. A thousand-thousand wasted opportunities. He couldn’t wait any longer. ‘This is how it has to be,’ he tells himself, vaulting over a crumbling brick wall. ‘Survival before everything else. They’ll understand.’

Except, it’s not the way things could’ve gone—should have gone. Shinra knows he could’ve waited, could’ve stuck it out a little longer if hadn’t fucked everything up in the end. If he’d just stopped and given himself a moment to just think. Just…right there at the end, before everything went belly-up and sideways and too close for comfort, before he got so comfortable. Four years, but just a second of rest now is all he needs; it’s all he’s ever needed, really: just a moment to catch the breath he’s lost spending so much time breathing for someone else, all of him perpetually breathless, a body in constant motion; run, run, running.

Baotomi needed him to help flip the entire fucking world on its head, and—

Once upon a time, the story goes: once upon a time, the world made sense. It’s not something Shinra believes, but the way Baotomi tells it— his gaze far-off, somewhere Shinra can only touch, can never himself see quite clearly—the way Baotomi puts it, back before everything collapsed? Before crime syndicates like Kingdom Come and Hospice and Jorumgandr started warring bloody for the streets, before the Valkyr implemented martial law and all Them On High took to treating the people like a natural resource?

The world made sense. (‘Used t’be,’ he’d say, right about now, ‘We didn’t need subterfuge to survive. I think things were more honest, that way.’) Then, the story goes—always goes, never stops; you can run, run, run but never go back to the way things were: this Shinra knows and lives and breathes—then, there was an Accident. Capital A, and massive.

Some survived. Others eked out an existence among the ash and ruin. And thus, years hence: the City. (Capital C, and massive.)

And thus, here and now: the shadow Shinra casts is jagged, and hulking, and long.

(Agni, he calls her.)

—Running. He focuses more on that than anything else: one foot in front of the other, vaulting fences and scaling walls, climbing fire-escapes, up ladders and drainpipes and wires, so many wires in these derelicts; sprinting pell-mell across rooftops and the abandoned sky-ways connecting them, doing everything in his power to put distance between where he was to get closer to where he needed to be. This far out, the City is a labyrinth: easy to get lost, a meandering tableau of abandoned hovels and tenement buildings grown cancerous. He could wander for days if he tried; used to just that, really, when he was smaller and things less complicated; but that’s all what being a kid is about, isn’t it?

Only adults ever complain about being found.

He doesn’t notice the cramped, ramshackle streets give way to orderly chrome until the glare of the first neon signs. When he does, his first impulse is to double back, to stop right there, turn around, and head toward the relative safety of the gutters, the outskirts, the dark, tempestuous places where things made sense in how they never male sense. He wants to be anywhere but the City: bright lights and smog, where everything that can fly, does; where each building passed is the same, built of glossy black stone, slim and tall, gargantuan, their windows tinted, shutters lacquered, the metal of their doors burned much the same black noir as everything else. The City of Angles, of Skyscrapers like Teeth, the hopes and dreams of its people hung noose-like from every spire towering overhead.

The biggest mistake, he’ll later decide, is stopping to consider his options. The City abhors stagnation—even the smallest respite is a ripple in the water, a solar flare in the night sky. He should have kept pushing. He should have let instinct take him further, deeper in the occluding lights, the multitonal symphony of roaring sky-trains, puffing chimneys; music everywhere, everywhere, down deep reverberating in his chest; he should—and what a nothing word, that: should. He should have eaten better that morning if he was going to be running so much later on, and he should have packed a gun, and he—

Shit.’

The stupid part wasn’t resting; no, he could’ve gotten away with that even this late in the game. It’s resting for more than a minute. More than several minutes, really. It’s resting for more than enough for the Hunter-Killers to find him.

Shit, shit, shit.’

Plasma doesn’t burn: it sears. Turns the air static and hot, muggy with pressure and heat-haze. A bolt the size of his arm cuts through the air with a crack of thunder, bright green illuminating the alleyway in harsh white slats. Shinra’s moving before the bolt crashes into the fire-escape he’s on, running all instinct, all reflex; he hits the ground running; always running like it’s all he’s good for anymore. Like it’s all he’s ever been good for, so that when the HK—a horrid mix of metal and flesh part big cat, part insect: all nightmare—falls in his path, he’s already sliding between its legs and sprinting headfirst out the alley and onto the street. Survival of the quickest.

