Stars Like Snow

by Merci

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/107347.html)

The black mask was the only bit of colour on his naked body as he floated in the tank. It fed him oxygen as he hovered in stasis, his eyes closed to the world. Sascha Evergraves never knew what her clones were thinking when they were so close to completion. His eyes moved beneath the lids, signalling some sort of dream state, and she tapped her pen against her digital notepad, clacking instructions into her schedule before looking up at her project once more. The red numbers ticked down the time left before she could really dig her scalpel into his flesh. His body was tightly muscled, as his predecessor’s had been, with long arms and legs. His flesh was fresh and new to the world, but it would be scarred before she was done with him. Sascha had to make some alterations if he was to fight in this new century.

She was running on desperation to finish his development before the rival assassin reached Earth. Her team had already cut many corners while reinstating his memories. They had done what they could to piece together his basic assassin skills and combat knowledge, but rebuilding clone memories was like working on a puzzle with infinite pieces and no clue what the final product will look like. They simply didn’t have the time, and she hoped that they’d caught every last important bit of knowledge. His personal memories could rot in the corner of his mind for all she cared.

Sascha sighed and leaned heavily against a computer console, rubbing the bridge of her nose beneath her glasses. Constructing a clone in secrecy was tiring work.

Her grandfather was old, the head of the family, seemed to enjoy pointing out her failings, and refused to die. All in that order. Her brother was another matter entirely. He would try to sabotage her work before she could carve a niche out of the family empire. Her name wouldn’t mean anything to the family if she did not complete this one project. And what a project, too…

She stepped towards the stasis tank. Her subject hovered in the liquid, illuminated by the faint light which cast shadows about his muscled features. His nose was sharp and perfect, his body built to kill. She had read the documents of his early training and purchase by her family, as well as reports from the family surgeon of the time. He had repaired the Evergraves’ assassin repeatedly, improving on perfection, and left a paper trail of detailed notes for her to follow in order to recreate her family’s greatest weapon. Of course, she would improve on it further.

Sascha planned in the quiet and darkness of her lab. Then her serenity was broken by the sound of someone keying at the access pad outside the lab door. The metal doors slid open and she spun around to see the dark form of her brother in the doorway. She pushed away from the desk, standing straight and rigid as he rushed into the room, stopping a few feet away before pointing a shaking finger at her. His anger was nearly tangible. Sascha smiled.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed through clenched teeth.

“Oh, nothing,” she said flippantly. “Just some more cloning experiments.”

Maynard Evergraves gestured wildly. “Those transmissions were mine. I intercepted them; you had no right to steal them!”

“Oh, brother, some little inter-space communications? Anybody could have picked those up.”

“No, not just anybody. I’ve been developing the technology; only my sector has the tools to pick up the Eades’ secret communiqués.”

“Fine,” Sascha dropped her smile. “What does that have to do with my projects?”

Maynard pulled at his brown hair in frustration. “Don’t act like you don’t know. The Eades rebuilt their old assassin and are sending him out here to destroy us. You think that cloning our little counter-agent will do us any good? He’s outdated.” His blue eyes blazed as he tried to stare her down.

“Actually, brother, since it’s your communications relay that’s causing them problems, it’s you that he’ll be after.” She turned back to the tank. “You should thank me for building the perfect match for your problems. He’ll serve us faithfully, just like he used to.” She reached up, gently touching the glass, admiring the clone’s dark features.

Maynard laughed hollowly. “Like I’d trust any assassin you assign to protect me. I’ve got my own guard.”

Sascha rolled her eyes at that. Her brother’s guard was crude, manic, and unpredictable. But if her brother wanted a lunatic guarding him, that was fine with her. He was right not to trust her, of course, but she wouldn’t confirm anything he said. She felt a spark of excitement to see him so worked up over her little experiment, especially after his successes in inter-planetary communications had raised him so high in the family. Sadly, the excitement she felt was dying as her brother calmed down. “If you have nothing else, then leave me.” She kept her back straight and watched him through the reflection in the tank. He didn’t bow his head in defeat; rather, he turned on his heel and stormed towards the door.

There was the chance Maynard would run to tell their grandfather what she had done, but she said nothing. She wouldn’t give him any ideas in how to irritate her more. Her posture only relaxed as the doors closed behind her most dangerous rival. She eyed her creation once more. The cloning of Riian’s old rival was a happy coincidence; one she’d take full advantage of to prove her enhancement techniques were more effective than anything her family or her rivals could create.

The bubbles of oxygen danced up from the black mask, as if in answer to her feelings: patience. His body was nearly complete forming, and then would come the enhancements, and then… she felt her smile darken as she imagined what he could do beyond his original training.

+++

It was cold and there was snow, but above that, there was the hunt. Behind his closed eyelids, the assassin’s eyes fluttered back and forth, locked in a blissful sleep as skilled doctors flayed his limbs apart and added strengthening agents to his bones. Riian Blackwell’s mind was flooded with his first thought, his first memory, though to him, it was just a dream. The snow fell all around him, covering his legs up to the knee as he moved beneath the trees. The air was eerily silent and the sky was white with the storm that swirled around him. While packets of information were sewn into his muscles, encouraging strength and muscle-memory, he pressed onward, his instincts telling him his target was close. As Sascha Evergraves’ greatest work was placed upon his body, altering him to more than human, Riian Blackwell felt only the memory of ice and snow.

In his dream, it stormed in a flurry of cold and stinging agony. He stopped and listened for his opponent. The wind was as silent as the trees around him, but there was an echo that filled the void with its own listless voice. The assassin’s blood coursed through his veins, his feet were chilled, his body felt miserable, but he bore the pain and pushed forward.

The surgery ended on schedule and Riian was moved into private recovery. The guards shut the door, leaving the sleeping assassin in the starlight-flooded room. Days passed and the sun and moon occasionally peeked in – it was one of many rooms on the saucer-shaped platform that hovered in orbit, following Earth’s rotation.

In the silence of that single room, when the sun had gone to bed for the night, Riian finally sat up in bed. The first thing that hit his mind was a wave of vertigo that sent him falling back against his pillow. He half-stared at the ceiling, trying to process the disjointed thoughts and feelings that shifted in his mind. He was faced with a vision of life, training as an assassin in the guild. He could see his tiny hands clutching at the bo staff while his instructor rapped his knuckles in training practice. He focused on that thought, but it left him and another imaged pushed its way into his thoughts. A man in a suit was speaking to the guild elders and he understood he was being sold to his new master.

That thought triggered a new wave of understanding: the years that followed serving the Evergraves. His years of training to withstand pain were failing him and he gripped his head, feeling the plastic bandages around his left eye. He began to shake uncontrollably. Everything was rushing at him so fast, he couldn’t stop seeing; disjointed actions and killing. Killing, killing, he had existed for the death of his enemies and he had done it all for his masters. He turned his head to stare blankly out the window, watching as his memories bathed the stars red with blood, until merciful sleep reclaimed him, drawing him down to feel nothing once more.

+++

His head felt a bit better, much later when he opened his eyes again. When he looked up, however, the blinding light stabbed his retina, reintroducing him to pain. He reached up to touch his eye once more, feeling the bandages that were blinding his left side. The pain was ebbing, and his ears caught the whispers of three people in the room. He ignored the light and forced his head to move, to look at his visitors and take in his surroundings.

The room felt like a hospital, though the three people in his room didn’t look like doctors. He sniffed the air, noticing the absence of the tell-tale antiseptic odour that hospitals carried. He lowered his arm to his side; it felt heavy, but a preliminary testing of his fingers told him he could still make a fist if need be. The three people didn’t look familiar at all and he couldn’t remember much about how he got there.

The woman turned from the two men and smiled widely at him. “Right on time, gentlemen.” Her violet eyes were cold and unfeeling. “Riian Blackwell, report your status.”

The dark-eyed assassin snapped to attention and sat up. His body shrieked with objections, but an order was an order and he obeyed. “My arms have been damaged… somehow.”

“Report,” she repeated, sounding amused. “How did you come here?”

Riian clenched his teeth and turned his mind over again for a memory. Everything felt fragmented, as if it had all been shaken up in a drawer and dumped into his mind without order. Flecks of emotion floated past, connecting to one moment of an unknown event, only to fall away into confusion once more. “I… don’t know how I got here,” he finally said, keeping his voice steady and without emotion.

“Do you know who I am?”

Riian looked squarely at her. “No.”

She frowned at this and Riian felt the next question coming – her way of speaking was so familiar. “Do you know what I am?”

“An Evergraves,” he said, showing respect the best he could from his position.

Her smirk was thin. “Exactly. I made you to protect the Evergraves’ investments against an old enemy that you alone have experience with.”

His stomach tightened in a ball of chilled anxiety. “Made me? I’m a… clone?”

“So is your enemy, so you will be evenly matched,” she cut him off. “We’ve upgraded your body to make you more competitive, so don’t fail me.” Her violet eyes attempted to burn into him with intimidation. “You have one week to gain your strength back and then I’m sending you out to prove yourself.” Her sharp features twisted unattractively. She held out her hand, giving him a small, rectangular device. He reached out to take it. One side looked like a screen, and it lit up when he touched it.

“I want you to kill him,” she said. Riian’s heart skipped, some deep-seated excitement awakening at the issuance of that simple command. “Everything you need to know about him is in that file.” She turned to leave, pausing at the door. “I expect perfection.”

Riian’s heart thudded against his ribcage. He barely heard her as the image of his target appeared on the screen. Thud-thud-thud. There was a swishing sound as Sascha Evergraves exited the room, leaving the two men behind to instruct the newly-born assassin.

Riian only had eyes for the man on the screen. The wavy black hair… he almost had a memory of what it smelled like. A shiver came to him unbidden as he looked into the cool, silvery eyes that stared emotionlessly from behind the screen.

“Recognize him?” the shorter man asked, approaching the bed and lightly resting a shaking hand on the headboard. He was a thin whisp of a man swimming in his white coat.

Riian nodded slowly. He knew his target from somewhere. He had a flash of combat, of tasting blood and the excitement of someone who pushed his skills to their limits.

“He was your p-predecessor’s rival. His greatest enemy… do you have any memories of him?”

Riian squinted, trying to sift through his thoughts. “No,” he said, rubbing his temple, never taking his eyes off the screen.

The smaller man sighed and stood back, drawing Riian’s attention. “It takes time to arrange memories, and we’re in a bit of a r-r-rush.” He took a breath, as if he was trying to halt his stuttering. “That man was cloned ahead of you by two weeks. The Evergraves need you to stop him before he r-reaches us.”

The larger man slapped a meaty hand on the other’s slight shoulder, making him jump. “Look, we don’t have long to get you into shape, but C and I are here to do just that. You can call me Munch, I’ll take care of the combat upgrading. C023 here will fill you in on clone life, or something.” He frowned in irritation. “Guess it takes a clone to teach one how to live.”

“Y-you died a little over a century ago. There have been a lot of changes since then.” The balding man stuttered in explanation as he helped the assassin rise to his feet.

Munch stepped forward. “C’s an early cloning attempt, so he’s still buggy, but he’s a good guy,” he said by way of explanation. “The process used to make you was perfected by Sascha, so you’re as good as a born human.”

Riian nodded absently as he began surveying the bandages and plastic coating his limbs. “What… is this?” The plastic was clear and revealed the mass of stitches in his forearms. He raised his brows and felt the same constricting sensation wrapped along his forehead and left eye. He flicked his eyes about, feeling the changes and trying to filter them into his mind as new memories, safely away from the old, imported batch.

“Oh, they improved your body,” Munch said as C023 began fiddling with the plastic bandaging his head. The larger man made a show of trying to think. “Lessee, thickened your bones with some new serum they’ve been testing, and added a few implants. All of it is organic, except,” Munch raised his hand and pointed to his left eye. “Supposedly they tweaked your eye, put in some mechanics. Can you see anything different?”

The slighter man lifted the bandaging away and Riian opened his eye for the first time. The light was harsh and he lifted his hand to shield the glare as he focused on what he could see with his “modified” vision. Everything looked normal, but when he focused on an object, images and data about that item flashed across his left eye. It was a bit disconcerting and he shook his head. “I’ll need some time to get used to it,” he finally muttered when he saw the two men waiting for an answer.

