I want to thank EVERYONE who's stuck this story out til the end. Your encouragement and input means the world to me, and it's been a thrill to write for you.
Now all that's left is for you to enjoy the fluff. Go ahead. Reap your reward.
The lead of the repair crew informs Hater that they've managed to restore full oxygen levels to a corridor's worth of rooms near the ship's center. Sylvia doesn't wait, ducking past burnt metal overhangs and piles of rubble to climb into the ruined vessel. Hater forces himself to hear out the rest of the report, but he makes his impatience obvious in the set of his jaw and the glare with which he fixes the Watchdog. The account is brief and terrified.
When it's over he follows. Peepers remains outside to oversee the repairs – his shrill yells follow Hater down into the remaining outer layers of his ship.
It's a sad sight. Everything is smashed to pieces and covered in sand.
He wonders as he makes his way down a slightly slanted corridor (gravity stabilizers are not yet online, and the ship landed lopsided) whether he should keep the knife. And if so, where? His personal weapons room is the obvious choice, but in most situations such a small, basic armament would be of no use to him. It was only the uniqueness of the bug's physiology that had made it worth anything at all. On his home planet it would have been used for training purposes only: when someone is born with strong magic, it can be hard to control during childhood. Having a conduit is important, at least until a more subtle coping mechanism is drilled into the psyche. Gloves, for example.
In some ways this creates a weakness; gloves can be lost or removed. But it's worth it if you can know the shape of the thing that makes you lose control. Give it a name.
He has to pass through an airlock to get to the secure corridor. The indicator light on the wall is red, so he waits in the small box of a room (much cleaner than the prior hallway) for oxygen levels to rise. On the other side of the door he hears people speaking.
"'M still feelin' a bit fuzzy." The voice, vague and gentle, makes Hater's heartspace stammer.
"Take it easy, buddy," Sylvia says. "We've gotta get you cleaned up."
"He's around. He'll be here. Are you–"
"Hey. Hey, you passing out on me again?"
"I'm still pretty sleepy."
"Tell 'im…when he gets here, tell 'im…"
"Tell him yourself."
The light turns green. The doors slide open before Hater has time to be nervous.
"Wander," Sylvia says. She's still holding the Nomad to her chest; his eyes are closed.
"Tell 'im he's gotta…ask…" The words slur into incomprehensibility, then drop off entirely.
Sylvia looks up at Hater and ruefully shakes her head. "Out like a light. You just missed 'im."
"I know." He steps out into the hallway.
"He's already better," Sylvia says, pressing a hand to Wander's forehead. "Breathing easy, you know?" She stands with her feet planted wide in the middle of the corridor. She and Wander are like twin points of colored light against the dark walls.
Hater grunts noncommittally. He can make out traces of blood marring the fur beneath Wander's nose. Next he takes in all the dirt coating the little body and tastes nausea on his tongue.
He could have done so much more.
It takes him some time to tear his eyes away and notice Sylvia examining him. "What?" he asks defensively.
"He says you kept him alive." Her expression is hard to interpret: the suspicion seems dulled in favor of a sullen sort of wonder. "I guess…if that's true, I guess I owe you one."
His eyes stray again to Wander's face; the way it cradles so naturally against Sylvia's fur.
"So now you admit it," he says.
Sylvia scoffs and adjusts Wander's weight. Then she holds him out to Hater, like offering an infant to cradle.
Hater swallows, feeling panic run down through his fingers. "What–"
"Is there a bathroom in this place?" Sylvia asks. Her smile is subtle, but present. "One with a shower, preferably. You both stink."
Hater eyes her for a moment longer, then reaches out. The moment of transfer is energizing, the feather-light weight of Wander's body puzzlingly warm. He pulls him closer; Wander fits snugly against his chest in a way that makes his rib cage feel full to bursting. The air at his core is as light as the Nomad.
Sylvia looks at him smugly. "Get him clean," she says. "I'll be close by."
The bathtub fills slowly, but really it's a miracle that any of the pipes work at all. The room is small and white; the hat stands out boldly where it rests on the sink's marble counter. Hater shuts off the water before it can slosh over the slanted side.
