Soul was waiting, not very patiently, for the ship's computer to finish calculating their fuel budget based on several possible courses back to Orcus- last night everyone had gotten together, both a little calmer and a little more aware of the grim reality of their choice- and they'd all decided to return there, to check on Liz and Pattie and allow Tsubaki to make contact with her fellow Fletchers to learn their next step. It was dull work, sitting and staring at the blank holoscreen, and he'd already performed a few quick bursts from the ship's reaction control thrusters, slowing their momentum to almost nothing. It was all waiting now, waiting and thinking and stewing about the impossibility of how he, an alien, had actually managed to make his life more complicated.
His ears caught the tiny buzz deep inside the dashboard that always meant the computer was about done thinking, and he perked up, yanking his boots down from their totally unprofessional position propped atop the copilot chair, which had served over the years as everything from a table, to a makeshift hospital 'bed', to a reading nook for Maka when it was Soul's turn for cryosleep during a long flight. She liked the cockpit because it reminded her of him, she'd told him once, but it bothered her to sit in his chair when he wasn't around.
Just then the beep announcing an incoming request for radio communication started up, annoyingly loud even set to the lowest possible volume. Soul frowned and flicked on the long-range scanners, gnawing on the inside of his cheek. Nothing was within range, but that didn't mean much, considering how slowly the Bullseye was moving right now.
They were practically dead in the water, waiting for their new trajectory, and that meant a ship could be waiting just outside the boundary of their scanners.
"Fuck," he said aloud, following it up with a similar word in his own language that he'd caught from his father when he was six or seven, before all the dying started, and then he clicked on the radio. "Ready when you are. Over."
The answering voice, after a ten-second lag, was polished and bored. "This is Imperium Vessel X3-11 Wolfram Tesla. You're Bullseye, recently Razor's Edge, a Class C 2427 freighter? Verification requested, you know the drill. Over."
Soul had to swallow before he could say, "Yes. Over." Then he leaned over, pressed the switch for the ship-wide intercom, and said in his own language, "Maka, get up here now." She'd hear her name and get the gist.
"Eh?" said the voice.
"Nothing. Sorry. Yes, that's us. Over."
Another lag; it was infuriatingly suspenseful. Soul yanked his fingers out of his mouth as soon as he realized he was chewing on them. "Right, right. Uh, well, we're supposed to tell you you're needed in Junction City as soon as possible. Some legal thing. Lucky we ran into you, they just put the bulletin out a week or two ago."
Shit. "Legal thing?" Soul said, and he didn't have to fake his irritated tone. "We're on our way to a terraforming job for you guys, and now we're supposed to turn around?"
"Sorry. Not my decision, buddy. They, uh, they did say it wasn't optional. Over."
Soul hissed quietly, and then Maka burst in, looking a little crazed. "Who is it?"
"Imperium," he said quietly, and then, over the radio, "You're sure, because it's gonna cost us a damn lunar sea's worth of fuel to turn this old boat around. My captain'll be pissed. Over." Maka gasped audibly at that and swatted him on the shoulder for daring to insult her precious ship; he tried to dodge, failed, and pinched her behind the knee in retaliation.
"Yeah, yeah, it's you guys, all right. Too bad, fuel's gone up, too. Over."
Fuel was always going up. "Fuck. Okay, well, it'll take about forty-five minutes to calibrate the new course and a few hours to get set on it. You all need a check-in once we get turned around? Over." He held his breath after that, sharing a hopeful glance with Maka. If the moron on the other side of the radio said something like 'No, don't bother, just go already so I can get back to napping on the job' then they could stop off at Orcus without the Imperium being any the wiser, but-
"Nah, we need you to send over your new route so we can send it on to the JC docks crew, they'll be expecting you. No hurry, though, we aren't going anywhere soon, all we've got's a load of seed and stuff for the Quaoar colony, and the greedy bastards can wait, eh? Ping me when you're ready for transmission. Over."
Soul clicked off the radio without bothering to agree and let his head thunk down onto the dash. "Fuck!" Why was his life so hard? Hadn't he had enough shit happen to him already? Did the universe just enjoy picking particular people and thoroughly fucking them over?
