"That's ridiculous," Maka hissed, planting her fists on her hips in a way that was a clear danger sign. "Aside from being a wild overcharge- and you'd better believe I know market rates!- that's not what you quoted me to start!"
The scruffy mechanic currently covered head-to-toe in oil from the bowels of the Razor's Edge only shrugged, obviously very used to dealing with temperamental ship captains. "Look, lady, you ain't goin' anywhere safe unless you let me fix that life support system proper, and it's gonna cost you for parts. There's no way around it."
Maka's nostrils flared. Soul winced and grabbed her by the elbow, steering her forcibly away from the mechanic before anything violent could actually occur. She went, but she shot an incredibly nasty glare over her shoulder too; Soul swore he could hear it sizzling the air.
"Look, Maka, she's right," he said once he'd gotten her out of the danger zone, jerking a thumb back at the mechanic, who flashed him the fakest smile he'd seen in a while- but then, even on bustling Junction City, and even for talented mechanics who'd actually managed to get officially certified to work on government property, it was brutally hard to earn a living. "It sucks but this isn't something we can have Black Star patch up with some tape and a prayer. I like my oxygen, you know?"
She grunted stubbornly and said nothing for a while, scuffing her boots through the scorched dirt of the docks, then, reluctantly, "I guess we can sell off a little of that last load we picked up, make up the difference."
Soul clutched at his chest and staggered around; a crewmember from the ship parked next door, lazily lounging in the weak sunshine, probably under the premise of 'guarding the cargo', regarded him suspiciously. "Maka Albarn, voluntarily selling cargo? Is the sun imploding? Are there little green men declaring war on us?"
She crinkled her eyes at him and smacked him on the shoulder. "Dramatic. That's a bad habit, you know."
"Why, because it makes you smile and smiling ruins your scary smuggler image?" he teased, tagging after her as she headed back to the mechanic, who raised a dirt-smudged brow at them.
"We're not smugglers," Maka said hastily, stepping on his foot; the mechanic only shrugged, quite obviously not giving a shit if they were legal or not.
"So? Gonna pay me or try your luck breathin' vacuum?"
"We'll pay you," Maka grumbled, slumping visibly at the thought of having to spend money they didn't really have. Such was the cost of doing so much work for free, though, and she knew it. "Come back in a few hours. I need to make a few sales."
"All right. I'll fetch the parts." They shook hands and the mechanic wandered off away from the docks, into the chaotic shining depths of Junction City, her shabby canvas bag of tools slung over her shoulder and clanking loudly.
Maka watched her go rather despairingly, leaning against the side of her ship like it could save her; she always touched it the same way, carefully and lovingly. "Those plants were important," she told Soul, grinding the heel of her boot vengefully into the ground. "The best oxygen producers I've ever seen, they'd be so helpful for the people in the colonies…"
He slung an arm around her shoulder and pecked her on the forehead. "Sorry. We need that system fixed. Like I said, I enjoy breathing. In fact I enjoy it so much I'm doing it right now!"
"That doesn't make me feel any better," she snarled, unamused and trying very hard to wriggle around and pinch him.
"Was it meant to?" he pondered, holding her in place. "Breathing is sort of a universal hobby, you know- oof!"
"Serves you right," she sniffed, but her lips were twitching. "Now! Let's go peddle!"
He regarded her grimly. "By which you mean me."
"That's the fun of being captain," she beamed, though she did pat his arm apologetically. She wouldn't have asked him to go if she'd had any other options, he knew. "I've got work to do here, anyway. Don't sell more than two cartons, though, and take the genetic specs with you. Try, hmm, try the open market first. We wanna move them fast."
Soul sighed gustily and gave an irritated hum. She did have a hundred chores waiting and then some, and knowing her she'd already made a to-do list at least a foot long, but still, he really hated selling things at market. Shouting at passerby made him feel nothing but obnoxious, and the cursed place hurt his ears; anyway, he always got a few choice judgemental stares from people assuming his teeth and eyes and skin were the signs of a bodymod addict. "I have the best captain, I have the best captain, remember that," he muttered under his breath, then he cocked his head and wriggled his ears slightly. "Black Star's sitting down on the job," he told Maka darkly before slinking off into the cargo hold. Her outraged squeal, and Black Star's immediate shriek of terror, were deeply satisfying. The wild industrial cacophony of Junction City was much less so, and he stuck in his earplugs before he even ventured into the edges of the market place, a box of greenery beneath each arm.