It's with some reluctance that he loosens his grip to lower Wander into the bubbles (testing first to make sure the water isn't too hot). He holds the small body carefully so it doesn't slip under, kneeling on the floor outside the tub to support Wander's torso.
Wander makes a tiny, adorable noise. Drowsily rubs at his eyes. "Mmm," he groans. "That's nice."
Hater flushes. He opens his mouth, hoping to find a response ready-made there, but nothing comes.
Wander is still, and without being able to see his face Hater thinks he's gone back to sleep, head drooping towards the water's surface.
Then he feels a tiny hand wrapping around his finger.
His brain stalls, skipping to a stop amidst a heady cloud of bath scents (a heartbeat beneath the palm of his hand).
Wander cranes his neck back to look at him. His upside-down smile is soft and familiar. "Hi there," he says.
And Hater feels a rush of things he didn't know he could experience. Something deep blue, arching over them like a shelter and a horizon and a crashing tide.
He screws his eyes shut. Leans down and presses his mouth, stiff and defiant, to Wander's lips. Heat rises off the water and condenses on his exposed cheeks.
He hears Wander move beneath him. For an awful second the contact is broken, then the lips return in earnest, right-side-up this time – their sizes are mismatched, so Wander plants kisses all along the sharp line of his mouth. One hand comes to rest at the back of Hater's hood, pulling him closer; the other presses possessively against Hater's chest.
Time stretches out between them, each striking second an age. Wander's wet hand traces Hater's jaw line, marking every space he touches with moisture. Hater lowers himself to his haunches so they are face-to-face. He reaches up to cup the back of Wander's slim neck, feeling the unbending pieces of himself loosen and slide away. Movement becomes natural. He knows where to put his hands, when to part Wander's lips with the slight pressure of his tongue.
It feels so good to collide, and to give the collision a name.
An epoch passes before Wander breaks away. Hater can't help the noise that escapes him, low and fraught.
Wander laughs and stands up, putting him just above Hater's kneeling height with the help of the raised tub. He presses their foreheads together, slinging his arms around Hater's neck. His eyes are big and open and not inscrutable at all. "Now there's dirt in my mouth," he declares.
"That's all you have to say?" Hater responds. He's lost control of his jaw again – he feels the lines of his face tilting upwards instead of down. Eye contact at this range should be uncomfortable, but it's not.
"Well, it's not all I've gotta say." Wander pulls away, letting his fingertips linger last, tracing along Hater's shoulders. "But we sure are a sorry sight, the two of us."
It's true – Wander's face is still mostly dry and sandy, despite the quickly browning water around him. Hater wets his hand, then shoves it at Wander's cheek, scrubbing hard. Wander squeals, tripping backwards to fall with a splash that soaks the front of Hater's robe. He surfaces with a splutter and the most perfect laugh Hater has ever heard.
"Fair's fair!" Wander shrieks, stumbling to his feet. He jumps in place, pulling up his knees in midair to create cannonball waves.
Now it's Hater's face that's soaked. He closes his eyes against the suds and makes indignant noises. "How dare you!" he thunders, slamming his hands down against the tub's rim.
Wander laughs and laughs. Covers Hater's hands with his own.
It takes him awhile to realize he is tired.
The Watchdogs bring him food from the half-repaired court; he eats it sitting in a fold-out chair in the secure corridor. Wander wolfs down candy and pizza next to him, occasionally sticking straws in his nose and making bad puns.
Somehow Hater falls asleep there. He wakes up half an hour later to find Wander curled up in his lap, one hand clutching the front of his robe. His breathing is peaceful. Hater slides back into dreams.
The next time he wakes Wander is sprawled even further, arms draped around Hater's neck and face pressed into his collarbone, snoring gently. He tries not to think about how naturally his own arms have moved to compensate.
Then with a jolt he notices Sylvia sitting in Wander's vacated chair. Her expression is thoughtful.
"You better know what you're doing," she tells him.
"Of course–" Hater starts to snap before lowering his voice. "Of course I do."
"Who am I kidding?" Sylvia says with a chuckle. "You have no idea. Whatever, you'll figure it out. Probably. I mean, it's for your own good that you do."