Munch looked disappointed but didn’t say anything. Riian looked at him for a moment longer as C023 began explaining the routine he’d designed to get the assassin functional within a week. Riian only half-listened. His eye was focusing in on Munch, flashing something across his vision, zeroing in on Munch. Targeting statistics filtered across his line of sight as the other man stood with his arms crossed. Riian could see it; the probability of survival increased by four percent when the eye identified a weak joint in Munch’s elbow.

“Did I die?” he finally asked once he had satisfied his curiosity in finding this man’s weak points and heightening his probability up to eighty-seven percent.

“Y-eah,” C023 said, but quickly added, “but you won’t this time! So get u-p.”

The two men grabbed Riian’s shoulders and pulled him to stand on his own. Despite all his memories of walking without difficulty, his feet seemed to twist beneath him and he quickly reached back to the bed for support. “What the hell?”

C023 gently grabbed Riian’s arm and helped him stand. “Y-you’ve never used your body before. E-everything is new, you’ll have to teach it how to move. There are a few things that are built into the muscle memory that you will be able to do without thinking, but for the rest of the matter… we have a lot of work to do to get you into shape, ah, Riian?” His brown eyes were eager and bright, almost innocent. Riian allowed the two men to help him stand, leaning heavily on the larger one. He had no idea who they were, but the order from that Evergraves woman was all he needed. She had given him a week to prepare, and he would be ready.

+++

Riian was still finding himself throughout the process. His feet were becoming surer and his muscles were quickly re-learning the martial arts his past incarnation had known. As his body acquired old skills, it also learned new abilities; his balance returned, aided by the implants in his arms that measured his balance against gravity. This, he thought, was immensely useful; however, it was rendered useless whenever he climbed into the anti-gravity chamber with Munch.

Maintaining equilibrium was difficult, nearly impossible at first. The suits used for operating in the vacuum of space were more streamlined and easier to maneuver than what he remembered of a century past. The larger man presented him with a dark-grey suit that fit tight against his skin with all the necessary valves and vents hidden within the material. There were armour plates covering the vital areas of the suit, though Riian doubted its effectiveness in a fight. One tear in the fabric and he would depressurize and be as good as dead. When he asked Munch about this, the other man only smiled and suggested he not let his opponent get that close.

To get to Munch’s training studio, Riian had many paths to choose from. The first two days, he took obvious ones, but he eventually got bored and sought out new, obscure ways to the large man’s lesson. One such time, he found himself in a quiet passageway that was dotted with several large windows. The dark-skinned assassin still had some time before training and he cautiously approached one of the portals to the endless vortex of stars.

The glass looked thin; though he was sure it must have been reinforced in some way. He was still having trouble adjusting to this new existence. It felt so odd, and the way everyone was rushing him around in preparation… he wondered just how dangerous his enemy was. His dark eyes scanned the blackness, trying to spot a constellation he recognized, but from this angle, everything looked different. He shifted his perception back to the glass, and his breath caught in his throat as he saw someone else in the reflection.

He spun around to see another man standing a few feet behind him. He had strangely bright cobalt-blue eyes that matched his bright smile. His hair was red as well, though a few shades lighter than Riian’s auburn hue. He wore a white suit, which seemed similar to the silvery spacesuit Munch had given him with the armour plating. A light dusting of freckles kissed his cheeks, but Riian could smell something dark about him.

The man tilted his head to the side. “Hi there!”

Riian nodded in greeting, though he held his tongue. Did he know this man from his past incarnation? Was he a clone as well?

The stranger moved in close, causing Riian to move back until his back was pressed against the window. His hand rested beside Riian’s head and he pressed close, the smile never leaving him as he smelled Riian’s neck.

Riian shivered at the contact. It was intimate, familiar, though it left him feeling uncomfortable. The other’s skin may have been dusted with freckles, but he could smell the bloodsplattered across his soul.

“You’re new,” the man said, finally pulling back a little bit. “You smell fresh. Tasty,” he licked his fingers and reached out to draw them along Riian’s jawline.

“Do- did I know you?” Riian asked, looking into those cobalt eyes. They looked flat; uninterested, as was the press of his knee between Riian’s legs.

“Hah, you asking if I’m a clone?” The man laughed, pushing away and clapping his hands together. “You’re funny.”

“Who are you, then?” he breathed a bit easier, but he still felt trapped by the other man. He could fight if he had to, but in that empty corridor, the strange man in the white suit and the wide smile had him trapped by social awkwardness.

“My name,” he said with a flourish, “is Derex White. You may call me Derex, of course, because I like you and think we should be on a bit more intimate terms, don’t you?”

Riian felt his heart skip a beat once he understood what the other man was suggesting, as if the way he’d been pressed close hadn’t been enough of a hint. He tilted his head at the forward question, trying to decide how to respond. “I-I’m in the service of the Evergraves. I can’t-”

“So am I!” Derex said, rushing forward. He wrapped his arm around Riian’s shoulders and spun him around to look out the window. He pointed decidedly at one visible point of the platform. “I’m here for Maynard Evergraves. He’s an awesome master.” His fingers tightened in Riian’s shoulder. “I would do anything for him… just like you’d do most anything for his sister.”

Riian tensed, considering the strange redhead’s weak points should he need to incapacitate him.

“Of course, we do get our personal time…” The sudden drop in his voice felt cold, as did the iron grip exerted by his fingers. They tightened for a moment before loosening and switching to massage Riian’s tired shoulder muscles.

He couldn’t help leaning into the touch. “I don’t have personal time,” he said, though, lightly brushing the fingers from his shoulder. “I’m in training. I have to go.”

Derex allowed his hand to fall from Riian’s shoulder and Riian stepped away, giving the other man a strong look before turning.

“That’s fine, we are busy-busy little assassins, are we not? Body guard, hired killers, whatever they want us to be.” He folded his arms behind his back and walked along beside Riian, that same unnerving smile on his face. Riian glanced his way, noticing his white teeth gleaming before turning back. Luckily the training studio was close by. Derex walked him to the door.

“Maybe I’ll visit you sometime. It’s so lonely being the only one like us around here.” His fingers were soft against Riian’s cheek. They trailed down Riian’s throat and spread wide against his chest. “Don’t want to be late, do you?” he winked before turning and walking away.

Riian watched him disappear down the hallway before turning and pressing the code to get into the studio. Hours later, He still couldn’t shake the impression left by Derex. He furrowed his brow and focused on what Munch was telling him.

The larger man leapt right into the lesson before Riian had even taken his seat at the table. Munch seemed eager to show him something; he didn’t hesitate to produce a small bag from within his coat pocket and dump its contents on the smooth, metal surface that separated them. Riian looked at the three matte objects as they wobbled before halting. Surprisingly, the garrote had made the most noise. The hard, plastic handles of the corded rope glinted dully under the bright lights of the training studio, while the knife and gun lay beside it, strangely mute beneath the light. Riian looked back at the larger man who loomed over him.

Munch grinned sadistically as he quickly explained the special qualities of the weapons, each designed to pass undetected through the security fields of any spaceport. The only one he had to concern himself with was TorCen05, the centre of the universe as far as commuters leaving Earth were concerned. Anybody leaving from or going to Earth had to stop at that port, and he would have to intercept his target there.

The energy-pistol was a last resort. “This thing has three settings: the highest isn’t strong enough to break through the shielding around that station, but still.” Munch straightened his shoulders uncomfortably and picked up the knife, tossing it in the air and catching it before repeating the action. “You’ll see the layout of the station pretty soon, but the important thing to remember is that you’ll probably engage your target in the outer boulevard where most of the merchants and travellers will be. That entire area is encased by an outer wall made of glass that is surrounded on the outside by proper shielding. The glass is pretty and creates nice atmosphere, but if that breaks and the shielding somehow fails, then that shit will de-pressurize so fast… The security lockdown takes seconds, but that won’t stop dozens of people from getting sucked out into space.” He looked sharply at Riian and motioned towards the pistol. “That thing will break through the glass on the lowest setting, so if you’re going to use it, make sure you’re aiming straight.”

Riian nodded, only seeing the pale image of his target that was burned into his mind. There was something about the other man that pointed to a large blank space in his memory. It felt important… but the thought of reclaiming his honour gnawed at any uncertainty he felt. “I’ll finish him.”

Munch looked at him sharply. “It won’t be so easy,” he said, pointing the knife at him. “That bastard is tough, which is why they brought you back in the first place. You, well, the first you fought this guy for years and neither of ya managed to get the other. In the end, you two killed each other in an explosion that destroyed half of the family’s facility in New Mexico. That explosion-”

“Was failure.” Riian looked hard at the other man and reached for the pistol. “I won’t fail the Evergraves. My predecessor was weak.” He tightened his fist around the pseudo-metal, the silence of his statement hanging in the air. He didn’t want to say anything more. Of the things he could remember, his loyalty to the Evergraves was first in his mind. He could feel the shame nagging at him, for failing in such a momentous way the last time. Was his enemy so strong that the only way he could destroy him was to kill himself, as well as destroy so much of his master’s property? He tightened his fingers around the energy pistol. No. This was his second chance to lift the Evergraves to the top; he wouldn’t botch it this time.

Munch was brief with the rest of the lesson. It didn’t matter, Riian knew everything he needed to know about the weapons within the hour. The metal was fake, but just as solid, and he quickly developed a fondness for the matte sheen of the knife beneath the harsh lighting. The corded garroting wire was strange and he wasn’t sure how he’d like it, but Munch assured him it was strong enough to withstand a few hundred pounds of pressure, despite the thin plastic-looking braiding and wooden handles. He filed that away as a backup weapon if he were being stealthy, which made him grin at the thought of catching his enemy unaware.

Munch grinned in response and smacked his large hands against the tabletop, indicating it was time to train in hand-to-hand combat in a low-to-zero gravity environment.

Riian nodded pridefully and followed the meaty man through the door.

+++

He returned to his quarters that evening sore and regretting his arrogance. The door slid shut and he shifted painfully, reaching up behind him to lock the keypad. The bruise on his shoulder was already a dark shade of purple when he removed his shirt, and he discovered a few more discoloring marks when he stripped his legs free of his slacks. He scratched at his stomach, glancing in the mirror and admiring the light marks his nails left against his bronzed skin. He was halfway through his training. A few days until he left to find his enemy on that station.

A spark of excitement ignited in his belly, but it didn’t spread along his spine like he’d expect. The details of past battles with the other man were all missing, and all he had was an information pad full of historical facts that didn’t get his imagination going at all.

He ran his fingers through his short, auburn hair, pushing errant strands away from his sweaty forehead, and sighed. A hundred years was enough for his family to expand into space, and now he was knife fighting in zero gravity. He tensed his arm, admiring the musculature in the mirror, considering how much stronger he was with the enhancements. He concentrated on his left eye, inspecting his reflection through the modified vision. He could see the heat radiating from his muscles and the density was thicker than normal. He tensed the other arm before relaxing, his bruises finally winning the match for dominance against his pain tolerance, and moved to collapse onto his bed.

His muscles ached with the sudden use, but they also craved the familiarity of the actions he was putting them through. The environmental controls gushed cool air against his hot skin. The thin hum of the ventilation system thrummed around him.

He rolled over, pressing his bare back to the sheets and letting the material soak up the wetness. One more day and then he would have to go against his enemy. He frowned: that was the one part of his new life that bothered him the most. His memories were still clustered in unrecognizable heaps in the corners of his mind, and he could not remember anything about this man. His weaknesses, his strengths… he might use his new ocular implant to scan his target, but that would take too long.

Riian grunted and sat up. Through the darkness he looked around his temporary quarters, trying to find that device that woman with the violet eyes had given him. She had said something about it containing all the information he would need…

He swung his bare feet to the thinly carpeted flooring. Where had he put it? He opened a drawer, half expecting to find his sword inside, but found only the grey spacesuit Munch had given him. His sword, that lovely thing he’d retrieved while on a job in Japan… the memories of that excursion unfurled within his mind’s eye and he swore he could nearly smell the cedar and sakura blossoms. The smell of takoyaki as it wafted from the festival… his target had been completely unaware of his presence until that last moment when he’d struck…

Riian opened his eyes, his fingers digging into the sleeve of the suit. He exhaled lightly, realizing his sword was probably gone, and smoothed the material out beneath his fingers. That weapon had been useful, he had a fondness for swords, but Munch hadn’t bothered to give him one. He smiled: his sword was a memory that felt real and whole. It made him feel better as he filed it away in the small pile of organized thoughts that he could trust as truth. The remainder sat like puzzle pieces, waiting for him to take the time to sort them out. Was his past life that important? He shifted his search, digging in drawers further down until he found the rectangular device.