He returned to the docks three hours later, exhausted and grumpy but with just enough money, to find the mechanic waiting impatiently and Maka breathing down Black Star's neck as he loaded down the ship with- "You bought more?" he asked her, brows shooting up.
She jumped guiltily and whipped around. Black Star cackled loudly. "Soul! Well, uh, yeah, I managed to haggle her down-" she pointed violently at the mechanic, who looked a bit shellshocked- "And these oxygen masks were on sale because Imperium just outdated them." She heaved a box bigger than she was on top of another, only just missing Black Star, and added, "Outdated, my gravity-defying ass!"
"Outdated them so everyone'll hafta buy their nice new model that's exactly the same, huh," Soul said, scowling.
"Come on! Are you really surprised? They pull that shit all the time," Black Star put in, shoving the final box up the loading ramp and wiping his forehead. "Also, that mechanic looks sketchy, are you sure you want her workin' on our baby?" The last was towards Maka, who craned her neck to peer dubiously at the grease-covered woman currently brandishing a wrench at the open guts of the Razor's Edge with a rather unholy light in her eyes, dreadlocks swinging.
Soul adjusted his ears again, tilted his head, and picked up some of her mutterings. She had a deep voice for a woman, with the typical lyrical slurring of a lifelong Junction City citizen who'd grown up around innumerable different languages; it was nice, and he wondered absently what her singing would be like. "Look at this old barge, should've been junked a decade ago, I'm surprised it can get off the ground-" A deft twirl of the wrench- "But what a system it's got…"
"She's saying only nice things about our beautiful ship," he told Maka mildly; she relaxed a little at that.
"Good. It'll be fine, Black Star, and anyway it's got to be done," she said; Black Star shrugged philosophically, yawned, and wandered off in the direction of the nearest good smells, presumably to stuff his face with as much food as he could manage before they went offworld again. Even for a growing boy, he sure ate a lot. Soul didn't remember ever eating that much as a teenager, but then he and Black Star weren't exactly apples to apples.
The mechanic, having worked herself up sufficiently, dove inside the ship at last. Soul, seizing his opportunity, yanked Maka in for a kiss, ignoring her squeak at his stubbled jaw, and then brandished a bottle of rancid rice wine under her nose. She eyed it, flicking her precisely trimmed golden bangs from her eyes. "What's this?"
"For christening the ship," he explained. "You said you wanted to rename it." And what he thought of that decision, of putting a new name to the place that had been their faithful home for so many years, across so much of the galaxy- well, he didn't like it, really, but then he hadn't harassed Maka enough yet to get her to fully explain her reasons, and usually she had good ones, even if it was like moving stars to get her to voice them.
"Oh." She smiled at him, the same wide lovely smile that had given him heart palpitations without fail since she turned fourteen, and then said, "Are we… going to drink it? Because I can smell it from here, and it smells likehangover. And, weirdly, fish, so..."
Damn. He drooped and regarded the bottle irritably. Things like this were much rarer now, but he'd lived the first eight years of his life in a culture that nobody but Wes remembered, and inevitably it led to occasional confusion. "I, uh, it must be a thing from… my people. I remembered it, I guess, I thought it was one of those thing everyone- well, you smash a bottle on the front of a ship when you christen it. It's good luck."
"Oh." She watched him for a long moment, carefully, searching his face. "Was it a song you were told?"
"My mother," he mumbled. "Sang one to me-"
"-Every night," she finished somberly. "I guess we might as well do it for Old Earth, hmm? Come on." She grabbed him by the hand- there went his heart again, jumping helplessly even after all this time, and he was a grown-ass man, dammit- and pulled him up the ladder onto the curve of the ship, where she scampered easily forward to the nose. He followed much more slowly, cringing and trying not to look down; rather ironically for a man who made his living planet-hopping, he'd always hated heights, and seeing Maka darting around fearlessly like she was twelve again didn't soothe him any. Their ship wasn't that big, but past a certain height it didn't matter; he'd make just the same stain on the ground.
"So what did your mother say?" she asked expectantly, once he'd made it to the tip of the ship. Several people on the ground were watching them curiously, and he felt himself flush.
"It's sort of, uh, silly. But we break the bottle and, that's it. Ship's renamed," he muttered, ducking his head. "Least that's all I remember."
