Patti was silent and furious, eyes laser-bright beneath her bangs, and Liz was a golden storm, thundering around banging the walls and screaming louder than the engines. Tsubaki was watchful, icy razor edges wrapped in poisonously polite words. Together they were judge and jury and firing squad all at once.
Maka's hands shook as she pulled up the 3-D galaxy map. "Anywhere you want," she said, feeling sick. "Anywhere you want to go, I'll take you, free of charge."
"After kidnapping us off the moon we wanted to go to!" Liz spat, slicing through the map with a fist; it blurred shakily before restabilizing, and Maka stared at the tiny sapphire bubble of Old Earth, unable to speak around the lump in her throat.
I'm always running, she thought. Running towards the time when life gets easier, when I actually know what to do instead of just pretending, and I thought by the time I was this old I'd be there, but instead I'm rolling downhill through thorns.
"Sorry," she mumbled, for the twentieth time, boots scraping roughly on the metal floor as she took a step back. Black Star, lurking in the corner, shook his head.
"Sorry doesn't fucking help!" Liz was on a roll now, like lava down a mountainside, and Patti flanked her, nodding mercilessly at every word. "You- you kidnapped us, you just took off, and I had plans, okay? You can't just do this shit! I'll- I'll sic the law on you when we hit dirt! I paid, I actually paid and you pull this bullshit?"
Patti said coldly, "Our mother was from Tethys. We might have family there, you stupid bitch, and if you don't turn around and take us back there's going to be trouble."
"I can't," Maka gritted, rubbing her temples and wondering if there was an upper limit for the guilt one person could feel. "I'm sorry."
"That doesn't really help us," Tsubaki asked, staring absently at the map before dragging slim fingers through a shimmering asteroid field, then stroking Mars like one would pet a cat. "You did something very foolish. If you were going to break the law, couldn't you have waited until we were off your ship?"
Her voice was calm, but her gaze was steely as she finally met Maka's eyes. "I wasn't intending to get caught," Maka said feebly, all too aware of how ridiculous she sounded, like a little kid with one hand in the cookie jar.
Tsubaki took a slow breath and closed her eyes, as if she were counting, or perhaps bracing herself, then she said levelly, "I think that you don't like the Imperium. I think perhaps you're even part of the Fletcher rebellion."
Damn, damn, damn. Maka nearly snarled in frustration. "That's not-"
"The guy who told us to come to you did say that you wouldn't really give a shit if we had real papers or not," Liz cut in, eyes narrowing. "And then you go and do this… what are we supposed to think?"
"I heard much the same," Tsubaki agreed, pinning Maka in place with a small smile that was all ice and victory. "You're not a typical smuggler, because you don't care if we wander the ship, which leaves… rebellion. That, or something from your past came back to bite you."
"Sunspots!" Maka bellowed, kicking the wall of the room with a resounding clang. Everyone jumped, satisfyingly, and she thumped her palms down on the map projection table. "Why the hell should I tell any of you anything? You two-" She pointed at the sisters- "You're troublemakers and I've no doubt you're wanted in Junction City for something or other, so maybe you should think of that before you try and tell me what to do on my ship! And you, little rich girl, you're running from something to, or did you think we didn't notice how eager you were to get to anywhere? Glass houses, okay, and don't forget it!"
The silence was complete and chilling. Black Star pushed off the wall and headed for the door, looking stormy. He paused as the door slid up with a nasty grinding sound, then said over his shoulder before leaving, "You didn't do anything wrong, everyone knows it, you just got unlucky. They'll understand once they calm down."
Maka stood there, poleaxed, and then sat down bonelessly to put her head in her hands. "Crap. I hate when he does that 'unexpected voice of reason' thing…" she muttered.
"Okay, you know what, as pissed as I still am, I'm starting to get really curious now too," Liz said roughly. "As you so kindly pointed out, we're all in trouble of some sort, even Princess here." She jabbed Tsubaki in the shoulder. "So spill, and then maybe we can stop yelling and figure out a plan, because I really don't like not knowing where we're going!"