The night sky shone beyond the window, dark and still, drawing Riian’s eye from the data pad. The stars glittered like snowflakes in a blizzard and for a brief moment, he could see it again, clean and crisp in his mind as if he was there. There was cold and the feeling of hunting. His target was lost in the blizzard and Riian’s feet were turning to ice as he looked for him. It felt familiar, like déjà vu. That memory was definitely real, though disjointed, and he filed it away as well. The sound of the device powering up drew his attention and he looked back to the bright screen perched in his hands.

The man’s picture flashed across the screen, black hair framing his pale face. Name was left off, as was age… Riian’s fingers curled around the edges in frustration. He could forgive the lack of name, but it bothered him that his power level was omitted. At least a list of previous injuries was given, as well as the types of upgrades suspected of being made by the Eades. He read over the man’s fighting style and noted his proficiency with knives.

The remainder of the file taught him nothing new. The Eades family history was brief and biased in favour of the Evergraves, painting his patron family with the brush of a saint, while the Eades were the devils after their divinity.

Riian rested his head against the pillows again, sighing contentedly as he sank into the down filling, the black material rising around his head as he felt the enticing tug of sleep. His memories fell into darkness as his eyes slipped shut and dreamless sleep enveloped his mind like white television snow.

+++

Riian walked along the hallway, his mind focused on the mission that lay ahead. It was early in the morning, but that fact didn’t seem to affect the happenings on the platform. The assassin had packed all his belongings onto his person. He wore the tight, dark-grey spacesuit beneath a long, heavy coat with many pockets. The secret compartments for all his weapons were hidden, but within easy reach of his fingers, should he need them. He was less than an hour away from the transport taking him to TorCen05 and his mission, but first, he had to meet with Sascha Evergraves.

His arrival went unnoticed as the door slid open and he entered the room. Munch and C023 were there, seated at a table, while Sascha stood to the side, arguing with an older man whose metallic teeth rattled in his head as he hissed at her. Riian’s attention snapped to them, immediately recognizing Paul Evergraves, the patriarch of their family.

“He was inferior,” she explained lightly, “but I improved him.”

“That…” the old man said, spinning around and pointing Riian with a shaking fist, “thing is outdated. We only needed him when our enemies were the Eades. He cannot destroy all our enemies now!”

Sascha pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes as she nearly shrieked. “Exactly! He is our defense against the Eades. The Eades initiated the cloning of their old assassin to destroy us, and this is our countermeasure.” She looked again at the aging patriarch.

“Don’t talk to me like I don’t understand, child,” Paul Evergraves spat out though clenched teeth, the metal in his mouth grinding together as he stabbed downward with his cane to catch his granddaughter in the toe. “Your agenda is as transparent as your brother’s clumsy attempts to take my power. This thing isn’t a toy to get you noticed,” he pointed again at Riian. “He should have stayed dead.”

Riian stood there, feeling more than a little uncomfortable as the head of the Evergraves – the man he was bound to serve – openly despised him.

The man’s old smile returned, a metallic grin flashed Sascha’s way. “I’ll watch you fail like your mother,” he spat again, turning his back to her and facing Riian. He paused for a moment before nodding to Munch, who pushed a button on the table. A screen appeared on the wall and everyone turned their attention to the blueprints that now glowed brightly against the beige surface.

“Our surveillance recorded his departure and we expect him to arrive at the midpoint station soon, so you will be leaving immediately. These are the blueprints of that station.” Munch said in a monotone voice.

Riian moved forward to take a closer look at the image. His eye snapped to the right against his will, fast like a camera flash, recording the image to its memory as he tried to understand the various symbols and corridors. “What is this section?” he asked, gesturing to a long corridor that wrapped around the perimeter of the circular station, connecting the seven prongs to the circular interior.

“The boulevard. That’s the main thoroughfare gangway between the ships and the central station,” the old man explained, his lips wrapping tightly over his teeth as he spoke. “You must stop him there.”

Riian nodded, even as he heard Sascha hiss under her breath at the older man. He ignored what she said: an order from an Evergraves was as it was, whether it came from her or from the patriarch.

“If you betray us again…” he muttered, low enough for only Riian to hear, but it was loud enough to cut through his thoughts.

“Again?” he said, tilting his head and looking over the older man. He bowed his head, remembering the report on the explosion and his failure. “Never…”

“Good,” Paul hissed, turned his back to Riian and walked towards the door. “If this fails, your brother will get everything,” he said, only turning his head to see Sascha from the corner of his eye.

“And if I succeed?” she said, folding her arms over her chest.

Paul looked forward and walked through the doorway and into the corridor.

The smug expression on Sascha’s sharp features tightened before she exhaled sharply and turned back to the remaining bodies in the room. “Get him to his transport already,” she barked, before turning and leaving as well.

“R-right, you s-s-shou… ld, go,” C023 stuttered and offered his hand.

“God, you’ll baby him to the very end, eh?” Munch rolled his eyes and retrieved the data stick from the screen. “You memorized this, right?” he said, lifting the stick to indicate the images it contained.

“Yes,” Riian nodded. He hoped this was something that would gain approval, but the larger man only nodded. He looked to C023 who had withdrawn his offered hand and was fidgeting with the buttons on his coat.

They walked the corridors to the transport ship – a small charter that seated twenty if it was packed to capacity. Munch nodded, assuring Riian he’d taught him everything he’d need to succeed. C023 was a bit more melodramatic, though Riian excused the strange, new tic as another clone issue brought up by anxiety. Riian thanked them both for their help and looked around, half-expecting Derex White to pop up and molest him before he left. Thankfully, the strange redhead was absent, but Riian’s modified eye did pick up a man approaching them. His eyes were a striking blue, and Riian couldn’t help but notice the cold glint burning into him as the man drew close.

“So, you’re my sister’s little experiment?” he asked as he stopped in front of the group. His gaze swept along Riian’s body and the assassin swore he could almost feel it. After a moment he smirked, as if he’d found something amusing.

“What?” Riian matched his gaze, even as he felt Munch and C023 shrinking from the encounter.

“This should be interesting. You against him. You know, my grandfather doesn’t care for you much at all. I’m very interested to see what you can do.”

Riian squared his jaw and glared hard at the other man.

“I’ve sent my own little pet out on a job, too. Maybe we can have a party when you two get home?” His eyebrow quirked up. “I’ll be sure to invite Sascha along.” His freckles seemed to dance on the apples of his cheeks as he grinned before he turned away.

Riian looked back to Munch and C023, but neither man seemed to understand. He watched the man walk away, just as the ship’s pilot approached and suggested that Riian get on board as they were about to depart. The assassin nodded to his companions before turning to pass through the iris and onto the small spacecraft.

He settled in as the vessel detached from the space platform and rocketed away. It was a small ship; dark and cramped with only five other passengers seated around the small compartment. Riian seated himself beside one of the two windows and quickly scanned his surroundings. He couldn’t see the other passengers very well from his position, though he did hear what sounded like a pet making snuffling sounds closer to the back. If he looked towards the front, he could see the pilots’ heads peeking out above their seats, and beyond that, the thick windows that kept the sharp sting of space at bay.

Space and the stars… the weight of his responsibility settled onto his shoulders like a familiar burden. He couldn’t remember much, but the desire to serve the Evergraves was strong. The way Paul had reacted to him left a bad taste in his mouth, but he was sure that if he could stop his target, he would regain their faith. He could supersede his past failures and become what he could scarcely remember being: the Evergraves empire’s right hand of death. When he gazed out the window, the images of stars burned into his eye and he could see the snow falling.

Hours passed. Riian could not detect how fast they were going, save for the way the stars closer to the ship blurred outside the window. Leaving the safety and stability of the planet was less disconcerting than he’d anticipated. His mind churned over the data he’d memorized, settling on the proper way to approach the situation. If this other assassin was as tough as Sascha implied, he might have to improvise, which meant the station blueprints stored in his eye would be vital to his success. His hand slid easily over the knife hidden in the pocket of his coat, the reassuring firmness calming him as he waited.

Ships passed them occasionally, their colours difficult to see, but lights gave away their forms and probable purposes. Their frequency increased before the pilots called back that they were arriving at TorCen05, awaiting docking instructions and anticipating debarcation within the hour. Riian clenched his fists against his thighs. Paul’s words echoed in his mind, and he wondered just what had led to the explosion that had killed them the first time. The other assassin might possibly know – Riian had no idea how complete his memories were – and his own were in shambles… he frowned and the ship jolted as it was gripped by the docking clamps. He wished he could at least remember the fighting style the other man would use against him, but all he could feel was the anxiety over failure again. Paul Evergraves had called it betrayal. Riian shook his head; no, it wouldn’t happen again.

Riian stepped through the iris connecting the ship to the station, eyeing the guard who waved him through. The man’s bright red and white suit marked him as security, someone to be avoided. The hallway was wide and he moved out to look along the boulevard. The open space was lined with vendors tucked into metal stalls, selling practical wares. While security appeared to cluster around the irises, the majority of the area was filled with travellers milling about. Riian had expected to see them dressed in their finest clothes, but though there was the occasional flash of bright colour, a lot of them were practically in rags. It was a lot dirtier than he’d expected. The station really was the key to the rest of the galaxy and everyone, regardless of who they were, had to stop there. Riian looked around; the entire outer wall was a massive expanse of glass, reaching up towards the high, vaulted ceilings. It was broken into sections by metal that created a sort of patchwork pattern of windows in differing states of wear. The starry sky shone through, illuminated by the sun, which glinted in from the topmost windows.

The inside felt dark and dim. Riian turned his eyes away from the black space and looked back along the boulevard. Groups of people were clustered around the stalls, while others were rushing through. He joined the ranks of those in-between; moving, but slowly so as to take in the sights. His eyes were on the lookout for his target. As he walked, he could see the arriving and departing ships through the windows, their lights bright and multi-coloured as they moved past. Maybe the other man was just arriving on one of those.

Several passageways led from the boulevard into the centre of the station. Signs framing the corridors indicated there were more restaurants and hotels inside, but Riian hung around the mouth of the first tunnel. He was well-hidden there and could watch the groups walking along the boulevard. If he was patient, he would be able to identify his target, follow, and finish him without being noticed at all. Riian grinned and cracked his knuckles; it would be too easy. He hunched down in the shadows, sure that nobody would spot him, when he felt someone suddenly appear beside him.

“Hey, stranger.” Strong fingers gripped his throat and squeezed, drawing his attention to the redhead who was grinning at him.

“Der-ex?” he choked out, glaring into those bright blue eyes. “What are you… doing?”

“Having fun,” the other man said, throwing him against the opposing wall before moving against him. He pressed his body flat against Riian’s, holding Riian’s arms down as he angled his head forward, grinning wildly. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to have fun, too.” His tongue snaked past his lips, hot and wet as it trailed along Riian’s jawline and down his throat.

“I’m working,” Riian ground out as he pushed the other man away. He balled his fist and drove it solidly into the other man’s stomach. “Stop trying things with me. You’re going to ruin my chance.”

Derex’s eyes looked surprised as he doubled over, holding his stomach. He made gasping sounds as he tried to breathe. “You… know… we could work together for this…”

“Fuck off.” Riian turned away and reclaimed his spot by the mouth of the hallway. People were still filtering by and he chanced popping his head out of the shadows to scan down the boulevard. “If I missed him because of you…” he looked back at the other man who was leaning against the wall.

“You’re so serious. I like you when you’re like that, so focused. You don’t even care about Sascha’s plans for you, you’re so hung up on reclaiming your honour,” Derex laughed. “I’m kinda the same with my master’s plans. He wants the company for himself, so, in a way, I’m working here, too.” He stepped forward, but Riian caught him before he could make another perverted suggestion.

He hoisted Derex into the air and slammed him against the wall a couple times: once to get his attention, the second time to make sure he was paying attention. “If you’re working, then work.”

The other man gripped at his wrist, trying to gain some leverage as the air slowly leaked from his lungs. His face turned almost as red as the hair that floated around his soft features.