"Like a baptism," she said, eyes going rather glassy. "I wonder if there's any record of that practice in the Old Earth archives- that's so interesting-"
"Focus and tell me the new name already," he prodded, smiling in spite of himself.
She blinked, spitting a piece of her wayward hair from her mouth as the sour-smelling wind whipped furiously around them, carrying the taint of inner Junction City. "Bullseye," she told him.
He studied her, caught the somber sweep of her lashes as she glanced away, and said, "Tell me why we're renaming it. After everything."
Maka took the bottle and sat down with a sigh, kicking her legs carelessly against the ship's surface. In that moment she looked very young. "Besides all the suspicious looks we get when we pull into port, you mean? It's a new start," she said, and they were simple words, but they terrified him like few he'd ever heard because he knew exactly what she meant.
"Oh, fuck it all, Maka," he snapped, angry, but she held a hand up, silently asking him to listen, and he gave in just as he always did, even as his fury grew.
"Look around," she began after a moment of thought, voice steady even if her eyes were pleading with him. She waved a hand toward the distant, looming immensity of Junction City, rolling clear over either horizon in a tangled, smoking spider-leg mess, circling clear round the planet, though of course they couldn't see it all. "Think about all the people who live here. They're all desperate to get on someone's ship just so they can get to some other planet where the Imperium can't control every single aspect of their lives. They want a little freedom, a little choice, just a taste. I just want to keep helping, that's all, I can't walk away, but the Razor's Edge is starting to get noticed in a bad way, and my parents- well- a name change seemed safer."
He kicked the hull of the ship. "That's a stupid dream those people have, isn't it?" he hissed violently. "Imperium goes everywhere, that's the point of it, they govern people, all of them, period, for the 'good of humanity', right? What are you getting at? You're always saying crazy shit like that and getting us on the watchlists! It's fucked, but what can two small-time planethoppers do about it, huh? Your terraforming helps but like you said, they're starting to notice us!"
She regarded him with an expression that would have fooled anyone but him into thinking she was calm. This close to her he knew that, if the winds hadn't been howling and various machinery creaking all around, he'd have been able to hear the nervous beat of her heart- the closest thing he'd ever found to a religion even with a life lived among all the stars. "I'm saying," she said composedly, "That no one government should control all of space. Planetary colonies should be able to establish their own laws, create their own healthy economies- they shouldn't be so taxed that they can't even survive!" She was on a roll now; Soul settled back grimly and waited with clenched fists, since nothing but an entire fleet of Imperium ships could stop her when she got like this.
But she surprised him, taking a deep, shaky breath that sounded just on the edge of broken and finishing with only, "Space belongs to the people as individuals, to the ones like my parents who were brave enough to go out there and make it livable."
He stiffened at that. Her parents had chosen to go out into the darkness, to brave the incomprehensible vastness of space, just to help establish colonies on new planets, and he knew enough of them to know they'd had big dreams, huge hopes, just like their daughter. Her parents had wanted the colonies to be self-governed, safe places where old cultures could come together and renew- to be second chances for humanity, not the pathetic, dangerous places they were now, filled with only the worst, most desperate people, so that fewer and fewer honest folk ever dared to make the move. "It's a stupid dream," he told her again, swallowing and thinking of long-ago, dead, green eyes.
Maka sighed, brows pulling together wearily. "It's everyone's dream, even if they can't speak it." And of course she'd declared it her second job and her passion years ago, to help anyone and everyone who needed it, and Soul loved that, her bottomless heart- but still his mouth was dry and his palms damp. "And big enough dreams- well, sometimes they need a little help to get off the ground, but it's always worth it, and someone's got to do it." Maka, always giving and giving of herself until she was nothing but a hollow shell of snarling, snapping tension and clawing desperation- she'd been born among the endless stars and she'd never yet come down to earth and accepted her own limits.
It was possibly the thing he liked best about her, and yet it was the thing that terrified him the most. What she was talking about now was more than just helping out colonists without the right permits, or giving a cheap lift to someone trying to get to another planet- what she was talking about now was damned dangerous.
"It's not worth everything. Was it worth never knowing your parents?" he said quietly. Then, shocked by the ferocious fear on her face as her eyes flew open, he stood and left. His talented ears caught her tiny, pained, "Soul!" as he walked away.
He managed to get off the ship without breaking anything and then lurked in the shadow of the open cargo hold, watching her. She sat on her perch with her head bowed for a long time before uncorking the rice wine and pouring it out over the surface.