(Agni softly whispers in his ear: Stay.)

Four more Hunter Killers join the first, spilling out onto the pavement in a ragged facsimile of predators long-since extinct. This far down in the muck, this far out from population centers: the City is a graveyard, and its occupants? Phantoms. The HKs use abandoned cars and trams as launching pads, ruined walls as gun platforms. It rains light and fire, a thunderstorm of carnage gathering around Shinra in every direction.

One of the things cuts him off, scything through the remains of a bus as though it were thick smog. Shinra naturally expects a fight; after four years, every decision he’s made predicates itself on violence, on struggling with life and limb on the line; but the Hunter Killer just stands there, still a promise in the dark. Hums.

“Finally found you,” a voice calls out. Shadows from an overpass conceals them both, so Shinra sees the leader of the pack only in frames of reference. The man stepping out from behind the HK is taller than Shinra, their body slender and fit, brunette hair hanging down long past their bare shoulders. He wears a sleeveless yellow vest over a white button-up shirt, tight black leather pants, the laces of his steel-toed boots untied and dragging. The shadows cast by fires burning around them obscures his face, but not his purpose.

“That you did,” Shinra replies, nonchalant.

Silence reigns. As the seconds drag on, with only the crackle of fire and low, pneumatic thrum of the HKs for conversation, Shinra has to resist the urge to move first.

“…You shouldn’t have run, Shin.” the other man, Jin, finally says.

“It’s fun to watch you sweat,” Shinra replies, smirking enough to show teeth. He could see Jin bristle in the shift of his shoulders, half-expects the brunette to yell, to rage, to call him a fucking idiot for ruining all the good they had going. (‘It’s what you’re good at,’ he thinks, but doesn’t say.)

But, another second passes, and all tension in Jin’s shoulders becomes a tired sigh.

Shinra blinks.

“Come back with me.” Jin takes a step forward, head imperceptibly tilted toward the street, face still caught in dancing shadow, and Shinra tenses. The fire does strange things to the outline of Jin’s body, makes it rough and hulking, a black serpent twisting in heat-haze. Dangerous. He notices where Shinra’s gaze falls. “Hey!” he shouts, snapping his fingers, “Sto—eyes on me, Shinra. Don’t turn this into something it’s not!”

Story of his life, right there. “Gods, can’t you get it through your thick skull?” half-laughing, Shinra rolls his eyes. Sighs. “I’m not running, idiot; I’m going back.”

Jin’s hands clench, his jaw setting ironclad. He stomps forward now, the Hunter Killers shying out of his way like well-bred pets; but he stops just at the edge of the dark cast by the overpass above. “You selfish prick,” the growl of his voice comes low from the throat, almost rumbling. “You fucking—goddamn traitor! You’re throwing everything away—and, and for what?” the million credit question; Jin almost pleads it, almost screams it, an accusing finger pointed directly at Shinra’s chest. “Were we worth so little to you?”

A shrug. Noncommittal. “Hm, well. It was fun, I guess? Being honest,” Shinra quirks a smirk, hands digging into his front pockets; it’s the calm before the storm. “But fun always has to end, doesn’t it? And big boys always gotta move on to bigger—and better—things,” he pauses here on purpose, green eyes meeting Jin’s electric blue. “More important things.”

Jin tenses again, all scrunched shoulders and the barest of steps back. Shinra lays out his best shit-eating grin; the fires around them finally die down, the whisper of what they once were casting the underpass in only the pale light of the artificial moon.

Shinra notices without understanding that Jin has yet to leave the underpass.

“Kingdom won’t last the year. Not with Baotomi leading it,” Jin is a quiet violence in the dark, tension leaking from his voice all at once. It gives Shinra a moment of pause; restraint fit Jin worse than anger, always too much or too little of it, never in-between.

No shit,’ Shinra thinks; says, “That isn’t my concern.”

Years of running make Shinra tense in the half-light, make the hairs on the back of his neck stand screaming for movement, for escape. Jin is nowhere near stronger than Shinra, but his build is lighter and muscles crisscrossed with scars cord through his arms. They are both street-fighters, both of them carved wholesale from the dirt rooted firm beneath the City; but Jin had dwelt in squalor for far, far longer. His danger is unpredictability.