Riian watched with a sadistic pleasure as the other man’s giddiness faded into a serious expression of desperation. His legs kicked beneath him and Riian leaned in close, a breath away from the other man’s mouth. “I want you…” he whispered, loud enough for only Derex to hear, “to fuck off. Understand?”

Those cobalt eyes looked around, as if Derex were contemplating his options, before he nodded and Riian released his grip. He gasped a few times, though his manic smile returned at once, grating on Riian’s sense of victory. “I think your man just walked by.”

“What? Fuck!” Riian hissed, looking out. He immediately spotted his man: pale skin, long black hair. He left Derex in the corridor and stepped out, never taking his eyes off his target, who was already getting lost in the crowd. It was difficult to see his face from where he stood, but Riian recognized him instantly; it was in the way he moved, like a predatory cat moving through a herd of antelope. Riian concealed himself behind the crowd. The other man appeared unconcerned, though his silvery eyes darted about, taking in his surroundings. When he had moved further along, Riian stepped from the shadows to follow. He tried to be inconspicuous, though it was difficult as he felt his opportunity slipping away.

The other assassin was escaping and he didn’t even realize he was being pursued. He stepped off to the side, finding a small path behind the stalls and around the crowd of travellers. Riian kept his strong back in sight, his eye analyzing his movements, identifying any possible weak points. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, thudding wildly as he drew nearer. The stars shone through the window, bathing his target in a naked,white light that seemed to cut through the station lighting. His vision narrowed to that back moving a few metres away.

The other man didn’t see him; didn’t turn his head or adjust his movements from the lazy, casual stroll he had adopted, let alone make any sort of move to engage or escape. If Riian could just get a little closer, he could rush up and stab him before the other even realized he was there. It would be perfect, smooth… Riian grinned darkly. Paul would accept him. He reached into his cloak for his knife. The cool faux-metal comforted him as he hurried his pace.

His footfall seemed loud in his ears as he drew nearer. His fingers closed around the handle of his weapon and his heart beat loudly in his chest. His training kicked in. He didn’t have to think.

Just a few steps.

Riian drew close.

One more step- shit! Riian faltered, nearly crashing into his target as the other man suddenly turned towards the inner wall of the station. He never looked behind him, and Riian nearly tripped as his target disappeared into the crowd.

“Shit!” he stopped, his eyes wide. He’d been seen. The other man must have spotted him somehow.

Riian sheathed his knife and leapt after his target, pushing through the crowd, past the travellers, the vendors, the carts packed with miscellaneous trinkets, even the beggars tucked amidst them. He tripped over a metal crate and crashed into the ground, his elbows digging into the flooring. He looked up in time to see the dark-grey cloak swish around a corner.

He leapt to his feet and rushed after. An image of the station’s layout flashed in his eye, casting an illuminated outline over what he was actually seeing, allowing him to plan his route. Riian pressed himself against the wall as he approached the corner, carefully peeking around the edge before continuing forward.

Passengers rarely saw this area. This was where the more long-term residents lived, with a few rooms hollowed out for businesses that were of a higher caliber than the average street peddler: hotels, restaurants, and posh shops. Riian slipped into one of the entrances that lined this new hallway. The cool grey walls seemed to swallow the light that emanated from the ceiling, and he warily eyed the shadows for a sign of his target. He flattened against the door just as another further down swished open. He held his breath before peeking around the wide doorframe.

He spotted a woman dressed in red. She was walking away from him, together with a tall, lanky figure. Females… he narrowed his eyes: they didn’t look human. He focused his modified eye, zooming in to see them better. Billowing, airy fabric covered her entire body in a haze, gathered at the waist and joints by golden threads and chains. Riian shifted his gaze to the other woman threading her long, green arm around the red waist. Her hair writhed like snakes down her back and over her shoulders as she leaned heavily against her partner. He focused on the snake-like locks despite himself, fascinated – hypnotized – by the way they slithered together, like a pile of placid vipers. One snake coiled around her arm, its forked tongue slithering out to touch the red woman’s body, before it suddenly snapped back, stared right at him, and hissed sharply.

Riian jumped backwards, pressing against the door just as it slid open. He let out a surprised yelp as he fell in, stopped by hands that suddenly gripped his shoulders. For a moment, he faltered. His instinct to leap away and spin back with a vicious attack failed him and he froze while the man behind him pulled him close.

“Riian?” The breath was warm over the shell of his ear and he shuddered, resisting the urge to lean into the embrace.

The knife was cold in his hand as he finally wrapped his fingers around the handle. He had done this before, but why did the weapon feel so wrong? He pulled the blade free, shook the other man off and spun around, ready to fight, as his heart pounded in a familiar rhythm.

Thump-thump-thump, the sound from his dreams. Thump-thump-thump, the snow falling in that terrible storm.

He swung the knife, but it only sliced through air as the other man stepped out of the way. Riian quickly recovered and turned to face him, ready to strike once more.

His mission was at the front of his mind. The man he’d been training for the past week to kill was right in front of him. Riian tightened his fingers around his weapon and looked at the other. For the hours he’d spent staring at his image, studying the little information the Evergraves had, coming face-to-face with his enemy left him frozen in his tracks. He was so familiar. His dark hair made his face look pale, his silver gaze mesmerizing as it shifted between the blade and Riian’s eyes.

“Riian?” he said again.

Riian stared at him, the lost bits of his memory swirling like burnt paper in a soft breeze. There was a painful chunk missing; one filled with knowledge of this man, and he couldn’t comprehend why that fact made his heart ache. “Maarc,” Riian croaked, his mouth moving against his will.

“Hey!” a familiar voice called out from further down the hall. “What’s going on?”

Riian looked over his shoulder to see Derex walking towards them, arms outstretched and a pistol clutched in one hand. His eyes blazed with glee and Riian turned back to Maarc, just as the manic redhead fired. “What the shit?” he bellowed, his guts filling with cold annoyance.

Maarc grabbed his wrist and pulled him along down the corridor, but Riian resisted. He wrenched free and stared at the black-haired assassin. Derex was nearly upon them, he could feel it, but he couldn’t look away from those cold, silvery eyes.

“Run,” he heard himself whispering. His heart was in his throat and he took another half-hearted stab at Maarc. Maarc’s pale face tightened, his jaw set, and he nodded before turning and taking off down the corridor.

Riian watched him go, just as Derex caught up. “Fuck, wait, don’t go!” he shouted, firing again at the other man. “You’re letting him get away?” he chirped at Riian with a fierce grin. “They won’t like that.”

The spell broke the moment Maarc disappeared; Riian’s attention snapped to Derex. He’d hesitated. Was this what Paul had meant, that he was broken somehow? He looked back to where Maarc had escaped and sprang forward. Whatever Maarc had done to him, whether he’d infected him or interfered with his cloning somehow, he wouldn’t let him do it again.

The pounding of his feet vibrated up his legs. He turned a corner and rushed out onto the boulevard, looking left and right sharply, trying to see where his enemy had fled. A new ship had arrived and there was an influx of people spilling out onto the thoroughfare. Riian rushed around a cart that blocked his path and spun around, desperately looking for that head of black hair. Why the hell did he tell him to run? The world was spinning out of control. His stomach burnt with his mistake as he pushed through the sea of people.

“There he is!” Derex was by his side, eagerly grabbing his arm and pointing. “Shoot him!”

Riian looked and saw the other man, down one of the passages to the lower docking levels. He was almost gone. The noise of the arriving travellers washed over him as he tucked his knife back into his pocket and drew his pistol. The metal shone dully beneath the starlight; he flicked a switch to activate the energy cell and looked back at his quick-moving target. The glass shone, dully reflecting Maarc’s image. Riian raised the weapon and took aim.

He blinked. He was good. The best. He wouldn’t miss. His finger felt cold as it curled around the trigger, the crosshairs lining up and locking onto his target that hovered against the backdrop of stars. A million points of light blazed across his eyes and Riian’s heartbeat throbbed in his wrist. He exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The energy blast flashed across the hallway. It rocketed straight towards the other man, who spun out of the way at the last minute. His black hair seemed to hang in the air for a moment as he moved, leaving the glass wall behind him to take the brunt of the damage. Riian choked on his breath. The energy bullet shimmered into the clear wall, burning deep into its surface and triggering the station’s alarm.

Warning sirens began to shriek in his ears, the screeching tempo matched by flashing lights. Riian’s perceptions shifted to slow motion as he watched chaos unravel before him. He could feel Derex grabbing his arm, pulling him away, but he couldn’t break eye contact with the dark-haired man who still stood beside the glass. His silver-grey eyes were wide, unbelieving.

Riian’s expression mirrored his surprise. The passengers and vendors alike were screaming a chorus of terror and panic around them. Their bodies clashed like a school of uncoordinated fish escaping death. Maarc just stared back at him through the chaos. His silver gaze was cold before it shifted back to where Riian had struck.

The glass smoked at the burn mark and the cold ping of metal breaking still echoed in his ears. The shielding outside flickered worryingly, and Riian’s heart caught in his throat as that blood-chilling sound broke through his senses. He was gripped by hollow terror as the crack grew from the small point on the window. It sounded like glass splintering, loud and painful, cutting through his ears. Derex’s arm pressed against his chest and he was pulled back, staring endlessly at his target; the man whom he needed to kill, the man whose eyes disarmed him. The man who was escaping.

“Let’s get out of here!” Derex shouted in his ear as the shielding behind the window flickered again before failing completely. The siren rose in pitch and there was the awful sound of metal releasing. Further along the boulevard, a large, steel shutter dropped from the ceiling, containing the area behind. People screamed as they tried to get out of the way of the falling mass. A group wearing red and white security uniforms rushed into view and began ushering people away. Maarc turned and fled down a passage, just as the metal shutter fell into place and blocked him from view as well.

Riian turned to Derex. Shit, this wasn’t supposed to happen! “How the fuck?!” he yelled over the sirens as the other man led him down another tunnel. He followed, nearly tripping over his feet. So, this was the reason why Paul hadn’t wanted him there. He knew this would happen, that he’d fail. He wasn’t strong enough to protect the family…

That bit of shame churned about inside him, tightening his stomach with anger just as Derex turned suddenly and pressed his pistol to Riian’s neck. The cold metal sent a shiver down his spine. Those blue eyes were looking at him coolly and Riian tried to push the weapon away. “What are you–?”

“Don’t worry!” the other man said with a grin. “It’s just set to stun…” he squeezed the trigger and Riian felt the jolt of energy rush through his body, sending him into involuntary spasms as he dropped to the floor and the world faded away.

Everything was black and the sirens faded into the distance, until he could only hear Derex’s voice muttering. “I think yours was, too. Too bad the shields were compromised. Heee.”

+++

It was cold outside. The hinges on the door creaked painfully as he slammed the barrier behind them, locking the baleful storm outside.

Despite his exhaustion, Riian carried the other man inside, dropping him by the hearth. His mittens were encrusted with snow, frozen to icicles that chilled his teeth as he bit the coverings and pulled them free. The only thing on his mind was fire. Fire and insanity for bringing the other man with him. He groped in his pocket, fingers closing around the package of matches that would keep them alive with the help of some dry wood. Riian peered through the dim lighting, feeling the mercy of some unnamed divinity smiling on them as he spied the neat pile of logs just waiting for him in the corner of the cabin.

Hours later, the fire was crackling merrily in the hearth and his coat was hanging nearby, dripping puddles on the wooden floor. The dark assassin sat cross-legged beside his charge, his black eyes focused on the pale face of his enemy, while those light eyes remained closed to the world. Ever since he’d found him collapsed in the snow, he’d had a wide-open window of opportunity to finally kill him. Coat his hands in the other’s blood and finally strike his name from his to-do list. He watched the other’s chest rise and fall as he breathed shallowly, hitching every so often as the cold still reached through to chill him to the bone.

“I’m only keeping you alive so I can kill you later,” Riian muttered. “It’s not fair, otherwise.”

Maarc Wren said nothing as Riian helped him out of his clothing. He slept soundly as the other man created a warm bed and crawled in with him, all the while promising that once he was healthy, he would be in for the fight of his life.

+++

Riian opened his eyes with a headache throbbing around his temples and anger burning at the back of his throat. The memory of his dream was leaving him, and the more he thought about it, the more it unravelled and didn’t make any sense. He huffed quietly and thought back to Derex and the…

He bolted upright, ignoring the pain in his head for the greater pain that throbbed in his chest. It was a cold lump of devastation as he remembered his last conscious moments on the space station; the glass cracking and the terrible sight of the shielding failing. The screams echoed around him as the wall cracked open and the first bodies flew out into the black void beyond.