Maka blinked down at him, looking very preoccupied, then started to pace the same four steps along the wall she'd always paced, back and forth and back again; there was practically a damn groove in the floor. She stuck her thumbs in the edge of her vest, chewed on her lip, showed all the familiar 'thinking' signs of Maka Albarn, Devious Master Concoctor of Plans and Plots- but then she turned to him helplessly and held out her hands. "I don't think we've got a choice, Soul."
He stared at her in disbelief. "So, what? We just go back there and let ourselves get tossed in jail or worse? We have no idea what they've got planned. Or what they know!"
She winced and scrubbed a hand through her hair, leaving her ragged bangs even more of a mess. "Are you forgetting Junction City's where we picked up Tsubaki? That one city's got more Fletchers than any other planet!"
Ah, there was the Master of Plots, cooking something up. Soul sighed in relief. Maka was spunky and cocksure and smart as a whip, and it had been annoying to say the least to see her so uncharacteristically down lately, even though she had fucked up. "Okay, so we go there and… hide? Ask for help? Buy new faces?"
Maka gritted her teeth and resumed pacing. "This is all my fault! If I hadn't been so stupid on Tethys-"
"That kind of crap isn't gonna help anyone," Soul said sharply.
She sent him an irritated look, but she stopped pacing and came over to sit in his lap and stick her chilly little hands up under his shirt. "Yeah, okay. I just- I feel bad about it. I mean, look where I got us... Um, okay, so just get the new flight route like they asked and send it over, please, play along, and I'll go talk to Tsubaki. There's gotta be somewhere in Junction City that can hide a ship."
Sure, over ninety tons of metal, expensive fuel, and terraforming equipment. That would be just super easy to hide. Anyway, hidden, what good could it do for the Fletchers? Soul grunted sourly and said nothing, but he relented and slid an arm around her back when she pushed her face into his shoulder.
"I'll fix this. I'll get us settled and safe again," she promised, rather muffled against his shirt. He felt the toes of her boots curl possessively around his calves and had to bite back a laugh.
"I know. You always figure it out. Remember our first 'forming job? And none of the other crews would listen to you, because you were just a tiny little pigtailed teenager-"
"-I'm going to remember you said that, and also, tiny? Pot, kettle!"
"-And you locked yourself in your cabin for a week when nobody could figure out why the moss transplants were dying left and right, and you figured it out."
He felt her chapped lips curl slowly against his skin. "I did, didn't I? Thanks to my mom's diaries."
"And your massively oversized brain."
She sniffed. "It's a perfectly appropriate size, thank you, and anyway brain size isn't correlated with intelligence."
"Whatever. Nerd. Listen, go talk to Tsu, make a plan, and I'll get us turned around to Junction City, all right, Captain?"
"Your tone is suspiciously mutinous, pilot."
He raised a brow. "Well, it's not appropriate to think dirty thoughts about one's Captain, is it? Maybe a mutiny's in order." He hefted her more securely up onto his lap, ignoring her startled squawk, and began nibbling up and down her neck, drinking in her giggles. She grabbed his face in both hands and yanked him into a heated kiss that was at least ninety percent pure fire, the way it always was with Maka despite all the years they'd slipped through together. She was slow-burning coals and barely banked passion, all the better for being so carefully hidden under her usual rigid propriety.
He held her stubbornly when they parted, and she smiled when he stroked his thumbs across her cheekbones. "Take me to Junction City, pilot, and save the mutiny for later," she ordered playfully, slipping off his lap and tapping a fingernail on the dash.
He saluted, lips twitching, and she laughed as she walked out.
Tsubaki was spitting, boiling, volcanically mad, and Black Star was probably going straight to the center of the nearest black hole for even thinking it when so much was going wrong, but she looked stupidly hot. She was so kind normally, and sweet; seeing her in fight mode was interesting to say the least. She could yell at him any day. "What exactly are the charges?" she was hissing, finger planted squarely in the glossy blue chestplate of the wide-eyed Imperium soldier who'd met them at the Junction City docks the second they landed.
It was probably a good thing Tsu had taken this one, really, because Maka was being physically held back by Soul and Stein, and she was getting steadily redder in the face, which never preceded anything good. In fact Black Star usually hid when she got like that, but then again he was also usually responsible for the look.
