"Shut up!" Korso hissed, clamping one hand down over Preed's snout and mouth, stifling the agonized sounds leaking through. His other hand still held onto the shifting plates of metal and bone. "Goddammit Preed, I know you can hear me – there are soldiers out there, and if you want to still be hurting in a minute instead of dead, shut the fuck up!"

The awful noises lessened while he was talking – but once Korso clamped his own mouth shut, they started up again.

Heavy footfalls pounded outside as guards marched around the back room. Bangs and crashes of overturned furniture, bangs on the walls... They were checking for hollow spaces. Just like the one they currently huddled inside. The station guards were making so much noise out there Korso couldn't imagine them hearing anything from inside the secret compartment, but damn it, once he stopped talking Preed started-

"Shit, shit – Okay, fine."

So he talked. He didn't know what to say, or what he was saying once he said it, just growled in a low, rumbling whisper that wouldn't leak through the steel bulkhead as easily as a high-pitched cry. He said anything that came into his head, eyes shut against his own rising claustrophobia. Both of them hung onto the sound of his voice.

"We'll get your head fixed, lay low for a while if that horsey broad'll let us camp out, then get back to the Val, blow on out of here, never look back..."

"...I'm still here, you're still here, we're both still here. I dunno if that's a good thing, we're still in this godforsaken crawl space. But we're getting out. I am not fucking dying in here, and neither are you..."

"...Gimme, gimme, gimme, the honky-tonk blues..."

He kept going until he realized his voice was the only sound. He broke off his off-key sing-mumbling, and listened.

Nothing. He took a few careful deep breaths. Still nothing. All quiet on the western front, just the constant background noise of the spaceport's human ghetto, and far-off engines.

"Think they're gone?" Korso murmured, not sure what he was expecting for an answer. He didn't get one, except for shallow, ragged breathing and soft moans of unconscious pain. Another long moment of freezing, sock-still quiet, and hard listening. Korso frowned; he didn't like this. It screamed "SET-UP," anywhere else and the soldiers would be lying low, waiting to pounce once they emerged. Hell, it's what he would do, he'd done it before. But station guards had never been that bright, or persistent... and he'd never been quite so desperate.

So he opened the wall. Thank fuck there was a latch on the inside, or they might both have suffocated. And once that door was open a crack and he blinked in the harsh fluorescent light, he could breathe again. The walls weren't closing in , and he wouldn't be buried alive in a crowded station.

Korso carefully widened the crack enough to see out of with one eye, and peered through. The room was empty, silent – but it had been torn apart. The makeshift table made from a tiny craft's wing lay at a sharp slant, shoved off one of its supports. Shelves of equipment had been overturned, vents uncovered, wall panels ripped out. Medical supplies littered the floor. Broken glass, plastic tubing, metal instruments and needles scattered the room, like a tornado had struck. Then, he realized something even more disturbing than the destruction he saw: what he didn't see.

"Rue?" He croaked, voice raw. He held his breath and waited – but there was no answer.

He pushed the door all the way open, and dragged both of them out. Broken glass crunched under his boots, and he stepped through puddles of clear fluid leaking from plastic bags. "Rue?"

Nothing.

"Shit." He kicked the fallen metal slab off its remaining support, and it clattered down to lay flat on the floor. He stopped it shaking with his foot and set Preed down on it as gently as he could force himself to move, head last.

"Sit tight," he grunted, though his first mate's eyes were still squeezed shut. At least he'd stopped screaming. "I'll be right back." He pounded out the door, barreling through the rest of the tight makeshift house's interior. Cramped bedroom, cluttered main room, nothing. She was gone, and they were alone.

Korso stomped back into the rear room – and froze. Preed splayed unconscious and limp on the wing table. The room was destroyed. Rue was gone, taken by the guards, and he had no idea what to do.

"Okay," he mumbled, just to hear himself talk, anything besides the silence of the empty house. "They can't hold her for long, they got nothin'. She'll be back soon and finish the job." He sank down to sit on the wing beside Preed, looking hard for any change. "This is fine, everything's – hey."

Preed's eyes were open. "Hello, Captain..." he rasped, a dry whisper on a rush of breath between snaggled teeth.

"Hey." Korso stared. He shouldn't be awake. Nobody was supposed to be awake and talking when their head was open, Korso could look down and see through the gap in the unjoined metal plates and bone to something soft and gray and exposed, you weren't supposed to be able to see peoples' brains-

"How you feeling?"

"I..." Preed's coppery eyes slipped in and out of focus, not quite able to stay fixed on Korso's face. "Don't know."

"Well, you can't be great. You were screaming a minute ago, but..." Korso frowned, messing with his nose and chin stubble with one hand, still reeling at the fact that he could see into his friend's skull, and not being able to look away. "It still hurts – right?"

"Oh, yes..." Preed spoke softly, almost dreamily. "But it's... very far away. I'm not sure, but. I believe this head belongs to somebody else. Perhaps it's yours?" An awful, weak laugh.