“Oh God, oh God… fuckfuckfuck!” Riian hopped off the bed and paced to the door. His feet carried him a few steps, but his legs gave out and he crouched, running his fingers through his short, auburn hair. Shit. Oh God, what had he done? He pushed himself to stand. He had to get out of there, he had to move…

The only person he could connect this to was Derex, and he was almost certain he had heard the other man’s voice beyond the door. His fingers were shaking as he pushed the button that slid the metal barrier soundlessly aside. He stumbled outside, realizing immediately that he was on a small ship as he found himself on the control deck where Derex stood with another man.

“It’s about time that bitch was taken down a peg,” the brown-haired man was saying. “I’ve been waiting for her to expose herself like this, and now another one of her projects is a huge failure!” That man… he recognized the voice from the platform before he’d left. It was Sascha’s brother, Maynard. He was leaning against a console with a data pad in his hand. He hadn’t noticed Riian’s entrance. “But why the hell did you bring him back with us? Now I’ve got to get rid of him!”

Riian faltered in his approach, and Derex looked straight at him as he answered. His cobalt eyes gleamed. “I just like him. He’s pretty.”

Riian stood like a deer caught in headlights as Derex approached him.

Maynard turned, noticing him for the first time. He moved closer. “You think so?” he asked. Riian backed away, but Derek quickly moved around him and locked the assassin’s arms behind him in a steely grip. “You want I should leave him to you?” the brown-haired man asked, a dark smile gracing his light features.

Riian struggled against Derex’s hold, but he still felt weak. His stomach was in knots and he couldn’t resist as Maynard grabbed him by the chin, tilting his head to see him clearly. The older man appraised him for a moment, gaze lingering on his eye, before he grinned. “You’d better finish before my sister gets here, then.” He reached out to press his thumb into the skin around Riian’s left eye. “She’s put a transmitter on him. She can see everything we do…” he held Riian’s chin steady and waved while mouthing the words ‘Hi Sascha’ with a fake smile.

Riian’s head fell forward when Maynard released him. A transmitter…?

“I don’t know if I like that.” Derex hissed into Riian’s ear as he tightened his grip.

Maynard looked at him darkly. “I do. Make sure she can see you.” He stepped back, surveilling the two assassins before waving them off. “Have fun.”

Riian tightened his jaw, though there were no biting marks trying to get out. His mind swam with the headache that was taking over the rest of his brain, while he processed the massive failure on the station and the fact that the Evergraves had seen everything. Everything. He shuddered as Derex dragged him into the back room. The door slid shut with a finality that seemed to awaken his fighting spirit.

“You!” he hissed, jerking forward in an attempt to free himself. He stomped heavily on the other man’s foot, earning him a grunt of pain. “You’re the reason for all of this.” He wrenched free and spun, ready to fight. His fist lashed out at his command and he felt the satisfying crack of it connecting with the other man’s cheek.

Derex’s head snapped to the side with the force of the blow, but any satisfaction Riian might have felt at that was erased when he quickly turned his head back, showing the dark assassin his bloody-bright smile. “Oh, you’re putting this all on me?” His fists shot out like striking vipers that took Riian off guard, winding him. Derex grabbed his suit and pulled him close. “You’re the one that missed your shot.” He nipped at Riian’s jaw and purred. “I’m the one that pulled you out of there before you were arrested. Did you know it’s very illegal to fire guns on that station?” He set Riian down and relaxed his grip. “Well, any station, really. They get really pissed if you depressurize anything, and pistols are great for doing just that.” His long fingers wound their way into the fastenings that secured Riian’s grey space suit, pulling at the little tabs and loosening the garment around his chest.

“Stop!” Riian smacked his hands away and tried to back away. He shifted his weight and kicked Derex in the stomach, before raising his leg higher and bringing his heel down on Derex’s head. He regained his footing, ready to beat the living daylights out of the other man. Derex, however, seemed to be a masochist: he crouched on the ground where he’d fallen, cradling his head, but his body shook with laughter. Silent laughter that set Riian’s nerves on edge. “What is wrong with you?” he shouted.

“Nnnnnothing at all!” the man with the bright-red hair hummed as his fists hit Riian in the knees.

Riian dropped to the ground like a sack of rocks, the pain lancing out from his joints and along his legs. Even as his enhanced limbs worked to recover, it still hurt and he rolled on his back, languishing in agony while Derex climbed on top of him. He felt the other man’s thighs trapping his chest, holding him down and limiting his movement as Derex resumed loosening his suit. He still tried to resist, kicking out behind the other man, though he reeled as he felt Derex’s fist crack across his nose. “Aw, fuck,” he hissed, feeling the blood in his sinuses.

“I had a feeling you’d be fun like this.” Derex licked at the blood that trickled from his nose before moving down to his mouth. The freckled assassin clawed across Riian’s chest, pinching at his nipples and causing his captive to cry out. His tongue was soft and insistent as it plunged deep into Riian’s mouth, spreading the coppery-tasting blood along his palate.

It tasted familiar, like anger and violence mixed together with the heady scent of sex. Riian closed his eyes as Derex forced his tongue inside, seeing images flashing in his mind’s eye. Everything made sense as he felt his senses awaken beneath Derex’s fingers. He felt a smile burning at the corners of his mouth and he bit down on the other man’s tongue. Hard.

In a swift movement, Riian shoved him off and leapt to his feet. Derex seemed unfazed and advanced on him again, just as Riian hopped up and kicked him in the face with a perfectly-coordinated axe kick. His boots were meant for surviving in space and Riian grinned in a Derex-ish way as he felt the heel of his boot catch the redhead in the chin. However, Derex quickly recovered and simply lowered his face, wearing a wide, manic grin. He wiped at the blood from his mouth and licked the red substance off his fingers. “Yummy.”

His smile dropped a fraction and he launched himself forward, driving his fist into Riian’s left cheek.

There was an explosion of pain at the impact and Riian’s vision reeled as he stumbled back, blocking the next few hits as he tried to recover. He raised his arms, barely holding off a flurry of kicks from Derex. His forearms burned, but he could feel bloodlust rising in his throat. He couldn’t stop the grin that broke out across his face as he lowered his arms. His fists burned through the air as he drove forward, a machine-gun burst of strikes at his opponent. He could feel the pain spreading from his knuckles with each blurring hit. Derex fell against the wall and Riian paused in his attack, heaving for breath and watching the other man for his next move.

“God, you’re beautiful like that,” Derex purred through bloodied lips. He spat on the ground as his blue eyes raked along Riian’s body. “You’re so fun. I swear: nobody else plays with me like this.”

“I’m not your fucking toy,” Riian ground out, rubbing at his injured cheek. His eye felt funny and he was having trouble focusing his vision. The circuits weren’t reporting any weaknesses in the other man’s form. “Whatever your master has planned with mine… I won’t let-”

Riian never got a chance to finish the sentence. Derex’s expression never changed; he still wore the same gleeful smile as the ship rocked to the side and the two assassins were thrown off balance. Riian crashed to the floor, banging his head against the wall. His vision fogged up and his eye felt worse. He pushed up and leaned against the wall, trying to climb to his feet, but Derex’s fist at the back of his neck told him he was too late.

“You really are clumsy,” he chuckled, yanking the dark-haired assassin to his feet. “Clumsy, but pretty.”

+++

Derex hauled him to his feet and pulled him forward, swiping his tongue one last time along Riian’s mouth before he re-fastened his suit. The ship lurched again, as if it were landing on something solid, and the redhead opened the door before dragging Riian out.

Sascha was in the other room and the hatch was open. She hovered over her brother as she screamed in his face. Derex released Riian and moved forward to insert himself between the siblings. “Hey, hey, not nice to fight,” he said through his bloody lip, guarding his master from Riian’s.

“Get away from me,” she hissed, raising her hand to force Derex back. She turned her angry, violet eyes towards Riian and appraised him before turning back to Maynard. “I don’t want your pet fucking with my project. His mind is very fragile and the trauma of being molested by a pervert might be too much for him. Do you get that?” She moved closer to him and Riian stood his ground, looking straight ahead, unable to meet her gaze. Her fingers were surprisingly warm as she touched the skin around his left eye, but icicles clung to her words. “Get your ass out there. Gramps wants to see us both. The things your little Derex did… they’re going to bring us all down.”

“Ha! How the hell can you prove it?” Maynard hissed as he turned to Derex and gave him a look. There were no words, but the redhead understood and quickly exited the ship, followed by Maynard.

Riian remained behind with Sascha, who folded her arms over her chest and watched the door for a moment before huffing. “What the hell did you do?”

Riian couldn’t reply. The weight of the situation was so heavy on his chest, he couldn’t breathe to respond. He only followed her as she left the small ship for the hangar bay of the larger craft.

The Evergraves vessel was large enough to house Maynard’s private ship as well as a few others, all nestled in its spacious interior. Riian followed the others to a lift that carried them up to the upper levels of the ship and into a long corridor lined by several doors. He moved as a dead man walking, ignoring the others ahead, or whatever shadows trailed behind. When he entered through the open door, Paul Evergraves was there, waiting for him.

The elder patriarch sat at the head of the table, his cane hooked over the edge and his long, bony fingers steepled in front of him. His steely gaze weighed heavily on Riian before it cut through the rest gathered there. Sascha and Maynard took their seats at the table, but Riian followed Derex’s example and stood behind his master, awaiting the worst.

Paul relished the silence, it seemed. He waited, watching everyone’s nervous expressions before he finally drew a breath. “You,” he said, inclining his head towards Riian, “said you wouldn’t betray us again.”

Riian shook his head. “Never.” He clenched his jaw. It was a mistake. It wasn’t his fault the shielding failed!

Paul nodded lightly, as if he understood for a second before the feigned sympathy evaporated under the flame of anger. His hand slammed hard against the desk. “Then why did you hesitate to kill him?!” The older man’s metal teeth snapped together in a vicious grimace.

Riian could only ball his fists at his side. “I didn’t, I mean… I thought this was about missing… the station depressurizing.”

Paul swirled his lips over his teeth and sucked at his gums. His eyes were burning, but the fire was turning down to a simmer. “Several people died because of your actions.”

Riian nodded.

“Sucked right into space!” his hand flew through the air, as if to show that that might look like. “And if they find out that was because of us, do you know what that could mean? Really? Bringing a pistol onto the goddamn station?!” He turned to Sascha for an explanation.

The usually strong woman looked small in her chair and she stared at the tabletop. Maynard looked equally passive beneath the anger of their grandfather. Riian chanced a glance at Derex, who looked strangely reserved as well. It must have been the first time he had seen the other man without a manic grin plastered on his face.

Paul slapped his hand on the table again and Riian looked to him once more. “I’m going to have to figure out how to handle this. You’ve turned this into one massive clusterfuck. ALL of you!” He pointed a shaking fist in Riian’s direction. “I want him locked up. I don’t want him… hesitating on anything else important.” His eyes were hollows of madness as he glared into Riian’s dark expression and the assassin knew exactly what he had meant.

+++

Hours later, Riian was sitting in the blackness of a locked bedroom. He couldn’t bring himself to turn on the lights and he had no idea how much time had passed. The old man’s words rang over and over in his head. Had he seen the footage of him telling Maarc to go? Did he know something about them?

The thought that there was some reason he’d helped the other man left him scraping through fractured memories. Was this the second time he had helped Maarc? Did he owe the other man something, was that why he had hesitated? The ship was utterly quiet and the stars remained static outside, indicating they hadn’t moved since he’d been locked away. Maybe they would forget he was there altogether.

Riian sighed deeply and rubbed at his eye. It felt sore and he was still having trouble seeing through the flickering vision it reported. He climbed to his feet, intent on inspecting it in a mirror, when he heard the familiar click of the lock.

He spun around, heart beating fast, and he watched the darkened barrier. Who could it be? Sascha, ready to give him the order to kill her brother, or maybe Derex with some perverse proposal?

The door finally shifted to the side and Riian squinted in the sudden light that poured into the room. The figure in the hallway was dark, unrecognizable in the shadows cast around his face.

“Who is it?” he asked, shielding his eyes as the other man quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

“Riian?” his voice was urgent, but oh-so familiar.