"The Bullseye," she said when she rejoined him on the ground, confidently, levelly, though her hands were twisting roughly at the edge of her shirt. "We'll have to get it registered properly still, but- I thought that would be fitting, because you and I- well, I've read that the bullseye is the only symbol that was universally found on Old Earth, across all the cultures. The Egyptians, the Mayans, the Celtics. It linked all of humanity."
He was touched. Still, though- "Shouldn't decide that sort of thing all on your own," he told her.
She looked away, flushing slightly. "I know. I am sorry. I didn't exactly think about it, I just- I figured a name change would buy us a little time under the radar."
Good enough. He patted her on the head, then slid his hand around, cupping the velvety nape of her neck to give her a reassuring little shake. "The Bullseye. I like it. Sounds a bit like Imp propaganda to wanna connect all humanity, though, it's just the sort of garbage they'd spout." Indeed, there was a faded old poster visible on the docks just behind her, a stylized version of the Old Earth moon's cratered surface with the bold words, 'We reach always upward under Imperium's guidance.' He made a silent note to 'accidentally' direct the blaster's smoke in the thing's direction when they took off.
Maka smirked up at him. "Only if you don't know that I intend to connect all of humanity in shared independence, and peace, and knowledge."
"That's a tall order for a short woman," he informed her airily, even as his instincts told him to stop and reorder his thoughts under the crushing weight of such madness. Not that he hadn't seen something like this coming for a long time, as Maka got more and more furious at the Imperium's treatment of the colonial planets, but...
She, offended by his 'short' comment despite being well aware that she hadn't grown since she was fifteen, was in the process of blistering the paint off the Bullseye when Stein appeared from nowhere, the half of his skull that was aluminum shining blindingly in the thin watery sun. "Captain, you'd best be careful with the things you say in public," he said reprovingly, giving the ship an affectionate thunk with his good fist. "I just passed a soldier calling you a Fletcher. It'll sour our sales even more if that dirty word gets stuck on the Razor's Edge. We were lucky to even get the new job, you know."
"It's the Bullseye now," she breathed, like a saint having a vision; it only scared Soul all the more.
Stein jerked, fixed her with a wild gaze like murky swamp water, but then calmed himself with a visible effort. "Oh," he said, in a tone that promised later retribution and a possible poisoning. "Hm. I expect a very good reason for that. In the meantime, these two ladies would like to book passage to the Tethys colony." Two attractive blondes who seemed to have the same knack as Stein for being unseen while in plain sight popped up from behind him and waved, tense smiles stretching their faces; clearly they were trying very hard to make a good impression. One was a good bit taller, but it was clear as good glass that they were sisters; their faces were nearly identical, with the same pert upturned noses and strong brows. They had the same defensive hunch to their shoulders, too.
"Saturn's coldest moon," Maka said consideringly, giving the Tethys colony its common name. She beckoned the girls forward warmly. "I'm Maka Albarn, captain of the R- the Bullseye."
"Liz," said the taller girl, eyeing Soul with skepticism that she didn't even try to conceal. Annoyed, temper already frayed by Maka's ridiculous need to adopt every goddamn human in the universe like stray ratdogs, he smiled toothily and gave her a little wave. She flinched.
"And I'm Patti!" said the younger, much more cheerfully and with only a short glance at Soul's teeth. "Hallo!"
"So why d'you want to go to Tethys, hm?" Maka asked.
"Coz we do, that's all," said Liz sullenly, false smile suddenly failing and being replaced by an expression of purest drear.
Stein shook his prosthetic hand at her with a grinding clank, all the scalpels he'd welded to the fingertips fully extended like claws. "Manners, now! This is the finest ship in the system, you know!"
Liz looked as if the effort to not stare pointedly at the rusted, battered guardrail beneath her hand might actually kill her. "I can see that," she said through gritted teeth.
Patti appeared much more intrigued, big blue eyes wide. "I've never been in a spaceship," she said, standing on her tiptoes and peering interestedly into the cargo hold. "I mean, actually flown in one, that is. How long would it take us to get to the cold moon in this?"
"Oh, only about a month," Maka said dryly. "My ship's not the fastest thing, unfortunately. But if you want coldsleep, I can do it, and I do keep a registered doctor on board-" She pointed at Stein, who grinned cheerfully and waggled his scalpel-finger again. It didn't appear to reassure Liz one whit. "-but it'll cost extra."