“Are you just gonna keep running away?” he demands, voice cracking like a whip as Shinra’s fingers ghost over the hilt of the knife at his back. “Asshole—are you gonna throw everything away just because you’re afraid to finally belong somewhere?”

“You don’t have anything I need,” not anymore; not for the reasons Jin thinks, anyway, “And I’m not anyone’s property but my own. Unlike you, I don’t need to belong to anyone to survive—and that’s the biggest difference between Ouroboros and Kingdom, Jin. Each of us was someone before we joined up with Baotomi. We aren’t just gutter-trash.”

“You total…” Jin doesn’t bother to finish; even after all this time, it seemed he still firmly believed Shinra to be an idiot. “Baotomi is using you. You can’t even see it,” he pauses, a rise Shinra is all too familiar with coming back to his voice, “All he cares about is—it’s always going to be about his fucking rebellion, Shinra! That’s all he wants from you! Ouroboros needs you to stay for good reasons—you’re more than a damn soldier to us!”

You mean you need me.’ Shinra rolls his eyes, a sound of annoyance eking out beneath the breath he takes. “Listen, I don’t have any more time for—” Though Jin ignores him, the Hunter Killers do not. Each of the four reacts to Shinra moving by assuming a position ready to pounce. “—Jin, get the fuck out of my way. You and your hounds.”

Shinra had never liked the way Jin looked at him. And much less so now, those big crystal blue eyes flickering to him as though all it would take was the right look to make him change his mind. The brunettes bites their lip, thinking. “Stop right there. Listen, we could…Ipswitch won’t even have to know, Shinra,” Jin continues on, oblivious “We can still…I mean, he might want you to pay back what you burned down, obviously; but—it isn’t like he’s wanting for shipments, right? You could owe hi—no, no, that won’t…”

Another brief snort of annoyance; what was Jin rambling about? And what does it matter to Shinra, this little piece of information he—

Shit.’ Shinra thinks, fingers settling squarely around the hilt of his knife. “What did you mean by that? Ipswitch not hurting for product.”

He expects Jin to burst, to wear surprise across his face like pain on the dying, but instead Jin goes very, very still. Something here doesn’t sit right, doesn’t feel like just an abandoned fan trying to convince an escape artist to let him in on the trick. Shinra slowly unsheathes his knife, feeling an odd sort of comfort in how solid it is; good metal only warps beneath extreme pressure, never breaks.

The Hunter Killers haven’t relaxed.

“I’m here to give you a choice, man. You can either come back with me, we work something out with Ip, or—” and Shinra doesn’t know where Jin gets this confidence, doesn’t understand—can’t; won’t; never will, he thinks—why he suddenly misses the stutter in the teen’s voice, why he doesn’t want Jin to get near; no, no, no. “—I make sure you can’t go anywhere. Ever.”

Busy streets never sound as loud as empty ones. Jin’s boots are nearly gunshots as he steps out from beneath the shadows of the overpass, the faded light of the moon falling in a hard line across his slender face.

His shadow does not follow him.

Shinra is not immediately aware of the significance. (Agni, warm and ecstatic, whispers the word Quetzalcoatl in the shell of his ear.) By then, it all falls into place with the force of a megaton bomb: Ipswitch, always calculating and scheming, would never send Jin—Jin always kind, always smiling, always the one quick to protect new recruits; the one everyone loved, the pacifist—to bring Shinra home. Not by himself, and certainly not unless—

“—Shinra,” Jin’s voice is threaded with a quiet promise. “Don’t.”

He nearly listens. Blue eyes bore into him as Shinra draws his knife, a small, tired smile stretching across Jin’s face. Inevitable, almost.

“Fine. Have it your way, dumbass.” The sound of metal clanking against concrete that answers Shinra is like thunder, two great lengths of chain uncoiling languid at Jin’s sides as though they were serpents roused from a long slumber. A wicked hook tops the end of each chain; Shinra has seen the weapons mutilate others firsthand, the scars patchwork across Jin’s arms testament to a lifetime of use.