“You!’ Riian hissed. “What the hell are you doing here?” Darkness fell about them again and he rubbed at his eyes, wishing his implant was working so he could see properly.

“What did they do to you?” The other man moved toward him, his strong frame blocking Riian against the wall.

Riian’s body moved on instinct. He dropped close to the floor before sharply kicking out with his heel, driving his boot into his opponent’s shin. The other dropped to the ground, clutching at his injured leg. Riian hopped up and lifted his foot high, ready to finish the job Paul had given him.

The other man’s eyes flashed as he stopped favouring his shin, raising his hand to catch Riian’s foot mid-air. Riian tried to kick out from the hold, but Maarc yanked his foot to the side, throwing Riian off balance and sending him crashing to the ground in a heap.

His back connected with the floor first, knocking the wind out of him and leaving him gasping for breath. He pressed his hands against the floor, trying to climb to his feet and continue the fight, but his lungs had other ideas and they heaved as they tried to reclaim the lost oxygen.

“Riian…” that voice hissed. “What are you doing?”

He tried to look over from his doubled-over position, clutching at his chest. “I have… orders…” he shuddered, breathing painfully to make the words. “You are… my… enemy.” He didn’t add that Paul might accept him if he defeated him. He didn’t care what small friendship they’d developed in their past life. Old favours didn’t mean anything to him now, not if he had a way out of his terrible disgrace.

Maarc was on his feet once more, walking with a slight limp as he moved to stand beside Riian. The dark-skinned assassin could feel his hand upon his back and his lungs hitched as he began to breathe normally again. He tried to inhale deeply as the other man pulled him close, wrapping his arms around him in a strong hug. “Enemies? We… used to be, but you changed that.”

Riian’s mind buzzed with white, dizzy with the sudden burst of oxygen. He felt those strong arms tighten as Maarc bowed his head, breathing against Riian’s neck in a way that sent sparks of alarm down his spine. What the hell was he doing? “I’m supposed to kill you.”

“Is that what they told you to do?” Maarc breathed against his neck.

Riian’s mind reeled. This had to be a trick. It had to be. Get his trust so that he wouldn’t stop the other from ruining the Evergraves. Riian inhaled deeply, catching the warm scent of his enemy. There was no way this was leading where he thought it was. There was nothing more between them than lies and deceit. He began to push away from the strong chest.

“Stop,” the other man commanded, tightening his grip. He clenched his jaw and Riian stopped struggling to glare up at him. “Please don’t do this, Ri’. I… I’ll tell you the truth.”

Riian felt the arms loosen around him. “My life is utterly fucked because of you,” he said, and pressed his forehead to the other man’s chest. His words felt dead on his lips, while the skin beneath him was warm and full of life. “Paul doesn’t trust me. Everyone is regretting bringing me back! What difference does the truth make? I don’t have to remember.” There was the distinct sound of someone keying the security code into the door and he talked loudly over the noise. “They still own me, and there’s only one way they will trust me again.” He wrenched his hand free and punched upward, hooking the other man in the jaw just as the door opened.

He caught Maarc by surprise: the pale assassin fell to the ground. Riian squinted, recognizing the stooped figure that hunched in the doorway, as well as the others that flanked him as he stepped inside.

The lights came on, in a flash of brilliance that sent pain stabbing through Riian’s retinas. Then everything was a wave of confusion. He reeled back, covering his injured eye as he heard Maarc shouting. Derex muttered something that seemed to irritate the other man. Riian backed up; still trying to adjust to the sudden light, but his left eye was going wonky, pain sparking through his vision directly to to his brain.

“Riian!” he heard Maarc’s voice clearly through the sound of scuffling feet. He gave up waiting for the pain to subside and covered his left eye while squinting with his right. The other assassin had drawn a katana sword that he wielded with great skill. It glinted brightly beneath the stale lighting as he struck out at Derex. “Riian! Help me!”

Riian stepped towards him, eyeing the others in the room. Derex was dangerously close to the blade, his cobalt eyes glancing over the sword’s edge before raking over his opponent’s body. Those chilling eyes snapped to meet his, suddenly, and Riian stopped his advance.

Paul stood to the side with Maynard and Sascha, and Riian caught his eye when the old patriarch glanced his way. His dull, grey eyes scanned over him before glancing back to the fight taking place. His face remained neutral and impassive, though his eyes seemed to glint malicious venom and he tapped his cane on the floor. “This is your last chance, Riian.”

The words cut through him and Riian felt hope rising. He looked back at Maarc who suddenly seemed overwhelmed. If he just stayed put…

Maarc’s blade cut through the air, narrowly missing the redheaded assassin. Derex danced under the blade and stepped inside Maarc’s guard. His lanky body twisted, driving his elbow against Maarc’s jaw. The dark-haired man recoiled and tried to counter, but Derex hit him again and again, a series of lightning quick punches to his gut. The redhead finally withdrew his pistol and aimed it at Maarc, finally deciding the battle with firepower.

Maarc looked back at Riian, his silver eyes wide and desperate. “Ri…”

Riian bowed his head and stayed put. The silence in that moment seemed to go on forever, but he kept his head bowed. This was his last chance; all he had to do was stand there and listen to the energy blast explode from the pistol. He only shifted when Maarc’s body fell into his vision, lying unconscious on the floor. He heard Derex’s smile before he spoke, informing Paul he’d only stunned the assassin because he just knew the other man would want to extract some information from him.

The elder patriarch’s voice drew his attention and he looked up again. “I never thought…” he started as he fought back a smile. “Well, Riian, you’ve picked the right side.” His metallic teeth glinted and Riian tried to take some comfort in seeing them, in knowing that he’d finally earned the other man’s trust. He indicated Maarc lying on the floor. “Come with me, Riian, and bring him along.”

Riian crouched down and wrapped his arms around the other assassin’s body. He grunted as he lifted, but Paul was already out the door and he rushed to follow. Maynard was walking alongside his grandfather, arguing the whole time, leaving Riian to follow staring at their backs.

“Uh, what about the station?” the younger man whined, glaring back at Riian in a way that showed he didn’t like where this was going. “All those people died because of Sascha’s creation.”

Paul waved off the questions and turned a corner before stopping beside an inconspicuous door. Riian watched as he pushed some buttons on the keypad. “Damage control. This isn’t the first time we’ve caused a disaster or two.”

“But Paul!” he tried cutting in again as the door opened and Paul led the way inside.

“Quiet!” the older man bit back. “Your sister’s creation still needs work, but don’t think I don’t know what your little pet did on that station.” He pointed his cane in Maynard’s direction, shutting him up.

Maynard’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. “I didn’t-”

“Your petty vengeance got those people killed, and now Sascha will win this round of squabbling.” He looked sharply to Riian. “You may set him down and then leave us.”

Riian kneeled and allowed Maarc’s unconscious body to slip to the ground. The action felt familiar. The man’s eyelids were shut, but he could still feel the way his silver eyes burned into his. Burned with the hurt of betrayal. Riian frowned and stood. Paul was still arguing with Maynard and so he turned and left.

+++

His footsteps felt heavy as he walked the distance back to his room. Earning Paul’s acceptance had meant everything to him until that point. The thought of reclaiming his honour had been so strong… then why did he feel so hollow now that he’d earned it?

The metal door to his room slid open, revealing Derex’s form stretched out across his bed. Riian looked flatly at him for a moment before stepping in and shutting the door behind him. The other assassin had activated some soft lighting that still allowed Riian to see him, despite his injured eye.

“Wow, what an exciting day, eh?” Derex stretched languidly. “You know what would be a great way to finish it off?”

“For you to leave me alone?”

“Sex.” Derex purred, running his hand down his torso and splaying his fingers out around his hip. “I like you a lot.”

“I don’t…” Riian trailed off, looking over the other assassin’s body. His dark eyes took in the image, the long, muscular figure just lying there, inviting his touch. “No.”

“Aw, you’re no fun!” Derex sprang from the bed, catching Riian off guard and pressed him to the wall. “Then again, maybe you know how I like it rough and are indulging me? Giving me the opportunity to rough you up?”

Riian hissed in warning as he balled his fists and struck out at the other man, sending him flying back against the bed. Derex bounced twice on the soft mattress, but was on his feet in an instant, the smouldering look back in his eyes.

“Ah, yes,” he moved on Riian again, sneaking under his punches and pressing their bodies together. He grabbed Riian’s jaw, tilting his head to the side and holding him steady. “You know what I like. But… I also know what you like.” His voice grew more sorrowful. “You’ve been so confused, so mistreated by everyone. Even that big, mean assassin tried to lie to you.”

Riian tried to turn away, but Derex held his head steady. “You’ve been through so much, I should be more sensitive to what you want, or maybe just what you need right now.” His grip softened and he stepped back, hooking his fingers over one of the straps of Riian’s suit. “Please?”

“I…” Riian tried to resist. His mind wasn’t into it, but his body was exhausted and easily encouraged. His feet carried him along, following Derex’s lead to the bed. “I don’t really want…”

“Ah, but you need it!” Derex was quick to fill in as he guided Riian to sit on the edge of the bed. “Though, I won’t deny this is something I’ve been wanting, too.” His strong hands pressed against Riian’s chest, guiding him to lie back on the bed while they worked on the fasteners of his suit.

Riian lay there, his ears filled with the sounds of the other assassin divesting him of his clothing. Every so often, he shifted to allow the other man to pull the coverings away, but for the remaining long minutes, he stayed still, breathing deeply and thinking back to Maarc.

“You’re so beautiful,” Derex finally said, drawing his attention, once the last of his suit had been ripped off his legs. They were both naked and the pale assassin leant over him, his fierce blue eyes raking across Riian’s naked skin. Riian looked down, seeing the dusky flesh of his torso prickling under Derex’s touch. He raised his head further to see his hardening erection resting against Derex’s hip, seemingly interested in the other man’s intentions. Derex’s fingers were strong against his chin as he guided his attention back to his freckled face. “So pretty, I could just eat you up!”

Riian’s hand shot up to catch the other man by the throat. “Why don’t you shut up and do it already, then?”

Derex’s mouth spread into a lecherous grin, but it didn’t last long as Riian surged forward to swallow the infuriating smile and plunge his tongue deep into Derex’s mouth. He pulled the other man down, forcing the manic assassin on top of him so that the warm body covered his own. His body was heating up as they touched and Derex’s sharp nails elicited pained gasps between the deep kisses.

Riian shifted on the mattress, allowing the other man to properly straddle his hips and finally bring their naked erections together. He arched into the touch, his entire being focused at that one point of his body. “Oh fuck!”

“Hee, you’re so sensitive.” The redhead squeezed their cocks together in his tightening fist and rocked his hips forward. His own eyes were heavily lidded, showing just how much he was enjoying himself, but Riian could barely see him through his own slitted gaze. It felt so wonderful. His nerves thrummed throughout his body as his heart thudded in his chest. His mouth fell open, letting loose moans accented with his own desperation to come. This would be the first time in this body. He arched his back, trying to gain more force from Derex’s thrusts. “Mmm, harder,” he heard himself moaning, and the other man said something in agreement.

There was a pause, and then the bed began to shake with the force of their movements. Derex’s entire weight thrust down into Riian’s body, and Riian could only hold on for dear life. He gripped Derex’s thighs, digging his fingers into the muscle and feeling as if he could tear the other man apart at that moment. He opened his eyes a fraction, peering out.

The other man moved above him, panting heavily as his black hair bounced around his shoulders. Riian shook his head and looked again, but it was red this time. Red hair of a crazed stranger fucking down into him.

He closed his eyes again, trying to focus on the feeling. He was so close, his body twitching in anticipation, trying to get more – more feeling more fucking – but his mind was screaming for another reason entirely.

It felt broken in his psyche. Whenever he thought hard, he could only see Maarc above him. The other assassin fucking him, and he wanted it. Oh God, the emotions tied to that scene in his mind had him moaning in ecstasy.

“Fuck, yes,” he heard Derex moaning above him.

Fuck, yes echoed in his memory. He was calling the same words, bucking hard against Maarc’s body in a past life, his essence splashing across their chests. He remembered the feeling of the other man inside him and how he would moan in frustration when he eventually pulled out.

“Wait!” Riian cried, forcing his eyes open to glare up at Derex. “Wait, stop for a second!”

“Hee, you can’t change your mind so easily,” the redhead huffed above him, his movements never slowing. “You want me.”