"We'll go wherever you want to go," Maka said, getting to her feet again just so she had something to do. "Soul fueled up the ship-" And where he'd gotten the money for that, she didn't know, but she had a terrible feeling that it involved the savings he'd been hoarding for the last ten years, the ones he kept in that little box marked 'To the End'- "And I did you all a wrong that needs made right. Whatever my reputation may be as a captain, I take care of my passengers, understand? I'll take you anywhere you want to go. Any colony. Or back to Junction City." She scowled at them all, feeling prickly and immature and almost despairing, then added lamely, "It's not like I shanghaied you, I'll let you go." In her head she tried vainly to move backwards, to the space of mind she'd been in when she'd snuck out, when she'd thought: I am doing this for the colonists, and even: This is the right thing to do. Except it hadn't turned out that way at all, had it, but she still sort of thought she'd been in the right. In theory, anyway.
"You operate under a very strange set of morals, Captain," Tsubaki commented, rubbing her temples. "I don't care where we go. I picked Tethys because it seemed like a place where I could make a positive difference, but I suppose any colony could use help." How interesting. Self-imposed penance, then, but for what? She didn't walk like someone carrying weight, she moved like autumn leaves falling, but then again she was clearly very practiced at wearing a mask.
Liz squinted at the map, walking slowly around the projection table. "Patti?"
"Doesn't matter," Patti said listlessly. "We were lying to ourselves about Mom having family, anyway."
"Yeah." Liz touched a fingertip to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and after a second, a translucent window of basic information popped up with a low beep. "This place here is pretty populated, isn't it?"
"That was the fourth colony ever established, right after Junction City," Tsubaki supplied, watching Junction City's glowing dot with an odd, bittersweet curl to her mouth. "It's had a long time to get going. The days are very long, and it's cold… most of the colonists live underground. There's a large mining culture there, and fishing."
"I hate fish," Patti grunted, cheeks puffing up as if she were about to hurl.
"Okay, so that's out." Liz moved to Io next, then Orcus, rough hand combing harshly through the ephemeral lights. "This's in Kuiper territory, though, by Neptune… I dunno about living so deep in alien space."
"I like Kuipers," Patti said consideringly, brightening; the sisters looked at each other, then swung to Tsubaki, who raised her brows, looking like an ivory statue against the dark steel walls, burnished by time to beautiful, impractical angles and curves. Poor Black Star, no wonder he'd fallen so fast and quick. He'd probably never seen anything like her.
"Kuiper territory, yes, but that means a thriving trade economy and lots of ships in and out, which brings in lots of goods. Little farming, because there's not much sun, but a good export economy nonetheless. And it means a diverse population that will be easy for two wanted girls to hide in," Tsubaki told them, shrugging and then concentrating on a stray thread dangling from her moonmoth silk blouse in what was clearly 'I don't care, decide on your own'.
"Let me know when you come to a decision," Maka said quietly, and then she sat down again and put her head on her drawn-up knees, tracing the worn metal rivets bolting together the battered sheets of the flooring. She'd sat here with Soul a hundred times as a child, watching Stein and Wes plot the next trip they'd take on the projection table, marveling at the tiny, beautiful, multicolored planets spinning all around each other in the most intricate dances. How often had she woken up here with Soul's scratchy blanket draped over her and the solar system still splashing glints of artificial starlight across the walls? Once he'd zoomed in on Old Earth, until the projection table was just throwing rippling blue against the ceiling and her skin, and she'd stayed unblinking until it hurt, trying to imagine what swimming felt like, and then drowning.
"Take us to Orcus," Liz said crisply, throwing her shoulders back and jutting her chin out.
Maka roused herself and stood back up, flicking off the projection table and trying hard to crawl back inside her captain's skin. "All right. It'll take about three weeks. Do you want coldsleep? We're, uh, a little low on rations, so if you stay awake it'll be slim pickings."
"Um-" Liz hesitated and looked at Patti, who was grimacing, and then to Tsubaki.
"I'd rather be awake," Tsubaki said lightly. "Simply because there's a distinct lack of trust here now. You understand." She was tempered steel wrapped in lace, at least until she tilted her head and the light caught the remnants of baby fat still rounding her cheeks.
"Perfectly," Maka muttered, resigned to tightening her belt. "All right. I'll let Soul know. Orcus it is."
Someone was singing- for a moment, drugged by lingering sleep, Maka thought it was her mother, but then, with a feeling like stepping onto the floor when expecting another stair, she remembered, and then she felt a bit stupid for ever thinking she remembered something she'd never really known. When she was little, she'd thought for a while that if she imagined a thing hard enough she could make it real, but she'd figured out soon enough that nothing happened, no matter how dedicated her wishing.