Shinra holds his position, crouching low and ready, his complete air of alertness a stark contrast to how open Jin holds himself. “The only way to catch a crow is to send a snake—isn’t that how it goes?” Jin shrugs and shows another smile, the edges threatening a grin. “The story your brother told us the first time we drank together…How things that fly high enough forget what lives beneath them, so us serpents gave their limbs to never forget where we belonged,” the smile drops and Shinra notices the Hunter Killers have leaned back on their haunches. “Like you have, Shin. Ipswitch thou—well, no. Let me fix that: I thought it’d be better for me to drag you back home, instead of one of his knee-breakers. Because I thought—and stupid me, I guess—that that would mean something to you.”

The sentimentality is lost is Shinra, swallowed up whole by the shadow stretching ragged and serpentine behind his former friend. (Food, Agni whispers.)

Jin looks down, scratches the back of his neck for a moment. When Shinra says nothing, he continues: “I’m still who I am. That hasn’t changed. I might be…hungrier now, sometimes; but I’m not like everyone else. Not like Ip and his boys—I…I can control it.”

(Liar, Agni laughs, a sound like embers crackling through wood.)

Shinra ignores her. Wets his lips. “…Why are you here?”

“I wanted to do right by you,” it’s an automatic reply, almost as if Jin is describing the color of the sky. “Out of everyone, I’ve always wanted that for you—and you should know why, already. Ass.”

“You never wanted this. I know you still don’t.”

“Who the hell are you to tell me what I want?”

“I know you, Jin.”

Eyes the color of an unpolluted sky flash with sapphire life, one of the chains at Jin’s side jingling with barely-held restraint. (Agni growls, the sound like the low rumble of magma coursing beneath the earth.) Two of the Hunter Killers nearest to Jin slowly inch back, each of the pack starting to whine and hiss.

“You don’t know what I want,” Jin answers, quiet and tense. “I did this—” and he pushes his hair back, baring pale white neck and the intricate tattoo staining it just above his jugular, the mark that now stains him, forever, right down to the soul, for the entire City to notice. “—For your fucking sake. Ipswitch would’ve had you killed if I hadn’t.”

The story goes: once upon a time, man cracked open the sky and devoured the gods.

The story goes: inside the bellies of their children, each god took root and blossomed.

(A Virus)

And thus, a thousand thousand years hence: the Avatar Sign appears. And thus, Shinra knows that the mark on Jin’s pale, beautiful neck—a circle of feathers with two horizontal gashes in the shape of teeth perpendicular to one another within—is more a guillotine than a fashion statement. Shinra snorts, dismissive; but the pit of his stomach a knot.

“You’re a fucking moron, Jin.”

The barb gets him a short-lived glare, and then Jin slowly shakes his head, looking away at something Shinra cannot afford or care to follow. “I wanted to do this without hurting you.” his voice is a bare whisper on the wind. “I thought—it should’ve been easier than this, Shin. You could’ve made it so, so simple.”

If the Gods dwell within Man, then the City is a temple built on broken promises. Four years running, and it comes down to this. Shinra laughs at the irony, brief and bitter. “You know I like it rough.”

A small smile, genuine now, spreads across Jin’s face. It’s enough to make Shinra grit his teeth; in how he holds himself, in how his eyes glow the same violet emanating from his Sign, his entire body coiled for violence, Shinra knows the gesture means nothing.

“…When was the last time you ate, Shin?” Jin asks, sotto voce.

Shinra smiles, veins sibilate with Agni’s flame. “Years.”

♛♛♛

They battle only half-shifted, bodies contorted somewhere between human and monster. Agni settles over Shinra like an old, familiar cloak: her skull is first to manifest, takes the shape of a vaguely avian mask covering Shinra’s face, its surface appearing to be carved from onyx bone. Her talons come next, liquid fire running down Shinra’s forearms until a pair clawed gauntlets and vambraces materialize in its place, steel glinting in the half-light. He does not let her assume control, does not let her fevered whispers—her hunger; his hunger; their curse—dictate his actions. Though hers is the first mask Shinra ever learned to wear, her feathered mane his first bed of soft down: Shinra cannot afford to lose himself; not here, not ever.

Jin’s silent agreement is all too implicit.