"Uh- you- well, I don't actually know, I just follow orders, ma'am," the soldier managed, exchanging a wide-eyed look with the docks manager.
"Then get on your damn radio and find me someone who does know what the hell is going on! This type of treatment is not what I pay taxes for!" Tsubaki injected so much haughty, well-bred scorn into her tone that the soldier practically fumbled his radio off the docks in his mad scramble to rip it off his belt.
"I'll just, um, get my captain, ma'am, but you all can't leave until this is settled, I'm sorry!"
Tsubaki rolled her eyes and began tapping a foot pointedly on the ground; the soldier's gaze drifted down to her boots, clearly the very finest artificially grown leather money could buy and so new they still squeaked, and he actually scampered away, clutching his radio; the docks manager followed, aiming an extremely nervous-looking smile at all of them.
Black Star had to laugh. Tsubaki flashed him a sneaky little grin over her shoulder and confessed, "I've never actually paid taxes. I wasn't seventeen yet when I left home!"
"Rebel," he teased.
She blushed a little and started playing with her ponytail. "Well, it works! People put up with an awful lot if they think you're rich. That's why I kept my old clothes."
"Heh. I'll keep that in mind." He pretended to take a sip from an imaginary teacup, crooking his pinky out outrageously at the same time he stuck his nose up in the air. "Do I look rich yet? Oh, shit, wait, the grease probably ruins it, huh?"
"I don't mind the grease," Tsubaki said shyly, ducking her head.
Black Star fought the urge to hurl himself into the sun out of sheer excitement and said instead, after a careful glance around, "So what's next, huh?"
She shrugged lightly. "We get the ship safe and then make contact."'
Contact. With the top-secret rebellion that had the whole Imperium scrambling! That sounded super awesome. "Is there a code word? A hidden doorway that only opens if you bleed on it? A secret handshake?"
She smiled warmly, eyebrows raised. "Not, uh, not exactly- ooh, here they come! Shh!" In an instant she was all business again, and suddenly Black Star felt his own excitement drop clean away, because now there werefour people in blue armor marching towards them, all armed with blasters that shone menacingly in the sun. Maka, looking marginally more calm- perhaps she'd finally started those weird breathing exercises Stein had ordered her to do- stepped up beside Tsubaki, arms crossed aggressively.
"Hello there," said one of the new soldiers, very businesslike; her breastplate bore the stark white, hollow circle of a sergeant. "I understand we're having a little problem here. Can I help?"
"We just want to know why we were pulled away from a 'forming job for you guys and ordered back here," Maka bluffed. "It cost a good bit of fuel."
The sergeant eyed Maka, turned to look at the ship, and then began scrolling through her wrist computer. "Well. Let's see, then. Hmm…" When she looked up, her face had gone from friendly to ice-cold. Suddenly Black Star was sweating buckets, and his fingers itched for one of his heavy wrenches. He saw Tsubaki's eyes narrow as she slid one foot subtly back, taking a fighting stance. "This ship and its crew have all been flagged for mandatory detainment."
"Mandatory?" Maka said, jaw dropping. Suddenly she looked rather frightened, but then a moment later she straightened up again and got that familiar mulish look. "Why?"
The sergeant raised a brow at Maka's tone and waved her wrist computer around emphatically. "Illegal, knowing transport of unregistered colonial immigrants, improper distribution of controlled genetically modified organisms, and civil disobedience."
"None of which are things that, on first strike, require arrest. Not under the Imperium Constitution," Maka snapped, bristling.
"Wha- well, that may be, I'm no lawyer, but I've been told to detain you and I'm just here to do my job."