It was Soul and Wes she was hearing, talking outside her room in the passageway, their conversation echoing oddly from the metal. She blinked gritty lids, then squeezed her eyes closed more tightly, shoving her arms under her lumpy pillow and concentrating on trying to distinguish the two voices.
It was useless until Soul, making the high waterfall sound she knew was laughter, said her name in the middle of his song.
That made Wes angry- she knew because his singing got fast and low, like a growl, or drumbeats far away, and then he hissed something and left with heavy footsteps. She felt her skin goosebump for no reason at all, felt her backbone tighten almost painfully, and she turned over to face the door, curling tight around herself, pulling the sheet away from her ears.
Soul came in then, closing the door very softly and creeping to stand by her bed. "For an alien you're very loud," she said after a moment.
A faint huff of laughter that was more a breath than anything, and, "Are aliens supposed to be quiet?" he wondered, in that lilting tone that curled around her veins and arched her spine with tender shivers.
She sighed and imagined her skin turning to glass, transparent, no lies, no worrying, no hunger because they had to buy fuel instead of food. "Probably. Humans are really loud, anyway."
"You'd better decide soon if I'm an alien or a human." He slid a hand over her arm, melting glass to dripping heat, and she opened her eyes finally, watching his milk-gold skin and milk-pale hair gleaming in the indistinct light of her battered old glowstrips.
"I don't care," she told him, flicking back the corner of her sheets and hoping she'd finally gotten control over her blushing. He grinned, ears working beneath his hair.
"Apparently. I wish I'd realized what low standards you have years ago," he snorted, slipping in beside her and spanning her waist with one warm, large hand.
She stared at him, irritatingly aware of her own flushed face, but then this was all new territory, as much as they both wanted to pretend to be adult and suave and unaffected- then again, he was flushing too, and his ears were still edging up and down, so maybe it was okay. "I take offense to that. On your behalf."
"You can't take offense for someone, for something they said," he informed her, eyes flicking down to her lips, and then lower, as he edged the sheets away; she let out a slow breath as she felt the hem drag across her nipple, even through her shirt.
"Yes you can. I just did."
He burbled something and pushed her bangs back from her face. "You contrary woman."
She reminded herself that she was the youngest captain to run a ship in a century, that she was brave and not at all afraid- still afraid, always afraid- of the cold eternity their ship was drifting in, and she slipped her arms around his neck, digging her nails into the bumps of his spine, then running them up into his hair. "So? I think you like it."
"Very Captain-y," he muttered, planting a hand on the bed by her neck and leaning over, tracing his tongue whisper-soft over her ear. "I do like it."
She liked it too, come to think of it. She liked everything right now, from the press of his bony knee against her thigh to the agonizing, tingly drag of his fingertips up the curve where her hips met her ribs. "Sing to me." She turned in his arms, nudging him atop her with her knees, and watched his stomach flex tight as she slid a thumbnail down his chest.
He retaliated by licking slowly across the top of her breast, tugging her shirt down to get at it until she could hear the cheap fabric begging for mercy. His tongue was hot and wet, and she could feel the trails he left on her skin drying cool as he moved on. For a second, she could swear he was tracing words into her skin. "About what?" he breathed.
"About… about what home is like." She shoved him up for just a moment, then wriggled out of her shirt, a bit awkwardly and very glad when it was off and she hadn't elbowed him in the face like last time.
He was silent for a while, fingers playing thoughtfully over her ribs, breathing softly from a slightly open mouth that was astonishingly impossible to look away from. "I can't sing about that."
She arched up when he ran a finger across one hard nipple, clinging to him with all four limbs, trying to drag him down onto her, into her, already wanting. She'd implode like a dying star if he didn't touchher. "Sing something, then." She was irritated by how her voice sounded, rough and needy, but then she caught the way Soul closed his eyes and caught his lip between his sharp teeth. "Soul?"
He smiled, then frowned again, humming under his breath for a moment. "Home is people," he said, flaying her and stitching her together with threads of gold all in three little words, and then his mouth was burning against her neck as he slipped into his own language, high and liquid when she rocked her hips up against his, deep and harsh when he was inside her, and then falling into a desperate repetition that she thought might have been 'please'. Maka closed her eyes and grabbed him by the wrist, shoving his hand between her legs; he fumbled for a moment before licking his fingers sloppily and diving back in, much more successfully. She rode the dark, molten waves as they came higher and faster, breath hitching in time with Soul's, one hand gripping his shoulder for dear life and the other pressed lightly to his neck, his pulse beating wildly against her palm. She dug her heels into his hips, silently counting the little bruises his greedy hands would leave on her in the darkness, already waiting for the morning, when she could smile at them before hiding them under her clothes, just for her. His skin was hot and smooth beneath her tongue, firm beneath her teeth, and it felt like falling through the atmosphere of a new planet, the same shuddering, thrumming rhythm driving a thousand cracks through her body, and the same impatient, edgy, nearly frantic waiting.