"Oh," Liz said, clearly conflicted. "Well. It's just a month."
"A month in which I'll be feeding you," Maka informed her brightly. "So if you aren't bringing your own rations, they'll cost too."
"Fantastic," Liz said tightly. "Maybe we had better shop around a bit more."
Maka frowned at that. Soul heard Liz swallow, heard Patti inhale sharply as she looked pleadingly up at her sister, and something about that pose, the profile of the younger girl's face- "Maka, how do you feel about chocolate pudding for dinner?" he said, and she looked at him sharply. They hadn't had to use that code phrase for a while now, but there was no mistaking it now that he looked at the sisters. He'd seen their faces on the bounty channel.
"Sounds good," Maka said, and then she nudged the girls further up into the cargo hold while Stein stationed himself on the loading dock, just in case any soldiers came wandering by. "What did you two do?" she said abruptly once they were inside, voice pitched low. "And it's not that I care, or that I'll turn you in, but it's a risk for me to take anyone who's not authorized and I'm guessing your papers are bad forgeries, considering thatgood ones cost an awful lot and you appear to be hurting for money."
Liz clenched her jaw and took a step back, tugging Patti protectively close, and now Soul noticed her patched clothes and lack of luggage. "We didn't do anything!" She was thin and ragged, but the sparking steel in her eyes- if she'd had a gun on her, Soul would've been very nervous.
"So Imperium's after you," Maka concluded. "I told you, I won't turn you in."
"That's what I heard. About you, I mean, that you were safe," Liz mumbled, after a hard, considering look at Maka. "But- well- listen, this is all I have. Is it enough?" She held open a tattered wallet for their inspection.
Cash, Soul thought. At least she's smart enough to do that much right.
"Er," Maka hedged, wincing. "It's… I hate to say this, but it's not. If I weren't so low on funds right now I'd take you anyway, but food is expensive, and I've got to pay my own people and put fuel in the tanks."
"Not to mention, we're a risk, right?" Liz growled aggressively, stomping her way back down the ramp with impressive flair and dragging a rather bemused-looking Patti behind her. "Fine, whatever, your shitty ship'd probably fall out of the sky."
Stein, clearly insulted on behalf of his beloved ship, narrowed his eyes at her; considering that his false one was currently glowing bright orange and had a few stray wires sticking out like horrific eyelashes, it was extra intimidating.
Before he could do anything, though, a gentle voice said quietly, "I need passage as well. Perhaps we could pool our funds?"
Liz stopped mid-step to blink at the willowy woman who'd appeared, a shadow-haired vision in expensive clothes, pale hands clasped delicately. "Who the hell are you?"
The woman smiled gently, and damn, but she was gorgeous in a way that seemed surreal and improbable; every inch of her screamed not only good breeding but wealth, from her fresh manicure to her immaculate outfit. "My name's Tsubaki," she said, looking directly at Maka with something like pleading in her lovely eyes. "I need very much to get off this planet, please, but I'm not- I need passage as well." She didn't lower her voice much, but Soul noticed she'd timed her words to coincide with a moment where nobody happened to be passing nearby their ship, which was really interesting. Come to think of it, she hadn't given a surname, either.
"Huh. And you just want to help pay for us?" Liz barked, eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Tsubaki shrugged. Even that tiny motion was graceful, and Soul mentally ratcheted his estimation of her class up several notches. "Why not? It would make the trip more congenial for me to have company, and it would make things easier on both of us to know someone once we reach Tethys."
Liz stared at her, distrust writ clear on her face, but her desperation was just as obvious. Finally she said, "We won't owe you anything?"
"Not at all," Tsubaki said pleasantly, with a gracious little nod. She looked very out of place at the grungy docks. Several men a little ways behind her, doing some welding on their own ship, actually looked so distracted that a fire was probably imminent.
"It would be nice if someone consulted the captain about this arrangement," Maka said to nobody, trying halfheartedly and failing to hide her pleased grin. "Well, come on, then. Tsubaki, if you show me your cash I'll give you the tour. We'll be leaving tonight, so if you've got any luggage let me know." All three girls shook their heads. Maka raised a brow as she ushered them aboard again, taking them through the cargo space and then through the door that led to the living quarters, boots clomping loudly on the winding metal catwalk. "So you two can share a room, right? And Tsubaki, just what exactly has a nice girl like you buying passage on a notorious ship like mine, hmm?" After that the door closed and her voice faded even beyond Soul's hearing, but he managed to catch Tsubaki's startled, "Oh!"