“No!” Riian said, trying to push the other man away. “Get off me!”

Derex wasn’t so easily moved and thrust hard against Riian. He drew back, using his free hand to smack him across the face before gripping his jaw tightly. He leaned forward, getting right in Riian’s face as his hips continued their brutal rhythm, grinding their cocks together so that Riian could only see those blue eyes amid a sea of stars.

Derex was saying something else to him, but Riian couldn’t hear him. Nothing was louder than his own scream that tore from his throat. His memories were coming undone as his throat tensed around the sharp sound. Everything that Paul had told him to do, that Sascha had said to him. His short life flashed before his eyes and then dove into blackness. All the other memories lurked within grasp, all involving Maarc.

Maarc, Maarc, Maarc. His entire life had been devoted to the other man and it all came together so clearly. Fighting, hunting, stalking, killing, fucking, loving, and plotting.

His body arched up into Derex’s touch, his balls tightening beneath him as everything suddenly made sense. What was disjointed before was so simple. He could see the puzzle, the way the pieces fit together. Memories drew together like magnets and he was coming, his voice breaking with Maarc’s name loud on his lips. The ecstasy washed over his body, cleansing him of his guilt and sin. Everything was so clear, and his shame at failure was a lie he’d been believing for too long. The truth lay pure and simple in his mind’s eye as his come spread on his abdomen and Derex cried his release above him.

That should have been it. Riian should have just left Derex, found Maarc and escaped from Paul and that would be the end of everything. He felt so light thinking about it, but Derex’s fist ploughed into his cheek, reacquainting him with the harsh pain of reality.

Life was never so simple.

“What the fuck are you doing screaming his name?” his fist came down again, snapping sharply across Riian’s cheek, sending further pain across his eye. “You’re supposed to call me. Me! ‘Derex, you’re so fun, I like you too!’ You betrayed him for us, you can’t change your mind now!”

Riian caught the next fist with his hand and the verbal barrage stopped. The scarring that lined his arms was stark against his dusky skin and he tightened his grip, preventing the other man from drawing back.

The stars flashed outside the window, static in their glare, and Riian looked at the man above him. “I can change my mind whenever I want.” He squeezed, feeling Derex’s knuckles shift beneath his grip. “I stopped serving the Evergraves a long time ago; I’m free to make my own choices.”

Derex’s pained expression sent a shiver of satisfaction along Riian’s spine and he sat up, pushing the other man off, but never releasing his grip. “It’s a good thing you like it rough. They modified this body so I can be as rough as you want,” he hissed, squeezing his fist until he heard a satisfying crack of breaking bone. He tilted his head. “Maybe rougher than you can handle.”

The ever-present smile was missing when Riian finally released his fist and picked Derex up. The other man couldn’t react fast enough when Riian slammed him against the ground, and then the real fight began.

+++

Riian cleaned himself up and quickly pulled his suit back on, being careful to kick the overturned furniture out of the way. Derex was a skilled fighter and had put up a good fight. He had awakened a rage within Riian that only boiled hotter as he fought, and when Riian had found Maarc’s discarded katana dropped under the bed, Derex didn’t stand a chance.

Riian took a deep breath as he tightened the fastenings of his suit and his grip on his katana. The sword was his, another memory that he trusted as truth. He had no idea where Maarc had found it, but it was his weapon from his previous life. That simple fact sent a feeling of solace. Everything felt so clear now. He had never conceived that Paul could be his enemy. No wonder the older man hadn’t trusted him from the start. He had conjured in Riian a fear of failing again, of betraying the responsibility the Evergraves placed in him. He gripped the hilt tightly. The only person he had betrayed… his stomach clenched at the memory of Maarc’s face when he’d just stood there, allowing him to be taken.

He scanned the room once more, seeing Derex’s body resting beside the bed. The other man didn’t appear to be breathing, though Riian didn’t really check as he stooped to retrieve a knife from the other man’s belt. Riian flipped the small blade in the air once before tucking it into his belt and rushing through the hallway. His mind was set on the room where he had left Maarc to Paul’s malicious torture. He couldn’t bear the thought of what that bastard was doing, and he’d been the one to carry him there! He shook his head as he ran down the corridor, grateful he’d paid attention when Paul had entered the access code to the room.

Maynard and Sascha were outside the room. She appeared to have her brother pinned to the wall, her face pinched in that ever-present scowl. They noticed his approach just as he raised his blade and let out a warning yell. Sascha immediately recognized what was happening and backed away, but Maynard was a bit slow on the uptake and caught the tip of Riian’s katana across his cheek. Blood splashed on the floor and Riian stopped short, looking over the siblings with wild eyes as he held his blade high.

“Riian, what are you doing?” Sascha tried asking, but her voice wavered as she backed away another step.

Maynard’s mouth was still open in shock as he held his fingers before him, red with blood from his cheek.

Riian looked between them, seeing them for the pathetic things they were. Paul was the only danger in the family. He was the only man whose blood Riian’s soul yearned to see.

He flicked his blade from Maynard to Sascha. “I’m finished,” he spat out. “If either of you try to stop me from leaving, I will kill you both.” He arched his brow and looked at Maynard again. The blue-eyed man seemed to understand the threat completely, while his sister still had eyes only for the blade. Maynard backed away a fraction before turning and running. Sascha broke as well, bolting down the corridor and into the lift that would bring them to the hangar.

Riian watched them go, satisfied they wouldn’t interfere. He turned back to the door, keeping his sword raised as he punched the buttons on the panel. Darkness greeted him, as did the scent of blood. It felt as if his heart was pounding in his throat when he fumbled for the light panel.

“No…” he growled, rushing into the room. Maarc’s arms had been wrenched above his head, bound by a thick length of rope tied to the ceiling. His toes just barely touched the floor and his dark hair fell around his shoulders, clumped into patches with coagulated blood. His torso was naked, showing the long bruises from the beating Paul must have given him with his cane. “M-Maarc?” Riian croaked, reaching out to tentatively touch his bruised ribs.

The dark-haired man groaned and Riian drew back as if he’d been burned. He bit his lip and moved some of his sweat-soaked hair from his face as Maarc raised his head and looked at him, his silver eyes wide and brimming with pain.

Riian’s heart was breaking. “Oh, Maarc. Maarc, what have I done?” He reached out to touch his pale face. “What did he do to you?” He tried to run his fingers across that smooth cheek, but the battered assassin turned his face away, spitting blood on the metal flooring. “What can I do?” Riian moaned. “I didn’t know! I didn’t know…” he felt as if he was full of tears as he stepped back and clutched his sword. “Let me… let me get you down from there!” he set his katana on the floor and reached up to slice through the thick bonds with his knife.

Maarc hung limply before him as he sawed the blade across the twined cord. “I thought you had made your decision,” he spat coldly. “Just leave me.”

“No,” Riian ground out. He looked into the cool, silver eyes of the man hanging a breath away. How could he make it up to him? How could he make anything right in this life? He blinked away the tears that threatened, then felt the satisfying jolt of the knife breaking through. “I was so wrong and confused,” he said, gently catching Maarc as he fell forward. He hugged him as tightly as he dared before lowering him to the floor. “I’ll never leave you again,” Riian said, holding his chin and trying to convey he was serious.

The silver eyes regarded him coolly for a moment before he saw them waver. The hurt of betrayal lingered, only to fade as Maarc peered into his face. “Ri’…”

The soft tone faltered and Riian bit his lip. How could he not have felt something for this man before? How did he resist?

The silver-eyed assassin swallowed thickly, taking a breath, before his eyes snapped sharply to something behind him. “Look out!”

Riian heard the warning, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid the business-end of Paul Evergraves’ cane as it came down on him. The metal rod stung fiercely against his face and the force sent him back a few feet, clutching at his injured cheek and hissing in pain. It lanced out from his eye, making him want to scream. Red was filling his vision, but that was nothing compared to the churning anger that struck him when he looked back to see Paul Evergraves’ scowling face. “YOU!” He hopped to his feet and clenched his fists, wishing he hadn’t dropped his sword, but content to use his fists if he had to.

“I knew I should have killed you the moment I learned my idiot granddaughter was cloning you.” Paul tapped his cane on the floor and loomed over the two assassins.

“You murdered us!” Riian stepped forward, putting himself between the mad patriarch and his partner. “You couldn’t bear me leaving you for anything and so you blew us up with your own company!”

“You betrayed me first,” Paul spat venom as he clutched his cane, turning to look at Maarc. “You knew your place.”

That set Riian off. He was shaking with rage, trying to keep Paul’s attention on him. “You played with me. You didn’t rebuild my memories because you knew I’d remember Maarc. You just left them scattered and broken inside me.” Riian took a step forward, glaring down the old man through his blood-stained vision. “I actually had happiness, and I almost ruined it because of you!”

Paul shook his head. “You know, I really thought you’d turned back to us. When you carried him down here so I could kill him, I thought I’d been wrong. Hey, the old Riian was back, ready to serve me again!” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pistol. The end lit up bright blue as it made a high ringing sound, signalling it was ready to fire. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to kill you two again.” He grinned widely, his metal-plated teeth glinting.

Riian blinked. The action seemed elongated and drawn out, like in the movies where the hero’s breath is loud in his ears and he can see the barrel of the gun clearly, so clear before the bullet flies out. Riian exhaled, air leaking slowly from his lungs as he sprang forward in that lingering moment.

His enhanced limbs let him move inhumanly fast, carrying him forward to strike Paul back, to knock the pistol from his hand – just as the shot broke through the pinched barrel and into his arm.

“Fuck!” Riian hollered as the energy bullet seared a clean hole in his sleeve, burrowed into the muscle and began simmering contentedly. The electric charge dispersed seconds later and coursed through his body, dropping him to the ground in a writhing dance of pain.

“The more things change…” the old man drawled above him. Riian could see the barrel of the pistol aimed at his head, the cold electricity churning within the chamber, ready to fire.

This was it. His arm burned fiercely as he turned to see Maarc. Those hard, silver eyes cut right through him as he saw bare determination burning in their depths. He didn’t blink, didn’t look away from the only person his past self had ever loved, the only one he could trust in this life.

Maarc’s expression was pristine. His pale face was flawless and it seemed to brighten, his mouth curling up in a small smirk. The look sent a wave of butterflies rampaging through Riian’s stomach as he looked down, seeing the sword clutched in Maarc’s hand. He winked and in that small gesture, Riian knew everything would be all right. He watched as Maarc moved, springing to his feet to face Paul. His arm shot out and drove the blade through the pistol and into the throat of the aged patriarch.

Riian launched himself forward as the gun broke apart, its charge firing harmlessly into the ceiling as he fell into Maarc’s embrace. The black-haired man knelt back to hold him, releasing his grip on the handle, leaving Paul to choke on cold steel.

The cane clattered on the ground. Blood gushed from around the blade and the old man’s eyes were wide, gaping at the two men before him. He clawed at his throat before collapsing in a pool of his own blood, the steel protruding from the back of his neck. He reached out to claw at the floor, but his nails found no leverage in the red liquid that coated the paneling beneath him and he soon stopped moving.

Riian sat still for a moment, watching with satisfaction. It was over. The last time Paul had won, going so far as to blow up his own building to ensure they died. He looked back at Maarc, just to make sure this was real. Maarc’s pale skin looked warm and inviting and he leaned forward, nuzzling against the soft flesh. He flicked his eyes up, peering into the silver orbs that regarded him with a warmth that made his heart ache.

“It’s really over then,” he breathed against Maarc’s mouth.

“Yeah.” Maarc leaned forward, ghosting his lips across Riian’s. “Thanks for remembering me.”

Riian’s smile weakened. “I’m sorry…” he bowed his head.

“Hey,” Maarc said, reaching to tilt Riian’s chin back up. “If I only had to endure a little torture to get you back, it was worth it.” He pressed forward, licking at Riian’s mouth before he was accepted wholeheartedly and Riian sucked the first proper kiss out of him in their new life together.

+++

The snow was still falling outside their little cabin and Riian snuggled tightly against the back of his enemy. He pressed his nose to the soft, black hair of the man in front of him. Could he really be called his enemy when they were in a position like this? He didn’t think it was fare to kill the other assassin when he was unconscious and so close to death anyway. It was a matter of respect. They had spent so much time trying to kill one another, it was only fair that he treat the other man right until he was well enough to die by his hand.