He was a pilot for a reason, and she whimpered when he took the ground right out from under her and sent her flying, blinded, hot all over, hips snapping up brokenly, a single whine coming from between clenched teeth as she threw her head back and shook. It was almost lost under their heavy breathing, but he heard it and voiced his approval, kept singing to her as he thrust.
She hung on, eyes closed, trying to remember everything about the way he felt and sounded and moved, and she felt irrationally like she might cry when he slowed to a finish with a shaky snarl and melted against her. She put her arms around him carefully, felt his breath damp and fast against her sweaty neck, and for a moment she was so grateful that she felt like bursting. In her head, she went: I'm happy, I'm happy, I'm so happy, and then she grinned into his hair like an idiot before closing her teeth on his ear for a second, nibbling gleefully.
He pushed up after a moment with a hand on either side of her head, kicking his leg violently until his shorts flew off the ankle they'd apparently been left on, and looked down at her, red in the face but all together looking pretty pleased.
She scowled when his eyes drifted down to her bare breasts, raised a hand to smack him for no reason, but then he looked her in the eyes and wound a hand in her hair like he wanted to hold her still, so she didn't move. He looked at her carefully, a little wrinkle just visible between his brows, and she could see the glowstrips' light gleaming off just the faintest edge of a sharp tooth.
"Sometimes I think, what if you'd never found us?" he said at last, face working as if he were trying to either smile or scream.
She scooted over, then pulled him down beside her, yanking when he didn't move fast enough, and put the sheets over their heads until they were drowning in a vague blue void. "If you stay really, really still," she told him, putting a hand to his chest, over his heart, "You can feel the ship."
He exhaled, like he was going to say something, but then he swallowed and slowed his breathing. She put her palms against his eyes, feeling his lashes tickle, and when he found it, when he noticed what he'd heard for years, the distant rumble of the engines pushing them through space, she felt his eyes open wide.
Soul sang her to sleep to the rhythm of the engines, telling her slurred impossible stories she couldn't understand, but loved, and hours later, when they walked out of her room together, Stein was there, his false eye whirling from orange to yellow, hunched and menacing in his tattered coat.
He didn't linger. He just snapped, "The western colony on Europa's been cut off. No rations in or out, Imperium orders. Apparently they fought a little too hard against whatever embezzling, drooling idiot the Council tried to place as their governor. We're going to bring them food."
Maka and Soul blinked at him, then each other. "But that's a war zone," Soul said at last, even though there was already resignation in the slump of his shoulders- he, a naturally introspective, cautious person, had tried and failed to be the voice of reason often enough to know what was coming. Maka watched him swallow and then looked away, all the bubbly bliss gone and replaced by murky guilt, confusion, fear. "I mean, technically, isn't it? We could get- shot down, or something," Soul added.
Stein snorted, rubbing his hand over the stump of his wrist. "No, we won't. We'll tell them that our radio broke mid-flight and we had no idea."
Soul grunted, fingers flexing slightly against Maka's waist, and she released her next breath just a little too fast. "You broke the radio, didn't you. You know I've got no idea how to fix that, right?"
"Just go change our heading," Stein spat. "We're picking up a load of goods for the colonists on Ganymede, I put the coordinates on the screen for you."
Soul actually growled. "Wes is all right with this?"
"Wes doesn't run this ship," Stein said firmly, and Maka felt Soul's hand tighten again, then fall away as he turned towards the cockpit with a musical grumble.
"Stein," she said, once they were alone, "You know I would have said yes to this. If you asked." Sunspots and stellar winds, but she hated this weird new dynamic between them since she registered as captain, the way she tried to make decisions but always ended on an upwards-pitched question mark because she was so used to following his lead.
He looked off over her head, rubbing one temple hard, like he was trying to itch his brain. "I know you would have, Maka, you'd have jumped on it just as fast as I did." She preened a little at that, enjoying the warmth in his voice. "But this way it's not your call."