Still open. And now that Korso couldn't stop staring, looked up close and in the light, he could see exactly how that skull was broken. Two separate metal pieces; the big main plate and a thin strip already set into the bone. They hadn't been joined yet, they needed to be pressed together and stuck with something, they needed to be.

And he had to get out of there. He had to get out of that room, out of that house, get out in the open and do something, get away from Preed so he wouldn't have to look at that unfinished project in his head, and the soft tissue underneath.

The walls were closing again. A planet was dying again.

"Can you hang in there until I get back?"

"Back?" Preed was still smiling, vacant and off-kilter. He was sleepy, and everything was so funny...

"Rue – the lady who's fixing you – she got picked up by some station goons. I need to go get her back if she's gonna finish."

"What? But that's... you're wanted, you won't be able to-"

"I have to try!" It wasn't a good sign when the guy with the split-open head made more sense than you did. But Korso was looking away now, he didn't want to see bleary eyes and gray matter, or that terrible smiling. "You just keep breathing, stay awake." Korso turned away, and started to get up. "I'll be back in a-"

Something stopped him.

"Wait..." Long, bony fingers had caught the cuff of his sleeve. "Don't go!" The words sounded strange; maybe the weirdest part of the entire awful day. Preed's head wasn't supposed to be open, and vulnerability didn't belong in his voice.

"I have to, can't fix you myself! Just relax, I'll be right back-"

"I won't be!" Preed almost shouted, words running together with the effort. "You go – and I don't know if I'll be here when you get back!" He wasn't dreamy or slurring anymore, he rattled off the words, loud and staccato and desperate.

Korso froze, and for a moment it was just him, half getting up off the floor and Preed hanging onto his sleeve, both of them struggling to breathe. Preed against the pain, Korso from the rising panic.

This was the worst kind of enemy. This wasn't something he could punch or kick or shoot or drill-sergeant bully into submission. You couldn't get past this with forged identification or firepower. He couldn't fix this. He didn't know how.

"Please. Joseph." That got him. Preed never called him by his name. He was always Captain, he'd never once heard that alien mouth form the syllables that made up Joseph Korso. "Don't go."

Korso sat back down. "Okay." he said quietly. "I'll fix this, you'll be fine, I'll figure out-" he was looking around now at all the scattered equipment, all around the wrecked room, there had to be something here that would help them.

"You will... not be exterminated." Then he saw it. "Hang on!"

Then he was up, scrambling across the wet, littered floor, snatching up two things, the only things he recognized among the doctor shit, the only things he knew how to use. A small handheld blowtorch, and a vice-adjust wrench.

"Okay, this'll work – Preed!" The Akrennian's eyes had slipped shut again. Korso stopped himself from grabbing Preed and shaking him, instead he banged a fist on the wing table. "Don't you go to sleep on me!"

"Is that... an order?" Preed murmured, forcing his eyes back open into painful slits.

"Yes, goddammit! You keep your eyes open, keep looking at me, no matter how much it hurts! And..." he faltered. Once he made himself take a breath, he had time to realize fuck, what am I doing? He had a wrench and a blowtorch, was he really going to weld Preed's head together with him awake? This was insane surreal. But it was happening.

Korso took a deep breath and let it out, hand resting on the undamaged half of his friend's head.

"Preed, this is really going to hurt."

Step one, set the wrench teeth to bite the separate metal plates, and tighten. The metal scrapes and creaks and he works as fast as he can, don't give Preed time to scream. And God, they are the worst sound, he didn't know anyone could make sounds like that, human or Akrennian or animal crawled up from Hell.

Korso grits his teeth and keeps talking, drown out the screams with nonsense and the blood rushing and pounding in his own ears.

Step two: Blowtorch. A blue flame, tiny and controlled and neat and deadly. Hold the fire to the split, squint against the glare and the flying sparks. (No goggles, are you an idiot? He has to be, doing this.) One lands on his hand and he barely feels the burn, moves that hand to press over Preed's eyes, hold his head still while he screams and writhes, keep talking in his one remaining ear.

And once it's over, throw the damn things in his hands across the room and don't see where they fall.

Korso came back to himself. The tunnel vision receded, and so did the pounding in his head, he could see and breathe and think again. And slowly the screaming faded and they both collapsed, exhausted. Korso made sure the plate was solid, and didn't touch or look at it again. Didn't seem real that he'd just done that, but the gap was closed and Preed was breathing.

Korso tried to get his own breathing back under control, and told Preed it was over. He was telling both of them, really, and he held both of them together. They stayed that way for a long time.

# # #

A/N: Yeah, I was kind of hesitant to even write this. Kept wondering, am I really doing this? Am I finally going too far? ... But then I realized that I've been writing Korso and Preed having ridiculously violent sex for months now, and if there IS a "going too far" line, I crossed it long ago. SO YEAH.

Sorry about the weird disjointedness at the end. It just seemed like the best way to go. Like how in order to get through something awful, you just kind of go somewhere else in your head, and don't even know how it happens? Defense mechanisms, man. We all got 'em. I figure Korso's got a bunch. You don't really stay alive after the shit in his life, without them.

One more chapter, I think. This has been so much fun. Thank you for reading.