They sit in silence for awhile. Wander exists between them like the clasp of a silver chain.
Wander and Sylvia stay to aid the repair effort. Hater makes a show of grumbling about it, of course, but none of the Watchdogs besides Peepers actually object. Everyone seems honestly glad for the help. Sylvia has her unnatural strength, and Wander has a gift for making the workload seem light.
When Hater's not overseeing the process, he finds excuses to sneak away with Wander. Peepers covers for him – he may not be sold on this whole turn of events, but he knows when his overlord wants privacy (and tends to be good at providing it).
Soon the outer hull is completed. Everyone is inside reconstructing the control room when Wander pulls Hater away by the hand, leading him out of the ship towards the flag planted in the dirt.
"I'm real glad we got this chance," Wander says. He grabs onto the thin pole and leans away, letting the flag support his weight as he spins in slow circles around it. "I mean, besides the part where your entire ship got smashed to pieces an' Sylvia worked herself into a panic an' we nearly died."
"Yeah, besides all that," Hater says dryly. His words are more sarcastic than he feels.
"Where y'all headed off to next?" Wander asks, not slowing his spin.
Hater considers this, a sinking sensation growing at his core.
It's not that he hasn't thought about the next step. Wander is a traveler, and not one that can move at the deliberate pace of a conquering army in the comfort of a mothership. He has to be able to roam free. Hater knows this. He's known from the beginning.
"Aww, why the long face?" Wander asks. He stops and leans against the flag, hands behind his back. His expression is teasing, but with sincerity burning warm beneath.
"When are you leaving?" Hater manages gruffly, averting his eyes.
There is a brief pause before Wander says, "I reckon we'll take off not long after you do."
For a moment Hater nearly turns and goes back inside. He doesn't know how to give a name to what's overwhelming him, much less how to hide it.
Then he thinks about stories. A Nomad who is punished for stealing moons away without their permission.
Wander just can't be the one to ask.
"Listen to me," he commands, forcing the words out before he has time to reconsider. "Would it be – do you think–"
Wander immediately straightens, standing at attention before him. He vibrates with an incommunicable excitement, eyes wide. Above them the sun is rising around the planet, promising renewed warmth and light.
Hater recollects himself. He snarls, thrusting a finger out at the Nomad. "You," he says, "are going to come back soon, do you hear me? And you are going to take me with you somewhere. Am I getting through your thick, miserable skull? That's an order. We're going on a side trip."
Wander almost looks lost. Something inexpressible has pushed past the logical arrangement of his facial features, leaving him passive and exposed. Hater thinks he can read an entire history written onto that moment. He wonders in horror if Wander is going to cry.
Then an exuberant squeal pierces the air and his arms are full of Wander and there are kisses being peppered all over his face.
"Yes yes yes," Wander murmurs between each peck. He frantically pulls down Hater's hood, moving to kiss the place where his jaw hinges. The base of his horn. The space where his pulse would be. Then back to his mouth again. "We'll see so many amazing things! We'll do it together; you won't regret it."
And all Hater can do is kiss back, finally catching Wander's lips. He slows them down, running his fingers through the short fur at the back of Wander's head. Letting no air between their bodies.
When Wander breaks away he's gasping – the cough tells Hater that they really shouldn't be doing this out here, where Wander can't speak and sing and dance the way he wants to.
Which reminds him.
"Hey, you owe me a song!" he says, indignant. "Don't think you can get away with that. It's mine."
The flag curls and unfurls as the wind picks up. The sun shines bright over Artellus' shoulder.
"Don't you worry your head about that," Wander says, the joy in his face writ large. "We've got time. There's so much to talk about when you're on the open road!"
Hater doesn't know what he's gotten himself into, but he has a feeling that life will be structured in chapters from now on: absences and reunions, long-distance letters, orbits that cycle back to start. Going on short adventures. Small, personal victories like gods in the ninth galaxy.
There is no good reason that two moons cannot take each other.
Red sand threads itself between them.
"Let's go inside," Wander says, grinning. "We've got so many tales to spin."