That popped her bubble quite effectively. "I want to- help, you know that, the same as my mom did," she said, trying very carefully to organize the words while they were still in her throat, and Stein did her the courtesy of listening with just as much care. "I'm old enough now to know. I've seen the things Imperium does to don't have to worry- I mean, I know that you help people who need it." Before she could stop them, her eyes went to the faint muddy stains still visible on the arms and shoulder of his lab coat, the ones she hadn't known how to wash out. He'd told her he'd gotten in a fight, but she knew, because she'd heard the ringing blast like a needle in her ears, and seen Imperium soldiers in shining blue armor dragging away the man who'd been trying to buy illegal passage off the planet, the man Stein hadn't been able to save.
"They already have the Razor's Edge on their watch lists, most like," he said, putting a heavy hand- his real one- on her shoulder. Oddly enough, it helped somewhat.
Once she'd gotten control of her breathing, she said, "Thank you, but next time, trust me to make the right decision. I'll do you proud."
"I raised you right," Stein said, looking bemused and slightly startled by the very thought. "What do you know about that."
"So what, now you don't think you want to stay?" Black Star snapped, across the hold and tightening a screw in the wall aggressively. Soul felt his ears pull up just at the sheer irritation in the boy's voice.
Tsubaki sighed very quietly, ran a hand through the end of her glossy hair, then said, "But I thought you wanted me to stay." There was a sort of stubborn, hunting look on her face- it reminded Soul of Maka's infamous fifteenth birthday. It made him taste flambéed banana on the back of his tongue, in what was either a traumatic flashback or a result of the head damage he'd incurred during that particular disaster; he silently tried to urge Black Star to run.
"Not- well, I-" Black Star ended on a sour grunt, attempted to bore holes in Tsubaki's head with the sheer force of his glare, then threw his pliers against the wall with a clang that shook Soul's brain and said, "It's just you better make up your damn mind already, okay, if you want to try and talk to Captain about keeping you on, and you better figure out a reason she should pay you, because we don't just fly strays-"
"She flies you around," Tsubaki shot back saucily, brows drawing together, and Black Star's jaw dropped. She turned on her heel and stomped one and a half steps away before stopping and turning back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that, that was mean, I'm just frustrated that I can't find anywhere I can do some good, to make up for- well, you know. And I don't freeload, so don't worry."
It got funny after that, as Black Star, flustered by her apology and the hand she'd put on his arm, started to make vaguely chicken-ish noises in between spinning a gigantic wrench and mentioning something inane about righty-tighty, lefty-loosey that had Tsubaki looking politely perplexed. Soul snickered under his breath and angled his head towards the other side of the cargo hold, picking up the voices of Maka and Stein, standing in the black fishnet shadows beneath the catwalk grate, their faces lit like monster masks from the glowstrips running by their shoulders.
"-taking Patti and Liz to find a place to live for a bit, now we're finally here after twenty years-" she was saying.
"Don't exaggerate," Stein told her mildly.
"-years, and we'll pick up what rations we can, maybe do a little work on the docks for a few days and then-"
"Or we could go to the Imperium offices and get the advance pay for the terraforming job I signed us up for-"
"-Didn't ask me about that, Stein, and have you heard the term 'mutiny'?"
"You told me to find us one!"
"Well, yes, but I didn't think you'd… I was hoping for something small and quick, a year or two in the field so we can get a paycheck, get back on our feet and get a bit of reputation back! Not this!"
"-Ridiculous, and it's a peach of a job, exactly what you've always wanted, you'd be stupid to turn it down, Imperium or not-"
"-Have morals, thank you very much, and I refuse to contribute to their unjust, greedy-"
"-We both know you'll take it and like it so why not just skip the argument," Stein concluded, cocking his head and shaking it a few times as if something was inside his ear, and Maka stomped her foot.
"Fine," she said ill-temperedly; Soul smirked when Stein muttered something and backed away, false eye spinning to electric blue as he put his hands up defensively. "You radio them for the specs and the advance, I refuse," Maka called, and Stein scoffed even as he thudded up the steps to the communications room, lab coat flying.