He ran his fingers over Maarc’s chest, squeezing the muscle lightly before settling back to sleep. They would pick up their murderous attempts on each other’s lives once they were out of this situation. He knew the other man would do it for him if their positions were reversed. He knew Maarc better than anyone else, and his pulse thudded loudly as he closed his eyes and listened to the snow falling, lulled to sleep by Maarc’s breathing.

As Riian dozed behind him, Maarc stared wide-eyed at the window of the cabin, settling back against the man behind him. “What are we doing?” he muttered and held Riian’s hands tighter to his chest before sleep reached up to pull him down as well.

+++

The first thing Riian saw when he opened his eyes was the world full of stars, peeking through the large window of their ship. The scene was joined by a few of Saturn’s rings that added some warm colour and texture to the cold exterior. Riian stretched comfortably and scratched his stomach. Stars like snow, a flurry of possibilities lay before them. He sighed contentedly as he glanced over to his lover.

Maarc sat on the edge of the bed, leaning over him and gently running his slender fingers through Riian’s short, auburn hair. “So, how do you feel?” his wandering fingers touched Riian’s cheek and he brushed his thumb against the soft, dusky skin. Concern laced his voice as he fingered the leather straps holding the patch in place over Riian’s injured eye.

Riian reached up to hold the hand there. “I’m fine,” he said, kissing Maarc’s wrist. “We can find a surgeon to fix me up.”

The pale man frowned at that. “We can’t be sure there’s one waiting for us where we’re going.”

“I was checking the broadcasts out by some of the colonies,” Riian said, sighing heavily. “It seems there are some wealthy merchants looking for bodyguards, and where there are wealthy merchants, there are skilled doctors.”

Maarc nodded, but he still looked at Riian with that dejected expression. Riian frowned. “Actually, I lied,” he said, and grinned mischievously. “I suddenly feel cold. I was dreaming of our first time together.” His dark eye glinted invitingly.

Maarc’s silver eyes darkened a fraction as he leaned across the bed to capture Riian’s lips in a kiss. Little else needed to be said. The bed dipped beneath his weight as he kicked his boots off before climbing on top of the covers. Riian was pinned beneath the warm blankets as Maarc hovered above him.

Riian tried to move, his eye shifting across his lover’s pale form, but Maarc held him down, trailing kisses along his nose and down his neck. Those lips were hot as his breath rushed past, heating his dark skin and warming him up. “Mmmm,” he moaned as he writhed beneath the covers. “This is like torture.”

“Torture,” Maarc said, “was thinking you’d forgotten about me.” He nipped at Riian’s neck, quickly following it with a friendly lick. “I want to feel you again. I need you.”

Riian’s length stiffened against his thigh at the words and he wormed a hand free from his flannel prison. “You need me,” he said, his hand snapping out and gripping Maarc by the collar. “But I guarantee I want you more.” He arched his hips suddenly, throwing his pale lover off-balance, and rolled him onto the mattress beside him.

Beside a window filled with twinkling stars, Riian finally escaped his blanket prison and descended upon his lover. Their bodies shone under the pale light as they removed their clothing, each bit of flesh a familiar territory to reclaim. Their bodies were their own, but given freely to each other.

They knelt before one another in the starlight and Riian spread his hands wide against Maarc’s pale chest, brushing his thumb over the pink nipples. He admired how they were pliant beneath his touch, before hardening to tight, rosy nubs. His eye flashed as he wrapped an arm around Maarc’s back, pulling the dark-haired man to him, relishing the closeness.

Riian inhaled deeply, feeling warmth washing over him, as if he could burrow inside the other man. His fingers dug into Maarc’s back as he brought their mouths together. Maarc moaned against his lips before sighing in bliss as their cocks brushed together. This was what heaven must feel like, Riian decided as his tongue played against his lover’s, licking along the playful muscle. He pushed in deeply, sliding against Maarc’s mouth as their actions quickly degenerated into some impassioned tongue-fucking. In and out, as Riian’s hands roughly moved down Maarc’s sides. His cock was throbbing, trapped between his abdomen and Maarc’s body. He needed the other man: every cell in his body throbbed with it. He continued the kiss as he laid the pale assassin on the bed and climbed between his legs. Those creamy thighs parted at his touch, the milky-white skin exposed to Riian’s kneading fingers.

Maarc moaned into the kiss and they broke apart, panting into one another’s mouths as Riian lowered his head. His mouth kept busy along his lover’s fair body, flushed pink in desire and glistening with sweat beneath the white starlight. He drew his tongue along a rosy nipple and his pearly teeth lightly grazed the nub. Maarc’s hands flew to his head, fisting in his auburn locks, holding him close as his legs locked around Riian’s waist.

Riian bit harder, sending a shiver through his lover before he reached up to pull those needy hands away. “Patience…” he whispered against Maarc’s skin.

“I want you now…” Maarc thrust his hips sharply, grinding their erections together and making a convincing case to Riian’s baser instincts.

“Please…” he whispered, kissing down his lover’s chest. “Don’t tempt me. I want this to last.”

“We…” Maarc thrust again. “Have a few days until we get to the ports around the outer colonies. Don’t…” he panted loudly. “I’ll take longer with you after this, but I need you now.” He mewled as Riian moved lower, his tongue tracing across his abdomen to the juncture between his pelvis and thigh. The sensitive skin was hot beneath his tongue, sweet when he kissed, and Maarc’s hands were desperate as they dug into his scalp.

He guided Maarc to raise his legs, and felt a thrill at the eager way Maarc allowed himself to be posed. He was regretting his words of patience as his cock throbbed hard against his abdomen. He just wanted to bury himself inside that delicious ass, but he wouldn’t rush. Maarc would fuck him later, but right now, he wanted to enjoy that beautiful, pale body. Just the thought made his cock twitch again, and he shuddered. He opened his mouth to gently lick along Maarc’s balls, wrapping his lips over his teeth and playfully suckling. The groan of frustration that followed sent a shiver down his spine, right through to his groin. Oh, God, the sounds Maarc was making… He quickly shifted his attention south, pushing those legs further up and trailed his tongue down, behind Maarc’s testicles and swirled around the tight ring of muscle of his ass.

His cock throbbed pleasantly, desperately wishing it could be his tongue as he pushed inside as far as he could go. The sounds falling from Maarc’s lips urged Riian to speed up. His languid licking and sucking turned into insistent thrusting and swirling before he coated a finger in saliva and nudged it inside as well.

The muscle clamped down around the first knuckle like a wet, sticky vise. He inched his finger inside as his tongue lapped at the entrance, keeping his digit coated in hot saliva. Maarc’s body pulled him in. His mouth begged in wordless gasps, while his body clamped down, putting up token resistance for what it so obviously needed. Riian could see the way it wanted him in the rosy erection that throbbed, ignored but not forgotten, against Maarc’s abdomen.

Riian withdrew his finger before pushing in again, gently fucking him on that single digit. He watched the way Maarc’s body reacted, the resistance lessening until he tried slipped two fingers inside. In and out; Riian’s thorough preparation was rhythmic and meditative. He did not touch his lover’s erection and resisted the urge to caress his own. He only focused on Maarc’s body, preparing him for the thorough fucking he planned. Three fingers slid easily inside, the inner walls gently welcoming him with delicious warmth, and Riian finally drew back.

His mouth felt wet and he looked down at Maarc’s body. The rosy chest heaved with panting breaths and his arm was thrown across his forehead. His silver eyes burned an ashen white and he licked his swollen lips with welcome desire. Come he seemed to say. Come fuck me!

Riian spat into his palm and quickly slathered his cock thickly with saliva. The simple action sent a wave of sensation along his dick and he quickly stopped before he lost control. Simply looking down at his lover sent a jolt of desire through his being. He lifted those pale legs and guided his cock to that well-prepared entrance.

It resisted at first, tightening as Riian’s arousal pushed for access. He leaned forward, adding more force to his movements, and peered down into his lover’s face. Maarc was biting his lip in concentration. The blush on his light features just made the gesture look innocent, and Riian reached up to cup his cheek. Their gazes locked for a moment and Maarc smiled. “I’ll be fine,” he panted, and kissed Riian’s palm. “You can go a little harder. I’ll tell you if it’s too much, though I doubt I could tell you to stop.”

Riian grunted and braced himself on the bed, planting a hand on either side of Maarc’s head as he lowered his hips. His cock pushed inside, finally stretching the other man so that his head rested just inside the tight, muscled entrance. He paused a moment, always watching Maarc’s reactions before he drove his hips down further. The other man never made a sound of pain; he only panted heavily, his eyes lightly closed as Riian fucked him.

Heat enveloped Riian as he slid deep inside the other man. He lowered his body against Maarc’s, senses humming with pleasure when his hips finally pushed up against his lover’s ass. He was in, as deep inside as he could go and his dick was throbbing, demanding friction. Pull out, fuck him hard, stimulate against that tight ass and drive deep inside. Become one, make love, do whatever the fuck he wanted to call it, but for the love of God move already!

“Ngh, are you…?” Riian choked, his body straining as he locked his hips into place.

“Y-yes,” Maarc exhaled and looked up into his burning, black eye. Those light eyes reflected the darker man. They often appeared cool and unreadable, but at that moment, they were smouldering pools of ice that burned only for him. “Please, R-Riian. I need you to fuck me hard.” He reached up to run his fingers through Riian’s hair. It was a soft gesture before he tightened his grip and lifted his head to burn the meaning into his actions. “Hard.

“Fuck, yes,” Riian whimpered as he drew his hips back. Maarc’s body gripped him, making it a long, hard process before he snapped back and fucked into him again. “Fuck, yes!”

“Harder!” Maarc moaned and moved his hands up to grip at his back. His nails dug into the dark skin and Riian moved. Oh, God, he moved! His body bowed forward, his hips jerking back and forth in a desperate, primal dance. In and out, he fucked Maarc for all he was worth. He wanted this, he needed this, and he wanted to live in this feeling forever. Relish the warm embrace of Maarc’s body wrapping around him in every possible way; his legs curled up around his waist, his arms around his neck and his ass gripping at the centre of his being. Why couldn’t he have it always?

Riian’s eye was seeing white, and his blind side saw only stars. “Oh, God!” The bed sheets had coiled around his legs and his frantic actions sent sparks of electricity through his skin and down to his groin. Maarc was howling beneath him, his voice cracking as it rose in octave and he panted Riian’s name over and over again in his desperate climb to his release. Riian joined in with his own mantra for his lover’s ears only, made from desperate kisses and breathy endearments as the serpent of climax coiled deep within him, hissing for release. It gnawed at his insides, spreading delicious spasms rocketing along his body, and shot out like a bolt of lightning to his groin. He could feel his balls tightening. Everything was clear, so perfect as he locked eyes with the other man, and he was whole. That perfect moment at the eye of the storm before the viper bit and his release crashed upon him, driving Riian over the edge.

Maarc held on, his nails digging into his shoulders as his lover jerked above him. Riian bowed forward and rolled his hips, his dick swirling around inside as he rode out the end-spasms of his orgasm and came to his senses. The other man was still hard beneath him, his body warm and desperate. “I’m… so close…” he mewled, lowering his hand to his cock and desperately began to jerk off.

Riian hovered above him, keeping his semi-hard cock inside and he shifted his weight, freeing up one hand to join his lover’s task. Maarc moaned and Riian swallowed the sounds, echoing the vocalization as he tightened his fist and jerked his lover hard. Their hands moved together over the same bit of flesh, encouraging clusters of nerves to ignite in powerful release, and Maarc arched upward, helplessly begging for the brutal, dry caresses. Riian could feel his lover tightening around him as that rosy dick pulsed in his tightened fist. Streaks of white come splashed across his stomach and down his dark knuckles and he writhed his fingers along the thick organ. Maarc’s light eyes widened as he breathlessly screamed. His hips twitched and jerked down, shallowly fucking up into Riian’s fist as the final waves tore through him. His dick was slick with come as it finally slid out and his body collapsed against the bed, soon followed by Riian’s tired form.

They lay together, their essence cooling on their bodies as the ship’s ventilation hissed sweet oxygen upon them. The stars twinkled in the vast space outside their little vessel, peering through the window to light their way. They were lost in a storm of stars, echoing in every direction, but as they held each other tightly, bathed in their light, they didn’t feel cold.

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