"That rich girl's going to be trouble," Stein said, yawning so widely that his false eye looked in danger of popping out. "She's running from something just like those blondes."
"Probably," Soul agreed, rubbing his temples. "How is it we always manage to pick up a boatload of strays at every planet?"
"Maka's always been like that, though," Stein pointed out. "Just like her mother was."
"True." Still, Soul couldn't quite shake the dismal cloud over his head as he went inside to finish preparing for takeoff. He stepped very carefully over the old bloodstains where Maka's parents had died, just as he always did, and wished silently for the thousandth time that she'd just pay to replace the damn floor instead of ferrying another charity case across space.
"Excuse me?" Maka snapped disbelievingly, feeling her blood pressure skyrocket. She counted to ten very carefully, just as Stein had taught her, and then said through gritted teeth, "Our papers were all inspected when we docked. We've done everything by the book and you're delaying our departure for no good reason. I have passengers who want to get moving already!"
"Sorry," said the dock supervisor, who didn't look sorry at all. "Orders are orders, ma'am, and I was ordered to find this ship and inspect the paperwork of every passenger. That includes your, uh, pilot." He jerked his chin at Soul, who was looking moodier than usual, shoulders slumped and hands shoved in his pockets.
"It's insulting," Maka hissed, hating the hang-dog look on Soul's face and knowing that this second inspection was all her fault. If her ship hadn't gotten flagged by the Imperium as dangerously disobedient they'd be in the air already.
"It's fine," Soul said, right on cue before she could really start making a scene. She bit her lip till it hurt as he shuffled forward and shoved his wonderfully forged paperwork under the supervisor's nose. They'd paid a ridiculous amount for those papers years ago, and so far they'd held up well and convinced the Imperium that Soul was indeed a properly documented human, but there was always the danger that one day things would go wrong.
She forced herself to relax, at least on the outside, and waited tensely until the supervisor handed Soul's papers back with a disinterested grunt. "There, was that so hard?" he said to her, already turned to go.
She gritted her teeth and smacked the button to close the cargo hold's door, just soon enough that the supervisor would have to scamper to make it out. The door crunched closed with a worrying amount of noise, but then it was blessedly silent inside the ship, and she breathed out a shaky sigh as the repaired life support system kicked on with a loud whoosh.
"Soul," she said. "I'm sorry."
He only smiled patiently, and she nearly melted. "It's fine."
"It's not," she told him quietly, feeling the weight of everything bow her shoulders. He only stepped close and put his hands on her waist, thumbs stroking reassuringly up her ribs; she leaned into him with a soft huff of breath, looking down and watching the way her own boots stood firmly atop the bloodstain that was the only reminder of her mother, and the way Soul's own feet were planted on either side of it. He'd asked her once why she'd left the stains there for so long, and she'd only barely managed to explain, past the guilt and the loneliness and the old scars, that she simply didn't remember her parents. "I get so tired sometimes," she admitted, closing her eyes and leaning her forehead against his chest. "It's just- there's so much to do, so many people to help, and I can't sleep if I ignore it, but I can't sleep anyway because I'm so scared."
He tucked her head under his chin and gave a soothing little trill, the same one that he'd told her long ago meant something like 'I love you'. "Don't be scared. We'll be okay. We'll keep helping people just like we always have, and we'll keep being smart about it."
"Yeah," she said, but it came out much less convincing than she'd have liked.
He trilled again, a soft loving warble that brought dangerous dampness to her eyes. "I wish you'd quit with the worrying. It's not good for you, and anyway I'm with you to the end, remember?"
To the end, they'd always said, all their lives, and the words still made her feel weak all over. "Yeah." She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head so she could listen to his heart beat.
"Hey. We helped those girls, didn't we? They'd never have gotten outta Junction City if we weren't idiots willing to take a risk," he said encouragingly. "Right?"
"And we helped Black Star stay outta the Imp orphanages, didn't we? Universe knows the idiot kid needs all the help he can get!"
"Right," she said, laughing a little in spite of everything. "Come on, pilot, go do your thing and get us flying."
"Yes, captain," he said, saluting with an astonishing amount of sarcasm. She rolled her eyes extravagantly as they left the bloodstains behind.