Soul sidled over to Maka on the pretext of carrying one of the big plastic cartons they'd dug up to fill with odds and ends they could pawn now that they'd hit dirt to drop the girls off, finally, after that irredeemably stupid fuck-up at Tethys. He still couldn't believe Maka had pulled that sort of stunt- it was one thing to sneak unregistered colonists where they needed to go, or giving a few illegally enhanced seeds to hungry folk, but actively breaking into Imperium property…
Well, it was unbelievable, and it was moronic, and thinking about it, feeling the same sick fear that had twisted his stomach when Liz had burst in to tell him there was trouble, put him in a bit of a bad mood by the time he got to her. So he dropped the plastic container on her foot and said, "Oops, sorry."
She actually hissed up at him, eyes narrowing to acid-green glints, just as if he was being a brat for no reason instead of being legitimately pissed at the incredible risk she'd taken. He glared right back, feeling his shoulders snap tight enough that anyone watching would wonder what was wrong, though over the clamor coming in from the bustling docks outside, nobody would be able to eavesdrop like he'd been doing.
Her look changed from shamed and angry to something like loneliness. "What? What is it? Hasn't the silent treatment been enough punishment for me? And that's very mature, by the way-"
"No, your punishment was being denied the cookies I made for everyone else," he snapped, watching angry red spread across her cheeks like spilled wine. "And it wasn't the silent treatment, it was you refusing to talk to me, which I know is because you're upset and embarrassed and you don't like people knowing when you've made a mistake, but that's no excuse. We need to figure out if there's an alert out for you, if they put a warrant on the ship that just hasn't caught up with us yet-"
"You big dumb mama hen," she said, very unexpectedly, softening so abruptly that it was like granite crumbling into sugar; Soul blinked at her warily.
"Mama… hen?" Vaguely familiar, but the bells it was ringing weren't saying anything beyond something about chickens, which led him to Black Star, which-
"It's a… a saying," she told him, faking exasperation halfheartedly and ruining it with those incredibly lethal liquid eyes. "Means you're being, uh, protective. Worrying? Cute or something."
"I already know I'm cute. You tell me frequently and at the top of your voice on certain occasions-"
"I don't call you cute then, I call you, well, you-" She still blushed like a girl. Soul acknowledged some mild, infatuated lightheadedness. "Dammit. Listen, I am sorry. You're right. And I'm sorry I've been difficult." The flush was replaced by paleness, but then it wouldn't be entirely incredible for Maka to actually faint from the indignity of having made the wrong choice. "So I- I shouldn't have gone about that the way I did. I should have planned, and been careful, and I put the ship at risk," she went on, trying hard to turn her guilty look into a scowl.
"Don't do it again," he told her, and his tone came out much more serious than he'd been aiming for. He couldn't help it, though, his dial was malfunctioning and stuck on 'worry'.
She looked away. "Okay."
He studied her carefully. "You mean, you'll try."
She shifted her gaze from nothing to his throat, lids dropping just a fraction, hands clasped in front of her. "The Imperium. They killed my parents without a trial. I think… I mean, how many other kids have lost their parents? And that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's corrupt. The system's failing, has failed."
Soul's mouth went dry. Maka couldn't walk away from that, never, she'd always been incapable of turning her face away from the dark things. He probably should thank that part of her, really, because she put up with himand his stupid creepy teeth and his penchant for sleepwalking and singing to himself at inappropriate times and waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares about how blue his mother's lips had been before she died-
"Soul," she said quietly, and he twitched.
"Sorry. I know, I know," he mumbled. She lifted her pale blue-lit face to him like a flower to the sun, and her eyes were thankful for his understanding while her tense twisted mouth was ready for a fight.
Not with him, though, he knew. "I feel like I'm always being chased, and now I really might be," she confessed, eyes darting to the door of the hold for just a second.
"You have always been chased," he told her honestly, pride and pain mingling nauseatingly in his stomach. "You can run, but the people on this ship always seem to get the fastest demons. I'm beginning to think it's bad luck. And the new name doesn't help, we're literally a flying target..."
She smacked her forehead. "I didn't even think of that!"
"They're watchin' us," Liz said nervously, swallowing audibly, one hand shifting and white-knuckled on her own upper arm.
"That's their job," Soul soothed, angling his head back at the blue-armored guards as the crew strode past, ears straining. Over the clamoring crowds around them, he managed to catch only a few mumbled words, but among them was both 'Tethys' and 'Razor' which was enough for his heart to sink. He thumped Liz reassuringly on the shoulder and lengthened his steps to catch up with Maka, heading up the Bullseye's little gaggle of crew and passengers with a warlike set to her jaw and a foreboding extra thunk as her heels sank into the muddy red ground over ten thousand other footprints. The Orcus moon colony was so bustling it practically shook.