The cursed go by a dozen monikers, a hundred forgotten names. Though their Signs mark them equally, their forms are as varied as the vessels they inhabit. Agni patterns herself after a crow, and thus her form defines her function. When only wearing her mask, Shinra’s body remains human save for Agni’s face, talons, and the mantle of red and black feathers she lays across his shoulders. He is stronger and faster, more readily capable of inhuman acts of violence and terror—but, in the same breath that he annihilates a nearby Hunter Killer with a backhand swipe, Jin is there to retaliate. And retaliate.

(Conquer and devour! Agni roars.)

The fight eventually drags toward the City proper, Jin bounding across rooftops after Shinra all gnashing teeth and sinuous grace. Flames stream off Shinra in waves, his every blow resounding with the force of a hand-grenade, and still Jin presses him, hounds him further and further, higher and higher. The two collide eventually collide in a tangle of limbs and snarls somewhere between the outlying detritus of the City and its streets giving way to bright, painful-neon-signs and early morning air traffic, neither of them quite cognizant of the fact until gravity takes control. Their plummet is quick, all nausea and sharp angles, the sheer force in which Jin tackles Shinra sending them both smashing through what feels like three stories of reinforced windows and concrete.

Shinra stirs first, when the dust settles.

Protocol—etiquette, custom, history; the curse—dictate that to the victor go the spoils. As Shinra stands, Agni is soft hands caressing his shoulders; is full breasts pressing into his back while lean arms envelop him from behind, her voice whisper in the shell of his ear, intimate as it is ravenous. ‘Take what is rightfully yours, my child.’

He looks down at where Jin came to rest. With the brunette so unconscious, his Sign resembles little more than a tattoo on the side of his neck.

Idiot,’ Shinra thinks, before delivering a swift kick to Jin’s rib cage. Twice.

Jin stirs hacking up blood, his arms cradled to his stomach and honey-brown hair matted haphazard to the side of his face. No trace remains of what dwells inside of him; the fall rendered Jin human and frail, a lacerated wreck of a human bleeding from over a dozen-dozen places. And Shinra—

He licks his lips, tasting copper and smoke between his teeth.

(Feast, love. My gift onto you.)

Their fight will have attracted attention. If not the Valkyr looking for suspects, then some local syndicate no doubt wondering what tore roughshod through their territory. Shinra has no time for the former, and less patience for the latter; spitting out the blood pooling in his mouth, he forces Agni to withdraw, to recede back into whatever part of him she claimed den and castle. He lingers until Jin reopens his eyes.

It’s stupid; he knows full well it is. Sentimentality is a luxury he cannot afford, and yet—

“Nice try,” he admits, couching at Jin’s side as low as preservation instinct would allow. “But you never were hungry enough.”

His answer is silence followed by a quiet, broken laugh. “Fuck you, Shinra.”

“Heh, now wouldn’t that have solved everything?” Shinra huffs, eyes darting to the hollow of Jin’s throat. He shakes his head. “You’re not going to find me after this, Jin. Go back to Ipswitch and tell him that if he comes near me or mine again—”

A shaking, bloodied hand interrupts him. Slim fingers reach up as if to brush against Shinra’s cheek, but then hesitate in the space between them, almost as if caught between the motion and the act. Shinra does not move; in the moments that follow, Jin eventually lowers his hand and turns away, crawling just far enough to be out of Shinra’s reach before attempting to stand. He says nothing in the interim, but oh: his eyes.

Meeting Jin’s gaze again, seeing him struggle to stand and then stay there, obviously still wanting to drag Shinra back kicking and screaming if need be, even if it cost Jin his life, made the thing that Shinra had managed to keep together during all the time they’d been talking and fighting finally break. He turns and leaves without saying another word, flees in the opposite direction of Kingdom and Jin, forgetting stealth in the need to just go.

A Valkyr patrol spots him leaving the scene and begins to give chase, but Shinra has a head start and Agni’s wings to keep out of reach. Whatever happens next to Jin, Jin who was losing whatever humanity he had in the same way that Shinra had lost his, is none of his concern. Even when he can no longer hear the wail of the sirens, Shinra keeps moving, hits the streets running hard, his legs pumping, chest heaving; he runs, and runs, and runs, stopping only when every muscle in his body threatens to collapse beneath him.

Shinra doesn’t know the name of the bar he ends up at, has no money, doesn’t know which gang of bastards own the place, what syndicate owns them and the territory he’s in; but four years running, four years starving for purpose, and this has to be enough.

It has to be.

He can’t keep running.

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