Stein woke in so much pain that he prayed, for the first time in decades, for death. It didn't come, unsurprisingly; he'd never been a lucky man in any sense.
After a long time, he managed to open one eye. The other didn't seem to be cooperating, and he could guess why from the stiff pull of dried gore spattering the entire side of his face. It took a long moment for him to realize he'd been laid out on one of the ship's coldsleep beds, and still longer to recognize the fuzzy thing beneath his hand- it seemed he had only one left, and thank the universe it was his deft right hand- as Maka's housewolf plushie.
Maka- he jolted upright, and then everything pulled and he screamed.
The screaming hurt his throat, but it made him feel ever so marginally better, as did the blistering profanity he eventually drifted into. He concentrated on his breathing, trying to control his bounding heart by sheer willpower, fingers of his good hand twitching as he resisted the urge to claw at his red-hot, throbbing face.
"Alive," he said thickly, lifting the blackened stump of his wrist up in front of his face, nausea rolling in his stomach as his own smell finally hit him, barbecue and sour sweat.
And Marie was-
He leaned over the edge of the coldsleep bed and vomited, aware even as he did so that he was showing all the signs of head trauma, aware that he had no fucking idea how he'd gotten from that cursed cargo hold to here. Hadn't he glimpsed Kami blasting the door into a melted mess?
Something in the doorway made a sound like a trickling brook, faint and light, and Stein's head snapped up as fear tightened aching muscles.
The younger alien boy was there, scrawny, red eyes very wide beneath that wild white hair, and he had his hands on Maka's shoulders.
The fear grew until Stein's ravaged body felt like it might fly apart from his own heartbeat. "Get away from her," he hissed, quivering, maddened.
The boy squinted at him, tilted his head curiously, and made another lilting sound with an inquisitive lift at the end.
"Get away from her," Stein said again, tiredly, more for the sake of it than anything else. It was obvious now he really looked that the boy wouldn't hurt her, in fact he was practically hiding behind her, and he was a small thing anyway.
Maka smiled, finally, showing off the gap where both her front teeth were missing. Stein noticed with a sense of surrealism that she'd tried to do her own pigtails; they were lopsided and frizzy. "Hi, Stein," she said. "You been sleeping."
He gaped at her, and then, to his own ridiculous shame, he started to cry, gasping, shuddering sobs that ended in high whines as his shredded body shook. The children edged closer together, and the white-haired boy put a protective arm around Maka's shoulders, pulling her back into him and making more sounds, almost frantically.
"Stein," Maka said unhappily, wriggling free of the boy and padding cautiously closer, little brow furrowed. "You okay? Stein?" She said his name just as she always had, perfectly clearly even though she stumbled over her own, and he closed the eye he had left, gripping the edge of the table hard with his right hand, clawing for control.
"Where is everybody?" he asked her, when he could speak without feeling a scream bubble up behind the words. "Where are your- where's Mama and Papa?"
She regarded him fretfully, shrinking back a little; the alien boy, still lurking fearfully in the doorway, made another high-pitched sound, and she ran back to him. "Mama's in the big room," she told Stein, peering over her shoulder as the alien gave Stein a clearly suspicious glance.
The cargo hold, then, and still… dead. "How did I get here?" he pushed.
She looked away, frowning, fiddling with the edges of her little shirt. He had to repeat himself twice before she said petulantly, "He brought you."
"Who? The- the other one?" Stein pointed at the boy holding her.
She nodded. "Yeah, he brought you."
How the hell had they gotten into the cargo hold in the first place, and how had that scrawny boy- teenager, probably, but still- managed to haul Stein all this way? It took a moment of searching, but the bloodied sheets wadded in the corner of the room told the story.
So they were smart, then, capable of using tools, and clearly they had some sort of language, judging by the younger boy's noises; right now he was petting one of Maka's pigtails and crooning low in his throat, even as he kept a wary eye on Stein.
Maka watched as Stein tried to stand, pulling harder on the bottom of her shirt. "Don't hurt him," she whimpered.
"Don't hurt him," she said again, clutching the boy's arm possessively. "Don't. He's nice. He, he helped."
Stein watched them for a long moment with his blurred vision, feet dangling off the table, then held out her stuffed animal silently. She looked at it for a moment, then shrugged and turned, pulling the boy behind her, and he followed placidly enough, but not without a final wary glare and a shining flash of predatory fangs.