Maka's eyes were hard. "Don't you care about the law? Detaining suspects without an official warrant of probable cause is illegal and-"
"Excuse me," the sergeant interrupted, looking rather flinty herself and leaning forward to go toe-to-toe with Maka. Black Star could see high spots of color on her cheeks, and her hand was hovering dangerously close to the butt of her blaster. "I'm not detaining you, pigtails, I'm detaining your ship. The Bullseye is not to fly until further notice. You have eight hours to pack your belongings and lock up any personal quarters or cargo before your ship is moved to an Imperium storage facility. We advise you drain your fuel, since long periods at rest can result in-"
"I'm a Captain," Maka bellowed, at incredible volume for such a small woman; Black Star saw Soul, right behind her, cringe and cover his ears. Several people wandering the docks near other ships actually stopped in their tracks to gape. Black Star flipped them off one by one. They'd been expecting a fine, threats, maybe confiscation of some of their more valuable cargo and tools, or even forced downtime in Junction City for a while, but not this. It was impossible, unbelievable, and devastating, and Black Star felt suddenly very much like a child again, back when he hadn't known each night where he'd sleep. He became suddenly aware that his jaw was clenched so tight it hurt, and he forced himself to relax. It was a fucked up day when the government could confiscate a ship, private property, a home and a livelihood in one fell swoop, and the ship captain's defense wasn't 'I'm innocent until proven guilty, let me fight these charges,' but rather, 'You just simply say I did these things, present no real proof, and I can't possibly defend myself in any way, shape, or form, but I think the punishment is too harsh.'
Maka wasn't done yet, though. "I know what sitting fuel can do, I'm not an idiot! I'm not going to blow up the damn docks! And you are not taking my ship! No one lays a finger on my ship!"
The sergeant, obviously having reached the end of her patience and then some with this stubborn crew, sighed gustily and reached up to rub her forehead, like taking someone's home was a nuisance for her, an everyday sort of tedium. There was no sympathy on her face, no pity, not even an effort at understanding. She looked at them the same way Black Star had seen soldiers look at druggies, prostitutes, murderers; anyone who went against the Imperium at all was lumped together, regardless of intention or degree of offense. "I'm not. Imperium is, and if you ask me you deserve it, ferrying illegals all over without any regard for-"
She was cut off by Maka, who dived forward with an infuriated war cry and landed a punch to her jaw that practically echoed.
The sergeant's eyes crossed and she went down in a crumpled heap in the half-second before the other soldiers waded into the fray. Black Star, fuming and far closer to panic than he'd ever admit out loud, was only about an inch away from leaping in himself despite being unarmed and in full view of the public, but they had Maka outnumbered, and they hauled her to her feet easily enough, though she was screaming and kicking like a maniac. Soul was white as his hair, teeth showing in a snarl and hands in fists, but he kept his position with admirable self-control.
"It's my ship," she kept yelling, and something in her voice made Black Star's chest hurt. "It's my ship! You can't take it away! It's mine! You can't just decide and then take it!"
The sergeant got back to her feet, pink-faced and prodding her jaw, then said icily, "Let her go. This is your last chance to cooperate, lady, and I'm being merciful, because if I wanted I could haul you away right now for assaulting military personnel."
The soldiers looked at each other cautiously, but they did let go, and Maka started to cry the moment she was free, tiny tears that thickened her voice into sheer pain, hands rising helplessly to press against her chest. Her eyes were wide and frantic. "You can't take my ship! It's my property, it's my home! I didn't do anything wrong! I was help-"
Stein stepped up and put an arm around her shoulders, sending the sergeant a glare so purely evil- made more so by the demonic scarlet of his false eye- that it was sort of surprising the air didn't just freeze. Black Star had seen that particular glare before, unfortunately, and he knew exactly what it meant; Stein was silently swearing painful, inventive, insidious revenge, and no doubt he'd memorized the military ID number embossed on her armguards. "We'd better pack, Maka."
She gritted her teeth, closed her eyes and stood there for exactly five seconds within the circle of Stein's arm, swaying, white-faced, then ripped away and walked quickly to the open door of the cargo hold. Everyone followed, though Stein and Soul lingered for a long moment, scowling at the soldiers. Black Star, who had recently realized with no little horror that he'd better grow up a bit if he ever wanted to impress a quality badass like Tsubaki, used all his willpower and contented himself with another rude gesture and briefly sticking his tongue out.
Maka was hunched over, leaning forward with both hands on a crate full of bacterial cultures and incubators, but she straightened up once the crew was inside and Black Star had closed the door. She was dry-eyed now, ferocious, practically electric, and it was incredibly reassuring. Tsubaki seemed to feel the same, because she sent Black Star a little smile and nodded approvingly towards Maka, who cleared her throat and said grimly, "Right now there's nothing we can do, not if we want to keep our liberty and our chance to join the rebellion- and I think all of us see even more clearly how necessary that rebellion is."