"Captain," he said, spinning to dodge someone's stray child who was making a break for it with gleaming eyes and an armful of stolen candy. "Pretty sure something's gonna happen. Maybe not now, but if we take a step out of line again, they'll be on us. They were talking…"
"Okay," she interrupted, face screwing up in thought. "We'll get the girls a place and get out of here quick as we can, after we pick up our advance pay for the next terraforming job." She still didn't look entirely happy about that, and she cast Stein a sideways glance like maybe she wanted to trip him. "Oh, and I wanted your opinion on something, Tsubaki wants-"
"-To tag along and make herself useful?" Soul supplied, grinning.
Maka's lips curled just a little. "You and your damn bat hearing. I love it. So? I tried to look scary when she asked and told her I'd think about it." She snuck a peek back over her shoulder at Tsubaki, and Soul did the same; sure enough, Tsubaki was eyeing Maka's back with a hopeful yet nauseated expression, and Black Star was very tellingly looking anywhere but at his Captain. In fact he seemed to be staring only at Tsubaki, to the dangerous exclusion of everything else around him including where he was putting his feet.
"Ha," Maka said, muffling a laugh behind one hand as Black Star fell flat on his face in the mud. Two people each carrying an armful of goods stepped right over him before he peeled himself up with a hideous sucking sound, face scarlet and clashing unattractively with his hair. Maka wheezed a few times, sounded like she might die and had to face forward again, snickering. "Oh, god, do you remember when his voice started breaking?"
"Hey," Soul protested, feeling fraternal. "That's a traumatic time for us men. Don't tease."
"Right, right, I forgot the massively fragile ego thing," she mused aloud, nodding solemnly at him, eyes glinting. "Anyway, he was all up for the terraforming job Stein got us. I told him of course we'd be resupplying once or twice a year and he could leave if he wanted, but he swore up and down he'd stick by us."
"Huh. Well, if the girl's up for it, another hand couldn't hurt, and it'll make Black Star easier to bear," Soul said wryly.
"I'll tell her yes, then." Maka frowned. "Maybe she'll tell me what ever it is she's been plotting."
Maka grimaced. "She… I saw her exchange this look with someone on Tethys."
"Yes, a look. A significant look."
"Hmm." Soul considered that, chewing on his lower lip. "Well, I'll keep an ear out."
"Keep both out, please."
"Excuse me! One of my ears is like five of yours, thank you," he said, mock-offended, throwing in a few dramatic staggering steps and clutching at his chest. Maka closed her eyes and shook her head. "You're smiling," he told her. "That face doesn't work when you're smiling."
"Right, right. Oh- hang on, we're here." Two seconds ago he'd have happily stopped slogging through the mud and called those words 'very good indeed' but now, staring at the colonist welcoming center, he was rethinking that really quickly, and judging by the sharp dismayed inhalation he caught from Patti behind him, he wasn't alone.
They went inside, though, wiping their feet as best they could, and things improved. The inside was much nicer than the outside, Patti and Liz were practically jumping up and down, and there was even a mostly-defunct bot held together with zipties and what seemed to be copious amounts of chewing gum; the repairs didn't inhibit its ability to serve coffee at all, thankfully, and Soul had three cups before Maka caught him and cut him off.
After that he sulked in the corner on a hoverchair that was about two inches too far off the ground for comfort, watching Maka slurp what would have been his fourth cup and listening to Patti and Liz grow steadily happier.
Finally, laughing, Maka brushed Liz's bangs out of her face and asked, "What exactly are you so happy about?"
It sounded a little discouraging at first, maybe, or like she was calling them naive or something, but Liz stood up straight and understood immediately. "We're free here," she said to Maka, beaming brighter than an Imperium searchlight in the middle of the night. "Blank slate and such."
"Nice, isn't it?" Maka said, and Soul knew that he was the only one who caught the edge of wistfulness to her tone.
She was standing there in the middle of the room, patting the serverbot absently on the head, covered to her ankles in clinging mud, one pigtail just slightly crooked, and he put a foot on the ground to stand up and go to her when one of the folks volunteering at the center began to cough.