Everybody nodded, and Soul, leaning moodily against the wall and eyeing everyone from beneath his hair, made a harsh, throaty sound of angry agreement.
Maka took a deep breath, hooking her thumbs in her belt. "Okay. Tsubaki, go pack and then see if your Fletcher friends can help. If they, uh, still want us without the ship. Tell them we thought we'd have a little time to hide it."
"They will still want you," Tsubaki said quietly. "This fight's going to take a long time to win."
"Good. Black Star, go with her."
Yes! He leapt into the air with a whoop, accidentally clocked his head on the underside of the stairs leading up to the catwalk, and his short victory ended in ignominious defeat as he bled all over one of Tsubaki's expensive moonmoth silk scarves.
He glimpsed his captain again as Tsubaki steered him away, cooing and dabbing at his forehead; Maka looked like glass, like she might break if someone breathed on her too hard, but then Soul edged up and brushed his hand against hers while she instructed Stein on what to do with their remaining cargo, and she turned right back to deadly tempered steel.
His brother stunk, and Soul didn't understand why, except deep down he did. His greatest sense might be his hearing, but he still remembered that cloying, sweet, gagging smell of decay. He'd smelled it when his family members began to die, and he'd smelled it when his brother put him in the strange, cold bed, gently closed his eyes and told him not to be afraid as wires began to stir.
He knew intuitively that those things had happened a long time ago, knew he and his brother had been asleep for a very long time, but it felt like yesterday. He'd only woken up in this dark, metal place a few days ago, after all, to the curious green eyes and violent prodding of the little girl with the raspy sharp voice.
She was very nice, although her insistence on dragging him into the room where the bloody man lay and writhed, waving his singed stump through the air and screaming so that it hurt his ears, was annoying. But she'd given him his new name, and he'd welcomed it- the old one was both nearly impossible for her to say, and nearly impossible for him to bear hearing from someone other than his dead family.
Anyway, she'd undoubtedly wrinkle her nose when she smelled the death on Soul's brother and bully him into the odd little metal waterfall closet to get clean.
"Don't stare at me like that," Soul's brother sang ill-temperedly.
"Sorry," said Soul, unable to keep the nervous high pitch from his voice. "What were you doing in there? We weren't supposed to go in that room, you said."
His brother looked at him for a long time, and then he wiped his sweating forehead, leaving a streak of something dark. "There were bodies. They might have gotten the sickness at our home, the same as our parents did, and then we could get sick too. I didn't- if the man dies, I can't fly this spaceship. I had to drag them to the- the ejection place and get them off the ship."
They were flying? Soul shook his head roughly and stood up. "Do you want help?" he said reluctantly, feeling astonishingly short and small next to his strong, older big brother.
"No. I've only got one more." His brother paused for a moment, staring with shadowed eyes at nothing, and when he spoke again, there was the unmistakable ululation of mourning in his song. "It's her mother, or maybe her sister. Identical. Keep looking after her, all right? And keep the man alive. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," Soul said stoutly, twisting his hands in his shirt, which still smelled a little like home, fresh and wild. "Yes. I'll look after her."
"You!" Maka felt her jaw drop, but she was helpless to stop it.
The mechanic who'd serviced the Bullseye last time they were in Junction City blinked. "Uh. Me?"
"You worked on my ship!"
"I work on a lotta ships." The mechanic was clearly unimpressed.
Tsubaki broke in. "Mira, this is Captain Maka Albarn. Of the Bullseye."
Mira frowned and looked Maka up and down, like she was livestock or something. "And?"
Tsubaki laughed. "Previously the Razor's Edge."
"Oh, shit, really? This little shrimp- wait, it's a whole crew of shrimps, look at the blue haired one! This is the crew we wanted to recruit so bad?" Mira was clutching her ribs now, laughing a gorgeous belly laugh that probably sounded like liquid sunshine to Soul's ears. To Maka it was only irritating.
"You're short too," she said snippily, crossing her arms. Soul and Black Star, lurking further back in the alley and devouring some kind of greasy 'meat' pies from a stand in the marketplace, both looked hideously offended.
Tsubaki patted her earnestly on the shoulder. Maka stared sourly up at the tall, willowy girl; it wasn't fair. If she'd been tall intimidating people would be just so much easier. "Maka, Mira is the one who put you on our radar. She sent me after you."