It was the kind of wet cough that spoke of aching, drowning lungs and long nights lying awake, hacking until every muscle hurt. When the woman pulled her face out of her hands, she looked into them with a sort of blank terror, and even though Soul couldn't see, he knew she'd spat up blood, because he'd heard that same cough in ten other colonies whose atmospheres hadn't been properly prepared for colonists. He pulled his foot back up and said loudly, in a fog of rage, "How many people here are sick?"
One of the other volunteers grunted, and a third, a freckled teenage girl who'd been lounging in a corner repairing what looked like some sort of farming contraption, said coolly, "Lots. We all know we won't live past sixty. Tradeoff's that we get to live way out here, less soldiers, higher taxes on our goods but better returns."
"And you're free," Liz said, eyes narrowed and looking appropriately fierce.
The girl snorted, with difficulty, because she seemed to be chewing tobacco. "Accordin' to Imp scum, everyone's free in the universe, you know? They just don't care what our free lungs breathe as long as we keep shippin' food out to fill their pig mouths while they sit on ninety-nine percent of all the money in all the planets." Then she shoved her nose back into the gears she had spread out on the floor and shut up.
Maka was staring at the girl like she'd just caught spontaneously on fire, even as the rest of the room blanched and stared at the ceiling, but then she shook herself and started saying soothing things to Liz and Patti. It all dissolved far too quickly into girly tears, and Tsubaki wept over the sisters like a true damsel in distress, delicately red eyes and lashes glittering with tiny tears, the whole nine yards.
Black Star and Stein were more composed, saying their farewells with manly handshakes. In Stein's case it was more a creepy examination of the vein's on Patti's wrist, but whatever. In the end, not without a surprising and heavy sadness lying sodden in his chest, Soul got Maka and the rest headed back to the ship, while their erstwhile passengers stayed behind to begin discovering their new home. His last glimpse of them was two golden heads bowed together, and two pairs of brave shoulders held determinedly square.
Tsubaki followed the crew like a lost little puppy, and Maka didn't say anything. She did lean in close, just as they were trying to scrape mud off their feet in preparation for the ten-minute elevator ride to the top floor of the docks where the Bullseye was parked, and breathe, "Did you see that girl's arrow tattoo?"
He straightened up so fast his spine cracked audibly. "No I didn't," he said, earning an odd look even from Black Star, who was still giving Tsubaki googly-eyes.
Maka smiled mysteriously, and out of long experience, Soul snuck out of her bed later that night to go to the cockpit and check the cargo manifest. He pulled the list up in front of him, glowing blue text making him squint, and sure enough-
"It's only two," Maka said from behind him. He sighed and craned his neck around the back of his flight chair to eyeball her sternly. "It's only two," she repeated. "Two filter masks."
"And the blueprints for making more masks that you picked up somehow on our last trip to the lunar colony," he mused, raising a brow at her.
Caught, she laughed, and then she came over to sit on his lap and push her face into the crook of his neck. "Well, you know, just in case. Those masks only last a few years."
"How do you think they're doin'?" he wondered, sliding a hand beneath the hem of her ragged sleep shirt, which looked suspiciously familiar. Her bare thigh was smooth and warm, and her breath was hot and damp on his neck.
"Patti and Liz? Good. Those two are like weeds," she predicted sleepily, curling closer. "They can survive anywhere. They're real good girls. I sort of miss them. A lot, actually. It's nice to have a full ship."
"Me too," he admitted, dipping to press a kiss to her shoulder through a hole in her shirt, then leaning further forward to switch off the cargo list. That left them lit only by the dim shine of the mint-green data readouts of the dashboard. "Wonder what they were running from."
Maka hummed. "Iunno," she mumbled, and Soul picked her up with a sigh.
"Giving away masks that are worth a kidney," he grumbled under his breath, pushing the button to the cockpit door with his hip and side-stepping carefully through to avoid banging her feet on the wall. "Some captain you are. You're a damn soft touch, you know that?"
"I was being a hero," she protested between squeaky little yawns. "A good person. I was being loud."
"I was." That was very close to a whine; her eyelids were flickering as she tried hard and failed to keep them open.
"Go back to sleep, honey, I'm glad you gave them the masks," he told her, trying desperately to key in the code to open her quarters with the single finger he could manage to use without dropping her. She grunted and wound her arms tighter around his neck, but she didn't make a sound when he finally got her back beneath the shabby covers and slid in bed beside her. He told her he loved her to the end in his first language, a soft susurration of melodic breath in her ear, and she whispered it back immediately in her own.