Well. Maka had to reevaluate at that. This petite, dreadlocked, irreverent, mouthy woman covered in grease and smelling of cheap cigarettes wasn't just a Fletcher, she was one of the people in charge. "Oh."
"Sorry to hear about the ship," Mira, who was actually a perfectly average height, told her, serious again. "Believe it or not, I got here on that old boat. Knew your folks. Good people. It was a great loss to the cause when they died. Not that they ever joined up officially, but they were with us, you know."
The world tilted, ever so slowly, and Maka put a hand on the grimy wall beside her, swallowing. Some daring soul had written on it in glimmering gold perma-ink the phrase, 'fly fast die yung leave a skinny corps cuz imps runing out of room to stash the bodies.' Weirdly poetic, if grammatically incorrect. "You knew my parents?"
Mira cocked her head, blue eyes sharp and interested. They were so unnaturally bright they had to be prosthetics, and they made her look hawkish, predatory. "I did. Kami and Spirit." She looked over Maka's head at Stein, who hadn't said a single word since they left the Bullseye behind, wearing everything they owned on their backs. "Knew him, too, but that was less fun. He stabilized any with old age?"
"Er," said Maka diplomatically, catching the tell-tale snick snick that meant Stein was playing with his scalpel-fingers again. "How'd you know them?"
Mira grinned, showcasing a missing front tooth and long, pointed silver caps on her canines. "They smuggled me here, actually. I snuck on board and stowed away. The old Captain nearly dumped me overboard mid-trip, straight into space."
"Sounds fun," Maka said faintly. "Look, can we… that is, um, we want to help. We want to fight. All of us, and I'm sorry they took the ship but I'm sure we can appeal or something, get it back."
Mira shrugged, absently running a tongue over one sharp silver tooth. "You and I both know that ship's never leaving ground again unless she's got a bellyful of Imp soldiers. Sorry, sweetheart, that's just how it is. They're never gonna give her up."
The bitter darkness in Maka's heart grew, just a little, and her mouth tasted like flames when she said, "I would say that losing my ship makes it personal, but it's been personal since they killed my parents. So we're all in. Anything we can do."
Mira's answering smile was slow, syrupy, and cunning. Suddenly she looked quite terrifying. "Well. I've got a bit of room above my shop. Be cramped for you all but it's better than the streets by a long shot, and you all can work for your living. How 'bout it?"
"We can pay rent," Maka said stiffly.
"Not for long, you can't, with no ship. I bet none of you've ever held a real job, eh? No experience, nothing but floating, you damn sky rats," Mira chortled merrily. "Ah, well, that's how it goes. Come on, then, it's getting cold." She walked right off with no more warning than that, steps fast and firm, and everyone scampered to follow, trailing after her like ducklings.
Soul, licking his fingers from his pie, caught up to Maka and said quietly, "What do you think?"
She hummed, hopping over what could have been either the corpse of a stray ratdog or a heap of particularly fragrant garbage. "Well, we're stuck now, really."
"That's not what I asked." He looked at her searchingly, and the bitterness receded just a little. Soul was her moon, whipping the tides of her spirit to wild heights and then calming her with just a glance, and she'd never been so grateful to be caught in his gravity.
"I- well, I think we were very lucky they sent Tsubaki after us when they did," she said honestly.
"Me too." He brushed a fingertip against her palm. "This is okay, Maka. We'll make it okay."
"To the end, right?" she whispered, knowing he'd be the only one to hear in the bustle all around them.
"To the end." He smiled toothily and waggled his eyebrows. "This's just another route to the end anyway."
"Morbid! You're wonderful." She cackled and hip-checked him into Black Star, who, caught by surprise- he'd been hypnotized by Tsubaki's ass, it seemed- flailed and nearly went down, just missing a woman carrying two toddlers strapped to her chest and back. She cursed colorfully in a language Maka didn't know and kicked him enthusiastically in the shins before scurrying away.
It was the first near-collision of many, and not only because Black Star was hopping for a while. Junction City was the most populated colony in the system, by far, and the upper class tended to live in the floating space stations that sparkled like watchful eyes in the pale blue sky. The 'city' label was a misnomer, too, because what had started out as the third extraterrestrial human colony ever- the first to succeed- was now a massive, buzzing hive that wrapped clear around the moon, supporting a population in the hundreds of millions with what amounted to duct tape, overtaxing and a prayer. The city was miles deep in the earth, miles high into the sky, a stratified scab of humanity pocked with settlements of alien activity. Glieseans tended to live deep, and, being so heavy, they didn't go far from home. Kuipers were almost exclusively laborers, working whatever menial jobs they could get, legal or not- and usually they weren't. They were much more scattered than the Glieseans, but even they weren't usually dumb enough to go out in packs of less than three.
Kuipers, unfortunately, were tasty, and their limited ability to speak didn't deter some of the many very hungry humans in Junction City's dirty underbelly.
But Mira was leading them to a neighborhood not too far from the docks, and not terribly bad. There were gradually fewer and fewer people in the narrow streets, and more vehicles; with higher income came self-expression, and nothing wasn't for sale in Junction City, including body parts. The people they passed grew progressively stranger. A woman slunk by in a low-backed dress, and all the gleaming white knobs of her naked vertebrae were exposed beneath slick, translucent parchment-skin. More than one cyborg passed by- or rolled- clicking and whirring in various unsettling ways, and Soul began to fit in much more than he usually did. Barely anyone walked by without some sign of body modification or exotic accessory. It made 'human' sort of a confusing word. There were a few Kuipers, too, slithering by uneasily in the shadows, yellow-furred eyespots blown wide and nearly covering their heads.
Now, in the evening, it was all lit by the hovering glow-balloons floating at regular intervals- those still functioning, anyway- and Maka was suddenly and forcibly reminded of spells, magic and haunted places and strange things in the sky. Her skin was crawling, though that could just be the heavy press of suffocating humanity, tangible and looming all around her.
"Okay?" asked Soul, eyes reflecting all the glow-balloons like internal constellations when he looked at her.
"Yes," she lied. He had stars in his eyes, but that could only do so much. She was only eight hours on the ground and yet she already ached for the real stars like a missing limb.
"Hm," he said.
"I said yes!"
She slit her eyes at him. "We're in the effective center of the Imperium army."
"I'm aware. We're outnumbered. Dandy!"
She moved closer, lowered her voice even more; in a rare display of public affection, he draped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close and bowing his head until their temples nearly touched. "We're in the middle of it now. This is the best planet in the world except maybe Old Earth to disappear in, and when you're fighting a guerrilla war, disappearing is the most important part," she said softly, sliding her own arm around his waist.
"Are we technically at war?" he mused.
"They took my ship, so yes, it's war now. It's my war."
"It's everybody's fight, Maka, you're not the only one they've hurt."
She licked suddenly dry lips. "Yeah, well. Okay. But if I think about that it feels like it's impossible."
"It's not. We might not live to see it end, but it will. Things always balance out in time."
"When did you get so wise?"
He snorted softly and pressed a kiss to her hair. "Born this way?"
"Hey, you asked." He grew serious then, gaze glassy as they all trudged past a group of women missing their hands- thieves that had tried Imperium's patience too many times. "Maka, they took our ship. Because we helpedpeople survive. We didn't hurt anyone, and they still took it. Because we helped, the same reason they killed your family. I mean… we could die. If they catch us they'll shoot us into space and that'll be that, you know that."
"I know," she told him quietly, trying to swallow down the feelings and fears welling up hot and insistent in her throat. "Everybody's gotten used to the idea that the Imperium's infallible, like they're indestructible or something, but we're going to prove they can be hurt, and then- the ones who come after will find the courage to do the same. My parents fought, and they died, and it's time I honored that. It's time I did more to protect people than just talk and play pranks."
Soul was looking at her in a way she didn't understand, except that it was almost like the face he'd worn when they'd visited the Venusian Symphony for her eighteenth birthday, reverent and awed and a little afraid. He read the empty breaths between her words like she read books, he knew the things she couldn't or wouldn't say, and suddenly her heart was beating embarrassingly fast.
"Okay, Captain, it's war. Let's do it," he said at last, and then he said he loved her in his own language, soft and sweet against her ear.
It had been a long and painful day, to say the least, but Maka was still surprised to feel a tear go rolling down her cheek.